Archive for the ‘Plugins’ category

A WordPress Plugin to Pester Delinquent Posters

I’ve been keeping a posting schedule here for a few months, and I’ve been using it over there for over a year. And the whole time I’ve been doing so it felt a little constrictive. I’d have the next post all polished and ready to publish, but I was scared to break the schedule because where would I be without publishing dates to provide a sense of order?

It was while I was giving this idea some further consideration recently that I  recalled a plugin that was featured on WPCandy. When I first saw Blog Update Reminder I couldn’t really think of a reason I would use it. But giving some thought to trying to update my blogs more frequently it suddenly occurred to me that it would be pretty cool if I could just get some kind of alert that it had been a while since I’ve posted and maybe I should.

And this is exactly what Blog Update Reminder does. If you haven’t published a post to a blog in a set interval of days, it sends you an email that says something to the extent of, “Hey, maybe you should update.” It does this everyday until you satiate it, which I’m not sure I love, but better to know too much than too little.

It’s also worth noting that, at least for now, scheduled posts count toward the good. That is: if I have a post scheduled for a week from now and I set my pester interval to two days, I won’t get bothered until two days after I have no more scheduled posts (nine days). So you could cheat the system by scheduling a post far away and never publishing. But it’s a tool meant for your benefit, not your pain, so I’m not sure that really gets scored as a problem.

Mostly I like the idea of the plugin as a way to keep me honest. The game can be built so that with scrupulous posting I’ll never see a reminder. Such that when I see the reminder I know that I’ve lost the game. It’s only when I’ve failed to maintain the frequency with which I intend to post that I’ll get reminders (or notifications of defeat).

Substance-wise, I only have two potential niggly points about the plugin. The first is the name. Anytime I see someone uses the word “update” with any proximity of the word WordPress, I think of the need to keep my blog software up-to-date for security and feature reasons, not publishing stuff on my blog. I’d have called this plugin something like “No Post Pesterer”. Yes it’s a trivial point, but I warned you these were niggly.

The other issue is that I can’t know what the email message will say short of editing the plugin or falling delinquent myself. Again niggly, but I’d love to be able to send a test email to myself, and easily set the email message to say:

Hey Loser,

You’ve been neglecting your responsibility to yourself and your readership by not updating [blogname] in [dayssince] days. Remember, you think you should post every [setinterval] and you’re letting yourself down by not keeping up that rate.

Obviously coding the ability to easily customize the message text is a nontrivial task, and probably not really worth it for the modest benefit it provides. The stock text is a little more formal than I am with myself, but that never did anyone any harm. And editing it in the plugin itself is hardly rocket science.

Overall, I’m excited by this plugin that I didn’t understand initially. I think it’ll be a great excuse for me to see if I can keep myself posting to my blogs with a reasonable frequency with just this single modest crutch. And if you think you could use such a crutch, this seems like a good one.

 

The Best Free WordPress Backup Plugin I’ve Found

If there’s one thing I’m certain of in the world of computers, it’s the value of a good backup. A good backup has three traits:

  • It’s effortless.
  • It captures everything you care about.
  • It can easily be used to make things as they were.

For a long time, my WordPress backup was one of these three. I’ve been using WordPress Database Backup since I started using WordPress. It is great at doing what it advertises: backing up your database. But that’s all it does. So all your themes and plugins, all your uploaded photos and movies, everything that doesn’t reside in the database isn’t backed up.

I was able to justify this to myself because there weren’t many good backup solutions for WordPress when I started using it four years ago. And mercifully, my web host never had any catastrophic loss of data that made me regret my laziness. But depending on any single entity (including yourself) to not use lose your data is foolish.

When VaultPress came out I thought (for a second) that it might be my long awaited solution. And though I’ve never used it, I’m fairly confident that Automattic has created the best WordPress backup (and more) product available on the market. If you use VaultPress, they’re backing up your whole blog at sane intervals and make restoring from those as easy as it can be. It fulfills all three of the mentioned criteria, but at a minimum of $15 per site per month costs way more than I’m willing to spend to back up my three blogs. (If I didn’t have three, I’d have been far more likely to take that rate seriously.)

With the potential for an official free solution looking dim, I started thinking about other options. When Roy Tanck blogged about a Dropbox-utilizing option last November, I was intrigued. (I, like most of you, have a Dropbox account with plenty of space left. If you don’t have one, go signup. It’s free and a great way to access your files from anywhere.)  But when he mentioned that making it work well would require setting up cron jobs, the laziness that had me only backing up my database beat out my desire to have this issue solved.

And then, a few months ago I saw on WPCandy Michael De Wildt’s WordPress Backup to Dropbox plugin and there finally seemed to be an easy-enough solution. It’s not a perfect solution (more on that in a bit), but it’s easy enough and complete enough that I finally, for the first time, have full backups of all my WordPress sites that I can use to quickly restore things to a pre-disaster state. There’s no need to create a cron job, no need to do anything much at all once you’ve set it up and told it when you want to backup your stuff. It just works seamlessly, only alerting you to its functioning when Dropbox tells you that it’s pushing the backups to your computer.

As I said though, it’s not perfect. The highest number of demerits are due to the setup. It can be a bit of bear, especially if you’re not all that comfortable with web server administration. It’s not that the plugin doesn’t work, but that depending on your hosting plan you’ll have to figure out how to change a few PHP defaults that can stop the plugin as it works.

To save resources many hosts use low defaults for things like the time a process can work (max_execution_time) and the amount of memory it can take (memory_limit). This isn’t a problem for something like WordPress where no process monopolizes many server resources, but building and uploading a backup takes time and memory greater than my default PHP install permitted, and this meant it was killing the process the plugin was trying to use to do it’s work. (If you’re wondering, I believe the defaults in my host’s php.ini were 60 and 8M, the values that I used to get the plugin working without error are 600 and 128M.) My defaults seems a bit anomalous, and De Wildt has also made great strides in minimizing these problems by changing the way the plugin works, so it’s entirely possible you won’t encounter these issues.

Nonetheless, this default problem can easily lead to you thinking your data’s secure when it’s truly not. And this is where the plugin could be better: when backups fail repeatedly, it would be good if users would get a big warning on their Dashboard announcing that their data isn’t secure. As it is, you have to go to the plugin’s setting page to find out that the plugin you were running for two weeks never managed to do much of anything.

Finally, it’s worth touching on restoring, which is not currently something the plugin will do for you. If you have a catastrophic loss of data, all you need to do is upload the data the plugin has downloaded and import the database backup into your new MySQL instance. In the interest of being thorough, I tried this locally and it seems to work just as expected. All my plugins were running, my pictures were there, and my themes were available. It’s not the easiest imaginable restore (I’m sure many people are still scared by phpMyAdmin), but I don’t think there’s a better option available for no charge.

Even with my noted issues, I can wholeheartedly say that WordPress Backup to Dropbox is the first WordPress backup plugin that I feel satisfies all three of my essential backup criteria without costing more than I’m willing to spend. If you run your own WordPress blog and aren’t currently running a thorough backup plugin, you no longer have a good excuse.

The New and Much Improved Mini Quilt Plugin

After having done some work on my date-to-color algorithm, I got to thinking about all the weak points in the first and only WordPress plugin I’d published, Mini Quilt. While I do think that the quilts it created were pretty, they had a single and very strong weakness: without hovering there was no way to know anything but the approximate date of the posts it was linking to.

The fact that there was no way to know post titles — or anything else — without hovering with your mouse pointer wasn’t a problem I grasped while building it because hovering over links to see what’s under them is second nature to me. But as time passed, I noticed two situations where even this excuse was failing to justify the poor design decision.

The first is browsers without a persistent information bar. If you don’t know, the information bar was a compulsory part of browsers until, I think Safari (though it could be Chrome). This was a bar at the bottom of every browser window that would show you the addresses links pointed to when you hovered over them, as well as offer other details about browser plugins you might be running, popups the browser blocked, and in the real old days, the load status of the page you were looking at. With that going away, you could still get some good information by hovering long enough that the link’s title would appear beside your cursor. But that was at best slow and of moderate usefulness.

Besides, the other problem made that way of dealing with the problem irrelevant. In the last five years, there has been a vast increase in use of touch-based computers for web browsing. Essentially from the time the iPhone brought the full web to cellphones, there’s been a rapidly growing contingent of people who may see your blog but have no way at all to hover over links. The only way you can find out where a link points with a touch-based browser is to visit it. So without a way to get any description of what was behind those colored boxes, they were really just mysterious distractions.

In the latest version of the plugin I’ve solved that problem by making it possible (but not mandatory) to show the title of the posts that a patch corresponds to. This way quilts are like a more visually interesting list of recent posts, rather than a mere pretty accoutrement for your sidebar (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I’ve also, because I thought it would be fun, made it possible to randomize a quilt, putting posts into random rather than reverse-chronological order. And because of the randomize option and the proliferation of widget areas in themes, it’s now possible for you to literally use the Mini Quilt widget 1,000,000 times in 1,000,000 different widgetized ares. I hope for your sake you don’t have that many, I’m just letting you know it’s possible.

Finally, and least important to most users, I’ve greatly cleaned and polished everything under the hood so that it’s vastly easier to modify and much easier to understand. (As I broke into the code after two years, there were a number of things that I couldn’t make sense of, so someone who hadn’t written it almost certainly had no hope.)

Enough talk, let’s see it in action. Because this screenshot captures the whole thing so well, it’s the only one I’m offering. This is three different instances of the Mini Quilt widget being used in the Coraline theme. The big one is showing post titles and is arrayed as a quilt.

Three iterations of the widget running on Automattic's Coraline theme

The second (left side) one is what I call a “Mini Bar,” it’s a single column (hence bar) of patches with the titles visible and the columns wide and the heights automatically tall enough to hold all the words of the title. This one is also randomized, choosing just five posts at random from among everything you’ve ever published. (For the sake of CSS, you can’t have a conventionally blocky quilt with variable heights. Well, technically, the plugin does allow it but it looks like junk and isn’t recommended.)

The final (right side) instance is the traditional old Mini Quilt, much as it was with the original plugin. The only difference is that this one is randomized. Thus there’s not the gradual gradient you can see in the first quilt, but rather random and abrupt color changes. Like I’ve described, there’s no way someone on an iPad will know anything but the date of the posts those patches represent unless they tap them, but it does have a visual charm that the other layouts could be seen to lack.

That’s what’s new in the updated version (0.8.0) of the Mini Quilt plugin, which you can get from the Extend WordPress plugin repository or simply by simply clicking Add New from the Plugins menu in your WordPress installation and searching for Mini Quilt. Enjoy!

The Mini Quilt Plugin for WordPress

Weeks have a way of getting away from me. Last weekend I was thinking I’d get a post up about my first WordPress plugin, a stand-alone implementation of the Kaleidoscope Mini Quilt, by Tuesday. Suddenly I look down and realize that it’s Sunday and I’ve not written such a post and not updated the plugin’s page beyond a goofy first draft.

If you’re familiar with Kaleidoscope, you know it’s most unique feature is the algorithm that takes the date a post was published and determines a color that, based on some vague ideas of what colors fit what time of year, seems appropriate.

My original implementation of that was a large quilt-looking series of patchs that you can find on my archives page. And while I do like that — and the fact that it gives post names as well as colors — it requires someone to create and click to an archives page to see the best use of the algorithm.

The Mini Quilt was a way that I could have the quilt-looking array of posts, but offer it on every page of any WordPress blog, regardless of the existence of an archives page.

Well, I like the Mini Quilt, and I got a few requests from people who liked it too, so I built a plugin to allow anyone to add it to any widgetized WordPress theme. If also features simple but useful controls that allow you to quickly change patch size, and the number of patches in it to fit any size and show any number of posts.

To use it, you just need to search for the Mini Quilt plugin from inside your WordPress dashboard and install it (still from your dashboad — you’re using WordPress 2.7+, right?). Once it’s installed, activate the plugin and add the widget to your sidebar. It couldn’t be much simpler.

If you’re looking for more information before you take the above steps, you can try the plugin’s page here at Ikiru Design, or at the WordPress plugin repository.