Yearly Archives of: 2008

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Creating Photo Gallery Overviews in WordPress

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One of the cool things recently introduced in WordPress (version 2.5 if memory serves me correctly) is built-in photo galleries. I’d wanted to host my own photo galleries locally for ages instead of relying on a 3rd party like Flickr and once again WordPress came up with the goods in the nick of time (I was getting close to rolling my own which wouldn’t have been ideal).

You may have noticed that when I upload a photo album here on John’s Adventures you don’t see all the photos on the home or archive page, you see a single photo from the album, a description and a link to view the full album. Pretty much like this:

A Photo Gallery Overview

While WordPress doesn’t currently support this functionality out of the box, it’s actually pretty straightforward to implement in your own theme by following these steps…

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John’s Dead Man Switch

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Some Text From A Grave StoneMaybe I’m a fatalist. Or maybe I’m a realist. Either way, a thought occurred to me the other day. What if I’m crossing the road, run down and killed? Or I’m running across a field and struck by lightning – death being instantaneous. Or maybe I’m going to put a cheque in the bank to find it’s being robbed by a masked gang, overpower them, call the police, deliver the baby of the pregnant woman there and then (there’s always one), generally save the day, but trip on the kerb outside, fall down and break my neck, dead as I hit the ground.

The point is, accidents can happen, I could shuffle off the mortal coil at any point. For me that’s the end of it, but what about my good lady? Sure, she’ll have to deal with the loss, sell the house, cash in the insurance policies and buy a nice beach house somewhere warm. But without knowing the login details to this site she won’t be able to write a post informing the world wide web that I’m dead. She won’t be able to look at all my old emails and realise I’d been living a double life as a bigamist / spy / special forces operative / singer in a church choir / take your pick. She won’t be able to log onto my Windows 2003 server and apply the latest patches, or update Apache on the box John’s Adventures runs on. She won’t even be able to log on to see my credit card statements and wonder why I’d made so many payments to Interflora when I never used to buy her flowers.

In short, my untimely death would leave a lot of loose ends that I doubt I could solve from beyond the grave. Then I came up with a solution – it’s called John’s Dead Man Switch.

The idea is simple. If I don’t browse to a particular web page or click a particular button on my computer every 3 weeks, then an email will magically send itself to my good lady. That email will contain not only all the login details to every site and computer I use, but an explanation of how to use any of these systems that she’ll understand. It’ll have things like a step by step guide to creating a new article here announcing my death, approving comments and so forth. Knowing me the email will start with something like this:

“Hello good wife, you have received this email for one of the following reasons. Either I’m dead, in which case I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m even more sorry to inform you that you’re not allowed to marry someone younger and hunkier than me (unless it’s my brother). Or alternatively I’ve forgotten to press my dead man’s switch and you can delete this email now. Hmmm, now I think about it, if the latter is the case then maybe I should have put that first to spare you the trauma…”

Now the way I see it John’s Dead Man Switch (or JDMS) will consist of a couple of components. First there’ll be a web site that lets me manage my dead man’s switch so I can:

  • Click a link to reset my dead man’s switch and prove I’m alive.
  • Determine the minimum timeout – if I go on holiday for a month I’d want to make the time-before-assumed-death or TBAD a bit longer.
  • Decide on how often an “are you still alive?” email should be sent (if I’m dead I won’t receive it but if I’m alive but forgetful it’ll remind me to click the dead man’s switch).
  • Upload and edit my “Used to be-mail” – strong encryption would be a requirement to ensure nobody else can read the contents even if they break into the site and that the JDMS platform is secure.
  • Download one of the JDMS client applications.

Which brings me onto the JDMS client applications themselves. The client applications will need to support all major operating systems (including the iPhone) and the user interface will consist of a large button that looks something like this:

Potential John's Dead Man Switch Clients

I’m thinking I can either have it scheduled to appear at the intervals I’ve set on the website, run manually as-and-when, or appearing every 2 minutes in case I’m so strung out on coffee that I need reminding that I’m still alive!

Clearly John’s Dead Man Switch needs some further investigation and a full specification fleshing out. At the moment it’s just an idea but, unless someone else has only gone and come up with the idea already, I think I’ll make it my next side project. So what do you think of John’s Dead Man Switch? The next great thing or dead before it begins?!

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The World Is Definitely Moving On

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My dad went into hospital on Tuesday for back surgery and before I got the chance to call the ward and find out how the operation went on Wednesday my dad had texted me: “Went well, hope to get out tomorrow J”. I don’t know whether to be more surprised that he’s coming home the day after surgery (modern wisdom is to get up and moving ASAP after this kind of surgery instead of bed rest) or that he’s such a fluent texter that his first thought isn’t to phone but to text! The world has changed a lot in the 15 years since he previously had back surgery, no doubt about it!

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Ben Nevis Weekend

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Myself, my good lady and a couple of friends spent a long weekend near Glencoe hiking around Ben Nevis and enjoying the scenery. Aside from the beautiful Scottish scenery we ate some great food and had a great time. Oh, and I took a few photos!

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Passengers That Ship In The Night

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This story goes back to my second stint working in Leeds way back in 2004-2005. The small village in which I live – Silsden – is about a 35 minute train journey from Leeds so I would generally catch the 07:56 or 08:04 train in and most likely the 17:20 train home at night.

Like most young, red-blooded males I’d play the “who’s the best looking girl on the platform?” game every day and over time I’d start to recognise pretty much everybody who got on at my station. I’d see Mr. Sharp Suit who always buys a ticket each day, cute blonde and cuter black haired girl who drive to the station car park together and put on their make-up on the train, Miss Always Running Late who day after day would have to sprint to the platform, student boy who really needed a haircut and then of course there was Silsden Station Girl.

She was very attractive. Small. Slim. Always caught the same train in as me and the same train home. She drove a silver Vauxhall Corsa. She had a really cute laugh when on her phone to her friends. She had a lovely smile. Beautiful eyes. Great skin. Fantastic taste in clothes. And for day after day, week after week, month after month we’d always catch each other’s eye, smile, maybe even say hello, but never actually have a conversation. I even found myself sitting next to her one time and she was reading some gossip magazine about Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston which was the perfect opportunity for me to use my trademark humour to strike up a conversation but I never did. I bottled it.

Silsden Station - the left-hand platform goes to Leeds

I was of course in the middle of a relationship with my now-wife (who usually took an earlier train) so I wasn’t exactly going to start running off with her but my in-built good manners made me want to break the ice and talk to her – we were both taking the train to and from Leeds every day, we might as well have someone to chat to. Maybe I was scared of rejection, or of the dilemma of us being unable to keep our hands off each other and what to do about it (remember, I said I was a young, red-blooded male back then – logic didn’t come into my thinking). Whatever the reason, I spent a long time wanting to talk to her and never taking the opportunity. I let friends in on my secret shame, even my long suffering girlfriend (as she was back then) knew all about her, who she was and what a wuss I was.

Eventually in late-2005 I handed in my notice and was to start working in another town. This meant I’d be driving to work and no longer taking the train into Leeds. This was my chance. I decided that I absolutely would talk to her and find out her name, I’d make her laugh describing how it had taken me until I was leaving Leeds to actually talk to her. Even though I may never see her again it was beyond a joke that I’d never said more than “hello” to her – it was time to be a man.

And you know what? I never got the chance!!

For the full 3 weeks of my notice period she never once took the train into Leeds or back again. Despite metronomically taking the same trains for the past year she’d vanished off the face of the earth. Even stranger, my good lady still takes the train into Leeds and she’s never once seen her in the 3 years since.

I missed my chance. I’ll never know her name. I’ll never know anything about her. On the plus side I think the poor girl probably had a lucky escape. However it’ll always sadden me that I’ll likely go to my grave never knowing who Silsden Station Girl actually was…

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Blind Faith by Ben Elton

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Blind Faith by Ben EltonI’ve read a couple of Ben Elton’s books before and rather enjoyed them. Not only is he a clever satirist and comedy writer (having written programmes like Blackadder and The Young Ones) but he can make you think about and question fundamental constructs of our society such as violence in films (Popcorn), or reality TV (Dead Famous).

Blind Faith is set a century in the future where privacy is considered perverted and everybody knows everything about everybody else. All aspects of life are expected to be live-streamed on the internet, group hugs are mandatory along with self-obsession and frequent emotional outbursts. Science is heresy and religion is considered the only truth and anybody failing to uphold these values or stand out against the crowd is either dealt with by mob rule or the dreaded Inquisition.

The comparisons to George Orwell’s classic 1984 are obvious but I think there’s more to the book than that. For one thing the world of 1984 has largely come to pass (note to self – I should probably write a post about that some time). However Blind Faith takes a different tack and looks at what happens if you take our propensity towards sharing information and the trend of ‘user generated content‘ on social networking sites like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and blogs (which I guess is what I’m doing here – gulp) and make it the law to do so.

What I found interesting was the Elton’s contention that in a world where people spend all their time watching everybody else going about their daily lives and obsessing over being popular and looking good, people were effectively brain dead automatons doing what they were told to and not thinking for themselves. If you look at the sort of superficial one-line comments you find on most YouTube videos or popular blogs you can see where Elton’s coming from.

While it’s not as ground-breaking as 1984 I rather enjoyed it and it certainly made me loathe the future Ben Elton paints. He does a very good job of showing how a series of events could easily lead from our “enlightened” society to a technologically advanced version of 16th century complete with biggotry, witch burning and, above all, blind faith backed up by a total lack of reason. Well worth a read.

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Mamma Mia – The Movie

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You may recall last year that I had the pleasure of seeing Mamma Mia – The Musical and despite wondering beforehand how on earth they were going to make a decent musical out of ABBA I loved it. So with the recent release of the cinematic version I thought it only fair that I take one for the team, go and see it, and let you – my long suffering reader – know what it’s like. So that’s exactly what I’ve done.

It had all the makings of a truly terrible film. First of all, it’s a musical – a genre I’ve never really understood on the big screen. It has Pierce Brosnan in it singing – something the former James Bond actor has never looked likely to do – plus I’d read reviews of people saying you can see the pain etched on his face when he’s banging out the songs. My brother – who would make a good film critic as he sees more films than Mark Kermode – said he “hated it with a passion”. I’d heard it described like a massive amateur dramatics production with movie stars. By all accounts I was expecting to go and see Mamma Mia and loath every minute of it. But you know what?

I ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT!! 🙂

I think when watching it you have to give yourself over to the complete madness of it, the absurdity, the fact that tongues were firmly in cheeks all the way through filming. It does feel like it was shot in quite a rush with minimal rehearsals but the effort everybody puts into their performances and the mad semi-choreographed dancing just adds to the magic. It was pure comedy all the way through but to be honest I was sitting there waiting to hear Brosnan sing and I wasn’t disappointed. I rate the cinematic experience of Brosnan singing his first solo right up there with realising who Keyser Söze was in The Usual Suspects or that Bruce Willis was dead all along in The Sixth Sense! It was immediately clear that he’s not a natural singer but to be fair he gave it his best shot and his voice wasn’t bad at all – it’s worth seeing the film just for his version of S.O.S. Reruns of Brosnan’s 007 films will never be the same again…

Meryl Streep, however, really steals the show with not only some excellent singing but a really good all-round performance. Her best scene is definitely the one before the wedding singing ‘The Winner Takes It All’ – pure class (when you see it you’ll know why). I think without her strong performance Mamma Mia wouldn’t be half the film it is. I suspect it’s the sort of film that polarises people’s opinions but the big surprise for me is that mine has fallen on the side of thinking it’s great.

So the John Conners film recommendation of the week is to see Mamma Mia at your local cinema. Just don’t take it seriously and I’m sure you’ll love it! Either that or I’ve finally gone crazy… Quite possible I suppose after all these years… No, it’s not me, it’s just a great film for all the wrong reasons!

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Karaoke Nights

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I’ve never been much of a fan of karaoke. Whenever I’ve been dragged to a karaoke bar on a night out it tends to be exactly the same. A string of drunk guys reading out the words in monotone, doing a great job of killing songs I previously liked or half a dozen women at a time wailing out “It’s Raining Men” about as tunelessly as can be, albeit at a very high pitch. Then there’s invariably the bit when your friends demand that you go up and perform, despite having been shouting over the noise all evening and my voice having gone completely. In short, I’ve never had a good time at a karaoke night. Until now.

Camping In Pendleton

Some friends and I meet up every year to camp in a field near my mate Ade’s home town, have a barbecue, play some frisbee, then hit the town of Clitheroe for a drunken night out. So that’s what we did on Saturday night. Now you can probably guess the next bit – while trailing around the pubs of Clitheroe someone found out that there was a karaoke night nearby and suggested with the typical enthusiasm of a karaoke lover that we should GO THERE RIGHT NOW!!! Which we did.

So we turn up and as usual there are a few people singing off key and normal service is resumed. Or so I thought. Then a couple of the guys I was out with sang a couple of songs, one was OK, the other was actually pretty good. The night wore on and a few people did some reasonable renditions of classic sing-a-long tunes before some shy looking guy came up to the microphone and blew everybody away! This guy had an amazing voice and could really sing – certainly good enough to get through the rounds of X Factor. He was so good that I pitied the fool who went up next. It’s one thing to have a bunch of dunk guys and gals singing off key but it’s quite another when someone comes along who can actually sing and raises the bar unrealistically high! (Turns out he’s actually in a band with an album coming out soon which explains a thing or two!).

But what really surprised me was that he wasn’t the only good singer in the house. Another guy came along and he also had a great voice, hit all the right notes and was just superb. Then a girl after him was just as good! It was as though this karaoke night had decided to bring in some ringers and make the rest of us feel inadequate – if that was the case then mission accomplished!

I’ve been to quite a lot of karaoke nights over the years but never have I encountered so many people with great singing voices. Clitheroe may be famous for having the smallest Norman keep in England but it also seems to have an unnaturally high concentration of good singers per head of population as far as I’m concerned too. And it’s a fun place for a night out!

Right, I’m off to practise singing “Angels” by Robbie Williams for next time… 😀

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SnagIt 9 Or How To Take A Step Backwards In Usability

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I’ve been an avid user of SnagIt for a few years now. It’s a great tool for taking screenshots of things and adding boxes, arrows and a variety of effects to explain something. It’s fantastic for putting together documentation or explaining to someone how to use a piece of software. You click a button and it captures either a window or you can draw a box around what you’re interested in. You can then annotate it all you want and save it in the format of your choice. It’s quick, simple and powerful. Well, that is until SnagIt 9.

First of all, let’s look at SnagIt 8:

SnagIt 8

SnagIt 8 is simple. The tools you need are on the left, such as boxes, arrows, highlighter, text and so forth. The image you’ve captured is in the middle and all effects are on the right such as resizing the image, adding a drop shadow, a torn effect (which is what I’ve used), adding a caption and so on. I frequently capture an image, draw some boxes, arrows and text on it, then add an edge effect – usually that torn paper one – then resize it and save it. Since everything is in one place it takes the minimal number of mouse clicks, all the tools such as the arrow tool remember the settings I’d used before (such as the colour, thickness and depth of shadow) so once I’ve used SnagIt one time it’ll remember everything from then on. Simple.

Now let’s look at SnagIt 9:

SnagIt 9

The first thing to note is that it uses the fancy new Ribbon control that was introduced by Microsoft in Office 2007 (it’s the strip at the top of the dialog labelled Draw, Image, Hotspots, Tags, etc. and when you click on one it reveals a bunch of related controls). When Microsoft introduced the ribbon a lot of people complained – people hate change after all. However Microsoft put a great deal of effort into deciding what controls to put on which section of the ribbon so that commonly used controls lived next to each other and were easy to discover. After struggling with it for a bit myself I have to admit that Office is far better for the new ribbon. Sadly I can’t say the same about SnagIt.

While the ribbon looks sexy in SnagIt, it’s pretty clear that not a great deal of thought went into deciding what goes where. OK, there may have been a lot of thought about it, but unlike the Office team TechSmith didn’t have the usability statistics to see how people actually use the product. And in a straw poll of one person (me) I have to say that SnagIt 9 has actually made my life harder and as a result I’ve rolled back to version 8 – the first time I’ve ever preferred an older product over a new one.

Take my standard workflow. I’ll capture an image, draw some boxes and arrows, resize it, add a torn edge effect and save. In SnagIt 8 I’d do the following (and I’m assuming I’ve run through the process previously and SnagIt has saved my preferences):

  1. Capture the image
  2. Click the ‘box’ tool and draw a box
  3. Click the ‘arrow’ tool and draw an arrow
  4. Click the ‘Resize Image’ button on the right and choose the size
  5. Click the ‘Edge Effects’ button then choose ‘Torn Edge’
  6. Save image

In SnagIt 9, things are no longer as simple. Now I have to do the following (and note that I’m assuming I’ve run through the process before so SnagIt should really remember my presets like SnagIt 8 does):

  1. Far too many steps to change the shadow settingCapture the image (same as before)
  2. Click the ‘Draw’ tab
  3. Click the ‘box’ button and find that it’s chosen the default one and not the one I want so I have to…
  4. Click the drop-down next to the styles to find one I’ve saved before in ‘Quick Styles’ noting that after a reboot my quick style has disappeared so I have to…
  5. Use the default box and draw it, then click the ‘Outline’ button and choose the red colour I prefer to the default dark red (note that red isn’t in any of the presets)
  6. Next click Effects > Shadow > More Shadows so that I can change the default shadow (note that in SnagIt 8 I’d do this once only and it would be remembered for ever more)
  7. Click the arrow next to ‘Styles’ to add the current style to ‘Quick Styles’ knowing it’ll be forgotten later
  8. Now to draw the arrow I’ll have to go back to point 3, but click the arrow instead of the box button – sigh
  9. Ok, time to resize the image, that means clicking the ‘Image’ tab
  10. Click Resize > Resize image – pretty much the same as SnagIt 8
  11. Now to add the edge effect, as usual it’s forgotten my quick style so I click Edges > Torn Edges and set the values I want (click ‘Add to Quick Styles’ and hope it’s there next time)
  12. Save image

Ok, I admit that if they manage to fix the fact that the quick styles keep being lost (and kept in view every time) it’ll make things slightly better, but nevertheless for my workflow – which is nothing special – it would mean a lot of flitting between the ‘Draw’ and ‘Image’ tabs and indeed that’s been the frustration. I love the fact that SnagIt 8 has all the tools you need in one place – changing tabs is like walking into another room and it just slows me down. It’s a real shame as SnagIt 9 has a lot of other cool features like being able to do multiple captures in a row and having a library recording all the snapshots you’ve taken. I gave it a few months to see if I liked it but when I happened to use SnagIt 8 on one of my machines it reminded me how much better it was so I rolled back.

I can see why as a software vendor you’d see the Microsoft Office ribbon and want to put it in your application – if nothing else it looks cool – but it’s easy to forget that the ribbon was designed to handle software containing hundreds of functions such as Word and was laid out with a great deal of care and thought. And while it works well in Word it’s not necessarily of benefit to applications with a couple of dozen functions. In the case of SnagIt it takes a light, quick and simple application and makes it just that little bit less light, quick and simple – which for me has always been its defining strength.

If you don’t take a lot of captures or are happy with all the defaults, then SnagIt 9 may be fine for you. But I’m a bit particular and fussy, so all that new GUI just gets in my way and means I’m better sticking with SnagIt 8. Bah humbug!

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Two Days In New York

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I’ve just returned from a two day trip to New York with work and while I didn’t get much time to explore the city I did at least manage to get a few photos! I’ll definitely be back for a more thorough investigation of the place.