A minimalist approach

[Updated July 27: Today I reverted to the Genesis Framework and the eleven40 Pro child theme. Concise reasoning in today’s post about the change.]

Pink Floyd, minimalistsToday I re-booted this website. It has a new look and feel, quite a bit different to what went before it. And the domain on which the blog has run since 2006 is also now home to the separate business website I’ve had for some years.

So everything you want to know about me is housed under one roof instead of fragmented in a few places – all now at NevilleHobson.com.

The whole site uses the Decode theme for WordPress. It’s the most attractive and simplest theme to set up that I’ve come across since starting to look for “the right look” earlier this year. It’s a free theme, too – thank you, Scott Smith – described as “A minimal, modern theme, designed to be mobile first and fully responsive.”

Decode replaces the Genesis framework and the eleven40 child theme. Genesis is an outstanding platform upon which to build a dynamic WordPress-based presence on the web. And I’ve been pleased with the eleven40 theme since I set it up on the blog last year.

But I decided that I wanted a far simpler setup. Something that had the right minimalist look, that was inexpensive to acquire, didn’t need deep knowledge of coding, HTML5 or anything mildly technical, and worked very well indeed no matter the device on which it is was displayed.

The ultimate choice is undoubtedly a bit subjective – I’d be hard pressed to tell you what is it about Decode that I prefer compared to, say, Minimum Pro which I also have – and I may well discover something I wish Decode had that other minimalist themes do.

But Decode works for me. What I want is something that focuses on the content of a post or a page – especially the words – without the distraction and overhead of all the furniture, so to speak: widgets, sidebars, icons, ads, etc.

I’ve decided not to continue with any of that, at least for now. Instead what you see is simplicity, lots of white space, and readable text especially on a mobile device.

So here is version 5.0 of NevilleHobson.com. I hope you find it useful and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it (especially if you find anything that doesn’t work).

Thanks.

A fix for Windows Live Writer to ‘see’ a WordPress theme

windowslivewriterI’ve used the Windows Live Writer content creation and publishing tool for blog posts and pages from Microsoft since it first appeared in beta form in the mid-00s. In my experience, it is the best offline blog editor for Windows bar none.

It’s not perfect, mind you, with probably the biggest frustration being that of configuration with a theme on your blog, often manifesting itself  when you change the theme from one to another.

When WLW doesn’t recognize your theme, it means that you don’t get almost-true WYSIWYG when you write or edit content. So you don’t see your writing as you would when the post or page is published on your blog.

It is frustrating when you can’t see what you’ll get either in WLW’s edit mode or, more importantly, in its preview mode. What you have to do is publish the post to your blog as a draft and then view it in preview there if you want to see what it will look like when actually published, before you hit the ‘publish’ button.

What a performance – one that frustrates many bloggers enormously and can seem a huge deal if you do a lot of blogging.

If you search for solutions online, you’ll find no end of suggestions: this one, for instance, which talks about setting a static page – a suggestion I’ve seen quite a bit.

I tried it, but it didn’t work for me for my self-hosted WordPress blogs (meaning, it might with other blog platforms).

I experienced the issue myself this week when I changed the theme of my primary WordPress blog. WLW worked fine with the previous theme, but wouldn’t ‘see’ the new one. As I ‘ve been through this quite a few times before with mixed results on resolving it, I decided to live with it this time after being unsuccessful with the suggested solution I mentioned above.

Yet a thought occurred to me today that, when I tested it out, proved to be a solution to the problem. When writing in WLW, I now see a post as it will closely appear when published as this screenshot shows.

wlwtheme

The fix was very simple. I don’t really know why or how it works but it does.

One thing I noticed when researching a solution this time was references in some of the ideas I encountered to how WLW works when it tries to detect your blog theme.

A common view I saw that was that when WLW publishes a temporary post to your blog as part of its detection process – which, btw, it asks your permission first – it publishes that temp post to the category ‘Uncategorized,’ which is the default category set by WordPress when you first install that platform.

That was the key in my case – the default category was set to something else. Here’s what to do:

  1. In your WordPress admin dashboard, go to Settings -> Writing.
  2. Check in the dropdown list that the default post category is set to ‘Uncategorized.’ If not, select it.
    writingsettings
  3. At the bottom of the page, click ‘Save Settings.’
  4. Then, in WLW, try to detect your blog theme again.

(While you’re on that page, double-check that the check box for ‘XML-RPC’ in the Remote Publishing section is actually checked.)

In my case, it then worked. As I mentioned, I don’t know how or why it worked as ‘Uncategorized’ wasn’t set as the default category with the previous theme I was using: WLW had detected that theme just fine. Maybe it’s something in a particular theme as well.

Still, if you’ve been experiencing this issue, and whatever WordPress theme you have, maybe this fix is worth a try to see if it works where other suggested fixes haven’t.

If it works for you – or doesn’t – I’d love to know.

Incidentally, it looks like the future of Windows Live Writer in terms of Microsoft’s continuing to develop it is in doubt with changes to Windows Live Essentials (the software suite in which WLW forms part). It would be a shame if WLW falls by the wayside in terms of development as blog platforms evolve and become ever more functional, where an offline editor that lets you take advantage of that becomes even more an essential tool.

I’ve always thought that WLW ought to have been an integral element in Microsoft’s Office suite. You can write blog posts in Word (did you know that?)

wordblogpost

A far from satisfactory tool or experience, though, compared to Windows Live Writer.

Introducing the new NevilleHobson.com

nholdnew

Today, the new NevilleHobson.com makes its appearance – version 4.0 of this site I started writing in 2006.

Not wanting to make a huge deal out of what, essentially, is the installation of a new WordPress theme – like a new wardrobe – I’ve given the site a new look and and a better feel with the News theme from StudioPress running on the Genesis Framework.

If you’re reading this on the blog itself, the design is what you now see and is shown in the right-hand part of the screenshot above, with the left side the previous look of the Thesis theme that I’ve used for some years.

My goal is quite simple – enable a website that has a minimalist appearance, is quick to load, easy to navigate and lets you quickly find the content you want to read, watch or listen to. I felt the previous design was getting too blinged out with tweet streams and widgets here and there; it was slow loading and required a lot of maintenance.

The major obvious change to the previous design is how content is presented on the home page. Before, you’d find the full content of five posts, resulting in a lot of scrolling which tests your patience. Now, you see an excerpt from the first part of each post plus its accompanying image so you can read the ones that interest you while you only need a click or two to see what there is in total on the home page.

A big appeal of this News theme is that it’s been developed to be mobile responsive, meaning it will work equally well on a desktop computer screen as it will on a smartphone screen or a tablet screen without the need for a separate theme or – worse – no separate theme at all.

Unfortunately, it’s the one thing that I can’t get working properly; with some help from StudioPress, I hope to have it fixed soon. In the meantime, if you visit on a mobile device you should see the site fine via the WordPress Jetpack mobile theme.

The design is almost out of box as the theme comes, just some typographical tweaks here and there plus a little bit of personalization. The News theme is fully widgetized which offers interesting design and other possibilities. I’ve not used any of that – minimalism in overall presence is what I looked for. And it’s not yet final – call it a work in progress. But the key things are here: posts, pages and related content.

If you subscribe to this blog’s content via RSS or email, or read the content syndicated elsewhere, you won’t see the new design. That’s ok – please continue to enjoy the content! But why not pop over for a look?

Let me know what you think. Thanks.

Trust is key to avoiding a bad WordPress theme

beautystore

A red flag waving is how I saw Siobhan Ambrose’s post a few days ago on why you should never search for free WordPress themes in Google or anywhere else.

What Ambrose presents in her post is the result of some credible and compelling research she carried out into what could be going on behind the scenes and unknown to you in the WordPress theme you might be running on your blog if you obtained that theme as a result of, well, googling for one.

With copious screenshots (including the one above), Ambrose analyses ten WordPress themes that showed up in the search results when she typed the phrase into Google “free wordpress themes.”

Most of the the themes she downloaded, installed on a local test server and then ran through builtBackwards Theme Authenticity Checker and Donncha O Caoimh‘s Exploit Scanner showed that the theme authors concerned very clearly didn’t have your blogging interests at heart when they wrote and made available their themes.

Here’s one of her conclusions that’s typical of most themes she analysed:

[…] Nice themes but contain 5 backlinks to random people who you probably aren’t interested in linking to. It goes so far as to tell you that if you remove the links your theme won’t work. Of course, we know that this isn’t true – but a beginner WordPress user might think twice about removing them. As for the eval function, well it could be harmless but I don’t know enough about javascript (probably like many average WordPress users) to tell you if in this case it is or it isn’t.

My suggestion

Avoid!

Much of the issue with the themes that Ambrose writes about is that it’s hard to tell whether the stuff she uncovered is malicious or not. A lot of it is to do with Base64, an encoding scheme commonly used when there is a need to encode binary data that needs be stored and transferred over media that are designed to deal with textual data. This is to ensure that the data remains intact without modification during transport, and which may have a legitimate purpose. (That concise explanation comes from a detailed Wikipedia entry which you can read if you’re inclined to immerse yourself in a relatively complex technical subject.)

tac-resultsStill, as Ambrose points out, why would a theme developer include hidden code in a theme, with no explanation or notation about it anywhere in the theme documentation, including code that hides itself where you need a special software decoder to uncover it?

As a simple test, I ran the Theme Authenticity Checker plugin on my own blog. The themes I have installed including the one I’m currently using all came up clean: nothing going on in the background that rang any alarm bells. (Whew!)

I’m convinced that one reason for that is simple – every theme I have used in the past few years and use now are from trusted sources. That means either the WordPress Theme Directory or what I’ve discovered from friends’ recommendations.

So if you’re looking for a new theme for your blog, here are three tips:

  1. If you’re running a recent version of WordPress, use the search capability within your WordPress dashboard. You’ll find it under Appearance -> Themes -> Install Theme. What that does is search the WordPress Theme Directory, a place you should have confidence in. Or just browse or search the directory directly (but doing it from within WordPress is likely easier for you as theme installation that way is automated).
  2. If a friend or colleague has a design that appeals to you, ask them where they got it from (hopefully not by googling “free wordpress themes”).
  3. Never download and install a theme that you find by googling “free wordpress themes” or variations of that – I googled “wordpress themes” and some of Ambrose’s results showed up there.

Check Amrose’s post for additional information including links for decoding tools, plugins and further reading.

Make sure you trust your sources. Stay safe!

Upgrades to WordPress and the Thesis theme

wordpress-logo A new version of WordPress was released last week and I’ve upgraded this blog to that version, 2.8.5. As always, I followed my 6 tips to upgrading WordPress to ensure a smooth and trouble-free upgrade.

The WordPress developers say that 2.8.5 is a hardening release as it tightens up on some security areas. As with all such security-related releases, you ought to upgrade if you run WordPress.

If you’re a regular visitor here, you might notice some differences in how the site looks. Nothing radical – no new design – just some tweaking that I’ve had in mind for a while but couldn’t figure out how to do until now.

thesiswp I’ve been using the Thesis theme for WordPress on all my blogs for over a year. It’s a premium theme and you have to purchase a license. I have the developer license which lets me use Thesis on multiple sites.

The latest version 1.6 was released last week, which I’ve upgraded to here – and it rocks. I like developer Chris Pearson’s elevator pitch description of this new version:

Thesis is unique because it solves a wide array of problems that affect everyone who runs a website. In addition to conquering mission-critical tasks like SEO, site speed, and layout flexibility, version 1.6 now offers design controls that allow you to change the look of your site—think colors, borders, and backgrounds—without touching a bit of code (not even copying and pasting CSS!).

So finally, it’s easier to do things like change the width of the page area, add another sidebar, change fonts and sizes, and lots more, all without knowing anything about PHP or CSS – just choose options from the Thesis admin pages within the WordPress dashboard. Of course, if you do know CSS and coding in particular, then you have even richer opportunities to customize your Thesis to the maximum extent.

The new feature that attracted my interest most is the drop-down menus you can enable in the primary navigation system you see at the top of each page, above the header image. I’ll be re-doing that nav system soon.

So a bit more tweaking to come as I get to know Thesis better.

(By the way, none of the links above to Thesis contains affiliate or hidden codes of any type: if you click and go, it’s a standard web page link. I get no referrer fee if you click. Just wanted to be transparent and clear about that.)

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Get ready for WordPress 2.7

Version 2.7 of WordPress, containing a wide range of new features and improvements, is almost upon us.

The new version of the popular blogging platform was slated for release on November 10 but has been extended until at least the end of November according to Lorelle VanFossen (although the WordPress Codex feature list still says November 10).

This new version looks like it will make WordPress even easier to use than it already is with major improvements and enhancements to the administration interface: a new dashboard.

[Later:] After first publishing this post, I saw this excellent screencast that tours the new dashboard – If WordPress 2.7 Was A Movie…

That may be all you need to get keen about 2.7.

What I’m looking forward to in this area are things like the menus on the left of the screen rather than at the top and the ability to customize how your dashboard looks.

Among the new features in 2.7 – and here’s a terrific top 10 new features list to whet your appetite – one that I think will appeal to bloggers will be the many new things you’ll be able to do regarding comments, including comments threading and pagination, moderate comments from the dashboard and take advantage of the new comment API.

Some of these functions – threaded comments, for instance – will require the theme you use to support that new WordPress function.

The new version of WordPress will also support a feature integrated into the software – that of automated upgrading to future versions, something that you can do now, sort of, with the automatic update plug-in (one I don’t have much confidence in).

So if you’re looking forward to the new WordPress, I’d say there are three critical things to do between now and when it’s finally released, in order of importance (most important first):

  1. Check that plugins you regard as essential will work with WordPress 2.7. The time to do that is now, not when you’re preparing to actually upgrade. Keep an eye on Plugins/Plugin Compatibility/2.7 on the WordPress Codex.
  2. If you want to enjoy newly-native functions and features like threaded commenting that will work only if your theme supports them, now is the time to check whether your theme does and, if not, what the theme developer’s plans are in that regard. Or look for another theme. (My theme, Thesis, won’t support threaded commenting at the start, which I’m disappointed to learn.) Keep an eye on Themes/Theme Compatibility/2.7 on the Codex.
  3. If you want to take advantage of the automated upgrade feature new to version 2.7, check with your hosting service to be sure they support that. (DreamHost, my hosting service, does.)

And if you feel adventurous, you can try WordPress 2.7 now via the public beta.

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