29 April 2010


Ready to move

On Saturday, I'll be switching this blog from the Blogger publishing system, which I've used for almost ten years, over to Movable Type. I've been preparing for the move for a few weeks, and everything is pretty much ready.

What will change?

For you as a reader, not much:

  • If you read my posts on my website at penmachine.com, you'll see a few minor alterations to the site layout, but overall things will be familiar. Similarly, if you read them as Notes on Facebook, everything will continue as normal.
  • If you subscribe to my blog feed at penmachine.com/index.xml, some recent entries might appear twice, but new ones will only be there once, so it will soon settle back to normal. If you're using one of my older feed addresses (something like penmachine.com/rss.xml or penmachine.com/rss/rss.xml), things should redirect automatically. But if you don't see any updates in the first two days of May, then please re-subscribe using the proper address.
  • My Penmachine Podcast feed remains at penmachine.com/podcast/index.xml. Nothing has changed there, and I haven't updated it since July 2009, so don't expect anything new for the moment.
  • There will be a new subscription feed for comments on my blog, at penmachine.com/comments.xml, but as of today (April 29), that's not active yet.

Speaking of comments, perhaps the biggest change (which has happened already) is that you can no longer post new comments on any of my archived posts from October 2000 to April 2010, including this very entry. That's not the way I'd prefer it, but in starting fresh with Movable Type, it's just easier to lock down all the old stuff and move on.

You'll be able to post comments on new entries I publish from May 2010 onward. How you do that will look a little bit different than it used to, but will work essentially the same way as before, with a bit more flexibility for you.

Smooth, real smooth

I'm hoping that what is a fairly major technical transition for me is a smooth and barely noticeable change for you many kind folks who read this blog. What should matter to you (at least a little) is what I write, not how I publish it. There will likely be a few minor bumps and anomalies in the first week or so, but I hope to iron those out quickly.

Then I can get on with the next ten years of stuff.

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14 April 2010


Movable Type vs. WordPress, Round 2

A bit more blogging platform geekiness, but much shorter this time.

Contrary to my first impressions a couple of days ago, I'm warming to the way Movable Type works. It's taken only a little effort to customize it, roughly to match my existing page design and typography here—easier than I've experienced with WordPress.

So, two days later, it looks light I might end up using Movable Type 5 after all. But we'll see if my further experiments blow it up in some nasty way.

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12 April 2010


Replacing Blogger: Movable Type vs. WordPress

This is a big long nerd brain dump about behind-the scenes software stuff on this website. Even if you're not a web geek, there's a possibility you might find some of it interesting. But if not, you've been warned.

UPDATE: A couple of days later, I may have changed my mind about my apparent decision below. Find out more.

Gotta move

Since Blogger announced the shutdown of its venerable FTP publishing system a couple of months ago, I've been working to figure out what new system I'm going to use to publish my writing here. (I'm glad Blogger postponed the shutdown for an extra month, but of course that meant I simply procrastinated about it until now.)

I have about three weeks to make the change, and I've boiled it down to two options, neither of which is ideal, but both of which are serviceable:

They are two of the most popular and long-running blogging platforms on the Web. There are other possibilities, but I don't need all the complexity of Drupal, and don't find other options like ExpressionEngine all that compelling. Movable Type has always used the static files publishing model I prefer, while WordPress requires a plugin like Really Static to hack it into doing what I want.

Movable Type in the sunset?

However, Movable Type's day in the sun may be past. While some high-profile sites of people I know—such as John Gruber and Dave Shea—use it, its popularity seems to have been in general decline since the licensing controversies of version 3, way back in 2004. The current version 5 (MT5) is brand new, and an open source project, but I don't sense the same community vibrancy and wealth of third-party extensions WordPress has. Six Apart, the company that created Movable Type, also seems to have been focused on its other hosted blogging tools, TypePad and Vox, for years.

There's a fork of Movable Type called Melody too, which is cool. But forks like that tend to arise when the originating platform is losing air. Yes, I know there are lots of people who love it, but I just get the sense that general enthusiasm for Movable Type has faded—even in the vibe I feel after installing and playing around with MT5 last night. The basic software is great, mature, and solid. But when I want to muck around and extend it, the available resources are a little sparse and often out of date.

WordPress on a tear

Just when Movable Type stumbled in 2004, Matt Mullenweg's WordPress—itself a fork of the awkwardly-named b2/cafelog blogging platform—was hitting its stride. I know Matt a bit, and have been using WordPress on other websites (most notably Inside Home Recording and Lip Gloss and Laptops) since 2006. I like it and recommend it to friends, despite its sometimes-sprawling nature, and its reliance on a dynamic, on-the-fly, database-driven publishing approach that I find somewhat brittle.

Indeed, that dynamic approach really was the only thing keeping me from switching to WordPress right away. I understand WordPress and how to tweak it, I like the wide range of themes and plugins available for it, most of my geek friends use it in some form or another, and the community is second to none. Recent versions are also very easy to upgrade in place, which is a big improvement over the way most installable blog platforms (WordPress and Movable Type included) have usually worked.

So when Matt Mullenweg's colleague, Victoria-based Lloyd Budd, pointed out the Really Static plugin to me, it looked like a perfect solution. It takes a regular WordPress blog and generates plain-old text files which otherwise continue to look and work pretty much just like the original WordPress pages. Nice.

The showdown

Therefore, last night, after all that procrastinating and evaluating, I installed both WordPress 2.9.2 (with Really Static) and Movable Type 5.01 into test directories on my server. The WordPress install went smoothly, since I've done it before. Movable Type took a couple of tries, but I got it working without too much trouble. Disabling either software installation seems to leave the resulting static blog pages essentially intact, which, after all, is my key criterion in this whole production.

As I said above, I found Movable Type underwhelming. I really, really wanted to like it, because it would be interesting for me to learn how to work with and tweak a new publishing system. The default appearance theme is certainly nicer than WordPress's, and its more modular system of templates and styles is also a bit more elegant. Though not a key feature for me, it's much easier to publish multiple blogs with a single Movable Type installation (at least for now). Some tech-head friends I respect a lot think its Perl-based CGI architecture is inherently better than WordPress's collage of PHP scripts.

All that may be true, but MT5 looks, to me, like it's catching up to features and polish that WordPress has offered for at least two or three years. Searching for some alternative themes and styles, as well as fairly simple plugins (displaying my recent Twitter posts on my home page, for instance), didn't yield very many options, and most of the results I did get seemed to be talking about MT installs a version or two old.

Not that the WordPress option is perfect. The forest of PHP files that WP uses can make heavy customizing kind of a chore ("which of those 250 files was I supposed to edit again?"). The Really Static plugin remains a hack, though an effective one, so making it do what I want requires some duplication of template files, some advance planning of how I want to structure my blog and archives, careful pruning of HTML pages on the server if I choose to delete something, and the awareness that when WordPress releases a new version (like the upcoming 3.0, or even a service update like 2.9.3), I might have to wait to make sure Really Static plays nice with it.

So right now, I'm leaning heavily toward the WordPress/Really Static approach [but wait! see my April 14 post to find out if I changed my mind]. Any Movable Type advocates (or people with different suggestions) who want to convince me otherwise can email me or leave a comment here—at least until I disable comments on this post at the end of the month (see below).

Other housekeeping

One annoying thing about moving away from Blogger as my publishing system is that I'm going to have to lock down my blog archives. What I mean is, I'm not planning to import all my nearly 10 years of existing blog posts into the new system and republish them. Indeed, one of the advantages of the static-files approach I'm choosing is that I can just leave my old posts exactly as they are, whether from 2001 or 2009.

But since I'll no longer be able to update the pages from Blogger, that also means that no one will be able to post new comments to those posts—or, more accurately, if I leave things as they are, people can write comments, but they'll never show up on this website. So my plan, over the course of the next three weeks, is to disable new comments on my old posts, and gradually disable them on newer and newer ones until FTP publishing stops working at the end of the month. Then, if I time things right, I can seal off comments on my latest entries, tie up the old blog in a bow, fire up the by-then-ready new system, and be done.

I've already started. Want to comment on one of my posts from April 2007 or earlier? Sorry, you can't. Same for entries for my occasional Penmachine Podcast from last year or before. They were never much for comments either.

Yeah, it's a bit of an awkward transition, but after a decade of largely smooth sailing with Blogger, I can hardly expect anything else. I'll miss the simplicity and familiar orange-and-blue colour scheme of writing in Blogger, but I won't miss its bizarre system of labels, its strange way of handling podcast enclosures, and of course the consistent unreliability of FTP publishing in the first place. Besides, for the geek in me, making the change is sort of fun.

As long as I don't screw anything up too badly over the next few weeks, anyway.

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14 March 2010


The privacy transition

Marina MillerA few weeks ago, my daughter Marina, who's 12, asked me to start mentioning her by name on this website, and when I link to her blog, photos of her on Flickr, the new blog she just set up with her sister, and so on.

Until now, I've been pretty careful about just calling her "M" or "Miss M," because while I'm personally comfortable putting my own name and information on the Web, that's not a decision I should have been making for my kids, especially before they were able to understand what its implications are. (For similar reasons, here on the blog I generally refer to my wife by her nickname Air, at her request.)

But Marina has started to find that annoying, because when she searches for "Marina Miller," she nearly always finds other people instead. She's starting to build herself an online profile—and the first component of that is establishing her online existence.

I was online around that age too, but at the turn of the 1980s it was a very different thing. In fact, no one expected to be themselves: we all used pseudonyms, like CB radio handles. And it was a much smaller, geekier community—or rather, communities. I had no Internet access until the decade was over, so connections were local, and each bulletin board system (BBS) was its own island, accessed by dialup modem, often by one person at a time. The Web hadn't been invented, and the concept of a search engine or a perpetual index of my online life was incomprehensible.

On a recent episode of CBC Radio's "Spark," Danah Boyd, who researches these things, noted that today's adults often look at our online exposure in terms of what can go wrong, while our younger compatriots and children look at it in terms of its benefits, or what can go right. It's not that they don't care about privacy, but that they understand it differently.

Marina is now closer to adulthood than toddlerhood, and her younger sister, at 10, is not far behind. I think that's a bit hard for any parent to accept, but in the next few years both our daughters have to (and will want to) learn to negotiate the world, online and offline, on their own terms. Overprotective helicopter parenting is a temptation—or today, even an expectation—but it's counterproductive. Just like we all need to learn to walk to school by ourselves, we all need to learn how to live our lives and assess risks eventually. I'd rather not wait until my kids are 18 or 19 and only then let them sink or swim on their own.

I think I share the more optimistic view about being myself on the Web because, unlike many people over 40 today, I have been online since even before my teens, and I've seen both the benefits and the risks of being public there. I hope my experience can help Marina and her sister L (who hasn't yet asked me to go beyond her initial) negotiate that landscape in the next few years.

That is, if they continue to want my help!

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03 February 2010


Server move, comments disabled

UPDATE: My files seem to have moved successfully, and now I'm just waiting for the Internet-wide DNS updates to do their thing, so when everyone types www.penmachine.com they go to the right place. If you can read this, you already are.

I'm going to disable comments for half a day or so here, because tomorrow morning, February 4, my blog will be moving to an upgraded server computer at the Texas server farm of my host JaguarPC. That means, to avoid losing anything, I should lock down the site while the move is taking place. Comments will return later in the day, I expect.

This is all in preparation for my installing new blogging software in the next few weeks. I have not yet decided what exactly I'll be using to publish yet (here's a big list of options), but it can't hurt to be running the latest and greatest web thingies to do so. I'll let you know when it's all finished.

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02 February 2010


So long, Blogger.com: I need a new blogging platform to publish static files

Blogger logoFor close to a decade, since October 2000, I've published this home page using Blogger, the online publishing platform now owned by Google. That entire time, I've used the original hacky kludge created by Blogger's founders back in 1999, where I write my posts at the blogger.com website, but it then sends the resulting text files over the Internet to a web server I rent, using the venerable FTP (File Transfer Protocol) standard—which was itself last formally updated in 1985. This is known as Blogger FTP publishing.

While often unreliable for various technical reasons, Blogger FTP works effectively for me, with my 13 years of accumulated stuff on this website. But I am in a small, small minority of Blogger users (under 0.5%, says Google). Almost everyone now:

  • Uses Blogger's own servers for their sites.
  • Or another hosted service that takes care of everything for them.
  • Or if they want to publish on their own servers, another tool like Movable Type, WordPress, or ExpressionEngine, which you install on your server and publish from there.

So, as I've been expecting for years, Blogger is now permanently turning off FTP publishing, as of late March 2010. And, in my particular case, that means I need to find a new blog publishing tool within the next month or so.

This has been coming for a long time

Blogger has all sorts of clever solutions and resources for people using FTP publishing who want to migrate to Google's more modern server infrastructure, but they don't fit for me. I have specific and very personal needs and weird proclivities about how I want to run this website, and putting my blog on Google's servers simply doesn't meet them.

That's sad, and a little frustrating, but I'm not angry about it—and I think it's misguided that many people commenting on this topic seem to be. I realize that I have been getting an amazing, easy publishing service for free for almost a quarter of my life from Blogger. It has enriched my interactions with thousands of people. Again, for free. (Actually, I did pay for Blogger Pro back in the day before the 2003 Google acquisition, but that was brief. And as thanks, Google sent me a free Blogger hoodie afterwards—I still wear that.)

The vast, vast, vast majority of users find the newer ways of publishing with Blogger meet their needs. And any of us who has used FTP publishing for years knows it's flaky and convoluted and something of a pain in the butt, and always has been since Ev and his team cobbled it together. I've been happily surprised that Blogger has supported it for so long—again, free.

Yes, it was a distinguishing feature of Blogger that you could use a fully hosted editing and publishing system to post to a web server where you don't have to install anything yourself. Very nice, but I think there are good technical reasons that no other service, free or paid—whether WordPress.com, TypePad, SquareSpace, or anything else—ever offered something similar.

I applaud the Blogger team for trying to do the best they can for us oddballs. And it serves as a reminder: Blogger FTP can go away. Gmail could go away. Facebook could go away. Flickr could go away. Twitter could go away. WordPress.com could go away. If you're building your life or business around free online tools, you need some sort of Plan B.

I've had this possibility on my mind at least since the Google takeover, seven years ago. Now I have to act on it. But I'm thankful for a decade of generally great and reliable free service from Blogger. I haven't had ten free years of anything like it from any other company (online or in the real world), as far as I know.

Getting nothing but static

One other thing I've always liked about Blogger's FTP publishing is that it creates static files: plain-text files (with file extensions like .html or .php or .css, or even no extensions at all). It generates those files from a database on Google's servers, but once they're published to my website, they're just text, which web browsers interpret as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) to create the formatting and colours as such.

Most other blogging tools, including Blogger's hosted services, generate their web pages on the fly from a database. That's often more convenient for a whole bunch of reasons, and I'm happy to run other sites, such as Inside Home Recording and Lip Gloss and Laptops, with a database-dependent tool such as WordPress.

But this site is my personal one—the archive of most of my writing over the past 25% of my life. And I'm a writer and editor by trade. This website is my thing, and I've worked fairly hard to keep it alive and functional, without breaking incoming links from other sites, for well over a decade now. I've always wanted to keep it running with static files, which is one reason I didn't migrate from Blogger to WordPress four or five years ago. Over on Facebook, Gillian asked me why I'm so hardheaded about it. (She's a database administrator by trade.)

I'll be blunt about the most extreme case: I have cancer. I may not live that long. But I'd like my website to stay, even if only so my kids can look at it later. If necessary, if I'm dead, I want someone to be able to zip up the directory structure of my blog, move it to a new server, unzip it, and there it is, live on the Web. I don't want to have to plan for future database administration in my will.

In that worst case I won't need to update my site anymore, but I think static files on a generic web server are more reliable in the long run. To make a bulk change, a simple search-and-replace can update the text files, for example, to note that it's not worth emailing me, since, being dead, I'll be unable to answer.

On other blogging and content management systems I've worked with, I've had MySQL databases die or get corrupted. Restoring from MySQL backups is a pain for non-techies, or even for me. I've blown up a WordPress site by mis-editing one part of one file, and I've been able to fix it—but I don't want someone else to have to do that.

Right now, if Blogger died entirely, my site would still work exactly as-is. If my web host went belly-up, anyone with a teeny bit of web savvy and access to my passwords and one of my computers could redirect penmachine.com to a new server, upload the contents of one of my backup directories to it by FTP, and (other than visitors being able to post new comments) it would be up and live just like it was within a day or two.

In addition, tools like WordPress are brittle. I like using them, but there are security updates all the time, so the software goes out of date. That's fine if you're maintaining your site all the time, but if not, it becomes vulnerable to hacks. So if a database-driven site choogles on without updates, it's liable to get compromised, and be defaced or destroyed. That's less likely with a bunch of HTML files in directories—or at least I think so.

Betting on text

Plain text has been the language of computer interchange for decades. If the Web ever stops supporting plain text files containing HTML, we'll all have big problems. But I don't think that will happen. The first web page ever made still works, and I hope and expect it will continue to. My oldest pages here are mild derivatives from pages that are only five years younger than that one. They still work, and I hope and expect that they will continue to.

At worst, even a relatively non-technical person can take a directory dump backup of my current website and open the pages in a text editor. I can do that with files I've had since before the Web existed—I still have copies on my hard drive of nonsensical stories from BBSes I posted to in the '80s (here's an HTML conversion I made of one of them). I wrote those stories with my friends, some of whom are now dead, but I can still read what we wrote together.

Those old text files, copies of words I wrote before some of the readers of this blog were born, still work, and I hope and expect they will continue to. Yeah, maybe a SQL backup would be wise, but I'll still place my bets on plain text. Okay, I'm weird, but there you go.


Okay, so I need a new blogging platform. Probably one I can install on my server, but definitely one that generates static files that don't depend on a live database. Movable Type does that. ExpressionEngine might. More obscure options, like Bloxsom and nanoc, do so in slightly more obscure ways.

If you know of others I should look at, please email me or leave a comment. However long I'm around, I'll remain nostalgic about and thankful to Blogger. It's been a good run.

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30 January 2010


The disappearance of Phil Agre

Years ago, I regularly read the Red Rock Eater News Service, a mailing list run by Phil Agre, then a professor at UCLA. He was smart and opinionated, and his enthusiasm for cheap-but-good fineline pens helped me during my days as a full-time editor.

I found out today that he has been missing since sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, which is particularly worrisome because of his bipolar disorder. I did not know him at all, but his disappearance is strange, especially because it hadn't been at all publicized until three months ago. It seems he had been behaving erratically before his disappearance.

I've known a few people who have vanished in a similar fashion, and those cases did not end well. I hope things are different in Agre's case.

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30 November 2009


How innocuous gay marriage has become in Canada

Thank you everyone for your outpouring of support and more than 50 comments on my last post, about the resurgence of my cancer. I'm pleased to know so many of you are thinking about me and my family. But it's also a bit of a bummer to have that be the thing sitting at the top of my blog for days and days, so now on to something else.

While surfing around the Web in the past week, I've come across a few banner ads from TD Canada Trust, presumably targeted at me because I have a Canadian IP address. Here are a couple of examples:

Same sex TD ad couples

They're pretty run-of-the-mill bank ads, except for one thing: the couples in them are all men. (Well, in the vertical one, I think they're both supposed to be men.) The ads are presumably aimed at gay couples—who, as you will recall, have been legally able to get married across Canada since 2005—but the photos are the only element specifically focused at them.

Clicking on the ads doesn't take you to any special place on the TD site; indeed, once you get there there are just single individuals in the trademark green TD armchair.

Fifteen years ago, IKEA received bomb threats when it included a same-sex couple in a TV ad. Even this year, the company faced controversy in Poland for a similar print campaign. Including male or female homosexual couples in non-gay media advertising (however innocuously) has long been a hot-button issue, especially in more conservative areas.

But look at what's happened here in Canada. Same-sex marriage has been legal for almost five years. Many of us old-school straight couples now know gay people who are married (and yes, some who have gotten divorced). For all of us, life has gone on as normal. Yes, I admit that for me, even in Vancouver, I still notice a gay couple holding hands or leading their young children down the street—it hasn't yet faded into the background completely. Obviously, neither have these TD Canada Trust ads.

But for TD on the Web, including gay couples in their ads seems to have become routine, just part of the regular range of ad campaigns. That's a good thing, and our Canadian experience in general is good evidence against those elsewhere who claim that legalizing same-sex marriage will somehow ruin life for the rest of us. Even the big old conservative Canadian banks don't think that anymore.

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06 November 2009


Raising free-thinking kids

(Cross-posted from Buzz Bishop's DadCAMP.)

Back in the mid-1970s when I grew up in Vancouver, almost all the stores were closed on Sundays, because of a piece of legislation called the Lord's Day Act. Every day before class in elementary school, we said the Lord's Prayer. These were vestiges of a general assumption, made since British Columbia was colonized a century earlier: even if everyone in B.C. wasn't Christian, the province would still run as if they were.

But Metro Vancouver has become remarkably secular in the three decades since then. In the 2001 Census, 40% of the population identified itself as having "no religious affiliation," and the proportion is probably even bigger now. (That's two and a half times the average across Canada.) My wife and I fit the trend: we have raised our two daughters, ages 9 and 11, in a non-religious household. Like us, few of our friends attend a mosque, temple, or church.

Buzz asked me to write this post because he saw that I just joined the Facebook group for Parenting Beyond Belief, a website run by Dale McGowan from Atlanta, Georgia. I signed up not because I needed much advice about raising children without religion (something many of us now do, especially in Vancouver), but to note publicly that it's been the approach in my family since our kids were born.

[Read more at dad-camp.com...]

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19 October 2009


Links of interest (2009-10-19):

From my Twitter stream:

  • My dad had cataract surgery, and now that eye has perfect vision—he no longer needs a corrective lens for it for distance (which, as an amateur astronomer, he likes a lot).
  • Darren's Happy Jellyfish (bigger version) is my new desktop picture.
  • Ten minutes of mesmerizing super-slo-mo footage of bullets slamming into various substances, with groovy bongo-laden soundtrack.
  • SOLD! Sorry if you missed out. I have a couple of 4th-generation iPod nanos for sale, if you're interested.
  • Great backgrounder on the 2009 H1N1 flu virus—if you're at all confused about it, give this a read.
  • The new Nikon D3s professional digital SLR camera has a high-gain maximum light sensitivity of ISO—102,400. By contrast, when I started taking photos seriously in the 1980s, ISO—1000 film was considered high-speed. The D3s can get the same exposure with 100 times less light, while producing perfectly acceptable, if grainy, results.
  • Nice summary of how content-industry paranoia about technology has been wrong for 100 years.
  • The Obama Nobel Prize makes perfect sense now.
  • I like these funky fabric camera straps (via Ken Rockwell).
  • I briefly appear on CBC's "Spark" radio show again this week.
  • Here's a gorilla being examined in the same type of CT scan machine I use every couple of months. More amazing, though, is the mummified baby woolly mammoth. Wow.
  • As I discovered a few months ago, in Canada you can use iTunes gift cards to buy music, but not iPhone apps. Apple originally claimed that was comply with Canadian regulations, but it seems that's not so—it's just a weird and inexplicable Apple policy. (Gift cards work fine for app purchases in the U.S.A.)
  • We've released the 75th episode of Inside Home Recording.
  • These signs from The Simpsons are indeed clever, #1 in particular.
  • Since I so rarely post cute animal videos, you'd better believe that this one is a doozy (via Douglas Coupland, who I wouldn't expect to post it either).
  • If you're a link spammer, Danny Sullivan is quite right to say that you have no manners or morals, and you suck.
  • "Lock the Taskbar" reminds me of Joe Cocker, translated.
  • A nice long interview with Scott Buckwald, propmaster for Mad Men.

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11 October 2009


The slow history of Vancouver

Vancouver historian Chuck Davis has been writing a series of posts for re:place magazine about the city, summarizing a single year of the city's history each time. The series is called "A Year in Five Minutes," though I think you'd have to read pretty fast to get through each entry in that little time.

He's just reached 1938 and 1939, the years my mother (here in Vancouver) and father (in Berlin) were born, respectively. You can visit the Year in Five Minutes category regularly, or subscribe to the RSS feed for those stories. I'm finding them an enjoyable read. Fellow Vancouverites, former residents, or other B.C. history buffs might too.

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26 September 2009


Links of interest (2009-09-26):

  • Photo sharing site Flickr has these new Gallery things.
  • Homemade stratosphere camera rig goes sub-orbital to 93,000 feet (18 miles). Total cost? $150.
  • Suw Charman's life is "infested with yetis."
  • AIS is the way that commercial ships and boats report their near-coastal positions for navigation. The Live Ships Map uses AIS data to show almost-real-time positions for vessels all around the world. Zoom in and be amazed.
  • Strong Bad Email #204 had be laughing uncontrollably. Make sure to click around on the end screen for the easter eggs.
  • Julia Child boils up some primordial soup. Really.
  • Funky bracelets made from old camera lens housings. Nerdy, yet cool.
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 8: most of the cool features, about 85% cheaper than regular Photoshop.
  • Vancouver's awesome and inexpensive Argo Cafe finally gets coverage in the New York Times.
  • When people ask me to spell a word out loud, I notice that I scrunch up my face while I visualize the letters behind my eyelids.
  • Via Jeff Jarvis: in the future, if politicians have nothing embarrassing on the Net, we'll all wonder what it is they're hiding and why they've spent so much effort expunging it.

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14 September 2009


Book Review: Say Everything

Say EverythingIt's a bit weird reading Say Everything, Scott Rosenberg's book about the history of blogging. I've read lots of tech books, but this one involves many people I know, directly or indirectly, and an industry I've been part of since its relatively early days. I've corresponded with many of the book's characters, linked back and forth with them, even met a few in person from time to time. And I directly experienced and participated in many of the changes Rosenberg writes about.

The history the book tells, mostly in the first couple of hundred pages, feels right. He doesn't try to find The First Blogger, but he outlines how the threads came together to create the first blogs, and where things went after that. Then Rosenberg turns to analysis and commentary, which is also good. I never found myself thinking, Hey, that's not right! or You forgot the most important part!—and according to Rosenberg, that was the feeling about mainstream reporting that got people like Dave Winer blogging to begin with.

Rosenberg's last book came out only last year, in 2008, so much of what's in Say Everything is remarkably current. He covers why blogging is likely to survive newer phenomena like Facebook and Twitter. And he doesn't hold back in his scorn for the largely old-fashioned thinking of his former newspaper colleagues (he used to work at the San Francisco Examiner before helping found Salon).

But then I hit page 317, where he writes:

...bloggers attend to philosophical discourse as well as pop-cultural ephemera; they document private traumas as well as public controversies. They have sought faith and spurned it, chronicled awful illnesses and mourned unimaginable losses. [My emphasis - D.]

That caused a bit of a pang. After all, that's what I've been doing here for the past few years. It hit close to home. Next, page 357:

For some wide population of bloggers, there is ample reason to keep writing about a troubled marriage or a cancer diagnosis or a death in the family, regardless of how many ethical dilemmas must be traversed, or how trivial or amateurish their labours are judged. [Again, my emphasis - D.]

Okay, sure, there are lots of cancer bloggers out there. I'm just projecting my own experience onto Rosenberg's writing, right? Except, several hundred pages earlier, Rosenberg had written about an infamous blogger dustup between Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer at the Gnomedex 2007 conference in Seattle.

The same conference where, via video link, I gave a presentation, about which Rosenberg wrote on his blog:

Derek K. Miller is a longtime Canadian blogger [who'd] been slated to give a talk at Gnomedex, but he’s still recovering from an operation, so making the trip to Seattle wasn’t in the cards. Instead, he spoke to the conference from his bed via a video link, and talked about what it’s been like to tell the story of his cancer experience in public and in real time. Despite the usual video-conferencing hiccups (a few stuttering images and such), it was an electrifying talk.

Later that month, he mentioned me in an article in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. When he refers to people blogging about a cancer diagnosis, he doesn't just mean people like me, he means me. Thus I don't think I can be objective about this book. I think it's a good one. I think it tells an honest and comprehensive story about where blogging came from and why it's important. Yet I'm too close to the story—even if not by name, I'm in the story—to evaluate it dispassionately.

Then again, as Rosenberg writes, one of blogging's strengths is in not being objective. In declaring your interests and conflicts and forging ahead with your opinion and analysis anyway, and interacting online with other people who have other opinions.

So, then: Say Everything is a good book. You should read it—after all, not only does it talk about a lot of people I know, I'm in it too!

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08 September 2009


My lazy personal response to the latest WordPress hack

A few days ago, many people running slightly out-of-date versions of WordPress blogging software on their servers had it hacked in very nasty ways. Understandably, that's caused a lot of consternation, including suggestions (via John Gruber) that you shouldn't run that kind of software on a public server yourself. Indeed, perhaps you should use crazy complicated workarounds involving Unix terminal commands and such instead. (As if doing so is less complicated than keeping WordPress up to date, but anyway...)

Now, to be clear, I do run several sites using WordPress, and was lucky enough to have all of them up to date so that they weren't bitten by this hack. But this site, my personal blog, has always used Blogger, the original easy blogging application. Not only that, but I use it in its original configuration, which provides the benefits of the weird Unix approach above, but without the hassle.

I didn't come to this approach because I'm especially security conscious. Mostly, it's just inertia and laziness. I started publishing this blog using Blogger almost nine years ago, in October 2000. It works, so I just kept publishing it that way, through several redesigns and a couple of hosting moves. In other words, I got lucky. On to the details.

John wrote:

[Creating blog posts on a local, non-public computer] is how a lot of early blogging software worked. The software generated static files and uploaded them to the publicly available server, which meant the software was not publicly available. This is very secure, especially if you’re using SFTP, but the downside is that you can't post from multiple machines.

...and Maciej Ceglowski said:

Either host your blog with a competent centralized site (like LiveJournal or Blogger) that takes the burden of upgrading, backing up and patching off your hands, or use whatever personal publishing software you like (WordPress, Movable Type, and so on), but keep it on a local machine.

I wrote to John that:

There is a third way. Blogger still allows you to use its original, intermediate model: access the blogging software on Blogger's server, but publish via FTP or SFTP to your own server (i.e. the files travel from Blogger's server to your web server). That's the way I've run penmachine.com since 2000, and it has the advantages of:

  1. publishing static files that don't require Blogger or a database to stay alive.
  2. having Blogger maintain upgrades, backups, and databases.
  3. working from any computer with a web browser.

Many people don't know this option still exists, and many of the more newfangled features of Blogger's newer templates, widgets, and so on don't work with it, but since I create my own templates and don't want the extra stuff, that's not an issue for me.

I should note that my approach permits comments via Blogger or a third-party service, as well as other plug-ins and whatever else you want to do via regular HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and so on. The approach is slightly more technical than using a hosted service like Blogspot, TypePad, WordPress.com, Squarespace, or whatever—but it's a lot less tricky than installing WordPress (five minutes? yeah right)—or, for that matter, installing Movable Type, or Expression Engine, or Drupal—on your own server in the first place.

Oh, and publishing via Blogger and FTP or SFTP is not perfectly secure, of course. Someone could still hack my Google/Blogger account, or compromise my server, or (more unlikely) both. But I can regenerate my blog via Blogger's database (if the server is hacked), via my server (if Blogger is hacked), via my hosting provider's backups, or from my own local copies of my blog. So I'm in a better position than someone running everything on the server without proper backups.

Then again, anyone who has backups is in a better position than someone who doesn't, always.

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20 August 2009


Geek density maximum

Bell Harbor crazy Gnomedex 8.0 laptop panorama 2008
We're off to Gnomedex, the fifth year Air and I will be participating. It has to be one of the densest collections of nerds around (as my panorama from last year shows)—sort of a web society annual family reunion. Including some of the emotional blow-ups that entails.

Watch for lots of photos from me and others, as well as some posts here.

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27 July 2009


Booze, smokes, girls, advertising

Here's what I'd look like if I were on the TV show Mad Men, set at the turn of the smokin', drinkin', womanizin' 1960s of Manhattan advertising men:

Derek "Mad Men" scene

Image made using the Mad Men Yourself tool (via Kottke). My wife and I are making our way through the Season 2 DVDs right now, and I feel like I'm getting second-hand smoke through the television.

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13 June 2009


Blog break

Stairs HDRExcept for the occasional vacation or trip to the hospital, I've written on this blog most days since October 27, 2000 (and more intermittently for three and a half years before that, before it was a blog). Including this post, that's 3446 entries in 3152 days, or an average of 1.09 posts per day, through raising our kids and work and travel and illnesses and treatments galore.

For most of my life I've written compulsively. In the words of Tim Bray and Mark Pilgrim, I write this blog because I "can't not write." Or at least I did. But today it feels forced, an annoyance, something it should not be.

I need a break. So I'm taking one. I don't know how long.

I'll probably still post to Twitter and Facebook, but not as much. I'll be on email too, though I plan to unsubscribe from a lot of lists and notifications that clutter up my inbox, and maybe try to pare down the 1800 messages sitting there. There will be photos on Flickr. Maybe I'll find a way to bring some of that material over here automatically. We'll see.

Other things also won't change. I plan to continue co-hosting with Dave Chick the Inside Home Recording podcast once a month or so. I won't be offline or off the grid. If you subscribe to my RSS feed you'll see when something new appears here, whenever that might be. I'll let you know if there's any big news.

In the meantime, it's almost summer. Go outside. Be with your friends and family. Talk. Love. I plan to.

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08 June 2009


I'll be on CBC Radio again at 5:40 today

Cancer Treatment: Day 62 (in Studio 31) at Flickr.comI'll be on the radio again, but it's not about cancer this time—I get to nerd out instead! This afternoon, CBC Radio Vancouver's "On the Coast" drivetime show will be talking about the City of New Westminster's feasibility study/pilot project to create a citywide Wi-Fi network (from the May 11 New West council meeting). I'll be on the panel by phone, not in the studio as in the photo.

UPDATE: Audio of my interview is now available at my podcast. You can also grab the MP3 file directly (2.3 MB).

The broadcast panel begins at 5:40 p.m. Pacific Time on 690 FM or 88.1 FM in Vancouver, or you can listen to it online. I'll try to record the stream and post the panel to my podcast shortly. Municipal Wi-Fi was a big idea a few years ago, but many of the utopian early predictions of free wireless service across big cities haven't panned out, and the rise of high-speed cellular data coverage (such as with the iPhone), more free hotspots in cafés and such, and commercial WiMAX networks like Rogers Portable Internet have made it seem a little less necessary.

If you have any thoughts about this topic that you think I should address on the air, leave a comment below, email me, or send me a message on Twitter in the next couple of hours and I'll see if I can incorporate your ideas.

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07 May 2009


The Kindle DX is getting there

Kindle DX Press Event, May 6th, 2009 at Flickr.comI have to say, Amazon's newly-announced Kindle DX, with a much larger screen than the original Kindle, is looking pretty good as an e-book reader. It's bigger, has more storage, and reads PDFs natively without conversion.

Too bad that, like its predecessor, it's unavailable in Canada (or anywhere outside the U.S.). It remains a bit of a polarizing device, but Amazon obviously believes this is where things are going. They're one of the only companies that might make it happen—if they're right about e-books being the future.

The DX is pricey, at almost $500 USD, and its e-ink technology is still a bit immature. However, maybe in a few years we'll be reading those Stanley Kubrick–style book pads after all, only a decade or so late.

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30 April 2009


Photojojo has wonderful camera things

How the heck did I not know about Photojojo and the Photojojo Store before? Such awesome stuff!

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20 March 2009


Dead dead trees

It's been all over the web this week, but Clay Shirky's article on the death of newspapers is still a worthwhile read:

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are [...] ignored en masse.

It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves—the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public—has stopped being a problem.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. [...] When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they [...] are demanding to be lied to.

The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart [through its advertising dollars] was willing to subsidize [a newspaper's] Baghdad bureau. [But] they’d never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway.

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs? I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500 [when the printing press was introduced], when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.

When I was in university, I helped found a couple of student newspapers, and I imagined myself working for a big newspaper one day. I never did, though I did get jobs at a couple of magazines over the years. If I were graduating today, a couple of decades later, I'd still want to write, but I don't think I'd have those ambitions anymore.

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21 February 2009


Northern Voice 2009, day 2

20 February 2009


Northern Voice 2009, day 1

18 February 2009


Behind the curtain

This is useful: sitonomy.com (via J-Walk). For example, if you point it here, it tells you that I use Blogger for publishing, several web stats packages, and the Apache web server software. It will also identify widgets, affiliate programs, ad networks, web feed processors like FeedBurner, programming languages, content delivery networks, and so on if it can find them.

You can also point it to any individual page URL, so you can see what's different about my top headphone albums page: I have Amazon affiliate links and AdSense ads there, but not on the home page.

It's not as detailed in its specifics as, say, the Netcraft server query form (which will tell you my server software changes since 2002), but there's a lot more information at Sitonomy overall.

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09 February 2009


Shine your own shoes

Just slightly over a year ago, I tried to answer a question realistically, not for myself, but for numerous people who ask me. The question was: can you make money from blogging and podcasting? I've been blogging a long time, so some people think I might have an insight there. Who knows, really?

I answered anyway. My answer, in short, was that yes, blogging and podcasting can be your job, just like being a musician can be a job. But for most people, "making money" has to mean making a modest living, working hard (sometimes to the point of burnout), having some luck, and treating it as a small business like any other.

If you expect sudden riches, that's like expecting your garage band to become Coldplay, or your basketball skills to take you to the NBA. Yeah, a miniscule few manage that sort of thing, but it's not wise to bet on being one of them. Even Dan Lyons, who ran the immensely popular (and stingingly funny) Fake Steve Jobs blog for a couple of years, acknowledges that: "I never made enough to quit my day job."

Jason Kottke has a good response to that:

As businesses go, blogging is a lot like shining shoes. There are going to be very few folks who own chains of shoe shining places which make a lot of money and a bunch of other people who can (maybe) make a living at it if they bust their ass 24/7/365. But for many, shining shoes is something that will be done at home for themselves because it feels good to walk around with a shiny pair of shoes.

That's regardless of whether the economy is good or bad. Oddly enough, before I even read that, I shined up a pair of my shoes today. Personally, I have no plans to start a shoe-shining business.

UPDATE: Dave Winer makes an interesting point on this topic.

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09 January 2009


This is not a model train

I know this photo looks like a model train, but it's not:

Tiny train

It looks like a model because of a fake tilt-shift lens effect. Oddly, the idea came up twice in one day: Stephen wondered if I knew about tilt-shift photography, and the same day TiltShiftMaker showed up on the Web (thanks to Scott for the link to that). Since I don't own any tilt-shift (a.k.a. perspective control) lenses or a Lensbaby, a free online tool was the perfect way to fake it.

The picture is from Interstate 5 near Tacoma, Washington, in summer 2005. It is actually a real train on a real railway with real trees and the real Mt. Rainier in the background. It looks like a model because of the selective focus effect I applied to the original image with TiltShiftMaker—one reason we know models are tiny is that the depth of focus when we look at them is much shallower than for larger objects. Simulating that effect makes big things look small.

Look, I tried it on a bunch of other pictures too.

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06 January 2009


Geeky film lists

I've never heard of Den of Geek before, but they make some fun lists (via Kottke), such as these about movies:

...and, my favourite, just for the title:

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02 January 2009


Favourite posts of 2008

In which I revisit what I wrote here in 2008 and pick out some highlights:

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27 December 2008


Oh, this could be dangerous

23 December 2008


The return of the Penmachine Podcast

Derek the Axeman Circa 1974Back in 2004, I began posting some of my original songs and instrumentals here on my website. Some months later, I turned those postings into a podcast you can subscribe to. In February 2006, I started using Apple's iWeb to publish it.

However, earlier in 2008 iWeb started exhibiting a nasty bug that prevented me from updating the podcast, so Penmachine Podcast subscribers saw their subscriptions lie fallow for eight months. But the drought is over now that I have ditched iWeb, and the Penmachine Podcast is back at (logically enough):

You don't need an iPod or iTunes to listen, just a computer. If you do subscribe, your old subscriptions should automatically update. But if you want to subscribe anew or resubscribe using the new permanent feed address, you can use these:

I'm currently migrating all the old music and spoken word stuff over, and have only made it about half-way back, to 2006. So there are still two years' worth of posts to go back to 2004. You'll see them reappear over the next few days in the feed and on the Penmachine Podcast page. And I'll be posting more new tunes soon!

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11 December 2008


Congratulations to Lip Gloss and Laptops!

Lip Gloss and Laptops winsMy wife Air was pretty shocked when her podcast, Lip Gloss and Laptops, won the Best of 604 award for Vancouver's favourite audio/video blog or podcast. At this evening's award ceremony at the Cellar nightclub in Vancouver, they were up against some tough competition, including Tiki Bar TV.

Alas, co-host KA couldn't make it down, so when their win was announced (to a big cheer throughout the room), Air accepted the award from Rebecca "Miss 604" Bollwitt solo. Also cool was that the runner-up for the category was our pal, the legendary Dave Olson. Rebecca will soon post the award results at her website, so check back there for the complete list of winners.

UPDATE December 12: Here's the list of winners. Lip Gloss dominated their category with 35% of the vote—quite a landslide.

Air and I were both nominated for our podcasts and for our personal blogs; in that second category, local mega-marketing blogger John Chow (how did I not know about this guy before?) took the prize, but everyone was pleased as punch that the runner-up was Corinna's Gus Greeper blog, which I wrote about last spring. It's instructive that two so very different blogs—one focused on doing business and making money online, the other intensely personal—can come one-two on the list.

Thanks to Miss 604 and her team for putting together a great event and a fun contest among Vancouver bloggers in just three weeks.

P.S. Kris Krüg made his own list of winners, and named my site here as one of his favourite personal sites. Thank you too, kk+.

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09 December 2008


Photo advice, awards plug, music of Odds

1. Scott Bourne's Cranes in the Fire MistEver wonder how great photographers capture amazing images? How do they happen to be there at the decisive moment? Scott Bourne's post at This Week in Photography about his recent photo "Cranes in the Fire Mist" tells you. There is some luck, yes, but much of it is long preparation and experience. Decades' worth, in Scott's case.

2. Today is the last day of voting for the Vancouver-area Best of 604 web awards put together by Rebecca Bollwitt, a.k.a. Miss604. The awards reception is tomorrow night. While of course I suggest that you vote for your favourites in every category, if you need a hint or two, my wife's podcast Lip Gloss and Laptops is nominated in the video blog/podcast category, and her personal site Talking to Air appears in the heavily competitive personal blog list. (Yeah, I got nominated for some stuff too, but why split the vote?)

3. If you listened to Canadian rock music in the '90s, you know the Vancouver band Odds. Well, they're back! After a hiatus of 12 years, earlier in 2008 they released a new album, "Cheerleader," under the name The New Odds. Recently they managed to get the rights to their original name Odds back, so (follow me here) Odds became The New Odds, and are now back to Odds again. Bass player Doug Elliott is a friend of mine, and also plays occasionally with my retro act The Neurotics, and appears on a track on my podcast. If you're on Facebook, join up as a fan on their new Facebook page.

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07 December 2008


The final 42 days

The Onion is always biting satire, but sometimes they turn out to be chilling prophets:

Ah, but what would comedy writers have done otherwise?

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06 November 2008


Audio of my CBC interview

If you missed my interview on CBC Radio earlier today, I have an MP3 file of it available now (5.2 MB, about 12 minutes). I spoke with host Stephen Quinn about all the drastic stuff I've been through since June 2007, including my major surgeries and several chemotherapy regimes, as well as the new phase of my cancer treatment, that of living with the disease rather than simply trying to destroy it.

Incidentally, I had intended on publishing the audio to my Penmachine Podcast too, but Apple's iWeb software, which I use for that, has a nasty bug that's been around since April, and which doesn't seem any closer to being fixed. It prevents me from updating the podcast without a lot of extra work, so I think I'll just plan to switch over to a less awkward podcasting tool in the near future. I'll let you know when that happens—and I'll have some new original music to post there too.

Finally, a new episode of Inside Home Recording should be online tomorrow too.

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05 November 2008


Non-killer packaging

Amazon's new frustration-free packaging (via Gruber and Kottke) is a great idea—plus I was surprised and pleased to find that Wired's coverage of the announcement includes one of my photos:

Shure E3C Package Opening Adventure

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27 October 2008


Happy eighth birthday, blog

Penmachine circa 2000Today marks eight years since this site first became a blog, back on October 27, 2000. That's the day I started using Blogger—long before Google bought it—to publish updates here, instead of doing them manually in a text editor. (I did so on the recommendation of my friend Alistair—who was also standing next to me in the photo I cropped down as my portrait at the time.) Believe it or not, I'm still using Blogger to run the site, although I don't host it on Blogger's servers, and I make my own templates.

That day back in 2000 was also a little over seven months after I first registered the penmachine.com domain—in the three years before that, I'd been publishing at various obscure URLs owned by my ISP and others. However, the alias www.pobox.com/~dkmiller will still get you here, as it always has. So, courtesy of the Wayback Machine, here are some looks back:

  • Take a look at this site in September 2000, before I blogified it. I also have a screenshot of an even earlier version, plus a preserved HTML archive from 1998.
  • You can also examine roughly how it looked in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. You know, this blog hasn't changed as much as I might have thought.
  • As far as I can tell, the most popular thing I've ever written here is my 2005 article about buying a cheap guitar, which remains my most-viewed page more than three years after I published it, and more than two years after I last made any updates to it. If you post stuff on the web, that shows you why you should avoid breaking links.
  • To reinforce that, this month 30 people took at look at my earliest blog archive, and 140 people (!) read my spelling article, which was pretty much the first thing I ever published on the Web, back in 1997. Earlier this year, an editor colleague of mine finally spotted a typo in the piece—even though it had been online and widely read for 11 years. So I fixed it.
  • In the past eight years, I'm not sure if I've had visitors from every country in the world, but I have had at least one each (and probably more, given that many people's browsers don't reveal their location) from Namibia, Greenland, Tajikistan, Vanuatu, and Nicaragua, among others.
  • My biggest traffic spikes have come via Jason Kottke and John Gruber, which is little surprise if you know their sites.

Given how things are going, I have no idea whether I'll still be writing here in another eight years. But it's been fun so far.

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18 October 2008


Getting podPress to work with WordPress 2.6

NOTE: This post is a pure podcasting nerd-fest. If that's not your thing, feel free to move on.

I help run two podcasts published using the fine open-source blogging software WordPress. A few months ago, when the latest version of WordPress, 2.6, came out, I immediately upgraded one of the sites, Inside Home Recording (IHR). Whoops. Mistake. The new version broke the key podcasting plugin we use, podPress.

So I held off upgrading the other podcast, Lip Gloss and Laptops, keeping it at WordPress 2.5 to maintain compatibility while waiting for a podPress upgrade. Over at IHR, where it was too late, I instead installed the new Blubrry Powerpress podcasting plugin as a substitute.

UPDATE 21 Oct 2008: For those of you using the Blubrry Powerpress plugin, there is a new update that fixes the problem I talk about below, which Angelo discusses in the comments. His summary: "We've just made a new version (0.4.0) which now displays an image in place of loading quicktime files. We use a simple blubrry play icon as the default play image, but you can provide your own play image by adding a custom define to your wp-config.php that includes the URL where your custom play image is located. This new option is documented at the bottom of the Advanced Tweaks page for the Blubrry Powerpress plugin." Kudos to the Blubrry team.

Now, Powerpress is fine. It does the job, and recognizes most of the detailed settings from podPress, but it doesn't offer as fine-grained control, and has one major problem: for non-MP3 podcasts, such as the Enhanced AAC files we use at IHR, it puts up a little movie player (as does podPress), but in doing so (unlike podPress) it also starts loading the podcast file whenever someone visits the web page. For pages with a lot of podcast episodes on them (like our AAC episode index, or even our home page), that really slows down page load times, wastes bandwidth, and throws off audience statistics.

So I wanted podPress back, but for various reasons the developer has been very busy, had his site forums hacked by spammers, and has otherwise been unable to update his free plugin to work with WordPress 2.6 for several months now. I couldn't wait any longer.

But it turns out the fix is a simple one. The new WordPress feature that seems to be interfering with podPress is post revisions, which track changes to posts. Cool, but I don't use it. The No Revisions plugin turns off that feature, and voila!, podPress works again too.

So I installed No Revisions at both the IHR and Lipgloss sites, deactivated Powerpress at IHR, upgraded to the latest WordPress at Lipgloss (using the great WordPress Automatic Upgrade plugin), and everything seems to be working fine. Page load times have speeded up, simple players are available for all podcast files, and I'm back where I want to be.

If you're a podcaster with similar problems or have been postponing your WordPress upgrade, this solution might work for you too.

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