New Design for SilverPen

Last January (2009), I created the FaceBook and MySpace pages, made some modifications to the site, and announced my goals for the upcoming year. I wanted to write books, commit to regular publishing of blog articles, and invest in or create an online community of writers. The first few months of this went relatively well, but it became abundantly clear that my site wasn’t really up to the challenge. It was too limiting, too basic, and what’s worse, I had no idea how to fix it.

Enter Ryan Burrell, stage left. Ryan and I have been friends since junior high, but we never really did much together until after he graduated college. Through a strange series of events, we found ourselves with mutual friends and spending more time together. And while I was leaving my cocoon and struggling my way into writing regularly, Ryan was becoming a well sought after web designer.

When he offered to create a new design for SilverPen, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to abuse our friendship, and I know that web design is both a difficult art and an expensive one. His offer was incredibly generous, and I didn’t feel comfortable accepting.

At the same time, friends should trust each other, and my own attempts at modifying themes had failed miserably due to my lack of knowledge. I finally accepted Ryan’s offer, and he has blown me away with what he came up with.

Take a look around and know that the extent of my guidance to him was, “I really like the colours from this other theme… dark brown and blue, though I’m not devoted to them. And I want the body text of articles to be decently wide, though that doesn’t really apply to the front page.” I also had a list of things I wanted; things like… the stuff I write. And threaded comments (which is built into WordPress). And a Currently Working On section.

So, given what he had to work with, Ryan did phenomenally well. I wasn’t of much help in this.

New Features

I’m really excited about everything this theme has to offer, so let me give you a tour. Ryan suggested removing the traditional Categories and Archives from the front page and/or sidebar(s), as they take up a lot of room but aren’t always needed. Instead, he created a slider bar attached to the header to serve those purposes. Click on Topics and it will drop down to show the various categories used for posts. Clicking on Archives will show the most recent six months as well as a link to all archives. This is not only more aesthetically pleasing than just having everything listed in the sidebar, it also saves a lot of space and is just a neat feature.

Click on the words Archives or Topics to see the archives by month or the categories, respectively.
Click on the words Archives or Topics to see the archives by month or the categories, respectively.

The footer has been drastically expanded and now includes a bit more about how this site is licensed and what you can do to help. In addition, I’ve got a blogroll of sorts now and the Momentarily Featured is really five random articles, displayed with the hope that older pieces will get read once in a while.

The Currently Working On section is a special one that will contain updates on… well, what I’m working on. I’ve usually got five projects going at the same time, so this will change on a regular basis as I move between them. In addition, there is also a Latest Entries section on the front page to display what has been published recently.

When you add those three sections on the front page to the sticky-notesesque thing at the top of the sidebar, that makes four unique sections for displaying content.

Taking the pressure off

WordPress is geared primarily to act as blogging software, and as such the default emphasis of a WordPress site is on the blog articles. The problem is that I really hate having blog entries on my front page because there is often information I want to share for longer than the latest entry’s common lifespan. Without a decent body of static text on the front page, I can’t post long term updates very easily, and some blog entries might get lost in the shuffle (if I publish too often, for instance).

With the theme I was using, I had two options. The default was to have multiple blog entries on the front page, and I generally ranged between four and ten. Part of me likes having multiple entries available because then people can just read without having to load new pages. Obviously, this didn’t make me happy for a front page, but I like it in theory, and that’s why there’s a Journal button up top for those people who like to see a traditional blog page.

I was never able to figure out for myself what to put here, but Ryan excels at designing and stocking web site footers.
I was never able to figure out for myself what to put here, but Ryan excels at designing and stocking web site footers.

The second option was to only display the most recent blog entry on the front page. After Ryan suggested that I limit the display so people might actually have a chance of seeing my footer, I agreed that this was the better of the two options. The downside to this is that it puts a great deal of emphasis on that single blog entry, and if I update (even just a short, quick note about something that happened that day), it would push that original article off the front page. I schedule updates three times a week, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 4:30 a.m. (because that seems to be before most people start accessing my site), but sometimes I want to write something Monday afternoon, or on Tuesday. If I did, whatever I wrote 1) Would displace what was currently there and 2) Wouldn’t be visible for very long at all.

Of course, the solution is what you see now, but I had neither the means nor the knowledge to create a page template that met my goals. I kept hearing and reading about how easy all this was, but I’m a writer, not a designer or programmer, and despite hours of strain and trial/error, I couldn’t make it work. This front page layout is the most significant improvement to SilverPen and will make the greatest difference in how the site is organized and maintained. I’m excited about its automated features, but I’m also really curious to see what I think of to do with it in the next year as I come to understand how it works and how it influences my work. What will it be like when I don’t feel like my web site design is holding me back?

Demanding Excellence

Working with a real designer has been an eye-opening experience, and much of the recent series on design was inspired by this process. Because I don’t have the sort of intelligence that lends itself to understanding or facilitating visual art and/or design, it is remarkable to me that I could provide such little guidance and Ryan could turn those ideas into what you see here. When I first saw what he had come up with, I was startled and a little uncomfortable: it didn’t seem anything like me because it was too good. At the same time, I was excited because it was just so neat.

I hope you’ll like the new design as well as I do, because it’s going to stick around for a good long while. Previous theme changes at SilverPen were because I was never satisfied with what I was able to find for free, but this custom design changes all that. Every need and desire has been met, and it Just Works™.

If you’re curious about the importance of design and my thoughts on its purpose, power, and presence, I encourage you to read the collaborative conversation we have recently completed on the topic. A good site design makes a world of difference, and I’m anxious to see how it impacts my visitors. I know that its excellence demands more from me than my previous theme(s)–that is to say, this new design demands higher quality writing from me, and in a greater quantity. There’s no going back now. I will meet my goals and use this site to its full potential.

Ryan has dubbed this theme Publicity. I think that I shall refer to it as Tallgeese.

Remembering the Sabbath

After the furious update to SilverPen, I was finally able to sit down and take stock. My Saturday was rather full, but that was by design. I work full time (forty hours) during the week, and then add on six hours of class, two or three hours of college ministry attendance, and a few other obligations to pretty much fill my weekdays. As such, Saturdays are the only time for other work, so I spent the morning mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, and then working on my website with Ryan.

I’ve got twelve drafts saved here in WordPress with ideas that I’d really like to write blog entries about, and I considered doing that tomorrow morning before church. I’ve also got a scifi novel sitting in Scrivener, mocking me, that I’d really like to work on. So far I have finished a first draft of the first chapter for that book, which was promptly torn to shreds by my independent editor, as well as a revised outline for the story. Thought I did some writing during my music class last Monday night, I haven’t made much progress yet, and the temptation is strong to spend some time tomorrow working on chapter two.

In addition, there’s mopping, cleaning the office, and doing laundry so I actually have something to wear next week.

If I actually do everything I want to, however, Monday would come and I’d be exhausted. I would have spent this third weekend in a row doing stuff other than resting, and I can only take so much of that. The healthier and wiser option would be to force myself to sit, relax, and actually rest a bit.

It is unbelievably hard to turn down my projects, even for a day, because I know that I really won’t have time to work on anything again until next Saturday. I can get a few words in here and there, but writing at length during the week just can’t practically happen. There’s so much I want to do and accomplish, but I’m moving at a snail’s pace because I just don’t have the time.

Yet if I pushed myself any harder, I’d burn out, or at least break. I can’t work forever without rest, so taking time off tomorrow will actually improve my productivity in the long run.

Instead of writing tomorrow, I’ll read, or play games, or go for a walk. Probably all three. I was going to record a book review this weekend, and a podcast, and make some progress on two of the four books I’m writing, but it’s already past five in the evening and I’ve been working since around seven-thirty this morning.

It’s time for a break.

Collaborative Conversations

I first heard of this idea when my friends Steve and Ryan began cross-posting one anothers’ blog articles to their own respective websites. Though I had trouble at first understanding what was going on, it turned out that they (and one other person, if I have put the pieces together correctly) were undertaking to have a sort of conversation through their blog posts.

The goal of this “conversation” is more inspirational than focused on dialogue, and so the format goes like this:

  1. Someone picks a rather broad topic.
  2. Everyone writes essays that fall under that topic.
  3. Everyone cross-posts the other participants’ essays to their own site.

So rather than commenting on or responding to one another’s articles, this series of blog articles is more to force the writers a bit beyond their established zones of comfort and familiarity. With someone else setting the tone and topic, one might find themselves writing on subjects previously left untouched.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Ryan if he would be interested in collaborating on a series of articles with me. He has been working on a new site design for SilverPen and the entire process has left me deep in thought about the value of design to the content creator. Out of these thoughts, I had ideas for about half a dozen articles, but they were all from my point of view and I really wanted to hear something from a designer living on the other side of the fence, so to speak.

Ryan instead suggested I join their conversation, soon to begin on the topic The Purpose, Power, and Presence of Design, and I agreed.

For the next few weeks at SilverPen, expect to see articles written not just by myself on the value of design, but by several other bloggers whom I respect and appreciate. I would encourage you to not just read their articles, but to visit their websites, browse around a bit, and subscribe to their RSS feeds.

And as always, don’t hesitate to join the conversation!

Table of Contents

  1. The Purpose, Power, and Presence of Design by Ryan Burrell
  2. Design Speaks Directly to the Soul by Matthew Stublefield
  3. Designing a Path to Identity by Steve Moore
  4. Poor Design Stymies Communication by Matthew Stublefield
  5. “It Takes All Kinds” or “Maybe You Can’t Design” by Matthew Stublefield
  6. Design as a Weapon by Ryan Burrell
  7. It’s The Thought That Counts by Matthew Stublefield
  8. Branding Emotionally by Matthew Stublefield

WordPress not quite ready for mobile browsing

Instead of redacting this entire entry, I’ll let you know that mobile browsing for WordPress does work now. See my updated article on The Evolutionary Process of Mobile Browsing on WordPress for more details.


One of my design goals for revision 3 of SilverPen Publishing was to make the site more accessible. I’m not a web developer by trade and didn’t really know how to do this, but I knew that I didn’t want to exclude people from visiting my corner of the web. To me, this didn’t just mean making SilverPen more friendly to screen readers and other assistive technology devices, but also to make the site work well on mobile devices.

To this end, I found yet another great plugin by Alex King that queries the user agent of the browser trying to access the site. If it’s a mobile web browser, the plugin serves up a custom template that’s very lightweight and fast to load on mobile devices. It worked very well, but unfortunately it only worked in a vaccuum, and even then had some serious repercussions.

WP Super Cache

First off, it simply does not work with WP Super Cache, and in fact, no mobile browsing solution does. For those who haven’t heard of Super Cache, I’ll explain what it does and why it’s necessary very briefly. Every blog post and page that WordPress serves up is dynamically generated on the fly when you access the site. Putting all the pieces together to make a web page puts a lot of load on the server, and it makes the page load a lot slower for you. Caching allows the server to create static pages, rather than dynamic ones, of the same content and therefore serve it up faster. This reduces load on the server and makes the page load a whole lot fast for you.

Because of how WordPress works, this caching is pretty much vital to running a site on WordPress. My traffic’s not that high yet, but it has more than doubled in the last few months, and I expect it to continue increasing at a similar rate. The last thing I need is Bluehost freezing my site temporarily due to a sudden spike of traffic, so like all good WordPress bloggers, I use WP Super Cache.

To make a long story short, WP Super Cache creates a copy of a page the first time someone visits it. Each subsequent visitor is shown that copy, and this is what breaks WordPress Mobile Edition. Since you’re viewing a static copy of the page that has already been generated, you don’t see the mobile theme, rendering the mobile plugin useless.

If it’s a choice between having the page load more quickly for most everyone and reducing the load on my server vs. having the site more accessible on mobile devices, I’m going to have to go with the former. Especially as data plans move towards 3g and faster mobile browsing.

Search Engine de-Optimization

The second reason that mobile browsing fails for WordPress is because it kills SEO, which harms your ranking in search engines. By its very nature of essentially serving a different set of pages to mobile devices, plugins such at WordPress Mobile Edition fool search engine robots into thinking there’s a second website with duplicate content on it. Such duplicate content is ranked down by search engines, which means your pages are less likely to turn up in searches and you’ll get less traffic.

The mobile plugins and solutions for WordPress all admit that it’ll kill your SEO and recommend you “do something” about it, but don’t offer many solutions. I thought I had found an elegant work-around yesterday in the form of themed multiple domains in WordPress, which would allow me to have multiple domains pointing at a single instance of WordPress, wich each domain triggering its own theme. In this instance, you can easily redirect robots that hit those other domains to a separate robots.txt file, which would tell them “don’t index this site.” For example, if I had silverpenpub.net and m.silverpenpub.net (for mobile browsers), I could have the main site indexed and tell the robots not to index the mobile site.

But I don’t want to register a separate domain for mobile browsers, and I couldn’t get it to work with a subdomain for some reason. Maybe I was doing something wrong there and will figure it out eventually, but it’s not going to happen today.

Not worth my time

In the end, trying to twist WordPress into working on mobile devices doesn’t give a  lot of return for the investment, and I’m beginning to think it will be a non-issue before too long. Even I am beginning to dream nightly of acquiring an iPhone, and browsing with a 3g connection means that, even over a cellular data plan, you can load a site quickly. And newer phones have a lot larger screens, which means that my theme displays fine all on its own.

I know that WordPress now has a iPhone-friendly administrative interface, and I hope that they include more features in the future to help their platform run better on mobile devices. Accessibility is still important to me, but I can’t justify 5-10+ hours of work to make the site more accessible to 0.5% of readers by introducing “features” that degrade or break the site for the other 99.5%.

RoB: Why Have a Website?

Part of me doesn’t want to begin this discussion with what I consider a series of very obvious statements, but it might also be important to begin at the foundation of it all. Therefore, we’ll start with the very basic question of, “Why have a website?”

My first website, for all intents and purposes, was on Geocities and served two purposes. First, it was a conglomeration of links I enjoyed and wanted to share with other people, because I thought that was important at the time. Later, it also became a collection of my poetry.

I put these things up there not just because I wanted to share them, though. In junior high and high school, I was beginning to recognize the significant power of the web and its advantages over my personal computer. Where my computer could die, lose data, etc., most web site hosting companies had backups and redundant power supplies and a variety of other tools to ensure the retention of data. Therefore, if I kept my poetry only on my local hard drive, I was almost guaranteed to lose it someday. If I put it on a web site, I had a better chance of retaining it forever. It also gave me the added benefit of being able to access it from anywhere, so if I needed to print something at school or the library, I had it all out on my website rather than locked away at home.

I have lost some very important files in the past due to corrupted or fried hard drives. Letters from people who are now dead, photos of loved ones I’ll never see again… but now, everything I feel is important goes here, on SilverPen Publishing. The photo gallery contains every photo I’ve taken with my camera in the last few years, though not all of them are visible to you. And I do all of my writing through WordPress, which means that as I write, my words are saved every 60 seconds or so to a remote server, with power redundancy and regular backups, as well as off-site backups in case the main data center ever got struck by a meteor. My data is about as safe as it can be, so I won’t lose anything again.

So, the site is largely a practical thing. On a more personal note, I find that blogging is very helpful and healthy for me on a variety of levels, and for whatever reason, I cannot keep a personal, private journal; I end up never writing in it. Something about this medium compels me to keep writing, journaling, and sharing, and I think it’s because I’m producing work that others will see. I want to share these thoughts, and I’ll discuss more in the coming weeks why I believe that is the case.

Safeguarding your content: Digital Fingerprint vs. Pingbacks

If you’re a regular here at SilverPen Publishing, you’re probably already aware that I license everything under Creative Commons, so I’m not necessarily against other people using my work. There are, of course, some restrictions, namely that they can’t make money off it, they can’t change my writing, and they have to attribute the work to me. If a person wants to take an entire article and put it on their blog, so long as they aren’t running advertising, have my name on there, and link back to this site, I don’t really care.

However, I have a deep and abiding hatred for spam blogs, or splogs as they are called, that scrape my content automagically and repost it on their site. Usually, these splogs are running advertising, but what’s worse to me is that there’s no real person behind the posting. Of course, someone had to set the blog up and put the scripts into motion, but after that it’s just an automatic scanning of the blogosphere to find content, copy it, and post it on the splog as if the owner had something to do with the process. What I work hard to create and maintain, they steal with no effort at all.

Usually, splogs have a wide variety of content, though when mine gets stolen it’s often about a specific topic. If I write about World of Warcraft, my content might end up on a WoW splog that aggregates a ton of the WoW-related news on the web. Technology stuff often ends up on splogs as well. What’s nice is that they copy everything out to put on their site, and that makes it easy to track.

A tool I have used extensively is called Digital Fingerprint, which allows you to put some unique text into your RSS feed which you can then search for via Google, et. al. and see if people are reposting your feed elsewhere. I like the concept of this plugin, and I continue to use it because I feel like it’s a decent deterrent, but the truth is that it offers false security. Every time I use Digital Fingerprint to see if my content is appearing anywhere other than where it should, it turns up nothing. If DF is to be believed, my content has never been stolen.

The plugin that does inform me that my blog has been scraped is the one not directly made for this purpose, and that is Akismet. Really, though, Akismet is just how I view the notification, because what really alerts me are pingbacks. A pingback is recorded by WordPress anytime someone links to one of your blog posts or pages, provided you leave pingbacks on when you publish something (they are on by default). Since Akismet maintains a vast database of spammers, when it picks up a pingback and keeps it from being posted on my site (usually pingbacks, or trackbacks, are posted below comments on a blog entry), I know that a splog has probably scraped my content. And my content, specifically the title of every blog entry, just happens to link back to my site.

By using Akismet, I can go out to the site to verify that it’s really a splog, and at the same time I click on the IP recorded by Akismet, which runs a quick whois check. If it’s a splog, I contact their web host asking that the account be terminated because the owner is stealing content and violating copyright. In my experience, the site is usually shut down within a couple of hours.

I’ve only had about half a dozen articles stolen so far, but it’s enough to keep me on my toes and checking Akismet regularly. Thankfully, it’s not hard to tell when your content has been stolen by using this method, but I would never have known if I just relied on Digital Fingerprint. The moral of the story is to always have more than one tool in your toolbox; if you rely on just a single method, chances are that someone will find a way around that method and you’ll be left in the dark.

Smoothgallery consumes my life

I wrote a month ago about why I don’t, or can’t, use Flickr. Since then, I’ve done some restructuring of my photo gallery and, while I like the way it looks and functions better, I discovered something very important about Smoothgallery that I hadn’t thought of before. First, my last theme displayed 15 images on a page and, after you had viewed those 15 images, you needed to go to the next page. Second, Smoothgallery loads all of the images in a gallery at once so you can smoothly transition from one to the other.

The first statement impacts Smoothgallery by limiting gallery sizes to 15; if there were more than 15 images in a gallery, they wouldn’t be displayed. That’s easy enough to fix by increasing that limit, but then I run into issues where every image is loaded at the same time. I have a gallery with over 400 images, so when I gave this a try, it immediately overloaded my server because it tried to load all 400+ pictures simultaneously.

My conclusion is that, first, I want to keep Smoothgallery. It’s so much nicer than Lightbox, and I don’t want to change the way the gallery looks again. Therefore, I need to reorganize my albums. All of them.

I’m currently at 60 albums with well over 3000 images, and now I need to go through and break them down further into smaller categories. For example, I’m currently in Orlando, Florida at Educause and have subsequently been taking a lot of pictures of the conference and surrounding area. Instead of just creating one giant album, or even albums according to the day I took the picture on (like I have now), I could organize them according to location or event: Exhibition Hall, Conference Hall, Disney, Hotel, Orlando, Airport, etc.

It’s going to be a lot of organizational work, but I think the end result will be significantly better than what I have now. It will also, hopefully, decrease bandwidth usage and speed up gallery loading. I’m just not sure when I can do this; I get back to Springfield on Friday night, and Saturday marks the start of NaNoWriMo. But it’s still something that needs to be done, and sooner rather than later.