An open letter to Apple about iOS and hardware access

On my computer I use an app called f.lux that alters the shading of my screen depending on the time of day. I can’t exaggerate how important this app has become for me — it seems so minor but it’s changed my life. I literally sleep better because I’m not seeing the harsh blue glare in the evening.

PLEASE allow developers to have this kind of control over the screen on iOS devices. I’m seriously considering jailbreaking my devices just for this one app — and if you knew me you’d understand that I REALLY hate the idea of jailbreaking. I would love to see it in the App Store, and they say they’d love to make it — but Apple doesn’t allow it.

Stephen Rider

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Virtual Multiblog on GitHub

Quick announcement: The Virtual Multiblog system can now be found on GitHub:

The home page is still on this site for discussion and such, but GitHub is your best best for downloading it and getting timely updates.

Thanks for the years of support. Let’s see where we go from here!

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Log Deprecated Calls 1.3

Another update! This one I’m very happy with — I’ve made an improvement that vastly improves the efficiency of the database table.

The original version of the plugin was banged out in an afternoon, and as a result it didn’t make the best use of the database. I’ve always meant to go back and fix this, and now it’s done.

Previously, each deprecated call resulted in a new record in the database. If you left it running for a while, you could end up with quite a large table. In the new version, it looks to see if this same call already exists in the table, and if so, it simply hits a counter on the existing entry. You could now leave this running indefinitely without any database issues (though you probably wouldn’t, as it’s still mainly intended for developers).

I would appreciate bug reports on this plugin. There may be an intermittent bug in setting Options which I can’t seem to duplicate. Thanks.

Go get it! and Enjoy.

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Log Deprecated Calls v1.2

A new update to my Log Deprecated Calls WordPress plugin.

The newer versions based on Strider Core has had some “teething pains”, for which I apologize; but I believe I’ve worked them out for the most part. Perhaps my primary error was prematurely removing the Strider Core based version from Beta; but this latest should be fully functional.

The primary fix on this one is the settings page — it was not saving properly due to an obscure bug that I fixed by switching to the WordPress Settings API. In the process I may have uncovered a bug in the API, actually. I’ll have to take a closer look to see if it’s really a bug or just a conflict in the way I was using it.

The next pending update is to make more efficient use of the database. Currently I only recommend using the plugin in the short-term while debugging — which you probably do anyways, but if not it can create a very large table. That fix is next on my plate, and then I think I’ll be quite satisfied with what I’ve made here.

It’s a bit odd and — yes — humbling to look at my own code from several years ago. Even just recently I’ve learned some new concepts after reading the excellent book Clean Code — which was almost worth it just for the advice that you make smaller functions and make them each do One Thing Only. It helped in this latest bugfix, as the bug traced back to a function that inappropriately did TWO things. In the process of validating the form before saving it, a function was actually saving the option to the database as soon as it validated — but this was in turn causing the WordPress API to start the validation over again, which saved the setting, which restarted the validation, which saved the setting…. and so on. Once I cleanly separated the act of determining default options from saving default options, the problem was quickly resolved.

The main cause of this is that this plugin has become my main testing ground for the Strider Core framework I’m designing — and in the course of abstracting out some of the repetitive code that goes in all my plugins, some oddities crept in.

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Review: Dash for OS X

I recently discovered a very cool app for OS X called Dash. It’s basically an offline popup for any kind of programming or tech documentation you can think of. You can choose from a large number of coding docsets and cheatsheets — pretty much any modern programming language (sorry, no FORTRAN) and a good number of applications. You download them to your local drive so access becomes instantaneous. There are even modules to access the various topics on StackOverflow, with both online and offline versions. (I imagine the offline versions of those can get pretty big.)

Personally I’ve loaded up everything from the entire LAMP stack, to Vagrant, to WordPress, and cheat sheets for ASCII Tables and Regular Expressions. One module I’ve found particularly handy is one that lets you search and read local Man pages. Documentation installed with XCode is automatically included in the accessible content. (Even if installed, you can turn docsets on or off in the interface.)

There are even customizable search shortcuts: so if I want to search the PHP docs for the page on Arrays, I can simply type “php:array”. If I want to search within that page, I just hit space and keep typing, e.g. “php:array index”

The author has even set up a Git project so that users can submit their own Docsets or cheat sheets. I wanted a cheat sheet for MacPorts, so I made one. The author added it to the official list, so now the sheet I made is easily available to anyone who uses the app.

It’s worth mentioning that the author is also very attentive to support issues. I had a problem with the Man page module not searching all the Man pages installed on my computer. He responded quickly, and ended up helping me resolve issues that really went beyond the scope of his app.

Dash is surprisingly deep for what seems like a simple concept. The elegant search function, flexible sourcing, and integration with a large number of third-party apps make it a real winner. I can’t imagine going without it now that I’ve used it for a short while — simply outstanding.

If you work with computers a lot, and especially if you use the command line or do programming, I would highly recommend Dash. It’s worth checking out.

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Elegant Design: A Case Study

In the past I’ve discussed elegant UI design on this blog, commenting especially how the best plugin design is to integrate the plugin’s function in a way that the end user would never realize that what they’re doing comes from a plugin at all.  There was a trend in the earlier days of WordPress that plugin developers would all dump their interface screen under the “Plugins” menu in the Admin area, because — duh — it’s a plugin.  No, I argued — that’s exactly wrong.  Does your plugin do something with comments?  Put it under Comments.  Does you plugin affect the appearance of the site?  There’s an Appearance menu for that.  Is it purely a Settings screen?  Great — use the Settings Menu.

Today this seems like pretty basic stuff, and most plugin authors seem to get the idea.  But today I came across a particularly striking contrast between Old plugin design and New, and I thought it was worth mentioning.  The plugins in question are PageMash, by Joel Starnes, (last updated six years ago), and Simple Page Ordering, by Jake Goldman and 10up.

Both of these plugins serve the exact same purpose: they allow you to order your site’s Pages via drag and drop.

First, let’s look at pageMash.

I’ll start with the most obvious element of this plugin: had I not just told you what it does, would you have guessed what a plugin called “pageMash” does from the name?  I wouldn’t have.  This illustrates a quandary in software design — the struggle between giving your product a distinct name, and giving it a name that identifies its purpose.  That could actually serve as an entire post — if not a book.

So let us, for the sake of discussion, assume that the plugin name was well chosen.  The author, however, overused the name throughout the interface.  After activating pageMash, there is a singular addition to the Admin menu: under “Pages”, there is a “pageMash” menu.  Even if that’s a great name for the plugin itself, it is a poor name for a menu item — something that is meant to help users find what they’re looking for.  How about “Page Order” instead?

We click on pageMash, and are taken to a page with the following title: pageMash – pageManagement.  Well, I suppose “page management” does a little better job of telling us what the page does, but even at that point the unorthodox capitalization and spacing looks clunky and unpolished.  It’s a perfect example of an interface designed by a coder, because that type of capitalization and mushing-words-together is commonplace in code.  It even has a name: camelCase.  Programmers commonly use it for variable names and such.  I assume most people reading this know this already, but I don’t assume all my readers are programmers; which really just leads to my next point: camelCase would be perfectly fine, I think, if we could assume that all of the users of the plugin are programmers.  One of my own plugins — Log Deprecated Calls — is really only useable by plugin and theme developers, and probably only used in development environments.  Although I didn’t do it, such geeky conventions would have been a safer bet because of the audience.  But pageMash is exactly the opposite — you can assume the many (or most) users of that plugin are going to be writers and editors.  Not the admin installing the thing, but the people using it day-to-day, are likely to be non-technical “content” people. So this breaks the rule I mentioned previously on multiple levels.  From the menu to the page headers, the interface of pageMash screams “add-on”.  There’s just no way this is a part of WordPress itself.

Now, I realize I’m being hard on the developer, and I don’t really mean to be.  The plugin’s function — especially for its day — is quite excellent.  You have a list of pages. You drag and drop them into the order you want, and click the “Update” button.  There’s a short paragraph at the top of the page explaining this, and at the bottom of the page is a “Show Further Info” link that expands a longer help text.  It’s pretty straightforward, and it works.  Before this plugin came along, the only means I had to order pages in WordPress was to type numbers into a little blank next to each page in the list.  It was clunky and extremely tacked-on.  PageMash fixed that.

Now lets fast-forward several years.  Just today I discovered 10up’s Simple Page Ordering plugin.  Any guess what they called the menu item?

Trick question.  There isn’t a menu item.  The interface is so cleanly and tightly integrated into WordPress that you’d never guess it was a plugin.  You simply go to the normal Pages admin page, and you can drag and drop the page order right there.  Need help?  It’s integrated into the existing Help tab and the top of the page.  There’s not even a Save button. Drag, drop, done.

I’m reminded of Steve Jobs — arguably one of the greatest UI designers in the history of computing.  He famously hated buttons.  When designing new devices the first iterations always had buttons, and he’d come swooping in and get rid of them.  Think of the iPhone: there’s Power and Home — that’s it.  And it works, because the device is designed so that you can just look at it and figure out how most of it works.  It’s instinctive.

Simple Page Ordering accomplishes this same elegance.  It’s so beautifully designed and coded that there’s literally no interface beyond simply doing the thing.  “Gee… I want to move this page down.”  Click. Done.

I can’t think of a better example of the design principles all programmers should aspire to.

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Log Deprecated Calls plugin 1.1.1

Hi again. Another bugfix update — this time for an error on new installs (didn’t affect people upgrading from an old version).

More to come. Still need to fix a bit of weirdness when saving prefs, but I wanted to get the install fix out ASAP, so here it is.

I hope to get this on the WordPress plugin repository fairly soon, but there’s some weird bit of politics I need to figure out first (which I may get into further on another post.) If it doesn’t end up in the repo, I do have preliminary work going on adding a self-rolled update mechanism that I hope will integrate seamlessly with the built-in WordPress system.

Go get it! …and enjoy.

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Update to “Log Deprecated Calls” plugin

I’ve released an update to my Log Deprecated Calls plugin for WordPress. This is the original plugin for plugin and theme developers to help you identify outdated functions you might be calling from WordPress.

Version 1.1 is out now. Note this is not (yet) in the WP repository, so it’s a manual upgrade. Fixed a couple bugs, including one that actually stopped the plugin from working somewhere between its last update and now — so if you use this, it’s an important update.

Go get it! And enjoy.

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