New Year, New Look

No, not me, the blog.

As you have presumably noticed, there’s a new theme in place here. This wasn’t planned. Some very old themes don’t support mutliple screen sizes very well. In particular they tend to be designed for PCs rather than tablets or phones. Modern themes are designed with portability in mind. Now you can get clever stuff that will adjust your theme for mobile devices (in the Jetpack plugin, WordPress veterans), but that is being retired this year.

There are a lot of sites that I manage, and many of them use a themes that are up to 10 years old and which need an update. Also many of them are text-heavy, and most modern blog themese assume that every post will have an associated image. So finding a replacement theme that a) works on a text-heavy site; b) is free; and c) isn’t likely to become unsupported in a year or two; will not be easy.

This theme is Penscratch which looks specifically designed for a text-heavy site. It is also created by Automattic who own WordPress so it is likely to stick around for a while.

The header image is from Pixabay. It has cats and books, which seems kind of appropriate.

I will probably fiddle with the look of the thing for a while yet. In the meantime if you spot anything that is not working in the theme (not broken links, there are bound to be lots of those) then please let me know.

Dragon Hunting in Bath


As I mentioned earlier, I took yesterday off. Donna Hanson was in Bath as part of her GUFF Trip (that’s the fan fund for taking fans from Australia and New Zealand to Worldcon). I offered to pop into town and show her around. She’s seen a lot of Bath before, but there was something going on that I wanted to see, and I figured it was right up her street as well.

The Victoria Art Gallery is running an exhibition called Here Be Dragons. It features dragon art by a number of well known illustrators of children’s books, including Chris Riddell, John Howe, Axel Scheffler and Cressida Cowell. The illustration above is a bad photo (by me) of a LEGO mosaic based on an original piece by Cressida Cowell.

The exhibition also has a companion app that allows kids (of all ages) to hunt dragon eggs around town. The “eggs” as posters with pictures of the eggs on them. The app has a compass that will point to a selected egg, and tells you how far away it is. When you have found the poster in question you use the phone’s camera to prove that you have found it. I was especially interested in this because it uses some of the same technology as I’m hoping to use for app ideas I have.

The exhibition is open until October 8th. It isn’t huge, but it is fun, especially for kids.

Introducing the Twilight People App #TDOV

Today is the international Trans Day of Visibility. I’m spending the day in London at a Trans*Code hackathon, kindly hosted at the offices of CapGemini (whom I used to work for many decades ago). I’ve spent the day working on an app for the Twilight People project. This is something I started at last year’s Trans*Code, and an initial version of the app went live in the Google Play store today. You can find it here.

The first release of the app is very simple because I needed something I could guarantee worked. I plan to add features to it given a bit of time. Also if there are any trans people of faith out there who would like they stories featured in it, we’d love to hear from you. Currently the app is only available for Android. I have a working Windows version which hopefully we can release soon. Thanks to my new pal, Tom Parker of Oliver Wyman (who is here as a mentor), I have been testing the iOS version today. It works fine on a simulator on Tom’s Mac, but Apple charge a lot more for developer accounts than Google or Microsoft so it will be down to the nice people at Liberal Judaism as to whether we can afford to ship that version.

At the London Metropolitan Archives

LMATalk
Photo by Laila El-Metoui

Here’s me last night doing my stand up and be mouthy routine at the London Metropolitan Archives. I was talking about an app I’m writing for the Twilight People project. It will be a while yet before it is ready for the public. That’s partly because there’s a bit of a learning curve in going from writing solely for Windows to writing for Android and iOS as well, and partly because there will be a lengthy consultation process for determining exactly what material from the project we use. However, I am quite pleased with how it is doing. Software skillz: I haz them.

Girls Can’t Code

Many thanks to the Girls Who Code movement for this hilarious video parodying the excuses given for not employing women as programmers.

In my case it is even harder. I suffer from autogynephilia, so not only do my boobs get in the way of my seeing the screen and keyboard, but the mere sight of them keeps me in a constant state of sexual arousal. It is very distracting.

That Was Trans*Code

I spent most of yesterday at Trans*Code, a meet-up for trans people and allies in the IT industry. It is primarily a hack day, so various interesting projects got started. Here’s a run-down of what we did.

Clothing Exchange – the idea here was to allow trans people who are getting rid of the clothes because of a gender change to donate those clothes to other trans people who might need new clothes but can’t afford them. Doing it online might be useful for people in small towns, though personally I hate all forms of mail order clothes buying.

Funding appeal site – this project sought to provide a venue whereby people could donate money to help trans people with their transition expenses. That could mean anything from paying for an electrolysis course to financing a private medical consultation. Donors would get perks from corporate sponsors. Clearly this needs a proper charity to run it and select beneficiaries, but it could work.

Voice training site – there was a lot of interest in this project, which aimed to provide an online self-help system for trans people seeking to change how they speak. Long term I think people would benefit from professional voice coaching, but that’s not something I’ve ever been able to splash money on and it can be expensive if you don’t live in a big city where such help can be found. Ideally the site would work with one or more professional trainers, but they’d have to be able to charge for what they do because it is their livelihood.

Music synching – this had nothing to do with being trans. Someone just wanted to be able to synch music over several PCs connected via the Internet. I can see it being a cool thing if you are playing an online RPG. Obviously everyone would need a (legal) local copy of the music.

Gender recognition game – Douglas Adams once produced a computer game about trying to persuade a bank to change the name on your account. It was basically a long joke about bureaucracy. This game was all about trying to get a Gender Recognition Certificate, which is way harder than changing your bank account.

Trans*Code directory – somewhere on GitHub where all of this stuff can get stored.

And finally the stuff I was up to. My friend Shaan from the Twilight People project wants to create an app based around the personal histories he has created. We spent a good part of the day brainstorming what that app would look like, and what we needed to do to make it happen. We didn’t actually write much code, partly because I don’t have all of the necessary skills, and partly because some development tools I was expecting to have didn’t turn up on time. More will happen in due course.

Huge thanks are due to Naomi Cedar for organizing the whole thing. Since the inaugural meeting last year she has moved back to Chicago, and she flew in especially for yesterday’s event. Huge thanks also to Emily and everyone from Go Cardless who sponsored the event, in particular by providing a venue. There were several other corporate sponsors as well.

One of these days, BGEN people please note, we must do one of these things in the Bath/Bristol area.

My Bath Ruby Talk about Trans*Code

Is now available on video. Many thanks to the lovely people at Confreaks TV. The video covers the entire third lightning talk session, but if you are not interested in IT stuff you can fast forward to around 8:50 to find me.

I also wholeheartedly recommend Janet Crawford’s talk about the neuroscience of gender inequality.

My thanks again to Bath Ruby for providing such interesting programming.

Bath Ruby, A Very Different Software Conference

I spent today in the Assembly Rooms at Bath. There was a definite air of eccentricity in having a software conference in such a stately, Georgian venue, but if you are going to hold a conference in Bath, why not?

I was at Bath Ruby because I had been asked to present a talk on Trans*Code. It was only going to be a 5-minute lightning talk. I expected most of the day to be given over to tech stuff. I was very wrong. My how software conferences have changed.

It didn’t seem that way at the start. There were around 500 people at the conference. The vast majority were young, white and male. I think the women marginally outnumbered the people of color (though of course some were in both categories), but if you removed the sponsor representatives, who were probably not tech staff, the numbers might have tipped the other way. I may well have been the oldest person there.

Then the conference started, and the very first piece of admin mentioned in the welcome session was the Code of Conduct, which mentions Gender Identity. That set the tone for the rest of the day. Now sure there were technical talks, but there were other things too. There was a talk about how to get involved in open source projects. There was a talk about getting fired — how employees can cope with it, how employers can do it better. And there was a talk about unconscious gender bias. A longer version of this talk.

Which was awesome. (And there’s lots more good stuff from Janet Crawford here.)

I don’t suppose that all tech conferences are like this these days. However, the Python community and the Ruby community seem to be very progressive. It is very heartwarming.

My talk seemed to go down well. People listened respectfully, and applauded when I was done. A few people came and thanked me afterwards. Job well done, I think.

And the tech stuff? I got to see the best tech presentation I have ever seen in my life (except possibly the one where Kevin Roche had us moving individual atoms with his software). Sonic Pi is a seriously cool thing. And it is bundled free with every Raspberry Pi computer.

That Was Trans*Code

Many of you will be familiar with the idea of hack days — where a bunch of programmers get together and throw together some interesting and innovative applications, or at least demos of what will be applications after a lot more work. These can be geared for any level of ability and interest, but one of the best uses of them is introducing disadvantaged people to programming. It turns out that IT is a good career for trans people, for the rather depressing reason that it is not a customer-facing job, so employers are less likely to say, “we are not prejudiced, but we have to worry about what our customers will think”. So a hack day is a good way of helping young trans folk get the skills they need to get jobs. Inevitably this sort of thing started in America, and I think we have Kortney Ryan Ziegler to thank for running the first one in Oakland.

Since then other events have happened in other cities, and in Chicago Angelica Ross has set up Trans Tech Social, which is a full-time training company aimed at helping young trans folk. Inevitably someone had to run one in London. Take a bow, please, Naomi Ceder. The UK’s first ever Trans*Code event took place this weekend. I was there.

Getting this to happen has involved Naomi and her colleagues in a lot of work. Profuse thanks are due in particular to GitHub who provided a lot of support, and to SalesForce and GoCardless who provided venues for the Friday night social and Saturday hack day respectively. The Python community (of whom Naomi is a well-known member) has also been very supportive, and having taken a look at it I’m pretty sure that if I were teaching young people to code these days I’d use Python.

There were a bunch of really great projects started today. I think I have the full list below, but apologies if I have forgotten anyone:

  • A mobile app to enable trans people to call for help from a support network if they get caught in a difficult social situation
  • A website allowing trans people to share their experiences of gender and transition, so as to show how varied those things are
  • A website for rating trans experiences with GPs and other health care providers
  • A tool for helping trans people to understand the results of blood tests for hormone levels
  • A web comic
  • A website for finding gender neutral toilets (based on OpenStreetMap)
  • A website to help trans people find a personal style that suits their often unconventional body shapes
  • A tool for analyzing attitudes towards trans people on Twitter
  • A website for helping newcomers to programming

Obviously not all of these things will end up getting finished, and some, such as the doctor-rating thing, are partly duplicated by existing sites. But the creativity and skill shown by the participants was delightful. There are some really talented trans programmers out there.

I spent the day teaching myself new tricks. WordPress is in the process of developing an official REST/JSON API. That will mean nothing to many of you, but if you know what those acronyms mean you’ll recognize that all sorts of cool things can now be done. In particular you can build mobile apps than use WordPress as a content management system, but which have an interface not constrained by WordPress, and which can make use of the power of the mobile devices rather than just display a website.

OpenStreetMap has a REST API as well. In fact that toilet-finding app was based on it. I’ve been showing OpenStreetMap to Judith Clute, who does history walks, and she’s really impressed. I can envisage all sorts of useful applications, particularly if you can link a map location to a pile of additional data on a WordPress site.

Not that I really have time to do any of this, but software is fun. And software that helps young trans people is really valuable.

No religious wars in the comments, please.

Updated to fix a typo and add a project I forgot.

Jetpack Update

Sorry folks, seems like I was wrong about how Jetpack generates the menu for the mobile theme. It doesn’t use the inbuilt WordPress menu. It does it by finding all of the public pages you have, whether they are linked into your site’s navigation system or not. This is a VERY BAD THING. Consequently I’m disabling the Jetpack mobile theme and goning back to WPtouch.

WordPress Wrangling

Some of you may have noticed the additional share buttons on this blog. That’s part of my experimenting with Jetpack, the official WordPress plugin that is seeking to supplant many commonly used independent plugins.

My initial experiences are fairly positive. Jetpack has replaced three existing plugins I was using. Automatic export to Twitter and Facebook now work, though Jetpack doesn’t do Google+ and is less good at Facebook than HootSuite so there’s room for improvement. It also has a better mobile interface than WPtouch, which is mainly because it takes advantage of the new menu system in WordPress (that won’t happen if you have an old theme that doesn’t support menus). There are other aspects to Jetpack that I still have to test and which look interesting.

Part of me worries that, once most of the independent plugin people have gone out of business, we’ll suddenly find we have to pay $50/month to carry on using Jetpack, but then plugin compatibility has been a nightmare for a while now so it is good to have it simplified.

Twitter & WordPress – The Other Shoe Drops?

As if by magic, Automattic, the people who own WordPress, have suddenly announced an upgrade to one of their plugins that includes export to Twitter. I shall give it a try and see if my site is suddenly OK again.

I should note in passing that the more people use WordPress, the more important it becomes that plugins be reliable and regularly upgraded. I’m not surprise that Automattic want to take over many of the more popular plugin features themselves. It will probably be good for their ecosystem in the long run. But if I were a successful plugin writer I’d be a bit peeved.

In Training

Kevin and I are on vacation in South Devon. The primary purpose is to allow Kevin to ride lots of trains that he has not been on before. There may also be history and good food involved. It is a little damp, and our digestive systems are not in the peak of fitness, but other than that things are going fine.

I have two important things to mention. One is that last night I noticed a problem with my blogs not sending updates to Twitter. Friends in Australia using the same WordPress plugin reported similar problems. I don’t have time to troubleshoot right now so I’ll try to work around it manually. The other is as follows:

Game 7: GO GIANTS!!!

Tom Abba on the Future of the Book

Last night I went to Bristol to hear my friend Tom Abba talk about the future of the book. Tom is an academic specializing in interactive narratives, and some of you may remember an experiment that he conducted earlier this year that began by mailing a number of prints in very large tubes to selected people in the publishing business.

I was a spectacular failure as regards the experiment. As a critic I get sent way too many stupid marketing gimmicks, and this one woke me up and got me out of bed at stupid o’clock. I really couldn’t be bothered to follow up what I expected to be an attempt to get me interested in someone’s self-published novel (which of course in a very real sense it was). However, other people did get drawn in by the mystery, and last night Tom reported on the experiment.

Along the way I learned quite a few interesting things, including the fact that back in the 1930s Dennis Wheatley published a number of crime novels in which you, the reader, were supposed to play the part of the detective. When you got to the end there was an envelope containing the name of the murderer. John Clute, naturally, owns copies of all of them.

As an investigation of the possibilities of interactive story telling, Tom’s project was very interesting, but whether it has anything to do with the future of the book I’m not at all sure. Neither is Tom, as he actually titled his talk, “This is not the future of the book”. However, we did get to discussing what future books might be like.

Tom’s vision is along the lines of the iPad app for The Wasteland, a rich, multi-media experience that rewards much re-reading and re-viewing. That’s certainly something I’d love to have, but such things inevitably cost a lot of money to produce and are not worth doing unless you expect big sales or you think you can sell it at a very high price.

I’m more interested in what ebooks can mean for the ordinary novel, which at its heart is a very simple thing. There are, of course, all sorts of ways in which some books require more effort to both create and read than others, and many people don’t read books at all, but there is a very big market for good stories, simply told.

If you want ebooks to do interesting things with that market then you can’t ask your readers to do anything too complicated. Even the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books were limited mainly to people with a game-playing mindset, and are now mostly out of fashion. Ebooks may allow them to come back, but maybe we should start with something even more simple, if only because of the technology.

I’m currently reading The Alchemists of Kush by Minister Faust. It contains three separate narratives, and right up the front Faust says:

The Alchemists of Kush is composed of three stories. Each one is ten chapters long: “The Book of Then,” “The Book of Now,” and “The Book of the Golden Falcon.” Certainly, feel free to read the novel in the path it’s printed (Chapter 1: “Then” + “Now,” all the way to Chapter 10: Then + Now, followed by all ten chapters of “The Book of the Golden Falcon”). But you could also read all the “Then”s as a group, followed by all the “Now”s together, ending with “The Book of the Golden Falcon” … or read the first chapters of every “Falcon,” “Then” and “Now,” all the way through to each one’s tenth chapter.

That’s something that current ebook technology would allow you to do fairly easily (and I’d be delighted if Faust let me produce it). But you could go further. Imagine, for example, an ebook edition of the whole of A Song of Ice & Fire that allowed you to follow Tyrion, or Jon Snow, or whoever for as long as you wanted, up to a point where it was necessary to switch to another viewpoint character to find out what was happening elsewhere. There may be serious limitations on what can be done here because George didn’t write the books with a view to anything other than linear consumption, but someone else might write something more complex.

Another possibility is anthologies. I know that people like Jonathan Strahan spend hours agonising over the correct sequence for the stories in a book. What if they could provide several alternative sequences?

Tom wrote the whole of his experimental interactive novel using Scrivener. He told me that a tool of that sort was pretty much essential. I don’t think it would take too much work for Keith to allow the author to specify multiple paths through a novel, and get the software to spit out an epub file that supported all of those possible paths.

The big problem here is reader software. We don’t want to create something that doesn’t work on most reading platforms. I had a long chat in the bar afterwards with Baldur Bjarnason, and was reminded of the a mess standards committees can be. Baldur tells me that the epub committee had furious arguments between factions we might describe as the “experimentalists” who wanted to create new features to see what people would do with them, and the “minimalists” who wanted to kick out any feature that no one was actually using.

Some of the things that interactive narratives need from the reader software are the ability to remember where the reader has been in the book, and to seamlessly allow the reader to page through the book regardless of which path has been chosen. You want page turning to just happen, not have to rely on clicking on links to follow the path you have chosen. It may be necessary for someone to offer additions to the standard to prove that a requirement for such features exists before the features can be widely adopted.

I’m hoping that such experimentation can happen through broswer-based readers such as Ibis, because most reader devices, and all personal computers, have a web broswer, so you’d still be able to serve the majority of readers.

I’m also acutely aware of the post Charlie Stross wrote the other day about Amazon’s domination of the ebook market. (80%, people!). Pretty much the only way that Amazon can be challenged is on technology, and because a new reading device requires massive investment in hardware and marketing, that’s unlikely to happen. Software is much easier, and the Kindle is notorious for how simplistic its software is. (I’ve not seen the Kindle Fire, but I don’t have great expectations.)

I will be interested to see where this goes. It is fun swapping ideas with smart people like Tom and Baldur, and as I have an ebook publishing company and plenty of experience in software I’d like to be part of the experimentation.

Adventures in EPUB

I have spent most of today working on an EPUB version of Salon Futura. I have been playing with EPUBs for a while now, but this was the first time I have tried to do anything clever with them (as opposed to just entering and formatting text).

One of the problems with ebooks is that both the tools and the standards are very much in a state of flux. There are very few specialist tools for ebook editing, and I wouldn’t call any of them professional. By far the most useful is Sigil, which allows direct editing of the EPUB file, and has tools for editing the meta data and ToC file, but as an HTML/CSS editor it is pretty sucky.

I found this out the hard way today when I entered an HREF tag that Sigil thought was invalid. To my horror, it not only flagged an error, but refused to display any code in that file from the error onwards. As far as I can make out, it deleted the rest of the file. Fortunately it only did that in memory, and I could recover a version at the last save by exiting the program, but even do that’s pretty dumb operation.

Of course no decent code editor should ever alter your code without permission. Sigil does it all the time.

The error, by the way, is rather interesting. I pasted in a URL that queried some PHP code. So it included a ? followed a bunch of parameters. Something in the XHTML validation doesn’t allow more than one “=” in the SRC field of an HREF tag. And I don’t think it is just Sigil. Other editors objected to it as well, though they handled the error much better. This seems very odd to me. It isn’t like such URL syntax is at all unusual.

Meanwhile I have been looking at alternative tools. I need an HTML/CSS editor that won’t mess with my code without permission, but will have good source highlighting, will validate my code and so on.

I used to use Dreamweaver a lot before I started using WordPress to build web sites. My old copy still works, but it is poor on CSS because it is very old. So I checked out the latest version. Annoyingly upgrade pricing isn’t available for my version. Worse than that, however, Adobe have made the program so bloated and complicated that it needs 1Gb of disk space to install and won’t run on my laptop because the machine doesn’t have good enough screen resolution. That’s just silly.

Fortunately there are plenty of alternatives. I have checked out quite a few. The best I have found so far are TopStyle and phpDesigner (thanks Kyle!). The latter looks very impressive, and I would be interested if I didn’t already have a PHP editor. TopStyle, on the other hand, is more of a specialist HTML/CSS editor, which is pretty much what I needed. Hopefully I can do most of my editing in that, and only drop stuff into Sigil when it is ready.

We Are All Communists Now

Open Source Communism - image from Mashable page linked to in textDo you use WordPress to run your blog? If so, are you aware that you are part of a secret Communist plot to undermine the American way of life? According to Mashable and The Guardian, an industry lobbying group, the International Intellectual Property Alliance, claims that the whole open source software movement is anti-Capitalist, and therefore a threat to US Economic Hegemony the American way of life. Of course this is based on the batty idea so often espoused by the US right that “Capitalism” means “a very small number of very rich people, including myself, own everything in the world, and everyone else has to pay us for the right to use it,” and that the terms “oligopoly” and “free market” are synonyms.

Still, you have been warned. Cease your filthy Communistic sharing this instance. The FBI will be around shortly.

Tinkering with WordPress

One of the good things about WordPress is that it is continually being improved. Unfortunately this conflicts with one of the other good things about it – the large amount of third party support. That is, when WordPress releases a new feature, you often find that it conflicts in some way with a third-party feature you are already using.

So, today’s source of irritation is threaded comments. WordPress now supports them. I want to test them. But doing so requires me to mess with the existing theme for this site. Also the updated comment code appears to conflict with the comment preview system.

So, for now, no previews (and it was buggy anyway), but we do have threaded comments. I’m going to test the system on this post so you’ll see how it works. Assuming it does, you can have a play too.

Video Software Advice Wanted

As those of you who were online yesterday will already know, I now have the Neil & Amanda videos from the Who Killed Amanda Palmer reading available online. You can see the whole lot here.

But I’m not happy, because the quality of the video isn’t good. What I actually shot (I use a Flip) is excellent, but it comes as AVI files, and YouTube prefers MP4s. Besides, the compression in AVIs is dreadful, so the files would take a year and a day to upload. I have a copy of Cyberlink Power Director, which claims to do conversion and optimization for YouTube, but as you can see the results are not good.

Not being a video expert, I don’t know whether the problem is simply loss of quality through compression, or because the conversion is done badly. I can also see that YouTube now accepts high definition uploads, but the Cyberlink software doesn’t produce the required format.

So I am hoping that someone out there in the great repository of knowledge that is the blogosphere will be able to give me good advice. Do I need different software, and if so what?

Oh, and just to save you all the trouble of doing so, yes, I know, I am a complete and utter moron who would not have any of these problems if only I used a Mac, or Linux, or whatever system you happen to have a religious attachment to. I appreciate your evangelical zeal, but it doesn’t really help.

We Are Mobile

One of the things about having an iPhone is that you suddenly start to care much more about how your blog looks on that device. Of course you have Safari available, but really the iPhone screen is a bit too small to do justice to a standard blog layout. Thankfully WordPress has plugins. So, all you iPhone users out there (and possibly Android users as well, I don’t know), you can all now check out the new phone-friendly appearance of this blog. Please let me know if you see anything weird (other than my witterings which I’m afraid don’t get any less weird just because you have an iPhone).

Twitter Fears Confirmed

So, inspired by the comment by Mulluane I finally devoted some time to looking for Twitter tools. I think Mulluane is using TwitKit, but my friend Mr. Google took me to this article, on the basis of which I think I am going to try twhirl.

Why? Because twhirl happens to include a search function. So I did a quick search for @CherylMorgan and, lo and behold, I found people Twittering away at me and wondering why I hadn’t acknowledged them. With twhirl it looks like I can find them and respond without having to follow their entire tweet stream. This would be very good.

Next I need to set up a Google Alert for @CherylMorgan. And no, that is not ego-scanning. It is looking for people trying to get my attention.