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The shift to mobile browsing means other shift happens

July 30, 2014
Mobile browsing was once impractical

Mobile browsing was once impractical

Yesterday I posted about how my various websites are a mix of hand-coded HTML and hosted free services. Google Sites offers an option to “Automatically adjust site to mobile phones” which will try to sort things into a single column and scale the graphics accordingly. That works fine on a simple site like the news sites for the high school and district as well as the district technology support site. But the more complex BruinBond.com I created for bond projects looks terrible on a phone screen when I enable that setting.

This MEADOR.ORG site is mobile-friendly, with the menus and sidebars tucked away and posts converted into a stream of text interrupted by same-size embedded images. But the complex sites I coded for the high school and the school district are NOT mobile-friendly. The high school site’s design dates back to 2009 and the district’s to mid-2012. The way folks are accessing those sites have shifted considerably over those time frames, as we’ll see below.

Zooming in on the district site makes navigation difficult

Zooming in on the district site makes navigation difficult

You can zoom, but can you navigate?

Granted, both of those multi-column sites with headers and footers are coded with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which means they have a logical structure (created by DIV tags) which mobile browsers can interpret for smart zooming. I can tap on those sites and my iPhone knows which column or graphic to zoom in on. But zooming in means you can no longer operate the navigation menus without a lot of scrolling or going back to the tiny un-zoomed view. That is a real pain on a tiny phone screen.

Now most people are mobile when surfing the net

The shift toward mobile web browsing

The rapidly expanding use of smartphones for web browsing means that websites designed only for use on personal computers and large tablets are no longer serving the public well. At the start of this year, mobile apps overtook PCs in U.S. internet traffic. Nielsen supports that finding, with its data that U.S. adults now spend an average of 34 hours per month using the internet via smartphones, while spending only 27 hours per month using the internet with a PC.

We don’t have good analytics on our main sites, which are hosted locally. But I have run Google Analytics for years on the high school’s separate news site. A review of that data shows a dramatic migration to mobile devices. Four years ago, only 2% of visits were made using a mobile device. Last year 29% were on what Google terms a mobile device, plus another 8% were on tablets. So our existing websites are probably not easily navigated by 29% to 37% of the viewers.

People are switching to mobile devices

Our audience is shifting to mobile devices

Schools are hardly speed demons when it comes to technology, but eventually we do react. The ever-increasing prevalence of students with smart phones is an indicator every teacher is aware of, but the web statistics show just how much things have shifted in the past few years. That convinced me we had to change our sites to be more mobile-friendly. The challenge was how to accomplish that despite a non-existent budget and my own unfamiliarity with mobile-friendly site design. My next post will be about my search for a solution.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in technology, web design

 

To HTML or not to HTML?

July 29, 2014
I like to code...do you?

I like to code…do you?

This post is a long history of my website development efforts in the school district where I work. I provide a thorough overview of the websites I maintain and how they are hosted and coded. This nerdy navel-gazing retrospective was triggered by the several weeks I spent this summer coding mobile versions of the websites for our school district and high school.

Frankly, while this history is of interest to me, it really might not interest you. So if you don’t relish reading about every website I run and how it is hosted and some background on why I use various services and software, please feel free to click away from this post. If you’re into visuals, you could pick out a set of my travel photos to peruse. Or check out the big multi-post summer trip travelogue about the trip Wendy and I took along Route 66 this summer, which is chock full of scenery and art.

Okay, that pared things down to the truly nerdy, right? Here we go!

My old bulletin board machine

My 1989 bulletin board machine

It Started as a Hobby

I have been hand-coding HTML websites for almost two decades, and before that ran a couple of primitive dial-up bulletin boards dating back to the early 1980s.  The only computer courses I ever took were a high school course in BASIC in the early 1980s and a college course in FORTRAN in the mid-1980s. So I acquired my knowledge of HTML from trial-and-error coding based on the source code at various websites, various web tutorials, and good tips back in 1998 from Vincent Flanders’ books based on his venerable Web Pages That Suck website.

I learned HTML by doing, not studying. But learning how to improve and update my code with CSS (cascading style sheets) was another matter. Its nesting and different cascades of styles was bewildering until I picked up and carefully read David Sawyer McFarland’s CSS: The Missing Manual back in 2006. I was using the first edition of that book; I see he’s up to the 3rd edition now and I’ll bet it is just as invaluable.

I recommend this book for learning CSS

I recommend this book for learning CSS

I’m hardly a CSS expert, but I can figure out what is going on eventually. It became much easier to cope with when I shifted from an old web editor to Adobe DreamWeaver CS6. I’ve only tapped part of the power of that program, which has many tools to help you figure out what to do and, perhaps more important, what has gone wrong in your code.

But for some websites coding everything by hand is not necessary, or even the wise thing to do. I have written before about my evolving personal websites, with me eventually switching from a hand-coded website, hosted by my cable provider, to the Blogger service and then finally to WordPress.com in 2008. Using the blog services makes creating posts far easier than hand-coding, and I don’t need fancy layouts for blog posts. So long as I can plop in and scale to my liking some linked photos with the text, I’m set for blog posts. I’m still quite happy with the existing design of MEADOR.ORG and the editing capabilities and free hosting at WordPress.com, but I know that someday this site will need another overhaul. But hopefully that is far in the future.

Now It’s More Than a Hobby…A Bit More

I’ve created many websites over the years; some were for my personal hobbies like local history, and several were pro bono public services for local foundations and the like.  But I am actually paid to code and update only two websites: the ones for the Bartlesville Public School District and also for Bartlesville High School. Mind you, I’m not paid much for those duties at less than $7 per day for them both, but something is better than nothing for us woefully underpaid classroom teachers in Oklahoma.

The high school's homepage

The high school’s homepage

I took over the high school website back in 2004 and have fully re-vamped its look a couple of times, with the last major overhaul back at the start of 2009. Back then I thought I might shift the site to a free hosted service, such as Google Sites, but in the end I only used Google Sites for the news items at the school, since several have to be posted each week. I like the ability to have a scrolling feed of posts on the homepage which visitors can select from.

In February 2012 I did set up a full website via Google Sites, one devoted to instructional technology support for the district’s teachers. That superceded a long series of hand-coded help pages I’d created over the years on the high school site.

A Coder, A Coder, My Website for a Coder

BPSD Homepage

The district’s homepage

Back in 2011-2012, the district’s volunteer webmaster left; yes, the district website was being done pro bono by a helpful district technician. The district’s continuous budget woes meant that it still did not want to invest in a managed content website from a provider like SOCS; we still leave that to richer and bigger districts like Jenks. So the district’s website stagnated and by the end of that school year I was desperate for an update – desperate enough to roll my own version in HTML.

Without anyone’s prompting, I coded a new version of the district website and presented it to the administration. They adopted my replacement version and the very sweet school board members bought me a sizable gift card out of their own pockets. Remember, school board members in Oklahoma do a lot of work for zero pay; most are as altruistic as the teachers they employ.

To its credit, the district then managed to start paying me a stipend for maintaining the district site. That goes along with the stipend my principal pays out of her site budget for me to run the separate high school website. Those stipends have enabled me to keep making steady refinements to the sites and keep up with the many changes in documents and links which everyone needs done.

Out-of-Pocket if not Out of My Mind

Wouldn’t you rather code on this?

Mind you, the district is so underfunded and Oklahoma school finance so restricted that I still am out-of-pocket some expenses. State school finance laws meant that I could only use a district-provided copy of the Adobe Dreamweaver website development software at home if I restricted myself to using it on a years-old school laptop. That’s hardly appealing when I am used to coding on my decent home desktop machine using a 24″ main monitor for coding and a smaller adjacent monitor for previewing. So in September 2012 I spent $179 out of my own pocket to purchase a home copy of Adobe Dreamweaver CS6. I’m still relying on it because Adobe has gone to a subscription model and no longer sells stand-alone copies of DreamWeaver. I’d need their Creative Cloud bundle to get DreamWeaver updates, and that carries a regular price of $30/month. Even with my educator’s discount, it would cost $20/month, meaning I’d have to shell out over 10% of my annual webmaster pay to have the Creative Cloud on my home machine. My webmaster pay is too little to take that kind of hit, given that I’m already shelling out $90/year for my personal subscription to Microsoft 365 for use on my Windows desktop, Macbook Air laptop, and iPad tablet computers.

Why Not Use Cloud Services?

mybigcampus

Most of our district sites have switched to MyBigCampus

So the extremely limited budget means that I’m sticking with my old DreamWeaver and free cloud services to keep our sites running. This summer, tired of hand-coding the homepage’s news items, I set up a district headlines site via Google Sites as I had done previously for the high school. And our district’s Instructional Technology Teacher Specialist has been training the elementary and middle schools’ volunteer webmasters to migrate their school websites to the MyBigCampus service our district gets with its LightSpeed internet services contract.

MyBigCampus is far too limited to be used to replace my existing high school and district websites, and while I could try to approximate them in Google Sites, the design limitations and storage restrictions would be onerous. So I’m still hand-coding the suckers. Eventually I suppose the district will pay for a managed-content system that not only makes building and maintaining the district and school websites easier, but more importantly provides teachers with easy ways to build their own course websites and calendars. But until then we’ll be using Google Sites and Weebly and MyBigCampus and the like.

I use Google Sites for the local teachers' union website

I use Google Sites for the local teachers’ union website

I use several free cloud services for website hosting and development. Google Sites not only handles the district news and technology support sites, but also the site for the local teachers union. Facing a slew of curriculum revisions, I’m thinking of shifting the old hand-coded Science Department website over to Google Sites as well.

I also use Weebly to sell my physics curriculum, and found the very-cumbersome-but-free AwardSpace to host my site on local history after my local cable company stopped providing web hosting.

There are also more advanced for-pay services out there, such as SquareSpace with its mobile-responsive design and drag-and-drop interface. The catch there is the for-pay part.

Do It Yourself If You Want It Done Your Way

The truth is that if you really want to control every aspect of a website, nothing beats coding it yourself by hand. And if you can’t spend any money, there are decent free services, but they all have significant design limitations. So I still hand-code the district and high school websites, my pro bono site for the local school foundation, a site about the history of our school district facilities, and the sites for our science department and my own physics classes. Those sites are pretty stable, and until July 2014 I hadn’t really learned much new in HTML for several years.

Learning to code for mobile devices

Learning to code for mobile devices

BUT…I did learn a lot of new HTML over the past few weeks. Why and how? Because I decided to bite the bullet and tackle a shortcoming of my district and high school websites, one which was becoming very problematic in this age of smartphones. I needed to create mobile-friendly, touch-friendly versions of each site. And I did not know how to do it. So I learned how to do it the way I acquired most of my knowledge of HTML…by playing around with the editor software, scouring the internet for ideas and examples, and doing a heck of a lot of trial…and error.

My next post addresses WHY I needed to tackle this issue; later we’ll get to HOW.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in technology, web design

 

A New Power Supply for Vector

February 1, 2014

I keep my desktop computers for extended periods, typically four to eight years.  So I buy high-end models that will last for a long time. But that means I must deal with typical fatigue failures. That is what I dealt with this week, when the power supply in my 2009 Velocity Micro Z35, which I call Vector, crapped out.

My low teacher salary means I keep cars for even longer periods – Princess the Toyota Camry is over 12 years old with over 225,000 miles on her.  I know water pumps wear out and timing belts must not be allowed to break, so I have them periodically replaced.  For a computer, the spinning hard drives have a limited lifespan, so I use a mirrored second hard drive in a RAID 1 setup so that I can recover quickly from a drive crash. But the next most common problem with an older computer is a burned-out power supply. That is too infrequent to keep a spare on hand, so when my desktop computer showed absolutely no sign of life last weekend, I knew it would stay out of commission for a few days.

My Velocity Micro system has lots of fans, both in the case and on internal components. That helps it stay cool, but also introduces a lot of dust into the unit, as does it placement on the floor next to my computer desk. My system had overheated and shut itself off a few times, which I temporarily fixed by cleaning it out and keeping an air gap on all sides. But I don’t have a regular cleaning schedule for the unit, and when the power supply went down and I opened up the unit, I discovered the fans and internals were covered in dust. That probably shortened the life of the supply.

The dead power supply taken out of Vector

I blew out all of the dust and began examining the many power cords from the 550 watt supply. It is a real monster to allow one to outfit the computer with lots of drives and powerful graphic cards, etc. My system didn’t use half of the supply cords, which were tucked away, and had some separate power line splices to hook multiple fans and drives up to a single power supply cord. But that still left several connections to pull apart:

  • 20-pin motherboard connector
  • 8-pin +12V workstation connector
  • 4-pin Molex connector for DVD/CD drive and fans
  • SATA connector for hard drives

Power supply connectors

I pulled all of those out and removed the old supply. I could buy a nice Antec supply of the same power with the various connectors on Amazon for $65 with 2nd-day Prime shipping, but my girlfriend, Wendy, knows how to save a dime and urged me to get a cheaper supply from TigerDirect. I opted for the Ultra LSP550 supply, which cost $35 with a $10 2nd-day-air shipping charge.

The new power supply

I ordered the supply over the weekend and the new unit arrived on Wednesday. There was actually a nice user’s manual with step-by-step illustrated directions for making the various connections. I plugged everything in, put the system back together, and thankfully it booted up like a champ.

I have no immediate plans to retire my system. The Intel i7-920 microprocessor with four 2.66 GHz cores running Windows 7 still meets my needs, although the slow hard drives are a real bottleneck when comparing performance to my old MacBook Air, which is speedy thanks to its solid state drive. I hate Windows 8, so I’ll probably wait for Windows 9 and cheaper large-scale solid state drives before I buy a new desktop system. Hopefully the new power supply will keep Vector running until then.

Vector back up and running

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2014 in home repair, technology

 

Old Media

September 20, 2013
Has Bond ever been this beautiful?

Has Bond ever been this beautiful?

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

There’s still life in the old boy.

The Skyfall Blu Ray disc sat beside the television set for two months, as I was unaware until tonight that it was the best Bond film in decades. Daniel Craig revived the James Bond franchise back in 2006 with a very serious take on Casino Royale, the Ian Fleming novel which got away from Broccoli and was a spoof back before I was potty trained. While it was invigorating to have a more vulnerable and gritty Bond, I found the film’s plot murky and the subsequent Quantum of Solace in 2008 a violent disappointment. So I didn’t make it to the cinema for Skyfall and took my sweet time about watching it on disc. But when I finally popped it in the player, I was in for a treat.

But I struggled with the Blu Ray disc, which wanted to bore me with mandatory previews and, of all things, a ludicrous commercial about Blu Ray disc features. Hey Columbia, disabling the menu and skip commands during previews and other unwanted junk is hardly a selling point for Blu Ray, especially when the disc lacks even rudimentary features like a director’s commentary and behind-the-scenes documentary. I finally had to resort to fast-forwarding through one piece of junk after another to get to the movie.

I was even more annoyed by a disc error which rendered a few minutes of the movie unwatchable. As I wrestled with the technology, I wished Hollywood would stop gouging me and put this film, which premiered almost a year ago, on the streaming services. Even better, throw in an option to stream a commentary and related documentaries. Eventually the physical discs will die out as bandwidth improves and younger viewers refuse to use optical media. But those days are not here yet.

Beautiful backdrop for assassin vs. assassin

Beautiful backdrop for assassin vs. assassin

One reason I still tolerate Blu Ray is the image quality, and thankfully Eon Production’s 23rd Bond film takes full advantage of it. Sam Mendes’ direction was superb and he made the most of a couple of visually stunning nighttime set pieces in Shanghai and an imagined Macao. Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles of Blade Runner has come to life, but 6500 miles to the west.

Blade Runner's Los Angeles has appeared 6500 miles to the west

Blade Runner’s Los Angeles has appeared 6500 miles to the west in Skyfall’s Shangai

Early Bond films had legendary theme songs and titles, and Adele’s entry for Skyfall is top notch, married to a great title sequence which gives nods to some of Mendes’ most beautiful imagery. I hadn’t enjoyed a Bond title sequence so much since Goldeneye back in 1995, with its wonderful imagery of the collapse of Soviet Russia and its iconography.

Even better, the film gave some meaningful back story for Bond and was a great final bow for Judi Dench’s groundbreaking portrayal of M, with excellent supporting work from Ralph Fiennes and the grand old Albert Finney. The villain had some great scenes, and the film was replete with homages to the past 50 years of the franchise without seeming stale or too campy.

But what I enjoyed most was the melancholy air about the film, its bleak portrayal of a Bond whose vices and age are catching up with him. I have been feeling my age this week, having aggravated my problematic lower back, and the film’s references to 50 years of Bond films reminded me that I’ll be 50 myself in a few years. Strangely enough, the rather bleak Skyfall gives me hope: it reminds me that there is still quite a bit of fight left in us both.

“Skyfall”

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

For this is the end
I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment
So overdue I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
At skyfall
That skyfall

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
Where worlds collide and days are dark
You may have my number, you can take my name
But you’ll never have my heartLet the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all togetherLet the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

(Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall)

Where you go I go
What you see I see
I know I’d never be me
Without the security
Of your loving arms
Keeping me from harm
Put your hand in my hand
And we’ll stand

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

Let the sky fall
We will stand tall
At skyfall
Oh

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in movie, music, technology, video

 

Day 1, July Escape 2013: Canyon, Texas

Trip Date: July 10, 2013

This year Wendy Kemp joined me for my traditional vacation from the hot and sweltering Oklahoma summer. We’ve taken “trips” together before, but she said this was our first “vacation” since we vacated the state for cooler climes for an extended period. We spent nine days out west in the Texas panhandle, northern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, and across southern Kansas. The weather cooperated, with us often enjoying rain and temperatures which were sometimes 30 degrees or more cooler than back home.

DAY 1: OKC & PALO DURO CANYON

Day 1 Map (click map for slideshow)

I planned the vacation to focus on some of my familiar haunts in southwestern Colorado, but I knew better than to ask my companion to endure a 10-hour drive, plus pit stops, to reach Santa Fe in one day. Plus, I’d been advised by Facebook friends to visit Palo Duro Canyon, located just south of Amarillo, Texas in the middle of the fairly desolate Texas panhandle.

Tech Support in OKC and the Death of Latitude

So we first drove down to Tulsa and took the Turner Turnpike to Oklahoma City to drop in for lunch with my parents. My visits usually include some parental tech support, and this time I had to set up their secure WiFi network again after a power glitch wiped out the router settings.  I also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get their Google Latitude account working again, since they use it to track my movements during my trips.  It never seemed to sync right, so we abandoned that effort for a nice lunch at El Chico, and then Wendy and I headed west on I-40 towards Amarillo, Texas.

That evening my mother reported her Latitude service was syncing again so she could track us easily, but Google announced it was killing the free service in a month. I must hope that someone will develop a suitable replacement at a reasonable price; I am not at all pleased with how Google deploys a free service, destroying the competitive market, and then abandons loyal and frequent users of that service.  It makes me distrust other Google services I rely upon, such as Google Sites and Google Drive. I hope I can find a better alternative than Google’s suggestion of using location tracking via Google+; Facebook and my blog are enough social services for me, so I have refused to develop my Google+ account beyond the bare essentials. I will see what develops in the next few weeks.

All that is left is dirt and tears…and arroyos

The Texas Panhandle

The drive to Amarillo was long and hot, with the temperature spiking above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  We made a pit stop in poor little McLean, Texas. The town is dying out, with a single filthy convenience store and a symbolic lean dog roaming the streets. As we drove out of town, I commented to Wendy, “All that is left is dirt and tears.”

She liked that turn of phrase, but was far less appreciative of my frequent references to the arroyos as we drove westward. As “arroyo” rolled off my tongue for the umpteenth time, she spat, “Don’t you dare say that again! Don’t you dare!”

Wendy noticed and shot a photo of stacked clouds as we drove south from Amarillo towards Canyon, Texas. We checked into the Best Western at Canyon, from which it was a short drive east to Palo Duro Canyon. There we had a “chuck wagon supper” and enjoyed the “Texas!” musical at the canyon’s Pioneer Amphitheatre. (Doesn’t it seem strange that a Texas park would spell it amphitheatre?)

Palo Duro Canyon

Texas!

The canyon was impressive, more so than the $14 dinner of brisket, beans, and cobbler; I’d have appreciated an actual bun for my barbecue sandwich rather than plain white bread, for one thing. But the scenery was nice, and a bust of Quanah Parker set the stage for his awkward inclusion in the musical to come.

Wendy and I enjoyed looking over a large stone relief map of the surrounding area and then took our assigned seats for the musical, down near the front of the amphitheatre. “Texas!” was in its 48th season, a musical staged over the years with help from students and faculty at West Texas State College (now West Texas A&M) and updated in 2001 to be more historically accurate. The story is simple, with some awkward dialog and a few oddball numbers, but the musical hangs together fairly well.

Spectacles included folks on horseback in the background behind the stage and up on the canyon wall and a tree dramatically split by lightning. The musical was followed, however, by a blend of Branson-style jingoism with Vegas-style effects. There was a close-up fireworks show, blasts of flame which made us flinch from the warmth, dancing waters, and more. None of it blended with the musical and, while it was spectacular, if I wanted to see something from Branson or Vegas, then I would travel there.

I can’t offer up any photos of the show, since photographs were firmly banned. But I did shoot some video of some of the musical actors entertaining the crowd in the courtyard before the show:

After the show, we returned to our hotel to rest up, since the next morning we would be returning to enjoy the scenery of Palo Duro Canyon before heading northwest to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Click here for a slideshow from this day

Day 2 of July Escape 2013 >

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in photos, technology, travel, video

 
 
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