Getting ThinkUp installed on MediaTemple (gs)

Via Meri Williams on Twitter I heard about Gina Trapani and Anil Dash’s new app, ThinkUp, a couple of days ago. It calls itself “a social data insights engine” which, as far as I can tell, translates as: “Klout, but useful.” They are currently soliciting donations in the form of yearly subscriptions to the service, in an, users-should-pay-for-stuff-they-find-useful kind of a way.

However, the system itself is actually open source and available to fork on GitHub so you can host your own install. That’s what I did on my MediaTemple (gs) shared server; here are some of the issues I ran into and how I fixed them.

Install this and this and this

Forking the GitHub repo and then cloning it on my server was easy enough, but the installation process immediately complained about a couple of missing components. Firstly the session.save_path wasn’t set; this MediaTemple Knowledge Base article explains how to fix the problem (and this one tells you how to edit your php.ini file if you haven’t done so before).

The second issue was a little trickier. ThinkUp requires that PHP has the ZipArchive class installed; okay, no problem, this Knowledge Base article explains how to install PECL modules on (gs), and this blog post includes some more pointers. The ZipArchive class is actually named “zip“, by the way. However, when I downloaded and tried to install the module, it threw a bunch of parsing errors during the make step. Bugger. Eventually I figured out that 1.12.1 is a beta version of the module, so all I had to do was delete what I’d downloaded and try again with the stable version number (1.10.2 as of this writing):


With that it compiled correctly, the ThinkUp install process was happy, and I was able to get it all up and running.


One more issue cropped up when I tried manually running the data import tool from the command line:

Warning: curl_setopt(): CURLOPT_FOLLOWLOCATION cannot be activated when safe_mode is enabled or an open_basedir is set in <redacted>/ThinkUp/webapp/plugins/expandurls/model/class.URLExpander.php on line 113

That cURL option tells the cURL request to follow any ‘Location:’ headers returned by the request. I’m not sure whether it has any effect on the quality of the data it gathers, since I don’t know whether any API calls would return a redirect (and it seems unlikely), but maybe someone will come along who knows more about this sort of thing than I do and can explain.

So, ThinkUp

Once I got it all going and the “insight generation” script had done it’s thing, you’re left with a ton of imported data from the various services it supports out of the box (and they plan to add more), plus some interesting ‘insights’ into what you’ve been doing on social media.

Screen shot of ThinkUp insights

I kind of suspect that it will be of most use to people who 1. have a lot more followers than I do, and 2. are a lot more active on social media than me; but it’s still an interesting alternative view of the loosely joined pieces of yourself online.

Coursera – Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative

Continuing my ongoing adventures in free online education, this month I embarked on my fifth Coursera course. Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative is a six week course run by Nashville’s Vanderbilt University that aims to explore “remediation” — the transplanting of one form of media into another — via the book-to-film-to-game transition of the ‘world’s greatest work of literature’, JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings.

Students (more than 40,000 of them according to this Penny Arcade piece) are assigned both reading and in-game assignments in addition to the pre-recorded video lectures delivered by enthusiastic nerd-in-chief, Jay Clayton. It is fascinating watching experienced gamers and those totally new to any kind of computer game, let alone the complexity of an MMORPG, working and learning alongside each other in the course forums and online. Many established LOTRO players are incredibly generous with their time and resources, supplying new classmates with enhanced items and organising special sessions to achieve in-game rewards.

So far we’re only on Week 1. I’ve re-read The Fellowship Of The Ring, and re-watched Peter Jackson’s film of the same name (and bored my wife by pointing out all the discrepancies between the two); Discelas the Elf has reached level 16 and met Tom Bombadil, and I’m all set for another five weeks of relaxed study.

Lapsed Gamer

After such a long break from my semi-serious Warcraft days, it’s strange to be back playing an MMO again. The seductively easy gameplay and progression in LOTRO is not quite as seamless as WoW, but the addition of the background mythos and characters from Lord Of The Rings provides an added depth and impetus to carry on playing through the main questline, a key aspect of the game that WoW conspicuously lacks.

It has reminded me of the reasons I gave up playing WoW, though (and subsequently EVE Online, Warhammer, Defiance, and one or two others). The constant “live”-ness of the game world, and lack of a Pause button, elevates the action in the game to the importance of real life; you can’t turn away from the game for a second to speak to a child or kiss a partner, and the further you progress in the game, the more this anti-social monkey on your back demands attention, and for longer and longer periods of time.

Add to that the lack of any real-world output after countless hours of effort, and you have a recipe for a wasted life. I gave it up to concentrate on making something tangible, and I think I’m happier for it.

dConstruct 2013

Don't worry we're from the internet

Summer is over, the rain has returned, and the kids have gone back to school … which means it must be time for another dConstruct conference, in the UK’s alternately sunny and rain-drenched south coast hipster mecca: Brighton.

dConstruct’s relevance to the web seems to become more oblique with each passing year. This year’s theme, “Communicating with machines,” promised a day of “exploration and entertainment.” My employer was sponsoring the conference for the first time, but those of us attending for the purposes of recruitment were also lucky enough to be able to watch many of the sessions. Here are some of my highlights.

Of Cyborgs, Toast & Gay Vulcans

Amber Case, also occasionally known as: “Hey, look, someone’s actually wearing Google Glass!”, started the day with a look back at the work that she has done with her startup Geoloqi in the field of ambiently location-aware applications. She and her team have done much in the real-world equivalent of Minority Report’s imagined individual-aware notifications, although hers were mostly confined to pushing interesting wiki information at users rather than advertising. Her look at the history of wearable computing was interesting, though, taking in the work done by Steve Mann and the MIT Borg Squad and the designers who, many years later, would go on to ship Google Glass.

Simone Rebaudengo’s talk was a fascinating exploration that asked what our digitally connected devices might actually want from their owners. His socially-aware toaster experiment — wherein networked toasters bugged their owners to make more toast both through online activity and actual knob-jiggling physical prompts — was brilliantly conceived, and even if the result has little obvious practical application, it prompts interesting thought about how more socially beneficial activities can be encouraged through a subtle combination of positive and negative reinforcement.

Musician Sarah Angliss discussed uncanny sound by way of the Uncanny Valley. Her talk took in music over the last several hundred years, digital versus analogue performance, and ended with a haunting theremin-and-talking-dolls-head performance of her music.

Maciej Ceglowski, the man behind Pinboard, delivered a deliciously funny insight into the world of fan- and slash-fiction. From his admitted initial mockery of the largely female community and their homo-erotic copyright-busting short stories, he explained how he came to appreciate their boundless enthusiasm and love for their community, and his examples of the lengths to which they would go to improve and maintain the tools they love provides an optimistic counterpoint to the usual mindless trollery of many online communities such as YouTube commenters.

Speaking of YouTube comment trolls, the day was closed out by comedian Adam Buxton taking a rambling look at things he did with his laptop. His question was allegedly: “Is my laptop ruining my life,” but from that starting point Buxton managed to encompass kittens with breasts, Garage Band, motivational quote websites, and of course his now-familiar descent into the strange world of YouTube commenting. With the audience in hysterics, he concluded that perhaps his laptop was not ruining his life after all… and with that, we all shut our laptops and went to the bar.

A word from our sponsors

dConstruct’s unique approach to ‘web’ conferences draws a much more diverse crowd than you might normally encounter, and the affordable price contributes to that diversity. Despite that, we still managed to talk to many designers and developers about the roles we’re looking to fill at our Amsterdam head office, and I’m happy to hear that our presence at these kinds of conferences is starting to become familiar and welcomed by delegates. We’re not a recruitment agency, as one confused delegate seemed to think; we are the designers you could be working alongside, and it’s great to have the opportunity to get out and share our enthusiasm with potential future colleagues. If you didn’t get the chance to come and chat to us during the conference, we’re always happy to talk — seek us out on Twitter or visit for all the details.

How to get the most out of Scrivener Composition Mode

It has so many features that it’s hard for anyone to pick their favourite part of Scrivener, the writing software that has been adopted by everyone from amateurs to professional authors. But one popular feature is its “Composition Mode” — a full-screen, distraction-free view that aims to allow the user to concentrate solely on getting their words on the page.

Yesterday, Twitter user @Alvesang posted a photo of his Composition Mode, and it was lovely. Since it took me a little while to figure out how to tweak the default options to achieve the same thing, I thought I’d write up how to do it.

Step 1: Choose a background

The first step is to choose your background image. If you’re artistic you could make your own, but Google Images is an easy source of suitable photographs. Search for something like “white landscape” for some appropriate backdrops.

Changing Google Images size search

The only restriction here is that Scrivener will not change the proportions of the image to suit your screen dimensions, so it’s a good idea to use Google’s Search Tools to limit your search to images that are the same size as your screen. (You have a problem if you regularly switch between an external monitor and a laptop screen, as their dimensions are rarely the same. In that case, you’ll need two images.)

Once you’ve chosen or created a suitable image, open Scrivener and go to View > Composition Backdrop > Choose… to select the image .

Select Composition Backdrop

Step 2: Adjust your Composition Mode settings

Enter Composition Mode, either by clicking the icon or hitting the appropriate key combination (Cmd+Alt+F on a Mac). You will enter the full-screen view, with a blank page in the centre of the screen, and display options on a bar hidden at the bottom of the screen. (Move your mouse to the bottom of the page if the options are not visible.)

Composition mode right side

To achieve a nice effect against the background, we want to get rid of the paper. Move the slider on the far-right all the way to the left (or click on the icon) to make the paper invisible so that the text appears to sit directly on the background.

Composition mode left side

You can also adjust the size of the text (Text Scale), whether the text is centred or against the edge of the screen (Paper Position), and the width of the ‘page’ (Paper Width). In general I’d recommend a combination of page width and font size that gives you the same number of words per line as a standard book.

The last thing is to get rid of the ugly default scrollbar. Open up Scrivener’s Preferences (Scrivener > Preferences, or Cmd+, on a Mac) and go to the Compose panel. Change the Scroller type dropdown to “No scroller” to get rid of the scrollbar altogether:

Scrivener Preferences pane

If you prefer a dark background, you can also flip the text colour via that panel — under Customizable Colors, select Text Color, then tick the ‘Override text color with color:’ box and use the colour picker widget to change the text to white.

Final result

Scrivener composition mode full screen

And that’s it, you’re done! Enjoy your distraction-free, immersive writing experience, thanks to the awesome flexibility of Scrivener.

How I made a website behave more like a book

I’ve been idly sketching ideas vague ideas for a redesign of my blog this week, and found myself heading down a well-worn route. A blog (I said to myself) is really nothing more than a collection of titles and text — maybe a few images thrown in here and there, probably a datestamp, but that’s basically it. Focus on the content.

But when I started sketching how that sort of content-focused site might look, I found that it all started to look a little familiar. Any of a dozen Squarespace templates. There was obviously a limit to what one could do with nothing but a title and a handful of paragraphs.

Nature Paint screenshot

Then, in an interview with Cole Henley in .NET magazine, I spotted a screenshot of the Nature Paint website. Although Cole has actually used a variety of different templates to build that site, it was the two-column layout that caught my eye. Perhaps that could be the difference, the tweak I was looking for to turn a blatant rip-off into something a little bit special.

Multiple columns with CSS3

Turning plain paragraphs into multi-columnar layouts is pretty simple with CSS3 now. The column-count, column-width and column-gap properties let you create equally spaced, equal height columns within an element, and you can break up the flow through judicious use of the column-span or column-break-before properties. You can even add nice newspaper-style dividing lines with the column-rule property.

However, there is one enormous problem with trying to display multiple columns of text on the web: viewport size. In a magazine or newspaper, you can hold the entire page in front of you, and your eye can easily move from the bottom of one column to the top of the next. But on the web, it is entirely possible that your reader has scrolled so far down to read a longer piece of writing that the top of the next column is off the visible page. Breaking off mid-sentence to scroll back up to find the next column is not an optimal reading experience. Overflowing columns

I started to draw up a list of requirements for a solution.

Recipe for a pleasant multi-column read

When you read a book, you are effectively reading a double-spread page with two columns of text. You read the left-hand side, then you read the right-hand side, and then you turn to the next page. Magazines might have four or more columns; newspapers up to seven or eight. But the principle is always the same — your eye is guided from column to column across the page, until you need to move onto the next. So, if on the web you are reading a lengthy piece of writing consisting of many many paragraphs, what we need to do is break it up into chunks that fit nicely into the viewport window. The viewport becomes your double-spread book page, and readers can comfortably read each collection of blocks of text before scrolling down to the next ‘page’ of content. I experimented with a few different methods of achieving this, and eventually arrived at a relatively simple JavaScript solution: View Demo page

We declare a single class to handle the column settings:

This class is applied to the container element, so that even if the script doesn’t run we still get something approximating what we intended.

The script then loops through all of the child elements of the container, moving them in batches into new containers, which each get the same .columns class applied to them — these represent the ‘page’ we discussed above. The size of each ‘page’ is determined through a combination of the viewport size, the font size, and the line height of the site. By supplying a list of those elements that should ‘break out’ of the multi-column ordering, we can make sure that the intended flow of the article is preserved. It’s not perfect, but it prevents columns overflowing the viewport and (I think) makes for a more pleasant, book-like, reading experience.

In browsers that don’t support CSS3’s column properties, the script has no effect, since both ‘before’ and ‘after’ states use the same declarations. (If I was using Modernizr I would probably check for support of those properties first, and not run the script at all if they were not present.)

Improvements and feedback

The script makes a reasonable job of breaking up the content into roughly the right-sized blocks for the viewport, but I’m sure it could be made a lot more accurate than I managed with my rusty maths. It also need to be made a little more flexible in terms of coping with different types of the same content (e.g. inline images and larger full-width pictures), and I can imagine that adding some basic keyboard navigation would make for an even more relaxed read.

I appreciate that this isn’t an implementation that is going to be useful for very many other people, but it was fun to figure out, and if you do happen to use it or have any suggestions for improvements, let me know.

Learning to write more proper

This weekend I completed my third online course provided via the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider, Coursera. After the lengthier Fantasy/Sci-Fi and Film Theory classes I took in the last twelve months, this time I opted for a shorter, more straightforward course on writing, entitled: “Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade.”

The course was an introduction to writing in English, and covered everything from the basic building blocks — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and so on — through to types of sentence and how to approach a writing assignment.

The first couple of lectures, delivered in a rather basic fashion, initially led me to think I might have made a mistake signing up for the course. I’m a native English speaker who has been writing for decades; surely I don’t need to learn what a noun is! However, it turns out that while I may have internalised many of the rules relating to subject-verb agreement and past/present/future tenses, my actual ability to identify pronouns, or explain what a preposition was, was sorely lacking. And, while I might know how to spell ‘gerund’ and be familiar with phrases like “irregular verbs” or “past participle”, that didn’t mean that I completely understood what they were.

It seems that in all online courses the rate of attrition is high. The tutors reported that 43,000 started the course, but five weeks later only around 3-4,000 completed the final assignment. Considering that we only had to write a single paragraph, it was surprising that so many would drop out of the course.

As with the literature course I took last year, peer review played a large part in the grading process; and, like last year, the forums were full of students complaining that their peers didn’t have a clue how to mark correctly. I spent one evening trying to make the case that the peer review process is as much (if not more) about the benefit it provides to the reviewer than the score of the reviewee, but unfortunately there are still many who believe that an online course attended by tens of thousands should be subject to the same rigorous grading as an intimate study group in meatspace.

Anyway, I feel I benefitted from taking the course, not least because it blew away the last few cobwebs of doubt I had when helping my children with grammar-related homework. I’m still not entirely sure what “conjugate the verb” means, but at least I can tell my infinitives from my appositives.

The next course on my schedule, and the final one I have registered for so far, starts next month. “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative” promises to be an interesting combination of study and gaming … two of my favourite ways to spend time.

How to fix your screen resolution in Windows on your 27″ iMac

When I installed Windows 7 on my new 27″ iMac, there was one glaring problem. The screen resolution — a glorious 2560 by 1440 on OSX — would only go up to a maximum of 1600 by 1200 on Windows, resulting in a stretched and pixelated interface.

Installing the Windows Boot Camp tools didn’t fix it, but after Googling for a little while I found the solution. Simply install the most up-to-date drivers for your iMac’s graphics card; mine is an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675MX, so I downloaded the drivers from Nvidia’s website, installed and restarted. Voila, instant perfect resolution!

Getting ‘Getting Things Done’ things done

At the start of 2012, one of the things I stated I would do was get a handle on my personal time and project management through implementing a definitive GTD process. Twelve months later, I was still looking… or rather, I had decided the only solution was to roll my own. Back then it was running on Laravel. A few months later, reworked in CodeIgniter for greater development speed, I can honestly say it is up and running.

I’ve been using Ruck for the last couple of months to manage most of my work. I’m also re-reading David Allen’s book again, and the combination of discovering what works and what doesn’t in the alpha app, plus identifying the aspects of the GTD process that are missing or not quite implemented in the right way, is developing into quite a buglist.

Design-wise I was fairly happy with the layout I had worked up a couple of months ago, but as time has gone on I’m finding it more and more inflexible or just plain ugly to live with for much longer. I’ve sketched up some replacement ideas, but I hope this isn’t the first sign of the same endless redesign itch with which my blog was infected. It’s hard to avoid the standard Mac-style “menu on the left, large content area” layout, but I’m not convinced it’s the most efficient way to display different types of content together. Allen says that “hard edges” are important; keeping a clear delineation between your calendar items and other ‘next action’ tasks — to me, that suggests the UI should reflect that separation in a clearer way than just splitting a list with a header.

Once the UX is finalised I think I should be able to get through the various tasks I’ve set myself fairly quickly. The biggest annoyance right now is the delay-after-click that comes from using an online application. Pages have to load, database queries have to fire, and it’s enough to make you feel less than 100% efficient. I did briefly consider starting with a native application, and even got as far as spending an evening reading Objective-C documentation, but common sense prevailed — much better to have a working app that I can use and finesse, than spend six months struggling to make Xcode do what I want it to. When the HTML5 version is done and dusted I’ll move on to converting it for the desktop (and iPad, iPhone and whatever else looks like fun).

Sound and colour in Hollywood, another online course

Today I completed another online course, this time on the development of sound and colour in Hollywood cinema. It was half the duration of my last one, so it seems to have gone by rather fast, particularly as I didn’t exactly follow the prescribed two-films-and-four-lectures-per-week schedule; I started off well, then skipped a week and a half, so the last couple of weeks have had quite a lot of movie-watching crammed into them.

It also didn’t feel as “academic” as the last course (on fantasy and science fiction literature) that I completed. I think the lack of any meaningful coursework to complete didn’t help — last time there was an essay per week to write, but here we were only asked to complete easy, short quizzes — although I certainly subscribe to the notion that the real benefit of adult study is in an enhanced appreciation of the work (and the world) rather than a meaningless certificate. I didn’t really participate in the online community that formed around the course, either, at least not as much as I did last time, so I felt a little disconnected from the process of learning and struggled with motivation to continue at times.

Overall, though, the course was fascinating: from silent film through the dawn of sound; from black-and-white into the age of colour; and from the 1920s right up to almost the present day. The films were not your typical top ten either, but were chosen by the professor to illustrate the points he wanted to make on each topic. I particularly enjoyed Docks of New York (1928), Scarface (1932) and All That Heaven Allows (1955); the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) wasn’t as good as I thought it would be; and it was good to gain a detailed insight into my favourite director’s most stylised film, PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). The lectures were never longer than half-an-hour, but still managed to contain plenty of insight into how filmmakers tackled the challenges of working with new technology — first revelling in the novelty of sound or colour, before its use becomes normalised and they can learn, over time, how to use it to effectively augment storytelling.

As with the previous literature course, I’m now left with a slightly heightened awareness of what I’ve been studying. It’s hard to just watch a film now without noticing how the costumes have been harmonised with the sets, or how lines and colours are used to focus the audience’s attention where the filmmaker wants it. I don’t know how university professors, or film critics, manage to ‘switch off’ if they ever want to watch something purely in the name of entertainment.

The next course on my schedule is an examination of storytelling and narrative in the context of online multiplayer gaming in June.

Nietzsche on critique

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)