Monthly Archives: October 2009

Test your site using User Agent Switcher

For those developing or modifying their website, compatibility across browsers is important. With mobile devices increasingly being used to view and develop web content, it is even more important that one's website or blog is mobile friendly for many of the wide range of mobile devices out there.

Using the Firefox plugin User Agent Switcher allows a web developer to quickly test a website against a wide range of mobile devices and web browsers all in Firefox. This is extremely convenient for those who do not have or want to download all the web browsers and those who do not have the means to test many of the mobile devices that they hope can use their website.

Those with Flock, Seamonkey, and Songbird can also use User Agent Switcher (developer homepage).

User Agent Switcher Interface

User Agent Switcher Interface

After the jump: using User Agent Switcher

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Making WordPress mobile friendly

There are many plugins that make WordPress mobile friendly. Some are mobile device specific, some are for blog admins, and some try to make the blog accessible to viewers using a wide range of mobile devices. The last are plugins that optimize blog content and design to be more accessible on mobile devices, making the WP Blog load faster and easier to read and navigate.

In this last category, two WordPress plugins stand out: WordPress viewMobile and MobilePress. In terms of navigability, load time, and display, these two plugins are the clear leaders.

Note: Plugins that make WP more mobile friendly are developing at a fast pace. A new version of a plugin that wasn't reviewed here may make it more appealing than the two above in a matter of months. Developers are constantly trying to increase the number of mobile devices their plugins are compatible with and the number of specialized blog functions the mobile version can utilize.

WordPress viewMobile:

viewMobile allows mobile device users to quickly access a simplified but easy to read mobile WordPress interface. By adding the plugin, mobile device users are automatically redirected to the mobile friendly version of the site--there is nothing else that the blog administrator or the mobile device user needs to do.

Mobile device users are able to access Monthly Archives, About, Categories, and Comments on viewMobile's mobile blog interface. However, there is no option for reverting back to the original blog display, no search function, and no function for administrators accessing the blog on their mobile device. It seems as if each post can be edited.

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Court dockets more accessible with RECAP

If you study court cases and wanted get dockets, even though they're in the public domain, you might have found the experience difficult. You'll either need to go to the court where the case was argued or use the electronic database called PACER. Once ahead of the technology curve, PACER is now lagging behind in many respects. It is a paid-service that offers hard, unstructured HTML.

In an effort to help bring PACER into the current web environment is RECAP, a Firefox plugin developed by Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. If your courses--or your civic duty--require that you download court cases or dockets, and you don't want to pay 8 cents per page, then install this plugin and browse the public domain for free.

More information is available at www.recapthelaw.org.

Adding Images to Drupal

Picture 4Once you have Drupal set up on your server, the instructions given by NocStudio81.com (http://nocstudio81.com/content/add-images-drupal-6) are very straightforward for adding images to the site. Furthermore, installation takes about 10 minutes, while configuring the backend should take a bit more time than that.

Settings for IMCE allow you to define naming conventions, maximum sizes and resolutions, and create directories to sort the files. And these settings can be customized for each user role on the site.

The unfortunate aspect of this image insertion is that it's not the most elegant user experience. Clicking the button brings p the "Insert/Edit Image" pop-up window (TinyMCE). In this window, you can edit the appearance and HTML tags, and even add an alternative image to allow for rollovers. However, to actually use an image, you have to either know the image's path or open up a very non-intuitive second pop-up window, the "File Browser" (IMCE). In this File Browser, you can upload files, create thumbnails, delete photos, and send photos back to TinyMCE. This File Browser has a lot of extraneous information for most users. It tells the user about the quotas and limitations set by the admin, has multiple previews, and has an error log, which will be very useful to users when they confusedly click the wrong place.

This said, these modules allow users to add images with a robust tool. The drawbacks of this method for image addition are not large, but they should be taken into account as we implement this tool.

Silverlight + Flip4Mac

At a recent meeting of the Clips staff, we were talking about our perpetual issue with streaming video. At the moment, we have been running Sharestream, which has been doing an admirably decent job delivering video content for courses here at Yale using hinted Quicktime video, which unfortunately often takes the cake as a somewhat clunky format, requiring an extra tracks of said "hints" to allow for streaming. In the course of the discussion, someone brought up the new technology from Microsoft, Silverlight - which is what Netflix currently uses to deliver their fairly high quality over-the-web content. The new technology is filled with excellent features, and while Flash undoubtedly is the "king" of streaming video delivery, some of the features should at least cause them to take a glance over their collective shoulders at this new technology. Perhaps what is the strongest case to be made with the new version is the "Smooth Streaming" technology that has been developed. As it is described over at the Streaming Learning Center's blog it is "an adaptive bitrate streaming technology that delivers a stream customized to the viewer’s connection bandwidth and adjusts that stream should conditions change." Thus, in the "real world", the idea would be that if for example someone was watching a stream from a high bitrate connection, say 2-3 mbps the video would likely play at its very highest quality, whereas if a home user was streaming the video from a lower (500-600 kbps) DSL connection, the quality would likely be reduced, but the video would still load and play normally. In addition, were someone else to being using bandwidth while you were watching a stream, you would not see a "skip" or suddenly be faced with the streaming video not continuing to work, the technology instead adapts to this new speed, and would still allow your video to play albeit with a further quality reduction. So, what all of this seems to mean for us is that we could encode videos at a rather high level to begin with and allow the Smooth Streaming technology to work with the individual user's connection rather than trying to constantly work with the see-saw of compromise between accessibility and picture quality.

The elephant in the room here is that any big endorsement of Silverlight seems like high treason coming from a bunch of heavy Mac users. As someone in the meeting mentioned when asked about the possible issues with utilizing Silverlight, "I see a room full of Mac guys [and gals]." However, whereas there might be some issue of morality coming into play for the Mac lovers among us, there isn't a pragmatic issue of "how do we encode our assets into something that we can use with Silverlight?" This would be because on our Macs, we have Flip4Mac Studio Pro, which has a plugin that will allow users to create Silverlight-compliant wmv files. These files are created in folders, along with various .js scripts and player render files that when uploaded to a Silverlight server, are recognized and used for the playback of the file. I embedded a test file that I created in about as much time as it takes for me to create a hinted QT file above (It is being served at my Windows Live Account). The quality exceeds that of a QT file, and goes far beyond something you would see at YouTube, etc. In addition, the file size to quality ratio is excellent. The clip above was taken from a 2.2 GB uncompressed HDV stream and made into a 3.3 MB Silverlight Compliant WMV file. There are a couple kinks to work out in Flip4Mac's GUI, mainly dealing with settings that are called differently or simply not present with relation to our typical QT compressor. One other item that needs to be addressed is obviously having a server that can stream Silverlight video, this is not an area that I have any experience in, but it seemed relatively easy to set one up when this was discussed at the meeting. I am optimistic however, that we can work these kinks out, and possibly even attempt to integrate what is a extremely useful, and highly functional tool for streaming video into our workflow here at ITG.

Zotero

Zotero is a web-based software that helps you cite and organize sources while researching online. After downloading the service from the Zotero website, you can begin by opening a web browser.

In your web browser, a new icon will appear in the URL box next to the “Favorites” icon. This is the Zotero icon. Each time you visit a page of interest while researching, you can save that page by simply clicking on that icon. Zotero will then immediately archive a slew of information regarding that page such as the author, publication date, URL, etc. After finishing your research, you can view all of your saved pages by opening up the Zotero application. The application has many useful features, such as organizing your sources, searching through the sources, and a note-taking function that allows you to quickly write about each source. When you start to create citations and bibliographies within, for example, an essay, Zotero can do this automatically. It can work with word processors on your computer to place in citations from your Zotero library and can even change bibliographic styles per your preference.

Two additional uses of Zotero are the Group and People tools. To increase collaboration and sharing, a class or handful of colleagues can set up a Group page on Zotero’s website. Each member of the group can then upload their Zotero libraries in order to share their research with others. Using the People tool, a Zotero user can search for other users who have similar interests, such as Anthropology or Linguistics, and share information.

Since the service was developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, it is a nonprofit entity. This means they have no motivation to profit from your library of sources. The only way other people will gain access to your material is if you grant it to them. If you’re going to be frequently researching online, Zotero has a lot of potential for helping you stay organized. One drawback of the service is that it currently only works on Netscape Navigator and Firefox (versions 3.0 and beyond) due to their abilities to host it.

Weebly-Website Creation Made Easy

What is perhaps the most appealing element of the Weebly web page creator is its simplicity. Sporting a widget style format, Weebly enables its users to build and enhance their own websites by dragging and dropping text, pictures, videos, and more onto the pages of their choice. Once incorporated into your site, these features can then be arranged like building blocks to your satisfaction and edited, whenever it is necessary, using nothing more than a click of the mouse. A variety of professional layouts designs are also available, ensuring that even without significant technical expertise you can easily make a unique and personal web page that suits all of your wants and needs in no time at all. What appears to have taken hours of coding and design can be accomplished in minutes on Weebly.

In continuing to praise its simplicity, one of my favorite aspects of Weebly is its incorporation of external applications into the creation process. Blogs, calendars, polls and more from other web pages and providers are as easy to integrate into your site as pictures or text. Web-sites such as Flickr have Weebly-specific features that are, again, quick and easy to use. Even advertisements can be inserted in seconds, demonstrating just how simplified web-site creation can be on Weebly.

However, there are, of course, some shortcomings. As far as I can tell, there is only one font type available per layout and customized designs are rather simplistic, diminishing the fruits of creativity. Also, some of the more advanced features on Weebly require a monthly subscription, perhaps making Weebly guilty of false advertsing for the way it extolls its "free website creating" and "free domain hosting." In short, Weebly is a great place for the inexperienced or those short on time, as it allows a substantial amount to be created in a short period, but, for our purposes, is lacking on a variety of fronts.

Controlling User-Specific Node Access Settings in Drupal

One of Drupal's great features is its permissions system, by which administrators can easily control and limit the content and capabilities of different user groups on the site. It works great for general restrictions but fails to provide a way to grant specific users read/write access to specific nodes (pages). This was a problem when Prof. Erik Harms approached me to create student pages that only that one student can update (to post their essays) on his Modern Southeast Asia course website. Here's the best solution I found:

In short, the idea here is to create a tag for each account, to tag the desired nodes to correspond to the desired editor account, and to grant individual users edit access to ONLY those nodes with "their" tag using the Taxonomy Access Control Lite module.

1. Site Building > Modules. Enable the Taxonomy module. This is a core module -- that is, it comes with the default Drupal install. Make sure admin can administer the module.

2. Content Management > Content Types. Create a new content type, e.g., "Student Pages".

3. Content Management > Taxonomy. Create a new vocabulary ("Student Tags"). Edit the new vocabulary to apply only to the new content type.

4. Add a term for each account -- in my case, I created a term for each student's name.

5. Create the desired nodes as the new ("Student Pages") content type, tagging each node with the desired editor's name or account name.

6. Download and install the Taxonomy Access Control Lite module. Enable admin permissions.

7. User Management > Access Control By Taxonomy. Select the taxonomy vocabulary and create 2 schemes, called "View Only" and "Edit".

8. User Management > Users. On the user edit page, select the Taxonomy-Based Access tab, under the "Edit" scheme, select that user's tag.

This method can be tweaked to allow several users to edit one node. While this is certainly not the only solution and would become tedious and time consuming for a site with many users, it's a quick and easy solution for smaller sites.