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Now online: Open-weather

Screenshot of the Open-weather website showing a storm over Japan

open-weather.community

The Open-weather website is online. A bit about Open-weather:

Open-weather is a project by Sophie Dyer and Sasha Engelmann probing the noisy relationships between bodies, atmospheres and weather systems through experiments in amateur radio, open data and feminist tactics of sensing and séance.

The site is pretty straightforward, a static hub for a bunch of resources hosted in various places including their PublicLab wiki and archive of amateur radio-generated weather data. The homepage is currently a large scrollable nowcast produced in collaboration by people across the globe. We decided to embed the Google Sheet archive directly in the site for now, though that may change in the future. We may do the same for pages such as methodology, to come later on. We’ll see!

The site is hosted on Netlify and the code is in a GitLab repo. Pls excuse sub-par commit messages and the very minimal README.

Sasha and Sophie are giving a talk at 14:30 UTC-4 Toronto as part of Our Networks distributed festival. Definitely worth grabbing a ticket, it’s super well priced considering how much Our Networks is putting on and absolutely worth supporting that org.

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Open source tools for multi-source and cross-format academic publishing

I’m working with Sasha Engelmann and Sophie Dyer on the Open Weather platform, an archive and learning resource related to NOAA satellite 🛰 imagery. Sasha just shared a few open source publication tools that were brought to her attention by a friend and fellow artist at her Akademie Schloss Solitude residency, wanted to add them here for further research and future reference.

Manifold: A platform for publishing academic texts online

Manifold is a free “intuitive, collaborative, open-source platform for scholarly publishing”. See their repo on GitHub.

Manifold powers the Fembot Collective including Ada, Fembot’s journal on gender, new media, and technology. Looks like Fembot has been working with Manifold since about a year ago when the platform launched their pilot. Read Ada 16: Emerging Gender, Media and Technology Scholarship in Africa.

It looks pretty cool (and so does Fembot + Ada!). Manifold can bring together a whole lot of different methods of writing such as Epub, Markdown, HTML, and Google Docs. Hence the name Manifold, I guess. This is incredibly useful when bringing the work of different researchers together. Also makes it clear to me that good markup in writing is so worth it.

Manifold wants to make a digital book much more than just a screen version of a physical book, something that can easily fold in explorations, supplements, and other resources that augment the main text. It also incorporates annotation and discussion settings to keep the conversation going.

I’d love to see a book that really heavily uses the platform’s unusual features. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames is a featured project that’s worth a look. The chapters are punctuated with metagames they’ve created that you can download and install.

As a reader, I feel that the typography lets it down a bit. I found it hard to read, particularly on larger screens. A slightly narrower maximum width to the main text column would help a lot. Losing the justification and greater paragraph indentations would help too. Manifold does have some theme options, but it doesn’t involve control over the typography.

If your priorities are bringing together content from a wide arrange of sources, incorporating the work of disparate researchers with varying levels of technical abilities, and relative ease of setup (the documentation seems comprehensive), then Manifold seems like an incredible tool. If you need to retain any control over the design though or if you also want print publishing tools, it might not be the right fit for the job.

And probably worth mentioning: I think you’d need at least a bit of technical know-how to get this set up safely and securely. Probably worth getting in touch with Manifold directly if you’re an org since they’re still in beta.

B-ber: A tool for single-source, cross-format, design-conscious publishing

Triple Canopy is a magazine that “resists the atomization of culture”. They’re responsible for b-ber, a tool for single-source, cross-format, design-conscious publishing. Here’s how they describe it in the b-ber GitHub repo:

b-ber is both a method and an application for producing publications in a variety of formats—EPUB 3, Mobi/KF8, static website, PDF, and XML file, which can be imported into InDesign for print layouts—from a single source that consists of plain-text files and other assets. b-ber also functions as a browser-based EPUB reader, which explains the name.

Their text introducing b-ber “Working on our thoughts”—title from the Nietzche quote “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts” according to the footnotes—is a good read, explains the impetus and a bit about the ups and downs of how it evolved.

B-ber can only consume one input, an extended form of Markdown. This makes it more limited than Manifold in that regard, but the output options are substantial. It’s particularly strong for the design-conscious, the fact that you can import to InDesign and easily theme the browser-based EPUB reader is pretty fantastic. This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for back when I was working at Occasional Papers!

The reading experience of the default b-ber theme (or whichever they use on their post) is nicer than Manifold in my opinion, it’s just a lot easier to read. There are some snags, but I imagine you could resolve these in a custom theme. Related to that, see their repository of b-ber demos and b-ber theme starter.

It’s definitely worth following the development of this project if you’re in to digital publishing. Their announcement post was published back in December, not very long ago! Excited to see how it develops.

As with Manifold, I think you’d need a reasonable amount of technical knowledge to get this set up. Since it seems to be more of an internal Triple Canopy tool that they’ve kindly made open source for wider use, they probably wouldn’t be able to provide as much support as Manifold might be able to. (This is just a guess though!)

My experience

Though I’ve been tempted, I’ve never built something that was meant to have a digital bookish-ness, everything I’ve developed has had online-first layouts and components in mind. Some sites have had fairly extensive print styles, but that’s usually as far as it goes.

The most common related problem I’ve run in to on sites with long-format academic writing is footnotes. I’ve never come across a CMS that handles footnotes well. Heck, even HTML doesn’t handle them all that well, there aren’t any appropriate semantic elements as far as I’m aware (though there were in HTML3?).

The only easily accessible markup system that works with footnotes AFAIK is extended Markdown syntax. To use extended Markdown on a client site though, A) I have to be sure that the client is on board with learning quite a bit of Markdown (they often are once they understand the benefit, but some are stubborn!), and B) it needs to be compatible with whatever layout system the designer has devised.

I used this approach a while ago on the Jock Kinneir Library site, as of right now they’re using footnotes on the Biography page.

This implementation wasn’t super straightforward since the site couldn’t use a single Markdown field for content, we needed more of a page builder to accomplish the layout. Because of that, I had to do some trickery to recompile the footnotes at the base of the page content as opposed to after each text section. Honestly I can’t 100% remember how I accomplished it… It’s on Craft so uses Twig templates, and I don’t think we had the time to make a custom module that would take advantage of server-side logic. I do remember that it was a bit hackier than I wanted, but it safely accomplished what needed to be done.

If I need to include footnotes or something similar in the future, I’ll probably refer to this comprehensive article on footnotes, endnotes, and sidenotes (via @s3ththompson).


Would be curious if others have come across similar free, open source tools, or if anyone knows of work being done on the HTML spec to get some progress with footnotes.

At any rate, all of the above just reinforces my opinion that anyone who writes, regardless of how tech-savvy, should learn how to write in Markdown at minimum, ideally the extended syntax. If your archive of writing is in a machine-readable format, you’re miles ahead should you ever wish to publish it somewhere remotely digital or want to convert it to an IDML file or something similar.

Edit 24 September 2020: Added link to article about sidenotes.

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Command to delete all `node_modules` directories

How to delete all node_modules directories from your computer

Sam just pointed out this article, so useful! I ran the command to check how much space my node_modules folders are taking up, it’s 6.2G in total. Probably more on my external drives. Not necessary for sites I haven’t touched in quite a while (particularly since I’m still trying to keep my old laptop kicking…).

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Commonplace WordPress theme

I’ve been gradually updating the WordPress theme that powers this site with the help of a very talented designer and thinker, my friend Bec Worth.

It began with conversations about overhauling her own site. She had a few disparate Tumblrs with a ton (and I really do mean a ton) of great references, photos, and more that had accumulated over the years. All of them had fallen in to disuse for one reason or another, but she still felt like some sort of outlet for collecting these sorts of snippets and longer-format writing would be really useful. She brought up the Commonplace book as a particular inspiration. I’d never come across it before but it really resonated.

We continued talking about her site, and I started to restructure my old color-heavy Notebook theme (view in Wayback Machine) to strip out the less necessary functionality, improve the accessibility, etc. I wanted to make it something that could be more widely useful to not just me and Bec, but others as well. The early version of this new theme used variable Work Sans (view in Wayback Machine)

She liked where it was going, so we got her set up on a WordPress instance and used the Tumblr importer to pull in all of that old content. Since then, we’ve been using her log and my site to test out ideas and continue pushing the idea of what a Commonplace Book could be on the web. For more along these lines, I recommend reading her post “What would a Commonplace Book feel like on the web?

What’s next

It’s far from finished. The type is nowhere near as tight as Bec’s designs, I need to spend a bit more time on that! Amongst other things, I need to clean up the table of posts, add a thumbnail view, and improve the gallery block styles. We’re also going to figure out a way of highlighting work and other projects, something that draws a bit more attention than normal posts.

And color! We’d like to make it possible for people to select preferred text colors, maybe on a post-by-post basis or per category. Color is tricky though, I’d like to preserve some baseline of legibility and I’m not sure how much I could do as the developer to enforce that. Also, how do we handle this if we introduce dark mode support? The HSL or LCH color spaces might be helpful.

I’m not planning to submit this to the WordPress theme directory. Right now, this means that installation and updates are pretty manual, the theme has to be uploaded via FTP before it can be installed. Because of that, I’ll eventually set up an update server so that anyone using the theme can perform one-click updates from the WordPress admin area. Note to self: see this article for more on how to do this.

Realistically, people using the theme might want to change up certain aspects of the theme to be more “them”. Instead of adding a ton of theme options like font pickers and that sort of thing, I’d like to encourage people to tinker with it themselves. This is going to require a bit of documentation to point people in the right direction. I’ll probably start with how someone with little-to-no CSS experience could go about changing the font (i.e. upload font files in the Media library then add the necessary CSS lines in the Customizer, or setting up a child theme).

Clearly, it’s a work in progress!

But anyone is welcome to give it a try for themselves. I recommend it if you’ve been looking for a place to keep important references or get thoughts out of your head. Head to the commonplace-wp-theme GitHub repository to download it and read a bit more.

If you do end up using it, we’d love to know.

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How I handle proposals 🧐

This post outlines how I handle proposals as an independent web developer, almost the whole pre-project arc including gathering info, writing and sending the proposal, and what happens after it’s sent.

I love chatting about potential projects with anyone who will entertain me, but I can’t stand writing proposals. My goal is to make the process streamlined enough that I hate it a bit less and am able to get proposals out the door much faster.

This is an important topic and something I’m continuously trying to improve. A good proposal lays solid foundations for a project and sets the tone of a working relationship. Sometimes it even helps weed out the people I’d prefer *not* to work with.

Some of this has evolved over years of freelancing, but a lot of it is brand new or newly refined. Moving from the UK to the US has given me the opportunity to reconsider my procedures and improve the commissioning process both for myself and for my clients.

I’m pretty happy with my approach, but I’m sure it could be improved. Also, what works for me may be totally unworkable for someone else. So take this as one person’s perspective, and please share with me if you have other ideas.

Read more

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How I handle rates, pricing, and invoicing 🤑

Pricing is a minefield, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I’ve got it totally right. That seems like a drag but on the sunny side, as an independent developer I’ve got total control over what I charge and can continue to adjust it as necessary.

This is where I’m at with pricing methodologies, rates, and invoicing at the moment. Please send me your thoughts if you have other ideas.

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Sorting out WordPress error “Updating failed. Error message: The response is not a valid JSON response”

I moved a brand new WordPress site on to new hosting recently and was confronted by an “Updating failed. Error message: The response is not a valid JSON response” error. Seemed kind of inexplicable, not a lot of info in the console either. I’ve done the same thing a bajillion times with this and other hosting providers and have never run in to this error, so it seems kind of weird.

This issue on GitHub outlines a lot of the potential causes, but this comment specifically sorted out my problem. Turns out you just need to flush the permalinks? Another off-then-on-again type of fix.

I think the WordPress devs might eventually create a more helpful error message for this, but in the meantime this is worth keeping in mind.

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WordPress “Upgrade database” process hangs on Laravel Valet

I’m working on a WordPress site for a client that involves importing a whole bunch of their legacy content. I decided to work with a copy of their old database for this. I set it up locally in Sequel Pro, accessed /wp-admin, and was met (as expected) with a “You must upgrade this database”-style screen. I clicked the button and… nothing. Eventually I had a 504 error.

I use Laravel Valet to develop PHP sites locally on my MacBook Pro, so I checked the NGINX error log ~/.config/valet/Log/nginx-error.log for hints about what was going on. I repeatedly saw an error along these lines (highlighted bits are altered by me to be more generic):

YYYY/MM/DD HH:SS:MM [error] 52486#0: *14 upstream timed out (60: Operation timed out) while reading response header from upstream, client: 127.0.0.1, server: , request: "GET /favicon.ico HTTP/1.1", upstream: "fastcgi://unix:/Users/username/.config/valet/valet.sock", host: "hostname"

I searched online and found a bunch of suggestions, about checking the valet.sock file, about increasing the fastcgi settings in the NGINX config, etc. Nothing seemed to work.

I then came across this issue which sounds super similar, and they seemed to resolve it with a reboot.

Worked for me too. Turn it off and on to the rescue again. Wanted to mention it here in case anyone else is banging their head against the wall at some point.