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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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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.

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Switching from Google Analytics to Matomo (f.k.a. Piwik) on WordPress

It’s a new decade, time to leave Google Analytics.

A big part of me wants to say screw it, just get rid of analytics altogether. But I find it interesting. I’ve never used it to decide what to write, and I don’t think I ever will, but it’s just fascinating to find out what makes the rounds. I’ll never know why a short post about repairing my mom’s straw bag was my most popular post for years, but I’m glad to know a lot of people checked it out.

So I decided to keep my Google Analytics property in place and just locked it down as much as I could. I adjusted the script to respect users’ Do Not Track browser settings (Paul Fawkesley has a short article about how to do this). I also configured Google Analytics to anonymise IP addresses, and I deliberately disabled Data Collection for Advertising Features, Demographics and Interest Reports, User-ID, and all data-sharing settings. I also set a low data retention policy to make sure old data would get deleted.

None of this changed the fact that I was still sharing data with Google.

Read more

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Webmentions up and running

Finally sorted out how comments and webmentions are displayed on this site. It was kind of a hefty task since it involved sorting out WordPress comments as well. If everything works as intended (big if), webmentions should be displayed in a discussion thread below the post contents on permalink pages regardless of whether or not WordPress comments are enabled on that post. We’ll see how that goes!

As an experiment, I’ve turned on comments here, here, and on this note. Overall though, I’ll probably leave them disabled for the majority of my notes. This 2013 article by Kartik Prabhu sums up my feelings on the subject pretty well.

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Site update: a new taxonomy index and a11y improvements

Just pushed an update to this site.

The Browse page is now mainly an index of taxonomies and archives (years, post formats, categories, tags). This new index replaces the opacity-based tag cloud. I kind of miss it, but it was problematic. Very hard to digest, and the lighter greys were way too low-contrast.

Besides the index, most of the changes are related to accessibility. I focused on making the tabbing experience a bit better, introducing a couple skip links. Note that I haven’t totally ironed out the tabbing… Most of my manual testing for this update was done in Chrome. I checked it briefly in Safari and it’s pretty weird, but I think it may have to do with the default Safari settings. I haven’t adjusted these yet, read more about Safari tab settings on a11yproject.com. Besides the tabbing, I also had a handful of links that weren’t suitably descriptive, particularly on the new term index. I added more aria-label attributes where I could. See the “Using aria-label for link purpose” page on the WCAG wiki for more info.

I’m trying to work on accessibility a bit more on an ongoing basis. Need to take a little dive in to this Hacker News thread, via this tweet.

See also:

There are probably a million a11y optimisations I can / should still make on this site. Suggestions are very welcome.

Edit 08.11.19 – Added Mozilla accessibility blog post

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WordPress security resources

Links to a few of the security resources I find useful, some WordPress-specific and some more general.

A note about that “step-by-step” guide: it’s pretty decent, but IMO Wordfence is a better security plugin to go with. Sucuri is maybe more user-friendly, but Wordfence comes with more out-of-the-box (incl. two factor authentication and login limiting) and the settings seem more granular. Doesn’t hurt to try both though to see what’s the best fit.


Last edited 22 June 2019