What’s in my bag?

Sounds like a dare to me. How can I resist?

bag1a

First, the bag itself. I love Tom Bihn bags. In addition to this backpack and its clip-in accessory pouches, I own two messenger bags and an assortment of other pouches. They are super high-quality and supremely functional. As you’ll see when I show you how much stuff I can cram into this bag and still have plenty of room to spare!

Let’s look at the contents of the red pouch. That’s where I keep adapters and thumb drives.

bag2

Oh, and an iPod nano, for some reason.

I need napkins (and/or paper towels) a lot. I can’t stand having a runny nose, or spilling things. Whatever the reason, I carry a few around with me all the time. I know it’s probably not the best for the environment, but I do buy recycled as much as possible. Anyway, that’s what the black pouch is for. And the large black thing is a padded sleeve perfectly sized for the 11-inch MacBook Air.

bag3

Next up, another bag-within-a-bag. This is the one non-Tom Bihn case I use. It’s a Roocase for the iPad mini. The iPad mini actually just barely fits in it, which is fine. I take my iPad mini with me to meetings, especially first-time meetings with new clients, because it doesn’t create a wall like having a laptop on the desk does. I have also stopped carrying my laptop when I travel for pleasure, so the iPad in the Roocase is all I bring. In addition to protecting the iPad, the Roocase has a side pocket into which I manage to shove a Field Notes notebook, Space Pen, headphones and some business cards.

bag4

And finally… everything else. This is the entirety of what I had in my backpack when I came to work this morning, aside from some running clothes I had also shoved in but don’t really feel I need to show here.

bag5

Look at all that stuff! From top left to bottom right, we have:

  • Two copies of my latest CD
  • Victorinox Swiss Army Cybertool S, which is too big to actually carry in my pocket but an essential tool for tech geeks
  • Another Field Notes notebook
  • Sharpie, Field Notes pen, Space Pen
  • Compact travel power strip (highly recommended)
  • More business cards
  • 1/8″ to 1/4″ headphone adapter (not sure why that’s in there)
  • Novelty fan that plugs into iPhone Lightning port
  • Postage stamps
  • iPhone/iPad charger
  • MacBook Air charger
  • $3.01 in change
  • A bunch of Ricola cough drops (original flavor)
  • Spare keys on a special strap that Tom Bihn also makes
  • Anker portable phone charger, its charging cable, a USB-to-Lightning cable, and carrying pouch
  • Roocase with iPad mini and all of that crap inside it
  • THE BEST BACKPACK EVER
  • 11-inch MacBook Air with padded sleeve
  • Accessory pouch with napkins
  • Accessory pouch with adapters, thumb drives and iPod nano

P.S. Sorry for the quality of the photos… I hastily snapped these on the studio conference table under harsh fluorescent lighting.

Tips on saving vector images from Adobe Illustrator for SVG web use

With Internet Explorer 8 end of life coming on January 12, all kinds of new possibilities are opening up to us web developers who can finally start making use of technologies that have had wide support in modern browsers for years, but that we were reluctant to embrace because of the need for IE8-friendly workarounds.

For me, one of those things is SVG images. In recent years, especially since Responsive Web Design (and high-resolution displays) took off, I’ve been receiving web designs more and more in Illustrator format, rather than Photoshop. It’s great to get these assets as vectors that I can scale and size as I need in my build-out of high-res, responsive websites. But until now I had still been pulling vector assets over into Photoshop and producing multiple carefully-sized versions of things like logos and custom icons.

Now, however, SVG is a viable — in fact, preferable, given its flexibility and smaller file size (plus the ability to hack the XML code right in the image files themselves) — alternative to multiple PNGs of every image.

The thing is, while I have been using Photoshop extensively for over 20 years, I’ve never really gotten the hang of Illustrator. I know just enough to go into an Illustrator file, pull out the assets I need, and try not to screw anything else up in the process. That’s what this article is for.

Over the past week I have pulled a number of vector assets out of Illustrator designs as SVGs for a couple of projects, and I’m starting to get the process down. Here’s what you need to know.

The Steps

1. Select the object you want to make into an SVG. Most of the time designers will have grouped the pieces of the object together, so just a single click on the object will select it. Make careful note of the blue outlines to be sure everything you want is selected (and maybe even more importantly, that nothing else you don’t want is). You can also click and drag to select all objects within an area, or use the Layers palette to select the elements. This can be tedious, but be sure you’ve got what you need — and only what you need — highlighted. Once it’s selected, copy it to your clipboard.

2. Create a new document in Illustrator. Default settings are fine. Once the blank document appears, paste in the copied object. It should appear centered in the document. There should be a ton of space around it. That’s good. Since we’re dealing with vector art, scale is irrelevant. You just want to make sure everything fits within the boundaries of the document. (The “artboard” if you’re familiar with Illustrator speak.) Keep the object selected (blue outline). If you deselected it, just Select All.

3. Shrink the artboard to fit the object. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up with a bunch of blank space within the defined dimensions of the image and it will be impossible to work with. Good thing it’s super easy. With the entire object selected, go to Object > Artboards > Fit to Selected Art and you’ll get a perfect container.

4. IMPORTANT! If there are transparency effects within the object, you need to flatten it now. A lot of the time you can skip this step. But if you do, you may find that parts of the design are missing in the resulting SVG. I found it’s easy to forget this; I don’t find it intuitive that this would get lost in the SVG conversion. So go to Object > Flatten Transparency… Review the settings here to ensure you’re happy with them (sorry, I don’t have a lot of guidance here), and click OK Your image should not look different. If it does, undo, and repeat with different settings in the Flatten Transparency dialog.

5. Save. There’s no “Save for Web” option for SVG. Just regular ol’ “Save As”. Be sure to set the Format menu to SVG (svg). You could try compressed, but really SVGs are pretty small anyway, and I like to keep the code editable so I can tinker with it if needed. (Changing the color fill, for instance.) Once again there are a ton of settings presented in the SVG Options dialog, but I’ve found the default settings seem to work fine. (One change I have made is to set CSS Properties to Presentation Attributes but I’m not entirely sure yet what difference it makes.)

That’s it! You should now have an SVG ready for placement using an <img> tag, or as background-image in CSS. Just note that CSS treats SVG images a bit differently than regular JPEGs and PNGs, so you may need to add a few extra properties to keep the SVGs within their container elements in your page.

Make Advanced Custom Fields smarter about handling date fields

I love Advanced Custom Fields almost as much as I love WordPress itself. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. Most are obscure, and minor… and incredibly aggravating once you stumble upon them.

Here’s one such case. Date Picker fields are great, but no one seems to be able to agree on how to store dates in a database… other than insisting on avoiding Unix timestamps, the obvious choice.

ACF stores its dates, for some reason, in YYYYMMDD format (or, as we’d express it in PHP Land, Ymd). No delimiters at all. If you’re not going to use Unix timestamps, why not at least use the MySQL convention of Y-m-d H:i:s? But I digress.

I’m presently working on a project that merges some functionality of ACF and Gravity Forms, along with some custom code, to create a jobs board. It’s super-slick how Gravity Forms can create posts from a form submission, and even set them to pending review so a site editor can come in and review them before publishing.

But… dates. Jobs boards have a lot of dates. And while Gravity Forms offers a wealth of options for date string format, Ymd isn’t one of them. So it ends up storing the date value in the database in a format ACF doesn’t like. Because ACF is very picky. It wants that format, and no other. If the value in the field is not in Ymd format, the value displayed on the admin editing screen is just… blank. And then when you save, whatever was previously saved in that field is erased.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And thanks to the following bit of code, it won’t be. Now bear in mind, this is only altering what ACF renders on the editing screen. Once you’ve saved again from that point, the date will be stored in ACF’s preferred format, but up until then, it will be in whatever other format it was in when it landed in the database.

If you’re writing your front end code proactively, that won’t matter. Because you’re already assuming data inconsistency and using strtotime() to standardize any dates you’re working with in your templates, right? Of course you are.

OK, then. So the real goal here is just to get ACF to display the correct, saved date when you go in to edit the post, so it doesn’t then wipe out the date when you hit Save Changes.

In your functions.php file, or wherever you think is best (a plugin would be nice), do this:

function acf_smart_dates($field) {
  if ($field['value']) {
    $field['value'] = date('Ymd',strtotime($field['value']));
  }
  return $field;
}
add_filter('acf/prepare_field/type=date_picker','acf_smart_dates');

That’ll do.

Hack your hosts file to prevent distracting yourself at work

I suppose it’s a significant statement on the increasing marginalization of the computer as a work-only device. I hardly ever touch my Mac at home anymore. I really only use it for work. The problem is, I am permanently logged into Facebook and Twitter on my computer, and I am prone to distraction.

So I made the decision today to further that marginalization, by making it impossible for me to access Facebook and Twitter on my Mac. How? It’s easy! Assuming you have administrator access, at least. But why wouldn’t you? (If your Mac is a company computer and they have things so locked down, I’d say don’t worry about blocking social media sites… spend that time working on your résumé.)

These instructions are for Mac OS X. I’m not really sure how to do this in Windows. (And, honestly, I don’t care.) Instructions for Linux would be fairly similar, but you’d do it in a Terminal window and there’d be some sudo involved. (Actually, you can do that on a Mac too. I’ll give those instructions at the end.)

Now then. Open a Finder window and press Command-Shift-G. In the box, type /etc/hosts and click Go.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 7.58.15 AM

This will take you to the “hidden” /etc directory (part of the Unix subsystem) and highlight the hosts file, which is what you need to edit.

But, you can’t do it here.

Files in the /etc folder are write-protected, but if you copy it to your desktop, you can edit it. So, drag it to the desktop. (Note that since it’s a protected system file, just dragging it to the desktop will make a copy, rather than moving it.)

Double-click the hosts file on your desktop. It should open in TextEdit. (If you’re asked to pick a program, pick TextEdit.)

Place the cursor at the bottom of the file and add these lines:

127.0.0.1 facebook.com
127.0.0.1 www.facebook.com
127.0.0.1 twitter.com
127.0.0.1 www.twitter.com

So what’s happening here? Well, the numbers are IP addresses, which are the true addresses of every device connected to the Internet. Domain names (like twitter.com) are essentially “aliases” for IP addresses. Normally your computer connects to a DNS server on the Internet to look up these associations. But before it does that, it checks this hosts file. If a domain is in there, it doesn’t bother checking any further. And 127.0.0.1 is a special IP address associated with the fake domain name localhost — basically, it’s the computer’s self identification on the Internet. “Me” in other words.

There’s probably no web server running on your computer, so loading http://127.0.0.1 in a web browser will return… nothing. But even if you do have a web server running on your computer, it’s not Facebook or Twitter, so mission accomplished.

All right. Now that we have the hosts file updated, save it, and then drag it back into the /etc folder. You’ll get a stern warning from the system.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.06.50 AM

Click Authenticate. That gives you another annoying, but smaller, alert.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.08.13 AM

Click Replace. Now you have to enter your administrator username/password. Do that then click OK.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.09.15 AM

You’re done. (And note this time it moved the file from the desktop back into /etc. It doesn’t copy it like it did when you moved it to the desktop.) Now try loading Facebook or Twitter in your web browser!

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.11.22 AM

Want to do all of this at the command line instead? It’s actually a lot easier, now that I think about it. These instructions should work for either Mac or Linux. Open a Terminal window. Type sudo nano /etc/hosts and hit Enter. Move the cursor to the bottom of the file and enter the lines I gave earlier. Press Ctrl-X then Y to save your changes. That’s all! Seriously!

Note: If you’re on IPv6 (if you even know what that is), you may want or need to use ::1 instead of 127.0.0.1.

Q: Should I build an app? A: Probably not.

One of Room 34’s long-time agency partners emailed me today asking if we build mobile apps. It was a simple question. The email itself was only one sentence, and, initially, so was my response:

We haven’t yet, but it’s been on my radar to potentially pursue.

Then I gave it more thought, and realized I should flesh out that answer a bit, with an explanation of why we haven’t developed any apps. Yet.

Honestly I’m sure part of the reason is that we’re a web development shop. That’s what we do. I’d be lying — to myself — if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s some amount of a desire to “protect my territory”; apps are a threat to the web development business. Adapt or die, etc. But I think apps have been around long enough now to show the web isn’t going to die. The nature of the web and how we use it is changing, but the web itself is still a huge part of the Internet experience, and its underlying technologies (HTTP, SSL/TLS, XML, and JavaScript or JavaScript-derived tools like JSON and AJAX for sure) are fundamental to how any Internet-connected mobile app works!

Yet, I still make the argument that a lot of people who think they need an app really don’t. All they need is a mobile-friendly (ah-hem, responsive) website. So that was the rationale I laid out in the rest of my email response:

Most of the time when people have approached us about an app, I have convinced them that it didn’t make sense for their needs to do an app. But there are definitely legitimate uses.

A few reasons not to do an app, and just do a mobile website instead:

  1. Apps are more expensive to develop.
  2. Apps require more promotion to achieve awareness.
  3. Users have to make the choice to seek out the app in the App Store / Google Play and download it.
  4. Often client requirements for the app don’t involve anything a mobile website can’t do.

On top of those reasons, #2, and to some extent #3, generally means you need a marketing website to promote the app anyway, and if the user is already coming to the website, if #4 applies, there’s really no value left in creating the app, unless it’s a paid app or has ongoing in-app purchases to achieve any kind of ROI.

Reasons to create an app:

  1. Advanced features that require native device functionality, that a website can’t achieve.
  2. The app itself is a (reliable) source of revenue.
  3. The app is for an industry where it might be preinstalled on users’ devices, or required for their work.

What I didn’t mention is that the app “gold rush” is over. The potential in 2015 of a new venture to get rich with an app is approaching the odds of winning the lottery and getting struck by lightning simultaneously.

The only reason to create an app now is if it’s filling a genuine need that can’t be met with a mobile website, and it has the necessary value to the end user that the higher barrier of entry into using an app, compared to a website, can be overcome.