One Year Of Daily New Screwdriver Posts

When asked how to be a better writer, many successful writers give the same advice: start writing and keep writing. It doesn’t matter the topic or the length. It doesn’t matter if there is only an audience of one (yourself). Write. As much and as often as you can, write. There’s no guarantee that writing more will necessarily lead anywhere, but it is certain that not writing will not lead to success.

On a parallel front, I had been worried about my chosen path of independent study. Without an established curriculum or schedule, it was all too easy to lose track of what I’ve tried, what I’ve learned, and how I’ve improved as a result. To prevent this, and to keep myself motivated and accountable, I decided to start recording my progress in the format of blog posts.

Hence was born this blog site, Named after an offhand reference made by Dr. Who about “inventing a new type of screwdriver” this was a record of my adventures and also a long term and continuing writing exercise. The very first post was about WordPress itself, because that’s obviously what I had to learn to set up this blog. The adventures went on from there. I described projects big and small. I documented significant advances and useless distractions. I wrote about new discoveries and popular knowledge that were nevertheless new to me. Some posts were packed with useful information, some were just mindless rants of a flailing man. But they had one thing in common: it’s what I had been doing with my time.

I eventually settled on a target length of 300 words – any shorter and it’d be difficult to have a whole story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Any longer, and we see diminishing returns on the time it took to write and read. 300 words takes about an average of a half hour to write, and less than five minutes to read. It seemed like a practical size for the project.

A distressing number of internet blogs start with a few strong posts, then trail off into inactivity. (Sometimes they have only a single post!) I was determined not to let this happen to my own blog, but it took a conscious effort to keep things going. After some pauses and restarts, eventually I could keep up the pace of a post every three days, then a post every other day, then a post every single day. I was content with that pace. Some days I have successes that took multiple ~300 word posts to write up, and they will fill in the days when I was either struggling and had little to talk about, or fully occupied and unable to write.

Today I celebrate a milestone marked by a screenshot from WordPress blog dashboard: there has been a blog post every single day for the past twelve months. I expect that at some point in the future I wouldn’t be able to keep up the daily pace, but today I’m writing down a reminder for myself: I was able to stay with the program for a whole year. Hooray!

Lightweight Google AMP Gaining Weight

Today I received a notification from Google AMP that the images I use in my posts are smaller than their recommended size. This came as quite a surprise to me – all this time I thought I was helping AMP’s mission to keep things lightweight for mobile browsers. It keeps my blog posts from unnecessarily using up readers’ cell phone data plans, but maybe this is just a grumpy old man talking. It is clear that Google wants me to use up more bandwidth.

AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages, an open source initiative that was launched by Google to make web pages that are quick to download and easy to render by cell phones. Cutting the fat also meant cutting web revenue for some publishers, because heavyweight interactive ads were forbidden. Speaking for myself, I am perfectly happy to leave those annoying “Shock the Monkey” ads behind.

As a blog writer I don’t usually worry about AMP, because they automatically creates and serves an AMP-optimized version of my page to appropriate readers. And since I don’t run ads on my page there’s little loss on my side. As a statistics junkie, I do miss out on knowing about my AMP viewership numbers, because people who read AMP cached versions of my posts don’t interact with servers and don’t show on my statistics. But that’s a minor detail. And in theory, having an AMP alternate is supposed to help my Google search rankings so I get more desktop visitors than I would otherwise. This might matter to people whose income depends on their web content. I have the privilege that I’m just writing this blog for fun.

Anyway, back to the warning about my content. While I leave AMP optimization up to, I do control the images I upload. And apparently I’ve been scaling them down too far for Google.

amp image recommend 1200 wide

I’m curious why they chose 1200 pixel width, that seems awfully large for a supposedly small lightweight experience. Most Chromebook screens are only around 1300 pixels wide, a 1200 pixel wide image is almost full screen! Even normal desktop web browsers visiting this site retrieves only a 700 pixel wide version of my images. Because of that fact, I had been uploading images 1024 pixels wide and thought I had plenty of headroom. Now that I know Google’s not happy with 1024, I’ll increase to 1200 pixels wide going forward.

Unexpected find: ThingLink and its business

A Science News article online experimented with interactivity not possible in their print edition. It was fairly simple at first glance: when a cursor hovers over certain places in the image, additional information pops up. Seen all over the web, like the little pieces of trivia behind background picture of the day.

What caught my attention is the link in the corner: “Made with ThingLink, Learn More” What I had thought was a simple piece of HTML is actually a business built around the concept.

A brief exploration found that ThingLink hosts the image (and associated server storage and bandwidth) plus the interactive scripting. The package of content is then available to be served alongside content hosted elsewhere, such as I can embed a ThingLink right here in this post, if I had something interesting to show.

There’s a basic level of the service for free. To make money, they sell higher tiers with features like customization, branding, and analytic information. I’m ignorant on how this information might be valuable, but ThingLink has an idea: they believe the full set of features is worth over $200/month to some people.

So definitely not just a trivial piece of HTML. It is the tip of the iceberg of a corner of web commerce I didn’t even know existed before today.

WordPress clients everywhere

The first step of documenting my experience on WordPress is… talking about WordPress itself. Self-referential, yes, but it actually served as a great introduction into a different mindset: Software as a Service (SaaS).

WordPress is itself a content management system designed to run entirely over the web. Not only is the content stored on a remote server, the management UI (like the text editor I’m typing this in) is served by the WordPress service over the web. There is no application to install on my computer. When I want to work on my WordPress site, I use my web browser.

SaaS is gradually taking over a lot of the software world, and as a Windows developer, I’ve been missing a lot of the action. It’s time to get to know this new cloud-based world. A world where the service is available anywhere there’s a web browser, because a browser is all the client software you’d ever need.

Or… is it?

It turns out the client-side software concept is not dead, not quite. And not even at WordPress. While it was no surprise to learn that WordPress have mobile apps to access the service on iOS and Android, I was greatly amused to learn they have also introduced desktop client software for Linux, MacOS, and…. Windows.

Yep, Windows client software.

What is old is new again.