May 18, 2011

How IE9 could be slowing progress in web design

Filed under: web design — stephaniewrites @ 8:15 pm

Most ordinary web users know that browsers are constantly updating.  Microsoft recently launched the latest version of its Internet Explorer browser, IE9.  But why are so many uninstalling IE9, and how will this affect web development as a whole?

IE is of course not the only browser around.  Besides the popular Firefox there are the Mac-based Safari, Google Chrome and others.  For website developers this variety can be a bit of a headache: we write in code which the browser interprets, but how can we be sure all browsers read the same code in the same way? because if they do not, the consequences can be severe for a carefully designed web page.

The World Wide Web Consortium has tried to solve this by developing standards that govern the way browsers interpret code. However IE, the most widely used family of browsers because of Microsoft’s hegemony in the market, is the least “standards-compliant”. This means that websites that look good in other browsers display wrongly in IE — borders appear in the wrong place, images are too far to one side, blocks that should be centered pop up on the left, the list goes on. If the developer rewrite the code for IE, the web pages don’t look right in the other browsers.

Developers get around this by adding extra bits of code, or even entire files, to correct the display.  Understandably, they have long complained of the frustrations caused by IE’s discrepancies.

The good news is that each new version of IE is more standards-compliant than the last, culminating in the one now in general use, IE8.  But web code itself is evolving.  A new version is already here for the taking: if you’re interested it’s called html5 and css3.  And while earlier versions of Firefox and Safari have been accessing this new code for some time, IE8 cannot read it — the first Microsoft product to do so is IE9.

The new code enables imaginative web design that was previously only possible with the use of complex imagery that slowed download times.  A shadow may be added to a picture, or a coloured block containing text can be given rounded corners or funky outlines.  Websites of the future will look less rigid and more three-dimensional.  The new code allows audio and video content to be added without the use of plugins, again decreasing download time — and much more besides.

Html5 will also enhance ebooks and browser-based apps, says e-rights expert Katy Loffman.  But developers can really only design for browsers that are in current use, and with the complaints I hear against IE9, I fear it will be some time because it becomes widespread.

IE9 won’t download onto operating systems older than Vista — for XP users this means a whole new computer, with financial implications that will cause them to hesitate. Upgrades of Firefox, for example, make no such demands.

Even more worrying, many people who are able to download IE9 uninstall it very soon after.  Michael Debenham, who runs a family website, complained:  “The user interface is very unfriendly compared with IE8.  I spent a good while trying to recover my Favourites toolbar, but with no success…. I tried to find various other features that I was used to in IE8 — no success there either. At that point I gave up and uninstalled it.” And his experience is by no means unique.

You may say, “XP is finished, IE now works like Google Chrome, get used to it,” and this is fine for the web-savvy who routinely browser-hop.  It’s not ok for everyday users who just want to do what they did before, only faster.

Michael went on: “To use a motor trade analogy: if you are trying to sell a car with a turbo-charged V8 engine, superb brakes, suspension and roadholding, but rotten bodywork, seats and controls, you don’t have much of a market.”

Microsoft’s new initiative may keep us in the dark ages for some time yet.


April 20, 2011

Integrating Twentyten the easy way

Filed under: web design — stephaniewrites @ 9:42 am

It started off quite simply: I had taken over a website on behalf of a client, from another developer.  A lovely website called, with some beautiful design features and plenty to learn from.  But the client was unhappy with her Google ranking and hired a new SEO expert to improve results.

Organic rankings nowadays depend on more than just the judicious use of keywords.  The new world of SEO2 dictates that in a crowded market, blogging, social networking and site sharing all play a role in creating the high-quality inbound links that enable a site to rise above its peers.  Blogs are quickly found and indexed by Google so, asked the SEO consultant, would I integrate a new WordPress blog into the Zoesbooks website?

I do like a challenge.  I started out with no idea how to integrate any type of blog into a website and found the abundance of instructions on WordPress itself confusing, to say the least.  Most seemed to relate to powering an entire website through WordPress, and, as several bloggers have pointed out, most people don’t actually want this.  They just want a blog that’s integrated into their site.

So it was to other blogs that I turned for advice and there is plenty of it — except that most of it is out of date.  Last year WordPress updated its default “theme” (this sets the look of a blog) from Classic to the new Twentyten.  Most of the instructions I read concerned Classic, but with the advent of Twentyten, WordPress has reorganised its php files and the integration methodology has changed.

I am grateful to the many people who have blogged on this topic because without them I would not have got off the starting block (see designwebsite411 and boobox, links in the blogroll).  But perhaps something more straightforward is needed for the complete newbie who doesn’t have php code at their fingertips.  I managed the integration after much reading and a few false starts, but it needn’t be as complicated as many people suggest.

Start like this.  First, download WordPress to a dedicated folder on your computer and unzip.  Next on the server, create a new folder off the root directory of your target website and call it something like “blog”.  Upload the WordPress package to “blog” (this’ll take a while, it’s hundreds of files).  The plan is to access the blog from a button you create on the website named “Blog”, so that the link goes something like this: <a href=”/blog”>Blog </a>.  It won’t be live just yet.

For the next step, you need to have ensured that the hosting package for you website offers database support and if not you need to obtain it.  For Zoesbooks this incurred extra expense.  The host will provide four elements: database name, host name, username and password.  Here the WordPress instructions are nice and clear: insert these into a file you will find in WordPress’s root directory: wp-config-sample.php.  Do this on your own computer.   Rename the file wp-config.php, upload and go online to the blog, and it will install automatically.

Once I had done this on, hey presto! there was the blog in all its Twentyten glory, complete but not looking a big like the zoesbooks website.  The change of identity began here.

All the blogs I read agree that the first step, on your computer, is to go to wp-content/themes where you will see the twentyten folder.  Make a copy of it that will sit alongside it in the Themes folder, rename to your chosen title and upload.  Modifying a renamed copy of the Twentyten folder, rather than the original, protects agains mistakes and overwriting during software updates.  After this, the degree to which you make the blog look identical to your web pages depends on the amount of time, effort and expertise you are willing to spend, but I would like to offer this incomplete but easy method.

Ignore the older blogs’ advice to create a template web page, identical to a page of your own website but with no content — at one point I followed the blind alley of copying entire sections of WordPress php code into this template to pull in the text of the blog.  This worked but only partially, because each time I clicked on a link I was taken to the same blog with the Twentyten template.  Confusing, or what?

I suggest you also reject the more up-to-date instructions which also advocate a new template page.  They recommend that you navigate to the new theme folder, open certain files (index.php, footer.php, header.php etc) and copy entire sections of your template into them, replacing the existing WordPress code.  This is risky stuff if you’re not a php expert.

A simpler answer came as I hunted inside the WordPress blog to change its orientation from the Twentyten folder to the newly copied theme folder (identical at this point to Twentyten), an essential step if I wanted my modifications to take effect.  For this I had to go to the Dashboard, choose Appearances and re-orientate to the new folder.  But here I found other things too: a wizard for uploading a custom header, another for creating navigation buttons from the black navigation bar under the header image, one for uploading a background image and more besides.

Before I knew it I had transformed my new theme from the Twentyten default into a space that looked acceptably like  I decided, with my client’s approval, that this was good enough with a few further tweaks to the theme’s stylesheet, styles.css.  Job done.

Several things are useful to know in advance.  The main content area in a WordPress blog page is 940px and although this can be modified, the size of the header image can’t (at least I don’t think so).  So if designing a website from scratch with future WordPress integration in mind, consider making it 940px wide.  The header image space is 940x198px and I recommend that you tailor your header image precisely to this.  Anything else risks being cropped in an apparently random manner.  And one further SEO tweak: you will want your keywords, contained in the title of each post, to be reflected in the post’s url.  Do this by editing the Permalinks setting in post editing mode.

Et voilà, one integrated blog up and running.

July 19, 2010

Julie and Julia, and the tomato surprise

Filed under: cooking,home — stephaniewrites @ 3:39 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I’m always behind with films.  This explains why I have only just watched Julie and Julia, which came out last year.  For those even further behind than me it is the story of a young American woman, Julie Powell, blogging about a task she has set herself to complete in a year: to cook her way through the entire canon of recipes published by the food writer Julia Child in her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Child and her colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle co-wrote this landmark work, which popularised French cooking in 1960s America, after living in France during the 1950s and becoming professional chefs.  Elizabeth David did something similar in the UK.

The film encouraged me to return to a book I had gleaned from my mother’s bookshelves 20 years ago.  Be Your Own Chef was published in 1948 and written by the unknown Lucie Marion, a Frenchwoman married to an Englishman and with no culinary training other than her own critical palate.  Like Child, Marion belongs to that generation of women brought up with cooks but who, in adulthood and because of the societal changes brought about by World War II, had to manage without one.  As Julie Powell wrote: “Nobody here but us servantless [American] cooks…”

Be Your Own Chef made my husband and I laugh when we first found it.  My mother had never been an enthusiastic cook, though she might have tried to be in the first flush of her short-lived marriage to my father.  The book is frighteningly bossy and prescriptive and its recipes rely on a phenomenon that has long since died out – that of women who give up their jobs upon marriage in order to concentrate on their husbands.

Only in such circumstances, surely, could anyone dish up crême dubarry (cauliflower soup), matelote normande (a fish dish), rosemary brochettes (a liver dish) with paille potatoes, onion salad followed by chocolate mousse, just as an example, on a daily basis.  Be Your Own Chef presents a cycle of menus for the first week of every month of the year.  Among them, I cannot see any that my mother, a full-time translator, would have had the time to attempt.

Inspired by the film, I flicked through the pages and did find a simple recipe which I share here.  It is called Tomato Surprise and would make a light lunch or dinner starter.  Per person, take one large tomato and one egg.  Cut a lid off the tomatoes and scoop out the pips with a curved grapefruit knife.  Into each tomato sprinkle a little salt, place a small knob of butter and break an egg.  Add a bit more butter and salt on top, replace the lid, cover with greased paper and bake in a hot oven (preheated M7) for 15 minutes.

I was amazed how good this tasted, the tomato’s sharpness contrasting with the egg whose yolk was still just runny.  Try it – the surprise might be on you.

February 4, 2010

A Pippin’s Eye View

Filed under: home,Nature — stephaniewrites @ 9:24 pm
Tags: , ,

Me in the snow

Humans seem to find me sweet when I’m concentrating on gnawing leather or wood.  My ears flop over my eyes as I chew and chew, and when I look up, they laugh.

I’m nearly nine months old and the world seems to have shrunk around me.  The dining table has obligingly dropped to my eye level with its fragrant cargo of cheese, meat and bread.  My coat is thick and glossy and I’m sturdily built, but loose puppy skin still hangs at my neck.  They say I haven’t finished growing.

Life would be perfect if I could exercise properly.  My shoulder hurts and I limp, and humans think I shouldn’t run.  Val, the vet, says I might even need medicine to reduce the swelling.  But my nose is as keen as ever and I’m still able to drag my owners to the fruitiest smells in the street – messages left by my fellow dogs, Paddy or Ben perhaps?  And I don’t have much truck with this walking to heel business.  I’m an in-front sort of dog and when we’re out and about, only the smell of a biscuit holds me back.

If we’re home there’s the garden, with squawking chickens for added interest, and the gate past which most of the village must walk on its way to anywhere.  That’s where I really make friends if I’m not running wild on the Millennium Field: the dogs all know me and they never fail to stop for a sniff.

Plenty of people pass through our house.  Each has their distinctive scent which I like to inhale deeply from inside their clothing, prompting the occasional high-pitched “ooh” from ladies whose skirts have to be lifted out of the way of my nose.  These humans wear such a lot of stuff, it’s quite a fuss going out with extra socks, boots, thick coats, hats and gloves to put on.  Then there are back doors to check, keys to find and treats to stock up on, so it’s a wonder we go anywhere.

I’m a comfort lover and it hasn’t taken me long to find the best place in the house.  It’s where I am now, stretched out in front of the fire on a fluffy white rug.  The lights are dimmed and the flames are dancing in the stove.  Whenever I’m bored or restless at home, I try to remind myself of our cosy firelit evenings.  Really, life could be a lot worse.

October 5, 2009

Basket cases

Filed under: Education,Nature — stephaniewrites @ 3:12 pm
Tags: ,
Round, with integral handles

Round, with integral handles

This was the fulfilment of a long-held dream: in order to enable my daughter to learn to make baskets from willow wands, I had to join in too.

She has always been attracted to weaving and basketry and taken every opportunity a child could take to learn.  But I had to wait for her to grow taller than me before enrolling her on an adult course: this week-end, at a month shy of 14, she joined me, a friend and three other adults on a course at Woodchurch, Kent, with basketmaker Alan Sage.

So even I, who am no good at all at crafts, made a basket.  After starting us off, the ever-patient and generous Alan guided us through the stages of making the simplest shape of basket, round, which nevertheless seemed to offer an endless combination of possibilities.  I chose a large onion shape with integral handles while others made straight ones with bow handles.  My daughter embarked on a large, straight-sided handle-less version to act as her new waste-paper bin.

The task was not without its challenges.  Even once the basics were explained and demonstrated, the possibilities for error seemed multitudinous.  I only had to start chatting to someone for a weave to go wrong, and an agonised call would go up for help from Alan.  I don’t think I was alone but I may have been the one who needed the most support.  My onion shape needed to lean outwards before tilting in again, and at one stage my early effort leaned out so much I thought it had lost the plot entirely.  Alan guided the shape back in, I wove furiously and the result is surprisingly attractive.  In two days we’ve learned a lot and taken home two baskets to boot.

The challenge now is to remember how we did it and try again, with willow from our own woodland.  I will buy some books and rely on my daughter’s excellent memory to get going  as soon as possible.  With its combination of pure logic and three-D visuals, basketmaking is curiously addictive.

July 16, 2009

Nippin’ Pippin

Filed under: home — stephaniewrites @ 9:47 pm

The “drop” command is a popular one in our house.  Pippin likes to fulfil his retriever’s instincts by grabbing anything within reach, even if that thing is attached to a person.  Trouser legs are nibbled, baskets are raided, paper is chewed and, or course, he still loves his favourite items, shoes.

He is allowed plenty of chewables such as his toys, empty cardboard boxes and lumps of wood brought in from outside.  The trouble is learning which ones he can’t have, and that is where the drop command comes in.

So here it is.  The voice deepens.  The tone, from baby-sweet, waxes serious.  Drop.  A bit sharper: Pippin!  Drop!  And again – Pippin! Drop!

No reaction.  The jaws clamp shut and a mocking half-growl emerges.  Socks are the worst because they stretch and threaten to tear, and he thinks it’s fun.  So now we resort to our ultimate weapon: the water spray – one shot and he’s startled enough to back off and drop his quarry.

This strategy has been in use a few days and now it is enough just to show him the spray bottle and say “drop” for it to work.  I’m hoping that soon, “drop” alone will suffice.  Meanwhile, his obsessive need to work his jaws has earned him the colourful title “Nippin’ Pippin” from the children’s music teacher.

He may look like a labrador but Pippin is also half collie, and predicted to learn quickly.  He already sits when offered treats or meals (including when these are not on offer but he would like them to be), and stays in a room I am leaving if I put my hand up and say “stay” or “down”.  He is intrigued by the chickens but will leave them alone when restrained by our voices, dropping to the ground in collie fashion.

But like a true labrador, he can’t always restrain his appetites when tempted by grain left behind by the chickens or by the tantalising contents of the dishwasher.  Still, there’s plenty of time yet.  At 10 weeks today, Pippin is a “nipper” in more ways than one.

July 14, 2009

Pippin the heart-throb

Filed under: home — stephaniewrites @ 8:04 pm
Tags: ,

Pippin the pup knows how to get attention from strangers when he wants it.   There is a special look of intense puppiness, big eyes, fast-wagging tail and licking tongue that some people find totally irresistible.  And what’s more, he knows it: he seems to have a sixth sense for spotting a person who will fall for him.

Time for a rest

Time for a rest

Yesterday as I was closing the gate to our drive, two young men strolled past carrying tennis rackets and balls.  Pippin slipped through the nearly-closed gate and scampered after one of them.  As I called out “Pippin” increasingly urgently the young man in question noticed the pup, fondled him and walked back to me so Pippin would follow.  Today as I posted a letter in our village, Pippin stood in the doorway of the hairdresser’s shop wagging his tail furiously.  It wasn’t long before the shop’s staff were all over him.

He kept me company today as I began tidying our overgrown front garden.  He hid indoors when the mower started but ventured out again as I raked the grass, the garden quiet now but for the the distant thump-thump of a neighbour’s sound system.  Rotted leaves had created a mulch along the edges of our drive where the couch-grass encroached and fed off itself.  The metal spade rang out against the tarmac as I scraped at the layer of mulch, making Pippin bark and snap.

He likes to watch us in the house with his brow furrowed quizzically, ears cocked at a playful angle.  His thin tail, curled slightly upwards in collie fashion, waves cheerfully above him whenever his head is down.  His appetite for shoes is undiminished and all footwear is now placed beyond his reach.  I would laugh at the sight of him making off with my old Birkingstocks if I weren’t so concerned about saving them.  As for socks, he won’t let go of them until sprayed with water, so we keep the spray bottle handy.

In so many ways he is changing our lives – and we haven’t started “walkies” yet.

July 9, 2009

Pippin arrives

Filed under: home — stephaniewrites @ 7:07 pm
Tags: ,

Just when we thought the sleepless nights were over and the nappies done with, we take on a new responsibility.    A new responsibility with a wet nose, a wagging tail, two bright eyes and an eager disposition.


Pippin at nine weeks

Pippin is nine weeks old today and has lived with us for the past three days, a Labrador-collie cross from a farm in a nearby village.  I’m looking forward to long walks and games of ball throwing, watching him run with the children and the whole social life that revolves around owning a dog.

But right now he’s a pup (a necessity for a dog that has to adapt to chickens), not yet socialised or house-trained, unable to go out properly because his jabs aren’t complete, and missing his mum.  This explains why I was up at 6 this morning and 5am two days ago comforting a whining creature, why there is the occasional puddle to mop up and why, like in the old days of having toddlers, precious objects are being lifted out of reach.

He is a delight already, loves people who come to the house and will readily roll over for anyone who looks prepared to scratch is tummy.  He trails after me as I potter around the house and if I’m still, he curls up on the floor and watches my every move like a small black shadow.  He can be frisky too –  he loves to chew the furniture when he isn’t trotting off with a shoe in his mouth.

Shoes, chair legs, tissues, clothes, electric cables and human limbs are all grist to the mill, or to his teeth anyway.  I have had to create makeshift barriers out of cardboard boxes, paint chilli paste on sensitive items and even change out of flowing skirts to escape the shredding action of his small but effective jaws.

I’m assured he’ll grow out of the random chewing as well as of the occasionally painful habit of jumping up, but only if we train him properly.  The real work still lies ahead.

May 23, 2009


Filed under: Languages — stephaniewrites @ 9:14 pm
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I grew up on dictionaries.  My mother placed a few in my cot to force my head lie on a particular side.  She had plenty of them because she was a translator: there was Larousse for French, Collins for English and and assortment of bilingual aids to translation, from the general to the highly specialised.  I still own a trilingual chemical dictionary in French, English and German, forty-odd years old, which I couldn’t bring myself to part with after her death.

There were also the tiny Collinses for going truly abroad to a country whose language none of us could actually speak.  I still have the Italian one in which my sister and I taught ourselves to count.  And now I have added more for the languages I have dabbled in since: German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch.

Growing up bilingual meant that my sister and I learned our French and English more slowly than other native speakers.  We could deal with some topics only in one language until the other had had time to catch up.  Often a sentence begun in one language would call for a word we could only think of in the other, while the right word hovered on the edge of our consciousness.  Our mother, ever the strict matriarch, would not allow us to dodge the problem by talking Franglais.  Worse, some words in one language really do resemble words of the other while having a totally different meaning, and woe betide the girl who used one out of context.

As we turned constantly to our mother, the oracle of the right word in the right place in the right language, she grew exasperated and evolved a stock answer to all our languague queries:  “Look it up on the dictionary.”  This would have us reaching for the shelf and taking down the fat volume in which all the answers were inscribed.

This reflex stayed with me later on as I began to tackle the big questions in life.  Why are we here?  Is there a God?  Why do people suffer?  These existential problems plagued me, and so I longed to reach for the simple solution, the big book in which the answers were neatly listed in alphabetical order.

Whatever philosophers and theologians have written, there is no such book.  Study the Bible as I might, I still have to think for myself – growing up is the art of living with the imperfect, the tension between the ideal and the achievable.  There are no indexed answers waiting between folded pages, on a shelf in a corner of the lounge.

And yet I am still fond of browsing dictionaries.  I am often distracted, as I search for an entry, by the words in bold type at the top of each page that mark the searcher’s place in the all-powerful alphabet – filbert, overweening, purdah, thulium.  Such ill-assorted words rise to the surface of my mind as I move onto other tasks.  They may not have done much good in the cot but dictionaries remain a non-negotiable part of my life.

May 10, 2009


Filed under: Parenting — stephaniewrites @ 7:33 am
Tags: , ,

Padua Children’s Ward, at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent (UK), exudes a sense of permanence.  There is a parents’ room with comfy sofa, a TV, fridge, microwave, kettle and sink.  In the early evening parents are playing with their children in the side rooms, some with the radio on softly in the background.  A couple of hours later the little ones are asleep and all is quiet.  The place feels unhurried – to me anyway; staff are friendly and the other parents respectful.  For a place that is transient by its very nature, the ward has been made to feel like a home of sorts.

While I worked as a microbiologist at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH), I never saw the wards.  I saw plenty of little patients in lifts and corridors as I moved between labs in my white coat.  As GOSH takes only the severest cases, I knew that every adult I passed who wasn’t staff was the parent of a seriouly ill child.  This awareness was enough to sober me during my daily rounds.

So it was also a sobering experience bringing my son to Padua Ward two days ago.  We were assigned a “cubicle”, actually a tiny room with just one bed.  On our way there we passed a woman in tears outside another room where a baby squalled.  “She’s been like this for hours,” she explained to a nurse who was doing her best to comfort her.  Behind this ward’s calm façade lies the hidden drama of sick children, of parents condemned to spent long periods here, waiting, worrying, suffering.

I felt humbled as my son began to rally.  With his headache, fever, weakness and dehydration from nearly 24 hours of vomiting, he really did look terrible.  But as the time passed and he continued to keep his fluids down, I knew he was improving, and that we’d be home later that night.

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