A Word On Tools

XML is like violence - if it doesn’t solve your problems, you are not using enough of it.

I'm still here for those of you that actually emailed me to see if I moved somewhere without the internet or some such other horror. I wanted to take a little time out from the usual photography related discussion here today to talk a bit about tools and such - not photo tools but other kinds. I have been quite the busy busy guy of late and am surprised I actually had the time to take care of a niggle or two that people have been asking me to do for months and months. I hope they didn't break anything…

In any case - the busy-ness was a combination of working on another super-secret endeavor (Atomic Canary) as well as the usual massive amounts of working on other people's stuff - photography stuff and tech stuff with a strange melding of the two usually. This bit of crazy busy-ness has me all over the map with quite sustained and comprehensive use of a huge array of tools that have a lot of overlapping functionality. Some of which I love and others that I cringe in horror when faced with actually having to even look at them from a distance let alone use them. I thought I would share a few that I love along with one or two I just cannot bear.

First up is in the hate and contempt category - PHP. Specifically and worse than plain-old-PHP is Wordpress PHP. The creeping insidious horror that is that heaping, steaming, horrible set of nonsense along with it's ecosystem is beyond understanding how it survives let alone finds ubiquity in use. I had to delouse a couple of Wordpress driven web properties over the last week - never pleasant. This is specifically hilarious since I am on the verge of actually perpetrating an new instance of the same myself. Why oh why would I do such a thing?

Well… the same reason that everyone I ask does. Ummmm because people know how to use it. This past week has me rethinking that notion in a serious way. Specifically my use of that pig and all that goes along with it for Atomic Canary. The only reason that I did the prototype with Wordpress and chose to do it was that there would be multiple contributors that are not at all technical. Is this really valid? What would they actually be doing? Messing with administration? Making it secure? Making it perform well? Making a CDN work with it? Anything technical? No they would most likely be putting posts up. Would they be really using anything that is actually Wordpress? Doubt it - designing layout for pages? Making them look good? Seriously I doubt it. In fact there's a good chance any of the stuff that actually looks good will be done by me - why? Because typing text in a web box and using just what Wordpress gives you out of the box doesn't do much in terms of good looking, well done pages. Oh sure that block of p tags can be wrapped in something decent but actually laying out multiple columns, doing parallax backgrounds, image placement, portfolio references, etc, etc all take special stuff.

It take understanding and coordination of a shitload of special non-standard theme only fields and a ton of open/close pairs of short codes that are non-standard and somewhat related to marrying them up with all the other non-standard setup/field stuff. Only you get to do it with a slow cumbersome bunch of web text boxes instead of in a real editor - oh goody. This will ultimately boil down to I am going to do all that stuff - or fix it because none of it works with the other people post stuff that has layout criteria. Which means it's not easy for them and adds pain and suffering to me without even doing it in a flexible semantic kind of way - it will be doing it the wrong way. Embedded proprietary, inflexible, pain in the ass to ever change presentation pureed with content stored in a mysql server where I get to mess about with it via a tiny bunch of web text box set of useless portals - how easy… yea right.

I may actually just say the hell with that and take all the CSS I did - redo it so it's not wordpress-y and just use a real set of tools. Which brings me to some tools that I do like - a lot. First up Middleman. If you do web stuff at all spend a day figuring this out. It may be the only tool you ever need for design, prototyping, production, whatever. It's replaced Jekyll as my favorite quite a while ago. They are very similar at the end of it but Middleman is sort of a more agnostic Jekyll with the benefit of not having to be married to Github pages requirements like using only Liquid as it's templating language. Middleman is very slick and very modern - it owes a lot to Jekyll for sure but it's the new master. Heck I actually push this site using either or - that's how awesome Middleman is. I can replicate exactly what Jekyll does using Middleman - that was my original test a little while ago.

What about all the other upstart tools that claim similar capabilities while being "easy"? Like Mixture.io, Hammer for Mac, Codekit, etc. Well - under the covers they use a lot of the same open source as Middleman integrates they just do it in sometimes nonsensical, sometimes extremely limited ways. Why do they exist is really my question - oh I know - to make sure people don't ever have to fact that extremely scary command line. Ohhh yeah - WTF - really? If those people cannot handle something along the lines of "middleman build" in less than five seconds then they probably really shouldn't be dabbling about with CSS, HTML, Javascript or anything of the sort. That's the first issue with Wordpress and it's entire cesspool of an ecosystem in a hell of a lot of cases. Middleman can do and does do every single thing the rest of them do - only better, faster, and more flexibly.

Okay moving on - I deal with a lot of text in a lot of various context. The first being what we just discussed - code type stuff. I have three tools. Actually I have way more than that but only three have seen the light of day in recent memory. First up is good old VIM. Second and continually getting better is Sublime Text. Truly an accomplishment - I hope it continues to get better. I hope VIntage mode actually replaces VIM - prolly not but one can hope - right now it's sort of just useless. The third that I keep rooting for because Panic makes such pretty stuff is Coda 2. It could be great but unfortunately is hampered by Panic's pov about how modern development actually goes. It actually has like 1.73 practical uses for me but that's it. More of a curiosity than a tool for me at this point.

What about normal people text? As in words that everyone needs to understand. Well if you're on a Mac there's certainly not a shortage of really great stuff out there. As Steve Jobs would say - insanely great stuff. One of the first - not the first - but an earlier one and a good looking one I use for every single post on this blog as well as a ton of other short pieces is IA Writer for both Mac and iOS. Next up is my other Markdown-ish love Ulysses III in the right UI mode this is probably one of the prettiest applications every built. The website does not do it justice. It's very Scrivener like in function but much simpler and does not take the kitchen sink approach as Scrivener does. It's feels far more approachable and lightweight. I pretty much stick everything in there, notes, ideas, full-blown documents, everything. The latest updates are amazing in terms of handling pasting things into it, search, etc. There's actually a lot more to it than meets the eye - a mark of good design and it's brand new.

That brings us to the kitchen sink that is Scrivener. For everything this application does I do have to say it's very approachable and very fluid in how it can be used. It's a great tool and a great value. I typically use this for very very long stuff - both fiction and non-fiction. It's super powerful and all in one but actually does play nice with Markdown and other tools as well. No lock-in and very open. I even use a feature to sync all of it's internally managed text to external markdown files on dropbox so that I can get at, modify, add, and update things on the fly from my iPad etc on long projects.

Not that any of this is all that useful to most of you but for a few it just might be.


Ps. If you have even an inkling of know-how or desire to rid yourself of Wordpress and need any assistance I will help. Drop me a note or whatever and I will try to walk you through it or even do it for you if need be in my effort to make the planet a better place overall. Heck I have de-wordpressed a ton of fairly large sites and brought their content with them via a bunch of extremely complicated and custom Nokigiri Wordpress post/export parsers. I've even translated all sorts of embedded short-code presentation logic into more semantically meaningful html5 etc…

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