Thumbs up graphic

The Annual Free But Worth More Awards

Thumbs up graphicYear end brings a bunch of award and accolades, most of them for commercial products which provide a nice promotion bonus (which doesn’t mean they aren’t deserved). Year end is also when I go through and review the last year and make plans for the next (this has more to do with year end bonuses and financial planning rather than any great introspection). I try to support the things I use and like and this recent post does a good job of supporting my reasoning. Typically this is accomplished by opting for a premium level (such as Evernote & LastPass) But there’s some things I use which are free any typically have no direct paid alternative. WordPress plugins are an example. They (at least the ones I use) are free and usually done by someone scratching an itch rather than any business purpose. But WordPress changes and these plugins need upgrading, so I try to support the the important ones with donations as an incentive to keep going and make my life easier. This year I expanded to a couple podcasts I listen to regularly since most aren’t commercial ventures and they’re regular listens.

So while it doesn’t carry the same promotional weight as the Macworld Editors’ Choice Awards here are my “Free But Worth Paying For Awards” for 2011. The criteria is completely subjective and the only requirement is that there’s no commercial connection or “premium” alternative. Everything on this list is stuff I used all year (or since it became known to me) and I anticipate using all next year.So in no particular order…

WordPress Plugins

Fast Secure Contact Forms - used for the contact form on this site and has many features I’ve yet to use. It’s also frequently sup dated (sometimes to the point of annoyance) even though I haven’t had any problems.

Google Analyticator - Used to manage the Google Analytics code. Yet another plugin I’ve only scratched the surface with. I wanted a plugin that wouldn’t track my own visits and found this, but it does more and eventually I’ll dig into Google Analytics and find out what the other settings are for.

Google XML Sitemaps – It’s debatable whether or not a site map helps with search engines but I decided to go with one and have been using this one for years.

Redirection – A Plugin I’ve used since a long ago site redesign. Automatically creates redirects when a URL changes but useful for identifying broken URLs and changes so they can be fixed.

WP Super Cache – I’ve used this off an on over the years and it’s back on.

Podcasts

Home Server Show / BYOB – These two podcasts have already cost me a lot of money with all the software and tech they talk about.

Linux Outlaws – More news/interview oriented than tech tips but I still enjoy listening. Warning – the podcast gets the explicit tag for language. It’s mild but you’ve been warned.

Rathole Radio – A semi-weekly music podcast with a eclectic mix of music.

Anything else you use that’s free but worth paying for?

Blue WordPress Logo

WordPress Plugins I Use

Blue WordPress LogoWith the site redesign I figure it’s a good time to run through the WordPress plugins that I use. I try to keep the number of plugins to a minimum, looking for simplicity. With my interim design attempt I was up to 27 plugins (up from 15), which is one of the things I didn’t like. Even though I’ve added some new plugins, I also eliminated some so I’m still at 15 plugins after the site redesign.

For compatibility information – I’m using WordPress 3.2 and running the the Catalyst Theme.

Tried and True

These a plugins I’ve been using for a log time and they’ve served me well.

Akismet – an anti-spam plugin that shipped with WordPress (at least it did when I started). I haven’t had a need to switch.

Contextual Related Posts – This displays the related articles at the bottom of my posts. I’ve looked at other but this seems to give me the best results.

Fast Secure Contact Form – The provides the contact form on my About page. The plugin is actively updated and has features well beyond my needs for a simple contact form.

FeedBurner Feedsmith – I’ve used Feedburner since before it was acquired by Google. This plugin redirects the site feeds to Feedburner without having to do any coding.

Google XML Sitemaps – A plugin that automatically creates and updates site map files whenever a WordPress post or page is updated. This is one of my “must have” plugins, so much so that I’ve donated to the author to keep things going.

Hyper Cache – A caching plugin that’s server me well over time. I switched to it when a previous plugin had compatibility problems long ago.

No Self Pings – I do a lot of linking within my site and this plugin stops generating trackbacks that link within the site. Prior to this plugin I used to go in and delete them manually.

Ozh’ Who Sees Ads – This plugin allows hiding certain elements (usually ads) to regular visitors. A regular visitor can be defined within the plugin.

Redirection – I started using this plugin long ago when I did a major site redesign. In addition to being able to manually set up redirects this plugin will monitor posts & pages for URL changes and automatically add redirects to handle any URL changes.

New Kids on the Block

These plugins are recent additions to my website.

Google Analyticator – I use this plugin to add the code but not track my own visits. The plugin also adds a Google Analytics widget with the last 30 days of stats into the admin panel.

Mint – I used Mint Analytics long ago and decided to give it a try again. Mainly because it puts the site stats on my server under my control. This plugin adds the code to my website. I modified the plugin to ignore my own visits since it doesn’t do that out of the box. Ultimately I’ll look at including this code directly since the plugin doesn’t do anything beyond adding the line of code needed but it was quicker to go the plugin route.

Official StatCounter Plugin – Another analytics service I’m trying out is StatCounter and this plugin adds their code to my site. It can also be set to ignore my own visits. The plugin also integrates the StatCounter website into the WordPress admin panel.

Recently Popular and WordPress Popular Posts both keep track of which posts get viewed the most over time. Since both require collecting stats over time I’ll run them in parallel for awhile and will eventually pick one.

WPtouch Pro – This is a paid plugin that provides the mobile version of my website.

Ready When Needed

These two plugins aren’t needed all the time so stay deactivated until needed.

Regenerate Thumbnails - A huge time saver during the redesign, Allowed me to re-size all the thumbnails in about 10 minutes.

Simple “Coming soon” And “Under construction” – A plugin that allows logged on users through but shows a Coming Soon or Maintenance page to all others. Useful when doing maintenance or firs building the site.

Any plugins you’d recommend in place of these, or in addition to them?

Mountains and clouds in New Hampshire

The OS Quest Trail Log #54: Vacation is Over Edition

Mountains and clouds in New HampshireIt had to happen sometime, my vacation is ending and it’s back to corporate America on Monday. This blog was silent for a month with barely a peep the month before that but things picked up recently. Vacation was a trip to the White Mountains followed by a week around the house with a lot of computer time during the last week. As luck would have it the trip was during the bad week of weather.

A New Laptop & Encryption

Prior to vacation my new Dell laptop arrived with just enough time to get it set up. It’s always fun to get a new computer. I’ve been using it quit a bit around the apartment rather than my desktop. I’m sitting on the patio now as I type this up.

I also took a look at TrueCrypt as a way to secure my laptop on its travels. I started off playing it safe, planning to encrypt a USB drive which I would take with me. That went so well I decided to go for broke and encrypt the entire system drive. So far it’s working great and I don’t have any complaints about performance.

In retrospect the one thing I might have wanted to look for in a laptop with a CPU that supported AES hardware acceleration. I hadn’t seriously considered encryption until after I got my laptop and I didn’t even know the feature existed. As it is, a CPU that support hardware accelerated AES doesn’t appear to be an option in the Dell Inspiron line at this point, although some higher level i5 CPUs do support it.

WordPress Changes

I also spent some time looking at my sites and WordPress. I’d gotten sloppy in my testing so while I was busy keeping the site code up to date my WP Super Cache plugin stopped caching and went unnoticed. I spent some time trying to troubleshoot it but finally got frustrated enough to look for an alternative. I found two complementary caching plugins which are running now.

I also finally fixed the plugin I use to announce new posts on Twitter. In this case I knew it was broken due to the change to oAuth authentication. In my quest to keep things lean I wasn’t running the Curl library for PHP. Once I added PHP-Curl the plugin worked fine.

Security and Browsers

I also got around to plugging a month old security vulnerability that Microsoft isn’t fixing in order to avoid breaking any apps. Hopefully Microsoft will fix this on their own. I can kind of see their point, if an app is written properly and doesn’t rely on the default search order there’s no problem. If the app does rely of the default search order then their patch may break it. I haven’t had any problems since installing the patch although it’s only been a day. I suspect they’ll roll out the patch once there’s some history of problem free patching.

I also decided to give the IE 9 beta a spin. I must have some hidden desire to abuse this new laptop. Since IE isn’t my default browser there wasn’t much risk. I’m actually pretty impressed. It seems fast. The bad news is it has the same problem rendering the footer of my website’s home page that earlier IE version have. I long ago stopped caring about IE, as long as it was usable. If the site renders find in Firefox, Safari and Chrome then it’s OK with me.

Still, Internet Explorer 9 is going to be a lot of new code. I suspect it will have a lot of new security holes in that shiny new code. So while the first impression is it doesn’t suck anymore, I don’t see it replacing Chrome for me in the future.

On Deck

There’s a few more things I started looking at or working on while on vacation. History tells me I won’t get to them all, at least not soon.

I downloaded the latest Windows Home Server 2 (Vail) beta software. I’ve yet to install anything but home to do so on my spare test box. I need to look into things some more but I expect I’ll be building a new server for Vail. There’s not going to be any upgrade path on the old server since this is typically sold as an appliance by OEMs. Even if it could be upgraded it’s safer to go to new hardware with all that data. My test box is more powerful than my current WHS so it may actually end up being suitable for my new WHS. At least if I can start testing it I’ll get an idea of the hardware and memory requirements.

Despite the relatively bad weather I did take some pictures in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (like the one at the top of this article). I’m still getting used to the various photo software I have available to see which I like. The stuff that came with my Canon camera is remarkably good for bundled software. I’ve also been looking at Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery although these appear to be better suited for organization and minor editing. I’ve been working on getting familiar with Aperture 3 as it seems best suited as a combination organizer/manager and editor.

So it’s back to work tomorrow. Hopefully after the initial surge of work when I return I’ll have enough time for fun with computers and be able to keep the posts coming.

Tile for WordPress Plugin posts

WordPress Caching Plugins

Tile for WordPress Plugin postsWP Super Cache has long been my “go to” plugin for improving performance of WordPress. But that just changed.

There was an update to WP Super Cache recently and I installed it. I had some time and did some testing beyond making sure the site didn’t break and what I found was that the plugin really wasn’t working. Unfortunately I haven’t been completely testing each and every change to the site. If nothing breaks I consider it good although I hadn’t gone so far as to verify pages were being cached. Somewhere in the past it appears the WP Super Cache plugin stopped caching many pages. I can’t say if it was an earlier upgrade to the plugin or if it was something I added/changed that Super Cache couldn’t handle. It wasn’t the latest update as another of my sites that was still on the older plugin had the same problem.

I spent some time troubleshooting over the course of a couple days, doing the usual things. Google searches, uninstall.re-install, checking logs and so on. The strange thing was that testing worked (mostly) and the logs said things were cached. Some pages were in fact cached while most weren’t. Due to the increasing frustration I turned it off and decided to take a break and return with fresh eyes in a week or so.

Instead I looked for alternatives and found two of them that appear to complement one another.

DB Cache Reloaded

First off is DB Cache Reloaded which takes a different approach to caching in that it caches queries rather than pages. Among other benefits this helps with bots. Bots (such as Google’s search crawlers) traverse the pages, hitting each one just once. A typical page cache, such as WP Super Cache or the next plugin I mention, don’t help with the bots. Well, unless the page was already cached before the bot arrived. Since many WordPress pages make the same database calls DB Cache Reloaded will help reduce the CPU load as the bot traverses the pages since they will make many of the same queries.

DB Cache Reloaded is not going to give the same speed boost as Super Cache or Hyper Cache when feeding a page already cached, but it’s going to reduce CPU and memory load on the server when those bots hit. It’s also going to improve performance for the infrequently visited pages.

With Google now saying they include website speed when ranking search results, the performance that the bots receive is also going to help. DB Cache Reloaded avoids the need to cache every page on the site just to help the bots.

Hyper Cache

Hyper Cache provides the same basic functionality as WP Super Cache with the main difference being it’s easier to configure (needing very little). WP Super Cache has gotten easier to configure over time, and now has an “easy setup” but to get the best performance you need to configure it via .htaccess files. Hyper Cache had the added benefit for me in that it worked on my site.

Hyper Cache won’t be active if you’re logged onto WordPress, so for cache testing you’ll need a second browser that’s not logged in. (Or use Google Chrome’s incognito mode – I assume another browser’s private browsing mode would work too, but haven’t tried anything other than incognito.)

Unlike WP Super Cache my testing shows Hype Cache is working across all my pages.

The Dynamic Duo

The two caching plugins seem like the perfect compliment to one another. DB Cache Reloaded caches the queries which reducing CPU and memory load, even for the bots and for infrequently viewed pages. I actually came across my Super Cache problem when trying the “preload” feature to help the bots. DB Cache Reloaded seems like a better solution, at least for me. For one thing, DB Cache Reloaded uses a lot less disk space since it doesn’t cache each and every page.

Hyper Cache works like Super Cache and provides the more mainstream page caching for the pages that are frequently accessed.

I haven’t come across any problems with either plugin or with them working together. I’m using the default settings for each plugin at this time. I am on the latest WordPress version (3.01) and there may be problems with earlier versions. I’m hoping to get some time to do actual benchmarks but the speed seems good to me. Time will tell.

Quick Bits - WordPress category tile

PHP-CURL Library Added to Apache

Quick Bits - WordPress category tileI’ve previously written about the modules needed to run a WordPress site, or at least my site. It was a pretty basic list as I like to keep things simple. I’ve been using the Twitter Tools add-in to send a tweet whenever I post a new article to this site. Twitter began requiring OAuth authentication for apps like these and the change broke Twitter Tools for me. I finally got around to tackling the problem today.

I was receiving the message

Call to undefined function curl_init()

whenever I tested the connection to twitter. A quick visit to the support page showed I needed the curl library for PHP. The installation was straightforward:

>sudo aptitude install php5-curl

Once it was installed I needed to restart Apache so the library would be used:

>sudo /etc/init.d/apache2 restart

Then everything was just fine.