Rants, raves, and geeky nonsense!

Star Wars: The New Canon

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Star Wars: Aftermath

So, I just finished reading Star Wars: Aftermath. Good book! After reading it, I have some thoughts about all the new Star Wars books, comics, and TV shows since Disney acquired Lucasfilm.

Some weeks ago I decided to jump in and start reading all the Star Wars books that are part of the new canon. I've been reading all the new Marvel Comics books and have enjoyed them thus far...just hadn't read any of the novels.

For those that don't know, when Disney acquired Lucasfilm they decided to hit the reset switch on the Star Wars universe, effectively throwing out all continuity built up with previous books, comics, TV shows, games, and more. What was known as the Extended Universe now became the Legends continuity. Looking at the timeline of Legends media it's easy to see why Disney made that decision. Granted, some fantastic stories can be found within the Extended Universe. However, with hundreds of stories written there would be no way for new films to be created that fit in with that universe. As such, creating a fresh start is the most logical thing to do.

Upside of this is that a whole new audience can jump in and enjoy the new canon without having to invest a whole lot of time and money. I thought about jumping in on the Extended Universe books and comics but felt just overwhelmed by the sheer number of titles out there. The new canon feels a lot more approachable. Not only that but it feels like Disney and Lucasfilm are making a consorted effort to keep the timeline of canon media tidy and neat without screwing up the continuity of the universe.

Given that Marvel Comics is now in charge of the comics (Dark Horse Comics was the previous licensee for years) I wonder if Marvel's experience of managing large amounts of continuity is at play. Kind of feels like it, especially after reading Aftermath along with all the current Star Wars comics by Marvel.

Aftermath is interesting in that, while it has a pretty large story, it's not overreaching or presenting large ideas that could potentially create continuity problems. The goal seems to be to fill in the gaps between movies and show how the Empire tried to manage themselves and continue on after the destruction of the second Death Star as well as the death of both the Emperor and Darth Vader. It's good fun and gives us a solid series of stories that will eventually lead to the formation of the First least that's how it appears. Aftermath is actually the first in a trilogy of books so it'll be interesting to see what happens in the next two books. We might not necessary see the formation of the First Order but we'll at least get a glimpse into the continued downfall of the Empire that eventually led to the First Order.

And that's just Aftermath! The comics are even more fun! From the main Star Wars comic, to Darth Vader, to the various mini-series comics devoted to characters like Lando, Leia, Chewbacca, and Kanan (from the Star Wars Rebels TV series), the comics give us a more in-depth look at characters we know and love without completely stomping on the continuity created by the films. The latest issues of Star Wars have been particularly interesting, especially as they relate to Han and Leia's relationship. I'm not giving anything away. Let's just say that rather interesting wrinkle is presented that leaves Leia at pause as to what kind of a guy Han really is. Scoundrel!

So, what's next? Well, I'm already halfway into Before the Awakening and plan on reading The Force Awakens novelization. After that, probably will dive into The Rise of the Empire which includes both Tarkin and A New Dawn. Suffice to say, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the new canon books. :)

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Happy New Year 2016!

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So, here we are with a new year upon us. Time to reflect on the previous year, what we've learned, and what has changed. As a web designer and developer, quite a bit has changed since the beginning of last year.

For starters, I've adopted a new CMS platform called Statamic and have made it my go-to CMS for smaller sites that don't have a ton of complex content requirements and relationships. The interesting thing about Statamic is that it's a flat-file system, meaning that it doesn't use a database. This makes Statamic inherently more secure compared to the likes of <ahem!> WordPress. Granted, there are other flat-file systems out there that are worth considering (ie. Grav, Kirby, Pico, and others) but I ended up coming back to Statamic, especially after the version 2 beta was announced. I'm looking forward to seeing how I can leverage Statamic as a worthwhile alternative to more popular platforms. I have ideas on how to do it. Just a matter of putting a plan in place and going for it.

I continue to use SilverStripe as one of my CMS platforms of choice, especially for projects that have complex content requirements with lots of relationships. SilverStripe closed out the year by released a stable 3.2 version of the CMS and framework. Like Statamic, I'm looking forward to finding better ways to leverage how I market SilverStripe to my clients.

For front-end design, I still continue to use Bourbon as my go-to Sass library for projects that require a heavy amount of design customization. I still use Twitter Bootstrap for some projects but I'm also looking forward to checking out the new version of Foundation (version 6). I built a few sites on previous versions of Foundation and found Bootstrap to be easier to deal with. However, I'm very curious about this new version so I'll be checking it out to see if they improved some of the quirks that made previous versions weird to work with.

I've also adopted the use of Pattern Lab on one project. So far, the experience has been quite positive and my partners seem to really like it as well. It was a little weird and quirky to work with at first but, once I found my groove, I found that it can really improve your workflow and process. The whole Atomic Design methodology is quite interesting and presents a better way to approaching the whole content-first/mobile-first way of thinking. Creating a whole design system with modular components feels like a much better approach compared to what I had been doing for sure.

Another big change is switching from Sublime Text to Atom as my code editor of choice. This wasn't an easy choice. I've been using Sublime Text for some time now and really liked it for it's speed and flexibility. Honestly, there was really no need to switch. The main reason I switched is...well...I was greatly concerned with the lack of progress with the Sublime Text 3 Beta. I had been using the version 3 beta for nearly two years and, in that time, it just felt like new versions were being released at less and less frequency. At the time of this writing, the last beta 3 release was released in March 2015. I'm not the only one with concerns about the longevity of Sublime Text. Reading the posts on the Sublime Forum reveals that a lot of developers are just as concerned as I am. As such, I felt it was time to jump ship and find another text editor that is similar to Sublime Text but offers more support and more frequent updates. Atom most certainly fits that bill and, while it's not a 100% carbon copy of Sublime Text, it definitely gets the job done.

Last year was certainly an interesting year for continued learning and reading.

I started learning more about different javascript frameworks and libraries, completed one project using Knockout and started some online learning on Ember. This year, I plan on learning more about React which I think will be a good alternative to Knockout for projects that don't need a heavy handed framework like Ember but a simple library that can snap into any page on a website.

I've read some of the books by A Book Apart and plan on finishing all of them in the first quarter of this year. I'll also be revisiting a few books that have received new editions: Hardboiled Web Design: Fifth Anniversary Edition and Adaptive Web Design Second Edition. Also, after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens (If you haven't seen the movie...shame on you! What's wrong with you?), I have a renewed interest in reading more novels and plan on catching up on all the latest Star Wars books. Hope to read at least one book every two weeks.

Perhaps the biggest change for me is realizing that I have to take my business to the next level. 2015 was an interesting year for Soulcraft Group. I'm continuing to work with some great partners and establish more relationships with wonderful clients. But with that comes change in terms of how I approach my business. I started off wanting Soulcraft Group to be more or less a network of different companies and people all coming together to accomplish the same goal: to design and build online solutions for small to mid-sized businesses with an emphasis on quality. While that is still true, I've also come to the conclusion that I need to market Soulcraft Group for what it really is, namely me. Once I came to that realization, it became clear how I need to market my little company: as a full-blown marketing and design agency. My partners will continue to be a part of the way I market my company. While I'm good at web design and development, I'm terrible in other areas like online marketing, social media, video production, and other things that I suck at. You can expect a modest update to my site and how I market my services.

So, that's it for the year! Looking forward to the new year with exciting things to come! :)

Why we don’t use WordPress anymore

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Interesting post on Medium that sums up my top reasons for not using WordPress. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the popularity of WordPress. It’s by far the most popular CMS platform on the web, which makes it a big target for hackers. Seems like lately I've been seeing more and more and more stories about XSS (cross-site scripting) vulnerabilities with WordPress. For the types of sites most web designers and developer use WordPress for, I wonder how much interest there is for more modern, more secure alternatives. Modern platforms like SilverStripe, Statamic, and October offer far more flexibility while maintaining security.

The Internet IS broken

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Wrote a response to an op-ed commentary on the Chicago Tribune’s website entitled “The Internet isn’t broken. Obama doesn’t need to ‘fix’ it.” by Ajit Pai and Joshua Wright. The argument is being framed wrong. The problem isn't Net's infrastructure.

Why I Killed Google Apps

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Today, I decided to completely do away with Google Apps for my primary domains. The reasons are numerous but, for sake of brevity, I’ll list my top 5 reasons with a bit of detail for each.

I’ve been meaning to look at alternatives to Google Apps for some time now. I don’t really use many of Google’s apps except mail, calendar, and contacts. Most of what I do use is tied to my Gmail address so it really doesn’t do me much good to keep my domains on Google Apps anymore. That could be reason enough but, honestly, there are a number of things that made me want to do away with Google Apps and seek out alternatives:

1. IMAP is wonky and ssslllooowww!

Google’s IMAP implementation isn’t exactly to spec so many email clients and apps have problems with it. Heck, Apple has been fighting with it for the past two years trying to get performance issues squared away with the default Mail application in Mac OS X. On top of that, it’s slow as molasses and sometimes takes forever to bring up new mail. Performance and reliability are the two things that I expect the most out of the online services I use…especially email. Which is why I’m having a hard time understanding why Google, one of the biggest internet providers, isn’t as fast and reliable as it should be.

2. Spam protection not as good as Gmail

Since switching to Google Apps, I’ve noticed that spam protection is a bit hit and miss compared to Gmail. With Gmail, I rarely had any legitimate email land in the Spam folder. With Google Apps though, it always seems like the same email ends up in the Spam folder no matter what I did. I tried updating the spam settings in Google Apps several times, adding email addresses to a “legit" list, but they kept landing in Spam anyways. Kinda frustrating to say the least. Why is there such a discrepancy between how spam protection works between Gmail and Google Apps?

3. Quirky calendar behavior

I typically use a combination of the default Apple Calendar apps (OS X and iOS) and Fantastical for all my calendaring needs. For the most part, integration with Google calendars works but with some quirks. On occasion, I’ve had problems moving an event from one calendar to another, which results either in an error or the event getting stuck on a specific calendar. I’ve also had problems with invites where the same invite keeps showing up in the Calendar inbox and can’t be dismissed. Both issues were rather annoying and, when they happen, about the only solution is to delete the event and recreate it.

4. Privacy concerns

This is a rather mild complaint but one that I’m still a bit concerned about. Many folks online have raised concerns about how Google uses information about activity and data use with Google apps. Their passive approach to parsing keywords and text in email for better ad placement is one thing. But what about the data they collect on our activity within all the different Google-based applications? Are they selling this data? Personally, I’m less concerned about anyone knowing what I do online than I am not know whether a company is selling this information without my knowledge. Transparency seems to be the big issue here and, while it’s a minor gripe, it’s still one that has a bit of weight in my decision to not use Google Apps.

5. Lock-in

Something tells me that Google will likely do away with IMAP (and POP) altogether in favor of dedicated apps using Google API’s. Same applies to Apple’s calendar apps which might not be playing nice with the Google API’s. Again, this may not necessarily be Apple’s fault. My guess is that Apple may be trying to maintain a standardized approach using CalDAV with the Calendar apps but, just like IMAP, Google’s implementation is rather quirky causing some issues with certain features. Granted, IMAP, POP, and even CalDAV are pretty old standards so it would be understandable if Google did away with them in favor of a more modernized approach. However, doing so will greatly narrow the software solutions businesses have in using Google Apps. As such, I would imagine many businesses will migrate away from Google Apps if this happens to avoid any sort of lock-in.

So, what did I end up doing?

Well, for starters, I switched to FastMail for email. So far, I’m impressed with the speed and responsiveness of their servers. I can definitely tell a difference between using FastMail and using Google Apps. It’ll be a while before I know how well spam protection works but my first impression is good.

For calendar and contacts, because I’m in an all Apple environment, I decided to stick with iCloud. Syncing is pretty stable and almost instant. Invites are also more stable and just work as expected. Right now, I don’t have need of any business solutions but in the future, if I do, I’ll likely just use FastMail to share calendars and contacts between multiple users.

For file syncing, I’m currently sticking with Dropbox. I tried Google Drive but just found that it doesn’t work well for syncing data with apps like 1Password and TextExpander. I considered switching to iCloud Drive but found that there still isn’t any apps that allow for browsing your files like you can with Dropbox. Plus, unlike Dropbox, iCloud Drive doesn’t appear to allow you to share files and folders with others in a collaborative way, which is critical for most of the projects I work on. What I’ll likely end up doing is keeping Dropbox for basic business use and using iCloud for personal stuff.

For documents (notes, spreadsheets, presentations), I rarely used Google except for the occasional spreadsheet. Most of the documents I create tend to be within Apple-based apps like Page and Keynote. For notes and text-based document, I mostly use Evernote. I’m also considering the use of Markdown documents for the creation of web content in an effort to speed up the process of converting semantic text to HTML. Most of these documents end up in a folder that gets synced up through Dropbox for easy sharing and backups.

I’ll still maintain my Gmail account, which I’ve had forever, but will keep a fairly low profile with it. It’ll primarily be used for Google+, YouTube, and that sort of thing. One thing I should look into is updating my Google profile and see if I can turn off certain settings in an effort to maintain greater anonymity. I’m sure there are features that can be turned off but, like Facebook, they’re probably buried under 9 million different sub levels of settings.

Suffice to say, I’m glad I switched away from Google Apps. The upside is that I can pick and choose which solutions are the best for me while maintaining a level of privacy that I’m comfortable with. Along with that comes a nice boost in performance which, when it comes to productivity, is always a good thing. Like they always say, “time is money”, right?