Category Archives: edtech

Yes! We have no THATCamp

I work extensively with universities, but I don’t really think of myself as of universities anymore. One of the things that has most stubbornly kept me connected to the academic world has been the yearly pilgrimage to RRCHNM for THATCamp. Since leaving grad school, it’s been one of my last remaining interfaces with academia where I don’t feel like a service provider, but like an equal participant (kinda the point of THATCamp).

This year, there’ll be no THATCamp at CHNM. Until today, it hadn’t dawned on me that not only am I missing my usual summer kick-off, but I’m also missing my annual reminder that I used to be a geek-leaning academic rather than an academic-leaning geek.

On that note, an only slightly irrelevant clip:

Five years of BuddyPress

I started working with BuddyPress by accident. In February 2009, I responded to a tweet from my friend Matt Gold asking for help with a CSS issue on a site he was working on. That site was the still-in-beta CUNY Academic Commons, running on the still-in-beta BuddyPress. Within a few weeks, I was doing paid work for Matt’s project, working with BP (and WP, and web software in general) for the first time. And BuddyPress 1.0 came out just a few weeks after that.

Over the last five years, BuddyPress has taken over my professional life. I began by writing BP plugins. I started to contribute to BP itself through support and patches. I became a member and eventually a lead on the core team. My consultation work involves BuddyPress almost exclusively; this success (in terms of both money and impact) emboldened me to drop out of graduate school. People know me as “the BuddyPress guy”. When you type “boone gorges” into Google, it suggests “boone gorges buddypress”.

I feel very grateful to have stumbled into the project when I did. It aligns with many of my philosophical and political positions: the primacy of people over content, the importance of data ownership and free software, the fight against parasitic software vendors in public institutions. I’ve met some good friends through my association with BP. I’ve leveraged my expertise into a fun and comfortable career.

But the fact remains that it’s all been a fluke. When I realized it’s been five whole years, I couldn’t shake the thought: WTF. How strange to devote such a large part of one’s life to something that was such an accident. [Something something destiny something something forks in the road something.] I got lucky because I happened to stumble into something that was a particularly good fit for me. But I also took many leaps of faith along the way: agreeing to work on the CUNY Academic Commons when I had pretty much no idea what I was doing, submitting my first patches to BP, quitting my job, upping my rates, donating huge amounts of time to the free project instead of doing paid client work. I’m glad I had the guts to make each of these leaps.

Happy birthday to BuddyPress, and happy anniversary to me. Here’s to many more happy accidents!

GPL and free software language for government contracts

This weekend at BuddyCamp Miami (which ruled btw) I chatted with a number of folks about putting GPL clauses into client contracts. It can be especially challenging when working with universities or other bureaucracies that have hardcore, work-for-hire-ish intellectual property clauses already built into their consultant contract boilerplate. On a number of occasions, my clients and I have worked with the legal departments at universities to develop new language that fits the spirit and law of GPL software. In my opinion, this kind of work is among the most important work I’ve done since I started in this business, even more important than most of the software I’ve written. By having the discussions with legal, and by getting free-software-friendly boilerplate on their books, we take steps toward legitimatizing free software in the university, and making it part of the culture.

Anyway, I was asked privately to share some of this contract language, and I figured it would be more useful to do it in a blog post than in an email. So here are a few examples that have been approved by the legal departments at large universities. (Side note: We should come up with a system for sharing these kinds of strategy docs in a more organized way.)

  1. This clause replaced one university’s extremely restrictive IP boilerplate:

    Foundation acknowledges and agrees that enhancements, bug fixes and other custom developments produced under the scope of this agreement will be subject to release under the GNU Public License v2, or another compatible and relevant open-source license.

  2. The following clause is added as a footnote to the existing language about IP:

    Section VIII (1-3) shall not apply when work is being performed in the public domain. Consultant agrees to comply with the GNU General Public License version 2, as set out in the Attachment #2, when work is being performed in the public domain.

    A few notes about the language in this second example (which their lawyers wrote, not me). First, “Attachment #2″ is a copy of the GPLv2. Second, I think there is a little bit of confusion here about “public domain”, because strictly speaking, “public domain” means that no one owns the copyright, while the GPL is dependent on copyright. I think the spirit of the phrase “performed in the public domain” is supposed to be something like “written for public consumption”. But a literal reading of this clause probably means that I must relinquish copyright over the work done under this contract into the public domain. In this specific case, the end goal is for me to extend one of my existing GPL-licensed WordPress plugins; so I will then be integrating this newly-created public-domain code into the plugin, and then distributing the whole thing under the GPL, with a note that the newly added library is in the public domain. This is not ideal, but it’s OK for this case where I’m building a standalone add-on for my own work – good enough not to continue negotiations :)

If I can dig up others, I’ll post them here. If you have real-life examples, please share in the comments.

Doom and gloom upon the offing of Google Reader

This week, Google announced that it’s shutting down Reader. This is the first of Google’s “sunsets” that hits me personally – Reader has been a crucial part of my internet use for the better part of a decade. I happen to think, like Marco Arment, that in the long run the loss of Google Reader will probably be good for innovation in RSS readers and for RSS in general. Google’s hamstrung app has been just good enough for people like me, but non-approachable for non-geeks. A year from now, I’m hoping that there’ll be many more quality players. So, in the long run, I’m reasonably optimistic.

More immediately, though, a couple of causes for concern:

  1. Finding an alternative to Reader. My RSS reading habits are too ingrained for me to abandon them, even for a short time. More than that: following RSS feeds is beyond mere habit, but is check on my intellectual honesty. I follow many blogs whose authors I frequently disagree with, or even dislike. (Contrast this with Twitter, where I’m pretty fickle about whom I follow, and how many tweets/links I pay attention to.) So RSS is, for me, a partial antidote to the echo chamber tendency. That means that I’ve got to find a new app, and migrate over, and I’ve got to do it quickly.

    There have been a number of posts over the last couple days listing Reader alternatives. A number of them are cloud/service based, and for practical reasons (such as, um, Google Reader) as well as philosophical reasons (see below), I’m only considering alternative tools that I can run either locally or on my own server. A couple that spring to mind:

    • Fever. I’m interested in this one because (a) the screenshots make it look nice, and (b) it comes highly recommended by people I respect, like D’Arcy Norman. I like that it’s self-hosted. I don’t like the fact that its sustainability model is to charge for downloads. It’s not that I don’t think the author shouldn’t be paid – I would be happy to pay $30 or $300 for a great RSS reader app. It’s that the success of the single-developer model is contingent on the willingness of that developer to keep working on the project (paid or otherwise). I’m far more comfortable with software that is community developed under a free license, ideally using a set of technologies that would allow me to modify or even adopt the project if the main devs were to abandon it.
    • Tiny Tiny RSS. tt-rss also comes recommended by someone I respect (Mika Epstein, in this case). And it’s community-developed, which I like. It doesn’t look as pretty as Fever, but aesthetics are about fourth or fifth on my list of requirements.
    • PressForward. As Aram describes, the PF team (of which I’m pleased to be a member) is working on a WordPress-based tool that, among other things, does RSS aggregation and provides some feed-reading capabilities. PressForward is really designed for a different kind of use case – where groups of editors work together to pare down large amounts of feed data into smaller publications – but it could be finagled to be a simple feed reader. Mobile support is a particular pain point, as 50% or more of my RSS intake is done on my phone, and PF has nothing in place to make this possible at the present time. So, PressForward may not be quite ready for primetime, but I do think that it has promise.
  2. Get the hell off of Google. We all know that Google is a company with shareholders and profit goals to meet. Yet we often act like Google is some sort of ambient benevolent force on the web. Since I started Project Reclaim, I’ve been working on extricating myself and my data from the clutches of Google (among other corporate entities). Reader’s demise is a wake-up call that the time for dilly-dallying is over.

    For my own part, I still use a few Google services besides Reader:

    • Gmail. I don’t use Gmail primarily anymore, though many people do still email me at my address, so obviously I have it open and I check it frequently.
    • Picasa. I use the Picasa desktop app on OSX to export photos from my cameras and organize/tag them. I also use Picasa Web Albums as one of my many photo backup services. (Seriously – I back up my photos to no fewer than six different local and cloud services. Nothing is more important or irreplaceable than my family photos.)
    • Drive/Docs. Aside from the occasional one-off collaborations, I use Drive to maintain a number of spreadsheets and other documents that I share with members of my family, etc.
    • Calendar. I’m not a heavy calendar user, but when I do use a calendar, I like Google because of its integration with my Android phone.
    • Chromium. Not Chrome, but still largely Google-reliant, Chromium is not my main browser, but I use it daily for doing various sorts of development testing.
    • Android. This is maybe the one that steams me the most, because at the moment there are no truly free alternatives. (Firefox OS, please hurry up.)

    In some of these cases, there are easy ways to get off of the Google services. In others, it’ll be a challenge to find alternatives that provide the same functionality. In any case, the Reader slaughter is a harsh reminder that Project Reclaim has stagnated too long with respect to Google services.

    More than myself, I’m worried about others – those who aren’t as technically inclined as I am, or those who simply don’t care as much as I do. Google’s made it pretty clear (as is their right, I guess) that they’re not an ambient benevolence. Those who rely on Google then, especially for critical services like email, should take this warning very seriously. Please consider carefully what you’re doing when you make yourself wholly dependent on the whim’s of Google’s product managers, and consider options that are either free-as-in-speech, or services that you pay for in a traditional way.

BuddyPress Docs 1.3, featuring theme compatibility on BP 1.7

I’ve just released version 1.3 of BuddyPress Docs, my WordPress plugin that powers collaborative document editing on a BuddyPress site. The main feature of Docs 1.3 is theme compatibility, which means that top-level Docs templates (archives, single docs, and the Create screen) are no longer necessarily top-level. Using the theme compat feature of BuddyPress 1.7 (currently in beta), this top-level content is put directly into the content area of your theme’s page.php template, ensuring that Docs pages will keep your header, footer, sidebar, and other global elements.

The theme compatibility feature only kicks in if you’re running BP 1.7. Existing installations of Docs on BP < 1.7 will continue to work as before.

Are you a BP Docs user? Are you already testing BuddyPress 1.7? I'd be glad to get your feedback on Docs 1.3. Report any problems on the issue tracker.

Safely delete spam comments across a large WP network

I’m currently working on a university WordPress network that’s been running for four or five years (an MU veteran!) and has almost 5000 blogs, most of which are defunct (because they’re from previous semesters). Akismet is activated across the network, so there’s not much of a public spam problem. However, even spam comments are stored in the database, and some of the blogs have tens of thousands of spam comments sitting in their tables. I’m going to implement a couple of tricks to keep this from happening in the future (a lightweight honeypot for non-logged-in users, tell Akismet to auto-delete spam comments on old posts). But for now, I’ve got to clean up this mess, because the very large comment and commentmeta tables are causing resource issues.

I wrote a simple script that gradually cycles through all the blogs on the network and deletes comments that have been marked as spam by Akismet. Here it is, with some comments afterward:


  • The number of blogs is hardcoded (4980)
  • The ‘qw_delete_in_progress’ key is a throttle, ensuring that only one of these routines is running at a time. You might call this the poor man’s poor man’s cron.
  • I’ve limited it to 10 comments per pageload, but you could change that if you wanted
  • Put it in an mu-plugins file. When it’s finished running (check the ‘qw_delete_next_blog’ flag in the wp_sitemeta table – it’s done if it’s greater than the total number of blogs on the system), be sure to remove it, or at least comment out the register_shutdown_function line.

Use at your own risk – I’m posting here primarily for my own records :)

Anthologize 0.7

Anthologize 0.7 is here. Get it while the gettin’s good!

Version 0.7 includes a number of important, under-the-hood improvements. Some highlights:

  • The way Anthologize loads itself has been largely rewritten, which means that it fires up more reliably – and using fewer resources – than ever before.
  • Some validation issues with epub exportsr have been cleared up
  • In previous version of Anthologize, PDF exports sometimes failed because Anthologize could not copy inline images to the necessary temporary directory. This process has been rewritten so that our PDF library uses WordPress’s standard upload locations, avoiding permissions errors
  • A Spanish translation is now available
  • Full compatibility with PHP 5.4 and WordPress 3.5

In addition, a Credits page has been added to the Anthologize menu. This new page includes shout-outs to all those supporters of my fundraising campaign. If you donated (and opted not to remain anonymous), check out the Credits page to see your name in lights! And if I’ve made a spelling error, or linked to the wrong URL, please let me know.

This round of development was brought to you by Cyri Jones. Cyri is an educator and technologist doing amazing things with WordPress and BuddyPress in lovely British Columbia, including his ZEN Portfolios platform for student portfolios, and private social networks for a number of local school districts. I’ve had the good fortune to do some work for Cyri’s projects, and I think that the work he’s doing with these free software platforms points toward a very interesting model for putting social learning technologies in the hands of those who can use them. Cyri was also the brains (and brawn) behind the very first BuddyCamp, held last October in Vancouver. Rock on, Cyri!

Make Github issue numbers appear in browser tabs

#70. Yippee!

#70. Yippee!

I use Github Issues as a bugtracker for a number of my projects. My workflow usually includes having the ticket open in one browser tab, and a local WordPress installation open in another browser tab (to test the bugfixes themselves). When I write commit messages, I want to reference the issue number, but by default, it’s buried deep in the <title> element, and thus not visible on a smallish browser tab.

So I wrote a short userscript that reproduces the issue number at the beginning of the <title>, so I can see it at a glance. It’s structured as a userscript for Greasemonkey/Firefox, though I imagine you could easily repackage it for Chrome or whatever.

// ==UserScript==
// @name        github issue number in tab
// @namespace
// @description github issue number in tab
// @include*/*/issues/*
// @version     1
// @grant       none
// ==/UserScript==

var t, ttext, issueno;

t = document.getElementsByTagName( 'title' );
ttext = t[0].innerHTML;
ino = ttext.match(/Issue #([0-9]+)/);
console.log("#" + ino[1] + " " + ttext);
t[0].innerHTML = "#" + ino[1] + " " + ttext;

‘Tis the season to support good things on the web

Today I’m going to spend down some of my PayPal slush fund by making donations to online causes that are important to me. I do this every year, usually on a day in December (Christmas! Last chance for tax breaks! etc). Doing it in a single day makes it fun, like an event. Here’s a partial list of where I’ll be sending moolah today:

You don’t have to give to these specific causes (though you should – they are awesome!), but you should get out there and support some of the causes that you believe in. Even a couple bucks can be meaningful. ‘Tis the season!