To the grindstone

It has been an awfully long time since the last post but I have been very much taken up with settling into my new country. Since the last post, Rural Press has become Fairfax Agricultural Media and I have continued to work for them.

I have also had quite a few story commissions from the publications Australian Main Roads Construction and Australian Ports News which have involved me in doing telephonic interviews with clients around Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. I’ve written stories on a wide variety of topic ranging from the stabilising of dirt roads to the finer points of pilot boat design.There are some samples up on the Tear Sheets page of this site.

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I was helping a friend by taking pictures of his guitars earlier today
and this was one result I liked.

I’ve missed blogging on a regular basis but have successfully fought off the urge until now.  😉

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Blogging to print

Over the last couple of years I have done quite a lot of blogging to satisfy the creative urge but I came to realise that, no matter how fulfilling, it only exists in the online world.

There is no chance of leaving it lying around on your table for visitors to notice and admire while you’re off making the coffee. Clearly then, what was needed were printed versions of my blogs, and I didn’t foresee too much hassle or cost involved.

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Making posting easy

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of the WordPress blogging platform but I do have one gripe with it.

The built-in editor you use for adding and formatting blog posts is pretty cramped and not all that pleasant to use. There are WordPress plug-ins you can install to replace it, but I found another very nice option, from a somewhat unexpected source.

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Having a quiet word

Several times over the years I have mentioned tools which can be used for making blogging easy.

On other occasions, I have mentioned ones which do the same thing for website creation. Some of the products and services can do both but this week, I’ll talk about one that does both jobs very well.

WordPress is technically a blogging platform but its support for creating static web pages is so good that many people are using it for all their website requirements.

It is an astonishingly capable open source software package that is available for free to anyone that wants it. It will run on just about any web server that supports PHP scripting and the MySQL database.

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Gotta publish

Gene Kelly sang Gotta Dance in the immortal musical Singin’ In The Rain.

I know how he must have felt because I often get the feeling that I Gotta Publish something. I have published a book, various websites, these columns and yet, it seems, that is not enough for me. For some time now, I’ve been having the urge to do a Blog on photography even though I’ve done my best to resist by reminding myself that the last thing I need is more time spent in front of the computer.

That didn’t work and I soon started considering how, rather than whether, to go ahead with it. My usual blogging platform it is a Blogger, where these articles are kept in an archive and, while I’ve got nothing against it, I was starting to think that it is a little less professional than I would like.

One blogging service that crops up often nowadays is WordPress which offers anyone free blogs at www.wordpress.com. You get 3GB of storage space for, which will hold a whole lot of words, and you can upgrade that for a nominal amount.

The sign-on process is very quick and once you have an account, you can go ahead and create a blog which will end up like end up having an address like http://allanjackson.co.za/fn/, to pick a random example. There are a large number of layouts (or themes) to choose from to give your blog the look and feel that you want.

You also get integrated statistics which tell you exactly how many people are viewing your blog, a list of people linking to your blog, and you get can import existing blogs from other locations, including from Blogger.

One very handy feature that WordPress has is static web pages which can be linked from your blog’s header or sidebar, and which don’t change as you update the blog’s pages. This feature fixes one of the great lacks that I found in Blogger, which is that everything is filed in date order and there is no direct way of keeping pages, such as a biography for example, near the front.

The key to using WordPress is the dashboard which is an admin page that allows you to view all the information to do with your blog. It is where you create and edit pages and blog posts, change the appearance of the blog, choose a new theme, and much else besides.

I had a quick look through the list of templates that are available and picked out a very clean and uncluttered black-and-white layout, which suited me perfectly. That particular theme allows you to add a picture to the header section of your page which I did very easily because it told me exactly what size to make it.

I found the WordPress interface to be really smooth and easy to use and I had a professional-looking blog site up and running in a short while. The first post took an additional couple of minutes using some text I had created and a picture from my online Flickr account.

The interface for creating and editing posts and pages is like a basic word processor which you use to enter text, apply formatting or insert pictures, video clips, or whatever. Pictures can either be uploaded from your computer and stored in your web space or you use pictures stored elsewhere on the Internet, such as in Flickr.

WordPress is a very easy but powerful publishing tool which would be ideal for keeping a day-to-day blog, or a much bigger website. I don’t intend to remove my current blogs from Blogger, but I must say that I very much prefer the features and power of WordPress.

Highly recommended!

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The blog from Baghdad

While at the library the other day, I found a book which I’ve been reading with great interest, partly because it started out life in cyberspace.

I have mentioned some books which started out as blogs but made it into the world of print, due to the popularity they achieved online. The Bagdhad Blog by Salam Pax is the first I’ve actually laid my hands on and is living proof that electronic publishing is not summarily going to kill print.

It is a fascinating account of the author’s life and experiences in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s last months in power, and the subsequent allied invasion and occupation of Iraq. He attracted a worldwide audience to his blog, which he originally set up to communicate with a friend who was studying in Jordan.

The name Salam Pax is a pseudonym derived from the Arabic and Latin for peace and it is quite clear why he had to conceal his identity, when you read his forthright views on Saddam and his regime.

The writing is studded with gems of humour including a list of emergency supplies including “Candles, Alcohol (maybe red wine?), Good books and Crunchie munchies’ which, he thought, should get him through the allied bombing quite nicely.

He quotes some direct English translations of anti-western slogans which were bandied about by the regime. These include ‘Bush Go Hell’ and the immortal ‘Down Down Bush and his Tail Blair’.

During an epic party, a drunken Frenchman nearly drove Salam and two companions through the gate of a presidential palace. Salam records himself and the other Iraqi as screaming with fear at the possible consequences, while the two foreigners in the car laughed at them.

The blog was entitled Where is Raed? and can still be found at dear_raed.blogspot.com but it could be difficult to read unless you can convince your browser to replace the black page background with a white one. Hint: look under the options settings, and you should find an option to make pages display with a white background.

Salam Pax kept making entries in the blog until 2004 when he took a sideways hop to another blog titled Shut up you fat whiner!, at justzipit.blogspot.com. He updated that until 2006, but I have been unable to find out what happened to him after that.

I wonder what you call the book of a blog. A blook? Whatever it is, The Baghdad Blog gives you a taste of Iraqi life, a good bit of humour, the ever-looming certainty that the allies are going invade, and what happens when they do.

Looking on the web for more Salam Pax info, I came across an entry on another site, at tinyurl.com/5988pp, about the Baghdad Battery, which is in the museum there. It is about 2000 years old, made of clay, and looks for all the world like a battery.

No one knows if it really is, or what it was used for, but replicas of it have been used to electroplate metal. I needed a couple more paragraphs and thought I’d throw that interesting fact in for good measure.

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Holy cow, blogman!

It is quite some time since I mentioned blogs and blogging so I hope you’ll excuse me if I return to the subject this week.

Before I get to the nitty gritty however, I should briefly remind you that a blog, or weblog, is a Internet-based diary which people use to record their experiences for the rest of the world to read. The technology is interactive and allows readers to reply to the original post, or have discussions with other readers.

David Sifry is the publisher of a quarterly report on the state of the blogosphere (at www.sifry.com) , which comprises all the blogs out there and the social and cultural networks around them. David is uniquely placed, as the founder and CEO of Technorati, a search engine devoted to blogs, to be able put together statistics on the blogging phenomenon.

Technorati is currently tracking 70 million blogs and reports that1,4 new ones are being created every second, which amounts to a staggering 120000 a day. Believe it or not, the growth rate of the blogosphere is slowing down and is now taking a whole 320 days to double its size.

Bloggers apparently add 1,5 million new posts to their blogs every day, which is up from 1,3 million per day in the last quarter. Japanese, at 37%, is the language of the majority of posts, with English following behind at 36%.

I get quite a lot of my news from the Internet and I see that the news sites I visit, mostly newspapers, are starting to use blogs as an important addition to the content they provide. It gives their correspondents a forum to publish information, opinions and experiences that don’t make it into print.

One of the premier sites in this regard is the Telegraph, at www.telegraph.co.uk, whose blogs page is one of my first stops, after the main news page. You never know what you’ll get, whether from the correspondents, themselves, or readers who have commented on the posts.

Another rising phenomenon are the increasing numbers of blogs which are being published in book form and which can earn their authors substantial sums of money. One example is UK journalist Judith O’Reilly, who began a blog at www.wifeinthenorth.com after moving from London to the wilds of Northumberland, and who cracked a £70000 book deal in six weeks.

Another example is the book Blood, Sweat and Tea by Tom Reynolds, which is a collation of the posts he made to his blog at randomreality.blogware.com, about his life as an ambulance medic in London. Tom’s is a fascinating blog, which more than doubled the research and writing time needed to write this column.

Anyone can get involved in blogging and it needn’t cost you anything because there are a number of excellent free blogging services available out there, including www.blogger.com.

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Getting into the live writing thing

This is a really interesting time in the online world as the big players compete with each to improve their online offerings to attract more and more users.

The result of the competition is that there is a lot of good stuff out there, if you’re into the online thing, and its mostly free to use. I’ve already had a look at quite a bit of what’s available, including blogs and photo sharing services, but this week I found a tool that you can use when composing your blog posts.

It’s called Windows Live Writer and is a cute little wordprocessor which you can download free fromMicrosoft’s Windows Live site. Its not very big, just over 3Mb as I recall, and it installs just like any other program file.

Questions you will be asked during installation include the web address of the blog you want to post to, your username and password. Live Writer then goes off to find out what sort of blog you have and to download the details it will need before it can send posts to that blog.

You are then presented with a page which has a box where you type the title of your post and a blank bit where you type whatever it is you have to say on that occasion. You can save your post and come back to it whenever you like, and when you’re happy with it, you click the Publish button and the post is added to your blog.

Blogging services all have web-based pages for composing posts but you need to have a live Internet connection to be able to use them. Live Writer allows to you compose your masterpieces offline and add them to your blog when you connect to the Intenet.

Another benefit of Live Writer is that it retains copies of your posts which could be useful if your blog host ever has a disaster and loses the works. Live Writer allows you to add other blogs at a later date and makes it easy to switch between them and post an entry to whichever one of them you need to.

There is no doubt that Microsoft would just love you to become a user of their Live Spaces service and use Live Writer to post entries to your blog there. Cunningly, however, they have made it so that you can still use Live Writer if you’re a user of any of the popular blogging services out there including Blogger, LiveJournal, WordPress and TypePad.

I have tested Live Writer on my Live Spaces page, where it worked perfectly, and also on Blogger, which I am using for the time being. Blogger does not allow third parties to upload pictures to their blogs so Live Writer can only be used for posting text to Blogger.

Live Writer is still in its Beta Test phase and is not directly supported by Microsoft. There is a rudimentary help feature available and, if you’re really stuck, there is a user forum, which is monitored by Microsoft employees, and which produces results pretty quickly.

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Making spaces

There are now quite a few free options for anyone wanting to publish stuff on the web and I looked at a couple of them last year.

I have been using www.blogger.com to make back issues of my FishNet columns available to anyone who wants to go back and check on something. I’m very happy with Blogger, which is a Google product, but I have had a look at other services for publishing text or sharing photos.

The latest one to come to my notice is Windows Live Spaces which is hosted by Microsoft and is, in many ways, one of the most complete self-publishing solutions around. The others tend to specialise in photo sharing or blogging, but Live Spaces does both very well.

Getting a Live Spaces account and joining the existing 120 million users is as easy as going to spaces.live.com and completing a few formalities. The first requirement is that you have to have a Windows Live ID which you may already have if you use Hotmail, MSN Messenger or Microsoft Passport.

You can enter your username from any of the above, or create an ID from scratch, and you’ll be up and running in a few moments. You get taken to a blank website, once you’ve completed the sign-up process, and you can get started on choosing the layout for your Space.

There are many different templates to choose from and each is almost infinitely customisable as regards the actual layout, colours, and fonts for your pages. The next task is to choose from a list of modules that you can include on your pages.

There are modules which do many different things but the most important are likely to be the blogging and photo album modules. Other modules available as options include ones to display your profile, lists of your favourite music and books, and stuff to do with your online friends, including keeping up to date with changes they make to their spaces.

There are also a large number of small modules, known as gadgets, to choose from and these include games, clocks, calendars, news feeds, video players, calorie counters, and just about everything else you could imagine.

There are 21 pages of them available for download and you’re sure to find lots of nice things to play with. Modules can be dragged and dropped on the page until you’ve got everything arranged just as you want it.

The final step is to create some entries in your blog, upload some photos and tell everyone the unique address of your Space.

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