Robot Calling

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The phone rings.

I glance at the caller ID screen and don’t recognize the number, so I don’t bother picking up. If I’m near a computer or my iPad I’ll probably Google the number for clues.

I check voice mail. Oh, yay! I’ve won a cruise to the Bahamas… for the fourteenth time this year.

Nine out of ten phone calls I get these days are either surveys or robocall spam. The automated calls from my local Honda dealership that are so conversational they sometimes suck me into replying “Hello?” are particularly annoying.

The days of friends and family calling to chat are just about over – and I’ll admit I’m rarely compelled to initiate a call myself. My dad still calls to catch up now and then, which is refreshing.

I miss the sound of the phone ringing as something positive to look forward to. Would it be a friend wanting to see how I’m doing? A family member calling to share their latest news?

I wonder if I’m being nostalgic for no good reason. Email, Facebook, and Twitter are are the main ways I communicate these days, and they seem to serve me well. And yet, every time the phone rings and it’s not a real human, I get a little wistful.

Do you miss having “real” conversations on the phone? Do you still call your friends?

WordCamp Updates

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WordCamp MiamiI have two little bits of WordCamp news to share.

I’m delighted to be speaking at this year’s fifth anniversary edition of WordCamp Miami, taking place May 9-11. My session is Getting Comfortable With Child Themes. On Sunday I’ll be helping out at a workshop teaching WordPress to kids and in between sessions I’ll be volunteering at the Happiness Bar. It looks like a fun event – last year there were trading cards and an ice cream social featuring Nutella-flavoured nitrogen frozen goodies. Who knows what surprises this year holds? Looking forward to meeting new folks and seeing friendly faces.

A session I presented at last year’s WordCamps in Montreal and Ottawa called Help Me Help You: The Art And Science Of Getting Good WordPress Support is now up on WordPress.tv. The talk went on to inspire two posts on the main WordPress.com blog: The Art and Science of Getting Good WordPress Support, and its follow-up, How to be a WordPress.com Detective, which looks at more advanced troubleshooting techniques. Check them out if you’d like to learn more about strategies for solving WordPress conundrums big and small.

 

 

Plugin Slam!

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A number of years back, when I was still quite new to the Montreal WordPress community, our local meetup group held a “plugin slam,” which was a kind of show-and-tell in which we each got to present a plugin we thought was cool to the rest of the group. It was a really fun evening that I’ve always remembered.

This week, we revisited the idea, getting together on a chilly winter night and sharing a dozen of our favourite plugins. Here’s what we looked at:

  1. CMS Page Tree Viewpresented by Richard Archambault
    Lets you order your pages in the dashboard by dragging and dropping; particularly useful for large sites with many pages
  2. Featured Image Columnpresented by Richard
    Adds a thumbnail preview in the posts overview screen to let you quickly see which posts are missing a featured image
  3. Multisite Toobar Additionspresented by Richard
    Adds quick links to commonly used network admin features in the toolbar; geared to super admins or admins
  4. WP Gallery Custom Linkspresented by Alexandre Simard
    Adds a few new fields on each image in a media gallery, including URL and link target; perfect for a gallery of logos that need links to external sites
  5. SuperCPTpresented by Ziad Saab
    Allows you more easily define custom post types and custom taxonomies; uses icons from Font Awesome; Ziad is working on an extension to add repeating fields
  6. Press Permit Corepresented by Elida Arrizza
    “User management on steroids”; advanced content permissions system lets you define your own roles, which can even be attached to custom post types. There’s a Pro version and extensions, including one for WPML
  7. Add From Server presented by me
    Lets you quickly add images to the media library from your server; useful for images that you’ve uploaded via FTP instead of the dashboard
  8. Regenerate Thumbnailspresented by me
    Allows you to regenerate image thumbnails at all required sizes, as defined by the current theme and media settings; useful if you switch to a theme that needs different image sizes for things like custom headers, sliders, and featured images.
  9. Amazon Affiliate Link Localizerpresented by Belinda Darcey
    Automatically detects all Amazon links on a site and adds your affiliate ID, detects visitor’s location and switches the link to their local Amazon storefront
  10. Post Thumbnail Editorpresented by Carl Alexander
    Lets you manually crop all versions (e.g. thumbnail, medium, large) of each individual image, allowing you to use the best part of every one; great for perfectionists and photographers
  11. Resize Images before uploadpresented by Geneviève Gélinas
    Resizes huge images before uploading; useful for folks who don’t know how to make images smaller before bringing them into WordPress
  12. Changeloggerpresented by Richard
    Displays plugin changeset right on plugin overview screen in the dashboard; saves a few clicks

Got a favourite plugin? Share it in the comments!

Photos (cc) Jeremy Clarke

So You Want to Engineer Happiness

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One of the best things about being a Happiness Engineer is telling people I’m a Happiness Engineer. Inevitably, their eyes light up and a smile inches across their face. Sometimes they let out a “For real?”

At a company where we’re allowed to make up our own job titles I’d have a pretty hard time giving up mine.

People often ask what it takes to engineer happiness all day, so I’ve compiled some thoughts on being a Happiness Engineer – or HE, as we affectionately call it. (Nearly everything at Automattic has either an acronym or a numeronym.)

What does a Happiness Engineer do?

Happiness Engineers at Automattic help users understand and enjoy the software we provide, from WordPress.com itself, to themes, to plugins like Jetpack, Akismet, and VaultPress.

What qualities make a good Happiness Engineer?

Happiness Engineers innately love to help folks solve problems and thrive on troubleshooting issues large and small. HEs think of clear and helpful communication as an art form and we are always working on perfecting it.

Here are some other qualities I think make a great HE:

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If you get impatient quickly when teaching your in-laws how to use email or have trouble explaining technical things without using jargon, this job is probably not for you.

Working remotely

Automattic is a distributed company, and nearly everyone works remotely – in 27 countries at last count. Most of us work from home, while cafés and libraries also witness their fair share of Automatticians pounding away at keyboards. Some folks craving a more office-like environment co-work from shared spaces – sometimes with their colleagues, like a group of Automatticians who co-work together in Boston.

Forums are fun

If you think you might make a good Happiness Engineer but have never helped people with WordPress-specific things before, a great place to test the waters before applying is in the support forums, whether for WordPress.com or WordPress.org. If you get sucked in quickly and find yourself spending hours answering questions just because you enjoy it, that’s probably a good sign.

Extended happiness

A few of my colleagues have written insightful posts that really encapsulate the experience of being a Happiness Engineer or working at Automattic. Check out the words and experiences of Andrew (who leads the Core Happiness team), Zandy, Steve, and Aaron.

Credo

The Happiness Engineer job page puts it well:

As a Happiness Engineer, helping people is your passion. Our goal is to build relationships based on trust which result in happy, passionate, loyal customers and colleagues through listening to their needs and guiding them to the fullest use of the products we offer.

If that description calls out to you, why not do something about it? :-)

Charleston

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There is something special and surreal and intense and wonderful about getting together and living with your colleagues – who hail from around the world – for a couple of weeks throughout the year.

And this particular trip was extra-memorable. Trapped on Isle of Palms in South Carolina during a freak deep-south ice storm, we battled closed bridges and slick icy stairs/streets/sidewalks, fought through weather-related transatlantic travel mishaps, cooked enough pasta for an army and barbecued All The Things in lieu of the planned restaurants, and eventually made it into Charleston to see some sights five days later than expected.

Despite challenges, it was an amazing meetup. There was a lunch picnic in front of a cozy fire, long chats about everything under the sun, brainstorming sessions, and raucous games of Cards Against Humanity. During the last few days of van rides I heard more belly laugh-inducing Han Solo/Chewy repartee than over the past ten years.

When the key bridge reopened after several false starts and we finally made it into downtown Charleston there were gluten-free bakery wonders and vegan delights. And we collectively ate more fried southern food than most of our stomachs had ever experienced before, with mixed results.

It was a week to remember forever. Thank you to my funny, smart, warm-spirited colleagues – and friends – for making it so.

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The Automattic Theme Division.

Learning from Beginners

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Ladies Learning CodeI spent yesterday mentoring an eclectic group of students at a Ladies Learning Code workshop, which introduced HTML and CSS – the building blocks of web design – to a roomful of 40 eager learners. LLC is an amazing cross-Canada nonprofit – with chapters from Newfoundland to Victoria – “working to empower everyone to feel comfortable learning beginner-friendly technical skills in a social, collaborative way.”

There was one mentor for every four to five participants – an incredible ratio that allowed us to spend plenty of hands-on time with each student, giving more one-on-one attention to those who needed it.

My group included a Java programmer who’d barely touched HTML before but caught on quickly; a graphic designer encouraged by her company to learn more about what happens to her mockups after they get sent to the website integrators; a married couple consisting of a PhD film student and a social-media specialist at a nonprofit (the couple that learns to code together stays together?); and a Master of Library & Information Studies student who realized she needed to up her game on the tech front, with her school symbolically about to dump the word “Library” from the program’s name.

Venturing outside my usual sphere of WordPress geeks was refreshing. It reminded me that more people than I think use PCs. That not all men taught themselves programming at age eleven. That semi-colons are darned important. That the music HTML and CSS make together is magical. That watching people have lightbulb moments never gets old. That getting women excited about technology is a worthy endeavour.

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Cindy’s Caribbean Chicken Curry

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As some of you know, I work on the Theme Team at Automattic, helping WordPress users with all things theme-related.

We recently rolled out a new recipe shortcode which lets you easily add nicely formatted recipes to a WordPress.com blog, complete with a handy print button. (Food sites without a clean print feature drive me nuts!)

All you need to do is put your recipe between a special set of shortcode tags and you’re good to go. There are optional settings for the recipe title, time, difficulty, and servings.

Hearty kudos to my colleague Michael Cain for whipping up this treat for foodies everywhere to enjoy.

Cindy's Caribbean Chicken Curry

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Time: 1.5 hr., plus marinating time
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Print

This is an original recipe from my friend Cindy. She’d never written it down before, but kindly put it together after serving me this yummy dish one night. I knew I’d be getting cravings for it – it was that good.

The stew is delicious with plain white rice but I like to serve it with coconut-scented Jamaican rice and red beans – Skinnytaste has a tasty version.

Hearty comfort food for a chilly night!

Step 1: Wash Chicken

3 lbs. chicken
Juice from one lemon

  • Make sure the chicken is skinless. Breast, leg, thigh, bone in, boneless, doesn’t matter. Personally I prefer leg and thigh, as the meat will not dry up as easily as with breast meat.
  • Wash the chicken in a colander until the water runs clear.
  • Squeeze the juice from one lemon over the chicken, and rub everywhere. Rinse chicken again in water, and then pat try with paper towels. (Don’t know why this step is done. Could just be a remnant of what people before refrigeration did. I did it once without the lemon step and it tasted different. So I continue to do it.)

Step 2: Make Marinade

1 medium onion
6-8 cloves garlic
1 tomato
Handful of cilantro
1 tbsp. black pepper

  • Process everything in a food processor until it’s a thick paste.

Step 3: Prep Chicken

1 tsp. yellow or dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

  • Put chicken a large bowl.
  • Salt chicken (don’t skimp) and pepper everywhere.
  • Add mustard and mix.
  • Add the marinade to chicken and toss to coat.
  • Take a knife and kinda stab the chicken in several spots to get the marinade in there.
  • Either cover bowl with plastic wrap or put chicken in zipper-lock bag.
  • Put chicken in fridge and let it marinate for at least 2 hours, or overnight if possible.

Step 4: Curry Slurry

2 heaping tbsp. curry – gunpowder, madras, or Jamaican curry powder if you can find it
1-2 tsp. turmeric – use more if your curry powder has less
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1 tbsp. mustard seeds

  • Heat large pan to medium heat.
  • Mix curry and turmeric in a small bowl and add enough water to make a thin paste. Mix well to create your curry slurry.
  • Add oil to hot pan.
  • Add fenugreek and mustard seeds.
  • When mustard seeds start popping, add the slurry.
  • Cook and stir the slurry until most of the water evaporates and the curry is darker in color. This may take a while.

Step 5: Preppin Mo’ Spices

1 tbsp. ginger paste – pound ginger in mortar and pestle or finely grate
1 tbsp. ground coriander
1 chopped onion
Salt
1 hot pepper, finely chopped – traditionally it’s a scotch bonnet pepper, but jalapenos or another type of chili would work (optional)

  • Add ginger, coriander powder, and onion to slurry.
  • Add salt to taste.
  • Add a few drops of water if spice mix becomes too dry.
  • Add finely chopped hot pepper. Be verrrrrrrry careful when chopping them and use gloves if you have them, and be prepared to wash your hands a lot. If you are making this for people who don’t like spice, you can add the whole pepper (unchopped) to the stew while it’s cooking.

Step 6: Putting It All Together

Potatoes & carrots, chopped into chunks (optional)
Whole scotch bonnet or other hot pepper (optional)

  • When onions are soft, add chicken and toss all ingredients together. Cook for a few minutes with the lid on. The chicken will start to create its own juice within about 10 minutes.
  • Boil 2 cups of water.
  • Add potatoes and carrots if desired.
  • Add whole pepper if using.
  • Add enough boiling water to barely cover the chicken. You may not need all the water.
  • Once water comes to a simmer, put on the lid, and lower hear to medium low. Cook for 25-30 minutes, until vegetables are done.
  • When the chicken is tender, you can increase the heat to boil off some of the water, or if you’re good at mixing cornstarch to sauces, you can thicken up the gravy. I’ve never done it, cause I’m too scared.*

And you’re done!!

*Note from kp: if you try this, first mix 1-2 tsp. cornstarch well with cold water, then add the mixture to the pot.

If you blog on WordPress.com, feel free to give the recipe shortcode a whirl and let me know what you think. And if you try Cindy’s chicken, I hope you enjoy it!