Blogs Media Lab Blogs

Introducing Media Lab and the New Walker Blogs

It’s been seven years since we launched the Walker Blogs and with the release of our new website back in December we thought it was finally time for a refresh. You’ll notice that the design has changed to align with our new website and we’ve used the redesign process as an opportunity to rebrand each […]

It’s been seven years since we launched the Walker Blogs and with the release of our new website back in December we thought it was finally time for a refresh. You’ll notice that the design has changed to align with our new website and we’ve used the redesign process as an opportunity to rebrand each of our core blogs. It was an interesting exercise and allowed us to assess the state of our collective blogging efforts – how each of our (now) nine blogs serves a different audience, how they all have different use characteristics by their audiences, and how they could all be focused into tighter streams of content. The blogs definitely represent the long tail side of our publishing efforts – lots of small bits of specialized content for micro-niche audiences – so maintaining a strong emphasis on the personalities behind the Walker and their specific interests was key. And the rebranding process illustrated for us that when you present people with tangible criteria to change, such as a new name, tighter description, graphic – an understandable format to inhabit – it helps them better speculate on what their blog can be.

We decided on a system of flag graphics to represent the various blogs, since each blog is really a representation of a different group of people at the Walker (in most cases the individual programming departments). It’s a tricky balance to strike between striving for traditional, recognizable flag forms and having a graphic that cleverly plays off the title, but we’re glad to have a consistent vocabulary to build on in the future, especially since the blogs now match our comparatively monochromatic main site. We’re particularly fond of the Green Room’s flag.

Beyond the simple graphic forms, this is the first truly responsively designed Walker site – resize your browser window to see things reflow to fit a variety of screen sizes. Content and interface elements of lesser importance become hidden behind links at certain screen sizes. The main content area, on the other hand, stretches to fill a large width when called for. It leads to some pretty long line lengths, but gives our older, image-heavy content the space it needs to fit. We’ll be soon applying this technique to the redesigned Walker Collections, which features a strong publishing component. With the easy adaptations to tablets and mobile devices, it’s a good fit for our eventual goal of efficient multi-channel communications.

Other, smaller items of note include the addition of a grid/list view toggle in the top left to make skimming easier, smarter ordering of categories and authors (by popularity and date of last post, respectively), and a fun little flag animation when you roll over the left-side blog names (in full-width view).

And just for kicks, here are some rejected flag sketches:

A glimpse inside a blog spammer’s tools

We get a fair amount of spam on the Walker Blogs: Defensio has blocked 49108 spam messages since it started counting. Even with a 99.07% accuracy rate and a captcha, spam gets through our filters. Over the weekend, I noticed a couple spam comments come through that I thought were interesting. Here’s an example: {Amazing|Amazing […]

We get a fair amount of spam on the Walker Blogs: Defensio has blocked 49108 spam messages since it started counting. Even with a 99.07% accuracy rate and a captcha, spam gets through our filters. Over the weekend, I noticed a couple spam comments come through that I thought were interesting. Here’s an example:

{Amazing|Amazing Dude|Wow dude|Thanks dude|Thankyou|Wow man|Wow}, {that is|this is|that’s} {extremely|very|really} {good|nice|helpful} {info|information}, {thanks|cheers|much appreciated|appreciated|thankyou}.

The geeky types among us will immediately recognize that as some sort of spam template language. Pick a word or phrase in each section, and you have a nearly limitless selection of spam phrases.

The template language in itself isn’t all that interesting, but what I found very interesting is that the link the spammer left goes to this account on del.icio.us:

The pages and pages of tagged links look to be the library of links that our spammer is using to spam blogs. The comments they’ve left on delicious look to be alternate text to be used as comments on posts. My guess is they’re using the del.icio.us tags to match keywords or tags on blog posts. I guess it’s not surprising to see spammers using web 2.0 services for doing their filthy work.

Better comment spam blocking for WordPress?

When we switched from standalone WordPress to WordPress MU for the Walker Blogs, we also switched from Spam Karma 2 to Defensio. Spam Karma 2 had its funky interface issues on the admin, but it worked really well keeping our comment spam at bay.  We’ve been using Defensio for not quite two months, which should […]

When we switched from standalone WordPress to WordPress MU for the Walker Blogs, we also switched from Spam Karma 2 to Defensio. Spam Karma 2 had its funky interface issues on the admin, but it worked really well keeping our comment spam at bay. 

We’ve been using Defensio for not quite two months, which should be plenty of time to train the filters, but our statistics aren’t that great:

Recent accuracy: 97.10%:

  • 3708 spam
  • 147 legitimate comments
  • 135 false negatives (undetected spam)
  • 12 false positives (legitimate comments identified as spam)

I’ve never had great confidence in Akismet, but perhaps my misgivings are unfounded. Are there any other spam comment plug-ins people like? What have been your experiences?

What I’d really love to see is a comment plugin that used an Akismit-like baysein filter for catching the big stuff, than Amazon Mechanical Turk to test the stuff it’s not sure about. I’d pay $0.10 a comment for that.

Walker Blogs survey results

Thanks to everyone who took our Blogs survey over the past couple of weeks. We received a good amount of feedback that we’re in the process of digesting. We also picked a winner for the iPod shuffle, who happens to be a new media developer as well. I hope to post a little more info […]

Thanks to everyone who took our Blogs survey over the past couple of weeks. We received a good amount of feedback that we’re in the process of digesting. We also picked a winner for the iPod shuffle, who happens to be a new media developer as well. I hope to post a little more info about that soon.

I thought I would share some of the statistics and comments from the survey, in case anyone is interested.

My hunch is that the kind of people who take our survey are those that are already somewhat interested in programs that the Walker offers, and are likely to want to closely follow what we do. The responses to the first question seems to back up that assumption:

How did you find the Walker blogs?

How did you find the Walker blogs?

The number of people who came here from a search engine is significantly lower than what we see looking at our analytics, but not all search engine referred visits are of the same quality as people who come on their own. Also, if you’ve been a blog subscriber for years, do you really remember how you found the blog in the first place? Probably not.

We asked how often people read the blogs. The answer is pretty often, with a good chunk of people using RSS readers:

How often do you read the Walker blogs?

How often do you read the Walker blogs?

And the reasons people read the blogs:

For what reasons do you read the Walker blogs?

For what reasons do you read the Walker blogs?

How many people have left a comment:

Have you ever left a comment on the Walker blogs?

Have you ever left a comment on the Walker blogs?


Our blogs are not the most heavily commented around. Often the style of posting we engage in isn’t the most comment inducing.

Where people live surprised me a little bit:

Where do you live?

Where do you live?

St. Paul seems under-represented, as do the suburbs (which are caught up in the jumble of text in the graph). We did focus the choices for this question on the United States, but we do know that there is an international readership.

We also asked people what other blogs they read, which gave us a ton of responses. Here are the handful that were mentioned the most:

And some of the more eclectic (or just mentioned less):

I liked this question a lot, because it gives a sense of what our visitors are reading and what their interests are. The list is heavily weighted towards museum/art blogs and design related blogs. I also liked the question because it gives me a few more sites to add to my RSS reader. Thanks survey takers!

Finally, we asked for some general feedback and comments from anyone who wanted to share. Here are several:

The Walker blogs are great. I really like hearing from designers at Dwell, a magazine I also read, right on the Walker’s site. I love that dialogue w/ outside designers and artists that’s brought to me via the Walker because of the staff’s professional networks that extend well beyond my own! Keep it up :)

I enjoy reading your blogs but I really feel that they could use more pictures,video and audio

It would be nice to have guest bloggers on every topic, or to have less specific, umbrella blogs covering a not-so-wide range of topics and points of view.

Be less Minnesotan.

(I’m not sure what that means, eh?)

I live in Massachusetts and can’t come to the Walker very often, but I love your blogs because they keep me connected… and they make me want to move to Minneapolis.

I think NMI should blog more

Here’s trying.

mnartists.org has a blog

Starting today, mnartists.org has a blog on the Walker Blogs. If you’ve visited the Walker Blogs homepage, you’ve no doubt noticed it. The first post in the blog is a Q&A about why voting yes on the The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is important and will help fund artists and arts organizations across […]

Starting today, mnartists.org has a blog on the Walker Blogs. If you’ve visited the Walker Blogs homepage, you’ve no doubt noticed it. The first post in the blog is a Q&A about why voting yes on the The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is important and will help fund artists and arts organizations across the state, not to mention help protect our great natural resources.

Over time, the mnartists.org team hopes to use the blog to relay more behind the scenes information on the day to day running of mnartists and all the events and activities they take on. The blog isn’t meant to replace articles on the mnartists.org website, which will continue to be focused directly on arts happenings rather than the off the cuff meta-information that the blog will provide. We hope you’ll enjoy participating in it’s evolution and that it will add more dialog to the Minnesota arts community.

Take our blog survey, win an iPod shuffle

Every so often we like to take a survey of our readers to see what you think. Our last survey was in March of 2007, so it’s time for a new one. The questions are focused on the blogs and a little demographic information, which you can skip if you like. We’re sweetening the deal […]

Every so often we like to take a survey of our readers to see what you think. Our last survey was in March of 2007, so it’s time for a new one. The questions are focused on the blogs and a little demographic information, which you can skip if you like.

We’re sweetening the deal this time. If you take the survey, you can enter your name into the pool and we’ll select one person to win a 1GB iPod Shuffle.

Take the survey.



Photo by bluetsunami.

Upgrading to WordPress-MU from regular WordPress

Since this blog started in 2005, we’ve steadily grown in readership and the number of blogs hosted at the Walker. We had 10 unique blogs, which was a hassle to maintain and upgrade. Our blogs all shared a central installation of WordPress, but used different databases. This meant that the users between blogs were unique: […]

Since this blog started in 2005, we’ve steadily grown in readership and the number of blogs hosted at the Walker. We had 10 unique blogs, which was a hassle to maintain and upgrade. Our blogs all shared a central installation of WordPress, but used different databases. This meant that the users between blogs were unique: I could have different passwords and profiles on each blog, keeping them in sync was time consuming.

Faced with adding another blog (more on that in a couple weeks), we knew that we couldn’t continue to grow our haphazard system any more. We bit the bullet and switched to WordPress MU (WPMU), which solves many of the problems over standalone WordPress. I’ll enumerate the benefits:

  • Shared users between all blogs
  • Centralized location for files
  • Can activate plug-ins across all blogs
  • Easy to add new blogs
  • Allows us to set up caching

In the past, we had resisted going to WPMU because it wasn’t keeping pace with standalone WordPress in terms of updates. At the same time, we hadn’t updated in a while, and were still using WordPress 2.3.3, when 2.5 and 2.6 added quite a bit, especially better image management. Around the 2.5.2 release of WordPress, the MU trunk was finally in close sync with standalone. No more excuses.

How MU Works

WPMU is very similar to regular WordPress. In fact, there are really only a handful of files that are any different than regular WordPress. The functions that WPMU adds are mostly to deal with the mutiple blog IDs, creating and delting blogs, and dealing with the more complicated permissions. Two of the more handy function it provides are switch_to_blog( $new_blog ) and restore_current_blog(), which let you switch to a different blog, use the proper Loop queries, and then go back to the original blog. This makes it a lot easier to deal with getting information from multiple blogs, an otherwise complicated procedure.

If you look at the database model, WPMU keeps centralized tables for users and blog meta information. Each new blog created gets a set of it’s own tables.

Upgrading

Upgrading to WPMU is not a simple process. In fact, there’s no specific procedure or easy script for it. The main problem is that if you have multiple blogs, your user IDs and post IDs are going to collide. That is, on the New Media blog, my user ID might be 7, but on OffCenter, it is 23, and user ID 7 is someone else. This prevents us from doing a straight SQL import. We’d need a script that could interact with all our existing databases, figure out the conflicts, and then create a new centralized list of users (more on this in a minute).

Additionally, importing posts wouldn’t work either, because with a new users table, all the user IDs are likely to be different. Thankfully, WordPress does provide functionality to export posts on a per-user basis, and then when you import them, assign them to new users. I did a little testing and this worked well enough, but I hacked wordpress and wrote a small script to automate this and dump all the WordPress Export files (WXR) to the filesystem. I was able to run this script and grab all the export files.

As for importing the users, I dumped the wp_users and wp_usermeta table from each database, renamed them, and brought them all into a single database. I wrote a script that iterated through all the databases, matching users based on their login name. Thankfully, we only had two users that shared the same login names, so resolving that conflict was easy. I would collect all the information about a user spread across all the blogs, and then add it correctly to a new wp_users and wp_usermeta table. The trick was to know ahead of time what the new blog IDs in WPMU would be, then re-map the existing wp_user_level and wp_capabilities info to wp_3_user_level, and wp_capabilities, for instance.

Cursed Text Encoding

Another problem we ran into was incompatabilites with text encoding. Many of our entries had invalid characters in them. For compatability reasons with AxKit (which powers most of the Walker site) we’ve been using ISO-8859-1 encoding, which has a fairly limited range of characters. WordPress doesn’t do such a good job of forcing non-standard characters to be transformed into HTML entities, so anytime there was a proper apostrophe, curly quote or emdash, a freaky character would make it’s debut. Despite this, the posts continuted to work, the database threw a couple of warnings, but it continued to work.

The problem came with importing the exported WXR files. WordPress’ importer is very strict, and it would hang on any of these invalid characters. After trying multiple things to filter them out in the export or the database, I ended up using a Text Factory in BBEdit to replace them. Additionally, BBEdit has a wonderful command to “Zap Gremlins”, or take out weird characters in text. A few minutes of batch processing later, and the import files were clean.

Importing the cleaned WXR files (267 of them) was a tedious process that had to be done by hand, but allowed us to catch any errors and make sure the author assignment worked correctly.

VHOST vs. Sub-directory

WPMU can work in two different URL configurations. One is sub-domain based: joe.mydomain.com, steve.mydomain.com, etc. The other is sub-directory based: blogs.mydomain.com/steve, blogs.mydomain.com/joe. You have to decide what configuration to use when you install WPMU. We use a sub-directory based system for our blogs, but a couple other sites, teens.walkerart.org and air.walkerart.org, are also blogs, but use a sub-domain.

This would seem to leave us at somethinig of an impasse. All of my research confirmed there was no way to have both a sub-domain and sub-directory based URL structure. Several people on the WPMU forums were looking for a solution, but none was to be found.

However, there is a way, and it’s a thorougly good hack. Rather than try to force WPMU to work with both, we just let WordPress deal with sub-directory based URLs. Instead, we use a mod_rewrite to proxy the site to the sub-domain URL (your server must have mod_rewrite AND mod_proxy installed). The theme for the site has to be hacked to output all the links as the sub-domain URLs, even though it’s being served out of a sub-directory configuration. The teens site is a good example. If you visit blogs.walkerart.org/teens/, the site works just fine. Here’s the mod_rewrite that would go in the httpd.conf or .htaccess:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://blogs.walkerart.org/teens$1 [P]

All of the links will take you to a teens.walkerart.org URL. To re-write the URLs, you must replace all the get_permalink() function calls with a custom function that returns the sub-domain URL. And if you use any other functions, such as wp_get_pages or wp_list_cats() to output any links, you must again replace the sub-directory URL with the sub-domain URL. Here’s an example of the useful code:

define('BASE_URL','blogs.walkerart.org/teens/'); //original sub-directory URL
define('REWRITE_URL',"teens.walkerart.org/"); // new sub-domain URL
echo str_replace(BASE_URL,REWRITE_URL, wp_list_pages('hierarchical=0&title_li=&echo=0') );

//takes a given post or page ID and returns the permalink for a teens.walkerart.org permalink
//this is used for the teens site that's run on wordpress mu in a subdirectory configuration,
//but uses mod_rewrite and mod_proxy to relay URLs to a different domain
function get_teens_permalink($id){
    $perma = get_permalink($id);
    return str_replace(BASE_URL,REWRITE_URL,$perma);
}

Other useful bits

Aside from the sub-directory/sub-domain problems, there were not any other huge issues with our upgrade. A few little things in our themes had to be changed. Author pages needed to be made WPMU aware. Styles needed to be added for the galleries and captions that WP 2.5 and 2.6 added.

We also replaced blogs.walkerart.org with a page powered by WPMU, rather than the old axkit-based aggregation that was there previously. This is a custom theme that queries all the blogs and displays the current aggregation. The aggregated RSS feeds we offer was something we also needed to keep, but WPMU doesn’t offer a built-in way to do that. Thankfully, there is a plugin, WPMU-Sitewide-Feed, that takes care of it. The plugin is no longer maintained, but there is a version available that I was able to get to work with some slight modifications.

Another plug-in we’re now using is Comment Timeout. This plug-in is pretty simple. It closes comments on old and inactive posts to cut down on spam. It is a little smart, in that it won’t close comments on a “popular” post that has recent activity. In our old setup, we had been using the wonderful Spam Karma plugin to take care of spam. It worked really well, but it’s no longer under development and is not WPMU compatible. Instead, we’ve switched to using Defenseio, which is a more free and potentially smarter competitor to Akismet. Our filter is still being trained, but I have high hopes.

Walker blogs upgraded

You might not be able to tell by looking at things, but today Nate and I upgraded the Walker blogs from an old version of WordPress. Instead of having multiple WordPress installations, one for each blog, we now have one centralized WordPress-MU installation that controls them all. It was a rather complicated upgrade process, and […]

Photo by Difusa

Photo by Difusa

You might not be able to tell by looking at things, but today Nate and I upgraded the Walker blogs from an old version of WordPress. Instead of having multiple WordPress installations, one for each blog, we now have one centralized WordPress-MU installation that controls them all.

It was a rather complicated upgrade process, and some of the tricks we used others might find useful. I’ll post more next week. In the interim, if anyone notices any bugs, please post them in the comments.

I have attached a picture of a kitten to this post because it is Friday and the kitten is very cute.

Design department is now blogging

I’m very happy to announce that the Walker Design Department now has a blog. The designers have been working in stealth mode for a short while preparing posts and putting in a little content so that the site wouldn’t launch empty. In true design style, they’ve thought the format out very cleanly. Emmet lays it […]

Design has a blog. I’m very happy to announce that the Walker Design Department now has a blog. The designers have been working in stealth mode for a short while preparing posts and putting in a little content so that the site wouldn’t launch empty. In true design style, they’ve thought the format out very cleanly. Emmet lays it out in the first post:

Bulletin Board: These posts will alert you to upcoming design programming at the Walker such as the Drawn Here architecture lecture series, the Insights design lecture series, and design exhibitions like Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes. And you will respond en masse resulting in many ticket sales.

Flat Files: There are boxes and boxes full of postcards, flyers, brochures, posters, gallery guides, and other Walker ephemera that we would love to properly document and archive. Since we don’t have the time to do that, we’ll just pull out a few pieces each month and tell you who designed them, what the project brief was, and why we love them even after all this time.

Memos: Here we will call your attention to the history of our department, how our studio operates today, and design issues that we address on a daily basis. Like fonts and stuff.

Interviews: . . . with designers. Sample question: “ If you were stranded on a desert island, which 10 typefaces would you take with you?”

Junk Drawer: A catchall category for link dumps.

Additionally, many of the recent design fellows will be (and have already been) blogging:

We’ve invited a whole slew of former Walker designers to contribute whenever and whatever they feel like–reporting from places as far as England, Holland, and Korea, as well as places more close to home like MCAD. We want to hear what they’re working on now, what is interesting to them, who they think is stroking it, seriously downloading the uploader. Who knows what they’ll write about. Not we.

There are already ten posts in the blog, so interested readers will have some insightful catching up to do. Here’s the URL: http://blogs.walkerart.org/design.

39% of bloggers write damaging things

Ars Technica reported today on some startling statistics regarding blogging from the workplace: Nearly four in 10 bloggers (39 percent) with a job have written something sensitive or damaging about their workplaces, employers, or coworkers, according to UK human resources firm Croner. The company commissioned a survey that asked 2,000 people whether or not they […]

Ars Technica reported today on some startling statistics regarding blogging from the workplace:

Nearly four in 10 bloggers (39 percent) with a job have written something sensitive or damaging about their workplaces, employers, or coworkers, according to UK human resources firm Croner. The company commissioned a survey that asked 2,000 people whether or not they have a blog, and if so, how many of them have posted sensitive information about work. And despite the seemingly constant stream of warnings saying otherwise, some employees still seem to think that no one will discover their blog transgressions–which could eventually get them fired.

The numbers seem a little higher than I would expect, but perhaps I am not too familiar with the feeling of working for a monolithic corporation. There are two things I take away from this. First, we have a different situation here within the Walker and within the larger museum web. We already have blog guidelines for our own blogs. Many of our employees that are bloggers on their own are also bloggers here and are familiar with our guidelines, which are not onerous. Secondly, unlike a corporation which may depend on secrecy to keep it’s advantage, we in museums and non-profits aren’t so worried about that. We like to share and let people know what we’re doing.

And as an aside, the Powerhouse Museum recently adopted a new blogging policy that draws upon some elements from ours. Share the love.

Next