Fascinating Look at Autism

For any of you who are interested in how the brain works or some of the latest developments and research into Autism, you will enjoy this story of Kai Markram. Kai’s father Henry runs the Human Brain Project that is currently mapping the entire brain and building several tools that will help study areas like Neuroinformatics, Brain Simulation, High Performance Computing, Medical Informatics, Neuromorphic Computing and Neurorobotics.

Henry Markram came up with the concept of “Intense World” syndrome to describe how he understands the autistic brain to function. I encourage you to spend some time reading through this wonderfully written article about the boy whose brain could unlock autism.

Building a Markdown Flat CMS

I’m enjoying the New Year day of rest by building a custom flat-file Markdown CMS. What is a flat-file CMS? What is Markdown? and Why in the world would you spend your day of rest doing that?

What is a flat-file CMS?

A flat-file CMS simply refers to the fact that there is no database behind the content management system. Everything is flat. The content is stored in individual files. I’m calling my system SimpleKit and you can check it out on my new site B.enjam.in

What is Markdown?

Markdown is a way of marking up plain text so that it can be formated and displayed with basic abilities like bold, italics, headers, blockquotes, lists, links, and much more. The creator of Markdown John Gruber says

Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML)

Markdown can be written in any plain-text editor and has its own file extension of .md.

Why would you make a Markdown flat-file CMS?

The simple answer is because I wanted to see if I could. The longer answer is that if we continually challenge ourselves to push beyond our capabilities we will accomplish more and enjoy our lives more fully. Sometimes you don’t need a powerful publishing system like WordPress and I wanted to build a simplified content management system that could run on any type of server.

You can follow along with the development as I develop the system live on my new site B.enjam.in. Let me know what you think?

Give Me a Break Google+

So Google finally let me know that I can claim my Google+ Custom URL… woohoo. So, I went to claim my custom URL and to my dismay, Google won’t let me claim the URL that I use EVERYWHERE else.

For example:

On Twitter my handle is @benjaminbradley
On Facebook my URL is facebook.com/benjaminbradley
On App.net my handle is @benjaminbradley
On LinkedIn my URL is linkedin.com/benjaminbradley
On Yahoo my username is benjaminbradley
I own benjaminbradley.com (and the .net, .org, and a bunch of other extensions)
I even own b.enjam.in

YET…. Google will not allow me to have Google.com/+BenjaminBradley – This is crazy. You would think because I own all the other benjaminbradley handles it would PREVENT confusion by allowing me to keep my username.

A Typical Sleeping Arrangement

Many of you know that we have a wonderful older rescue dog who had a rough previous life and now believes he is the king of the castle. I thought I would share the exact “sleeping” arrangment that is typical of our lives now.

dogsleep

Does this look familiar to any other dog owners?

Time to shift the paradigm

How many management speak phrases have I packed into the following paragraph? Do you know people who use this as their attempt at being managerial? Too often we try to “talk the talk” to give the impression that we are more competent that we actually are capable of being at that time. If business leaders and entrepreneurs stop trying to force the latest “power words” or “buzz phrases” and get down to using REAL and descriptive language, maybe there is a chance that more innovation and opportunities will be achieved. Starting today, I’m making it a focus not to use these phrases and be more descriptive with tasks and objectives. Actually getting things done is much more valuable than being able to throw around $5 buzz words.

Before going forward we have to touch base and reach out to our key stakeholders so that we can drill down into the key issues that are not yet on our radar and catch the low-hanging fruits. We will move the needle with this positive momentum by thinking outside the box as we dive deeper while keeping our eye on the ball and running the numbers. By the end of the day I will have gone back to the drawing board and gotten the ball rolling by placing the impetus of closing the deal on my plate. This will be a complete paradigm shift that will bring our company more bang for the buck and by adding value it will be a win-win situation as we move the goal post of our ecosystem resulting in a game-changing platform. So, all hands on deck because the rubber is hitting the road now.

So, how many buzz phrases/words did I manage to cram into the above paragraph?

Let’s Talk GPL

GPL and WordPressOver the life of WordPress there have been MANY discussions about the GPL license and what it means for users and developers of WordPress. There have been many a late night heated discussions that erupted due to this topic. For many, just the mention of the letters GPL sends them scurrying off into a corner to rock back and forth while they wait for the morning light to save them. Just yesterday, Justin Tadlock posted a very useful article on this thing called the GPL (GNU General Public License). There have been articles written on why the GPL license is for the users and trying to explain what the GPL license does and even verbal debates/brawls have occurred because of GPL.

The core of the GPL license is freedom NOT free things. In fact, the freedoms are very clear in the four core freedoms.

0. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
1. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.

So what does this really mean for WordPress users and developers?

What Options Does GPL Leave Me?

The GPL license allows users and developers a great many options.

  1. If you are looking at a GPL’d WordPress plugin and you wish it did something different, or operated differently, or had additional functionality, or just wanted to tweak code… you have the freedom to do those very things.
  2. In fact, you could then turn around and release your modified version so that others might benefit from your manipulation of the code.
  3. But don’t stop there, you could also sell your modified version of that GPL’d WordPress plugin if you wanted to financially recoup your hours spent on modifying the plugin.
  4. Remember that at any time of your releasing your modified version of the GPL’d WordPress plugin some other developer or user could take your version and modify the code and release it themselves.
  5. But this also means that any of the code developers higher up in this “chain” can always reach back down and grab new features, code, modifications, and re-incorporate it back into the original plugin.

This is the ongoing life cycle of GPL code. It is always morphing, being extended, code truncated, and released in new variations. If this cycle offends you, or you are upset if someone does this to your code, or you think its unethical for this sort of life cycle to occur, then being a user/developer in a GPL controlled ecosystem is the wrong place for you to be.

How do developers survive in a GPL world?

First, it depends on what type of developer you are. Some developers simply write code to solve a problem and then they release their solution. Their code is licensed under GPL because they want to protect it within the above mentioned “live cycle”. Other developers find a purpose in their code/project/solution. They believe so much in their solution that they are advocates and supporters of the code’s usage. Some might sell annual support contracts, or provide assistance, training, updates on a consistent basis so much so that these developers build a community of users which can provide a sustainable environment.

One additional point, these very freedoms we have been talking about are why open source communities are incredible learning and growing incubators of opportunity. Many people in the WordPress community attribute their code skill growth to the ability to view and manipulate other people’s code. So the question needs to be asked… Would the WordPress community/ecosystem be where it is today if WordPress was NOT GPL? (hint – you can respond to this question in the comments)

I originally started this post so I could do a little survey. The focus of this survey is to understand what others think of the options that are available to them when using GPL’d code. And how far users/developers take these options that are in front of them.

The GPL License

    Check all that apply

If you have additional comments or thoughts, I encourage you to leave them in the comments area below. Or you can connect with me on twitter at @BenjaminBradley.

My Web Development Tools – WordPress Plugins and Themes

In this first of several blog posts, I will attempt to answer a number of questions people have been sending me about my workflow, what tools I use in web development, what I use to teach WordPress training at WebDesign.com and other “tips of the trade”. So in this post I’ll be sharing about the WordPress plugins and themes I use in my development projects.

Everything starts with WordPress.  Because of the flexibility of the code-base and and extensive ways in which to expand the capabilities, WordPress is the perfect foundation for just about any type of web-based project.

I work extensively with two themes.  The first is the Builder theme by iThemes. I use this theme heavily in all of my WebDesign.com live training. I also have built my own WordPress theme framework that gives me the type of control I crave when it comes to working with WordPress. It is called the Voce Theme Framework So what is the Voce Theme Framework about? The word Voce is Italian for voice. My wife is an opera singer and she gave me this idea that everyone should have their own voice. So this WordPress theme framework is all about giving the developer a voice and providing a solid foundation for any type of theme while getting out of the way of the design.

WordPress Plugins

Now let’s talk about a number of the plugins.

  • Pods – Any time I want to extend the capability of WordPress, I do it with Pods.
  • Page Builder – An amazingly powerful (and flexible) content-area visual widget builder that is fully GPL (and free).
  • Gravity Forms – The only form plugin (and more) that a developer would ever need.
  • Widget Logic – Complete control over when and where a widget will show.
  • Nginx – I run Nginx-based servers (see upcoming blog post on how I build my servers) and this plugin helps bridge the cap for working with WordPress on an Nginx server… even helps setup caching capabilities.
  • MetaSlider – A feature-packed slider plugin that handles any idea you can throw at it.
  • Exchange – Exchange by iThemes is the fastest-growing and easiest to customize with a ton of developer-focused elements to create any type of ecommerce-based solutions.  Everything from Membership, physical products, invoicing, digital products and more can be handled by Exchange.
  • LoopBuddy – If you need a simple way to manipulate the Query and the Loop (template tags).  Look no further than LoopBuddy.
  • WordPress SEO – Currently, this is the best way to improve your WordPress site’s SEO.
  • BackupBuddy – The only solution that can easily backup, restore, migrate, and manage your WordPress sites.  Absolute peace of mind is achieved with this plugin.

There are also a number of other WordPress plugins that I might use on a site, but aren’t what I would consider must-install.  Some of these include WP CoursewareFoobarWP Mail SMTPIf MenuAdvanced Access ManagerWP All ImportCSS MedicPer Post CSS. (The last two are my own plugins.)

And in an upcoming post I will share with you how InfiniteWP also plays a vital role in my WordPress development workflow.

So now that you’ve seen some of the plugins I use… what plugins do you prefer to use?

The Real Tragic Tale of Trayvon Martin

This post was written by my wife on Facebook and I wanted to share it with others.

I haven’t mentioned this before, but I taught high school for a year at Trayvon Martin’s school (Homestead, FL):

  1. It was one of the top-5 worst urban public schools in the country.
  2. It had something like a 60% dropout rate.
  3. It was a school built for 1700 students but into which 3300 students were packed.
  4. It was rated a D/F school under Florida’s grading system of the time.
  5. The absenteeism rate was unreal. I wouldn’t even be told as a teacher if one of my students was suspended for 10 days for carrying a butcher knife in his backpack—I would have to find out by inquiring amongst his/her classmates.
  6. As teachers, we were required to keep our classroom doors locked at all times in order to protect our students from gang members or other unsafe situations that might be roaming the halls at any given moment.
  7. Gang warfare between Hispanic and/or Cuban students vs. black students was constant—up to 5 gang fights per day. The temperature at the school was kept very, very low (I had to wear a fleece every day) in order to keep the fights down.
  8. The school’s ethnic make-up was approximately 60% Hispanic or Cuban and perhaps around 40% black (my memory might play me false on exact statistics here). I believe I taught something like 3 white students out of the around 150 students I taught that year in class.
  9. School administrators/teachers were black, white, and Hispanic.

How is this relevant?

A couple things: Trayvon Martin was horribly failed as a student and as a human being at every possible level of the educational system (from what I can see). Case in point: I had an African-American male student who loved to study, loved to write poetry, and loved to play piano for his Seventh-Day Adventist church services. What do you suppose he spent his time doing at school? Literally hiding out in the classrooms of teachers during lunch breaks so he wouldn’t get beaten up during the school day during recess/breaks/lunch. Why? Because he was black and he wasn’t into the gang/ghetto culture that black males had to be a part of at that school in order to survive. And because he wasn’t part of that world, he needed to physically hide out in order to survive. That other student I mentioned who was bringing a butcher knife to school? He was black and LGBT and was horribly picked on constantly. He had brought a knife to defend himself from the constant physical danger, and he was caught with it in his backpack instead.

In an environment like that, who can possibly stand a chance?

I say all of this to say that the Trayvon Martin/Zimmerman case has bothered me at a lot of levels, but I am particularly troubled by what the case is NOT: a white man using racism against a black teenager. I don’t see that the Zimmerman trial is specifically about white versus black racism. Why? George Zimmerman is ethnically Hispanic and was raised ethnically Hispanic. He is not a white man. (There is a whole other set of issues between Hispanics and blacks in Florida, as I briefly touched on above.)

This trial has been made to stand-in or represent the racism issue for whites and blacks in this country (white guilt, white fear of black males, etc.). But it’s difficult to legally, fairly do that when Zimmerman isn’t ethnically white. And I don’t know what other people’s cultural/ethnic exposure is, but Zimmerman doesn’t look “white,” either: he looks Hispanic, which is what he is. And Hispanics and blacks in Florida have a whole other racial relationship in Florida: a very different one than whites and blacks do.

I notice that in so much of the media (mis)making this trial into a tale of exclusively white privilege/white abuse/white power, we got to conveniently skip many of the much-messier elements that made up Trayvon Martin’s short life: a horrifically abusive, unsafe, substandard public-schooling system that any rational American human being should view as a form of child abuse. This woefully inadequate system (as I described above) literally allowed for the continuing shaping and funneling of disadvantaged kids (via group coercion and violence) into gangbangers who would drop out of the system long before graduation.

Please let me hasten to say that there were some good teachers at that school: teachers who refused to show physical fear and who demanded standards out of their students and who did everything they possibly could to give the kids the best chances they knew how in that unutterably bleak situation (I guess I also didn’t mention that the year I taught there, somewhere around 30 teachers quit/moved elsewhere).

I am aware that there is a lot of verified information regarding the choices Trayvon Martin had been making in the several years prior to his death, and they weren’t healthy choices for his future. I acknowledge that.

But I also ask you, what chance did he ever have in the first place? Let us say that he was on his way to burgle a house that night. Do you know how much “cred” that would have given him in the school he once attended? And how much gang “cred” one needed in order to survive? Do you know how much that information (once shared in school) could have made him “king of the pile” and kept him from being at the bottom of a bloody heap of beaten-up kids? And yes, we know he was a drug dealer. Once again, do you know what an excellent survival tool that was in the school where he once attended?

I am deeply saddened and disappointed in our “trial by media” that was put on by the so-called journalists who populate the American airwaves.

By simplifying this case into white-on-black racism (inaccurate at best), we are able to avoid dealing with many of the actual issues that scream at us from this situation: what kind of people are we as Americans that we allow children like Trayvon Martin to grow up in systems like the one I saw in Homestead? Systems that literally helped allow and mold the students into criminals who could fend for themselves in a dog-eat-dog world of violence, coercion, control, drugs, and ultimately death? All before they even turned 16, in many cases?

There are no easy answers. And I am disgusted and sickened by those in the media who choose to take the easy way out by claiming this case is exclusively about white privilege and how it once again trumps all.

As tragic as this story is, we are *all* guilty here. As long as we Americans tolerate this horrific abuse known as the urban public-schooling system, we have no moral right to lecture ANY OTHER NATION on any of their human-rights abuses. Period. If we allow any of our nation’s children—of any color, ethnicity, or first language—to be mandated to attend such hellholes, we are a ridiculous joke ourselves and have no moral right to address “children’s rights” in any other nations or parts of the globe.

May God help us all…

Losing Trust in a Disruption Leader

The past week’s news about the closure of Google Reader hit really close to home. I follow hundreds of blogs, news sites, tutorial sites, and other sites that I would probably never remember to visit if I did not subscribe to their RSS feed through Google Reader. In fact, if I did have to visit each site to check on the latest information it would probably waste my entire day. Google Reader entered my life many years ago and gave me a simple and easy way to stay on top of all this news. Quickly processing the information from hundreds of sites and allowing me to pick just the good stuff. Google Reader saved me hundreds of hours.

Then they announced they were closing Google Reader. I was stunned and knew that I would quickly have to change my entire workflow to keep up with the many different sites that I use for my work. (Now I will have an upcoming post on the three options that I’m evaluating as replacements and another option that I never knew about but now love the format.) I have my suspicions about why Google is shutting down Google Reader. (Hint: They are releasing a premium news subscription service through Google Play soon.) But why Google is choosing to close Google Reader didn’t concern me. What concerned me was who the major user of Google Reader was and what Google was doing to its future development projects.

Who was the major user of Google Reader? Most of the people I have talked to agree that Google Reader was the goto online app for Early Adopters. These are the people who are willing to live with bugs and issues and are always seeking to try new products from companies. These are also the chief promoters of new products. I can’t tell you how many people tell me their heard about a new online product (Google Docs, Zoho, Evernote, MailChimp, Twitter, etc) from a current user or a friend that loves technology. I myself have pointed many people to new and upcoming technology as a replacement for their own methods of doing business and work.

For many years, Google was that disruption leader. Churning out new products and tools that were amazing replacements for the old way of doing things. And Early Adopters flocked to Google’s doorstep hoping to get access to the latest and the greatest so that they could tell all their friends about the amazing new tool. Anyone remember how much early entry into Gmail was going on Ebay? But during this time there was great trust in Google that they would be around and would always have our backs as users. Google offered a fair tradeoff in many people’s minds. Google gets to learn information about you so they can better sell ads and the user gets awesome products that just plain WORK!

Then Google goes and kills one of the favorite apps/tools of an Early Adopter. Many users have countless hours sorting, tagging, starring, news stories for better use and then the tool that we use to “find” the latest and greatest is gone. And gone also is trust in that fair tradeoff. Now Early Adopters are beginning to wonder if Google really does have their backs. We can already see the results. Google this past week also released some new product called Google Keep. Some sort of Evernote or Simplenote competitor. But guess what? Many of the Early Adopters (myself included) are just ignoring the product. Why invest yourself in a product when it will just be taken away on a whim. I’m surprised at how little that Google values the Early Adopter here in 2013. Especially since Google relied so heavily on them in the earlier years. Yes, it is true that Early Adopters are way less than 10% of the market. But don’t forget that Early Adopters have a huge sway over the other 90% of the market.

I started thinking about whether I had just been turning a blind eye towards Google and ignoring the signs. So I sat down and just started listing all the products that Google has killed.

  1. Google Reader
  2. iGoogle
  3. Google Labs
  4. Google Wave
  5. Google Video
  6. Google Desktop
  7. Google Buzz
  8. Google Code Search
  9. Google Aardvark
  10. Google Gears
  11. Picasa for Linux
  12. Google Notebook
  13. Google Health
  14. Picnik
  15. Google Listen
  16. Google Lively
  17. Google Bookmarks/Lists
  18. Google Docs Gadgets
  19. Google Search Timeline
  20. Google Apps for Teams
  21. Picasa Web Albums Uploader for Mac
  22. Google Fast Flip
  23. Jaiku
  24. Google Pack
  25. Google Sidewiki
  26. Google Flu Vaccine Finder
  27. Google Classic Plus
  28. Google Adsense for Feeds
  29. Google News Badges
  30. Google Talk Chatback
  31. Google Friend Connect
  32. Knol
  33. iGoogle Social Features
  34. Google Video for Business
  35. Google Related
  36. Google One Pass
  37. Places Directory App for Android
  38. Google Postini Services
  39. Google Mini
  40. Google Sync for Blackberry
  41. +1 Reporting for Webmaster Tools
  42. Google Catalog Search
  43. Dodgeball
  44. Google Print Ads
  45. SearchMash
  46. Google 411
  47. Google Answers

As you can see there are quite a few tools and resources that Google has killed over the years. Do you have a favorite tool that Google has killed? I miss Google Buzz, Google411, Picasa, Google Bookmarks and will miss Google Reader BIG TIME once it is finally gone for good. Will you trust Google and invest the time into using Google Keep or has Google burned one-to-many bridges with you to go down that road again?

How to Destroy an Amazon Home Business and Get Free Books as a Bonus

Amazon, that towering behemoth of a retail giant, answers to no one. Their power, reach, and breadth of products are astounding when you consider that it all started in one guy’s garage. If you need something you can probably find it on Amazon. For example:

But you know what they won’t do? Respond rationally to serious issues and massive flaws in their system.

Enter the Era of Personal Selling on Amazon

The Amazon ecosystem changed a number of years ago when they allowed users who owned their own copy of an item from Amazon’s massive catalog to sell/resell it directly to the public at a lower price than Amazon’s own price. The trade-off?

  • Amazon got to keep 30% of the sale
  • the seller was able to get their “used books / garage sale items” in front of the large internet traffic that Amazon generates
  • the buyer was able to get a product at ‘below-value’ prices.

It was a win-win-win for everyone.

Until…

People realized it was super easy to scam the system!

Over the years I’ve sold/resold books, I had many reasons for why I spent time listing items to sell. I inherited some theological books from my father and grandfather and knew there were other consumers who would be interested in purchasing these books. So Amazon provided me the platform. Sometimes I would purchase new books because I wanted to quickly look at only a few sections of the book. I took solace in the fact that a few days later I could turn around and resell the book as “Used-Like New” and recoup a portion of my purchase price while giving someone else a chance to purchase this new book at a fraction of the cost of the new book.

I was very attentive to the people who purchased books through my Amazon reseller account. I also worked hard to stay ahead of the policy changes that Amazon was constantly pushing on its members. I tried very hard to ensure that every single book that I mailed was sent with a tracking number–I wanted to make sure that the books arrived. Amazon has always had a variation of the A-to-Z Guarantee that is supposed to protect sellers and buyers. There was also a dispute resolution system that made a lot of sense. For a long time, when a customer would complain that they never received a book, I would provide Amazon with the tracking number that showed the book was delivered and many times even who signed for the package. This alone was good enough back in the day. Then Amazon would either refund the buyer or acknowledge that the seller had fulfilled their duties.

Then things started changing…

Buyers who complained to Amazon that they didn’t receive the book would instantly be refunded… out of the seller’s account. The seller would then get a black “proprietary” mark on their account which would lower the seller’s account score. In an attempt to prevent those “black marks,” I began dealing directly with the customer and offering a refund even if I had a tracking number showing the package was delivered. Rather than have a complaint filed with Amazon, I wanted the customer to be happy. There were only a few people who claimed to never receive their packages. But it was enough that I wanted to simply refund them the money rather than have them complain to Amazon.

Then Amazon changed their policies again and now you would get “black marks” if you refunded someone. Why, because in Amazon’s mind, a refunded order is a canceled order. And if you are canceling an order you are probably a bad seller.

Fast forward to the present…

The last two times a buyer complained to me about never receiving a package, I had the documentation (tracking number with a signature) that the buyer themselves had signed for the package. I even corresponded with the two buyers and let them know about the tracking number and the signature on file, and they still said the package never arrived. So what did I do? I refunded them their order. I took it as a loss rather than deal with people who were obviously trying to scam the system.

Then Amazon swooped in and canceled my account and said I had too many “proprietary” black marks and had my selling privileges canceled. I was not a big seller… maybe 3-5 books a month got sold. But my refunding of customers had caused my account to get canceled. No recourse or appeal (yes, there is an appeal form but it is a form letter response. I know that no one read my appeal because not one single question I asked–and I asked about 15 specific questions–were addressed or acknowledged).

Here’s How to Get Free Amazon Books and Destroy Someone’s Account:

It really is as easy as this 4-step process:

  1. Purchase a product from a seller you want to destroy.
  2. Claim the product never arrived… EVEN IF IT DID!
  3. Get your money back for your order
  4. Smile because you successfully gave someone a “proprietary” black mark on their account… and it will lead to them losing their selling privileges. Plus you got your product free!

So how many other people have experienced this treatment by Amazon and the fraud they they allow to happen in their ecosystem?

UPDATE: So it looks like my wife’s Amazon selling account (which she has owned for over 12 years… long before we were married) has also been canceled due to Amazon’s “proprietary” algorithm which searches for related accounts. Again, this comes with no recourse or appeal because they’ve proven they don’t look at appeals or care about them anyway.