Blogosphere

Another bug in the WordPress block editor and frustration trying to get WordPress.com Support to believe me

Let me start by saying that software support is a wicked hard job. I’ve worked in the industry more than 30 years and have experienced it firsthand on support rotations.

Until the latest update to WordPress’s block editor, it was possible to flow text around an image following these steps:

  1. Insert an image, either using an Image block, or using an HTML block to embed a Flickr image.
  2. Using the block tools, right or left align it.
  3. Grab handles appear on the image. Drag them to size the image to your liking.

Boom, that’s it, the next blocks flow around the image. At least, it did until the most recent block editor update. It’s broken now. After step 2 above, you can no longer select the block with the image in it. It appears to merge with the next block. If you click the image and use the block tools to delete the block, it deletes the next block but leaves the image in place. The only way to delete the image is switch to the Code Editor and remove the code that embeds the image. Here’s a screencast that illustrates what’s happening. This has got to be a bug.

Chicago Theater

I have found a sort-of workaround. Insert the image, size it, then left or right align it. It gives the desired end result, as you can see at left.

The only trouble is, you still can’t select that image block. I can’t resize it, I can’t move it, I can’t edit the caption. I can’t even delete it.

The only way to interact with the image block after that is in the code editor.

I opened a case with WordPress.com Support and described this regression. The support engineer said that the block editor was never designed to work in the way I described. I replied that it had indeed worked that way until a couple days before I opened the support case.

The engineer then asked me to either use the Text & Media block, or use the Classic Editor block, to do what I wanted.

This is an example of the Media & Text block. It doesn’t support Flickr embeds; unfortunately, I use Flickr to host most of the images here. Also, the default text is huge and you have to format it to try to match it to the rest of the post’s default text size. You get a slider to do that, and you have to match it by trial and error. It doesn’t actually flow the text around the image, as you can see.

MeditatingDogIt does work to use the Classic Editor. I’ve done it here: this paragraph and the image at right are in the Classic Editor block, and the paragraphs that follow are in Paragraph blocks.

It was surprisingly challenging to remember how to use the Classic Editor after all these months in the Block Editor, but I figured it out.

However, I was still sure I had found a bug, and I said so very directly to the support engineer. I shared an old post with the engineer that showed how I had flowed text around an image. I pointed the engineer to the underlying code behind the post to prove it: there were dimensions in the code for the image. Those wouldn’t have been there had I not used the grab handles to shrink the image. The engineer finally said, “Okay, I see you were able to do this before. It seems unusual that it was possible to do this before, but I can certainly report this change to the Block Editor devs. for you.”

No, it wasn’t unusual. This is how it actually worked.

Furthermore, following the steps I described above to flow text around an image results in a block you can no longer select, and can only delete by switching to the Code Editor. In what universe is that not a bug?

If anyone from WordPress happens to read this, I’d be grateful if you’d check what I’m saying here and, if I’m right, open a bug ticket for it. I’d surely like to see this fixed as I encounter this bug every day.

Most of the time when I open a support case with WordPress.com I get active troubleshooting. I’ve found several bugs over the years and most support engineers are happy to get to the bottom of it with me and, when I’m right, write a bug ticket. They even email me a link to the ticket so I can follow it and see when it gets fixed.

But every now and then a support engineer repeatedly tries to tell me that whatever bug I’m encountering is how the system is supposed to function, or that I am wrong about how the system used to work. That makes me nuts. I feel gaslit.

I know this support engineer doesn’t know me and has no idea I’ve been making software for a living since the late 80s. That I was a quality engineer for 17 of those years. I’m adept at identifying bugs.

Harrumph, enough ranting. I hope someone at WordPress.com figures out that this condition exists and puts it in the queue to be fixed.

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Photography

Instagram is like playing the slot machines; Flickr is … not

I post on Instagram only a couple times a month now. Six months ago it was four or five times a week. I am deliberately leaning into Flickr as my primary place to look at and share photographs. As I’ve done that, Instagram has felt less compelling — almost boring.

There’s something about sharing photos on Instagram that feels like playing the slots. The other day I got a pretty good payout. I shared this 2017 photo of a Studebaker Champion nose and it got 90 Likes in just a couple days, which is a lot for me. Normally, my photos get 30 to 40 Likes.

It felt great to see the Likes mount. It made me want to post again, to pull the bandit’s arm, to see if it would hit again.

I resisted.

I recently came upon this photo in my archive of side-by-side bridges in Ohio, one from the 1820s and the other from the 1930s. I made the photo in 2011 as I explored the National Road and US 40 across Ohio. Shortly after returning I uploaded a ton of trip photos to Flickr, but never this one. I decided I wanted to use it in my ongoing series of posts about bridges; you saw it here just the other day. Its colors were dull, so I punched them up in Photoshop. I made the photo a little too red, I think. But Flickr’s algorithms noticed it, and included it in the Explore feature on December 31st.

National Road and US 40 bridges at Blaine, OH *EXPLORED on 12/31/19*

Flickr Explore delivered 4,041 views (so far) to this photograph! You’d think that should have felt better than 90 Likes on my Instagram post. It did feel good. But it was more like passing delight as the notifications started hitting. I felt absolutely no compulsion to post something else interesting to Flickr to try to get that Explore sugar again.

Both a well-liked Instagram image and being chosen for Flickr Explore are like finding a forgotten 20-dollar bill in your coat pocket. It happens when it happens.

But you have the illusion of influence on Instagram. You think that if you just post the right photo, it will pay off again. You know it doesn’t work that way on Flickr, so you don’t try. You just share what you share, and feel delighted when you’re lucky enough to make Explore.

Instagram is manipulating its users. I want my Internet experience to involve less being manipulated.

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Photography

Sustaining Flickr

It’s remarkable that Flickr survived Yahoo! and Verizon. Some news reports suggest that Verizon thought it would be too much cost and trouble to find a buyer for Flickr. Had SmugMug not made an unsolicited offer, Verizon would likely have shuttered Flickr.

That would have devastated this blog. The vast majority of the photographs you see here are hosted there. It would have been a staggering job to fix the blog, a job I don’t have time for. Down the Road would have met its end.

You may have read SmugMug CEO Don McAskill’s alarming plea for help on Flickr’s blog last month. He asked for more people to become Flickr Pros, as this is how Flickr makes money. More Pros means a longer life for Flickr as it is.

Ferdy Christant is a wildlife photographer and software developer who built a photo-sharing site for wildlife photography. He wrote a compelling, although rambling, defense of SmugMug recently; read it here. He makes a strong case that SmugMug bought Flickr to return it to profitability and operate it for the long haul.

Christant paints SmugMug as a longtime business run by competent leaders who took a big risk on money-losing Flickr. He believes that SmugMug’s focus on building a sustainable business through the photography community, rather than on being a high-flying, billion-dollar tech unicorn, offers real hope.

I’m going to step out on faith and believe Christant. But a good reason bolsters my faith: SmugMug moved the entire Flickr service to Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS is Amazon’s cloud computing service. You rent servers from them, and run your software product and store its data there. It is risky, time-consuming, and expensive to move a big software product and all of its data to a new host. I work in the tech industry and have been a part of such projects — I know what I’m talking about. And AWS itself is expensive. I’ve seen the hair-raising monthly bills at some companies I’ve worked for who used a fraction of Flickr’s capacity. You don’t move to AWS casually. You don’t do it at all when you plan to wind down your service.

The free Internet is a myth. Running a software product and storing its data costs real money. The more popular the service, the bigger the money. My little blog costs me about $500 a year in costs related to running it and storing its data. Flickr probably spends that much every fifteen seconds.

Many sites have been free to use since the dawn of the Web. At first, many big, valuable sites hid their very real costs from you by burning investment capital. After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, new Internet companies focused hard on how to monetize their sites. Most of them chose an advertising model. Some of them went with a membership model. The software product I help build today had a membership model until just a couple years ago. We got by. We changed over to a targeted advertising model and the money started gushing in. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the advertising model has won on the Internet.

Flickr seems determined to keep a membership model (though they do show some ads to non-members). To use a broadcast TV metaphor, that makes them much more like PBS than NBC. PBS relies on people like you giving them money to keep going. So does Flickr. But really, what you’re doing is paying for the value you get.

If you use and like Flickr, I echo Don McAskill: become a Pro. It costs $60 a year. Click here to upgrade. If $60 is big money to you, I understand. I’ve been there. But if you can readily afford $60, do it. You’ll unlock unlimited photo storage and a bunch of other goodies. And you’ll help keep Flickr’s lights on.

Flickr’s not perfect. Its community is a shadow of what it once was. Its past owners have made some baffling and sometimes stupid decisions. Some of SmugMug’s decisions about Flickr have proved controversial. But set it all aside. Flickr remains valuable and, in some ways, a gem. It’s a place to explore photographs, a place to share your photography, a place to host your photography for use all over the Internet. It deserves to continue.

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Blogosphere

Pasting Flickr embed codes into WordPress blocks no longer works

Software engineers all over the world continuously deliver new and changed functionality to WordPress.com. This is great when you like the changes, and not so great when you don’t. Especially when you have to learn all new steps to do something you’d already learned to do and were happy with.

One major change was the new block editor. It was a whole new way of approaching creating content. I found it to be easy to learn and I like it a great deal better than any other editor WordPress has ever offered.

One thing I especially liked about it was how easily I could embed images from Flickr, which is where I host most of my images. In the old editors, embedding a Flickr image was a multi-step process. One of those steps was manually stripping out of the embed code a <script> tag that WordPress tripped up on.

WordPress actually doesn’t allow <script> tags in posts. This is wise, because those tags execute in your browser code that’s stored elsewhere. That code could be malicious. The code Flickr wants to run in your browser is harmless, but there’s no way for WordPress to know that.

In the block editor, simply pasting the Flickr embed code into an empty block stripped the <script> tag and made the image appear. Yay!

But this functionality was recently removed with neither warning nor explanation. Pasting a Flickr embed code into a block now results in a blank block.

But not an empty block. When you switch the block to HTML view, some HTML code appears. WordPress converted the Flickr embed code to the image’s simple URL wrapped in a hyperlink tag, wrapped in a paragraph tag, like this:

<p><a href="URL_of_Flickr_image"></a></p>

This is a malformed hyperlink, in that it specifies the link target (the page to go to, here the URL of the Flickr image) but no text or image to which to attach the hyperlink. The browser correctly renders this as blank.

Thinking I’d found a bug, I opened a case with WordPress.com support. They told me that simply pasting the Flickr embed code should never have worked because of the <script> tag. They didn’t explain why.

I pointed out to them that before this change, blocks flawlessly stripped out <script> tags. I asked if they would restore the old functionality. They said with no explanation that they would not.

They gave me two alternatives. The first is to paste the Flickr image’s URL into an empty block. This does work, but the image is of a fixed size, which is narrower than the block on some screens. I did it below, so you can see. There doesn’t appear to be any way to increase the image size. I almost always want the image to scale to full width, so this alternative won’t work for me.

Pay parking

The other alternative they offered is to paste the Flickr embed code into a block of type Custom HTML. This adds three extra steps I didn’t have to do before:

  1. Convert the automatically created default block to a Custom HTML block.
  2. After pasting the Flickr embed code, manually delete the <script> tags.
  3. Open the block menu and choose Convert to Blocks to show the embedded image rather than its underlying HTML code.

This is not onerous, but it is disappointing because several days ago I did not have to do these steps. A real benefit I gained with the block editor is now lost. These steps give me the same end result I had before, at least.

Pay parking

In my work as a software engineering manager in a company that delivers a software product over the Internet, I’ve personally led engineers to deliver changes that have caused users frustration. There are a lot of valid reasons to do it. But users hate to be surprised by changes that alter their workflows, especially when they don’t know why it had to change.

I’d love it if WordPress.com would revert to the old functionality so I can just copy and paste those Flickr embed codes and move on. But I’d have an easier time accepting this loss of functionality if someone had given me even a flimsy explanation of why.

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Photography

Doubling down on Flickr

I’ve made public declarations on Facebook and Instagram that I will not publish on those platforms frequently anymore. I’d like to say that Facebook’s drunken-pirate behavior with our data finally pushed me over the edge, but I can’t. On Facebook I finally had enough of the political tribalism. On Instagram, about every fourth post is an ad. I’m not anti-advertising but that’s too much.

I’m not deactivating my accounts. I’ll still check in from time to time, if for no other reason that I still promote this blog through a Facebook page (here if you’re curious) and share from that page to various Facebook groups. Like I’ve said before (here), Facebook remains the most effective way I’ve found to promote my blog. I still promote the Historic Michigan Road through Instagram (here).

But I want to look at photographs, especially film photographs. When I make time to really study a good photograph, not only does it deepen my enjoyment, but it can teach me something about photography that I can try on my next roll of film.

If I follow you on Flickr, you might have noticed that I’ve starred more of your photographs lately. I’m shifting to Flickr as the primary place I go to view photos and (outside of this blog’s comments) interact with photographers.

Flickr isn’t as fun as it was when I joined in 2006. But I want to believe that new owner SmugMug means what it says and will revitalize the community. I see no ads there, and I’m not aware they use my data beyond what is necessary to operate the service.

I’ve always been able to look at photographs there as easily on my desktop as I can my phone. And now that SmugMug has increased the maximum upload resolution, I can study photographs there in ways not available on any other platform I’ve used. Facebook and Instagram can’t touch Flickr here.

If you’re active on Flickr I’d like it very much if you’d leave your Flickr URL in the comments, unless you’re sure that I already follow you there. Here’s my Flickr stream if you’d like to follow me. Thank you!

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Film Photography

Why I have trouble editing my own photographs

A school of thought says to edit (in other words, delete) your photographs ruthlessly. Keep only the ones that represent your best work.

I’ve kept every film image I’ve ever made, including the abject failures. I never know when I’ll change my mind about an image, or thanks to better tools be able to improve one. But even more importantly, I never know when revisiting a bad photograph will reconnect me to a good memory.

Building a bridge

I didn’t like this photograph after I made it in 2012. The bright sun washed out some of the roadway behind these machines, and I thought then that it ruined the shot. According to that school of thought, I should have deleted it.

I looked at this photograph again only because I was updating my review of the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80, which I used to make this photograph. Looking at it anew, I saw much to like. The tones are good. The machines create pleasing intersecting planes, the big arm of that Caterpillar machine adds strength, and each machine offers much detail to study.

I brought it into Photoshop — a tool I didn’t have in 2012 — and toned down the highlights to help that little patch of pavement not shine so hard. It helped a little. You might not even notice it now if I hadn’t pointed it out.

Looking around in that folder I found several forgotten photographs from that roll. By “forgotten,” I mean that I never uploaded them to Flickr. That means I thought then that they were failures. But looking at them again, I’ve changed my mind.

This is one of those photographs. It isn’t going to win any contests, but it’s evenly exposed and, after a judicious crop, balanced in its framing. This is a little tree in the landscaping at Juan Solomon Park in Indianapolis, a place I used to visit often for photography.

Tree

I was out on my bicycle that day. (That’s the beauty of a camera the size of a bar of soap. Into a side pocket, onto the bike, off for fun.) I hadn’t yet learned to notice when my shadow was in the frame. Also, bright light from the low sun behind me reflected strongly off my bike’s fenders. I can’t do anything about my shadow but Photoshop toned down those reflections enough.

Bike

I enjoyed remembering that early-evening photo ride, especially this portion along that closed street, exploring a nearly finished new bridge. (That’s why I was able to photograph all that heavy equipment in the first photograph above.) It makes me want to do more photo rides when spring comes. I might have lost that memory without this photograph.

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