Addicted to Chaos

Posted on 31st March 2011

Sometime ago, a website I was working on needed the ability to view images on the current page from a thumbnail. Many websites now feature this functionality, but at the time only a few seemed to offer this, and the assumption was that the javascript required was rather complex. As such, I did a search of the viewer libraries available, either as Open Source or for free download, that I could use for a commercial website.

The initial search revealed a rather more limited result than I expected, and seemed to imply that the complexity had put people off from developing such a library. However, in retrospect it seems that a market leader has become so popular, stable and robust, that others have choosen to provide different or limited presentations based on similar designs.

Back last year I began writing a review of some of the viewers, but never got around to finishing it. Having some time recently, I decided to both complete the review and revisit the viewers to see what improvements have been made since I first investigated them.

Before I begin the individual reviews, I should note the requirements I was looking for in a viewer. Firstly, the viewer needed to be self contained, both with files and directory structure, so that the feature could be added or removed with minimal changes to other website files. The viewer needed to be run completely on the client side, no AJAX or slow loading of large images would be acceptable. However, the most significant requirement was that all code needed to work in IE6. Unfortunately this latter requirement was non-negotiable.

I was quite surprised by the results of the solutions I could find around the web, and although there are likely to be others now, the following is a brief review of each of the four immediate solutions I found, and my experiences with them.

Lightbox

Possibly the best know thumbnail viewer library available, and now a clear market leader. The original review was with v2.04, which had been the stable release from 2008. This month (March 2011) has seen a version 2.05 release with added IE9 support. Lightbox is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License, and is free to use for commercial projects, although a donation would be very much appreciated.

While this viewer works in most browsers, and the features of images sets and loading effects looked great, it proved unworkable in many of the IE6 browsers I tried across multiple platforms. Despite searching in forums and in some howtos, there didn't seem to be an obvious fix to the problem. The viewer would either not load at all, load with a black layer over the whole web page, or begin to load and crash the browser. I know there are many problems and faults with IE6 and the javascript rendering engine, but these were supposedly stable releases.

As Lightbox makes use of the Prototype Framework and Scriptaculous Effects Library, which was already being used within the website the viewer was for, the library initially seemed to be the best fit. Failing IE6 so dramatically and consistently, disappointingly meant it couldn't be pursued further.

Slimbox

Slimbox is a Lightbox clone written for the JQuery Javascript Library. v2.04 is the last stable release, and the release that was originally reviewed. Slimbox is free software released under MIT License.

Slimbox is based on Lightbox 2, but utilises more of the JQuery framework and is thus slightly less bulky. While working well in the browsers I tried, it flickered several times in IE6 when loading the image. Anyone viewing the effect with eplipsy might well have felt ill. Even for someone not affected by eplisey this strobing effect was extremely off putting. I suspect this problem may well be an alternative side-effect to those seen with the original Lightbox, but again forums and howtos didn't provide a suitable fix in order to remedy this problem.

Dynamic Drive Thumbnail Viewer

This is the first thumbnail viewer that Dynamic Drive have available, as the second is an inline viewer rather than an overlay, which is what I was after, and is the version made available on July 7th, 2008. Scripts by Dynamic Drive are made available under their Terms of Use, and are free to use for commercial projects.

This a very basic viewer, relying on basic functionality rather than flashy effects. As such, it is simple in design and presentation. Rather than create a full browser window overlay, as both Lightbox and Slimbox do, the Dynamic Drive viewer simply contains the viewing image within a simple DIV layer tag. There is the possibility to add visual effects, but these can be easily turned off.

This seemed to work in most of the browser tried, except when clicking the image in IE6. The image appeared, but then immediately a javascript error popped up. After quickly reviewing the configuration and turning off the animation, the viewer opened and worked seamlessly across all the browsers tested.

Highslide JS

Highslide JS is a very feature rich library, which provides much more than an image viewer. Highslide JS is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License, which means you are free to use the library for non-commercial projects. For commercial projects two payment methods are available, $29 for a single website, and $179 for unlimted use.

The feature set for displaying images includes the style of animation to open images, the positioning of text, and the linking of image sets. In addition, it also provides many features for regular content, which can then be used for tooltip type pop-ups, using embedded HTML, IFrames and AJAX. Another standard feature is the ability to allow the user to move the pop-up around the screen, to wherever might be convienent.

However, there is a downside. While this works well in most browsers, even just loading the Highslide JS website in IE6 throws up several errors. With the library being so feature rich, it is a considerably larger codebase, although removing comments can remove this down to just over 8KB, and I suspect some of the older browsers may not be able to handle some of the complexity. Their compatibility table suggests that it works all the way back to IE 5.5, but in the tests performed for IE6, when the site did open without crashing the browser, the viewer itself felt rather clunky when an image was opened and several of the visibility settings just didn't work. You also frequently get an 'Unterminated string constant' error pop-up, which just feels disconcerting considering they are asking you to pay for commercial usage.

If IE6 wasn't a factor, this may have been a contender, as the cost is very reasonable for a commercial project that would utilise all its features.

Conclusion

These are just the four viewers that were prominent in searches for a "thumbnail viewer". They all seem to have the same, or at least a similar, style of presentation of images, which is likely due to the limited way images can be displayed as an overlay. However, the basic functionality of displaying an image seems to have been overshadowed by how many cool shiny features some can fit into their library, with configuration seeming to be an after thought.

With the ease of configuration to disable the IE6 error, the basic functionality and the freedom to use for commercial projects, the Dynamic Drive solution was utimately chosen for the project I was working on. If IE6 wasn't a consideration, I would have gone with Lightbox, as we already use Prototype and Scriptaculous. With IE6 usage dwindling on the website in question (Jun 2010: 38.8%, down to Mar 2011: 13.2%), it is quite possible that we may upgrade to a more feature and effect rich viewer in the future, and Lightbox does seem to be a prime candidate.

Consider this post a point of reference, rather than a definitie suggestion of what image viewer library to use. There may be other choices that suit your needs better than these, but these four are worth initial consideration at the very least.

Browsers & Operating Systems

For reference these were the browsers I tried, and the respective operating systems. And yes, I did test IE6 on Linux, where it occasionally stood up better than the version on Windows! Though this may be due to the lack of ActiveX support.

  • IE6 (WinXP, Windows7, Linux)
  • IE7 (Windows7)
  • IE8 (Windows7)
  • Firefox 3.6 (WinXP, Windows7, Linux)
  • Opera 9.8 (Linux)
  • Opera 10.52 (Linux)
  • Chrome 5 (Windows7, Darwin)
  • Chromium 6 (Linux)
  • Safari 4 (Darwin, iOS)

File Under: opensource / review / technology / usability / web / website
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Who Knows Where The Time Goes

Posted on 27th March 2011

Alvechurch Acoustic Roots Review
Friday 25th March 2011
Alvechurch Social Club

Since Alvechurch's very own Slim Pickins was put on indefinite hold, there was still a desire to do something on the last Friday of the month. So in January the very first Alvechurch Acoustic Roots Review took place. The night is quite different from the previous Roots & Blues Club, but does feature some familiar faces. The biggest difference of the night is that everyone is there to listen to some interesting performances, rather than just out for a night of music. It's created a very different dynamic within the audience, the most noticeable affect being that everyone stops talking and listens to each act. As most performers only play two songs each, it allows for a lot of variety.

To beginning the night, as per usual is Paul Chamberlain, who was then followed by Pippa Morley opening with Black Velvet and Angie O'Rourke performing a very pared down version of Dancing In The Dark. Next up were The Withybed Poets. While most of the performers tonight are singers or musicians, The poetry readings from The Withybed Poets added a nice flavour to the night. The first set ended with a change to the planned roster, with Nicole performing a song she had written with Graham Higgins (the act she filled in for), but which has yet to receive a title.

The second set featured a band put together for the night, Public Sector, featuring Graeme, Paul, Keith and Tony. The highlight of their set has to be their own unique interpretation of The Erie Canal, reworked as The Worcester Canal, with the Captain Pugwash theme tune tagged onto the end. The Withybed Poets came back for a second stint, adding Sam to their line-up. Of all the poems they performed The Doctor's Waiting Room by Meg was a personal favourite, which together with her earlier ode to Rugby Players, proved Meg has quite a talent for the comedic poem. Next up was Katherine, featuring a rendition of Joni Mitchell's Marcie. Last act of the second set featured Iain & Nicole. The first song was one penned by Iain, The Snowflake Song, with their second song Who Knows Where The Time Goes by the Sandy Denny, who Iain admitted before playing the song that he only discovered recently, while Nicole has been a long time fan, and has performed a few of her songs solo at the Roots & Blues Club.

For the third set, Pete Gates featured some traditional blues songs on quite a unique brass guitar. Adrian Perry then took us back to the early seventies with rendtions of Ruby Tuesday, and the great sing-a-long Strawbs' Part Of The Union. Interesting to note that most of the audience knew all the words, especially the chorus! Adrian then added backing to final act of the set, Sue & Fiona. Their second song introducing us to some great "Gaelic mouth music".

For the final set, the Acoustic Roots Orchestra take to the stage, with most of the participants having already played during the night. The Orchestra is a result of The Workshop run by Paul to nuture talent within the village, and give those who might not otherwise feel brave enough to play on their own, a chance to meet others and work on ideas and songs.

It was a great night and a great selection of performers. The mix of music and performance worked well as did the idea of having several sets with breaks between. If you like quality acoustic folk, then you'd be a fool to miss future nights. The next Alvechurch Acoustic Roots Review will be on Friday 6th May.

Acoustic Roots Review featured:

Paul Chamberlain
Pippa Morley
Angie O'Rourke
Withybed Poets
Nicole Perrott Hughes
--
Public Sector
Withybed Poets
Katherine
Iain Howarth & Nicole Perrott Hughes
--
Pete Gates
Adrian Perry
Sue Resuggan & Fiona Holmes
--
Acoustic Roots Orchestra

Photos:

File Under: gigs / music / people / review
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She Brings Sun

Posted on 24th March 2011

The Bleeding Hearts
19th March 2011
Katie Fitzgeralds, Stourbridge.

This was the first gig of the year for The Bleeding Hearts, and comes in the middle of recording their new album. As such it was a suitable occasion to air some of their new songs. The night was a good mix of new and old, and even though some live favourites were abscent, it wasn't noticable until after the gig. The new songs worked well with the old, and the band sound tight again, despite not playing live since November last year.

The venue was a small cellar bar, and although it looked cramped on stage, Steve, Gel and Lizzie managed to find space enough to bounce around as per usual, with Gaz and Ewan holding the fort behind them. The recent addition of mandolin to band's overall sound is a good choice. With Gel and Gaz laying a solid foundation to the band's sound, and Steve cutting to the point, it allows both Lizzie and Ewan the freedom to add flavours to the sound the emphaise all the other parts. Steve did comment that Ewan's role in the band was to "keep it nice", Steve own role was to "keep it nasty". It does make for a great punk folk sound.

The set began with a firm live favourite, Democracy, and the fun never let up once. The first part of the set was a run through a selection from the past few albums, before introducing some of the new songs to the set. The first new song, Brian, was in honour of the Family Guy character, before continuing on with the likes of Screaming, The Damage You Do, Fear Of The Dark and She Brings Sun. As per usual, for Hardly Anything Gel traded in his bass for drumstick and tamborine, and frequently emulated and embelished the poses of Lizzie's fiddle playing on the opposite side of the stage. Not quite Duelling Banjos, but they're getting there ;)

Then came a run of three new songs, first Land Of Folk And Glory, followed by the very reggae influenced In The Name Of The People, which kept the groove of the night bouncing along nicely. Finally the last of the new songs, which poked fun at the social networking way of life. For the moment, until I can find a title, it shall be known as The Facebook Song. Finishing off with a couple of older songs, rather than head off to the back room only to come out a moment later to do an encore, the band remained on stage. Final song of the night, Caravan Song, bookended the set with another classic from Fly In The Face Of Fashion.

A great night, and if tonights airings are anything to go by, the new album is going to be cracker. A band not to be missed.

UPDATE: Gel tells me the real name of the new song is Fake Book. A much better title :)

File Under: bleedinghearts / gigs / music
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All Around The World

Posted on 14th March 2011

Paul Weller once sang of "a new direction. We want a reaction. Inflate creation." All three could be attributed to why two major events in the Perl event calendar started in 1999, and now happen all around the world today. The two events, The German Perl Workshop and YAPC::NA, both were a new direction for Perl events and specifically a reaction to more commercial events. They both also brought a new creativity to the Perl community.

In 2011 we now have YAPCs, Workshops and Hackathons happening on a monthly basis somewhere in the world. They are still very much organised by members of the Perl Community, and bring together a diverse group of people to each event. They often inspire some to create Perl events themselves. However, that initial enthusiasm is often quickly followed by panic, when the organisers start to figure out what they need to do to make a great event. Which is where a book might help.

I am planning to publish such a book, entitled 'Perl Jam - How to organise a conference ... and live to tell the tale'. The book is a guide for organisers planning to host a large technical event, with the aim of helping organisers think of everything, and prepare themselves for anything they might not have thought of, or forgotten. Organising a conference, workshop or hackathon can be a daunting prospect, but with the help of this book, it might make the experience much more enjoyable, and may even inspire you to do it all again!

'Perl Jam' is being made available for its first public draft via a GitHub repository. This is the third draft, and my thanks go specifically to Jon 'JJ' Allen and David Golden, for their extensive help and feedback so far. Also thanks to chromatic for allowing me to use the framework and scripts he used for his great book Modern Perl.

I welcome any and all comments and suggestions, so if you've ever organised a large event, please take the time to read the draft and see if there is anything not covered that you would have suggested. For any current organisers, please download and share the book with your team and feel free to send me any additional notes you make as you go along. If you are thinking about organising a technical event in the future, are there any questions you would want to know, that haven't been explained in the book?

Everything is up for discussion, including the cover (which is not the finished version), and I'm very interested to hear from anyone who has suitable photos that can be included in the book, as examples or to emphasise sections.

The draft is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please feel free to point people to the git repository, but please do not redistribute with any modifications. Forking with Git is fine, but I request that you send me patches (via perljam@missbarbell.co.uk) or pull requests.

The book also has its own website, Perl Jam, which will be the official source of any releases.

File Under: book / community / conference / opensource / perl / yapc
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Chocolate Girl

Posted on 8th March 2011

Easter is coming soon, and its a time when chocolate seems to feature heavily in advertisements and on supermarket shelves. However, not everyone can share the taste. It's not necessarily that they don't like chocolate, but they may have more personal reasons for not wanting to buy regular branded chocolate.

Now you have an alternative choice. The Chocolate Wendy House was created by a friend of ours, Wendy, who is a vegan. After becoming a vegan she missed the taste of chocolate. Several years ago she discovered she was able to buy vegan ingredients to make her own chocolate. She began by making her Vegan Cream Eggs for family and friends, and found them to be a big success.

Following this, Wendy expanded her range of chocolate products and built the website to sell her wares online. Now you can buy vegan chocolate cream eggs, hearts, rabbits and even orange segments.

Whether you're a vegan or not, if you like chocolate and would prefer something from a more ecologically friendly source, visit The Chocolate Wendy House for a change. You won't be disappointed :)

File Under: food / friends
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Close (To The Edit)

Posted on 8th March 2011

On Saturday March 5th 2011, a neighbour of ours, Kate Angel, took part in a sponsored head shave for Cancer Research UK. Her friend Angie was diagnosed with breast cancer last September and with Angie living in Blackpool, Kate felt she needed to do something to help her. Shaving her head to raise money and awareness seemed to be a positive and inspiring way to do it.

Cora Flowers, a professional hairdresser and neighbour, offered to shave Kate's head, and David Le Marchand, "another Dad", worked on the posters and flyers for the event. Having a video camera, Nicole offered my services to record the whole event as "The man across the road".

Having recorded the event, I then spent Saturday and Sunday having fun editing the video. The full edit came to 30 minutes, but I also managed to make a shorter edit at just over 12 minutes for YouTube, featuring the main highlights.

So far the online donations and the money raised on the day has raised nearly £1,500 (and is expected to be more with all the promotion of the videos). If you would like to donate an amount, please visit Kate's JustGiving page, and donate as little or as much as you can to a very worthy cause.

To see the event itself, watch the YouTube video.

File Under: family / health / life / people / rubery
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