The future of shopping: offline vs online

Last week I had a conversation with Gaz’s colleagues about my budget Monday shops, off the back of a one-off trip to Tesco for a single meal which Gaz did at a cost of over £40. Forty pounds for one meal! This is in comparison to my weekly shop, which I’m quite pleased to have recently got back down under £50 per week, averaging around £35 per week. However my smugness was short-lived, as I was challenged on the fact that some of this shop comes from online providers.

It’s true, I use Amazon’s subscribe & save to do a big chunk of my regular shopping. The ability to set frequencies, quantities etc on items that I use a predictable amount of: cat food, guinea pig food, cat litter and so on… this is invaluable both to my budgeting and planning ahead. Especially with a billion cats at home (slight exaggeration). Not only that, because Amazon’s service gives you incremental discounts on the items in your regular shop once you buy a certain quantity per time period, I currently get 15% off my pet foods, litter, and coffee… yes, we get through a lot of coffee.

This of course got me thinking about how shopping on the whole has changed over the past 10 years. One of the things I mention on my professional site is that I’m a busy mum, and use the Internet for the bulk of my shopping: it’s this frequent use in the role of “consumer” that gives me an important insight into how websites can best provide to their customers, and this makes me a better developer. If I understand the habits of people who buy, I can develop websites that make the most of those habits. Or that’s my thinking anyway.

Online shopping has radically improved over the past decade and as a result is generally my go-to for spending money, be that clothes and shoes or bigger stuff like electronic items, white goods etc. 99% of the time I research and compare a product online, and complete via a cashback or deal website to make the most of my purchase.

Surprisingly though, swiftmoney.com have recently surveyed 1000 members of the British public to see how people like to spend and a whopping 54% of people still prefer to buy in store (taken from the infographic below). In my opinion, shopping in a store — especially for ‘big’ purchases — lacks the flexibility and bargain-hunt-ability of price comparison and specification research. Not only that but with voucher sites, newsletter subscription benefits and aforementioned cashback (which has earned be back over £700 in just a few years, money I’d have not seen again shopping in-store), and the vast amount of online retailers offering comprehensive returns policies, detailed size information, an increase in the amount of media (photographs, videos, 3D views etc) that give you a full picture of what you’re buying… I really do struggle to see where the benefits of buying offline lie.

With ease of access on the mobile these days, my personal habits (aside from regular predictable purchases) are leaning towards bigger, bolder (and more impulsive) purchases on the go. With over half of purchases made on mobile as of 2016 and Google pushing a ‘mobile-first’ index to prioritise sites with a good mobile presence as of this year, I can see this kind of purchasing is only going to grow in popularity as we head into 2018 too. In my professional opinion, if you have an online store that isn’t mobile friendly 2018 will see your online purchases shrink as market share on mobile continuously increases.

Still, for all my waxing lyrical about buying online, this wouldn’t have happened in a store:

Maybe those 54% of people have a point.


Click to see full size infographic.

I bought a Dell XPS 15

I’ve been trying to justify buying a new laptop for nearly 2 years. Despite it being the only thing that allows me to earn an income, I have been stuck in this “the old one still works” mindset: even though it’s slower, heavier, and has approximately 6 minutes battery life these days. Given the Acer’s approx value at purchase was circa £400 and that’s my daily rate, I’d paid for it through work several hundred times over; I was holding on to it because I’m a miserable scrooge.

So, after convincing myself that it was a sensible business decision to invest in some faster / better tech at some point, I had to decide what to buy. I read review after review for lots of top spec laptops: HP Spectre series, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4s, and various Dells including the Dell XPS 15. The only problem was the price tag: the build I wanted was £1500. My car is worth less than that.

Towards the end of June, on a whim I checked out the Dell website again and noticed that they had a series of offers on: £100 off certain laptops over £1000, £150 cashback on laptops over £1299 bought before 5th July AND Dell are on topcashback, which I knew would recover about £75 which would bring the final price down to just under £1200. Probably still worth more than my car, but enough of a saving that — combined with my recent celebration of 5 years in business — sealed the deal. One Dell laptop, in the bag.


(Not my photo, soz.)

It is a fucking beast of a laptop, with tech specs as follows:

  • 7th Generation Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-7700HQ Quad Core Processor
  • 15.6″ FHD (1920 x 1080) InfinityEdge display
  • 16GB, DDR4, 2400MHz; with support for up to 32GB should I feel insane enough to upgrade
  • 512GB PCIe Solid State Drive
  • 97WHr battery with estimated 19hr use
  • NVIDIA(R) GeForce(R) GTX 1050 with 4GB GDDR5(!!!)

First off, I have to state that the 19hr estimated use on the battery is optimistic at best. That said, I can do a full working day of heavy dev running XAMPP, Photoshop, PDF reader, Microsoft Word etc and only just start to worry about charging at the end of it. I can get a good 12 hours out of casual web browsing.

It’s a surprisingly lightweight laptop for the spec (I was expecting it to weigh half a ton) at approx 2kg, albeit heavier than some of its competitors, but 100% looks the business for it. With a smooth aluminium chassis and massive screen filling virtually every bit of space available, it looks every bit as expensive as the price tag it carries. Unfortunately the palm rest and internal casing let it down a little as it picks up grease from my fingertips like woah.

Visuals aside, the laptop hasn’t faltered yet. I’ve thrown a heavy workload at it from the get go (things are busy right now) and it’s hit the ground running. On Friday I was running Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator simultaneously while working on a CSS3 heavy website with multiple instances of Chrome open, as well as the various dev tools in the background. To top it all off, it wasn’t plugged in so running on a reduced power mode and I hadn’t noticed: there was not even a stutter from the processor. I honestly think I have outdone my personal needs here, and would love to see what this thing can truly handle.

It’s the quietest laptop I’ve ever owned, although that’s not necessarily hard given the old acer sounded like a plane taking off if it got in the slightest bit stressed.

I’ve previously expressed my concern about laptops shipping without e.g. CD drives (admittedly, back in 2008!) and the XPS 15 is one of them but I’m prepared to eat humble pie: I can’t remember the last time I used the CD/DVD drive on my Acer & I’ve yet to miss it on the Dell. Admittedly, growing USB drive capacity and “cloud” back-up services are the main reason behind that, with media streaming being my main source of music consumption a close second.

Aside from the case marks I touched upon earlier, my only other complaint is that I sometimes struggle to open the lid. It sounds silly but if I don’t have my fingers in a very specific placement, I find it difficult to get enough grip on it to get it open. Nobody mentioned this in any of the reviews I read prior to purchase, so that might just be me being a total bellend.

I’m also led to believe that the built in webcam is not positioned particularly well, which could lead to some interesting chats with my clients, but if I ever double up as a cam girl might produce some interesting chest shots ;)

All in I’m really pleased I finally took the plunge in buying some new hardware and I like that the Dell has offered me so far. I only hope it’s more reliable than my bloody car.

Blogging doesn’t have to be strategies and planning

As I mentioned earlier this month, I recently followed some bloggers on twitter with the goal of inspiring me to blog more. It’s kinda worked: I have a lot of ideas floating about my head at the minute. Whether they’ll making it into an actual blog post is another matter, but step 1 complete. Winning!

However, one of the side effects of this is that I’ve realised how much the blogging world has become dominated by the concept of blogging for fame & money, and as such how everything has to be about optimising for this. Content marketing plans, social media strategies, optimal hashtag usage, best posting times, the right theme, the best bloggers to comment-spam in the hope of increasing your following which increases clicks and eyes and revenue and… aargh!

I’m not sure if people realise but *dramatic pause* blogging doesn’t have to be like this.

It is possible to just open your little blog admin panel and write about something. Write as the words appear in your head, without thinking “should I stick another keyword in here”, or “how many giant photographs should I use to reach peak hipster lifestyle blog status”. Don’t edit the shit out of it, don’t dress it up with fancy words and metaphors… just write.

Of course, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t think about those things occasionally. Heck, the giant lifestyle blog photos are winning me over. I sometimes bung some hashtags on my insta-snaps and look ma: I’ve fixed my broken theme. But maybe, just maybe, once in a while: let go.

Twenty-somethings

I followed a bunch of bloggers on twitter today. My grand plan is to follow, be inspired by their energy and regular posting, and thus start posting regularly again.

Hahahahaha.

Realistically, however, I’ve already noticed a worrying trend amongst these ~cool~ bloggers: they’re all young twenty-somethings with no kids, no mortgage and very few of the responsibilities and boring bits of life dragging them down.

(That’s not a diss on these bloggers, rather just a reflection on my own boring existence.)

Of course this made me think back to my own heady days of popularity and millions of pageviews and comments and general life-validation through the medium that is the blog, and I realised I too was a young twenty-something with no kids, no mortgage and few responsibilities.

Obviously the key to being a successful blogger lies somewhere in that revelation… time to sell the kids and the house I guess.

In defence of selfies

I was flicking through a thread on mumsnet last week — procrastination in action — about people who take lots of selfies. The consensus of opinion was that people who take a lot of selfies are vain, insecure and lacking self-esteem. Mumsnet’s AIBU, apparently the last bastion of social etiquette and good manners, thinks that people who post a lot of selfies should get a hobby.

Maybe a hobby like criticising people on Mumsnet…

trolololol

I disagree, of course. I don’t think people with low self esteem post selfies for validation. Quite the opposite, I think often people with truly low self esteem tend not to post pictures of themselves at all for fear of judgement and comments, essentially cutting themselves out of their own history.

Of course there’s exceptions to the rule, in which case do we really need to be telling people who feel so badly about themselves that they’re a piece of shit and should stop posting on the Internet? That they need to do something more productive, or more worthwhile?

Who are these strangers to judge whether or not these selfie-addicts deserve to exist in their little safe space?

Given a choice between complimenting a serial-selfier and taking another kick at their apparently already low confidence levels, should we be defaulting to the kick in the teeth option? If a selfie is taken to seek validation – to justify existing in this world – is giving validation or giving hate more harmful?

Of course the selfie-hate is not a Mumsnet-only thing. It’s a fairly common opinion that people should not like themselves enough to share that with the world. Know your place, selfie takers!

Selfies document progress and milestones, holidays, hairstyles and fashion trends, culture and identity. Selfies are proof that we exist in our own lives: for others, for ourselves, and for potential future generations. They create communities between likeminded and lookalikes, allowing us to experience a truly multicoloured, multiflavoured, multicultural world that would otherwise be out of reach for many.

I take selfies. Good selfies, bad selfies. Duck-face selfies, new hair selfies, suns-out-guns-out selfies. Selfies with the kids and without. Selfies with friends, selfies in the mirror. Selfies on holiday and at home.

all-the-selfies

I finally have a record of my path in life and nobody can take that away from me, Mumsnet or otherwise.

I considered cam-girling to pay my mortgage

I’ve just been moaning on twitter about hitting a bit of a ‘blogging wall’ after 3 weeks of doing pretty well on my Septemblog challenge. In doing so, it occurred to me how lucky I am that — minor ‘every day’ life niggles aside — the only thing I can think of to moan about today is not having a topic to write about.

This time last year I was still trying to come to terms with the realities of lone parenting: mentally, physically and most overwhelmingly financially. Scraping together every spare penny to deal with having to pay all the bills myself, and a bunch of other crap that all seemed to hit at the same time, not least a tax fine/bill of over £950 because of a cock-up I’d made on a previous year’s tax return.

I was broken, financially and (nearly) mentally, and desperately trying to save every penny for massive impending solicitor and IFA bills to finalise the transfer of equity and re-mortgage my house. Bad times.

Anyway. At times — where I was not sure how to make my full time salary stretch any further, and I’d already worked my evenings away doing dev on the side — I would brainstorm ideas that would be low (mental) effort for high return and time and time again found myself pondering the realities of using the world’s (supposedly) oldest profession as a second sideline: I even googled story after story of past and present cam-girls and amateur porn stars to figure out the ins and outs of the industry.

I’m not particularly shy and I have zero issues with nudity. I am, shall we say “intimitely familiar with myself”, and not bothered who knows it. Most of all, thanks to years of other people helping themselves to my body, it isn’t that huge a step to give it away. Seemed therefore a logical jump to turn that into something that could earn me money with little outlay for tech or setup. I could potentially earn hundreds of pounds which would keep the little ones fed and a roof over our heads for a little bit longer.

But I didn’t do it. And while I have since joked about it with Gaz and indeed on twitter, I don’t think I could. If nothing else but because old wounds are healing, and I’m not sure having money in my back pocket is worth opening them up again.

On blogging, and how I’m probably doing it wrong

As we rapidly approach the 13th anniversary of me owning jemjabella.co.uk and my 15th year of blogging, I can’t help but think about how blogging (both my own, and on a wider scale) has changed over the years.

15 years ago it wasn’t uncommon for people to write blog posts thousands of words long. Blogs were in effect journals, diaries, a real look into people’s lives. And people read those entries, and replied: tons of comments per entry.

old blog 2005
My blog, as captured by the way back machine, Dec 2005

Slowly, slowly that changed. Blogs became less about the personal and more a collection of quick thoughts, pics, memes, links, quotes – truly the “web log” – and this in turn became tumblr, which is a vast and scary beast I’ve never been able to get to grips with.

Circa April 2006; shame the WBM didn't capture the header image
Circa April 2006; shame the WBM didn’t capture the header image

Those who didn’t adopt tumblr have seen the blogging landscape change in other ways. From paragraph upon paragraph of text (some of us still take this approach, cough cough) to lists and clickbait titles; sparse photography — in part because of bandwidth issues and slow connections — to blogs that feature more pictures in one entry than I feature in a year; “vlogging” seems to have hit a new high; beauty and “lifestyle” (what even is this?) bloggers dominate blog link lists. Comments became “likes”, “shares”, “thumbs up” – a lot less effort and easier to do en masse.

August 2006 (one of my favourite old layouts)
August 2006 (one of my favourite old layouts)

I have always defended my “blogging for myself” position and remained firmly stuck in my ways but it’s no secret that my once vast audience and “e-fame” buggered off ooooh… about 5 years ago when I stopped blogging about interesting things and started blogging about children. I miss the days of variety, controversy, geeking-outtery (I think I just made that word up) and not just blogging about myself and my mental health. I want to start taking more pictures, talking more about the things I like and the places I go, not just how heavy I lifted or how much cake I ate this week.

Layout before this one, 2010
Layout before this one, 2010

Of course… I say this, but it’s likely nothing will change long term: I’ll probably be a bit more enthusiastic with photos for a week or two, wax lyrical about something that sounds vaguely lifestyle-y, but the reality is I’ll always be that boring blogger with the 800 word blog posts and 1 photo every 6 months.

I think I’m ok with that.

HostPapa? More like HostCrapper*

hostpapa-logo* sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Yesterday I opened my work inbox first thing to a panicked email from a client (Sutton Community Farm) labelled “URGENT” – their website had gone down (again) with a Resource Limit Reached error. I quickly shot off a reply to let them know that this was usually caused by hitting a resource limit (e.g. server CPU usage) imposed by their host — HostPapa — and then I began investigating.

It only took a few moments to narrow it down to a massive stream of traffic to /wp-login.php which clearly indicated an attempted brute force attack on the WordPress login system. Common, but annoying. Coincidentally at the same time I noticed my own site (this one) was being hit by a similar attack though with less force – enough to slow the site down but not enough to push it beyond allowed resource usage levels like my client.

I e-mailed the client to let them know the cause of their issues so that they could update their support ticket with HostPapa, and a short time later emailed my host (Clook Internet) to notify them of the issue I was having.

Within 4 minutes Clook had not only dealt with my issue but had responded to my support ticket to let me know. Problem solved, top notch service as always.

HostPapa on the other hand, despite having been told exactly what the issue was, took hours to reply before finally suggesting:

Enable Gzip compression form cPanel:
login to Cpanel and then go to Software/Services.Click “Optimize Website”. For the best results,select “Compress the specified MIME types”, ascompressing all of your content can sometimescause problems in your hosting configuration. Makesure all MIME types on your website are compressedto get the most benefits out of the compression

Seriously! GZIP compression, while nifty for optimising page load times by serving compressed versions of files to your browser, is not going to mitigate a massive brute force attack.

I provided my client with an excerpt of the visitor logs so that they could show HostPapa exactly what was going on (because at this point I assumed HostPapa were too incompetent to do this themselves) and set about trying to find a way to attempt to block the traffic myself with the limited tools available through the basic HostPapa shared hosting cpanel. This was not only necessary but urgent – Sutton Farm’s veg box system hinges upon an export generated by the website on a Monday which they could not get to while the website was down.

By early afternoon I was able to curb the effects of the massive traffic load using the deny all directive to throw up an error 403 for all IPs except for my own:

<Files ~ "^wp-login.php">
Order deny,allow
Deny from all
Allow from 82.##.##.##

Satisfy All
</Files>
ErrorDocument 403 "Not acceptable"

which allowed me to download the export and get the farm the data they needed to process their customer’s orders for the week.

At 16:53 yesterday, a full working day since the issue was initially noticed, the wp-login.php page was still being absolutely pelted by malicious traffic attempting to brute force a login to WordPress, and HostPapa had still made absolutely no attempt to help sort the issue which not only affected the uptime and stability of Sutton Farm’s site (potentially causing them to lose business) but, as is the very nature of shared hosting, will have affected other users on the server their site is on.

HostPapa finally responded again late last night (far too late to actually achieve anything) pointing out that the site was now back up but we’d probably want to install a WordPress security plugin. Oh, and they suggested optimising the site again.

HostPapa’s response to my client’s urgent enquiry was absolutely terrible. Not only did they take far too long to respond (ironic, given the tagline on their site Real help – from real people – is here when you need it) to a business critical issue, but had absolutely no solutions to the actual problem even when they were directly informed of the issue and provided with proof of what was happening.

I’ll be migrating my client to an alternative hosting provider this week and in no uncertain terms recommend against using HostPapa’s web hosting services.

My Internet History

I’ve been trawling the Way Back Machine lately for links & images for my recently re-added geek t-shirts collection page (work in progress), and happened upon a link to a page I used to have: “My Internet History”. I don’t have this page any more, it was one of the things I dropped when I tried to make my site more “professional” (ha) but as my audience now and my audience 6 years ago are fairly different I thought it’d make an interesting blog post & give a little insight into where “this” all began. Here goes (written in 2008)…

I first started venturing online in 1999 when my Mum showed me ICQ and said that I could use it to talk to my Grandad. I’d hold conversations for with him and with Mum’s friends for hours, simply because I didn’t understand the scope of this great network of pages that we call the Internet. ICQ was the beginning and the end, as far as I knew.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that there was much more to the Internet than the flowery chat client, and began exploring the likes of Neopets. I had a Jubjub, and a small shop, moved on to run a successful guild, co-own another and then staff at one of the largest in Neopia. I could waste hours on there, without a care for my exams that were approaching. It was on Neopets I first got introduced to HTML, and that’s where this all began.

A simple sign-up at Geocities found me the space I was looking for, and I began creating pages using my limited HTML knowledge and Geocities’ pagebuilder. I created a successful poetry site for teens and kids to read and submit poetry; the site is still associated with me since my move to hosting and a domain of my very own (Google took about 3 years to figure out I don’t offer poetry anymore.)

It took me several months to get any content up on to my shiny new website, and even longer to learn HTML. I kept at it, snatching up any opportunity to practise and hanging on to every piece of good code I ever wrote. It took me over a year to even begin to grasp the basics of CSS (because there weren’t as many tutorial sites back then) and another before I knew the rest. I grabbed standards with both hands in 2003, and have been researching into accessibility and usability since.

In 2004 I started looking at this ‘thing’ called PHP — I started using a popular skinning script and even installed a toplist ‘program’ (which, incidentally, was complete crap and led to the defacement of my domain and deletion of hundreds of files). I started dabbling with Content Management Systems such as WordPress and in 2004 wrote my very first script. That script was a massive failure but eventually became what you know as BellaBook today.

2005 was a big year for me — I took several tumbles, coding-wise, but managed to pick myself up and in August 2005 wrote my own weblog with integrated article commenting management system. Although the backend went through many changes over a few years, it was eventually retired when my website outgrew the scope of the script. I have also developed CMS for a handful of my other websites and developed Intranet ‘packages’ for Telford College of Arts and Technology as part of work experience and my first job.

Besides jemjabella, I own and run several separate sites — tutorialtastic being a key point of concentration for me. I took over the running of the quilting bee in May 2006 after having provided programming and technical support for over a year. I maintain the pages, deal with the copious amounts of e-mail as well as processing new members. When I’m not working on my own sites, this is where my time goes.

BellaBook is still going, and used on millions of websites worldwide. Tutorialtastic went on to become Girls Who Geek. I still have the quilting bee although my role in the site is purely to keep the forum up to date at the minute. My time ‘goes’ on much more than the Internet and my websites now though, but that’s what having kids does for ya!

Programming Sucks

Websites that are glorified shopping carts with maybe three dynamic pages are maintained by teams of people around the clock, because the truth is everything is breaking all the time, everywhere, for everyone. Right now someone who works for Facebook is getting tens of thousands of error messages and frantically trying to find the problem before the whole charade collapses. There’s a team at a Google office that hasn’t slept in three days. Somewhere there’s a database programmer surrounded by empty Mountain Dew bottles whose husband thinks she’s dead.

— Programming Sucks

Common Cold and Your Testicles

I know, bet you didn’t see that title coming?

Seriously though, at this time of year, one of my most common search results relates to the common cold and testicles. The reason why — and the most popular result in el Goog — is a pisstake entry I posted in 2006 about someone defacing the common cold wikipedia entry to add the word ‘testicles’.

As a woman, therefore not an owner of a pair of testicles (unless you count Karl’s), I couldn’t possible say if the common cold or flu causes testicular pain. However, given the sheer scale of the search hits to this page (which as I say, increases in the cold seasons) I can only assume that testicular pain due to a cough/cold is quite common despite there being little in Google results pages to support this.

In the interest of science, I did a tiny bit of research and I’ve discovered that WebMD lists the cold as a symptom of testicular pain. However, testicular pain can also be the sign of some pretty severe / nasty sounding illnesses and diseases, so guys… if you’re worried, do yourself a favour and head to the docs. Better to be safe the sorry.

P.s. hot water, lemon & honey should help your other symptoms. Get well soon!

5 reasons to go self-hosted with your blog

If you weren’t convinced by my 5 reasons NOT to go self-hosted with your blog post, or indeed need a little shove to the world of self-hosting, here are my 5 reasons to go self-hosted with your blog:

1. Your service provider is unlikely to just close, taking down your data

Although I’m not suggesting WordPress.com or Blogger are going anywhere soon, years (and years) ago when everyone was building their websites on Yahoo! Geocities nobody could have imagined that it would eventually close giving users just a few months notice to move. In the event that your host were to close, you can drop a cPanel export and any decent host will import it giving you everything where you left off: mail, website, data, stats, the whole kit & kaboodle.

2. You get control over what adverts are shown (if any)

WordPress.com has rules over what links you’re allowed to put in your posts (no affiliate links, for example), completely restricts third party ads and shows its own ads to non-logged-in visitors. Blogger also shows its own adverts and allows you to add some ads but doesn’t give you the same range of adverts you could go for on a self-hosted system. This means that if you want to monetise your blog your options are severely limited.

Alternatively, if you’re like me and don’t want any adverts you’re stuck until you pay the $30 WordPress upgrade fee – and for not much more you can buy a year’s hosting.

3. Wider selection of themes and plugins

WordPress.com lists 219 themes at time of writing, which compared to the millions and millions available (free and premium) on the web, I find quite restricting. Blogger is more flexible in its theming but neither offer the true power of the themes or plugins you can add to a self-hosted website.

Plugins are hugely powerful – able to turn WordPress from “just a blog” to a content management system capable of anything from e-commerce for a little local shop to a multi-seller marketplace; contact and customer management; forum functionality & communities, etc. The list is endless (and this is the core reason why I personally stay self-hosted.)

4. It’s cheaper to buy separate hosting + domain than it is to pay for add-ons through wordpress.com

If you want to turn blogging into something ‘more’ – i.e. have your own theme, domain, remove third party adverts etc – by the time you’ve paid for the necessary WordPress upgrades you’re looking at a bill of $85 or more. You can buy a small hosting package and domain for similar pricing and get email and extras to go with it.

5. It’s cooler to be self-hosted

That’s what I keep telling myself anyway ;)

P.s. don’t forget Google Reader is now officially closed, so if you’ve not added me to bloglovin’ or subscribed elsewhere yet, do so!