iOS experiment 1: changing and tinkering with a WordPress site theme

As I mentioned last week, I’m trying to make my iPad Air 2 actually useful in my life. Currently, it’s a rarely used content portal despite being almost as powerful as my MacBook Pro and having a fantastic app ecosystem.

Plenty of folks have talked about the beauty of being able to code on an iPad – there’s apps like Coda and Textastic that have been germinating for years in the App Store – but there’s so much more to web & software development than just writing code. You need a local development environment. You need to be able to manage changes to your code via Git or Subversion. You need to be able to show people real changes before pushing those changes to your live site or app. You need to be able to read and manipulate data. There’s plenty more I can’t even think of, since – hey now – I’m not actually a full-time developer.

That said, I manage a few sites built in self-hosted WordPress, one of which is this site. I got tired of having to find and fix bugs with the old theme, so I wanted to see if I could simply change a theme and hack it to my liking, all via my iPad.

Why is this not so intuitive to the untrained eye?

WordPress has an amazing theme directory of its own, which allows for direct installs to your website; plus there are thousands of premium theme repositories across the Internet which package beautiful themes in nice .zip packages, which can be extracted easily within your hosting environment for use. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s second nature at this point to launch a WordPress site and tinker with countless themes. However, this is a bit harder to do on iOS:

  • WordPress’ iOS app has no awareness of its own theme directory;
  • There’s no true in-house file management solution in iOS;
  • iOS’ handling of .zip files in itself is murky at best;
  • There’s no obvious way to set up a local environment of your WordPress site on iOS to tinker with the theme before pushing it live

So, how should we deal with this?

Finding and getting a new theme

As I mentioned before, it’s really easy to find WordPress themes on the Internet – just Google it. When I find a theme I like, I need to download the .zip file containing its assets and somehow get it onto my hosting platform.

I’ve come to really appreciate Readdle’s Documents app for all my file downloads and management. It has its own built-in browser, which handles file downloads much more seamlessly than Safari’s stock file handling. I’ve found that some WordPress theme providers require a login to access a theme’s files (ThemeForest, for example), so having Documents for both the logged-in experience on one of these sites and the downloads I need to perform is really helpful. I can then open up and look at the files within Documents, and upload them straight to my FTP server provided by my hosting provider – all within Documents.

Testing the theme out

Web & software developers commonly refer to a ‘local’ environment for making changes to their code & testing those changes. I haven’t yet found a good way to do this all directly on my iOS device; however, with websites, it’s pretty easy to set up a private sandbox to test out new themes before pushing them to my live site.

I use Namecheap for both my domains and shared hosting; they give me a pretty robust SFTP server to host all my files for my websites. I’ve set up my 3 main websites to point to this server, as well as 3 “sandboxed” versions of those websites in a subdirectory – /sandbox/brandonlucasgreen/, for example. In that folder is another WordPress install which is private to the world and only accessible to me, which I set up simply through the cPanel interface. Setting up a new WordPress install in iOS Safari isn’t quite as speedy as it is on my MacBook Pro, but it’s not terribly hard to get done.

What doesn’t work well on a 9.7″ screen is WordPress.com’s stock post editor.

Thank goodness for Ulysses, which is so much more pleasant to look at, extremely good at organizing my writing (both long- and extremely short-form), and can get my posts to WordPress via a simple Workflow.[^1]

Having a sandbox to break things within is great, but I also wanted to try some sort of revision management on the iPad. Turns out there’s a great app for that in Working Copy. I love this thing – I can make simple code changes right inside the app, push them to the sandbox git repo I created, see the changes instantly, and then push them to Github and production once I’m satisfied.


Split-screen-working-copy.jpeg

Messing with data

Occasionally I need to hack together posts and other WordPress settings in various states, and sometimes it’s easier to do that directly in the database WordPress uses, rather than in WordPress’ (admittedly slow) admin interface. WordPress operates on MySQL, and I’ve found that Navicat’s MySQL client for iOS is a solid app for dealing with this.

This is just a start, but after messing around with a few apps and getting comfortable with a smaller screen, I’m reasonably confident that I can manage my website entirely from an iPad. Next up: working with audio on an ipad.

[^1]: They’re even adding native WordPress support in Ulysses 2.6 coming soon!

A small set of apps to keep me creative

There’s something I keep having to remind myself: no matter how little time I have to put into art, I’m still an artist.

Still an artist, still making art. Music’s my medium of choice. Finding time to work on it is hard though, between wedding planning, an increasingly-demanding day job, other side projects – when can I play or write some music, dammit?

Short, obvious answer: block my time like nobody’s business. That at least gets me time dedicated to working on the things I want to be working on. Once I’m there, how can I explore purely creative ideas and save them when my brain is full of all this other stuff? Equally short, equally obvious answer: technology helps me. But how?

I used to think that Evernote should be my catch-all for organizing my stuff to stay focused: important notes, snippets, ideas, lyrics, receipts, anything possibly necessary to retrieve in the future. Tagging and shortcuts, stacks o’ notebooks, so much control. I tried storing my lyrics, song ideas, high level album cycle plans, even task lists and reminders in there – but, as others have noted, I ended up overwhelmed anytime I even attempted to find something in the depths of Evernote’s robust (to a fault) categorization system. I had access to too many things all the time – I had to remember which tags corresponded to what in my bizarre system of organization, not to mention the hours blown trying to establish the system in the first place.

Then I tried 2Do for a while – I figured that if I could abstract my tasks out of their various places into a single, meticulously organized place, I could get to all the other pertinent content via links. 2Do’s various features are great – but again I felt overwhelmed, like I was spending more time organizing my ideas than actually executing on them.

I realized that these approaches contradicted my way of thinking through my various blurbs of information when I need them.

So I worked out a new system. Here’s what my core criteria was for this:

  • I cannot put all my things in one place, due to the sheer overwhelming of having to parse through it all each time.
  • Centralize the blurbs in the app best for those blurbs. For instance, the app that gets me quickest to my notes is the best one for the most important or most frequently used notes.
  • More abstract ideas that require gestation and iteration don’t require as quick access, but I need the flexibility to adjust, merge, rearrange those notes as my ideas come to fruition.
  • Markdown is amazing, but some ideas may require sketching, images, etc. so I can’t limit myself to just text.
  • I need this system to play nice with day-job work and creative work.

Turns out I was able to devise a system that works for me quite well – and it’s not far off from what others have written about recently. Here’s a shortlist of the apps I use in this system:

Reminders.app: my high-level starting point

Apple’s stock Reminders is what holds all my shit together. I tried using so many different task management apps and realized that the overcomplexity of these apps was what caused all my wasted time and lost focus in the first place. With iOS 9 and El Capitan, I can now save virtually anything to a Reminders list and have direct access to that thing, regardless of where it lives. I can even dump tasks straight into a list thanks to 3D Touch.

Disclaimer: A big reason why I went with Reminders was due to iOS Exchange integration. We use Exchange at my work, whose Tasks feature I rely on to organize to-dos each day. Having access to them on my phone is invaluable, and while I loved 2Do for my personal projects, I haven’t found a great iOS task manager that handles Exchange tasks.

I have a few key lists I rely on:

  • I created an “Inbox” list that functions as my collector of tasks. I rely on Siri and share extensions to put everything into this list, and I sort out as needed later.
  • I have a list for each major focus area: Wayfair (via Exchange), Sophomores, wedding planning, writing topics (for the blogs I contribute to), etc. I also have a generic “big goals” list for personal bucket-list items (starting a podcast, writing a book, etc.)
  • I also have a few lists for other things to reference: stuff to buy (Shopping), stuff to watch/listen (Media), stuff to take care of around the house (the Family list I share with Alicia).
  • I rely on Smart Reminders to link to the given Note, Trello board, Ulysses sheet, or whatever else is pertinent to the given task. These were pretty problematic for the first few revisions of iOS 9, but the 6th beta of iOS 9.3 seems to have fixed most of the problems I’ve had.
  • The default “Reminders” list itself is used for everything I need to do on a particular day, but I don’t care about until that day. Recurring tasks reside here, like laundry, taking out the trash or renewing my driver’s license.

My one gripe with Reminders is a simple limitation on iOS: only manual sorting. The OS X Reminders app lets me sort easily by priority or due date, but I can only manually sort on iOS. If Apple adds a sorting feature to Reminders (like they’re doing with Notes), Reminders will finally be an app you might not scoff at.

Notes.app: for all quick note access & entry

Apple’s surprisingly pretty (to me – sorry, haters) and nimble Notes is my go-to for quick essentials: important links, high-level project plans and lists, account numbers (thanks, password lock!), stuff like that. I also use it as a less technical Drafts clone, for quick note-taking (thanks 3D Touch!) for sharing to other apps when needed. The goal here is to get to important things quickly and start writing quickly.

I’ve started to find Notes really useful for quick lists at a lower level than Reminders – for example, production & mix notes. I listen back to my demos constantly while on-the-go, and I’m constantly writing down ideas and feedback for them. I don’t want to create a single Reminders list for each song or album I’m working on – that feels too heavy – but I can create a note for the songs I’m working on, and then create a Smart Reminder about them so I don’t forget to review those notes next time I’m in the home studio.

Ulysses: for all creative / open-ended writing

Ulysses has become my ultimately creative scratchpad. Lyric ideas, blog post topics, sketches for a book I may write. The beauty of Ulysses is that it allows for endless organization, reorganization, merging, splitting and impeccable Markdown formatting of text.

In my workflow, this app (and how I use it) is especially important because it ONLY contains creative writing: blog drafts, lyrics, ideas for novel or album concepts, etc. I don’t get distracted by other life stuff when I have Ulysses open full-screen on my Mac or iPhone (like right now as I write this!), so I can actually focus on finishing that song or

Ulysses’ new iPhone app is totally invaluable, too, so I can do any of the above on the go. I didn’t at first value this since I typically need a keyboard for writing lots of text quickly – but now I can easily review my writing and rework snippets of it anywhere I like, without having to wait.

Trello: for all collaborative work

Trello is everything collaborative. Now that Trello’s iOS app is just as solid as it’s beautiful web interface (and I can jump across either via Handoff) I can easily share ideas with my collaborators or comment on theirs. I rely on this for mixing/mastering my music with my friend James, planning trips with Alicia and building apps with some of my NYC friends.

Thanks to Smart Reminders, I can also reference any board or card on a Reminders list and quickly jump back to it later. For instance, if James sends me a new mix via Trello comment, I can pull it up via push notification and then immediately tell Siri to remind me about it next time I can give it a serious listen.

Pause: for focus-switching and relaxation

Pause is one of those mindfulness apps, and I’m experimenting with it in my creative workflow. It’s allowing me to clear my head of the other life noise by just relaxing my motor functions before jumping into a recording session, new blog post or brain dump. I usually use it for a few seconds before jumping straight into a new context.

reminders-notes-ulysses-trello


I used to think that over-organizing my life was necessary in order to achieve what I wanted to do creatively – but all I ended up with was tasks on tasks on tasks, multi-tier prioritization systems and even a literal Gantt chart at one point. All I needed was an easy way to see what was most important at any given time for a particular context, be able to act on it easily and without distraction, and discipline myself to switch contexts mindfully. This system seems to be working out well for me – let’s see how it works out over time.