Web developer tools of the trade

I’ve had to change machines a few times recently, and each time I wish I had a decent checklist of what I need to be able to do my job. I thought it might actually be an interesting blog post, detailing not just what I use, but why.

Machine: macbook air

I blogged about using a 13 inch macbook as my main machine for web development before, so I won’t repeat it here – the main point I want to make here is that I don’t want to be using more than one computer and it needs to be a laptop that runs some flavour of unix natively and will run the latest versions of Adobe Creative Suite reliably, and a mac laptop fits the bill. Why does it need to be a laptop? It was essential when I was a freelancer – I worked on site at clients offices and not many of them would supply a computer. My current employer provides hot-desks with monitor/mouse keyboard etc. for people to plug their laptops into.

OSes: OSX, Ubuntu and Windows

In the past i’ve experimented with Linux on cheaper non-mac laptops, but I always get caught out by needing a native version of photoshop running – using wine or VM’s to do this has proved slow and unreliable. If Adobe really wanted to put a dent in Apple’s revenues, they should release a linux version – I know many people who would drop OSX if they weren’t dependent on Adobe products.

Why not windows as my main OS? Mainly because it doesn’t run unix natively, but I also find windows a pain to maintain and keep stable and secure.

I keep Virtual Machines (VM) for when I need to develop or test stuff in windows – Windows 7, plus other versions for testing on different versions of internet explorer. I still look after some legacy classic ASP stuff, so for this I have microsoft webmatrix installed on the Windows 7 VM, which as a cut-down version of IIS for local development. I also use Heidi SQL as a GUI for MySql on windows, and Sublime Text (mentioned later) for code editing.

I also keep an ubuntu VM for LAMP development, mainly so I can keep it separated from the Python/ Django/ Appengine orientated dev environment I use in my day-job at Potato. It also makes it transportable and easy to back up.

Graphics Editor: Adobe Photoshop latest version-ish

I’m not a designer so shouldn’t necessarily need Photoshop, but I receive layered photoshop files from different designers and agencies, and I need to do stuff with them. When i’ve tried switching to other tools in the past, as some will open layered photoshop files, but i’ve been caught out by one missing feature or another, usually from the latest, or almost latest version of photoshop. So it looks like I will be a slave to Adobe until such a point where I stop being a front-end developer, or start working with designers who don’t use Adobe products (do they exist?). Otherwise i’d happily jump to something like pixelmator on OSX, or Gimp.

Code Editor: Sublime Text 2

I actually began writing this blog post months ago, but left it as a draft, and this section used to read Textmate! I used textmate for several years, but always had stability issues with it when I needed to edit something from a mounted folder or over sFTP. Sublime does the former quite well, and the latter is possible using macfusion. I haven’t really explored sublime at all, so i’m probably only using a tiny percentage of its features, but it seems to do everything textmate did (or rather everything I did with textmate). The thing that really won me over is that there are versions for OSX, linux and windows, and the licence is transferable. This means that in the rare times I have to use other operating systems, I can use the same editor, which is great.

Code editing over FTP:Coda

I also bought a copy of coda, which I found invaluable when I was a freelancer, as some of my freelance clients were pretty old-skool with their hosting and I needed to use FTP, often including the necessity to edit stuff (local settings/ config files etc) directly on the live server without SSH access. Coda is great for this, and is also a nice text editor that I tried to start using full-time, but it was missing the “autocomplete strings already in the page” feature (i.e. if you added really_long_variable_name to a page, it appears as a suggestion when you start typing it again) that Textmate and sublime do really well. Actually, I haven’t even installed it on this machine, not sure I will now..

Code editing in the terminal: Emacs

I usually install Emacs (No X version) on whatever server i’m accessing via ssh, for editing files on the server. I only know all the basic operations needed to be productive with it.

Server-Side web development: Python, Django and PHP

Wait, did I say Python *and* PHP in the same sentence? My chosen technology for building websites these days is the Django framework which runs on Python, but for years I also built stuff with PHP. Unlike most of the Python community, I don’t have a problem with PHP, and will continue to use it for some things – the big advantage of PHP is that it runs on most shared web hosts, whereas Python/Django needs more specialist hosting environments.

Why not Rails? Basically i’ve been trying not to stretch myself too thinly, as I have a habit of doing. I wouldn’t rule out learning Rails in the future, but there’s only so many hours in the day! I am however learning Node.js, as I see it as a logical progression of my existing JavaScript knowledge, and think server-side JavaScript will be big in the future.

Source Control: GIT (with SourceTree as a GUI)

I’ve blogged before about how i’ve moved over to GIT from SVN. I do this mostly from the command line, but I also have a copy of SourceTree, which I find really useful for preparing large commits and searching logs etc.

General FTP and sFTP: Filezilla

I have to stress here that I only ever use FTP for website deployment when forced to – I don’t run it on my own server, and deploy all my sites via GIT, in pretty much the same way I used to with SVN. Also Appengine has it’s own deployment process, and doesn’t support FTP or anything close to it!

So, with that clear, if I ever need to do some general FTPing for whatever reason (the last time was to bulk upload about 200 video files to a client’s wordpress site on shared hosting), I use the excellent FileZilla. Just like Sublime Text 2, there are handily versions for OSX, Windows and Linux.

AppEngine python SDK/ GoogleAppEngineLauncher

To develop Django apps on AppEngine (or more specifically Python AppEngine apps that use parts of Django), you install Google App Engine Launcher. We actually deploy apps via the command line rather than using the launcher GUI, but it’s all part of the same install.

Databases: MySQL and PostGres

For PHP and non-appengine Django stuff I mainly use MySQL. It does what I need it to, and i’m confident the performance and scalability are more than enough for most projects. I also use PostgreSQL for GeoDjango projects, using the PostGIS extension.

General Django dev: virtualenv and pip

For any local sites running Django I install a copy of Django and specific packages in a virtualenv. This means that I can have multiple different versions of Django installed with different dependencies in a sandbox. I also use virtualenv when deploying a Django site on my server, allowing me to have different standalone django versions on the server too. I install dependencies using PIP.

Email: Gmail web interface

I don’t use a desktop mail client anymore, preferring to use the gmail web interface, for both my personal gmail account and google apps for domains email accounts. This is for two main reasons: my gmail account is so massive that the mail app on OSX struggles with it – it ends up contstantly syncing and you are never quite sure if it is up to date, and also in the past I have ended up switching machines so frequently that it was just a pain trying to get everything set up. I actually get on fine with the Gmail web interface and would be lost without its search!

Front end debugging: Firebug and chrome developer tools

I still think firebug is the most important tool in a front-end web developers toolkit. Chrome developer tools does exactly the same thing, but my familiarity with firebug stops me moving over to chrome full-time, along with possible caching issues I once experienced with JavaScript generated DOM elements.

eatStatic demo site online

eatstatic demo site screengrab

Shhh.. don’t tell anyone but i’ve quietly launched the eatStatic demo site, which now runs from the master branch of the github repo. This is still the PHP version, slightly tidied up, and now using twitter bootstrap for the default skin. I had previously said that I wouldn’t be maintaining the PHP version in favour of building a python/ django version, but as i’ve thought of a new personal project to build with django (which for once – STOP PRESS – is not a blog engine or CMS), I thought it would be good to get the PHP version tidied up into a usable state if anyone else wants to try it out. Also, as I happily run this blog from it, and am likely to do for years to come, it would be nice to get all the features built in that i’d like to use, and bugs ironed out.

Macbook air 13 inch as primary machine

macbook air 13 on a griffin elevator stand

When I first saw the macbook air I was awe-struck by it’s design and portability, and like many people I was wondering if it would be up to the job of being an everyday work machine for web development. At the time I was primarily interested in the 11 inch version – I wrote off the idea of the 13 inch version, thinking that if I wasn’t going to get the really small version, I might as well just get a more feature-rich and powerful 13 inch macbook pro. Several of my friends have got the 11 inch version, and have found it very capable, however..

Screen Resolution

max resolution on macbook air 13 inch (1440 x 900)

I spend most of my work time with my laptop plugged into an external monitor, with a separate keyboard and mouse, so I effectively have a dual-monitor set-up. When I do work away from the desk I use the laptop by itself, and I really want as much screen-estate as possible – especially when doing front end CSS and JavaScript work with firebug open. So when I noticed that the 13 inch air has 1440 x 900 resolution, which is better than the 1280 x 800 on the 13 inch pro and basically the same as the current standard 15 inch macbook pro (though smaller), it became obvious that the 13 inch could be ideal. So in december last year when it came time to upgrade (thanks Potato!) from my tired old black macbook (it had a good innings!), I went for a top-spec 13 inch macbook air.

macbook air 13 inch set up as dual monitor workstation

Power and Storage

A couple of people have asked me about the power and storage – I went for the highest spec I could, so this has an i7 chip and 256gb SSD. I’ve been using it for a month or so and still have 130gb spare on the SSD, so the drive is plenty big enough once all my software, music, photos, a few movies and TV series are on it, not to mention several work projects. I would have been struggling with the 128gb version, though arguably I could use an external drive for all the media, and be ruthless with deleting stuff, and just about get away with it.

I haven’t done any speed benchmarks, but this machine feels blazingly fast compared to my old core duo macbook, in fact i’ve never used a faster machine! Photoshop opens very quickly and it handles large photoshop files really well, is plenty fast enough for general web development and associated tools. The most demanding scenario for me is having multiple browsers (and dev plugins) open, using my usual dev tools along with a massive multi-layered photoshop file open in CS5, at the same time as virtualbox running windows 7 for IE browser testing. While this pretty much uses all of the 4GB of ram, it still runs really happily compared to my old macbook – probably because the disk is much faster.

The only thing I haven’t done is try editing a video with final cut pro – I know this machine has the same graphics capability as the 13 inch macbook pro (“Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 384MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory”), so should be capable, though not as good as the 15 inch and 17 inch pro, which have a second dedicated graphics chip and memory. I would imagine it is entirely possible to edit and process large videos on this, though if video editing were my primary job (and needed a portable editing machine), i’d have gone for a 15 inch pro at least! My video editing amounts to occasionally splicing together clips in iMovie, and adding titles and soundtracks – it is more than capable of doing that, including HD.


The advertised battery time on the 13 inch air is up to 7 hours – another selling point for me in comparison to the 5 hours on the 11 inch version. I haven’t had the full 7 hours yet, but whenever i’m working I nearly always have a whole load of stuff running, so i’m getting more like 4 – 5 hours. Coconut battery is telling me I have a max capacity of 6450 mAh as opposed to the design capacity of 6700 mAh – I may pop in to the apple store to see if this anything to worry about, though i’m not keen on the idea of it being taken away from me for more than an hour or two to have a new battery put in!


Obviously this is a big plus with the air – the backache I used to get carrying round my old macbook in a backpack is no longer a problem – I can barely tell whether it’s in my bag or not. If you spend half your life on a train or plane, the smaller version may of course be preferable, but i’ve not yet been in a position where this one feels too big.


I would definitely recommend the macbook air 13 inch as a portable web dev machine! I’m really happy with it and hopefully i’ll get many years out of it, just like I did with my old macbook and the powerbook that preceded it. As ever, whenever you commit to buying a new mac, there’s always the “but aren’t the new ones being released tomorrow/ next week/ next year?” consideration. I think if a macbook air with 8GB of ram suddenly appears i’ll have slight regrets for not hanging on, but other than that i’m very happy that i’ve made the right choice!

eatStatic is Dead, long live eatStatic

I was pleased to see people recently enthusing on twitter about text-file based blog and CMS tools – nesta CMS, Kirby and scriptogr.am, as it validated my theory that there is a demand for tools like these – I was met with fairly bemused looks when i’ve explained the concept to people in the past!.
I was also slightly annoyed with myself for not pushing my own text file based blogging system more and taking it further, as maybe people could have been getting excited about my project instead. It seems fairly pointless to develop it further now when these other tools exist, and i’d already decided to park it last year. My other reason for halting development on it was because it is written in PHP, and i’m determined to concentrate my efforts on django and python for personal projects.

Whilst at New Adventures in web design conference on thursday, I was feeling inspired to create something, so thought maybe I should build a django version of one of these systems. For a crazy second there I thought maybe I would be the first person to think of this, so I did about 30 seconds research and found that Luis Pedro has already created a django text file based blog/ CMS called Git CMS. It looks great, so my first reaction was that I should fork it and develop some of my other ideas around it, but then I noticed that he is still using a database, with a sync script to populate Django models from the text files. This is actually a very sensible way of doing it as it means that you can take advantage of all the stuff you get for free in django. However, my initial goal for eatStatic was to avoid the need for a database at all..

So i’ve decided to do a more or less straight port of eatStatic blog engine to python – a standalone text file blog engine implemented as a python library, that can be dropped into a django project, or any other python web framework, with little or no configuration. I’ve given myself an initial goal of moving this blog over to it as soon as it is stable, but then I want to take it further, and do some marketing around it – encourage people to try it, and to fork it, join me in my quest for a really fast, really simple, really portable, really powerful python powered database-less blog and cms. As soon as I have the initial code ready, and am convinced it isn’t too embarrassing i’ll get it up on gitHub alongside the PHP version 🙂

Mobile Claustrophobia

Just before xmas I installed the Path app out of curiosity, as I had noticed that a few of my friends were using it. It’s a lovely app, and I really like their policy of limiting connections to 150 to encourage it to be used as a communication tool for friends rather than a crazy marketing scatter-gun to be used for self-promotion by individuals and businesses, as most social networks inevitably become.

However, i’ve barely used it, partly because it doesn’t have a critical mass of people I know using it yet, but also because it doesn’t have a web version – currently it is restricted to app-only for iPhone and Android (will it always be?), and even though I carry my iPhone everywhere, I feel restricted and claustrophobic if I am forced to only use a mobile app.

This post isn’t a criticism of Path though, it’s about mobile internet usage in general. By mobile, I mean smartphone, rather than tablets/ netbooks. Nearly always when i’m using a mobile version of something, I feel claustrophobic – from ham-fisted accidentally liking or retweeting stuff to not being able to find missing or hidden features, I feel myself desperate to get on a laptop and use the “full” version instead.

Mobile web usage (by which i’m including standalone apps which transfer data via the internet) is going through the roof – but how much of that is people using it only because they happen to be somewhere where they haven’t access to a laptop/ desktop computer, versus people who would actively decide to use a mobile version of something in preference to a “full” version on a laptop?

There’s been much debate recently about responsive web design in the last year and about favoured approaches to making websites and web applications adapt to different devices. One of my arguments in that is that I like the option to zoom out and in of the full “desktop” version of a web page when i’m using my iPhone – I like to scan around and zoom in to parts of a page, particularly on a news site, rather than scrolling through loads of text on a mobile version of the site, feeling like i’m missing stuff, and anxious to at least see the desktop version, zoomed out to see where I am in relation to everything else.

However, that doesn’t seem to be a popular opinion – I wonder if i’m part of a dying “desktop orientated” generation – I can use and enjoy a mobile version, but always feel shortchanged – it’s never as satisfying as the “real thing”, whereas the next generation, introduced to the web via a mobile device don’t feel that lack of wider context (wider meaning literally wider in some cases), and feel shortchanged when they get something aimed at a desktop/ laptop computer?

The basics of git (or at least how i’ve been using it)

A while back I wrote about how I use subversion (SVN) version control as part of my workflow, when working alone and as part of a team. I’ve observed many of my friends and colleagues dropping SVN and moving onto GIT, and used it when working on swoop patagonia but personally carried on using SVN as my default preference, in a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of way.

However, this has recently changed, having learned a bit more about it using it as part of the workflow at my new gig at potato, I can’t see me creating any more SVN repos by choice. So here is how i’m using it – note this is very basic usage – i’m far from an expert at this point.

The basic setup is similar to how i’ve been using svn:-

  1. Create a repo on a remote host (e.g. github/unfuddle/my own server)
  2. Check it out to my local machine (in git terminology “clone” it)
  3. Make some changes, add some new files, delete files
  4. Commit changes back to the remote repo (in git you commit locally, then push the changes back to the server)

To clone the repository to your machine:-

git clone https://your/repote/repo

To add new files to it:-

git add /your/new/file

To see the status of your local repo

git status

To commit changes (this is where SVN users get confused), first “stage” your changes:-

git add /the/file/you/changed/or/added

Then commit (note this just commits it locally):-

git commit -m 'message here'

or to add a commit message using your default editor:-

git commit

So at this point you haven’t sent anything back to the remote repo, you can carry on making changes and committing locally (this is one of the advantages of GIT over SVN). When you are ready to update the remote repo:-

First pull down any changes from the remote repo (assuming you are still on the master branch – i’ll come to branching later):-

git pull origin master

At this point if there are any conflicts you will need to resolve them, which is usually a case of editing any conflicted files, then adding and committing them. Then you push:-

git push origin master

So this is basically not far off how I used to work with SVN – the only difference being that I have a local change history, so (in theory at least) I can roll back changes if I get into a mess.

Where it gets more interesting and useful is where you introduce branches. I know SVN has branching, but i’ve mostly ignored it, but with GIT i’m always creating branches, which i’ll cover in another post..

Posted in git

2011 retrospective and plans for 2012

These retrospective posts are annoying aren’t they – kind of like the xmas round-robin letters?! However, I wanted to do one again, because it helps me keep track of things, where i’ve been (and when – it all becomes a blur..). So, as I did with 2009, 2010 and 2011, I wanted to revisit the list from last year and see what happened and what didn’t.


  • Buy a new Bass Guitar and play the hell out of it – I did just that, although it still needs a load more playing. I think initially I started focussing too much on kit and trying to compose and remix stuff and generally ending up stuck in front of a computer, which was something I was trying to avoid! So this is carried over – but with the goal of having a jam or two in a room with actual humans rather than garageband. Not sure i’m ready to commit the time to a gigging band yet, though it certainly appeals..
  • More “work from anywhere” adventures. I worked from a few different places, but in doing so, came to the conclusion that I wish I was just on holiday and could actually spend it with my wife and son and leave my laptop shut! I’m now working full-time at Potato, office-based, which I have to say i’m enjoying, though I get to travel to London fairly regularly, and hopefully other places, so still interested in mobile working tech. I actually plan to merge the content from my seperate mobile working blog into this site
  • More blogging! – including some personal blogging – um.. I think I blogged a bit more – certainly after moving this blog over to eatStatic. I hope to keep this up and improve my output – one thing i’ll be doing is stepping away from the firehose of twitter for a bit again, and try to get my thoughts and opinions down in considered blog posts rather than the rapid-fire train-of-thought (with compromised punctuation!) that twitter encourages.
  • Attend at least one web conference – this nearly didn’t happen until a last minute decision to attend WebDevConf in Bristol, which I enjoyed a lot. I’m happy to say that i’ve got a ticket for new adventures in web design, so this goal will be achieved early in 2012.
  • Get further than “hello world” with Django – I’m certainly further than hello world now! My first few months at Potato were like an intravenous injection of Django, and i’m now proud to introduce myself as a Django developer rather than just a web developer. I’ve still got a lot to learn though, but all new personal projects will likely be Django from now on, rather than PHP.
  • Use and understand some technologies that i’ve been ignoring – as ever, there’s always new stuff on the horizon, but my first goal is to finally learn regular expressions properly, having successfully ignored them for the last decade!
  • More on-site freelancing for agencies – ditched for obvious reasons! I was actually a full-time on-site freelancer for potato before I went full time, so it’s clear that this one worked out for me in 2011.
  • Keep Trading and survive the recession – I achieved that this year, but I guess now this point needs changing to “keep employed”!
  • Launch a web app – In a very low key way I achieved this by making my eatStatic library/ blog engine public this year. However, even though i’m pleased with the way it works, i’m not intending on developing it any further, as i’ve already started on another blog engine for Too Old To Skate using Django, mainly as a learning exercise. I think maybe this goal should be changed to “do not start any more blog engines”? Now i’m out of freelance, 2012 is really going to be all about the work/life balance and not spending evenings with my face stuck in a laptop, but on the other hand I have a few ideas floating around…
  • Relaunch Too Old To Skate – See above. as ever, an ongoing project.
  • Attend at least one BarCamp – Failed. These type of informal events are the ones i’m interested in though – hacknights, barcamps, skillswaps, anything which is run for the fun and community of it rather than profit.


  • Skateboarding! – this isn’t new, but 2011 was the most lax year since I started skating regularly again, so need to get skating while my knees can still take it 😉
  • Learn to touch type – I’ve been saying this for years, but it’s about time I stopped typing with two fingers like someone playing Daley Thompsons Decathlon on a ZX Spectrum..
  • Be more proactive with geek socials – Bristol has a great geek/ design community, but I seem to have completely missed most of the face-to-face stuff recently and want to change that.
  • Practical Skills – growing things, making things, fixing things – not sure exactly what yet but it’s all about the analog at the moment…

Notes on deplying django with virtualenv mod_wsgi and apache on ubuntu

As i’ve exclusively been using app engine in my day job at Potato, I haven’t yet had to deal with deploying a django site on my own Ubuntu server yet. I knew that I would be using virtualenv, apache and mod_wsgi, but hadn’t yet worked out how this is done.

Rather than repeating it all here – I followed most of the steps in this blog post.

However, there were a few points where things didn’t go to plan:-

First of all I got the ubiquitous mysql_config not found error when attempting to install:-

pip install mysql-python

So, apparently the solution is to install libmysqlclient-dev:-

sudo apt-get install libmysqlclient-dev

However, if you get this error:-

error: command 'gcc' failed with exit status 1

You need to install python-dev:-

sudo apt-get install python-dev

Posted in Uncategorised