All posts by philipjohn

I'm a WordPress developer most of the time, building awesome things for awesome people. I also like to do political type things, especially when technology is involved. I am a secular atheist, a father and a cyclist (MTB trails and road). Other than that I eat (fast) and read books.

Learning by doing, and more…

Last night my brain interrupted my enjoyment of Time Trap to make me ponder why I’m not particular motivated to learn new things. When there’s so much New to learn in web development all the time, it’s pretty important to keep up, but I haven’t been feeling up to it.

Thankfully I remembered that I learn best by doing. When I first started out I played around, broke things, fixed them and repeated that over and over. When I started to use books I’d never get through them – instead I’d learn a bit, put it into practice and then build from there by actually creating stuff and learning as I went.

Serendipitously, through the Post Status newsletter, this morning I read Josh Comeau’s blog post, How to learn stuff quickly.

I recognised very well the benefit of Josh’s suggestion to combine guided and unguided learning to build skills. The suggestion of the the tutorial fade was particularly interesting to me as a way to help the learned knowledge sink in, too.

There’s a bunch of tips in there and I’d encourage you to read it! In fact, this very blog post is an example of one of the strategies Josh recommends – let me know when you find out which 😉

Image credit: Learning by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Sabbatical day 1

Yesterday was the first day of my 3 month, fully paid sabbatical. It’s a perk I’ve received, liked many others, for working at Automattic for five years. This sabbatical actually became available to me way back in November 2018 but due to poor planning and then the pandemic hitting it’s only now that I’m taking in.

It’s good timing – in August 2019 I was lucky enough to buy my first house. While livable, it needs a lot of work and due to other life events it’s been difficult to get that work started so the focus of this three months will be doing up the house.

As I write this, in sat in my mess of a garden on the four wooden sleepers that arrived yesterday watching DW Windows fit one of the 12 windows and 2 doors that are twenty years old and badly in need of replacing.

Having just finished my morning coffee I’m about to start on the small trench that these sleepers will sit in. Not being one for manual labour or DIY I’m not confident about these things but I’m inspired by achieving a minor life dream recently – self-building my brick BBQ.

There’s no real reason I’m blogging this, and I probably won’t be doing daily updates or anything. I just felt like it 😀

Why is public money being doled out to politicians in Lichfield?

This week, Lichfield District Council’s cabinet approved a pilot to hand £14,100 of public money to councillors to dish out at their discretion with a scintilla of oversight that leaves the scheme wide open to abuse, in a step that seems to be a solution without a problem.

In the report to cabinet, a lack of access to funding for smaller groups and initiatives is given as to why this extra program is needed.

Some of these groups are not eligible for most funding because they are not charities or constituted organisations.

It’s true that funds often ask for things like constitutions but that’s for good reason – accountability. This is public money and needs to be accounted for so that we know it’s not being wasted or used corruptly. It may sound onerous but my personal experience is that sometimes it’s as simple as a document that minutes a meeting of the group of people involved agreeing what they are going to do.

If Lichfield District Council has identified that groups aren’t able to access funding, perhaps they can help those groups get access to organisations like Support Staffordshire who are brilliant at helping every day people trying to do good to access funding and deal with whatever bureaucracy is there to protect the public purse.

There are many local funds where the requirements aren’t even very onerous. We Love Lichfield, Swinfen Broun, Conduit Lands to name a few. Even Lichfield District Council’s own recently launched community lottery proudly states that good causes can apply for “free and the application process will only take a minute”.

That said, the report contradicts itself a little later on…

funding awarded would be paid into a bank account in the name of the group

Have you ever tried to open a bank account for an organisation? Doing so without a constitution is pretty hard. In fact, I’d be surprised if it’s even possible. So how do they suppose that groups that can’t access funding because they don’t have a constitution are going to have a bank account without having a constitution?

That’s where it gets even more dodgy…

Funding can be awarded directly to individuals at the Members discretion.

A fund distributed entirely at the discretion of individual councillors, each with their own political associations, biases and motivations, can also be distributed into the personal bank accounts of individuals with no formal checks.

This is touted as a positive by the report, as if handing money to politicians to dish out to individuals at will with zero checks and balances is a good thing!

Where’s the accountability? Oh right…

Councillors will be required to sign a declaration stating that, as far as they are aware, the funding will be used for the benefit of the local community

Which really amounts to councillors being able to just say “yeah, this is fine, trust me” and we’re expected to just nod and accept their word. Forgive me if I don’t trust some of the councillors who tried to shut a much-needed community asset down not so long ago.

Elected members are often well placed to identify local needs and are in touch with grass root organisations operating in their ward.

Sometimes, yes. In fact some councillors already give their personal allowance away in donations to local groups and are very in tune with their ward. Depressingly often though elected members are merely making up the numbers for the party they represent, not because it’s their area. Like a councillor living in Alrewas (IIRC) apparently able to represent Burntwood. Again, we’re asked to trust that these councillors actually have the best interests of their ward at heart but we unfortunately have far too many reasons to distrust.

As the scheme will be managed and administered by members the costs would be minimal.

True, and the money is already allocated to good causes, so it’s not like it’s being diverted from elsewhere. The real cost is in the risk of abuse with a system so wide open to it. In the hands of individual elected members it has potential to become an electioneering tool with members funding projects as they get close to an election in an attempt to bolster support, granting them an unfair advantage. Unless you think that would never happen?

Members would make declarations about the use of funding, which would be in the public domain ensuring awards are transparent.

Which sounds fine until you consider that councillors have had to be reminded of their basic duty to declare interests and it wasn’t so long ago that one of the current Cabinet members was found to have failed to declare something as obvious as a company directorship. The council’s record on holding councillors accountable isn’t great either, having previously held secret meetings to deal with claims of undeclared conflicts of interest.

Here’s what the report says about evaluating this “pilot”:

The pilot will be evaluated against the overall purpose of the scheme. The extent to which it has supported grass roots groups in local communities not eligible for funding from other funding sources. It’s effectiveness in enabling local community groups and individuals to set up and deliver and expand their community activities.

What does that mean? Where are the goals? Where are the measurables? Where are the real, tangible outcomes, that can give the public confidence their money is being used for good versus the already well-established and accountable community grants system (already cut to the bone in the last 11 years, by the way)?

This whole scheme, while small in the grand financial scheme of things, is ill-thought through even if well intentioned and feels like a solution in search of a problem that could erode trust in local politics while depriving deserving groups of much-needed funds. Lichfield District Council’s cabinet should think again.

I’m building Newspack

Lichfield Live recently celebrated its 10th birthday. I made cake.

As a freelancer at the time, contributing to Lichfield Live led to plenty of work in journalism from tiny startups like Hackney Citizen to established publications like I spoke at conferences and even once advised the regional editors at one of the UK’s biggest media publishers. Thanks to a recommendation, I won one of the most interesting projects of my career – building one of the first sites for campaign group Hacked Off, right in the middle of the phone hacking scandal.

Then of course moving to VIP, as part of the CFTP acquisition, I came to work with some of the most interesting and largest media organisations in the world: New York Post,, CNN, FiveThirtyEight and most recently, The Sun.

Journalism became important to me. Back in 2009 I grabbed a copy of the industry “bible”, Principles and Practice to teach myself more. Of course, I also learnt plenty from LL’s excellent founder, Ross. For a while, I even ran my own niche hosted platform for small media sites.

So when I heard Kinsey Wilson talk about his plans for a hosted WordPress-based solution for small media publishers I was definitely excited. I kept my eye on things from within Automattic and was thrilled to see the announcement about Newspack go out.

In what seems like a natural fit given my now decade-long experience working with WordPress in the media industry I’m incredibly thrilled to say that I am one part of the team that will be building Newspack.

It’s ambitious and it’ll be challenging and I’m sure it’ll be lots of fun. If you’re a small or medium-sized digital media organisation, consider applying to become a charter participant.

RideLondon Training Update #1

Very nearly one year ago I joined a big family group to do the  Memory Walk in Sutton to raise money for Alzheimer’s Society. We were walking in memory of my Dad who suffered from Pick’s Disease, a form of Dementia. We had a great time and smashed our fundraising target, generating over £1,000 for Alzheimer’s Society!

Next year, on what would have been my Dad’s 67th birthday I’ll be taking part in another Alzheimer’s Society fundraising event – RideLondon. It’s a 100 mile bike ride starting and finishing in central London and taking in the Surrey Hills. I’m targeting £600 as a fundraising target, but I’d really love to double that. Take a look at my Just Giving page if you haven’t already.

This is the first of weekly – I hope – updates on my training progress. I also want to outline what my training plan looks like.

As part of my training I’m using British Cycling’s couch to 50k plan. It’s a bit tame to start with, for me, because I cycle a reasonable amount already including tackling a 5% gradient pulling a trailer with my 3 and 5 year old in! But it’ll get tougher, and then I’ll move onto the Improver’s Training Plan which should get me capable of doing a 60 mile ride before March.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what I’ll be done to get ready for 100 miles, but being able to do 60 miles in March gives me the spring and most of summer to work up to 100 miles. I’ll be looking out for organised rides to take part in during those few months to both get experience and build confidence. Maybe I’ll even join a local road cycling club!

That’s the plan then… but I’ve already started! So what have I been doing?

Well, week 1 is pretty tame:

  • Monday – Rest (yeah, weird to start with a rest day)
  • Tuesday – 30-minutes steady ride
  • Wednesday – Cross training/rest
  • Thursday – 30-minutes steady ride
  • Friday – Cross training/rest
  • Saturday – Rest
  • Sunday – 30-minutes steady ride

This week I did the Tuesday and Sunday rides (see all my rides on Strava) but as the kids were with me it was harder to stick to the plan. I did more than that though, riding a total of 15 miles over Wednesday, Thursday and Friday pulling the kids around. I probably exerted myself more than the training plan demands of me!

Week 2 is pretty similar, with slightly longer rides, presumably to help build stamina – one thing I definitely need to improve on. Cycling makes me feel really good, so I’ve enjoyed this week 🙂 Looking forward to week 2!

Donate now if you haven’t, and if you have, maybe you can help me with some supplies?

The Bullshit Web, and some bullshit about AMP

Alright, let’s start off by saying that I’m definitely a little biased – part of my job involves working with the AMP team at Google and the fine folks at XWP on the AMP for WordPress plugin. I wanted to highlight some things about this Bullshit Web piece that’s going around, though. In short: the bit about AMP is largely bullshit.

AMP pages aren’t inherently faster than non-AMP pages

Where’s the data to back that up? I’ve seen (big) data that shows the exact opposite.

high-performing non-AMP pages are not mixed with AMP versions

Wrong! AMP Native means that sites can be AMP-first, and the WP plugin makes that incredibly easy now.

Google has a conflict of interest in promoting the format.

Of course, because it’s focus with search is to give people the best result, and that includes performance, so faster pages will be given a rankings boost. That’s good for the user!

So: if you have a reasonably fast host and don’t litter your page with scripts, you, too, can have AMP-like results without creating a copy of your site dependent on Google and their slow crawl to gain control over the infrastructure of the web.

This is true (and of course, if you want a fast host, choose VIP), but as Nick already stated, publishers aren’t doing that on their own. I think it’s a damn shame that Google has had to use it’s power to force publishers to stop cluttering up their pages with all the bullshit Nick is complaining about, but that’s where we are.

AMP shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s helping force publishers to lighten their pages and solve the very problem Nick is ranting about. I agree with him that there is a lot of bullshit, and that it’s bad for users. Google is trying to do something about it. It might not be perfect, but it’s having an impact. Does he have a better idea?

their slow crawl

As a bit of an aside: Google’s crawl definitely isn’t slow. In working with some of the biggest publishers on the web I can tell you that Google is incredibly fast with indexing. Sometimes to a fault, as it can cause real issues for publishers when they need to delete content.

He also says,

…users are increasingly taking matters into their own hands — the use of ad blockers is rising across the board, many of which also block tracking scripts and other disrespectful behaviours. Users are making that choice… They shouldn’t have to.

Correct! Just like Google shouldn’t have to use it’s clout to force publishers to do what they should be doing already, users shouldn’t have to take steps to improve the browsing experience for themselves because publishers won’t.

But what does Nick expect to happen? Ranting about it won’t change anything. You might not like it but it’s not as if publishers are doing this to deliberately degrade the user experience. There are well-justified business reasons that have been given more prominence over the user experience. What AMP has done is to give performance a real business impact, and give publishers that incentive to improve the user experience.

For now, it’s helping.

Happy 70th birthday, NHS, and thank you

Thank you for delivering me safely to my parents.
Thanks for all the eye tests and glasses.
Thanks for making sure I had healthy teeth despite my attempts to avoid brushing.
Thanks for looking after my sisters as they gave life to my nieces and nephews.
Thanks especially for nurturing the twins when they entered the world.
Thanks for saving my Dad’s life.
Thanks for helping our family through my Dad’s journey with dementia.
Thanks for saving my life. Twice.
Thank you for safely delivering my two wonderful children into the world.
Thanks for saving the lives of many of my friends, multiple times.

Thank you for doing all this for free.
Thank you for making sure we’re a healthy nation.
Thank you to all the staff for being so committed to doing the very best you can for patients, sometimes under immense pressure, with insufficient resources and inadequate pay. You are all heroes.


12 Years

Of course my WordPress journey is much longer, having picked up the software a while before joining

At that moment, I didn’t even consider the idea that I might actually work at one day. I’ve come so far in those twelve years – I wonder where I’ll be in another twelve.