April 2020 Newsletter

This newsletter coincides with the release of WordPress 5.4.

Contents

WordPress 5.3 Maintenance Releases
WordPress.com Changes
WordPress.com Block Editor UI Redesign
WordPress 5.4 Release
What is Next?
Accessibility
Notes on Using WordPress Forums

WordPress 5.3 Maintenance Releases

Just for information. There were two maintenance releases back in December 2019, 5.3.1 and 5.3.2, which comprised a small number of security and bug fixes.

WordPress.com Changes

Several recent changes have been made to WordPress.com which are not part of the Gutenberg project.

My Home is displayed on the Calypso interface after you have clicked on My Site(s) as part of the login process. It contains a number of quick links which allow faster access to various parts of the system.

Page Layouts. When you add a new page you will now be presented with a screen which allows you to pick a layout for it. I would personally call it a template, but WordPress uses that term in a different context. There is quite a wide range of layouts. If you are not interested in any of them then simply select the blank layout. This blog describes the feature in more detail.

WordPress.com Block Editor UI Redesign

This appeared in my WordPress.com account last Thursday (March 26th, 2020). The general layout looks more professional. It includes redesigned icons, better spacing, text colour options and a range of initial block patterns that can be incorporated into posts / pages. See the relevant blog for more information.

I must admit that I am confused with the timing of this introduction. The features recently appeared in Gutenberg 7.7 which, when you read the section below on the WordPress 5.4 release, you will see is post WordPress 5.4?!

WordPress 5.4 Release

The latest version of WordPress was released to WordPress.org users on March 31st, 2020. It will follow shortly on WordPress.com. It incorporates 10 Gutenberg development releases, from 6.6 to 7.5.

FYI – Gutenberg releases appear approximately once a fortnight. They are mainly for internal use by the WordPress developers although they are available as a plugin on WordPress.org for anybody who is brave enough to play with it (but this is absolutely not recommended for typical users or for use on production sites).

WordPress 5.4 could be best described as a release which concentrates on polishing the block editor. It includes:

  • A new Social Icons block which allows you to incorporate links to multiple social media sites by using their standard logos. This is the sort of thing that you see on many websites nowadays, viz. a row of social media icons
  • The revised Buttons block now allows you to set up multiple adjacent buttons
  • Various updates to the ongoing accessibility and privacy projects
  • Full screen mode in the block editor is now the default on a new WordPress installation or on a new device. This means that the sidebars to the left and right of the display of the post / page are not shown. If you do not like this setup (and I do not) then you can change it by clicking on the three dots menu item in the top right-hand corner and un-checking the full screen mode.

See the Release Blog for further information, while the WordPress 5.4 Field Guide contains much more technical information, if you are interested.

What is Next?

A quick reminder on the overall Gutenberg project. It is said that it will consist of four phases:

  • Introduction of the block editor in phase 1
  • Expansion of the block editor to encompass other parts of the system in phase 2, e.g. menus, widget areas and the Customiser
  • Collaboration and multi-user editing in phase 3
  • And multilingual support in phase 4.

We are currently in phase 2, and tentative dates for further releases in 2020 are August for WordPress 5.5 and December for WordPress 5.6. I consider that this phase will probably go into 2021. Obviously, any talk of dates is purely speculative at the moment, given the COVID-19 virus.

It might be useful to know that work on the various aspects of phase 2 goes on in parallel. Decisions on what will be incorporated in any given release depend on the stability of the relevant software at the time, and on whether it fits coherently into the overall design at the time. For example, the navigation block (the menu in old money) was considered to be ready to go into 5.4. However, it did not fit coherently into the current design, and so it has been put on one side for the moment.

Work on the full-site editing feature continues. A prototype was developed back in September 2019 if you want to take a look at how it might possibly appear. I suspect that it will be WordPress 5.6, probably later, before it is likely to be released.

The block directory, a home for third-party blocks, is currently planned for inclusion in WordPress 5.5. It will primarily be for use by WordPress.org users.

The ability for WordPress.org users to control the automatic updating of plugins and themes is also slated for WordPress 5.5.

Finally, XML Sitemaps can be used by search engines to discover the content on a website with less fuss. A WordPress prototype, implemented as a plugin, has recently been developed. Presumably, it will eventually appear in the core WordPress product at some point.

Accessibility

Here are some notes if you have an interest in this subject:

  • The majority of the current development work in this area tends to relate to the use of the WordPress software, not to the website that you create / update. In addition, any new features are likely to be limited to use with the new block editor, not with the classic editor
  • However, there is a WordPress project which has been set up to look at accessibility on websites. Their Accessibility Handbook may provide some useful information
  • There is a theme review team which checks new themes for various things, including accessibility. If a theme passes the checks in this area then it is deemed “accessibility ready”. This relates to the theme itself, not necessarily to the website that you design with it
  • If you are interested in WCAG compliance read this document from gov.uk

Notes on Using WordPress Forums

There is a set of forums for WordPress.com users and a separate set for WordPress.org users.

You can browse any of the forums without logging in. However, if you wish to participate, e.g. start a new topic, then you will need to log in with your relevant account details.

The forums are manned by a mixture of Automattic employees, WordPress contributors, volunteers and ordinary users like you and me.

Beware that if you ask a question which relates to the other set of forums, then you will be politely requested to redirect it.

November 2019 Newsletter

WordPress Version 5.2 was launched back in May 2019. Three minor versions (5.2.1 through to 5.2.3) subsequently followed at intervals, consisting mainly of bug fixes with the occasional enhancement. 5.2.4, a security fix release, appeared a month ago.

The latest major version, 5.3, has just been made available to WordPress.org users on November 12th, 2019. It will follow shortly to WordPress.com users. The main focus of this release is to polish current interactions and to make the user interface more friendly. A new theme, Twenty Twenty, is included in the release.

The Release blog contains an overview of what is included in WordPress 5.3, while more technical information can be found in the WordPress 5.3 Field Guide.

New Features in the Block Editor

Development continues with new versions appearing every fortnight as Gutenberg plugins (Gutenberg being the project name). Gutenberg versions 5.4 through to 6.5 have been incorporated into WordPress 5.3, along with bug fixes and performance enhancements in 6.6 and 6.7  Changes include:

  • Improved handling of large images which have been uploaded via a camera. WordPress will now reduce the size of big images to a default of 2560 pixels.
  • The cover block now supports a greater range of nested blocks. It also has a resizing option and the ability to have a solid colour background, as an alternative to an image.
  • The group block supports the concept of nested blocks.  A group can be saved as a reusable block.
  • The columns block includes various improvements: up to 7 columns in a block; the ability to size individual columns; and support for colour. 
  • Typewriter experience keeps the user’s place on the screen by automatically scrolling down appropriately as he types, thus avoiding the problem of typing right at the bottom of the screen, or even worse beyond the bottom when you cannot see what you are typing.
  • A Social Links block has been introduced
  • Widgets. There are now 9 widget blocks which can be incorporated into the main content area of a page or post: calendar, latest posts, categories, search, shortcode, archives, latest comments, RSS and tag cloud. The idea of legacy widgets in blocks which was being mooted appears to have been dropped.

Other Changes

Site admin email verification. This new screen will be displayed once every 6 months. It has been introduced because of problems where sites do not keep this email address up to date, resulting in important emails not being delivered to the current site admin.

Page templates. I have recently discovered on my WordPress.com account which runs the block editor that “add new page” now produces a display of various possible page templates that can be used. As I am not interested in any of them, I simply select the blank template.

Discouraging search engines. The method employed to keep a site secret, where this was required by the site owner, was only moderately successful. A change has been made to make it more likely that search engines will not display such sites.

Improved date / time component handling.

Site Health Check (WordPress.org users). Further features have been added.

PHP Support (WordPress.org users). PHP 7.4, which is due out shortly, will be supported.

Fixes. WordPress version 5.3 includes a lot of bug fixes and minor changes, generally making the product more reliable, while ironing out some of the idiosyncrasies.

Accessibility improvements for WordPress users. There are 50 updates in this area, including improved media controls, darker field borders and improved button styles.

My experiences with the block editor

I have been using the new block editor on my own website (bkthisandthat.org.uk) and on several other sites since January 2019. I have discovered a couple of minor bugs which I have reported, but I have generally found it to be stable.

My only concern at the present time is with tables. Before the block editor the user had to handcraft HTML tables. There is now a table block. However, HTML tables with empty cells or images will not convert correctly to a table block. The table block itself is somewhat rudimentary. In particular, it does not allow column widths to be specified, nor does it allow an image in a table cell.

I have dabbled with the media and text block and with the columns block. Neither is perfect at the current time. The media and text block does not appear to adhere to the margins that are used in the theme, at least not in my theme. The columns block is just about usable.

What will be next?

Gutenberg development has four phases:

  • the block editor
  • customisation
  • collaboration, allowing multiple users to co-edit content in real time
  • multilingual

Phase two (customisation) is currently in progress which includes headers, footers, menus and sidebars. A proposed design under the umbrella title of “full site editing” was put forward in September where these various elements, as well as the main content section, are each called block areas. The block editor would be able to display all block areas, just as a post or page might appear on the screen, and to work on any of them. Alternatively, a specified block area could be displayed on its own and worked on. At a very rough guess, it is likely to be mid-2020 before such a major change appears, always assuming that the idea is carried forward.

Auto-updating old versions (WordPress.org users). WordPress supplies security fixes back as far back as version 3.7, which was launched in October 2013. However, the effort required to support these old versions is an ever-growing problem. It is now proposed that, unless they deliberately opt out, old WordPress.org sites will be automatically updated (one version at a time) until they are on version 4.7. There has been much animated debate on this subject. It remains to be seen if the proposal will be adopted.

May 2019 Newsletter

WordPress Version 5.2, was made available on May 7, 2019. In summary, the functional enhancements in this release are mainly aimed at WordPress.org users although work has also gone into improving the general block editor experience. The changes will be incorporated into WordPress.com shortly, where appropriate.

WordPress 5.2

The Block Editor (aka Gutenberg)

Changes include:

  • Another wodge of widgets now have block versions. They are: RSS, Amazon Kindle embed, search, calendar and tag cloud
  • In addition, a legacy widget block has been introduced. This will allow you to incorporate widgets that were developed for old WordPress (pre-version 5) into blocks. However, I note that it is described as “experimental” at the moment
  • The cover page block now acts as a container which can contain multiple blocks. For example, it may have three blocks: a title, a paragraph of text, and a button, as well as the cover image itself
  • Disabling / enabling blocks. This is called block management. It is probably aimed at WordPress.org users who have incorporated collection(s) of third-party blocks into their system. For example, they may have installed a collection of blocks that includes a gallery feature. They only want the gallery feature and are not interested in the other blocks. They can disable those unwanted blocks to reduce the memory requirement
  • Performance improvements, particularly reducing the time taken to load large posts / pages.

Site Health Project (WordPress.org users)

This is an ongoing project, principally for WordPress.org users. WordPress version 5.2 includes Improved Fatal Error Protection which aims to catch serious errors before they produce the “white screen of death”, allowing a login to admin to potentially resolve the problem.

In addition, there are two new pages in the admin interface (under tools) that allow you to check out the health of your site via a number of tests.

PHP Support (WordPress.org users)

This subject seems to trundle on and on! 5.6 is now the minimum version of PHP that can run WordPress. However, as I have mentioned before, the PHP people only support version 7.0 and above. Unless there are mitigating circumstances WordPress.org users should be on version 7.0 or above.

WordPress 5.2 will not now be installed on your site if you are not on PHP 5.6 or greater. This minimum version requirement is likely to go up to 7.0 before the end of the year .. famous last words!

Similarly, WordPress will now check that any installed plugin is compatible with the version of PHP that you have installed. If it is not then the plugin will not be activated.

Fixes

WordPress version 5.2 includes a lot of bug fixes and minor changes, generally making the product more reliable, while ironing out some of the idiosyncrasies.

Other Recent Changes in WordPress.com

The following items are not related to the version 5.2 release, per se.

  • If you use the Calypso interface, you may have noticed that they have just changed the layout of the menu system
  • Contact form. I said some months back that there was no facility within Wordpress.com to add a contact form in the new block editor. A form block has now been added (not sure precisely when it appeared)
  • More admin dashboard colour schemes are available .. if you are in to that sort of thing!
  • Fyi it is no longer possible to purchase a custom domain if you are only using the free plan. Individuals who previously did so are not affected by this change.

My experiences with the block editor

I have been using the new block editor on my own website (bkthisandthat.org.uk) and on the Ascot Volunteer Bureau website since January 2019. I have found it to be stable. The current issues for me are:

  • Slideshows are not currently supported in blocks
  • The table block is not particularly satisfactory at the moment (although there are workarounds)
  • The converter (from classic editor format to blocks) annoyingly decouples an image and the adjacent text (where they are side by side), although they can easily be re-coupled.

There is no pressure at this time for users to convert to the block editor. As I said last time, it has been stated that the Classic Editor will be supported until December 2021. Perhaps the end of this year may be a useful time to assess the current state of play and possibly consider converting.

What is coming up?

Sidebars and footers. It is important to realise that the implementation of widget blocks thus far has been limited to their use in the main body of the screen. What has not been mentioned is the use of widgets in sidebars and footers where we have historically used them. WordPress has now issued a Blocks in Widget Areas RFC (Request for Comments). This means that they have a draft design for handling widgets in sidebars and footers, and they are asking for some feedback before continuing. It may be late summer or autumn before any agreed design is actually implemented.

Navigation Menu. Work continues on the Implementation of the navigation menu as a block, but it is unclear to me where they are with this. They were struggling to agree on a design when last I heard.

Block directory. As mentioned earlier, third-party blocks are currently installed as plugins, usually in collections that consist of multiple blocks. I get the impression that this is seen as a short-term solution. There are design discussions on implementing a separate block directory whereby they can be incorporated individually into your site. This facility will be principally aimed at Wordpress.org users.

Wp-admin dashboard. There is a proposal to revamp it, using blocks. It remains to be seen if this gets off the ground, and if so when. WordPress.com users who use the Calypso interface will not be affected by this possible change. See this post if you are unclear about the different WordPress.com dashboards.

Accessibility

Finally, a few words on this subject which deals with improving the experience of individuals with disabilities. Please be aware, if you are not already, that WCAG 2.1 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) was issued in June 2018. Public Sector bodies, including central and local government, plus some charities and some non-government organisations (not sure precisely what “some” means at the moment), must comply with these guidelines by September 2020. There are two strands that concern us:

  • Using WordPress itself. An accessibility audit on the new block editor has just been carried out. It was commissioned by a 3rd party outfit called WPCampus. The report finds various problems although it has to be said that the study was based on WordPress 5.0.3, and that work has been carried out in the area of accessibility since that release. I expect that further work will be undertaken in the coming months. I will monitor what happens here and report back
  • The website that you create. It is your responsibility to address WCAG 2.1 compliance if it applies to your organisation. I will relay any useful information that I hear. Obviously, I would appreciate any information that you may discover on the subject.

WordPress.com front-ends

I refer to WordPress.com’s front-end dashboards at different times. This short item is simply to explain that WordPress.com has two different front-ends.

The original front-end to WordPress is invoked through the wp-admin dashboard. This is still the case for WordPress.org users and for older WordPress. com users. Here is an example ..

WPBeginner.com

In 2015 Automattic, the owners of WordPress.com, introduced an alternative front-end, called Calypso. They will try to persuade you to use it rather than the wp-admin dashboard. They say that it is faster. I must admit that I have not found it so, and it is also missing some of the features that can be found on the wp-admin dashboard. Anyway, it is there and some of you may be using it. Here is an example of the Calypso dashboard ..

Calypso dashboard

Some users may find that there is an option on the Calypso dashboard (probably at the bottom) to switch to the wp-admin dashboard if you should wish to do this. An alternative method, if this option is not shown, is to change the url by typing wp-admin after the domain name.

Experience with Gutenberg on WordPress.com – Late Sept 2018

From late September 2018, selected WordPress.com users have been given the opportunity to try Gutenberg out. I have been trying it out on this website. My main objective has been to ensure that my existing content will work with Gutenberg. I currently use the Independent Publisher 2 theme which is aimed at people who want a simple theme where the word is king.

Please note that all observations in this post relate to tests that were performed during the last week of September, 2018. If you are reading this some months later it is possible that things may have moved on. Caveat lector (let the reader beware).

You probably know that there are two ways to invoke the editor in WordPress.com, via the original WP Admin dashboard or via Calypso. If you activate Gutenberg at the current time you will find that it only operates through the dashboard where you can decide whether to open a post / page in the Gutenberg editor (the default) or in the Classic editor. Opening a post or page in Calypso is limited to the use of the Classic Editor.

You may not have heard the term Calypso but WordPress.com users should recognise it from this screen capture. Clicking Site Pages or Blog Posts invokes the editor.

I started off with my largest document “A potted history of Association Football in England” which weighed in at 21K words. This is not a straightforward document. It includes: a quotes paragraph; a self-built HTML table of contents with links so that a reader can jump straight to a specific section; standard images from the media library; images from the Getty Images library (which are implemented by using shortcodes); and a number of bordered sections built with HTML which contain information which does not really fit in with the natural flow of the text. A brief explanation of shortcodes. They are essentially macros. One use is to provide the same functionality in the main body of a post or page that is available in some of the popular widgets, e.g. to display a gallery.

Opening the page in the Gutenberg editor for the first time results in the display of a single Classic block. This can be edited in a similar fashion to how you work now. You could in fact keep the document as a single Classic block if you so wished. However, the major drawback at the moment is that you cannot insert an image or a contact form into a Classic block. I have previously mentioned this deficiency. To me, this renders the Classic block practically unusable. I do not know if they are going to rectify this problem.

One of the options is to convert this single Classic block into multiple native Gutenberg blocks. This task took 25 seconds for my large document. While this was not unexpected, there was no indication that anything was happening, leading to the “did I really click on that option? .. should I click it again?” syndrome. Now, it has to be said that the vast majority of posts and pages are relatively small and they should observe no significant delay when performing block conversion.

Observations on how successful the converter was

Standard WordPress facilities were converted without any trouble. This is good news.

However, where a user makes use of HTML to produce effects that the current version of WordPress does not provide “out of the box”, the converter struggles.

My table of contents no longer worked. The section labels (they call them anchors in HTML) had disappeared. It appears that the converter is quite fussy about how they are defined, whereas the current version of WordPress is not. I had to manually alter all my section labels in the original version of the footie document, and then the converter worked OK.

My bordered sections which are enclosed in HTML div and /div statements were also not correctly converted. The borders disappeared and what should have been one block turned into two, and sometimes more, blocks. I was forced to set up a custom HTML block and recreate the bordered section from scratch. This was a bit painful. Fortunately, there are only four of them in this document.

I subsequently extended the testing to various other documents on this site.

The local history of Sunninghill & Ascot is currently the most popular item on the site. It includes several shortcodes to display galleries. They converted without any trouble. It also contains a table of contents. Forewarned by my experience with the footie history, I manually changed the section labels so that the converter would not get upset.

I use HTML-created tables in various places on other pages in my website. The converter recognised the fact that they were tables and created table blocks, albeit not very satisfactorily. Cells that contain images were not displayed in the editor but did appear on the rendered website page, while empty cells just disappeared totally. In addition, a table block, whether an existing table that has been converted or a newly inserted table block, insists on making each column the same width, not something that I want. Somewhat bizarrely, my converted tables appeared with the correct column widths in the editor but not on the website. I have to say that I am not impressed with table blocks at the moment. When I implemented the original HTML tables as custom HTML blocks they worked satisfactorily. I propose to adopt this approach until such time as the table block is improved.

Other Observations

One idiosyncrasy of WordPress is that the display of a post or page may look different in the editor from how it looks on the website, i.e. you do not necessarily get WYSIWYG. The degree of difference can vary from theme to theme. It seemed to me to be more pronounced in Gutenberg, but this may just be the Independent Publisher 2 theme that I am using?

Please note that any existing posts / pages whose content remains unchanged will display satisfactorily on the site, i.e. it is not necessary to convert them.

Re performance, loading the very large footie history page on the website was sluggish on the existing version of WordPress, and it was even slower on the Gutenberg version of the page. I had already decided to split it up into multiple pages .. something which I have now done.

Finally, I tried out a copy and paste from another application. I have been in the habit of penning the initial drafty words of my articles in Microsoft Word, and then at some point copying and pasting them into WordPress. The words in this post were originally part of a larger article in Word. When I pasted this content into a paragraph block it included the Word formatting as well as the text. In WordPress 4.x there is an option to just paste the text, but there appears to be no similar option in the paragraph block. My workaround was to create a Classic block, set the paste as text option, perform the paste, and lastly convert the classic block into Gutenberg blocks.

test post

here is some text ..

and some more rhubarb.

and yet more ..

 

Ascot Durning Library – picture courtesy of Christine Weightmanggggggggggggg

Date of Meeting AgendaMinutes
October 12th, 2019ReadRead

Some barebones text to sit here for no particular reason.

Some footer rhubarb.

Gods of the beautiful game

Who are the Gods of the “Beautiful Game”?

I am letting slip evidence of my misspent youth here, a time when I spent too much time playing, watching, thinking and living football to the detriment of my studies.

Barcelona ’s comprehensive, not to say magisterial, triumph over Manchester United in the recent 2011 UEFA Champions League Final brought with it the inevitable flurry of articles in the media that wanted to know if Barcelona is the best team ever.

As many people have pointed out, it is impossible to compare players and teams across generations. Ever-increasing levels of fitness and the speed of the modern game prevent meaningful comparisons. Players and teams can only be compared with their contemporaries, and just possibly with the generation before and the generation after.

Did the person who coined the phrase “the beautiful game” realise how relatively few occasions there are when this beauty is truly achieved? And who did coin the phrase … does anybody know?

It is much easier to pick out individual players of greatness rather than teams … individuals who demonstrate much greater levels of skill than their opponents, to the extent of making very good players, often so called world class players, look very, very ordinary. I may be showing my age but I still think that Pele sits above all others, particularly in terms of an all-round range of skills … excellent with both feet, good in the air, unsurpassed speed of thought and invention both in terms of what is possible and in terms of execution. Maradona, with his individual virtuoso performances, probably comes second although Messi is knocking hard at the door.

Other players who to my mind join them in this Pantheon of great football players include, in no particular order: Di Stefano, Zidane, Beckanbauer, Cruyf and Moore. Bobby Moore may be a surprise but his performances in both the 1966 and 1970 World Cups personified consummate defensive skill, leadership and authority.

As I have said, the greatness of teams is much more difficult to assess. To my mind a great team needs at least 5, possibly 6, exceptional players and, most importantly, it needs to demonstrate that greatness by not just winning a major tournament but to do so by appearing to take the game to another level and by making other top-class teams look abject in the process.

There are no surprises in my three choices. Here they are in date order.

I am old enough to remember the Real Madrid vs. Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup Final in 1960. The skills of Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento, Santamaria etc were breathtaking to behold as the Spanish side won 7-3. I remember that a recording of the whole game was taken round schools afterwards to show the sublime skills of the Spanish side. British sides of the period looked positively pedestrian in comparison.

The Brazilian World Cup winning side of 1970 contained the most skilful set of players that I have ever seen. I can still remember the names of all the outfield players. Despite my cynicism on most topics … part and parcel of growing old I am afraid … I still salivate at the mere mention of their front four: Jairzinho, Pele, Tostao and Rivelino; backed by Gerson and Clodoaldo in midfield. And the icing on the cake? … that was the move and finish for the fourth and last goal in the final against Italy which was scored by their captain, Carlos Alberto. It still gets quite a few plays on TV and rightly so. “That was sheer, delightful football” said Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC commentator … yes it was Kenneth, in spades.

My last team choice has to be Barcelona for their humiliation of Manchester United in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final. Humiliation is not too strong a word … you only had to look at the total resignation on the faces of the United management team as they sat disconsolately on the sidelines. They were totally non-plussed. The bewitching short passing interplay of Barcelona in the last third of the field, orchestrated by the triumvirate of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta was an absolute joy to watch, as were the individual skills of Messi. All in all it was one of those very rare moments in sport when the performance is simply on a different planet from what is normally produced or expected; moments that you are very grateful to have witnessed. In the world of tennis Roger Federer, in his prime, was another example of a sportsman who seemed to operate on another plane from all other players of his generation.

2nd June, 2011