Setting up wireless in a congested area

I just set up a wireless network in a congested area where all the neighbors seem to also use wireless. My past experience has been in a more rural location where there are few competing networks. It has been an education!

The house had not previously had an internet connection, so Comcast pulled new wire into the house. The installer was experienced so I am confident there were no problems with the physical access to the cable modem.

When ordering the service from Comcast I was asked if I wanted a modem that would do wireless and I said yes. I said yes because past experience in a variety of situations has shown me that I should grab any opportunity to prevent a situation that might lead to finger pointing in the future. (It is the modem, no, it is the router, etc.)

Things seemed fine at first but it soon became obvious there was a serious problem with the data transmission rate. I could connect to sites just fine, but after using them for a few minutes page loads would get slower and slower. Soon they would time out and never load.

I called Comcast support and ended up at Level 2 support. They told me there was a problem, especially with Apple products, which could be fixed by changing the encryption level. That seemed to work.

Unfortunately, the problem soon came back. Within a week I was to the point of “This has to be fixed or you can pull your equipment and I will try something else.”

At that point Comcast set up an appointment for a tech to come by the next day to check things out. As always, talking to the people who actually have to support systems in the field was educational.

“Comcast does not support wireless networking.” was the first surprising thing I got told. There are two many variables, congestion, etc. for them to support it. Strange, that wasn’t mentioned when I order the service and specified a wireless capable modem.

“The modem (Arris) only supports 2.4 ghz” was the second unfortunate statement. In a congested area that means there are a lot of other wireless networks, garage door openers, and other devices cluttering up the spectrum. Translated, I think that means we supply a pathetic wireless device so we can say it is possible, but it doesn’t really work.

As with many technical problems, the answer seems to be “Spend more money.”

I am fortunate to have a friend who knows a lot about routers and he suggested an $80 Netgear. If I wanted the best they also have a $180 one that is supposed to be great. I asked about Apple (Airport Extreme) and was told I would be paying a lot for the logo.

I HATE router configuration. I am not good at it and it requires the ugliest kind of obsessive compulsive detail work. I bought the Apple and the only setting I had to enter was the password. That is my kind of install!

So far it seems to have solved the problem although the signal is not as strong as I would like in one bedroom. I am going to try moving the router around to see if I can get a signal path which doesn’t  have to go through as many walls.

Choosing a Web Hosting Company

For many years I used shared hosting from the usual suspects: Godaddy, Hostgator, Blue Host, etc. I got my wake-up call when Google Analytics said one my income sites was taking 2.60 seconds to load the home page.  They recommend less than 300 milliseconds!

I looked at the site and some of it was my own fault, It is a WordPress site and a couple of the plugins were out of date. The page was waiting for a response which only came after the request timed out.  That is not the way you get fast page loads!

Selecting hosting is hard! All the web hosting companies claim to be Good, Fast, & Cheap. That has to be a lie, because you can never get all three.  I decided the industry is so competitive price is probably a reasonable metric.

I looked through comments on WebHostingForum.com and eventually settled on WiredTree.com.

Of course, it is never that simple. WiredTree offers a LOT of different plans. I eventually settled for a Virtual Private Server (VPS) with 40 gigs of space. This means I “own” my own piece of a server and the load for others should not impact me as much.

I decided to pay an extra fee to have the usual Apache web server software replaced with LiteSpeed. Litespeed is supposed to act just like Apache but has been optimized to serve web pages faster.

i am also paying extra for an SSD (Solid State Device) hard drive. This kind of disk drive can respond faster than the platter based drives because there are no moving parts that have to come up to speed.

These changes got my home page response time under 300 milliseconds which was my goal. WiredTree has proven to be a reliable host and they always send email if their are maintenance issues, etc. Of course I also increased my cost from about $8/mo. to $68.

An unfortunate fact of web hosting is their quality frequently goes down over time. They have a really strong financial incentive to put more domains onto their servers than they should. The sites on a particular server my get more traffic which slows everyone else down. Servers get old, just like your computer at home, and the company may be unwilling or unable to pay the cost of hardware replacement. There are also sometimes management issues. Founders get cross-threaded, move on, burn out, etc. All of which means you need a backup host you can move to when necessary.

Since the industry is so competitive, significant changes in service also develop. For example, some hosts now optimize specifically to support WordPress. Others offer staging servers where you can test changes before going live on the real site. A few offer PCI compliance which is important for Ecommerce sites which accept credit card payments.

Many hosting companies offer specials, especially around the end of the year. I took advantage of one of those to get hosting which includes 400 gigs of storage. I will use them to host niche sites with lots of large still images and low traffic. I expect visitors who are really interested in the pictures will be willing to wait if the pages load slowly.

Updated to the 2014 theme from WordPress

I just installed the 2014 theme from WordPress.

The change and the upgrade to WP 3.9.1 seems to have gone without any unexpected issues.  I did loose the feaured image that used to show on each page, but I can replace those.

I really liked the dark background of the old theme, but this is probably easier to read.

The new theme is also responsive. Watching the traffic stats on older sites I see that about 50% of the traffic is coming from various mobile devices. That means a responsive theme is becoming more and more important.

2014 is billed as a magazine format theme and I am not really publishing a magazine.  However, I liked the colors and the fonts in the default setup. Since I expect to have a lot of photo & video intensive pages I think it will probably work well for me.

2014 is a very basic theme so I will need to add a variety of plugins to allow me the functions I will need.

I want a store with product pages and will use Exchange from iThemes.com for that. I will also use EnviraGallery.com to provide more control over the formating and power of my photo galleries.

I can think of several others, but will hold off using them until I see a clear need. It is easy to load up with more plugins than necessary and they can slow page load times  unacceptabily.

 

SixBit Auction Management Software

I recently came across a review of SixBit auction management software.  It sounded promising and I have spent much of the last few days reading through their documentation and watching their training videos.  I think this may be the missing piece I have needed to move Our Antique Shop to the next level.

The software runs on a local PC and works off of a central database available to several users.  Everything I read confirms it was designed from the ground up to grow and Ebay business.  The software is well documented on their site and you can access the user manual without needing an account.  If you are interested, follow the link above to learn all the details.

The people behind this product were the authors of the Blackthorn Auction Management system, so they know what Ebay sellers need.  With Ebay shutting down the Blackthorn product they took the opportunity to re-design the software completely.  As much as I can tell without actually using it, they have developed a really smooth system.

I don’t see Ebay as a long-term solution for small sellers.  I think they are moving away from that.  My thought is to use SixBit as a way to transition from selling on Ebay to selling from my own sites.  SixBit will export a CSV file with all the data from listings.  I found a WordPress plugin that will import this kind of file into WOrdPress as a post or page.  In other words, I can use the efficient SixBit system as a data entry tool for content I plan to import to my websites.

I always hated the waste of taking pictures and writing item descriptions which were thrown away as soon as the item was sold.  With this system I can start listing items for sale and then move all the content over to a website where it will add long-term value.  Over time I should be able to drive more traffic to these content sites and sell my items directly to customers.

Of course, I have had high hopes for software in the past.  Closer examination sometimes turns up issues which squash my plans.  I hope this is not the case with SixBit.

I will download it soon, get it installed and see if it lives up to the potential I see.

Shapleigh’s Hardware Company

Some time ago I purchased a copy of the 1935 Shapleigh’s Hardware Company 1935 catalog.  If you haven’t heard of them it is because they went out of business a couple of years later.

The catalog has 2,456 pages.  I was lucky enough to register the domain Shapleighs.com and have started publishing the contents of the catalog there.  It is going to take a while because I have to scan each page, make adjustments, and get the images uploaded to the website.

Why do I bother?  By itself Our Antique Shop is unlikely to ever develop the kind of traffic we need to make it profitable.  My thought with the Shapleighs site is that collectors will find it and I can direct some of them to our antiques sites.  It should also be able to make some money from selling ads and perhaps as a membership site.  I think some collectors would be willing to pay a small fee for access to this old catalog.

The advantage of have the catalog published as a website is the powerful searching it permits.  If I set it up properly visitors will be able to do searches on whatever information they have about an item and have a good chance of find it in the catalog.

I am learning a lot as I work my may through the catalog.  For example, I knew there were a lot of different kinds of axes made, but I seriously underestimated how many.  Shapleigh’s sold well over 100 and that doesn’t even count all the variations in handles.  That is more than enough to interest a collector.  I suspect that if I start looking around I will find a few of them  who know all about old axes.  It should be interesting.

 

GermanWoodCarvings.com now has a few carvings posted.

This afternoon I got the first three carvings published on German Wood Carvings.  The site is using the Visual+ template and, in my opinion shows the pictures really well.  For the time being all the images show on the home page.  As I get more of these photographed I will change that to a thumbnail on the home page that links to the detail page.

I am gradually getting a website published for each of the niches in which we collect.  I didn’t realize we had enough German wood  carvings to make a decent site until I started digging around and finding more of them tucked away into corners.

 

 

Hosting Considerations – VPS With SSD & Litespeed

I put off paying for better hosting for years!  I had “bargain” accounts  on HostGator, BlueHost, and several others.  In the old days, it even made sense for more than just the money.  The believe was that if you had multiple sites they would rank better on the search engines if they were hosted on multiple Class C IP numbers.  Thus it made sense to spread them around.

That doesn’t seem to be true anymore but page load times have become more important.  Important from both how quickly potential visitors leave if the page load is to slow and how the search engines penalize slow sites.

I discovered my main sites were taking 2.6 seconds to load the WordPress based home page.  Google Analytic’s suggested 200 milliseconds was a good target!  Obviously, something had to change.

Finding a new host is painful.  That’s why I put it off so long.  Ever host has good reviews and bad reviews.  The people with a bad experience are much more vocal than the happy customers.  Reviewers are frequently technically challenged and blame  the hosting company for things over which they have no control.  That makes it hard to choose.

Websites  have different requirements.  Some are compute heavy, while others are input/output limited.  Cloud solutions add yet another variable to the mix.  In my case I found a review on Web Hosting Talk from a knowledgeable poster.  There were several positive  replies from others who also sounded like they knew what they were talking about.  Making a final choice still felt like a leap of faith.

After selecting WiredTree.com, I still had to choose from their selection of solutions.  That required balancing cost against the features I thought most important to my kind of websites.

I ended up with a small VPS plan with 40G of storage.  I specified an SSD  hard drive because it seemed like an affordable way to speed page load times.  I also request the VPS be configured with the Litespeed web server in the place of Apache for the same reason.  Total cost is $68/mo.

Did it work.  In fairness I must admit that removing two old plugins probably made a lot of difference.  They apparently had to time out before the page could load which really slowed things down.  However, it looked like that took the sites from 2.6 seconds down to about 0.65 seconds.  With the setup described above, my pages now load in 0.31 seconds.  I credit the new hosting for the 300 millisecond decrease.

Now when I run Google Analytics I get the green dot, meaning my page load times are acceptable.  I could apparently decrease them more if I would play with the template CSS.  Given my lack of CSS skills I have not tried that.

Moving from shared hosting to a VPS  requires something of a paradigm change.  In some ways you are now the hosting company & your own customer.  That means some of the setup is not obvious.  I managed to trash the server once and support quickly fixed that problem.  I had several other questions and email requests for support were always answered in less than 20 minutes.  The answers were thoughtful and accurate.

At this point I am a happy camper and busy moving all my sites from the shared hosting accounts they have been on.

Lessons learned #1

I spent most of a day getting 88 photographs of 13 items taken, edited, uploaded, and posts made for each one.  Slow I know, but doing anything for the first time is always going to be slow.   I gained two big insights during the process.

I need a “head” shot for each item.  The Visual+ WordPress theme has a Featured Image feature that adds a picture to the home page.  To make it fit into three column format it reduces  larger images down to 150 pixels wide.  Letting the server resizing software do this automatically was NOT a good idea.   The image quality was significantly degraded.  This is not what I want for a showcase picture on the home page.

I also realized I don’t probably need to show the entire item in the featured picture.  For example, on an Erzgebirge (German) Smoker a close up of the head will do the job better.

Lightroom, which I use for photo processing has a really slick virtual image feature.  All I have to do is hit CTRL apostrophe  to make a virtual copy that I can crop to make the perfect featured picture.

There is a WP setting to control if the featured picture shows on the detail page.  I missed that initially and was annoyed that I ended up with two copies of the same image at the top of the page.  By turning it off, the detail page starts with a full size image of the front of the item.

Add metadata on each web page, not in Lightroom.  My original thought was to become compulsive about documenting thoroughly before uploading anything.  Probably not a great idea.  I thought one of the German smokers I photographed was a trumpet player.  My wife pointed out the stylized trumpet is part of the logo for the German post  office, so he is the mail man!

If I had counted on the Lightroom meta data I would have had to change the information there, re-upload, and edit the webpage.  It was much easier to only edit the web page.

Doing it this way also means I can use different text if I choose to place the images on multiple websites.

Erzgebirge Smokers

We have started building ErzgebirgeSmokers.com.  It uses the Visual+ WordPress template to provide a home page that showcases a picture from each post on the site.  The front page has what is called “Infinite Scroll” which means that as you scroll down the page the software reaches back to the server for more data (AJAX).  It makes a fabulous way for a visitor to quickly scroll through all our posts to see if we have the item they are searching for.  It lets us avoid the nasty issues of creating a hierarchy for them to hunt through.

It is a labor intensive process.  Hopefully, I will get quicker with more practice.  It took most of the morning to take 88 pictures of 13 items.  It took much of the afternoon to edit them in Lightroom and upload them to SmugMug.  At that point I realized I needed to think about exactly where I was going to publish them.

Many collectors are very specialized so I like to build  multiple small sites.  That way they don’t have to look through a lot of irrelevant items to find what they want.  For those with more general interests I make it easy to find my other items with a few clicks.

I really like the way the Visual+ template displays things, but it will hit a limit at 200 or so posts.  Any more than that will make the page scroll seem to take forever.  Having multiple small sites solves that problem too.

I had collected about ten Erzgebirge related domains for potential use.  I picked three for development.  ErzgebirgeSmokers.com, AntiqueNutcrackers.com and ErzgebirgeAntiques.com.  Doing the research and building the sites took about four hours.  Building WordPress sites is amazingly easy when you have your hosting in place, have your plugins selected, and know what settings you need to change.

Now it is a matter of keeping at it day after day until I get the entire collection photographed and published.

Workflow Building Blocks

Here are the tools I use to support my workflow and my reasons for using them.  I am still trying to figure out the best ways to combine them into an efficient workflow.

Smugmug: This is where I want all my edited pictures to end up.  I trust their backup system will keep my images safe.  I like being able to access my  photo library from anywhere.  I really like the way their “Share” button automatically gives me a choice of resized images to choose from.  That makes it easy to always place the exact size image I need onto another website and prevents me from wasting storage space and bandwidth by using a larger than necessary image.  For the benefits I receive their $60 or $150 annual fee seems reasonable.

Lightroom: Lightroom is a great photo management tool and is great for  doing all the initial cropping and image editing.  It also makes it easy to add metadata such as a description of the item, keywords, etc.  It runs on my desktop PC and is part of the Adobe Creative Suite.  I can load images here immediately after taking them, do my pre-production edits, and send the results to Smugmug.

Photoshop: I don’t use Photoshop a lot but plan to use it to remove the background from my pictures and replace it with a gradient fill.  I think that will give me an attractive, consistent background that will look good on my websites.  Photoshop is also part of the Creative Suite.

WordPress & Vision+ I advertise my items by publishing their pictures and descriptions to multiple websites.  Our Antique Shop is a “Hub” that  links out to multiple niche sites.  I install WordPress on all of them.  On those that are picture sites I am using the Vision+ template.  It shows   thumbnails of all the pictures on the site on the home page and makes it easy to link to a larger image with more details.  This should make it easy for a novice to quickly see if my site has information about item(s) he is looking for.

ShopIntegrator: We have some of our items for sale and ShopIntegrator is our shopping cart.  Unlike any other cart I have seen, the data about our for sale items resides on their servers.  I can place a buy button for any one of my unique items on as many websites as I wish.  When it sells, all the buy buttons automatically show “Out of Stock” .  This means I don’t need a system to track where I have listed something for sale and worry about selling an item I no longer have.

The problem is getting the metadata and the pictures combined in an efficient way.  I  only want to handle an item once.  That means I need to record size, description, etc. at the same time I take the pictures.  I could write it down, but then I have to keep track of it and enter it into the computer later.  That seems like a two-step process guaranteed to produce errors.  Not to mention, being a lot of duplicate effort.

I tried a couple of iPad apps that are supposed to help with this.  Photosmith sounded like it would collect data directly from my camera, let me add metadata, and then upload everything to Lightroom on my PC.  It uses an Eye-fi card to accomplish this magic and is not yet ready for prime time.  Deep in their instructions they say they haven’t written them for the PC yet!  I was unable to figure out how to configure things so the system would work as described.

I next tried ShutterSnitch.  This configured easily.  It doesn’t have the same level of Lightroom integration as PhotoSmith, but I was OK with that.  Unfortunately, deep in the instructions I noticed a line that said adding metadata to the image results in another jpg compression.  I am not ready to give up the quality that  implies.  Especially since it would be applied before I did any of my pre-processing.

Yet another aspect of the same problem became obvious when we set up a little assembly line to photograph a mixture of etchings & silk screens by a variety of artists.  The photography went quickly, but after I loaded the pictures into Lightroom I discovered it was really hard to identify some of them.  My wife is the collector for most of these and knows the details just by looking at them.  I don’t.  That meant I had to enlarge each one to read the signature, and sometimes even that didn’t help.  I also figured out (duh) that I was going to have to find each one again to measure and describe them.  Not exactly efficient.

At this point my best idea is to photograph a limited number of items, 10 perhaps, load the  images to my desktop computer and immediately add the metadata.