This is a question that is plaguing me at the moment as I force myself to relearn calculus for Analysis of Algorithms at Oregon State University. In moments like this, where the concepts are abstract and I need to learn even more abstract concepts so I can understand the first class of abstract ideas, motivation is key.

Why does this matter? I’ve been working in the industry for over five years and never needed this knowledge before, why now?

Well, the short answer is that you don’t need this body of knowledge to develop a wide range of applications and features to applications. In my world, many of the concerns that common sorting, searching, and general optimization algorithms address are not real concerns because they’ve been abstracted to parts of the language or framework. I’m able to do my job because someone else has figured out how to do other parts of my job that normally would need to be created from scratch. So while learning merge sort and analyzing its complexity is a fun exercise, I’ll not be writing it from scratch anytime soon.

Continue Reading Why Study Algorithms?

Updating LexBlog.com’s aggregation engine was no small feat. Scott Fennell and I spent months testing all of the various components of our new aggregation engine that powers the vast majority of the site, but something that was hard to prepare for was the shear scale of the site. Now that it’s up an running, we’re learning a lot about how to manage a site like this, and what sorts of features are necessary for it to be a successful publication from the perspective of an editor or reader.

One thing that I’ve recently keyed in on is search. Normally, I would tell a client that on-site search is not important. Most visitors are coming to a site from a much better search engine (Google), and are more apt to click around the site once there. LexBlog has layered in some nice features to the standard WordPress search, but most of those are around making sure that readers can search by an author’s name when they’re on a blog or website. This seems like a thing WordPress should do by default, but the generic WordPress search is “dumb” in the sense that it only looks to the post content and post title when running a search. Authors are not in either, so some work had to be done to support searching an author’s name and getting their posts.

In any case, the on-site search is “good enough” for most readers, and most sites aren’t the size of LexBlog.com. However, LexBlog.com is big. Very big. There are nearly 400,000 posts and 20,000 users on the site. The results that are returned by WordPress with what is essentially a LIKE %query% SQL statement does a disservice to anyone that waits around for the page to load (a search on LexBlog.com right now can take anywhere from 10-15 seconds to return a page).

While a very small percentage of visitors to LexBlog.com use the on-site search feature (only about 2% of all page views are to a search results page), the relationships that we’ve layered in to each post and user make search a potentially very attractive feature on the site. We could support advanced searches by organization, site, author, and date as opposed to a generic text search against all of the content. Moreover, the speed issues alone make me long for a better solution on the site.

Enter Elasticsearch. Elasticsearch is a product from Elastic.co; if you haven’t heard their story before, it’s worth the read.

I have looked at a variety of alternative search technologies for WordPress before this, including:

But I continue to come back to Elasticsearch for a number of reasons:

  • It’s cost effective
  • Easy to scale and manage
  • Has a wonderful, developer-friendly WordPress plugin – ElasticPress –  built by a team of people – 10up – that I trust to continue to maintain and iterate said plugin

This weekend, I took Elasticsearch/ElasticPress for a spin on LexBlog.com‘s staging environment, and the results were surprising. Most keyword searches were 3-5 times faster (again, that speed difference alone is enough for me to favor Elasticsearch over WordPress’s search). Here’s a view of how long it takes for someone to search for “Kavanaugh” on LexBlog.com’s production environment:

Over 13 seconds!

and here’s what it looks like in staging:

Just over 4 seconds – much better 🙂

More than speed, though, Elasticsearch’s queries are optimized for searches in a way that WordPress is not. As I mentioned, WordPress searches post content and titles, but Elasticsearch/ElasticPress expands that to include taxonomies (tags, categories, and custom taxonomies) and bylines.

WordPress also has a very weak algorithm for the keyword search itself. Without going into too much detail, it performs a relatively exact search of the query so that misspellings or typos that may occur when you’re on a mobile device (or if you’re like me, whenever you’ve been staring at a screen for more than 10 hours) are treated like you meant to search for that exact phrase. Elasticsearch performs “fuzzy matching”, which looks for variations on the keyword that you’ve searched. For example, if you’re interested in the Stop Online Piracy Act – SOPA – you might search “SOPA’s enforcement.” However, maybe you’re feeling lazy that day and don’t want to type in the apostrophe, so you search “SOPAs enforcement.” Elasticsearch is smart enough to return results for the Stop Online Piracy Act/SOPA whereas WordPress returns only results where the text was literally “SOPAs enforcement”; so only instances where the author made the same “typo” that you did!

While it seems like Elasticsearch may be winning the day at LexBlog, it’s still something for us to explore in more depth. As with all updates to a site, many people have a voice (including the readers) and we’re still waiting to see how they (and we) value search.

This was one of the most eventful summers in my life both personally and professionally. In July, Garry (LexBlog’s COO) and I had a chance to go to Chicago and spend some time talking about LexBlog’s future product line and general opportunities for integrating with our platform. It’s not often that I get an opportunity to do face-to-face meetings of these sort, and it was nice to get back in the saddle. It was also my first time visiting Chicago, and Garry seemed more than happy to drag me around.

The Chicago Riverwalk where I forced Garry to walk – he was incredibly pleased to be outdoors, walking for hours.
The Chicago Gate – aka “The Bean” – which actually looks pretty cool close up.

Continue Reading A LexBlogger’s Summer in Review

I’m about halfway through Oregon State University’s (Go Beavers!) post-bacc program for computer science, but feel like I’ve just entered the belly of the beast. On the docket for the summer is CS 271 – Computer Architecture and Assembly Language; a fine relaxing course to take in the months before and during my wedding, right? Not so much.

The material is dense as we learn to program how to move memory around on a computer and perform basic actions on the contents of said memory.  The class is focused on the IA-32 – a 32-bit version of the x86 instruction set architecture found in early IBM workstations and personal computers, and then later in embedded systems for phones, aerospace tech, and electronic musical instruments.  I’m only a few weeks in, but already it’s painfully obvious to me that assembly is not like any other language I’ve used.

Continue Reading Oh The Places You’ll Go! …… with Assembly

Like many technical specifications on the web, RSS (which stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication depending on who you talk to) has a confusing history that seems to only get more confusing as time goes on. The format became popular in the late 1990’s as the need to standardize information held on websites became a pressing concern with the rise of blogging and dynamic websites. The influx of information and content, all organized in different ways, was exciting, but without a standard way to consume the content, you were left with just a few options:

  • Bookmarks, and lots of them
  • Memorize a handful of URLs and visit only those sites
  • Build a custom web scraper

The goal of RSS (as I see it) was to provide each site that created dynamic content a specification to follow to make that content available at some address so the rest of the internet community could easily monitor this address for updates. For example, this blog’s RSS feed is available at https://www.jsulz.com/feed/. You can take this URL and drop it in Feedly or your RSS reader of choice and every new post I publish will end up there alongside any other blogs you regularly read.

Continue Reading RSS Doesn’t Stand for “Really Should be Standard”, but Maybe It Should

Engineers make hardware and software for humans. It should go without saying, but remembering and staying true to that axiom is complicated depending on where you’re standing. With each passing year, it seems that things get more complicated, more random, more uncertain. This year was no different, especially in the realm of technology.

Facebook and Twitter are defending their platforms amidst allegations that they were used for interfering in America’s 2016 Presidential elections. Net neutrality seems to be going by the wayside with nary a peep from the so-called “Big N”, many of whom participated in protests in 2014 when the issue first came to the public’s attention. Uber dug itself into a hole as scandal after scandal rocked the company; the first of which was a female engineer lifting the veil and exposing a misogynistic and Darwinian culture, followed by revelations that the company had written software to avoid local law enforcement agents in areas where Uber was prohibited from operating. Meanwhile, the threat of automation and the looming specter of artificial intelligence have every working professional worried about the future of employment in this new economy.

The list could go on and on, and doesn’t end when last year began. As long as corporate greed and bad company culture are not only allowed, but praised, problems of this ilk will continue. The problem as I see it, is that it’s most troubling in the context of computers.

Continue Reading Make Technology for Humans

Over the past few days, the Product team at LexBlog has been busy launching a few bodies of work that have been a long time coming. While our Success team launches sites and solutions on a hourly basis, the product side of LexBlog has the luxury of spending weeks, sometimes months, working on new features (what luxury!). It’s a truly fortunate situation, and one that we don’t take for granted.

This week, our team had the pleasure of being in the same offices together with our Lead Developer, Scott Fennell – who blogs over at Code in the Cold – and Director of Design, Brian Biddle making their quarterly visit to the LexBlog Mothership (now at WeWork!), and we made sure to capitalize. This Thursday and Friday we celebrated our team’s geographical unity, short-lived though it may be, by launching a new admin color scheme, a redesigned LXBN – named The LexBlog Network from here on out – and LexBlog Network subscription options for each author on LexBlog’s publishing platform.

While our authors may not find the new admin color scheme groundbreaking, this update was the source of some headaches for yours truly, and served as a great technical opportunity for Mr. Biddle and Angelo Carosio, LexBlog’s in-house DJ and developer extraordinaire.

Continue Reading LXBN as the New LexBlog

In my time at LexBlog, I’ve seen three different office buildings and worked in two. The first LexBlog offices where my first “real” desk job began was on 95 South Jackson Street in Pioneer Square. The building was near the waterfront, and a stone’s throw away from the Seattle Ferry Terminal. Our CEO, Kevin O’Keefe (he of Real Lawyers Have Blogs), lives on Bainbridge and so LexBlog has always stuck near the ferries. The offices were nice; brick walls, open layout, corner offices with good views, but toward the end of LexBlog’s lease we were neighbors with one of the largest construction projects in Seattle’s history. Continue Reading LexBlog is Moving to WeWork

This post was written using Gutenberg, the code name for the WordPress core team’s effort to overhaul the WordPress post editor.

One of the things that we strive to do at LexBlog is help data drive decision making processes. The fetishization of data in business is somewhat akin to the fetishization for new specs and frameworks in development, but data is still a helpful tool (just like arrow functions in ES6) and should not be ignored. And so we track actions in the admin – clicks, navigating to a certain page, performing an action – all the data that a product manager like myself craves. One thing I’ve noticed in watching how our customers use the LexBlog platform is that people post. A lot.

That simple fact shouldn’t be surprising. We run a network of digital legal publications. Lawyers are trained writers, so they write constantly. Basically, if you give a lawyer a blog, be prepared to see them log in, go to Posts -> Add New, and begin writing away. So when I heard that Matt Mullenweg included the editor in the list of primary focuses for the core team, my interest was piqued. When I saw Aaron Jorbin’s post on using Gutenberg last night, I had to try it out for myself.

Continue Reading Gutenberg – The Future of WordPress’s Post Editor

At LexBlog, my team is responsible for keeping a lot of sites up and running. We help manage the reputation of lawyers and law firms, where each pixel matters. As a result, our product team performs a host of functional tests before launching updates, and we lean on test driven development practices to catch things that functional tests cannot.

An unfortunate blind spot is that humans aren’t machines. We’re prone to miss simple things, and after staring at a screen for hours on end, our brains and eyes get tired. To help catch things that we may gloss over, we use an internal application built using Node.js, React, and Selenium that integrates with the WordPress REST API and an external service, Applitools.

Continue Reading Building a Visual Regression Testing Application Using React, Selenium, Node.js, and the WordPress REST API