Small innovation

As a follow-up on my last post: I find I sometimes run out of novel things to write about, or sometimes it’s hard to develop my thoughts into a full-blown essay. I’ve also never been big on posting status updates (“I am eating cake.”). I have been lately been posting my less-developed thoughts (you may find them formatted as “asides”) as a sort of compromise.  So I have a new idea for this blog: posting things I remember from the past. This may have something to do with getting older. I’ll have to ponder that over a bottle of hard cider.

Blogging update

I am now upgraded to WordPress 3.5. The main improvement to this version is supposed to be the media handling, always one of WordPress’s weaknesses. This version is incrementally better. It used to be that groups of photos were only available as galleries in the posts you uploaded  them to. Uploaded photos were dependent on the post to upload them too (they are considered “attachments”). The new version works the same way but I now have some more flexibility to choose which photos go into a gallery on each posts. It works nicely but that’s about it. There’s still no good way to embed uploaded videos within WordPress without using clumsy plugins. I’m thinking about opening up a YouTube channel and then embedding them in my posts.

On another front, I’d like to go back to designing my own website. As I’ve mentioned before, WordPress themes (the files that control how the website looks) are difficult to customize. However, there is a stripped down version of a theme that I can work with. To that end I’ve installed a mock server on my computer with a dummy version of WordPress. I’ll be experimenting with it this year and I hope the website will look a little more original, as it had in the past.

I like to engage in periodic navel-gazing about blogging and this seems like as good a time as any. Adam’s artificial habitat is well over 10 years old now. I first designed it on AOL when I was home from work with firefighting injury. I moved it to TerminalMoraine.com a year or two later. I started blogging on LiveJournal in 2004 and then migrated the posts here when I made WordPress my content management system. I have posted at least a couple of times a month since I started blogging (there are over 1,400 published posts here now).

I think nine years is a good run for a personal blog. A lot of them don’t last so long. While I was searching for design inspiration, I found some websites that rated, for example, the 50 best personal blog designs, but links to many of the examples were already dead after a year or two. In other words, they looked great but ran out of content or staying power. I’m not sure if it’s because of the changing nature of technology or simply because it’s human nature to try things and then move on.

I’ve never thought much about why I keep at it. I originally started blogging because I wanted to practice writing. I also thought it was a good way to add content to my website and to keep my family and friends up to date. It’s my main creative outlet and it’s easy. And I like it.

Upgrade to WordPress 3.2

Screen capture of a minimalist black and white themed website.
Aah Iteration 9 Theme

Adam’s artificial habitat has upgraded to WordPress 3.2, which comes with a new default theme, Twenty Eleven. I especially like the variety of post formats and the showcase template for the home page.

I have made a few changes to Twenty Eleven but, despite its minimalist appearance, it is sophisticated enough that it’s very difficult to modify. It took some gnashing of teeth before I could get the roll of short form posts to look the way I wanted. I am having a lot of trouble getting the modifying the display of recent posts.

Overall I think I’m finally going to give up control over all the little functional details. The theme template files are getting too complicated and I can’t untangle what controls what. As far as the appearance goes, I like the sparseness of it (Lore says it’s “very contemporary”). I’ll probably recolor it at some point and maybe add an illustration to the masthead but I think I’m going to leave the giant banner photo out. I always felt it took up too much space.

I renamed some of the categories. The opinion category Adam Says (I always hated that title) is now Fallible Reasoning, inspired by a quote from James Madison. Travel is now National Me-O-Graphic. A while back I renamed the category about work Paid in Sunsets, after an old ranger saying and even whiler back I renamed the everyday stuff Quotidiana. I hope I’ve finally recaptured some of the cleverness of the old sections titles (like Right Brain) I had on this site before I converted it to a blogging platform.

I’m also using a new plugin to add links to Facebook. It’s actually called Add Link to Facebook. It works better than the last one, which I could never figure out. I’m futzing around with the settings.

Enjoy.

State of the blog

It seems I have not written much since our trip to Europe. After long, busy trips like that, it takes a while to get my journal typed up, and the photos uploaded and captioned. I was ready to take a little break when I finished with that, but I’ve barely been back to writing and I don’t know why.

I’ve been at this for a while, so it’s fun to go back and read older posts. When I started blogging (on LiveJournal) it was more of a “I did this today” kind of thing. I bet that’s how most people start out. The last few years, as I’ve become a better writer, the posts have become more like essays.

I’ve delegated some of the functions of this blog to other technologies. I rate movies on Netflix, for example, which helps them recommend movies to me; therefore I’ve become lazier about writing about movies.

I’ve also stopped writing about politics. A year or two ago, I toyed with idea of making this blog more focused and involved in online political discussion. But I realized that the Web is already clogged with people carelessly spouting off their opinions and not listening to anyone else. I doubt I have much to add.

Facebook provides a more sequestered platform for the routine updates that once populated this space, and are more likely to be read by my friends. Also, I’ve learned the hard way to shy away from committing my immediate thoughts and feelings to the open spaces of the World Wide Web.

Trying to coordinate these various specialized platforms—making the website a hub for my online content—involves much more work than I was putting into this site four years ago. I used to focus my labors on the layout and design; now I have to fuss with the function.

In many ways WordPress 3.0 is a very good blogging platform. The developers focus on the core functions of writing and organizing of posts and comments, and that stuff works really well. The rest depends on plug-ins and themes to extend function and design, some of which is a little too wonky and technical for me. I have mostly failed at these efforts. (WordPress’s new system of modifying themes is particularly difficult). The result is a less interesting-looking site with dwindling content.

I’m not sure if I’m complaining or just self-critiquing. I’ve heard blogging is being made obsolete by more proprietary social media. I don’t think it has to be so. There’s always a place for the individual creative voice. It might be time to get back to some of the basics, to make it fun again.

City of lit

As an “International City of Literature” I guess Iowa City feels like it has to mobilize its army of citizen-writers. Some fun things go with that, like the city’s annual Poetry in Public contest. The winners have their poems displayed on posters in public buildings and on city buses.

Another literary outlet which does much less for my morale is the newspaper, the Press-Citizen. It has a corps of local minor-league columnists who write for the opinion page. To qualify for this group, you need only to be functionally literate and have a point of view about anything. It’s like a sincere version of The Onion.

For example, yesterday’s contribution was a vapid piece about the horrors of inflation which read like a seventh-grader’s report on the topic. It was the sort of amateurish, self-serving drivel better suited to a personal blog, but it’s pretty much a daily occurrence in the Press-Citizen.

I don’t think cities have as much to do with literary output as UNESCO thinks they do and I’m not sure what makes Iowa City (or any city) more literary than, say, New York or Oxford, Mississippi. What does not make a city literary is enlisting some random hometown character to fill up space on the op-ed page.

Profanity

While reviewing some old posts I was dismayed to see how much profanity I use in this blog. In case you are wondering, “shit” and “fuck” (including all compound words and verb tenses) appear in 18 posts apiece.

Now that I think about it, that’s not so bad out of 945 published posts. In his book On Writing Stephen King said he did not have a big problem with writing profanity if it was “truthful.” He was referring to writing fiction, though. And while I am being “truthful” with my use of these words, I can probably do better.

And yet, here are the final standings, excluding this post:

Shit: 18 posts
Fuck: 18 posts
Bitch (in a non-canine context): 3 posts
Dick (in a non-Cheney context): 3 posts
Asshole: 1 post

The Ed “Cookie” Burns effect

Google Analytics revealed something surprising to me. The most visited post on this website last month was a hasty, mistake-ridden entry from four years ago. The title of my one-sentence commentary on the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams played on his name by mentioning Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. Among other mistakes I incorrectly spelled Byrnes’ name as Ed “Cookie” Burns. Whenever someone searches for the term “ed cookie burns” in Google, that post is the top result. For some reason, November 8, 2009 was a high water mark for visits from people searching for “ed cookie burns”.

While it’s nice to come out on top of at least one Google search, that poorly-written blurb is not the gateway through which I want to welcome readers to my site. I have corrected the errors, and now the searchers of “ed cookie burns” may become acquainted with my blog through this awful bit of meta-commentary. Enjoy.

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging

I read The Huffington Post mostly for amusement. It’s hard to separate news from opinion on that site, as it consists mostly of commentaries on and links to actual news. I find its strengths to be in the commentaries.

“The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging” by the editors of The Huffington Post didn’t reveal much more to me about blogging. I did not start this blog to sell anything or to get millions of people to read about it. But if I was going to do those things, the book has some solid, common sense advice on “finding your voice” and “creating and building a community.”

The best parts of this book are a section featuring the “best of The Huffington Post blogs” and some of the articles by a handful of the website’s many contributors about blogging experiences. It’s also fun to read the editors’ own takes on what the HuffPost means to journalism. Aside from their analysis of Judith Miller, they cite gaffes their contributors scooped during the presidential race last year as evidence of their breakthroughs in independent online journalism.

After bemoaning the shallowness and complicity of the corporate media, exposing trivial nonsense like Cindy McCain’s recipe plagiarism or Barack Obama’s use of the word “bitter” doesn’t constitute a huge improvement in political reporting. If anything, presidential candidates (and their wives) will probably just retreat further into their public relations apparatuses, foiling the kind of candid transparency advocated by the new journalists.

Trying another photo gallery plug-in

I’ve been trying out NextGen Gallery, a WordPress photo gallery plug-in. You can see a couple of test galleries on the Photos page.
Though it has improved much over the last several upgrades, WordPress’s ability to organize and display photo albums is still limited.

NextGen Gallery has some good features and a lot of potential, except for me it has two problems. It can import the photos I’ve already uploaded but not the titles and descriptions or any other data already entered into my database. So I’d have to re-enter all that for the 800 of so photos I have posted here. I’ve done that a couple of times now as I’ve tried different plugins and I don’t want to do it again. The other problem with plug-ins is that they’re not supported by newer versions of WordPress, so I could be out of luck later if the author stops supporting it. As it is NextGen Gallery’s documentation is pretty sparse. I’ve had to learn it on it my own (which was good because I’ve discovered it’s limitations too).

I’ll keep messing around with it, and hope WordPress comes up with something better.

Online social networks

I’ve been involved in some discussion within our agency about how to use online social networking (the shorthand for it is usually Facebook, but it could be YouTube, Flickr, craigslist or whatever). On one hand, something really bothers me about the government belatedly oozing into what people have been doing just fine without it. On the other hand, online social networking could be a powerful tool for engaging (a popular buzzword) the public. To what end nobody can really explain to me. All I hear is “we have to go where the people are.” Go and do what? Nobody knows yet but it ought to be good.

I use Facebook a little bit (at home), for no other reason than most of my friends are on it. E-mail wasn’t helping me keep up anymore. But I find Facebook to be shallow and proprietary. Fine, I’ve taken some movie quizzes and had a sheep thrown at me. But I can’t communicate into or out of it, so if a friend isn’t using it I’ll have to keep up with him some other way (back to e-mail anyway). If I understand their business model, in return for free use of the site they are putting all that personal information to use somehow.

Also, I maintain this blog at some personal expense of effort (and a little of money). Facebook allows you to import blog entries but they seem to discourage it and it seems to not work all that well anyway. I’d like to be able to share my writings and photos with my friends without signing them over to some business.

In the future, online social networking ought to transcend proprietary sites like Facebook by being more portable and by respecting the users’ ownership of their information.

Strong openings

Ever since I was in high school, my English teachers have stressed the importance of strong opening sentences. I have been trying not to start every blog entry with phrases like “Today I went to…” but it’s easy to backslide when I’m only writing for a few minutes a day.

Here’s a survey of first sentences from the feature articles of this month’s National Geographic Magazine.

The journey of young Charles Darwin aboard His Majesty’s Ship Beagle, during the years 1831-36, is one of the best known and most neatly mythologized episodes in the history of science.

Just two weeks before he died, Charles Darwin wrote a short paper about a tiny clam found clamped to the leg of a water beetle in a pond in the English Midlands.

A frigid November day pressed against the windows of a shabby apartment building in the Chinese city of Yanji, ten miles from the North Korean border.

In the winter of 2005 Nelso Quispe, new from Peru to North AMerica, was hired to herd Sheep in Wyoming’s Red Desert.

Palermo’s ariport is named Falcone-Borsellino.

Mount Washington rises rumpled and soft above the New Hamphire forests, beyond the brick towns, the old mills ,and the cold cities, but not really too far way from anything.

Of course, National Geographic get their pick of writers (the writer of the article about Sicilian mummies is, incidentally, a food critic). I like the second example best since it begs the question, “Why?” and urged me to read on. A close second is the last example. It sets an immediate scene for what follows in the article.

Brainstorming for titles

I’m trying to come up with a better name for the Virtual Adam category of this blog. The name made a little more sense in the pre-blogging days of Adam’s artificial habitat, but now isn’t everything here virtual Adam?

I’m toying around with variations of my new favorite vocabulary word “quotidian” (it means “everyday” or “ordinary”). I like this derivation: Quotidiana. It is already in use as a title by a couple of websites, though. I also stumbled upon the term glossa ordinaria, which refers to a medieval commentary on academic lectures. I like the way it sounds but in literal terms wouldn’t that be more appropriate for the Adam Says category (another one I’d like to re-name)?

I thought the titles for the sections of my original site were pretty clever, like Right Brain and Virtual Adam, but they don’t fit the blog format. For that matter, bloggers are favoring the more informal tags, which function more like keywords, over formal blog categories. I’ve already converted my subcategories to tags, and kept only the broadest categories.

Using Latin feels a little pretentious, especially since I don’t speak it. I could play off my glaciological domain name and name the categories things like esker, drumlin, and roche moutonnée, but that’s getting way too esoteric.

A code of conduct for the Web?

I heard a story on NPR about call for a “Code of Conduct” for the World Wide Web. The idea has been floated and debated by some influential tech bloggers. Proponents claim it would restore civility, accountability, and the confidence of bloggers who get heaped with offensive and threatening messages. Critics call it censorship.

I rarely get legitimate comments (those that aren’t spam) on this blog, but last month someone submitted a comment that I interpreted as a veiled threat. I wasn’t sure if I should post it or not. It’s never been my intention to censor people who want to post here, but that intention failed an early test. I’ve written my share of vitriol aimed at public officials, celebrities, the Boston Red Sox, and other scoundrels. But I decided not to post that comment or any future comments that I consider abusive to me or (the few) others who use this blog. Here’s why: I maintain this site for fun and at my own expense. When it stops being fun, I will stop posting. For now, that will stand as my code of conduct for Adam’s artificial habitat.

Comment spam

An unfortunate side effect of having my own blog is comment spam. It’s similar to e-mail spam but it comes in through the comment form on posts and is loaded with links that presumably help the spammer get ahead on search engines like Google. I can moderate the comments so that the spam is never posted, but sifting through thirty junk comments every time I log in is as deflating as it is on e-mail. Oddly, only three of my hundreds of posts attract comment spam.

My first threat

My blog is in general a quiet one, read frequently by my friends and relatives who use it to keep in touch. But today I received a comment here from someone actually threatening to tell my coworkers why I called in sick this week. I posted why–or at least the part I cared to share with the World Wide Web–on Tuesday, March 20, 2007.

So if you are not here to share in the fun, please don’t bother commenting.