Ward Nicholson

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Category Archives: Gripes/Rants

Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 3

And now, the conclusion of our “Strava: The Awful Truth” rant (in so many words), wherein we wrap up our examination of the less-remarked-upon but often revealing aspects of participation in the popular social-media platform for endurance athletes.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Many runners who compete at the local level don’t follow any structured workout plan

This may be one of the more surprising things I found on Strava. I grew up as a competitive runner starting at age 14, and was immersed from day one in the debates about easy runs and long runs vs. interval work vs. tempo and threshold runs vs. VO2max work, or whether to follow an overall plan of higher-mileage/lower-intensity vs. lower-mileage/higher-intensity, and so forth.

No matter where you stood on these issues, if you knew anything at all, you followed a training program that incorporated at least some kind of planned approach. Even if you didn’t or couldn’t follow the plan consistently, or “went by feel” when deciding whether it might be better on any given day to substitute a different type of workout for what you might have originally planned, you usually tried to get in a certain number of faster miles vs. slower miles, a certain amount of tempo or interval work, and so forth. It might have been more of a loose plan or template rather than a set or scheduled one, but when you looked at examples of training programs, the details tended to reflect one approach or another.

What has surprised me on Strava (well, somewhat) is how little rhyme or reason there is to most runners’ approaches to training, at least if you assume the majority of runners on Strava are more competitive types. It isn’t clear to me whether many just run entirely by feel, whatever that’s supposed to mean in terms of what types of workouts might be performed when, or if they truly don’t have much conception of how or why they might want to structure their training in a certain way in the first place.

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Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 2

After having ripped at length on Strava’s “kudosing” silliness in Part 1, we turn now to the intriguing, odd, sometimes matter-of-fact, and occasionally mystifying things one can discover looking at other runners’ activities on Strava.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

A confession to make here: I am one of those guys who likes to go around turning over rocks, looking at the underside of things, just to see what there is to see wriggling around in typically unobserved places. Mainly because I find that the more of reality one can be aware of — whatever that encompasses in its various aspects — the more meaningful and understandable it is, and the richer the experience. And, sometimes, the more power and control the added insight gives you in working with it.

For my money, it’s not what you see on the surface of things, up on top in the light of day, that’s the most interesting. What’s more fascinating is what you don’t necessarily notice at first: the things hidden in shadow that come to light only later once you’ve managed to flip that rock upside down.

This applies equally both to the mechanical side of things and the psychological. If you’re a guy at least, for most of us there is always a certain fascination with what makes things function as far as the nitty-gritty “nuts and bolts” of it.

But even more fascinating, for me anyway, is the psychological underbelly. Why? Because what’s up on the surface is often just what people want you to see or, alternatively, perhaps only what they are conscious of communicating, which doesn’t necessarily gibe with what’s actually going on underneath. And any discrepancy between the two usually tells you a lot.

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Unintended things I’ve learned following other runners on Strava, Part 1

Think that the most interesting things about Strava are the cool maps, graphs, and charts of your own and other athletes’ running, biking, and swimming workouts? Nope, not for me. What I have found more intriguing are all the things you eventually notice by reading “between the lines” that no one seems to talk about.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 1 here gives the backstory about how I got involved with Strava in the first place, and also looks at what I consider the “Kudos trap” — kudosing being similar to liking someone on Facebook — that one can get sucked into there. (Yep, as usual, Wardolfski gets sidetracked composing what was intended to be a fairly brief intro, but then it really gets away from him.) The things I’ve learned from following other runners are covered in Parts 2 and 3.

Social media is not something I’ve ever been much interested in participating in, with rare exceptions. At least not Facebook or Twitter, both of which strike me as high school all over again. Not to mention that both are also just a cacophony of poor web design and poor usability — they’re frustrating to wade through and simply ugly to look at. I do understand that for certain groups of people or organizations or families, Facebook serves as the main clearinghouse for information, and can be valuable.

But for me, none of that applies. I tend not to be a joiner, if for no other reason than just because I don’t like the peer pressure, even if subtle, to behave a certain way that tends to come with participating in most groups.

Also, in groups, behavior tends to come down to the lowest common denominator, so things degenerate into either: (a) online flame- or slag-fests, or (b) the opposite, a bunch of meaningless Kumbaya or Pollyanna praise to whomever or whatever, or failing those, (c) people trying to top each other with clever one-liners, or (d) the feed gets polluted with too many jerks promoting either themselves or their wares. Or, (e) most common of all, the comments are just plain mundane, vapid, and uninteresting the majority of the time — a huge waste of attention span.

My response to all that is usually: No thanks. I’d rather go my own way in my own independent fashion. And then with Facebook, there are the privacy issues, which we needn’t get into here.

That said, I do have a fake Facebook account so that when needed I can log in anonymously to obtain needed info posted by someone there, but generally don’t bother with it other than that. I also signed up for a Twitter account a few years ago in an aborted attempt to try and help promote my self-employed work, but after a few tweets, the account has sat there silently since.

Once in a great while, though, I’ll make an exception for some online group or forum, if there’s enough meaningful “meat” to it to pull me in without too many of the above-mentioned cons. One of the online communities that has meant something to me has been Strava, the popular workout-logging and social-media site for endurance athletes — though perhaps not for the usual reasons many Strava users join, as it turns out.

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Are you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 2

More from our disgruntled narrator in a salvo directed at some of today’s technologies that now bring as many, if not more, downsides as upsides to their use.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

Email gone rogue

There’s no doubt that email is very functional in today’s world of e-commerce. Like others with businesses to run, I rely on it heavily. Even though many of us now use texting and other forms of direct or private messaging or chat for many communications, email is still the lingua franca — the all-inclusive, lowest common denominator of electronic communications for conducting official business. The rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

But that said, for me the number of unsolicited, unwanted email intrusions from non-work-related companies I’ve made purchases from at some point or other over the years has recently reached epidemic proportions. Several months ago it had gotten to the point where almost every day I was besieged with “news” or “special deals” or solicitations that I never signed up for from these companies. Legal companies, I should add, but nonetheless behaving badly.

Since I work in a deadline-oriented field where prompt responses are expected, by necessity I’ve set up my computer to notify me whenever a new email arrives that I need to know about. These alerts go beyond incoming business email from customers, and also include that from personal friends, billing notices, etc.

(I should note that these alerts only apply to a fraction of the email I receive, much of which consists of other types of email, such as recurring newsletters, notifications of website security scans and successful online backups of computer data, or discussion-forum emails. For these, I’ve set up rules to automatically filter or archive them sight unseen into separate mailboxes for later scanning or reference, should that become necessary.)

Over time, the number of unsolicited emails had become an ongoing burden that I increasingly came to resent, because of the Chinese-water-torture-like drip, drip, drip of unwanted interruptions that, cumulatively, were stealing my time — and therefore life — away from me on the installment plan.

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Are you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 1

A tale wherein our intrepid protagonist, who in the past has eagerly tried all manner of high technologies, becomes grumpy at the failure of newer entrants in the lineup to live up to expectations. With examples of his sacrilege in returning to lesser methods of doing things, and pontifications regarding the follies of the tool-using species known as homo sapiens.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

I am someone who has always enjoyed new technology. Most of my life, I’ve typically been among the first of my friends and family to try out what’s new on the horizon when it comes to higher-tech offerings. Or at least those that are affordable to people like myself of modest means.

This inclination is actually more than just a technological leaning, and extends to other new things as well: I became a distance runner in the early 1970s, at age 14, when we skinny dudes (and it was in fact mostly guys) running along the side of the road were thought to be odd and sometimes harassed because of it. At age 16, I became a vegetarian when it was considered countercultural and effete (but which I abandoned 18 years later after it began taking a serious toll on my health, despite my best efforts). Following in succession after that were also yoga and meditation.

Later, I became aware of and got involved with the internet in the late 1980s before most people had heard of it. At this time, email and email list forums (plus a few walled-garden forums like America Online, The WELL, ECHO, and CompuServe) were “the only game in town” on the internet for the most part. The Worldwide Web had yet to be invented, which meant no blogs, e-commerce, news sites, or social media. So with the internet still something of a desert in those days except for a few such oases here and there, I was then moved to explore the alternative realm of underground zines and M2Ms (many-to-manys) — the paper-based forerunners of today’s online blogs and message boards, respectively— before moving back to the internet once it began taking off for good in the mid-1990s.

None of this was because of any desire to be “up” on what was in vogue (all of the above pursuits were very much regarded as fringe at the time), but just because I’ve always been one to periodically cast about for interesting or challenging horizons to explore.

For example, I’ve also been keen on the latest research findings in science my whole life — something which most of the American public is anything but interested in, to judge by our students’ abysmal science scores and general avoidance of elective science classes in school compared to those in other countries. (Except, of course, when it comes to the fruits of science in the form of catchy, often frivolous new consumer gadgets, which the United States is the undisputed heavyweight champion of.)

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Invasion of the hobby joggers, Part 2

On the comeback trail in my late fifties after over two decades of running primarily for fitness, I discovered that the phenomenon of “hobby joggers” had significantly changed the road-racing scene. It was good that more people had found running, but couldn’t they have done so without crashing the party?
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

When bigger is a bummer

Last fall, I was scratching my head after years away from competition, trying to find a road-running race where I would have decent room to run without literally getting tripped up. Sometimes race-event publicity and sign-up websites would proudly report the size of the event and how many participants finished the previous year’s race. Presumably they felt that this demonstration their race was a cool, super-duper “happening thing” would be a draw.

Most, however, did not mention the number, likely because they just didn’t think to do so, of course. I also wondered, though, if perhaps a few of the race directors or sponsors of these races might not want to broadcast how large their events had become for fear of appearing they had simply become too big, unwieldy, and crowded.

Because with too many entrants in a road race, logistics suffer unless the event is very well-managed: Insufficient, inconvenient, or distant parking. Delays picking up one’s registration packet and race number before the start. Lines at the toilets due to a lack of Port-A-Johns (and perhaps having to go find a tree quite some way off to pee behind). Faster runners getting stuck behind self-important but slower runners who have crowded their way to the front of the starting line where they don’t belong. And so forth.

Here’s the ironic thing. The races that come with the most troubles are exactly the ones that cost the most and are loaded down with the most crap: The useless participation medals just for finishing. The doughy, white-bread crowds pulled in by such trinkets. The unneeded water stations in short races like 5Ks. The gaudy carnival atmosphere with local radio personalities or other clowns polluting the soundscape with jangling, overamplified noise and pushing other foofaraw on everyone.

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Invasion of the hobby joggers, Part 1

This past fall I got my feet wet running a few local road races again after many years away. In the process, I had to deal for the first time with the incursion of so-called hobby joggers that has affected the road-racing scene nationwide since the time I last competed. Here is my report.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

It is one of my first 5K races in almost 25 years, and I am now not much more than a quarter of a mile past the one-mile mark on a beautiful course that runs along the largest river in our state. It is an absolutely perfect fall morning for a race: 57 degrees, crisp air, a cheerful sun, and little to no wind or humidity. Cool enough to not overheat, but not so cool that my muscles might tighten up competing in the brief split-side shorts and T-shirt I am wearing.

At 59 years old, I am still feeling my way back from the long absence from racing. This current race effort is purposely more intense than my first couple of testing-the-waters forays the previous month, and I am beginning to feel and remember what a real competitive attempt is like again.

Flirting with the limit of my current fitness, I am pushing hard but consciously holding back a bit to avoid going over the edge so I don’t crash and burn. And also because I’m still not quite sure where that edge really is, or exactly what it feels like — or used to feel like — after such a long time away.

I don’t want to risk running on the “red line” just yet. I’m getting closer to that day, but it can wait till next spring. After the two earlier fall races run well shy of my capability, this one is a time trial to wrap things up for the season and assess my true fitness level so I can determine a few key paces to target in training this winter. So while I’m enjoying grappling with the challenge, I don’t want to spoil things by potentially overreaching and nosing over into a painfully drawn-out tailspin for the latter half of the race.

A first encounter with the species

Not far ahead of me is a younger, tallish, somewhat overweight (at least for a runner), probably early-thirty-something man who is laboring heavily. It is a level of fatigue he should not be experiencing until the very last half-mile of the race, had he been pacing himself properly. He appeared in my sights a couple of hundred yards back, and I have slowly been closing in on him. But now, crossing over a bridge spanning the river on the route, with every stride the gap is visibly diminishing.

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WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 4

Okay, troops. The final installment in the series here requires only that you slog through another 4,000 words from the master of verbosity, so buck up. Considering you’ve plowed through almost 12,000 words already (at least if you didn’t skip anything, you dirty rats), this is gonna be a cakewalk.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Examples of plug-ins to remedy core WordPress deficiencies

Below are some plug-ins I’ve been pushed into using simply because something silly is either missing from core WordPress functionality, or is seriously deficient. Things that you would think would be — and should be — built in as standard, but where the developers are just being obstinate or clueless (pardon my presumptuousness). When it comes to the needs of the average user, code geeks truly are a different species often living with their heads up… er, in the clouds ;-).

  • 404page. Wouldn’t you think that the typically clunky, stock 404 (“Page Not Found”) error page would be easily user-modifiable to your own liking? I, for one, thought that. I’ll bet you think that too. Silly you and silly me for thinking something so obvious should be so easy. It ain’t. I kid you not, the WordPress developers apparently think you are just going to jump up and down with glee knowing you’ll need to larn yerself some of that thar PHP coding and go in like a surgeon to modify or code your own 404.php page to get the job done. And that you’re a chump if you can’t or won’t — so there.
  • The 404page plug-in makes it as easy as falling off a log. Just like it should be in the first place. Create your own 404 page the way you would any other WordPress page, use this plug-in to point to it so it’s substituted for the default version of the page, and you’re done. Slam dunk.
  • Broken Link Checker. If like me, you’ve ever used an application like Dreamweaver to create websites, you probably think broken-link checking is an obvious, standard feature that would be available with any capable web publishing software. Wrong-o. Sorry, the core WordPress developers don’t think like you and me.
  • Evidently you’re supposed to be so accurate that you never cut and paste a link erroneously, and links never go bad. Or maybe they think you enjoy blowing an entire weekend from time to time doing nothing but clicking on the links throughout your site to see if they still work or not. Because, well, because gosh, it’s just so cool that you can, like, click on a link on a web page and it might take you to potentially anywhere else in the cyberverse. I mean, wow, just WOW, think of the possibilities!

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WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 3

What? Didn’t get enough punishment from the first two parts in the series? Good. Let’s continue on, fellow masochists.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Plug-in proliferation

So, you’ve decided on an off-the-shelf WordPress theme of some sort or are going to roll your own. But you need extra functionality. What about plug-ins? First, here’s a contradiction you run into all the time. Everybody says to use plug-ins for extra functionality so you avoid theme-vendor lock-in. But at the same time, everybody also says don’t use plug-ins if you don’t have to. Why are people talking out of the other side of their mouth here? Three reasons:

  • Plug-ins are security risks. Many plug-ins are poorly coded, and most WordPress sites that get hacked are compromised by exploiting plug-in vulnerabilities.
  • Too many plug-ins can slow down your site.
  • Plug-ins can conflict with each other. (See above: many are poorly coded.) The more plug-ins you’re running, the more potential for conflicts. Even with plug-ins that are well-coded, conflicts might still occur on occasion.

Obviously, you can’t both use and not use plug-ins at the same time, right? What gives? Part of the problem is admittedly the poor quality of so many plug-ins. This is purely my own personal opinion, but based on the reviews I see on WordPress.org, along with my own experience trying out different plug-ins, just as a rough guess I would say at least 50% of the plug-ins out there shouldn’t be listed. At least. As a minimum. They either don’t work as advertised, performance may be slow, they may have poor user interfaces, aren’t kept up to date, aren’t well-supported, or, well, you get the picture.

Keep in mind this rule of thumb: The more something is democratized, the lower the bar is typically set, and the more crap will be let in the back door — heck, the front door. I’m not saying democracy is bad, but it comes at a cost, often a significant cost. The cost is all the rabble that’s enabled. WordPress is an open-source CMS platform, and the most popular, which means anyone can write a plug-in. Caveat emptor.

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WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 2

Continuing with round two of the complain-a-thon and avoiding-the-pitfalls advice for WordPress do-it-yourselfers.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The WordPress theme landscape: an unorganized polyglot of a mess

N
ow, what about the design of your site? Another initial hurdle to clear when you’re first beginning on the road to a self-hosted WordPress site is what it’s going to look like. It’s basically a three-fold choice:

  • Use one of the stock WordPress themes (Twenty Ten, Twenty Eleven, Twenty Twelve, etc.).
  • Go with either a free or premium theme from a third-party developer (i.e., Themeforest, Elegant Themes, or any one of a boatload of other developers).
  • Roll your own.

The stock WordPress themes: ah, ugh. I think the first observation to be made about themes for self-hosted sites is that the stock themes offered by the WordPress core developers mostly suck. It’s not just that the themes are minimalist, because minimalism can be good, but that they are minimalist in a clunky way that just isn’t visually very pleasing.

Perhaps one shouldn’t complain too much about this since the core WordPress developers are primarily coders, but this is a recurrent issue you typically see with any kind of open-source software: the user interface and particularly the graphic design of things are often a serious weak spot. Coders’ brains are just wired differently than most people’s, and specifically they are wired differently than people like graphic designers who are strongly visually oriented.

But if that weren’t enough, coders for some reason almost seem to operate under the hubris of “we don’t need no stinkin’ visual design,” which of course is just the opposite of the truth. More than any other group, coders should be seeking help with the visual design of things, and yet they seem to be the last to acknowledge the need. Or if they do acknowledge it, are painfully slow to actually do something about it.

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