Hermit Spirit blog conversion: interim report

Wardolfski turns over a new leaf with a reasonable-length post (say it ain’t so, Joe!), while his hermit self beavers away designing a new incarnation of the blog.

Things are going well with the website conversion, all things considered, with about five weeks of spare time now into it. I really enjoy the process of envisioning a new direction for any endeavor, whether something ongoing or a fresh start, especially the brainstorming side of things.

It’s a fragile endeavor, though, the ideas coming and going swiftly: for visuals, headlines, layouts. One must be on continual standby to note things down immediately, lest they disappear as evanescently as they flicker before the mind’s eye, trying to catch the proverbial lightning in a bottle. With pen and paper or a computing device at the ready, for a time prisoner of the muse or mistress. Pledged to do her bidding so as not to be cast out before you have obtained both satisfaction and release from your desire.

For me this stage tends to go by relatively quickly. Ideas typically come in a multitude of rapid staccato bursts — an experience of one “high” after another. While there can also be some cognitive dissonance as sometimes-contradictory ideas spew out like fireworks, it’s all part of the process.

As someone who enjoys learning new things and having my head turned upside down occasionally while simmering and percolating through to a new view, cognitive dissonance is to be welcomed because it means things are in flux. And flux, a boiling over of ideas, often chaotic, is a key aspect of the creative process. Eventually, as things evolve, the contradictions resolve themselves, and any ill-fitting pieces puzzled over begin falling into place. A direction progressively becomes clear, but as it does comes the challenge, the hard part: all the detail work required to implement the vision.

Read moreHermit Spirit blog conversion: interim report

Crossroads ahead: renaming blog to Hermit Spirit. Here’s what’s up.

The best kind of change might be one that surprises you.

Over the last few months, I felt changes looming that I could not quite put my finger on. At loose ends on a few different fronts, first I found myself casting about for something to write on the blog here, but nothing presented itself.

Then, after an almost chance event — reading a rather off-the-beaten-path article on a blog about spirituality and meditation, a foundation stone that had once been important to me but had gone mostly dormant for many years — I realized it was time, I wanted, needed, to refocus my approach to life. I felt moved to revive and take up something again from the past that had fallen away, and once again move forward with it.

It was an impulse I had pushed down amid the incessant demands to make ends meet in today’s ever-onrushing world. Not always voluntarily, but something I had felt was necessary and had gotten used to, and perhaps even thought was a sign of the no-nonsense pragmatism needed to get along in life. Only now that approach was no longer working for me, as it had for such a long time. Now the impulse was returning, and it had not taken that much of a tripwire to do it.

In the past I had done some sitting meditation practice from time to time, but now, juggling more responsibilities and activities than I would prefer despite my attempts to place limits (the story of modern life, right?), I decided to try combining meditation with my evening walks.

Though I had been running several mornings a week, by the time evening rolled around, my body was often in need of some additional physical exertion, if light, to relax from the rigors or stresses of the day. So, I would go out for a leisurely walk around the neighborhood alone to unwind. Otherwise I could not always sleep well.

And… not initially too hopeful at first, I found the new approach to meditation worked. It wasn’t long before I began feeling more in tune with myself spiritually again, and was able to then pick up the inquiry I had left off with years before.

Read moreCrossroads ahead: renaming blog to Hermit Spirit. Here’s what’s up.

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!

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

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.

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

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.

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

WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 1

Planning to create your own WordPress site and just rarin’ to have at it? Or already in hip deep and dealing with alligators lurking all around? Slow down there just a minute, podner. There are some things you should know that the “experts” may have forgotten to tell you. Consider these words from someone who doesn’t have their identity tied up in cheerleading for the platform, with a realistic view about what to watch out for.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Although I am not a WordPress guru, it seems to me for that very reason it would be worth offering my perspective on WordPress’s numerous “gotchas” and unseen hazards for first-timers. Because until recently I, too, was a first-time WordPress do-it-yourselfer — having put together my own site here in the nooks and crannies of spare time I was able to carve out over the last year and a half.

Although I had prior experience hand-coding a couple of previous (small) websites, combined with 30 years under my belt as a typographer and graphic designer, plus an all-around career background in various forms of publishing, there was still a significant learning curve of hard-won trial and error I was forced to go through with WordPress before arriving where I’d been aiming in the first place.

Such a vantage point has given me more of a skeptical eye toward the supposed straightforwardness of the process that I believe most WordPress “experts” may not really appreciate. If they ever truly had to go through it, they have long since passed this learning stage, and often seem to forget what it can be like for lesser mortals in the beginning before you have your bearings, but still need to make decisions about what to do.

Experts giving advice are often coders. Most do-it-yourselfers aren’t. Experts on WordPress tend to have significant blind spots, in my opinion, because of how “close” they are to the guts of how the platform works. Not only that, due to what is often a lack of background in design and editorial matters (WordPress gurus tend to be most comfortable with coding, site function, and site architecture considerations), they often overlook addressing important but unspoken questions everyday users have when it comes to wrestling with WordPress.

With a career rooted in design and editorial concerns, I have expectations for how good publishing tools should behave and what they should offer that may be somewhat different than what’s typically covered on the topic by the mainstream WordPress community of experts. After having built out my site here and finally getting it running on a more or less even keel by this point, I have been struck both by WordPress’s many positive aspects but also its numerous, often unremarked-on limitations, at least when initially used straight “out of the box.”

Read moreWordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 1

Achieving enhanced web typography, by a 30-year veteran

Enhanced typography is still difficult to achieve on the web — well over 20 years after the web’s inception, no less — and by now should be much easier, to my way of thinking. As a professional typographer for 30-plus years now, I thought it might be helpful for others to explore how I went about putting that aspect of things together here on “Think Outside the Box.”

This overview takes a look at the various typographic elements I’ve given special treatment on the Think Outside the Box blog and website, including a number of WordPress plug-ins that have been utilized. For those who are more intrepid, what’s covered in this post should hopefully be enough as a jumping-off point to help get started implementing these solutions as well. Although I had experience hand-coding a couple of previous websites (HTML and CSS, though not more advanced code like JavaScript or PHP), I myself could certainly have used an overview like this over a year ago when I began trying to get TOTB going in my spare time using WordPress.

Read moreAchieving enhanced web typography, by a 30-year veteran

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