Ward Nicholson

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Self-made programs at a funeral, and a drink on the road (dream 3)

I am attending a funeral in a town a couple hours’ drive from where I live. Earlier this year, in real life, my sister and her husband and I had made the drive together to attend a funeral in this same town for an aunt of mine who had lived a long life.

But in this dream, my aunt is still alive. She and my sister and I are attending the funeral of another woman, someone I don’t know. It is a bright spring morning.

We are walking on a cemetery sidewalk in a line with the other people paying their respects, toward the graveside ceremony. There had apparently not been the usual memorial service in a church or chapel beforehand. A typical small, foldover program for the occasion has been handed out to everyone attending.

Glancing over the four pages of the program, I notice that the information about the deceased is very sparse to the point of being almost nonexistent. My aunt explains as we’re walking along that each person is to draw and compose their own program for themselves.

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The Earth at my feet: why I ran back when — why I run now

Sometimes, after the spiral has turned many years later, you discover the things that motivated you in the beginning are still what motivate you in the end, after other things have fallen away.

The first day I decided to become a distance runner, when I was 14 years old, I went out and ran four miles around the local lake just outside my small hometown. This was without any prior training, to speak of. It was not an easy effort, but not terribly difficult either — somewhat challenging, but it came naturally.

I had no special experience related to running other than a very active childhood playing outside just about every day exploring the neighborhood, taking part in little league sports, and running short sprint races against friends in local grade school and middle school competitions, or during playground recesses from time to time.

When it came to running specifically, as with these short races, I did nothing much longer than sprinting probably 75 to 100 yards, or playing games like “tag” where one might be continually moving for some time but running or sprinting only for intermittent short bursts. As far as track and field went, I had been more into long-jumping and pole-vaulting in the preceding years during middle school. Golf was also a pursuit, affordable to a wide swath of the middle and lower-middle classes in those days, and all of us except some of the adults walked and carried our own clubs around the course, rather than riding in carts.

Prior to the day mentioned above, I had gotten my feet wet a few times in the preceding weeks, running solo time trials of perhaps a mile and a half around the local neighborhood streets, but no more than that, just to see what I could do.

The second day, I ran four miles around the lake again. And each day after that I continued to run four miles or so, trying out different routes for variety. But immediately I was running almost 30 miles a week.

Starting out with distance running like this did not seem that unusual to me. I had always had more endurance than the other kids, whatever the game we were playing. Others always wanted to quit before I did. I did not have a high energy level, but the ability to endure had seemingly always been there.

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Emerging online after 15 years of radio silence, Part 3

Why would one stay away from public participation on the internet for so long, after having been so active before that? Why begin writing again online now? The time had come.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

An inner imperative for absence

Introversion and peaceful time away

With the internet having increasingly become a roiling and turbid fishbowl, what a lot of the preceding reasons for opting out covered in Part 2 really boil down to is my personality type as a serious introvert. Once I went to the sidelines, it didn’t take long to begin luxuriating in being out of the spotlight.

The internet is a curious double-edged sword if you’re an introvert. On the one hand, with a website or blog you can write and post from the sanctuary of your own home, while still interacting with people from a distance. On the face of it, this is less demanding and stressful than doing so in person. While I do okay in my personal life dealing with people one-on-one whom I don’t know, still, as an introvert, it is always going to be somewhat stressful unless it takes place in an intimate atmosphere with close friends you implicitly trust.

However… with conversations in person, at least people you don’t know tend to demonstrate basic politeness. The internet, on the other hand, seems to invite people to sound off with unbridled opinions and untempered emotions. This inevitably leads to conflict and people just itching to shoot down another person’s statements.

Getting out of practice with conflict. Conflict is something most introverts do not like. With email forums and then the Beyond Veg website, over time I learned to develop a thick skin and not take things too personally. But doing so isn’t a once-and-done thing if you’re an introvert — it doesn’t come naturally, at least not in my case. It’s something that’s an ongoing discipline or practice, as is simply being in the public eye more, and knowing how to handle yourself.

If you’re not keeping a “skill” sharp, you get rusty at it. As I got out of practice being on the sidelines for months and then years, the inertia of staying there took on a momentum of its own. Now that I am “putting myself back out there” online again, I’m attempting to do so in a more quiet, personal way. This is not to say that I am always one to avoid conflict. Push me far enough, and if the arena is something I am knowledgable about, I will respond with as much ammunition as called for. Respectfully so, in most cases, but with no holds barred intellectually.

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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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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.”

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Neanderthal America: the grocery store

Every now and then you just feel like letting loose with a real rant. Here’s one on how a typical shopping trip to the grocery store has become a microcosm of everything our country now seems to stand for.

When I first began writing this post, its working title for some time was “Introvert Hell: The Grocery Store.” That’s because I am by nature an introvert and find most grocery stores here in the U.S. to be loud and oppressive places, with their dense press of humanity, blaring public address systems, and omnipresent, rumbling refrigeration compressors creating a constant din wherever one goes inside. (To name a few items as a start.) And since research suggests one-third to one-half of the population are introverts — despite the widespread disregard for us in this country’s implicit promotion of the “extrovert ideal” everywhere — there would be no shortage of potential readers.

But as I took down notes it became apparent there was more to my dislike of grocery shopping than simple introversion. Grocery stores today, like many other things in this country, are a microcosm of the larger society. They reflect much about our guiding value system and collective behavior.

So to enlarge the scope of the post title to cover everything on the agenda here, I thought a better-fitting phrase for the range of things at issue would be the more provocative “Neanderthal America.” Which to me is largely what the U.S. has devolved to in recent decades, as the country has passed its former heights as the leading nation others once looked up to, but now is past its prime, like an aging prizefighter, still full of chest-beating bluster, but lacking discipline, vigor, and not least, intelligence.

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The personal impact of industrial decline, here and now

The classic features of the decline and fall of civilizations in historical times have been well documented. So have the economic and other macro-level problems besetting our own society in recent decades that strongly suggest it, too, has now started down its own inexorable path of decline. What have not been so well described, though, are the more intangible but equally real aspects of modern civilization’s decline that we experience in our everyday personal lives.
Since this post is lengthy… If your time is limited, you can jump straight to the concluding side-by-side comparison chart summarizing the numerous ways our personal lives today differ from the USA’s pre-decline years.

A lot has been written in certain corners of the blogosphere about the macro aspects of the long decline of modern Western civilization ahead of us, like that of ancient Rome, currently in the initial stages of washing over our world. There are plenty of predictions about where it will take us, debates among fast-crash advocates vs. slow-crash, the forms it may or may not assume, and so on.

Of course, outside this circle, many if not most probably believe the current ills of our technological civilization are a temporary detour that will be righted once we get back on course — whatever that is thought to be. In conservative religious circles it is believed the proper moral course is all that is needed. In the business community, the right economic policies will be our savior. In the high-tech community, innovation. (Innovation in computers and iPhones continues! What, me worry?) For those of political bent, no matter what political party, it is a better vision and stronger leadership in government that will save the day.

Direct vs. indirect effects. However, while there are numerous statistics about the more or less stagnant economy, joblessness, the increasing number of families with children on food stamps, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor along with the hollowing out of the middle class, little has been written about how breakdown and decline are experienced by those of us seemingly buffered from the worst impacts — what most of us feel at the personal, individual level. And the decline does affect just about all of us, not only those who have been directly hit by one or another personal disaster.

Blind spots and self-blame. Certainly many people these days are affected acutely by job loss or income decline — or perhaps are managing to maintain their income by working longer and harder, only to see prices for essentials continue to rise, and these are serious impacts. I know a few people myself who have gone through or are going through such trials. To me, all of this is a given. But it has also become apparent to me how even the more commonplace, everyday aspects of our lives are affected by the decline going on around us. Yet these characteristic experiences we share tend to be “blind spots” in terms of failing to realize how strongly they point to the larger decline going on around us, or blaming ourselves for our responses, until one wakes up to the larger picture.

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Emerging online after 15 years of radio silence, Part 2

Just when the controversial Beyond Vegetarianism website I had created in the late 1990s was enjoying success — at least on my own terms — I “dropped out.” And this, just as the web itself was undergoing rapid expansion. Rather than branching out into something different or simply taking a temporary breather, I withdrew from public participation instead, for 15 years, as it was to turn out. Why? Here are the reasons.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

As mentioned in the conclusion to part one, at the time I decided to pull back from public participation on the internet around the year 2000, the Beyond Vegetarianism (a.k.a. Beyond Veg) website that I had created a few years before had more or less accomplished my original goals for it. Other sites with allied views were now joining in to add their voices to the mix, which provided more momentum in raising awareness of the paleo vs. vegan dietary issues we had helped spearhead. It was good to see this unfolding.

The initial reason why I opted out

Gradual onset of repetitive stress injury

While the influence the website was having in its corner of the internet was satisfying, I wasn’t thinking about that as a reason for moving on at the time I dropped offline. I hadn’t really stopped that long to assess where we were at in our trajectory. That came more in retrospect in helping to support my decision. At the time, I just wanted to find the solution to a case of repetitive stress injury (RSI) I had been dealing with for a while prior to Beyond Veg, but that had gradually become more and more serious.

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