The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
. . . still studying and learning how to live

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010
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The day of reckoning has finally come for this blog. Hopefully it will survive, and come back slightly the better for it. The bottom line is that I started writing this thing back in late 2002 using Blogger as my “engine” and a Yahoo Geocities account as my host. To get the updated blog files from Blogger to Geocities, I made use of Blogger’s FTP file transfer mechanism. This arrangement worked quite well for the past seven and a half years. But things change, and Blogger has decided to ditch the FTP service. They claim that almost all of their users chose to have their blogs “reside” on the Blogger server, subject to their formatting rules. There are only a few wack-o’s like me left who wanted to keep control of their blog’s formatting and content, by arranging for their own hosting once Blogger creates / updates the blog page for them.

So, despite some discontent out there in the “blog-o-sphere” about Blogger’s cold-hearted decision, Blogger is standing its ground (although they did give a one-month stay of execution, extending the deadline from March 31 to April 30). And why not, since Blogger owns the proverbial ground, lock stock and barrel. I mean, Blogger is a free service; those of us who took advantage of its offer to process our blogs and then send them to the server of our choice have no legal or moral standing to complain. In announcing the end of FTP, Blogger has graciously offered to transfer our blog files to its own free hosting service. I had thought about going along with that, but as noted, that would require some compromise with blog design (but relatively minor). My bigger concern is a haunting suspicion that this will put Blogger (owned by Google) in a better position to eventually demand payment for its services, or require ads on the free blog pages. There has to be some sort of long-run business plan encompassing this change.

Unfortunately, the available alternatives to Blogger are quite limited. There are some services like Blogger that process blog updates and comments, but they charge a monthly fee. And they don’t provide FTP transfer services; you still need to use their hosting. The most significant free alternative is WordPress. A lot of bloggers who used Blogger FTP seem to be jumping ship to the WordPress blogging system, which has become very popular over the past 5 years.

It turned out that my current Yahoo site hosting arrangement allows and even encourages the use of WordPress. It wouldn’t cost me any extra money, so I went on to my host manager and set up a WordPress account. I was a bit wet behind the ears as to just what WordPress was when I did this. I knew that more and more blogs these days are “powered by WordPress”. But I didn’t take the time to learn just what that involves. I assumed that I would continue to control my own blog files on my own hosting site (i.e., Yahoo), and that it wouldn’t be too hard to make up a WordPress blog that looked and worked just like my current blog does.

Well, as to the first assumption, the truth is “sort-of”. As to the second — well, no way.

In the past two weeks, since I decided to face up to Blogger’s ultimatum by finding a new home in the WordPress neighborhood, I’ve learned a lot. Much more than I wanted to learn! (Not the usual attitude of an “eternal student” like myself). It turns out that WordPress (the do-it-yourself version that would run on my Yahoo hosting account; WordPress also offers a free hosting arrangement like Blogger does) is quite a different animal than good old Blogger. It’s a rather complex “server-side” arrangement requiring a mySQL database and PHP web site processing software; luckily, Yahoo does provide those things (although many people complain that Yahoo’s versions of those utilities are out of date; still, they’re OK for my purposes). In sum, the digital web page file that is sent whenever someone on the Internet requests to view this site is not “pre-made”, like a pre-wrapped sandwich in a Seven Eleven (akin to the Blogger FTP arrangement). Now, whenever anyone views my site, the WordPress software on my Yahoo account uses the database and PHP software to make up a new page, sort of like ordering a custom-made sandwich in a deli.

Well, to be honest, that wouldn’t bother you or me, so long as I write my blog and you see it and then you write in your comments and they appear on my site. So long as it works! But here is the problem – the complex software mechanisms needed to make this all happen also make it much harder to design and change the format of a blog. Thankfully the mySQL in WordPress runs by itself, but the actual page format requires a pretty good feel for HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, PHP, and WordPress’ custom PHP functions. I got a creepy feeling as I started setting up the new WordPress version of my blog, when I saw that there wasn’t much you could do through the basic set-up controls to custom-design the look of a blog page. That feeling got even worse when I found out what “Wordpress themes” are.

On Blogger, so long as you had a basic familiarity with web page design, you could come up with your own page and insert the blog content pretty much where ever and how ever you wanted it. Blogger’s “page template” system was relatively simple; I took to it right away back in 2002. But now it’s 2010 and I haven’t kept up with PHP and CS Sheet code, and have forgotten a lot about basic HTML too. For people like me, WordPress offers a wide variety of pre-formatted page “themes” designed by other people and offered for free to WordPress users. You just select a few things like the basic color and what stuff you want to appear in your blog’s “sidebar” (via what they call “widgets”), and bingo, your blog is all set up!

BUT ONE PROBLEM. None of these “themes” looked like my old blog. Perhaps they look like what most blog readers expect today. But they just aren’t what I wanted. And the only way to get what I wanted was to get down into the nitty-gritty of learning some code and designing my own “theme” system. So I decided to slog ahead with that, ripping apart the code of a basic “theme” and proceeding by trial and error until I got something that “looked like home”.

So, I’ve been back in code-geek land over the past two weeks. This involved long sessions at the computer desk, and the hours fly by. I’ve looked up at the time some nights only to find that hours and hours have passed and it’s way past my bedtime (not easy anymore for an older guy like me) and my shoulder muscles are sore from the tension. Then I still get up early the next morning, with new ideas on how to fix the problems that weren’t settled the night before. It all became a strange mix of adrenaline and exhaustion. But finally, after much more effort than it was worth, my old blog re-emerged in WordPress.

I also tackled various technical glitches in bringing the old posts and comments from Blogger over into the new WordPress database (which involved a format conversion of the Blogger atom export file via a special free web service, and then manually splitting that file into twelve smaller files because WordPress can only “swallow” so much at a time). I am still working on the forwarding file for anyone who reaches my existing blog URL, i.e. for anyone who directly bookmarked my site (because the new site has a new URL, i.e However, anyone who gets to my site via the buttons or links that are on my (aka web site, or via the URL, will go directly to the new site once I make the changeover this weekend. (I will probably also set up a address also). In sum, everyon
e should find their way just fine to my new site after the change, and may not even notice the bump in the road. (But of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some glitches.)

Being an old guy, and a bit of an Aspie to boot, I don’t like big changes like this. Even though I have no ground to complain about Blogger and WordPress, I was still cursing them in my mind all week. Why must I go through all this pain and angst? What was wrong with the way it used to be? Why, oh why? Yes, some existential despair here. Over something relatively silly like an Internet blog that only a few people read, anyway.

But those few people who do take the time, now and then, to check in with my cyber-thoughts are important to me. And so, the “Ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life” will continue for now. The look and feel will be pretty much the same, and you can leave comments just as before (although the WordPress system wants you to enter an e-mail address each time you post a comment, as to deter spammers; but it’s not pre-verified, your comment will still appear instantly).

There are some design tweeks that I made in the conversion process. These include a prominent place for a blog title under the date, a “category” description to the right of that title (e.g., photos, personal reflections, politics, etc.), and a search box at bottom that allows you to pull up all of my blog posts with a certain word or phrase (e.g., “vegetarian” or “health care”). Oh, and I’m adopting the “read more” format, limiting each entry on the front page to two paragraphs, with a button that allows you to see the entire essay. I’ve seen this feature on a lot of sites today and I rather like it myself. It will allow new visitors (if there ever are any!) to review all ten blog entries more conveniently, get a quick taste of each, and let them decide which articles (if any) to read in detail. The photo postings won’t use this format; photos will remain in full on the main page.

Also, there are some possibilities for future improvements, e.g. a better “archives” page that lists not only past monthly summaries, but also collections of my entries by category, e.g. all photo entries. So maybe there’s a small “silver lining” from the change after all.

This weekend, hopefully, I will flip the switch and the new WordPress blog frame will replace my current Blogger format. I’ll then say goodbye to Blogger, with some residual hard feelings for canceling the FTP option and some residual angst about how WordPress unintentionally squeezes you into a mold, a mold that I managed to break only with much too much time and effort. This whole exercise proves once again that I march to a different drummer in life. One instance of this is that I reject the whole “sidebar” philosophy of blog design, i.e. that all the “fru-fru” information on the right or left column of a blog is just as important as the writing and photos in the center. Modern blog designers say that’s what people want today; I say, they should concentrate on the thoughts and feelings expressed in a blog, not on the calendars and lists of friends and awards and news headlines in the columns. Maybe that’s why they don’t read my blog.

Well, too bad. I blog for who I am. Making my own kind of music, even if nobody else sings along (as Mama Cass said).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:40 pm      

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