My Live Server is My Dev Server

By which I mean: if I have a dev server, I don’t know about it; or if I’m capable of creating a dev server, I don’t recall how to do it.

For the first time in a long time, I have some free time. (Hooray!) So when I’m not working on preparing my syllabi for this fall, I’m going to (try to) overhaul this Web site.

One step at a time. On my live server. Which is to say, on the page you’re reading now.

It might get ugly along the way; but I’m hoping that any ugliness will be temporary and toward the goal of the site being prettier, swankier, and more up-to-date.

Here goes.

Addendum: I failed to do as much as I’d hoped to do—I had the dream of making this site look as close to a mimeographed piece of paper as is possible using just HTML; e.g., I signed up for a free Typekit account, and tried to use their John Doe typeface as the font for most styles in my css. But WordPress, as it’s become less like blogging software and more like a CMS, has gotten, well, harder. I may try again to get fancy with this thing, but for now, I’m sticking with the simplicity of the plaintxtblog theme.

I’ve accomplished one big thing on my to-do list, though: I’ve added a bunch of new stories—or rather, older stories, published in print, now also published here in digital form.

For now—in the current theme—you can get to them all using the navigation in the left-most column.

Pulling Back a Curtain You Didn’t Know Was There; or, a Note on the Always-Increasing Difficulty of Finding Anything, Ever

A little over five years ago, in a post titled “Disconnected Archives,” I wrote this (just quoting the text here—not the links embedded in that text):

Earlier this past week […] I noticed that Michael Chabon‘s “about” page was gone, and his home page said something, if I remember right, about how he’s had difficulty typing lately; it made me wonder if, and hope that, he’d noticed Richard Powers’s piece in the NYTBR about speech-recognition software. But now, only a few days later, that note is gone as well, replaced with an image of the Indian Head test card. I’m not sure what all this means; but I suppose that, in the future, whenever I read something on the web that I know I’m going to want to read again sometime, I’ll make sure to print it.

A side note: someone smarter than me, somewhere out there, has probably said something very smart about what blogging—or what we used to mean when we called something “blogging”—has become now, as F——b—— and Tw—— have taken over. (Like the brilliant Paul Ford, I, too, can’t bear to write those words again.)

Actually, now that I think about it, and dig through my jury-rigged archives, here are two smart things that two smart people have written about what blogging has become: Bill Wasik’s “Twitter and the Big Blog Dream,” and Nicholas Carr’s “Blogging: a great pastime for the elderly.” As you can see, I got to the latter from the former; and I probably got to the former after reading And Then There’s This. And I probably got to Bill’s book having known him when we were both interns at Harper’s thirteen years ago—at which point I was already a fan of his work, having lived in Somerville when Bill edited The Weekly Week: Boston’s Only Redundant News Source for News.)

But here’s what I want to tell you about Michael Chabon: somehow, about a year ago—I can’t remember how—I got past the scrim of the current iteration of michaelchabon.com. I found the corner of the curtain and tugged. And I found Chabon’s last blog post again, the one where he says that he’d been having difficulty typing. And following my own advice, I printed it out. (Or rather, printed it out as a PDF, which I saved to my computer. Perhaps this is something that only old people do as well? Perhaps the young are too busy doing something with each other that I have not even heard about yet. I’m still eagerly waiting to hear that teenagers are running away from the suburbs in droves, moving to the pampas, abandoning their digital devices, buying old Victrolas, and starting collectivist chinchilla farms. I guess the unemployed recent college grads are moving to Detroit and selling artisanal handmade watch fobs on the Internet, which is good, and a pretty close approximation.)

I’ll link to the post itself, titled “Signing off“; but I’ll also quote the part that seemed so sad, and still does:

Lately I have been suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury that makes typing a chore and clicking an agony. As I have been spending less time online I have found that I’ve lost interest in the web as a whole, and in my site in particular. I’m tired of having to maintain www.michaelchabon.com, but I hate that it gets stale, and so quickly. Yet I don’t feel comfortable with or have any interest in getting somebody else to do it for me. So I’ve decided, not without regret, to take it down, a little at a time, starting with the posting of my monthly Details column.

What was the other thing I discovered in the last five years? Oh yes! The Broken Link Checker plugin for WordPress. So there goes that problem. Once I find the time to install the plugin.

Books—physical books (or is this a sign of my age as well?)—keep looking better and better.

Now I Know How Maud Newton Felt

I read Maud’s blog post from last fall about her site being compromised again; I understood her sound advice: “[I]f you maintain a website and are running an old version of WordPress, update now, even if the switchover borks your stylesheet”; I linked to Lorelle VanFossen’s post about blogs running on old versions of WordPress being under attack; I linked from that post to the WordPress News post about how to keep your blog secure (“Upgrading is taking your vitamins; fixing a hack is open heart surgery”)—and I did nothing.

Then this week I discovered that some kind of wormy thing had invaded this site, and was doing a poor job of turning every page into a redirect to some sort of creepy site that downloads and installs malware on your computer. So I upgraded to 3.0, I read the WordPress FAQ on what to do after a site hack, and I reuploaded and overwrote all my plugins and themes—all of which were good ideas, but none of which got rid of the hack. So I contacted Media Temple. And then I was very glad, yet again, to have them as my hosting company, as they put together excellent instructions for how to log in to phpMyAdmin and strip out the hack–which I followed, and which worked. (The number of rows affected by the malware in my blog’s database was just shy of 300.)

Then I changed all my passwords. Then I was relieved, yet again, that I don’t allow comments here, even if that’s not very Web 2.0 of me. Then I was tangentially glad, yet again, that we do a pretty good job of keeping backups of all our digital files (Time Machine, Time Capsule, waterproof and fireproof safe), because although dropping a laptop on a linoleum floor is very different from a wormy thing infecting your blog, they can both wreck a lot of hard work, and Virginia Heffernan’s description of her experience of the former still haunts me.

I Miss My Letterpress; or, I Miss My Cuneiform Tablet, Part Two

I’m at the warehouse party now. I’ve been here for almost a year. I followed Elizabeth’s advice (as I wrote about last April); I went ahead and started touching the photos on the walls, making them come alive.

In some ways I like it, but in other ways I don’t like it at all. People have such completely different approaches to how they exist at the party. It’s not like any kind of party in real life. Or rather, if it were a party in real life—or at least, if the one tiny corner of the warehouse where I am were like real life—it would be this. It would be a party where there are overlapping, intermingling small groups of people having conversations with each other. In each of those groups, there are often one or two people who have a greater ability than others to say witty things, or to make clever replies to things other people say. Other folks in these groups cluster around the witty and clever individuals, waiting for them to say something funny. (Call it the Oscar Wilde effect, maybe? Six Degrees of Dotty Parker? Algonquinization? Sociologists surely have a name for this already.)

To me, this feels like the positive, relatively normal, socially adjusted way to do things here. But there are many folks who exist in this strange new space rather differently. Some people at the warehouse are just standing around; you touch their photos, they come alive, but then they just linger there like wallflowers, regardless of how they behave in real life. Granted, they might be communicating by telepathy with other people (torturously expanding the bounds of this metaphor still further, this is a party at which it is possible to be telepathic), or maybe they’re handing notes to each other, but they’re not participating in any of these small conversation clusters. (This is arguably a reasonable way to behave at the warehouse. It’s free to get in, but the price of getting in, as I wrote before, is that the corporation throwing the party is recording every single word everyone says, parsing those words, and selling the results of the parsing to other corporations, who in turn stand around the periphery of all the conversations at the party, asking the participants to buy things. “I see you’re a middle-aged woman!” they yell through their bullhorns. “Can I interest you in some facial-cream samples?” It’s pretty weird, really; it’s entirely reasonable to be quiet in this context.)

Other people, though, are mostly quiet, but will on the very rare occasion chime in. “I’m at the beach!” one will say, after being completely silent for half a year. Another will whisper part of a poem once a month. An older man sitting in an easy chair nearby looks up twice a week and recommends the op-ed pages of The New York Times. “Read Maureen Dowd today!” he says. “She’s right on the money.”

Again, this is all just the small corner of the room where I happen to be. Most of the warehouse is populated with young people getting drunk, sniffing glue, and screwing and insulting each other, photographing one another all the while as they do these things, then immediately showing each other the photographs. The corporations, like vultures, hover around their region of the warehouse in the greatest concentration, and with the greatest appetite.

Among the middle-aged writers and editors and attorneys and filmmakers and moms and dads, where I am, there are fewer vultures.

Then there is still another way in which some people I know are both at the warehouse party and not. Their attentions are elsewhere, at a simultaneous, competing party, a telephone party. (That party is run by a different corporation; the telephone corporation and the warehouse corporation are openly at war with each other.) These partygoers are in the warehouse, but they tend not to participate in any of these small conversation clusters; instead, they stand nearby, having phone conversations on a hundred different phones at once. You can hear everything they say, but if you don’t have a telephone yourself, you can only hear half the conversation; you have to guess at the rest.

What they say into their telephones frequently begins and ends with code names, terms of art, and telephone-party argot. “Ahoy ahoy, Fatty Arbuckle: I know, exactly! Yankee Pot Roast,” one will say into his first phone, then quickly turn to his second phone, saying “Ahoy ahoy God Pants, ahoy ahoy Seriously Cut Deltoids, ahoy ahoy Ladies Who Knit Sweaters for Dogs and Cats: Tomorrow night, but the venue’s changed, Cone of Silence, Denver Broncos,” then grab a third phone and say “Link Ray Film Fanatic: This morning, but the deal isn’t solid yet, you should check out what he said yesterday. Gustave Doré Engravings, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Schrödinger’s Cat.”

I have had at least four bad dreams in the past week in which I was forced to participate in the telephone party.

All of this might sound like Luddism, but it’s not; what I’m trying to get at is more that I’m frustrated at the inelegant ways in which all these new modes of connecting sometimes come crashing into each other, wary of the intentions of the corporations involved, and skeptical of anyone from any camp who claims to have wrapped his or her head fully around the zeitgeist. But I’m still wildly optimistic about where this is all going. The secret, as with nearly everything, has to do with finding balance, I think; and the balance, I think, has something to do with the very different pleasures of the ethereal on the one hand and the the thingness of things on the other—making things that won’t last a day, while at the same time, making things that have some reasonable shot of lasting a hundred years or more.

As an old friend who’s at more parties than I’m able to count might put it, in a way, it has probably always been thus, ever since Lascaux.

Ten Years Old

Ten years ago today, I registered the domain name tomhop.com for the first time. This Web site remains as infrequently visited now as it has been since before Al Gore was chosen as President by a majority of the American electorate.

I’ve been renewing the domain once a year ever since; I’ve never renewed for more than a year, because in a way, I’m always astounded that the Web as we know it, as we experience it, continues to exist. It’s already a difficult-for-a-layperson-to-fully-grasp quadrillion-tentacled octopus. But I keep expecting it to be, say, colonized by zombie-clouds run by the Swedish mob, or poached by a consortium of Romanian aspirin-by-mail dealers, or purchased outright by a shadow holding company of cryogenically frozen pharmaceutical-industry billionaire gangster-tycoons.

In the past week, I’ve been digging through a few years of infrequent posts—I can’t imagine what it’s like to dig through old posts when you write a blog more frequently than once or twice a month—and one thing I’ve been reminded of is that links become dead rather quickly. Over the years, they also go dead rather thoroughly. Also—and this is not unrelated—the written posts with what feels like the longest shelf life are the ones that are meant to stand alone. Not writing meant to point elsewhere, or comment on something that someone else wrote, published somewhere else—just short things, nothing but what they are, sent out into the void.

Whatever the lesson is there, it applies to everything, I think.

I Miss My Cuneiform Tablet

At first, eight or nine years ago maybe, it felt like there was this great new thing: a new, digital public square where anyone could set up a soapbox, climb up on it, and start talking. A virtual Speakers’ Corner. At the start, the very earliest speakers seemed sometimes to limit their monologues almost exclusively to a discussion of their new circumstances: Hey, look, we’re all standing on soapboxes! Isn’t this awesome! Is this solipsistic? Here’s how I built my soapbox! Am I a paper millionaire? Here’s how you can build yours!

At that point there were just a few thousand soapboxes. Then there were suddenly a million soapboxes, and it seemed like all the speakers were teenagers; then there was a backlash and multiple iterations of the “soapboxes are ruining everything” article; then there were tens of millions of soapboxes, and they had all broken off into specializations, hobbies, and interest groups. (This, I think, was the moment where it felt like there were interesting conversations going on—and at least one conversation that I felt like these pages, in a very marginal way, participated in.)

Then it felt like Speakers’ Corner became professionalized, or corporatized; or overwhelmed by Astroturf-Bob-Roberts-populist, right-wing I-told-you-so/I-confirm-your-worst-prejudices bluster; or the areas that I cared about—the speakers I listened to—either shut down completely, or became more circumspect, or quieted somewhat. The conversation died down a bit.

And around that time, I heard descriptions of what sounded like an enormous party in a warehouse. At first only a few people I knew were there. Then everyone I knew said that they were there. The trouble was, to get into the warehouse party, you had to have a key. So I got a key. And I went into the warehouse. But it didn’t look like a party at all—it looked like a giant empty airplane hangar with millions of tiny little photos lining the walls. I thought: What the hell is all the fuss about? I left. Friends kept asking: Are you at the warehouse party? (And related articles kept popping up on the NYT most-popular lists: Is the warehouse party too big? Is it full of old people? Is it meant for young people? Is it weird to see your parents there? Your kids? Is it creepy that the whole thing is free because everything you say there is being recorded?) I kept replying: I’ve been to the warehouse; what’s the big deal?

Then last weekend at Sweet Sue’s our friend Elizabeth said (to torture this metaphor still further) that yes, the warehouse is empty at first, but you have to touch the photographs on the wall in order for them to come alive.

I think that I am sometimes, but definitely not always, an early adopter of technology. But what I’m interested in is this: researching the technology to death, until I know that it’s actually something I need; and then adopting it; and then using it for years until it’s utterly obsolete, and has been replaced many times over by new technologies, and completely falls apart in my hands. (Case in point: the chipped, cracked, and whiny Titanium Powerbook G4 (the Onyx—667 MHz, 30 GB) that I bought in November 2001, that I’m typing this on now.)

This strategy makes you eventually look like a Luddite, naturally.

But you save money.

Anyway. The four of you who read this page know this already, since I touched your photographs on the wall of the warehouse: years after everyone else got there, I am now at the party.

The Web Is a Print Medium

Oh, man. This is awesome. Do a print preview of this page. (If you’re looking at this either on the home page or on the page for the post itself, that is—search and archive pages won’t do it.) Check it out!

I’ve been wanting to have this site set up so that links print out as footnotes ever since I saw this function for the first time at Wet Asphalt. Those guys have a separate printer-friendly version for each post, though, which appears to involve skills (nodes? Drupal?) that are out of my depth. But after searching around a little bit I found Aaron Gustafson’s article “Improving Links for Print” on the ever-useful A List Apart, which explains the problem, and the brilliant solution, and has links to the files on Gustafson’s site where you can download everything you need to set this up yourself (this is the main thing, but you’ll also need this). It took me a while, but I finally got it to work.

Putting aside, for the moment, the environmental impact of printing Web pages (which seems like it’s surely a more complicated matter than it would appear to be at first glance, in the larger context of things like paper recycling, personal computers ending up in landfills, the energy needs of the computers on which the Web itself lives, serial sending-long-memos-to-the-office-printer-then-forgetting-about-them-ists, Bush, etc.): Isn’t this cool?

And potentially incredibly useful—like, say you print out an interesting article, and it has a link to something that’s related to the article and is also interesting, but you don’t print that out, and the link is written with extremely vague language—e.g., “this”—but then the original article comes down, or moves, or the site on which it was originally published dies, but you still have that original printout, and you want to find what “this” is, or was, but you can’t?

I mean, why don’t all Web sites have this?

Newness

I migrated this site from my old hosting company to Media Temple; I installed WordPress, and imported all my old Movable Type posts into it; most everything appears to have survived the transition, except that dozens of links are now broken, but I’ll fix them later; I’ve picked the plain-vanilla default template, and tweaked it slightly, and I’m not messing with it anymore for now; I’ve installed one plugin, and that’s probably that for the time being as well; my e-mail was only completely broken for a day and a half, which isn’t so bad, especially on a long weekend, so with any luck I didn’t miss anything too important.

Cool!

Done!

And on to more important things!

Strategies for Reclaiming Time Not Yet Lost

This is tempting (in that knocking-down-a-house-of-cards-you-built way):

I made some decisions for my own Internet usage when I got back online. The first thing I did was replace my blog with an advertisement for my books. Why did I think I needed a blog?

—Stephen Elliott, “Surviving a Month Without Internet,” Poets & Writers, May/June 2007

Ayelet Waldman noted when she bailed, in February of 2005, on her Bad Mother blog: “The only problem with blogging is that it is all-consuming.” The verb used in this context means, I think, the daily practice of it, or frequent practice of it; but the fact of having a CMS installed, even if you don’t use it much, and say upfront that you won’t be using it much, can still be a constant fish-or-cut-bait poke in the conscience.

(Elliott’s solution of tearing the whole thing down is, in a way, more elegant, or at least less depressing, than abandoning a blogspot site, like so much carrion, to the comment-section assaults of the bot vultures.)

But time! How quickly it fills up! There’s the Colson Whitehead model, of course. And what I’ve done recently has been to follow this advice:

What I did, instead, was simply to stop reading blogs.

This is the third and present phase of my relationship. I didn’t realize how much time I spent on blogs until I stopped reading them. Now there’s more time to read and write and think and live.

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Shall I Live, Or Shall I Blog-Blah-Blah?,” Hartford Courant, April 1, 2007

What a time saver!

As Shanna wrote a few weeks ago: “Drawing lines through things is almost more satisfying than actually completing them.”

Imagine drawing lines through things before the things are even there!

A beautiful thing!

Disconnected Archives

Last Friday, January 12, Ron Hogan wrote a really nice post on GalleyCat about Emily’s and my reading that night. Ron’s mention drove more traffic to this Web site than any other link ever has in a single day, which put me in a somewhat frantic (Unexpected guests are coming over! Quick! Better clean the house!) frame of mind. So for the past ten days or so, whenever I’ve had a spare moment, I’ve been trying to tidy up this Web site. I’ve been checking to make sure I’ve used the same editorial standards across all two hundred or so pages—e.g., my use of italics and bolding, quotation marks and block quotes, parentheses and brackets, ellipses and em dashes, etc. In other words, I’ve been applying—or trying, slowly, to apply (I’m certainly not done yet)—a jury-rigged house style, retroactively.

I’ve also been deleting posts, recategorizing posts, and making occasional copy edits. I’m pretty sure that according to some theories of blogging, or schools of blog thought, this is not okay (i.e., a blog should be a static record), but to my mind, it’s kosher; I think you can lightly clean up copy you wrote a year and a half ago on your own Web site and still be maintaining a public journal in an ethical manner (or to put it another way, I think a personal site ought to adhere to certain standards, but that those standards are somewhat less rigorous than the ones that apply to journalism).

The most miserable task I’ve self-punishingly chosen to take on in this whole project, though, is checking for dead links. Anyone with a web browser and a set of bookmarks will be familiar with this experience, but really, it’s amazing how quickly pages get moved, or torn down completely; how often Web sites get redesigned, or site architectures or file hierarchies get totally revamped; how suddenly entire Web sites stop getting updated, or go blank; how many domain registrations lapse completely. (Speaking of editorial standards, I ordinarily try to follow Strunk and White’s advice about the passive voice, but it feels appropriate here; there’s a kind of anonymity to dead links, like something has mysteriously happened to these pages. The designer, writer, owner—the one responsible for a link’s deadness—seems, somehow, invisible.)

Earlier this past week, for example, I noticed that Michael Chabon‘s “about” page was gone, and his home page said something, if I remember right, about how he’s had difficulty typing lately; it made me wonder if, and hope that, he’d noticed Richard Powers’s piece in the NYTBR about speech-recognition software. But now, only a few days later, that note is gone as well, replaced with an image of the Indian Head test card. I’m not sure what all this means; but I suppose that, in the future, whenever I read something on the web that I know I’m going to want to read again sometime, I’ll make sure to print it.

Pictures from our reading are viewable—as of this writing—here.