WordPress or SquareSpace?

I've been contemplating a new blog project to keep myself busy and out of mischief. Instead of just pouring new stuff into this blog, which is more of a scrapbook than anything, I decided to start a separate, self-contained offshoot blog that would hold its contents. This caused me to learn a bit more about how to steer this site, such as how to add a subdomain. It also made me think about how I wanted to visually separate the Brownstudies personal blog from the new blog (also personal, but subject-specific and finite) (details to be announced when I'm good and ready).

And as I thought about how this blog looks, I had to confess I'd also gotten rather tired of the Barthelme theme I've been using since the blog started up in '06 or '07. It's been a great theme, and I chose a minimalist design specifically because I like the aesthetic and I wanted the focus to be on the words. From a tech standpoint, I wanted to fiddle as little as possible with the code driving this theme and so I've done little to tweak its looks or functionality. Getting too deep into the customizing and coding of these free themes can lead to WordPress updates not installing. Also, the Barthelme theme has not been updated for over two years so there is a question of how long this free lunch will last.

In looking at the landscape of WordPress themes, my god, are there lots of them out there. And truthfully, one could get lost playing around with the WP dashboard where the look and behavior of the blog is configured. Add to this, in addition to the yearly cost of my site and domain name, I'd have to buy a framework and child theme if I wanted to be assured of a stronger functional foundation and more flexible design choices. (The framework is the programming scaffolding while the theme controls the colors, fonts, and other styling visuals; the Barthelme theme, and most all free WP themes,  conjoin the two into a single -- sometimes fragile -- entity.)

So instead of wandering through that forest, I wondered if there was maybe an easier route to a new blog look.

Last year, I helped my friend Mike Uhl set up his own blog and web site on SquareSpace. It's a great way for someone new to the web to set up and start their own web site -- the site is hosted on the SS servers, you get a free custom domain name, they offer technical support, their drag and drop interface makes building a site easy, and their template library makes changing the look of the site dead simple. Depending on your needs, you may pay a little more per month than if you hosted a WP site on your own server, but when you add in the cost of a WP framework and child theme, the costs are pretty similar.

The informal comparisons I read of the two systems painted them as Mac (SquareSpace) vs. Windows (WordPress). Either operating system will let you do what you want to do, but you have to decide how much of a hobbyist you want to be. And no matter which you choose, there will be a learning curve.

I spent most of last week reading blog posts and review articles on the merits and demerits of both products, with about an even number of blog posts documenting how and why the writers were switching from WP to SS and vice versa.

WordPress is complicated, not suited for beginners, offers solid performance, is endlessly customizable and easy to mess up because of that, has a ton of eye-catching themes and a few reliable frameworks, the WP plugins let you extend your site's functionality and usability (as long as you don't use too many of them) and it works just the way that writer expects it to work.

SquareSpace is easy to use, solid unless you start writing your own CSS, with tech support that's good when they know the answer but poor if they don't, beautiful templates that all kinda look alike (but also work alike and behave reliably), is much easier for the non-techie photographer to set up a portfolio, offers limited widgets and plugins but they work without making the site fall over, and it works just the way that writer expects it to work.

It was obvious to me that the differences between these two systems were, as they say, as fine as a frog's hair. So there was no clear winner, in my mind. I must needs therefore gather more information!

I started a 2-week free trial of SS, which is a great deal, as you can't do that with the expensive WP frameworks and themes. And I didn't want to be fooled by the sunk costs fallacy: even though I'd been using the WP blog for years, that did not mean I had to keep using it if there was a better option.

So, I created a couple of pages, a blog, poked around the options, and, honestly, the SS dashboard looked as intimidating and bewildering to me as the WP dashboard. So, for me, the "best" system was not going to be decided based on ease of use.

At this point, after a week of mulling it over, it hit me: this decision was becoming a procrastination distraction. Yes, changing my blog's look was something I wanted to do anyway, but I was letting it take over my attention cycles. And, as my old coach used to say, indecision causes suffering.

What was also happening was that I wasn't doing the writing I wanted to do, because writing is hard. But this tech stuff ... promised an answer. If I got this choice right, everything else would fall into place. But of course it wouldn't and I could see that.

So, the question was not "which system is better," because that is essentially unanswerable. Based on my reading, the real answer is a matter of opinion based on what you value in blogging software.

The question for me instead was "which option will cause me the least disruption?" Either option would turn my world upside down, but which one would get me up and running a little more quickly? For me, the answer to that question was to stick with WP. It's worked reliably for me so far, and buying a reliable framework/theme combo would simply give me more options. I also would not have to export my blog posts, set up redirects, etc. thinking of which always made my stomach hurt.

So, I decided that the best theme for someone like me (technically competent but clueless when it comes to PHP, CSS, and WP internals) seems to be the Genesis framework with the Prose theme. Yes, it looks rather familiar. As the poet says, the end of all our exploring is to arrive where we started.

 

On hitting 50 (blog posts, that is)

Inspired by Shannon's example, I decided to forge ahead and write M-F blog posts for 10 weeks. And rather remarkably, to me, I hit that goal without missing a day or calling for a do-over. Last Friday I posted my 50th entry. What surprised me about the experience:

  • I thought I would exhaust my list of 20 or so ideas. I now have about twice that many on my list, plus about 15 draft posts in various stages of completion. Which proves what I said in my first post: the more I write, the more I can write.
  • The time between me getting an idea and then creating a decently readable post shrank. I experimented with ways to plan out long posts so they weren't so exhausting to write, though with mixed success.
  • I can pretty much tell within about 20 minutes of writing whether I can finish a post in a sitting or whether it needs more time.
  • I thought I would need fancy software but the WordPress setup has served me quite well and it gets better all the time. I still like starting some drafts in nvAlt, but I tend now to keep my drafts in the WP Dashboard.
  • I tend to prefer the longform essays.
  • Continuing to discover little idiosyncrasies in my style (such as my love of parenthetical asides or constantly adding "and" clauses to sentences) and occasionally surprising myself with a felicitously turned phrase or metaphor.

What pleased me:

  • I restarted the blog in response to creative constipation; I had stuff backed up I wanted to write about but didn't know how. The regular writing unblocked whatever was jammed and the words and ideas simply gushed out for the last two months. (Here endeth the metaphor unsavourie.)
  • Whenever I've felt blue, it's usually because I've not been exercising my creativity muscles. Shortly after restarting the blog, the dark cloud lifted and I began enjoying the process of planning, experimenting, and publishing. Writing is mood-altering!
  • I like going back and reviewing the stuff I've written. I often forget what I've written about, and it's like finding lost treasure.
  • I suppose because it was the last week of mandatory posting, I pushed out several posts that I had started in Spring 2011 but had never had enough reason to actually finish. The Davies and prospective memory posts had waited a long time to be given their due and each flew near the 2000-word mark. The satisfaction I felt in finally publishing those ideas and opinions -- really committing to them and then marking them as done -- felt so good.
  • I really like being able to go back and fix a typo or rephrase some clumsy sentence. A blog post is never finished, only abandoned.
  • Instead of my evenings being spent watching cat videos on YouTube or moving all the icons on my desktop 2cm to the left, I've spent them creating and producing things. What I always thought of as my distractible nature never bothered me while I wrote. And I felt much better about how I spent my time.

What I wish I could have done:

  • I would have liked establishing a routine for writing every day at the same time. But since I typically wrote in the evenings, then perhaps that was my routine time.
  • I wish I could have written shorter posts. The longer posts took a lot out of me and I sometimes felt kind of stunned the next day. I just like to blather on. I guess.
  • I wish I could have found better graphics and maybe more multimedia. I like illustrations or pictures with blog posts and while Zemanta can find some interesting stuff, I sometimes just settled for what I could find in a hurry.

What I won't miss:

  • Spending almost every Monday through Friday evening staring at a computer screen! There was one period where I successfully stayed one day ahead of schedule, and I remember one glorious patch where I had three short posts all lined up and scheduled for publishing through the end of the week. I was never able to repeat that.

What I still want to play with and figure out:

  • I want to invest in the Thesis theme or something similar and more plugins. I would like to play around more with the site's look and feel. It's a rather bland looking site.
  • My friend Mike Uhl, who writes two very focused blogs, continues to urge me to commit to a theme. Not for this site, which will remain a repository of jottings and fancies, but perhaps my next one.
  • A Creative Commons notice and how to attach it to the end of every post.

A few remaining points:

  • I will continue to write posts, but not to a schedule. I look forward to a break. One of the great things about this project is that I now have a new hobby. If I'm ever at loose ends and wonder whatsoever shall I do -- writing a blog post is the activity that will leap to mind.
  • I have purposely not promoted the blog. I haven't advertised my posts on either my Twitter or Facebook accounts. This blog has been my private lab where I could try things out, play around, and generally make lots of pots while letting the process work its magic on me. When I start a more focused blog, it will be to support my side-business and then I will be more interested in the social media side.
  • It's not the goal that's important, after all, it's who you have to become to achieve the goal. In the past 10 weeks, I've become someone who spends his free time writing, getting better at writing, and sharing what he knows (or thinks he knows). And it's been great.
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2 VMWare Fusion tips

I've enjoyed having VMWare Fusion on my MacBook, as it's made the transition from a PC to a Mac easier. Also, since I now have only the MacBook, I'm able to easily duplicate what I had on the old PC and to edit work documents on my copy of Microsoft Office. But I hit a few roadblocks the other night (on deadline, of course), so thought I'd document their solutions here.

  • I had installed a lot of Windows apps and got the warning that there was only about 1GB of hard drive space left on the virtual disk. I thought I'd allocated enough room, but 10GB wasn't enough. I went into Fusion's Settings and allocated 20GB. No dice. Still didn't work. But this excellent tutorial video on the Fusion site shows step-by-step how to create a virtual disk that will grow as the VM grows.
  • I'd hoped to save my files in one place only on my Mac, and not have to store files in both my Mac and Windows environments. But from within Windows, opening those shared folders was painfully slow and so I reconciled myself to having two separate sets of files to manage. BUT. A search through the VMWare Fusion Forum offered a user's solution that hit the nail on the head: the Avast anti-virus software in Windows was causing the slowdown. Add the Fusion shared folders to Avast's exclusion list so it doesn't attempt to scan any files it finds there. With that setting in place, opening Mac files from within Windows is as quick as opening them from the Finder. At last, I can have one set of documents in one place.
  • No better time to promote Joe Kissell's newest e-book, Take Control of VMware Fusion 2. These Take Control books are inexpensive and the best way to get acquainted with Macs.
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What I DIDN'T do this summer

  • Create accounts on my MacBook and really get a handle on securing it.
  • Create a custom search engine in Google that would search the sites I tend to read the most: Lifehacker, Marginal Revolution, Kevin Kelly's sites, 43Folders, Web Worker Daily, my delicious bookmarks, Ask Metafilter, etc. I created a custom engine of usability sites for my User Interface class last spring, so it's not that hard.
  • Update my blog's template and add cool plugins.
  • Read some recent SILS master's papers to get an idea of what these papers are about.
  • Set up my turntable so it hooks into my PC.
  • Organize my CDs.
  • Organize the office closets.
  • Picasa.
  • Buy an extra power adapter for the MacBook.
  • Get my ClaimID site looking complete and purty.
  • Write to Sue.
  • Write to Cara.
  • Learn how to get FTP working on this blinkin' site.
  • Clean up the categories and tags on this blog.
  • Research whether I could hook my Airport Extreme router to my current Verizon modem/router box.
  • Lose 5 pounds of unsightly flab.

As within, so without

When my mind and life get cluttered, so do my physical environments. When I lived on my own, it was the whole apartment. Now, it's pretty much confined to my home office. But as I celebrate the end of the semester and contemplate what to do with myself this summer, I scan the office and see much clutter. Starting on my far left and moving clockwise (that's left to right, for you folks who only know digital clock faces), I see:

  • My graphic novels and comics bookcase, groaning with unread material
  • Two small wicker baskets holding 1) an Airport Extreme router I've not been able to sell and 2) a stack of old MacWorld magazines, a MacBook for Dummies, and a binder of Take Control ebook printouts
  • On my desk, books to take back to the library
  • My seltzer can
  • My overflowing inbasket
  • My 10-year diary
  • My MacBook and laptop stand
  • My desktop PC and monitor with old CDs in the hutch and a 5-ft CD rack sitting atop a 2-drawer filing cabinet
  • A poster I've not had time or opportunity to put on the wall
  • Stand with a boombox and 2 big messy piles of CDs, with a turntable (unplugged, bereft) on the lower shelf
  • My banjo case and materials (restarted my lessons this week)
  • A box where I'm collecting books to take to BDFAR for trade
  • And let's stop there, shall we?

Zoiks. Probably the first thing I should do, to put my mind in order, is to put my environment in order. As without, so within.

Another new WP theme

I went to plaintext.org, looking for something clean and minimal, and so am trying out the Barthelme template. I figured out that one reason I wasn't posting more often was that I didn't think the Chameleon look was really "my blog" (though I did like the two small administrivia columns to the right of the main column). Another was that I was busy getting work done and so chose not to blog.

Another was that I really needed a better tool than Scribefire, which, though it worked fine, just didn't click with me.  I'm looking at some offline tools or -- I think there's a way to use email to post, which I would prefer to do.

Another is that managing this site is still a little scary for me, though I can't imagine why, so I usually stay away until I think I have enough time to mess with it. I think more regular visits will make me less shy of logging in.