About the new look

Visitors to Via Negativa in the last few hours may have noticed some differences. I’m experimenting with a new theme (that’s the design template, for you non-WordPressers) which, though very similar to the old theme in looks, differs substantially under the hood. If you use an iPad, netbook, Kindle, iPhone, Android, or other small-screened computer-like thing, you should find that the site scales down without making you scroll horizontally. I can only simulate the effect by shrinking the window on my desktop, but here’s what happens: the sidebar content shifts down below the main content, and more impressively, the header image and all other images and videos shrink proportionally. Impressive, eh? This is called responsive design, and it is a step beyond the flexible designs of yesteryear, which tended to result in overlapping or squashed images (which is why I always went for fixed-width themes). I’d be interested in any and all feedback on this from those of you who actually browse the web on these newfangled mobile devices.

In other news, for those who missed my note on Facebook this morning, the photoblog is back at the old address with a new name, Woodrat photohaiku, and a new photo to celebrate. I decided to move it to WordPress.com, which means that the four main sites on the Via Negativa network are all back online, split between three different webhosts. Never again will I put all my eggs in one basket.

I also feel I’m a lot closer to diagnosing and thus solving the problems that caused me to get shut down repeatedly at my old hosting company, thanks to the excellent documentation at Dreamhost, where Via Negativa now resides. Turns out that even with top-of-the-line page-caching and spam-stopping plugins, a blizzard of comment and trackback spam can still cause CPU usage to go through the roof, because every time someone (or some bot) enters a comment, it refreshes the cache. I don’t know if this was the whole of my problem, but it certainly might explain those mysterious CPU spikes at 2:00 in the morning. So I’ve turned off all trackbacks, turned off comments on posts older than one month (which really pains me), and am experimenting with new plugins that cache things differently.

The funny thing is, I almost miss those 1.8 million spam comments that had accumulated in Via Negativa’s old database. I had always felt a perverse sense of accomplishment seeing the numbers mount on my dashboard, figuring that since Aksimet caught 99.9% of them, they were a harmless, occasionally amusing annoyance. If only I’d known.

Sorry for all the WordPress-related stuff here lately, by the way, but I don’t want you all to think that I’ve been idle! The truth is, I was mulling over switching to a responsive design a week ago, just before disaster struck, so making these changes makes me feel as if a week of poor sleeping and flailing around like a weak swimmer in a sea of code has been redeemed.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

26 Comments


  1. i am so sorry you have had to reconfigure things. oh, how terrible! i am reading this on an iPad right now, and i actually get the sidebar to the righht of the main column and not at the bottom. it looks good — banner heading, too.

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    1. Cool. Does it change when you rotate the device from horizontal to vertical orientation, or is that just an iPhone thing?

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      1. The iPad also rotates. It has the sidebar navigation at the side (not invisible at the bottom) in both orientations, and looks gorgeous. Less cluttered imho. Woodrat defaults to a mobile version (I see it’s WordPress.com) but that doesn’t display brilliantly. Switching to the standard version is much better. Morning Porch and Moving Poems also look great. You appear to have lost your favicon – or that could just be my brower.

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        1. Thanks very much for that detailed assessment. Too bad that the iPad theme at wp.com doesn’t do justice to the photoblog. They do provide a few options for tweaking it, but I don’t think it would change the opverall display too much. As for the Via Negativa favicon, I probably forgot to upload it to the theme files for this latest theme — thanks for catching that. (Firefox, my regular browser, caches favicons for days, I’ve found.)

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        2. O.K., I’ve turned off the “beautiful app-like experience to visitors browsing with an iPad” (as WP.com calls it) for Woodrat.

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  2. Welcome to WordPress World Dave. May all your problems be sorted here! (-;

    Can’t check you out on those fancy gizmos because I own none of them. But if ever I do, then I shall be following you at Via Negativa wherever I go!

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    1. Speaking of WordPress World, this is one of the things that’s seriously great about WordPress.com, where your artlog as well as qarrtsiluni are housed: mobile phone- and iPad-optimized themes are now automatic there.

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  3. Congratulations (for all)! I am on my laptop now, but read from my droid while on the bus. Am looking forward to seeing your version of responsive design in action (love the phrase).

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    1. Glad to hear this might be a help, then. I’ve long figured that most Via Negativa readers were bored office workers, but probably quite a few are commuters on public transportation, too.

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      1. My droid shows a readable post column but no sidebar action. The column width is static and I can only scroll up/down. I have a low cost droid.

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        1. Thanks for the info. I think that’s the desired behavior, actually — the sidebar down below the content for mobile devices. It sounds as if you’d prefer the horizontal scroll? I was considering experimenting with plugins that give more of an app-like experience, but not sure how necessary that is. I’ll have to get my friend with an iPhone to stop over some time so I can compare the results with different plugins.

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          1. It’s probably fine as is. 10 posts then the sidebar below, as you say (it’s a long scroll on a phone, so I hadn’t gone that far before now).

            It rotates on my droid, but the horizontal screen shows “Via” “Morning” and “Moving” while the skinny view only shows “Via” and “Morning”. I like seeing “Woodrat” on my bigger laptop or iPad screen anyway, but … thought you would like to know. On my phone the tabs layer in additional rows so one can get to all those choices, regardless of how one is holding the device.

            The type is all nice and readable. Often I have to zoom into be able to read on my phone, and VN is easy on my old eyes. I appreciate the body of the text being a serif. I keep trying to convince my boss it is the most legible of fonts, but oy. Falls on deaf ears, even when I gather research saying so.

            BTW, I like the pop of the header text. What is that font?


          2. I thought those top tabs might be a problem — that, of course, is because I coded all that myself. I’ll have to study how the theme makes the menu items stack as the screen shrinks and try to copy that styling for the inter-site nav bar. I’m also not wedded to a ten-post display, and might scale down to seven. OTOH, as I said I also want to try WP Touch or one of the other plugins or themes that detect mobile browsers and give a more app-like experience. (And since you’re self-hosted at Stoney Moss, you could experiment with that as well and let us know what you find.)

            Readability is of course the main thing.

            The header font is Anton, a free Google font.


  4. Jon can take a look at the site for you on different platforms. He’s a mobile app programmer now, so he should have good feedback about what should (and shouldn’t) be happening to the site when viewed using various platforms.

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    1. That would be great. OTOH, if he has any criticisms or suggestions, I probably won’t understand them. :)

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  5. Looks good, Dave, glad it all worked out in the end after so much pain!

    I’m very dependent on more tech savvy family members of the younger generation to do any redesigning around my place… in fact, I’m still waiting for the latest to be finished sometime in between their paying work. As long as it still runs ok in the meantime, I can be patient, unlike when there was a major crash at the server a while ago. One of my worst fears is that all the years of posts will disappear into the ether.

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    1. That’s not an illegitimate fear. I trust your tech support people have thought of that, though, and have your back.

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  6. WordPress should get their act together and include some proper caching as part of the core functionality of every installation. It really is the kind of technical stuff that end-users shouldn’t be expected to try and deal with — even end-users who are willing to do a bit of extra work in order to host their own blogs.

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    1. Well, I’m wary about introducing too many more features into core, but they might at least adopt one of the two most widely used and frequently updated caching plugins and include it with every fresh install as they do with Akismet and the oh-so-essential Hello Dolly.

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      1. … or Goodbye Dolly, as I like to think of it. Deleting it is always one of my first post-installation tasks.

        Glad to hear you’ve got to grips with everything Dave, sounds like it’s been a useful unplanned opportunity for a clear-up and shake-out.

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        1. Yes, that’s one way of looking at it. I still have a couple more sites to bring back online, and then I think I need to do more theme-design work either here or at the porch, to better differentiate the two sites.

          Goodbye Dolly indeed. But we actually know someone who LIKES that plugin. My flabber was completely gasted when I found that out.

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          1. I think what Hg *meant* to say in his comment was “it’s so nice to have you back where you belong”.

            As for me, I’m still glowin’, I’m still crowin’. And at least *someone* tells me so :-)


  7. DB Cache Reloaded Fix (catchy name!) looks interesting, btw, I might have to try it.

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    1. Well, it seems to be working so far. The thing is, I started using it the same time I closed comments on all older posts, so I’m not sure which is more responsible, but VN has seen the number of database queries cut by two thirds.

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