New paths into the old thicket

If posting has seemed a little less frequent here lately, that’s because I’ve been adding some new indexing features to the site, trying to improve access to the voluminous Via Negativa archives. Some of these changes will be obvious to anyone who’s visted the site regularly. First, I reorganized the way I link to favorite posts. Now there’s a box in the sidebar with links to ten random “Best of Via Negativa” posts that change everytime you refresh the page, with a link below to a complete archive of favorites in reverse chronological order. It took a while to tag all those old posts, but I think this is a big improvement over the former system, where direct links to favorite posts were two clicks away in yearly compendiums.

Second, I’ve just substituted paged navigation for the default “Next” and “Previous” links at the bottoms of pages. This not only helps one move more rapidly through the various types of archives, it also removes the confusion about whether “next” means “older” or “newer.” The need to avoid such confusion was especially urgent because of my implementation of a third feature: a new way of indexing and displaying series that includes archival pages in proper chronological order, so one can read through a series of posts in the order they were written. At present, I’m using a sidebar box to display links to series, too (in the future, I might simply link to a series index page).

These changes have involved a lot of editing of old posts to add new tags — a very easy but also very time-consuming thing to do. I also finished putting all my old “Words on the Street” cartoons into the sub-category of the same name (under Humor). The only problem there is that some of the oldest cartoons have disappeared, because I hosted them on ImageShack, which apparently cleans out its servers every few years. I have copies of all the cartoons on my hard drive, but I never kept records of which ones I posted on which dates.

If anyone’s interested in the plugins behind these changes, I’ve just updated the Credits page. I learned about the Organize Series plugin from a review at Weblog Tools Collection last week and downloaded it immediately. The possibility of a third taxonomy in addition to tags and categories was pretty exciting, and it works O.K. out of the box, but if you’re interested in using it on your own self-hosted WordPress blog, beware that changing the styling is very much a hands-on operation. And depending on your theme, the series index page (which I’m not using here yet) may not display properly; it didn’t for me. Major fenagling with PHP files was required to make that part of it work.

There are a couple other, minor problems with the plugin, too, but its approach to the problem of organizing and presenting series is revolutionary, and I’m sure with all the attention it’s receiving, the developer will get a lot of help in ironing out the rough spots. I’m certainly hoping for its mass adoption as an indispensible plugin, because that’s really the only way to ensure that a given plugin will still be around and compatible with the latest versions of WordPress five years from now. If not, future readers of the Via Negativa archives will probably wonder what the hell I was so excited about.

10 Replies to “New paths into the old thicket”

  1. Hi Dave, excellent implementation of my Organize Series plugin! If I can help with any of the minor problems you’re having just let me know :)

  2. Hi Darren – Thanks for stopping by, and for developing such an awesome plugin. One problem I’m having is that when I uncheck “Display list of series” on the Settings page, I also lose the navigation links at the bottom of the post. My current solution is a band-aid: to block the list display with a display:none in the CSS. Another improvement you might consider – and I have no idea how easy or difficult this might be to code – would be an option to display that series table of contents list in the blog’s sidebar somehow. Even with a 500-px-wide main column such as I have now, it’s hard to find a spot for the box where it doesn’t interfere with the flow of content, especially if the content consists of poetry with longish lines or begins with a wide photo. I have one series that I have yet to tag that includes around 150 posts, an epic poem, and for that one it would be kind of cool to have the list, but not if it’s going to be a distraction – which would be hard to avoid for such a long list.

    Finally, I should mention that upgrading WordPress to 1.5.1 today has made Organize Plugins think I updated it as well. I have not, though I see you have an update. I’m a tad nervous about losing all my customizations if I update, but I guess that’s groundless since most of those customizations are in the theme files. Speaking of which, there seemed to have been a missing “/div” tag in seriestoc.php.

  3. The series plugin does sound like a good idea for organising old posts. I’m currently a bit dissatisfied with my navigation set-up: I just changed all my categories to tags because I was effectively using them that way – as keywords, that is – and in WP 2.5 having a lot of categories completely slowed down some of the admin pages, and I was finding it so irritating. Supposedly 2.5.1 has improved that situation, but I can’t change back now…

    What I really want is something with just a bit more organisation than tags as they usually are: as it is I have a tag cloud with all 571 tags all mixed together, which isn’t very user-friendly. My ideal would be several tag clouds divided into broad categories like ‘art’ and ‘books’: if you’ve seen tag-bundling on delicious, that’s what I have in mind. A kind of very shallow hierarchy. Or, if I’m inventing solutions, a single dynamically generated tag cloud that displays some chosen subset of the total.

    I don’t actually think that anyone uses my archive pages much, so I’m not going to lose sleep over it. It just annoys me when I don’t think something is quite working.

    I think the sidebar list of favourite posts is a good idea: the only thing I sometimes miss about not having a proper sidebar is some way of pointing readers back to selected material from the archive. Just having recent comments displayed made people much more likely to click through and see what was being said.

  4. Ha! I found a solution. The simple tags plug in has a related tags feature, so now I have a small tag cloud on my archive page and then above the archive for a particular tag, there’s a list of related tags. So you can click on ‘art’ on the main archive page and quickly see what subjects related to art I’ve posted about.

  5. Hey, that’s a pretty cool-looking plugin! Yeah, just the other day I clicked on your archive list and noticed you’d turned all your categories into tags. I can see why you did that, but absent the current organization scheme, you seemed to just be telling visitors they were on their own. I love the way it works now. Unlike me, you have a real advantage in that your posts were so thoroughly tagged in the first place. This means, among other things, that you could use a tag-based “related posts” plugin if you wanted. Which of course would be another way to lure readers into the archives minus a sidebar like mine. (I’m very sympathetic to the minimalizing impulse, by the way, even if I’ve moved in the opposite direction.)

  6. Dave,
    Instead of de-selecting the “Display list of Series Box” try just removing the “%postcontent%” token from the series post-list template. That *should* give you what you want without resorting to a display:none bandaid.

    As for the other stuff you mentioned it’s actually really easy to implement (well, easy is a relative term – but if you know how to modify your theme files you’ll have no problem with this). I’ll tell you what, if you can post your ideas/requests in my support forums at – I’ll post the solutions there. It just makes it easier for other users of Organize Series to discover ways of using the plugin :)

    As for the missing «/div» – it’s a carryover from testing on one of my custom themes. I’ll have to put it back in because I realize most themes will require it :)

  7. “This means, among other things, that you could use a tag-based “related posts” plugin if you wanted.”

    Actually, that’s another thing that Simple Tags can do, so I’ve turned it on and am considering whether or not I like it. I mean, I think it’s a good idea: it’s just question of whether or not I think it’s visual clutter. When it comes to adding new functionality, the whole minimalism thing is a bit of a rod for my own back.

  8. Yes, but you were so good at designing themes! I should’ve asked to borrow one of your old ones here.

    Considering how much it does, “Simple Tags” seems quite misnamed. Though I suppose it was intended to appeal to minimalism fetishists like yourself. :)

  9. This comment string has the feel of the WordPress forums i spent so long on last summer for my school project.

    If they get tag bundling down right, I might just find WordPress irresistible.

    The lack of dates or chronology shouldn’t matter for the timeless installments of “Words on the Street.” (Actually, no. I do remember some of them that depended in part on then-current events, trends, or controversies.)

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