WordPress and my grandfather’s tool shop

It occurs to me that I like to tinker with WordPress installations in the very same way that my late grandfather used to putter around in his shop. He and Grandma spent the summers here when I was a kid, living in the same small tenant house I currently occupy. One of the first things he did when they moved their stuff up here from their old place in Pennington, New Jersey, was to establish a typically male domain, complete with workbench, cabinets and lots of tools, up in the non-chicken-coop portion of the old shed. Grandma was a quiet soul who liked to read and do crossword puzzles; it’s not like she drove him out of the house. He just loved to tinker. I don’t remember him being especially good at anything except wiring — he was a retired electrical engineer — but that didn’t stop him from acquiring tools and attempting to fix things.

My dad, too, had a work shop of sorts; his was in the basement. But it shared space with the laundry area, the freezer, and the canning shelves and jelly cabinet, which were all part of Mom’s domain, so Dad wasn’t a typical guy in this respect. Also, I don’t think his heart was ever fully in it. Unlike his father, I don’t think he actively looked for excuses to putter around on the workbench. He and I take more after his mother, I think, and would just as soon read most of the time. Since his retirement from the Penn State library, he’s become a full-time scholar, and turned his bedroom into a study for his research and web work on peaceful societies. Mom’s own study is just down the hall.

Unlike me, though, Dad is content to use the same design and tools for his website as when he started out seven years ago. The two news articles that he posts to his site each week are thoroughly researched and exhaustively edited. I’m not sure that would be the case if he spent as much time tinkering with his site as I do with my various blogs. Sure, there are a lot of nifty navigation and site-promotion tools he’d be able to take advantage of if he were on WordPress or some other CMS, but the site still gets a ton of traffic, almost never goes down, and is unlikely to be targeted by malicious or commercial hackers that way WordPress installations are.

A self-hosted WordPress site, by contrast, practically demands tinkering. Yes, it’s easy to install and the user interface is very intuitive, but with the constant threat of new hacks and the updates required to keep ahead, you can’t just ignore the inner workings of a site and assume that things will be fine. I found this out the hard way during my first year with the platform, which was back when all updating had to be done by FTP or the like. I didn’t have the cPanel option because I was on my cousin’s server at the time, and I made the mistake of relying upon him to keep the site running, neither of us understanding what exactly was required. Fortunately, Via Negativa was hit not by the malicious kind of hacker but the kind who wants to hide ads on your site where only logged-out visitors will see them. Such hackers have a vested interest in seeing that the site continues to perform as expected. And getting rid of them gave me a crash course in the inner workings of the software, which was bolstered a year later when I decided to move the site to a regular shared web host, and had to figure out how to move a database and such. By that point I was eagerly installing plugins willy-nilly and re-jiggering the layout every chance I could get.

So gradually I got more and more comfortable with the platform, without necessarily becoming very good at it. It’s in that respect that I think I most resemble Grandpa, and probably many other hobbyists and gear-heads. I like knowing what I can do, and acquiring the tools to do it, and I have full confidence in my ability to do the equivalent of dropping a new transmission into any of my sites if so required — but let’s hope that confidence is never put to the test.

This fragment of memoir is actually an abandoned introduction to “Five Years of WordPress: a love note,” q.v.

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