New commenting system

Just a brief housekeeping note: I’m experimenting with a new commenting system here to try and reduce the number of automated spam comments that come in. As a side benefit(?), you can now log in from your Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress.com accounts if you so choose. Let me know if that makes your lives immeasurably more convenient.

For other self-hosted WordPress bloggers who might be interested, I’m using Jetpack Comments. I’ll be curious to see what it does to page-load times. Other comments plugins already in place include Bad Behavior, which has cut automated comment spam submissions by about two thirds, and Akismet, which still does a great job blocking at least 99% of all spam from appearing on the site, with very few false positives. Why worry about spam comment submissions if so few of them ever make it through Akismet’s filters? Because every submission refreshes the page, regardless of how well the site might be cached, so that an intense spam storm can be a real drain on server resources. Like most websites, Via Negativa is on a cheap shared webhost, and a year ago got booted off its previous webhost for using too much CPU — precisely because I didn’t understand how automated comment spam can produce CPU spikes.

UPDATE (10/19): There appears to be a conflict with Bad Behavior, so I’ve deactivated the latter plugin for now. (Depending on what happens with spam comments, I may end up reactivating it and deactivating Jetpack comments.)

UPDATE 2 (10/21): Wow, this is MUCH better than Bad Behavior at stopping spam comments! Only three have made it through to be caught by Akismet in the past two days (normally it would be around 100). The main downside I see to this system is the longer delay after posting a comment, but that doesn’t seem like to big a deal. Also, it conflicted with the comments subscription plugin I was using before, so I had to switch to the Jetpack-provided option, making me even more reliant on the plugin.

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).

Changes at the Morning Porch

Tinkering with WordPress sites can be a lot of fun, but often doesn’t produce visible differences as far as site visitors are concerned. This morning’s tinkerings with The Morning Porch, however, have brought one highly visible change that I think dramatically improves the reader’s experience: In the “On this date” sidebar widget, I now include the full text of posts from previous years so one can read them without clicking through. Also, I believe the widget will now change in sync with my timezone rather than stay tied to GMT, as it did before.

I should also note the addition of a new site to the “other micropoetry and microessay blogs” section of the Morning Porch blogroll: Northern Light: A Daybook, by the western Massachusetts-based poet Rosemary Starace, author of Requitements.

*

For those of you who are fellow WordPress geeks, here’s what changed behind the scenes and why. When I moved the site to its current location in late 2009 after two years on Tumblr, none of the posts had titles—Tumblr isn’t as insistent on that point as WordPress is. Rather than do the smart thing and start creating titles at that point, manually pasting the first few words and an ellipsis into the title field of each post going forward, I couldn’t bring myself to let the archived posts remain titleless. So I found a nifty plugin designed for a slightly different purpose, Blogger Title Fix, that would automatically substitute a short excerpt for the title field. It worked pretty well, but I had to hack the hell out of the plugin I used to display “on this date” links so that it would link to the date rather than the (nonexistent) titles. Last year, that plugin—A Year Before—got a major update, but when I upgraded, I found it didn’t play nice with Blogger Title Fix, and since its codebase had been substantially rewritten and I am a terrible coder, I couldn’t figure out how to hack it as I had its predecessor. But at some time in the intervening months I must’ve run across another, newer and more general title-adjusting plugin called Auto Post Title and given it a quick try without thoroughly checking out its features, because I found it unactivated among my plugins at The Morning Porch this morning. This time I realized that one of the things it can substitute for a title is the excerpt, so it was just a matter of radically shortening the standard excerpt length with another plugin, Advanced Excerpt, so my titles wouldn’t be the same length as the posts. (I could also do this via a hack to my functions.php file, of course, but in my opinion such things belong in plugins rather than theme files.)

So I was happy to have replaced an old, unupdated plugin with a newer one, which still leaves me dependent on a plugin where I shouldn’t be, but puts off the day when a major change in WordPress core suddenly makes all the post titles disappear. And then I was able to update to the current version of A Year Before, and oddly enough, what it uses for a post excerpt is still the standard—it’s unaffected by the Excerpt Length plugin—so I was able to include the full text of Morning Porch posts as previously mentioned, which I think adds a whole new dimension to the site. Moral: it pays to reexamine one’s plugin configuration on a regular basis. Just because a given setup works doesn’t mean it’s optimal.

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).

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.

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).

Back

watch on YouTube

Yes, Via Negativa is back, thanks to these folks. Man, I love the WordPress community. Splitting my WordPress export file into small enough pieces to import allows me to start anew with a fresh installation, which is what I most wanted to do.

Not all functionality is back yet. For example, I’m trying a new audio player for the podcast which should display on mobile devices (it uses HTML5 with fallback to Flash in browsers that don’t support it), and I need to go through and stick the code in each episode. I need to rebuild a links page, and decide how to do Smorgasblog. I seem to have lost all those posts in the move, so this would be a good time to start over with a new system, maybe. I am still not ruling out a move to the reservation, but so far this web host seems considerably less Wild West than my last one. I’m impressed by their extensive documentation on everything, and their apparently more flexible and tolerant attitude toward sites that run too hot. Well, we’ll see about that.

I have lost the last three weeks of comments, which included, among other things, this gem by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, in response to my post “After Dark“:

I’d arrive at rehearsals bearing my cicada-moulted shell in a tissue-lined matchbox. (Who needs a Stradivarius? I travel light!) There would be but a single note got from it before it crumpled in exhaustion, but that would be a note of such supernatural perfection coming at the climax of the concert, that thereafter audiences would just file silently away, knowing that there would never be anything as beautiful in their lives again. Sigh.

(Fortunately, I subscribe to the comments feed, so I still have the texts of all your lovely comments. But I’m not quite dedicated enough to go import them all by hand, which would include putting in the proper email and web address for each.)

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).

At play in the fields of Google

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology

 

UPDATE (9/1/11): I’ve decided to end my use of Google+ due to Google’s intransigence over its identity policy. One Facebook is enough! See you over at the other corporate soul-stealer.

Cory Doctorow sums up the issues better than I could.

*

So I’ve joined Google+, the fantastic new social network for talking about Google+. (It’s still in private beta, but I have invitations if anyone wants one.) Enthusiasm for the still-developing service has been balanced by skepticism that we actually need another general-purpose social network — see for example what Lorianne DiSabato and Beth Adams have blogged about it. Here are my initial reactions.

1) Facebook has had a “lists” feature for quite some time, supposedly allowing one to keep up with subsets of one’s contacts — family, close friends, blogger buddies, etc. Unfortunately, it never shows me more than the most recent day or two of posts from the lists I’ve set up, and even then doesn’t seem to include everything. Facebook is good at suggesting people I should add to each semi-functional list, which makes me suspect it’s really all about data-mining with advertisers in mind: figure out how specifically we network so they can better target us in coordinated advertising campaigns. Now, there’s no guarantee that Google+’s ballyhooed “circles” won’t have the same ultimate purpose. But the interface for screening one’s data-stream by subset of contacts is much smoother, it’s not three clicks away, and (so far at least) it works.

2) Data portability is a critical issue for me. Google+ lets you download and save all your posts at any time. I like that. Despite my very liberal views on copyright and content-sharing, I don’t like the feeling I get over at Facebook that my content isn’t really my own.

3) Much as I like the 140-character limit at Twitter and Identi.ca as an enforcer of concision and spur to creativity for my microblogging at The Morning Porch, I don’t otherwise see the point, and I resent Facebook limiting the length of status updates. Google+ lets you go on as long as you like. It’s bloggish.

4) While it would be nice to have a “Facebook for grown-ups,” and I’ll be happy if Google+ becomes that and gets mass adoption, at this point I’m most interested in social networking around specific interests or for specific purposes. (Just look at the success of Goodreads among book-readers and Ravelry among knitters.) It’s not clear to me yet whether Google+, with its circles and video-chat “hangouts,” represents a major step forward in this regard. I am considering getting a webcam, though — the possibilities for small-group readings and workshops are very tantalizing. I’ve always hesitated to organize conference calls on Skype due to the sometimes intermittent nature of our internet connection here; far better if it were hosted in the cloud, as Google+ hangouts are. Also, spontaneous get-togethers are often the best kind, and creative types in particular are hard to herd, as would be necessary if I ever tried the Skype approach.

5) Like Beth and Lorianne, I’m a blogger first and foremost. I think that anyone who really has anything to say on a regular basis should have their own blog, and that we should preferentially leave comments about blog posts at the point of origin and stop letting discussions fragment and dissipate at a half-dozen different places where the link might be shared.

6) A link-sharing culture, regardless of its host (Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, etc.) is fundamentally about enthusiasm for things that others have written, captured or made. This is both good and bad. I like the enthusiasm (and the frequent displays of wit), but I get frustrated after a while and want to say, O.K., but what have you made? Where are your poems? Hang out too much with professional writers or artists, though, and you’ll notice that we tend to go in the opposite direction, rarely sharing anything we didn’t make ourselves. Is it possible that our participation in social networks has helped mitigate this tendency a little? Or for those of us who were already blogging before Facebook and Twitter got big, has it actually shrunk our blogs, diminishing the emphasis we once placed on linking out, assembling sidebar linkrolls, and being social, because hey, we’re doing enough of that elsewhere? Self-centered and often anti-social as I am, I do try to strike a balance between self-promotion and other-promotion, but it’s not always easy. I like to think my use of Facebook has forced me to at least stay focused on the problem.

7) Email is still the “killer app” for me and I think for almost everyone over the age of 30. Unlike phone calls or (god help us) instant messaging, it doesn’t interrupt whatever I’m doing and destroy my concentration. We need less distraction, not more. What keeps me involved in online social interactions are email notifications, and the more customizable those notifications are, the happier I am. Facebook has recently gotten pretty good in this regard, letting me decide on a page-by-page and group-by-group basis how I want to be notified. It would be nice if I could do this for each comment thread as well, because some discussions you really want to follow and others, not so much. (I’ve seen participants in Facebook conversations go back and delete their comments just to stop the flood of notifications when the conversation goes on too long!)

It is in this regard that the older blogging platforms are really falling behind WordPress. I’m much less likely to leave a comment anymore if can’t keep track of follow-up discussion via email. I’ll actually be surprised if Blogger doesn’t overhaul its archaic commenting system soon, and introduce a “subscribe to other comments in this thread” feature when it does so. Typepad is probably a lost cause. (Incidentally, for self-hosted WordPress bloggers, I recommend the plugin I’m using, Subscribe to Comments Reloaded, rather than the original Subscribe to Comments, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. Previously I used a different plugin with a double opt-in feature — in other words, the subscriber had to not only check a box, but reply to an email in order to confirm each and every subscription. That’s too many hoops to jump through, I think.)

The point is that for me and I presume most other email-oriented people who want to participate in online conversations, it’s important that we have the option to follow discussions via email — and that we have fine-grained controls, including the option to unsubscribe from any discussion at any time. WordPress.com currently leads the social media field in this regard, which may seem ironic, since WordPress is all about traditional, long-form blogging and website creation rather than social networking. The highlight of the latest version of the software is a distraction-free writing option, which shows what the developers prioritize. At the same time, they have more — and, I gather, better — mobile phone applications than any other blogging platform. But I think it only makes sense that those who most value thoughtful communication would build the best tools for discussion and response.

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).

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.

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).

Five years of WordPress: a love note

This entry is part 15 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology

 

Via Negativa passed an important milestone here on April 1. It was on that date in 2006 that my geek cousin Matt and I completed the move of this blog off Blogspot to its new domain on a platform that was then just beginning to attract more widespread attention beyond the circle of open-source geeks who developed it: WordPress 2.0. I don’t remember how I heard of it myself, but it turned out to be a very lucky choice. Moveable Type (or its hosted counterpart, Typepad) was still the preferred choice of serious bloggers at the time, but it had gotten kind of a bad reputation as a result of its developers’ disastrous decision to start charging for it. WordPress was free of charge. Aside from that, my other main criteria I think were having categories (Blogger was years away from its debut of “topics” at that point) and static pages to use for permanent site information (ditto). Boy, did I lust after categories!

The open source aspect was part of what attracted me, but it took a year or two for me to really appreciate its significance as a model for how poets and artists might collaborate and let go of their impulse to restrict others’ use of their content, and how good it would be for the culture at large if we all took our cues from the free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) movements. Regular readers of Via Negativa see one result of this new attitude every day in the form of Luisa Igloria’s poems, based to one extent or another on my Morning Porch entries.

And yes, thanks to WordPress and the pleasure I get from working with it, I have been led to launch quite a number of other sites, too, over the past five years, a few of them hosted at WordPress.com (the Festival of the Trees and Plummer’s Hollow blogs, plus qarrtsiluni, which began on Typepad) but the majority as self-hosted WordPress.org installations (The Morning Porch, Moving Poems, the Woodrat Photoblog, Postal Poetry, Shadow Cabinet, etc). Had I chosen Moveable Type, I doubt I ever would’ve expanded much beyond Via Negativa and qarrtsiluni; its code would’ve remained impenetrable to me, unmotivated as I am to actually knuckle down and study programming languages in any systematic way. That’s because Moveable Type is written in Perl, which is way gnarlier than I can handle. WordPress, by contrast, uses PHP, which is a lot less intimidating if you already know some HTML, as I did (thank you, Old Blogger!): HTML and CSS can be mixed right in. Seeing something you already know makes the rest of it a hell of a lot easier to dope out. “Copy, paste, and don’t panic” might as well be the official WordPress slogan for tens of thousands of code-poet-wannabes like me: WP’s fanatic fanboy base.

There are definite drawbacks to using the world’s most popular blogging platform, as I’ve discovered on two separate occasions: you’re a big target for hackers. But the ease and pleasure of use more than make up for it. I hope I have retained some critical objectivity about WordPress — I certainly don’t agree with every decision of its lead developer, for example — but it’s hard, possibly even mistaken, to be objective about something you love. I actually worry that subsequent major versions of the software will go too far in the direction of accessibility and eliminate the need for guys like me to muck about in the code.

Software purists like to deride WordPress as a kludge, and while I have no way to evaluate or contextualize that judgment, I do like its cobbled-together, Mir-ish vibe, the sense that the slightly twisted geniuses who work on the core code will always manage to stay one step ahead of disaster with the generous application of duct tape and super glue. I love how we can replicate that in a small way on our own sites: hack up a free theme, dump in a bunch of plugins, and try to keep too many PHP processes from pushing CPU usage through the roof and getting shut down by our bargain-basement webhosts. Fun! In software as in art and literature, it’s the mongrel that has the hybrid vigor, the impurities around which pearls form. And while Moveable Type or its fork Melody will I’m sure always have their advocates, and many other equally fine blogging platforms all have their strengths, I am pleased to be part of a worldwide community that takes freedom and generosity so seriously. I’m so glad that on a rainy April day five years ago, I decided to become part of the solution.

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).

Smorgasblog: the fourth incarnation

This will be a minor housekeeping note for everyone but my fellow self-hosted WordPress (WordPress.org) geeks: If you’re one of the small handful of people who’s subscribed to the Smorgasblog feed, I’m afraid that one will no longer work and you’ll have to plug this ugly-ass URL into your reader instead: https://www.vianegativa.us/feed/?post_type=smorgasblog — my apologies for the inconvenience. (If a lot of people were subscribed, I’d figure out how to create a redirect in the .htaccess file, but I’d rather not screw around with that if I don’t have to.)

By the way, I’d be happy to create an email digest (daily? weekly?) for the Smorgasblog in Feedblitz if anyone would find that useful. Let me know.

Another change you might have noticed is that the Smorgasblog no longer appears in the outer sidebar for single posts. I did that to clear room in the inner sidebar for a list of posts in a series, which displays when one is visiting a post in that series — a useful navigational aid, I thought.

Another new addition to the inner sidebar, down at the bottom, is a directory to almost all authors on the site. (Almost all, because in the case of guest posts co-written by two or more people, I had to choose just one as the official author. At present, WordPress doesn’t provide a way to assign more than one author to a post — a serious bug, in my opinion.) Each name in the list is linked to an archive of that author’s posts. Also, if you want to subscribe to the posts from just one author, just tack “/feed/” to the end of the URL: https://www.vianegativa.us/author/luisa/feed/ for just Luisa’s posts, for example.

Note, also, that the number of posts after my name is 830 posts shorter than it was yesterday. That’s because I killed off the previous incarnation of Smorgasblog, in which it was a specialized category of regular posts, and brought it back to life as a new content type with a wholly separate identity, akin to the non-chronological pages on the site. Unlike pages, though, smorgasblog posts remain chronological: there’s an archive, as before, now included in the top navigation bar, and if you click on the permalink for any post in it, you’ll find you can go from one Smorgasblog post to another using the “previous” and “next” links.

I think it’s useful to have a completely separate archive, but the other reason for the change was to clean up the regular archives, as well. While I believe strongly in linking to fellow bloggers from the front page of the site, I also like having readable archives, which to me means minimizing clutter. I think the reason a lot of long-time bloggers also use Tumblr, for example, is because they don’t want to overwhelm regular readers with short link posts, and that’s always been my thinking with Smorgasblog, too. That’s why I’ve kept it out of the main site feed as well.

Now here’s the part that only fellow WordPress fanatics will care about. I do highly recommend the Sideblog plugin I’ve been using for the last couple of years to do Smorgasblog as a category. There’s also Alkivia SidePosts, and it’s not bad, either. Sideblog provides a “recent posts” widget that excludes sideblog posts, so that’s cool. I used Simply Exclude to keep Smorgasblog posts out of the monthly archives, and for a while it worked great, but recently I had to uncheck that option or lose Smorgasblog’s own archive page as well.

It was that that led me to take the leap and register a new custom post type in functions.php. I used the Convert Post Types plugin to move all the posts into the just-created “smorgasblog” post type. Then I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to create a new archive page before realizing that all the online tutorials I was looking at had been written for WordPress 3.0, and 3.1 had completely redone things, rendering the previous work-arounds unnecessary. Now all you have to do is copy your single.php and archive.php pages, tweak them as necessary (in my case, to eliminate post titles and comment links, and add the text about each quote being the copyrighted work of its author), and call them archive-{post-type-name}.php and single-{post-type-name}.php. I’d be happy to share the code I used with anyone who’s interested. I’m using the Query Posts plugin to put Smorgasblog in a sidebar widget (which is also another option if you’re doing a sideblog with a dedicated category).

Unfortunately, all this work means I’m really far behind in actually reading blogs and finding things to quote and link to! (And yes, there will also be a weekly link roundup for non-blog items, insh’allah, either tonight or tomorrow morning.)

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).

Postal Poetry back online, and a facelift for Moving Poems

Ezra Pound famously advised poets to “make it new.” Poetry websites, too, can benefit from regular revamping. For the past several days, I’ve been playing around working to re-create a couple of websites. I found out last week from Marja-Leena Rathje that a site I helped publish two years ago, Postal Poetry, was no longer online, so I set to work rebuilding it from the Google Reader feed. There were only 69 posts and one page to worry about, so that part of it was actually less time-consuming than figuring out the optimal design for a static, image-heavy site and finding a free WordPress theme to provide it. Our former theme-choice worked pretty well, but it was designed for an earlier version of the WordPress software, and I didn’t think it would be worth the trouble to update it.

At first I was seduced by a beautiful design, but it didn’t really do what I wanted as far as the index and category pages were concerned, and it was practically impossible to tweak because it was one of those theme framework child themes where one isn’t supposed to make alterations except to the stylesheet and the functions.php file, and every time I tried to edit the latter, I got the infamous WordPress white screen of death and had to use FTP to restore the site. It turns out that functions files are hyper-sensitive to the wrong kind of spacing, or something. I think theme frameworks are designed solely for the convenience of professional web developers with lots of clients who don’t want to ever touch a line of code. They’re a lousy fit for hobbyists like me, who actually enjoy doing our own maintenance as long as it doesn’t involve the equivalent of dropping in a new engine.

So anyway, I ended up using a theme designed for aggregator sites. Although it’s hardly an unsophisticated theme, and works great out of the box, its designers also anticipate that users will hack the files to fit their needs. That’s what I like to see! I found a serviceable header logo in my files that Dana had designed for the original site, but that we never used, I don’t think.

It might seem crazy to spend so much time re-creating a short-lived site whose original domain name had been scavenged by someone else, but I just hate to see discontinued periodicals vanish without a trace. I got all kinds of creative inspiration from the pieces we published there — I did my Postcards from a Conquistador series that winter — and some of the best cards on the site still take my breath away.

In the process of contacting contributors to Postal Poetry to let them know that their work was back online, I was surprised to hear that one of them, Emma Passmore, had just taken the Public Jury Prize for Best Film at the 2010 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. ZEBRA is like the Academy Awards for poetry films, except that it’s truly international, with more than 900 entries this year. I can’t link to a full version of Emma’s film, Breathe, because apparently some of the festivals where it’s been shown embargo web publication for up to a year. (Who knew that film festivals were even more jealous about content than literary magazines?) She did upload the French version, so I suppose I can share that at Moving Poems, at least. Since I’ve been making a lot of low-tech one-minute videopoems lately, it’s great to see a professional director and poet win top honors for a one-minute film!

Speaking about Moving Poems, that’s been the other focus of my website-building mania of the past few days. I wanted something that made a little better use of screen real estate, while remaining fairly minimalist and easy to use. A new theme called Blogum caught my eye, and again, it proved easy to mess around with. I swapped in the fonts from the previous theme, in part to provide some stylistic continuity and in part because I preferred them to Helvetica and Arial. (The front-page tag cloud just looked terrible in Helvetica, for some reason. Verdana isn’t nearly as bad for things like that.) After a lot of puttering, I think I’ve got it pretty much the way I want it, with one exception: it could use a simpler logo in the upper left corner. Any artists or designers want to give it a shot? I can’t afford to pay, but you’d get a permanent link and credit in the footer.

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).

Literary podcasting made simple with WordPress.com

This entry is part 9 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology

 

As I opined in the first episode of the Woodrat Podcast, poetry is above all an oral art — to say nothing of storytelling. At the literary magazine I help run, qarrtsiluni, we started including audio recordings of the authors reading their works more than two years ago, once we figured out how easy it was to get the recordings. Starting this past September, we decided to repackage this feature as a daily podcast, which basically just meant adding an extra spoken introduction and a musical theme, and submitting the main RSS feed to iTunes.

Here’s the thing: for reasons of security against hackers and dependability of service, qarrtsiluni resides at the extremely reliable yet restrictive, hosted version of WordPress, WordPress.com. Anyone else with a WordPress.com site, given the right software and hardware, could podcast the same as we do. A lot of mystique surrounds the mechanics of podcasting, but nine tenths of the work is in making the recording. Beyond that, it’s as simple as uploading an audio file to any file storage site (which can be your own blog); adding the audio file link to a new post on your blog, along with an optional Flash player; and hitting Publish. That’s because WordPress feeds are designed to be correctly parsed by iTunes and other podcatchers. (This is equally true for Typepad, by the way. Blogger/Blogspot users have to route their feeds through Feedburner, I think.)

What is podcasting?

Let’s back up a second. What is a podcast? Basically, it’s an internet radio program, which may or may not be affiliated with any actual radio station.

Imagine getting new “radio”-style talk and music shows to listen to on your iPod or other MP3 player every day. You wake up and automatically have new shows ready to listen to while you exercise or commute to work. This is the podcast listening experience. […]

Podcasters are creating very raw and real content and listeners are responding. Free from corporate radio and broadcast regulations, you can create whatever kind of show you can imagine.

Some podcasts are “talk show” style. Others introduce you to the latest bands and music. With podcasts you can stay current on the news, get a glimpse into someone’s life, listen to movie reviews and the list goes on.

Not only do you not need an iPod (source of the “pod” part of “podcast”), but you don’t even need a portable digital device to listen to podcasts. Many people, me included, access them through a regular computer (though good speakers or headphones are a big help). Literary podcasts are still a little thin on the ground, which is one reason why I’m writing this article. I’d especially like to hear more writers doing their own shows in the style of T.M. Camp or Joe Milford, who uses the hosted podcast platform Blog Talk Radio for live and unedited, talk-radio-style interviews with poets. It would also be fun to hear personal bloggers talk about what they’ve been reading, writing, observing and thinking.

The Wikipedia article on podcasts has a good technical definition, attributed to journalism and communications researchers at the University of Texas:

A podcast is a digital audio or video file that is episodic; downloadable; programme-driven, mainly with a host and/or theme; and convenient, usually via an automated feed with computer software.

I don’t know anything about video podcasting, so this article will focus solely on audio. As the foregoing definition suggests, you don’t really even have to make your audio stream available through iTunes to qualify as a podcast. The fact that your site generates an RSS feed that handles audio enclosures takes care of the “convenient” part, really. It’s the other stuff — the style and content of the audio files, and the regularity with which you post them — that really differentiates podcasting from just putting up audio whenever the spirit moves you. But somewhere around 70 percent of all podcast listeners on the web do use iTunes, and it’s safe to assume that a good number of them don’t know how to enter an RSS feed in the iTunes store themselves. (Those using other podcatchers, by contrast, probably do understand such things.) So let’s go through what’s involved in submitting a WordPress.com-hosted podcast to iTunes.

Main feed, category feed, or dedicated blog?

For the qarrtsiluni daily podcast, we simply submitted our main RSS feed to the iTunes store. Previously, we had had a tri-monthly podcast in which we tried to cram the contents of entire issues. It might have failed as a podcast, being too difficult both to produce and to listen to, but again, the actual distribution part worked fine. For that earlier incarnation of the qarrtsiluni podcast, we created a new category, “podcast,” and submitted the feed for just that category.* In WordPress.com, simply add “/feed/” to the end of any category URL to get the RSS feed for that category.

If you anticipate making audio posts that are not part of your podcast, you’ll definitely want to restrict the podcast to one category. You’ll need to advertise the category RSS alongside the iTunes link for the benefit of people who want to subscribe through other podcatchers or feed readers. Obviously you can still assign a given podcast episode to multiple categories, just make sure that your podcast category is one of them. If you use your main feed, as we do now at qarrtsiluni, be mindful of the fact that iTunes and other podcatchers will treat every post with an audio link as a podcast episode.

A third option is to start a new blog just for the podcast. This gives you the most control over what image, name and description show up in iTunes, but it does mean you’ll have to work a little harder to attract an audience. Episodes won’t show up in email and RSS subscriptions for those who already follow your main site unless you cross-post them. You could of course use an RSS widget to display links to the latest episodes in your main site’s sidebar.

Podcast image and metadata

The image that iTunes will use for your podcast comes from what WordPress.com calls your blavatar (your blog’s avatar, not to be confused with your own avatar as a user of WordPress.com), and is uploaded via the General Settings page of your WordPress dashboard. Be sure to upload the largest size supported there, 128×128 pixels, to avoid pixilation… while at the same time picking something simple enough to look half-decent as a tiny favicon in browser address bars. This can make for an interesting design challenge.

The title of the podcast is simply the title of your blog, and the summary below the image is the description you entered in the general settings (which in qarrtsiluni’s case is not very illuminating: “online literary magazine”). If you use a dedicated category, the title will appear in iTunes as “yourblogtitle » podcastcategoryname,” which is slightly ungainly, and the summary will still come from the blog’s description. Optional iTunes fields such as subtitle and keywords have to go unfilled when podcasting from a WordPress.com site.

You can use the Excerpt box to make manual summaries of your posts for iTunes to use as descriptions of each podcast episode (which appear in the pop-up when you click on the little “i” with the circle around it). Otherwise, iTunes will simply include the first 65 words followed by an ellipsis. Also, these descriptions are not pretty: even apostrophes, let alone ampersands and other special characters, will be in HTML code, and links will not appear. One thing to keep in mind when crafting episode summaries or writing the first few sentences of your post is that they will be used for keyword indexing, along with the post titles.

Recording and posting

As I said at the outset, most of the work of podcasting is in making the recording, and this is where you really don’t want to cut too many corners. Yes, there are any number of ways to record spoken word, and as we’ve discovered at qarrtsiluni, even a bad telephone connection recorded over Skype can be perfectly adequate for a three-minute-long poem, especially if the reading is a strong one. But for anything much longer, it does help to have a decent external microphone. That heavy layer of electronic noise you get with the internal mike in your Mac will become tiresome to listeners after more than five minutes. You’ll need to learn how to use decent audio editing software. If you plan on interviewing a lot of people over the phone, you’ll probably want to pay for phone-out privileges in Skype, and also get the premium version of one of the several recorder software applications (I use Pamela), the free versions of which tend to limit you to 15-minute calls.

My point here is that you don’t need to pay a lot of money for equipment and software, but if you are on very a tight budget, you might not want to take up podcasting. If you’re not, the $20/year that WordPress.com/Automattic charges for the lowest file storage upgrade to 5 GB, necessary to upload any audio files to your WordPress.com blog, is a really good deal in my opinion. There is apparently no limit on file size now (it used to be around 70 MB), and no limit on transfers, bandwidth, or downloads. Yes, there are free file storage sites you can use, some more reliable than others, but what you get with WordPress.com is virtually uninterrupted service and fast, cloud-based streaming. In fact, I even use it to host the audio for my podcast here at Via Negativa, an independently hosted WordPress site. My webhost is pretty good, but it is a typical cheap shared web hosting service with occasional blips in service, and I don’t want people to be cut off in the middle of a half-hour show.

The official WordPress.com support page on how to post audio is a decent summary. Many more options for the design and positioning of the audio player are detailed at the very useful, WordPress.com-focused WordPress Tips blog.

Including a player is optional — though a very good idea — but including a link to the audio file is essential if you want podcatchers to pick up the episode. Even if you’re just posting audio and not really podcasting, including the audio file link is still a good practice to get into, since otherwise feed and email subscribers won’t have any way to listen without clicking through. Plus, not all visitors to your site will have Flash enabled, so they won’t all even see the players.

One thing to keep in mind is that iTunes and most other podcatchers will only grab the first audio file in a post, so if you produce, say, a monthly podcast in several parts, each part will need to go up in a separate post.

Submitting your feed to iTunes

First you have to post at least one episode. Then test your feed in iTunes, and if it checks out, submit it — making sure to choose the most relevant iTunes categories — and wait. As with most things Apple, the approval process is shrouded in secrecy, but I’ve done this three times now, and the longest I’ve had to wait was something like 36 hours. Once you’re approved, take the link they give you and advertise it in your sidebar and wherever else you want to promote your show.

Stats and Feedburner

At this point, WordPress.com doesn’t give bloggers any way to track the number of downloads on a podcast or other audio file, so a lot of people recommend routing your feed (main or category, whichever you’re using) through Feedburner, and submitting that instead of your WordPress.com feed. Feedburner does provide stats, but I’m not sure how reliable they are — they tend to fluctuate wildly from day to day, in my experience. Also, I found it sometimes took up to 12 hours for Feedburner feeds to update with new content, though it’s been many months since I’ve used the wretched service — perhaps it’s improved in the interim. Feedburner’s SmartCast feature does, however, give you more control over iTunes metadata, so it might be worth using for that reason alone, though I gather that getting your podcast description to update in iTunes using Feedburner is a bit of a hassle.

Good luck, and please let me know via the comments if you start a literary podcast (or already have one) so I can follow it. I may or may not be able to answer technical queries; I’m very much still a learner here, just sharing what little I’ve been able to pick up.
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*This is also my approach here at Via Negativa with the Woodrat podcast, though being independently hosted I am able to use a plugin to get some extra control over the display both on-site and in iTunes. For other self-hosted WordPressers who might be curious, I am using the newish Blubrry Powerpress plugin, though I haven’t been using it long enough to really be able to evaluate it.

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).