AJ Dyrbye

Web Developer and Digital Humanist

Tag: musing

A Metaphor

One of the constants I’ve found working in a tech field is the regular need to explain tech concepts. It’s often surprising who stumbles on what concepts, and I’ve become sufficiently immersed that it’s become easy to forget what even counts as a genuinely basic concept.

Take hosting a website as an example. I was recently reminded just how arcane the whole system of domains and servers and web files appears to those outside of that realm, as I stumbled through explaining the interrelationships to someone.

At time like these, it’s helpful to have a ready metaphor to put it all into a more familiar context. This one is a few weeks too late, but would have been handy for explaining the whole system of web hosting. It goes like this: Continue reading

The Circuitous Path

It’s been a long, meandering path to where I now stand. Finding a career job has been difficult, and despite my wishes to the contrary, is still a work in progress.

And yet, though the journey has been challenging and the way unclear, I am still glad for the experience I’ve accrued, and the knowledge I’ve gained along the way.

There’s the bookstore job, which I took on while I was finishing up the last few courses of my undergraduate degree. It made it possible for me to build my independence, and introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise. It also taught me how much I value working with my mind, that I thrive best with new challenges on the horizon, and how hard it is, financially and psychologically, to live on near-minimum wage.

There’s the utility company, where I worked in a variety of administrative positions on a term contract basis. It taught me how to function as part of a team, to be flexible and agile, that the planning and time management I relied on so heavily as an undergraduate is one of my greatest assets. I realized in this time how much I enjoy working with computer systems, and that I wanted to know not only the how but also the why of the systems I relied on daily. My time here made it clear to me that, as I was shuffled internally from one position to another according to need and long-term leaves, that I have a deep need to feel I belong and can make a lasting impact, but that the types of opportunities available to a BA in the utility business were not where I could see myself long-term. Here, I had the living wage, but still could not find the job satisfaction I craved.

And so, between the instability of the economy, the looming end of my contract with the utility company, and the limited opportunities available to me, I returned to higher education. In the final years of my undergraduate degree, the university began offering a Masters in Humanities Computing, and that knowledge had stuck in my mind like burr in the intervening years. It taught me that, by building up my computer skills, I could find a niche for my humanities background in the wider world. I learned basic programming, web markup and stylesheets, how servers work, how to integrate and manage a dataset stored in a database. I learned how to figure things out on the fly, to cope with demands that require specialized knowledge without a clear path to it. I learned to be the person mediating between the people with the ideas and the people who could build it. I learned new strategies for managing stress, and just how far a little communication can go to alleviate a hard situation. It reminded me once again how much I value working in a team environment, and showed me that, as amazing as I am in situations requiring self-motivation, I am even better when I have common goals and a support network.

Post-Masters has been challenging.

I’m fortunate, in that I’ve been able to continue with some paid project work I started as a graduate student. I’m even more fortunate that I was able to pick up a part-time web development contract, which spun out into a new web development contract. It’s reinforced how much I enjoy working with websites and building up the infrastructure that makes others’ work possible. It led me to deepen my knowledge of the WordPress CMS, which I am currently working with most.

However, that permanent long-term job has remained elusive.

It’s maddening, sending resume after resume out into the void and getting only a small number of responses in return. It’s heartbreaking to interview, to fall in love with a team and a role, only to have it go to someone else. It’s frustrating to watch the months accrue, to see no stability in sight, to have my capacity for long-term planning limited.

All I need to do is keep going forward. Send out one more resume. Tweak my web portfolio. Take that WordPress course. Go to that networking event. Spend more time with Photoshop and Illustrator. Fight back the voice that says it’s not enough, I’m not enough.

Do my best to make my own luck.

It will happen eventually. Not many people are permitted the smooth path from education to career. I have no regrets for how I got here, no matter how challenging it is not to see where I am going.

The time in between is the hard part, and what is life but a series of in-betweens?

Thoughts from the Reading Pile: Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason

Over the weekend, I started reading Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book The Age of American Unreason. It identifies and traces the resistance to science-based, rational decision-making in the American public from the perspective of a historian. Thus far it’s an engaging read, though it’s run into a few hiccups reading it from a 2014 perspective. 

I’m still early in the book, but one thing that has jumped out at me is Jacoby’s lament that reading is no longer valued as it once was:

What kind of reading has exploded on the Internet? Certainly not the reading of serious books, whether fiction or nonfiction. The failure of e-books to appeal to more than a niche market is one of the worst kept secrets in publishing, in spite of the reluctance of publishers to issue specific sales figures. Even a popular mass-market novelist like Stephen King has flopped on the Web. In 2001, King attempted to serialize one of his supernatural thrillers online, with the proviso that readers pay $1 for the first three installments and $2 for the subsequent portions. Those who downloaded the installments were to pay on an honor system, and King pledged to continue serialization as long as 75 percent of readers paid for the downloads. By the fourth installment, the proportion of paid-up readers dropped to 46 percent, and King cancelled the series at the end of the year. King’s idea of serialization had of course been tried before, and it was a huge success–in the nineteenth century. London readers used to get up early and wait in lines for the newest installment of a novel by Charles Dickens; in New York, Dickens fans would meet the boats known to be carrying copies of the tantalizing chapters. The Web, however, is all about the quickest possible gratification; it may well be that people most disposed to read online are least disposed to wait any length of time for a new chapter of a work by their favorite writer.

Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008): 16-17.

Leaving aside the issue of what counts as a ‘serious book’ (it is at least as old as the first lurid broadsheet off the printing press), this whole line of argument dates the book in fascinating ways. It’s only been six years since this was published, and yet the technological changes in between have opened an enormous gulf.

Our relationship to reading and the internet has shifted in the last few years, in no small part due to improvements in microprocessor technology. It has made smartphones widely affordable, and paved the way for the release of Apple’s iPad in 2010, as the first practical, consumer-level tablet computer. Furthermore, in late 2007 when this book would likely have just wrapped up edits and been in preparation for final publication, Amazon released the first generation Kindle ebook reader.

These three technologies, dedicated ebook readers, smartphones and tablets, have had an enormous impact on ebook sales. While the debate on the comparative merits of print versus ebooks is still going strong, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 report on ereading shows ebooks are growing in popularity in the United States, and have become a significant part of the market. This same report shows that about 76% Americans have read at least one book in any format in the last year, and that ebook reading in particular has increased from 17% to 28% between 2011 and 2014. I contest that, rather than destroying reading by encouraging instant gratification, the internet has become a means of satisfying that desire where reading is concerned. 

I can’t hold Jacoby’s assessment of the internet and ebooks against her, though I’m curious whether she’s revised her view since this was published. I can, however, take issue with her comparison of Charles Dickens and Stephen King. 

Dickens and King come from two entirely different publishing environments. It’s easy to forget, I think, just how revolutionary and important mass printing technology was to culture prior to the advent of radio and moving pictures, never mind television and the internet. At the time Dickens was publishing, magazines and penny dreadfuls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful) (cheaply produced, sensational fiction publications) were an enormously popular form of mass entertainment. Consider, for example, the public uproar when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dared to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Serial fiction inspired the kind of passion we now direct at television, movies and video game franchises (see Firefly, Veronica Mars, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Halo, Mass Effect and so forth).

Stephen King is popular, no doubt about it, but it’s hard to see how comparing his 2001 experiment in web serializing, The Plant , is any more than superficially similar. At the time, ebooks were still primarily appealing to a niche market, not an established force in popular culture. The Green Mile, which was published originally as a set of six short mass-market paperbacks spaced a month apart, is the better analogue though it lacked simultaneous ebook editions. In contrast with The Plant, which King abandoned after only six parts due to disappointing sales, The Green Mile was a best seller. It also won the 1996 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, received nominations for both the British Fantasy and the Locus Awards in 1997, and was adapted into a successful and critically well-received film a few years later – clear metrics of success.

Rather, I think that King’s web serial was the right idea at the wrong time. The notion has recently been revived to better success, though it remains to be seen what will come of it. In 2012, science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor announced that they would be publishing John Scalzi’s next novel, The Human Division, as an ebook serial on a subscription model. I couldn’t find sales figures in the short time I have to devote to a blog post, but it was a successful experiment in Scalzi’s assessment, and Tor announced a second ‘season’ to continue the story shortly after the final episode was released. 

I’m interested to see where the ebook market goes in the next several years; the shifts in technology typified here formed a cornerstone of my Masters thesis. I am particularly interested to find out what things we ‘know’ now will be proven laughably wrong in hindsight. It’s entirely possible there is something, or several somethings, that I’ve written future readers will find as peculiar as Jacoby’s views on reading in 21st century America.

On Creating in WordPress

A Few Thoughts on WordPress versus Hand-Coding

In the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to go in-depth with WordPress as a web development platform. 

This represented a departure for me. Ever since I first learned HTML, back in the days of Geocities and table-based layouts, I’ve been most at ease hand-coding my pages. While I’ve used web development software before, I appreciate the control and depth of understanding hand-coding permits.

Which is not to say that it is without drawbacks. Designing and modifying a website in a text processor is time-consuming, even with a modular design and PHP to stitch it all together. It’s easy to introduce errors; all it takes is one mis-spelled semantic element, or misremembering one piece of CSS syntax. I’ve spent many hours tweaking box element positions on a stylesheet even when all is going well.

Yet, it’s easy, too easy, for me to get caught up with layouts and structure at the expense of the site as a whole. Spelling and grammar are harder to proof, for one. More critically, it’s harder to step back to see the overall effectiveness of a site when I’ve spent hours working with lines of code for just one part of one page. To be fair, some of that may be an artifact of being just one person, and never mind one who is still learning in many respects.

By contrast, working with WordPress emphasizes content. Instead of creating a layout from scratch, users choose a preset. Instead of writing a new file for each page, users choose from a short list of templates, then proceed immediately to formatting their text and adding media. 

It is simultaneously restrictive and strangely freeing.

When I started working with the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum project, they had no website to speak of, just a space on the University of Alberta’s ARC servers and a WordPress install. All it took for me to get the site roughed in and ready for project content was a Skype call with the coordinating committee and a few afternoons of creating pages, setting up menus and roughing in the sidebars with example content. By contrast, it took me weeks of dedicated work to get the case study website I designed for my thesis structured and styled.

Despite the time it took to get the formatting just so in WordPress’ page editor (amazing disappearing non-breaking spaces! Header tags mysteriously applied to whole paragraphs!), it was almost absurdly fast to get each new page populated and ready to go. No messing with positioning, no time spent searching out where I missed a close tag in an unordered list, no playing around with formatting individual CSS classes, just a polished page. 

I’m of two minds on this. It’s great to have it done in relatively short order, ready for the world to see. However, I feel like I’ve invested very little of myself in the pages, beyond the images and text. With WordPress, and especially with the free version I’m currently using, there is a limited capacity to alter layouts, change fonts, experiment with colour schemes, or refine how the pages behave under various devices or browsers. 

It’s great to have a portfolio up and running so quickly, but at the same time, I built my first one from scratch for good reason. It was a chance to not only demonstrate that I can build a competent, if basic, website from scratch, but also a place to refine and practice my HTML and CSS. That said, I also learned a great deal from running the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum site as an admin; it gave me the broader view of good site design by distancing me from the level of code.

I’m still deciding how I want to go forward from here. I like WordPress, despite its limitations, even though I miss getting deep into the code level. Yet, I still value my old portfolio, and I regret the loss of both it and my thesis case study website with the end of my university hosting.

Perhaps it’s simply time to invest in a domain and hosting. Transfer over my older work, and give myself the ability to effect greater control over my WordPress work. Worst case scenario? I develop a passion for WordPress theme development.

Pardon My Dust

Today marks the official re-opening of this blog. 

When I began this WordPress site, it was bare-bones, no more than a place to hold textual thoughts as I explored programming concepts from a newly post-Masters perspective. I didn’t bother with anything but the most basic setup on the logic that I would be best off focusing exclusively on the words while I built up my writerly momentum. 

Even with this low level of commitment, life got into the way.

It happens. Blogs are started and abandoned with regularity; it takes a particular kind of person to keep one going for the long haul.

So, why revive it now?

It’s a straightforward tale. This site fulfils a more urgent need than it once did, and I now have more time to devote to it. Mercenary reasons are as good as any.

In short, I recently finished up work on a major web development contract. It was time to update my web portfolio to reflect it, and I soon discovered that my post-Masters self no longer has login rights to make the changes.

Moving on from my University-hosted homepage is, at the end of the day, a good thing. It’s long past time I investigated other options. I’m proud of the work I did there, but I’m glad I’ve had the kick I needed to expand beyond it.

I’ve spent the last few weeks revamping this site to act as a new portfolio. I’ve lived and breathed WordPress the last six months, and it made good sense to come back here. In the process, I realized that once again, I had things to say. Where I’ve been, where I’m going, what I’ve learned of late. 

And so, here I am. 

At this precise moment, I write to silence. I have a lot of work yet to do, a publication schedule to establish. A shiny new page structure and a banner image are merely a good start.

We’ll see where it goes from here.

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