Welcome Home [#21]

Busy, busy, busy. Life is far too busy right now. I only got back from the Hebrides on Monday and we’re already packing for the next trip! Not that I’m complaining about being on the move, it’s definitely my preferred state, but I barely feel like I’ve touched base with the rest of my life.

It also means I haven’t been reading very much. A few articles, here and there, but nothing worth writing about (not quite, anyway). I’m now two months behind on my MiMs (shame!) and don’t foresee that getting fixed any time soon. A have thousands of photographs to process from the last few weeks and another few hundred still queued from before that. On top of which, work is stacked up as well, so lunches have been eaten into as I catch up on various projects. The long and the short of it is that I’ve not got anything to write about and only another 30 minutes to write…

Except, that’s complete nonsense. If anything, I actually have too much to write about! The Hebrides (both Outer and Inner) were stunning, the highlands were fascinating, we met some really interesting people and I’ve had time to try out a bunch of creative techniques and start up several new projects. The problem, really, isn’t lack of content, it’s lack of time to do the content justice. Still, sometimes you just have to put proverbial pen-to-paper and push forward, so here we are.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks, I’ll get some more rounded, fleshed out thoughts written on our latest trip to the Western Isles (maybe even with accompanying imagery – wouldn’t that be a shock!). I definitely want to write up a checklist of the species we saw, places we went and food we ate. But, that can all wait for now, because first of all I want to talk about a minor revelation (or even revolution) that I had whilst on the Isle of Skye. Specifically, a revelation about theAdhocracy and what it has come to mean.

It hasn’t been that long since I last wondered aloud what the purpose of this website is. Then, as with previous times, I slightly dodged the bullet, declaring it:

equal parts scrap book and playground.

Except, that was a bit of a lie. Sure, that’s what I use theAdhocracy for, but it was never the core purpose for its existence. I didn’t mention it then because it’s a little, well, embarrassing. I was ashamed of the actual answer because theAdhocracy is, in some ways, a triumph, but it is also a very large failure.

I have a website because I want to be a website designer. It’s that simple. I’ve always enjoyed mucking around with HTML, CSS and all the other bits and pieces that make up the internet. There was even a time when, with the help of a talented and much more artistic friend, I used to make websites for money. We didn’t make very many, we didn’t make them particularly well (my fault – not his), but it made me realise that the web was something I enjoyed working with.

That was a decade ago (shudder) and I’ve never gone back. I went to university to study computer science specifically to become a web developer, but chose my course poorly and ended up graduating as a geologist (long story). Now, I work in programming, but not with websites. That, truthfully, is why theAdhocracy exists. It was meant to be somewhere for me to relearn how the web works, to play around with new technologies and experiment with developing standards. But more than that, this website was meant to be a jumping off platform for a career.

theAdhocracy was supposed to be my portfolio. It was supposed to be somewhere I could point potential clients to, somewhere to create freelancing opportunities through. The first time I devised a logo (still haven’t made it) and registered the domain was actually before making my first (and only) freelance pitch. It was meant to be a relatively easy, sure-think put together by a friend. It was actually a massively embarrassing failure where I talked excitedly to someone who had no idea who I was, why I was there or what was happening and never contacted me again. It was a grounding experience and threw me a little, so after I graduated and decided to try again I made the decision not to pitch until I had a portfolio. Which is a bit of a paradox. And another failure.

But I’m not writing this to moan or ask for sympathy. I’m writing this because, whilst on the Isle of Skye, I realised I’ve changed my mind. I’m still interested in working on the web, but it’s no longer the only end game. There are a huge number of careers I’d like to try, with web developer still amongst them, but no longer at the top of the stack. Plus, even if I did go down the freelance route, it wouldn’t be as theAdhocracy. The name has a convoluted and personal history; it still makes me smile and I wouldn’t change it if you paid me (well… how much are we talking?). But it isn’t a customer-facing name. It doesn’t make enough sense.

So that’s that. This website isn’t going anywhere, but I’m officially shrugging off this weight of guilt and frustration that has built up over how I’m using (or not using) it. Maybe, some day, I’ll design another website – it may even be to replace this one. But from now on, theAdhocracy has one purpose only: to be a place I keep stuff I want to keep. Reviews, articles, links, photographs, videos… whatever! Somewhere to be creative, without worrying about how it will affect a ‘brand’ that doesn’t exist. This has been my digital home for several years, but I haven’t been able to think of it like that because I wanted it to be my digital storefront. Well, not any more. That ends today. Welcome home.

Scrobbling Movies [#2]

I find it slightly bizarre how popular Last.fm has become over time. I understand that the service now offers a plethora of features, including some powerful music discovery tools, yet at the core Last.fm is just an overly detailed extension of the play count found in every media player since Windows XP. It tracks what music you listen to; that’s it, the whole of their USP.

To be clear, I may find it bizarre but I am not surprised at the service’s popularity. Personally, I love Last.fm and thoroughly enjoy digging into my monthly/annual listening habits, seeking out new artists or rediscovering ones I had forgotten. It’s continued popularity proves that I am not alone and that, bells and whistles aside, being able to analyse your musical tastes and use them to inform future experiences is something that a decent number of people see value in.

So I find it all the more irritating that there doesn’t appear to be a similar service available for film/TV. There are services like Letterboxd that let me manually track what I watch, but I already do that. There’s nothing extra on offer and they are particularly lacking a visual media analogue to scrobbling. When they launched, scrobbling was a seriously weird idea, but it solved the single largest issue that Last.fm had: apathy. When I’m listening to music, I don’t want to have to pause every few minutes, break out of ‘the zone’ and write down what I’ve just heard. No, Last.fm had to find a way to make the data gathering automatic, ensuring their datasets are as complete as possible.

With movies and TV there are further obstacles, chiefly that the methods of consumption are not quite so intricately linked with the internet or computers in general. But with the rise and rise of streaming services such as Netflix combined with the increasing trend of buying media digitally should result in these roadblocks slowly eroding away. Hopefully, soon, someone will pop up to start taking advantage of that process.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue looking for options and pondering my own. I would love to be able to put something together here, just a quick notes section that I could easily type up and submit to directly from my phone. Perhaps I could get it running, but in reality it will likely remain as a Todoist task for months. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The New 52: A Challenge [#1]

Well it’s a new year and that means a new challenge: The New 52!

First of all, no I am not challenging myself to read the entirety of DC’s New 52 range of comics, nor am I going to eat my way through 52 varieties of Heinz. Instead, this challenge can be considered a spiritual successor to the 100×100 challenge that effectively caused theAdhocracy to exist.

I’ve (hopefully) learnt from my mistakes, however, so the ‘New 52’ is going to be a little looser and a lot more lenient. The aim is to publish one article a week, every week, until December 31st. No daily or (really) weekly commitments and no punishments; articles can be queued up months in advance or left pending until I actively need them. There are no restrictions on content, so an article can be ten words or ten thousand long and it doesn’t matter a jot. Similarly, articles that I already intended to write count just as much as utterly unique posts, so hopefully my Month in Media series (behind yet again!) will fill up 12 of the respective slots straight away.

The hope is to craft a challenge with low stress levels but just enough incentive to actually push me to write when my reptile brain is screaming “why bother!”. I’m aware that it’s not the biggest challenge but, ultimately, it’s something I’ve never actually done. I published 23 articles last year, including MiMs, so managing 52 in 2017 would be over a 100% increase, which would be pretty awesome to be able to achieve.

So, with that said, welcome to article #1 of 52. I’ll be interested to see what the others stack up to be.

It’s Been A While; Plus Thoughts on Pluses

So… it’s been a while.

It’s been a while since I last posted an article. Part of that has been due to a month of incredible busyness where even the planned “down time” became frantic research time for car insurance, holiday planning, present purchasing etc. The rest has been Pokémon Go!, which has eaten free time like nothing else in recent history.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a movie. Sort of. The reality is, I’ve actually managed to keep on top of those over the last week or so, but I have a couple annoyingly outstanding from a time BPg (Before Pokémon Go!) and I’m not 100% happy with the current state of some of the others. July’s MiM is coming, with some interesting new ‘features’, but it may be a week or so late.

It’s been a while since I spent any time working on this website. Again, in a time BPg (historians will catch on, I’m sure of it) I was getting close to making some pretty big, radical changes to the backend here. They hit a slight snag which morphed into a major roadblock simply because I still haven’t really sat down to mull it over. Still, plans are slowly creeping forward!

It’s been a while since I did any photo editing. Despite weekend after weekend of major events in the past month, which have produced hundreds of photos I’m genuinely proud of, I haven’t posted to Flickr in coughmumblemumble… I’m not proud of that, but again, plans may finally be moving forward.

It’s been a while since I saw something truly exemplary online. There have been some great videos and some new passions, but nothing that’s made me sit up and go: yes! I agree! Let’s think about/act on that right now! Luckily, this waiting period has actually ended thanks to the ever inspiring Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I don’t want to go too deep into my thoughts right now because, well, this post has ballooned into something else which I quite like, but lets just say they’ve struck a nerve.

In a handful of recent Youtube videos, they both touched upon a worrying trend online, specifically that angry voices, ranting and outrage are becoming increasingly prevalent. In some ways, that’s totally okay, but the ubiquity and degree of rage is getting out of control. Between the two videos they discussed why anger leads to poor conversations, why it builds so much traction online, why that may provoke certain elements to create and foster this emotion above others and, most importantly, presented one method for potentially combating this trend. In terms of the “whys”, rather than regurgitate their words I’d urge you to just watch the videos. If the virality of anger is something that interests you, I’d also thoroughly recommend this analysis by CGPGrey.

What really made me sit up and take note, though, was their suggestion to combat saltiness and flame wars on Youtube: “+” comments. Because Youtube ranks comments based on the number of Likes and Comments they get, but comments are weighted higher than likes, angry/flamebait comments tend to rise to the top, causing a circle jerk of ever increasing rage. Hank Green, instead, suggested that people should leave a comment with a simple “+” symbol on any comments they felt worthy of praise, discussion or both. In doing so, they’ve hacked their own Youtube comments section into one where bile and trolling isn’t rewarded and genuine discussion/ideas are. It’s by no means perfect, but I thoroughly agree with both brothers when they say that it is as much the community’s job to police themselves and maintain order as it is the platform’s.

Personally, I’m a big fan of “+” comments. It may be that Youtube eventually begins to remove them or negate their importance, but in the meantime they seem to be a power for good. In particular, I feel they may be much more effective than reporting negative/trolling/abusive comments. I’m a firm believer that a carrot will be more likely to provoke change than a stick (plus, over reliance on the stick reduces it’s power/thorniness).

theAdhocracy Mark II: The Rehosting

CSS? Fonts? Italics? Sidebars? What witchcraft is this? Is this not theAdhocracy, the home of plain HTML and nothing more (despite the clear problems associated with that)? Well: yes! But at the same time: No! Technicalities! Either way, welcome to theAdhocracy Mark II (no purchase required)!

There’s nothing too fancy about this change. Updated visuals are provided courtesy of the 2016 default WordPress theme, not my own endeavours. And yes, that means the backend remains WordPress (for now). The host, however is entirely new! I haven’t had the best experience with iPage, what with the multiple outages, lacklustre support, terrible interface and the many, many other headaches I’ve had over the past year. So when I received a frankly extortionate renewal invoice edging towards £200, the the final nail was struck into the coffin.

Since that email I’ve been steadily shopping around and I have to say: woah! The hosting market in the UK has really stepped it up a notch. Prices have plummeted, monthly contracts (rather than annual) are now far more common and generally high quality, well trusted hosting has become affordable. Last year’s runner up was 123-Reg, which would be a simple switch for me as I already host all of my domains with them. However, in the end (and this still amazes me), despite some great offers they just weren’t competitive enough.

Instead, I’ve thrown in my lot with SmartHosting (.co.uk, not .com, there appears to be a difference). It was a close call between several new options, but SmartHosting’s immensely positive reviews and clear web design swayed me; their price wasn’t too big of a problem either! So far the switch has been wonderful. It is such a pleasure to be using a modern, up to date version of cPanel again (I really don’t think I can stress that enough)! Installing WordPress was quick and easy and allowed me to simply Export/Import my databases. Domain pointing is much simpler and I can already tell that it will be less of a headache to host several websites (i.e. possible) than with iPage.

It hasn’t all been butterflies and rainbows, though largely due to my own errors. I had become “used” to iPage’s archaic folder structure, so just assumed all web content had to reside in the “public_html” folder. As a result, I tried installing two separate websites there and pointed my various domains at the relevant subfolders. Unfortunately, because my “main domain” (this one) seemingly had to be pointed at “public_html” rather than a subfolder, a little bit of URL manipulation allowed you to navigate from this site to any of my others. I was confused and a little frustrated, even if this behaviour made sense to me, because I couldn’t “repoint” this domain.

In the end I opened a support ticket. The reply was disheartening, but frighteningly prompt (I’m used to iPage response times, measured in hours or days) arriving in less than five minutes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t change where the “main” domain pointed; however, I could point my other domains at folders outside of “public_html”. That’s right, the support staff actually offered a constructive solution that served my needs far better than the one I had proposed! This is how support tickets should work and definitely reinforced the smug feeling that I’d made the right decision.

iPage, on the other hand, have had a hit’n’miss final few days. Initial efforts to disable “auto renewal” were rendered moot as the system refused to save/update my preferences. Irritating, but by that point I had already migrated and was happy to just cancel my account. Searching how to cancel, however, requested that I disable auto renewal… a dead end. Instead I attempted to “chat” with their support and was greeted by a five minute count down. It was the weekend, so this seemed fair, but after 10 minutes of “We’ll answer any moment now!” I caved, refreshed and started the count down again. Three attempts (and almost an hour) later I gave up completely and just rang them.

To their credit, this part of the process was swift and painless. I had feared a nightmarish entanglement of prompts and options followed by a fight and multiple offers. Luckily, I received a clear option path to the cancellation team followed by a courteous staff member who only offered his deepest regrets (rather than discount vouchers etc.). The whole process took less than ten minutes and two days later the account (and all my details, web files etc.) are deleted, as I had requested.

To be clear, iPage are not an awful company. They have never seriously screwed me over and the few times I have asked for help, I’ve received it (albeit slowly), but they’re also not great. Their software could be better, their website could be better and their support could be better. At the moment, everything is just about passable, but that means they’re increasingly being left behind by the competition. It also means I wouldn’t recommend them.
Currently, SmartHosting are doing a lot better. Only time will tell if that initial warm glow fades away and, if so, by how much.

Time Sinks and Indie Thoughts

I’ve just noticed that it’s been over a week since my last post. In and of itself, that isn’t an issue. There are no schedules here; I have no binding commitments to theAdhocracy. Entire months or years could pass between posts and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid (though, I hope, I would feel a little sad). Instead, the lack of a post is noteworthy because I’ve actually been writing content consistently for the last four days, as well as a couple of days last week. That content isn’t still stuck in draft form, it’s all fully edited and ready to ship (so to speak). In my mind it’s actually finished, archived and filed away as a completed job well done. So the reality that no one else can see these posts genuinely struck me as a little odd. This scenario is not one I had really considered when I started my monthly media roundups, but I guess, in hindsight, it can’t really be avoided. One large post a month may have to substitute for more regular content – right now I don’t have a solution, except to make sure my posted content is more varied.

One clear way to increase the throughput to the visible side of theAdhocracy would be to utilise micropublishing, effectively pulling in any facebook posts, RSS likes, instagram/Flickr photos etc. and cataloguing them all here. But, oh no! Once again I’ve stumbled into the indie web without any preparation. I wrote about my headaches with the learning curve associated with the indie web before. What I didn’t realise then was that the very person I’d “called out” in that post had already created what I was asking for: a more simplified, step-by-step guide to getting started on the indie web. So that’s awesome (and, once again, thank you Jeremy Keith!). Now to just find some time to play around with the suggestions. Oh and get my back end in shape first. Plus, maybe tidy up how my current categories work. I mean I’m not stalling at all…

Monthly Media: Coming Soon

Last month I wrote up a post detailing the films I’d seen in March. When I initially started blogging again last year I had hoped that mini-reviews and similar content would become a mainstay, something I could easily throw together when I was doing the 100×100 challenge, setting a precedent to continue once that was over. Simply put, I wanted to (and still hope to) keep a record of the books, graphic novels, films, music and TV shows that I have watched/read/consumed alongside a (hopefully brief) synopsis of my related thoughts. Too often I’ve had conversations where I knew I’d read or watched a particular piece of media, but couldn’t really remember anything more than a vague outline of the story and a simplistic gut reaction: liked, hated, frustrated me etc.

Obviously, this record has not been a massive success. There are simply dozens of examples of all of the above that haven’t ended up with even one line reviews in the interim (indeed, I couldn’t find a single album/music review, despite swearing I’d written a piece on TwentyOne Pilots), so last month I trialled something a little different. Rather than write an individual review for each film I watched, I just added onto a rolling draft post and published at the end of the month (or slightly after, I might have forgotten for a bit…). As a result, I actually wrote reviews. They were quick, often initial impressions that I fleshed out when I came to actually hit publish, allowing me to jot down the key ideas ASAP; they also made me feel a lot better about not writing very much, just the core details I wanted to remember, as the post grew to a decent length through volume anyway.

As a result I’m going to trial a few more months where I expand the content being recorded. Far from just films, a monthly media mashup (title pending) will hopefully mean that there’s always a handful of reviews and that no one area gets forgotten or ignored. It also means that, in months like this one, when I have an influx of one type of media (in this case, deciding to buy a bunch of graphic novels sat on my watch list for a few months) I can fire them all in as quickly as I consume them. So that’s the plan; let’s see how long it sticks for!

Judging Time

Time, and specifically timing, is a very hard thing to judge and something which is largely overlooked in our day-to-day lives. That’s probably fine for common household chores, such as washing dishes or taking out the trash, but even these can benefit from a little temporal introspection. Don’t believe me? Okay, well, where I live we have two common problems: wild animals (read: gulls and foxes) and a storage heating system*. Stick your garbage bag out the night before and the gulls are likely to come raiding, but I often don’t have time to sort everything in the morning. Timing becomes important. As for the dishes, leave them for the first thing in the morning and you get scolding hot water, perfect for greasy pans; conversely, try and do them in the evening and you might not have enough water for a bath!

I’ll admit these types of examples will change for everybody and are highly subjective. So what about more measurable, universal timing issues? There is a common factoid that Thursday is the best day to upload a video to Youtube. I have no idea if this is correct, but a lot of content creators do abide by it. What about blog posts? Are there preferential days for either publishing or reading articles?

I imagine this will largely be dictated by the demographics that comprise your majority audience, but I also feel it safe to assume that most blog posts are “time-less”**; that is the “when” of reading is much less important as they are time non-specific (this will obviously change if you blog about current events, news cycles etc.). Impact, however, is often largely dictated by that self-same “when” – not the “when” of publishing, but of reading.

Take for example A List Apart, which I’ve been pushing to the bottom of my “to read” list since early December. There’s no particular reason for this decision, I’ve just felt like catching up on other RSS feeds for the past month or so, but that trend ended today. I fired up my feed-reader, opened up A List Apart and scrolled down to the oldest article: Professional Amateurs, Write What You Know (Now). The article is by Mark Llobrera and, as ever, is well worth the time to read through and absorb. It also happens to be highly pertinent, given my recent return to this here website.

Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t have enjoyed the article in December, but it definitely would not have had the same impact. In the run up to Christmas, an article arguing that I should spend more time writing about the “mundane and obvious”, because everything was worth capturing, would probably have elicited a sage nod of the head and a mental note to revisit at a later date. If it was lucky, I may have saved it to Evernote, then likely forgotten it (possibly indefinitely). However, reading it in early February, at the start of my lunch break, having just found the time to return to blogging resulted in, well, this post. It both sparked my desire to write and gave me fresh ammo, but crucially did so at a juncture when time was available. As a result, the article has had a tangible impact and will likely stick in my mind for many months to come (as well as getting added to Evernote).

It would have been pretty much impossible for Mark to have correctly judged that timing, and I’m not claiming he should have. But it definitely strikes me that thinking about content with regards to the when of its readers is probably worth considering a lot more than people currently do. I may also be stealing the “Technology’s Betrayal” blog category… but that’s largely unrelated!


 

* FYI this means that our hot water/heaters do all their “heating” over night, when electricity is cheapest. Not a perfect system, but another example of optimising timing.

** Mine certainly are!

Take Two

This isn’t defeat, the challenge is still rolling on!

But it was defeat and the challenge limped into an early grave, where it has now gathered a substantial coat of moss. There’s really no another way to say it: my “100 words” challenge failed. The server issues escalated (then abated, then escalated, then went away, then came back seemingly indefinitely… frustrating does not begin to cut it) and ground away what was left of my resolve*. I still have absolutely no idea what caused the issues, nor indeed whether they’re still a problem, but I felt it was about time I dusted off this blog and started using it again.

Does this mean 100 words are back? No. What I learnt from that 1.5 months was that a 100 word limit was more frustrating than it was liberating. Yes, it forced me to write succinctly and, yes, it allowed me to feel justified writing on a large variety of topics, but no, it was not “simple” or “easy”. Previous writing challenges had failed because the text became too unwieldy, too cumbersome under my own self-imposed requirements and quality control. The 100 word limit was intended to force me to be short and snappy, rather than extrapolating and expanding on my posts, yet the end result was frustration. Posts were not quick to write, as I had predicted; ideas that could fill 100 words were plentiful but often needed more than 100 words to articulate. Where time was saved in overly verbose essays and fretting over formatting it was lost – by the bucket-load! – in micro-managing phraseology and re-editing perfectly usable paragraphs to scrape off a couple of words. Ideas had to be scrapped, dumbed down or cut off at the knees; they were rarely allowed to grow and take shape.

I think this can be seen most clearly in the fact that all my 100 words posts were exactly that: 100 words long. I had envisaged that most would come in around the 80-90 word mark, but in reality 100 words is simply too little. Right now, brushing over details and cutting out huge chunks of why the challenge grew stale I’m at 350+ words (and growing). Trying to write this in 100 words would have been painful. In attempting to free myself I had only imposed tighter restraints.

That said, had it not been for the server issues, I would have continued drudging along and posting my 100 words – I may have even completed the challenge! But it would have marred an otherwise fantastic trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where 10 minutes of downtime was a luxury, let alone the hour or more an average 100 words had come to require. Ultimately, I would have become bitter about the process, and would likely have simply stopped posting as soon as it was done – a fact I feel is self-evident given the amount of time that has elapsed between that post and this one!

Still, for better or worse (that phrase again), here I am: posting once more. This time, I’m making no promises. I’m setting no limits. I want to see if the server is usable; if the desire to be here waxes or wanes. But, for now, I want to post again, just little thoughts, tips, ideas or tidbits. Nothing fancy, no goals. So welcome, I guess, to my digital notebook (take two).


* TBC: I did manage a couple more days on WorkFlowy, but the whole website crashing so vehemently definitely took the wind out of my sails and then we went on holiday and I thought “sod it, I’m just going to enjoy this”. I guess I’ve been in the doldrums ever since…