Wakey-wakey!

Welcome to another thrilling episode of The Blog About Developing A Blog. Special “I think I’ve got this licked, no really, I think I’ve got it” edition.

As you can see: the Celestial Waste of Bandwidth has a new theme. It’s in progress, but I like it a lot and it represents something worth writing about.

When last we talked about The Making Of The Site, I waxed emphatically about just flat-out robbing my friend Jason Snell blind. His Sixcolors blog was, and remains, an inspiration. It’s just so clean and friendly!

Now armed with a clear direction, I spent the remainder of the winter scheming to hire someone to do some WordPress building. The idea was to hire someone to take a basic theme or framework and turn it into the new CWOB by doing all of the CSS, PHP, and HTML mods to the theme that (collectively) sap my will to somethingorother.

Some readers presented me with very kind offers to do the work for free, but I would have felt like I was taking advantage of their generosity. I lined up a couple of WordPress devs whose work I liked and who wanted to take the gig, but I needed to wait for a hole to appear in their busy schedules (that’s how good these folks are).

In the meantime, things lay somewhat fallow.

I remembered that my hosting service, Media Temple, charges me just for the wear-and-tear on their servers. I can have one blog or a hundred; they’re happy to just keep creating new WP instances on my virtual server.

So I created a couple of new blogs and started to play with them. There’s a lot of freedom in anonymity. I can do something dumb with a design and leave it up for days, just to see if I still hate it a few days later. I can install plugins and themes and screw around to my heart’s content. It’s like having your own sandpit and stable of bulldozers and bucket loaders. All I’m doing is pushing dirt into piles, and carving out holes, and moving piles into holes and making new ones. It’s fun!

(One of these test blogs is online, in fact, and it’s got a few weeks’ worth of nifty original content. I leave its discovery as an exercise for the reader. I’ll probably migrate its content here eventually.)

During this freewheeling period, I discovered the standard WordPress “Twentyfifteen” theme. The basic layout wasn’t exactly what I had imagined for the redesign. But it was good. And, it looked good on phones and tablets.

I kept working with it and noticed something else that made me very happy: its built-in styles were almost all great.

It’s such a simple thing to be happy about. But check this out:

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.
Hey, wow, swans in the Public Garden!

…It’s a photo, centered within its enclosing container.

I could cry, I’m so happy about it. All I had to do was tell this theme that I wanted this photo to be centered. And it’s centered. Just like that!

I’m sorry for getting all emotional. But I’ve been tearing my hair out over this issue. I download a theme, and it’s nice, but it’s part of some sort of religious cult that believes that Jesus lives on the left-hand margin and that an image that doesn’t want to hug Jesus is evil evil EVIL.

It illustrates my ongoing problems with the fancier themes I’ve been trying. I like the overall look of it. I appreciate how easy it is to click some buttons and make adjustments to the style, and I would think I was home and dry.

But as Douglas Adams said in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” I wasn’t even home and vigorously toweling myself off. Because everywhere I turned, I’d find a CSS style that I couldn’t stand. Like a quote style that had a big cartoony quotation mark behind it and obliqued, and with puffy letters completely out of scale with everything else on the page.

It would have been little trouble to dig into the CSS and fix it. But multiply that by another dozen or two problematic things.

The previous theme I’d tried (a commercial one) was too clever. It wanted to insert a big bloated icon in the headline of every blog post, to helpfully signal you that this post, which only contains a huge photo, is in fact a photo post, which you wouldn’t have sussed without the huge cartoonish camera icon.

I hated, hated, hated that.

I couldn’t eliminate the things without doing a lot of editing of the PHP code in the theme files, which themselves were so complex that making a fix work predictably was a lot of work. Again, not so terrible a job in and of itself, but it was another item on a long punchlist of to-dos, and the weight of it ultimately tripped the pad on my “Why do I even bother?” rat trap.

It says something about tech in general. Imagine a machine that cures all forms of cancer with just twenty daily treatments. Your doctor tells you how many units of treatment the machine should deliver for your specific diagnosis and stage of treatment.

The machine’s keypad only has five buttons: 3, 7, plus, minus, enter. So if he says you need 18 units, you have to work out the math and then key in 7 PLUS 7 PLUS 7 PLUS 3 MINUS ENTER.

You would do this, because it’s a machine that will cure your cancer in just 20 treatments.

Most pieces of technology do not cure cancer.

There is a point at which the user is being confronted with way too much work for too little reward. And if the thing is designed really poorly (or in the case of WordPress: just not designed for consumers), he or she also thinks that by going through these hoops, he’s encouraging the behavior of psychopathic engineers.

I’ve seen user interface choices that were so bad that they only possible explanation is that the person who made them was hoping that the TV exec responsible for the cancellation of ‘Firefly’ would use this some day.

Remember that building websites isn’t my passion. Here, check out one of my favorite blogs. This guy is, by far, the handiest person I’ve ever encountered on the Web. He’s restoring an Austin 7 by hand.

“Big deal…lots of people restore cars as a hobby.” Well, sir, you don’t, so perhaps you shouldn’t be so dismissive.

He’s practically creating every part from iron ore that he digs himself. He formed the entire body, by hand, by pounding sheets of metal with a hammer. Oh, the hood attaches to the body with hinges. So, he makes the hinges himself.

Clearly, he’s doing this project for reasons other than just getting a cool old car. The process fascinates and delights him. He revels in the details and every problem solved adds (in retrospect) makes the meal more satisfying.

I do not have this relationship with WordPress. I enjoy writing stuff. Look, WordPress tells me that I’ve written 2000 words in this post so far! For no tangible reward other than endorphin flow!

I just want the blog to look nice. I don’t want to feel frustrated every time I look at a page. And I want you folks to be presented with something that looks swell.

Thus, every time I have to spend twenty minutes doing something for this site that doesn’t involve writing, it’s a super bummer. I don’t want to do that. But if I don’t do that stuff, then I have a terrible looking site. It bums me out to write for a bad-looking site, too.

I don’t want to jinx my current state of enthusiasm. But I’m encouraged and energized by Twentyfifteen in ways I haven’t been in years, since I first stuck the self-conscious “beta” label on this site. It seems to be a happy medium between what I’d have if I spent thousands on a totally custom design, and the mythical “perfect premade theme” that makes me happy after an investment of $44 and an evening of clicking buttons and uploading theme graphics.

Twentyfifteen isn’t perfect. But — and I’ll be darned — it hasn’t been wasting my time. Almost all of the work I’ve been doing with it has been creative work. I haven’t had to spend a week decyphering someone else’s source code, all the while going back and forth between Coda and the WordPress codex to understand how WordPress’ own developers see the world).

It’s working. It’s not just a clean design, but its CSS and .PHP is so clean that I can easily suss out what’s happening under the hood and make my own changes.

“Author bio attached to every blog post”? No, no. That won’t do. Where’s the PHP snippet that pulls up that data? Ah! There it is. Annnd…there it goes. Unlike other themes I’ve tried to monkey with, that’s it. It’s gone. In every place where it could have been rendered.

I’ve also shifted my approach from “I’m going to train myself to be a legit WordPress developer” — or at least a legit developer of the CWOB theme — to “I’m going to design something I like that can operate within a set of limitations.”

Witness another image, centered lovely-ily:

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 5.10.57 AM

This is an idea I’m playing with for this blog’s new masthead. Yes, it goes uppy-downy and not lefty-righty.

All along, I’ve wanted a masthead that goes lefty-righty, which is what I’ve had on this blog forever. It’s also what Jason has on Sixcolors and remember, my goal here is to just rob my poor, dear friend of mine whom I’ve known for almost a third of my life blind.

But Twentyfifteen wants its header content to be in a sidebar. I could customize it to add a top deck that spans the window, but that seemed like a lot of work. I could install a plugin that can add a top deck to almost any WordPress theme, but these plugins are only free because their code adds ad trackers to the site. I didn’t wanna do that to you people.

I could easily edit the .php file that generates this page so that it starts this wide content column with something masthead-ey. That’s how I put the title graphic in the sidebar, after I couldn’t figure out how do get the control I wanted through Twentyfifteen’s built-in customization options.

I got interested in another option, however. I got interested in the challenge of being creative within these limitations. Could I design a masthead for [the under-wraps, super-double-top-secret new blog I’m also putting together] that’s vertical?

I played in Photoshop. And I wound up with a masthead for [under-wraps blog] that I love. I just adore it. It represents everything I want for this new blog.

I added some code to Twentyfifteen (actually, my custom child theme) to render it right where I wanted it to go, without having to horse around with sidebar widgets. It looks so freaking nice.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that I only came up with that solution because I don’t know enough about PHP and WordPress to just spontaneously bang in a full-width masthead, or change it to a single-column layout. But I now have something I never would have considered that’s so much better than anything I had already conceived. Whee!

I’m so pleased with all of this that I said “What the hell” and decided to just activate Twentyfifteen on CWOB right now, without diving into any real customizations.

It’s been a great experience. When you don’t enjoy the appearance of your blog, and (unlike the guy building the Austin 7) you don’t even enjoy the work of fixing it, you get kind of glum about it. You’re not motivated to work on it or write for it.

But! When you know that the end result of what you write in this little editing window won’t have a grotesque and unnecessary “sheet of paper” icon on top of it that you didn’t ask for and can’t figure out how to remove…well, all things seem possible and every cloud in the sky only exists to keep the sun out of your eyes.

I feel as though my long-desired, semi-mythical “tech blog that archives all of my Sun-Times and other writings in a pretty, reader-friendly format” is within reach. We’re not talking “days away,” but we’re not talking months, either.

(The status: I built the Twentyfifteen child theme for the Test Blog That’s Online But Unpublicized almost specifically as the theme for this Super Double Top-Secret other blog. I also have a logo for that thing and a URL that’s…amazing.

Super Double Top-Secret isn’t online — I want it to show up all at once, finished — but it’s mostly just unpacking a suitcase.)

It’ll be the end of a long road with lots of U-turns. I can’t wait for that to happen.

Push the button, Frank…