Friends of Bob Newman

Recently I had the honor and pleasure of working with Bob Newman on a redesign of his web site and had helped him launch it in the beginning of March. I recently found out that Bob had suffered severe head trauma and has been in the hospital for more than a month and is still in the process of recovering. I was upset when I heard about what had happened, but the outpouring of support from the design community has been heartening. His hospital bills have been mounting, so a number of his friends and colleagues have put together a donation campaign to help support him. Magculture is also doing a project called "My Favorite Magazine" in which all the profit goes straight to Bob. Please spare a moment to spread the word or help out in any way you can.

Tacos are Better Than Burritos

I'm in the land of burritos and I would like to say unequivocally, once and for all, tacos are better than burritos. It's not that I don't like burritos! I enjoy them very much. I will always prefer tacos and here's why:

  1.  Let's face it: burritos are too big. It's the supersized food item equivalent of the Big Gulp, and just because it exists doesn't mean you should eat it all the time. I ordered a "baby" burrito yesterday and I still couldn't finish it. It's a waste of food, and a leftover burrito is never good the next day. 
  2. The proportions are off. Even in a good burrito, there's too much beans and rice. Don't you hate that half the bites you take are just filler? Or you get a big mouthful of just tortilla? It strikes me as being too kitchen sink-y, and I lose my attention before I'm even finished. 
  3. Those godawful flour tortillas. Seriously, I've never had a good flour tortilla in a burrito. They always end up having this sort of mealy texture that is unappealing. 
  4. You can only have one "flavor" - like you'd only be able to have an al pastor burrito. With tacos you can mix and match, and eat however many you are hungry for. 
  5. Burritos are NOT portable, contrary to popular belief. I smuggled a burrito from Chipotle into a movie theater once and it was a huge fail - it was a total mess and half of it ended up in my lap. That is not a portable food item and I dislike that it is treated like such. 

The best burritos are greater than the sum of their parts. So you could throw a bunch of fairly low quality components in, but it's when you take a bite and all the flavors meld together and that transcendent moment happens. I think this is why people are so passionate about their burritos. But this makes it easy to hide poor quality, flavorless meat. Rice and beans are treated as filler. Conversely, if you have great quality filling, you're covering it up with all the other stuff you've jammed into the burrito. 

Tacos are focused - they show off exactly what you're eating. If the quality of the meat is not so great, it shows. The proportion of filling to wrapper is balanced. Tacos force you to slow down for a minute, even if you're eating it on the street. It's more mindful eating - I love the smallness, intensity and variety that tacos bring to a meal. 

So please don't ask me to make you a burrito when you visit Lonestar Taco. :)

South Street Seaport

South Street Seaport has mostly been in the background of my life. I vaguely remember seeing the tall ship as a child, maybe on a field trip or when my grandparents would take me to the Staten Island Ferry. It's a 15 minute walk from my grandparents' apartment in Chinatown but always has been a world away to me.

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As an adult and resident of New York I've actively avoided it - I had the perception that only tourists go there and it had basically turned into a bland mall filled with the 500th location of multinational corporations. I'd take any out of town visitors to the Highline or Prospect Park or the Lower East Side or the Guggenheim, never the Seaport. Those are places that I wanted to share with others, they're part of what, to me, makes New York unique.

I've spent a lot more time down at the Seaport this past year and I've gradually developed a fondness for it. Sort of like how you dismiss a certain genre of music as being "not for me", and then you listen to it a bit more and you sense there is something that resonates underneath. There's the allure of being right by the water, and I never tire of watching the light change throughout the day on the river. It makes me realize how much the city turns inward toward the land, but right on the Seaport the water is so tantalizingly close.

Coming to this space as a participant rather than a bystander had a lot to do with the shift in my perception. Every Sunday we carved out a bit of space in a parking lot to set up Lonestar Taco  and I interacted with hundreds of people from all over. Neighborhood residents, east siders, jerseyites, out of towners. People still feel a draw to this place, whether for New Amsterdam Market, the history, being on the water, catching a ferry, taking a bike ride. I began to sense how vibrant the seaport had been in the past and the potential of what it could be.

How does one create a sense of place and identity? How does one place gain momentum and turn into something lively and vital while another withers away? Through being involved with New Amsterdam Market, I can see how one person, then a small group of people, can slowly gain consensus and bring a community together to the point where there is the possibility to sway forces larger than ourselves.

Right now everything feels so precarious, just a tiny breeze and the future of the Seaport and its residents could be swept in a totally different direction than what everyone was expecting. I feel like I'm part of this community now, and the future of this community is going to have a citywide impact for decades to come. In my travels, almost the first thing I do is ask where the market is. I've come to realize that it is an expression of a people and a culture. If New York is a world class city, where is our permanent market? Who are we and who do we want to be?

Not Hating WordPress

I'll start with WordPress first because most people would say it's the obvious choice. I think people get the impression that I hate it, but that's not necessarily the case! It's just never hit that sweet spot for me when it comes to my personal sites, but I've definitely chosen it for client sites in the past with no qualms.

The author has an empowered role in WordPress; for instance, the fullscreen edit view encourages focused writing and you have control over your permalinks on an individual post level. You can add custom fields and Pages and widgets and all sorts of things so authors can easily maintain content areas outside of "posts". The Quick Edit and Bulk Edit views are intuitive and streamline content management. I appreciate the levels of granularity in user roles and privacy. The markup that the WYSIWYG editor generates is surprisingly cruft free if you stick to the basics.

Asset handling is good, in the sense that you can drag and drop multiple items into the browser window, but I find the organization of assets to be a bit lacking. You can't group assets into sets and the default "slideshow" is just a bunch of square thumbnails. There are plenty of plugins though to remedy that.

I'll start with the upside on the designer/developer front: there's a huge community  so if you have a problem, chances are someone's encountered it in the past and the answer probably already exists on the Internet. Or you can ask and someone's bound to know. Plus (this is especially good for clients) you can always find someone to take over development or maintenance because the community is so large. And you know that development of the product itself isn't going to stop any time soon, it's got too much momentum behind it.

There are boatloads of great looking themes that are free or a nominal fee so you have a running start when it comes to customizing a site. Like themes, there's a galaxy of plugins so if there's something that's out of my ability or timeframe to code then I can just grab it. It's also flexible so you can build things that don't quite fit into the "blog" paradigm, and since it's dynamic your changes are reflected instantaneously.

The upfront cost is "free", but you do have to host it somewhere. Maintenance is a bit easier now that you can set it to auto-update, but you have to constantly monitor your plugins to make sure they didn't break in the upgrade. I've had a client's embedded contact form completely break for days because an update no longer allowed script tags in the post body and just stripped the whole thing out without warning.

So now comes the not-so-great things - which are all the things that made it great to begin with. The huge community can be a detriment. Sometimes the answers are just plain wrong, or a plugin may be great but then WordPress releases a new version and the developer lost interest in maintaining the plugin and you're up shit creek. Or there are security holes in the plugin that you suddenly have to deal with. It's definitely better now, but with its popularity and ubiquity (like Windows) it's always going to be a target. In the same vein, never ever use the native WordPress commenting system because you will drown in a sea of spam. Offload that to Disqus or whatnot.

The 100% dynamic aspect ends up making the site really slow if you're not careful with your queries and god forbid you're hosted on a shared server. And you'll get the dreaded "site unavailable" if you've got too much traffic. True, the right host can mitigate many of these issues (I recommend WPEngine - pricy but worth it - amazing support, a staging area built in and you can deploy with git!)  but often it's not something that the everyday person considers and is probably out of the budget of most casual writers.

Lastly, I personally dislike the templating language. I have a decent understanding of programming principles and to me it feels kludgy, hard to read and understand. Why are there multiple ways to query the database? Why do I have to reset my query every time I want a new chunk of data? The lack of separation between layers makes it tedious and it is not fun at all to deconstruct a theme. I want to focus on making the interaction great and instead I'm bogged down in wondering why the metadata field isn't outputting correctly. I'm sure there are some people who love it (more power to them) but it's just not for me.

I'd see it working well for a number of scenarios - a group blog with a moderate amount of traffic, someone who needs to take advantage of custom post types, anyone's who's willing to put a moderate amount of time on a monthly basis for maintenance or who likes to tinker. It's not good for someone who's just starting to write or a small business that basically wants the equivalent of a business card, there are more elegant solutions out there.

The only site that I administer that I'd consider using WordPress for is Lonestar Taco - mostly in thinking about inviting future staff to write and that I've had a pretty good experience in teaching novices to use it in the past. However, there seems to be a whole new crop of publishing systems out there, so I'm not going to settle for WordPress quite yet. 

What I'm Looking For in a Publishing System

The characteristics of my ideal publishing system have been rattling around in my head since I heard the news about Posterous. I haven't really done very much housekeeping on my personal sites in a while and I wanted to reevaluate my current setup. Generally I don't want to spend a ton of time on maintenance and I want the templating language to be straightforward - i don't want to spend hours sifting through a wiki trying to figure out how to output thumbnails for the latest five entries from a particular category. If I'm not familiar with the template language, a good set of examples is a prerequisite. Nice looking templates that support responsive design and slideshows out of the box is a huge plus as is deploying through git.

Not all of the sites have to be hosted on the same system but I definitely want to keep the cost low. I'd like to stick with my current host so I don't have to migrate everything and I don't want to spend hours/days backing up and archiving data, and I've never had an issue with their service.

Most pressing, A Surlee Voyage and Angrywayne need new homes because Posterous is expiring. Surlee Voyage is definitely more of an archive and I don't see either of us updating content there any time soon, it just needs to live somewhere with permanent URLs. Wayne would probably write more often on Angrywayne/Emptyhighway if there was a system he enjoyed using.

I'm also looking to move Ambienttraffic (this site), Lonestar Taco and Emptyhighway (which should probably be merged with Angrywayne) off of Movable Type because, frankly, I hate the user experience of writing and maintaining content. I actively dislike the tiny editing window and uploading images one at a time to the point where I just don't want to write anything at all. Although I have a ridiculous amount of experience writing MT templates, they just get to be really tedious. On the plus side, MT generates flat pages so I don't worry too much about load.

I did like Posterous for the ability to email posts in as it was enormously convenient in China because  the site was blocked and we often didn't have internet. In the same way, I find that I'm inspired to write when I'm offline and I can focus.  I do a lot of writing on the train and offline on my iPhone/iPad in Markdown documents but a lot of it I've never published. If I could push those Markdown documents and photos/assets from Dropbox to some other system on the server that'd be ideal for Ambienttraffic. I'd like to migrate my content from MT into the new system but it's not a requirement. It's more important to be able to handle assets well and quickly so that I can update my portfolio more regularly.

For Lonestar Taco it's a bit different. Wayne writes for Lonestar and I anticipate once we've hired more staff they'll be using it too - and I can't estimate their level of "internet' yet, so it's got to be something that is friendly both to beginners and more advanced users. Migrating data into the system with the ability to adjust permalinks is a requirement. Sharing content automatically through Twitter and Facebook are important, but so are slideshows. Lots to think about!

Next up, a "Grand Tour" of publishing systems. 

Posterous is Dead, What Should I Do?

I've been galvanized to write this because of the upcoming demise of Posterous - I've got a bunch of personal sites there and I spent most of yesterday researching this stuff and I figured it might be useful to others. Plus I couldn't sleep because I kept comparing the merits and drawbacks of each system in my head (yes, this is what I lose sleep over). I also go through a version this process for some portion of my freelance projects (mostly small businesses). There is no one perfect solution and I'm a firm believer in choosing the right tool for the job; why use a cleaver when a paring knife is really what you need? Although things change so rapidly that by next year this could be completely out of date.

[Who said blogs were dead? Note that I am focused on talking about systems that are meant for blogging or maintaining a web site in the more traditional sense rather than subcompact publishing. You can talk to my friends at 29pco about that!]

I do not take choosing a publishing system lightly because once you've chosen, you tend to be stuck with it for a while. Before I even start looking, I have a loose matrix of characteristics that I evaluate. In no particular order:

  • Data Control: We talk a lot about the cloud and how awesome it is, and all of these services have popped up to make it so easy. Offloading it though means that it could all be gone one day (see Posterous). For my personal blogs/projects I'm now leaning towards hosting everything myself, but there are definitely times when I'd rather pay and let a service deal with it.
  • Data Durability: Is the system going to totally munge the data to the point where I can't export/import it to another system? Does it mangle my content by adding unnecessary HTML tags? How much work would it take to move it someplace else? Will I have access to my data 10 years down the road, or is it just going to turn into the minidisc of data formats? The older I get the more I want to be sure that I'm future proofing my data. On the flip side, there are times when I don't want every single thing archived and it's OK if it goes into the ether. 
  • Maintenance and Performance: How much time/technical knowledge does it take to maintain the system? How vulnerable is it to spamming? Are updates available on a regular basis, is it being actively developed, and is there any support? Do sites tend to load quickly, or does it go at a snail's pace? How much tweaking will it require to get the site to feel snappy?
  • Templating Environment: I try to estimate the learning curve on the template language and how flexible it is. I look for sample templates or themes to see what can be built and how clean the markup is. A big plus to me is the ability to deploy via git. Is it going to require twenty plugins to get the functionality I want? Or does most of it come out of the box? And in the end, how much fun is it to build?
  • User Experience: This is so, so important. It doesn't matter if your data is durable if the system is so esoteric or difficult to use that no data is created in the first place. I think about how many people are going to be making content, the level of "internet" they've achieved if they're new to any given system, is it FUN to write in the system, and the amount of effort it takes to upload and maintain assets. I also consider the current workflow and if it needs to be improved. 
  • Cost: How much am I (or my client) willing to pay on a monthly basis for hosting and/or services? 
So this is generally what I think about before I even start researching systems. Up next: thinking about all this stuff in the context of my personal sites.