Wordpress is a pain

I just spent well over twenty minutes trying to write a quick post on how I got my newest Django project to serve CSS.

In the end, it was more difficult to try to get WordPress to format the bits that were supposed to look like code than seemed worth it to me. For a short time, I tried settling to just have it display as preformatted.

In the end, the preformatted tags seemed to always gobble up the surrounding paragraphs, no matter how I tried to go back in and edit them.

Sure, the new WordPress editor is beautiful. But if it makes blogging more difficult, why bother?

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The Lieutenants (Brotherhood of War series)

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The Brotherhood of War Series (or, part of it)

I doubt there is an author about whom I feel more conflicted than I feel about W.E.B. Griffin. And, of his many series, I doubt there is one that I like more — or feel more frustrated by — than the Brotherhood of War series.

Officially, this is a review just of The Lieutenants, the first book in the series, but unofficially, I have read through this series at least a half dozen times. I love these books, and I’m occasionally frustrated by that fact.

What’s wrong with these books

Aside from the fact that just about every character in the books would be considered a knuckle-dragging neanderthal by modern standards, I can get really frustrated by the way W.E.B. Griffin’s millionaire characters (and there’s at least one in each series) play the “I have money and influence” cards to get past seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Sure, a character who has a private airplane can be all over the country and take part in a lot of the action. I get that, and I don’t resent it. In fact, I wish all rich people were like Craig Lowell of the series.

On the other hand, at least once per book, there’s some problem that only gets solved because of the money and influence that Craig Lowell weilds. When so many other characters are working at overcoming actual obstacles, to have a character who seems to be the deus ex machina of the series can seem cheap.

Possibly worse than the role that money plays in the series, I genuinely resent how much of the plot is recapitulated in each subsequent book. By the time you’re three or four books into the series, it can feel like all you’re doing is re-reading things you just read. (I tend to binge these series.) If W.E.B. Griffen had decided to do without all of that, he’d have so many more pages in which things could actually happen. And I’d like that.

Why I keep coming back to these books

These books are like old friends to me. When I’m sick, or down, or just at loose ends, I like to return to them. Because even the playboy millionaire is the kind of person you like to return to. W.E.B. Griffin writes series the way record companies cast boybands: there’s the beautiful one, the unlikely warrior, the legit war hero, the starchy by-the-book one, the honorable German WWII veteran who was part of a plot against Hitler.

No matter how formulaic it sounds written down (and, considering it’s just about the exact same cast, but with different names, as you’ll find in his Honor Bound series, it’s clearly formulaic), Griffin does such a good job of writing the characters that it’s a genuine joy to spend time with them, to watch them overcome obstacles. (And to mourne when more than one of them is surprisingly killed.)

Even more than that, these books are much more about the brotherhood than about the war.

When my wife sees I’ve got the books back out again, I think she imagines me reading about soldiers jumping out of firing positions and overwhelming the enemy. There is remarkably little of that in the book. (In fact, what little combat there is — from post-WWII Greece to Korea and Vietnam — is almost incidental to the story.)

Instead, there is a group of officers struggling against ‘the system,’ whether it’s because someone who is too chickenshit (too literal with rules and regulations) wants them out, or whether it’s because they’re the inspired ones who can see the way things are going and they want to influence the development of the Army (and, in this series, of Army aviation, in particular).

As a middle child and life-long outsider, I can relate to the ones who feel themselves to be ‘outside’ the traditional system (here, the ‘ring knockers’ of West Point, also called the WPPA for West Point Protective Association). And, because this is fiction, the characters who you learn to like have a better than average chance of success.

That, more than anything else, is what keeps me coming back.

What I could have done differently

The situation now

It’s not that long ago that I started making a plan to introduce my classroom vocab manager and worksheet generator to the world of teaching. And, I’m starting to see success. Both of the websites that I established are starting to show traffic every day.

What’s more, I can see that people are clicking through to Dynamic-EFL.com. That’s exactly what I wanted.

But very few of those people are signing up for a free trial. And, so far, none of the ones who have clicked through have made a worksheet with it.

It makes me think.

I have two thoughts on the whole thing.

Maybe I need to explain it better

I worry that I don’t sufficiently explain what the software does. Or, perhaps, that I over-explain it. After all, I already totally get what the software does and why it’s amazing.

Perhaps more images and fewer big blocks of text? Perhaps a better video walkthrough?

There’s a lot I could do to make it better, but, it’s a whole extra challenge.

Maybe it’s a numbers game

I’ve probably had about a hundred strangers look at the site since I started really trying. That’s not a lot of people. Ideally, it will be more and more with time, as the whole strategy of sharing static resources to attract teachers pays out.

But, maybe I just need to accept that I need to get x number of eyeballs on the site for each person that’s going to sign up. And maybe I have to accept that it’s going to be y number of people who are willing to sign up for each person who invests the time to really understand what it does.

Most likely, it’s both

I mean, I probably could make it more clear what people do. (And maybe break the explanation out across several pages, so that Google Analytics will be more of a help seeing what people are interested in)

And it’s probably the case that great explanations and onboarding can only reduce the values of x and y from (from the numbers game section), not turn every visitor into a conversion.

The plan for the near future

Believe it or not, my plan is to not do much. Sure, I might re-work the landing page(s). But, I think I’m at a point where I need to trust that some people are going to like the service. I’ve recommended it to colleagues (who promise to have a look when they have time) and I’m spreading the word on LinkedIn.

Now that I’m getting excited about the Fantasy Pilgrimage idea, I’d like to start directing my creative coding energy in that direction. So, until I have a handful of users who are willing to provide feedback so that I’m not longer just guessing at things, I don’t plan to mess around with the code of the worksheet generator very much. (Though I may make it possible to create and distribute ‘coupon codes’ that extend the free trial, in order to create a sense of urgency for the people who use the site.)

Until then, I think it’s time to let the site try to prove its own worth.

The Hidden Life of Trees

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A book in its natural habitat

The serious tree scientists I know warned me off from reading this. “It’s unscientific,” they said. “He talks about trees wanting things and thinking. He has no way of knowing what they want or if they think.”

And, for a while, I didn’t read it.

Instead, I enjoyed the brief section on ‘how trees work’ in Hugh Johnson’s “Trees.” But it wasn’t enough and, eventually, I picked up a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees.

Is it unscientific?

I don’t rightly know. There is talk of trees smelling and tasting, but then he explains exactly what he means and it’s clear that he’s using human-centered language to communicate with humans. I never felt he passed anything off as fact that wasn’t, and always clearly labeled speculation.

His level of anthropomorphizing trees can be seen in the way he talks about beech and oak trees ‘competing.’ That’s not a shocking use of the word in biology. (At least, not for us armchair biologists.)

Is it good?

Yes. An unqualified yes.

So much so that I thought it presented enough information, easily absorbed, for me to have the framework for my A Year in the Woods project. So, that’s great.

Now, though, a week or two after I’ve finished reading it, I have to say that I didn’t retain a ton of the information. Sure, there are things I learned: the younger trees leaf out first, because the ground warms up before the air, and spring ephemerals are dormant for ten months of the year and are a sign that a forest is at least 150 years old.

But, there’s a lot that I read and it blew my mind… and then I didn’t have any other information to connect it to in my head and it’s gone again.

So, it’s a great book and heartily recommended to anyone who likes trees or the forest, but it may be hard to absorb everything in one go. (If you’re like me.)

The trouble with Google Analytics

I have a small problem with Google Analytics. And, to be fair, a part of that problem is me. And I’m sorry.

A while back, I set up a Google Analytics tracking tag across the entire site for the entire site. Then, I set a reminder to look at the data later. After all, there’s no sense in obsessing, right? However, as the sites I have set up as a sort of funnel to the worksheet generator start to get traffic (and as I continue to invest energy into drawing attention to them)

Here’s a brief reflection on what has been hard for me, as well as how I hope to improve it.

It’s overwhelming

I’m very confident that ninety percent of the traffic to my site right now comes from me. That said, when I log in to the page, I’m overwhelmed by data and it’s really hard to pick apart which data is mine and which comes from someone else.

This is compounded by my next challenge.

I did a bad job with URLs

When I was setting up the URLs of the site in Django, it just seemed easier to include a lot of information in the URL itself. So, my site has a lot of things like ‘/group/<id>/’ as a URL, where the individual group number is a part of the URL.

It hasn’t been a problem until now, but now it means that each group shows up as its own URL in the analytics report. That creates a lot of noise for me to try and pick through as I try to see how people who are not me interact with the site.

Even more, once others are using the site more, it’ll make it hard to see how people who aren’t me are actually using it as a product.

What I’m doing now

Google enables you to set up goals in analytics. I didn’t bother with that before, but I’ve established two different goals:

  • People click through to begin the signup process. I often check what the site will ask of me before I use it. It would be nice to know how well my site is leading people to that opportunity.
  • People making it to the end of the signup process. Obviously, this is my ‘real goal.’ But, as nobody seems to be doing it, it would be nice to have it recorded when they do. Even more, it would be nice to see what path leads them there.

I’m hoping that Google will not only record how often these goals are ‘achieved,’ but also separate that traffic out from the rest. Where does it come from? What do they click on beforehand?

What I’ll do with my next site

Based on my experience with analytics so far, I think I’ll consider them more in designing the URLs of my site. I’m starting to consider work on the Fantasy Pilgrimage idea and I think that I’ll include more in the query string than in the URL.

Adding things like group numbers (or, in my case, the UUID of specific vocabulary words) in the URL means that each user visits their own specific subset of URLs. Moving them to a query string would mean that each user visits the same URLs and the analytics could give me a more generalized overview of the way users interact with my site.

 

To-Do lists and timers

Maybe I’m late to this party, but a I’ve tried to get more done in my days, I’ve learned to really appreciate the value of a good to-do list and timers on my phone. In fact, they may be the thing I use my phone for most — after photos, perhaps.

Concentration is a mixed blessing

I like to think that I’ve been blessed with pretty good concentration. I can focus on something longer, I think, than most and actually enjoy blocking most of the world out.

When I’m supposed to be doing things in parallel, though, that’s not always a blessing. Food that was boiling on the stove may be burning by the time I remember to check it. A kid who was told “twenty more minutes of Minecraft” may easily get forty minutes if I’m distracted somewhere else. (Though, really, shouldn’t the kid monitor the time on his own?)

I’ve found that, for these situations, teaching myself to set a timer on my phone every time I think “I’ll check that in ten minutes” — and then teaching myself not to turn the phone off until I’m on the way to check — has really made me more effective.

Sticking to something

Similarly, when I realize action isn’t required of me for another week or so… well, a timer won’t work. For that, I’ve found an app that will give me notifications that can’t be brushed away without being marked done or ‘snoozed.’ (It’s called “Tasks: Astrid To-Do list clone“)

Again, it’s been a question of teaching myself to realize “this is something I’ll forget, I’d better add it to my to-do list,” but it’s meant that I get a lot more done… and on time.

Even more, things I want to do often — liking writing postcards once a month the family — can be entered as recurring tasks. Maybe other people just think “hey, I haven’t written a postcard in a while” or “I just did my monthly invoice, that’s a reminder I should write some postcards,” but that doesn’t seem to work for me.

My recurring reminders include fitness, and cleaning the balcony. (I feed birds on the balcony, and don’t want a certain wife I know to think it’s too poop-encrusted.) Every three days, I even get a to-do notification that I should check my calendar for the next three days, so that I don’t get any surprises.

Some things — mostly coding — I keep track of on paper. When it’s time for me to code, I get out the paper I was using to take notes and keep track of things to do and look where I left off. For everything else, though, there’s a timer or a to-do list.

Call me childish

I get that “I only get done what my phone tells me to do” seems a bit childish. Or, maybe, millennial. But, I’m focussed on getting more done with lest frustration and, for now, I’m happy to have found something that works for me.

What do you do? How do you maximize your time?

Practicing practice

A memory of my dad

I think that the biggest thing that my dad gave me to take into adulthood is my memory of him constantly learning, constantly growing. The kids were often (involuntarily) part of his quest to learn new things. These ranged from reading about the Civil War and visiting battlefields (not my favorite vacation memory) to teaching himself amateur radio and morse code or getting qualified as a physics teacher only a few years before his retirement.

From my dad, I have the idea that I, as a human, am really never finished growing. It’s given me the courage to pick up new skills (such as coding, or piano) as an adult.

And, because I’ve loved it, it’s something I want to give my kids.

Not the kind of thing you can preach

We all know parents who believe in “do as I say, not as I do.” I’m not a big fan of that for several reasons (I’m 38, can you really expect more willpower from a 5-year-old?).

But, this is especially the kind of thing that I can’t preach to my kids. (Which is not to say that I don’t, I won’t be upset if they have “you just have to practice” echoing in their ears as adults.) But, it was watching my dad that brought me to that realization.

So, it seems logical that it’s something they have to see me doing.

And so, I’m practicing practicing

For a while, when I thought about this, I thought ‘well, I code, and the kids can see me learning that.’ But they can’t see me learning that. They just see Papa standing at the computer concentrating. I could be doing anything, as far as they’re concerned.

So, I resolved to get my good example game on.

I’ve started playing piano again. And, in fact, because I’m going to teach myself to practice a skill in the hope that my kids will know it automatically, I’m focusing more on drills and scales and the likes than I did the last time I played.

I draw. Art was always the domain of my little sister, but it’s a free hobby and something the kids can do with me.

I’m still plugging away at Latin. The kids are officially learning with me, but more so that we can talk about it and that they can know I’m working on it than as any kind of test prep. They’re learning individual nouns (arborpuella).

The idea is that these are activities I can do a little bit every day (or, most days) rather than standing at the computer not really accomplishing much because the kids are distracting me. They’re activities (maybe not Latin) where the kids can appreciate what is good and bad and realize that it took me a long time to learn a new song on the piano and hopefully understand that they can learn new skills through practice.

I can’t say it will work. But, on the other hand, I don’t think I’m responsible to make them into the kind of adult that I am. I think I’m responsible to be the best adult I can be, and to make sure they know the tools I used to get there.