Wrapping up Blogging: Beyond the Basics

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Today was the last day of the semester for the class I’ve been teaching at Columbia College Chicago—Blogging: Beyond the Basics. I’m really grateful to my old Metroblogging colleague Lauren Johnson for asking me to apply for the position. I won’t be returning next sesmter as the day job is getting a little busy, but I told my students today that I’ll probably start anecdotes for years with “Well, when I was teaching at Columbia College…”

I also want to thank my co-teacher Barbara Iverson, and all of the guest speakers who so graciously gave their time to come talk to our class either in person or by Skype: Andrew Huff, Claire Zulkey, Heidi Gollub, Kate Iorio, Keidra Chaney, and Rachel Yeomans.

In their final presentations, several of our students mentioned that they were going to be transferring their class blogs to outside hosting, or otherwise continuing their blogging.

  • Amelia’s site is Daughter of Eloise where she covers natural hair care and makeup.
  • Anna-Laura is moving her blog into her portfolio site at alkolleck.com.
  • Deanna will be continuing to blog at her fashion site Trends So Hard.
  • Gianna will be interning at College Fashionista.
  • Lorenzo is moving his poetry blog to ZOJPOETRY.
  • Maggie and Sam were both involved in creating a process blog about their Investigative Journalism class, where they looked into the Illinois Lottery.
  • Maurya continues blogging at her parenting blog Days with Pen.
  • Megan will be setting up Go For Megan on Square Space.
  • Sam may include her class blog in her portfolio site.
  • Taylor will be writing a column about /Teen Wolf/ at The Learned Fan Girl, starting in January.

Evanston Flying Turkey 5K

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I’ve had a nagging heel injury all year and after the Chicago Marathon, I thought it might be best to just totally rest it. And then I did a couple of races and then I told myself I was going to really rest my feet for a few months at least. Maybe get in a bunch of swims. That was three weeks ago and I was really missing running, so I signed up two days ahead of time for the Evanston Flying Turkey 5K. It felt really right to start off the coldest Chicago Thanksgiving in 60 years with a quick little run up around the Northwestern campus.

Time: 27:11.29
Pace: 8:46/M
Place: 461 / 1794
Place in Gender: 307 / 820
Place in Age Group (M40-44): 32 / 87

BBtB Class Project

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I’m really happy with the work that’s coming out of the individual blogs in the Blogging class I’m co-teaching at Columbia College Chicago and now we’re working on a group blog together as our final project. Together we’re exploring the Chicago Cultural Center and there will be posts coming out over the next two weeks. Follow along! Post a comment or two! Learn something, you chump! (We’ve been telling our students about having a call to action at the end of posts—did that last one go a little far?)

A Small Collection of Blogging Advice

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Teaching a class like B:BtB has, of course, made me analyze the blogs I read and follow. The blogs I’ve followed the longest all combine information with a very specific and personal voice. Or as  John Gruber of Daring Fireball and Merlin Mann of, at the time 43 Folders say: Obsession + Topic + Voice. That’s from their talk at SxSW Interactive in 2009 with a rather hyperbolic title: HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility!

John also did an interview on Glenn Fleishman’s The New Disruptors podcast—Episode 14: No Kind of Work for a Grown Man with John Gruber—where they cover how John went from having a part-time blog to blogging full-time, and the various monetization models he explored along the way.

43 Folders is an interesting example for our class. Merlin Mann hit some success with his blog about personal productivity and was making good money from advertising, but then he realized that in order to keep that level of advertising, he would in fact be distracting his audience from their own productivity—churning out quantity over quality and he basically just stopped. Unless the goal of your blog is simply to have the blog, its important to keep an eye on your real goal and make sure that the blog is serving that goal, rather than the other way around.

An interesting video to watch is Justin Hall at this year’s XOXO festival. Justin was on the web from nearly the very beginning and was the original oversharer. (That’s someone else’s phrase and now I can’t find it to attribute it.) It’s funny and sweet and a great talk from a blog pioneer.

Afterworlds

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There’s a challenge in books and movies that I like to call the Best-Poem-in-the-World Problem. Many works of fiction are about someone who is very skilled at what they do. If your hero is supposed to be a mighty warrior, a book can describe her skill or your movie can use martial arts choreography and wire work to show her defeating dozens of enemies. But if a character is supposed to be really at writing songs or poems, you have the problem of how you show that. It’s the problem that Tenacious D so delightfully tease in their song Tribute (The Best Song in the World). (“This is not The Greatest Song in the World, no./This is just a tribute.”) Sometimes we see a few lines of a poem; sometimes other characters just describe how great it is.

In Afterworlds, Scott Westerfeld just went ahead and wrote the whole book.

Afterworlds is about an 18-year-old author, Darcy Patel, whose NaNoWriMo novel got picked up by a publisher for a fair amount of money, and now she has moved to New York in order to do the required re-writes. Now, to be fair, the book doesn’t say that Darcy’s novel is the best-in-the-world, but it’s definitely portrayed as being good enough to get the contract and is complimented several times. And instead of giving us excerpts from the book, in alternating chapters we get Darcy’s entire book.

And yes, both books are really good.

The novel Darcy has written is a supernatural romance, between two psychopomps. (Two whats? Two ‘guides of the dead’.) It was surprisingly dark and affecting. And Darcy’s story was also surprising. She faces challenges both in her writing and in romance. The structure of the book allows Westerfeld to comment on both his book-within-a-book, and on the nature of writing and stories in general. Straight up, I loved it. Them? It.

FuzzyCo grade: A+

Migrating Your Blog, Part 2

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This post was written for the students of the Columbia College Chicago class Blogging: Beyond the Basics in the Fall semester of 2014. It likely refers to specific software or settings that may quickly be out of date and may not apply to your situation, even in a future semester of the same class.

OK, so you’ve got a backup of your blog, so now where are you going to put it? The good and bad news is that there are a thousand choices.

Another WordPress Installation

If you are comfortable with WordPress as we’ve been using it in class, the simplest transition would be to get a hosting service where you can install WordPress and you can just transition directly over. Most hosting services provide easy ways to install WordPress (usually called a “1-click install”) or, for a little more, they’ll maintain your WordPress backend for you. Barbara and I have used Bluehost and Dreamhost as hosting services. Both have a variety of hosting levels, but you can usually get started for $75-100 a year.

WordPress.com

If you like WordPress, but really don’t want to maintain, your best bet is WordPress.com, a service provided by Automattic, the main developers of the free WordPress.org software. They have a free level, whose main limitation is that your domain will include wordpress.com (e.g awesomesite.wordpress.com) and that they might show ads on your site. Their paid level starts at $99 a year and includes a custom domain name.

Other Blogging Software, Self-Hosted

If you’re hosting your own site with a general purpose host like Bluehost or Dreamhost, then you could also install a variety of other blogging platforms like Drupal or Joomla. If you ask yourself “why would I want to do that?”, then you don’t.

Other Blogging Platforms, Hosted

There are also a ton of options out there of blogging platforms that, like WordPress.com, take care of all the backend work for you. Blogger is one of the oldest such platforms and has a lot of flexibility. Tumblr is designed to be incredibly simple to use. SquareSpace is not free, but a good reputation for being a good balance between powerful and easy to use (they also sponsor a lot of podcasts, so it’s easy to find coupon codes for a discount).

Migrating Your Blog, Part 1

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This post was written for the students of the Columbia College Chicago class Blogging: Beyond the Basics in the Fall semester of 2014. It likely refers to specific software or settings that may quickly be out of date and may not apply to your situation, even in a future semester of the same class.

If you’re going to maintain your blog after class, you’re going to need to move it to a different host, because the IAM department won’t maintain these blogs for too long. And even after that you might find yourself moving your blog between hosting services for a variety of reasons like cost, performance, features of some new blogging software, etc.

This first part of the process is about backing up your WordPress site, so you have a copy to import somewhere else. Exactly how you need to back it up depends a little on what kind of host you’re moving to, but it never hurts to back up in multiple ways to have options in the future.

Method 1: Built-in Export

By default, WordPress has a simple export built-in. In the dashboard, under Tools there’s the option Export. There are hardly any options, just leave All Content selected and click “Download Export File”. Your browser will download a small XML file to your default download folder. “All Content” doesn’t mean what you might think it does—it includes all your posts, pages, comments, custom fields, terms, navigation menus and custom posts, but not images, themes, plugins, etc.

The file is small and easily backed up—you can even just email it to yourself, Also, this is the format you’ll need if you’re switching switching from WordPress to some other blogging platform. You can use an SFTP client like Filezilla or Cyberduck to log into your students.iam.colum.edu account and download the public_html/wordpress/wp-content/uploads folder in order to backup all your images.

Method 2: Backup Plugins

There are a huge variety of plugins for WordPress that let you backup to local storage, for download, or to Cloud storage services like DropBox or GoogleDrive.

I installed a plugin called “BackUpWordPress”. It added a Backups item to my Tools menu. I went into the Settings link there and changed the Backup selection from “Database Only” to “Database and Files”. I saved those settings and then clicked Run Now. It only took a few moments for the backup to run and then it was available to download via a link. This zip file contains everything needed to restore your whole blog to another WordPress installation, including posts, images, plugins, themes, and so on.

Next post, we’ll look at where you can move your blog to.

Ripping CDs

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Does anyone even have CDs anymore? I guess so, because one of my friends asked on Twitter today for recommendations of CD ripping services. I say, do it yourself—I ripped a 1200 CD collection over a month or so. iTunes has one weird trick that makes it easy.

itunes-prefs-1

In the iTunes Preferences, on the first General tab, change the pop-up for “When a CD is inserted” to “Import CD and Eject”. Then click the Import Settings button.

itunes-prefs-2

There are reasons to use AAC—it’s a more modern and efficient protocol that is a great choice if you’re always going to use Apple products. But if I’m ripping my entire CD collection, I want to do this once and never have to do it again, so I suggest going with MP3, as it’s pretty much universally supported. And for archive quality, I want to use even higher quality than what Apple calls “Higher Quality”. So I set “Import Using” to “MP3 Encoder” and then pop-up the “Settings” and choose “Custom”.

itunes-prefs-3

I set the Stereo Bit Rate to 320 kbps, uncheck VBR, Sample Rate to 44.100 kHz, Channels to Auto, and Stereo Mode to Normal.

Click OK three times to save all these changes. And then put a stack of CDs next to your computer. Put a CD in the CD drive and do anything else. iTunes will import the CD and then automatically eject it. When the CD is ejected, just stick the next CD in. Repeat ad nauseum (but ad free-um).

There are a few things that will make iTunes pop to the front: Gracenote database questions, mostly. But they were rare in my experience and so you don’t even have to be sitting in front of your computer to work this process, if it’s somewhere visible in your house—just throw another CD in whenever you walk by the computer.

Hot Chocolate 15K 2014

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Hot Chocolate 15k medal

The Hot Chocolate is an immensely popular race in Chicago—25 thousand people did the 5K and almost 15 thousand did the 15K this year—and it also has a reputation in our circle for always having something go wrong. This is, perhaps, unfair as it largely dates back to the early days of the race when its popularity grew faster than the organization was prepared to handle. Last year I ran the race because I had a free entry and this year they got me with the medal. I mean, look at that thing—it looks like a bar of chocolate being unwrapped!

And I have to admit that very little went wrong. I got one email that was half lorem ipsum, but that can happen to the best of us. Packet pickup went fine, the race hoody fits well, the race was well-run, and we got our bowl of hot chocolate and fondue in a smooth fashion at the end of the race. My knees are pretty sore, but that’s my own fault for pretty much stopping running after the marathon and I certainly can’t blame that on the organizers.

Hot Chocolate 15k 2014

Official results:
Time: 1:43:04
Place: 9211 / 14168
Place in Gender: 3489 / 4503
Place in Age Group (M40-44): 410 / 547

Noticing Myself

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As a reader and a Chicago-lover, I really don’t mind a long train ride, because I can make some serious progress on a book. And I love to snack on some Chicago street food and a Mexican soda or somesuch while I wander the city.

Yesterday I had to go down to McCormick Place to pickup my packet for the Hot Chocolate 15K. On the way out of the house I knew I was going to be hungry, so I filled a little snack-sized ziploc with a new sunflower-based nugget snack we had picked up at Target. I had a few on the way to the train and they were pretty salty, so I popped into our neighborhood liquor/convenience store to grab a soda. I saw in the cooler that they had a lemonade coconut water I’ve been liking lately, and it had a screw-on cap, so it’d be easy to stop in my bag, so I got one of those.

On the train, I found a spot in the hobo corner and dove into the great book I’m ready right now, with pauses for sunflower snacks and coconut water. And realized, iPad mini in hand, that while this was precisely and exactly the thing I had been looking forward to doing on a Saturday afternoon, it was also not the Fuzzy of 15 years ago with a tattered paperback, grease-stained bag of french fries, and lime Jarritos. This was something of a grown-up, healthy version of myself. And this is not to say that I never eat french fries nor drink Sidral Mundet anymore, but it’s not a terrible thing to find a version of myself that might be a little more sustainable.