The last few months (and the next few)

For the last several months, I have been ‘making’ a lot less than I’m used to. There are various reasons for that, as things like motivation tend to ebb and flow, and starting a new job in December of 2016 have meant I’m learning a lot more and facing new challenges at home and at work.

However, another reason that I’ve been somewhat less visible is that for the better part of the last 3 months, I’ve been dedicating a *LOT* of free time to changing the way my online life is structured.

For anybody who is not familiar, I started writing online using Blogger, a now-antiquated platform that was relatively simple, allowing me to slowly learn programming and web design, while being extensible enough to suit most of my needs, and controlled enough that I couldn’t get myself into trouble.

However, back in the beginning of 2016, I began to tire of Blogger, as it seemed like the platform was constantly holding me back, and failed me in a number of fundamental ways. At the time, I was running 4 different websites on Blogger, and hitting frustrating limitations every time I tried to do something new.

By the spring of 2016, I had started seriously looking in to WordPress to host the content I wanted to continue to produce. This was not my first foray into the world of WordPress, as I had tested out WordPress.com before finally settling on Blogger back in 2011. However, since paying for WordPress.com didn’t interest me in the least, I opted instead to try WordPress.org.

For the large majority of people, WordPress is WordPress, and there is no meaningful distinction between the two systems. And, in fact, WordPress.com has worked very hard to cater to WordPress.org users, which is a very nice added bonus. Here are the basics:

A little side-note on WordPress.com

A WordPress.com site is free to start, but is very rigidly templated, and you will have to pay a lot of money very quickly if you want to customize the site or have any control over the way it works other than the words written on the page. This is very similar to Blogger, except that with Blogger, no amount of money paid will give you any more powers to customize a website.

I would say with a good deal of certainty that over 90 percent of WordPress.com blogs are either abandoned entirely, or converted to WordPress.org or another blog platform within 3 months. This is probably fine with Automattic (the owners of WordPress.com), since they have other, better customers, mostly converted from humble WordPress.com beginnings.

And now back to WordPress.org

As an ‘amateur’ blogger and programmer who comes into blogging with a unique set of needs, it turns out that WordPress.org is actually pretty much perfect for me. With a willingness to put some effort in to learn a new platform, the open source version of WordPress that can be installed and run on any computer anywhere for free is an amazing product.

I have written for a few independent publications that use WordPress powered sites in the last 5 years, but having no experience with servers, I lacked the knowledge to start a WordPress site of my very own, unless I was willing to learn how to do that from scratch.

This brings us to the spring of 2016, and me deciding that I was going to figure out what it takes to create a WordPress blog, entirely from scratch. The first thing you need to run a modern website or application on your own is a server. After hearing for months about the Clintons’ homebrew server setup, I decided it was neither affordable, nor practical, nor good security practice, to buy, run, and host a server of my own at home.

Fortunately for me, building and running a home server is not common anymore, and the modern, distributed internet has a much better solution to web hosting than a home server. There are MANY companies out there offering virtual servers, literally computers hosted in giant data centres around the world that you can ‘rent’ on a monthly basis for pennies per hour. These banks of computers are connected to the Internet and are the backbone of the modern web.

After doing research and hearing opinions from all over the internet about ‘the best’ virtual server, I settled on one from DigitalOcean (this is an affiliate link, ask me about it). This and other hosting companies have a number of options to run basic software automatically for almost no money, and that includes setting up a complete WordPress site for as little as $3.95 a month (if you sign up for at least a year at a time).

However, after even more careful consideration, I decided that I didn’t want my hand held and to run a website I didn’t completely understand, and so I opted to pay $5 USD a month for my own little computer hooked up to the web. My virtual server is the cheapest one they offer, and comes with a fast, but not particularly powerful computer, perfect for running a website or application.

Once I committed money to this endeavor, especially since it was a recurring cost, it was much easier to focus and actually get things running quickly. My ultimate goal at the time was to learn everything I could about virtual servers, and to get a modern blog website up and running, so that I had a place to write out my thoughts that I could change and control however I wanted.

However, throughout the summer and fall, things started to shift a little bit for me in the way that I wanted to run my web presence. I have published some of my best writing on this site, but was getting increasingly frustrated with things involving my podcast network, Unwind Media, and how annoying it was to maintain and update that site back on Blogger. Since making the move to the gloriously extensible WordPress, posting to Blogger seemed like handcuffing myself to a typewriter.

By this time, I was hoping to expand the network, adding new podcasts and diversifying the voices I could promote while keeping weekly overhead for myself fairly low. All the while, changes to iTunes and the launch of Google Play podcasts meant that I fundamentally couldn’t start new podcasts while still publishing to Blogger. Something had to give, and that thing was Blogger.

Armed with my brand new WordPress knowledge, I set out to begin the slow, most likely painful, transition of Unwind Media from Blogger to WordPress. Since I had done a bunch of work with Blogger already (hosting a podcast network is certainly not something a Blogger blog was built to do), most of the work involved with moving to WordPress was taking the concepts I’d already developed, and mapping them to the ways WordPress worked.

What followed turned out to be a pretty interesting journey, and I have learned a ton in the last several months about WordPress, PHP, Linux, and blogging platforms (though I know I’m still only just scratching the surface). WordPress, as it turns out, is much better suited to the kind of thing I was trying to do than Blogger ever could be. In addition to that, about 30 minutes after confirming that the WordPress website was live and the Blogger website had been properly replaced, I was able to successfully submit new podcasts to the iTunes and Google Play directories for the first time in months.

My journey isn’t over. I’m continuing to learn more and more about programming, and about PHP and WordPress. In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be moving a third site to WordPress on the same server, ottawhatpodcast.com. I love having a virtual server of my very own, and learning how to run it has been incredibly rewarding.

I also look forward to discussing these kinds of things more, and getting back to writing, now that so much of my mental space has been freed up by getting rid of the overhead that came from having these necessary changes looming.

A couple of other things that I’m currently working on:

My New Year’s resolution is to stand up and defend the rights of the people around me, like women, minorities, people with disabilities, those who choose to exist outside the gender binary or who identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth (just to name a few). I said when I made this resolution that it would be a multi-year process, but I vowed to make 2017 the year I started. I haven’t done much so far, but a strong, vocal opposition to oppression, racism, misogyny and bigotry or discrimination in general is a huge part of who I am.

On a similar, but distinctly different, note, I am also trying to determine the best ways to get the Canadian government to reconsider electoral reform in future elections, as a more representative government should be the goal of any self-respecting democracy, even if changes to the electoral system mean than you get less power as a result. That is my only major complaint about the Liberal party in power in Canada at the moment, and next to the dumpster fire that is American democracy these days, I’m glad this is one of the few things we can really complain about.

Dumpster Fire
Other examples of dumpster fires.

Oh yeah, and if you or somebody you know has (or is thinking of starting) a podcast (or blog), but don’t know where to start, please feel free to point them in my direction. I have found writing on the internet so rewarding for the last half-decade, I would love the opportunity to pay it forward and share what I know.

Letter to the Liberal Party of Canada on Electoral Reform

This is the letter I just sent to the Liberal Party on the topic of electoral reform (yes, it’s still on their website). They aren’t convinced Canadians care about it. I care. Leave your thoughts: liberal.ca/contact or email [email protected] (or write a letter/call, if those are your jam).


I’m a young person, and I registered as a Liberal at the beginning of 2016 because I really liked what I saw the Liberal Party doing after winning the last federal election. I’m probably not going to write a letter to my MP (firstly, because I live in Ottawa-Vanier and we sadly lost our MP earlier this year). However, I do feel very strongly that electoral reform needs to be brought to the table again.

I’ve been hearing news recently saying that Liberals will only continue to push the issue of reform if the public still cares. Well, I still care. I voted Liberal because I have progressive views that align well with those of the party, and one of those views was the fact that first-past-the-post doesn’t lead to representative government. Many NDP voters sided with you not because they agree with your platform 100%, but because the left needed to align to get Stephen Harper’s conservatives out of office.

While the current system did work to get your MPs elected, it’s a broken system. Even giving a ranked ballot system (like single transferable vote) will let the people show a strong desire for change, but without forcing them to choose between two parties in a system to actually get a resulting majority.

This is really important to myself, my friends, and my family. We’re all very busy and have entrusted you with governance for the next few years, so you might not be hearing a lot about this issue from Canadians today. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but another broken electoral system just elected a demagogic sexist right next door earlier this month. We want reform, not because we want you out of power, but because the best electoral system is one that doesn’t necessarily restrict choices or lead to relatively unrepresentative leadership.

Other than this issue, I think you’re doing a lot of great work so far. Thank you very much.

Robert

The “Your Child” Test (Society is Changing, Part 2)

This is the second section of a multi-part piece I’ve been thinking a lot about, which I’m calling ‘Society is Changing’. You can read part 1 here, which will provide some context for this section.

There has been a ton of energy, brainpower, blood, sweat and tears that has gone into political movements throughout history. As has happened many times in the past, several places in the world seem to have come up against particularly challenging political climates of late. Ideological conflicts like Brexit and the 2016 American election, in addition to armed physical conflicts like the battles raging in several parts of the Middle East, point to the notion that civilization might just be approaching an ideological inflection point.

At times like these, it can be disheartening to see and hear that about half of your country or region seems to hold such rigidly opposed views to yours. In part one of this story, I discussed how ‘society’ as city folk like me see it is changing, in ways that rural Christian communities 50 years ago would see as unacceptable and sinful. It’s absolutely vital to understanding modern politics that those rural communities still exist today, and many of those same beliefs are still firmly held.

Those voters have watched Democrats (for the last eight years in the US) shred some of what they consider to be sacred tenets of their belief system. It’s only natural that those voters would be scared about what might happen, especially as their elected officials have been spouting nonsense about racial minorities ‘taking over’ and the government ‘coming for your guns’.

There’s a lot more to say about the ways society is changing to become more divided, but for the rest of this piece I want to focus on a principle I’ve been thinking a lot about this year. I’ve been calling it the ‘Your Child’ test, and it works a little something like this:

Before you judge somebody, consider how you would feel about them if they were your child.

Give them the absolute benefit of the doubt before criticizing or attacking them. Ask questions to make sure you understand their point of view. If your child wants to do something you disagree with, have an open mind and talk about it. The same should be true for any other human, because we’re all just people.

We all have to share the space on this earth, and we have for the most part agreed on a set of basic human rights (life, fresh water, access to food, to name a few). Taking those as a given, if you’re not hurting anybody, I think most other ideas should be up for discussion.

Imagine if your child told you they wanted to convert to Islam.

Imagine if your child told you they were gay.

Imagine if your child told you they didn’t feel comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Imagine your child’s skin looked different than yours. Would that really make you love them less?

Humans make a lot of mistakes. We are inherently flawed. This doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to be loved and treated with respect like anybody else. In this divisive time, I’d encourage you to think about how you’d react to your child in a given situation. I’ll bet if we all did this, trading in judgment for compassion, we’d all be a lot happier together.