Pass the Olives

A Jumble of Opinions on Living, Thinking, Reading, and Making Things

The Deadly Trap of Code

I sat down yesterday to write out all the brilliant ideas I generated while reading The Making of a Democratic Economy. My enthusiasm and energy were higher than in years and years. All the ideas I had been struggling with for decades had crystallized. I had found the key to a simpler and more sustainable and inclusive life for everyone. The isolation of the pandemic continued so I had days of uninterrupted time. And I had an independent income—not a huge one but one that is enough. For the first time in my life, I have enough. I could write without concern about “Where will I sell this?” “Who will buy it?”

So what happened?

I signed in to my WordPress website Strong Neighborhoods to write my most-important piece ever. A piece that would bring together everything I have been struggling with about democracy and inclusion and equality. And most importantly, I had some thoughts about the slippery concept of the “Common Good,” which I find to be highly suspect as a stand-in for “the majority.” A euphemism right up there with emotional hygiene.

But first, of course, the design needed work. The typography wasn’t elegant and all the links were the wrong color. It was suffering from being transitioned from Sustainable Housing to Affordable Housing to Affordable Cohousing and probably from a few more names I’ve forgotten. (I’m a serial domain buyer, one for every new idea.) Each change left remnants of the one before. And it was too busy. In an effort to show on the homepage the diversity of subjects to attract every reader — There has to be something here for you! — and add visual interest by adding images of all kinds, it now looked like every website I routinely avoided. It had to be fixed. The artist in me was embarrassed.

Deadly Trap of Code, CSS and all

Starting from the ground up I attacked the CSS. I dug out the original code for Broadsheet by Pro Theme Design. It’s the theme I have used for years and love because it has everything. An immediate question I should have asked myself, however, is why don’t I use Broadsheet for Pass the Olives. Well, I would have replied, Pass the Olives has more narrative at its core (supposedly) and needs to look like a book. One with words and no distractions. For Strong Neighborhoods and all its previous incarnations, I wanted something more like a newspaper. News!

It had been years since I looked at the original code but I was convinced that it just needed some tweaking to be set right again. I copied the original CSS from the Theme File Editor and pasted it into the Custom CSS file editor. And began scrolling for the core elements I wanted to change. And I scrolled. And I scrolled. An hour later, I was still looking for the basic typographical settings. Checking the developer’s source code view of the site to see what was controlling what. It was mid-afternoon before I was even close to finding and changing the color of all the headings on all the different layouts of excerpts, category archives, tag archives, full article pages, etc. It was endless.

The code was so specific and covered so many alternatives for every widget and add-on in the WordPress universe that I could leave most of it untouched. But I still had to read it to be sure, absolutely sure, that there wasn’t a line of code or some obscure widget that left unchanged would produce images of compost piles instead of mathematical symbols. Symbols I almost never use but you never know. I pride myself on being thorough—typography will reveal every detail of a missed margin correction.

A morass of 3499 lines of code

Finally, in frustration, because I was still sharpening pencils instead of writing when it was time for Deadline White House, I paused. I looked again at the code and tried using a search to find that one border that I had been unable to change to a less obtrusive color. The search on border produced so many results that it would take an hour to look at each of them.

That’s when I realized that the CSS for this theme had 3499 lines, none of them blank spaces. That is just the code controlling sizes, colors, fonts, etc. All the function files are elsewhere, the ones that re-assemble pages and widgets each time a user clicks a link. Fiddling with just that part of the code had taken up a whole day and not one line of meaningful wordification had been written. Or edited. I wasn’t even spending my time fiddling with an old article that needed improving.

Busy websites are impossible to read. The content, usually the lack of content, is hidden behind 15 different typestyles, 20 colors, and at least 6 animated popups. The look is intriguing until you try to find what you were looking for or follow a thought from A to B. To assure the reader that Strong Neighborhoods was as important as a gaming site, I had created the same thing. A flashy site that is not expected to take a position on anything. No visual or verbal consistency or logic.

Economics, politics, and/or literature

But this theme, the one I used for Pass the Olives didn’t feel right either. Too literary. Ideas about community organizing, political economy, and zoning requirements wouldn’t register if they looked like Jane Austin or Leaves of Grass. The disjoint would be confusing.

So I’m back to looking for the theme I remember carefully saving for another day that has the added advantage of being the greenest theme ever designed, meaning that it uses the least amount of energy possible. If I can only find it before Deadline comes on today I might get that piece written.

But the folder WEB-RELATED is fairly big. 6.62 GB. 34,587 items.

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