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Living smaller?

My friend willshetterly posted this NY Times article on his blog the other day:

Consumers Find Ways to Spend Less and Find Happiness - NYTimes.com

I confess to having mixed feelings when I read articles like this about giving up possessions, living in a smaller house, etc. I would love to be able to live in a Zen-like wee cottage, and I often feel like a villain for planning such a big house here in Vermont, but the idea of living somewhere with no room for guests seems very wrong to me. I'm not saying it's wrong for others, just wrong for myself.

Ted's and my house in Tucson was 2,000 square feet, a scandalous size for a childless couple. But we almost always had one or more long-term houseguests, either someone without a fixed residence or someone living in rural Cochise County who wanted to stay in Tucson due to health problems, because their own house was uncomfortably run down, or simply because they were lonely. We have a lot of Buddhist friends who are somewhat itinerant, and our house was a really nice place for them to sleep on a comfy bed, use high-speed internet, and get some TLC.

The house we're planning in Vermont is even bigger, to my horror. But I can't see how to change that. Ted wants an attached retreat cabin for long meditation retreats (an important part of our Buddhist practice), and we require a ground-floor bedroom for guests who can't manage stairs. I've also optimized the house for hosting guests without treading on anyone's privacy, so we can host them longer without feeling put-upon. I occasionally try to come up with ways to rearrange everything to make the house smaller, but then I think of having to turn friends away who need a place to stay to get back on their feet. It seems wrong to eliminate a guest room that will be heavily used just to be able to pat myself on the back for having a smaller-than-average house.

We are doing everything we can to build a house that will be energy-efficient and inexpensive to maintain. This means paying way more upfront for high-performance windows and huge amounts of blown-in cellulose insulation. We are working with a first-rate energy consultant and structural engineer to build a house that won't leak heat. We are intent on using sustainably-harvested lumber and flooring in order not to steal from future generations.

I doubt we'll be able to afford solar panels in phase one, but we are designing the house with a future solar installation in mind, with the goal of hitting net-zero energy use. (Note that phase one also doesn't include a garage, and when we have the money I may opt first to build a greenhouse.)

And yet I am still sick about how big and excessive this all is. Or is it? Are 2,500 square feet of an energy-efficient, sustainable house that's designed to last 100 or more years the same as 2,500 square feet of McMansion that's a moldstorm waiting to happen?

I suppose I sound like I'm fishing for a pat on the back, and maybe I am. But these are real questions for me, and as someone who sincerely tries to do The Right Thing, I'd like honest answers. We haven't broken ground yet, but I think we're too far down our current path to change things at this point, at least not without great expense and delay.

Welcome to Geeksville, part 2

"Andrea, you promised to bore us with rants about Joomla and Drupal, but that was over a month ago. What gives?"

The sad truth is that I am so unenthusiastic about Joomla that I couldn't even muster up the energy to rant about it.

It wasn't always like this. When I first used Joomla last summer, I thought it was the bee's knees. Compared to WordPress, Joomla is much better for large sites and has lots of exciting third-party extensions. It's easy to make an attractive and professional-looking site, since there are heaps of free templates (themes) available, and if you want to take your graphic design to the next level you can buy great templates for a reasonable price. Admittedly Joomla has a steeper learning curve than WordPress does, but I was able to throw together a really slick-looking Joomla site in record time.

My problem with Joomla is that it's deeply clunky. It's the offshoot of a venerable open-source CMS called Mambo, and I think it's badly weighed down by its legacy interface. When I started using Joomla mid-2008, they'd recently made the leap from version 1.0.x to version 1.5, but it doesn't feel particularly Web 2.0. Come to think of it, it feels very Web 1.5 -- it has a certain amount of AJAX window-dressing, but the back end is bogged down by a lot of slow and inflexible CGI-style forms. (If you don't know what I mean by AJAX, some popular AJAX-style sites are Twitter, Facebook, and iGoogle, in which the page updates dynamically without having to reload.)

Another drawback of Joomla is that many of the extensions cost money. Joomla is open source, but a lot of the cool third-party tools are in the $10-$20 range (or more, if it's really fancy). You could argue that this creates an incentive for developers to produce high-quality tools, but I find it creates a certain disharmony between Joomla extensions and Joomla core. WordPress has a bit of this problem, but not to nearly the same extent.

It's hard to describe what I don't like about Joomla without launching into a discourse about Drupal. Before I used Drupal I thought Joomla was pretty cool, but now it feels like a real drag to use. Joomla's initial learning curve is not as steep as Drupal's, but now that I'm up and running with both tools I find that Joomla is always tripping me up. I'm sure that seasoned Joomla users have no problem with it, but I find it counter-intuitive.

Each CMS has its own basic unit of content: Joomla has articles and Drupal has nodes. The term "article" is way too specific and the term "node" is way too vague, but they're basically the same thing. A node or article could be any of the following:

- The unique contents of a page (e.g. the "About Us" spiel)
- An article or press release
- A single image in a gallery or slideshow
- An event on a calendar
- A blog entry

(Note that a single page might contain multiple articles/nodes.)

Long story short, Drupal nodes are much more flexible than Joomla articles. In Joomla core you can only classify articles into categories and sections, whereas Drupal core has many more ways to work with nodes, including the ability to have different node types. This is ludicrously useful, particularly if your clients want to be able to update the site themselves. The main contributor to the Joomla site I built is always getting confused about how to add a new item to the site and how to make it appear in the right place. He knows how to do only a few things to the site, and without my intervention the front page is getting overloaded. If I'd built the site in Drupal, I could have automated the workflow much better and made the site easier for him to maintain.

Furthermore, user permissions are much more configurable in Drupal than in Joomla. Joomla comes with seven preset roles, four for the front end and three for the back (don't get me started on the difference, because that's another clunky aspect of Joomla which Drupal lacks). There are authors, editors, publishers, etc. The problem is that you can't fine tune the permissions very well. For example, I built a site in Joomla for my sister's mural painting business in Chicago, and we'd like to give her employee Paula the ability to create blog entries and publish them right away (without approval). To do that Paula needs "publisher" permission, but the publisher role also allows Paula to edit any page on the entire site, which is a dangerous permission to give out. Drupal, on the other hand, lets you create custom-tailored user roles, so I could create a "blogger" role which would allow Paula to create blog entries and publish them right away, but she would not be able to edit any other text on the website.

There is almost certainly a third-party extension for Joomla that would duplicate the Drupal behavior, but (A) it would possibly cost money and (B) every additional module is a potential security and stability risk.

Anyway, I should wrap this up before it turns entirely into a Drupal pitch. Joomla also lags behind Drupal and WordPress in search engine optimization (SEO). By default, Joomla URLs are big nasty PHP strings like http://sigmufi.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17. You can enable SEF (search-engine friendly) URLs in Joomla core or use free third-party tools like sh404SEF, but it can get pretty complicated and feels like Deep Magic. That said, the SEO tools do work, and I've been pleasantly surprised by my sister's Google rankings since we switched to Joomla from a static site.

Joomla Pros and Cons

  • Better than WordPress for large, complicated websites

  • Beautiful themes are available, especially through reasonably-priced template clubs like RocketTheme and JoomlaJunkie.

  • The moderate initial learning curve makes it easy to make a professional-looking site very quickly.

  • Upgrades, though not automatic, have mostly been smooth.

  • Many of the good extensions cost money.

  • Comparatively rigid administrative interface

  • Article workflow is clunky and often inflexible.

  • User permissions are not customizable without third-party extensions.

  • Search engine optimization can get pretty complicated.

At this point, I think the biggest advantage of Joomla over Drupal is the availability of gorgeous templates for a reasonable price. That was the main reason I chose it for my sister's website, and I'm not convinced I wouldn't make the same decision even now. Other than that, I prefer Drupal in nearly every way.

Guess which CMS I'm posting about next!
About a year ago, my life as a web geek took an unexpected turn. I'd been designing websites since 1995, but I'd long since decided that I didn't actually like the work very much, and I honestly didn't think I was much good at it. I am a competent but uninspired graphic designer, I am code-phobic and could only cut and paste the simplest bits of Javascript, and I never learned the fancy tools like Dreamweaver or Flash. My one virtue was that I was a generalist -- I can write the content, design the pages, and take the project from start to finish.

On a professional level this was mostly a moot point, since I've been a dharma loafer for nine of the past ten years, sponging off the nice Ted and doing only a few web projects. I felt like a bit of a fraud describing myself as a web designer (considering how uninteresting I found it), and even though there is no shortage of people I can help by building a website, I was quite unmotivated to do so.

Anyway, this time last year one of my teachers asked me to help her with a website for her non-profit organization. Having noticed that other people were building nice out-of-the-box sites using WordPress, I decided to try it myself, with the idea that it would be easy for my teacher to use.

I was quickly sucked into an engrossing new world. I discovered that in my absence from the front lines of web design, a whole new set of tools had emerged. For example, I set up a hosting account for my Lama's site and discovered the magic of cPanel and Fantastico De Luxe. cPanel is a dashboard for web hosting accounts -- it comes standard with most low-cost hosting packages ($7.95/month, unlimited everything, blah blah blah). It allows non-techies like me to set up e-mail accounts, create subdomains (e.g.: foobar.steamkite.com is a subdomain of steamkite.com), etc. Fantastico de Luxe is a tool within cPanel that makes it easy to install complicated scripts like WordPress, etc.

I was overwhelmed with this new power! I'd built some powerful websites before, but it was always with the help of some programmer who could handle the messy parts (mooshjan, bovlb, and of course tsennyipa, I'm looking at you!). cPanel and Fantastico suddenly enabled me to do the dirty work myself, and having my own hosting account meant I could tinker all I wanted without messing up Ted's server or wasting any of his time.

And WordPress was so cool! First, there are hundreds or thousands of free themes out there, which meant I didn't have to bother with the graphic design or CSS. I could just download someone else's work (freely given), customize it a bit here and there, and *bam*, I had a professional-looking website. Second, WordPress has heaps of free widgets and plugins, allowing me to add all sorts of groovy bells and whistles without needing to know what I was doing. Fun stuff!

That first site was a lot of work, mostly because it included an online store. There's a very good free WordPress shopping cart out there, but in 2008 it was about 90% functional and 20% documented. I spent a month banging my head against it and finally got it to work (and I contributed some docs just to be nice), and in the process I learned a lot about WordPress and database-backed websites in general.

WordPress Pros and Cons


  • Difficult to update in practice. My site was rather more complicated than other WP sites, mostly because of the online store, and my E-Z upgrades tend to go very very wrong. The site is now several versions behind, which is a major security risk. I am close to getting it migrated to the newest version, but that's involved rebuilding the site rather than just upgrading it.

  • Security-challenged. WordPress is very popular and it's written in PHP, which is notoriously exploitable, so my out-of-date WP site is a hacker attack waiting to happen.

  • Limited features. At heart, WP is a blogging platform, and the site I built is not a blog, which means that my needs are not a perfect match with the WordPress feature set. This mismatch wasn't obvious to me at the time, but since I started using other content management systems, WP's shortcomings have become rather glaring (more on that in future posts).

The site I built, by the way, is at www.diamond-heart.org. I used a gorgeous free theme from Smashing Magazine, customized with some illustrations from iStockPhoto. It has way more features than any site I'd ever built without help, and my teacher has been very happy with it.

Looking back, I think of that site as my initiation into the wide world of content management systems (CMS). It showed me what was now possible for a code-phobe like me, and I suddenly began to wonder if I didn't enjoy web design after all.

[ETA: In late 2009 I migrated the Diamond Heart site from WordPress to Drupal, which probably tells you where this series is heading...]

Watch this space for part two: Joomla!


We meet again, My-Lar

Yes, it's tomato time again. Longtime fans and stalkers will know that I can't resist planting tomatoes, and that it's usually a great big failure. The first time was in 2001, back in Saint David, Arizona, and the sucking was truly epic. Then I tried in 2006, here in Tucson, and an auspicious start just didn't pan out. I think our neighbors enjoyed some tomatoes while we were on an extended trip that summer (India, Chicago, Montreal), but by the time we got home the plants were useless.

Last year, of course, was the exception. I put in four plants: Big Beef, Early Girl, Ciudad Victoria, and "Texas Wild Tomato" (these last two are from the Native Seeds/SEARCH store nearby). The two native varieties grew like gangbusters, setting fruit all summer (not so surprising, since they're both cherry tomatoes). Early Girl did OK, though it didn't set fruit during the hottest months, and it was eventually overwhelmed by the two enormous natives. Big Beef provided the yummiest tomato of the year, but it shut down production during the high temps and never really recovered. The plants, all indeterminate, kept growing and growing, and I feared we wouldn't get a freeze. But we ended up dipping below 32° around New Year, so I got to start fresh.

More garden blah-blah, plus photos!Collapse )


Earplugs at rock concerts FTW!

Train Horn

Ph34r my sc4ry t0mat0z

My tomato plants have grown. A lot. We haven't had a freeze yet this year in Tucson, and some years it doesn't freeze here at all. A freeze would normally kill the tomato plants and let me start fresh again in the spring.

I am afraid.


Small tomato plants, from a gentler time


Enormous terrifying tomato jungle


ironic juxtaposition otd

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Surprising endorsement OTD

The Houston Chronicle endorsed Obama today. Houston, Texas. They haven't endorsed a Democrat for president in more than 40 years.


The Chicago Tribune resoundingly endorsed Obama today. If you don't realize why this is amazing, here's a quote from the endorsement:

This endorsement makes some history for the Chicago Tribune. This is the first time the newspaper has endorsed the Democratic Party's nominee for president.

For the record, the Trib was founded in 1847.
I *heart* my nerdy mortgage bank. Check out their website -- they barely even have an online banking feature.

The best part is the copyright statement on the bottom of the page: "© 1917 - 2007". Does copyright even go that far back?

I called our banker today just to say hi and see how they're doing amid all the turmoil. She answered right away (main branch number, no phone tree) and said things are just fine, as I knew they would be, and then asked how Ted and I are doing. Awww... nerdiest bank ever. I always picture her and our other banker (the branch director) locking the doors at 5:00 like they're tucking it in for the night.

I have no doubt their management is feeling rather vindicated, if not downright smug, about sitting out the last boom. Back in 2004 when we bought our house, I asked whether they even offered ARMs and such, and the banker looked as if I'd mentioned something a little tawdry.

Sigh... if only the rest of the industry had followed suit.