Categories do it wrong

I don’t know what categories are for in WordPress.

I’m currently drafting a post that defies categorization. It draws on a some recent life lessons in self-improvement (Personal) to explain why and how I’m going to attempt to use this website (Meta) as a proving ground for how WordPress (WordPress) can replace Twitter (Technology), which is an incredibly important albeit flawed service (Cyborg Anthropology).

If Categories hold any value, I suspect it is as a tuner into high-level channels, e.g. useful for top-level navigation. As in, are you hear to hear my ramblings on religion? Awesome, here’s a category for you [and link to /category/religion/]. If you know me from WordPress-land, well then here [/category/wordpress/]. But right now, at this early stage, I’m not confident what this blog’s themes will turn out to be.

And furthermore, those high-level channels break down when a piece is about ALL THE CATEGORIES. I don’t expect to frequently write pieces that tie all of my interests together… but I have a hunch I may surprise myself.

The nomenclature and concept of “Tags” make far more sense. I’m never shy to assign a long string of Tags to a post — as many as are appropriate. Although they may not identify high-level themes, at least I know what to do with them.

Whereas, when I’m slapping nearly every Category my site uses (present and future) on a single piece, it feels redundant, wrong, and frustrating.

I’ve been using categories because they are there, and my use has been sloppy. I’m in a pre-paving-the-cowpaths phase. The cowpaths aren’t clear yet — the grass hasn’t even grown up yet to be trampled. High level themes are vague.

So it’s time to stop with the Categories. Tags will do for now.

Todo: Expunge categories from the front-end, and live without them for a while.

(Not Completely) Grokking Post Formats

Wherein I revisit a debate from a year and a half ago to stir up trouble.

WordPress 3.1 dropped in February of 2011 and introduced Post Formats, a new taxonomy indicating a post’s front-end presentation context. Formats include Aside, Status, Image, and Video among others, and the idea is for themes to vary their presentation based on what the thing is. Twitter-like post about what you’re doing right now? Give it a Status format, and smart themes will, for example, omit the title in the front-end. Short-form note? Call it an Aside, and perhaps a theme will slap an “aside” watermark in the margin and hint with typography that this is one of your less-serious works (of brilliance).

The WordPress core team decided to standardize the available formats, and not offer APIs to extend them, so that you could expect your content to port gracefully when switching to a new theme. Theme developers were evidently in an uproar about this, considering the number of articles lead developers wrote around the time of 3.1’s release to explain and clarify their rationale for rigid standardization. See Otto’s for example, and a longer list linked on the Codex page under External Resources. WordPress’ philosophy includes decisions, not options — but developers typically enjoy a back-door escape clause when the decided defaults don’t suit them, in the form of functions, filters, and hooks to add to– and override defaults. In this case, post formats fundamentally require standardization, thus extensibility would undermine the entire feature, and thus no APIs exist to add “custom post formats” (which, to be clear, do not exist — there are only the standard formats). The core team’s explanations focused on this point, and on the fact that post formats are merely a custom taxonomy, and that in fact site developers already can create their own custom alternatives if they need to, using the same APIs that core uses to implement post formats.

I get that. Standardization is important.

But, I’m also sympathetic to the themers’ desire to add to the array of standard formats without having to do any re-implementation. Re-implementation seems inelegant — I’m thinking mainly of code bloat.

I know I am extremely late to this party, but there is a compromise that seems… well, obvious to me. I can’t imagine I’m the first to consider this, and there’s probably a compelling argument against it — which I’d like to hear.

I would propose to have custom post formats that require a fallback to a standard format. In practice, when loading a post, WordPress would check to see if it’s format was supported by the theme, and if it is, it would be passed to the theme as that format, but if not, it would be passed to the theme as the standard fallback format. It would be up to the theme developer to consider graceful degradation in their design process.

I believe this would only require two API methods: (1) A function to register custom post formats, that requires you to declare a fallback to one of the standard formats. This code would be inappropriate for a theme and would belong in a plugin (because if the theme were swapped out, the database entries specifying the new custom post format would be left with garbage). (2) A function to add theme support for a specific non-standard format.

I would use a mechanism like this to, for example, register a custom format for dictionary Definitions. I’d make them fall back to the Aside format.

Can anyone explain why this isn’t a good idea?

Believing, and Experiencing

In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg describes how after his Christian upbringing, he rejected his faith tradition and became an atheist, particularly because so much in Christianity hinged on belief, but he could not will himself to believe what his mind couldn’t make sense of. He describes feeling guilt and shame for doubting, but concluding that belief is not subject to acts of will — the mind will doubt what the mind will doubt.

And then, in his mid-thirties, Borg had a series of what I will call spiritual experiences. He doesn’t describe them, but describes their effect:

I realized that God does not refer to a supernatural being “out there” (which is where I had put God ever since my childhood musings about God “up in heaven”). Rather, I began to see, the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us. God is the nonmaterial ground and source and presence in which, to cite words attributed to Paul by the author of Acts, “we live and move and have our being”.

[…]

Being a thinking type, I began studying experiences of God in both mystical and nonmystical forms. I learned that even though these experiences are extraordinary, they are also quite common, known across cultures, throughout history, and into the present time. Gradually it became obvious to me that God — the sacred, the holy, the numinous — was “real.” God was no longer a concept or an article of belief, but had become an element of experience.

Borg’s experiences were just that — experiential. “God” was redefined from something he could not bring himself to believe, to something quite different that he knew first hand.

Supporting the McKowns

Lynn and Richard McKown — my aunt and uncle — have moved into a new apartment in West Linn with assistance from their renters’ insurance policy. They lost all possessions in the church cottage fire on Monday, August , and are gradually piecing their lives back together. They continue to welcome financial support. Tax deductible donations can be made to the West Linn Lutheran Church community assistance fund, which is the church’s outreach fundraising focus during the month of August. Donations can also be made directly to the “McKown Fire Relief” account at any Wells Fargo branch — please note that these private, direct donations are not tax deductible. 

On behalf of the McKowns, thank you for your continued prayers and support!

Simply a (Really Quite Amazing) Example

What Christianity means to me is… well, complicated isn’t exactly the right word. My views aren’t especially confusing, unclear, or difficult to explain. Perhaps “radical” is a better word. Radical as in “way different than normal”. I’ll write more about that soon.

For now, I just want to share something I saw recently that seemed to gel with my thinking.

I was impressed with the sermon notes my friend Eric Mann posted recently, especially his conclusion:

So today there are really three points you need to remember:

  1. That we were made expressly for the purpose of working
  2. That we were made to do specific good works that were prepared in advance
  3. That we were given the model of Christ to follow as we do these works in the service of others

I trip over #1. I’m skeptical that we “were made expressly” for anything. But! It does seem to me that work is a compulsion most of us have. If we were made for something, it is evidently to work.

I can also quibble with #2. I’m skeptical that some benevolent and detail-oriented deity has a master plan for you and for me. But! I feel compelled to take opportunities to do good works, and I see that is fairly common, and I think it’s remarkable (if not entirely magical) that there is no end of opportunities for us to exercise that compulsion.

But that’s all beside the point. Eric and I may not see eye to eye on my quibbles, but that’s fine with me. I admire him for his ethics, and for preaching them.

Number 3 is spot on. It is one of the tentpoles of my own personal religion.

If that is all Jesus was — nothing metaphysical about it, just a model Really Good Guy — that’s interesting enough for me. The guy was amazing.