George Hunka

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Thursday, March 07, 2019

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Two things quickly become clear from a re-read of Henry David Thoreau's Walden: First, that the man never had a job; second, that the man never had children. It's all well and good that he enjoyed the leisure to hang out at the edge of a Massachusetts pond for a full two years, and I admire his carpentry and gardening skills (neither of which I share), but it takes a certain kind of arrogance to declare, as he does,

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man, — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind, — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.

To which this old man, nearer 70 than the 37 at which Thoreau cobbled together his screed, must respond with a phrase unprintable in family newspapers. In any event, if I were to take Thoreau at his word and regret my behaving in a way that allows me to keep my job, raise my kids, and pay my bills — well, you can feel that way when you're 37. Bad behavior before 40 is at worst embarrassing and can be marked up to the zest and excesses of youth; after the age of 50, bad behavior is catastrophic at best. Fortunately one doesn't have the desire or the energy for it.

On the other hand, Thoreau did have a point when he said, "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail." What you see here today, on this journal, is my own small way of simplifying one or two things — my writing and its dissemination in particular.

Two other writers born in the 19th century suggested that I turn my attention to that. Sam Clemens and H.L. Mencken, unlike Thoreau, did not attend college or university (Thoreau was a Harvard man) and chose fairly early on to make their way in the field of journalism. To that end, they spent their apprenticeships not in writing or higher education but in the art and craft of print. Both men worked for newspapers when there were hundreds more newspapers than there are today, learning the technical intricacies of setting type and running a printing press. This practical knowledge formed a background to the ways in which they thought about the writing they did in their maturity. In his youth, Mencken was given a small toy printing press with which he published a household newspaper; Twain in his youth worked with the real things. (Even in his maturity Twain remained enamored of the mechanics of publishing, pouring a disastrous amount of money into an impossibly complicated new typesetting system — which led, in the end, to his declaring bankruptcy.)

In Philadelphia during my early 20s, I too worked for a newspaper — a legal newspaper, but a newspaper nonetheless — in a building that housed both the editorial and production plants for that publication, so I also learned a little bit about hot and cold type, page composition, layout, and the rest. The emergence of the world wide web, and especially blogging, meant that publishing technologies were newly democratized. Instead of a printing press and typesetting machine, all you really needed to publish your own work was a computer and some kind of software.

Among the earliest blogging applications, and one which appealed to the computer tinkerer in me, was Blosxom, released in 2003. Unlike Blogger or WordPress, blogging programs that emerged at the same time, Blosxom was a pared-down, simple program that ran from a command-line interface. Unlike Blogger or WordPress, too, Blosxom was released without a great many features except for the display of short texts in reverse chronological order (although Blosxom was highly extensible through a plugin repository). It was left to the enduser to design the web site through HTML and CSS and extend the basic Blosxom script as he or she saw fit.

Just as Clemens and Mencken received mechanical training in 19th-century publishing machines, I picked up some technical training in using Blosxom — and not just how to use Blosxom. WordPress is a fine program, but the more you use it, you only learn about WordPress. Because Blosxom is a CGI script, learning and using it means that you learn and use the Unix operating system, HTML, CSS, and even a bit of CGI scripting, a much broader educational experience than learning only one application. It permits you to poke around into the innards of computing technology itself, and through poking around how to control it, how to tell it to do what you want.

I've taken a bit of Thoreau's advice to heart. I have "let [my computer] affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand"; instead of maintaining a blog at one place, my email at another, I've brought everything together at my internet service provider Panix. (As it turns out I'll be saving some money too — a matter of a few dollars and some cents, but also I don't have to deal with Google mail, with its data fishing and advertising, among other more esoteric concerns.) And in doing so, I'm going back to the application with which my writing this journal began. It's a first step towards that simplification of my everyday life. I'm fully aware that simplicity can quickly shade into negligence. On the other hand, it means that there will be fewer details with which I'll be frittering away my life.

I do maintain an archive of my old posts, and from time to time will be republishing a few of them here (though many of these can be described as fritters too).

Posted on March 07, 2019 in /Simplicity
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