To Resurrect a Blog

To resurrect a blog, you need:

  1. A nice proxy service* and willingness to run a blog that’s blocked in China** most of the time.
  2. A swanky new layout, courtesy of the WordPress monochrome theme.
  3. An enthusiasm to get back into essay writing.  One can only say much in 140 characters.

In other news, I haven’t used WordPress in ages. I’m mucho impressed with the current interface.  Brilliant use of coding, and so damn good looking.

* Between PaperBus and winning six free months of Freedur, I hope I won’t suffer for lack of a proxy.

** It used to be the case that expats in China avoided having a blocked BSP like the plague, but perhaps having all of Twitter and Facebook shut out by the Great Firewall changed our perceptions.  After all, if not having a VPN is no longer an option in China, then using blocked services becomes more attractive to writers and readers alike.

Advertisements

Smart URIs in Comment Forms?

Many blogs have taken to posting notices to remind commenters to use HTML to include URIs in comments rather than simply typing or pasting the full URI out in the comment box.  (For example, read the comment form at Outside the Beltway.  See also a long post on the subject at Balloon Juice.)  This is because most blogs designs feature fixed-width comment areas that “break” if the URI is too long.

Obviously, it’d be best if the commenters did use HTML when posting links, but many won’t, because most Internet users remain HTML-illiterate.  The worst way to handle this problem is to put a hold on posting all comments with a URI included and manually edit each comment to make the links correct.  Another way around the problem is to make the comment form a WYSIWYG box, thus making inserting URIs as painless as possible, but doing so increases server load, especially for highly-trafficked blogs.  A better option, which I’ve been thinking about after a couple months of miniblogging on Twitter, where short URIs are a must, would utilize the shortened URI feature of TinyURL!, Snurl, or similar services.

I got to thinking:  WordPress and Movable Type already convert simple characters to special characters after we post — two hyphens become an em-dash, straight quotes become curly quotes, and so on — so why not have “smart URIs”?  The blogging application could catch the presence of URIs, check their character length, and then automatically convert all URIs over a certain length (e.g. 25 characters) to a shortened URI using an API from one of the short-URI web applications or a custom-built app.  Ideally, the blog would combine these short URIs with a link previewing feature so that no one gets suckered into going to a non-worksafe URI, making the links created truly smart.

If someone has already done this as a plugin, then great.  But it really should be a standard feature of WordPress and Movable Type in the future.

In Search of Status Synchronicity

Like a lot of bloggers, I’ve taken the status/miniblog plunge in the last few months.

  • I used to use Jaiku before China blocked it.
  • I’m using Twitter because it’s still unblocked and a bit more communication-friendly than Jaiku.
  • I also have a Facebook account and update my status there.

This kind of blogging is on my mind because WordPress just introduced Prologue, which as far as I can tell, is a bit of clever theme coding that emulates Twitter in group form. In fact, Prologue doesn’t represent a terribly new concept, since short-post form sideblogs have been around in WordPress for years, but it looks nice and is bound to give people some new group blogging ideas.

But the addition of Prologue to the WordPress theme set also reminds me of a problem arising from the glut of status/miniblog services, namely, how can we effectively manage updating so many different services with our information, and how can our friends access our statuses or miniblogs in a convenient manner? This echoes the old “how many blogs do you need?” question, but with statuses the possibility for redundancy is far greater.

For example, Facebook offers both a current status feature and posted items feature, which, in turn, provide the same capabilities as Twitter or Jaiku. In my case, I usually make my Facebook status the most “personal,” since it’s for my Facebook friends only, whereas my Twitter is public and therefore has less “man, I drank too much last night”-type statuses, but there’s still overlap. If I joined a Prologue blog, would my posts there be significantly different from either Facebook or Twitter? It’s doubtful. On another front, I’ve considered making a Chinese language miniblog on Taotao, since most of my friends on Twitter can’t read Chinese and would probably get a screen filled with boxes when they see my status updates. Yet fragmenting my writing once again doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

Overall, if there was a way to easily synchronize status updates between the different web services, it’d be a boon and cut through the clutter of managing and reading so many different services. (The alternative, of course, is to only use a single status service — or no services at all.) There are some messy web applications along these lines, such as the Twitter application for Facebook, which turns your Facebook status into an ugly “X is twittering:” line. But what’d really be helpful is a software solution, possibly designed along the lines of Thwirl, that’d let me manage all of my statuses or miniblogs from one place. This would require either sticking a lot of different API-handling features into the software or having the web companies standardize their posting APIs.

Similarly, if the program included an interactive “status reader” that pulled all of a person’s statuses which are visible to you* together for you to read, it’d make following someone’s activities more interesting and enjoyable than by loading each service individually. This may actually be the easiest part of the program to create, since most statuses are output as XML and are thus easy to present to the end user. But it’s important to make it more than just a glorified RSS reader.** It needs to be interactive by ensuring that the status reader is compatible with the web service that the status is being pulled from. For example, if I see that my friend Ed on Facebook has a big job interview tomorrow, I should be able to click on his name and send him a Facebook message of support. At the same time, if I see that a friend from Twitter has posted an interesting link, I should be able to click on her name and send her an @user message. The heart of the reader side of the program would be a “status address book” that contained each friend’s various status feeds, which could either be manually input or discovered via email address input.

Over time, I expect that the status update services will go the way of the IM services and social networking sites, which started out numerous but have slowly faded away into duopolies like Facebook-Myspace and MSN-Google Talk. Consequently, over time, my software bleg might be rendered moot by user preferences, much as multi-platform chat has become less innovative with so many new users sticking to MSN or Google Talk. But for now it’d be a damn cool tool to have.

* The key here is “visible to you.” If the status would not be normally visible to you, you shouldn’t be able to read it. Privacy matters.

** RSS readers make blog reading much easier, especially here in China where loading individual pages is slow, but the lack of interaction through the reader — I need to load the website directly to comment — has always struck me as a weakness.

They Used to Be Called Conservative Democrats

I’ve was reading the little blogrow between Jules Crittenden and John Cole overnight. To be honest, I don’t read Balloon Juice as often as I used to, since I figure if I wanted to read profanity-laden rants against President Bush and conservatives, I’d check out Atrios instead, since he perfected the art. That said, it seems to me that Cole is getting criticism — not just from Crittenden but a lot of right-wing bloggers — for a change away from being someone he never really was.

I’ve known Cole for a long time, and he was never a rock-ribbed conservative Republican, but a “libertarian with a defense budget” (as I called him in a conversation ca. 2002). People like Cole were in the Republican Party because they were serious about national defense and opposed to big government, and on these two fronts Bush and Congressional Republicans have largely failed the GOP and failed the American people. And like many who supported Bush in 2004, Cole has a heavy case of buyer’s remorse. Accordingly, an honest conservative will assess where the blame lies for Cole’s “shift” and find the Republican leadership’s fingerprints all over.

Based on his positions, and given that there are still no voices within the Republican Party offering credible alternatives to Bush, I can’t criticize Cole for changing his party affiliation or even the one-sided nature of his blogging today. That doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a “lefty,” and if conservatives want to pile on because of a sense of betrayal, they’re missing the big picture. For one thing, people like Cole in the Democratic Party used to be called conservative Democrats, and I can’t recall any successful Republican candidate dismissing them outright as “lefties.” The point being, to win as a national party, Republicans need the support of people like John Cole, and if the big tent is closed to them, it condemns the party to being a national party no more.

P.S. If the first instinct of certain Republican bloggers continues to be to post their opponents’ personal information, they’re going to find a lot more people who sound like John Cole in the future.

Antecedents to the Blog

True confession time: expat.wordpress.com was registered some 2 years ago just for the sake of acquiring a WordPress API key. I had meant to eventually make use of the domain as a group-based travel and life guide for people in China with a special focus on Tianjin and Beijing. Unfortunately, this plan was nipped in the bud by the Chinese powers-that-be, who deemed the new free blogs on wordpress.com yet another threat to harmonization. After wordpress.com was blocked by the Great Firewall, I decided to shelve the blog. After all, what’s the use of a website for people who live in China that cannot be read by people living in China?

In the meantime, I had other blogs hosted on LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, and my own (now defunct) domain, matthewstinson.net, so I was still pretty busy blogging on my own. Like others, I had first got into the blogging scene via Blogspot in 2001, and I did more than my fair share of poliblogging, though over time my political commentaries slowed to a trickle. I attribute this partly towards a busier lifestyle, partly towards the enervating effect George W. Bush has had on the conservative movement, and partly towards the decline in civility among bloggers.

About my life I can only say that China, as wonderful and interesting as it is, is just not very blogger-friendly. Setting aside the obvious elephant in the living room, the aforementioned Great Firewall, most of China lacks the kind of communication infrastructure to make blogging quick and easy. For instance, when out of the house, I would like to blog from WiFi hotspots or by using my phone as a modem, but in a second-tier city such as Tianjin, WiFi hotspots are few and phone data services are too slow. (Beijing is slightly better thanks to the liberal proliferation of Western businesses in the city.) At home, connectivity is also an issue, with Chinese ADSL choking like an old-school 56K modem during peak hours. Still, the Great Firewall has to be factored in, since it made managing matthewstinson.net a bit of a headache after my Blog Service Provider was blocked. Because I can’t always use a proxy, it also more or less killed my LiveJournal writing and stopped me from making a Blogspot blog after I ended matthewstinson.net.

As to the political situation stateside, I’ll start by noting that I’ve never really been a fan of George W. Bush. I was, for a time, a fan of the people he chose to surround himself with, and had I been voting for president based merely on advisors, there’s no question that I would’ve voted for Bush over Gore in 2000. Yet when it came to Bush himself, there has always been a hollow blandness to the man, an unserious folksy demeanor that suggested Joe Average instead of Leader of the Free World. He was never meant to be an innovator or activist the way Gore has always been cast, and Bush’s bipartisan triumphs in conservative Texas were always shaky ground upon which to build a new national politics. As a serious conservative, I gained the sense in the first election that the choice between Bush and Gore was a choice between the right ideas implemented poorly and the wrong ideas implemented well. In the end, I chose to abstain from voting, and I don’t regret that decision.

Little did I know that Bush would prove me wrong. Not only have Bush’s ideas been implemented poorly, many of them — the Medicare drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, new protectionism, veto-free budgeting, the Katrina response, and state-building in Iraq, to name a few — have been the wrong ideas to begin with. At the same time, if I could not cheerlead for the president, I could hardly cheerlead for the Congress. Gone was the vision and vigor that Republicans brought to the Hill in 1994. Instead, the potential for real change was sapped by the lobbyists, by the activists, and by the inherently corrupting nature of incumbency, all of which saw reformers stepped on by senior members and the grassroots disillusioned by an orgy of big government as disgusting as any scene in a Hogarth painting.

My friends on the left attribute these failures to inherent flaws in the ideology of conservatives and libertarians. I would counter that what we’ve witnessed is not ideological decay but the structural weakness and rudderless leadership of the Republican party, which mirrors the situation Democrats found themselves in during the late 1970s. In short, my fellow Republicans: these are our Jimmy Carter years.

That is not to say that Democrats have suddenly become the party of ideas, though they are, without a doubt, the party of anger. Indeed, in Democratic displays of outrage and Republican flag-waving, both parties have eschewed intellectualism post-9/11 for the sake of political theater, and online in particular the parties play to the reptilian instincts of their base. While those new to the blogging game might not believe it, things weren’t always so smashmouth in the blogosphere.

In 2001, there was still considerable room for serious thinking and debate among political blogs, and I enjoyed it. Why, back then, even Atrios and Instapundit said nice things about each other! But by 2007, whatever nuance that used to exist in blog commentaries has been largely abandoned in favor of echo chambers within each ideological community and the clash of binary opposites between them. (To illustrate the latter point, consider how intelligent political commentary gets automatically pigeonholed these days.) Some happy exceptions exist, but even the most sober-headed bloggers will have a legion of ugly commenters to deal with.

The developments noted above forced me to make a few adjustments. I maximized my online enjoyment over the past three years by focusing on photoblogging (moblogging, really) and blogging on personal blogs for my friends and family to read. As for the rest, well, I didn’t have the stomach to engage as a partisan, yet I would not abandon ideas that I felt right because I refused to stand by party leaders when they were wrong. And so I went on hiatus for the sake of living a little and thinking a lot.

After my long break I’ve decided to start this blog up again (Like Cooking a Small Fish is essentially the fifth iteration of my political blog) because 2008 will be an important year in the US and China. America will choose another president — and potentially a radically different direction — while China, thanks not only to the Olympics but also to American electoral politics, will be thrust into the spotlight. There’s a wonderful opportunity here to explore issues of governance, the economy, and society, and the road ahead is not so narrow that the bombthrowers will be the only travelers.

Given my time constraints I want to make this an essay-style blog with a few posts each week rather than dozens of posts daily. I blog to relax, to get ideas out of my head and onto paper (symbolically, of course), and also because living in China means I need to write regularly lest the local color sneak into my English. If you read my blog, I hope you enjoy it, even if you disagree with me — and odds are you will.