Moving Dabbler to WordPress

So Thursday night I moved the dabblersjournal domain to a new host and loaded WordPress on the server. Because the experience was heavily dependent on already knowing a lot of website-maintenance practice, my guess is that it would have taken a competent novice user a couple weeks to do what I managed in a few hours. Experience helps.

Joan says: “Whatcha been doing all night?”
“Moving Dabbler’s Journal,” I replied.
“So you’re going to start writing again?”

I’ve done this before….

Installing WordPress was pretty easy, just like they say. Getting to the point you can make the installation requires some technical expertise; it’s not difficult stuff, but it helps a whole lot if you already know how to do those things. And, while displaying the themes which can be used to “skin” the site is remarkably easy, if you want to modify them you need still another set of technical skills.

Some notes about the installation experience. These comments are not intended to be critical; I’m just recording my reactions to things that happened. Nor should these be mistaken for instructions. Although a couple things went wrong over the course of the evening, they turned out to be frustrations, not fatal issues. One was self-inflicted.


Wednesday

Wednesday evening I told John Skilton, who’s been hosting this domain for several years, that I planned to move the site to a different host. John’s hosted my other website, A Fan’s Guide to the Midwest League, for about a decade, and that site will remain at Skiltech. But I’d decided to resurrect this Journal in WordPress, and it seemed preferable to move to a host which was familiar with the software.

Thursday

I examined the hosts list on the WordPress website, and decided to go with Laughing Squid, largely because their website doesn’t make me think of K-Mart. Signed up for an account, played with their administrator interface (Plesk) for a while just to get a feel for the tools, created the MySQL database WordPress needs more or less in accordance with the installation instructions, then set up/transferred my dabblersjournal email accounts. This is familiar stuff for me, with tools which are not so different from some I use elsewhere; other folks might find it intimidating. Had I stayed on Skiltech’s servers, the MySQL load would have added some complication, and he’d likely have had to enable PHP for me, but we’d have worked it out.

The next step, actually moving the domain, seemed like it should be easy–except that Wild West Domains’ website denied that they knew who I was, regardless of the information in WHOIS. After a couple largely-wasted hours, I figured out I needed to log in via Skiltech’s reseller interface. Once I solved that, the domain move was pretty straightforward if you’ve done this sort of thing before. BTW: Last time I moved a domain it took several days to propagate the DNS changes; this time the traffic had almost completely moved to the new host within a couple hours. Things have improved.

On to the WordPress install: The instructions on the WordPress website are excellent. My first two tries failed, probably because I was attempting a (slightly) non-standard setup (see my note, below), but in the end I just went with a standard file arrangement. That install, friends, was easy by almost any test. This installation requires that you understand ZIP (or tar) and FTP; I’m an old BBS sysop, and remember those protocols’ ancestors. Non-techie mileage will vary.

Then I fired up Plesk to do a little tweaking, as WordPress needed some read/write privileges changed. This may a skippable step; it likely depends how you intend to use the software.

Some final activities for the evening: Took a quick tour of the WordPress menues, changing a few defaults to meet my known prejudices. Selected one of the available themes (truly easy; this is a great implementation). And I created a couple sample entries just to see how things work, and look.

Friday

Friday I played with WP Themes. I had several objectives:

  1. Identify two or three themes I can live with while I work toward a permanent solution.
  2. Identify five or six other themes that can teach me things about design and feature possibilities.
  3. Begin to unravel the interlinked mysteries of PHP, WP templates, and CSS.
    • I’ve worked with several templating languages over the years so I don’t expect serious conceptual problems, and I’ve used CSS casually on several projects but don’t really know it. PHP, on the other hand, is completely new to me and one of the reasons I’m taking this migration on.

I have some look & feel expectations, too: A good theme is light-weight (that is, quick to load), looks good on a narrow screen, is visually interesting, and has the basic navigation features I expect of a weblog. Although I’m certainly not opposed to color, the print in the content sections must be black (or near-black) on a white background. And I’ll likely end up with two nav bars, both on the right side of the screen, as I strongly object to designs which run far off the bottom of the screen.

I’ve also some opinions on how the front page should look (and work), but I’m willing to implement those features myself after I master the environment.

I quickly settled on Cutline (Chris Pearson), Ajax Berlee (Nico Berlee), and LightCMS (Sreejith) as themes I’m willing to deploy while I’m figuring things out. Quick comments on each:

  • Cutline is just gorgeous. There are many details I want to change, but there’s lots and lots to like about this design. Narrow screens are a problem, though not hopelessly annoying, and there are a few functionality issues I need to understand better. And this theme has the best 404 page I’ve ever seen.
  • Ajax Berlee‘s front page is the closest to the layout I want, though it displays atrociously on narrow screens. Nico’s scripting skills seem, at first glance, to be pretty impressive; I need to look at that code. I think I don’t like the way he handles fonts, though.
  • LightCMS is a remarkably clean implementation, though the small fonts are painful; it does work well on a narrow monitor. I’ve already discovered an issue in the way the program displays nested categories (in IE6–works acceptably in my other browsers), which I’ll need to address soon if I want to continue to use the theme. But I really like it.

Several others caught my eye: Evernight (Ricardo De Sousa) looks like a good starting point for further explorations, Kolorful (Myo Kyaw Htun) is a fine minimalist implementation, Superfly (MiloIIIIVII) is really pretty, and Ice (also MiloIIIIVII) seems nearly perfect, albeit perhaps a little fussy. I’ll be playing with themes for a while, yet, but that’s where I got to on Friday.

The themes are easy to change once they’re installed on the server. Installation, though, requires competence (again) with ZIP (tar) and FTP clients, and a willingness to explore the WordPress directory tree. These are fairly common skills in some environments, but in this context “simple” clearly depends on what you already know.

Saturday

Ignoring a whole lot of non-weblog activities, I spent Saturday looking at the templates, and the scripts in the templates. Made a few, tentative, modifications….


My preliminary assessment: This project promises to be interesting. A different person, though, would be better off taking WordPress up on the free installation offer, or perhaps using the WordPress.com hosting service.