Some reasons why I have my own website

Digging through my massive archive of Evernote clippings I came across one from a guy named Brett Slatkin in which he outlines some reasons why he chooses to have his own website. The reason I kept the note is to remind me to consider this question for myself and to write my thoughts on the topic.

In the past my typical response to this sort of topic has been to begin a draft with the intention of writing a comprehensive post drawing together all my thinking on the subject. I’m increasingly aware that it is much more constructive for me to throw together my thoughts at the time when I’m motivated by the topic and publish it, whether I feel it is complete or not. I can always circle back around at some later time to add more ideas or update my thinking in the light of experience.

So, I’m going to steal Brett’s major headings and start from there:

A home base

This blog is where I write first. I have tried various social media channels and failed at most of them. My blog is personal to me, it is where I automatically think to put anything I write, and I’m trying to make it the hub of whatever else I do online.

Self expression

Initially (back in 2010), I found it difficult to come out of my shell and ‘be myself’ in what and how I wrote on my blog. Gradually this has changed and although I do maintain boundaries as to what I share, nowadays what you read is generally likely to be what is on my heart at the time of publication. I’m also aiming to expand the ways in which I use my blog as a form of self-expression, varying the styles of my writing, including a range of posts from short status updates or random thoughts through to much longer articles. Don’t hold your breath Chris, but maybe even some poetry!

Something I’m interested to try is photography. I’m not a good photographer, but it is a good way to catch some things that can be difficult to put into words. In the past I used a lot of stock photos but have grown away from liking those as I’ve moved more into personal blogging rather than writing about faith as I used to. Instead I’d like to use more of my own photos to illustrate my life rather than just talking (well, writing) about it.

Internet citizenship

This heading would not have made it into my top three if I hadn’t stolen it! However, it is actually an important issue. As sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn have created their own ‘silo’ effects, locking user-generated content into their own systems, I’m becoming increasing bloody-minded about avoiding such silos and publishing to the ‘open web’. I do like what Brett had to say about linking and citing others, this is both an academic necessity in my view and also common courtesy. Unfortunately, some sites are making even this difficult, I noticed today when I scanned my site for broken links that all the links I have to articles from the New York Times are broken because of their pay wall – in my view this is just plain obnoxious.

Now a few headings of my own:

Freedom

This is a major factor for me. I greatly value the ability to create a backup or export of my entire site and move it to whatever web host or platform I want to. Over the years I’ve experimented with WordPress.org, WordPress.com, Ghost, Squarespace and a bunch of html files. All this is possible with your own website and the only limits are time, patience and technical prowess (I’m lacking in the third of those attributes).

The other aspect of freedom is being free to express my own views. I’m not a political writer so freedom of speech has not been a significant issue to me, but I do write about my faith in Christ and in some situations the freedom to do this could conceivably be curtailed. I just like knowing that I’m not unduly constrained by some company that ‘graciously’ lets me post stuff on their site for free.

Legacy

The longer I maintain my own website the more valuable it becomes to me, and potentially to my children. I want to continue building this legacy, and also to be able to ensure ongoing access to it. Even if I were to take the site offline, it could still be made into a local copy that could be accessed by my family. It can be exported into plain text files which theoretically should still be readable in 50 years time, or it could be printed onto good old paper for others to read. Some of these options would cause a loss in functionality, but the core content remains my own possession. Again, not left at the mercy of a company that allows me to put stuff on their platform for free.

Customisation

Being able to tinker with how my site looks is fun (and time consuming) and I do like being able to decide what extra functionality it has. However, this is not an especially significant item on my list. In reality I tend to opt for some sort of theme template that thousands of other sites probably use, and prefer a fairly simple layout so I can take or leave this particular aspect. It is nice to have the option open though.

A final link

While writing this I came across this article: Chopped up or Cloned: You Choose which gives a nice summary of how having your own website can act as an online hub, without having to forsake whatever other sites you happen to already use.

I have referred to and largely based this post on IndieWeb ideas, but really all I’m emphasising is the value of having your own blog or website. The more I have scratched around IndieWeb sites and their wiki the less inclined I am to fully embrace the whole thing because it seems vastly more complicated than what I want out of my own site.

I found some ‘lost’ blog posts

One of my goals with this blog is to keep a record of my thoughts, ideas, plans and actions for posterity (whatever form ‘posterity’ actually takes). In this sense there are some blog posts that I’m keeping primarily because they record something about my life at the time they were written rather than due to their literary quality. I’ve noticed as I pick through old Facebook status updates that there are things I want to keep simply because they are small incidents from actual life which are not particularly significant in themselves but strung together these snippets do tell a story of me and our family.

For this reason I was delighted to find an old blog backup file from January 2015 which contained about 30 points which were not already on this site so I’ve imported them and are working through them to keep the good stuff. As I look at each one I recall some were never published at the time and had sat in my drafts folder for months (I have a bad habit of half-writing blog posts, a habit I’m trying to break out of). I’ve already tidied a couple of these up (minor spelling and grammatical changes so they make sense) and published them with the dates when they were last saved (both in 2014). Some others were just ideas thrown into text which I am going to do some more work on and post soon. Those which had publication dates I’m posting with those original dates.

Another useful thing about this backup file is that it gives me another data point for a post I’m piecing together mapping out the various web hosts I’ve used over the years. I’ve made so many hops from one hosting company to another that I thought it would be useful to me at least to map these out and also include what I can remember of why I made the choices I did along the way.

The flow of our habits

The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.

This quote comes from an essay by Jonathan Safran Foer in the New York Times titled: How Not to Be Alone (published 8 June 2013). The essay is about technology eroding human connection, but this one sentence is what I want to focus on.

The nature of habits is that they are shortcuts around the hard work of thinking consciously about every little thing we do, how we act, the expressions we use, how we speak, even how we think (see Unhelpful Thinking Styles). In many ways we are, to other people at least, the sum of our habits.

Initially, to form a habit we shape our behaviour, consciously choosing certain actions and thoughts over others. With sufficient repetition a habit forms, a preference is established of resorting to the habit rather than the hard work of something that is new or different to us. Each habit we have causes slight changes to our brain, reinforcing the neurological pathways which cause the habit to occur and reducing the threshold to trigger the habit so it runs efficiently given the appropriate circumstances.

The sum of hundreds of habits we all perform every single day wears a groove in the matrix of society. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of people each running in their habitual groove and social norms arise, trends occur such as the generally bad attitudes of Dunedin drivers, the laid-back nature of most Polynesians, the brashness of Americans.

Because our habits wear a groove through our lives, they are very difficult to change. Obstructions can be ground down by the persistence of following a habitual track which requires less energy than altering course. This is most obvious in older people who have deeply ingrained habits that they are not even aware of. But it is not impossible to change habits, it does take great persistence and determination to make any changes stick

My typical approach is to go through each day without giving much thought to my habits. But if I consider the effect my habits could be having on the person I will be in ten years time, I need to decide what aspects of me now I want to nurture and what needs to be deleted. Then I need to look at which habits cause the attribute I don’t like and how I could change my habits to support better attributes. (There is a good bit of unfinished thinking here!)

More books and writing

Swapping blogs for books

In 2017 I did a lot of reading. Some of that was books, but a large amount was articles and blog posts on the internet. As a result of consuming an estimated 3,650 written articles from the web last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that my time could be better spent reading books instead.

Some of the reasons for this conclusion are:

  • Many blog posts end up repeating much the same information as others (especially anything about how to do something with WordPress).
  • Due to the shorter format of even a long web article, reading off the internet is wide but shallow. Good books enable a deeper exploration of a topic.
  • Most web articles are not particularly well researched (there are exceptions and I love those).
  • Reading from a computer screen in the evening is detrimental to good sleep, something that is becoming more important to me as I get older.
  • I have a massive list of books I want to read!

Therefore, in 2018 one of my goals is to devote my evening reading time to books rather than web articles. In theory this should result in a jump in the number of books I read, and maybe even see me knock off some heavy duty tomes which I keep putting off diving into despite knowing that I will gain much from digesting them.

More writing

A sort-of related goal for this year is that I want to do much more writing. Last year I spent a lot of time tinkering around with websites. I consider this to have been valuable learning experience and don’t regret the time invested but have realised that I’m unlikely to become a web developer and want to improve my writing skills in 2018 rather than continuing to focus on web development.

The obvious way to improve my writing is to write more, so expect to see much more published on this blog in 2018 than over the last few years. Not all of what I write will end up here (be glad for that), some will be junk, some will be purely practise and some won’t be stuff I want to publish on the internet.

I do see the potential hypocrisy in wanting to read less from blogs yet intending to publish more on my own blog. However, nobody is forcing you to read my blog and it hurts no-one for posts to sit here lonesome and unread. In the long run if my writing improves any lonely unread posts will have been worth the effort.

Decluttering

young-scientist

It is not spring yet, but I am having a clear out of stuff that is no longer useful to have in my life. Some of this is physical clutter such as old lecture notes that I haven’t looked at in over a decade, some is digital stuff like the 2,000 web clippings in Evernote about blogging that I’ve deleted. Books I’ve kept but obviously will never read again, clothes no longer fitting, hobbies not pursued.

Then there are the old dreams and ambitions that have lain mouldering for decades, a few more recently shelved and now accumulating dust. These are taking longer to sift through, many need to be reckoned with before tossing them into the fire:

Why did I ever think that was a possibility?

How did I forget about this one?

Can I not keep a few, just in case?

Just in case of what? In case I get younger? In case I can undo the wasted years? In case these weaknesses, this personality, this life I’ve lived, is not really all I’ve got?

No. They have to go, despite what has been spent on some of those dreams in the past. Time and events cannot be undone, I am not a redeemer – these illusions need to be put to rest and space made to live and breathe in the life I currently have.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
(Ecclesiastes 3:6 ESV, emphasis mine)

It may sound overly dramatic, but what I’m doing is looking at my inner life of desires, motivations, dreams, anxieties, worries, priorities, fears, insecurities and assessing whether they fit who I really am. Are these the things I want to define me or am I wearing a life that is a few sizes too small (or too big)?

Childhood is many years ago for me now, yet plenty of childish things continue to influence how I think and act. I have been a Christian for 27 years but in some ways still think as an unbeliever. I lived single and without responsibilities for a long time, now I consider my wife and children first when faced with choices.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV)

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20 ESV)

At a superficial level, social expectations enforce a certain level of maturity in adults. Yet many childish ways can endure and I think God expects us to do the work of identifying these to replace them with maturity and wisdom based on His revelation in Christ.

Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. (Titus 2:2 ESV)


Image:iStock
The significance of this image is that one of my childhood dreams was to become a scientist. In reality I partially fulfilled that dream but not in the way my child self imagined.

Screen free time

retro-TV

A second goal I am making in my attempt to be a better version of myself is to avoid electronic devices for an hour before bed. There is evidence that the light from certain types of screens such as LCD computer screens and mobile phones can suppress melatonin release in humans, causing difficulty falling asleep for some people. I’m not sure that this is a significant problem for me, but I do know that using the computer in the hour before I’m due to go to bed causes me to delay my bedtime. I get distracted by social media, interesting stuff on the internet, games and even useful things such as writing a blog post.

I should be using that last hour of the day to wind down, read my Bible, pray and get organised for the morning.

For me it is a little complicated by working odd shifts – my work day can finish at midnight, or bedtime can be 9:30am in the morning. But the principle still works, nothing I would be doing on the computer or my phone is so important that it should be allowed to displace time with God or my wife. Yet this is what I have allowed to happen for some time now and the cost has been too high.

To make this work I need to know when my bedtime should be, and possibly set an alarm or reminder to prompt me to turn off whatever gadget is grabbing my attention an hour before bedtime.


Image: Shutterstock

Baby steps

Last year my Bible reading went out the window. This was an effect of depression, not the cause, but it did not help. It took huge effort to read even a single chapter, an effort I often could not summon in the midst of depression.

In these early stages of my journey to living a better life, I am setting small goals that I hope will be easily attainable while providing big payoffs over time.

One of these goals is to read 5 chapters of the Bible each day. This is enough to get me through the entire Bible in one year even if I skip the odd day. Also, I’ve done it before so know it is achievable with a little focus.

Last year my Bible reading went out the window. This was an effect of depression, not the cause, but it did not help. It took huge effort to read even a single chapter, an effort I often could not summon in the midst of depression. Now I am able to read more easily it is time to correct the imbalance.

Why read the Bible?

Firstly, because this is how I grow in my understanding of God and how I should live as one of His people.

Secondly, as I read and ponder the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles take root in my heart. They then have a chance to affect and change my thoughts and attitudes. This is the sort of change that really makes a difference, more so than merely following the latest self-help fad.

Thirdly, reading the Bible washes away my own faulty thinking. By filling my mind with words, thoughts, poetry and stories that are from God I crowd out the mistaken ideas and beliefs I have about myself, others and life that otherwise cause me to make bad choices.

How?

I’ve found two useful ways of reading to enable these three benefits to occur. One is to read slowly, thinking over what each sentence means, what it was written to achieve and how that applies to me. The other way is to read more quickly, covering a lot of ground but persisting until the ‘washing’ effect I mentioned has occurred and my thoughts are aligning themselves with what I’ve been reading.

Both approaches take time, but to read 5 chapters at a sedate pace only takes around 15 minutes which can easily fit into most daily schedules. The real battle is often the willpower to block out competing distractions and simply start.

To keep track of my progress I have a printed list of the books of the Bible and the chapters in each book. I simply cross off each chapter once I’ve read it. This allows me to read in whatever order I like while keeping track of progress. There are smart phone apps but I’ve found they don’t give the flexibility of pen on paper.

Here are some suitable checklists:

(I am only recommending the checklists from these websites, I cannot vouch for the other content of the sites)

For a good discussion of the benefits of reading the Bible see:


Image: Shutterstock

Ride on a steam train

Standing beside steam engine

One of my 101 goals has been to take my five-year-old son on a train because he has always been fascinated by trains but travelling by train is a rare event living in Dunedin, New Zealand.

An ideal opportunity arose at Labour Weekend when the local railway trust had short passenger trips along the harbourside pulled by a steam locomotive. I managed to get tickets for myself and my two youngest children and with great excitement we boarded the train at the historic Dunedin railway station.

We were fortunate to have seats in the first carriage behind the engine so all the “chuff-chuff” sounds of the steam and the locomotive’s characteristic whistle helped make the experience even better. Seeing such excitement on my son’s face made it for me, he was spellbound by the simple ecperience of a train ride. (Though standing beside the locomotive to have a picture taken was a bit intimidating for him as it loudly exhaled steam).

101 goals

In a fit of wanting to get out of a rut and stop wasting my life in 2013, I stumbled across this challenge:

The 101 Things in 1001 Days Challenge

The Challenge:
Complete 101 preset tasks in a period of 1001 days.

The Criteria: Tasks must be specific (ie. no ambiguity in the wording) with a result that is either measurable or clearly defined. Tasks must also be realistic and stretching (ie. represent some amount of work on your part).

Why 1001 Days? Many people create lists such as New Year’s resolutions or a ‘Bucket List’. The key to beating procrastination is to set a deadline that is realistic. 1001 Days (about 2.75 years) is a better period of time than a year, because it allows you several seasons to complete the tasks, which is better for organizing and timing some tasks such as overseas trips, study semesters, or outdoor activities.

The end date of my self-challenge is 16 July 2016 (start date was 19 October 2013).

So, here is my list of tasks to achieve (those in bold green text have been completed):

1) Read through the Bible in a year

2) Read 1001 poems (22% complete)

3) Listen to the entire Bible in audiobook

4) Read 30 books that I own, but haven’t read

5) List another 1000 gifts

6) Preach 15 sermons (20% complete)

7) Create a budget and stick to it for 12 weeks

8) Find 20 ways to save $10

9) Catch tadpoles with the kids

10) Get rid of 100 things (35% done)

Stuff I have got rid of: books, clothes, shoes, old music cassette tapes,

11) Pass the grade 3 flute exam

12) Clean the oven every 6 months (16% complete)

This is one of the tasks my wife hates most, so a good way to show my love for her is to do nasty jobs such as this when I am able to. There are 5.5 periods of 6 months in 1001 days so a generous husband would round it up to 6 oven cleanings to meet this goal.

13) Take a pilates class

14) Make something out of wood

15) Shave with a straight razor

16) Make elderflower cordial

17) See penguins in their natural habitat

18) Go to 5 different museums

19) Buy only Fair-Trade chocolate

I am convinced that the capitalist system of economics is extremely unfair to those who have very little. However, like democracy it is probably the best system humans have come up with so far. Even within a system which favours the wealthy, it is possible to counter the injustices by being purposeful in how we spend out money. One way to achieve this is buying Fair-Trade certified goods.

A particularly good item to purchase only if Fair-Trade certified is chocolate because it is a treat anyway and if I am not prepared to pay extra for Fair-Trade chocolate, I really should not be eating lots of cheap chocolate anyway!

20) Buy only Fair-Trade coffee

My rationale for this goal is the same as above for chocolate.

The way I am measuring progress for these two goals is the % of 1001 days that I have gone without breaking my ‘Fair-Trade only’ rule.

21) Complete Udemy iOS7 online course

22) Get away with just my wife and I for a whole weekend

23) Create my own iPhone app

24) Learn a poem by heart

25) Cook sausages on a beach with my kids

26) Build a campfire and roast marshmallows with the kids

27) Keep a journal for 6 months

28) Take our family to Milford Sound

29) Take our family to Te Anau

30) See ‘Sirocco’ the Kakapo

31) Take our family to Orana park

32) Make homemade ice cream with the kids

33) Cook dinner one evening each week for a month

34) Renovate the woodshed

35) Write 100 blog posts

36) Plant a garden full of flowers

37) Take my son on a train

38) Wash the floors every week for a month

39) Go a day without coffee

40) Drink only one cup of caffeinated coffee per day for a month

41) Go a month without drinking coffee

42) Attend a weekend prayer retreat

43) Finish and stain all our fences

44) Do 100 pushups

45) Do 200 sit-ups

46) Go a day without chocolate

47) Go a week without chocolate

48) Go a month without chocolate

49) Set up a reliable backup for my home computer

50) Create an ebook

51) Write a poem

52) Walk the Routeburn track with Iona

53) Take my kids fishing

54) Learn to identify 10 constellations

55) Cycle the Otago Rail Trail

56) Go fly fishing

57) Plant a tree

58) Learn to reliably identify 10 native plants I didn’t already know

59) Lose 5kg

60) Find 500 geocaches

61) Hide a geocache

62) Fill the kids’ sandpit with sand

63) Grow vegetables at home

64) Regularly donate to Partners

65) Save $500 in an emergency fund

66) Learn to touch type

67) Landscape and plant our front garden

68) Empty my inboxes

69) Take a photo of the same place every week for year

70) Complete a home renovation project

71) Donate blood

72) Give $5 to a busker

73) Fix all the cupboard door handles

I’m a rather poor home handyman and the handles on our kitchen cupboards were fastened using cheap bolts that were too short for the job so have been falling off. It generally takes me about 6 months to get around to cutting a bolt to the correct size and re-attaching the handle. Finally, in November 2013 they were all fixed!

74) Learn new ways to relax

75) Write a list of things that people in my life have taught me

76) Write a letter to myself to be opened when another 1001 days is over

77) Slow down and live more intentionally

78) Watch the sunrise and sunset in the same day

79) choose another 20 goals!

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101) Donate $50 to charity for each task I don’t complete