Happy Imbolc

gknob2010Groundhog Day has long been one of my favorite holidays. In fact, attending America’s biggest Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, PA, was among the first things I did with the newly available time that retirement brought. The photo at right was taken at 4:58 AM, February 2, 2010. Sunrise was more than two hours away and the temperature was four degrees Fahrenheit. I had a good time and I’m glad I went but the experience did not lead to plans for an annual return. Standing outside in pre-dawn single-digit temperatures is something I prefer to discuss in past tense only.

I credited my original fondness for Groundhog Day to a belief that it had no religious connections and was basically folklore that had been adopted by some Pennsylvanians largely to promote silliness. While both of those claims are sort of true, there is more to it. I started to doubt the “no religious connections” when I discovered that America’s Groundhog Day shares its February 2 date with Christianity’s Candlemas. But sharing a date doe not a connection make and there are no direct ties apparent between Groundhog Day and any of the three events (presentation of the child Jesus, Jesus’ entry into the temple, and Mary’s purification) Christians attribute to the day.

February 1 is also a day recognized by Christians. It is the day that Saint Brigid of Ireland is reported to have died and is celebrated as her feast day. Before Saint Brigid was born (in 451 they say) a Gaelic festival was celebrated about this time to honor a goddess also named, perhaps by coincidence though probably not, Brigid. I have to say “about this time” because man-made calendars had not yet taken over and feast days were not yet tied to specific numbers on pages. Brigid’s was associated with a point halfway between Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox called Imbolc which happens near the beginning of what we call February. In 2016 it occurs at 4:30 EST February 4.

Without donut shops and corner diners, it isn’t clear where ancient Irish farmers gathered to talk about the weather but it’s a safe bet that they did. Around Imbolc, the coming spring would have been a big topic. Farmers without donut shops and cable television are quite observant of their environment and they no doubt noticed that bright clear days in the middle of winter were usually a little colder than cloudy ones. With Imbolc being the most “middle of winter” you can get, giving some special significance to the weather on that day was likely fairly natural. That’s about as close to science that the groundhog and shadow story gets.

I’m guessing that making a determination at sunrise was also fairly natural. Even if those early farmers were capable of determining Imbolc’s exact moment — and I’m not saying they weren’t — in those years when it did not occur during the daytime they weren’t about to get up in the middle of the night to see if the sun was shining. The crack of dawn probably seemed about right.

So there really are no direct connections between Groundhog Day and religion and there is plenty of silliness in its fairly recent (1887) use to bring fame to a small Pennsylvania town but its timing is firmly linked to the workings of the solar system and there is a tiny bit of logic in it being a day to make weather predictions. If nothing else, the days around Imbolc are most likely the coldest of the year meaning there’s a good chance that it’s all up-thermometer from here.

My 2010 Punxsutawney visit is here. I will, as usual, celebrate Groundhog Day on Tuesday by consuming pork sausage at some point. I have no plans to be awake at 4:30 Thursday to observe Imbolc.

Mobile Friendlier

dgcdeskFor something that did not even register on my radar a month ago, the concept of mobile-friendly websites has grabbed a lot of space on this blog in the young 2016. The first post of the new year led to me realizing that mobile devices should not simply be ignored. The second post discussed a little of what I had learned and described the first steps taken to be mobile-friendly. And this, the fourth post of the new year, is a report on reaching a milestone on the road to mobile friendliness.

dgcmobileThe milestone I speak of is having a home page that passes both Google and Bing mobile friendliness tests. That’s it at the top of the article in desktop (actually laptop) view and at the left in smartphone view. It is the biggest change to the website’s front door in at least fifteen years. It retains most of the flavor and function of the previous version but is simpler and scales down a lot better. About the only things missing are the RSS feeds from Route 66 News, Roadside America, and American Road Magazine and the randomly selected road trip photo and link at the page’s upper right. Both came with a lot of overhead and I don’t recall anyone ever complimenting me on either. I personally really liked the random picture thing, however, and have kept it alive with a “Done Deeds”-“All Trips”-“Random” menu item. The Google ads also seem to be fairly high in overhead and, although I’m hanging on to them for the present, I will be keeping an eye on them and they could go missing.

The new home page and a revised FAQ page went live just ahead of this blog post. The FAQ page explains that the individual day pages for all ten of the “Decent” (personal favorite) road trips have been updated as have the individual day pages for all trips taken since the start of 2008. The cover pages for all road trips were updated in advance of the January 10 2016 on the Small Screen post. The remaining day pages will be updated in reverse chronological order and will hopefully be taken care of in the next couple of months.

tlistmobileThere are a few pages that may never be truly mobile-friendly as Google and Bing see things. Among these are both Oddment and Road Trip index pages. While changes have been made to make text on the pages readable on mobile devices, the table displays overflow smartphone screens in all directions and require zooming and/or panning to view. There are schemes, using pop-ups and such, to make tables slimmer and more mobile-friendly. I don’t really like any I’ve seen and am firmly of the belief that the conversion effort would not be justified for either of these tables. While they might not be officially mobile-friendly, and I have no quibbles with either Google’s or Bing’s criteria,  they seem quite usable on my smartphone and I don’t consider them overly unfriendly.

ccollagemobile1The Clickable Collage is another page which is not officially mobile-friendly. Containing a single photo from every completed road trip, it allows the individual photos to be clicked to access the journal for the associated trip. It was formerly available through a link below the randomly selected photo at the home page’s upper right. It is now reached through the “Done Deeds”-“All Trips”-“Collage” menu item. Although I don’t expect everyone to experience the same memory stimulation I do when viewing the collage, I have to believe that it is most impactful when seen in its entirety. Of course this is best done on a full size (whatever that is) screen where the total view is also actually usable. Making this collage fit a small screen by forcing it into one or two very tall columns just seems wrong and more irritating than impressive. It is clearly not a natural fit for smartphone screens but it can, like those index pages, be viewed and used by panning. It can also be zoomed to fit but, while this view of the full collage might have a little of the impressiveness of the big screen version, the tiny pictures are neither clear or tappable unless you have eagle eyes and pencil-point fingers.

All Oddment pages contain a table of photo thumbnails and most of these tables are too wide to fit a smartphone screen without zooming. Modifications have been made so that text on the pages is readable but the tables remain a problem with no ready solution. The most recent Oddment was published in December 2012 and no more are anticipated. Like the index and collage pages, Oddments are not totally unusable on mobile devices but they are undeniably not mobile-friendly. It is possible that some future development or insight will allow them to be made officially mobile-friendly but no such changes are currently planned.

I believe that this blog can now return to regular programming. The remaining daily journal pages will eventually be coerced into friendliness and there might be a few mobile device oriented tweaks as time goes by but I think I’m done talking about it. I just want to be friendly — and mobile.

ADDENDUM 25-Feb-2016: All planned mobile related edits have been completed. I will continue to monitor Google and Bling mobile friendliness reports and respond as appropriate to any issues they identify.

Road Crew in the Fork

pgsPuckett’s Grocery & Restaurant is the target of this trip but there will be some stops along the way. Puckett’s is in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, which, for me, is a little beyond Nashville. I have Music City evenings planned for the Bluebird Cafe and the Grand Ol’ Opry at Ryman Theater before my evening with “America’s Route 66 Band”, The Road Crew, at Puckett’s. You know the saying, “When you come to a Road Crew in the Fork, take it.”

The journal for the trip is here. This entry is to let blog subscribers know of the trip and to provide a place for comments.

My Wheels – Chapter 19
1970 Chevrolet Nova

nova70Again I must confess to a purloined photo gracing yet another My Wheels post. My car did not have the highly visible dual exhausts or fancy wheels of the pictured vehicle nor did it have the unseen 350 V8 and 4-speed floor shift. Mine was a 307 V8 with a 3-speed automatic. However, my car was, just like the one at right, a Cortez Silver 2-door with — and this is important — black vinyl top. It is the only vinyl topped car I’ve ever owned and one of very few I can even imagine owning without some level of embarrassment. While I doubt everyone agrees that the vinyl covering looks pretty good on this car it’s apparent that I’m not alone in thinking so. There are many full restorations of third generation Nova coupes that include a restored vinyl top. And that includes some high-end 396 Super Sports.

There was nothing extraordinary in my acquisition of the car. I bought it from a Chevy dealer’s used car lot for a reasonable but not remarkable price. I don’t recall any of the numbers though I do recall some evidence surfacing while I owned the car that the miles showing on the odometer were considerably less than those actually traveled. Selling used cars has always been something of a craft and its practitioners somewhat crafty.

Viewed in isolation, there was nothing extraordinary about the Nova’s departure, either. However, when seen as part of the My Wheels story, it stands out as the first car I ever sold in drive-able condition to a stranger. Only three cars had previously left my possession while drive-able. The 1952 Ford was sold to a friend, my half of the 1959 Chevy went to my sister who already owned the other half, and the 1969 Opel stayed with my wife who already… well, you know.

The car came and went in roughly the same condition but deviated from that condition a couple of times along the way. One was when I slid off of a wet road on the way home from work and parked it solidly against a tree. That required a bit of popping and painting in a body shop.

Then there was the Joni Mitchell incident. A friend and I were headed to her concert in Oxford, Ohio. While stopped in a line of traffic leading to a parking lot we noticed a cloud of smoke from — we thought — the car ahead of us. When that car moved on and I attempted to follow, there was more smoke but no motion. In time we realized that the lack of motion, the racing engine, and the billowing cloud were all connected. We later learned that a hole had opened between the radiator and a transmission cooler mounted below it. The two different liquids attempted to change places and a goodly amount of each quickly escaped. The transmission stopped transmitting.

We somehow got a wrecker to tow the car to a nearby garage. There was nothing to be gained by hanging out at the garage and the friendly tow truck driver agreed to deliver us to the entrance of the concert hall. While we enjoyed the show, we managed to line up a ride home. After a few days and several telephone calls, I hitchhiked back to Oxford to get the car. While dramatic, things were not as bad as I feared. A little water may have entered the transmission but most of the errant flow went the other way. The transmission was undamaged and a flush and fill brought it back to life. A junkyard radiator replaced the one that caused the problem. The blow to my budget was painful but it could have been so much worse. If only that big tow truck had been yellow.

2016 on the Small Screen

mobileoldI didn’t do it on purpose, Jim. Honest I didn’t. But, as has happened a time or two in the past, mentioning a problem in a blog post was enough to get some insight from blogger Jim Grey. In the recent 2015 in the Rear View post, I bemoaned the year’s tremendous drop in visitors to the non-blog portion of my website. In a comment on the post, Jim theorized that it was because Google had taken to “downranking sites that aren’t mobile friendly”. Although it should not have been, that was news to me. A little checking showed that not only was the connection believable, it was pretty much undeniable. Thanks Jim.

A long time ago (March 2) I received email from Google pointing out that much of my website was not mobile-friendly. Mobile-friendly sites are those that work well on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. That usability usually comes with some effort. Other than that inherent in the WordPress based blog portion, my site made no such effort at all. The image at right shows how the cover page of my most recent road trip looked on a smartphone. The display could be zoomed to read and interact with various items but it was uneven, awkward, and ugly. That Google email had pointed me to some tools for testing pages on my site and gently suggested I do something about the many transgressions. It politely cautioned me that some of my pages would be “ranked appropriately for smartphone users”. What I did was decide it was too much work and gently ignored the suggestions.

I paid for it. When I followed up on Jim’s observation with a little web searching (yes I used Google), I found a number of online articles about the search engine’s plans to penalize non-mobile-compliant sites in search ranking. Most of the articles I found were from March and April. Roll out of the new ranking algorithm began April 21. Although I had left it out of the final article, looking at 2015 statistics had shown that the drop off had begun rather sharply in April. The connection between Google’s change and my vanished traffic was, as I said, undeniable.

Google describes the change as affecting only searches from smartphones. Searches from desktops, laptops, and even tablets were treated no differently in May than in March. That means that not only were most of the visits that disappeared in 2015 tied to Google searches, they were tied to searches from phones. That’s also undeniable and almost unbelievable.

mobilenewI revisited the Google testing tools and paid a lot more attention to the suggestions. There was some good news. The vast majority of my website is very simple so that adding just one line (to set a mobile viewport) to a page allows it to pass Google’s mobile-friendly test and makes it look better. The page shown at the top of the article reappears at the left with that one line added.

One bit of bad news is that there are more than a thousand of these simple pages. The change is easy but time consuming and somewhat tedious plus doing a thousand easy things isn’t really easy. Other bad news is that that not all pages start behaving with the one line addition. Others, such at the site’s home page, must be completely redesigned to function properly on mobile devices.

After proving the concept by updating all pages of the most recent trip, I decided that tackling cover pages for the 131 completed road trips was a task big enough to be of value but not so large as to be overwhelming. Over the last few days I have “fixed” the cover pages for all completed trips. That means that the 24 day trips, where the cover page and the daily journal page are one and the same, are done. The daily journal pages for remaining trips are being nibbled away at in reverse chronological order. Journals for the ten most recent trips have been updated at the time of this posting. Included are all nine 2015 trips plus the last trip of 2014. The simple one line change has been applied to a number of other pages even though it isn’t enough to allow the page to pass Google’s mobile-friendly test. These pages, which include the home page, the road trip and oddment listing pages, and most of the 57 individual oddment pages, will not appear in Google searches executed from a smartphone but they can be accessed directly and will be more usable (e.g., larger text size) than they have been. I will endeavor to produce mobile compliant versions of these pages in the near future but am not so foolish as to promise anything by any time.

Being mobile-friendly is a good thing and I don’t question Google’s move one bit. The “weave or get off the web” sentiment may seem harsh but it really doesn’t make sense to point people to pages they are sure to have trouble using even if what they’re looking for is hidden in there somewhere. I commend Google for taking this step and for supplying tools and information to help with the necessary changes. Google has long provided numerous tools for webmasters. During this week, I’ve become familiar with more of them and more appreciative of all of them. Becoming more mobile friendly isn’t the only improvement they have helped me with this week. They can provide insight as well. In last week’s post I jokingly said that I hoped the mysterious popularity of a journal page from a Lincoln Highway trip came from “the chicken mailbox or the Ogden Footprints”. Thanks to Google’s webmaster tools I now know that the mailbox was indeed the subject of a number of Pinterest posts. Viva la chicken mailbox!

Google made people (including me) aware of the skyrocketing use of mobile devices and some of the related issues. Those who were paying attention knew the change was coming. Non-compliant websites aren’t blocked or totally ignored they are simply ranked lower in search results for certain devices. As I proved by ignoring those emails, Google can’t make me change. All they can do is make me wish I had.

2015 in the Rear View

The year in numbers with 2014 values in parentheses:

  • 9 (7) = Road trips reported
  • 77 (80) = Blog posts
  • 59 (77) = Days on the road
  • 1926 (1972) = Pictures posted — 490 (384) in the blog and 1436 (1588) in Road Trips

whttco65_revI made a couple more trips this year than last but they were shorter and resulted in less total days on the road. That naturally caused a slight drop in pictures posted to the journal but pictures in the blog increased so that there was not a significant change in the total number of new pictures. In addition to the 52 regular weekly blog posts, there were 14 reviews, 9 road trip links, and 2 miscellaneous asynchronous posts which adds up to just three less blog posts than last year. Three of the new blog posts generated enough traffic to make the top five. The most popular new blog post concerned a little ol’ high school reunion. Once again there were no new posts in the non-blog top five.

Top Blog Posts:

  1. My Wheels – Chapter 1 1960 J. C. Higgins Flightliner
    After being the most popular new post of 2013 and that year’s second most popular overall, this first chapter in the My Wheels series moved to number one last year and stays there for 2015. Any doubt that web cruisers prefer single-speed fat-tired bicycles over Corvairs and Vegas is rapidly fading.
  2. Fifty Years After
    This was itself a “rear view” article triggered by the fiftieth anniversary reunion of my high school graduating class. Not surprisingly, a lot of my classmates read it but there isn’t enough of them to account for it being the most popular new post of the year. The article was hardly an in depth look at the past half-century but it did offer a glimpse at coming of age in the 1960s and that apparently caught a little interest.
  3. Scoring the Dixie
    I am guessing that this 2012 article on how I was tracking my on going efforts to drive the entire Dixie Highway got some extra attention this year due to it being the centennial of the Dixie Highway Association’s founding. I completed the drive in July and published a book about it (A Decade Driving the Dixie Highway) in November. I’d like to think that that had something to do with the spike in visits to the article but dates and numbers don’t really support that.
  4. Twenty Mile Stand Two Years On
    The J. C Higgins Flightliner article was denied the number one slot in its first year by the demolition of a nearly two century old road house and an earlier article about hopes to save it. This update published on the second anniversary of the demolition was the second most popular new post of 2015 and the fourth most popular overall.
  5. Much Miscellany 2, Sloopy at 50
    This is the third new post to crack the top five and, like the number one new post, it concerns an event from fifty years ago. On October 2, 1965, the McCoys’ recording of Hang on Sloopy reached the top of the charts. On September 12, 2015, the McCoys’ singer and lead guitarist performed the song back in his home town of Union City, Indiana. In fact, all three surviving McCoys were on stage for a one song reunion. Union City sits on the state line near where I grew up and, although we weren’t classmates, I knew all of the McCoys during our high school years so this and the Fifty Years After post have more in common than one might think.

Top Non-Blog Posts:

  1. PA Potpourri
    This four day trip is from June 2005. The big winner was the trip’s cover page which mentions, among other things, Madonna of the Trail monuments, the Lincoln Highway, the Johnstown flood, and the Centralia coal mine fire. Traffic for the individual days was fairly even although day one, which included the visit to Centralia, had a slight edge. A time capsule, noted in the post and scheduled to be opened in 2016, was prematurely opened in October 2014. That is possibly what brought visitors here in 2015 but it is hardly better that a pure shot in the dark.
  2. Bi Byways
    Again it was the cover page that got all the attention with both days of the August 2004 trip getting roughly the same amount of traffic. The bi byways of the title are the Maumee Valley Byway and the Miami and Erie Canal Byway. Both are completely in Ohio and the Miami and Erie Canal Byway is completely contained in Ohio’s Route 66 which I drove end-to-end on this trip. I have absolutely no idea what attracted visitors to this trip last year.
  3. Lincoln Highway West
    This 2009 trip is the only repeat from last year and again the focus is on a day in Iowa.although all other days of the trip got some attention, too. Maybe it’s the Lions Club Tree Park or the Moss or Gregory markers that’s pulling them in but I like to think that it’s the chicken mailbox or the Ogden Footprints.
  4. US-62’s East End
    This outing occurred a month before the Bi Byways trip which makes it the oldest in this year’s top five. It was visits to the cover page that got it here and all days, including two pre-trip days, were about equally popular. I can’t guess at what the big attraction was but will mention that the Little League Hall of Fame panels for Dan Quayle and Bruce Springsteen did get some looks.
  5. Sixty-Six E2E and F2F
    This July 2012 trip is the newest in the top five. It is my most recent end-to-end (E2E) drive of Historic Route 66. I’d come to know a lot more people on the route than on the 1999 and and 2003 full length trips so it was also friend-to-friend (F2F). There is nothing to indicate what brought on the recent attention but I don’t question the trip’s worthiness at all.

Overall visits to the website dropped and dropped dramatically in 2015. The 248,033 visits of 2014 fell to 113,142 last year and page views fell from 741,404 to 462,171. Blog views rose from 8,062 to 9191. That massive 54% drop in the number of visits is scary. Annual traffic counts have dropped before but not to that degree.

visitchartSo what’s that mean? One possibility is that a change in the way statistics are compiled or visits detected resulted in an artificial drop in the numbers and I can produce some arguments both for and against that theory. The “for” ones are the weakest. What seems more likely and less palatable is that the numbers don’t lie and readership has truly plummeted. Jim Grey, a friend and popular blogger, recently posted an article he called Welcome to the post-blog era. In it he discusses perceived changes in visitors and their engagement. Jim is not really suggesting that his own blog is dead. 2015 was the busiest yet for him. (Note that my own blog’s visits increased 14% last year. It is overall website visits that have tumbled.) What he is suggesting is that the internet landscape has changed and blogs, specifically independent personal blogs, are not at all the big players they once were. Maybe independent anythings, including road trip journals, aren’t big players any more. Not that this one ever was. It will, however continue to be the same small player it always has been.