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I try to avoid being a topic-specific blog.

I don’t want this to be a blog that is only about backpacking, or bikes, or Linux. I want to cover all of my interests — which range widely — in a way that others don’t (or can’t). I dislike it when other blogs publish long posts that only regurgitate what others wrote, or simply latch onto a popular topic without adding anything new to the discussion. I only began blogging again in September, which makes for a small selection of posts in this year’s archives to evaluate. Looking back, I’m pleased with the diversity of topics covered.

Calvin and Hobbes: New Years Resolution

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A Better Blogroll

The blogroll is a standard feature of most blogs that is conspicuously absent from the current version of this website. In the past I’ve struggled to keep my blogroll up-to-date. In order to be useful, I think the blogroll should contain only blogs that I am currently reading. That list fluctuates frequently, and I have a poor track record of keeping my blogroll in sync with my feed reader. One of the problems is that I regularly read many blogs, but there are very few blogs out there whose every post I enjoy.

But I use microblogging to share links. So, why not just continue with that method? When I created the latest version of this blog I decided to do away with the blogroll entirely. Now, when I read a blog post that I particularly enjoy, I blog about it. Like here or here. When I come across a blog that is full of wonderful posts, I blog about it too — and, chances are, I’ll still end up blogging about individual articles on those websites. All of these microposts are assigned the blogroll tag.

To me this seems like a much more meaningful way to share links. Rather than maintaining a separate page with a list of not-frequently updated links, you have the blogroll tag archive. Links are timestamped and curated, which makes it more useful to my readers. And I think that linking to specific content rather than full domains makes for a more useful and rewarding metric for the owners of the linked blogs.

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Leaving Twitter Behind

The web has been moving more and more towards a centralized structure. Services like Twitter, Facebook, Google and Flickr are all examples of this. To me, it is a disturbing trend. It’s bad for the internet as a whole, and on a more personal level is damaging to individual liberty and freedom. Lately, I’ve been making a stronger effort to forgo these services.

During the year that I took off from blogging, I maintained a steady presence on Twitter. When I decided to relaunch my blog, I knew I wanted to integrate Twitter-like microblogging into the site somehow. Looking over my Twitter history, it was clear that I was predominately using the service for one thing: sharing links. There’s no reason that I couldn’t do that on my blog. In fact, some of the earliest web logs were simply lists of interesting links.

I rarely participate in conversations on Twitter. I find it to be a horrible medium for that. Conversations that begin with microblog posts can be handled with any blog comment software (and I think the resulting experience is much improved over what Twitter can offer). If you use Twitter to contact people and start conversations, a blog probably won’t work for you. (But there’s a great distributed social networking platform out there that you might want to look into. It’s called email.)

Initially I considered adding a new model to vellum for microposts. When I thought about what a micropost is and what I wanted to do with them, I decided that modifying vellum was unnecessary. I’ve seen some people claim that microposts don’t have titles, but I think that’s incorrect: the primary content is the title. In addition to the title, the micropost needs a place to include the URL that is being shared. Why not just put that in the post body? The URL can simply be pasted into the field, ala Twitter, or included as an anchor tag contained within a new sentence. All that I needed was to uniquely style the microposts.

I decided to place all microposts in a new micro category. Posts in that category are then styled differently. This allows the user to quickly differentiate these short microposts from the more traditional, long-form articles. It also helps to represent the relationship of the title and the rest of the post.

With this in place, I no longer had a need for Twitter, but I still wanted to feed all of my posts into the service. I know some people use Twitter as a sort of weird feed reader, and I have no problem pumping a copy of my data into centralized services. As it turns out, there are a number of services out there that will monitor a feed and post the results to services like Twitter. I started out with FeedBurner, but this seemed like overkill as I had no intention of utilizing the other FeedBurner offerings (giving up control of the namespace of your feed is another instance of the craziness associated with the move to a centralized web). After some brief experimentation, I settled on dlvr.it.

This accomplishes everything that I was looking for. All of my blog posts, micro or not, are now on my blog (fancy that). I retain ownership and control of all my data. Everything is archived and searchable. I’m not depending on some fickle, centralized service to shorten the links that I’m trying to share. People who want to follow my updates can subscribe to my feed in their feed reader of choice. My activity can still be followed in Twitter, but I don’t have any active participation in that service.

I’ve found that not attempting to restrain myself to a character limit is like a breath of fresh air. Previously I was able to share links only. There was little-to-no space left over for commentary. Now I can include my thoughts about the link being shared, whether it be a book that I’m reading or a news article that piques my interest. This is more satisfying to me, and I think results in a more meaningful experience for those who are interested in my thoughts.

Since moving to this system, I’ve only launched my Twitter client two or three times. I’ve found that I don’t miss the stream. I never followed too many people on Twitter. Many of those whom I did follow maintain some sort of blog with a feed that I subscribe to. Some don’t. That’s unfortunate, but if your online presence exists solely within a walled garden, I’m ok with not following you.

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Mark Two

Hi there. It’s been a while.

I took a year off from blogging. That wasn’t intentional. I just didn’t have anything to say for a while. Then I did have something to say, but I was tired of how the website looked. If the design doesn’t excite me I tend not to want to blog. (Call me vain, but I want my words to look good.) And redesigning the website — well, that requires an entirely different set of motivations to tackle. It took me some time to get that motivation, and then before I knew it we were here: 10 days short of a year.

During the development process I referred to this design as “mark two”, as it was the second idea I tried out.

The website still runs on Django. The blog is still powered by Vellum, my personal blog application. I’ve been hacking in it for over a year now (even when this website was inactive) and it is much improved since the last time I mentioned it. In the past six months I’ve seen the light of CSS preprocessors. All of the styling for this design is written in SASS and uses the excellent Compass framework. The responsive layout is built with Susy.

If you’re interested in these technical details, you will also be interested to know that the entire website is now open-source. You can find it on GitHub. Fork it, hack it, or borrow some of my CSS for your website.

The other big news is that I have begun to categorize blog posts. Yeah, it’s 2012 and I’m a little late to the party on that one. You may recall that I only began to tag posts in 2008. As it stands right now, all posts are just placed in the great big ameba of a category called “General”. Eventually, they will all have more meaningful categories — I hope. But it will be a while.

Things ought to be more active around here for the foreseeable future.

This post was published on . It was tagged with admin, design, css.

A Move to Django

You may not notice much, but this blog has been completely rewritten.

I started developing in Django last winter and quickly became smitten with both the Django framework and the Python. Most of the coding I’ve done this year has been in Python. Naturally, I had thoughts of moving this website from Wordpress over to a Django-based blog.

For a while I did nothing about it. Then I had another project come up that required some basic blog functionality be added to a Django-based site. A blog is — or, at least, can be — a fairly simple affair, but before writing my own I decided to look around and see what else was out there. There’s a number of Django-based blogs floating around (Kevin Fricovsky has a list), but few of them jumped out at me. Most were not actively developed and depended on too many stale packages for my taste, or they just had a feature set that I didn’t like.

Out of all of them, two presented themselves as possibilities: Mingus (written by the previously mentioned Kevin) and Nathan Borror’s django-basic-apps. Mingus tries to be a full-featured blogging application and was much too complex for the simple project I was then working on. But the blog application in django-basic-apps (a fork of which provides Mingus with its core blog functionality) looked like it would fit the bill. As the name implies, it is meant to be a very basic blog. I dived in to the code I discovered that, with a few modifications, it would do what I needed.

So I finished that project. But now having messed with blogging in Django I was more motivated to get started on rewriting my own site. I took another look at Mingus. Although it was too complex for the previous project, the features it provides are very similar to the features I wanted for this website. I looked at and thought about Mingus for a time, repeatedly turning it down and then coming back to it. The question centered around the project’s staleness more than anything else. Currently, Mingus is built for Django 1.1. That’s an old version. As of this writing, the current version is 1.3. Many improvements have been made in Django since 1.1 and I was not too keen to forgo them and run an old piece of code. Mingus is under active development, and will be updated for Django 1.3, but it’s a hobby-project, so the work is understandably slow.

In the end, I decided that the best thing to do was go my own route, but take some pointers and inspiration from Mingus. I would make my own fork of django-basic-apps, using that blog as the basis, and build a system on top of that. I created my fork last month and have been steadily plodding away on it in my free time. Over the course of the development I created a few simple applications to complement the core blog, and contributed code to another project.

It’s not quite done — there’s still a few things I want to improve — but it’s good enough to launch. (If you notice any kinks, let me know.) I’m quite pleased with it.

This is a notable occasion. I’ve been using Wordpress since before it was Wordpress, but it is time to move on. (Wordpress is a fork of an old piece of code called b2/cafelog. My database tables have been rocking the b2 prefix since 2002.)

As you’ve no doubt noticed, the look of the site hasn’t changed much. I tweaked a few things here and there, but for the most part just recreated the same template as what I had written for Wordpress. I am planning on a redesign eventually. For now, I wanted to spend my time developing the actual blog rather than screwing with CSS.

So, there you have it. Everything is open source. Download it, fork it, hack it (and don’t forget to send your code changes back my way). Let me know what you think. Build your own blog with it! (There’s even a script to import data from Wordpress.) I think it’s pretty sweet. The only thing lacking is documentation, and that’s my next goal.

Disqus

The biggest change for the user is probably the comments, which are now powered by Disqus. Consider it a trial. I’ve seen Disqus popping up on a number of sites the past year or so. At first it annoyed me, mostly because I use NoScript and did not want to enable JavaScript for another domain just to comment on a site. But after I got over that I found that Disqus wasn’t too bad. As a user I found it to be on par with the standard comment systems provided by Wordpress, Blogger, and the like. The extra features don’t appeal to me. But as an administrator, Disqus appeals to me more because it means that I no longer have to manage comments myself! And as a developer, I’m attracted to some of the things that Disqus has done (they’re a Python shop, and run on top of Django) and their open source contributions.

So I’m giving it a shot. Disqus will happily export comments, so if I (or you) decide that I don’t like it, it will be easy to move to another system.

Markdown

One final note: I like Markdown. That might be an understatement.

I first starting using Markdown on GitHub, which I signed up for about the same time I started with Django and Python. After learning the syntax and playing with it for a few weeks, I discovered that I had a very hard time writing prose in anything else. In fact, the desire to write blog posts in Markdown was probably the biggest factor that influenced me to get off my butt and move away from Wordpress.

So, I incorporated Markdown into the blog. But rather than just making the blog Markdown-only, I took a hint from Mingus and included django-markup, which supports rendering in many lightweight markup languages.

Because I’m still new to Markdown and occasionally cannot remember the correct syntax, I wanted to include some version of WMD. WMD is a What You See Is What You Mean editor for Markdown, a sort of alternative to WYSIWYG editors like TinyMCE. (It is my believe that WYSIWYG editors are one of the worst things to happen to the Internet.) All WMD consists of is a JavaScript library. The original was written by a guy named John Fraser, who was abducted by aliens some time in 2008. Since his disappearance from the interwebs, WMD has been forked countless times. I looked around at a few found a version that I was happy with (which happens to be a fork of a fork of a fork of a fork), and rolled it into a reusable app. While I was at it, I made some visual changes to the editing area for the post body. The result is an attractive post editing area that is simple to use and produces clean code. I think it is much better than what is offered by Wordpress.

Twitter Changes

I’ve decided that I don’t like pulling individual tweets into the blog as uniquely styled posts. For now, that behavior has been disabled. I’ve moved to a single weekly aggregate post including all the previous week’s tweets. We’ll see how that goes.

Since individual tweets are no longer being pulled in, I’ve put a list of the most recent tweets down in the footer. Next to that you’ll also find a new list of the week’s most popular posts. Fancy!

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