December 25, 2011

Circle of Life, er… Blogs

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:57 pm by dgcombs

… or

What I’ve Learned from My Blogs

It was every Sunday afternoon for as far back as I can remember. After we got home from church, after a sumptuous Sunday dinner of roast beef, potatoes and carrots, after doing the dishes, after finding the best among the rerunning Sunday afternoon movies, my mom would sit down in the living room, pad of paper and pen in hand to write a letter to her mother, my grandmother. I can only imagine she wrote about the adventures and discoveries of her life like she still does on her current blog.

When I went away to college, I wrote letters to my mom and dad. Not every single Sunday. But often. On a visit to my parents a couple years ago, my mother handed me a bulging gallon size plastic bag stuffed full of papers. They were my letters. Over time, though, the number of letters dwindled. And dwindled again. I just couldn’t keep up with the Sunday schedule. And so, my first blog was born.

Blog Roll

Blosxom — 8/2005

I’ll see if additional data is easy to add and then, I’ll put pictures here.Perhaps my mom will have an easier time seeing these in Blog format than in e-mail.

With these words, I opened a blog. But it wasn’t just a vehicle for sending messages to my mother and avoiding the Sunday afternoon guilty feeling that I should be writing a letter, buying a stamp and stuffing an envelope. It was a learning tool. Bloxsom was chosen to help me learn more about one thing, PERL. Bloxsom is written in PERL, a language in which I’d just finished a project, tSmoke, and contributed to Smokeping, a network latency graphing tool. I learned a lot writing software in PERL. The most meaningful thing was that PERL is one of those Write Only programming languages. Meaningful in that I found that the longer I didn’t write in PERL, the less likely I was to remember what in the heck I intended.

The content on the Bloxsom blog was text with HTML snippets to markup, or instructions for displayting the text. It is pretty simple and pretty straightforward. Each entry was a single text file. No database required.

About this time, I helped set up a collaboration tool for a group. I discovered the power of the Wiki and in particular, OddMuse Wiki software. OddMuse is pretty cool and shares some features in common with Bloxsom. First of all there is no back-end database, just text files. The markup is different, it’s Creole, a common Wiki markup language. One feature I liked about OddMuse was its descent from a previous version of Perl blogging application called Usemod. You”ve gotta love the clever pun. Right?

I always had to be cognizant of that blog running in the background on my computer. The Abyss Web Server was always running on my computer, using up resources, chewing up memory, spitting out blog posts. And there was always the off chance that my mom would be looking for my blog when I rebooted. I decided I needed to learn something else. That’s when I found Blojsom.

Blojsom — 6/2006

I upgraded my blogging platform in two ways. First of all, I thought I’d use an enterprise-grade coding platform, you know, Java. Second, I thought I’d find a way to run it on an available second machine – not the best in the world, mind you, but available. After researching blogging software, I came across Blojsom both bills. At that time, Blojsom was a reasonably new bit of code, written in Java and provided as a .WAR (Web Application Archive) file for deployment as a Java web application on a servlet container like RESIN.

I liked Blojsom a lot. First of all, the data migration took no effort at all. Blojsom, after all, was designed to use the same text format as Bloxsom. Since there was no back-end server, I did not have to worry about overloading the light weight “server.” And with Resin as an underlying web server, I could learn a lot about how Java programs, Java Server Pages (JSP) work. One still undone item on my to do list asks me to “Write a How-To on Blojsom Plugins.” Someday. Maybe.

In February, 2006, I decided to upgrade the OddMuse wiki to something a little more usable and with some additional security. After some research I chose PMWiki. PMWiki didn’t use the Creole markup, but a form of markup that favors writers over readers, but was still similar enough that it was a straightfoward migration. It did not require a back-end database either and allowed plain text files. All of these features compensated for the fact that I had to learn to use one more programming language, PHP, to effectively operate it.

WordPress, Yes, WordPress — 8/2008

It was about late summer in Atlanta when I started getting regular emails from my mother on odd Wednesday mornings telling me that my blog was down. It would not have been nearly so stressful if it weren’t for the fact that she is in the Central time zone and I am in the Eastern time zone. So by the time she checked my blog, I was already at work and my hands were tied! I spent a few weeks troubleshooting and never found anything really wrong. Then, sure enough, the very next Wednesday, I got another email and I finally understood. You see, the blog was running on Resin web server which was running as a service on a Windows XP machine (the not very powerful, remember?). So the first Tuesday of every month, Microsoft would push security updates to the computer and it would reboot… or try to. I decided it was time to move to another platform. One that didn’t depend on my Comcast account being active or the ability of a Windows XP machine to automatically shut down a running Java service.

With WordPress, I didn’t have to learn a new markup language, its built-in editor took care of adding the appropriate HTML formatting. better, WordPress was hosted out there somewhere on the Internet. My mom never had to alert me that my machine had failed a Microsoft patch Tuesday reboot again. i could concentrate on the content and not on the technology.

But then along came Twitter and Jaiku and Identica and Plurk and FriendFeed. Naturally I wanted to notify all my “friends” that I’d posted a clever tome, right? But how oh, how do I update them all? It seemed a terrible quandry.

Along Comes Posterous — 2/2010

I started using Posterous in Spring, almost giddy that I could post to all my social media simply by sending an email. The simplified hosting, the ease of markup and the simplicity of editing are good stuff. But outside the names of the plethora of social media, what was I learning?

Side trip Down Markup Lane

All these endeavors had a common, underlying theme: the markup. The purpose of markup was to tell a device how to display the content it was showing off. I’d used several kinds of markup. My first introduction to a markup language was the one built into the core of Peachtext, the editing component of a word processing package developed by Peachtree Software called Peachtext 5000 where I worked back in 1983. Then, the markup controlled not the font decoration, font size or type face but how the text was physically printed on paper. For example, bold facing was often achieved by having the print head backspace and reprint the characters. If the printer was capable of kerning and proportional fonts, it would be slightly offset from the original to really emphasize the boldface.

Apple’s MacIntosh permitted screens to display fancy fonts and this new fangled HTML thing did the same thing. Heck you could even make your text blink if you wanted to. But no does that. right? But HTML doesn’t look very nice. In fact, it’s really hard to write in – at least with old skool text editors like Peachtext and VIM. So John Gruber came up with a method to use regular characters to take the place of markup in a text file and convert it into HTML. He called it Markdown. Clever, eh? Of course this wasn’t the only attempt to make it easy to write marked up text which could easily be converted into HTML. Textile which, to be honest, looks a lot more like Peachtext than Markdown does, is supposed to be the “Humane web text generator” from Dean Allen. Of course, someone came up with one called “Markdown Extra.” The grandfather of them all is TeX( created by Donald Knuth. I’ve recently stumbled on the one called Showdown which lets you do the markup conversion right inside your web browser.

Mythical Holy Grail: A Blog with No Home

What am I really looking for now? Well, now that’s a good question. With the advent of tablets over laptops, my real desire is a blog with no home.

I want to put my data on a cloud provider, access it from anywhere using my tablet, my phone, my work computer, my home laptop or whatever, then compile the source formatting into HTML and copy it from the repository provider to a web server.

That’s kind of the goal of Jekyll and its cousin Octopress. These allow you to create a repository for your blog on your own computer, compile it to static HTML pages, push it to GitHub Pages– and publish it using their facilities. It’s clever. Very clever. Calepin takes this one step further, incorporating its anagram Markdown conversion tool, Pelican written in Python to pull files from your Dropbox account and publish them for you in HTML. Even cleverer. I’ve posted a couple of delicious items there myself. But I still have to hook up my computer, some computer, to Dropbox. The GitHub/Jekyll/OctoPress also really want you to create a “local” repository. Meaning that if you don’t have access to your computer, you can’t write.

Cloud9 – The Future

I’ve been using Cloud9 IDE to write some software recently. It’s connected to GitHub out of the box. It’s not hosted on my local system. So I effectively have a clever editor and access to my GiHub account wherever I am. I have even tested a Jekyll web page written solely on Cloud9, and pushed to GitHub. Yes folks, there was no local storage involved with this trick. My fingers never left my hands (or the keyboard). Two other things keep me from moving to this technique.

The editing features at Cloud9 do not work with an iPad. At all. It’s not like I haven’t asked. Nicely, even. It just doesn’t work. Sigh. It’s free, what are you going to do? It’s not like it’s open source so I could write my own interface. Oh, right. It is. But then I’d have to host my own instance of it, and defeat the whole purpose.

I’d really like to do a test post on Cloud9 so I could see the copy before it gets published. But this would require me to be able to run a script on Cloud9 and save the output as a file. That also doesn’t work. But we’re close.

We’re almost there, mom! A cloud-based blog that I can update any given Sunday (no matter what the football teams are doing) is right around the corner. And what have I learned? It’s a lot of work to publish a blog. The more work I can get the cloud to do, the better. And even if it takes a lot of work to ge them to do it, it will be worth it. Although some times, I feel like just getting out a pen and paper and stuffing an envelope.

Oh, and just so you know… this is/was a test of how well Posterous accepts Markdown.


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