Feels like online journalling all over again

The bells are ringing and the birds are singing and I can preview this website’s changes on my rickety Windows 7 desktop computer. We installed Ruby gems last night and did the Jekyll things and it all works quite smoothly. The gems are now in one tidy package that is much easier to deal with than when I tried this nearly two years ago. I probably could not have done the work alone but that’s only because I never use Windows command line and I keep forgetting all the commands.

But I will not be writing a detailed story today about how we did it, because I’m not (yet) feeling conversant enough about all the technologies involved. Perhaps C. will drop in and write a guest post, or perhaps I’ll draft something and then get C. to explain the knowledge gaps. C. is not too familiar with Tolkien, so I’m not sure whether my Balrog/Gandalf metaphor was a good one and I suspect we’ll probably use something else for a detailed explanation. (Too bad, because the meme GIFs are just crying out to be used.)

All right, let me employ my friend the horizontal line here, or else we’ll be talking about Tolkien and memes and that time I got in trouble at work for the meme posters we plastered everywhere, and I’m not sure that’s as interesting a story as it sounds, especially since I can’t remember any of the memes.

I’m cheating a little here … coming in a couple of days later to add an actual blog post to what should have been a footnote, or a little prelude, not quite a stand-alone entry. I figured I would tie the room together and while I’m not ready to explain what we were doing to set up this blog, it might be nice to explain why. “Why” is not overly technical but you might find it useful for your own website and blog hosting decisions.

I wanted a blog (as you know from previous posts). I didn’t want to host it on a third-party platform (Medium, Blogspot), because you don’t know when it could vanish or the terms of service or ownership could change. Go and see what’s happening to Tumblr users right now for a perfectly awful example – any blog deemed “Adult” is going to be removed, and “Adult” doesn’t just mean porn. Some of my best friends are adults.

I own a few domains and used Drupal and Wordpress on them before, but the problem is that a CMS (content management system) like that must be updated regularly or it becomes vulnerable to hackers. It is a pain in the butt for your webmaster, and when your webmaster is your spouse, you want to be as low-maintenance as possible.

So we wanted a solution that required little upkeep and enabled self-ownership. GitHub Pages, publishing to a domain I own, seemed like a good idea. In addition, it would be good “professional development” for me to learn more GitHub Pages and Jekyll, the Ruby gem that generates static websites and powers GitHub Pages. I’ve done it before, but only in bits and pieces.

I don’t use GitHub often at work right now, either, and I thought I could stand the extra practice. I’m still not doing more than the basics, because GitHub Pages is fairly easy to work with, so I don’t have to mess with Git Shell commands much. At the moment I can get away with the browser interface and the desktop client, which I myself tend to call “the training wheels” but you know what, it doesn’t matter because the bicycle still moves forward anyway. I have a whole rant about how tech writers shouldn’t have to be as masterful at GitHub as developers and shouldn’t feel ashamed if they’re not, but I’ll save it.

This setup is not the easiest solution for blogging if you are used to everything being automated and generated, but it’s easier to maintain from the back-end and also, it may be easier to preserve, later. And old-school online journallers would probably find the process very familiar. Remember when we used to write directly in HTML, hand-code our navigation links, and FTP everything up to the server? (I’m not sure anyone’s out there who remembers doing this, or who even remembers the term “online journalling,” but you never know.)

At any rate, this is easier. I write the blog posts in a text editor (EditPad) using Markdown, which is simpler than HTML – and I have a basic syntax guide bookmarked just in case. I use Jekyll to preview it, which involves the Windows command prompt, but again, good practice.

That’s the short version of the story. You can visit the GitHub and Jekyll pages linked above to figure out the details if you’re interested enough to want to try it. I originally wrote a longer version and realized I’d strayed far beyond the original “why” and well into “why non-developers should not be frightened by GitHub Pages, even though GitHub can seem justifiably daunting.” I was on the verge of writing instructions when I realized that a) I need to do this at least one more time before I can write good instructions; b) good instructions may exist on the web already, so go do a search; c) it was 12:30 am; and d) I don’t need to write instructions for everything ever.

I will say that if you don’t have any professional use for GitHub, this solution is probably not the best one for you. But if you think you may want or need to use it in your professional life, GitHub Pages is a good way to start without its making you crazy. You also end up with a very nice website and – useful for impressing technical folks and recruiters – perhaps appearing more technically savvy than you really are.

I started this blog to write about food and movies and music. I don’t know what the hell’s happening with the content, either. Stay tuned. I have a list of things to write about and I promise it includes stuff like Spalding Gray and Bobby Jindal and good/bad coats in film.