Building a Blog

Aug 2012, updated May 2020

Though I’ve run a few Wordpress sites in the past, I’ve always found the software irritating to use. In particular, I loathe the composer—the rich text editor never works quite as I expect it to, and the HTML editor mangles my markup without warning. The installation is dead simple, the theme support is fantastic, and I love Matt Mullenweg’s support of free software, but Wordpress just isn’t for me. At the same time, I don’t miss hand-coding entire sites; I’ve done that exactly twice, and maintaining scads of duplicated markup is a nightmare I don’t care to repeat. Since I’m starting this site with a clean slate, I have the luxury of choosing whatever tools I like; after looking at everything from Drupal to Tumblr, I decided to keep things simple and build with Hakyll and Bootstrap.

Hakyll: Static Site Generation

Hakyll is a static site generator, which means that it’s only a few short steps away from writing markup by hand. Those few steps make all the difference, though—I can still control exactly what the final HTML will look like, but Hakyll lets me write articles in Markdown and use templates for site-wide elements like navigation and footers. Static sites are all the rage among geeks these days, so a lot’s already been written about their technical advantages. In short, static sites are:

Most importantly for me, Hakyll is comfortable. I can write templates and posts in vim, keep versions and branches in git, and generally work with whatever text manipulation tools make me happy. Hakyll even comes with a built-in webserver, so it’s easy to see a live preview of any changes I’m making. Since writing on this site is supposed to be a fun side project, comfortable tools are priority zero.

Building a site without a database isn’t all roses and puppies, though. There’s no easy way for me to include an automated “Popular Posts” widget in the sidebar, for example, and any future search widgets will need to rely on an external search engine. Most importantly, it’s impossible for me to store and manage reader comments. Services like Disqus and IntenseDebate offer easy Javascript-based workarounds, but I’ll need to do a little more due diligence before I’m comfortable trusting them with critical data.

Hakyll also has its own set of challenges, mostly because it’s written and configured in Haskell. To put it mildly, I’m a Haskell neophyte—I’ve been interested in the language for months, but haven’t done anything more than a few Project Euler questions. Since I don’t have a strong background in category theory, monads and arrows are blowing my mind. There’s something really amazing and elegant going on, but I’m only catching glimpses of it between compiler errors. Nevertheless, the Hakyll documentation is excellent, the mailing list is active, and the author is exceptionally helpful, so my first foray into practical functional programming has been more enlightening than infuriating.

Bootstrap: Clean Design, No Fuss

I have trouble matching my clothing, let alone the dozens of small elements that make up a website, so creating an attractive design for my new site was a daunting task. Luckily, nobody needs to see my first efforts—I decided to use Twitter’s Bootstrap framework instead. It’s clean, attractive, and mobile-friendly, and it’s teaching me some of HTML5’s new tricks. {less}, the CSS meta-language Boostrap uses, is also wonderful: it’s close enough to vanilla CSS that it’s easy to learn, but it makes my stylesheets much more modular and consistent.

While I haven’t tweaked Bootstrap’s default styling much, I had to do something about the fonts. I like Helvetica, especially on visually intense marketing sites—but Bootstrap’s tiny default font size combined with Helvetica’s clinical modernism made blocks of text downright hostile. After a few hours poking through Google Web Fonts and testing different styles, I settled on Omnibus Type’s Rosario. To my eye, it manages to be a little more playful and human than Helvetica without distracting from the words themselves.

My efforts to choose a different color scheme, though, have been a complete failure. The defaults are nice enough, but they lack soul, and my efforts to change them usually end in a neon-tinted nightmare. There’s hope on the horizon, though—I just read Ian Taylor’s “Never Use Black,” and I may try mixing some blue or red into the default grays.

I’m not much of a programmer or a designer, so I’m always in the market for suggestions! If coding’s your thing, take a look at the source code on GitHub; otherwise, send me a tweet and let me know what you think.

Update: Abject Failure

It’s probably no surprise, but diving straight into Haskell wasn’t the smoothest transition; without a better understanding of the language as a whole, I spent more time fiddling with the code than writing. I experimented with a few different site generation tools, tried some newer web-based alternatives, and finally settled on a homegrown mix of GNU Make and Go.