Big Bubbles (no troubles)

What sucks, who sucks and you suck


I’ve joined the thundering herd and migrated this blog to Octopress. In my defence, this is the first upgrade I’ve done since setting it up using MovableType 2.x back in 2000. Within about five years of that, the bloggerati were stampeding towards Wordpress, but lately the traffic seems to be going in the other direction as static, “baked-in” blogs become fashionable once more (because you can deploy them on your Macbook like a Troo Dev).

Reasons for migrating:

  • Mainly: I needed to update my archaic style sheet, and Octopress came with canned CSS out of the box that supported modern idioms such as responsive layouts and mobile browsers. (That said, I spent a lot of time tweaking it to look a lot like the existing style, for various reasons.) Bear in mind that MT was my first encounter with style sheets.
  • Easier to backup and relocate, and less susceptible to OS updates (like the Perl and Berkeley DB ones that briefly took out MT once). In fact, I had to compile my own Ruby 1.9.3 install for this anyway.
  • Fed up with writing raw HTML.
  • For various reasons that would be tedious to go into, I can’t easily put the content in a DBMS on its current host so I need something that isn’t dynamically generated.
  • No more legacy CGI scripts.
  • Integrates Google search, Twitter and other social networks.
  • I can apparently now only write bullet points rather than logically-constructed, meaningful paragraphs, and they’re easy to do in markdown.
  • I can finally close that “Upgrading MT” tab I’ve had open for about … ooh, three years now.

How I did it:

  • After installing Octopress, taking it for a test spin, etc. (easy) …
  • Wrote a nasty Perl hack to parse an MT 2.x blog export file, extract the relevant metadata for each entry (including tags and categories, convert the HTML to markdown using HTML::WikiConverter::Markdown (not perfect but close enough for most entries) and spit out separate post files. I’m only doing this once, so the script didn’t need to be pretty. Not planning on releasing it, but shout if you have obsolete blog software and want more info.
    Note that some of the oldest entries haven’t converted well, but I doubt anyone is still interested in those anyway as they were fairly topical; I keep them around as a personal archive (nobody is forced to read them and it’s unlikely anyone stumbles across them accidentally via Google).
  • Customised the default Octopress theme to replace the uniform greyness with my own colour scheme (which is probably less designer but dammit, they’re my colours), shrink the kindergarten header font down to something suitable for grown-ups and change all the fonts to sans-serif (looks good on my CRT, I’m sure serif would look great if I had a Macbook </sarcasm>). I’m aware that these colours may not be the best choice for those with vision problems. I’ve tried to increase the contrast a little and choose another complementary hue, but I assume you’d be using a custom stylesheet anyway if your sight is really poor.
  • Installed the tag_cloud, tag_generator and related_posts plugins for Octopress, and hacked around to integrate them with the content. The tag links are now local to the site, which is good as Technorati never worked well for me. I also hacked the Liquid template to insert the tags as meta keywords on each post.
  • Checked everything into a private git repo. I think. Still not comfortable with git.
  • Wrote a really nasty shell script to grep the titles from the original MT blog files, grep for those strings in the new blog files and spit out Apache Redirect lines for each match, so that old links to individual posts will still (mostly) work.
  • Moved the few static MT template pages and the old style sheet to a separate subfolder until I can get round to converting them (yeah right).

Next moves:

  • Round up any useful code from the old entries and put it on github. (Not that I’m expecting anyone to want it, but github seems to be the de facto online portfolio for techies now.)
  • Migrate the [_Wrack And
  • Ruin_]( blog to the same system for consistency. (Still very happy with Flogr for my photoblog, I just need to take some more actual photos for it.)
  • Find some decent styling for description lists (missing from Octopress), which I use a lot.
  • Ideally, disable the bloody transitions that occur when you hover over embedded links. Forcing the user to play “hunt the link” does not seem web UI best practice to me.

Thoughts on Octopress

  • I can see why they include the default grey theme and why people like it; it’s clean and clear, doesn’t need any changes and prevents people with no design experience from nicking themselves on sharp edges. On the other hand, it causes most Octopress blogs to look identical, it’s a bit bland and the font sizing and transitions really bug me. I suspect this is just a reflection of the relative paucity of widely available, alternative themes. I have no design experience either and I’m sure a real designer could criticise my layout nine ways to Sunday, but I wanted to preserve some consistency with the previous look.
    On the positive side, the rendering of some of the individual styles (such as code blocks) is great, the intelligent colour handling saves a lot of time and the overall feel is comfortable.
  • I’d really like to see someone integrate Twitter Bootstrap as a theme option and non-grey alternative.
  • Markdown is fab! The best thing to come out of all this hassle has been the ability to write posts in markdown and the requirement to learn it.
  • Performance is poor on the server if you’re regenerating the entire site (which you have to do for any update); there’s a good reason why the isolate/integrate and preview features are there.
  • Despite these minor nits, I still think Octopress is a laudable achievement and should be your first choice if you need to throw up a new blog quickly from a UNIX-based platform. (If you have an existing blog, explore the migration options carefully before committing.)

Other bubbles

  • Some Octopress disadvantages.
  • You don’t have to use the default Octopress theme.
  • Slightly off-topic but to prove I’m not a complete philistine, some blog designs I really admire (yes, they even use serif fonts!): Craig Mod; Mark Otto. These single column layouts remind me of Suck, the achingly hip and ahead of its time snark site from the .com years.