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On your markdown, hypertext, now!

weiji14 profile image Wei Ji Originally published at letsjustwander.now.sh Updated on ・10 min read

Originally posted at letsjustwander.now.sh

I'll start with the why.

    # language: en
    Feature: Free and minimal static blog
      In order to have a long-lasting blog
      As a blogger,
      I want a system that is portable

      Scenario: Blog host goes down
        Given a backup copy of my blog's content
         When my old blog host becomes unviable
         Then I can rehost my blog and content somewhere else

Bit of background, I've been blogging on and off since I was a teenager maybe 10 odd years ago. As a kid, spending money on hosting and domain names was something I avoided like the plague, and keeping things free is still something I'm obsessed with.

A problem I faced was keeping my blog content safe from blogging platforms going down, becoming obsolete, or getting sucked in to very corporate locked-in platforms. I have only a faint idea on where my first Windows Live Spaces posts are, stored in some proprietary format I may never unlock. The backups from my golden b2evolution years (late 2000s to early 2010s) are likewise stuck in some mysql database which is marginally 'better'.

Around 2014 after graduating from my degree (while travelling in Chile actually) I restarted blogging using Ghost, the beta version. It was a bridge connecting me from the old school PHP based Content Management Systems I've used before to something akin to 'modern' JAMstack.

But when Ghost 1.0 got released, I didn't bother migrating to the new API. Technically the posts were stored in JSON and I could parse it if I wanted to. Read: still a lot of effort to go on a trip down memory lane.

Really, it all seemed too much to maintain. Yes I could pay, and have someone manage the hosting, upgrades, backup and whatnot.

But stubborn ol' me thought the world must have gotten better than that. It's 2018 already for goodness sake! Was it too much just to have a few kilobytes or megabytes in the cloud to host some blog?

Nuclear disaster proof blog

Ok, I'm probably exaggerating. If you've read this far, you're probably hoping I've got a solution.

I'm not a web developer, but I do program and can follow instructions. The blogging workflow below will not be Wordpress WYSISYG friendly, nor is it reliant on some passing Javascript framework that may or may not exist in the next 5 years.

Because I'm paranoid, there should be two and at least two ways to do any part of the pipeline below.

Writing text, Text to hypertext, Publishing

So what do we use?

Static plaintext

One word - plain-text.

I'm not chucking my words into some database no matter how open source it is. Nor am I going to put it into JSON, YAML, or some other FOUR letter acronym format.

Each post should standalone as one file. As a minimum, the blog folder will have an index page and a folder for all the individual posts.

  • _posts/
    • hello-world.md
    • post-two.md
  • index.md

I write my posts in markdown and although there's a hundred flavours out there, I can probably still open up a .md file in ten years and read it. If I had written my posts ten years ago in markdown, I would still be able to read it. Period. You could use some other markup language (LaTeX anyone?) if you fancy, but I highly recommend markdown.

To store all the metadata of a post (e.g. date, title, tags, etc), I put it into a short YAML frontmatter like so:

---
date: 2018-10-31T12:00:00+12:00
title: Hello World
---

This follows the Jekyll frontmatter convention. But we won't be using Jekyll (gasp!), though it is a popular static site generator. I feel like there's too much boilerplate, too many folders for css files, plugins and whatnot.

The same can be said of most other static site generators. Everyone has an opinion on what's better, faster, trendier. Popularity means nothing if we're going for longevity, remember Geocities? Instead, we're going for something opinionatedly unopinionated.

Text to Hypertext

The only reason we need this text-to-hypertext step is so that your blog doesn't look like some git repository. Or, yes you could upload all your files to an FTP site and call it a day. If that's you, skip down to the publishing/hosting part below.

Today, we're striving for minimalism, but we're not compromising on quality!

I'll jump straight to the chase and recommend no nonsense Eleventy. Alternatively, skip ahead for Plan B - pure scripting!

Plan A - Using Eleventy

Install eleventy with npm in your terminal as follows:

    npm install -g @11ty/eleventy

Now go to the top-level directory of the blog and type this:

    eleventy

Eleventy will process your .md markdown files into .html, by default into a _site folder. Our folder should now look like:

  • _posts/
    • hello-world.md
    • post-two.md
  • _site/
    • hello-world/index.html
    • post-two/index.html
    • index.html
  • index.md

And that's all there is, seriously! Okay maybe read the docs or add some plugins if you want more configuration jazz. Otherwise, take your _site folder host it somewhere (see next section).

Plan B - Using pandoc

Credits to @gypsydave5 for coming up with this!

If you haven't got swiss-army knife pandoc, install it.

    sudo apt-get install pandoc #linux
    brew install pandoc         #mac
    choco install pandoc        #windows

I'm using Linux as my system, so next I would fire up my bash shell and type in this command:

    for POST in _posts/*.md; do pandoc --to=html5 --output=_site/$(basename ${POST%.md}).html --standalone $POST; done

This is basically a for-loop that converts every .md markdown file in the _posts folder to a standalone .html file.

The caveat with this method compared to (a properly configured) eleventy is that it will look horrible. There's no CSS styling, so you'll get something that's akin to a 90s era webpage.

Luckily pandoc does allow you to set a --css file or url to make it prettier (credits to Martin). You could point to some pretty.css file you made, or cheat like me below and chuck in a CDN hosted css.

    for POST in _posts/*.md; do pandoc --to=html5 --css https://cdn.rawgit.com/yegor256/tacit/gh-pages/tacit-css-1.3.1.min.css --output=_site/$(basename ${POST%.md}).html --standalone $POST; done

I used tacit css above, which is a class-less CSS framework. That means I'm not bothering with opinionated class names that goes with using some front-end framework like Bootstrap or newer players out there. Simply write proper HTML5 (whatever proper means) and it will do the trick, at least until HTML6 comes out.

You might need to tweak this pandoc method further to get it to look as nice as eleventy. There's probably a million ways to do this step so I'll leave that to your imagination. Share it in a comment if you have another one-liner script that does it!

Now, let's jump straight into the scary part - publishing.

Publishing/Hosting

So you've written your blog post (in markdown), you've converted it into nice hypertext (html), now it's time to put it up somewhere! Again, I'm aiming for free. That doesn't mean it can't be easy.

So far I've been through more dodgy free hosting providers than I can count. What I dislike is a free lunch that I'll get a stomachache from later.

I'm of the opinion that publishing in itself is a scary thing, especially for new writers. But the last thing you want is to have a blog post written up and having it stuck on your computer staring back at you an only you. The word deserves your opinion, trust me.

You need to push it out into the world with a click of your fingers! While you stress out on what the world will think of your post, do you really want to think about how hosting/ssl-certs/domain-names/database-configurations works? No!

But hey, we're using static files now (<1MB in size), not some behemoth database! No database means no funky configuration. With static files, shouldn't there simply be a way to upload my files and get a URL link?

It's 2018, what do we have out there?

I'm going to show you the Zeit Now way for its Zen-like simplicity. Alternatively, skip ahead for Plan B - P2P hosting!

Plan A - Zeit Now

Install now-cli with npm in your terminal as follows:

    npm install -g now

Now go to the top-level directory of the blog and type this:

    now _site

Type 'y' for yes to confirm. It should take a second or three depending on how big your files are, and you'll be given a url to your blog! Something that looks like https://site-abcdefghij.now.sh

Of course, you might like a nicer url, in which case you can set up an alias like so:

    now alias https://site-abcdefghij.now.sh https://example.now.sh

And that's easy static hosting on Zeit Now in a nutshell. You can even alias it to your own custom domain if you've got the cash. I'll also give a shout out to Netlify Drop as an alternative hosting provider, just zip up your _site folder and drag-and-drop it to the website!

Congrats, you've made it! Read on though if you'd like to know another way ;)

Plan B - P2P Dat

Credits to this guide.

Install dat with npm in your terminal as follows:

    npm install -g dat

Now go to the top-level directory of the blog and type this to share the files in your _site folder:

    dat _site

It should take a second or three depending on how big your files are, and you'll be given a url to your blog! Something that looks like dat://abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz1234567890abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz12.

Wait, what's dat://? That's the P2P protocol part, you need a special browser like BeakerBrowser to open it. That may be okay for you, or you might prefer a standard https:// url.

Enter hashbase. Hashbase wraps around your dat and gives a nicer url like https://example.hashbase.io. For example, you can also access the Beaker Browser website at https://beakerbrowser-com.hashbase.io.

Hashbase acts as a super peer that hosts your files so you don't have to leave your computer switched on... So sign up for it, or be a host yourself by forking their Github repo.

I've always wanted to go the self-hosting route, and this is probably the closest I've gotten so far. Maybe someday I'll get a raspberry pi mini-server set up, but this will do for now.

Caveat lector

I can't predict what will happen to the future. Like I've mentioned in the beginning, I've blogged on and off for ten years or so. What seems like a good idea back then isn't quite so now. There is an element of hindsight bias in this post you need to be aware of.

This $0 plain text -> hypertext converter -> publishing/hosting pipeline assumes the following:

  1. That plain text editors will continue to exist (and can open my markdown files). Maybe UTF-8 won't be valid anymore? Perhaps my favourite Atom editor will become obsolete?!!

  2. That I'll be able to convert markdown to html in the future. Will Eleventy still work in ten years time? What will I do if pandoc goes away too?!!

  3. That the hosting services I use and recommend now will remain free. What if Zeit Now/Github Pages/Netlify/Hashbase starts charging for use? Can the dat protocol actually continue into the future?!!

The enlightened ones may notice a potential Plan C baked into each step. Can't I edit plain text with any editor? Why, isn't it possible to convert markdown to html with some Python scripting? Surely there will be another hosting provider that will do it for free?

Let me point out though, that the weakest link in the picture might be yourself.

You are version controlling your blog posts right?

Git is awesome, I didn't mention it in the guide above but it's there in the background, silently making sure my history is intact.

There are also little details I left out from this guide such as navigation links, making an archive page, etc. So for good measure, all my static blog templates are hosted on Github here. It is as ridiculously barebones as I can make it, and you're free to copy or build off the design.

Sure, there are definitely cons with using this free static blog system. Some people don't think second level domain names are professional (but I can live with that). It also takes some extra effort to get interactive stuff on the page like video embeds.

But hey, there's no javascript being served! That means there's no popup ads (can be a good or bad thing). My site also loads blazingly fast in milliseconds.

The thing that bugs me most is having all my hard work disappear from the web in a few months or years, and having to migrate to somewhere else, usually during some inconvenient time. This portable design aims to make that eventual migration as painless as possible.

For now, this is probably the best I can come up with.

    echo 'Hello World' > index.md  #write
    eleventy                       #convert
    now _site                      #publish

And there you have it, a free static blog guide for 2018 and beyond.

Discussion (3)

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tux0r profile image
tux0r

Git is most definitely too big to version-control a one-man blog. But that's a different problem.

The issue that I have with Markdown is that its expressiveness is limited. No tables, no image alignment - and, even worse, no way to define separate styles. Even LaTeX does that better. ;-)

In my main blog, I review music at least twice a year. I use predefined styles for some of the contents, e.g. green for artist names. I couldn't do that with standard Markdown.

It's pretty ok for uncolored plaintext though.

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4lch4 profile image
Devin W. Leaman • Edited

Markdown does have support for tables though, no?

markdownguide.org/extended-syntax/...

I would love to be able to align images easier though, but for the time being, I just use an img tag and a css class that aligns it wherever I want. Granted, this doesn't mesh with OP's goal of portability since it's not pure Markdown and does require css classes and such for alignment.

EDIT: As I read further into the link I shared I realized tables are an extended syntax and not necessarily in all flavors of Markdown, so I guess you're right.

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weiji14 profile image
Wei Ji Author

This post was meant to establish a baseline for blogging with pure text, but yes, I definitely feel the pain of wanting to do something more like adding images, tables, or even audio! Besides storing it in a Data URI, I can't say I have a foolproof portable solution yet :)

Markdown does allow you to write in pure html, and I guess some basic CSS for centering images won't hurt. I've deliberately gone towards one extreme (minimalist) end in the above post. Most people will lie somewhere in between this barebones extreme and an overly flash site. It basically comes down to what you value more, portable content or cool looks.

From an accessibility point of view, and speaking for a longer term (>1 year) perspective, I've also learnt how having a descriptive alt-text is important. If your can't see or hear your table/image/audio anymore, having a one-line descriptive alt-text for your tables/images/audio is a life saver! It provides the necessary context for you and your reader. Again, just stuff you have to learn the hard way.