What I did to my website, how, and why. aka breaking for a good cause...

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Summary: Ever wonder how blogs are like pies, I'll tell you. Why? Well, last night, I tore my website a new one. Based on a new concept I had, I was required to break off various pieces and reassemble. now that it is complete, was it worth it? I think so. read on...

Wednesday, 09 December 2009

(13:18:36 CST)

What I did to my website, how, and why. aka breaking for a good cause...

Before I get around to telling you what I did to my poor old website, let me tell you how blogs are kind of like pies. Or, I should say, pie factories and the entries are like the pies. Like a pie, a blog has several parts that stack on top of one another. You have your pie pan, which is like the structural underpinings of your blog: database, server, the basic scripts. On top of the pan is the bottom crust. This is like your blog's non-essentially but really important aspects: the layout and the general presentation. It is shaped by the pie pan, but could fit in another if it had to, with exception. Then you got the filling, the meat/fruit of the blog. This is the content. On top of it all is the spices and top crust that add flavor and appearance. This is the same as the blog's flair and comments and extra doodads. Some pies are made without it, mind you.

Some blogging software builds each pie every time you want to look at it. The pie pan is filled with bottom crust, which is filled with the content, and then this is topped off appropriately. The final product is presented. If any section of the pie has changed, then the final product immediately (or relatively) reflects it. Some blogging software sort of pre-builds the pies, but can quickly break them down and rebuild them at the touch of a "republish" style command.

Then you have blogs like mine which are closest to frozen pies. The pan, crust, filling, and toppings are all sort of congealed into place at creation, and then it is "warmed up" and served whenever a browser asks for it. If I want to change anything, then I have to go back to each individual pie and break it down and change things, risking damaging each one.

My website's layout has been useful for a while, but it had one annoying flaw. It was nearly impossible to add new sections to it, to alter sections, and so forth. This was readily apparent very shortly after I made the site, when I thought about adding a section on pipes (as in the kind literary detectives smoke) and a section of tea. At that time, I would have had to go through, page by page, and add in the links. The cheap solution ended up being shoehorning sections into my random stuff page, eventually leading to what I called "microsections" and then, as I edited pages, I could sort of update the links. Some pages had fairly different links than others, several pages had broken links, and it was kind of mess; but I would reckon it worked 98% of the time.

As I started, this past May, to migrate more over to the "new content comes from the blog" standard, it became even more of a mess. I detail most of that struggle and my solution in my recent post, "The final return to first intentions with Wyrmis.net" (Wyrmis.net, not Wyrmis.com, was the original URL). A side effect of this change over was that my index page (you can see the old version there, including some of the original subject divisions) almost never changed, and so your standard browser and web-crawler saw a mostly static page, while I was over on another section generating fairly constant new content. What's more, the page became redundant at best. It was just a place holder left over from when the page was first started. I like it's overall layout, and will miss it, but I did not feel like editing content by hand once a week when I had a better solution. Namely, make this blog, Dickens of a Blog the home page, itself.

As an aside, another minor quibble was my lack of a icon/thumbnail that ported over cleanly into things like Facebook links. The green spiral works, but it is a bit untelling. I wanted to add the ability for a picture to be added to most/all pages, and so worked that out, too.

So here were my three requests: (1) a more dynamic first page, (2) more expressive sidebar links to more accurately reflect content, and (3) integration of my photo and information into every page. Well, if you look around, you'll see that I have three for three (my one regret right now is trying to figure out how to work with ...on Words right now. Do I want to change that to ...on Books or maybe to the older used ...on others' Words. I think I may alter it and the Library thing so the former is on books while the other is more specifically about library related materials. I really don't know. It is not critical. One of those things I can change. Oh, I forgot request (4): I wanted it to be easier to change thing. My frozen pies will never be as off-the-cuff as those active-server fresh baked ones, but I wanted there to be a bit more of an on-the-fly to them.

Step one, I changed the main index to redirect to the journal index. Then there is the journal index. I should technically change those to a more obvious (i.e. unmasked) redirect, and maybe I will, today. Step two, I took my journal's main page and turned it into a guinea pig. I broke it down and rewrote links and rewrote links and rewrote links. Man did I ever rewrite links. I spent about three or four hours writing out link names and page concepts, and then scrapping them whole sheet and starting over. I ended up with what you see to the left, a not exactly perfect mixture but I like it for its inherent oddness. This also included tossing in the pic and the blurb about myself. Originally, this blurb was on ever page and then I woke up and realized that if I had to change anything, I was going to have change it on every page. Screw that.

Like the cooling of the Earth's crust, the new soil was made. I first started out copying and pasting the update over. This was a dumb thing to do. Let me see if this again: if you have to manipulate dozens of predictable text files in a predictable way, use scripts. Python, Perl. Whatever. I started writing the update script and in about as much time as it took me to hand-copy and hand-paste and hand-cut and all that the first dozen or two files, I had a working program that could do it to dozens at a time. And that is what I did. What's more, the program is sill valid: those scripts can be reused to fix other things.

All that was left, then, was to get to the business of fixing everything. And fixing everything. And fixing everything.

Tomorrow, since I don't have time to do it today, I am going to fix more stuff. Namely, I am going through all those pages on the left, there, and I am going to shift the content to its new home. Once that is in place, then the whole thing will work tons better. For my soul, at least, and hopefully it will be an easier and more fun website to navigate. Anyhow, that explains why the "I'm breaking it!" sign was posted yesterday, and why certain things might not quite work for the next day or so (though most of the bugs should already be fixed).

Si Vales, Valeo


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Written by Doug Bolden

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The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".

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