Hello World

About

Hello world! I'm Alex and this is my cave.

I write open source software and run a couple of linux/freebsd servers as a hobby. Mostly it's web-related stuff. Recently decided to learn how to draw to be more creative and "artsy", but it's still too early for me to show anything worth showing. I guess I have to make a self portrait one day and put it on this page :)

I'm also getting started on this blog, mostly for myself and for the sake of writing itself. It will just be a simple space to gather all the geeky notes, references, technical documentation and whatever else that might pop up in my head, so in other words it's mostly just a personal but public archive.

Another idea I've had rolling around in my head for a while is to keep a daily log of short and interesting "TIL" notes, or "Today I learned" (aka trivia). Probably not daily.. but I think it could be fun anyway. And it could work as a good source of new blog topics in the future, if I might need some inspiration.

And well, who knows? The archive might end up as a work portfolio too, if I end up with any good content (:

Enough day dreaming, on to the details of the blog itself and how it was built and designed.

(I should warn you, the rest of this introducing post will just be a short rambling with a lot of link spam and random technical references that I've looked up while working on the site)

Site source

It's all just static "web" files with content mostly generated from commonmark formatted pages. I wrote my own generator, called dumblog, to do this for me. Why? Because Hugo, Jekyll and related tools felt a bit too bloated and complicated for my own taste. I also love to roll my own solutions and learn about new stuff.

Local reference page for commonmark, conveniently showing off all the formatting.

The whole source for this site can be found on Github, so it's just easier to go browse that if you want any details.

Some references for the more common (or not) static files semi expected to be found on a web server:

Web design

I'm sticking with plain html/css templates and only use vanilla-js for the more optional and totally not required eye candy. I feel accessibility is pretty important (and good karma) too, so a couple of easy tricks from a beginner's guide is nice.

I think black-on-white text is too harsh on the eyes sometimes, so I wanted to pick some yellow-ish background colour. Enter Cosmic latte. Lower it's brightness to about 25% and you get a black foreground colour for the text, voilà! It's got great contrast ratio for accessibility and it works pretty good for dark mode too using prefers-color-scheme.

I also wanted a responsive web design (intro, basics) using flexbox, so the pages would fit both regular computer screens and tiny phones. While googling I also stumbled upon using a maximum width of 960px (nevermind the grid things).

As for the typography, I picked Lato for the regular text content, Roboto Mono for code and finally Library 3 AM for the flickering neon sign logo. Just my own personal preferences. And neon signs a pretty cool...

Finally I added some basic social media and content description metatags so the site will show nice display boxes, whenever it would be shared on social media or showing up in a search engine.

Site validation

After I'm done building the site and it's up and running on a host, I would of course like to have it verified it looks and feels like a good-behaving citizen of the web. Accessibility and standards compliance is, again, pretty important. The validators I ran was:

Simple stuff, really, although I had to run them manually. Sometime in the future I would like to replace them with offline CLI tools instead, so they can be backed into the CI and run automagically on each build.

But what was the results?

Well, the site had some accessibility issues and I had to fix the most glaring ones:

Other than that it looked pretty good!

Automatic deployments

Automation is always great and fun! But it can be so much work and twiddling with the knobs... I wanted to utilize Github Actions and had to struggle for a couple of days, experimenting and retesting a lot, but I finally managed to get everything right and somewhat clean.

I tried to keep the scripts contained in the makefile as much as possible, so if I wanted to change CI in the future there would be less work converting. Then I set up Github specific triggers (schedule, push on master branch or manually) and let it run the build scripts for me, automagically. The resulting build output is pushed to a new, empty "orphan" branch with a separate commit history to keep everything clean. Finally a secret deployment URL is hit, which causes my hosting provider to download the latest build and deploy it to the CDN.

Now then, most of the struggles I had was caused by the Github specific settings, as I had no way to run and test them locally before pushing the commits. Took a lot of back and forth testing on a separate repo.. And it won't do automatic deletion of files, so I'll have to find some solution to either trigger cache resets at the hosting provider or trimming out "missing" files from the build output (when compared to the sources).

Content hosting

As for hosting, I've been eyeing Render to host the files on their free tier. You get SSL for free, content is hosted on a CDN and most importantly, they don't require any special permissions for accessing your Github account or the repo. Other free hosting providers (like Netlify or Vercel) seems to require a lot of unnecessary permissions, ugh!

(I feel like I should clarify I have no affiliation with Render. I'm just a new customer.)

Anyway, Render was pretty simple to set up. All I had to do was create a new static site, point it to the repo and build branch, add custom domain names and some extra HTTP headers for security. Deploy and it was up, nice.

Buut... It wasn't completely pain free. Apparently I hit some bug when I was adding (and twiddling) the domains which caused duplicate entries to show up? An mail to the support and they eventually fixed it. And I think I caused myself a redirection loop, which got caught in the cache for an hour. I was also getting response times around 400ms but found out the CDN (at least for the free tier) was using a couple of servers from Fastly, located in the US.. Not optimal. But I'll let it run for a while and see how things will perform.

Why not just host on Github?

Nah, I feel like I'm already depending too much on them for hosting my repos. And there's always a risk you might get a ban, for example by hosting content that breaks their TOS (not that I plan to!). That would be disastrous for an open source developer! There's also been quite a few Github outages thanks to ddos'ing and other faults.

Although I'm whining about Github, I still host my repos there, so don't read into my words too much heh.

Or just self host?

Been there, done that and it's of course the most preferable way to host. But you lose the CDN (unless you make your own). And it's more work taking care of the host itself. Might want to investigate renting a VPS again when budgeting isn't of too much a concern. And building a CDN/load balancing proxy could be good exercise.

Or I'll just pay for some static hosting in the EU. We'll see.

Monitoring and alerting

For now I'm only relying on Render's traffic monitoring (which just shows you the amount of data per day), while uptime and response times are being logged on the free tier of OnlineOrNot. It's pretty basic but it logs the most important stats for a week. And I get email alerts whenever the site is being taken down by the CDN.

But I really want some more detailed web traffic logs so I could get a measurement of what pages are the most visited, from what countries, bot usage etc. Most of it harmless, privacy wise. And most often it's logged by the web servers anyways. I don't want to use some JS analytics though, as they tend to end up invading your privacy (eww) and blocked by most ad blocking by default. Another reason to pay for a hosting provider in the EU I guess.

Writing style

Alright. So far it's just been a bunch of technical nonsense (as a reference for myself, mind you) that I'm fairly comfortable with already. But now I'm instead stuck with the pleasurable problem of producing content! In english prose nonetheless!

Well this is a completely whole new experience for me, as I haven't been doing much writing before (besides code). I should also mention I'm not a native speaker of english, so things like grammar will probably look a bit funky at times.

To get started, I should probably lay down the foundation of a "style guide" (kind of like news style? article publishing?).

General

Conclusion

Phew, that's it for the tiny site introduction and documentation. A lot of work goes into making a new site from scratch while also trying to keep up to date with the current, modern standards and recommendations (hence the huge amount of links in this post, sorry).

This post should be updated over time, when more content is added or other changes are being done.

Updates

2021-06-17: