You may have noticed that the Github repo for this website has a tagline “… for people who aren’t web developers.” I am a data scientist and certainly fit that description, and so I’m going to talk about how I built this site using the tools I already know.
Update (Jan. 2, 2020): This post is outdated! See Migrating to Hugo for information on the new site.
This website is hosted on Github Pages at tuchandra.github.io. I write posts in Markdown and render them via a 150-line Python script (
python makesite.py). Since the content and the publishing tools all live in this repo, everything is managed by Git.
Sounds simple, right? It is.
My requirements are simple, and can be boiled down to a website that:
- has basic, static content like my contact info, my resume, and some blog posts
- lets me write blog posts in Markdown
- uses minimal styling to make everything look nice
In short, I don’t need anything fancy. Notably, I also want my toolchain to have a similar degree of simplicity.
This post isn’t about setting up a Github Pages site, or about hooking up your domain name to it. I followed some tutorial a month ago, and while I don’t remember the exact one, any of these should probably work.
Like any programmer, I started by Googling for solutions that did what I wanted. The term “static site generator” captured what I wanted, and I came across common ones like Jekyll, Gatsby, or Hugo. These were seriously impressive, offering things like:
- easy installation via NPM
- joining data sources using GraphQL
- hundreds of themes
- powerful templating syntax
… and I didn’t need any of it.
Please do note that I’m not trying to hate on these technologies – rather the opposite. I know that React is incredibly powerful, and that much of the modern web is built in it, and that it can do almost anything. These are exactly the reasons why I don’t want it. Using a powerful SSG would introduce unnecessary complexity to this process, and I am a firm believer in not overengineering. My requirements are minimal and well-defined, so there’s no reason my toolchain can’t be.
After static site generators seemed to be overkill, I started searching for more basic solutions. One stuck out: makesite.py (Github link), which described itself as a “simple, lightweight, and magic-free static site/blog generator for Python coders.” I know Python well, and this seemed easy enough to understand. Great!
This turned out to be awesome: write in Markdown, run the script, have it all render as HTML. It sounded dead simple, and yet I still didn’t need everything that this offered me. But I figured that this was as simple as I was going to find online, so I dove into the code and started stripping things down myself. Let’s walk through some of the changes that I made:
- removed everything to do with RSS feeds, three custom layouts, and date parsing
- removed optional config from a
params.jsonfile, since I can just specify parameters in code
- added code to get the title of a Markdown file as the first top-level heading, since otherwise you had to specify it with a redundant
<!-- title: Name of Post -->comment
- added code to replace links to Markdown pages with links to their generated HTML pages, since otherwise you get broken links
- removed the try/except logic surrounding the optional commonmark dependency, since I definitely need it
I also used some newer features of Python that I encourage everyone to check out:
- Pathlib, because it’s great to be able to distinguish between strings and paths
- type hints in my function signatures and a mypy to catch bugs ahead of time
- Poetry for environment management, since I like it better than basic virtualenvs or pipenv, and I don’t have conda on my Chromebook
Finally, I cleaned up the main function
make_pages to be considerably simpler. I wanted to throw everything into a
content/ directory and have my generated site retain that structure, so I wrote a straightforward recursion to take care of it for me.
I came across sakura.css, which described itself as a “minimal classless CSS theme.” In theory, you drop it in your folder, include it in your HTML files, and everything magically gets prettier. In practice, that’s exactly what happened; I added the file to my
static folder and updated the template, and that was it.
My site uses a slightly modified version of this file – I used a sans-serif font, made the headings smaller, and changed some of the colors (still a work in progress). CSS is one of the things that I appreciate and respect, but, as a data scientist, also dread working with. Having a single, easy to modify file made applying a theme to my site painless.
makesite.py script is just over 150 lines of code, including comments and whitespace, and it handles my use case flawlessly. See the script here.
I can write my blog posts in Markdown – see the source of this page for an example – and then type
poetry run python makesite.py to generate the
site/ directory. Note that because Github Pages hosts the entire repo, the rendered website actually lives at tusharc.dev/site; to get around this, index.html in my home directory just redirects to that page.
This post describes how I wrote my own minimal website by using an equally minimal set of tools. While I’m still working on adding content to my website, it feels great knowing that I can write in Markdown, run a Python script, and have everything just work.
For the Python programmer out there who has no experience with the web, I promise that it’s not all NPM hell and React apps – you can build your own nice-looking site with the tools you already know!