Sprucing up the Blog


Update July 30th, 2020: Why oh why do I ever make predictions about my posting frequency in writing?! :joy:

I’m going to start trying to write more. I’m setting myself a modest goal of minimum one post per month for the next year. Let’s see how we do. For starters, let’s do a classic and time-honored style of post - the “how this blog is set up” post.


What we have here is a pretty straightforward Jekyll + GitHub Pages setup, with a Docker-based workflow for local development. I like trying to play “the floor is lava” with my base machine - trying to keep all my development environments either in VMs or containers. I basically always end up giving up and “polluting” my machine w/ stuff like chruby and the Homebrew copy of postgres.

This site is simple enough for me to try to keep things “pure”. Also, as a bonus, messing with the website’s setup helps me procrastinate from actually writing anything! :joy:

So over the past few years I’ve gotten the bones of a Docker-based setup working decently. Until recently it centered around a Makefile that looked like this.

The core targets were make serve and make open:

SITE_NAME = $(shell basename $(CURDIR))

.PHONY: serve
serve: ## Run jekyll serve
	@docker run --rm \
		--volume="${PWD}:/srv/jekyll" \
		--volume="${PWD}/vendor/bundle:/usr/local/bundle" \
		--name=$(SITE_NAME) \
		-P \
		-it jekyll/jekyll:$(JEKYLL_VERSION) \
		jekyll serve

.PHONY: open
open: ## Open web browser with URL from jekyll serve
	@open http://$(shell docker port $(SITE_NAME) 4000)

The serve target was pretty much right out of the instructions for the jekyll/jekyll docker image with one tweak for ports. When I set this up, I thought that using -P to get a random port and then looking it up with make open was very clever and I was very pleased with myself. :innocent:


It wasn’t perfect though. There were a few problems though that were exposed by the fact that you need to restart jekyll anytime you change _config.yml.

  1. In practice it was silly to have to re-roll the port on every reload - each CTRL-C <up> <enter> loop invalidated the current working browser tab and forced me to re-run make open.
  2. It was incredibly slow to boot, and really, to do anything. Turns out this was stemming from what I have come to learn are infamous performance issues with Docker volumes on Mac.


So I’ve spent a few weekends now dusting this thing off. My big goal this time around was to start collecting a list of the talks I’ve given. I switched Jekyll theme from the barebones Lanyon to the more fully featured Minimal Mistakes. Now that I’ve gotten it all up and running, though, I find myself missing the typography and simplicity of Lanyon. I am forcing myself to write this post instead of endlessly futzing with themes, though.

On the Docker front, after playing around with the cached volume settings and only seeing marginal improvements I took a closer look and realized that my gem cache didn’t actually need to be synced with the host. I could just use a named volume instead.

I took that opportunity to rework the “Docker layer” encoded into the Makefile into a docker-compose setup.

version: '3'


    image: jekyll/jekyll:3.8
    command: jekyll serve --watch
      - 4000:4000
      - .:/srv/jekyll
      - jekyll_site:/srv/jekyll/_site
      - jekyll_gems:/usr/local/bundle

I’ve not totally tested my assumptions here but my general understanding is that named volumes are faster than mounted volumes because they don’t need to sync with the host. I made a second volume for _site since that dir is always git-ignored and never used on the host - I haven’t confirmed if this is helping at all though. Regardless, the performance is oodles better, and the Makefile is much simpler now. Here it is in its entirety:

.PHONY: serve
serve: ## Run jekyll serve
	@docker-compose up

.PHONY: open
open: ## Open web browser with URL from jekyll serve
	@open http://localhost:4000


.PHONY: jekyll
jekyll: ## Run jekyll command (set with CMD, defaults to help)
	@docker-compose run --rm \
		jekyll \
		jekyll $(CMD)

.PHONY: help
help: ## Print help message (default)
	@grep -h -E '^[a-zA-Z_-]+:.*?## .*$$' $(MAKEFILE_LIST) | awk 'BEGIN {FS = ":.*?## "}; {printf "\033[36m%-30s\033[0m %s\n", $$1, $$2}'

That last help target is one of my favorite snippets of the past few years. I’m pretty sure it came from this “Self-Documented Makefile” article, so props to François for that!


Update July 30th, 2020: In line with my prediction, I’ve already overhauled the theme to a custom one based on tufte.css.

I’m pretty sure that this theme is not going to last long w/o some significant tweaks if not another theme shopping spree. Beyond that I want to continue making the talks section better and mostly just getting things settled in a way that I can find fewer excuses to futz with the site instead of just writing.

This thing is all up on GitHub so feel free to poke around!

Until next time.