Back in the Saddle II – Habari

My assumption, when embarking on this little series of posts, was that I’d jot a few brief notes about the blog engine alternatives I explored by way of review. Pretty much, that would be that.

Trouble is, each of the projects I’m trying is more-or-less freeware, built and maintained by volunteers. They’ve made decisions based on how they want to use their product, and to a some extent any ‘review’ I might offer would be more a comparison between my preferences and intentions and theirs. Which is of stuff all use to anyone else.

So the short version of this post is: I wanted to like Habari, I really did. But I’m not using it because… well… I don’t. I’m sure it’s great. But it’s not for me. Here’s an example:

habari-menuThis is the top-level Habari menu, and pretty much the main bit of interface offered up by the system. I thought this sort of menu was cool when I first saw it in NeXTSTEP circa. 1992, but in practice I find the waggling-the-mouse-like-a-gear-lever dog-leg manoeuvre annoying as anything.

The apparent goal is to present a thoroughly minimal interface, to get out of the way as much as possible. That’s admirable, but there’s always a trade-off involved in simplicity, and for me this falls too far on the side of ‘absent’ rather than ‘simplified.’ Besides, poke only a little deeper and you quickly stumble across modal dialogue pop-ups. Habari is not, at this stage, impressing me as a system which aligns with my ideas of good taste.

Importing my blog archive (from a WordPress database) was seamless and trivial, which is great. But can I find an off-the-shelf theme I like? No. Not even vaguely. Now, again, I have very particular tastes here, but almost everything in the theme repository looks like dodgy ports from WordPress circa 2009. It’s not at all clear which remain maintained.

OK, so let’s take a brief look at how themes are built. I’ve never been a fan of WordPress’ ‘pepper PHP throughout the template’ approach, much preferring Movable Type’s template tags. Intriguingly, Habari offers both alternatives, the former via RawPHPEngine, the latter via HiEngine. But:

If you’re looking to start building themes in Habari, and you’re not accustomed to building templates using a syntax similar to this, then you should most definitely not use HiEngine. Instead, you should look into the native PHP support provided by RawPHPEngine, which is faster and better at teaching you real PHP, which can be useful when creating more complex themes.

–(From the project wiki).

Ouch. Yeah, we’re not going to agree on that. Heck, the last few sites I’ve built I’ve done pretty much in HAML, I’ve really no interest in going back to ?php if ( blah ) ?whatever?php? nonsense.

Upshot: Habari might be great, but I’m not the right user for it.

Back in the saddle

After several days of mucking about with alternative blogging solutions, I’m… blogging again. Here’s the summary, more for the sake of record keeping than interest:

Movable Type part I

This blog has been running on Movable Type since I started, and it’s needed surprisingly little maintenance throughout for more than a decade. Updates are a bit of a pain, and commenting hasn’t always worked, but for the most part it’s (a.) worked, and (b.) looked fairly consistently like shit.

However, the server was eventually running MT4.something, which has been end-of-life for some time. The looming horror of a major migration coincided with a period when the Movable Type 5 upgrade only made sense if you could read Japanese, thanks to the somewhat unfathomable story of its parent company. The open-source MT4 continuation project Melody, meanwhile, looked promising for a time… until it crashed and burned. All of which probably factored into my losing interest in blogging for a while.

So: hello, 2013. I miss blogging. What shall I do with this site?

The obvious answers:

  1. Take a data dump, check its integrity on a local server, then update that local server to the latest MT5 and have a play. Or–

  2. After 12 years, succumb to the masses, port the whole thing over to WordPress, and be done with it.

MT5 local hosting on OS X

Web Sharing was slightly broken by Mountain Lion, which would have been annoying except that my Mac Pro hasn’t had a clean install in the four-or-so years since I bought it. It hasn’t needed it, but it has got a little crufty around the edges, so many of the problems are probably my fault. There are bits of MacPorts and Homebrew and I think something else kicking around, a bunch of stuff compiled from source – it’s a mess in there.

I do have Apache up, MySQL is up, and cpan did sane things with all the Perl modules. APXS was easy to fix, but I ran into this compiler issue, and unfortunately don’t understand how to implement the fix. So I’m stuck with plain old cgi, not even mod_fcgid let alone mod_perl. Ugh.

Good enough for testing, though… and good enough to discover that Movable Type fails to restore backups from Ah. That’s a problem. UTF8 errors, apparently.

So while I have a working MT5 install locally, I don’t have a feel for how old blogs get pulled across into the new Site containers, nor how the (considerably different) MT5 feels with lots of posts.

I also don’t have backups which I know to be good. Which is always a worry.

This is pretty much where this blog petered out for 18 months, and where this blog post will leave you in suspense.

To. Be. Continued.


I write an awful lot of words each year, and I’m always looking for my perfect writing environment. Much of what I do ends up in plain text, since Word is rather clumsy in many situations, and LaTeX is too intrusive/hard work.

So I’m fascinated by things like John Gruber’s new Markdown, a Perl script and Movable Type plugin that generates XHTML from the sort of plain-text email shorthand most of us geeks have settled on. That is, surrounding words with asterisks for emphasis, using angle-brackets to denote links, quoting text by adding ‘> ‘ at the start of each line, that sort of thing. Here’s a full list of the (modest, manageable) Markdown Syntax. The key idea is that text intended to be parsed by Markdown should still be perfectly readable as plain text.

This isn’t the first such attempt: Setext and Textile have similar goals, amongst others. But Markdown looks like it might be simple enough to use without getting in the way. In fact, I can see only two problems:

First, my own personal email/newsgroup posting style seems to have evolved into using square brackets to denote something akin to stage directions. Which is unusual, but works well enough for me. Unfortunately, Markdown uses square brackets for its link syntax, so all of that breaks. As my friend Conor observed twelve years ago, while writing his own programming language, “Oh, shit! I’ve run out of bracket types!”

The second problem is more serious: I need to find an editor that handles text as I want it to. BBEdit behaves like a code editor, indenting lines only when asked – so an indented line does not wrap to the same indentation level. JEdit will do that beautifully, but it’s a massive, clunky app with a slightly nasty Java interface and far too many options pleasing far too many people in far too many places. Pepper did exactly what I wanted… but it’s never been entirely happy under Mac OS X, and development seems to have ground to a halt. Pretty much everything else seems to work either like BBEdit, or like the standard TextEdit. As a result, I find myself writing more and more in OmniOutliner, which has its own annoyances. Perhaps I’ll just have to write my own editor.

Strange, isn’t it? The personal computer revolution is getting on for thirty years old, and we’re still finding new ways of handling that basic commodity, text.


Geek post warning

I’m repeatedly astonished at how fragile Windows is, even XP. My CDROM drive appears to be on the fritz – it sometimes works, but usually can’t be bothered to read the disc it has loaded. OK, so this is an unfortunate situation for an OS to cope with – but how does WinXP handle it?

It locks the Explorer filesystem thingy (the application I’d call ‘The Finder’ on a Mac); it never seems to take the hint that the (removable) filesystem has stuffed off and simply will not talk to it. I can bring up the Task Manager and attempt to kill the ‘Not Responding’ Application (disconcertingly called ‘My Computer’). That presents a handy dialogue box offering to send a report to Microsoft about the problem, but will not actually kill the process! ‘Shut Down -> Restart’ causes an endless lock during ‘Logging out’: so far as I can tell, my only option here is to hit the big red switch. Ugh!

Then there’s the entirely random manner in which the beast offers up its ‘shares’ on my LAN… or doesn’t, usually, whatever the (buried, arcane) dialogue boxes say. Not to mention the fact that no amount of persuasion will coerce it into firewalling the Ethernet connection, which as the only active network port is the only one I care about. I suspect it’d be happier if it wasn’t confused by the USB ADSL modem, but since that’s (a.) unplugged and (b.) ‘not installed’ according to Windows XP (despite the tray icon and heap of other stuff), it won’t let me do anything.

So… Windows bitrot. It still happens, it seems. It takes longer than in the days of Win98 – this has been about six months – but eventually even a lightly-used Windows box can render itself unusable, all on its own. Looks like I’ll have to reinstall. Give me strength.