Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, I’m delighted to announce that I’ve just completed a complete re-write of the site. I figured I’d talk a bit about the redesign, about the backend, and about the future of Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in general. First, a little story.

The Times are a’changin

As some of you may know, a long time ago, I invested twice in TextDrive, which was later bought out by Joyent, a major player in the cloud computing game. All early investors were promised “lifetime” hosting, “as long as Joyent exists”, and as such, Linguistic Mystic (as well as several other sites I maintain for myself, friends, and family) had reasonable hosting for the forseeable future.

Well, all good things must end, and, much to the shock of all of us early investors, Joyent recently informed us that our “lifetime” ends in October. The TextDrive/Joyent community erupted into turmoil and strife, with people feeling equal parts shocked and betrayed, with Jason Hoffman (the current head of Joyent and old head of TextDrive) taking the worst of it. And, to be fair, Jason actually waded into the melee, offering refunds to customers, offering sympathy to the displaced, and being as compassionate as the initial announcement felt heartless. I suspect that in hindsight looking back at all this, we lifetimers will be looking at Jason not as the antagonist here, but as one of our best allies. But I’m just guessing at this point.

Ultimately, though, the future of us lifetimers is still unclear, and although there are some very interesting ideas on the horizon (including a possible resurrection of TextDrive under the old leadership), practically speaking, this meant I had to find some new hosting, quickly, before the semester starts (tomorrow!).

Migration via Ambulance

Before all this happened, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic hadn’t had much love in the last few years. I had applied critical updates, approved new comments, and even added a post here and there, but behind the scenes, the blog was sick. The site had been running on the same (heavily patched) install of Wordpress since 2006, the theme (although pretty) was something I’d cobbled together poorly, and it still relied on plugins which were antique at best, abandoned at worst. Even the “New Post” box didn’t work properly, and constantly forced a mix of WYSIWYG editing and HTML, so posting itself was a frustrating process.

So, given that the site was limping along at home, when I moved the site over to my new hosting company (Dreamhost), I expected trouble, and trouble I found. Upon migrating the data using Wordpress’s Export and Import functions, many posts had new formatting issues, I lost all of my Blogroll Links (although that issue is fixable), and for whatever reason, every single image link through all 141 posts suddenly had an “11” appended to the filename.

I fixed it. Well, more accurately, I duct-taped it. I decided to abandon my blogroll (which was largely duplicated here and here), I went through most of the posts to fix the issues, and rather than fixing the link’s in Wordpress’ editor, I created copies of every uploaded file which had an “11” at the end of the filename. I felt particularly dirty about that last one. But I got it working.

Unfortunately, though, nothing was improved, I’d just succeeded it moving a sick patient to a different hospital.

Inspiration at a Wake

The strangest things can provide inspiration. For me, it was the re-emergence of Dean, the original founder of TextDrive, in the whole End-of-Lifetime discussion, and the mention, however fleeting, of a new TextDrive incarnation. The community that Dean founded seemed to attract not just people who needed hosting, but people who gave a damn about web design, writing, and blogging. There was a forum where you could post your designs and people would comment, good and bad, and where you’d see really inspired stuff on a regular basis. I’m a linguist first, but hanging out around there made me want to keep up my web-design game, just so I could run at the heels of the big boys there. This is the thing I miss most about Textdrive’s fading away, and is the reason I’d invest again in a heartbeat if it came back up.

For a long time, there had been a diaspora from TextDrive. I still kept up with some people on Twitter, but the forums were dead. The community was scattered. The people who inspired me off chasing the four winds. But the unraveling of the hosting, the last thread that kept us all together, brought us back. The forum thread discussing the End-of-Lifetime was like the funeral of a much-loved matriarch. Everybody’s grateful to be in the same room with so many friends, but everybody wishes it was for another reason. But still, seeing these familiar faces brought old memories, and brought new inspiration to make this site (particularly) something that didn’t just limp, but something I was proud of.

So I did.

Moving to Jekyll

Wordpress is wonderful software, and for many years, it was exactly what I needed. It makes publishing on the web easy. Installing it is easy. Managing comments is easy (if you’re using Akismet). Wordpress takes care of everything for you. But the flawed transition and aging install reminded me of the other side of that coin: If you’re wholly dependent on anything, when it starts fading, you fade with it. So, I knew I could either start over from scratch with Wordpress, clean all the cruft out, write a new theme, and move my posts back in, or I could try something crazy.

I’d heard of Jekyll before, but never seriously considered it until one of my Textdrive friends mentioned he’d been toying around with it. It’s not so much a blogging engine as a site generator, and it runs only on your computer, never on the server. Basically, Jekyll takes specially formatted files on your local machine and turns those files into a static website, which you then copy onto the server. So, on the server, you just have HTML files, stylesheets, and images. No fancy PHP, no databases, and, as a result, no real security issues. Most attractively of all, to somebody who recently fought through a server migration gone wrong, migrating your site to a new server is just a question of generating the site files again and putting them on the new server. But Jekyll’s not for the faint of heart, as you’re making everything from scratch. It’s just a program, your site is your own. Wordpress holds your hand through the entire process, but Jekyll just claps you on the back and says “Godspeed”.

Hyde is in the details

I initially thought I might just try Jekyll for a smaller blog, a personal blog, but after experimenting, I decided that I really liked the idea behind it, and I figured that migrating a 141 post Wordpress blog to Jekyll, while swearing to keep it both pretty and functional, is just the kind of crazy that I could be proud of, and that could bring this blog back to a new health. So, I did.

I used my original export of my Wordpress blog (from the old server, pre-migration) and plugged it into exitwp, which did the heavy lifting of converting posts to files, maintaining categories for those posts, and even doing a first-pass markdown conversion. I also used Jekyll Bootstrap to save myself some time in formatting and getting comments up. Finally, I exported all my comments from the old site into Disqus, hoping I’d be able to link them to my new blog eventually, but fully aware that I might lose them forever (and, in fact, as I write this, I’m still waiting for the migration to complete so I can find out).

After setting up the base site, I moved into the grind. In order to make this transition, I had to go through and manually check and repair the markdown syntax for every single post. Given that formatting was among the many problems the old blog had, this was a necessary evil, and an exceptionally evil one. While I did that, I repaired old links, changed image paths, and pruned here and there. Then I fired up CSSEdit (which I still have a license to) and went to town on the base Jekyll-bootstrap theme. Then I tweaked stuff. Then tweaked more stuff. Then more still. I added category views, Disqus integration, a sidebar, pages, a list-home page. All this, eventually leading to what you see now.

And I had a bunch of fun doing it.

What is this site?

The site is now up, running, and faster than ever on Jekyll. But more important than the backend is the writing, because a fast and pretty blog which is never used is little more than a year-old calendar. As I re-did everything on the technical end, I still felt something was lacking in the content, in the very soul of the site. And I wanted to fix that too.

In the last few years, I’d come to look at this site as a teaching site, as a place for pure linguistics instruction. I split off my non-language-related posts into another URL (, and even then, wanted to bring them further away, and felt like even with a popular blog (still around 30,000 hits/month), I had no place to speak.

So, I looked around at the people whose blogs I’m grateful for, and whose work I admire. Sites like Bruce Schneier’s Schneier on Security, John Gruber’s DaringFireball, Arnold Zwicky’s Blog and John Wells’ Phonetic Blog are all wonderful to read, and well deserving of a spot in your RSS feed.

Looking at that list, I realized that none of those blogs are explicitly “instructional” or meant for teaching. Instead, they’re personal blogs maintained by interesting people who are so involved in their fields that, by reading their thoughts and musings, even about things which are “off topic” for the blog itself, you can’t help but learn something.

That’s what I want to do with this site.

Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, allow me to reintroduce myself. I’m Will, the Linguistic Mystic, a Ph.D student in Linguistics from Colorado, in the USA. I hope you’ve enjoyed what I’ve written in the past, and I hope you’ll continue to enjoy what I write in the future. This site will be my voice, both about language and about computers, technology, and the world in general. I’ve merged all my non-linguistic posts back in, so is gone, and it’s all one big, happy site. You’re welcome to contact me if you have any questions, concerns, or comments, and as always, commenting is open.

So, thanks for reading, and welcome to Notes from a Linguistic Mystic.

Have a question, comment, or concern about this post? Contact me!