And suddenly, nearly a decade later, a blog appears! Again.

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meta blog because_of_hope

I’m ashamed to say I’ve neglected this domain and site for 9 years. In that time I’ve gone through high school and university in that time. In each period, I’ve attempted putting up blogs, forums, another blog, and other similar nonsense. I did not follow through with whatever resolutions I may have made to keep the site maintained or write down the latest results from my last screwing around with my projects. Basically, for the past 9 years, I don’t really have much to show for it other than being able to rattle off some helpful anecdote from experiences I have never written down here and there.

Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and Science is writing it down.

– Adam Savage, Video

I thought I was conducting Science for the past few years; in reality, I’ve only been really screwing around.

Most of my experiments in the past few years have also ended in spectacular failures. I never wrote about my failures even during the times I had a blog available. This is where my fails turned into an epic fail. I recently watched a TED talk on this and learned that this phenomenon is called research bias. I should not have withheld what I had learned from failing. My memory of my failures only fade away until someone mentioned it and I rattle off some anecdote. This obviously won’t scale and does not do much to help me demonstrate any skills when I can’t even get my foot in the door.

I’m going to change that with the launch of my new site. I’ll be honest here, this is very much a career move. However, it is also a personal one for reasons I’ve outlined above. I can’t let those many hours of screwing around go to waste! Prospective employers and/or clients love to hire people who do Science, not screwing around. And I think this site will fix that.

My new site is designed is designed so much as to be a portfolio and as a blog. My portfolio is small as I have little to show and my blog has a meager amount of posts. As a foundation though, the site is solid and is totally ready to showcase more of my skills.

Because of Hope

I started the project to fix up my personal site in September 2012.

At that time I had heard about this static site generator called nanoc. I had taken down previous versions of this site since I could not be bothered to maintain the PHP beast that is called Wordpress. Also, there was little hope of me hacking on Wordpress to change its default style to something that better demonstrates my skills. Stock Wordpress themes just do not exhibit confidence in web development. Also, learning PHP is just something I’me not too interested in doing. The horror stories of PHP may be FUD, but I’ve experienced and witnessed them myself in a past lifetime. nanoc answers both of these problems. I can hack Ruby and static HTML pages on a server do not have moving parts. nanoc is written in Ruby and generates static HTML pages for uploading onto a server. Compared to a beast like Wordpress, it is also very transparent. The nanoc guys can better explain their kind of product (static site generators) here. I did have a problem in that I had absolutely no experience with nanoc.

In September 2012, I answered a request for help from an organization named Because of Hope at the beginning of my last quarter at UCSB. Because of Hope is an organization that helps children and women in Uganda through sustainable methods. Here’s the email that was sent to the UCSB Computer Science jobs list:

My name is Natalie Lemonnier and I graduated from UCSB in 2011. Since graduating, two of my friends and I have started a nonprofit here in Goleta called Because of Hope (BOH) that is working to empower women in Uganda. I am emailing you because our nonprofit is getting ready to launch a new Student Sponsorship campaign, which will require making some changes to our website, and I was wondering if you knew of anyone (student, faculty or otherwise) who might be interested in helping us make these changes. I am not sure if websites are your area of focus, but I just wanted to contact you and see if you could point us in the direction of someone who might be able to help.

Originally, our friend built our site from scratch. However, he is no long working with us and none of us have any web background to make the necessary changes. I believe that some of the fine-tuning will be relatively easy, while other issues may be more time intensive.

However, because we don’t have web background, we are not really sure of the exact time needed to complete the desired changes. If you or anyone else you know would be interested in volunteering to help us, or would like to learn more about our situation, we would greatly appreciate it.

Because we have only been operational for a year, no one in our organization currently gets paid, so unfortunately it’s not in the budget to pay someone to help us with our website. But we are hoping to find someone who would be understanding of our situation and wiling to help us further our mission! I know UCSB is getting ready to start up, so please feel free to pass on this information to students you think would be willing and able to get involved. Please let us know if anyone comes to mind! Thank you for your time, and please feel free to contact me via phone if that would be at all more convenient for you! (818) 620-8847. Happy Fall Quarter :)

(If you would like to learn more about our organization or view our site, please feel free at http://www.becauseofhope.org.)

Best of Wishes,

Natalie Lemonnier

So, I needed some experience doing a nanoc site, something nice to put on my résumé, and something to satisfy and fulfill the “help poor children in Uganda” request in the Vim text editor. Because of Hope needed someone to maintain their site. With my résumé as sparse as it is, I called up Natalie and offered to help.

I met up with them and took a look at the setup. They had a $20/month VPS to serve one HTML file. The rest of the “pages” were actually linked tumblr posts. I told them upfront I wanted to test out some tools on their problem before I ran with it on my own personal site. In the meantime, I would maintain their current handcrafted site and check out any technical details such as the domain name, Google Apps, or the VPS itself.

I had nanoc chosen out, but what about the rest? I checked out the then-current website’s code and it had some custom 980px grid system. I couldn’t be bothered to try and understand it. I did try to understand it enough to add a donations page that they immediately needed for their upcoming fundraiser.

On the bright side, all the mockups that Nikki Day of BOH did were in Photoshop. They were far more ambitious than what the current site’s current implementation. The custom 980px grid system was not up the the task. In retrospect, it would have been thrown out anyway. I shudder at what beast I would have had to slay if the original plans had gone through.

I chose to use Zurb Foundation. Zurb Foundation is a front-end framework that is far more flexible than many other frameworks out there. This was the the kind of Framework that could handle Nikki’s designs. I would also get free functionality such as drop-down menus, pretty buttons, photo carousel, and first-class support for SCSS, an extension of CSS. Zurb Foundation’s use of SCSS was very instrumental in adapting the design of Zurb Foundation for Nikki’s designs. Compared to its competitor Twitter Bootstrap, there is far more control over elements on the page, especially the buttons. Also, I got a mobile site for free! BOH didn’t even ask for it but it came with it!

Ever since from that time, I’ve been working on BOH’s nanoc site. I learned how to better compose layouts, the Rules DSL of nanoc, and the whole nanoc ecosystem. I was also working with it to integrate Zurb Foundation into the project.

Remember that $20/month VPS? It has since been replaced with Amazon S3. I also tossed in Cloudflare in front. BOH can take on a DDOS attack of the most epic proportions. Why would anyone attack a non-profit is beyond me but the overkill just tickles my funny bone. And the cost is free to near pennies! This is something only a static site can do. As a vote of confidence in S3, NPR used S3 for transferring data in its election app. I’m not saying that BOH will become as big as the presedential election, but it can definitely handle that much traffic if need be and certianly more than a $20/month VPS. Honestly, I’m just glad I don’t have to manage a Linux server to achieve this goal. It’s really upload and forget.

Also, in doing nanoc, I now realize how much of a pain in the ass it is to update the original site. There was so much copy-paste! How do people do all these busy work?

I learned a lot from doing the BOH site and I am continuing to work on it in my spare time. It’s source code is versioned in a Git repository so I can experiment on it all I want. It’s also open source in a GitHub repository. If anybody wants to peruse it and reuse parts of it, they are more than welcome to do so. I plan to keep it in sync with anything that is a nanoc best-practice and update it with new pages.

Mindflakes

Okay, so I’ve helped a non-profit get their site stuff in shape and beyond.

What about my personal site?

Ever since I’ve started the BOH site project, I’ve probably made 3 false starts in creating mindflakes.com. I wager I wasn’t confident enough in my nanoc knowledge in the previous starts. I had given up or I did not have enough time to really sit down and really start work on my site. Also, I was working part time at a local company in the area at this time. I came back home so exhausted from looking through piles of Ruby and Python that I really did not want to put my finger to the keyboard.

Maybe the fourth time was the charm? I didn’t start the mindflakes project this time. What I did instead was start an example/bootstrap project for a blog that used Zurb Foundation and nanoc. I put some of the best-practices I knew into there and learned some more best practices from various sources around the web. I’m especially proud that the project is completely tied to Zurb Foundation as its Javascript is sourced from its gem. There were plenty of Bootstrap examples out there but I believe that Zurb Foundation better fits with the nanoc philosophy in letting power come out in the right places when needed.

By distilling the framework from the content of my site, I was able to work away from any pressure in having a nice site to present. Just having a good framework to build upon is much more gratifying.

Not only that, I now have a free reusable framework that I may be able to reuse for client projects that don’t involve my site. I don’t have to extract magic or best practice out of my site. I can just rebase anything off of the framework with the way I like it. I plan to contribute anything I think is relevant while building my own site back to the framework.

This is my first long blog post since ever. I wrote this to test out this blog. As of this post, Mindflakes.com is still very much out-of-the-box even though I just built the box. I will customize it and make it look pretty enough to really showcase my work over the next few sessions. I’m going to have to decide what to do about images and what to do with the flexibility that Zurb Foundation offers me.

As for what to write, I think I have that settled.