Launching, my new blogdown-based website

I created my first personal website in 2006 using Google Sites. This served me well enough for relatively static content but didn’t really suit me for more involved content like blog posts of technical analyses. Eventually I got rather behind in updating it, so now that site is quite out of date.

Web technology has moved on since 2006. In particular, the R blogdown package has been released to simplify construction of websites, especially technical blogging based on R analyses.

This post (the first on my new site) describes the set-up process I went through.

I’m not really interested in the technical aspects of website construction. I would rather spend my time building models or doing research. So the challenge is to see how much I can achieve while knowing as little as possible about websites.

I wanted a personal domain name rather than something generic, so a quick search for “how to register a domain name” found me helpful information like this. I ended up registering my domain names through namecheap. Parting with the money was quick and painless. Deciding on the domain names and which options to include took more time.

Configuring my email service provider and the namecheap Domain Name Servers to play nicely together so that I could have an email address in my own domain was straight-forward but long-winded. The email provider and namecheap both provided step by step guides that inevitably used slightly different terminology and screenshots that didn’t quite agree with the current releases of their software. So most of the time was spent interpreting the instructions and confirming that things were actually working as intended.

Any recent user of R has very likely come across RMarkdown, a simple markup language that allows executable R code to be embedded in formatted documents. This is a central part of my analytical workflow, so I was keen to have a website and blogging platform that supports RMarkdown documents. blogdown is an R package that adds an RMarkdown compatibility layer on top of a range of pre-existing, R-unaware, static web-site generators.

The distinguishing feature of static web-sites is that all the content is rendered in advance to static HTML files. This contrasts with dynamic websites, where the page content is generated on-the-fly (e.g. as the result of a web search). This makes a static website very simple from an infrastructure point of view. It is only a collection of files, whereas dynamic websites require databases and application servers to generate and render the content as it is required.

A blogdown website requires three major software components: blogdown, a theme, and a site generator.

The site generator I use is hugo. This takes a set of files specifying the desired content of the website and renders it to the set of HTML files that constitute the website.

The theme I use is Academic. A theme is essentially a set of templates that allows you to specify your desired content in such a way that a style is consistently applied to the content.

Finally, blogdown is a package of R functions to translate RMarkdown documents to a form that is compatible with the theme and site generator. It also has convenience functions that set up the website so you don’t have to learn how to do that directly with the theme and site generator.

There is good help online for using blogdown. For example, there is a book and tutorials like this and this.

The claim is that you can get a website up and running in ten minutes. This is true, you can get a pre-built example website up and running in ten minutes. Putting in your own content is another matter.

Adding content that falls in the categories provided by the Academic theme is straight-forward, if a bit tedious because it’s completely manual. For example, entering 3 or 4 publications by hand is fine, but 30 or 40 would exceed my patience threshold. Luckily everything in this system is mediated via files, so in principle you should be able to automate this. A quick web search finds a blog post showing some simple R functions for exporting from a reference manager to the publication format required by the Academic theme.

If you are not happy with the formatting provided by your chosen theme then you will have to wade into the internal details of the theme, hugo, and the nitty-gritty of web-page technology. The issue here is that in order to be sufficiently flexible both hugo and the theme effectively expose programming languages. So the various templates and other files that you need to fill in and modify are really programs that you are writing and can break in all the ways that programs do.

Also, because you have blogdown, the theme, and the site generator as components of the system there are more places for things to go wrong and error messages can come from any part of the system without having a global view of what is going on. Also, these are young software, so they are not uniformly hardened against user errors. In my experience they worked fine when set up correctly, but broke in unexpected ways when I failed to set them up correctly. As someone attempting to set up a website with approximately zero knowledge of what I was doing, making mistakes was my default mode.

I managed to spend a frustrating few days trying to track down why my website was not rendering. This turned out to be a consequence of a bug in the user interface I used (which meant that blogdown error messages were not displayed), combined with a bug in Academic theme that made it vulnerable to configuration errors, combined with my misunderstanding of the syntax of a configuration file. The details are on stack overflow if you’re interested. The maintainers of the various components are very responsive and helpful, but the lesson I took from this is that it’s easy accidentally wander into the weeds.

All the process so far was carried out on my local computer. I used git to version-control the source documents of the website. My local git repository is replicated on GitHub. From there the website is easily deployed onto netlify. Instructions for deploying a blogdown website from GitHub to netlify can be found here and here.

Overall, the process of setting up this site has been not as painless as I (unrealistically) hoped, but massively less painful than it easily might have been. I hope this post helps someone who is contemplating setting up a website with blogdown. Future posts will be less about the infrastructure and more about my main interests in credit scoring and cognitive science.