Posts from 2017

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Announcing lazymention: elegant outbound Webmention for static sites

This post also appeared on IndieNews.

Last night I hit publish on version 1.0.0 of a new project, lazymention! Whoohoo!

tl;dr: lazymention exists to add Webmention support to static sites!

To elaborate a little bit, I developed lazymention because I had a problem with this site: I wanted to send outbound Webmentions when I link to things, but my website is completely static. (Webmention, in case you didn't know, is a way to notify another website that you linked to them, so the other website can display some UI about your reply or whatever.) The page builds happen on my local machine, not on the server. One option would be to just send Webmentions from my local machine too, but this isn't really a good solution for a couple reasons. First, I couldn't do it automatically at build-time because the built pages wouldn't have been deployed to the server yet, so receivers of my Webmentions would reject the mentions due to the source being nonexistant. That meant that I would have to have a separate step, which wouldn't really be that big of a deal (lazymention requires pinging a server too) except for the second reason: I would need some way to keep track of where I'd already sent Webmentions to, and that would require synchronizing across computers. Probably the only decent way to do that would be to check it into Git, but having a program's data store checked in right next to the source code just feels kinda ugly. Plus, then it can't be shared with other people as a service.

So instead of doing it locally, I elected to build a server instead. Here's how it works: you mark up your stuff with h-feed and h-entry, and whenever anything happens (e.g. you publish a new blog post or whatever), you ping lazymention with the URL (either the feed or the post itself). lazymention will use your microformats2 markup to find the canonical location for a given post, then it will find all the links in the post and send Webmentions for them. And presto! You've just sent Webmentions for your blog. lazymention also records when it's sent mentions, so if you ping it again, nothing will happen unless you've updated your content. I'm also planning to add WebSub support to lazymention, too, and that'll work in the exact same way.

lazymention is super easy to get started with, especially because I've provided thorough documentation in the README. If you find anything that's confusing or missing, please let me know by filing an issue! I'd love to get it fixed. In fact, I'd be thrilled to hear about both positive and negative installation experiences.

Oh, and one more thing - lazymention is reusable in other applications. If you're writing a Node.js app and want to reuse its HTTP API, you can use its embedding API to get at the Express application and Router used internally. I'm not sure if people will actually find this useful, but I wrote it just for kicks anyway. See the embedding documentation for more!

Cheers, and happy mentioning! Elegant outbound Webmention for static sites is here.

Shell script is one of the purest forms of human expression

While I was at the Recurse Center, I came up with an interesting theory, and today I thought I'd finally formally write about it on my blog. Here it is: shell script is one of the purest forms of human expression, at least as far as technology is concerned.

Why? Well, shell script is this weird mix of actual programming language things and macro expansions, and even the programming things tend to be... odd, to put it politely. As a trivial example, did you know that this:

$ echo {1..10}

results in this output:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Shell scripts[1] know how to expand number sequences; it's just built-in to them. Variables work with substitution too, and you can even build commands with them:

$PAGER longfile.txt

The key thing to note here is that the second line is replacing $PAGER with the literal text less, and then running the resulting command line. The "variable access" is basically just an inline macro expansion, and the shell doesn't really handle it very intelligently. (This is also why you often need to quote variables when you access them - if they have whitespace in them, the shell will interpret the variable as more than one word.)

Or take the type system of the shell: it has none[2]. For example, what does 0 mean? It could represent any one of these things:

  1. The number 0
  2. The string "0"
  3. A binary we're invoking (well, trying to invoke) called 0
  4. An argument to a binary
  5. File descriptor 0 (stdin)
  6. A file named 0

All of these things combine to make the shell incredibly flexible and powerful - you can often express a lot in shell script with very little characters by writing "macros" in the right way.

It's also what makes shell such a god-awful programming language.

Think about it - as programmers, much of what we do seeks to impose order on our systems. We lint our code and run it through style checkers. I personally like to turn up my linter settings to maximum. And we use the concept of types to help organize our code - sure, there's disagreement on how much order types should impose, but we all pretty much agree that there should be some concept of types and type safety. Hell, for the languages whose type systems are basically "wtf are types", we make tools to impose additional safety on top of that - take TypeScript and Flow, for example. We also love to (hate to) write tests to ensure that our code fulfills some interface or behavior contract. (Even the idea of an interface seeks to organize and compartmentalize complexity in the system.)

Humans are inherently messy. We're scatterbrained and easily distracted, and our thoughts (or at least, my thoughts) tend to jump all over the place. Shell script is an amazing way to express your ideas because it lets you get directly to the goal so quickly, in a way that matches that messiness that defines us as a species. But since so much of our work as programmers is about trying to counteract our messiness, shell script is a terrible way to write real programs, for the exact. Same. Reason.


[1]: Those written in bash, at least.

[2]: Note that this is different from having a type system of "wtf are types?? wat" - JavaScript is a good example of a language with such a type system, as is (to my understanding) PHP. The shell, on the other hand, has no type system at all.

Winter break priorities, 2017-18

So I just wanted to write something up real fast to document my development priorities over my upcoming winter break (which starts tomorrow, whoohoo!). This is just generally useful to have, because I'm forgetful, but will also help keep me accountable since the list is public.

So, here are the projects I want to get done, in rough order of priority:

  1. Polish up an outstanding Node.js Pull Request that automatically generates manpages for every module shipped with Node core
  2. Deal with GPG key signing which I have been procrasinating on for, well, years now
  3. Push some Debian packaging work forward (I've done some work to get the Profanity packaging up-to-date, and I want to get filter-other-days into Debian as well)
  4. Finish up v1 of lazymention - high-priority since it's so close to being done!
  5. Finally push through and implement ActivityPub in core
  6. Clear the backlog of PRs sent to

I also am setting a goal of writing at least two blog posts per week, and I want to try to get some editing done on a paper I'm planning to try to get published (though I'm not sure if I'll end up doing this, honestly).

That seems like a lot, honestly, and yet I feel like I must have missed something - I will update this list if I think of anything else!

Cheers, and happy holidays everyone! \o/ 5.1 is in beta

I'm really excited to announce that 5.1 is officially in beta!

This release makes a wide array of improvements. One of the features I'm most excited about is zero-downtime restarts, which will allow administrators to gracefully roll over to new configurations and codebases with absolutely no user-visible impact! Aside from that, here's a list of highlights:

  • The daemon now generates startup log warnings on bad configurations, including insecure secret values and internal parameters
  • An official Dockerfile is now included with the release
  • The logged-out mobile homepage's menu icon is no longer incorrectly styled as black
  • SockJS connections no longer fail due to authorization problems

As usual, this release also includes some small updates to dependencies. Plus, we started tracking how much code our test suite covers! We've also significantly cleaned up the documentation and moved almost all of the in-repository documentation to ReadTheDocs, where it's a lot more organized and accessible. If you want more than just these highlights, you can check out the changelog.

Note that while the repository includes a Dockerfile now, we have not yet begun publishing on Docker Hub due to some security logistics that need to be figured out - when we do, it'll be announced in all the usual places (including this blog).

I'm so excited for people to try out this release. 5.1 beta 0 is a drop-in replacement for 5.0, so if you're on 5.0 and want to live (more) on the bleeding edge, you can upgrade with npm install -g if you have an npm-based install. If you have a source-based install, you should merge and/or switch to the v5.1.0-beta.0 tag. And as always, if you encounter any problems you can reach out to the community or file bugs you find.

Webmention test post

Once again I need to test whether lazymention - and more importantly, the underlying libraries (node-send-webmention and node-get-webmention-url) - complies with the W3C spec. I'll be using, so, here's a large list of links:

Test 1, Test 2, Test 3, Test 4, Test 5, Test 6, Test 7, Test 8, Test 9, Test 10, Test 11, Test 12, Test 13, Test 14, Test 15, Test 16, Test 17, Test 18, Test 19, Test 20, Test 21, Test 22, Test 23

Hopefully it works \o/