August 25, 2010

Inspiration

I was inspired to re-design my website this summer. I wanted it to be a bit more readable, and I was interested in solving the particularly challenging problem of hosting a unique, dynamic student website. Although most schools give students (and professors for that matter…) a place to host a website, this place is essentially just a location to store static web pages. For most students this is fine, but if you’re interested in hosting a blog in that space most of the tools will require some database backend.

You can use static web design tools like iWeb, but these tools are usually WYSIWYG tools that don’t allow for the level of customization that I wanted. Also, they tend to feel rather cookie-cutter since they often look the same as other student sites.

Another option is to use a static site building tool, like Jekyll. I had first used Jekyll when I built the website for the NCSU Software Engineering Journal Club. Jekyll is a pretty solid solution, but it was designed to be run on untrusted code since it is used by GitHub to build pages from git repositories. It’s a fantastic solution for their needs, but I was looking to try something a little more customizable. Also, I wanted to use this opportunity as a learning experience.

After just a little digging, I found nanoc, which met basically all of my needs. I re-designed and built my site using nanoc, and I am relatively happy with the result. I will likely be tweaking a few things over the next semester, but I’m planning on using nanoc to manage my site for the remainder of my time as a grad student.

What does this mean for you? It means the site will be updated more often, and in the coming days, you’ll be able to add my feed to your favorite feed reader. Since it is much, much easier for me to update the site, and I will be treating it as more of a blog about academia and being a student here at NCSU. (Note: Posts about my research will appear on The Privacy Place.) I’ve always been interested in learning, school, and academia, but now I have a reasonable outlet to discuss it. I don’t know how often I will update this site, but it will certainly be more than I have in the past.

I will leave you with an example of the kind of content you can expect me to talk about. I’ve embedded a video from Matt Ridley at TEDGlobal 2010. This talk focuses on an important fundamental difference between humans and animals: the ability to consciously develop ideas.

At about the 13 minute mark, he briefly mentions something that I’ve thought about since I was rather young. I’ll call it “The Desert Island Scenario.” I was bored in class a lot, and I used to motivate myself by imagining that I was preparing to be stranded on a desert island with absolutely nothing but the knowledge in my brain. What parts of my current class could I re-construct from memory? Would I be able to write a new definitive text on whatever subject it was if all I had was my memory to go on? Another version of this daydream is “The Time Machine Scenario” in which you magically go back in time before the invention of some technology. Do you know enough about that technology to have invented it in a world where no-one knew anything about it? When I went to college at Purdue, I became interested in learning how to build a computer from scratch based in no small part on this daydream. I’ve always found it fun to think about these things, and I have no idea why.