jelford's blog

Building a better blog: organising output

In the last entry, I walked through using a simple make-file to generate the HTML for a simple blog - it will convert a collection of markdown files into HTML snippets, then concatenate them into a single "blog" page.

In this entry, we'll build on that by managing multiple entries more in a nicer way:

Faster feedback

See it in a browser

First, let's get ourselves set up with a fast feedback loop. We'd like to see fully-rendered output, as it'll look to readers, in a browser, immediately as we make updates.

We can open up out rendered output in a web browser easily enough:

firefox ./blog.html

... but most browsers will behave a little differently when we view file:/// URLs compared to if they were on the web. We can get the "real thing" without much extra hassle though:

python3 -m http.server --bind

will run a simple http server that serves up the current working directory. The --bind on the end instructs it to only listen for connections from localhost - it's not much, but it's probably best not to open up a socket to the whole world if we don't have to. If you're using an older version of python you can do:

python2 -m SimpleHTTPServer

Make all the time

If we were building a JavaScript app, we'd probably have set up a file watch by now. We should do that here:

watch make

That'll run make every couple of seconds. It's not as event-driven as we might be used to from inotify-type file watching, but it'll do us. Now, every time we save a file, we should see the update in our browsers as soon as we refresh.

See it straight away

One last thing: while we're working on things, let's just have our browser auto-refresh the page.

We'll put this in the <head> of our HTML:

<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="5" >

So our final make step now looks like this:

blog.html : $(blog_objects) 
    echo '<html><head><link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="style.css" ><meta http-equiv="refresh" content="2" ></head><body>' > blog.html 
    cat $(blog_objects) >> blog.html 
    echo '</body></html>' >> blog.html

Now, nobody like pages that auto-refresh while they're looking at them, so I'd like to take this out before pushing anything up, but there are a couple of things that mean it wouldn't be the worst thing ever if we forget:

Which is kind of nice...

Move our compilation into a script

I don't like writing raw bash (or makefiles, for that matter) any more than the next person. Let's move our bash step into a separate script:

blog.html : $(blog_objects)
    ./compile_blog $(blog_objects)

--- ./compile_blog ---
#! /usr/bin/env sh
echo '<html><head><link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="style.css" ><meta http-equiv="refresh" content="2" ></head><body>' > blog.html 
cat $@ >> blog.html 
echo '</body></html>' >> blog.html

Phew. That's better. Okay, now let's move to using a nicer language than sh for manipulating files. We'll use python, since that's what I like.

#! /usr/bin/env python3

import argparse
import sys

def parse_args(args):
    parser = argparse.ArgumentParser(description='Combine blog posts into a single page')
    parser.add_argument('output_file', type=argparse.FileType('w'))
    parser.add_argument('input_files', nargs=argparse.REMAINDER)

    args = parser.parse_args(sys.argv[1:])
    return args.output_file, args.input_files

if __name__ == '__main__':
    output_file, input_files = parse_args(sys.argv[1:])
    output_file.write('<html><head><link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="style.css" ><meta http-equiv="refresh" content="2" ></head><body>')

    for entry_path in input_files:
        with open(entry_path, 'r') as blog_entry:


Finally, let's make it so that our main page re-compiles any time we make changes to its build script:

blog.html : $(blog_objects) compile_blog

Ordering our blog posts

Now we're in proper programming land, we can start to be more sophisticated with how we work with our files.

Let's start by moving them into some sort of very basic domain model:

class BlogPost():
    def __init__(self, file_path):
        self.file_path = file_path

    def content(self):
        with open(self.file_path, 'r') as f:

def compile(output_file, blog_posts):
    output_file.write('<html><head><link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="style.css" ><meta http-equiv="refresh" content="2" ></head><body>')

    for b in blog_posts:


def compile_files(output_file, input_paths):
    compile(output_file, (BlogPost(p) for p in input_paths))

if __name__ == '__main__':

Now we've got a model, we can sort the blog posts by the details - in this case, I want the time the file was create (or, added to git, as a reasonable proxy, since I want it to survive renamed, checkouts elsewhere, that sort of thing).

import subprocess
import datetime
import timezone

class BlogPost():
    def timestamp(self):
        timestamp = subprocess.check_output(['git', 'log', '--diff-filter=A', '--pretty=%aD' , '--', self.file_path]).decode().strip()
        return datetime.strptime(timestamp, '%a, %d %b %Y %H:%M:%S %z') if timestamp \
            else # if the file's not yet in git


def compile(...):
    for b in reversed(sorted(blog_posts, key=lambda b: b.timestamp())):

Finally, let's put something around each post, so it's easier to see when one post stops and the next one starts:

def compile(...):
    for b in ...
        output_file.write('<section class="blog_post">')

And we'll put something in style.css to make that visible:

section.blog_post {
    border-top: 1px solid grey;