Blogging on GitHub

GitHub has a “built-in” simple content management system called Jekyll. It’s unobtrusive; you can put ordinary HTML files in your webspace and they will be served unchanged, or you can create Jekyll files, which are text files that start with a header block that the Jekyll documentation calls “front matter” (a phrase that the documentation uses as if everyone knows what it means already). Among other things, Jekyll allows you to write web pages and blog posts in Markdown. And since it’s GitHub, you won’t be surprised to learn that your web space is version-controlled with Git, which means that you can update your web site with an ordinary Git push.

The way GitHub decided to organize its web space is unusual; it’s based on an “orphan branch” within the same repository as your project, which is basically a “parallel universe” within the same, well, universe as the repo you already have. This means that you typically have to clone your repository twice on the same PC, once for your code and again for your web site, but you are storing two copies of the complete history of both “halves” of your repo. That is weird to me. (In theory you only need one clone of your repo, but then git would have to delete your entire source tree whenever you want to edit your web site. Unsettling, no? Why can’t I just have the web site in a subfolder, let’s say, /www in master?)

They recommend installing Jekyll on your local computer to be able to preview your web site, but installing Jekyll on Windows was a pain in the ass. The Jekyll gem normally fails to install; you have to install something called Ruby Installer DevKit first. Here’s a hint, because it took me awhile to find the download link to this thing. It turns out that the DevKit download link is on this page underneath the download links for the Ruby Installer for Windows, under the heading “Development Kit”. Later I found instructions for installing Jekyll on Windows. But then I had problems with “yajl” and “wdm” on two different PCs (see sidebar) and one of the PCs still can’t run github’s (old) version of Jekyll.

Anyway, see GitHub’s official install instructions.

The documentation of Jekyll is backwards. The introductory pages give you all the minor details first; the key information comes later. For example, it isn’t until the eighth section that they finally tell you how to add a blog post. But that’s not enough of course, you also need to know how to create a “main page” for your blog and a “history page”, and all they provide at first is an incomplete template for part of a history page. Plus, any good web site should have category links on every page (e.g. Main Page, Blog, Documentation, Code) but they don’t give you any clues about setting that up until way down deep in the docs. What about styling & theming? In the docs, I haven’t seen anything about that yet.

Instead, it appears that a much better way to get started with Jekyll is to use Jekyll Bootstrap. The Quick Start page tells you exactly how to set it up, and it does a better job explaining what Jekyll is and how it works than the Jekyll documentation. Then ‘Using Themes’ tells you how to set a theme (because the default theme is … well, it has big red headings! Not my cup of tea), and once you’ve worked out those two things you can pretty much start blogging in your site’s _posts folder.

Another source of themes is this web site. Although these other themes aren’t designed to work within the Jekyll Bootstrap framework, if you’re familiar with the building blocks of the web (HTML/CSS) and Jekyll (basically just a bunch of code snippets in a folder with “front matter”), you should be able to figure out how to install one of those themes.

But there’s another framework for theming Jekyll called Poole and the two available themes not only look good, they scale very well to various browser sizes. Mobile? Check. I found out about Poole through a helpful blog post by Joshua Lande.

So once you figure out how to install Jekyll and a theme and you’ve written a dummy blog post and/or web page, you’ll want to preview it, and that means running Jekyll. My Jekyll site is in a Loyc-web folder on my PC and I want to create the preview web site output in a Loyc-preview folder. So I make a batch file (shell script) alongside the Loyc-web folder that contains this command:

jekyll serve --drafts --watch --source Loyc-web --destination Loyc-preview

serve (rather than build) causes it to serve the preview at http://localhost:4000, --drafts asks Jekyll to render unpublished drafts as if they were published, and --watch causes the preview to be automatically updated in response to changes (this works on one of my PCs but not another, I don’t know why). The default --destination is _site within the source folder. And don’t name your batch file jekyll.bat like I did. You won’t like the result…

Once I’m happy with my web site, I push to GitHub and I’m live!

Syntax highlighting fails

On Windows you need a bunch of extra install steps to install “pygments” in order to support syntax highlighting with the widest number of languages, but it’s easier to use “Rouge” instead. I have found that if you have neither Pygments nor Rouge installed, Jekyll will crash with a strange message when it encounters a page that requests syntax highlighting:

Liquid Exception: cannot load such file -- yajl/2.0/yajl in _posts/
C:/Dev/Ruby200/lib/ruby/2.0.0/rubygems/core_ext/kernel_require.rb:55:in `require': 
cannot load such file -- yajl/2.0/yajl (LoadError)

No, Jekyll isn’t good at error messages. To solve this quickly,

  1. Install Rouge: gem install rouge
  2. Remove the pigments option from your _config.yml, if there is one
  3. Add this option: highlighter: rouge
  4. If applicable, restart jekyll serve whenever you change _config.yml

To create code blocks, Jekyll recommends the use of {%...%} blocks like this:

{% highlight cpp %}
// Code
{% endhighlight %}

But this, of course, is not standard Markdown code. I want to write my posts in the language of Markdown, not Jekyll; I should be able to use a standard “fence” instead:

// Code

But by default, syntax highlighting is not supported in fences. To enable this feature, change your Markdown parser from “kramdown” to “redcarpet” by setting the markdown option in _config.yml:

markdown: redcarpet

The names you have to use on the fence tend to be longer than just file extensions. For example, ~~~cs is not recognized as C#, you have to use ~~~csharp, and ~~~yml isn’t recognized as .yml, you have to use ~~~yaml. Use ~~~text to ensure that no language auto-detection occurs (GitHub’s old version of Jekyll doesn’t do that, though.)

Unfortunately, redcarpet and kramdown have different sets of advanced features. Kramdown seems more flexible to me, but redcarpet appears to be The Standard GitHub Flavored Markdown.

Update: As of 2016, GitHub is dropping redcarpet in favor of kramdown. They sent me this warning: “You are currently using the ‘redcarpet’ Markdown engine, which will not be supported on GitHub Pages after May 1st. At that time, your site will use ‘kramdown’ for markdown rendering instead.”

Update: As of August 1, 2014, commiting a _config.yml that uses rouge now causes “Page build failure” on GitHub with a misleading error message like “The file _posts/ contains syntax errors.” Before you commit & push, you must set highlighter: pygments in _config.yml, even if you don’t care to install pygments locally.

ProTip: Jekyll won’t easily let you write the literal character combination {​% or {​{, not even inside code blocks. You could write {​{ "{​%" }} or {​{ "{​{" }} instead, but if you are not intending to use Liquid (Jekyll’s templating engine), a better option is to wrap the entire page in {​% raw %} ... {​% endraw %}, after the front-matter. 2017 Update: raw/endraw are now somehow buggy; Jekyll 3.5.2 can no longer handle a paragraph like this one, and GitHub’s internal copy of Jekyll tends to email you an error if you wrap an entire document in {​% raw %}. As a last resort I’ve used the zero-width space U+200B in {​% and {​{ to make Jekyll ignore it. This is bad, of course, as a user that copies the text will unknowingly pick up a zero-width space.

How I set up this site

I decided to use the Poole-based “Hyde” theme, so I downloaded from GitHub. The provided Usage instructions are a bit confusing and incomplete so I wrote this in case it helps. I added the prefix “(Hyde)” on issues that only apply to Poole or Hyde.

  1. Earlier I generated my index.html using GitHub’s “Automatic Page Generator”. This thing generates not just index.html but a bunch of css files and images and javascript files, plus a file in the root directory called params.json which contains a description of the content you provided for index.html, including the page text. Since “Hyde” uses a different folder structure than the “Automatic Page Generator” and doesn’t share any of the same css, I thought I would confuse myself if I kept both… so I deleted all of GitHub’s generated stuff, such as the css folder, the images folder, params.json (which had the same content as my README anyhow), _includes/header.html, _includes/footer.html, and index.html itself.

  2. (Hyde) After unzipping I copied most of its contents over my gh-pages working copy, excluding .gitignore, _config.yml,, CNAME,, (lest it be confused with the license of my site content), and the _posts folder.

  3. (Hyde) Hyde expects the following options to exist in _config.yml:

     title: "Project Name"         # shown in large text
     description: "Blah blah blah" # shown under the title
     tagline: "Blah blah blah"     # shown in title bar beside the title
     version: "1.2.3"              # "Currently v1.2.3"
     url:     ""    # Used by the Atom feed
     baseurl: ""                   # URL of site relative to domain
       repo: # "GitHub project" link on sidebar

    Other themes also use title, description, baseurl and possibly other options. Here are some settings recognized by Jekyll itself that you should probably also have:

     # Jekyll settings:
     markdown: redcarpet
     encoding: UTF-8                
     highlighter: pygments          # rouge now causes Page Build Failure on GitHub
     paginate: 10                   # blog posts per page
     paginate_path: "blog/page:num" # optional, see below
     safe: true
     lsi: false
  4. (Hyde) The baseurl option is a problem if you want it to refer to the root of the domain. The Jekyll documentation implies you should use “” in this case, and offers sample code that doesn’t work correctly with “/”; for example, this code is in the Jekyll site template (Ruby200\lib\ruby\gems\2.0.0\gems\jekyll-2.1.0\lib\site_template):

     <ul class="posts">
       {% for post in site.posts %}
          <span class="post-date">{{ | date: "%b %-d, %Y" }}</span>
           <a class="post-link" href="{{ post.url | prepend: site.baseurl }}">{{ post.title }}</a>
       {% endfor %}

    For some reason this produces bogus links if baseurl is “/”. But Hyde will break if you use “/” because it uses raw concatenation in /_includes/head.html:

     <link rel="stylesheet" href="{{ site.baseurl }}public/css/poole.css">
     <link rel="stylesheet" href="{{ site.baseurl }}public/css/syntax.css">
     <link rel="stylesheet" href="{{ site.baseurl }}public/css/hyde.css">

    Note that a slash is needed before ‘public’. To fix this I changed all instances of {{ site.baseurl }} to {{ site.baseurl }}/ in all of Hyde’s HTML files (be sure to replace all of them!)

    Perhaps the same problem would arise if you are not at the root of the domain; i.e. if your web space is at In that case Jekyll wants baseurl to be projectname while Hyde expects projectname/.

  5. By default, the home page (index.html) just shows your blog posts, in full, in chronological order. I didn’t want the blog to be the home page so I renamed index.html to blog.html (giving it the front-matter layout: page and title: Blog), but this caused all the blog posts to disappear! Jekyll has a bizarre limitation here: you are only allowed to show your blog on a single page, and that page must be named index.html. However, you can use /blog/index.html instead if you add the line paginate_path: "blog/page:num" to _config.yml.

  6. (Hyde) By default, the sidebar lists all pages that use the layout: page option in their front-matter (in _includes/sidebar.html you can see the for-loop that does this), and the title: ... option is used as the link text. After that there is a “Download” link, a “GitHub project” link, and a version number. I did not want the “Download” link, or the version number, or “All Rights Reserved”, so I removed those parts from _includes/sidebar.html. Of course, if you don’t like how the links are auto-generated, you can change the code to suit you.

  7. I created and put some content in it:

     layout: default
     title: Home
     # Welcome!
     This is the home page!
  8. I added my .sidebox class to sidebar.html (see Using custom CSS below)

  9. (Hyde) I switched to a different preset color scheme by changing <body> to <body class="theme-base-0d"> in /_layouts/default.html.

  10. (Hyde) I edited /public/css/hyde.css to adjust the theme to my liking. In particular I reduced the various margin-left and margin-right values, shrunk the font a little, and tweaked the sidebar color. Since this blog contains code (and what GitHub blog doesn’t?) wide margins would cause scroll bars or wrapping on every code snippet, and we don’t want that.

  11. At the top of the blog I made a “List of all posts” link, which goes to blog-list.html:

    layout: default
    title: Blog index
    <h1>Blog index</h1>
    <div class="home">
      <ul class="posts">
        {% for post in site.posts %}
            <span>{{ | date: "%b %-d, %Y" }}</span>:
            <a class="post-link" href="{{ post.url | prepend: site.baseurl }}">{{ post.title }}</a>
        {% endfor %}
      <p class="rss-subscribe">subscribe <a href="{{ "atom.xml" | prepend: site.baseurl }}">via Atom</a></p>
  12. (Hyde) if you have enough blog posts to cause pagination, Hyde shows the “Blog” link multiple times, one for each page! This turned out to be slightly difficult to fix; after a little while I realized that Jekyll, or more specifically Liquid, does not support Ruby expressions. In fact, it hardly supports any expressions at all! Check it out: Liquid contains only 9 operators in total. There is not even a not operator, and there is no regex matching (or if there is, it is implemented as something other than an operator.) Anyway, the unwanted pages can still be filtered out, although not with the precision I am used to. In _includes/sidebar.html, I changed this code:

    {% assign pages_list = site.pages %}
    {% for node in pages_list %}
      {% if node.title != null %}
        {% if node.layout == "page" %}
          <a class="sidebar-nav-item{% if page.url == node.url %} active
              {% endif %}" href="{{ node.url }}">{{ node.title }}</a>
        {% endif %}
      {% endif %}
    {% endfor %}

    by adding an unless statement:

    {% assign pages_list = site.pages %}
    {% for node in pages_list %}
      {% if node.title != null and node.layout == "page" %}
        {% unless node.url contains '/page' %}
          <a class="sidebar-nav-item{% if page.url == node.url %} active
              {% endif %}" href="{{ node.url }}">{{ node.title }}</a>
        {% endunless %}
      {% endif %}
    {% endfor %}
  13. (Hyde) The Older and Newer buttons had broken links because they assumed the blog would be the home page. And you know what, I made so many little changes and fixes, I won’t list them all. Let’s just say you can clone my repo and make it your own, if you like.

Writing blog posts

Writing a blog post in Jekyll is easy. Just create a text file in the /_posts folder (that’s in your gh-pages branch if you are using GitHub) and give it a name like, but with the correct date, of course. Inside the file, add front matter:

title: Title of your blog post
layout: post
The content of the post goes here.

Jekyll puts the output HTML in 2014/12/31/file-name.html, or 2014/12/31/file-name/index.html instead if your site is using the permalink: pretty option in _config.yml.

If you’d like to get shorter URLs by eliminating part of the date, change the permalink option in _config.yml. For example I use this:

permalink: /:categories/:year/:title.html

Or see here (why call it “permalink” when you can change the URL schema at any time?)


Although Jekyll supports blogging, it is incomplete as a blogging engine since it is strictly designed to serve static content, which comments are not. And there’s no way to have comments directly in GitHub pages, since GitHub provides no place to store the comments. But, it is still possible to use a comment service provided by a third party such as Disqus. Disqus adds ads to make money for them, though. Annoying ads. With pictures.

Jekyll Bootstrap currently supports four comment engines including Disqus but I am not sure whether I trust these commercial entities with my comments… although, er, very few comments have ever been left on this blog.

Hopefully GitHub itself will provide a comment engine someday, since the GitHub site obviously supports comments very well. Good news though! It’s possible to co-opt the GitHub issue tracker to manage blog comments! The technique is described here and I decided to use it! There’s no need to limit comments to blog posts either, I can put them on any page I want, although it does take a little extra effort.

How to set up:

  1. Add configuration to /_config.yml:

       user: qwertie
       project: loyc
  2. In _layouts/default.html, include comments.html below the content:

         {{ content }}
         {% include comments.html %}
  3. Add my copy of comments.html unchanged to your /_includes folder, and add comments.css unchanged to /res/css (oh, you don’t have a /res/css folder? Either create that folder, or put comments.css wherever you like to put css files and change comments.html to point to the new location.)

  4. To add comments to a page, create an issue in your github project (with whatever name and description you want) and then set commentIssueId line in the front matter of your blog post to match the issue:

     layout: post
     title:  "Blogging on GitHub"
     commentIssueId: 42
  5. Ivan says you also have to register an “OAuth application”, so I did that for, but comments are still working when I look at my Jekyll preview at localhost:4000.

Using custom CSS in Markdown

Sometimes I like to place sidebars in my posts, which I call “.sidebox” in CSS because some websites already have a “.sidebar” class to describe the main sidebar:

.sidebox {
  border: 1px dotted rgb(127, 127, 127);
  padding: 4px 3px 4px 6px; /* top right bottom left */
  min-width: 100px ! important;
  float: right ! important;
  font-size: 90%;
  margin-top: 1px;
  margin-bottom: 1px;
  margin-left: 6px;
  visibility: visible;
  max-width: 50%;
  width: 35%;

Markdown supports HTML, so you can add a style block like this one at the top of a .md file or in your shared _includes\head.html file, and then use it like this:

<div class="sidebox">This is a <i>sidebar</i>.</div>

Note that all the text inside the <div> tag is treated as HTML, not Markdown. In kramdown you can also use the “block attribute” {: .sidebox} after a paragraph to create a sidebar, or use a “refdef” which allows the sidebox to contain multiple paragraphs. Both of these approaches are better because you can use Markdown syntax inside the sidebar… but also worse because only kramdown will understand your code.

Visitor data

I am using Google Analytics to track page views. After you sign up you’ll be give a JavaScript snippet to put in your web pages; I inserted mine right before </body> in /layouts/default.html.

Table-of-contents generation

Kramdown has a feature for automatic generation of a table of contents for long posts like this one. Sadly I’m not using Kramdown so I don’t have access to it. A javascript solution is more universal, but when I searched for a solution I didn’t immediately find one I was happy with. So I made my own JavaScript table-of-contents builder.

Markdown everywhere

By the way, no matter whether you’re using GitHub or not or Jekyll or not, there’s no need to write web sites in HTML anymore. No matter how crappy your web hosting provider might be, no matter whether you’re allowed to run scripts or not, you can still author pages in Markdown, thanks to a nifty library called mdwiki. This thing uses JavaScript to convert markdown to HTML, 100% client-side, so you don’t have to worry about what your web host may or may not support. On GitHub, you may as well use Jekyll, but I must admit, it looks like mdwiki has a fantastic feature set, probably better than I’ll get with Jekyll. But the important thing is, I don’t have to write HTML anymore. Good riddance!

You can even use MDWiki without a web server, if you view mdwiki.html in Firefox (it doesn’t work in Google Chrome), which means you can use it for offline Markdown previews (which is great because, at least on the Windows, tools for editing Markdown are generally quite limited.)

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