Monday, June 8, 2020

Switched to Markdown

After writing about 50 posts I decided to do something about how I typeset them. Previously I was using Blogger post editor in "Compose" (WYSIWYG) mode. It allows to get job done, however there was no complete control over the details of formatting. For example, I like to use non-breaking spaces between values and their units, as in "1 kHz", so they don't end up on different lines. However, Blogger editor doesn't show "special" characters. They can only be viewed in HTML mode, however the text looks overwhelming with all the extra tags and attributes that Blogger's WYSIWYG editor throws in.

Another huge missing feature of the Blogger editor is "find and replace". There is "find" function built into the browser but no "replace". Again, you can work around by copying the HTML source into a capable editor, doing all the work there, then pasting back. Hopefully you haven't screwed up the HTML tags.

I realized that I would like to use my favorite editor for writing posts and then convert them into HTML (just once!), paste the result into Blogger and be happy. These days Markdown is the standard way for typesetting moderately complex pages, and its minimalist nature makes the page source look very readable even without syntax highlighting.

So Markdown it be. Where is it convenient to store Markdown sources? GitHub pages is a good place since GitHub offers a built-in renderer for them. The renderer also adds some nice "extensions" to basic Markdown. Decided—I will use GitHub pages for storing the Markdown originals and continue posting them on Blogger, because people actually do read the posts there.

Converting old pages

As an experiment in feasibility of this approach I decided to convert my existing blog pages to Markdown and "distill" them back into HTML. This would help to establish the process and iron out all the possible issues. This also ensures that the blog "mirror" on GitHub doesn't have dangling links to old posts.

I downloaded the archive of this blog via Blogger's "Back up content" function. It provides a huge XML file containing all the posts in HTML format, so it's easy to cut out their content for further processing.

For conversion I used Pandoc tool which among numerous formats supports both HTML and GitHub "flavor" of Markdown. So, for the old pages the process was as follows:

  1. Save the post as HTML file, convert it into GitHub markdown using Pandoc:

    pandoc input.html -f html-native_divs-native_spans \
    --shift-heading-level-by=-1 --atx-headers -t markdown_github \
    -o output.md

    By trial and error I figured out that I like the results of the deprecated markdown_github converter better than its gfm replacement. For some pages I used --shift-heading-level-by because I was using <h3> HTML headers and needed to have them "level up"-ed.

  2. Clean up the converted Markdown: remove trailing whitespace, extra line breaks, make sure all non-breaking spaces are in place, etc.

  3. Preview the Markdown file using excellent grip tool. This saves from unnecessary uploads to GitHub.

  4. Convert the Markdown back to HTML for Blogger:

    pandoc output.md -f markdown_github -t html -o distilled.html
  5. Paste the "distilled" HTML back to Blogger.

  6. Upload the Markdown to GitHub.

  7. Compare the looks and make necessary adjustments to Blogger styling.

The last step also helped me to resolve long standing annoyances with the default CSS styles used by "Awesome Inc" Blogger theme. I put my CSS overrides into "Advanced > Add CSS" section in the theme editor.

BTW, I'm not exaggerating about the converted back HTML being "distilled". Blogger puts so much superfluous formatting that the size of a file containing a post from Blogger typically reduces by 25–50% after converting back and forth via Markdown!

Of course, the conversion isn't without flaws, and Markdown does in fact offer less formatting capabilities than Blogger. Let's consider the differences in detail.

Post links

I decided to use the same file structure for Markdown posts, this makes converting links easier. The conversion is needed because GitHub uses names of the Markdown files—md extension, while Blogger uses html. I made all the post links to be "site relative" (starting from /) so it doesn't matter where the page is actually hosted.

This way, a link to a previous post in Markdown looks like this:

[as shown in the previous post](/2019/06/previous-post.md)

and when "distilling" Markdown source to HTML I replace md with html.

Pictures

There are a lot of pictures in this blog, I decided to leave them hosted on Blogger. The reason is that Blogger server can resize the picture to a smaller size from the parameters specified in the image URL. These smaller images are used for previews in the article. After clicking on the preview a full size picture is served. This is more efficient than serving a full picture only and sizing it down in the browser.

This approach also works when links to images host on Blogger are used in Markdown arcticle on GitHub. As I've figured out, GitHub in addition makes a copy of any externally hosted image for serving from its own CDN, so it really doesn't make sense to pull out images to GitHub manually.

One notable loss is that Markdown doesn't allow specifying alignment and interaction with text for pictures, so they are always aligned to the left and can't have text fills on the size.

Code

Up to the redesign Blogger wasn't offering dedicated code formatting. I used monospace font with non-breaking spaces for sequences of multiple spaces. While converting, I changed all those code fragments to use Markdown fenced code blocks.

Tables

Similar thing for tables. I used tabulated monospaced formatting. This wasn't super convenient. I converted these ersatz tables into Markdown tables which translate into actual HTML tables for Blogger. This looks better. The only inconvenience is that GitHub Markdown doesn't allow "headerless" tables.

Colors

Markdown doesn't have means for colorizing text. It's actually good for accessibility (think screen readers, color blind people), but I used to highlight text with colors when discussing graph. Now I will have to provide more annotations on the graph itself.

Miscellaneous

  1. In Markdown the header of the post is specified on the first line using # style (heading level 1). In Blogger the header stored separately.
  2. Special characters like "non-breaking space", "em dash" need to be written using corresponding Unicode characters in Markdown. Note that the sequence of three dashes --- is used in Markdown for horizontal breaks.

Writing a new post

I'm writing this post in Markdown and the life feels good. The only culprit is adding pictures. I still want them to be stored on Blogger. For example, I want to post an image of the same post in Blogger and on GitHub. Here is what I have to do. After preparing the image, I upload it to Blogger and insert into the post draft. Then I copy the link and transform it into Markdown link format. This is the result:

The GitHub mirror of this blog is now located here: https://mnaganov.github.io

Testimonials

Both Pandoc and grip are awesome tools that helped me a lot with converting my posts into Markdown and back into HTML. I highly recommend them for any document conversion work and Markdown authoring.

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