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I was recently given a new iPad Air at work and in order to not feel like I use the device only for the Kindle app and the occasional game, I have been looking for a productive use for it. My boss mentioned to me not long ago the he uses a text editor with Dropbox sync capabilities on the iPad for all of his note taking these days (in place of an app like Evernote) and I thought that was a great idea. I found a brilliant and beautiful app called Editorial that handles text and Markdown documents and syncs with Dropbox, and since I had resurrected my blog last week I immediately began to think of a way to use it for blogging.

My blog had been in Pelican already, after having migrated from blogofile when I originally began it, and I was using S3 to host it, with a workflow built around keeping the blog in a mercurial repository and manually publishing to S3 using the included make target. My first thoughts were to automate this on the iPad by building a web service for myself that would publish the blog and writing a custom workflow step in Editorial that would find all the posts in the Dropbox folder and push them to the web service.

Then I realized that was a ridiculous hack and why write a web service when the answer was already staring me in the face with Dropbox itself?

The first step was choosing a hosting provider and I went with Webfaction, a wonderful halfway point between the power of a full virtual server and the low cost of shared hosting. From there it was just setting up a few pieces of software, stealing ideas from others that have gone down this path, and adding some twists of my own.

Dropbox CLI

This one is pretty well covered by other folks but the main trick is one I picked up from from Joe Hewitt's post, setting up a separate Dropbox account for the blog and then sharing a folder in that account with your main Dropbox account, so that only the files necessary for the blog end up on the server.

Pelican

There was only one issue with installing Pelican in my Webfaction account, which was that I did it the very day that pip 1.5 was released and pip now prefers wheels where possible, but the required version of setuptools(>= 0.8) for wheel support is not present (yet) on Webfaction machines.

easy_install-2.7 pip
pip install --upgrade distribute

fixes that however. Note that that will install pip into your own ~/bin directory and that pip will keep your installed libraries in ~/lib/pythonX.Y for whatever version of python you are using, a nice feature of Webfaction.

Anyway, pip install pelican markdown is all you need here.

inotify-tools

Now at this point you are basically done: you can write a shell script to run via cron and rebuild your site periodically with the latest set of posts in your Dropbox folder. But where is the fun in that? We want to rebuild the site immediately whenever a post changes, and for that, on Linux anyway, we can use inotify-tools.

wget http://github.com/downloads/rvoicilas/inotify-tools/inotify-tools-3.14.tar.gz
tar xvfz inotify-tools-3.14.tar.gz
cd inotify-tools-3.14
./configure --prefix=$HOME
make
make install

Custom configuration

And here is where I put my twist on the standard Dropbox/Pelican formula. I wanted to keep all of the files needed to continuously rebuild the blog in the blog folder itself so I could redeploy it easily if need be, and also because it just seemed cooler that way. So in blog/etc I have a shell script to rebuild the blog via pelican, the pelicanconf.py, a script to monitor the directory via inotifywait, my crontab, and the logrotate.conf for the log that my monitor script produces.

pelicanconf.py is only of interest to me but the others are reproduced below.

update-blog.sh (rebuilds the blog)

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#!/bin/bash
source $HOME/.virtualenvs/technivore-blog/bin/activate && $HOME/bin/pelican -q -s $HOME/Dropbox/textfiles/blog/pelicanconf.py

monitor-blog.sh

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#!/bin/bash
# Shamelessly stolen from Marco Arment's Second Crack project:
# https://github.com/marcoarment/secondcrack

if [ "$1" == "" ] ; then
    echo ""
    echo "Usage: monitor-blog.sh SOURCE_PATH"
    echo "  where SOURCE_PATH contains your blog posts."
    echo ""
    exit 1
fi

SOURCE_PATH="$1"
FORCE_CHECK_EVERY_SECONDS=30
UPDATE_LOG="${HOME}/tmp/blog-update.log"

BASH_LOCK_DIR="${HOME}/tmp/update.sh.lock"

if mkdir "$BASH_LOCK_DIR" ; then
    trap "rmdir '$BASH_LOCK_DIR' 2>/dev/null ; exit" INT TERM EXIT

    echo "`date` -- updating blog" >> $UPDATE_LOG
    $SOURCE_PATH/etc/update-blog.sh

    while true ; do
        $HOME/bin/inotifywait -q -q -r -t $FORCE_CHECK_EVERY_SECONDS -e close_write -e create -e delete -e moved_from "$SOURCE_PATH"
        if [ $? -eq 0 ] ; then
            echo "`date` -- updating blog, a source file changed" >> $UPDATE_LOG
        else
            echo "`date` -- updating blog, $FORCE_CHECK_EVERY_SECONDS seconds elapsed" >> $UPDATE_LOG
        fi

        $SOURCE_PATH/etc/update-blog.sh
    done

    rmdir "$BASH_LOCK_DIR" 2>/dev/null
    trap - INT TERM EXIT
else
     echo "Already running!"
fi

crontab. Note that we start the dropbox daemon at system boot, and also once per day check to make sure that it is still running and restart if necessary. Also the monitor-blog.sh script will run indefinitely, but cron runs it every minute anyway, just in case -- it will exit immediately if another copy is still running. Also, since it creates a log, let's be a good citizen and rotate that log. Normally I don't like putting things in crontabs -- especially user crontabs -- but in this case since I'm keeping the crontab file itself with the project I think it's ok.

@reboot /home/technivore/bin/dropbox.py start
@daily  /home/technivore/bin/dropbox.py running && /home/technivore/bin/dropbox.py start
* * * * * /home/technivore/Dropbox/textfiles/blog/etc/monitor-blog.sh /home/technivore/Dropbox/textfiles/blog
@daily  /usr/sbin/logrotate -s /home/technivore/tmp/logrotate.status /home/technivore/Dropbox/textfiles/blog/etc/logrotate.conf

logrotate.conf

/home/technivore/tmp/blog-update.log {
    rotate 5
    copytruncate
    compress
    daily
    mail blog@technivore.org
}

Conclusion

Being able to blog on the iPad is flat out awesome. I'm sure there are plenty of blogging apps for it already but this setup works for me and it's fun to see the posts go up instantly without having to do anything. There are still some impedances to work through, the biggest one of which is that, as great as the extended keyboard in Editorial is, it's not match for a hardware keyboard. I did have to go back to vim on my MacBook a couple times to paste in the source code of the scripts, and I suspect that that will continue in the future in code-heavy posts. But for quick and dirty blogging, which I need to do more of, this is a wonderfully fun and responsive setup.


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