Alex Duner

The CMS Chronicles Part 2: My Switch to Statamic

This is part two of a two part series about the Content Management Systems (CMS) I have experimented with during the first year of this blog’s existence. Part one deals with my short stint with WordPress and my longer, more complicated relationship with Squarespace. Part two covers my eventual discovery of Statamic, which I am currently using and loving.

I bought my first license of Statamic, a flat-file content management system with the flexibility and power of a dynamic one, on January 7th, 2013. It looked promising as an alternative to Squarespace and was cheap enough to warrant buying a copy to play around with.

Unfortunately, I never got around to it. Statamic sat forgotten in my downloads folder, zipped and unused.

Then on March 19 I saw that Erik Hess had switched The Mindful Bit from Squarespace to Statamic. On March 27 Harry Marks switched Curious Rat from Squarespace to Statamic. Three days later Nate Boateng did the same.

Somehow I had managed to get in on the ground floor but never made it to the elevator.

When I finally got around to digging into Statamic I couldn’t believe that I had been sitting on such a great system for over three months and didn’t know it.

The best thing about Statamic is the level of support the developers provide. It’s something to be envied.

I have tweeted the developers personally with questions and they respond promptly and helpfully. When I was writing an add-on1 and ran into a roadblock, one of the developers checked the GitHub repository and submitted a pull-request with the fix.

And the Statamic developers are not resting in their quest for better and better support. This is what they wrote after the most recent major releasing version of the platform:

We’ll be the first to admit that we’re not satisfied with our support. We’re playing too much catch up and aren’t as proactive as we would like. This is partially due to biting off more than we could chew with v1.5, partially due to juggling consulting/client work on the side to ensure the bills are paid, partially due to always moving quickly with new Statamic features, and partially due to everyone’s incredible reception of the product itself urging us to try new things.

One nice benefit of Statamic being a flat-file system is it’s super easy to zip-up your entire website and share a Dropbox link with the developers of Statamic for them to take a look at. Earlier this week when I was having a problem with a new site I’m working on, Fred LeBlanc jumped into the Campfire chatroom and spent about thirty minutes helping me troubleshoot, going so far as to explain the inner-workings of the CMS so that we could work through the problem.

Another aspect of Statamic’s fantastic support is its thorough and readable documentation.

The couple of times I played around with WordPress I always felt lost. WordPress’ documentation does not feel like it was written for humans and I was constantly afraid that one keystroke could break everything.

Statamic’s documentation is not only comprehensive (unlike Squarespace) but readable with plenty of code samples for common tasks. The developers even delayed releasing the latest major version of Statamic until the documentation was updated to go along with it. That’s commitment.

Statamic has a small but growing community2. There are already a small number of add-ons for Statamic and I expect that number to go up in the near future. With Version 1.5 Statamic received a (well-documented) API with loads of functionality that I’m looking forward to experimenting with. Additionally the long promised Trading Post will hopefully be unveiled soon and will be a place for developers to share (and sell) add-ons and themes.

I’ve written over 500 words about Statamic and I haven’t even gotten to the product itself, which is also great. It might not be as feature rich as a system like Squarespace but it’s getting there slowly thanks to the efforts of a fantastic team and a fantastic community which is beginning to write add-ons to supplement Statamic’s features.

Without listing all of its features, here are a couple which drew me to Statamic:

  • Markdown Support—This was a must for me. There are a couple WordPress plugins that add Markdown support but at the end of the day all of my posts are stored in some SQL database in a format that is much less readable. Statamic has native support for Markdown in addition to support for some features from MultiMarkdown3 including footnotes4 and images (which Squarespace does not support). There is something gratifying about your entire blog’s archive existing as a bunch of .txt or .md files in a single, easily accessible folder.
  • Static File System—I have never learned how to manage a SQL database and didn’t want to have to learn for the purposes of this blog. Statamic’s flat file system means that I can use FTP to upload any post or image easily without any hassle. I don’t have to log in to WordPress or Squarespace’s admin system; it’s easy, and, it bears repeating: there is something gratifying about your entire blog’s archive existing as a bunch of .txt or .md files in a single, easily accessible folder.
  • Theming and Templating System—If you know HTML and CSS you know Statamic. It’s template engine is fantastic and really easy to use. I had already designed a theme using Squarespace’s developer program and it was really easy getting it set up in Statamic.
  • Great Control Panel—For those times when I don’t want to FTP into my site, Statamic’s control panel is really nice. It’s responsive and easy to use on my iPhone even though its not a native app (which is a lot more than I can say about Squarespace’s horrific attempts at an iOS client). The system lets you control which bells and whistles appear in the control panel when composing a new post. An entire redesign is in the works which will hopefully take it to a whole new level; it’s scheduled to be released later this week.

There are tons more features—mapping, translation/localization, multiple users—which I have yet to experiment with and take advantage of. Just like WordPress, you can mold Statamic into whatever you need it to be. Just look at the gallery of Statamic sites to get a sense of what’s possible.

Another benefit of switching to Statamic is the cost. A single personal license for Statamic costs $29 and hosting on WebFaction costs $9.50 a month which adds up to $149 in the first year and $120 every year afterwards5. Squarespace’s developer plan, on the other hand costs $240 a year ($20 per month)6.

I ended my review of Squarespace with the following thought:

Squarespace gave me control over the look and feel of my website but it didn’t give me control over my content.

Statamic is perfect for my needs and resolved a lot of the complaints I outlined about Squarespace in part one of this series. It’s simple, relatively easy to start using, and the customer support is fantastic. If you are in the market for a CMS that puts you in control of your data look no further than Statamic.

  1. It was my first time writing anything in PHP and also the first time I ever released any code anywhere. The help was very much needed. 

  2. It is strange that the community has made its home on Google Plus but the more I use it the more I realize that Plus works surprisingly well as a forum. I’ve gotten over my initial disgust at having to actually use Google Plus. 

  3. Statamic technically uses Markdown Extra

  4. Like this one. 

  5. Having to self host your website is one of the complexities of using Statamic and is one of the main reasons I’d suggest using Squarespace to non-technical people. But if you are serious about wanting control of your data, it’s not that difficult to self-host. 

  6. Squarespace is only $192 ($16 per month) if you pay annually 

Is The Verge Still a Tech Blog?

Harry Marks published a post yesterday mocking The Verge for using question marks at the end of its article’s titles.

Even more interesting, in my opinion, are the topics represented in the headlines themselves.

Here are some headlines from the last week:

  • Photos of bloodied Boston bombing suspect published in response to ‘Rolling Stone’ cover (July 18, 2013)
  • Detroit becomes America’s largest city ever to file for bankruptcy (July 18, 2013
  • Simpsons to appear in crossover ‘Family Guy’ episode in fall 2014 (July 18, 2013)
  • ‘Ender’s Game’ star Harrison Ford responds to Orson Scott Card’s anti-gay views: ‘humanity has won’ (July 18, 2013)
  • Giant brain sculpture taps into the mind to glow and erupt in flames (July 18, 2013)
  • Cuba’s shipment of 50-year-old weapons to North Korea likely paid for in sugar (July 18, 2013)
  • Massive ‘living’ sculptures turn one garden into freaky alternate universe (July 17, 2013)
  • North Korean missile material seized passing through Panama Canal, president tweets proof (July 16, 2013)
  • Back for another bite: ‘Sharknado’ encore airing July 18th amid sequel talks (July 12, 2013)

The topics represented on that list include economics, foreign policy, entertainment, and publishing.

I don’t read The Verge to find out that Detroit is going bankrupt; instead I go to a site like The Wonkblog where I know I’ll get in depth and well researched coverage of the issue. And if The Verge really wants to start covering economic stories, why haven’t I seen any posts about Obamacare being implemented or about The Federal Reserve?

I don’t read The Verge to hear about North Korean missiles; instead I want to read Foreign Policy for both news and opinion.

I also don’t think any publication should be reporting on the Simpsons doing a crossover episode with Family Guy.

This is not new territory for The Verge. After being criticized for covering the Boston Marathon Bombing with a live blog, the same way The Verge might cover an Apple or Nokia keynote, Joshua Topolsky wrote:

We have never thought of ourselves as a “tech” site (and certainly not a “blog”). We think of ourselves as a news site which covers the culture of now (for lack of a better term), the world at this moment, as it is — what matters to people who live and work in 2013. The site isn’t about stuff, it’s about people, it’s about ideas.

M.G. Siegler’s response is still worth reading:

Okay, so you’re a tech blog that doesn’t want to be considered a tech blog (or even a blog at all). So where’s the coverage of the situation in Syria? Cyprus? Pakistan? The Iranian earthquake? Surely there are tech angles for each of those things too.

Oh wait, not a tech blog. Forgot.

At some point, you’d hope that bloggers, as human beings, would be shocked and appalled enough by what’s unfolding before their eyes that they would lay down their keyboards and stop playing the pageview game, if only for a few hours. Instead, I’m afraid the opposite instincts kicked in.

Edward Mendelson Thinks That AppleScript is the Messiah

I didn’t think it was possible but Edward Mendelson made every possible “Apple is a Religion” metaphor and then some in a ridiculous article for The New York Review of Books titled Faith and Works at Apple:

As everyone knows, the world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries. Apple’s flock is secured against heresy by censors who rule the online App Store; only applications with Apple’s imprimatur are allowed on an iPhone. Programmers risk excommunication—with all their works condemned to being listed in an Index of Prohibited Software—if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can “jailbreak” an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematized by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store.

At least it’s not “Apple is Dooooooomed!”

What’s strange about Mendelson’s article is that it’s (mostly) positive about Apple; his thesis is that AppleScript gives users freedoms in OS X that aren’t available to users in iOS. But it’s almost like while he was writing an article about AppleScript he realized that he was missing the one thing that every article about Apple needs in order to get lots of pageviews be persuasive: an over-used and laughable metaphor.

The closed world of the iPhone and iPad is, however, only one branch of Apple’s empire, the branch that values centralized doctrine, visible works, and universal rituals.

Mendelson (unfortunately) continues:

But OS X also contains a little-known region of individual freedom and personal vision named AppleScript…AppleScript gives any individual worshipper much of the autonomy and freedom in using a computer that is otherwise possible only for the priesthood of programmers—and in iOS is limited even for programmers, in part through the design of iOS itself, in part because of Apple’s watchful, restrictive eye.

AppleScript is protestant with a lower-case “p,” as iOS and much of OS X is catholic with a lower-case “c.”

The above passage just shows how out of touch this guy is with iOS’ current offerings1. He needs to spend an afternoon reading through MacStories’ archives and playing with apps like Drafts, Launch Center Pro, and Pythonista.

I dislike the ways in which iOS demands conformity and obedience, while offering an illusory freedom to choose among a million apps that do only what Apple lets them do…AppleScript, in contrast, encourages freedom and rewards initiative.

If after reading through the MacStories archives and you don’t think that Federico Vitcci exhibits creativity and ingenuity with URL schemes on iOS, then you are out of your mind.

Also, iOS doesn’t demand conformity; everyone can change their wallpapers!

I want to take a brief pause from Mendelson’s article to ask the question: Could this point have been made in a non-melodramatic way? I have these hazy memories of reading an article John Gruber wrote in Macworld about AppleScript a couple months ago in which he clearly and eloquently made the same point:

AppleScript has survived and remained relevant during a turbulent decade-long transition, despite its unbeloved language syntax and technical hurdles, for the simple reason that it solves real-world problems in a way that no other OS X technology does. In theory, AppleScript could be much better; in practice, though, it’s the best thing we have that works. It exemplifies the Mac’s advantages over iOS for tinkerers and advanced users.

Maybe it’s just that Gruber’s piece, clocking in at 977 words, didn’t need to do anything special to keep it’s readers around whereas Mendelson’s piece, a true model of longform journalism at 1419 words, just needed some extra pizzazz, like this, to keep people interested:

Like the Protestants of the Reformation who translated the Bible into the vernacular, AppleScript put the means of salvation into the hands of the laity. Unlike vernacular Bibles, some of whose translators were burned at the stake, AppleScript arrived without bloodshed: Apple nailed its Ninety-Five Theses to its own door.

Historical accuracy aside 2, I’m pretty sure that’s a bit of an overstatement. I can imagine some Apple fanboy blogger like me comparing Steve Jobs to Martin Luther for introducing world changing products like the iPhone and the iPad. But it takes a really special individual to compare the introduction of AppleScript to the event that began the Protestant Reformation.

Who needs logic and reason when you can get sentences like this published in the New York Review of Books? 3

When Jobs reclaimed infallible authority in Cupertino, he killed off most of the projects begun in his absence, but he had the good sense to preserve and encourage AppleScript, perhaps because it recalled his own countercultural beginnings.

Steve Jobs’ countercultural beginnings can clearly explain every one of his business decisions. What other explanation could there be for why Apple issued plastic bumpers for the iPhone 4 after Antennagate? I sure can’t think of anything besides LSD.

The Macintosh OS was nine years old when AppleScript divided it against itself and—I like to think—helped to assure the later triumphs of OS X. iOS is now six years old, and has so far resisted any such division, and its position of world-domination may suggest that it doesn’t need it, that it can repel barbarian invasion and prosper forever without internal reformation. History says otherwise. The ways in which iOS evolves in the next few years may place the fate of empires—today’s empires are corporate, not ecclesiastical or national, neither holy nor Roman—in the balance.

I agree that the way iOS evolves is one of the most important things that will determine Apple’s success in the current phase of computing. But just because Apple is one of the few companies that has a very strong philosophy does not mean that it is a theology.

Also, I think it’s a bit racist to call Koreans “barbarians”; Samsung might be a conniving patent-infringing company, but calling them barbarians seems like a low blow.

  1. Maybe he is out of touch because he follows his “own lower-case-“p” variety” of Protestantism. Maybe if he got on board with the capital-“P” version he would at least be in-touch with 800 million other people

  2. Gruber explains that, in reality, “AppleScript’s English-like syntax often made (and to this day continues to make) things more difficult and confusing for scripters, not less”. So it’s more like translating the Bible into Klingon than German or English. 

  3. The New York Review of Books claims that it is “the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language.” If this is the premier magazine, I don’t even want to know what mediocre looks like. 

The CMS Chronicles Part 1: The Trials and Tribulations of Using Squarespace

This is part one of a two part series about the Content Management Systems (CMS) I have experimented with during the first year of this blog’s existence. Part one deals with my short stint with WordPress and my longer, more complicated relationship with Squarespace. Part two, which will be posted later this week, covers my eventual discovery of Statamic, which I am currently using and loving.

When I first started writing here at I did what any aspiring blogger does and set up a WordPress install with a basic theme. I took advantage of the theme’s couple settings and changed some colors, installed a few plugins, and started writing. Shortly thereafter, the writing stopped.

There were two main problems I had with WordPress.

First, there was just too much friction between writing a post in Byword and publishing it. Second, I was not at all satisfied with the look and feel of my website. I wanted every aspect of my blog to be my own creation.

However, when I set about writing a WordPress theme from scratch, I was overwhelmed. There were so many resources that I didn’t know where to start. Whenever I tried to do something custom, it felt like any keystroke could break everything. I was lost in a jungle of code without a map or a compass and I had very little sense of what was going on.

A few months after initially getting started, I began thinking about moving to another CMS. I had been hearing about Squaresapce for a while on literally every podcast that I listened to 1 but it suffered from one of the same flaws as WordPress: I couldn’t own every pixel of my site.

That changed when Squarespace introduced it’s developer platform. The developer platform, which costs $20 a month, gives you the flexibility to control all of the CSS/HTML of your website.

After about a month of fiddling to get everything the way I wanted it to look, I took the site live and began posting a lot more frequently.

Squarespace has a (well deserved) reputation for providing great customer service. You don’t lug barrels of fuel up seventeen flights of stairs in the middle of a hurricane to keep your customers’ websites running if you don’t care about your users. That being said, at times I found the support system to be a bit of a black hole and some of my tickets and questions were never answered.

One of the biggest problems with Squarespace is its iOS apps. There is no nice way to put this: they are unusable. David Charier wrote about this problem in September of 2012:

The iOS apps have floated in various states of broken limbo since I started using the platform, but for a while I gave them a pass because I hopped onto testing the iOS 6 betas pretty quickly. Then more and more users started telling me they’ve been like that for three years. For example: if you create a new post from the iPhone app, it assigns a randomized slug like /AUYQKEKyIUIqYUU, and there’s no way to edit that from the app. The iPad app still isn’t retina, and while I’ll grant iOS 6 has only been public for a couple weeks, none of its buttons are wired up to actually do anything; it is literally broken.

It still hasn’t been fixed. If you edit a post, Squarespace changes its timestamp; fixing a typo on a day old blog post carried the risk of messing up the entire order of my posts. That’s unacceptable.

There were a other minor things missing from Squarespace too, like an API and MultiMarkdown support, which were not deal breakers by themselves, but when combined, add up to a lot of frustration.

In the last two days alone I have seen three people complaining about the Markdown block because the cursor sometimes gets three or four characters behind where you are typing, which makes it impossible to copy, paste, or generally edit anything.

Squarespace’s feature set is truly amazing. If you want to build a store, Squarespace lets you do that. If you want a nice commenting system, Squarespace lets you do that. If you want to host a podcast, Squarespace lets you do that too.

But what I wanted to do was write and I don’t care how nice all of your other features are if the cursor doesn’t work.

The final straw for me was the lock-in that I felt using Squarespace. Just like with WordPress my data was all stored in some database somewhere and unlike WordPress even if I learned SQL, I still had no way to access it. The export feature that Squarespace has only works with WordPress and gives you this really ugly XML file that is unusable with almost any other CMS without heavy modification. I wanted out sooner rather than later so that any conversion would be as easy as possible. Squarespace gave me control over the look and feel of my website but it didn’t give me control over my content.

Squarespace is a fantastic company that creates a fantastic product which I’d recommend to anyone with little to no technical expertise looking to create a well designed website. It’s a great CMS, just not for writing. It wasn’t the right solution for me.

  1. I’m pretty sure that Squarespace singlehandedly keeps the tech-podcast industry afloat. I shudder to think about what would happen to my favorite shows if Squarespace stopped sponsoring them. 

Road Trip

I figured I should explain the relative lack of activity here the last couple weeks.

This summer has been extremely busy. I spent twelve days in Spain with my mom in May; it was an awesome graduation present. We were both able to speak Spanish competently with the native population and we saw lots of really cool things.

I am just finishing up a family road trip through the American southwest. We saw the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce (shown above), and Arches. I never knew that rocks could be so interesting and cool. I’ll have a Flickr album up soonish; we took alot of pictures so it’s going to take a while to sort through them all.

Hopefully I’ll be able to resume a normal schedule of posting.