The Joy of Personal Websites

2016-12-19 • programming

Personal note from 2024: I wrote this over 7 years ago. At the time, I had little conscious interest in anything spiritual. I liked the website purely for the tone, design, and technical content. But now, looking back, I see the primary purpose of the website, and of Steven Hum, is explicitly enlightenment. While the website seems unfinished (or maybe I have not turned enough stones), had I still paid more attention, my love of personal media could have inspired a mystical seeking a few years earlier in my life. I love noting the gentle signs and pointers I missed. I've edited this since then to be a less immature. The original version is here.

A few months ago, I found a fascinating website: the darnedest thing.

I don't know the owner personally. The colophon page only gives us his name, Steven Hum, a list of technologies used to make the site, and a vignette where he compares customizing his window manager to a samurai adjusting a new katana ("it’s a slow and methodical process. Step by step... molding it to one’s will").

But this enigmatic about page felt so refreshing-- a reprieve from the "hustle web", where websites are a way to attract an audience and grow your professional brand.

He does not introduce himself to the reader as:

Steven Hum, hacker @company1, leveraging big data to synergize mouthwatering user experiences. In a previous life, @company2, @company3.

He instead his welcome page says:

This site is about the ending of suffering. The suffering which the story experiences in conflict with reality it does not agree with. All of this resistance comes to an end, when the mind realizes all its thoughts are assumptions it constantly makes, in the projection of itself.

As such, [this site] is written in words (of course). And, as a result, can be mistaken for having an authority it should not. It is not because it is true or false, but because the story constantly seeks authority it believes it does not have. That must be outside itself—as a story separate from everything else.

Words. They are charged with the meaning and the history we have behind them. When we read them, we tend to give them authority. Largely because words are thoughts transcribed, and we are addicted to our own thoughts.

Nothing in this site should be taken as true. It is for you to determine the truth or falseness of it. That is yours for the taking.

His posts span a wide range, from bird watching to shamanism, to poetry, to customizing mechanical keyboards. (Update from 2024, for the last years, he seems to have been posting exclusively about fonts)

One of his posts is a tutorial on adding Phusion Passenger to nginx. And it's a perfect representation of my favorite kind of content: the kind of content that reflects the person-- that speaks sincerely, free of SEO optimized catch-phrases, and clickbait blog-speak.

I have no clue what Phusion Passenger is, but this paragraph stood out to me:

"The only oddity along the way I discovered with the migration to Phusion Passenger was that inline Slim HTML templates no longer appeared to work and required that template specifications reside in the standard application/views folder. Not a bad thing, but it did have me scratching my head for awhile."

Steven Hum has not given us a comprehensive Phusion tutorial and he does not claim to be the world's foremost expert on Phusion configurations. But, like a helpful kid in the basement lab of the computer science building who is a bit farther along on than you on finishing the same assignment, he has shared his personal journey: exactly what he did and the tips he's thought of along the way. You feel a vague camraderie that comes from working in the same plane, unlike when you ask a professor and the dynamic is tilted and you feel more like you are extracting knowledge from a valuable resource and less like connecting with a real person.

His post on why he uses urxvt is similar. It's not "top 10 reasons you need to switch to urxvt", but simply his undogmatic observations on a piece of software he enjoys.

Sometimes he'll just throw out a random poem he wrote, and I may have no idea what it means, but it's self expression, and I appreciate that.

A good personal website is a tunnel into the mind, an invitation to explore the thoughts and life of someone you don't fully know. Even if I met Steven in real life, our conversation would likely be limited to the weather, the election, and maybe, if it was an especially long conversation, programming. He would not, upon introduction, start reciting poetry at me and discussing the intricacies of his nginx configuration. Seeing his geeky ergonomic keyboard setup, I'd assume most of his interests are silicone dependent, and would never think to ask him about spirituality, completely missing a large and important area of common ground.

College computer science departments encourage students to have a personal website. At UT Austin, we even get a little corner of the cs.utexas website. Most students use their web development skills and free hosting to frame their resume in a Bootstrap template and some buzzwords. They see their website as a way to show off to companies that they are so passionate about computer science that they took time out of their weekend to make a working portfolio.

A personal website is something over three billion people can access. This is a chance to show some random Argentenian your conspiracy theory on how the government controls the weather, a chance to express a minority opinion some stranger will find refuge in, a chance to write a dumb essay on personal websites and convince some Ukranian hacker scanning for vulnerabilities to start a blog about succulents.

I'm not trying to shit on people who use their website as a recruiting tool. I'm just trying to say that a personal website is a powerful medium of self-expression. It gives you insight as to how someone else, oftentimes someone in a radically different situation than you, is figuring out how and why to live, and I find it crazy that people don't utilize them more.

As a random side thought: personal website edit history would be a beautiful thing, an edit by edit picture of growth and change.