Jonathan Dobres

clear cache, then refresh

Have you ever owned something—a pizza cutter, let’s say—and you thought to yourself, “I know I don’t use it often, but it’s probably worth keeping around for later?” So you put the pizza cutter in the kitchen drawer, and you sort of forget about it. Sort of, but not quite. It’s never entirely out of your thoughts, but you just can’t think of a good reason to pull it out. And then when you finally have a reason to use it, you realize that maybe this pizza cutter, which is shaped like the starship Enterprise, incidentally, isn’t exactly appropriate to your needs.

That’s what happened with me and this website. I left it dormant for so long that by the time I started thinking about it again, I realized that it needed more than a new coat of paint.

Total Realignment

My website has been silent for the last two years not because I’ve been bored, but because my job has kept me very busy. It’s also made me very productive, to the point that I began to reimagine the website as a showcase for my professional output and what I increasingly think of as the areas of my expertise. The time has come, then, to transition the site from a glorified blog to a professional portfolio, plus blog.1

It’s common knowledge that most academic/scientist personal sites are rarely updated, poorly maintained jokes. When I set out to redesign my own site, I had to think carefully about what the ideal “personal academic website” might look like. What problems does such a site need to solve?

Above all else, the site should rapidly communicate who I am and what I do. I address this with the front page, which is designed to function as a kind of business card. Want to know who I am in ten seconds or less? Read the tweet-length blurb and then look at the pretty picture. Have a full minute to kill? Scroll down. Bored at work? You can click to dive deeper, which will take you to my brief biography, a description of my research interests,2 a nicely formatted list of my publications, or this very blog.3

The visual overhaul of the site reflects new priorities. If I’m going to present myself as an expert on human factors and design issues, I’d better be able to walk the walk, right? I designed and coded the site myself, as I have done since the 90s. The redesign also includes a responsive stylesheet for mobile devices, so check it out on your smartphone or make your browser window suitably tiny. Following the recommendations of the talented and knowledgable Hawke Bassignani, body text is set in the serious-but-not-too-serious Merriweather, while Open Sans is used for headings and navigation. Lastly, the site is Retina-ready, using high resolution graphics and font-based icon sets (courtesy of Ico Moon) wherever possible.

A New Foundation

Longtime visitors (all five of you) might have noticed that the site feels a little leaner. That’s because I’ve rebuilt the whole thing with Jekyll, ending a nearly decade-long love/hate relationship with WordPress. Over the years, WordPress has grown to become the user-friendly front end to about a quarter of the web, and while that’s been a boon for most users, it has also made WordPress’s internals extremely difficult to understand. Developing a proper WordPress theme from scratch is a full-time job, and even simply deactivating the pieces that I don’t need in existing themes is difficult and fraught with peril.

Jekyll, on the other hand, makes it relatively easy to do things like store my site’s front page content in a way that makes sense, or create a custom template without weeding through three dozen esoteric PHP calls. At the end of the day, it’s a simpler system. It carries a lot of other benefits as well; no security holes to patch, no comment spam to manage, easy, human-readable data storage, and I can write my posts in Markdown, which is simply a joy to use.4

We will, however, be permanently closing comments. Jekyll doesn’t do comments. I suppose I could use a service like Disqus to fill the gap, but I’d just be trading PHP overhead for Javascript overhead. Though I have enjoyed reading comments over the years, I can’t say that I’ll miss them. If you really want to comment on something I’ve written, feel free to send me an email, or click one of the tasteful social networking icons that adorn the individual article pages.

Writing is Fundamental

While mulling over the details of this grand redesign, I did briefly entertain the notion of ditching the blog5 altogether. But if I did that, then why have a site at all? Why not just fold my online presence into LinkedIn and ResearchGate, and call it a day?

I’ve been writing online for a very, very long time. My earliest online writing—that I can find, at any rate—dates from 1997, when I was just fourteen years old.6 Writing for my own personal enjoyment hasn’t led to fame, riches, or a book deal (yet), but it has helped me in countless other ways. Our thoughts are a chaotic tangle of overlapping concepts, and writing helps us put them in order. Writing has, without question, made me better at my job. Writing has encouraged me to seek out varied sources of inspiration to stay fresh. Writing has kept my mind flexible. Writing has helped me figure out who I am, and what I want to do.

So I will continue to write online. The writing will be more focused on things like design, data visualization, and matters of general nerdery, but there will always be room for the personal and a bit of pop culture. I write because I want to write, not because I feel professionally obligated. I can’t make promises about what I’ll write about or how frequently I’ll write, but I will write.

Off We Go

Lots of people enjoy making things. I do, too. And this website, from its look to its content to its code, is something I made, and will continue to make with each new update. And that’s it. Welcome to my new pizza cutter website. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I do making it.

  1. Blog. I still hate that word. 

  2. In which I compare the scientific method to Chewbacca. 

  3. I almost retitled this section of the site a “column”, but in the interest of good information design, I decided to stick with a word that wouldn’t require extra explanation. 

  4. Especially for the footnotes! 

  5. Can we please think of a prettier word? How about blort? Can I write on my personal blort now? 

  6. I can assure you that yes, those writings are mortifying, and that no, I will never show them to you.