Tools of the Trade – 2021

Dear Reader,

I thought I would take a few minutes away from my normal graphomania to talk about how I write (from a technical standpoint, not so much the process, which I don't really have).

I don't really do brand loyalty, and so use a variety of stuff just depending on where I am (whether in the Library or outside it, back when that was a thing that it was safe to do). I try to be as privacy-conscious as I can, which does mean that some things are paid rather than free. As a reminder, if you're not the (paying) customer, you're the product.

Blog Platform

My blog is hosted on write.as. I explored several options, and this one was easily the best for my wants and needs. Others I looked at, but decided against, include:

WordPress. WordPress blogs can look great, but the platform itself is ridiculously insecure. I've never administered a WordPress site, other than a free one they host, that didn't end up hacked within a day or two of going live. The massive plugin ecosystem can be nice, but there too that just makes the attack surface that much larger. Privacy is questionable as a result. Moreover, the resulting pages are often insanely bloated; no web page should be hundreds of kilobytes just for some text.

Tumblr. I generally like Tumblr as a platform from a usability standpoint. But privacy and bloat are still concerns, even if security is (as far as I can tell) better than WordPress. The reply system is a mixed bag by its very existence, as these things are. But I don't really care about comments, reblogs, and whatever, so that's not a positive to offset the negatives.

Some self-hosted thing. I actually dabbled with using Hugo for a time, and I do like the results. Hugo stays on your computer and generates static HTML files for your blog posts, and the result is a very sleek result (provided the template doesn't decide to download 50MB of JavaScript code to do what you can do with a <table> tag). This was my second choice, but write.as offers all the benefits will simultaneously being easier to use, especially since the paid version allows you to use a custom domain.

I've been really happy with write.as after a couple years of using it. It's a small team, and I've chatted with the CEO over the years. It's reasonably priced, allows me to do everything I want in a blog. I typically use the in-browser editor, but it has a command-line tool that lets you upload a markdown file to your blog. Their API is also robust and open, so it'd be simple enough to write plugins or add-ons to software that supports them to upload directly to your blog.

E-mail

For my main provider, I use ProtonMail. I started my account with them well before this site came into being, and have been using it for a few years with good results. Here too I switched to a paid version, since this allows additional addresses and some other features. It doesn't have GMail's level of storage, but it has enough—the basic paid tier gives 17GB. I use other things for backing up large amounts of data, so I don't need it all in my e-mail. Plus I'm very aggressive about deleting stuff rather than simply archiving it. So far, after using ProtonMail for 2-3 years, I'm using about 100MB of my storage space.

Because I'm limited to 5 e-mail addresses with my ProtonMail account and because I tend to be pretty indecisive and flighty, I've supplemented it with AnonAddy. You can self-host, which I should probably get around to doing one of these days, but they also allow free accounts as well. The idea is that you give it a real e-mail address hosted elsewhere, and then you can give out aliases that take the form alias@username.anonaddy.com. It helps you keep track of where mail is coming from, and allows you to publicly put out an address without giving too much away.

Web/File Hosting

There are a million options out there for this, so I won't go through all the possibilities I explored. Ultimately I focused on cost and privacy as my two primary concerns.

For my main web host, I use 1984, an Icelandic host with a major emphasis on privacy. I've found their tech support to be very good as well, and I like their sense of humor as a company (they have an option on their DNS page that refers to “Scooby Doo features”). I use a basic virtual server, which is inexpensive and plenty powerful for my needs, and have had 0 technical issues (that weren't self-inflicted, at least).

Related to this, I was concerned when registering a domain about having to give real, personal information that becomes freely available via WHOIS search. To that end, I got my domain through Njalla, which was co-founded by one of the guys who started the Pirate Bay. They only require the bare minimum that is needed to process payment, which could be as little as nothing if you use a cryptocurrency of some kind. But once you register, the WHOIS database just shows “redacted for privacy” for basically all the information, which is just how I like it. The cost was in keeping with most other services, if a tiny bit more, and the site itself was perfectly easy and clear to use.

For image storage, as an alternative to imgur, write.as has a companion service called snap.as that is available to paying members. It's a streamlined image host that is perfect for sharing and the like (for example, the background image for my blog is hosted there).

Finally, I wanted to give a shot out to Scaleway for larger hosting. I'd been looking for some time for a place to back up various family photos and documents and what-not, just in case any on-site media is damaged or fails. Scaleway has a “cold storage” service, which is where you can get much cheaper file hosting provided that you don't need to access it frequently. In my case, this is purely to have off-site backups of various things, and so it's perfect. The data is hosted in France or the Netherlands (it's a French company), so hopefully should be reasonably safe from your day-to-day government intrusion. They also give the first 75GB for free!

Software

For web hosting, my server is quite typical, it's just running your standard web server stuff. But a couple of other pieces of software warrant a mention: BookStack, which is like a personal blog organized around books and bookshelves, which I've found to be a great way to organize and backup in-progress works (translations, etc.). It runs in a docker container, and is easy to set up if you're comfortable with docker.

For writing, I typically use either ThiefMD on my Linux computers and iA Writer on my Mac and iPad. Both function quite similarly, although only Thief is free and open source (iA Writer is paid and closed-source). I'm debating moving away from iA on my Mac and just using TextEdit or something, but haven't decided yet. Any kind of typesetting or fancifying work is done in Pages if I'm feeling lazy, but more commonly with LaTeX, which I simply adore.


I hope this list may be helpful if you're looking for some alternatives. I try to avoid any of the big data companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) as much as humanly possible, and there are ways without sacrificing too much convenience to do so.

Good luck, and let me know if I can be of assistance.