On the twelfth day after christmas, my true love said to me, “This
wordpress theme won't let me save any customisations. Can you take a
look at it?”
The theme customisation menu in WordPress displays various options in
the left sidebar, and a live preview of the changes on the right. You
can edit things in the menu and see what they look like, and there's a
"Save and Publish" button at the top. But the button remained stuck at
"Saved" (greyed-out), and never detected any changes. Nor was the menu
properly styled, and many other controls were inoperative.
We found other
reports of the problem,
but no definitive solution. Disabling certain plugins fixed the problem
for some people, but that didn't help us—hardly any plugins were active
anyway, and none of the problematic ones were installed.
We looked at network requests for the page in the Chrome developer
console, and saw a series of 404 responses for local CSS and JS
resources within the
Here's one of the failing URLs:
That /var/lib/wordpress certainly didn't belong in the URL, so we went
grepping in the code to see how the URL was being generated. It took us
quite some time to figure it out, but we eventually found this code that
was used to convert a filesystem path to the static resources into a URL
(slightly edited here for clarity):
site_url(str_replace(ABSPATH, '/', $_extension_dir))
(Summary: Take /a/b/c ($_extension_dir), replace /a/b/ (ABSPATH) with a
single /, and use the resulting /c as a relative URL.)
ABSPATH was set to /usr/share/wordpress/, but the extension dir was
under /var/lib/wordpress/, so it's no surprise that stripping ABSPATH
from it didn't result in a valid URL. Not that doing search-and-replace
on filesystem paths is the most robust way to do URL generation in the
first place, but at least we could see why it was failing.
The Debian package of WordPress is… clever. It places the code under
/usr/share/wordpress (owned by root, not writable by www-data), but
overlays /var/lib/wordpress/wp-content for variable data.
Alias /wp /usr/share/wordpress
Alias /wp/wp-content /var/lib/wordpress/wp-content
This is a fine scheme in principle, but it is unfortunately at odds with
WordPress standard practice, and the Debian README mentions that liberal
applications of chown www-data may be required to soothe the itch.
Unfortunately, it also means that themes may not be installed under
ABSPATH, which usually doesn't matter… until some theme code
makes lazy and conflicting assumptions.
The eventual solution was to ditch /usr/share/wordpress and use only
/var/lib/wordpress for everything. Then ABSPATH was set correctly, and
the URL generation worked. (We tried to override the definition of
ABSPATH in wp-config.php, but it's a constant apparently set by the PHP
In the end, however, I couldn't quite make up my mind whether to blame
the Debian maintainers of Wordpress for introducing this overlay scheme,
or the theme developers for generating URLs by doing string manipulation
on filesystem paths, or the Wordpress developers for leaving static file
inclusion up to theme developers in the first place.
Well, why not all three?