RSS Zero isn’t the path to RSS Joy

Feed overload is real

The week before last, Katie shared with me that article from last month, Who killed Google Reader? I’d read it before so I didn’t bother clicking through again, but we did end up chatting about RSS a bit1.

Screenshot: Google Reader Notifier popup advises of "461 unread items".
I ditched Google Reader several years before its untimely demise, but I can confirm “461 unread items” was a believable message.

Katie “abandoned feeds a few years ago” because they were “regularly ending up with 200+ unread items that felt overwhelming”.

Conversely: I think that dropping your feed reader because there’s too much to read is… solving the wrong problem.

A white man with dark hair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, moves to push over a stack of carboard boxes, each smaller than the one beneath it. From bottom to top, the boxes are labelled: stress, email client, mobile pings, doomscrolling, social media silos... and the very top, very smallest box, which glows with sunbeams emitted from it, reads "rss reader".
About half way through editing this image I completely forgot what message I was trying to convey, but I figured I’d keep it anyway and let you come up with your own interpretation.

Dave Rupert last week wrote about his feed reader’s “unread” count having grown to a mammoth 2,000+ items, and his plan to reduce that.

I think that he, like Katie, might be looking at his reader in a different way than I do mine.

FreshRSS sidebar, showing 567 unread items (of which 1 are comics, 2 are friends, 186 are communities, 1 are distractions, 278 are geeky, 1 is "me", 57 are youtube, 13 are strangers, 1 is software, 7 are rss club, 29 are podcasts, and 3 are polyamory. A further 107 are marked as favourites. The "friends" and "rss club" categories are showing warning triangles.
At time of writing, I’ve got 567 unread items. And that’s fine.

RSS is not email!

I’ve been in the position that Katie and David describe: of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unread items. And I know others have, too. So let me share something I’ve learned sooner:

There’s nothing special about reaching Inbox Zero in your feed reader.

It’s not noble nor enlightened to get to the bottom of your “unread” list.

Your 👏  feed 👏 reader 👏 is 👏 not 👏 an 👏 email 👏 client. 👏

The idea of Inbox Zero as applied to your email inbox is about productivity. Any message in your email might be something that requires urgent action, and you won’t know until you filter through and categorise .

But your RSS reader doesn’t (shouldn’t?) be there to add to your to-do list. Your RSS reader is a list of things you might like to read. In an ideal world, reaching “RSS Zero” would mean that you’ve seen everything on the Internet that you might enjoy. That’s not enlightened; that’s sad!

Google Reader's "Congratulations, you've reached the End of the Internet." Easter Egg screen, shown when all your feeds are empty.
Google Reader understood this, although the word “congratulations” was misplaced.

Use RSS for joy

My RSS reader is a place of joy, never of stress. I’ve tried to boil down the principles that makes it so, and here they are:

  1. Zero is not the target.
    The numbers are to inspire about how much there is “out there” for you, not to enumerate how much work need have to do.
  2. Group your feeds by importance.
    Your feed reader probably lets you group (folder, tag…) your feeds, so you can easily check-in on what you care about and leave other feeds for a rainy day.2 This is good.
  3. Don’t read every article.
    Your feed reader gives you the convenience of keeping content in one place, but you’re not obligated to read every single one. If something doesn’t interest you, mark it as read and move on. No judgement.
  4. Keep things for later.
    Something you want to read, but not now? Find a way to “save for later” to get it out of your main feed so you. Don’t have to scroll past it every day! Star it or tag it3 or push it to your link-saving or note-taking app. I use a link shortener which then feeds back into my feed reader into a “for later” group!
  5. Let topical content expire.
    Have topical/time-dependent feeds (general news media, some social media etc.)? Have reader “purge” unread articles after a time. I have my subscription to BBC News headlines expire after 5 days: if I’ve taken that long to read a headline, it might as well disappear.4
  6. Use your feed reader deliberately.
    You don’t need popup notifications (a new article’s probably already up to an hour stale by the time it hits your reader). We’re all already slaves to notifications! Visit your reader when it suits you. I start and end every day in mine; most days I hit it again a couple of other times. I don’t need a notification: there’s always new content. The reader keeps track of what I’ve not looked at.
  7. It’s not just about text.
    Don’t limit your feed reader to just text. Podcasts are nothing more than RSS feeds with attached audio files; you can keep track in your reader if you like. Most video platforms let you subscribe to a feed of new videos on a channel or playlist basis, so you can e.g. get notified about YouTube channel updates without having to fight with The Algorithm. Features like XPath Scraping in FreshRSS let you subscribe to services that don’t even have feeds: to watch the listings of dogs on local shelter websites when you’re looking to adopt, for example.
  8. Do your reading in your reader.
    Your reader respects your preferences: colour scheme, font size, article ordering, etc. It doesn’t nag you with newsletter signup popups, cookie notices, or ads. Make the most of that. Some RSS feeds try to disincentivise this by providing only summary content, but a good feed reader can work around this for you, fetching actual content in the background.5
  9. Use offline time to catch up on your reading.
    Some of the best readers support offline mode. I find this fantastic when I’m on an aeroplane, because I can catch up on all of the interesting articles I’d not had time to yet while grounded, and my reading will get synchronised when I touch down and disable flight mode.
  10. Make your reader work for you.
    A feed reader is a tool that works for you. If it’s causing you pain, switch to a different tool6, or reconfigure the one you’ve got. And if the way you find joy from RSS is different from me, that’s fine: this is a personal tool, and we don’t have to have the same answer.

And if you’d like to put those tips in your RSS reader to digest later or at your own pace, you can:  here’s an RSS feed containing (only) these RSS tips!


1 You’d  be forgiven for thinking that RSS was my favourite topic, given that so-far-this-year I’ve written about improving WordPress’s feeds, about mathematical quirks in FreshRSS, on using XPath scraping as an RSS alternative (twice), and the joy of getting notified when a vlog channel is ressurected (thanks to RSS). I swear I have other interests.

2 If your feed reader doesn’t support any kind of grouping, get a better reader.

3 If your feed reader doesn’t support any kind of marking/favouriting/tagging of articles, get a better reader.

4 If your feed reader doesn’t support customisable expiry times… well that’s not too unusual, but you might want to consider getting a better reader.

5 FreshRSS calls the feature that fetches actual post content from the resulting page “Article CSS selector on original website”, which is a bit of a mouthful, but you can see what it’s doing. If your feed reader doesn’t support fetching full content… well, it’s probably not that big a deal, but it’s a good nice-to-have if you’re shopping around for a reader, in my opinion.

6 There’s so much choice in feed readers, and migrating between them is (usually) very easy, so everybody can find the best choice for them. Feedly, Inoreader, and The Old Reader are popular, free, and easy-to-use if you’re looking to get started. I prefer a selfhosted tool so I use the amazing FreshRSS (having migrated from Tiny Tiny RSS). Here’s some more tips on getting started. You might prefer a desktop or mobile tool, or even something exotic: part of the beauty of RSS feeds is they’re open and interoperable, so if for example you love using Slack, you can use Slack to push feed updates to you and get almost all the features you need to do everything in my list, including grouping (using channels) and saving for later (using Slackbot/”remind me about this”). Slack’s a perfectly acceptable feed reader for some people!

× × × ×

Better WordPress RSS Feeds

I’ve made a handful of tweaks to my RSS feed which I feel improves upon WordPress’s default implementation, at least in my use-case.1 In case any of these improvements help you, too, here’s a list of them:

Post Kinds in Titles

Since 2020, I’ve decorated post titles by prefixing them with the “kind” of post they are (courtesy of the Post Kinds plugin). I’ve already written about how I do it, if you’re interested.

Screenshot showing a Weekly Digest email from, with two Notes and a Repost clearly-identified.
Identifying post kinds is particularly useful for people who subscribe by email (the emails are generated off the RSS feed either daily or weekly: subscriber’s choice), who might want to see articles and videos but not care about for example checkins and reposts.

RSS Only posts

A minority of my posts are – initially, at least – publicised only via my RSS feed (and places that are directly fed by it, like email subscribers). I use a tag to identify posts to be hidden in this way. I’ve written about my implementation before, but I’ve since made a couple of additional improvements:

  1. Suppressing the tag from tag clouds, to make it harder to accidentally discover these posts by tag-surfing,
  2. Tweaking the title of such posts when they appear in feeds (using the same technique as above), so that readers know when they’re seeing “exclusive” content, and
  3. Setting a X-Robots-Tag: noindex, nofollow HTTP header when viewing such tag or a post, to discourage search engines (code for this not shown below because it’s so very specific to my theme that it’s probably no use to anybody else!).
// 1. Suppress the "rss club" tag from tag clouds/the full tag list
function rss_club_suppress_tags_from_display( string $tag_list, string $before, string $sep, string $after, int $post_id ): string {
  foreach(['rss-club'] as $tag_to_suppress){
    $regex = sprintf( '/<li>[^<]*?<a [^>]*?href="[^"]*?\/%s\/"[^>]*?>.*?<\/a>[^<]*?<\/li>/', $tag_to_suppress );
    $tag_list = preg_replace( $regex, '', $tag_list );
  return $tag_list;
add_filter( 'the_tags', 'rss_club_suppress_tags_from_display', 10, 5 );

// 2. In feeds, tweak title if it's an RSS exclusive
function rss_club_add_rss_only_to_rss_post_title( $title ){
  $post_tag_slugs = array_map(function($tag){ return $tag->slug; }, wp_get_post_tags( get_the_ID() ));
  if ( ! in_array( 'rss-club', $post_tag_slugs ) ) return $title; // if we don't have an rss-club tag, drop out here
  return trim( "{$title} [RSS Exclusive!]" );
  return $title;
add_filter( 'the_title_rss', 'rss_club_add_rss_only_to_rss_post_title', 6 );

Adding a stylesheet

Adding a stylesheet to your feeds can make them much friendlier to beginner users (which helps drive adoption) without making them much less-convenient for people who know how to use feeds already. Darek Kay and Terence Eden both wrote great articles about this just earlier this year, but I think my implementation goes a step further.

Screenshot of's RSS feed as viewed in Firefox, showing a "Q" logo and three recent posts.
I started with Matt Webb‘s pretty-feed-v3.xsl by Matt Webb (as popularised by and built from there.

In addition to adding some “Q” branding, I made tweaks to make it work seamlessly with both my RSS and Atom feeds by using two <xsl:for-each> blocks and exploiting the fact that the two standards don’t overlap in their root namespaces. Here’s my full XSLT; you need to override your feed template as Terence describes to use it, but mine can be applied to both RSS and Atom.2

I’ve still got more I’d like to do with this, for example to take advantage of the thumbnail images I attach to posts. On which note…

Thumbnail images

When I first started offering email subscription options I used Mailchimp’s RSS-to-email service, which was… okay, but not great, and I didn’t like the privacy implications that came along with it. Mailchimp support adding thumbnails to your email template from your feed, but WordPress themes don’t by-default provide the appropriate metadata to allow them to do that. So I installed Jordy Meow‘s RSS Featured Image plugin which did it for me.

        <title>[Checkin] Geohashing expedition 2023-07-27 51 -1</title>


        <media:content url="/_q23u/2023/07/20230727_141710-1024x576.jpg" medium="image" />
        <media:description>Dan, wearing a grey Three Rings hoodie, carrying French Bulldog Demmy, standing on a path with trees in the background.</media:description>
Media attachments for RSS feeds are perhaps most-popular for podcasts, but they’re also great for post thumbnail images.

During my little redesign earlier this year I decided to go two steps further: (1) ditching the plugin and implementing the functionality directly into my theme (it’s really not very much code!), and (2) adding not only a <media:content medium="image" url="..." /> element but also a <media:description> providing the default alt-text for that image. I don’t know if any feed readers (correctly) handle this accessibility-improving feature, but my stylesheet above will, some day!

Here’s how that’s done:

function rss_insert_namespace_for_featured_image() {
  echo "xmlns:media=\"\"\n";

function rss_insert_featured_image( $comments ) {
  global $post;
  $image_id = get_post_thumbnail_id( $post->ID );
  if( ! $image_id ) return;
  $image = get_the_post_thumbnail_url( $post->ID, 'large' );
  $image_url = esc_url( $image );
  $image_alt = esc_html( get_post_meta( $image_id, '_wp_attachment_image_alt', true ) );
  $image_title = esc_html( get_the_title( $image_id ) );
  $image_description = empty( $image_alt ) ? $image_title : $image_alt;
  if ( !empty( $image ) ) {
    echo <<<EOF
      <media:content url="{$image_url}" medium="image" />

add_action( 'rss2_ns', 'rss_insert_namespace_for_featured_image' );
add_action( 'rss2_item', 'rss_insert_featured_image' );

So there we have it: a little digital gardening, and four improvements to WordPress’s default feeds.

RSS may not be as hip as it once was, but little improvements can help new users find their way into this (enlightened?) way to consume the Web.

If you’re using RSS to follow my blog, great! If it’s not for you, perhaps pick your favourite alternative way to get updates, from options including email, Telegram, the Fediverse (e.g. Mastodon), and more…

Update 4 September 2023: More-recently, I’ve improved WordPress RSS feeds by preventing them from automatically converting emoji into images.


1 The changes apply to the Atom feed too, for anybody of such an inclination. Just assume that if I say RSS I’m including Atom, okay?

2 The experience of writing this transformation/stylesheet also gave me yet another opportunity to remember how much I hate working with XSLTs. This time around, in addition to the normal namespace issues and headscratching syntax, I had to deal with the fact that I initially tried to use a feature from XSLT version 2.0 (a 22-year-old version) only to discover that all major web browsers still only support version 1.0 (specified last millenium)!

× ×

Not the Isle of Man

This week, Ruth and I didn’t go the Isle of Man.

A laptop screen shows Automattic's "Work With Us" web page. Beyond it, in an airport departure lounge (with diners of Wagamama and The Breakfast Club in the background), Dan sits at another laptop, wearing a black "Accessibility Woke Platoon" t-shirt and grey Tumblr hoodie.
We’d intended to actually go to the Isle of Man, even turning up at Gatwick Airport six hours before our flight and working at Pret in order to optimally fit around our workdays.

It’s (approximately) our 0x10th anniversary1, and, struggling to find a mutually-convenient window in our complex work schedules, we’d opted to spend a few days exploring the Isle of Man. Everything was fine, until we were aboard the ‘plane.

Ruth, wearing a green top with white stripes, sits alongside Dan, wearing a black t-shirt and grey hoodie, by the wingside emergency exits in an aeroplane.
As the last few passengers were boarding, putting their bags into overhead lockers, and finding their seats, Ruth observed that out on the tarmac, bags were being removed from the aircraft.

Once everybody was seated and ready to take off, the captain stood up at the front of the ‘plane and announced that it had been cancelled2.

The Isle of Man closes, he told us (we assume he just meant the airport) and while they’d be able to get us there before it did, there wouldn’t be sufficient air traffic control crew to allow them to get back (to, presumably, the cabin crews’ homes in London).

Two passengers - a man and a woman - disembark from an EasyJet plane via wheeled stairs.
To add insult to injury: even though the crew clearly knew that the ‘plane would be cancelled before everybody boarded, they waited until we were all aboard to tell us then made us wait for the airport buses to come back to take us back to the terminal.

Back at the terminal we made our way through border control (showing my passport despite having not left the airport, never mind the country) and tried to arrange a rebooking, only to be told that they could only manage to get us onto a flight that’d be leaving 48 hours later, most of the way through our mini-break, so instead we opted for a refund and gave up.3

Ruth and Dan, looking tired and frustrated, sit at a pub table. Ruth is using her tablet computer.
After dinner at the reliably-good Ye Old Six Bells in Horley, down the road from Gatwick Airport, we grumpily made our way back home.

We resolved to try to do the same kinds of things that we’d hoped to do on the Isle of Man, but closer to home: some sightseeing, some walks, some spending-time-together. You know the drill.

Panoramic photo showing a field containing the remains of a Roman villa in West Oxfordshire, under grey skies. The walls are barely visible in this wide shot.
There’s evidence on the Isle of Man of Roman occupation from about the 1st century BCE through the 5th century CE, so we found a local Roman villa and went for a look around.

A particular highlight of our trip to the North Leigh Roman Villa – one of those “on your doorstep so you never go” places – was when the audio tour advised us to beware of the snails when crossing what was once the villa’s central courtyard.

At first we thought this was an attempt at humour, but it turns out that the Romans brought with them to parts of Britain a variety of large edible snail – helix pomatia – which can still be found in concentration in parts of the country where they were widely farmed.4

Large cream-coloured snail in moderately-long grass, alongside a twenty-pence piece (for scale). The snail is around three times as long as the coin is.
Once you know you’re looking for them, these absolute unit gastropods are easy to spot.

There’s a nice little geocache near the ruin, too, which we were able to find on our way back.

Before you think that I didn’t get anything out of my pointless hours at the airport, though, it turns out I’d brought home a souvenier… a stinking cold! How about that for efficiency: I got all the airport-germs, but none of the actual air travel. By mid-afternoon on Tuesday I was feeling pretty rotten, and it only got worse from then on.

A box of tissues and a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller on the arm of a sofa.
I felt so awful on Wednesday that the most I was able to achieve was to lie on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, between sessions of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

I’m confident that Ruth didn’t mind too much that I spent Wednesday mostly curled up in a sad little ball, because it let her get on with applying to a couple of jobs she’s interested in. Because it turns out there was a third level of disaster to this week: in addition to our ‘plane being cancelled and me getting sick, this week saw Ruth made redundant as her employer sought to dig itself out of a financial hole. A hat trick of bad luck!

Dan, sitting in bed, holding a tissue and looking unwell.
Sniffle. Ugh.

As Ruth began to show symptoms (less-awful than mine, thankfully) of whatever plague had befallen me, we bundled up in bed and made not one but two abortive attempts at watching a film together:

  • Spin Me Round, which looked likely to be a simple comedy that wouldn’t require much effort by my mucus-filled brain, but turned out to be… I’ve no idea what it was supposed to be. It’s not funny. It’s not dramatic. The characters are, for the most part, profoundly uncompelling. There’s the beginnings of what looks like it was supposed to be a romantic angle but it mostly comes across as a creepy abuse of power. We watched about half and gave up.
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, because we figured “how bad can a trashy MCU sequel be anyway; we know what to expect!” But we couldn’t connect to it at all. Characters behave in completely unrealistic ways and the whole thing feels like it was produced by somebody who wanted to be making one of the new Star Wars films, but with more CGI. We watched about half and gave up.

As Thursday drew on and the pain in my head and throat was replaced with an unrelenting cough, I decided I needed some fresh air.

Dan, looking slightly less-unwell, stands holding Demmy, a French Bulldog, in front of a hedge.
The dog needed a walk, too, which is always a viable excuse to get out and about.

So while Ruth collected the shopping, I found my way to the 2023-07-27 51 -1 geohashpoint. And came back wheezing and in need of a lie-down.

I find myself wondering if (despite three jabs and a previous infection) I’ve managed to contract covid again, but I haven’t found the inclination to take a test. What would I do differently if I do have it, now, anyway? I feel like we might be past that point in our lives.

All in all, probably the worst anniversary celebration we’ve ever had, and hopefully the worst we’ll ever have. But a fringe benefit of a willingness to change bases is that we can celebrate our 10th5 anniversary next year, too. Here’s to that.


1 Because we’re that kind of nerds, we count our anniversaries in base 16 (0x10 is 16), or – sometimes – in whatever base is mathematically-pleasing and gives us a nice round number. It could be our 20th anniversary, if you prefer octal.

2 I’ve been on some disastrous aeroplane journeys before, including one just earlier this year which was supposed to take me from Athens to Heathrow, got re-arranged to go to Gatwick, got delayed, ran low on fuel, then instead had to fly to Stansted, wait on the tarmac for a couple of hours, then return to Gatwick (from which I travelled – via Heathrow – home). But this attempt to get to the Isle of Man was somehow, perhaps, even worse.

3 Those who’ve noticed that we were flying EasyJet might rightly give a knowing nod at this point.

4 The warning to take care not to tread on them is sound legal advice: this particular variety of snail is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981!

5 Next year will be our 10th anniversary… in base 17. Eww, what the hell is base 17 for and why does it both offend and intrigue me so?

× × × × × × × × ×

Geohashing expedition 2023-07-27 51 -1

This checkin to
geohash 2023-07-27 51 -1
a geohashing expedition. See
more of Dan's hash logs.


Northern boundary hedge of West Witney Primary School, Witney



I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be on the Isle of Man with my partner, celebrating our 0x10th anniversary. But this week’s been a week of disasters: my partner lost her job, our plane to the Isle of Man got cancelled, and then I got sick (most-likely, I got to catch airport germs from people I got to sit next to on an aircraft which was then cancelled before it had a chance to take off). So mostly this week I’ve been sat at home playing video games.

But the dog needed a walk, and my partner needed to go to the supermarket, so I had her drop me and the geopooch off in West Witney to find the hashpoint and then walk to meet them after she’d collected the shopping. I couldn’t find my GPSr, so I used my phone, and it was reporting low accuracy until I rebooted it, by which time I’d walked past the hashpoint and had to double-back, much to the doggo’s confusion.

I reached the hashpoint at 14:16 BST (and probably a few points before than, owing to my navigation failure). I needed to stand very close to the fence to get within the circle of uncertainty, but at least I didn’t have to reach through and into the school grounds.


My smartwatch kept a tracklog:

Map showing Dan's wanderings back and forth around West Witney Primary School before heading East-South-East across the town towards Waitrose.


Dan Q found GCXWEX Villa View

This checkin to
GCXWEX Villa View
a log entry. See
more of Dan's cache logs.

Found with Ruth after coming out to explore the spectacular Roman villa. We’d supposed to have been out of the Isle of Man celebrating our anniversary, but our ‘plane got cancelled, so we’ve opted for staying at home and doing local cycling expeditions instead. SL, TFTC.

Short-Term Blogging

There’s a perception that a blog is a long-lived, ongoing thing. That it lives with and alongside its author.1

But that doesn’t have to be true, and I think a lot of people could benefit from “short-term” blogging. Consider:

  • Photoblogging your holiday, rather than posting snaps to social media
    You gain the ability to add context, crosslinking, and have permanent addresses (rather than losing eveything to the depths of a feed). You can crosspost/syndicate to your favourite socials if that’s your poison..
Photo showing a mobile phone, held in a hand, being used to take a photograph of a rugged coastline landscape.
Photoblog your holiday and I might follow it, and I’ll do so at my convenience. Put your snaps on Facebook and I almost certainly won’t bother. Photo courtesy ArtHouse Studio.
  • Blogging your studies, rather than keeping your notes to yourself
    Writing what you learn helps you remember it; writing what you learn in a public space helps others learn too and makes it easy to search for your discoveries later.2
  • Recording your roleplaying, rather than just summarising each session to your fellow players
    My D&D group does this at! That site won’t continue to be updated forever – the party will someday retire or, more-likely, come to a glorious but horrific end – but it’ll always live on as a reminder of what we achieved.

One of my favourite examples of such a blog was 52 Reflect3 (now integrated into its successor The Improbable Blog). For 52 consecutive weeks my partner‘s brother Robin blogged about adventures that took him out of his home in London and it was amazing. The project’s finished, but a blog was absolutely the right medium for it because now it’s got a “forever home” on the Web (imagine if he’d posted instead to Twitter, only for that platform to turn into a flaming turd).

I don’t often shill for my employer, but I genuinely believe that the free tier on is an excellent way to give a forever home to your short-term blog4. Did you know that you can type (or; both work!) into your browser to start one?

What are you going to write about?


1 This blog is, of course, an example of a long-term blog. It’s been going in some form or another for over half my life, and I don’t see that changing. But it’s not the only kind of blog.

2 Personally, I really love the serendipity of asking a web search engine for the solution to a problem and finding a result that turns out to be something that I myself wrote, long ago!

3 My previous posts about 52 Reflect: Challenge Robin, Twatt, Brixton to Brighton by Boris Bike, Ending on a High (and associated photo/note)

4 One of my favourite features of is the fact that it’s built atop the world’s most-popular blogging software and you can export all your data at any time, so there’s absolutely no lock-in: if you want to migrate to a competitor or even host your own blog, it’s really easy to do so!


Werewolves and Wanderer

This blog post is also available as a video. Would you prefer to watch/listen to me tell you about the video game that had the biggest impact on my life?

Of all of the videogames I’ve ever played, perhaps the one that’s had the biggest impact on my life1 was: Werewolves and (the) Wanderer.2

This simple text-based adventure was originally written by Tim Hartnell for use in his 1983 book Creating Adventure Games on your Computer. At the time, it was common for computing books and magazines to come with printed copies of program source code which you’d need to re-type on your own computer, printing being significantly many orders of magnitude cheaper than computer media.3

Front cover of The Amazing Amstrad Omnibus, by Martin Fairbanks, with its bright yellow text on a red background.
Werewolves and Wanderer was adapted for the Amstrad CPC4 by Martin Fairbanks and published in The Amazing Amstrad Omnibus (1985), which is where I first discovered it.
When I first came across the source code to Werewolves, I’d already begun my journey into computer programming. This started alongside my mother and later – when her quantity of free time was not able to keep up with my level of enthusiasm – by myself.

I’d been working my way through the operating manual for our microcomputer, trying to understand it all.5

Scan of a ring-bound page from a technical manual. The page describes the use of the "INPUT" command, saying "This command is used to let the computer know that it is expecting something to be typed in, for example, the answer to a question". The page goes on to provide a code example of a program which requests the user's age and then says "you look younger than [age] years old.", substituting in their age. The page then explains how it was the use of a variable that allowed this transaction to occur.
The ring-bound 445-page A4 doorstep of a book quickly became adorned with my pencilled-in notes, the way a microcomputer manual ought to be. It’s strange to recall that there was a time that beginner programmers still needed to be reminded to press [ENTER] at the end of each line.
And even though I’d typed-in dozens of programs before, both larger and smaller, it was Werewolves that finally helped so many key concepts “click” for me.

In particular, I found myself comparing Werewolves to my first attempt at a text-based adventure. Using what little I’d grokked of programming so far, I’d put together a series of passages (blocks of PRINT statements6) with choices (INPUT statements) that sent the player elsewhere in the story (using, of course, the long-considered-harmful GOTO statement), Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style.

Werewolves was… better.

Photograph of Dan in his mid-teens, with shoulder-length bleached-blonde hair and wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a snarling wolf, sits in front of a running PC (with its beige case open) on which an external modem is precariously balanced.
By the time I was the model of a teenage hacker, I’d been writing software for years. Most of it terrible.

Werewolves and Wanderer was my first lesson in how to structure a program.

Let’s take a look at a couple of segments of code that help illustrate what I mean (here’s the full code, if you’re interested):


30 GOSUB 160
40 IF RO<>11 THEN 30

60 GOSUB 3520
90 GOSUB 3520
110 GOSUB 3520:SOUND 5,80


2610 MODE 1:BORDER 1:INK 0,1:INK 1,24:INK 2,26:INK 3,18:PAPER 0:PEN 2 
2630 WEALTH=75:FOOD=0
2640 STRENGTH=100
2650 TALLY=0


3520 FOR T=1 TO 900:NEXT T
Locomotive BASIC had mandatory line numbering. The spacing and gaps (...) have been added for readability/your convenience.

What’s interesting about the code above? Well…

  • The code for “what to do when you win the game” is very near the top. “Winning” is the default state. The rest of the adventure exists to obstruct that. In a language with enforced line numbering and no screen editor7, it makes sense to put fixed-length code at the top… saving space for the adventure to grow below.
  • Two subroutines are called (the GOSUB statements):
    • The first sets up the game state: initialising the screen (2610), the RNG (2620), and player characteristics (26302660). This also makes it easy to call it again (e.g. if the player is given the option to “start over”). This subroutine goes on to set up the adventure map (more on that later).
    • The second starts on line 160: this is the “main game” logic. After it runs, each time, line 40 checks IF RO<>11 THEN 30. This tests whether the player’s location (RO) is room 11: if so, they’ve exited the castle and won the adventure. Otherwise, flow returns to line 30 and the “main game” subroutine happens again. This broken-out loop improving the readability and maintainability of the code.8
  • A common subroutine is the “delay loop” (line 3520). It just counts to 900! On a known (slow) processor of fixed speed, this is a simpler way to put a delay in than relying on a real-time clock.

The game setup gets more interesting still when it comes to setting up the adventure map. Here’s how it looks:

2690 DIM A(19,7):CHECKSUM=0
2700 FOR B=1 TO 19
2710   FOR C=1 TO 7
2730   NEXT C:NEXT B


2850 FOR J=1 TO 7
2860   M=INT(RND*19)+1
2870   IF M=6 OR M=11 OR A(M,7)<>0 THEN 2860
2880   A(M,7)=INT(RND*100)+100
2890 NEXT J

2920 FOR J=1 TO 6
2930   M=INT(RND*18)+1
2940   IF M=6 OR M=11 OR A(M,7)<>0 THEN 2930
2950   A(M,7)=-J
2960 NEXT J
2970 A(4,7)=100+INT(RND*100)
2980 A(16,7)=100+INT(RND*100)


3310 DATA   0,  2,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3320 DATA   1,  3,  3,  0,  0,  0,  0
3330 DATA   2,  0,  5,  2,  0,  0,  0
3340 DATA   0,  5,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3350 DATA   4,  0,  0,  3, 15, 13,  0
3360 DATA   0,  0,  1,  0,  0,  0,  0
3370 DATA   0,  8,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3380 DATA   7, 10,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3390 DATA   0, 19,  0,  8,  0,  8,  0
3400 DATA   8,  0, 11,  0,  0,  0,  0
3410 DATA   0,  0, 10,  0,  0,  0,  0
3420 DATA   0,  0,  0, 13,  0,  0,  0
3430 DATA   0,  0, 12,  0,  5,  0,  0
3440 DATA   0, 15, 17,  0,  0,  0,  0
3450 DATA  14,  0,  0,  0,  0,  5,  0
3460 DATA  17,  0, 19,  0,  0,  0,  0
3470 DATA  18, 16,  0, 14,  0,  0,  0
3480 DATA   0, 17,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3490 DATA   9,  0, 16,  0,  0,  0,  0
Again, I’ve tweaked this code to improve readability, including adding indention on the loops, “modern-style”, and spacing to make the DATA statements form a “table”.

What’s this code doing?

  • Line 2690 defines an array (DIM) with two dimensions9 (19 by 7). This will store room data, an approach that allows code to be shared between all rooms: much cleaner than my first attempt at an adventure with each room having its own INPUT handler.
  • The two-level loop on lines 2700 through 2730 populates the room data from the DATA blocks. Nowadays you’d probably put that data in a separate file (probably JSON!). Each “row” represents a room, 1 to 19. Each “column” represents the room you end up at if you travel in a given direction: North, South, East, West, Up, or Down. The seventh column – always zero – represents whether a monster (negative number) or treasure (positive number) is found in that room. This column perhaps needn’t have been included: I imagine it’s a holdover from some previous version in which the locations of some or all of the treasures or monsters were hard-coded.
  • The loop beginning on line 2850 selects seven rooms and adds a random amount of treasure to each. The loop beginning on line 2920 places each of six monsters (numbered -1 through -6) in randomly-selected rooms. In both cases, the start and finish rooms, and any room with a treasure or monster, is ineligible. When my 8-year-old self finally deciphered what was going on I was awestruck at this simple approach to making the game dynamic.
  • Rooms 4 and 16 always receive treasure (lines 29702980), replacing any treasure or monster already there: the Private Meeting Room (always worth a diversion!) and the Treasury, respectively.
  • Curiously, room 9 (the lift) defines three exits, even though it’s impossible to take an action in this location: the player teleports to room 10 on arrival! Again, I assume this is vestigal code from an earlier implementation.
  • The “checksum” that’s tested on line 2740 is cute, and a younger me appreciated deciphering it. I’m not convinced it’s necessary (it sums all of the values in the DATA statements and expects 355 to limit tampering) though, or even useful: it certainly makes it harder to modify the rooms, which may undermine the code’s value as a teaching aid!
Map showing the layout of the castle in video game "Werewolves and the Wanderer". Entering from outside the castle, to the West, the player must progress through the ground floor, up the stairwell in the Inner Hallway, into the Lift, and then East to the exit, but there are several opportunities to diverge from this path and e.g. explore the dungeons or various dead ends on the ground or first floors.
By the time I was 10, I knew this map so well that I could draw it perfectly from memory. I almost managed the same today, aged 42. That memory’s buried deep!

Something you might notice is missing is the room descriptions. Arrays in this language are strictly typed: this array can only contain integers and not strings. But there are other reasons: line length limitations would have required trimming some of the longer descriptions. Also, many rooms have dynamic content, usually based on random numbers, which would be challenging to implement in this way.

As a child, I did once try to refactor the code so that an eighth column of data specified the line number to which control should pass to display the room description. That’s a bit of a no-no from a “mixing data and logic” perspective, but a cool example of metaprogramming before I even knew it! This didn’t work, though: it turns out you can’t pass a variable to a Locomotive BASIC GOTO or GOSUB. Boo!10

An experimental program being run that attempts to GOSUB a variable, failing with a syntax error on the relevant line.
In hindsight, I could have tested the functionality before I refactored with a very simple program, but I was only around 10 or 11 and still had lots to learn!

Werewolves and Wanderer has many faults11. But I’m clearly not the only developer whose early skills were honed and improved by this game, or who hold a special place in their heart for it. Just while writing this post, I discovered:

A decade or so later, I’d be taking my first steps as a professional software engineer. A couple more decades later, I’m still doing it.

And perhaps that adventure -the one that’s occupied my entire adult life – was facilitated by this text-based one from the 1980s.


1 The game that had the biggest impact on my life, it might surprise you to hear, is not among the “top ten videogames that stole my life” that I wrote about almost exactly 16 years ago nor the follow-up list I published in its incomplete form three years later. Turns out that time and impact are not interchangable. Who knew?

2 The game is variously known as Werewolves and Wanderer, Werewolves and Wanderers, or Werewolves and the Wanderer. Or, on any system I’ve been on, WERE.BAS, WEREWOLF.BAS, or WEREWOLV.BAS, thanks to the CPC’s eight-point-three filename limit.

3 Additionally, it was thought that having to undertake the (painstakingly tiresome) process of manually re-entering the source code for a program might help teach you a little about the code and how it worked, although this depended very much on how readable the code and its comments were. Tragically, the more comprehensible some code is, the more long-winded the re-entry process.

4 The CPC’s got a fascinating history in its own right, but you can read that any time.

5 One of my favourite features of home microcomputers was that seconds after you turned them on, you could start programming. Your prompt was an interface to a programming language. That magic had begun to fade by the time DOS came to dominate (sure, you can program using batch files, but they’re neither as elegant nor sophisticated as any BASIC dialect) and was completely lost by the era of booting directly into graphical operating systems. One of my favourite features about the Web is that it gives you some of that magic back again: thanks to the debugger in a modern browser, you can “tinker” with other people’s code once more, right from the same tool you load up every time. (Unfortunately, mobile devices – which have fast become the dominant way for people to use the Internet – have reversed this trend again. Try to View Source on your mobile – if you don’t already know how, it’s not an easy job!)

6 In particular, one frustration I remember from my first text-based adventure was that I’d been unable to work around Locomotive BASIC’s lack of string escape sequences – not that I yet knew what such a thing would be called – in order to put quote marks inside a quoted string!

7 “Screen editors” is what we initially called what you’d nowadays call a “text editor”: an application that lets you see a page of text at the same time, move your cursor about the place, and insert text wherever you feel like. It may also provide features like copy/paste and optional overtyping. Screen editors require more resources (and aren’t suitable for use on a teleprinter) compared to line editors, which preceeded them. Line editors only let you view and edit a single line at a time, which is how most of my first 6 years of programming was done.

8 In a modern programming language, you might use while true or similar for a main game loop, but this requires pushing the “outside” position to the stack… and early BASIC dialects often had strict (and small, by modern standards) limits on stack height that would have made this a risk compared to simply calling a subroutine from one line and then jumping back to that line on the next.

9 A neat feature of Locomotive BASIC over many contemporary and older BASIC dialects was its support for multidimensional arrays. A common feature in modern programming languages, this language feature used to be pretty rare, and programmers had to do bits of division and modulus arithmetic to work around the limitation… which, I can promise you, becomes painful the first time you have to deal with an array of three or more dimensions!

10 In reality, this was rather unnecessary, because the ON x GOSUB command can – and does, in this program – accept multiple jump points and selects the one referenced by the variable x.

11 Aside from those mentioned already, other clear faults include: impenetrable controls unless you’ve been given instuctions (although that was the way at the time); the shopkeeper will penalise you for trying to spend money you don’t have, except on food, presumably as a result of programmer laziness; you can lose your flaming torch, but you can’t buy spares in advance (you can pay for more, and you lose the money, but you don’t get a spare); some of the line spacing is sometimes a little wonky; combat’s a bit of a drag; lack of feedback to acknowledge the command you enterted and that it was successful; WHAT’S WITH ALL THE CAPITALS; some rooms don’t adequately describe their exits; the map is a bit linear; etc.

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Solitary Nouns

The other night, Ruth and I were talking about collective nouns (y’know, like a herd of cows or a flock of sheep) and came up with the somewhat batty idea of solitary nouns. Like collective nouns, but for a singular subject (one cow, sheep, or whatever).

Then, we tried to derive what the words could be. Some of the results write themselves.1

Captioned photos showing "a HERD of COWS" and "a HER of COW".
Mooving right on…
Captioned photos showing "a PRIDE of LIONS" and "a PROUD of LION".
I’d be lion if I said I wasn’t proud of this one.
Captioned photos showing "a COLONY of BEES" and "a COLONIST of BEE".
I’m pollen out all the collective nouns now!

Some of them involve removing one or more letters from the collective noun to invent a shorter word to be the solitary noun.

Captioned photos showing "an ARMY of ANTS" and "an ARM of ANT". The latter picture shows an ant lifting a stick many times its size.
They stay healthy by working out and getting vaccinated, both of which give them tough anty bodies.
Captioned photos showing "a COVEN of WITCHES" and "an OVEN of WITCH" (the latter picture shows a scene from Handsel & Gretel in which the witch is pushed into the oven).
The sound of an oven is a cackling: “When shall I one meet again?”
Captioned photos showing "a MURMURATION of STARLINGS" and "a MURMUR of STARLING".
Eventually it grows up into a star, which are a lot louder.2
For others, we really had to stretch the concept by mutating words in ways that “felt right”, using phoenetic spellings, or even inventing collective nouns so that we could singularise them:
Captioned photos showing "a GAGGLE of GEESE" and "a GIGGLE of GOOSE".
For more goose-related wordplay, take a gander at this blog post from a few years back.
Captioned photos showing "a ROUND of DRINKS" and "a ROW of DRINK": the latter photo shows a man drinking in a bar while fighting another man.
Getting smashed doesn’t have to end with bumps and boozers.3
Captioned photos showing "an 1812 of CANNONS" and "a 1 of CANNON".
Blast but not least.

Did I miss any obvious ones?


1 Also consider “parliament of owls” ➔ “politician of owl”, “troop of monkeys” ➔ “soldier of monkey”, “band of gorillas” ➔ “musician of gorilla”. Hey… is that where that band‘s name come from?

2 Is “cluster of stars” ➔ “luster of star” anything?

3 Ruth enjoyed the singularised “a low of old bollock”, too.

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Note #21687

Morning walk with Demmy, first of her name, Queen of Stealing Your Spot On The Sofa, Empress of the Farts Of Doom, rightful keeper of That Gross Chew Toy, bringer of snuggles, destroyer of rosebeds, scourge of the mailman.

A champagne-coloured French Bulldog with a dark face stands on a dirt path in a young forest. She's wearing a red and black tartan harness and her long tongue is lolling out.


The Miracle Sudoku

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

I first saw this video when it was doing the rounds three years ago and was blown away. I was reminded of it recently when it appeared in a blog post about AI’s possible future role in research by Terence Eden.

I don’t even like sudoku. And if you’d told me in advance that I’d enjoy watching a man slowly solve a sudoku-based puzzle in real-time, I’d have called you crazy. But I watched it again today, for what must’ve been the third time, and it’s still magical. The artistry of puzzle creator Mitchell Lee is staggering.

If you somehow missed it the first time around, now’s your chance. Put this 25-minute video on in the background and prepare to have your mind blown.

Dan Q found GC3742 SP9

This checkin to
GC3742 SP9
a log entry. See
more of Dan's cache logs.

Well this was a challenge! The woods threw off my GPS, but I’d brought a backup device so I averaged between them and found a likely GZ. The dog and I did an increasingly large spiral, checking all the obvious hiding spots, to no avail. Returning to our start point we began another pass, and something caught my eye! It was the cache!

A few things had made it challenging:

  • I put the coordinates 13m from where the CO does. Could be the woods, but I’m not the first to say about this distance.
  • This cache is by no means a “regular”. It’s not even a “small”. It would fit inside a 35mm film canister, which in my mind makes it clearly a “micro”!
  • It wasn’t in the hiding place indicated by the hint! I found in on the ground, beneath leaf litter, with thanks to my energetic leaf-kicking geohound!

Signed log and returned cache to the nearest hiding spot that fits the hint, hopefully others will find it more easily than we did! TFTC from Demmy the Dog and I!

Dan crouches in a forest; a French Bulldog is stretching up to lick his arm.


Local Expert

At school, our 9-year-old is currently studying the hsitory of human civilization from the late stone age through to the bronze age. The other week, the class was split into three groups, each of which was tasked with researching a different piece of megalithic architecture:

  • One group researched Stonehenge, because it’s a pretty obvious iconic choice
  • Another group researched the nearby Rollright Stones, which we’ve made a family tradition of visiting on New Year’s Day and have dragged other people along to sometimes
  • The final group took the least-famous monument, our very own local village henge The Devil’s Quoits
Dan, wearing a black t-shirt with the words "Let's make the web a better place" on, sits with his back to a standing stone. Four more standing stones can be seen stretching away into the bakground, atop a flowery meadow and beneath a slightly cloudy but bright sky.
Love me some ancient monuments, even those that are perhaps less authentically-ancient than others.

And so it was that one of our eldest’s classmates was searching on the Web for information about The Devil’s Quoits when they found… my vlog on the subject! One of them recognised me and said, “Hey, isn’t that your Uncle Dan?”1

On the school run later in the day, the teacher grabbed me and asked if I’d be willing to join their school trip to the henge, seeing as I was a “local expert”. Naturally, I said yes, went along, and told a bunch of kids what I knew!

A group of schoolchildren in a mixture of white and blue shirts, and with most wearing sunhats, sit on a pile of rocks alongside a ring ditch and listen intently to Dan.
I’ve presented to much-larger audiences before on a whole variety of subjects, but this one still might have been the most terrifying.

I was slightly intimidated because the class teacher, Miss Hutchins, is really good! Coupled with the fact that I don’t feel like a “local expert”2, this became a kick-off topic for my most-recent coaching session (I’ve mentioned how awesome my coach is before).

A young girl, her hair wild, sits at a kitchen table with a laptop and a homework book, writing.
I originally thought I might talk to the kids about the Bell Beaker culture people who are believed to have constructed the monument. But when I pitched the idea to our girl she turned out to know about as much about them as I did, so I changed tack.

I eventually talked to the class mostly about the human geography aspects of the site’s story. The area around the Devil’s Quoits has changed so much over the millenia, and it’s a fascinating storied history in which it’s been:

  • A prehistoric henge and a circle of 28 to 36 stones (plus at least one wooden building, at some point).
  • Medieval farms, from which most of the stones were taken (or broken up) and repurposed.
  • A brief (and, it turns out, incomplete) archeological survey on the remains of the henge and the handful of stones still-present.
  • A second world war airfield (a history I’ve also commemorated with a geocache).
  • Quarrying operations leaving a series of hollowed-out gravel pits.
  • More-thorough archeological excavation, backed by an understanding of the cropmarks visible from aircraft that indicate that many prehistoric people lived around this area.
  • Landfill use, filling in the former gravel pits (except for one, which is now a large lake).
  • Reconstruction of the site to a henge and stone circle again.3
Ultrawide panoramic picture showing a full circle of standing stones under a clear sky. The dry grass has been cut back, and the remains of a campfire can be seen.
It doesn’t matter to me that this henge is more a modern reconstruction than a preserved piece of prehistory. It’s still a great excuse to stop and learn about how our ancestors might have lived.

It turns out that to be a good enough to pass as a “local expert”, you merely have to know enough. Enough to be able to uplift and inspire others, and the humility to know when to say “I don’t know”.4

That’s a lesson I should take to heart. I (too) often step back from the opportunity to help others learn something new because I don’t feel like I’m that experienced at whatever the subject is myself. But even if you’re still learning something, you can share what you’ve learned so far and help those behind you to follow the same path. I’m forever learning new things, and I should try to be more-open to sharing “as I learn”. And to admit where I’ve still got a long way to go.


1 Of course, I only made the vlog because I was doing a videography course at the time and needed subject matter, and I’d recently been reading a lot about the Quoits because I was planning on “hiding” a virtual geocache at the site, and then I got carried away. Self-nerdsniped again!

2 What is a local expert? I don’t know, but what I feel like is just a guy who read a couple of books because he got distracted while hiding a geocache!

3 I’ve no idea what future archeologists will make of this place when they finda reconstructed stone circle and then, when they dig nearby, an enormous quantity of non-biodegradable waste. What was this strange stone circle for, they’ll ask themselves? Was it a shrine to their potato-based gods, to whom they left crisp packets as a sacrifice?

4 When we’re talking about people from the neolithic, saying “I don’t know” is pretty easy, because what we don’t know is quite a lot, it turns out!

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