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I got married and had kids so you don’t have to

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I’m sure that the graveyard of over-optimism is littered with the corpses of parents who planned to help their children learn self-moderation by showing them the wonders of nature, but who realized too late that fields of wheat don’t stand a chance against Rocket League. I’m hoping that we can agree that computer games are good, but other things are good too, cf fields of wheat. I don’t want to have to sneak in my own gaming time after my son has gone to bed. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite; at least, I don’t want Oscar to know that I’m a hypocrite. Maybe we can play together and use it as father-son bonding time. This might work until he’s ten and after he’s twenty-five.

Robert Heaton, of Programming Projects for Advanced Beginners fame and reverse-engineering device drivers that spy on you (which I’ve talked about before), has also been blogging lately about his experience of Dadding, with the same dry/sarcastic tone you might be used to. This long post is a great example of the meandering thoughts of a (techie) parent in these (interesting) times, and it’s good enough for that alone. But it’s the raw, genuine “honesty and dark thoughts” section towards the end of the article that really makes it stand out.

The most important feature of Sublime Text

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The most important feature of Sublime Text is that it doesn’t change. In the modern world, everything changes at a crazy pace. We get new OSes and new phones every year, Google opens and closes its products monthly, many physical devices get announced, produced, and disappear in an interval shorter than the Sublime Text release cycle. I have two problems with that.

I love Sublime Text. It was the editor for which I finally broke my long, long emacs habit (another editor that “doesn’t change”). Like emacs, Sublime is simple but powerful. Unlike Atom, it doesn’t eat all the RAM in the universe. And unlike VS Code, I can rely on it being fundamentally the same today, tomorrow, and next year.

AI as an Author

I’ve been watching the output that people machines around the Internet have been producing using GPT-3 (and its cousins), an AI model that can produce long-form “human-like” text. Here’s some things I’ve enjoyed recently:

I played for a bit with AI Dungeon‘s (premium) Dragon engine, which came up with Dan and the Spider’s Curse when used as a virtual DM/GM. I pitched an idea to Robin lately that one could run a vlog series based on AI Dungeon-generated adventures: coming up with a “scene”, performing it, publishing it, and taking suggestions via the comments for the direction in which the adventure might go next (but leaving the AI to do the real writing).

Today is Spaceship Day's slapping contest
Today is Spaceship Day starts out making a little sense but this soon gives way to a more thorough absurdism.

Today is Spaceship Day is a Plotagon-powered machinama based on a script written by Botnik‘s AI. So not technically GPT-3 if you’re being picky but still amusing to how and what the AI‘s creative mind has come up with.

The holy founding text of The Church of the Next Word, as revealed to Frank Lantz takes the idea in a different direction. Republished on his blog by Matt Webb (because who wants to read text, in an image, in a Tweet?), it represents an attempt to establish the tenets of a new religion, as imagined by GPT-3. The seventh principle of Nextwordianism is especially profound:

Language contains the map to a better world. Those that are most skilled at removing obstacles, misdirection, and lies from language, that reveal the maps that are hidden within, are the guides that will lead us to happiness.

Yesterday, The Guardian published the op-ed piece A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human? It’s edited together from half a dozen or so essays produced by the AI from the same starting prompt, but the editor insists that this took less time than the editing process on most human-authored op-eds. It’s good stuff. I found myself reminded of Nobody Knows You’re A Machine, a short story I wrote about eight years ago and was never entirely happy with but which I’ve put online in order to allow you to see for yourself what I mean.

Upside Down Landscape, drawn by Janelle Shane following a prompt by an AI
If I came across these hills – with or without deer running atop them – I’d certainly be thinking “yeah, there’s something off about this place.”

But my favourite so far must be GPT-3’s attempt to write its own version of Expert judgment on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which occasionally circulates the Internet retitled with its line This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. The original document was a report into how humans might mark a nuclear waste disposal site in order to discourage deliberate or accidental tampering with the waste stored there: a massive challenge, given that the waste will remain dangerous for many thousands of years! The original paper’s worth a read, of course, but mostly as a preface to reading a post by Janelle Shane (whose work I’ve mentioned before) about teaching GPT-3 to write nuclear waste site area denial strategies. It’s pretty special.

As effective conversational AI becomes increasingly accessible, I become increasingly convinced what we might eventually see a sandwichware future, where it’s cheaper for an appliance developer to install an AI into the device (to allow it to learn how to communicate with your other appliances, in a human language, just like you will) rather than rely on a static and universal underlying computer protocol as an API. Time will tell.

Meanwhile: I promise that this post was written by a human!

When you browse Instagram and find former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s passport number

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Everything you see when you use “Inspect Element” was already downloaded to your computer, you just hadn’t asked Chrome to show it to you yet. Just like how the cogs were already in the watch, you just hadn’t opened it up to look.

But let us dispense with frivolous cog talk. Cheap tricks such as “Inspect Element” are used by programmers to try and understand how the website works. This is ultimately futile: Nobody can understand how websites work. Unfortunately, it kinda looks like hacking the first time you see it.

Hilarious longread.

The Unexpected Solace in Learning to Play Piano

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…while I practice, I have to simultaneously read, listen, think, translate. Every synapse of my brain is so utterly overwhelmed, there is no capacity left to think about the world out there.

When Christoph Niemann published this piece about learning to play the piano during the most-lockdown-y parts of the Coronavirus lockdown, it rang a chord with me (hah!). I, too, have experimented with learning to play the piano this spring/summer, and found a similar kind of Zen-like focussed calm emerge out of the frustration of staring at a piece of sheet music and wondering why I couldn’t for the life of me get me fingers to remember to do when they got to that point.

I started out with – after following some random links off the back of finishing the last bit of work for my recent masters degree – a free course in music theory by the OU, because I figured that coming in from a theoretical perspective would help with the way my brain thinks about this kind of thing. I supplemented that with a book we got for the kids to use to learn to play, and now I’ve now graduated to very gradually hunt-and-pecking my way through Disney’s back catalogue. I can play Go The Distance, Colors of the Wind and most of Can You Feel The Love Tonight barely well enough that I don’t feel the need to tear my own ears off, so I guess I’m making progress, though I still fall over my own hands every time I try to play any bloody thing from Moana. 20 minutes at a time, here and there, and I’m getting there. I don’t expect to ever be good at it, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless.

But anyway: this piece in the NYT Magazine really spoke to me, and to hear that somebody with far more music experience than me can struggle with all the same things I do when getting started with the piano was really reassuring.

Dune (2020)

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Oh my god I’m so excited. I’m afraid they might fuck up the story even more than David Lynch did in 1984 (not that I don’t love that film, too, but in a very different way than the books). I mean: I’d have hoped a modern adaptation would have a bigger part for Chani than it clearly does. And I know nothing at all about the lead, Timothée Chalamet. If only there was something I could do about these fears?

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Yeah, that’s the kind of thing.

The supporting cast look excellent. I think Josh Brolin will make an awesome Gurney Halleck, Jason Momoa will rock Duncan Idaho, and I’m looking forward to seeing Stephen McKinley Henderson play Thufir Hawat. But if there’s just one thing you should watch the trailer for… it’s to listen to fragments of Hans Zimmer’s haunting, simplistic choral adaptation of Pink Floyd’s Eclipse.

CSS Logical Properties

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.my-element {
  margin-inline-start: 1em;
}

What this now does is instead of saying “add margin to the left”, it says “regardless of direction, put margin on the starting side”. If the language of the document was right to left, like Arabic, that margin would be on the right hand side.

This is clever. If you use e.g. margin-left on every list element after the first to put space “between” them, the spacing isn’t quite right when the order of the elements is reversed, for example because your page has been automatically translated into a language that reads in the opposite direction (e.g. right-to-left, rather than left-to-right). When you use margin-left in this way you’re imposing a language-direction-centric bias on your content, and there’s no need: margin-inline-start and its friends are widely-supported and says what you mean: “place a margin before this element”. I’ll be trying to remember to use this where it’s appropriate from now on.

Geohashing expedition 2020-09-09 51 -1

This checkin to geohash 2020-09-09 51 -1 reflects a geohashing expedition. See more of Dan's hash logs.

Location

Edge of a field bounded by Letcombe Brook, over the A338 from Landmead Solar Farm.

Participants

Plans

We’re discussing the possibility of a Subdivision geohash achievement for people who’ve reached every “X in a Y”, and Fippe pointed out that I’m only a hash in the Vale of White Horse from being able to claim such an achievement for Oxfordshire’s regions. And then this hashpoint appears right in the Vale of White Horse: it’s like it’s an omen!

Technically it’s a workday so this might have to be a lunchtime expedition, but I think that might be workable. I’ve got an electric vehicle with a hundred-and-something miles worth of batteries in the tank and it looks like there might be a lay-by nearby the hashpoint (with a geocache in it!): I can drive down there at lunchtime, walk carefully back up the main road, and try to get to the hashpoint!

Expedition

I worked hard to clear an hour of my day to take a trip, then jumped in my (new) electric car and set off towards the hashpoint. As I passed Newbridge I briefly considered stopping and checking up on my geocache there but feeling pressed for time I decided to push on. I parked in the lay-by where GC5XHJG is apparently hidden but couldn’t find it: I didn’t search for long because the farmer in the adjacent field was watching me with suspicion and I figured that anyway I could hunt for it on the way back.

Walking along the A338 was treacherous! There are no paths, only a verge covered in thick grass and spiky plants, and a significant number of the larger vehicles (and virtually all of the motorbikes) didn’t seem to be obeying the 60mph speed limit!

Reaching the gate, I crawled under (reckoning that it’s probably there to stop vehicles and not humans) and wandered along the lane. I saw a red kite and a heron doing their thing before I reached the bridge, crossed Letcombe Brook, and followed the edge of the field. Stuffing my face with blackberries as I went, it wasn’t long before I reached the hashpoint on one edge of the field.

I took a short-cut back before realising that this would put me in the wrong place to leave a The Internet Was Here sign, so I doubled-back to place it on the gate I’d crawled under. Then I returned to the lay-by, where another car had just pulled up (right over the GZ of the geocache I’d hoped to find!) and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Sadly I couldn’t wait around all day – I had work to do! – so I went home, following the satnav in the car in a route that resulted in a figure-of-eight tracklog.

Tracklog

My GPS keeps a tracklog. Here you go:

Geohashing expedition 2020-09-09 51 -1 tracklog map

Video

You can also watch it at:

Photos

360° panoramic VR photo of the 2020-09-09 51 -1 geohashpoint

Map of 51.6460691,-1.3886555

Dan Q couldn’t find GC5XHJG Layby Dash A

This checkin to GC5XHJG Layby Dash A reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Parked my car in this lay-by while on my way to the 2020-09-09 51 -1 geohashpoint. Took a quick look for the cache but the farmer in the adjacent field parked his tractor right alongside me and was watching with suspicion, so I thought better of it and decided to come back after visiting the hashpoint and try again.

The geohashing expedition was a success, and I returned to the lay-by for another attempt… but somebody else had parked here (pretty much exactly where I’d measured the coordinates to be… boo!). I waited for a while but they didn’t seem like they were leaving so I abandoned my search: I’ll try again next time I’m in the vicinity.

Map of 51.6422,-1.387667

Firefox Daylight Makes Me Sad

I love Firefox, as I’ve doubtless said before. In 2005 it reached the point at which (with the right combination of add-ons) it could replace Opera as my default browser. Going mobile, I used it on my N900 (still an underrated device) back in 2010, and later I’d use it on my Android devices. I love the power, productivity, performance, and privacy Firefox helps to give me.

Enter the latest iteration of the Android version, Firefox Daylight, which came out last week.

Start page shown after first upgrading to Firefox Daylight including options for URL bar location.
When you first run Firefox Daylight, you’re asked where you want the address bar, among other things.

First, the good: this latest version of Firefox for Android is fast. Blazingly fast. The privacy controls are clearer and easier to access. Having picture-in-picture mode on mobile is a nice touch, as is the new generation of tracking prevention features.

But Firefox Daylight still makes me frown. And it’s a trio of smaller things that really niggle:

1. Top or bottom toolbar… but top is a second-class citizen.

In theory, I like the idea of having the address bar and its friends at the bottom of the screen where it’s more-accessible to your thumb. I’ve even tried it, independently. in years past. But it’s too much of a mental leap for me nowadays, plus it doesn’t cleanly fit into the “scroll down and the address bar disappears” user experience that’s become commonplace.

Making bottom toolbar the default was perhaps a little radical, then, but at least Mozilla provided an option to put it back at the top. But… it’s not quite right:

Firefox Daylight's navigation controls can involve you moving from the bottom to the top of the screen in succession. Ick.
Sure, I’ll move my thumb the entire height of the screen every time I want to open a new tab.

Even with the toolbar moved back to the top, some controls associated with it stay at the bottom. Want to open a new tab? You have to press the “tabs” button at the top of the screen, then the “plus” button at the bottom of the screen, then – probably – the address bar back at the top of the screen again! You’ve just covered two complete lengths of the screen to do something that used to require none. Not a satisfactory experience.

Fennec F-Droid (showing Firefox for Android's old interface) has the "add tab" button right at the top, on the toolbar. It also uses a "tiled" layout for the tabs with the oldest first, rather than a list view with the oldest last.
The old interface put the oft-used “add tab” button in the toolbar in the same place as the “tabs” button you just pressed. Much better.

2. Tab previews were more space-efficient before

You’ve probably already spotted the other change to the “current tabs” view. Previously, open tabs were shown as mini previews with their titles above. Now they’re shown as tiny (sometimes absent) icon-sized previews with their titles alongside. This allows the domain name to be shown, which is nice, but not nice enough to justify reducing the instant visual recognition the previous interface provided.

It’s not even like you can fit more tabs onto a screen. The capacity is basically the same. You’re just making smaller hit targets with less recognisable graphics. Plus: previously the most-recent tabs were at the bottom (close to where your thumb is, which was the justification for making the address bar default to the bottom); now they’re at the top, further adding to the distance travelled.

3. Plugin support is terrible

I know first hand that implementing backwards-compatibility is hard, but breaking most plugins and then providing a list of nine or so popular/recommended ones that still works isn’t a great experience.

Firefox Daylight's recommended add-ons list
No uMatrix. No Violentmonkey (or any equivalent). No Ghostery, even! Feels like surfing the Web with one hand tied behind my back.

Feels a bit like this was released before it was ready.

For the time being, I’m using Fennec F-Droid as my primary mobile browser. It picks up exactly where Firefox for Android left off, and it doesn’t break my workflow. I hope to switch back to regular Firefox for Android someday, but Daylight needs “finishing” first.

Dan Q found GC140G9 Thames Path: Newbridge (not)

This checkin to GC140G9 Thames Path: Newbridge (not) reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Came down to the river to launch my partner’s brother on a swimming expedition (pictured putting on his wetsuit) downstream and to triple-check access to my nearby new cache GC8YZKJ. Recent logs about the cache being submerged made me worry and I spent some time looking too-close to the water’s edge, but as soon as I expanded my search I caught sight of it immediately. TFTC!

Map of 51.709867,-1.41735

Holograms on Chocolate

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This is incredibly cool. Using (mostly) common household tools and chemicals and a significant amount of effort, Ben (who already built himself a home electron microscope, as you do) demonstrates how you can etch a hologram directly into chocolate, resulting in a completely edible hologram. I’d never even thought before about the fact that a hologram could be embossed into almost any opaque surface before, so this blew my mind. In hindsight it makes perfect sense, but it still looks like magic to see it done.