Blog

The Page With No Code

It all started when I saw no-ht.ml, Terence Eden‘s hilarious response to Salma Alam-Naylor‘s excellent HTML is all you need to make a website. The latter is an argument against both the silly amount of JavaScript with which websites routinely burden their users, but also even against depending on CSS. As a fan of CSS Naked Day and a firm believer in using JS only for progressive enhancement, I’m obviously in favour.

Screenshot showing Terence Eden's no-ht.ml website, which uses plain text ASCII/Unicode art to argue that you don't need HTML.
Obviously no-ht.ml is to be taken as tongue-in-cheek, but as you’re about to see: it caught my interest and got me thinking: how could I go even further.

Terence’s site works by delivering a document with a claimed MIME type of text/html, but which contains only the (invalid) “HTML” code <!doctype UNICODE><meta charset="UTF-8"><plaintext> (to work around browsers’ wish to treat the page as HTML). This is followed by a block of UTF-8 plain text making use of spacing and emoji to illustrate and decorate the content. It’s frankly very silly, and I love it.1

I think it’s possible to go one step further, though, and create a web page with no code whatsoever. That is, one that you can read as if it were a regular web page, but where using View Source or e.g. downloading the page with curl will show you… nothing.

I present: The Page With No Code! (It’ll probably only work if you’re using Firefox, for reasons that will become apparent later.)

Screenshot showing my webpage, "The Page With No Code". Using white text (and some emojis) on a blue gradient background, it describes the same thought process as I describe in this blog post, and invites the reader to "View Source" and see that the page genuinely does appear to have no code.
I’d encourage you to visit The Page With No Code, use View Source to confirm for yourself that it truly has no code, and see if you can work out for yourself how it manages this feat… before coming back here for an explanation. Again: probably Firefox-only.

Once you’ve had a look for yourself and had a chance to form an opinion, here’s an explanation of the black magic that makes this atrocity possible:

  1. The page is blank. It’s delivered with Content-Type: text/html. Your browser interprets a completely-blank page as faulty and corrects it to a functionally-blank minimal HTML page: <html><head></head><body></body></html>.
  2. <body> and <html> elements can be styled with CSS; this includes the ability to add content: ::before and ::after each element. If only we could load a stylesheet then content injection is possible.
  3. We use the fourth way to inject CSS – a Link: HTTP header – to deliver a CSS payload (this, unfortunately, only works in Firefox). To further obfuscate what’s happening and remove the need for a round-trip, this is encoded as a data: URI.
Screenshot showing HTTP headers returned from a request to the No Code Webpage. A Link: header is highlighted, it contains a data: URL with a base64-encoded CSS stylesheet.
The stylesheet – and all the page content – is right there in the Link: header if you just care to decode it! Observe that while 5.84kB of data are transferred, the browser rightly states that the page is zero bytes in size.

This is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever coded, and that’s saying a lot. I’m so proud of myself. You can view the code I used to generate this awful thing on Github.

Footnotes

1 My first reaction was “why not just deliver something with Content-Type: text/plain; charset=utf-8 and dispense with the invalid code, but perhaps that’s just me overthinking the non-existent problem.

I’d Like to Change my Mother’s Maiden Name

Following their security incident last month, many users of LastPass are in the process of cycling their security credentials for many of their accounts1. I don’t use LastPass2, but I’ve had ocassion to cycle credentials before, so I appreciate the pain that people are going through.

It’s not just passwords, though: it may well be your “security question” answers you need to rotate too. Your passwords quickly become worthless if an attacker can guess the answers to your “security questions” at services that use them. If you’re using a password safe anyway, you should either:

  1. Answer security questions with long strings of random garbage3, or
  2. Ensure that you use different answers for every service you use, as you would with passwords.4

In the latter case, you’re probably storing your security answers in a password safe5. If the password safe they’re stored in is compromised, you need to change the answers to those security questions in order to secure the account.

This leads to the unusual situation where you can need to call up your bank and say: “Hi, I’d like to change my mother’s maiden name.” (Or, I suppose, father’s middle name, first pet’s name, place of birth, or whatever.) Banks in particular are prone to disallowing you from changing your security answers over the Internet, but all kinds of other businesses can also make this process hard… presumably because a well-meaning software engineer couldn’t conceive of any reason that a user might want to.

I sometimes use a pronouncable password generator to produce fake names for security question answers. And I’ll tell you what: I get some bemused reactions when I say things like “I’d like to change my mother’s maiden name from Tuyiborhooniplashon to Mewgofartablejuki.”

But at least it forestalls them asking me “So why did you change your surname to ‘Q’?”

Footnotes

1 If you use LastPass, you should absolutely plan to do this. IMHO, LastPass’s reassurances about the difficulty in cracking the encryption on the leaked data is a gross exaggeration. I’m not saying you need to panic – so long as your master password is reasonably-long and globally-unique – but perhaps cycle all your credentials during 2023. Oh, and don’t rely on your second factor: it doesn’t help with this particular incident.

2 I used to use LastPass, until around 2016, and I still think it’s a good choice for many people, but nowadays I carry an encrypted KeePassXC password safe on a pendrive (with an automated backup onto an encrypted partition on our household NAS). This gives me some security and personalisation benefits, at the expense of only a little convenience.

3 If you’re confident that you could never lose your password (or rather: that you could never lose your password without also losing the security question answers because you would store them in the same place!), there’s no value in security questions, and the best thing you can do might be to render them unusable.

4 If you’re dealing with a service that uses the security questions in a misguided effort to treat them as a second factor, or that uses them for authentication when talking to them on the telephone, you’ll need to have usable answers to the questions for when they come up.

5 You can, of course, use a different password safe for your randomly-generatred security question answers than you would for the password itself; perhaps a more-secure-but-less-convenient one; e.g. an encrypted pendrive kept in your fire safe?

Geohashing expedition 2023-01-02 51 -1

This checkin to geohash 2023-01-02 51 -1 reflects a geohashing expedition. See more of Dan's hash logs.

Location

Muswell Hill, Piddington, Oxfordshire

Participants

Expedition

I bundled the dog into the car and drove out to Piddington, a couple of kilometres North of the hashpoint. Cherwell Council advertise a circular walk that seems to circle from the village (which looked like a good place to park) up to Muswell Hill, the summit of which is near the hashpoint.

She and I walked through Piddington, past the church, and up onto the path. A soggy kilometre or so later we quickly discovered that this was going to be more-challenging than I’d anticipated. We quickly got bogged down in a flooded field and needed to double-back. With my socks already soaking wet and the dog in a similar condition, we found a different route that looped around the entire hill and through an alpaca farm (or were they llamas?), then we worked our way up the South face of the hill, over the summit, and down to the hashpoint. We got there at 11:00 UTC, took a quick look around and pulled the closest thing a dog can manage to a silly grin, and then hacked our way back (by road) to Piddington for the drive home and some dry clothes.

Tracklog

Entire expedition

Walking part only

Photo

Dan - a man with a beard, wearing a grey fleece with a white poppy attached - crouches alongside his French Bulldog in a green field under a blue sky with a few wispy clouds.
Multi-species silly grin.

Video

Also available on YouTube.

Map of 51.8337010,-1.0719239

Email newsletters via RSS

I love feeds!

Maybe you’ve heard already, but I love RSS.

I love it so much that I retrofit sites without feeds into it for the convenience of my favourite reader FreshRSS: working around (for example) the lack of feeds in The Far Side (twice), in friends’ blogs, and in my URL shortener. Whether tracking my progress binging webcomic history, subscribing to YouTube channels, or filtering-out sports news, feeds are the centre of my digital life.

Illustration showing a web application with an RSS feed; the RSS feed is sending data to my RSS reader (represented by FreshRSS's icon).

 

There’s been a bit of a resurgence lately of sites whose only subscription option is email, or – worse yet – who provide certain “exclusive” content only to email subscribers.

I don’t want to go giving an actual email address to every damn service, because:

  • It’s not great for privacy, even when (as usual) I use a unique alias for each sender.
  • It’s usually harder to unsubscribe than I’d like, and rarely consistent: you need to find a recent message, click a link, sometimes that’s enough or sometimes you need to uncheck a box or click a button, or sometimes you’ll get another email with something to click in it…
  • I rarely want to be notified the very second a new issue is published; email is necessarily more “pushy” than I like a subscription to be.
  • I don’t want to use my email Inbox to keep track of which articles I’ve read/am still going to read: that’s what a feed reader is for! (It also provides tagging, bookmarking, filtering, standardised and bulk unsubscribing tools, etc.)

So what do I do? Well…

Illustration showing a web application using MailChimp to send an email newsletter to OpenTrashMail, to which FreshRSS is subscribed.

I already operate an OpenTrashMail instance for one-shot throwaway email addresses (which I highly recommend). And OpenTrashMail provides a rich RSS feed. Sooo…

How I subscribe to newsletters (in my feed reader)

If I want to subscribe to your newsletter, here’s what I do:

  1. Put an email address (I usually just bash the keyboard to make a random one, then put @-a-domain-I-control on the end, where that domain is handled by OpenTrashMail) in to subscribe.
  2. Put https://my-opentrashmail-server/rss/the-email-address-I-gave-you/rss.xml into my feed reader.
  3. That’s all. There is no step 3.

Now I get your newsletter alongside all my other subscriptions. If I want to unsubscribe I just tell my feed reader to stop polling the RSS feed (You don’t even get to find out that I’ve unsubscribed; you’re now just dropping emails into an unmonitored box, but of course I can resubscribe and pick up from where I left off if I ever want to).

Obviously this approach isn’t suitable for personalised content or sites for which your email address is used for authentication, because anybody who can guess the random email address can get the feed! But it’s ideal for those companies who’ll ocassionally provide vouchers in exchange for being able to send you other stuff to your Inbox, because you can simply pipe their content to your feed reader, then add a filter to drop anything that doesn’t contain the magic keyword: regular vouchers, none of the spam. Or for blogs that provide bonus content to email subscribers, you can get the bonus content in the same way as the regular content, right there in a folder of your reader. It’s pretty awesome.

If you don’t already have and wouldn’t benefit from running OpenTrashMail (or another trashmail system with feed support) it’s probably not worth setting one up just for this purpose. But otherwise, I can certainly recommend it.

Why Did Media Players Look Like That?

You don’t really see it any more, but: if you downloaded some media player software a couple of decades ago, it’d probably appear in a weird-shaped window, and I’ve never understood why.

Composite screenshot showing Sonique, Windows Media Player and BSplayer music players, among others, in a variety of windows that are either unusually-shaped, look like conventional Hi-Fis, or both.Mostly, these designs are… pretty ugly. And for what? It’s also worth noting that this kind of design can be found in all kinds of applications, in media players that it was almost ubiquitous.

You might think that they’re an overenthusiastic kind of skeuomorphic design: people trying to make these players look like their physical analogues. But hardware players were still pretty boxy-looking at this point, either because of the limitations of their data storage1. By the time flash memory-based portable MP3 players became commonplace their design was copying software players, not the other way around.

Composite screenshot showing Windows Media Player, the (old) iTunes companion widget, KMPlayer, and other media players. All of them have unusually-shaped windows, often with organic corners.

So my best guess is that these players were trying to stand out as highly-visible. Like: they were things you’d want to occupy a disproportionate amount of desktop space. Maybe other people were listening to music differently than me… but for me, back when screen real estate was at such a premium2, a music player’s job was to be small, unintrusive, and out-of-the-way.

WinAmp music player in minified mode: just a sliver of a music player, small, showing just back/forward/play/pause/stop controls, play time, and a mini-equaliser. The timer shows we're 3 seconds into a track.
I used to run Winamp in its very-smallest minified size, tucked up at the top of the screen, using the default skin or one that made it even less-obtrusive.

It’s a mystery to me why anybody would (or still does) make media player software or skins for them that eat so much screen space, frequently looking ugly while they do so, only to look like a hypothetical hardware device that wouldn’t actually become commonplace until years after this kind of player design premiered!

Maybe other people listened to music on their computer differently from me: putting it front and centre, not using their computer for other tasks at the same time. And maybe for these people the choice of player and skin was an important personalisation feature; a fashion statement or a way to show off their personal identity. But me? I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. I’m glad that this particular trend seems to have died and windows are, for the most part, rounded rectangles once more… even for music player software!

Footnotes

1 A walkman, minidisc player, or hard drive-based digital music device is always going to look somewhat square because of what’s inside.

2 I “only” had 1600 × 1200 (UXGA) pixels on the very biggest monitor I owned before I went widescreen, and I spent a lot of time on monitors at lower resolutions e.g. 1024 × 768 (XGA); on such screens, wasting space on a music player when you’re mostly going to be listening “in the background” while you do something else seemed frivolous.

Dan Q posted a note for GC9GKJA A Fine Pair # 1625 ~ Eynsham

This checkin to GC9GKJA A Fine Pair # 1625 ~ Eynsham reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Visited today after the recent log suggesting the container had been removed and the log dumped. Couldn’t find the log hidden anywhere, but the cache container is intact and in place (just missing a log book!). I’ll try to get up and hunt for the hidden log later this week, or else replace it with a new one.

Map of 51.780417,-1.373967

Transferring to a new phone network, 2022 edition

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

…removing a SIM tray is harder than it looks when you don’t wear earrings. I had to search everywhere to find one of those little SIM tools…

Stuart writes a fun article about his experience of changing mobile network. It’s worth a read, and there’s only one “Dan pro tip” I’d add:

If you have a case on your mobile phone, tuck one of those SIM extractor tools into the case, behind your phone. It’s exactly where you need it to be, if you need one yourself (you probably need to remove the case to access the SIM tray anyway), but beyond that: it means you’re always carrying one for when a friend needs one. They’re also useful for pressing those tiny “factory reset” buttons you see sometimes.

A SIM extractor has been sneakily part of my “everyday carry” for about a decade and it’s proven its value time and time again.

Geohashing expedition 2022-12-05 51 -1

This checkin to geohash 2022-12-05 51 -1 reflects a geohashing expedition. See more of Dan's hash logs.

Location

Bridleway behind Cokethorpe School, West Oxfordshire, UK.

Participants

Expedition

When I saw this hashpoint appear I thought to myself: that’s eminently achievable! I hoped I might be able to slip away from work for a lunchtime cycle to claim it.

But the gods of technology didn’t approve of my plan and turned my workday into a catastrophe of the kind that only a computer can, and the chance of taking a long lunch evaporated quickly. But fortune dealt me a second hand when the weather held off into the evening, and I instead opted for a post-dinner huckle in the dark out to this hashpoint.

I set out around 18:30, South through Stanton Harcourt then North up the adorably-named Ducklington Road. It took some time to sight the somewhat-concealed bridleway around the hill of Cokethorpe School. And then, another challenge – navigating by OpenStreetMap I missed my turning and went straight through a farmyard, and had to carry my bike over a fence at the other end. Turns out the map is wrong and I later found a sign indicating the true course of the bridleway; I’ll get that corrected.

I abandoned my bike for the final 50 metres, trekking through the thick grass of an unmown meadow to the hashpoint and arriving around 19:00. No panoramic photo today it’s too dark – but you get a silly grin.

Pleased with this fast expedition, I diverted on my route home to the Harcourt Arms pub for a pint of their surprisingly-delicious seasonal guest ale, Fairytale of Brew York, which genuinely tastes like stollen. There, I wrote up this expedition report, but I’ll have to get home before I can extract my GPSr‘s tracklog.

Tracklog

Map showing a journey from Sutton, near Stanton Harcourt, along the B4449 then up the A415 past Cokethorpe School, then along a bridleway and into a field (where a chequered flag icon appears), then back to the centre of Stanton Harcourt (where a beer icon appears) before returning to the start point in Sutton.

Download tracklog

Photos

Map of 51.7547325,-1.4717293

Reply to The ethics of syndicating comments using WebMentions

In his blog post “The ethics of syndicating comments using WebMentions”, Terence Eden said:

I want to see what people are writing in public about my posts. I also want to direct people to the conversations which are happening elsewhere on the web. But people – quite rightly – might not want their content permanently stored by my site.

So I think I have a few options.

  1. Do nothing. My site; my rules. If you don’t want me to grab your hot takes, don’t post them in public. (Feels a bit rude, TBQH.)
  2. Be reactive. If someone asks me to remove their content, do so. (But, of course, how will they know I’ve made a copy?)
  3. Stop syndicating comments. (I don’t wanna!)
  4. Replace the verbatim comments with a link saying “Fred mentioned this article on Twitter” . (A bit of a disruptive experience for readers.)
  5. Use oEmbed to capture the user’s comment and dynamically load it from the 3rd party site. That would update automatically if the user changes their name or deleted the comment. (A massive faff to set up.)

Terence describes a problem that I’ve wrestled with myself. If somebody comments directly on my blog using the form at the bottom of a post, that’s a pretty strong indicator of them giving their consent for their comment to be published at the bottom of that post (at my discretion). If somebody publicly replies somewhere my post is syndicated, that’s less-obvious, but still pretty clear. If somebody merely mentions my post publicly, writing their own post and linking to mine… that’s a real fuzzy area.

I take a minimal approach; only capturing their full content if it’s short and otherwise trying to extract a snippet that contains the bit that mentioned my content, and I think that works great. But Terence points out an important follow-up: what if the commenter deletes that content?

My approach so far has always been a reactive one – the second in Terence’s list – and I think it’s a morally-acceptable stance for a personal blogger. But I’m not sure it scales. I find myself asking: what if a news outlet did this, taking my self-published feedback to their story and publishing it on their site, even if I later amended, retracted, or deleted it on my own? If somebody’s making money out of my content, that feels different: I’ve always been clear that what I write on my blog is permissively-licensed, but that permissiveness is based on the prohibition of commercial use of my content.

Perhaps down the line this can be solved technologically: something machine-readable akin to the <link rel="license" ...> tag could state an author’s preference for how their content is syndicated by third parties they’ve mentioned, answering questions like:

  • Can you quote me, or just link to me? Who do these rules apply to? (Should we be attaching metadata to individual links?)
  • Should you inform me that you’ve done so, and if so: how (WebMention, etc.)?
  • If you (or your site) observe that my content has disappeared or changed for an extended time, should that be taken as revokation of consent to syndicate it?

Right now, the relevant technologies are not well-established enough to even begin this kind of work, but if a modern interconected federated web of personal websites takes off, it’s the kind of question we might one day have to answer.

For now my gut feeling is that option #2 (reactive moderation of syndicated comments) is ethically-sufficient for personal websites. But I’ll be watching the feedback Terence (who probably gets many more readers than I) receives in case my gut doesn’t represent the majority!

Geohashing expedition 2022-12-02 51 -1

This checkin to geohash 2022-12-02 51 -1 reflects a geohashing expedition. See more of Dan's hash logs.

Location

Just off the driveway to Appleton Cricket Club, South-West of Appleton.

Participants

Plans

I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to this one, but if I can I’ll cycle over there on my lunch break or right after work.

Expedition

The dog was making an attention-seeking nuisance of herself while I was trying to work today, so I wrapped up all the critical things I needed to do so I could take her our for a walk this afternoon to try to wear her out. I’m moderately familiar with Appleton – I have a regular cycle circuit that comes right through it! – but I’ve never been out to the cricket club and sports field, so I pointed the hashing hound in the right direction and let her lead the way.

At first it looked like this was going to be a successful expedition: the needle on my GPSr pointed almost directly ahead as I walked up the lane towards Appleton Sports Field. But as I got closer, I realised to my disappointment that the hashpoint was going to be about 25 metres into the adjacant field, guarded by a trio of bullocks. At 15:00 I declared the expedition a failure. The doggo and I completed an exploration of the lane and had a look around the sports field, spotted a pair of muntjack deer ambling around, and then headed back home.

I’ll be back in Appleton later today to buy a Christmas tree, so I’ll wave at the cattle as I go past, again.

Tracklog

My GPSr kept a tracklog; note that this was an “on the way” stopoff so the start and end point isn’t the same!

Map showing a line heading into Appleton from the South-West, diverting up the lane towards the Sports Field, and then turning back and leaving by the same route. A cross marks the hashpoint, in a field just off to the side of the route.

Photos

Map of 51.6991962,-1.3745751