Freedom of the Mountain

During a family holiday last week to the Three Valleys region of the French Alps for some skiing1, I came to see that I enjoy a privilege I call the freedom of the mountain.

In black skiwear, Dan looks into the camera from a bench in the snow, his skis upright behind him.
“Mornin’. Let’s go skiing.”

The Freedom

The freedom of the mountain is a privilege that comes from having the level of experience necessary to take on virtually any run a resort has to offer. It provides a handful of benefits denied to less-confident skiers:

  • I usually don’t feed to look at a map to plan my next route; whichever way I go will be fine!
  • When I reach one or more lifts, I can choose which to take based on the length of their queue, rather than considering their destinations.
  • When faced with a choice of pistes (or an off-piste route), my choice can be based on my mood, how crowded they are, etc., rather than their rated difficulty.
A snow-covered Alpine glacier sandwiched into a gully of exposed rocks.
Let’s tear this up, yo.

The downside is that I’m less well-equipped to consider the needs of others! Out skiing with Ruth one morning I suggested a route back into town that “felt easy” based on my previous runs, only to have her tell me that – according to the map – it probably wasn’t!

Approaching the Peak

The kids spent the week in lessons. It’s paying off: they’re both improving fast, and the eldest has got all the essentials down and it’s working on improving her parallel turns and on “reading the mountain”. It’s absolutely possible that the eldest, and perhaps both of them, will be a better skier than me someday2.

I’m not perfect, mind. While skiing backwards and filming, I misjudged the height of an arch and hit the back of the head with it… despite the child shouting to warn me! 😅

Maybe, as part of my effort to do what I’m bad at, I should have another go at learning to snowboard. I always found snowboarding frustrating because everything I needed to re-learn was something that I could already do much better and easier on skis. But perhaps if I can reframe that frustration through the lens of learning itself as the destination, I might be in a better place. One to consider for next time I hit the piste.

Footnotes

1 Also a little geocaching and some mountainside Where’s Wally?

2 Assuming snow is still a thing in ten years time.

In black skiwear, Dan looks into the camera from a bench in the snow, his skis upright behind him.× A snow-covered Alpine glacier sandwiched into a gully of exposed rocks.×

Shiftless Progressive Enhancement

Progressive enhancement is a great philosophy for Web application development. Deliver all the essential basic functionality using the simplest standards available; use advanced technologies to add bonus value and convenience features for users whose platform supports them. Win.

Screenshot showing starcharts in Three Rings. With JS disabled, all shifts within the last 3 years are shown, with a link to show historic shifts. With JS enabled, only shifts from the current calendar year are shown, with filters available to dynamically change which year(s) are covered.
JavaScript disabled/enabled is one of the most-fundamental ways to differentiate a basic from an enhanced experience, but it’s absolutely not the only way (especially now that feature detection in JavaScript and in CSS has become so powerful!).

In Three Rings, for example, volunteers can see a “starchart” of the volunteering shifts they’ve done recently, at-a-glance, on their profile page1. In the most basic case, this is usable in its HTML-only form: even with no JavaScript, no CSS, no images even, it still functions. But if JavaScript is enabled, the volunteer can dynamically “filter” the year(s) of volunteering they’re viewing. Basic progressive enhancement.

If a feature requires JavaScript, my usual approach is to use JavaScript to add the relevant user interface to the page in the first place. Those starchart filters in Three Rings don’t appear at all if JavaScript is disabled. A downside to this approach is that the JavaScript necessarily modifies the DOM on page load, which introduces a delay to the page being interactive as well as potentially resulting in layout shift.

That’s not always the best approach. I was reminded of this today by the website of 7-year-old Shiro (produced with, one assumes, at least a little help from Saneef H. Ansari). Take a look at this progressively-enhanced theme switcher:

No layout shift, no DOM manipulation. And yet it’s still pretty clear what features are available.

The HTML that’s delivered over-the-wire provides a disabled <select> element, which gains the CSS directive cursor: not-allowed;, to make it clear to the used that this dropdown doesn’t do anything. The whole thing’s wrapped in a custom element.

When that custom element is defined by the JavaScript, it enhances the dropdown with an event listener that implements the theme changes, then enables the disabled <select>.

<color-schemer>
  <form>
    <label>
      Theme
      <select disabled>
        <option value="">System</option>
        <option value="dark">Dark</option>
        <option value="light" selected>Light</option>
      </select>
    </label>
  </form>
</color-schemer>
I’m not convinced by the necessity of the <form> if there’s no HTML-only fallback… and the <label> probably should use a for="..." rather than wrapping the <select>, but otherwise this code is absolutely gorgeous.

It’s probably no inconvenience to the minority of JS-less users to see a theme switcher than, when they go to use it, turns out to be disabled. But it saves time for virtually everybody not to have to wait for JavaScript to manipulate the DOM, or else to risk shifting the layout by revealing a previously-hidden element.

Altogether, this is a really clever approach, and I was pleased today to be reminded – by a 7-year-old! – of the elegance of this approach. Nice one Shiro (and Saneef!).

Footnotes

1 Assuming that administrators at the organisation where they volunteer enable this feature for them, of course: Three Rings‘ permission model is robust and highly-customisable. Okay, that’s enough sales pitch.

Screenshot showing starcharts in Three Rings. With JS disabled, all shifts within the last 3 years are shown, with a link to show historic shifts. With JS enabled, only shifts from the current calendar year are shown, with filters available to dynamically change which year(s) are covered.×

100 Days To Offload

The ever-excellent Kev Quirk in 2020 came up with this challenge: write a blog post on each of 100 consecutive days. He called it #100DaysToOffload, in nominal reference to the “100 days of code” challenge. I was reflecting upon this as I reach this, my 36th consecutive day of blogging and my longest ever “daily streak” (itself a spin-off of my attempt at Bloganuary this year), and my 48th post of the year so far.

Monochrome photograph showing sprinters at the starting line.
I guess I’ve always been more of a sprinter/hurdles blogger than a marathon runner.

Might I meet that challenge? Maybe. But it turns out it’s easier than I thought because Kev revised the rules to require only 100 posts in a calendar year (or any other 365-day period, but I’m not going to start thinking about the maths of that).

That’s not only much more-achievable… I’ve probably already achieved it! Let’s knock out some SQL to check how many posts I made each year:

SELECT
  YEAR(wp_posts.post_date_gmt) yyyy,
  COUNT(wp_posts.ID) total
FROM
  wp_posts
WHERE
  wp_posts.post_status='publish'
  AND wp_posts.post_type='post'
GROUP BY yyyy
ORDER BY yyyy
My code’s actually a little more-complicated than this, because of some plot, but this covers the essentials.

A big question in some years is what counts as a post. Kev’s definition is quite liberal and includes basically-everything, but I wonder if mine shouldn’t perhaps be stricter. For example:

  • Should I count checkins, even though they’re not always born as blog posts but often start as logs on geocaching websites? (My gut says yes!)
  • Do reposts and bookmarks contribute, a significant minority of which are presented without any further interpretation by me? (My gut says no!)
  • Does a vlog version of a blog post count separately, or is it a continuation of the same content? (My gut says the volume is too low to matter!)
  • Can a retroactive achievement (i.e. from before the challenge was announced) count? Kev writes “there is no specific start date”, but it seems a little counter to the idea of it specifically being a challenge to claim it when you weren’t attempting the challenge at the time.
  • And so on…
Year Posts Success? Notes
1998 7 ❌ No Some posts are lost from 1998/1999. If they were recovered I might have made 100 posts in 1999, but probably not in 1998 as I only started blogging on 27 September 1998.
1999 66 ❌ No
2000 2 ❌ No
2001 11 ❌ No
2002 5 ❌ No
2003 189 🏆 Yes Achieved 1 September, with a post about an article on The Register about timewasting. Or, if we allow reposts, three days earlier with a repost about Claire's car being claimed by the sea.
2004 374 🏆 Yes An early win on 20 April, with a made-up Chez Geek card. Or if we allow reposts, two days earlier with thoughts on a confusing pro-life (???) website.
2005 381 🏆 Yes In a highly-productive year of blogging, achieved on 7 April with a post about enjoy curry and public information films with friends. If we allow bookmarks (I was highly-active on del.icio.us at the time!), achieved even earlier on 18 February with some links to curious websites.
2006 206 🏆 Yes On 21 July, I shared a personality test (which was actually my effort to repeat an experiment in using Barnum-Forer statements) - I didn't initially give away that I was the author of the "test". Non-pedants will agree I achieved the goal earlier, on 19 June, with my thoughts on a programming language for a hypothetical infinitely-fast computer.
2007 166 🏆 Yes Achieved on 2 July with thoughts on films I'd watched and board games I'd played recently. Or arguably 12 days earlier with Claire's birthday trip to Manchester.
2008 86 ❌ No
2009 79 ❌ No
2010 159
(84 for pedants)
✅ Yes* A heartfelt post about saying goodbye to Aberystwyth as I moved to Oxford on 16 June was my 100th of the year. Pedants might argue that this year shouldn't count, but so long as you're willing to count checkins (and you should) then it would... and my qualifying post would have come only a couple of days later, with a post about the Headington Shark, which I had just moved-in near to.
2011 177 🏆 Yes Reached the goal on 28 October when I wrote about mild successes in my enquiries with the Office of National Statistics about ensuring that information about polyamorous households was accurately recorded. Or if we earlier on 9 June with a visual gag about REM lyrics if you accept all my geocache logs as posts too (and again: you should).
2012 129
(87 for pedants)
✅ Yes* My 100th post of the year came on 28 August when I wrote about launching a bus named after my recently-deceased father. You have to be willing to accept both checkins and reposts as posts to allow this year to count.
2013 138
(59 for pedants)
😓 Probably not I'm not convined this low-blogging year should count: a clear majority of the posts were geocaching logs, and they weren't always even that verbose (consider this candidate for 100th post of 2013, from 1 October).
2014 335
(22 for pedants)
🙁 Not really Another geocache log heavy, conventional blogpost light year that I'm not convinced should count, evem if the obvious candidate for 100th post would be 18 May's cool article about geocaching like Batman!
2015 205
(18 for pedants)
🙁 Not really Still no, for the same reasons as above.
2016 163
(37 for pedants)
🙁 Not really
2017 301
(42 for pedants)
🙁 Not really
2018 547
(87 for pedants)
✅ Yes* I maintain that checkins should count, even when they're PESOS'd from geocaching sites, so long as they don't make up a majority of the qualifying posts in a year. In which case this year should qualify, with the 100th post being my visit to this well-hidden London pub while on my way to a conference.
2019 387
(86 for pedants)
✅ Yes* Similarly this year, when on 15 August I visited a GNSS calibration point in the San Francisco Bay Area... on the way to another conference!
2020 221
(64 for pedants)
✅ Yes* Barely made it this year (ignoring reposts, of which I did lots), with my 21 December article about a little-known (and under-supported) way to inject CSS using HTTP headers, which I later used to make a web page for which View Souce showed nothing.
2021 190
(57 for pedants)
✅ Yes* A cycle to a nearby geocache was the checkin that made the 100th post of this year, on 27 August.
2022 168
(55 for pedants)
✅ Yes* My efforts to check up on one of my own geocaches on 7 September scored the qualifying spot.
2023 164
(86 for pedants)
✅ Yes* My blogging ramped up again this year, and on 24 August I shared a motivational poster with a funny twist, plus a pun at the intersection between my sexuality and my preferred mode of transport.
2024 93
(70 for pedants)
⌛ Not yet...
Total 4,954 Total count of all the posts.
Doesn't add up? Not all posts feature in one of the years above!

* Pedants might claim this year was not a success for the reasons described above. Make your own mind up.

In any case, I’d argue that I clearly achieved the revised version of the challenge on certainly six, probably fourteen, arguably (depending on how you count posts) as many as nineteen different years since I started blogging in 1998. My least-controversial claims would be:

  1. September 2003, with Timewasting
  2. April 2004, with Chez Geek Card of the Day
  3. April 2005, with Curry with Alec and Suz
  4. July 2006, with Coolest Personality Test I’ve Ever Seen
  5. July 2007, with It’s All Fun and Games
  6. June 2010, with Saying Goodbye
  7. October 2011, with Poly and the Census – Success! (almost)
  8. August 2012, with A Bus Called Peter
  9. June 2018, with Dan Q found GLW6CMKQ 16th Century Pub (Central London) 
  10. August 2019, with Dan Q found GC6KR0H Bay Area Calibration Point #4 – New Technology
  11. December 2020, with The Fourth Way to Inject CSS
  12. August 2021, with Dan Q found GC531M9 Walk by the Firehouse #1
  13. October 2022, with Dan Q performed maintenance for GC9Z37H Friar’s Farm – Woodland Walk
  14. August 2023, with Inclusivity

Given all these unanswered questions, I’m not going to just go ahead and raise a PR against the Hall of Fame! Instead, I’ll leave it to Kev to decide whether I’m (a) eligible to claim a 14-time award, (b) merely eligible for a 4-time award for the years following the challenge starting, or (c) ineligible to claim success until I intentionally post 100 times in a year (in, at current rates, another two months…). Over to you, Kev…

Update: Kev’s agreed that I can claim the most-recent four of them, so I raised a PR.

Monochrome photograph showing sprinters at the starting line.×

Oldest Digital Photo… of Me

Some younger/hipper friends tell me that there was a thing going around on Instagram this week where people post photos of themselves aged 21.

I might not have any photos of myself aged 21! I certainly can’t find any digital ones…

Dan, aged 22, stands in a cluttered flat with his partner Claire and several members of Dan's family.
The closest I can manage is this photo from 23 April 2003, when I was 22 years old.

It must sound weird to young folks nowadays, but prior to digital photography going mainstream in the 2000s (thanks in big part to the explosion of popularity of mobile phones), taking a photo took effort:

  • Most folks didn’t carry their cameras everywhere with them, ready-to-go, so photography was much more-intentional.
  • The capacity of a film only allowed you to take around 24 photos before you’d need to buy a new one and swap it out (which took much longer than swapping a memory card).
  • You couldn’t even look at the photos you’d taken until they were developed, which you couldn’t do until you finished the roll of film and which took at least hours – more-realistically days – and incurred an additional cost.

I didn’t routinely take digital photos until after Claire and I got together in 2002 (she had a digital camera, with which the photo above was taken). My first cameraphone – I was a relatively early-adopter – was a Nokia 7650, bought late that same year.

It occurs to me that I take more photos in a typical week nowadays, than I took in a typical year circa 2000.

Monochrome photo of a toddler, smiling broadly, pointing at the camera.
The oldest analogue photo of me that I own was taken on 2 October 1982, when I was 22 months old.

This got me thinking: what’s the oldest digital photo that exists, of me. So I went digging.

I might not have owned a digital camera in the 1990s, but my dad’s company owned one with which to collect pictures when working on-site. It was a Sony MVC-FD7, a camera most-famous for its quirky use of 3½” floppy disks as media (this was cheap and effective, but meant the camera was about the size and weight of a brick and took about 10 seconds to write each photo from RAM to the disk, during which it couldn’t do anything else).

In Spring 1998, almost 26 years ago, I borrowed it and took, among others, this photo:

Dan aged 17 - a young white man with platinum blonde shoulder-length hair - stands in front of a pink wall, holding up a large, boxy digital camera.
I’m aged 17 in what’s probably the oldest surviving digital photo of me, looking like a refugee from Legoland in 640×480 glorious pixels.

I’m confident a picture of me was taken by a Connectix QuickCam (an early webcam) in around 1996, but I can’t imagine it still exists.

So unless you’re about to comment to tell me know you differently and have an older picture of me: that snap of me taking my own photo with a bathroom mirror is the oldest digital photo of me that exists.

Dan, aged 22, stands in a cluttered flat with his partner Claire and several members of Dan's family.× Monochrome photo of a toddler, smiling broadly, pointing at the camera.× Dan aged 17 - a young white man with platinum blonde shoulder-length hair - stands in front of a pink wall, holding up a large, boxy digital camera.×

Netscape’s Untold Webstories

I mentioned yesterday that during Bloganuary I’d put non-Bloganuary-prompt post ideas onto the backburner, and considered extending my daily streak by posting them in February. Here’s part of my attempt to do that:

Let’s take a trip into the Web of yesteryear, with thanks to our friends at the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine.

The page we’re interested in used to live at http://www.netscape.com/comprod/columns/webstories/index.html, and promised to be a showcase for best practice in Web development. Back in October 1996, it looked like this:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to debut in November."

The page is a placeholder for Netscape Webstories (or Web Site Stories, in some places). It’s part of a digital magazine called Netscape Columns which published pieces written by Marc Andreeson, Jim Barksdale, and other bigwigs in the hugely-influential pre-AOL-acquisition Netscape Communications.

This new series would showcase best practice in designing and building Web sites1, giving a voice to the technical folks best-placed to speak on that topic. That sounds cool!

Those white boxes above and below the paragraph of text aren’t missing images, by the way: they’re horizontal rules, using the little-known size attribute to specify a thickness of <hr size=4>!2

Certainly you’re excited by this new column and you’ll come back in November 1996, right?

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in January."

Oh. The launch has been delayed, I guess. Now it’s coming in January.

The <hr>s look better now their size has been reduced, though, so clearly somebody’s paying attention to the page. But let’s take a moment and look at that page title. If you grew up writing web pages in the modern web, you might anticipate that it’s coded something like this:

<h2 style="font-variant: small-caps; text-align: center;">Coming Soon</h2>

There’s plenty of other ways to get that same effect. Perhaps you prefer font-feature-settings: 'smcp' in your chosen font; that’s perfectly valid. Maybe you’d use margin: 0 auto or something to centre it: I won’t judge.

But no, that’s not how this works. The actual code for that page title is:

<center>
  <h2>
    <font size="+3">C</font>OMING
    <font size="+3">S</font>OON
  </h2>
</center>

Back when this page was authored, we didn’t have CSS3. The only styling elements were woven right in amongst the semantic elements of a page4. It was simple to understand and easy to learn… but it was a total mess5.

Anyway, let’s come back in January 1997 and see what this feature looks like when it’s up-and-running.

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring."

Nope, now it’s pushed back to “the spring”.

Under Construction pages were all the rage back in the nineties. Everybody had one (or several), usually adorned with one or more of about a thousand different animated GIFs for that purpose.6

Rotating animated "under construction" banner.

Building “in public” was an act of commitment, a statement of intent, and an act of acceptance of the incompleteness of a digital garden. They’re sort-of coming back into fashion in the interpersonal Web, with the “garden and stream” metaphor7 taking root. This isn’t anything new, of course – Mark Bernstein touched on the concepts in 1998 – but it’s not something that I can ever see returning to the “serious” modern corporate Web: but if you’ve seen a genuine, non-ironic “under construction” page published to a non-root page of a company’s website within the last decade, please let me know!

Under construction banner with an animated yellow-and-black tape banner between two "men at work" signs.

RSS doesn’t exist yet (although here’s a fun fact: the very first version of RSS came out of Netscape!). We’re just going to have to bookmark the page and check back later in the year, I guess…

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page identical to the previous version but with a search box ("To search the Netscape Columns, type a word or phrase here:") beneath.

Okay, so February clearly isn’t Spring, but they’ve updated the page… to add a search form.

It’s a genuine <form> tag, too, not one of those old-fashioned <isindex> tags you’d still sometimes find even as late as 1997. Interestingly, it specifies enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded". Today’s developers probably don’t think about the enctype attribute except when they’re doing a form that handles file uploads and they know they need to switch it to enctype="multipart/form-data", (or their framework does this automatically for them!).

But these aren’t the only options, and some older browsers at this time still defaulted to enctype="text/plain".  So long as you’re using a POST and not GET method, the distinction is mostly academic, but if your backend CGI program anticipates that special characters will come-in encoded, back then you’d be wise to specify that you wanted URL-encoding or you might get a nasty surprise when somebody turns up using LMB or something equally-exotic.

Anyway, let’s come back in June. The content must surely be up by now:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in August."

Oh come on! Now we’re waiting until August?

At least the page isn’t abandoned. Somebody’s coming back and editing it from time to time to let us know about the still-ongoing series of delays. And that’s not a trivial task: this isn’t a CMS. They’re probably editing the .html file itself in their favourite text editor, then putting the appropriate file:// address into their copy of Netscape Navigator (and maybe other browsers) to test it, then uploading the file – probably using FTP – to the webserver… all the while thanking their lucky stars that they’ve only got the one page they need to change.

We didn’t have scripting languages like PHP yet, you see8. We didn’t really have static site generators. Most servers didn’t implement server-side includes. So if you had to make a change to every page on a site, for example editing the main navigation menu, you’d probably have to open and edit dozens or even hundreds of pages. Little wonder that framesets caught on, despite their (many) faults, with their ability to render your navigation separately from your page content.

Okay, let’s come back in August I guess:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring." Again.

Now we’re told that we’re to come back… in the Spring again? That could mean Spring 1998, I suppose… or it could just be that somebody accidentally re-uploaded an old copy of the page.

Hey: the footer’s gone too? This is clearly a partial re-upload: somebody realised they were accidentally overwriting the page with the previous-but-one version, hit “cancel” in their FTP client (or yanked the cable out of the wall), and assumed that they’d successfully stopped the upload before any damage was done.

They had not.

Screenshot of a Windows 95 dialog box, asking "Are you sure you want to delete index.html?" The cursor hovers over the "Yes" button.

I didn’t mention that top menu, did I? It looks like it’s a series of links, styled to look like flat buttons, right? But you know that’s not possible because you can’t rely on having the right fonts available: plus you’d have to do some <table> trickery to lay it out, at which point you’d struggle to ensure that the menu was the same width as the banner above it. So how did they do it?

The menu is what’s known as a client-side imagemap. Here’s what the code looks like:

<a href="/comprod/columns/images/nav.map">
  <img src="/comprod/columns/images/websitestories_ban.gif" width=468 height=32 border=0 usemap="#maintopmap" ismap>
</a><map name="mainmap">
  <area coords="0,1,92,24" href="/comprod/columns/mainthing/index.html">
  <area coords="94,1,187,24" href="/comprod/columns/techvision/index.html">
  <area coords="189,1,278,24" href="/comprod/columns/webstories/index.html">
  <area coords="280,1,373,24" href="/comprod/columns/intranet/index.html">
  <area coords="375,1,467,24" href="/comprod/columns/newsgroup/index.html">
</map>

The image (which specifies border=0 because back then the default behaviour for graphical browser was to put a thick border around images within hyperlinks) says usemap="#maintopmap" to cross-reference the <map> below it, which defines rectangular areas on the image and where they link to, if you click them! This ingenious and popular approach meant that you could transmit a single image – saving on HTTP round-trips, which were relatively time-consuming before widespread adoption of HTTP/1.1‘s persistent connections – along with a little metadata to indicate which pixels linked to which pages.

The ismap attribute is provided as a fallback for browsers that didn’t yet support client-side image maps but did support server-side image maps: there were a few! When you put ismap on an image within a hyperlink, then when the image is clicked on the href has appended to it a query parameter of the form ?123,456, where those digits refer to the horizontal and vertical coordinates, from the top-left, of the pixel that was clicked on! These could then be decoded by the webserver via a .map file or handled by a CGI program. Server-side image maps were sometimes used where client-side maps were undesirable, e.g. when you want to record the actual coordinates picked in a spot-the-ball competition or where you don’t want to reveal in advance which hotspot leads to what destination, but mostly they were just used as a fallback.9

Both client-side and server-side image maps still function in every modern web browser, but I’ve not seen them used in the wild for a long time, not least because they’re hard (maybe impossible?) to make accessible and they can’t cope with images being resized, but also because nowadays if you really wanted to make an navigation “image” you’d probably cut it into a series of smaller images and make each its own link.

Anyway, let’s come back in October 1997 and see if they’ve fixed their now-incomplete page:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: the Coming Soon page is now laid out in two columns, but the expected launch date has been removed.

Oh, they have! From the look of things, they’ve re-written the page from scratch, replacing the version that got scrambled by that other employee. They’ve swapped out the banner and menu for a new design, replaced the footer, and now the content’s laid out in a pair of columns.

There’s still no reliable CSS, so you’re not looking at columns: (no implementations until 2014) nor at display: flex (2010) here. What you’re looking at is… a fixed-width <table> with a single row and three columns! Yes: three – the middle column is only 10 pixels wide and provides the “gap” between the two columns of text.10

This wasn’t Netscape’s only option, though. Did you ever hear of the <multicol> tag? It was the closest thing the early Web had to a semantically-sound, progressively-enhanced multi-column layout! The author of this page could have written this:

<multicol cols=2 gutter=10 width=301>
  <p>
    Want to create the best possible web site? Join us as we explore the newest
    technologies, discover the coolest tricks, and learn the best secrets for
    designing, building, and maintaining successful web sites.
  </p>
  <p>
    Members of the Netscape web site team, recognized designers, and technical
    experts will share their insights and experiences in Web Site Stories. 
  </p>
</multicol>

That would have given them the exact same effect, but with less code and it would have degraded gracefully. Browsers ignore tags they don’t understand, so a browser without support for <multicol> would have simply rendered the two paragraphs one after the other. Genius!

So why didn’t they? Probably because <multicol> only ever worked in Netscape Navigator.

Introduced in 1996 for version 3.0, this feature was absolutely characteristic of the First Browser War. The two “superpowers”, Netscape and Microsoft, both engaged in unilateral changes to the HTML specification, adding new features and launching them without announcement in order to try to get the upper hand over the other. Both sides would often refuse to implement one-another’s new tags unless they were forced to by widespread adoption by page authors, instead promoting their own competing mechanisms11.

Between adding this new language feature to their browser and writing this page, Netscape’s market share had fallen from around 80% to around 55%, and most of their losses were picked up by IE. Using <multicol> would have made their page look worse in Microsoft’s hot up-and-coming browser, which wouldn’t have helped them persuade more people to download a copy of Navigator and certainly wouldn’t be a good image on a soon-to-launch (any day now!) page about best-practice on the Web! So Netscape’s authors opted for the dominant, cross-platform solution on this page12.

Anyway, let’s fast-forward a bit and see this project finally leave its “under construction” phase and launch!

Screenshot showing the homepage of Netscape Columns from 15 February 1998; the first recorded copy NOT to have a header link to the Webstories / Web Site Stories page.

Oh. It’s gone.

Sometime between October 1997 and February 1998 the long promised “Web Site Stories” section of Netscape Columns quietly disappeared from the website. Presumably, it never published a single article, instead remaining a perpetual “Coming Soon” page right up until the day it was deleted.

I’m not sure if there’s a better metaphor for Netscape’s general demeanour in 1998 – the year in which they finally ceased to be the dominant market leader in web browsers – than the quiet deletion of a page about how Netscape customers are making the best of the Web. This page might not have been important, or significant, or even completed, but its disappearance may represent Netscape’s refocus on trying to stay relevant in the face of existential threat.

Of course, Microsoft won the First Browser War. They did so by pouring a fortune’s worth of developer effort into staying technologically one-step ahead, refusing to adopt standards proposed by their rival, and their unprecedented decision to give away their browser for free13.

Footnotes

1 Yes, we used to write “Web sites” as two words. We also used to consistently capitalise the words Web and Internet. Some of us still do so.

2 In case it’s not clear, this blog post is going to be as much about little-known and archaic Web design techniques as it is about Netscape’s website.

3 This is a white lie. CSS was first proposed almost at the same time as the Web! Microsoft Internet Explorer was first to deliver a partial implementation of the initial standard, late in 1996, but Netscape dragged their heels, perhaps in part because they’d originally backed a competing standard called JavaScript Style Sheets (JSSS). JSSS had a lot going for it: if it had enjoyed widespread adoption, for example, we’d have had the equivalent of CSS variables a full twenty years earlier! In any case, back in 1996 you definitely wouldn’t want to rely on CSS support.

4 Wondering where the text and link colours come from? <body bgcolor="#ffffff" text="#000000" link="#0000ff" vlink="#ff0000" alink="#ff0000">. Yes really, that’s where we used to put our colours.

5 Personally, I really loved the aesthetic Netscape touted when using Times New Roman (or whatever serif font was available on your computer: webfonts weren’t a thing yet) with temporary tweaks to font sizes, and I copied it in some of my own sites. If you look back at my 2018 blog post celebrating two decades of blogging, where I’ve got a screenshot of my blog as it looked circa 1999, you’ll see that I used exactly this technique for the ordinal suffixes on my post dates! On the same post, you’ll see that I somewhat replicated the “feel” of it again in my 2011 design, this time using a stylesheet.

6 There’s a whole section of Cameron’s World dedicated to “under construction” banners, and that’s a beautiful thing!

7 The idea of “garden and stream” is that you publish early and often, refining as you go, in your garden, which can act as an extension of whatever notetaking system you use already, but publish mostly “finished” content to your (chronological) stream. I see an increasing number of IndieWeb bloggers going down this route, but I’m not convinced that it’s for me.

8 Another white lie. PHP was released way back in 1995 and even the very first version supported something a lot like server-side includes, using the syntax <!--include /file/name.html-->. But it was a little computationally-intensive to run willy-nilly.

9 Server-side imagemaps are enjoying a bit of a renaissance on .onion services, whose visitors often keep JavaScript disabled, to make image-based CAPTCHAs. Simply show the visitor an image and describe the bit you want them to click on, e.g. “the blue pentagon with one side missing”, then compare the coordinates of the pixel they click on to the knowledge of the right answer. Highly-inaccessible, of course, but innovative from a purely-technical perspective.

10 Nowadays, use of tables for layout – or, indeed, for anything other than tabular data – is very-much frowned upon: it’s often bad for accessibility and responsive design. But back before we had the features granted to us by the modern Web, it was literally the only way to get content to appear side-by-side on a page, and designers got incredibly creative about how they misused tables to lay out content, especially as browsers became more-sophisticated and began to support cells that spanned multiple rows or columns, tables “nested” within one another, and background images.

11 It was a horrible time to be a web developer: having to make hacky workarounds in order to make use of the latest features but still support the widest array of browsers. But I’d still take that over the horrors of rendering engine monoculture!

12 Or maybe they didn’t even think about it and just copy-pasted from somewhere else on their site. I’m speculating.

13 This turned out to be the master-stroke: not only did it partially-extricate Microsoft from their agreement with Spyglass Inc., who licensed their browser engine to Microsoft in exchange for a percentage of sales value, but once Microsoft started bundling Internet Explorer with Windows it meant that virtually every computer came with their browser factory-installed! This strategy kept Microsoft on top until Firefox and Google Chrome kicked-off the Second Browser War in the early 2010s. But that’s another story.

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to debut in November."× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in January."× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring."× Rotating animated "under construction" banner.× Under construction banner with an animated yellow-and-black tape banner between two "men at work" signs.× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page identical to the previous version but with a search box ("To search the Netscape Columns, type a word or phrase here:") beneath.× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in August."× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring." Again.× Screenshot of a Windows 95 dialog box, asking "Are you sure you want to delete index.html?" The cursor hovers over the "Yes" button.× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: the Coming Soon page is now laid out in two columns, but the expected launch date has been removed.× Screenshot showing the homepage of Netscape Columns from 15 February 1998; the first recorded copy NOT to have a header link to the Webstories / Web Site Stories page.×

Reflecting on Bloganuary

Well that was Bloganuary! It was pressuring, exhausting, and – mostly! – fun. Let’s recap what I wrote about each day of January:

  1. My Biggest Challenge, for which I pointed at motivation in the winter and how that was a major part of my motivation for trying to participate in Bloganuary in the first place! I also touched on the difficulty of staying on-task.
Chart showing number of articles on DanQ.me by month of year, with a pronounced dip starting in January and continuing through until a rebound in April.
Early in January I shared this chart which indicates the severity of the “dip” I typically see in my blog output in the first few months of the year. Could I overcome this through sheer determination, I wondered?
  1. Playtime. I talked about some of the “play” activities I engage in, including roleplaying games, board games, videogames, escape rooms, and GNSS games.
  2. Alumnus: an exploration of the higher education establishments I’ve been part of.
  3. The Gift of Time, when I talked about being time-poor and seemingly perpetually-busy and expressed my love of gifts that help me reclaim that time.
  4. Nostalgia vs Futurism. I spend comparable amounts of time thinking about the future as the past, I reckon.
  5. Billboards: a silly joke about a billboard.
  6. A Different Diet, talking about aspiring towards something slightly-closer to veganism, perhaps starting by reducing my dairy consumption.
  7. Live Long and Prosper, in which I commemorate my birthday by talking about the dangers of humans living much longer than they do.
  8. Mission, another silly joke.
King Arthur again, but now he says "I wanna, like, make cool shit on the Internet or whatever."
You and me both, Arthur, King of the Britons.
  1. Attachment, about how I didn’t really have an “attachment object” as a kid.
  2. Paws to Hear my Scents-ible Idea: a silly pitch for a smell-based social network for dogs.
  3. Pizza, a post about the greatest food ever invented.
  4. Road Trip! After ruling out a series of runners-up, perhaps my most-memorable road trip was the one to Kit’s wedding.
  5. Communicate Early, Communicate Often, about the ways I communicate online (spoiler: a lot of it’s right here!).
  6. Magpies are the Best Bird. Nay, the best animal.
  7. Clutter, about the clutter in my physical space but perhaps even more in my head.
  8. Puppy Love: the unconditional love of a dog.
  9. Uninvention, in which I propose uninventing cryptocurrency.
  10. Leadership: I revisited an old post about the qualities I admire in leaders; it’s still true.
  11. Dream Job – am I already doing my dream job? Maybe, though perhaps it isn’t the one that pays me!
  12. What’s in a name? My name today is one I chose for myself, but it’s not the only name I’ve been known by. I revisit the names I’ve been called and what they’ve meant.
  13. New Tricks, about how convenient it’d be to be able to explain to our dog that the builders in our house are not here to steal her toys.
  14. Fun Five: five things I do for fun – code, magic, play, piano, learn. A bit of a parallel to “Playtime” from day 2.
  1. Harcourt Manor, a local attraction I’ve never gotten to see inside.
  2. Landslide, the spectacular song that inspired this post because I didn’t objected to the original prompt.
  3. Traditions my family practices, some of which are pretty unique to us.
  4. Reading List, about how mine is pretty long this time of year, but that doesn’t stop me thinking about what I might re-read next.
  5. Not The Lottery, a game I play that’s… well… not the lottery. And how if I played the actual lottery (and somehow won), how I’d do my “dream job” from day 18.
  6. Sportsball! I don’t really play or follow any sports, but that doesn’t stop me writing a diatribe of what’s wrong with professional soccer.
  7. Toilet Paper is typically mounted on a holder in one of two polarities. One of those orientations is an abomination.
  8. The Fear of expressing vulnerability is real in this final Bloganuary entry.

So yeah: 31 posts in as many days! Actually, it was closer to 40, because on a couple of days I wrote non-Bloganuary posts too:

Generating a chart...
If this message doesn't go away, the JavaScript that makes this magic work probably isn't doing its job right: please tell Dan so he can fix it.

Of course, with the addition of this post, it’s now 32+ posts in 32 days. As I’ve noted before, this is my longest daily streak in over 25 years of blogging… and I’m genuinely a little curious how much longer I can keep it up. There are lots of things I meant to write about last month but simply didn’t have time: if I dusted off a few of those ideas I could push on a few days longer. My longest unstreak or “dry spell” – the longest number of consecutive days I’ve gone without making a post – is 42 days: could I beat that? That’d be a special level of personal best.

Trophy on a desk with the plaque "most pointless blog posts".
Wait, is that “most pointless” in quality, or most “pointless posts” as in quantity?

I initially aimed to fuel and inspire my blogging at the start of this year in a more-interpersonal way, by making some pen pals and writing about the experience of that. Except I ran slightly late with my first (and haven’t written it up yet) and even later with my second (on account of winter blues plus spending any spare “blogging” time doing Bloganuary) so that project’s already way off track. Still aiming to catch-up though.

But I’m pleased to have been able to throw out 20,000 words of prompt-driven blog posts too, even if some of the prompts were weaker than others!

Chart showing number of articles on DanQ.me by month of year, with a pronounced dip starting in January and continuing through until a rebound in April.× King Arthur again, but now he says "I wanna, like, make cool shit on the Internet or whatever."× Trophy on a desk with the plaque "most pointless blog posts".×

[Bloganuary] The Fear

This post is the final part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What’s the thing you’re most scared to do? What would it take to get you to do it?

After a few wishy-washy prompts earlier in the month1, suddenly this is a spicy one!

Tabby kitten hiding under a rug.
“I’mma just hide here until next Bloganuary and do one of those prompts instead, a’ight?”

I’ve had sufficient opportunity to confidently answer: I’m most-scared… to express personal vulnerability.

For example –

  • I’m prone to concealing feelings of anxiety, shame, and insecurity (out of for concern that I’ll be perceived as weak);
  • I exhibit rejection sensitivity, especially when I’m under stress (which leads me to brush-off or minimise other people’s gratitude, respect, or even love);
  • It can be difficult for me to ask for what I want, rather than what I think I deserve (so my expressed-needs are at the whim of my self-worth).
Grey-brown kitten with Scottish Fold-style ears standing semi-upright on a light blue sofa with an expression that, were it on a human, would be described as fearful.
“Oh my god you’re actually typing this stuff onto the Internet‽ What will people think of you, Dan!”

Two things I oughta emphasise at this point:

  1. I’m doing much better than I used to.2 I “pass” as well-adjusted! My fear of vulnerability still causes me trouble, especially if I’m emotionally low or stressed, but nowhere near as badly as it used to.
  2. I’m still learning, growing, and improving. I’ve had the benefit of therapy3, coaching, and lots of self-reflection, and I’m moving in the right direction.

What would it take me to face or overcome this fear? I’m already working on it, day by day. Time and practice, just like you’d use to overcome any other obstacle. Time, and practice.

I’m glad that this challenging question came last in Bloganuary, after I felt sufficiently-invested that I had to finish. If this were the first question, I might never have started!

Footnotes

1 Obviously I’m thinking about day 25’s “what do you enjoy doing most in your leisure time?”, to which I wouldn’t have been able to come up a fresh answer after already writing responses to day 2’s “do you play in your daily life?” and (especially) day 23’s “list five things you do for fun”.

2 The best evidence for the fact that I’m less afraid of expressing vulnerability than I used to be is… well, things like this blog post, which I couldn’t conceive of writing say a decade ago.

3 The primary motivation for my most-recent bouts of therapy wasn’t anything to do with this, but counselling helps you make connections that you otherwise might not! You can find yourself reverse-engineering a whole other part of yourself than what you expected.

Tabby kitten hiding under a rug.× Grey-brown kitten with Scottish Fold-style ears standing semi-upright on a light blue sofa with an expression that, were it on a human, would be described as fearful.×

[Bloganuary] Toilet Paper

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What do you complain about the most?

I’m British. So I complain about very little. Instead, I tut loudly to myself.

But the thing that makes me tut the loudest, perhaps, is when I discover that somebody has put a roll of toilet paper on its holder the wrong way.

Annotated composite photograph showing two toilet rolls on their holster. One hangs in front of the roll, as is correct and proper, and it labelled "right". The other hangs behind the roll, in the terrible forbidden way acceptable only to imbeciles, and is labelled "wrong".
Of all the hills a person could choose to die on, I seem to have chosen the most absorbent.

I’m aware that there are some people who do not hold a strong opinion on the correct orientation of a horizontally-mounted roll of toilet paper. That’s fine; not everybody has to care about these things. Maybe you’ll be persuaded that there’s a “right” way by this post (and there is), but if not, no problem.

But for the anybody who deliberately and consciously hangs toilet paper the wrong way… here’s why you’re mistaken:

  • Hanging it the right way puts the loose end closer to the user, which means they’ve got less-far to reach.
  • Hanging it the right way means the loose end is easier to find, which is especially useful if you didn’t turn the light on yet because you’re not ready to fully wake up.
  • Hanging it the wrong way increases the amount of time the paper spends cleaning the wall, which isn’t something I want or need it to be used to clean.
  • Hanging it the wrong way increases the risk that the loose end is in a place where it is inaccessible, sandwiched directly behind the roll and against the wall, requiring the user to manually turn the roll to expose it. When the same thing happens on a roll hung the right way (which is rarer on account of gravity) a pinched end self-corrects as soon as you pull the roll slightly away from the wall.
  • It’s been argued that your way is “tidier” because unused toilet paper sits closer to the wall which which it’s approximately parallel. Sure (although I disagree that it’s tidier, but that’s clearly subjective): but I counter that I don’t need it to be tidy, I need it to function.
A hanging toilet roll being shredded by a black cat.
I’m willing to concede that for some pet owners and parents, hanging the “wrong” way might discourage curious animals and toddlers from playing with the exposed end. But even that’s not a guarantee, as wrong-way-hanger Dan4th Nicholas discovered. Photo used under a CC-BY license.

I share a home with a wrong-way hanger, but about 13 years ago we came to a household agreement: I’d quietly “correct” any incorrectly-installed toilet rolls in shared bathrooms1, and nobody would deliberately switch them back2, and in exchange I’d refrain from trying to educate people about why they were wrong.3

Composite screengrab from Taskmaster Season 11 Episode 4 (Premature Conker) showing Mike Wozniak talking about an empty toilet roll tube perched on top of a closed pedal bin (rather than having been put inside it).
Like Mike Wozniak, I also have a pet hate for people leaving the cardboard tube from toilet paper rolls in suboptimal places, like on top of a closed pedal bin. But I don’t see so much of that.

(While researching this article, I was pleased to discover that no major emoji font depicts a toilet roll in the wrong orientation. 🧻🎉)

Footnotes

1 A man can do whatever the hell he likes in the comfort of his own en suite.

2 This clause was added after it became apparent that our then-housemate Paul decided it’d be a fun prank to go around the house reversing my corrections (not because he preferred the wrong way, but just to troll me!). Which I can admit was a fun prank… until I challenged him on it and he denied it, at which point it became gaslighting.

3 This doesn’t count as forcing an education on my household. My blog isn’t in your face: you can skip it any time you want. You can even lie and say you read it when you don’t; I won’t know, especially this month when I’ve been writing so prolifically – now on my longest-ever daily streak! – that I probably won’t even remember what I wrote about.

Annotated composite photograph showing two toilet rolls on their holster. One hangs in front of the roll, as is correct and proper, and it labelled "right". The other hangs behind the roll, in the terrible forbidden way acceptable only to imbeciles, and is labelled "wrong".× A hanging toilet roll being shredded by a black cat.× Composite screengrab from Taskmaster Season 11 Episode 4 (Premature Conker) showing Mike Wozniak talking about an empty toilet roll tube perched on top of a closed pedal bin (rather than having been put inside it).×

[Bloganuary] Sportsball!

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What are your favourite sports to watch and play?

I’ve never really been very sports-motivated. I enjoy casually participating, but I can’t really see the attraction in spectating most sports, most of the time1.

I’m a good team player at basketball, for sure.

My limited relationship with sports

There are several activities I enjoy doing that happen to overlap with sports: swimming, cycling, etc., but I’m not doing them as sports. By which I mean: I’m not doing them competitively (and I don’t expect that to change).

I used to appreciate a game of badminton once in a while, and I’ve plenty of times enjoyed kicking a ball around with whoever’s there (party guests… the kids… the dog…2). But again, I’ve not really done any competitive sports since I used to play rugby at school, way back in the day3.

Dan, wearing a red t-shirt and in bright sunshine, pretends (badly) to be shouting excitedly. In the background, a group of people are watching a televised rugby match; one is wearing a South African flag as a cape.
“Yay, sports‽” This photo was taken in a Cape Town bar which was screening the 2019 Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa. Much as I didn’t care about the sports, I loved the energy and atmosphere that the fans brought (and I’ve sufficient comprehension of the sport to appreciate that South Africa played a spectacular game, putting up an unstoppable wall of players to overcome the odds and take home the cup).

I guess I don’t really see the point in spectating sports that I don’t have any personal investment in. Which for me means that it’d have to involve somebody I care about!

A couple of dozen strangers running about for 90 minutes does nothing for me, because I haven’t the patriotism to care who wins or loses. But put one of my friends or family on the pitch and I might take an interest4!

What went wrong with football, for example

In some ways, the commercialisation of sport seems to me to be… just a bit sad?

Take soccer (association football), for example, whose explosive success in the United Kingdom helped bolster the worldwide appeal it enjoys today.

Up until the late 19th century soccer was exclusively an amateur sport: people played on teams on evenings and weekends and then went back to their day jobs the rest of the time. In fact, early football leagues in the UK specifically forbade professional players!5

Monochrome line drawing showing a 19th century scene of a football match. The ball appears to have been headed towards the goal by a jumping player; the goalkeeper is poised to dive for it.
Back in the 19th century the rules hadn’t been fully-standardised, either. If you look carefully at this contemporaneous picture, you’ll see that all these players are wearing the same kit, because there’s only one team. Also, the goalkeeper is wearing riding chaps because he’s permitted to bring his horse onto the pitch for up to 13 minutes in each match. I may or may not be making all of that up.

As leagues grew beyond local inter-village tournaments and reached the national stage, this approach gave an unfair advantage to teams in the South of England over those in the North and in Scotland. You see, the South had a larger proportion of landed gentry (who did not need to go back to a “day job” and could devote more of their time to practice) and a larger alumni of public schools (which had a long history with the sport in some variation or another)!6

Clamour from the Northern teams to be allowed to employ professional players eventually lead to changes in the rules to permit paid team members so long as they lived within a certain distance of the home pitch7. The “locality” rule for professional players required that the player had been born, or had lived for two years, within the vicinity of the club. People turned up to cheer on the local boys8, paid their higher season ticket prices to help fund not only the upkeep of the ground and the team’s travel but now also their salaries. Still all fine.

Things went wrong when the locality rule stopped applying. Now teams were directly competing with one another for players, leading to bidding wars. The sums of money involved in signing players began to escalate. Clubs merged (no surprise that so many of those “Somewheretown United” teams sprung up around this period) and grew larger and begun marketing in new ways to raise capital: replica kits, televised matches, sponsorship deals… before long running a football team was more about money than location.

And that’s where we are today, and why the odds are good that your local professional football team doesn’t have any players that you or anybody you know will ever meet in person.

That’s a bit of a long a way to say “nah, I’m not terribly into sports”, isn’t it?

Footnotes

1 I even go to efforts to filter sports news out of my RSS subscriptions!

2 The dog loves trying to join in a game of football and will happily push the ball up and down the pitch, but I don’t think she understands the rules and she’s indecisive about which team she’s on. Also, her passing game leaves a lot to be desired, and her dribbling invariably leaves the ball covered in drool.

3 And even then, my primary role in the team was to be a chunky dirty-fighter of a player who got in the way of the other team and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around.

4 Unless it’s cricket. What the fuck is cricket supposed to be about? I have spectated a cricket match featuring people I know and I still don’t see the attraction.

5 Soccer certainly wasn’t the first sport to “go professional” in the UK; cricket was way ahead of it, for example. But it enjoys such worldwide popularity today that I think it’s a good example to use in a history lesson.

6 I’m not here to claim that everything that’s wrong with the commercialisation of professional football can be traced to the North/South divide in England.. but we can agree it’s a contributing factor, right?

7 Here’s a fun aside: this change to the rules about employment of professional players didn’t reach Scotland until 1893, and many excellent Scottish players – wanting to make a career of their hobby – moved to England in order to join English teams as professional players. In the 1890s, the majority of the players at Preston North End (whose stadium I lived right around the corner of for over a decade) were, I understand, Scottish!

8 And girls! Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were women’s football teams: Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C., also from Preston (turns out there’s a reason the National Football Museum was, until 2012, located there), became famous for beating local men’s teams and went on to represent England internationally. But in 1921 the FA said that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged”, and banned from the leagues any men’s team that shared their pitch with a women’s team. The ban was only rescinded in 1971. Thanks, FA.

Dan, wearing a red t-shirt and in bright sunshine, pretends (badly) to be shouting excitedly. In the background, a group of people are watching a televised rugby match; one is wearing a South African flag as a cape.× Monochrome line drawing showing a 19th century scene of a football match. The ball appears to have been headed towards the goal by a jumping player; the goalkeeper is poised to dive for it.×

Automattic Shakeup

My employer Automattic‘s having a bit of a reorganisation. For unrelated reasons, this coincides with my superteam having a bit of a reorganisation, too, and I’m going to be on a different team next week than I’ve been on for most of the 4+ years I’ve been there1. Together, these factors mean that I have even less idea than usual what I do for a living, right now.

Dan, wearing an Oxford-branded t-shirt, shrugs and looks confused in front of a screen showing Automattic's "Work With Us" page.
What is it I do here again? Something something code WooCommerce something something marketplace awesome something, right?

On the whole, I approve of Matt‘s vision for this reorganisation. He writes:

Each [Automattic employee] gets a card: Be the Host, Help the Host, or Neutral.

You cannot change cards during the course of your day or week. If you do not feel aligned with your card, you need to change divisions within Automattic.

“Be the Host” folks are all about making Automattic’s web hosting offerings the best they possibly can be. These are the teams behind WordPress.com, VIP, and Tumblr, for example. They’re making us competitive on the global stage. They bring Automattic money in a very direct way, by making our (world class) hosting services available to our customers.

“Help the Host” folks (like me) are in roles that are committed to providing the best tools that can be used anywhere. You might run your copy of Woo, Jetpack, or (the client-side bit of) Akismet on Automattic infrastructure… or alternatively you might be hosted by one of our competitors or even on your own hardware. What we bring to Automattic is more ethereal: we keep the best talent and expertise in these technologies close to home, but we’re agnostic about who makes money out of what we create.

A laptop computer on a desk, showing a WordPress wp-admin page.
This stock photo confuses me so much that I had to use it. It’s WordPress, as seen in Chrome on Windows Vista… but running on a MacBook Air. The photographer has tried to blur their site domain name (but it’s perfectly readable), but hasn’t concealed the fact they’re running µTorrent in the background (for Obviously Legal Reasons, I’m sure). Weird. But the important thing is that, crazy as this person’s choices are, they can use Automattic’s software however they like. It’s cool.

Anyway: I love the clarification on the overall direction of the company… but I’m not sure how we market it effectively2. I look around at the people in my team and its sister teams, all of us proudly holding our “Help the Hosts” cards and ready to work to continue to make Woo an amazing ecommerce platform wherever you choose to host it.

And obviously I can see the consumer value in that. It’s reassuring to know that the open source software we maintain or contribute to is the real deal and we’re not exporting a cut-down version nor are we going to try to do some kind of rug pull to coerce people into hosting with us. I think Automattic’s long track record shows that.

But how do we sell that? How do we explain that “hey, you can trust us to keep these separate goals separate within our company, so there’s never a conflict of interest and you getting the best from us is always what we want”? Personally, seeing the inside of Automattic, I’m convinced that we’re not – like so much of Big Tech – going to axe the things you depend upon3 or change the terms and conditions to the most-exploitative we can get away with4 or support your business just long enough to be able to undermine and consume it 5.

In short: I know that we’re the “good guys”. And I can see how this reorganisation reinforces that. But I can’t for the life of me see how we persuade the rest of the world of the fact6.

Any ideas?

Footnotes

1 I’ve been on Team Fire for a long while, which made my job title “Code Magician on Fire”, but now I’ll be on Team Desire which isn’t half as catchy a name but I’m sure they’ll make up for it by being the kinds of awesome human beings I’ve become accustomed to working alongside at Automattic.

2 Fortunately they pay me to code, not to do marketing.

3 Cough… Google.

4 Ahem… Facebook.

5 ${third_coughing_sound}… Amazon.

6 Seriously, it’s a good thing I’m not in marketing. I’d be so terrible at it. Also public relations. Did I ever tell you the story about the time that, as a result of a mix-up, I accidentally almost gave an interview to the Press Office at the Vatican? A story for another time, perhaps

Dan, wearing an Oxford-branded t-shirt, shrugs and looks confused in front of a screen showing Automattic's "Work With Us" page.× A laptop computer on a desk, showing a WordPress wp-admin page.×

[Bloganuary] Not The Lottery

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What would you do if you won the lottery?

I know what I’d do, and I’ll get to that. But first, let me tell you about the lottery game I play.

"LOTTO Schleswig-Holstein" player slip with two "series" of numbers selected: in game one, all the numbers ending 7, and the lucky stars 1 and 2; in the second game, the first five numbers (the lucky stars aren't visible).
“Why yes, my numbers are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, with lucky stars 6 and 7. What do you mean, they’ll never come up? They’re just as likely as yours!”

Not the lottery

I don’t generally play the lottery1. I’ve made interactive widgets (now broken) to illustrate quite how many losers there are in these games and hopefully help highlight that while “it could be you”… it won’t be.

But if I ever happen to be somewhere that the lottery results are being announced, I sometimes like to play a game I call Not The Lottery.2 Here’s how you play:

  1. Set aside the money it would have cost for a ticket.
  2. Think of the numbers you’d have played.
  3. When those numbers don’t come up, congratulations: you just won not-wasting-your-money!3

Want to play Not The Lottery retroactively? Cool. I’ve made and open-sourced a tool for that. Hopefully it’ll load below and you can choose some numbers (or take a Lucky Dip) and have it played through the entirety of EuroMillions history and see how much money you’d have won if you’d only played them every week. Or, to look at things from a brighter perspective, how much you’ve saved by not playing. It’s almost-certainly in the thousands.

Loading game… please wait… (if it never loads, Dan probably broke it; sorry!)

Winning the lottery

But that’s not what the question’s really about, is it? We don’t ask people “what would they do if they won the lottery?” because we think it’s likely to happen4 We ask them because… well, because it’s fun to fantasise.

And I sort-of gave the answer away on day 20 of Bloganuary: I’d do my “dream job”. I’d work (for free) for Three Rings, like I already do, except instead of spending a couple of hours a week on it on average I’d spend about ten times that. I’d use the luxury of not having to work to focus on things that I know I can do to make the world a better place.

Dan poses in the centre of a group of seven other Three Rings volunteers.
If money was no object, I’d spend more time with these happy folks (and many more besides), making volunteering easier for everybody.

Sure, there’s other things I’d do. They’re mostly obvious things that I’d hope anybody in my position would do. Pay off the mortgage (and for all the works currently being done to infuriate the dog improve the house). Arrange some kind of slow-access trust or annuity for the people closest to me so that they need not worry about money, nor about having to work out how to spend, save, or invest a lump sum. Maybe a holiday or two. Certainly some charitable donations. Perhaps buy really expensive ketchup: the finest dijon ketchup5.

But mostly I’d just want to be able to live as comfortably as I do now, or perhaps slightly more, and spend a greater proportion of my time than I already do making charities work better.

I don’t know if that makes me insufferably self-righteous or insufferably simple-minded, but it’s probably one of those.

Footnotes

1 I’ve been caught describing it as “a tax on people who are bad at maths”, but I don’t truly believe that (although I am concerned about how readily we let people get addicted to problematic gambling and then keep encouraging them to play with dark patterns that hide how low the odds truly are). I’ve even been known to buy a ticket or two, some years.

2 While writing this, I decided to retroactively play for last Friday, having not seen whatever numbers came up. I guessed only one of them. Hurrah! That means I saved £2.50 by not playing!

3 There are, of course, other possible outcomes. You could have missed out on winning a small prize – the odds aren’t that low – but the solution to this is simple: just keep playing Not The Lottery and you, as the “house”, will come out on top in the end. Alternatively, it’s just-about possible that you could pluck the jackpot numbers from thin air, in which case: well done! You’re doing better than Derren Brown when in 2009 he performed a pretty good magic trick but then turned it into a turd when he “explained” it using pseudoscience (why not just stick with “I’m a magician, duh”; when you play the Uri Geller card you just make yourself look like an idiot). Let’s find a way to use those superpowers for good. Because what you’ve got is a superpower. For context: if you played Not The Lottery twice a week, every week, without fail, for 393 years… you’d still only have a 1% chance of having ever predicted a jackpot in your five-lifetimes.

4 What if we lived in a world where we did use statistics to think about the hypothetical questions we ask people? Would we ask “what would you do if you were stuck by lightning?”, given that the lifetime chance of being killed by lightning is significantly greater than the chance of winning the jackpot, even if you play every draw!

5 Y’know, to keep in the fridge in the treehouse.

"LOTTO Schleswig-Holstein" player slip with two "series" of numbers selected: in game one, all the numbers ending 7, and the lucky stars 1 and 2; in the second game, the first five numbers (the lucky stars aren't visible).× Dan poses in the centre of a group of seven other Three Rings volunteers.×

[Bloganuary] Reading List

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What books do you want to read?

Well, I probably ought to start with my backlog! Between our traditional Family Christmas Book Exchange and my birthday, it’s pretty common for me to have a lot of books on the “next to read” pile on my bedside table, this time of year1.

A pile of books on a round-topped wooden bedside table. From top to bottom: Time's Mouth by Edan Lepucki, a slim book whose spine doesn't show a name, Bad Words by Philip Gooden, Absolute Efficiency: Book One by Neil Wilson, Market Forces by Richard Morgan, Kids on Brooms by Jonathan Gilmour, Doug Levandowski, and Spenser Starke, Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes by Rob Wilkins, The New Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, and a book whose spine is turned away from the camera.
I’m enjoying Time’s Mouth, but it’s taking some time to enjoy fully. Note that my previous paragraph may be misleading: not all of these books were (recent) gifts, and not all the books I recently received as gifts are shown here. Trust nothing: or all you know an AI made the entire image based on the prompt “eclectic pile of books Dan might like”.

Aside from that: a book that I’d really like to re-read2 is Antkind by Charlie Kaufman.

Antkind is quite something. Here’s a synopsis: film critic “B.”, its protagonist, discovers an independent filmmaker who’s spent literally his entire life producing a film with a three-month runtime. The filmmaker agrees to show it to B., but only if thon3 watches it in a single sitting: the film is scripted to provide opportunities for breaks for sleep, toilet trips, eating and so on. B. watches it and discovers to be a masterpiece and the most impressive piece of art thon has even seen.

Photograph of Dan in bed, seemingly asleep with an open copy of Antkind on his face.
In local news, a man was killed today when he was crushed to death by a book after he fell asleep reading it.

Despite the arduous effort required to watch the film, B. decides that it’s a sufficiently important and significant piece of work, with great artistic merit, that it needs to be seen by the world!

Thon takes the print for distribution… and then promptly loses the entire thing in a fire. All but one frame, with which – with the addition of thon’s own memories of their single viewing of the movie – B. attempts to reconstruct and recreate. The process drives thon somewhat insane, and the story begins (continues?) to be told by an delusional and unreliable narrator in a an increasingly surreal-to-the-point-of-absurdity setting.

Page 657 of the book, featuring a number 1 footnote (indicated by a finger).
Somehow, despite everything else that might make this book confusing, the biggest headscratcher for me was this footnote reference. There are no footnotes nor endnotes in the entire volume. It’s the only such reference in the entire story. It could be a printing error or the result of some editorial cuts… but it appears in a section about the impossibility of perfectly recreating a piece of art, which makes such an “mistake” strangely fitting: is it a deliberate piece of meta-humour?

I remember getting to the bit set in the far future, where there’s a war between the employees of a fast-food chain and an endlessly replicating army of robot replicas of Donald Trump… and as I reached that part of the story I thought to myself… wait, how did I get here? Every step along the way felt like it was part of the same narrative, but if you compare what’s happening right now to what happened at the start of the story then you wouldn’t believe for a moment that they were in the same book.

It’s truly bizarre and I’m looking forward to my re-read of it4… just as soon as I can face lugging the mammoth tome off the shelf.

In other news: after doing Bloganuary for 27 straight days, this is now my longest consecutive daily streak of blogging, beating a 24-year-old record streak from late 1999! Hurrah!

Footnotes

1 Gotta admit, this was a convenient blog post to be writing from bed during a Saturday morning lie-in.

2 I keep promising myself I’ll re-read Antkind some day, and possibly blog more-deeply about my thoughts on it, but it’s been sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust since I first read it, shortly after its release. It’s too heavy to comfortably read in bed, is part of the problem! Maybe I could get the ebook version…

3 B. uses thon/thons/thonself pronouns.

4 But I’ll probably stop at reading it twice, unlike the protagonist who would, based on thon’s description of their usual film review process, read it seven times in several different ways (forward, backward, etc.).

A pile of books on a round-topped wooden bedside table. From top to bottom: Time's Mouth by Edan Lepucki, a slim book whose spine doesn't show a name, Bad Words by Philip Gooden, Absolute Efficiency: Book One by Neil Wilson, Market Forces by Richard Morgan, Kids on Brooms by Jonathan Gilmour, Doug Levandowski, and Spenser Starke, Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes by Rob Wilkins, The New Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, and a book whose spine is turned away from the camera.× Photograph of Dan in bed, seemingly asleep with an open copy of Antkind on his face.× Page 657 of the book, featuring a number 1 footnote (indicated by a finger).×

[Bloganuary] Traditions

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

Write about a few of your favourite family traditions.

We’ve got a wonderful diversity of family traditions. This by virtue, perhaps, of us being a three-parent family, and so bringing 50% more different traditions and 100% less decisiveness over which to accept than a traditional two-parent family. Or it might reflect our outlook and willingness to evaluate and try new things: to experiment and adopt what works. Or perhaps we just like to be just-barely on this side of the line across the the quirky/eccentric scale1.

Posed sepia photograph of Dan, JTA, Ruth, and their children and dog, dressed in Victorian-era clothing, by a Christmas tree.
Having family photos taken in the style and dress of the Victorian era might be becoming a family tradition: this hangs proudly in our living room in the space formerly occupied by its similar predecessor from some years ago.

But there are plenty of other traditions we’ve inherited or created, such as:

  • Pancake Brunch Sundays sort-of evolved out of a fried Sunday breakfast that used to be a household tradition many years ago. If you come visit us for a weekend you’ll find you’re served pancakes (or possibly waffles) with a mixture of traditional toppings plus, usually, a weekly “feature flavour” around midday on Sunday. For no reason now other than it’s just what we do.
A boy in blue-and-brown striped pyjamas, on a table stacked with plates of waffles, slices into a birthday cake with six candles.
Sunday Brunch stops for nothing, not even birthdays.
  • Family Day is an annual event, marked on or near 3 July each year, with gifts for children and possibly an outing or trip away for everybody to enjoy. It celebrates the fact that we get to be a family together, despite forces outside of our control trying to conspire to prevent it.2
  • Family Film Night takes place most months: in rotation, the five of us take turns to nominate a film or two that we’ll all watch together along with snacks and sweet treats. It might be seen as a continuation of the pre-children tradition of Troma Night from back in the day, except that we don’t go out of our way to deliberately watch terrible films: now that happens just as a result of good or bad fortune! We also periodically schedule a Family Board Games Night, and a Family Videogames Night.
Family members read books in a living room, seen over the top of the pages of an (out of focus) book in the foreground.
Books! Books books books! BOOKS!
  • Christmas Eve Books: a tradition we stole from Iceland is that we give books on Christmas Eve. Adults in our household now don’t really get Christmas gifts, but everybody present is encouraged to exchange books on Christmas eve and then sit up late reading together, often with gingerbread, chocolate, and/or a pan of mulled wine keeping warm on the stove. I find it a fun way to keep my reading list stocked early in the year, plus it encourages the kids to read3
  • Festive meals, while I’m thinking about that end of the year, are pretty-well established. Christmas Eve is all about roast duck pancakes. Christmas Day sees me roast a goose. New Years’ Eve is for fondue. Plus vegetarian (and sometimes vegan) alternatives to the otherwise-unsuitable things, of course.

I’m certain there must be more, but the thing with family traditions is they become part of the everyday tapestry of your life after a while. Eventually traditions become hard to see them because they’re always there. I’m sure there are more “everyday rituals” that we’ve taken on that are noteworthy or interesting to outsiders but which to us are so mundane as to be unworthy of mention!

But every single one of these is something special to us. They’re an element of structure for the kids and a signifier of community to all of us. They’re routines that we’ve taken on and made “ours” as part of our collective identity as a family. And that’s just great.

Footnotes

1 Determining which side of the line I mean is left as an exercise to the reader.

2 It’s been what…? 6½ years…? And I’m still not ready even emotionally to blog about the challenges we faced, so maybe I never will. So if you missed that chapter of our lives, suffice to say: for a while, it looked like we might not get to continue being a family, and over the course of one exceptionally-difficult year it took incredible effort, resolve, sleepless nights, supportive families, and (when it came down to brass tacks) enough money and lawyers to seek justice… in order to ensure that we got to continue to be. About which we’re all amazingly grateful, and so we celebrate it.

3 Not that they need any help with that, little bookworms that they are.

Posed sepia photograph of Dan, JTA, Ruth, and their children and dog, dressed in Victorian-era clothing, by a Christmas tree.× A boy in blue-and-brown striped pyjamas, on a table stacked with plates of waffles, slices into a birthday cake with six candles.× Family members read books in a living room, seen over the top of the pages of an (out of focus) book in the foreground.×

[Bloganuary] Landslide

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

What do you enjoy doing most in your leisure time?

Boo to this prompt! This Bloganuary already asked me how I like to play and about five things I do for fun; now it wants me to choose the thing I “enjoy most” from, presumably, that same set.

Dan, wearing a purple t-shirt with a WordPress logo and a Pride flag, sits in his home office and gives two "thumbs down" signs while frowning at the camera.
This prompt does not win my approval.

So I’m going to ignore this prompt.1 Instead, let’s go look up last year’s prompt from the same day:2

What is a song or poem that speaks to you and why?

Much better.

Landslide, by Fleetwood Mac.

I’ll save you looking it up: here’s a good live recording to put on while you keep reading.

At 5½ years older than me, the song’s been in my life effectively forever. But its themes of love and loss, overcoming naivety, growing up and moving on… have grown in significance to and with me as I’ve grown older. And to hear Stevie Nicks speak about it, it feels like it has for her as well, which just doubles the feeling it creates of timeless relevance.

In concert, Nicks would often dedicate the song to her father, which lead to all manner of speculation about the lyrics being about the importance of family. And there’s definitely an undertone of that in there: when in 2015 she confirmed that it was about a challenging moment of decision in her youth in which she was torn between continuing to try to “make it” as a musical act with her then-partner Lindsey Buckingham or return to education. Her father was apparently supportive of either option but favoured the latter.

Ultimately she chose the former and it worked out well for her career… although of course the pair’s romantic relationship eventually collapsed. And so the song’s lyrics, originally about indecision, grow into a new interpretation: one of sliding doors moments, of “what ifs”. In some parallel universe Stevie Nicks dropped out of Buckingham Nicks before Keith Olsen introduced Lindsey Buckingham to Mick Fleetwood, and we’d probably never have heard Landslide.3

Stevie still sings Landslide in concert, and now it feels like it’s entered its third life and lends itself a whole new interpretation. Those lyrics about turning around and looking back, which were originally about reconsidering the choices you made in your youth and the path you’d set yourself on, take on a whole new dimension when sung by somebody as they grow through their 60s and into their 70s!

In particular, coming to the song as a parent4 is a whole other thing. Its thoughts on innocence and growing-up, and watching your children do so, reminds me of my perpetual struggle with comparing myself to the best parent I know. An intergenerational effort to be my best me; to look forwards with courage and backwards with compassion for myself.

All of which is pretty awesome for a song that under other circumstances might be just a catchy twist on a classic country rock chord progression with some good singing. Sliding doors, eh?

Footnotes

1 It’s my damn blog; I can do what I want.

2 This is my first year doing Bloganuary, so I didn’t get to answer this prompt last time around.

3 Nor, for that matter, any of the other excellent songs that came out of Nicks’ and Buckingham’s strained relationship, such as Silver Springs, Second Hand News and, perhaps most-famously, Go Your Own Way. I guess sometimes you need the sad times to make the best art.

4 Nicks, of course, famously isn’t a parent, but I refer you to a 2001 interview in which she said “No children, no husband. My particular mission maybe wasn’t to be a mom and a wife. Maybe my particular mission was to write songs to make moms and wives feel better.”.

Dan, wearing a purple t-shirt with a WordPress logo and a Pride flag, sits in his home office and gives two "thumbs down" signs while frowning at the camera.×

[Bloganuary] Harcourt Manor

This post is part of my attempt at Bloganuary 2024. Today’s prompt is:

Name an attraction or town close to home that you still haven’t got around to visiting.

I live a just outside the village of Stanton Harcourt in West Oxfordshire. It’s tiny, but it’s historically-significant, and there’s one very-obvious feature that I see several times a week but have never been inside of.

Dan, wearing a black t-shirt with the words "Let's make the web a better place" on, sitting with his back to a standing stone with megalithic remains in the background.
The Old English name “Stanton” refers to the place being “by stones”, probably referring to the stone circle now known as The Devil’s Quoits, about which I’ve become a bit of a local expert (for a quick intro, see my video about them). But that’s not the local attraction I’m talking about today…

When William the Conqueror came to England, he divvied up large parts of the country and put them under the authority of the friends who helped him with his invasion, dioceses of the French church, or both. William’s half-brother Odo1 did particularly well: he was appointed Earl of Kent and got huge swathes of land (second only to the king), including the village of Stanton and the fertile farmlands that surrounded it.

Odo later fell out of favour after he considered challenging Pope Gregory VII to fisticuffs or somesuchthing, and ended up losing a lot of his lands. Stanton eventually came to be controlled by Robert of Harcourt, whose older brother Errand helped William at the Battle of Hastings but later died without any children. Now under the jurisdiction of the Harcourt family, the village became known as Stanton Harcourt.

Three stone towers stand about the height of the tallest trees in Stanton Harcourt.
These three (Normanesque) towers of Stanton Harcourt are, from left to right: the manor house kitchen, Pope’s Tower, and the tower of St. Michael’s Church. Photograph copyright Chris Brown, used under a BY-SA Creative Commons license.

The Harcourt household at Stanton in its current form dates from around the 15th/16th century. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is that Alexander Pope lived in the tower (now called Pope’s Tower) while he was translating the Illiad into a heroic couplet-format English. Anyway: later that same century the Harcourts moved to Nuneham Courtenay, on the other side of Oxford2 the house fell into disrepair.

Woodcut print showing a mostly-intact stone structure of two or three stories in an 18th-century rural setting, with a church in the background.
A View of the Ruins of the Kitchen, and part of the Offices at Stanton-Harcourt, in the County of Oxford with a distant view of the Chappel [sic] & the Parish Church, 1764 woodcut by George Harcourt, photographed by the RA, used under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons license per their copyright policy.
In the mid-20th century the house was restored and put back into use as a family residence. A couple of decades ago it was routinely open to visitors throughout the summer months, but nowadays guests are only admitted to the chapel, tower, gardens etc. on special occasions (or, it seems, if they turn up carrying a longbow…), and I’ve not managed to take advantage of one since I moved here in 2020.

It’s a piece of local history right on my doorstep that I haven’t yet had the chance to explore. Maybe some day!

Footnotes

1 If you’ve heard of Odo before, it’s likely because he was probably the person who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, which goes a long way to explaining why he and his entourage feature so-heavily on it.

2 The place the Harcourt family moved to is next to what is now… Harcourt Arboretum! Now you know where the name comes from.

Dan, wearing a black t-shirt with the words "Let's make the web a better place" on, sitting with his back to a standing stone with megalithic remains in the background.× Three stone towers stand about the height of the tallest trees in Stanton Harcourt.× Woodcut print showing a mostly-intact stone structure of two or three stories in an 18th-century rural setting, with a church in the background.×