Special Roads

Duration

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Sometimes I’ve seen signs on dual carriageways and motorways that seem to specify a speed limit that’s the same as the national speed limit (i.e. 60 or 70 mph for most vehicles, depending on the type of road), which seem a bit… pointless? Today I learned why they’re there, and figured I’d share with you!

Google Street View photo from the A1 East of Edinburgh, showing a blue "No motor cycles under 50cc, moped,s invalid carriages and animals" sign alongside a 70mph sign.
The first time I saw this sign, on the A1 near Edinburgh, I wondered why it wasn’t just a national speed limit/derestriction sign. Now I know.

To get there, we need a history lesson.

As early as the 1930s, it was becoming clear that Britain might one day need a network of high-speed, motor-vehicle-only roads: motorways. The first experimental part of this network would be the Preston By-pass1.

Monochome photograph showing construction of bridge support pillars.
Construction halted on several occasions owing to heavy rain, and only six weeks after opening the road needed to be closed for resurfacing after the discovery that water had penetrated the material.

Construction wouldn’t actually begin until the 1950s, and it wasn’t just the Second World War that got in the way: there was a legislative challenge too.

When the Preston By-pass was first conceived, there was no legal recognition for roads that restricted the types of traffic that were permitted to drive on them. If a public highway were built, it would have to allow pedestrians, cyclists, and equestrians, which would doubtless undermine the point of the exercise! Before it could be built, the government needed to pass the Special Roads Act 1949, which enabled the designation of public roads as “special roads”, to which entry could be limited to certain classes of vehicles2.

Monochrome photograph showing a sign at the entrance to the Preston By-pass, reading: 'Motorway. NO L-drivers, mopeds, motorcycles under 50cc., invalid-carriages, pedal-cycles, pedestrians, animals'.
The original motorways had to spell out the regulations at their junctions.

If you don’t check your sources carefully when you research the history of special roads, you might be taken in by articles that state that special roads are “now known as motorways”, which isn’t quite true. All motorways are special roads, by definition, but not all special roads are motorways.

There’s maybe a dozen or more non-motorway special roads, based on research by Pathetic Motorways (whose site was amazingly informative on this entire subject). They tend to be used in places where something is like a motorway, but can’t quite be a motorway. In Manchester, a couple of the A57(M)’s sliproads have pedestrian crossings and so have to be designated special roads rather than motorways, for example3.

1968 Manchester City Council planning document showing their proposed new special roads.
“…is hereby varied by adding Class IX of the Classes of Traffic set out in Schedule 4 to the Highways Act 1980 as a class of traffic permitted to use those lengths of the special roads described in the Schedule to this Scheme and which…” /snoring sounds intensify/

Now we know what special roads are, that we might find them all over the place, and that they can superficially look like motorways, let’s talk about speed limits.

The Road Traffic Act 1934 introduced the concept of a 30mph “national speed limit” in built-up areas, which is still in force today. But outside of urban areas there was no speed limit. Perhaps there didn’t need to be, while cars were still relatively slow, but automobiles became increasingly powerful. The fastest speed ever legally achieved on a British motorway came in 1964 during a test by AC Cars, when driver Jack Sears reached 185mph.

Cyclists alongside a 'motorway' river bridge lane.
The “M48” Severn Bridge is another example of a special road that appears to be part of a motorway. The cycle lane and footpath (which is not separated from the main carriageway by more than a fence) is the giveaway that it’s not truly a “motorway” but a general-case special road.

In the late 1960s an experiment was run in setting a speed limit on motorways of 70mph. Then the experiment was extended. Then the regulation was made permanent.

There’ve been changes since then, e.g. to prohibit HGVs from going faster than 60mph, but fundamentally this is where Britain’s national speed limit on motorways comes from.

The Motorways Traffic (Speed Limit) (England) Regulations 1967, highlighting "3. No person shall drive a motor vehicle on a motorway at a speed greater than 70 miles per hour".
I assume that it relates to the devolution of transport policy or to the separation of legislation that it replaces, but separate-but-fundamentally-identical acts were passed for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

You’ve probably spotted the quirk already. When “special roads” were created, they didn’t have a speed limit. Some “special roads” were categorised as “motorways”, and “motorways” later had a speed limit imposed. But there are still a few non-motorway “special roads”!

Putting a national speed limit sign on a special road would be meaningless, because these roads have no centrally-legislated speed limit. So they need a speed limit sign, even if that sign, confusingly, might specify a speed limit that matches what you’d have expected on such a road4. That’s the (usual) reason why you sometimes see these surprising signs.

As to why this kind of road are much more-common in Scotland and Wales than they are anywhere else in the UK: that’s a much deeper-dive that I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Footnotes

1 The Preston By-pass lives on, broadly speaking, as the M6 junctions 29 through 32.

2 There’s little to stop a local authority using the powers of the Special Roads Act and its successors to declare a special road accessible to some strange and exotic permutation of vehicle classes if they really wanted: e.g. a road could be designated for cyclists and horses but forbidden to motor vehicles and pedestrians, for example! (I’m moderately confident this has never happened.)

3 There’s a statutory instrument that makes those Mancunian sliproads possible, if you’re having trouble getting to sleep on a night and need some incredibly dry reading.

4 An interesting side-effect of these roads might be that speed restrictions based on the class of your vehicle and the type of road, e.g. 60mph for lorries on motorways, might not be enforceable on special roads. If you wanna try driving your lorry at 70mph on a motorway-like special road with “70” signs, though, you should do your own research first; don’t rely on some idiot from the Internet. I Am Not A Lawyer etc. etc.

× × × × × ×

ARCC

In the late ’70s, a shadowy group of British technologists concluded that nuclear war was inevitable and secretly started work on a cutting-edge system designed to help rebuild society. And thanks to Matt Round-and-friends at vole.wtf (who I might have mentioned before), the system they created – ARCC – can now be emulated in your browser.

3D rendering of an ARCC system, by HappyToast.

I’ve been playing with it on-and-off all year, and I’ve (finally) managed to finish exploring pretty-much everything the platform currently has to offer, which makes it pretty damn good value for money for the £6.52 I paid for my ticket (the price started at £2.56 and increases by 2p for every ticket sold). But you can get it cheaper than I did if you score 25+ on one of the emulated games.

ARCC system showing a high score table for M1, with DAN50 (score 13012) at the top.
It gives me more pride than it ought to that I hold the high score for a mostly-unheard-of game for an almost-as-unheard-of computer system.

Most of what I just told you is true. Everything… except the premise. There never was a secretive cabal of engineers who made this whackballs computer system. What vole.wtf emulates is an imaginary system, and playing with that system is like stepping into a bizarre alternate timeline or a weird world. Over several separate days of visits you’ll explore more and more of a beautifully-realised fiction that draws from retrocomputing, Cold War fearmongering, early multi-user networks with dumb terminal interfaces, and aesthetics that straddle the tripoint between VHS, Teletext, and BBS systems. Oh yeah, and it’s also a lot like being in a cult.

Needless to say, therefore, it presses all the right buttons for me.

ARCC terminal in which an email is being written to DAN50.
If you make it onto ARCC – or are already there! – drop me a message. My handle is DAN50.

If you enjoy any of those things, maybe you’d like this too. I can’t begin to explain the amount of work that’s gone into it. If you’re looking for anything more-specific in a recommendation, suffice to say: this is a piece of art worth seeing.

× ×

Somewhat-Effective Spam Filters

I’ve tried a variety of unusual strategies to combat email spam over the years.

Here are some of them (each rated in terms the geekiness of its implementation and its efficacy), in case you’d like to try any yourself. They’re all still in use in some form or another:

Spam filters

Geekiness: 1/10
Efficacy: 5/10

A colander filters spam email out of a stream of emails.

Your email provider or your email software probably provides some spam filters, and they’re probably pretty good. I use Proton‘s and, when I’m at my desk, Thunderbird‘s. Double-bagging your spam filter only slightly reduces the amount of spam that gets through, but increases your false-positive rate and some non-spam gets mis-filed.

A particular problem is people who email me for help after changing their name on FreeDeedPoll.org.uk, probably because they’re not only “new” unsolicited contacts to me but because by definition many of them have strange and unusual names (which is why they’re emailing me for help in the first place).

Frankly, spam filters are probably enough for many people. Spam filtering is in general much better today than it was a decade or two ago. But skim the other suggestions in case they’re of interest to you.

Unique email addresses

Geekiness: 3/10
Efficacy: 8/10

If you give a different email address to every service you deal with, then if one of them misuses it (starts spamming you, sells your data, gets hacked, whatever), you can just block that one address. All the addresses come to the same inbox, for your convenience. Using a catch-all means that you can come up with addresses on-the-fly: you can even fill a paper form with a unique email address associated with the company whose form it is.

On many email providers, including the ever-popular GMail, you can do this using plus-sign notation. But if you want to take your unique addresses to the next level and you have your own domain name (which you should), then you can simply redirect all email addresses on that domain to the same inbox. If Bob’s Building Supplies wants your email address, give them bobs@yourname.com, which works even if Bob’s website erroneously doesn’t accept email addresses with plus signs in them.

This method actually works for catching people misusing your details. On one occasion, I helped a band identify that their mailing list had been hacked. On another, I caught a dodgy entrepreneur who used the email address I gave to one of his businesses without my consent to send marketing information of a different one of his businesses. As a bonus, you can set up your filtering/tagging/whatever based on the incoming address, rather than the sender, for the most accurate finding, prioritisation, and blocking.

Emails to multiple email addresses reach the same inbox. Spam emails are blocked based on the addresses they're sent to.

Also, it makes it easy to have multiple accounts with any of those services that try to use the uniqueness of email addresses to prevent you from doing so. That’s great if, like me, you want to be in each of three different Facebook groups but don’t want to give Facebook any information (not even that you exist at the intersection of those groups).

Signed unique email addresses

Geekiness: 10/10
Efficacy: 2/10

Unique email addresses introduce two new issues: (1) if an attacker discovers that your Dreamwidth account has the email address dreamwidth@yourname.com, they can probably guess your LinkedIn email, and (2) attackers will shotgun “likely” addresses at your domain anyway, e.g. admin@yourname.com, management@yourname.com, etc., which can mean that when something gets through you get a dozen copies of it before your spam filter sits up and takes notice.

What if you could assign unique email addresses to companies but append a signature to each that verified that it was legitimate? I came up with a way to do this and implemented it as a spam filter, and made a mobile-friendly webapp to help generate the necessary signatures. Here’s what it looked like:

  1. The domain directs all emails at that domain to the same inbox.
  2. If the email address is on a pre-established list of valid addresses, that’s fine.
  3. Otherwise, the email address must match the form of:
    • A string (the company name), followed by
    • A hyphen, followed by
    • A hash generated using the mechanism described below, then
    • The @-sign and domain name as usual

The hashing algorithm is as follows: concatenate a secret password that only you know with a colon then the “company name” string, run it through SHA1, and truncate to the first eight characters. So if my password were swordfish1 and I were generating a password for Facebook, I’d go:

  1. SHA1 ( swordfish1 : facebook) [ 0 ... 8 ] = 977046ce
  2. Therefore, the email address is facebook-977046ce@myname.com
  3. If any character of that email address is modified, it becomes invalid, preventing an attacker from deriving your other email addresses from a single point (and making it hard to derive them given multiple points)

I implemented the code, but it soon became apparent that this was overkill and I was targeting the wrong behaviours. It was a fun exercise, but ultimately pointless. This is the one method on this page that I don’t still use.

Honeypots

Geekiness: 8/10
Efficacy: ?/10

Emails to multiple email addresses reach an inbox, but senders who reach a "honeypot" inbox are blocked from reaching the real inbox.

A honeypot is a “trap” email address. Anybody who emails it get aggressively marked as a spammer to help ensure that any other messages they send – even to valid email addresses – also get marked as spam.

I litter honeypots all over the place (you might find hidden email addresses on my web pages, along with text telling humans not to use them), but my biggest source of honeypots is formerly-valid unique addresses, or “guessed” catch-all addresses, which already attract spam or are otherwise compromised!

I couldn’t tell you how effective it is without looking at my spam filter’s logs, and since the most-effective of my filters is now outsourced to Proton, I don’t have easy access to that. But it certainly feels very satisfying on the occasions that I get to add a new address to the honeypot list.

Instant throwaways

Geekiness: 5/10
Efficacy: 6/10

OpenTrashmail is an excellent throwaway email server that you can deploy in seconds with Docker, point some MX records at, and be all set! A throwaway email server gives you an infinite number of unique email addresses, like other solutions described above, but with the benefit that you never have to see what gets sent to them.

Emails are delivered to an inbox and to a trash can, depending on the address they're sent to. The inbox subscribes to the trash can using RSS.

If you offer me a coupon in exchange for my email address, it’s a throwaway email address I’ll give you. I’ll make one up on the spot with one of my (several) trashmail domains at the end of it, like justgivemethedamncoupon@danstrashmailserver.com. I can just type that email address into OpenTrashmail to see what you sent me, but then I’ll never check it again so you can spam it to your heart’s content.

As a bonus, OpenTrashmail provides RSS feeds of inboxes, so I can subscribe to any email-based service using my feed reader, and then unsubscribe just as easily (without even having to tell the owner).

Summary

With the exception of whatever filters your provider or software comes with, most of these options aren’t suitable for regular folks. But you’re only a domain name (assuming you don’t have one already) away from being able to give unique email addresses to everybody you deal with, and that’s genuinely a game-changer all by itself and well worth considering, in my opinion.

× × × ×

Woke Kids

The other weekend, I joined in with the parade at Witney Pride, accompanied by our 10-year-old who’d expressed an interest in coming too.

It was her first Pride but she clearly got the idea, turning up with a wonderful hand-coloured poster she’d made which, in rainbow colours, encouraged the reader to “be kind”.

A Pride parade marches down a high street: Dan and his eldest can be seen in the very background.
You’ve seen pictures of Pride parades before, possibly even ones with me in them.

You know what: our eldest is so woke it makes me embarrassed on behalf of my past self at her age. Or even at twice her age, when I still didn’t have the level of social and societal awareness and care about queer issues that she does already.

A tweeny girl and a 40-something man with rainbows painted on their faces wave flags in a Pride parade. The child has coloured-in a poster saying "be kind".
I’d equipped her with a whistle (on a rainbow lanyard) and instructions that in the event of protests from religious nuts she shouldn’t engage with them (because that’s what they want) but instead just to help ensure that our parade was louder than them! I needn’t have worried though: Witney ain’t Oxford or London and our march seemed to see nothing but joy and support from the folks we passed.

When we got to the parade’s destination, the kid found a stall selling a variety of badges, and selected for herself a “she/her/hers” pronoun pin.

“It’s not like anybody’s likely to look at me and assume that my pronouns are anything other than that,” she explained, “But I want it to be normal to talk about, and I want to show solidarity for genderqueer people.”

That’s a level of allyship that it took me until I was much, much older to attain. So proud!

× ×

Framing Device

Doors

As our house rennovations/attic conversions come to a close, I found myself up in what will soon become my en suite, fitting a mirror, towel rail, and other accessories.

Wanting to minimise how much my power tool usage disturbed the rest of the house, I went to close the door separating my new bedroom from my rest of my house, only to find that it didn’t properly fit its frame and instead jammed part-way-closed.

“Oh,” I said, as the door clearly failed to shut, “Damn.”

Somehow we’d never tested that this door closed properly before we paid the final instalment to the fitters. And while I’m sure they’d have come back to repair the problem if I asked, I figured that it’d be faster and more-satisfying to fix it for myself.

Homes

As a result of an extension – constructed long before we moved in – the house in Preston in which spent much of my childhood had not just a front and a back door but what we called the “side door”, which connected the kitchen to the driveway.

Unfortunately the door that was installed as the “side door” was really designed for interior use and it suffered for every winter it faced the biting wet North wind.

A partially-pebbledashed house.
The side door isn’t visible in this picture: it’s concealed behind the corner of the house, to the left of the car.

My father’s DIY skills could be rated as somewhere between mediocre and catastrophic, but his desire to not spend money “frivolously” was strong, and so he never repaired nor replaced the troublesome door. Over the course of each year the wood would invariably absorb more and more water and swell until it became stiff and hard to open and close.

The solution: every time my grandfather would visit us, each Christmas, my dad would have his dad take down the door, plane an eighth of an inch or so off the bottom, and re-hang it.

Sometimes, as a child, I’d help him do so.

A grey-haired white man wearing spectacles and a boiler suit leans comfortably on a railing alongside industrial machinery.
My paternal grandfather was a practical and hand-on engineer and a reasonable carpenter.

Planes

The first thing to do when repairing a badly-fitting door is work out exactly where it’s sticking. I borrowed a wax crayon from the kids’ art supplies, coloured the edge of the door, and opened and closed it a few times (as far as possible) to spot where the marks had smudged.

Fortunately my new bedroom door was only sticking along the top edge, so I could get by without unmounting it so long as I could brace it in place. I lugged a heavy fence post rammer from the garage and used it to brace the door in place, then climbed a stepladder to comfortably reach the top.

A small box plane perched atop a sloping door.
I figured I’d only need to remove a few millimetres, so I didn’t mind doing it from atop a stepladder. Hey: here’s a fun thing – when I think about planing a door with my grandfather, I think in inches; when I think about doing it myself, I think in metric!

Loss

After my paternal grandfather died, there was nobody left who would attend to the side door of our house. Each year, it became a little stiffer, until one day it wouldn’t open at all.

Surely this would be the point at which he’d pry open his wallet and pay for it to be replaced?

A middle-aged man carrying walking poles on an urban riverbank drags a car tyre that's chained to his waist.
I’m not sure there’s a more apt metaphor for my dad’s ability to be stubborn than this photo of him dragging a tyre around Gateshead as a training activity for an Arctic expedition.

Nope. Instead, he inexpertly screwed a skirting board to it and declared that it was now no-longer a door, but a wall.

I suppose from a functionalist perspective he was correct, but it still takes a special level of boldness to simply say “That door? It’s a wall now.”

Sand

Of all the important tasks a carpenter (or in this case, DIY-er) must undertake, hand sanding must surely be the least-satisfying.

Dan rubs sandpaper atop a wooden door.
You wear your fingers out rubbing a piece of wood smooth, and your only reward is getting to do it again with a slightly finer grade of paper.

But reaching the end of the process, the feel of a freshly-planed, carefully-sanded piece of wood is fantastic. This surface represented chaos, and now it represents order. Order that you yourself have brought about.

Often, you’ll be the only one to know. When my grandfather would plane and sand the bottom edge of our house’s side door, he’d give it a treatment of oil (in a doomed-to-fail attempt to keep the moisture out) and then hang it again. Nobody can see its underside once it’s hung, and so his handiwork was invisible to anybody who hadn’t spent the last couple of months swearing at the stiffness of the door.

A paintbrush applies white paint to the top of a door.
Swish, swish. Now I’m glad I sanded.

Even though the top of my door is visible – particularly visible, given its sloping face – nobody sees the result of the sanding because it’s hidden beneath a layer of paint.

A few brush strokes provide the final touch to a spot of DIY… that in provided a framing device for me to share a moment of nostalgia with you.

Sweep away the wood shavings. Keep the memories.

× × × × × ×

Multi-Phase Maps in FoundryVTT

FoundryVTT is a fantastic Web-based environment for tabletop roleplaying adventures1 and something I particularly enjoy is the freedom for virtually-unlimited scripting. Following a demonstration to a fellow DM at work last week I promised to throw together a quick tutorial into scripting simple multi-phase maps using Foundry.2

Why multi-phase maps?

Animated battlemap which organically grows into a leafy flower over six stages.
For this demonstration, I’ll be using AtraxianBear’s Growing Flower Dungeon.

You might use a multi-phase map to:

  • Allow the development and expansion of a siege camp outside the fortress where the heroes are holed-up.3
  • Rotate through day and night cycles or different times of day, perhaps with different things to interact with in each.4
  • Gradually flood a sewer with rising water… increasing the range of the monster that dwells within.5
  • Re-arrange parts of the dungeon when the characters flip certain switches, opening new paths… and closing others.

I’ll use the map above to create a simple linear flow, powered by a macro in the hotbar. Obviously, more-complex scenarios are available, and combining this approach with a plugin like Monk’s Active Tile Triggers can even be used to make the map appear to dynamically change in response to the movement or actions of player characters!

Setting the scene

Create a scene, using the final state of the map as the background. Then, in reverse-order, add the previous states as tiles above it.

Not shown, but highly-recommended: lock each tile when you’re done placing it, so that you don’t accidentally interact with it when you mean to e.g. drag-select multiple actors.

Make a note of the X-position that your tiles are in when they’re where they supposed to be: we’ll “move” the tiles off to the side when they’re hidden, to prevent their ghostly half-hidden forms getting in your way as game master. We’ll also use this X-position to detect which tiles have already been moved/hidden.

Also make note of each tile’s ID, so your script can reference them. It’s easiest to do this as you go along. When you’re ready to write your macro, reverse the list, because we’ll be hiding each tile in the opposite order from the order you placed them.

Writing the script

Next, create a new script macro, e.g. by clicking an empty slot in the macro bar. When you activate this script, the map will move forward one phase (or, if it’s at the end, it’ll reset).

I find Foundry’s built-in script editor a little… small? So I write my scripts in my favourite text editor and then copy-paste.

Here’s the code you’ll need – the 👈 emoji identifies the places you’ll need to modify the code, specifically:

  1. const revealed_tiles_default_x = 250 should refer to the X-position of your tiles when they’re in the correct position.
  2. const revealed_tiles_modified_x = 2825 should refer to the X-position they’ll appear at “off to the right” of your scene. To determine this, just move one tile right until it’s sufficiently out of the way of the battlemap and then check what it’s X-position is! Or just take the default X-position, add the width of your map in pixels, and then add a tiny bit more.
  3. const revealed_tiles = [ ... ] is a list of the tile IDs of each tile what will be hidden, in turn. In my example there are five of them (the sixth and final image being the scene background).
const revealed_tiles_default_x = 250;   // 👈 X-position of tiles when displayed
const revealed_tiles_modified_x = 2825; // 👈 X-position of tiles when not displayed
const revealed_tiles = [
  '2xG7S8Yqk4x1eAdr',                   // 👈 list of tile IDs in order that they should be hidden
  'SjNQDBImHvrjAHWX',                   //     (top to bottom)
  'tuYg4FvLgIla1l21',
  'auX4sj64PWmkAteR',
  'yAL4YP0I4Cv4Sevt',
].map(t=>canvas.tiles.get(t));

/*************************************************************************************************/

// Get the topmost tile that is still visible:
const next_revealed_tile_to_move = revealed_tiles.find(t=>
  t.position.x == revealed_tiles_default_x
);

// If there are NO still-visible tiles, we must need to reset the map:
if( ! next_revealed_tile_to_move ) {
  // To reset the map, we go through each tile and put it back where it belongs -
  for(tile of revealed_tiles){
    canvas.scene.updateEmbeddedDocuments("Tile", [ {
      _id: tile.id,
      x: revealed_tiles_default_x,
      hidden: false
    } ]);
  }
} else {
  // Otherwise, hide the topmost visible tile (and move it off to the side to help the GM) -
  canvas.scene.updateEmbeddedDocuments("Tile", [ {
    _id: next_revealed_tile_to_move.id,
    x: revealed_tiles_modified_x,
    hidden: true
  } ]);
}

I hope that the rest of the code is moderately self-explanatory for anybody with a little JavaScript experience, but if you’re just following this kind of simple, linear case then you don’t need to modify it anyway. But to summarise, what it does is:

  1. Finds the first listed tile that isn’t yet hidden (by comparing its X-position to the pre-set X-position).
  2. If there aren’t any such tiles, we must have hidden them all already, so perform a reset: to do this – iterate through each tile and set its X-position to the pre-set X-position, and un-hide it.
  3. Otherwise, move the first not-hidden tile to the alternative X-position and hide it.

I hope you have fun with scripting your own multi-phase maps. Just don’t get so caught-up in your awesome scenes that you fail to give the players any agency!

Footnotes

1 Also, it’s on sale at 20% off this week to celebrate its fourth anniversary. Just sayin’.

2 I can neither confirm nor deny that a multi-phase map might be in the near future of The Levellers‘ adventure…

3 AtraxianBear has a great series of maps inspired by the 1683 siege of Vienna by the Ottomans that could be a great starting point for a “gradually advancing siege” map.

4 If you’re using Dungeon Alchemist as part of your mapmaking process you can just export orthographic or perspective outputs with different times of day and your party’s regular inn can be appropriately lit for any time of day, even if the party decides to just “wait at this table until nightfall”.

5 Balatro made a stunning map with rising water as a key feature: there’s a preview available.

×

Don’t Ask, Don’t Teach

Politics and pundits

The UK’s Conservative government, having realised that their mandate is worthless, seems to be in a panicked rush to try to get the voters to ignore any of the real issues. Instead, they say, we should be focussed on things like ludicrously-expensive and ineffective ways to handle asylum seekers and making life as hard as possible for their second-favourite scapegoat: trans and queer people.

Screengrab from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. John Oliver is subtitled as saying: In the end, Sunak did an end-run around the ruling that Rwanda was too dangerous by simply having his government officially declare Rwanda a "safe country".
By the time John Oliver’s doing a segment about you, perhaps it’s time to realise you’ve fucked up? But our main story tonight is about sex education…

The latest move in that second category seems likely to be a plan to, among other things, discourage teachers from talking about gender identity in schools, with children of any age. From the article I linked:

The BBC has not seen the new guidelines but a government source said they included plans to ban any children being taught about gender identity.

If asked, teachers will have to be clear gender ideology is contested.

Needless to say, such guidance is not likely to be well-received by teachers:

Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher at a school in Rotherham, told Today that he believes pupils are being used “as a political football”.

Teachers “want well informed and evidence-based decisions”, he said, and not “politicised” guidance.

Cringey political poster reading "Is this Labour's idea of a comprehensive education? Take the politics out of education, vote Conservative", alongside three books: Young gay & proud, Police: Out of School!, and The playbook for kids about sex.
I can only assume that the Tories still have a stack of this genuine 1987 billboard poster (ugh) in stock, and are hoping to save money by reusing them.

People and pupils

This shit isn’t harmless. Regardless of how strongly these kinds of regulations are enforced, they can have a devastating chilling effect in schools.

I speak from experience.

A group of teenagers stand around awkwardly.
I don’t know if this is the “most-90s” photo I own of myself, but it’s gotta be close. Taken at the afterparty from a school production of South Pacific, so probably at least a little disproportionately-queer gathering.

Most of my school years were under the shadow of Section 28. Like I predict for the new Conservative proposals, Section 28 superficially didn’t appear to have a major impact: nobody was ever successfully prosecuted under it, for example. But examining its effects in that way completely overlooks the effect it had on how teachers felt they had to work.

For example…

In around 1994, I witnessed a teacher turn a blind eye to homophobic bullying of a pupil by their peer, during a sex education class. Simultaneously, the teacher coolly dismissed the slurs of the bully, saying that we weren’t “talking about that in this class” and that the boy should “save his chatter for the playground”. I didn’t know about the regulations at the time: only in hindsight could I see that this might have been a result of Section 28. All I got to see at the time was a child who felt that his homophobic harassment of his classmate had the tacit endorsement of the teachers, so long as it didn’t take place in the classroom.

A gay friend, who will have been present but not involved in the above event, struggled with self-identity and relationships throughout his teenage years, only “coming out” as an adult. I’m confident that he could have found a happier, healthier life had he felt supported – or at the very least not-unwelcome – at school. I firmly believe that the long-running third-degree side-effects of Section 28 effectively robbed him of a decade of self-actualisation about his identity.

The long tail of those 1980s rules were felt long-after they were repealed. And for a while, it felt like things were getting better. But increasingly it feels like we’re moving backwards.

A pride rainbow painted down the back of a white person's first, held in the air.
As a country and as a society, we can do better than this.

With general elections coming up later this year, it’ll soon be time to start quizzing your candidates on the issues that matter to you. Even (perhaps especially) if your favourite isn’t the one who wins, it can be easiest to get a politicians’ ear when they and their teams are canvassing for your vote; so be sure to ask pointed questions about the things you care about.

I hope that you’ll agree that not telling teachers to conceal from teenagers the diversity of human identity and experience is something worth caring about.

Update: Only a couple of hours after I posted this, the awesome folks (whom I’ve mentioned before) at the Vagina Museum tooted a thread about the long tail of Section 28. It’s well-worth a read.

× × × ×

Blog to 5K

This is my 5,000th post on this blog.

Okay, we’re gonna need a whole lot of caveats on the “this is 5,000” claim:

Engage pedantry mode

First, there’s a Ship of Theseus consideration. By “this blog”, I’m referring to what I feel is a continuation (with short breaks) of my personal diary-style writing online from the original “Avatar Diary” on castle.onza.net in the 1990s via “Dan’s Pages” on avangel.com in the 2000s through the relaunch on scatmania.org in 2003 through migrating to danq.me in 2012. If you feel that a change of domain precludes continuation, you might disagree with me. Although you’d be a fool to do so: clearly a blog can change its domain and still be the same blog, right? Back in 2018 I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my first blog post by revisiting how my blog had looked, felt, and changed over the decades, if you’re looking for further reading.

Castle of the Four Winds in early 1999.
These posts were from the 1990s (in case the design didn’t give that away), and despite a change in domain name, I’m counting them. They’re still accessible, via this domain, today!1
Similarly, one might ask if retroactively republishing something that originally went out via a different medium “counts”2.

In late 1999 I ran “Cool Thing of the Day (to do at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth)” as a way of staying connected to my friends back in Preston as we all went our separate ways to study. Initially sent out by email, I later maintained a web page with a log of the entries I’d sent out, but the address wasn’t publicly-circulated. I consider this to be a continuation of the Avatar Diary before it and the predecessor to Dan’s Pages on avangel.com after it, but a pedant might argue that because the content wasn’t born as a blog post, perhaps it’s invalid.

Pedants might also bring up the issue of contemporaneity. In 2004 a server fault resulted in the loss of a significant number of 149 blog posts, of which only 85 have been fully-recovered. Some were resurrected from backups as late as 2012, and some didn’t recover their lost images until later still – this one had some content recovered as late as 2017! If you consider the absence of a pre-2004 post until 2012 a sequence-breaker, that’s an issue. It’s theoretically possible, of course, that other old posts might be recovered and injected, and this post might before the 5,001st, 5,002nd, or later post, in terms of chronological post-date. Who knows!

Then there’s the posts injected retroactively. I’ve written software that, since 2018, has ensured that my geocaching logs get syndicated via my blog when I publish them to one of the other logging sites I use, and I retroactively imported all of my previous logs. These never appeared on my blog when they were written: should they count? What about more egregious examples of necroposting, like this post dated long before I ever touched a keyboard? I’m counting them all.

I’m also counting other kinds of less-public content too. Did you know that I sometimes make posts that don’t appear on my front page, and you have to subscribe e.g. by RSS to get them? They have web addresses – although search engines are discouraged from indexing them – and people find them with or without subscribing. Maybe you should subscribe if you haven’t already?

Note that I’m not counting my comments on my own blog, even though many of them are very long, like this 2,700-word exploration of a jigsaw puzzle geocache, or this 1,000-word analogy for cookie theft via cross-site scripting. I’d like to think that for any post that you’d prefer to rule out, given the issues already described, you’d find a comment that could justifiably have been a post in its own right.[/footnote]

Back to celebration mode

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.

I’ve only recently started actively keeping stats on my blogging activity, without which I probably wouldn’t even have noticed that my “5K” milestone was coming up!

Let’s take a look at some of those previous milestone posts:

It takes a pretty special geocache for me to make a video about it (unlike my geohashing expeditions, for which videos aren’t uncommon). The only other one I can think of was one of my own

I absolutely count this as the 5,000th post on this blog.

Dan with a champagne flute, fireworks in the background, points to a screen showing this blog post.
Here’s to the next 5,000!

Footnotes

1 Don’t go look at them. Just don’t. I was a teenager.

2 Via a bit of POSSE and a bit of PESOS I do a lot of crossposting (the diagram in that post is a little out-of-date now, though).

3 Bird & Moon, of course, doesn’t have a subscription feed that I’m aware of, but FreshRSS‘s “killer feature” of XPath scraping makes the same kind of thing possible.

× ×

Let Your Players Lead The Way

I’ve been GMing/DMing/facilitating1 roleplaying games for nearby 30 years, but I only recently began to feel like I was getting to be good at it.

The secret skill that was hardest for me to learn? A willingness to surrender control to the players.

Icons representing Karma (an arrow splitting into three choices), Drama (arrows converging into a single route), and Fortune (an arrow bending to the right then being diverted back the other way at the last second).
I’m a big fan of the Karma/Drama/Fortune (K/D/F) model for understanding resolution. My relationship with K/D/F is a story for another blog post, but I’ll use it as as a framework here.

Karma, Drama, Fortune

I could write a lot about the way I interpret the K/D/F model, but for today here’s a quick primer:

The K/D/F model describes the relationship between three forces: Karma (player choices), Drama (story needs) and Fortune (luck, e.g. dice rolls). For example,

  • When the lich king comes to the region to provide a villainous plot hook, that’s Drama. Nobody had to do anything and no dice were rolled. The story demanded a “big bad” and so – within the limitations of the setting – one turned up.
  • When his lucky critical hit kills an ally of the adventurers, that’s Fortune. That battle could have gone a different way, but the dice were on the villain’s side and he was able to harm the players. When we don’t know which way something will go, and it matters, we hit the dice.
  • When one of the heroes comes up with a clever way to use a magical artefact from a previous quest to defeat him, that’s Karma. It was a clever plan, and the players were rewarded for their smart choices by being able to vanquish the evil thing.
  • And elsewhere on their quest they probably saw many other resolutions. Each of those may have leaned more-heavily on one or another of the three pillars, or balanced between them equally.
Triangle showing that a balanced game requires a mixture of Karma, Drama, and Fortune, but not necessarily equally.
The balance point varies by group and can change over time, but crucially it doesn’t neglect any one of the three aspects.

Disbalancing drama

For most of my many years of gamemastering, I saw my role as being the sole provider the “drama” part of the K/D/F model. The story comes from me, the choices and dice rolls come from the players, right?

Nope, I was wrong. That approach creates an inevitable trend, whether large or small, towards railroading: “forcing” players down a particular path.

A gamemaster with an inflexible and excessively concrete idea of the direction that a story must go will find that they become unable to see the narrative through any other lens. In extreme examples, the players are deprotagonised and the adventure just becomes a series of set pieces, connected by the gamemaster’s idea of how things should play out. I’ve seen this happen. I’ve even caused it to happen, sometimes.2

Flowchart for the quest "Expedition to the Lonely Mountain: an adventure for 14 first-level characters, one of them a halfling and the rest of them dwarves." Shows a linear, non-branching flowchat: birthday party; accept quest; captured by trolls; rescued by wizard; meet elves; get weapons; captured by goblins; rescued by wizard; wolves; rescued by eagles; giant spiders; captured by wood elves; escape by river; lake town; climb mountain; meet dragon; trick dragon, learn weakness, steal treasure; dragon attack.
What if Bilbo and his party escaped from the wood elves by land, heading directly East to Erebor instead of via Esgaroth? What if he failed to determine Smaug’s weakness, or chose not to steal from him? What if the dwarves successfully fought off the goblins and didn’t need rescue? The difference between an adventure story and an adventure game should be that in a game, nobody – not even the author – can be certain ahead of time of the answers to all the questions.

A catalogue of failures

I’ve railroaded players to some degree or another on an embarrassing number of occasions.

In the spirit of learning from my mistakes, here are three examples of me being a Bad GM.

Quantum Ogre

Scenario: In a short-lived high fantasy GURPS campaign, I wanted the party to meet a band of gypsies and have their fortune told, in order to foreshadow other parts of the story yet to come.

What I did: I pulled a quantum ogre (magician’s choice) on them: whether they travelled by road, or water, or hacked their way through the forest, they were always going to meet the gypsies: their choice of route didn’t really matter.

Why that was wrong: I’d elevated the value of the encounter I’d planned higher than the importance of player agency. The more effort it took to write something, the more I felt the need to ensure it happened!

Two things I could’ve done: Reassessed the importance of the encounter. Found other ways to foreshadow the plot that didn’t undermine player choices, and been more-flexible about my set pieces.

Fudging

Scenario: In a Spirit of the Century one-shot an antagonist needed to kidnap a NPC from aboard an oceanbound ship. To my surprise – with some very lucky rolls – the players foiled the plot!

What I did: I used a fudge – an exploit based on the fact that in most games the gamemaster controls both the plot and the hidden variables of the game mechanics – to facilitate the antagonist kidnapping a different NPC, and adapted the story to this new reality.

Why that was wrong: It made the players feel like their choices didn’t matter. I justified it to myself by it being a one-shot, but that undermines the lesson: I could’ve done better.

Two things I could’ve done: Used the failed attack as a precursor to a later renewed offensive by a villain who’s now got a personal interest in seeing the party fail. Moved towards a different story, perhaps to a different element of the antagonist’s plan.

Ex Machina

Scenario: In a long-running Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st edition!) campaign, a series of bad choices and terrible luck left the party trapped and unable to survive the onslaught of a literal army of bloodthirsty orcs.

What I did: I whipped out a deus spiritus ex machina, having a friendly ghost NPC basically solve for them a useful puzzle they’d been struggling with, allowing them to escape alive (albeit with the quest truly failed).

Why that was wrong: It deprotagonised the adventurers, making them unimportant in their own stories. At the time, I felt that by saving the party I was “saving” the game, but instead I was undermining its value.

Two things I could’ve done: TPK: sometimes it’s the right thing to allow everybody to die! Pivot the plot to facilitate their capture (e.g. the arch-nemesis can’t solve the puzzle either and wants to coerce them into helping), leading to new challenges and interesting moral choices.

Those examples are perhaps extreme, but I’m pretty sure I’ve set up my fair share of lesser sins too. Like chokepoints that strongly encourage a particular direction: do that enough and you train your players to wait until they identify the chokepoint before they take action! Or being less invested in players’ plans if those plans deviate from what I anticipated, and having a convenient in-party NPC prompting players with what they ought to do next. Ugh.3

The good news is, of course, that we’ve all always got the opportunity for growth and self-improvement.

Scan from the D&D 5e adventure book "Descent into Avernus", showing a linear progression from the Dungeon of the Dead Three to The Low Lantern to Vanthampur Villa. In each case, player motivation is supposed, e.g. "The characters confront another of Duke Vanthampur's sons", "the adventurers attack her villa", etc.
In my defence, many professionally published adventures are a series of scenes connected by the assumption that the author knows exactly how the players will proceed from each. These don’t teach gamemasters how to handle any deviation: no wonder we don’t learn not to railroad!

The self-improvement path

I’ve gotten better at this in general over the years, but when I took over from Simon at DMing for The Levellers in July, I decided that I was going to try to push myself harder than ever to avoid railroading. Simon was always especially good at promoting player freedom and autonomy, and I wanted to use this inspiration as a vehicle to improve my own gamemastering.

What does that look like within the framework of an established campaign?

Photo with narrow depth of field, showing a tabletop roleplaying game. A grey plastic minature of a dwarf with a battle axe faces off against a large red minature of a dragon. Beside them, two glassy red six-sided dice and a similarly-coloured twenty-sided die can be seen.
Some days, a critical hit is just enough. Other days, you should’ve just stayed at the inn and got drunk. This third-party photo is copyrighted with all rights reserved; not under my usual license.

Well: I ensure there are clues (usually three of them!) to point the players in the “right” direction. And I’ll be on hand to give “nudges” if they’re truly stuck for what to do next, typically by providing a “recap” of the things they’ve previously identified as hooks that are worth following-up (including both the primary plotline and any other avenues they’ve openly discussed investigating).

But that’s the limit to how I allow Drama to control the direction of the story. Almost everything else lies in the hands of Karma and Fortune.

Three-frame captioned screengrab from Community Season 5 Episode 10 (Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons). Abed is sat amongst his dungeon mastering supplies. "South? You could go South," he says. He pulled out an thick binder and slams it onto the table. "I've generated some details about the surrounding area," he adds, flipping it open to show it full of notes. Beneath, it's captioned "eye contact intensifies".
Let all gamemasters strive to be as prepared as Abed.

Needless to say, opening up the possibility space for my players makes gamemastering harder4! But… not by as much as I expected. Extra prep-work was necessary, especially at the outset, in order to make sure that the world I was inheriting/building upon was believable and internally-consistent (while ensuring that if a player decided to “just keep walking East” they wouldn’t fall off the edge of the world). But mostly, the work did itself.

Because here’s the thing I learned: so long as you’re willing to take what your players come up with and run with it, they’ll help make the story more compelling. Possibly without even realising it.5

"Roll Safe" image meme showing a black man with his finger to his temple, indicating he's had a bright idea. The image is captioned "Players can't derail your plot... if your plot isn't on rails".
This tip brought to you from the Department of Splitting The Party Before They Think To Do It Themselves.

The Levellers are a pretty special group. No matter what the situation, they can always be relied upon to come up with a plan that wasn’t anywhere on their DM‘s radar. When they needed to cross a chasm over their choice of one of two bridges, each guarded by a different variety of enemy, I anticipated a few of the obvious options on each (fighting, magic, persuasion and intimidation, bribery…) but a moment later they were talking about having their druid wildshape into something easy-to-carry while everybody else did a group-spider climb expedition down the chasm edge and along the underside of a bridge. That’s thinking outside the box!

But the real magic has come when the party, through their explorations, have unlocked entirely new elements of the story.

Player-driven content

In our campaign, virtually all of the inhabitants of a city have inadvertently sold their immortal souls to a Archduchess of Hell by allowing, over generations, their declaration of loyalty to their city to become twisted away from their gods and towards their mortal leader, who sold them on in exchange for a sweet afterlife deal. The knights of the city were especially-impacted, as the oath they swore upon promised their unending loyalty in this life as well. When the fiendish pact was made, these knights were immediately possessed by evil forces, transforming into horrendous creatures (who served to harass the party for some time).

Pile of old papers with handwritten notes, including ingredients for a high fantasy "dream machine".
Every party’s got a character who pores over the textual detail of every prop6, right? Or is it just every party that includes JTA as a player?
But there’s a hole in this plot7. As-written, at least one knight avoided fiendish possession and lived to tell the tale! The player characters noticed this and latched on, so I ran with it. Why might the survivor knights be different from those who became part of the armies of darkness? Was there something different about their swearing-in ceremony? Maybe the reasons are different for different survivors?

I didn’t have answers to these questions to begin with, but the players were moving towards investigating, so I provided some. This also opened up an entire new possible “soft” quest hook related to the reason for the discrepancy. So just like that, a plothole is discovered and investigated by a player, and that results in further opportunities for adventure.

As it happens, the party didn’t even go down that route at all and instead pushed-on in their existing primary direction, but the option remains. All thanks to player curiosity, there’s a possible small quest that’s never been written down or published, and is unique to our group and the party’s interests. And that’s awesome.

Dan gestures with a wave as he peers into the camera over the top of a copy of Monsters of the Multiverse, by candlelight.
“The spell takes effect, and with whoosh of air you find yourself whisked to the bottom of the page, ready to finish reading the post.”

In Conclusion

I’m not the best GM in the world. I’m not even the best GM I know. But I’m getting better all the time; learning lessons like how to release the reins a little bit and see where my players can take our adventures.

And for those lessons, I’m grateful to those same players.

Footnotes

1 I’m using the terms GM, DM, and facilitator interchangeably, and damned if I’m writing them all out every single time.

2 A gamemaster giving all of the narrative power to any one of the three elements of K/D/F breaks the game, but in different ways. 100% karma and what you’ve got is a storytelling game, not a roleplaying game: which is fine if that’s what everybody at the table thinks they’re playing: otherwise not. 100% drama gives you a recital, not a jam session: the gamemaster might as well just be writing a book. 100% fortune leads to unrealistic chaos: with no rules to the world (either from the plot or from the consequences of actions) you’re just imagining all possible outcomes in your universe and picking one at random. There’s a balance, and where it sits might vary from group to group, but 100% commitment to a single element almost always breaks things.

3 A the “lesser sins” I mention show, the edges of what construes railroading and what’s merely “a linear quest” is a grey area, and where the line should be drawn varies from group to group. When I’m running a roleplaying session for my primary-school-aged kids, for example, I’m much more-tolerant of giving heavy-handed nudges at a high-level to help them stay focussed on what their next major objective was… but I try harder than ever to encourage diverse and flexible problem-solving ideas within individual scenes, where childish imagination can really make for memorable moments. One time, a tabaxi warrior, on fire, was falling down the outside of a tower… but his player insisted that he could shout a warning through the windows he passed before landing in flawless catlike fashion (albeit mildly singed). My adult players would be rolling athletics checks to avoid injury, but my kids? They can get away with adding details like that by fiat. Different audience, see?

4 A recent session took place after a hiatus, and I wasn’t confident that – with the benefit of a few months’ thinking-time – the party would continue with the plan they were executing before the break. And they didn’t! I’d tried to prep for a few other eventualities in the anticipation of what they might do and… I guessed wrong. So, for the first time in recorded history, our session ended early. Is that the end of the world? Nope.

5 Want a really radical approach to player-driven plot development? Take a look at this video by Zee Bashew, which I’m totally borrowing from next time I start running a new campaign.

6 You know what I miss? Feelies. That’s probably why I try to provide so many “props”, whether physical or digital, in my adventures.

7 The plothole isn’t even my fault, for once: it’s functionally broken as-delivered in the source book, although that matters little because we’ve gone so-far outside the original source material now we’re on a whole different adventure, possibly to reconvene later on.

× × × × × × × ×

Does a blog have to be HTML?

Terence Eden wrote about his recent experience of IndieWebCamp Brighton, in which he mentioned that somebody – probably Jeremy Keith – had said, presumably to provoke discussion:

A blog post doesn’t need a title.

Terence disagrees, saying:

In a literal sense, he was wrong. The HTML specification makes it clear that the <title> element is mandatory. All documents have title.

But I think that’s an overreach. After all, where is it written that a blog must be presented in HTML?

Non-HTML blogs

There are plenty of counter-examples already in existence, of course:

But perhaps we can do better…

A totally text/plain blog

We’ve looked at plain text, which as a format clearly does not have to have a title. Let’s go one step further and implement it. What we’d need is:

  1. A webserver configured to deliver plain text files by preference, e.g. by adding directives like index index.txt; (for Nginx).5
  2. An index page listing posts by date and URL. Most browser won’t render these as “links” so users will have to copy-paste or re-type them, so let’s keep them short,
  3. Pages for each post at those URLs, presumably without any kind of “title” (just to prove a point), and
  4. An RSS feed: usually I use RSS as shorthand for all feed types, but this time I really do mean RSS and not e.g. Atom because RSS, strangely, doesn’t require that an <item> has a <title>!

I’ve implemented it! it’s at textplain.blog.

textplain.blog in Lynx
Unlike other sites, I didn’t need to test textplain.blog in Lynx to know it’d work well. But I did anyway.

In the end I decided it’d benefit from being automated as sort-of a basic flat-file CMS, so I wrote it in PHP. All requests are routed by the webserver to the program, which determines whether they’re a request for the homepage, the RSS feed, or a valid individual post, and responds accordingly.

It annoys me that feed discovery doesn’t work nicely when using a Link: header, at least not in any reader I tried. But apart from that, it seems pretty solid, despite its limitations. Is this, perhaps, an argument for my .well-known/feeds proposal?

Anyway, I’ve open-sourced the entire thing in case it’s of any use to anybody at all, which is admittedly unlikely! Here’s the code.

Footnotes

1 no-ht.ml technically does use HTML, but the same content could easily be delivered with an appropriate non-HTML MIME type if he’d wanted.

2 Again, I suppose this technically required HTML, even if what was delivered was an empty file!

3 Gemtext is basically Markdown, and doesn’t require a title.

4 Plain text obviously doesn’t require a title.

5 There’s no requirement that default files served by webservers are HTML, although it’s highly-unsual for that not to be the case.

Test your site in Lynx

When was the last time you tested your website in a text-only browser like Lynx (or ELinks, or one of several others)? Perhaps you should.

I’m a big fan of CSS Naked Day. I love the idea of JS Naked Day, although I missed it earlier this month (I was busy abroad, plus my aggressive caching, including in service workers, makes it hard to reliably make sweeping changes for short periods). I’m a big fan of the idea that, for the vast majority of websites, if it isn’t at least usable without any CSS or JavaScript, it should probably be considered broken.

This year, I thought I’d celebrate the events by testing DanQ.me in the most-limited browser I had to-hand: Lynx. Lynx has zero CSS or JavaScript support, along with limited-to-no support for heading levels, tables, images, etc. That may seem extreme, but it’s a reasonable analogue for the level of functionality you might routinely expect to see in the toughest environments in which your site is accessed: slow 2G connections from old mobile hardware, people on the other side of highly-restrictive firewalls or overenthusiastic privacy and security software, and of course users of accessibility technologies.

Here’s what broke (and some other observations):

<link rel="alternate">s at the top

I see the thinking that Lynx (and in an even more-extreme fashion, ELinks) have with showing “alternate versions” of a page at the top, but it’s not terribly helpful: most of mine are designed to help robots, not humans!

Screenshot showing four alternate links at the top of DanQ.me as viewed in Lynx.
Four alternates is pretty common for a WordPress site: post feed, comments feed, and two formats of oEmbed.

I wonder if switching from <link rel="alternate"> elements to Link: HTTP headers would indicate to Lynx that it shouldn’t be putting these URLs in humans’ faces, while still making them accessible to all the services that expect to find them? Doing so would require some changes to my caching logic, but might result in a cleaner, more human-readable HTML file as a side-effect. Possibly something worth investigating.

Fortunately, I ensure that my <link rel="alternate">s have a title attribute, which is respected by Lynx and ELinks and makes these scroll-past links slightly less-confusing.

Lynx screenshot from IKEA.com, showing no fewer than 113 anonymous "alternate" links at the top of the page.
Not all sites title their alternate links. IKEA.com requires you to scroll through 113 anonymous links for their alternate language versions, because Lynx doesn’t understand the hreflang attribute.

Post list indentation

Posts on the homepage are structured a little like this:

<li>
  <a href="...">
    <h2>Post Title</h2>
    <p>...post metadata, image, and things...</p>
  </a>
</li>

Strictly-speaking, that’s not valid. Heading elements are only permitted within flow elements. I chose to implement it that way because it seemed to be the most semantically-correct way to describe the literal “list of posts”. But probably my use of <h2> is not the best solution. Let’s see how Lynx handles it:

Screenshot from Lynx showing headings "outdented" from the list items they're children of.
Lynx “outdents” headings so they stand out, and “indents” lists so they look like lists. This causes a quirky clash where a heading is inside a list.

It’s not intolerable, but it’s a little ugly.

CSS lightboxes add a step to images

I use a zero-JavaScript approach to image lightboxes: you can see it by clicking on any of the images in this post! It works by creating a (closed) <dialog> at the bottom of the page, for each image. Each <dialog> has a unique id, and the inline image links to that anchor.

Originally, I used a CSS :target selector to detect when the link had been clicked and show the <dialog>. I’ve since changed this to a :has(:target) and directed the link to an element within the dialog, because it works better on browsers without CSS support.

It’s not perfect: in Lynx navigating on an inline image scrolls down to a list of images at the bottom of the page and selects the current one: hitting the link again now offers to download the image. I wonder if I might be better to use a JavaScript-powered lightbox after all!

gopher: and finger: links work perfectly!

I was pleased to discover that gopher: and finger: links to alternate copies of a post… worked perfectly! That shouldn’t be a surprise – Lynx natively supports these protocols.

Lynx screenshot showing DanQ.me via the Finger protocol.
I can’t conceive that many people access DanQ.me via the Finger protocol, but the option’s there.

In a fun quirk and unusually for a standard of its age, the Finger specification did not state the character encoding that ought to be used. I guess the authors just assumed everybody reading it would use ASCII. But both my WordPress-to-Finger bridge and Lynx instead assume that UTF-8 is acceptable (being a superset of ASCII, that seems fair!) which means that emoji work (as shown in the screenshot above). That’s nuts, isn’t it?

You can’t react to anything

Back in November I added the ability to “react” to a post by clicking an emoji, rather than typing out a full comment. Because I was feeling lazy, the feature was (and remains) experimental, and I didn’t consider it essential functionality, I implemented it mostly in JavaScript. Without JavaScript, all you can do is see what others have clicked.

Emoji reactions screenshot showing thumbs up, star eyes, surprise, muscle flex, nausea, and a dinosaur.
The available emoji vary from post to post; I sometimes like to throw a weird/fun one in there, knowing that it’ll invariably be Ruth that clicks it first.

In a browser with no JavaScript but with functional CSS, the buttons correctly appear disabled.

But with neither technology available, as in Lynx, they look like they should work, but just… don’t. Oops.

Screenshot from Lynx showing a "Bad HTML!! No form action defined." error when clicking an emoji reaction button.
Lynx is correct; this is sloppy code. Without CSS support, it even shows the instruction that implies the buttons will work, but they don’t.

If I decide to keep the reaction buttons long-term, I’ll probably reimplement them so that they function using plain-old HTML and HTTP, using a <form>, and refactor my JavaScript to properly progressively-enhance the buttons for those that support it. For now, this’ll do.

Comment form honeypot

The comment form on my blog posts works… but there’s a quirk:

At the end of the comments form, an additional <textarea> appears!

That’s an annoyance. It turns out it’s a honeypot added by Akismet: a fake comments field, normally hidden, that tries to trick spam bots into filling it (and thus giving themselves away): sort-of a “reverse CAPTCHA” where the robots do something extra, unintentionally, to prove their inhumanity. Lynx doesn’t understand the code that Akismet uses to hide the form, and so it’s visible to humans, which is suboptimal both because it’s confusing but also because a human who puts details into it is more-likely to be branded a spambot!

I might look into suppressing Akismet adding its honeypot field in the first place, or else consider one of the alternative anti-spam plugins for WordPress. I’ve heard good things about Antispam Bee; I ought to try it at some point.

Overall, it’s pretty good

On the whole, DanQ.me works reasonably well in browsers without any JavaScript or CSS capability, with only a few optional features failing to function fully. There’s always room for improvement, of course, and I’ve got a few things now to add to my “one day” to-do list for my little digital garden.

Obviously, this isn’t really about supporting people using text-mode browsers, who probably represent an incredible minority. It’s about making a real commitment to the semantic web, to accessibility, and to progressive enhancement! That making your site resilient, performant, and accessible also helps make it function in even the most-uncommon of browsers is just a bonus.

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Window Tax

Duration

Podcast Version

This post is also available as a podcast. Listen here, download for later, or subscribe wherever you consume podcasts.

…in England and Wales

From 1696 until 1851 a “window tax” was imposed in England and Wales1. Sort-of a precursor to property taxes like council tax today, it used an estimate of the value of a property as an indicator of the wealth of its occupants: counting the number of windows provided the mechanism for assessment.

Graph showing the burden of window tax in 1696 and 1794. In the former year a flat rate of 1 shiling was charged, doubling for a property when it reached 10 and 20 windows respectively. In the latter year charging began at 10 windows and the price per-window jumped up at 15 at 20 windows. Both approaches result in a "stepped" increase.
The hardest thing about retrospectively graphing the cost of window tax is thinking in “old money”2.
Window tax replaced an earlier hearth tax, following the ascension to the English throne of Mary II and William III of Orange. Hearth tax had come from a similar philosophy: that you can approximate the wealth of a household by some aspect of their home, in this case the number of stoves and fireplaces they had.

(A particular problem with window tax as enacted is that its “stepping”, which was designed to weigh particularly heavily on the rich with their large houses, was that it similarly weighed heavily on large multi-tenant buildings, whose landlord would pass on those disproportionate costs to their tenants!)

1703 woodcut showing King William III and Queen Mary II.
It’d be temping to blame William and Mary for the window tax, but the reality is more-complex and reflects late renaissance British attitudes to the limits of state authority.

Why a window tax? There’s two ways to answer that:

  • A window tax – and a hearth tax, for that matter – can be assessed without the necessity of the taxpayer to disclose their income. Income tax, nowadays the most-significant form of taxation in the UK, was long considered to be too much of an invasion upon personal privacy3.
  • But compared to a hearth tax, it can be validated from outside the property. Counting people in a property in an era before solid recordkeeping is hard. Counting hearths is easier… so long as you can get inside the property. Counting windows is easier still and can be done completely from the outside!
Dan points to a bricked-up first storey window on a stone building used by a funeral services company.
If you’re in Britain, finding older buildings with windows bricked-up to save on tax is pretty easy. I took a break from writing this post, walked for three minutes, and found one.4

…in the Netherlands

I recently got back from a trip to Amsterdam to meet my new work team and get to know them better.

Dan, by a game of table football, throws his arms into the air as if in self-celebration.
There were a few work-related/adjacent activities. But also a table football tournament, among other bits of fun.

One of the things I learned while on this trip was that the Netherlands, too, had a window tax for a time. But there’s an interesting difference.

The Dutch window tax was introduced during the French occupation, under Napoleon, in 1810 – already much later than its equivalent in England – and continued even after he was ousted and well into the late 19th century. And that leads to a really interesting social side-effect.

Dan, with four other men, sit in the back of a covered boat on a canal.
My brief interest in 19th century Dutch tax policy was piqued during my team’s boat tour.

Glass manufacturing technique evolved rapidly during the 19th century. At the start of the century, when England’s window tax law was in full swing, glass panes were typically made using the crown glass process: a bauble of glass would be spun until centrifugal force stretched it out into a wide disk, getting thinner towards its edge.

The very edge pieces of crown glass were cut into triangles for use in leaded glass, with any useless offcuts recycled; the next-innermost pieces were the thinnest and clearest, and fetched the highest price for use as windows. By the time you reached the centre you had a thick, often-swirly piece of glass that couldn’t be sold for a high price: you still sometimes find this kind among the leaded glass in particularly old pub windows5.

Multi-pane window with distinctive crown glass "circles".
They’re getting rarer, but I’ve lived in houses with small original panes of crown glass like these!

As the 19th century wore on, cylinder glass became the norm. This is produced by making an iron cylinder as a mould, blowing glass into it, and then carefully un-rolling the cylinder while the glass is still viscous to form a reasonably-even and flat sheet. Compared to spun glass, this approach makes it possible to make larger window panes. Also: it scales more-easily to industrialisation, reducing the cost of glass.

The Dutch window tax survived into the era of large plate glass, and this lead to an interesting phenomenon: rather than have lots of windows, which would be expensive, late-19th century buildings were constructed with windows that were as large as possible to maximise the ratio of the amount of light they let in to the amount of tax for which they were liable6.

Hotel des Pays-Bas, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 11 (1910 photo), showing large windows.
Look at the size of those windows! If you’re limited in how many you can have, but you’ve got the technology, you’re going to make them as large as you possibly can!

That’s an architectural trend you can still see in Amsterdam (and elsewhere in Holland) today. Even where buildings are renovated or newly-constructed, they tend – or are required by preservation orders – to mirror the buildings they neighbour, which influences architectural decisions.

Pre-WWI Neighbourhood gathering in Amsterdam, with enormous windows (especially on the ground floor) visible.
Notice how each building has only between one and three windows on the ground floor, letting as much light in while minimising the tax burden.

It’s really interesting to see the different architectural choices produced in two different cities as a side-effect of fundamentally the same economic choice, resulting from slightly different starting conditions in each (a half-century gap and a land shortage in one). While Britain got fewer windows, the Netherlands got bigger windows, and you can still see the effects today.

…and social status

But there’s another interesting this about this relatively-recent window tax, and that’s about how people broadcast their social status.

Modern photo, taken from the canal, showing a tall white building in Amsterdam with large windows on the ground floor and also basement level, and an ornamental window above the front door. Photo from Google Street View.
This Google Street Canal (?) View photo shows a house on Keizersgracht, one of the richest parts of Amsterdam. Note the superfluous decorative window above the front door and the basement-level windows for the servants’ quarters.

In some of the traditionally-wealthiest parts of Amsterdam, you’ll find houses with more windows than you’d expect. In the photo above, notice:

  • How the window density of the central white building is about twice that of the similar-width building on the left,
  • That a mostly-decorative window has been installed above the front door, adorned with a decorative leaded glass pattern, and
  • At the bottom of the building, below the front door (up the stairs), that a full set of windows has been provided even for the below-ground servants quarters!

When it was first constructed, this building may have been considered especially ostentatious. Its original owners deliberately requested that it be built in a way that would attract a higher tax bill than would generally have been considered necessary in the city, at the time. The house stood out as a status symbol, like shiny jewellery, fashionable clothes, or a classy car might today.

Cheerful white elderly man listening to music through headphones that are clearly too large for him.
I originally wanted to insert a picture here that represented how one might show status through fashion today. But then I remembered I don’t know anything about fashion7. But somehow my stock image search suggested this photo, and I love it so much I’m using it anyway. You’re welcome.
How did we go wrong? A century and a bit ago the super-wealthy used to demonstrate their status by showing off how much tax they can pay. Nowadays, they generally seem more-preoccupied with getting away with paying as little as possible, or none8.

Can we bring back 19th-century Dutch social status telegraphing, please?9

Footnotes

1 Following the Treaty of Union the window tax was also applied in Scotland, but Scotland’s a whole other legal beast that I’m going to quietly ignore for now because it doesn’t really have any bearing on this story.

2 The second-hardest thing about retrospectively graphing the cost of window tax is finding a reliable source for the rates. I used an archived copy of a guru site about Wolverhampton history.

3 Even relatively-recently, the argument that income tax might be repealed as incompatible with British values shows up in political debate. Towards the end of the 19th century, Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone could be relied upon to agree with one another on almost nothing, but both men spoke at length about their desire to abolish income tax, even setting out plans to phase it out… before having to cancel those plans when some financial emergency showed up. Turns out it’s hard to get rid of.

4 There are, of course, other potential reasons for bricked-up windows – even aesthetic ones – but a bit of a giveaway is if the bricking-up reduces the number of original windows to 6, 9, 14 or 19, which are thesholds at which the savings gained by bricking-up are the greatest.

5 You’ve probably heard about how glass remains partially-liquid forever and how this explains why old windows are often thicker at the bottom. You’ve probably also already had it explained to you that this is complete bullshit. I only mention it here to preempt any discussion in the comments.

6 This is even more-pronounced in cities like Amsterdam where a width/frontage tax forced buildings to be as tall and narrow and as close to their neighbours as possible, further limiting opportunities for access to natural light.

7 Yet I’m willing to learn a surprising amount about Dutch tax law of the 19th century. Go figure.

8 Obligatory Pet Shop Boys video link. Can that be a thing please?

9 But definitely not 17th-century Dutch social status telegraphing, please. That shit was bonkers.

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5 Cool Apps for your Unraid NAS

I’ve got a (now four-year-old) Unraid NAS called Fox and I’m a huge fan. I particularly love the fact that Unraid can work not only as a NAS, but also as a fully-fledged Docker appliance, enabling me to easily install and maintain all manner of applications.

A cube-shaped black computer sits next to a battery pack on a laminated floor. A sign has been left atop it, reading "Caution: Generator connected to this installation."
There isn’t really a generator attached to Fox, just a UPS battery backup. The sign was liberated from our shonky home electrical system.

I was chatting this week to a colleague who was considering getting a similar setup, and he seemed to be taking notes of things he might like to install, once he’s got one. So I figured I’d round up five of my favourite things to install on an Unraid NAS that:

  1. Don’t require any third-party accounts (low dependencies),
  2. Don’t need any kind of high-powered hardware (low specs), and
  3. Provide value with very little set up (low learning curve).
Dan, his finger to his lips and his laptop on his knees, makes a "shush" action. A coworker can be seen working behind him.
It’d have been cooler if I’d have secretly written this blog post while sitting alongside said colleague (shh!). But sadly it had to wait until I was home.

Here we go:

Syncthing

I’ve been raving about Syncthing for years. If I had an “everyday carry” list of applications, it’d be high on that list.

Syncthing screenshot for computer Rebel, sharing with Fox, Idiophone, Lemmy and Maxine.
Syncthing’s just an awesome piece of set-and-forget software that facilitates file synchronisation between all of your devices and can also form part of a backup strategy.

Here’s the skinny: you install Syncthing on several devices, then give each the identification key of another to pair them. Now you can add folders on each and “share” them with the others, and the two are kept in-sync. There’s lots of options for power users, but just as a starting point you can use this to:

  • Manage the photos on your phone and push copies to your desktop whenever you’re home (like your favourite cloud photo sync service, but selfhosted).
  • Keep your Obsidian notes in-sync between all your devices (normally costs $4/month).1
  • Get a copy of the documents from all your devices onto your NAS, for backup purposes (note that sync’ing alone, even with versioning enabled, is not a good backup: the idea is that you run an actual backup from your NAS!).

Huginn

You know IFTTT? Zapier? Services that help you to “automate” things based on inputs and outputs. Huginn’s like that, but selfhosted. Also: more-powerful.

Screenshot showing Huginn workflows.
When we first started looking for a dog to adopt (y’know, before we got this derper), I set up Huginn watchers to monitor the websites of several rescue centres, filter them by some of our criteria, and push the results to us in real-time on Slack, giving us an edge over other prospective puppy-parents.

The learning curve is steeper than anything else on this list, and I almost didn’t include it for that reason alone. But once you’ve learned your way around its idiosyncrasies and dipped your toe into the more-advanced Javascript-powered magic it can do, you really begin to unlock its potential.

It couples well with Home Assistant, if that’s your jam. But even without it, you can find yourself automating things you never expected to.

FreshRSS

I’ve written a lot about how and why FreshRSS continues to be my favourite RSS reader. But you know what’s even better than an awesome RSS reader? An awesome selfhosted RSS reader!

FreshRSS screenshot.
Yes, I know I have a lot of “unread” items. That’s fine, and I can tell you why.

Many of these suggested apps benefit well from you exposing them to the open Web rather than just running them on your LAN, and an RSS reader is probably the best example (you want to read your news feeds when you’re out and about, right?). What you need for that is a reverse proxy, and there are lots of guides to doing it super-easily, even if you’re not on a static IP address.2. Alternatively you can just VPN in to your home: your router might be able to arrange this, or else Unraid can do it for you!

Open Trashmail

You know how sometimes you need to give somebody your email address but you don’t actually want to. Like: sure, I’d like you to email me a verification code for this download, but I don’t trust you not to spam me later! What you need is a disposable email address.3

Open Trashmail screenshot showing a subscription to Thanks for subscribing to Dan Q's Spam-Of-The-Hour List!
How do you feel about having infinite email addresses that you can make up on-demand (without even having access to a computer), subscribe to by RSS, and never have to see unless you specifically want to.

You just need to install Open Trashmail, point the MX records of a few domain names or subdomains (you’ve got some spare domain names lying around, right? if not; they’re pretty cheap…) at it, and it will now accept email to any address on those domains. You can make up addresses off the top of your head, even away from an Internet connection when using a paper-based form, and they work. You can check them later if you want to… or ignore them forever.

Couple it with an RSS reader, or Huginn, or Slack, and you can get a notification or take some action when an email arrives!

  • Need to give that escape room your email address to get a copy of your “team photo”? Give them a throwaway, pick up the picture when you get home, and then forget you ever gave it to them.
  • Company give you a freebie on your birthday if you sign up their mailing list? Sign up 366 times with them and write a Huginn workflow that puts “today’s” promo code into your Obsidian notetaking app (Sync’d over Syncthing) but filters out everything else.
  • Suspect some organisation is selling your email address on to third parties? Give them a unique email address that you only give to them and catch them in a honeypot.

YOURLS

Finally: a URL shortener. The Internet’s got lots of them, but they’re all at the mercy of somebody else (potentially somebody in a country that might not be very-friendly with yours…).

YOURLS screenshot (Your Own URL Shortener).
It isn’t pretty, but… it doesn’t need to be! Nobody actually sees the admin interface except you anyway.

Plus, it’s just kinda cool to be able to brand your shortlinks with your own name, right? If you follow only one link from this post, let it be to watch this video that helps explain why this is important: danq.link/url-shortener-highlights.

I run many, many other Docker containers and virtual machines on my NAS. These five aren’t even the “top five” that I use… they’re just five that are great starters because they’re easy and pack a lot of joy into their learning curve.

And if your NAS can’t do all the above… consider Unraid for your next NAS!

Footnotes

1 I wrote the beginnings of this post on my phone while in the Channel Tunnel and then carried on using my desktop computer once I was home. Sync is magic.

2 I can’t share or recommend one reverse proxy guide in particular because I set my own up because I can configure Nginx in my sleep, but I did a quick search and found several that all look good so I imagine you can do the same. You don’t have to do it on day one, though!

3 Obviously there are lots of approachable to on-demand disposable email addresses, including the venerable “plus sign in a GMail address” trick, but Open Trashmail is just… better for many cases.

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Icebreakers – Heraldry and Compairs

I’m in Amsterdam for a meetup for my new team at Automattic.

A group of people dressed as robbers (with masks covering their faces and automatic weapons in their hands) pose menacingly in the lobby of a vault.
As you can see, a lot of serious work has been taking place.

When we’ve not been out tackling escape rooms, finding geocaches, and eating curry, we’ve been doing a variety of activities to help solidify our new team’s goals, priorities, and expertise: y’know, the normal things you might expect on a company away week.

I volunteered to lead the initial session on our first day with a couple of icebreaker games, which went well enough that I’m inclined to share them here in case they’re of any use to you. The games we played are called Heraldry and Compairs. Let’s take a look:

Dan stands with four other men in front of a projector screen with a fifth man on it.
One of my teammates was unable to get his visa cleared and had to attend remotely1, which resulted in me making a late change to my planned icebreaker activities to ensure they were presence-agnostic.

Heraldry

I was looking at the coat of arms of Noord Holland, the province in which Amsterdam lies, and thinking about all the symbolism and propaganda that’s encoded into traditional heraldry, and how much effort it takes to decode it… unless you just, y’know, guess!

Coat of Arms of North Holland.
Per pale or and azure; I a lion rampant gules, armed and langued azure, II seme of horizontally placed billets or, two lions passant guardant in pale of the same. The shield is crested by a coronet of five leaves or. 2

I asked each participant to divide a shield into five quadrants and draw their own coats of arms, featuring aspects of (a) their work life, (b) their personal life, (c) something they value, (d) something they’re good at, and (e) something surprising or unusual. I really wanted to keep the time pressure on and not allow anybody to overthink things, so I set a 5-minute timer from the moment everybody had finished drawing their shield outline.

Then, everybody passed their drawing to the right, and each person in turn tried, as best they could, to introduce the person to their left by attempting to interpret their neighbour’s drawing. The known categories helped to make it easier by helping people latch onto something to start talking about, but also more-challenging as people second-guessed themselves (“no, wait, maybe it’s sailing you’re good at and guitar you play in your personal life?”).

Six hand-drawn sketches of heraldic coats of arms by six different Automatticians. Ballpoint pen on paper.
This wasn’t about artistic skills; it was about getting people to talk to one another. Which is for the best, given my (lack of) artistic skills.

After each introduction is made, the person being introduced gets to explain their heraldry for themselves, congratulating their introducer on the things they got right and their close-guesses along the way.

It’s sort-of halfway between “introduce your neighbour” and “pictionary”. And it worked well to get us warmed-up, feeling a little silly, knowing one another slightly better, and in a space in which everybody had been expected to have spoken and to have made a harmless mistake (everybody managed to partially-interpret a shield correctly). A useful place to be at the end of an icebreaker exercise is left with the reminder that we are, after all, only human.

Compairs

Next up, we played a game only slightly inspired by witnessing a game of Mr and Mrs the other week3. I threw together a Perchance (which, in the nature of such things, is entirely open-source and you’re welcome to adapt it for your own use) that generated a series of randomly-selected pairs of teammates and asked a question to differentiate the two of them.

Screenshot of the game asking: "Gareth vs Dan (Travel category): Who's taken the longest boat ride?"
Some of the questions were gentle, but solicited a reasonable amount of guesswork alongside a modest amount of deduction.

Participants other than the two shown on the screen were challenged to guess the answer to the question. Sometimes the questions would have a definitive answer, and sometimes not: the joy was in the speculation! “Hmm, I know that Dan’s done quite a bit of globetrotting… but could he actually have travelled further East than a colleague who lives much further East than him?”

After a few seconds to a minute, once their colleagues had settled on an answer, the people listed on the question were encouraged to make their own guesses. Usually they’ll have a better idea as they are one of the data points, but that’s not always true!

Screenshot of the game asking: "Michal vs Raja (Code category): I can't remember whether I need aria-label or aria-labelledby. Who can tell me?"
A handful of questions were even tangentially work-related. Who is the accessibility Web expert in our team, anyway?

There’s no points, and you can play for as long as you like so long as it’s long enough that everybody gets at least one turn, so it’s a good “fill the rest of the time slot” game. It follows Heraldry moderately well as an icebreaker double-feature because the former is firstly about learning things about one another (and to a lesser extent guessing), and the latter is about the opposite.

I came out of both games knowing more about the humans behind the screens in my new team, and it seemed to open up the room for some good discussions afterwards, so the social lubricant effect was clearly effective too. If you give them a go or adapt them into anything else, let me know!

Footnotes

1 Our absent colleague instead had to tower over us on an enormous projector screen.

2 The red (“gules”) upright (“rampant”) lion in the coat of arms possibly comes from the heraldry of the city of Gelderen in Germany, but once part of the Dutch Republic. The lions striding (“passant”) to the left (“to dexter”) but turning to face you (“guardant”) come from the arms of Fryslân (Friesland), and its rectangles represent the districts of Fryslân. Aren’t you glad you asked.

3 Also known as The Newlyweds Game after the US game show of that name and basically the same format, Mr and Mrs is a game in which a (typically newly) married couple are asked questions about one another and their lives together which they answer separately and then those answers are compared. This induces a reaction of compersion when they’re “right” and in-sync and when the couple disagree it results in amusement. Or possibly divorce.

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Water Science #2

Back in 2019, the kids – so much younger back then! – and I helped undertake some crowdsourced citizen science for the Thames WaterBlitz. This year, we’re helping out again.

Screenshot from FreshWater Watch's slightly-shonky dataviewer, showing that 3 participants took a sample from Oxford Canal bridge 228 on 21 September 2019.
It really is “open data”. Look: I found the record that was created as a result of the kids’ and my participation back in 2019!

We’ve moved house since then, but we’re still within the Thames basin and can provide value by taking part in this weekend’s sampling activity. The data that gets collected on nitrate and phosphate levels in local water sources –  among other observations – gets fed into an open dataset for the benefit of scientists and laypeople.

Two young children assess the colour of some canal water, beneath a bridge.
The kids were smaller last time we did this.

It’d have been tempting to be exceptionally lazy and measure the intermittent water course that runs through our garden! It’s an old, partially-culverted drainage ditch1, but it’s already reached the “dry” part of its year and taking a sample wouldn’t be possible right now.

Two children wearing wellies stand in a ditch, breaking ice into chunks.
The ditch in our garden is empty 75% and full of water 25% of the time. Oh, and full of ice for a few days each winter, to the delight of children who love smashing things. (It’s also full of fallen wood and leaf detritus most of the year and JTA spends a surprising amount of time dredging it so that it drains properly into its next section.)

But more-importantly: the focus of this season’s study is the River Evenlode, and we’re not in its drainage basin! So we packed up a picnic and took an outing to the North Leigh Roman Villa, which I first visited last year when I was supposed to be on the Isle of Man with Ruth.

Dan kneels on a striped picnic mat with a 7-year-old and a 10-year old child alongside some sandwiches, iced fingers, Pepperami, fruit, and pretzels.
“Kids, we’re going outside…” / “Awww! Noooo!” / “…for a picnic and some science!” / “Yayyy!”

Our lunch consumed, we set off for the riverbank, and discovered that the field between us and the river was more than a little waterlogged. One of the two children had been savvy enough to put her wellies on when we suggested, but the other (who claims his wellies have holes in, or don’t fit, or some other moderately-implausible excuse for not wearing them) was in trainers and Ruth and I needed to do a careful balancing act, holding his hands, to get him across some of the tougher and boggier bits.

A 7-year-old boy in a grey camo coat balances on a blank over a large muddy puddle: he's about to attempt to cross a log to a gate into the next field (which also looks pretty wet). Ruth, who doesn't much like featuring in photos, has been digitally-removed from this one (she was standing at the far side ready to catch the balancing child!).
Trainers might not have been the optimal choice of footwear for this particular adventure.

Eventually we reached the river, near where the Cotswold Line crosses it for the fifth time on its way out of Oxford. There, almost-underneath the viaduct, we sent the wellie-wearing eldest child into the river to draw us out a sample of water for testing.

Map showing the border between Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire as defined by the original path of the River Evenlode near Kingham, but the Evenlode has been redirected as part of the construction of the railway, putting two small bits of Gloucestershire on the "wrong side" of the river.
As far as Moreton-in-Marsh, the Cotswold Line out of Oxford essentially follows the River Evenlode. In some places, such as this one near Kingham, the river was redirected to facilitate the construction of the railway. Given that the historic Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire boundary was at this point defined by the river, it’s not clear whether this represents the annexation of two territories of Gloucestershire by Oxfordshire. I doubt that anybody cares except map nerds.

Looking into our bucket, we were pleased to discover that it was, relatively-speaking, teeming with life: small insects and a little fish-like thing wriggled around in our water sample2. This, along with the moorhen we disturbed3 as we tramped into the reeds, suggested that the river is at least in some level of good-health at this point in its course.

A 10-year old girl wearing sunglasses and purple wellies holds her skirt up out of the water as she wades up the muddy bank of a river carrying a tub of water.
I’m sure our eldest would have volunteered to be the one to traipse through the mud and into the river even if she hadn’t been the only one of that was wearing wellies.

We were interested to observe that while the phosphate levels in the river were very high, the nitrate levels are much lower than they were recorded near this spot in a previous year. Previous years’ studies of the Evenlode have mostly taken place later in the year – around July – so we wondered if phosphate-containing agricultural runoff is a bigger problem later in the Spring. Hopefully our data will help researchers answer exactly that kind of question.

Children stand around at a riverside stile while a colour-changing chemical in a vial does its thing.
The chemical experiments take up to 5 minutes each to develop before you can read their colours, so the kids had plenty of time to write-up their visual observations while they waited.

Regardless of the value of the data we collected, it was a delightful excuse for a walk, a picnic, and to learn a little about the health of a local river. On the way back to the car, I showed the kids how to identify wild garlic, which is fully in bloom in the woods nearby, and they spent the rest of the journey back chomping down on wild garlic leaves.

A 7-year-old wearing his coat inside-out and as a cape runs excitedly into a forest path overgrown with wild garlic.
Seriously, that’s a lot of wild garlic.

The car now smells of wild garlic. So I guess we get a smelly souvenir from this trip, too4!

Footnotes

1 Our garden ditch, long with a network of similar channels around our village, feeds into Limb Brook. After a meandering journey around the farms to the East this eventually merges with Chill Brook to become Wharf Stream. Wharf Stream passes through a delightful nature reserve before feeding into the Thames near Swinford Toll Bridge.

2 Needless to say, we were careful not to include these little animals in our chemical experiments but let them wait in the bucket for a few minutes and then be returned to their homes.

3 We didn’t catch the moorhen in a bucket, though, just to be clear.

4 Not counting the smelly souvenir that was our muddy boots after splodging our way through a waterlogged field, twice

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