Keeping 2FA Secrets in a Password Safe?

The two most important things you can do to protect your online accounts remain to (a) use a different password, ideally a randomly-generated one, for every service, and (b) enable two-factor authentication (2FA) where it’s available.

If you’re not already doing that, go do that. A password manager like 1Password, Bitwarden, or LastPass will help (although be aware that the latter’s had some security issues lately, as I’ve mentioned).

Diagram showing a password safe on a desktop computer being used to fill the username and password parts of a login form, and a mobile phone providing the information for the second factor.
For many people, authentication looks like this: put in a username and password from a password safe (or their brain), and a second factor from their phone.

I promised back in 2018 to talk about what this kind of authentication usually1 looks like for me, because my approach is a little different:

Diagram showing a password safe on a desktop computer being used to fill the username, password, AND second factor parts of the form.
My password manager fills the username, password, and second factor parts of most login forms for me. It feels pretty magical.

I simply press my magic key combination, (re-)authenticate with my password safe if necessary, and then it does the rest. Including, thanks to some light scripting/hackery, many authentication flows that span multiple pages and even ones that ask for randomly-selected characters from a secret word or similar2.

Animated GIF showing a login form requesting a username, password, and "Google Authenticator Code". An auto-typer fills all three fields with the username "2fa-autotype-demo", a long password, and the code 676032. The "Remember Me" checkbox is left unticked.
I love having long passwords and 2FA enabled. But I also love being able to log in with the convenience of a master password and my fingerprint.

My approach isn’t without its controversies. The argument against it broadly comes down to this:

Storing the username, password, and the means to provide an authentication code in the same place means that you’re no-longer providing a second factor. It’s no longer e.g. “something you have” and “something you know”, but just “something you have”. Therefore, this is equivalent to using only a username and password and not enabling 2FA at all.

I disagree with this argument. I provide two counter-arguments:

1. For most people, they’re already simplifying down to “something you have” by running the authenticator software on the same device, protected in the same way, as their password safe: it’s their mobile phone! If your phone can be snatched while-unlocked, or if your password safe and authenticator are protected by the same biometrics3, an attacker with access to your mobile phone already has everything.

Repeat of the diagram in which a PC provides all authentication, except the PC has been replaced with a phone.
If your argument about whether it counts as multifactor is based on how many devices are involved, this common pattern also isn’t multifactor.

2. Even if we do accept that this is fewer factors, it doesn’t completely undermine the value of time-based second factor codes4. Time-based codes have an important role in protecting you from authentication replay!

For instance: if you use a device for which the Internet connection is insecure, or where there’s a keylogger installed, or where somebody’s shoulder-surfing and can see what you type… the most they can get is your username, password, and a code that will stop working in 30 seconds5. That’s still a huge improvement on basic username/password-based system.6

Note that I wouldn’t use this approach if I were using a cloud-based password safe like those I linked in the first paragraph! For me personally: storing usernames, passwords, and 2FA authentication keys together on somebody else’s hardware feels like too much of a risk.

But my password manager of choice is KeePassXC/KeePassDX, to which I migrated after I realised that the plugins I was using in vanilla KeePass were provided as standard functionality in those forks. I keep the master copy of my password database encrypted on a pendrive that attaches to my wallet, and I use Syncthing to push secondary copies to a couple of other bits of hardware I control, such as my phone. Cloud-based password safes have their place and they’re extremely accessible to people new to password managers or who need organisational “sharing” features, but they’re not the right tool for me.

As always: do your own risk assessment and decide what’s right for you. But from my experience I can say this: seamless, secure logins feel magical, and don’t have to require an unacceptable security trade-off.

Footnotes

1 Not all authentication looks like this, for me, because some kinds of 2FA can’t be provided by my password safe. Some service providers “push” verification checks to an app, for example. Others use proprietary TOTP-based second factor systems (I’m looking at you, banks!). And some, of course, insist on proven-to-be-terrible solutions like email and SMS-based 2FA.

2 Note: asking for a username, password, and something that’s basically another-password is not true multifactor authentication (I’m looking at you again, banks!), but it’s still potentially useful for organisations that need to authenticate you by multiple media (e.g. online and by telephone), because it can be used to help restrict access to secrets by staff members. Important, but not the same thing: you should still demand 2FA.

3 Biometric security uses your body, not your mind, and so is still usable even if you’re asleep, dead, uncooperative, or if an attacker simply removes and retains the body part that is to be scanned. Eww.

4 TOTP is a very popular mechanism: you’ve probably used it. You get a QR code to scan  into the authenticator app on your device (or multiple devices, for redundancy), and it comes up with a different 6-digit code every 30 seconds or so.

5 Strictly, a TOTP code is likely to work for a few minutes, on account of servers allowing for drift between your clock and theirs. But it’s still a short window.

6 It doesn’t protect you if an attacker manages to aquire a dump of the usernames, inadequately-hashed passwords, and 2FA configuration from the server itself, of course, where other forms of 2FA (e.g. certificate-based) might, but protecting servers from bad actors is a whole separate essay.

Murder in the Library

Two years after our last murder mystery party, almost three years since the one before, and much, much longer since our last in-person one, we finally managed to have another get-the-guests-in-one-place murder mystery party, just like old times. And it was great!

A woman dressed in a tweed waistcoat, glasses perched atop her head, sips a glass of champagne.
Full credit goes to Ruth who did basically all the legwork this time around. Cheers!

It’s still been been over a decade since we played a mystery that I wrote (though I’m hoping to rectify that within the year): this time we played D’Avekki StudiosMurder in the Library.

D’Avekki’s murder mystery sets use an unusual mechanic that I’ve discussed before online with other murder mystery party authorship enthusiasts1 but never tried in practice: a way of determining at random who the murderer is when play begins. This approach has a huge benefit in that it means that you can assign characters to players using a subset of those available (rather than the usual challenges that often come up when, for example, somebody need to play somebody of a different gender than their own) and, more-importantly, it protects you from the eventuality that a player drops-out at short notice. This latter feature proved incredibly useful as we had a total of three of our guests pull out unexpectedly!

Three people sit alongside a dining table: a woman with dark hair, holding her play notes, a man wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, grinning, and a short-haired woman in a conforming white off-the-shoulder top and bright red lipstick. There are beer bottles, champagne flutes, and Coke cans on the table.
Most of our guests were old hands at murder mystery games, but for Owen’s date Kirsty this was a completely novel experience.

The challenge of writing a murder mystery with such a mechanic is to ensure that the script and evidence adapt to the various possible murderers. When I first examined the set that was delivered to us, I was highly skeptical: the approach is broadly as follows2:

  1. At the start of the party, the players secretly draw lots to determine who is the murderer: the player who receives the slip marked with an X is the murderer.
  2. Each character “script” consists of (a) an initial introduction, (b) for each of three acts, a futher introduction which sets up two follow-up questions, (c) the answers to those two follow-up questions, (d) a final statement of innocence, and (e) a final statement of guilt, for use by the murderer.
  3. In addition, each script has a handful of underlined sections, which are to be used only if you are the murderer. This means that the only perceivable difference between one person and another being the murderer is that the only who is the murderer will present a small amount of additional information. The writing is designed such that this additional piece of evidence will be enough to make the case against them be compelling (e.g. because their story becomes internally-inconsistent).
A group of people sit around a dining table; one man, wearing spectacles on his floury face, is taking the photo in "selfie" mode. The other visible characters appear to be a chef, a vicar, a librarian, a thrillseeker, and an aspiring starlet. With the exception of the photographer, they're all looking off to the side, listening to an unseen character speak.
As I recently discovered, glasses make me look like an entirely different person.

The writing was good overall: I especially appreciated the use of a true crime podcast as a framing device (expertly delivered thanks to Rory‘s radio voice). It was also pleasing to see, in hindsight, how the story had been assembled such that any character could be the murderer, but only one would give away a crucial clue. The downside of the format is pretty obvious, though: knowing what the mechanic is, a detective only needs to look at each piece of evidence that appears and look for a connection with each statement given by every other player, ruling out any “red herring” pairings that connect to every other player (as is common with just about the entire genre, all of the suspects had viable motives: only means and opportunity may vary).

It worked very well, but I wonder if – now the formula’s understood by us – a second set in a similar style wouldn’t be as successful.

A party of unlikely characters stands around and points accusingly at the "murderer" among them: it's Kirsty.
Our classic end-of-murder-mystery-party photo post makes a comeback. Extra-special hat tip to Kirsty, who ended up by coincidence being the murderer at her first ever such event and did astoundingly well. From left to right: Rory (Major Clanger), Simon (Chef Flambé), JTA (Noah Sinner), Kirsty (Phyllis Ora), Ruth (Dusty Tomes), Liz (Ruby Daggers), Owen (Max Cruise), and me (Professor Pi).

That said, nobody correctly fingered the murderer this time around. Maybe we’re out of practice? Or maybe the quality of the hints in such a wide-open and dynamic murderer-selection mechanic is less-solid than we’re used to? It’s hard to say: I’d certainly give another D’Avekki a go to find out.

Footnotes

1 There are dozens of us. Dozens!

2 We made a minor adaptation to the formula to fit with our experience of what makes a compelling party, but the fundamentals here are as-published.

The Page With No Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

Email newsletters via RSS

I love feeds!

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So what do I do? Well…

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

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

How I subscribe to newsletters (in my feed reader)

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

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

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

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

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

Why Did Media Players Look Like That?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

Announcers and Automation

Nowadays if you’re on a railway station and hear an announcement, it’s usually a computer stitching together samples1. But back in the day, there used to be a human with a Tannoy microphone sitting in the back office, telling you about the platform alternations and destinations.

I had a friend who did it as a summer job, once. For years afterwards, he had a party trick that I always quite enjoyed: you’d say the name of a terminus station on a direct line from Preston, e.g. Edinburgh Waverley, and he’d respond in his announcer-voice: “calling at Lancaster, Oxenholme the Lake District, Penrith, Carlisle, Lockerbie, Haymarket, and Edinburgh Waverley”, listing all of the stops on that route. It was a quirky, beautiful, and unusual talent. Amazingly, when he came to re-apply for his job the next summer he didn’t get it, which I always thought was a shame because he clearly deserved it: he could do the job blindfold!

There was a strange transitional period during which we had machines to do these announcements, but they weren’t that bright. Years later I found myself on Haymarket station waiting for the next train after mine had been cancelled, when a robot voice came on to announce a platform alteration: the train to Glasgow would now be departing from platform 2, rather than platform 1. A crowd of people stood up and shuffled their way over the footbridge to the opposite side of the tracks. A minute or so later, a human announcer apologised for the inconvenience but explained that the train would be leaving from platform 1, and to disregard the previous announcement. Between then and the train’s arrival the computer tried twice more to send everybody to the wrong platform, leading to a back-and-forth argument between the machine and the human somewhat reminiscient of the white zone/red zone scene from Airplane! It was funny perhaps only because I wasn’t among the people whose train was in superposition.

Clearly even by then we’d reached the point where the machine was well-established and it was easier to openly argue with it than to dig out the manual and work out how to turn it off. Nowadays it’s probably even moreso, but hopefully they’re less error-prone.

The "Mercado de Abasto" (central wholesale fruit and vegetable market) of Rosario, Argentina, 1931. Horses with carts work alongide automobiles and an omnibus.

When people talk about how technological unemployment, they focus on the big changes, like how a tipping point with self-driving vehicles might one day revolutionise the haulage industry… along with the social upheaval that comes along with forcing a career change on millions of drivers.

But in the real world, automation and technological change comes in salami slices. Horses and carts were seen alongside the automobile for decades. And you still find stations with human announcers. Even the most radically-disruptive developments don’t revolutionise the world overnight. Change is inevitable, but with preparation, we can be ready for it.

Footnotes

1 Like ScotRail’s set, voiced by Alison McKay, which computers can even remix for you over a low-fi hiphop beat if you like.

The Far Side in FreshRSS

A few yeras ago, I wanted to subscribe to The Far Side‘s “Daily Dose” via my RSS reader. The Far Side doesn’t have an RSS feed, so I implemented a proxy/middleware to bridge the two.

Browser debugger running document.evaluate('//li[@class="blog__post-preview"]', document).iterateNext() on Beverley's weblog and getting the first blog entry.
If you’re looking for a more-general instruction on using XPath scraping in FreshRSS, this isn’t it.
The release of version 1.20.0 of my favourite RSS reader FreshRSS provided a new mechanism for subscribing to content from sites that didn’t provide feeds: XPath scraping. I demonstrated the use of this to subscribe to my friend Beverley‘s blog, but this week I figured it was time to have a go at retiring my middleware and subscribing directly to The Far Side from FreshRSS.

It turns out that FreshRSS’s XPath Scraping is almost enough to achieve exactly what I want. The big problem is that the image server on The Far Side website tries to prevent hotlinking by checking the Referer: header on requests, so we need a proxy to spoof that. I threw together a quick PHP program to act as a proxy (if you don’t have this, you’ll have to click-through to read each comic), then configured my FreshRSS feed as follows:

FreshRSS "HTML + XPath" configuration page, configured as described below.

  • Feed URL: https://www.thefarside.com/
    The “Daily Dose” gets published to The Far Side‘s homepage each day.
  • XPath for finding new items: //div[@class="card tfs-comic js-comic"]
    Finds each comic on the page. This is probably a little over-specific and brittle; I should probably switch to using the contains function at some point. I subsequently have to use parent:: and ancestor:: selectors which is usually a sign that your screen-scraping is suboptimal, but in this case it’s necessary because it’s only at this deep level that we start seeing really specific classes.
  • Item title: concat("Far Side #", parent::div/@data-id)
    The comics don’t have titles (“The one with the cow”?), but these seem to have unique IDs in the data-id attribute of the parent <div>, so I’m using those as a reference.
  • Item content: descendant::div[@class="card-body"]
    Within each item, the <div class="card-body"> contains the comic and its text. The comic itself can’t be loaded this way for two reasons: (1) the <img src="..."> just points to a placeholder (the site uses JavaScript-powered lazy-loading, ugh – the actual source is in the data-src attribute), and (2) as mentioned above, there’s anti-hotlink protection we need to work around.
  • Item link: descendant::input[@data-copy-item]/@value
    Each comic does have a unique link which you can access by clicking the “share” button under it. This makes a hidden text <input> appear, which we can identify by the presence of the data-copy-item attribute. The contents of this textbox is the sharing URL for the comic.
  • Item thumbnail: concat("https://example.com/referer-faker.php?pw=YOUR-SECRET-PASSWORD-GOES-HERE&referer=https://www.thefarside.com/&url=", descendant::div[@class="tfs-comic__image"]/img/@data-src)
    Here’s where I hook into my special proxy server, which spoofs the Referer: header to work around the anti-hotlinking code. If you wanted you might be able to come up with an alternative solution using a custom JavaScript loaded into your FreshRSS instance (there’s a plugin for that!), perhaps to load an iframe of the sharing URL? Or you can host a copy of my proxy server yourself (you can’t use mine, it’s got a password and that password isn’t YOUR-SECRET-PASSWORD-GOES-HERE!)
  • Item date: ancestor::div[@class="tfs-page__full tfs-page__full--md"]/descendant::h3
    There’s nothing associating each comic with the date it appeared in the Daily Dose, so we have to ascend up to the top level of the page to find the date from the heading.
  • Item unique ID: parent::div/@data-id
    Giving FreshRSS a unique ID can help it stop showing duplicates. We use the unique ID we discovered earlier; this way, if the Daily Dose does a re-run of something it already did since I subscribed, I won’t be shown it again. Omit this if you want to see reruns.
Far Side comic #12326, from 23 November 2022, shown in FreshRSS. The comic shows two bulls dressed in trenchcoats and hats browsing a china shop; one staff member says to the other "I got a bad feeling about this, Harriet."
Hurrah; once again I can laugh at repeats of Gary Larson’s best work alongside my other morning feeds.

There’s a moral to this story: when you make your website deliberately hard to consume, fewer people will access it in the way you want! The Far Side‘s website is actively hostile to users (JavaScript lazy-loading, anti-right click scripts, hotlink protection, incorrect MIME types, no feeds etc.), and an inevitable consequence of that is that people like me will find and share workarounds to that hostility.

If you’re ad-supported or collect webstats and want to keep traffic “on your site” on this side of 2004, you should make it as easy as possible for people to subscribe to content. Consider The Oatmeal or Oglaf, for example, which offer RSS feeds that include only a partial thumbnail of each comic and a link through to the full thing. I don’t feel the need to screen-scrape those sites because they’ve given me a subscription option that works, and I routinely click-through to both of them to enjoy their latest content!

Conversely, the Far Side‘s aggressive anti-subscription technology ultimately means that there are fewer actual visitors to their website… because folks like me work to circumvent them.

And now you know how I did so.

Breakups as HTTP Response Codes

103: Early Hints ("I'm not sure this can last forever.")
103: Early Hints (“I’m not sure this can last forever.”)
300: Multiple Choices ("There are so many ways I can do better than you.")
300: Multiple Choices (“There are so many ways I can do better than you.”)
303: See Other ("You should date other people.")
303: See Other (“You should date other people.”)
304: Not Modified ("With you, I feel like I'm stagnating.")
304: Not Modified (“With you, I feel like I’m stagnating.”)
402: Payment Required ("I am a prostitute.")
402: Payment Required (“I am a prostitute.”)
403: Forbidden ("You don't get this any more.")
403: Forbidden (“You don’t get this any more.”)
406: Not Acceptable ("I could never introduce you to my parents.")
406: Not Acceptable (“I could never introduce you to my parents.”)
408: Request Timeout ("You keep saying you'll propose but you never do.")
408: Request Timeout (“You keep saying you’ll propose but you never do.”)
409: Conflict ("We hate each other.")
409: Conflict (“We hate each other.”)
410: Gone (ghosted)
410: Gone (ghosted)
411: Length Required ("Your penis is too small.")
411: Length Required (“Your penis is too small.”)
413: Payload Too Large ("Your penis is too big.")
413: Payload Too Large (“Your penis is too big.”)
416: Range Not Satisfied ("Our sex life is boring and repretitive.")
416: Range Not Satisfied (“Our sex life is boring and repretitive.”)
425: Too Early ("Your premature ejaculation is a problem.")
425: Too Early (“Your premature ejaculation is a problem.”)
428: Precondition Failed ("You're still sleeping with your ex-!?")
428: Precondition Failed (“You’re still sleeping with your ex-!?”)
429: Too Many Requests ("You're so demanding!")
429: Too Many Requests (“You’re so demanding!”)
451: Unavailable for Legal Reasons ("I'm married to somebody else.")
451: Unavailable for Legal Reasons (“I’m married to somebody else.”)
502: Bad Gateway ("Your pussy is awful.")
502: Bad Gateway (“Your pussy is awful.”)
508: Loop Detected ("We just keep fighting.")
508: Loop Detected (“We just keep fighting.”)

With thanks to Ruth for the conversation that inspired these pictures, and apologies to the rest of the Internet for creating them.

Sisyphus: The Board Game (Digital Edition)

I’m off work sick today: it’s just a cold, but it’s had a damn good go at wrecking my lungs and I feel pretty lousy. You know how when you’ve got too much of a brain-fog to trust yourself with production systems but you still want to write code (or is that just me?), so this morning I threw together a really, really stupid project which you can play online here.

Screenshot showing Sisyphus carrying a rock up a long numbered gameboard; he's on square 993 out of 1000, but (according to the rules printed below the board) he needs to land on 1000 exactly and never roll a double-1 or else he returns to the start.
It’s a board game. Well, the digital edition of one. Also, it’s not very good.

It’s inspired by a toot by Mason”Tailsteak” Williams (whom I’ve mentioned before once or twice). At first I thought I’d try to calculate the odds of winning at his proposed game, or how many times one might expect to play before winning, but I haven’t the brainpower for that in my snot-addled brain. So instead I threw together a terrible, terrible digital implementation.

Go play it if, like me, you’ve got nothing smarter that your brain can be doing today.

Spring ’83 Came And Went

Just in time for Robin Sloan to give up on Spring ’83, earlier this month I finally got aroud to launching STS-6 (named for the first mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger in Spring 1983), my experimental Spring ’83 server. It’s been a busy year; I had other things to do. But you might have guessed that something like this had been under my belt when I open-sourced a keygenerator for the protocol the other day.

If you’ve not played with Spring ’83, this post isn’t going to make much sense to you. Sorry.

Introducing STS-6

Screenshots showing STS-6, listing the most-recent blog posts on DanQ.me, in two different display styles.
My output looks distinctly different in The Kingswood Palimpsest then in The Oakland Follower-Sentinel (two key reference Spring ’83 clients), and that’s fine and expected.

My server is, as far as I can tell, very different from any others in a few key ways:

  • It does not allow third-party publishing at all. Some might argue that this undermines the aim of the exercise, but I disagree. My IndieWeb inclinations lead me to favour “self-hosted” content, shared from its owners’ domain. Also: the specification clearly states that a server must implement a denylist… I guess my denylist simply includes all keys that are not specifically permitted.
  • It’s geared towards dynamic content. My primary board self-publishes whenever I produce a new blog post, listing the most recent blog posts published. I have another half-implemented which shows a summary of the most-recent post, and another which would would simply use a WordPress page as its basis – yes, this was content management, but published over Spring ’83.
  • It provides helpers to streamline content production. It supports internal references to other boards you control using the format {{board:123}}which are automatically converted to addresses referencing the public key of the “current” keypair for that board. This separates the concept of a board and its content template from that board’s keypairs, making it easier to link to a board. To put it another way, STS-6 links are self-healing on the server-side (for local boards).
  • It helps automate content-fitting. Spring ’83 strictly requires a maximum board size of 2,217 bytes. STS-6 can be configured to fit a flexible amount of dynamic content within a template area while respecting that limit. For my posts list board, the number of posts shown is moderated by the size of the resulting board: STS-6 adds more and more links to the board until it’s too big, and then removes one!
  • It provides “hands-off” key management features. You can pregenerate a list of keys with different validity periods and the server will automatically cycle through them as necessary, implementing and retroactively-modifying <link rel="next"> connections to keep them current.

I’m sure that there are those who would see this as automating something that was beautiful because it was handcrafted; I don’t know whether or not I agree, but had Spring ’83 taken off in a bigger way, it would always only have been a matter of time before somebody tried my approach.

From a design perspective, I enjoyed optimising an SVG image of my header so it could meaningfully fit into the board. It’s pretty, and it’s tolerably lightweight.

If you want to see my server in action, patch this into your favourite Spring ’83 client: https://s83.danq.dev/10c3ff2e8336307b0ac7673b34737b242b80e8aa63ce4ccba182469ea83e0623

A dead end?

Without Robin’s active participation, I feel that Spring ’83 is probably coming to a dead end. It’s been a lot of fun to play with and I’d love to see what ideas the experience of it goes on to inspire next, but in its current form it’s one of those things that’s an interesting toy, but not something that’ll make serious waves.

In his last lab essay Robin already identified many of the key issues with the system (too complicated, no interpersonal-mentions, the challenge of keys-as-identifiers, etc.) and while they’re all solvable without breaking the underlying mechanisms (mentions might be handled by Webmention, perhaps, etc.), I understand the urge to take what was learned from this experiment and use it to help inform the decisions of the next one. Just as John Postel’s Quote of the Day protocol doesn’t see much use any more (although maybe if my finger server could support QotD?) but went on to inspire the direction of many subsequent “call-and-response” protocols, including HTTP, it’s okay if Spring ’83 disappears into obscurity, so long as we can learn what it did well and build upon that.

Meanwhile: if you’re looking for a hot new “like the web but lighter” protocol, you should probably check out Gemini. (Incidentally, you can find me at gemini://danq.me, but that’s something I’ll write about another day…)

Oxford Geek Nights #52

On Wednesday this week, three years and two months after Oxford Geek Nights #51, Oxford Geek Night #52. Originally scheduled for 15 April 2020 and then… postponed slightly because of the pandemic, its reapparance was an epic moment that I’m glad to have been a part of.

Matt Westcott stands to the side of a stage, drinking beer, while centrestage a cross-shaped "pharmacy sign" projects an animation of an ambulance rocketing into a starfield.
A particular highlight of the night was witnessing “Gasman” Matt Westcott show off his epic demoscene contribution Pharmageddon, which is presented via a “pharmacy sign”. Here’s a video, if you’re interested.

Ben Foxall also put in a sterling performance; hearing him talk – as usual – made me say “wow, I didn’t know you could do that with a web browser”. And there was more to learn, too: Jake Howard showed us how robots see, Steve Buckley inspired us to think about how technology can make our homes more energy-smart (this is really cool and sent me down a rabbithole of reading!), and Joe Wass showed adorable pictures of his kid exploring the user interface of his lockdown electronics project.

Digital scoreboard showing Dan Q in the lead with 5,561, Nick in second place with 5,442, and RaidIndigo in third with 5,398.
Oh, and there was a quiz competition too, and guess who came out on top after an incredibly tight race.

But mostly I just loved the chance to hang out with geeks again; chat to folks, make connections, and enjoy that special Oxford Geek Nights atmosphere. Also great to meet somebody from Perspectum, who look like they’d be great to work for and – after hearing about – I had in mind somebody to suggest for a job with them… but it looks like the company isn’t looking for anybody with their particular skills on this side of the pond. Still, one to watch.

Dan, outdoors on a grassy path, wearing a grey hoodie. On his head is a "trucker cap" emblazoned with the word "GEEK" and, in smaller writing "#OGN52".
My prize for winning the competition was an extremely-limited-edition cap which I love so much I’ve barely taken it off since.

Huge thanks are due to Torchbox, Perspectum and everybody in attendance for making this magical night possible!

Oh, and for anybody who’s interested, I’ve proposed to be a speaker at the next Oxford Geek Nights, which sounds like it’ll be towards Spring 2023. My title is “Yesterday’s Internet, Today!” which – spoilers! – might have something to do with the kind of technology I’ve been playing with recently, among other things. Hope to see you there!

Finger Portal to WordPress Blog

Finger Primer

The finger protocol, first standardised way back in 1977, is a lightweight directory system for querying resources on a local or remote shared system. Despite barely being used today, it’s so well-established that virtually every modern desktop operating system – Windows, MacOS, Linux etc. – comes with a copy of finger, giving it a similar ubiquity to web browsers! (If you haven’t yet, give it a go.)

If you were using a shared UNIX-like system in the 1970s through 1990s, you might run finger to see who else was logged on at the same time as you, finger chris to get more information about Chris, or finger alice@example.net to look up the details of Alice on the server example.net. Its ability to transcend the boundaries of different systems meant that it was, after a fashion, an example of an early decentralised social network!

I first actively used finger when I was a student at Aberystwyth University. The shared central computers osfa and osfb supported it in what was a pretty typical way: users could add a .plan and/or .project file to their home directory and the contents of these would be output to anybody using finger to look up that user, along with other information like what department they belonged to. I’m simulating from memory so this won’t be remotely accurate, but broadly speaking it looked a little like this –

$ finger dlq9@aber.ac.uk
Login: dlq9                           Name: Dan Q
Directory: /users/9/d/dlq9      Department: Computer Science

Project:
Working on my BEng Software Engineering.

Plan:
    _______
---'   ____)____
          ______)  Finger me!
       _____)
      (____)
---.__(___)

It’s not just about a directory of people, though: you could finger printers to see what their queues were like, finger a time server to ask what time it was, finger a vending machine to see what drinks it had available… even finger for a weather forecast where you are (this one still works as shown below; try it for your own location!) –

$ finger oxford@graph.no
        -= Meteogram for Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, United Kingdom =-
 'C                                                                   Rain (mm)
 12
 11
 10                                                         ^^^=--=--
  9^^^                                                   ===
  8   ^^^===      ======                              ^^^
  7         ======      ===============^^^         =--
  6                                       =--=-----
  5
  4
  3        |  |  |  |  |  |  |                                        1 mm
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23 18/11 02 03 04 05 06 07_08_09_10_11_12_13_14 Hour

     W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W  W Wind dir.
     6  6  7  7  7  7  7  7  6  6  6  5  5  4  4  4  4  5  6  6  5  5 Wind(m/s)

Legend left axis:   - Sunny   ^ Scattered   = Clouded   =V= Thunder   # Fog
Legend right axis:  | Rain    ! Sleet       * Snow

If you’d just like to play with finger, then finger.farm is a great starting point. They provide free finger hosting and they’re easy to use (try finger dan@finger.farm to find me!). But I had something bigger in mind…

Fingering WordPress

What if you could finger my blog. I.e. if you ran finger blog@danq.me you’d see a summary of some of my recent posts, along with additional addresses you could finger to read the full content of each. This could be the world’s first finger-to-WordPress gateway; y’know, for if you thought the world needed such a thing. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Installed efingerd; I’m using the Debian binaries.
  2. Opened a hole in the firewall on port 79 so the outside world could access it (ufw allow 1965; utf reload).
  3. The default configuration for efingerd acts like a “typical” finger server, but it’s highly programmable to make it “smarter”. I:
    1. Blanked /etc/efingerd/list to prevent any output from “listing” the server (finger @danq.me).
    2. Replaced the contents of /etc/efingerd/list and /etc/efingerd/nouser(which are run when a request matches, or doesn’t match, a user account name) with a call to my script: /usr/local/bin/finger-to-wordpress "$3". $3 holds the username that was requested, so we can act on it.
    3. Created /usr/local/bin/finger-to-wordpressa Ruby program that either (a) lists a selection of posts or (b) returns a specific post (stripping the HTML tags)

Screenshot showing this blog rendered as plain text as the result of running finger blog@danq.me at a Linux terminal.

In future, I might use some extra tags or metadata to enhance finger-friendly WordPress posts. The infrastructure’s in place already (I already have tags that I use to make certain kinds of content available only via certain media – shh!). You might rightly as what the point is of this entire enterprise, of course, and you’d be well within your rights to ask such a question. But I think the best answer available is “because Dan”.

Screenshot showing this blog post rendered as plain text as the result of running finger wp-finger@danq.me at a Linux terminal.

If you want to see my blog in a whole new way, give it a go: run finger blog@danq.me on your computer and follow the instructions.

Counselling and Constellations

Over the last three or four years I’ve undertaken a couple of different rounds of psychotherapy. I liken the experience to that of spotting constellations in the night sky.

A deep red sky over the silhouette of a treeline, with stars beginning to appear. Six crisscrossing straight lines each connect three to five stars in a row, giving the illusion that their location is not random.
If you’ve got enough arbitrary points, of course, you can draw whatever lines you want. But that’s not the metaphor I’m going for.

That’s probably the result of the goal I stated when going in to the first round: I’d like you to help while I take myself apart, try to understand how I work, and then put myself back together again.1 I’m trying to connect the dots between who-I-once-was and who-I-am-now and find causal influences.

As I’m sure you can imagine: with an opening statement like that I needed to contact a few different therapists before I found one who was compatible with my aims2. But then, I was always taught to get three quotes before hiring a professional.

Two abstract constellations of stars drawn onto a picture of stars over the hills as the last of the sunlight begins to vanish.
Constellations are necessarily subjective. It’s always pleased me to think about how Orion the Hunter, one of the Northern hemisphere’s most-recognisable Winter visitors, was  interpreted by the Lakota people to represent a bison, and some Indian traditions see it as a deer.

It’s that “connecting the dots” that feels like constellation-spotting. A lot of the counselling work (and the “homework” that came afterwards) has stemmed from ideas like:

  • This star represents a moment in my past.
  • This star represents a facet of my identity today.
  • If we draw a line from one to the other, what does the resulting constellation look like?

I suppose that what I’ve been doing is using the lens of retrospection to ask: “Hey, why am I like this? Is this part of it? And what impact did that have on me? Why can’t I see it?”

When you’re stargazing, sometimes you have to ask somebody to point out the shape in front of you before you can see it for yourself.

A silhouette of a person sits on a rock, gazing up at an incredible number of stars in an inky black sky.
A better writer would make an allusion to looking into one’s past through the symbolism of looking into the Universe’s past, but I’m not that writer.

I haven’t yet finished this self-analytical journey, but I’m in an extended “homework” phase where I’m finding my own way: joining the dots for myself. Once somebody’s helped you find those constellations that mean something to you, it’s easier to pick them out when you stargaze alone.

Footnotes

1 To nobody’s surprise whatsoever, I can reveal that ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed taking things apart to understand how they work. I wasn’t always so good at putting them back together again, though. My first alarm clock died that way, as did countless small clockwork and electronic toys.

2 I also used my introductory contact to lay out my counselling qualifications, in case they were a barrier for a potential therapist, but it turns out this wasn’t as much of a barrier as the fact that I arrived with a concrete mandate.

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Mastodon’s Eternal September begins

In the light of the so-called “Twitter migration”, I’ve spent a lot of the last week helping people new to Mastodon/the Fediverse in general to understand it. Or at least, to understand how it’s different from Twitter.1

If you’re among those jumping ship, by the way, can I recommend that you do two things:

  1. Don’t stop after reading an article about what Mastodon is and how it works (start here!); please also read about the established etiquette, and
  2. Don’t come in with the expectation that it’s “like Twitter but…”, because the ways it’s not like Twitter are more-important (and nobody wants it to be more like Twitter).

The experience has filled me with feelings, for which I really appreciated that Hugh Rundle found such great words to share, comparing the surge of new users to September(ish) 1993:

The tools, protocols and culture of the fediverse were built by trans and queer feminists. Those people had already started to feel sidelined from their own project when people like me started turning up a few year ago. This isn’t the first time fediverse users have had to deal with a significant state change and feeling of loss. Nevertheless, the basic principles have mostly held up to now: the culture and technical systems were deliberately designed on principles of consent, agency, and community safety.

If the people who built the fediverse generally sought to protect users, corporate platforms like Twitter seek to control their users… [Academics and advertisers] can claim that legally Twitter has the right to do whatever it wants with this data, and ethically users gave permission for this data to be used in any way when they ticked “I agree” to the Terms of Service.

This attitude has moved with the new influx. Loudly proclaiming that content warnings are censorship, that functionality that has been deliberately unimplemented due to community safety concerns are “missing” or “broken”, and that volunteer-run servers maintaining control over who they allow and under what conditions are “exclusionary”. No consideration is given to why the norms and affordances of Mastodon and the broader fediverse exist, and whether the actor they are designed to protect against might be you.

I’d highly recommend you read the whole thing because it’s excellent.

Photo showing fragile dewey spiderwebs on blades of grass.

Part of the solution

I genuinely believe that the fediverse is among our best bets for making a break from the silos of the corporate Web, and to do that it has to scale – it’s only the speed at which it’s being asked to do so that’s problematic.

Aside from what I’m already doing – trying to tutor (tootor?) new fediversians about how to integrate in an appropriate and respectful manner and doing a little to supporting the expansion of the software that makes it tick… I wonder what more I could/should be doing.

Would my effort be best-spent be running a server (one not-just-for-me, I mean: abnib.social, anyone?), or should I use that time and money to support existing instances directly? Should I brush up on my ActivityPub spec so I can be a more-useful developer, or am I better-placed to focus on tending my own digital garden first? Or maybe I’m looking at it all wrong and I should be trying to dissuade people from piling-on to a system that might well not be right for them (nor they for it!)?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping to work them out soon.

Addendum

It only occurred to me after the fact that I should mention that you can find me at @dan@danq.me.

Footnotes

1 Important: I’m no expert. I’ve been doing fediverse things for about 3 years but I’m relatively quiet on Mastodon. Also, I’ve never really understood or gotten along with Twitter, so I’m even less an expert on that. Don’t assume that I’m an authority on anything at all, and especially not social media.