Evolving Computer Words: “Virus”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

A few hundred years ago, the words “awesome” and “awful” were synonyms. From their roots, you can see why: they mean “tending to or causing awe” and “full or or characterised by awe”, respectively. Nowadays, though, they’re opposites, and it’s pretty awesome to see how our language continues to evolve. You know what’s awful, though? Computer viruses. Right?

Man staring intently at laptop. Image courtesy Oladimeji Ajegbile, via Pexels.
“Oh no! A virus has stolen all my selfies and uploaded them to a stock photos site!”

You know what I mean by a virus, right? A malicious computer program bent on causing destruction, spying on your online activity, encrypting your files and ransoming them back to you, showing you unwanted ads, etc… but hang on: that’s not right at all…

Virus

What people think it means

Malicious or unwanted computer software designed to cause trouble/commit crimes.

What it originally meant

Computer software that hides its code inside programs and, when they’re run, copies itself into other programs.

The Past

Only a hundred and thirty years ago it was still widely believed that “bad air” was the principal cause of disease. The idea that tiny germs could be the cause of infection was only just beginning to take hold. It was in this environment that the excellent scientist Ernest Hankin travelled around India studying outbreaks of disease and promoting germ theory by demonstrating that boiling water prevented cholera by killing the (newly-discovered) vibrio cholerae bacterium. But his most-important discovery was that water from a certain part of the Ganges seemed to be naturally inviable as a home for vibrio cholerae… and that boiling this water removed this superpower, allowing the special water to begin to once again culture the bacterium.

Hankin correctly theorised that there was something in that water that preyed upon vibrio cholerae; something too small to see with a microscope. In doing so, he was probably the first person to identify what we now call a bacteriophage: the most common kind of virus. Bacteriophages were briefly seen as exciting for their medical potential. But then in the 1940s antibiotics, which were seen as far more-convenient, began to be manufactured in bulk, and we stopped seriously looking at “phage therapy” (interestingly, phages are seeing a bit of a resurgence as antibiotic resistance becomes increasingly problematic).

Electron microscope image of a bacteriophage alongside an illustration of the same.
It took until the development of the scanning electron microscope in the mid-20th century before we’d actually “see” a virus.

But the important discovery kicked-off by the early observations of Hankin and others was that viruses exist. Later, researchers would discover how these viruses work1: they inject their genetic material into cells, and this injected “code” supplants the unfortunate cell’s usual processes. The cell is “reprogrammed” – sometimes after a dormant period – to churns out more of the virus, becoming a “virus factory”.

Let’s switch to computer science. Legendary mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from showing off his expertise in calculating how shaped charges should be used to build the first atomic bombs, invented the new field of cellular autonoma. Cellular autonoma are computationally-logical, independent entities that exhibit complex behaviour through their interactions, but if you’ve come across them before now it’s probably because you played Conway’s Game of Life, which made the concept popular decades after their invention. Von Neumann was very interested in how ideas from biology could be applied to computer science, and is credited with being the first person to come up with the idea of a self-replicating computer program which would write-out its own instructions to other parts of memory to be executed later: the concept of the first computer virus.

Glider factory breeder in Conway's Game of Life
This is a glider factory… factory. I remember the first time I saw this pattern, in the 1980s, and it sank in for me that cellular autonoma must logically be capable of any arbitrary level of complexity. I never built a factory-factory-factory, but I’ll bet that others have.

Retroactively-written lists of early computer viruses often identify 1971’s Creeper as the first computer virus: it was a program which, when run, moved (later copied) itself to another computer on the network and showed the message “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can”. It was swiftly followed by a similar program, Reaper, which replicated in a similar way but instead of displaying a message attempted to delete any copies of Creeper that it found. However, Creeper and Reaper weren’t described as viruses at the time and would be more-accurately termed worms nowadays: self-replicating network programs that don’t inject their code into other programs. An interesting thing to note about them, though, is that – contrary to popular conception of a “virus” – neither intended to cause any harm: Creeper‘s entire payload was a relatively-harmless message, and Reaper actually tried to do good by removing presumed-unwanted software.

Another early example that appears in so-called “virus timelines” came in 1975. ANIMAL presented as a twenty questions-style guessing game. But while the user played it would try to copy itself into another user’s directory, spreading itself (we didn’t really do directory permissions back then). Again, this wasn’t really a “virus” but would be better termed a trojan: a program which pretends to be something that it’s not.

Replica Trojan horse.
“Malware? Me? No siree… nothing here but this big executable horse.”

It took until 1983 before Fred Cooper gave us a modern definition of a computer virus, one which – ignoring usage by laypeople – stands to this day:

A program which can ‘infect’ other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself… every program that gets infected may also act as a virus and thus the infection grows.

This definition helps distinguish between merely self-replicating programs like those seen before and a new, theoretical class of programs that would modify host programs such that – typically in addition to the host programs’ normal behaviour – further programs would be similarly modified. Not content with leaving this as a theoretical, Cooper wrote the first “true” computer virus to demonstrate his work (it was never released into the wild): he also managed to prove that there can be no such thing as perfect virus detection.

(Quick side-note: I’m sure we’re all on the same page about the evolution of language here, but for the love of god don’t say viri. Certainly don’t say virii. The correct plural is clearly viruses. The Latin root virus is a mass noun and so has no plural, unlike e.g. fungus/fungi, and so its adoption into a count-noun in English represents the creation of a new word which should therefore, without a precedent to the contrary, favour English pluralisation rules. A parallel would be bonus, which shares virus‘s linguistic path, word ending, and countability-in-Latin: you wouldn’t say “there were end-of-year boni for everybody in my department”, would you? No. So don’t say viri either.)

(Inaccurate) slide describing viruses as programs that damage computers or files.
No, no, no, no, no. The only wholly-accurate part of this definition is the word “program”.

Viruses came into their own as computers became standardised and commonplace and as communication between them (either by removable media or network/dial-up connections) and Cooper’s theoretical concepts became very much real. In 1986, The Virdim method brought infectious viruses to the DOS platform, opening up virus writers’ access to much of the rapidly growing business and home computer markets.

The Virdim method has two parts: (a) appending the viral code to the end of the program to be infected, and (b) injecting early into the program a call to the appended code. This exploits the typical layout of most DOS executable files and ensures that the viral code is run first, as an infected program loads, and the virus can spread rapidly through a system. The appearance of this method at a time when hard drives were uncommon and so many programs would be run from floppy disks (which could be easily passed around between users) enabled this kind of virus to spread rapidly.

For the most part, early viruses were not malicious. They usually only caused harm as a side-effect (as we’ve already seen, some – like Reaper – were intended to be not just benign but benevolent). For example, programs might run slower if they’re also busy adding viral code to other programs, or a badly-implemented virus might even cause software to crash. But it didn’t take long before viruses started to be used for malicious purposes – pranks, adware, spyware, data ransom, etc. – as well as to carry political messages or to conduct cyberwarfare.

XKCD 1180: Virus Venn Diagram
XKCD already explained all of this in far fewer words and a diagram.

The Future

Nowadays, though, viruses are becoming less-common. Wait, what?

Yup, you heard me right: new viruses aren’t being produced at remotely the same kind of rate as they were even in the 1990s. And it’s not that they’re easier for security software to catch and quarantine; if anything, they’re less-detectable as more and more different types of file are nominally “executable” on a typical computer, and widespread access to powerful cryptography has made it easier than ever for a virus to hide itself in the increasingly-sprawling binaries that litter modern computers.

"Security" button
Soo… I click this and all the viruses go away, right? Why didn’t we do this sooner?

The single biggest reason that virus writing is on the decline is, in my opinion, that writing something as complex as a a virus is longer a necessary step to illicitly getting your program onto other people’s computers2! Nowadays, it’s far easier to write a trojan (e.g. a fake Flash update, dodgy spam attachment, browser toolbar, or a viral free game) and trick people into running it… or else to write a worm that exploits some weakness in an open network interface. Or, in a recent twist, to just add your code to a popular library and let overworked software engineers include it in their projects for you. Modern operating systems make it easy to have your malware run every time they boot and it’ll quickly get lost amongst the noise of all the other (hopefully-legitimate) programs running alongside it.

In short: there’s simply no need to have your code hide itself inside somebody else’s compiled program any more. Users will run your software anyway, and you often don’t even have to work very hard to trick them into doing so.

Verdict: Let’s promote use of the word “malware” instead of “virus” for popular use. It’s more technically-accurate in the vast majority of cases, and it’s actually a more-useful term too.

1 Actually, not all viruses work this way. (Biological) viruses are, it turns out, really really complicated and we’re only just beginning to understand them. Computer viruses, though, we’ve got a solid understanding of.

2 There are other reasons, such as the increase in use of cryptographically-signed binaries, protected memory space/”execute bits”, and so on, but the trend away from traditional viruses and towards trojans for delivery of malicious payloads began long before these features became commonplace.

Without The Bod

Eight years, six months, and one week after I started at the Bodleian, we’ve gone our separate ways. It’s genuinely been the nicest place I’ve ever worked; the Communications team are a tightly-knit, supportive, caring bunch of diverse misfits and I love them all dearly, but the time had come for me to seek my next challenge.

(For anybody out-of-the-loop, I’m moving to Automattic after surviving their amazing, mind-expanding recruitment process).

Bodleian staff badge and keyring
My imminent departure began to feel real when I turned over my badge and gun card and keys.

Being awesome as they are, my team threw a going-away party for me, complete with food from Najar’s Place, about which I’d previously raved as having Oxford’s best falafels. I wasn’t even aware that Najar’s place did corporate catering… actually, it’s possible that they don’t and this was just a (very) special one-off.

Partry platters courtesy of Najar's Place along with drinks and cake.
Start from the left, work towards the right.

Following in the footsteps of recent team parties, they’d even gotten a suitably-printed cake with a picture of my face on it. Which meant that I could leave my former team with one final magic trick, the never-before-seen feat of eating my own head (albeit in icing form).

Dan on a cake
Of course, the first thing I was asked to do was to put a knife through my own neck.

As the alcohol started to work, I announced an activity I’d planned: over the weeks prior I’d worked to complete but not cash-in reward cards at many of my favourite Oxford eateries and cafes, and so I was now carrying a number of tokens for free burritos, coffees, ice creams, smoothies, pasta and more. Given that I now expect to spend much less of my time in the city centre I’d decided to give these away to people who were able to answer challenge questions presented – where else? – on our digital signage simulator.

"Play Your Shards Right" on the big screen.
Among the games was Play Your Shards Right, a game of “higher/lower” played across London’s skyscrapers.

I also received some wonderful going-away gifts, along with cards in which a few colleagues had replicated my long tradition of drawing cartoon animals in other people’s cards, by providing me with a few in return.

Coworkers competing agressively for tiny prizes.
“Wait… all of these Javascript frameworks look like they’re named after Pokémon!”

Later, across the road at the Kings’ Arms and with even more drinks inside of me, I broke out the lyrics I’d half-written to a rap song about my time at the Bodleian. Because, as I said at the time, there’s nothing more-Oxford than a privileged white boy rapping about how much he’d loved his job at a library (video also available on QTube [with lyrics] and on Videopress).

It’s been an incredible 8½ years that I’ll always look back on with fondness. Don’t be strangers, guys!

Dan says goodbye to Bodleian colleagues
My department’s made far too much use out of that “Sorry you’re leaving” banner, this year. Here’s hoping they get a stabler, simpler time next year.

Time-Efficient Shuffling

Some years ago, a friend of mine told me about an interview they’d had for a junior programming position. Their interviewer was one of that particular breed who was attached to programming-test questions: if you’re in the field of computer science, you already know that these questions exist. In any case: my friend was asked to write pseudocode to shuffle a deck of cards: a classic programming problem that pretty much any first-year computer science undergraduate is likely to have considered, if not done.

Interview with paper visible.
Let’s play at writing software. Rather than a computer, we’ll use paper. But to make it sound techy, we’ll call it “pseudocode”.

There are lots of wrong ways to programmatically shuffle a deck of cards, such as the classic “swap the card in each position with the card in a randomly-selected position”, which results in biased results. In fact, the more that you think in terms of how humans shuffle cards, the less-likely you are to come up with a good answer!

Chart showing the probability bias for an incorrectly-implemented Fisher-Yates shuffle, for a 6-card deck.
If we shuffled a deck of six cards with this ‘broken’ algorithm, for example, we’d be more-likely to find the card that was originally in second place at the top of the deck than in any other position. This kind of thing REALLY matters if, for example, you’re running an online casino.

The simplest valid solution is to take a deck of cards and move each card, choosing each at random, into a fresh deck (you can do this as a human, if you like, but it takes a while)… and that’s exactly what my friend suggested.

The interviewer was ready for this answer, though, and asked my friend if they could think of a “more-efficient” way to do the shuffle. And this is where my friend had a brain fart and couldn’t think of one. That’s not a big problem in the real world: so long as you can conceive that there exists a more-efficient shuffle, know what to search for, and can comprehend the explanation you get, then you can still be a perfectly awesome programmer. Demanding that people already know the answer to problems in an interview setting doesn’t actually tell you anything about their qualities as a programmer, only how well they can memorise answers to stock interview questions (this interviewer should have stopped this line of inquiry one question sooner).

Riffle shuffling
Writing a program to shuffle a deck takes longer than just shuffling it, but that’s hardly the point, is it?

The interviewer was probably looking for an explanation of the modern form of the Fisher-Yates shuffle algorithm, which does the same thing as my friend suggested but without needing to start a “separate” deck: here’s a video demonstrating it. When they asked for greater efficiency, the interviewer was probably looking for a more memory-efficient solution. But that’s not what they said, and it’s certainly not the only way to measure efficiency.

When people ask ineffective interview questions, it annoys me a little. When people ask ineffective interview questions and phrase them ambiguously to boot, that’s just makes me want to contrive a deliberately-awkward answer.

So: another way to answer the shuffling efficiency question would be to optimise for time-efficiency. If, like my friend, you get a question about improving the efficiency of a shuffling algorithm and they don’t specify what kind of efficiency (and you’re feeling sarcastic), you’re likely to borrow either of the following algorithms. You won’t find them any computer science textbook!

Complexity/time-efficiency optimised shuffling

  1. Precompute and store an array of all 52! permutations of a deck of cards. I think you can store a permutation in no more than 226 bits, so I calculate that 2.3 quattuordecillion yottabytes would be plenty sufficient to store such an array. That’s about 25 sexdecillion times more data than is believed to exist on the Web, so you’re going to need to upgrade your hard drive.
  2. To shuffle a deck, simply select a random number x such that 0 <= x < 52! and retrieve the deck stored at that location.

This converts the O(n) problem that is Fisher-Yates to an O(1) problem, an entire complexity class of improvement. Sure, you need storage space valued at a few hundred orders of magnitude greater than the world GDP, but if you didn’t specify cost-efficiency, then that’s not what you get.

Stack of shuffled cards
If you’ve got a thousand galaxies worth of free space you can just fill them with actual decks of cards – one for each permutation – and physically pick one at random. That sounds convenient, right?

You’re also going to need a really, really good PRNG to ensure that the 226-bit binary number you generate has sufficient entropy. You could always use a real physical deck of cards to seed it, Solitaire/Pontifex-style, and go full meta, but I worry that doing so might cause this particular simulation of the Universe to implode, sooo… do it at your own risk?

Perhaps we can do one better, if we’re willing to be a little sillier…

(Everett interpretation) Quantum optimised shuffling

Quantum ungulations
If you live in a universe in which quantum optimised shuffling isn’t possible, the technique below can be adapted to create a universe in which it is.

Assuming the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is applicable to reality, there’s a yet-more-efficient way to shuffle a deck of cards, inspired by the excellent (and hilarious) quantum bogosort algorithm:

  1. Create a superposition of all possible states of a deck of cards. This divides the universe into 52! universes; however, the division has no cost, as it happens constantly anyway.
  2. Collapse the waveform by observing your shuffled deck of cards.

The unneeded universes can be destroyed or retained as you see fit.

Let me know if you manage to implement either of these.

Subscribe by Email

For the last few months, I’ve been running an alpha test of an email-based subscription to DanQ.me with a handful of handpicked testers. Now, I’d like to open it up to a slightly larger beta test group. If you’d like to get the latest from this site directly in your inbox, just provide your email address below:

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Who’s this for?

Some people prefer to use their email inbox to subscribe to things. If that’s you: great!

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You’ll get a “daily digest”, no more than once per day, summarising everything I’ve published within the last 24 hours. It usually works: occasionally but not often it misses things. You can unsubscribe with one click at any time.

How else can I subscribe?

You can still subscribe in a variety of other ways. Personally, I recommend using a feed reader which lets you choose exactly which kinds of content you’re interested in, but there are plenty of options including Facebook and Twitter (for those of such an inclination).

Didn’t you do this before?

Yes, I ran a “subscribe by email” system back in 2007 but didn’t maintain it. Things might be better this time around. Maybe.

Retro-PESOSing my Reviews

When I arrived at this weekend’s IndieWebCamp I still wasn’t sure what it was that I would be working on. I’d worked recently to better understand the ecosystem surrounding DanQ.me and had a number of half-formed ideas about tightening it up. But instead, I ended up expanding the reach of my “personal web” considerably by adding reviews as a post type to my site and building tools to retroactively-reintegrate reviews I’d written on other silos.

Amazon customer review
The oldest surviving review I found was my grumbling about Windows XP Home edition being just a crippled version of Pro edition. And now it’s immortalised here.

Over the years, I’ve written reviews of products using Amazon and Steam and of places using Google Maps and TripAdvisor. These are silos and my content there is out of my control and could, for example, be deleted at a moment’s notice. This risk was particularly fresh in my mind as my friend Jen‘s Twitter account was suspended this weekend for allegedly violating the platform’s rules (though Twitter have so far proven unwilling to tell her which rules she’s broken or even when she did so, and she’s been left completely in the dark).

My mission for the weekend was to:

  1. Come up with a mechanism for the (microformat-friendly) display of reviews on this site, and
  2. Reintegrate my reviews from Amazon, Steam, Google Maps and TripAdvisor
Steam review for Hacknet
Steam reviews use a “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating system rather than a “5-star” style, but h-review is capable of expressing both and more.

I opted not to set up an ongoing POSSE nor PESOS process at this point; I’ll do this manually in the short term (I don’t write reviews on third-party sites often). Also out of scope were some other sites on which I’ve found that I’ve posted reviews, for example BoardGameGeek. These can both be tasks for a future date.

DanQ.me ecosystem map showing Dan Q writing reviews and these being re-imported on demand back into DanQ.me.
The lovely diagram I drew earlier this year? Here it is with the new loop drawn on.

I used Google Takeout to export my Google Maps reviews, which comprised the largest number of reviews of the sites I targetted and which is the least screen-scraper friendly. I wrote a bookmarklet-based screen-scraper to get the contents of my reviews on each of the other sites. Meanwhile, I edited by WordPress theme’s functions.php to extended the Post Kinds plugin with an extra type of post, Review, and designed a content template which wrapped reviews in appropriate microformat markup, using metadata attached to each review post to show e.g. a rating, embed a h-product (for products) or h-card (for places). I also leveraged my existing work from last summer’s effort to reintegrate my geo*ing logs to automatically add a map when I review a “place”. Finally, I threw together a quick WordPress plugin to import the data and create a stack of draft posts for proofing and publication.

 

My review of The Rusty Bicycle as it now appears on this site.
I was moderately unimpressed by Oxford pub The Rusty Bicycle. I originally said so on Google Maps, and now I can say so here, too!

So now you can read all of the reviews I’ve ever posted to any of those four sites, right here, alongside any other reviews I subsequently reintegrate and any I write directly to my blog in the future. The battle to own all of my own content after 25 years of scattering it throughout the Internet isn’t always easy, but it remains worthwhile.

(I haven’t open-sourced my work this time because it’s probably useful only to me and my very-specific set-up, but if anybody wants a copy they can get in touch.)

Cheating Hangman

A long while ago, inspired by Nick Berry‘s analysis of optimal Hangman strategy, I worked it backwards to find the hardest words to guess when playing Hangman. This week, I showed these to my colleague Grace – who turns out to be a fan of word puzzles – and our conversation inspired me to go a little deeper. Is it possible, I thought, for me to make a Hangman game that cheats by changing the word it’s thinking of based on the guesses you make in order to make it as difficult as possible for you to win?

Play “Cheating Hangman”

The principle is this: every time the player picks a letter, but before declaring whether or not it’s found in the word –

  1. Make a list of all possible words that would fit into the boxes from the current game state.
  2. If there are lots of them, still, that’s fine: let the player’s guess go ahead.
  3. But if the player’s managing to narrow down the possibilities, attempt to change the word that they’re trying to guess! The new word must be:
    • Legitimate: it must still be the same length, have correctly-guessed letters in the same places, and contain no letters that have been declared to be incorrect guesses.
    • Harder: after resolving the player’s current guess, the number of possible words must be larger than the number of possible words that would have resulted otherwise.
Gallows on a hill.
Yeah, you’re screwed now.

You might think that this strategy would just involve changing the target word so that you can say “nope” to the player’s current guess. That happens a lot, but it’s not always the case: sometimes, it’ll mean changing to a different word in which the guessed letter also appears. Occasionally, it can even involve changing from a word in which the guessed letter didn’t appear to one in which it does: that is, giving the player a “freebie”. This may seem counterintuitive as a strategy, but it sometimes makes sense: if saying “yeah, there’s an E at the end” increases the number of possible words that it might be compared to saying “no, there are no Es” then this is the right move for a cheating hangman.

Playing against a cheating hangman also lends itself to devising new strategies as a player, too, although I haven’t yet looked deeply into this. But logically, it seems that the optimal strategy against a cheating hangman might involve making guesses that force the hangman to bisect the search space: knowing that they’re always going to adapt towards the largest set of candidate words, a perfect player might be able to make guesses to narrow down the possibilities as fast as possible, early on, only making guesses that they actually expect to be in the word later (before their guess limit runs out!).

Cheating Hangman
The game is brutally-difficult, but surprisingly fun, and you can have it tell you when and how it cheats so you can begin to understand its strategy.

I also find myself wondering how easily I could adapt this into a “helpful hangman”: a game which would always change the word that you’re trying to guess in order to try to make you win. This raises the possibility of a whole new game, “suicide hangman”, in which the player is trying to get themselves killed and so is trying to pick letters that can’t possibly be in the word and the hangman is trying to pick words in which those letters can be found, except where doing so makes it obvious which letters the player must avoid next. Maybe another day.

In the meantime, you’re welcome to go play the game (and let me know what you think, below!) and, if you’re of such an inclination, read the source code. I’ve used some seriously ugly techniques to make this work, including regular expression metaprogramming (using regular expressions to write regular expressions), but the code should broadly make sense if you want to adapt it. Have fun!

Play “Cheating Hangman”

Update 26 September 2019, 16:23: I’ve now added “helpful mode”, where the computer tries to cheat on your behalf rather than against you, but it’s not as helpful as you’d think because it assumes you’re playing optimally and have already memorised the dictionary!

Update 1 October 2019, 06:40: Now featured on MetaFilter; hi, MeFites!

Water Science

This afternoon, the kids and I helped with some citizen science as part of the Thames WaterBlitz, a collaborative effort to sample water quality of the rivers, canals, and ponds of the Thames Valley to produce valuable data for the researchers of today and tomorrow.

Annabel fetches water from the canal.
Our sampling point was by bridge 228 on the Oxford Canal: the first job was fetching water.

My two little science assistants didn’t need any encouragement to get out of the house and into the sunshine and were eager to go. I didn’t even have to pull out my trump card of pointing out that there were fruiting brambles along the length of the canal. As I observed in a vlog last year, it’s usually pretty easy to motivate the tykes with a little foraging.

Annabel and John assess the colour of the canal water.
Some collaboration was undertaken to reach a consensus on the colour of the sample.

The EarthWatch Institute had provided all the chemicals and instructions we needed by post, as well as a mobile app with which to record our results (or paper forms, if we preferred). Right after lunch, we watched their instructional video and set out to the sampling site. We’d scouted out a handful of sites including some on the River Cherwell as it snakes through Kidlington but for this our first water-watch expedition we figured we’d err on the safe side and aim to target only a single site: we chose this one both because it’s close to home and because a previous year’s citizen scientist was here, too, improving the comparability of the results year-on-year.

Chemistry experiments on the banks of the Oxford Canal.
Lots of nitrates, as indicated by the colour of the left tube. Very few phosphates, as indicated by the lack of colour in the right (although it’s still a minute and a half from completing its processing time at the point this photo was taken and would darken a tiny bit yet).

Plus, this expedition provided the opportunity to continue to foster the 5 year-old’s growing interest in science, which I’ve long tried to encourage (we launched bottle rockets the other month!).

Annabel compares her sample to the colour chart.
Which colour most-resembles the colour of our reagent?

Our results are now online, and we’re already looking forward to seeing the overall results pattern (as well as taking part in next year’s WaterBlitz!).

Using the Web for Exhibition Interactives

As part of the preparing to leave the Bodleian I’ve been revisiting a lot of the documentation I’ve written over the last eight years. It occurred to me that I’ve never written publicly about how the Bodleian’s digital signage/interactives actually work; there are possible lessons to learn.

The Bodleian‘s digital signage is perhaps more-diverse, both in terms of technology and audience, than that of most organisations. We’ve got signs in areas that are exclusively reader-facing to help students and academics find what they’re looking for, signs in publicly accessible rooms that advertise and educate, and signs in gallery spaces upon which we try to present engaging and often-interactive content to support exhibitions.

Test digital signage screen showing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Getting an extra touchscreen for the office for prototyping/user testing purposes was great, even when it wasn’t showing MLP: FiM.

Throughout those three spheres, we’ve routinely delivered a diversity of content (let’s just ignore the countdown clock, for now…). Traditional directional signage, advertisements, games, digital exhibitions, interpretation, feedback surveys…

In the vast majority of cases – and this is where the Bodleian’s been unusual (though certainly not unique) among cultural sector institutions – we’ve created those in-house rather than outsourcing them.

Dan sings into a screwdriver handle alongside three touchscreens.
Using off-the-shelf technology also allows the Bodleian to in-house much of their hardware maintenance, as a secondary part of other job roles. Singing into your screwdriver remains optional, though.

To do this economically – the volume of work on interactive signage is inconsistent throughout the year – we needed to align the skills required with skills used elsewhere in the organisation. To do this, we use the web as our medium! Collectively, the Bodleian’s Digital Communications team already had at least some experience in programming, web design, graphic design, research, user testing, copyediting etc.: the essential toolkit for web application development.

Pong on the Heritage Window (video wall) and a Tolkien-themed quiz on an i-Board (upright touchscreen)
Whether you were playing Pong on the video wall at the back or testing your Middle-earth knowledge on the touchscreen at the front… behind the scenes you were interacting with a web page I wrote.

By shifting our digital signage platform to lean heavily on web technologies, we were able to leverage talented people we already had to produce things that we might otherwise have had to outsource. This, in turn, meant that more exhibitions and displays get digital enhancement, on a shorter turnaround.

It also means that there’s a tighter integration between exhibition content and content for web and social media: it’s easier for us to re-use content across multiple platforms. Sometimes we’ve even made our digital interactives, or adapted version of them, available directly online, allowing our exhibitions to reach people that can’t get to our physical spaces at all.

Kiosk interface for an Ada Lovelace display in 2015.
Because we’re able to produce our own content on-demand, even our smaller, shorter-duration displays can have hands-on digital interactives associated with them.

On to the technology! We’re using a real mixture of tech: when it’s donated or reclaimed from previous projects (and when the bidding and acquisition processes are, well… as you’d expect at the University of Oxford), you learn not to say no to freebies. Our fleet includes:

  • Samsung Android tablets with freestanding kiosk frames. We run the excellent-value Kiosk Browser Lockdown app on these, which loads on boot and prevents access to anything but a specified website.
  • Onelan NTBs connected to a mixture of touch and non-touch screens, wall-mounted or in kiosk frames. We use Onelan’s standard digital signage features as well as – for interactive content – their built-in touch-capable web browser.
  • Dell PCs of the standard variety supplied by University IT services, connected to wall-mounted touch screens, running Google Chrome in Kiosk Mode. More on this below.
Chrome Dev Tools showing the Sheldonian Bust "Thinking 3D" exhibit
The browsers’ responsive simulators are invaluable when we’re targeting signage at five (!) different resolutions.

When you’re developing content for a very small number of browsers and a limited set of screen sizes, you quickly learn to throw a lot of “best practice” web development out of the window. You’ll never come across a text browser or screen reader, so alt-text doesn’t matter. You’ll never have to rescale responsively, so you might as well absolutely-position almost everything. The devices are all your own, so you never need to ask permission to store cookies. And because you control the platform, you can get away with making configuration tweaks to e.g. allow autoplaying videos with audio. Coming from a conventional web developer background to producing digital signage content makes feels incredibly lazy.

Shakespeare's Dead
Helping your users see your interactive as “app-like” rather than “web-like” encourages them to feel comfortable engaging with it in ways uncharacteristic of web pages. In our Shakespeare’s Dead interactive, for example, we started the experience in the middle of a long horizontally-scrolling “page”, which might feel very unusual in a conventional browser.

This is the “techy bit”. Skip it?

Using Chrome to run digital signage requires, in the Bodleian’s case, a couple of configuration tweaks and the right command-line switches. We use:

  • chrome://flags/#overscroll-history-navigation – disabling this prevents users from triggering “back”/”forward” by swiping with two fingers
  • chrome://flags/#pull-to-refresh – disabling this prevents the user from triggering a “refresh” by scrolling up beyond the top of the page (this only happens on some kinds of devices)
  • chrome://flags/#system-keyboard-lock – we don’t use attached keyboards, but if you do, you might want to set this flag so you can use the keyboard.lock() API to intercept e.g. ALT+F4 so users can’t escape the application
  • running on startup with e.g. chrome --kiosk --noerrdialogs --allow-file-access-from-files --disable-touch-drag-drop --incognito https://example.com/some/url
    • Kisok mode makes the browser run fullscreen and prevents e.g. opening additional tabs, giving an instant “app-like” experience. As we don’t have keyboards attached to our digital signage, this also prevents visitors from closing Chrome.
    • Turning off error dialogs reduces the risk that an error will result in an unslightly message to the user.
    • Enabling “file access from files” allows content hosted at file:// addresses to access content at other file:// addresses, which makes it possible to write “offline” sites (sometimes useful where we’re serving large videos or on previous occasions when WiFi has been shaky) that can still take advantage of features like the Fetch API.
    • Unless you need drag-and-drop, it’s simpler to disable it; this prevents a user long-press-and-dragging an image around the screen.
    • Incognito mode ensures that the browser doesn’t remember what site was showing last time it ran; our computers often end up switched off at the wall at the end of the day, and without this the browser will offer to load the site it had open last time, when it runs.
    • We usually host our interactives directly on the web, at “secret” addresses, and this is generally preferable to us as we can more-easily make on-the-fly adjustments to content (plus it makes it easier to hook up analytic tools).

"Talking Maps" exhibition panel showing bioproductivity map.
Be sure to test the capabilities of your hardware! Our Onelan NTBs, unlike your desktop PCs, can’t handle multitouch input, which affects the design of our user interfaces for these devices.

Meanwhile, in the application’s CSS code, we set * { user-select: none; } to prevent the user from highlighting text by selecting it with their finger. We also make heavy use of absolutely-sized/positioned, overflow: hidden blocks to ensure that scrollbars never appear, and CSS animations to make content feel dynamic and to draw attention to particular elements.

Annabel explores the Talking Maps digital interactives.
There’s no substitute for good testing. And there’s no stress-testing quite like letting a 5 year-old loose on your work.

Altogether, this approach gives the Bodleian the capability to produce engaging interactive content at low cost and using the existing skills of their digital and exhibitions teams. It’s not an approach that would work for every cultural institution: in particular, some of the Bodleian’s sister institutions already outsource the technical parts of their web work, and so don’t have the expertise in-house to share with a web-powered digital signage solution.

Shadows Out Of Time on a touchscreen
A few minor CSS tweaks to make the buttons finger-friendly and our Halloween game Shadows Out Of Time, which I’d already made web-friendly, was touchscreen-ready too. I wonder if they’ll get this one out again, this Halloween?

But for those museums that can fit into this model – or can adapt to do so in future – using the web to produce interactive digital content and digital signage is a highly cost-effective way to engage with visitors, even (or especially!) when dealing with short-lived and/or rotating displays.

It’s also been among my favourite parts of my job at the Bod these last 8½ years, and I’m sure I’ll miss it!

Counting Down

I wasn’t sure that my whiteboard at the Bodleian, which reminds my co-workers exactly how many days I’ve got left in the office, was attracting as much attention as it needed to. If I don’t know what my colleagues don’t know about how I do my job, I can’t write it into my handover notes.

You have [20] work days left to ask Dan that awkward question.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, boom.
So I repurposed a bit of digital signage in the office with a bit of Javascript to produce a live countdown. There’s a lot of code out there to produce countdown timers, but mine had some very specific requirements that nothing else seems to “just do”. Mine needed to:

  • Only count down during days that I’m expected to be in the office.
  • Only count down during working hours.
  • Carry on seamlessly after a reboot.

Screen showing: "Dan will be gone in 153 hours, 54 minutes, 38 seconds."
[insert Countdown theme song here]
Naturally, I’ve open-sourced it in case anybody else needs one, ever. It’s pretty basic, of course, because I’ve only got a hundred and fifty-something hours to finish a lot of things so I only wanted to throw a half hour at this while I ate my lunch! But if you want one, just put in an array of your working dates, the time you start each day, and the number of hours in your workday, and it’ll tick away.

Automattic Recruitment (days -179 to -51)

I recently announced that I’d accepted a job offer from Automattic and I’ll be starting work there in October. As I first decided to apply for the job 128 days ago – a nice round number – I thought I’d share with you my journey over the last 128 days.

Other people have written at length about their experience of being accepted (sometimes on the second or third attempt) or rejected by Automattic as well as about their interview process and the kind of person who works for them. Or if you prefer, there are more-objective articles about how Automattic’s hiring procedures are unique. My story, though is a work-in-progress: written contemporaneously and still unfolding (see if I’ve written more yet!).

The opening lines of Dan's initial interview with Automattic.
Automattic conduct their entire interview process via Slack online chat. I’ve still never spoken to any of my new co-workers by phone, let alone seen them in person. This is both amazing and terrifying.

Here’s my timeline so far:

Application (days -179 to -178)

Like many geeks, I keep a list of companies that I’ve fantasised about working for some day: mine includes the Mozilla Foundation and DuckDuckGo, for example, as well as Automattic Inc. In case it’s not obvious, I like companies that I feel make the Web a better place! Just out of interest, I was taking a look at what was going on at each of them. My role at the Bodleian, I realised a while ago, is likely to evolve into something different probably in the second-half of 2020 and I’d decided that when it does, that would probably be the point at which I should start looking for a new challenge. What I’d intended to do on this day 128 days ago, which we’ll call “day -179”, was to flick through the careers pages of these and a few other companies, just to get a better understanding of what kinds of skills they were looking for. I didn’t plan on applying for new jobs yet: that was a task for next-year-Dan.

Broad Street, Oxford
I love working here, but over the last 8 years I feel like I’ve “solved” all of the most-interesting problems.

But then, during a deep-dive into the things that make Automattic unique (now best-explained perhaps by this episode of the Distributed podcast), something clicked for me. I’d loved the creed for as long as I’d known about it, but today was the day that I finally got it, I think. That was it: I’d drunk the Kool-Aid, and it was time to send off an application.

I sat up past midnight on day -179, sending my application by email in the small hours of day -178. In addition to attaching a copy of my CV I wrote a little under 2,000 words about why I think I’m near-uniquely qualified to work for them: my experience of distributed/remote working with SmartData and (especially) Three Rings, my determination to remain a multidisciplinary full-stack developer despite increasing pressure to “pick a side”, my contributions towards (and use, since almost its beginning of) WordPress, and of course the diverse portfolio of projects large and small I’ve worked on over my last couple of decades as a software engineer.

VR Day at the Bodleian.
VR experiments are among the more-unusual things I’ve worked on at the Bodleian (let’s not forget that, strictly, I’m a web developer).

At the time of my application (though no longer, as a result of changes aimed at improving gender equality) the process also insisted that I include a “secret” in my application, which could be obtained by following some instructions and with only a modest understanding of HTTP. It could probably be worked out even by a developer who didn’t, with a little of the kind of research that’s pretty common when you’re working as a coder. This was a nice and simple filtering feature which I imagine helps to reduce the number of spurious applications that must be read: cute, I thought.

Automattic puzzle being solved
Fun and simple, and yet an effective way to filter out the worst of the spurious applications.

I received an automated reply less that a minute later, and an invitation to a Slack-based initial interview about a day and a half after that. That felt like an incredibly-fast turnaround, and I was quite impressed with the responsiveness of what must necessarily be a reasonably-complex filtering and process-management process… or perhaps my idea of what counts as “fast” in HR has been warped by years in a relatively slow-moving and bureaucratic academic environment!

Initial Interview (day -158)

I’ve got experience on both sides of the interview table, and I maintain that there’s no single “right” way to recruit – all approaches suck in different ways – but the approaches used by companies like Automattic (and for example Bytemark, who I’ve shared details of before) at least show a willingness to explore, understand, and adopt a diversity of modern practices. Automattic’s recruitment process for developers is a five-step (or something like that) process, with the first two stages being the application and the initial interview.

My initial interview took place 20 days after my application: entirely over text-based chat on Slack, of course.

Two men using laptops opposite one another.
For all you know, your interviewer might be hanging out in the same cafe or co-working space as you. But they probably aren’t. Right?

The initial interview covered things like:

  • Basic/conversational questions: Why I’d applied to Automattic, what interested me about working for them, and my awareness of things that were going on at the company at the moment.
  • Working style/soft skills: Questions about handling competing priorities in projects, supporting co-workers, preferred working and development styles, and the like.
  • Technical/implementation: How to realise particular ideas, how to go about debugging a specific problem and what the most-likely causes are, understanding clients/audiences, comprehension of different kinds of stacks.
  • My questions/lightweight chat: I had the opportunity to ask questions of my own, and a number of mine probed my interviewer as an individual: I felt we’d “clicked” over parts of our experience as developers, and I was keen to chat about some up-and-coming web technologies and compare our experiences of them! The whole interview felt about as casual and friendly as an interview ever does, and my interviewer worked hard to put me at ease.

Skills Test (day -154)

At the end of the interview, I was immediately invited to the next stage: a “skills test”: I’d be given access to a private GitHub repository and a briefing. In my case, I was given a partially-implemented WordPress plugin to work on: I was asked to –

  • add a little functionality and unit tests to demonstrate it,
  • improve performance of an existing feature,
  • perform a security audit on the entire thing,
  • answer a technical question about it (this question was the single closest thing to a “classic programmer test question” that I experienced), and
  • suggest improvements for the plugin’s underlying architecture.

I was asked to spend no more than six hours on the task, and I opted to schedule this as a block of time on a day -154: a day that I’d have otherwise been doing freelance work. An alternative might have been to eat up a couple of my evenings, and I’m pretty sure my interviewer would have been fine with whatever way I chose to manage my time – after all, a distributed workforce must by necessity be managed firstly by results, not by approach.

Dan using his computer with John and Annabel on his lap.
Scheduling my code test for a period when the kids were out of the house allowed me to avoid this kind of juggling act.

My amazingly-friendly “human wrangler” (HR rep), ever-present in my Slack channel and consistently full of encouragement and joy, brought in an additional technical person who reviewed my code and provided feedback. He quite-rightly pulled me up on my coding standards (I hadn’t brushed-up on the code style guide), somewhat-monolithic commits, and a few theoretical error conditions that I hadn’t accounted for, but praised the other parts of my work.

Most-importantly, he stated that he was happy to recommend that I be moved forward to the next stage: phew!

Trial (days -147 through -98)

Of all the things that make Automattic’s hiring process especially unusual and interesting, even among hip Silicon Valley(-ish, can a 100% “distributed” company really be described in terms of its location?) startups, probably the most (in)famous is the trial contract. Starting from day -147, near the end of May, I was hired by Automattic as a contractor, given a project and a 40-hour deadline, at $25 USD per hour within which to (effectively) prove myself.

As awesome as it is to be paid to interview with a company, what’s far more-important is the experience of working this way. Automattic’s an unusual company, using an unusual workforce, in an unusual way: I’ve no doubt that many people simply aren’t a good fit for distributed working; at least not yet. (I’ve all kinds of thoughts about the future of remote and distributed working based on my varied experience with which I’ll bore you another time.) Using an extended trial as an recruitment filter provides a level of transparency that’s seen almost nowhere else. Let’s not forget that an interview is not just about a company finding the right employee for them but about a candidate finding the right company for them, and a large part of that comes down to a workplace culture that’s hard to define; instead, it needs to be experienced.

For all that a traditional bricks-and-mortar employer might balk at the notion of having to pay a prospective candidate up to $1,000 only to then reject them, in addition to normal recruitment costs, that’s a pittance compared to the costs of hiring the wrong candidate! And for a company with an unusual culture, the risks are multiplied: what if you hire somebody who simply can’t hack the distributed lifestyle?

Automattic "Trial Code Wrangler" Contract
Page 1 of 6, all written in the USA dialect of legalese, but the important part is right there at the top: the job title is “Trial Code Wrangler”. Yeah.

It was close to this point, though, that I realised that I’d made a terrible mistake. With an especially busy period at both the Bodleian and at Three Rings and deadlines looming in my masters degree, as well as an imminent planned anniversary break with Ruth, this was not the time to be taking on an additional piece of contract work! I spoke to my human wrangler and my technical supervisor in the Slack channel dedicated to that purpose and explained that I’d be spreading my up-to-40-hours over a long period, and they were very understanding. In my case, I spent a total of 31½ hours over six-and-a-bit weeks working on a project clearly selected to feel representative of the kinds of technical problems their developers face.

That’s reassuring to me: one of the single biggest arguments against using “trials” as a recruitment strategy is that they discriminate against candidates who, for whatever reason, might be unable to spare the time for such an endeavour, which in turn disproportionately discriminates against candidates with roles caring for other (e.g. with children) or who already work long hours. This is still a problem here, of course, but it is significantly mitigated by Automattic’s willingness to show significant flexibility with their candidates.

I was given wider Slack access, being “let loose” from the confines of my personal/interview channel and exposed to a handful of other communities. I was allowed to mingle amongst not only the other developers on trial (they have their own channel!) but also other full-time staff. This proved useful – early on I had a technical question and (bravely) shouted out on the relevant channel to get some tips! After every meaningful block of work I wrote up my progress via a P2 created for that purpose, and I shared my checkins with my supervisors, cumulating at about the 20-hour mark in a pull request that I felt was not-perfect-but-okay…

My project in GitHub Desktop
I’m normally more of a command-line git users, but I actually really came to appreciate the GitHub Desktop diff interface while describing my commits during this project.

…and then watched it get torn to pieces in a code review.

Everything my supervisor said was fair, but firm. The technologies I was working with during my trial were ones on which I was rusty and, moreover, on which I hadn’t enjoyed the benefit of a code review in many, many years. I’ve done a lot of work solo or as the only person in my team with experience of the languages I was working in, and I’d developed a lot of bad habits. I made a second run at the pull request but still got shot down, having failed to cover all the requirements of the project (I’d misunderstood a big one, early on, and hadn’t done a very good job of clarifying) and having used a particularly dirty hack to work-around a unit testing issue (in my defence I knew what I’d done there was bad, and my aim was to seek support about the best place to find documentation that might help me solve it).

I felt deflated, but pressed on. My third attempt at a pull request was “accepted”, but my tech supervisor expressed concerns about the to-and-fro it had taken me to get there.

Finally, in early July (day -101), my interview team went away to deliberate about me. I genuinely couldn’t tell which way it would go, and I’ve never in my life been so nervous to hear back about a job.

A large part of this is, of course, the high esteem in which I hold Automattic and the associated imposter syndrome I talked about previously, which had only been reinforced by the talented and knowledgable folks there I’d gotten to speak to during my trial. Another part was seeing their recruitment standards in action: having a shared space with other candidate developers meant that I could see other programmers who seemed, superficially, to be doing okay get eliminated from their trials – reality TV style! – as we went along. And finally, there was the fact that this remained one of my list of “dream companies”: if I didn’t cut it by this point in my career, would I ever?

Dan, via Slack, says "I'm on the edge of my seat here! Shall look forward to hearing from you all when the time comes." and shared a picture of a nervous Fluttershy.
Two days later, on day -99, I shared what felt like an appropriate My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic GIF with the interview team via Slack.

It took 72 hours after the completion of my trial before I heard back.

I was to be recommended for hire.

Slack message recommending me for hire.
On day -98 I literally jumped for joy. This was a hugely exciting moment.

It was late in the day, but not too late to pour myself a congratulatory Caol Ila.

Dan with a whisky.
OMGOMGOMGOMG.

Final Interview (day -94)

A lot of blog posts about getting recruited by Automattic talk about the final interview being with CEO Matt Mullenweg himself, which I’d always thought must be an unsustainable use of his time once you get into the multiple-hundreds of employees. It looks like I’m not the only one who thought this, because somewhere along the line the policy seems to have changed and my final interview was instead with a human wrangler (another super-friendly one!).

That was a slightly-disappointing twist, because I’ve been a stalker fanboy of Matt’s for almost 15 years… but I’ll probably get to meet him at some point or other now anyway. Plus, this way seems way-more logical: despite Matt’s claims to the contrary, it’s hard to see Automattic as a “startup” any longer (by age alone: they’re two years older than Twitter and a similar age to Facebook).

The final interview felt mostly procedural: How did I find the process? Am I willing to travel for work?  What could have been done differently/better?

Conveniently, I’d been so enthralled by the exotic hiring process that I’d kept copious notes throughout the process, and – appreciating the potential value of honest, contemporaneous feedback – made a point of sharing them with the Human League (that’s genuinely what Automattic’s HR department are called, I kid you not) before the decision was announced as to whether or not I was to be hired… but as close as possible to it, so that it could not influence it. My thinking was this: this way, my report couldn’t help but be honest and unbiased by the result of the process. Running an unusual recruitment strategy like theirs, I figured, makes it harder to get honest and immediate feedback: you don’t get any body language cues from your candidates, for a start. I knew that if it were my company, I’d want to know how it was working not only from those I hired (who’d be biased in favour it it) and from those who were rejected (who’d be biased against it and less-likely to be willing to provide in-depth feedback in general).

I guess I wanted to “give back” to Automattic regardless of the result: I learned a lot about myself during the process and especially during the trial, and I was grateful for it!

Dollars! Photo courtesy Alexander Mils, via Pexels.
Show me the money!

One part of the final interview, though, was particularly challenging for me, even though my research had lead me to anticipate it. I’m talking about the big question that basically every US tech firm asks but only a minority of British ones do: what are your salary expectations?

As a Brit, that’s a fundamentally awkward question… I guess that we somehow integrated a feudalistic class system into a genetic code: we don’t expect our lords to pay us peasants, just to leave us with enough grain for the winter after the tithes are in and to protect us from the bandits from the next county over, right? Also: I’ve known for a long while that I’m chronically underpaid in my current role. The University of Oxford is a great employer in many ways but if you stay with them for any length of time then it has to be for love of their culture and their people, not for the money (indeed: it’s love of my work and colleagues that kept me there for the 8+ years I was!).

Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.
I’m pretty sure that most Brits are at least a little uncomfortable, even, when Dennis gives lip to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Were this an in-person interview, I’d have mumbled and shuffled my feet: you know, the British way. But luckily, Slack made it easy at least for me to instead awkwardly copy-paste some research I’d done on StackOverflow, without which, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I’m allegedly-worth! My human wrangler took my garbled nonsense away to do some internal research of her own and came back three hours later with an offer. Automattic’s offer was very fair to the extent that I was glad to have somewhere to sit down and process it before responding (shh… nobody tell them that I am more motivated by impact than money!): I hadn’t been emotionally prepared for the possibility that they might haggle upwards.

Three months on from writing my application, via the longest, most self-reflective, most intense, most interesting recruitment process I’ve ever experienced… I had a contract awaiting my signature. And I was sitting on the edge of the bath, trying to explain to my five year-old why I’d suddenly gone weak at the knees.

John in the Clarendon Quad.
I wanted to insert another picture of the outside of my office at the Bodleian here, but a search of my photo library gave me this one and it was too adorable to not-share.

Getting Access (day -63)

A month later – a couple of weeks ago, and a month into my three-month notice period at the Bodleian – I started getting access to Auttomatic’s computer systems. The ramp-up to getting started seems to come in waves as each internal process kicks off, and this was the moment that I got the chance to introduce myself to my team-to-be.

"Automattic Bot" brings me into my team-to-be's Slack channel.
I can see my team… and they can see me? /nervous wave/

I’d been spending occasional evenings reading bits of the Automattic Field Guide – sort-of a living staff handbook for Automatticians – and this was the moment when I discovered that a lot of the links I’d previously been unable to follow had suddenly started working. You remember that bit in $yourFavouriteHackerMovie where suddenly the screen flashes up “access granted”, probably in a green terminal font or else in the centre of a geometric shape and invariably accompanied by a computerised voice? It felt like that. I still couldn’t see everything – crucially, I still couldn’t see the plans my new colleagues were making for a team meetup in South Africa and had to rely on Slack chats with my new line manager to work out where in the world I’d be come November! – but I was getting there.

Getting Ready (day -51)

The Human League gave me a checklist of things to start doing before I started, like getting bank account details to the finance department. (Nobody’s been able to confirm nor denied this for me yet, but I’m willing to bet that, if programmers are Code Wranglers, devops are Systems Wranglers, and HR are Human Wranglers, then the finance team must refer to themselves as Money Wranglers, right?)

They also encouraged me to get set up on their email, expenses, and travel booking systems, and they gave me the password to put an order proposal in on their computer hardware ordering system. They also made sure I’d run through their Conflict of Interest checks, which I’d done early on because for various reasons I was in a more-complicated-than-most position. (Incidentally, I’ve checked and the legal team definitely don’t call themselves Law Wranglers, but that’s probably because lawyers understand that Words Have Power and must be used correctly, in their field!)

Mac development environment.
Wait wait wait… let me get this straight… you’ve never met me nor spoken to me on the phone and you’re willing to post a high-end dev box to me? A month and a half before I start working for you?

So that’s what I did this week, on day -51 of my employment with Automattic. I threw a couple of hours at setting up all the things I’d need set-up before day 0, nice and early.

I’m not saying that I’m counting down the days until I get to start working with this amazing, wildly-eccentric, offbeat, world-changing bunch… but I’m not not saying that, either.

LABS Comic RSS Archive

Yesterday I recommended that you go read Aaron Uglum‘s webcomic LABS which had just completed its final strip. I’m a big fan of “completed” webcomics – they feel binge-able in the same way as a complete Netflix series does! – but Spencer quickly pointed out that it’s annoying for we enlightened modern RSS users who hook RSS up to everything to have to binge completed comics in a different way to reading ongoing ones: what he wanted was an RSS feed covering the entire history of LABS.

LABS comic adapted to show The Robot literally "feeding" RSS
With apologies to Aaron Uglum who I hope won’t mind me adapting his comic in this way.

So naturally (after the intense heatwave woke me early this morning anyway) I made one: complete RSS feed of LABS. And, of course, I open-sourced the code I used to generate it so that others can jumpstart their projects to make static RSS feeds from completed webcomics, too.

Even if you’re not going to read it via this medium, you should go read LABS.

Shifting into Automattic

In October of this year – after eight years, six months, and five days with the Bodleian Libraries – I’ll be leaving for pastures new. Owing to a combination of my current work schedule, holidays, childcare commitments and conferences, I’ve got fewer than 29 days left in the office.

Dan's whiteboard: "You have [29] work days left to ask Dan that awkward question".
I’ve been keeping a countdown on my whiteboard to remind my colleagues to hurry up and ask me anything they need in order to survive in my absence.
Instead, I’ll be starting work with Automattic Inc.. You might not have heard of them, but you’ve definitely used some of their products, either directly or indirectly. Ever hear of WordPress.com, WooCommerce, Gravatar or Longreads? Yeah; that’s the guys.

Automatic gear stick.
It’s a gear stick. For an automatic car. ‘Cos I’m “shifting into Automattic”. D’you get it? Do you? Do you?

I’m filled with a mixture of joyous excitement and mild trepidation. It’s mostly the former, thankfully, but there’s still a little nervousness there too. Mostly it’s a kind of imposter syndrome, I guess: Automattic have for many, many years been on my “list of companies I’d love to work for, someday”, and the nature of their organisation means that they have their pick of many of the smartest and most-talented geeks in the world. How do I measure up?

Dan in the Rewley Library at the University of Oxford.
During my final months I’m taking the opportunity to explore bits of the libraries I’ve not been to before. Y’know, before they revoke my keycard.

It’s funny: early in my career, I never had any issue of imposter syndrome. I guess that when I was young and still thought I knew everything – fuelled by a little talent and a lot of good fortune in getting a head-start on my peers – I couldn’t yet conceive of how much further I had to go. It took until I was well-established in my industry before I could begin to know quite how much I didn’t know. I’d like to think that the second decade of my work as a developer has been dominated by unlearning all of the things that I did wrong, while flying by the seat of my pants, in the first decade.

Roof of the Clarenon Building, Broad Street, University of Oxford, showing the Muses.
I’ll be mostly remote-working for Automattic, so I can guarantee that my office won’t be as pretty as my one at the Bod was. Far fewer Muses on the roof, too.

I’m sure I’ll have lots more to share about my post-Bodleian life in due course, but for now I’ve got lots of projects to wrap up and a job description to rewrite (I’m recommending that I’m not replaced “like-for-like”, and in any case: my job description at the Bodleian does not lately describe even-remotely what I actually do), and a lot of documentation to bring up-to-date. Perhaps then this upcoming change will feel “real”.

DanQ.me Ecosystem

Diagram illustrating the relationships between DanQ.me and the satellite services with which it interacts.

With IndieWebCamp Oxford 2019 scheduled to take place during the Summer of Hacks, I drew a diagram (click to embiggen) of the current ecosystem that powers and propogates the content on DanQ.me. It’s mostly for my own benefit – to be able to get a big-picture view of the ways my website talks to the world and plan for what improvements I might be able to make in the future… but it also works as a vehicle to explain what my personal corner of the IndieWeb does and how it does it. Here’s a summary:

DanQ.me

Since fifteen years ago today, DanQ.me has been powered by a self-hosted WordPress installation. I know that WordPress isn’t “hip” on the IndieWeb this week and that if you’re not on the JAMstack you’re yesterday’s news, but at 15 years and counting my love affair with WordPress has lasted longer than any romantic relationship I’ve ever had with another human being, so I’m sticking with it. What’s cool in Web technologies comes and goes, but what’s important is solid, dependable tools that do what you need them to, and between WordPress, half a dozen off-the-shelf plugins and about a dozen homemade ones I’ve got everything I need right here.

Castle of the Four Winds, launched in 1998, with a then-fashionable black background.
I’d been “blogging” – not that we called it that, yet – since late 1998, but my original collection of content-mangling Perl scripts wasn’t all that. More history…

I write articles (long posts like this) and notes (short, “tweet-like” updates) directly into the site, and just occasionally other kinds of content. But for the most part, different kinds of content come from different parts of the ecosystem, as described below.

RSS reader

DanQ.me sits at the centre of the diagram, but it’s worth remembering that the diagram is deliberately incomplete: it only contains information flows directly relevant to my blog (and it doesn’t even contain all of those!). The last time I tried to draw a diagram like this that described my online life in general, then my RSS reader found its way to the centre. Which figures: my RSS reader is usually the first and often the last place I visit on the Internet, and I’ve worked hard to funnel everything through it.

FreshRSS with 129 unread items
129 unread items is a reasonable-sized queue: I try to process to “RSS zero”, but there are invariably things I want to return to on a second-pass and I’ve not yet reimplemented the “snooze button” I added to my previous RSS reader.

Right now I’m using FreshRSS – plus a handful of plugins, including some homemade ones – as my RSS reader: I switched from Tiny Tiny RSS about a year ago to take advantage of FreshRSS’s excellent responsive themes, among other features. Because some websites don’t have RSS feeds, even where they ought to, I use my own tool RSSey to retroactively “fix” people’s websites for them, dynamically adding feeds for my consumption. It’s also a nice reminder that open source and remixability were cornerstones of the original Web. My RSS reader collates information from a variety of sources and additionally gives me a one-click mechanism to push content I enjoy to my blog as a repost.

QTube

QTube is my video hosting platform; it’s a PeerTube node. If you haven’t seen it, that’s fine: most content on it is consumed indirectly either through my YouTube channel or directly on my blog as posts of the “video” kind. Also, I don’t actually vlog very often. When I do publish videos onto QTube, their republication onto YouTube or DanQ.me is optional: sometimes I plan to use a video inside an article post, for example, and so don’t need to republish it by itself.

QTube homepage showing Dan's videos
I recently changed the blue of my “brand colours” to improve accessibility, but this hasn’t carried over to QTube yet.

I’m gradually exporting or re-uploading my backlog of YouTube videos from my current and previous channels to QTube in an effort to recentralise and regain control over their hosting, but I’m in no real hurry. PeerTube certainly makes it easy, though!

Link Shortener

I operate a private link shortener which I mostly use for the expected purpose: to make links shorter and so easier to read out and memorise or else to make them take up less space in a chat window. But soon after I set it up, many years ago, I realised that it could also act as a mechanism to push content to my RSS reader to “read later”. And by the time I’m using it for that, I figured, I might as well also be using it to repost content to my blog from sources that aren’t things my RSS reader subscribes to. This leads to a process that’s perhaps unnecessarily complex: if I want to share a link with you as a repost, I’ll push it into my link shortener and mark it as going “to me”, then I’ll tell my RSS reader to push it to my blog and there it’ll be published to the world! But it works and it’s fast enough: I’m not in the habit of reposting things that are time-critical anyway.

Checkins

Dan geohashing
You know your sport is fringe when you need to reference another fringe sport to describe it. “Geohashing? It’s… a little like geocaching, but…”

I’ve been involved in brainstorming ways in which the act of finding (or failing to find, etc.) a geocache or reaching (or failing to reach) a geohashpoint could best be represented as a “checkin“, and last year I open-sourced my plugin for pulling logs (with as much automation as is permitted by the terms of service of some of the silos involved) from geocaching websites and posting them to WordPress blogs: effectively PESOS-for-geocaching. I’d prefer to be publishing on my own blog in the first instance, but syndicating my adventures from various silos into my blog is “good enough”.

Syndication

New notes get pushed out to my Twitter account, for the benefit of my Twitter-using friends. Articles get advertised on Facebook, Twitter and LiveJournal (yes, really) in teaser form, for the benefit of friends who prefer to get notifications via those platforms. Facebook have been fucking around with their APIs and terms of service lately and this is now less-automatic than it used to be, which is a bit of an annoyance. My RSS feeds carry copies of content out to people who prefer to subscribe via that medium, and I’ve also been using this to power an experimental MailChimp “daily digest” mailing list of “what Dan’s been up to” to a small number of friends, right in their email inboxes: I’ve not made it available to everybody yet, but if you’re happy to help test it then give me a shout and I’ll hook you up.

DanQ.me email newsletter
Most days don’t see an email sent or see an email with only one item, but some days – like this one – are busier. I still need to update the brand colours here, too!

Finally, a couple of IFTTT recipes push my articles and my reposts to Reddit communities: I don’t really use Reddit myself, any more, but I’ve got friends in a few places there who prefer to keep up-to-date with what I’m up to via that medium. For historical reasons, my reposts to Reddit don’t go directly via my blog’s RSS feeds but “shortcut” directly from my RSS reader: this is suboptimal because I don’t get to tweak post titles for Reddit but it’s not a big deal.

IFTTT recipe pushing articles to Reddit
What IFTTT does isn’t magic, but it’s often indistinguishable from it.

I used to syndicate content to Google+ (before it joined the long list of Things Google Have Killed) and to Ello (but it never got much traction there). I’ve probably historically syndicated to other places too: I’ve certainly manually-republished content to other blogs, from time to time, too.

Backfeed

I use Ryan Barrett‘s excellent Brid.gy to convert Twitter replies and likes back into Webmentions for publication as comments on my blog. This used to work for Facebook, too, but again: Facebook fucked it over. I’ve occasionally manually backfed significant Facebook comments, but it’s not ideal: I might like to look at using similar technologies to RSSey to subvert Facebook’s limitations.

Brid.gy's management of my Twitter backfeed
I’ve never had a need for Brid.gy’s “publishing” (i.e. POSSE) features, but its backfeed features “just work”, and it’s awesome.

Reintegration

I’ve routinely retroactively reintegrated content that I’ve produced elsewhere on the Web. This includes my previous blogs (which is why you can browse my archives, right here on this site, all the way back to some of the cringeworthy angsty-teenager posts I made in the 1990s) but also some Reddit posts, some replies originally posted directly to other people’s blogs, all my old del.icio.us bookmarks, long-form forum posts, posts I made to mailing lists and newsgroups, and more. As a result, there’s a lot of backdated content on this site, nowadays: almost a million words, and significantly more than the 600,000 or so I counted a few years ago, before my biggest push for reintegration!

Cumulative wordcount per day, by content type.
Cumulative wordcount per day, by content type. The lion’s share has always been articles, but reposts are creeping up as I’ve been writing more about the things I reshare, lately. It’d be interesting to graph the differentiation of this chart to see the periods of my life that I was writing the most: I have a hypothesis, and centralising my own content under my control makes it easier

Why do I do this? Because I really, really like owning my identity online! I’ve tried the “big” silo alternatives like Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Instagram etc., and they’ve eventually always lead to disappointment, either because they get shut down or otherwise made-unusable, because of inappropriately-applied “real names” policies, because they give too much power to untrustworthy companies, because they impose arbitrary limitations on my content, because they manipulate output promotion (and exacerbate filter bubbles), or because they make the walls of their walled gardens taller and stop you integrating with them how you used to.

A handful of silos have shown themselves to be more-trustworthy than the average – in particular, eschewing techniques that promote “lock-in” – and I’d love to tell you more about them and what I think you should look for in a silo, another time. But for now: suffice to say that just like I don’t use YouTube like most people do, I elect not to use Facebook or Twitter in the conventional ways either. And it’s awesome, thanks.

There are plenty of reasons that people choose to take control of their own Web presence – and everybody who puts content online ought to consider it – but I imagine that few individuals have such a complicated publishing ecosystem as I do! Now you’ve got a picture of how my digital content production workflow works, and perhaps start owning your online identity, too.

Anniversary Break

We might never have been very good at keeping track of the exact date our relationship began in Edinburgh twelve years ago, but that doesn’t stop Ruth and I from celebrating it, often with a trip away very-approximately in the summer. This year, we marked the occasion with a return to Scotland, cycling our way around and between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Dan and Ruth, windswept and wet, aboard the Glenlee in Glasgow.
We got rained on quite a lot, early in our trip, but that didn’t slow our exploration.

Northwards #

Even sharing a lightweight conventional bike and a powerful e-bike, travelling under your own steam makes you pack lightly. We were able to get everything we needed – including packing for the diversity of weather we’d been told to expect – in a couple of pannier bags and a backpack, and pedalled our way down to Oxford Parkway station to start our journey.

Dan and Ruth drink Desperados on Oxford Parkway Railway Station.
And because we’re oh-so-classy when we go on an anniversary break, I brought a four-pack for us to drink while we waited for the train.

In anticipation of our trip and as a gift to me, Ruth had arranged for tickets on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Glasgow and returning from Edinburgh to London to bookend our adventure. A previous sleeper train ticket she’d purchased, for Robin as part of Challenge Robin II, had lead to enormous difficulties when the train got cancelled… but how often can sleeper trains get cancelled, anyway?

Digital display board: "Passengers for the Caledonian Sleeper service tonight departing at 23:30 are being advised that the Glasgow portio [sic] of this service has been cancelled. For further information please see staff on"
Well this can’t be good.
Turns out… more-often than you’d think. We cycled across London and got to Euston Station just in time to order dinner and pour a glass of wine before we received an email to let us know that our train had been cancelled.

Station staff advised us that instead of a nice fast train full of beds they’d arranged for a grotty slow bus full of disappointment. It took quite a bit of standing-around and waiting to speak to the right people before anybody could even confirm that we’d be able to stow our bikes on the bus, without which our plans would have been completely scuppered. Not a great start!

Dan with a bag of snacks and shit from the train crew.
Hey look, a bag full of apologies in the form of snacks.

Eight uncomfortable hours of tedious motorway (and the opportunity to wave at Oxford as we went back past it) and two service stations later, we finally reached Glasgow.

View from the bus to Glasgow.
2-4-6-8, ain’t never too late.

Glasgow #

Despite being tired and in spite of the threatening stormclouds gathering above, we pushed on with our plans to explore Glasgow. We opted to put our trust into random exploration – aided by responses to weirdly-phrased questions to Google Assistant about what we should see or do – to deliver us serendipitous discoveries, and this plan worked well for us. Glasgow’s network of cycle paths and routes seems to be effectively-managed and sprawls across the city, and getting around was incredibly easy (although it’s hilly enough that I found plenty of opportunities to require the lowest gears my bike could offer).

Glasgow Necropolis
Nothing else yet being open in Glasgow, we started our journey where many tens of thousands of Victorian-era Glaswegians finished theirs.

We kicked off by marvelling at the extravagance of the memorials at Glasgow Necropolis, a sprawling 19th-century cemetery covering an entire hill near the city’s cathedral. Especially towards the top of the hill the crypts and monuments give the impression that the dead were competing as to who could leave the most-conspicuous marker behind, but there are gems of subtler and more-attractive Gothic architecture to be seen, too. Finding a convenient nearby geocache completed the experience.

Gravestone of William Miller, author of Wee Willie Winkie
I learned that Wee Willie Winkie wasn’t the anonymously-authored folk rhyme that I’d assumed but was written by a man called William Miller. Who knew?

Pushing on, we headed downriver in search of further adventure… and breakfast. The latter was provided by the delightful Meat Up Deli, who make a spectacularly-good omelette. There, in the shadow of Partick Station, Ruth expressed surprise at the prevalence of railway stations in Glasgow; she, like many folks, hadn’t known that Glasgow is served by an underground train network, But I too would get to learn things I hadn’t known about the subway at our next destination.

Dan and Ruth cycle alongside the Clyde.
The River Clyde is served by an excellent cycle path and runs through the former industrial heart of the city.

We visited the Riverside Museum, whose exhibitions are dedicated to the history of transport and industry, with a strong local focus. It’s a terrifically-engaging museum which does a better-than-usual job of bringing history to life through carefully-constructed experiences. We spent much of the time remarking on how much the kids would love it… but then remembering that the fact that we were able to enjoy stopping and read the interpretative signage and not just have to sprint around after the tiny terrors was mostly thanks to their absence! It’s worth visiting twice, if we find ourselves up here in future with the little tykes.

Dan aboard a restored "Coronation" tram
“Coronation” Tram #1173 was worth a visit, but – as my smile shows – huge tram-fan Ruth had made me board a lot of restored trams by this point. And yes, observant reader: I am still wearing yesterday’s t-shirt, having been so-far unable to find somewhere sensible to change since the motorway journey.

It’s also where I learned something new about the Glasgow Subway: its original implementation – in effect until 1935 – was cable-driven! A steam engine on the South side of the circular network drove a pair of cables – one clockwise, one anticlockwise, each 6½ miles long – around the loop, between the tracks. To start the train, a driver would pull a lever which would cause a clamp to “grab” the continuously-running cable (gently, to prevent jerking forwards!); to stop, he’d release the clamp and apply the brakes. This solution resulted in mechanically-simple subway trains: the system’s similar to that used for some of the surviving parts of San Franciso’s original tram network.

Dan sits aboard a replica of an original Glasgow subway train.
We noticed “no spitting” signs all over all of the replica public transport at the museum. Turns out Glasgow had perhaps the worst tuberculosis outbreak in the UK, so encouraging people to keep their fluids to themselves was a big deal.

Equally impressive as the Riverside Museum is The Tall Ship accompanying it, comprising the barque Glenlee converted into a floating museum about itself and about the maritime history of its age.

Dan at the wheel of the Glenlee
I tried my hand at being helmsman of the Glenlee, but the staff wouldn’t let me unmoor her from the dock so we didn’t get very far. Also, I have no idea how to sail a ship. I can capsize a windsurfer; that’s got to be similar, right?

This, again, was an incredibly well-managed bit of culture, with virtually the entire ship accessible to visitors, right down into the hold and engine room, and with a great amount of effort put into producing an engaging experience supported by a mixture of interactive replicas (Ruth particularly enjoyed loading cargo into a hoist, which I’m pretty sure was designed for children), video, audio, historical sets, contemporary accounts, and all the workings of a real, functional sailing vessel.

Ruth rings the bell on the Glenlee
Plus, you can ring the ship’s bell!

After lunch at the museum’s cafe, we doubled-back along the dockside to a distillery we’d spotted on the way past. The Clydeside Distillery is a relative newcomer to the world of whisky – starting in 2017, their first casks are still several years’ aging away from being ready for consumption, but that’s not stopping them from performing tours covering the history of their building (it’s an old pumphouse that used to operate the swingbridge over the now-filled-in Queen’s Dock) and distillery, cumulating in a whisky tasting session (although not yet including their own single malt, of course).

Copper stills of the Clydeside Distillery.
“Still” working on the finished product.

This was the first time Ruth and I had attended a professionally-organised whisky-tasting together since 2012, when we did so not once but twice in the same week. Fortunately, it turns out that we hadn’t forgotten how to drink whisky; we’d both kept our hand in in the meantime. <hic> Oh, and we got to keep our tasting-glasses as souvenirs, which was a nice touch.

Dan at the whisky tasting.
I’m getting… vanilla… I’m getting honey. I’m getting a light smokiness… I’m getting…. I’m getting drunk.

Forth & Clyde Canal #

Thus far we’d been lucky that the rain had mostly held-off, at least while we’d been outdoors. But as we wrapped up in Glasgow and began our cycle ride down the towpath of the Forth & Clyde Canal, the weather turned quickly through bleak to ugly to downright atrocious. The amber flood warning we’d been given gave way to what forecasters and the media called a “weather bomb”: an hours-long torrential downpour that limited visibility and soaked everything left out in it.

You know: things like us.

Map showing route from Clydeside Distillery to Kincaid House.
Our journey from Glasgow took us along the Forth & Clyde Canal towpath to Milton of Campsie, near Kirkintilloch. Download GPX tracklog.

Our bags held up against the storm, thankfully, but despite an allegedly-waterproof covering Ruth and I both got thoroughly drenched. By the time we reached our destination of Kincaid House Hotel we were both exhausted (not helped by a lack of sleep the previous night during our rail-replacement-bus journey) and soaking wet right through to our skin. My boots squelched with every step as we shuffled uncomfortably like drowned rats into a hotel foyer way too-fancy for bedraggled waifs like us.

Clothes and shoes on a radiator.
I don’t have any photos from this leg of the journey because it was too wet to use a camera. Just imagine a picture of me underwater and you’ll get the idea. Instead, then, here’s a photo of my boots drying on a radiator.

We didn’t even have the energy to make it down to dinner, instead having room service delivered to the room while we took turns at warming up with the help of a piping hot bath. If I can sing the praises of Kincaid House in just one way, though, it’s that the food provided by room service was absolutely on-par with what I’d expect from their restaurant: none of the half-hearted approach I’ve experienced elsewhere to guests who happen to be too knackered (and in my case: lacking appropriate footwear that’s not filled with water) to drag themselves to a meal.

Kircaid House Hotel
When we finally got to see it outside of the pouring rain, it turns out that the hotel was quite pretty. Our room is in the top right (including a nook extending into the turret). If you look closely you’ll see that the third, fifth, and seventh windows on the upper floor are fake: they cover areas that have since their original construction been converted to en suite bathrooms.

Our second day of cycling was to be our longest, covering the 87½ km (54½ mile) stretch of riverside and towpath between Milton of Campsie and our next night’s accommodation on the South side of Edinburgh. We were wonderfully relieved to discover that the previous day’s epic dump of rain had used-up the clouds’ supply in a single day and the forecast was far more agreeable: cycling 55 miles during a downpour did not sound like a fun idea for either of us!

Map showing route from Kincaid House to 94DR.
The longest day’s cycling of our trip had intimidated me right from the planning stage, but a steady pace – and an improvement in the weather – put it well within our grasp. Download GPX tracklog.

Kicking off by following the Strathkelvin Railway Path, Ruth and I were able to enjoy verdant countryside alongside a beautiful brook. The signs of the area’s industrial past are increasingly well-concealed – a rotting fence made of old railway sleepers here; the remains of a long-dead stone bridge there – and nature has reclaimed the land dividing this former-railway-now-cycleway from the farmland surrounding it. Stopping briefly for another geocache we made good progress down to Barleybank where we were able to rejoin the canal towpath.

Ruth on the Strathkelvin Railway Path
Our day’s journey began following Glazert Water towards its confluence with the River Kelvin. It’s really quite pretty around here.

This is where we began to appreciate the real beauty of the Scottish lowlands. I’m a big fan of a mountain, but there’s also a real charm to the rolling wet countryside of the Lanarkshire valleys. The Forth & Clyde towpath is wonderfully maintained – perhaps even better than the canal itself, which is suffering in patches from a bloom of spring reeds – and makes for easy cycling.

Broad Burn and Wood Burn, in the Kelvin Valley.
Downstream from Kilsyth the Kelvin is fed by a crisscrossing network of burns rolling down the hills and through a marsh.

Outside of moorings at the odd village we’d pass, we saw no boats along most of the inland parts of the Forth & Clyde canal. We didn’t see many joggers, or dog-walkers, or indeed anybody for long stretches.

Ruth rides alongside the Forth & Clyde canal.
The sun climbed into the sky and we found ourselves alone on the towpath for miles at a time.

The canal was also teeming with wildlife. We had to circumnavigate a swarm of frogs, spotted varied waterfowl including a heron who’d decided that atop a footbridge was the perfect place to stand and a siskin that made itself scarce as soon as it spotted us, and saw evidence of water voles in the vicinity. The rushes and woodland all around but especially on the non-towpath side of the canal seemed especially popular with the local fauna as a place broadly left alone by humans.

Swans and cygnets
We only had a few seconds to take pictures of this swan family before the parents put themselves between us and the cygnets and started moving more-aggressively towards us.

The canal meanders peacefully, flat and lock-free, around the contours of the Kelvin valley all the way up to the end of the river. There, it drops through Wyndford Lock into the valley of Bonny Water, from which the rivers flow into the Forth. From a hydrogeological perspective, this is the half-way point between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Wyndford Lock
We stopped for a moment to look at Wyndford Lock, where a Scottish Canals worker was using the gates to adjust the water levels following the previous day’s floods.

Seven years ago, I got the chance to visit the Falkirk Wheel, but Ruth had never been so we took the opportunity to visit again. The Wheel is a very unusual design of boat lift: a pair of counterbalanced rotating arms swap places to move entire sections of the canal from the lower to upper level, and vice-versa. It’s significantly faster to navigate than a flight of locks (indeed, there used to be a massive flight of eleven locks a little way to the East, until they were filled in and replaced with parts of the Wester Hailes estate of Falkirk), wastes no water, and – because it’s always in a state of balance – uses next to no energy to operate: the hydraulics which push it oppose only air resistance and friction.

Dan and Ruth at the Falkirk Wheel
A photo can’t really do justice to the size of the Falkirk Wheel: by the time you’re close enough to appreciate what it is, you’re too close to fit it into frame.

So naturally, we took a boat ride up and down the wheel, recharged our batteries (metaphorically; the e-bike’s battery would get a top-up later in the day) at the visitor centre cafe, and enjoyed listening-in to conversations to hear the “oh, I get it” moments of people – mostly from parts of the world without a significant operating canal network, in their defence – learning how a pound lock works for the first time. It’s a “lucky 10,000” thing.

View towards Grangemouth from the top of the Falkirk Wheel
Looking East from the top of the Falkirk Wheel we could make out Grangemouth, the Kelpies, and – in the distance – Edinburgh: our destination!

Pressing on, we cycled up the hill. We felt a bit cheated, given that we’d just been up and down pedal-free on the boat tour, and this back-and-forth manoeuvrer confused my GPSr – which was already having difficulty with our insistence on sticking to the towpath despite all the road-based “shortcuts” it was suggesting – no end!

Rough Castle Tunnel
The first of our afternoon tunnels began right at the top of the Falkirk Wheel. Echo… cho… ho… o…

Union Canal #

From the top of the Wheel we passed through Rough Castle Tunnel and up onto the towpath of the Union Canal. This took us right underneath the remains of the Antonine Wall, the lesser-known sibling of Hadrian’s Wall and the absolute furthest extent, albeit short-lived, of the Roman Empire on this island. (It only took the Romans eight years to realise that holding back the Caledonian Confederacy was a lot harder work than their replacement plan: giving most of what is now Southern Scotland to the Brythonic Celts and making the defence of the Northern border into their problem.)

Dan cycling the Union Canal.
The Union Canal is higher, narrower, and windier than the Forth & Clyde.

A particular joy of this section of waterway was the Falkirk Tunnel, a very long tunnel broad enough that the towpath follows through it, comprised of a mixture of hewn rock and masonry arches and very variable in height (during construction, unstable parts of what would have been the ceiling had to be dug away, making it far roomier than most narrowboat canal tunnels).

Entrance to the Falkirk Tunnel
Don’t be fooled by the green light: this tunnel is unmanaged and the light is alternating between red and green to tell boaters to use their own damn common sense.

Wet, cold, slippery, narrow, and cobblestoned for the benefit of the horses that no-longer pull boats through this passage, we needed to dismount and push our bikes through. This proved especially challenging when we met other cyclists coming in the other direction, especially as our e-bike (as the designated “cargo bike”) was configured in what we came to lovingly call “fat ass” configuration: with pannier bags sticking out widely and awkwardly on both sides.

Water pours in through the ceiling of the Falkirk Tunnel through a combination of man-made (ventilation) and eroded shafts.

This is probably the oldest tunnel in Scotland, known with certainty to predate any of the nation’s railway tunnels. The handrail was added far later (obviously, as it would interfere with the reins of a horse), as were the mounted electric lights. As such, this must have been a genuinely challenging navigation hazard for the horse-drawn narrowboats it was built to accommodate!

Dan and Ruth in the Falkirk Tunnel (edited: redeye removed)
I had a few tries at getting a photo of the pair of us where neither of us looked silly, but failed. So here’s one where only Ruth looks silly (albeit clearly delighted at where she is).

On the other side the canal passes over mighty aqueducts spanning a series of wooded valleys, and also providing us with yet another geocaching opportunity. We were very selective about our geocache stops on this trip; there were so many candidates but we needed to make progress to ensure that we made it to Edinburgh in good time.

We took lunch and shandy at Bridge 49 where we also bought a painting depicting one of the bridges on the Union Canal and negotiated with the proprietor an arrangement to post it to us (as we certainly didn’t have space for it in our bags!), continuing a family tradition of us buying art from and of places we take holidays to. They let us recharge our batteries (literal this time: we plugged the e-bike in to ensure it’d have enough charge to make it the rest of the way without excessive rationing of power). Eventually, our bodies and bikes refuelled, we pressed on into the afternoon.

River Almond viewed from the Union Canal aqueduct that spans it (edited: removed aeroplane)
One aqueduct spanned the River Almond, which Three Ringers might recognise by its Gaelic name, Amain.

For all that we might scoff at the overly-ornate, sometimes gaudy architecture of the Victorian era – like the often-ostentatious monuments of the Necropolis we visited early in our adventure – it’s still awe-inspiring to see their engineering ingenuity. When you stand on a 200-year-old aqueduct that’s still standing, still functional, and still objectively beautiful, it’s easy to draw unflattering comparisons to the things we build today in our short-term-thinking, “throwaway” culture. Even the design of the Falkirk Wheel’s, whose fate is directly linked to these duocentenarian marvels, only called for a 120-year lifespan. How old is your house? How long can your car be kept functioning? Long-term thinking has given way to short-term solutions, and I’m not convinced that it’s for the better.

Dan looks over the edge of the Almond Aqueduct
Like the Falkirk Wheel, it’s hard to convey the scale of these aqueducts in pictures, especially those taken on their span! They’re especially impressive when you remember that they were built over two centuries ago, without the benefits of many modern facilities.

Eventually, and one further (especially sneaky) geocache later, a total of around 66 “canal miles”, one monsoon, and one sleep from the Glasgow station where we dismounted our bus, we reached the end of the Union Canal in Edinburgh.

Dan and Ruth at the Edinburgh basin of the Union Canal
The end of the canal!

Edinburgh #

There we checked in to the highly-recommendable 94DR guest house where our host Paul and his dog Molly demonstrated their ability to instantly-befriend just-about anybody.

Ruth sits in awe of a bowl of gin cocktail.
We figured that a “sharer” cocktail at the Salisbury Arms would be about the right amount for two people, but were pleasantly (?) surprised when what turned up was a punchbowl.

We went out for food and drinks at a local gastropub, and took a brief amble part-way up Arthur’s Seat (but not too far… we had just cycled fifty-something miles), of which our hotel room enjoyed a wonderful view, and went to bed.

Dan at 94DR
For some reason I felt the need to look like I was performing some kind of interpretive dance while presenting our hotel room at 94DR to Ruth.

The following morning we cycled out to Craigmillar Castle: Edinburgh’s other castle, and a fantastic (and surprisingly-intact) example of late medieval castle-building.

Map showing journeys around Edinburgh.
We covered about 20km (12½ miles) while exploring Edinburgh, but at least it was punctuated by lots of activities. Download GPX tracklog.

This place is a sprawling warren of chambers and dungeons with a wonderful and complicated history. I feel almost ashamed to not have even known that it existed before now: I’ve been to Edinburgh enough times that I feel like I ought to have visited, and I’m glad that I’ve finally had the chance to discover and explore it.

Ruth explores Craigmillar Castle
Does this picture give you Knightmare vibes? It gives me Knightmare vibes. “Take three steps forwards… it’s okay, there’s nothing to fall off of.”

Edinburgh’s a remarkable city: it feels like it gives way swiftly, but not abruptly, to the surrounding countryside, and – thanks to the hills and forests – once you’re outside of suburbia you could easily forget how close you are to Scotland’s capital.

Ruth and Dan atop Craigmillar Castle
From atop Craigmillar Castle it was hard to imagine a time at which there’d have been little but moorland and fields spanning the league between there and the capital.

In addition to a wonderful touch with history and a virtual geocache, Craigmillar Castle also provided with a delightful route back to the city centre. “The Innocent Railway” – an 1830s stretch of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway which retained a tradition of horse-drawn carriages long after they’d gone out of fashion elsewhere – once connected Craigmillar to Holyrood Park Road along the edge of what is now Bawsinch and Duddington Nature Reserve, and has long since been converted into a cycleway.

Ruth cycles through the former railway tunnel of The Innocent Railway.
The 520-metre long Innocent Tunnel may have been the first public railway tunnel in Britain. Since 1994, it’s been a cycle path.

Making the most of our time in the city, we hit up a spa (that Ruth had secretly booked as a surprise for me) in the afternoon followed by an escape room – The Tesla Cube – in the evening. The former involved a relaxing soak, a stress-busting massage, and a chill lounge in a rooftop pool. The latter undid all of the good of this by comprising of us running around frantically barking updates at one another and eventually rocking the week’s highscore for the game. Turns out we make a pretty good pair at escape rooms.

Dan and Ruth pretend to be asleep while holding a sign that says that they solved The Tesla Cube escape room in 32 mintues and 22 seconds.
If we look pretty tired at this point, it’s because we are. (Fun fact, my phone insisted that we ought to take this picture again because, as it said “somebody blinked”.)

Southwards #

After a light dinner at the excellent vegan cafe Holy Cow (who somehow sell a banana bread that is vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free: by the time you add no eggs, dairy, flour or sugar, isn’t banana bread just a mashed banana?) and a quick trip to buy some supplies, we rode to Waverley Station to find out if we’d at least be able to get a sleeper train home and hoping for not-another-bus.

Holy Cow Edinburgh
I had their kidney-bean burger. It was delicious.

We got a train this time, at least, but the journey wasn’t without its (unnecessary) stresses. We were allowed past the check-in gates and to queue to load our bikes into their designated storage space but only after waiting for this to become available (for some reason it wasn’t immediately, even though the door was open and crew were standing there) were we told that our tickets needed to be taken back to the check-in gates (which had now developed a queue of their own) and something done to them before they could be accepted. Then they reprogrammed the train’s digital displays incorrectly, so we boarded coach B but then it turned into coach E once we were inside, leading to confused passengers trying to take one another’s rooms… it later turned back into coach B, which apparently reset the digital locks on everybody’s doors so some passengers who’d already put their luggage into a room now found that they weren’t allowed into that room…

Caledonian Sleeper in Edinburgh
We were surprised to discover that our sleeper from Edinburgh to London had the same crew as the one we’d not been able to get to Glasgow earlier in the week. So they got to hear us complain at them for a second time, albeit for different reasons.

…all of which tied-up the crew and prevented them from dealing with deeper issues like the fact that the room we’d been allocated (a room with twin bunks) wasn’t what we’d paid for (a double room). And so once their seemingly-skeleton crew had solved all of their initial technical problems they still needed to go back and rearrange us and several other customers in a sliding-puzzle-game into one another’s rooms in order to give everybody what they’d actually booked in the first place.

In conclusion: a combination of bad signage, technical troubles, and understaffing made our train journey South only slightly less stressful than our bus journey North had been. I’ve sort-of been put off sleeper trains.

Caledonian Sleeper room
The room itself, once we finally got it, was reasonable, although it was reminiscent of time spent in small camper vans where using one piece of furniture first means folding away a different piece of furniture.

After a reasonable night’s sleep – certainly better than a bus! – we arrived in London, ate some breakfast, took a brief cycle around Regent’s Park, and then found our way to Marylebone to catch a train home.

Bikes packed onto the train back to Oxford.
Getting our bikes onto the train back to Oxford from London was, amazingly, easier than getting them onto the sleeper train on which we’d specifically booked a space for them.

All in all it was a spectacular and highly-memorable adventure, illustrative of the joy of leaving planning to good-luck, the perseverance of wet cyclists, the ingenuity of Victorian engineers, the beauty of the Scottish lowlands, the cycle-friendliness of Glasgow, and – sadly – the sheer incompetence of the operators of sleeper trains.

A++, would celebrate our love this way again.

I Don’t Watch YouTube (Like You Watch YouTube)

I was watching a recent YouTube video by Derek Muller (Veritasium), My Video Went Viral. Here’s Why, and I came to a realisation: I don’t watch YouTube like most people – probably including you! – watch YouTube. And as a result, my perspective on what YouTube is and does is fundamentally biased from the way that others probably think about it.

The Veritasium video My Video Went Viral. Here’s Why is really good and you should definitely watch at least 7 minutes of it in order to influence the algorithm.

The magic moment came for me when his video explained that the “subscribe” button doesn’t do what I’d assumed it does. I’m probably not alone in my assumptions: I’ll bet that people who use the “subscribe” button as YouTube intend don’t all realise that it works the way that it does.

Like many, I’d assumed the “subscribe” buttons says “I want to know about everything this creator publishes”. But that’s not what actually happens. YouTube wrangles your subscription list and (especially) your recommendations based on their own metrics using an opaque algorithm. I knew, of course, that they used such a thing to manage the list of recommended next-watches… but I didn’t realise how big an influence it was having on the way that most YouTube users choose what they’ll watch!

Veritasium explains how the YouTube subscriber model has changed over time
“YouTube started doing some experiments… where they would change what was recommended to your subscribers. No longer was a subscription like ‘I want to see every video by this person’; it was more of a suggestion…”

YouTube’s metrics for “what to show to you” is, of course, biased by your subscriptions. But it’s also biased by what’s “trending” (which in turn is based on watch time and click-through-rate), what people-who-watch-the-things-you-watch watch, subscription commonalities, regional trends, what your contacts are interested in, and… who knows what else! AAA YouTubers try to “game” it, but the goalposts are moving. And the struggle to stay on-top, especially after a fluke viral hit, leads to the application of increasingly desperate and clickbaity measures.

This is a battle to which I’ve been mostly oblivious, until now, because I don’t watch YouTube like you watch YouTube.

Veritasium explains the YouTube "frontpage" algorithm.
“You could be a little bit disappointed in the way the game is working right now… I challenge you to think of a better way.”
Hold my beer.

Tom Scott produced an underappreciated sci-fi short last year describing a theoretical AI which, in 2028, caused problems as a result of its single-minded focus. What we’re seeing in YouTube right now is a simpler example, but illustrates the problem well: optimising YouTube’s algorithm for any factor or combination of factors other than a user’s stated preference (subscriptions) will necessarily result in the promotion of videos to a user other than, and at the expense of, the ones by creators that they’ve subscribed to. And there are so many things that YouTube could use as influencing factors. Off the top of my head, there’s:

  • Number of views
  • Number of likes
  • Ratio of likes to dislikes
  • Number of tracked shares
  • Number of saves
  • Length of view
  • Click-through rate on advertisements
  • Recency
  • Subscriber count
  • Subscriber engagement
  • Popularity amongst your friends
  • Popularity amongst your demographic
  • Click-through-ratio
  • Etc., etc., etc.
Veritasium videos in my RSS reader
A Veritasium video I haven’t watched yet? Thanks, RSS reader.

But this is all alien to me. Why? Well: here’s how I use YouTube:

  1. Subscription: I subscribe to creators via RSS. My RSS reader doesn’t implement YouTube’s algorithm, of course, so it just gives me exactly what I subscribe to – no more, no less.It’s not perfect (for example, it pisses me off every time it tells me about an upcoming “premiere”, a YouTube feature I don’t care about even a little), but apart from that it’s great! If I’m on-the-move and can’t watch something as long as involved TheraminTrees‘ latest deep-thinker, my RSS reader remembers so I can watch it later at my convenience. I can have National Geographic‘s videos “expire” if I don’t watch them within a week but Dr. Doe‘s wait for me forever. And I can implement my own filters if a feed isn’t showing exactly what I’m looking for (like I did to strip the sport section from BBC News’ RSS feed). I’m in control.
  2. Discovery: I don’t rely on YouTube’s algorithm to find me new content. I don’t mind being a day or two behind on what’s trending: I’m not sure I care at all? I’m far more-interested in recommendations curated by a human. If I discover and subscribe to a channel on YouTube, it was usually (a) mentioned by another YouTuber or (b)  linked from a blog or community blog. I’m receiving recommendations from people I already respect, and they have a way higher hit-rate than YouTube’s recommendations.(I also sometimes discover content because it’s exactly what I searched for, e.g. I’m looking for that tutorial on how to install a fiddly damn kiddy seat into the car, but this is unlikely to result in a subscription.)
Robot with a computer.
I for one welcome our content-recommending robot overlords. (So long as their biases can be configured by their users, not the networks that create them…)

This isn’t yet-another-argument that you should use RSS because it’s awesome. (Okay, so it is. RSS isn’t dead, and its killer feature is that its users get to choose how it works. But there’s more I want to say.)

What I wanted to share was this reminder, for me, that the way you use a technology can totally blind you to the way others use it. I had no idea that many YouTube creators and some YouTube subscribers felt increasingly like they were fighting YouTube’s algorithms, whose goals are different from their own, to get what they want. Now I can see it everywhere! Why do schmoyoho always encourage me to press the notification bell and not just the subscribe button? Because for a typical YouTube user, that’s the only way that they can be sure that their latest content will be seen!

Veritasium encourages us to "ring that bell".
“There is one way… to short-circuit this effect… ring that bell.”
If I may channel Yoda for a moment: No… there is another!

Of course, the business needs of YouTube mean that we’re not likely to see any change from them. So until either we have mainstream content-curating AIs that answer to their human owners rather than to commercial networks (robot butler, anybody?) or else the video fediverse catches on – and I don’t know which of those two are least-likely! – I guess I’ll stick to my algorithm-lite subscription model for YouTube.

But at least now I’ll have a better understanding of why some of the channels I follow are changing the way they produce and market their content…