Write Websites

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Enbies and gentlefolk of the class of ‘24:

Write websites.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, coding would be it. The long term benefits of coding websites remains unproved by scientists, however the rest of my advice has a basis in the joy of the indie web community’s experiences. I will dispense this advice now:

Enjoy the power and beauty of PHP; or never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of PHP until your stack is completely jammed. But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at your old sites and recall in a way you can’t grasp now, how much possibility lay before you and how simple and fast they were. JS is not as blazingly fast as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the scaling; or worry, but know that premature scalability is as useful as chewing bubble gum if your project starts cosy and small. The real troubles on the web are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; if your project grows, scale it up on some idle Tuesday.

Code one thing every day that amuses you.

Well that’s made my day.

I can’t say I loved Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen. I’m not sure it’s possible for anybody who lived through it being played to death in the late 1990s; a period of history when a popular song was basically inescapable. Also, it got parodied a lot. I must’ve seen a couple of dozen different parodies of varying quality in the early 2000s.

But it’s been long enough that I was, I guess, ready for one. And I couldn’t conceive of a better topic.

Y’see: the very message of the value of personal websites is, like Sunscreen, a nostalgic one. When I try to sell people on the benefits of a personal digital garden or blog, I tend to begin by pointing out that the best time to set up your own website is… like 20+ years ago.

But… the second-best time to start a personal website is right now. With cheap and free static hosting all over the place (and more-dynamic options not much-more expensive) and domain names still as variably-priced as they ever were, the biggest impediment is the learning curve… which is also the fun part! Siloed social media is either eating its own tail or else fighting to adapt to once again be part of a more-open Web, and there’s nothing that says “I’m part of the open Web” like owning your own online identity, carving out your own space, and expressing yourself there however you damn well like.

As always, this is a drum I’ll probably beat until I die, so feel free to get in touch if you want some help getting set up on the Web.

The Eyebrow Painter

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There are a whole bunch of things that could be the source for the name, e.g. where we found most of their work (The Dipylon Master) or the potter with whom they worked (the Amasis Painter), a favourite theme (The Athena Painter), the Museum that ended up with the most famous thing they did (The Berlin Painter) or a notable aspect of their style. Like, say, The Eyebrow Painter.

Guess what kind of pottery the Eyebrow Painter made?

Collage of three Hellenic plates decorated with fish. The fish all have strange-looking eyebrows!

AristotelianComplacency

Just excellent.

A frowning fish, painted onto a plate, surely makes for the best funerary offering.

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Ranking Every Elevator in the Myst Series

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Dustin Garner

Part of the joy of the collaborative Internet is that people can share their passion. Today’s example comes from this YouTuber who’s made an hour long video demonstrating and ranking the 35 elevators in the first five games in the Myst series.

Starting with a discussion of what defines an elevator, the video goes on to show off some of the worst of the lifts in the series of games (mostly those that are uninspired, pointless, or which have confusing interfaces) before moving on to the well-liked majority.

I only ever played the first two Myst games (and certainly haven’t played the first since, what, the mid-1990s?) and I don’t think I finished either. But that didn’t stop me watching the entirety of this video and revelling in the sheer level of dedication and focus it’ll have taken on the part of the creator. When I made my (mere 15-minute!) video describing my favourite video game Easter Egg I spent tens of hours over the prior weeks researching the quirk and its background, configuring a copy of the (elderly) game so that it’d play and record in the way I wanted, and of course playing through the game far enough to be able to fully demonstrate the Easter Egg. Dustin’s video, which doubtless involved replaying (possibly multiple times) five different games released over a 12-year window is mindblowing by comparison.

I don’t really care about the Myst series. I care even less about its elevators. But I really enjoyed this video, if only for its creator’s enthusiasm.

Canine commuters chase dog travel season tickets

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Dog aboard a train at the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway

Dogs are being offered boat and rail season tickets to ease their path to walkies in the Lake District.

Ullswater Steamers and the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway have introduced £20 annual “Rover” season tickets, which include a 10% donation to animal charities.

The cost for a standard doggie day ticket is £2.50 for the railway and £1 for a boat trip.

In a world where the news is dominated by war, cyber attacks, or imminent elections, it’s nice to be distracted by a nonsense bit of news. And this one’s just delightful.

For a fee of £1 – £2.50, dogs can travel on the boats and railways of Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and Ullswater Steamers. So far, so good.

And now they’ve introduced a season pass for people who take their canines on the ferries or railways more often. Also good.

And they’ve called the season pass for dogs… a “Rover” ticket.

Excellent.

Screenshot of the page selling Ravenglass Railway 'Rover' tickets for dogs.
Yes. This. 😘🤌
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A completely plaintext WordPress Theme

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This is a silly idea. But it works. I saw Dan Q wondering about plaintext WordPress themes – so I made one.

This is what this blog looks like using it:

Screenshot showing my blog rendered just as text.

I clearly nerdsniped Terence at least a little when I asked whether a blog necessarily had to be HTML, because he went on to implement a WordPress theme that delivers content entirely in plain text.

Naturally, I’ve also shared his accomplishment on my own text/plain blog (which uses a much simpler CMS based on static files).

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Roman object that baffled experts to go on show at Lincoln Museum

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Roman artefact

A mysterious Roman artefact found during an amateur archaeological dig is going on public display in Lincolnshire for the first time.

The object is one of only 33 dodecahedrons found in Britain, and the first to have been discovered in the Midlands.

I learned about these… things… from this BBC News story and I’m just gobsmacked. Seriously: what is this thing?

This isn’t a unique example. 33 have been found in Britain, but these strange Roman artefacts turn up all over Europe: we’ve found hundreds of them.

It doesn’t look like they were something that you’d find in any Roman-era household, but they seem to be common enough that if you wandered around third century Northern Europe with one for a week or so you’d surely be able to find somebody who could explain them to you. And yet we don’t know why.

 Two ancient Roman bronze dodecahedrons and an icosahedron (3rd c. AD) in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, Germany. The dodecahedrons were excavated in Bonn and Frechen-Bachem; the icosahedron in Arloff. Photo courtesy Kleon3 on Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license.
Here’s two of them and an equally-mysterious icosahedron found in Germany. Photo courtesy Kleon3, used under a Creative Commons license.

We have absolutely no idea why the Romans made these things. They’re finely and carefully created from bronze, and we find them buried in coin stashes, which suggests that they were valuable and important. But for what? Frustrated archaeologists have come up with all kinds of terrible ideas:

  • Maybe they were a weapon, like the ball of a mace or something to be flung from a sling? Nope; they’re not really heavy enough.
  • At least one was discovered near a bone staff, so it might have been a decorative scepter? But that doesn’t really go any distance to explaining the unusual shape, even if true (nor does it rule out the possibility of it being some kind of handled tool).
  • Perhaps they were a rangefinding tool, where a pair of opposing holes line up only when you’re a particular distance from the tool? If a target of a known size fills the opposite hole in your vision, its distance must be a specific multiple of your distance to the tool. But that seems unlikely because we’ve never found any markings on these that would show which side you were using; also the devices aren’t consistently-sized.
  • Roleplayers might notice the similarity to polyhedral dice: maybe they were a game? But the differing-sized holes make them pretty crap dice (researchers have tried), and Romans seemed to favour cubic dice anyway. They’re somewhat too intricate and complex to be good candidates for children’s toys.
  • They could be some kind of magical or divination tool, which would apparently fit with the kinds of fortune-telling mysticism believed to be common to the cultures at the sites where they’re found. Do the sides and holes correspond to the zodiac or have some other astrological significance?
  • Perhaps it was entirely decorative? Gold beads of a surprisingly-similar design have been found as far away as Cambodia, well outside the reach of the Roman Empire, which might suggest a continuing tradition of an earlier precursor dodecahedron!
  • This author thinks they might have acted as a kind of calendar, used for measuring the height of the midday sun by observing way its beam is cast through a pair of holes when the tool is placed on a surface and used to determine when winter grains should be planted.
  • Using replicas, some folks online have demonstrated how they could have been used as a knitting tool for making the fingers of gloves using a technique called “spool knitting”. But this knitting technique isn’t believed to have been invented until a millennium later than the youngest of these devices.
  • Others have proposed that they were a proof of qualification: something a master metalsmith would construct in order to show that they were capable of casting a complex and intricate object.
High-resolution close-up of a well-preserved Roman dodecahedron.
Seriously, what the hell are you for?

I love a good archaeological mystery. We might never know why the Romans made these things, but reading clever people’s speculations about them is great.

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AI isn’t useless. But is it worth it?

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Molly White writes, more-eloquently than I would’ve, almost-exactly my experience of LLMs and similar modern generative AIs:

I, like many others who have experimented with or adopted these products, have found that these tools actually can be pretty useful for some tasks. Though AI companies are prone to making overblown promises that the tools will shortly be able to replace your content writing team or generate feature-length films or develop a video game from scratch, the reality is far more mundane: they are handy in the same way that it might occasionally be useful to delegate some tasks to an inexperienced and sometimes sloppy intern.

Very much this.

I’ve experimented with a handful of generative AIs, such as:

  • GPT-3.5 / ChatGPT, for proofreading, summarisation, experimental rephrasing when writing, and idea generation. I’ve found it to be moderately good at summarisation and proofreading and pretty terrible at producing anything novel without sounding completely artificial and/or getting lost in a hallucination.
  • Bing for coalescing information. I like that it cites its sources. I dislike that it somehow still hallucinates. I might use it, I suppose, to help me re-phase a search query where I can’t remember the word I’m looking for.
  • Stable Diffusion for image generation. I’ve found it most-useful in image-to-image mode, for making low-effort concept art in bulk. For example, when running online roleplaying games for friends I’ve fed it an image of, say, a skeleton warrior and asked it to make me a few dozen more in a similar style, so as to provide a diverse selection of distinct tokens1. Its completely-original2 work lands squarely in the uncanny valley, though.
  • Github Copilot for code assistance. I’ve not tried its “chat”-powered functionality but I quite enjoy its “autocomplete” tool. When I’m coding and I forget the syntax of the command I’m typing, or need to stop and think for a moment about “what comes next”, it’s often there with the answer. I’ve even made us of the “write the comment describing what the code will do, let Copilot suggest the code for you” paradigm (though I’ve been pretty disappointed with the opposite approach: it doesn’t write great comments!). I find Copilot to be a lot like having an enthusiastic, eager-to-please, very well-read but somewhat naive junior programmer sitting beside me. If I ask them for some pairing assistance, they’re great, but I can’t trust them to do anything that I couldn’t do for myself!
  • Surely others besides that I’ve since forgotten.

Most-recently, I’ve played with music-making AI Suno and… it’s not great.. but like all these others it’s really interesting to experiment with and think about. Here: let me just ask it to write some “vocal trance europop about a woman called Molly; Molly has a robot friend who is pretty good at doing many tasks, but the one thing she’ll never trust the robot to do is write in her blog” –

AI-generated content:

AI-generated image of a boxy yellow humanoid robot sitting at a Macbook, typing.
[Verse]
Molly’s got a robot that she keeps by her side
It’s pretty handy
It can do many things right
But there’s one task she won’t let it touch
It’s true
The robot can’t write in her blog
No
That won’t do
[Verse 2]
This robot can clean the house
Sweep it up real nice
It can even cook a meal
Add some spice
But when it comes to sharing her thoughts on the screen
Molly won’t trust the robot
That’s her routine
[Chorus]
Molly’s robot friend
By her side all day and night
There’s one thing it can’t do
Can’t write her blog right
She’ll keep typing away
Sharing her heart and soul
That’s something the robot can’t do
It has no control

So yes, like Molly:

  • I’m absolutely a believer than these kinds of AIs have some value,
  • I’ve been reluctant and slow to say so because they seem to be such a polarising issue that it’s hard to say that you belong to neither “camp”,
  • I’m not entirely convinced that for the value they provide they’ve yet proven to be worth their cost, and I’m not certain that for general-purpose generation they will be any time soon, and
  • I’ve never used AI to write content for my blog, and I can’t see that ever changing.

It’s still an interesting field to follow-along with. Stuff like Sora from OpenAI and VASA-1 from Microsoft are just scary (the latter seems to have little purpose other than for misinformation-generation3!), but the genie’s out of the bottle now.

Footnotes

1 Visually-distinct tokens adds depth to the world and helps players communicate with one another: “You distract the skinny cultist, and I’ll try to creep up on the ugly one!”

2 I’m going to gloss right over the question of whether or not these tools are capable of creating anything truly original. You know what I mean.

3 Gotta admit though that I laughed like a drain at the Mona Lisa singing along with Anne Hathaway’s Lil’ Wayne Style Paparazzi Rap. If you’ve not seen the thing I’m talking about, go do that now.

you are a printer we are all printers

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Anyway, here’s the best printer for 2024: a Brother laser printer. You can just pick any one you like; I have one with a sheet feeder and one without a sheet feeder. Both of them have reliably printed return labels and random forms and pictures for my kid to color for years now, and I have never purchased replacement toner for either one. Neither has fallen off the WiFi or insisted I sign up for an ink-related hostage situation or required me to consider the ongoing schemes of HP executives who seem determined to make people hate a legendary brand with straightforward cash grabs and weird DRM ideas.

It’s sort-of alarming that Brother are the only big player in the printer space who subscribe to a philosophy of “don’t treat the customers like livestock”. Presumably all it’d take is a board-level decision to flip the switch from “not evil” to “evil” and we’d lose something valuable. Thankfully, for now at least, they still clearly see the value of the positive marketing the world gives them. Positive marketing like like this article.

The article is excellent, by the way. I know that I’m “supposed” to stir up hatred about the fact that its conclusion is written by an AI but… well, just read it for yourself and you’ll see why I don’t mind even one bit. Top notch reporting. Consider following the links within it to stories about how other printer manufacturers continue to show exactly how shitty they can be.

I recommended a Brother printer to the Vagina Museum the other month. I assume it ‘s still working out fine for them (and not ripping them off, spying on them, and/or contributing to the destruction of the the planet).

A Proper Cup of Tea

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Screenshot from "A Proper Cup of Tea", showing the start of the game.

This “choose your own adventure”-style game about making the perfect cup of tea is just… excellent.

If you lack the imagination to understand how a game like this could have dozens of possible endings, you desperately need to play it. My favourite path so far through the game was to add a teabag, then hot water, then remove the teabag, then add some milk, then add a second teabag, then drink it.

Genuinely can’t stop laughing at this masterpiece.

Aberystwyth 1984

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Nigel Lowrie

This promotional video for Aberystwyth University has been kindly archived onto YouTube by one of the undergraduate students who features in it. It was produced in 1984; approximately the same time I first visited Aberystwyth, although it would take until fifteen years later in 1999 for me to become a student there myself.

But the thing is… this 1984 video, shot on VHS in 1984, could absolutely be mistaken at-a-glance for a video shot on an early digital video camera a decade and a half later. The pace of change in Aberystwyth was and is glacial; somehow even the fashion and music seen in Pier Pressure in the video could pass for late-90s!

Anyway: I found the entire video amazingly nostalgic in spite of how far it predates my attendance of the University! Amazing.

Bumblebees surprise scientists with ‘sophisticated’ social learning

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First, bees had to push a blue lever that was blocking a red lever… too complex for a bee to solve on its own. So scientists trained some bees by offering separate rewards for the first and second steps.

These trained bees were then paired with bees who had never seen the puzzle, and the reward for the first step was removed.

Some of the untrained bees were able to learn both steps of the puzzle by watching the trained bees, without ever receiving a reward for the first step.

Bee in experimental box

This news story is great for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s a really interesting experimental result. Just when you think humankind’s learned everything they ever will about the humble bumblebee (humblebee?), there’s something more to discover.

That a bee can be trained to solve a complex puzzle by teaching it to solve each step independently and then later combining the steps isn’t surprising. But that these trained bees can pass on their knowledge to their peers (bee-ers?); who can then, one assumes, pass it on to yet other bees. Social learning.

Which, logically, means that a bee that learns to solve the two-lever puzzle second-hand would have a chance of solving an even more-complex three-lever puzzle; assuming such a thing is within the limits of the species’ problem-solving competence (I don’t know for sure whether they can do this, but I’m a firm bee-lever).

But the second reason I love this story is that it’s a great metaphor in itself for scientific progress. The two-lever problem is, to an untrained bee, unsolvable. But if it gets a low-effort boost (a free-bee, as it were) by learning from those that came before it, it can make a new discovery.

(I suppose the secret third reason the news story had me buzzing was that I appreciated the opportunities for puns that it presented. But you already knew that I larva pun, right?)

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Young Squirrel Talking About Himself

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This week, Parry Gripp and Nathan Mazur released Young Squirrel Talking About Himself.

You might recognise the tune (and most of the words) from an earlier Parry Gripp song. The original video for the older version is no longer available on his channel, and that’s probably for the best, but I was really pleased to see the song resurrected in this new form because it’s fabulous. I’ve been singing it all day.

In Loving Memory of Square Checkbox

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…every major OS vendor has been adhering to the convention that checkboxes are square and radio buttons are round.

Apple is the first major operating system vendor who had abandoned a four-decades-long tradition. Their new visionOS — for the first time in the history of Apple — will have round checkboxes.

Four "round" checkboxes, two of them checked.
Apple Design Resouces — visionOS — Library

Anyway, with Apple’s betrayal, I think it’s fair to say there’s no hope for this tradition to continue.

I therefore officially announce 2024 to be the year when the square checkbox has finally died.

The Web did a bad enough job of making checkboxes and radiobuttons inconsistent. I’m not saying you can’t style them, Web developers, but let’s at least keep the fundamental shape of them the way that they have been for decades so that users can understand them!

But yeah, Apple’s new designs could spell the beginning of the end of this long-established standard. Sad times.

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The Underground Blog

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theunderground.blog is an experimental blog that is only available to read through a feed reader.

If you would like to read the latest posts, you can subscribe to the feed at https://theunderground.blog/feed.xml, using the feed reader of your choice.

Chris first suggested this idea in the footnote of a post that talks about something I’ve been witnessing recently: that blogging seems to be having a renaissance1. I’ve for a few years been telling people that now is the second-best time to start a blog. The best time was, of course, ~20 years ago, but if you missed out first time around (or let your blog die as big social media silos took over): now’s the time to join the growing resurgence!

Anyway, he only went and actually did it! The newest member of RSS Club is likely to be… an entire blog that’s only accessible via a feed reader2.

There’s two posts published so far, and if you want to read them you’ll need to subscribe to theunderground.blog using your feed reader. There’s tips on that page on getting an easy-to-use one if you haven’t already.

Footnotes

1 He also had interesting things to say about OPML, which is a topic close to my heart. I wonder if I ought to start sharing a partial OPML file of my subscriptions?

2 Or by reading the source code, I suppose: on the open Web, that’s always an option. The Web is, indeed, magical.

I don’t want your data

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The web loves data. Data about you. Data about who you are, about what you do, what you love doing, what you love eating.

I, on the other end, couldn’t care less about your data. I don’t run analytics on this website. I don’t care which articles you read, I don’t care if you read them. I don’t care about which post is the most read or the most clicked. I don’t A/B test, I don’t try to overthink my content. I just don’t care.

Manu speaks my mind. Among the many hacks I’ve made to this site, I actively try not to invade on your privacy by collecting analytics, and I try not to let others to so either!

My blog is for myself first and foremost (if you enjoy it too, that’s just a bonus). This leads to two conclusions:

  1. If I’m the primary audience, I don’t need analytics (because I know who I am), and
  2. I don’t want to be targeted by invasive analytics (and use browser extensions to block them, e.g. I by-default block all third-party scripts, delete cookies from non-allowlisted domains 15 seconds after navigating away from sites, etc.); so I’d prefer them not to be on a site for which I’m the primary audience!

I’ve gone into more detail about this on my privacy page and hinted at it on my colophon. But I don’t know if anybody ever reads either of those pages, of course!