I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter

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I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.

I lied. According to US Army Technical Manual 0, The Soldier as a System, “attack helicopter” is a gender identity, not a biological sex. My dog tags and Form 3349 say my body is an XX-karyotope somatic female.

But, really, I didn’t lie. My body is a component in my mission, subordinate to what I truly am. If I say I am an attack helicopter, then my body, my sex, is too. I’ll prove it to you.

When I joined the Army I consented to tactical-role gender reassignment. It was mandatory for the MOS I’d tested into. I was nervous. I’d never been anything but a woman before.

But I decided that I was done with womanhood, over what womanhood could do for me; I wanted to be something furiously new.

To the people who say a woman would’ve refused to do what I do, I say—

Isn’t that the point?

This short story almost-certainly isn’t what you’d expect, based on the title. What it is sits at the intersection of science fiction and gender identity, and it’s pretty damn good.

Looks like the original’s gone down, but here’s an archived copy.

Parent-child play: It’s constant and exhausting, but is there a better way?

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It’s worth noting here that the idea that a parent should be a caretaker, educator, and entertainer rolled into one is not only historically, but also culturally specific. “There are lots of cultures where [parent-child play is] considered absolutely inappropriate—a parent would never get down on their knees and play with the children. Playing is something children do, not something adults do,” developmental psychologist Angeline Lillard said in an interview. “And that’s just fine. There’s no requirement for playing.”

Differences in practices around parent-child play exist within American subgroups, too. Sociologist Annette Lareau has observed a gap in beliefs about parent-child play between working-class/poor parents and middle-class parents in the United States. Working-class and poor parents in her study held a view that they were responsible for “supervision in custodial matters” (Did the child get to sleep on time? Does the child have sneakers that fit?) and “autonomy in leisure matters,” while the middle-class parents engaging in what Lareau termed “concerted cultivation” invested themselves heavily in children’s play. Ultimately, the poorer kids, Lareau found, “tended to show more creativity, spontaneity, enjoyment, and initiative in their leisure pastimes than we saw among middle-class children at play in organized activities.”

Interesting article (about 10 minutes reading), so long as you come at it from at least a little bit of an academic, anthropological perspective and so aren’t expecting to come out of it with concrete, actionable parenting advice!

Engaging in some kinds of play with your kids can be difficult. I’ve lost count of the hours spent in imaginative play with our 6-year-old, trying to follow-along with the complex narrative and characters she’s assembled and ad-lib along (and how many times she’s told me off for my character not making the choices she’d hoped they would, because she’s at least a little controlling over the stories she tells!). But I feel like it’s also a great way to engage with them, so it’s worth putting your devices out of sight, getting down on the carpet, and playing along… at least some of the time. The challenge is finding the balance between being their perpetual playmate and ensuring that they’re encouraged to “make their own fun”, which can be an important skill in being able to fight off boredom for the rest of their lives.

If I ever come up with a perfect formula, I’ll tell you; don’t hold your breath! In the meantime, reading this article might help reassure you that despite there almost-certainly not being a “right way”, there are plenty of “pretty good ways”, and the generally-good human values of authenticity and imagination and cooperation are great starting points for playing with your children, just like they are for so many other endeavours. Your kids are probably going to be okay.

Running Code Over Time

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I’m posting this on the last day of 2019.  As I write it, the second post I ever made on meyerweb says it was published “20 years, 6 days ago”.  It was published on the second-to-last day of 1999, which was 20 years and one day ago.

What I realized, once the discrepancy was pointed out to me (hat tip: Eric Portis), is the five-day error is there because in the two decades since I posted it, there have been five leap days.  When I wrote the code to construct those relative-time strings, I either didn’t think about leap days, or if I did, I decided a day or two here and there wouldn’t matter all that much.

Which is to say, I failed to think about the consequences of my code running over long periods of time.  Maybe a day or two of error isn’t all that big a deal, in human-friendly relative-time output.  If a post was six years and two days ago but the code says 6 and 1, well, nobody will really care that much even if they notice.  But five days is noticeable, and what’s more, it’s a little human-unfriendly.  It’s noticeable.  It jars.

As I mentioned in my comments on a repost last week, I work to try to make the things I publish to this site last. But that’s not to say that problems can’t creep in, either because of fundamental bugs left unnoticed until later on (such as the image recompression problem that’s recently lead to some of my older images going wonky; I’m working on it) or else because because of environmental changes e.g. in the technologies that are supported and the ways in which they’re used. The latter are helped by standards and by an adherence to them, but the former will trip over Web developers time and time again, and it’s possible that there’s nothing we can do about it.

No system is perfect, and we don’t have time to engineer every system, every site, every page in a way that near-guarantees its longevity; not by a long shot. I tripped myself over just the year before last when I added Content-Security-Policy headers to my site and promptly broke every embedded YouTube or Vimeo video because they didn’t fit the newly (and retroactively) enforced pattern of allowable content. Such problems are easy to create when you’re maintaining a long-running system with a lot of data. I’m only talking about my blog, but larger, older and/or more-complex systems (of which I’ve worked on a few!) come with their own multitudinous challenges.

That said, the Web has demonstrated a resilience that surpasses most of what is expected in consumer computing. If you want to run a video game from 1994 or even 2001 on a modern computer, you’re likely to find that you have to put in considerably more work than you would have on the day it was released! But even some of the oldest webpages still-existing remain usable today.

Occasionally, though: a “hip” modern technology without the backing of widespread browser standards comes along and creates a dark age. Flash created such a dark age; now there are millions of Flash-dependent web pages that simply don’t work any longer. Java created another. And I worry that the unnecessary overuse of front-end rendering technologies are creating a third that we’re living through right now, oblivious to the data we’re creating and losing.

Let’s think about longevity.

Which emoji scissors close?

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Ah, scissors. They’re important enough that we have an emoji for them. On your device, it appears as ✂️. Unlike the real world tool it represents, the emoji’s job is to convey the idea, especially at small sizes. It doesn’t need to be able to swing or cut things. Nevertheless, let’s judge them on that irrelevant criterion.

I’ve watched from afar as the Internet collapsed in on itself during a debate about what a cheeseburger looks like and I’ve raged a little myself at the popular depiction of juggling, but this newly-identified emoji failure is a whole new thing. Sure, emoji are supposed to be representative, not realistic. But if they have to cover sufficient diversity to include gender-neutral representations (which they absolutely should, and should have done in an early instance, but at least we’re fixing some of the issues in hindsight, like Ido did) then perhaps they could also include sufficient attention to detail that the tools they depict would actually, y’know, work?

It’s 2020 and you’re in the future

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West Germany’s 1974 World Cup victory happened closer to the first World Cup in 1930 than to today.

The Wonder Years aired from 1988 and 1993 and depicted the years between 1968 and 1973. When I watched the show, it felt like it was set in a time long ago. If a new Wonder Years premiered today, it would cover the years between 2000 and 2005.

Also, remember when Jurassic Park, The Lion King, and Forrest Gump came out in theaters? Closer to the moon landing than today.

These things come around now and again, but I’m not sure of the universal validity of observing that a memorable event is now closer to another memorable event than it is to the present day. I don’t think that the relevance of events is as linear as that. Instead, perhaps, it looks something like this:

Graph showing that recent events matter a lot, but rapidly tail off for a while before levelling out again as they become long-ago events.
Recent events matter more than ancient events to the popular consciousness, all other things being equal, but relative to one another the ancient ones are less-relevant and there’s a steep drop-off somewhere between the two.

Where the drop-off in relevance occurs is hard to pinpoint and it probably varies a lot by the type of event that’s being remembered: nobody seems to care about what damn terrible thing Trump did last month or the month before when there’s some new terrible thing he did just this morning, for example (I haven’t looked at the news yet this morning, but honestly whenever you read this post he’ll probably have done something awful).

Nonetheless, this post on Wait But Why was a fun distraction, even if it’s been done before. Maybe the last time it happened was so long ago it’s irrelevant now?

XKCD 1393: Timeghost - 'Hello, Ghostbusters?' 'ooOOoooo people born years after that movie came out are having a second chiiiild right now ooOoooOoo'
Of course, there’s a relevant XKCD. And it was published closer to the theatrical releases of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Paranormal Activity than it was to today. OoooOOoooOOoh.

The Legend of the Homicidal Fire-Proof Salamander

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In the first century AD, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder threw a salamander into a fire. He wanted to see if it could indeed not only survive the flames, but extinguish them, as Aristotle had claimed such creatures could. But the salamander didn’t … uh … make it.

Yet that didn’t stop the legend of the fire-proof salamander (a name derived from the Persian meaning “fire within”) from persisting for 1,500 more years, from the Ancient Romans to the Middle Ages on up to the alchemists of the Renaissance. Some even believed it was born in fire, like the legendary Phoenix, only slimier and a bit less dramatic. And that its fur (huh?) could be used to weave fire-resistant garments.

Back when the world felt bigger and more-mysterious it was easier for people to come to the conclusion, based on half-understood stories passed-on many times, that creatures like unicorns, dragons, and whatever the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was supposed to be, might exist just beyond the horizons. Nature was full of mystery and the simple answer – that salamanders might live in logs and then run to escape when those logs are thrown onto a fire – was far less-appealing than the idea that they might be born from the fire itself! Let’s not forget that well into the Middle Ages it was widely believed that many forms of life appeared not through reproduction but by spontaneous generation: clams forming themselves out of sand, maggots out of meat, and so on… with this underlying philosophy, it’s easy to make the leap that sure, amphibians from fire makes sense too, right?

Perhaps my favourite example of such things is the barnacle goose, which – prior to the realisation that birds migrate and coupled with them never being seen to nest in England – lead to the widespread belief that they spontaneously developed (at the appropriate point in the season) from shellfish… this may be the root of the word “barnacle” as used to describe the filter-feeders with which we’re familiar. So prevalent was this belief that well into the 15th century (and in some parts of the world the late 18th century) this particular species of goose was treated as being a fish, not a bird, for the purpose of Christian fast-days.

Anyway; that diversion aside, this article’s an interesting look at the history of mythological beliefs about salamanders.

This Page is Designed to Last: A Manifesto for Preserving Content on the Web

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How do we make web content that can last and be maintained for at least 10 years? As someone studying human-computer interaction, I naturally think of the stakeholders we aren’t supporting. Right now putting up web content is optimized for either the professional web developer (who use the latest frameworks and workflows) or the non-tech savvy user (who use a platform).

But I think we should consider both 1) the casual web content “maintainer”, someone who doesn’t constantly stay up to date with the latest web technologies, which means the website needs to have low maintenance needs; 2) and the crawlers who preserve the content and personal archivers, the “archiver”, which means the website should be easy to save and interpret.

So my proposal is seven unconventional guidelines in how we handle websites designed to be informative, to make them easy to maintain and preserve. The guiding intention is that the maintainer will try to keep the website up for at least 10 years, maybe even 20 or 30 years. These are not controversial views necessarily, but are aspirations that are not mainstream—a manifesto for a long-lasting website.

This page is designed to last, too. In fact, virtually every post of any type I’ve made to this blog (since 2003, older content may vary) has been designed with the intention that it ought to be accessible without dependence on CSS, Javascript, nor any proprietary technology, that the code should be as human-readable as posssible, and that the site itself should be as “archivable” as possible, just as a matter of course.

But that’s only 15 years of dedicated effort to longevity and I’ve still not achieved 100% success! For example, consider my blog post of 14 December 2003, describing the preceeding Troma Night, whose content was lost during the great server failure of July 2004 and for which the backups were unable to completely describe. I’m more-careful now, with more redundancies and backups, but it’s still always going to be the case that a sufficiently-devastating set of simultaneous failures could take this content away. All information has fragility and we can work to mitigate it but we can never completely solve it.

The large number of dead outbound links on the older parts of my site is both worrying – that most others don’t seem to have the same level of commitment to the retention of articles on the Web – and reassuring – that I’m doing significantly better than the average. So next, I guess, I need to focus my attention – like Jeff is – on how we can make such efforts usable by other people, too. The Web belongs to all of us, after all.

I ignored warnings from friends and family not to marry my husband

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When I was 20, a man I barely knew proposed without a ring.

I said yes.

Our friends were alarmed about our fast decisions to marry and move from Tennessee to New York City. I got a handwritten letter from an elder at church suggesting I wait to get to know my fiance better. His friends held a tearful intervention. One of our beloved professors questioned the decision. My mother referred to my fiance not by his name — David — but by the nickname “rank stranger.”

But we were in love. After refusing premarital counseling (we didn’t need it, we insisted), David and I got married and moved to Gramercy Park. We could see the Empire State Building at night when it was illuminated, if we craned our necks while sitting on our creaky fire escape.

My life was as romantic as a love song. Then, after one week of marriage, the phone rang.

Delightful story full of twists and turns on The Washington Post (warning: their adwall has a less-than-ethical/probably-not-legal approach to GDPR compliance for those of us in Europe so you might like to obfuscate your footprint or at least use privacy mode when visiting); seems like it’s going to be much darker than it is but turns out surprisingly uplifting. Give it a read.

When you’re in the club and you’re hungry… (Misheard Lyrics… Round Two!)

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My mother has long argued that a large category of popular music, second only to those on the subjects of sex and drugs, are about food. This so-called corpus of food songs is, I’m pretty confident, mostly based on mishearing lyrics, but I think she’d have a friend in the fabulous Bec Hill who’s this month made a follow-up to her video When You Listen to the Radio When You’re Hungry. And it’s even better (and to my delight, paella still manages to make a cameo appearance).

Unfortunately Warner Music Group don’t seem to have a sense of humour and you might find that you can’t watch her new video on YouTube. But thankfully that’s not how the Internet works (somebody should tell them!) and if proxying isn’t the best solution for you then you can just watch her new video on the BBC’s Facebook page instead.

Making It Boring

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“Why make the web more boring? Because boring is fast, resilient, fault tolerant, and accessible. Boring is the essence of unobtrusive designs that facilitate interactions rather than hinder them.” says Jeremy.

He’s right. I’ve become increasingly concerned in recent years in the trend towards overuse of heavyweight frameworks. These frameworks impose limitations on device/network capabilities, browser features, caching, accessibility, stability, and more. It’s possible to work around many of those limitations, but doing so often takes additional work, and so most developers, especially junior developers raised on a heavyweight framework who haven’t yet been exposed to the benefits of working around them. Plus, such mitigations tend to make already-bloated web applications – full of unnecessary cruft – larger still; the network demands of the application grow ever larger.

What are these frameworks for? They often provide valuable components and polyfills, certainly, but they also have a tendency to reimplement what the browser already gives you: e.g. routing and caching come free with HTTP, buttons and links from HTML, design from CSS, (progressive) interactivity from JS. Every developer should feel free to use a framework if it suits them and the project they’re working on… but adoption of a framework should only come after consideration and understanding of what it provides, and at what cost.

Men. Abuse. Trauma. | Philosophy Tube

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I discovered Philosophy Tube earlier this year but because I’ve mostly been working my way through the back catalogue it took until very recently before I got around to watching the video Men. Abuse. Trauma. And about 95% of everything he says in it so-closely parallels my own experience of an abusive relationship that I was periodically alarmed by his specificity. I’ve written before about the long tail an abusive relationship can have and that this video triggered in me such a strong reaction of recognition (and minor distress) is a testament to that.

I escaped from my abusive relationship seventeen years ago this month. It took me around seven years to acknowledge that the relationship had been abusive and to see the full picture of the damage it had done me. It took at least another four or five before I reached a point that I suspect I’m “recovered”: by which I mean “as recovered as I think is feasible.” And the fact that this video – on the first two viewings, anyway – was still able to give me a moment of panic (albeit one well-short of flashbacks) is a reminder that no, I’m not yet 100% okay.

Regardless – I’ve wanted to plug the channel for a while now, and this was the vehicle I had to hand. Go watch.