Octave Compass

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Octave Compass showing the scale and chords of D Major

This is cool. Twist the outside dial to transpose the tonal centre of your key. Twist the inner dial to shift the mode of the scale. Turn on- or off- individual tones to shift into more-exotic modes. Use triangles to illustrate the triads of your major, minor, and sustained chords, or add the sixth or seventh with the help of a trapezoid.

The amateur music theorist in me continually struggles to visualise what and why a key is what it is. This kind of thing helps. Plus, what a cool software toy!

Loremen Podcast Simulator

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This folktale comes from The Big Book of Myths of Shropshire by Sir Colin Ogden. In 1701, a big cat died of “collick”, contracted from a dead fish.

This folktale is spoken of in North Yorkshire. In 1520, a witch named Nana Clayton received a bejewelled stool, said to have the power to see right from wrong, from a virgin in the inn, The Five Horses.

I might start using this widget to generate random background detail for fantasy roleplaying games.

Michael’s other experiments are pretty fun, too.

Stumbling

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I’ve been changing my relationship to being online.

Some of it is keeping in touch with friends who are fascinated by the same sorts of hybrid creations I am. Friends who build things. Friends in different professional communities. Paying attention when they mention some new discovery or avenue of interest.

Some of it is using an RSS reader to change the cadence and depth of my consumption—pulling away from the quick-hit likes of social media in favor of a space where I can run my thoughts to their logical conclusion (and then sit on them long enough to consider whether or not they’re true).

I wish I could get more people to see the value in the “slow Web”. The participatory Web. The creative Web. The personalised Web.

When you use an app to browse a “stream” in most social media, you’re seeing a list of posts curated to keep you watching, keep you seeing adverts, keep you on the app so that as much personal data as possible can be leeched from your behaviour. If it feels satisfying and especially if it feels addictive, the social network has done its job, but don’t be fooled: its job is not to improve social connections – it’s job is to keep you from doing anything else.

You don’t have to use the Web this way. You can subscribe to the content creators and topics that actually interest you. You can get that content on basically any device or medium you like, or across a mixture: want notifications by email? Slack? IRC? Discord? In a browser? In an app? As-it-happens or digests? You can filter for what interests you most at any given moment, save content for later, and resharing is supported thanks  to an old-school invention called a “URL“. And you’ll see fewer ads and experience less misuse of your behavioural data.

Sure, there’s a learning curve. But it’s worth it. I wish I could get more people to see that.

I’m happy to see that Lucy Belwood does.

Story Time

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First frame of "Story Time" comic from Channelate. An old man sits in an armchair and talks to two small children sitting on the floor in front of him. The old man says "I ever tel you squirts about the year 2020?"

When this comic (go read the full thing) came out at the tail end of last year, I thought to myself: yeah, that’s about right. I’m resharing that on my birthday in a week or so.

‘Cos I’m forty today, and I sort of had a half-baked dream that I’d throw some kind of big party and get people together. My surprise party for my thirtieth birthday party was an excellent (and much-needed) bash, and I guess I’d thought I’d try to replicate the feel of that, but a decade on (and not a surprise party… although in the end the last one wasn’t either).

But 2020’s the year that keeps on giving, so I’m postponing my party plans to… “some other time”. And so this comic really spoke to me.

Having Kids In Our Poly Triad by Sara Valta

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Having Kids In Our Poly Triad by Sara Valta title showing picture of two men and a woman hugging the outline of a baby

Sara’s back! You might remember a couple of years ago she’d shared with us a comic on her first year in a polyamory! We’re happy to have her back with a slice of life and a frank n’ real conversation about having kids in her Poly Triad relationship.

This sort of wholesome loving chat is just the thing we need for the start of 2021.

Start your year with a delightful comic about the author negotiating possible future children in a queer polyamorous triad, published via Oh Joy Sex Toy. Sara previously published a great polyamory-themed comic via OJST too, which is also worth a look.

Banners Begone!

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It’s a clicker quest of purging banners from your homepage!

Push through dozens of banners and upgrade various web-tools to grow your ad-blocking power.
Hone your clicking skills – matters are in your own fingers hands!

There’s no time for idling, show these ads their place!

I quite enjoyed this progressive game: it’s a little bit different than most, the theming is fun, it lends itself to multiple strategies, and it’s not geared towards making you wait for longer and longer intervals (as is common in this genre): there’s always something you can be doing to get closer to your goal.

You’ll need a mouse with left and right buttons.

Why children stay silent following sexual violence

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages we send to our children about their role, and ours as adults, in keeping them safe from people who might victimise them. As a society, our message has changed over the decades: others of my culture and generation will, like me, have seen the gradual evolution from “stranger danger” to “my body, my choice”. And it’s still evolving.

But as Kristin eloquently (and emotionally: I cried my eyes out!) explains, messages like these can subconsciously teach children that they alone are responsible for keeping themselves from harm. And so when some of them inevitably fail, the shame of their victimisation – often already taboo – can be magnified by the guilt of their inability to prevent it. And as anybody who’s been a parent or, indeed, a child knows that children aren’t inclined to talk about the things they feel guilty about.

And in the arms race of child exploitation, abusers will take advantage of that.

What I was hoping was to have a nice, concrete answer – or at least an opinion – to the question: how should we talk to children about their safety in a way that both tries to keep them safe but ensures that they understand that they’re not to blame if they are victimised? This video doesn’t provide anything like that. Possibly there aren’t easy answers. As humans, as parents, and as a society, we’re still learning.

Further watching, if you’ve the stomach for it: this Sexplanations episode with Dr. Lindsey Doe and Detective Katie Petersen.

The Longest Limebike ride in history

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Having Boris-biked from Brixton to Brighton, it seemed only right to give Limebikes the same treatment. I started looking for places with Lime in the name and quickly found a route from Dorset to Edinburgh, which would run from Lyme Regis to Limekilns by Limebike.

The catch was that it was 550 miles, it would take (at best) 6 days to get there and back, and Limebikes were charged at 15p per minute. A quick bit of maths showed that this would likely cost £1296 – EACH -so it was crucial to get the company on board.

It’s also worth mentioning again that they are E-bikes, designed to give you a boost when pedalling away from traffic lights and, in the words of the companies CEO, ‘Be difficult to throw up a tree’.

This meant two things:

  1. There is a battery with a range of about 40 miles and that battery would definitely run out long before we reached Scotland.
  2. The bikes are HEAVY, 35kg to be precise.

So it might seem easy to ride a power assisted bike the length of the country, but it was sounding harder by the minute.

I’ve been helping Ruth‘s brother Robin (of Challenge Robin 1 & 2 and Thames Path walk fame, among many, many, many, other things) to launch himself a new blog, expanding on the ideas of 52 Reflect (his previous site, most-recently mentioned when I joined him in a midwinter mountaineering expedition the winter before last) to create a site all about his many varied and amazing adventures. If you like to see one man do bloody stupid things in an effort to push himself to his physical limits, explore the world, and see amazing places… go take a sneak peek at his new, under construction and changing every day, site: The Improbable Blog.

Oh, and there’s gonna be a podcast too, for those of you into such things.

Standing up for developers: youtube-dl is back

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Today we reinstated youtube-dl, a popular project on GitHub, after we received additional information about the project that enabled us to reverse a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown.

This is a Big Deal. For two reasons:

Firstly, youtube-dl is a spectacularly useful project. I’ve used it for many years to help me archive my own content, to improve my access to content that’s freely available on the platform, and to help centralise (freely available) metadata to keep my subscriptions on video-sharing sites. Others have even more-important uses for the tool. I love youtube-dl, and I’d never considered the possibility that it could be used to circumvent digital restrictions (apparently it’s got some kind of geofence-evading features you can optionally enable, for people who don’t have a multi-endpoint VPN I guess?… I note that it definitely doesn’t break DRM…) until its GitHub repo got taken down the other week.

Which was a bleeding stupid thing to use a DMCA request on, because, y’know: Barbara Streisand Effect. Lampshading that a free, open-source tool could be used for people’s convenience is likely to increase awareness and adoption, not decrease it! Huge thanks to the EFF for stepping up and telling GitHub that they’d got it wrong (this letter is great reading, by the way).

But secondly, GitHub’s response is admirable and – assuming their honour their new stance – effective. They acknowledge their mistake, then go on to set out a new process by which they’ll review takedown requests. That new process includes technical and legal review, erring on the side of the developer rather than the claimant (i.e. “innocent until proven guilty”), multiparty negotiation, and limiting the scope of takedowns by allowing violators to export their non-infringing content after the fact.

I was concerned that the youtube-dl takedown might create a FOSS “chilling effect” on GitHub. It still might: in the light of it, I for one have started backing up my repositories and those of projects I care about to an different Git server! But with this response, I’d still be confident hosting the main copy of an open-source project on GitHub, even if that project was one which was at risk of being mistaken for copyright violation.

Note that the original claim came not from Google/YouTube as you might have expected (if you’ve just tuned in) but from the RIAA, based on the fact that youtube-dl could be used to download copyrighted music videos for enjoyment offline. If you’re reminded of Sony v. Universal City Studios (1984) – the case behind the “Betamax standard” – you’re not alone.

Why using Google VPN is a terrible idea

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VPNs have long been essential online tools that provide security, freedom, and most importantly, privacy. Each day, hundreds of millions of internet users connect to a VPN to prevent their online activities from being tracked and monitored so that they can privately access web resources. In other words, the very purpose of a VPN is to prevent the type of surveillance that Google engages in on a massive and unprecedented scale.

Google knows this, and in their whitepaper discussing VPN by Google One, Google acknowledges that VPN usage is becoming mainstream and that “up to 25% of all internet users accessed a VPN within the last month of 2019.” Increasing VPN usage unfortunately poses a significant problem for Google, by making it more difficult to track users across the internet, mine their data, and target them with advertisements. In short, VPNs undermine Google’s power.

So yeah, it turns out that Google are launching a VPN service. I just checked, and it’s not available to me anyway because it’s US-only (apparently nobody explained to Google the irony of having a VPN service that’s geofenced), but that’s pretty academic because I wasn’t going to touch it with a barge pole in the first place.

Google One VPN announcement, featuring the words "US Only"
Is it 1 April already, Google?

Google already collect data on your browsing habits if you use their products. And I’m not just talking about Chrome, which of course continues to track you using your Google Account even after you log out and clear your cookies, and Google’s ubiquitous Web tools, but also the tracking pixels hidden on every other website thanks to Google Analytics, AdWords, reCAPTCHA, Google Fonts, and the like. Sure, you can use e.g. uMatrix to stop all of these (although I’m in need of a replacement), but that’s not a solution for, y’know, normal people. Container tabs help and you should absolutely use them, but they don’t quite go far enough. It’s a challenge.

Switch to their VPN, though, and they’re suddenly able to track all of your browsing activity, in any browser on your device. And probably many of the desktop applications you run, too, as most of them “phone home” for updates or functionality. And because it’s a paid-for VPN service, this data can be instantly linked to your real-world identity. By a company that’s demonstrated its willingness to misuse that data for their own benefit (or for the benefit of overreaching law enforcement agencies). Yeah: no deal, Google.

Perhaps the only company I’d trust less to provide a VPN service would be Facebook, because you just know they’d be doing so exclusively to undermine individual privacy. Oh wait; that’s exactly what they did. Sigh.

Thames Path 2

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On our first day‘s walking along the Thames Path, Robin and I had trouble finding any evidence of water for some time. On our second day, we did not have this problem.

After weeks of sustained rain, the fields we walked over as we left Cricklade behind were extremely soggy. On our way out of town we passed Cricklade Millennium Wood, I took a picture for the purpose of mocking it for being very small but later discovered it’s too small to appear on Google Maps and became oddly defensive of it – it’s trying, damn it, we should at least acknowledge its existence.

Ruth and her brother Robin (of Challenge Robin/Challenge Robin II fame on this blog, among many other crazy adventures) have taken it upon themselves to walk the entirety of the Thames Path from the source of the river (or rather, one of the many symbolic sources) to the sea, over the course of a series of separate one-day walks. I’ve mostly been acting as backup-driver so far, but I might join them for a leg or two later on.

In any case, Ruth’s used it as a welcome excuse to dust off her blog and write about the experience, and it’s fun and delightful and you should follow along and give her a digital cheer. The first part is here; the second part landed yesterday.

Mouth Dreams is so stupid and so good

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For the sake of our own sanity, if nothing else, we wanted to take a minute to dig into the most wonderfully dumb song on the entire album—although technically it’s two songs, since tracks 13 and 14, “Fredhammer” and “Limp Wicket,” both share a single unifying sound: Limp Bizkit’s ode to heartbreak, “Nookie”.

Together, these two tracks cover so much of what makes Cicierega so great, from the unexpected sample choices, to the step-stuttering repetition of lyrics, to the moment when you realize he’s snuck the Seinfeld baseline into the middle of the song. There’s also the fact that the whole thing works irritatingly well, from Durst rapping over the “Sledgehammer” horns, to the undeniably triumphant feel of the “Yub nubs” kicking in.

I confess to a genuine and unironic love of Mouth Moods (and, to a lesser extent, Neil Cicierega’s other Mouth* work). I don’t know if I enjoy Mouth Dreams even more, but it’s certainly a close thing.

William Hughes succinctly describes what makes Mouth Dreams so good. I promise you that if you start down this rabbit hole you’ll soon be lost (what does it all mean? what are the secret messages hidden in the spectrogram output? why, just why?), but in the most wonderful way. You can listen to the entire album on Soundcloud.

COVID-19 and Acedia

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Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

In a blog post far from his usual topics, Schneier shares a word – albeit an arguably-archaic one! – that captures the feeling of listlessness that many of us are experiencing as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold.

An Intense Day On Crib Goch

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Hiking vlogger Dave shares his expedition around the Snowdon Horseshoe back in March. It’s a fantastic ridge walk that I’ve taken a few times myself. But on this particular expedition, hampered by strong winds and thick cloud cover, a serious accident (very similar to the one that killed my father) occurred. Because Dave was wearing his GoPro we’ve got amazing first-hand footage of the work he and the other climbers on the hill that day did to stabilise the casualty until mountain rescue could come and assist. The whole thing’s pretty epic.

Speaking of which, did you see the jet-suits that are being tested by the Great North Air Ambulance Service? That’d have made getting to my dad faster (though possibly not to any benefit)! Still: immensely cool idea to have jet-propelled paramedics zipping up Lake District slopes; I love it.

I got married and had kids so you don’t have to

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I’m sure that the graveyard of over-optimism is littered with the corpses of parents who planned to help their children learn self-moderation by showing them the wonders of nature, but who realized too late that fields of wheat don’t stand a chance against Rocket League. I’m hoping that we can agree that computer games are good, but other things are good too, cf fields of wheat. I don’t want to have to sneak in my own gaming time after my son has gone to bed. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite; at least, I don’t want Oscar to know that I’m a hypocrite. Maybe we can play together and use it as father-son bonding time. This might work until he’s ten and after he’s twenty-five.

Robert Heaton, of Programming Projects for Advanced Beginners fame and reverse-engineering device drivers that spy on you (which I’ve talked about before), has also been blogging lately about his experience of Dadding, with the same dry/sarcastic tone you might be used to. This long post is a great example of the meandering thoughts of a (techie) parent in these (interesting) times, and it’s good enough for that alone. But it’s the raw, genuine “honesty and dark thoughts” section towards the end of the article that really makes it stand out.