Set in the early-to-mid-1990s world in which the BBS is still alive and kicking, and the Internet’s gaining traction but still
lacks the “killer app” that will someday be the Web (which is still new and not widely-available), the story follows a handful of teenagers trying to find their place in the world.
Meeting one another in the 90s explosion of cyberspace, they find online communities that provide connections that they’re unable to make out in meatspace.
So yeah: the whole thing feels like a trip back into the naivety of the online world of the last millenium, where small, disparate (and often local) communities flourished and
early netiquette found its feet. Reading Incredible Doom provides the same kind of nostalgia as, say, an afternoon spent on textfiles.com. But
it’s got more than that, too.
It touches on experiences of 90s cyberspace that, for many of us, were very definitely real. And while my online “scene” at around the time that the story is set might have been
different from that of the protagonists, there’s enough of an overlap that it felt startlingly real and believable. The online world in which I – like the characters in the story – hung
out… but which occupied a strange limbo-space: both anonymous and separate from the real world but also interpersonal and authentic; a frontier in which we were still working out the
rules but within which we still found common bonds and ideals.
Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying that Incredible Doom is a lot of fun and if it sounds like your cup of tea, you should read it.
Also: shortly after putting the second volume down, I ended up updating my Geek Code for the first time in… ooh, well over a decade. The standards have moved on a little (not entirely
in a good way, I feel; also they’ve diverged somewhat), but here’s my attempt:
----- BEGIN GEEK CODE VERSION 6.0 -----
GCS^$/SS^/FS^>AT A++ B+:+:_:+:_ C-(--) D:+ CM+++ MW+++>++
ULD++ MC+ LRu+>++/js+/php+/sql+/bash/go/j/P/py-/!vb PGP++
G:Dan-Q E H+ PS++ PE++ TBG/FF+/RM+ RPG++ BK+>++ K!D/X+ R@ he/him!
----- END GEEK CODE VERSION 6.0 -----
1 I was amazed to discover that I could still remember most of my Geek Code
syntax and only had to look up a few components to refresh my memory.
A personal favourite of mine are the Herculaneum Papyri. These charred scrolls were part of a private library near Pompeii that was buried by the eruption
of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Rediscovered from 1752, these ~1,800 scrolls were distributed to academic institutions around the world, with
the majority residing in Naples’ Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III.
As you might expect of ancient scrolls that got buried, baked, and then left to rot, they’re pretty fragile. That didn’t stop Victorian era researchers trying a variety of techniques to
gently unroll them and read what was inside.
Like many others, what I love about the Herculaneum Papyri is the air of mystery. Each could be anything from a lost religious text to, I don’t know, somebody’s to-do list (“buy milk, arrange for annual service of chariot, don’t forget to renew
In recent years, we’ve tried “virtually unrolling” the scrolls using a variety of related technologies. And – slowly – we’re getting there.
So imagine my delight when this week, for the first time ever, a
complete word was extracted from one of the carbonised, still-rolled-up scrolls from Herculaneum. Something that would have seemed inconceivable to the historians who first
discovered and catalogued the scrolls is now possible, thanks to their careful conservation over the years along with the steady advance of technology.
Anyway, I thought that was exciting news so I wanted to share.
It’s (approximately) our 0x10th anniversary1,
and, struggling to find a mutually-convenient window in our complex work schedules, we’d opted to spend a few days exploring the Isle of Man. Everything was fine, until we were aboard
Once everybody was seated and ready to take off, the captain stood up at the front of the ‘plane and announced that it had been cancelled2.
The Isle of Man closes, he told us (we assume he just meant the airport) and while they’d be able to get us there before it did, there wouldn’t be sufficient air traffic
control crew to allow them to get back (to, presumably, the cabin crews’ homes in London).
Back at the terminal we made our way through border control (showing my passport despite having not left the airport, never mind the country) and tried to arrange a rebooking,
only to be told that they could only manage to get us onto a flight that’d be leaving 48 hours later, most of the way through our mini-break, so instead we opted for a refund and gave
We resolved to try to do the same kinds of things that we’d hoped to do on the Isle of Man, but closer to home: some sightseeing, some walks, some spending-time-together. You know the
A particular highlight of our trip to the North Leigh Roman Villa – one of those “on your doorstep so you never go” places – was when the audio tour advised us to beware of the snails
when crossing what was once the villa’s central courtyard.
At first we thought this was an attempt at humour, but it turns out that the Romans brought with them to parts of Britain a variety of large edible snail – helix pomatia –
which can still be found in concentration in parts of the country where they were widely farmed.4
Before you think that I didn’t get anything out of my pointless hours at the airport, though, it turns out I’d brought home a souvenier… a stinking cold! How about that for efficiency:
I got all the airport-germs, but none of the actual air travel. By mid-afternoon on Tuesday I was feeling pretty rotten, and it only got worse from then on.
I’m confident that Ruth didn’t mind too much that I spent Wednesday mostly curled up in a sad little ball, because it let her get on with applying to a couple of jobs she’s interested
in. Because it turns out there was a third level of disaster to this week: in addition to our ‘plane being cancelled and me getting sick, this week saw Ruth made redundant as her
employer sought to dig itself out of a financial hole. A hat trick of bad luck!
As Ruth began to show symptoms (less-awful than mine, thankfully) of whatever plague had befallen me, we bundled up in bed and made not one but two abortive attempts at watching a film
Spin Me Round, which looked likely to be a simple comedy that wouldn’t require much effort
by my mucus-filled brain, but turned out to be… I’ve no idea what it was supposed to be. It’s not funny. It’s not dramatic. The characters are, for the most part, profoundly
uncompelling. There’s the beginnings of what looks like it was supposed to be a romantic angle but it mostly comes across as a creepy abuse of power. We watched about half and gave
Ant-Man and the Wasp:
Quantumania, because we figured “how bad can a trashy MCU sequel be anyway; we know what to expect!” But we
couldn’t connect to it at all. Characters behave in completely unrealistic ways and the whole thing feels like it was produced by somebody who wanted to be making one of the
new Star Wars films, but with more CGI. We watched about half and gave up.
As Thursday drew on and the pain in my head and throat was replaced with an unrelenting cough, I decided I needed some fresh air.
I find myself wondering if (despite three jabs and a previous infection) I’ve managed to contract covid again, but I haven’t found the inclination to take a test. What would I do differently if I do have it, now, anyway? I feel like we
might be past that point in our lives.
All in all, probably the worst anniversary celebration we’ve ever had, and hopefully the worst we’ll ever have. But a fringe benefit of a willingness to change bases is that we can
celebrate our 10th5 anniversary next year, too.
Here’s to that.
1 Because we’re that kind of nerds, we count our anniversaries in base 16
(0x10 is 16), or – sometimes – in whatever base is mathematically-pleasing and gives us a nice round number. It could be our 20th anniversary, if you prefer octal.
2 I’ve been on some disastrous aeroplane journeys before, including one just earlier this
year which was supposed to take me from Athens to Heathrow, got re-arranged to go to Gatwick, got
delayed, ran low on fuel, then instead had to fly to Stansted, wait on the tarmac for a couple of hours, then return to Gatwick (from which I travelled – via Heathrow –
home). But this attempt to get to the Isle of Man was somehow, perhaps, even worse.
3 Those who’ve noticed that we were flying EasyJet might rightly give a knowing nod at
4 The warning to take care not to tread on them is sound legal advice: this particular
variety of snail is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981!
5 Next year will be our 10th anniversary… in base 17. Eww, what the hell is base 17 for
and why does it both offend and intrigue me so?
Of all of the videogames I’ve ever played, perhaps the one that’s had the biggest impact on my life1
was: Werewolves and (the) Wanderer.2
This simple text-based adventure was originally written by Tim Hartnell for use in his 1983 book Creating Adventure
Games on your Computer. At the time, it was common for computing books and magazines to come with printed copies of program source code which you’d need to re-type on your own
computer, printing being significantly many orders of magnitude cheaper than computer media.3
When I first came across the source code to Werewolves, I’d already begun my journey into computer programming. This started alongside my mother and later – when her
quantity of free time was not able to keep up with my level of enthusiasm – by myself.
I’d been working my way through the operating manual for our microcomputer, trying to understand it all.5
And even though I’d typed-in dozens of programs before, both larger and smaller, it was Werewolves that finally helped so many key concepts “click” for me.
In particular, I found myself comparing Werewolves to my first attempt at a text-based adventure. Using what little I’d grokked of programming so far, I’d put together
a series of passages (blocks of PRINT statements6)
with choices (INPUT statements) that sent the player elsewhere in the story (using, of course, the long-considered-harmfulGOTO statement), Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style.
Werewolves was… better.
Werewolves and Wanderer was my first lesson in how to structure a program.
Let’s take a look at a couple of segments of code that help illustrate what I mean (here’s the full code, if you’re interested):
What’s interesting about the code above? Well…
The code for “what to do when you win the game” is very near the top. “Winning” is the default state. The rest of the adventure exists to obstruct that. In a
language with enforced line numbering and no screen editor7,
it makes sense to put fixed-length code at the top… saving space for the adventure to grow below.
Two subroutines are called (the GOSUB statements):
The first sets up the game state: initialising the screen (2610), the RNG (2620), and player
characteristics (2630 – 2660). This also makes it easy to call it again (e.g. if the player is given the option to “start over”). This subroutine
goes on to set up the adventure map (more on that later).
The second starts on line 160: this is the “main game” logic. After it runs, each time, line 40 checks IF RO<>11 THEN 30. This tests
whether the player’s location (RO) is room 11: if so, they’ve exited the castle and won the adventure. Otherwise, flow returns to line 30 and the “main
game” subroutine happens again. This broken-out loop improving the readability and maintainability of the code.8
A common subroutine is the “delay loop” (line 3520). It just counts to 900! On a known (slow) processor of fixed speed, this is a simpler way to put a delay in than
relying on a real-time clock.
The game setup gets more interesting still when it comes to setting up the adventure map. Here’s how it looks:
What’s this code doing?
Line 2690 defines an array (DIM) with two dimensions9
(19 by 7). This will store room data, an approach that allows code to be shared between all rooms: much cleaner than my first attempt at an adventure with each room
having its own INPUT handler.
The two-level loop on lines 2700 through 2730 populates the room data from the DATA blocks. Nowadays you’d probably put that data in a
separate file (probably JSON!). Each “row” represents a room, 1 to 19. Each “column” represents the room you end up
at if you travel in a given direction: North, South, East, West, Up, or Down. The seventh column – always zero – represents whether a monster (negative number) or treasure
(positive number) is found in that room. This column perhaps needn’t have been included: I imagine it’s a holdover from some previous version in which the locations of some or all of
the treasures or monsters were hard-coded.
The loop beginning on line 2850 selects seven rooms and adds a random amount of treasure to each. The loop beginning on line 2920 places each of six
monsters (numbered -1 through -6) in randomly-selected rooms. In both cases, the start and finish rooms, and any room with a treasure or monster, is
ineligible. When my 8-year-old self finally deciphered what was going on I was awestruck at this simple approach to making the game dynamic.
Rooms 4 and 16 always receive treasure (lines 2970 – 2980), replacing any treasure or monster already there: the Private Meeting Room (always
worth a diversion!) and the Treasury, respectively.
Curiously, room 9 (the lift) defines three exits, even though it’s impossible to take an action in this location: the player teleports to room 10 on arrival! Again, I assume this is
vestigal code from an earlier implementation.
The “checksum” that’s tested on line 2740 is cute, and a younger me appreciated deciphering it. I’m not convinced it’s necessary (it sums all of the values in
the DATA statements and expects 355 to limit tampering) though, or even useful: it certainly makes it harder to modify the rooms, which may undermine
the code’s value as a teaching aid!
Something you might notice is missing is the room descriptions. Arrays in this language are strictly typed: this array can only contain integers and not strings. But there are
other reasons: line length limitations would have required trimming some of the longer descriptions. Also, many rooms have dynamic content, usually based on random numbers, which would
be challenging to implement in this way.
As a child, I did once try to refactor the code so that an eighth column of data specified the line number to which control should pass to display the room description. That’s
a bit of a no-no from a “mixing data and logic” perspective, but a cool example of metaprogramming before I even knew it! This didn’t work, though: it turns out you can’t pass a
variable to a Locomotive BASIC GOTO or GOSUB. Boo!10
Werewolves and Wanderer has many faults11.
But I’m clearly not the only developer whose early skills were honed and improved by this game, or who hold a special place in their heart for it. Just while writing this post, I
Many, many people commenting on the above or elsewhere about how instrumental the game was in their programming journey, too.
A decade or so later, I’d be taking my first steps as a professional software engineer. A couple more decades later, I’m still doing it.
And perhaps that adventure -the one that’s occupied my entire adult life – was facilitated by this text-based one from the 1980s.
1 The game that had the biggest impact on my life, it might surprise you to hear, is
not among the “top ten videogames that stole
my life” that I wrote about almost exactly 16 years ago nor the follow-up list I published in its incomplete form three years later. Turns out that time and
impact are not interchangable. Who knew?
2 The game is variously known as Werewolves and Wanderer, Werewolves and
Wanderers, or Werewolves and the
Wanderer. Or, on any system I’ve been on, WERE.BAS, WEREWOLF.BAS, or WEREWOLV.BAS, thanks to the CPC’s eight-point-three filename limit.
3 Additionally, it was thought that having to undertake the (painstakingly tiresome)
process of manually re-entering the source code for a program might help teach you a little about the code and how it worked, although this depended very much on how readable the code
and its comments were. Tragically, the more comprehensible some code is, the more long-winded the re-entry process.
5 One of my favourite features of home microcomputers was that seconds after you turned them on, you could start programming. Your prompt
was an interface to a programming language. That magic had begun to fade by the time DOS came to dominate
(sure, you can program using batch files, but they’re neither as elegant nor sophisticated as any BASIC dialect) and was completely lost by the era of booting
directly into graphical operating systems. One of my favourite features about the Web is that it gives you some of that magic back again: thanks to the debugger in a modern browser,
you can “tinker” with other people’s code once more, right from the same tool you load up every time. (Unfortunately, mobile devices – which have fast become the dominant way for
people to use the Internet – have reversed this trend again. Try to View Source on your mobile – if you don’t already know how, it’s not an easy job!)
6 In particular, one frustration I remember from my first text-based adventure was that
I’d been unable to work around Locomotive BASIC’s lack of string escape sequences – not that I yet knew what such a thing would be called – in order to put quote marks inside a quoted
7 “Screen editors” is what we initially called what you’d nowadays call a “text editor”:
an application that lets you see a page of text at the same time, move your cursor about the place, and insert text wherever you feel like. It may also provide features like
copy/paste and optional overtyping. Screen editors require more resources (and aren’t suitable for use on a teleprinter) compared to line editors, which preceeded them. Line editors only let you view and edit a single line at a time, which is how most of my first 6
years of programming was done.
8 In a modern programming language, you might use while true or similar for a
main game loop, but this requires pushing the “outside” position to the stack… and early BASIC dialects often had strict (and small, by modern standards) limits on stack height that
would have made this a risk compared to simply calling a subroutine from one line and then jumping back to that line on the next.
9 A neat feature of Locomotive BASIC over many contemporary and older BASIC dialects was
its support for multidimensional arrays. A common feature in modern programming languages, this language feature used to be pretty rare, and programmers had to do bits of division and
modulus arithmetic to work around the limitation… which, I can promise you, becomes painful the first time you have to deal with an array of three or more dimensions!
10 In reality, this was rather unnecessary, because the ON x GOSUB command
can – and does, in this program – accept multiple jump points and selects the one
referenced by the variable x.
11 Aside from those mentioned already, other clear faults include: impenetrable
controls unless you’ve been given instuctions (although that was the way at the time); the shopkeeper will penalise you for trying to spend money you don’t have, except on food,
presumably as a result of programmer laziness; you can lose your flaming torch, but you can’t buy spares in advance (you can pay for more, and you lose the money, but you don’t get a
spare); some of the line spacing is sometimes a little wonky; combat’s a bit of a drag; lack of feedback to acknowledge the command you enterted and that it was successful; WHAT’S
WITH ALL THE CAPITALS; some rooms don’t adequately describe their exits; the map is a bit linear; etc.
At school, our 9-year-old is currently studying the hsitory of human civilization from the late stone age through to the bronze age. The other week, the class was split into three
groups, each of which was tasked with researching a different piece of megalithic architecture:
One group researched Stonehenge, because it’s a pretty obvious iconic choice
The final group took the least-famous monument, our very own local village henge The Devil’s Quoits
And so it was that one of our eldest’s classmates was searching on the Web for information about The Devil’s Quoits when they found… my vlog on the subject! One of them recognised me and said, “Hey, isn’t that your Uncle Dan?”1
On the school run later in the day, the teacher grabbed me and asked if I’d be willing to join their school trip to the henge, seeing as I was a “local expert”. Naturally, I said yes,
went along, and told a bunch of kids
what I knew!
I was slightly intimidated because the class teacher, Miss Hutchins,
is really good! Coupled with the fact that I don’t feel like a “local expert”2, this became a
kick-off topic for my most-recent coaching session (I’ve mentioned how awesome my coach is before).
I eventually talked to the class mostly about the human geography aspects of the site’s story. The area around the Devil’s Quoits has changed so much over the millenia, and it’s a
fascinating storied history in which it’s been:
A prehistoric henge and a circle of 28 to 36 stones (plus at least one wooden building, at some point).
Medieval farms, from which most of the stones were taken (or broken up) and repurposed.
A brief (and, it turns out, incomplete) archeological survey on the remains of the henge and the handful of stones still-present.
Quarrying operations leaving a series of hollowed-out gravel pits.
More-thorough archeological excavation, backed by an understanding of the cropmarks visible from aircraft that indicate that many prehistoric people lived around this area.
Landfill use, filling in the former gravel pits (except for one, which is now a large lake).
Reconstruction of the site to a henge and stone circle again.3
It turns out that to be a good enough to pass as a “local expert”, you merely have to know enough. Enough to be able to uplift and inspire others, and the humility to know when
to say “I don’t know”.4
That’s a lesson I should take to heart. I (too) often step back from the opportunity to help others learn something new because I don’t feel like I’m that experienced at
whatever the subject is myself. But even if you’re still learning something, you can share what you’ve learned so far and help those behind you to follow the same path.
I’m forever learning new things, and I should try to be more-open to sharing “as I
learn”. And to admit where I’ve still got a long way to go.
1 Of course, I only made the vlog because I was doing a videography course at the time and
needed subject matter, and I’d recently been reading a lot about the Quoits because I was planning on “hiding” a virtual geocache at the site, and then I got carried away. Self-nerdsniped again!
2 What is a local expert? I don’t know, but what I feel like is just a guy who
read a couple of books because he got distracted while hiding a geocache!
3 I’ve no idea what future archeologists will make of this place when they finda
reconstructed stone circle and then, when they dig nearby, an enormous quantity of non-biodegradable waste. What was this strange stone circle for, they’ll ask themselves? Was it a
shrine to their potato-based gods, to whom they left crisp packets as a sacrifice?
4 When we’re talking about people from the neolithic, saying “I don’t know” is pretty
easy, because what we don’t know is quite a lot, it turns out!
This is an alternate history of the Web. The premise is true, but the story diverges from our timeline and looks at an alternative “Web that might have been”.
This is the story of P3P, one of the greatest Web standards whose history has been forgotten1, and how the abject failure of its first versions paved the
way for its bright future decades later. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Drafted in 2002 in the wake of growing concern about the death of privacy on the Internet, P3P 1.0 aimed to make the collection of personally-identifiable data online transparent. Hurrah, right?
proposed solution, just do what gets the project shipped.
Without any meaningful enforcement it also perfectly feasible to, y’know, just lie about how well you treat user data. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Mozilla dropped
support for P3P, and Microsoft’s support – which had always been half-baked and lacked even the most basic user-facing
controls or customisation options – languished in obscurity.
For a while, it seemed like P3P was dying. Maybe, in some alternate timeline, it did die: vanishing into
nothing like VRML, WAP, and XBAP.
But fortunately for us, we don’t live in that timeline.
In 2009, the European Union revisited the Privacy and Electronic Communications
Directive. The initial regulations, published in 2002, required that Web users be able to opt-out of tracking cookies, but the amendment required that sites ensure that
As-written, this confusing new regulation posed an
immediate problem: if a user clicked the button to say “no, I don’t want cookies”, and you didn’t want to ask for their consent again on every page load… you had to give them a cookie
(or use some other technique
legally-indistinguishable from cookies). Now you’re stuck in an endless cookie-circle.4
This, and other factors of informed consent, quickly introduced a new pattern among those websites that were fastest to react to the legislative change:
Web users rebelled. These ugly overlays felt like a regresssion to a time when popup ads and splash pages were commonplace. “If only,” people cried out, “There were a better way to do
It was Professor Lorie Cranor, one of the original authors of the underloved P3P specification and a respected champion of usable privacy and security, whose rallying cry gave us hope. Her CNET article, “Why
the EU Cookie Directive is a solved problem”5, inspired a new generation of development on what would become known as P3P 2.0.
While maintaining backwards compatibility, this new standard:
deprecated those horrible XML documents in favour of HTTP
headers and <link> tags alone,
removing support for Set-Cookie2: headers, which nobody used anyway, and
added features by which the provenance and purpose of cookies could be stated in a way that dramatically simplified adoption in browsers
Internet Explorer at this point was still used by a majority of Web users. It still supported the older
version of the standard, and – as perhaps the greatest gift that the much-maligned browser ever gave us – provided a reference implementation as well as a stepping-stone to wider
Opera, then Firefox, then “new kid” Chrome each adopted P3P 2.0; Microsoft finally got on board with IE 8 SP 1. Now the latest versions of all the mainstream browsers had a solid
well before the European data protection regulators began fining companies that misused tracking cookies.
But where the story of P3P‘s successes shine brightest came in 2016, with the passing of the GDPR. The W3C realised that P3P could simplify both the expression and understanding of privacy policies for users, and formed a group to work on version 2.1. And that’s
the version you use today.
the real gem is the P3P: 2.1 header version.
Assuming you don’t have any unusual quirks in your data processing (ask your lawyer!), you can just paste the relevant code into your server configuration and you’re good to go. Site
users get a warning if their personal data preferences conflict with your data policies, and can choose how to act: not using your service, choosing which of your
features to opt-in or out- of, or – hopefully! – granting an exception to your site (possibly with caveats, such as sandboxing your cookies or clearing them immediately after closing
the browser tab).
Sure, what we’ve got isn’t perfect. Sometimes companies outright lie about their use of information or use illicit methods to track user behaviour. There’ll always be bad guys out there. That’s what laws are there to deal with.
But what we’ve got today is so seamless, it’s hard to imagine a world in which we somehow all… collectively decided that the correct solution to the privacy problem might have been to
throw endless popovers into users’ faces, bury consent-based choices under dark patterns, and make humans do the work that should from the outset have been done by machines. What a
strange and terrible timeline that would have been.
1 If you know P3P‘s
history, regardless of what timeline you’re in: congratulations! You win One Internet Point.
2 Techbros have been trying to solve political problems using technology since long before
the word “techbro” was used in its current context. See also: (a) there aren’t enough mental health professionals, let’s make an AI app? (b) we don’t have enough ventilators for this
pandemic, let’s 3D print air pumps? (c) banks keep failing, let’s make a cryptocurrency? (d) we need less carbon in the atmosphere or we’re going to go extinct, better hope direct
carbon capture tech pans out eh? (e) we have any problem at all, lets somehow shoehorn blockchain into some far-fetched idea about how to solve it without me having to get out of my
chair why not?
3 Note to self: find a citation for this when you can be bothered.
4 I can’t decide whether “endless cookie circle” is the name of the New Wave band I want
to form, or a description of the way I want to eventually die. Perhaps both.
6 Implementation details varied, but that’s part of the joy of the Web. Firefox favoured
“conservative” defaults; Chrome and IE had “permissive” ones; and Opera provided an ultra-configrable matrix of options by which a user could specify exactly which kinds of cookies to
accept, linked to which kinds of personal data, from which sites, all somehow backed by an extended regular expression parser that was only truly understood by three people, two of
whom were Opera developers.
Nowadays if you’re on a railway station and hear an announcement, it’s usually a computer stitching together samples1. But back in the day, there used to be a human
with a Tannoy microphone sitting in the back office, telling you about the platform alternations and
I had a friend who did it as a summer job, once. For years afterwards, he had a party trick that I always quite enjoyed: you’d say the name of a terminus station on a direct line from
Preston, e.g. Edinburgh Waverley, and he’d respond in his announcer-voice: “calling at Lancaster, Oxenholme the Lake District, Penrith, Carlisle, Lockerbie, Haymarket, and Edinburgh
Waverley”, listing all of the stops on that route. It was a quirky, beautiful, and unusual talent. Amazingly, when he came to re-apply for his job the next summer he didn’t get it,
which I always thought was a shame because he clearly deserved it: he could do the job blindfold!
There was a strange transitional period during which we had machines to do these announcements, but they weren’t that bright. Years later I found myself on Haymarket station waiting for
the next train after mine had been cancelled, when a robot voice came on to announce a platform alteration: the train to Glasgow would now be departing from platform 2, rather than
platform 1. A crowd of people stood up and shuffled their way over the footbridge to the opposite side of the tracks. A minute or so later, a human announcer apologised for the
inconvenience but explained that the train would be leaving from platform 1, and to disregard the previous announcement. Between then and the train’s arrival the computer tried twice
more to send everybody to the wrong platform, leading to a back-and-forth argument between the machine and the human somewhat reminiscient of the white zone/red zone scene from Airplane! It was funny perhaps only
because I wasn’t among the people whose train was in superposition.
Clearly even by then we’d reached the point where the machine was well-established and it was easier to openly argue with it than to dig out the manual and work out how to turn it off.
Nowadays it’s probably even moreso, but hopefully they’re less error-prone.
When people talk about how technological unemployment, they focus on the big changes, like how a tipping point with self-driving vehicles might one day revolutionise the haulage
industry… along with the social upheaval that comes along with forcing a career change on millions of drivers.
But in the real world, automation and technological change comes in salami slices. Horses and carts were seen alongside the automobile for decades. And you still find stations with
human announcers. Even the most radically-disruptive developments don’t revolutionise the world overnight. Change is inevitable, but with preparation, we can be ready for it.
In the Summer of 1995 I bought the CD single of the (still excellent!) Set You
Free by N-Trance.2
I’d heard about this new-fangled “MP3” audio format, so soon afterwards I decided to rip a copy of the song to my PC.
I was using a 66MHz 486SX CPU, and without an embedded FPU I didn’t
quite have the spare processing power to rip-and-encode in a single pass.3
So instead I first ripped to an uncompressed PCM .wav file and then performed the encoding: the former step
was done almost in real-time (I listened to the track as it ripped!), about 7 minutes. The latter step took about 20 minutes.
So… about half an hour in total, to rip a single song.
Creating a (what would now be considered an apalling) 32kHz mono-channel file, this meant that I briefly stored both a 27MB wave file and the final ~4MB MP3 file. 31MB
might not sound huge, but I only had a total of 145MB of hard drive space at the time, so 31MB consumed over a fifth of my entire fixed storage! Even after deleting the intermediary wave file I was left with a single song consuming around 3% of my space,
which is mind-boggling to think about in hindsight.
But it felt like magic. I called my friend Gary to tell him about it. “This is going to be massive!” I said. At the time, I meant for techy
people: I could imagine a future in which, with more hard drive space, I’d keep all my music this way… or else bundle entire artists onto writable CDs in this new format, making albums obsolete. I never considered that over the coming decade or so the format would enter the public consciousness, let
alone that it’d take off like it did.
The MP3 file I produced had a fault. Most of the way through the encoding process, I got bored and ran another program, and this
must’ve interfered with the stream because there was an audible “blip” noise about 30 seconds from the end of the track. You’d have to be listening carefully to hear it, or else know
what you were looking for, but it was there. I didn’t want to go through the whole process again, so I left it.
But that artefact uniquely identified that copy of what was, in the end, a popular song to have in your digital music collection. As the years went by and I traded MP3 files in bulk at LAN parties or on CD-Rs or, on at least one ocassion, on an Iomega Zip disk (remember those?), I’d ocassionally see
N-Trance - (Only Love Can) Set You Free.mp34 being passed around and play it, to see if it was “my”
Sometimes the ID3 tags had been changed because for example the previous owner had decided it deserved to be considered Genre: Dance instead of Genre: Trance5. But I could still identify that file because
of the audio fingerprint, distinct to the first MP3 I ever created.
I still had that file when I went to university (where it occupied a smaller proportion of my hard drive space) and hearing that
distinctive “blip” would remind me about the ordeal that was involved in its creation. I don’t have it any more, but perhaps somebody else still does.
1 I might never have told this story on my blog, but eagle-eyed readers may remember that
I’ve certainly hinted at it before now.
2 Rewatching that music video, I’m struck by a recollection of how crazy popular
crossfades were on 1990s dance music videos. More than just a transition, I’m pretty sure that most of the frames of that video are mid-crossfade: it feels like I’m watching
Kelly Llorenna hanging out of a sunroof but I accidentally left one of my eyeballs in a smoky nightclub and can still see out of it as well.
3 I initially tried to convert directly from red book format to an MP3 file, but the encoding process was
too slow and the CD drive’s buffer filled up and didn’t get drained by the processor, which was still presumably bogged down with
framing or fourier-transforming earlier parts of the track. The CD drive reasonably assumed that it wasn’t actually being used and
spun-down the drive motor, and this caused it to lose its place in the track, killing the whole process and leaving me with about a 40 second recording.
4 Yes, that filename isn’t quite the correct title. I was wrong.
But sometimes, they disappear slowly, like this kind of web address:
If you’ve not seen a URL like that before, that’s fine, because the answer to the question “Can I still use HTTP Basic Auth in URLs?” is, I’m afraid: no, you probably can’t.
But by way of a history lesson, let’s go back and look at what these URLs were, why they died out, and how web
browsers handle them today. Thanks to Ruth who asked the original question that inspired this post.
The early Web wasn’t built for authentication. A resource on the Web was theoretically accessible to all of humankind: if you didn’t want it in the public eye, you didn’t put
it on the Web! A reliable method wouldn’t become available until the concept of state was provided by Netscape’s invention of HTTP
cookies in 1994, and even that wouldn’t see widespread for several years, not least because implementing a CGI (or
similar) program to perform authentication was a complex and computationally-expensive option for all but the biggest websites.
1996’s HTTP/1.0 specification tried to simplify things, though, with the introduction of the WWW-Authenticate header. The idea was that when a browser tried to access something that required
authentication, the server would send a 401 Unauthorized response along with a WWW-Authenticate header explaining how the browser could authenticate
itself. Then, the browser would send a fresh request, this time with an Authorization: header attached providing the required credentials. Initially, only “basic
authentication” was available, which basically involved sending a username and password in-the-clear unless SSL (HTTPS) was in use, but later, digest authentication and a host of others would appear.
Webserver software quickly added support for this new feature and as a result web authors who lacked the technical know-how (or permission from the server administrator) to implement
more-sophisticated authentication systems could quickly implement HTTP Basic Authentication, often simply by adding a .htaccessfile to the relevant directory.
.htaccess files would later go on to serve many other purposes, but their original and perhaps best-known purpose – and the one that gives them their name – was access
Credentials in the URL
A separate specification, not specific to the Web (but one of Tim Berners-Lee’s most important contributions to it), described the general structure of URLs as follows:
At the time that specification was written, the Web didn’t have a mechanism for passing usernames and passwords: this general case was intended only to apply to protocols that
did have these credentials. An example is given in the specification, and clarified with “An optional user name. Some schemes (e.g., ftp) allow the specification of a user
But once web browsers had WWW-Authenticate, virtually all of them added support for including the username and password in the web address too. This allowed for
e.g. hyperlinks with credentials embedded in them, which made for very convenient bookmarks, or partial credentials (e.g. just the username) to be included in a link, with the
user being prompted for the password on arrival at the destination. So far, so good.
This is why we can’t have nice things
The technique fell out of favour as soon as it started being used for nefarious purposes. It didn’t take long for scammers to realise that they could create links like this:
Everything we were teaching users about checking for “https://” followed by the domain name of their bank… was undermined by this user interface choice. The poor victim would
actually be connecting to e.g. HackersSite.com, but a quick glance at their address bar would leave them convinced that they were talking to YourBank.com!
Theoretically: widespread adoption of EV certificates coupled with sensible user interface choices (that were never made) could
have solved this problem, but a far simpler solution was just to not show usernames in the address bar. Web developers were by now far more excited about forms and
cookies for authentication anyway, so browsers started curtailing the “credentials in addresses” feature.
(There are other reasons this particular implementation of HTTP Basic Authentication was less-than-ideal, but this reason is the big one that explains why things had to change.)
One by one, browsers made the change. But here’s the interesting bit: the browsers didn’t always make the change in the same way.
How different browsers handle basic authentication in URLs
Let’s examine some popular browsers. To run these tests I threw together a tiny web application that outputs
the Authorization: header passed to it, if present, and can optionally send a 401 Unauthorized response along with a WWW-Authenticate: Basic realm="Test Site" header in order to trigger basic authentication. Why both? So that I can test not only how browsers handle URLs containing credentials when an authentication request is received, but how they handle them when one is not. This is relevant because
some addresses – often API endpoints – have optional HTTP authentication, and it’s sometimes important for a user agent (albeit typically a library or command-line one) to pass credentials without
first being prompted.
In each case, I tried each of the following tests in a fresh browser instance:
Go to http://<username>:<password>@<domain>/optional (authentication is optional).
Go to http://<username>:<password>@<domain>/mandatory (authentication is mandatory).
Experiment 1, then f0llow relative hyperlinks (which should correctly retain the credentials) to /mandatory.
Experiment 2, then follow relative hyperlinks to the /optional.
I’m only testing over the http scheme, because I’ve no reason to believe that any of the browsers under test treat the https scheme differently.
Chromium desktop family
Chrome 93 and Edge 93 both immediately suppressed the username and password from the address bar, along with the “http://” as we’ve come to expect of them. Like the “http://”, though,
the plaintext username and password are still there. You can retrieve them by copy-pasting the entire address.
Opera 78 similarly suppressed the username, password, and scheme, but didn’t retain the username and password in a way that could be copy-pasted out.
Authentication was passed only when landing on a “mandatory” page; never when landing on an “optional” page. Refreshing the page or re-entering the address with its credentials did not
Navigating from the “optional” page to the “mandatory” page using only relative links retained the username and password and submitted it to the server when it became mandatory,
even Opera which didn’t initially appear to retain the credentials at all.
Navigating from the “mandatory” to the “optional” page using only relative links, or even entering the “optional” page address with credentials after visiting the “mandatory” page, does
not result in authentication being passed to the “optional” page. However, it’s interesting to note that once authentication has occurred on a mandatory page, pressing enter at
the end of the address bar on the optional page, with credentials in the address bar (whether visible or hidden from the user) does result in the credentials being passed to
the optional page! They continue to be passed on each subsequent load of the “optional” page until the browsing session is ended.
Firefox 91 does a clever thing very much in-line with its image as a browser that puts decision-making authority into the hands of its user.
When going to the “optional” page first it presents a dialog, warning the user that they’re going to a site that does not specifically request a username, but they’re providing one
anyway. If the user says that no, navigation ceases (the GET request for the page takes place the same either way; this happens before the dialog appears). Strangely: regardless of
whether the user selects yes or no, the credentials are not passed on the “optional” page. The credentials (although not the “http://”) appear in the address bar while the user makes
Similar to Opera, the credentials do not appear in the address bar thereafter, but they’re clearly still being stored: if the refresh button is pressed the dialog appears again. It does
not appear if the user selects the address bar and presses enter.
Similarly, going to the “mandatory” page in Firefox results in an informative dialog warning the user that credentials are being passed. I
like this approach: not only does it help protect the user from the use of authentication as a tracking technique (an old technique that I’ve not seen used in well over a decade, mind),
it also helps the user be sure that they’re logging in using the account they mean to, when following a link for that purpose. Again, clicking cancel stops navigation, although the
initial request (with no credentials) and the 401 response has already occurred.
Visiting any page within the scope of the realm of the authentication after visiting the “mandatory” page results in credentials being sent, whether or not they’re included in the
address. This is probably the most-true implementation to the expectations of the standard that I’ve found in a modern graphical browser.
Safari 14 never displays or uses credentials provided via the web address, whether or not authentication is mandatory. Mandatory
authentication is always met by a pop-up dialog, even if credentials were provided in the address bar. Boo!
Once passed, credentials are later provided automatically to other addresses within the same realm (i.e. optional pages).
Let’s try some older browsers.
From version 7 onwards – right up to the final version 11 – Internet Explorer fails to even recognise addresses with authentication
credentials in as legitimate web addresses, regardless of whether or not authentication is requested by the server. It’s easy to assume that this is yet another missing feature in the
browser we all love to hate, but it’s interesting to note that credentials-in-addresses is permitted for ftp:// URLs…
…and if you go back a little way, Internet Explorer 6 and below supported credentials in the address bar pretty much as you’d expect based on
the standard. The error message seen in IE7 and above is a deliberate design
decision, albeit a somewhat knee-jerk reaction to the security issues posed by the feature (compare to the more-careful approach of other browsers).
These older versions of IE even (correctly) retain the credentials through relative hyperlinks, allowing them to be passed when
they become mandatory. They’re not passed on optional pages unless a mandatory page within the same realm has already been encountered.
Pre-Mozilla Netscape behaved the same way. Truly this was the de facto standard for a long period on the Web, and the varied approaches
we see today are the anomaly. That’s a strange observation to make, considering how much the Web of the 1990s was dominated by incompatible implementations of different Web
features (I’ve written about the <blink> and <marquee> tags before, which was perhaps the most-visible
division between the Microsoft and Netscape camps, but there were many, many more).
Interestingly: by Netscape 7.2 the browser’s behaviour had evolved to be the same as modern Firefox’s, except that it still displayed the
credentials in the address bar for all to see.
Now here’s a real gem: pre-Chromium Opera. It would send credentials to “mandatory” pages and remember them for the duration of the browsing
session, which is great. But it would also send credentials when passed in a web address to “optional” pages. However, it wouldn’t remember them on optional pages
unless they remained in the address bar: this feels to me like an optimum balance of features for power users. Plus, it’s one of very few browsers that permitted you to
change credentials mid-session: just by changing them in the address bar! Most other browsers, even to this day, ignore changes to HTTP Authentication credentials, which was sometimes be a source of frustration back in the day.
Finally, classic Opera was the only browser I’ve seen to mask the password in the address bar, turning it into a series of asterisks. This ensures the user knows that a
password was used, but does not leak any sensitive information to shoulder-surfers (the length of the “masked” password was always the same length, too, so it didn’t even leak the
length of the password). Altogether a spectacular design and a great example of why classic Opera was way ahead of its time.
Most people using web addresses with credentials embedded within them nowadays are probably working with code, APIs,
or the command line, so it’s unsurprising to see that this is where the most “traditional” standards-compliance is found.
I was unsurprised to discover that giving curl a username and password in the URL meant that
username and password was sent to the server (using Basic authentication, of course, if no authentication was requested):
However, wgetdid catch me out. Hitting the same addresses with wget didn’t result in the credentials being sent
except where it was mandatory (i.e. where a HTTP 401 response and a WWW-Authenticate: header was received on the initial attempt). To force wget to
send credentials when they haven’t been asked-for requires the use of the --http-user and --http-password switches:
lynx does a cute and clever thing. Like most modern browsers, it does not submit credentials unless specifically requested, but if
they’re in the address bar when they become mandatory (e.g. because of following relative hyperlinks or hyperlinks containing credentials) it prompts for the username and password,
but pre-fills the form with the details from the URL. Nice.
What’s the status of HTTP (Basic) Authentication?
HTTP Basic Authentication and its close cousin Digest Authentication (which overcomes some of the security limitations of running Basic Authentication over an
unencrypted connection) is very much alive, but its use in hyperlinks can’t be relied upon: some browsers (e.g. IE, Safari)
completely munge such links while others don’t behave as you might expect. Other mechanisms like Bearer see widespread use in APIs, but nowhere else.
The WWW-Authenticate: and Authorization: headers are, in some ways, an example of the best possible way to implement authentication on the Web: as an
timeline where these standards continued to be collaboratively developed and maintained and their shortfalls – e.g. not being able to easily log out when using most graphical browsers!
– were overcome. A timeline in which one might write a login form like this, knowing that your e.g. “authenticate” attributes would instruct the browser to send credentials using an
In such a world, more-complex authentication strategies (e.g. multi-factor authentication) could involve encoding forms as JSON. And single-sign-on systems would simply involve the browser collecting a token from the authentication provider and passing it on to the
third-party service, directly through browser headers, with no need for backwards-and-forwards redirects with stacks of information in GET parameters as is the case today.
Client-side certificates – long a powerful but neglected authentication mechanism in their own right – could act as first class citizens directly alongside such a system, providing
transparent second-factor authentication wherever it was required. You wouldn’t have to accept a tracking cookie from a site in order to log in (or stay logged in), and if your
browser-integrated password safe supported it you could log on and off from any site simply by toggling that account’s “switch”, without even visiting the site: all you’d be changing is
whether or not your credentials would be sent when the time came.
The Web has long been on a constant push for the next new shiny thing, and that’s sometimes meant that established standards have been neglected prematurely or have failed to evolve for
longer than we’d have liked. Consider how long it took us to get the <video> and <audio> elements because the “new shiny” Flash came to dominate,
how the Web Payments API is only just beginning to mature despite over 25 years of ecommerce on the Web, or how we still can’t
use Link: headers for all the things we can use <link> elements for despite them being semantically-equivalent!
example HTML form validations, which for the longest time could only be done client-side using scripting languages. I’d love
Or maybe it’s just a problem that’s waiting for somebody cleverer than I to come and solve it. Want to give it a go?
I got lost on the Web this week, but it was harder than I’d have liked.
There was a discussion this week in the Abnib WhatsApp group about whether a particular illustration of a farm was full of phallic imagery (it was).
This left me wondering if anybody had ever tried to identify the most-priapic buildings in the world. Of course towers often look at least a little bit like their architects
were compensating for something, but some – like the Ypsilanti Water Tower in Michigan pictured above – go further than
Anyway: a shot tower in Bristol – a part of the UK with a long history of leadworking – was among the latecomer entrants to the competition, and seeing this curious building reminded me about something I’d read, once, about the
manufacture of lead shot. The idea (invented in Bristol by a plumber called William Watts) is that you pour molten lead
through a sieve at the top of a tower, let surface tension pull it into spherical drops as it falls, and eventually catch it in a cold water bath to finish solidifying it. I’d seen an
animation of the process, but I’d never seen a video of it, so I went about finding one.
British Pathé‘s YouTube Channel provided me with this 1950 film, and if you follow only one hyperlink from this article, let it be this one! It’s a well-shot (pun intended, but there’s
a worse pun in the video!), and while I needed to translate all of the references to “hundredweights” and “Fahrenheit” to measurements that I can actually understand, it’s thoroughly
But there’s a problem with that video: it’s been badly cut from whatever reel it was originally found on, and from about 1 minute and 38 seconds in it switches to what is clearly a very
different film! A mother is seen shepherding her young daughter off to bed, and a voiceover says:
Bedtime has a habit of coming round regularly every night. But for all good parents responsibility doesn’t end there. It’s just the beginning of an evening vigil, ears attuned to cries
and moans and things that go bump in the night. But there’s no reason why those ears shouldn’t be your neighbours ears, on occasion.
Now my interest’s piqued. What was this short film going to be about, and where could I find it? There’s no obvious link; YouTube doesn’t even make it easy to find the video
uploaded “next” by a given channel. I manipulated some search filters on British Pathé’s site until I eventually hit upon the right combination of magic words and found a clip called
Radio Baby Sitter. It starts off exactly where the misplaced prior clip cut out, and tells the story of “Mr.
and Mrs. David Hurst, Green Lane, Coventry”, who put a microphone by their daughter’s bed and ran a wire through the wall to their neighbours’ radio’s speaker so they can babysit
without coming over for the whole evening.
It’s a baby monitor, although not strictly a radio one as the title implies (it uses a signal wire!), nor is it groundbreakingly innovative: the first baby monitor predates it by over a decade, and it actually did use
radiowaves! Still, it’s a fun watch, complete with its contemporary fashion, technology, and social structures. Here’s the full thing, re-merged for your convenience:
Wait, what was I trying to do when I started, again? What was I even talking about…
It’s harder than it used to be
It used to be easier than this to get lost on the Web, and sometimes I miss that.
Obviously if you go back far enough this is true. Back when search engines were much weaker and Internet content was much less homogeneous and more distributed, we used to engage in
this kind of meandering walk all the time: we called it “surfing” the Web. Second-generation
Web browsers even had names, pretty often, evocative of this kind of experience: Mosaic, WebExplorer, Navigator, Internet Explorer, IBrowse. As people started to engage in the
noble pursuit of creating content for the Web they cross-linked their sources, their friends, their affiliations (remember webrings? here’s a reminder; they’re not quite as dead as you think!), your favourite sites etc. You’d follow links to other pages, then follow their links to others
still, and so on in that fashion. If you went round the circles enough times you’d start seeing all those invariably-blue hyperlinks turn purple and know you’d found your way home.
But even after that era, as search engines started to become a reliable and powerful way to navigate the wealth of content on the growing Web, links still dominated our exploration.
Following a link from a resource that was linked to by somebody you know carried the weight of a “web of trust”, and you’d quickly come to learn whose links were consistently valuable
and on what subjects. They also provided a sense of community and interconnectivity that paralleled the organic, chaotic networks of acquaintances people form out in the real world.
In recent times, that interpersonal connectivity has, for many, been filled by social networks (let’s ignore their failings in this regard for now). But linking to resources “outside” of the big
social media silos is hard. These advertisement-funded services work hard to discourage or monetise activity
that takes you off their platform, even at the expense of their users. Instagram limits the number of external links by profile; many social networks push
for resharing of summaries of content or embedding content from other sources, discouraging engagement with the wider Web, Facebook and Twitter both run external links
through a linkwrapper (which sometimes breaks); most large social networks make linking to the profiles of other users
of the same social network much easier than to users anywhere else; and so on.
The net result is that Internet users use fewer different websites today than they did 20 years ago,
and spend most of their “Web” time in app versions of
websites (which often provide a better experience only because site owners strategically make it so to increase their lock-in and data harvesting potential). Truly exploring the Web now
requires extra effort, like exercising an underused muscle. And if you begin and end your Web experience on just one to three services,
that just feels kind of… sad, to me. Wasted potential.
It sounds like I’m being nostalgic for a less-sophisticated time on the Web (that would certainly be in character!). A time before we’d
fully-refined the technology that would come to connect us in an instant to the answers we wanted. But that’s not exactly what I’m pining for. Instead, what I miss is something
we lost along the way, on that journey: a Web that was more fun-and-weird, more interpersonal, more diverse. More Geocities, less Facebook; there’s a surprising thing to find myself saying.
Somewhere along the way, we ended up with the Web we asked for, but it wasn’t the Web we wanted.
This weekend, while investigating a bug in some code that generates iCalendar (ICS) feeds, I learned about a weird quirk in the Republic of Ireland’s timezone. It’s such a strange thing (and has so little impact on
everyday life) that I imagine that even most Irish people don’t even know about it, but it’s important enough that it can easily introduce bugs into the way that computer calendars
Most of Europe put their clocks forward in Summer, but the Republic of Ireland instead put their clocks backward in Winter.
If that sounds to you like the same thing said two different ways – or the set-up to a joke! – read on:
A Brief History of Time (in Ireland)
After high-speed (rail) travel made mean solar timekeeping problematic, Great Britain in 1880 standardised on Greenwich Mean Time (UTC+0) as the time throughout the island, and Ireland
standardised on Dublin Mean Time (UTC-00:25:21). If you took a ferry from Liverpool to Dublin towards the end of the
19th century you’d have to put your watch back by about 25 minutes. With air travel not yet being a thing, countries didn’t yet feel the need to fixate on nice round offsets in the
region of one-hour (today, only a handful of regions retain UTC-offsets of half or quarter hours).
That’s all fine in peacetime, but by the First World War and especially following the Easter Rising, the British government decided that it was getting too tricky for their telegraph
operators (many of whom operated out of Ireland, which provided an important junction for transatlantic traffic) to be on a different time to London.
So the Time (Ireland) Act 1916 was passed, putting Ireland on Greenwich Mean Time. Ireland put her clocks back by 35 minutes and synched-up with the rest of the British Isles.
And from then on, everything was simple and because nothing ever went wrong in Ireland as a result of the way it was governed by by Britain, nobody ever had to think about the question of
timezones on the island again.
Following Irish independence, the keeping of time carried on in much the same way for a long while, which will doubtless have been convenient for families spread across the Northern
Irish border. But then came the Second World War.
Summers in the 1940s saw Churchill introduce Double Summer Time which he believed
would give the UK more daylight, saving energy that might otherwise be used for lighting and increasing production of war materiel.
Ireland considered using the emergency powers they’d put in place to do the same, as a fuel saving measure… but ultimately didn’t. This was possibly
because aligning her time with Britain might be seen as undermining her neutrality, but was more likely because the government saw that such a measure wouldn’t actually have much impact
on fuel use (it certainly didn’t in Britain). Whatever the reason, though, Britain and Northern Ireland were again out-of-sync with one another until the war ended.
From 1968 to 1971 Britain experimented with “British Standard Time” – putting the clocks forward in
Summer once, to UTC+1, and then leaving them there for three years. This worked pretty well except if you were Scottish in which case you’ll have found winter mornings to be even
gloomier than you were used to, which was already pretty gloomy. Conveniently: during much of this period Ireland was also on UTC+1, but in their case it was part of a
different experiment. Ireland were working on joining the European Economic Community, and aligning themselves with “Paris time” year-round was an unnecessary concession but an
But here’s where the quirk appears: the Standard Time Act 1968, which made UTC+1 the “standard” timezone
for the Republic of Ireland, was not repealed and is still in effect. Ireland could have started over in 1971 with a new rule that made UTC+0 the standard and added a “Summer
Time” alternative during which the clocks are put forward… but instead the Standard Time (Amendment) Act
1971 left UTC+1 as Ireland’s standard timezone and added a “Winter Time” alternative during which the clocks are put back.
(For a deeper look at the legal history of time in the UK and Ireland, see this timeline. Certainly don’t get all your
history lessons from me.)
You might rightly be thinking: so what! Having a standard time of UTC+0 and going forward for the Summer (like the UK), is functionally-equivalent to having a standard time of UTC+1 and
going backwards in the Winter, like Ireland, right? It’s certainly true that, at any given moment, a clock in London and a clock in Dublin should show the same time. So why would
But declaring which is “standard” is important when you’re dealing with computers. If, for example, you run a volunteer rota management
system that supports a helpline charity that has branches in both the UK and Ireland, then it might really matter that the
computer systems involved know what each other mean when they talk about specific times.
The author of an iCalendar file can choose to embed timezone information to explain what, in that file, a particular timezone means. That timezone information might
say, for example, “When I say ‘Europe/Dublin’, I mean UTC+1, or UTC+0 in the winter.” Or it might say – like the code above! – “When I say ‘Europe/Dublin’, I mean UTC+0, or UTC+1 in the
summer.” Both of these declarations would be technically-valid and could be made to work, although only the first one would be strictly correct in accordance with the law.
But if you don’t include timezone information in your iCalendar file, you’re relying on the feed subscriber’s computer (e.g. their calendar software) to make a sensible
interpretation.. And that’s where you run into trouble. Because in cases like Ireland, for which the standard is one thing but is commonly-understood to be something different, there’s
a real risk that the way your system interprets and encodes time won’t necessarily be the same as the way somebody else’s does.
If I say I’ll meet you at 12:00 on 1 January, in Ireland, you rightly need to know whether I’m talking about 12:00 in Irish “standard” time (i.e. 11:00, because daylight savings are in
effect) or 12:00 in local-time-at-the-time-of-the-meeting (i.e. 12:00). Humans usually mean the latter because we think in terms of local time, but when your international computer
system needs to make sure that people are on a shift at the same time, but in different timezones, it needs to be very clear what exactly it means!
And when your daylight savings works “backwards” compared to everybody else’s… that’s sure to make a developer somewhere cry. And, possibly, blog about your weird legislation.
Following the success of our last game of Dialect the previous month and once again in a one-week hiatus of our usual Friday
Dungeons & Dragons game, I hosted a second remote game of this strange “soft” RPG with linguistics and improv drama elements.
Our backdrop to this story was Portsmouth in 1834, where we were part of a group – the Gunwharf Ants – who worked as stevedores and made our living (on top of the abysmal wages for
manual handling) through the criminal pursuit of “skimming a little off the top” of the bulk-break cargo we moved between ships and onto and off the canal. These stolen goods would be
hidden in the basement of nearby pub The Duke of Wellington until they could be safely fenced, and this often-lucrative enterprise made us the envy of many of the docklands’ other
I played Katie – “Kegs” to her friends – the proprietor of the Duke (since her husband’s death) and matriarch of the group. I was joined by Nuek (Alec), a Scandinavian friend with a wealth of criminal experience, John “Tuck” Crawford (Matt), adoptee of the gang and our aspiring quartermaster, and
“Yellow” Mathias Hammond (Simon), a navy deserter who consistently delivers better than he expects to.
While each of us had our stories and some beautiful and hilarious moments, I felt that we all quickly converged on the idea that the principal storyline in our isolation was that of
young Tuck. The first act was dominated by his efforts to proof himself to the gang, and – with a little snuff – shake off his reputation as the “kid” of the group and
gain acceptance amongst his peers. His chance to prove himself with a caper aboard the Queen Anne went proper merry though after she turned up tin-ful and he found
himself kept in a second-place position for years longer. Tuck – and Yellow – got proofed eventually, but the extra time spent living hand-to-mouth might have been what first
planted the seed of charity in the young man’s head, and kept most of his numbers out of his pocket and into those of the families he supported in the St. Stevens area.
The second act turned political, as Spiky Dave, leader of the competing gang The Barbados Boys, based over Gosport way, offered a truce between the two rivals in exchange for sharing
the manpower – and profits – of a big job against a ship from South Africa… with a case of diamonds aboard. Disagreements over the deal undermined Kegs’ authority over the Ants, but
despite their March it went ahead anyway and the job was a success. Except… Spiky Dave kept more than his share of the loot, and agreed to share what was promised only in
exchange for the surrender of the Ants and their territory to his gang’s rulership.
We returned to interpersonal drama in the third act as Katie – tired of the gang wars and feeling her age – took perhaps more than her fair share of the barrel (the gang’s
shared social care fund) and bought herself clearance to leave aboard a ship to a beachside retirement in Jamaica. She gave up her stake in the future of the gang and
shrugged off their challenges in exchange for a quiet life, leaving Nuek as the senior remaining leader of the group… but Tuck the owner of the Duke of Wellington. The gang split into
those that integrated with their rivals and those that went their separate ways… and their curious pidgin dissolved with them. Well, except for a few terms which hung on in dockside
gang chatter, screeched amongst the gulls of Portsmouth without knowing their significance, for years to come.
Despite being fundamentally the same game and a similar setting to when we played The Outpost the previous month, this game felt very different. Dialect is
versatile enough that it can be used to write… adventures, coming-of-age tales, rags-to-riches stories, a comedies, horror, romance… and unless the tone is explicitly set out at the
start then it’ll (hopefully) settle somewhere mutually-acceptable to all of the players. But with a new game, new setting, and new players, it’s inevitable that a different kind of
story will be told.
But more than that, the backdrop itself impacted on the tale we wove. On Mars, we were physically isolated from the rest of humankind and living in an environment in which the
necessities of a new lifestyle and society necessitates new language. But the isolation of criminal gangs in Portsmouth docklands in the late Georgian era is a very different
kind: it’s a partial isolation, imposed (where it is) by its members and to a lesser extent by the society around them. Which meant that while their language was still a defining aspect
of their isolation, it also felt more-artificial; deliberately so, because those who developed it did so specifically in order to communicate surreptitiously… and, we
discovered, to encode their group’s identity into their pidgin.
While our first game of Dialect felt like the language lead the story, this second game felt more like the language and the story co-evolved but were mostly unrelated. That’s
not necessarily a problem, and I think we all had fun, but it wasn’t what we expected. I’m glad this wasn’t our first experience of Dialect, because if it were I think
it might have tainted our understanding of what the game can be.
As with The Outpost, we found that some of the concepts we came up with didn’t see much use: on Mars, the concept of fibs was rooted in a history of of how our medical
records were linked to one another (for e.g. transplant compatibility), but aside from our shared understanding of the background of the word this storyline didn’t really come up.
Similarly, in Thieves Cant’ we developed a background about the (vegan!) roots of our gang’s ethics, but it barely got used as more than conversational flavour. In both cases
I’ve wondered, after the fact, whether a “flashback” scene framed from one of our prompts might have helped solidify the concept. But I’m also not sure whether or not such a thing would
be necessary. We seemed to collectively latch onto a story hook – this time around, centred around Matt’s character John Crawford’s life and our influences on it – and it played out
And hey; nobody died before the epilogue, this time!
I’m looking forward to another game next time we’re on a D&D break, or perhaps some other time.
I’ve been doing a course provided through work to try to improve my ability to connect with an audience over
video. For one of my assignments in this, my fourth week, I picked a topic out from the “welcome” survey I filled out when I first started the course. The topic: the Devil’s Quoits. This stone circle – not far from my new house – has such a bizarre
history of construction, demolition, and reconstruction… as well as a fun folk myth about its creation… that I’d thought it’d make a great follow-up to my previous “local history”
piece, Oxford’s Long-Lost Zoo. I’d already hidden a “virtual” geocache at the henge, as I previously did for the zoo: a video seemed like the next logical step.
My brief required that the video be only about a minute long, which presented its own challenge in cutting down the story I’d like to tell to a bare minimum. Then on top of that, it
took me at least eight takes until I was confident that I’d have one I was happy with, and there’s still things I’d do differently if I did it again (including a better windbreak on my
lapel mic, and timing my takes for when geese weren’t honking their way past overhead!).
In any case: part of the ritual of this particular course encourages you to “make videos… as if people will see them”, and I’ve been taking that seriously! Firstly, I’ve been
sharing many of my videos with others either at work or on my blog, like the one about how GPS works or the one about the secret of magic. Secondly, I’ve been doing “extra credit” by
recording many of my daily-standup messages as videos, in addition to providing them through our usual Slack bot.