Evolving Computer Words: “GIF”

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

The language we use is always changing, like how the word “cute” was originally a truncation of the word “acute”, which you’d use to describe somebody who was sharp-witted, as in “don’t get cute with me”. Nowadays, we use it when describing adorable things, like the subject of this GIF:

[Animated GIF] Puppy flumps onto a human.
Cute, but not acute.
But hang on a minute: that’s another word that’s changed meaning: GIF. Want to see how?

GIF

What people think it means

File format (or the files themselves) designed for animations and transparency. Or: any animation without sound.

What it originally meant

File format designed for efficient colour images. Animation was secondary; transparency was an afterthought.

The Past

Back in the 1980s cyberspace was in its infancy. Sir Tim hadn’t yet dreamed up the Web, and the Internet wasn’t something that most people could connect to, and bulletin board systems (BBSes) – dial-up services, often local or regional, sometimes connected to one another in one of a variety of ways – dominated the scene. Larger services like CompuServe acted a little like huge BBSes but with dial-up nodes in multiple countries, helping to bridge the international gaps and provide a lower learning curve than the smaller boards (albeit for a hefty monthly fee in addition to the costs of the calls). These services would later go on to double as, and eventually become exclusively, Internet Service Providers, but for the time being they were a force unto themselves.

CompuServe ad circa 1983
My favourite bit of this 1983 magazine ad for CompuServe is the fact that it claims a trademark on the word “email”. They didn’t try very hard to cling on to that claim, unlike their controversial patent on the GIF format…

In 1987, CompuServe were about to start rolling out colour graphics as a new feature, but needed a new graphics format to support that. Their engineer Steve Wilhite had the idea for a bitmap image format backed by LZW compression and called it GIF, for Graphics Interchange Format. Each image could be composed of multiple frames each having up to 256 distinct colours (hence the common mistaken belief that a GIF can only have 256 colours). The nature of the palette system and compression algorithm made GIF a particularly efficient format for (still) images with solid contiguous blocks of colour, like logos and diagrams, but generally underperformed against cosine-transfer-based algorithms like JPEG/JFIF for images with gradients (like most photos).

GIF with more than 256 colours.
This animated GIF (of course) shows how it’s possible to have more than 256 colours in a GIF by separating it into multiple non-temporal frames.

GIF would go on to become most famous for two things, neither of which it was capable of upon its initial release: binary transparency (having “see through” bits, which made it an excellent choice for use on Web pages with background images or non-static background colours; these would become popular in the mid-1990s) and animation. Animation involves adding a series of frames which overlay one another in sequence: extensions to the format in 1989 allowed the creator to specify the duration of each frame, making the feature useful (prior to this, they would be displayed as fast as they could be downloaded and interpreted!). In 1995, Netscape added a custom extension to GIF to allow them to loop (either a specified number of times or indefinitely) and this proved so popular that virtually all other software followed suit, but it’s worth noting that “looping” GIFs have never been part of the official standard!

Hex editor view of a GIF file's metadata section, showing Netscape headers.
Open almost any animated GIF file in a hex editor and you’ll see the word NETSCAPE2.0; evidence of Netscape’s role in making animated GIFs what they are today.

Compatibility was an issue. For a period during the mid-nineties it was quite possible that among the visitors to your website there would be a mixture of:

  1. people who wouldn’t see your GIFs at all, owing to browser, bandwidth, preference, or accessibility limitations,
  2. people who would only see the first frame of your animated GIFs, because their browser didn’t support animation,
  3. people who would see your animation play once, because their browser didn’t support looping, and
  4. people who would see your GIFs as you intended, fully looping

This made it hard to depend upon GIFs without carefully considering their use. But people still did, and they just stuck a Netscape Now button on to warn people, as if that made up for it. All of this has happened before, etc.

In any case: as better, newer standards like PNG came to dominate the Web’s need for lossless static (optionally transparent) image transmission, the only thing GIFs remained good for was animation. Standards like APNG/MNG failed to get off the ground, and so GIFs remained the dominant animated-image standard. As Internet connections became faster and faster in the 2000s, they experienced a resurgence in popularity. The Web didn’t yet have the <video> element and so embedding videos on pages required a mixture of at least two of <object>, <embed>, Flash, and black magic… but animated GIFs just worked and soon appeared everywhere.

Magic.
How animation online really works.

The Future

Nowadays, when people talk about GIFs, they often don’t actually mean GIFs! If you see a GIF on Giphy or WhatsApp, you’re probably actually seeing an MPEG-4 video file with no audio track! Now that Web video is widely-supported, service providers know that they can save on bandwidth by delivering you actual videos even when you expect a GIF. More than ever before, GIF has become a byword for short, often-looping Internet animations without sound… even though that’s got little to do with the underlying file format that the name implies.

What's a web page? Something ducks walk on?
What’s a web page? What’s anything?

Verdict: We still can’t agree on whether to pronounce it with a soft-G (“jif”), as Wilhite intended, or with a hard-G, as any sane person would, but it seems that GIFs are here to stay in name even if not in form. And that’s okay. I guess.

Evolving Computer Words: “Broadband”

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

Until the 17th century, to “fathom” something was to embrace it. Nowadays, it’s more likely to refer to your understanding of something in depth. The migration came via the similarly-named imperial unit of measurement, which was originally defined as the span of a man’s outstretched arms, so you can understand how we got from one to the other. But you know what I can’t fathom? Broadband.

Woman hugging a dalmatian. Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels.
I can’t fathom dalmatians. But this woman can.

Broadband Internet access has become almost ubiquitous over the last decade and a half, but ask people to define “broadband” and they have a very specific idea about what it means. It’s not the technical definition, and this re-invention of the word can cause problems.

Broadband

What people think it means

High-speed, always-on Internet access.

What it originally meant

Communications channel capable of multiple different traffic types simultaneously.

The Past

Throughout the 19th century, optical (semaphore) telegraph networks gave way to the new-fangled electrical telegraph, which not only worked regardless of the weather but resulted in significantly faster transmission. “Faster” here means two distinct things: latency – how long it takes a message to reach its destination, and bandwidth – how much information can be transmitted at once. If you’re having difficulty understanding the difference, consider this: a man on a horse might be faster than a telegraph if the size of the message is big enough because a backpack full of scrolls has greater bandwidth than a Morse code pedal, but the latency of an electrical wire beats land transport every time. Or as Andrew S. Tanenbaum famously put it: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.

Telephone-to-heliograph conversion circa 1912.
There were transitional periods. This man, photographed in 1912, is relaying a telephone message into a heliograph. I’m not sure what message he’s transmitting, but I’m guessing it ends with a hashtag.

Telegraph companies were keen to be able to increase their bandwidth – that is, to get more messages on the wire – and this was achieved by multiplexing. The simplest approach, time-division multiplexing, involves messages (or parts of messages) “taking turns”, and doesn’t actually increase bandwidth at all: although it does improve the perception of speed by giving recipients the start of their messages early on. A variety of other multiplexing techniques were (and continue to be) explored, but the one that’s most-interesting to us right now was called acoustic telegraphy: today, we’d call it frequency-division multiplexing.

What if, asked folks-you’ll-have-heard-of like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, we were to send telegraph messages down the line at different frequencies. Some beeps and bips would be high tones, and some would be low tones, and a machine at the receiving end could separate them out again (so long as you chose your frequencies carefully, to avoid harmonic distortion). As might be clear from the names I dropped earlier, this approach – sending sound down a telegraph wire – ultimately led to the invention of the telephone. Hurrah, I’m sure they all immediately called one another to say, our efforts to create a higher-bandwidth medium for telegrams has accidentally resulted in a lower-bandwidth (but more-convenient!) way for people to communicate. Job’s a good ‘un.

Electro-acoustic telegraph "tuning fork".
If this part of Edison’s 1878 patent looks like a tuning fork, that’s not a coincidence. These early multiplexers made distinct humming sounds as they operated, owing to the movement of the synchronised forks within.

Most electronic communications systems that have ever existed have been narrowband: they’ve been capable of only a single kind of transmission at a time. Even if you’re multiplexing a dozen different frequencies to carry a dozen different telegraph messages at once, you’re still only transmitting telegraph messages. For the most part, that’s fine: we’re pretty clever and we can find workarounds when we need them. For example, when we started wanting to be able to send data to one another (because computers are cool now) over telephone wires (which are conveniently everywhere), we did so by teaching our computers to make sounds and understand one another’s sounds. If you’re old enough to have heard a fax machine call a landline or, better yet used a dial-up modem, you know what I’m talking about.

As the Internet became more and more critical to business and home life, and the limitations (of bandwidth and convenience) of dial-up access became increasingly questionable, a better solution was needed. Bringing broadband to Internet access was necessary, but the technologies involved weren’t revolutionary: they were just the result of the application of a little imagination.

Dawson can't use the Internet because someone's on the phone.
I’ve felt your pain, Dawson. I’ve felt your pain.

We’d seen this kind of imagination before. Consider teletext, for example (for those of you too young to remember teletext, it was a standard for browsing pages of text and simple graphics using an 70s-90s analogue television), which is – strictly speaking – a broadband technology. Teletext works by embedding pages of digital data, encoded in an analogue stream, in the otherwise-“wasted” space in-between frames of broadcast video. When you told your television to show you a particular page, either by entering its three-digit number or by following one of four colour-coded hyperlinks, your television would wait until the page you were looking for came around again in the broadcast stream, decode it, and show it to you.

Teletext was, fundamentally, broadband. In addition to carrying television pictures and audio, the same radio wave was being used to transmit text: not pictures of text, but encoded characters. Analogue subtitles (which used basically the same technology): also broadband. Broadband doesn’t have to mean “Internet access”, and indeed for much of its history, it hasn’t.

Ceefax news article from 29 October 1988, about a cancelled Soviet shuttle launch.
My family started getting our news via broadband in about 1985. Not broadband Internet, but broadband nonetheless.

Here in the UK, ISDN (from 1988!) and later ADSL would be the first widespread technologies to provide broadband data connections over the copper wires simultaneously used to carry telephone calls. ADSL does this in basically the same way as Edison and Bell’s acoustic telegraphy: a portion of the available frequencies (usually the first 4MHz) is reserved for telephone calls, followed by a no-mans-land band, followed by two frequency bands of different sizes (hence the asymmetry: the A in ADSL) for up- and downstream data. This, at last, allowed true “broadband Internet”.

But was it fast? Well, relative to dial-up, certainly… but the essential nature of broadband technologies is that they share the bandwidth with other services. A connection that doesn’t have to share will always have more bandwidth, all other things being equal! Leased lines, despite technically being a narrowband technology, necessarily outperform broadband connections having the same total bandwidth because they don’t have to share it with other services. And don’t forget that not all speed is created equal: satellite Internet access is a narrowband technology with excellent bandwidth… but sometimes-problematic latency issues!

ADSL microfilter
Did you have one of these tucked behind your naughties router? This box filtered out the data from the telephone frequencies, helping to ensure that you can neither hear the pops and clicks of your ADSL connection nor interfere with it by shouting.

Equating the word “broadband” with speed is based on a consumer-centric misunderstanding about what broadband is, because it’s necessarily true that if your home “broadband” weren’t configured to be able to support old-fashioned telephone calls, it’d be (a) (slightly) faster, and (b) not-broadband.

The Future

But does the word that people use to refer to their high-speed Internet connection matter. More than you’d think: various countries around the world have begun to make legal definitions of the word “broadband” based not on the technical meaning but on the populist one, and it’s becoming a source of friction. In the USA, the FCC variously defines broadband as having a minimum download speed of 10Mbps or 25Mbps, among other characteristics (they seem to use the former when protecting consumer rights and the latter when reporting on penetration, and you can read into that what you will). In the UK, Ofcom‘s regulations differentiate between “decent” (yes, that’s really the word they use) and “superfast” broadband at 10Mbps and 24Mbps download speeds, respectively, while the Scottish and Welsh governments as well as the EU say it must be 30Mbps to be “superfast broadband”.

Faster, Harder, Scooter music video.
At full-tilt, going from 10Mbps to 24Mbps means taking only 4 seconds, rather than 11 seconds, to download the music video to Faster! Harder! Scooter!

I’m all in favour of regulation that protects consumers and makes it easier for them to compare products. It’s a little messy that definitions vary so widely on what different speeds mean, but that’s not the biggest problem. I don’t even mind that these agencies have all given themselves very little breathing room for the future: where do you go after “superfast”? Ultrafast (actually, that’s exactly where we go)? Megafast? Ludicrous speed?

What I mind is the redefining of a useful term to differentiate whether a connection is shared with other services or not to be tied to a completely independent characteristic of that connection. It’d have been simple for the FCC, for example, to have defined e.g. “full-speed broadband” as providing a particular bandwidth.

Verdict: It’s not a big deal; I should just chill out. I’m probably going to have to throw in the towel anyway on this one and join the masses in calling all high-speed Internet connections “broadband” and not using that word for all slower and non-Internet connections, regardless of how they’re set up.

Evolving Computer Words: “Virus”

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

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

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

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

Virus

What people think it means

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

What it originally meant

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

The Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Roman ‘Pen’ Was a Joke Souvenir

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Ancient Roman stylus

The tradition of buying cheap, joke souvenirs for your loved ones while travelling dates back at least two millennia.

During an archaeological excavation at a Roman-era site in London, researchers found around 200 iron styluses used for writing on wax-filled wooden tablets. One of those styluses, which just debuted in its first public exhibition, holds a message written in tiny lettering along its sides. The inscription’s sentiment, according to the researchers who translated it, is essentially, “I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen.”

Also found in this excavation, I assume, were t-shirts printed with “I ❤ Pompeii” and moneyboxes in the shape of the Parthenon.

How the Knights Hospitaller ‘accidentally’ became a major European air power

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Sod Pepsi’s navy.

Let’s talk about the point after WW2 where the Knights Hospitaller, of medieval crusading fame, ‘accidentally’ became a major European air power.

I shitteth ye not. ?️?️

So, if I asked you to imagine the Knights Hospitaller you probably picture:

1) Angry Christians on armoured horses
2) Them being wiped out long ago like the Templars.
3) Some Dan Brown bullshit

And you would be (mostly) wrong about all three. Which is sort of how this happened.

From the beginning (1113 or so), the Hospitallers were never quite as committed to the angry, horsey thing as the Templars. They had always (ostensibly) been more about protecting pilgrims and healthcare.

They also quite liked boats. Which were useful for both.

Over the next 150 years (or so), as the Christian grip on the Holy Lands waned, both military orders got more involved in their other hobbies – banking for the Templars, mucking around in boats for the Hospitaller.
This proved to be a surprisingly wise decision on the Hospitaller part. By 1290ish, both Orders were homeless and weakened.

As the Templars fatally discovered, being weak AND having the King of France owe you money is a bad combo.

Being a useful NAVY, however, wins you friends.

And this is why your first vision of the Hospitallers is wrong. Because they spent the next 500 YEARS, backed by France and Spain, as one of the most powerful naval forces in the Mediterranean, blocking efforts by the Ottomans to expand westwards by sea.
To give you an idea of the trouble they caused: in 1480 Mehmet II sent 70,000 men (against the Knights 4000) to try and boot them out of Rhodes. He failed.

Suleiman the Magnificent FINALLY managed it in 1522 with 200,000 men. But even he had to agree to let the survivors leave.

The surviving Hospitallers hopped on their ships (again) and sailed away. After some vigorous lobbying, in 1530 the King of Spain agreed to rent them Malta, in return for a single maltese falcon every year.

Because that’s how good rents were pre-housing crisis in Europe.

The Knights turned Malta into ANOTHER fortified island. For the next 200 years ‘the Pope’s own navy’ waged a war of piracy, slavery and (occasionally) pitched sea battles against the Ottomans.
From Malta, they blocked Ottoman strategic access to the western med. A point that was not lost on the Ottomans, who sent 40,000 men to try and take the island in 1565 – the ‘Great Siege of Malta’.

The Knights, fighting almost to the last man, held out and won.

Now the important thing here is the CONTINUED EXISTENCE AS A SOVEREIGN STATE of the Knights Hospitaller. They held Malta right up until 1798, when Napoleon finally managed to boot them out on his way to Egypt.

(Partly because the French contingent of the Knights swapped sides)

The British turned up about three months later and the French were sent packing, but, well, It was the British so:

THE KNIGHTS: Can we have our strategically important island back please?
THE BRITISH: What island?
THE KNIGHT: That island
THE BRITISH: Nope. Can’t see an island

After the Napoleonic wars no one really wanted to bring up the whole Malta thing with the British (the Putin’s Russia of the era) so the European powers fudged it. They said the Knights were still a sovereign state and they tried to sort them out with a new country. But never did
The Russian Emperor let them hang out in St Petersburg for a while, but that was awkward (Catholicism vs Orthodox). Then the Swedes were persuaded to offer them Gotland.

But every offer was conditional on the Knights dropping their claim to Malta. Which they REFUSED to do.

~ wobbly lines ~

It’s the 1900s. The Knights are still a stateless state complaining about Malta. What that means legally is a can of worms NO ONE wants to open in international law but they’ve also rediscovered their original mission (healthcare) so everyone kinda ignores them

The Knights become a pseudo-Red Cross organisation. In WW1 they run ambulance trains and have medical battalions, loosely affiliated with the Italian army (still do). In WW2 they do it too.

Italy surrenders. The allies move on then…

Oh dear.

Who wrote this peace deal again?

It turns out the Treaty of Peace with Italy should go FIRMLY into the category of ‘things that seemed a good idea at the time’.

This is because it presupposes that relations between the west and the Soviets will be good, and so limits Italy’s MILITARY.

This is a problem.

Because as the early Cold War ramps up, the US needs to build up its Euro allies ASAP.

But the treaty limits the Italians to 400 airframes, and bans them from owning ANYTHING that might be a bomber.

This can be changed, but not QUICKLY.

Then someone remembers about the Knights

The Knights might not have any GEOGRAPHY, but because everyone avoided dealing with the tricky international law problem it can be argued – with a straight face – that they are still TECHNICALLY A EUROPEAN SOVEREIGN STATE.

And they’re not bound by the WW2 peace treaty.

Italy (with US/UK/French blessing) approaches the Knights and explains the problem.

The Knights reasonably point out that they’re not in the business of fighting wars anymore, but anything that could be called a SUPPORT aircraft is another matter.

So, in the aftermath of WW2, this is the ballet that happens:

The Italians transfer all of their support and training aircraft to the Knights.

This then frees up the ‘cap room’ to allow the US to boost Italy’s warfighting ability WITHOUT breaking the WW2 peace treaty.

This is why, in the late forties/fifties, a good chunk of the ‘Italian’ air force is flying with a Maltese Cross Roundel.

Because they were not TECHNICALLY Italian. They were the air force of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

And that’s how the Knights Hospitaller ended up becoming a major air power.

Eventually the treaties were reworked, and everything was quietly transferred back. I suspect it’s a reason why the sovereign status of the Knights remains unchallenged still today though.

And that’s why today, even thought they are now fully committed to the Red-Cross-esque stuff, they can still issue passports, are a permanent observer at the UN, have a currency…

..,and even have a tiny bit of Malta back.

Metropoloid: A Metropolis Remix

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Yaz writes, by way of partial explanation:

You could fit almost the entire history of videogames into the time span covered by the silent film era, yet we consider it a mature medium, rather than one just breaking out of its infancy. Like silent movies, classic games are often incomplete, damaged, or technically limited, but have a beauty all their own. In this spirit, indie game developer Joe Blair and I built Metropoloid, a remix of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis which replaces its famously lost score with that of its contemporaries from the early days of games.

I’ve watched Metropolis a number of times over the decades, in a variety of the stages of its recovery, and I love it. I’ve watched it with a pre-recorded but believed-to-be-faithful soundtrack and I’ve watched it with several diolive accompaniment. But this is the first time I’ve watched it to the soundtrack of classic (and contemporary-retro) videogames: the Metroid, CastlevaniaZeldaMega Man and Final Fantasy series, Doom, Kirby, F-Zero and more. If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and a love of classic film and classic videogames, then you’re in the slim minority that will get the most out of this fabulous labour of love (which, at the time of my writing, has enjoyed only a few hundred views and a mere 26 “thumbs up”: it certainly deserves a wider audience!).

remysharp comments on “Bringing back the Web of 1990”

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Hi @avapoet, I’m the author of the JavaScript for the WorldWideWeb project, and I did read your thread on the user-agent missing and I thought I’d land the fix ;-)

The original WorldWideWeb browser that we based our work on was 0.12 with screenshots from 0.16. Both browsers supported HTTP 0.9 which didn’t send headers. Obviously unintentional that I send the `request` user-agent, so I spent some painful hours trying to get my emulator running NeXT with a networked connection _and_ the WorldWideWeb version 1.0 – which _did_ use HTTP 1.0 and would send a User-Agent, so I could copy it accurately into the emulator code base.

So now metafilter.com renders in the emulator, and the User Agent sent is: CERN-NextStep-WorldWideWeb.app/1.1 libwww/2.07

Thanks again :)

I blogged about the reimplementation of WorldWideWeb by a hackathon team at CERN, and posted a commentary to MetaFilter, too. In doing so, some others observed that it wasn’t capable of showing MetaFilter pages, which was obviously going to be the first thing that anybody did with it and I ought to have checked first. In any case, I later checked out the source code and did some debugging, finding and proposing a fix. It feels cool to be able to say “I improved upon some code written at CERN,” even if it’s only by a technicality.

This comment on the MetaFilter thread, which I only just noticed, is by Remy Sharp, who was part of the team that reimplemented WorldWideWeb as part of that hackathon (his blog posts about the experience: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and acknowledges my contribution. Squee!

Yet Another JavaScript Framework

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It is impossible to answer all of these questions simply. They can, however, be framed by the ideological project of the web itself. The web was built to be open, both technologically as a decentralized network, and philosophically as a democratizing medium. These questions are tricky because the web belongs to no one, yet was built for everyone. Maintaining that spirit takes a lot of work, and requires sometimes slow, but always deliberate decisions about the trajectory of web technologies. We should be careful to consider the mountains of legacy code and libraries that will likely remain on the web for its entire existence. Not just because they are often built with the best of intentions, but because many have been woven into the fabric of the web. If we pull on any one thread too hard, we risk unraveling the whole thing.

A great story about how Firefox nearly broke tens of thousands of websites by following standards, and then didn’t. tl;dr: Javascript has a messy history.

What Does AJAX Even Stand For?

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…Jesse James Garett of Adaptive Path finally gave this use of Javascript a name. He called it Asynchronous Javascript and XML (thankfully shortened to Ajax). Ajax wasn’t a single method or technology, but a group of principles based on the work being done at Google that described how to handle JavaScript in more demanding web applications. The short version is actually fairly simple. Use XMLHttpRequest to make request to the server, take the XML data returned, and lay it out on the page using JavaScript and semantic HTML.

Ajax took off after that. It underpins major parts of modern web development, and has spawned a number of frameworks and methodologies. The technology itself has been swapped out over time. XML was replaced by JSON, and XMLHttpRequest by fetch. That doesn’t matter though. Ajax showed a lot of developers that the web wasn’t just about documents. The web could be used to build applications. That might seem like a small notion, but trust me when I say, it was momentous.

The History of The Web is great, and you should read it, but this piece is particularly interesting. Ajax and its spiritual successors laid the groundwork for rich Internet applications, shell apps, and the real-time Web, but they also paved the way for a handful of the inevitable practices that went alongside: Javascript-required websites, API-driven web and mobile applications with virtually no HTML content whatsoever… and these things have begun to become problematic for the health of the Web as a whole.

I love Ajax, but it absolutely must be employed as progressive enhancement where possible.

Pac-Man: The Untold Story of How We Really Played The Game

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Unrestored Pac-Man machine with worn paint in a specific place on the left-hand side.

Human beings leave physical impressions upon the things they love and use just as much as their do upon the lives of people and the planet they live upon. For every action, there’s a reaction. For every pressure, there’s an affect on mass and volume. And in the impressions left by that combination, particularly if you’re lucky enough to see the sides of a rare, unrestored  vintage Pac-Man cabinet, lies the never before told story of how we really played the game.

Until now, I don’t believe anyone has ever written about it.

Interesting exploration of the history of the cabinets housing Pac-Man, observing the ergonomic impact of the controls on the way that people would hold the side of the machine and, in turn, how that would affect where and how the paint would wear off.

I love that folks care about this stuff.

Debugging WorldWideWeb

Earlier this week, I mentioned the exciting hackathon that produced a moderately-faithful reimagining of the world’s first Web browser. I was sufficiently excited about it that I not only blogged here but I also posted about it to MetaFilter. Of course, the very first thing that everybody there did was try to load MetaFilter in it, which… didn’t work.

MetaFilter failing to load on the reimagined WorldWideWeb.
500? Really?

People were quick to point this out and assume that it was something to do with the modernity of MetaFilter:

honestly, the disheartening thing is that many metafilter pages don’t seem to work. Oh, the modern web.

Some even went so far as to speculate that the reason related to MetaFilter’s use of CSS and JS:

CSS and JS. They do things. Important things.

This is, of course, complete baloney, and it’s easy to prove to oneself. Firstly, simply using the View Source tool in your browser on a MetaFilter page reveals source code that’s quite comprehensible, even human-readable, without going anywhere near any CSS or JavaScript.

MetaFilter in Lynx: perfectly usable browing experience
As late as the early 2000s I’d occasionally use Lynx for serious browsing, but any time I’ve used it since it’s been by necessity.

Secondly, it’s pretty simple to try browsing MetaFilter without CSS or JavaScript enabled! I tried in two ways: first, by using Lynx, a text-based browser that’s never supported either of those technologies. I also tried by using Firefox but with them disabled (honestly, I slightly miss when the Web used to look like this):

MetaFilter in Firefox (with CSS and JS disabled)
It only took me three clicks to disable stylesheets and JavaScript in my copy of Firefox… but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t keep my browser configured like “normal people” probably do.

And thirdly: the error code being returned by the simulated WorldWideWeb browser is a HTTP code 500. Even if you don’t know your HTTP codes (I mean, what kind of weirdo would take the time to memorise them all anyway <ahem>), it’s worth learning this: the first digit of a HTTP response code tells you what happened:

  • 1xx means “everything’s fine, keep going”;
  • 2xx means “everything’s fine and we’re done”;
  • 3xx means “try over there”;
  • 4xx means “you did something wrong” (the infamous 404, for example, means you asked for a page that doesn’t exist);
  • 5xx means “the server did something wrong”.

Simple! The fact that the error code begins with a 5 strongly implies that the problem isn’t in the (client-side) reimplementation of WorldWideWeb: if this had have been a CSS/JS problem, I’d expect to see a blank page, scrambled content, “filler” content, or incomplete content.

So I found myself wondering what the real problem was. This is, of course, where my geek flag becomes most-visible: what we’re talking about, let’s not forget, is a fringe problem in an incomplete simulation of an ancient computer program that nobody uses. Odds are incredibly good that nobody on Earth cares about this except, right now, for me.

Dan's proposed "Geek Flag"
I searched for a “Geek Flag” and didn’t like anything I saw, so I came up with this one based on… well, if you recognise what it’s based on, good for you, you’re certainly allowed to fly it. If not… well, you can too: there’s no geek-gatekeeping here.

Luckily, I spotted Jeremy’s note that the source code for the WorldWideWeb simulator was now available, so I downloaded a copy to take a look. Here’s what’s happening:

  1. The (simulated) copy of WorldWideWeb is asked to open a document by reference, e.g. “https://www.metafilter.com/”.
  2. To work around same-origin policy restrictions, the request is sent to an API which acts as a proxy server.
  3. The API makes a request using the Node package “request” with this line of code: request(url, (error, response, body) => { ... }).  When the first parameter to request is a (string) URL, the module uses its default settings for all of the other options, which means that it doesn’t set the User-Agent header (an optional part of a Web request where the computer making the request identifies the software that’s asking).
  4. MetaFilter, for some reason, blocks requests whose User-Agent isn’t set. This is weird! And nonstandard: while web browsers should – in RFC2119 terms – set their User-Agent: header, web servers shouldn’t require that they do so. MetaFilter returns a 403 and a message to say “Forbidden”; usually a message you only see if you’re trying to access a resource that requires session authentication and you haven’t logged-in yet.
  5. The API is programmed to handle response codes 200 (okay!) and 404 (not found), but if it gets anything else back it’s supposed to throw a 400 (bad request). Except there’s a bug: when trying to throw a 400, it requires that an error message has been set by the request module and if there hasn’t… it instead throws a 500 with the message “Internal Server Fangle” and  no clue what actually went wrong. So MetaFilter’s 403 gets translated by the proxy into a 400 which it fails to render because a 403 doesn’t actually produce an error message and so it gets translated again into the 500 that you eventually see. What a knock-on effect!
Illustration showing conversation between simulated WorldWideWeb and MetaFilter via an API that ultimately sends requests without a User-Agent, gets a 403 in response, and can't handle the 403 and so returns a confusing 500.
If you’re having difficulty visualising the process, this diagram might help you to continue your struggle with that visualisation.

The fix is simple: simply change the line:

request(url, (error, response, body) => { ... })

to:

request({ url: url, headers: { 'User-Agent': 'WorldWideWeb' } }, (error, response, body) => { ... })

This then sets a User-Agent header and makes servers that require one, such as MetaFilter, respond appropriately. I don’t know whether WorldWideWeb originally set a User-Agent header (CERN’s source file archive seems to be missing the relevant C sources so I can’t check) but I suspect that it did, so this change actually improves the fidelity of the emulation as a bonus. A better fix would also add support for and appropriate handling of other HTTP response codes, but that’s a story for another day, I guess.

I know the hackathon’s over, but I wonder if they’re taking pull requests…

WorldWideWeb, 30 years on

This month, a collection of some of my favourite geeks got invited to CERN in Geneva to participate in a week-long hackathon with the aim of reimplementing WorldWideWeb – the first web browser, circa 1990-1994 – as a web application. I’m super jealous, but I’m also really pleased with what they managed to produce.

DanQ.me as displayed by the reimagined WorldWideWeb browser circa 1990
With the exception of a few character entity quirks, this site remains perfectly usable in the simulated WorldWideWeb browser. Clearly I wasn’t the only person to try this vanity-check…

This represents a huge leap forward from their last similar project, which aimed to recreate the line mode browser: the first web browser that didn’t require a NeXT computer to run it and so a leap forward in mainstream appeal. In some ways, you might expect reimplementing WorldWideWeb to be easier, because its functionality is more-similar that of a modern browser, but there were doubtless some challenges too: this early browser predated the concept of the DOM and so there are distinct processing differences that must be considered to get a truly authentic experience.

Geeks hacking on WorldWideWeb reborn
It’s just like any other hackathon, if you ignore the enormous particle collider underneath it.

Among their outputs, the team also produced a cool timeline of the Web, which – thanks to some careful authorship – is as legible in WorldWideWeb as it is in a modern browser (if, admittedly, a little less pretty).

WorldWideWeb screenshot by Sir Tim Berners-Lee
When Sir Tim took this screenshot, he could never have predicted the way the Web would change, technically, over the next 25-30 years. But I’m almost more-interested in how it’s stayed the same.

In an age of increasing Single Page Applications and API-driven sites and “apps”, it’s nice to be reminded that if you develop right for the Web, your content will be visible (sort-of; I’m aware that there are some liberties taken here in memory and processing limitations, protocols and negotiation) on machines 30 years old, and that gives me hope that adherence to the same solid standards gives us a chance of writing pages today that look just as good in 30 years to come. Compare that to a proprietary technology like Flash whose heyday 15 years ago is overshadowed by its imminent death (not to mention Java applets or ActiveX <shudders>), iOS apps which stopped working when the operating system went 64-bit, and websites which only work in specific browsers (traditionally Internet Explorer, though as I’ve complained before we’re getting more and more Chrome-only sites).

The Web is a success story in open standards, natural and by-design progressive enhancement, and the future-proof archivability of human-readable code. Long live the Web.

Update 24 February 2019: After I submitted news of the browser to MetaFilter, I (and others) spotted a bug. So I came up with a fix…

Finding Lena Forsen, the Patron Saint of JPEGs

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Lena, then and now

Every morning, Lena Forsen wakes up beneath a brass-trimmed wooden mantel clock dedicated to “The First Lady of the Internet.”

It was presented to her more than two decades ago by the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, in recognition of the pivotal—and altogether unexpected—role she played in shaping the digital world as we know it.

Among some computer engineers, Lena is a mythic figure, a mononym on par with Woz or Zuck. Whether or not you know her face, you’ve used the technology it helped create; practically every photo you’ve ever taken, every website you’ve ever visited, every meme you’ve ever shared owes some small debt to Lena. Yet today, as a 67-year-old retiree living in her native Sweden, she remains a little mystified by her own fame. “I’m just surprised that it never ends,” she told me recently.

While I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that Lena “remained a mystery” until now – the article itself identifies several events she’s attended in her capacity of “first lady of the Internet” – but this is still a great article about a picture that you might have seen but never understood the significance of nor the person in front of the lens. Oh, and it’s pronounced “lee-na”; did you know?

RFC-20

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The choice of this encoding has made ASCII-compatible standards the language that computers use to communicate to this day.

Even casual internet users have probably encountered a URL with “%20” in it where there logically ought to be a space character. If we look at this RFC we see this:

   Column/Row  Symbol      Name

   2/0         SP          Space (Normally Non-Printing)

Hey would you look at that! Column 2, row 0 (2,0; 20!) is what stands for “space”. When you see that “%20”, it’s because of this RFC, which exists because of some bureaucratic decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s.

Darius Kazemi is reading a single RFC every day throughout 2019 and writing up his understanding as to the content and importance of each. It’s good reading if you’re “into” RFCs and it’s probably pretty interesting if you’re just a casual Internet historian.