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?


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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.

Edge may be becoming Chromium-powered, and that’s terrible

Microsoft engineers have been spotted committing code to Chromium, the backend of Google Chrome and many other web browsers. This, among other things, has lead to speculation that Microsoft’s browser, Edge, might be planned to switch from its current rendering engine (EdgeHTML) to Blink (Chromium’s). This is bad news.

This page in Microsoft Edge
This post, as it would appear if you were looking at it in Edge. Which you might be, I suppose.

The younger generation of web developers are likely to hail this as good news: one fewer engine to develop for and test in, they’re all already using Chrome or something similar (and certainly not Edge) for development and debugging anyway, etc. The problem comes perhaps because they’re too young to remember the First Browser War and its aftermath. Let me summarise:

  1. Once upon a time – let’s call it the mid-1990s – there were several web browsers: Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, Opera, etc. They all used different rendering engines and so development was sometimes a bit of a pain, but only if you wanted to use the latest most cutting-edge features: if you were happy with the standard, established features of the Web then your site would work anywhere, as has always been the case.
    Best viewed with... any damn browser
  2. Then, everybody starting using just one browser: following some shady dealings and monopoly abuse, 90%+ of Web users started using just one web browser, Internet Explorer. By the time anybody took notice, their rivals had been economically crippled beyond any reasonable chance of recovery, but the worst had yet to come…
    Best viewed with Internet Explorer
  3. Developers started targeting only that one browser: instead of making websites, developers started making “Internet Explorer sites” which were only tested in that one browser or, worse yet, only worked at all in that browser, actively undermining the Web’s position as an open platform. As the grip of the monopoly grew tighter, technological innovation was centred around this single platform, leading to decade-long knock-on effects.
  4. The Web ceased to grow new features: from the release of Internet Explorer 6 there were no significant developments in the technology of the Web for many years. The lack of competition pushed us into a period of stagnation. A decade and a half later, we’re only just (finally) finishing shaking off this unpleasant bit of our history.
    "Netscape sux"

History looks set to repeat itself. Substitute Chrome in place of Internet Explorer and update the references to other web browsers and the steps above could be our future history, too. Right now, we’re somewhere in or around step #2 – Chrome is the dominant browser – and we’re starting to see the beginnings of step #3: more and more “Chrome only” sites. More-alarmingly this time around, Google’s position in providing many major Web services allows them to “push” even harder for this kind of change, even just subtly: if you make the switch from Chrome to e.g. Firefox (and you absolutely should) you might find that YouTube runs slower for you because YouTube’s (Google) engineers favour Google’s web browser.

Chrome is becoming the new Internet Explorer 6, and that’s a huge problem. Rachel Nabors wrote in her excellent article The Ecological Impact of Browser Diversity:

So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.

If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.

And it’s not likely to be replaced.

The Circle of Browsers, by Rachel Nabors

Imagine a planet populated only by hummingbirds, dolphins, and horses. Say all the dolphins died out. In the far, far future, hummingbirds or horses could evolve into something that could swim in the ocean like a dolphin. Indeed, ichthyosaurs in the era of dinosaurs looked much like dolphins. But that creature would be very different from a true dolphin: even ichthyosaurs never developed echolocation. We would wait a very long time (possibly forever) for a bloodline to evolve the traits we already have present in other bloodlines today. So, why is it ok to stand by or even encourage the extinction of one of these valuable, unique lineages?

We have already lost one.

We used to have four major rendering engines, but Opera halted development of its own rendering engine Presto before adopting Blink.

Three left. Spend them wisely.

As much as I don’t like having to work-around the quirks in all of the different browsers I test in, daily, it’s way preferable to a return to the dark days of the Web circa most of the first decade of this century. Please help keep browsers diverse: nobody wants to start seeing this shit –

Best viewed with Google Chrome

Update: this is now confirmed. A sad day for the Web.

The peculiar history of the Ordnance Survey

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by an author

The history of the organisation known as OS is not merely that of a group of earnest blokes with a penchant for triangulation and an ever-present soundtrack of rustling cagoules.

From its roots in military strategy to its current incarnation as producer of the rambler’s navigational aid, the government-owned company has been checking and rechecking all 243,241 sq km (93,916 sq miles) of Great Britain for 227 years. Here are some of the more peculiar elements in the past of the famous map-makers.

Learning BASIC Like It’s 1983

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C64 showing coloured barsNow, it’s Saturday morning and you’re eager to try out what you’ve learned. One of the first things the manual teaches you how to do is change the colors on the display. You follow the instructions, pressing CTRL-9 to enter reverse type mode and then holding down the space bar to create long lines. You swap between colors using CTRL-1 through CTRL-8, reveling in your sudden new power over the TV screen.

As cool as this is, you realize it doesn’t count as programming. In order to program the computer, you learned last night, you have to speak to it in a language called BASIC. To you, BASIC seems like something out of Star Wars, but BASIC is, by 1983, almost two decades old. It was invented by two Dartmouth professors, John Kemeny and Tom Kurtz, who wanted to make computing accessible to undergraduates in the social sciences and humanities. It was widely available on minicomputers and popular in college math classes. It then became standard on microcomputers after Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote the MicroSoft BASIC interpreter for the Altair. But the manual doesn’t explain any of this and you won’t learn it for many years.

One of the first BASIC commands the manual suggests you try is the PRINT command. You type in PRINT "COMMODORE 64", slowly, since it takes you a while to find the quotation mark symbol above the 2 key. You hit RETURN and this time, instead of complaining, the computer does exactly what you told it to do and displays “COMMODORE 64” on the next line.

Now you try using the PRINT command on all sorts of different things: two numbers added together, two numbers multiplied together, even several decimal numbers. You stop typing out PRINT and instead use ?, since the manual has advised you that ? is an abbreviation for PRINT often used by expert programmers. You feel like an expert already, but then you remember that you haven’t even made it to chapter three, “Beginning BASIC Programming.”

I had an Amstrad CPC, myself, but I had friends with C64s and ZX Spectrums and – being slightly older than the author – I got the opportunity to experiment with BASIC programming on all of them (and went on to write all manner of tools on the CPC 464, 664, and 6128 models). I’m fortunate to have been able to get started in programming in an era when your first experience of writing code didn’t have to start with an examination of the different language choices nor downloading and installing some kind of interpreter or compiler: microcomputers used to just drop you at a prompt which was your interpreter! I think it’s a really valuable experience for a child to have.

People don’t change

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Fundamentally, people haven’t changed much in tens of thousands of years. If ancient Egyptians had smartphones, you know full well that they’d have been posting cat pictures too. What can we learn from this and how should we look at our role when developing front-end Web experiences?

Dot-dash-diss: The gentleman hacker’s 1903 lulz

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A century ago, one of the world’s first hackers used Morse code insults to disrupt a public demo of Marconi’s wireless telegraph

Nevil Maskelyne – doing it for the lulz?

LATE one June afternoon in 1903 a hush fell across an expectant audience in the Royal Institution’s celebrated lecture theatre in London. Before the crowd, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming was adjusting arcane apparatus as he prepared to demonstrate an emerging technological wonder: a long-range wireless communication system developed by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly over long distances. Around 300 miles away, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a clifftop station in Poldhu, Cornwall, UK.

Yet before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the lecture theatre began to tap out a message. At first, it spelled out just one word repeated over and over. Then it changed into a facetious poem accusing Marconi of “diddling the public”. Their demonstration had been hacked – and this was more than 100 years before the mischief playing out on the internet today. Who was the Royal Institution hacker? How did the cheeky messages get there? And why?

An early example of hacking and a great metaphor for what would later become hacker-culture, found in the history of the wireless telegraph.

How analog TV worked

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How analog TV worked (

Today, just about all monitors and screens are digital (typically using an LCD or Plasma technology), but a decade or two ago, computer displays were based on the analog technology inherited from TV sets.

These analog displays were constructed around Cathode Rays Tubes (commonly referred to as CRTs).

Analog TV has a fascinating history from when broadcasts were first started (in Black and White), through to the adoption of color TV (using a totally backwards-compatible system with the earlier monochrome standard), through to cable, and now digital.

Analog TV transmissions and their display technology really were clever inventions (and the addition of colour is another inspiring innovation). It’s worth taking a look about how these devices work, and how they were designed, using the technology of the day.

After a couple of false starts, an analog colour TV system, that was backwards compatible with black and white, became standard in 1953, and remained unchanged until the take-over by digital TV broadcasts in the early 2000’s.

Taking Stock, Fraud

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Taking Stock, Fraud Article (
Nowadays, fraudulent online stock-trading schemes are common. But even before the first electric telegraph, two bankers committed the equivalent of modern-day Internet stock fraud.

Nowadays, fraudulent online stock-trading schemes are common. But even before the first electric telegraph, two bankers committed the equivalent of modern-day Internet stock fraud.

Fabulous article from 1999 about how two bankers in 1837 hacked additional data into the fledgling telegraph system to surreptitiously (and illicitly) send messages to give them an edge at the stock exchange. Their innovative approach is similar to modern steganographic systems that hide information in headers, metadata, or within the encoding of invisible characters.

Oxford’s Long-Lost Zoo and Wild Wolves

It’s been a while since I last hid geocache containers and it felt like it was time I gave a back some more to the community, especially as the “village” I live in has a lower cache density than it deserves (conversely, Oxford City Centre is chock-full of uninspiring magnetic nanos – although it’s improving – and saturated with puzzle caches that ultimately require a trek well outside the ring road). I’ve never been a heavyweight score-counting ‘cacher, but I’ve always had a soft spot for nice containers as large as their hiding place will permit coupled with well thought-out pieces of local interest, and that’s the kind of cache I wanted to add to my local area.

Annabel helps hunt for a place to hide a small clip-lock box (with attached chain).
Plus, my second-smallest caching-buddy was keen on getting involved with hiding containers rather than just finding them for me.

So imagine my joy when I discover a little-known piece of history about my village: that for a few years in the 1930s, we used to have a zoo! And I’m not talking about something on the scale of that place with the meercats that we used to go to: I’m talking about a proper zoo with lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). Attractions like Rosie the elephant and Hanno the lion would get mentioned in the local newspapers at every excuse, and a special bus service connected Oxford city centre to the entrance to the zoo, just outside then (then much-smaller) Kidlington village.

Entrance to Oxford Zoo
I’ve stood at the spot from which this photo was taken, and I couldn’t recognise it. A new boulevard, houses, a police station and a leisure centre dominate the view today.

Taking advantage of my readers’ card at the Bodleian Library, I was able to find newspapers and books and piece together the history of this short-lived place. Of particular interest were the unusual events of January 1937, when three wolves escaped from the zoo and caused chaos in the surrounding village and farms for several days. In a tale that sounds almost like a Marvel Comic origin story, the third wolf was eventually shot by local press photographer Johnny Johnson who chased the animal down on a borrowed bicycle.

Graph of the wild wolf population of Oxfordshire
Wild wolves in Oxfordshire were driven to extinction in the 16th century, but made a tiny comeback for a few days in the 1930s.

This formed the essence of our new geocaches: we planned four geocaches –

  1. Oxford’s Long-Lost Zoo (GC7Q96B / OK0456), representing the zoo and hidden at a corner of what used to be the grounds
  2. Oxford’s Wild Wolf One (GC7Q9E6 / OK0457), representing the first escaped wolf and hidden near to a garden it jumped into
  3. Oxford’s Wild Wolf Two (GC7Q9FF / OK0458), representing the second escaped wolf and hidden near to where it was shot by a farmer and his son
  4. Oxford’s Wild Wolf Three – not yet placed, but we’re planning a multicache series that follows places that the third wolf might have travelled through during its extended escape (the third wolf managed to stay at large for long enough to allegedly kill 13 sheep)
Decorated ammo can cache
Sticking to my aim of larger, higher-quality caches, the “zoo” cache is a decorated ammo can filled with toy animals.

Soon after the first three caches went live they were found by a local ‘cacher whose hides I’ve enjoyed before. She had nice things to say about the series, so that’s a good sign that we’re thinking in the right kind of direction. The bobbin – who’s taken a bit of an interest in local history this month and keeps now asking about the ages of buildings and where roads used to go and things – is continuing to help me set out places to hide the parts of the final cache in the series, Oxford’s Wild Wolf Three, so further excitement no-doubt awaits.

Maps Showing California as an Island – The Public Domain Review

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a post

If California were a country its economy would be the fifth largest in the world (just ahead of the UK). Yet the tech boom is not the starkest way California has ever stood apart from its neighbours. That would surely be the maps depicting it as an island, entire of itself. Below we have featured our pick of these glorious seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aberrations, from a collection of hundreds held at Stanford.

The intriguing story of how the maps came to be deserves a little mapping itself. In the 1530s Spanish explorers led by Hernán Cortés encountered the strip of land we now know as the Baja Peninsula. They mistook it for an island and called it California.

Lunar Lander

Just want to play my game without reading this whole post? Play the game here – press a key, mouse button, or touch the screen to fire the thrusters, and try to land at less than 4 m/s with as much fuel left over as possible.

In 1969, when all the nerds were still excited by sending humans to the moon instead of flinging cars around the sun, the hottest video game was Rocket (or Lunar) for the PDP-8. Originally implemented in FOCAL by high school student Jim Storer and soon afterwards ported to BASIC (the other dominant language to come as standard with microcomputers), Rocket became the precursor to an entire genre of video games called “Lunar Lander games“.

Source code of Rocket and sample output.
Like many pieces of microcomputer software of the time, Rocket was distributed as printed source code that you’d need to carefully type in at the other end.

The aim of these games was to land a spacecraft on the moon or similar body by controlling the thrust (and in some advanced versions, the rotation) of the engine. The spacecraft begins in freefall towards the surface and will accelerate under gravity: this can be counteracted with thrust, but engaging the engine burns through the player’s limited supply of fuel. Furthermore, using fuel lowers the total mass of the vessel (a large proportion of the mass of the Apollo landers was fuel for use in the descent stage) which reduces its inertia, giving the engine more “kick” which must be compensated for during the critical final stages. It sounds dry and maths-y, but I promise that graphical versions can usually be played entirely “by eye”.

Atari's Lunar Lander (1979)
Atari’s 1979 adaptation is perhaps the classic version you’d recognise, although its release was somewhat overshadowed by their other vector-graphics space-themed release in 1979: Asteroids.

Let’s fast-forward a little. In 1997 I enrolled to do my A-levels at what was then called Preston College, where my Computing tutor was a chap called Kevin Geldard: you can see him at 49 seconds into this hilariously low-fi video which I guess must have been originally shot on VHS despite being uploaded to YouTube in 2009. He’s an interesting chap in his own right whose contributions to my career in computing deserve their own blog post, but for the time being all you need to know is that he was the kind of geek who, like me, writes software “for fun” more often than not. Kevin owned a Psion 3 palmtop – part of a series of devices with which I also have a long history and interest – and he taught himself to program OPL by reimplementing a favourite game of his younger years on it: his take on the classic mid-70s-style graphical Lunar Lander.

Psion Series 3
I never owned a Psion Series 3 (pictured), but I bought a Series 5mx in early 2000 out of my second student loan cheque, ultimately wrote most of my undergraduate dissertation using it, and eventually sold it to a collector in about 2009 for almost as much as I originally paid for it. The 5mx was an amazing bit of kit. But I’ll blog about that another day, I guess.

My A-level computing class consisted of a competitive group of geeky lads, and we made sort-of a personal extracurricular challenge to ourselves of re-implementing Kevin’s take on Lunar Lander using Turbo Pascal, the primary language in which our class was taught. Many hours out-of-class were spent in the computer lab, tweaking and comparing our various implementations (with only ocassional breaks to play Spacy, CivNet, or my adaptation of LORD2): later, some of us would extend our competition by going on to re-re-implement in Delphi, Visual Basic, or Java, or by adding additional levels relating to orbital rendezvous or landing on other planetary bodies. I was quite proud of mine at the time: it was highly-playable, fun, and – at least on your first few goes – moderately challenging.

Dan's Lunar Lander (2018)
I sometimes wonder what it would have looked like if I’d have implemented my 1997 Lunar Lander today. So I did.

Always game to try old new things, and ocassionally finding time between the many things that I do to code, I decided to expand upon my recently-discovered interest in canvas coding to bring back my extracurricular Lunar Lander game of two decades ago in a modern format. My goals were:

  • A one-button version of a classic “straight descent only” lunar lander game (unlike my 1997 version, which had 10 engine power levels, this remake has just “on” and “off”)
  • An implementation based initially on real physics (although not necessarily graphically to scale)… and then adapted as necessary to give a fun/playability balance that feels good
  • Runs in a standards-compliant browser without need for plugins: HTML5, Canvas, Javascript
  • Adapts gracefully to any device, screen resolution, and orientation with graceful degredation/progressive enhancement

You can have a go at my game right here in your web browser! The aim is to reach the ground travelling at a velocity of no more than 4 m/s with the maximum amount of fuel left over: this, if anything, is your “score”. My record is 52% of fuel remaining, but honestly anything in the 40%+ range is very good. Touch the screen (if it’s a touchscreen) or press a mouse button or any key to engage your thrusters and slow your descent.

End point of Dan's Lunar Lander (2018)
“Houston, the Eagle has landed.” Kerbal Space Program, it isn’t. Here’s a very good landing: 3 m/s with 48% of the fuel tank remaining.

And of course it’s all open-source, so you’re more than welcome to take it, rip it apart, learn from it, or make something better out of it.

TFW a Twitter bot solves a video game mystery

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TFW a Twitter bot solves a video game mystery | The Video Game History Foundation on Patreon (Patreon)
Official Post from The Video Game History Foundation: Something pretty fun happened yesterday that I wanted to share with you all: a bot on Twitter accidentally provided the clue that finally solved a 28-year-old mystery about a DOS game that never shipped.Yesterday, the VGHF Twitter account was tagged in a thread by @awesomonster, who was frantically

Something pretty fun happened yesterday that I wanted to share with you all: a bot on Twitter accidentally provided the clue that finally solved a 28-year-old mystery about a DOS game that never shipped.

Yesterday, the VGHF Twitter account was tagged in a thread by @awesomonster, who was frantically trying to figure out the origins of a screenshot:

StarTribes: Myth of the Dragon Lord