Get Lost on the Web

Get lost

I got lost on the Web this week, but it was harder than I’d have liked.

The Ypsilanti Water Tower, at the intersection of Washtenaw Avenue and Cross Street, Ypsilanti, Michigan. The tower is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. An American flag and a Greek flag are flying, and a bust of the Greek general, Demetrios Ypsilantis (also commonly spelled "Demetrius Ypsilanti"), for whom the city is named, is in the foreground. Photo by Dwight Burdette, used under a Creative Commons license.
Now that’s a suggestive erection. Photo by Dwight Burdette.

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 others.

I quickly found the Wikipedia article for the Most Phallic Building Contest in 2003, so that was my jumping-off point. It’s easy enough to get lost on Wikipedia alone, but sometimes you feel the need for a primary source. I was delighted to discover that the web pages for the Most Phallic Building Contest are still online 18 years after the competition ended!

1969 shot tower at Tower Wharf, Bristol. Photo by Anthony O'Neil, used under a Creative Commons license.
The Cheese Lane Shot Tower in Bristol – politely described as a “Q-tip” shape – was built in 1969 to replace the world’s first shot tower elsewhere in the city. Photo by Anthony O’Neil.

Link rot is a serious problem on the Web, to such an extent that it’s pleasing when it isn’t present. The other year, for example, I revisited a post I wrote in 2004 and was pleased to find that a linked 2003 article by Nicholas ‘Aquarion’ Avenell is still alive at its original address! Contrast Jonathan Ames, the author/columnist/screenwriter who created the Most Phallic Building Contest until as late as 2011 before eventually letting his  site and blog lapse and fall off the Internet. It takes effort to keep Web content alive, but it’s worth more effort than it’s sometimes given.

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.

Cross-section animation showing lead shot being poured into a sieve, separating into pellets, and falling into a water bath.
The animation I saw might have been this one, or perhaps one that wasn’t so obviously-made-in-MS-Paint.

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 informative.

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.

Black & white framegrab showing a woman following her child, wearing pyjamas, towards a staircase up.
“Off to bed, you little monster. And no watching TikTok when you should be trying to sleep!”

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.

Screenshot showing Netscape Communicator running on Windows 98, showing Dan's vanity page circa 1999.
Some parts of the Web are perhaps best forgotten, though?

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.

A woman reading a map. Photo by Leah Kelly.
I suppose nowadays we don’t get lost as often outside of the Internet, either. Photo by Leah Kelly.

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.

Spy’s Guidebook Reborn

When I was a kid of about 10, one of my favourite books was Usborne’s Spy’s Guidebook. (I also liked its sister the Detective’s Handbook, but the Spy’s Guidebook always seemed a smidge cooler to me).

Detective's Handbook andSpy's Guidebook on a child's bookshelf.
I imagine that a younger version of me would approve of our 7-year-old’s bookshelf, too.

So I was pleased when our eldest, now 7, took an interest in the book too. This morning, for example, she came to breakfast with an encrypted message for me (along with the relevant page in the book that contained the cipher I’d need to decode it).

Usborne Spy's Guidebook showing the "Pocket code card" page and a coded message
Decryption efforts were hampered by sender’s inability to get her letter “Z”s the right damn way around.

Later, as we used the experience to talk about some of the easier practical attacks against this simple substitution cipher (letter frequency analysis, and known-plaintext attacks… I haven’t gotten on to the issue of its miniscule keyspace yet!), she asked me to make a pocket version of the code card as described in the book.

Three printed pocket code cards
A three-bit key doesn’t make a simple substitution cipher significantly safer, but it does serve as a vehicle to teach elementary cryptanalysis!

While I was eating leftover curry for lunch with one hand and producing a nice printable, foldable pocket card for her (which you can download here if you like) with the other, I realised something. There are likely to be a lot more messages in my future that are protected by this substitution cipher, so I might as well preempt them by implementing a computerised encoder/decoder right away.

So naturally, I did. It’s at danq.dev/spy-pocket-code and all the source code is available to do with as you please.

Key 4-1 being used to decode the message: UOMF0 7PU9V MMFKG EH8GE 59MLL GFG00 8A90P 5EMFL
Uh-oh: my cover is blown!

If you’ve got kids of the right kind of age, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Spy’s Guidebook (and possibly the Detective’s Handbook). Either use it as a vehicle to talk about codes and maths, like I have… or let them believe it’s secure while you know you can break it, like we did with Enigma machines after WWII. Either way, they eventually learn a valuable lesson about cryptography.

Having Kids In Our Poly Triad by Sara Valta

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

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

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

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

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

Why children stay silent following sexual violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude

In these challenging times, and especially because my work and social circles have me communicate regularly with people in many different countries and with many different backgrounds, I’m especially grateful for the following:

  1. My partner, her husband, and I each have jobs that we can do remotely and so we’re not out-of-work during the crisis.
  2. Our employers are understanding of our need to reduce and adjust our hours to fit around our new lifestyle now that schools and nurseries are (broadly) closed.
  3. Our kids are healthy and not at significant risk of serious illness.
  4. We’ve got the means, time, and experience to provide an adequate homeschooling environment for them in the immediate term.
  5. (Even though we’d hoped to have moved house by now and haven’t, perhaps at least in part because of COVID-19,) we have a place to live that mostly meets our needs.
  6. We have easy access to a number of supermarkets with different demographics, and even where we’ve been impacted by them we’ve always been able to work-around the where panic-buying-induced shortages have reasonably quickly.
  7. We’re well-off enough that we were able to buy or order everything we’d need to prepare for lockdown without financial risk.
  8. Having three adults gives us more hands on deck than most people get for childcare, self-care, etc. (we’re “parenting on easy mode”).
  9. We live in a country in which the government (eventually) imposed the requisite amount of lockdown necessary to limit the spread of the virus.
  10. We’ve “only” got the catastrophes of COVID-19 and Brexit to deal with, which is a bearable amount of crisis, unlike my colleague in Zagreb for example.
Bowl of ice, glasses of water, salt and sugar supplies.
Today’s homeschool science experiment was about what factors make ice melt faster. Because of course that’s the kind of thing I’d do with the kids when we’re stuck at home.

Whenever you find the current crisis getting you down, stop and think about the things that aren’t-so-bad or are even good. Stopping and expressing your gratitude for them in whatever form works for you is good for your happiness and mental health.

‘There’s zero evidence that it’s worse for children’

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

“Even at a young age, I was able to grasp the concept that my mum and dad could love more than one person,” he says. “The only thing I’ve found challenging about having three adults in my family is getting away with things, because it means more people to check up on you, to make sure you did your chores. But I also have more people around to give me lifts here and there, to help with homework and to come to my lacrosse games. The saying ‘raised by a village’ definitely applies to me. I feel like a completely normal teenager, just with polyamorous parents.”

Yet another article providing evidence to support the fact that – except for the bigotry of other people – there are no downsides to being a child of polyamorous parents. Nicely-written; I’ve sent a copy of Alan for the Poly In The Media blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water Science

This afternoon, the kids and I helped with some citizen science as part of the Thames WaterBlitz, a collaborative effort to sample water quality of the rivers, canals, and ponds of the Thames Valley to produce valuable data for the researchers of today and tomorrow.

Annabel fetches water from the canal.
Our sampling point was by bridge 228 on the Oxford Canal: the first job was fetching water.

My two little science assistants didn’t need any encouragement to get out of the house and into the sunshine and were eager to go. I didn’t even have to pull out my trump card of pointing out that there were fruiting brambles along the length of the canal. As I observed in a vlog last year, it’s usually pretty easy to motivate the tykes with a little foraging.

Annabel and John assess the colour of the canal water.
Some collaboration was undertaken to reach a consensus on the colour of the sample.

The EarthWatch Institute had provided all the chemicals and instructions we needed by post, as well as a mobile app with which to record our results (or paper forms, if we preferred). Right after lunch, we watched their instructional video and set out to the sampling site. We’d scouted out a handful of sites including some on the River Cherwell as it snakes through Kidlington but for this our first water-watch expedition we figured we’d err on the safe side and aim to target only a single site: we chose this one both because it’s close to home and because a previous year’s citizen scientist was here, too, improving the comparability of the results year-on-year.

Chemistry experiments on the banks of the Oxford Canal.
Lots of nitrates, as indicated by the colour of the left tube. Very few phosphates, as indicated by the lack of colour in the right (although it’s still a minute and a half from completing its processing time at the point this photo was taken and would darken a tiny bit yet).

Plus, this expedition provided the opportunity to continue to foster the 5 year-old’s growing interest in science, which I’ve long tried to encourage (we launched bottle rockets the other month!).

Annabel compares her sample to the colour chart.
Which colour most-resembles the colour of our reagent?

Our results are now online, and we’re already looking forward to seeing the overall results pattern (as well as taking part in next year’s WaterBlitz!).

The 5 year-old and the 2 year-old are playing at running a veterinary surgery (the 5 year-old’s department) and animal shelter (the 2 year-old’s department).

Annabel and John playing vets

The 5 year-old’s filled me in on the tragic backstory of this particular establishment: she and the 2 year-old are twins but were orphaned soon after birth. They were adopted by different families but then those families all died, too, and because everybody else in the world already had children there was nobody to adopt them and so they had to look after themselves. 67 years of schooling later, at age 15 (maths might need some work…), the pair of them decided, at the end of secondary school, that their shared love of animals meant that they should open a vet/shelter, and so they did.

When they’re not busy fitting collars for unicorns or treating yet-another-outbreak of canine chickenpox, they’re often found patrolling the streets and shouting “does anybody have any sick or injured animals?”. Except during naptime. Their work has a naptime, of course. (I wish my work had a naptime.)

It’s a tough job. Sometimes animals need quarantining in the safe. Sometimes you’ve got to fit an elderly crocodile with false teeth. Sometimes you’ve got a hippo whose owner says that it thinks it’s a duck, but thanks to your years of training you’re able to diagnose as actually thinking it’s a goose. Sometimes it’s a swan that won’t stop vomiting, or a snail that lost it’s shell and now has diarrhoea. It’s hard work, but the twins find it rewarding.

Imaginative play rocks.