Freedom of the Mountain

During a family holiday last week to the Three Valleys region of the French Alps for some skiing1, I came to see that I enjoy a privilege I call the freedom of the mountain.

In black skiwear, Dan looks into the camera from a bench in the snow, his skis upright behind him.
“Mornin’. Let’s go skiing.”

The Freedom

The freedom of the mountain is a privilege that comes from having the level of experience necessary to take on virtually any run a resort has to offer. It provides a handful of benefits denied to less-confident skiers:

  • I usually don’t feed to look at a map to plan my next route; whichever way I go will be fine!
  • When I reach one or more lifts, I can choose which to take based on the length of their queue, rather than considering their destinations.
  • When faced with a choice of pistes (or an off-piste route), my choice can be based on my mood, how crowded they are, etc., rather than their rated difficulty.
A snow-covered Alpine glacier sandwiched into a gully of exposed rocks.
Let’s tear this up, yo.

The downside is that I’m less well-equipped to consider the needs of others! Out skiing with Ruth one morning I suggested a route back into town that “felt easy” based on my previous runs, only to have her tell me that – according to the map – it probably wasn’t!

Approaching the Peak

The kids spent the week in lessons. It’s paying off: they’re both improving fast, and the eldest has got all the essentials down and it’s working on improving her parallel turns and on “reading the mountain”. It’s absolutely possible that the eldest, and perhaps both of them, will be a better skier than me someday2.

I’m not perfect, mind. While skiing backwards and filming, I misjudged the height of an arch and hit the back of the head with it… despite the child shouting to warn me! 😅

Maybe, as part of my effort to do what I’m bad at, I should have another go at learning to snowboard. I always found snowboarding frustrating because everything I needed to re-learn was something that I could already do much better and easier on skis. But perhaps if I can reframe that frustration through the lens of learning itself as the destination, I might be in a better place. One to consider for next time I hit the piste.

Footnotes

1 Also a little geocaching and some mountainside Where’s Wally?

2 Assuming snow is still a thing in ten years time.

In black skiwear, Dan looks into the camera from a bench in the snow, his skis upright behind him.× A snow-covered Alpine glacier sandwiched into a gully of exposed rocks.×

Shiftless Progressive Enhancement

Progressive enhancement is a great philosophy for Web application development. Deliver all the essential basic functionality using the simplest standards available; use advanced technologies to add bonus value and convenience features for users whose platform supports them. Win.

Screenshot showing starcharts in Three Rings. With JS disabled, all shifts within the last 3 years are shown, with a link to show historic shifts. With JS enabled, only shifts from the current calendar year are shown, with filters available to dynamically change which year(s) are covered.
JavaScript disabled/enabled is one of the most-fundamental ways to differentiate a basic from an enhanced experience, but it’s absolutely not the only way (especially now that feature detection in JavaScript and in CSS has become so powerful!).

In Three Rings, for example, volunteers can see a “starchart” of the volunteering shifts they’ve done recently, at-a-glance, on their profile page1. In the most basic case, this is usable in its HTML-only form: even with no JavaScript, no CSS, no images even, it still functions. But if JavaScript is enabled, the volunteer can dynamically “filter” the year(s) of volunteering they’re viewing. Basic progressive enhancement.

If a feature requires JavaScript, my usual approach is to use JavaScript to add the relevant user interface to the page in the first place. Those starchart filters in Three Rings don’t appear at all if JavaScript is disabled. A downside to this approach is that the JavaScript necessarily modifies the DOM on page load, which introduces a delay to the page being interactive as well as potentially resulting in layout shift.

That’s not always the best approach. I was reminded of this today by the website of 7-year-old Shiro (produced with, one assumes, at least a little help from Saneef H. Ansari). Take a look at this progressively-enhanced theme switcher:

No layout shift, no DOM manipulation. And yet it’s still pretty clear what features are available.

The HTML that’s delivered over-the-wire provides a disabled <select> element, which gains the CSS directive cursor: not-allowed;, to make it clear to the used that this dropdown doesn’t do anything. The whole thing’s wrapped in a custom element.

When that custom element is defined by the JavaScript, it enhances the dropdown with an event listener that implements the theme changes, then enables the disabled <select>.

<color-schemer>
  <form>
    <label>
      Theme
      <select disabled>
        <option value="">System</option>
        <option value="dark">Dark</option>
        <option value="light" selected>Light</option>
      </select>
    </label>
  </form>
</color-schemer>
I’m not convinced by the necessity of the <form> if there’s no HTML-only fallback… and the <label> probably should use a for="..." rather than wrapping the <select>, but otherwise this code is absolutely gorgeous.

It’s probably no inconvenience to the minority of JS-less users to see a theme switcher than, when they go to use it, turns out to be disabled. But it saves time for virtually everybody not to have to wait for JavaScript to manipulate the DOM, or else to risk shifting the layout by revealing a previously-hidden element.

Altogether, this is a really clever approach, and I was pleased today to be reminded – by a 7-year-old! – of the elegance of this approach. Nice one Shiro (and Saneef!).

Footnotes

1 Assuming that administrators at the organisation where they volunteer enable this feature for them, of course: Three Rings‘ permission model is robust and highly-customisable. Okay, that’s enough sales pitch.

Screenshot showing starcharts in Three Rings. With JS disabled, all shifts within the last 3 years are shown, with a link to show historic shifts. With JS enabled, only shifts from the current calendar year are shown, with filters available to dynamically change which year(s) are covered.×

100 Days To Offload

The ever-excellent Kev Quirk in 2020 came up with this challenge: write a blog post on each of 100 consecutive days. He called it #100DaysToOffload, in nominal reference to the “100 days of code” challenge. I was reflecting upon this as I reach this, my 36th consecutive day of blogging and my longest ever “daily streak” (itself a spin-off of my attempt at Bloganuary this year), and my 48th post of the year so far.

Monochrome photograph showing sprinters at the starting line.
I guess I’ve always been more of a sprinter/hurdles blogger than a marathon runner.

Might I meet that challenge? Maybe. But it turns out it’s easier than I thought because Kev revised the rules to require only 100 posts in a calendar year (or any other 365-day period, but I’m not going to start thinking about the maths of that).

That’s not only much more-achievable… I’ve probably already achieved it! Let’s knock out some SQL to check how many posts I made each year:

SELECT
  YEAR(wp_posts.post_date_gmt) yyyy,
  COUNT(wp_posts.ID) total
FROM
  wp_posts
WHERE
  wp_posts.post_status='publish'
  AND wp_posts.post_type='post'
GROUP BY yyyy
ORDER BY yyyy
My code’s actually a little more-complicated than this, because of some plot, but this covers the essentials.

A big question in some years is what counts as a post. Kev’s definition is quite liberal and includes basically-everything, but I wonder if mine shouldn’t perhaps be stricter. For example:

  • Should I count checkins, even though they’re not always born as blog posts but often start as logs on geocaching websites? (My gut says yes!)
  • Do reposts and bookmarks contribute, a significant minority of which are presented without any further interpretation by me? (My gut says no!)
  • Does a vlog version of a blog post count separately, or is it a continuation of the same content? (My gut says the volume is too low to matter!)
  • Can a retroactive achievement (i.e. from before the challenge was announced) count? Kev writes “there is no specific start date”, but it seems a little counter to the idea of it specifically being a challenge to claim it when you weren’t attempting the challenge at the time.
  • And so on…
Year Posts Success? Notes
1998 7 ❌ No
1999 66 ❌ No
2000 2 ❌ No
2001 11 ❌ No
2002 5 ❌ No
2003 189
(178 for pedants)
🏆 Yes Achieved 1 September, with a post about an article on The Register about timewasting. Or, if we allow reposts, three days earlier with a repost about Claire's car being claimed by the sea.
2004 374
(364 for pedants)
🏆 Yes An early win on 20 April, with a made-up Chez Geek card. Or if we allow reposts, two days earlier with thoughts on a confusing pro-life (???) website.
2005 381
(300 for pedants)
🏆 Yes In a highly-productive year of blogging, achieved on 7 April with a post about enjoy curry and public information films with friends. If we allow bookmarks (I was highly-active on del.icio.us at the time!), achieved even earlier on 18 February with some links to curious websites.
2006 206
(177 for pedants)
🏆 Yes On 21 July, I shared a personality test (which was actually my effort to repeat an experiment in using Barnum-Forer statements) - I didn't initially give away that I was the author of the "test". Non-pedants will agree I achieved the goal earlier, on 19 June, with my thoughts on a programming language for a hypothetical infinitely-fast computer.
2007 166
(160 for pedants)
🏆 Yes Achieved on 2 July with thoughts on films I'd watched and board games I'd played recently. Or arguably 12 days earlier with Claire's birthday trip to Manchester.
2008 86 ❌ No
2009 79 ❌ No
2010 159
(84 for pedants)
✅ Yes* A heartfelt post about saying goodbye to Aberystwyth as I moved to Oxford on 16 June was my 100th of the year. Pedants might argue that this year shouldn't count, but so long as you're willing to count checkins (and you should) then it would... and my qualifying post would have come only a couple of days later, with a post about the Headington Shark, which I had just moved-in near to.
2011 177
(112 for pedants)
🏆 Yes Reached the goal on 28 October when I wrote about mild successes in my enquiries with the Office of National Statistics about ensuring that information about polyamorous households was accurately recorded. Or if we earlier on 9 June with a visual gag about REM lyrics if you accept all my geocache logs as posts too (and again: you should).
2012 129
(87 for pedants)
✅ Yes* My 100th post of the year came on 28 August when I wrote about launching a bus named after my recently-deceased father. You have to be willing to accept both checkins and reposts as posts to allow this year to count.
2013 138
(59 for pedants)
😓 Probably not I'm not convined this low-blogging year should count: a clear majority of the posts were geocaching logs, and they weren't always even that verbose (consider this candidate for 100th post of 2013, from 1 October).
2014 335
(22 for pedants)
🙁 Not really Another geocache log heavy, conventional blogpost light year that I'm not convinced should count, evem if the obvious candidate for 100th post would be 18 May's cool article about geocaching like Batman!
2015 205
(18 for pedants)
🙁 Not really Still no, for the same reasons as above.
2016 163
(37 for pedants)
🙁 Not really Still no, for the same reasons as above.
2017 301
(42 for pedants)
🙁 Not really Still no, for the same reasons as above.
2018 547
(87 for pedants)
✅ Yes* I maintain that checkins should count, even when they're PESOS'd from geocaching sites, so long as they don't make up a majority of the qualifying posts in a year. In which case this year should qualify, with the 100th post being my visit to this well-hidden London pub while on my way to a conference.
2019 387
(86 for pedants)
✅ Yes* Similarly this year, when on 15 August I visited a GNSS calibration point in the San Francisco Bay Area... on the way to another conference!
2020 221
(64 for pedants)
✅ Yes* Barely made it this year (ignoring reposts, of which I did lots), with my 21 December article about a little-known (and under-supported) way to inject CSS using HTTP headers, which I later used to make a web page for which View Souce showed nothing.
2021 190
(57 for pedants)
✅ Yes* A cycle to a nearby geocache was the checkin that made the 100th post of this year, on 27 August.
2022 168
(55 for pedants)
✅ Yes* My efforts to check up on one of my own geocaches on 7 September scored the qualifying spot.
2023 164
(86 for pedants)
✅ Yes* My blogging ramped up again this year, and on 24 August I shared a motivational poster with a funny twist, plus a pun at the intersection between my sexuality and my preferred mode of transport.
2024 55 ⌛ Not yet...

* Pedants might claim this year was not a success for the reasons described above. Make your own mind up.

In any case, I’d argue that I clearly achieved the revised version of the challenge on certainly six, probably fourteen, arguably (depending on how you count posts) as many as nineteen different years since I started blogging in 1998. My least-controversial claims would be:

  1. September 2003, with Timewasting
  2. April 2004, with Chez Geek Card of the Day
  3. April 2005, with Curry with Alec and Suz
  4. July 2006, with Coolest Personality Test I’ve Ever Seen
  5. July 2007, with It’s All Fun and Games
  6. June 2010, with Saying Goodbye
  7. October 2011, with Poly and the Census – Success! (almost)
  8. August 2012, with A Bus Called Peter
  9. June 2018, with Dan Q found GLW6CMKQ 16th Century Pub (Central London) 
  10. August 2019, with Dan Q found GC6KR0H Bay Area Calibration Point #4 – New Technology
  11. December 2020, with The Fourth Way to Inject CSS
  12. August 2021, with Dan Q found GC531M9 Walk by the Firehouse #1
  13. October 2022, with Dan Q performed maintenance for GC9Z37H Friar’s Farm – Woodland Walk
  14. August 2023, with Inclusivity

Given all these unanswered questions, I’m not going to just go ahead and raise a PR against the Hall of Fame! Instead, I’ll leave it to Kev to decide whether I’m (a) eligible to claim a 14-time award, (b) merely eligible for a 4-time award for the years following the challenge starting, or (c) ineligible to claim success until I intentionally post 100 times in a year (in, at current rates, another two months…). Over to you, Kev…

Update: Kev’s agreed that I can claim the most-recent four of them, so I raised a PR.

Monochrome photograph showing sprinters at the starting line.×

Netscape’s Untold Webstories

I mentioned yesterday that during Bloganuary I’d put non-Bloganuary-prompt post ideas onto the backburner, and considered extending my daily streak by posting them in February. Here’s part of my attempt to do that:

Let’s take a trip into the Web of yesteryear, with thanks to our friends at the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine.

The page we’re interested in used to live at http://www.netscape.com/comprod/columns/webstories/index.html, and promised to be a showcase for best practice in Web development. Back in October 1996, it looked like this:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to debut in November."

The page is a placeholder for Netscape Webstories (or Web Site Stories, in some places). It’s part of a digital magazine called Netscape Columns which published pieces written by Marc Andreeson, Jim Barksdale, and other bigwigs in the hugely-influential pre-AOL-acquisition Netscape Communications.

This new series would showcase best practice in designing and building Web sites1, giving a voice to the technical folks best-placed to speak on that topic. That sounds cool!

Those white boxes above and below the paragraph of text aren’t missing images, by the way: they’re horizontal rules, using the little-known size attribute to specify a thickness of <hr size=4>!2

Certainly you’re excited by this new column and you’ll come back in November 1996, right?

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in January."

Oh. The launch has been delayed, I guess. Now it’s coming in January.

The <hr>s look better now their size has been reduced, though, so clearly somebody’s paying attention to the page. But let’s take a moment and look at that page title. If you grew up writing web pages in the modern web, you might anticipate that it’s coded something like this:

<h2 style="font-variant: small-caps; text-align: center;">Coming Soon</h2>

There’s plenty of other ways to get that same effect. Perhaps you prefer font-feature-settings: 'smcp' in your chosen font; that’s perfectly valid. Maybe you’d use margin: 0 auto or something to centre it: I won’t judge.

But no, that’s not how this works. The actual code for that page title is:

<center>
  <h2>
    <font size="+3">C</font>OMING
    <font size="+3">S</font>OON
  </h2>
</center>

Back when this page was authored, we didn’t have CSS3. The only styling elements were woven right in amongst the semantic elements of a page4. It was simple to understand and easy to learn… but it was a total mess5.

Anyway, let’s come back in January 1997 and see what this feature looks like when it’s up-and-running.

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring."

Nope, now it’s pushed back to “the spring”.

Under Construction pages were all the rage back in the nineties. Everybody had one (or several), usually adorned with one or more of about a thousand different animated GIFs for that purpose.6

Rotating animated "under construction" banner.

Building “in public” was an act of commitment, a statement of intent, and an act of acceptance of the incompleteness of a digital garden. They’re sort-of coming back into fashion in the interpersonal Web, with the “garden and stream” metaphor7 taking root. This isn’t anything new, of course – Mark Bernstein touched on the concepts in 1998 – but it’s not something that I can ever see returning to the “serious” modern corporate Web: but if you’ve seen a genuine, non-ironic “under construction” page published to a non-root page of a company’s website within the last decade, please let me know!

Under construction banner with an animated yellow-and-black tape banner between two "men at work" signs.

RSS doesn’t exist yet (although here’s a fun fact: the very first version of RSS came out of Netscape!). We’re just going to have to bookmark the page and check back later in the year, I guess…

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page identical to the previous version but with a search box ("To search the Netscape Columns, type a word or phrase here:") beneath.

Okay, so February clearly isn’t Spring, but they’ve updated the page… to add a search form.

It’s a genuine <form> tag, too, not one of those old-fashioned <isindex> tags you’d still sometimes find even as late as 1997. Interestingly, it specifies enctype="application/x-www-form-urlencoded". Today’s developers probably don’t think about the enctype attribute except when they’re doing a form that handles file uploads and they know they need to switch it to enctype="multipart/form-data", (or their framework does this automatically for them!).

But these aren’t the only options, and some older browsers at this time still defaulted to enctype="text/plain".  So long as you’re using a POST and not GET method, the distinction is mostly academic, but if your backend CGI program anticipates that special characters will come-in encoded, back then you’d be wise to specify that you wanted URL-encoding or you might get a nasty surprise when somebody turns up using LMB or something equally-exotic.

Anyway, let’s come back in June. The content must surely be up by now:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in August."

Oh come on! Now we’re waiting until August?

At least the page isn’t abandoned. Somebody’s coming back and editing it from time to time to let us know about the still-ongoing series of delays. And that’s not a trivial task: this isn’t a CMS. They’re probably editing the .html file itself in their favourite text editor, then putting the appropriate file:// address into their copy of Netscape Navigator (and maybe other browsers) to test it, then uploading the file – probably using FTP – to the webserver… all the while thanking their lucky stars that they’ve only got the one page they need to change.

We didn’t have scripting languages like PHP yet, you see8. We didn’t really have static site generators. Most servers didn’t implement server-side includes. So if you had to make a change to every page on a site, for example editing the main navigation menu, you’d probably have to open and edit dozens or even hundreds of pages. Little wonder that framesets caught on, despite their (many) faults, with their ability to render your navigation separately from your page content.

Okay, let’s come back in August I guess:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring." Again.

Now we’re told that we’re to come back… in the Spring again? That could mean Spring 1998, I suppose… or it could just be that somebody accidentally re-uploaded an old copy of the page.

Hey: the footer’s gone too? This is clearly a partial re-upload: somebody realised they were accidentally overwriting the page with the previous-but-one version, hit “cancel” in their FTP client (or yanked the cable out of the wall), and assumed that they’d successfully stopped the upload before any damage was done.

They had not.

Screenshot of a Windows 95 dialog box, asking "Are you sure you want to delete index.html?" The cursor hovers over the "Yes" button.

I didn’t mention that top menu, did I? It looks like it’s a series of links, styled to look like flat buttons, right? But you know that’s not possible because you can’t rely on having the right fonts available: plus you’d have to do some <table> trickery to lay it out, at which point you’d struggle to ensure that the menu was the same width as the banner above it. So how did they do it?

The menu is what’s known as a client-side imagemap. Here’s what the code looks like:

<a href="/comprod/columns/images/nav.map">
  <img src="/comprod/columns/images/websitestories_ban.gif" width=468 height=32 border=0 usemap="#maintopmap" ismap>
</a><map name="mainmap">
  <area coords="0,1,92,24" href="/comprod/columns/mainthing/index.html">
  <area coords="94,1,187,24" href="/comprod/columns/techvision/index.html">
  <area coords="189,1,278,24" href="/comprod/columns/webstories/index.html">
  <area coords="280,1,373,24" href="/comprod/columns/intranet/index.html">
  <area coords="375,1,467,24" href="/comprod/columns/newsgroup/index.html">
</map>

The image (which specifies border=0 because back then the default behaviour for graphical browser was to put a thick border around images within hyperlinks) says usemap="#maintopmap" to cross-reference the <map> below it, which defines rectangular areas on the image and where they link to, if you click them! This ingenious and popular approach meant that you could transmit a single image – saving on HTTP round-trips, which were relatively time-consuming before widespread adoption of HTTP/1.1‘s persistent connections – along with a little metadata to indicate which pixels linked to which pages.

The ismap attribute is provided as a fallback for browsers that didn’t yet support client-side image maps but did support server-side image maps: there were a few! When you put ismap on an image within a hyperlink, then when the image is clicked on the href has appended to it a query parameter of the form ?123,456, where those digits refer to the horizontal and vertical coordinates, from the top-left, of the pixel that was clicked on! These could then be decoded by the webserver via a .map file or handled by a CGI program. Server-side image maps were sometimes used where client-side maps were undesirable, e.g. when you want to record the actual coordinates picked in a spot-the-ball competition or where you don’t want to reveal in advance which hotspot leads to what destination, but mostly they were just used as a fallback.9

Both client-side and server-side image maps still function in every modern web browser, but I’ve not seen them used in the wild for a long time, not least because they’re hard (maybe impossible?) to make accessible and they can’t cope with images being resized, but also because nowadays if you really wanted to make an navigation “image” you’d probably cut it into a series of smaller images and make each its own link.

Anyway, let’s come back in October 1997 and see if they’ve fixed their now-incomplete page:

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: the Coming Soon page is now laid out in two columns, but the expected launch date has been removed.

Oh, they have! From the look of things, they’ve re-written the page from scratch, replacing the version that got scrambled by that other employee. They’ve swapped out the banner and menu for a new design, replaced the footer, and now the content’s laid out in a pair of columns.

There’s still no reliable CSS, so you’re not looking at columns: (no implementations until 2014) nor at display: flex (2010) here. What you’re looking at is… a fixed-width <table> with a single row and three columns! Yes: three – the middle column is only 10 pixels wide and provides the “gap” between the two columns of text.10

This wasn’t Netscape’s only option, though. Did you ever hear of the <multicol> tag? It was the closest thing the early Web had to a semantically-sound, progressively-enhanced multi-column layout! The author of this page could have written this:

<multicol cols=2 gutter=10 width=301>
  <p>
    Want to create the best possible web site? Join us as we explore the newest
    technologies, discover the coolest tricks, and learn the best secrets for
    designing, building, and maintaining successful web sites.
  </p>
  <p>
    Members of the Netscape web site team, recognized designers, and technical
    experts will share their insights and experiences in Web Site Stories. 
  </p>
</multicol>

That would have given them the exact same effect, but with less code and it would have degraded gracefully. Browsers ignore tags they don’t understand, so a browser without support for <multicol> would have simply rendered the two paragraphs one after the other. Genius!

So why didn’t they? Probably because <multicol> only ever worked in Netscape Navigator.

Introduced in 1996 for version 3.0, this feature was absolutely characteristic of the First Browser War. The two “superpowers”, Netscape and Microsoft, both engaged in unilateral changes to the HTML specification, adding new features and launching them without announcement in order to try to get the upper hand over the other. Both sides would often refuse to implement one-another’s new tags unless they were forced to by widespread adoption by page authors, instead promoting their own competing mechanisms11.

Between adding this new language feature to their browser and writing this page, Netscape’s market share had fallen from around 80% to around 55%, and most of their losses were picked up by IE. Using <multicol> would have made their page look worse in Microsoft’s hot up-and-coming browser, which wouldn’t have helped them persuade more people to download a copy of Navigator and certainly wouldn’t be a good image on a soon-to-launch (any day now!) page about best-practice on the Web! So Netscape’s authors opted for the dominant, cross-platform solution on this page12.

Anyway, let’s fast-forward a bit and see this project finally leave its “under construction” phase and launch!

Screenshot showing the homepage of Netscape Columns from 15 February 1998; the first recorded copy NOT to have a header link to the Webstories / Web Site Stories page.

Oh. It’s gone.

Sometime between October 1997 and February 1998 the long promised “Web Site Stories” section of Netscape Columns quietly disappeared from the website. Presumably, it never published a single article, instead remaining a perpetual “Coming Soon” page right up until the day it was deleted.

I’m not sure if there’s a better metaphor for Netscape’s general demeanour in 1998 – the year in which they finally ceased to be the dominant market leader in web browsers – than the quiet deletion of a page about how Netscape customers are making the best of the Web. This page might not have been important, or significant, or even completed, but its disappearance may represent Netscape’s refocus on trying to stay relevant in the face of existential threat.

Of course, Microsoft won the First Browser War. They did so by pouring a fortune’s worth of developer effort into staying technologically one-step ahead, refusing to adopt standards proposed by their rival, and their unprecedented decision to give away their browser for free13.

Footnotes

1 Yes, we used to write “Web sites” as two words. We also used to consistently capitalise the words Web and Internet. Some of us still do so.

2 In case it’s not clear, this blog post is going to be as much about little-known and archaic Web design techniques as it is about Netscape’s website.

3 This is a white lie. CSS was first proposed almost at the same time as the Web! Microsoft Internet Explorer was first to deliver a partial implementation of the initial standard, late in 1996, but Netscape dragged their heels, perhaps in part because they’d originally backed a competing standard called JavaScript Style Sheets (JSSS). JSSS had a lot going for it: if it had enjoyed widespread adoption, for example, we’d have had the equivalent of CSS variables a full twenty years earlier! In any case, back in 1996 you definitely wouldn’t want to rely on CSS support.

4 Wondering where the text and link colours come from? <body bgcolor="#ffffff" text="#000000" link="#0000ff" vlink="#ff0000" alink="#ff0000">. Yes really, that’s where we used to put our colours.

5 Personally, I really loved the aesthetic Netscape touted when using Times New Roman (or whatever serif font was available on your computer: webfonts weren’t a thing yet) with temporary tweaks to font sizes, and I copied it in some of my own sites. If you look back at my 2018 blog post celebrating two decades of blogging, where I’ve got a screenshot of my blog as it looked circa 1999, you’ll see that I used exactly this technique for the ordinal suffixes on my post dates! On the same post, you’ll see that I somewhat replicated the “feel” of it again in my 2011 design, this time using a stylesheet.

6 There’s a whole section of Cameron’s World dedicated to “under construction” banners, and that’s a beautiful thing!

7 The idea of “garden and stream” is that you publish early and often, refining as you go, in your garden, which can act as an extension of whatever notetaking system you use already, but publish mostly “finished” content to your (chronological) stream. I see an increasing number of IndieWeb bloggers going down this route, but I’m not convinced that it’s for me.

8 Another white lie. PHP was released way back in 1995 and even the very first version supported something a lot like server-side includes, using the syntax <!--include /file/name.html-->. But it was a little computationally-intensive to run willy-nilly.

9 Server-side imagemaps are enjoying a bit of a renaissance on .onion services, whose visitors often keep JavaScript disabled, to make image-based CAPTCHAs. Simply show the visitor an image and describe the bit you want them to click on, e.g. “the blue pentagon with one side missing”, then compare the coordinates of the pixel they click on to the knowledge of the right answer. Highly-inaccessible, of course, but innovative from a purely-technical perspective.

10 Nowadays, use of tables for layout – or, indeed, for anything other than tabular data – is very-much frowned upon: it’s often bad for accessibility and responsive design. But back before we had the features granted to us by the modern Web, it was literally the only way to get content to appear side-by-side on a page, and designers got incredibly creative about how they misused tables to lay out content, especially as browsers became more-sophisticated and began to support cells that spanned multiple rows or columns, tables “nested” within one another, and background images.

11 It was a horrible time to be a web developer: having to make hacky workarounds in order to make use of the latest features but still support the widest array of browsers. But I’d still take that over the horrors of rendering engine monoculture!

12 Or maybe they didn’t even think about it and just copy-pasted from somewhere else on their site. I’m speculating.

13 This turned out to be the master-stroke: not only did it partially-extricate Microsoft from their agreement with Spyglass Inc., who licensed their browser engine to Microsoft in exchange for a percentage of sales value, but once Microsoft started bundling Internet Explorer with Windows it meant that virtually every computer came with their browser factory-installed! This strategy kept Microsoft on top until Firefox and Google Chrome kicked-off the Second Browser War in the early 2010s. But that’s another story.

Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to debut in November."× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in January."× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring."× Rotating animated "under construction" banner.× Under construction banner with an animated yellow-and-black tape banner between two "men at work" signs.× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page identical to the previous version but with a search box ("To search the Netscape Columns, type a word or phrase here:") beneath.× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in August."× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: a Coming Soon page which says "The series is scheduled to begin in the spring." Again.× Screenshot of a Windows 95 dialog box, asking "Are you sure you want to delete index.html?" The cursor hovers over the "Yes" button.× Screenshot from Netscape Columns: Web Site Stories: the Coming Soon page is now laid out in two columns, but the expected launch date has been removed.× Screenshot showing the homepage of Netscape Columns from 15 February 1998; the first recorded copy NOT to have a header link to the Webstories / Web Site Stories page.×

Reflecting on Bloganuary

Well that was Bloganuary! It was pressuring, exhausting, and – mostly! – fun. Let’s recap what I wrote about each day of January:

  1. My Biggest Challenge, for which I pointed at motivation in the winter and how that was a major part of my motivation for trying to participate in Bloganuary in the first place! I also touched on the difficulty of staying on-task.
Chart showing number of articles on DanQ.me by month of year, with a pronounced dip starting in January and continuing through until a rebound in April.
Early in January I shared this chart which indicates the severity of the “dip” I typically see in my blog output in the first few months of the year. Could I overcome this through sheer determination, I wondered?
  1. Playtime. I talked about some of the “play” activities I engage in, including roleplaying games, board games, videogames, escape rooms, and GNSS games.
  2. Alumnus: an exploration of the higher education establishments I’ve been part of.
  3. The Gift of Time, when I talked about being time-poor and seemingly perpetually-busy and expressed my love of gifts that help me reclaim that time.
  4. Nostalgia vs Futurism. I spend comparable amounts of time thinking about the future as the past, I reckon.
  5. Billboards: a silly joke about a billboard.
  6. A Different Diet, talking about aspiring towards something slightly-closer to veganism, perhaps starting by reducing my dairy consumption.
  7. Live Long and Prosper, in which I commemorate my birthday by talking about the dangers of humans living much longer than they do.
  8. Mission, another silly joke.
King Arthur again, but now he says "I wanna, like, make cool shit on the Internet or whatever."
You and me both, Arthur, King of the Britons.
  1. Attachment, about how I didn’t really have an “attachment object” as a kid.
  2. Paws to Hear my Scents-ible Idea: a silly pitch for a smell-based social network for dogs.
  3. Pizza, a post about the greatest food ever invented.
  4. Road Trip! After ruling out a series of runners-up, perhaps my most-memorable road trip was the one to Kit’s wedding.
  5. Communicate Early, Communicate Often, about the ways I communicate online (spoiler: a lot of it’s right here!).
  6. Magpies are the Best Bird. Nay, the best animal.
  7. Clutter, about the clutter in my physical space but perhaps even more in my head.
  8. Puppy Love: the unconditional love of a dog.
  9. Uninvention, in which I propose uninventing cryptocurrency.
  10. Leadership: I revisited an old post about the qualities I admire in leaders; it’s still true.
  11. Dream Job – am I already doing my dream job? Maybe, though perhaps it isn’t the one that pays me!
  12. What’s in a name? My name today is one I chose for myself, but it’s not the only name I’ve been known by. I revisit the names I’ve been called and what they’ve meant.
  13. New Tricks, about how convenient it’d be to be able to explain to our dog that the builders in our house are not here to steal her toys.
  14. Fun Five: five things I do for fun – code, magic, play, piano, learn. A bit of a parallel to “Playtime” from day 2.
  1. Harcourt Manor, a local attraction I’ve never gotten to see inside.
  2. Landslide, the spectacular song that inspired this post because I didn’t objected to the original prompt.
  3. Traditions my family practices, some of which are pretty unique to us.
  4. Reading List, about how mine is pretty long this time of year, but that doesn’t stop me thinking about what I might re-read next.
  5. Not The Lottery, a game I play that’s… well… not the lottery. And how if I played the actual lottery (and somehow won), how I’d do my “dream job” from day 18.
  6. Sportsball! I don’t really play or follow any sports, but that doesn’t stop me writing a diatribe of what’s wrong with professional soccer.
  7. Toilet Paper is typically mounted on a holder in one of two polarities. One of those orientations is an abomination.
  8. The Fear of expressing vulnerability is real in this final Bloganuary entry.

So yeah: 31 posts in as many days! Actually, it was closer to 40, because on a couple of days I wrote non-Bloganuary posts too:

Generating a chart...
If this message doesn't go away, the JavaScript that makes this magic work probably isn't doing its job right: please tell Dan so he can fix it.

Of course, with the addition of this post, it’s now 32+ posts in 32 days. As I’ve noted before, this is my longest daily streak in over 25 years of blogging… and I’m genuinely a little curious how much longer I can keep it up. There are lots of things I meant to write about last month but simply didn’t have time: if I dusted off a few of those ideas I could push on a few days longer. My longest unstreak or “dry spell” – the longest number of consecutive days I’ve gone without making a post – is 42 days: could I beat that? That’d be a special level of personal best.

Trophy on a desk with the plaque "most pointless blog posts".
Wait, is that “most pointless” in quality, or most “pointless posts” as in quantity?

I initially aimed to fuel and inspire my blogging at the start of this year in a more-interpersonal way, by making some pen pals and writing about the experience of that. Except I ran slightly late with my first (and haven’t written it up yet) and even later with my second (on account of winter blues plus spending any spare “blogging” time doing Bloganuary) so that project’s already way off track. Still aiming to catch-up though.

But I’m pleased to have been able to throw out 20,000 words of prompt-driven blog posts too, even if some of the prompts were weaker than others!

Chart showing number of articles on DanQ.me by month of year, with a pronounced dip starting in January and continuing through until a rebound in April.× King Arthur again, but now he says "I wanna, like, make cool shit on the Internet or whatever."× Trophy on a desk with the plaque "most pointless blog posts".×

Automattic Shakeup

My employer Automattic‘s having a bit of a reorganisation. For unrelated reasons, this coincides with my superteam having a bit of a reorganisation, too, and I’m going to be on a different team next week than I’ve been on for most of the 4+ years I’ve been there1. Together, these factors mean that I have even less idea than usual what I do for a living, right now.

Dan, wearing an Oxford-branded t-shirt, shrugs and looks confused in front of a screen showing Automattic's "Work With Us" page.
What is it I do here again? Something something code WooCommerce something something marketplace awesome something, right?

On the whole, I approve of Matt‘s vision for this reorganisation. He writes:

Each [Automattic employee] gets a card: Be the Host, Help the Host, or Neutral.

You cannot change cards during the course of your day or week. If you do not feel aligned with your card, you need to change divisions within Automattic.

“Be the Host” folks are all about making Automattic’s web hosting offerings the best they possibly can be. These are the teams behind WordPress.com, VIP, and Tumblr, for example. They’re making us competitive on the global stage. They bring Automattic money in a very direct way, by making our (world class) hosting services available to our customers.

“Help the Host” folks (like me) are in roles that are committed to providing the best tools that can be used anywhere. You might run your copy of Woo, Jetpack, or (the client-side bit of) Akismet on Automattic infrastructure… or alternatively you might be hosted by one of our competitors or even on your own hardware. What we bring to Automattic is more ethereal: we keep the best talent and expertise in these technologies close to home, but we’re agnostic about who makes money out of what we create.

A laptop computer on a desk, showing a WordPress wp-admin page.
This stock photo confuses me so much that I had to use it. It’s WordPress, as seen in Chrome on Windows Vista… but running on a MacBook Air. The photographer has tried to blur their site domain name (but it’s perfectly readable), but hasn’t concealed the fact they’re running µTorrent in the background (for Obviously Legal Reasons, I’m sure). Weird. But the important thing is that, crazy as this person’s choices are, they can use Automattic’s software however they like. It’s cool.

Anyway: I love the clarification on the overall direction of the company… but I’m not sure how we market it effectively2. I look around at the people in my team and its sister teams, all of us proudly holding our “Help the Hosts” cards and ready to work to continue to make Woo an amazing ecommerce platform wherever you choose to host it.

And obviously I can see the consumer value in that. It’s reassuring to know that the open source software we maintain or contribute to is the real deal and we’re not exporting a cut-down version nor are we going to try to do some kind of rug pull to coerce people into hosting with us. I think Automattic’s long track record shows that.

But how do we sell that? How do we explain that “hey, you can trust us to keep these separate goals separate within our company, so there’s never a conflict of interest and you getting the best from us is always what we want”? Personally, seeing the inside of Automattic, I’m convinced that we’re not – like so much of Big Tech – going to axe the things you depend upon3 or change the terms and conditions to the most-exploitative we can get away with4 or support your business just long enough to be able to undermine and consume it 5.

In short: I know that we’re the “good guys”. And I can see how this reorganisation reinforces that. But I can’t for the life of me see how we persuade the rest of the world of the fact6.

Any ideas?

Footnotes

1 I’ve been on Team Fire for a long while, which made my job title “Code Magician on Fire”, but now I’ll be on Team Desire which isn’t half as catchy a name but I’m sure they’ll make up for it by being the kinds of awesome human beings I’ve become accustomed to working alongside at Automattic.

2 Fortunately they pay me to code, not to do marketing.

3 Cough… Google.

4 Ahem… Facebook.

5 ${third_coughing_sound}… Amazon.

6 Seriously, it’s a good thing I’m not in marketing. I’d be so terrible at it. Also public relations. Did I ever tell you the story about the time that, as a result of a mix-up, I accidentally almost gave an interview to the Press Office at the Vatican? A story for another time, perhaps

Dan, wearing an Oxford-branded t-shirt, shrugs and looks confused in front of a screen showing Automattic's "Work With Us" page.× A laptop computer on a desk, showing a WordPress wp-admin page.×

Happy Birthday Matt

I wrote about the best (birthday) gift I could receive last week – conveniently right before my actual birthday at the weekend! – but my employer‘s CBBQTTO Matt has an even more abstract wish: he wants people to blog more! (Matt’s three years younger than me, almost exactly to the day.)

Conveniently, that’s a gift I’m able to provide, because my (now trackable) blogging output has been way up so far this year. I expected that to be the case because of my Bloggy Pen Pals project, but I’ve not even managed to get around to writing about my experience of exchanging emails with my first penpal partner Colin yet! Instead, I’ve been swept up with writing posts as part of Bloganuary 2024!

Making a conscious daily effort to write more has been… challenging. I feel like my thoughts come out half-finished, like I’m writing too trivially, without sufficient structure, or even too-personally. But I’m loving the challenge!

Anyway – happy birthday Matt! Forty is a great age, highly recommended. Hope you love it.

It Is Only Q

The programmers at British Gas are among the many who don’t believe that a surname can be only a single character, and their customer service agents have clearly worked around their validations (or just left a note for themselves in the problematic field!)… leading to hilarious postal mail1:

Letter from British Gas addressed to "Mr Dan Q (it Is Only Q)" and opening with "Hello Mr Q (it Is Only Q)".

Update

This is getting a lot of attention, so I just wanted to add:

Footnotes

1 I’m ignoring for the moment that they’re using the wrong title for me.

Letter from British Gas addressed to "Mr Dan Q (it Is Only Q)" and opening with "Hello Mr Q (it Is Only Q)".×

They See Me (Blog)Rolling

Tracy Durnell’s post about blogrolls really spoke to me. Like her, I used to think of a blogroll as a list of people you know personally (who happen to blog)1, but the number of bloggers among my immediate in-person circle of friends has shrunk from several dozen to just a handful, and I dropped my blogroll in around 2008.

A white man wearing a spacesuit sits on a pebble beach using a laptop.
On the Internet, a blogger is only as alone as they choose to be.

But my connection to a wider circle has grown, and like Tracy I enjoy the “hardly strangers” connection I feel with the people I follow online. She writes:

While social media emphasizes the show-off stuff — the vacation in Puerto Vallarta, the full kitchen remodel, the night out on the town — on blogs it still seems that people are sharing more than signalling. These small pleasures seem to be offered in a spirit of generosity — this is too beautiful not to share.

Although I may never interact with all the folks whose blogs I follow, reading the same blogger for a long time does build a (one-sided) connection. I may not know you, author, but I am rooting for you. It’s a different modality of relationship than we may be used to in person, but it’s real: a parasocial relationship simmering with the potential for deeper connection, but also satisfying as it exists.

My first bloggy pan pal, Colin Walker, who I started exchanging emails with earlier this month, followed-up on this with an observation that really gets to the heart of the issue (speaking as somebody who’s long said that my blog’s intended audience is, first and foremost, me):

At its core, blogging is a solitary activity with many (if not most) authors claiming that their blog is for them – myself included. Yet, the implication of audience cannot be ignored. Indeed, the more an author embeds themself in the loose community of blogs, by reading and linking to others, the more that implication becomes reality even if not actively pursued via comments or email.

To that end: I’ve started publishing my blogroll again! Follow that link and you’ll see an only-lightly-curated list of all the people (plus some non-personal blogs, vlogs, and webcomics) I follow (that have updated their feeds within the last year2). Naturally, there’s an OPML version too, and I’ve open-sourced the code I used to generate it (although I can’t imagine anybody’s situation is enough like mine for it to be useful).

The page is a little flaky and there’s things I’d like to do to improve it, but I’d rather publish a basic version now and then come back to it with my gardening gloves on another time to improve it.

Maybe my blogroll has some folks on that you might recognise? Or else: maybe you’re only a single random-click away from somebody new you never heard of before!

Footnotes

1 Possibly marked up with XFN to indicate how you’re connected to one another, but I’ve always had a soft spot for XFN.

2 I often retain subscriptions to dormant feeds and it sometimes pays-off, e.g. when I recently celebrated Octopuns’ return after a 9½-year hiatus!

A white man wearing a spacesuit sits on a pebble beach using a laptop.×

The Underground Blog

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

theunderground.blog is an experimental blog that is only available to read through a feed reader.

If you would like to read the latest posts, you can subscribe to the feed at https://theunderground.blog/feed.xml, using the feed reader of your choice.

Chris first suggested this idea in the footnote of a post that talks about something I’ve been witnessing recently: that blogging seems to be having a renaissance1. I’ve for a few years been telling people that now is the second-best time to start a blog. The best time was, of course, ~20 years ago, but if you missed out first time around (or let your blog die as big social media silos took over): now’s the time to join the growing resurgence!

Anyway, he only went and actually did it! The newest member of RSS Club is likely to be… an entire blog that’s only accessible via a feed reader2.

There’s two posts published so far, and if you want to read them you’ll need to subscribe to theunderground.blog using your feed reader. There’s tips on that page on getting an easy-to-use one if you haven’t already.

Footnotes

1 He also had interesting things to say about OPML, which is a topic close to my heart. I wonder if I ought to start sharing a partial OPML file of my subscriptions?

2 Or by reading the source code, I suppose: on the open Web, that’s always an option. The Web is, indeed, magical.

Magician Roles

Because I work somewhere hip enough to let people tweak their job titles, mine is “Code Magician”.

Employee directory photocard showing "Dan Q, Code Magician on Fire (Woo), started Oct 18th, 2019".

LinkedIn isn’t as hip as Automattic, though. That’s why they keep emailing me sector updates… for the “Magician” sector… 😅

Email from LinkedIn with the subject "Hiring trends for Magician roles".

Employee directory photocard showing "Dan Q, Code Magician on Fire (Woo), started Oct 18th, 2019".× Email from LinkedIn with the subject "Hiring trends for Magician roles".×

I don’t want your data

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

The web loves data. Data about you. Data about who you are, about what you do, what you love doing, what you love eating.

I, on the other end, couldn’t care less about your data. I don’t run analytics on this website. I don’t care which articles you read, I don’t care if you read them. I don’t care about which post is the most read or the most clicked. I don’t A/B test, I don’t try to overthink my content. I just don’t care.

Manu speaks my mind. Among the many hacks I’ve made to this site, I actively try not to invade on your privacy by collecting analytics, and I try not to let others to so either!

My blog is for myself first and foremost (if you enjoy it too, that’s just a bonus). This leads to two conclusions:

  1. If I’m the primary audience, I don’t need analytics (because I know who I am), and
  2. I don’t want to be targeted by invasive analytics (and use browser extensions to block them, e.g. I by-default block all third-party scripts, delete cookies from non-allowlisted domains 15 seconds after navigating away from sites, etc.); so I’d prefer them not to be on a site for which I’m the primary audience!

I’ve gone into more detail about this on my privacy page and hinted at it on my colophon. But I don’t know if anybody ever reads either of those pages, of course!

FreeDeedPoll.org.uk, Punk Rock Edition

A Birmingham-based punky trio, Luxury Nan Smell, have released an EP called (Derogatory). The first track on that album? freedeedpoll.org.uk. Named in reference to my website of the same name.

Album cover art for (Derogatory), showing the title in pink cursive script over a three small white ovoid pills dissolving on the ground. The words "luxury nan smell" are carved into the pills.

Naturally, I was delighted, not least because it gives me an excuse to use the “deed poll” and “music” tags simultaneously on a post for the first time.

Don’t ask me what my “real” name is,
I’ve already told you what it was,
And I’m planning on burning my birth certificate.

The song’s about discovering and asserting self-identity through an assumed, rather than given, name. Which is fucking awesome.

Screenshot showing freedeedpoll.org.uk
The website’s basically unchanged for most of a decade and a half, and… umm… it looks it. I really ought to get around to improving and enhancing it someday.

Like virtually all of my sites, including this one, freedeedpoll.org.uk deliberately retains minimal logs and has no analytics tools. As a result, I have very little concept of how popular it is, how widely it’s used etc., except when people reach out to me.

People do: I get a few emails every month from people who’ve got questions1, or who are having trouble getting their homemade deed poll accepted by troublesome banks. I’m happy to help them, but without additional context, I can’t be sure whether these folks represent the entirety of the site’s users, a tiny fraction, or somewhere in-between.

So it’s obviously going to be a special surprise for me to have my website featured in a song.

Screengrab from a video in which a vlogger holds up their freedeedpoll.org.uk deed poll.
Out of curiosity, I searched around for a bit and discovered a surprising amount of chatter about my site on social media, like this charming guy who talked about his experience of changing his name.

I’ve been having a challenging couple of weeks2, and it was hugely uplifting for me to bump into these appreciative references to my work in the wider Internet.

Footnotes

1 Common questions I receive are about legal gender recognition, about changing the names of children, about changing one’s name while still a minor without parental consent, or about citizenship requirements. I’ve learned a lot about some fascinating bits of law.

2 I’ve been struggling with a combination of the usual challenges at this time of year and a lack of self-care and also a handful of bonus household stresses: everything seems to be breaking all at once!

The Frosted Pane

Pagan Wanderer Lu‘s new album Planets In The Wires dropped today, and I just cried my eyes out at track 5 (The Frosted Pane).

It opens almost apologetically, like an explanation for the gap in new releases for most of the twenty-teens. But it quickly becomes a poetic exploration of a detached depression of a man trapped under the weight of the world. It’s sad, and beautiful, and relatable.

It Takes Two

Lately, Ruth and I have been learning to dance Argentine Tango.

In a church hall, its walls decorated with colourful cloths, Dan and Ruth stand in a large circle of people, watching a man and a woman preparing to demonstrate some tango steps.
Stand with both feet together on the floor? Sure, I can do that one.

Let me tell you everything I know about tango1:

  1. It takes two to tango.
  2. I am not very good at tango.
Dan, wearing a black t-shirt and holding a glass of wine, looks sceptically at the camera as he stands in front of a television screen showing a couple dancing, with the title frame "La Caminata: Introduction to Walking in Tango (Core Steps)".
Our lessons started online, in our own living room, with videos from Tango Stream‘s “Tango Basics” series. It was a really good introduction and I’d recommend it, but it’s no substitute for practice!

This adventure began, in theory at least, on my birthday in January. I’ve long expressed an interest in taking a dance class together, and so when Ruth pitched me a few options for a birthday gift, I jumped on the opportunity to learn tango. My knowledge of the dance was basically limited to what I’d seen in films and television, but it had always looked like such an amazing dance: careful, controlled… synchronised, sexy.

After shopping around for a bit, Ruth decided that the best approach was for us to do a “beginners” video course in the comfort of our living room, and then take a weekend getaway to do an “improvers” class.

After all, we’d definitely have time to complete the beginners’ course and get a lot of practice in before we had to take to the dance floor with a group of other “improvers”, right?2

Dan and Ruth sat on opposite sides of a table on a train, with darkness outside the window behind, raising tumbler glasses full of prosecco and smiling.
By the time we were riding the train up to Edinburgh, we’d watched all the videos in our beginners’ course, and tried all of the steps in isolation… but we’d had barely any opportunity to combine them into an actual dance.

Okay, let me try again to enumerate you everything I actually know about tango3:

  1. Essentials. A leader and follower4 hold one another’s upper torso closely enough that, with practice, each can intuit from body position where the other’s feet are without looking. While learning, you will not manage to do this, and you will tread on one another’s toes.
  2. The embrace. In the embrace, one side – usually the leader’s left – is “open”, with the dancers’ hands held; the other side is “closed”, with the dancers holding one another’s bodies. Generally, you should be looking at one another or towards the open side. But stop looking at your feet: you should know where your own feet are by proprioception, and you know where your partners’ feet are by guesswork and prayer.
  3. The walk. You walk together, (usually) with opposite feet moving in-sync so that you can be close and not tread on one another’s toes, typically forward (from the leader’s perspective) but sometimes sideways or even backwards (though not usually for long, because it increases the already-inevitable chance that you’ll collide embarrassingly with other couples).
  4. Movement. Through magic and telepathy a good connection with one another, the pair will, under the leader’s direction, open opportunities to perform more advanced (but still apparently beginner-level) steps and therefore entirely new ways to mess things up. These steps include:
    • Forward ochos. The follower stepping through a figure-eight (ocho) on the closed side, or possibly the open side, but they probably forget which way they were supposed to turn when they get there, come out on the wrong foot, and treat on the leader’s toes.
    • Backwards ochos. The follower moves from side to side or in reverse through a series of ochos, until the leader gets confused which way they’re supposed to pivot to end the maneuver and both people become completely confused and unstuck.
    • The cross. The leader walks alongside the follower, and when the leader steps back the follower chooses to assume that the leader intended for them to cross their legs, which opens the gateway to many other steps. If the follower guesses incorrectly, they probably fall over during that step. If the follower guesses correctly but forgets which way around their feet ought to be, they probably fall over on the very next step. Either way, the leader gets confused and does the wrong thing next.
    • Giros. One or both partners perform a forwards step, then a sideways step, then a backwards step, then another sideways step, starting on the inside leg and pivoting up to 270° with each step such that the entire move rotates them some portion of a complete circle. In-sync with one another, of course.
    • Sacadas. Because none of the above are hard enough to get right together, you should start putting your leg out between your partner’s leg and try and trip them up as they go. They ought to know you’re going to do this, because they’ve got perfect predictive capabilities about where your feet are going to end, remember? Also remember to use the correct leg, which might not be the one you expect, or you’ll make a mess of the step you’ll be doing in three beats’ time. Good luck!
    • Barridas and mordidas. What, you finished the beginners’ course? Too smart to get tripped up by your partner’s sacada any more? Well now it’s time to start kicking your partner’s feet out from directly underneath them. That’ll show ’em.
  5. Style. All of the above should be done gracefully, elegantly, with perfect synchronicity and in time with the music… oh, and did I mention you should be able to improve the whole thing on the fly, without pre-communication with your partner. 😅
Photograph of a small laminated instruction sheet on a golden tablecloth. Titled "Norteña Tango", it reads: Let's make this an amazing weekend. We are all here to dance, so let's look around us and try to make sure that everyone is dancing. We'd love it if you would follow the lines of dance by moving around the floor steadily, try using the cabeceo, leave space between you and the couple in front, make use of the corners of the dance floor, stay in the same lane where possible, take care when entering the dance floor, clear the floor and change partners during the cortinas. It would be great if you could avoid overtaking other couples on the floor, walking (other than when dancing) on the floor.
Just when you think you’ve worked out the basic rules of tango, you find a leaflet on your table with some rules of the dancefloor to learn, too!

Ultimately, it was entirely our own fault we felt out-of-our-depth up in Edinburgh at the weekend. We tried to run before we could walk, or – to put it another way – to milonga before we could caminar.

A somewhat-rushed video course and a little practice on carpet in your living room is not a substitute for a more-thorough práctica on a proper-sized dance floor, no matter how often you and your partner use any excuse of coming together (in the kitchen, in an elevator, etc.) to embrace and walk a couple of steps! Getting a hang of the fluid connections and movement of tango requires time, and practice, and discipline.

Photograph of paving slabs: a glyph of a walking person, signifying "walk here", has been painted onto the flagstones, but the stones have since been lifted and replaced in slightly different locations, making the person appear "scrambled".
Got the feeling that your body and your feet aren’t moving in the same direction? That’s tango!

But, not least because of our inexperience, we did learn a lot during our weekend’s deep-dive. We got to watch (and, briefly, partner with) some much better dancers and learned some advanced lessons that we’ll doubtless reflect back upon when we’re at the point of being ready for them. Because yes: we are continuing! Our next step is a Zoom-based lesson, and then we’re going to try to find a more-local group.

Also, we enjoyed the benefits of some one-on-one time with Jenny and Ricardo, the amazingly friendly and supportive teachers whose video course got us started and whose in-person event made us feel out of our depth (again: entirely our own fault).

If you’ve any interest whatsoever in learning to dance tango, I can wholeheartedly recommend Ricardo and Jenny Oria as teachers. They run courses in Edinburgh and occasionally elsewhere in the UK as well as providing online resources, and they’re the most amazingly supportive, friendly, and approachable pair imaginable!

Just… learn from my mistake and start with a beginner course if you’re a beginner, okay? 😬

Footnotes

1 I’m exaggerating how little I know for effect. But it might not be as much of an exaggeration as you’d hope.

2 We did not.

3 Still with a hint of sarcasm, though.

4 Tango’s progressive enough that it’s come to reject describing the roles in binary gendered terms, using “leader” and “follower” in place of what was once described as “man” and “woman”, respectively. This is great for improving access to pairs of dancers who don’t consist of a man and a woman, as well as those who simply don’t want to take dance roles imposed by their gender.

In a church hall, its walls decorated with colourful cloths, Dan and Ruth stand in a large circle of people, watching a man and a woman preparing to demonstrate some tango steps.× Dan, wearing a black t-shirt and holding a glass of wine, looks sceptically at the camera as he stands in front of a television screen showing a couple dancing, with the title frame "La Caminata: Introduction to Walking in Tango (Core Steps)".× Dan and Ruth sat on opposite sides of a table on a train, with darkness outside the window behind, raising tumbler glasses full of prosecco and smiling.× Photograph of a small laminated instruction sheet on a golden tablecloth. Titled "Norteña Tango", it reads: Let's make this an amazing weekend. We are all here to dance, so let's look around us and try to make sure that everyone is dancing. We'd love it if you would follow the lines of dance by moving around the floor steadily, try using the cabeceo, leave space between you and the couple in front, make use of the corners of the dance floor, stay in the same lane where possible, take care when entering the dance floor, clear the floor and change partners during the cortinas. It would be great if you could avoid overtaking other couples on the floor, walking (other than when dancing) on the floor.× Photograph of paving slabs: a glyph of a walking person, signifying "walk here", has been painted onto the flagstones, but the stones have since been lifted and replaced in slightly different locations, making the person appear "scrambled".×