1. In 2017 I decided to take, and tweet, a selfie at every single standup meeting I attended. Here they all are.

    It started out as a bit of a joke, at the start of the year documenting the fact that I was the only member of the, by then rapidly dwindling, LMN platform team at work for the first weeks. When I thought about it a little bit more I decided it might make a nice new year's resolution to add to the 2017 set. I'm a relentless, quixotic, self-improver, and I decided a selfie at every standup might make an interesting project.

    I really don't like having my photograph taken. I wondered if making myself do it enough might work as a half-assed form of exposure therapy. As a professional software developer in 2017, I could expect to be attending at least one standup/scrum meet a day. By the end of the year, I might be not so uncomfortable standing in front of a camera.

    A couple of rules. Every standup meet, even if there were multiple in a day. First shot, no matter how terrible. Immediately to twitter with it, no editing, filters, or multiple shots.

    By and large I think it worked. It's quite interesting looking back at them all now, a year later. Although I didn't plan it this way, I ended up switching jobs twice in 2017, so there's a document of me shifting out and in of three different roles and teams. It's interesting for me, reading my facial expression and mapping that onto how well or badly I know the meetings to be going at that point of time. So much hair, so little outfit variety. Originally, I was snapping quite a few of them on my XPS 13 webcam, because there was a lot of remoting in through Google Hangouts at Wonderbly, but eventually they're all WileyFox Swift2 and eventually 2X with maybe a couple of Jolla C shots

    You can see me losing interest somewhat in the device as time pans out - they start out with lots of experimentation of poses and framing and composition, but the second half of the year it's mostly routinely, quick-snapped head-shots. This isn't helped by the fact that the offices got a little bit duller. Synthace might be set within a literal vetinary hostpital, with all kinds of attendant freakish wonders, but for the entirety of my short tenure we were camped out in a very tight spot, with the standups awkwardly crammed into a tiny meeting room, or taken on the balcony.

    There's a few cameos, which are probably my favourite bits. @tomcartwrightuk is there, as is @dankitchen_uk, and there's a @paulcuth photobomb. And the ancient dog gets into one. I'm glad he's in there. I haven't written about the dog yet, and I need to soon.

    How well did it work? A bit. I don't flinch or freak out about how to act in front of a camera quite so much as I used to. I occasionally snap a selfie just for the heck of it. I accidentally ended up at the front of the Zego group shot that ended up going out with the press kit, and spent a day fielding queries from friends wondering why I was featured so heavily on techcrunch. I still don't enjoy looking at myself in photos, but I think I've started to engage with that more constructively. As resolutions go, I think I won this one.

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  2. Last week I started a new job and with a new job comes a new computer. These days, I am once again a fairly comitted desktop linux user, for my sins, and so I asked for a Lenovo ThinkPad x270. Not without trepidation, because even though I'm a fairly expert user, it's been some time since I put a linux distribution onto a modern PC-laptop flat, and more recent hardware can present some driver challenges. It all went on pretty well, nonetheless, with just a moderate amount of tweaking, and a week or so in I can report that I'm pretty delighted with it. It's a wonderfully solid and useful piece of kit, everything works. Screen, keyboard and portability are spot on, battery life is a phenomenon, and there's at least one of every kind of useful port I care about.

    It's my first ThinkPad with a 'chiclet' keyboard. It's my first without a seven-row keyboard actually. I was a little bit worried about that. Keyboards are one of those things you like ThinkPads for, if you're the kind of person who likes ThinkPads, and of course I am. Actually, the keyboard is great. I think I can type faster on it than I can on my well-loved x220 model, which is basically my high-water mark for a laptop keyboard. Trackpoint is present and works as well as ever, trackpad is a huge improvement. I am not going to say that I wouldn't like the missing keys and ThinkLight back, but I'm not aggravated by their absence. After all I can use my 3l337 remapping skills to make sure I have everything I need somewhere that I can access it, and the less often used things can just go on mod key combinations and function shifts. It has the makings of a truly great keyboard if I'm honest, although I accept these things are subjective. There was just one amusing wrinkle though.


    For some reason they've put the PrtSc key in where the menu key was. This seemed pretty weird, but it could be worse. At least I still have a balanced group of three modifier keys either side of the space bar. It goes LCTRL WINDOWS ALT SPACE BAR ALTGR PRTSC RCTRL. I just modified my xkb settings very slightly to redefine PRTSC, and I was back to using my happy path of SUPER LMETA LCTRL SPACE BAR RCTRL RMETA SUPER, and emacsing about with gay abandon. Right up to the first time I hit backward-sexp whilst cheerfully editing code, and to my astonishment my laptop immediately rebooted without any warnings. I was so stunned I immediately tried that again. Same result. I was dumbfounded for maybe sixty seconds before I figured it out.

    PrtSc is an old key, although unlike many of the old dedicated PC buttons, (Scroll lock anyone?), it's managed to reinvent itself for modern generations. Typically it is used to trigger a screenshot. GNOME sets it up for that, and while I was remapping it I figured I would be able to manage just fine without a dedicated key for screenshotting. Print screen often used to share a key with another ancient button, SysReq, and System Request is a really interesting beast. Turns out, even though it's not labelled like that, the PrtSc key on my x270 was also a SysReq. And system requests are the key to this laptop narcolepsy.

    System Request was a button deliberately designed to bypass as much of your software as possible, and send a hardware interrupt direct to the operating system hardware event loop. Normal keyboard handling is entirely bypassed. It's a brain probe. No matter how elaborate your interface, or hotkey macros become, you have a dedicated batphone right there on your keyboard, a zap line into the mainframe. Even in it's most locked up system crash, this is a signal that could still get through.

    Originally, SysReq had it's own proud dedicated button. Then, as it's usage was a little bit esoteric, it became seconded to PrtSc. If you wanted to access the magic zap you still could. You just hit Alt in conjunction with PrtSc. And that happens to be the second piece of our puzzle. SysReq lingered on over there for some decades, largely entirely unused. A vestigial organ, like an appendix, or a supernumerary nipple. One of those dorky joke keys on a PC nobody understands or uses, that cool Apple systems condesncendingly wink at. Linux uses it though. Linux doesn't mind being dorky, and can always use a spare modifier key. Especially one with a hardware function.

    It's called the Magic SysRq key. Linux has a special interrupt handler sat there in the kernel listening for it. You can hit Alt + SysReq and then another key, and trigger special, super low level system recovery or debugging features, such as triggering a crash dump, forcing an OOM kill, or yes, rebooting the system. And that's where I was hitting it. With my remapping in place, ALT is CTRL, PRTSC is META, so when I am editing a lisp file, and hit C-M-b to move backwards one sexp, I'm actually banging on the chord that bypasses all my software stack, and pushes a reboot lever deep in my computer's lizard brain, which it dutifully obeys. A little bit frustrating, but honestly, as soon as I figured out what must be going on, it made me chuckle out loud.

    Linux being linux, it's entirely configurable of course. You can build a kernel with the feature missing, you can disable it in software, or you can configure a bitmask to define which key sequences are trapped and acted upon. I have opted to disable it for now. I would rather have my META key where I like it to be, than have an easy access debugger's powertool. Now everything is closer to perfect.

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  3. The Zombie Song by Stephanie Mabey

    The girls are pretty keen on this one right now. It's pretty catchy, and I have had it lodged in my mind's ear for a few days. It is a few years old, so sorry if it was a big meme and I missed it, what can you do. News travels slow out here on the indieweb.

    The embed is a bandcamp link, you can buy the digital album. You can buy the single track from amazon if you prefer , because supporting artists is awesome.

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  4. Pier of the year

    I do like a pier. Hastings pier is sort of, kind of, maybe my literal favourite place on earth. I've written about it before (back in 2006! My goodness). I was born in that town, for some unlikely reason, my folks were passing through, ostensibly visiting relatives. Locals say if you're born there you can't ever leave. Indeed, perhaps I never completely did. I have lots of childhood memories of that pier, flying visits to stay with unfamiliar relatives, whereupon a visit to the pier would inevitably be bestowed upon we whinging children. It seemed a pretty magical place for a child, in the seventies, with it's fading halls of entertainments, and tat shops, and all the usual coin-operated novelties, and lights and mirrors, and cheap confectionery, and sea-angling platforms, and peeking through the floorboards straight down to the murky brown-blue depths.

    Many years later, as a confused, transplanted teenager, half-foreign, I returned there to live, adding a little more weight to the local prophesy. I have tons of memories of the place from this era. I seemingly spent the entirety of my sullen late teens sitting underneath it, reading WATCHMEN, with The Sisters of Mercy glued to my ears on my panasonic RQ-KJ1. You could freely move beneath it in those days, before health and safety became too muddled with political correctness. There were a few safety signs, but everyone ignored them.


    One summer, I worked for a season on the construction team recasting the sea defence barriers and groynes in modern reinforced concrete. Often took a builder's lunch break in the cafe at the shore end, fried food and sweet tea. I celebrated my 19th birthday in the 'Pub on the Pier' with a handful of acquaintances; I had a self-conscious affection for the notion of a (fairly dreadful) pub that you had to pay a 20p toll before you could even enter. It was in the same pub a couple of years later, on a bright Saturday afternoon, I remember a specific moment of clarity; realising I really wasn't from this town any more, and perhaps the time had come to properly leave. The locals may of course think otherwise.


    A grab bag of other memories and images. Raves on the pier during the rave years. Storm waves breaking right over it. A nonsensical shop that only sold products made from garlic attempting a world record for the longest string of garlic. Oldest functional Galaxian machine in the town for many years.

    While I was gone it slipped into dereliction, after first bouncing between a couple of murky sounding new ownership schemes. There were organised efforts to reclaim it via compulsory purchase, that seemed to be getting somewhere. Then came fire, well timed, suspicious. And that seemed to be the story end. Another English seaside town with a wrecked and burned dead pier. I was too sad to visit the corpse.


    I still saw the news stories that started filtering through about fundraising campaigns, and charity organisation to rebuild it. This all seemed well-intentioned, and positive, but I thought probably doomed to failure, like so many of the town regeneration schemes and stories over the years. To my astonishment they did it. The "people's pier", of all things. Lots of people love it as much as I do, maybe more. Lottery funding was secured, and it reopened, a couple of years ago, in an entirely more modern and re-imagined form. They haven't just reached backward for the easy goal of nostalgia and austerity-years retro kitsch. A tiny visitor center clad with original reclaimed timbers, some beach hut styled pop ups, a viewing platform, and a modest restaurant. The lines from the promenade look fantastic, with the horizon line bisecting the old frames and rigging, from the new planes above. Once you're on it, it's all about the space, and those views; Hastings Old town to your right, Burton's St. Leonards sweeping back away to your left. It's a dramatic and beautiful new public space, more versatile than a traditional pier, but still aware of its past forms and history.

    And now this bolder approach has been rewarded with the prestigious RIBA Stirling prize for excellence in architecture. This is pretty astonishing news for Hastings. I feel weirdly proud. It's well worth a visit. The entire town has clearly had a bit of a lift. I've been enjoying the recent moves toward revitalisation of the English seaside town, and we've recently been quite seriously pricing up a move to the coast. I wonder how the Hastings house prices are doing. The locals know what's happening here.


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  5. Anthea Bell Interview: I stumbled across an interview with the English translator of Asterix. I grew up reading these, but it was not until I was older that I could fully appreciate the sophistication of the translation work. Peerless.

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  6. I finished Twin Peaks: the return. I'm glad I can be at a place where such things are made.

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  7. This old blog post about the contrasting approaches to programming to solve a particular problem shot past my RSS reader recently. It's a lovely read about a dialogue-by-article that occured between Donald Knuth and Doug McIlroy, as guest columnists in Communications of the ACM back in the day.

    The post is short, wonderfully written, and serves as something of a meta-commentary about the nature of writing about code, and how to communicate the intent and the implementation of a computer program by way of documenting it. It has a wonderful flavour of a parable from the ages, because it's re-telling a story of how the giants from the old days solved a problem in a witty and entertaining way.

    You could easily read this as a clash of ancient demigods with the victor being the last man standing, but I think that's probably a mistake. 'What problem are you trying to solve?' is one of my favourite pat-rules about program design, and I don't think the two authors here are trying to solve exactly the same problem.

    What problem is literate programming trying to solve? Did it solve it? Are there any better ways to solve that? Wasn't UNIX designed for use in interactive text-processing?

    It makes me think about man vs horse races . What problem are they trying to solve?

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  8. It is quiet again in the house, in the small hours of the morning, since I rediscovered the time locks in the kids kindle profile. 05:00 Minecraft is noisy

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  9. So, I seem to be unemployed again. Voluntarily, of course. Excited, and seeking new opportunities!

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  10. Now I can post short updates from the most basic client possible, which is pretty low friction. I should be able to extend this all the way to full articles eventually

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  11. This post made from my phone. Futuristic!

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  12. Further work at hooking into micro.blog. If I extend my slightly moribund 'linkblog' special case formatting to a new 'short post' class, and then generalize this to cover indieweb 'notes' style posting, then I should be able to build a dedicated feed for notes that fits in better with micro.blog. These short updates will just appear inline on the blog site as de-emphasised text, without article formatting.

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  13. I finally wired up micro.blogs! I have a micro blog. I'm not really sure what it is for but it's there. I like it anyway, because it's called cms. In order to get it working, I had to make RSS work slightly better than 'barely', and so now I have an RSS 2.0 feed. The 00's are back! It's all about microformats and POSSE and syndication and decentralization, and taking back the web.

    I appreciate it's an outside chance, but should you have a micro.blog account you can follow me on there, and reply back, and be friends, and stuff. Should you not have a micro.blog account, but think you might like one, HMU, I probably have some invites or something The indie web can never die!

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  14. I love making New Year's resolutions. I'm not sure I am good at them, but I enjoy the tradition. Every year, I tend to set at least a small handful. Sometimes they're entirely private, sometimes I publicise them. I don't know that they ever tend to be that successfully realised, but to me that's part of the system. I like to think there's much that is useful to learn from how I fail to achieve them, and maybe that's some part of the benefit. Sometimes I pull them off with aplomb, and that always feels pretty good.

    This year I set myself an extraordiary reading challenge. A couple of years ago, on some kind of whim, I think prompted by a positive review in either The Guardian, or Word Magazine (RIP), I purchased, and read Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland. This is an engaging biographical chronology of the English novel. It covers 294 novelists of significance in historical sequence. The format is readable, there's a 3-4 page potted biography of each author, and then a short summary. So you end up with a sort of illuminated canon starting in the seventeeth century, and leading you up to the roughly present day. The author choices are not always obvious, but neither are they deliberately obscure, and the tone is light, cheeky and erudite, and it works as an entertainment just as much as a reference piece, I unreservedly recommend it.

    Part of the summary notes at the end of each chapter, suggests a Must Read Tome, for each writer. These themselves are not always the most obvious work, and carry a little paragraph of justification alongside the choice. So for 2017, in a fit of optimism, alongside a grab-bag of other self-improvement goals, I decreed I would attempt to read every MRT in sequence. Clearly this was an overreach going in. 294 books is approaching a novel a day, and I was unlikely to chew through all of them in the year, but I figured I could keep going with it and see how well I did.

    We've passed the halfway mark now, and I'm happy to report it's going awfully. I have managed four books. The most recent one is not even half-finshed. I guess I kind of suck at this. I think there are a couple of mistakes I made on the surface. One I have already skirted around - it's too big a target. Factor into that the fact that I have relatively little spare time for reading fiction, and I also decided to take on a pile of other resolutions that demand daily hobby time (I'm teaching myself a foreign language! Badly!) and it's even more daunting a target. One book a month would be quite a feat, if I'm honest.

    I think I might organised little potted reviews as I finish each book, to try and gee myself along a bit. Also, I made a resolution to do more blogging in 2017. That's right, does it show? Book reports seem like easy-reach fruit. Watch this space.

    Perhaps the most egregious error though, was to fix myself to the chronology. Whilst this means that I am starting out firmly in the lands of the copyright expired public domain, which makes legal book aquistion very economical, it also means that I've front-loaded the material with tough going books. We start out with challenging archaic language, and structure, and this makes an already sluggish project a little more slower going. I don't believe in changing the rules midstream, however, and I intend to persist.

    I thought I'd broken the back of the slightly-too-hard-to-read-comfortably years, when I got through to Defoe, but I hadn't taken into account another pitfall of the early romantic novel. Verbiage. After Defoe I get Samuel Richardson. And the MRT is Clarissa. That's nine fricking volumes of epistolary marriage plot. It might be the longest novel published in the English language. I've nearly finished book one, and it's taken me three months. I sincerely doubt I'll get through this bugger before 2018. It's fascinating, heady stuff though, I am enjoying it. Many tribulations, and archaic mores. A terrifying insight into the political lot of even the priviliged eighteenth century englishwomen. Also, much swoon.

    Could this be a ten year project? I'm not quitting.

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  15. Why I care about keyboard modifiers

    This is a merry dance.

    One of those things I generally expect to be part of the routine of running a linux desktop is a certain amount of manual effort necessary to keep things running smoothly. Sometimes this is the classic multi-decade horror story of "sound card" configuration. Sometimes its the inevitable friction between under-specified hardware and volunteer-maintained drivers. Sometimes it's the CADT principle, where everything changes around you, just because it can, as part of the generational cycle of collaborative software development. Sometimes it's just the self-induced consequence of having a system where you can tweak and configure everything to work however you'd like it to, and therefore you choose to, and sometimes that's quite a deep rabbit hole. This tale covers a small handful of these categories, although it's primarily a consequence of that lattermost case.

    Mod life

    Mod keys. Modifier keys, that is. Those would be the keys you hold down alongside other keys to change their behaviour. The most obvious and venerable of these is SHIFT. Hold that down and type an alpha-numeric key, and you generate a different character. With the alphabetical keys, you GET THE CAPITAL LETTER FORM. Other keys, like the numerals, get you punctuation. You may also be aware of the Alt/AltGr modifier keys, which hang around on most keyboards, and generally allow access to a different shift level, further symbols and accented characters. And then there's control, or CTRL. Maybe you know that guy as the menu-shortcut accelerator key, or maybe for a couple of shortcuts you might use in the shell, if you're a shell user. Actually the kids all call it 'terminal' these days, because that's what Apple does. And then they all use iTerm anyway, for I don't know why really but I'm sure it's great. Anyway, calm down Mac-loving readers, this story is about how terrible linux is, you're all wonderful. So CTRL in the shell - CTRL + C cancels things, CTRL + D ends a session. CTRL + A takes you to the start of the line. CTRL + E takes you back to the end. Assuming you're using a fairly standard bash shell. Those last two are slightly more interesting, and immensely relevant to this story.

    Enter Emacs

    They're readline bindings. Readline is a GNU library used to make command line shell editing a little more interactive. And because bash is the GNU shell, it uses readline by default. Those keybindings are the default readline bindings, and they work the same in any application that uses readline. Typically this means other interactive shells. These keybindings are taken from Emacs. Emacs is a text editor, that is to say it's an application for interactively working on so-called 'plain text' files. Not that's there's any such thing as a plain text file. Emacs is one of the most ancient, convoluted, complex, crufty, awkward pieces of software you're ever likely to encounter. It's one of the original fundamental components of the GNU system. You might say it was the standard editor. Emacs is also one of my all-time favourite things. So those readline keybindings we were discussing, are intended to bring some of the more capable text editing commands from the GNU text editor across to the GNU shell, making use of modifier keys. Emacs really really likes modifier keys.

    Because Emacs is a very old piece of software, it's design was heavily influenced by the keyboards typically used on the systems of its time. Computer use was a lot more text and command oriented, and the large, pre-PC era keyboards tended to reflect this by having a large amount of mod keys and function keys available. Commonly cited examples are the MIT or symbolics lisp machine 'space cadet' keyboards, and the Knight keyboard. As a consequence of this emacs can understand a lot of different modifier keys, and has a UI that is organised around layering functionality onto different keyboard 'chord' operations. You really need at least two distinct mod keys as a bare minimum to get emacs to do anything useful at all. We already met CTRL a couple of paragraphs back, but you also need another key called META. Emacs uses them in fundamental, and interestingly composable ways. For example, you can move the cursor forward one position by typing CTRL + F, but you can move the cursor one word forward by typing META + F. It's powerful, and sort of intuitive once you understand the fundamentals quite well. Unfortunately, they mostly stopped making keyboards with META keys on them some while back.

    Welcoming the X Window System to the fray

    Now I am getting quite old, but I'm not ancient enough to have run emacs on pre-Internet era hardware. I did use it a little bit on 7-bit serial terminals, and limped along using ESC as a prefix modifier, like a farmer, but by the time I started really learning how to use emacs to any serious degree, I'd made the jump to UNIX machines using X11 as a graphical user terminal. Some of the UNIX workstations had a META key. Some of them didn't, but had a few other modifier keys. Increasingly, UNIX graphical workstation started to mean 'Linux and XFree86 on PC hardware'. Now IBM-derived PC keyboards don't have a META key and never did. The original PC keyboards didn't really offer many modifier keys, but by this time period, everything had mostly standardised on the 101/102 key IBM extended model archetype. This doesn't have META keys, but it does have a pair of prominent ALT modifier keys. And so, we begin to remap.

    X11 is maybe one of the canonical reference points for design by committee. Fully intended to offer a portable graphical , networked user interface across a variety of dissimilar UNIX systems, it tries very hard to offer the broadest possible set of abstractions across similar base behaviours, trying to build a unifying API in all aspects. Screen dimensions and orientation, color model and layout, pointers, input devices, key-types, you name it. So you can usually configure your equipment in a bewildering, verging on frustratingly flexible manner. X11 is a very broad church and welcomes all kinds of keyboards. X11 allows you a whole byte for modifier keys (I think), so you can have Shift, Lock , Control, and then five others called Mod1 through Mod5. You can freely map key codes onto key symbols, and then assign key symbols to one or more modifiers. So obviously this all took fourteen hours to decipher in the first instance, but I gradually became reasonably adept at using the Xmodmap utility to set ALT to be both ALT and META, CAPSLK to be another CTRL and life was mostly good. You'd tweak your .Xmodmaprc file every time your keyboard changed significantly, load it in as part of your login, and everything would work. PC-104/105 keyboards came along, with windows keys, and this meant that you could perhaps add a SUPER or even a HYPER key, and bind those to other emacs macros. The system was working, and everyone got rich on the proceeds! Or not. Nonetheless, although linux desktop software was fairly terrible, it was a fine environment for running Emacs, and running Emacs was where most of the work got done after all.

    A detour into Macintosh

    Times have changed however, and systems have changed, and uses have changed, and so have I. Like everyone else, I started using laptops more. Modifier keys started getting scarce again, as the machines shrank down to be portable, and interfaces just grew ever more graphical. For about a decade, I used Macintosh systems, which represent their own series of keyboard configuration challenges. Macs are actually pretty good for modifiers, if I'm being fair - they have their own dedicated command key for all the system key shortcuts, and so you're free to map control and option as you see fit to control and meta. They even give you a little GUI configurator for managing and assigning modifier keys, which is way more convenient than spending hours searching for information about xmodmap. The main suckitude is that they don't have a symmetrical set of them on their laptop keyboards. You don't get a right hand CTRL. Symmetry is important for healthy typing habits with key chords, because it's vastly better for your hands if you use both of them for combinations. So you ideally want to be able to hold down CTRL META SUPER or some combination of them with one hand whilst you type the activation keys. So CTRL + C is best expressed as a right hand finger holding CTRL, whilst your left middle finger taps the C. So my life as a Macintosh Emacs user was constantly blighted by crazy-ass schemes to find keyboard layouts that allowed unstressful ways to type CTRL key combinations.

    Desktop Linux in the present day

    For the last few years though, I've been back on the linux horse (and why is a different story, for another day), and my main laptop, a battered lenovo ThinkPad, has a full set of three modifiers either side of the space bar, where they were intended to go. The Debian GNOME 3 desktop is configured to use the windows and menu keys for desktop commands, and the ALTGR key, which I have on the right, as some kind of compose prefix. Even thought it's X.org now, not XFree86, and Xmodmap is heavily deprecated in favour of the XKeyboard and Xinput extensions, using the GNOME configurator and then some of my old Xmodmap ways, I could make this go away, and map ALTGR to a right meta, ALT to a left meta and the windows and menu key to SUPER and HYPER. The lenovo x220 I use has a particularly excellent keyboard and all was right in the world.

    And then GNOME 3.22 switched to Wayland as a display server, rather than X. And this year's Debian defaulted to this. Even though there is an X11 compatibility layer, GTK+ and GNOME on Wayland do not talk to X11 directly for mediated key events any more, and this meant that Xmodmap can't be used to universally set modifier maps. GNOME 3 on wayland will still use xkb for key configurations, and this meant another fourteen hours of fiddling about in order to come up with a keyboard scheme that works for both GNOME and legacy X using the XKeyboard extension (XKB). This was not made any easier by the fact that all the attempts to search for information on this get bogged down in legacy explanations about Xmodmap or how to enable XKB for X11. But I got there in the end

    It seems like there's not actually any supported, or easily documented way to load user configurations into GNOME 3 + Wayland's XKB environment, so I ended up slightly disappointedly hacking them into the system options files. Of course this meant that several months after I did this, a system upgrade overwrote all of my changes, and I was left without a keyboard, and a scant recollection of how I ever did it, or what any of the bits were even called.

    Finally I fix it

    So this morning I figured out how to assemble it all again from first principles. To make it more worth my while, this time I decided to transpose all of the mod keys as I went, so I can have CTRL on the inside of META as it was originally intended to be, and push the other modifiers to the outside edge. To save myself the bother the next time this breaks underneath me, I thought I'd write down the exact sequences here. I am not going to try and attempt to explain XKB here. There are a several documents on the web that do that job, to varying degrees of success. I'm not going to pretend that I understand how it all works, I just experimented with xsetkbmap and xkbcomp under an X11 desktop until I understood how to express what I needed to work under Wayland. Here are the steps.

    System-wide keyboard configuration is fine for configuring the basic keyboard layout - using the Debian keyboard configurator, I can pick either a ThinkPad or a pc-105 model with a gb layout. The modifier layout can then be selected using xkboptions. I can tell GNOME what XKB options to apply from its database, using the dconf configuration key /org/gnome/desktop/input-sources/xkb-options.

    dconf editor in all it's glory

    If you're playing along at home, you may have spotted that cmswin is not the name of any valid xkb layout. The wrinkle is that none of the built-in options offer quite the right set of combinations. So this is how I added my own custom XKB option.

    1: Define an option

    I added a new file usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/cmswin to define my partial keymap.

    Its contents:

    // alts are ctrls, winkeys are metas, ctrls are supers  
    partial modifier_keys  
    xkb_symbols "cms_modkeys" {  
                replace key <LALT> { [ Control_L, Control_L ] };  
                replace key <LWIN> { [ Alt_L, Meta_L ] };  
                replace key <LCTL> { [ Super_L ] };  
                replace key <RALT> { [ Control_R, Control_R ] };  
                replace key <MENU> { [ Alt_R, Meta_R ] };  
                replace key <RCTL> { [ Super_R ] }; };  
    }; // end  

    that defines the option.

    2: Add it to the rules database

    Further to this, I modified /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev

    adding the line

       cmswin:cms_modkeys            =       +cmswin(cms_modkeys)  

    to the section

      ! option        =       symbols  

    I believe this is adding an option named cmswin:cms_modkeys to the dataset assigning it to parsing the 'cms_modkeys' entry from the 'cmswin' file, in the symbols subdirectory. The convention in xkb is to name all the different symbols using the same substrings, and it's terribly confusing when you're trying to remember which part does what, although slightly helpful when you're trying to perform the reverse map and locate which file is responsible for which option, I suppose.

    3: Make it available for GNOME

    The final step is to add the line

    cmswin:cms_modkeys   fix keys for emacs  

    into the file /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev.lst

    I think this does something like import the option into the environment. There is also an evdev.xml file in the rules directory, which looks like it marks up the options to be used by the GNOME gui, but I didn't bother with that one, because life is too short to hand write XML for computers to parse, and I'd already spent half a day setting this all up. To give you an idea of how tedious this all was, for a while I'd added the evdev option into the section marked !option = types rather than symbols, and this caused wayland to stick to a crash loop as soon as I loaded the XKB option into the dconf key (with no visible error logs! yum!)

    4: Retire, rich from the proceeds

    With all of this in place however, everything works fine. For now. GNOME seems to be in a bit of a transitory phase with regards to keyboard and input configuration, it looks like they're reworking everything to use IBUS in the long term, so I expect I'll be doing some form of this dance again within a year. Until then though, this document can serve as a reference for the next time I, or anyone else interested enough needs to figure out how to do this.

    2017 then, and nothing seems to have really changed that much at all. Desktop Linux is still terrible, and desktop linux is still awesome. Emacs is still terrible, and Emacs is still the best tool I have.

    posted by cms on
    tagged as
  16. I've been very gradually upgrading this site back to life for a few years now. Very gradually #amirite . However, after earlier this year having found myself accidentally on the front page of Reddit, HN etc. with my post about building the IMDb boards , I found myself slightly embarrassed, not only by the amount of attention ( 40k+ uniques in the first two days, holy shit! ), but also by people pointing out how clunky the site is to read. Often several times a day.

    The styling on the blog section, much like the rest of the blog section, wasn't in a terribly well developed state of completion. I just threw together some hand-written CSS to approximate the look and colours of my last existing Wordpress theme, which I had been fairly happy with. Now that theme was set up maybe ten years ago, and my initial port over to this 'new', self-build CMS maybe four or five years old itself, and I had given no thought at all to mobile, or in fact any screen device very much different from my own laptop display. And my main laptop display is a 1024x768 pixel non- IPS Lenovo ThinkPad x220. That is probably a significantly worse screen than your phone has.

    In 2017 it's pretty stupid to build web pages just to be viewed by desktop browsers, so today I'm pushing out a rebuild of the display layer and theme, that hopefully works a little more responsively across varied devices. It should also be easier for me to evolve. I hope it improves things for my handful of select readers. I'm not terrifically good at front-ending, and my heart isn't often in it, but I have tried my best.

    I'd like to be updating this site more frequently again, he writes, like one of those bloggers apologising for never blogging , but a large part of getting any kind of schedule working there, is streamlining the publishing workflow. To that end, as well as a more modernised front-end and theme, today I've also released a new site deployment system, that allows me to update the site software more easily. This is clunky, but at least automated. Previously everything was just checked out into a home directory, hand compiled and run on the server. Now that's mostly still happening , but now it's all scripted with configuration management tools so I can release updates like this without having to remember exactly how to set it all up again by hand from first principles.

    Of course, for writing articles, I'm still shelling into the server and hand writing html files like a farmer , but it's all steps in the right direction. Sometimes I don't shell in to the server, I author the posts directly using emacs tramp-mode which practically counts as using a GUI round here.

    posted by cms on
    tagged as
  17. ...as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.

    Download an EPub edition of this post courtesy of redditor agonnaz

    Update: My erstwhile colleague Mathias wrote up his thoughts about his role in this story

    scribbled design notes

    Some time on Friday, IMDb announced that they intended to shut down their message board system, permanently. I don't find this to be a particularly surprising decision. I'm more surprised that the message boards are still there, in 2017, seemingly essentially unchanged for the last fifteen or so years. They've had a few coats of paint, and a handful of feature improvements, but they largely seem to be backed by the same system design developed by the in-house tech team, way back at the dawn of the century. And for the bulk of that early development time, I was the primary developer. As it has said on my homepage for many years, 'you can blame me for the message boards'.

    A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away

    I was incredibly excited to be asked to join the IMDb developer team at the end of 2001. Aged 30, with almost a decade of professional software development under my belt already. Although 2001 sounds today like it was the relative stone-age of the modern web, which of course in many ways it was. At this point I had already spent several years working on basic web applications in the original dot-com boom, and I was in-awe of the IMDb , which even back then was a somewhat venerable internet institution. Founded in 1990, it thus predates the invention of the World Wide Web by several years, having started out as lists of data shared via USENET posts. At the time I joined, they were a couple of years into their Amazon ownership, and starting to expand the team.

    As I started, they were just on the cusp of launching IMDbPro and had an ambitious roadmap to completely rebuild the main website from the inside out, using the shiny new technology stack the small development team had built from the ground up to power the IMDbPro application server. This, I thought was a very clever hack - imdb.com was a hugely popular website, and this approach of adding industry focused features to a subscription remix of the site built on top of the same data feeds (still basically formatted text lists, using the conventions of the old USENET based tools) meant that in effect we could use the far smaller user base of the pro site as a test-bed for the new tech, and gradually port sections of this across to the terrifyingly high volume 'consumer' site, without having to do a rewrite and a relaunch. To further sweeten the deal, if you look at this arrangement, this meant that the test-bed users would actually be paying to break in the newer software, and helping you iron out the bugs.

    In 2001, a shiny new high performance web stack meant perl . Apache 1.3.x running mod_perl to be more precise. In case you don't know what mod_perl is, it's a piece of semi-deranged brilliance that wraps the perl language interpreter into an apache module as a persistent runtime and exposes the internal API of the HTTP server to it. This lets you write applications that are now effectively themselves apache webservers, with direct access to every part of the HTTP serving lifecycle. Furthermore, by using the other neat hack, Registry.pm you could use modules or scripts that had been designed to work as CGI scripts, and get the some of the same speed boosts, unmodified. With these techniques, you could write perl applications that went almost as fast as Apache could, and in the late 90s/early 00s it was this or PHP. PHP back then was pretty grotty, I thought, and the cool kids were all using perl. Perl had libraries, and excelled at gluing existing bits of UNIX together. This meant you had to write far less of the application by hand. Yup, by hand . Let me dig into that a little bit

    It's the pictures that got small

    Writing web software back then was a fairly different prospect. In my circles, we didn't really have much in the way of frameworks. There were a few enterpris-ey things floating around that converted your big IBM and Oracle and Microsoft client/server application into some kind of terrible intranet suite that required ActiveX support to load any pages, and I'd poked around with Zope with some interest, but by and large if you were doing anything interesting, you used FreeBSD, or linux (2.2, with SMP support!).

    You'd most likely use Apache 1.3, forking, and write your site as a combination of static pages, server side templating and CGI exec-d programs, in some kind of UNIX scripting language (usually perl, but any of the usual suspects were relatively common, including actual honest-to-god shell scripts), or maybe you'd write a performance critical CGI as binary in C.

    For data processing, you might connect your application directly to a pre-existing company RDBMs, if you had such a thing and your DBA, if you had such a thing, let you, or you might deploy a SQL db on or nearby to your web host - usually MySQL 3.22 with ISAM and a quasi-religious intolerance for foreign key support but that was OK you could do all the data validation in application code. ( A bit like JavaScript databases in 2017 )

    We had libraries for common tasks, like parsing wire protocols and file formats, and wrapping utilities to do things like generate or resize graphics, but you'd stitch a selection of these together in an ad-hoc fashion to make a 'system'. A typical web stack would be table-based HTML with attribute styling and inlined images for typography and spacing , possibly pre-rendered, but maybe dynamically generated, then some CGI scripts for user management full of hand coded cookie and session tracking. A relational database for persistence, using hand coded SQL and a custom database schema. Page generation via a self-written templating system, gluing skeletons of layout-oriented HTML around variable interpolation with inline conditionals. This part would often run as server-side includes, but sometimes this would also have just been handled by CGI scripts.

    Maybe you'd have a hand built filesystem cache in front of this. 'Front-end' back then would often build static page representations, first in Photoshop or Illustrator , which would then be converted into single HTML page masters in Dreamweaver or FrontPage and then handed over to the back-end coders to clean up and crack apart into templated fragments, by hand. Single byte string encodings through-out, no threading, a light veneer of Object Orientation over internal data structures - you'd have a small cluster of actual physical servers, perhaps in a data center, but often on-premises, sometimes in racks, sometimes actual tower servers in the corner, directly connected to an internet router of some pitiful capacity. Sometimes your cluster was as small as one machine.

    Architecturally you'd have a webserver, perhaps two if you wanted to split 'heavy' dynamic serving from lighter or static content. Your database might end up on its own box with better IO and networking. If you had enough web servers you might put some kind of load balancer in front, perhaps a HTTP reverse proxy as an accelerator cache (often another Apache, sometimes Squid ). In 2001 I'm not sure I fully understood what a CDN even was . You'd deploy with FTP or maybe rsync , sometimes the production filesystems were locally mounted via NFS or SMB and you'd just copy stuff over, or edit it in place. Version control, if you even had any might just be renaming files, perhaps SCCS or RCS. Advanced users might have CVS. Designers might have a pre-OS X Macintosh , suits would use Windows , developers had something more of a free-for-all - windows 2k , desktop linux , I used BeOS for several years whilst that was still a thing, and seemingly everybody , but everybody used emacs to write code - GNU emacs was common, but the cool kids were using XEmacs . Sometimes a remote XEmacs client on your deploy host attached to your local X11 server over the wire . Crazy days.

    My God, it's full of stars

    So that's the scene in 2001 when I joined the amazon.com family as an SDE , working on the new IMDb platform. I was a fairly hot perl programmer, having spent a good few years designing and rewriting custom web 'frameworks' and optimising mod_perl architectures. I was really good at SQL, at least I thought I was in comparison to most of my peers, and I had developed a particular fondness for the then slightly uncommon PostgreSQL database engine . I'd done quite a few web things - early corporate intranet portals, hobby sites , moderately popular dot-com publishing houses , but this was a step change into an entirely bigger league.

    In reality, especially as I look back with hindsight, I can see I had very little idea what I was doing, but hardly anyone did. There wasn't a lot of published material on architecture - everyone read Greenspun , but there was nothing like the modern tech web, scalability porn, conference circuit. No HN , no Reddit , no twitter , no Facebook, and looking things up on StackOverflow was still almost a decade away. It wasn't even that easy to find what scant information there was, you have to remember that Google was barely yet a thing. Information sharing tended to happen on mailing lists, using actual email, or maybe still on USENET. ( Paul Graham hadn't yet written ' A plan for spam ', and we didn't really have functional automated spam filtering).

    IMDb had an unusual working setup for the day, as befitted it's birth from a federation of USENET correspondents. Everyone worked completely remotely, scattered around the world. At the time I joined, there was an express preference for staff who could attend a weekly company meeting over lunch, near Bristol ( in a cafeteria, attached to a swimming pool ), and the majority of the tech team building the software was now based around this area. Home Internet connectivity was still largely 56kbps or lower dial-up , possibly metered, although I was lucky enough to be in a part of Bristol eligible for an insanely fast 1Mbps cable connection .

    Anticipating having to work on significant amounts of DP, potentially offline, I asked if I could be provided with a small server with SMP and RAID capacity, and was rather surprised by a small tower HP Proliant rig turning up at my house, cocooned onto a loading pallet too big to fit through the front door. I had to unglue it piece by piece and carry it up to my 'home office', a box bedroom full of IKEA tables, slightly too tall to be comfortable desks, and assemble it in place. I christened it mavis.imdb.com, and installed Debian stable on it, which involved most of a day figuring out the hardware RAID drivers, and from that point on it's shrieking fans and disks were a constant part of my daily life for the next half-decade. Eventually a house move allowed me to get it into a makeshift server cupboard where I could deaden this persistent din behind a door and blankets and curtains. I occasionally wonder now, in my middle-age, if I have a frequency gap in my hearing to match that particular pitch, but if so, it's not affected me enough to care to get it measured. As the noise tended to interfere with music, for the first few years I developed a habit of listening to BBC Radio 4 morning to midnight, and therefore, when there wasn't a test match to listen to, for a brief period of my life I developed an unusual degree of expertise in the comings and goings of 'The Archers' .

    One consequence of the remote working, and patchy connectivity was that the development work in the tech team was informally silo-ed up into sub-systems that individual engineers had ownership over. The very first task I worked on, after getting a working build of the entire stack onto mavis, was porting the statistics page across to the new web stack (internally known as 'mayhem', after project mayhem , everyone was big on movie references, naturally) by way of familiarising myself with the application and infrastructure. I made a perfunctory stab at that, and then I was searching around for something more substantial to own. The forums, or 'message boards' seemed to be a natural candidate.

    The most recent piece of work I'd done at my previous gig , had been to contribute a threaded discussion system to our general purpose content management system, which allowed a tree of conversations to be attached to any content id in the catalogue, so the site users could have a threaded comments section attached to any content. This had worked pretty out well. By contrast, IMDb had a pretty threadbare generic forum system, a standalone phpbb installation, almost entirely isolated from the rest of the system, organised into a few dozen general purpose with I think even a separate login system.

    A business goal for the next year was to drive up user registrations, and the forums system seemed like a good feature to assist with this. It offered additional site value that was only viable to registered users. Another target was to integrate the boards system more directly into the movie database, allowing people to have conversations directly attached to the pages for movies and shows. Another important requirement was to allow for a system that would let the data contributors directly communicate with the data management team. So I was tasked to do something with the forums to meet these broad goals, and the implementation and design of it was largely up to me, informed by regular feedback from the wider team onto weekly progress reports and via the team lunch meeting.

    We're going to need a bigger boat

    I considered a number of approaches.

    • I could have extended the PHP forum system as was, to support the new features, but I didn't really consider that for more than a couple of minutes - it was PHP, which I didn't know terribly well, and disliked, and would be harder to tightly integrate with the rest of the mayhem app, which was a domain optimised mod_perl web service.
    • I wondered about wrapping a USENET service, which had a lot of appeal, in as much as a lot of the base mechanics of hierarchy would be already covered, and a highly scalable architecture with a portable standard with several existing back-end implementations. I really liked this idea a lot, but I rejected it eventually when I realised that it would be difficult to build an integrated web front end that offered as much functionality as a stand-alone newsreader. If I had been able to find a decent open-source web NNTP client I might very well have done this.
    • Another alternative would have been to find an alternative forum system that was more amenable to customisation. I considered using the slash system that powered slashdot.org, but I rejected that because at that time it had a reputation for poor performance and uptime, and was struggling with coping with trolls. I really should have paid more attention to these ideas , both of which would come back to haunt me
    • eventually using a mixture of naivety, hubris, ego, enthusiasm and pragmatism I decided I'd build something custom, scaling up over the ideas I'd used for the comments module in my previous job.

    The basis for that system was something I was quite proud of, and in some senses it was quite a clever hack. We had wanted threaded discussions, but it's famously tricky to model trees in SQL. My first attempt, with hydrating flat lists into trees at runtime from a SQL result set was computationally a little bit expensive for the hardware of the time, and slowed up page rendering in the articles with comments.

    So I came up with an ingenious scheme. I'd store several sort fields against the comment records - one representing the vertical position in the thread, and one representing the indentation level, and every time a reply was inserted into a comment thread, I'd compute the correct indent level by adding one to the parent reply, set the vertical position to one larger than the parent, and then update every larger sort sequence to increment it by one; so that they were sequentially stored in thread order when read by that index. As I was storing the timestamp, and a sequential post id, I thereby had a system that could trivially read back conversations by order of time, order of posting or order of reply. This meant that posting was relatively computationally expensive, but only on the database server, whereas reading was simple and fast. I reasoned that reads were many times more frequent than writes, and biasing the system this way would optimise it for the common case, and avoid the need to build a cache invalidation system .

    This system actually had worked out pretty well in practice, at least for Accounting Web comments sections. Although it's conceptually neat, it's also actually pretty fucking dumb for a couple of reasons.

    1. updating records has a high overhead in PostgreSQL because of the mechanics of its concurrency implementation
    2. this system means that adding comments becomes linearly more expensive as threads grow in size. The more popular a system gets, the work needed to post an individual comment increases in a polynomial fashion


    I wasn't entirely stupid, I had calculated this downside, and I'd done some scaling calculations on paper to see what the cost of implementing this for the IMDb would be, and here I made my first actually stupid mistake, I used the metrics of the existing forum system to try and predict the capacity of the new one. I can't remember the exact numbers now, and I've long misplaced the notebooks, but it was something lower than a thousand posts a day, and the average thread length was a few dozen posts. Amazon could afford a useful database server, and it seemed like I easily had a couple of orders of magnitude of headroom. Telling myself that premature optimisation was the root of all evil , and conveniently ignoring the fact that this design was literally entirely borne of an optimisation hack, I decided to proceed with this scheme.

    Show me all the blueprints

    I gave the design a lot of thought. I had been a USENET user back in the glory days before spam and binaries had rendered it toxically uninhabitable. I adored slashdot. I'd used a lot of shitty web forums since then, and I had designed a flexible engine that could handle any kind of post based discussion grouping. I thought this was a great opportunity to design a discussion system that I'd want to use myself. scratch your own itch . I think I already mentioned, I didn't really have much idea what I was getting myself into. Ah, youth.

    I thought that most of the grief and spam I'd seen in other systems, was primarily because of the cheapness and disposability of user identity. I figured we could tie that down by disallowing anonymous posts, which was aligned with the goal of increasing user registrations already - maybe ultimately we could link them into amazon.com accounts, and therefore real identities. I wanted to give the users the ability to personalise and curate their site home page, so they'd have an investment in a community they valued, and would be publicly accountable to.

    Another thing I'd noted about other forums was how quickly they stagnated into a dominant clique, and deterred new joiners. I decided this was in part because of the permanent record; the conversations got stale because everything had already been said, and the groups then tended to be dominated by handfuls of high-status members with visible post-history. Groupthink dominates, outsiders are shunned, filter-bubbles prevail. I thought that an interesting solution to this would be to actively expire user posts. IMDb already had a system of user reviews for more static user content attached to database entries. The boards were for conversation - so we'd just periodically remove older content, and make no secret about it. This should stop the entropy lock-down, and also give us a mechanism to keep a lid on the database / thread size to help with performance. Everything should stay fresh and sparkling and self-rejuvenate.

    I know lots of this was naive thinking and with 2017 hindsight, it's easy to see the flaws. In 2001 though, there was much less experience of online community management. We thought we knew about trolling, because we'd experienced previous communities, but I don't think anyone yet had a handle on the scale and the scope of it in a significantly mass-medium consumer Internet.

    I really wanted nested threading, which is a very good, perhaps too good, way to promote reply-oriented posting and reading. For that same reason, I didn't want threading to be the implied default mode, because I thought it promoted point-by-point refutation, which lead to arguments and flame-wars. So I envisioned a system that could seamlessly move between a flat or a nested view, with a cookie to fix it to your individual preference.

    Each post would have two actions - a new top level post in the thread, or a reply to the particular post, and the different view options would allow you to see how the thread timeline fitted together from each point of view. I felt this would encourage replies, without mandating them as the only form of discourse. This meant that the organisational system was topic ( either a generic, or a database object ) , consisting of a thread - which was defined by the opening post made by any user at the topic level. This then collected numerous replies, which themselves could have sub-threads of reply.

    Mindful of the fact that this was still an era of expensive and slow dial-up and low end computers, I wanted the ability to view in narrow or expanded views. I didn't want to force people to download gigantic pages of browser and modem-choking deeply-nested table layouts, so we would flip between outline and expanded views as well as flat or nested. I wanted people to have a static, but customisable home page that they could add content, style and flair to; hoping to give them a sense of curation and ownership and identity, that should help act as a brake on too much antisocial or negative behaviour. I'm not sure I was even smart enough to wonder if people would use their home page to host offensive content. (Of course, some did).

    So I started to build it. Initially it went really well. On the data model and storage engine side of things, I was on a pretty solid footing, it was familiar ground. I carried on using PostgreSQL, and we specified a decent (for the times) server to host it on. No H/A or replication at all. I'm shocked at that idea now, but at the time I had reasoned that we were building an ancillary, purposefully ephemeral side-car discussion system with a different storage layer to the main site, and we'd be fine with regular hot backups - in the case of disaster we could shut them down without affecting the main site, and restore from backup. In the case of total and utter catastrophe, we could just reset them to zero and start again, they weren't designed for permanence anyway. Feedback about the design and features from the rest of the team was positive, with plenty of enhancements and suggested tweaks, and the system started to take shape.

    The UX layer was way harder than I'd anticipated, and because of this, I started to get a bit bogged down in the 'second 90%' of the first deliverable. The mayhem engine that the team had built (a really clever piece of software design, that I don't really have time to give justice to here) had never yet really had to cater to highly dynamic pages - it's core purpose was to serve flexible views of an almost read-only statically compiled dataset of movies and people. It was originally built around doing that in a particularly optimised way.

    I had to build up my own HTTP POST and form handling layers that would integrate with the existing HTTP handlers, from a somewhat lower starting point than I was used to doing, and this soaked up quite a bit of testing and debugging time. Even worse was the display code. We didn't really have much facility for dynamic page layout in the templating system - which was both highly customised, and complex; the site page templates were used to drive the static build system, via a custom compiler - the markup in the template specified what data views would be generated by the build, which directed the data builders that compiled the binary movie database- the pages were effectively just compiled to a stub handler for a specific route which would seek to the object index in a particular data index, and then basically sprintf the data out port 80 as a hydrated web page. This was a fast way to serve varying pages with identical structure, but not immediately well suited to highly adaptive constantly updated live pages or submission forms. Still, I wanted the boards system in the existing stack as well as I could manage, and so I laboured to build the missing features into my system in a way that could integrate well, which involved at least one complete abandoning and rewriting of the internal API.

    The actual boards display templates themselves were a significant time soak. We had a great designer, who took my ugly box tables prototype output, and turned out nice looking blueprint designs for all the various view modes and forms as static web pages. This was of course the era of the browser wars, and we were expected to support a bewildering array of user agents from the Netscape 3.x era onward, inclusive of weird-ass things like AOL clients and MSN web-tv set top boxes and goodness knows what else...

    Busting these intricate table-based views apart and back together again into a cryptic markup and logic language, adding the various ( session global ) mode flags such that all the different view combinations rendered as functional pages that degraded gracefully took me weeks . I was slipping past shipping dates and entering a terrible crunch death-march to just try and get something out of the door. Unhelpfully, this was all happening at a time when I was having a few strains in my family life, and also struggling a little bit to balance this into a sensible routine of working from home, I was ping-ponging between getting distracted away from 9-5 and then overcompensating by working across nights and weekends. Eventually we had to pull out features to ship.

    I drastically cut back the home page customisation, abandoned all the planned but unstarted work for a search index, and only had time to add the most rudimentary admin features. I had wanted to migrate the existing posts across to the new system, but I'd not even begun to start on that, and that also hit the cutting room floor. With a lot of assistance from the rest of the tech team to get it over the line, we hit publish on the initial TNG boards system some time in the summer of 2002, later than planned by some months. This pattern of the message boards being more work than expected for all parties that touched them would be the prevailing tone for the next several years.

    A test designed to provoke an emotional response

    User feedback was immediately negative, and highly vocal. Lobbying started instantly for the reinstating of the previous system. People complained about the new designs, the complexity of the new display options, the inevitable launch bugs. I was silly enough to join in the conversation to help explain the launch and solicit feedback, and from that point on I had an onslaught of direct contact messages and emails, occasionally positive and friendly, but more often than not weird and offensive, sometimes abusive. You do try to tell yourself that you can just ignore the trolls, but in truth it is quite difficult to remain completely unaffected by emails that compare you to a child rapist and calling for your death in offensive terms, even if it was only provoked by you breaking a font size in a particular version of Internet Explorer 3 . You never quite get used to that, I find. I was pretty crestfallen with all the negativity after all that work, although the team were positive and assured me that some of the board users could be like that, and that in general people are more vocal when they're complaining, and are naturally somewhat resistant to change. I still felt pretty down.

    My mood did soon change after a few weeks. The new boards were kind of a hit. Maybe a smash hit . They quickly overshot my scribbled calculations of scale in a slightly worrying manner. With some judicious database tuning, the performance stayed OK though. For now. Then we added links from every title page (IMDb pages were sub-grouped into title pages, for tv shows and movies identified by a key called a tconst which looked like tt1234567 and name pages, for people, robots, animals etc. from cast and crew which were identified by a key called an nconst which look like nm1234567 ; top level boards un-linked to other database objects therefore got a new key type called a bdconst , somewhat inconsistently, these looked like bd1234567 and didn't matter very much because there was only ever a few dozen standalone boards) and the numbers started to properly hockey stick .

    At the time we used to compute the page views in a weekly report which broke out the top N subsections according to first level directory. We never shared traffic numbers publicly, and so even after all this time I will be respectfully coy, but the highest chart topping positions were obviously things like /title, /name, /search /news /chart etc. At launch, the boards were lurking down the bottom, nowhere to be seen, but after we started the title conversations they were solidly into the top five, where they remained with ever-accumulating numbers, and user registrations clocking up correspondingly.

    From that point on, I spent a significant amount of my waking life 'doing the boards' for the next several years. Initially I was scrambling to put in the missing features we'd pulled before launch - post editing, markup for posts and then profiles in a hand-rolled version of BBCode ; again with a stupid insistence on display time optimisation, I converted this to HTML at write time, which meant that when we added post editing, I had to backward parse the HTML back into bbcode to be re-edited, all with a misconceived series of chained regular expressions . This lead to an endless sea of parse bugs that pretty much guaranteed that the markup and emoji (although they weren't called that yet, we called them 'smileys') set would be once fixed effectively sealed forever, even though I'd taken the trouble to add an admin edit tool, that allowed for updates to markup to be made by non-developers through the CMS API.

    I'd thrown together a naïve search API, entirely based on un-indexed SQL substringing, which I'd fully intended to replace after launch. It never worked, and the system filled up so quickly that it killed the page cache entirely by constantly table scanning the texts, so much so that I spiked it in the first week, and never got a chance to work on it's planned replacement. I was still getting emails complaining about that five years later after I'd left.

    With the surging popularity, came increasing amounts of negative user behaviour, and I had to increasingly devote development time to adding abuse processing tools for our small moderation team, onto what had only ever been an afterthought of an admin system. We never proceeded to link up the user accounts to amazon accounts, and I'd never planned to add user-driven moderation. My quixotic hopes for user killfiles (renamed to 'ignore lists', which is a far better and kinder name), global killfiles (known as the ' Phantom Zone ', because I love Superman ) with account history purging and deletion weren't enough on their own, and the tooling for processing abuse reports were too clunky and slow, largely because I hadn't planned enough for them from the offset.

    I was now fighting a constant war on two fronts. With the popularity of the system way beyond my original estimate of a few thousand posts a day. We quickly escalated to a point where the really popular off-topic boards were ersatz real-time chatrooms, accepting hundreds of posts a second at peak-times. All of this in a cursor-pooled synchronously blocking database directly attached to the HTTP display servers. I spent a great deal of my work time just constantly rewriting sections of it all to squeeze efficiency out of this setup. First with indexes and schema changes, then with hardware upgrades and tuned and profiled system software, then with a complete rewrite of all of the database logic to use stored procedures , and finally a long overdue table sharding so we could cluster boards between different tables and tablespaces to balance the IO and garbage loads. At the same time on the other front we were trying to come up with ways to lower the proportionally increasing cost of trolling and abuse.

    My partner was temporarily stationed away in London by this point, so I was home alone, aside from the dog . Workdays at this point quite often consisted of walking 12 paces from the bedroom, still brushing my teeth at about 09:30, getting a support email, starting to poke at something interesting with the boards, and then not giving up until the small hours of the next morning. I was fairly obsessed with all of it, and my health was suffering, although I was too close to all of it to properly see this at the time. I developed a weird collection of neurological symptoms which stubbornly refused diagnosis, and subsequently appear to have been entirely stress-induced.

    We still were choking out at peak load times, and it was starting to have a knock-on effect to the rest of the site. Eventually, a super-talented colleague helped me out by implementing a workable version of my poorly articulated designs for a caching database proxy; implemented seemingly overnight by him in C, it spoke postgresql wire protocol and cached result sets in a filesystem that we mounted on ramdisk. Kind of a home-brewed combination of memcached and pgbouncer . The simplicity and effectiveness of this just took my breath away, just as much the lesson that if a software thing doesn't exist, you can just make it yourself. Everything is just ones and zeroes, as I am very fond of saying to this day.

    With this addition we got to a place where the system was in enough of a steady state. We implemented more banning and reporting, added a reputation score based system that slowed the rate of posting for users with lower reputation scores, which also helped reduce the saturation write loads at peak. Eventually we added an automatic moderation robot with a learning capacity and pluggable rulesets. I called him Spike . He worked fairly well, if a little bluntly at some times.

    I hope I'm not giving out the impression here that it was all entirely negative. It was definitely a rollercoaster few years. Exhilarating, and also very entertaining. The boards were a living thing that had sprung out of nowhere, literally something I'd created in my spare bedroom. It sort of felt like a Pacific-Ocean sized colony of sea-monkeys eternally fizzing away with unexpected activity right there in my spare room.

    Although they were often frustrating, the users were also inspiring, and creative, and surprising, and occasionally pretty funny, even some of the (gentler) trolls. On top of an understandable level of frustration and annoyance, I generally found I felt a sense of sympathy for them, and their complaints and frustrations with the system. All of this was before the age of 'social media', and I could almost feel the shape of it hanging there, slightly beyond where we were heading, off-piste and in a direction we probably shouldn't venture into.

    A consistent surprise was the amount of effort people put into curating their limited patch of profile space, and how social and to us off-topic, it all was. We were constantly running into people trying to use the boards for personal social spaces - I argued for providing individual personal boards for every user at one point, but the management team explained that we weren't really in the core business of general social networking. It confused me at the time, and I had to think about it for a while, but I think that was correct thinking, and there's a lot of wisdom there. You simply can't do all possible things well. With a small team, and a big world, you benefit most from focusing entirely on the things you're best at and the things you want to be better at.

    A few of the sillier trolls stand out. There was one early griefer , who we very easily IP traced to a school library, I think based in Canada. We waited until he was in mid-session one afternoon, and then if I recall correctly, management called his head teacher, who was then able to apprehend them in the act. There was another, very silly catfish troller called tabitha_cyeg , with an obviously manufactured identity. Their M.O. was posting bizarre conspiracy theories about the site technology, and myself, during which they'd claimed to have hacked into using l33t -sounding but completely irrelevant NetBIOS vulnerabilities replete with faked server logs, and on one occasion 'hacked' emails from myself revealing my true name to be something along the lines of 'Claude M. Savoire'. Quite a few users were seemingly entirely convinced, but to me it was pythonesque.

    Getting contacted by the Feds to deal with users who'd been posting death threats about President Bush was weird , at least it was the first time, and I got a few PMs and emails from actual industry figures, which was always quite exciting. I personally banned a moderately famous Hollywood producer this one time, for abusive posting, which is something of a curiosity. I remember going to watch Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back at the cinema around this time frame, and getting a particular kick from the sub-plot where they individually visit all the internet forum posters who have been rude about their previous films.

    I watched people fight and friend. Saw a few romances and a marriage or two emerge from the regulars. I read, and occasionally got involved, against my better judgement, in fascinating and productive conversations. I still bump into people IN REAL LIFE who reminisce about the boards and are to this day impressed with me when I tell them I had a big hand in their genesis. I once spent an evening in a darkened restaurant patio overwhelmed to tears as a kind man explained to me his young daughter, hospital-bound and dying of cancer, had used the Harry Potter IMDb boards as her main social life in her last year, and how much that had meant to him and her. Stories like that are just a profound privilege to have had even the most tangential involvement in.

    And I learned so much. Working with such a smart team, on such a great and special piece of the internet. Learning about every aspect of scaling a web stack from the disk blocks up to the network and back down again. This era was still 32-bit Intel hardware, and I learned a huge amount about that, and UNIX profiling , and the linux virtual memory system and file system , and HTTP caching . I made so many mistakes, because there just wasn't any other way for me to learn, and I did figure out how to fix or improve on many of them.

    I learned about PostgreSQL internals from the wire protocols all the way down to the storage models in some detail, and to this day I'm a pretty great PostgreSQL DBA , when I need to be. I learned a lot about UX influence and steering behaviour, albeit by mostly getting it wrong. I learned about building search engines, and service orientated architecture, and why you really shouldn't hang responsive systems off of blocking I/O, and maybe message queues are useful. I learned how to measure system performance all the way down to the CPU cache level . I learned how to keep focused on problems I didn't yet know how to solve, or perhaps didn't yet understand. I learned lots and lots of things about movies and cinema history, much of it just by osmosis poring over the data sources. I learned how to better manage my own time and projects, and I learned what it feels like to burn out , and what you should do about it when you know that you are. Since I left Amazon.com, I've had a great and varied career , and I think at least 75% of the useful things I know how to do well I learned first-hand on that gig, and I've always treasured, and respected that.

    Always. Be. Closing.

    And now they're shutting the boards down. I first heard about it via text message, oddly enough; but shortly after that it was all over my news feeds followed by a slow stream of emails, checking in. Friends, ex-colleagues, some of them from former boards users. I felt an odd sense of shock about it, in a way, and slightly emotional. Sixteen years is a ridiculously long time in Internet years. The web itself wasn't sixteen years old when I joined Amazon, and nor was the even older still IMDb. I don't use the boards myself any more, although I do occasionally look over them, perhaps once or twice a year. It's been clear for a while that they're not getting a fraction of the use that they once did, and that's fair. The web is a different thing in 2017 entirely, and that's also a good thing.

    Communications technology evolves, and hopefully improves all the time. People have all kinds of social networking now for communicating, and the bulk of this is happening on different, smaller screens than anything I could have envisioned when I was first sketching out some pencil ideas in a gridded notebook. An actual Filofax I believe. It was very humbling to see the amount of twitter traffic noting the IMDb announcement, as well as the number of actual proper news sites that wrote this up as something significant. The Verge report seemed to think the IMDb message boards were era-defining. That's something, I guess. All things must pass.

    There's just one more thing that's bothering me

    ' Mjeyds '. On the imdb board bbcode syntax, there's a particular smiley that you markup using this bizarre word. People occasionally ask what the term means, and I've always enjoyed the mystery, being one of very few people in the world to have any claim to know the answer. I guess it's now or never for the reveal.

    The emoticon set was curated, uploaded and configured by my erstwhile designer colleague. He took responsibility for naming them. He wasn't English, hailing from Denmark, I believe via several other countries. When I pressed him for an explanation of 'mjeyds', he said it was supposed to be an onomatopoeic of the way the late Graham Chapman said a languorous 'yes' whilst sucking on a pipe in a scene from Monty Python's the meaning of life . If it is, I guess it works better if you're using a Danish alphabet? If you've got all this way through this post only to find out the answer to that question, then I am sorry if it is an anticlimax, but thank you for reading. Maybe some things are better left mysterious. Another lesson learned.

    Crazy Credits

    this is a personal web page, and an entirely personal and subjective retelling of my own experience building and maintaining a small section of IMDb.com a long time ago. Whilst I'm happy to take personal responsibility for a large amount of the boards creation and inspiration, I don't want people to get the impression that this was in any way a solo effort. All of the work outlined above was produced in the context of a small dedicated team, and although I've refrained from naming names, and attributing ideas elsewhere this is borne more from a desire not to miss anyone out - after this amount of time there's simply no way I can credit individuals for parts I can remember without failing to attribute others for equally important contributions I have forgotten. I've done my best to be honest about facts and timelines, and tried not to infer too much about third party motivations, but I know I've forgotten things and misremembered others. Working from memory, after this amount of time, such errors are only human. If you spot anything terribly wrong, or have any questions or corrections, please get in touch. I'd like to thank the entirety of the IMDb team 2001-2005 for working with me on all the aformentioned things, and more. Great team, great times

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