1. Project 'get off the main web and back onto the indieweb' has been a little bit derailed by 'life events', some of which I should probably blog more about, in the truest spirit of that community. I am still plugging away at it over here in the corner, quietly.

    /me waves

    In addition to refocusing on self-hosting, some of my other goals were to play better with the "fediverse", experiment with a couple of p2p alternative Internets, and do a few more real-life networking. So tonight there's an opportunity to combine a couple of those, as tonight I am attending the London Mastodon Meetup, in the guise of one of my many secret identities, '[email protected]'.

    I'm not sure that disappointed is quite the right word to use, but part of me thinks it's a shame that it isn't

    1. called a toot up
    2. happening in Tooting
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  2. So far, the most personally visible effect of the upcoming UK GDPR data regulation is an uptick in "about GDPR" emails from financial orgs that all look a bit like phishing attempts :-/

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  3. Happy 37th birthday, Sinclair ZX81!

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  4. A few months ago, I hacked together a kano system to give the children an introduction to computers and what everyone seems to want to call 'coding'. I like the idea, and the style of the kano kit , but I was a little bit dubious about dropping a couple of hundred quid on a 'edutainment' project that might prove to be of little lasting interest. I'm not particularly hung up on the kids achieving productivity with the thing, but if I'm going to increase my pile of computery devices, I'd prefer to invest in things that are going to be useful.

    I hacked together my own Kano

    Like so many recent consumer 'DIY' hardware kits, the kano systems are built over the super-popular Raspberry Pi single board computer system. The nice kano people provide downloads for their base system (which is built over linux), as well as all their educational software. So, you can fairly cheaply assemble a scratch-build system from parts, especially if you have most of the parts already lying around in your gigantic pile of computery devices, which of course, I mostly do. You just need a screen, a Pi, some input devices, and a suitably-sized SD card to flash an OS image to. (Use this app!)

    It all works fairly well. They bundle a collection of educational free software, including the usual suspects (Sonic Pi, Scratch), some slightly more suprising and fun inclusions (Minecraft Pi Edition), and their own 'Kano Blocks' programming system, a kind of scratch-like skin over maybe Python and JavaScript (I haven't really looked into it too much). Most of the value add comes with the user interface kano have used to tie all this together - it's got a nice colourful simplified desktop, and an onboarding script that uses a charming story-telling metaphor with an unfolding narrative (that starts out in a UNIX shell!) to nudge you into a 'learn to program' RPG style adventure. This takes the form of a Zelda style game that walks you through various scripted programming assignments, with a kind of quest structure. The backstory is sort of an updated spin on 'little computer people'. Overall it's quirky, charming, and seems to be quite engaging. Certainly, more appealing and welcoming to younger children than something like a bare Raspbian desktop with the various apps installed.

    I think designing user interfaces is really hard. I've done a bit of it myself. To my mind, it is at least as hard, perhaps harder, than writing computer software. On this front, despite a few rough edges, I've been really impressed with how well the Kano design caters to it's audience. By and large, it's pretty suitable for reading-age children to work with mostly unsupervised. (Pleasingly, there's no requirement for a network connection). That's quite a feat. It's not iPad-easy, but it's offering a significantly more freestyle, open-ended computer experience. I had a tiny bit of troubleshooting with WiFi drivers, and sound initially (hey, it's linux on the desktop after all). I expect these wouldn't present if you were using the official hardware kit. I would give a gentle recommendation of kano to anyone that was thinking of introducing a 6-8 year old child to 'computing' in a useful sense. Most of our interface struggles came from a less expected direction...

    Intuition

    Kano uses a tradtional desktop metaphor, which expects you to have a keyboard and a mouse/trackpad. It's straightforward adding these to a Pi. You can use any standard keyboard or mouse. Your options are USB type A, or Bluetooth. As you might expect, I have piles of these lying around. As it turns out, mostly these are Apple devices, because of historical reasons. These seem ideal. Apple! The fêted industrial design company. Really well built, attractive equipment. Attractive. Robust. World-beating, reliable Bluetooth stack. I had a small parts bin to choose from. Wireless and wired. Mice and trackpads. Aluminium and polycarbonate.

    They kind of worked as well as you'd expect. Except the children found them too confusing to use. It turns out, they're riddled with implied behaviour. Multitouch click behaviour for left and right clicks. Or completely invisible mouse 'buttons'. Weird icons for SHIFT, and TAB, and ENTER, and CAPS that are mostly subtle variations on the same symbol. Granted, I'm using the devices outside their expected context, but I was struck by the irony of how unintuitive all of this was, and also how unneccessary. I can appreciate that there's an aesthetic at play here. From a decorative perspective, there's a tasteful and consistent minimalism that ties it all together. I don't think it exhibits good design. I think it's just pseudy, pretentious, and fake.

    I like things to be pretty, and I value design. Both concepts are linked, but they ain't the same thing. Minimal interface design is a laudable goal. If you remove complexity from the interface medium, you remove boundaries, lower overheads, and make a system that's quicker, effective, and less taxing to use. If you do this, and you succeed in doing it well enough, there's an inherent beauty to any well considered tool, that sits somewhere beyond visual proportionality and materials. All these Apple peripherals fail to deliver much of this, sometimes quite badly. I was a bit surpised that I never noticed this so directly in the ten years or so I worked with these tools. But I was already an expert user, these flaws were a couple of layers lower than I was used to looking. Admittedly, some of the mice were pretty terrible, but I have famously always been more of a keyboard man.

    After a couple of months of rotating the devices, and patiently explaining that you press over here for this kind of click with this finger, and over there for the other purpose, with a different finger, and this kind of arrow is SHIFT, but that kind of arrow is CAPS LOCK, and scrolling happens this way, I caved and bought a Logitech K-400. It is battleship grey, and not particularly pretty. It uses a dongle for wireless, not bluetooth. The integrated touchpad works fine, and has two differentiated physical buttons. The SHIFT key is labelled with the word 'Shift'. It has been immediately popular, and I have not yet had to field a single question about how the keyboard or pointer works.

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  5. I am a fairly sanguine UK rail commuter. I do not understand why they schedule the annual price hike for exactly the same week the holiday maintenance work is likely to have overrun, affecting all the services. Surely it would make more sense to raise the price at the start of the financial year, in April?

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  6. Old Street station has a popup "Black Mirror" shop. I am not sure how I feel about this. I am fairly sure I know how Dan Ashcroft would feel about this.

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  7. Bought some shoes, in the rain

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  8. I've been writing a couple of things in hy again this week. What's Hy? It's a cute idea. It's a lisp that compiles? (transpiles? I never get the difference) to the Python AST. I guess the elevator pitch might be something like clojure but for python. So yeah, a rich, super stable class-tree sort of OO language, with enormous portablility and twenty-odd years of library support for everything you might want to do, but with a nice, dynamic, lispy language and a repl.

    I've played with hy a little bit on and off over the years. Actually, when I was working at SMR, I actually deployed some in production. (Somehow, I doubt that's still a thing). Python is my go-to scripting language, because it's very plain, very portable, batteries included, somewhat modern, probably already installed everywhere I work. I try to use it for scripty things, rather than shell or perl or something. Lisps are my favourite programming language. I just like how it fits together. I know lots of people don't, and I'm fine with that, but I always enjoy it.

    So over the holiday weekend I found myself wanting a couple of almost throwaway scripts, and I decided to reach back into the hy bucket, and give that another try. I wrote a script to grab my selfie tweets from a twitter archive, and a rough script to publish formatted micro-blog entries directly from the shell.

    It was a fun exercise. Hy has moved on a bit since I last tried. (They seem to have removed let, and car, and cdr, and lambda which I feel funny about), but by and large it works really well.

    Things I like

    • I like mapping over lists of things, and in straight Python this is often clumsy and leads to densely nested comprehensions
    • actual lambdas!
    • Python3 support ( hy3 )
    • easy importing of python modules
    • mostly seamless python interop
    • repl works great
    • the repl shows you the pythonic syntax of the forms it evaluates, which is helpful if you know Python
    • emacs mode (obv)
    • it has lazy sequences
    • and multimethods!
    • it is fun to work in

    Things I like less

    • Missing some olde lisp things like car/cdr/lambda
    • Things often expect you to be using methods on stateful objects, which gets you an OO impedance mismatch (I have the same problems in scala and clojure)
    • Slightly more typed than you expect, whilst not really offering you a type system. (Particularly with distinctions between lists, sequences, iterators.)
    • it often seems easier to imperative loop with for than map / reduce / filters, and this seems weird.
    • i don't feel I have any understanding about setv variable scoping.
    • no STM, which I think is one of the most interesting things about clojure
    • I don't think the error handling does restarts and conditions and things

    Summary

    I don't think I would choose to use it to build any complicated systems. (Typically this is true of Python as well to be fair). I'd love to see something like an idomatic web framework in it. I could imagine using it to build serverless workers over something like apex up or chalice perhaps. I should totally try that!

    I am not really very good at it yet, so I doubt I'm writing optimal programs. My scripts often look like Dr. Moreau designs halfway between a python script and something more lispy. This could well improve as I understand the underlying sequence / itertools glue a bit more, I'm often routing around confusing sequenced things. I absolutely enjoy writing little scripts like this in it, and I think I maybe enjoy it more than I would if I was writing plain python. I gave some thought about why this might be and I think I figured it out.

    It could just be as simple as being all about the code editing. Python, and it's whitespace delimited blocks, is fine, and super readable, but it's always slightly fiddly to edit. Some of this is my toolchain, I'm sure. There's a lot of bells and whistles you can glue over emacs for Python work, and they're pretty good, but I do always find it a slightly fiddly experience. Balanced expressions and sexprs though are obviously an absolute joy to edit in emacs, alongside an embedded inferior lisp repl, and although it's nowhere near as integrated an experience as using slime with a "real" lisp, it's closer to that than editing Python ever feels, and for me that's a significant productivity win. So I think it will stay in the toolbox.

    I recommend Hy to anyone who is interested in interesting lightweight languages, especially scripting languages. Obviously it's particularly relevant to anyone who likes python or lisps, even if just as a curiosity. If you work with Python and like using emacs though, and like the sound of 'Python but with structured editing' I would strongly recommend you look at how it might integrate into your workflow.

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  9. I'm sick of Twitter, folks. I've decided to do something both mild and drastic about it. For 2018, I have resolved to stop using it.

    I am not sure what it is for anymore, it certainly doesn't feel like it is for me. I think I've been disengaging slowly for the last couple of years, and in 2017 I repeatedly found it too aggravating, and depressing to engage with. I think I would have already ragequit, had one of last year's resolutions not been that silly selfie thing. Thus a seed was planted about resolutions and exits. Brains often work that way. (Referendums are silly though)

    I was late to twitter. I downloaded my twitter archive, whilst I was scraping out all of the 2017 selfies, and apparently my first tweet is from Dec 2007.

    I was late to Battlestar Galactica as well.

    I probably spent a little while reading twitter before registering, although I don't remember anything specific. I can't remember why I signed up in the first place. Looking at that first month of odd, stilted entirely quotidian status posts, I can tell I'm working on Logical Bee, mostly alone, babysitting that dog. It's winter. Maybe I'm lonely? I have a dim memory of thinking it was pretty dumb for a long while before getting involved at all. I remember fiddling about connecting it to things, and experimenting with SMS tweets and emails. I don't think it really clicked for the longest while. I remember a sense of a clique I wasn't ever going to be able to get into. That first wave of web-natives, younger than my generation. More entuned to a web of application services and APIs than hypertexts and data servers. I remember tweetups being a thing, and a Bristol one being announced, and spending an hour or two before deciding firmly I wasn't the kind of person that went to that kind of thing. I quite wish I had gone now. I didn't used to be a very good joiner-in of things. I'm not much better at that now. A little bit, perhaps. Now I know to try.

    It took the longest while, but eventually it clicked. I liked the lightness of it. It was sort-of social networking, but social networking at arms length. Lots of irony, lots of whimsy. I just remembered the earliest phase of my binning Facebook was to convert my facebook to just echo my tweets back into it, for the muggles to read. I remember being very snobby and standoffish about things like hashtags and @replies. My first reply wasn't until August 2008.

    To Daveh! Either I don't know how to reply yet, or the Twitter archive has incorrectly threaded that reply back together. Either seems plausible.

    I didn't use a hashtag until May 2009. Even then I was repurposing "get off my lawn" meta-commentary. Amused to see that my next half dozen hashtags are complaining about moonfruit's use of them for viral marketing. Many years later I ended up working there for a season. Again we see the seeds are sown, and the fruit is reaped.

    Not too ashamed of that one. It's interesting looking back at tweets like that, I have a sense that the prevailing vibe of Twitter at the time was that the cool kids were beating out the idiots. I don't get that vibe off Twitter now.

    By this point it was clearly very firmly entrenched in my daily desktop routine. Once I got hold of smartphones that could run twitter, I think my usage ramped up. I remember by the time I got to last.fm, I was tweeting all the things, curating a couple of hashtags (#fantasypeelsessions for serendipitous word groups that sounded like band names, #fisharecool for cool fish facts), running multiple joke twitter accounts, writing bots, and generally really enjoying it. I remember when I got to Makeshift, and twitter seemed to be used as the wiring behind at least half of everything there, it then seemed like a necessary internet plumbing for web apps. With hindsight I think that was the peak. It was downhill from there. I don't like it any more, I have detected an opportune moment, and I have decided to leave. At least for one year.

    I'm not going to use this post for arguing about why I think it's broken. One of the largest problems I have with it is the sheer concentration of negativity. And one of the reasons I want to move away from it is to focus on building things that are more positive. It's not just Twitter. I'm pretty broken-hearted with the state of the web in 2017 - it's very far from what I signed on to help build as one of those idealistic Gen X web 1.0 types. And again, rather than just bemoan that, I'd rather start focusing on ways to think about fixing that. And for me, in 2018, this means I'm going to go small, and focus on building things and content I can own, in the sidelines. I expect I will be updating here more. I plan to double-down a bit harder on indieweb things, and federated stuff. POSSE all the things. Death to silos. I've been experimenting with micro.blogs and mastodon.social, and I want to play more with beaker and dat, and blockstack and IPFS and other idealistic p2p proto-webs. Maybe even frogans?. The real web looks more like that. Maybe I can help figure out how to make it a bit easier for everyone to clamber onboard.

    "But CMS, I think we're Twitter-friends, what does this mean for US?"

    First off, that's flattering, almost-certainly-entirely-imaginary-cms-fan, thanks! I like you too! Occasionally some of my tweets get as many as five or six engagements, and I do enjoy keeping up with some lovely people. Some of whom I met or perhaps only know through twitter. I'm sorry if this feels like a breakup; It's not you, it's me, as they say in the rom-coms. (Actually, I'm not dumping anyone.)

    Something else I want to push for in 2018 is better quality, stronger, social engagement. I want to cultivate more real contact, more high bandwidth engagement and connection with all the good people. This can work two ways of course. If you only really interact with me on a tweet by tweet basis, and you think you're going to miss that, then do please reach out. We can have coffee, or get beers, or just go fish in a lake or something else entirely. And I'm going to be pushing myself to reach out to more people in turn myself, something I'm astronomically poor at. Please help me with this if you can!

    IRL networking I plan to ramp up a bit. More meetups, tech and maybe otherwise. Maybe I'll rescind my conference ban. Maybe I'll start some of these things, or start helping to organise them more.

    I'm not doing an *infocide*. As well as publishing things hanging from here, which has plenty of RSS feeds, if you can still figure out how to integrate those into your workflows then I'll probably never be very far away. Also, if you look at the home page, there's a list of dozens of other not-Twitter platforms you can stalk me on or connect to me via (maybe we are already!) - If my plan comes together, I hope to be syndicating and updating the useful ones of these more actively.

    I don't intend to delete or remove my twitter account, and I will set things up so I still get notifications, so nobody gets ignored. I might even automate some notifications to my twitter feed about updates to things elsewhere. I'm just not going to be participating as a human. I expect I will remove all the apps, so my turnaround on mentions might slow right down.

    If you're in the select category of people who only know how to contact me with twitter, there are many options. I haven't changed my phone number, should you know me well enough to have one of those. If you're looking for a way to DM to me, I cannot endorse keybase strongly enough. I think they're trying to do something really interesting, and could do with some more network effect. Sign up to keybase, and keybase message me, I love getting keybase messages, and I always respond. Invite me to your keybase groups! Also, please share your slacks and your newsletters and your mailing lists with me, if you think I'd like them, or they'd like me.

    Email still works, and I still read it. My address is even on my website.

    Finally, if you're reading this, and we've Twitter interacted in some way, let me say a goodbye for now. If I was annoying, or argumentative, I'm sorry, I can be hard work soemtimes. Maybe some of that might have been caused by the platform? If I was fun or charming or interesting, then let's work to stay in touch! If you don't really care, you're not even sure how you got here from off of twitter, that's cool too, maybe I'll see you again in a year from now.

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  10. With all this focus on RSS generation for micro blog, I've been optimising my engine. I've learned how to use SBCL's profiler, and I have shaved a third off the cost of generating indexes

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  11. To think I used to worry about Disney Princesses

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  12. Let sleeping dogs lie

    It's been a month now, and I ought to be used to it, and in many ways I am, but in surprisingly many ways I'm still not; I don't have a dog anymore. He got too old, and he got too sick, and tired, and uncomfortable, and he had to be put to sleep, back on the 28th of November. How does it feel? Terrible.

    It was an enlarged heart that did for him. Poetically enough, his heart was just too large for him to carry on. The photo above is taken on the last morning, before I headed out to work. I knew there was very little chance he'd be coming back from the vet's appointment later that day. We had a little conversation and I carefully explained to him that he was a very good dog.

    Of course he was actually a terrible dog. A brilliantly terrible one, as most dalmatians are born to be. He'd not really been himself for a couple of years, stumbling about and complaining about most things, but right up until the last couple of weeks he was coping mostly, and remained good company. In his prime though, that dog was an athlete, who used to literally fly, and if I open my mind's eye a little, that's what I can see, streaking around the Bristol countryside, barely controllable, raiding bins, and laughing at you, over his shoulder.

    I don't really know what to write. I have to write something though. This website, which has been knocking around for fifteen years or more, only really took initial form as a rudimentary 'blog' so I could share dog photos with his burgeoning fanbase. Most of that has bitrotted now, but when I feel better I would like to clean it up some. So I can't really even let go of him without marking some notice here. I don't need to trot out all of the anecdotes, they're probably dull and too personal. After all, outside of my immediate circles, he's just some bloke on the internet's dog. To me, and to some of his internet fans though, he's the best dog in the world. Every single word of that is true.

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