I can remember fairly clearly the first time I seriously tried to calculate the future . I was maybe ten years old, lying in bed and re-reading an issue of 2000 AD, and for the first time, I was puzzling over the idea that that title, intentionally and inherently futuristic, represented a real calendar date that would one day arrive, and somehow, calamitously render the name obsolete. I tried to figure out how old I would have to be by the time we reached this epoch, but as I recall, it was beyond my reckoning. It didn’t seem that likely I would live long enough for vengeful androids and routine interstellar travel, and yet even from 1977, the year 2000 seemed countable. And here I am, now, in 2020, A number that looks so impossibly, so implausibly of, from, and for the future my brain isnt really comfortable holding on to it. But first we must put away 2019. Here's my 2019 roundup, in something like 20 paragraphs.
I rejoined social media:
2018 I had a year off Twitter, feeling a bit exhausted by it all. It didn't really seem to make much difference. Now the Internet seemed to have invaded, occupied and consumed everything. Surveillance capitalism now so entrenched it was to be a regular part of mainstream think piece commentary. Network effects being what they are, It’s deluded and futile to make even token efforts to keep beyond these tracking networks, the reach is now such that secondary and tertiary associations will just link around you and pull you in anyway. So I bounced back onto Twitter, signed up for Instagram, and even rejoined Facebook-and rectivated Foursquare. I’m not particularly excited by any of them. At best, they represent a low friction way of posting light life updates, and it's nice to get reciprocal insights back about people I know, but don't see regularly. (And now I don't really see anyone regularly, so that’s a thing) It's fine, but we can do better. Ironically 2019 feels like the year everyone started to gently pull back from all this online sharing stuff. Ho hum.
Gene Wolfe died
Boo. Probably my favourite author, genre or otherwise. Age 87, which is by any account a splendid innings. A couple of personal resonances last year. I finally finished reading the “solar cycle”, which contains some of my most loved books. I started when I was fifteen, and I was just starting into the final volume when he died. And then the Folio Society issued a fairly exquisite luxury edition of his masterpiece, "The Book of the New Sun", signed, numbered and limited to 750 pieces, and which I somehow managed to discover and purchase before they sold out. I felt pretty decadent, and guilty about spending hundreds of pounds on a fancy copy of a book I already owned, but within weeks people were listing them on eBay for thousands, so maybe it was a wise investment? Anyway, Wolfe is amazing, and-if you havent read him, why not try? Start with the Fifth Head of Cerberus, I would.
by the end of the year, I was bored of the hair, so it's all off again. I suspect the next time it grows back in may well be all white.
An ASD diagnosis:
No not me. We've basically known about it for a long time ourselves, and painfully been pursuing a diagnosis through the systems for literally years, but late in the year we obtained a professional diagnosis of ASD for number one child. Shock, relief, and lots to process for everybody, but a powerful sense of progress in a way that feels constructive and enabling, not reductive and labelling.
Here's a surprise ageing effect. Having got past "peer group wedding” season, and assuming weddings were all done I seem to have hit "generation below hits wedding season" season, and now weddings are a thing again. That's cool, I like weddings. This summer was two, both fancy AF. One in a cathedral, one in Cyprus. The latter was an Orthodox church service, which was quite unlike anything else I have previously experienced. Weddings are a pretty big deal in Cyprus.
Throughout 2019 we held a family membership to English Heritage, and as a result spent a few weekends wading around ancient English castles. There are quite a few spectacular examples In this part of the county, closest to the mainland (we can see France very with the naked eye most days). Dover is particularly astonishing. Pretty middle-aged, I guess. National Trust next?
I've been getting gently back into using actual cameras for photography. Maybe inspired by instagram? Possibly just because my predilection for "alternative" smartphone operating systems lumbers me with dreadful quality camera software? Regardless, I have been having fun shooting things with real glass - on my much loved power shot GX9-2, which sadly caught some water damage on a recent trip to Malta and is still drying out four months later - but this gave me an excuse to upgrade it to a slightly larger slightly more posh Canon M100, which is more cumbersome and not quite as fun to use, but easily compensates for that in image quality and lower light performance. I don't even muck about with much manual selection, mostly plain automatic shooting, but I really enjoy something about the deliberation, and the ceremony, and having to actively curate, triage and extract the images off the camera in order to use them for anything. Mindfulness? Contrarianism? Whatever, Fun.
Still in Folkestone:
Yup. After quitting London to work remotely, we sold the big house, and shifted even further south to Folkestone, where I remain, the most mundane kind of digital nomad imaginable. I like it a lot. I was born by the sea, I grew up by, in and on the sea, and now, once again, I walk, with dog, alongside the actual sea, most days. I've even gone in it to swim. Folkestone is my kind of town really - collapsing Victorian splendour, a harbour, vague touches of bohemia, light gentrification, that isn't trying too hard, and you can clearly see France most days, without effort, and that is something I will never not find mind-bendingly magical.. It does rain a bit too much, mind you.
2019 Was the year I finally gave up pretending I could largely ignore the pitifully untended state of my teeth. Actually, it was the teeth that made the decision for themselves. I have a pretty strong dental phobia (Maltese dentistry in the 1970's was not great), but by the middle of the year something was painfully not right in an area that had been slightly bothersome for years, and pain was escalating alarmingly. I still couldn't manage the appointment making myself, so thanks to my lovely wife, I ended up enrolled with a local private practice, and with a fairly gruesome diagnosis : -an impacted wisdom tooth had grown down into my jaw and accessed, destroying two molars, and threatening jaw damage. Surgical intervention was required, and due to my panic-stricken inability to co-operate, it was to be done under a still fairly Terrifyingly named process of "conscious sedation". That meant a referral, three months of waiting for a slot at a specialist clinic, and an almost constant diet of pain-killers in the interim (as well as two very uncomfortable, and strictly speaking forbidden, international flights) but eventually I got through it. The conscious sedative was one of the most surprising experiences I have ever had. Strapped into a chair in a small theatre, and attached to a drip, I remember a brief chat about consent, and then the next thing I remember I was in the passenger seat of the car on the way home, a mouth full of wadding, having entirely lost a couple of hours and a couple of teeth! I am left wondering if I was out for the operation, or if I have simply retained no memory of it, and what precisely is the dittoed between those two anyway? I find the very existence of this kind of instant blackout drugs and astonishing and implausible marvel. If It were a plot device in a fiction, I'd have scoffed at how completely unrealistic it was. So now I have a dentist, a treatment plan, no headaches, and two Fewer teeth. Lots more work needed, but it feels achievable. And I’ve experienced time-travel.
Love this one. My day job is still working at platform.sh, where we have a home grown container runtime that powers our "cloud" project. Cloud engineering is my team, and literally my first act in the job was to port one of my existing lisp web apps to the runtime as an experiment. Well, it turns out our VP of engineering is also a lisper, and we have ended up extending these experiments to building a couple of internal tools in SBCL, which are of course hosted on the platform. These proved useful enough to keep, and at that point, it started to make sense to productionize the lisp containers, so we can have a first class and maintainable build, rather than shoehorn a lisp install into a capable enough container. At which point there was no reason to not make this publicly available for customer projects, which we announced with a blog post, which was well recieved on the social platforms. I only had a tiny part in all of the above processes, but it is still one of the coolest things I have ever been involved with at work and remains a wonderful reminder that I have a pretty cool job and work with a great team.
A-Rank in Splatoon!:
I adore Splatoon, Nintendo’s gloriously styled paint-em-up, online FPS. I’ve been playing it quite regularly since launch on the Wii U, and through into it's subsequent re-packaging as Splatoon 2 on the Switch. I love everything about the game, from the mechanics, which are well-considered and balanced, all the way through to the world-building and the whole skate-tween-punk cartoon fish aesthetic. I mostly play ranked, and although I wouldn't claim to be particularly good, 2019 was the year I finally sneaked A rank after years of trying. And not just once, but in a couple of categories (zones, tower, and rainmaker) Yes I realize this is because fewer people are still playing. What of it. I have a badge.
I watch a lot of TV. and I'm not ashamed of it. I know we're living through peak TV, but for me 2019 was a less than stellar year. Plenty of things, I probably should like, I just didn't. I dont have much appetite for "The Apprentice" anymore, although it can still deliver hilariously awful situations from its contrived casting. “Fleabag” annoyed me almost as much as it charmed. Star Trek regularly sent me to sleep (love the art direction still). The concluding series or Mr Robot was great, I've thoroughly enjoyed that whole run, but it was time to sign off. "Homecoming" wasn't quite so great, but it worked. I think my favorite show from last year would have to be discovering “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on Netflix (awful title. do try to get past the title) - Super-smart, subversive , unpredictable, bingeable, engaging, and great music. I was already a huge Adam Schlesinger fan, and now I guess I'm a Rachel Bloom fan too. So many earworms. Bring back old Greg!
I suck at reading, these days I know it's a common modern Iffliction. I have been trying to make an effort. I finished the Gene Wolfe Solar books, as I mentioned earlier, but otherwise 2019 was not so great. According to my Goodreads account (doesn't capture everything but it's fairly accurate) , I only managed nineteen books, some of which I can't even remember reading. Aside from Wolfe, I think my high points would have to be "The Peripheral" and "Ingenious Pain" . 2020 we have a sequel to "The Peripheral" due, as well as the final installment of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell books and I'm going to do better. Im trying to do ten minutes entirely focused reading a day this year. Going well so far (2 books finished already)
I'm still struggling here as well, although we do a weekly family movie night, I still rarely get to the cinema. I did make it to see “Rise of Skywalker" and thus I did manage to see every Star Wars movie on initial cinema release. I'm afraid the most enthusiasm I can find about that is that I’m glad it's done. Similarly, on the other franchise I finally got up to date with Marvel by reaching “Avengers: Endgame" on streaming, and I'm mostly happy to be able to say “OK, this can stop”. The kids got into Harry Potter, having reached that sort of age, and so I also belatedly got to the end of those, and my goodness they're bad. Things, I actively liked- “Lady Bird”, Netflix's "Annihilation" was superb, and my favourite was probably "Sword of Trust". And on Xmas Eve I decided to watch an ancient favourite, "Lair of the White Worm" which I enjoyed revisiting so much, I may make it into a Xmas tradition from now on. Ken Russell(I) is my man.
A New kitchen:
Our kitchen seemed to be in relatively good shape when we bought the house, but it had a conservatory attached to where the back door ought to be, which although it made for a lovely sense of light and space was punishingly cold in the winter. So we decided to get a glazed back door fitted between. And then we found rotting wallpaper trapped behind the kitchen units over damp plaster, and decided to get a nicer fitted kitchen while addressing that. And then we discovered a water leak running down the back wall. And then a cascade of horrors, including a lintel-free window, a removed chimney being held up by what looked like a nail through an old chair leg, three layers of wall cladding, and perhaps most excitingly, several rotten joists not doing the greatest job of keeping the upstairs upstairs. Cue months of no kitchen, stripping everything back to brick, jacking up the roof, replacing beams, dry lining everything. and then potting in a kitchen back on top. And now we have a back door. And quite a nice kitchen. And far less money.
Malta & Cyprus:
Two Foreign holidays? I already mentioned my friend's magical destination wedding earlier, but by way of attending we got to spend almost a Week, without children, (thanks, Grandma!) in a pretty swanky hotel in Limassol. Cyprus is hot in the summer, and I say that as someone quite used to heat. So I ended up doing something I have never done before, and just hung out poolside, reading, and swimming and being waited on. And that was just great. And Despo came by to visit, which was a lovely coincidence. Then, a couple of months later we all went to hang out in another resort hotel, but this time in Qawra , in a Family oriented holiday complex. That's the first time we've done significant overseas travel as a family, also the first time I've been back in Malta in almost a decade. I enjoyed the opportunity to show the girls a little of the sense of what Malta is like, and I stole away for a poignant solo visit back to my old home town, my last opportunity to do it as a full EU citizen.
I am feeling quite out of love with computers and software, and especially the flipping internet and the incessant noise bubble of the tech industry. At the moment, I'm afraid to say, outside of work (work is cool, as mentioned already) I’m not really indulging in very much computering. A brief spurt of activity on a secret, not yet abandoned, but not yet revisited project, at the start of the year, and then nothing really - a few isolated sessions of hacking on the software for this site which only really focused on infra things and build chains - I guess I have a useable flow for generating 32 bit ARM debs from Common Lisp applications, but that's more bureaucracy and housekeeping than hacking, and even I don’t find it that enthralling. And most of my infrastructure is still a mess after moving. Maybe 2020 I'll find a way to relight the spark. Maybe I'm done ? Seems unlikely, but I’m not inspired.
I love my new shaver:
On a more positive technology note, I did fall severely in love with a piece of consumer electronics. I finally lost patience with my Philips rotary head shaver, after years of dissatisfaction and overspending on replacement foils and cutting heads that never really helped much. Not really knowing where to turn to for advice, I tried the wire cutter, something I’m a little wary of trusting and I picked up a Braun series 7 during Black Friday month at amazon.co.uk, and no exaggeration, It has COMPLETELY CHANGED MY LIFE. I am competely astonished at the ease of use, enthralled by the consistency of the result, and enraptured by the sense of considered Germanic engineering that exudes from every aspect. I love this thing and it makes me happy while I am using it.
I am barely listening to anything. Some of it is because I've barely strung my music library infrastructure back together after relocating. Some of it’s because I'm too old and boring and middle aged. Some of it's because I still don't have a subscription to a streaming service, and some of it's just because I think I have just lost the habit of it. I have been playing guitar much more in the past 12 months than in previous years, and l am flirting with writing and recording a little bit more again. 2019 though, is a solid musical wash-out.
I know! I'm back on (an) iPhone after YEARS away. Actually, I jumped via an iPad first. I’ve been enjoying this fanciful idea of multiple, task-specific devices, and I wondered about splitting the non-coding, computer things away from my laptop and I thought I'd give an iPad mini a try-out as a general-purpose 'personal' computing device; Apps, email, browsing, etc. It was a mixed success- I use it for some things way more than I expected I would, it is basically the only way I do email now, I have used it to write the entirety of this blog post. (by hand, with a pencil, plenty of weird typos!), and a bit less for others (I had a quixotic notion that I'd finally get everything organised into digital calendaring but I still remain a barely calendared human) Overall though, I likes it. It’s very reliable, I’d say it’s a slightly more useful thing than it appears to be on the surface, and a slightly less capable thing than it appears in the advertisements. I'm quite happily onboarded now though, to the point that I feel comfortable treating it as the primary device / silo for certain categories of things. So much so that when I hit a patch of phone trouble with my Sony Xperia 2 running /e/ (This year I have bounced between Lineage, /e/ and SailfishOS in my continuing adventures in alternative phone systems) I decided to dust off an almost dead iPhone 6S and give it a try. And, it's fine. Fine enough that I refurbished the battery myself, which cost fifteen pounds, and was surprisingly straightforward and kept going. Several months on, I'm still using it. Although not all that much. I think one of the side effects of moving more of my "app stuff" over to the iPad is that I'm not really using my phone for anything much these days beyond light social networking, messaging and podcasts. Oh yeah , and Apple Pay everywhere! I love Apple Pay almost as much as I love my electric Shaver. It is quite peaceful not having to care about whether my phone is working or not when I need to take a call.
Burt Reynolds gone, at 82. One of the greats. He was everywhere when I was a kid, and I've unironically loved him ever since. The stars were so much brighter way back then. RIP
Everyone's going to justifiably point out Smokey & the Bandit, the Cannonballs, and the critically accepted opinion is that his best moments were Boogie Nights and Deliverance. Hard to argue with that. Unquestionably underrated as an actor, there's more variety in his career than you'd think. Some of it deliciously weird. I maintain he's worth watching in anything but I'll highlight three of my own favourite moments that are laced with an edge of something a little off-piste. One great, one fan service, and one trainwreck.
The End : Burt directs, wherein he attempts a knockabout slapstick in which he plays a terminally ill man institutionalized after trying to commit suicide. Some days, I count this as my favourite movie. Has Sally Field, and Dom DeLuise to make up the seventies Burt holy trinity.
His X Files episode: Yup, that's right. Long after everyone had stopped watching the X-Files, he gets a custom-written episode. He plays God, against agent Doggett. Doggett knows underappreciated too.
Mad Dog Time: A movie so questionable, Roger Ebert gave it zero stars. I was lucky to catch this bomb on it's tiny cinema run, and I loved how incomprehensibly strange it was. Gangster satire? Spoof Noir? Situationist Prank? Yellowism? I was enthralled.
I am typing this onto a phone, on a station platform, squinting at the early morning light. It is damp on the ground. Many birds, still excited enough by the recent dawn, and cheered on by the imminent Spring, are loudly singing in their particular competitions.I have been awake since stupid o' clock. I am a commuter, I have a headache, and I have a back-ache, and I am tired.
I have been doing this routine, or a near variation of it for the last seven or eight years. It's been very useful. I have been privileged enough to afford to maintain a whacking great family home, in a comfortable part of Kent, and shuttle back and forth to the big smoke, and taken my parts, minor and significant, in various start-up and scale-up companies, some doomed, some successful, almost all of them great fun, inside London's burgeoning 'tech scene'.
As of today, I am done. Today is my last commute.
Now on the train, speeding toward Cannon Street. By some miracle of kindness, this train, frequently delayed, often truncated, usually rammed to the gunwales with the pissed-off, the late, the drooling snorers, the dextrous make-up applicators, the slightly terrifying morning Stella drinkers, arrived on time, and half-empty, and I have a seat, with a half-table. Airline seating, but nobody is pinning me in with an arse much larger than the mean spirited seating budget. Somebody up there likes me.
"When a man is tired of London, he's tired of life", as the hoary old paraphrased proverb would have it. I'm not tired of life. I don't even think I'm tired of London. I haven't finished exploring it yet. I would like to do a bit more life, and a bit less dull routine. Recently, it's all been feeling a bit repetitive, and formulaic, and stale, and not really me. It feels like the right time to make some changes.
I suppose 2018 seems to be my year for quitting things, from the outside. Over here I'm less sure of that. Change can be healthy, and constructive. A chaos wizard binds disorder and fluid energies into tools of power, after all. I don't believe in mid-life crises. I do believe in making the most you can from out of what you have. That's how the magic works.
We're bang in the middle of selling the house. Planning to move further out, to the coast. I shall miss London, but only in the way I missed it when I left before, twenty-five years ago, perhaps more. That was opening a chapter onto great and marvellous things. This time will also. I'm sure I will be back. Meanwhile, I'm saying goodbye, at least for now.
Now just pulling in to London Bridge. I like the Shard. It wasn't even a thing when we first moved here. Scenes change, always. Exciting.
Cannon Street. One last day in the office. That's the end of my first, and probably last, ever live-blogged commute. A great run. That could not have gone better. I call that a perfect ending.
I stumbled across a reference to the RMS Mülheim, and ended up in a wiki-hole. This German cargo ship was wrecked at Land's End in 2003, in apparently bizarre circumstances.
On investigation, it was discovered that the chief officer—who had been on watch at the time—had caught his trousers in the lever of his chair when trying to get up, causing him to fall and rendering him unconscious."
This brings to mind those periodic surveys about accidents in the home, wherein you learn that something inauspicious, like the toothbrush, is a significant factor in a majority of domestic fatalities. When I looked into it a little more, I did notice that trousers are involved in a surprising number of domestic incidents. In this article from 2001, they get the blame for 6000 accidents a year.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
It was never entirely my intention to go offline for such an extended hiatus. Even though the web is intrinsically brittle and ephemeral, I like to do my bit to keep my little backwater serving 200 OK s to the half-dozen people who stop by to check in regularly, and the couple of dozen who linked to something I put up at some point. It's basic web-citizenship as far as I'm concerned.
Before we went fully dark, I'd not posted for a long time already . And before that I'd slowed my posting down to something of a crawl. I think there's a few reasons for that. It's easy to get bored with blogging for the sake of blogging, especially in our current age where everyone shares profligately across many social platforms . It's fairly common to see blogs that have fallen into a recursion of no posts for months, then a post apologising about that, and then further disuse. I don't think this is one of those, but the proof is in the posting I suppose.
There's certainly been less time in real life for auxilliary pursuits like online rambling, and that's a big part of the reason. No time for any proper content posts, concomitant with a surge of alternative social platforms to play around with, meant it often seemed a bit redundant to post arrays of short-links , when I could just throw them up on twitter / adn / diaspora* / flickr / ello / imzy /whatever, with a bigger audience, and more interaction.
I was also feeling a bit self-conscious about standing up in public. After leaving last.fm (fairly amicably, as these things go, fwiw, albeit with a slightly battered heart), which felt like a fairly visible shift sideways, I was quite deliberately courting more obscure, maybe more unexpected job roles, and I remember feeling like I really didn't want to bare my thoughts to the internet judgement machine whilst I wasn't even entirely sure what I was doing myself a good deal of the time. Also busy! Young family plus startups really left little time for anything much else.
I also was really feeling the pain of Wordpress . I never quite managed to find an authoring approach to use with it that didn't make writing anything seem like far harder work than it ought to be, also because I always insist on self-hosting, the sheer weight of it for maintainence and security updates, and backups, and DBA -ing, and having to write PHP or perhaps even plugins to do the inevitable customisations someone like myself inevitably finds themselves suckered into doing. So Wordpress was a drag, which was feeding my reluctance to contribute much of substance. So I decided to pause on updating whilst, in true wannabe-hacker style, I whipped together some kind of alternative content publishing system.
I'll just take a paragraph out to stress that I actually admire WordPress a great deal. It's a very sophisticated and flexible web platform, and a great choice for site management, in either managed or self-hosted configuration. It kept this site ticking along for years. It just isn't a particularly good fit for my requirements, which are extremely simple
I thought about using another off-the-shelf blogging system, which would have been the sensible route, but I figured that would just lead to a similar frustrated stalemate. So I started to sketch out an application that would allow me to quickly fling out tagged and dated content without much overhead of hosting or writing. And I carried on intermittantly piecing this app together, often on trains, for a couple of years. As an exercise in procrastination, it worked out better than I expected, and I carried on posting short content to twitter and others, reasonably happy to continue to defer the responsibility.
But then the site went dark. I was hosting it all on a linode instance. I've been a very enthusiastic linode user for perhaps ten or more years, I think they have an excellent product, offering well-provisioned VPS instances , inexpensively, with an easy to use management site. Generally I've been very happy with them to date.
I did some reasearch and rented a couple of new hosts. This time I've gone for low end, physical servers. This represented another procrastination opportunity, because when I originally set up the beatworm.co.uk linodes, almost ten years ago, I just hand configured everything by remote shell. Now I like to use the ansible configuration management system to set up hosts, and I took this opportunity to port my public infrastructure across to use repeatable playbooks. This turned into another major yak-shave , because there was slightly more to it than just a WordPress deployment, I was hosting mail, calendars, media streaming, IM, DNS, the works. After getting lost in this tarpit for a couple of months, I decided to move the application tier over to use the playbooks from the sovereign project , which covers much of the same ground, but is already written, and uses more modern components. Of course it wasn't entirely straightforward to integrate these plays over my existing base provisioning, and I ran into a couple of glitches and gotchas with some of the choices they'd made for configuration, but it only took a couple of weekends worth of fiddling to get it all running in a fairly acceptable shape. I moved the DNS across, at which point the wordpress site was left behind, and everything went dark.
I was surprised at how much this bothered me.
I like an outlet for sharing things. I enjoy the idea of having a stable internet identity . I don't like the way the modern web has folded these ideas into a handful of consumer products run by just a couple of corporate gatekeepers. That's not the web I grew up with, and it's not the web I want to see either. A very loosely federated ecosystem of ad-hoc resources, all mixed together as hypermedia, aggregated and accessed via an assorted bag of user-agents. That's how it works best . I like to write, because I like the practice and discipline of working toward articulating my thoughts for a general reader.
I like being able to curate an archive, and keep control over how that information persists and is presented. This is hard enough to do when you have primary jurisdiction over the medium and material (there is plenty of bitrot on view in my archive, particularly in the really old material, which has been migrated across multiple publishing platforms now), and basically impossible if you're relying on a third party service, which periodically re-invents itself to better serve it's own objectives, which are only ever to be tangentally aligned with your own, at best.
I don't like the sense of obligation I get from formal social media platforms. There's a subliminal sense of pressure to perform, to update, to observe the conventions, to consider and measure the implied audience. I'm not a joiner by nature. I just end up gently resenting the throng. I like to feel like I have a voice, but I don't want, or even expect to reach, an automatically provided audience.
So, I picked back up my now-neglected website platform experiment, and knocked it together enough to get an MVP out of the door. It serves HTML over HTTP. It has a relatively minimal set of style rules that should allow it to work gracefully across various screen dimensions. It has rudimentary support for RSS ( not that many people use newsreaders any more ). It's simple to run in a staging environment, and I can write posts in plain text in emacs , and edit and post them without much extra grief. It's only got about 22% of the functionality I had originally planned, but I feel the urge to ship it, use it, and hopefully I'll refine it in production.
There's a couple of interesting quirks to this new hosting setup. It's an ARM -based micro-blade, hosted on a scaleways C1 . The blogging software is semi-static , in as much as it serves generated content from the filesystem. It's written in common lisp , and deployed in a different lisp to the one it's developed on There's no frameworks (aside from using zurb foundation classes to base the CSS). There's no database. There's no comments, because I haven't yet decided on a productive way to support them.
Bingham was of one generation, and I of another. Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies.John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence