Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Technology will not save us, part 2

13 May 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

This morning, a friend linked me to this article about a carbon sequestering technology being tested right now in Iceland. They can suck CO2 out of the air and capture it in layers of rock deep underground. Hooray! We're saved! We can stop and even reverse climate change!

Not so fast.

For one thing, I wouldn't use the word "forever" if I was them. Permafrost was also supposed to be, you know, permanent. Now it's melting so fast scientists can't keep up. Remember that scene in Ghostbusters where they turn off the ghost prison and all the malicious spirits go free at once? Imagine that at planetary scale.

Second, pay attention to the numbers. As they freely admit:

The CarbFix project reduces the plant's carbon dioxide emissions by a third, which amounts to 12,000 tonnes of CO2 captured and stored at a cost of about $25 a tonne.

By comparison, Iceland's volcanoes spew out between one and two million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Wake me up when they can do something about the remaining 99.5% of emissions in their country alone. Or at least those of other facilities than the very powerplant generating the electricity needed for this energy-intensive process. Speaking of which.

The main drawback of the method is that it requires large volumes of desalinated water, which, while abundant in Iceland, is rare in many other parts of the planet.

Around 25 tonnes of water are needed for each tonne of carbon dioxide injected.

At least they're smart enough to use desalinated water rather than the precious natural freshwater they need to, you know, grow crops. And that stuff is becoming more valuable than gold in many parts of the world. But you know what the problem is with desalination? It's also energy-intensive. In other words, you need to build even more powerplants to sequester all the CO2 you wouldn't be generating if you just did nothing instead. Congrats, geniuses! And they know it, too.

You think that's just theory? Check out the end of the article:

Under the Paris climate agreement, Iceland has agreed to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.

Yet its emissions rose by 2.2% from 2016 to 2017, and have risen by 85% since 1990, according to a report by Iceland's Environment Agency.

Yep... just like in countries like the UK or Germany, where decades of massive investments in renewable energy just led to overall demand growing much faster than solar and wind can provide, meaning the difference has to be covered with... coal. In other words, even more CO2 emissions. Good job breaking it, hero.

Is it clear yet that new shiny toys aren't going to help us out of a hole we dug ourselves into by building far more technology than we needed in the first place, then wasting the vast majority of its potential? The only hope for human civilization is to downsize massively. And nobody's willing to even entertain the possibility: corporations because they'd have to give up their obscene profits, people because they've been conditioned to think they all somehow deserve to live like kings. Too bad you can't bribe, sue or intimidate mother nature.

We have 12 years to clean up our act. Tick tock, tick tock.

Tags: climate, technology

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Chrome for Android and privacy

29 March 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

A worrying toot crossed my Mastodon timeline the other day:

I think some people may not know that Google does Man In The Middle shit by default in mobile Chrome? They basically download everything to their servers and then send "optimized" to the client. SSL? HTTPS? Forget it.

There was an opt-out header which website owner could set but they're removing it.

This company doesn't know what privacy is. Or security.

No shit!? Could this be why Chrome takes so damn long to open even the lightest websites, with the phone two feet away from my home router? I went ahead and installed FOSS Browser from F-Droid. Sure enough, every single site I tried in it loads incredibly fast. Incredibly. I can't even see them loading. Not even text-based browsers move like that.

What the hell, Google? I thought you were only doing that with URLs, to provide suggestions, and I had disabled that misfeature. That was a serious privacy breach already. This? This is vile.

Some "helpful" dude in the replies claims that Chrome asks permission to do it on first run. Funny how I never saw that dialog. Oh wait, it's because I got my phone second-hand (in mint condition, mind). And I've seen tech support people tap right through license acceptance and such before handing a device to the buyer. A lot of people will never see the question at all! And most others won't understand it because to them it's just programmer gobbledygook.

Way back in the day, Opera Mobile provided a similar service when phones and networks were a lot less powerful, and actually needed it. Only they explained how the whole thing worked upfront, in plain English, and gave people a big warning: "if you don't trust us, don't use our service". Really, that's what it said.

Funny how I always trusted them. Unlike Google, who just proved themselves even less trustworthy than they already were. And that takes effort nowadays.

Tags: software, technology, website

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Accessibility and the larger issue

10 March 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

As the meme goes, "I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people." It's a good way to introduce this article a friend boosted earlier about the catastrophic state of website accessibility. Short version: it's worse than even cynical old me would have expected. And not because web developers haven't heard of WAI-ARIA: it turns out pages with accessibility markup are more likely to have issues.

How is that even possible? Not to speculate, but ARIA attributes are tricky to use right, and can't replace good old semantic HTML. And there was a time last decade when web designers would make every element a div styled from CSS. When called out they'd ask, "what does it matter? looks all the same, doesn't it?" They were so surprised when I pointed out that web crawlers don't apply any stylesheets, and couldn't make sense of the result if they did. That all their "SEO" tricks (scare quotes very much intentional) don't hold a candle to this one thing Wikipedia is doing. What thing? I showed them the front page with styles disabled. Lo and behold, it looked almost unchanged. Still perfectly organized and readable. Some less important links were left for the end. Which is exactly where they logically belong if you're trying to read the content from top to bottom. As the original post says:

Selfishly, I’d love a future where it's commonplace for interview candidates to be selected not only because of their JavaScript prowess, but also because they can offer a sound explanation of why using a button element is important.

But that's just scratching the surface. Because, you see, most people don't actually need a screen reader. They are, however, begging for good contrast, or the ability to enlarge the text without making the page they're reading explode into a mess of broken little boxes scattered everywhere. Or in my case, scrollbars wide enough that a 40-year-old with a $10 mouse can actually hit them reliably.

At least desktop GUIs encourage applications to follow certain common guidelines, so people don't have to mentally switch tracks every time they Alt-Tab. Which is why many stick to software native to their operating system. But there's a snake in that Garden of Eden, too.

Read more...

Tags: software, technology, website

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Programming languages are not a given

14 February 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

Having just brought a project to a good stopping point, and wanting to rest a little before diving into the next one, no matter how impatient I am, it occurs to me that this blog needs a little love. By pure coincidence, it's Valentine's Day. And because I happen to be in love with the craft of programming, it seems like a good idea to write down a bunch of thoughts that went through my mind a lot recently.

Most programming language research for at least the past decade seems to happen in the rarefied heights of type theory. Hardly anyone can be bothered to spare a thought for the syntax and API of languages programmers have to use in real-world conditions. Never mind the ease of implementing compilers and interpreters that someone will have to, you know, maintain. And so we're stuck with variations on the hoary old C syntax. Even when a daring computer scientist comes along to bring us something like Lua, people balk and go right back to their familiar punctuation soup.

(Speaking of which: don't you dare mock Perl programmers. They at least know to be wary of "line noise" code, and actively try to avoid it. Whereas C code often resembles APL in production.)

I've been interested in programming language implementation for ten years now, though I could never read more than half of SICP even after repeated attempts, and never progressed past interpreters and transpilers. These efforts culminated in a 2016 book, and more recently a 2K-word article, itself the culmination of many attempts, some successful, some failed. You can see the latest results for yourselves. Let me just point out a few things.

We need to think more and deeply about our most important tools. Not just packaging, build and deployment systems: those wouldn't have anything to work with if it wasn't for interpreters and compilers with which to make software in the first place. And communities of practice are lacking. There is an esoteric language wiki and a concatenative language wiki; the Tclers Wiki and the Portland Pattern Repository also have much on (types of) programming languages. All that is good.

However I couldn't seem to find a community of practice for Lisp-like languages, even though it's one of the most numerous families on Earth. Let alone for the more general category of homoiconic languages, or prefix-notation languages. There used to be one for Basic dialects, but it shut down, as that particular family has been dying out.

More importantly, with all the people out there who would benefit from knowing how to program but are afraid of it because reasons, I'd like to see a deliberate community of practice for friendly languages that don't look like programming. Purely declarative languages would help a lot here, but those crashed and burned along with Prolog. There are some visual languages, but they're big systems (and that's a problem, see above), fiddly to work with and give people the wrong idea.

Either way, please spend some time looking into the issue. You could end up doing everyone a big service.

Tags: programming, philosophy

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Gender, sexuality and history

17 January 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

It's easy to believe in the myth (born from Victorian arrogance) of linear and infinite progress that's all but inevitable. A comforting one, as I was pointing out elsewhere, because if progress is like that it means we don't have to lift a finger for it to happen, and possibly make mistakes that ruin lives. No risk of having to be responsible for bad things on the way there.

This myth most noticeably comes up when it gets to matters of gender and sexuality. We love to think ourselves progressive in those regards. Too bad solid historical evidence proves again and again that in the 19th and especially 20th century western civilization in fact regressed massively.

We have for instance evidence of gay marriage in the year 100 AD, and I mean in Christian Europe, not some distant exotic culture. Even more recently, after it was banned, the secret history of same-sex marriage continued. People of the same sex would even disguise themselves as groom and bride, not so much in the hope they'd fool anyone, but more likely to provide the minister and atendees with plausible deniability. Even while that happened, for the longest time men were still unafraid to show their affection to each other through physical contact... until they no longer were.

And while certain things became, when not forbidden, at least taboo, a wave of revisionism swept the western world, and from there spread all over. Here's for instance How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan's Women Samurai, Were Erased From History. Then again, the same happened in Europe, as told in a book called “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” by Kameron Hurley. Not that it's news for anyone in Romania: in my birth city still stands a magnificent statue of Ecaterina Teodoroiu, who enlisted to fight in WW1 despite being a woman, and was field-promoted all the way to lieutenant before falling in battle. While leading a charge, I might add.

Last but not least, while on the topic of gender roles, we have a story from a few years ago about the way in the Ancient world it was acceptable to change them through cross-dressing when needed. Much like in a certain videogame that took the world by storm last spring. You've guessed it, I mean Breath of the Wild. Which isn't at all surprising once you learn that Japanese geisha could easily be men as well as women... (And in fact they still can, as the art never died out.)

We're well into the 21st century now, but instead of the progress we were promised, the world is barely crawling its way back to what used to be normality. Oh well.

Tags: culture, society, history

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Weasel CMS: compact, modest, silly

13 January 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

I love crafting microsites by hand. When they click together, results can be uniquely satisfying. But a couple of times I caught myself copy-pasting a small navigation bar into a handful of pages. Which is a sign I'm going the wrong way. By that point, server-side includes are a band-aid: it's time to use a proper CMS.

Trouble is, I have this rule never to use a content management system bigger than the content I expect to put in, and most of them are at least several megabytes in size nowadays. Exceptions are usually the kind that don't have a control panel, thus missing the whole point of, you know, managing content. (Sorry, fluffy. Been there, done that, had to tear up my t-shirt to take it off. There's value in being visual. Coming from me, that means something.)

As it happens, there's an exception: Weasel CMS. Proper review after the cut.

Screenshot of a minimal website with a dark color scheme and elegant two-column design.

Read more...

Tags: website, software, review

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Accepting contributions to open source projects

05 January 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

Hopefully this doesn't count as subtweeting. A chat conversation I just had caused me to go on a big rant, and to me that's usually a sign it's time for a proper blog post. In this case, about accepting contributions to open source projects.

To be brief: with open source projects, people use up their precious spare time, that they're not getting back, to make a contribution. They can be clumsy. They can be wrong. They're still almost certainly doing it in earnest. The code they submit might be not be how you'd do it. It might have bugs or even be completely broken. Doesn't matter. Be nice! If you have plans to accept it at all, work with the contributor to make their submission acceptable. Even if contributions are closed, kindly explain why.

It's disappointing enough to be told off in the nicest way. They won't offer again, and you've lost a potential contributor for good. I made that mistake. Now all I can do is weep.

Years ago a very enthusiastic college student sent me an extensive patch that wasn't even usable as it was. If memory serves, the code was outright broken. I rolled up my sleeves and made it work. The app was that much better for it. People noticed, too. He was apparently well-known in that particular community. The goodwill earned that way lasted me a long time.

Did it take extra work on my part? Of course. Was it worth more than the kid's? Never! That piece of my app wouldn't exist but for him spurring me on.

More recently someone offered to help me who has a competing product of their own. They went out of their way to help a competitor. And came back with a counter-proposal when the first one didn't work out for me. That's how much effort people are willing to put in when they love what they do. Taking the trouble to accept it was the least I could do. Now there are two applications with that particular capability. The world is richer for it. Everybody won.

Even the most competent surgeon needs assistants willing to work with them, if they are to operate at all. We programmers... are a dime a dozen. And people are fed up with us as it is.

Tags: programming, culture

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French style blogging via PluXML

02 January 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

After discovering Bludit last month and falling in love with content management systems again, I wanted to see what else still existed in a market so utterly dominated by one product that installing anything else on your website is an act of defiance. There are many, many similar products backed by a database server, which is a problem for many reasons. Not nearly as many use flat files for storage, making the selection a lot more manageable. Even fewer are remotely interesting. One however kept my attention for long enough to write this: PluXML

(Screenshot of a website with colorful header and Lorem Ipsum text.)

Proper review after the cut.

Read more...

Tags: blog, software, review

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Misblogged

01 January 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

I made a terrible miscalculation.

When this blog had just started, the plan was to move old entries to a numbered subdirectory on New Year, and start over. It took me a surprising amount of time to realize that would break all the links so far. Oops!

My next idea was to leave old entries in place and start over in a numbered subdirectory instead. Too bad that would mean the newsfeed in this directory would never update again, leaving readers who are already subscribed to it thinking the blog had been abandoned. Oops again!

(I could set up a redirect, but it's easy to lose track of those and mess up somewhere down the road.)

Good thing it was already decided to slow down as of this year, because I seem to be stuck continuing right here. Oh well. This shouldn't become a problem for another four to five years if my new calculations are correct. And by then this blog will have existed for enough time that rebooting it would make sense anyway.

Until then, I'd like to make 2019 the year when we all become more thoughtful about our online presence, as opposed to spouting half-baked quips on corporate social media designed to keep us enraged, pardon, engaged for the purpose of selling more ad space on our backs. That could mean returning to old-fashioned blogs. Or it could mean innovating on the concept. Hopefully not for the sake of innovation though, because just like books, the now-familiar blog format is damn near close to perfect.

Thanks for sticking with me so far. With any luck, things will only get better.

Tags: blog, philosophy

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Holidays and hopes

25 December 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Merry Christmas! As the year winds down, it's traditional to stop for a while and look back, so that we can figure out where we are, not to mention where we can go from here. The moment is arbitrary, yes, but since we must turn a new page anyway, might as well do it around the end-of-year holidays.

Too bad things look pretty damn bad in either direction. 2018 has been yet another terrible year, full of stress and disappointments, both for me and some friends I had to let down. In fact, one of my reasons for starting this blog has been to vent without resorting to tweet storms. (Don't do tweet storms. Please. Get a blog.) And even that rings hollow. Everything does when you're lonely.

Worse, there's every reason to believe things will get worse, perhaps much worse, before they start getting better again. No, 2019 won't break the recent bad streak. On the contrary. Politics, economy and climate, the three horsemen of the new apocalypse, are galloping across the face of the Earth. That many people seem to be waking up at last can only have limited impact by now. We've waited way too long.

So much for hopes. Then again, I always hated the concept of hope. Hope is what you have when you're in deep shit and powerless to do anything about it. In other words, a synonym for delusion.

So much for the holiday spirit, too. I hate myself right now. But it's better than lying to myself, and you, about the future.

What can we do, then? Why, cling to the only things we ever had: live, stick together and be good people. Experience, create, enjoy. Make things as good as we can, for as many people as we can, until we can do no more. Sounds radical? It is! Arguably, it has been for my entire life. And by now we have nothing left to lose.

As for this blog, expect fewer posts and more pictures. Less venting and more joy. Cool things. Geeky things.

Be well and enjoy the celebrations, everyone.

Tags: personal, blog

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