Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Microblogging, 10 years after

20 July 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

Almost 10 years ago, on 18 August 2009, I wrote a blog post titled "Microblogging, the missing medium". I'm reproducing it below for two reasons: one, it's referenced from an older post on this blog, and the wiki where it was hosted just went offline. Two, to put things in perspective a little, because the world was so different it's hard to believe, looking back.

To wit: 10 years ago I still had a full-time job, though it would only last until autumn, just another victim of the financial crisis that was in full swing at the time, having hit Romania with a slight delay. Ironically, I had been on Identi.ca for 9 months, though I wouldn't be on Twitter for another 18. As for my blog, it was hosted on My Opera, a service that wouldn't last much longer either. Select posts from that era remained on this site until recently; you can still read my old reviews in the sci-fi section.

10 years ago, it was hard to believe the world's greatest power would slide backwards so abruptly, wiping out decades of progress. Or that social media would become a new breeding ground for the worst kind of human scum, with the blessing of corporations. That some people were already working on federated networks was seen more as a curiosity than anything else; I was into it for the same reason I was (and still am) into Linux: because of a deep inability to fit in with the mainstream.

10 years ago, the best things in my life weren't yet a blip on my radar. Or some of the worst, for that matter. Never thought I'd end up writing three blog posts on as many successive days to compensante for failing to work on a game due to burnout, in turn due to an increasingly empty life weighing down on me.

Then again, if online friends are real friends, I guess online life must be real life too. Here on the internet, people notice if I don't log in for a day. That's scary, but it beats forgetting what your phone's ringtone sounds like.

People call me a pessimist, but read below for a bright vision of the future that was so off the mark it's tragicomic. Imagine if I had correctly predicted the current state of affairs instead.

Read, laugh, weep. And don't forget to live your life. Online or off.


Tags: blog, social-media, philosophy

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More, bigger, pointless

19 July 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

These days, humanity celebrates 50 years from the first Moon landing. Half a century since creatures of this Earth set foot on another celestial body. Inevitably, people in my line of work remember and celebrate one particular hero of that story: Margaret Hamilton, who led the software team and coined the term "software engineer" to describe what she did... because she was literally the first one.

And you know what? I think most modern programmers feel woefully inadequate compared to her.

You've probably heard the joke. I tweeted it myself just recently. It goes like this: the Apollo Guidance Computer had 4K of RAM and a CPU running at 2MHz, and they went to the Moon with it. The smartphone in your back pocket is millions of times more powerful and crashes trying to render a large web page.

Of course, it's nowhere near so simple. The circumstances were different, and highly specific. Moreover, we are doing hugely important work with computers today that wouldn't have been possible 25 years ago, much less 50. Such as putting together the data from countless telescopes the world over to image a giant black hole in a distant galaxy (an effort also led by a woman, by the way).

However, the sheer enormity of what NASA achieved in 1969, and the absurd discrepancy between said achievement and the humble computer that played a part in it can't help but amaze us. We stand in awe at the dizzying perspective. And there are a few lessons to learn from it.


Tags: software, philosophy, science

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Websites, links and bookmarks

18 July 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

Last autumn, in a fit of inspiration, I created Clinklog, a static website generator optimized for linklogs and microblogs. As of this writing, it hasn't been updated in six months, simply because it does everything its two users need (one of them being me), with no known bugs. Still can't believe how easy it is to use, and how well it does the job. Other people seem interested as well, though nobody wrote back yet. Oh well.

Clinklog was inspired by two pieces of software. One is BashBlog, that powers these ramblings you're reading right now. The other is Shaarli, an online bookmark manager that I've know about for even longer yet never got around to trying. Until now. It looks like this:

Screenshot of a web app showing a list of links with tags and timestamps.

or sometimes like this:

Screenshot of a web app showing links and notes in the style of an old newspaper.

and no, you can't have a link; mine is friends-only. But you should try it yourself. It only requires PHP 5.6 and 7-8 megabytes of disk space, data excepted.


Tags: website, software

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State of the website

03 July 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

This website has been around for twelve years now, and for about ten of them it came with a wiki attached. Had I discovered PmWiki just a bit earlier, things would have been very different. As it is, the wiki always remained a side show, separated from the rest both technically and content-wise. At least that enabled it to survive the great transition of 2017. Too bad that also meant fewer, timid updates. And why would most of the wiki be updated? Half the content was an old blog archive.

But then, why bother keeping all that stuff in a wiki?

In January this year, I started moving my sci-fi writing to its own section on the main website, this time with cover art included and a more attractive presentation all around. Came out great, really, but then a death in the family (and unrelated health issues) killed the mood, and I dove back into programming to try and forget. More about that in an upcoming post. For now, let's just say that after months of wondering what to do with the aforementioned blog archive, the answer turned out to be that I didn't really want it anymore. Suddenly, the way forward was clear: get everything else out instead, then shutter whatever is left. So after migrating the remaining sci-fi material, I moved on to the RPG and finally interactive fiction sections. They didn't come out quite as well, especially the former, but oh well.

So for the first time in its existence, this site is completely static again. It's six times bigger than my first one, and has five times as many files. Still tiny by modern standards, and about as future-proof as it gets. Kind of a patchwork quilt look to it, but this way you can always tell which parts are new, and it can be safely updated piecemeal. More easily enriched with media, downloads and so on, too.

Which brings me to my next point, that I'm going to put under the cut because reasons. If you're reading this on RSS, please click through; you'll see why.


Tags: personal, website

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Freedom and responsibility in software

24 June 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

In today's news, the world of free software discovers that freedom entails responsibility, and reacts in typical male fashion: by panicking.

Which reminds me that I spent years exploring the concept of freedom in my stories, and no matter how I looked at it, one conclusion imposed itself every time: there is no freedom without belonging. If you don't belong anywhere, that doesn't make you free, but adrift. Conversely, if you belong where you are, are you really a prisoner? It's not like you'd leave even if the door was wide open.

This, by the way, is why I find the Stockholm Syndrome a dubious notion at best. It's predicated on a gung-ho conception of freedom that only flies in Hollywood movies. And we all know what happens every time a certain world superpower tries to force this brand of "freedom" on other, older countries.

Freedom, you see, is a political concept by definition. Yet for the longest time free software fanatics tried to pretend their creations were these idealized, abstract shapes adorning marble halls of intellectual purity. Anyone can use the software for any purpose, and we're not liable for anything!

You'd expect that kind of attitude from the gun-toting libertarian who rebranded free software as open source. But no, freedom zero is right there at the top of the General Public License as originally published in 1984. Oh wait, it was written by a lawyer. Minimizing liability is what they do for a living.

How appealing to cocky young programmers who were taught that cynicism was a sign of intelligence. And they bought it wholesale, because it spared them from having to show empathy. Empathy hurts, you know. Lots of bad stuff happening these days. Lots of bad people happening, too.

Well, now they're using all that "neutral", "unbiased" software we filled the world with to spread hate, perpetuate injustice or snatch innocent victims. And we can't revoke all those licenses, pretty much by design. That, too, seemed like a good idea at the time.

Guess it's time to figure out something else then. Before the consequences catch up with us.

Tags: software, freedom, politics

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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.


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 (2019-07-17 edit: or sometimes simply to live life free of stifling gender norms, as it turns out). 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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