Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Discovering the Brutalist web

06 July 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

Via the IndieWeb wiki, I discovered the concept of Brutalist web design, a set of principles I was already applying in my own work without having a name for them. To make links easily spotted, what a concept! Or buttons. Consumer electronics you can't figure out how to turn on, anyone?

Let me quote just one paragraph of the introduction:

A website's materials aren't HTML tags, CSS, or JavaScript code. Rather, they are its content and the context in which it's consumed. A website is for a visitor, using a browser, running on a computer to read, watch, listen, or perhaps to interact. A website that embraces Brutalist Web Design is raw in its focus on content, and prioritization of the website visitor.

Reminds me of my pro days, when oh-so-creative graphic designers would make beautiful layouts without a clue of what the content would be, then expected me, the programmer, to fix things when said content wouldn't fit. And you're going to say, wasn't it the customer who failed to send samples on time? Sure... but it's part of a professional's duty to educate people.

And then there was that time when the same graphic designers wouldn't understand what the problem was with making everything on the web page a div element. I ended up disabling stylesheets in Firefox and going to Wikipedia. It was ugly, sure, but still perfectly structured and readable...

Which is why to this day my websites look and work great in text-based browsers. Without anything special done to them. And funny how that doesn't have to mean a boring black-and-white design, either.

You can have color. Good typography. Even borders and shadows if you like. Just don't forget about your goals... or your visitors.

Because that's how you fall to the dark side. Which isn't the same as dark mode, natch.

Tags: website, philosophy

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Faces of a fictional city

29 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

Earlier today, a friend (hi, Maxia!) sent me this quote:

Gotham City: Perpetually twilit urban hellscape that looks like the Art Deco movement had a one-night stand with Soviet Brutalism in a wrought-iron-and-gargoyle factory.

(It's apparently from David J. Prokopetz, though a search of his Tumblr was fruitless; but what can I expect when going from a screenshot posted on Imgur.)

Anyway, if that's supposed to make fun of the worldbuilding in Batman stories, it misses the mark big time. Because, you see, that's very much the description of a living city with an actual history, stretching all the way from Colonial times, through the gaslamp era and the Roaring Twenties, with a dip into the three heady decades between 1950 and 1980, when industrial civilization reached its peak. Well, gargoyles are more European Renaissance than American Colonial, but that's where artistic license comes in.

Chessboard cities built all at once a century ago on a flat plain, now those aren't right. Even if they're very much real.

My own creations are a mixed bag in this regard. The fictional Vryheid from the eponymous novel (no connection to the real-world locality of the same name) exhibits all the architectural exuberance described above and then more. So does the city of the dead from Afterlife By Night. Less so the unnamed burg from Kingdom of the Fire River, though there's enough variety between districts, illustrating how the place is changing. Perhaps the most uniform is Costamata from Little Magic, apart from the wealth disparities between neighborhoods. Goes to show I'm not familiar with the era it belongs to.

I'm still pretty sure Gotham can very well be a city of Art Deco skyscrapers and one of Brutalist factories or apartment buildings, and neither is less concrete (har har) or worthy than the other. It's just how life happens.

Tags: writing, links

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Privilege and websites

25 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

Let's make one thing clear: if you can afford to have even one internet domain to your name, let alone more, you're incredibly privileged. You have the money to pay for it, your country isn't subject to some embargo, and no government has decided to silence you.

Yet.

Because you don't own any domain names; not ever. You rent them, from an organization that answers to another and so on. The chain doesn't just have some weak links, it's made of them. Never mind simply losing interest -- or for that matter your job. We're always one cease-and-desist letter away from having our voice taken away, whether it's due to the greed of a corporation or a dictator's whims.

Internet domain names aren't any more proof of identity than a good old e-mail address, never mind phone numbers.

Worse, expecting everyone to have a (sub)domain name all to themselves is:

  • making assumptions about their abilities and what they have access to;
  • ignoring the entire point of URLs being unique as a whole;
  • casting aside tilde servers, the oldest form of online social network, and one that's been coming back into fashion.

Note, I'm not saying we should all move to the Dat protocol (let alone Tor; that's one giant honeypot). We'll have to do something of the sort sooner or later, but it's not a real option yet.

But would this website represent me any less if one day it started being served from mushpark.com/~felix/ instead?

That's like saying I become a different person for moving to another town. Sure, my friends might have some trouble finding me again if I don't reach out first, but you know... I'd still have the same face.

Sure, someone could also copy my site then use it to defame me. Newsflash: that's been possible ever since the web had more than one server online.

Gee, I wonder how people used to solve this problem before affluent techies could afford to splurge on vanity domains. Oh wait, it's called reputation: a problem as old as human society itself, and still not fully solved even in real life.

That's still where you want to look for even partial solutions, dear techie.

Tags: website, politics

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IndieWeb thoughts

22 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

I've been circling the IndieWeb community for a while now, but always at a distance. The technical solutions they promote didn't convince me, and I've been vocally skeptical about them. Yet I kept returning. Doubly so after my friend fluffy joined the club. Took me a while to figure out why, too.

It's because the IndieWeb wiki and newsletter are a treasure trove of interesting information. And that in turn is because they care. They think about the web and experiment. Just look at this page about the js;dr phenomenon: something you've probably noticed too, and didn't have a name for either. That page in turn pointed me at a beautiful rant from a couple of years ago titled Dear Developer, The Web Isn't About You Which has little to do with today's topic, but relates to yesterday's post and some of my older writing too.

And you know... the more ways we have to keep the web open, the better. I love Mastodon, got two accounts and planning to get a third, but ActivityPub has well-known failure modes, mostly a result of its size and complexity. While the IndieWeb is just sort of what I've been doing already, with a few more bells and whistles.

Which is why as of this writing you can find me on micro.blog. For now anyway. Going to poke around a little and try to make friends. Can't be any worse than on Twitter, where only one person ever replied to my posts here.

Personal websites are a conversation. We've just forgotten that simple truth for, oh, about two decades. It's time to relearn some good habits.

Tags: social-media, software, culture

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Web for the people

21 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

In November 2017, spurred by then-recent events, I published an essay called Plain old webpages still matter. It's one of my popular writings, and I was so proud to hear a friend (hey, Peregrine!) call it inspiring earlier this week.

I didn't know it at the time, but just the day before the web had been blessed with a much longer essay titled Against an Increasingly User-Hostile Web, by Parimal Satyal: a name more people need to know. Needless to say, it has a similar message, only it goes deeper into issues like too much capitalism.

Well, via the Dragonfly BSD Digest I just learned about the follow-up to the above: Rediscovering the Small Web. With many inspiring examples, it seeks to encourage readers into making their own. This isn't a singular effort, either, but part of a larger trend. Alex Schroeder for instance suggests wikis as another way to achieve similar goals.

My own website has long lost the sort of innocence highlighted by my illustrious peers. In my defense, it's still handcrafted for the most part. Not the blog, because blogs need a little automation to manage comfortably; but it's surprising how deep and rich a site will grow if you just keep adding to it year after year. Patience goes a long way. And there's nothing wrong with using a mixed toolbox.

So use whatever you're comfortable with, from the friendliest content management system to the most technical static site generator. Go with a free hosting service, or ask a friend who already has a server. And if you can, support those who still believe in a web for the people. It's already bad enough what's going on with browsers.

But that's a story for another time. For now, if you're going to join the conversation, do it with your own voice.

Tags: website, culture, links

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Posting with Pelican

12 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

This blog is almost two years old now (how time flies). In a few more years, the app behind it will reach its limits and have to be replaced. I knew that from the start, but wasn't sure what else to use when the time comes.

Well, I found a worthy successor. Meet Pelican, a static site generator ideal for my needs:

Believe it or not, the screenshot above is after less than a day of learning how to use this thing and make my own theme, and migrating some of my recent posts (spent another day on it since).

That comes at a cost. For one thing, Pelican is configured by editing a couple of Python scripts, and invoked via make. And then, if I wasn't an experienced web developer, making the theme would have seemed much too technical. But hey, this is for me. That's the whole point.

Read more...

Tags: blog, software, review

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Writing with WordGrinder

07 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

For the longest time, I've been typing my prose into plain text files. That has a lot of advantages: they can be opened with pretty much anything, they're as compact as files get without compression, and can easily be turned into web pages or e-books through Markdown. Next time however I might just try to use WordGrinder instead.

Wait, what? WordGrinder (available from cowlark.com and various Linux distributions) is a word processor in the old sense of the term, from before humongous office suites became the norm: a program designed to let writers write, with as little fuss as possible. You get a word count (and paragraph count), formatting roughly on par with the aforementioned Markdown, a decent range of import and export options, and a spellchecker. That's it!

More importantly, you get all that from a program not one megabyte in size with all dependencies, that can run in terminal emulators (and X11). Talk about software you can install on toasters! For someone like me, who uses computers so ancient that even AbiWord has noticeable overhead, it's amazing.

Even better, WordGrinder has some unique and valuable traits. Also some quirks, but for once they're part of the charm here.

Read more...

Tags: writing, software, review

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BashBlog booboos

02 June 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

So, this blog has been around for almost two years already. How time flies. And while the software powering it proved perfectly good, it's been long enough for me to also start noticing the downsides.

For one thing: when you keep a blog, sooner or later you'll need to go back and edit old posts. BashBlog can do that... except it will also update the ordering. Which can mess up a nice series. It does hide a timestamp in generated HTML files, but doesn't seem to use it when you edit the Markdown source. Oops!

And then, if you get rid of a tag, e.g. by renaming it in all the posts that used to have it, the old tag archive page sticks around. Which wouldn't be a problem... except if you fail to remove it, BashBlog will continue to include it in the tag list. Which in turn still has a copy of the last post that had the tag in question. Talk about ghost tags!

Other small annoyances include how there doesn't seem to be any logic to the way backups work, and the strange behavior when running BashBlog with an unusual mix of utilities, like in Puppy Linux, which I think partly relies on BusyBox and partly on a trimmed-down set of GNU core utils?! Something like that. Though I suppose the distro maintainers are to blame here: stick to one thing, dammit!

Good thing I'm back on Debian 10, albeit due to unhappy circumstances. And hey, even the aforementioned weirdness was never in any danger to break my blogs. Maybe I'm spoiled.

Tags: blog, software, Linux

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Why writing is hard

24 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 20 February 2020.)

While looking through my old browser bookmarks, I recently came across this old piece titled Hulk's Screenwriting 101: The Myth of the 3-Act Structure, by one of the best movie critics today. A timely find, as it soon came up in conversation with a friend. It's a mind-blowing read, recommended to any aspiring writer (not just for movies), but it's also long, and being in all caps will make it hard on some readers. And because there's so much to unpack, trying to hit just the main points in a chat window or some such wouldn't do it justice.

I still remember what it's like to be a young writer struggling to understand why it's so damn hard to string together any story at all, never mind a good one. There's a dearth of good advice out there. Emphasis on good. In fact a lot of it is counterproductive. So it's no wonder that at one point we all got stuck at the stage where we have a story in mind, we know how we want it to start and how we want it to end, but the middle is a big nebulous unknown.

(In fact many aspiring writers also seem to have trouble coming up with story beginnings. I never had that problem, but if you do, uh, ever thought about how Star Wars did it? The technique is so ancient, it has a Latin name: in media res. Which is to say, starting in the middle of things.)

That middle is what all the bad teachers call "act 2", because well, all stories must have a beginning, middle and end. After all, that's how playwrights in Ancient Greece did it, so it must be the One True Way. At least I suppose that's the reasoning; don't get me started about glorifying the past.

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Tags: writing, philosophy

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Write and build worlds, but how?

21 May 2020 — Felix Pleşoianu

(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 26 January 2020.)

While going through my old browser bookmarks, I found a write-up on worldbuilding from many years ago. It's a very detailed checklist, reason enough to keep it around for all this time; but as it turns out, the advice contained within has aged badly.

At first I wanted to write a critique of the original text, but there's too much negativity in this world already, and after so much time, what's the point? So instead let me use it as the jumping point for some fresh, up to date thoughts.

(By the way, while the original is about tabletop games, most of the same techniques apply just as well to static fiction.)

First of all, conflict is an unfortunate reality, that occurs when individuals and factions with opposing goals meet. In real life, we do our best to avoid it, because it only ever brings waste and suffering. It doesn't "spice things up", it makes everything bitter. Treat conflict the same way in fiction, out of respect for all the people who are hurting somewhere right now.

For that matter, dare to imagine a world where people are tolerant of their respective differences. We need that kind of vision. And forget realism. The genre is called fantasy. If you can more easily imagine flying mountains than tolerant people, have a mirror.

Second, too many adjectives cheapen the text. Luckily, you need fewer than you might think. Consider:

The ocean stretched in front of the travelers, all the way to a horizon shrouded in haze.

Look, ma, no adjectives! Yet it could be an epic opening line for a story.

That said, don't avoid adjectives either, like other writers wrongly recommend. Just one, well-placed, can change your text dramatically. Contrast:

The ocean stretched in front of the travelers, all the way to a horizon lined with dark clouds.

This is why I love the craft of writing. Long fancy words matter much less.

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Tags: writing, philosophy

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