Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Introducing Clinklog

16 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Exactly a week ago, I announced my new project: a static website generator optimized for microblogs and linklogs. As of yesterday, it's complete enough to generate its own homepage. That's an important milestone. Doubly so as it turned out to work flawlessly under real-world conditions, however briefly. It does take a little thinking to use, at least at first, but that suits me fine. Still quick and easy enough.

Oh, there's plenty more to be done. Existing features to finish; more of them to add; documentation to write (not necessarily in that order). If you're impatient enough to start using it, beware that defaults can and will change. The schema, too; hopefully in a way that can be applied to existing databases with a second call to clinklog init. I'd hate having to start from scratch after just releasing this first version. After all, one of my design goals is to allow for stable websites, that can continue to accumulate new content for a long time to come.

The downside to that is posts not getting their own files, but only a slot in the corresponding monthly archive, which in turn means permalinks change if you bump a post (or item, in Clinklog parlance) to the top. Not so permanent after all. It remains to be seen how much I'll have to do that in practice.

First, however, to make some progress, so there will be more to post about, both here and on Clinklog. See you around.

Tags: blog, software

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Fun with static website generators

09 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Oops. Haven't posted here in over a week, and while I don't exactly have a quota, this is even less often than expected.

Having now used BashBlog for long enough to know what it can and can't do, and being satisfied that it can provide a path forward for my long-form blogging, I started thinking about the way Twitter is going down and Mastodon could become literally illegal this Wednesday if the European Union's "copyright reform" law passes as proposed. Which in turn reminded me of an older idea for a static website generator different from the hundreds of others out there.

It started with my use of manually edited RSS, which is easy enough but kinda clumsy, because the format simply wasn't designed with that in mind. Then there were the experiments to reimagine my big webcomic list, which ended up staying a single long document. It was simply not worth the trouble to make anything fancier. Especially after all this time.

Still, the ability to quickly and comfortably post links or quips remains important. As I wrote over nine years ago, microblogging had to be invented. And most existing solutions are overcomplicated, largely because they insist on being social.

Far as I'm concerned, being social on the web means having a newsfeed people can follow.

Which brings me back to RSS. Why not Atom? Because RSS is more flexible: items don't require a title or link, making them useful for mixed content. They even have a concept of a permalink for the item itself, distinct from whatever it's pointing at. And my primary use case just so happens to be a linklog.

So as of yesterday I've been working on a static website generator that runs from the command line, like many others out there, but designed around the capabilities of RSS. How I'll make room for it in my established workflow remains to be seen. So far it looks like a solid concept at least. And the web needs a new vision.

Wish me luck.

Tags: blog, software, social-media

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Thoughtfulness is radical

01 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

I've recently taken to writing down my thoughts in a little paper notebook before posting them to Twitter or Mastodon. A6 pages are just the right size, and it forces me to think hard before blurting out my thoughts online, possibly hurting someone. Hadn't realized what a special thing it was until someone snarkily replied to my suggestion that long-form blogging is due for a comeback by asking, "why not go back to hand-written letters while we're at it?"

Speaking of which: it's essentially impossible to post something on the Diaspora network without getting at least one snarky or angry reply. Sometimes entire flamewars in the comments, that you can only watch helplessly, unless you delete your original post altogether. Turing forbid you actually try to defend or clarify your position, or otherwise interact with the oh-so-smart techie brodudes you've just riled up. It happens elsewhere, too, but only in that particular online neighborhood does it seem to be the norm.

In 2018, giving yourself some time to consider your next words is a radical act.

Let's do it, then. Let's show people what it was like before the tweetstorm had replaced taking the time to formulate a coherent discourse. I'm not talking academic levels of intellectual rigor. Just a modicum of consideration. For your audience. For your ideas. For yourself.

Amazing what difference it makes when you have a literal filter. Handwriting is more laborious, and serves as a first draft, too. And if you notice your draft swelling beyond tweet size, you know it's time to hunker down and write a proper blog post. Don't have a blog? Use a pastebin, and post just the link on social media. Better yet, do yourself a favor and get a proper home on the web. One people can choose when to visit, instead of hearing you trumpet over the rooftops, whether they feel like it or not at the moment.

You don't have to turn off your smartphone. You don't have to give up immediacy. You won't die of boredom if your gratification is a little less than instant.

The internet wants you to be a Pinocchio on Pleasure Island. You know how that ends.

Tags: blog, philosophy, social-media

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Too simple

16 August 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

After writing yesterday's post, I realized that 1000 articles in one BashBlog instance would be a problem after all, but not for the reason other users thereof seem to think. Rather, the bottleneck would be having to deal with over 2000 files in one folder, none of which you can move without breaking things. It seems, then, that the ideal time to archive the whole thing and start again would be one year if you post once or twice a week, or a month if you post thrice a day. Which just so happens to coincide with how blog archives are traditionally organized. With BashBlog, you just have to do it manually. But that's as simple as shuffling around some files, one folder at a time, and on the plus side you're in control the entire time.

It seems there are downsides to radical simplicity after all. But on the flipside, those downsides open up new possibilities. You just have to go with the flow and figure out how best to use each tool at your disposal. That's why you have more than one after all.

Speaking of which: is a hammer too simple? A screwdriver? A cleaver? A pair of pliers? Radical simplicity has been the default state of tools ever since we started using tools. The creators of Unix still remembered this principle. Those who came after them? Not so much. Modern computing has skewed our perception of what "simple" means, and that's why it's all such a mess today.

Tags: blog, philosophy, software

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Unmaintained does not mean obsolete

15 August 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

There's a mentality going around, especially in open source circles, that if a piece of software hasn't had a release in recent months, that must mean it's broken, insecure and incapable of talking to newer systems. And that's just nuts.

BashBlog, the software generating this web page, hasn't had a release since the spring of 2016. So? Do you have any trouble reading right now? Anything else wrong with it? Perhaps a security issue? Could have one, if I was using one of the supported 3rd-party services, which I don't. As for other complaints people have, judge for yourself:

"BashBlog should start using the HTML5 document type."

Why? Has the XHTML standard been deprecated in the past year or two? I didn't think so. Leave good enough alone.

"But... but... modern markup such as <header> and <footer>."

Why, you think search engines can't figure out what you mean by <div class="header">? And it's still perfectly valid markup.

"There's no pagination! What happens once you have 1000 posts listed on the archive page?"

Then your archive page will still be not much bigger than 150 kilobytes. That's a little bigger than my webcomic list, and tiny compared to most webpages today. To keep it from growing even more, you can always move the existing blog to another directory, then start anew. And no, you won't have to do that too often. If you post once per day, 1K posts will take 33 months to accumulate. That's nearly three years.

Sure, there are small additions I'm tempted to make, like screen reader hints or adding rel="tag" to the appropriate links. But are they worth the trouble? Clean, functional markup helps screen readers more than you think, and again, search engines can likely guess what it means when a page name begins with "tag". Similarly, OpenGraph metadata would be useful, but plenty of apps and services also read Twitter cards in a pinch. Hardly ideal, but it works.

If you worry about maintaining a piece of software, adding new features is a surefire way to also introduce new bugs. In other words, to require even more maintenance shortly. Make sure to weigh the costs versus benefits first.

P.S. (a few days later) Here's a very similar thought recently expressed by the founder of write.as, a service I've been paying attention to as of late.

Tags: blog, software

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Thinking before posting

13 August 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

The plan is not to post too often here, to stave off the fatigue so often associated with social media, especially as of late. As with any blog however, there are things to get out of the way early on.

For one, shout out to Alex Schroeder a.k.a. Kensanata, creator of the OddMuse wiki software that I use on my gaming website. More importantly, he's my favorite blogger right now when it comes to internet communities and politics. Comes with the territory: wikis were initially a kind of community, and much of the (social) theory that now applies to anything online was first developed in that particular medium. Too bad most of them have forgotten their roots, and lost that spirit; Wikipedia is a sad case. Wikia, for all the criticism leveled against them, still remembers, and it shows. So does TVTropes.

This is a blog though, and to be honest the technical side of things concerns me more. Such as how to help more people retake their voice from corporations. Sadly, the industry-standard solution proved to be a trap, despite its open source nature, and software like the one I use now requires command-line skills, not to mention an operating system that isn't Windows. It also takes knowing the difference between the computer on one's own desk and a remote server, and how to copy files from one to the other. A difference most people don't seem to get anymore, and that's outright dangerous.

Here's the enemy then: ignorance. But how do you educate entire generations who grew up thinking they're not supposed to need any knowledge about the world they live in? Worse, that someone else will take care of everything, for free? Because, isn't it, there are no other kinds of costs than money...

We're facing an uphill battle. Might even be a lost cause from the start. But to not even try would be even worse. So here I am.

Tags: blog, philosophy

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Here we go again

12 August 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Oh no, you're going to say, not yet another blog. And what for? This site already has a perfectly good newsfeed.

Why yes, it does. And if all I wanted was to notify my friends of the occasional content update, the manual feed could be enough.

Sometimes however an update doesn't fit neatly into the title-link-description format. Take for instance the programming language and mobile app sections I added since the end of June, but didn't record in the newsfeed because, frankly, there wasn't much to say except that some long-estranged content has come home at last. To keep things comfortable, items in manually edited RSS must be limited to a single paragraph of plain text; anything else is a big pain. Which can be, well, limiting.

Moreover, since starting out that feed exactly four years ago (plus two weeks), things have changed. The big website clean-up was finally completed last year (plus two days). Instead of a big ball of mud, I now have a nice collection of microsites. And since each of them looks slightly different, one more isn't going to stand out. Especially as there's still more content to bring back from third-party services.

That's a problem too, see. For a while, I've been all enthusiastic about social media. That earned me friends (yes, you can make genuine friends online), but also means a lot of thoughts are now scattered to the four winds. A couple of long-form essays found a home in the web design section, but the rest are at the mercy of various third parties. And recent developments have reminded me what a bad idea it is to trust anyone with your outboard memories.

Last but not least, there's this little toy called BashBlog that I meant to try out for a while now. Who knows when it's going to come in really handy. Might as well figure out what works and what doesn't with a low-stakes trial first.

What all I'm going to put here is another story. But you won't know unless you subscribe. Cheers, and see you around for sure.

Tags: website, blog, philosophy

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