Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Designed for nobody

24 October 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Imagine you were a big fan of cars and wanted very much to get into the world of car manufacturers. So you go to art school, practice a lot, and one day come up with the single most beautiful car design ever. One that would make the folks at Ferrari or Lamborghini turn green with envy. So you go with it to a factory and show it off. Everyone goes "ooh" and "aah"... until an engineer points out how there's no way to fit an engine under that gorgeous hood. Can you guess what would happen?

They'd laugh you out of the building, that's what. And they'd be right.

Look. Design is a nebulous term. There's no one accepted definition. But artsy high-concept crap nobody can understand or make use of is definitely not one of them.

Except that's what a lot of people think design is, ever since Frank Lloyd Wright created his superb but uninhabitable Fallingwater house. And so you end up with websites that look great, but are unreadable, unnavigable and definitely don't scale.

How else? Back when I was still in the business, a web designer's tool of choice was Photoshop. Yep. They didn't so much design a website as paint it. Paintings are nice, you see. They don't have to stretch and zoom, grow and shrink, or shift around like a transformer.

Websites must be able to do all that and more. Especially nowadays that mobile devices outnumber PCs by an order of magnitude at the least. And web designers hate that. It offends their artistic sensibilities.

If you ever saw a website with too long a sidebar, or too short a sidebar, or an ad banner that's breaking out of its box and trying to hide off-screen in shame, that's why: the great designer had no idea of the real content people were going to put in. Perhaps because they were never told. But who cares, right? We'll just fill the boxes with nicely balanced amounts of nonsense text. What do you mean, it may not be as nicely balanced in production?

Lorem Ipsum was a mistake.

Tags: website, philosophy

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Internet and memory

27 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

While going through my old browser bookmarks recently, I was reminded once again how quickly the average web page goes away. It's part of the so-called digital dark age we're headed towards as more and more media files, stored on now-obsolete devices, become impossible to read, let alone decypher, if they haven't been long deleted.

(Not that it's a new phenomenon. The BBC erasing years of invaluable footage so they could reuse expensive tape reels made headlines a while ago. And it was par for the course back in the day.)

At the same time, it happens more and more that things people said or did years ago, sometimes in their teenage years, resurface unexpectedly thanks to social media, causing no end of trouble. It even led to the EU creating a "right to be forgotten", which was about as tone-deaf, ineffective and potentially damaging as the more recent GDPR. But I digress.

It seems like a contradition. On the one hand, we're complaining that computers are too forgetful, and launch on ample missions to rescue our collective digital memory. On the other hand, we're complaining that computers aren't forgetful enough, and call for crusades to bury the past. Maybe we should make up our minds already.

Except, of course, it's not possible. The same fire that cooks your food can just as easily burn down your house, and there's no way to magically make fire do only what you want. The best you can do is use fire sparingly and with proper precautions. So it is with knowledge. Any knowledge.

Because, you see, human brains require the ability to forget. We wouldn't be able to function otherwise. The price is that we sometimes forget important things. Oh, we can write them down, but writings can also get lost or destroyed. Ideally, those that enough people value will be preserved across the centuries. But since value is in the eye of the beholder, you never know exactly what will be preserved. And so it happens that some of the oldest surviving texts are complaints about a shady merchant in Ancient Mesopotamia. How's that for cosmic humor.

Writing, it turns out, works exactly like human memory in the long term. And so do websites.

While going through my huge pile of browser bookmarks, it was a pleasant surprise to discover how many pages are still there. Others are now gone, sometimes along with the whole website, or else locked up behind a paywall, which amounts to the same thing. Yet more are still there, but I can't for the life of me remember why I bookmarked them in the first place.

Guess comparing the web to a planet-sized brain isn't so far-fetched after all. And our brains sometimes remember terribly embarrassing situations we'd much rather forget. Especially mom's brain.

Ah, but you see, moms also forgive. Internet mobs, not so much.

Well, they'd better learn, because much like with brains, you can't control what the internet does and doesn't remember. Not without breaking it. Nor can you put the genie back into the bottle, any more than you can tell Prometheus to take his newfangled fire and return it to the gods.

But do we understand ourselves well enough in the first place to deal with this monster we've created in our own image?

Tags: social-media, website

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Browser bookmarks, the buried bounty

23 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

I have too many browser bookmarks.

Comes with the territory, you see. Between relatively varied interests and too much time spent online, it was inevitable that over the years I'd end up bookmarking lots and lots of pages. That wouldn't be a problem... if I ever went back to them. And that hardly ever happens.

When the issue first became apparent, my first idea was to try a social bookmarking service. Those are fun at least: you get to see how many other people bookmarked the same page (without knowing of each other), and who else tags their bookmarks the same way you do. Which in turn can lead to finding more cool web pages.

Trouble is, my choice at the time was Magnolia. When the service's one server crashed hard with no backup, starting over elsewhere suddenly looked like a terrible proposition. Sure enough, bigger brands also shut down since then.

So what else is there? A couple of years ago I tried to put some semblance of order in my still-private collection and see what was there. After all, it's no different than rifling through a box of old photos, right? Well, thanks to a horrid user interface, I deleted an entire folder of links with no recourse. Luckily it was indeed just cute animal photos, but that soured me on the whole idea again.

About 18 months ago I became aware of a little web app called Shaarli, that would have been a dream come true in the past. But after being burned by security issues, from spammers to crackers, yet another live web app is the last thing I want on my sites, even if it was easy to find it a good place.

Meanwhile, the link catalog on my gamedev wiki has been shaping up nicely, especially once I got it out of the gilded cage called WordPress. Yet more links can be found in the newsletter, where they served as discussion starters over the past few years. And there's still more of them buried in my browser's bookmark manager.

Not all of them should be public, of course. Going to figure something out about those. A few can go in the "see also" section of various special interest pages already on my website. As for the rest... it remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: the bookmark managers still used in browsers today were designed back when the web was tiny, and never reconsidered since then. They simply don't cut it anymore. Find a better home for all those links while you can.

Tags: website, philosophy

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Choosing your platform

21 August 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

This morning, my friend fluffy asked why I'm not using their new CMS Publ for this blog. That's an excellent question, in fact. Here:

  • I tried the Publ approach already: my old CMS was designed on the same principle. It worked horribly for my needs, trapping this website in a rigid way of doing things it took over a year to break free from. Being able to easily move a page around isn't enough.
  • I'm not sure how to set up a Python app on my cPanel account, and it definitely wouldnd't work on my other cPanel account where I'm going to need a blog. This is mostly just a trial run after all.
  • Nowadays I simply have a different idea of what a website should be and how to structure one. Even my continued use of wikis is more of a legacy thing.

If you're just setting out to make (or remake) a website, do try out Publ; fluffy's a much better programmer than I am, and may have managed to avoid the trap described above. Besides, you might not know what you need until you try it. Web apps are tools, and tools shape what we make with them, in more than one way.

This can lead to beautiful discoveries. It can just as easily be constricting. Choose your platform wisely.

Tags: website, software

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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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