Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Blogging

Absence from blogging and moving to the console

leave a comment »

While already cutting down on blogging in favor of other activities, I was met with yet another computer issue, namely that the laptop with the tricky display became incurable (cf. [1]).

(Note: Some of the below requires an understanding of relevant Linux concepts and/or tools.)

Since then, I have spent some additional time setting up a backup laptop and switching to a more console based environment, foregoing X-Windows in favor of the Linux consoles in combination with tools like tmux.

Mostly this works quite well and is just a continuation of an older usage pattern in a more consistent manner. Notably, with two exceptions, I already spent more time on the command line or with terminal-based tools like Bash, Vim, and mplayer than I did with GUI tools—just in an xterm (or a tmux within an xterm) instead of a console (or a tmux within a console). The exceptions are (a) reading of various PDFs/ePubs/whatnots, (b) web browsing. (To which mplayer might be seen as a partial third exception, as it needs some graphics capabilities when used as a movie player.)

These exceptions I have partially addressed by just using text-based browsers (notably, w3m) and readers and/or by converting e.g. PDFs to text—if I have PDF with text, why should I not just read it as text in a console? The tricky part comes with contents that are not suitable for treatment as text, e.g. when a PDF contains images or, worse, is a scanned version of a physical book and then amounts to a series of images. Here the Linux framebuffer and/or DRM* comes to the rescue, and tools like fim, fbi, fbpdf, and mplayer (when called with a framebuffer option) are very helpful.

*Where “DR” stands for “Direct Rendering”—not “Digital Rights”. The “other” type of DRM is evil.

At the moment, I have two annoyances and one problem. The problem, of course, is that there are a few rarely used websites, notably for my online banking and the German “IRS”, that unnecessarily require JavaScript and/or other bullshit in a manner that makes them hard to use even from X-Windows using Firefox, and where I necessarily expect text-based browsers to fall flat on their faces.* The annoyances are respectively that accessing the framebuffer/DRM from within tmux does not work optimally (console switching is a particular problem), as tmux is a terminal emulator and detaches the programs run within it from the console,** and that running two separate such programs in parallel, even on different consoles and even without tmux, fails*** more often than not.

*I have yet to come to a decision on how to handle this, but I might be forced to go back to X-Windows for some such special-purpose tasks. I am aware of a tool browsh (?), which claims to be able to handle similar situations through coupling a text-based frontend with graphical browser run as a “headless” backend; however, I have not had time to look into this in detail.

**Similarly, using framebuffer functionality from within an X-term is not possible either, which is a great shame.

***This might or might not relate to a failure to call drmSetMaster appropriately. I have yet to look into this in enough detail, but a manual patching of some tools might be necessary if this is indeed the explanation.

In a bigger picture, I see a major missed opportunity in Linux in that the idea of framebuffers/DRM has not been pushed through as the main graphics environment over X-Windows (let alone Wayland). Just like any pseudo-terminal has input and outputs streams equivalent to those of a real console, they could have been given their own virtual devices for framebuffers and DRM, which are then mapped appropriately to the real devices (or some other graphics mechanism, e.g. when running under X-Windows) and suitable portions of the screen. As a for instance, w3m could then show images everywhere it is run, while issues around console switching and parallel programs would disappear—and who would even need X-Windows? If need be, this could be complemented with mechanisms analogous to those already existing for text, notably the “alternate screen” and the signals SIGTTIN and SIGTTOU.

Excursion on future blogging:
I was working on a few texts at the time of the screen malfunction, and might go on to publish these or abbreviated versions of them on W-rdpr-ss. Otherwise, I will likely move on to publish on my website proper and abandon this W-rdpr-ss shit—especially, as the admin area of W-rdpr-ss is one of those hardly-even-usable-in-Firefox websites. When this will be, I cannot tell. While I have found all the old passwords, repositories, and whatnot that I need by now, I still need the time and notably time to implement something of a more blog-like character than the current functionality of the website. (I might or might not post a notification of new content on my W-rdpr-ss blog, but would otherwise, long overdue, leave W-rdpr-ss behind.)

Excursion on “everything is text”:
An old Unix/Linux paradigm is that “everything is a file”. This is an extremely powerful and useful paradigm, and it is a great shame that it has not spread further—and it is a great shame that it has not been supplemented with something like “[almost]* everything is text”. Once something is in text form and can be accessed with tools like vim, sed, awk, and countless others, magic can be worked in a manner that is very hard in other contexts. Consider the clumsiness of configuration-by-GUI compared to configuration-by-text-file, how a PDF-turned-plain-text can be manipulated so much easier than the original PDF, what can be done to files based on the output of the ls command relative awkward graphical file browsers, and on and on and on.

*Images, videos, sound files, etc. are obvious exceptions.

Excursion on desktops:
Not only have I long preferred text-based applications over more graphical ones for most tasks, but I have found desktops and the desktop paradigm particularly pointless, even harmful—and it is a great shame that so much Linux development and thinking has been wasted on the idea of “making Linux ready for the desktop”. Some version of this mantra has been paradoxically repeated over decades, even after the Linux desktop and/or other graphical environments were already well ahead of e.g. MS-Windows* and even despite the true strength of Linux being on the command line, with text-based tools, etc. Moreover, while we can discuss the pros and cons of graphical vs. text-based environments, the differentiation into vanilla graphical environments and desktop graphical environments is bullshit: desktops just lead to cluttering, unsound paradigms, worse interfaces, whatnot.

*And, yes, the Unix-verse had windows before Microsoft did… Off the top of my head, the only point where Microsoft (and, for that matter, Apple) had an advantage over Unix and its descendants was in aesthetics and consistency of “look and feel”, and that advantage might have been gone for some two decades.

My personal dislike goes back as far as the mid-1990s when the more vanilla X-Windows set-up at uni was replaced with CDE (“Common Desktop Environment”). The main effect? There was a large bar at the bottom of the screen that stole space and did not allow me to do anything that I could not already do better through other means.

Excursion on division of documents into smaller units:
In a semi-parallel to ideas like “everything is text”, or rather the flexibility involved, I have tended more and more to split existing documents into pages, when not convertible into text, as with e.g. scanned PDFs and .cbz files. As long as I have the document as a whole, I must rely on some type of reader to handle e.g. page changes and I am limited to what the reader allows. If, on the other hand, I split the document into individual pages or (often equivalently) images, I can view them much more flexibly, both with regard to my own handling and with regard to what viewers/readers are available. (For instance, a .cbz file is basically a series of images that have been zipped. A viewer must now both have knowledge of this and the ability to unzip the contents, in addition to the ability to display images. Unzip the images and any capable image viewer will do.) This might or might not also provide a possible work-around for keeping several framebuffer/DRM applications running in parallel, by having a script call the applications on individual pages, with the option to pause between pages, and a reduced risk of conflicts. (I have not looked into this in detail, however.)

Excursion on poor config handling:
Unfortunately, I have seen repeated cases of the poor config-file handling discussed in [2] during my many recent experiments. It seems as if every second tool automatically and idiotically installs user-local config files upon the first start. As with some of the above, and many other misdevelopments in Linux and FOSS since the early days, the old ideas that really worked appear to be forgotten in favor of poorly thought-through nonsense. What was conceived in the early days was not always perfect, and often restricted through lack of technology or lack of experience, but it was usually created by highly intelligent and knowledgable developers. What we see today, that is a very different story.


Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2023 at 7:10 pm

A few remarks on my current blogging

leave a comment »

The recurring reader might have noted an unusual silence on some natural topics, e.g. the recent, so obviously politically motivated, legal attack on Trump.

This silence arises from two factors that apply for time being:

Firstly, I have cut down considerably on my reading of news and “current issues” in order to focus more on various books. As a result, I am not always aware of sufficient details of issues sufficiently early to make a worthwhile text while the issues actually are current.

Secondly, I have shifted time away from blogging to other tasks and projects (and will likely mostly prioritize my backlog when it comes to blogging).

(In a more long-term perspective, I have also long had doubts as to how worthwhile it is to write on current issues, as chances are that quite a few others will already have made the same points that I make. There might texts that I have an itch to write, but where the benefit of the writing would be mostly limited to scratching that itch. This might or might not affect my future choices.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 5, 2023 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Publishing on April 1st

leave a comment »

In a partial parallel to my recent texts* on version control and how its use can affect how someone works, I am currently contemplating other factors that can affect our behavior in an unexpected or indirect manner. The reason? It is April 1st and I am torn between writing** and not writing a (different-from-this-one) text—the “not” influenced by the tradition of April-Fools’ jokes (AFJs). Anything non-joking published on this day stands some risk of being honestly misinterpreted or maliciously mislabeled as an AFJ. Certainly, there are a great many otherwise “serious” newspapers, magazines, and whatnot that engage in AFJs on this day—unwisely, in my opinion.

*Notably, [1].

**Why not write it today and publish it tomorrow? See excursion.

This raises the interesting issue of when and whether such risks should affect behavior. I, e.g., can afford to not write/publish that other text today, but a daily newspaper does not have that luxury for most of its contents. Or consider laws, regulations, restrictions, COVID-countermeasures, whatnot:* Laws are often written to take effect on the first day of the respective quarter, which matches April 1st. (Ditto those that might take effect on the first of a month.) Should laws now be postponed by a day to avoid misunderstandings? This might border on the ridiculous—but, as a counterpoint, many laws are themselves so ridiculous that they might otherwise be taken to be AFJs. Then we have the issue of reporting on laws: even if the law-makers and governmental sources on laws never engage in AFJs, there is no guarantee that some newspaper or other will not e.g. claim a new law taking effect and/or having been decided “today” as an AFJ. And then there is the issue of nit-wits who make potentially harmful or incompetent AFJs despite being in an “official” position of some sort.**

*I will stick with “laws” for the sake of simplicity.

**For instance, earlier today, I encountered the claim that a high-ranking local Swedish politician had announced a 50-percent cut in municipal electricity prices, had intended this as a (grossly inappropriate) AFJ, and, for full effect, had made the announcement yesterday, when no-one was expecting an AFJ… (To boot, a far-Left politician, but this might have been coincidence.)

Now, looking at the effects of e.g. version control and AFJs on behavior, it is important to note the incidental character, that neither has a purpose of altering behavior. (Or, in the case of version control, not in the areas discussed.) In contrast, a law taking effect on April 1st can alter behaviors in a certain way, but it is often*intended to do so. The mechanism for these more incidental changes often involves (feared) perceptions/reactions in others. Ditto additional work/trouble/whatnot for oneself. To the former, someone might e.g. wear certain clothes in high school today and very different clothes in the office in five years’ time, because someone who deviates too far from the local norm might be viewed as “off”, “uncool”, “unprofessional”, or whatever might apply. To the latter, consider someone regularly visiting two near-by grocery stores, one of which is harder to reach through various roadworks, and how he might shift business to the other store for the duration of the roadworks.**

*A problem with laws, and here we enter an overlap, is that they often alter incentives, and often perversely so, in a manner unforeseen, underestimated, or judged as unimportant by the law-makers. For instance, a law establishing a price cap for some product might have the intended effect of capping prices, but might also have effects like some producers cutting back on production, shifting production to an area without a price cap, reducing investments for the future, or giving up business altogether—or a black market arising as a workaround for the problems and limitations caused by the price cap. (And, yes, these changes to incentives are usually of a kind that the law-makers should have foreseen, estimated correctly, and/or judged important.)

**This matches my own recent situation. Involving the same two stores, but in the other direction, I also had a lengthy period of shift through ongoing construction inside one of the stores. Issues included various foods being relocated within the store, again and again over months, making things hard to find, aisles and areas that were occasionally blocked off, and recurring construction noise.

Particularly interesting examples involve software and shifting features, annoyances, bugs, and whatnots. For instance, note how my own path with browsers has been affected (cf. [2] and other texts). For instance, during my days as a Java developer, I used JSwat as a debugger for several years, because JSwat had the “unique selling point” of an internal command-line, which was lacking in the otherwise (often) stronger competing products. At some point, a new release was made and the command-line scrapped, with the motivation that (paraphrasing from memory) all functionality would now be available graphically—but, without the command-line, why should I not go to one of the otherwise stronger competitors instead?* For instance, users of tools like MS Outlook have had many bad email habits instilled in them and have been prevented from following existing norms and quasi-standards in favor of Microsoft’s amateurish preferences. (Consider e.g. how quoting is handled or not handled when replying to an email.)

*Two side-issues: Firstly, this attitude showed that the developer(s) were ignorant of the benefits of the command-line, as many tasks are simply much better done per command-line. Secondly, by analogy, it shows what idiotic road Firefox is on, as more and more functionality is removed and Firefox grows ever closer to being a second Chrome—but if someone is content with what Firefox-pretending-to-be-Chrome has to offer, why should he use Firefox, instead of Chrome, in the first place?

Excursion on taking AFJs at face value:
Another danger is, of course, than an actual AFJ is taken at face value, which can be potentially dangerous when otherwise respectable publications engage in AFJs. An interesting border-line case from my own past is my first encounter with the annual AFJ-article in C’t*. The article described some new technology to save space on DVDs (or some such) by storing the faces (and/or some other characteristics) of various actors separately and having the movie just include the right references and generate the right images and whatnots. I immediately realized that this was complete nonsense—that this simply would not work with the technology of the day (around 2000) and that, if it somehow did work, it would be unlikely to lead to an actual improvement.** However, I did not realize that it was a AFJ article until a great many years later, when C’t published an overview of some past AFJ articles and a mention was made. In the meantime, I had on some few occasions thought back on the article and taken satisfaction in that I had not heard another word on the topic, that this obvious-to-me nonsense had indeed failed…

*Germany’s leading computer magazine, usually known for its high quality, in-depth material, and its stark contrast to the dumbed-down nonsense that is found in most other computer magazines. (Disclaimer: While I was an ardent reader in my early years in IT, it has been a few years since my last issue, and I cannot vouch for the current character of the magazine.)

**With the technology of 2023, I would not rule out that a more sophisticated version could work, and somewhat similar ideas are certainly used in areas like animation (e.g. in that some parameterized model is used for something-or-other over an entirely individual rendering—which might be were the jokers got the original idea). Whether it would be worthwhile is another matter.

Excursion on writing vs. publishing:
Experiences show that I either get a text completed and published within a day or stand a nine-in-ten chance of an indefinite delay of completion and/or publication. I struggle enough with my backlog as is and try to avoid this particular trap, which is the historical cause of, maybe, a quarter of that backlog. I could make that day stretch past midnight and, indeed, my current sleep patterns are detached from when the sun happens to rise and set; however, (a) coincidentally, I began this day at a “conventional” hour and might well fall asleep again before midnight, (b) the potential perception of an AFJ will in part depend on the reader’s timezone and that I am “safe” from a German perspective does not automatically make me “safe” from e.g. a U.S. perspective. (To the latter, I am also a little uncertain how W-rdpr-ess handles the assignment of dates.)

Excursion on likelihood of misunderstandings/mislabelings:
The likelihood that one of my texts would be misunderstood or mislabeled is likely small, and I likely would have written that other text, had I not prioritized the current one. (Why this prioritization? The current text is directly connected to the date and it seems better to publish it specifically today. The other text has no such connection.) However, these are the days of both the Internet and a pandemic of rabid Leftism, and neither danger can be entirely ruled out. That I do publish a text (and with not the slightest intent at a joke) shows that the effects discussed here are by no means absolute and that we can, barring unconscious effects, usually decide against an altered behavior.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2023 at 7:32 pm

Missing pingbacks / W-rdpr-ss drops the ball again

with one comment

As a more administrative notice:

For some reason, I have seen no notifications of pingbacks between my own posts in the last two weeks. Logging in today to check, I see that the missing pingbacks are not in my spam folder, nor are they in their usual place in the moderation folder (with only the email notification missing), nor have they been automatically approved—they simply are missing.

I do not know why—and it is a bloody shame, as automatic pingback handling was one of the few things that W-rdpr-ss almost did well and one of the few things that made W-rdpr-ss somewhat worthwhile. (Almost? Well, why the hell should I need to moderate a pingback sent from one of my own posts to another of my own posts? Idiotic!)

I have just worked through various settings and whatnots in my admin area. A few settings (if added recently or having their semantic recently changed) might be problematic, and I have experimentally changed them, including one relating to the maximum number of links in a comment.* However, I simply do not have the time to engage in further trouble-shooting and experiments.

*This should not have any reasonable effect, as any individual pingback only amounts to one link, even should the post from which it stems have many links. However, my experiences with W-rdpr-ss show that it is run by idiots and I first noticed the issue after having posted a text with an unusual number of links in it.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 1, 2023 at 9:38 pm

An even 50

leave a comment »

As a month of heavy writing comes to an end, I find myself tired of typing and at a count of 49 published texts for the month. It would be nice to see 50, but the “real” texts that I have in the immediate pipeline are too much work right now (notably, several texts relating to guilds, insiders vs. outsiders, and similar).

Instead, I will take the easy way out with what mostly amounts to filler:

Firstly, how did this count come about? I was already on a rising trend, partially trying to do something about my backlog, partially having a new drive after a prolonged time with comparatively little activity; and I tend to find more ideas* of things to write about the more I write, and write more, the more ideas I have. At some point in October, aided by an additional set of texts on the back-and-forth around Liz Truss, I broke some critical limit and ended the month very strongly, bringing me to 33 (?) posts. I continued in a similar tempo through November, with additional material arising through e.g. the U.S. elections, until my energy began to peter out, and the month ended with a more average level of writing/posting.

*Or, maybe, fresh ideas and other stimuli. For instance, merely having a large backlog does not create an urge to write about any given item; however, such an urge can arise when I encounter something in the now that overlaps with or reminds me of a backlog item. (Similarly, something in the now can cause an urge even without a backlog item.)

Secondly, what will future counts be? I really cannot say. I suspect that a typical count might be in the 20s in the near future, but this could vary drastically depending on how satiated with writing I am (right now—very), how much time I have, what other interests take precedence (notably, that I might drift back to fiction), etc. Specifically for December, all bets are off, as I (a) will likely take a few days of rest from any writing, (b) might be absent from computers for a part of the month, (c) do have those “several texts […]”, which could give me a few easy entries, due to work already performed.

Thirdly, what about that backlog? I have made some progress, but nowhere near as much as the post count might imply, as much of what has been published was new material and as some new items have been added to the backlog. There are many dozens of texts to go. (How many is impossible to say, especially as the backlog exist more as an abstractum than as an actual list. Two particular complications are the many books that I have read/am reading and intend to write about and the ongoing series on Nazis, which might be done in just several texts—or need several dozen. Further, due to the nature of a backlog and the continual addition of new ideas, it is unlikely to ever be entirely empty, even should I manage to bring it down to a reasonable size.)

Excursion on National Novel Writing Month:
November is also, coincidentally, the National Novel Writing Month, where participants are supposed to reach a word count of 50,000. When I first heard of it, maybe some ten to fifteen years ago, I found that word count nearly suicidal, with an eye at time invested, quality to be expected, and stress on the fingers. This November, I reached 50 posts (including this one), and most of my texts are probably above a 1,000 words in length, many far above.*/** I am now considering actual participation for 2023. (If I do participate, do not expect much blogging.)

*Actually running a set of texts through a word-count program (wc), I land at more than 85 thousand words for November; however, that includes some texts that are not yet published (which might or might not count, depending on point of view), some texts based on pre-November drafts (where most of the word count does not belong to November), some texts with quotes from the works of others, and some markup. Even adjusting for these complications, however, I should be well above 50,000. The longest individual texts broke 4 thousand words.

**It is possible, however, that I have exceeded the 50,000 mark at some point in the past, e.g. during October or during times when I wrote heavily on my own novels.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 30, 2022 at 3:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

A few thoughts on disclaimers

with one comment

With the extensive writing that I have behind me this month, I have also had much cause to reflect on some aspects of writing—including disclaimers* of various kinds.

*And, yes, I probably am using the word in a too wide sense.

As the recurring reader might have noticed, I am often insert such in my texts, be it as something explicitly labelled “Disclaimer:” or as just a few appropriate disclaiming words, like with the above footnote.

The quantity of disclaimers is partially a special case of wanting to “establish the whole truth” (cf. [1]), partially the result of a long exposure to a mixture of idiots (be it on the Internet or elsewhere) and those who are keen to maliciously misinterpret. The sad truth is that, at least on the Internet, there is no such thing as a “fool-proof sentence”—there is always someone foolish enough to turn it into something different from what a reasonable reader would.

However, if I am too focused on the worst-of-the-worst, the more reasonable reader might think that I “over-disclaim”—that it is a given that X, that there is no need to spell X out, and, even, that I waste my readers’ time by doing so. Then there is the issue of my own time and how much of it I am willing to spend on disclaimers…

Correspondingly, I try (not necessarily successfully) to hold back and to find a balance. In a next step, however, there is a real potential problem—that I have created an expectation of disclaimers in certain situations and that the absence of a disclaimer is seen as more important than it actually is. Consider the relaying of a personal anecdote of relevance to a certain text: I might then add a disclaimer of “with reservations for memory errors” or “anecdotes should be taken with a grain of salt”. How should it be interpreted when I do not? Am I then claiming that my memory is perfect and that anecdotes are conclusive proof? No, but the recurring reader might misinterpret the absence in this manner. (With the twist that my own use of disclaimer might have unnecessarily created a need for disclaimers that would not have been there, had I not used disclaimers. More generally, our behavior is often measured against an individual baseline and the deviation of e.g. a certain act from a known baseline can be more important than the act as such.)

A potential way out might be to write some type of “general purpose” disclaimer, going through various points once and for all, where I state, e.g., that my memory is fallible, that I do not vouch for the claims of others being correct, and that this-or-that is a one-sided perspective. This maybe with an added pointer to agnostic scepticism or to this text, which can be seen as a meta-disclaimer. However, if I do, I would either have to include this “general purpose” disclaimer in every single text or count on most readers missing it. (Have you visited the existing pages with e.g. an advertising disclaimer and an evil sabotage disclaimer? I doubt it.) Even a link, in every single text, to a page with the disclaimer would likely remain unvisited by most. Then there is the issue of what to do with all the old texts that would not automatically contain this link.

Excursion on paranoia:
Am I a little paranoid when it comes to disclaimers and/or the absence of disclaimers? Maybe, but this is the Internet and considering what trifles can lead even to public condemnation, cancellation, or a firing (not just to a misinterpretation in, say, a short comment debate), it might be perfectly sane and rational to err on the side of caution. Even as is, your typical Leftist hater/idiot/propagandist might find as much to complain about in my writings as in those of, say, Heather Mac Donald. From another angle, I seem to be much better at spotting holes, faulty arguments, unstated assumption, and similar than most others, which makes the use of disclaimers, and the general completeness drive mentioned in [1], a result of seeing flaws that most others do not.*

*And/or of prioritizing various types of flaws differently than most others, e.g. in that I might prefer to add a footnote for greater completeness where someone else might prefer to cut footnotes down to a minimum—and completeness be damned. (In this specific text, the two footnotes serve a different purpose, namely to give a practical illustration on a more “meta” level.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2022 at 2:04 pm

Long texts, pretexts, and a troublesome backlog item

with one comment

With many backlog items, one of the things that hold me back is size—that giving them a fair treatment would take so long that I keep putting it off. Currently, I am dealing with the opposite—an item where I have long had an idea but still have very little to say about the idea.

Just this:

There are at least two types of persons who might be accused of “having to get the last word”, “not letting a matter rest”, “being a know-it-all”, whatnot by others—those who want to be proved to be in the right and those who want to establish the truth.

This can be spun out and elaborated a little. I could, for instance, observe that the former is the mark of a bad scientist, the latter the mark of a good one. Maybe, I could add a personal angle and note that much younger versions of me were in the former category, but that I grew into the latter, or lament that my attempts at the latter are often taken to be attempts at the former. Maybe, at the risk of going off-topic, I could even speculate on the influence of school and school’s “you must give the right answer” attitude in giving me an early aversion to being wrong.

However, and unusually, there is not much that creates an urge to write or which spawns of new ideas. With other texts, it is often the other way around, that I begin with a simple thought, maybe worthy of two paragraphs, that a brief brain-storming or the act of writing spawns off another four paragraphs, that writing these four new paragraphs spins off even more, and that even the act of proof-reading can be a danger in terms of keeping the length of a text down, as I almost invariably discover some new idea, special case, example, whatnot that I want to share. Consider the mention of school above: my fingers are itching to expand on that.

In a twist, the issues of the above paragraph are overlapping with exactly wanting to “establish the truth” or, to be specific, “establish the whole truth”. Yes, I could ignore this-or-that new idea, and I often do, especially for a text that is already long, but I am left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, almost a bad conscience, over having short-changed the truth.

Now, what to do with such a backlog item? Well, one possibility would be to find some pretext topic, use the pretext topic as an excuse to insert the item, and then, while straining my self-control to the utmost, keep the pretext topic so short that the item does not drown in a four-thousand-word jumble.

Another possib… No, let us not go there.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2022 at 4:06 am

Overruled choice and WordPress (“p”, not “P”!)

leave a comment »

Today, I spent a few hours writing a long and complicated text ([1]). Before final polishing, I wanted to refresh myself with some music—and immediately ran into a case of overruled choice, also see [2]. I wrote a text on that, took a short break, did my polishing, published, took a coffee break—and then ran into yet another case of “overruled choice”:

It appears that WordPress (which, note again, I write with “p”—any “P” is the illicit manipulation of this user-hostile service), has manipulated at least some signs in the extend hyphen family. Specifically, it appears to (inconsistently) turn “-” into the HTML character reference for the n-dash, respectively the Unicode character 8211. This, however, is not what I asked for. If I want to add an n-dash, I* am perfectly capable of doing so—indeed, I have a sign for that in my private markup, used to generate the original and correct HTML (that WordPress (“p”!!!!!) later butchers). I entered a regular “-” (likely Unicode 002D; definitely the corresponding ASCII decimal 45) and I expect a regular “-” to appear. The replacement with an n-dash is particularly ill-advised as different dashes have different lengths and semantic implications, and this replacement made no sense in context. (In contrast, cf. below, a replacement with a minus sign, Unicode 2212, might have made sense, even if it remained an illicit manipulation.)

*And the default assumption should be the same for every other user. I use post-by-email, which implies the sending of a pre-formatted HTML document. Users making such documents from markup languages (like I) or by hand can be assumed to know what they are doing. Those who use an HTML editor have access to the editor’s capabilities to add various signs and whatnots as they see fit—and likely with greater capabilities and definitely with a higher degree of precision that through these illicit manipulations. In fact, there is some chance that the latter run into the complication that the HTML editor has some type of autocorrect going in one direction, which WordPress (“p”!!!!!) then tries to “correct” in another direction…

This manipulation is the worse for occurring in a typographically tricky situation, namely in algebraic expressions containing variables with names involving the “-” sign, e.g. “o- – m+”.* I had some doubts** as to how that would work, but it looked sufficiently OK in my local browser, using the generated correct HTML code. However, how can I trust my local impressions, when WordPress (“p”!!!!!) illicitly changes my express wishes? Or what if I publish the same HTML elsewhere, and some other interfering bunch of presumptuous incompetents decide to change this in some other manner, leading to inconsistent documents? Etc.

*Specifically, the “-” hanging on the “o” was left unchanged, while the “-” in between “o-” and “m+” was altered.

**These doubts were the reason that I explicitly checked how the rendering in WordPress turned out, as there might be differences depending on e.g. the font used—even absent illicit manipulations.

Of course, the question must be raised how many other manipulations WordPress (“p”!!!!!) performs that I am not yet aware of. (And the list is fairly long already, including the constant manipulation of “Wordpress”, mishandling of various quotation marks, spurious removal and insertion of empty lines, …) In this case, I noticed because I checked this specific rendering, in a specific place, for a specific reason—but this is not something that I usually do, and certainly not for entire documents. (No, I have not checked the entirety of [1] either, just that one area.) For instance, a current or future replacement of “fuck” (the f-word) with e.g. “f-word” (an “f” hyphenated to “word”) is definitely possible. I cannot even rule out, although I consider it extremely unlikely, that a spurious “Vote Biden!” or “Hitler is a hero!” has been inserted somewhere.

Note on references:
I have drawn on Wikipedia’s List of XML and HTML character entity references, as well as my local “man page” for the ASCII encoding, for various codes.

As this text discusses mistreatment of text by WordPress (“p”!!!!!) and is published through WordPress (“p”!!!!!), it is quite possible that what I try to express fails through exactly the type of illicit manipulation that I try to argue against.

Excursion on my markup language:
This markup language is by no means perfect, as I have not bothered to do everything doable, including that I have not added a way to encode the minus sign represented by Unicode 2212 or implemented a more generic math mode. So far, there has been little need, but I might have done so today, if my typographic fears had been realized. (Or I might have chosen to simply replace the “-” with the character reference for Unicode 2212—that I did not implies that WordPress (“p”!!!!!) should not have done so either, and it certainly should not have replaced it with the pointless and misleading n-dash.) Similarly, I have not yet added an “escape mode”, to prevent some piece of markup code from being interpreted as markup code and instead be inserted as the literal expression in the generated HTML file. This is OK—it is my decision, in a weighing of my time vs. the (small) benefit of the addition. That WordPress (“p”!!!!!) interferes is not OK, even if it is with some misguided notion that users are idiots whose texts must be arbitrarily reformatted, even at the risk that proficient users see their work sabotaged. (See [2] for more and a link to even further discussions.) Now, an addition that I will perform shortly is to find some workaround for the manipulation of specifically “Wordpress”, maybe by inserting an invisible character or a thin space somewhere to trick the replacement algorithm.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 10, 2022 at 10:55 pm

Fully reopening this blog

with one comment

For the time being, I am fully reopening this blog. This for two reasons:

  1. I have had a long period of continual losses of my Internet connection, which has added an ever-increasing number of three-quarters-or-more-done texts to my backlog.* I want to have the ability to publish these at those times when everything works, instead of (as per previous policy) be limited to one** text per week.

    *Note that the problems are not limited to “cannot post”. More important is “cannot check this-and-that while writing”, which causes each text to have TODOs that I do not necessarily have the time and energy to work on once the Internet connection is back again—especially, knowing that the one-text-per-week policy prevents publishing in the immediate future anyway.

    **Not counting the texts on Nazism, which are exempt from this policy.

  2. The deteriorating situation in (mostly) the U.S., with all kinds of anti-democratic, anti-rechtsstaatliche, and possibly illegal or unconstitutional* behaviors from the paradoxically named Democrats. The latest is the anti-Trump raid, which shows the extent of the abuse of the legal system and the absurd persecution of dissenters that has become the norm. I want to keep the option open of writing about these issues without a limitation on posts.

    *There are many candidates. Specifically the J6 pro- and persecutions are virtually certain to fulfill the claim of being unconstitutional—an absolute and utter disgrace.

    Indeed, the situation is so bad, in the sum of anti-Trump/-Republican persecution, the judicial activism and judicial double standards, the abuse of schools for indoctrination into far-Left hate-ideologies, COVID-insanities, etc., that legal prosecution must be called for—but not against Trump, where there is little or no proof or even true indication of illegal activities, but against the likes of Joe Biden and Merrick Garland. There are norms for what political leaders may and may not do in a functioning democracy, in a Rechtsstaat, in a country claiming to follow the Rule of Law, etc. The current Democrat party, its leaders, and many of its supporters, are so far off the reservation that they must no longer be tolerated by civilized society. They are well past the point where the rest of the world can pretend that their behaviors are within the even remotely acceptable, tolerable, and conscionable. Should the current trends continue, even a ban of the party, it self, might be justified, to prevent the transformation of the U.S. into an outright far-Left totalitarian dictatorship on the level of the Soviet Union or Nazi-Germany. And, yes, unlike Trump the current Democrats have quite a few things in common with the Nazis.

How often I will publish, I leave unstated. The main point is to have the option.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 15, 2022 at 2:31 am

Redesigning for the worse / Blogroll update

with one comment

Last October, I added the Daily Sceptic to my blogroll. Today, I have decided* to remove it again. This in part due to a lower relevance and (my subjective feeling of) less, and less valuable, content as the COVID hysteria, countermeasures, whatnot have subsided.** The main reason, however, is a disastrous redesign.

*I do not currently have access to my WordPress account, and there might be a delay before the actual removal takes place. (This due to various notebook crashes and reinstalls, as discussed in earlier texts. To post on WordPress, I only need my email account.)

**Should they flare up again, I might revisit the decision.

To first look at the big picture:

I have been on the Internet since 1994, and it seems that web design tendentially has grown worse, year by year, that almost every individual redesign of a website makes it worse than before,* and that bigger organizations and organizations with more money tend to have worse websites than smaller ones.

*Indeed, this is not the first time that I abandon a site due to a misguided redesign.

A key issue here might be that web design is best kept simple, while there is a drift towards the more complex, e.g. because the more complex might, in some shallow sense, look fancier (at the cost of usability), that a design firm might be hard-pressed to charge money for something less fancy (even if more usable), that an executive/manager/product-manager* might push for the more fancy looking, etc., etc. As a special case, there seems to be a great unwillingness to accept the “default look” of HTML, which leads not only to excessive CSS-customizations but also, often, a reduced readability or usability, be it because pages from different web-sites look unnecessarily different** or because the default look was superior to begin with.***

*As a software insider, I can attest that many of the problems that the outsiders blame on the software/web/whatnot developers are actually caused by others. Developers usually have little say on topics like “user experience”, “look and feel”, what workflows are available and how they are structured, etc. (Which is a shame, because the developers are often better qualified and more insightful on such topics than those who do make the decisions.) Then there is the complication that the visual design of e.g. a website or a software is often done by others than those who implement the design.

**Which, sadly, appears to be seen as an advantage by the decision makers: Who cares about usability? The main thing is that we can push our unique corporate look/identity/whatnot! We need to stand out! We need to be unique! Besides, the visitors are not supposed to read and be informed, they are supposed to look at pretty pictures and be impressed!

***Fiddling around with the look of various control elements is particularly ill advised. For instance, some modern designs make it hard to determine whether a checkbox is actually checked, because no check mark is present. (Does that non-standard, specific to this one website, change of color mean that the checkbox is now checked or that it is now unchecked?) One extraordinarily idiotic website (I do not remember which one) had designed a radio-button to look like a checkbox.

A particular sub-issue could be that some individual designers want to experiment with various features, display their technical skills, whatnot, rather than favoring usability.

How to do good web design? Keep it simple, stupid!* Focus on readability and usability, not looks. Be user-driven, not design-driven. Do not make assumptions about the user (especially, that he is an idiot) or his wishes—ask him. Etc.

*This “KISS” principle applies very much to software development (and many other areas) in general. It is often one of the first things taught—and one of the first things forgotten. (And, possibly, is rarely taught to non-developers, e.g. product managers.)

Looking at the Daily Sceptic in detail:

Between my discovery of the site and the redesign, the main-page layout consisted of a long list of entries, somewhat like on a regular blog, most of which contained either own contents or a lengthy/article-sized quote from elsewhere (with some minor own comments), while a once-a-day entry contained a “news roundup” with a list with links to and one-sentence descriptions of texts from various other websites and news services. (This “news roundup” was (is?) the main source of value.)

The site was by no means perfect, but except for three things, this worked very well and was highly usable. All three things would have been easy to fix within the old design, and the second was easy for the user to work around (once wise the problem):

  1. The site had not made up its mind whether, for the individual entries/pages/whatnots, it should follow the “give the entire text in the list, with the option of opening it in a separate page to, e.g., give a comment” paradigm or the “give a taster in the list, and let those interested open the full text in a separate page” paradigm.

    Instead, the site combined the disadvantages of both systems, by giving a long-but-incomplete version of the text in the list. Those wanting to skim forward to open interesting seeming texts in separate pages were hampered by the length; those wanting to read the text without using separate pages could not do so, because the whole text was not present.

  2. The internal system, contrary to most blogging platforms, seemed to have two pages for the same text, one reflecting the abbreviated contents of the list and one reflecting the full text.

    In order to get the full text, the user had to scroll down to the end and click “Read More”, after which he was lead to the full version. However, what most experienced users are likely to do was to read a paragraph or two and then, if interested, click on the heading. (Or, on a site with a sufficient proportion of interesting texts, click on the heading in a blanket manner.) Unlike other platforms, however, this did not bring the user to the full version, but only the abbreviated version already seen in the list.

    (During my first few visits, I was highly annoyed to find, a “Read More” at the end of what should have been the full text, forcing me to another page visit. With time, I just scrolled down to the “Read More” of the original list in the first place.)

    Moreover, the lengthy/article-sized quotes ended with a “Worth reading in full” and a link to the original text. If the text is worth reading in full, why am I not? Either the actual full text should have been provided or I should have been linked to the full text to begin with.* This half-measure just wastes time. (Also see excursion.)

    *The semi-pointlessness of this approach is demonstrated by the same text often occurring both as a quote and as an entry in the news roundup.

    (Again, highly annoying during my first few visits, but something that I later worked around by just scrolling down to the “Worth reading in full”, while ignoring the Daily Sceptic’s version entirely.)

  3. Like many other sites, the comments were not immediately accessible even on the full version of a text. This is a near incomprehensible error, especially with an eye at how common it is. Show the bloody comments by default!

    Specifically, do so without a requirement to register and/or log in. Such a requirement might be acceptable for writing comments, but not for reading them.

The new design?* So bad that I will stay clear of the site for the time being:

*As observed during today’s (2020-06-06) visit. The statements need not be true at the time of reading.

  1. That very useful list is gone.
  2. The news roundup has been moved to a separate page and, it appears, a separate page per day, implying that I cannot just go to the same page every day, but have to go to the main page and pick out whatever the current day’s page is.
  3. The (new) main page is poorly designed, wastes space, and has replaced the original list with a much shorter two column list.

    The “shorter” implies that further pages must be visited to find all entries of the day (or since the last visit)—which is not possible without JavaScript. At the end of the page there is a “Load More” button, which should (a) have been a link, (b) should have loaded* more. Instead, it unnecessarily uses JavaScript to do something or other.** General rule: Never, ever use JavaScript for something that can be done with a regular HTML link.

    *Or, better, switched to a “page 2”. I have not investigated the details of Daily Sceptic here, but a common issue with other sites that use formulations like “load more” is that the new page begins with a repetition of the original contents, for a major waste of time—I want more contents, not the same contents again.

    **Presumably, to load more, but I will not activate JavaScript for any random site—especially one with foreign and, therefore, untrusted-even-should-I-trust-the-site contents. Correspondingly, I cannot test this.

    The two columns are a worsening relative a straight list, and columns are usually a bad idea in HTML to begin with—an attempt to imitate a paper design without a feel for the actual medium. (Generally, adopting something from the one medium to another can be highly sub-optimal. Even in good cases, adaption (note spelling) is necessary and often not even that gives a good result.)

  4. The comment issue has not been fixed. Arguably, cf. below, it has been made worse.
  5. On the upside, the site has now made up its mind on the two aforementioned browsing paradigms, settling on short descriptions with a full page view. The “Read More” issue seems to have disappeared as a side-effect. However, the “Worth reading in full” issue remains. Indeed, it has grown worse, because I cannot now jump from the main page directly to the original article. Instead, I have to first visit the Daily Sceptic’s version, and then jump to the original article.
  6. There are now three (!) highly intrusive requests for donations at the bottom of each (!) page.* By all means, ask for donations if you need money (running a popular website can be expensive—I understand that), but be polite and discreet—no-one likes to have a begging hand shoved in his face every two minutes.

    *There might be some discussion whether this should be considered design or content. As they seem to appear without variation on all pages, I consider them design for the purposes of this text. Similar points might apply elsewhere.

    This is the more annoying, as the site provides comparatively little own contents. The main benefit was always the news roundup with contents from other parties; and of the other entries, only roughly half were own contents, with the other, and often more interesting, half being the lengthy/article-sized quotes from other parties.

    Moreover, the third of these intrusive requests contains an inexcusable “We ask for a minimum donation of £5 if you’d like to make a comment or post in our Forums.”:

    Not only is this amount utterly and entirely out of proportion,* but the site is effectively punishing visitors for contributing value to the site.

    *Really, £5! Compare this with what can be had for the same amount elsewhere.

    (Generally, it is absurd, utterly absurd, how many websites seem to think that they are doing their visitors a favor by allowing them to contribute, while it is often these contributions that give the site value in the first place. This obviously in forums, many wikis, and sites like Youtube, but at least sometimes on other websites, blogs, whatnot. Steve Sailer is, again, a great example of a blog where almost all the value comes from the commenters.)

  7. According to an announcement there will now be advertising. Their choice, but it will worsen the “reader experience” and it will make me even less likely to visit.

Excursion on general technologies and trends:
I am often tempted to blame such problems on developments in technology, e.g. increased use of JavaScript (should be minimized) and CSS “position: fixed” (should never have been invented and should never be used). However, the Web has a long history of idiocies and over-use. For instance, Flash was long a problem, but is now almost gone. For instance, one of the early banes of web design was frames, and they have been very rare for at least a decade, maybe even two.

Moreover, at the end of the day, technologies can make it easier to make poor designs, but the blame ultimately rests on the designer (and/or whomever gives the orders).

A partial exception to this is responsive web design (and, maybe, adaptive web design), which pretends to solve a problem that does not exist,* and causes enormous increases in efforts, complexity, JavaScript use, etc. Another partial exception is a drive to design exclusively or primarily for smartphones, which often leads to pages that look like shit in and wastes space for a desktop browser, while, typically, not being very impressive on a smartphone either.**

*Or, rather, would not exist, if the design was solid in the first place. Design well, and the exact same page will look good in both a desktop browser and a smartphone browser without dynamic adaptions. Indeed, in the days of yore, where “mobile versions” were common, a flawed redesign of the “desktop version” often moved me to use the “mobile version” on the desktop too—as it was usually better designed for desktop use than the redesigned desktop version…

**Yes, there is an apparent contradiction of the previous footnote. From memory, I would say that the old “mobile versions” used a look-and-feel which was simply a less complex version of a regular desktop version (cf. the above comments on keeping it simple, etc.), while the modern try to additionally use an Android- and/or iPhone-inspired look-and-feel, including ideas like removing links in favor of big buttons or button-like constructs and preferring many low-information pages/screens/whatnot to fewer high-information dittos. (As an aside, I would welcome it, if the smartphone OSes looked and behaved more like desktops, to the degree that screen space and lack of keyboard/mouse allows it.)

Excursion on earlier writings:
I have a number of older texts dealing with both web design and software development on my website proper.

Excursion on “Worth reading in full”:
To quote and discuss portions of a text, in conjuncture with a “Worth reading in full” (or something to the same effect), is not wrong. I have certainly done so myself. In the case of the Daily Sceptic, there are at least three problems: (a) that this is done on a very large scale, (b) that the link to the original only comes at the very end,* and (c) that the own comments, analysis, whatnot are small in comparison to the quoted text—and usually quite superficial. There simply was not much point in reading the Daily Sceptic’s version over going straight to the source.

*Without checking, I suspect that I have always or almost always linked at the beginning of such texts—and I certainly will try to remember it for the future.

Excursion on utter idiocies:
To illustrate how far some idiots can go, there actually are websites that try to impress the user by playing music when he visits, or accompanies the main page with a spoken message. (This disregarding both that most users will not hear the music/message in the first place, that those who do might be pissed off, and that third parties might be disturbed.) A very common problem is the use of overly large, utterly uninformative, and constantly switching images, which do little but annoy the visitor. (This as part of the deliberate design. Advertisements can have a very similar effect, but are a separate issue.) Generally, overly large and utterly uninformative images, even when not switching, appear to be a staple of corporate web design.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 6, 2022 at 4:09 pm