+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Meta : Page 1

But first, a quick commercial break

Or, links to things going on elsewhere.

It’s been quiet around here lately, partly because I’ve been trying to hide from the various summer heatwaves, and partly because I’ve been beavering away at something else in the background. I’ve set up a YouTube channel, and have posted my first proper video, the start of a Lego build. It’s only small, and I’m still learning, but one thing I’ve already learned is that coming up with the idea, shooting all the footage, writing the narration, recording it, editing the whole thing together…well, it’s a lot more work than just writing a blog post.

It makes me think, actually: years and years and years ago, Radio Scotland had a documentary about blogging, and included posts from me, read by an actor. I wonder if the actor who played me found it as much effort.

Incidentally, after the previous post on the Perseids, I did go outside for a while each night last weekend, lie down on the grass, and watch for meteors. There were a few, each night, streaking across the sky; and lying on my back looking up seemed to be the best, most comfortable way to get a full view of as much of the sky as I could. The grass is much nicer for lying on, at this time of year, than it will be for the big meteor showers of winter.

State of independence

Or, getting the web back to its roots

When I rewrote and “relaunched” this site, back in 2020, I very consciously chose to stay simple. I didn’t want to tie myself to one of the major “content platforms”, because over the years too many of them have closed down on barely more than a whim. I didn’t want a complex system that would be high-maintenance in return for more functionality. I didn’t want to have to moderate what other people might want to say in my space. More importantly, though, I did want a space more like the online spaces I inhabited 20 or so years ago; or at least, like the online spaces of my imagination, where people would create in their own little corner not worrying about influence or monetisation or that sort of thing. It’s possible that place never really existed, except in my mind, but it was something I always aspired towards, and it was a place where I met a whole load of other people who shared a similar outlook on why they were writing down so much stuff out there on the internet for other people to read. That was why, when I rewrote this site, I kept it simple, and produced a static site that could be hosted almost anywhere, with source code that can be put into any private Git hosting service. I didn’t even go for one of the mainstream static site generators; I chose a relatively simple and straightforward open-source one that works by gluing a number of other open-source tools together to output HTML. It’s about as plain and independent as you can get.

There is, nowadays, a movement towards making the web more independent, making it more like it used to be, or at least as some of us remember it. It’s called the IndieWeb movement. The basic idea behind the IndieWeb is exactly this: that when you, an individual, post something online, it should stay yours. It should belong to you, under your control, forever. Essentially, that’s one of the main things I’ve always been aiming for.

I’m clearly IndieWeb-adjacent, whatever that phrase I’ve just invented means. This site, though, is a long way from being IndieWeb-complient. And the reason is: I’ve looked through their Getting Started pages, and, frankly, it takes effort. That might sound like me being lazy, and I’d be the first to agree that I am lazy, but it’s also because there are only so many hours in the day. The day job takes up a good chunk of them, of course, then there are The Children, there’s my other coding projects, all my craft projects,* the various organisations I do volunteer work for, all the other ways I’m trying to improve myself, not to mention the attraction of just going out for a long walk for a few hours. Aside from the original setup and occasional tweaks, this site is largely something to exercise the side of my brain that isn’t involved in coding. Spending time setting up and creating my own personal h-card, and automating syndication, isn’t really something I want to do in my relaxation hours.

Hopefully, though, the idea behind IndieWeb will grow, and will flourish, and we can make the web something that isn’t driven by advertising revenue, or by monetising hate and bigotry. I’d like us to make the web a place where seeds have space to germinate and flower, where everyone controls their own output and can express themselves without the point being to increase shareholder value or to feed the ego of some not-as-bright-as-he-thinks entrepreneur. Maybe I’ll add more IndieWeb features to this site, one by one, as time goes by. Hopefully, whatever I do, I’ll just keep doing my own thing for as longa as it makes me happy.

* I mean, I literally started two separate new ones yesterday.

Paddling like a swan

All quiet on the surface, but flapping away frantically underneath.

It’s been quiet around here lately, hasn’t it. Over a month since the last post, and that was just a quick note itself. As the title suggests, though, that’s because things have been busy. I’ve been pushing hard to get one of my personal coding projects to version 1.0. At work we started a new product from scratch four months ago, and it’s just had its first beta release. And in my personal life: well, it’s a long story, and if I were to write all that down it would probably turn into an entire memoir, but it’s taking up a lot of my headspace too at the moment.

Nevertheless, I still look at my list of topics to write about, my list of drafts I’ve started, and think on all the ideas I’ve had that I didn’t have the chance to write down at the time, and I keep promising myself I will come back at some point and write them, whether to publish them on here or do something else with them.

Sometimes, I do manage to make a quick note, and this post really is one of those. The other day, a conversation on Twitter with the artist Dru Marland led me to some amazing photographs of Britain in the mid-80s, taken by a Swedish photographer named Bjorn Rantil. They’re of miners and mining communities, taken in 1985 just after the end of the strike. I started with this set, taken in Treharris, Abercarn and Tilmanstone among other places, but there are a few other albums on his Flickr account. If you don’t remember the 1980s, go and look.

A prelude

Or, some prehistory

A couple of times recently, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been pulling data off the hard drive of my old desktop computer, nested inside which was the home folders from the previous desktop computer, and nested inside those, those from the one before that. So, lots of rather old files to go through, and there will be more photos to post I promise. One thing I’ve uncovered that I didn’t think I had, though, was a text-only archive of the posts from my old blog.

Back in August I noted that this blog had turned sixteen. This was, in a way, a slight piece of misdirection. I had another blog before that, hosted by an online friend, which had run for a few years prior. Next spring, it will be twenty years since I started writing that site; it lasted just over three before, due to one reason and another, I dropped it and began this one.

Looking back at some of the posts, for the first time in a very long time, I’m slightly surprised by the tone of some of the writing. I had essentially no filter, and openly talked about exactly what I’d been doing, where I would be, visits to the doctor, what clubs and gigs I would be at, things I would never think of mentioning now. I refer to myself by name, which I never do now.

This blog, since its restart, has tended towards fairly long, rambling, in-depth posts in which I can go into a single topic in detail; and partly that’s down to its publish process, which makes it straightforward and simple* to host and manage, at a cost of being slightly clunky to add a new article. Every new post, essentially, requires the whole site to be re-uploaded so that the menus on every page are still correct, and that takes time to do. So, I don’t tend to write small posts. The old blog, managed using Movable Type, was full of one-liner diary entries about what I’d had for my tea, or what clothes I’d just bought.

Not all of the posts are like that, though; aside from some of the very personal things, there is for example a very fun and cheery account of my first proper trip abroad. I think I might actually get around to doing something I’ve been threatening to do ever since this blog first started. The first post on this site is itself a piece of misdirection, claiming to be a clean fresh start whilst at the same time saying that earlier writing might at some point make an appearance. If I can edit them into a format that fits this blog—changing people’s names to make them all consistent, bringing in The Plain People Of The Internet to handle the “fake outside reader” voice which was already occasionally present—without actually losing their style and flavour, I might some time soon get around to doing it.

* Not to mention cheap.

Another anniversary

A more recent one this time

A few weeks ago, I noted it was sixteen years since I first started writing this blog. Well, today, it’s a whole year since I relaunched it, as something of a lockdown exercise. It had taken most of my spare time in the summer, to go through all of the old posts, edit them, redesign the sight, and get the whole production pipeline up and running.

Since then there have been a hundred and forty-two posts, including this one; about mountains, beaches, trains, castles, cemeteries, trains, Lego, trains, computing, and trains. Have many people read them? No, probably not. That’s not really the point, though: not whether people read them, but whether I enjoy writing them. I have. So doing it has been worth it.

Despite it being the pandemic years, still, a lot has happened and a lot has changed over the past year. There will, I am sure, be more changes over the next year too. We won’t know, until they happen.

Taken by the flood

An impressive onrush of current

Last January, I wrote about how I keep track of ideas for topics to write about. I said, when I have an idea, I create a “ticket” a bit like a “bug ticket” in a software development process, to keep track of it. What I didn’t say, though, is something that applies to writing ideas just as much as to bugs: it’s important to be descriptive. Things you think, now, are always going to be seared in your mind, will be over and gone in a few hours. Unfortunately, when I create a “writing ticket”, I will often only write down a few words and rely on my memory to know what the post was actually going to be about. When I come back to it later: baffled.

Take, for example, an idea I also wrote down back in January, a few weeks before writing that post. “Post about the fast-flowing waters of Stockholm.” Post what about them, exactly? I have no idea.

It’s true that the centre of Stockholm does have impressive fast-flowing water, a rushing, churning torrent that pours constantly in two streams, either side of Helgeandsholmen, the island taken up almost entirely by the Swedish parliament building. When I visited Stockholm, I walked through the old town and down to visit the museum of medieval Stockholm which lies underground, beneath the gardens in front of the parliament. When I reached the narrow channel of water separating the parliament building from Stockholm Palace, I was shocked and amazed by the speed and power of the water. It flowed from east to west in a solid, smooth-surfaced grey-green mass, as if it had an enormous weight behind it. It felt dangerous, unstoppable, and irresistable.

I already knew that Stockholm, and the Baltic in general, doesn’t really believe very much in having tides. Stockholm’s harbour is technically seawater, but there are many kilometres of archipelago between the city and the open sea, and to get to open ocean you have to go all the way around past Copenhagen and the tip of Jutland. Because of that, the Baltic isn’t particularly salty and doesn’t have very dramatic tides. This couldn’t, then, be a tidal flow. It took maps to show what it was.

OpenStreetMap map of Stockholm

The above extract from OpenStreetMap is © OpenStreetMap contributors and is licensed as CC BY-SA.

You can see how Stockholm is built around a relatively narrow point in the archipelago. What you can’t really see at this scale, though, is that all the channels of water to the right of the city centre are the main archipelago, leading out to see, but the channels of water to the left of the city centre are all part of Mälaren, a freshwater lake some 120km long and with an area of over a thousand square kilometres. Most significantly, its average altitude is about 70cm above sea level. That slight-sounding difference adds up to roughly 800 billion litres of water above sea level, all trying to flow downhill and restricted to the two channels, Norrström and Stallkanalen, the second narrow, the first wide, around Helgeandsholmen. Norrström, in particular, is a constant rush of choppy white water.

Norrström

Why only those two channels? Although you can’t really see from the map, the other paths of blue that look like channels of open water, around Stadsholmen and Södermalm, were long ago canalised, blocked off with large locks. The two northernmost channels are the only free-flowing ones.

So, you might be wondering, what was the point of this post? Was there going to be some deeper meaning I had uncovered, some great symbolism or relevance to my everyday life? Frankly, it’s entirely possible, but I have no memory at all of what I was thinking when I wrote that note originally.

Right now, it’s tempting to say that sometimes, instead of trying to understand life and everything around you, instead of trying to predict what will happen and what the best course of action to take will be, it’s better just to sit back and ride the rollercoaster, and tht the sight of the massive onrush of water through the centre of Stockholm made me think of just jumping in a small boat and shooting the rapids without worrying about what happens next. Equally, I might have been thinking of how you can find such a powerful force of nature right in the heart of somewhere as civilised as a modern European capital city. For that matter, it could have been a contrast between how placid, still and mirrorlike the waters of Mälaren a few hundred metres away outside Stockholm City Hall are, compared with the loud, rushing, foaming rapids we’re talking about here.

A few hundred metres away all is peaceful

To be honest, I really don’t know. I know which of those thoughts seems most apt right now, but it might not even have occurred to me in January. At least, now I’ve written this, I can close that ticket happy in the knowledge that something fitting, in one sense, has been written under that heading. Now I’ve done that, I can flow onwards to the sea.

Little and often

Or, how often should a blog update, and does it really matter?

It’s almost the end of August, already.

If you ever scan your eyes down the list of links to the various archive pages on this blog—somewhere over on the right on desktop, right down the bottom on mobile, at least with the current design—you’ll see there were only five posts published here this month. Over the last three months in fact, there has been a bit of a drop-off in posting, compared to the other months since the blog was relaunched.

There are reasons for that, which I’m not going to go into here but which mostly involve having other outlets for my writing. Some of it might be published one day, and some won’t be, but that isn’t really the point of this post. The thing I wanted to talk about today is: does it really matter?

This initially popped into my mind at work a few months back, when I was preparing to interview a potential job candidate. Naturally beforehand I did all the usual background research on the candidate in question, looking at what social media profiles they had listed on their CV, hunting down some of the ones they hadn’t listed, and reading all the other links they’d put on their CV. The person in question included a link to a blog. When I followed it up, I found I really enjoyed the articles I found there (all of them tech-related in some way), but there were only a handful. This candidate had started a blog up in lockdown, had updated it a couple of times, and then nothing more. It was still sitting there on their CV, even thought it seemed to be getting a little bit cobwebby.

But does that matter? Well, frankly, it shouldn’t. If you’re interviewing a candidate for a job, you’re interviewing them, not their sticking power at a spare-time project. This blog, on the other hand, is never getting near anyone who might want to employ me, so it doesn’t matter at all if I go a little quiet for a few months, a few years, or even forever. It’s sad, a little, to see someone has started a project only to see it sputter out barely before it has started, but I should try to avoid letting it colour my opinion of them, particularly my opinion of them in a different context.

This site has been a little quiet, but it’s not as if I ever posted in any way consistently to begin with. It comes and goes according to my whims and inspiration, and whether or not I remember to write my ideas down. As I write it largely (but not entirely) for my own amusement, it shouldn’t really matter too much. I do gather information on how many people read this stuff, but I rarely actually look at that information. If I write anything for you specifically to read, I’ll tell you, but otherwise these words are just being thrown out into the electronic void. Some day, there might be an echo back, but I don’t really expect one.

A birthday

The years march on

This blog is now a whole sixteen years old. At least, it’s now sixteen years from the date of the first official post. Looking at the calendar for that year, the site was put live on a Saturday, the day after someone had driven into the side of my car. Well, at least I had some content to post about. Since then there’s been over a thousand posts in total, I think, if you include all of the complete-nonsense ones that have been edited out in the interim.

Of course, there have been a few hiatuses over the course of the last sixteen years, some of which were longer than others. The site only really came back from its longest hiatus as a lockdown project, last summer, but it’s provided something of an outlet for me ever since. Whether it will still be going in another sixteen years’ time is, of course, a complete unknown, but we can only move in that direction and find out, can’t we.

A clean break

Well, not really

Back in the mists of time (well, January), I posted about the mechanism I use to keep track of ideas I’ve had for posts to write about, so I make sure that if I’m in the middle of something else and think “that would be a good blog post topic,” it doesn’t just get forgotten and allowed to wither.

I realised, looking the other day down the list of “tickets” for post topics to write about, that practically all of the things I actively want to write about are ideas I’ve come up with in the past couple of months, since moving house. There are plenty of things I wrote down before moving, but none of them really spark anything inside me at the moment, as something I want to put down and get out there. Some of them I do at least understand; others are a little bit more mystifying. When I put down a few words such as “Post about the fast-flowing water in Stockholm,” what did I really mean and what exactly was I going to say?

Moving house, it seems, has subconsciously been a much bigger upheaval than I realised it would be. A much bigger and cleaner break from the past than I was expecting. I can understand no longer having the energy to write posts about Bristolian local history; but all of those had been cleaned off the backlog already in any case. Somewhere in my head, all of the ideas I came up with before moving are now in a dusty mental box marked “do not need to unpack”.

Nevertheless, although I had a bit of a lull, there are now plenty of ideas to come. At some point, too, I’ll get back on to the old ones, maybe even finish writing that modern version of The Box Of Delights that I started to make a rough stab at. There is a lot more to say, even if as yet I don’t know exactly what all of it will be.

Cross-pollination

Or, some ideas for tracking ideas

A few days ago, I mentioned in passing that there I have lots of ideas for topics to write about on here, and the backlog of ideas is slowly building up. What I didn’t say was: how I track the backlog and remember all those ideas; instead, I thought to myself, that would make an interesting post for another day. “Backlog” isn’t meant to be derogatory, by the way. I see it as a good healthy thing, that I have lots of ideas that I haven’t as yet have had the time or energy or inclination to turn into words yet. Better that than a dearth of things I want to talk about, after all; that’s what would make this site slowly dry up and wither.

The Plain People Of The Internet: That and there not being any readers.

I don’t mind too much if there aren’t any readers. If I cared about readers I’d be cross-promoting this everywhere, doing complex deals and joint projects and promoting myself as the exciting new face of self-published diarising. I don’t, though, because the point of this is the writing, not the reading. But that’s by-the-by too really.

It’s very easy to get into the situation where ideas do just flit away on the wind as soon as they come along, and the spark of inspiration never gets turned into a post on here. Write your ideas down, is the standard piece of advice, but that means having something to write with, something to write on, and somewhere to collate and collect all of your scribbled notes. Working in software development, though, there are a few closely-related solved problems, so when I restarted this blog last summer I decided I was going to use the skills and tools I know from the day job to help me plan and track my writing on here. There are two key related tools that I’ve been using to help, which any software people reading this really should know about: version control and issue tracking.* If you are a software person, and you think the next paragraph is teaching you to suck eggs a little bit, then just remember that there are always people in the world who don’t know this stuff. Nobody is born with an innate knowledge of project management.

Version control is, very simply, the idea of keeping an archive of your working files that preserves their state over time, at least at the intervals you choose. It has a long history; the concept has been around probably longer than computers themselves. The leading system for it at the moment is called “git”, and was created by Linus Torvalds in order to help with development of his “Linux” operating system.** It effectively takes snapshots of all the files in a given folder at a point in time, and you can reset your “working copy” of the files to any snapshot whenever you want to. Moreover, each snapshot (or “commit” in the jargon) has a record of its parentage, and this ties commits together in a way that makes the folder’s history more than just one-dimensional. The chain of commits starting at a particular recent one and reaching back through the sequence of ancestral commits is called a “branch”; your archive can contain any number of named branches in parallel, and you can switch between branches whenever you want too. Not all developers really understand how to use branches properly, but if you do, they are a very powerful tool to help you organise disparate strands of work.

Git was originally designed to be a highly decentralised system without any single copy of the archive holding the privileged position of being the main primary copy. Most developers, however, don’t actually use it like that. A number of companies and organisations have sprung up to offer Git hosting services, and most development teams use one of these hosting services to host the primary copy of their Git data and use it as a centralised exchange point to share their code. That isn’t an issue for me writing this website, but these hosting services also offer additional services which are very useful: particularly, in the context of this post, ticketing systems. These are basically databases that let you create a “ticket”, generally some sort of work item such as a bug, a new feature or a task to be completed, and then let you track the progress of each one. The really fancy systems are so customisable you can completely shoot yourself in the foot designing over-complicated workflows, building reports, and adding custom data fields to each type of ticket, but I don’t care about any of that. The important thing here is that I can create a ticket, and I can access the “create ticket” function from anywhere through my phone. Whenever an idea for a new post comes along, I can immediately create a ticket with a brief description or title in it; then when I sit down to write something, I have a whole list of ideas I’ve had on the screen in front of me. Nothing gets forgotten, and all the ideas are there for me to come back to eventually, unless I didn’t put in enough of a description for it to make any sense.

When I start work on a post, I do exactly what I’d do when working on a piece of code. I read the ticket and click the button to flag it as in progress. I go to Git, make sure I’m at the tip of the “main” branch (as this reflects what’s currently on the website), and create a new branch with the ticket number in its name. I go into the site’s content code and create the new post, and when I’m happy with what I’ve written I create a commit with the new article in. Then, my Git hosting site has tools to help me check over what I’ve just done before folding those changes into the “main” branch. If I really wanted to, I could set up “continuous integration” code that would automatically push those changes out to the website as soon as they are folded into the main branch; although I’d use that for a software project, for this site I prefer to keep that process manual. When the changes have been made and the whole thing has been published, I mark the ticket as “closed”, and it disappears from my ticket backlog.

This sort of system isn’t for everyone, and it might not work for you, but I find it invaluable to keep track of what I’ve been thinking and what I’ve been planning. I find it’s fairly lightweight—it helps that I need to be comfortable with the tools anyway—but I understand not everyone is likely to agree. The hardest part, at least at first, is the discipline. Thinking to myself “better create a ticket for that” when an idea pops into my head, rather than just letting the idea float away again. Then again, that discipline is just as important if you rely on writing all your ideas down on paper; and the benefit of the technology is being able to easily file them all once you’ve done that. If anyone reading this is a non-tech person who has adopted these type of tools for non-tech activities like writing or indeed anything else, I’d love to know, and I’d love to know how much of a success it has been for you. For me, this is one big thing that helps me write, because it turns a lot of the administrative aspect of the writing process into something that is purely mechanical. For you, it might be different—but I’d love to know what you think.

* To be honest, there are a few software dev workshops that don’t use one or the other of those tools, even though they almost certainly should. They’re not new, and they make your life a lot easier. Even in top global businesses there are teams here and there who refuse to use version control, or more commonly, don’t really understand how to use it properly. It would be unprofessional of me to name and shame, but all I’ll say is, you would be surprised.

** This is not the place for a debate over whether Linux is an operating system or not.