Links for week 36, 2021

A random list of stuff I found and read last week:

  • Am I Unique uses dozens of metrics to attempt to fingerprint your browser. One side effect using an unusual set of tools (FreeBSD, Mac, etc) was that I was pinged as unique every time.

  • This Deutsche Welle documentary on the Stasi and the Berlin Wall was chilling, though I couldn’t also help see the information vaults at the start as a cautionary tale.

  • OneTab is a brilliant Firefox extension that converts all your open tabs into an HTML file with a list. I’d got into the habit of using the built-in “Bookmark all Tabs” feature, but this makes it even easier to archive.

  • This blog has made it onto The Big List of Personal Websites! There’s some interesting stuff there, not all of which is about tech.

  • bit is an alternative interface to git. I fully agree with Ben Tsai, git is inscrutable and a poor replacement for hg and even Subversion. We in the industry sure make some daft decisions.

And some intersting articles (paywalled):


Rubenerd Show 418: The tiled pattern episide

Rubenerd Show 418

Podcast: Play in new window | Download

24:12 – Join Ruben as he pours one out for airline pilots, Australia being European in Asia, travelling with Clara, nostalgia for Singapore and working remote from there, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Bishan, introverts and Third Places, saying goodbye to a friend, Robin Williams, and mismatched tiles. Warning, I might even get half-serious at certain points this time!

Recorded in Sydney, Australia. Licence for this track: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. Attribution: Ruben Schade.

Released September 2021 on The Overnightscape Underground, an Internet talk radio channel focusing on a freeform monologue style, with diverse and fascinating hosts; this one notwithstanding. Hosted graciously by the Internet Archive.

Subscribe with iTunes, Pocket Casts, Overcast or add this feed to your podcast client.


A 1 TB DIMM, with a clock speed of 2!

Sometimes I look for reviews and details on Amazon, even if I avoid buying from there if I can. The technical details for this DIMM were great:

Computer Memory Size: 1 TB
Memory Clock Speed: 2
Memory Speed: 2666 MHz
Memory Storage Capacity: 16 GB

Sometimes I feel like my memory clock speed operates at 2, and it ain’t ECC!


The @ceresfauna built a Minecraft kitchen

Clara and I were a headachey, mentally exhausted mess by Friday night, and Fauna’s stream was one of the nicest ways we’ve ever ended the week. Mumei even joined in to say hello.

MINECRAFT building my kirin house 🌿 #holoCouncil


Considering the context of IT systems

Last month Bruce Schneier summarised Apple’s ill-conceived iCloud image scanning technology thusly, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head:

This was a bad idea from the start, and Apple never seemed to consider the adversarial context of the system as a whole, and not just the cryptography.

Whether you agree with Bruce’s assertion, the outcome is the same. And I see the same train of thought (or lack thereof) that he’s describing everywhere in IT. There’s this insular, prevailing attitude that you can address the tech, and people will come. Or worse, that you don’t need to consider externalities at all, because the tech can justify itself and stand on its own.

So much of the Internet, from tech journals, news sites, social media, and aggregators like Hacker News, Lobste.rs, and Reddit, spend their time talking about the technical merits of a system, to the point where ethical, moral, or business discussions devolve into technical nit picking and yak shaving. I liken it to not seeing the forest for the trees, and it’s beyond tedious.

(It was the other reason aside from spam that I turned off blog comments a decade ago. We’ll have a cure for cancer one day, and a kiasu will complain the peer-reviewed paper didn’t have its LaTeX fonts exported properly).

Those of us in this industry don’t have the luxury of theoretical physicists or Scott Morrison’s speech writers. We have to live in the real world, where our technical decisions have an impact on people’s lives. Burying one’s head in the sand and falling back on a technical detail is no longer tenable.

What concerned me about Apple’s decision, even if suspended, was that even a layperson could see the incoming ethical trainwreck and threat to people’s safety it represented. For one of the only large companies talking seriously about privacy, it represented a breach of trust. Few things are as easy to lose, and hard to earn back.


Apps are a poor replacement for hardware

Speaking of Wouter Groeneveld, he wrote of his adventures with a portable photo printer earlier this month. It went as well as you probably expect:

I don’t get that reviews from PC Mag and others focus on the printing quality (the paper is bad, but I don’t care, and I knew that), and not on the quality and accessibility of the obligatory software that comes with it. Not a single negative word is mentioned about it: are we somehow getting used to shitty apps? Other bloggers that use it for scrapbooking seem to be generally content with the printer.

What really kills it though, is that one word. Smartphone. I cannot use my MacBook to send a picture to the mini printer. I have to use the app. This is simply ridiculous.

This is a plague. Designers are offloading their appliance UI to a smartphone app, en masse. And as Wouter points out, you know they’re not using open protocols.

I used to get the business case here, but I don’t think it holds. Embedded systems can be bought for cents on the dollar, which would be a tiny fraction of the overall cost for a complicated device like a printer or a kitchen appliance. Then there’s the time consuming cross-platform development one would need to do to build and test a tolerable mobile application across a variety of handsets (assuming they’re doing that, or we have another problem), to say nothing about keeping it maintained and current with platform updates.

(I set the bar at “tolerable” here, because we all know these apps are rubbish. And we all know they won’t be maintained, or will become abandonware in a few years. Tying the lifetime of a device to an app is quite the trick; pity about all the ewaste).

Clara and I had the same experience recently with a home laser printer. Rather than implement standard printer drivers like we’ve all had for decades, it only works when paired with a phone’s Bluetooth, or connected to your home Wi-Fi network. Why? Printers are the butt of IT jokes for their perceived flakiness, and somehow they managed to make it worse! I (almost) couldn’t believe it.

I’m also not surprised by the silence from reviewers. My bugbear I’m sure you’re all sick to death reading about is my bafflement about PC monitors and laptops. No reviewer, ever, talks about HiDPI. It’s as though they’re all stuck in 2006, when widescreens were the new shiny. You’ll read about every attribute about a monitor, but when it comes to how many pixels it has… oh yeah, it’s “Full HD” or something something, move on. Is it because they all know PC monitors are rubbish compared to Macs, or are they simply not doing their jobs?

I think it’s time to buy a new coffee grinder, or stand mixer to channel my frustration into baking instead. They don’t need a smartphone app to turn on, do they?


The best we can do with passphrases now

Doc Searls summarised our current security situation so succinctly last Wednesday, this introduction is longer than the quote itself:

The best we can do with passwords is the best that password managers can do.

I’ve written before that even getting password managers widely adopted is an uphill battle, let alone the fact they don’t solve the root problem either. Ultimately we’re still anchoring our trust with a word or phrase (we hope) that only we know.

There are compelling alternative auth systems today, but we’re stuck in a chicken and egg scenario where widespread adoption is hampered by a lack of understanding, which exists because there’s no widespread adoption. But I feel like something has to give soon.


The future of the Jekyll static-site generator

My blog here has been rendered with the Hugo static site generator since at least 2016. Having all my blog posts stored as plain text files, wrapped with a simple enough theme, and generated on a server makes so many things easier. Hugo cuts through my almost 8,000 blog post archive like butter, rendering it in fewer than 20 seconds. My web server is the most basic thing imaginable, because all it has to do is deliver HTML.

But my first experience with static site generation—as opposed to server-site software like WordPress or a homebrew Rails app—was Jekyll. Its upending of how sites were created spawned a cottage industry of static-site generators, and a renewed interest in simplicity over what software like WordPress had become.

Jekyll got a boost when it was used to power GitHub Pages, GitHub’s static page hosting service. Suddenly anyone could upload text to a public repo, and have a rendered site on the other side.

I loved Jekyll. I made the switch in 2013, and it forever changed how I write. The Liquid template system was a joy to use, and having all my posts in plain text meant I could use basic *nix shell tools to edit, search, organise, and process posts. I’m good with SQL, but sometimes raw text is just easier.

But why the nostalgia trip today? Unbeknownst to me, media outlets are reporting that the writing has been on the wall for Jekyll for a while. Tim Anderson reported for the Register that one of the former core developers Frank Taillandier (rest in peace) described the project as being “in frozen mode and permanent hiatus”. GitHub Pages is also stuck at version 3, despite the 4.x branch being available for years.

The official repo is still being updated though, and active discussions are ongoing, so I wouldn’t be quick to rdiscount it yet. Get it? Because that Markdown renderer that Jekyll used to use was called… oh shaddup. Much of the Register article was lifted from a blog post about the maintainer of a new Jekyll fork, so I take it with a grain of salt.

Dare I say, there’s also something to be said for mature software that does its job not needing such regular updates. I know people who continue to run and maintain Jekyll sites successfully for large clients today. I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.


Our Covid travel bubble

The Guardian’s Datablog has an interactive map to show where we’re allowed to travel within our Sydney Covid lockdown bubble.

Screenshot showing Chatswood and surrounding suburbs.

Zooming in, I didn’t realise we could go as far east as Northbridge within our LGA. Clara and I have ventured no further than Artarmon for months.


Favourite game meme feedback

Mike Carter, Wouter Groeneveld, and Rebecca Hales wanted to know how I created my version of the favourite game meme. Thanks for the kind words!

It was a quick and dirty job in Inkscape, which I exported as a PNG. Each panel is transparent, so I could open it in The Gimp and put each graphic behind it without worrying about getting the dimensions exactly right. You can download the template if you want to make one of your own.

I wanted each box readable in the narrower space on my blog, and I don’t play all that many games, so I reduced the number of columns. With hindsight I should have used an HTML table so I could link to each picture, but it was a fun experiment.

Wouter also linked me to the original, which I reckon is probably still more interesting.

I don’t post about games that often, but maybe I should. I think we all could use more levity.