Brandon Quakkelaar on the beauty of RSS

Brandon Quakkelaar’s blog (RSS feed here) was referenced on Lobse.rs yesterday, and I’ve been getting stuck into his post about RSS:

I am not a big social media guy anymore. Over the last few years I’ve been actively avoiding it. I’m not a fan of each platform’s privacy concerns, and users need to be very cautious to avoid flamewars and infinite doomscrolling. If we aren’t careful, social media’s default state seems to devolve into just destroying trust and goodwill. I prefer society in real life.

Preach. I’ve made my peace with social media again, in part by committing to not taking it too seriously, and by maintaining an exhaustive list of blocked words, phrases, and hashtags. The network effect is strong among my friends and people I care about, though I’m deliberately limiting my exposure.

His antidote? RSS! This is the best summary I’ve ever read of it:

With RSS we can curate our own feed of information. We can collect feeds from all the blogs we like, and we can get notified of new posts by subscribing with an RSS Reader. Readers will aggregate posts and list them chronologically for us. When the blog publishes content to their RSS feed, then it will be in our RSS reader without being subject to an invisible ranking algorithm like that which exists in social media. RSS is far more honest in that way.

He also introduces his RSS Discovery Engine, which can be used to find links to other related blogs.


Car-centric culture in recycling

Our local council has an e-waste recycling centre, but their COVIDSAFE plan makes it clear they haven’t considered people who don’t arrive by smokebox:

All CRC customers are to wear a mask, sign in using the NSW Government’s QR code and remain in their vehicles until directed to enter the drop-off area by a staff member. [..] Only enter the CRC when the boom gate is lifted for your car by a staff member. Please drive in slowly as cars may be queued in the driveway. [..] All CRC customers are required to self-unload their items without any assistance from staff. Customers should bring someone along to assist if required.

Most of these rules pre-date Covid, but have been rearranged and clarified in the context of social distancing and medical safety.

It’s not entirely unreasonable to expect most people to rock up in four-wheeled body crushers. Old CRTs, bags of disued cables, and broken lightbulbs aren’t exactly the sorts of things you want to be carrying long distances on foot, or lugging onto public transport.

But that’s not to say everyone will need to drop off stuff in that way. Maybe they live nearby. Maybe they don’t have a carbon-sink burner, and are walking there for the exercise with a small trolley, like certain weird bloggers. I’ve been let into the facility before on foot, and it was perfectly safe. Why not have a blurb about that as well?

Sydney is slightly better than most Australian cities when it comes to public transport investment, but culturally and politically we still have a long way to go. Maybe I’m still a bit miffed that a motorist plowed into me on a zebra crossing yesterday. Don’t they know zebras are highly-strung with skinny legs?


Listpost for week 42, 2021

It’s Sunday, which means it’s time for another listpost!

  • SimpleFlying reported on the Italian carrier ITA’s new livery. Painting your aircraft sky blue doesn’t seem like the best idea for visibility or safety, but maybe it’s to save money by slipping out of airports undetected without paying fees.

  • Banana Craze is a virtual exhibition showcasing how the humble banana has shaped identity, ecosystems, and violence in South America. I saw this listed on Metafilter and got stuck into it for the better part of an afternoon.

  • I’ve mentioned the Veritasium educational science channel here before, but I’ll admit his recent video about self-driving cars was underwhelming. Tom Nicholas has a well-researched, if drawn-out rebuttal.

  • Om Malik’s recent trip was “an excellent opportunity to step away from the daily torrent of media inanities”. I’m going to do that with a cup of tea and some manga this afternoon, too.

  • This is week 42 of 2021. Heh.

  • The Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggests we should use sea mines, those asymetrical weapons that sank the hospital ship Britannic during World War I. Alternatively, we could not use them!

This listpost is brought to you by Listpost, the postal service for lists. Find out more by clicking the link in the description. Listposters can get 1% off their first order by using the code Listpost21 at checkout. Don’t forget to leave a comment, like, subscribe, click the bell, floof the dog, and tell all your friends about Listpost. Listpost: It’s the postal service for lists!


Spycrowsoft on reusing stuff

Companies that attempt to play up their environmental credentials rely heavily on telling us we can ship them back hardware to recycle. But they forget the two R’s that come before it: reduce and reuse.

Spycrowsoft came at my being sick of stuff post from Thursday from that angle:

I have a couple of boxes of old stuff, one for each category and one labelled MISC. Each time before I buy something that is not a consumable, I force myself to sift through the respective box to see if there is something in there which can be used to “make due” for whatever I want to buy next.

Each time I peer into those boxes, some stuff inevitably gets thrown out while other stuff gets recycled or repurposed. The wires inside VGA cables for example, make excellent signalling wires in all kinds of microcontroller and electronics projects if you care to salvage them.

I’d did something similar without realising when I got into Hi-Fi gear and retrocomputing. I have a few of those tiny plastic drawer chests full of caps, wires, connectors, switches, ICs, and such. Much of this was harvested from dead machines, and have come in tremendously handy for DIY jobs and even building my modern sleeper PC.

Extrapolating that idea to stuff in general is an interesting idea. My only fear would be the genes from my parents would assert themselves and mean I’d end up with dozens of tubs of stuff! I guess it comes down to having that discipline Spycrowsoft mentions, and still knowing when to make the call to recycle or throw something away when its clear it couldn’t be useful in the short to medium term. Holding onto everything because it might conceivably be useful is how hoarding starts.


Bear identification

The following words don’t include bear:

  • bear

Wait, damn it. Let’s try again.

  • … bear?

Clearly the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.

Update: Bear.


Dell 27-inch 4K panels as Retina displays

There are plenty of great reviews for Dell’s various 4K panels, but today I want to answer if they work as Retina displays. Retina is Apple’s name for 2× HiDPI, where pixels are cleanly doubled for added font clarity, and photo-quality images. The summary is: you can!

Apple introduced Retina MacBook Pros a decade ago, but external displays with high pixel densities and resolution have proven elusive. Apple partnered with LG on their Ultrafine series, but they’re expensive and had quality control issues (I would know, unfortunately). Apple’s reference monitor isn’t aimed at consumers, and alas you can’t use an iMac as an external display anymore either.

Fortunately, 4K panels have started becoming more common, and are reasonably priced. But there’s a catch: they stretch this resolution over 27-inch panels, so they can’t match the pixel density of Apple’s kit. But people were saying they were great displays, so I snapped a refurbished Dell S2722QC (gesundheit) unit on special to see.

My work MacBook Pro detected it as a native 60 Hz Retina display, and 2× HiDPI worked great from KDE on my FreeBSD desktop. The former was connected over USB-C, and the latter with a DisplayPort to USB-C cable. Hurdle one cleared!

There’s no question it has a lower pixel density than what I’m used to, which manifests as less physical workspace and larger UI elements. It’s Retina 1080p stretched over a 1440p size. And yet my impression is one of a lower-resolution Retina panel, not a standard monitor (if that makes sense). Fonts still look crisp, pictures have that gorgeous printed photo look, and the matte finish makes it better for glare and headaches than my MacBook Pro.

5K at 27-inch would be perfect, but I’m still enjoying this. If you’ve been holding off on upgrading your machine from a glorified Hercules or EGA display, and you have a GPU that can output 4K at 60 Hz, now might be a good time to try :).


Stephen Diehl on NFTs

For those lucky enough not to know what Non-Functional Transactions are, Stephen Diehl explained earlier this month the pitfalls of buying a pointer to an artwork:

NFTs impart no legal ownership, give no rights to the artwork, are non-unique, and provide nothing of intrinsic value except the sign value of owning bragging rights to announce to other crypto bros about a shared collective delusion about database entries.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve paid attention to history:

Back in the 90s some entrepreneurs found you could convince the public to buy “rights” to name yet-unnamed stars after their loved ones by selling entries in an unofficial register. [..] Like every market madness since the South Sea Bubble or Tulip Mania, everyone knows that selling million dollars JPEGs is an irrational exercise in greed.

Great thread (though I wish it were a blog post)!


GitHub’s preview cards aren’t that useful

Featured images are a common piece of metadata you can add to a website or blog post. It’s a way for people to preview your content with a still image when linked to on social media, and can be more enticing and useful than just a static URL. Schema metadata, Dublin Core RDF, OpenGraph, and Twitter Cards all have metadata to define these images.

It’s not always as simple as defining an image and calling it a day, though. Care has to be taken that these images make sense in a wide array of contexts. Some viewports show the image in its entirety, but might render it small enough that tiny details are lost. Most often these images are cropped, so just like overscan on an old TV, you need to make sure the image makes sense when shown as a square, or if the corners are rounded off.

GitHub recently implemented a feature that autogenerates preview images with useful information about repositories and pull requests, such as the number of files, commits, changes, and the developer. Here’s an example:

Unfortunately, this is all I ever see on my clients:

These images aren’t essential; one can click through to see the repository. But you may as well optimise them if you’re going to go to the trouble of auto-generating them in the first place. Placing important details in the centre would make them useful for more people, with ancillary items like avatars and language breakdowns flanking either side.

I have other reservations about GitHub which are beyond the scope of this post, but I thought this was a useful example of a wider issue.


Wordpress.com’s password advice

Wordpress.com remains one of the better blog platforms out there for people looking to get out of relying on social media to spread their ideas. The UI is clunky by today’s standards, but they score highly for me for their easy import and export tools, and their advocacy of open web standards. I’ve said before, but Ma.tt gives me a hopeful counterpoint to The Zuck for my generation.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to their password advice. Signing up a new account for a friend last night shows this messages:

Great passwords use upper and lowercase characters, numbers, and symbols like !“£$%&.

This advice is incomplete at best, and increasingly runs contrary to accepted best practices and current advice as published by security agencies. Short, difficult to remember passwords with gibberish are less secure than longer passphrases consisting of a string of simple words. Even a password haystack, in which you pad a simpler password with repitition of one or more characters, is more secure on account of it being harder to brute force.

Back to Wordpress.com, pasting a pseudo-random string of gibberish from KeePassXC (an excellent, open source passphrase manager I encourage everyone to try and donate to!) also returned this error:

Passwords may not contain the character “\”.

If this is being salted and hashed, the character here shouldn’t matter. Mmm, salted hash browns. Perhaps they’re avoiding character escaping, but that shouldn’t be necessary. I did a quick check of some other passwords I have stored, and other sites are able to accept gibberish with backslashes.

The best thing the industry could do is replace passphrases with something more robust. The next best thing is password managers that automate password entry. After that, it’s encouraging people to use longer, easier to remember passwords.

Wordpress.com runs so many sites, they’re in a powerful position to advocate for better, more practical security for everyone. As one of the more ethical citizens of the modern web, I hope they consider it.


Being sick of stuff

I haven’t written about decluttering stuff for a while. Adrian Chiles nails it:

I’m so sick of stuff. Some of it is stuff I really need or that is at least genuinely nice to have, but a good 70% is useless stuff. Clothes I’ll never wear, books I’ll never read, kitchen utensils I’ll never utilise. Items big and small that presumably felt essential the day I bought them but turned out to be quite the opposite. I suppose that as I get older the 70% figure will grow and grow until the morning of the day I shuffle off this mortal coil.

I’ve got to the point now where every new thing I get must displace something else, in addition to being useful or sparking joy (with apologies to Marie Kondo cynics). That’s helped, but it’s not making a dent. I need to rid our space of stuff again.

Anyone need some VGA cables? I have eight.