Zoe Williams on cryptocurrency and markets

Thoughts

I loved this paragraph in her recent article about FTX, the ill-fated, fraudulent cryptocurrency exchange:

Markets have never been free: they are social spaces and, as such, have always been governed by rules, which – since the first time a snake-eyed trader tried to cut flour with chalk – work because they are formally determined. Take away those rules and soon a greedy, clever person might take advantage.

This will continue to happen as long as a quick buck can be fleeced from marks. Or Jeffs, or whatver their names are.


The Galton Bridge

Thoughts

Sometimes I like to press the random button on Wikipedia and see where it takes me. Today I didn’t even need to go that far; the article of the day looked interesting:

The Galton Bridge is a cast-iron bridge in Smethwick, near Birmingham, in central England. Opened in 1829 as a road bridge, the structure has been pedestrianised since the 1970s. It was built by Thomas Telford to carry a road across the new main line of the Birmingham Canal, which was built in a deep cutting. The bridge is 70 ft (21 m) above the canal, making it reputedly the highest single-span arch bridge in the world when it was built, 26 ft (7.9 m) wide, and 150 ft (46 m) long. The iron components were fabricated at the nearby Horseley Ironworks and assembled atop the masonry abutments. The design includes decorative lamp-posts and X-shaped bracing in the spandrels.

Anything sporting spandrels is a winner in my book. It sounds like a cross between a squirrel and a spaniel. Abutments also scream Geoff Marshall.

The photo below by Harry Mitchell shows the aforementioned bridge over the aforementioned canal cutting, aforementioned. I’d love to tour all these 19th century engineering wonders around the UK one day.

Photo of the Galton Bridge by Harry Mitchell


Obsolete tech: the Battery Daddy

Hardware

Australia Post stores are as much a trip down memory lane as they are places to dispatch parcels. The long queues meander through free-standing shelf units selling all manner of trinkets from another time, often proudly boasting AS SEEN ON TV with big red stickers.

As an aside, was that ever a badge of honour? Even as a kid growing up in the 1990s, my impression of stuff peddled on informertials and breakfast TV wasn’t positive. It all seemed like junk sold with more enthusiasm than quality, and designed for those susceptible to making impulse purchases.

But hurry! Order now and you’ll receive this latex spatula, absolutely FREE! But wait, there’s more! Buy three widgets, and that latex spatula becomes… THREE latex spatulas! Batteries not included, not for sale in Victoria or Antarctica.

Speaking of batteries though, that segues into this bizarre device I saw among the piles of stuff last year, and again just then as recommended by a large online retailer. It’s a Battery Daddy, and it has a few batteries:

A small, transparent briefcase with holders to stash dozens of batteries of different types and sizes

I’m impressed they were able to tessellate that many different sized batteries into a space like that. If it were safe for infants to be left with batteries, it’d be quite the puzzle to reassemble them when the lid opens and they all fall out. I only just noticed while writing this paragraph that there are even a couple stashed within the handle. And check it out, it even has a battery tester!

I have so many thoughts about this. First, it screams Binford Tools from Tool Time… and if you got that reference, you must be my age or older! Secondly, when was the last time you replaced a cylindrical battery out of anything, save for the odd remote control? Thirdly, is a word that starts with T. And lastly, are people still buying disposable ones in lieu of rechargables?

I suppose I’m not a Battery Daddy, I’m a Cell… Kid? Wait, that doesn’t sound good.


Recanting my post on defensive blogging

Internet

Back in 2021 I talked about what I called defensive blogging. I’d been telling everyone to blog, and I felt it was my responsibility to warn people about the potential pitfalls.

My solutions were to raise the barrier to entry for accepting comments, and to tweak your writing style to head off bad comments from the start:

I have had to modify how I write a bit too. Pointless references and silliness are natural ways to disarm people, but I also review what I write from the perspective of someone who’s reading in bad faith. Even if people in a real world conversation would understand what you’re saying in context, there are those who will only serve to nitpick what you say. Sometimes that takes an overt “inb4” at the end of a post, other times I make light of the situation or idea myself in advance. I appreciate people who don’t take themselves too seriously, and try to do it too.

The operative words are bad faith. People who write responses like this aren’t swayed by disclaimers or footnotes, just as they weren’t capable of thinking about you, your circumstances, and your constraints when reading your post in the first place!

I realise now my issue isn’t that I get email like that, it’s that I let them waste my time. What they need is a swift redirection to the nearest refuse receptacle, so you can go back to fun and productive things.


Pet Shop Boys, Liberation

Media

Today’s Music Monday is a bit of a nostalgia trip. I have distinct memories of hearing the melody of this song in a shopping centre in Australia as a kid, around the time I started school. The fact it’s the Pet Shop Boys is only a bonus.

As an aside, I love the reinterpretation of the covers on their remastered albums. I’m torn whether to keep all the originals in my music library, or switch them over to these.

Play Liberation (2018 Remaster)


Moving off iTunes after two decades

Software

I initialised my first iTunes music library back in 2001, on my blueberry iMac DV. I created a new one a couple of years later on my then-new iBook G3 to sync with my FireWire iPod, and I’ve carried it with me ever since.

This library has been (re)imported and moved onto every Mac I’ve ever owned, and on a couple of Windows machines. I’ve added songs, created playlists, bought my first digital music, and synced it with every one of my iPods and iPhones, along with a few Palms using iSync. It received audio magazines, New Time Radio programmes, and podcasts from iPodder and Juice Receiver before it even got podcasting support. It’s what I listened to live Whole Wheat Radio house concerts on, and was my first attempt at archiving before offloading video to Plex. It wasn’t the first software I burned or ripped CDs with, but it was the one I used the most.

A screenshot of iTunes in 2007, during better times.

It was with me when I left home for university, when I got my own place, and when I moved in with Clara. It’s been fun seeing my musical tastes evolve and change over time, but I can re-live those heady days of the early 2000s by sorting by add or publish date. It’s been a welcome distraction and a source of strength during tough times, especially when I didn’t really have a permanent base.

This all may sound like fawning embellishment, but I want to emphasise just how important this software, its music, and its rich history of metadata have been to me over the years. iTunes ran on Windows, but it was the killer app for the Mac for me. I used Winamp prior to it, and dabbled with other third party software, but as the history of this blog attests, iTunes has been the centre of my digital world for a long, long time. And in the words of Alanis Morisette I know I’m not the only one.

The Classic iTunes icon

In 2019 Apple replaced iTunes with Apple Music/Music.app, and delegated many of its functions to separate applications. iTunes was burdened with an ever-increasing list of features to support functions, mobile devices, and stores for which it was never designed, and it was beginning to show.

But it was clear to anyone who’d invested years into curating iTunes playlists and music collections that Music.app was no replacement, as we all feared. The superficially similar interface belied an embarrassing number of bugs, missing features, and poorly-implemented UI. It’s yet another example of Apple’s well-publicised, conspicuous, and baffling slide in software quality over the last decade.

Among the litany of problems, the way Music.app handles local albums is the barometer with which I gauge how much Apple cares. For whatever reason, the software routinely splits local albums in two in the Albums view, despite having made no changes to the metadata. I tend to play whole albums, so I’m constantly missing tracks when playing them.

(Before anyone chimes in saying it doesn’t happen to them, or that there are workarounds, appreciate for a moment that iTunes never had this problem for anyone, even back in the Mac OS 9 days. We’ve slid a long way when people reflexively defend modern software for being less functional and robust than what our G3s used to run).

We’ve come to expect beta-quality software for new Apple releases, but the fact it’s been almost half a decade and the software still sucks is a worrying sign of the company’s priorities, at least for those of us who grew up in an era when the iPhone was billed first as a widescreen iPod with touch controls.

I like to think that companies with endless cash and talent could fix these problems if they had the inclination, but the reality is they’ll prioritise what makes them money. Apple has moved on from jukeboxes, music stores, and iPods, whether old school customers like me care or not. They don’t see their expensive devices as targets to rip/mix/burn music to, or to sell you a song or album to sync to, but as a recurring source of streaming revenue, listened through wireless earbuds that require regular replacement when their non-serviceable batteries wear out.

I’d say its an ignominious end, but the only ignoramus is me for holding on as long as I have!

So where to from here? This is where I need your help. Let me know what jukebox software you run and like your machines. I’ve delegated portable music playing to my Walkman, so all I need is something reliable with a decent interface. It’s been so long since I’ve had to look, I wouldn’t even know where to start.


W-whoops, buying a Commodore VC-20

Thoughts

Recently I talked about stuff I wanted to build, which included a modern Commodore VIC-20. I since learned that while we can recreate a Commodore 64 from new parts, the VIC-20’s VIC chip hasn’t been reverse engineered and remade. Despite having bought several components already, I couldn’t bring myself to deprive someone’s beloved childhood VIC-20 of a working VIC replacement chip just so I’d have a project to build, so I shelved the idea indefinitely.

As though someone was listening though, a gentleman in the UK was selling their Commodore VC-20 that ticked all my boxes. It had the exact technical specifications I was after, and thanks to being halfway through a new build, I had replacement parts for everything that was listed as broken.

Here she is, in all her glory:

The VC-20 was manufactured and released in West Germany, owing to the unfortunate meaning of VIC in German (my last name is Schade from my dad who was also made in West Germany, so I’m one to talk). Unlike the Japanese VIC-1001, the badges are all that distinguish this machine from other VIC-20s. Markings around the case are still in English, it has the same motherboard design, and its functionally identical.

(I’m weirdly fascinated by rebrands like this; check out my WorkPad post for my obsession over these IBM Palm Pilots. I’m thrilled that I have another curiosity like this).

This particular VC-20 is a second generation, cost-reduced (CR) model which Commodore introduced and sold alongside the C64 to serve as a budget machine. This is shown in its revised rainbow badge it shared with the C64. The 64C is one sleek operator, but there’s also something about those horizontal rainbow bars that’s so fucking cool. The uneven spacing also hints at a letter being removed from its name.

The photo below shows it compared to my Commodore 16 breadbin, which sports a variation on the same theme. I’ve had it explained to me that the additional bars were there to represent the additional colour capabilities of the TED chip.

Looking inside the case, we can see the shorter motherboard and fewer chips compared to earlier VIC-20s, which works out well for a novice like me. I’ve read these generation of boards are slightly more reliable, and are more compatible with the more sophisticated carts people are coming out with. It also doesn’t require the use of a 9VAC power brick like the earlier model, meaning it runs cooler and can be powered off my C128 power supply with the same adaptor my 64C uses (and the Plus/4 with its own adaptor).

In terms of condition, the case exhibits noticeable yellowing, with blotchy patches of white suggesting this used to have stickers on it. The plastic is otherwise in good condition, and I have a retrobright process that works well for me now, so I think I can fix this up. I’m otherwise extremely impressed with how clean it is, especially given this machine is forty years old.

The biggest functional issue the machine has is a wonky keyboard. The seller warned that many of the keys are sticky or don’t register, which I’ve since confirmed. But again, I’d already bought a replacement for the shelved VIC-20 build I mentioned at the start, so I should be able to just swap it out.

In the next post, I’ll talk about my teardown, cleaning, and rebuild :).


The elusive textInput form in RSS feeds

Internet

Kyle Lanchman wrote in to let me know of an RSS rendering bug my blog introduced to a few Mac clients, which he’s since written a patch for:

Fixes an issue where the feed’s title would get set to the textInput’s title instead of the channel’s title. For the feed I’ve added to the tests, NetNewsWire incorrectly showed the feed’s title as “Search” instead of “Rubenerd”.

The RSS specification includes the provision for a textInput form, though its origins and use remain “a mystery”. I added it back to my feed recently to let people do searches, as the spec suggests:

<textInput>
	<title>Search</title>
	<description>Search Rubenerd.com</description>
	<name>q</name>
	<link>https://html.duckduckgo.com/html/</link>
</textInput>

I thought it was innocuous enough, but some parsers really don’t like seeing elements they’re not expecting. This bug caused software using the RSParser to render the title of the whole feed as Search, which was nested under textInput.

I’ll keep the form until Kyle’s pull request is approved, because he’s using the feed as an example. I’ve changed the title to say “Search Rubenerd” instead though, so at least malfunctioning parsers at least show a functional title.


The writer of ahiru.pl also uses desktop email

Internet

I’ve been having so many great conversations with many of you lately, which has helped me further break out of my introvert shell. My only concern is making sure I keep up to date with all of you, which I’ve already slipped up with a couple times owing to some errant email filters!

Which is a fitting segue into this comment by the writer of ahiru.pl:

They can pry Thunderbird from my cold, dead hands :D I personally am the other way round - sometimes am forced to use webmail interfaces for work (or can’t be bothered to set it up for something I’m not going to use), but always use a proper client at home. How else are you supposed to have a consistent interface for multiple different accounts? Or sort stuff? Or find stuff? Not to mention threading or storage (as you already have…).

This was the impetus I had for merging my personal email hosted in Alpine back into Thunderbird too. Having everything in one place makes life much easier, even if I still invoke some specific keybindings sometimes.

I admit I use HTML email at times. My excuse being that it makes embedding pics and links easier.

This is… unfortunately true. I find I need to write HTML email when sending messages to suppliers, landlords, etc. More and more people don’t understand direct URLs or image attachments, or are confused when their HTML email gets converted to plaintext when I reply. I could make a stand, or I could get our shower fixed.


Contrasting thoughts around Twitter API access

Software

The recent Twitter API access issues are an illustrative case study in how people discuss issues online. One camp is horrified that longstanding third-party applications are being denied access. The other group says they’re entirely in their right to do so.

They’re talking past each other. One perspective doesn’t negate the other. And the problem is, when confusion arises from this, it’s human nature to dig a trench and shout louder. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but I’m trying to be more observant of it.

Back to Twitter though: both parties are right:

  • Everyone attached to the Twitter ecosystems was there at the indulgence of Twitter. The goalposts around what they accept and deny may be shifting faster under Muskian ownership, but they own the platform and can (mostly) do what they want. This is an American legal question; a prey of jurisdictions globally infamous for generally siding with the big guy.

  • The other side is also right to feel scorned. Their applications ensured the success of the then-nascent Twitter site, and now they’re being let go under questionable pretences. Just because someone can legally do something doesn’t make it good, or ethical, or just. Conversely, something isn’t morally defensible or appropriate just because it’s legal… to say nothing of the significant power imbalance at play.

I feel bad for these software developers. I used the betas of their software back when they first launched in 2007, and the number of users on the platform was still measured in the thousands. But it also serves as a cautionary tale not to hitch your horse to one company that isn’t beholden to humanly concerns, like ethical conduct. They, and their defenders, don’t distinguish could from should, and think that it’s reasonable and ethical to exercise any power you have.

I hope the Fediverse can avoid making the same mistakes, and offer a welcoming community for these developers. Their contributions make the ecosystem viable, and we forget at our peril.