20 years of blogging

Twenty years ago today, I started writing here. When I say ‘here’, I don’t mean at andrewdoran.uk — domain names ending in ‘uk’ weren’t a thing back then — but at this digital home of mine on the web. I feel so lucky to have been in my late teens when the Internet started to make inroads to our lives. As a child I voraciously read computer magazines of all shapes and sizes, getting through piles of back issues for computers I didn’t own or had never seen. The articles that talked enthusiastically about modems and dial-up bulletin board systems were fascinating. Being part of it seemed so out of reach; even if I could save up to buy the equipment there was no way my parents would agree to pay the eye-watering call charges. 5p a minute is a lot, even in 2024.

The regular ‘Communications’ feature in Acorn User. I used to eat this stuff up despite never going anywhere near a modem.

The regular ‘Communications’ feature in Acorn User. I used to eat this stuff up despite never going anywhere near a modem.

Back in the early 1990s, ‘getting online’ effectively meant getting an email address. The web followed close behind. I can’t be sure, but I think that my first email account was the one I was given at a summer job at Cable & Wireless. They paid me as a temp to learn HTML and set up the first internal website for the Purchasing & Logistics department. Having the freedom to email anyone else in the world who also had an email account fascinated me, as did websites with digital ‘guestbooks’ to say that you had stopped by. Later, after a decade spent with emails, Usenet posts and chatrooms, getting a blog up and running felt like the next step. I had opinions to share. Putting them out there in the world for anyone else to see meant that I could speak my mind and let them go.

Despite blogs having been around for a few years before I got involved, getting one up and running in 2004 wasn’t as simple as it is today. I bought myself some web space, registered a domain name (applecrumble.net, a name chosen for no particular reason that I can remember), downloaded Movable Type and went through a whole bunch of steps to install the files and the database to get it set up. My friend Mat used his web design skills to make it look pretty; I still don’t understand quite how he did it.

The first capture of applecrumble.net on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I was very proud of the Yahoo Messenger status button and the ‘on my speakers’ sidebar to share what I’d been listening to.

The first capture of applecrumble.net on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I was very proud of the Yahoo Messenger status button and the ‘on my speakers’ sidebar to share what I’d been listening to.

Running a Movable Type blog was challenging. The software was incredible in that it let you post something and all of the web pages and links between them would be auto-generated. But updates were manual and could be very tricky to fix if something broke. You had to check with your web hosting provider whether they ran the relevant Perl modules to power the software. Despite all of the ’back of house’ shenanigans, it was fun.

I remember getting hold of a copy of the book We:Blog, written by Paul Bausch, Meg Hourihan and Metafilter founder Matt Haughey. By the time I was reading it, the details in contained were out of date but the enthusiasm and general guiding principles were there.

In the days before Facebook and Twitter, blogs filled the ‘one to many’ communication niche. If you wanted to tell a few people, you would email. If you wanted to say something to the world (or nobody in particular), you could write a blog post. Most of the comments on this blog stem from that time where friends would check your website to see what you’ve been up to and comment on your posts. It doesn’t really happen very much these days.

I remember emailing Anil Dash, who at the time was working at SixApart, the company behind Movable Type. I’d started toying with the idea of getting blogs up and running at work, but my company’s stance was that if an application needed a database it would have to use Oracle. Anil was helpful — there had been requests from other people asking the same question — but I couldn’t get the initiative off the ground. Eventually I switched to WordPress.com and then to my own hosted instance of WordPress.

The things I wrote 20 years ago are usually trivial, sometimes embarrassing, and reflect someone who wasn’t really worked out why they are writing. The emergence of Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Facebook and Instagram) meant that posts here became extremely rare. Those platforms scratched my ‘connection itch’. Twitter was wonderful back in the day. We made friends and met up in real life.

Somewhere along the way I started to learn about IndieWeb thinking, where you own your content, publish it on your own site first and syndicate it to other services. I started worrying that all of the content I had posted to Twitter might disappear someday.

The struggle with blogging is that creating and publishing something always felt like a giant task. Micro.blog made me realise that publishing little ‘snippet’ updates to your own website is okay; not everything needs to be an essay. I started writing more frequently again. Becoming a weeknoter has also been a major help in keeping up a regular writing practice without having to think too much about what to write about. What could be simpler than writing about what you’ve been up to? A decade and a half after starting my blog, I felt like I’d finally found a bit of a rhythm to getting my thoughts out there.

Looking back, I didn’t expect the post that gave me the most satisfaction would be about the world of professional wrestling, something I haven’t watched since I was a teenager in the early 1990s. Starting to tap out a few notes on a book I had read on holiday quickly turned into something much bigger.

The most read post on this site is my response to a meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council where they debated the building of a multi-storey car park in our town. It had been shared on local Facebook groups and it felt a little intimidating to get a couple of thousand views in two or three days. I’m so glad that I didn’t have comments turned on at the time.

I still get so much joy from my little hobby of writing here. I don’t write longer posts as often as I would like to, but I love the fact that I have this place when I want to get something out of my head. Writing sometimes helps me to work out what I think, or lets me feel that I’ve been able to express myself and let go instead of carrying it with me. Writing recently about the Ofsted process comes to mind. It takes hours to wrestle with the words, but it’s worth it.

By any measure this is a teeny, minor corner of the Web. But it’s mine, and I can’t imagine wanting to be without it.

Get off of my cloud

David Heinemeier Hansson’s blog post on his company’s move from the cloud back to their own servers is an interesting read:

I also think that there are probably some companies that have such high variance in their loads that renting makes sense. If you only need a plough thrice a year, it doesn’t make much sense keeping it in the barn unused for the remaining 363 days.

Perhaps this will increase the volume and awareness of more nuanced conversations about choosing the right application and organisational architecture, beyond a binary choice of cloud vs on-premises for everything.

One of the best articulations I’ve seen of how a cloud environment can work for an application is Troy Hunt’s explanation from 2018 of how he optimised haveibeenpwned.com using Cloudflare Workers and Azure Functions:

It’s costing me 2.6c per day to support 141M monthly queries of 517M records.

Just taking an application that is running on your own hardware and dumping it into the cloud is highly unlikely to yield any cost benefit unless it is re-architected and optimised to take advantage of the features of the cloud platform.

Hunt wrote a follow-up post last year, outlining how he suddenly received an eye-watering Azure bill after breaching a file size limit for a Cloudflare cache on his service. So even when you’re optimised, you need to be highly aware of the limits that apply to your setup, as well as having early warning alarms in place to catch anything that has gone wrong.

Cost is a major factor in determining a cloud versus on-premises architecture but there are other considerations too. Finding the right people with the right skillsets to run your own infrastructure is not trivial.

Hopefully the post won’t signal the start of a cyclical movement to and from the cloud, like the others that we already have in ‘enterprise’ technology — outsourcing/insourcing, offshoring/onshoring, centralisation/decentralisation etc.

Given Hansson’s company runs a product called HEY, since reading his post I haven’t been able to get this earworm out of my head. I suspect that this will be on my ‘internal hi-fi’ quite a lot over the next few years.

Increasingly obscured future

I recently watched this video from the Center for Humane Technology. At one point during the presentation, the presenters stop and ask everyone in the audience to join them in taking a deep breath. There is no irony. Nobody laughs. I don’t mind admitting that at that point I wanted to cry.

Back in the year 2000, I can remember exactly where I was when I read Bill Joy’s article in Wired magazine, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. I was in my first year of work after I graduated from university, commuting to the office on a Northern Line tube train, totally absorbed in the text. The impact of the article was massive — the issue of Wired that came out two months later contained multiple pages dedicated to emails, letters and faxes that they had received in response:

James G. Callaway, CEO, Capital Unity Network: Just read Joy’s warning in Wired – went up and kissed my kids while they were sleeping.

The essay even has its own Wikipedia page. The article has been with me ever since, and I keep coming back to it. The AI Dilemma video made me go back and read it once again.

OpenAI released ChatGPT at the end of last year. I have never known a technology to move so quickly to being the focus of everyone’s attention. It pops up in meetings, on podcasts, in town hall addresses, in webinars, in email newsletters, in the corridor. It’s everywhere. ‘ChatGPT’ has already become an anepronym for large language models (LLMs) as a whole — artificial intelligence models designed to understand and generate natural language text. As shown in the video, it is the fastest growing consumer application in history. A few months later, Microsoft announced CoPilot, an integration of the OpenAI technology into the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. At work, we watched the preview video with our eyes turning into saucers and our jaws on the floor.

Every day I seem to read about new AI-powered tools. You can use plain language to develop Excel spreadsheet formulas. You can accelerate your writing and editing. The race is on to work out how we can use the technology. The feeling is that we have do to it — and have to try to do it before everybody else does — so that we can gain some competitive advantage. It is so compelling. I’m already out of breath. But something doesn’t feel right.

My dad left school at 15. But his lack of further education was made up for by his fascination with in the world. His interests were infectious. As a child I used to love it when we sat down in front of the TV together, hearing what he had to say as we watched. Alongside David Attenborough documentaries on the natural world and our shared love of music through Top of The Pops, one of our favourite shows was Tomorrow’s World. It was fascinating. I have vivid memories of sitting there, finding out about compact discs and learning about how information could be sent down fibre optic cables. I was lucky to be born in the mid-1970s, at just the right time to benefit from the BBC Computer Literacy Project which sparked my interest in computers. When I left school in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t believe my luck that the Internet and World Wide Web had turned up as I was about to start my adult life. Getting online and connecting with other people blew my mind. In 1995 I turned 18 and felt I needed to take some time off before going to university. I landed on my feet with a temporary job at a telecommunications company, being paid to learn HTML and to develop one of the first intranet sites. Every day brought something new. I was in my element. Technology has always been exciting to me.

Watching The AI Dilemma gave me the complete opposite feeling to those evenings I spent watching Tomorrow’s World with my dad. As I took the deep breaths along with the presenters, I couldn’t help but think about my two teenage boys and what the world is going to look like for them. I wonder if I am becoming a luddite in my old age. I don’t know; maybe. But for the first time I do feel like an old man, with the world changing around me in ways I don’t understand, and an overwhelming desire to ask it to slow down a bit.

Perhaps it is always hard to see the bigger impact while you are in the vortex of a change. Failing to understand the consequences of our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery and innovation seems to be a common fault of scientists and technologists; we have long been driven by the overarching desire to know that is the nature of science’s quest, not stopping to notice that the progress to newer and more powerful technologies can take on a life of its own. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

I’ve had conversations about the dangers of these new tools with colleagues and friends who work in technology. My initial assessment of the threat posed to an organisation was that this has the same risks as any other method of confidential data accidentally leaking out onto the Internet. Company staff shouldn’t be copying and pasting swathes of internal text or source code into a random web tool, e.g. asking the system for improvements to what they have written, as they would effectively be giving the information away to the tool’s service provider, and potentially anyone else who uses that tool in the future. This alone is a difficult problem to solve. For example, most people do not understand that email isn’t a guaranteed safe and secure mechanism for sending sensitive data. Even they do think about this, their need to get a thing done can outweigh any security concerns. Those of us with a ‘geek mindset’ who believe we are good at critiquing new technologies, treading carefully and pointing out the flaws are going to be completely outnumbered by those who rush in and start embracing the new tools without a care in the world.

The AI Dilemma has made me realise that I’ve not been thinking hard enough. The downside risks are much, much greater. Even if we do not think that there will soon be a super intelligent, self-learning, self-replicating machine coming after us, we are already in an era where we can no longer trust anything we see or hear. Any security that relies on voice matching should now be considered to be broken. Photographs and videos can’t be trusted. People have tools that can give them any answer, good or bad, for what they want to achieve, with no simple or easy way for a responsible company to filter the responses. We are giving children the ability to get advice from these anthropomorphised systems, without checking how the systems are guiding them. The implications for society are profound.

Joy’s article was concerned with three emerging threats — robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech. Re-reading the article in 2023, I think that ‘robotics’ is shorthand for ‘robotics and AI’.

The 21st-century technologies—genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR)—are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

The video gives us guidance of “3 Rules of Technology”:

  1. When you invent a new technology, you uncover a new class of responsibilities [— think about the need to have laws on ‘the right to be forgotten’ now that all of our histories can be surfaced via search engines; the need for this law was much less pronounced before we were all online]
  2. If the tech confers power, it starts a race [— look at how Microsoft, Google et al have been getting their AI chatbot products out into the world following the release of ChatGPT, without worrying too much about whether they are ready or not]
  3. If you do not coordinate, the race ends in tragedy.

It feels like the desire to be the first to harness the power and wealth from utilising these new tools is completely dominating any calls for caution.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the documentary The Day After Trinity, Freeman Dyson summarized the scientific attitudes that brought us to the nuclear precipice:

“I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles—this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.” —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

Over the years, what has stuck in my mind the most from Joy’s article is how the desire to experiment and find out can override all caution (emphasis mine):

We know that in preparing this first atomic test the physicists proceeded despite a large number of possible dangers. They were initially worried, based on a calculation by Edward Teller, that an atomic explosion might set fire to the atmosphere. A revised calculation reduced the danger of destroying the world to a three-in-a-million chance. (Teller says he was later able to dismiss the prospect of atmospheric ignition entirely.) Oppenheimer, though, was sufficiently concerned about the result of Trinity that he arranged for a possible evacuation of the southwest part of the state of New Mexico. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

There is some hope. We managed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to a handful of countries. But developing a nuclear weapon is a logistically difficult process. Taking powerful software and putting it out in the world — not so much.

The new Pandora’s boxes of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are almost open, yet we seem hardly to have noticed. Ideas can’t be put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don’t need to be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are out, they are out. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

The future seems increasingly obscured to me, with so much uncertainty. As the progress of these technologies accelerates, I feel less and less sure of what is just around the corner.

The uncomfortable mirror of the Star Wars Kid

I laughed along with everyone else. Back in 2003 I was an enthusiastic lurker on Metafilter, a ‘community weblog’ where everyone could contribute. Members would write a short ‘front page post’ that linked to something new, interesting or funny on the Internet. In May of that year, someone posted about ‘Star Wars Kid’, a video of a kid dancing around with a pole. It had already been remixed by someone to give him a lightsaber. We thought it was hilarious.

Looking back now, it’s interesting to read the comments.

I suggest you put aside 90 minutes to watch Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows1. It’s profound, and had me in tears.

Viewed through my 45-year old eyes in 2022, the whole episode is shameful. It amounted to an unbelievable, global level of bullying of Ghyslain Raza, the subject of the video. I cannot imagine what he went through at the tender age of 15, the same age that my eldest son is right now. The video went so viral that it even made it to the New York Times:

…he would have preferred that the video, which he had not intended anyone to see, had remained private.

“People were laughing at me,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail message. ‘”And it was not funny at all.”

Seeing Raza in the documentary, having come through such an unbelievably intense period in his life to be the deeply thoughtful, intelligent and empathetic person he is today, is inspirational.

Andy Baio’s recent blog post brought the documentary to my attention. It turns out that Baio’s blog — something I have followed on and off for years — was pivotal in the video ‘going viral’ back in 2003. One of the documentary’s most electric moments is when Raza visits Baio in Portland. We were all younger back then; so many of us looked at the video and laughed, and it would be easy to say that none of us knew any better. Some of the comments on the Metafilter post tell me that we did. In the film, to his credit, Baio doesn’t make ‘easy’ excuses such as now having a teenage son of his own made him realise the gravity of what he shared, or that nobody could have known at the time how viral the video was going to go. Looking back at the later posts on Waxy.org from 2003, I can hear some regret in the way he tries to reframe the narrative.

It’s incredible that the kids who originally digitised the video and posted it to the Internet have never apologised. You can hear that Raza has carried this with him. Perhaps this is a consequence of the USA’s litigious culture; if you apologise, you can be seen to be admitting a degree of liability.

The documentary made me think about other Internet memes that I’ve laughed at over the years. I’ve watched and shared Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That so many times. Kimberly Wilkins, the star of the video, made some money and gained fame following the video’s release. From Wikipedia:

The video garnered Sweet Brown many appearances on television, including a visit to ABC’s The View. Brown also plays a cameo role in the Tyler Perry 2013 movie A Madea Christmas saying a part of her line from her television interview during an interview at the end of the movie.

Years ago, I found one of my children laughing at a YouTuber who had been paying ‘rent a video message from Santa’ people to say silly or outrageous things. His video was a compilation of the videos that had been returned. We had a long chat about whether what the YouTuber was doing was okay. How far was this really from people who have paid homeless people to fight each other? In both cases there is a financial transaction which the person receiving the money could refuse. But there is a power imbalance, and bad ethics.

Does the fact that Kimberly Wilkins made money and frame from her video make it okay to laugh at?

There are still videos out there being shared and remixed. A chunk of TikTok culture seems to be exactly this. I’ve ventured onto the platform a few times, but have been put off by videos taken by parents of (presumably) their own children doing or saying silly things, including children who seem to have a disability. I doubt the children in the videos consented to them being shared.  Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows makes the point that videos with millions of views are now unlikely to ‘go viral’ and make the news in the same way that they did in 2003. So have we just got used to them?

The film gives some hope through Meme Librarian Amanda Brennan, who points out that ‘consent’ is now a word commonly used and well-understood by young people. Back in 2003, it wasn’t so prevalent. People are much more aware of the impact that a shared video can have on their lives.

From the New York Times article:

“I personally feel that he is like me and all of my friends,” said Andy Baio, 26, a Web developer in Los Angeles. “This spread around the world partly because he’s funny and awkward to watch, but also because there’s a big part of him in a lot of us.”

I’m not sure that the spread of the video was because people related to the character of the ‘Star Wars Kid’. Perhaps this was Baio trying to make it okay, reframing the narrative to put himself in the place of Raza after having seen the impact of his blog post of the video. The documentary felt like a mirror being held up, forcing me to question my own online behaviour over the years, and the consequences of having a laugh at someone else’s expense. It’s an uncomfortable watch, but an essential one.

  1. I don’t think it has had a worldwide release yet. I had to use a VPN that routed me to Canada to be able to watch it on the website. 

Found Tapes

Started watching Archive 81 on Netflix over the weekend. It got me wondering whether there are people out there who found and archived random tapes. Of course the answer is yes:

In 2002 I started collecting the bits, knots and clods of thrown away cassette tape that ever so often could be seen lying or hanging around in the streets, parks, fields, in gutters, trees, fences… I then mount my finds back onto a cassette, to be able to listen to them.

The loveliest place on the Internet

A close friend of mine recently asked, out of the blue:

In a word, the answer is yes. For the past few years I’ve been using micro.blog, which I’ve come to think of as the loveliest place on the Internet. It isn’t lovely by chance, it has been deliberately designed that way, and is lovingly nurtured to keep it full of positive vibes across its wonderful community.

On the surface, micro.blog is selling blog hosting. For $5/month, you can sign up and host your blog posts there. The monthly fee makes sure that your site isn’t cluttered with any adverts. You can post using apps for iOS, iPadOS, MacOS and Android as well as via the web. Blog posts can be ‘micro’ status updates of 280 characters or less, and if you go over this limit, the official apps and web interface reveal a ‘title’ field to accompany a more traditional blog post. You can syndicate your posts to Twitter, Medium, Mastodon, LinkedIn and Tumblr, with the full text being posted if it can fit in a tweet, and a title and link posted if it is longer. Photo uploads are included; the official apps helpfully strip out any EXIF metadata, such as where the photo was taken, in order to protect your privacy. A $10/month plan gives you the ability to host short videos or even podcasts (‘micro casts’), which you can record using the Wavelength iOS app.

But this is just where the magic starts. You don’t actually need to host your content on micro.blog. I’ve had my own blog for many years, and have recently started to take my content off of other platforms such as Instagram and Goodreads and host it myself — I want my content on my own platform, not somebody else’s. If you have an existing blog like I do, you can create an account and link it to your existing website via an RSS feed. Any post you write on your own blog then gets posted to your micro.blog account, and syndicated to wherever you want it to go. You can even set up multiple feeds with multiple destinations for cross-posting:

I post at my own blog and micro.blog picks up the feed

I post at my own blog and micro.blog picks up the feed

Once you have an account set up, you can start to use the main micro.blog interface. Here’s where you will see posts from everyone that you have ‘followed’, whether they have a micro.blog hosted account or syndicate from their own site. It’s a bit like a calmer, happier version of Twitter:

Here’s where some of the thoughtfulness of the design comes in. Discovering people to follow actually takes some effort. You can click on the Discover button to see a set of recent posts from a variety of users, lovingly hand-curated by the micro.blog Community Manager Jean MacDonald. If one of these posts catches your eye, you can click on the username or profile photo and press ‘follow’. That person’s posts will now appear in your timeline. By default you will also see their ‘replies’ to other members of the community. You can click on a button to view the whole conversation thread, which can lead you to explore and discover more people. This effort means that the emphasis is on quality over quantity, with gradual discovery.

You can also discover people by selecting someone’s profile and clicking through to see who they follow that you aren’t following:

One of the best design choices made on the platform is that there are no follower counts. I have no idea how many other users follow me, or anybody else. There are also no ‘likes’, just a button to privately bookmark a post for you to access again easily in the future. Reposts (or ‘retweets’) don’t exist either — if you like a post that you read and want to amplify it, you need to create a new post of your own. Hashtags are also not supported. Again, the emphasis is on quality and not quantity, on conversations instead of engagement metrics. This works to reduce people posting content just to ‘go viral’, and keeps the noise down.

So far, so straightforward. But there’s more magic.

The creator of micro.blog has authored an iOS app called Sunlit, which allows the creation of photo posts on your blog, whether you are hosting your content on micro.blog or externally. You can also see posts from other people that you follow on micro.blog. It’s like viewing the micro.blog content through an Instagram-type lens. The photos you see are from the same timeline that you see in micro.blog. You can comment on and bookmark posts, and switch between the Sunlit app and the main micro.blog apps or web interface. I love an occasional browse through the timeline using this app if I’m in the mood just to see some wonderful photos.

So, this means that all of your content sits on your own blog. No more silos of posts on different platforms.

But here’s the thing that feels most magical to me. If someone reads a post of yours on micro.blog, they can reply to it. But in the spirit of you owning your own content, these replies get posted as comments on your original blog post, even if the blog is hosted on your own independent website. Every time this happens, it blows my mind a tiny bit. Here’s an example — I recently posted about how exhausting the Clubhouse app is, which sparked a few comments and conversations. People responded on micro.blog and these ended up as comments on the post on my site:

It really is a wonderful place to spend some time. If you’re looking for an alternative to the noisy, regularly hostile place that the traditional social media platforms have become, and/or owning your content is important to you, it is well worth checking out. It’s been a source of joy over the past couple of weeks to see a real-life friend regularly posting there, and I know from talking to him that he’s loving it.

Goodbye Path

Interesting to get an email from Path this morning announcing that they are shutting down. Although sad for the users, it’s lovely when a company exits gracefully; Readmill was the best example of this where they created a whole downloadable set of HTML pages to tell your individual story of what you had done on their platform, as well as providing simple ways to upload data to other services.

I created a Path account but it never stuck with me. As a social network, the value is in connecting with other people and you can only do that if they also join the service. Facebook and Twitter already had big enough critical mass that there was little hope in getting enough of my friends to join to make it useful.

I remember reading about Path in 2012 when controversy erupted about the app taking a copy of your address book to do things such as let you know when friends signed up for an account. At the time I thought that they had been unfairly singled-out as so many apps did exactly the same thing, but it was good overall that a story got out which made people more privacy-conscious. Maybe that will be their legacy.


In the Indieweb spirit of owning and hosting all of my stuff on my own website I’ve uploaded a copy of my Twitter archive here. You can now go and view, and search, all of my 30,000-odd random thoughts from the past decade or so without leaving this website.

I’ve had a feeling for a while that I haven’t been using Twitter as much as I used to a couple of years back. The ‘index graph’ that comes as part of the download package seemed to confirm this, but what was stark for me was exactly how long ago I really was a ‘heavy’ user. Things seem to tail off after 2011, a couple of years after I started.

(This fits with the general pattern of me getting older and thinking that ‘most things’ happened a couple of years ago whereas actually they took place much further back. “Oh, Ronnie Barker died a few years ago.” Yes, 13 years ago.)

I thought it would be interesting to take the monthly statistical data (it’s in a .js file in the Twitter download) and see exactly how much my usage had declined by plotting it in a proper chart. Here’s where I got a second shock. If you follow the trend line from mid-2010 this is pretty much the exact point where my usage bisects zero:

I have such fond memories. Back in the day I made some lovely friends, had interesting discussions about all kinds of topics, organised Tweetups, and generally had a great time. I even had good conversations aboutwork — Twitter and it’s wonderful hive mind had utility. But it became exhausting. Fear of missing out meant that I didn’t unfollow people unless there was really no value in what someone had to say. I gave up on trying to keep up with my main timeline and switched to using lists, one for the Technology folk I was interested in following closely and another (private) one for my friends, family and anyone else I didn’t want to miss. I also had the odd one here and there for when something was blowing up in the financial markets or Formula 1 and I wanted an up-to-date commentary. But even that was too much. I don’t know how much of it was a change in me or a change in the place itself, but I can’t find the energy for it anymore.

I still add people to my follow list quite liberally, as I know I’m not actually going to read their tweets. These days my Twitter feed is used as input for Nuzzel which notifies me when articles get shared by more than five people in my timeline.

Life seems a lot healthier with longer form content of blogging, reading and more considered discussions. The time I used to spend reading my timeline is now instead spent in the Kindle app or going through blog posts in Feedbin/Reeder.

There are still lots of people I admire who seem to get a lot of value out of Twitter and still be productive and do great work, but I don’t feel like I can be one of them in any meaningful way.

Snapchat Snapstreaks

Kids have to navigate such a complex world today. School taught me to look at a news article and understand the motivations behind why the author wrote what they did. Now they have to apply this thinking to so many more aspects of life, such as why the things they use behave the way they do and what the motivations of the designers are.

From the latest Herts for Learning eSafety parent newsletter (not online yet at the time of writing):

The whole notion of making social media platform more addictive is harmful. Where you deliberately design them to play on people’s angst it is downright odious.

New host

What started with a Troy Hunt-inspired investigation into how I can enforce HTTPS on my Bitnami/AWS-hosted personal website turned into a full-on migration over to a new hosted web provider. After some initial teething problems related to the fact that my new site would be hosted at andrewdoran.uk and my old site was already at that same address, I managed to get it up and running with minimal hassle. Support from the staff at Siteground was excellent, answering my questions quickly and pointing me to exactly the resources I needed to get going.

Once I had everything in place the migration itself only took a couple of hours. I started with an export and import of my site using the WordPress-provided tools but found that this only transferred the basics — mainly the text. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years tweaking different aspects of the site and didn’t want to go through trying to reassemble it again. The All-in-One WP Migration plugin came to my rescue — this exports pretty much every aspect of a WordPress site including media, plugins, customisations etc. and lets you drag and drop the exported file to its new home. In order to export the data I had create a new folder on the server and grant write permissions to it, but I didn’t need to make any customisations for the upload to work on the new site. Exporting is free but importing a file of over 512Mb means that you need to buy a licence for USD 69 (about GBP 50). My export file was 1.4Gb so I had to pay; in my mind this was money well-spent considering the alternative of spending hours making all the customisations, reinstalling plugins and uploading all of my old media again.

Uploading my own static HTML content was as simple as can be, again making reference to the many straightforward Siteground tools and reference pages on how to create a key pair to enable an SFTP connection.

Once the content was uploaded and I’d tested it out I had to make a few tweaks to the variables so that it recognised itself as the canonical andrewdoran.uk and then repointed the DNS entries to the new site. I know that DNS is meant to take up to 48h to propagate but the change seemed almost instant from where I was connecting from. I also made a simple change to redirect ‘www’ requests to the non-www equivalent.

Having got the site up and running it was exceedingly easy to use the Siteground-provided tools to not only install a valid Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate but also to get any requests to HTTP pages redirected to the HTTPS equivalent on the site.

As far as migrations go it was exceptionally straightforward. It’s great to know that not only am I now able to serve up site content over HTTPS but also that I don’t need to worry about maintaining the operating system on my web server, as the host will do that for me.

Something is wrong on the internet

This article by James Bridle is being shared everywhere and for good reason. I’ve seen first hand one of my children wandering to a seemingly innocent YouTube video called something like ‘Try not to laugh’ which interspersed cartoon sequences with video of real bus crashes and a death metal soundtrack. The deliberate shock material the most upsetting thing to me, although the weird farms of auto-generated CGI videos that are then being watched by robots in order to generate income from the advertisements is pretty disturbing. I assume that Google doesn’t mind too much as they take their cut of the advertising revenue. Just think of the external impact of the energy resource usage that is going into this.

My mind is blown by how quickly there is a grotesque race to the bottom as soon as a new technology platform is introduced. YouTube’s launch in 2005 feels like yesterday and here we are already.

Postlight’s birthday

Great to read about Postlight turning two years old. Starting up a small business as an independent contractor is scary enough, I can’t imagine what it feels like to have responsibility for over two dozen people from the get-go:

Tip: Don’t start a company with a 25 person payroll, the usual accompanying costs and barely a plan.

We had some commitments from clients, and stable footing. But within a few months the bedrock client would fall away. We’d call a meeting and stare at each other. I’d love to tell you we walked out and left a jammed whiteboard with a birds-eye view of a broad strategic plan. We didn’t. We just kept trying stuff.

Their Track Changes podcast is excellent. I’m a little behind but have been listening since episode one. Each show has smart people (Paul and Rich, the co-founders) talking to smart guests about a broad range of topics. Their candour about what the podcast is and does for them as a marketing tool is refreshing, and makes me wish I was back in New York so that I could pay a visit to one of their events. Last year they even sent me a book with highlights from their first few episodes. Cool company and I wish them every success.

Been busy fixing 13 years of broken links across the blog. A job made so much easier by a plugin that highlights them and offers suggestions of Wayback Machine archive URLs to use instead. Better to point at some semblance of the original target than nothing at all.

The trouble with hosting your own

When I bought the andrewdoran.uk domain I moved my blog off of the free hosting service at wordpress.com. They could have hosted my blog for me at that URL for a fee, but I made a decision to go solo as I wanted to host some static content alongside the blog at the same domain and that didn’t seem to be possible. I’m now running a WordPress install in the Amazon cloud that I created using a Bitnami installer. This gives me a ‘proper’ website stack of my own. Aside from a few setup tweaks and a little bit of regular maintenance to upgrade WordPress and its plugins, this has suited me fine. The balance of additional work versus additional flexibility has been good.

Troy Hunt’s excellent podcasts and blog posts have alerted me to the fact that web browsers are soon going to get more and more aggressive with websites that are not served up over https with valid SSL certificates. At a simple level, these certificates ensure that data is encrypted between the web browser on your computer and the server at the other end. Years ago, they were only really used for when you were checking out with your ‘shopping cart’ in an online store or accessing data at your bank. You knew that you were ‘secure’ by the fact that a padlock appeared next to the address of the web page you were on. For many reasons, it is now best practice to serve encrypted web pages for everything. When you visit an unencrypted website in the future, instead of passively just not displaying a padlock your browser is start to give you much more prominent visual clues that the website is not secure.

Last night a friend sent me this message:



…which is what Mobile Safari on iOS 11 shows you when you go to any page on my site prefixed with http__s__ instead of http. It looks as though I have inadvertently tweeted an https link and this resulted in everyone thinking I am a cyber criminal trying to steal their financial data off the back of a two-minute review of a 50-year old film. Not good. So, it’s time to jiggle the priorities on my to-do list and embrace a move to https across the site. This is where the problems start.

If I was hosting my site on wordpress.com or another platform they would take care of all of of this for me. Instead, I find myself spending a not insignificant amount of time looking into how to go about getting an SSL certificate (Let’s Encrypt), the best way to get it installed on a web site running Apache httpd on top of Ubuntu (Certbot, so that it automatically renews the certificates when they expire and I don’t have to do this every three months) and how to do this under the specific Bitnami setup that I launched all those years ago.

Three years of using Solaris as part of an undergraduate Computer Science degree in the late 1990s and using PuTTY once in a blue moon gives me enough confidence to get going, but hasn’t exactly garnered me with the technical chops to step up when things get challenging. After much frustration and fear of making a wrong move on the back end as a ‘super user’ (as I’m anything but) I have thrown my hands up, admitted defeat and opened a request for help. If anyone has any ideas as to how I can complete this process, I would be extraordinarily grateful for the time back that you will be giving me.