Year: 2016

    The Long, Slow Death of Facebook

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    “Facebook has a big problem”, the tech media breathlessly cries. Despite using it every day, I’m not a fan of Facebook, and so am drawn to these articles like a moth to a flame. Let’s all enjoy guilt-free schadenfreude at the expense of a billion-dollar business! So, what’s Facebook’s problem this week? People are sharing more web pages and news stories, but fewer “personal stories”—plain status updates that relate to their lives.

    A while back I complained of a slightly different problem: a lack of customisability of the news feed:

    Does anyone know if there are secret Facebook settings to customise the news feed? Lately it’s been 90% stuff I don’t care about:

    • $friend liked $never-heard-of-you’s photo
    • $friend shared $clickbait-article
    • $friend is going to $event-miles-away

    All I really want to see is real status updates!

    In essence, I was fed up of every day scrolling past a wall of this:

    It turns out that Facebook’s controls for the news feed are pretty terrible. If a friend of mine comments on a non-friend’s post, “likes” it, or worst of all “reacts to” it, that’s automatically considered newsworthy for me. Facebook offers no way to customise the feed to remove these kind of posts.

    You can, however, choose to hide all posts from certain people, including those not on your friends list. So based on the advice I received, I started “hiding all from” everyone I didn’t recognise who appeared in my news feed.

    I’ve done this almost every day for the last couple of weeks, and in a way, it has been very successful. Almost all the strangers’ profile pic changes and distant events have gone, there’s fewer clickbait posts and memes, and mercifully almost no Minions at all.

    But what’s left?

    Not much.

    The media was right, at least as it pertains to my Facebook friends. What remains after you’ve removed all the crap is real status updates—from about five people. Out of 200-odd friends, very few are actually posting status updates and pictures. Mostly of their kids, because I’ve reached that age. The rest of my friends either largely share stuff I didn’t care about, so I don’t see them any more, or they post so rarely that they’re drowned out by the wall of baby photos.

    Although Facebook was our LiveJournal replacement, the place we went to stay in touch with our friends’ lives once we left university for our far-flung pockets of adulthood, it looks like for us that age of constant sharing may be on the decline.

    I’m not sure if I will be happy or sad to see it go.

    The Constructorium Story

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    “Hackerspaces”, or “Makerspaces” are very much an idea whose time has come. The analogy I liked to use most was that of a “community garden shed”—they are places run by the community, where any member can come along and work on their personal projects and collaborate with others.

    This is the story of the Dorset Constructorium, a hackerspace that never quite made it.

    Note: This is our story as I remember it, published in case others interested in starting a hackerspace of their own find some use in it. I welcome additions and corrections from other members of the group with a better memory of what happened when than mine. I’ve also left out people’s names for now, let me know if you are happy for me to use your name.

    Our group began in the Spring of 2013, the way things do—a couple of friends sat around a table and decided they should start a hackerspace. We came up with a goofy but catchy name, “The Dorset Constructorium”. We started a mailing list using Google Groups, which slowly grew to 40 or 50 subscribers, and an IRC channel that hit around a dozen. Throughout that year we used them to organise some meetings in pubs in Bournemouth and Wimborne, where we chatted and drank and discussed how we could move on from our current arrangements to become a real hackerspace.

    Evenings down the pub were all well and good, but we couldn’t be a hackerspace without a space.

    We started looking, making calls and sending emails to likely groups: companies, community centres, halls for hire. We filled up a spreadsheet with 20 or 30 possibilities, listing the advantages and disadvantages of each, but none were perfect. Many were simply too expensive for a small group to afford. Others were within our price range, but offered no permanent storage for our tools and equipment. Others still were too far away, or too concerned about the safety of the work we’d be doing.

    We knew we’d have to get more organised, manage money, and get insurance. Our original (somewhat naïve) plan was to be somewhat of a free-for-all in terms of structure, where we were all equals and did everything as a group; but we were moving into a world of bank accounts and insurers who would want names and signatures on their forms. We formed a committee—President, Treasurer and myself as Secretary.

    The Dorset Constructorium at AdidoSrc

    Around that time, one of our members offered us to team up with AdidoSrc, a group given space, pizza and booze by web development company Adido. We joined forces for three mid-week evenings in late 2013, before Adido suddenly pulled the plug—we were without a home almost as soon as we had found one.

    We carried on looking. Soon we had free web hosting provided for us by Bitfolk and developed our new Wiki into a place for us to share ideas and coordinate. We wrote a Constitution and a Code of Conduct—we were getting serious.

    2013 rolled into 2014, and the Constructorium strengthened its ties with the local Rep Rap Users’ Group, by then known as MakeBournemouth.

    Constructorium and MakeBournemouth at Makers Inc.

    Local café and “creative hub” Makers Inc opened around this time, and MakeBournemouth started running some themed evenings there, where people came along to build a certain kit together. The Dorset Constructorium joined in for four events… before the cafe closed, and we were homeless once more.

    In the ensuing downtime we expanded our web presence again, putting up a nicer-looking WordPress site to show visitors what we were all about, along with an online calendar for scheduling events, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

    Hack Shack Interior

    Still holding out for a real space to call home, one of our members offered the services of their garden shed. After shifting out a decade’s worth of junk, we moved some of our tools in, and christened it the “Hack Shack”. Although it was and still is the closest we’d come to a hackerspace of our own, and we offered it four days a week for free, it wasn’t what our members had in mind; it never saw much use.

    2014 become 2015, and our last hope came in the form of our local library. While MakeBournemouth contemplated going the big-budget route—allowing members to work on commercial projects, charging more, and affording a space at full commercial rates—the Constructorium tried our luck with the opposite, declaring ourselves strictly non-commercial and aiming for a discounted or free space by pushing the community/charity angle.

    The library allowed us use of a back room to get started, and we had some excited conversations with the head librarian about the library getting 3D printers and our group running soldering and Raspberry Pi coding courses.

    Joseph at the Library

    We had big plans, but by then attendance at our events was waning. Our meetings in the back room of the library averaged only four of us, and we never found the time or the confidence to offer courses. Our Facebook page attracted some interest, but we were never able to provide the organised experience that new visitors were expecting. Before long, we stopped meeting there, and for the third time in three years, we were without a place to meet.

    And that, as they say, was that.

    The IRC channel became abandoned, the mailing list posts dropped off to zero. The President moved to another town, and the Tresurer we haven’t heard from in some time. My job has got busier, and what little time and energy I had has dwindled further. Unless any member of the group wants to take it on from here, I think it’s about time to call the Dorset Constructorium to a close.

    To all the members that made our group great over the years: thanks for the memories.

    How I Blog Now

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    It’s fifteen years today since I first posted something—specifically, terrible teenage poetry—on what would become my blog. Back then my website was a purple-and-black exhibition of my poor teenage sense of humour, and I started posting snippets of poetry to it under the category of “Thoughts”.

    Mad Marmablue Web Portal, circa 2001

    In 2002 I was invited to an up-and-coming site called “LiveJournal”, a perfect platform for sharing my young adult angst and drama for the world to see. At university it became central to our social lives, a foreshadowing of the social network generation that was yet to come.

    LiveJournal came and went. By 2009 I was blogging on my own WordPress site and syndicating the posts to LJ, and by 2011 I was reminiscing about what we had lost. In 2013, beset by buggy plugins and security problems with WordPress, I moved to about the nerdiest blog platform imaginable, the static site generator Octopress.

    My Octopress blog, circa 2013

    Editing a site this way has its advantages—the end result is fast and secure, and appeals to my geekier tendencies by allowing me to keep it all under version control. But it has its disadvantages too, principally the fact that the site needs a “compile” step before the results can be seen. In recent months the combination of my old PC, 3000+ pages to render, and a few poorly-implemented plugins have resulted in compile times in excess of three minutes. That’s not too bad for a one-off post, but it’s particularly grating when we do Film Review by the Numbers on a Saturday night. Writing the reviews is something of a spontaneous group activity, and when it takes three minutes to see what a change will look like, those minutes feel a lot longer.

    A fifteenth anniversary seems like as good a time as any to make some changes, so I’ve been working on some ways to speed up the writing and generating process.

    Firstly, I have started doing the simpler editing tasks, like writing a new post, directly on GitHub where the source code lives. Its Markdown editor has a preview function that renders instantly, meaning that for Film Review by the Numbers (and everything else) we can get an approximately-correct rendered page with inline images straight away. I can also commit directly to the repository from there once everything is looking right.

    I’ve contemplated using GitHub Pages to host the site directly as well, though its lack of support for SSL certificates and Jekyll plugins rules it out for now. I have, however, started using GitHub’s “webhooks” to trigger an automatic rebuild of the site—on every commit, GitHub pings a script on my server based on marcomarcovic’s simple-php-git-deploy, which updates its local copy of the site, rebuilds it using jekyll, and deploys it to the public directory on the server.

    With it all configured, I can now keep my fast and secure static site, while also regaining some of the ease of a web-based editor that I miss from the WordPress days. I can also sensibly blog on the move from my phone or tablet, without having to open up a command-line console every time.

    This is my first test, and if you’re reading this, I guess it works!

    The Open Source Disadvantage

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    Three years ago, Google shut down its popular RSS reader web application. The decision angered many users, and I penned a long rant about how horrible proprietary services are as they can be taken away from the users at any time without their consent.

    I found the News app for OwnCloud, installed in on my own server and never looked back.

    Until today.

    Updating the version of OwnCloud on my server, to get the latest security patches, has broken the News app permanently.

    It turns out that some time ago the OwnCloud development team split acrimoniously and started a rival fork called “NextCloud”. The maintainer of the News app jumped ship, leaving OwnCloud News unmaintained until it eventually broke.

    It looks like I now have three options:

    1. Take over development of an abandoned project, which I am (in terms of both time and experience) ill-equipped to deal with
    2. Migrate from OwnCloud to NextCloud, a complex process which also involves changing the software I use for file, contacts and calendar synchronisation
    3. Use a proprietary service like Feedly instead.

    As you might imagine, I picked option 3. I was up and running again within five minutes.

    It’s enough of a frustrating experience to have me considering the reverse of a post I made years back, considering which proprietary services I should stop using in favour of doing my own thing. Since then I started running my own mail server, as well as OwnCloud, to meet my online needs; I migrated all my websites from Heroku to my own server as well. I learnt a lot—that fighting spam is hard, SPF is hard, maintaining SSL certificates is hard, few clients support CalDav and CardDav properly, and so on.

    It’s been an experience, certainly—mostly a good one, or at least an interesting one. But I do wonder, over the years, how much frustration and wasted time I’ve had that could have been saved by dropping my ideological preference for open source software and “DIY”, and accepting that even if they can shut down unexpectedly, some proprietary services are just so much easier.

    A Sea Battle Update?!

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    “Sea Battle” was a casual 2D real-time strategy game that I put together in a few days back in 2010, and documented in a series of blog posts at the time. It’s lain dormant ever since, but I picked it up again today while bored and made a couple of tweaks.

    Six years on, it’s obvious how much my coding style has changed—not only is the formatting dubious and commenting sparse, there’s also a lot of inefficient loops and abuse of global variables. I may change all that in a big refactor at a later date, but for now all I’ve done is a few minimal changes on top of the existing code.

    If you played Sea Battle ages ago and fancy trying it again, here’s what to expect:

    Annotated screenshot showing what's new

    1) Islands! You now get some randomly-generated islands to break up the wide expanse of blue sea. They’ll be different each time you run the game. Collision detection is based on the old code for detecting collisions with other ships, which is not great, but your ships shouldn’t get stuck behind islands too much. Islands only affect movement, not the firing arcs of weapons.

    2) Death list! I originally wanted to give ships randomly-generated names in this update, so you could see something like “Bismarck sank HMS Hood”. However, I couldn’t find a nice way to display them on the play field without adding loads of clutter—maybe one to save for the full-screen 3D version 2. 🙂 The implemented list instead shows which equipment the ships had, e.g. “1.2.3.4” = 1st hull, 2nd weapon, 3rd engine, 4th radar, to give you an idea what your enemy’s current tech level is and what’s working well against what.

    3) Equipment changes! I’ve simplified some of the abbreviations for different equipment types so they’re less confusing. Submarine types (SSK and SSN hulls) have been dropped, as it never really made sense to have submarines with 15-inch cannons anyway.

    HMS M1

    HMS M1, a submarine with a 12-inch cannon. It could only fire one shot before being reloaded, which required it to stay surfaced. Needless to say, it did not see operational service. (Image: Wikimedia)

    4) Removed dodgy monotype fonts! Not sure what I was thinking with these really. All fonts have been removed from the source package, the whole UI now just uses your system sans-serif font.

    5) Build time rebalancing! Build times used to be dependent on hull size alone. This made it (spoilers!) preferable to research only weapons and radar, and flood the field with quick-to-build ships that did high damage and outranged the enemy so they could get a couple of shots off before dying. (The AI prefers this approach on higher levels too.) Now, although hull still dominates, the other equipment affects the build time too. For example, Hull 1 Weapon 10 Engine 1 Radar 10 used to take 4 seconds to build, it now takes 13.

    6) An extra bug fix—playing a new game after a win or loss now resets the world properly.

    If you fancy a go, head to the game’s page where you’ll find instructions and download links. As always, the source is on Github.

    Have fun!