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Aquarionics Decade - Ten years of AqCom

Decade Part Five, Personally

I was eighteen ten years ago.

I’d not really had a girlfriend, I was getting into this “Social Internet” thing (I’d been to several AFE meets and a couple of AFP ones), I was just starting at university.

I’ve moved (Paddock Wood -> Sunderland Halls -> Sunderland Fishbowl -> Paddock Wood -> Cambridge Geekhouse -> Reading -> Letchworth Casarufus -> Bedford Fishtank -> Walthamstow Smoothieville -> Leyton Keldaby -> Claption Fyrion Towers) ten times.

I’ve had (Drawer for IDL, Typer for BrowserAngel, Typer for EM, Typer for Trutap, Typer for Skim*) five jobs, some relationships, some disasters, some triumphs.

I’ve been depressed and destructive, cheerful and creative.

I’ve abjectly failed at my ten year plan, though extending it a bit might mean it comes true. This may be the case for a while.

And almost all of it’s on this site, somewhere.

Hello. I’m Nicholas Avenell. I’m usually a geek, sometimes a writer, mostly a fool.

This is my website.

May it last at least another ten years.

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2009 Aquarionics Decade - Ten years of AqCom

Decade Part Four, Popularity

The site as it started was an extension of my interest in games, and to find out how this “web” thing worked.

Later, it became an extension of my life at school, injokes and bits.

When I hit Uni, it became an extension of my university life. The blog was started partly to keep people back home informed that I was still alive, partly as an extension of my IRC/Usenet presence, but also as a platform for mucking around with new technology and talking about doing so. This engenders a split in my readership I’ve never really managed to solve. If I do too much personal stuff, I lose the technical half of my audience. If I do tech stuff, the personal bit of my audience get confused.

I’ve tried to mitigate this with splitting them up, but to be honest a lot of my best stuff is on the dividing line, and I don’t actually like double-posting things, so it’s a division I’ll have to live with.

During the early days of blogging it was quite easy for whole *dozens* of people to know who you are, and for us to fit pretty much all of london blogging into one pub. The “London Blog Meet Ups” right now are mostly full of “how to be a professional blogger” type things, which I think misses the essential point and advantage of blogging.

Anyway, there are three high points of my blogging lifestyle that I remember. They were all over five years ago now, which is a bit depressing, but the world was smaller then and more cool things could happen.

ESF.

RSS is annoying, because a lot of the format is tags, and the spec on how to parse them was vague. This was fine when it started, because it was simple, but as it grew multiple things got blessed and some of them contradicted each other, so there were massive bun-fights about how much RSS sucked. The last of these bun-fights ended with Atom, but in between I failed to help with a new syndication standard, based on tab separated values, called ESF, which was quick and bandwidth efficient. My favourite thing in the world ever? WordPress supports it by default. It got linked to by Mark Pilgrim, and my site didn’t fall over, which was a surprise.

The other two things are both “Aquarion reads stuff” for two of my favourite bloggers, one of which I inadvertently insulted during the ESF fiasco. The first was when David Salo (standard geek biographical note: Middle Earth Languages consultant for the LOTR movies) wrote a piece for Caveat Lector called Cave Linguistica and I turned it into performance art, which led directly to Shelly “Burningbird” Powers asking me to read a short story she wrote, called “The Mockingbird’s Wish“, which I read eventually (Note, both of those are archive.org links due to the ravages of time on Dorathea’s archives and the complete removal of Shelly’s (Her reaction to the recording is archived here).

(Burningbird is the person I accidentally insulted with ESF, a badly phrased “Even Shelly could use it” taken as an attack on her abilities rather than a comment on her dislike of the current situation. I am, occasionally, an idiot).

Since then my traffic’s sloped downhill, as I stopped journaling personally here due to… well, stuff, and I stopped writing technically because I was too busy working on it. I’ve now given up on filtering what I write here, so I’m going back to “Stuff that interests me” and seeing what that does for the world. If nobody reads it, then at least I write it down.

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2009 Aquarionics Decade - Ten years of AqCom

Decade Part Three, Technology

Originally, Aquarionics was straight HTML written in EditPlus on my non-internetted computer (ah, the year 2000), transfered to zip disk, brought to University and uploaded. My first hosts – Pennyhost – ran windows-based servers which supported server side includes, which was as advanced as I had any clue about. Within a short while I’d found Blogger, which would do all the complicated bits at its end and then FTP the files over (the Blogspot hosting service would come later).

I could code Visual Basic 4, 5 & 6 and was learning Java and C at uni, but I didn’t start learning PHP really until I got quite heavily into a game called “Solar Empire” which was written in it. This meant finding a host with PHP, and as it happened I had a conversation with fellow AFPerson Caomhin in the line for a Neil Gaiman signing, and soon I was moving everything over to his Beehost service.

At the time, there were a lot of CMS systems, but not many blogging ones. I didn’t (and don’t) get on with Movable Type, which was the gorilla at the time, so I built my own. It was called “Klide“, it stood for “Klide Links In Diary Entries” and was really quite simple. The only really advanced bit was some of the archive interogation:

The other bit is behind the scenes. Klide now can display seperate entries (http://www.aquarionics.com/?id=200, for example, goes to entry number 200); it can display all the entries *since* a date (for example, http://www.aquarionics.com/?since=2001-09-11 is everything since Sept 11th) and *also* the last x entries (http://www.aquarionics.com/?limit=3 is the last 3, for example) complete with comments. The ability to turn off comments is coming. Promise :-). Also, the system now has a text-mode (http://www.aquarionics.com?style=text) for those in Non-CSS compliant browsers. So Comment. Have Fun. Speak 🙂

Later, this also gained the ability to do “?on=*-12-25”, which would display all the entries written on christmas day. I like this feature. It took ages for me to get it into Klide’s replacement, and then I moved over to WordPress soon after. I should build a plugin to make that work again.

Klide existed alongside Klind (Klind Links In Node Data) and Kewl (Kewl’s excessively wonderful links). The former was a pre-wiki wiki modelled along the lines of Everything2 with a tenth the featureset and none of the charm, the latter a fairly basic start-page/portal thing mostly for my own use.

In Q3 2002, I did the One Thing you’re not supposed to do with established code-bases, and dumped it. Then I did the One Thing you’re not supposed to do with established websites, and took it offline, rewriting the entire thing as Epistula (in the open). This is my primary basis for the belief that you should actually tear down and write from scratch occasionally. Epistula was a second system, and in some instances it showed, but it was more of a framework than a full CMS. At some point I’ll sit down and write what it did that other things didn’t, but mostly I’m quite pleased that something I wrote in 2002 was still able to handle everything I wanted to do with it until 2008.

AqCom’s technology base stayed quite stable between 2002 and 2009. Various modules were added to Epistula to support fledgling new standards (WoX, which became necho, which became atom) new obsessions (delicious, flickr, twitter) and new things I just wanted to do. I moved hosts to another friend’s server – Pol’s Geekstuff, but the technological basis remained the same.

When I wrote Epistula, PHP’s OO functionality was quite limited, and I wasn’t really an OO person anyway. I knew all the basic theory, and would use Objects for data in circumstances, but I hadn’t really lined this up with my web development coding or PHP.

Between 2002 and 2007 I became a better programmer, but I was still working very Functionally. When I moved over to Trutap in January 2007, I had to get up to speed very quickly on more formal Model-View-Controller systems and, once we moved over to a Zend-framework based system with a very formal OO structure on top of it, the switch in my brain flipped properly and I got to grips with how it all worked.

After that, working on Epistula became harder. Coding new stuff for it in the old style was distressing, and coding in the new style was bending the internal APIs until they whined. I built a new central routing interface, and was in the process of rewriting modules to work with it, when I broke Admin.

Admin’s always been a weak point of Epistula. Not being public facing, it’s never been pretty, and when the site had been down for a month and I needed to get back up and running, it was Admin that got hacked into shape worst. Specifically, the bit that broke was the code that worked out the differences between applied categories and current categories to update the linking table with the new information. It became impossible to edit categories on posts and then, when I’d worked on it a bit, to post things at all.

I could go back though SVN, but the functionality that broke Admin fixed too many other things. I put it to one side, I meant to get back to it later, and I never did.

In April, I bit the bullet and installed WordPress on Aquarionics. I’d already been using it for other sites, so I knew how it worked. I got all the content in without losing the metadata, which took a while. That I failed to make any diary entries of worth between January and April is probably for the best, all things considered.

I’ve been meaning to update more ever since then, to be honest, but it’s mostly a matter of establishing a habit. So, this is a new attempt to do so, and keep the site running for another ten years.

I still need to add missing functionality. The URLs don’t match up with the old ones completely yet, the articles are still mixed in with the diary entries, the search interface sucks, the 404 is boring again, but I can post (to the future, even) and I can update, and maybe I can get some people reading it again.

Though that (popularity) is a discussion for another day.

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2009 Aquarionics Decade - Ten years of AqCom

Decade Part Two, Content

The journal really started as part of the old Aquarion site back on Netmanor. I was keeping a daily-ish diary of what I was doing and thinking, mostly as an exercise to keep me writing. Most of the entries for the first six months or so have gone the Way Of All Things, but in April I found out about this new thing called “blogger” that I could use. This kind of revolutionised how I was using the site. Previously, stuff got written up in longhand on the bus in to and from university, on trains, occasionally in class. I would transcript it in the evening into a local copy of my site, transfer it back to uni over floppy disk or Zip drive and upload the new version of the site.

Blogger made publishing new articles really very easy, but to some extent took a lot of the planning of articles out of the system. On the other hand, everything I wrote in Blogger was converted into Klide – my original CMS – and from there into Epistula (Klide’s replacement) and eventually into WordPress earlier this year. Nothing before that survived, which says something about offsite backups, I suppose.

Aquarionics went though four of its 16 – so far – redesigns in the first four months as I gradually got a better idea of what I was doing. Redesigning a site with ten years of cruft has its very own varieties of “interesting”. There’s a lot of entries which contain stuff that only really works in context of the design they were originally written in, and whilst almost everything was written assuming black text on a white background, that’s not really universal either. Lastly, whilst around Epistula’s start I set up a series of CSS styles for common stuff I would want cross-design (Float this picture right, caption this, this is a Q&A section, this is an amazon link) not only does stuff prior to that randomly fail, but sometimes stuff afterwards does as well, as the classes have evolved to suck less in newer browsers.

Originally, Epistula was going to keep everything in an arbitrary XML format (see XML is the new black, from May 2003) based on XHTML with some custom attributes and compile it into whatever HTML the design required on render (which it would then cache until the next edit. Fried Caching in action), with the added bonus that stuff could be compiled into PDF or LaTeX instead. However, in the interests of Actually Relaunching The Site, this was ditched and everything was just saved in either text, textile or HTML form with a flag indicating which. I still somewhat regret doing that. I’ll talk more about Epistula tomorrow.

On top of this is the things that just fell down the cracks, like the article on the Sunderland Student Games which I should put back at some point. Changing hosts, reworking the site, transferring everything between CMS systems, all these things cause entropy, and every so often I’ll go looking for something I’ve posted that just isn’t there anymore. Half a dozen stories, for example, or readings of a poem I never typed up.

The above is kind of one of the problems with Aquarionics as a whole, which is the shear weight of badly indexed content makes longer-term relevant stuff harder to find. A lot of the Articles are still useful, but almost all of the diary entries aren’t. There’s a whole bunch of crappy fantasy schlock that shouldn’t be anywhere, let alone on a site people might visit, and other bits of writing I’m less upset for people to discover (Though most creative writing stuff goes on Faction Fiction, which – as you can see – is just as well updated as everything else. Though that’s mostly due to more creative writing going on things not yet public). Since useless stuff rarely becomes useful, and useful stuff will only atrophy, the best bet might be to go though everything in the system and add a “This is still useful” flag, and periodically review it and remove it from things that lie.

(Part three is technology)

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Aquarionics

Attn. Livejournal Users

Livejournal’s rss feed system sucks goat balls.

Please do not comment on the LJ feed, because I don’t get notified and I’m unlikely to notice it.

(Not that I get a huge flood of comments in any form, but the additional point is that I’d prefer not to split the comments I do get between the place where I posted the original post and a website that will delete without recovery a comment on any post more than two weeks old)

(Actually, the above also pretty much applies to Facebook, and I can’t disable comments there either. Yay syndication)

Also, LJ mangles local URLs to be relative to google (whose feed proxy service I use) instead of the WEBSITE AT THE TOP THAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO USE.

I do have a feed carefully constructed so that even LJ won’t fuck it up, but last time I asked they flat out refused to change the feed to use it, because as a content creator I don’t actually deserve any control over this kind of stuff. I’d turn off comments on it, or at least sign up for notifications, but LJ don’t allow that.

In conclusion, I’d appreciate it if you’d click one of the links at the top of any posts you see in the Aquarionics LJ feed, as if I’d added “Read More” links and just fed you a snippit of the content.

I’m a little sorry about this, mostly about the fact that involves leaving your friends page, which I’m aware is annoying and faffy, but I am afraid I cannot do anything about how badly they mangle the site feed.

Mostly, though, I’m just pissed off.

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2000 Aquarionics Decade - Ten years of AqCom

Decade Part One, Domain

Ten years ago, I had a website.

I find it vaguely amusing that for the first few years of the site’s existence, I have copies of the entire site. One such is for January 1999.

I was running a monthly newsletter called “Grey Areas”, created as a fansite for Lionhead Games’ forthcoming genre-changing wonder, Black & White. I was also running “Follow That Game” a kind of multi-game fansite for the five games I was most interested in at the time. At the time that snapshot was created, those games were Sid Meier’s Alpha Centuri, Black and White, Command & Conquer Tiberian Sun, Simcity 3000 and Quake III.

Every single one of those games was released and generated at least one sequel, although SC3000 changed quite a bit before it was actually released.

In the archived site, the front page is just a jump page to several subsites, including a photo tour of my bedroom, and a record of which bits were updated. This is ten years ago, I’m in the process of screwing up my last year of my A-Levels. I’m involved in usenet a bit, but not as much as I will be really quite soon. The site was hosted on netmanor.com. Within a couple of months, the image-based side navigation would be replaced by a javascript include so I only had to update it from one place. Soon after that I went to university, and started putting a little more personal stuff into the front page updates.

Between Christmas and New Year 1999, I was attempting to come to terms with the whole “end of the millennium” thing, beyond the “It actually starts next year” refrain, I wanted to start something with the new millennium, mostly to see if I could.

So, ten years ago today, I signed up with “Pennyhost” for pretty much their cheapest hosting service, which came with a dot.com. I wasn’t really expecting them to do anything about it until they got back into the office in the new year, but the domain was registered automatically, all I had to do was upload my site.

So I did, and what was “Aquarion: The Website” became what it is now, less the Exocet font I was so attached to back then.

Aquarionics.com.

Categories
2009 Christmas

Holiday seasonings to taste

So, today I’m going to talk to you about the True Meaning of Christmas, because right now it’s that or the True Meaning of Art, and there’s a seventeen floor drop outside my flat, and I’d hate to have to throw anyone or thing off of it. Not least because it’s specifically in the Tenant’s Agreement for the entire block, Part Two, Subsection Seven, Thou Shalt Not Throw Projectiles From Thy Balcony. One small paper aeroplane, no matter how tempting, will cause the entire residents association to stop squabbling about the colour of the stairway to the laundrette; the TV Aeriel in the gym and the Legend Of The Missing Sinking Fund and instead come down upon my head like a ton of – tastefully repainted – building blocks. Presumably not ones thrown from a balcony, however.

Anyway, where was I before I started talking about throwing people from tower blocks?

Ah, yes. Respect For Your Fellow Man, and other themes of Christmas.

I’m going to be Privileged here, in the internet liberal sense of the word[1], and entirely redefine a word based purely on my perception of it. I am not religious. I have had the standard British education, which is carefully non-denominational, but is Church of England non-denominational. I sat though a large number of family services while a cub scout and later a scout, and my enduring memories of church are a) standing in the cold and frosty morning waving a flag, and b) not getting the decent parts in Joseph because I didn’t go to Sunday School. I have, over the last couple of decades, carefully formulated my own personalised form of religion which has the useful properties of supporting what I believe to be the case anyway, providing me with a personal moral compass, and being entirely uninteresting to anyone else in the world. In these three things it lacks only the community aspect a more mainstream religion would give me, and this is offset by the fact that I know every follower of my set of beliefs personally.

(I especially like comparing atheism to other kinds of religion. If only I could find some way of drawing electrical power from boiling blood, I’d be set for life. This is filed alongside the idea of attaching basic dynamos to coffins, so that if we’re going to do things like, for example, allow people to publish Hitchhikers Guide fanfic we should at least reap the rewards of Mr Adams’ post-respiratory revolutions).

So, for me the concept of “Christmas” has little to do with the celebration of the Nativity, Lights, Lack of light or anything more specific than “We, and people we like and are related to, and combinations of the above, have survived into the depths of winter. Long may this continue. I’ve thought of you, and would like you to have this gift. Now, lets eat”. Everyone else in the world is free to celebrate whatever they like. Enjoy whatever you celebrate, whoever its with. Even if you’re not in the depths of winter.

Bastards.

Categories
2009 Christmas

So there it was

We sit, and we watch.

Today is the 25th December 2009, although it’ll be boxing day by the time this is posted. It’s five to midnight.

Today I woke up early when I got a text message saying my server (which hosts this site, for example) was down. Turns out I haven’t fixed the thing that makes the backup process explode and go crazy. I think I’ve done so now, if you can read this it’s possible.

Shortly afterwards I discovered that Christmas day is the one day a year my girlfriend becomes a morning person. There were small presents, and then there was “wait until sunrise”, and then there were more presents. We got a slow cooker, which will be handy. I got Clare a pony, a kitten and an elegant manor (Well, a hornby model bookshop. It was the closest Hamley’s sold). This is what happens when the answer to “What do you want for Christmas?” gets taken literally.

Once again, I left my Christmas shopping until the last minute, only this time the 23rd instead of Christmas Eve. I recommend it, in a way. It means that “I must find the perfect gift” gets sidelined for “I must find *a* gift”, and since in almost all circumstances the existence and applicability of the gift is more important than its worth and/or contents, this all works out fine.

After that we played co-op Borderlands for a while. Eventually we hit a point where the mission we were on was very obviously over our level and gave up in favour of bacon sandwiches and a walk down the canal that runs close to our flat. Then more games until I went to cook Christmas dinner, which was roast pork with a vast array of trimmings. This worked quite well, slightly overboard on the trimmings, and the crackling didn’t, but it was tasty.

This evening we watched “Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra“, which I highly recommend for the redoing of the William Tell overture alone. While Bailey’s classic song material does work well with an orchestra backing, I think I would have preferred more “Guide” and less older “Bill Bailey”. It’s still both funny and well worth watching.

Then I updated my weblog. It’s ten years old soon.

Christmas Haul

Categories
Random

Let it snow


Let it snow

Originally uploaded by Aquarion

Since there’s no place to go.

Categories
aqcom

Clackity Noise

Okay, so I’ve stopped writing.

It’s not just here, it’s everywhere, really. I’m not making any progress on any of the things I should be writing or doing, the stuff, the actual *plan* that means I’m not turning computers off and on again for thirty more years. The plan. (Er, I’m sorry if you’re one of the people I turn things off and on again for on occasion, especially if you pay me to do it). Code, fiction or anything else, it’s all got lost in the turnaround the last year or so’s been.

I need to make the clackity noise happen again. (TL;DR: Typing makes a clackity noise, and then words appear. Stories come out of words. Real, pretend or a mash of the two).

I managed to rewrite the first part of The Story last week, which has served me well. Unfortunatly it’s the same bit of the story as I had before, only this time with a better idea of what it is, which helps, but doesn’t actually advance me any. It’s still, when you boil down to it, the story of a man on a train.

In just under two weeks, Aquarionics dot com will be ten years old. It is already the single longest project I’ve ever worked on, and contains a lot of stuff I want to continue to exist, and continue to do. The way to make this happen is to try to do what I was doing back when I had actual readers, which is write stuff.

So, there may be a few more boring stories here, instead of me trying to make stuff interesting, and I’m sorry about that, but it’ll get better. Or, at least, I hope so.