Category Archives: Internet

Old News

A couple of days ago, I received some suggestions for improvements to a program I had written. This isn’t unusual: I’m writing code all the time, and much of it needs improving. (Thanks, Sam!) No, the surprise in this case was that the suggested changes were to a little script called that I wrote in 1994 and haven’t updated since. It wasn’t very important or impressive, but seeing it again made me a bit nostalgic, because it was very much an artefact of its time.

For a couple of years, I had been playing with early versions of a new programming language called Python (still at version 0.9 when first I fell in love with it). In those days, online discussions about things like new languages occurred on forums called Usenet newsgroups. (As an aside, I was also playing with a new operating system called Linux, which Linus Torvalds had announced on the comp.os.minix newsgroup with one of those throwaway phrases that have gone down in history: “I’m doing a (free) operating system — just a hobby, won’t be big and professional…”.)

Anyway, the Usenet group archives are still accessible now through web servers like Google Groups, but the usual way to read them back then was to fire up a news-reading program and point it at a local news server, which could serve up the messages to you using the ‘network news transfer protocol’ NNTP. Since you wouldn’t necessarily have a fast connection to anywhere else in the world from your desktop, organisations such as universities and the more enlightened companies would run their own NNTP servers and arrange with their pals in other organisations to synchronise everything gradually in the background (or, at least, to synchronise the newsgroups they thought would be of local interest). When a user posted a new message, it would trickle out to most of the servers around the world, typically over the next few hours.

But another novelty was catching my attention at that time… This thing called the World Wide Web. Early web browsers generally spoke enough NNTP to be able to display a message (and maybe even the list of messages in a group), so you could include ‘news://‘ URLs in your web pages to refer to Usenet content. But a browser wasn’t much good for more general news perusal because it didn’t have a way to find out which newsgroups were available on your local server. My script was designed to fill that gap by connecting to the server, getting the list of its groups, and creating a web page with links to them displayed in a nice hierarchical structure. You could then dispense with your special newsgroup app, at least for the purposes of reading.

When version 1.1 of Python was released, Guido van Rossum added a Demo directory with some examples of things you could do with the language, and was included. And there it remained for a couple of decades, until, I discover, it was removed in 2.7.9 because the comment I had casually included at the top about it being free “for non-commercial use” no longer quite fit with the current Python licensing scheme. (I would happily have changed that, had I known, but I wouldn’t have imagined anybody was still using it!) The Demo directory itself was dropped in Python 3, and so was consigned to the historical archives.

So you can understand my surprise at discovering that somebody was still experimenting with it now! I didn’t know anybody had an NNTP server any more.

What’s almost more surprising is that one of my two email addresses, mentioned in the code, is still working 23 years later, so he was able to write and tell me!

All of which tells me I should probably pay more attention to what I put in the comments at the top of my code in future…

Islands in the (Twitter) stream, that is what we are…

Jenna Wortham writes in the NYT Magazine about how being connected to everybody doesn’t necessarily make us more broadminded.


Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that Donald Trump could be elected president, but I was. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan, two of the most liberal places in the country. But even online, I wasn’t seeing many signs of support for him. How did that blindness occur? Social media is my portal into the rest of the world — my periscope into the communities next to my community, into how the rest of the world thinks and feels. And it completely failed me.

In hindsight, that failure makes sense. I’ve spent nearly 10 years coaching Facebook — and Instagram and Twitter — on what kinds of news and photos I don’t want to see, and they all behaved accordingly. Each time I liked an article, or clicked on a link, or hid another, the algorithms that curate my streams took notice and showed me only what they thought I wanted to see. That meant I didn’t realize that most of my family members, who live in rural Virginia, were voicing their support for Trump online, and I didn’t see any of the pro-Trump memes that were in heavy circulation before the election. I never saw a Trump hat or a sign or a shirt in my feeds, and the only Election Day selfies I saw were of people declaring their support for Hillary Clinton.

In April, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, addressed a room of developers about the importance of his social network. Facebook, he said, has the power to bring people together who might otherwise never have the chance to meet. “The internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before,” he said. “We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we are all better off for it.”

But that’s not what has happened.

Always look on the dark side of life

I love these nihilistic security questions from Soheil Rezayazdi…


Thanks to Rory C-J for the link.

A capital idea

The Associated Press has finally decided that we don’t need to capitalise ‘internet’ any more, something I suggested here over six years ago in accordance with Quentin’s Law of Technological Pervasiveness.

(Oh, and that came five years after Quentin’s Second Law, just FYI.)

A little slice of oral history?

Brian McCullough hosts the rather splendid Internet History Podcast, and a few days ago he asked me to talk about some of the stuff I’d been involved in over the years.

You can find the interview here if you’re curious. You have been warned – it’s just over an hour long, and it’s something of a monologue, for which I apologise, but Brian encourages that; he’s a great listener and many of the episodes have a similar format.

It was great fun – my thanks to Brian for letting me natter away.

Giving in to peer pressure?

Today I was composing a tweet. I hit the 140-character limit and started that editing process with which we’ve all become familiar. You know, where you gradually omit and abbreviate words, one by one, while still hoping to convey the spirit of the original meaning…

And then I thought, “Why bother?”, and just posted to Facebook instead.

I never thought it would come to this. I really dislike so much about Facebook. But it’s a place for discussion, where Twitter, though it occasionally carries occasional useful bits of news, is more a place for sporadic broadcasts and emotional outbursts.

I’ve been tweeting for nearly 8 years, but overall it seems less and less useful to me, and I wonder if I’ll still bother by the end of 2016. We’ll see…

In Google we trust…

Marco Arment writes about why he’s reducing his use of Google products:

…the reason I choose to minimize Google’s access to me is that my balance of utility versus ethical comfort is different. Both companies do have flaws, but they’re different flaws, and I tolerate them differently:

  • Apple is always arrogant, controlling, and inflexible, and sometimes stingy.
  • Google is always creepy, entitled, and overreaching, and sometimes oblivious.

How you feel about these companies depends on how much utility you get out of their respective products and how much you care about their flaws.

Simply put, Apple’s benefits are usually worth their flaws to me, and Google’s usually aren’t.

I’m a fan of both companies, though if I had to choose between them for some reason, I too would pick Apple, both for the quality of the product and the cleanliness of the business plan. (My favourite Google product, though, which nobody else can yet match, is Street View.)

Back when Gmail was the hot new thing, and because it was free(!), I started using it as a backup for my email. I never actually use the web interface, but my other accounts forward incoming messages there, where they get filed immediately into the archive. This guards against losing too much in the event of the complete annihilation of whatever other email provider I’m actually using at the time. (Like Marco, I’m a very happy user of Fastmail.) I set up this system 11 years ago, and really haven’t had to think about it since: it’s probably the most painless backup solution available!

It does mean that Google have over 100,000 of my recent messages with which to analyse everything about me, though, and I wonder whether that trade-off is worthwhile now that my entire email archive – of which they only have half – would fit happily on a small USB stick….

Is your technology getting underfoot?


I think this is great. Not long ago we would have thought internet-connected cars somewhat futuristic. Internet-connected bicycles would surely be next. But how far can you push that idea? Well, how about instrumenting your cycling using a pedal which has its own 3G connection and is self-powered?

More information about Connected Cycle here and on their web site.

Pinpointing things on Google Maps

How to add a marker to a Google Map so that you can tell people, “It’s here!”

The state of the internet

John Naughton, interviewed by Tim Garton-Ash at the European Studies Centre in Oxford.

Geek Joke

Thanks to Jon Green for this:


Tweet me nice

I still (often) have doubts about whether Twitter is a valuable medium, but I see, looking at my archive, that I’ve now been tweeting for nearly seven years. Gosh. So it is at least a long-lasting one.

I’m far from a heavy user, though: over that period I’ve only averaged 1.3 tweets a day, with an average length of about 89 characters. Mind you, that’s still well over 40,000 words…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser