The Birthday Gift of Blogging

An AI-generated image of a blog post popping out of a gift box whilst a crowd of people look on in awe

You may have heard of Matt Mullenweg – he co-founded WordPress, and is now the CEO of Automattic, which owns and contributes to (the downloadable version that you install on your own server, like I do).

Matt, like me, is turning 40 this year. And, as a ‘birthday gift’, he has asked people to blog. About anything.

Having only recently returned to blogging regularly, I’m starting to enjoy it again. With the rise of the Fediverse, the web is starting to feel like it did again in blogging’s heyday in the mid-2000s. Whilst some people used centralised sites like Blogger and TypePad back then, you could use tools like WordPress and Movable Type to run your own blog on your own server, and still interact with everyone else. And then the closed gardens of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like came along, and you had to be on those platforms to interact with other users.

Anil Dash has written a piece for Rolling Stone magazine called ‘The Internet is About to Get Weird Again’. And I think he’s right; there’s growing dissatisfaction with these big centralised services and how they hoover up so much personal data to sell to advertisers. Meta’s Threads is dipping its toes into the Fediverse, which would mean that Threads and Mastodon users can follow and interact with each other in a way that hasn’t been possible before. And if it works for Threads, could we see Instagram joining the Fediverse, to connect with PixelFed and maybe even Flickr?

Anil has some further reflections on his own blog. I’m hesitant to say that ‘blogging is back’; after all, there are so many other places that we can share short thoughts where there are audiences. But I feel like it’s having a bit of a renaissance, and in an age where there’s so much AI generated waffle filling up our search engine results, being able to interact with other humans has never been more important. It was what the web was designed for, after all.

So, happy birthday to Matt – and here is your gift from me. I hope that many others will do the same.

Comment Spam strikes back

An illustration of a robot turning web pages into canned meat product. Generated using Bing AI Image Generator

So now that I’m blogging again, it’s the return of comment spam on my blog posts.

Comment spam has always been a problem with blogs – ever since blogs first allowed comments, spam has followed. Despite the advert of the rel=”nofollow” link attribute, automated bots still crawl web sites and submit comments with links in the hope that this will boost the rankings in search engines.

In the early days of blogging, blogs often appeared high in Google’s search engine results – by their very nature, they featured lots of links, were updated frequently, and the blogging tools of the time often produced simple HTML which was easily parsed by crawlers. So it was only natural that those wanting to manipulate search engine rankings would try to take advantage of this.

I’ve always used Akismet for spam protection, even before I switched to WordPress, and it does a pretty good job. Even then, I currently have all comments set to be manually approved by me, and last week a few got through Akismet that I had to manually junk.

Humans, or AI?

These five interested me because they were more than just the usual generic platitudes about this being a ‘great post’ and ‘taught me so much about this topic’. They were all questions about the topic of the blog post in question, with unique names. However, as they all came through together, and had the same link in them, it was clear that they were spam – advertising a university in Indonesia, as it happens.

Had it not been for the prominent spam link and the fact they all came in together, I may have not picked up on them being spam. Either they were actually written by a human, or someone is harnessing an AI to write comment spam posts now. If it’s the latter, then I wonder how much that’s costing. As many will know already, AI requires a huge amount of processing power and whilst some services are offering free and low cost tools, I can’t see this lasting much longer as the costs add up. But it could also just be someone being paid using services like Amazon Mechanical Turk, even though such tasks are almost certainly against their terms of service.

I think I’m a little frustrated that comment spam is still a problem even after a few years’ break from blogging. But then email spam is a problem that we still haven’t got a fix for, despite tools like SPF, DKIM and DMARC. I’m guessing people still do it because, in some small way, it does work?

Bringing back the archives

An illustration of a phoenix rising from the ashes, with a web page. Generated by the Bing AI Image Creator

Last month, I wrote about how I had found peace with myself regarding losing over a decade’s worth of blog posts.

Well, I’ve already sort-of changed my mind. I have already brought back some old posts which, until now, were only accessible on the Web Archive Wayback Machine.

This doesn’t mean that all of my old posts will be reinstated – if anything, I’ll be bringing back 1-2% of them at most. My criteria are:

  • Posts which, despite being offline for about 5 years, are still linked to. I’m using the Redirection WordPress plugin to track 404 errors, which you can group by URL to see the most commonly not-found pages.
  • Posts that still offer useful advice, or information that is otherwise not easily accessible on other web sites.
  • Posts that mark important events in my life.

So, here’s a selection of what I’ve brought back already, in chronological order:

  • Media Player Classic (January 2004). A review of a now-defunct lightweight alternative media player for Windows. VLC is probably a better option nowadays.
  • Apple Lossless Encoder (May 2004). A blog post about Apple’s then-new music format which preserves full audio quality when ripping CDs in iTunes, and how it compares to other formats like FLAC and Monkey’s Audio.
  • Knock-off Nigel (August 2008). An anti-piracy advert for TV.
  • How to migrate a Parallels virtual machine to VirtualBox (November 2008). A how-to guide for switching from Parallels Desktop to VirtualBox, which I imagine is still useful for some people.
  • Fixing high memory usage caused by mds (February 2013). A how-to guide for fixing an issue with MacOS. I don’t use a Mac anymore but hopefully this is still useful to someone.
  • Baby update (November 2015). This was actually a draft version of a post that must have somehow survived in Firefox’s local storage, so I re-published it.
  • How to: fix wrong location on iPhone (January 2017). Another how-to guide that fixed an issue I was having at the time with my iPhone’s location randomly jumping around.

There’s more to come, as and when I find time to restore them. I’m also using Google Search Console to find pages that it’s expecting to work, but that result in a 404 error.

Finding peace

A photo of a rubbish bin at the now-demolished Bolton West Services on the M61. It says 'Litter P eas'.

There are some of you who have been subscribed to this blog’s feed for many, many years. I started writing a blog way back in 2002 – back when Web 2.0 was just starting to become a thing – and kept it going for almost 20 years.

And then a botched server upgrade resulted in everything being wiped, including my backups.

It had been my intention to try and salvage what I could; after all, many of my old blog posts should be in the Web Archive, and in other places across the internet too. But working full-time and being a dad just doesn’t leave much spare time, and I tend to prefer to use my free time to consume media (mostly reading) rather than producing new blog posts, or, more pertinently, bringing back old ones.

But it isn’t just a time issue. If I ended up taking a sabbatical from work, or parental leave, then I still wouldn’t go back to re-fill this blog’s arhcives. I’ve made a decision that what happened has happened, and I’m drawing a line under it.

There were some good blog posts over the years, that generated a lot of comments and links at the time. Others highlighted key points in my life; graduating university, relationship milestones, becoming a father and so on. But, my reasons for not undertaking blog archaeology are as follows:

I don’t stand by some of the things I wrote

I wrote more than one post about enjoying the DVDs of various sitcoms written by a well-known comedy writer in the 1990s and 2000s. Unfortunately, said comedy writer, who I am not going to name, is now a major figure in the pushback against rights for trans* people in the UK, and as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I can’t support that. This is just one example, but my opinions have changed over the years, and I don’t really want to go back and revisit what I’ve written on some topics. Especially things like my changing relationship with Apple products, and politics.

It’s worth noting that, when I started my blog in 2002, I was only 17 – I’m now fast approaching my forties, and with that comes more wisdom and knowledge of how the world works, and being aware of my priviledges as a white, middle class cisgendered male person.

I also don’t think that people really want to read about how much alcohol I was drinking in my early years at university, or the regular apologies for not blogging as often as I thought I should.

There are things I wrote about that I don’t want in the public domain anymore

Being a parent and the responsibilities it brings changes you as a person – just ask a neuroscientist. Early on, I talked about and shared photos of our child in a way that I wouldn’t do now; nowadays, I try to keep much of their identity off the internet – including their name and gender. They haven’t consented to that information being out there, and are too young to understand the implications of consent. And I wouldn’t want them to read things written about them when they’re older that might upset them.

In my previous relationship, between 2005 and 2009, we agreed that I would only use a pseudonym when talking about my partner, and though we separated nearly 15 years ago, I still consider myself bound by the conditional consent that we agreed at the time. Maybe when our child is older, we could agree something similar.

Some stuff is really out of date

Early on, I tracked the development of the development of the web browser that would become Mozilla Firefox, and blogged about the changes in each beta release in great detail, up to the release of version 1.0 in 2004. But after almost 20 years, so much has changed; the screenshots I took are probably all gone too, and so I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained by bringing those old posts back.

Because I’ve always had an interest in technology, there are many old posts that I’ve written that are outdated. I’m sure some contain advice which, if followed today, would be actively detrimental rather than helpful.

Perhaps, if I somehow managed to get the time and resources to bring back the really good posts, it would be worthwhile. But there would be a lot of poor quality content to sift through, and I certainly wouldn’t want to bring anything back without reading it first.

Seeing as how the likelihood of me having that time is low, then I have had to make peace with the fact that all that content is going to have to remain scattered to the digital winds of the internet. And that’s okay.

An update (January 2024)

Okay so I’ve already gone back on my word and started bringing back some old posts. My aim is to re-instate blog posts that are still getting traffic – I’m tracking dead links in WordPress and Google Site Console, and if they’re linking to things that still have value, I’ll re-instate them. I’m also aiming to have at least one post from each month, going back to January 2002. Overall, I may bring back about 1-2% of what was here before.

What’s this? A blog post?

Well, hello. This is my first blog post in almost four years.

I last wrote a post on here in September 2018, and then took an un-planned break from blogging. This was exacerbated at the end of 2018, when I attempted to upgrade the server that this web site runs on, and ended up wiping everything. And I mean, everything, including the backups that I thought I’d saved elsewhere but hadn’t.

Just like that, 16 and a half years of blog posts were gone, along with all the comments. Now, it’s possible that I could have re-built most of the blog posts, using things like the Web Archive and help from others, but between working full-time and being a parent, I just didn’t have the time or the inclination to do so.

Furthermore, I was beginning to become uncomfortable with how much I had shared about my life over the years. Back when I started the blog, aged 17, I had a tendency to over-share. Over time I reigned that in; I was in a relationship with someone between 2005 and 2009 where I agreed not to share her real name on here, and though we’ve both moved on I’m keeping that commitment – not least because we’re still in touch and actually met up recently.

But I also wanted to reign in how much I talk about my child, who is now six. I’m happy to share their age, but I’m afraid you won’t be knowing their name or seeing recent photos, and I’m even keeping their gender off here now too. It’s about consent and privacy – as a parent, I want to protect my child, and they’re too young to really know what a blog is, never mind have lots of information about their life made public.

I am hoping to get back into the habit of blogging regularly, though not on a daily basis as I had aimed for in the past. Initially I’m aiming for twice a week, as there are four years of news to catch up on, but my minimum aspiration is for one new blog post per week.

Why now? Well, I’ve wanted to get back into writing for pleasure again. I’ve written a few things on Medium, but it feels like writing for a magazine; I’d rather stick to somewhere more personal that’s just about and run by me. I feel like I have things to say now, and hopefully the time to put those things into written words.

If you’re an old-time reader of my blog, welcome back, and I hope that this wasn’t too much of a surprise when it popped up in your RSS reader. And if you’re a new reader, hello. You can read my very dry ‘about me‘ page which is more focussed on my work, but I hope you’ll stick around and will get to know me better.