I hate change, especially when it is inflicted upon me

For at least the past 5 or 6 years I have been hosting the websites I care most about, including this one, with a good-value, mostly reliable provider (OVH) that has servers in Canada. I don’t dislike the company and I’m still paying them, though the value isn’t feeling so great right now, because they are soon to retire their old VPS solution on which my sites are hosted, forcing me to either leave them or ‘upgrade’ to one of their new plans. Of course, the cheapest plan that can fit what I already have is more expensive than the old one. If I had the time, I might look for an alternative, but Canada is not well served by companies that provide cheap, reliable virtual private servers. There’s no way I’m moving my sites to US hosting (guys, stop letting rich corporations decide your laws for you, or at least elect someone to your presidency who’s not a dead ringer for the antichrist). I do have servers elsewhere but I live here, and I like Canada more than any other country.

My new hosting plan might be a bit better than the old one in some ways but worse in others. I am now paying $15/month instead of $10 for something I didn’t need to be improved, and that is mostly not much better than it was. I have lost a day or two of my own time to migration already (with just one site mostly migrated), and expect to lose more as I migrate more sites, not to mention significant downtime when I (inevitably) mess things up, especially because, of course, I am ‘fixing’ a few things in the process. In fairness, OVH have given me 6 months of ‘free’ hosting by way of compensation but, given the amount of work I need to put into it and the increased cost over the long term, it’s not a good deal for me.

I do understand why things must change. You cannot run the same old servers forever because things decay, and complexity (in management, especially) inevitably increases. This is true of all technologies, from languages to bureaucracies, from vehicles to software. But this seems like a sneaky way to impose a price hike, rather than an inevitable need. More to the point, if I need to change the technologies my sites run on, l want to be the one that makes those choices, and I want to choose exactly when I make them. That’s precisely why I put up with the pain and hassle of managing my ‘own’ servers. Well, that and the fact that I figure a computing professor ought to have a rough idea about real world computing, and having my own server does mean I can help out friends and family from time to time.

Way back in time I used to run servers for a living so, though the pace of change (in me and technologies I use) makes it more difficult to keep up than it used to be, I am not too scared about doing the hard stuff. I really like the control that managing a whole server gives me over everything. If it breaks, it’s my fault, but it’s also my responsibility when it works. I’ve always told myself that, worst case, all I need to do is to zip up the sites and move them lock stock and barrel somewhere else, so I am not beholden to proprietary tools and APIs, nor do I have much complexity to worry about when things need to change. I’ve also always known that this belief is over-simplistic and overly optimistic, but I’ve tried to brush that under the carpet because it’s only a problem when it becomes a problem. Now it’s a problem.

On the bright side, I have steadfastly avoided cloud alternatives because they lock you in, in countless ways, eventually making you nothing but a reluctant cash cow for the cloud providers. This would have been many times worse if I had picked a cloud solution. I have one small server to worry about rather than dozens of proprietary services, and everything on it is open and standardized. But path dependencies can lock you in too. Though I rarely make substantial changes – that way madness lies – I’ve made quite a surprising number of small decisions about the system over the past few years that, on the whole, I have mostly documented but that, en masse, are more than a slight pain to deal with. This site was down for hours today, for instance, while I struggled to figure out why it had suddenly decided that it knew nothing about SSL any more, which it turned out was due to a change in the Let’s Encrypt certificates (that had to be regenerated for the new site) and some messiness with permissions that didn’t quite work the same way on the new servers (my bad for choosing this time to upgrade the operating system, but it was a job that needed doing), combined with some automation that wanted to change server configuration files that I expected to configure myself. This kind of process can reveal digital decay that you might not have noticed happening, too. Right now, for example, there appear to be about 50 empty files sitting in my media folder for reasons that I am unsure of, that were almost certainly there on the old server. I think they may be harmless, but I am bothered that there might be something that is not working that I have migrated over, that might cause more problems in future. More hours of tedious effort ahead.

The main thing that all this highlights to me, though, is something I too often try to ignore: that I do not own what I think I own any more. This is my site, but someone else has determined that it should change. All technologies tend towards entropy, be they poems, words, pyramids, or bicycles. They persist only through an active infusion of energy. I suppose I should therefore feel no worse about this than when a drain gets blocked or a lock needs replacing, but I do feel upset, because this is something I was paying someone else to deal with, and because there is absolutely nothing I could have done (or at least nothing that would not have been much more hassle) to prevent it. I have many similar ‘lifetime’ services that are equally tenuous, ‘lifetime’ referring only to the precarious lifespan of the company in its current state, before it chooses to change its policies or gets acquired by someone else, or simply goes out of business. A few of the main things I have learned through having too many such things are:

  • to keep it simple: small, easily replaceable services trump big, highly functional systems every single time.
  • to always maintain alternatives. Even if OVH had gone belly-up, I still have mirrors on lesser sites that would keep me going in a worst case scenario, though it would have been harder work and less efficient to have gone down that path.
  • don’t trust any company, ever. They are not people so, even if they are lovely now, there is no guarantee that they will be next year, or tomorrow. And their purpose is to survive, and probably to make money, not to please you. You can trust people, but you cannot trust machines.
  • this is even true of the companies you work for. Much as I love my university, its needs and purposes only partially coincide with mine. The days of the Landing, for instance, a system into which I have poured much energy for well over 10 years, are very likely numbered, though I have no idea whether that means it has months or years left to live. Not my call, and not the call of any one individual (though someone will eventually sign its death warrant). With luck and concerted effort, it will evolve into something more wonderful but that’s not the point. Companies are not human, and they don’t think like humans.
  • if possible, stick with whatever defaults the software comes with or, at least, make sure that all changes are made in as few places as possible. It’s an awful pain to have to find the tweaks you made when you move it to a new system unless they are all in one easy-to-find place.
  • open standards are critical. There’s no point in getting great functionality if it relies on the goodwill of a company to maintain it, except where the value is unequivocally transient. I don’t much mind a trustworthy agent handling my spam filtering or web conferencing, for instance, though I’d not trust one to handle my instant messaging or site hosting, unless they are using standards that others are using. Open source solutions do die, and do lose support, but they are always there when you need them, and it is always possible to migrate, even if the costs may be high.

This site is now running on the new system, with a slightly different operating system and a few upgrades here and there. It might even be a little faster than the last version, eventually. I (as it turns out) wisely chose Linux and open source web software, so it continues to work, more or less as it did before, notwithstanding the odd major problem. If this had been a Windows or even a Mac site, though, it would have been dead long ago.

I have a bit of work to do on the styling here and there – I’m not sure quite what became of the main menu and (for aforementioned reasons) am reluctant to mess around with the CSS. If you happen to know me, or even if you don’t but can figure out how to deal with the anti-spam stuff in the comments section of this page, do tell me if you spot anything unusual.

Finally, if I’ve screwed up the syndication then you will probably not be reading this anyway. I’ve already had to kill the (weak) Facebook integration in order to make it work at all, though that’s a good riddance and I’m happy to see it go. Twitter might be another matter, though. Another set of proprietary APIs and, potentially, another fun problem to deal with tomorrow.

Addendum: so it turns out that I cannot save anything I write here. Darn. I thought it might be a simple problem with rewrite rules but that’s not it. When you read this, I will have found a solution (and it will probably be obvious, in retrospect) but it is making me tear my hair out right now.

Addendum to addendum: so I did screw up the syndication, and it was a simple problem with rewrite rules. After installing the good old fashioned WordPress editor everything seemed fine, but I soon discovered that the permalinks were failing too, so (though it successfully auto-posted to Twitter) links I had shared to this post were failing. All the signs pointed to a problem with Apache redirection, but all my settings were quadruple-checked correct. After a couple of hours of fruitless hacking,  I realized that the settings were quadruple-checked correct for the wrong domain name (jondron.org, which actually redirects here to jondron.ca, but that is still running on the old site so not working properly yet). Doh. I had even documented this, but failed to pay attention to my own notes. It’s a classic technology path-dependency leading to increased complexity of exactly the kind that I refer to in my post. The history of it is that I used to use jondron.org as my home page, and that’s how the site was originally set up, but I chose to switch to jondron.ca a few years ago because it seemed more appropriate and, rather than move the site itself to a new directory, I just changed everything in its database to use the jondron.ca domain name instead. Because I had shared the old site with many people, I set up a simple HTTP redirect from jondron.org to point to this one, and had retained the virtual host on the server for this purpose. All perfectly logical, and just a small choice along the way, but with repercussions that have just taken up a lot of my time. I hope that I have remembered to reset everything after all the hacks I tried, but I probably haven’t. This is how digital decay sets in.

A Universe Explodes: A Blockchain Book, from Editions At Play

A Universe Explodes A really nice project from the Editions at Play team at Google, in which blockchain is used both to limit supply to a digital book (only 100 copies made) and, as the book is passed on, to make it ‘age,’ in the sense that each reader must remove two words from each page and add one of their own before passing it on (that they are obliged to do). Eventually, it decays to the point of being useless, though I think the transitional phases might be very interesting in their own right.

I was thinking something very vaguely along these lines would be an interesting idea and had started making notes about how it would work, but it seemed so blindingly obvious that somebody must have already done it. Blockchain technologies for publishing are certainly being considered by many people, and some are being implemented.   The Alliance of Independent Authors seems to have the most practical plans for using Blockchain for that purpose. Another similar idea comes with the means to partially compensate publishers for such things (as though they needed even more undeserved profits). Another interesting idea is to use Blockchain Counterparty tokens to replace ISBN numbers. However, A Universe Explodes is the only example I have so far found of building in intentional decay. It’s one of a range of wonderfully inventive and inspiring books that could only possibly exist in digital media at the brilliant Editions at Play site.

Though use of Blockchain for publishing is a no-brainer, it’s the decay part that I like most, and that I was thinking about before finding this. Removing and adding words is not an accurate representation of the typical decay of a physical book, and it is not super-practical at a large scale, delightful though it is. My first thoughts were, in a pedestrian way, to build in a more authentic kind of decay. It might, for instance, be possible to simply overlay a few more pixels with each reading, or to incrementally grey-out or otherwise visually degrade the text (which might have some cognitive benefits too, as it happens). That relies, however, on a closed application system, or a representation that would be a bit inflexible (e.g. a vector format like SVG to represent the text, or even a bitmap) otherwise it would be too easy to remove such additions simply by using a different application. And, of course, it would be bad for people with a range of disabilities, although I guess you could perform similar mutilations of other representations of the text just as easily. That said, it could be made to work. There’s no way it is even close to being as good as making something free of DRM, of course, but it’s a refinement that might be acceptable to greedy publishers that would at least allow us to lend, give, or sell books that we have purchased to others.

My next thought was that you could, perhaps more easily and certainly more interestingly, make marginalia (graphics and text) a permanent feature of the text once ownership was transferred, which would be both annoying and enlightening, as it is in physical books. One advantage would be that it reifies the concept of ownership – the intentional marks made on the book are a truer indication of the chain of owners than anything more abstract or computer-generated. It could also be a really interesting and useful way to tread a slightly more open path than most ugly DRM implementations, inasmuch as it could allow the creation of deliberately annotated editions (with practical or artistic intent) without the need for publisher permission. That would be good for textbooks, and might open up big untapped markets: for instance, I’d quite often rather buy an ebook annotated by one of my favourite authors or artists than the original, even if it cost more. It could be interestingly subversive, too. I might even purchase one of Trump’s books if it were annotated (and re-sold) by journalists from the Washington Post or Michael Moore, for example. And it could make a nice gift to someone to provide a personally embellished version of a text. Combined with the more prosaic visual decay approach, this could become a conversation between annotators and, eventually, become a digital palimpsest in which the original text all but disappears under generations of annotation. I expect someone has already thought of that but, if not, maybe this post can be used to stop someone profiting from it with a patent claim.

In passing, while searching, I also came across http://www.eruditiondigital.co.uk/what-we-do/custos-for-ebooks.php which is both cunning and evil: it lets publishers embed Bitcoin bounties in ebooks that ‘pirates’ can claim and, in the process, alert the publisher to the identity of the person responsible. Ugly, but very ingenious. As the creators claim, it turns pirates on other pirates by offering incentives, yet keeping the whole process completely anonymous. Eeugh.

Address of the bookmark: https://medium.com/@teau/a-universe-explodes-a-blockchain-book-ab75be83f28

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2874113/a-universe-explodes-a-blockchain-book-from-editions-at-play