Some of my thoughts on comments in general

One of the points that is the hardest for me to make when I talk to people about my blog is how important comments are for me. I don’t mean comments in source code as documentation, but comments on the posts themselves.

You may remember that was one of the less appealing compromises I made when I moved to Hugo was accepting to host the comments on Disqus. A few people complained when I did that because Disqus is a vendor lock-in. That’s true in more ways than one may imagine.

It’s not just that you are tied into a platform with difficulty of moving out of it — it’s that there is no way to move out of it, as it is. Disqus does provide you the ability to download a copy of all the comments from your site, but they don’t guarantee that’s going to be available: if you have too many, they may just refuse to let you download them.

And even if you manage to download the comments, you’ll have fun time trying to do anything useful with them: Disqus does not let you re-import them, say in a different account, as they explicitly don’t allow that format to be imported. Nor does WordPress: when I moved my blog I had to hack up a script that took the Disqus export format, a WRX dump of the blog (which is just a beefed up RSS feed), and produces a third file, attaching the Disqus comments to the WRX as WordPress would have exported them. This was tricky, but it resolved the problem, and now all the comments are on the WordPress platform, allowing me to move them as needed.

Many people pointed out that there are at least a couple of open-source replacements for Disqus — but when I looked into them I was seriously afraid they wouldn’t really scale that well for my blog. Even WordPress itself appears sometimes not to know how to deal with a >2400 entries blog. The WRX file is, by itself, bigger than the maximum accepted by the native WordPress import tool — luckily the Automattic service has higher limits instead.

One of the other advantages of having moved away from Disqus is that the comments render without needing any JavaScript or third party service, make them searchable by search engines, and most importantly, preserves them in the Internet Archive!

But Disqus is not the only thing that disappoints me. I have a personal dislike for the design, and business model, of Hacker News and Reddit. It may be a bit of a situation of “old man yells at cloud”, but I find that these two websites, much more than Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, are designed to take the conversation away from the authors.

Let me explain with an example. When I posted about Telegram and IPv6 last year, the post was sent to reddit, which I found because I have a self-stalking recipe for IFTTT that informs me if any link to my sites get posted there. And people commented on that — some missing the point and some providing useful information.

But if you read my blog post you won’t know about that at all, because the comments are locked into Reddit, and if Reddit were to disappear the day after tomorrow there won’t be any history of those comments at all. And this is without going into the issue of the “karma” going to the reposter (who I know in this case), rather than the author — who’s actually discouraged in most communities from submitting their own writings!

This applies in the same or similar fashion to other websites, such as Hacker News, Slashdot, and… is Digg still around? I lost track.

I also find that moving the comments off-post makes people nastier: instead of asking questions ready to understand and talk things through with the author, they assume the post exist in isolation, and that the author knows nothing of what they are talking about. And I’m sure that at least a good chunk of that is because they don’t expect the author to be reading them — they know full well they are “talking behind their back”.

I have had the pleasure to meet a lot of people on the Internet over time, mostly through comments on my or other blogs. I have learnt new thing and been given suggestions, solutions, or simply new ideas of what to poke at. I treasure the comments and the conversation they foster. I hope that we’ll have more rather than fewer of them in the future.

Internet Archive, old magazines, and cross-references

I am very happy to be a supporter of the Internet Archive. Not only they provide the Wayback Machine, which allowed me to fix up a significant amount of dangling or broken links in my own blog over time, but also helped me recover content that I thought lost, either because it was my old, ranty teenager blog, or because it was mangled by a botched WordPress migration.

And yet, this does not even begin covering the amount of information that the Archive is preserving and making available to the world for the future. A couple of weeks ago I had some spare time on my hands, that I could not spend writing a blog post or writing code (long story), and instead spent it perusing Wikipedia pages about ‘90s tech (why? because I feel nostalgic sometimes), and found out two interesting things: both Internet Archive and (in a smaller part) Google Books, make available “ancient” issues of old computer magazines, such as PC Magazine (US) or Computer Gaming World.

Indeed, I ended up using this information to extend a bit the Future Wars and The Colonel’s Bequest — mostly thanks to the fact that the (now defunct) Amiga Reviews website provided issue and page numbers for the games’ reviews. It was fun to run some of the articles from these magazines while I was doing these cleanups, and they made me wish I had more time to read through, particularly the technical magazines, and see what kind of information is now not well known or understood. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, despite having a lot of good scans, there is no easy “table of content” for the issues, that could be used to identify which issue may have useful information on a topic.

I’m also now wondering if I should find a way to get to the Internet Archive, or some other organization all the old paper copies of magazines that I’m holding at my mother’s house in Italy, so that they become more accessible to the rest of the world. At least one of those magazines stopped publishing altogether, and there are a few that include very useful information on libraries, APIs and file formats that are hard to find out about nowadays. I even remember one of those magazines talking about programming for the Nintendo GameBoy (in the early noughties!).

In addition to a whole lot of paper, I’m sure at home I have a number of CDs and DVDs that were provided with those magazines, which to be honest nowadays I’m not entirely sure how legal they were. For the most part, they have been redistributing shareware that came from various websites, which in the nineties and early noughties was definitely something useful, as home Internet connections were extremely slow and limited, and having the data on a CD would be much simpler. One of the extra services that at least one of these magazines (simply called Computer Magazine) would also provide monthly updates of common drivers, and antivirus definitions. And sometimes they would end up having an infected file in the CD, and you would only find out a month later, oops.

One of the reasons why I started reading Computer Magazine, anyway, was that they also promised to provide, each month, a complete commercial software release available with the magazine. Indeed, they started with Macromedia software, including xRes 2.0 and following a few months later with Freehand — neither software exist anymore, Macromedia was bought out by Adobe at some point after that and those two particular pieces of software then folded into Photoshop and Illustrator. At some point they also provided Borland C++ Builder (1.0 complete, 3.0 demo), which probably paid off for Borland since at some point I actually bought a license for C++ Builder to write software for one of my customers.

But at some point, one of the sister magazines to this one, also provided in their CDs a DOS-based Gameboy emulator, and a number of ROMs, including Super Mario Land! I know now that this was blatant piracy, but at the time it was just a lot of fun. And the idea that the CDs (except for the “complete software” ones) were redistributable ended up having me polishing the bundled archives of emulator and ROMs (one copy of the emulator executable per ROM), and even played with InstallShield (a demo of which they also provided in one of their CDs) to have an installer for the whole set, that also added entries to the Start Menu. Yes that was what I used to do on my free time as a hobby. You can see I have not changed that much.

What should I do with all those disks? Some of that content would still be relevant enough that you wouldn’t want to just have them online, for instance the GameBoy ROMs. Also, some of the “full software” is probably still usable on modern (32-bit) Windows, and so it might not be of interest to the copyright holders for it not to be completely published. But at the same time, I think these are actually the kind of content that should not just disappear. Historical memory is definitely important.

I also have at least one full box of Italian-edition The Games Machine, but I should probably ask the people I know that still write for that magazine if they might actually have the masters, instead of relying on low-quality scans. Oh well, will do that separately.