Retreat… and reboot! Is there life outside of the Web?

Dear readers,

the time has come for some fundamental re-organization of my Eerielinux blog. The impact of this year’s pandemic as well as family matters (a new family member that demands quite a bit of care!) have forced me to post-pone many of my posts that I usually published at least monthly. Right when I was getting back on track and stated that I intended to publish the missed articles (I’ve written them after all but didn’t find the time for final editing) something else happened.

No, to be honest, it has been happening for quite a while. I didn’t like it but had to cope with it as there was nothing I could do about that, anyway. What am I talking about? Well, the sad fact that I would call the “degradation of the Web”.

Eerielinux has always been about some experiments that I did and wanted to share in case anybody was interested. Now I’m in for a new experiment, a somewhat radical one (and what could be considered radical after going Linux-only and later FreeBSD-only for all of my machines?). I would appreciate feedback on the path that I choose to give a try. What do you think about it? Are you interested in that, too? Would you continue to read some of my material or does this mean that our ways will part? But let’s detail first what has made the time ripe for what is less of an elitist move then an act of mere desperation.

What’s wrong with the Web?

So, what has happened? And what’s the gripe that I have with the Web? Well… It’s actually not just the Web (read: WWW), it’s more things coming together. There seems to be a general direction that the IT world is heading which I don’t approve of. This blog is powered by WordPress for the simple reason that when I started in 2012 I had some material that I wanted to share with the world and going with a free plan on a blog hosting platform seemed like a nice way to get started quickly. And it was. Mind the past tense here.

WordPress evolved – which is a good thing in general. It evolved in a way that I loathe, however. There have been all these “new” and “easier” modes for XYZ which were admittedly more shiny and more “modern” than before. But they broke my workflow time and time again – and unfortunately not for the better. I actually like to re-evaluate my workflows, like to challenge my habits. When I was still using Ubuntu Linux I didn’t only give Canonical’s Unity DE a chance, I actually tried to use it before putting it aside because in the end it hindered me more than it helped. I forced myself to use the (then) new graphical TrueOS for half a year and suffered through incompleteness and breakage. I have a fairly high tolerance for things that are… sub-optimal. I’m also rather patient, I think, and I’m surely not a rage-quit type of person. But inevitably there’s this point where I have to admit: “Ok, that’s it, that’s simply too much”.

The same thing happened for WordPress, when they came up with various iterations of “new editors” – which is why I opted to go back to the “old editor” for writing and editing my blog posts. As I returned to finish the next old post however, I found out that the old editor was gone. They had “finally” removed it. Alright, so I had to try and get accustomed to the new one again. Perhaps it had matured since I tried it last? It had. But it proved to be even more annoying for me than before! I don’t know what the designers are thinking – certainly not what I do. For me it is a pain to work with the new tool: Things that worked perfectly fine before are gone and the new options are so much inferior to what we had before… And this is not even the worst thing that made me give up when I was more than half through with polishing the next post.

Technically the new editors work well for small posts. I seem to have a bit more to say than the average blogger, though; and here’s a very frustrating issue: When editing longer posts, the editor gets unresponsive and laggy. Yuck! Trading a working one for a “new” one that does less but eats up so much more resources? Are you freaking kidding me? Oh, right, that’s the way things go, I forgot for a second. There’s something within my very self that refuses to accept the lack of sanity around me, sorry. I should know better by now.

And even though WordPress makes up a quite large portion of today’s Web, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All this JS nonsense, megs and megs of useless graphics, animations, tracking and spying cookies, etc. pp. make the Web such a obnoxious place! And don’t even get me started on the situation with web browsers…

What’s wrong with hardware?

After my little rant I can hear people say: “See, pal… If the WordPress editor makes your system struggle enough that you complain on the net, you reaaally want to get a new PC! There’s machines with more than 4 gigs of memory today, you know.”

The irony here is: I did get a newer laptop – and went back to primarily use the old one! Why? Because the new one is bugging me just too much whereas the older model works well for me. The newer follows that stupid trend of being extremely thin. “Thanks” to that design no DVD drive fits in there. While this is incredibly dumb, I can live with it. Carrying an external drive with me is not so much of a problem, but still the fact that the machine is missing the drive annoys me. The bigger problem: The battery of the old model can easily be removed and I can carry a second one with me e.g. on longer train rides. With the new one I’d need to open the case to access it! WTF HP? And finally: Some idiot decided that the “cool” flat design was so important that it’s thinner than the jack for an Ethernet connector… Yes, really: There’s some kind of… hatch that I need to pull down to make the opening big enough to insert the plug! If I remove the plug the hatch snaps back up. It’s not hard to see that this brain-dead construction is prone to defects. And really, it didn’t take too long until it stopped working reliably and I’m randomly losing connectivity every other day… Sorry, this is garbage. Plain as that.

I have another older laptop – that one has 24 GB of RAM and two hard drives. Nice, eh? Not so much because it also has some of those gross EFI quirks. When one of the drives has a GPT partition scheme applied to it, that drive won’t even be detected by the POST anymore! So on that machine I’m stuck with MBR which is not so much fun if you’re using ZFS and want to encrypt your pool with GELI – it can be done, but the workarounds have the side-effects of not working with Boot Environments! True garbage again.

“Come on, why don’t you simply get a different model then?” Yeah, right. As I said, I type a lot, so I have some demands concerning the keyboard. Unfortunately some manufacturers seem to take pride in coming up with new ways of f*cking up the keyboard layout. There are models that simply dropped the CAPS LOCK key, because nobody uses that, right? Wrong! There are people who remap their keys, and being a NEO² typist (a keymap that allows for 6 layers) I need that key as an additional modifier! Take it away and that keyboard is utterly useless to me. But don’t current models like the X1 Carbon still have CAPS LOCK? They do, but there’s another oddity: They swap the CTRL and FN keys! Having CTRL as the leftmost key on the keyboard that I use as my daily driver and switching around in my head at 3 AM when there’s an alarm during my on-call duty is something I fail to do properly. I used a Thinkpad for about a month for on-call and it drove me completely mad. Sorry Lenovo. Your laptops may be excellent otherwise, but they are not for me.

Oh, and it’s not so much of a secret that the situation with the x86 and x86_64 architectures is abysmal (need I say more than Meltdown / Spectre?). Modern hardware design is fundamentally broken and I cannot say that I completely trust the fixes and what unknown side-effects they might bring with them either. But that’s not even the point. We’re stuck with market-leading technology that has been criticized as crappy right from the start. It has come a long way since then, but it’s not a great technology in any regard. I’ve been playing with my Pinebook and it might have the potential to become something different. Maybe the Open Source PowerPC notebook initiative will succeed. Probably we’ll have something RISC-V-based in the long run. But right now we have to make use of what is available to us.

Can’t the Web be saved?

I’m a somewhat optimistic person, but in this regard not so much. While I have thought about just self-hosting my blog and using a nice static-site generator or something, that would only solve my issues regarding the blog. A huge portion of the Web will still be a terrible place. Browsers and software will still suck hard. Especially in terms of browsers I’ve found even the suckless offering far from being a good one (I like their work and agree with most of the suckless principles, but in my conclusion it’s not enough to really get me out of this whole mess).

Sure, I can install e.g. the Dillo browser. But its development has been extremely slow for years and the subset of HTML that it supports cannot render most of today’s websites properly. And going with just the pages of people who deliberately keep their sites simple? I like the idea, but there’s the problem that no real community (that I know of) exists which agrees on a single standard of which HTML features are ok and which ones should be avoided.

I’m old enough to remember the browser wars well enough. I also confess being guilty of having used “marquee” on my homepage for a while back in the day. Maybe all of the gibberish we’re facing today is a late punishment for sins committed when we were younger? I don’t know.

So – are we doomed? Should we just pull the plug, go to real libraries again, buy books when we need information and spend our free time in the garden? That thought is tempting only for a moment. I love tech. I love the net and the possibilities it brings with it. Plus I’m kind of a liberal today who believes that mankind will eventually make something good from it all. We’re on this planet to play, to learn and to grow. Some insights can only be gained the hard way. It’s ok that commercial interests ruined the Web for people like me. There are other people who have (monetary or idealistic) interests in the Web being like it is. That’s fine. And in fact: Today’s Web “works” for a lot of people who either have no clue why it’s problematic in the first place or who simply don’t care. Which is a legitimate stance. The tragedy is simply that the rest of us has kind of lost home for a while and we haven’t been able to find a new one, yet.

The “Big Internet” vs. the “Small Internet”

While the Web makes up for a very large and definitely the most visible part of the Internet, there are niches, lesser known parts of it which are certainly not less interesting. Some people speak of the Web as the “Big internet” and call the various special parts the “Small Internet”.

One such niche is the so-called Gopherspace. Gopher is a simple communication protocol for documents which predates the Web. Not just by today’s standards it’s primitive – but it works. And while the major browsers either never supported it or removed support long ago (e.g. Firefox dropped Gopher support for release 4.0), it’s still kept alive by enthusiasts. Some sources even suggest that it has seen moderate growth over the last years with more people fed up with the Web trying out something different. If you’re interested, start here with the web proxy or do some research on your own and install a Gopher client.

I’ve dug into various Gopher holes and my experience with it is a mixed bag. On the one hand it’s really cool to see people putting in the effort of creating a place that’s worthwhile to visit. I also liked the experience in general: It’s not bells and whistles everywhere (because that’s in fact impossible due to the protocols limitations) but rather a focus on the actual content. People have found ways to access git repositories over Gopher and there’s a community called Bitreich (via Gopher) that declared “suckless failed” and propose an even more radical approach. While some of it is probably parody, it’s an interesting one.

On the other hand some of the restrictions of the protocol make no sense at all today, like having a hard-coded limit of 80 characters per line. And there are more shortcomings. When Gopher was conceived, nobody thought of internationalization and indicating the charset that a document uses. Also Gopher is all plain-text and does not provide any means to help protect your privacy – which does not exactly make it overly appealing to me.

But there’s something else, an even smaller – but newer – niche, called Project Gemini. It is a newly designed protocol (2019!) that wants to provide kind of a middle ground between Gopher and the Web while clearly leaning towards the former. It remedies the privacy issues by making TLS mandatory and deliberately not supporting “user agents” or other ways to collect data about the user not required to deliver the content. And it wants to simply be an additional option for people to use not to replace either Gopher or the Web.

While I kind of like Gopher, I really admire Gemini. Having the balls to even try to actually do something like this in our time is simply (no pun intended) astonishing. In my opinion it’s high time to re-invent the wheel. Gemini is certainly not a panacea to all the problems that we have today. But it’s a much welcome (for me at last) chance to start fresh without that huge, huge bag of problems that we’re carrying on with the Web but with the experience that we gained from using it for several decades now.

What’s next?

My experiment is to move Eerielinux to Geminispace and post new content there as I find the time. The plan is to keep this WordPress blog and to create new posts here that simply reference the real content, providing a convenient link using a Web proxy. That should help keeping things accesible for people who prefer to stick with their known browsers instead of getting another one for such a tiny little world as Geminispace is right now.

And who knows? Perhaps something nice comes from Gemini in the long run. I’m looking forward to find out. And if you care — see you in Geminispace for some more articles on *BSD, computers and tech in general!