18 Feb 2005 Ohayou   » (Apprentice)

On Geek Nostalgia and Fatherhood

Sometimes I miss my more active days on the web, and wish I had a blog and spent more time doing random hacks for fun, and silently publishing them where someone sooner or later might drop by, catch on, embrace and adopt them for their own joy. I suppose most of the toys I played with at the time never did catch on and spread, but my first published scriptlets gained a happy crowd at the time and a few survived, sometimes just as ideas, but to some limited extent the code did not even rot with time.

The one thing I did in those days (late twentieth century), though, that still spuriosly returns to me like some magical boomerang through time, is the 404 page I made myself. It's a tribute to Doglas Adams (while he was still alive), where you get a page where a Marvin travesty sulkily types away at the visitor in a text field about how awfully sorry he is not being able to serve that particular file, and how generally sad it is to be a forgotten-about manic depressive web server yadda yadda yadda. You got the gist of it I'm sure. I put it there, and mostly forgot about it. At least until it started spreading to other poor web servers. They were catching that manic depression like the flue. And it was great fun to behold. (In a warmly kind of way, bless their poor souls.)

At first, I got a fan mail or two about it, but since I had not left any notice about crediting my work in the source code, or visibly for that matter, or indeed any reference to myself at all except for my webmaster contact link, the replicas were untraceable back to me and started a life in the free all on their own. I think I once contacted some website admin that had credited his 404 to himself, or maybe asked for feedback on it or something to that effect, curious about whether he received any, but decided to let my baby take on whatever niches he'd find himself without my fatherly eyes on him.

He still pops up here and there, but by now it's just a skeletal heritage -- few are the instances that stay with the original message (I'm quite sure mine was monospaced rather than using a proportional font), but on studying the code, it's always very obviously still my code. My type_text() method, the Javascript 1.0 safe code and all the rest, intact. Some change a few of the speed and delay variables I left behind, most add some message of their own, some make stylesheets to improve (or ruin) the teletype looks. Today a very tasteful example caught my eye, and again got that nostalgic feeling to find its way back to me, like so many times before.

I just did a google search for some of the code bits, and found about a hundred pages, some from tips and tricks sites offering tutorials on how to customize and use the code on your own pages, some explaining in German how to do it, with very nicely annotated source code, one substituting the textarea for a div tag, missing some polish to get newlines to work in the switch, one rather close to the original, but also pointing out that Douglas Adams has died.

I wonder if and how some note about me in the source would have changed how this play with words, code and web standards would have swept across the globe. Maybe I would have seen more mail traffic about it. Probably both in the form of the kind of joyful notes I did receive, and in the form of questions on how to adopt it and get it to run for some particular target environment. I suppose I would not have been much happier with than without that feedback, or perhaps felt bad about not responding to much of it. It is still a lot of fun to occasionally be reminded about it on random encounterns -- it's the kind of thing friends or net acquaintances occasionally tend to smile at, spread among themselves and end up broadcasting my way, too, unknowing of my relation to the code, and it is still about as fun as the first few times I saw it. It is the really simple ideas that tend to live long. The same thing applies to my scriptlets for comfy web navigation; they, too, show the same signs. In very rare cases, a complicated tool it takes hours to craft, will still be useful long afterwards, but mostly it's the small and simple ideas that live on.

If (or should I perhaps more likely say "when") I ever do a fun thing like this one again, I think I will make all the paramaters broken out of the code for easy customization. In the world of the web, the precious few who know programming are most frequently also the precious few who do original work. In a way, I think that gives us the responsibility of making our work easily reusable by the masses. I'm sure that is just as appreciated as the idea itself to all the smiling visitors out there. Of course, we can rigteously selfishly also ignore this Someone Else's Problem and do just as well, ourselves. But it's not really my style. If something should be worth doing, it should be worth doing right, and while I might be able to live up to that standard with my own work, when other players get in to the picture, I can only make it so much more or less likely that they also will. I think I prefer giving them an easy climb, if it doesn't cost me too much.

Oh! One more thing.

I'm so depressed.

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