Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Weeknote: 25 September 2023

Sending the weeknotes out as a newsletter last week cost me a few subscribers, so I’m not doing that again.



Work, as always, is up and down.

The up is, technically, not work, but a sideproject. I’ve been taking some time to combine two prototypes—one built using node tools, one using deno—into a single project that uses a browser-based development environment using the Raggedy Dev Setup template. It’s fun, but it doesn’t pay, although I hope it might pay down the line. (It’s an experiment in building web-based, local-first writing software that absolutely nobody has asked for.)

This makes it simultaneously an up and a down, I guess.


The downs were much more prominent this week. I’ve been working on the print editions of my books, focusing on Out of the Software Crisis to begin with, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the Print-on-Demand books.

On the other hand, I was unpleasantly not-so-surprised at the quality of the printer’s software. Their calculators gave me three different measurements for the cover size. I managed to guess correctly which size was the correct one (and confirmed by their support) by guessing that it would be the slowest one—reasoning that it was the one doing the most work, which probably meant it was using actual data.

Their integrations with various ecommerce platforms are also extremely buggy, which is delaying my release of a pre-order page for the print edition. I still hope I can get it done this week, but that depends on factors out of my control. If worse comes to worst I can always switch to another printer—I know a few people who have used Lulu for their projects so that’s always a possibility.

All-in-all unsurprising and yet disappointing.

More downs

Most of the kinds of consultancy works I used to do—yeah, that’s past tense—have been drying up over the past year or so.

My software development work has generally operated at the intersection of publishing, education, and file formats. I’ve worked on a couple of different web-based ebook reading projects. A couple of different web-based PDF-reading projects. Done quite a bit of training material. With a bit of advice on strategy or procedure thrown into the mix.

The education and publishing side has always been a bit hectic. Most of the education and publishing projects I get involved in have been contingent on external funding of some sort and that’s been getting harder and harder over the past couple of years. This year it seems to have essentially died. Public funding for education- or culture-oriented software projects seems to have become much harder to get.

Even more downs

The training projects, for the most part, evaporated with the lay-off waves a few months ago, with the last project coming in just under the wire for a major lay-off wave. If it had been scheduled to start a month later, I have no doubt that it would have been cancelled outright.

This shift was the original reason for the books and the newsletter. I figured that they wouldn’t sell much but they’d work as my calling card, a way to get more projects.

That didn’t pan out at all. Very few of the project leads I’ve got as a result of the books didn’t pass the “37 Signals” test.

Basically, if a potential client believes Jason Fried and DHH are good managers then that means I’m unlikely to be able to work with them productively. Our worldviews are too different. If you believe that, after their meltdown and rightward shift, they’re still great managers, then you’re both extremely unlikely to work well with me and I can guarantee that you won’t listen to a word I have to say.

The upside is that the books sold better than I expected. I don’t make as much from them as I did from consulting, but it’s lessened the blow.

Plan B

I’m still open to new projects. If anybody needs somebody with over two decades of experience in web development, capable of working on complex JavaScript projects but equally capable of working with CSS and HTML, then I’m available for projects.

But I’m also expecting to have to accelerate Plan B, which is basically more of the sort of corporate web dev training work I was doing, just this time selling courses, walkthroughs, and mini-books directly. Browser vendors have been shipping a lot of really useful tech lately—many of them potentially transformative like Cascade Layers, Import Maps, Origin Private File Systems, Atomics, and more—and I think there’s a gap in the market for courses and guides that make these features more broadly accessible to people who are intimidated or overwhelmed by the ways these features are taught currently.

At least, that’s my bet.


Been reading quite a bit about the syncing protocols used by Git and Fossil, both distributed version control systems, for that P2P writing software side project. I’m the kind of weirdo that finds this topic quite enjoyable, although I have to say that much of the writing that’s available is rather on the opaque side.


Focused on comedies this week.

UHF with Weird Al Yankovic was—surprisingly—exactly like I remembered it. It isn’t a particularly great movie, but it is an enjoyable series of sketches that parody the movies of the time. What was surprising about it was that it didn’t suffer from the usual 80s movie syndrome where misogyny, sexual assault, racism, and homophobia are presented as jokes.

It’s a low bar to pass, but few other eighties movies pass it so it gets kudos for that.

The Party, directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers. Now, I knew from the outset that watching this would be a struggle, because Seller’s brownface and fake-Indian accent is just horrendously bad—even the make-up aspect of it is poorly done. But, the reason why I wanted to see it was to see how integral Seller’s racist mockery was to the movie, and the worst aspect of it was that the movie would have been stronger without it. I maintain that if his character had been your regular klutz type the movie would have worked better because everything else about it is impeccably implemented. The staging, direction, physical comedy is all some of the best in cinema history, all ruined because Blake Edwards—as he frequently did—hung it all on a misguided caricature as a centrepiece.

The highlight of this week’s movie-watching were the classic thirties and forties comedies:

  • It Happened One Night. Frank Capra, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert.
  • Only Angels Have Wings. Howard Hawks. Cary Grant, Jean Arthur.
  • Arsenic and Old Lace. Frank Capra. Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane.
  • The atrociously named His Girl Friday. Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell.

They are all excellent. Both It Happened One Night and Only Angels Have Wings have sexual undertones so strong that they barely get away with calling it subtext—especially Only Angels which is as straightforward a depiction of “these people are all pilots, dancers, or singers and of course they’re boinking” as you could get under the Hayes code. Surprisingly humane and empathetic and you don’t have to make as many allowance for the attitudes of the time when watching them as you do when watching comedies from the seventies and eighties.

This tells you a lot about seventies and eighties comedies.

Arsenic and Old Lace manages to be one of the darkest comedies you’ll ever see even while feeling like a softly-kindly romantic comedy, which is an achievement that boggles the imagination.

His Girl Friday is probably the weakest of the lot but is still a tremendously fun movie.

It’s a cliché to say that they don’t make movies like these any more, but in this case it’s literally true. The economics of modern filmmaking don’t really allow for them.

The single set, fast-talking, wise-cracking style of comedy has moved over to sitcoms, which inherently lack the ability to combine that comedy with the tight and dramatic narrative arc that gives these movies their emotional power. Modern romantic comedies lean a bit more into the romantic aspect and usually only go into production at one of the big studios if they’re combined with a high concept that justifies a bigger budget.

One of the “vibe changes” in the genre—I can’t think of a better term under-caffeinated as I am on a Monday—is a different approach to realism. Modern romances tend to focus on more relatable and realistic dialogue, even as many of the characters themselves become even more formalised—these movies tend to have a standard cast of characters whose names just change from movie to movie. The sassy gay friend, for example. The job of wise-cracking observations tends to be delegated to a single character while the rest all have dialogue that is authentic to the reality of the story, and doesn’t have the plausibility-challenging snappy dialogue.

This doesn’t make them worse, if done well, just a different species of movie. But it does mean that there isn’t much space for screwball romantic comedies in the modern film landscape.

Maybe the decline of the sitcom in the streaming era will open up some space for it, but I’m not holding my breath.

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