Tags: pepys



Long time

A few years back, I was on a road trip in the States with my friend Dan. We drove through Maryland and Virginia to the sites of American Civil War battles—Gettysburg, Antietam. I was reading Tom Standage’s magnificent book The Victorian Internet at the time. When I was done with the book, I passed it on to Dan. He loved it. A few years later, he sent me a gift: a glass telegraph insulator.

Glass telegraph insulator from New York

Last week I received another gift from Dan: a telegraph key.

Telegraph key

It’s lovely. If my knowledge of basic electronics were better, I’d hook it up to an Arduino and tweet with it.

Dan came over to the UK for a visit last month. We had a lovely time wandering around Brighton and London together. At one point, we popped into the National Portrait Gallery. There was one painting he really wanted to see: the portrait of Samuel Pepys.


“Were you reading the online Pepys diary?”, I asked.

“Oh, yes!”, he said.

“I know the guy who did that!”

The “guy who did that” is, of course, the brilliant Phil Gyford.

Phil came down to Brighton and gave a Skillswap talk all about the ten-year long project.

The diary of Samuel Pepys: Telling a complex story online on Huffduffer

Now Phil has restarted the diary. He wrote a really great piece about what it’s like overhauling a site that has been online for a decade. Given that I spent a lot of my time last year overhauling The Session (which has been online in some form or another since the late nineties), I can relate to his perspective on trying to choose long-term technologies:

Looking ahead, how will I feel about this Django backend in ten years’ time? I’ve no idea what the state of the platform will be in a decade.

I was thinking about switching The Session over to Django, but I decided against it in the end. I figured that the pain involved in trying to retrofit an existing site (as opposed to starting a brand new project) would be too much. So the site is still written in the very uncool LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.

Mind you, Marco Arment makes the point in his Webstock talk that there’s a real value to using tried and tested “boring” technologies.

One area where I’ve found myself becoming increasingly wary over time is the use of third-party APIs. I say that with a heavy heart—back at dConstruct 2006 I was talking all about The Joy of API. But Yahoo, Google, Twitter …they’ve all deprecated or backtracked on their offerings to developers.

Anyway, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: evaluating technologies and services in terms of their long-term benefit instead of just their short-term hit. It’s something that we need to think about more as developers, and it’s certainly something that we need to think about more as users.

Compared with genuinely long-term projects like the 10,000 year Clock of the Long Now making something long-lasting on the web shouldn’t be all that challenging. The real challenge is acknowledging that this is even an issue. As Phil puts it:

I don’t know how much individuals and companies habitually think about this. Is it possible to plan for how your online service will work over the next ten years, never mind longer?

As my Long Bet illustrates, I can be somewhat pessimistic about the longevity of our web creations:

The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.

But I really hope I lose that bet. Maybe I’ll suggest to Matt (my challenger on the bet) that we meet up on February 22nd, 2022 at the Long Now Salon. It doesn’t exist yet. But give it time.

Pepys out

Phil Gyford was down in Brighton visiting the Clearleft HQ today. We’re working with him on Matter, which I’m very excited about.

Today wasn’t just any ol’ day for Phil. Today marks the end of a project of his that has been running for nine years and five months: Pepys’ Diary:

This site is a presentation of the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the renowned 17th century diarist who lived in London, England. A new entry written by Pepys will be published each day over the course of several years; 1 January 1660 was published on 1 January 2003.

We invited Phil down to Brighton last year to talk about Pepys’ Diary at a Skillswap event. You can listen to the audio on Huffduffer.

The diary of Samuel Pepys: Telling a complex story online on Huffduffer

I’m a big fan of long-term thinking and—in web terms—this project is as old as Methuselah. It’s refreshing. In an industry so caught up in the churn and grind of the new and the shiny, I think it’s wonderful that Phil dedicated himself to a project that he knew would require a long-term investment of his time. Russell wrote about it in Wired recently:

In some worlds ten years isn’t very long: it’s not if you’re digging an undersea tunnel or discovering a cure for disease. But in the busy, silly world of early 21st-century media, making a ten-year assertion was a big deal — something akin to the Clock of the Long Now.

I’ll be sorry to see you go, Mister time-shifted Pepys. But I understand that it’s hard for you to keep writing a diary when your eyesight is failing.

Skillful stories

After spending almost a month on the other side of the Atlantic, it was nice to return to Brighton to find it in the first bloom of Spring. Just a day or two after I returned, I was able to enjoy a nice wander around the Spring Harvest food festival sampling the culinary delights and randomly bumping into fellow geeks like Aral, Steve and Mark.

Such is the scenius of Brighton. There’s always plenty of smart folk around to gather together with, as evidenced by the multitude of geek gatherings like Build Brighton, dotBrighton and UX Brighton. Last night it was the turn of Skillswap, expertly organised by James.

Skillswap hasn’t been about swapping skills for quite a while. Instead it has morphed into a curated evening of related short snappy presentations sometimes followed by an ensemble Q and A. Last night’s theme was Skillswap Seeking Stories and it was a humdinger.

Phil Gyford expounded on his wonderful Pepys’ Diary project and how it has been nurtured over time. Gavin O’Carroll spoke about Spacelogone of my favourite sites—and the structure of narratives, games and websites. The marvellous Matthew Sheret, who really impressed me at History Hackday, wrapped it up with a demonstration of the power that each of us has to use the internet to tell stories with our data. “You are Time Lords!” he exclaimed, and illustrated his points with some lovely artwork he commissioned from Tom Humberstone.

It was very generous of Phil, Gavin and Matt to give up their time and travel down from London to deliver such a fantastic evening of thought-provoking entertainment. Seriously, it was better than some paid conferences I’ve been to. And—thanks to the sponsorship from Madgex—there was free beer (“free” as in “free beer” …as in “beer!” …as in “free beer!!”).

Anna was working her podcasting magic, recording the talks. You can subscribe to the Skillswap Huffduffer account if you want to hear them once they’re ready.