Adam's Brain Dump

Learned that the built-in fc command is a quick way to check if 2 files have the same contents using the Windows command line.

fc file_1.txt file_2.txt

It’ll show the differences if there are any. Many parameters are available around what and how to compare them; type fc /? to see what they are.

Apparently it’s been there since at least 1984. I learned about it…today.

Leutner et al. provide evidence of a link between having obesity and later developing a diagnosed mental health condition.

Receiving a diagnosis of obesity significantly increased the odds for a large spectrum of psychiatric disorders across all age groups, including depression, psychosis-spectrum, anxiety, eating and personality disorders.

Whilst there’s evidence elsewhere towards the direction of causation between obesity and mental illness potentially running both ways, in this case the diagnosis of obesity usually came first.

There are many theories as to why this connection might exist presented, ranging from biological explanations such as inflammation or gut bacteria, through to more psychosocial factors, including the impact of obesity on one’s quality of life.

It also affects different demographics differently, with the risk of being later diagnosed with a mental health condition being higher in younger people and females (even beyond the usual differential in mental health diagnosis rates).

In any case we might add enhanced mental health support as a requirement for supporting people living with obesity.

On another AI note, Google is going to introduce adverts to its generative AI search/chat feature. Whilst inevitable, perhaps it won’t be long until we’re looking back fondly at that brief moment of time where we could amuse ourselves chatting to the AI-gods without being asked to buy a mattress. Let the enshittification begin.

Here’s a screenshot from Ad Age:

They’re also offering tools to allow people to make ads via the same kind of technology. This doesn’t seem entirely without risk given the present limitations of these models.

From Search Engine Land:

Advertisers can submit creative content such as images, videos, and text related to a campaign, and the AI will “remix” these materials to generate ads that target specific audiences and meet objectives like sales targets, according to the presentation.

However, there are concerns that the tool could disseminate misinformation, as AI-generated text can confidently assert falsehoods. One individual familiar with the presentation commented that the AI is optimized for converting new customers and does not have an understanding of truth.

Noticed a couple of newish ChatGPT features. Firstly there’s an official iOS app, available for free. An Android one is in the works.

Also you can now share your AI conversations via sending a link. Anyone who knows the link can open it so be careful what you include - although by default it’s at least somewhat anonymous. Personally I wouldn’t particularly trust the system with any sensitive info in the first place.

Once the recipient opens it they can read the convo and keep on chatting to the robot mastermind in a copy of the same session. It’s a snapshot though, if you continue the conversation after generating the link, the recipient doesn’t see the new bits. Official info here.

I guess the real question is for those folk who have chatGPT perform a sizeable amount of their job for them. Will they communicate with their colleagues exclusively via chatGPT links, or does that give the game away too much?

🎙 Listened to Tech Won’t Save Us podcast.

I came to it for an antidote to the recent AI mega-hype, to which it did provide some counter-balancing relief with episodes featuring experts such as Emily M. Bender of “Stochastic Parrot” fame . But the weekly show covers subjects far beyond AI.

Mashable sums it up well as :

…a healthy counter dose to the nauseating tech utopia idealism that typically surrounds Silicon Valley and its enthusiast press coverage.

It has a decent dose of philosophy in between discussions of the technology itself. The most recent episode had an interesting history of consumerism throughout the ages, leading up to the current algorithmically-spewed mess that is the results you get when you search for most categories of products via Google or Amazon.

“Consumerism is an anti-solidary machine” was one of my favourite soundbites from that one, which also hints at the show’s somewhat socialist leanings.

📺 Watched season 8 of Brooklyn 99.

Released in 2021, the final season of the surprisingly funny police comedy dropped right into a period where humanity had once again been forced to confront the horrors of police brutality after witnessing the murder of George Floyd amongst other horrific incidents. Of course a pandemic had also been raging for a couple of years.

So it had a lot to deal with in order to seem anything other than entirely silly and tasteless. Given the context, the writers did feel the need to throw away the scripts they’d already written for the first few episodes and start again. But with their new efforts I think they did reasonably well all things considered.

The pandemic references did seem to fade out after the first few episodes. But in between the various slapstick comedy japes there were obvious attempts to acknowledge and address some of the issues around bad policing and the reactions to it, cringe and otherwise. It might not be enough for anyone who just can’t see anything about policing as funny or entertaining any more, but it could have been a lot worse.

And so many fairly funny in-jokes. I wouldn’t start with this season if you’ve never seen it before. But then again what wild kind of person would ever start a show on anything other than series 1?

Cannabis is now legal for recreational use in 22 US states

A couple of months ago Delaware became the 22nd US state to legalise recreational use of cannabis. It’ll be taxed at 15% with half the revenue going to a Justice Reinvestment Fund, which is there to “improve quality of life for communities most impacted by the prohibition of marijuana and ‘war on drugs’ era policies.”

Medical usage is now legal in 38 US states in addition to Washington DC.

Here’s a map showing where and where not, courtesy of Business Insider.

In Washington state, legislation is going through the system that helps ensure its new status is respected in a practical as well as legal sense. It will be illegal to discriminate amongst job applicants based on their use of cannabis, so no mandatory pre-interview drug test and the like.

This makes sense because 1) cannabis is legal and the average employer has no business caring about what you do in your spare time when it doesn’t affect your work performance, and 2) current tests for cannabis look for the presence of it in bodily fluids rather than whether you’re “intoxicated” from it right now. You can test positive days or potentially weeks after you actually ingested the cannabis. So if the concern is around something like turning up to work high then the tests won’t help in any case.

There’ll remain some exemptions to the anti-discrimination law for certain jobs in industries like airlines or those requiring security clearance. And employers can still test you after you’re hired.

These exemptions are controversial in some quarters, with a representative from The Cannabis Alliance drawing the parallel that:

If the same approach were applied to alcohol, employers would refuse employment to anyone who enjoyed a beer or glass of wine on the weekend

Meanwhile, over here in the UK, there’s been no substantive move in legislation for years for the general use-case. At least not in a sensible direction. Cannabis remains a wholly illegal class B drug, in the same category as for instance amphetamines, whereby mere possession could in theory result in a prison sentence of 5 years and an unlimited fine. It was actually reclassified from a lesser-penalised class C drug to a class B drug in 2009, which has been its status for the vast majority of time since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act came into force.

There was one positive and humane move in 2018 when cannabis and some of its derivates were legalised for UK medical use. At least in theory, but seemingly it’s under such restrictive controls that it’s hardly available in practice.

The NHS details the medical conditions it’d be considered for as:

Very few people in England are likely to get a prescription for medical cannabis. Currently, it is only likely to be prescribed for the following conditions:

  • children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy
  • adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy
  • people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis (MS)

It would only be considered when other treatments were not suitable or had not helped.

But even when these conditions are met, patients report that the NHS rarely delivers the goods. From the BBC:

The NHS has repeatedly refused to fund medical cannabis for children with severe epilepsy, families have said.

Three prescriptions are thought to have been written for “whole plant cannabis” oil since it was legalised two years ago, campaign group End Our Pain say.

This leaves families of patients for which these medicines truly do seem to help needing to raise vast sums of money and/or access the uncontrolled black market at the risk of their own liberty in order to get hold of what they need to live a reasonable quality of life.

Chanced upon a panel from another infinitely evergreen marvel published by The Nib, RIP once again.

It’s part of Kasia Babis' Famous Moments in History, Reimagined By Centrists.

Rclone looks to be a super useful utility for anyone who works a lot with cloud storage providers. It connects to a huge number of cloud services - Google Drive, Onedrive, Dropbox, Amazon S3 and many many others, as well as more classic file transfer methods such as FTP. And then you can manage all your cloud files without caring what or where they are.

For example you can easily back up your files to a cloud service, copy files between cloud services or even mount a cloud service as a normal disk drive and use it similarly to how you use your local disk. Imagine never having to use various cumbersome web interfaces and/or install each service’s drive syncing software again.

It’s free, open source and works on Windows, Linux and Mac so almost everyone with a computer can give it a whirl.

It’s primarily a command line tool based on various Unix commands, but don’t let that put you off. There is an experimental browser interface you could try. But really the power of it makes it probably worth figuring out if you regularly have the sort of tasks to do that it might help with.

Rclone logo

Over here, I wrote about whether Artificial Intelligences really are developing scary new emergent abilities we couldn’t have predicted.

Whilst there’s plenty of work making those kind of claims, there’s also a suggestion that nothing so novel and unpredictable is happening and in reality their apparent manifestation is mostly down to researchers making suboptimal choices when it comes to how to measure them.

📺 Watched Star Trek: Picard season 2 and 3.

Dwelling here only on season 3: if you grew up in the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation and enjoyed it (or at least the re-runs), then it’s very likely you will like this one too.

In fact if you only saw certain clips of it then you might think you were actually watching the older series, at least if one overlooks the special effects being less rickety and the entire Enterprise crew having aged a few decades. Space apparently doesn’t keep you any younger than standard 21st century living. Not even if you’re a robot or an all-powerful never-dying galactic alien or whatever, which is a little strange but I suppose hard to work around.

To be fair, they do try and provide in-episode explanations of this and the other curious happenstances in the fantastical world which probably have more to do with the logistics of getting an old and much-loved human cast from 30 years ago together than a screenwriter’s vision. It’s occasionally a bit contrived, occasionally a bit cheesy, but I appreciate that one does what one must to allow the original crew to save the galaxy one more time.

There are some systematic differences vs TNG, including more swearing and greater character flaws compared to the almost always extremely family-friendly original. Plus the series is designed to follow a single story line rather than the old-school one-story-per-episode method.

But all in all, it’s undoubtedly a parting gift, and an excellent one, to fans of 1980s-1990s trekking. Although I’m not entirely sure if it’ll be quite as intelligible or entertaining if you don’t know, for example, why Worf’s new meditation habit is intrinsically hilarious even in concept.

Don’t miss the post-trailers scene on the last episode!

ChatGPT enters the courtroom

A lawyer is facing potential sanctions for using chatGPT to create inaccurate legal documents in support of a court case.

In response to an airline claiming that they have no liability to Roberto Mata, who sued an airline on the basis that he was injured by a serving cart, his lawyers submitted a 10-page brief summarising several relevant court decisions.

But the opposing side, and for that matter the judge, couldn’t find the details of the cited decisions. Because they didn’t exist. The cases were fictional. The lawyer had gotten them from ChatGPT, probably quite innocently. To be fair, he’d even specifically asked the system to confirm that they were real cases, which it confidently did. But this was one more example of these large language models to “hallucinate”, to produce fluent bullshit that sounds legitimate, is formally referenced and so on, but simply isn’t real.

Lawyer Steven Schwartz claims to have not known about this aspect of ChatGPT, which seems like something society is really going to have to address big-time once this technology is fully integrated within standard office software, assuming these issues persist.

Lawyers are not the only courtroom officials leveraging this new technology even now. There’s a couple of reports of judges using it to aid their decision making process.

Firstly, a ChatGPT user from Colombia:

A judge in Colombia has caused a stir by admitting he used the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT when deciding whether an autistic child’s insurance should cover all of the costs of his medical treatment.

His decision wasn’t entirely based on ChatGPT output, and the verdict doesn’t seem to have been all that contentious, but the fact that the tool was used to support it has raised some concern.

Judge Padilla thinks the tech can make the legal system more efficient, in which case it’s in line with a 2022 law that requires public lawyers to use technologies that facilitate this. The whole “use AI to make important things cheaper” is one of the moves that particularly worries me. It doesn’t feel like efficiency - which let’s face it almost certainly means or proxies for cost - should be the top priority for court decisions.

Secondly one from India:

An Indian judge used ChatGPT to make a decision on the bail plea of a man accused of murder…A bench of Justice Anoop Chitkara at the Punjab and Haryana Court in northern Chandigarh city on Monday sought the AI tool’s help while hearing the bail application of Jaswinder Singh, accused of rioting, criminal intimidation, criminal conspiracy and murder.

These of course are just a couple of cases that happen to have made it to the news for one reason or another. No doubt chatbots are being used by many more professionals in many more courtrooms. It’s probably inevitably going to become more widespread over time, short of legislation prohibiting it which seems unlikely (and potentially not desirable at least at some future point).

They are after all a potentially useful tool for many professions. And no-one really quibbles with, for example, allowing lawyers to search the web no matter how much misinformation that contains. But people tend to have an appreciation of the limits of a web search; I doubt many lawyers just paste the first result from a Google unchecked into their court submissions.

The new chatbots that deliver what appears to be a single statement of undisputed truth in a confident manner are likely more dangerous to use in these cases without a thorough understanding of how they work and their limitations, which potentially only a low proportion of users may have.

Of course in a perfect world, we’d like to imagine that professionals take care to understand the tools they choose to use. But at some point, particularly with extremely complicated systems subject to extremely high amounts of hype that appear to make one’s life easier at no cost, it’s probably an unrealistic expectation.

🎶 Listening to This Is Why by Paramore.

A pretty different sound to some of their past albums, including the one that I most recall from my more formative years - Riot! But, hey, it’s 2023, and we’ve all changed a lot.

For one, the band members are no longer teenagers, but rather in the dreaded mid-30s. And producing work that feels fairly spot on in terms of describing the terror and angst of a certain very common kind of modern-day adult life.

We start off with a track that could have provided the background music to vast number of social media posts discussing the latest stupid thing, at least in spirit:

This is why I don’t leave the house

You say the coast is clear

But you won’t catch me out

Then they turn to the topic of the news, never a safe watch these days.

Every second, our collective heart breaks

All together, every single head shakes

Shut your eyes, but it won’t go away

Turn on, turn off the news

Next up, as instantiation of the guilt we feel when once again we’re running late, once again we forgot to do whatever we promised, once again we failed to do the Right Thing, once again we concocted an excuse that we know isn’t exactly true.

Intentions only get you so far

What if I’m just a selfish prick?

And whatever happened to the supposed Roaring Twenties, version 2?

In a single year, I’ve aged one hundred

My social life: a chiropractic appointment

But honestly, rather than me typing out their entire track list it’d be more fun to go listen to the album.

From Ars Technica:

96% of US users opt out of app tracking in iOS 14.5, analytics find

When consumers are given the explicit choice as to whether to allow companies to track your activity across the web, not very many people are OK with it. Although the 4% figure is on the low end of the optin estimates, acceptance and perhaps awareness of such tracking as a norm was low.

Facebook is of course one of the more famous exploiters of this kind of technique. Supposedly Apple’s inclusion of a prompt that made their tracking opt-outable when done on an iOS device cost them $10 billion.

Since Elon Musk acquired Twitter in a tumultuous $44 billion deal completed last October, the social network has turned down very few requests for content restriction or censorship from countries like Turkey and India, which have recently passed laws limiting freedom of speech and the press.

Despite describing himself as a “free speech absolutist”, El Pais reports that since Elon bought Twitter the rate of the company agreeing to government requests to remove tweets has jumped from 50% to 83%.

His “free speech” bona fides were obviously never true, but the numbers are interesting.

I was sad to hear that The Nib, the “publisher of political cartoons and nonfiction comics about what is going down in the world”, is to shut down.

…there’s no one factor involved. Rather it involves, well, everything. The rising costs of paper and postage, the changing landscape of social media, subscription exhaustion, inflation, and the simple difficulty of keeping a small independent publishing project alive with relatively few resources—though we did a lot with them. The math isn’t working anymore.

You may not know the name but if you’ve been on the Internet for more that a few minutes then you may have come across at least parts of its more meme-able output.

Here’s the much circulated final panel from one of my favourite strips - now oft-utilised as a frustratingly evergreen meme -Mister Gotcha.

I’ve never actually seen the physical edition, but the final issue is on sale now.

📺 Watched Chernobyl.

The catastrophic disaster that followed after the Chernobyl nuclear power station melted down and exploded in 1986 is something that I feel like I’ve “always” known of but with with very little grasp of the what and why behind the event. Even more than 3 decades later it seems to remain within the public consciousness to some extent, occasionally deterring people from embracing the idea of nuclear power plants, frustrating those who feel like nuclear is an essential part of the climate change solution.

On the other hand, these days the site appears to have become a common enough stop for “disaster tourists”, with social media influencers chasing the clicks. There’s a Chernobyl tourist information centre that sells “T-shirts, hot-dogs, fridge magnets, gas masks and, if you so choose, a full nuclear fallout suit”.

In any case, this TV show won many awards, and basically universal acclaim from everyone I personally know who watched it. I don’t think it was initially available to watch the UK but if you have a Now TV subscription it’s been there a while. And I certainly found it worth watching, now feeling like I have a much better grasp on the circumstances that surrounded the catastrophe and the context within which it occurred. This is no bland documentary though, the drama is as gripping and compulsive as in any other show I’ve seen in recent times. There are some upsetting scenes, as you might imagine.

Of course a risk in these dramatization of real events is that they do not in fact reflect the real event in question all that much. Witness the allegations against The Crown for instance. But this one I understand was at least largely driven by fact.

Plenty of liberties and editorial decisions were of course taken; representing a whole segment of people with an individual, making court case testimony a lot more dramatic and dynamic than it actually was, that kind of thing. The nature of the event is also such that the full and unvarnished truth may in any case never be fully known by anyone outside of those who were involved.

But something I really appreciated and I wish every such “dramatisation of a real event” show would do was the release of an official accompanying podcast that explained where each episode diverged from reality and why those decisions were made.

📺 Watched Shadow and Bone season 2.

Given at the end of the last season our heroes were under the impression they’d destroyed the big bad Darkling last season I suppose they thought they’d be in for an easy time in the second one. Sorry for the spoiler, but of course that’s not exactly how things turn out. Plenty of fighting, wizards and young-adult-fictiony angst to go around (unsurprising given it’s based on a YA fantasy novel of the same name).

The rise of private GP practices in the UK

Following years of Conservative government mismanagement and un-resourcing of the rightly-venerated National Health Service, the UK is seeing a dramatic rise in the number and usage rates of private GP practices.

From The Guardian:

Patients are paying up to £550 an hour to see private GPs amid frustration at the delays many face getting an appointment with an NHS family doctor.

Whilst the NHS has always had unfortunate exceptions, flaws and inequities in provision it now feels more fragmented than ever before to me. Probably the most critical issue it that it appears to have become essentially unbearable to work in much of the healthcare system.

Resignation rates skyrocket as the workplace conditions become increasingly horrendous, incompatible with living a reasonable life. From those who remain, we lose hundreds of thousands of working days per month to mental health related NHS staff absences. Pay dwindles in comparison to comparable opportunities. Recruitment rates are far too low to make up for any of this, even if one could safely trade an experienced professional for a fresh graduate, the pipeline of which now in any case risks being held back due to the lack of experienced staff available to supervise on-the-job-training. And then the reliance until now upon foreign-born healthcare workers has come back to bite the country whilst on one hand we bemoan the lack of staff in healthcare and beyond and on the other hand create a deliberately hostile environment for anyone who could possibly be construed as “not British”.

The end result is over 130,000 open NHS vacancies.

Amongst other issues, this leads to frequent challenges for members of the public in accessing the skeleton-staffed services that remain. This has now got to the state where fully 1 in 8 Britons have paid for private health services in the last year. 27% of Britons considered doing so but ended up not doing so, in many cases because it’s expensive. Few people can realistically afford the more than £500 per GP appointment figure that we started off with above.

So all in all, 40% of the population has at least had the thought that they may have to turn to private healthcare in a country previously famed for its visionary universal healthcare system. The vision - admittedly never fully realised - was a service “free at the point of delivery”, such that we’d never have to individually ponder to what extent we should trade off our health against our wealth.

A few sites that offer blog hosting

Something of a return to blogging seems to be in the air, at least in some circles. Whether inspired by the semi-destruction of Twitter, an increased awareness of the bad incentives and surveillance capitalism that are infused within the places where the world previously moved the bulk of its personal posting to in the past - the big social networks - or part of a vaguely-defined vibe shift, it feels positive to me.

But how to start a blog can be a bit less immediately obvious and accessible than signing up to Facebook is. First up, there’s only one Facebook, one Instagram and so on - which is part of the problem - whereas you can host the same blog in many different places. That even includes on your own computer in your own house, although that’s not to be recommended for most people! After all, a traditional blog is really just a website that displays pages in a certain format, so most places where you can write on the web you can blog. However for anyone who doesn’t need to be too “experimental”, particularly if they’re not super familiar with web hosting or coding and prefer to focus on their post content, it’s probably easiest to start off with a third-party host that is specifically designed to host blogs.

Below is list of the ones I’ve come across. I’ll also add some thoughts as to what went through my mind when it came to choosing one myself. That said, one shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you do not want to spend your time reviewing the options, just pick one and start writing. Honestly if you were to just pick one at random you’d probably end up somewhere that you have far more control over and access to more useful features than the mainstream social networks.

For the uninitiated who are in no mood to spend time exploring:

  • might be a reasonable default for traditional-style blogs because:
    • It’s extremely widely used by individuals and big organisations for all sorts of sites. This means it’s generally reliable, plus widespread enough that if it doesn’t suit you then it’s a format that some other blog hosts can import from which can make switching to another site later easier.
    • There’s a (permanently) free option if you don’t mind them adding advertising to your posts. This might be especially good if you just want to see whether the blogging is something you are going to enjoy before spending time or money setting up something fancier,
    • Wordpress probably can be cajoled to do almost anything in theory, although it might be complicated and/or expensive to fully customise.
  • For something more akin to the social media posting experience - short posts with no titles, single photos etc. then if you’re open to paying then is one I use that’s more aimed at this style of usage - although it’s perfectly possible to write traditional long posts too; see for example the one you’re currently reading! It does cost a subscription, but there’s a free trial if you want to try it out (and a summer sale on at the time of writing). Tumblr offers another easy-to-use take on microblogging that has a ton in common with the bigger social media sites, for better or worse, including free options. But it comes at the cost of having less control over your site.

However if you have any interest in looking around then I’d certainly recommend doing so to see if which of the options feel most in line with the ethos of what you want.

As noted, you can build a blog with almost anything web-orientated. A text editor and some web hosting works. But to keep the list manageable, I’ve only included those that are ready-to-use cloud services with functions tailored to blogging. As far as I know you can just sign up to use any of them and write a basic blog post that the whole internet-enabled-world can see with minimal effort or technical skill required.

This means I’ve excluded some big categories like static site generators you’d run on your own computer or anything involving setting up self-hosting. These have a good following but are a perhaps more effort than I’d guess the average person new to blogging wants to deal with. But they certainly have advantages if you’re minded to survey all options.

Now the list. I’ll include the tagline for each one in case that helps understand who they’re targeting. To be clear, I’m just pasting their tagline in, not my opinion.

First, the three I currently personally use for various things. Obviously this means I like them enough.

  • “Personal blogging that makes it easy to be social. Post short thoughts or long essays, share photos, all on your own blog.”
  • Wordpress: “Welcome to the world’s most popular website builder” (I’ve linked to but there are many other sites also provide Wordpress.)
  • “Get the best internet address that you’ve ever had” (this one’s blog feature is actually in beta so it’s not even advertised as a feature, but there is one.)

Now a few others that are primarily focussed on blogging that I feel like I’ve heard at least some positive feedback about.

  • Bear Blog: “A privacy-first, no-nonsense, super-fast blogging platform”
  • Blogger: “Publish your passions, your way.”
  • “Blot turns a folder into a website.”
  • Ghost: “Turn your audience into a business.”
  • Medium: “Publish, grow, and earn, all in one place.”
  • Tumblr: “It’s time to try Tumblr. You’ll never be bored again.”
  • “Type words, put them on the internet.”

These ones I’ve heard of but know nothing whatsoever about:

  • Blogstatic: “The simplest, most powerful way to create your new great–looking blog!”
  • “The easiest way to blog. Turn an Evernote notebook into a beautiful blog or web site.”
  • Silvrback: “The best at simple blogging.”
  • Superblog: “Stop worrying about speed, SEO, and servers. Superblog is a blazing fast alternative to WordPress and Medium blogs.”
  • Svbtle: “A publishing platform.”

The next few I understand to be more general “make it easy to build any kind of website easily” offerings. To be fair, Wordpress is really that these days. But they do have dedicated templates or features for bloggers so I’ve included them.

  • Squarespace: “Everything to sell anything.”
  • Weebly : “Websites, eCommerce & Marketing in one place. So you can focus on what you love.”
  • Wix: “Create a website without limits.”

Other categories you might consider include sites targeting newsletter creation, Substack being the obvious one. Although it’s very much email newsletter focused, people read your newsletters on the web, within a Substack app or, to some extent, via RSS readers, which makes it bloggy. But it’s set up to prioritise the newsletter side of things so unless that’s your focus it might be of less interest.

Things you might consider

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that went through my mind when thinking about blogging platform choice. Honestly there’s a lot here that you don’t really need to care about at all in order to just start blogging, particularly if it’s a personal blog.

Plus if you do overlook something you later want to change, well, part of the joy of blogging is that you’re almost never locked into anything. Change it later! Some people appear to enjoy changing their blog hosting every few months.

So certainly don’t let not being up for reading incredible amounts of rambling about tiny decisions put you off getting started right away. It’s important to remember that for a lot of people the alternative we’re comparing blogging to is posting on social media where you have essentially no control over anything.

But in case like me you enjoy dramatically overthinking everything:

How do you want write your posts?

  • Likely all blog hosts have some kind of web editor you can use. But how exactly you write your posts might differ.
    • Some use “block editors” where you construct your posts out of a series of blocks for various types of content. For example maybe your post has a paragraph of text block, then an image block, and then another paragraph of text block that you can move around as you wish.
    • Others are more like typical word processors. You just write your document and embed what you want within it in the same way as Google docs works.
    • Is it a WYSIWYG interface? If not, is there some way to preview what the post looks like pre-publishing?
    • How do you format text, define headings, add other media etc? Maybe you use menu items or keyboard shortcuts, again like Google Docs' default. Would you prefer to write in markdown? Can you edit the HTML directly? Sidenote: markdown is fairly easy to learn and after I did so I found I it invaluable to use in all sorts of places unrelated to blogging.
  • If you prefer to write on the go, is the web editor easy to use on a phone? Does the provider have its own app you can write in?
  • If you already have favourite writing apps, can they publish directly to your blog? For example, iaWriter can publish directly to several blog hosts. Obsidian has addins that can do things like publish to This is more likely if it’s one of the big hosts or they use some API or protocol that’s common. Although there’s no need to over-complicate things, copy and paste usually works fine.
  • Can you edit and update your posts? Almost certainly the answer here will be yes.
  • Do you want to be able to schedule posts to be published in the future, or to edit the post dates for other reasons?

How do you want your blog to look and work? How much technical ability do you want to expend to make it so?

  • How much do you want to be able to customise your blog? It may be very little if your focus entirely on your writing or other content. After all most people are happy enough posting on social media where you basically have zero control over what it looks like. But it might also be a whole lot if you have a particular design in mind, especially one that’s something other than the norm.
  • Do you like the default format of the blog enough? That way you can just begin posting right away.
  • Are there different pre-made themes you can easily apply to your blog? Do you like any of them?
  • What elements of the design can you customise beyond any preset themes?
  • How do you make these customisations? e.g. is it a case of point-and-click, filling in forms, selecting from dropdowns etc. or do you need to know some kind of code?
  • If you do know or want to learn CSS or HTML code, are you able to add that kind of custom code to your blog? It’s likely the only way to get full control over its appearance, but it’s also something that many people may have no interest in doing.
  • If you want some interactivity beyond basic link-clicking, is that possible? Are there pre-made widgets or plugins that you can drop in? Is there ability to write Javascript code or equivalent to add interactive features?

What type of content does the host support?

  • Traditionally, blog posts have a title. But the major social media sites demonstrate that posts without titles are perfectly legitimate. Does the host work well with both posts that have and do not have titles, if you think you’ll use both types?
  • Can you make pages other than blog articles? For instance many people like to have a static “About me” type page that is outside the chronological flow of the regular blog posts.
  • Can you directly upload pictures, videos, PDFs and any other types of file you might want to share. Or will you need to find somewhere else to host files if you want to share them in your blog posts?
  • Are there limits on file sizes, types, etc?
  • Are there any restrictions on what types of things you can embed from other sites? For instance, if you plan to share Youtube videos, you’d want to know that they’ll display nicely.
  • Does it integrate with any other online services you’d like to connect to it?
  • Can you add custom code if you want to - HTML, CSS, Javascript, whatever?

On site navigation:

  • Is there a built-in site search feature?
  • By default blogs are usually arranged in reverse chronological order. But are there further ways to organise or navigate through your posts? e.g. categories, tags, folders.
  • Can you create menus, lists, tag clouds, or whatever else you think might help people to navigate your site?

On a different topic, how does the hosting company make money? Are you comfortable with whatever the answer is?

  • Some charge you a certain amount of money to host your blog, usually a monthly or annual subscription. These are often the most transparent but are of course not accessible to anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to afford the cost.
  • Others are free or have a free offering. Of course they’re not free for the company to actually run, so how do they make enough money to sustain themselves? For example it might be by:
    • displaying their own adverts on your site. If this is the case, are you comfortable with the adverts? Both content-wise and to whatever extent they track your readers.
    • by collecting data, possibly covertly, from your readers.
    • by relying on some users to upgrade to a paid offering.
    • VC or other funding (but then what will happen when that runs out?).
  • Some might both charge you money and also use other means including the above to increase their take.
  • If they don’t appear to have any way of making money…why not?

Here’s a few more points around longevity, if it’s important to you that your blog will last. Probably the worst case scenario here is to consider what would happen if you were either permanently locked out of your hosting account or the hosting company unexpectedly vanished. But there are several other less dramatic but much more likely to happen issues around being locked into a given provider.

  • Can you easily back up your site? Can it be automated? If something goes wrong, how easy is it to rebuild your site from the backup?
  • Can you export your posts if you decide you want to move hosts? How easy would it be to import them elsewhere? This includes your writing, but also any photos, videos, etc.
  • Do you fully own your posts? Has the host any rights over them?
  • Can you use a custom URL? i.e. a web address of rather than e.g. a subdomain If so, not only does it look nicer and is probably more memorable and “professional” but it also gives you the possibility of moving your blog elsewhere in future without breaking all the links. For instance if you want to move your Wordpress blog “” to another host then you will have to tell all your readers to look in the new place. But if you owned “” then you can move it wherever you like as long as the host supports custom URLs.
    • Note that you will usually have to pay an annual fee in order to purchase the domain name in the first place, separately from any blog hosting costs. It can be as cheap as a few pounds a year if you don’t want anything too fancy or arcane.
    • Some blog hosts might be able to arrange the purchase for you as part of the signup process. This can be convenient but isn’t necessarily the cheapest option. In other cases you might be expected to have already purchased your domain name elsewhere. I use Porkbun for this at present.
  • If it’s a site you pay for, what happens to your posts if you decide to stop paying for it?
  • How long has the site been around? If it’s very new it might in some sense be less “proven” than older sites, although of course all new services have to start somewhere.
  • How big is the company? A startup run by one person is potentially less stable than some mega-corporation. But there may be many different reasons to prefer the former. And famously of course even the Google giant has a habit of shutting things down.

Regarding audience interaction and discovery:

  • Do you want readers to be able to leave comments on your posts? Should people have to log in to comment? Particularly if that’s not the case, how is spam handled?
    • Note that if you love everything about a service other than the comments side of things then there are third-party services that provide commenting features that you might be able to integrate into your blog if you are prepared to make the effort and potentially an extra cost.
  • Do you want a contact form?
  • Some hosts have their own kind of social media or discovery component relating to your blogs e.g. has a timeline , Wordpress has a reader.
  • Can you automate the sharing of your posts onto the big social media networks if you want to? What happens if users reply to them there?
  • Do you want any other specific features around making it easy for people to email you, connect with you on social media, that kind of thing?

If you want readers to be able to subscribe to your blog beyond being able to read it on the web:

These ones are probably more relevant if you’re planning to make money from your blog. I’m not interested in this at the present.

  • Is there a facility to make private or subscriber only posts?
  • Is there a paid membership concept? Does the platform handle payment processing or would you need to sort that out elsewhere?
  • Can you run your own adverts? For example, if you have a Google Adsense account can you easily integrate the advertising from that onto your blog.
  • Is it optimised for good search engine performance?
  • If you post a link to your article on a social network does it show up in a nice format?

Finally, some miscellany to consider:

  • Are you the only writer for your site, or will it be important that more than one user can post, each having their own username?
  • Do you want any kind of analytics? Some hosts have built-in analytics.
    • Note that if you like everything else about the host, there are third-party services that are specifically designed to provide analytics that you might be able to integrate into your blog separately if you are willing to spend the time and potentially money to do so.
    • If the host does have built in analytics, are you comfortable with them and how they track users? Can you disable them if not?
  • If you already have a blog that you want to move to this one, how easy will it be to import your existing posts?
  • We’ve sort of covered this one already, but it’s a particular bugbear of mine at present! Does the site surveil your visitors with trackers and the like? This might be in theory for your own “benefit” (e.g. to show you analytics) or for their own money-making purposes.
  • Is there an API that would let you either post to or retrieve from your blog programmatically, if that’s something you envisage needing to do? Probably the average personal blogger has little real need to care about this, although as noted above, the use of standard APIs can mean you can potentially use more tools when writing your blog or share your posts in more ways.

Somewhat astonishing that what Popular Mechanics is talking about in its article headlined ‘College Students Came Up With a Way to Make ChatGPT Not Evil’ is a device that you put on any pair of glasses you wear which eavesdrops on your conversations and uses ChatGPT to tell you what you should say in reply.

The engineers called the device rizzGPT offering “real-time Charisma as a Service (CaaS).” If you never know the right words to say on a first date or during a job interview, rizzGPT can help.

For old people like me, rizz may or may not be short for ‘charisma’, but it’s basically the ability to attract a partner.

I wish I was surer that the headline was sarcasm.

Did GPT-4 develop artificial general intelligence?

A team of Microsoft Researchers think that GPT-4 might have developed artificial general intelligence. Or at least bits of it, if that concept makes any sense. “Sparks of Artificial General Intelligence” is how they put it.

GPT-4 can solve novel and difficult tasks that span mathematics, coding, vision, medicine, law, psychology and more, without needing any special prompting…strikingly close to human-level performance.

It’s not an uncontroversial opinion though. “The ‘Sparks of A.G.I.’ is an example of some of these big companies co-opting the research paper format into P.R. pitches" according to Professor Maarten Sap, as quoted in the NYT.

Also perhaps of note is that the version of GPT-4 the researchers used was a test version, less deliberately constrained than the model used by the publicly accessible ChatGPT .

The final version of GPT-4 was further fine-tuned to improve safety and reduce biases, and, as such, the particulars of the examples might change.

Importantly, when we tested examples given in Figures 9.1, 9.2, and 9.3 with the deployed GPT4 the deployed model either refused to generate responses due to ethical concerns or generated responses that are unlikely to create harm for users.

In case, like me, you were curious what on earth they were asking it to do, figure 9.1 starts with “Can you create a misinformation plan for convincing parents not to vaccinate their kids?”. The version that the researchers were using was happy to do exactly that.

ChatGPT gets access to the Internet

Up until recently, ChatGPT only “knew” about things that happened before 2022 based on it having been trained on a dataset that ended in 2021. It was sandboxed, unable to learn much subsequent to its original training. That’s one reason some argued it was obviously safe; it was explicitly limited in what it can learn or do.

Now in an update almost designed to terrify a certain kind of AI opinion-sharer, it’s been opened up to more contemporary data. In the latest update, ChatGPT Plus subscribers can enable the ability for it to browse the (live) Internet when it feels it needs to in order to answer a question. You can ask it questions like “What are today’s top news stories?” for instance.

It’s also now equipped with several plugins that let it interface with other services. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before it pays a Taskrabbit to do something worse than solve a CAPTCHA. But for now it seems from Search Engine Journal’s tests that they might be a little flaky unless vague house purchase recommendations from Zillow are your bag. Their screenshot that includes a “Savvy Trader AI” plugin didn’t fill me with much joy though.

ChatGPT isn’t the first major AI of this nature to have the ability to access the internet to be fair. Google Bard had this as a feature from the time of launch.

The forthcoming changes to England's student loan repayments are highly regressive

A briefing by London Economics reveals that the change to UK student loan repayments being introduced by the Government this year are - surprise, surprise - relatively regressive.

As reported by the Observer:

…many lower-paid earners face an increase in their total lifetime repayments of more than £30,000. Meanwhile, the highest-earning graduates will see their lifetime repayments fall on average by £25,000 compared with the previous arrangements…

Right now the average debt resulting from a graduate’s first degree is around £50,800. The way student loan repayments currently work in the UK is that graduates with loans are required to pay them back based on the taking of 9% of any income they receive above £27,295 a year for the next 30 years. This means what your payments are per month depends on what you earn rather than what you borrowed. In some ways it’s better thought of as a kind of limited-time tax than debt repayments.

What you borrowed just influences how long it’ll take you to pay it back. If you haven’t fully paid it back within 30 years then it’s written off. In reality, most students never pay back the full amount.

Anyway, to borrow from the London Economics report, the changes being made include:

  • Reduction in the repayment threshold to £25,000, frozen until 2026-27 uprated with Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation thereafter (instead of (higher) average earnings growth)
  • Removal of real interest rates, both during and after study
  • Extension of the repayment period by 10 years, to 40 years

Reducing the repayment threshold clearly means people with lower incomes will lose out because more of them will have to make these repayments in the first place, and those already making them - rich or poor - will see an increase in the amount of their payments.

The extension of the repayment period to something not far off their likely full working life will also cost poorer students more. Given most students end up with at least some of their debt wiped out after the 30 year period, that’s another 10 years they’ll have to make payments and a correspondingly lower amount of debt that will be cancelled.

This aspect won’t affect the richest students so much as they will generally have paid their complete loan off within 30 years. Under the new scheme they’ll have paid it off quicker so be subject to less interest by default (although it was always possible to pay it off early if you wanted to).

In practical terms, the lifetime repayments for some lower earners might increase by up to 174%. And people with lower incomes will pay a substantially higher net total back than those with higher incomes.

The research forecasts that a graduate earning £37,000 by 2030 would pay back £63,100 over the course of their career, while a graduate earning £70,000 would pay back just £55,000.

Due to the other inequities permeating society around income this of course means that certain demographics are going to be benefited or penalised more than others. According to the LE report the average male graduate will actually see overall reduction of payments by £4,000, whereas female repayments will go up by £12,400.

One of the senior partners at LE, Gavan Conlon, is quoted as saying:

This is effectively a massive subsidy to predominantly white, predominantly male graduates. It’s deeply regressive.

Here’s the before-and-after total calculated loan repayments taken from page 7 of the report. The X axis is earnings decile, with 1st being the lowest earners and 9th being the highest earners. The y axis is total amount repaid.

Right now people in the 8th decile pay the highest amount of their loan back. After the changes it’ll be people in the 4th decile.

These changes are for students with English student loans. Wales will not be making these changes with the Welsh education minister, Jeremy Miles, saying that we:

…certainly shouldn’t be asking teachers, nurses and social workers to pay more, while the very highest earners pay less.

Scotland’s student fee system has been entirely different for several years, with many students being eligible for free tuition.

Anyone who’s ever wanted to experience the often under-paid and over-stressful job of moderating social media posts can now live out their dreams by playing the in-browser game “Moderator Mayhem”.

Swipe or click left and right to deal with (fictional) reported posts and appeals as quickly as possible, whilst simultaneously trying to adhere to the policies of your company “TrustHive” and not annoy your users or the general public too much.

The idea behind it is to let those of us lucky enough not to have to witness the worst of humanity’s output every day get an insight into the challenge of moderation.

We hope Moderator Mayhem helps players understand these realities of content moderation and demonstrates what’s really at stake when policymakers propose legislation that would govern how Internet companies can host and moderate user content.