From my diary: the evanescent internet

Today, at work, I cast around for a web-based form to point a computer program at, for testing purposes.  I recalled my own feedback form, at Tertullian.org, and decided to use that.  I was having one of those days, you know, when everything goes wrong.  But at least my own website wouldn’t let me down, right?

Wrong.  The form didn’t work.

Clearly it hadn’t worked, for quite some time.  Yet I couldn’t see why.  It was a very simple piece of software, and hadn’t changed in, well, probably a decade.

But of course it wasn’t running on the hardware-software platform of 2004 any more.  Somewhere, sometime, my website provider had upgraded.  It happens all the time.

Some software upgrade had broken it, silently.  The form is written in PHP, and clearly one or the other of the PHP upgrades had silently removed features on which it depends.  It emails me in a distinctive format, and, now I come to think of it, I haven’t seen one in quite some time.  A year?  Two?  How time flies…

I spent a less than pleasant hour this evening, rewriting the way it captures variables.  The new version is considerably more baroque than the old.  It’s longer.  It might be more secure, I don’t know.  But it’s not the same form any more.

Of course this makes me wonder what other PHP scripts are lying around on my website, long forgotten.  I can’t even face looking.

This is how the internet dies.  We all know that it is less than permanent.  What we forget is that software less than a decade old, designed to run and be accessible by the world, is probably only sporadically working.

All those eager-beavers, upgrading and improving constantly, are … leaving a trail of wrecked websites behind them.

I wonder how many of us are actually hosting deadware – scripts that once worked and no longer do?

6 Responses to “From my diary: the evanescent internet”


  1. j

    If you used the mysql_ functions you need to start thinking about upgrading to mysqli_ or PDO because those are deprecated and “may” be removed in a future release.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Luckily not. :-) Appreciate the tip tho.

  3. S.J. Voicu

    Maybe it is not an uncommon situation. More often than not, new software versions don’t replace older ones, but delete some features “no one uses” according to the producer’s wisdom (?).
    My personal example. Some 25 (!) years ago I came across Dayflo Tracker, devised to keep track of appointments, contacts and memos. A friend of mine used it as a bibliographical catalogue. Splendid! My database has now some 11,000 records, and I can still access them (individually or as groups) with a few keystrokes.
    PROBLEM: it is a DOS (remember?) program that has not been updated to Windows. Windows7 has no DOS anymore; WindowsXP has an incomplete DOS. The last version with a functional DOS is Windows98 …
    “You’re againt progress. Surely there is a newer program that does the trick …”, computer experts kept saying, but no one has ever surrendered a name. A couple volunteered to do a transformation and gave up.
    SOLUTION: keep a Windows98 machine (“real” or virtual), against the “progress” sickness (!).
    Later an additional bonus appeared. Windows98 uses WWord6, i.e. the last version of WWord with a macro language worth its name (have you ever tried a macro in Xp or 7? Xp is disfunctional). Tracker has some primitive formats I preferred not to use. Instead, I managed to mark the records in the database so as to have not only (invisible) formatting, but also (invisible) Greek and Cyrillic (bibliographical titles being what they are, the feature is useful), export the record(s) and via a WWord6 macro have everything on disk, screen and paper.
    The output can even be converted into Unicode via an Xp macro. It is disfunctional, but it works.
    “Don’t buy a product you don’t understand …”, as they say.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Dayflo Tracker must be long gone – there’s very little on a google search.

    Windows 7 still has a command prompt – start | cmd produces a DOS box. Win7 was very good at backwards compatibility, far better than Vista. But if XP is no good, then Win7 won’t be either.

    As you say, the answer is an old machine.

    At least you can get your data in Word!

  5. DW

    Reading this reminded me of the rescue of 1960s photos taken from the moon. Short story:

    http://www.dpreview.com/articles/0875634341/lost-1960s-moon-photos-recovered-from-analog-tapes

    but more details here:

    http://www.wired.com/2014/04/lost-lunar-photos-recovered-by-great-feats-of-hackerdom-developed-at-a-mcdonalds/

    I find it difficult to imagine that such important data has already become difficult to access only 50 years after they were created. Some clay tablets can still be read after 5000 year of service…

  6. Roger Pearse

    I saw that story. Scary, isn’t it?



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