Sir Terry lives on…

Over time in the Discworld novels, the inhabitants of the Disc came up with a long-distance communications method called “the clacks” – a cross between the telegraph and semaphore. Initially they’re only used in Anhk-Morpork, and mostly by the Watch, but soon there are towers all across the land conveying messages between cities and countries.

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett
Cover illustration: Paul Kidby
Publisher: http://www.transworldbooks.co.uk

In Going Postal we learn that the clacks have something called “overhead”, meta-data, of sorts, for the messages being sent, not unlike the header data contained in emails or web pages which doesn’t appear on the screen, but which contains important instructions on how the page should be displayed. When one character questions the presence of a name in the overhead, another tells her it is the name of an operator who was killed. A code is transmitted with his name, ensuring that it will always be sent on to the next tower, for “A man’s not dead while his name is still spoken”.

Users on Reddit noticed the similarity between website meta-data and the clacks overhead and thought, why not do the same for Sir Terry? This led to a wonderful tribute to the author straight out of one of his own books. Across the web people are now adding the phrase “GNU Terry Pratchett” to website and server headers and even hiding it in their email and message board signatures, ensuring that Sir Terry lives on in the overhead.

There is a website with instructions to add the phrase to the header of several types of web servers and self-hosted websites, and email signatures. There’s also a Chrome plugin that displays a special icon in the address bar if the browser recognises the phrase. (I hope someone writes one for Firefox soon.)

Update: Someone has. Click here for the Firefox add-on (which, frankly, is much cooler than the Chrome one).

Unfortunately, we can’t add the code on WordPress.com as we don’t have access to the files where we would need to add this. But if you’d like to join in this tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett, you can do the following:

Go to Appearance ->Widgets in your dashboard and add a text widget anywhere your theme allows. Don’t give the widget a title, and in the content area type (including the arrow-brackets):

<!-- X-Clacks-Overhead: GNU Terry Pratchett -->

Save the widget. It won’t display on your site, but anyone who views your site’s source code will be able to see it (and you’ll know it’s there). You can also append it to your comments on WordPress.com (I’ve tested this – only the site owner will be able to see it if and when they try to edit the comment), and it should work for any other comment system that allows you to add html within comments. (Same goes for message boards that allow html in sigs.)

And so we can ensure that Sir Terry lives on. A much more practical approach, if you ask me, than petitioning Death to reinstate him 😉


According to Sir Terry’s author page at Transworld Books, his website is still down due to the huge number of people who visited it after the news of his passing went public. I’ll add the appropriate links to this and other posts once that site is live again.

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