Users don’t know bout my tilde

Classic unix web addresses are incomprehensible to average users. I’m talking about URL’s that are composed of a domain name, followed by a slash, a tlide and your user name. Something like this:


These addresses are incredibly common. Chances are, that if you have a shell account on some unix system somewhere the PUBLIC_HTML folder in your home directory maps to a publicly accessible URL just like that. Hell, you don’t even need a shell account. Any service running on top of a *nix stack that allows you to host more or less complex web pages will be using addresses like that.

Those of us with linux and unix experience know this pattern intuitively. The fun starts when you try to spell out your URL to a complete technological neophyte. Average user has no clue what a tilde is.

Man, I really apologize for using this stupid meme

I’ve been doing this for quite a while now and it almost impossible to give this sort of URL to people in any other form than a clickable link. You just can’t spell it out:

You say “tilde” and you get a blank stare. Swung dash or a wave dash are not much better.

You refer to it as the “squiggle”, “the squiggly line” or “the wavy thing” and they begin to suspect you are just fucking with them.

Really, the only reliable way to tell students what key to press is to say it is to the left of number 1 key on the keyboard and hope they can distinguish left from right. But if they press it, they get the tick-mark so you need to remind them to press it with a Shift key. Which means you sort of have to stop spelling, and get this awkward sentence out:

“Now, press shift, and the key directly to the left of number 1 key on the main keyboard (not the number pad) together”

If everyone is sitting at a keyboard, this may have a chance of working. Still, You will likely find out that some people have funky non-standard keyboard where tilde is done by pressing Fn+Shift+Scroll Lock or something equally stupid. Other people will tune out either the first or the last part of the sentence and either press and hold shift, or insert a tic-mark into the URL. If your students are not sitting at a keyboard, you might as well not even bother. They won’t retain the location of the key, won’t write it down, and will claim they couldn’t access the website later on.

You can’t write it on the board because they won’t be able to copy it properly. You can’t give it to them in a handout because they will just skip that character. Yes, roughly 60% of my students can’t access my webpage given a hard copy of the syllabus. And it’s not just at the begging of the class. I’d be fine if I only had to explain this once at the begging of the semester, but my students just don’t retain this info no matter what I do. I go through this awkward thing every single week and I’m sick of it.

I have been thinking about a solution for this issue for a while now and came up with 3 potential courses of action:

  1. Host my course related stuff somewhere else
  2. Buy a cheep domain name
  3. Use a free subdomain

First alternative is not very attractive. I have this web space provided by the university under a .edu address and I don’t really feel like relocating my files elsewhere and paying for hosting out of my own pocket. So number 1 is out.

Number 2 is a bit better. I looked around for cheap domains and I noticed that .info is essentially worthless. At the time of writing this was selling .info domains for $0.99. That’s per year folks. I don’t know – that seems dirt cheap to me. I think I could totally swallow 99 cents per year for the sake of convenience.

Then there is number 3, which is just like number 2 but less expensive. The only difference is that I would not get a nice domain name of my own. I would have to settle for a nice subdomain.

In case you didn’t know, there are plenty of services on the web where you can get a subdomain for free. I mean, you you could set this up yourself. Once you buy a domain, you can set up as many c-names as you want, redirecting subdomains to different IP’s or ULR’s. There are sites out there that have pools of reserved domains for that very purpose.

Probably the most popular, and least shady of these is DynDNS. They are probably best known for providing free subdomains for computers with dynamic IP addresses. For example, you might remember my private NetHack server used to be located at That was a dyndns subdomain – I didn’t actually pay for something as silly as that. I simply signed up with them, installed a small updater app and bound my dynamic IP to that address. But they do more than just basic DNS mapping.

Their WebHop service does exactly what we need here. It is a redirect to an existing URL, combined with an optional domain masking.

Only issue here is a small choice of intuitive and easy to remember domain names. Most of them are either hard to remember (well, for people who can’t figure out tilde at least) – like, silly and informal (, or cryptic ( Not a great selection for a course related site but it might work for you. It worked well for my nethack server for example.

There are dozens of other services like that all over the web. ShortURL is another one, with it’s own pool of silly domains. Once again, I haven’t found anything remotely memorable or usable on their list, but it does not disqualify it as a service.

In fact, just check out the Guide to Free URL Redirection site for a very comprehensive list. Especially look at the Shortest Free Url’s section for a good selection of 3-4 letter domains. Caveat Emptor: some of these sites will inject popups and/or advertising frames when redirecting so be careful.

90% of them are useless to me at this point. At least for this particular school related project. But I’m putting this here because I know someone will be able to use them just like I did for that server. A lot of these domains are great for personal web pages and/or myspace profiles. I actually know few people who created a dyndns accound just so that they could have a subdomain.

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18 Responses to Users don’t know bout my tilde

  1. Gunni ICELAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    How about taking your unix web address, putting into tinyurl, and handing that out at the beginning of the semester? The url you give them won’t be a .edu one, but it’ll lead directly to it and they’ll be able to type it in.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Gunni: Yeah, but tinyURL’s are not easy to pronounce and impossible to remember.

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  3. Alex BELGIUM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    One possible answer is exactly on the Wikipedia entry you posted:

    In URLs, the characters %7E (or %7e) may substitute a tilde if an input device lacks a tilde key. Thus, and are essentially the same URL.

    It still contains a “special” character, but, at lest, it is a more common and used one.

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  4. mcai8sh4 UNITED KINGDOM Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    Since Alex has beaten me to it with his(her?) suggestion – which I think is a nice easy workaround, I thought the only other real alternative would be to increase your students cerebral fitness by forcing them (a big stick would help) to learn how to use a keyboard, learn the names of each key (come on there aren’t that many), and learn the value of listening to the people trying to teach (help) them.
    I have always thought that a system should be introduced whereby people should have to pass a (simple) exam to buy/use/work with a computer. I don’t mean an exam like you would have at school/college… just go to a few lessons, understand the basics, and answer a few questions. I’m not saying a computer is a privilege opposed to a right. But with more people using them, more jobs requiring them, and more dangers (viruses, ID theft….) it would be beneficial to everyone. I just seem to get the feeling that people nowadays assume computers are easy, simple machines (largely due to the FANTASTIC software we now have) that anyone can use. A simple understanding will not only improve efficiency, but also improve the users enjoyment, hence they will learn more.
    OK, I’ve finished my little rant, don’t really know where that came from – I must have had a bad day.

    Long story cut short…. “what Alex said” :)

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  5. James D UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I have a totally standard keyboard. The tilde is on shift-#, left of the enter key, right of the apostrophe key, above the right shift key, and below the ] key. Once we have revoked your independence, you will have to learn to use a standard keyboard too. ;-)

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  6. Jake UNITED STATES ELinks Debian GNU/Linux says:

    Prehaps you should start the course with a lesson on what the characters on the keyboard are called. ;)

    In seriousness, I have noticed the same thing when I use the term “tilde” or “swung dash.” However, people tend to understand what it is when I refer to it as a “squiggle.” Likewise, “star” is sometimes more successful then “asterisk.”

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Alex: Yeah, it is one way to approach it but this method makes the URL even less memorable. My aim was to have a URL that is both easy to say, and easy to remember.

    @mcai8sh4: Well, that’s really what I do. I explain to them what a tilde is the first day in class and I show them where it is located on the keyboard. Some people retain it, others don’t.

    @James D: James, I teach in UK – keyboards with Irish layout are just not the standard here. But it is a valid point – different layouts put the damn tilde in different places.

    The only other layout I commonly use is “Polish Programmer’s” and it is identical to US standard with the exception of special characters being accessed by holding AltGr.

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  8. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    When I’m asked to spell out my email, inevitably you have to say “at”, and non-geeks will look at me blankly. I have to say “the ‘a’ with the circle” while drawing out the @ symbol with my hand in the air. Only then will they understand.

    I think most people recognize these special characters but do not know what they are called. Besides, comma and period (more known as “full stop”), say “semi-colon”, “colon”, “underscore”, “ampersand”, etc, and you will be met with blank stares.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Mart: Actually, I have yet to meet an email user who doesn’t know “at”. It is just such an essential part of the email culture – plus, you need an email to join facebook and invite friends there. so most of my students get that. :P

    The only people who give me weird looks when I say “at” when spelling out an email are native Polish speakers. In Polish for some reason that character is commonly known as “małpa” which, btw translates to monkey. No clue why, but I commonly forget this and then have to answer awkward questions as to where does the monkey go in my email.

    Back to English speakers though – most people are ok with colon and semi-colon. Undescore is easy to explain – “Shift Minus key”.

    If you need ampersand you just say “the ‘and’symbol/key” and everyone will instantly know what you mean.

    The difficult keys are tilde, vertical bar (pipe) and also forward/back slash (mostly because people are confused which one is which).

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  10. Wikke BELGIUM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Hey, that ‘monkey’-thing exists also in Dutch.
    Here, the ‘at’-symbol is more known as ‘apestaartje’. Which translates to ‘little monkey tail’ :-)

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  11. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke: That’s why I find it ridiculous. It’s wierd tha people are asking me for my email, they aren’t sure what @ is. :P

    @ Wikke: LoL! @ sure does look like a super long monkey’s tail.

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Wikke: Heh, interesting! I guess the monkey thing is more universal than I thought. :P

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  13. Rob UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I can vouch for DynDNS. I use it to tunnel to a server I keep here at my house. Plus DD-WRT will auto update DynDNS which is pretty nice.

    I’d go with a cheap .info domain. Yeah, you have to pay money for it, but isn’t $0.99 a year worth not having to say in front of your class “go to”? That’s all fine and good to give to your friends or pass out on your website, but you might loose a little respect from your students.

    Anyhow, just my two cents.

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Rob: Heh, of course I would not use that one for the class. I was thinking more among the lines of “” or “” or something like that.

    Still, not the easiest to remember.

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  15. Gunni ICELAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Fair enough on the tinyurl idea. :)

    I’ll apologize in advance for the very Grinch-like attitude, but how about adopting the same “survival-of-the-fittest” way of thinking I assume most of your co-teachers have? If the kids can’t figure out where ~ is in a keyboard, then do they have that much business being in your class?

    This isn’t coming from out of the blue. I’ve taught problem courses in 2nd year engineering maths, but I think this ~ problem roughly translates to students in those courses asking what a continuous function is. If you don’t know by now, then this is not the subject for you. Go do something you love.

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  16. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Gunni: Well the course I teach is a Gen Ed requirement so the student’s have no choice but to be there. So I typically have a few phys-ed majors, few dance majors and etc. And they all hate the subject (and all technology other than Facebook) with a passion really. :)

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  17. ikaruga UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Why don’t you just apply social darwinism? :-) If you can’t figure out what a tilde is, then drop out, now! I’m kidding though — I forget how much hand holding students need even at the college level.

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  18. Paul UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I realize I’m about a year late to the conversation… But…. Can’t the IT guys at the school provide an alias that drops the tilde or just links through from the htdocs (or wherever their normal webdocs are located) to your home directory/public_html/? Surely they provide subdirectories for departments of the school and wouldn’t mind adding a symlink to your public_html from there….

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