Faces and Feeds

I think I might have to develop an app for reading Facebook the way I think it should work.

There was an article doing the rounds the other week about how “our minds can be hijacked,” which was all about how terrible social networking is for us. I skimmed part of it, but got annoyed when it seemed to be about rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs deciding to go “off-grid.” That’s all very well for them, but most of us have to make a living.

More pertinently, since the main target for the attack was Facebook, it annoyed me because I use Facebook to keep in touch with people that I might otherwise not. For that, it can be very good.

And yet… it struck a chord with, me to some degree. I realised that Facebook has increasingly become more of a time sink than a pleasure. Not that I spend vast amounts of time on it each day, but when I do open it up, I often end up spending longer than I’d have wanted to. And not reading updates from friends and family, but following links to articles and quizzes and nonsense, most of which I wish I hadn’t bothered with.

By comparison, a similar length of time spent in my feed reader lets me read blog pieces by people I actively want to hear from, and which I’m generally glad I’ve read.

But they mostly aren’t friends and family.

And then there’s the fact that the Facebook algorithm is tuned to show me what it thinks I should see, not what I want to see. What I want to see is all the updates from my friends, in reverse-chronological order. And that’s all. But there’s no guarantee that it will show me everything everyone posts, and the order is close to random at times.

One way to work round this is to visit people’s individual Facebook pages. You could see all your the posts by all your friends by going to each of their profiles in turn. But that would mean you’d have to keep track of all that: remember who you visited and when, and somehow manage the list of people.

Keeping track of things is what computers are good at. The software should be doing that for us.

So I’m thinking that what I want is an app that will do that for me: that will keep a list of my Facebook friends, and show me all their posts (which of course is what Facebook used to do).

As far as I know, no such app exists. This seems strange and unlikely, but I don’t think Facebook make a public API available for third-party clients, so such an app would have to work by scraping the web pages, which is neither good practice nor much fun.

Of course, what this means is effectively turning Facebook back into a set of RSS feeds — or now, especially as I have some experience with them, a set of JSON Feed feeds. Which would then be usable in all sorts of other places.

Web scraping may be bad and painful; still, I think I want to write this thing. Watch this space.

The Kickstarter Corporate Communication Conundrum

Today I chanced to see an email in which a manager was asking his staff to work for extra hours. Well, ‘asking’ is putting it generously, to be honest. There didn’t seem to be much that was optional about it.

The Kickstarter connection, though: you’ll be familiar with the idea of ‘stretch goals.’ If not, the idea is that the basic target is to make X amount of money, but if we make X + 10%, or whatever, we’ll be able to do these other things. Develop additional features, make the item in more colours, or whatever. My guess is that the term originally comes from sports.

So this email included in the subject the phrase ‘stretch targets.’ Meaning we want you to do more this week/month/whatever, than we originally planned. It was clearly written by someone who thinks that the way to develop software faster is to work your staff to the bone. When in fact that’s much more likely to result in people taking shortcuts and making mistakes.

In this team they’re already working weekends, and now they’re being ‘stretched’ even more. It bodes ill. But perhaps co-opting the language of positive things for something so negative is worse.

Site Moved

This site is now running on a Linux virtual private server (VPS) at Linode. There may be some teething problems from the move, so please let me know if you see anything strange.

Great New Phone; All the Wrong Reasons

My iPhone 6 was getting slow, and its battery was poor. I have been thinking of replacing it. But September is approaching, and Apple will announcing new iPhones (three new ones, according to rumours). So I had more or less set my mind on waiting till then.

That would also be consistent with my iPhone buying history: 3G, 4S, 6… the next in the sequence is 7S.

Friday changed my plans. I was standing at a bus stop on Old Street, just replying to a WhatsApp message. Something touched my hand, and for half a second I thought someone was bumping into me. Then there was a firm grip on my phone and it was gone. Pulled right out of my hand and off down the road on a moped — which must have come across the pavement from behind me.

I should have been more aware. I knew this kind of theft was a thing. We’ve been hearing about them for a few months. But you don’t always think about it, and you never think it’s going to happen to you. And, yes, OK, drink had been taken. But not that much.

The bus arrived a few seconds later, so there was nothing I could do but get on and head home. There was another guy at the stop who witnessed it, and he very kindly set up a hotspot on his phone and let me use it from my iPad. The Find My iPhone app didn’t find it, so the thief had probably turned it off right away. But I was able to request a remote wipe in case it’s ever turned back on, and I got an email from Apple saying all the card details had been removed from Apple Pay.

All of which meant I had to make a trip to the Apple Store on Saturday. And to the Three store, where it was alarmingly easy to get a replacement SIM. I just had to tell them my phone number and give them a payment card. No questions asked. Not even my name and address.

So I now have jet black 256 GB iPhone 7. Which is lovely. I’m late to all the new features, obviously, but here’s a quick rundown:

  • TouchID: it’s now insanely fast to unlock my phone. Seems like it’s almost before I touch the home button sometimes.
  • 3D Touch: people on podcasts seem to be saying they’ve stopped using this, but I’m loving it. Especially the edge-press for activating the app switcher (a feature which seems to be going away in iOS 11, I hear, so I probably shouldn’t get too used to it).
  • The haptic feedback generally. Little clicks that tell you when you’ve activated something. Just makes the whole experience much nicer.
  • The “taptic” home button. When I’ve tried this in the shop before now I wasn’t too sure about it. But a couple of days using it for real and I think maybe I prefer it to the feel of the old real button.

Plus, it’s black. Really, really black.

Even the box was black.

The cables are still white, of course. Which reminds me, I’ve always disliked Apple’s ear buds, and passed all my past ones on to my kids. But I thought I’d give these a try, not least because I wouldn’t mind trying the AirPods if they’re ever in stock anywhere,1 and they have the same form factor.

And I don’t hate them. I thought I always had trouble getting them to stay in, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now. The main problem is they don’t give enough sound isolation, so you can hear the traffic and people talking even with music or a podcast playing. I’ve always preferred the kind with rubbery tips, which form a seal. But aside from that, these are better than I expected. Which bodes well for AirPods.

Downside: the battery life doesn’t seem dramatically better than my old one, weirdly. For the first couple of days it was busy downloading updates and restoring things (and getting hot), but that should be over now. I’m assuming that I just have to give it a few full cycles till it beds in and the measurement gets more accurate.

And all the things you have to set up again. That’s not the fault of the phone, though, so much as the way it came to me. If had planned this I would have done an encrypted iTunes backup, which would have meant more things were restored to the new phone.

Anyway, that was a lot of words and no links about not very much.


  1. I asked in the shop if they had them in, and of course they didn’t. []

The Sound of Audio Formats

Amusing that in the same week that I post a criticism of software patents, the final patents on the MP3 format expired. Some people are characterising this as the “death” of MP3, which is just nuts.

In fact, far from being dead, it can finally come to life, as Marco Arment makes clear.

Software patents: they’re what needs to die.

In other software-and-the-law news, here’s a story about a case of alleged GPL violation coming to court. The judge so far seems to have made a good decision, by stating that the existence of the GPL and the defendant company’s use of the software does mean there was a contract in place.

Spout Rolla

Back in Balloch in 1981, 82 or so we use to play a Pac-Man clone called Spout Rolla. But there are no references to it on the internet, as far as I can tell. So this is my story about it.

Once upon a time a gang of kids — thinking they were adults, but not really — used to go to the pub, and play a game.

The pub was actually the bar of a place called Duck Bay Marina. I see from that link that they now call it “Duck Bay Hotel.” Either way, it was a couple of miles outside Balloch, on the west bank of Loch Lomond.

Why did we go there, when there were pubs in the town? Two reasons, I suspect. One, some of us had driving licences and the chance to use our parents’ cars, so why not? (I wasn’t yet one of them at that point.) And two, it had video games in the foyer.

That had a dual advantage. We could play the games, and those of us who, let’s say, weren’t quite strictly within the parameters of the legal drinking age, could stay out of sight of the staff.

So: usually two machines, as I recall, plus maybe a fruit machine or two. I first played Frogger there. It was the era when arcade games had started to extend beyond shooting things in space to other tests of skill, like crossing rivers on logs.

Spout Rolla was in a similar vein. But it was a clear derivative of — let’s be honest, rip-off of — Pac-Man. I’m not sure I’d actually played Pac-Man at that point, but I must have been aware of it.

The idea was you guided a paint brush moving around a watery maze, painting the maze behind it. Fish would come out and try to catch your brush. If you painted all the maze you got a new screen (which I think might just have been the same maze in different colours, maybe speeded up a bit).

Instead of the power-pills of Pac-Man, there was one part of the maze that had a paint roller in it. If you approached the roller from the right direction, it went with you and you accelerated just for that section. Then you could turn back and roll over the fish that were following you, for extra points. And that was it.

Simpler times, simpler pleasures, I guess. It never made much sense, but we liked it.

Thing is, everything’s on the net today, right? Well, apparently not. When I googled it today, I found two surprising thing. First, that there are no references to “Spout Rolla game” to be found, with or without quotes round the first two words. Second, that Spout Rolla is a place in Scotland, namely a waterfall in Perth and Kinross. (Weirdly the only Wikipedia page for it is in Swedish.)

Could this possibly be that most unlikely of things (at least before Rockstar Games): a Scottish game?

My son suggested that there would be people my age trying to remember what the game was called. So I tried googling for a description of it: pac-man clone fish paint roller. That search has selected videos, which I didn’t. But I did find a possible explanation.

It seems there was a game called Crush Roller, also known as Make Trax, and the one I remember could be a rebadged version of that. Plus you can play it at that link. As with many games of the time, it’s not as satisfying playing them with arrow keys as it was with a joystick.

So, no, it’s not Scottish, but it could possibly have been rebadged for the Scottish market. Or maybe just that one in Duck Bay, who knows.

The only thing is that, seeing that version, I had forgotten that there being two rollers. I was fairly sure there was only one, but playing it felt familiar, so I guess Crush Roller/Make Trax is it.

Big Mac News

No, that’s nothing to do with hamburgers. Apple today announced that they’re working on a redesign of the Mac Pro. This is huge news. Not least because many people in the tech blogosphere and podcastosphere1 have been preparing for its death for some time.

My biggest question: will John Siracusa buy one of the revamped placeholder ones now, or will he wait till “not this year” for the redesigned version?


  1. Of course it’s a word. I just made it up. []

The Return of SonoAir

Back in January I wrote about trying to play podcasts through the Sonos. As you’ll recall1 I had tried and failed to install AirSonos on my NAS, and was considering trying SonoAir on my Mac.

I did try it, but it never quite worked. The app launched, and found the Sonos network and the speaker. But it didn’t appear as an AirPlay device to my phone. I could make it work in one context: iTunes (on the same Mac) could see it and use it as a functional output device.But that wasn’t much use, as the Sonos already has access to my iTunes library from where it’s backed up on the NAS — and also to Apple Music. So being able to play from iTunes to the Sonos brought nothing new.

The added functionality I was looking for was to be able to play podcasts from Overcast, and switch to the speaker when I’m listening in the kitchen. For that my iPhone or iPad needs to be able to see the speaker.

So it all didn’t look too promising. But I was just having another go, and I noticed that the version on the website is 1.0 (BETA 6.1), while I had BETA 4. A quick download and we’re up and running: it works!

Now I just have to keep my MacBook running at all times. Oh well.


  1. I know, you probably won’t. []

More Network Nonsense

More trouble with the home network today. We had a smart electricity meter installed a few days ago. Though without the “smart” part, because they couldn’t get a good enough signal down in our basement. You’d think they’d have considered that possibility in designing them, since that’s the kind of place where a lot of people’s meters are. Anyway, I think it was interfering with our powerline connection.

We have a BT HomeHub as our main router and connection out to the fibre. But the wifi was a bit crap up at the top of house. So about a year back I got a couple of powerline connectors and used them to extend the 5GHz network upstairs, using another router that we had accidentally acquired as the other access point.

It worked fine, until just the other day. The first symptom was that the Sonos app couldn’t connect to the speaker. I did some diagnosis, and everything was just weird. We could mostly connect to the outside world without any trouble, but I couldn’t connect to the HomeHub’s web interface by name. Nor, I think, by IP address. And then in one of my experiments I tried a slightly different IP address (one that shouldn’t have existed on our network), and I found myself at… a Sky box.

Now you know my dislike for that bunch. There’s no way I’d let their networking hardware on my LAN, any more than I’d subscribe to their channels. and in any case, just, what?

I wondered if our network could somehow have got crossed with one of the neighbours’. But it seemed so improbable. The neighbouring network would need to be using the same SSID, at the very least.

As you’d imagine, I started taking components out to try to isolate the problem. With just the BT HomeHub in place, things were back to normal. But as soon as I began adding parts, everything went weird.

Eventually I concluded — guessed, really — that the smart meter might be using powerline itself. We’re supposed to get a screen-based device for monitoring usage, and maybe that communicates with the meter over powerline. And the meter could have an embedded sky router? That seems unlikely, but maybe Sky have the contract to do the phoning home for EDF.

Anyway, since the root of the problem seemed to be at least partly to do with IP address conflicts, I decided to factory-reset everything and rebuild with a different IP address range (I’ve never used 172.16.0.0 before). Along with a new wifi SSID and password.

And so far so good. But I’m having trouble getting the second router to route properly via the first, so upstairs is going to be problematic till I can solve that.

All this is doing, of course, is making me wish that we could get Eeros in the UK. A self-configuring mesh network is exactly what we need, and not all this jerry-rigged nonsense.