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People Still Aren’t Getting It

I got back on the bike today. First time since I came off back in April. Both because I felt the need to add some variety to my exercise regime, and because so many people are riding these days. And also because I missed it.

It was good. Nice to be back on the bike. A bit annoying the way the mask makes your glasses steam up, but nothing that a bit of slipstream couldn’t clear.

But it was very disappointing regarding people’s behaviour. I cycled around central Hackney for half an hour or so from about 9-9:30. It was pretty busy.

I counted 11 people wearing masks (and two chin-wearers, so they don’t count). I must have passed about 500 people? 700? That’s just a guess, but it was a lot.

Eleven masks.

My mask was protecting all of them: why weren’t they protecting me, and each other?

I mainly blame the government, of course. Incoherent messaging and absence of care. But… some of us have learned what’s best, even given the government.

Annabel Scheme and the Adventure of the New Golden Gate by Robin Sloan (Books 2020, 20)

My 2020 reading reaches 20, which is pleasing. And with another novella, which is something of a theme.

I read Sloan’s Sourdough a couple of years back, and only thought it was OK, but I still get his newsletter, which is where I learned about this. It was originally serialised in a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper,1 and published via an interesting experiment with online writing, and a new software package for publishing books on the web.

That said, I read it on my Kindle.

It’s good. Lots of fun, even if you don’t know the Bay Area. A detective and her assistant try to stop multiple timelines being crashed together. But it starts with burritos. What’s not to like?

One unusual thing is that the assistant, who is also the narrator (a veritable Doyle, though not as useful) never has any quoted speech. You’ll get an exchange like this:

I wondered if Scheme had worked up any theories.

“Sure. Most likely explanation is, Stella Pajunas was never real to start with. Ectoplasmic projection. Mass hallucination, maybe.”

Scheme was theorizing that the ABCD—really, the whole Bay Area—had been managed for ten years by a mass hallucination?

“It would explain some things, wouldn’t it?

A piece of narration is answered by the other character. The implication is that the narrator said it. I don’t recall ever seeing this in fiction, but it is used in some interviews. It used to be the norm in the NME back when I read it. In interviews, I much prefer that technique to the purely transcriptional approach, which can look like a play script at times. As to using it in fiction, it works well enough here, in such a short work, but I think it would get wearing at greater length.

Anyway, you can read it for free, so you might as well.


  1. Or two, as it turns out. 

Why are so many Johnny Cash compilations being released at the moment? Seems like I’ve seen about six different ones in the last month or two.

I hope I didn’t fool you with that last title. It had nothing to do with the B-word. That ship has sailed, and the icebergs won’t really loom till the end of the year. It was about email. Go and check it out.

HEY, Ho, Let’s Not Go

This has been sitting around in my drafts folder for about a month, so it’s long past time to get it out there.

HEY (they always capitalise it, which I don’t care for) is a new email service from Basecamp, makers of fine (I’m told) collaboration software for teams. The video walkthrough lasts about half an hour, but/and gives you a good overview of what it’s like.

Hey was also in the news recently over the way Apple was treating it regarding App Store rules. Apple were clearly in the wrong, and things have been sorted out now.

But that’s all another story. I want to talk about Hey, and why I think it is bad for users. Even at the same time that it’s probably good for users. A company, a service, can — like a person — contain multitudes.

The Good

If you watch that video you’ll see that Hey looks like an unusually interesting and capable email client: good for organising mail, getting the unimportant stuff out of your way until you want to look at it, and making the important things highly visible. It’s both powerful at automatically helping the user, and attractive to look at.

The Bad

But it’s built on a proprietary platform. Email’s biggest strength since its invention has been that it was built on open standards. Whether you were using a Unix command-line client at a university in the early days, or Gmail, Outlook, or another IMAP provider today — none of that matters. If you know someone’s email address, you can contact them, and they you. And more importantly for this discussion: if you want to use different email client software, you can.

That’s because email is built on open protocols: SMTP, POP, and IMAP. Not that you have to understand those — or even know about them — to use email, any more than you have to understand an internal combustion engine to drive a car.

More importantly, if you want to change from one email provider to another, you can do so. This is harder than it should be because the culture of people having their own domain never really caught on. All those josmith1989@gmail.com and hazy_harriet@hotmail.com type of addresses could, instead, have been jo@josmith1989.net and harri@hazyharriet.org.

They still could be, in fact. And when they are, then you can change the underlying email provider without anyone other than yourself having to know or care. To take a not-made-up example, martin@devilgate.org used to go by a complex combination of Gmail (for the spam filtering and search) and 5quidhost.co.uk and its eventual purchaser, TSOHost, because that’s what I used for web hosting, as much as anything else. But a few years ago I switched it to Fastmail. No-one I correspond with had to know anything about the change.

But Hey’s email service does not use the open protocols — principally IMAP — that makes all that possible. Instead they have their own proprietary system. If you move your email into Hey’s service, you might not be too easy to move it out again .

Secondly, right now they don’t support custom domains, so your correspondents will certainly have to know. While josmith@hey.com might be available right now, if they have any success we’ll soon be back to appending birth years or random numbers to the end of common names, just like on Gmail, Hotmail, etc. Though they have said they intend to support custom domains, so there’s scope for a better solution there.

The Alternatives

Andrew Canion had the same thought I did when I watched the video: you can do most of this in MailMate.1 At least the viewing, the “The Feed” kind of thing. Though he had the added experience of using SaneBox to automatically file and sort your emails.

Andrew also went further than I did: instead of just thinking, “I could do that with MailMate,” he went ahead and did it, and documented the process (with a tiny bit of help from yours truly).

I had heard of SaneBox through its sponsoring of various podcasts, so I was familiar with the idea, but I hadn’t tried it. I’m now trying it out, along with some of Andrew’s suggestions, and it’s altogether a pretty good setup. Now, all that comes into my main inbox — the only things that appear on unread counts, and hence activate icon badges — are actual emails that I want to see. All the newsletters, receipts, confirmations, and other stuff that isn’t spam but that I don’t want appearing in my inbox, and especially in my unread count — those are all there, but tidily away in other mailboxes, where I can deal with them at my leisure.

That said, SaneBox is not free (though it’s cheaper than Hey), and I don’t get that much annoying email. So I don’t think I’ll continue with this exact setup when the free trial ends. But it’s worth knowing that there are good ways — and standards-compliant ways — to achieve similar functionality to Hey’s.

We Built This City on IMAP

What this all shows is that there’s noting in Hey’s service that you couldn’t create by building on top of IMAP, except the user interface — and that doesn’t have to know about the underlying protocols in any case. It’s possible that is exactly what they have done: implemented it on top of IMAP. In fact, doing anything else would mean giving themselves a lot of extra work, as they would have to effectively reinvent IMAP in any case.

If I were going to build a service like Hey, I’d start with an off-the-shelf IMAP service, probably open source, and build the filtering rules and all that around it.

So I hope that’s what they have done, and that at some point in the future they make their service available to ordinary email clients via IMAP.


  1. And probably plenty of other mail clients. 

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison (Books 2020, 19)

I read about this in a Tor.com article about the use of Jack the Ripper in fiction. It’s a story set in Victorian times, about two men living Baker Street in London; one a detective, the other a doctor.

But the detective is an angel, called Crow; and the doctor is JH Doyle, recently back from Afghanistan, where he was injured in an encounter with one of the Fallen. And someone is murdering women in Whitechapel.

In other words, it’s an interesting riff on the Sherlock Holmes stories. The hunt for the Ripper is spread through the whole book, while some of the well-known cases have versions interspersed. The Sign of the Four appears, Baskerville Hall is visited. When someone dies and the only visible wound is twin puncture marks, was it a snake, as in ‘The Speckled Band,’ or a vampire?

Because most of the creatures of myth and legend exist in this London, often with an unusual twist. James Moriarty can’t enter your home unless you invite him. But werewolves are respected landlords.

Vampires can enter public buildings, of course: “Any building with an angel.” Angels only have consciousness and names — names are important — if they are attached to a public building. Churches and synagogues have their angels, obviously; but so too do pubs, hotels, and stations. The angel of King’s Cross makes an appearance.

But not the angel I was half expecting. The Angel, Islington is a pub,1 and we’d have to refer to its angel as ‘The Angel of the Angel, Islington,’ which would be weird and unwieldy.

Speaking of language, the Victorianism is handled pretty well, I think, but the author is American, and it shows where a few terms creep in. ‘Sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’; ‘baseboard’ instead of ‘skirting board.’ ‘Row houses’ where we would say ‘terraced houses.’ ‘Sundown.’ ‘Paper folded into fourths’; a British writer would say ‘quarters.’

These are mildly jarring, but not that important. Certainly not enough to detract from the fun of the story overall.


  1. Sadly now a Wetherspoons. #NeverSpoons

The growth of email newsletters over the last few years has been interesting. But they have a major problem, compared to blogs.

That is, once they’ve been sent out, the author can’t fix typos. Other errors can be corrected in later issues, but typos are out there forever.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks (Books 2020, 18)

The second-last Culture book, and a long-delayed return to Mr Banks. This book is ten years old, and I didn’t write about it in 2010. Not sure why, but I didn’t post much in 2010.

Anyway, this is pure dead brilliant. Even better than I remembered — and I, as is common, remembered surprisingly little.

But you don’t need me to tell you about it. It’s a Culture book. Just read the damn thing.

The Latest Tory Plan to Attack the NHS

This is terrifying:

The prime minister has set up a taskforce to devise plans for how ministers can regain much of the direct control over the NHS they lost in 2012 under a controversial shake-up masterminded by Andrew Lansley, the then coalition government health secretary.

The Prime Minister’s Health and Social Care Taskforce – made up of senior civil servants and advisers from Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – is drawing up proposals that would restrict NHS England’s operational independence and the freedom Stevens has to run the service.

— Denis Campbell, ‘Boris Johnson plans radical shake-up of NHS in bid to regain more direct control,’ in The Guardian.

Looks like Johnson’s life-saving hospital stay has been soon forgotten.