Skip to main content

Just to Make the Numbers

Does it count if you write a blog post just so that you’ve written one today? Well, yes, of course it does. After all, you wouldn’t want to spoil an unbroken run of twelve days. 

The purpose of doing this is to make myself write and publish something each day. The act of writing is the thing, even if I don’t have a specific subject to discuss.

I could, for example, mention that while I was reading the Twin Peaks book recently, I ordered the boxed set on DVD. So I’ve started rewatching that. Only two episodes in (or the pilot and one episode, if you want to describe it that way).

I find there’s a lot I don’t remember, not surprisingly, as I haven’t seen it since the 90s. Each episode comes with an optional introduction by The Log Lady. They are suitably obscure and ambiguous. 

I hear today that the new series is going to be out in May. How we watch it in the UK is another matter, and I’ll have words to say about that in the future.

Duck(Duck)ing the User Interface

It must be well over a year now since I switched my main search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo. I changed partly because of concerns over Google’s handling of privacy issues, and partly just to try out the new one.

DuckDuckGo’s results are usually fine, and if you ever can’t find something and you think Google might be better, it’s easy to redirect your search there by adding “!g” at the end. There are other special codes like this, such as “!w” to search Wikipedia.

So it’s all fine. But what I’ve only gradually realised is that I much prefer the Duck’s user interface. And this is for one simple reason: infinite scrolling.

Now, infinite scrolling isn’t always good, and I’m sure it has a negative effect on things like usability and caching, in at least some cases. But on DDG (as I’m sure no-one ever calls it), it makes the whole search experience better.

Because sometimes there are more than ten Interesting hits. Or the interesting ones are long after the tenth. But with Google, you get ten on a page. And then you’ve got to click or touch a link to go to the next ten. And it just feels so old fashioned.

After just a few months on DDG (as we should all start calling it from now on) you can’t go back to Google without feeling a weird interrupt at the end of a page, before you go, “Oh, yeah, gotta click that.”

It’s just an inferior experience.

Surely There’s a Better Answer Than That?

For one reason or another we wanted to remind ourselves1 of the Spanish word for “south.” I like to ask Siri for that kind of thing, because speaking to your phone is just easier than unlocking and typing sometimes. And Siri is not bad. It quite often gets the right answer for this kind of thing.

Fullsizeoutput 59f

Not so much there, though.

So it correctly understood my question; but instead of feeding it to Google Translate or another translation service, it sent it to Wolfram Alpha, seemingly. And that came back with intriguing answer that the Spanish for “south” is “about 99027 people.”

Seems like an unwieldy way to specify a compass direction.


  1. I say “remind” because I learned Spanish at school, my beloved is a linguist, and our daughter is learning it, so we knew really. 

Social Media is Like the Railways?

There’s a piece in the Guardian entitled “Why social media is like the railways – and must be saved. I’m not sure about the title, but it’s a good piece, by Paul Mason (in fact, looking at the URL I suspect that wasn’t the original title).

He starts by talking about SoundCloud, which is, for me at least, one of those sites that you would never think of going to; you just follow a link to something on it. Mind you, increasingly many sites are like that, and have been since perhaps the early days of blogging. Anyway, Mason says:

The Berlin-based music service started as a super-cool platform for people who made music and wanted to share it. Last week, its owners admitted it was losing a million dollars a week, and could run out of cash before the end of the year.

The whole future of the little orange cloud now rests on whether it can get people to subscribe – for money.

Which is interesting, and it’s one of those things that the net is a better place for it existing, and I’d be sad to see go away — but I can’t imagine ever subscribing to it.

In the same week, another achingly cool online publisher, this time of blogs, Medium, also hit trouble.

“Achingly cool”? Medium? I’m not convinced (disclaimer: for what it’s worth, my posts are automatically crossposted to Medium, among other places).

He goes on to talk about how none of the social media sites is profitable, except of course for Facebook. He refers to

the ailing internet platforms – not just Soundcloud and Medium but Ello, a wannabe rival to Facebook, and Tumblr

Tumblr is ailing? that seems surprising, considering how popular it is. But who knows (it’s also one of the other places I mentioned above). He goes on to exhort us to return to these sites, dust off our old user IDs and so on, and enjoy them again:

It will feel a bit like time travel – back to the period around 2010-12, when social media was associated with postmodernity, self-produced music and revolt, not fake news, white supremacy and rule by old men. But usage alone will not save the collaborative tools. We need new, cooperative ownership models. If basic word processors are effectively now shipped free with every device, so too could be a nonprofit music-sharing service, a free blogging platform and a place to keep in contact with our friends, without intrusive data-farming and a deluge of ads.

As to that, a free blogging platform — while not “shipped”, is easily available: Wordpress. And there are others, of course. But it links back to what I was saying the other day: you’ve got to own your own content if you want it to be safe from services disappearing.

As to that “railways” reference in the title, here’s how he finishes:

Medium, Soundcloud and ultimately Twitter are – like the railways – worth saving even if they cannot be run at a profit. 2017 can and should be a year in which the users of platforms reclaim these freedoms not as privileges but as rights.

I’ve got a lot of time for that view, actually, but those sites are mostly set up on a capitalist model (even if they have a community spirit), and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

Blog Misbehaviour

This blog runs, like so many others, on Wordpress. Recently I’ve noticed some strange behaviour.

When I posted an entry, it wouldn’t show up. Not at first, and sometimes not for a long time afterwards. The entry was there: you could see it if you followed the link, for example if you came from Facebook or Twitter, to both of which I automatically distribute.

Eventually I did a bit of googling, and it turns out that caching plugins can have this effect. I had caching plugins installed. I disabled them, and suddenly everything was displaying normally.

You want to cache your content to help with the site’s performance. Cached pages should be served from the webserver’s filesystem, rather than generated from the content in the database each time they’re requested.

So I’ll need to investigate getting a plugin that isn’t problematic, but for now, if you’ve noticed anything odd about the site, it should all be be OK again.

Independent Microblogging

Twitter is great in many ways, but it’s far from problem-free. (Thought experiment: if Twitter hadn’t existed, would Trump have got elected?)

The abuse and lack of tools to combat it are of course the major ones. Lindy West’s Guardian article on leaving Twitter is only the latest such.

But another problem is the old one of owning your own words. Of controlling the platform on which you publish. I’ve posted briefly about this before (though that was Google, rather than Twitter). Sure, Twitter isn’t likely to go bust and delete everyone’s tweets without any warning. But you never know when they’re going to change a policy, or change ownership, or make some other change that — deliberately or not — shuts down your access, removes your entire history, or otherwise lessens or removes the experience.

There have been attempts to build open alternatives, such as Diaspora, but I confess that I’ve only ever come away from it confused.

It would be better if there were a simple way we could all publish to our own sites, but still get the benefit of Twitter’s network. Say hello to Micro.blog a new approach from Manton Reece, blogger, podcaster and developer.

It should allow us to post Tweet-style short posts on our own sites, and also send them to Twitter. Which may give us the best of both worlds.

As well as developing the service and the app, he’s writing a book about the subject of indie microblogging, and has a Kickstarter going to help him out. It’s worth offering a few bucks if you’re at all interested in the matter.

Content Provider

I may not get to write a proper post today, as I haven’t yet and we’re about to go and see Stewart Lee: Content Provider, so I probably won’t manage to later.

So this is by way of meeting my challenge.

Things That Should be Easy

It ought to be easy to install a software package on Linux. I mean, it usually is. All modern distros ship with package managers, right? So all you should have to do is type (Debian-based example):

sudo apt-get install PACKAGE-NAME

and away you go. Right?

Well, usually. But today, not for me.

I have a NAS box from Western Digital, which is really a little Linux server with a biggish disk drive. Some time ago I replaced the shipped distro with a newer one, but it was so long ago, and it’s been so quiet and reliable that I can’t remember what version, exactly.

So first, there seems to be no way to interrogate it to see what distro it is. I mean, there must be, and this page lists several ways, but none of them work on this box. I mean, uname shows me the kernel version and all that, but not the distro.

Anyway, all that doesn’t really matter. I was only doing it to install Node, and I was only wanting to install Node so that I could run AirSonos. We got a Sonos Play:1 for the kitchen recently, and it’s great, but the one weakness is that it doesn’t support playing from an arbitrary source one your phone, such as, say, your podcast app of choice (Overcast, obvs).

AirSonos is supposed to effectively turn the Sonos into an AirPlay speaker, so you can easily send audio to it from iOS devices. And you want it to be running on a server, so it’s available all the time.

But it turns out that Node does not want to install on my NAS. Either by apt-get, as above, or by downloading the binary and unpacking it. (That installs it, obviously, but it won’t run.)

I’m going to try running SonoAir on my MacBook. That’s a wrapper round AirSonos, and obviously it’ll only work (assuming it does at all) when my MacBook is awake. But life’s too short.

Getting Rid of Offensive Publications in Apple News Widget

This is not a “How To” article, it’s a “How Do I?” one. I’ve been googling (or duckducking) to try to find the answer, but to no avail yet.

Take a look at this screenshot:

Screenshot of Apple News widget on an iPad.
Screenshot of Apple News widget.

Note that those “Top Stories” include headlines from the Sun and Sky News. Two publications whose names and words I do not want to see polluting my iPad or iPhone.

But I can’t find any way to get rid of them. The widget details are linked to the Apple News app, and in the app itself you can specify preferences, but it doesn’t seem to affect what appears in the widget.

So if anyone has any idea of how to influence what appears there, please drop me a comment, or tweet me a link or something.

And yes I know I could disable the widget and/or delete the app, but I quite like the idea of it, in principle at least. And yes, I also know that avoiding the views of publications I dislike is only going to increase my own bubble effect. But you’ve got to have standards. I could cope with the Telegraph or even the Times (though I’d prefer not to). But the Sun? Come on.

Trump Not Appointing Palin as Scientific Advisor

There’s a story doing the rounds on Facebook that Trump has appointed Sarah Palin as Science and Technology Advisor. Terrifying, if true. But a rudimentary search tells us it’s false.

The clue was the site it was reported on — which I can’t find at the moment as I now can’t locate the post where I saw it (bloody Facebook). Not that I would have linked to it, but I might have given its name. People need to look at the sites they’re reading and evaluate them for credibility. But apparently that’s hard.