This Site Now Has a Dark Theme

As you’ll have noticed if you’re looking at this post on a device set to dark mode, I’ve added a dark theme. At the moment it’s just automatic: if your device is set to dark you get the dark mode, if light, you’ll see it as it has been for the last year and a half. I might add an option switch at some point.

Let me know if anything looks weird.


Rational? Twitter, Micro.blog and Social Engagement

I had vaguely seen references to “ratios,” and was aware it was something to do with engagement on Twitter and elsewhere. But I hadn’t understood what exactly people meant by it. Then last night I saw a tweet in which someone said, “I accept I’ve been ratiod.” (Should the verb form rather be “ratioed”? Hard to say. Neither looks quite right.)

A search for understanding led me to this article on Know Your Meme. It tells us:

The Ratio refers to an unofficial Twitter law which states that if the amount of replies to a tweet greatly outnumbers the amount of retweets and likes, then the tweet is bad

and goes into some detail about the origin of the term.

It makes me sad to read that. Imagine an interaction system where, if people reply to something you say, that’s bad. Well, it seems we don’t have to imagine it: we can see it right here on the “social” web.

I like to get replies on Twitter or elsewhere. A reply means, to me, that someone has read what I’ve written, thought about it, and found it worth responding to. I’m aware that I speak from a position of some privilege, in that I’m not in a group that is likely to experience the mass abuse that many do. But something has broken down in our systems of interaction if getting replies mean what you said “is bad.”

I’m far from the first to have made that observation, of course.

But consider Micro.blog, the still-young social network based on blogs that I’ve written abut before. Micro.blog has replies, but it doesn’t even have the concept of likes or retweets/reblogs. If you read a post and want to say something about it — even just that you like it — you have to reply. With words, in human language.

It’s a much friendlier place than Twitter.

This conversation from the last day or two gives a good flavour of the kind of thing you can expect.

If you clicked through that link you’ll have seen that it appears to be — and is — on the blog of the user who made the original post. The responses appear as blog comments. But while every Micro.blog user has a blog, you don’t have to interact with it as a blog if you don’t want to. You can do it all through the Micro.blog app or one of the third-party clients, or just the Micro.blog website, where you can see the same conversation.

Similarly, you can see all my posts here, as well as at their natural home.

It’s well worth a try if you’re looking for a less toxic social-media environment.


I’m not at all sure about this new “Gutenberg” editor they’re adding to WordPress. I’ve installed the plugin version to try it out. Gutenberg is a change to the web-based editor in the WordPress dashboard, not a separate app. I typed up my previous post in MarsEdit, as is my wont, and uploaded it. The Gutenberg plugin imported it nicely and displayed everything as you’d expect. But it turned all my Markdown into HTML.

That’s not what I want, and it’s not how most Markdown-processing plugins — notably WordPress’s own Jetpack — handle Markdown. Instead they keep the source document as Markdown and only convert it to HTML when the page is requested. That’s what using a dynamic CMS means, after all.

It appears that you can get Gutenberg to keep the Markdown as it is, if you type it into what they call a Code Block. So I’ll have to hope that [@danielpunkass](https://micro.blog/danielpunkass) updates MarsEdit to send posts to that kind of block once Gutenberg is the default. Assuming the WordPress API lets you do that, of course.


Radically Interoperable and Universal

In In Praise of Email Dan Cohen writes of how email got things right, long before some of our other ways of interacting online came along and got so many things wrong.

I’ve long thought that email was the killer app of the internet, despite the problems that many people have with it. Those tend to be not inherent in email, but caused by the way we use it.

Here’s one point he makes, in regard to the algorithmic timelines that are ruining Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram:

Although some email systems algorithmically sort email by priority or importance, that is not part of the email system itself. Again, this can be added, or not, by the user, and the default is strictly chronological.

Although my main problem, as I’ve said before, is with some clients that insisting that “chronological” means “newest first.”


Beware of Email Apps Storing Passwords

Email apps, especially ones that offer advanced services like “send later,” may be storing our usernames and passwords on their servers.

To be clear what that means: if you use Gmail, for example, you put your Google username and password into the app when you set it up. You expect the app to store them securely on your device. But some apps may also be storing that username and password — your keys to all the Google services in this example — on computers owned by the company that makes the app. Computers over which neither you nor Google has any control.

I’m not suggesting that the company I talk about below, or any other, is doing anything nefarious. They need to be able to log in to your mail server in order to send your mail later. But I hadn’t realised until now what that means, and I’m guessing neither will a lot of people. And to my mind they don’t make what they’re doing clear enough.

Worst of all, having passwords stored on unknown servers — at the very least, that’s worrying.

Background

On episode194 of the Connected podcast, Myke Hurley and Federico Viticci were reviewing the latest version of the iOS (and Mac) app Spark. It’s a fine email app, which I was using on my iPhone and iPad. So I was alarmed when they mentioned in passing that mail handled by the app is routed through Readdle’s servers. That didn’t seem likely at first. Spark is an email client. You tell it what servers handle your mail, and it connects to them to receive and send. The servers belonging to the company that makes the app have no business getting involved in that.

I did some digging. Whether or not Myke was right™ about mail going through their servers, the reality turned out to be much worse.

Digging

I tweeted at the Spark account. Here’s what happened:

I had already found their privacy policy:

OAuth login or mail server credentials: Spark requires your credentials to log into your mail system in order to receive, search, compose and send email messages and other communication. Without such access, our Product won’t be able to provide you with the necessary communication experience. In order for you to take full advantage of additional App and Service features, such as “send later”, “sync between devices” and where allowed by Apple – “push notifications” we use Spark Services. Without using these services, none of the features mentioned above will function.

The wording “Spark requires your credentials to log into your mail system in order to receive, search, compose and send email messages” suggests that Spark the app needs to log into your server, which it does. But nothing about that says that your credentials will be stored on their servers.

Further down, in point 4, “How Long Personal Data is Stored For,” in a table that includes “Type of information,” we see (emphasis mine) :

Email address, email content for Spark Services, mail server credentials

So there it is. They do store your username and password on their servers, and they do tell you; though only if you read well into the kind of document that notoriously goes unread.

Final Thoughts

For features like “send later” they need to store the fact that you want to send an email at a specific time, and log in to your server in order to send it. And to be fair, I’m sure they can’t be alone in keeping that kind of data. Lots of clients offer “send later” and similar services, and all of them will have to log in to your mail server to work. So they have to store your credentials on their servers to do it.

And consider, if you use Gmail, that means your username and password not just for Gmail, but for all Google’s services, are now stored on somebody else’s servers. Their security might be great, but how do we know?

The more I think about this, the more concerned I become. Passwords should only be stored in one place: a secure, trusted password manager. But above all, these services need to be much clearer about the fact that they’re storing our passwords.


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.1

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 about 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.


  1. Initially the only Wikipedia page for it I could find was in Swedish. But latterly (2019-12-08), I find it’s better known as “Sput Rolla.” According to the “List of waterfalls of Scotland” article, “‘Spout’ is another common word found throughout England and Scotland for particular types of fall though it is usually replaced by ‘sput’ in the formerly Gaelic-speaking parts of the latter.” 

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. ↩︎


Mandatory Options

Where I’m working at the moment we’re using a tool called Splunk for some log file viewing and analysis. I hadn’t come across it, though apparently it’s quite well known.

So wanting to know a bit more about it, I thought I’d have a run through of their tutorial. To do that you have to sign up for an account. That’s fine, it’s free, there’s no obligation. I’ve signed up for plenty of things.

Except… well, look:

The Splunk signup screen, showing a non-optional checkbox
Splunk Signup Madness

That little “Yes, I want to receive…” checkbox looks like a fairly standard opt-in. The kind we always opt out of. But look at it. Look at its reddish border. The asterisk. These are fairly standard1 ways of indicating that a field is mandatory.

A mandatory opt-in checkbox.

A mandatory option.

After grabbing that screenshot I closed the page. How not to get people to sign up.


  1. Though the red is bad UI/UX, because it doesn’t work well for people with colour-blindness. ↩︎


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.


Mac Wishing

Those times when you’re typing a document at work on a shonky Windows 7 machine, and longing for your Mac, where you’d have professional text-handling tools, like Marked for previewing Markdown.

Not that you can’t preview, as long as you’ve got a decent text editor such as Sublime Text (well, specifically Sublime). But things are just so much easier with Mac tools.

And I speak as one who has never had the opportunity to use the Mac professionally. I’ve used Windows machines at works since about 1993, and before that green-screen 5250 terminals.

One of these days, though.


Wifi Blues

I didn’t write a post tonight because I spent most of the evening struggling with wifi configuration. And the less said about that, the better.


“Ping” Pong

When the original Unix designers (or, as it turns out, Mike Muuss) chose ping as the name for the command for checking the status of a network host, it was a moment of inspired genius. The word is almost onomatopoeic in its appropriateness.

But nowadays people are pinging each other all over the place: emails, IMs, even phone calls are “pinged” at each other. “I’ll ping you an email,” they say.

The purist in me cringes a little each time I hear it. But it shouldn’t. The word that was so apposite for those early savants is just as suitable today: it communicates a needed concept. And English, of course, is a living, thriving language. So let people get on with it

Just don’t expect me to use it myself.


Criticality Escalation

Part of any kind of bug or problem reporting system is triage: the act of deciding how severe each report is and placing it into the appropriate category.

Common categories in software development are things like “Critical,” “High,” “Medium” and “Low,” for example. They would usually be given associated numeric values: probably 1-4, in this case.

I realise that I mentioned “triage,” which of course means dividing things into three; and then I’ve introduced four levels. That would be quadage, maybe? Tesserage? Anyway, three levels wasn’t enough for people: at some point “High,” “Medium” and “Low” just couldn’t cut it.

But even the terminology is breaking down now. This snippet below is based on values from an actual document written by an actual company, for reporting problems during user acceptance testing (UAT).

Severity Description
1 – Extremely critical Critical problem that completely stops testing…
2 – Very critical Critical problem that prevents some testing…
3 – Critical Non-critical problem…
4 – Less critical Minor bug…

Imagine if they used that in hospitals: “The patient’s critical.” “Oh, not too bad, then.”

And I love how the definition of “Critical” is “Non-critical problem…”


A Touching App

I’m typing this in MarsEdit, from Red Sweater Software, which has long been considered the best dedicated blogging client for the Mac. Daniel Jalkut, who is Red Sweater Software, is also one half of the Core Intuition podcast with Manton Reece, who is creating Micro.blog, and running the Kickstarter I wrote about a few days ago.

Anyway, a while ago Jalkut wrote and released a kind of “Touch Bar emulator” app for Macs. It simulates on-screen the Touch Bar of the new MacBooks. I just installed it, and it’s really very cool at giving you an idea of what the Touch Bar is like. Obviously you have to use it with the mouse or trackpad, as it doesn’t actually turn a section of the screen touch sensitive, but you can see what features each application offers when the Touch Bar is present, for example.

The only real downside is that it covers up a piece of screen. But it’s easy to toggle it off and on with a key combination.

All in all, fun and useful; and with a clever name: Touché.


Syndication

Further on owning your own content, I practise what some call POSSE: Publish on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. One of the elsewheres, as I’ve mentioned before, is Medium.

Medium, though having troubles recently, is in part a platform that other publications can use to build their own sites.

After yesterday’s Politics and Poetry post, I got an email this morning from somebody called Steve Saul, telling me that a new Medium-based publication called EveryVote would like to use my piece.

EveryVote is made by the people who make a site called mycongressionalrep.org, which helps people find and get in touch with their representatives in Congress. A bit like They Work for You over here, I guess, but with a specific stated aim of resisting the Trump regime.

Obviously I’m broadly in favour of their goals, so I had no problem with saying yes to their using my piece. Though it occurs to me that it’s bad professional-writing practice, as they didn’t even suggest payment (and I must admit I didn’t think of it till now). But let’s face it, I’m not a professional writer, even if I’d like to be. And the possibility that more people might come here and read my stuff, or at least read my stuff on Medium, is a genuine one.

“Doing it for the exposure,” to an extent. But not so much, since I had already done it. Anyway, my piece is currently visible on EveryVote


The Strange Case of the Lost Reply

I’ve tried various email clients on iOS, but for quite a while now my favourite has been Dispatch from Clean Shaven Apps. As well as the many integrations and efficient handling of archiving and deleting emails, I like it because it is one of the only apps that lets you order mail in the One True Way.

Which in case you’re wondering is oldest at the top. Newest at the top is fine for blogs and similar news-based things, but it’s not right for anything else. Call me old-fashioned, but that was the default in Eudora and probably in Mutt and Elm and all those too, and it was and remains the best way.

Even Outlook lets you order it oldest-first. Though disturbingly few people take advantage of it.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that today Dispatch let me down. I was typing a reply on my iPad this morning. The reply composition window looks like this:

Fullsizeoutput 5a7

I did something — I’m not sure what — that made the composition window slide off to the right. Part of it was still visible, so I tried tapping on it. And it disappeared.

There was no prompt, and nothing in my drafts folder. All that I had typed was gone, like tears in rain.

I’ve just been trying to reproduce it, and I can, up to a point: if you slide the compose window to the right it goes off out of the way, like this:

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Which is actually quite useful, because it makes the compose window non-modal and lets you interact with your other messages. But somehow something can go wrong, even though I can’t make it happen now.

Not the end of the world. I retyped the mail. But that’s not good enough, Dispatch. You have to be able to trust your email client.


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.

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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. ↩︎


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.