tommorris.org

Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


Flipboard: purveyor of light news and fluff, a sign of what is to come

For a while I have had Flipboard installed on my iPhone and iPad. The interface is nice, and it is quite a good way of discovering news. But the algorithms and human selection used for news on the platform leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes, one ends up discovering important news precisely because the algorithms fail so badly.

For instance, I have The Guardian set up in Flipboard as a source. But the stories it seems to prioritise from the Guardian are those dealing pretty much exclusively with Australia, including comments written about the Australian government as “our government”, even though I’m pretty sure The Guardian is a British newspaper, what with having visited their London offices a few times. Quite why I only get Australian news, I’m not sure.

Recently, I tried to set up a whole stack more feeds inside Flipboard so I could—in a bid to be a more informed global citizen—better monitor news from countries whose names don’t start with the word “United”.

The international feeds that Flipboard has recommended to me are astoundingly terrible. The feed on Germany seems to be primarily about the products of Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes rather than about the politics and current affairs of the country in which those companies are based.

The feed for Brazil seems to be mainly about the Brazilian men’s national soccer team or the World Cup, and the remainder of the stories are light fluff about travel to Brazil. This is in spite of the fact that Brazil has been undergoing massive waves of political protests in many of its major cities in response to the revelation of large-scale corruption of the country’s national oil and gas company, Petrobras. Said protests—in addition to the economic situation of the country—have left President Dilma Rousseff fighting for her political life as she was involved in the running of Petrobras before becoming President. The fate of the elected leader of the fifth largest country in the world—and the investigation into alleged corruption on contracts worth up to $22 billion—is obviously far less important than competing teams of men kicking a ball around a field.

Today, I just checked the feed for Japan. The first two stories are regarding the success of the Japanese women’s soccer team, then a story about scientific research from Japan. Then another story about robots. Then a human interest story about Pokémon. Then a story about sekusu shinai shokogun—the alleged celibacy of Japan’s “herbivore men”, and the alleged demographic impacts. I say alleged because there’s some debate about whether this is actually real or not. More about the women’s football team. A solar powered plane—okay, that’s moderately interesting. Ooh, an actually interesting story: “Toyota’s top female executive steps down after arrest in Japan”. Three more stories about the women’s football. Then a story about sushi. Hard hitting news.

Let’s try Denmark. “Danish festival recycles urine to make beer” is the top story, followed by the eminently less important “Denmark to cut asylum-seeker benefits under new leaders”. Oh yeah, the Danes had an election two weeks ago and Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats were replaced by a centre-right coalition led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen. I might have missed it because of headlines about people drinking beer made from their own piss.

How about Ireland? Top headline from there is “No Highway to Hell for AC/DC as their Irish fans are Thunderstruck”. Yep. A 70s rock band played a concert in Dublin yesterday. Flipboard also informed me that the Irish singer Val Doonican died, and pointed me to an article on the Huffington Post website about important moral lessons I could learn from watching the Irish version of The Bachelorette. Nowhere in the Irish news did it bother to inform me that yesterday, former Taoisearch Brian Cowan was brought in front of an inquiry to defend his handling of the financial crisis. Neither did Flipboard’s Ireland feed tell me anything about the remarks from Irish president Michael D. Higgins about Europe’s handling of refugees. I mean, I guess I’m sort of fuddy-duddy, what with the strange, old-fashioned assumption that reporting what the President of a European nation thinks about the Europe-wide refugee crisis is more important than a story about The Bachelorette.

Okay, perhaps I’ve just had a run of bad luck with news from Japan, Brazil, Denmark and Ireland. Let’s try Italy then. “Is This The Hottest Bar in Italy?” reads the first headline. Probably not. “3 of the best Piedmont reds”. Yawn. Swipe. “Trafficker gets 18 years in jail over Italian shipwreck that killed 366 migrants”. Okay, some actual news.

This is Silicon Valley’s vision of the future of news. Bullshit listicles about reality shows and wine and rock concerts being more important than stories about wars, refugees, terrorism, economic crises and the flow of political power. Thank you, Facebook. Thank you, Upworthy. Thank you, “disruption”. Please go swallow some recycled piss.


I really like this blind test of audio quality. I can mostly tell a 320 kbps MP3 from a 128 kbps MP3, but the difference between 320 kbps and lossless is pretty meaningless for most people. That self-proclaimed audiophiles still reject blind testing is proof of their full-on addiction to delusion.


Looking at front-end build tools. Nasty, node.js NIH-riddled nonsense but sadly becoming necessary.



Today is a great day for all my LGBT friends in the U.S. It is an achievement to be celebrated, but also a marker of how much more needs to be done, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Also, I’m happy to see messages from straight friends and acquaintances who have held off on getting married out of solidarity and are now getting ready to get married. That’s great dedication to the cause.

There’s still so much more work to be done, but the news today is good news.


You shouldn't need to be a 'joiner' to feel Pride

The Pride parade in London is happening tomorrow. There have been storms of controversy around whether or not UKIP should be allowed to send their LGBT contingent along to participate. This, for me, has exposed the rather difficult life that Pride parades now have in countries like Britain: with close to full legal equality now that marriage has passed, and widespread social acceptance, there is the feeling that Pride is kind of a spent force now.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Pride is still important. Even if the campaign for LGBT legal equality in Britain is now (mostly) complete, the campaign for social equality and respect still needs to carry on: walking the streets hand-in-hand with one’s partner is still a calculated risk for gay people compared to an utterly ordinary matter for straight folk.

More than that, I still think that even in modern day Britain, Pride is still important because there are still a lot of people who struggle with the first step: being able to learn to love themselves as gay, lesbian, bi or trans people. The first battle is personal: to look at yourself in the mirror and love your gayness or bi-ness or lesbian-ness or transness (or whatever particular queerness you identify with). That’s hard, and Pride exists to show in a very visible way that there are plenty of other people who have learned to accept and love themselves. Pride is an affirmation that our lives are possible and demonstrate a vision of a future where people everywhere can love without fear or discrimination or bigotry.

No, the problem with Pride these days is a small one: participating in it requires you to join a bloody group. Go to a Pride parade in Britain and you have everything—the gay water polo players, the lesbian lawyers, the bisexual bankers, the asexual furry otherkin (thanks Tumblr), the leather daddies, the bears, the gaymers, the drag queens, the dykes on bikes. Everything, that is, except the non-joiners. The people who are a bit too busy with work, relationships, friends and everything else to spend much time joining in with the gay version of the PTA.  You ain’t part of a group, so we’re not interested.

Perhaps we ought to have a Pride parade group for all the LGBT folk who can’t be bothered with groups and joining things. Grumpy sods whose idea of fun doesn’t involve committee meetings, taking minutes, administering Facebook groups, petty non-profit politicking or any of that tosh, but who still happen to fall under the banner of L, G, B, T, Q or whatever new letters have been added since I last checked. One thing that irks me most about this is that the people who aren’t joiners of LGBT groups often are probably the people who are best integrated into straight society—who have a healthy mixture of straight and LGBT friends, who don’t demand that every event or thing they go to be a gay event or a gay group.

Worse though is the demand that everyone be part of some sub-group excludes the people who actually need some kind of broader LGBT community: the closeted and the curious. If you are a scared 18-year-old who isn’t sure if they are straight, gay, bi or whatever and you turn up at Pride and the only way you can take part is by already being part of the gay volleyball team or the bisexual bankers or a representative from a big corporation,1 that’s pretty alienating. If you live out in the middle of nowhere where you literally are the “only gay in the village”, all the gay sports teams and choirs and business networking groups don’t mean a damn thing.

This isn’t to deny that these groups have value: we need more support groups, interest groups and so on. I’ve read my Robert Putnam: more community groups means more social capital, more support for people, more social discussion, more friendliness—all these things make people happier, more able to cope with life, all good stuff. There’s great value in having all those groups there for the people they support. But we shouldn’t assume that everyone is a “joiner” or that the LGBT community is simply the sum of all the groups who march in Pride parades, because then you discount the individuals. Most of the LGBT people I know aren’t involved in pretty much any groups that march in Pride parades. As Oscar Wilde (who probably would be too busy to join the gay volleyball league) said: “the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings”. Most people have other things to do, other communities they are involved in. You shouldn’t need to give up all your evenings and live entirely in “gay community land” to feel pride.

  1. And, yes, this year’s Pride in London event is brought to you in part by LIBOR rate manipulators Barclays and Citibank, whose US mortgage division had to pay $158 million in fines for misleading regulators on the viability of home loans. Completely fucking up the world’s economy is fine though because they like the gays.


Nick Cohen: “We are moving towards a society where parties win by offering the biggest bribes they can to elderly voters; where the taxes of the young people support the leisure of the expanding number of old people.”


Rand Paul’s reaction to the Charleston shooting is atrocious. It’s basically “woo Jesus, woo libertarianism”. Not a moment of modest reflection, just more of the same stupid shit. There’s no quantity of dead bodies that will cause people like Paul to question their ideology.


The Problem with International Development is an interesting debunking of the glib TED talk bullshit about international development. Turns out trying to minimise overhead isn’t a way to produce fantastic charities and funding slick bullshit merchants who give fancy TED talks won’t save the world. Which anyone except the super smart folk who go to events like TED already knew…


Hey, @SlackHQ, Markdown without inline HTML is rather useless

The Markdown syntax document that John Gruber wrote says this:

Markdown is not a replacement for HTML, or even close to it. Its syntax is very small, corresponding only to a very small subset of HTML tags. The idea is not to create a syntax that makes it easier to insert HTML tags. In my opinion, HTML tags are already easy to insert. The idea for Markdown is to make it easy to read, write, and edit prose.

Which some implementers of Markdown (yeah, I mean you, Slack) then decided meant “let’s make it so you can’t type HTML in a document because, urgh, we support Markdown not HTML” even though Markdown is HTML plus a bunch of shortcuts to make it easier to write common stuff. Markdown without inline HTML means you can’t write things like tables or definition lists. Sigh.

I’m currently rewriting a document because I can’t type HTML in Slack’s variant of Markdown. This kind of bullshit is why it is easier for me to just render it properly using a non-stupid Markdown implementation and then save it as a PDF and send that to people. It’s after 7pm and I’m still in the office reformatting fucking Markdown—this is not “[making] working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive”, as Slack promises. Quite the opposite in fact.

If you let me write Markdown, let me write HTML in that Markdown. That’s how Gruber designed it. If you don’t let me write HTML in Markdown, I can’t use it to actually write anything detailed.


It's astounding someone can build an order process so bad, but @AmericanExpress managed it

User story: I want to book a hotel room in Brighton. You know, the place with the beach and the Dome and the gays and all that.

So I go to the American Express travel booking site. Because Amex points.

I start typing in Brighton and it Ajax autocorrects it to “Brighton & Hove, GB”.

I submit the form and it tells me I’ve done fucked it up.

Alright, screw Hove, I want to stay in Brighton proper.

No, I mean Brighton—the one here in England.

If I click any of the ones that don’t have a state after them, it brings me back to this form… forever.

Then I notice I’m on the US website. Even though I’ve signed in with my username and password which is a UK account. I click “Change country” and I get taken to the UK website. It’s lost my search and my logged-in status. On the upside, the UK site has mastered the idea that Brighton is in England.

I hate computers.


I’m officially in love with BitTorrent Sync. The iOS app could do with some polish but the unbelievably simple selective sync means that things like my Downloads folder is now unified between computers.


Most people don't give a damn about surveillance

The Snowden revelations keep dripping away and revealing the nearly absurd levels of surveillance that the United States government and the ‘Five Eyes’ countries engage in—bulk, indiscriminate collection of a data to a level that should shock the conscience.

It should shock the conscience, but it doesn’t. That big technology companies like Google and Yahoo! have been deputised in programmes like PRISM and Tempora was already known in outline by most technically informed observers—Snowden merely filled in the details with evidence.

That government spooks could read your email via the big Internet companies is something any savvy journalist could have learned off-the-record by simply pouring beer into engineers who work at said big companies. I know, I’ve done it, and I’m just a guy with a blog, for fucks sake.

Everyone in the business knew it was happening already: Snowden lifted the cover on the collective doublethink about it. We already knew it was happening, but having nice PowerPoint slides up on the Guardian website short-circuited our internal plausible deniability. It made solid what was already in the air.

Except, here’s the really depressing bit: most people don’t care and won’t care. The issues are suitably abstract enough and technical enough for them to not care. People say they care but their actions belie their words.

It takes twenty minutes for a technically competent user to set up GPG. A small amount of Googling and you can get your email client set up to send 2048-bit encrypted email. I have had GPG set up for years and less than 1% of email I get is signed or encrypted.

And I work with developers, software people, people who would have no trouble getting GPG set up with their mail client. If even technology geeks can’t be fucked to send encrypted email despite military strength encryption protocols like PGP/GPG being available for 20+ years, expecting ordinary people to do so is a fools errand.

That’s not because of user experience. We could let a whole room full of top designers make the process of using something broadly like GPG into a much less awful experience, but people aren’t motivated to get it set up because it doesn’t solve something they actually in their heart of hearts think is a problem.

And there are now simple smartphone apps: TextSecure, RedPhone, Telegram. No complex key signing protocols or any of that: just free apps that are basically WhatsApp or Facebook Messages but with the nice benefit of the NSA and GCHQ not listening. These apps are riding high on the App Store and Google Play charts because of the clear user demand for surveillance-free communication, right?

My hypothesis is simple: people don’t care about privacy, they care about looking like they care about privacy. There are people I know who spend hours and hours posting links to the latest Snowden revelation, the latest stupid thing a politician said about privacy, hell, they consider themselves privacy activists—and then I click through to their website and the GPG key is… nowhere to be seen. Hell, sometimes I can’t even find an email address, so I end up sending them a Twitter DM. And that’s privacy activists.

In the time it would take for people to have all these extended conversations about privacy and surveillance on Reddit, Hacker News, Twitter and the comments section of newspaper websites, people could easily set up a secure chat app or start encrypting their email and actually make it so that the spying agencies have to try.

People scoff at “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” as a glib political slogan without grasping that based on people’s actions, that is actually how people think about surveillance. The threat posed to individual people by the NSA and GCHQ feels pretty empty. At a certain point, it fades into the background.

When I first started commuting to London, I felt offended by CCTV cameras. I counted the number of cameras on my commute into London and across London on the tube (or I tried—I lost count after about 150). Now they are invisible—the only time they have even come to mind was when I got mugged for my iPhone in a side-street that Camden council had neglected to put CCTV on. What once felt like an Orwellian intrusion by an overbearing state is something I only notice when its absence allows a gang of thugs on motorbikes to pilfer my phone.

I don’t expect a political fix for surveillance. Politicians are surprisingly adept at grabbing on to public sentiment and squeezing votes out of it. The issue of mass internet surveillance is one that some political party would grab on to for votes. I watched the UK election coverage and I can’t recall seeing any politician of any party mentioning surveillance in the mainstream media. No votes to grab on opposing Big Brother, evidently.

Whether you think technology or politics or law is ultimately the way we fight the surveillance state, both need people. That mass of people giving a damn is missing. This is a dispiriting message for anyone who thinks these issues matter, but the first step to fixing the problem is acknowledging the reality—that most people don’t give a shit.





The lesson of Yahoo! Pipes is a brutal one: never trust big companies. They’ll offer you nice things. Politely decline and build your own.



A subculture I didn’t know existed: shoplifting bloggers. They go and steal shit, then post on Tumblr about it.

Some claim that it is fake: that they actually buy the stuff for real and then post it on their shoplifting blog to get some unearned street cred or to role play, and some add legal disclaimers of the form “this is for entertainment purposes only”.