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

King’s College London has decided to not rebrand itself as “King’s London”. Which is good because the latter sounds bloody stupid. They’ve managed to spend tens of thousands of pounds on the rebranding exercise though, because that is a valuable use of resources for a university.

Struggling to find any reason why I would ever want to strap a Microsoft HoloLens to my face.

I nearly forgot to mention the other day: the Pope spoke out against gay marriage.

Finally, this might mean the end of idiots pretending that Francis is somehow magically different and better than the previous Popes. Same bullshit, better PR.

DNS issues reveal inherent fragility and redundancy of DOIs

Those of you unfamiliar with bibliographic standards may be unaware of digital object identifiers (DOIs). DOIs are used by academic publishers to provide a unique global identifier for academic papers published in journals. A DOI is printed in the following form:


As I said, the point of a digital object identifier is to provide an identifier of a particular resource. This makes them a duplicate of a rather more popular and widespread system for identifying resources, namely uniform resource locators (URLs), the popular standard used on the Internet for web addresses.

Why not just use URLs then? Because librarians need DOIs. They need DOIs because you can’t trust the dastardly Internet to keep resources around. Links rot, stuff starts 404ing, people forget to renew domains. If you use a URL, the URL might break. So rather than having academic journal publishers assign URLs and then potentially doing something stupid, the best thing to do is to have a trusted party run their own URL system. The trusted third party in this case is an organisation called the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, and they run the technical infrastructure on behalf of the International DOI Foundation. Note the use of the words “international”, “foundation” and “corporation”—obviously these guys are serious and know what they are doing.

Of course, because DOIs aren’t actually that useful on their own, you need a resolver. You can take a DOI and remove the “doi:” prefix and then append the rest of it to the address and you then have… a URL! But then you have the problem that URLs have. Links rot. Servers break. People forget to renew domains. Or, as happened today, the CNRI made a mess of the DOI resolver’s DNS records because they manually renewed the DOI domain name at the last minute. This caused intermittent resolution issues.

I mean, sure, if one journal publisher were to accidentally mess up their website for a day, that’d be annoying. But when you put the very act of resolving your identifier in the hands of one organisation, the potential for catastrophe is pretty amazing. Especially given the sheer amount of academic infrastructure that is sitting on top of the DOI infrastructure: citation generators, bibliometric analysis software, personal paper library storage, pre-print metadata stores, institutional subscription-wall software. Whoops.

I’m still not convinced there is any point to DOIs. There is an international, widely adopted standard for identifying digital objects: URLs. URLs aren’t perfect, but you aren’t reliant on librarians to remember to renew their domain name for the whole system to continue running.

You want metadata retrieval? Easy. HTTP gives you that: content negotiation. Hell, the two formats that anyone is going to give a damn about for academic papers (HTML and PDF) can contain metadata—HTML in the form of microformats or RDFa (or, Xenu forbid, microdata), PDF in the form of the Info Dictionary and XMP.

Today’s silliness with DOIs show to me the inherent fragility of any “let’s just give a number to everything” system. The Internet exists and they all duplicate what URLs already do but with more indirection and with a constant risk of the lookup server going wrong. If your solution to “things on the internet go away” is to introduce a resolution service that can also go away, you are duplicating entities beyond necessity

Radio 4's History of Ideas is unlistenable dreck

I have listened to a few of the History of Ideas podcasts that are being put out on Radio 4 and much hyped by the station. Every one I have listened to has excelled only in its ability to disappoint me more than the previous one.

They have some excellent hosts who interview some world experts. But it seems as soon as the host settles down for a meaty interview with some professor who might be able to get in to the substance, we are immediately interrupted by an ethereal voice to give us what amounts to the first few sentences of the Wikipedia article but rewritten so as to not confuse any toddlers who might be listening, while the swirling sounds of some kind of BBC Radiophonic Workshop creation hums, bangs and jitters in the background. Why is this clutter needed? It’s as if someone decided to combine a systematic theology lecture and a group of small children hitting saucepans together.

No subject is ever left to lurk in one’s mind before we are jumped to some other topic. It almost feels like some kind of joke played by radio producers that they dreamed up after a few too many drinks. “Imagine if we edited In Our Time like a reality show!”

The sad thing is that there are occasional genuine moments of insight in the programmes in spite of the atrocious and overwrought format.

Why not just have a simple, understated talk from an expert? 15 minutes of exploratory discussion of an important philosopher or idea by a world expert without electronic bleating from the sound effects department or constant interruptions would be quite lovely.

Just saw a sign saying “bus stop not in use”—on a Tube platform. Someone ought to explain the concept of a category mistake to Transport for London.

Pope Francis: “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

I think I prefer John Stuart Mill’s version of free speech to the Pope’s. Will this shake Frankie’s PR? Nope. Pope Francis could eat a kitten on live television and there would be idiots proclaiming him a valiant defender of animal rights.

Whenever I hear tech industry douchebags going on about how amazing the Internet of Things will be, I just think of this clip and quietly mutter “would you like any toast?” to myself.

Your daily reminder that politicians don’t understand technology or the modern world. In Parliament yesterday, Andrew George MP (Lib Dem, St Ives) said: “It’s run from a call centre in Newport 200 miles away, and also it uses logarithms which actually involve them asking a patient in my constituency, ‘Um, are you conscious?’.”

Hansard corrected it from “logarithm” to “algorithm”. It may just be an instance of “mis-speaking”, but I’m genuinely worried that the people who run our country mostly don’t know the difference between a logarithm and an algorithm. And worse, they probably don’t know even care why not knowing that is a problem in a society based so heavily on science and technology. Scary.

Gross ignorance of science and technology would also explain David Cameron’s suggestion to ban messaging services that use encryption, and why such a suggestion would prompt security experts to say that he is “living in cloud cuckoo land”.

Why can't I easily find out what Parliament is up to?

I was out on a long walk this morning and catching up on news podcasts while doing so. One topic of discussion on a number of the podcasts covering Westminster politics was Tony Blair’s appearance yesterday at the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee to discuss the handling of the “on the runs” during the Northern Ireland peace process while he was in office.

That sounds pretty interesting, I though. As a citizen, a Wikipedian and a Wikinews contributor, I’d rather like to see what this country’s former prime minister has to say about this controversial issue. And I currently can’t easily get a transcript of what was said. Hansard does not seem to report the oral evidence presented to select committees. There is a video I can watch and it requires I install Microsoft Silverlight for some reason that should have been redundant since the introduction of the HTML 5 video tag and the availability of free, open source video codecs. And I don’t want to watch video: I can read a lot quicker than I’m sure either Blair or the members of the select committee can speak.

Even though select committees play an increasingly important role in political life in Westminster (think of Margaret Hodge’s fearsome chairing of the Public Accounts Committee or the role of the Backbench Business Committee in Parliament), Hansard do not provide transcription of oral evidence presented to select committees. Quite how deaf people are supposed to be able to engage with this, I am not sure. I’m also wondering how Parliament get away with this given that they have voluntarily agreed to conform to WCAG 2 as well as having legal duties under the Equality Act 2010 to not discriminate against people with disabilities (which includes deaf people).

This aside, there is a wider issue: I’d like to know what Parliament is up to. What business is scheduled for the Commons and the Lords? Who is going to be giving evidence to select committees? The media do an okay job of covering Parliament, but the problem is usually it is too late. It is after-the-fact, it focusses on the dog and pony show that is PMQs and what party leaders are up to, and often doesn’t dig into the detail of how the institution is running.

Parliament has a Twitter feed. Which is great if you want to know what Parliament is doing right now. It’s not so useful if you want to know what Parliament is going to be discussing next week. Then there’s the Facebook feed—because what I really want is Facebook to not just filter content my friends post but also decide which bits of the already curated feed of stuff Parliament post on Facebook is “relevant” to me. No, I want to decide that. And there’s a Google+ feed but nobody who doesn’t work for Google gives a fuck about Google+, least of all me.

Then I look a bit further and find a list of RSS feeds. Okay, that looks more promising. I subscribe to the Commons Select Committees feed and despite the fact that the feed is formatted in a very bizarre way in terms of date and timestamps, it does the job.

For instance, for the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee oral evidence session with Tony Blair, I get this:

And if I click through on this, it takes me to the homepage of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. The same feed also tells me that yesterday a select committee would be hearing evidence regarding High Speed 2. So I click on that link… and I go to a calendar page listing all the select committee hearings for yesterday. Why do these two feed items take me to different places? I have no idea.

What would be nice is if each debate, each particular item of business—whether that’s a Commons debate on a bill, a ten minute rule bill, an adjournment debate, a questions session like PMQs, a select committee oral hearing—would have one permanent URL which had on it all the details. If the debate hasn’t happened yet, the same details that appear in the upcoming business listings. When the debate has happened, it should contain video (and not in bloody Silverlight—as I said, HTML 5 video exists) as well as audio and full text transcripts. Hansard should be expanded to include oral evidence to ensure select committee hearings are covered. This would help researchers, it’d help journalists, but most of all it’d help citizens better follow (and share and debate etc.) the proceedings that matter to them in Parliament.

I’ve heard lots of hot air around the subject of digital democracy: it is something that John Bercow, Speaker of the House seems keen on doing. Making it so that the Parliament website actually lets us as citizens meaningfully track the business of Parliament would be a good start.

The smoke detector in my flat has an excellent feature: when the battery is getting close to empty, it lets out a short chirp about every 30 seconds. This is a particularly good feature when it activates just after 2am.

I think I may be in love with Panti Bliss for this TEDx talk. Panti says what every openly gay person is forced to think, every single day.

Key quotes I loved:

  • “We try to be normal and carefree, just like everybody else. But we’re not. We’re constantly scanning the pavement ahead, just in case. If we see a group of blokes coming towards us, maybe we decide silently to continue holding hands, defiantly. But now, our small intimate gesture between two people in love is no longer a small intimate gesture—it is a political act of defiance. And it has been ruined.”
  • Homophobia is the “background of our lives”.
  • “I’m fed up of putting up.”
  • “They are afraid of what the world will look like when it treats gay and lesbian and bisexual people with the same respect as everybody else. They are afraid that they won’t fit in this brave new world of equality.”

If a style guide suggests doing something that causes confusion for the reader, ignore the style guide. As a writer you have a nearly sacred duty of care towards your reader: to not confuse them. This duty is higher than any style guide—if the style guide gets in the way of you doing the right thing for the reader, toss the style guide away. Your reader is your highest priority.

This is something I have learned by experience far too often.

Looking at a Flickr stream on my phone. A banner appears at the top advertising the app. If has a link that says “Open in App”. I have the Flickr app installed so I tap it. Instead of taking me to the app and showing me the photos I want to see, it takes me to the App Store so I can download the app I already have installed.

Fabulous usability, guys. This is why Yahoo! isn’t a sinking ship…