Archive for the 'Rants complaints' Category

To those who tell me aspartame, coffee cause Multiple Sclerosis

I’m not shy about talking about having multiple sclerosis (largely because I have supportive employers so I’m not constantly in fear of being fired as many disabled people are). So from time to time I get blog comments or emails from crazies who tell me that multiple sclerosis is caused by coffee/ aspartame/ invisible MS rays from the evil Quaziquarg, Lord of the Quarg People.

These people simply don’t understand the nature of scientific cause and effect. My fist and their noses would serve admirably to demonstrate how this process works.

Here’s what the UK Food Standards Agency says about aspartame. Here’s information about a far more dangerous substance, Dihydrogen Monoxide – armchair scientists, circulate it around Facebook now!

Letter to my MP about web censorship

This morning I wrote to my MP, John Hemming, via writetothem.com to express my concern about web censorship:

Dear John Hemming,

I noticed you tweeting that your geek rating is 90%, so I guess I don’t need to explain why David Cameron and Claire Perry’s attempts to censor the Web are so dangerous.

I’d like to know your thoughts on why this isn’t being debated in parliament; why it seems to go against their own policy after a consultation on the issue, and whether you (as my representative) agree with Mr Cameron’s ideas?

I’m deeply concerned at the scope-creep of these policies. We all oppose obscene images of children and rape. But those are illegal, and filtered, already. Is it true that we will have to opt-in to “extremist” material, and material on “smoking”? Who decides what is “extremist”?

I urge you to oppose this censorship by the back door, and I hope you’ll raise it in parliament, which is the proper place to debate such matters.

Yours sincerely,

Bruce Lawson.

To Mr Hemming’s credit, his reply came after a couple of hours:

My understanding is that the proposals relate to the default or factory settings of the domestic broadband router. I don’t think anyone has a problem with this.

Why not write to your MP? Hopefully you’ll get a more sympathetic response.

Added 17 August 2013: I’ve just had an hour long meeting with my MP, John Hemming (both of us lying on his floor as his back was gone, and it was weird for me to sit while he lay) about the plans for a UK-wide Web filter. He agrees with me that it’s a civil liberties problem, and we’ll work together to campaign against it. More detail later.

SxSW First Timer’s Guide

The South By South West conference has published its First Timer’s Guide with such nuggets as advising readers to drink water and “Be sure you know the name of your hotel”. In my customary mode of unceasing public service, I offer some more tips:

  • Wipe your bottom after every poo. Wipe from front to back.
  • Do not put a sharpened pencil into your ear, then smack the side of your head against a wall. This may drive the pencil through your Eustachian tube and into your brain.
  • If any panellist mentions Postel’s law, Fitt’s law or Moore’s law, loudly applaud their effortless erudition. However, if a food retail operative mentions “Cole’s Law”, they are referring to salad consisting primarily of shredded raw cabbage.
  • If a tiger escapes from Austin Zoo and, maddened with fear and hunger, races into a conference session that you’re attending, don’t embarrass yourself by falling victim to the tiger-petting anti-pattern.
  • If a stranger asks you if (s)he can see your genitals, say “no” in a friendly but firm voice. (Video tutorial)
  • Even though this is your first time, tell everyone you meet that “it was much better back in ’07″. Everyone will love you.

Happy Southby!

(It was much better in ’02 when I was hanging with Cory Doctorwho and David Byrne at the Jackalope. Of course, nobody went to the Jackalope, then.)

The joys of double glazing: Amber and Anglian review

Finally, a boring post about something other than web minutiae!

Eighteen months ago, we moved into a large Victorian house that needed lots of work. Twitter chums have responded to my requests for recommendations for builders, roofers, tree surgeons, decorators, plumbers, electricians and plasterers enthusiastically. But when I innocently tweeted “Can anyone recommend a decent double-glazing company that aren’t pressure-salesmen, cowboys or criminals” I got no replies at all. Not any. Twice. That’s telling in itself. So I decided get a couple of quotes and compare them.

Firstly, I called Amber Windows, told them what I wanted and told them that I had an hour maximum for them to measure (two doors – how long should it take?), and emphasised that I didn’t want to waste time with faux-discounts; give me your best price and go away.

Needless to say, Cliff, the Amber Windows salesman, told me of a “special discount” to reduce the £5600 cost (ha!) to £2500. Then came the usual palaver of “calling his manager” to ask if there was an extra special deal. Lo and behold! there was. Mild pressure was applied; a curt “that’s the lowest price, if you sign up today. Take it or leave it”. I told them I’d leave it as I hate people pressuring me and insulting my intelligence. Other the next two weeks I received several phone calls, from different people, offering me wildly different prices until I told them to stop calling me.

I told Jim, the Anglian Windows salesman, not to waste my time and simply to give me his best price. He was direct, but was clearly anxious to sign me up there and then with the implication that there was a further discount. (I said no, as I wanted to discuss the various different designs with my wife at our leisure). He also didn’t seem to know about his products; the Anglian brochures boasted of a certain British Standards that their windows meet; my insurance requires a different Standard and he couldn’t tell me if Anglian’s windows meet More>Than’s minimum security standard.

His price was good, so I invited him back to take a deposit, provided that he could answer the British Standards question. He didn’t come prepared with an answer, and was visibly annoyed at my asking the question. I signed the contract and gave him a cheque on condition that her find out (this was written into the contract) and I emailed him several times subsequently but he never satisfactorily answered my question. Eventually I gave up and the surveyor gave me the answer on headed notepaper as Jim had promised (but failed) to do.

Jim also promised me that my burglar alarm contacts would fit on the new doors, and that I would have a trickle vent to prevent condensation forming. This was written into the contract. When they were eventually installed today, the trickle vent was missing on a door, and the burglar alarm contacts wouldn’t fit. I can only assume that the factory misread the words “trickle vents to be fitted above doors” as “trickle vents to be fitted above only one door”, and Jim’s error regarding my burglar alarm was nothing to do with his eagerness to get a sale.

After signing the contract and paying a 20% deposit in August, I waited and waited and eventually chased up Anglian myself for a survey date and a fitting date. The fitting date was postponed by Anglian at the last minute, three times. The first two times because of bad weather, the third time because of lack of fitters. When I complained on Twitter, they mysteriously found a fitter who came today. They’ve done a nice job, but have yet to return today to finish the job (to put trim around the back door, put in a spyhole and a knocker and install a trickle vent. The burglar alarm contacts I’ll have to sort out by myself). I was hoping to visit the doctors on Monday morning, but now I’ll have to wait a week.

I have another window that needs double-glazing, but simply don’t feel like going through this rigmarole again.

If there is an Apple-style “just works” double glazing firm that doesn’t entirely ignore customer satisfaction in its haste for profit, I hope it will clean up the market.

Why “The Dark Knight Rises” scriptwriter should be shot

WARNING: may contain spoilers.

The kids wanted to see it, so I took them to see The Dark Knight Rises. Because it’s a film based on a comic and I’m over twelve years old, I wasn’t really expecting to like it, but there were some scriptwriting crimes so egregious that I list them here.

Firstly, the film was way too long. It didn’t help that Cineworld in Solihull decided that air conditioning in a packed cinema in the summer is a luxury that our £28 entrance fee didn’t merit. But it was still 30 minutes too long.

On the plus side, the special effects were good (of course they were: it’s a summer blockbuster) and the babes were suitably babelicious, if Hollywood collagen pout is your thing (it isn’t mine).

But the script was terrible. Now, in a Hollywood blockbuster based on a kids’ comic, I don’t hope for emotional depth. But as the Bad Guy had mobilised thousands of normal people who were prepared to be blown up by a nuclear bomb he’d planted, it would be satisfying to be given even a cursory explanation of why they would. Or even, why Bad Guy and Bad Girl would. (“Because they’re bad” doesn’t work.)

Two can’t-be-arsed script devices were employed repeatedly. The lazy, lazy flashback-with-a-voiceover technique was used several times, as was clankingly clumsy Obvious Explication Dialogue:

“I want you to give me Clean Slate”.
“you mean, the computer program that lets you type in your name and erases you from databases?”
“Yes!”

Imagine if people in real life spoke like that:

“Have you got the keys to the car, Bruce?”
“You mean, our blue Nissan Micra that I bought from my father when he upgraded to a Passat? The one I scratched when I reversed it into a wall outside Aldi last Wednesday?”
“Yes!”

Then there is the mysteriously common movie trope whereby a character who doesn’t speak English suddenly learns it in time for them to utter the words that allow them to fulfill their plot function. I’m thinking of the bald guy in prison who needs translation until he whispers encouraging, motivational words to Batman. Imagine being that guy! All that time, unable to communicate with the Anglophone world and, just when the deus ex machina grants you fluent English so you can go to the pub and chat up girls, you disappear from the world as your bit of plot has finished. Bummer.

And don’t get me started on the unrequited homo-erotic thing between Michael Caine and Christian Bale. Any scriptwriter that requires Caine to cry should be drummed out of the scriptwriters’ guild. He’s spent 85 years being celebrated for not acting – he’s not going to start now.

More fool me for expecting anything other than cartoon characters, I suppose, but grown adults had promised it’s “dark” so I expected a Bergmanesque investigation of why a man would wear tights, with added “Pow!” overlays. Should’ve gone to see The Lorax instead.

Reading List – Vendor prefixes, mobile, monoculture

The first reading list of 2012 is themed, rather than the usual miscellany. It’s about the Open Web and the dangers it faces.

I’ve nailed my colours to the mast – most lately in The Pastry Box:

The Web is about communication. It connects many people who previously were isolated such as those with disabilities or those in oppressive regimes. It’s a World-Wide Web, not a Wealthy Western Web. If your super-clever site only works with a mouse and monitor, on the latest $2000 super-spec laptop, with a fat broadband connection, you’re missing the point.

The ideal of universality is fundamental to the Web. Some bloke called Tim said

The principles of universality of access irrespective of hardware or software platform, network infrastructure, language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental impairment are core values in Web design.

One of the most worrying trends we see at the moment is the erosion of this idea. In a survey, Peter-Paul Koch asked "Do you hope that WebKit will become the only rendering engine, and that the others will gradually disappear?". Shockingly, 32% have replied “yes” (at time of writing). You read that correctly! 32% actively wish for a monoculture. Because, y’know, cross-browser development is hard – so let’s go shopping! Who cares about the users? Who cares about the future? We’ve been here before with IE6- the darling of developers at the time – and look how well that went.

It’s pretty obvious that this is a case of a group of developers that believes that everyone should be just like them and should use the same devices and browsers. After all, despite all their genuflecting to Safari on their iPhones, it appears from December’s mobile statisitics (as written up by PPK) that

Opera once more overtakes Safari. It’s clear now that Android’s untrammeled growth has ended, and that the race for first position will continue to be between Opera and Safari.

(If you’d like to start testing your sites in the number one mobile browser, there are plenty of Opera testing tools available. Note: Opera is my employer, but this is my personal opinion.)

Stephanie Rieger writes in A plea for progressive enhancement

we have to start building sites using solid, future friendly principles such as progressive enhancement…not just when it’s handy or simple, but all the time.

and goes on to show a Barack Obama re-election site in which it was impossible to navigate in many devices, even some new high-spec devices. In a news report about this, the journalist quotes my three incredibly ground-breaking, never-before-heard rules:

  • Code to standards, not to browsers
  • use progressive enhancement
  • remember that you are not your user.

Yes, I know! Utterly new concepts.

However, we’re approaching a monoculture on mobile. This is not the work of an evil organisation, but it’s developer-constructed. Few people are stupid enough to use Olde-Skool browser sniffing and blocking, but we’re seeing lots of people breaking cross-browser compatibility by neglect rather than design.

One way this happens is developers using only one vendor’s CSS vendor prefix even when other vendors support the same properties. Of course, for experimental things only implemented by one rendering engine, that’s fine. That’s what vendor prefixes are for.

The trouble comes about when people do something like -webkit-transition for widely-supported properties, without the corresponding -o- for Opera, -ms- for Microsoft and -moz- for Mozilla.

Last week, Mozilla developer Boris Zbarsky wrote

People never aim to create content that’s cross-browser compatible per se, with a tiny minority of exceptions. People aim to create content that reaches users. What that means is that right now people are busy authoring webkit-only websites on the open web because they think that webkit is the only UA that will ever matter on mobile. And if you point out this assumption to these people, they will tell you right to your face that it’s a perfectly justified assumption. The problem is bad enough that both Trident and Gecko have seriously considered implementing support for some subset of -webkit CSS properties.[my emphasis]

Three years ago, David Baron (also of Mozilla) wrote Should implementors copy vendor prefixes from each other?, and in 2010 Microsoft announced that it would support -webkit- prefixes, but eventually decided against it.

Since then, we’ve had many more debates about the merits of vendor prefixes (see previous reading list), and even the co-chair of the CSS Working Group, Daniel Glazman, wrote

The rule should be this one: if the CSS parser encounters a prefixed property for another browser, honour that property as if it were prefixed for us UNLESS an unprefixed or prefixed for us valid declaration for that property was already set. That would drastically reduce the problems on the Web.

I believe vendor prefixes were a good idea, and remain so if used in a cross-browser, future-proof way. But because so many people only use the -webkit- one, I’m starting to wonder too if vendor prefixes should be considered harmful

HTML5: notes for analysts and journalists

There have been a few stories lately for investors rather than techies that have a few inaccuracies, probably because they’re written by finance/ business journalists rather than tech journalists. (Nothing wrong in that; I know my HTML5 from my CSS but couldn’t tell a gilt-edged bond from a derivative.)

Here a few notes for analysts and journalists that might chance upon this blog.

There’s a piece entitled 2.1bn HTML5 browsers on mobile devices by 2016 – ABI Research quoting some laudably specific figures:

By 2016, more than 2.1 billion mobile devices will have HTML5 browsers, up from just 109 million in 2010.

Before the expansion from “just” 109 million to “more than” 2.1 billion makes you rush out and leverage your portfolio, we need to know what our anonymous author means by the term “HTML5 browser”.

If you define an “HTML5 browser” as one that supports all features of HTML5 then there are precisely zero in existence. (You’d need to define “HTML5″, of course, but that’s another story.)

If you define an “HTML5 browser” as one that can consume some HTML5 features, then all browsers are “HTML5 compliant”.

Please, dear analyst/ journalist friend, define what you’re talking about before giving precise figures and talking about accelerating adoption. (I’m always up for being contacted – email bruce at this domain – if you need to check something out, by the way.)

Our anonymous author quotes a Mark Beccue saying “I believe that Apple will be the key driver of HTML5″. Mr Beccue is, of course, at liberty to believe what he wants. Until my nephew was three, he believed that there was a creature that lived in the toilet called The Poozilla (I’d like to apologise to him publicly here). Believing it doesn’t make it true.

There are many claims to be the “driver” of HTML5. Opera began it, of course; Ian Hickson edits the spec and works for Google so you could argue that Google is a driver. As you like, and whatever gets you a better headline.

The truth is that browser manufacturers are driving it collaboratively because if browsers don’t render HTML interoperably, developers will use some proprietary technology instead. (This doesn’t have to be a prosaic truth: the fact that all browsers are working together on HTM5, if not on other technology, is quite a story.)

Consumers benefit from interoperable webpages: most people use multiple devices and browsers; it’s stupid if you can use your bank website on your work machine, but not your Linux netbook or phone. There are significant advantages to HTML5 over HTML 4 for developers.

Mr Beccue (or the anonymous author channelling Mr Beccue, as we are denied any link to Mr Beccue’s full analysis) believes that Flash will imminently disappear:

One important HTML5 feature, video, is making a play to challenge the popular Adobe Flash Player plugin software…“I think the disappearance of Flash is closer than people think”

There are numerous reasons why Flash may be a more appropriate way to deliver your video content. Perhaps you need DRM, or adaptive bitrate streaming, for example.

Also, dear journalist/ analyst, it’s fair to point out that there are numerous problems with multimedia on Apple’s iOS:

Mr Beccue (or the person quoting Mr Beccue) has presumably failed to realise that Flash does more than merely play video. This is an important point if you’re proclaiming its imminent demise.

If you want access to the paid-for report by Mr Beccue,
GigaOM has a similar article (which helpfully tells us “the HTML5 is very important”) that links to HTML5 for Mobile Devices and Tablets by ABI Consulting.

In the table of contents, we see conclusion #1: “Mobile Is the Primary Focus of HTML5″. A brief look at the HTML5 Design Principles shows that this is simply wrong:

Features should be designed for universal access…Features should, when possible, work across different platforms, devices, and media.

I enjoyed the Forbes journalist’s balanced appraisal of Flash and HTML5 in the piece Why Opposing HTML5 And Flash Is Nonsense, and agreed with his conclusions.

However, he gives a list of “facts” asserting “These are not interpretations or opinions. These are facts.”

As it’s just possible that another journalist or analyst might be impressed by Forbes’ vehemence and quote these “facts” without question, let’s give them some critical examination.

You do not build a web site in Flash. The only way to build a website is to use HTML pages, and then to embed Flash elements in them.

This supports the author’s thesis that talk of all-Flash websites is an impossibility. Well, yes, technically. But Flash can be embedded using two lines of HTML, neither of which has any visual manifestation (see Blankety-Blank example) so this doesn’t mean much.

Less than half of installed browsers are HTML5 compliant, with different levels of compliance.

As our wikipedia chums would say “Citation needed”. And, please dear Analyst, see above for the absolute necessity to define “HTML5 browser” or “HTML5-compliant”.

The video element in HTML5 is perfect for basic video players, but Flash and Silverlight are much more suitable for advanced video feature (streaming, caption, interactive features and miscellaneous video effects)

Really? I very much like the text-based synchronised subtitles available on things like Playr or mediaelement.js, which are HTML5.

Streaming is also completely possible with HTML5 video. “Miscelleaneous video effects” needs definition before you can claim that HTML5 can’t do them. (It’s been possible to do things like edge-detection, blend, greyscaling for a couple of years with SVG + native video – see http://www.dahlström.net/svg/filters/video/video-filter.svg in Opera, for example).

The iPony Club

Finally, Business Insider has a video in which “Facebook Investor” Roger McNamee exhibits the kind of breathless anticipation about “HTML5″ that is more commonly found in the minds of the prepubescent heroines of a specific genre of children’s fiction as they describe the prospect of riding Misty Mane, their new pony, for the first time. (From 8’58″ onwards.)

I address the paraphrases, as they’re what get quoted and picked up:

HTML5 is going to change everything. “In HTML5, an ad is an app, a tweet is an app, everything is an app.” “It’s a blank sheet of paper, and creativity rules again.”

I’m not sure how “a tweet is an app” makes any kind of technical sense. And, much as I like HTML5, this isn’t the Renaissance – we’re not seeing some massive resurgence of human creativity because of a new DOCTYPE.

In HTML5, you don’t need to have display ads: Amazon can have a section of its store as an ad. So if you’re reading a book review, you can buy the book right from the page.

As you’ve been able to do for 10 years.

Because HTML5 can make sites rich and interactive, engagement on a site can go from seconds to minutes.

Flash can make sites rich and interactive. So can HTML 4. The key here is “rich and interactive”, not a particular DOCTYPE.

The iPad is the training wheels for HTML5.

Seriously, have a lie down.

(Added January 2012: the offending video by McNamee:)

What a load of nonsense!

Usability atrocities – ParentPay

ParentPay is, according to its Twitter profile “the market leading online payment & dinner money management solution for schools and caterers, used by hundreds of thousands of parents each week.”

It’s quite a good idea – I load up the account by credit card and, as my daughter buys lunch, the account reduces and I get an itemised bill so I can ensure she’s getting her five a day.

The school are supposed to tell her when her account drops below £5, and she’s supposed to inform me. Somewhere in this chain that involves a computer system, harassed dinnerladies and the legendary communication skills of a twelve year old girl, the system breaks down. Therefore, I rarely find out that funds are low until I receive an accusing text at 8.30 am, or on her arrival home when she tasmanian-devils through the family food supplies because she couldn’t afford lunch.

This morning I had just such an SOS text so went to the website. As usual, I’d forgotten my login details (I really want to use my email address instead of choose a username so it’s less to remember). The password reset showed me a splendidly helpful error message:

Server-specific error message in web page

Showing techy error messages saying “server errors in ‘/AUTH’ application” and a handy snippet of XML is unlikely to assist a user. However, showing error messages that can identify a specific server technology is of tremendous use to hackers – they know which server and potentially which version number to target.

After 20 minutes trying different username and password combos, I got into the system and made my payment – puzzlingly, to an organisation called “Alliance in Partnership”, on a website called “ParentPay”. Eh? Alliance in Partnership sounds like some barking rightwing thinktank. But I persevere.

I then verified my transaction via the pseudo-security of Verified by Visa (or its equivalent, Mugged by Mastercard), which is heavily JavaScript-reliant and which reportedly can’t be used on some mobile phones. (This isn’t a criticism of ParentPay, by the way: it’s a cunning ruse by the banks to dodge responsibility.)

I want to like ParentPay. I think it’s a good idea and I hope they succeed. But they need to think more about their customers’ experience. Here’s one tip that would make my life slightly easier.

I know that such a thing is currently beyond human ingenuity and no technology exists that could power such a marvel, but perhaps ParentPay may consider a system that emails me automatically when the account drops below a certain threshold, thereby guaranteeing an uninterrupted supply of bratfuel?

Added 12.30pm

Someone from ParentPay contacted me and said, with admirable politeness, that there actually is such an alert facility but only available at some schools and, once checking that my daughter’s school does offer such a facility, showed me how to set it up.

It’s not easy to find (on the page that tells your balance there is the opportunity to sign up for paid SMS alerts, but no option for emails so I assumed it doesn’t exist), but after verifying my email address I am now signed up.

So I beg ParentPay’s pardon is assuming there isn’t such a system, but suggest that they make it more obvious – I think I’m pretty web savvy and couldn’t find it.

And, in answer to other queries I’ve received, once topped up with money, their system has been flawless over the last 10 months.

Disabled people working for less than minimum wage

One of the New! Improved! caring-sharing-Tories™, Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, has called for the minimum wage to be relaxed so that people with disabilities can work for less than the minimum wage.

Naturally, because he’s caring-and-sharing, he only has those people’s best interests at heart:

My concern about it is it prevents those people from being given the opportunity to get the first rung on the employment ladder.

But he’s not just caring-and-sharing. He’s also a True Blue Tory who lives in The Real World of laisez-faire economics:

The point is that if an employer is considering two candidates, one who has disabilities and one who does not, and if they have to pay them both the same rate, which is the employer more likely to take on? Whether that is right or wrong and whether my hon. Friend would or would not do that, that is to me the real world in which we operate.

(Full speech in Hansard)

Rather stupidly, I had assumed that the role of Members of Parliament was to enact legislation that protected the vulnerable by promoting equality, redistributing wealth from the very rich to the disadvantaged and ensure that people aren’t exploited in the workplace.

I realise now that, because inequality and exploitation exists in the real world, we should accept it and encourage it by exempting groups of people from laws designed to protect them.

So let’s have an army of ultra-low paid people doing menial tasks without legal protection of any sort. In the capitalist real world, there is no need to price those people out of the market with statutory maximum working hours, or the requirement for safety equipment as they go down mines or up chimneys.

The disabed are analagous to former prisoners, says Mr Davis:

The only way the former prisoner would be given a chance by the employer is if the employer was able to say, “I’ll give you a smaller amount for a certain period of time and we’ll see how it goes. If you prove yourself, I’ll move you up.”

From his voting record, I see that Mr Davis voted against equal gay rights, presumably so we can have minimum wage-exempt homosexuals staffing up hairdressing salons or kd lang tribute acts. I’m surprised that he voted for a stricter asylum system, given the opportunity it gives us to import squadrons of highly-trained professionals from war-torn areas of the world who could work as doctors for £3 an hour in the cash-strapped NHS.

Mr Davis believes criticism of his remarks is “leftwing hysteria”.

I’m not hysterical at all. In fact, if Mr Davis would care to attend my kickboxing class next Saturday, I will kick his arse for 60 minutes and not invoice him £5.93 for that hour at all. As someone with a disability (multiple sclerosis), I’ll happily do it for free. To prove myself.

You want HTML5 funky dirty native, don’t you?

Made by someone commenting in Haavard Moen’s post about the announcement of "native HTML5", this video does NOT represent Opera’s official position, but it did make me laugh. Personally, I like "native HTML5". It’s important that it not be tainted with our "modern ways", but preserved for diversity reasons (thx @stommepoes!).

Microsoft announces an important innovation.

Official interview with me about Native HTML5.