Reading List

My artisan-curated organic bank holiday reading list. There will be a test on Tuesday.

“åpp større” and the Finnish Inquisition

A number of readers cast doubt on yesterday’s throwaway aside that in Finnish, “åpp større” means “fellate a demon”.

It’s true that in modern Finnish it doesn’t. That’s because it’s wrapped up in a dark era of Finland’s past, a past which modern Finns prefer to forget.

“Åpp større” means “fellate a demon” in the Middle Late High Hämeenlinna dialect. Hämeenlinna is a small city of 68,000 people, but in the fifteenth century it was a hotbed of Catholic religious fervour, centered around the monastery of Häme Castle. In 1498, the Finnish Inquisition began (which no-one had expected), and most of the Inquisitors were recruited from Hämeenlinna.

Suspects were tortured until they confessed to carnal relations with minions of Satan – åpp større – and then punished by being weighed down with stones and thrown into a fjord to sink the accused to Hell, known as “Hell-sink”.

Although much of this is forgotten or suppressed in modern-day Finland and most Finns will strenuously deny it, some linguistic clues remain. The modern-day Scandinavian surname “Helsing” indicates a descendant of the Hämeenlinna inquisitors – indicating someone who sent people “sinking to Hell”. The city that was nearest to the fjord where executions took place became known as “rapids where they sink to Hell” – or, nowadays, “Helsingfors”: Helsinki.

You can’t argue with history.

Monday meh

(Being the second in an occasional series called “Monday meh”, in which I briefly fulminate about something that made me a bit grumpy.)

Carolyn Kopprasch’s brilliant etymological detective work The Power of Every Word: Why I Stopped Using “Actually” and “But” In My Customer Service Emails reveals the hidden evils of these two simple English words:

It almost doesn’t matter how good the news is; if it comes after “actually,” I feel like I was somehow wrong about something.

Consider these two sentences:

Actually, you can do this under “Settings.”

Sure thing, you can do this under “Settings!” :)

…It’s amazing how much brighter my writing (and speaking) gets when I go through and lose the “actuallies.”

While I’m at it, I try to get rid of the “buts” too.

Sentence 1: I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

Sentence 2: I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

Feel different? When I substitute my “buts” for exclamation points, I feel so much happier with my message.

In short: Don’t forget the happiness exclamation marks! And the smiley face! Every sentence should have one! Every thing must be happy! All the time :)

Kopprasch tells us that removing the word “actually” from her vocabulary is “One of my favorite “happiness hacks””. I’ve got nothing against the words “but” or “actually”. But I’d drown the phrase “happiness hack” in a bucket.

Oops: I mean “I’d drown the phrase “happiness hack” in a bucket!! OMG LOL!! :)”

Meanwhile, Techcruch has discovered The App Store Is Proof We’re In Idiocracy. Apparently this is because these days, the best-sellers in the iTunes App Store are games like Weed Firm, Toilet Time, Flappy Bird clones and the like.

Now, I’m no defender of walled-gardens of programs for closed platforms; I take childish delight that, in Finnish, “åpp større” means “fellate a demon”. But a swift glance over some YouTube comments, Facebook will show that the open Web is has its own teensy niches of popular culture. As do TV schedules, book shops, the music business. Because – shockingly – people like popular culture, and popular culture isn’t always intellectual and esoteric.

Sarah Perez, the author, laments that the dirty proles have access to technology:

…phones are now in the hands of a broader, more diverse group of people, both young and old, who won’t necessarily share the same tastes as the tech elite whose punditry and personal recommendations about the “next great mobile app” used to matter.

Boo-fucking-hoo to you, Pope Perez, and to your tech elite priesthood. Getting the web and tech to all the people is the point.

Reading List

If you use Opera, we’d really appreciate if you could answer a few questions about how you use tabs.

Sexy video of the week

Browser performance panel at Codemotion.it – Microsoft, Mozilla & “I’m Bruce from Opera, and my browser’s the fastest”.

Two cheers for the economic recovery

As we approach a council and European election in UK, and are a year away from the General Election, the government is crowing that its years of austerity politics have put Britain right again. House prices are booming (in the South East) etc. 1.2 million new jobs are (apparently) created (but what kind of jobs?). “Welfare has been capped and immigration controlled, so our economy works for those who play by the rules”, say the Conservatives.

It doesn’t feel like a Golden Age of prosperity here in my past-its-heydey suburb of South Birmingham. Our high street supports two family butchers, and a greengrocer. But there are also two slot machine shops, several discount shoes and cheap clothing shops, as well as a slew of charity shops and places to sell gadgets/ jewellry for cash.

Here are some photos of my local high street; it takes 10 minutes to amble along this route – approximately 400m to walk up, cross the road, and walk down again.

There’s an Oxfam charity shop:

Oxfam charity shop

A shop selling plastic stuff and canned food for a pound:

Poundbase pound shop

A PDSA charity shop:

PDSA charity shop

A cheque centre (for cashing cheques at a commission) next to an “Entertainment centre” (where people can buy sell phones, games consoles, DVDs etc):

Cheque cashing payday loan place, next to "cash converters" type shop

A British Heart Foundation furniture and electrical store, where people on low incomes can buy cheap used furniture:

Furniture/ Electrical charity shop

A branch of Pound Stretchers:

Pound Stretcher

“Money for Gold Rope” where you can sell your jewelry:

Money 4 Gold pawn shop

Debra charity shop for cheap used furniture:

Debra charity shop

Cash converters, where you can sell your TV, DVD player. There’s always a queue to sell at weekends:

Cash converter pawn shop

A Marie Curie cancer hospice charity shop next to a British Red Cross charity shop:

Marie Curie Hospice Charity shop next to British Red Cross charity shop

Acorns Children’s Hospice charity shop:

Acorns hospice charity shop

BetFred bookmakers, next to Scope charity shop:

Betfred bookmakers next to Scope charity shop

Albemarle Bond pawn shop:

Pawnbroker shop

Bright House, a shop that provides “high-quality, branded products to credit-constrained customers, through affordable weekly payments. Our bespoke credit management processes enable our customers to get the goods they need, in a way they can afford”. It’s basically a high-interest hire purchase shop; the front page of their website today advertises a “representative APR of 64.7%”:

Bright House high-interest hire purchase

British Heart Foundation charity shop:

British Heart Foundation charity shop

Charity shops do great work, and I love poking around them for CDs and books. But when most of your high street is charity shops, it’s difficult to believe the triumphant cries of “recovery!” from the millionaires in government.

Reading List

URLs

App Links

Facebook announced App Links, a “an open, cross-platform solution for app-to-app linking”.

Other standards ‘n’ stuff

And finally:

On October 4th 2013, YouTubers ‘Sophie Danze’ and ‘JilianlovestheBiebs’ had a conversation on the video ‘One Direction: That’s what makes you beautiful. The following is a reconstruction.”

Birmingham’s “garden tax” Nazi binmen furore: solved

Here in Birmingham (UK, not Al’A-Bama), tensions run high as Blighty gears up to a general election. Our City Council has long been profligate with cash and recently starved of money by the central government’s austerity policy, so has stopped collecting garden waste for free, and started charging £35 a year for fortnightly collections.

The problem

Thanks to advances in our understanding of quantum physics from the Large Hadron Collider, scientists have discovered that grass cuttings, plant prunings and vegetable matter will, when left in a pile and thereafter ignored, naturally decompose and add what boffins call “nutrients” into the soil. This process, known to Nobel-prizewinners as “composting”, is cheaper and easier than going out in a car and buying big plastic bags full of compost to spread on your garden.

However, “composting” is a concept so revolutionary that news of it has yet to filter out to the horticulturally-minded public who can’t afford the new £3 per month charge to collect garden waste, so naturally they throw it onto the street to rot.

Rotting matter can attract pests and vermin, and this has led to an epidemic of opportunist parliamentary wannabes berating the council for such eyesores on social media:

Why anyone should want to “put an end to” eccentric middle-aged druids in rainbow clothing kneeling in prayer to grass cuttings is beyond me; each to their own, I say. A more sinister turn of events has occurred with the local newspaper reporting that that the ex-Lord Mayor has likened council binmen to The Gestapo.

It’s getting nasty. People need to chill out.

The solution

I have a solution to the problem. The council should make it legal, or even compulsory, for residents to grow marijuana in their gardens. For the vast majority of people, their ganja harvest would far out-strip their domestic consumption, but instead of dumping the waste for Druid-Lady to mourn, they could sell it to real stoners. I’m pretty sure that a binbag full of homegrown would fetch a lot more than £35, enabling the gardeners to pay the council to take their waste and making them a tidy profit, too.

Truly, the Green Shoots of Economic Recovery™ for Birmingham’s Hard-Working Families™.

Pass the bong, please, Binman Bormann.

Should you use HTML5 header and footer?

Matt Wilcox asked “I still don’t bother with <header> <footer> etc. I assume all widely used browsers support them now. But, do they do anything more than div?”.

It’s a good question. The answer I gave is “yes”. These two elements (and <nav> and <main>) give value to users of some assistive technologies on some browsers.

In the HTML5 spec, HTML elements are mapped to ARIA information. Some of those may be over-ridden by authors, but if they aren’t, they have default implicit ARIA semantics. A <header> element that is not a descendant of an article or section element maps to ARIA role=banner, for example. You don’t need to add any ARIA information; it’s included, free, in the HTML element.

These aren’t necessarily implemented everywhere; Steve Faulkner’s excellent html5accessibility.com keeps tabs of implementation. As an example, <footer> causes Chrome to expose the element with a footer role in IA2, and Firefox to exposes as ARIA landmark role=”contentinfo” (when not a child of article or section elements).

These are useful to people, as we can see in WebAIM’s 5th annual screenreader users’s survey (which encouragingly tells us “For the first time in 5 years of surveys, respondents are more positive about web accessibility progress than in the previous survey”).

When asked “How often do you navigate by landmarks/regions in your screen reader?” (such as “contentinfo”, “banner”, “main”, “navigation”), 26% said “whenever they are present”.

20% thought 1-3 landmarks/regions per page is optimal; 29% thought 4-6 is the right number.

So my advice is: yes, use them – especially the main <header>, <footer>, <nav> and (once per page) <main>. On browsers/ ATs that don’t support them they do no harm. But don’t use billions.

TL;DR

Added 13 May to clear up confusion:

Happy Birthday, BASIC

The programming language, BASIC, turned 50 years old yesterday. I started using it 33 years ago, when my physics teacher persuaded our school to buy an Ohio Scientific Challanger 2 microcomputer, with Microsoft BASIC as its 8K ROM operating system and chunky 8K of RAM, then set up a computer club. I went along after school, because my mate Matt’s older brother was in computers and he was cool. (He had a job and owned all the punk LPs we listened to at lunchtime.)

Surprising everyone (including myself), I found that programming simply came naturally to me. I was soon coding games that my friends wanted to play.

It taught me several important concepts – primarily, how to break problems into logical flows, and how to debug when regaled with “Syntax error in line 40″ (you may also enjoy my Old programmer war story tale of epic debugging.)

It taught me about abstraction; I soon learned 6502 assembler and disassembled the ROM to see how the computer interpreted the stuff I typed in. (The joys of finding the message “Microsoft BASIC written by Richard W Weiland” hidden in the memory!)

It taught me about cross-platform; later, I borrowed a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, learned Z80 assembler and realised that although the code I entered was the same as the code I’d written for the Challenger 2 (with some minor syntactical variations), what happened under the hood was wildly different.

BASIC changed the world for me, and on cheap widely-accessible machines like the Sinclair ZX series and the BBC micros, it changed the whole world.

What I love about BASIC is that it was designed for simplicity. As wikipedia writes, “It was intended specifically for less technical users who did not have or want the mathematical background previously expected.” It also prefigured the WWW: “The designers of the language decided to make the compiler available free of charge so that the language would become widespread.”

Even the name “Basic” was a statement of intent; no wonder “real” computer professionals sneered at the language. “Goto considered harmful”, they said. I understood that to mean “working class 14 year olds who do literature and humanities not welcome here.”

Today there are still those who try to make programmers a special priesthood. They can kiss my algorithms.

Reading List