Archive for March, 2013

The four tiers of David Bowie

After extensive scientific research, I can reveal the four tiers of David Bowie.

Methodology

I realised I own no Bowie except an old 45 rpm single of “Sound and Vision” which I can’t play as I have no record player, went to the web to buy The Platinum Collection and listened to it a few times.

Rating system

– 20% is awarded for a catchy chorus
– 20% for having a good verse as well (often why some songs are relegated to Tier 2 or below – great choruses but weak verse)
– 20% for weird lyrics, sexual ambivalence
– 10% for singing in a funny voice (machismo of “Boys Keep Swinging”, mockney sneering)
– 10% for odd instrumentation (“Heroes”)
– 10% for a blistering guitar part (whether medlodic like Starman or just nasty like “Boys Keep Swinging”)
– 10% for being seminal (“Ziggy Stardust”)

Environment

1 bottle of Toro Loco Tempranillo wine, stereo cranked up so loud your partner wakes up and comes downstairs to give you a bollocking before stomping off to bed and waking early to turn on some bullshit Kerrang radio in revenge.

Results

Tier 1 (80% or more): Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City, Heroes, Scary Monsters, Let’s dance, Boys Keep Swinging, All the Young Dudes (but Mott The Hoople’s version is still better at 100%; Bowie’s suffers from too much sax)

Tier 2: (65% – 79%) Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Fashion, Jean Genie, Space Oddity, Sound and Vision, Diamond Dogs, The Prettiest Star

Tier 3: (50% – 64%) China Girl, Changes (great choruses, weak verse) Rebel Rebel, Oh You Pretty Things

Tier 4: the rest

Tier 67: Laughing Gnome, Tin Machine stuff, execrable covers of Let’s Spend The Night Together, The Alabama Song

Conclusion

Bowie’s best is sublime, and had hardly dated at all. There is a perception of a quality drop-off in the 80s, but some great songs came about during that time, although there was a lot of mediocre funk nonsense too. In a career spanning four decades, there is a good deal of filler but that’s both unsurprising and forgiveable, given the brilliance of his Tiers 1-3 work.

If Bowie came round to my house, I’d share a bottle of red with him and we could have a jam, and I’d even let him use my 12 string elecro-acoustic guitar.

European Disability Forum’s position paper

In yesterday’s reading list, I wrote about the web page WEB ACCESSIBILITY DIRECTIVE: THIS IS WHAT THE DISABILITY MOVEMENT EXPECTS. The European Disability Forum is angry: “2/3 of public websites in Europe are still not accessible” it thunders after it turned off the caps lock. It has a plan to make the Web more accessible, published on its website. As a Word document, naturally.

This annoyed me, as a markup wonk and as a man-with-MS, so I spent a couple of hours today turning the Word document into HTML, which I imaginatively titled EDF Position on the Proposal for a Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites. I’ve written to them and offered the document for their site if they want it.

Here’s how I did it, in case you’re lucky enough to have to convert Word documents to HTML (this one was pretty good, though – they used proper headings etc).

  1. Save as “HTML” in Word (ha!)
  2. Run it through DocToHtml – Doc to HTML Converter (free 30 day trial)
  3. Replacing <h1><a name=" with <h1 id=" to turn old-fashioned named anchors into ids on elements
  4. HTML Tidy didn’t work for me, leaving lots of redundant </a>s lurking around after step 3 above. So, I had a brainwave; I knew the browser’s parsing algorithm would dump those closing tags, so I went to Opera Dragonfly’s JS console, typed in document.documentElement.innerHTML and pasted the returned code into my document. Thanks Mathias!
  5. some tedious replacement of funny characters with their character entities (isn’t there some utility that will do that?) No need to do this if you use UTF-8 and (d’oh) use a font with the right glyphs
  6. Some very light styling

Don’t tell the boss, though; he thinks I’ve been working.

Reading List

Standards stuff

Industry

  • The Short Cutts – For SEO-minded people, “we’ve done the hard work and watched every Matt Cutts video to pull out simple, concise versions of his answers”. Very useful, serviceable, beneficial, advantageous, helpful, cheap iphone, sex
  • Online anonymity: impossible after four phone calls – “95% of people can be identified from information about just four interactions with mobile networks”

misc

  • Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy by Bertrand Russell
  • Is this photo grounds for death? asks Clementine Ford about the Tunisian blogger Amina whose topless protests against Islamism earned her death threats. The article appears in Daily Life, “a proudly female biased website with content tailored to women”, an Australian publication which proudly censors the photo of Amina’s breasts after noting “In a rational society, breasts have no more power to hurt anyone than a gentle breeze can blow down a house made of bricks”. (Ford told me that the censorship is not her choice.)
  • Twitter outrage graph

On Cyprus’ banks: why are they complaining?

I’m hopelessly naive about financial systems. (I have a grade C ‘A’-level economics, but that was in 1985, back when people still voted for Mrs Thatcher, so it’s like a degree in physics before relativity was discovered.) So I don’t understand the current lamentation about Cyprus.

Cyprus built up a gargantuan banking sector (835% of annual national income). It was a low-tax regime, in the sun, that encouraged lots of Russians (in particular) to invest their money there.

The World Bank’s Constantinos Stephanou wrote in his 2011 paper The Banking System in Cyprus: Time to Rethink the Business Model? (PDF):

The significant expansion of the Cypriot banking system in general, and of the big domestically-owned banks in particular, has been part of the broader push to promote the island as an international business centre …

The current size of the Cypriot banking system, and particularly of the two biggest banks, raises the issue of whether growth has unequivocally been a good thing that should continue indefinitely.

In the case of Cyprus, the two big domestically-owned banking groups appear to satisfy the criteria for being systemically important… Their role as intermediaries of foreign financial flows and as providers of domestic financial services means that the collapse of either of them would have significant negative repercussions on the real economy and deleterious reputational effects on Cyprus as an international business centre.

Lots of people invested their money in Cyprus because it had low tax and good returns. They put their money there, rather than somewhere else, because they believed that they would get more money in Cyprus than in their own countries.

Meanwhile, the banks in Cyprus were too big to fail. Those words – “too big to fail” – are to international capitalists what “YOLO!” is to mid-teenage girls as they guzzle five bottles of alcopops, take selfies of themselves doing duckfaces with their bezzies before they snog an ugly stranger, burst into tears and throw up.

In brief: investors got better returns for their money, but took no actual risk because the banks were too big to fail. Until they failed.

The EU decided to bail out Cyprus. If it hadn’t, presumably those banks would have collapsed and depositors lost everything. Because it’s being bailed out (with EU money), depositors with over 100,000 Euros will lose 30% of their deposits, and retain 70% of them. They took a risk in the hope of better-than-average returns, as is their right in a capitalist economy, and lost. But instead of losing everything, they keep most of it.

Meanwhile, I’ve given them some of my money as part of the EU bailout, yet I was never invested in the dodgy Cypriot bank in the first place.

So why are they complaining?

Richard Littlejohn, Lucy Meadows, tolerance

A transgender primary school teacher decided to transition to life as a woman. Her school was supportive:

Mr Upton has made a significant change in his life and will be transitioning to live as a woman after the Christmas break. She will return to work as Miss Meadows.

Richard Littlejohn, a columnist with the Daily Mail (a UK tabloid with a circulation of approximately 2 million), devoted a long column to excoriating her:

But has anyone stopped for a moment to think of the devastating effect all this is having on those who really matter? Children as young as seven aren’t equipped to compute this kind of information …

Why should they be forced to deal with the news that a male teacher they have always known as Mr Upton will henceforth be a woman called Miss Meadows? Anyway, why not Miss Upton?

The school shouldn’t be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents.

It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats.

These are primary school children, for heaven’s sake. Most them still believe in Father Christmas. Let them enjoy their childhood. They will lose their innocence soon enough…

But if he cares so little for the sensibilities of the children he is paid to teach, he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.

(I don’t know if Mr Littlejohn has any children, but mine and the Primary school children I taught in Turkey and Thailand were certainly far more matter-of-fact about such matters than adults are.)

Sadly, Miss Meadows is dead; it’s presumed she committed suicide. In an email to a friend, she described how she was hounded by the press, noting that many parents had tried to give positive reactions to the press, but those were ignored:

I know the press offered parents money if they could get a picture of me… Many parents have been quite annoyed with the press too, especially those that were trying to give positive comments but were turned away.

Entirely co-incidentally, no doubt, Littlejohn’s column has been removed from the Daily Mail website. The newspaper issued a statement:

It is regrettable that this tragic death should now be the subject of an orchestrated twitterstorm, fanned by individuals… with agendas to pursue. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Lucy Meadows.

This enrages me. I’m one of those on Twitter who’ve tweeted about how nastily Littlejohn and The Mail have behaved. As a white heterosexual male in a nuclear family with a professional job, I’m probably one of the army of “normals” that the Mail wishes to mobilise against the freaks, perverts, lefties and other undersirables (just don’t tell them that my family is mixed race).

No-one has “orchestrated” my outrage. But I certainly do have an agenda to pursue. It’s the agenda of fairness, of tolerance, of live-and-let-live. These are qualities that I associated with Britishness, incidentally; “Britain” is a flag that Littlejohn and The Daily Mail like to wrap themselves in, yet they want a society in which people think it’s right to hound, harrass and hate “minorities”. And I won’t have it.

For “minorities”, read “people”.

Miss Meadows caused me no harm. She was obeying the law, involved in her community, hurting no-one and helping many. My agenda is that such people deserve our respect and support. And if you find men transitioning to women makes you queasy, simple: don’t do it. Just quietly go about your business and don’t interfere with how other people live their lives.

So, in the unlikely event that any Daily Mail journalist or reader ever sees this, yes – I do have an agenda: fairness, tolerance, live-and-let-live. What’s your agenda?

My bathtub tomcat tadger terror

When I was a young roister-doister, I lived in a flat with my massive tomcat, Bagpuss. Bagpuss was a bit weird, as he was obsessed with water. Perhaps in a previous feline incarnation he’d been a Van cat. It’s all the more surprising considering that once, when he was a kitten, he’d jumped up onto the toilet seat to peer into the water and fallen in, head first. Luckily I was in the bathroom shaving and was able to pull him out before he drowned.

A common way for me to entertain him would be to turn on the tap just slightly so water would drip out once a second, and he’d sit next to the sink and attempt to bat the falling drips with his paws. This could keep him transfixed for an hour.

Here he is, with one of his lady admirers:

bagpuss

Once, however, his behaviour went from the quirky to the terrifying.

Picture the scene: I was lying in the bath, naked (as one does) when the door opened slightly and in came Bagpuss. He leaped up on to the edge of the bath to get a better view of the water, lost his footing and fell in. If you’ve ever seen a three feet long tomcat, flailing around in a panic with his claws extended fully, you’ll know to get out of the way. Now, imagine one on top of you, while you’re completely nude. It’s utterly terrifying. With one hand protecting the Bruce Juice Introducer™ and its accessories, I picked him up by the scruff of his neck and evicted him from the tub, and then had to spend 15 minutes soothing him before he’d let me turn the hairdryer on him.

I was a nervous wreck for days.

Reading List

If you’re a JavaScript developer who wants to develop devtools, why not move to Oslo and become an Opera Dragonfly snugglebunny?

HTML5, Responsive, NEWT

DRM corner

Social Meeja corner

Musical chairs corner

Misc

UK folks: we have until Monday to lobby government to exclude websites from Leveson press regulation.

Reading List

A list of the most interesting things I’ve read this week, as not everyone sees me post them on twitter all day. It should go without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that I don’t endorse or agree with everything here. Stuff in quote marks, by definition, is quotation and therefore not me.

Me, me, me

NEWT, HTML5 etc

Industry

Misc, innit though?

Save bandwidth with webP – soon with fallback!

A long time ago, “responsive” didn’t mean “resize your browser window repeatedly while fellow designers orgasm until they resemble a moleskine atop a puddle”. It simply meant “Reacting quickly and positively”, meaning that the page loaded fast and you could interact with it immediately.

One way to do this is to reduce the weight of the page by serving images that have a smaller file-size, thereby consuming less bandwidth and taking less time to download a page. In the last year, web pages download approximately the same number of images, but their total size has increased from about 600K to 812K, making images about 60% of the total page size.

One way to reduce this amount is to encode images in a new(ish) format called webP. It’s developed by Google and is basically a still version of their webM video codec. Google says

WebP is a new image format that provides lossless and lossy compression for images on the web. WebP lossless images are 26% smaller in size compared to PNGs. WebP lossy images are 25-34% smaller in size compared to JPEG images at equivalent SSIM index. WebP supports lossless transparency (also known as alpha channel) with just 22% additional bytes. Transparency is also supported with lossy compression and typically provides 3x smaller file sizes compared to PNG when lossy compression is acceptable for the red/green/blue color channels.

Opera uses it precisely for this compression; it’s used in Opera Turbo, which can be enabled in Opera desktop, Opera Mobile and the Chromium-based Yandex browser. This transcodes images on-the-fly to webP before squirting them down the wire and, on slower connections, it’s still faster.

In tests, Yoav Weiss reported that “Using WebP would increase the savings to 61% of image data”.

WebP is currently supported only in Opera (Presto), Google Chrome, Yandex and Android Browser on Ice Cream Sandwich, which makes it difficult to deploy on the Web. Firefox doesn’t like it and IE hasn’t said anything (I wonder if the new confidence about technologies in the VP8 video codec on which it’s based might make them feel better about it?)

However, there’s some handy new CSS coming to the rescue soon (when browser vendors implement it). We’ve long been able to specify CSS background images using background-image: url(foo.png);, but now say hello to CSS Image Values and Replaced Content Module Level 4’s Image Fallbacks, which uses this syntax:

background-image: image("wavy.webp", "wavy.png", "wavy.gif");

(Note image rather than url before the list of images.)

The spec says “Multiple ‘image -srcs’ can be given separated by commas, in which case the function represents the first image that’s not an invalid image.”

Simply: go through the list of images and grab the first you can use. If it 404s, continue going through the list until you find one you can use. Note that this isn’t supported anywhere yet, but I hope to see it soon.

[Added after a reminder from Yoav Weiss:] It needs finessing too; Jake Archibald points out “If the browser doesn’t support webp it will still download ‘whatever.webp’ and attempt a decode before it’ll fallback to the png” and suggests adding a format() qualifier, from @font-face:

background-image: image("whatever.webp" format('webp'), "whatever.jpg");

But what about old [current] browsers?, I hear you ask. Give them the current url syntax as fallback:

background-image: url("wavy.gif");
background-image: image("wavy.webp", "wavy.png", "wavy.gif");

Now all browsers get a background image, and those that are clever enough to understand webP get smaller images. Of course, you have to make a webP version (there are webP conversion tools, including a Photoshop plugin).

It seems to me that the spec is overly restrictive, as it seems to require the browser to use the first image that it can. webP is heavily compressed so requires more CPU to decode than traditional image formats. Therefore, I could imagine a browser that knows it’s on WiFi and using battery (not plugged in) to choose not to use webP and choose a PNG/ JPG etc to save CPU cycles, even though the file-size is likely to be larger.

What about content images?

Of course, not all images on your webpages are CSS background images. Many are content images in <img> elements, which doesn’t allow fallbacks.

There is, however, an HTML5 element that deliberately allows different source files to get over the fact that browsers understand different media formats:

<video>
<source src=foo.webm type=video/webm>
<source src=foo.mp4 type=video/mp4>
... fallback content ...
</video>

Wouldn’t it be great if we could use this model for a New! Improved! <img> element? We couldn’t call it <image> as that would be too confusing and the HTML5 parser algorithm aliases <image> to <img> (thanks Alcohi). So for the sake of thought experimentation, let’s call it <picture> (or, if we’re bikeshedding, <pic> or —my favourite— <bruce>). Then we could have

<picture>
<source src=foo.webp type=image/webp>
<source src=foo.png type=image/png>
<img src=foo.png alt="insert alt text here"> <!-- fallback content -->
</picture>

And everyone gets their images, and some get them much faster.

Why Norman Tebbit is cool

I was reading a Reddit post on which celebs are “assholes” and which aren’t, and can exclusively reveal that Chris Tarrant is a tosspot, whereas Irish post-punk bands The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers are jolly nice people — Jake Burns wished me happy birthday, and Undertones’ bassist Micky Bradley gave me a can of Stella when I was 14.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Thatcher-era government minister Norman Tebbit is a good guy too, although he’s largely remembered as a leather-clad psychotic enforcer in the satirical show Spitting Image.

However, Tebbit also has a sense of humour. At University, my housemates and I would write letters to TV personalities requesting autographed photos to decorate our rented house on De Grey Street, Hull, AKA “Raunchy Studsville”. (Note, this is before the Web existed to divert students from essays etc).

We wrote to Tebbit at the House of Commons:

Dear Norm, we’ve watched your rise through the Tory party with admiration. Market Forces dictate that you send us a signed photograph. Get Down! The Raunchy Studs.

A week later, an House of Commons envelope addressed to “Raunchy Studsville, 1 De Grey St, Hull” landed on our doormat, containing a hand-written note on headed note paper:

Dear Studs, who am I to argue with Market Forces? Here’s your photo. Get Down!

and the photo was signed “Norm”.