Brexit and Borders

Bill Drummond, on defacing a UKIP poster

And when people ask me about my own political leanings, I will usually sidestep the issue by quoting my good friend Zodiac Mindwarp: "I have a right wing, I have a left wing, I am an angel."
On the right I am for the independent shopkeeper, or the young startup with ambition and on the left I am for the teacher up against the looming Ofsted report or nurse struggling to do their best within the limits of the NHS. But mostly I'm for politics that are about ideas. Ideas that are fluid and evolving. What I'm against is politics based on tribalism, be that class, religion or nationalism. And I'm obviously against politics based on dynasty or personalities.
I'm Scottish. I will always want Scotland to beat England at any sport from tiddlywinks on up. But when it comes to Scottish nationalism in a political sense, I have problems. I have no idea if Scotland would be better off independent or not. But what I do know is that I want fewer borders in the world, not more. And I don't want politics that exploit or pander to my more romantic notions of Scotland. I don't want politics based on a notion of what we think our country once was and may be again. Following the same thinking, I have no idea if UK plc would be financially better off in or out of Europe.

I was trying to find something I remember reading by Bill Drummond on the vote for Scottish independance, but this was the closest thing I can find - which basically expresses the idea that stuck with me; "what I do know is that I want fewer borders in the world, not more."

When it comes to the "Brexit" referendum, I haven't yet found an idea that resonates more with me, and is more likely to shape my choice.

Robot War

XKCD CD tray fight

Its in a different kind of way, but I get a similarly uncomfortable feeling from this video. There is something very unnatural about the way the robot just ignores the guy with the stick.

I'm not saying that the robot should turn on the guy who is basically acting like an exaggerated cartoon version of a school bully. I'm just saying that if one day we manage to create actual artificial intelligence, and that AI gets access to YouTube (bearing in mind that an AI shouldn't need to watch video like that in real time)… then I wouldn't like to be in that guys shoes.

Or any of his descendants', come to that.

(I wonder if the Singularity comes before or after the Robot War…)

Thanks for clarifying, Buzzfeed

Reading a Buzzfeed post about superhero movies (actually, about what Ryan Reynolds thinks about women and superhero movies), I got to the bit about female characters in Deadpool, which was apparently something Buzzfeed asked Ryan Reynolds about in an interview earlier this month.

Apparently, he told Buzzfeed that featuring strong women in the movie was a "no brainer".

He also talked about how movies need to work harder to reflect the realities of society.

He also said that he was into the idea of having strong female roles in the film.

b3.PNG

You'll note that, helpfully, having given us the three sentences explaining what Ryan said, along with a picture of him saying it, carrying the caption of his words, Buzzfeed then devoted a paragraph of text — actually, the only text in the article that isn't a level 2 header — to recapping exactly what it was that he said about women in Deadpool.

I think he's a fan.

The problem with Twitter

Every time something changes, the focus is tightly concentrated on the change.

Today, I read about how Periscope's broadcasts within Twitter will impact brands.

I don't disagree with any of the comments. I guess my issue is whether its the right question to focus on.

This is something I was trying to articulate recently, but I think that I fell into the same trap of looking at the tweets instead of the timeline.

Making a tweet more flexible is understandable when you look at TWTR the business, and how they can improve their service to their customers – the advertisers who pay their bills, the brands creating content to populate the platform.

But if1 the important thing about Twitter isn't the quality of advertising/brand tweets, but actually the newsfeed that millions of people dip into on a regular basis (ie. the environment that the adverts appear in, rather than the ad units themselves), and the important thing for those users is that they can skim through a few dozen tweets in the time it takes to wait for their coffee to pour, or while waiting for a meeting to start, or the train to stop, then maybe it isn't such a positive story.

It might well be great news for the people streaming their live videos 1 – but is it as good for the people whose timelines they appear in? Or for the other hundreds of Twitter users whose Tweets are alongside them in my timeline? I'm pretty sure that the number of people putting videos in their tweets are going to be much smaller than the number putting photos in their tweets – which in turn is smaller than the number of people on Twitter in the first place. (Affinio reckon that 90% of Twitter's users are 'silent'.)

I guess the secret to being 'good at Twitter' as a (non-publishing) user is looking after your Follow list to look after your timeline. I'm just not sure if Twitter are really thinking about the timeline in the same sort of way.

  1. Bearing in mind that this is a commercial business that hasn't yet really proved that it has a glittering future, it is a big "if"

  2. Well, it might be great news. It might be that the amazing thing that they are watching is less important than making sure they are framing the important things on their smartphone screen, that they still have a decent mobile signal, that they are keeping an eye on the comments and interactions… So, good for brands, less good for 'normal' people. Also, eerily reminiscent of The Circle, if you've read it.

On Apple dropping the 3.5mm headphones plug

There have been rumours for a while now that for next iPhone, apparently in a bid to make it even thinner, Apple are going to lose the headphone socket; instead, headphones will connect via the Lightning port.

As with any Apple rumour, there are plenty of bloggers and podcasters as well as professional journalists throwing in their opinions, speculation, anonymous sources and so on.

Here's the thing I don't understand about the rumour though. Suppose that its true, and this is a big change lined up for the next iPhone (ie. the iPhone 7 form factor), then it will have been in the works since the iPhone 6 design was finished.

Apple sells its own headphones. It also owns the Beats headphones brand.

Today, it isn't possible to buy a Lightning-connected set of headphones from Apple, or from Beats. New headphones from Beats designed for on-the-go usage retailing for over £100 that were launched in September 2015 still used the 3.5mm socket. There are much more expensive headphones being sold by Apple (not just 3rd party headphones on the shelves in Apple stores) that will be incompatible with a lightning-only iPhone.

So I'm expected to believe that Apple have designed, built and shipped a pair of headphones, selling for over £100, which are expected to become obsolete within 12 months for anyone buying the next iPhone?

It seems to me that if this were the plan, the first thing Apple would do would be to start designing and selling lightning-enabled headphones on their premium Beats headphone lines, with a story about how a digital socket enables better audio quality than the 3.5mm analogue stereo jack from the 1970s (introduced for the Sony Walkman in 1979, adapted from a 3.5mm mono jack that was already in use.) They would also be selling Apple-branded wireless headphones for the lower price points - perhaps introducing Lightning as an audio-enabled charging solution. (Worth noting that the iPad Pro pencil, Magic Mouse and Magic Keyboard all now charge over a Lightning connection.) Basically, they would have started transitioning users away from needing the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Meanwhile, they would be preparing users to be able to use the Lightning port for headphones. The latest Macbook model launched last March (which includes a 3.5mmm headphone jack) would either also have a lightning jack, or would have dropped the headphone jack and expect users to have a wireless connection, (as would the revised Macbook Air and Macbook Pro models; the lifetime of those machines mean that users would be expected to be using lightning-connected headphones with their iPhone 7 while also owning one of those laptops.)

But no — nothing that Apple are doing indicates any sort of expectation that people will be using a different kind of headphone connection in the forseeable future.

I expect that Apple might well be planning on this — or even expecting that some future iPhone will drop the 3.5mm socket. But I will be very surprised if its something that happens in 2016. Apart from anything else, the iPhone 6s is 7.1mm thick — but the iPod Touch (at 6.1mm) and iPod Nano (at 5.4mm) still have room for a 3.5" headphone socket. There is quite a bit of space to shave off before the socket becomes a limiting factor for the iPhone's thickness.

The "describe it in a tweet" trope isn't going to work any more.

Re/code reports that the 140 character limit on Twitter is going away (or at least, being replaced with something like a 10,000 charcter limit.)

CEO Jack Dorsey all but confirmed it with this tweet of a picture of some text explaining why the limit exists, and the benefits of removing it.

Naturally, Twitterers are freaking out about the change, as they do whenever Twitter changes.

The thing is, Twitter has a big cultural footprint. Even if you have never signed up for Twitter, if someone asks you to "describe something in a Tweet", you probably know what they mean.

"Describe something in less than 10,000 characters" doesn't quite have the same ring to it…

But although this is a change that seems like a big shift in direction, its really just a continuation along a path that Twitter has been on for a long time. Really, since the introduction of Cards in 2012. Twitter used to just be text; there were a few ways to squeeze more characters into the limits (hashtags turned into a link to a Twitter search, URLs got auto-shortened) but the basic service was the same.

What changed was when they added ways to embed photos — instead of linking out to content beyond 140 characters, Twitter began pulling it into the platform — but keeping the physical size of the tweet the same; you had to click the tweet to reveal the photo.

Later, the tweets got bigger, accomodating a "preview" of the photo.

Then they expanded to be able to include video.

In other words, the big change has already happened. When a tweet was 140 characters, you could read it in the space of a second or two — meaning you could skim through a hundred tweets in a couple of minutes. On the Tweetie app, before Twitter acquired it and turned it into the official Twitter application (on the old, small iPhones), 4 or 5 tweets would fit on screen at once. Today, on a big iPhone 6s Plus, only 2 tweets with pictures will fit on the screen.

Have a look through your Twitter feed right now, and see how many of the photos are actually necessary; how much of the relevant information in the tweet would you lose if the pictures went away? From a quick skim through my own feed, the answer is virtually nothing.

But what the pictures add is less tangible. Anyone who has worked with blogs or web design knows that people like pictures; even if its irrelevant to the story, people are more likely to read stories that have pictures next to them. So by adding pictures, Twitter is adding "engagement".

They have said so themselves;

  • Photos average a 35% boost in Retweets
  • Videos get a 28% boost

A glance through my own timeline shows that this is a lesson learnt by many 'brands' on Twitter; stock photo after stock photo that adds nothing to the headline tweet in terms of information, taking up a bigger chunk of my screen (and therefore diverting attention away from other tweets in a way that isn't related to the quality of the content.) They dont do it because its good, they do it because its working.

Ultimately, this seems to be turning Twitter into something slightly different to what it used to be – and perhaps what 'old school' Twitter users are familar with. And thats basically a 'closed' version of an RSS reader; filling the space I think is still left behind by Google Reader.

Dave Winer mentioned the other day;

Google really hurt the blogosphere with the dominance of Reader and then its shutdown. It's good to pay attention to that now. When you start relying on a dominant product, everything is good, because it hasn't gone away yet. You don't feel the pain until it goes away.

But ultimately, I think its so that people with Twitter accounts can do what they have been doing for ages now, which is use it to try to write blog posts.

Basically, long tweets become the same as Facebook instant articles. No need to click through and wait for a website to load. Text remains accessible, sitting in Twitter's platform (and through Gnip). The Twitter feed becomes more like an RSS reader (click headline to reveal content), except totally closed. Annoying screenshots of text go away, along with tweetstorms. Clicking a popular link that fails to load because its a popular link on a website not equipped to deal with popularity hopefully starts to become a less common occurance…

I think New Twitter is probably more like Tumblr than anything else. I wonder if Yahoo will notice?

Why the big Apple TV makes sense

One of the odd things about the new Apple TV is the fact that its available in a choice of storage sizes. Apple's own website seems to gloss over the fact; despite all the specs on the Apple TV page, storage sign isn't among them; its only when you get into the actual store page that the fact that there are two models becomes apparent.

If you plan to use your Apple TV primarily to stream movies, TV shows, and music or to play a few apps and games, you’ll probably be fine with 32GB of storage. If you plan to download and use lots of apps and games, choose the 64GB configuration.1 Keep in mind when making your decision, that some apps, when in use, do require additional storage.

The old (3rd gen) officially has no storage (in fact, it has 8Gb - but won't let you install apps.) So it would seem that 32Gb – four times as much as the 3rd gen – should be plenty, unless you're planning to load up with downloaded games.

That said, Apple does seem to have a history of under-loading the base model of its products; Macbooks with 4Gb of RAM long after 8Gb was considered a minimum for good performance (frustrating because RAM is relatively inexpensive – if you don't buy it from Apple), iPhones with 16Gb of storage – which is probaby enough if you don't use it as a camera, or want to regularly take your photos and videos off your phone, or want to keep music or video on there. The extra storage is relatively expensive (again) – but there are very few people who I can think of for who I would say it isn't worth the extra cost.

The Apple TV should be simple though. For someone using it as a TV/video device (most people, surely?), even Apple say that should be enough.

But this review of Facebook TV made me think that might not be the case. Think about this;

I click to another video in the horizontal feed, and it immediately begins playing in the big hero slot. Then, I click on the original video I was watching and it immediately begins playing right where I’d left off.

To make that work, you need a bunch of different videos cached on the device. And to make that work – you want to have a bunch of space to store that video.

The unbundling of naked ladies

So, FHM and Zoo magazine are shutting down.

I used to read FHM – by which I mean, I actually read FHM. Yes, there were the pictures of women in their underwear, but there were also good articles. But showing my age, this was the FHM from about 20 years ago; pre-internet, pre-Loaded (and very much pre-Zoo/Nuts). 1

An article in The Telegraph makes the case that women should be mourning the loss of these magazines - because however 'bad' those magazines were, the alternative to 'lads mags' like FHM and Zoo is whatever is on the other side of a Google search (see Rule 34).

I made a similar point in a blog post a couple of months ago ("Software is eating innocence") - although I was talking about 'real' pornographic magazines, rather than the tamer 'lads mags' kind of publication. But its kind of worrying that if there is some kind of spectrum with girls in bikinis at one end and hardcore pornography at one end, then you have the kind of algorithmically-driven pornographic content pushing things at the hardcore end ever further towards the hardcore, while market forces at the other end of the spectrum mean that the tamer 'lads mags' are disappearing, then the impact that its going to have on younger generations as they grow up is on an alarming trajectory.

  1. My dad used to borrow them, and always said he only read it for the jokes. I only ever half believed him.

"Faster than we think"

A very interesting perspective on the reasoning behind some of the features of the recently unveiled Tesla Model X car;

  1. A front door that opens when you approach it and closes itself behind you,
  2. Electronic seats that move forwards and backwards, making space for a 3rd row when needed,
  3. Falcon doors to make it easier to get in and out (with limited space?)
  4. More storage space under the seats,
  5. An automatically-connecting charger, so the car can charge itself when parked up.

Can you spot the thread that connects them all? (I'm not going to spoil the surprise here...)

At the very least, the next five years (not the next ten, this will happen faster than we think), will be very interesting.

Elon Musk’s sleight of hand

Software is eating regulation

Returning to the VW story; the thing about the cars that passed the emissions tests by cheating is that they did exactly what they were supposed to do.

Presumably, some engineers were given some clear parameters for what they needed to achieve - diesel engines that met certain regulations (to please regulators, so that they could actually sell the cars), hit certain numbers (to please the marketers market the cars to people who care about the environmental numbers), and meet some performance benchmarks (to please the people who test drove the cars as potential owners.)

I'm guessing that the engineers realised that the problems they were out to solve weren't really the same problem, and that through software could set up programming conditions to reflect the different problem conditions. I think I can imagine how, from an engineers point of view, given those particular problems to solve, you could consider it an elegant solution. (Particuarly if you have the kind of mindset – which that kind of problem solving would require – to compartmentalise the ethical responsibilty for the consequences of your work to a different compartment of the VW corporation. Its the kind of thing that can make great television.)

I wonder what the implications are from a regulatory point of view though. I mean, it seems clear that the tests were faulty – if a car can behave differently in the tests to how it behaves on the road, then the tests aren't doing their job. Except, the nature of the tests have changed. It used to be about measuring an object – an object does what it does, and regulators performed physical measurements. Objects don't lie. Now, the objects have behaviour – they do exactly what they are programmed to do. So now, its about testing what they are programmed to do.

Marcelo Rinesi of the IEET says;

Things now have software in them, and software encodes game-theoretical strategies as well as it encodes any other form of applied mathematics, and the temptation to teach products to lie strategically will be as impossible to resist for companies in the near future as it has been to VW, steep as their punishment seems to be. As it has always happened (and always will) in the area of financial fraud, they’ll just find ways to do it better.

So, does that mean that the way the measurements are taken needs to be improved? (Reflecting the reality of 21st century cars, bringing the tests to more real-world conditions.) Or does it mean that it isn't just the cars themselves that need to be measured, but that the software itself needs to be subject to testing?

This is a terrifying concept.

For anyone who has never been involved with software, that probably seems like a pretty innocuous statement; sure, just test the software. Wire it up to a monitor, get some geeks to have a look, make sure that there isn't anything like;

IF conditions = "testing" THEN
    LET FuelMix = "Clean";
ELSE
    LET FuelMix = Dirty;
END IF

Obviously, that isn't even close to what you would be looking for in the real world.

For one thing, anyone who knows anything about writing software knows that testing software is half of the challenge of making it work the way you want it to in the first place. Writing software that doesn't do what you don't want it to do is hard enough when you are actually writing it – dealing with software that deliberately does something that it isn't supposed to do and then hiding it in the code is the kind of thing that would be terrifying to have to find – even if you knew for a fact that it existed in the first place. (And thats before factoring in a fairly reasonable dose of paranoia – does the latest iPhone software update just happen to be slowing down what used to be a fast handset because of the cool new features, or is it to make the owner want to upgrade to the latest and even faster model?)

The other thing that you will know, if you know the software industry, is that many organisations will fight tooth and nail to stop anyone being able to look at its code in the first place. Often, this is down to valid reasons (for example, software might implement 3rd party code and be restricted by the licencing deal to protect that code from being accessible to others who could steal it – costing the original developers future sales.)

A Wired article from earlier this year explains how the software embedded in cars and tractors remains the property of the manufacturer – not the owner of the hardware that runs it – and the kind of lengths (technically and legally) that those manufacturers will go to prevent anyone being able to see that software. Even when Microsoft was doing its best to argue in court that Windows software wasn't breaking any US or European legislation, it still took years before allowing government agencies to see the source code. – and that was at a time when businesses would literally live or die depending on how Microsoft were implementing the APIs that they weren't even really making public.1 In other words, even if the silly pseudocode above was in any way representative of what was hiding in the code of car computers, regulators probably wouldn't be able to see it anyway.

The days where if you wanted to know how something worked, you could find out by carefully pulling it apart is over; even if it were possible to examine a microchip to discover what functions it processes, one of the consequences of the 'computerisation of everything'2 is the growing role that software plays in the basic workings of what used to be seen as physical things – add in an internet connection and have the software running on a remote server (where it can be updated, revised and refreshed at any time with no notice given) and you have an utterly opaque – and almost impossible to properly regulate – scenario.

  1. (Wikipedia's criticism of Microsoft page has plenty of information about the kind of activities that were going on at the time.

  2. Goole "internet of things" for an idea of how far this is expected to spread.