What went wrong with the Internet?

It’s not just the theft of your data, it’s the unsolved problem of anonymity, enabled by commercialisation

At the end of last year, the wonderful Cat Valente posted her take on What Went Wrong With The Web (https://catvalente.substack.com/p/stop-talking-to-each-other-and-start). She vividly charts 30 years of survival in the social media desert, from the early walled gardens through the rise and fall of a dozen web ecosystems, each one in turn falling prey to greed, pride, and ignorance. This should be a must-read for everyone under 20 (because everything Cat says will be new to them) and everyone between 20 and — let us be generous — 50, who probably have similar experiences (any older than that and they probably Had A Life Before The Web).

The reason I found what she wrote so interesting was that it depicted a parallel universe to my own, one I was very aware of but never visited. I got caught up in the Web via a different path, documented elsewhere, but in the pre-Web days, the only Internet connection you had was probably one provided by your employer or college (with a few notable public-access exceptions like The Well and M-Net). When the Web started, I had to spend two whole chapters of my book about the Web describing how to get a dial-up connection and how to use the various services, before I could even begin describing what a browser was and how to use one.

The point about access was that your identity was your username and domain, as provided by your company, institution, university, or ISP. Your email address was therefore your username@host.organisation.something or wellknownhost!path!to!you!username, and this left a visible trail across the net-scape, especially in the logs of mailing lists and newsgroups.

It was in most cases pretty obvious who you were and where you worked. I was pflynn@curia.ucc.ie for the purposes of research, but 9–5 I was CBTS8001 AT IRUCCVAX which you can work out if you knew I was in the Computer Bureau Technical Support office, 8 for full-time staff and 001 because I was the manager. Anyone could send you mail if there was something they wanted to ask about, or if they had a direct Internet connection, use the infamous finger command to view your .plan file (an early plain-text home page).

On Usenet, however, it was possible to use a bogus address for anonymity, but as Cat noted, thar be dragons. Actually, most of it was a friendly place if you behaved yourself and followed the rules; I still use it daily for technical support on comp.text.tex but back then, pre-spam, certain parts of the alt hierarchy became popular hangouts where you could discuss anything from the price of a coffee to the best place to rent a car, regardless of the apparent purpose of the newsgroup (made clear by its name). I used a borrowed account for a while, when we only had access to a News server via a convoluted multiple login path ending up at a college in California where a friend let me connect, which was a perhaps questionable form of enforced anonymity.

On BITNET (EARN, NETNORTH, etc), a non-Internet network largely for academic and research work, supported by funding from IBM, your identity was (as above) USERNAME AT NODENAME, so anonymity was not really possible. Notwithstanding, the interactive messaging facility TELL or SEND rapidly led to the development of a chat server called RELAY, an early form of bot, which knew your credentials but only displayed your chosen nickname. The current IRC is a direct descendent and uses a similar technique.

If a user (a connected network in the US meaning, or an end-user in the European meaning) put a foot wrong — spam, offensive behaviour, illegal behaviour, etc — the remedy was swift disconnection, either by their local operator, or (in the case of an organisation) the whole server. You basically got the plug pulled until there was an apology and an assurance from higher up that it wouldn't happen again.

By now you will have spotted the problem. People with a reason to seek anonymity (eg physical or mental safety) had no real way to take an active part in the wider Internet. For those with no technical background, any developments and discussions relating to their needs were largely inaccessible, because, ultimately, your login credentials were discoverable, so asking for help or comment meant exposure.

‘When It Changed’, which I place around the mid-to-late 1990s, three things happened: the first spam appeared (on Usenet); the Web and some other parts of the Internet became commercialised; and services started providing anonymous identities (usually for free) in the form of email addresses. Suddenly there were adverts, and site owners could make enough to let them provide ‘free’ services like email. This meant you could have an address like redhotlover@hotwetmail.com and no-one would know who you were, or where you were from. On the Internet, no-one knew you were a dog, although you might feel a complete prat asking for help with that address. People needing the security of anonymity could at last use the network in relative safety — as of course could those with ulterior motives, principally spam, scam, and porn, along with the acceptable job of making money and the unacceptable one of selling personal data.

It didn’t take long before being paid money for a service encouraged companies to cook up bogus terms of service to their upstream and downstream connections to guarantee that they would not be disconnected no matter what they did. Serve porn? Sure. Lie, cheat, and steal? No problem. Money, the universal lubricant, smoothed over all the broken bits, and made possible the Web we have today, and this is where the underlying subcurrents intersect with what Cat was talking about.

To a large extent it was aided and abetted by the culture of US society, in which the apotheosis of the corporation is taught from crèche onwards. Americans are brought up to believe hand-on-heart that running your own company is the pinnacle of societal achievement; making money at the expense of the gullible is a desirable objective; and that state or federal interference with the right of the company to screw over the citizen is called ‘communism’. Of course there is nothing wrong with doing business and making good money and protesting at governmental interference, but when it becomes a religion and the sole concern of your life, you may expect trouble.

The coups de grâce were delivered as more and more of the Internet’s infrastructure was sold off into private hands. Proponents will deny this, saying the running of services was merely farmed out to business, under contracts which guaranteed performance, but they lie in their teeth: the comments above apply.

The secrecy granted to anonymous users with no wish to divulge their identity became a fetish for businesses too. If you had a domain of your own, it could be looked up by name in the WHOIS database, which listed the registration with the name of the owner, their technical and billing contacts (people) and their email addresses and phone numbers and often their registered (office) address — and (later) an address to report abuse. It was easy to locate the hostname of a miscreant, identify them to their technical contact, and then they could find themselves in very deep hot water indeed.

Try doing that now. WHOIS also allows anonymity, so there is usually now zero evidence of who owns any site on the entire Internet (with a few exceptions). To be sure, businesses claimed they were being bombarded with emails and phone calls, which was largely true, and largely a problem of their own making; but in reality, they claimed the same degree of anonymity that end users were able to benefit from. Of course, many domains still identify themselves in their contact information on their web site, or use a form to allow requests, and if you're lucky they may reply to you. But it has become impossible to identify any person officially pegged as responsible for a domain.

There are worse abuses under way. There are threats to Net Neutrality, the principle that every connected service promises to forward data for other services untouched and uncensored. Google, once the proud boaster of ‘Don’t Be Evil’, has dropped all pretence of moral compass, enabling .zip as a domain (which allows spammers easier faking of URIs) and imposing bogus rate limits on email from non-Gmail hosts, in an attempt to kill off (or at least stifle) the competition. At the time of writing, Elon Musk is struggling to understand the nature of Twitter, and losing adherents very fast to other services like Mastodon.

These land-grabs for the unreal estate which is the Internet are at the very core of the current free-for-all, and ultimately the reason for the Gadarene rush to harvest our personal details and persuade us to buy the garbage on offer instead of interacting with each other, which was Cat’s point. When selling your metadata is more profitable than selling you goods and services, as someone noted, you become the product; and when no-one can be held responsible for the betrayal, you need to make a quick exit stage left and find somewhere else.

Sunday 2023-07-02 10:01:30 Up

Many ways for dates to go wrong

It was fine, honestly, and nothing has changed…

Yes, I am aware that the little calendar block at the top of this blog is showing stupid values for the days. It was even worse when I spotted it a couple of months ago, and found the problem was my own fault in misunderstanding the way in which XSLT3 was handling dates. So I fixed it, tested it, and released it, and now with the change of month it has reverted to a milder form of what I hope is the same disease. I say ‘I hope’ because if it's a coding problem I can fix it. If it's some other weirdness like interference from the lizard-people, then I'm going to open another bottle of wine.

Tuesday 2023-06-06 15:42:21 Up

Apple Music available for Android phones

Do I really want to sell my soul to Apple? I don’t think so, James.

A couple of weeks ago, The Verge and several other sites announced that Apple were making their Classical Music app available for Android phones. I know lots of Apple users, varyingly on iMacs, Macbooks, iPads, and iPhones, and many of them listen to their music using these devices. As I live outside the Apple ecosystem, I don’t know how many of them use Apple’s (or someone else’s) streaming service or how many of them are just playing static MP3s they have downloaded, bought and paid for, or ripped from CDs — and possibly, nor do they (for some reason a lot of people seem to be very unaware of where their stuff comes from).

I’ve also heard stories about people who bought and paid for their music on physical media or download, only to have it sucked into their Apple Music and usurped by the Apple licensing system, resulting in Apple taking it over as if they had supplied it, complete with the right to deny access, withdraw ‘rights’, and even just delete it. Naturally, it’s not possible to say if the stories are true, and Apple will deny everything anyway.

Classical music comes with its own set of requirements, for anyone in any way serious about how they store and access their music, but two stand out: sequence and metadata.

For any piece of music that comes in movements, they usually need to be accessed in order. There is little point in listening to the final movement of a symphony, concerto, or anything else that comes in movements, before you have listened to the rest — in order. Traditional storage systems (eg the directory system) use alphabetical order, so numbering the track files with leading zeroes is just fine. But music players believe they know better, and sort alphabetically, resulting in the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony being swapped over, and the mess it would make of Bach’s Mass in B Minor can hardly be expressed. They can also play tracks in random order, just to make life more fun. Finding one that will stick to your careful track-naming habit is hard, especially when they also have a habit of changing their settings when updated, hiding the controls in different places, or simply removing the ability to play in directory order.

Secondly, most music players pay little heed to the carefully curated metadata that the serious listener has applied. Title is clear enough, applied to the track; there appears to be nothing equivalent to ‘Work’, and Album is too broad: there may be several works to an album, let alone many tracks to a work. Artist and Album Artist appear unobjectionable, but there is nothing to distinguish conductor, soloists, choir, and orchestra. Album is straightforward in most cases, and Year is assumed to be the year of issue, not the year of composition (so where do you put that?). Genre offers a thousand choices for differentiating some sounds, but you’ll need to invent your own taxonomy for classical music. Composer works; Original Artist is curiously unnecessary, even if known. There are lots of incompatible recommendations for how to solve these problems, almost all of them ignored by music players.

So is Apple's classical music service aware of these things? I don’t know, and frankly, m’dear, I don’t give a damn, because of the problems I outlined at the start. I have a lot of music, collected over the decades from LPs, CDs, and online sources, so my requirements are relatively small: new recordings of the music I like, and the occasional new music entirely. One small choral group I discovered recently does not release in online, downloadable form at all, strictly CDs through the post, and who can blame them? But I’m not prepared to place my existing collection in jeopardy by installing an app from a company with an unsavoury reputation for theft of ownership, theft of IP rights, and an insatiable thirst for the blood of the user, by way of their own metadata and identity. Thanks, Apple, I appreciate the thought, but No, Thanks.

Thursday 2023-06-01 08:27:16 Up

Kings and things

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

Today, Christians in some places celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the arrival of the three wise men from the east. Christians in other places celebrate Christmas, for assorted historical and calendrical reasons. In Cork, it’s “Women’s Christmas”, when men are supposed to do the housework while women take the day off. In other places, it is similarly “Little Christmas” (which may also be on other dates). Calendars are funny things, which reminds me that my linear three-month calendar above is broken, despite having been working uninterrupted for 20 years. Shomeshing wrong shurely? [Ed.]

In the UK, they have a new King. Despite numerous gaffes, he always seemed to have just a little more nous than the rest of his family, who made up for it by executing enough gaffes to keep the redtops happy for decades. Lots of other countries have kings and queens, and only a few of them are absolute monarchs or anything close to it. But there isn’t much justification for monarchs any more, ceremonial or otherwise, and the quicker they are abolished, the better for everyone.

In Brazil, King Pelé has died. The title has been given to hundreds of celebrities, from Elvis to Benny Goodman, as well as being the honourable real name of Martin Luther King. Strange that in countries who long ago repudiated their ruling monarch should be so fond of the very title they disposed of with blood and constitution. Titles as names include Lord, Baron, Earl, and others, possibly given by parents with an ear for future reference as well as a latent hankering for good old days that never were.

In Rome, Pope Emeritus Benedict has also died. He at least saw the value of stepping down as his faculties waned. As a former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the organisation previously known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition) he was an opponent of secularism, which is only to be expected, but he failed to understand the role which morality and truth continue to play in a relativistic society. Like so many other princes sitting in judgment over their subjects, he either needed to get out more, or resign himself to the acceptance that his worldview was slowly becoming less relevant.

So why do people continue to find the activities of monarchs attractive? The French got rid of theirs by the very practical method of removing their heads; the Americans by the slower but equally bloody method of war; and the Irish likewise. Yet in all three countries there are ardent followers of the royal doings of the UK, and I suspect very few of them actually want their monarchy back.

Proponents of constitutional monarchies claim they are harmless to democracy: they are figureheads, a kindly Big Brother or Sister whom the proles can love without interfering in the business of state. But as they are no longer Gods, as the ancients believed, they must be human, and they have been raised for millennia to believe they are above the restrictions their societies believe people should abide by. Before modern communications, much of what they did was known only to their court and inner circle; now it can be public knowledge within minutes. As we replace monarchs with elected representatives, we need to ensure that we don’t elevate them to the same level, and that we continue to hold them to account.

Friday 2023-01-06 11:22:14 Up

Autumn migrations

Migration is not just for the birds

Last week I switched from Twitter to Mastodon, so I avoided most of the hue and cry over US election candidates. I still have my Twitter account, and I still read posts from a few people who have not yet moved, but pretty much most people have voted with their feet.

It's not all about that particular migration, though. Recent discussion on the Ubuntu mailing list led me to reconsider Vivaldi as my browser instead of Brave. I switched to Brave last year, in the hope that it would prove less of a burden than Chrome, and also stop sharing my data with the rest of the world. But it seems all is not as shiny in Braveland as they would like you to believe.

I've been using Vivaldi on and off for years, but mainly for its wonderful ‘Capture Page’ button, which saves an image of the current page in full, not just that part visible on-screen at the time. That usually means it creates a very narrow, extremely tall image file, the advantage of which (to those of us writing documentation) that you only need to capture each page once, and can then snip out of it what you need, rather than having to revisit the page again and again to screenshot the relevant bit (which in any case may have changed in the meantime).

I'd always thought it a bit sluggish, but it's not, and its configuration offers much better control over behaviour. It managed to import my settings, and it kept my login usernames but lost all their passwords in the process, which is weird, but I won't be storing them any more. A few other oddments needed Googling, but once it was syncing between desktop, laptop, and cellphone I was ready to go. I like it, and so far it has behaved itself (obedience in software is important).

After the pandemic brought F2F conferences to a halt, a group of colleagues from one of them gathered on Discord to keep in touch. This has in turn migrated to periodic video meetings which seem to preserve more of the environment we had shared for many years. But having got used to Discord's oddities, I was pleased to find that many LATEX users had created a TEX server for mutual Q&A, which is turning out to be very useful, and a change from tex.stackexchange's tendency to the premature cancellation of valid questions without reading them through.

More on support another day. In the meantime, I'll be watching for mastodons on the telephone wires.

Thursday 2022-11-11 10:35:16 Up

Making that switch

“If Twitter nosedives, there are alternatives”, as the Mastodon said before the ice took over.

I looked at the previous date and saw it was two years ago, mid-pandemic, which is embarrassing for a so-called blog. But we all have our reasons, and I'm sure others have better ones. I survived, which is more than can be said for Brexit, Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, and many others, although some of them will doubtless be back to torment their unhappy constituents.

Meanwhile, Twitter has been getting increasingly vituperous, fired mainly by the maundering drivel, insane ideas, and inhuman behaviour of the right wing on both sides of the Atlantic. Elon Musk, a man with at least a few good ideas, not the least of which is migrating off-planet at the first opportunity, has now bought Twitter in order to milk it for revenue. It’s not important to him how he does this, but it will likely involve the neglect of the users and the prioritisation of the adverts (which I never see, as my app simply doesn't show them).

Enter the Mastodon (sounds like a good name for a play) of which you will doubtless be hearing much more in the coming weeks. I could have sworn that I signed up to it ages ago, but it disagrees, so I went through the (painless) process and am now settling in for a long winter’s nap. I'm @docum3nt on mastodon.ie, same as on Twitter, so I hope to see you there.

Friday 2022-11-04 23:26:01 Up

Making that call

Everything you once needed to know about how a trunk call was made

While we wait for what's left of the democratic process in the USA to lumber towards completion, the topic of STD came up in WhatsApp. No, not Sexually Transmitted Diseases, but Save The Date — a relative is engaged and planning a post-COVID wedding. But I was reminded that to an older generation, STD meant Subscriber Trunk Dialling, the magic that lets you dial a long number and get connected to someone elsewhere on the planet, or at least in another code area.

Before all that, you had to call the Operator by dialling O (zero), which was such an important digit that it never had any letter equivalent. Phones in the UK and Ireland, which in those days shared a common system administered by the Post Office, only showed digits on the dial — without trunk (long-distance) dialling, letter-groups were meaningless1, and up to then, only local calls could be dialled. For anyone further away, you called the operator and asked for the exchange name and number you wanted. There would then be a series of clicks, tones, screeches, buzzes, and scratchy noises as they went through the procedure of connecting you. As a mere subscriber, you weren't allowed to know exactly what was going on behind the scenes, although as one of my relatives used to be an operator, and another a telephone design engineer, we had more information than most families were privy to.

We lived in envy of other countries like the USA or Germany, where you could dial anyone direct long-distance, without the intervention of an operator. Part of it was of course the cost: installing the switches was expensive. Part was also the administrative task of deciding how any new numbering scheme was to work. The USA went for fixed-length numbers when it moved from named exchanges. Europe mostly retained the method whose tree structure is still evident in many systems today. Birmingham, as the UK's second city, was 021 (London was 01). Large towns around Birmingham would be 0211, 0212, 0213, and so on — not exactly as neat as that, but in principle. Rural exchanges would then be 02111, 02112, 02113, etc, the area code getting longer the further you were from the hub; not dissimilar to the original "source-routing" method of email addresses on the Arpanet and Usenet before the "@" convention was introduced. The hubs and their satellites were connected by a backbone of bundles of cable called the "trunk".

But a third part was a human problem. The network engineers regarded the trunk as their domain. Subscribers (users) were permitted to dial local calls because that only used the local switch (very remote rural areas still had manual switchboards in the postmistress's front room). The idea of subscribers being allowed to "trespass" on the big trunk switches to let them dial across the trunk to a number somewhere else was anathema to some of the engineers, and it was resisted. But eventually common-sense prevailed and Subscriber Trunk Dialling became reality, and you could dial anyone within the UK by prefixing their number with an alphanumeric area code. Warwick, for example, became 0WA6 or 0926 — why it was not possible to make it 0WAR for 0927 is a mystery, when Norwich was given 0NOR. Eventually the alphabetic abbreviations for exchanges were dropped as the system was extended, although you can still see vestiges of the numbering system in UK and Irish numbers today.

But the Irish and UK systems, while sharing a common technology, did not share the same namespace, as we would now call it. Dublin was 01, Cork was 021, etc, following the same pattern, but replacing operator-run exchanges with switches was a much slower process: lines were old, and funding limited. In rural areas, manual 64-line "doll's eye" switchboards persisted in village post offices, and were not replaced until the 1980s. Phone numbers in those areas were single or double digits and anyone calling you had to do so through the operator who would look up the area code for the exchange name and dial it for you on their switchboard, and then connect the caller's line to yours through their switches and plugs.

Thus it was that when I was in the UK and needed to call my family, who were on vacation in a rented house in the West Cork village of Courtmacsherry, I had to dial the operator and ask for a call to Ireland. The operator asked for the number and I said "Lislevane 4" (pronounced LISS-lee-van). She went to look it up…leaving the line open. This is against the rules: an operator is required to push the lever in the frame while putting a call through, which disconnects the audio but keeps the line alive, to prevent the subscriber hearing all the clatter of the exchange. So then I heard noises and a dialogue:

buzz, click, tickety-tickety-tickety-tick, ring

——‘Cork, what number do you require?’

‘This is Warwick, can I have Lisselvain 4, please’

——‘Sorry, can you repeat that’

several attempts

——‘Oh, right, Lislevane 4. Hold the line, please.’

buzz, clickety-clickety-click, ring, ring

————‘Skibbereen, what number do you require?’

——‘I have Warwick on the line for Lislevane 4, please, call from England’

————‘Hold the line, please.’

buzz, click, tick, tick, tick, ring, ring

——————‘Lislevane, what number do you require?’

————‘Four, please, call from England’

——————‘Hold the line, please.’

buzz, crackle, thunk, click, ring, ring,

————————‘Hello, Flynn here.’ (My father answering)

——————‘Hold the line, please, I have a call from England for you.’

click, thunk, buzz

——————‘Skibbereen, your call is through now.’

crackle, buzz, click

————‘Cork, your call is through now.’

click, click, buzz

——‘Hello Warwick, your call to Lislevane 4 is through now’

click, thunk

(suppressed expletive as she realises she left the line open) ‘Your call to Ireland is through now, please insert 45p.’ (or whatever it was for 3 minutes)

ping, ping, ping, ping, ping (as I inserted five coins)

‘Thank you, you're through now.’


(Me) ‘Hi, dad?’

What's interesting, though, isn't the routine or the discipline of handling a call, but the fact that when the Courtmacsherry exchange was finally replaced, many years behind schedule, the numbering scheme was left intact, and the last time I checked, the house did indeed have a phone number ending in 4.

  1. I should add that they used to have letters on the dial, for the benefit of London subscribers, where they had named exchanges, so you could dial WHItehall 1212, which everyone knew was Scotland Yard.


Wednesday 2020-11-04 22:01:00 Up

Brexit: the view from inside and outside the UK

The full scale of the disaster is beginning to become apparent, even to former Leave voters

Revised They bin and gorn and dunnit. Like the Gadarene swine, they are racing downhill. No-one seems to be able to stop them, and the UK population is going to have to suffer some more before they can start to repair the damage. The EU, meanwhile, has moved on, and is quietly happy to be rid of its most troublesome and least cooperative member, and the UK can now sink quietly into a pre-1066 oblivion.

Revised Two years down, a few months to go. Everyone keeps hoping that the Brits will see sense, but they dig themselves in deeper every day. They talked last year about an offer of £50BN as a payment of all debts on leaving. Quite apart from the effect on the UK — which can well afford a small sum like £50BN — there’s the effect on their immediate neighbours (us) and the effect on the (now) apparent majority of UK voters who would vote to remain if there were another referendum.

Revised There is the possibility that a second referendum will become inevitable anyway, to approve the details of any agreement, and this could result in the whole thing being aborted, so fingers crossed — provided their government doesn’t surreptitiously change the law to negate that requirement. The impending takeover of the whole process by ousting May and installing Boris may mean that all bets are off and the UK will crash out of the EU with no deal whatsoever.

But it’s not the £50BN, or the terrible waste of time and resources in trying to negotiate the impossible, it’s the gazillion other little things that they’ve all gotten used to over the decades which will disappear. Thousands of little rules and regulations exist, most of which are straightforward and inoffensive, with which no other member state has any problem, but which will cause significant problems for the UK if suddenly deleted.

Businesses will be delighted, as lots of the rules relate to Elf and Safety, or to product labelling, so they'll be able to cheat the consumer and pollute the environment with even greater ease than now. And if someone gets sick because there was no warning on the bottle, tough: this is what going it alone means.

Someone blogged that the whole thing only struck home when he realised there won’t be any more British nominations for European Capital of Culture each year, as it’s an EU initiative.

There was recently a series on British TV about the English Channel. One terribly sad segment featured a poor English fisherman trying to catch enough fish to make a living, and explaining that he voted Leave because of the EU restrictions on what, where, and how many fish he can catch. What he appeared to be unaware of was that the Common Fisheries Policy is a multi-way deal: each country gets access to the other countries’ waters on the basis of a percentage limit on catch. Withdrawing from that would get the UK a bigger bite of the take, but would result in huge problems of where to sell it, because British consumers are ferociously ultra-conservative and won’t eat three-quarters of what’s caught because they don’t know what to do with anything except cod. Warming seas mean some stocks have migrated out of reach, and some restrictions predate the European Union anyway, and won’t be affected by leaving. It was clear that British government negotiations on quotas and access rights since the 1970s were disastrously incompetently managed, but this won’t change with Brexit either. The problem for this fisherman was that in effect he voted to leave over issues that leaving the EU won’t solve. This type of situation crops up again and again in all kinds of industries: the Leave lobby only needed to misrepresent the case once, and people believed it as gospel.

Sadly, there are millions of well-meaning but gullible people, like the fisherman, who believed the outright nonsense peddled by the dinosaur press and the Leave lobbies — including spectacular lies like being able to use the £500M they would save in other fields to fund the NHS — which makes a nonsense of any claim that this was the “will of the people”. The people were, in fact, thoroughly duped and sold a pup, and are just discovering that it was indeed not just for Christmas. There have been rumours that the Canadian outfit hired by the Leavers to diddle the population may have done so with the help of data from Facebook via the now defunct Cambridge Analytica. There will of course be flat denials, but as with Trump’s campaign, they learned early on that if you can foist some plausible lies on the majority for long enough to get the vote, it doesn’t actually matter if people find out later, because “later” will be too late to change it.

Thought Revised What Brexiteers seem to want — and what they’ll likely get — is a Britain something like it was in the 1950s. Deeply impoverished (by war in those days; by Brexit now), grey, boring, tedious, repressive, architecturally barbarous, socially unimaginative, and politically separatist; struggling to mend-and-make-do while keeping a stiff upper lip, and generally pursuing a cultural, social, artistic, educational, and business path diametrically opposed to the rest of the world. A country with “No Blacks, No Irish, No Marrieds” signs on the B&Bs in pursuit of their “little Engländer” viewpoint; the use of capital punishment; the absence of any understanding of the importance of internationally-accepted norms or standards — and a kind of vague, helpless sentimentality for steam trains, valve radios, and black-and-white television; seaside family holidays on chilly beaches with the Ovaltineys; District Nurses on bicycles, nice well-behaved middle-class kids from grammar schools with neatly-pressed uniforms, reading Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome; the poor, sick, and destitute kept well out of sight in horribly under-funded NHS institutions reeking of disinfectant, run by magnificent but struggling nurses and doctors; the spes ultimae gentis of retired but poverty-stricken gentility from the last vestiges of an Empire still shimmering on a distant horizon; Shell Guides in the classroom; dog-eared travel books with beautiful but faded Brian Cook illustrations on the cover; a bakelite dial telephone on the table in the hall, connected to a party line; road signs in miles using a font flavoured with overtones of William Morris and William Burges; Mums in aprons and Dads who smoke pipes; pubs calling time at 10.00pm and closing mid-afternoon, serving warm beer and warm cocktails; prawn cocktails, cream of mushroom soup in stainless-steel bowls, spaghetti Bolognaise, and Black Forest Gateau as the daring alternative to “plain” cooking; TV quiz shows where the contestant bets that he can identify different types of 1900s lawnmowers by the sound their wheels make; and fantastically detailed Ordnance Survey maps of the weed-grown pre-motorway road system in the glove compartment of your unreliable and primitive British-made car.

So what is it that the Brexiteers claim to want? The most often-quoted reason is “sovereignty”, by which they seem to mean “the ability to pass any law they want without considering the rest of the world”. This is how Britain operated in the days of Empire: if the rest of the world disagrees, send in the gunboats. There really are people in the UK who believe that “Leave” means they’ll be able to get capital punishment back (they won’t unless they resile from Protocols 6 and 13 of the European Court of Human Rights, or the whole ECHR; but many of them possibly believe that it has something to do with the EU and will just go away). Similarly there were several well-reported instances of people who believed that “Leave” meant they would be able to tell foreigners to leave the country.

In theory, they would be able to change the law in these areas, although many of them are subject to unrelated international agreements that are independent of EU membership:

  • customs and tariffs

  • immigration

  • monetary policy

  • marine conservation

  • commercial policy (competition policy and the internal market being irrelevant for them once they leave)

  • social policy

  • economic, social, and territorial cohesion

  • ag and fish

  • environment policy

  • consumer protection

  • transport regulation

  • network connections

  • energy policy

  • industry

  • culture

  • tourism

  • education and sport

  • freedom

  • security

  • justice

  • public safety and public health

It’s an impressive list, but it will take several decades to re-legislate all of it, especially as the civil service is now a mere shadow of its former self. A lot of people won’t give a toss about many of these anyway, as they think of them as footling bureaucracy that someone else will take care of. The last four are more worrying: if the Brexiteers end up running the show, then like Trump in the USA, they will impose whatever restrictions they feel necessary to enrich themselves and their friends — make no mistake that money is driving this, as it is driving the USA.

Having spent the first decade of my life in an environment like I outlined above, before emerging chrysalis-like into the 60s and 70s, I can’t understand why anyone would want to return to it except in a time machine for the purposes of socio-historical research. In John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (the deluge of civilisation by invading undersea aliens), the narrator recalls hearing foreign radio describe ”l’écroulement de l’Angleterre”, which he thinks has a horribly final sound. The Brexiteers proclaim a Brave New World to retake control of their own destiny, unaware that time has been called on that particular meme and that trying to turn back the clock is a delusion with frightening consequences.

Monday 2018-04-09 21:50:02 Up

Finally some light

Crawling out from under the bushes

Having very nearly given up on the XPS 15 as simply too hardware-dependent for meaningful installation of Linux, I had one last try at building Enlightenment from source.

Downloading and compiling EFL (the core libraries) isn’t a problem, but I’m still running Bodhi (because it’s the only system which installs on the XPS 15), which uses its own (ancient) kludged version of Enlightenment as the sole default environment. This means that even if you manage to compile both EFL and E, installing them in a usable manner is virtually impossible. It’s not like adding a new window manager: this is replacement of the WM. It would mean ripping out Moksha (their private version of E) and the default EFL libraries and all their dependencies without breaking the operation of the whole system.

That turned out to be unfeasible in any reasonable timescale, so I went back to review what Mint was offering in the way of video drivers (people were constantly saying that the boot failure is a video driver problem — except that the boot failure I was seeing occurred much earlier in the boot process). I had already tried the Maté (lighter) version of Mint 18.2, which got so close but failed to reboot after installation. This time I found 18.3 was out, so I decided to try the heavyweight Cinnamon version.

Astonishingly, it worked. I was so shocked I even posted about it on the forums:

  • Don’t use unetbootin to create a Mint USB, use dd instead. Apparently unetbootin does something odd with Mint while writing the USB.

  • Install Cinnamon, not Maté. It appears that Cinnamon requires higher-spec hardware, so it checks for it, and therefore finds problems Maté misses.

The result of this is that the USB booted correctly, but displayed a warning that it was running without hardware support. This did not appear on any of my previous attempts, which is why I am deducing that it is checking something not previously checked for.

It installed to the SSD without error (earlier attempts installed, but issued a warning that it was unable to set up the repos for the CD correctly (!), and then failed to create a boot partition and install Grub. That in itself probably didn’t matter (just looked embarrassing) but I noticed that it did install Grub explicitly and do a grub-update; again this was either missing from previous installs, or wasn’t being flagged.

Rebooting then worked: previously the system hung on shutdown and needed the power button. Now it starts up correctly, and appears all to be in running order.

I don’t know if this was some minor update from 18.2 to 18.3 just happened to fix the specific error that the XPS 15 was creating, but if so, my grateful thanks to whoever on the dev team did it.

So now we have a working system: the only thing failing is the shutdown. So now’s the time to install Enlightenment…

Saturday 2017-11-16 21:20:13 Up

Patience nearly expired

No, not a rant (thank goddess, sez you) but it’s time to face the facts

Having originally wiped Dell’s preinstalled Windows off the new XPS 15 lapdog in order to install Linux, I decided that perhaps a corporate image might be useful, on the rare (once-a-decade) occasions that I actually need to boot Windows for something.

In fact when I do this, it’s a royal PITA because not only does Windows invariably need a dozen updates, all Rabbit’s friends and relations chime in with ‘XYZ needs an update too’ (you know who you are, and you can wipe that look offa your face, Adobe). Why Windows chose the intrusive path is anyone’s guess, when Linux silently updates in the background, no trouble to anyone except on the odd occasion that it’s a kernel update needing a restart.

Burranyway, I sent the XPS 15 to be inscribed with love and kisses from Redmond, and back it came the other day, presumably in working order, but as I didn’t have a clue how to get into it, I resolved to try again with single-boot Linux, and if that works, to send it back for a refreshed Windows 10 and I’d bite the bullet and re-re-install whatever Linux solution worked afterwards.

(I did actually try to log into it, but it wouldn’t connect to the wireless, and when I gave it a live Ethernet cable to chew on, it refused to recognise that too. As it couldn’t then join any domain, it wasn’t worth the effort pursuing the attempt.)

So finally, I got to re-try Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Arch, Ubuntu Server, Ubuntu Mini, Mint, and Bodhi. The Ubuntu flavours were useless: same problem as in the original attempt, except that this time it wouldn’t even boot the on-USB test copy: when it got to that fatal third dot, it just hung there. When trying the Server and Mini versions, however (which are text-mode installers, not graphical) the laptop refused to recognise its own plug-in Ethernet connector, so without a path to the outside world, the installers couldn’t do anything. What they did reveal, however, was that the underlying error of hanging is apparently attributable to a bug in the kernel, failing to recover gracefully from a wrong diagnosis of a failed 8th processor.

Onwards and upwards: both Mint and Bodhi booted their demos just fine. I hadn't looked at Mint before: it's very nice, so I installed it, and when it came to reboot from the hard disk (well, SSD), it stopped dead with a blinking cursor in the top left-hand corner. This normally means ‘no OS’, so it had clearly fouled up the whole-disk encrption (no trace of that) and lewft an unbootable machine.

Finally, booted Bodhi from USB and it worked (Enlightenment, of course, although they call it something else). I tried to install gparted while still in demo mode, because I wanted to see what damage, if any, the failed Mint installation had done. But apt refused, saying it was already in use. WTF? Yes, ps showed a task trying to update the nVidia driver, FFS. The very thing that had caused the touchpad oversensitivity last time! No indication of why it was just sitting there, so I killed it, and then copied and pasted the failed command into the terminal, and it worked.

Enthused by such eagerness, I went ahead with the install — and it passed the third dot with flying colours. Not only that, but it installed Bodhi, and it was able to reboot successfully (although on power-down it hangs with the same chip bug as before). But Emacs installed and worked: no sign of the weird Elisp timer error that had plagued me for a week with Ubuntu.

Next up: more testing, then if Bodhi (or even Mint) can do the same with a full-disk encryption, I might consider allowing Windows back onto the disk and trying for a dual boot.

Thursday 2017-11-22 16:35:00 Up

Inching forward

Sometimes you just need a little patience

Having fired off a huge screed of stuff to the wonderful people on the Ubuntu support list, and having taken Ralf Mardorf’s advice to Google first, even for things I don’t believe anyone would ever have encountered, I started reading more deeply.

Ramón Casero has a page on dual-booting an XPS 15 with Windows and Ubuntu (which I’m not doing) which has some useful advice, firstly to switch to the latest nVidia driver, and second to fix the touchpad oversensitivity by switching from the Synaptics driver to libinput (Juan Hernández’ suggestion).

Both of these worked: I haven’t noticed any particular improvement in the screen, but the touchpad jumping all over the place has certainly got much better.

So when I rebooted, it went into full graphical mode and this time it completed the boot successfully instead of hanging after entering the disk crypt. Weird but wonderful — I wonder how long this will persist?

Thursday 2017-11-09 22:25:00 Up

Doubleplusungood boot shenanigans

A boot routine — of all routines — should be the most stable

This ain’t good. I powered up the new laptop and typed the encryption key as prompted, but I noticed I made a mistake in typing. No problem, it asked me for it again, so I did it right and it started turning the white dots red under the Ubuntu logo…and then hung on the third dot. The message underneath said:

cryptsetup: nvme0n1p5_crypt set up successfully

I powered off and restarted, and picked Advanced Options for Ubuntu from the Grub menu, and selected 4.10.0-38-generic (recovery mode). This boots in text mode and asks for the disk to be unlocked. I give the crypt key and it unlocks OK. I ran Update grub bootloader from the menu, and fsck’d the file systems, and then went for resume and got the normal login prompt. Everything seems to be working, except…

…when I log out and power off, then restart, I get the same problem: the Ubuntu logo and little red dots hang in the same place.

I have no idea what it is doing while it is cycling the red and white dots, so I don’t know if the problem is the logo itself or something executing in the background (grub?). But I know some people who do.

At least it does boot…after a fashion, and in normal operation appears undamaged. But I think the next step might be to revert to Xubuntu for 17.10.

Monday 2017-11-06 22:35:00 Up

Staring you in the face

Yes, it was right there on the screen and I didn't see it.

Probably general age and debility. Last time I built Enlightenment I used a build script, and I had completely forgotten that.

Explanation: my preferred window manager is Enlightenment, as it runs light, provides pretty much everything I need, and doesn't make decisions on my behalf about what I want where. Plus it looks vaguely Mac-like, which I find more usable than those interfaces which look vaguely Windows-like.

For the last few years, I have been using a script from https://www.enlightenment.org/docs/distros/debian-start which has worked excellently. I recently noticed that the equivalent page for Ubuntu was updated at https://www.enlightenment.org/docs/distros/ubuntu-start, so I used that, forgetting about the script, although it did mention one.

Everything went fine, except that Enlightenment didn't appear after reboot as one of the options. Thanks to Eric from the enlightenment-users mailing list, however, I got it running — he pointed me at the location of the .desktop file, which had been sitting there all the time.

I'm hoping something similar will emerge from my puzzle about Emacs playing sillybuggers with the timer. I hope it's not a little hardware present from Dell.

‘[V]erging on decrepitude and imbecility’, as Landor said in one of his final letters. Well, maybe not quite that bad yet.

Monday 2017-11-06 08:45:00 Up

It’s that time of year again

Update your OS before something worse comes along

No, not that time of year when the British burn the image of a perfectly well-meaning Catholic who felt that history would be better served if he blew up their Houses of Parliament with everyone inside. He was probably right, anyway: they can’t have been any worse than the current shower of self-deluded sycophants and time-servers in Westminster.

Yes, it is November 5th, and yes, I’m sure the fireworks are very pretty, but there are other, more important, imperatives driving my computers: upgrades to the operating system. I settled on Ubuntu desktop and server many years ago, and I think it was the right decision: sufficiently up-to-date to run the software in versions that I need (unlike Red Hat and its clones, which are now so far out of date as to have become a joke in the industry); but sufficiently widely-used that there are plenty of good and generous people out there who can help if there are the occasional rough spots — and sufficiently well-curated that those rough spots are very few and far between.

What triggered the current upgrade was the need to find something usable to put on an old Dell 32-bit laptop to keep it running. It’s an old but extremely solid machine, very nice hi-res widescreen, plenty of disk space but limited processor and memory capacity. To heavy to schlepp to meetings much now (although I did bring it to XMLSS this year), as my phone plus BT keyboard does pretty much everything I need while travelling, and certainly so where the USA is concerned, where I never bring a laptop.

But it’s still a 32-bit system, and Ubuntu discontinued 32-bit support with 17.04 (Zesty). The problem was that the laptop was running 14.04 (Trusty) when this was announced, so I knew that the last-ever upgrade would be on the way — to 16.04 (Xenial), as it happened (there was no v.15). The hunt for a supported 32-bit system was on.

After reading through the half-dozen ‘Ten Best Low-Powered Linux Systems’ articles and taking advice from friends, I lighted upon N Linux, which seemed to cater for about the right point of balance between usability and availability. It installed fine, and it’s basically perfectly usable — except that the repos are over a year out of date (only TEXLive 2015, for example), despite being Debian-based. It’ll do for the moment until comes up for cyclical replacement, and then I’ll probably sacrifice speed for support and install Ubuntu 16.04 and leave it as the emergency machine.

In the meantime there’s a Dell XPS 15 to be provisioned. This is the big brother of the XPS 13, on which linux can be had preinstalled. No such luck with the 15, however: Dell don’t cater for the top-end developer, so you have to do it yourself. I did try to ‘continue’ with Windows installation, but it wanted driver updates, and it accepted a long passphrase and then refused to honour it afterwards, so I did a full wipe and encrypt with Ubuntu 17.10.

At least, that was the intention, but on boot, the 17.10 startup ticker (or spinner, or whatever the widget is called that displays five white dots and slowly changes then to red dots and back again) hung on the fifth dot and wouldn’t go any further. So for the moment it’s 17.04, which installed immediately without complaint, and I can then experiment with upgrading to 17.10 once I’ve finished logging the installation of the user software needed.

That has thrown up only one problem, but rather a weird one, which I have queried on the Emacs StackExchange until I can get together enough material to report it. Basically, Emacs started and immediately threw the error Error running timer 'blink-cursor-start': (wrong-type-argument listp 0.5) and refused to handle any keyboard input (giving more wrong-type-argument errors). On of the Mods (Dan) suggested the -Q argument as a workaround, which removes the error by bypassing all startup files. This needs to be tracked and fixed: Emacs is a core application for text editing for both XML and LATEX, and this kind of error is a show-stopper, either for the hardware or the software, whichever it turns out to be. Everything else looks fine.

The XPS 15 is a nice piece of hardware. The trackpad is way too sensitive, though (maybe it’s better in Windows). There’s a port-extender which provides an RJ45 socket when you need better transfer speed than wifi, and the suspend-resume mechanism seems to work in Linux. I haven’t tried the audio or video yet — that’s for the next installment, before something worse comes along.

Sunday 2017-11-05 16:00:00 Up

Do ya want yer ould data washed down?

Your quality of service depends on the quality of your data just as much as on the quality of everything else

We’re constantly being told that organisations “must go digital” or die, and experts like @damienmulley run courses to get you started or bring you up to date. Which is all very well, but there’s little point in tweeting or facebooking your organisation’s finer points if your services fall over because your data doesn’t flow.

Right now, one organisation I am involved with is in the middle of a web site revamp, so the developers are looking for things like pages which are supposed to be under revision but aren’t (yet), and for the page sources to index for a new search system.

This weirdly requires JSON, not HTML, probably for the convenience of the indexing engine rather than the convenience of the customer (always a bad idea). Not that there’s any problem in generating it: anyone equipped with wget, tidy, and lxprintf can rattle out document metadata and normalized text, which is all they apparently want for indexing. As all inline markup gets dropped, there won’t be any faceting except by source directory, so it will at least be able to distinguish pages about training courses from those about supply contracts; but like Google and others, it won’t otherwise have sufficient context to tell a cookbook from a novel or a product brochure from a password reset page.

Ironically, the organisation’s data is actually fairly good in web pages: it’s in areas like corporate administration that it falls down. For historical reasons, custody of the email address list is handled by a different office from the one which handles custody of the internal phonebook data, and ne’er the twain shall meet. This means a search for the person you want to contact requires two separate and unconnected searches, and returns two separate and unconnected results, one from the email list and one from the phone list. It’s inefficient and unnecessary, and JSON ain’t gonna fix this kind of problem.

Americans tend to have this touching faith in the efficiency of corporations. You come across it most often in discussions of government and state-run enterprises, where they really do believe quite religiously, hand-on-heart style, that everything would be sooooo much better if it was handed over to private enterprise. Their reasoning is that private enterprise is motivated by profit, so if something doesn’t work, it will cause a loss, and so will get fixed quickly. It’s become an article of their faith in capitalism, and it skews their judgment heavily, and sometimes disastrously.

Quite where they get this view from is a mystery, but like all myths, once promulagted, it’s impossible to stop the uncritical believing it. Both state and private organisations are equally bad at data governance, in my experience, although probably in different ways. I have dealt with government offices who seem to be living in the late 1800s, and not only have no clue what they should be doing, but don’t have the data to do it with anyway. I have also dealt with government offices who do a spectacularly brilliant job, clearly understanding what they are at, and having all the information right where it’s needed. The UK’s Opening Up Government project is a good example of How To Do It Right (OK, I’m biased, I know several of the people working there, because they’re in the same field as me, but nevertheless).

In businesses, there are those who likewise have a seamless flow of information, and you can visit their web site and order their goods or services, and it all works fluidly, with everything in its place. I ordered a micro-USB OTG charger hub the other night, and I was done in a few clicks, and it arrived today. There are also those who quite clearly have no clue what they are doing. You order goods and the form either asks for information you cannot possibly have, or fails to ask for something which you know they will need. They then don’t pass all your address to the shippers, who in turn claim that your address doesn’t exist, so delivery fails. I’m still waiting for an item I ordered back at the start of the summer, and it’s now October. I think it will eventually arrive, but ‘clueless’ doesn’t even begin to describe the company. JSON won’t fix their problems any more than XML will.

Another favourite trick is from suppliers to my local university, who take purchase orders from many departments, but for shipping labels they just pop up the name of the university and pick the top address from the list. So your box of four borosilicate 500ml lab retorts gets delivered to the project office for humanities research in a different building the other end of campus, while their order for a dozen 1TB hard drives gets sent to the zoologists at the wildlife park 12Km away, because theirs was the most recent address used, and the individual in charge of packing labels either can’t be bothered to get it right, or doesn’t realise there is a difference. Some of this is human, but most of it is simply bad data in the wrong place. JSON won’t solve this problem either.

Programmers tend to love JSON and hate XML, usually for the wrong reasons. Neither format will solve the problems of bad or missing data, only expose the data for what it is. Programmers are used to dealing with two-dimensional data: database tables, row-and-column spreadsheets, and CSV files. Go deeper, and you use relational algebra to handle n-to-m joins, but the data is still rectangular. Both JSON and XML can handle this with ease, and it’s not important which one you use. Text document markup with mixed content (think HTML) is messier: stuff is perhaps present, but there again, maybe it’s not; raw text is intermingled with more elements, sometimes nested arbitrarily deep. Yes, there’s life in the tree, but not as we know it, Jim. JSON may possibly be able to represent this, but not meaningfully, and all statements to the effect that this is human-readable are from now on inoperative. There’s a fascinating thread over on xml-dev about the pros and cons of JSON vs XML but it’s clear that the message about using the appropriate format for the task has yet to penetrate the murkier recesses of corporate development. And if the data simply isn’t there, or is in the wrong place, neither format will do anything to help.

Friday 2017-10-06 09:55:02 Up

Down the slippery slope (again)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

The human race has probably been down this particular slope in one form or another many dozens or hundreds of times. Just in case anyone has missed it, the politics of western civilisation in parts of Europe and north America have taken a hit from the disgruntled, disenfranchised, dispossessed, disregarded, and disconnected (perm any three from five). It shows up in the UK as a vote to leave the EU, in the USA as a vote for the so-called President Trump, and in France as a vote to return to fascism with Marine Le Pen.

Depending on your stance, of course. In the UK, it was dressed up as a vote to get rid of Johnny Foreigner, which appealed to the latent xenophobes. Or as a claim to return British sovereignty, which boils down to a dislike of EU law. In the USA, the xenophobic card carries a different weight, but was just as useful, as was the dislike of Federal law. In France, it’s the same as in the UK (one of the hallmarks of Franco-British relations over the last 300 years has been that the reason they dislike each other so much is that they’re so alike).

But if you remove the layers of humbug and snake-oil which Trump, Farage, Le Pen, and others used to mask the smell of outright lies, what’s underneath is a large part of the population who used to be able to afford a reasonable standard of living, no longer being able to do that; and a very small part of the population who have made (or are making) stunningly large sums of money from morally repulsive activities.

In Len Deighton's spy novel Horse under Water (the title refers to cocaine retrieved by a diver), the pro-Nazi baddie reminds the spy to bring a message to his government: ‘Don’t destroy the middle classes!’ Neglect of this simple mantra lies at the core of the current set of defections from decency. It's not important that ‘middle class’ in the USA means something slightly different from ‘middle class’ in the UK, nor that in many cases the phrase in fact better describes the rural poor or the urban working class rather than the newly-dispossessed white-collar classes. What’s significant is that it’s a lot of people who are very pissed-off at being forgotten about, while the politicians and those able to take advantage of them are treated as if they were important.

It’s unclear if the US Democrats have even begun to realise that their perpetual underhand dealings, from the rigging of laws to the use of political correctness to mask Federal expansion, actually upset a lot of people who then didn’t vote for them — or indeed for anybody. Nor has the equivalent thought occurred to the UK Conservative or Labour parties (with, apparently, the exception of Jeremy Corbyn, apparently the only MP left with any shred of decency). And you may be sure than when Marine Le Pen wins in France, it will be for the same reasons, and her competitors will have missed that particular cluetrain as well.

So what of our own locally-trained collection of gobshites and jackasses in Ireland? Again and again they and their appointed minions attempt to circumvent normal standards of behaviour in order to preserve the continued employment of their venal, criminal, or incompetent colleagues or subordinates. They then attempt to cover up their misdoings, and inevitably botch the job (remember, I said ‘incompetent’), so the Press gets hold of it, it all gets officially denied, often via a ludicrously expensive Enquiry, the miscreants are free to return to their troughs, and the people originally affected are left by the wayside.

So why do those who remember the last time allow it all to happen again? The answer seems to be selective memory. Those who remember are not in positions of power; those who are, don’t remember. The reasons could be chemical, genetic, sociological, or David Icke’s 9' green space lizards — we don’t know. We do know how to fix it, though: as we don’t do wholesale slaughter of the ruling class any more, we have to use a vote. So it comes back to politics again: if what has happened in the last year offends or upsets you, as it does me, remember that enough people voted for it to make it happen.

Friday 2017-02-10 13:27:42 Up

Useful for kindling

Online technical books need constant curation

OK, so it’s been a year since I put finger to keyboard on this. Mea culpa. Trying to reconstruct a life after so long with my head below the parapet took over 12 months, far longer than I anticipated.

Anyway, back to business. Kindles suck. Yes, they were among the first; yes they look pretty; yes, if all you want to do is read a novel (or any continuous text), they work pretty well. If you write tech doc, they suck.

First, there’s the binary file format. It used to be Mobi, now it’s KF8, and it’s not unmanageable, but the EPUB3 zip is way easier to handle, leaving aside the DRM (Digital Restrictions Management), which I’m not involved in.

Next, the HTML. It’s like writing for a late 1990s browser written by a student on acid. Not just that the devs never read the spec (hey, the Mosaic devs never read ISO 8879 either), but that they picked and chose what to support as if they weren’t going to have time for all of it. Like there’s soooo much in HTML?

Then there’s CSS. Version 1 by the look of it. Bold, italic, maybe both. Spacing? A little. Selectors? A class if you’re lucky. Size? Within limits. Yes, we know the syntax sucks, and it would have been so much easier to do it like Panorama, but browsers didn’t parse HTML properly either, so why expect Amazon to do so?

Gripe over: not my circus, not my clowns. Calibre does a reasonable job of transforming my EPUB3 code into a MOBI, and the file size is acceptable. Kindlegen does a slightly smoother job, on first appearances, but then drops the ball with a splatt on monospace blocks of code, links, font changes, embedded images, and — worst of all if you’re writing about LATEX — no control over raising and lowering, nor on tighter kerning. I suppose that’s a step too far for a system that can’t even hyphenate properly.

So LaTeX it will have to be for Kindle folks (including my emulator on the Note). Mac users, of course, have jam on it with the Apple eBook Reader, and even the otherwise fairly crummy selection for Android manage to represent most of the content. Now if there was just a version of the Calibre Reader for Android, I could toss the Kindle in with the cipíní and watch it burn.

Sunday 2016-04-03 22:15:20 Up