An image of a green fedora hat, which serves as the logo for this site.Gordy's Discourse

Rolling your own SSG

Just some things a learnt whilst developing my own static site generator (SSG) software. For what it's worth, I don't recommend writing your own. There are already plenty good options out there. Techy-techy stuff, this.

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Google says Aussies are 9 wickets down External link icon.

It appears Google might bowl Australia out and leave the country if it's forced to come to some deal whereby it has to pay news publishers for the news it links to.

Google's argument is that it helps generate links to news sites in the first place, thus driving readers to them.

It's the way the money flows that matters though, and the article notes that for every A$100 spend on digital advertising, A$81 of it goes to Google or Facebook. That's an astonishing financial dominance.

Part of the problem, I believe, is the lack of competition. There aren't that many search engines that crawl the web to provide full, user-facing results. The main ones are Google, Yandex, Baidu, and Microsoft (Bing) and, in the Western world at least, Google is by far the most dominant.

A lot of so-called search engines might do a partial crawl but they'll fill out their results with data from the crawls of the bigger players.

Crawling the web is expensive, though. A lot of bandwidth is used. So it would need a big player to come in and challenge Google. I think that's needed, though.

There are holes in Google's search results another player could exploit. Google provides generally good results for simple search terms but it's often woeful with specifics.

Facebook bemoans Apple privacy change. Again.

The war between Facebook and Apple rolls on. This week Facebook took out a full page advertisement in a number of US newspapers bemoaning Apple's upcoming privacy change.

Let's just recap what Apple's change is going to do. Currently Facebook (and other advertising platforms) can track you across sites and apps at will. Facebook then uses that data to entice companies to use its advertising platforms, which in turn lines its own pockets. It does all this without your permission.

Apple is planning to intervene on its iOS platform so that when Facebook (and others) attempt to do this cross-site and cross-app tracking, you'll see a confirmation dialog like this:

Facebook can still track you, but you must now give it your informed permission before it will be allowed to do so.

This, I believe, is entirely sensible. Facebook should never have been able to track you without your permission in the first place. That it could do so was, in my opinion, an error; a hole in the process. Apple plans to plug this hole.

Facebook suspects a lot of people will not allow such tracking. They are correct in this respect. Many will be surprised Facebook was doing this without their permission in the first place.

The advert Facebook took out in the newspapers doesn't frame it in terms of their income being affected of course. They attempt a more emotive approach saying it will hurt small businesses — indeed, that it will devastate them — and that it will change the entire internet as we know it. They even try to capitalise on the Covid pandemic to pull some heart strings. The one thing you can be absolutely sure of, though, is that it's their bottom line they're really worried about.

Tim cook responded to Facebook's adverts on Twitter, saying:

We believe users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used. Facebook can continue to track users across apps and websites as before, App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 will just require that they ask for your permission first.

Quite so. I look forward to Apple implementing this.

Researchers study how to survive the zombie apocalypse External link icon.

Researchers have been studying how to survive the zombie apocalypse. No, really, they have. Shopping malls and pubs aren't a good idea, which means both Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead are misleading documentaries.

A team of statisticians from Cornell University in the US said:

If there is a zombie outbreak, it is usually assumed to affect all areas at the same time, and some months after the outbreak you're left with small pockets of survivors.

But in our attempt to model zombies somewhat realistically, it doesn't seem like this is how it would actually go down.

Given the dynamics of the disease, once the zombies invade more sparsely populated areas, the whole outbreak slows down — there are fewer humans to bite, so you start creating zombies at a slower rate.

The authors suggest heading for the hills; the Northern Rockies, perhaps.

Clearly they've aimed their research at saving Americans and I demand the UK government gathers equivalent research for us. They can't leave us at the mercy of zombies.

The authors of the paper go on to say:

Given the time, we could attempt to add more complicated social dynamics to the simulation, such as allowing people to make a run for it, include plane flights, or have an awareness of the zombie outbreak, etc.

I can't wait.

Whilst I'm suggesting survival techniques, I found this video interesting (and rather more useful that surviving zombies). It's how to survive falling through ice. Props to the presenter for actually demonstrating the techniques twice.

Is there a message from God in the CMB? External link icon.

A couple of physicists studied the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to see if God had left a message for us.

The idea is that God might have used the slight temperature variations of the CMB to encode a binary message for all creation to see.

They didn't find a message and one of the physicists, Michael Hippke, concluded:

I find no meaningful message in the actual bit-stream.

We may conclude that there is no obvious message on the CMB sky. Yet it remains unclear whether there is (was) a Creator, whether we live in a simulation, or whether the message is printed correctly in the previous section, but we fail to understand it.

The scientists are buffoons.

I took one glance at the binary data they used (pictured below) and found the message straight away.

Binary data from the CMB.
I spotted the message almost immediately.
Credit: Some scientists.

It's as plain a day: 101010, which is binary for 42, which has long been thought to be the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything.

I await my Nobel Prize.

General humbuggery

I was reading an article on the BBC about Christmas tree sales, and this made me frown and swear and stamp my feet in annoyance.

I am pleased that someone's business is doing well after a difficult year of trading, but decorating a Christmas tree this early is ludicrous.

It's another way the lunatics in society ensure all the sane people are thoroughly bored of Christmas long before it arrives.

TV contributes to this general hideousness. Some channels have been showing Christmas films for many weeks now, and dedicated Christmas channels started up in early November.

Shops add their nonsense to the whole debacle too, assaulting our eardrums with Noddy Holder and Mariah Effing Carey from December 1st onwards.

It is well known that I will be the dictator of the country one day, and I'm going to take the unprecedented step of issuing an edict that will backdate. People breaching this edict will be placed in my black book — in red ink, no less — and brought to justice as soon as I'm in power.

Christmas will run from 23rd December until 2nd January inclusive. Anyone doing anything Christmasy outside that period will be shot. Anyone even mentioning Christmas in November will be tortured and then shot.

I still plan to be a benign and benevolent dictator of course, as long as you ignore the shooting and torturing, which is just a technicality.

Lockdown faff for Christmas 2020 and beyond

The faffing over what to do with the coronavirus lockdown situation at Christmas and beyond is ludicrous.

There's going to be a new set of rules for five days at Christmas and then another new set of rules to control regional lockdowns after Christmas, which, as ever, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will change slightly for their own regions.

Politicians are currently bumping heads over the post-Christmas regional lockdown plans, though, with many preferring a national lockdown instead. They have a point. The idea of regional lockdowns in a country this size is pretty silly.

Why don't they just forget about all this? We have vaccines on the horizon and it would be safer and simpler to remain in national lockdown — as we are now — until they start to roll out.

Perish the thought that people might not be able to celebrate Christmas for one measly year. Never fear, there'll be another commercial break in the not too distant future. We might have immunity by then and you can party like it's 1999.

Ocado's van colours

When Ocado tell me my delivery will arrive in the "cabbage" van I look out for a green van rather than the purple van they send.[^1]

I know there's red cabbage, which is purple in colour, but green is the first colour that comes to mind when I think of a cabbage. Alas Ocado's green van is their "apple" van, which is also confusing because apples can be red too.

Their "lemon" van is yellow and their "orange" van is orange, and these both make sense. Their "raspberry" van is red, which makes sense too although I'd prefer it were called "strawberry".

I think they should make their "cabbage" van green. If they must have a purple van, it should be called the "kohlrabi" van or, if that's too obscure, the "eggplant" van. But why not have one that's black and call it the "blackberry" van?

Better still, the green van could be the "cucumber" van. I believe cucumbers can come in different colours, although that's rare. This is easily solved by the government creating a law banning all cucumbers that are not green.

I appreciate this is a first-world problem, but it would only cost them a few million pounds to make this change for my benefit.

Whilst I'm on the subject of Ocado van colours, I've never had a delivery in an orange van. I find this deeply suspicious and fear it's all part of a plot to disrupt the world order, possibly by reptilians disguised as humans. I note Ocado drivers sometimes move an inner door so I can't see what they're doing when they're supposed to be sorting out my delivery; I now believe they're taking this opportunity to dislocate their jaw and snack on a gerbil.[^2]

[^1]: The purpose of this nonsense is really to test Markdown footnotes.

[^2]: For those of you who remember V, the TV series (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joVeMPodhIg).

Bond to premier on Apple TV or Netflix?

There’s rumour that the new Bond movie, No Time To Die, might debut on Apple TV+ or Netflix instead of at the cinema. The rumour is by a scriptwriter with connections in the industry who claims to have heard “insane figures” being bandied about.

Spectre grossed $880 million worldwide, so you can see the sort of figure Apple or Netflix would have to come up with to acquire the rights, although I’m not sure what proportion (or multiple?) of that they would have to pay. They can afford it, though, and I can see how it would be a nice feather in their cap for their TV services. And with no end in sight for coronavirus, and with no telling when cinemas might open fully again, I can see why the movie’s producers and distributors might consider it.

But I still think it’s unlikely. Of all the series’ of movies I can think of, Bond is the one that seems most ‘cinematic’. I don’t think cinema has many blockbusters bigger than Bond these days.

Not that it would bother me. I’m far too deaf, miserly and miserable to go to the cinema these days. I’m a Netflix subscriber and I’m pretty sure I’m still in a free trial period for Apple TV+ too, although it would undoubtedly premiere the day after my trial period ends.

Why is the UK so bad at managing coronavirus?

I am wondering why we can't manage coronavirus as well as some other countries.

The countries that have been successful in managing coronavirus have had fast and efficient track and trace systems in operation. I'm talking about countries like New Zealand, South Korea, China and Singapore.

The often touted excuse when one mentions New Zealand is that they have fewer people and are more sparsely populated than the UK. This is true of New Zealand, but it's certainly not true of South Korea or China.

Yet these countries all built effective track and trace systems early on. Even if we account for the UK not being particularly quick off the mark with coronavirus, we've had six months now to put a system in place. But we don't seem to have bothered.

This baffles me.

Boris Johnson seems to be trying to strike a fragile balance between people's lives and the economy, but I think he's going about it the wrong way. The lesson to learn from successful countries is that we should lock down early and implement a rapid and effective track and trace system. Once you've done that, you can open the economy again and track and trace will help keep it open.

I would imagine Boris has all manner of excuses at to why this can't be done in the UK, but they're all nonsense. I say this without even knowing what they are. I say it because this is a national emergency that's costing needless lives and, at times like this, where's there's a will, there's a way.

I can only therefore presume there's no will, and I believe the responsible politicians will be judged severely for that in due course.

It frustrates me that the UK just seems to 'muddle along' these days. We don't grab things by the neck and deal with them. We're never bold and we never try to be world leaders in anything. We should have aimed high. We should have made it our aim to have fewer cases, fewer hospitalisations and fewer deaths than any other country.

It's almost as if someone, somewhere decided we simply don't have the wherewithal for that, which is a shocking reflection on what this country has become.

A 15,000 page mathematical proof

Sometimes people do things just because they can. I cannot imagine many people are actually going to read the mathematical proof I mention in this article, but it’s a good example of extreme determination.

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Is the online advertising bubble about to burst? External link icon.

Wired reviews a book called Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang, a former Google employee. The book postulates that the whole online advertising infrastructure is a bubble waiting to burst in the same way the subprime mortgage bubble burst in the mid-late 2000s. This is at least partly because online advertising is largely based on nothing, like subprime mortgages were.

Wired's review says the book:

… lays out the case that the new ad business is built on a fiction. Microtargeting is far less accurate, and far less persuasive, than it’s made out to be, he says, and yet it remains the foundation of the modern internet: the source of wealth for some of the world’s biggest, most important companies.

Back in the old days, if a company wanted to advertise online they'd contact the publisher directly and rent space on their website to show an advert.

These days, though, many advertisers don't advertise on a site directly, they submit a target profile for their adverts and the money they're willing to spend to an advertising network — Google, Facebook or whatever — and then a bunch of algorithms decides who gets what advertising slot.

Advertisers rely on the network's algorithms to do their job properly and return the targeted audience the advertisers require. But do they? Hwang thinks most online advertising is worthless:

There are piles of research papers in support of this idea, showing that companies’ returns on investment in digital marketing are generally anemic and often negative. One recent study found that ad tech middlemen take as much as a 50 percent cut of all online ad spending. Brands pay that premium for the promise of automated microtargeting, but a study by Nico Neumann, Catherine E. Tucker, and Timothy Whitfield found that the accuracy of that targeting is often extremely poor. In one experiment, they used six different advertising platforms in an effort to reach Australian men between the ages of 25 and 44. Their targeting performed slightly worse than random guessing. Such research indicates that, despite the extent of surveillance tech, a lot of the data that fuels ad targeting is garbage.

Hwang goes on to explain how ad blocking software and click fraud further deplete the reliability of the online advertising infrastructure.

There will come a time when advertisers realise that much of the money they're throwing at the advertising networks is wasted, and thus the bubble will burst.

I have wondered about the longevity of the current system for a while now.

The whole idea of pay-per-click and pay-per-view is flawed, which is to say it's excellent for enriching the advertising networks but dreadful for the advertisers themselves. Clicks and views don't, of themselves, earn any money for advertisers; they want sales. This means the advertising network has different measures of success to the advertiser, and that pulls the two parties in different directions.

The networks have long told us to value click through rates and strive to raise them, but that measure is just for the networks. I'm well aware there's a connection between clicks and sales — a user has to click through in order to buy the product — but it would be far more useful if the networks' objective was to produce sales rather than clicks. What the networks earn should be a percentage of what the advertiser earns, but it's fairly obvious why the networks would want to avoid that sort of system.

Advertisers and their networks are also operating in an ecosystem that doesn't consider users much.

Advertisers pay money for targeted clicks based on dodgy targeting data. Users on the other hand want rid of the lot of it. Users are unwilling participants and there's no way you can get the best out of that sort of system. Users will always resist advertising to some degree of course, but the less friction advertisers create with users, the better it will be for them.

The online world is so laden with adverts these days that it changes user behaviour. Users install ad blockers to get rid of the ones they can, and they develop visual blockers in their brains to get rid of the ones they can't. Our brains simply filter them out.

Because we're overloaded with adverts, we take less notice of them. I sometimes do surveys about advertising and I've never seen the adverts they ask me about. It's only after the survey that I might look for the advert and note it has been there all along.

Surely it would be better for advertisers and networks to consider how they can get adverts in front of users in such as way that they won't be irritated, won't want to block them and might actually want to click on them.

The current advertising systems work on volume (because that enriches the advertising networks), whereas they'd have more success working on quality instead. Fewer adverts per site (I'd argue for just one per site) will enrage users less and thus make them less likely to want to block things. Linking the advertising networks' income to sales rather than clicks or views would work better for advertisers. And if algorithmic targeting doesn't work, go back to looking at a site and seeing what sort of visitor you think it'll attract. It's not that hard.

Better still, cut the advertising networks out altogether. Go back to a system where advertisers contact site owners directly and make an offer to buy some advertising space.

The upshot, though, is that I believe Tim Hwang is right. Online advertising in its current form will eventually explode.

Don’t trust your nadgers to the Internet of Things External link icon.

I had no idea internet connected chastity devices existed until I read the article I link to. It seems they can be compromised and hackers can lock your plonker away forever.

Breaking open the chastity cage by hand would require bolt cutters or an angle grinder.

The thought of bolt cutters or an angle grinder within millimetres of my testicles had me crossing my legs.

Apparently the devices aren’t that reliable anyway. One user, who preferred to remain anonymous, said:

The app stopped working completely after three days and I am stuck.

Another said:

My partner is locked up! This is ridiculous as still no idea if being fixed as no new replies from emailing. So dangerous! And scary! Given what the app controls it needs to be reliable.

Well, quite.

The lesson is simple: if you’re going to lock your gentleman’s sausage away, don’t do it via the Internet of Things.

This isn’t the first time sex toys have been hacked. Live-streaming footage from a dildo camera has been hijacked, and hackers have taken control of a bluetooth-enabled butt-plug. I swear I’m not making this up.

All is not well in the teledildonics world.

The operating systems they run in space External link icon.

I found the article I link to quite interesting. It's about the operating systems they use in space.

We’ve got extremely demanding requirements for this mission.

Typically, rebooting the platform such as this takes roughly 40 seconds. Here, we’ve had 50 seconds total to find the issue, have it isolated, have the system operational again, and take recovery action.

It goes on to mention how their operating systems have to be deterministic. That means an app can't take 10 seconds to open one day and 15 seconds on another day. Anything the OS runs must take the same amount of time each time it's executed, down to the millisecond.

Do patterns in pulsar blips indicate cosmic strings? External link icon.

The four forces of the universe are the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity. These forces are theorised to have been part of a single superforce in the early universe. When the universe cooled, the four forces split off in stages to become the ones we see now. This all happened in the first billionth of a second after the big bang.

None of these forces should be confused with The Force, which is only accessible to Jedi Knights.

If the universe cooled very quickly, it's possible it was 'fractured' when the forces split up. The popular analogy is with an ice cube when it gets a crack in it. It is these fractures that created the cosmic strings.

Cosmic strings were first proposed by a theoretical physicist called Tom Kibble in the 1970s, just before he went on to invent the dog food that bears his name. Cosmic strings would be extremely thin — about the diameter of a proton — but they'd also be very long, stretching right across the universe. It's all very topological if you want to get into it (and I certainly don't).

They'd still be in existence too, which means they're discoverable. In theory.

Pulsar in the Crab Nebula.
Pulsar in the Crab Nebula.
Credit: Optical: NASA/HST/ASU/J. Hester et al. X-Ray: NASA/CXC/ASU/J. Hester et al.
Before we get to the point of this article, we need to describe another astronomical phenomenon: pulsars. Pulsars are small, compact stars (usually neutron stars) with a strong electromagnetic field. They rotate very quickly — often at sub-second intervals — and beam electromagnetic radiation out of their poles. We can see that radiation when they're pointed towards us, rather like a lighthouse.

The consistency of a pulsar's rotation and its emission of radiation makes it very handy as a clock for measuring time and distance in the universe.

There is a group of astronomers who watch pulsars, which is understandable as they're more entertaining that most things on television these days. Sometimes these astronomers see distortions in the blips of radiation from pulsars. These distortions can be caused by gravitational waves, and the gravitational waves are caused by things like two black holes colliding.

If that's the case, you'd expect the gravitational waves to be distorted in a different way for each pulsar because the distortion would depend on the masses of the black holes in question. But what one experiment purports to have found is that the distortions all look similar, suggesting a common cause.

One candidate for that common cause is cosmic strings.

But let's not jump the gun. The paper is still being peer reviewed and there could be other causes of the distortions: faulty instruments, skewed analyses or maybe someone was microwaving a pie at the time they took the measurements.

It's an intriguing thought, though, that we might be able to detect something from fractions of a second after the big bang; something as bizarre as a cosmic string too.