EU approves law to regulate Big Tech

It is odd that Apple and Google swipe 15%+ from developers who write apps for them. It's the wrong way round as far as I'm concerned. It's the proliferation of apps that sells the devices that use iOS and Android, so shouldn't Apple and Google be paying developers 15% to write apps for them?

The dominance of Big Tech allows them to reverse this relationship. If there were, say, ten roughly equal device manufacturers, each with their own OS, there'd be competition to get developers to produce apps for their platforms. Big Tech might then see their app stores and payment processing facilities as the cost of enticing developers to create apps rather than something to extract yet more profit from.

But the situation is what it is and Big Tech is undergoing a variety of antitrust challenges. The EU is leading the way with new regulations they believe will force Big Tech to open up its platforms more. Margrethe Vestager, the EU's antitrust chief said:

What we want is simple: fair markets…in digital.

Large gatekeeper platforms have prevented businesses and consumers from the benefit of competitive digital markets.

I'm wary, though. The implementation is what matters, and regulators don't have the best track record in that respect. Take the cookie policies, for example. They were meant to protect consumers from their data being used without permission, but what they mainly did was create a bunch of irritating pop-ups that people dismiss as quickly as possible, accepting whatever defaults the site applies to cookies in the process. I went through a lot of the cookie policies at first, judiciously opting out of as much as possible, but that soon gets tedious and now I mostly just accept the defaults. The regulation was ill-defined; it should have insisted that any sort of dismissal of a cookie screen should by default have installed no cookies at all. Then they should have prosecuted the hell out of any site that didn't comply.

The US CanSpam Act of 2003 is another example of a law that failed. It managed to introduce more red tape for legitimate businesses and failed to combat spammers, who moved themselves offshore to evade the Act. The reduction in spam we enjoy these days is mainly the result of better spam filters and actively maintain block lists.

They have to make sure new regulations don't go the same way and work out worse for consumers. There is no point regulating Big Tech simply for the sake of it, or just to stop them making so much money. It has to be beneficial to consumers, and the advantages of any change must exceed the disadvantages, because there will be some.

Whilst a lot of the objections from Big Tech will undoubtedly be to protect their balance sheets, they do sometimes have a point. Apple made the point that being forced to open up their platform removes the consumer's choice to use a locked down platform. There may be something in that if you accept that a locked down platform has benefits, maybe for things like security.

Either way, more of these regulations will come, and if I was in charge of a Big Tech company I'd want to get ahead of the game.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Party Politics

I don't often pick random items of news to comment on, but I felt like doing so today.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

I'm glad Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has finally been allowed to come home after being deprived of six years of her life as a prisoner in Iran. She was a victim of two dreadful governments: the bunch of kidnappers masquerading as the Iranian government, and the bunch of incompetents masquerading as the British government.

The Iranian government seems to have no qualms about using innocent people as pawns in its negotiations, which is evil, but the British government is equally at fault. The BBC's article about this states:

Her release came after the UK government paid a £400m debt to Iran dating back to the 1970s, although both governments have said the two issues should not be linked.

They may as well not bother denying it because it has always been about the £400m debt, which everyone knows anyway. That they deny that just makes them look stupid, and it's a reflection on how easily dishonesty comes to politicians. But the thing is, the British government has never denied owing this money — and has owed it since the 1970s — so why didn't they pay it six years ago and get her released then? As she says:

What's happened now should have happened six years ago. I shouldn't have been in prison for six years.

Party Politics

I'm astonished this whole lockdown party situation is still chewing up unaccountable hours of the Metropolitan Police's time. Haven't they got anything better to do?

The damage has already been done to the Tory clowns who thought they were above their own rules. They've been exposed. We've heard Boris squirm and no amount of semantics about 'business meetings' is going to wash with the public. As far as I understand it, party-goers in breach of Covid rules might get a £50-£100 fine, but the people involved have very deep troughs and it'll be nothing to them. That would be true even if someone was given a £10k organiser fine. That's pocket change compared to the sort of back-hander they'd get for, say, arranging a PPI deal for their mates. So why bother?

The Met needs to charge itself with wasting police time and get on with more pressing business. You know, solving murders, robberies, rapes, and arresting Simon Cowell.

Safari changes format of downloaded file

I'm in the process of transferring to a new VPS server, one that uses Interworx as its control panel like my old one did. The most efficient way to move all the files across is to take a Siteworx backup on the old server and move that somewhere publicly accessible (public_html or wherever), then you can wget the file in your shell on the new server and import it into Interworx.

Because I'm a moron, I tried moving one of the sites a different way. I took a backup on the old server, downloaded it my MacBook and then FTP'd it to the new server. There can be a gotcha in that process. If you have 'Open "safe" files after downloading' ticked in your Safari preferences, it will unzip the file and turn it into a standard 'tar' file. In my case Interworx then threw its toys out of the pram trying to deal with it. It's as if someone had come to my door asking to borrow a drill and I'd handed them a blancmange instead.

It's easily rectifiable, though — just untick that option in your Safari preferences.

Safe files preference in macOS Safari.

Omega's Ultra Deep watches

I am an Omega man. About 15 years ago when I decided to treat myself to an expensive watch, I chose an Omega Seamaster rather than anything from Rolex, Constantin, Jaeger or whatever. It's rated for 300m, which is 295m deeper than I've ever gone in any of the world's oceans. It's overkill for me, and, I suspect, for 99%+ of people.

But it's a mere amateur compared to Omega's Ultra Deep watch collection. Those watches are rated for 6,000m, which is ludicrous. Very few people have ever gone that deep, and those that have have done so in a pressurised submersible vessel, thus making the talents of the watch irrelevant.

Omega's experimental model of the Ultra Deep accidentally spent two days at the bottom of the of the Mariana Trench, which is nearly 11,000m deep. It survived and had only lost 1 second as a result of the 16,000 pounds per square inch of pressure it endured.

Omega Ultra Deep watch.
Copyright © Omega

It's a fantastic bit of engineering, but this isn't a watch you buy to go 6,000m down in the ocean. You buy it to go to the pub and regale stories of its depth-wise qualifications. Not that there's anything wrong with that — I never tire of telling people how my hat can survive a journey through an elephant's digestive system. My particular hat hasn't undertaken that expedition, you understand, but the manufacturer claims it could survive it.

If this is the sort of watch you want, it can be yours for a mere £10,060, although there's a waiting list.

DPD is in the wrong business

I was recently expecting a delivery from DPD, but received a text telling me I wasn't in when they attempted to deliver. This was odd because I certainly was in, and there was no record on my phone of anyone buzzing my bell to attempt delivery.

I checked the CCTV. The DPD delivery driver didn't even come into the grounds, let alone buzz my bell. The driver's phone had extraordinary features, though. The way he determined I wasn't in was by taking a photograph of the building from outside the grounds. I didn't realise there were phones with military-grade heat sensors these days. The thing is, they don't work because, as I mentioned, I was in, and I wasn't hiding in the fridge or wearing lead underpants to fool the driver's heat-sensing phone.

Sarcasm aside, this isn't the first time DPD drivers have been too lazy to deliver things to me. The driver did the same thing last time, but on that occasion he didn't even get out of his van to take the photograph of the building. He just snapped it from the driver's seat.

This inconvenienced me because I then had to pick the delivery up from a DPD drop-off point, which is the local Matalan in my case. That meant I had to disguise myself as Napoleon before setting off in order to protect my reputation.

What, then, is the point of a delivery company that doesn't attempt to deliver? That's supposed to be their job. My advice to DPD is that they'd be better off in the photography business. If they don't want to do that, they could do some cost-cutting by delivering everything to Matalan in the first place. They'd save a fortune in petrol if they did away with driving all over the place pretending to deliver things.

A physicist's mental health struggles

I came across this article about a physicist's struggle with mental health and his dismay at the help he received from professionals. I found myself nodding along with most of it, as, I expect, would lots of people with mental health problems.

In contrast to my rigorous physics experiments, however, what astonishes me is that absolutely no-one has ever taken a single measurement or test on me during my fight against my mental illness. In its place have been interviews, questionnaires, biases and opinions.

Along those lines he goes on to say:

I was therefore greatly disturbed to discover that the nature of my mental-health treatment consisted entirely of generalizations and guesswork. Surely, I thought, neuroscientists would have realized how important it would be to develop technology that can – directly and non-invasively – detect action potentials in the human brain. Such a technique would revolutionize the field overnight.

And:

How can it be that we can land a rover on Mars with a jet-pack, yet do not have a single quantitative measure of any mental illness? The effectiveness of treatments are currently measured by psychiatrists using questionnaires and rating scales, which seem pitifully inadequate.

It's not as if they can't accumulate data. They know brain scans can indicate a lot about depression:

Researchers find that significant differences exist between a depressed brain and a neurotypical brain through functional brain scans. Rather than only focusing on the two regions that appear differently with static images, these functional images show additional variations in the:

  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus
  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus
  • Striatum
  • Thalamus

Helen Mayberg, professor of psychiatry, neurology and radiology at Emory University School of Medicine:

All depressions are not equal and, like different types of cancer, different types of depression will require specific treatments. Using these scans, we may be able to match a patient to the treatment that is most likely to help them, while avoiding treatments unlikely to provide benefit.

But they don't habitually use brain scans for mental health problems. If you have a heart attack, they capture data from the heart via ECGs; if you have cancer they'll perform scans to accumulate data. Mental health is, however, not afforded the same scientific approach. It is, and always has been, a second class citizen as far as health services are concerned.

What will ET look like?

Cosmos asked six scientists and astrobiologists what extraterrestrials might look like. They gave a wide range of opinions, ranging from slime to advanced technologists capable of building Dyson spheres. I like Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s reminder about the Copernican Principle, which cautions against thinking we’re special or unique. Extraterrestrial life is out there, although finding it is another matter.

I’d be disappointed if they don’t have a couple of antennae, a ray gun and speak with an American accent, which is what movies have led me to believe. Or, better still, we find Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon Six, who, according to Douglas Adams, has erogenous zones that start four miles from her body.

Inane questions in surveys

For the most part I quite like doing surveys, and I'm signed up with a few survey companies. I like the political and more general surveys rather than the consumer ones, although a lot are of the latter type.

What bugs me most, though, is the sort of questions they ask about some consumer products. Things like how 'close' I feel to the company, and I just don't, as a matter of course, feel close to companies I buy products from. They sell me a product I want to buy and that's the end of our relationship.

One type of question I particularly hate is where they ask me to associate certain words with a product, or ask me to describe my emotional attachment to it. I had one on cleaning fluids the other day and the options were things like:

When using this product, do you:

  • Sing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah in joy?
  • Declare your love for the company by sending them roses?
  • Grab your tinkle in priapic excitement?

Okay, I'm exaggerating there, but if you do surveys you'll know the sort of question I mean. It's a cleaning product FFS — how thrilled can a person be by it? Sometimes all the answers reflect good, positive emotions, whereas if the cat's just thrown up and I have to use their product to clean the floor, I'm going to be angry, grumpy and swearing a lot.

Another sort of question I hate is where they ask if I know about a particular brand and, after I reply in the negative, they still go on to ask my opinions about it anyway. I swear this is true — I had that sort of question about Tampax the other day.

Then there's the questions where none of the answers are relevant to me and there's no 'I don't know' option. I just have to lie to get the survey to move forward and that's a waste of my time and theirs.

Is it just me? Do people really get feelings of joy about a company that manufactures their cleaning fluids, washing-up brushes or cat litter?

The Eternals review — I struggled with it

Because I'm a nerd for Marvel stuff, I watched The Eternals last weekend and present a short review here. I'll cut to the chase, though: it didn't particularly float my boat.

Read this post in full.

Goldfish can learn how to drive

We all know that goldfish are terrible at riding bicycles, but they can be taught how to drive. They taught rats how to drive a few years ago, which proved to be therapeutic for the rats, and now the privilege has been extended to goldfish.

How exactly does this work?

The FOV [Fish-Operated Vehicle] is, in essence, a fish tank on wheels. Unlike the rat-mobile, there are no physical controls for the fish to learn to use. Instead, a downward-looking camera tracks the fish's position in the tank. If the fish is near one of the tank walls and is facing outward, the fish-control algorithm (which runs on an onboard Raspberry Pi 3B+) will move the FOV in that direction. A lidar sensor on the same mast overrides the fish control algorithm if the FOV comes within 20 cm of the walls of the terrestrial environment, a 4x3 meter enclosure.

Six lucky goldfish took part in the experiment and they took to the task admirably. This proved the goldfish had a picture of the world outside the tank they lived in. This surprised me. I had a goldfish once and it would certainly react to finger pressed to the outside of the tank, but I wouldn't have guessed it had a good enough geometric picture in its head to be able to drive the tank.

So, why are scientists doing this? Well, they just wanted to see if the navigational skills of fish still operate outside of their familiar environment. It appears they do.

For their next experiment scientists intend to find out if a hippopotamus can be taught to play the violin.[1]

[1]: No, not really.

The Apple TV, HomePod and Airplay nightmare

I was going to post a gripe about HomePods and AirPlay after having previously suffered issues with this, but 9To5Mac beat me to it and accurately reflected my own frustrations:

It’s almost laughable as I don’t know what to do anymore. I tried to restart the smart speakers, approach the HomePod mini pair with the iPhone 13, and use the U1 chip integration, but the experience is very unreliable.

For a company that praises the instant connection of AirPods, it’s so weird how unreliable AirPlay can be. Sometimes, Control Center says a song is playing in one of the HomePods, but there’s no sound at all. Eventually, the AirPlay section says all HomePods are paired, and a few seconds later I see that one of them disconnected.

Every time there's a software update to either the HomePods or Apple TV it can take an hour of rebooting and resetting devices to get things working, and then only if you're lucky. If you do manage to get things working it won't last long before you get a seemingly random disconnection of some sort.

It's a nightmare and I can't imagine how this passed Apple's QA. It has all the look of a feature that was rushed to market before it's ready.

I gave up. I ran an optical cable between my TV and my Hi-Fi system and pushed the sound through there instead.

If your aim is to use a stereo pair of HomePod Minis as Apple TV speakers, I suggest you instead buy a baseball bat and smack yourself in the face with it — it'll be far less painful.

Don't Look Up

Don't Look Up is well worth watching. It's entertaining and worrying in equal parts. This is definitely one of Netflix's better productions.

Read this post in full.

Earth's black box

Earth's Black Box will record every step we take towards this catastrophe. Hundreds of data sets, measurements and interactions relating to the health of our planet will be continuously collected and safely stored for future generations.

A good idea. It looks ever more likely we'll be unable to avoid the impending environmental catastrophe.

However, a future generation hoping to learn from this will have to be very different from the generations we've had since civilisation began. Because so far we've just been repeating the same mistakes over and over.

We've been constantly at war and we've still got a lot of countries run by tin-pot dictators. We can't get away from the overwhelming desire to force our own ideological values on others, whether that's one country upon another or a country's leaders upon its people.

Parts of the world live in luxury while other parts of it starve to death. That can't happen if future generations are going to be wiser.

Power and money hold sway everywhere.

I've no idea how we get away from that, but we have to if we want to stop the cycle of repeating the same mistakes.

Why is movie dialogue so quiet these days?

I used to be able to understand 99% of the dialogue in Hollywood films. But over the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that percentage has dropped significantly — and it's not due to hearing loss on my end. It's gotten to the point where I find myself occasionally not being able to parse entire lines of dialogue when I see a movie in a theater, and when I watch things at home, I've defaulted to turning the subtitles on to make sure I don't miss anything crucial to the plot.

I found the linked article interesting. I do have terrible hearing but I now use good quality hearing aids that are set to 40% volume. This works fine in almost every circumstance, other than for movie dialogue. Even setting my hearing aids to 100%, which endows me with bat-like hearing in normal life, doesn't help with movie dialogue.

Sound-effects, such as explosions, can be deafening, but dialogue is often too quiet.

I use subtitles by default anyway, but I still like to hear the dialogue if I can. The remote control is glued to my hand watching an action movie. I'm constantly raising the sound during the quiet parts in order to hear the dialogue, then lowering it during the action scenes to make sure my eardrums don't evaporate.

As the article indicates, it's not as simple as raising the volume of the dialogue at the mixing stage.

Terry Pratchett's take on the Schrodinger's Cat experiment

I quite like Terry Pratchett's take on the Schrodinger's Cat experiment, which, if you remember, suggests that a cat is held in a quantum superposition of being both alive and dead until the box is opened.

In Pratchett's Lords and Ladies, Greebo, a one-eyed grey tomcat that appears in a few of his books, is held in a slightly more complicated superposition:

Angry cat cartoon
Credit: PngKey

Greebo had spent an irritating two minutes in that box. Technically, a cat locked in a box may be alive or it may be dead. You never know until you look. In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.

Blackdown Hearing, Taunton & Somerton, Somerset — review

I had the pleasure of using Blackdown Hearing as for my audiology requirements. I offer a brief review of the company in this article.

Read this post in full.

Hot ice cream sometimes freezes faster than cold ice cream

In 1961 a Tanzanian teenager called Erasto Mpemba noticed that when he put hot ice cream in the freezer it sometimes froze faster than when he put cold ice cream in the freezer.

Kudos to him for noticing this — no ice cream that comes into my house lasts long enough to be subjected to scientific experimentation.

Mpemba mentioned the effect to his teachers, but they didn't take him seriously. In 1966 he went to secondary school and had a chance meeting with a physics professor called Denis Osborne to whom he mentioned what he'd noticed. The physics professor did take him seriously and they authored a paper together.

It was thereafter called the Mpemba Effect, but the rest of the physics world was a bit dubious. Something that is hot has faster moving molecules than something that is cold. That's what heat is. Something that is hot therefore needs to do more slowing down than something that is cold, so it should take longer to freeze. This was the understanding at the time.

Nevertheless, scientists have since confirmed the Mpemba Effect is real.

The thing is, this movement of the molecules that creates heat is an average. Not all the molecules will be moving at the same speed — some will move faster than the average and some will move slower. Merely taking an average is insufficient in this case; the distribution of the various speeds within that average also needs to be considered. The outliers are significant. Statisticians have a term for this called Kurtosis.

Coming up with a precise theoretical description has been harder, but it's now thought it has something to do with the way the statistical outliers affect hydrogen bonding.

Either that or it's merely a ruse that allows scientists to order loads of tubs of Ben & Jerry's at the expense of the institutions that employ them.

Channel 4's strange accessibility outage

I'm puzzled by Channel 4. I don't mean their programming output, which is always puzzling, but the recent outage that wiped many of their accessibility features such as subtitling and audio description.

Apparently a fire suppression system sucked all the oxygen out of one of their server rooms, which caused a 'sonic wave' that shut down their transmission servers.

That's quite weird in the first place, but what stuns me is that the quickest way they can recover the missing services is to write them from scratch again. Channel 4 said:

These services were irretrievably lost during the incident and we won't be able to restore them until we move to the new system we are building.

What happened to their offsite backups or their disaster recovery arrangements? I find it hard to believe they don't have these things, yet an Ofcom representative said:

We remain extremely concerned by the impact on people who rely on these services. Channel 4 did not have strong backup measures in place, and it should not have taken several weeks to provide a clear, public plan and timeline for fixing the problems.

So it's true, a company the size of Channel 4 simply doesn't have sufficient backups. Presumably their IT manager is Oliver Norvell Hardy.