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

Siri or Skynet?

Does your HomePod ever do things you haven't asked it to do? Mine does. In this short article I just talk about my initial experiences with the Apple HomePod.

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Helm Personal Email Server overview External link icon.

Fancy hosting your own email but don’t want the sysadmin overhead? Maybe Helm is for you and Lee Hutchinson at ArsTechnica has written a fantastic overview of the service.

This definitely interests me as I’m always looking at ways to get away from corporate silos. I currently use Microsoft’s Office365 Exchange service for my email and it’s perfectly fine, but I like to extract myself from the global tech companies as much as possible.

Alas I can’t use Helm at the moment. It doesn’t yet support multiple domains (and I need two) and, crucially, it’s not yet available in the UK.

I’ll be keeping an eye on it though.

Tenda Nova Mesh WiFi review

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I've always suffered from poor wi-fi here, just one room away from the router. That's due to the thick walls in the old building I live in. I've previously used Powerline plugs but I wanted to see if a mesh wi-fi system could handle things. The one I went with was a Tenda Nova MW6, which I review here.

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The hellish Netflix work environment External link icon.

Rhett Jones at Gizmodo reports on the alleged hell that comes with a job at Netflix:

Kill or be killed seems to be accepted as a mode of operation. One employee expressed the feeling that they live in fear of being fired every day at an executive meeting. A vice president named Karen Barragan was said to have responded: “Good, because fear drives you.” Barragan disputed the account.

Apparently it even stretches to managers being fired for not firing enough people.

Of course an atmosphere of extreme corporate fear is doomed to failure eventually. There is no doubt that fear is a ‘motivator’ of sorts — it’s one of the primary emotions that drives the human psyche — but fear leads to defensive working practices, stifling invention and creativity.

Seriously underperforming staff should indeed be sacked and a little fear is no bad thing, but anyone who cares about their job has a little fear anyway and there’s no need for upper management to instil more.

The sort of environment described can succeed for a while, particularly if high salaries tempt people to put up with it, but it won’t last. In the long term there’ll be a lack of innovation and, as the corporate reputation spreads, people just won’t want to work there.

All of which says nothing about the people at the top who drive these sorts of working practices. I have no idea how they sleep at night knowing their modus operandi is to scare people shitless during the day. There are other qualities a ‘good’ person needs beyond making their company a corporate success. It sounds like someone's obsessed with trying to prove they're a hard-nosed corporate leader.

Are Apple products worth the money? External link icon.

Bradley Chambers on 9To5Mac asks the question a lot of Apple users are probably asking. You can now spend just shy of £1500 on an iPhone if you spec up a top of the range XS Max and that, in my opinion, is silly money.

I do think Apple produce high-quality products that are indeed better than most of the competition, at least in terms of the raw hardware you get, but I’m not convinced the whole user experience of owning an Apple product is worth the premium.

Look at the HomePod, for example. I believe it’s a better bit of hardware than either Amazon or Google’s offerings but a HomePod is all about interoperability and Amazon wins that battle hands down, and for a lot less money.

If you use mainly macOS and iOS devices you probably want to match them up with a HomePod, but I’m not sure it makes sense at the moment. You’ll pay two or three times the money for a lesser experience. I’d certainly back Apple to improve the HomePod — and, perhaps more importantly, expand the hardware it can be used with and the intelligence of its interface — but Amazon will improve too and they seem to have a bit of a head start.

There are areas where Apple really take the piss too. MacBooks don’t come with an RJ45 port of course and if you want to buy a Thunderbolt to Gigabit ethernet adapter to hard-wire your internet connection, Apple will charge you an eye-watering £26 for the privilege. All for a few inches of wire that probably costs about £1 to manufacture, if that.

Apple’s last set of results indicated a drop in the rate of sales of their phones but that was offset by an increase in the average profit Apple are making from each unit they sell. Apple have to be careful here, though, because an evangelical following will only go so far. There is a price point that simply isn’t worth it even for superior hardware.

For me, Apple have already exceeded that point with their iPhone by quite some margin. When I buy hardware I like to spec it up quite high to future-proof it to some extent in terms of the oomph it has, but there is no way I’m spending £1500 on a phone. Or even £1000. As it stands I might spend £750 on a phone but only if it was top of the range, so Apple are 2x my own price limit for phones.

I might spend £2500 on the best MacBook Pro but Apple would want £1000 more. The iPad Pro fares a bit better: I might spend £1000 on that and a high-spec one goes for about £1100 these days.

So I’m being outpriced by Apple even as a believer that, in general, quality is worth paying for.

I shudder at the thought of going back to Windows for my laptop and tablet needs and I’m not too keen on switching to an Android phone either, but it’s looking likely if Apple don’t rein in their prices.

Companion phone released by Japanese firm NTT Docomo External link icon.

There are two ways you could look at this.

The first is that we already have ‘companion’ devices anyway. The iMac’s companion is the MacBook, whose companion is the iPad, whose companion is the iPhone. All we’re doing is continuing the succession with a ‘cardphone’, for want of a better phrase.

The second is that we’re getting into a ludicrous Russian doll-style situation here and we can expect a phone the size of postage stamp next, then one the size of a flea and then one the size of molecule. If we see things this way, the world has clearly gone bonkers and it needs to stop spinning for a moment so we can all get off.

I'd be surprised if this idea catches on, although stranger things have happened.

Schema.org for a blog

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I've used schemas on my website almost since I started it. I haven't found the internet particularly helpful in guiding me with schema for a blog so maybe everyone else just makes it up as they go along like I do. In this article I show how I use schema, which seems to work reasonably well for me.

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Tim Berners-Lee aims to give people more control of their personal data, possibly External link icon.

Tim Berners-Lee has developed something called Solid, which is meant to act as sort of a silo for all your personal data. The intention appears to be that you can then allow companies to access your data only as you choose.

Mr Berners-Lee said:

With Solid, you will have far more personal agency over data — you decide which apps can access it.

I read Solid’s own introduction to what it’s about and still wasn’t clear on how this will help me. I mean I can see that it’s a bit of online storage with permissions that I can control and allocate as necessary, but there are lots of online repositories where I could store my data and control who accesses it.

Solid’s documentation says:

Store anything you want in your own Solid POD. PODs are like secure USB sticks for the Web, that you can access from anywhere. When you give others access to parts of your POD, they can react to your photos and share their memories with you. You decide which things apps and people can see.

Think of your Solid POD as your own private website, except that your data interoperates with all your apps, which means you have your own personal API to go along with it. When you post comments or videos online, your friends can view them with whatever app they like, such as an album viewer or a social feed. It’s your data, that can be shaped in any way or form.

Presumably, then, this relies on companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and such ‘signing up’ to the idea of grabbing your personal data from solid instead of asking you to store it on their own servers.

If I’ve understood this correctly I can see how that might be useful. If I wanted to stop sharing an item of personal data, I’d go into Solid and tell it to stop sharing it and all the apps that used that item of personal data would lose access. I don’t have to go into each app individually.

But it will rely on other companies signing up to the idea and I don’t think they will. Why would they? I suppose they could be forced to if everyone moved to Solid en bloc, but I think that’s unlikely.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood something.

Either way, it doesn’t go far enough for my liking. I want to get paid to give over my personal data. Big Tech profits massively from our data and it’s time we got our cut of the profits. We have the power here, we just aren’t organised enough to wield it effectively.

Apple's 12 September 2018 event External link icon.

Personally, I couldn’t be less interested in what was announced. It’s all phones and watches, neither of which I use in any high-tech manner. I have an iPhone 6 I completely forget about unless it rings, which is once a fortnight on average, and I just want my watch to tell me the time.

I do however appreciate that phones and watches float the boats of a lot of people and if you want a decent summary of what went on at Apple’s 12 September event, Recode’s article is pretty good (because it’s mercifully brief).

Phone addiction External link icon.

The Huffington Post asked some of its staff to see if they could do without their phone whilst watching television in the evening. It wasn’t easy for some of them.

Connor Parker, an intern, concluded:

I might have managed a few hours without my phone – but it was so unenjoyable that doing so affected my whole viewing experience.

Ashley Percival, the Entertainment Editor concluded:

Abandoning it for those big ‘event TV’ moments would also be hard. For me, the thought of watching something like ‘Strictly’ or ‘Love Island’ without commentary from Twitter is unthinkable - it adds so much value and enjoyment in a way we couldn’t have anticipated 10 years ago.

Not everyone completely hated it. Sophie Gallagher, a reporter, concluded:

The unexpected benefit of this is that by the end I actually feel like I’m winding down for bed rather than gearing up for a Twitter debate. This alone is good enough reason to try this again (despite my initial frustrations).

Am I the only person who’s worried about this?

I think the title of my article is probably a misnomer. The phone is just a tool and it’s the social media on the other end of it that people are addicted to.

But it’s completely inconceivable to me that a phone and the social media it connects to would be so addictive, and an addiction it clearly is. I struggle to remember to take a phone out with me and I only notice it in the house if it rings. You could take my phone away for a month and I’d barely notice.

I see this inability to concentrate on one thing as a serious problem. Life must just be a series of distractions for some people.

I suppose I should consider all sides here. Maybe this is just what society is now. When televisions themselves were invented, I'm sure a lot of people thought they were the distractions and couldn’t understand why people struggle to get through an evening without staring at an electric box in the corner of the room.

I can’t help thinking the addiction to phones and social media robs us of some things, though: our ability to simply concentrate on one thing and to live in the moment.

Dark Sky Weather review

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I downloaded the Dark Sky Weather app for iOS, which I tested for seven days and review in this article. It has been said that Dark Sky is pretty good at predicting US weather but I wanted to see how it copes with the festering cauldron of weather we get in the UK. It didn't do a bad job, as it happens, although I did notice one or two interface problems.

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Corbyn's plans for Big Tech External link icon.

Picture of Jeremy CorbynI don’t know if Corbyn’s speech is just an eye-catcher or whether it intends to have substance if he should get into power, but it’s not simple to apply a windfall tax to ‘Big Tech’.

James O Malley at Gizmodo writes:

What Corbyn is pitching here is a “windfall tax” — a tax on companies that post excessive profits. This isn’t completely unheard of — such a tax was introduced on the companies running privatised utilities by the evil, neoliberal Tony Blair, in 1997. Since the 2008 financial crisis, it has been regularly proposed as a solution to what to do about the bankers’ bonuses.

But can this translate to Big Tech? The immediate problem as far as I can tell is… it isn’t actually very easy to define which companies count as a “digital monopoly”.

And therein lies a big problem, which James illustrates further with:

Amazon is a tech company… but it is also a retailer. Facebook is a tech company, but is also a communications company. Twitter is a tech company, but it is also a pit of despair.

To really illustrate the definitions problem, think of a traditional company like, say, Argos. Argos is a traditional retailer, but over the past decade has clearly digitised much of its business, from the ordering process (go into a store today and you’ll find iPads instead of tiny pens), to the supply chain (same day delivery). Because it bought some computers… does Argos count as a tech company now?

I don’t think Corbyn’s idea is as easy to implement as he thinks.

As a related aside, I can’t see how adding more tax laws creates anything but opportunities for the tax avoiders. Tax laws are ludicrously long-winded and complicated and thus offer many loopholes. Somebody needs to throw it all away, start again and create simple, explicitly-defined tax laws and then give the courts clear direction about how to interpret them (although if the laws are simple enough that should be self evident).

Alas, like the long-overdue overhaul of the NHS that’s needed, I can’t imagine many governments having the stomach to tackle tax laws from the ground up.

Ironmaster Super Bench Leg Attachment review

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In general I love Ironmaster kit. I have an IM2000 and a Super Bench and I rate both highly. I am however a little disappointed with the Ironmaster Super Bench Leg Attachment, which I review here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s comparable to most leg attachments from other companies, it’s just that I expect more from Ironmaster and there are a few deficiencies with the product that I wouldn’t expect from this company.

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Please telly, have mercy on me

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I positively despise talent shows and reality TV. I simply do not understand how enough people watch this drivel to keep justifying the new series’ the television networks constantly inflict on us. What specific ‘hook’ — the one that draws everyone in — am I missing here?

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Facebook’s ’trustworthiness’ score comes under fire External link icon.

Facebook has started scoring some of its users based on ‘trustworthiness’. This score is allegedly used by Facebook’s misinformation team to try and stem some of the fake news the platform sufferers from.

However, the trustworthiness score has its critics. Dr Bernie Hogan from the Oxford Internet Institute:

But consider the analogy of one’s credit score.

You can check your credit score for free in many countries - by contrast, Facebook’s trustworthiness is unregulated and we have no way to know either what our score is or how to dispute it.

Facebook is not a neutral actor and despite any diplomatic press materials to the contrary, it is intent on managing a population for profit.

And Ailidh Callander, a solicitor at Privacy International:

This is yet another example of Facebook using people’s data in ways they would not expect their data to be used, which further undermines people’s trust in Facebook.

This may only be an issue for non-EU users because Facebook’s secrecy about it might violate GDPR’s requirements in the EU, although I’m only speculating here.

Instagram face and the quest for perfection External link icon.

I don’t have an Instagram account and I’m not a huge fan of social media in general, but I found Alexandra Jones’ article on the BBC fascinating. And when I say fascinating, I mean in the way it reflects on society and how superficial everything seems to be these days.

But is it really just ‘these days’?

Celebrities — actors, pop singers, film stars, models etc. — have always provided a look that people have tried to emulate.

In fact, Alexandra says:

Photo-perfect skin and sculpted, contoured cheekbones, wide almond-shaped eyes which taper up into a feline point, and that full, inescapable mouth. This look is what Twiggy’s lashes were to the 1960s and what Kate Moss’ dewy skin was to the 1990s.

Popularised by the Kardashians (who else?) and copied by everyone from Love Island’s Megan Barton-Hanson to myriad beauty influencers such as NikkieTutorials (10.6m subscribers on YouTube), Patrick Starrr (4.5m followers on Instagram) and Sonjdra Deluxe (1.1m followers on Instagram). Increasingly, it’s also appearing on the faces and social feeds of regular people like (for a week), me (about 850 followers on Instagram).

Now I’ve heard of Twiggy, Kate Moss and, unfortunately, the Kardashians, but I have no idea who the other people she mentions are. But it’s possible that what’s going on today is no different to what went on in the 70s. Indeed, as a mid-teen I wanted a leather jacket because The Fonz wore one and he was cool.

My inkling is that things are different now, though. Social media provides further reach than we’ve ever had before and it influences the young a lot more. I’m prepared to accept there may be an element of old-fogeyism in my views, but I think the quest for bodily perfection and other superficial goals is more obsessive now. And I think that’s deeply unhealthy.

But what do I know? It’s certainly not up to me to tell people what to do with their faces (although I feel as justified as anyone else to make social commentary about it).

My own face is less ‘Instagram face’ and more ‘Ben & Jerry’s face’.

What's the point of Launchpad? External link icon.

I must admit I usually only activate the macOS Launchpad when I accidentally click its icon instead of the one next to it.

Zac Hall at 9To5Mac says:

Launchpad doesn’t get much love from Mac power users (there are plenty of other efficient ways to launch Mac apps) and Apple really hasn’t touched the feature in years. But it’s a feature I use regularly on my Mac — after making a few adjustments.

And his article goes on to describe how he makes Launchpad slightly more useful.

So will I use it more in the future? Probably not, but I have a soft spot for articles that find uses for unloved apps and maybe there are people out there who’ve just been dying to get to grips with Launchpad.

Playing around with Launchpad did at least remind me to delete some long-unused apps I had sitting around on my machine.

Twitter flips API, cripples many third-party apps External link icon.

Twitter is transitioning to a new API today. It announced the changes in April 2018 but today’s the day it’s supposed to be flipping the switch.

The trouble is, this will cripple some of Twitter’s third-party apps. John Voorhees at MacStories reports the following as being amongst the effects:

Timeline streaming has been removed, replaced with automatic refreshes every couple of minutes.

Retweet, quote tweet, like, and follow notifications are gone.

Mention and direct message push notifications have been reworked, which can delay them several minutes.

Tweetbot’s Stats and Activity view that displayed aggregate like, retweet, and follower data along with chronological like, mention, reply, and follow information has been removed.

The Tweetbot Apple Watch app has been discontinued.

I’ve never understood why API producers deliberately crock third party apps because a rich developer ecosystem benefits them in 99% of cases. Presumably the people who make the decisions to do these sorts of things have control issues.

Twitter finally takes some (minimal) action against Infowars External link icon.

Further to my previous post on this issue, Twitter is taking some action against Infowars, although it only amounts to seven days in the sin bin.

Jon Russell at TechCrunch writes:

Twitter is punishing Jones for a tweet that violates its community standards but it isn’t locking him out forever. Instead, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that Jones’ account is in “read-only mode” for up to seven days.

Apparently Infowars fell foul of a targeted harassment clause in Twitter’s Ts & Cs.

This is what Twitter claim, anyway. Or could it be that they’re just finally giving in to user pressure?