Wednesday 5th February 2020 Briefly ...

BBC licence fee decriminalisation

So, the BBC are having a consultation to decide whether not paying a TV licence fee should be decriminalised. For the love of God, of course it should. It’s a television, not an Uzi 9mm. Not paying something like that should be a civil offence, similar to not paying council tax, not a criminal offence.

The whole issue of whether we should pay a TV licence at all is another matter. As it stands it’s simply a tax because you have to pay it whether or not you watch the BBC. I think it should get with the times and become subscription-based. You shouldn’t have to have a licence just because you own a telly. They may as well start licensing underpants.

I’d probably still subscribe. The BBC has gone downhill in recent decades, as its Saturday evening dross demonstrates. It just seems to be emulating the commercial channels with many of its programmes and chasing ratings, and a lot of it is complete pap. That said, it does produce the best factual programmes (about things like science and nature) and many of its dramas (The Bodyguard, Killing Eve etc.) are top quality.

So, yes, throw in Radio 2 and the BBC website and I’d subscribe. And I’d give them an extra tenner if they finally do away with the formulaic dancing and singing shows, which always have three normal judges, one nasty judge, a public vote and an unerring ability to depress me. The sheer amount of televisual time Strictly commands is staggering.

Tracy Brabin MP

Great reply from an MP to some trolls. I, for one, am glad MPs aren’t routinely banged over a wheelie bin before parliamentary sessions.

Tracy Brabin Twitter reply.
Credit: Tracy Brabin

The iPad at ten — success or failure?

1047 words. 4 minutes reading time.

The iPad has turned ten and that has led to a number of articles both criticising and praising it. I think some of the criticism has been harsh even if I can see where it's coming from. Here's my take on it.

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Ring doorbell and third-party trackers

419 words. Less than 2 minutes reading time.
Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

I'm struggling to understand why Ring's complementary mobile app needs to pass so much (or even any) data to third parties. It does this without user consent and also goes to great lengths to hide the data its passing on, attempting to elude analysis.

Ring is owned by Amazon and Amazon was the second company to be worth more than a trillion dollars, following hot on the heels of Apple. In the last quarter of 2019 Amazon raised $87.4 billion in revenue and made a profit of $3.3 billion. Jeff Bezos is now allegedly worth as much as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined.

So why, I have to wonder, when they're charging between £89 and £229 for doorbell with camera in it, do they also feel they need sell data from their mobile apps?

Ring already has form for data breaches and they could well be setting themselves up for another one. As the Electric Frontier Foundation — who performed this analysis — says:

This goes a step beyond that, by simply delivering sensitive data to third parties not accountable to Ring or bound by the trust placed in the customer-vendor relationship. As we’ve mentioned, this includes information about your device and carrier, unique identifiers that allow these companies to track you across apps, real-time interaction data with the app, and information about your home network. In the case of MixPanel, it even includes your name and email address. This data is given to parties either only mentioned briefly, buried on an internal page users are unlikely to ever see, or not listed at all.

This all raises a few related points.

Companies like you to install their own app instead of you doing your business via their websites in a browser. This is because browsers are getting cleverer at blocking tracking and because you can install ad-blockers in browsers. There are no such restrictions with apps: they can track you at will and advertise to you as they choose.

The thing that puzzles me, though, is why, when you're making £3.3 billion profit in a quarter, you feel the need to do this. Why not instead trade on the principle of no tracking and top class security? You'd probably sell more of your expensive doorbells in the first place if you did that.

On the back of the Cambridge Analytica debacle you'd think companies would learn but most appear to have learnt little. Greed and the lure of selling data, which is after all easy money for a company, still seem to rule supreme.

Thursday 30th January 2020 Briefly ...

Google search and subscription sites

I really don't think Google should display search results for articles where, when you click through via search, you then have to have a subscription or account to see them. It's essentially advertising an article with a promise to satisfy your search criteria but then you can't view said article. Such sites are often subscription newspapers, social media pages or the woeful Medium silo.

At the very least, Google could give you an option to filter out subscription sites.

Light switches

Light switches should always be down for on and up for off. This is a problem when you have two switches that operate the same light. Therefore it should be the law that dual light switches are fitted with servos of some sort that switch the other switch(es) to match when you engage one of them.

Have I just invented that? If so, it's Copyright Gordon Ansell, 2020. I'll apply for a patent whilst I'm doing so for my electric underpants puller-upper (the deluxe model will have a stack system for your briefs on the base).

Age-verification companies want £3m in 'damages'

167 words. Less than 1 minute reading time.
Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

I don't want to get into the debate about whether we should or shouldn't have a porn block, but I do want to say something about the age-verification software companies who want £3m in 'damages' because the government didn't go ahead with it.

Remember, it's the tax-payer who'll ultimately pay those damages.

As far as I'm aware, the government never commissioned these companies to come up with age-verification software, so I can't see how they've got any right to claim anything. If it turns out they were asked or commissioned to do this then of course they deserve payment, but nothing I've read indicates that.

It's the government's job to create new laws and repeal old ones and they can do that at will. If a bunch of companies jump the gun and spend money and resources developing something that's no longer needed then that's their own look-out as far as I'm concerned.

Apparently these companies have applied for a judicial review and I hope their application gets turned down.

Young, middle-aged and old

365 words. Less than 2 minutes reading time.

In a desperate attempt to stretch out middle-age as long as possible, I've cherry-picked a study that suits my purposes.

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Monday 13th January 2020 Briefly ...

Royalty

I just don’t understand the furore about our Royal Family’s “emergency discussions about the Sussexes’ future”. I simply don’t care. They can do what they like. I’m not anti-royalist but I just don’t give a shit what they do and I’m staggered so many people in the country are that interested such that it’s the main news story on the BBC.

For what it’s worth, I’m in emergency discussions with my cat about the protocol she’s established for a second breakfast shortly after the first. It should be pointed out that I still remain second in line to throne of this house even if I decide to go and live in Canada. Bet that doesn’t make the front page of the BBC.

Flybe tight-lipped over collapse threat

The BBC is running an article suggesting Flybe is in trouble. If this is true and collapse is imminent (and it seems very likely) then Flybe are showing a shocking lack of morals by continuing to take bookings, whereupon they’ll leave people stranded in foreign parts and we, the taxpayers, will ultimately have to pay to repatriate them. If that happens then the CEO should do jail time. Surely it’s fraud if they know they’re going under and still take payments for flights they can’t honour.

Of course I’m only speculating on a speculative story.

Cookie consents breach GDPR law

142 words. Less than 1 minute reading time.
Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

An article on TechCrunch takes a long look at how cookie consents are breaching EU privacy laws and how the cookie confirmation pop-ups are merely a hindrance to people.

I’ve talked about this here, here, here (the ‘Cooke Monsters’ bit) and even here to a certain extent.

All cookies except essential session cookies should be off by default. There should be no cookie confirmation pop-ups, just a website “settings” option where you can go in and switch cookies on if you choose to.

If a site doesn’t want you there if you won’t accept their tracking and advertising cookies then they should send you to a page telling you that. That page should just have the “settings” option and you can switch some cookies on if you choose to. Alternatively, you can simply choose not to visit that site.

That’s how it should be. End of.

Nested mappings are not allowed in compact mappings

262 words. Less than 2 minutes reading time.

I've encountered the Nested mappings are not allowed in compact mappings error a few times whilst processing YAML recently and come up with three possible fixes for it.

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Killer robots come in the shape of a ball

99 words. Less than 1 minute reading time.
Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

Samsung have recently been demonstrating something called Ballie, which is basically a ball that follows you around and controls your entire home.

Any ball that follows me around will be tripped over in short order, whereupon I’ll probably break my neck. Hence it’s a killer robot. It’s quite clever actually because we all expect killer robots to look like a T-800 and speak with an Austrian accent. Nobody expects an invasion of killer balls.

I dread to think what my cat would think of such a thing.

Anyway, watch the video and be either suitably impressed or extremely scared as you choose.

Rail fares and the suffering of UK commuters

233 words. Less than 1 minute reading time.

I haven't used the railways regularly since the early 2000s and I'm staggered by how much they cost these days. Railways seem to have veered away from their whole purpose and we've been remiss in allowing it to get like this.

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28 things plugged in

137 words. Less than 1 minute reading time.

It's ludicrous, the number of things in my living room that are currently plugged in.

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Hearing Direct HD500 hearing aid review

1708 words. 7 minutes reading time.
Rating: 4.5 Rating: 4.5 Rating: 4.5 Rating: 4.5 Rating: 4.5

My hearing has been shot for many a decade now. For the most part I get by without a hearing aid but I recently purchased a Hearing Direct HD500 hearing aid. This is my review of that product.

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Schrödinger's cat and also kettles

1151 words. 5 minutes reading time.

It's a tricky one to explain is Schrödinger's cat. Just consider this a very rough idea about what's going on with said cat in a box. As much as anything it's an example of how the underlying quantum reality that everything is made of differs from the world as we see it.

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Astronomers discover a star travelling at 3.7 million MPH

301 words. Less than 2 minutes reading time.
Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

Sorry to dash your hopes but when I say ‘star’, I mean the astronomical kind. Sadly, nobody has ejected Kanye West from Earth at that speed.

Astronomers have discovered a star travelling at 3,700,000 MPH (1,027 miles per second), which is about ten times faster than most stars move. They plotted its prior path and it appears to have come from the centre of the Milky Way, wherein lurks a supermassive black hole.

So how does a supermassive black hole eject a star when they’re best known for their insurmountable gravitational attraction?

Apparently it’s due to something called the Hills Mechanism, which sometimes kicks into action when a binary star system — consisting of two stars orbiting one another — gets close to a supermassive black hole.

If one of the stars in the binary system gets too close to the black hole, the ferocious gravity of the black hole will pull the star in. This takes energy away from the (three-body) system as a whole. However, thanks to the conservation of energy, the star that avoids the black hole will be given an energy equivalent to the infall velocity of the one that’s captured. The energy the surviving star receives is what results in its phenomenal speed.

The black hole ejected the star some 5 million years ago and it's travelling so fast it’ll escape our galaxy entirely within 100 million years. I look forward to seeing that happen. Astronomers have had a pretty good look at this star as it’s fairly close to us now, only 29,000 light years (174,000,000,000,000 miles) away.

With absolutely no sense of drama, astronomers have called the star S5-HVS1. It should have been called something like Ergomighty the Ejector or whatever.

Things like this make me realise how fragile our little planet is in the galactic scheme of things.

Wordpress 5.3 critical error

268 words. Less than 2 minutes reading time.

After upgrading one of the sites I manage to Wordpress 5.3, I encountered our old friend the Critical Error. It has been a while since I've seen that one and I thought I'd jot down some notes about how to debug that error and get your site working again.

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The shape of the universe

603 words. 2 minutes reading time.
Comments by me and a link to the article cited.

It’s important to know the shape of the universe. Maybe one day we’ll set off on a very long journey into space and we’d need to know whether we’re just going to end up right back where we started, which would be irritating.

This depends in part on the curvature of the universe and it’s easiest to think of this in two dimensions. Imagine a flat earth, like a sheet of A4. If you and I set off parallel to one another, we’d remain the same distance apart and our paths would never cross. If we drew a triangle on this flat surface, the angles would add up to 180 degrees. We’d say this had zero curvature.

Three possible shapes of the universe.
Credit: NASA

Now imagine a globe. We set off parallel to one another again, but our paths would eventually cross. If we followed the latitude lines on the Earth, for example, we’d meet at the North Pole, and the angles of a triangle on this surface would add up to more than 180 degrees. We’d say this had positive curvature.

Finally, imagine a saddle (or hyperbola if you want to be scientific). If we walked in parallel on this surface we’d keep getting further apart. I have a policy of never lending money to anyone on a hyperbola because you’ll never see them again. Here, the angles of a triangle would add up to less than 180 degrees and we call this negative curvature.

It gets harder to visualise in three dimensions, which is how many space dimensions our universe has, and even harder again if we include time as the fourth dimension, but hopefully you get the idea.

There are a number of things that can influence the curvature of our universe and one of the biggest is gravity. We all think of gravity as helpfully sticking us to the planet or unhelpfully making cups of tea drop off our desks, but that pulling force also bends the fabric of space.

One of the common visualisations is to use a rubber sheet stretched over a box to represent space. Now drop a bowling ball onto the rubber sheet and you’ll see it sink into the rubber, bending it. That’s what a star or planet does to space.

For a while now, experiments have pointed to our universe being flat and having zero curvature, or as near as damn it. We get a lot of information about the shape of the universe from the Planck Space Telescope, which was launched in 2009. An instrument on that measured the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is the ancient glow of light left over from the Big Bang. Looking at that tells people with slide-rules a lot about the shape of the universe now and in the distant past.

However, three smart-arses have reanalysed a lot of the CMB data and claim the universe is 99% likely to have positive curvature, like a globe. They went as far as to call the whole thing a cosmological crisis.

Their work has however displeased many other scientists — presumably those with shares in a flat universe — and effigies of the three smart-arses may be burnt in laboratories across the world. The smart-arses’ analysis of the data is not in dispute but some scientists suggest this is an aberration, a statistical fluctuation and no doubt an abomination.

Other experiments still point to the universe being flat, which remains the prevailing opinion.

Anyway, you can read all about it in the article I link to. I’m concerned about how a curved universe might affect house prices, although I’m sure estate agents have more trickery at their disposal beyond the trusty wide-angle lens.