Archive for the 'general geek' Category

TC39 – the song

For my first conference after joining Vivaldi a week ago, I travelled to Amsterdam to help MC the JSNation conference. Naturally the opening ceremony required a JS Pop group (a sub-genre of K-pop) doing a carefully choreographed dance routine and lip-syncing to a song.

Here’s the TC39 group in front of the river. Left to right are Phil Nash, me, Niall Maher and Floor Drees.

4 gorgeous people in colourful jumpsuits and marching eyeglasses

And here we are, captured at the end of our routine with the letters “TC39” on the back of our suits. There were over a thousand attendees, and not a dry seat in the house.

4 gorgeous people in colourful jumpsuits on stage with letters on their backs

Here’s the song what I wrote, for your listening pleasure. (Afficianados will note that I have deftly re-purposed the tune of Saperlipoppete, the Eurovision smash I wrote for the transnational supergroup Deluxembourg.)

the cruellest months · TC39

I get so excited writing JavaScript
I’m pretty easy-going but now I use Strict.
When I first began I was in callback hell
But then I met you and now it all goes well

I love you when my tests pass
Meet me in the moonlight and extend my class.
You’ve always kept your Promises from the start
Now you’ve shot your fat arrow straight to my heart

Oh TC39, I’m so glad you’re mine!
Say you will be with me til the end of time!
Oh TC39, you’re so sublime.
Your specs are the best, my TC39!

(More of my slightly less-daft music by the cruellest months)

Farewell Babylon Health

On Friday, TechCrunch reported The fall of Babylon: Failed tele-health startup once valued at $2B goes bankrupt, sold for parts:

It’s the end of the road for Babylon Health, the London tele-health startup once valued at nearly $2 billion after being backed by likes of DeepMind and deep-pocketed health insurance companies. After the company’s U.S. shares became worthless and its operation turned insolvent earlier this month, last night, the U.K. subsidiary of the business formally went into administration. At the same time, the administrators sold a large chunk of its assets to eMed Healthcare UK, a new subsidiary of U.S. company eMed.

Before mid-December 2022, I worked for Babylon until the whole accessibility team (and over a hundred other people) suddenly didn’t work for Babylon any more. It was difficult to understand why; the company had a colossal swanky office opposite Harrods, full of exciting and expensive pot plants. It had floated on the New York Stock Exchange. The after-effects of Covid lockdowns, the continuing pandemic and consequent changes in the way people access healthcare seemed favourable to a telehealth business. Yet suddenly, everything started to go horribly wrong.

But why? The product hadn’t got worse.

It appears that the answer lies in capitalist conjuring. The flotation had been done through some magical process called SPAC: a “special purpose acquisition company” which Wikipedia describes as “a shell corporation listed on a stock exchange with the purpose of acquiring (or merging with) a private company, thus making the private company public without going through the initial public offering process, which often carries significant procedural and regulatory burdens”.

I didn’t know what that means, but everyone seemed very pleased. Lavish floral displays were commissioned for the HQ, staff were promised a commemorative baseball cap or beanie hat (mine never arrived) and best of all, the founder/ CEO Ali Parsa appeared via TV screen on top of a remote-controlled trolley to ring the NYSE bell:

Happy Days! But they were fleeting. Just 13 months later, Parsa described his own decision as “an unbelievable, unmitigated disaster”. Shares were re-wiggled (a technical term that means they were magically multiplied in value by a factor of fifteen to prevent delisting on the Sock Exchange). From a high of $250 they went down to 3 cents, then were delisted.

Sick people in the USA opened the app to login for an appointment to be told “Babylon’s clinical services and appointments are no longer available. For details about your health plan benefits and to find a new provider, contact your health plan”. US staff were terminated and Babylon filed for bankruptcy protection for two of its U.S. subsidiaries.

After I left the company, I spent a few months contracting before deciding what to do next; I work in tech where many companies are Trojan Unicorns: superficially attractive but packed full of asset-stripping shocktroops of venture captialism. I eventually accepted an offer from Barnardo’s, the children’s charity. I’m too jaded to work for an organisation whose fate is in the hands of Capitalist Conjurers, and hate seeing good work by talented people flushed away because of the vagaries and whims of Money Magicians.

Try as hard as I can, I’m finding it hard to summon up many tears for investors like Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund or Palantir, who won’t see their money again. But then I doubt that they spare much thought for 2.8 million Rwandan people whose healthcare is now in doubt after Babylon announced it is “winding down” Babyl Rwanda.

Luckily, work bezzie Stinky Taylar saw my lament on the Alumni chatgroup about my lack of SPACalicious Babylon beanie, so posted hers to me. It arrived the day before it all collapsed.

CENTRAL BIRMINGHAM 2040: Shaping Our City Together (unofficial accessible version)

My chum Stuart is a civic-minded sort of chap, so he drew my attention to Birmingham’s strategic plan for 2040. There’s a lot to be commended in the plan’s main aims (although it’s a little light on detail, but that’s a ‘strategy’, I guess). However, we noticed that it was hard to find on the Council website (subsequently rectified and linked from the cited page).

I was also a bit grumpy that it is circulated as a 43 MB PDF document, which is a massive download, especially for poorer members of the population who are more likely to be using phones than a desktop computer (PDF, lol), and more likely to have pay-as-you-go data plans (PDF, ROFL) which are more expensive per megabyte than contracts.

PDFs are designed for print so don’t resize for phone screens, requiring tedious horizontal scrolling–potentially a huge barrier for some people with disabilities, and a massive pain in the arse for everyone. For people who don’t read English well, PDFs are harder for translation software to access, so I’ve made an accessible HTML version of the Shaping Our City Together document.

I haven’t included the images, which are lovely but heavy, for two reasons. The first is that many are created by someone called Tim Cornbill and I don’t want to infringe their copyright. Some of the illustrations are captioned “This concept image is an artist’s impression to stimulate discussion, it does not represent a fixed proposal or plan”, so I decided they were not content but presentational and therefore unnecessary.

Talking of copyright, the document is apparently Crown Copyright. Why? I helped pay for it with my Council tax. Furthermore, I am warned that “Unauthorised reproduction infringes Crown Copyright and may lead to prosecution or civil proceedings”, so if Birmingham Council want me to take this down, I will. But given that the report talks glowingly of the contribution made to the city’s history by The Poors and The Foreigns, it seems a bit remiss to have excluded them from a consultation about the City’s future.

Because I am not a designer, the page is lightly laid out with Alvaro Montoro’s “Almond CSS” stylesheet. I am, however, an accessibility consultant. The Council could hire me to sort out more of their documents (so could you!).

Inclusive name inputs – because not everyone is called Chad Pancreas

Recently, “Stinky” Taylar and I were evaluating some third party software for accessibility. One of the problems was their sign-up form.

two inputs fields, labelled 'First name, minimum 2 characters' and 'Last name, required'

This simple two-field form has at least three problems:

  • The “first name” must be two characters or more.
  • “First name” and “last Name” aren’t defined; are they “given name” and “family name”?
  • “Last name” is mandatory

U Nagaharu was a Korean-Japanese botanist. Why shouldn’t he sign up to your site? In Burmese “U” is a also a given name: painter Paw U Thet, actor Win U, historian Thant Myint U, and politicians Ba U and Tin Aung Myint U have this name. Note that for these Burmese people, their given names are not the “first name”; many Asian languages put the family name first, so their “first name” is actually their surname, not their given name.

Many Afghans have no surname. It is also common to have no surname in Bhutan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Tibet, Mongolia and South India. Javanese names traditionally are mononymic, especially among people of older generations, for example, ex-presidents Suharno and Sukarno, which are their full legal names.

Many other people go by one name. Can you imagine how grumpy Madonna, Bono and Cher would be if they tried to sign up to buy your widgets but they couldn’t? Actually, you don’t need to imagine, because I asked Stable Diffusion to draw “Bono, Madonna and Cher, looking very angrily at you”:

Bono, Madonna and Cher, looking very angrily at you, drawn by AI

Imagine how angry your boss would be if these multi-millionaires couldn’t buy your thingie because you coded your web forms without questioning falsehoods programmers believe about names.

How did this happen? It’s pretty certain that these development teams don’t have an irrational hatred of Indonesians, South Indians, Koreans and Burmese people. It is, however, much more likely they despise Cher, Madonna, and Bono (whose name is “O’Nob” backwards).

What is far more likely is that no-one on these teams is from South East Asia, so they simply didn’t know that not all the world has American-style names. (Many mononymic immigrants to the USA might actually have been “given” or inherited the names “LNU” or “FNU”, which are acronyms of “Last name unknown” or “First name unknown”.)

This is why there is a strong and statistically significant correlation between the diversity of management teams and overall innovation and why companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially.

The W3C has a comprehensive look at Personal names around the world, written by their internationalisation expert, Richard Ishida. I prefer to ask for “Given name”, with no minimum or maximum length, and optional “family name or other names”.

So take another look at your name input fields. Remember, not everyone has a name like “Chad Pancreas” or “Bobbii-Jo Musteemuff”.

Set Safari free!

As you may know, every browser on iOS is actually just a branded re-skin of WebKit, the engine that Safari uses, because Apple won’t allow other engines on iOS.

Fred from Scooby Doo with a masked figure and text "

Supporters of the Apple Browser Ban tend to give one of three reasons (listed here from most ridiculous to most credible):

The web shouldn’t be “app-like”, it’s for documents only

Whatever. (See A Brief History of Web Apps for more on why this is nonsense.)

Privacy and security are protected by not allowing non-Apple code on devices

This doesn’t really make sense when non-Apple apps are allowed on iOS, which can leak data so valuable that Amazon and eBay will pay you to use their apps rather than web. Apple’s most recent zero-day vulnerability was exploited along with a flaw in WebKit, and so left all users exposed because users of other “browsers” are forced to use WebKit. Stuart Langridge has a great post going deeper into Browser choice on Apple’s iOS: privacy and security aspects.

Updated 9 Feb 2022: And, of course, Apple kept quiet about a WebKit bug that leaks user’s data, leaving it unpatched for almost two months.

Project Zero’s analysis of 2021 bugs shows that WebKit was by far the slowest to patch security vulnerabilities:

WebKit is the outlier in this analysis, with the longest number of days to release a patch at 73 days. Their time to land the fix publicly is in the middle between Chrome and Firefox, but unfortunately this leaves a very long amount of time for opportunistic attackers to find the patch and exploit it prior to the fix being made available to users. This can be seen by the Apple (red) bars of the second histogram mostly being on the right side of the graph, and every one of them except one being past the 30-day mark.

Allowing other rendering engines leads to Chromium taking over the world

This one kind of makes sense. After all, Opera abandoned its Presto engine and Microsoft abandoned Trident, and both went to Chromium. Firefox risks sliding into irrelevance due to inept lack of leadership. If Apple were forced to allow Chrome onto iOS, then domination would be complete!

The interesting predicate of this argument is that Apple intend to keep Safari as the sad, buggy app that they’ve allowed it to wither to, because it has no competition. I emphatically do not want Chromium to win. Quite the opposite: I want Apple to allow the WebKit team to raise its game so there is an *excellent* competitor to Chromium.

WebKit is available on Windows, Linux and more. Safari was once available on Windows, but Apple silently withdrew it. SVP of software Eddy Cue, who reports directly to Tim Cook, wrote in 2013

The reason we lost Safari on Windows is the same reason we are losing Safari on Mac. We didn’t innovate or enhance Safari….We had an amazing start and then stopped innovating” Look at Chrome. They put out releases at least every month while we basically do it once a year.

There is browser choice on MacOS, and 63% of MacOS users remain with Safari (24% use Chrome, 5.6% use Firefox). As everyone who works on browsers knows, a capable browser made by the Operating System’s manufacturer and pre-installed greatly deters users from seeking and installing another. There is no reason to believe it would be different on iOS. (Internet Explorer on Windows isn’t a counter-example; there were much better alternatives, long before Edge came along.)

But let’s set out aspirations higher. Imagine a fantastic Safari on iOS, Mac, Android, Windows and Linux, giving Chrome a run for its money. If anyone can take on Google, Apple can. It has talented WebKit engineers, excellent Standards experts, a colossal marketing budget, and great brand recognition.

If Apple allowed Safari to actually compete, it would be better for web developers, businesses, consumers, and for the health of the web. Come on, Apple, set Safari free!

(You could also read my Briefing to the UK Competition and Markets Authority on Apple’s iOS browser monopoly and Progressive Web Apps.)

(Last Updated on )

The making of Which Three Birdies?

Since Stuart Langridge and I released Which Three Birdies, it has taken the web by storm, and we’ve been inundated with requests from prestigious institutions to give lectures on how we accomplished this paradigm shift in non-arbitrary co-ordinates-to-mnemonic mapping. Unfortunately, the global pandemic and the terms of Stuart’s parole prevent us from travelling, so we’re writing it here instead.

The name

A significant advance on its predecessors was achievable because Bruce has a proper degree (English Language and Literature with Drama) and has trained as an English Language teacher. “Which” is an an interrogative pronoun, used in questions about alternatives. This might sound pedantic, but if a service can’t make the right choice from a very limited set of interrogative pronouns, how can you trust it to choose the correct three mnemonics? Establishing trust is vital when launching a tool that is destined to become an essential part of the very infrastructure of cartography.

The APIs

The mechanics of how the service locates and maps to three birds is extensively documented. Further documentation has been provided at the request of the Nobel Prize committee and will be published in due course

Accessibility

The Web is for everyone and anyone who makes sites that are inaccessible is, quite simply, not a proper developer and quite possibly a criminal or even a fascist. Therefore, W3B offers users the chance to hear the calls of the most prevalent birds in their location, and also provides a transcript of those calls.

screenshot of transcripts

Given that there are 18,043 species of birds worldwide, transcribing each one by hand was impractical, so we decided to utilise nay, leverage the power of Machine Learning.

Birdsong to Text via Machine Learning

Stuart is, by choice, a Python programmer. Unfortunately, we learned that pythons eat birds and, out of a sense of solidarity with our feathered friends, we decided not to progress with such a barbaric language so we sought an alternative.

Stuart hit upon the answer, due to a fortuitous coincidence. He has a prison tattoo of a puffin on his left buttock (don’t ask) and we remembered that the trendy “R” language is named after call of a Puffin (usually transcribed as “arr-arr-arr”).

Stuart set about learning R, but the we hit another snag: we couldn’t use the actual sounds of birds to train our AI, for copyright reasons.

Luckily, Bruce is also a musician with an extensive collection of instruments, including the actual kazoo that John Cale used to record the weird bits of Venus In Furs. Here it is in its Sotheby’s presentation case:

a kazoo in a presentaton box

Whereas the kazoo is ideal for duplicating the mellifluous squawk of a corncrake, it is less suitable to mimic the euphonious peep of an osprey. Stuart listens to AC/DC and therefore has no musical sense at all, so he wasn’t given an instrument. Instead he took the task of inhaling helium out of childrens’ balloons in order to replicate the higher registers of birdsong. Here’s a photo of the flame-haired Adonis preparing to imitate the melodious lament of the screech owl:

Pennywise the clown from IT, with a red balloon

After a few evenings re-creating a representative sample of birdsong, we had enough avian phonemes in the bag to run a rigorous programme of principal components analysis, cluster analysis and (of course) multilinear subspace learning algorithms to learn low-dimensional representations directly from tensor representations for multidimensional data, without reshaping them into higher-dimensional vectors.

All known birds can now reliably be transcribed with 94% accuracy, except for the Crested Anatolian Otter-Catcher. We suspect that the reason for this is the confusion introduced by the Turkish vowel harmony and final-obstruent devoicing. In practice, however, this exception doesn’t affect the utility of the system, because the Crested Anatolian Otter-Catcher is now very rare due to its being extensively hunted in the 19th century. (Fun fact, the bird was once so famous and prevalent that the whole region was known as the Otter-munch Empire.)

Hopefully, this in-depth breakdown of how Which Three Birdies? works will encourage other authors of revolutionary new utilities to open-source their work as we have done for the betterment of all humanity. We’d like to thank the nice people at 51Degrees for commissioning Which Three Birdies?, giving us free rein, and paying us for it. The nutters.

Here at Brucecamp, business and politics don’t mix

You don’t change the world by sitting around being a good person. You change the world by shipping products and making money.

As I wrote in my seminal management book Listen to me because I’m rich, white and clever, IBM wouldn’t have made a shitload of money in wartime Europe if they’d engaged in endless navel-gazing about politics. Their leadership told the staff to Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters, and get on with compiling a list of people with funny names like “Cohen” or “Levi”.

So here at Brucecamp, we’ve decided that it’s best if our productbots (formerly: employees) do not discuss the sausage machine while we push them into the sausage machine. As I wrote in our other book It doesn’t have to be full of whimpering Woke retards at work, “if you don’t like it, well, there’s the door. Enjoy poverty!”. And that’s all we have to say on the matter. Until the next blogpost. Or book.

In other news, Apple are wankers and I bought a sauna.

“Facebruce strongly disapproves of data leaks” – Bruc’s statement

A statement from our CEO and Founder, Bruc:

At Facebruce, we strongly disapprove of the recent data leak of 50 million account details. There’s nothing more important to us than your data. Really, nothing. Have you any idea of how much we could have charged people for the information about you that is now out there, available for free, on Torrent sites and on Russian servers?

We had a deal almost signed to show messages to all people who fast during Ramadan, saying “Want some free money? Just send us your home address!”, paid for by “Patriots for the Second Amendment and Jesus”. Of course, it isn’t the money that drives us, it’s that Facebruce is facilitating community by introducing two groups. At Facebruc, we love spreading love and connection, so need to raise a little money to run the service.

So, please, trust us with your data, and click ‘Like’ to keep our engagement figures riding high as our share price!

Next on feed: LGBT+ folks! Send us your address to get a free Rainbow Pride t-shirt! (sponsored by Westboro Baptists)

At Facebruce, we strongly disapprove of genocide. Our official statement.

A statement from our CEO and Founder, Bruc.

“Look, I”m fed up at people complaining about Facebruce allegedly “facilitating” genocide. Since we began, we’ve always been about connecting peopleinitially some nerds to chicks we rated as hot, but now it’s about connecting everybody. We’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to sing in perfect harmony. Some people, we are shocked to learn, aren’t actually very nice people. How were we at Facebruce to know what would happen when our algorithms repeatedly recommended members of The Hutu Machete Enthusiasts Club also join the Death To Tutsi Cockroaches group?

We’re not in the content policing business. There’s simply too much of it. And anyway, we’re just a platform. We already have thousands of servers running 24/7 to weed out pictures of nipples (women’s nipples, to be precise) so your Auntie Martha doesn’t clutch her pearls, because offending people in high ARPU markets leads to a drop in engagement.

So there was literally no way for us to know that the Death To Tutsi Cockroaches group was not simply a pest control company. I even went so far as to attempt to verify this, by walking around the HQ trying to find an African person to ask whether cockroaches are a problem, but there was no-one matching that description in the boardroom.

Facebruce is about building communities. We are very active in the GraphQHell community and the Reactionary community. In fact, only last week, we offered free afterhours use of a meeting room in our fifty storey gold-plated HQ to host a meeting of GraphQHell Engineers Against Killing Rohingyas, and even sponsored $100 of pizza for attendees. This shows that we’re taking real action and putting real resources into counteracting Hate Speech on the Facebruce platform.

So that’s cleared up then. Be sure to press “Like!” to demonstrate engagement.”

Next on Timeline: Why Covid is a hoax – evidence from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion!