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Wed, Dec. 16th, 2009, 01:12 pm
X Factor protestors to give money to Sony in slightly different way

“If we wanted to listen to someone murder a Miley Cyrus record, we’d buy a Miley Cyrus record”

Via @gavindeas, an incisive take on the current Christmas number 1 battle. (Sign that humanity has no future, assuming Youtube comments are indicative, part 94: when I went to the Rage Against The Machine Killing In The Name Youtube page to remind myself which song it was that everyone was talking about, the first comment was someone saying how rubbish the song was and X-Factor ruled.)

Last year, when people tried the same trick, the alternative single was obvious - the X-Factor was covering Hallelujah, so let’s go out and buy the Jeff Buckley cover instead. This year, while the idea is also pretty simple - buy a song that repeatedly says “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” - and good enough that you can see why it went viral, it’s sufficiently non-obvious that someone had to come up with the idea.

It reminds me of when John Glenn went into space for a second time back in 1998: suddenly Usenet was full of people saying “We only have a few days before John Glenn comes back to put on monkey masks and bury the Statue of Liberty up to her neck in sand”.

That one at least I could find out, because Google has all of Usenet archived. If it’s true that this started on Facebook, it’s going to be much harder to find out whose idea this was, because so much of Facebook is friends-only. Which is a shame: this person deserves their small slice of Internet history.

Thu, Nov. 5th, 2009, 03:45 am
Your brain is in the world now

Hey, you kids, get off my browser history!

I was writing down an idea just now, and I needed a word. But I’d forgotten it.

I started casting around mentally, but to no avail. I quickly realised that it was late, I was tired, and I was probably not going to think of the right word on my own. I’d have to either put in some awkward paraphrase in what I was typing (“er, I can’t remember the word, you know, that sort of thing where blah”), or give up.

Or, failing that, I could refer to Google.

All hail Google]

So I did. After a couple of unproductive search queries, I came up with “bullshit theory concentration of water”, which, in search queries #5, #7 and #10, produced web sites whose summaries included the word “homeopathy” or suitable variants, which was the word I was looking for.

This took me less than a minute. After a brief tentative thrashing around in search query failures, I found what I was looking for, and got back into what I was trying to say. Hooray for human ingenuity, the outsourcing of memory to the Internet, and boo to those poor taxi drivers who finally passed The Knowledge in 2005.

Had I not spent the last half hour chasing up references and permalinks for stuff I meant to refer to as part of this blog post, I might even have deemed myself to have come out ahead.

Thu, Oct. 29th, 2009, 02:48 pm
World of Goo: fun, but unplayable

Squeezes all your windows to ridiculous sizes.

World of Goo recently had a well-publicised Radiohead-type “Pay what you want for the game” sale (here’s a summary). Cleodhna had downloaded it, so I decided to grab it and give it a go in a brief lull at work.

I played it for a bit, then quit - to discover that all of my windows on my main screen had been squashed and/or moved.

I have 8 virtual desktops (what Apple calls Spaces), and this machine was last rebooted a fortnight ago. That’s a lot of windows.

The basic problem appears to be this: World of Goo changes the screen resolution to something smaller, and switches to full-screen mode, but doesn’t do this in the right order, or misses out some other switch or API call. So Mac OS thinks it’s like you decided to change the screen resolution permanently, and goes through every window that doesn’t fit on the screen and resizes it.

Those many, many 80x40 Terminal windows? Resized to something like 80x30. Safari windows taking up most of the screen? They’re now shrunk down to half depth. A bunch of page scans open to pretty much full-screen, carefully positioned next to each other so I could flick from one page to another by clicking on the next available window? Again, cut to half size.

This is a basic issue of programming games on Mac OS X. Many, many other games get it right. There’s no excuse to botch something as fundamental as this.

World of Goo is now permanently gone from my machine.

Mon, Oct. 26th, 2009, 01:31 am
Hello there

You look tasty


Your only defence, in situations like this, is to be concave, so the sharks can’t find anything sticking out to bite (something I know thanks to Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach). Given that sharks also need to travel forwards constantly or they’ll suffocate, this suggests that sharks would be a rubbish enemy for Katamari Damacy.

Sun, Oct. 18th, 2009, 01:19 pm
Dog feet

Cleodhna regularly wishes that she had some.

Dog feet

Mon, Oct. 12th, 2009, 02:01 am
English councils moan about being too rubbish to wean themselves off landfills

Heaven forbid policies have purpose and consequences.

I really want to believe in local government. I really do. Then I read stuff like this.

Says The Guardian:

Overall, local government spends 18% of council tax revenue on dealing with rubbish, but that masks a lot of variation between regions and councils. The English district councils spend 32% of their council tax take on waste, while Aylesbury Vale in Buckinghamshire spends 36%, Cambridge City Council 43% and Berwick-on-Tweed 37%. […] The UK currently landfills 57% of its waste, recycles 34% and incinerates the rest. Landfill is expensive, almost full and contributes to climate change. The landfill tax paid by councils to central government is currently £40 per tonne of waste, rising to £48 in 2010, and the methane emissions from organic waste breaking down in landfill account for 3% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions. […] A spokesperson for the [Local Government Association] added that councils would prefer to keep the money they pay to the Treasury in landfill tax and spend it on better recycling services.

Of course they would, but that ignores the fact that this is the Government’s chosen policy. The fact that there is such a high (and rising) tax on landfill is deliberate. It’s to make the cost advantage of recycling, incinerating, or otherwise doing something other than burying household waste greater. Asking for a policy to be rescinded because you haven’t found a way of taking advantage of it is petty, weak, and deserving of contempt.

It’s like complaining that you can’t afford to pay more money to buy cigarettes, but if your local corner shop dropped their prices, you’d so totally spend that saved money on patches.

My mate Jamie, when running a game for us, would dole out experience points at the end of a session and ask if anyone had any reason for getting any extra. The more self-serving justifications he’d rebut with “that’s its own reward”. In circumstances where an island nation can no longer afford to wastefully bury what could more efficiently be re-used or turned into energy, complaining that, despite Government-led distortions of the market, you cannot find a way to accomplish what policy has made artificially cheaper, well, that should be a matter for all to despair. To decide that the solution to your inadequacies is to pay PR flacks for a random trade body, well, it fills me with no great confidence.

Also? I want to believe in journalism. But on checking the figures for Glasgow City Council, I find that I cannot.

I downloaded the latest financial statement from glasgow.gov.uk, which detailed expenditures of £16m for refuse collection, and £16m for street cleansing. Now, total income from government grants and local taxation was £1.393bn, which makes the amount of money spent on waste etc. look laughable. Confused, I double-checked the document, and then realised that only £168m of revenues was council tax, which made waste expenditure a far more expected ratio of 19%.

OK, so the Guardian’s story sounds like it makes sense. Except that the whole point of the landfill expenditure divided by council tax revenues metric is wrong. It implies that councils are only funded by council tax, which is clearly not the case (council tax is the third lowest of the 8 revenue sources listed by Glasgow City Council, of which “Rents (after rebates)” is lower by an order of magnitude than any other revenue source). So the metric of expenditure on x vs revenue on y is artificial, lazy, and misleading.

I despair again.

Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009, 02:08 pm
Tories accept Lisbon treaty will have passed, threaten a referendum anyway

Really? This is a threat?

So now that the Lisbon treaty has passed a second referendum in Ireland, the Tories are looking for way to have a referendum anyway:

Senior Conservative sources say that Cameron will abandon a referendum on Lisbon if the measure enters EU law because he had accepted that it would be virtually impossible to unpick the main institutional EU changes in the Lisbon treaty. These are the new president of the European council, a new “high representative” for foreign affairs and greater powers for the European parliament.

One well placed Tory said: “There is virtually no hope of changing the main institutional architecture of the EU once Lisbon enters into force. If the treaty enters EU law you will find that a Conservative government will want to focus on repatriating powers that affect the UK. This is not going soft. If other EU leaders say they will not accommodate us, then we have the threat of a referendum on our reforms.”

So: the Tories want to change parts of the treaty, and that will require all 27 EU members to agree. If they don’t, they’ll hold a referendum in the UK. But so what? How will that do anything other than saying “Look, our citizens agree with us” (if they win the referendum)?

The sad (for the Tories) fact is that the UK has ratified the Lisbon treaty, and there’s no going back on it. Saying “we’ll have a referendum anyway” is childish and nonsensical, and as such is tailor-made to appeal to the Conservative base.

Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009, 02:59 am
David Cameron's exciting new economic policy: soak the poor

In times of unusual economic crisis, we must continue our ages-old policy of making life difficult for people who have nothing.

I read today that

David Cameron today announced he would impose a £25-a-week benefit cut on as many as 500,000 incapacity benefit claimants to fund a £600m back-to-work programme.


The “tough and tender” approach was being signalled by the Tories to show the party was willing to address the victims of the recession by offering extra apprenticeships and training and by modernising welfare.

The Conservatives claimed that medical assessments designed to test whether incapacity benefit claimants are fit to work will lead, on the basis of government research, to at least 500,000 current claimants being shown to be capable of working.

Labour say that they’re doing some of this already, and that there just aren’t the doctors etc. to fast-track all of this (and never mind that incapacity benefit has traditionally been used to park problem people so the dole figures look better). But that’s not what concerns me most.

The economy is currently in the shitter; nobody’s buying or selling much, house prices that were previously over-inflated are now coming back down to something approaching reality, companies are sitting tight and hoping that they’ll make it through without having to sack too many of their work force.

And David Cameron thinks the solution to all of this is to create more and cheaper labour for the employment market?

The policy appears to be two-pronged: 1) force people who could afford to live on incapacity, but not on jobseeker’s, into the employment market; and 2) try and train up existing long-term unemployed.

#2 will probably do as well as any such policies tend to do, which is to say somewhat, but not in a way that would startle the horses. (Assuming it only targets the long-term unemployed; there are plenty of people who have been laid off for no fault of their own, and will almost certainly be hired again once the economy takes off, and making them jump through hoops going to rubbish training courses is hateful and counter-productive.)

But #1 is either an act of class-based vindictiveness or a phenomenally bad understanding of the economy that asserts that, in a time of general bad times, what we really need is more competition at the bottom of the jobs market.

Actually, knowing the Tories, it could easily be both.

Thu, Jul. 30th, 2009, 10:24 pm
How to avoid ads in Google Mail

Pretend to be bereaved and/or disastered.

Via waxy, a way to remove Sponsored Links from Google Mail:

Google does not use humans to read your email, only computers. These computers search for keywords that trigger the advertisements, however, if they hapen to find a catastrophic event or tragedy Google errs on the side of good taste and removes the ads altogether. […] After extensive testing I’ve discovered you need 1 catastrophic event or tragedy for every 167 words in the rest of the email. I usually toss in a couple extra for good measure. I’ve been told by an early adopter that the very elegant and self explanitory “These words are designed to kill advertisements” works wonderfully.

What fascinates me about this is that this is fundamentally the same idea as a popular form of NSA-baiting Usenet posters hit upon 15 years ago: sprinkle random incendiary keywords (e.g. terrorism, murder, child porn etc.) in your signature so the NSA (National Security Agency - or, if you prefer, No Such Agency) would pick up on your message and their computers would get swamped with false positives.

(Never mind that the NSA, if they were ever so slightly bothered by this sort of stuff, would just adjust their algorithms to mostly or even entirely ignore signatures.)

Then, people assumed that a great threat to their way of life was that the NSA - a major secretive government body with far too much computing power and secret technology - would tap into their usenet communications. Now people know that Google (or any semi-competent large company) already knows absolutely shedloads about them, and just wish for Google to leave them the hell alone.

Thu, Jul. 23rd, 2009, 09:34 pm
Internet security doesn't work

Or won’t for much longer.

I’ve written about this before: too many websites ask you to confirm your identity via questions that are comparatively easy to crack.

Today, like buses, two very-well argued essays argue that this is a major shortcoming of Internet, or indeed banking in general, security as a whole.

The anatomy of the Twitter attack:

Each new service that a user signs up for creates a management overhead that collapses quickly into a common dirty habit of using simple passwords, everywhere. At that point, the security of that user’s entire online identity is only as strong as the weakest application they use - which often is to say, very weak.


Giving the user an option to guess the name of a pet in lieu of actually knowing a password is just dramatically shortening the odds for the attacker. The service is essentially telling the attacker: “we understand that guessing passwords is hard, so let us help you narrow it down from potentially millions of combinations to around a dozen, or even better, if you know how to Google, just one”. The problem is not the concept of having an additional authorization token, such as mothers maiden name, that can be used to authenticate in addition to a password, the problem arises when it is relied on alone, when the answer is stored in the clear in account settings, and when users end up using the same question and answer combination on all of their accounts.

And via Danny O’Brien, why credit card security is flawed also:

Too much customer data is used for multiple purposes, in ad hoc stop-gap fixes for security problems.


biographical data and service history are now useless as authenticators. But they should never have been used as such in the first place. It might have seemed clever at the time to use “shared secrets” like account balance on an ad hoc basis to authenticate customers, but as a weapon against identity theft, it’s precisely like putting out fire with gasoline.


Privacy suffers the more so because regular data becomes attractive to thieves when it re-used in authentication. And customer convenience deteriorates as each service takes its own idiosyncratic approach to knowledge-based authentication, and what’s worse, keeps changing its own approach in the cyber crime arms race.

Yesterday I was messing about with banking websites, and they were asking me “security questions” such as my father’s first name. I felt faintly proud that my father went by his middle name, so his first name was slightly more obscure. We can do better than that.

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