Being demanding

A pet peeve is company websites that demand personal details before telling you anything useful. You can't read case studies, get product details or even download SDKs to see if they would fit with your project. They are insisting on something of high value from you - your personal details and the implied access to you that gives. But in return they offer nothing first. You will still be spending your time to determine if what is being offered is what you are looking for, and if it provides value to you.

This is a terrible way to start a relationship. From previous companies I've worked at and from friends, the reported rate of junk information entered is between 40 and 100%. I was even advised by one company to “enter junk, everyone else does”. The usual rationalisation is that it is better to ignore the junk (and annoy the people who had to provide it), than miss a single lead. The latter is measurable but the former not, since you have no idea how many gave up and left for the competition.

Hiding content also prevents indexing by search engines, and people can't link to it. The solution is easy - it is perfectly okay to ask for details (but not require them), and to ensure people can communicate with you once they have found you are a good match. Ironically many of those sites that provide the terrible start to the relationship also make it hard to continue once you know you do want to proceed.

Ok Google, I give up

Ok Google, I give up. First you made G+ unreadable on Android due to putting every article in boxes with large images, making it impossible to actually read what people had to say. Now you have done the same to website making it impossible to follow sequence (boxes going horizontally and vertically of arbitrary different size and packing). Yes newspapers do that, but their articles are longer than a few sentences, the content is curated, and the layout is overseen by humans.

If you want to know how to make content easy and productive to read, then I suggest studying an excellent product that is very good at that. It is called Google Reader.

It used to be about me

I used to be the kind of person the computer industry cared about. Hardware makers kept trying to give me more: cpu, memory, storage, screens, pixels etc. Software makers kept trying to harness that extra capability, providing new things for me to do, removing limits on existing ones and new ways of combining, mashing up and remixing what I have. They came up with multiple different ways of doing things so you could pick what worked best for you.

Those days are completely over. Hardware comes with built in obsolescence with non-expandable memory and storage. Screens have regressed in resolution and surface area. Software makers are optimising for small tablets using one program at a time with a finger. They are battling to contain you within their walled garden. They only provide one way of doing things, which helps reinforce the walled garden and makes other systems seem alien. (Some changes have been for the better which is apparent because everyone adopts them - an example is typing a few letters and getting all relevant applications, documents, contacts etc.)

This is even happening in the open source/free software world. Canonical/Ubuntu has a CLA which ensures an unequal advantage to them if you want to collaborate. Parts are kept private to keep up that walled garden (Ubuntu One).

I'd been sticking to Gnome because it had historically been usable and didn't have a walled garden agenda. Unfortunately the most recent release (3.8) has finally become unusable, because they provide only two modes - one completely unusable unless using a small screen with fingers (that approximately no one has), and the second that imitates the earlier more usable interface from back when things kept getting bigger and better.

The latter fails because the developers so focussed on the first mode completely missed what it was about the second that made it productive. My main workstation has 4,000 square centimetres of display space (compared to 160 for an iPad Mini 7 inch). Things are hidden (eg system monitors and dropbox icons) that should be always visible. Huge swathes of horizontal space at the top of the screen are wasted. Attempting to use multiple copies of the same program are an exercise is frustration. Even task bars (so far the least worst UI paradigm for managing lots of open windows where many are from the same app) is broken (eg can't drag and drop to reorder). Doing anything involves more mouse movement, and more steps. Even the workspaces don't show their contents or have keystrokes to switch.

The usual answer is that it is open and I can fix it. This is true in the abstract sense, but not practically because it is obvious I am no longer welcome. Heck I didn't really even want any changes, just for things to be left as they were before they got too much worse.

Designers seem to be on a parallel course to make things worse. The new esthetic is "flat" ui which means fewer pixels devoted to highlighting the difference between ui elements. And the colour schemes involve using various shades of gray on top of and next to other shades of gray. 4,000 square centimetres of gray is not usable. On laptops with worse colour differentiation it is even hard to distinguish what is going on.

I've got six months to find the least worst productive environment. O for the days when it was all about users like me.

Software license agreements


Commercial License Agreement :: AppCode A new Objective-C IDE for iOS and OS X development with a smarter code editor (more)

I bought some software today, and their license agreement contains a rather odious term. They get the right to use your name and similar details including trademarks in marketing without getting permission at the time, or any notification. Fortunately if they do that I have enough counter material that would make them regret it. Oh, they also get to pull the software any time they feel like with no notice period, including remotely disabling it.

I guess most companies are lucky that no one actually reads these agreements since they pretty much consist of a list in legalese of how the company can be hostile to its users.

After Google Reader

Several people have asked me what I am going to use instead of Google #Reader . I know what I definitely won't use - the majority of the alternatives out there, because they are obsessed with with showing items as rectangles with as much of the rectangle taken up with pictures as possible. (That is also why I gave up on G+ on Android.) My RSS feeds do not constitute a pretty magazine. For example look at and notice how the screenshot of the mac is showing 6 articles - all that space for 6 articles! Pulse's home page has way more articles but all as images. 99% of my RSS articles have no images.

Reader has three important parts. One is the backend which means you can read from any number of computers and devices and a centralised location keeps track of your feeds and which articles have been read. There is no open standard protocol for this and I'm hoping that in the next few months one is born. (Reader was used by many but as far as I can tell the API was not official, arbitrary and reverse engineered.)

The second was updating the feeds (a background task). Having worked on consuming RSS feeds before, it turns out that many only have the most recent few articles which could turn out to be a few hours worth or at most a day. If you don't regularly poll the feeds then you will miss out on articles. This rules out pure clients like Liferea.

The final part is the presentation which worked well with a hierarchy of folders, feeds, articles and article, making it very easy to jump around hierarchy. UI that blends it all together into a single stream does not work (eg G+) because that only works with a low volume of articles. (I do not follow many people on G+ due to their posting volume. I would happily follow them via RSS feed but G+ doesn't export the data so I don't. Google loses by being a closed island.) So far only shows that hierarchical context and navigation UI. Others like seem obsessed with the whole social side, and note there is no screenshot showing the actual reading experience!

Oh, and the presentation part needs to work in disconnected mode on mobile too.

My plan is to punt for a few months hoping that someone comes up with the sweet spot of openness and readability. If not I'll just write my own. The database side of things can be solved in a home grown manner, but a toolkit like could be used instead to solve the data problem keeping web (Javascript) and mobile clients all synced up with state.

However I realised that it would be even easier to use +Dropbox as the state and synchronization mechanism. Each article becomes a file, and gets deleted by a reader when done. The poller just keeps adding the files from feeds. (Yes, that is the same principle as Maildir.) Dropbox released recently so that solves the offline mobile clients sync problem. I just wonder how well they will cope with hundreds of little files being created and deleted every hour.

Google caused a DDOS attack

Google caused a DDOS attack against pretty much every other RSS #Reader out there. All the various sites are not responding, timing out, incompletely rendering etc. Like everyone else I'm concerned about how to replace one of the tools I spend most time in, especially from Google. (The first tab of my first window has been Reader for many years.)

Although RSS readers are conceptually simple, the UI is incredibly hard to get right and Reader managed to hit the right balance of simplicity and density without gratuitous slickness.

I'm actually quite happy not to #SaveGoogleReader - this is a sign and reminder not to be so dependent on Google.

The first rule of the American healthcare industry


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The first rule of the American healthcare industry is that under no circumstances do they say what anything costs, and especially not in advance. Generally they will flat out refuse to tell you beforehand or immediately afterwards, and any bills you get later will have a bewildering variety of numbers just to make sure you still don't know.

My health insurance is atypical in that it closely resembles actual insurance - I pay for everything unless something calamitous happens and after a several thousand dollar deductible, so I do care how much things cost. I needed some lab tests done and wanted to find out how much they would cost when I pay cash directly. It took talking to 5 different people on the phone at the lab service used by my doctor to finally get some numbers and they were outrageous. For example a hemoglobin/A1C test is $66 plus a $21 fee for the blood draw - you can get a kit at Walmart for $9 for the same thing. It also looks like they would have refused to do the tests unless my doctor faxed them an order, and the total would be huge.

Eventually I managed to discover Health One Labs. In an astonishing violation of the first rule they put the prices right up there on the website. The value packages are well priced, most being under $100 with individual tests around 20% of the price the normal lab the doctor uses.

I tried it out. Four minutes after entering my credit card information, I received a PDF with a lab order on it (and no need to get the doctor involved). The actual blood draw is done at a company named Lab Corp - they have 13 locations within 25 miles of me - no extra fees or charges, or appointments and was seen immediately. 24 hours later (almost to the minute) I received my results.

This should be the normal experience, but is so remarkable in the US healthcare system that I had to write about it.

Android backup applications

I've always been curious why there are so many +Android backup applications. Technically the backups are trivial - apks are at a known place and each app's data is at a known place, so just grab that stuff for backups and put back for restores. Android 4 has adb backup/restore commands which do pretty much that. Simple, effective, what could go wrong? Short answer: it is quicker to just delete your data. Those backup apps exist for a reason.

Yesterday I decided to wipe my phone and tablet back to factory images. In particular I wanted to encrypt them, and I did want root, but didn't need +ClockworkMod recoveries which rooting usually require you install first. +Chainfire has a CF-AutoRoot that does that for you.

Backing up the phone gave me a ~400MB archive (I didn't include apks since they can be easily redownloaded). I did the wipe/factory/root/encrypt dance and then did my restore. It had no effect as far as I can tell. And I had to manually select every app I wanted again in the Play Store. Doing another restore after that still had no effect.

Having learned my lesson, I did a backup of the tablet including all apks. It was ~12GB. Did the wipe/factory/root/encrypt dance and then did the restore. It restores one apk and then the Android gui crashes, restarting itself a few seconds later. This is completely repeatable. Gui crashes don't have a crash reporter so Google won't even know this happening. And I'd love to hear the explanation as to why a restore would crash the whole gui environment.

I could of course manually dig things out of the backups, but that would be far too time consuming. There is no unique data on the devices so I didn't actually lose anything. But the reinstall of every app, having to supply usernames and passwords to so many of them, changing settings, and placing them in the right places in the launcher is really tedious.

People and planes


Dreamliner woes: Are sweaty passengers to blame? – Is it possible that one of the key benefits of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is denser and more humid ... (more)

Interesting speculation about a potential cause/correlator with the 787 battery issues - hundreds of breathing perspiring passengers create very different environmental conditions, and especially different than during certification.

Nicotine would get everywhere and had the advantage of being visible back in the days when smoking was allowed. (See also China Airlines flight 611.)