Honk More, Wait More

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Horn not okay, please!
Find out how the @MumbaiPolice hit the mute button on #Mumbai’s reckless honkers.

Indian horn culture is weird to begin with. But I just learned that apparently it’s a thing to honk your in horn in displeasure at the stationary traffic ahead of you… even when that traffic is queueing at traffic lights! In order to try to combat the cacophony, Mumbai police hooked up a decibel-meter to the traffic lights at a junction such that if the noise levels went over a certain threshold during the red light phase, the red light phase would be extended by resetting the timer.

The Great Flamingo Uprising

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I told this story to a few guildies a while back and decided to archive it in a longer format; so here is the story of The Great Flamingo Uprising of 2010 as told to me by my favorite cousin who was a keeper at the time.

In addition to the aviary/jungle exhibit, our zoo has several species of birds that pretty much have the run of the place. They started with a small flock of flamingos and some free-range peacocks that I’m almost certain came from my old piano teacher’s farm. She preferred them to chickens. At some point in time they also acquired a pair of white swans (“hellbirds”) and some ornamental asian duckies to decorate the pond next to the picnic area. Pigeons, crows, assorted ducks and a large number of opportunistic Canada geese moved in on their own.

I lost it at the bit where the koi blooped again.

Morals: geese are evil, swans are eviler, flamingos and peacocks are weird as fuck, and this story’s hilarious.

This equation will change how you see the world

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Normally I find Veritasium’s videos to be… less mindblowing than their titles would aim to have me believe. But I found this one pretty inspiring; the first Feigenbaum constant is a proper headtrip. And I feel like I’ve got new insights into the Mandelbrot set too.

Building the most inaccessible site possible with a perfect Lighthouse score

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Google’s built-in testing tool Lighthouse judges the accessibility of our websites with a score between 0 and 100. It’s laudable to try to get a high grading, but a score of 100 doesn’t mean that the site is perfectly accessible. To prove that I carried out a little experiment.

Manuel Matuzovic wrote a web page that’s pretty-much inaccessible to everybody: it doesn’t work with keyboard navigation, touchscreens, or mice. It doesn’t work with screen readers. Even if you fix the other problems, its contrast is bad enough that almost nobody could read it. It fails ungracefully if CSS or JavaScript is unavailable. Even the source code is illegible. This took a special kind of evil.

But it scores 100% for accessibility on Lighthouse! I earned my firework show for this site last year but I know better than to let that lull me into complacency: accessibility isn’t something a machine can test for you, only something that (at best) it can give you guidance on.

Where’s My Elephant?

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The “where’s my elephant?” theory takes it name, of course, from The Simpsons episode in which Bart gets an elephant (Season 5, episode 17, to be precise). For those of you who don’t know the episode: Bart wins a radio contest where you have to answer a phone call with the phrase, “KBBL is going to give me something stupid.” That “something stupid” turns out to be either $10,000, or “the gag prize”: a full-grown African elephant. Much to the presenters’ surprise, Bart chooses the elephant — which is a problem for the radio station, since they don’t actually have an elephant to give him. After some attempts at negotiation (the presenters offer Principal Skinner $10,000 to go about with his pants pulled down for the rest of the school year; the presenters offer to use the $10,000 to turn Skinner into “some sort of lobster-like creature”), Bart finds himself kicked out of the radio station, screaming “where’s my elephant?”

…the “where’s my elephant?” theory holds the following:

  1. If you give someone a joke option, they will take it.
  2. The joke option is a (usually) a joke option for a reason, and choosing it will cause everyone a lot of problems.
  3. In time, the joke will stop being funny, and people will just sort of lose interest in it.
  4. No one ever learns anything.

For those that were surprised when Trump was elected or Brexit passed a referendum, the “Where’s My Elephant?” theory of history may provide some solace. With reference to Boaty McBoatface and to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Tom Whyman pitches that “joke” options will be selected significantly more-often that you’d expect or that they should.

Our society is like Bart Simpson. But can we be a better Bart Simpson?

If that didn’t cheer you up: here’s another article, which more-seriously looks at the political long-game that Remainers in Britain might consider working towards.

Spoiled by the Web

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Back in 2016, I made an iMessage app called Overreactions. Actually, the term “app” is probably generous: It’s a collection of static and animated silly faces you can goof around with in iMessage. Its “development” involved many PNGs but zero lines of code.

Just before the 2019 holidays, I received an email from Apple notifying me that the app “does not follow one or more of the App Store Review Guidelines.” I signed in to Apple’s Resource Center, where it elaborated that the app had gone too long without an update. There were no greater specifics, no broken rules or deprecated dependencies, they just wanted some sort of update to prove that it was still being maintained or they’d pull the app from the store in December.

Here’s what it took to keep that project up and running…

There’s always a fresh argument about Web vs. native (alongside all the rehashed ones, of course). But here’s one you might not have heard before: nobody ever wrote a Web page that met all the open standards only to be told that they had to re-compile it a few years later for no reason other than that the browser manufacturers wanted to check that the author was still alive.

But that’s basically what happened here. The author of an app which had been (and still did) work fine was required to re-install the development environment and toolchain, recompile, and re-submit a functionally-identical version of their app (which every user of the app then had to re-download along with their other updates)… just because Apple think that an app shouldn’t ever go more than 3 years between updates.

‘There’s zero evidence that it’s worse for children’

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“Even at a young age, I was able to grasp the concept that my mum and dad could love more than one person,” he says. “The only thing I’ve found challenging about having three adults in my family is getting away with things, because it means more people to check up on you, to make sure you did your chores. But I also have more people around to give me lifts here and there, to help with homework and to come to my lacrosse games. The saying ‘raised by a village’ definitely applies to me. I feel like a completely normal teenager, just with polyamorous parents.”

Yet another article providing evidence to support the fact that – except for the bigotry of other people – there are no downsides to being a child of polyamorous parents. Nicely-written; I’ve sent a copy of Alan for the Poly In The Media blog.

HTML attributes to improve your two factor experience

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There are plenty of opportunities for friction in the user experience when logging in, particularly while entering a two factor authentication code. As developers we should be building applications that support the need for account security but don’t detract from the user experience. Sometimes it can feel as though these requirements are in a battle against each other.

In this post we will look at the humble <input> element and the HTML attributes that will help speed up our users’ two factor authentication experience.

Summary: simple changes like making your TOTP-receiving <input> to have inputmode="numeric" gives user-agents solid hints about what kind of data is expected, allowing mobile phones to show a numeric keypad rather than a full keyboard, while setting autocomplete="one-time-code" hints to password managers and autocomplete tools that what’s being collected needn’t be stored for future use as it’ll expire (and can also help indicate to authenticators where they should auto-type).

As my current research project will show, the user experience of multifactor authentication is a barrier to entry for many users who might otherwise benefit from it. Let’s lower that barrier.

City Roads

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Map of Kidlington's roads

Cute open source project that produces on-demand SVG and PNG maps, like the one above, based on the roads in OpenStreetMap data. It takes a somewhat liberal view of what a “road” is: I found it momentarily challenging to get my bearings in the map above, which includes where I live, because the towpath and cycle paths are included which I hadn’t expected. Still a beautiful bit of output and the source code could be adapted for any number of interesting cartographic projects.

Going for a roll on a lake in Maine

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A frisbee, propelled by the wind and balanced upright by some kind of black magic, makes an elegant and hypnotic dance across a frozen pond.

Which would be beautiful and weird enough as it is, and is sufficient reason alone to watch this video. But for the full experience you absolutely have to turn on the subtitles.

Joe’s First Computer Encounter

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(Joe reads the text on IE and clicks on “Suggested Sites”)

Me: “Why did you click on that?”

Joe: “I don’t really know what to do, so I thought this would suggest something to me.”

Finding adults who’ve got basically no computer experience whatsoever is getting increasingly rare (and already was very uncommon back in 2011 when this was written), and so I can see why Jennifer Morrow, when presented with the serendipitous opportunity to perform some user testing with one, made the very most of the occasion.

As well as being a heart-warming story, this post’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t make assumptions about the level of expertise of our users.

What’s the harm in reading?

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The violent and oftentimes ironically ignorant backlash against Fall’s story sheds light on a troublingly regressive, entitled, and puritanical trend in the relationship between artists and their audiences, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Readers appear to feel a need to cast their objections to fiction in moral terms, positioning themselves as protectors of the downtrodden. Trans writer Phoebe Barton went so far as to compare Fall’s story to a “gun” which could be used only to inflict harm, though in a later tweet she, like Jemisin, admitted she hadn’t read it and had based her reaction solely on its title.

Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.

As few days ago, I shared a short story called I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter. By the time my reshare went live, the original story had been taken down at its author’s request and I had to amend my post to link to an archived copy. I’d guessed, even at that point, that the story had been seen as controversial, but I hadn’t anticipated the way in which it had so been seen.

Based on the article in The Outline, it looks like complaints about the story came not as I’d anticipated from right-wingers upset that their mocking, derogatory term had been subverted in a piece of art but instead from liberals, including arguments that:

  • despite its best efforts, the story sometimes conflates sex, gender, and occasionally sexual orientation, (yeah, that’s a fair point, but it doesn’t claim to be perfect)
  • it’s an argument for imperialism by tying aggression to an (assigned, unconventional) gender, thereby saying that “some people are legitimised in their need for war” (I don’t think we’re at any risk of anybody claiming that their gender made them commit an atrocity)
  • it identifies a trans person as a potential war criminal (so what? literature doesn’t have to paint every trans person in a perfectly-positive light, and I’d argue that the empowerment and self-determination of the protagonist are far more-visible factors)

I note that some of the loudest complainants have admitted that they didn’t even read the story, just the title. If you’re claiming to be a trans ally, you really ought to demonstrate that you don’t literally judge a book by its cover.

I don’t think that the story was perfect. But I think that the important messages – that gender presentation is flexible, not fixed; that personal freedom of gender expression is laudable; that behaviour can be an expression of gender identity, etc. – are all there, and those relatively-simple messages are the things that carry-over to the audience that the (sensational) title attracts. Trans folks in fiction are rarely the protagonists and even-more-rarely so relatable, and there’s value in this kind of work.

Sure, there are issues. But rather than acting in a way that gets a (seemingly well-meaning) work taken down, we should be using it as a vehicle for discussion. Where are the problems? What are our reactions? Why does it make us feel the way it does? We improve trans depictions in fiction not by knee-jerk reactions to relatively-moderate stories and by polarising the space into “good” and “bad” examples, but by iterative improvements, a little at a time, as we learn from our mistakes and build upon our successes. We should be able to both celebrate this story and dissect its faults. We can do better, Internet.