Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘internet

Issues with search listings and emotionally manipulative writing

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A recurring problem with online journalism is that the information shown in search listings is often highly misleading, including click-baiting, contents that turn out to be pay-walled after the user clicks the link, and a misleading impression of factuality (cf. below).

A recurring problem with journalism in general is undue emotional manipulation, cheap and pointless* human interest angles, etc.

*As opposed to more legitimate cases—they are rare, but they do exist. In contrast, it might be argued that emotional manipulation is always undue in journalism (and politics, advertising, and similar).

Both are exemplified by my search for an English source for the topic of my previous text (I encountered the topic in German): I was met by a number of entries in the search list that seemed to be calm and factual, but which turned out to be cheap attempts to provoke emotional reactions when I actually visited the pages. The source that I did pick was the least evil, by a considerable distance, of the four or five pages that I tried. Even here, however, we have a start of: “One-month old Haboue Solange Boue, awaiting medical care for severe malnutrition, is held by her mother, Danssanin Lanizou, 30, at the feeding center of the main hospital in the town of Hounde,” with a corresponding image. This in contrast to a search-list entry of “Hunger linked to coronavirus is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call for action from the United Nations.”

In all fairness, that page lived up to the claims after the image and image text, and even the image text was not that bad. But what do some others do?

Consider https://kvoa.com/news/2020/07/27/covid-19-linked-hunger-tied-to-10000-child-deaths-each-month:

The lean season is coming for Burkina Faso’s children. And this time, the long wait for the harvest is bringing a hunger more ferocious than most have ever known.

That hunger is already stalking Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. With the markets closed because of coronavirus restrictions, her family sold fewer vegetables. Her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

“My child,” Danssanin Lanizou whispers, choking back tears as she unwraps a blanket to reveal her baby’s protruding ribs. The infant whimpers soundlessly.

Excruciatingly poorly written, horrifyingly cheap, and a waste of time for anyone who wants to actually understand the situation (let alone is looking for a reference). This is the type of anti-hook and reader-despising drivel that kills my wish to read on.

The search-listing?

Virus-linked hunger is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call to action from the United Nations shared with The …

Calm, factual, and something that I would consider reading (and what seems to make a good reference).

Assuming that we wanted to include contents like the above, it should (a) have been moved to a side-bar, not the top of the main text, (b) have been written in a more factual manner. Consider e.g. (with some reservations for the exact underlying intents and facts due to precision lost by the poor original):

The children of Burkina Faso are at particular risk. The harvest is still far into the future and supplies are already low. The coronavirus restrictions have closed markets, which does not just reduce access to food but also the income needed to pay.

Many have already been severely hit, like Haboue Solange Boue, an infant who has lost half her former body weight of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) in the last month. The closed markets have hurt her family’s vegetables sales and her mother is too malnourished to nurse her.

But it is not just the infant who suffers: the emotional stress on her mother is great.

Note the difference in tone, the lack of (or, at least, far lesser) emotional manipulation, how information is more accessible, and how much easier it is to actually get an idea of what goes on.

Excursion on perceived value of “emotional” writing:
The naive might argue that writing like the original would make it easier to empathize with and understand the situation emotionally. Not only am I highly skeptical to this, based on myself, but I must also point to two major risks: (a) That the reader falls victim to an analogue of emotional contagion.* (b) That reality is distorted (more easily than with more factual writing). More generally, decisions, including government policy, should be made by reason, not emotion.

*More generally, what is meant by “empathy” very often amounts to nothing more than emotional contagion—something which distorts understanding, leads to partiality, and brings about poor decisions.

The latter can be the result of e.g. exaggeration or melodrama, deliberate distortion, and different perceptions. Notably, using emotional writing, narrating reactions, speculating about the internal state of someone, whatnot, it is very easy both to give and to get the wrong impression. Moreover, internal states and external displays do not always reflect what is reasonable.* For an example of such distortion consider the following hypothetical example: “Felicia felt her heart compress painfully as she looked down on the dead body, the remains of her old friend. Tears welled up into her eyes and she sat down in shock. A moment ago, he had been so full of life and now he was gone, gone forever, ripped out of her life by a moment of carelessness. Oh God, what had she done?!?” Here is the hitch: I wrote this with the sudden death of a gold fish in mind and I wrote nothing that might not genuinely have applied in such a case (allowing for some metaphor).

*For instance, when I was a young child and my toy penguin lost an eye, I cried much more than when I, as an adult, learned that my mother had died. Cf. parts of an older text.

Excursion on search listings:
The situation with search listings is quite negative, and includes such problems as various web sites feeding different contents to different user agents, e.g. web browsers used by humans and the “spiders” that gather data for search services. A potential solution would be to require that spiders are fed the exact contents of a regular surfer and that search listings always show the first X words of the page contents. While the result might sometimes be misleading, it will often be better than today, there will often* be a clear indication whether content is pay-walled, and it might lead to better writing that gets to the point faster. The pay-wall issue could be partially solved by some mandatory content tag which can be evaluated by search engines to give the searchers a heads up.

*However, likely less often than could be hoped for, as a simple “pay NOW to read” message might be replaced by a teaser text followed by “pay NOW to read” to ensure that the latter is not present in the search listing. Indeed, such teaser texts are fairly common, even today.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2020 at 10:40 am

CAPTCHAs and forced JavaScript

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An increasingly common annoyance, at least for us Tor users, are CAPTCHAs that are impossible to overcome without JavaScript* activated. Worse, an increasing number of sites seem to use “JavaScript is not enabled” as a heuristic for “is a bot”. The point might come where even a security-minded and well informed user is forced to surf with JavaScript activated in a near-blanket manner just to satisfy such checks and to handle such CAPTCHAs, while the site visited, per se, would have worked well anyway. A particular problem is Cloudscape, which in multiple ways is a threat to usability, anonymity, and security for the end users, due to the extreme number of sites that route their contents over the Cloudscape network—a very significant portion of these CAPTCHA requests stem from Cloudscape.

*I highly doubt that JavaScript, or even images, are necessary in order to implement any level of CAPTCHA protection, in terms of difficulty of automatic solving. More likely, the current JavaScript-and-images construct is chosen through a mixture of laziness and a wish to apply the no-JavaScript heuristic mentioned above. (Possibly, combined with an analog no-images or even a no-cookies heuristic.) However, I will not go into this below.

However, JavaScript is a severe hazard, its use in combination with Tor is almost always brainless*, and I would generally, even for non-Tor users, recommend that it only be activated on a case-by-case basis and on sites with a great degree of trust. Such sites cannot include those with a presence of content not under strict control by the site, which rules out, among others, any site using an advertising network**, the whole of Wikipedia***, and all search services****. (As a bonus, most sites intended for reading are more enjoyable with JavaScript off, e.g. due to less or less intrusive advertising and fewer annoying animations. Other sites, unfortunately, are often so misprogrammed that they simply do not work without JavaScript.)

*The main purpose of Tor is anonymity and no-one who has JavaScript activated has any guarantee of anonymity anymore. Even a selective activation of JavaScript for chosen sites (e.g. by the NoScript plugin) can help with profiling and, indirectly, threaten anonymity—even without e.g. a JavaScript attempt to spy on the user.

**The ads come from a third party and can contain hostile content.

***Wikipedia can be edited by more-or-less anyone and could, at least until detection, contain hostile content.

****Search services display foreign content as a core part of their service, and with insufficient sanitizing, someone could smuggle in hostile content. (Even ambitious sanitizing can overlook something, run into bugs, or otherwise be flawed.) Of course, search services also often serve content from an advertising network …

The last few days, Startpage, my currently preferred search service, has thrown up CAPTCHA-with-JavaScript requests at such a rate that I will be forced to switch again, should the situation not improve.

Specifically, I am, again and again, met with the text:

JavaScript appears to be disabled in your web browser. To complete the CAPTCHA, please enable JavaScript and reload the page.

As part of StartPage’s ongoing mission to provide the best experience for our users, we occasionally need to confirm that you are a legitimate user. Completing the CAPTCHA below helps us reduce abuse and improve the quality of our services.

The best that can be said about this, is that it does not make the (otherwise common and highly ignorant) claim that my browser would be outdated or not support JavaScript.

Firstly, a search site is (cf. above) not a place to ever activate JavaScript. Secondly, the legitimacy of a CAPTCHA, at all, is highly dubious. Thirdly, in as far as a legitimate* reason is present, the cited reason is not it. Fourthly, there is nothing “occasionally” about it—today, I have been hit about ten times for about a dozen searches. Fifthly, the talk of “best experience” (and so on) seems almost insulting, considering the quality problems of Startpage**.

*E.g. that the IP from which the current request comes has sent a very great number of request in a very short time span.

**And DuckDuckGo, etc. If anything, these Google-alternatives appear to grow worse over time. Outside the search services that are known or strongly suspected to engage in user-tracking and profiling, are involved with advertising networks, or similar, I know of no truly good alternative since the demise of Scroogle—and that might have been close to ten years ago.

In fact, when I see a combination of such an implausible* message and such a high frequency of CAPTCHAs, I must at least suspect that this is a deliberate attempt to either drive Tor users away or to force users to surf with JavaScript enabled. Whether this is so specifically with Startpage, I cannot know, but that it is the case with at least some sites out there is almost a given.

*In contrast to e.g. “We have seen some odd activity from your IP. Please confirm that you are a human user.”.

As an aside, the use of CAPTCHAs to solve the perceived problem is disputable on several counts, including that CAPTCHAs can often be solved by clever bots, that they can pose great problems to many human users, including those less-than-bright or of weak eye sight,* and that better solutions might be available, e.g. that IPs with a large amount of requests see an artificial delay before treatment**. To boot, it can make great sense to investigate whether a block of bots makes sense, as they are often beneficial or neutral, or whether a block based on amount of traffic, irrespective of the human vs. bot issues, would be better.*** Certainly, a CAPTCHA-based block on bots should only be contemplated if means like the use of a robots.txt (which, in all fairness, is quite often ignored) have failed.

*But even very bright people who can read the text well can run into problems. I have myself sometime failed because it has been unclear e.g. whether a certain character was a distorted “O” (Upper-case letter), a distorted “o” (lower-case letter), or a distorted “0” (digit).

**This has the advantage of serving everyone, while keeping the situation acceptable for a human who makes one or two requests, and while posing a major problem for a bot that makes a few thousand requests.

***This especially with an eye on the truly problematic bots—those that perform denial-of-service attacks.

Startpage does have a robots.txt, which manifestly does not attempt to exclude bots from the page that I have accessed—a further stroke against it:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /cgi-bin/
Disallow: /do/
Noindex: /cgi-bin/
Noindex: /do/

Written by michaeleriksson

April 29, 2020 at 10:35 am

Too many emails

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Unethical, annoying, intrusive, customer hostile, whatnot, sending of email is not limited to spam*. Consider e.g. my recent flight booking with EuroWings: As of now, I have received a total of five (!) emails as a result, two which should definitely not have been sent, one which is disputable, and two that are acceptable—and this not counting the “please rate your flight” that I expect to receive a few days after the actual journey. The result is a waste of my time, a risk that I accidentally overlook something important among the unimportant, and a recurring feeling of “not those idiots again”. Five emails from one sender might still be tolerable—if it was only that sender (but it is not). While I am comparatively passive in the eCommerce and whatnot field, even I occasionally have two or three businesses sending such unwanted emails in the same time period; those more active might have even more, possibly supplemented by a range of newsletters and similar messages. (In both cases, obviously, this is on top of regular spam.) This is just not in order.

*With the reservation that I tend to think of more-or-less any unwanted email as spam and might use the word “spam” in that sense on occasion.

To look at these emails more in detail:

The acceptable ones are the confirmation of booking and the confirmation of payment-received (contingent on the fact that I payed by invoice; another payment method might not have allowed this email).

The disputable is a notification about online check-in. There is some legitimate value here, but in my case, and the case of most repeat customers, it would have been better if the email had never been sent: firstly, the information and link to check-in would better have been included in the confirmation, the one justification in the delay being that online check-in is only available within three days of departure*. However, I knew about the three-day rule, it is mentioned elsewhere**, and a pre-mature call of the included link could simply lead to an error message of “please try again on or after the Xth”. Moreover, the current implementation is a definite “value subtracted” one compared to a manual visit by the customer: It is possible to check-in with just the booking number, but the link still leads to a page which insists on a log-in or new registration—almost certainly for the unethical reason of tricking unwary unregistered users to register, regardless of whether they consider this in their own best interest. Even for the “wary” this is a negative, because additional steps are required to find the right page for an account-less check-in.

*It self possibly disputable, but off-topic. I suspect that this is related to choice of plane, that the exact model, seats available, etc., are not finalized earlier than this. However, in a worst case, an explicit choice of seat could be replaced by more abstract criteria, e.g. window/middle/aisle, close to exit/faraway from engine, whatnot. Then again, cf. below, an earlier seat-choice than check-in appears to be possible …

**I have not re-checked exactly where, but I do know that I noted it during my booking. If it is not present in e.g. the booking confirmation, it would be easy to add.

Moreover, this is exactly the type of email that could be imitated and abused for phishing, and the prevalence of which lowers the sensitivity about phishing in the general population. (Indeed, even I did not reflect on the risk until I had already called the link—but on no point did I enter any data that could be of use to a phisher.)

The unacceptable ones: Firstly, a patronizing checklist with (the German equivalent of) “Have you thought of everything?”—pure idiocy and, if at all needed, it should have been provided together with the confirmation information. Secondly, a request that I choose my preferred seat. Notably, the choice of seat came at a time when check-in was not yet possible, implying that I would need to visit EuroWings website twice (once to choose seat; once, a few days later, to check in), were I interested in this offer. In as far there is some value here, it is limited and not worth the bother in most cases. So, I have a greater chance at finding my preferred seat by choosing before the time-limited check-in, but the rules are the same for everyone and the difference is likely to be small even for those keen on specific seats.* In contrast, if the ability to choose seat (or even check-in) was available at the time of booking—that would be good!**

*I suspect that most people are not that interested to begin with, especially as information on the more important criteria, like annoying or four-hundred-pound seat-neighbors, loud near-by children, and similar, are not available in advance …

**But note that restrictions as in the above footnote on the three days might apply.

As to the constant “rate this-and-that” emails, they are an inexcusable intrusion upon the customer and a poor way of getting feedback.* In fact, I suspect, it is less a matter of getting true feedback and more of aggregating statistics, which, while of some value, is less useful than more specific feedback. Firstly, any forms and whatnots for feedback are better given with a confirmation email than after the fact, so that the customer can chose when and if to give feedback. Secondly, if I want to give feedback, I have no interest in forms and whatnots—I write an email! (And, notably, this email has usually already been sent when the harassing request for feedback comes …)

*Possibly excepting some strongly reputation driven fields, e.g. Uber-style services with regard to the individual driver. However, even here it would seem reasonable to only give a rating when something was sufficiently above or below par that it was noteworthy. Certainly, the scales must be normalized to have an average performance imply 3-out-5, not the current “anything less than 5-out-of-5 is an insult”.

Worse: if the customer does not give feedback, chances are that one or two reminders are sent, further wasting the customer’s time and showing a complete disrespect for his decision to not give feedback.

Of course, this type of email is another potential in-road for phishing attacks.

As a counter-measure, I strongly encourage businesses (websites, organizations, whatnot) to adhere to a strict rule about email parsimony; indeed, I see them as under an ethical obligation to do so: If an automatic email is not obviously beneficial to the recipient (not the sender!) and reasonably* expected in context, it should not be sent. Moreover, it is better to send one longer email covering several sub-topics than several shorter with a sub-topic each. For instance, a booking confirmation is both beneficial and reasonably expected. A stand-alone unsolicited checklist is usually not beneficial and it is certainly not reasonably expected, but it might be OK if included in an already legitimate email (e.g. a booking confirmation). If there is any other email that might seem worth sending, it should be sent manually to reduce the risk of abuse and in order to err on the side of too little.**

*As in e.g. “what would a reasonable person with little prior exposure reasonably expect”—not as in “what would a reasonable person consider likely based on prior experiences”. Note that there is a dependency on circumstances, e.g. in that I would not normally expect a “your flight has been canceled due to a storm” email, but that this hinges on my not expecting a storm. If a storm has occurred and left my flight canceled, we have a different situation.

**As an aside, the idiotic German legal fiction that if someone already is a customer, then he is expected to be interested in new offers, and businesses are now allowed to send unsolicited advertising emails/letters/whatnot, fails largely on allowing automatic offers. If this was restricted strictly to manual communications, it would be within the plausible, but, as is, businesses just spam every single customer automatically, causing a very poor ratio of interest and a lot of annoyance, barely better than spam to complete strangers. (But this is improving due to sharper laws.)

To this a possible exception exists in that users might be given a list of choices for what emails they want to receive, e.g. booking confirmation (pre-selected), check-list (de-selected), …, to which the business must then adhere—deliberate choice by the user trumps parsimony. This would have the additional advantage of reducing unethical practices like hiding an “agreement” to this-or-that in the Terms-and-Conditions or claims likes “you agree to this-and-that, but can retract your agreement at any time by writing a letter to our customer service”.

Excursion on the customer/user side:
I strongly recommend that as many of these emails as possible be ignored. This with the three-fold idea to not waste own time, to reduce exposure to phishing attacks, and to not encourage misbehavior.

To the last point, I note e.g. that if no-one ever calls up the feedback forms, then businesses will eventually be discouraged and stop sending emails.

To phishing, I recommend more specifically never to enter any type of data over a link sent in an email or through an automatic email request (and to be very cautious with any manual request). For instance, for an online check-in above, it is better to manually go to the website and find the right entry point there (even the aforementioned attempt to court registrations aside).

Excursion on contractual obligations:
A business-to-consumer contract should work according to the simple principle that the business provides a service and receives money in return, the money being the almost* sole obligation of the customer and contingent on the service being provided adequately**. The result should be rights for the customer and obligations for the business. In current reality, it is often the other way around: yes, the customer still pays, but the rights are given to the business and the obligations put upon the customer. Pick up a typical business-to-consumer contract or Terms-and-Conditions and note how much is said about what the customer must or must not do. Note the freedoms businesses presume to take, e.g. with email addresses. Note how customers are increasingly seen as obliged to give feedback and ratings—often with only five-star ratings being acceptable. Etc.

*Exceptions include general, common sense, and usually not-necessary-to-state restrictions like that a rented item must not be damaged, as well as some situation-dependent that might reasonably apply, e.g. that a rented item must be returned at a certain location no later than a certain time.

**At least in Germany, this is a widely ignored condition: the typical attitude is that a contract is a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, with the service being provided on a “if nothing goes wrong basis”.

A particular annoying behavior, at least in Germany, is to forbid certain uses—not warn against them as dangers, not describe them as warranty invalidating, or similar. This is an inexcusable presumption: if a certain use is not illegal, it is entirely* up to the buyer how he uses the product, including what risks he takes—end of story.

*Under normal circumstances. Exceptions might exist in special cases, e.g. that buying a DVD and then making and distributing copies for personal profit is not allowed. I am, however, hard pressed to come up with an example that does not involve a potential damage to the seller’s or producer’s business opportunities and/or a use of a non-private kind.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 13, 2020 at 11:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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Notes on hotspots and smartphones / Follow-up: Stay away from Unitymedia

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A few notes on sub-topics from an earlier text.

I spoke of an automatic disconnect* from the Deutsche Telekom hotspot every six hours, which appears to be overly pessimistic. I got this number from the webpage presented after login, and there has indeed been a number of automatic disconnects; however, nowhere near as often as every six hours. While any type of disconnect is a user-unfriendly annoyance, the current rate of disconnects is acceptable.**

*I assume that we speak of a “disconnect” in the sense of “user must log in over the page again”. A mere “the WIFI-connection is severed” (unless combined with the need to log in again) is a lot less harmful, because a properly setup client can just automatically reconnect. Of course, this makes a severing of the WIFI connection fairly pointless.

*However, the setup could be unacceptable to others and/or for me with only a minor change in circumstances. For instance, the same page spoke of a disconnect after fifteen minutes of inactivity, which could be a very severe restriction, and it is easy to imagine scenarios where a user logs in, opens one web page, reads it for a while, tries to call the next, has to log in again, etc. In my case, an inactivity is unlikely to take place, because I have both Tor and a VPN running, which causes some amount of recurring traffic even when I do nothing in person. The same likely applies to my email client.

As an aside, I was positively surprised by the low restrictions on ports, where I had feared that this-and-that would not work due to blocked ports. Similarly, unlike with the Unitymedia WIFI-spots (cf. [1]), ping does work.

As to the increasing need to have a smartphone (or, at a minimum, cell-phone), I note e.g. that it becomes harder and harder to use Internet banking and credit cards without a smartphone, that Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) has begun to retire ticket machines in favor of ticket-by-app, that many input forms on the web require specifically a cell-phone number (not a telephone number in general), and that there is a growing trend among businesses towards ignoring over-the-Internet functionality in favor of smartphone apps.

The latter is particularly annoying, because the combination of this with the use of texting over email, the obsession with Facebook, etc., could spell the end of the Internet. (Which once seemed set to be the dominant medium for decades or, in a modified form, centuries.) Things might still work out for the best, but if the current trend continues, we might regress to an 1980s setup of limited, limiting, and proprietary technologies, as if dial-in BBS crap and AOL had developed into Apps and Facebook while by-passing the Internet era. Indeed, some early Internet technologies, including the once greatly successful newsgroups, are reduced to niche use without a better replacement. Or note how reluctant many businesses are to give out email addresses, while pushing their Facebook, Twitter, and whatnot, accounts/identities down the customer’s throat, and while using his email address as a means to one-sidedly send unwanted messages. Absurdly, it is often impossible to even reply to such emails, because they use unethical “no-reply” addresses as senders, and insist that the user go to a user-hostile web form to reply …

Written by michaeleriksson

February 8, 2020 at 11:33 am

More delivery problems / DHL sucks

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Looking for some items with low availability in stores, I recently placed two new Internet orders. Predictably, delivery problems ensued. (Cf. e.g. [1].)

The first package was supposed to be delivered on Wednesday, but the only thing that came was a you-were-out notification. Interesting: I was not out and no-one had bothered to ring my door-bell. Apparently, the notification had (again) been written in a blanket manner, without any actual check for my presence. Moreover, it had been taped to the outside of my mailbox, implying that anyone could have taken it before I had the opportunity. I deliberately did not collect the package the day after, waiting for the second to save myself repeated trips in the event of another non-delivery.

The second was supposed to be delivered on Thursday (i.e. yesterday). As I suspected, the same thing happened. (Except that the notification was put in my mailbox and that I also received an email notification from the sender.)

According to this notification, the second package could be collected the next day (today) after 10 AM. I duly went after 10 AM—only to find that only my first package was present! According to the store* clerk, the deliverer had not shown yet and she had already been forced to send another four persons away, who had all relied on the correctness of their respective notifications.

*DHL has few or no own locales for customer contact, instead affiliating stores with another line of business to add a DHL service as a side-business.

Moreover, the store is about one kilometer away from my apartment (so much for delivery!) and has lousy opening hours, including just three (!) hours on Saturday*. Indeed, the opening hours are so poor that it borders on the irresponsible for the store to take up this side-business. This especially as the opening hours overlap strongly with regular office hours, including an extended lunch break, implying that those who cannot be at home when a delivery is (not) attempted are exactly those hard-pressed to visit the store. I do note that prior DHL deliveries** went to another store that was (a) closer, (b) had much better opening hours.

*Sunday, obviously, is not even on the table, this being Germany.

**The last one was likely more than two years ago and I am uncertain whether the old store is still in business. However, I suspect that the current store joined the dark si…, ahem, DHL in the interim, leading to a change in area allocation.

Collecting the first package was at least ten minutes out of my day and might have been twenty or more, if the store did not happen to lie on my way to the grocery store.* Collecting the second tomorrow would be these twenty or more minutes, assuming that I can even fit the limited opening hours in my schedule—and I have no guarantee that the package would actually be there. (I am strongly considering simply rescinding my order, especially as this gives the sender an incentive to push for changes.) All this because an inexcusable deliverer is too lazy to actually ring a door-bell and risk a two minute wait …

*More correctly, it lies on a detour that I often take for the sake of getting more exercise, as the grocery stores that I usually visit are unhealthily close to my apartment.

I can only repeat my observation that the combination of delivery issues, poorly implemented websites, and the increasing difficulty of using a credit card online, makes eCommerce inferior to visiting brick-and-mortar stores—and inferior to eCommerce as it was fifteen or twenty years ago.

Excursion on other stores:
The situation is made worse by there being at least one another DHL-affiliated store closer to my apartment than both the new and the old one (cf. above), with the local post office* not much farther away (closer than the new; might or might not be closer than the old). The store clerk from above claims that these do not do package hand-outs. If this is true, it is very weird; if it is not, the area allocations are outright idiotic.

*DHL is a daughter of the “German Post”.

Excursion on working conditions, etc.:
It is well-known that the individual deliverers are under undue time and whatnot pressure, putting the ultimate blame on DHL. However, this does not absolve the individual deliverer. If in doubt, pushing the problem onto the recipients merely ensures that the situation will not improve for anyone. This is, by DHL, the individual deliverer, and (sometimes) the sender, another example of evil through ignoring the rights of others.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 10, 2020 at 7:51 pm

Problems with books in the public domain

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We live in a world where great amounts of text, including by many great past authors, are in the public domain and also actually available on the Internet.

I still find myself constantly frustrated. Part of the benefit is removed by (often entirely unnecessary or arbitrary) artificial restrictions. Sometimes, all of it is removed.

For instance:

  1. Project Gutenberg, the leading source for several decades, is blocked entirely for German IPs—and has been so for several years.*

    *The reason is a German court decision relating to a small number of books. See a discussion by Project Gutenberg, including the reason for a blanket block.

    Downloading from Project Gutenberg using Tor is not possible either, at least not the last time that I checked.

  2. Germany is also otherwise weak, when we look at alternatives like e.g. Wikisource compared to the English, often even Swedish, counter-parts.

    A particular problem is a pseudo-Gutenberg provider, Gutenberg-DE*, which has killed part of the market with a for-profit site and a borderline unusable web-interface. The last time I tried, it did not even work with JavaScript on…

    *I provide no link, because the site does not deserve the traffic.

  3. Poor interfaces are not restricted to Gutenberg-DE (or Germany): Many sites that provide free books only work with JavaScript activated and provide no ability to download books for offline reading. Indeed, they often work on the assumption that the website should be used as a virtual eBook reader, one page at a time…

    Not only is this user hostile, but it also severely limits the options for those who do not want to expose their computers to the risks of JavaScript.

  4. Even sites that provide better options and an ability to download, however, are often highly limiting through artificial divisions. Even Wikisource usually insists on dividing texts into one chapter per HTML-page. If a book has thirty chapters, they then have to be downloaded individually, be it manually or per script, and then merged into a single document. Even the reader who reads in a browser still has to open all thirty chapters individually…

    True: this might still be less effort than going to a bookstore, even price aside, but why not just allow a download as a single document? It is a one-time effort for the provider (often even less effort than providing more HTML-pages), but it saves effort for reader after reader after reader.

    Many even have a division of one book-page (!) per HTML-page, as with most entries on the Swedish Projekt Runeberg.* The reader might now have to open several hundred links to read a book…

    *Not to be confused with the above item, where the standard is to navigate the book pages per JavaScript in a single HTML page.

  5. Often, the best download option is provided by sites that are on the darknet and/or also provide illegal contents, as with The Imperial Library of Trantor*. However, these automatically put the burden of copyright investigation on the downloader, and even the download of a text which is in the public domain in principle can be shady, because the specific edition provided might have further restrictions.** I typically only use these to read something that I could read for free on e.g. Wikisource, but strongly wish to read offline.

    *I provide no link for legal reasons. Also note that it is only (?) accessible through Tor. No part of this text should be seen as an endorsement.

    **I have not investigated the legal situation in detail, but I suspect that e.g. old works with a new foreword or an extensive commentary might be problematic. I would not rule out that even new cover-work could cause problems.

Excursion on varying copyright:
Varying copyright rules between different countries is another complication. This is e.g. the cause of the problems with Project Gutenberg and Germany above, because Project Gutenberg uses U.S. copyright law, while a reader in Germany underlies German law. The reader in the U.S., in turn, might have to be careful when visiting an Australian site. The combination of the often excessive copyright lengths and different laws can lead to absurd situations, e.g. in that a tourist might legally download a book in a visited country but not his home country. If he travels back with it, he would either* break copyright law or force another absurd situation, in that physical travel would overcome the difference in legislation, making this difference the more preposterous. Then again, if he downloads a greater quantity of books during the vacation and is caught in a police raid back home, how is he to prove that the download and “import” was legal?

*I do not know what the typical legal regulation is. A similar situation would apply to physical books, however, which makes me suspect that the second alternative is more common.

Unfortunately, barring an unlikely global harmonization, there are no good solutions. For instance, going by nationality or nation of residence could lead to two people reading the same book next to each other, the one violating copyright law and the other keeping it. Taking the lesser of the copyright durations applying to the reader’s and the website’s respective location might be a way, but this opens the door for “country shopping”—possibly, including countries with next to no copyright protection. Taking the greater duration would keep most of the paradoxes. Etc.

In some cases and some jurisdictions, there might be significantly reduced criteria for downloads (as opposed to uploads) or specific forms of downloads, e.g. streaming. I deliberately ignore this possibility above. (In part, because the research would be enormous; in part, because I consider such restrictions highly dubious. Why would it, e.g., matter whether I watch a video as a stream or do a regular download, watch it once, and then delete the file?)

Disclaimer:
I have not verified that described behaviors and examples are present at the time of writing. Changes for the better might have occurred.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 11, 2019 at 12:52 pm

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Email addresses and the abomination of a display name

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A strong case can be made that various Internet standards created before the Eternal September, the commercialization of the Internet, the (once) dominance of Internet Explorer, … where superior to what came later.* One interesting counter-point is the “display name” of an email address, which has annoyed me for ages. This idiocy appears** to be present as far back as RFC 822 in 1982, possibly even earlier, depending on what implementations predated this document. (My own history on the Internet “only” goes back to 1994.)

*Of course, allowing for deficiencies due to a smaller amount of practical experience and a changing world.

**RFC 822 gives “mailbox” as “addr-spec” (i.e. a proper email address) or “phrase route-addr”, which seems to match the idiocy under discussion. Its 2001 replacement, RFC 2822, actually uses “display name” in its descriptions.

In effect, instead of using an email address like “john.smith@example.com”, senders are allowed to use e.g. “donald.trump@whitehouse.gov <john.smith@example.com>”.* Here “Donald.Trump@whitehouse.gov” is the display name, which has no actual impact on the email handling. Of course, John could equally use “Trump”, “Hillary Clinton”, “mermaid lover”, or “info”.

*There might be cases where additional escaping or use of quotations marks is needed. I have not investigated this in detail, and I deliberately do not wish to include quotation marks in the examples, even at the risk of a slight inaccuracy, due to incompetent handling by WordPress.

Here we see the first problem: The display name is highly unreliable. Not only can it be used to try to fool the email-illiterate user into making incorrect assumptions, but major confusion can arise when one party switches* display name between two emails, or when several parties use the same** display name. This problem is made the worse, because some email clients rely very strongly on the display name, e.g. in that only the display name is present in overviews of a mailbox (at all or per default). Indeed, even when the email address is displayed, the display name can make it less accessible, e.g. through pushing relevant parts out of sight.

*Say that someone started with “John” and switched to “John Smith”, because there were other Johns; or that someone went with “John Smith” professionally and “Johnny Boy” when writing his family, and that some recipient was both a family member and a professional contact.

**With “info” being the paramount example. In contrast, the email address proper is unique. (But note potential complications like equally ill-advised attempts to allow generic Unicode characters, which might cause e.g. an apparent Latin “A” to be exactly that in one address and and a Greek capital alpha in another.)

A particular complication is mailing lists: Because the sender determines the display name used for the mailing-list address, the eventual recipients can receive dozens of display names for the same mailing list. I can still recall trying to automatically put emails from one or two mailing lists into different folders at work—we were stuck with Outlook, Outlook only allowed filters* based on display name, and even with half-a-dozen alternative display names appended to the filter I regularly found emails that by-passed the filter… Of course, if emails to two different mail-lists used the same display name, filtering would be done incorrectly… (But, in all fairness, these were more Outlook issues than email-specification issues.)

*With reservations for terminology. I have not used Outlook in a good long while.

Another issue is that this feature is mis-designed (even its existence aside): now parsers need to handle two inconsistent formats, writers of emails need to understand two formats, etc. Indeed, because the display name can be empty, a parser needs to handle both “john.smith@example.com” and “<john.smith@example.com>”—and if faced with “john.smith@example.com”, it can only conclude that this actually is an email address (not a display name) after having noted that a “<>” expression does not follow. Absolutely amateurish… A better solution would be to put the display name in angle brackets, which allows for easier and more consistent parsing, and is less likely to cause misunderstandings (i.e. “<Johnny Boy> john.smith@example.com”, not “Johnny Boy <john.smith@example.com>”).

A minor potential advantage is the ability to replace a non-descript email address with something easier for the recipient to recognize. I note e.g. that my own first email address (provided by my college and based on my user name in its systems) was something like “f94-per@nada.kth.se”*. However, the advantage was very minor even back then, very few are stuck with such addresses today,** and that “john.smith@example.com” is named “John Smith” does not need additional mention. If worst come to worst, the (claimed) identity should be clear from the email body, even if at some loss of comfort. Schemes like allowing several people to use the same email account with different pseudo-identities are highly disputable, and it is better to either give them separate accounts or to not use pseudo-identities with the one account at all, because they are likely to do more harm than good. (As an example, a customer-service department should not use the names of individual co-workers as display names for one common account.)

*Do not try it. Chances are that I misremember the details, my last log-in was likely in the late 1990s, and I have no idea what my password might be—even should the account still be functional… The local part, should anyone be interested, comprises a program-of-study identificator (“f”, in my case), the year of enrollment, (a hyphen,) and some letters from the student’s name.

**Or they have only themselves to blame for registering using the likes of “ahf38js” (instead of e.g. “john.smith384”) when a name is already taken.

Unfortunately, display names see heavy use and I very often even receive email back, where my sender address has been abused as a faked display name (i.e. if someone uses just the email address proper, e.g. “john.smith@example.com”, he receives a “john.smith@example.com <john.smith@example.com>” back). This is utterly pointless on two counts: firstly, it adds no information compared to just using the address proper; secondly, it unnecessarily forces the use of one format when the other would have done just fine. Outlook, as already mentioned, seems to consider the display name more important than the actual email address. Certainly, the display names picked by the sender, especially in a commercial context, are often quite poor—as with “info” (why not include the company name?!?) and other very generic phrases.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 9, 2019 at 7:08 pm

Problems with YouTube content

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Spending some time on YouTube, I find a lot of annoyances. Spending some time looking through my drafts, I find that I had already started to write something on the topic. The below is a slightly polished version of the draft, with the reservation that I do not always remember the exact context of some complaints. The footnotes were all added during polishing, in lieu of editing the main text. The formulation as “do not” was almost certainly an error, but I am not keen on a re-write.

There is a lot of crap on YouTube, which is neither surprising, nor necessarily a problem. What is problematic: Even when the content is good, the presentation is often very poor—and in some cases showing an immense contempt for the viewers. Sadly, the more “professional” the poster or channel tries to be, the worse it tends to perform in these regards. In many ways, it is as if they have taken the worst sins of incompetent TV productions and raised them to virtues.

YouTubers (and TV producers!), please do not:

  1. Waste the viewer’s time with long intro sequences without content. There are plenty of five minute videos that start with a thirty second intro, with nothing but logos or generic information about the poster…* This is the worse when viewing several videos by the same poster one after the other.

    *In a parallel, where movies of old might have started with a brief clip for the studio, e.g. MGM’s roaring/yawning lion, many modern movies have half-a-dozen such clips for various entities, which can postpone the start of the actual movie for minutes. Result? I am annoyed and skip forward…

  2. Add background music for no good reason—but if you still do, pick something of quality and with a bit of variation. Save us from those endless repetitions of the same ten seconds of unimaginative drum beat or synthesizer cords.* Either the video has dialog and background noise that is of interest and then there should be no music at all; or not and then I would much prefer to listen to the music of my choice. Half the time, I end up having the video on mute…**

    *I have the impression that there is some repository of fairly second-rate free-for-use music provided by YouTube it self, and that many posters just pick something from this repository based on the first hearing sounding “cool”. After five minutes of repetition, it is a different story altogether. Note that this can apply to even far higher quality music: I recall being driven up the wall by the DVD “extras” for “Pirates of the Caribbean”, which all played the same portion of the movie score over-and-over-and-over-again.

    **Here I probably had my eyes on videos that relied mostly on the actual video part, e.g. wild-life scenes, pets doing weird things, or “fails”. The claim does not apply to more talk-centric videos, e.g. skits or discussions of training tips. (If in doubt, because they are less likely to be infested with poor music…) More generally, the original text is often a bit indiscriminate when it comes to type of video.

    Bad music is worse than no music!

  3. Prioritize the contents lower than the moderator/narrator/whatnot: The latter should only be seen and heard when they bring value to the content, not use the contents to attempt* to make themselves look good or cool. If you have the content, let the content speak; if you do not, pretending that you do just makes you look like an idiot.

    *They usually fail…

  4. Pollute the content with irrelevant animations, over-sized logos, or gaps between e.g. items on a list*: Use animations only when it helps clarify the content, not because you want to “pep up” the video or draw attention to yourself. Keep logos discreet, un-animated, and informative. Let the content flow; in particular, do not make a ten second pause between every item on a list or count-down.

    *A great many videos are of the type “Top-10 X of all times”, “20 ways to Y”, etc. These often take a break between the actual contents of the items to play a sound, show the number of the following item, say the number (“Secret tip number niiiine!”), or similar. The break is often so long as to be boring—and to raise the suspicion that the main purpose is to artificially increase the run-time of the video…

  5. Add unnecessary sounds and visual effects.
  6. Attempt to sound “cool”, excited or exciting, whatnot when speaking. Ideally, the contents should (metaphorically) speak for themselves, without weird manipulations. (The fact that they might need a literal speaker to help them is not a reason to change this.) A typical sport-reporter is a negative example.
  7. Add padding around the video to make it fit a certain format (e.g. 1600×900). By doing so, you prevent offline media players that automatically scale the image to match the display (i.e. virtually all modern players) from doing so, while bringing no benefit whatsoever to online/in-browser players. In fact, the latter can even get into problems because they have too little view space available. In effect, you make the file larger in order to deliver an inferior product…
  8. Add replays of what just happened. Users are perfectly capable of re-winding and re-playing, with or without slow-motion.* Avoid multiple replays of the same scene especially.

    *As a minor reservation, there might be rare instances where such a replay can be justified through higher picture quality. This, however, requires both that the scene benefits non-trivially from the higher quality (most do not) and that the result actually has a noticeably higher quality. The latter will often be the case when the video draws on an original source of a higher quality than its own (e.g. through a higher frame-rate, a less lossy encoding, or a higher resolution); however, will not be the case e.g. when the video and the original use the exact same format.

  9. Abuse YouTube for non-video content. If you have sound without picture, put it somewhere else—do not add artificial images (usually stills) to make it appear like video content. Ditto photos: There are plenty of services to host photos. Making a “video” out of them just to use YouTube is idiotic and user unfriendly.
  10. Pan around a still image. It is annoying and distracting, and makes it harder for those who actually want to study the image.
  11. Use the same or similar names for all own movies, or something used by others all the time. “Top-10 fails”, e.g., is a lousy name that makes it very hard to determine what one has already watched and what not. If nothing better can be found, something along the lines of “[your name]’s fail choices for 2016” at least gives the viewer a chance. Similarly, use a name that is actually compatible with the contents: “Fail”, for instance, does not mean* “generic YouTube video”—it means that someone screwed up, usually in an entertaining manner.

    *The word “mean” was not present in the draft and I am not certain that this was my original intention; however, it is the easiest correction that makes the sentence plausible.

  12. Re-hash the same fail (or other borrowed content) that ten other compilations already have. Some overlap is unavoidable, but please try to be more original and to pay attention to the competition.
  13. Insult the viewers intelligence with demands that he “like”, recommend, subscribe, … Viewers are adult enough to make up their own minds and this type of intrusive commands are more likely to turn him away than to entice him. Explicitly calling the people who do not “like” a video losers, as at least one video did, is almost guaranteed to have a negative effect. You see less subscribers than you want to? Your best bet is to increase the quality or quantity of your contents—not harass your viewers.

    As a general rule, the imperative has no place whatsoever in advertising or material of an advertising character. Most likely the effects are neutral to negative—and in as far as they are positive, this makes the use grossly unethical!

Additionally, I quote a text on naive links written in the interim:

Youtube provides many examples of making too specific assumptions. For instance, a video that asks the users to “comment below” might become misleading even through a minor Youtube redesign. Others, e.g. “please ‘like’ this video” might survive even a drastic redesign, but would still be irrelevant if moved to or viewed in another context, e.g. after a manual download.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 12, 2019 at 8:35 pm

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The problem of new trumping good

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There is an unfortunate tendency to focus too strongly on the new, notably within the Internet and regarding e.g. entertainment (even outside the Internet). Consider movies: If there is a benefit to watching a movie in a cinema (compared to e.g. on the own computer), then that benefit applies not only to the latest box-office hit but roughly equally to a comparable movie from the past.* Why then is the cinema landscape so dominated by newer releases? Why do even new releases usually see their best returns in the first week and then drop of rapidly? Why this obsession with the new?

*There might be some differences, e.g. in that a more modern movie might have more spectacular special effects that benefit more from a larger screen. For similar reasons, the larger differences between different genres limit what movies are reasonably compared to each other, irrespective of the time aspect.

To a part, these questions are rhetorical: I am well aware of the money-making interests of the movie industry (where the newness factor can be quite rational) and e.g. its influence on interest through marketing and how non-niche cinemas naturally show what the industry currently pushes—and the consequence that someone who wants to visit a cinema for the experience, not a specific movie, will have limited choices outside the new releases. However, there is an aspect of irrationality among the viewers, who could equally well be watching an older movie for the first time and/or wait for a better opportunity to watch a specific movie than in the week after its cinematic release—for instance, to watch it in a smaller crowd one or two weeks later or to wait for a cheap DVD. This even with the current box-office wonder, “Avengers: Endgame”: yes, it continues another movie that ended on a cliff-hanger, but would it really hurt to wait another one or two weeks, having already waited for up to a year for the release? Notably, the same applies to other areas where there is no equivalent to the difference made by the cinema, e.g. the purchase of DVDs shortly after release when the same DVDs can be had for a fraction of the price at a later time. Ditto CDs. Ditto the purchase of overly expensive hard-cover books, because the cheaper and better* pocket edition is only published at a later date. In effect, the customers pay a premium to enjoy what is new, as opposed to what is good. This is the odder, as there is no dearth of entertainment and no need to sit around rolling one’s thumbs while waiting for the better opportunity—if anything, we are flooded with entertainment to the point that perfectly good movies/books/whatnots have to be foregone through lack of time to enjoy more than a minority of them…**

*The lesser weight and size make the typical pocket book easier to read, easier to store, vastly superior during travel, and, indeed, possible to carry in a pocket. For most people in most circumstance, this makes it the better product.

**Which is a co-reason why the respective industry pushes the new: They want to avoid the competition with older works at lower prices. Incidentally, I suspect that this is one of the largest reasons for extensions of copyright terms—not to protect the owners of rights to older works but to reduce the competition for newer works.

Looking at this from the view of e.g. a musician or an author, he can often not just put out a few quality works, build his reputation, and see a steady or even increasing stream of long-term income. Usually, the income that does arise will disproportionately do so from the early days after publication/release/whatnot—and the failure to put out further works can make the old works be forgotten that much faster.

The same need to be current is present on the Internet—even to the point that SEO recommendations include* making sure to regularly publish new material and to update pages for a better rating. But: Unless a site actually deals with news**, a reasonable reader should be more interested in quality than newness. What is interesting is the benefit of reading a certain text. This benefit is usually*** only weakly dependent on when the text was written—let alone when the same author or the same website last published something else.

*At least they did when I looked into the matter, possibly ten years ago. I have not verified that this still holds.

**News is almost tautologically an exception to much of this discussion.

***Circumstances change with time, new information can be revealed, new events take place, whatnot, which can leave even the best older discussion outdated. Texts dealing with concrete laws and regulations are particularly noteworthy, due to the frequency and arbitrariness of change, as well as the potential consequences of a violation. Still, quality texts often retain great value for decades—or longer.

For instance, looking at statistics* for my WordPress blog, it took me a single month of 2010 to build up twice as many page visits as I have at the moment (Mai 2019)—with just a handful of posts and very little value to the world. The historical peak was in June 2011 at roughly five times the number of visits of June 2018. Soon after, I had a lengthy break, followed by only rare posts for another lengthy period. During this time, the count dwindled to the point that a few months had less than one hundred page visits. This despite my having accumulated more posts and, with the old posts still there, almost necessarily providing more value than at the peak—let alone the first few months.

*I deliberately do not give specific numbers, because they somehow (possibly, irrationally) feel like a private matter and were never “brag worthy”. To boot, my website proper always had considerably higher numbers during my days of comparison, which would make the implication about readership misleading. Also see an excursion on visitor statistics.

Since writing more extensively again, my counts have improved, but vary very strongly with publications. Notably, there is often* a short boost the day after a publication, but the lasting effects seem to be weak. As for the difference in visitors compared to the pre-break era, it likely goes back to the many comments that I used to leave on other peoples blog, e.g. in that readers or other commenters might have followed a link back to my blog to see who I was. Most** of these comments are probably still there, but since the posts they were made on are no longer new, they no longer have a major effect.

*This varies, especially based on the text and/or the tags that I use. For instance, a text with a tag like “blogging” tends to have a handful of visitors marked as “WordPress.com Reader” in the statistics, while most others do not.

**There is bound to be some loss over time, e.g. because a few blogs have been deleted or made private (as opposed to merely abandoned).

To take a different perspective: To “go viral” appears to be the popular perception of the Holy Grail of Internet success—to see a temporary explosion in readers/viewers/whatnot of a single item. (To “be trending” is similar, if typically on a lesser scale.) This simultaneously shows a negative attitude among content makers and the problems of the new. To the former: having enormously many temporary readers (or whatnot) of a single item is of less valuable than having a decent number of readers of many items sustained over a long period of time.* To the latter: Here we have people jumping on the latest new bandwagon, only to have forgotten it a few days later.

*In their defense: this attitude might partially arise from the knowledge that sustained success is rare and that “a one-hit wonder” might be a more realistic hope. To boot, that which goes viral does not always require a lot of skill. (For instance, a video of someone doing something weird might merely require being at the right place at the right time and having a lack of respect for the privacy of others.)

The problem is made the worse through mechanisms such as “likes”—something that I spoke out against as early as 2011 (and which I, possibly to my long-term detriment, have disabled on my WordPress blog): We can now see an item receive a few likes, be given a better listing due to the likes, find more readers due to the listing, get even more likes from the new visitors, etc. It is made the worse by the superficiality, non-comparability, whatnot of a like—an image of a cute kitten is pre-destined to receive more likes than an insightful scientific article on feline neuro-chemistry. At the same time, a single like of the scientific article by a leading scientist in the field might be more telling than all the kitten-likes from people like school-children, bored house-wives, truck-drivers, …—but this difference in value of opinion does not show if the two items are compared by e.g. a typical ranking mechanism.

Excursion on page-visit statistics:
The value of such statistics is limited in general, because it tells nothing about what amount of reading took place. For instance, a single visit to certain page could result in someone reading every last word—or to someone reading two sentences and then leaving. Without looking e.g. at comments left, other pages visited by the same someone, subscriptions started, whatnot, these numbers are fairly useless for other purposes than spotting trends and comparing authors of similar style and areas of writing. The situation is even more complicated on e.g. WordPress, due to both subscriptions (which imply that a text might be read by many who have not visited) and archive pages (which contain a number of texts from the same time frame, but will only register as one page visit, even if the visitor read them all).

Excursion on the “wrong” texts having staying power:
There are some texts on my blog that have had a considerable staying power (relative the others—the numbers are still nothing to brag about). However, these have often been the “wrong” texts from my point of view. For instance, the most successful text in the last few years has been my discussion of Clevvermail—a complaint by a disgruntled customer. These visitors are gratifying insofar as I have the hope of having diverted a few people away from Clevvermail, but I would have preferred to have more visitors on a text that is, in some sense, more important and/or dealing with one of my core topics. Similarly, one of my most successful texts in the early days was a discussion of the movie “Doubt”

Of course, this relative success is likely only weakly related to my own efforts, and might depend on factors like what the broad masses want to read, what the competition for certain search terms is, what texts are classified as what by a search engine, and how the “raw” search terms match up with my text. For instance, if Clevvermail pushes advertising, some potential customers are likely to look for experiences by others on the Internet, they might not find that much written by other sources (excepting Clevvermail, it self), the use of “Clevvermail” (as a distinctive and rare string of characters) makes it easy for a search-engine to see that my text deals with Clevvermail—and the user is likely to have included that very string. In contrast, the current text is not on a topic that many will go looking for, it would require a deeper analysis by a search-engine to find a proper classification, and an interested searcher might have to be lucky to stumble on the “right” search terms. (On the upside, the competition might still be low.)

Excursion on main-stream vs. niches:
There is a considerable overlap between the above and the problem that a sizable portion of the population consumes the same information, entertainment, whatnot, without looking into more diverse sources—and that many content producers focus solely on the main-stream. A good example of the latter is how sports have been “dumbed down” again and again over the last few decades, in order to entertain the casual spectator, but also leaving the knowledgeable fan with a reduced enjoyment and often infringing upon the ability to pick a worthy winner*. This type of main-streaming puts niches in trouble, makes it harder for small players, and generally leads to less diversity (in the non-PC sense). At the end of the day: We do not all have to pick what is new and popular just because it is new and popular—some of us might want to pick based on quality and value.

*Often by trying to shorten competitions or creating an unnecessary uncertainty. An outright tragic example is a recent experiment by the IAAF (an ever-recurring sinner), by which a throws competition should be determined by the best effort in the last round and the last round only—the previous rounds merely served to decide which two (?) athletes were allowed to participate in the last round. Throwing events, however, have a large element of chance, which makes the reduction to one throw a virtual coin-toss—except that the athlete who goes second actually has considerable advantage… Why? There is also a large element of risk management, where a thrower can get a bit further by taking a larger risk of fouling. If the first thrower goes high risk and fouls, the second can just make a security throw. If the first thrower goes low risk, he risks a too weak mark. Etc. Of course, the winning mark will often fail to be the best mark of the competition…

Written by michaeleriksson

May 19, 2019 at 9:38 am

Follow-up: Further Firefox screw-ups

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Since my original text, I have read some of the comments on the main Mozilla* page dealing with this issue.

*Mozilla develops Firefox. For convenience, my earlier text just spoke in terms of Firefox.

These comments show how dire the situation is—to the point that Firefox might disqualify it self as a serious browser candidate:

  1. There are many users who have been very hard hit. One commenter mentions how his password manager* with (IIRC) roughly 150 passwords has been disabled, which might be even worse than the NoScript issue. It is easy to imagine a user being cut off from email, blogging, social media, …, through such an issue. Worse: If this happens in a commercial setting, an entire business could be temporarily crippled.

    *However, I would advise against using an in-browser password manager (at least, where important passwords are concerned). This for reasons like the above, the greater risk of hacking, problems that can ensue when switching computers or trying to run several browsers in parallel, whatnot.

  2. The attempts by Mozilla to fix the issue appear to be slow and have not been met with enthusiasm.
  3. Mozilla’s preferred work-around, awaiting a proper fix, is to enable “studies”.

    This work-around has the side-effect of allowing Mozilla to run various spy-on-the-user functionality that many users have disabled for very good reasons—and that more-or-less everyone else should have disabled. This, obviously, amounts to Mozilla screwing up and then gaining an unfair advantage over its users through the screw-up…

    Further, this work-around can take up to six (!) hours to take effect, without an additional workaround (specifically, manual manipulation of the “app.normandy.run_interval_seconds” key). Mozilla’s stance: Wait, without attempting further work-arounds. Depending on timing, however, six hours can amount to an entire day lost, including for some who need the Internet extensively for professional reasons.

    Further, it is not even available on all Firefox instances, including those that use or are based upon the ESR*.

    *An older version with long-term support that is suitable for those in need of greater stability and/or who develop off-shot browsers, e.g. the Tor Browser.

    Further, some users who believe that it should work in their browsers report that it does not. (I have not kept tabs on the details and could be wrong, but I am under the impression that some of them were on the latest version—and, thus, correct in this estimate. There are some murmurings about some other key that might need to be manipulated, but, again, I have not kept tabs on the details.)

From a Tor-Browser perspective, there is an additional* complication through NoScript being used by the Tor Browser internally to implement some security features. The disabling of NoScript implies e.g. that the “security slider” will be highly misleading or malfunctioning. As some mention, such errors could cost someone his freedom or even life…** This, obviously, points to issues with the Tor Browser, including that it has chosen a dangerous path to implement security (dependent on the efforts of third parties) and that it has failed*** to protect it self against the risk of this type of deactivation.

*Which I had not realized when writing the first text, but which is clear from the page I linked to.

**Tor Browser is used by many dissidents in hostile regimes—not just regular surfers who value anonymity.

***In my understanding, such a protection and a protection mechanism is already present for some other plug-ins that come installed with the default Tor Browser, including “HTTPS Everywhere”. Correspondingly, an awareness of the possibility must have been present.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 6, 2019 at 3:04 pm