The Confusatory

cbowns’s tumblr.

  1. The Best in Literature: 2013

    I’ve recommended many books over the years. These recommendations almost universally come with a caveat, or at best, are simply mildly positive. “Yeah, it’s a pretty good book. *shrug*”

    This is not one of those. This recommendation isn’t one at all: it’s wide-eyed, raving, emphatic, loud, imploring you, at once, you must read this book.

    This book has completely changed my personal understanding of the rise of modern society and the geopolitics of the last thousand years. It feels like enlightenment: it’s altered how I interact with the city, how I understand the world when I travel, how I view history, where today’s world is, and how it came to be. This book is a wandering, masterful series of tales, interrelated in delightful ways. It will introduce you to ancient civilizations in new ways, and has a few detailed, accurate, and very personal tales surrounding some of the best discoveries in modern science.

    I see the world differently because of this novel, and I hope you’ll jump in and try it for yourself. The Years of Rice and Salt

    (Note: Goodreads and Amazon’s summaries of the book give away a great deal about the book. I knew far less than this when I started, and I recommend knowing as little as possible before starting it. Seriously: buy a copy and simply start reading it. If you purchase it in dead-tree form and don’t want it, I’ll buy it from you.)

  2. iOS Multitasking: Better Snapshots

    Following up on Dynamic App Switcher Previews, there’s another, more interesting thing applications can do today with their multitasking previews:

    Adam Bell’s article about dynamic previews linked to this post by @vpdn about “card-sized applications”. He approaches this UI as a new design target that lies somewhere between an application icon to a full-screen application:

    Three screenshots of iOS: first, an app icon of Clock, displaying the current time. Second, the multitasking view in iOS 7, labeled Card View, showing Clock with a few of its table's rows in a large, readable font, with the times stated in text. Third, the Clock app running full-screen, showing times in the traditional analog clock style.

    Adam Bell had a similar point about other applications: rather than showing a scaled-down copy of their application’s tableview, would it be interesting to show easy-to-identify visual representation of the application? This is technically possible today by installing a custom view controller in the view hierarchy before the app’s snapshot is taken. (In his example, the background image changed every few seconds, but that’s currently only available via private API.)

    The iOS 7 multitasking UI, showing a modified Instagram app, where the card view is a blurred-out photo with the Instagram logo composited on top

    This approach isn’t appropriate for all applications: the brain’s ability to identify an application at a glance would likely be defeated by changing the application’s UI from when it’s active to when it’s in the app switcher.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are there any applications for which this seems like an especially neat or very poor idea?

  3. Dynamic iOS Application Switcher Previews

    I was recently reading about iOS 7’s new multitasking capabilities when an idea came to me: it would be really quite neat for all applications to be able to update their multitasking UI preview when in the background.

    iOS 7 provides the capability for this for applications it launches to fetch new data in the background (think of a Twitter client: they fetch new tweets, then update their UI to show the new items).

    There’s another common use case which iOS currently doesn’t cover: applications running persistently in the background because they’re using location services or are connected to a Bluetooth device. I have a Bluetooth LE heart rate monitor that I use at the gym: a Wahoo Blue HR sensor.

    If I’m using my phone for something else, I often check my current heart rate by double-tapping the Home button to switch apps and scrolling back to Wahoo. Because iOS doesn’t let the app update in the background, it shows old data for my heart rate until I select the app and it re-renders.

    Adam Bell did some dumpster-diving and found a very hacky, very non-App-Store-approved way of updating the app’s UI in the background. It’s quite neat.

  4. Password Generation and Heartbleed

    I’ve used GenPass since university to generate some basic passwords for websites, based off the site’s domain. I’ve imported these passwords into 1Password over the years, but GenPass has continued to be handy for one reason: with the bookmarklet synced into Safari, I can fill a password into a form in Safari or MobileSafari without round-tripping into 1Password.

    Heartbleed, a bug in OpenSSL, has forced affected websites to recommend a password change to their users (once they’ve fixed the bug and deployed new certificates and keys). I’d been looking for years for a reason to transition to SuperGenPass but hadn’t quite ever had the activation energy required to do so. Now I do.

  5. iOS: Photo Stream, iCloud Backup, and terminating cases

    A user who buys an iOS device, enables iCloud Backup, and takes photos with their device with any regularity faces a fascinatingly subpar user experience: their backups are guaranteed to become disabled unless they manually intervene.

    iCloud Backup, by default, gives each user up to 5 GB of storage to use for documents, data, and iOS device backups. Photo Stream, part of iCloud’s services, uploads photos from the user’s camera roll on each device to iCloud. It stores the most recent 1,000 photos across all devices. These photos do not count against a user’s 5 GB iCloud storage allocation. Once a user has taken more than 5 GB of photos on a single iOS device, iCloud backup stops working for all your devices forever.

    To rectify this, a user must manually sync photos off to a computer and remove them from the device, or simply choose photos and videos to delete. So much for PC-Free.

    Bradley Chambers wrote about this a while back, and it’s stuck in my head ever since:

    … [P]hoto stream needs to be reversed. Apple should store ALL photos/video taken with your iPhone and just store the most recent 1000 (or 30 days) locally on the device.

    Photo Stream provides a service that nearly no one uses: it’s a cloud-based cache of recent photos, suitable for Grandma’s Apple TV screensaver, but poorly suited as a consolidated backup of photographs. It happily uploads gigabyte after gigabyte of photos and videos, then slowly and silently throws older ones away; iCloud Backup gives the user a hard dilemma and a single dialog box: manually delete hundreds of photos from your device, or your device’s backups will stop working.

  6. Guantánamo Bay

    I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long, but I just started reading Vanity Fair’s Guantánamo: An Oral History.

    They’ve collected information about a facility set up with great haste in 2001, whose administrative and legal frameworks and rules were signed off on by legal experts in the administration who felt no responsibility to respect the rule of law or international treaties and standards of justice.

    Anyone who cares about law, abuses of power, mechanisms of recourse and the basic constitutionality of the actions taken by the US government must read this.

    My impression of the creation and administration of the facility is severely torn between massive negligence and severe maliciousness. It appears that a few top lawyers and officials in the administration were genuinely fearful of the combatants being detained by military forces overseas, and wished to create a facility in which to understand these individuals’ identities and tactical usefulness. They created and wrote up entirely new and incredibly wrong interpretations of domestic and international law and handed the military branches vague orders with a hand-wavy dismissal of the Geneva Conventions written on a post-it note on the first page. The ensuing history of the facility should come as a surprise to only the most naïve.

    What strikes me as deeply unsettling is the lack of dissent among the people responsible for interpreting the high-level legal memos and creating and implementing the facility. Time and again, people speak of deep unease at what they’ve been tasked with carrying out, a skepticism of the legal arguments which the facilities sat atop. Despite a deep paper trail and lots of time, no one came forward to expose any of these things to the public.

    The facility continues to exist in the cracks between domestic and international law, and nothing about the current political climate is conducive to its closing. Every day it’s open, the United States’ ability to be taken seriously in international circles is irrevocably diminished.

    Lest there be any confusion on this point: this facility and the legal concepts upon which it’s based are illegal twelve ways to Tuesday. The lack of prosecution of the individuals responsible for its creation and existence is reprehensible. The fact that none of those individuals have seen a courtroom and had their amoral, twisted legal logic used at them speaks to a deep and severe problem in how we administer domestic law. When a society lacks the mechanisms to openly review, discuss, and debate the legality around the indefinite detention of a human being, it has lost its way and its soul, and the horrible things that will be visited upon it are innumerable and unspeakable.

    I cannot recommend this article highly enough, and the next time you see me in person, I’ll be talking about it. Study up.

  7. Around 36% of the 9,000, mostly poor, attendees enrolled… can expect to succeed on this measure, compared with 11% for this income bracket city-wide.

    A 2013 study by Stanford University found that the typical Illinois attendee (most of them in Chicago) gained two weeks of ground in one topic, and a month in another, over their counterparts in traditional institutions.

    Its attendees did extraordinarily well in the 2013 state examinations—97% passed in one topic, and 77% passed in another. The institution ranked third in the state, even beating children in a well-heeled New York City suburb. They share space with a traditional district institution where the respective passing rates were 14% and 3%.


    These quotes have been edited to make a point: we’re talking about charter schools, and the outsized impact they have on their students. The Economist’s Charter schools: Killing the golden goose discusses these schools and how they’re succeeding and improving lives in places where the traditional education system has completely given up (yet continues to pull paychecks in spite of its utter failure).

    Let’s be clear: charter schools appear to be objectively successful ventures which help improve education for children, and parents are lobbying to expand these institutions, but none of them are a match for teachers’ unions, as the unions fight attempts to modernize the implementation and administration of the American education system. We should be pitting charters against traditional schools and optimizing both systems in a number of ways on a variety of measures, but instead, the political climate is attempting to kill this experiment on the vine.

  8. (via SeeJane)

    (via SeeJane)

  9. Bribing the taxpayer

    Bribing the taxpayer, from The Economist:

    Any talk of tax reform in America quickly turns to “tax expenditures”, meaning the code’s myriad exemptions, deductions and credits. These now cost 7% of GDP.

    This number mis-represents what’s occurring. As of 2012, the United States’s effective tax rate was 26.9% of GDP. 7% of GDP being spent on “tax expenditures” means that the tax system is set up to collect 33.9% of total GDP, but loses 23% of that income to these expenditures.

    America loses “7% of GDP”, or more accurately, 23% of taxes owed to tax expenditures. Nearly one of every four dollars destined for the government coffers finds a way to avoid them, through mortgage deductions and other credits. Surely there’s a better way to collect this revenue.