Friday, December 12, 2014

An open letter to Mozilla

Dear Mozilla,

First, about me. I'm probably one of your loyaller users. I've been using Firefox since it was called 'Mozilla'. I remember Phoenix and Firebird, and I've used every major version of Firefox since the name began. I have Explorer, Chrome, Safari and Opera all installed, but Firefox is the one I use daily.

I don't mind the ads. I recognise desperation when I see it, and I sympathise. I think a lot of the interface changes are pointless, but I'll live with them if that's what you enjoy doing.

But I wish you would get around to doing something useful with this hilarious release cycle of yours.

The web is getting slower. (Cite. This article is about e-commerce, but the problem is much wider than that.) And you're not helping with that. You seem to think that the solution to slower websites is faster Javascript.

Wrong. Javascript is fast enough, thank you. Making it faster, at this point, will just encourage authors - sorry, 'content creators' - to write ever-more-bloated crapware on their sites. The last real technical boon to web speed was preloading, and you mastered that more than five years ago - everything since then has been "deckchairs on the Titanic"-level tweaking.

What we need isn't a more seamless or faster browsing experience; what we need is control over the browsing process.

Let's consider, for a moment, the scourge of auto-playing videos. These come in two flavours: the ones that start playing as soon as you open the page, and those that give you a n-second countdown to click a button to stop them. On a slow or unresponsive system, such as mine often becomes when I've got a few apps open, there's no difference between the two - either way, as soon as I switch to the tab, I'm condemned to complete loss of control over my computer for 30 seconds while poor little Windows tries to decide what to do next.

There's no reason for this. Give me a 'Play' button, and let me decide when (or whether) to click it. If you can configure Firefox - or allow me to configure it - so that it will never on any site, ever, no not even then or there, play a video without waiting for me to click on a button clearly labelled with a right-pointing arrow head of some sort... that would be a victory. I realise this is technically not as simple as I'm describing it, but that's why you employ clever people.

(In this context I would draw your attention to this well-reported study, which showed (indirectly) that people are much less likely to click on video ads than on regular, static ads.)

Another scourge you could control? Sites that insist on refreshing themselves at stupid intervals, where "stupid" is defined as "anything less than a minimum that I, the user should be able to configure in my browser from a simple menu setting". They eat my bandwidth and slow down my machine, all so that some media wankers with an inflated sense of their own importance can avoid the terrible stigma of their site appearing to be three minutes out of date.

And auto-redirecting. I know there are many good reasons for this, but there are also many bad ones. It would be nice to have a browser option to disable it, so that when I type in or click on a URL, I would have the option to see the content hosted at that URL and no other.

Remember pop-up and pop-under ads? For a brief time in the early 2000s they seemed to be the unstoppable scourge. Now? They haven't bothered me for years, in part thanks to you. You can do it again.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Envy is the same colour as money

The New Zealand Herald, the other day, published a story about how much John Key was spending on a hotel room.

Well, not really. Mostly they cribbed the story from the UK's Daily Mail, which was more interested (and it shows) in what David Cameron was spending to attend the G20 summit. Turns out, Cameron is the third-biggest spender after Presidents Obama and Xi. While the leaders of such also-ran countries as Germany, Italy and Japan, and even the king of Saudi Arabia, are slumming it at $400-600 a night hotels, our Mr Cameron is splashing out A$1250 a night for his bed in Brisbane.

(Actually, we don't know that - not from this story, at least. He might be accepting a bribe from the hotel so it can advertise that he stayed there. Or he might be accepting bribes from other hotels to keep him away. Who knows? So long as he declares them, it's all good.)

But the Mail, I guess, is more concerned with the look of the thing. Is it Right, for Mr Cameron to be spending like this abroad after four years of preaching austerity at home?

Which just goes to show what a tediously snobbish little rag the Mail really is. Because as Cameron surely knows, if you want to make money, it's essential to spend it as if it meant nothing to you.

I have no idea where I first heard that bit of wisdom, beyond "somewhere in my youth". I don't think the person who told me had any idea why it worked, but I've given it a couple of decades' thought now, and I've worked it out. See, the most important thing about money - as every economist from Micawber to Friedman agrees - isn't how much you have, it's how fast you spend it. "Velocity of circulation", it's called. And in the interests of the economy, it's better for everyone that it should be spent as quickly as possible. Money changing hands is a good thing.

And therefore, when people make decisions that affect who gets to be rich - all other things being equal, they'll tend to favour the big spender. This is the real reason why political campaign ads work. It's not the content, it's the demonstration value: "See, this is how I splash money about! Vote to give me more money, and some of it might splash on you!"

So, David, congratulations on doing your country proud. Now I trust you'll take the next logical step and strike the word "austerity" forever from your political vocabulary, and that of your party.

The only leader who deserves higher marks (Obama spends more, but let's face it, the US genuinely is richer and bigger) - is the president of Burma, who is staying in a $1300 hotel despite Burma not even being in the G20. Now that's ballsy.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The end of the world as I knew it

This post is based on the speech I delivered at a funeral last Friday. Some attendants have requested a written version; this is for them. I'm sorry for redacting the name of the deceased, but it's always been my policy to keep this blog anonymous.

Mumsie would sometimes talk about funerals.

Nothing significant in that. She talked about everything, all the time, with complete disregard for her audience. But sometimes the endless carousel of topics in her head would throw up "funerals", and those of us trapped at the dinner table with her would smile and nod politely and wait for the subject to change. All I remember from those moments, now, is that she liked the idea of a funeral as a celebration of the deceased's life, rather than an orgy of grief.

Well, I'm sorry Mumsie, but I'm grieving.

I remember when she first told me about death. I have no idea, now, whose death she was talking about, beyond that it must have been someone I knew. She explained it as a form of going away that meant we could never see them again - they couldn't visit us, we couldn't visit them or phone or write or anything.

I didn't understand. Why would they do that? She said that sometimes you have no choice, and everyone has to die.

I still didn't understand. Who could force a grownup to do such a thing? And when she said "everyone", obviously she couldn't mean everyone, because that would include her. The idea of a world in which I couldn't see her - was far beyond my comprehension.

As I grew more and more distressed, I begged her - pleaded as only a child can plead - to promise that she, at least, wouldn't die. But she was adamant that she would. When that line of attack failed, I begged her to promise that at least she wouldn't die for a very, very long time. She said she'd try.

She kept the second part of that promise for 40 years, and now she's followed through on the first part.

And that was typical of her. What she said she would do, she did.

We remember the endless home-improvement projects, each of which began with her saying something like "I've been thinking I'd like a jacuzzi". From most people I know, that sort of remark is just casual conversation; but when Mumsie said it, it was a serious threat, a solemn declaration of war on the state of Things As They Were. And the self-improvement projects - the degree that she took ten years to earn, the entry into the workforce at an age when most people are thinking of retirement, the repeated attempts to quit smoking.

But most of all, what I will try to take from her memory is the courage. The courage of a woman who, in her 20s, left behind everything she knew to settle in a new country. In her 70s, and in frail health, she undertook the 30-hour journey to the far side of the world to help us look after her newborn grandson. The unfailing love that never stopped giving, until it had nothing more to give.

I hope your Viking ancestors were watching all that from Valhalla, Mumsie. They would have been proud of you.