What Does A Simple Phone for Old People Look Like? A Tablet

Ahmed Nefzaoui’s blog post about RTL languages introduced me to this awesome video, which is funny, charming, poignant and incidentally makes great points about phone usability:

It got me thinking: what would a phone for someone like Dotty look like? The more I thought about it, the more I realised the answer is “a tablet”.

Imagine a 7″ tablet with 4G phone hardware, so it has an always-on, fast, low-latency Internet connection. It is nice and big, and so easily held and viewed, and the screen controls can be made bigger for those with poor eyesight. It has no fiddly close-together hardware buttons to push. It can be unlocked with a simple swipe. You don’t have to know which is the menu button, which is *, or deal with T9 predictive text input. It has twin directional mics and speakers, with echo cancellation, so it doesn’t need to be held to the ear and the speaker positioned accurately. It has a built-in stand, so it can be placed at a good angle for calls on any flat surface. It has a camera for video calls, which (given sufficient bandwidth and frame rate) also allows for lip reading. It can record, and then email or MMS, short voice clips, which are much easier to create than text messages. It has wireless charging (or perhaps a dock) to avoid having to connect fiddly micro USB cables. One day, it might have voice recognition and speech-to-text, but perhaps not today. And it’s still small enough to fit in a handbag on the rare occasions it needs to go somewhere.

Thinking of all the advantages… why would anyone build a phone for old people in a mobile phone form factor?

10 Reasons Not To Use Open Source

I was browsing the Serena website today, and came across a white paper: “Time to harden the SDLC. Open Source: does it still make sense? (10 reasons enterprises are changing their policies)”. You are required to supply personal information to download a copy, and they force this by only providing the link by email. However, intrigued, I requested one.

Apparently, enterprises are questioning their use of Open Source software (presumably in the specific area of software development) because:

  1. Terrorists
  2. Chinese hackers stealing things
  3. Chinese hackers changing things
  4. There is no support
  5. Ransomware
  6. Man-in-the-middle attacks
  7. Local copies of source code are easy to steal
  8. Edward Snowden
  9. 0-days
  10. Git is hard to use (I’ll give them this one)

The list ends with this wonderfully inconsistent paragraph:

All of this seems very alarmist: what is the true situation? The truth is no one really knows because no one is talking about it. There is a clear, present and obvious danger from using open source solutions in support of your technology stack. You have to decide if the risk is worth it.

No-one really knows, but there’s a clear, present and obvious danger? I see. The only clear, present and obvious danger demonstrated here is the one that git is posing to Serena’s business…

Kickstarter: Open Source Voice Control Box

This looks like fun – it’s Mycroft, an “open source AI” (basically, Siri, Cortana, Google Now etc). It would be even better if they did the language processing locally, but at least if it’s open source you can see what it is doing. There’s a stretch goal of $125k for Linux desktop control, which would be very cool. The drive closes in six days, and they still need $10,000 or so to hit their goal. Back it today; I have :-)

Eurovision Bingo

Some people say that all Eurovision songs are the same. That’s probably not quite true, but there is perhaps a hint of truth in the suggestion that some themes tend to recur from year to year. Hence, I thought, Eurovision Bingo.

I wrote some code to analyse a directory full of lyrics, normally those from the previous year of the competition, and work out the frequency of occurrence of each word. It will then generate Bingo cards, with sets of words of different levels of commonness. You can then use them to play Bingo while watching this year’s competition (which is on Saturday).

There’s a Github repo, or if you want to go straight to pre-generated cards for this year, they are here.

Here’s a sample card from the 2014 lyrics:

fell cause rising gonna rain
world believe dancing hold once
every mean LOVE something chance
hey show or passed say
because light hard home heart

Have fun :-)

You Couldn’t Make It Up

I was in the middle of debugging some code when a background Slashdot tab from 10 minutes ago suddenly started playing a sponsored video. Truly and genuinely, the opening of this video contained the following:

Did you know that it takes you 15 minutes to get back into the work zone after being interrupted by an alert or message?

Yes. Yes, Slashdot, I did…

R.I.P. api-dev.bugzilla.mozilla.org

Complaining about bugzilla.mozilla.org (BMO) is a Mozilla project activity as old as the hills. Back in 2009, it was realised by the Foundation that to make everyone happy was (and still is) an impossible task, and I was given a mandate to “help people solve their own problems”. So around September 2009, I released the first version of my Bugzilla API proxy software, BzAPI. This software presented a clean, well-documented RESTful interface on the front end, and did all sorts of things on the back end (XML, CSV, RPC, HTML scraping) that developers no longer had to worry about. We made a dev server VM for it so people could try it out – api-dev.bugzilla.mozilla.org.

It was popular. Extremely popular. People started building things, and then more things, all of which depended on this server for Bugzilla data. For various reasons, IT never got around to building a production instance, and so over the last five years, I’ve been maintaining this core piece of Mozilla project infrastructure, which was depended on by TBPL and many, many other tools which interfaced with Bugzilla. At its peak, it serviced 400,000 requests per day.

Over the intervening years, BMO itself acquired a REST API which slowly became more capable, and then a BzAPI-compatible API shim was implemented on top of it by the excellent dkl, so people could change their code to access BMO directly just by updating the endpoint URL. After a few false starts, requests to api-dev.bugzilla.mozilla.org are now served directly by BMO, via that shim code. Earlier today, the api-dev VM was finally powered down.

Here’s to you, api-dev. Good job.

Using Instantbird to Connect to IRC Servers Requiring a Username and Password

[Update 2014-01-16: A point of clarification. There are two possible ways to send a password for IRC. One is supported in the Instantbird UI – it’s the one that automatically identifies your nick with NickServ, the bot which makes sure people don’t steal other people’s nicks. The other, which is rarer but which I needed, involves sending a password to connect at all, using the PASS command in the IRC protocol. That is what is documented here.]

I was trying to do this; turns out it currently requires about:config manipulation and is not documented anywhere I can find.

Using about:config (type /about config in a message window, or access via Preferences), set the following prefs:


to the obvious values. Other useful tip: if the IRC server uses a self-signed cert, connect to it on the right port using Firefox and HTTPS, and you can save the cert out of the warning/exception dialog you get. You can then import it into Instantbird using the deeply-buried Certificate section of the Advanced Preferences and it will trust the cert and connect. (I think this is what I did, although memory is hazy.)

slic 1.0.0 Released

I’ve just released version 1.0 of some new software called slic, which I’ve been using to do license analysis on Firefox OS. From the README:

This is slic, the Speedy LIcense Checker. It scans a codebase and identifies the license of each file. It can also optionally extract the license text and a list of copyright holders – this is very useful for meeting the obligations of licenses which require reproduction of license text. It outputs data in a JSON structure (by default) which can then be further processed by other tools.

It runs at about 120 files per second on a single core of a 3GHz Intel I7 (it’s CPU-bound, at least on a machine with an SSD). So you can do 100,000 files in less than 15 minutes. Parallel invocation is left as an exercise for the reader, but could easily be bolted on the side by dividing up the inputs.

The code is Python, and it uses a multi-stage regexp-based classifier, so that with families of licenses it starts with a more generic classification and then refines it via checking various sub-possibilities. Future potential enhancements include a hash-based cache to avoid doing the same work more than once, and integration with a popular online spreadsheet tool to help manage exceptions and manual license determinations.

Ctrl-Shift-T Not Working in Ubuntu

I just spent ages debugging the fact that my Ctrl-Shift-T key stopped working in Ubuntu. This is my attempt to write a blog post that search engines will find if anyone else has the same problem. Ctrl-Shift-T is “new tab” in Terminal, and “reopen last closed tab” in Firefox, so it’s rather useful, and annoying when not working.

After lots of research and debugging, it turned out to be the following. I recently installed a bunch of VoIP apps, including Jitsi. Jitsi decided to run on startup, in a way which was invisible in the UI, and override a bunch of my keybindings, in a way which didn’t make it clear that it was the app capturing them. :-( So if anyone ever finds Ctrl-Shift keybindings stop working (seems like Jitsi takes A, H, P, L, M and T), and sees output like this in xev:

FocusOut event, serial 37, synthetic NO, window 0x5400001,
    mode NotifyGrab, detail NotifyAncestor

FocusIn event, serial 37, synthetic NO, window 0x5400001,
    mode NotifyUngrab, detail NotifyAncestor

KeymapNotify event, serial 37, synthetic NO, window 0x0,
    keys:  34  0   0   0   32  0   4   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   
           0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   0 

instead of the expected KeyPress / KeyRelease events, then look for some app which has pinched your keys. I spent ages looking through the Compiz config settings, finding nothing, but then started killing processes until I found my keys were working again.

Survey on FLOSS Contribution Policies

In the “dull but important” category: my friend Allison Randal is doing a survey on people’s attitudes to contribution policies (committer’s agreements, copyright assignment, DCO etc.) in free/libre/open source software projects. I’m rather interested in what she comes up with. So if you have a few minutes (it should take less than 5 – I just did it) to fill in her survey about what you think about such things, she and I would be most grateful:

http://survey.lohutok.net is the link. You want the “FLOSS Developer Contribution Policy Survey” – I’ve done the other one on Mozilla’s behalf.

Incidentally, this survey is notable as I believe it’s the first online multiple-choice survey I’ve ever taken where I didn’t think “my answer doesn’t fit into your narrow categories” about at least one of the questions. So it’s definitely well-designed.

Kingdom Code UK

Kingdom Code is a new initiative to gather together Christians who program, to direct their efforts towards hastening the eventual total triumph of God’s kingdom on earth. There’s a preparatory meet-up on Monday 15th September (tickets) and then a full get-together on Monday 13th October. Check out the website and sign up if you are interested.

(There’s also Code for the Kingdom in various cities in the US and India, if you live nearer those places than here.)

Accessing Vidyo Meetings Using Free Software: Help Needed

For a long time now, Mozilla has been a heavy user of the Vidyo video-conferencing system. Like Skype, it’s a “pretty much just works” solution where, sadly, the free software and open standards solutions don’t yet cut it in terms of usability. We hope WebRTC might change this. Anyway, in the mean time, we use it, which means that Mozilla staff have had to use a proprietary client, and those without a Vidyo login of their own have had to use a Flash applet. Ick. (I use a dedicated Android tablet for Vidyo, so I don’t have to install either.)

However, this sad situation may now have changed. In this bug, it seems that SIP and H.263/H.264 gateways have been enabled on our Vidyo setup, which should enable people to call in using standards-compliant free software clients. However, I can’t get video to work properly, using Linphone. Is there anyone out there in the Mozilla world who can read the bug and figure out how to do it?

To Serve Users

My honourable friend Bradley Kuhn thinks Mozilla should serve its users by refusing to give them what they want.

[Clarificatory update: I wrote this post before I’d seen the official FSF position; the below was a musing on the actions of the area of our community to which Bradley ideologically belongs, not an attempt to imply he speaks for the FSF or wrote their opinion. Apologies if that was not clear. And I’m a big fan of (and member of) the FSF; the below criticisms were voiced by private mail at the time.]

One weakness I have seen in the FSF, in things like the PlayOgg and PDFReaders campaigns, is that they think that lecturing someone about what they should want rather than (or before) giving them what they do want is a winning strategy. Both of the websites for those campaigns started with large blocks of text so that the user couldn’t possibly avoid finding out exactly what the FSF position was in detail before actually getting their PDF reader or playback software. (Notably missing from the campaigns, incidentally, were any sense that the usability of the recommended software was at all a relevant factor.)

Bradley’s suggestion is that, instead of letting users watch the movies they want to watch, we should lecture them about how they shouldn’t want it – or should refuse to watch them until Hollywood changes its tune on DRM. I think this would have about as much success as PlayOgg and PDFReaders (link:pdfreaders.org: 821 results).

It’s certainly true that Mozilla has a different stance here. We have influence because we have market share, and so preserving and increasing that market share is an important goal – and one that’s difficult to attain. And we think our stance has worked rather well; over the years, the Mozilla project has been a force for good on the web that other organizations, for whatever reason, have not managed to be. But we aren’t invincible – we don’t win every time. We didn’t win on H.264, although the deal with Cisco to drive the cost of support to $0 everywhere at least allowed us to live to fight another day. And we haven’t, yet, managed to find a way to win on DRM. The question is: is software DRM on the desktop the issue we should die on a hill over? We don’t think so.

Bradley accuses us of selling out on our principles regarding preserving the open web. But making a DRM-free web is not within our power at the moment. Our choice is not between “DRM on the web” and “no DRM on the web”, it’s between “allow users to watch DRMed videos” and “prevent users from watching DRMed videos”. And we think the latter is a long-term losing strategy, not just for the fight on DRM (if Firefox didn’t exist, would our chances of a DRM-free web be greater?), but for all the other things Mozilla is working for. (BTW, Mitchell’s post does not call open source “merely an approach”, it calls it “Mozilla’s fundamental approach”. That’s a pretty big misrepresentation.)

Accusing someone of having no principles because they don’t always get their way when competing in markets where they are massively outweighed is unfair. Bradley would have us slide into irrelevance rather than allow users to continue to watch DRMed movies in Firefox. He’s welcome to recommend that course of action, but we aren’t going to take it.