Bureau of Programming

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“Is It Time to Break Up Google?”

Jonathan Taplin, writing in an op-ed in the New York Times:

We are going to have to decide fairly soon whether Google, Facebook and Amazon are the kinds of natural monopolies that need to be regulated, or whether we allow the status quo to continue, pretending that unfettered monoliths don’t inflict damage on our privacy and democracy.

Ryan Cooper makes a similar argument in The Week.

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Patagonia Begins Selling Used Clothing

The outdoor clothier Patagonia has begun selling pre-worn clothing.

Founded in 1973, Patagonia has been well-studied by management and business ethics gurus for its focus on corporate responsibility and environmental awareness (and, you know, financial success). Of course, there’s a certain irony in any brand, whose job it is to sell you more stuff, shrouding themselves in an Earth-first, reduce-reuse-recycle ethos.

Marisa Meltzer, wrote for The Guardian:

[Patagonia] is hyper-aware of these contradictions, perhaps to the point of tying itself in knots. In 2011, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the US, Patagonia ran an ad featuring a photo of a plush blue fleece, and copy that read DON’T BUY THIS JACKET. The advert invited customers to make a commitment to reduce what they buy, repair their gear and recycle the stuff they no longer need. (Patagonia’s campus in Reno, Nevada houses the largest garment repair facility in North America.) But it had the opposite effect: Patagonia’s Black Friday sales increased by 30% over the previous year. The anti-sales message, as they might have expected, made consumers feel better about buying more.

This new “Worn Wear” shop—with most items priced at $40—is the latest in a string of unusual (anti-)business decisions.

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User Uninstalls Python, Obliterates System

From Server Fault:

A disaster just occurred to me after I ran the command yum remove python and now I can’t boot the server up anymore.

Never remove Python.

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Why I Stopped Attending Programming Meet-ups

I’ve decided I’m no longer attending programming meet-ups. The reason I’m no longer attending is because they’re free.

To be more accurate, it’s because of all the adverse effects of free. “Free” means having no expectations. It means taking what you’re given. It means the value isn’t obvious or measurable. It means, frankly, they’re not sure if anyone would show up if it weren’t free. It also means they can charge you in ways that aren’t monetary.

Some common characteristics of programming meet-ups:

  • The event is mislabeled. You come for X, but learn Y instead.
  • The core material begins late. You don’t expect or want food, but you are told how there would have been pizza, but the pizza got lost in transit, because someone named Peggy signed for it, but no one named Peggy works there.
  • The presenter hasn’t prepared. You squint at poorly-indented code without the benefit of syntax highlighting.
  • The presenter talks down to the audience. You learn how much the presenter enjoyed attending MIT and how many Fortune 500 companies the presenter has worked for.
  • The sponsor’s presence dominates. You are told: “Have you heard about Z? It’s great. There’s a free tier. You’d have to be an idiot not to use Z. I use Z all the time, and I’m very successful. Let’s take five minutes so I can walk you through Z’s dashboard.”
  • The Wi-Fi doesn’t work. You enjoy watching your web browser send packets into oblivion as your OS attempts and fails to demystify the venue’s network capture scheme.

It’s hard to blame the meet-up groups themselves. They’re trying. Their organizers do invest legitimate effort into fielding speakers, promoting their talks, and creating a welcome space. But it’s a really inefficient medium for learning anything.

A few days ago, Smashing Magazine, of all places, published a tremendous article on HTTP/2 Push. It’s great—thorough, well-edited, timely—some things I’d never expect from a meet-up. It’s also free. Plus I can skim it. And if it weren’t good, I could have found a different article or book or talk on the topic.

But the low to zero cost of meet-ups means there’s little incentive to produce quality presentations. The groups attract people who want to show off their pet projects or who are cajoled into speaking by their managers. The speakers simply don’t have the skill or interest or time to captivate a professional audience. Even though presentations can be very effective means of teaching, preparing a talk takes time, far more time than writing an article.

I’m sure meet-ups have value for some people, some of the time. If you want to meet other programmers, go. Or if you want to see what’s new in a related field, go. But otherwise, if you’re looking to learn something, well, there’s a whole world wide web for that.

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Twitter Allegedly Hiding Criticism of United Airlines

Dimitar Mihov, writing for The Next Web:

This sort of moderation is more commonly known as “ghost-deleting.” The term is a little misleading since such tweets are technically not deleted, but merely prevented from appearing in users’ feeds. This measure, however, is usually reserved strictly for offensive tweets—and this is hardly the case here.

In other censorship-related news, Reddit’s /r/videos moderators removed the video of the passenger being assaulted on United Flight 3411.

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PHP 7 (and 7.1) in a Nutshell

If my day job is any indication, PHP won’t die. You can make the best of it by upgrading to the latest version. Here’s a rundown of the new features in PHP 7.0 and 7.1.

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Drupal Contributor Banished Over Sex Life

Gabriela Barkho, writing for The Outline, ruminates on the departure of Larry Garfield from the Drupal community:

At what point do code of conduct guidelines cease to protect the community, and start to exclude members for their private habits?

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Django 1.11 Released

Django 1.11 was released today. It is an LTS release (supported for three years) and is the first version to support Python 3.6. It includes three major new features: class-based model indexes, template-based widget rendering, and subquery expressions.

  • Class-based model indexes: Django now provides an Index class that facilitates the creation of database indexes (example).
  • Template-based widget rendering: Form widget rendering is now template-based. You can override Django’s widgets’ HTML (listed here) to customize how inputs appear.
  • Subquery expressions: You can now perform subqueries and use the SQL EXISTS statement using query expressions (i.e., without writing raw SQL).

The Django team also released 1.10.7, 1.9.13, and 1.8.18 to address two security issues.

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“The Case Against Immigration”

From the Trump administration’s (latest) immigration ban from Muslim-majority countries to the tightening of H1-B visas, the U.S. tech sector has found itself at a crossroads with a shifting dynamic on immigration policy. While most tech companies support a pro-immigration policy—mostly in the immigrants-drive-innovation vein—there’s a flip side that’s less familiar but worth understanding.

Steven Camarota, writing for Foreign Affairs, presents a cogent argument against the US’s current immigration system. He argues the costs are too high, that it favors the wrong people, and that it won’t reverse the demographics of an aging nation.

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When You Can’t Vote with Your Wallet

Jason Koebler, writing for The Motherboard:

The argument boils down to this: If a corporation is using business practices that are unfair to its customers, its customers should simply spend their money elsewhere. If you don’t like that you can’t repair your John Deere tractor, or your iPhone, or your Playstation 4, just buy from another company. Eventually, big companies will have to treat their customers better or they will lose money.

It’s an argument I’ve heard often enough that I started researching whether voting with your wallet is actually a plausible strategy. What I found is that even the staunchest free market supporters don’t believe that an “informed minority” can change corporate behavior that screws over consumers.

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U.S. Drone War? Not in the App Store

Metadata+, an iOS app that tracks the overseas U.S. drone war, has been rejected from the App Store twelve times. The news app was developed by journalist Josh Begley to track the CIA’s ongoing, not-so-covert drone operations in the Middle East and Horn of Africa. Today, three years after the Begley’s initial submission, the app was finally approved. But hours after it was published, Apple removed it.

Apple’s rationale? The app’s content is “excessively objectionable or crude.” Judge for yourself: Here’s Metadata+’s news feed and its map (That’s everything. Metadata+ has just two screens.)

Apple clearly doesn’t find the military operations themselves objectionable. The company profits from games like Reliance Big Entertainment’s Drone: Shadow Strike and the dozens of other drone-bomber games in the App Store. One game’s description reads:

Your Mission: Protect the world from international terrorists—the survival of the free world is at stake!

These games demonstrate none of the moral nuance involved in a military campaign that, most conservatively, kills innocent civilians in a one-to-one ratio with combatants. Whereas Metadata’s most recent news item reads:

Mon., Mar. 6, 2017 (Yemen): Two brothers—Ahmed and Mohammed—were walking down the road. A missile whistled in. They never made 15.

Apple’s walled garden silences not only the voices of journalists but also the thousands of victims, the “collateral damage,” of the global war on terror.

Of course, Apple’s suppression of a news app is chilling but not altogether unsurprising behavior. We may not be living in George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 precisely, but, then again, Amazon did erase 1984 from Kindle owners’ ereaders.

The App Store’s censorship is in keeping with the tech oligopolies’ increasing reluctance to become politically engaged, at least on the side of their users. Do you remember when Tumblr fought back against SOPA? Or when Netflix helped publicize network neutrality? Those times are long gone. Now that these start-ups have become dominant players, they’ve lost their interest in fighting for an open Internet. Today, they sit on the sidelines as net neutrality rules get eviscerated by FCC Chairman and telecom shill Ajit Pai, and the GOP gives ISPs the thumbs-up to sell people’s Web browsing histories.

While enough shaming may pressure Apple to reverse course and return Metadata+ to the App Store, what does it say about a society that lets one company play gatekeeper to an independent press?

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No, I Don’t Want to Subscribe to Your Newsletter

No, I don’t want to subscribe to your newsletter. No, I don’t want to complete a short survey. And no, I don’t want to become a member. … Is that text in the background? There is content on this page, right? Does the escape key work? Why doesn’t the escape key work? Where’s the close icon? If this is it, why isn’t my cursor changing? (Click.) Am I being redirected? Why am I being redirected?

This is my thought process every time I encounter an unprompted modal window, which is all the time.

The unprompted inline modal window is the biggest setback in Web usability since the pop-up window ad. If you remember, pop-up windows used to be everywhere. The company X10 alone once reached 32% of web users hawking their junk surveillance cameras. But browser vendors saved us from unwanted windows years ago. It’s easy to look back at those years almost fondly. And today, if you disable your browser’s pop-up blocking, you’ll remain relatively unscathed as you traverse the “mainstream” Web. (Just don’t go looking for porn.) Websites simply gave up trying to outmaneuver pop-up blocking tech or reevaluated the blowback of aggravating too many users.

But browsers have yet to redeem us from their annoying inline equivalent, modal windows, and they seem to be multiplying by the day. In some ways, they’re worse. There’s no keyboard shortcut you can use to get rid of them. Users’ frustration is so ubiquitous and intense that it has even inspired its own single-purpose Tumblr, i hate popup modals.

The dilemma is that they exist because they work. Websites get fresh meat for their email campaigns, they collect more user feedback, and they encourage—in the gun-pointed-at-head sense—new user sign-ups. Their unambiguous short-term effects are simply too good to secondguess, and to most digital agencies, a billable hour is a billable hour (first question: “just how dark do you want the background behind the modal to be?”).

The solution seems obvious enough—a browser extension that hides modal windows—but it’s tough. It’s so tough that there are no extensions that solve the problem. This is because there is no single implementation of modal windows. Many are custom-built. To build an effective extension, you’d need a list of all the offending sites, each with their own configuration that specifies how to neuter them. At its most basic, each configuration would specify the query selectors or XPaths that enclose the modals, which would then be hidden. This technique would be similar to how one kind of ad blocking works.

But even this labor-intensive approach wouldn’t be enough. For instance, how do you systematically identify functions that are manipulating default event handlers, such as those that prevent users from clicking “past” the modal? And how do you proactively differentiate between necessary modals, such as those that ask you to confirm an action, and superfluous ones?

The only solution is to unite in changing our behavior. We need to give website operators an ultimatum: Remove the modals, or we leave. And we need to make good on that promise. By closing the browser tab, we can let the bounce rate demand what we as users cannot.

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YouTube’s “Restricted Mode” Protects Your Family from Gays

YouTube’s Restricted Mode filters “potentially objectionable content that you may prefer not to see or don’t want others in your family to see on YouTube,” such as homosexuals.

While the feature has been available in one form or another since 2010, viewers have recently discovered that benign LGBTQ videos are hidden when it’s enabled. Google has apologized, but claims the filter only targets videos “that discussed sensitive topics such as politics, health and sexuality.” In all fairness, their concept of cultural sensitivity may be more ideologically aligned with this movie theater operator who’s opting not to show the new Beauty and the Beast because two men can be seen dancing in one scene.

YouTube has also been in algorithm-induced hot water recently for selling public-service advertisements before terrorist videos.

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Ushuaia, Argentina

Emanuele Camerini and Nola Minolfi, writing for The Outline, catalog life in the southernmost city in the world. While the city attracts with its geographical distinction and haunting beauty, Ushuaia suffers from common problem: a lopsided economy that’s overdependent on tourism.

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Grandfathered Unlimited Data Plans Sell for $3k

Adam Elder, writing for The Motherboard:

But there are black markets for everything these days—including a market for data plans that are truly unlimited.

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America’s Television Graveyards

Jason Koebler, writing for The Motherboard:

Years after most Americans switched to flat-screens, we’re just now beginning to deal with the long-term ramifications of sustainably disposing of old cathode-ray televisions and computer monitors. This dangerous, labor-intensive, and costly undertaking will have to be done for each of the estimated 705 million CRT TVs sold in the United States since 1980. […] In many cases, your old TV isn’t recycled at all and is instead abandoned in a warehouse somewhere, left for society to deal with sometime in the future.

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Best Buy’s Geek Squad Is in Cahoots with the FBI

R. Scott Moxley, reporting for OC Weekly:

In 2016, the defense lawyer claimed the FBI made Best Buy an unofficial wing of the agency by incentivizing Geek Squad employees to dig through customers’ computers, paying $500 each time they found evidence that could launch criminal cases.

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“Is Obama Planning a Coup?”

Adrianne Jeffries, writing for The Outline:

In 2015, users discovered that the query “What happened to the dinosaurs?” produced the quick answer “Dinosaurs are used more than anything else to indoctrinate children and adults in the idea of millions of years of earth history,” pulled from a fundamentalist Christian page titled “What Really Happened to the Dinosaurs?”

Also: See the source video.

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How to Dust Off an Old Raspberry Pi

With the release of the Raspberry Pi Zero W, you might be inspired to find a new use for your old Raspberry Pi. Luckily, the hardest part is locating your Pi and all its necessary peripherals. Once you’ve done that, follow these steps to get your Pi up and running.

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Your Pizza Can Jump the Queue for $3

The Associate Press writes:

Papa John’s is taking a page from the airline industry and testing a fee that lets people bump their pizza orders to the front of the line.

Customers agreed that pizza-buying was missing a degree of class warfare.

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But Can You Code?

Adrianne Jeffries, writing for The Outline, on the whiteboard interview:

People spend weeks preparing for this process, afraid that the interviewer will quiz them on the one obscure algorithm they haven’t studied.

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Mozilla Acquires Pocket

Mozilla has acquired Pocket, the read-it-later service. Chris Beard, Mozilla CEO, writes:

We believe that the discovery and accessibility of high quality web content is key to keeping the internet healthy by fighting against the rising tide of centralization and walled gardens.

This is good news for web users. Its primary competitor Instapaper was acquired by Pinterest in August 2016 and suffered a multi-day outage earlier this month. After shutting down its $30/year premium service, Instapaper no longer has an obvious revenue stream, which leaves its future in doubt. This doubt is compounded by its outdated FAQ:

Does Instapaper make money?
Yes. Instapaper is run by a small team. It earns income to cover its costs. If you’d like to support Instapaper, the best way to do it is to purchase Instapaper Premium.

Fingers crossed, Mozilla will be a better steward of Pocket.

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Atom vs. RSS

Chris Wellons, developer of Elfeed, an Emacs newsreader, writes on his blog:

At this point I’m quite confident in saying that Atom is by far the better specification and I really wish RSS didn’t exist.

When creating feeds, RSS 2.0 is often the default, but switching can be easy. For example, in Django, to provide an existing newsfeed (MyFeed) as Atom v1.0, you simply set the appropriate feed_type attribute:

from django.utils.feedgenerator import Atom1Feed

class MyFeed(Feed):
    feed_type = Atom1Feed
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The Cost of Technology Holdouts

Larry Downes, reporting for The Washington Post:

The accelerating pace of disruption means more and more products are facing an early retirement. But even as computers, electronics and health products move quickly from must-haves to museum artifacts, a small but loyal following often carries a torch for the old stuff, sometimes out of nostalgia, sometimes from sheer stubbornness. For them, familiar and functioning technologies are good enough.

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The Bureau of Programming

The Bureau of Programming is a virtual truck stop—a dirty, brash place where like-minded individuals can gather to discuss everything from the relevant to the irreverent.

If life is a highway, it can be a pretty lonely and boring one, especially if you’re a real truck driver logging miles hour after hour. The same is true of programming. Programmers like myself spend many their working hours doing mundane, well-paid clerical tasks. But this gives us the luxury of having the time to think and imagine new possibilities, just like on an open road.

Real truck stops feature items of convenience and utility: washrooms, showers, diners, etc. The Bureau will too. We’ll publish thoughtful pieces on programming. But we’ll also explore and specialize in more tangential subjects—economics, philosophy, current events. A diner doesn’t just serve sustenance but also a moment’s respite from the journey that lies ahead. It comes in the form of a thoughtful moment and good conversation.

Our guiding philosophy is to maintain a genuine voice. We want to present things just as they are (i.e., WYSIWYG). Sample: We don’t care about venture capital or food delivery start-ups or smartphone rumors.

If you’ve been looking for a programmer blog that’s taken an off-ramp, driven on well past sunset, and doesn’t have a particular destination in mind, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to the Bureau of Programming.

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