Computing Blog

A blog about all aspects of computing and technology from software development to social network to commentary on the IT industry as a whole.

Talking Dolls are Privacy Risks?

Yet another reason why the so-called “Internet of Things” is a terrible idea. From BBC News

An official watchdog in Germany has told parents to destroy a talking doll called Cayla because its smart technology can reveal personal data.

The warning was issued by the Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur), which oversees telecommunications.

Researchers say hackers can use an unsecure bluetooth device embedded in the toy to listen and talk to the child playing with it..

In the not-so-distant past something like this would have been a plot device in a science-fiction novel. Nowadays it’s the sort of thing that makes writers of near-future science fiction throw up their hands in despair.

Posted in Testing & Software | Tagged , | 4 Comments

GitLab’s Database Outage Postmortem

GitLab’s postmortem of the database outage of January 31 which resulted in significant loss of production data pulls no punches, and ought to be essential reading for anyone involved in software development. It has a lot in common with Vivarail’s report into the Kenilworth fire.

One element in the chain of events that led to the database crash raises eyebrows; an attempted hard-delete of the user account of a GitLab employee who had been maliciously flagged for abuse by a troll. It boggles the mind that a system would do such a thing without any human intervention. That’s either a serious coding error or some dangerously naive requirements analysis.

And this is especially damning.

Why was the backup procedure not tested on a regular basis? – Because there was no ownership, as a result nobody was responsible for testing this procedure.

When some important part of a complex system hasn’t been tested thorougly enough, it’s easy to blame the testers. But the blame usually lies higher up the project management chain.

Posted in Testing & Software | Tagged | 4 Comments

Trolls’ Paradises and Green Hells

There’s a thought-provoking post on the taxonomy of good and toxic communities which is well worth a read if you care about such things. It’s about the tabletop RPG community, parts of which have been destructively dysfunctional for several years, but it does have wider application. It’s quite a long piece, but anyone trying to devise a Code of Conduct ought to read it, even if they don’t agree with everything he says.

The Troll’s Paradise is well enough documented, it’s what happens when a community has no clear rules, and the loudest and most boorish members ride roughshod over everyone else. Even a community that’s civil and self-policing much of the time will eventually encounter a bad actor or three; the Trolls’ Paradise is what happens when whatever powers-than-be in the community are unwilling or unable to do anything about their behaviour.

The Green Hell is the other failure mode. It’s what happens when a community declares it’s opposition to harassment and bullying, but in practice their definitions of such are vague and subjective, and different rules apply to members of insider cliques compared to everyone else. Accusations are cheap, it’s considered bad form or even an act of harassment itself to ask for evidence to back up any accusation, and there are no consequences for spreading malicious lies. Such communities either dissolve in infighting, or worse, become sources of poison for a wider subculture. That’s why they’re toxic.

The online community around one band I’d rather not name took on aspects of a Green Hell at one point. At least one other band’s fan community is the poster child for a Trolls’ Paradise.

Read the comments below the linked post if you want some specific context, similarly avoid those comments if you don’t want to read about another community’s dirty laundry.

Posted in Games, Social Media | Tagged | Comments Off

Twitter still in trouble

Twitter is in trouble again, with another major round of layoffs after a number of potential buyers backed away.

There’s a lot of evidence of simple bad management, too many people with jobs that added too little value. But it’s also being said that Twitter’s ongoing failure to tackle trolls, bullying and harassment on their network was a significant negative factor for some would-be buyers.

It’s been an ongoing problem for a long time, and Twitter’s response has always been a case of too little too late. Banning a handful of medium profile right-wing figures “pour encourager les autres” is not a practical solution, and probably only serves to make matters worse.

What Twitter really needs is a clear and unambiguous Terms of Service, which is then enforced consistently and transparently. Such a thing would force everyone from GamerGaters to social justice witch-hunters to play by the same rules, which would surely be a good thing.

Cynically there’s the suspicion that Jack Dorsey is too close to some social justice witch hunters to be willing to implement anything that might cramp their style. So the harassment is allowed to continue, and their current TOS continues to be enforced in a selective and partisan way that benefits no-one. Much of the worst behaviour goes unpunished unless their target is a prominent member of a group Twitter’s management wants to curry favour with.

Have the technical solutions that have been proposed, many of them quite straightforward to implement, been squelched for the same reason? Or can we simply blame cluelessness?

Twitter at its best is a great conversation space and a great way of making new social and professional connections. But its weakness has always the way trolls can disrupt meaningful conversation. Twitter have been dragging their heels on this for far too long.

Posted in Social Media | Tagged | 2 Comments

The hilarious How it feels to learn JavaScript in 2016 reads like an Abbott and Costello sketch. Software development should not be like this.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 3 Comments

Twitter Censorship: Incompetence or Malice?

I am glad I made the decision several years back to continue maintaining this blog rather than abandoning blogging in favour of social media as many others did. I own this domain, and in the unlikely event of the current hosting company going bad on me, I can move to another host.

Recent events in Twitter point to a disturbing trend, and show the perils of relying on a company you have no control over for the entirety of your online presence.

Now I know Twitter has a harassment and bullying problem, and the company has been unacceptably slow in dealing with it. I’ve said before the best solution is far better blocking and muting functionality rather than centralised moderation. But that doesn’t seem to be the way they’re going.

The suspension of Whores of Yore (now reinstated), and the shadowbanning of St.Rev point yet again to a moderation policy that’s entirely arbitrarily and lacks any kind of transparency. While I know any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice, you can’t help feeling that Twitter’s rules are deliberately vague and selectively enforced for a reason. Under Jack Dorsey’s leadership Twitter has taken an increasingly left-authoritarian turn and abandoned previous commitments to free expression.

Are they deliberately trying to make Twitter a more hostile place for people who do not share the right politics, either to force them to self-censor or to abandon Twitter in favour of smaller free-speech ghettos?

Now, Whores of Yore does post some rather rude images, but those are explicitly permitted on Twitter provided they’re appropriately labelled as for adults only. And St Rev is a robust libertarian who doesn’t have much time for the left. But I’ve seen no evidence that either of them are guilty of violations of Twitter’s terms of service. Certainly no signs of targeted harassment of individuals. What is going on?

Posted in Social Media | Tagged | 2 Comments

Fixing Twitter

According to JestersCourt, Twitter can fix Twitter with just a few lines of code

I don’t have inside knowledge of Twitter’s architecture, and so can’t really comment on whether a “few lines of code” is accurate, but the essence is this: When someone blocks you for whatever reason, you can’t @mention them in a Tweet. Whether you get an error, or it’s just silently deleted, the Tweet will go nowhere and won’t be seen by your followers.

That fixes the biggest single aspect of Twitter’s harassment problem, when someone with a large bully pulpit sets their followers on someone who’s incurred their wrath.

Unless there’s a flaw in the solution I haven’t see, it’s hard to see why Twitter doesn’t just go ahead in implement something along these lines. You’re forced to suspect that Jack Dorsey is less interested in solving Twitter’s actual problems than he is currying favour with particular activist cliques.  In other words, virtual signalling trumps positive action.

The problem with Jester’s Court’s solution is it’s politically neutral. The same mechanism that would stop racist and sexist trolls would also damp down the witch hunts popular in social-justice circles. And because that would cramp the style of the people Jack Dorsey wants to curry favour with, it’s a non-starter; they have a weird “punching up/punching down” dynamic where it’s only defined as harassment if it’s a member of their outgroup targetting a member of their ingroup.

So instead Twitter seem to be going down the route of top-down content politicng and filtering by keywords known to be popular with outgroups. What could possibly go wrong?

Posted in Social Media | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Importance of Good Testing Environments

Michael Nygard has a good blog post stating that QA Instability Implies Production Instability.

Invariably, when I see a lot of developer effort in production support I also find an unreliable QA environment. It is both unreliable in that it is frequently not available for testing, and unreliable in the sense that the system’s behavior in QA is not a good predictor of its behavior in production.

He describes a lot of the pitfalls in maintaining good enviroments, from test data getting overwritten to anonymisation of production data compromising data integrity. Knowing what needs to be done to build and support good test enviromments is an important tester skill.

From my experience, he’s dead right about relationship between the stability of the test environment and the number of problems that escape into production. This is especially true when it comes to things like interfaces with third-party systems. There is a lot of difference between running an instance of the third party system on one of your own servers and anly having access to a system on a remote server where you can’t change the setup or configuation data.  And the number of bugs did indeed reflect this.

Worse still, when there’s no access to the third-party system at all, and the best you can do is write a crude emulation yourself. I still have nightmares about that one….

Posted in Testing & Software | Tagged | Comments Off

The Bari Train Crash and Railway Safety.

It was overshadowed by the much greater tragedy in France just a few days later, and doesn’t give us any stock villains for three-minute-hates. But the tragic train crash in Italy, following so quickly from the very similar crash in Germany raises a lot of questions about rail safety.

On the RMWeb forum, which has a lot of knowledgeable people including many who work in the rail industry, the resulting discussion on signalling systems for single-track lines and how they might be improved includes positive words for the software testing profession.

The system itself would be cheap, but the testing needed to demonstrate that it’s safe (and idiot proof) to the appropriate regulatory authorities is going to be quite expensive. Proper software testers(*) aren’t cheap.

From what I can tell, the Italian system appears to be a variation on the Telegraph and Train Order system without the use of either a physical single-line token or a virtual equivalent, a practice long since superceded in Britain. There is a far higher risk of human error leading to a fatal accident.

Though there have been quite a few head-on collisions in Britain resulting from conflicting movements across junctions, including the Ladbrooke Grove disaster, I can only think of two single-line collisions in the past century, at Abermule in 1921 and Cowden in 1994. That’s some safety record.

Posted in Testing & Software, Travel & Transport | Tagged | 2 Comments

#NotInMyTwitter

Twitter hashtag activism is completely useless.

Hashtags are great fun for quick-fire humour, like the running joke hashtags that always seem to take off on Friday afternoons when people are bored at work. That’s the sort of thing that shows Twitter at its best. But when it comes to dealing with sensitive and nuanced topics, the 140 character limit is worse than useless.

There’s little point singling out any one hasttag in particular, because every single one plays out the same way, and you get that sinking feeling the moment one appears and the usual suspects start using it. They start out with what usually comes over as self-righteous in-group signalling. Then comes the inevitable angry backlash from those who distrust the agenda of whoever it was that started the tag. It spirals down in an all-too-predictable fashion of insults and name-calling, splitting communities along existing faultlines and making everyone bar the hardcore culture warriors miserable. It’s Twitter at it’s very worst. If we’re really unlucky it ends with risible hack-written clickbait hitpieces on sites like Salon, Breitbart and The Guardian.

Since these hashtags achieve nothing other than sowing discord, the only sensible response is to shoot them on sight using a client that lets you mute hashtags.

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