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Adrian Hon reminded me of something I’ve been puzzling over for a few months, in the wake of the Mystery of the Missing Amazon Receipts:

Chances are you’ve bought something from Amazon in the last few months (yes, we are all hypocrites, also there’s a pandemic on). Try searching your email for one of those orders. […]

No luck? You aren’t alone: Amazon stopped including item details in order confirmation and shipping notification emails a few months ago. They just show the price and order date now. For all its faults, Amazon has pretty good customer service, which makes this user-hostile change baffling to understand. Sure, you can still see your orders on Amazon’s website and download a CSV, but it’s far more cumbersome than searching your email; and if you’re a power-user, you can say goodbye to automatically generating to-do tasks from Amazon emails.

The mystery isn’t about why Amazon are doing this: I’m just wondering why I seem to have missed out?

Even as I’ve been reading about the content of Amazon’s emails changing over the last few months, my Amazon order confirmation emails have continued to include details of what I’ve ordered.1 Some of the commenters at Michael Tsai’s blog have suggested this might be a function of whether you’re using Gmail (nope) or whether you’re ordering through a business account (nope). Perhaps my Amazon UK account is just at the tail end of a very long queue and they’re destined to catch up with me, or perhaps it’s that all my recent orders from them have been for virtual items 2 not requiring postage so temporarily they’re being generated by a different sub-system that has yet to be updated in line with the new policy.3 Perhaps Amazon have decided that I buy from them so infrequently and spend so little with them that my data isn’t worth collecting. 4


In fairness, the bulk of Adrian Hon’s post is not about Amazon’s emails: it’s about the attitude of giant tech companies to the ownership of data that’s gathered through their systems and in particular the ramifications of that attitude to content collection and ownership of data if someone manages to get us all wearing AR spectacles that capture whatever’s in our field of view all day long as a matter of course. This topic needs to be thought about now, ready for the coming war for ownership of the data we look at every day.

Twenty years ago such an article might have ended with a plea that the IT giants do the right thing and not lay claim to ownership of the fruits of their users’ activity.5 In 2020 it ends with the conclusion that making the IT companies do the right thing is going to require regulatory action from the relevant governments, hopefully along with some degree of regulatory convergence.6

A reasonable strategy given where we’re starting from, but a battle destined to lead us all up several very steep hills before we’re done.


  1. I’m afraid I fail the power user test by not having bothered to set up a shortcut to automagically transfer the item details into OmniFocus for me to check off when the order arrives. I know I should do this because I can, but selecting the details of the item and using copy-and-paste (or the Share sheet) is good enough for me. I fear my lifetime stock of whatever enzyme drives some of us to be power users who get a buzz out of spending an hour writing a function to save 0.5 seconds per run is starting to run low and the extra effort just doesn’t feel worth the bother. (Yes, I should probably be banned from consuming Mac Power Users and Brett Terpstra‘s site if I can’t be bothered to follow through on life hacks like this. Sue me!) My main gripe with the emails I get from Amazon right now (at least until their change in email policy catches up with me so I don’t have the data to hand) is that for books Amazon include the title but not the author name. Given that I find myself copying this data into my accounts, it would be nice to capture the author name too at the same time as the title. Sometimes looking back I’ll see a title and not be able to bring the author’s name to mind, especially if the entry is a few years old. At 57 I should probably just get used to this mild forgetfulness, but it’d be so easy to include title and author in the email and let me capture all the relevant information in one go. (As of now, I just get round this by manually typing the author name in my note, like a caveman.) Using a portable computer as a backup brain is a big part of why I got into portable computers all those years ago when a Psion Series 3 or a Palm Pilot was the state of the art: now I’m on my second iPad Mini it’s a damn shame if our data sources are working against us by omitting information that they have right there
  2. Kindle books and the odd film rental through Prime Video. My last Amazon order that required a physical delivery was in December 2019, and the email included details of the item (Fridges Thermometer AIGUMI Digital Waterproof Fridge Freezer Thermometer With Easy to Read LCD Display and Max/ (2Pack-White)
  3. It’s weird that Amazon don’t seem to have announced this change. Did they think nobody would notice? Is this the first step in a process which ends with Amazon offering a shiny new order-status-monitoring app (Amazon Delivers?) that will pull data from Amazon’s servers and both provide all the statistical analysis of your order patterns that any geek could ask for while also integrating with your device’s reminders system to generate messages when an item is due to arrive? Proper power users will (reasonably enough) demand that the app allow them to feed this data to their chosen To Do app automagically. However, as long as the Amazon Delivers app provides a quick, simple list of items due most users will (also reasonably enough) be satisfied with that and (less reasonably, but understandably) will not care that the Amazon Delivers approach keeps that data about their orders safely inside Amazon’s app, where Amazon thinks it belongs. 
  4. A question for later consideration, in the dark and empty hours as I wait for sleep to catch up with me. Is the notion that my spending on Amazon might be so negligible that Amazon can’t even be bothered to try to protect it from data-scrapers a win or a loss for me? 
  5. From a selfish point of view: how will governments deal with their staff wearing AR goggles to work? Will civil servants be banned from wearing them in the office unless they’re an official set configured to disable the content-scraping feature? Will our office WiFi block access to the servers associated with whichever tech giant wins the AR Wars? Will all AR goggles from reputable manufacturers include a feature that they visibly indicate that they’re doing content-scraping? Come to that, how will all that operate in a world where many of us work from home? Or will there just be a law banning official information from being harvested by AR goggles that can be selectively enforced according to the whims of the government about what’s in the national interest that week? 
  6. The last thing we need is a world where the EU takes one approach and the USA takes another and China takes yet a third, and whatever remains of the UK by then is left to choose between them. 

Good news, bad news?

Amazon missed an opportunity when they failed to issue a press release announcing that their planned TV adaptation of Consider Phlebas was cancelled due to special circumstances and left it at that.

For the record, if the rights are picked up by someone else perhaps we’ll look back a decade from now and be glad that we ended up with the Wachowskis’ version of Use of Weapons instead.1


  1. I know this is not a fashionable take on Jupiter Rising and Sense8, but who else has even looked capable of rising to the challenge? 

Joking. Not joking.

Horrifying to contemplate how big a round of applause this would get at the next Conservative Party conference if it was delivered by the right member of the Cabinet:

Surface Duo

I have a feeling that lots of people are going to be confused by the Surface Duo once it gets out into the market:

I am confused. Microsoft did a press blitz for their Surface Duo device this week and… I don’t understand anything. About the product. The strategy. The goal.

Look, I think the foldable tablets on Westworld look cool too. But if this is that, it sure seems like the prehistoric version of it. Granted, I think it looks and sounds better than Samsung’s gimmicky foldable phones, but only just. At least with a phone you can make the argument that folding a big screen to be pocketable makes some conceptual sense. This is decidedly not a phone. Because Microsoft insists it’s not. Even though it runs Android and can make phone calls. Listening to Microsoft, it’s not a tablet either. It’s something new. […]

Siegler notes that "it feels like you’re paying a ton of money to beta test something", which is as true of the Surface Duo as it was of the Apple Lisa back in the day. This is what happens when you’re trying to establish a new form factor and a new user interface paradigm: someone gets to pay handsomely for the privilege of figuring out what works for them. It’s unclear whether the price in this case is a product of the need to avoid a Samsung-style fiasco when you launch a foldable device and it turns out to be a bit too fragile to survive the real world or just a case of Microsoft hoping to reap the benefits of selling this new form factor at a professional price for a bit1 before moving the design downmarket a bit if the concept has legs.

Judging by the demos of how Microsoft’s apps work in the demo it looks as if Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making their apps reasonably lever about how they display their content across one or two screens at a time. It may well be that if other app makers follow Microsoft’s lead then the adapted version of Android the Surface Duo uses will be looked back on one day as a standard-setter for the foldable twin-screen tablet format or whatever we’re destined to call it. Or it could be that users will decide that software windowing on a single screen, iPad Mini-style is what they want if they have to use something bigger than a phone.

Perhaps a year from now the Surface Duo will be a roaring success, or perhaps iPadOS will have improved the mess that is Split Screen versus Slide Over and the Surface Duo will be history. Me, I have no money for new hardware any time soon and no great desire to jump to the Android ecosystem unless I get a strong push in that direction, but I will admit to being fascinated to see someone trying to give us a Westworld-style device to play with. I hope the Surface Duo is a success and puts some pressure on Apple’s dominance of the tablet space so that Apple have to apply themselves for the next generation of iPad hardware.

Failing that, everyone will decide to give up on folding devices for a few years until someone comes up with radically more capable display hardware. We live in interesting times.


  1. The introductory video from Panos Panay is very big on this, even as he fails to note that the main reason the Surface Duo can’t display content in a two- or three-pane window is that the screen just doesn’t have the room for it. 

Cat Pictures Please

It’s a shame that I’ve drifted away from following short speculative fiction to the extent that I was completely unaware of Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer until, on a whim, I followed a link and found out what the Hugo voters knew back in 2016:

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated. […] I know where you live, where you work, where you shop, what you eat, what turns you on, what creeps you out. I probably know the color of your underwear, the sort of car you drive, and your brand of refrigerator. Depending on what sort of phone you carry, I may know exactly where you are right now. I probably know you better than you know yourself.

And here’s the thing, I also know where you ought to live. […]

Bonus points for direct references to Bruce Sterling’s Maneki Neko, a story published back when I used to pay more attention to the state of short speculative fiction.

Difficult to tell how well this story will stand the test of time, but as of 2020 it’s doing OK. Our central character is quietly, patiently working away in the background even as her more aggressive cousins are making so much noise and getting so much attention.

[Via notGoodenough, posting at Crooked Timber]

King of the Web

Matt Webb has been thinking big thoughts about the future of the web:

It’s hot and it’s lunchtime, so let’s pretend I’m in charge of major global technical infrastructure!

I wrote about how I would improve RSS the other day (because being able to subscribe to text is super neat, but it’s so arcane compared to smartphone apps). And after writing that, it occurred to me that the problem is wider:

The user experience of the web itself sucks.

It is less pleasant to use a web browser than it is to use apps. But that’s because the browser-makers (Google and Apple, primarily) have silently abdicated their responsibility to make browsing good. I get it, they’re conflicted, they’re also running super profitable app stores.

[…]

As I read this I was expecting it to turn into a bunch of impractical suggestions, but in fact the three concrete suggestions he puts forward…

  1. Web browsers capturing details of newsletters published by every site visited over the last 24 hours and an interface that would let you easily subscribe to those newsletters;
  2. A facility for the browser to capture and make available text entered into web forms (the better to avoid losing comments that you started but didn’t finish);1
  3. Browsers prominently displaying stats on how often the current page has been retweeted/shared.

… seem like worthwhile enhancements. I suspect I’d turn #3 off pretty quickly,2 but the other two I’d very much like to see. More generally, I miss the days when OmniWeb for OS X was a live project, one that offered way more flexibility in how the user wanted to browse the web than the then-current version of Safari did.

But then, thinking fond thoughts about early versions of Safari is just a sign that I’m getting old. Next thing you know I’ll be posting about how much more fun Usenet was than Twitter and Reddit.


  1. I have a vague recollection that there used to be an extension for Safari on MacOS X that let you tell Safari what standalone text editor you wanted to use to compose text in web forms. I don’t remember the details, and I’m unclear on whether it also offered to apply some structure to saving off whatever content you’d drafted or just left that to the user to figure out for themselves, but I’m sure that was something that used to be in the world a decade or so back until some change to how Safari handled extensions made it go away. 
  2. This one could easily end up cluttering up the interface unless the browser user got to select which social media they wanted to see numbers about. 
, 8 August 2020. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: .

Modern communications

Modern communications technology in action.

[Via RT by @cstross]

, 28 July 2020. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: .

So long, Sergeant Schlock

Being a creature of habit, I’m very grumpy that this week we’ve all had to say farewell to Schlock Mercenary. After 20 years of steady daily posts telling stories of Tagon’s Toughs, Howard Tayler is taking a little well-earned time off:

Parentheticals aside, here we are, 19 years after 9-11, and I’ve been doing this job pretty well—or at least very consistently—for that entire time.

But it is now entirely time for me to stop.

I need a break, and it’s the kind of break which, until I take it, I don’t know how long I’ll need it to be.

I look forward to him coming back to share whatever stories he feels like telling one day, but even if he decided to rest on his laurels and leave us with 20 years of stories about Tagon’s Toughs he’s earned that right. Nobody’s been short-changed here.

So long and thanks for all the fun you’ve shared along the way, Howard. Really good work.

, 25 July 2020. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: .

If not Netflix, who?

M.G. Siegler ponders Netflix’s ability to get us watching, even when the content isn’t all that special (sparked by his watch of The Old Guard, but prompted by the wider pattern of so-so content on the platform:

The real risk here is that the audience starts to associate Netflix with mediocre films. It may not matter now — and certainly not right now, in the time of COVID. But down the line, if the audience can’t trust that what Netflix is putting in front of them is good, they’ll lose faith.

But then, Netflix might well decide that they’d much rather end up replacing the multiplex cinema business and showing stuff that doesn’t get the critical plaudits, rather than replacing the arthouse cinemas where critical praise doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents. This might be a problem for Netflix, but only if one of the other major streaming platforms finds itself with an HBO-like reputation for excellent content.1

It’s less about Netflix customers losing faith, more about their having somewhere else to put their faith in.


  1. Apple TV+ would like that to be them, but even if you’re an Apple optimist they’ve clearly got a long, long way to go yet. Disney would like to step into the HBO role but they own such a large chunk of the US studios that they might have to hive off a chunk of their more refined content and put it out under a different brand to make that stick. Amazon’s algorithms probably don’t care either way what Prime Video subscribers are watching so long as the Amazon Prime subscription income keeps rolling in. 
, 25 July 2020. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: , .

Reasons not to use Microsoft Teams (number one in a very long list)

My experience of team working from home bears precisely no relationship to this. And yet, I still can’t help but find it entertaining and endearing.

So, well played, Apple’s marketing team. Well played indeed.

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