All posts by Tim Anderson

Her Last Holiday by C L Taylor

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C L Taylor takes us into a world of needy people in this tale of discovery and self-discovery, as a woman (Fran) sets out to discover what happened to her much younger sister who went on a holiday/extended therapy session two years earlier but never returned. The official verdict was suicide but with no body discovered and the fact that the organiser of the event, Tom Wade, was imprisoned for the manslaughter of two others at the same event, there is every reason to suspect that the full story has not been told. When Wade is released and organises a new retreat, Fran attends under an assumed name, determined to find out more.

The novel is billed as a psychological thriller, the tension builds as strange and scary things occur on the retreat and you cannot figure out who is really responsible. It reminded me of one of those Agatha Christie stories where a bunch of people are all in a lovely house together, with surface politeness but all sorts of friction and emotion underneath. The desire to know more kept me turning the pages. The story is told through the eyes of three women: Fran, her missing sister Jenna, and Tom’s wife Kate. We jump back in time for the Jenna sections, with helpful chapter sub-heads saying “two years ago”. Several people on the current retreat were also at the previous one, so we gradually learn more about them from these different perspectives.

Tom and Kate pitch their holiday retreats as “soul shrink”, events for hurt people to give them a new start. We join some of the counselling sessions, and in describing these the author shows deep knowledge of the subject; they are convincingly told and make the book though-provoking in terms of the ways people damage one another (and themselves) and the somewhat dysfunctional families they belong to. There is ambiguity in the telling: are Tom and Kate charlatans making promises to their vulnerable guests that cannot be fulfilled? Or are they doing good work (manslaughter and missing person incidents aside) that really does improve the lives of others? This is deliberate and even at the close of the book, when the facts of the matter are revealed, the reader is, I believe, meant still to have questions about what is sincere and what is fake.

I love books that challenge me to do some thinking, and this is one of them. Part of me though would have liked the loose ends to be more firmly tied up; there is also an incident described in the first chapter for which we never get full resolution.

Great read though, exciting, well-written, thought-provoking and insightful.

Her Last Holiday
is published by Avon Books on 29th April 2021, ISBN 978-0008379223

Rhys Bowen: A love story for Venice

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I loved this book; if anything it is too short. It begins with Lettie, a young English girl, and her visit to Venice in 1928, accompanied by her prim and stuffy aunt, who is determined to protect her charge from anything modern or lively, and especially from interacting with strangers. Needless to say the delightfully named Aunt Hortensia’s does not altogether succeed in her endeavours and Lettie forms a brief but life-changing connection with a Venetian, leading us into a story that spans the decades, as we jump to the modern day and follow the story of Caroline, who is charged by her great aunt Lettie to visit Venice to uncover … something.

This is an easy and compelling read which I finished in one sitting. The bulk of the book concerns Lettie and her time in Venice as Europe was plunged into the tragedy of the second world war. The war is mostly at a distance but casts a shadow over everything, and author Rhys Bowen recounts some dark moments.

Reflecting on the book I am struck by how Bowen transports us to Venice, the city and its people, which in many ways is the heart of the story. She has obvious affection for this unique and wonderful place, its delicious food (if you know where to go), its beautiful works of art, its addiction to religion, and even its less savoury aspects, smells, frequent rain, and occasional “acqua alta” when the city is flooded.

The charm of the ancient and magical city more than makes up for what are perhaps slightly thin (though still likeable) characters. The only negative for me is that the ending was a little abrupt; I would have liked a little more detail about the aftermath.

No complaints though; I reviewed this book on a drab November day in lockdown and spending a few hours in Venice was a most welcome and enjoyable respite.

A Venice Sketchbook is published by Lake Union Publishing on 13th April 2021.

A UI lesson: do not ask users to choose between Register and Login

I am developing a web site for playing bridge, a project which kicked off in March when lockdown caused bridge clubs everywhere to close. There are lots of sites where you can play bridge online, but not many options (particularly back in March) for clubs that wanted to run their own online sessions.

It’s going OK with a number of clubs now using it every week, though it is still in development. I have learned a painful lesson though. In order to proceed as quickly as possible, I started my project with the Visual Studio template for an ASP.Net Core application with ASP.NET Core Identity – the latter an easy decision since it handles all the complications of registration, password reset and so on. (I did end up having to re-plumb it to use int rather than GUID for the primary key but that is another story).

The default home page the template generates looks like this, with options in the menu to Register or Login.

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Registration and login are fundamental concepts that have been part of the web forever. It’s simple for a developer to understand: you register to create an account, you login if you already have an account.

The painful discovery is that this is not obvious to everyone, particularly to an older demographic that did not grow up with computers. Another factor is that cookies, browser-saved passwords and single sign-on with Google/Facebook etc means that this whole area is a bit of a mess and there are people who just kinda expect web sites to know who they are (which in one way horrifies me but I do see the massive convenience).

The consequence is that a surprising (to me) number of people had difficulty knowing whether Registration or Login was what they needed. They would Register, then return to the site and hit Register again. Why is this site asking for my details again? Maybe a security thing? Oh no, why does it now say username not available?

This is because asking the user to make this choice is not good design. Registration is rare, login is common. Further, Register is a confusing word. We sometimes use the word register when accounts already exist. Create Account is better. And a better UI is just Login. I need to access this website. Then, underneath the username/password request, an option that says “I need to create an account”. The two options should not be equally prominent; and if you look at how many prominent sites design this, that is what they do:

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Lesson learned; but I wish this had occurred to me sooner!

Cyber Privacy by April Falcon Doss

This is a book about pervasive data collection and its implications. The author, April Falcon Doss, is a lawyer who spent 13 years at the US National Security Agency (NSA), itself an organization controversial for phone-tapping and other covert surveillance practices. Disturbing though that is, one of Doss’s observations is that “in democratic countries … the government doesn’t have nearly as much data as private companies do.” She argues that government-held data is less troubling since its usage is well regulated, unlike privately held data – though these safeguards do not apply in authoritarian regimes.

Government use then is just one piece of something much bigger, the colossal amount of personal data gathered on so much of what we do, our buying habits, what we search for on the internet, our health, our location, our contacts, tastes and preferences, all tracked, stored, and used in ways that we might not expect. Most of the book simply describes what is happening, and this will be eye-opening to anyone who has not followed the growth of data collection and its use in marketing and advertising over the last twenty years or so. Doss describes how a researcher analyzed his iPhone activity and found that “within seven days, the phone had exported data via 5,400 hidden app trackers.” – and Google’s Android is even worse.

How much do we care and how much should we care? Doss looks at this question which to me is of particular interest. We like getting stuff for free, like social media, search, maps and directions; but how aware are we of hidden costs like compromised privacy and would we be willing to pay in other ways? Studies on the subject are contradictory; humans are not very logical on the matter, and it depends exactly how the trade-off between privacy and cost is presented. The tech giants know this and in general we easily succumb to the temptation to hand over personal information when signing up for free services.

Doss makes some excellent and succinct points, as when she writes that “privacy policies offer little more than a fig leaf of user notice and consent since they are cumbersome to read, difficult to understand, and individuals have few alternatives when it comes to using the major digital platforms.” She also takes aim at well-intended but ineffective cookie legislation – which have given rise to the banners you see, especially in the EU, inviting you to accept all manner of cookies when you visit a web site for the first time. “A great deal of energy and attention has gone into drafting and implementing cookie notice laws,” she says. “But it is an open question whether anyone’s privacy has actually increased.”

She also observes that we are in uncharted territory. “It turns out that all of us have been unwitting participants in a multifaceted, loosely designed program of unregulated research,” she writes.

Personally I agree that the issue is super-important and deserves more attention than it gets, so I am grateful for the book. There are a couple of issues though. One is that the reason personal data gathering has escalated so fast is that we’ve seen benefits – like free services and personalisation of advertising which reduces the amount of irrelevant material we see – but the harms are more hidden. What are the harms? Doss does identify some harms, such as reduced freedom in authoritarian regimes, or higher prices for things like Uber transport when algorithms decide what offers to show based on our willingness to pay. I would like to have seen more attention paid though to the most obvious harm of the moment, the fact that abuse of personal data and social media may have resulted in political upheavals like the election of Donald Trump as US president, or the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK. Whatever your political views, those who value democracy should be concerned; Doss gives this matter some attention but not as much as it merits, in my opinion.

Second, the big question is what can be done; and here the book is short of answers. Doss ends up arguing that we have passed the point of no return in terms of data collection. “The real challenge lies in creating sufficient restrictions to rein in the human tendency to misuse information for purposes that we’ve collectively decided are unacceptable in society,” she writes, acknowledging that how we do so remains an open question.

She says that her ambitions for the book become more modest as the research continued, ending with the hope that she has provided “a catalogue of risks and relevant questions, along with a useful framework for thinking about the future” which “may spark further, future discussions.”

Fair enough, but I would like to have seen more practical suggestions. Should we regulate more? Should Google or Facebook be broken up? As individuals, does it help if we close social media accounts and become more wary about the data that we give away?

Nevertheless I welcome this thought-provoking book and hope that it does help to stimulate the future debate for which the author hopes.

BenBella Books (3 Nov. 2020)

The Whole Truth by Cara Hunter

Set in Oxford, this crime novel continues Hunter’s series based on the cases of DI Adam Fawley. A student has accused a professor of sexual assault – and unusually, the accused is female. Separately, an old case returns to haunt Fawley and his pregnant wife Alex: a criminal whom he put away has done his time, will he attempt the revenge he swore he would exact when convicted?

It is a great read, a book which drew me in quickly and kept me absorbed. I love the fact that the author is a Colin Dexter fan who uses an anagram of Morse for the surname of one of her own fictitious detectives. The plot is full of twists, it’s super-clever, and I particularly enjoyed that last few chapters when the pieces slot into place, worked out by someone unexpected.

That said, I do have a few niggles. One is that there the two separate stories here are essentially unrelated and get almost equal attention, despite the fact that it is the incident with the professor and her student that is highlighted in the blurb and cover picture. Two plots for the price of one isn’t a bad thing, except that the second plot about Fawley’s old case is quite a bit more interesting and exciting than the one which is meant to be the main one. It’s just as well, since I doubt the book would have held my interest without it, but I do wonder if it would have been better to make this more compelling plot the main theme.

Second, I found it odd that the book is written part in first person, from Fawley’s perspective, and partly in third person. There is a bit of chronological jumping around too, but that I have no problem with. There are also illustrations featuring lots of text which are quite hard to read on a Kindle.

Still, these little annoyances did not stop me enjoying the book which was a welcome distraction in these strange days of pandemic.

Penguin. Pub Date 25 Feb 2021

Flashbacks of a Fool, a film inspired by a song

In 2008 Bond actor Daniel Craig starred in a film called Flashbacks of  a Fool, about a failing Hollywood actor (Joe) who returns to England after the death of a childhood friend.

Except it is not really about that. It is about regret and it struck a chord with me, not only because its nuanced, open approach to its subject, but also because the film is inspired by a song that is also one of my favourite’s, If there is something from Roxy Music’s first and most experimental album. And it is perhaps no coincidence that director Baillie Walsh, who is also a music video director, is the same generation as me and, it seems, shares some of my taste in music.

The film was critically panned on release and scores just 38% on Rotten Tomatoes; I feel it deserves better, with some magical moments including a wonderful scene with Felicity Jones as young Ruth, Joe’s first love, a scene which really is a music video but one into which Walsh threw all his passion for the song.

It would be wrong though just to watch this scene and think that you have seen the best of the movie. There is more to enjoy; sharply-observed humour (such as lunch with Joe and his agent at a smart LA restaurant), and other scenes which evoke the agony caused by humans behaving badly.

The closing scene returns to the same song and is again full of passion for what is lost and what might have been.

The film is what you get when someone with the means to make a film reflects on a song he loves and what it means to him. I am not sure how often this has been done; but in this case it worked for me.

Debugging Safari on an old iPad

Someone was trying to use the bridge application I have in progress, using an iPad 2.0. There were a couple of interesting things about this. One was that I had to rethink the warning thrown up, base on Modernizr, which detects incompatible web browsers. The problem (obvious when you think about it) is that if you use some potentially incompatible features in the same page where you are testing for them, then with an old web browser the JavaScript fails with a syntax error and the warning does not appear. The fix: I now show the warning by default, and the compatibility check hides it.

Still, I was interested in the Safari error and wanted to debug it, in case it was something I could fix. How do you debug Safari on an iPad?  The way it is meant to work is this:

– On a Mac, enable the Safari Develop menu (in Safari preferences, Advanced, Show Develop menu).

– On iOS, enable Safari Web Inspector (Settings – Safari – Advanced – Web Inspector).

– Connect the iPad to the Mac via USB. You can now use Web Inspector on the Mac to debug the Safari iOS pages and scripts.

This did not work for me on my Catalina Mac. The iOS Safari did not show up in the Web Inspector on Safari Mac. I could get it to show briefly, by switching Web Inspector on the iPad off and on again, but after than, no go. I tried a few things, but none of the proposed solutions I could find for this issue fixed it for me.

I have an older 2011 Mac Mini in a drawer, so I thought that might work, being a similar age to the iPad. I fired it up, marvelled at how old-fashioned the UI looked (I had reset it to OS X Lion), and connected the iPad. No go. Same problem as with Catalina.

Surprisingly, what did work were the instructions here (more or less) for debugging Safari iOS on Windows. This is based on the RemoteDebug iOS WebKit Adapter described here, a project which originated as an internal Microsoft experiment.

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I did find it amusing that I could do this on Windows, having failed with the Mac.

The next generation of this is Inspect. This is in private beta, though the GitHub page for RemoteDebug says it has been superseded and to use Inspect instead.

It worked for me though.

Point-in-time restore: a handy built-in feature in Azure SQL

I am working on a project that is hosted in Azure and I made a mistake, running a SQL script that was dependent on another SQL script that I had forgotten to run. It messed up the foreign keys and I would have to restore a backup … but my most recent backup was from the day before. Annoying.

But wait. Looking the Azure portal I saw this:

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This is a plain Azure SQL instance with no extras, but look, you can restore the database from 6 minutes ago.

I did it; it restored to a second database. I deleted the bad one, renamed the restored one, ran my scripts in the right order, and all was well.

I recommend you do not run scripts in the wrong order … but if you do, or make some other error, this is a handy feature of Azure SQL which I was not aware of before.

Wrestling with Azure DevOps Pipelines

Pipelines is an Azure service that enables a powerful feature: the ability to set up continuous integration. I have tangled with it before, in the context of trying Azure Kubernetes Service, but managed to avoid getting deep into the YAML which is the language of Pipelines. I am working on a web application and  trying to get it up to scratch as quickly as possible, especially as there are now a bunch of users who are being patient over glitches during development but whose patience may run out.

The application uses .NET Core which for the most part is working well for me. I am using Visual Studio 2019, with occasional forays into Visual Studio Code (VS Code), and deploying to a Linux Azure App Service. Everything was fine until one day when the Web Deploy feature in Visual Studio stopped working with “could not complete the request to remote agent … the operation has timed out.” I appealed for help but with no result yet.

All was not lost as I found that the VS Code Deploy to Azure extension worked pretty well. All I needed to do was to open the solution folder in VS Code, run:

dotnet publish -c Release -o ./publish

in the terminal, then right-click the publish folder and  then right-click the publish folder and choose Deploy to web app. There are a few annoyances but it solved the immediate problem.

One can do better though. Rather than manually deploying, you can create a pipeline using Azure DevOps (the thing that was once called Visual Studio Online and is the cloud version of Team Foundation Services). An attraction of using Azure Devops is that you get “1 Microsoft-hosted job with 1,800 minutes per month for CI/CD” free which seems decent.

I got started, creating an Azure DevOps project and adding a pipeline. You authorize it to access your GitHub repository (if that is what you have, as I do) and then end up in an editor that looks like this:

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I soon got frustrated. The Pipelines service seems fundamentally excellent but spoilt by poor documentation and some odd behaviour – at least for .NET Core. It took me hours to achieve a basic setup that would upload, test and deploy my simple web application. Most of the time was spent observing pipelines fail to run and trying to figure out why.

When you run a pipeline you may notice that it uses .NET Core 2.1 and warns that 2.2 and 3.0 are end of life:

How do you get it to use .NET Core 3.1? You can add a snippet called UseDotNet@2 and specify the version. I put 3.1 and it was rejected as it likes a full version. I put 3.1.301 and it worked .

The most time-consuming thing for me was running tests. The application uses an Azure SQL database. It is unwise to put the database password in appsettings.json in the GitHub respository. How then do you connect to the database? The docs anticipate this and you can use a feature called variable substitution. In the Pipeline editor, you can add variables and mark them secret, so they are not included in logs. You can also use variables from Azure Key Vault. Then you can use the FileTransform@2 task to replace the connection string in appsettings.json with the one you need including the password. I do not think this is ideal from a security perspective – you are still putting the password in plain text in a configuration file – but it beats having it in the GitHub repository.

I had many issues. The main documentation on variable substitution is here. This is terrible. Note that if you look at the YAML example for JSON file substitution (which is what we need) it does not even use FileTransform@2. It uses AzureRmWebAppDeployment@4 which does a whole lot of other stuff as described here. Maybe I should have tried that. But FileTransform@2 looked like the right thing. Unfortunately it generally gives the error “Cannot perform XML transformations on a non-Windows platform.” No, I am not trying to do an XML transformation. Even if you specify the fileType as json and set enableXmlTransform to false, you still get the error. Later research suggests you can beat this error by setting xmlTransformationRules to an empty string. I gave up though and used FileTransform@1 (an older version of the task) which works as expected.

I still did not get the result I wanted though. All the tests using the database failed. Eventually I figured out that I had to set the folderPath to $(Build.SourcesDirectory). Then it works.

This was good. Now my tests run in Linux rather than on Windows, matching the deployed environment. In a full production environment I would use a second Azure SQL database for the tests, but for development this will do.

I then created a staging slot in the App Service and added a deployment step to deploy the application to that slot. Again, this is good. The application will not deploy unless it passes all the tests (this is a built-in feature of Pipelines, as each step does not run unless the previous steps succeeded). It deploys to staging which has a separate URL so you can try it out and not swap it to production until you are ready.

Overall, it is a better solution than the Visual Studio web deploy which it replaces, so perhaps the error did me a favour. It will work with Visual Studio as well as with VS Code, since it triggers automatically on every code commit. The Publish option in Visual Studio becomes redundant.

Note that Visual Studio also has an option to set this up automatically.

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I tried it, letting the wizard do what it wanted including creating a new Azure DevOps project and a new App Service plan. Notable things:

– It created a pipeline using the Classic UI rather than the YAML based editor

– It uses an agent (the VM where the pipeline runs) called vs2017-win2016

– the pipeline did not get very far, failing on NuGet restore

No, I am not going to bother troubleshooting this.

This time yesterday I hated Azure DevOps pipelines. Nothing worked first time, YAML is a hostile editing environment (whitespace matters), and the documentation frustrated me. Now I feel pleased and I have this nice badge in my repository.

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I am left with a nagging feeling though that all this is more difficult than it should be. It seems to me that what I wanted to do was commonplace: use .NET Core, use Azure App Service, have my pipeline build the project, run tests and deploy to staging. You could add, apply entity framework migrations in many cases. I did not find this documented in any one place and the result was that it took more time to figure out.

Using Windows 10 on a 4K display: issues in multi-monitor setups

I made the mistake of reading this post where programmer Nikita Prokopov explains why it is time to upgrade your monitor, particularly if you are a software developer. “I optimize my setup to showing really, really good letters. A good monitor is essential for that. Not nice to have,” he says, going to to explain why standard 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixel) displays have insufficient resolution to display text nicely (unless the display is also small, such as on a 13” laptop). You can use the tool here to calculate the PPI (pixels per inch). You should aim for 150 or more PPI; a 27″ 1080p display will get you 81.59 PPI.

Prokopov’s point is that if you spend all day looking at text (and I do), then you should make the effort (and expense) of getting to display properly; your eyes will thank you and you can work with less strain.

One of my displays is dying (needs new capacitors I suspect) so I took the bait and stumped up for a 4K screen. I did not do what Prokopov also suggested which is to get a display with 120Hz refresh rate. I looked into it; but you need to get a TN (twisted nematic) display which involves some compromises in viewing angles and colours. I also did not want to spend £1700 or more. So I went for an 4K IPS display.

It has been educational. Prokopov is right; text looks much better. Note though that you cannot run at full resolution unless your display is huge; mine is 27” because it has to fit on the desk. It is quite fun at full resolution but the text is too small to read.

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What you should do, says Prokopov, is to scale the display by an integer value. Therefore I scale 200% (Windows display settings). The display is now back to 1080p in terms of the size of most text but at higher resolution and text looks great.

There is a snag though, actually a couple of snags. One is that occasionally you hit an application that does not understand the scaling – like Open Live Writer – and the text is tiny. More significant for me though is what happens if you have multiple displays. Windows is smart enough to let you have different display settings for each screen. The problems come in two cases though:

– if you move the mouse from the 4K screen to the 1080p screen, it jumps vertically. Essentially, it retains the pixel coordinates from the 4K display and applies them to the 1080p display. So if the mouse is halfway down the 4K display, and you move it right onto a 1080p display, it jumps to the bottom of the screen.

– if you drag an application so it straddles the two displays, it all goes wrong. I cannot use a screen grab for this.

Exhibit one: what happens if the 4K display is set to 100% scaling and you drag an application to straddle across to a 1080p display (ignore the mottling effect, that’s just an artefact from snapping the screen):

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Exhibit two: what happens if you have the 4K display set to 200% scaling and perform the same straddling act:

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I appreciate the difficulties here, but possibly Windows could do better? Incidentally the weirdness fixes itself when you drag the window fully across to the 1080p display, it snaps back to normal.

The solution of course would be to get two or three 4K displays. An expensive solution though.