Steve Roy

I’ve always been a big fan of The Beatles and am looking forward to watching Peter Jackson’s take. This quote from this piece in The Guardian captures how I feel:

Part of you is filled with regret: you want to urge the four of them to find a way to keep going, if only for a little longer; you pine for all the songs that went unwritten and unsung.

That reminds of Steve Jobs too. I sometimes wonder at all the things he would have come up with that we’ll never get to see.

Unbelievable words for incredible times in The Guardian:

We could destroy the machines that destroy this planet. If someone has planted a time bomb in your home, you are entitled to dismantle it. More to the point, if someone has placed an incendiary device inside the high-rise building where you live, and if the foundations are already on fire and people are dying in the cellars, then many would believe that you have an obligation to put the device out of action.

The Making Of Climateer

Climateer is an app that I recently released in the iOS App Store. As the tag line says, it’s an attempt at making climate change something you can see, something you can monitor to make up your own mind about what’s happening. Whether that will prove to be successful is still up for grabs, but I thought it would be interesting to explain the story behind it.

I started working on bits of code that eventually turned into Climateer about 3 years ago. I was tinkering with a much smarter form of social media where each post could be programmed to be interactive and to perform actions. That is itself an idea that merits its own post, but for now let me just say that one of the ideas was that a post could fetch data and display it graphically.

I had done a proof of concept of a post that, given:

  • A URL to a source of scientific data.
  • A regular expression describing the data format.

Would download the data and display it in a graph. That was all good and exciting but the smarter social media idea itself required more resources to pull off than I could put together and that effort just sat there unused.

A little while later, I was preparing for an upcoming climate march. Increasingly feeling like something has to be done to communicate the importance of what is happening, I was trying to think what I could do. And I thought of the smart post proof of concept in which I had used the CO₂ data from the NASA Vital Signs site.

I just wanted people to see the CO₂ level. I thought I’d just make a quick app that displayed the creeping CO₂ level in a Twitter-like timeline. So I wrote code that downloaded the historical data, extracted the data points, and displayed each one as a “post”. Reusing the graphing code from my proof of concept, I even made it possible to tap on each one to view the full CO₂ level graph.

I went to the climate march with this app in my pocket. I don’t know what I was expecting. I had put it together at the last minute so there had been no time to make it a shippable product, let alone submit it to the App Store for review. I also chickened out from showing it to anyone there because it seemed silly to show it to people who obviously already understood the urgency of the situation.

So I came home and continued working on it.

I added support for the global sea level data. I also did some UI work like adding pull to refresh to update the timeline.

And that was nice so of course I didn’t ship it. I added support for RSS feeds, not because it was super important, but just because parsing RSS feeds in Swift using XMLCoder is so much fun and displaying an RSS article in a WKWebView is so easy.

And then I realized it didn’t make sense for all these data sources to be built into the application. Oh the horror of having to ship an update each time I wanted to display something from a new source. So of course I created a JSON file on my web site that listed all the data sources, and modified the app to dynamically update its internal list from there.

I was happy with that. Did I ship it? Of course not. Greta linked to the Global Footprint Network and off I was adding overshoot days as my next pet feature. However this one was not a simple x/y data set, so I had to devise a new mechanism to describe it in my JSON source file in a way that the app could display.

That totally worked. My app was now able to handle different types of data sources while having minimal knowledge of them built-in. The next logical step then was to not ship it and implement the ability to extrapolate the data for cases where the available data did not extend all the way to today.

Obviously I could have polished what I had built up to that point and submitted it to the App Store. But there is so much climate information out there, each one more tantalizing than the previous one. This time I set my sight on the MCC carbon clock. Because displaying how much time we have left until doom was obviously a hard requirement to make this a shipping product. And at this point the app is agnostic, so I had to invent yet another way to describe this to the app without hardcoding it in.

This rigmarole of adding features went on for over two years. These episodes were interspersed with periods of polishing work that consisted partly of me repeating that if I can just finish x then I can ship it. But then I another possible feature caught my attention. This process is of course a very important part of software engineering that many developers out there who work on personal projects will handily recognize.

Over time I added support for entering personal notes, iCloud syncing, displaying country flags, showing temperature data, running the app on iPads, running the app on macOS, properly attributing data to their original sources, exposing customization settings, navigating the timeline with a scrub bar, displaying explanations of the data, and accepting donations. I also made countless iterations on the user interface. Not mentioning the making of an app icon that I thought I could stand looking at every day.

As time went on, the added complexity was not helping my case. Implementing features and moving to others without completely finishing the previous ones is rarely a recipe for success. The more features you have to polish, the more daunting the shipping effort seems to be. There was also the added anxiety that while I was doing this, climate change was continuing to get worse.

All that to say you sometimes have to just go for it. There is a ton of polish I feel is still missing in Climateer version 1.0. Better onboarding. Better UI. Better graphs. You name it. But at the end of the day, I’m happy it’s out there and I really hope some people find it useful.

The False Narrative of Changing our Behaviour to Fix the Climate

The Guardian published the results of a 10-country survey on behavioural changes people are willing to make to combat climate change. Foretelling the authors angle, two of the titles in the study presentation are “Accelerating behaviour change for a sustainable future” and “Sharing the responsibility for climate action”.

The implication from this form of phrasing is that we as individuals are responsible for climate change. We are not. And going down this path is buying into a narrative that has been peddled for years by business and industry with the specific intent to clean their hands of that responsibility.

We saw it with recycling. We were led to believe that if we recycled, things would get better. They did not. And the reason for this is that we are not responsible for materials being overproduced and wasted. Individuals don’t mass produce goods. Businesses do.

The premise of the study is therefore incorrect and the results void of any usefulness. A more sustainable future cannot come by asking people to change their behaviour. Expecting that this will happen is, in effect, saying that businesses are waiting for consumers to change, and if consumers don’t change, businesses won’t either, and therefore we’re all fucked and it’s our fault.

The madness in repeating this narrative is infuriating. Primarily because it’s entirely backwards. We are part of a system, so change has to come from the top down. Governments must put laws and incentives in place, businesses will then change how and what they produce, and finally consumers will automatically make the more sustainable choices.

Some of the survey questions frame the problem using “I” in a way that are immediate non-starters.

I don’t think there is an agreement among experts on the best solutions to preserve the planet

I disagree with the question. There is no set of solutions that will fix everything. We don’t need the best solutions and debating which ones are the best is pointless. We need all the help we can get and so we should apply all solutions. If a solution gets us one drop in the ocean closer to our goal, we should use it.

I lack information and guidance about what to do

I think I’m more informed than the average person, but again, the problem is not that every single citizen needs more information in order to solve the climate crisis. We do not hold the levers that can make these changes happen. I don’t have a billion dollar chequebook and I don’t control an oil multinational. Do you?

I believe environmental threats are over estimated

What I believe does not matter. If the captain of the ship says we’re about to hit an iceberg, what I personally believe has absolutely no bearing on what needs to be done. It’s not our job as citizens to decide what is the level of threat. We are seeing first hand during this pandemic the terrible damage that occurs when individuals unilaterally make societal decisions. We cannot ask the patient to decide on a course of treatment. That’s the doctor’s job.

Of course we do have to change our habits. Some of us don’t know it yet and that is fine. Because the problem is not us. We only consume the products and services that are offered to us. The idea that businesses are waiting to offer cleaner or more sustainable products until consumers start buying them is ridiculous. If the only car available is an electric one, that’s what people will buy. Businesses have to offer cleaner products and services. And it’s the government that has the power to force them to do it.

I bought a color laser printer coming up on 4 years ago. Never changed the original toner cartridges. It’s been yelling at us for years that ink is low but somehow we keep on printing. I find that endlessly entertaining, but you have to wonder what kind of racket this ink/toner business is.

In this week of COP26, I’m happy to announce that my app Climateer is now available in the App Store. It presents the climate data in a familiar timeline, letting you see what’s happening with data pulled directly from sources like NASA and NOAA.

I started working on this app 3 years ago with the goal of simply showing our carbon budget countdown. Then instead of shipping it I kept adding more features. Finally I got around to polishing it up so it can be released, and I hope some of you will find it useful.

Dr. Eleanor Janega, referencing the seeming inevitability of capitalism:

None of this was inevitable, and none of it is permanent. We are simply prevented from achieving this through the interests of the wealthy.

It’s super interesting that her conclusion on capitalism is the same conclusion Dr. Genevieve Guenther comes to regarding climate change:

To think of climate change as something that we are doing, instead of something we are being prevented from undoing, perpetuates the very ideology of the fossil-fuel economy we’re trying to transform.

I can’t believe the Paris Agreement was drawn already 6 years ago.

Today, 2015 seems an age ago, before the climate monsters Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro became heads of government, before the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s public protests, before so many floods, so many fires, so many broken heat records. We stopped talking about climate chaos as the future and acknowledged it as the present.

Speaking of the media, they are currently obsessed with the “will COP26 change anything” narrative. This is a depressing and dangerous angle to peddle. News media play a huge role in popular perception. I’m always baffled that they seem oblivious to it.

Every once in a while a narrative emerges from the media that feels like it came out of nowhere and who has time to dig and fact-check it. I just finished reading this terrific piece that does.

The media has tremendous power to shape public opinion. Reporters and editors should not just be aware of their ability to spread moral panics. They should be terrified of it.

I received today a Sonos One SL that I ordered a few days ago. It’s my first Sonos and I’m happy with the sound level and quality. But most of all I’m happy there is still a market for so-called “dumb” technology that you can’t talk to and that can’t communicate with Google or Amazon. Now how about a dumb TV?

The expression “climate protesters” doesn’t put the focus on the right thing. They’re not protesting against climate, they’re protesting human activity that destroys the climate and the environment, which ultimately leads to our doom. Maybe we need a word that encompasses all of that?

I’m not much for piling it on but I find it hard to disagree with anything from Gruber’s take on the Safari 15 tabs:

[T]he first job of any tab design ought to be to make clear which tab is active. I can’t believe I had to type that sentence. But here we are.

These tabs are indeed a terrible UI in many regards, and I have the same gripes about which tab is active, the favicon doubling as close button, and the general disorientation. I also think that the Apple trend to hide UI elements is a failure of design.

But on top of that I’ve been deploring Apple seemingly making changes for the sake of change. It used to be evolutionary and it kept my device feeling new. But things have changed. Many updates from Apple now feel arbitrary and unproductive. To the point where it now makes me feel like I don’t own my device.

Because at any point Apple may decide to ship an update to something I’ve grown to really like that breaks my relationship with it and I find myself having to rebuild that relationship. The Safari 15 tabs are like that. I didn’t ask for this change, but it’s forced on me. I work in tech, but my mother doesn’t. If I have difficulty with some of these changes, how is my mother supposed to feel like she has any kind of grip on technology?

The aim of design is to make things for people that they find intuitive and pleasurable to use. At a very basic level, it is to solve people problems. That is what is being lost here.

I don’t get it. People buy TVs that watch them, use phone apps that track them, wear the seatbelt that the government tells them to, but when it comes to a free vaccine that could save their life they would rather go through the trouble of finding and paying for a fake vaccine passport?

I dreaded watching it a little bit because I feel like so many of these things are preaching to the choir, but the Kurzgesagt video Can YOU Fix Climate Change is really good. They do a great job of exposing the scale of the problem and balancing personal versus systemic responsibility.

You know, I haven’t seen my team in person for almost two years and we’ve shipped a shit ton of features during that period. So I think COP26 and all subsequent ones can be held remotely.

For all the flak Apple has received from developers about seemingly arbitrary rejections, at least there is a dialog and a back and forth.

I have a client who’s been stuck in Google Play Store suspension hell for 4 weeks for a new app submission. They provided the necessary paperwork and used all the channels, but have not heard a single peep from Google. It’s an absolutely inscrutable black hole.

COP26 is coming and the Paris Agreement has been an absolute joke. I was saying it then that checking on each other only every 5 years is not enough. Governments come and go within that time frame. The incentive is not there. There is no enforcing mechanism.

At the very least, countries need to look each other in the eyes once a year and fess up. They may report they failed to meet their goals for the year, but at least we’ll know 4 years earlier.

Additionally, an international fund administered independently must be set up for rich countries to make mandatory contributions to help developing countries. Time for countries to fill out their world tax forms.

Today I feel I have no patience left for the anti-vax crowd. It’s not about you, it’s about everybody else you cross path with. I don’t give a rat’s ass whether you get COVID and get hospitalized. But news flash, biology 101 says it’s a transmissible disease. And people die. Wake up. All you have to do to save other people’s lives is line up and get a jab in your arm. Boohoo.

Sure there is a time to be concerned about the government telling us what to do, but this is not it. This isn’t politics, ideology or government, this is healthcare professionals who are bending over backwards left and right to save lives. Because they care and because no society in history has ever been this lucky to have this amount of science looking out for us. They even want you to live, first-world whiner and all, fancy that.

No federal party offers clear path on how to wind down fossil fuel production

There you go. That’s the Canadian election in a nutshell, and by extension our government for the last 6 years. I’ve been saying it ad nauseam for years but it’s true: there is no plan.

Figuring out how to wind down our financial reliance on oil money is Canada’s existential problem no 1, and evidently the government has zero people working on it.

I love Genevieve Guenther’s reframing of the words used to talk about climate change, and this is a year old but I just learned of it:

[S]he wished the moderator hadn’t framed the question as whether Pence “believed” that man-made climate change was making extreme weather worse. “It’s not the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. The question is: Do you ‘understand’ or ‘accept’ climate science?” she said.

And this old favorite of mine:

She has written that, instead of thinking of climate change as something that “we are doing,” most people should think of it as “something we are being prevented from undoing.”

I’m fed up of reading people running to incorrect conclusions about Apple and privacy. First of all, no, Apple is not going to “scan” your device. Two, Google and Facebook do “scan” your entire life and behaviour and you’re all numbed blind to it. Get a grip and redirect your anger. Geeze.

For all the talks of people not trusting vaccines and not trusting science, it is the science that has delivered during this pandemic, and politics and policies that have not. Science has given us sound advice and vaccines, but the policies to use them and distribute them are subpar.

My wife and I have puzzled over the awkwardness of people bitching about their spouse, the person they chose to be with, the person they’re supposed to love and cherish:

But bonding over a ‘joking’ disdain for your spouse is more than an innocuous social phenomenon—it’s become a bandaid for the broad simmering resentment in so many American marriages.

In particular, I’m amazed that gender equality within relationships is retreating, not improving.