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Shrewsbury

I continue to really enjoy the iPhone 5s camera — it may not have a mind-boggling megapixel count, but it seems to do an amazing job with its autofocus and in particular, it seems to capture the light in a balanced way.

Bridge in Shrewsbury

Upgrading to MariaDB 5.5 on CentOS 6

Following on from my previous video, showing how to install PHP 5.5 on CentOS 6, I now complete the tasks needed to meet the requirements for installing Moodle 2.7 on CentOS, and replace the Oracle MySQL distribution with MariaDB 5.5.

As always, feedback is appreciated!

Installing PHP 5.5 on CentOS 6 using IUS Repositories

I have been inspired once again to fire up my screencasting rig, to show you how to install PHP 5.5 on CentOS 6 using Rackspace’s IUS Community Repositories.

More and more web applications now are likely to require versions of PHP beyond 5.3. CentOS 6 users are stuck with 5.3, with backported security updates, unless they diverge from standard repositories or compile PHP themselves! Until CentOS 7 is with us, those of us trying to run a rock-solid web server on CentOS will be left out in the cold running recent web applications like Moodle 2.7 which require a newer PHP.

In this video, I show you how to use the IUS repositories to get PHP 5.5 running. These repositories, with their Rackspace backing, seem likely to be nice and stable going forward.

As always, I’d love any feedback you might have.

Better

On the face of it, this is just another corporate “aren’t we so great” feel-good video, the kind that we have every right to look at cynically.

However, and at the significant risk of being judged a Tim Cook fanboi, I actually think something has changed under his leadership. Even if it is just that we are allowed to see more of this side of Apple now, Tim’s tenure so far seems to be bringing about a much stronger focus on values than ever before.

We have their ‘Intention’ video, Tim’s public musings at the Fuqua School of Business, and perhaps more importantly, actions like their Supplier Responsibility work and bringing the manufacturing of the new Mac Pro to the USA.

“There are some ideas we want every company to copy”

Perhaps what is most exciting about this new, very public, focus on these issues is the idea that ethics can become a point of competition.

Not every customer is going to care about this stuff, but most people will want to feel like they’re doing the right thing. The pressure that companies like Apple can put on their competitors might be one of the most effective tools for actually making a difference to a whole industry’s behaviour.

I hope we see that.

Time for a Refresh

New site design screenshot

I have had a few design overhauls in my time here on this site. I haven’t, however, done anything significant to the site’s design since the beginning of 2012!

I have just finished another unrelated web design project with which I am very pleased, and, as frequently happens, it threw into sharp relief just how tired this site looked!

I am well aware that this site is also in need of a fairly generous content refresh as well — and I hope I will make some time to do that soon. For now, though, I hope the visual refresh keeps things going.

It is primarily a typographical refresh this time around. You might notice:

Who Shot the Serif, Part 2!

All serif fonts are gone!

Headings

Colaborate font sample

Colaborate, by Carrois Type Design, replaces Charis SIL for the header at the top of the page, and also does significant service for header text across the site.

Body Text

Roboto font sample

Colaborate’s funky looking ‘t’ character adds… well, character… but it wasn’t working for me across all the body text. Body text, then, loses its traditional Helvetica/Arial choice from before, and uses Roboto by Christian Robertson. It’s being included via Google Fonts, which should keep things nice and speedy!

There’s More… (I Hope!)

I have further ideas to tweak and refine the design, and of course, a desire to get some new content out here as well. With any luck, there will be a bit of time soon to act on those things. Watch this space.

Miles per gallon

Miles per gallon

Preserving Playtime

We spend a significant portion of our childhood learning through play. It’s fun and it’s intuitive and it is how we learn so many things about the world and where we fit in to it. It’s practically burnt into our ROM, if I can misuse a technology metaphor.

Dirt path in woods
As we grow older, I think many of us become embarrassed about play. I remember very clearly being told, about the impending move up to secondary school at the age of 11, that if you were seen ‘playing’ at breaktime, you’d be at the very least teased and mocked. It’s even in the name — suddenly it’s a time for a ‘break’, and not a time to ‘play’.

For me, and I suspect for many people, maintaining play as a primary way of learning and self improvement is immensely important. Many of the things I have learned, and enjoy doing today, I picked up not by heavily structured learning, but by playing around with things. I still use the word a lot when talking to people about how I’m going to investigate and solve a problem — “I’ll have a play around and see how far I get”.

Play, to me, means exploring ideas or practising things, apparently aimlessly, or at least without a strong sense of direction.

It’s challenging, though, to maintain playtime in a social environment that frequently sees being intensely interested in something that is directly productive as ‘weird’, or (negatively slanted) ‘geeky’, and when balancing all of the other responsibilities life will grant you.

Here’s how I try and maintain an environment that is conducive to play.

Structure the Unstructured

It becomes increasingly difficult as you get older to have the unstructured time needed to be able to be led by your curiosity to explore something new. In the 21st century, the wider variety of entertainment content available than ever before, and endless opportunities to be distracted by communications make it even more challenging.

There is an inevitability to greater time pressure when your responsibilities grow too, so with the free time you do have left, it’s important to make sure some of it isn’t filled, particularly with consuming entertainment media*. Play should be about creating your own entertainment through exploration!

Take the Geek Heat

There is a compromise you’re making here, and the cost is that some people aren’t going to understand or appreciate what you’re spending time on. Sometimes, you’re going to be risking missing out on being in the loop socially, because you’ll be consuming less of the media (mainstream and social) that others have.

You need to be prepared to figure out where the balance of this trade-off lies for you, and accept your choices about your time. It helps if other people support your choices too!

Follow

I’m immensely guilty of trying to be too structured a lot of the time. I try and keep myself as productive as possible, and do a lot of conscious self-analysis and self-management.

This kind of approach doesn’t invite play to the party. You have to listen to that quiet, subconscious sense inside you that already knows where it wants to lead you. You have to not have too many set ideas about where playtime will take you. Listen to yourself, and follow, don’t lead.

You have to be prepared to end up having not been productive quite a bit of the time, too. It is only by taking the risk of wasting time that you often discover something very valuable.

Recreation and Reward

I feel fortunate that the curiosity and excitement inside me is very much alive still. When I make sure I create the time and space to play, it rewards me — both recreationally, because it’s fun not to have a strongly pressured agenda, and because there are often more tangibly productive rewards that come about too.

When I suddenly have the desire to play with a bit of technology, or an idea, that I know nothing about, I try to make sure I have some time for that scheduled soon. I mess about, break things, fix things, poke things, observe things, until I am satisfied I know more than I did before.

I hope that I can always find a way to keep that a significant part of how I spend the rest of my time on this planet, and I’d love it if more people felt confident and proud about doing this too!

* This is why generally, no, I haven’t seen that new TV show. Sorry, but I need my playtime!

Image is ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by Andrew Butitta on Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY-SA.

The Road Ahead

As always, the end of the year is a great opportunity to take stock, as well as look forward to what is coming next.

I thought I’d round off this year, a very successful one for me, with a few of my favourite photos I have taken on my countryside commute into work to help with that contemplative spirit!

Photograph of road ahead, with sunrise

Cows in a field

Sunrise over field

I wish everyone a happy and successful New Year.

Creating a Custom Child Theme in Moodle 2.6

I’m spending a fair amount of my time now working on and supporting a medium-sized Moodle installation. I will not sugar coat it: Moodle is far from my favourite piece of web software — its considerable UI complexity being my chief complaint — but it does do a reasonable job and it has a rich enough feature set to make it quite an asset in the education world.

This complexity to Moodle sometimes doesn’t exactly make it easy to do the right thing as a developer, and working with themes could be somewhere where developers diverge from best practices. The temptation to clone your favourite theme just to make a few tweaks here and there leaves people unable to track changes to the base theme, and keep their site up-to-date.

So, I have put together a video showing how you can create a custom theme (a child theme in WordPress parlance) that inherits mostly from your base theme, but allows you to override CSS and even bits of the HTML structure of Moodle’s generated pages.

I think it’s actually an easier process than people think!

As always, I welcome feedback, and if you found this particularly helpful, I’m always happy to have a few pennies drop into the PayPal account!

Find this tutorial useful?





Personalised Search: Technologically Induced Confirmation Bias

DuckDuckGo filter bubble site

I can’t unfortunately remember what led me to this page (I think a retweet from someone), but I found myself perusing DuckDuckGo’s marketing site “Escape your Search Engine’s Filter Bubble” recently.

(I don’t have a relationship or particularly strong opinion about DuckDuckGo at this time, by the way, so this is no marketing astroturf.)

It shows you just how search engines deliver different results for the same query, based on the user’s habits in the past.

The profile the search engine has built up on the user through their cookies doesn’t just inform them about relevant advertising, it literally changes the search results.

This troubles me greatly.

Now, I don’t believe I am experiencing this when I search. I am borderline obsessed with clearing cookies and other browsing data to ‘reset’ my browser to the same state after each session. Assuming mainstream search engines aren’t using technology like Evercookie, then I get a generic set of results across different browsing sessions.

Most people don’t do that, which means that most people are becoming increasingly unlikely to come across viewpoints that differ from their own on the web. They have a technologically induced confirmation bias, where, unless they click through a number of pages of search results, they will rarely hear people who might (respectfully, thoughtfully) disagree with them.

Confirmation bias… is a tendency of people to favour information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.

I am, frankly, frightened at the idea of people never being exposed to a diversity and plurality of opinions. I am frightened of how easy it could be to not develop and nurture empathy. The consequences of that could very well be more profound than we might realise on the surface.

As well as the societal implications, it doesn’t seem the right decision to me either in terms of the technical role a search engine should play. What I previously liked about the ‘old days’ of Google Search was their strong commitment to put the most relevant result first. I’m not sure, though, that delivering the most personally relevant result is the same as delivering the most relevant result for the query.

So how do we address this? Well, I think that media literacy in general is something we need to make a priority. Trying to change the way the search engines work when everything ‘targeted’ is such big business is unlikely to be successful.

At the very least, we need to get the message out to people that this is happeningprivacy might not be the only reason you might want to clear your cookies.