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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.

iOS 7 and Obsolescence

iPhone 4 with iOS 7

This is my iPhone 4. I purchased it more than three years ago.

You don’t get into the technology world without, begrudgingly or otherwise, accepting that things move very fast. What is relevant today may be completely superseded in a matter of months.

A big reason why I have ended up a user of Apple’s iOS ecosystem is that, unlike some of its competitors, there seems to be a genuine focus on the relationship with the customer after you have purchased the device. I can run this old iPhone 4, using the latest operating system that was released this month.

From a security point of view, upon which I can’t resist to comment, the pace of mobile OS development is such that security fixes are not routinely backported to older OSes. You end up with the situation we have today with Android — scores of vulnerable devices out there in the wild.

Aside from some frustrations I do have — the original iPad that was released in the same year as my iPhone 4 is now stuck back on iOS 5 — Apple actually seem to think about device lifespan the least cynically of all the manufacturers. When they were developing the iPhone 4, they clearly thought about how it would run the next three operating systems yet to come.

It can’t be denied that the iPhone 4 isn’t quite as quick and responsive with iOS 7 as it was when it shipped with iOS 4. It doesn’t enable all the fancy features of the new OS. What it is, though, is in line with the performance you would expect from a device that is a little older now. It is definitely acceptable, and probably even good.

This is why I make the purchasing decisions I do. As long as you avoid first generation products(!), you can make an investment in a piece of Apple kit. It is so much more than just a product to shift off the shelf.

On Vine and Third-Party Use of Your Content

Vine logo

None of the commentary with respect to terms of service and legal agreements in this blog post can be taken as legal advice. If in doubt, ask someone who really knows their stuff.

I really like the medium of short, tweetable videos that Vine has made popular. It succeeds where other video-over-Twitter services, such as yfrog’s, failed. Once again, it is actually by imposing limitations that we find a unique way to express creativity.

So, I toyed with the idea of joining Vine, even despite it not supporting protected accounts like on Twitter. But being an unusual breed, I felt it necessary to read and at least attempt to understand the Terms of Service.

I didn’t like what I saw. (All emphasis is mine.)

You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. In order to make the Services available to you and other users, Vine needs a license from you. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

This is a standard kind of sentence you will see if you read many different ToSes. It is, apparently, the boilerplate for “we need your permission to display the stuff you are posting”. It seems fair enough.

You agree that this license includes the right for Vine to provide, promote, and improve the Services and to make Content submitted to or through the Services available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Vine for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use. Such additional uses by Vine, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Vine, may be made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available through the Services.

Suddenly, this paragraph changes the tone — from “we’re needing a licence to actually display your stuff at all” to “we’ll reserve the right to exploit any commercial value in your creativity whenever we feel like it”.

It is not just about using your content to further promote Vine, it seems to leave the door open for them to sell your content to anybody at all, subject to some additional terms and conditions I didn’t find.

I am not naïve. I know these services will need to make money eventually, and that a ‘free’ service comes with an exchange of value, even if it is not you paying a monthly fee.

With that said, this is not an acceptable arrangement for me, and I would encourage others to examine the value of the content they expect to submit to Vine in the light of these words.

Contrast Vine’s ToS with similar verbiage in the YouTube ToS:

When you upload or post Content to YouTube, you grant: to YouTube, a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable licence (with right to sub-licence) to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform that Content in connection with the provision of the Service and otherwise in connection with the provision of the Service and YouTube’s business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels;

In short, YouTube might use your stuff to further YouTube as a platform, on any medium, but they aren’t going to reserve the right to flog it off to some ‘partner’ who may not be as fair about compensating you. (Also, YouTube’s existing, long-term relationships with their content partners demonstrates, in my view, a much better mutual respect than the implication of Vine’s ToS.)

There seems to be a weird irony that it is exactly the fact that Google wants to jealously keep you and your content in their ecosystem that they aren’t going to pawn it off to someone else’s ecosystem who might not treat you right.

I’m not saying don’t use Vine. That is your decision, based on what you find an acceptable deal. But don’t be in the dark about the potential implications of these differences in that agreement that, on the surface, might appear subtle, but could be really important.

Today, if you put your stuff on YouTube, and it gets popular, you can join the Partner Program and get compensated for the value in your content. With Vine, however, maybe there would never be an opportunity to see any value from your work. I think they need to answer that question, even if the implementation is not here yet.

Protecting the value of the content you create, whilst always being respectful to your customers, is not just for big media organisations. We are all creators, and we all deserve to have mutually respectful relationships with those who publish our content on our behalf, and those who consume it.

How to install Cacti on CentOS 6

It has been far too long since a video tutorial made its debut here, so I would like to introduce a new tutorial!

Cacti is a great graphing and monitoring tool, but I have struggled in the past with getting it installed, and getting it to do what I want. It can be a little bit complex and fiddly, but recently I have had more success and am putting it to good use measuring and graphing more things.

In this tutorial, I will walk you through installing Cacti on a basic CentOS 6 system with Apache, PHP and MySQL already installed. By the end of the video, it is collecting information for the default graphs in the default installation.

I hope to extend this video series soon with some details about the additional graphs I have recently succeeded at getting installed.

As always, your comments and feedback are appreciated!

Teaching Computer Security Basics

Over the past few years, I have ended up coming into contact with many computers belonging to individuals. My reason for doing so has varied, but usually I am helping them with something unrelated to security.

I found myself constantly saying the same things when I noticed bad security practices — “you really should update or remove Java”, “you need to actually stop clicking ‘Postpone’ and restart the computer some time”, “untick that box to install the toolbar” and so on.

Computer security is hard.

But, particularly when it comes to computers belonging to individuals, we have let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We have allowed anti-virus vendors to parrot messages about “total protection” instead of teaching sound principles and encouraging good practice.

Computer security, at least in this context, is in large part a human problem, not a technology problem.

So, a while ago, I had an idea to put together a really quick, 5-minute presentation that would encourage computer security principles that could dramatically lower the risk of individuals’ machines getting infected. I stripped it down to what I saw as the four most important principles (few enough that they might actually be remembered!):

  1. Keep software up-to-date — with emphasis on the importance of updates, despite the inconvenience, and mention the high-risk software titles du jour whose updates may not be entirely hands-off (Flash, Java, etc.).
  2. Keep up-to-date antivirus — with emphasis on such technology as the last line of defence, not ever a solution in and of itself.
  3. Install software from trusted sources — perhaps the most important principle that requires behaviour change, this is about getting people to feel confident enough to build a trust model for software and then make informed decisions about each and every installation they make.
  4. Be suspicious — in particular about communications that invite clicking on things and so on, including using alternative channels to verify legitimacy of things that look suspicious (e.g. never clicking unexplained links!)

I’ve not given this talk yet, but I’d like to. It feels that computer security on home PCs is, in general, so awful, that even a very basic set of ideas that are memorable enough to implement can probably make a significant difference to the health of our personal information infrastructure.

I would welcome feedback from others on these slides, as well as the idea.

I think it is quite important to keep it to five minutes, make it concise enough that it will be memorable and actionable, but I’m sure this idea can (and needs to) evolve and improve over time.

If you would like to use the slides, feel free to do so under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence. It would be great if many people could hear this message.