This is part of my blog, which I have long since stopped maintaining. The page has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. Please go back to the homepage to see the current contents of this site.
I could tell, as we headed back to our old haunts in our university town and the car stereo decided to play VNV Nation’s “Beloved”, that it was going to be a reminiscent sort of New Year. For the first time in many years, I spent at least part of the day with friends in Southampton—friends we have now known for 10 years, and who defined the time in which I came of age. And although we spent only a few hours—in some cases barely a few minutes—in their company, it was worth a lifetime.
2013 has been a good year.
It was a year that started in snow, triumphed in a summer just long enough and hot enough to be remembered, and finished with storms battering against the tightly-shut windows.
It was the year Eric and I finally had our honeymoon, only two years after marrying. It may have only been two days, but we filled them with joy and love and books and for some reason also geese. More than anything we felt young again, a rare experience among parents.
It was the year that I spent my summer by the sea playing with boats and getting paid for it, a year I was given so many opportunities to shine and took every last one of them I could.
It was the year we gained a neice, and my wife’s family were all together about a table set for ten with food for twenty.
It was the year that I missed RABIES, a party still going after nine years. No longer will there be some old git who has been to every one of them. But although there are some friends from whom I have drifted this year, there are others to whom I have drawn closer. When my regular roleplaying game came to an end in April, I discovered it had left me with a group of wonderful friends that even without the game have been at our flat every Saturday night since.
I have cooked more roast dinners and baked more cakes than in any year I remember, and in doing so brought friends and families closer.
And now I sit awake in a sleeping house, a glass of our own sloe gin in one hand and one of our own gingerbread biscuits in the other. In London, fireworks blaze and music blares across the city. Here by the sea, thunder rumbles and rain pours in chorus outside. But I have my friends and my family, my kith and kin, and that’s all I have ever needed.
I raise my glass, to family and friends near and far; to all away and at home; to the little gods of sloes and fireworks and cold January mornings; to all that changes and all that stays the same; to the spirit of the year departed and that of the one that begins tonight.
Happy new year.
One of the ways in which a number of my friends spend November is participating in National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo”. This is its 15th year, in which some 300,000 amateur novelists signed up to write their hearts out over the course of 30 days.
It’s ten years since I first came across the idea, and in all ten of those years I have professed myself too busy to dedicate that much time to churning out my sub-standard fiction.
This year, though, I discovered a similar project I couldn’t help but have a go at—NaNoGenMo, National Novel Generation Month. The idea is simple—instead of spending November writing a novel, spend November writing a script that can write novels for you.
A lot of NaNoWriMo novels are fanfiction of highly variable quality, so in homage to that, my NaNoGenMo script uses exactly that as its source material: specifically, a user-selected category or search on FanFiction.net. It will scrape the stories it finds for sentences, store them all locally, then set to work mashing them together in various gramatically-reasonable ways until the 50,000-word goal has been reached.
During the course of writing the script I tested it mostly with Doctor Who fanfiction, some of which is not particularly bad. But then I discovered that FanFiction.net has categories for cross-overs, where authors borrow characters from two of their favourite ‘universes’. These are generally, shall we say, less well written.
So, if you’d like a glimpse into a world where Bayesian poisoning spammers hawk not Viagra but My Little Pony / Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction written by 12-year-olds, look no further than the example output that my NaNoGenMo script generates.
If you’re up for some more bizarre fiction written by haiku-spouting drunken Markov chains, check out the list of NaNoGenMo competitors, quite a few of whom seem to have taken my code to new and stranger heights!
It doesn’t seem that long ago, perhaps only five or ten years, that you could buy or build your own computer and do whatever you liked with it. If you bought it, it would probably come with an operating system, but if you didn’t like it you could download another one and use that instead.
Nowadays… not so much.
My main computer is a Late 2007, 13-inch Macbook. You can install another operating system on it—so long as you keep the original OS to apply firmware updates. And you repartition the hard disk using Apple’s tools. And you install a custom boot loader. Oh, and even the custom boot loader can’t boot from USB.
My other computer is a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook. You can install another operating system on it—in a chroot, because you have to use Google’s kernel to get proper hardware support. You can try your luck with a proper dedicated install of another OS, but your hardware will be badly supported. Your choice of other OS is a two-year-old version of Ubuntu, or a current version of Arch Linux for which no-one knows how to build Firefox. It boots from USB when it feels like it. The rest of the time, it beeps and restarts with no error messages.
And these days our phones are computers too. The more capable they become, the more like a real computer, the more we resent their limitations.
I have a Droid Razr Maxx. You can install another operating system on it—so long as it’s pretty similar to the one it started with. And it’s compatible with the built-in kernel, which you can’t replace because it has to be signed. So you have to kexec your own kernel on top.
All I really want from a computer is a bunch of POSIX utilities, a tiling window manager, a copy of Firefox and a package manager, preferably APT-based. Ten years ago that didn’t seem too tall an order. But with the computers we have today, I can and have struggled for days to achieve that—before giving up.
Whatever happened to the generic PCs of years gone by? Computers were always supposed to get smaller and cheaper, but why did they also get less useful; less free?
I run Google Analytics code on a number of my websites, as I like to know what’s popular—and maybe deserving of attention—compared to those sites and pages that languish unvisited. But while Analytics is handy for confirming the obvious and pointing out a few unexpectedly popular pages, it’s at its best when it reveals something surprising.
My most popular pages are on the Raspberry Tank—where over 50% of visitors are French-speaking, despite the content being only in English.
One other page stands out as unexpectedly popular, and this one is almost exclusively due to the British. My Great Roast Dinner Timing Chart regularly flirts with the top of Google’s search results, for no adequately-explained reason.
And so, British culture creeps into my visitor stats. Because Brits love their Sunday roasts, which means Sunday’s the day that a hundred or so of them hit the internet to figure out how the heck to make one. And against a background of stable trends from day to day, I get one that looks like this.
This morning, a friend of mine linked to a great article on why “If you’re going to live in this country, learn to speak the language” is pretty insensitive.
It struck a particular resonance in me, because aside from her emigration, my experience of languages over the last few years has been much like the author’s.
I too had the dumb luck to fall in love with and marry a Spaniard, with no useful Spanish education to rely on when communicating with my newly acquired in-laws — none at all, in fact. While at school I eagerly studied the languages I thought would be useful in life: French, German and Japanese. Since leaving school, none of them have been anywhere as useful as would have been Mandarin, Arabic, Polish or Spanish.
Ah yes, Spanish. Like the author of the article I loaded up with about ten minutes’ worth of choice phrases before I went to meet my then-girlfriend’s family. In nervousness I forgot every single word of it. And then ran headlong into the problem of Spain’s several regional languages.
To communicate, I first have to ask my wife’s family to speak Castillian Spanish. And then I have to compound my embarassment by admitting that I don’t even speak much of that. Worst of all, the author of that article isn’t being that hyperbolic when she refers to herself as “speaking like a one year old” — my worst realisation of just how poorly I speak Spanish was helping my child talk to a five-year-old girl they were playing with on the beach. Not only did I not understand what she was saying, but I couldn’t even find the words to tell her that I didn’t understand.
I could only imagine the number of times I would be reduced to frustrated tears if I lived there.
I live in a town where thousands come to study English every year, hundreds or thousands of miles from friends and family. Daily I talk to Chinese baristas, Brazilian bus drivers, Italian chefs — always in English, without a second thought.
And every time they speak a word of English, they’re doing better at integrating into British society than I ever could into theirs.
If you’ve been paying attention to technology-related news recently, you may have noticed that social network LinkedIn has released a new app for iOS devices called “Intro”. It’s a handy tool for people who do a lot of work-related email on their iDevice, as it embeds information from LinkedIn into your emails so you can get a summary of who you’re talking to.
Unfortunately it does this not by making Intro a mail client with the extra feature of retrieving this information, but by rewriting your mail settings to send and receive mail exclusively through LinkedIn’s servers.
In these times where online privacy and security are the subject of worldwide headlines, it shouldn’t come as a suprise that the app has been widely condemned for the complete loss of privacy it entails for its users.
But this is just the latest in a long line of dubious methods used by LinkedIn to find connections between its users. It has been accused of sending email on users’ behalf without permission — indeed, handing over the password to your GMail and Hotmail accounts (ostensibly to harvest your address book) is one of the steps it recommends when you sign up. LinkedIn also uses names and photos in advertising by default, and comments on Reddit even say that LinkedIn is recommending people connect with former residents of their apartment based on their common IP address.
Added to that list of privacy failings, the 2012 breach of LinkedIn’s database revealed a major security failing, in that user accounts were stored as unsalted SHA-1 hashes, many of which were easily compromised.
Although the Intro app does not affect me in any way — I don’t use it, and don’t have an Apple device to use it on anyway — it makes it abundantly clear that LinkedIn still do not care about their users’ privacy or security. No privacy-conscious Internet users, myself included, should support a company like that.
Make no mistake, by having accounts on LinkedIn we are supporting them. We are not paying; we are the product.
Given that the only thing I have received through being a LinkedIn member has been regular nuisance calls from recruitment agencies, I think it is high time I deleted my account. I would encourage all of you to weigh up what you gain from the service against what you lose by handing over your personal information to a company that is highly likely to abuse it.
A young man of twenty-eight summers, I cling to that word “young” as long as I can, though already it is slipping away. As another summer departs, and with it another year, autumn permeates body and soul.
A few short weeks ago, the sun shone and our town sweltered in the summer heat. I felt young and full of energy. I knew there was little better than to live and work by the sea — hell, I’d give up what we had, live in a beach hut, catch fish for a living, and life would still be great because no feeling can beat being young and in love in the summertime.
But then the wind blew cold, and the rain swept ashore in sheets.
Now I shelter in the warm with my family, newly aware that I am not so young and carefree. I have a family and a place amongst them — as a father, husband and son.
I no longer want a beach hut, or even our flat by the sea. I want a big old house with spare rooms for all the guests we’d have, I want a garden and a potting shed full of vegetables I’ve grown, and a kitchen table where we can sit and chat while I bake and bake and bake.
I suppose that means I want to be a middle-aged, middle-class housewife. And that’s pretty weird for a man still in his twenties; but oh, what a difference a season can make.
Like many angsty young adults, I spent the last few months of my time at University wondering what would become of the friendships I’d made there — which friends I’d keep in touch with; how often I’d see them. Having lived and worked with many of them, and shared each other’s lives in such minute detail, how could I deal with not having that constant interaction any more?
Then, something magical happened.
Suddenly, it was like the old times were back again. We could stay in touch forever, and share the minutiae of our lives just like always.
But since then, it’s kind of taken over. I’ve caught myself checking Twitter and Facebook on my phone while crossing the street, as if that iota of interaction couldn’t wait thirty seconds for me to ensure my own safety. People have started talking to me while I was using my phone, and in my mind it was the phone that had priority and them that was the inconvenience.
I saw this comic the other day, and although its charicature of the social networking-obsessed user is a long way from the way I act most of the time, the intention behind it still rings true.
How did we get to a point where I would rather share some witticism I think of with the internet at large than with my own wife, who matters far more to me than the rest of the web ever could? Why do I regularly spend my evenings idly refreshing Facebook, then complain that the flat is a mess because I never have time to do chores?
This culture we created of over-sharing our own experiences and being glued to a screen awaiting what our friends share seems to be cheapening our interactions with the real world. It’s escapism from something I no longer want to escape.
If I am allowed to make “mid-year’s resolutions”, I resolve to share less of my life online, and to spend less time refreshing a page waiting for others to share their lives. It’s no bad thing to wait a few days to see what friends are up to, if it means spending more time caring about my family, my home; the things that I’m sad to say are more important than friends and certainly more important than the retweets and “likes” of strangers.
I’ve spent much of the last few months resolutely not commenting on the NSA spying scandal, Edward Snowden, PRISM and all the other revelations that have been published by the Guardian and the New York Times recently.
While 99% of the population continue without knowing or caring what the implications of the spy programmes are, the revelations have caused a surge in the number of people telling the world — largely online, for irony’s sake — how stunned they are that their trust has been violated by the spy apparatus of their state.
Here’s the “tl;dr” version for all the busy novice cypherpunks out there, and you’re not going to like it: You should not have expected privacy in the first place.
Before I go further, I’ll address the obvious riposte to that — that in the US, the Fourth Amendment prevents the state from spying on its own citizens, and the NSA is clearly in violation of this. But other states have no restrictions whatsoever on spying on Americans. Is it any better to be spied on by GCHQ? What about China? The NSA does not have a monopoly on massive electronic dragnets.
So here’s the long version. If you feel like there should be a secure way of communicating online without state security apparatus knowing and recording it, this is the magnitude of the task you have ahead of you.
- Do you use popular, proprietary software? It’s compromised. Microsoft Windows, for example, has contained an NSA crypto key in all versions released since 1999.
- Do you use popular online services? They’re compromised. The PRISM scandal highlights the big players involved: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, the list goes on.
- Do you use professional cryptography products, or the hardware crypto capabilities of modern processors? Compromised.
- Do you or your ISP use popular network hardware? Compromised..
- Does your traffic flow through the UK or US? Compromised.
- Use Free / Open Source Software? Congratulations, your system is probably more secure. “Probably”.
- A big shout out to all the Ubuntu users who feel good about themselves now. It’s a good job you don’t run any proprietary graphics drivers, right?
- Get the warm fuzzies when you see that little padlock icon in your browser? I hope you’ve reviewed your browser’s Certificate Authority list and made sure none are hacked or in bed with the Chinese government.
- Have you gone the extra mile, using only Tor darknet sites to ensure your privacy? Compromised.
More broadly, have you communicated by unencrypted phone, fax or e-mail at any time since the 1960s? Compromised.
- But do you communicate only by Triple-DES & Blowfish encrypted semaphore to your fellow cypherpunks in Faraday cages beneath Sealand? Congratulations, your communication is probably secure. “Probably”.
The fact of the matter is, if you trusted that your communications were safe from the national security apparatus of a state, particularly your own, you were almost certainly wrong. For privacy fans like myself, the sad news is that countries always have and always will invest vast amounts of time and money on building and maintaining their surveillance capabilities. Large companies will always be given incentives or demands to assist the state in which they operate. And there is very little that the individual privacy-conscious citizen can do about it.
If you want a guarantee of absolute privacy, you must trust every algorithm you use, every piece of hardware and software that handles your data, and everyone you communicate with. But you don’t.
Somewhere, somehow, your communication system is compromised.
Maintaining your privacy online is simply a matter of risk management — for each of the possible vectors by which your privacy could be compromised, which do you care about, and which can you do something about? If you’re an international diplomat with a Huawei 3G dongle, are you being spied upon by China? If you’re a Fourth Amendment nut, does the government read your Facebook? If you’re a business traveller, is your host’s network searching your email for company confidential information?
Assess the privacy risks and manage them. Don’t insist on absolute privacy, or you will find yourself unable to communicate with anyone. And don’t pretend absolute privacy was something you ever had.
The name was a pun on the “Westminster Bubble” in which MPs are sometimes unkindly said to live — implying a lack of awareness of the rest of the country — and “Hubble” alluding to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to see distant objects in more detail than ever before.
Westminster Hubble was a website that aimed to bring MPs and their constituents closer online by providing a single location to find contact details for an MP, in real life and on social networks. It also provided customised feeds of MPs’ activity from a variety of sources, from YouTube videos to speeches made in the House of Commons. At its core was a RSS-parsing engine powered by SimplePie that pulled in content from all the sources it knew about as quickly as it could, stashing the results in one giant database table. The contents of this would then be served to users as HTML, or as an RSS “meta” feed to users who preferred to get the data that way.
Westminster Hubble’s main “feed” page for an MP, in this case tech-savvy MP Tom Watson.
Amongst my favourite features were the Google Maps / They Work For You mashup that allowed users to find their local MP in an intuitive way, and the “badges” awarded to MPs for particular dedication (or just a lot of tweeting).
Westminster Hubble’s “find your MP” map
We launched just after similar service Tweetminster really took off, and although we never achieved their relevance or their Wired UK features I still feel that we were offering separate complimentary services — Tweetminster curated tweets around particular subjects for use by those in and around Westminster, while we pulled together tweets and other items from particular people inside Westminster and provided them to those on the outside.
In many ways, Tweetminster provided a destination, somewhere people would go to get information, whilst Westminster Hubble was designed to fade into the background and become part of the plumbing of the internet — RSS feeds went in, RSS feeds came out in a more structured form as chosen by the users. In many ways, then, it shouldn’t be surprising that this week I am closing Westminster Hubble due to a lack of use. Without the user appeal of being a “destination”, the users didn’t come — didn’t spread the word.
Westminster Hubble “badges”
In recent months, the web itself seems to have turned a corner from the heady days of the early 2000s; the Web we lost. Twitter’s discontinued API v1 takes with it the availability of RSS feeds for a user — parsing Twitter feeds now requires a “proper” Twitter client that must authenticate and use the JSON API. Facebook pages no longer advertise their RSS feeds; third-party tools must often be relied upon instead.
It seems the days of mashups, of open services that exposed their data in freely-usable machine-readable formats, are fading. Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, are realising that to maximise their profits, they need to keep users on their sites rather than accessing their data from elsewhere. They are becoming walled gardens in the tradition of AOL, a transition that is fundamentally bad for the free and open web that most of us enjoy today.
If I were more of an activist, I would keep Westminster Hubble alive and fix its links to Twitter and Facebook precisely for the reason that this trend needs to be fought — that the British public should have the right to see what MPs post on “walled garden” websites without the members of the public themselves needing to enter that garden. But the fact of the matter is that Westminster Hubble has failed to become a popular service. In the past month there have been exactly six unique visitors, and that includes consumers of the RSS feeds.
It is tempting to leave the service running somewhere in some capacity — its database currently contains nearly a million items posted by MPs over the course of 16 years. (Westminster Hubble has only been running for three years; it retrieves old posts from feeds when it can.) However, there seems little point in maintaining the domain name, the Twitter account and the Facebook page for a service that now sees so few users.
For anyone wanting one last play with the site, on the understanding that many social network integration features no longer work, can do so on the Westminster Hubble temporary server. On request I am also happy to host the complete (~420MB) database dump, in case anyone wants a large data set of MP activity on which to run some analysis.
To everyone else who has used Westminster Hubble over the years, thank you. I hope it proved useful, and I like to hope that maybe even one of you was inspired by it to support an open government, to campaign for it, or to follow in the footsteps of Chris and I and build your own tools to make it happen.
After many MPs have held Hubble’s “badges” over the years, I’d like to award one special, final badge of honour. The Westminster Hubble award for Social Network Mastery could go to nobody else: ladies and gentlemen, Ed Balls.
Ed Balls— Ed Balls (@edballsmp) April 28, 2011
So long, and thanks for all the fish.