Asking the Right Answers [#43]

I have been taking part in Google Rewards for over a year now. For the most part, I complete the various surveys to feed an ongoing habit without feeling like I’m being too indulgent or wasting money. It’s a fast and easy way to make a bit of completely disposable income and, honestly, the service works well.

Broadly, the surveys I get fall into three categories: store feedback, google reviews and marketing surveys. Store feedback is usually a case of confirming that I visited a given location and then rating them out of five. It’s quick, interesting enough to see which businesses feel the service is worthwhile and lets me provide some limited feedback. I don’t really imagine that the data is all that worthwhile, but enough stores do it, some of which having done so for an entire year at this point, that they must get something from the results.

Google reviews are a little more tedious but also have a higher reward, so I quite enjoy receiving them. I’m one of those people that routinely reviews online purchases, fills out in-store questionnaires and generally says “yes” when asked if I have a minute. I totally understand why most people ignore these types of things, but I try to do them whenever I have spare time for two main reasons. The first is that I’ve worked retail, I’ve been the person with the clipboard and I am fully aware how much that role sucks. I literally spent two months, for 4-5 hours a day, wandering around Durham trying to get people interested in taking a flyer for a store I worked for, and that was difficult enough. Getting people to actually engage with you for longer than ten seconds… that sounds like hell on Earth. The second reason is that I like having a record of my opinions, which should be fairly obvious from this website (and elsewhere), and that extends out to the services I’ve used and the items I’ve purchased.

So, the first two groups are easy for me to understand and pretty common. But once every month or so I’ll get a survey from group three: marketing research. Not market research, but questioning me on the adverts that I remember having seen or my awareness of brands. I imagine most of these are Google trying to gauge how well its own advertising algorithms are, something which is totally apparent when I get a survey like the one I received this morning.

That survey was incredibly quick and began by showing me a thumbnail of a Youtube video by Philip DeFranco. The video was several years old (I could see the uploaded date on the image) and the survey wanted to know if I had watched it. Now, I’ve been subscribed to Phil since I first created a Youtube account back in 2009 and had already been watching him for over a year before that. I quite literally created my account just to be able to track which of his back catalogue of videos I had watched. As a result, I could say with pretty high certainty that I had watched the video they were showing me. I also assume, considering that Youtube is tied to my Google account, that they already knew that I had watched the video. The first question on these surveys tend to request confirmation of known information, so that made sense.

But then they did something which I don’t understand, at all. I think what they were trying to do was refine their suggested videos algorithm but the way they went about it was just weird. There were two more questions to the survey and both showed another thumbnail of one of Phil’s videos from over a year ago. Both asked me to rate, out of five, how useful these would be as suggested videos on Youtube. Now, I don’t propose to understand the exact results or answers Google are looking for here, but I can imagine that they’re hoping to confirm that, yes, someone who wants to watch a video on current affairs would like to watch more videos on current affairs. The problem, though, is that their survey is completely ignoring my own video watching history. I am subscribed to Phil’s channel; I have watched every video he’s uploaded in the past decade. I don’t need to have his old videos suggested to me because I’ve already seen them. However, none of that information has been requested by the survey, so from the perspective of the questions I’ve been asked then, yes, based on the fact I enjoyed watching the first video I would want the other two videos to be suggested.

Yesterday I was reading an A List Apart article on why asking the right questions in user testing is key to not screwing up. Perhaps because that was on my mind, this survey through me round a loop. On a personal level, completely honestly, those videos are useless suggestions to me and I would have liked to rate them 0 out of 5 (which is, irritatingly, never an option). However, I’m a huge fan of Phil and want his channel to keep growing. Saying “Yes, I watched that one video of his and never want to watch another” seems wrong. I don’t want Google to take that message away from this survey. On the other hand, I hate how my current suggested videos feed is full of videos I’ve already seen and content from channels I’m already subscribed to. It’s a personal pet peeve of the current Youtube setup because it makes that page incredibly pointless, so I really don’t want to reinforce that behaviour and say that these are good suggestions.

At this point, I’m definitely over analysing what’s going on, but you would hope a company the size of Google would understand that the way they present a survey will have differing impacts. The questions are needlessly broad and non-specific, leaving the interpretation open to the user, but the subject matter leaves me stuck trying to guess what data Google actually want from me. Do they want me to know if I like those types of videos or do they want me to ‘confirm’ that suggesting other videos from channels I’ve watched before is a good thing? Unfortunately, I don’t know which it is, which means I don’t really know what the question is, and if I don’t know that, how can I answer it?

In the end, I just stuck them both at 4/5 stars. Typing this up now I feel that was probably the wrong thing to do, but oh well. At the end of the day, Google asked what seems like a fairly innocuous question, but one which has two wildly different answers. I doubt I’m the only person getting that question but I’ll probably be an outlier in my response. Still, it’s a prime example of where the phrasing, setting and simplicity of a question can leave it horribly ambiguous. The result will likely go on to inform some form of policy at Youtube, which is a shame, because no matter what question they thought they were asking I doubt it’s the one they’re actually having answered.

Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#41]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!

Capital Numbers

A List Apart has long been a fantastic source of knowledge and inspiration in terms of both website design and writing, but on top of these accolades every now an then it manage to completely floor me. Sometimes it’s because an explanation finally hits home after years of misunderstanding, but other times it’s simply by providing a piece of information which is simultaneously brand new and yet perfectly obvious. The type of fact which leaves you a little wide-eyed, questioning your very purpose of existence. A mind-blower, if you will.

That’s what happened today whilst reading the (brilliant) article/excerpt on Web Typography: Numerals. The article is well worth a read just for the thoughts on how the web finally makes footnotes genuinely useful (and, in doing so, guilt trips me about how these same ideas have been sat unacted upon in my head for years). However, it was a simple comment near the start that struck me like lightning:

We have at our disposal ‘uppercase’ numbers 0123456789 called lining or titling numerals, and ‘lowercase’ numerals 0123456789 called old-style or text numerals.

Wait… what?! Numbers can have cases? I read the sentence once, thought “that’s strange”, then read it again and noticed the different cases. These different glyphs are subtle but still instantly recognisable, yet I have never realised they existed before. Such a simple little thing which makes complete sense. Much like the recent viral expose of Papyrus or the infamous Fight Club burn marks, I get the feeling that text numerals are now going to be one of those things I just can’t not notice. Which is equal parts infuriating and awesome.

The Weight of Opportunity [#34]

I’ve started this article three times. The first time it was going to be about how my creativity in writing is declining in large part because my creativity in photography and videography is rising. The problem is, I already wrote that article in July. The second time it was going to be about how finding a comfort zone in creative output is perfectly okay, but does slowly erode that output over time, as desire and drive give way to repetition and complacency. That article was decent and had some valid points but it slowly morphed into a third article about time management and a feeling I get which I’ve dubbed “the weight of opportunity”.

The thing is, right now I’m laser focused on other creative outlets which aren’t this blog, so writing is slipping further down my priorities list. And that issue isn’t getting much better. My mind is full of ideas on stuff to build around the flat (which will never happen), videos to record, ways to streamline my data storage (riveting to no one except me), photos to edit and a myriad other ideas and brain-worms. But none of them really make me want to write.

Which is a real shame, because I do want to write, but the stuff I want to write about feels so heavy. There are a heap of things which I want to record and discuss so much that I simply can’t – the words don’t come out right. Articles I care so much about they have to be too perfect to exist. I never did write up my top 5 lists for 2016 which I had so meticulously planned. Nor did I ever write an article on our incredible trip to the Outer Hebrides, Skye and the Highlands. I even have maps planned out for that one! Even this week I’ve been working every day on an article about our trip last week (cause of no blog post, sorry) to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’m forcing myself to put words down but it’s still a cop-out as it’s only part of the article I actually want to make. Plus, it’s taken me a week and I’m still holding on to it rather than publishing. It just isn’t ready yet… perhaps, as with so many others, it never will be.

Time management is definitely a large part of this issue. Right now we’re travelling a lot on the weekends and knackered during the week. There’s been a fair amount of potential, albeit unrealised, upheaval at home (in a good way) which has meant free time has been dominated predominantly by discussion. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s very healthy and absolutely necessary, but it does create a bit of a black hole for personal, creative time. The result is that most week days are spent sorting out big-life-adult stuff after work, eating dinner and. Just. Collapsing…
Weekends then become either a frenetic dash around seeing friends, family, culture or whatever (again, not complaining, just another time sync) or, and this is a big one, they become crushed under the weight of opportunity.

Which is to say that weekends such as this one, when I’m home alone with no plans whatsoever, are just incredibly stressful. I want to pack all of the things I possibly can in to whatever time I have, be it an hour or a day or a weekend. I spend weeks thinking up a huge list of tasks and projects I want to tackle. But then I wake up (late, because lie-ins are bliss) and hit a wall. I feel heavy with the anticipation of infinite possibilities and realise two things: I don’t actually have enough time to do everything on my list and I have absolutely no idea what to pick. Picking any one thing necessarily makes it more important, in my mind, to everything else I could be doing and that’s a decision I find incredibly hard. It’s a very real sensation of weight and it crushes my drive utterly. The result is that I end up watching some Youtube, pottering around and generally doing nothing. I don’t even procrastinate well: I don’t play video games or read books or watch films. I achieve nothing.

And then my free time is gone and I have nothing to show for it. I get a little depressed about that and swear that next time will be different. But it never is. Part of it is just poor time management. I definitely could set aside more time during even the busiest week to sort out stuff. The periods when I actually manage this are incredibly fruitful and make life so much more fun, but then I get ill or especially tired or fail at something and I fall off the wagon. I could also micro-manage my large blocks of free time and set absolute periods of work, creation, life goals etc. On paper that sounds great, in reality is turns the weight of opportunity into the wall of creative block. Every. Single. Time.

Seriously, whenever I do that, no matter how I come at it, I invariably wake up or get to that period of time and realise I have zero inspiration. It happened yesterday. I had set aside four hours, far more than I needed, to shoot a small segment of video for a project I’m working on. I woke up and conditions were perfect! It was a beautiful day, there wasn’t any wind or irritating building work to make sound an issue. It’s the day I’ve been waiting for to shoot this sequence for over a month. But the sequence never happened. Instead, I got up and realised I needed some dialogue for the video but I had no idea what to say. Two nights ago, struggling to get to sleep, I’d come up with the perfect phrasing but now, poof, it had completely gone. I ended up watching some Youtube videos to get some inspiration. Then I discovered a new game on my phone. Then I put a wash on. Then the clouds rolled in, the wind rose and the sequence has been impossible to shoot ever since.

I’m not really too sure how to get past the weight of opportunity or the creative block it creates. I’ll continue to try different techniques to overcome it and, certainly, some of the ones I’ve tried in the past have helped. Incrementally I feel like I’m beginning to win, but conversely the weight of past opportunities wasted is growing as well. A small part of me hopes that writing about it may help me rationalise and move past it, but a larger part of me knows this to be false hope. It’s just who I am; it both kills my creativity and also fuels it. For now, it feels good enough to be able to take that weight and transfer it into at least one goal achieved this weekend. Unlike last week, at least there will be a blog post.

 

That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection [#31]

Standard workday, standard work lunch catching up on RSS feeds. Of course, quite a few of them are discussing the leaked “Anti-Diversity” manifesto from the, now infamous, ex-Google employee (name forgotten and ultimately unimportant). It’s been an interesting view into a very specific bubble of the tech sphere, but one which has helped elucidate the issue, if only a little.

Of particular note is the response from Adactio, which is easily understood by the title of the piece: “Intolerable“. I will hold my hand up right now and say that I find the whole issue a lot more complex than Jeremy Keith outlines, but I cannot argue with his conclusion. Nor can I argue with the incredibly diverse and well-written sources he links to, each of which is definitely worth a read.

That becomes particularly true if you’re anything like me: someone whose gut instinct was “this is utterly wrong”, but who found themselves wondering if, beneath the anger, fear and sexism, a valid point was lurking. Having now read through the links (linked below) I feel a little more confident in my gut reaction, which is a nice feeling.

Just to clarify my use of the phrase “valid point”, it is not valid that one gender is in any way better or worse at being involved in the tech sector (or any sector, for that matter). Instead, it’s more of an issue of how we go about addressing the very real disparities between both job prospects and job uptake by any dissuaded minority group (and yes, women are not a literal minority, but they are in tech due to centuries of discrimination, so I feel it a valid term within context). I have a personal distaste for anything that borders on “positive discrimination”. All it creates, long term, is embitterment and injustice, in my opinion. However, having read the links below I feel a lot more at ease that the diversity programmes at Google and similar companies are not going down this route, instead focusing on making the workplace a more attractive environment for everybody. That’s something I can get behind.

If there is one element of Keith’s article that I will find fault with, it’s the blanket tone of dismissal. I understand where he’s coming from and it’s a tricky thing to call out, because it’s an opinion I find myself feeling towards other subjects. I simply don’t feel the world is ever black and white enough to make a statement like:

I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does.

But, hypocritically, I also find myself agreeing with the directly following statement:

But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.

As an example, earlier this week the BBC came under fire for featuring Lord Lawson on a program about climate science. The argument for his presence is that it provides “the other side of the debate” and that the BBC have a mandate to be as impartial as possible. The issue with their reasoning is that it implies there is a debate to be had. In terms of scientific consensus, the degree to which man-made climate change is refuted is utterly negligible. The debate has been settled for decades and continuing to present it in any other way is directly harmful. It is akin, though less instantly vitriolic, to claiming that the BBC needs to include a Holocaust denier in documentaries on WWII. Yes, there are some people out there who believe that the vast majority of historians are wrong, but no organisation in their right-mind would claim that there is an actual debate soliciting both sides being heard.

Perhaps, then, it is I who is wrong on the Anti-Diversity Manifesto. Perhaps Keith is right and any discussion of non-diversity is, by its nature, only destructive and harmful because that debate, too, has been settled. Still, I can’t help but feel that claiming so and shouting it so loudly only serves to reinforce the opinions of dissenters. It’s hypocritical of me, but I don’t feel that shutting down people with these opinions is the right course of action. Perhaps, in time, that will change. For now, I’m just happy to see that the discussion being had is largely positive.

Reading List:

A Brief History of Women in Computing – Faruk Ates

So About This Googlers Manifesto – Yonatan Zunger

Dissecting the Google Employees Anti-Diversity Manifesto – Ether Alali

The Poetry of Spam [#29]

I get a fair amount of spam posted to theAdhocracy. For the most part, it’s easy to spot and formulaic (though admittedly increasingly intelligent). Spam comments either thank me for helping solve a problem or just compliment my writing style/ability/content, then state a place, person or website that will help me “grow my website” (or some-such similar phrase). Occasionally, I get the old-school type of copy-pasta spam that just jumbles together a group of phrases (“Please to be meeting your face in the hot jungle with spider cannons“), but most of the time modern spam is eloquent enough and passable for actual human writing.

I’ve had a few posts that I was 99% sure were spam but which actively addressed something unique to the article or the website in general. A few months ago two comments, on widely disparate posts, both made reference to an error in Internet Explorer when viewing the website. Neither post linked out to or referenced a third party, both used acceptably human names and email addresses, and both were entirely different in phrasing and style, yet addressed the same issue. I’m now certain both are spam (I’ve seen the same comments on other blogs which don’t filter comments) but, weirdly, the problem they were referencing was real. Perhaps it was an issue common to a large number of WordPress websites, which made the message viable, but if the comments contain nothing but a warning… why bother posting them?

Occasionally, though, I get something pretty special. Spam comments which are so clearly not human, yet so weirdly unique, I’m left desperately wanting to know more. One such comment greeted me when I logged in today:

Paige nodded as he handed her Sasha’s tennis ball.

Wait, what? My spam panel showed me that this wasn’t even a one-off. I have 17 comments, all from completely different email addresses, all pointing at different products on the same popular clothing website (weirdly, each link was a different search result page for “funny nurse” t-shirts). No two comments are the same, but when strung together in order of posting, they almost make a story. I’ve Googled a couple of the phrases used and have found them scattered around various other blogs, so this is clearly a spam bot of some kind, but I have no idea what the origin of the text is. Which is a shame, because I’m now actively interested in the world of Paige, Sasha et al. I want to know what “flashing” is; why there appear to be Roman gods knocking about; why Jade is so happy about the catalogues? It reads like excerpts from a 70’s sci-fi pulp, and I’d love to know why. Why create a bot that produces this? Was it intentional? Is it picking parts from an actual story or are the phrases completely random, pulling from a set list of names, nouns, verbs etc.? Whatever the reason, the spam will be destroyed, but I felt like preserving the weird little tale it created. So without further ado, here is some Spam Poetry:

Paige walked again to Melody’s station and sat down.
Again within the Otherworld Paige and Troy sat in silence.
She took Julie’s hand and they flashed to their spot.
Monica, don’t worry about getting Paige’s love energy.
One after the other they walked by means of, it shut behind Amber.
Kelly and Monica appeared with troopers behind them.
Amber took Paige into her arms and hugged her tightly.
Kelly and Monica appeared with Aphrodite behind them.
She locked up and Sasha flashed into the yard.
He waved and flashed, Paige turned back to her buddies.
She took Julie’s hand and they flashed to their spot.
A eating room chair appeared behind her, she sat down.
A eating room chair appeared behind her, she sat down.
The catalogs landed in Jade’s palms and she smiled.
Julie and Zoey dove in and Paige walked over to Wes.
Julie and Jake were there to help.” Paige replied.
Paige nodded as he handed her Sasha’s tennis ball.

Accio Deathly Hallows

10 years ago today the Harry Potter series came to a close. With the publishing of The Deathly Hallows a large part of my, and many others, childhood came to an end. I find it strange that a decade has passed since, but probably for different reasons.

Whilst I was eager to read The Deathly Hallows when it first came out, I have to admit that the Potter franchise had lost its lustre for me. I grew up alongside the release dates, but as they stretched out over the last three books my own ageing overtook the target audience. By the close of the series I still counted myself a fan, but my life revolved far more around the likes of Lord of the Rings, Pratchett’s Discworld and authors like David Gemmell.

But the release of The Deathly Hallows does mark a pretty big event in my life, though I wouldn’t realise it for another three (!) years. Several days before the book was officially released, a little known channel on YouTube uploaded what would become a viral, fan-favourite and Harry Potter inspired song: Accio Deathly Hallows. The musician was Hank Green; the channel was “Brotherhood 2.0”, the fledgling website that would evolve into the Vlogbrothers. Whilst Hank and his brother John have become far better known for other reasons, ranging from writing The Fault in Our Stars (John) to creating VidCon (Hank), that song was what changed their experiment on YouTube into a community. Both brothers have pointed to Accio Deathly Hallows as a pivot point, the first time either had considered that their involvement in YouTube was more than just a one-year deal. The popularity it gave them on the platform ultimately changed both of their careers and, arguably, the face of both YouTube and the web in general.

That, for me, is the far bigger anniversary today. The Vlogbrothers, their content and their outlook on life have been a hugely impactful and important part of my life as I left home, went to University and officially began to “adult”. They remain one of my most watched YouTube channels, a huge inspiration and a brilliant example to the world of how to be humans. Whilst it feels like Harry Potter ended years ago (which I guess it did), the idea that the Vlogbrothers have been vlogging for over a decade is equal parts encouraging and terrifying. Forget Accio Deathly Hallows, I’m more interested in Accio DFTBA.

Security All The Way Down [#26]

Source, one of the many blogs I follow, has recently had a themed content week focusing on security. For their main readership this means security for the newsroom, security for the journalist, but their articles are both fascinating and widely applicable. It may seem a bit ridiculous but the reality is: everyone is a target. Yes, a journalist is more likely to be specifically targeted, because they have access to unique and often-times damaging material, but literally every single person has something that is valuable to someone else.

Maybe it’s money in the form of online bank accounts, crypto wallets or card-verified e-commerce sites like Amazon. Maybe it’s social media accounts, valuable for gathering personal identifiers that can be sold en masse for identity theft purposes or even to be used as part of modern botnets, spreading viruses and further compromises. Maybe it’s compromising personal information, images you wouldn’t want widely distributed or conversations you’d rather pay to keep out of the public eye. Maybe it’s just the thrill of seeing how far you can go, what you can uncover.

It’s unlikely that you would be directly targeted, but it’s actually fairly likely that you will be targeted at some point. It’s happened to me. A few years ago I received a message from my bank querying a large sum purchase made with a debit card that I hadn’t used in years. I freaked out a little, contacted them and had the transaction cancelled; once the bank had assured me that no further charges would occur I calmed down and started trying to piece together how the hell someone had managed to skim a card that had been out of circulation for years.

The answer, as is so often the case, was the combination of forgotten accounts, common passwords and third party security breaches. Exactly which chain of interconnecting services led to this particular attempt at fraud is impossible to prove, but here’s my best guess. Back when I was heavily active on League of Legends they had a mass server breach, with hundreds of thousands of accounts compromised. The parties involved made off with data tables of passwords, account names and associated email addresses; no credit card details, but enough personal information to be seriously damaging. My account name was unique and the associated email address had a different password, so I figured I was safe. I was wrong. Someone, somewhere, managed to link my username to an old email account, which used that same password (Error #1). They accessed that email account without my knowing (Error #2 – setup two-step authentication!) and from their likely downloaded my entire email history (Error #3 – if you don’t need it right now, encrypt/archive it or delete it).

Within that database of emails were messages from an ancient PayPal account I hadn’t used in years (Error #4 – close accounts you no longer need). That PayPal account had a different password, but that doesn’t matter; whoever it was simply had a password reset request sent to my compromised email address and flipped it. That PayPal account was still connected to my old debit card, which I’d never closed down despite no longer using it (Error #5). They tried to use that account, with that card, to make a purchase when luckily a third party, my bank, flagged it as suspicious. As a result, the purchase was cancelled. Great, right? Problem solved, issue avoided, time for a cup of tea, right?

Wrong. I contacted PayPal and had the account closed, I went to my bank and terminated the card and figured the worst of it was over. Except, the email account was no longer accepting my leaked password. Four years later and, for some reason, the password happened to be flipped back to the original one; I’ve just managed to regain control, through sheer luck, but the ripple effects are still being discovered. That email account was the main personal ID for dozens of other online accounts, many of which have been deleted, taken over or banned. Some were used for spam, others for malicious “fun” and others just destroyed. I’ve spent the best part of the last two weeks going through that old email account, finding associated logins across the web and shutting them down or taking back control.

The whole ordeal has spanned years and is still on going. Now, on the one hand, I got lucky. Losing so many accounts didn’t impact my financially, it didn’t uncover any secrets that could have been used to blackmail me or hit me IRL (I’m too boring for anything like that) and I never really felt any negative impact from it. I’ve lost some memories and a decent chunk of my personal time, but that’s about it. But like I said, I got lucky.

So, whilst very interesting and a recommended read, going through Source’s recent articles on personal security have left me a little red-faced. For everything I supposedly “learned” I’m not much better today then I was four years ago in real terms. I’ve slowly been building a database of accounts I have, what they’re associated with and the personal details they contain. I’ve reset my passwords and made sure they’re all unique. Where possible I’ve closed accounts I no longer want or, at the least, removed any personal identifiers from them. But beyond that? Not much.

Reading through A Guide to Practical Paranoia is like reading a checklist of ways I’m falling behind. It recommends using local password managers like KeyPass rather than cloud-based services, but I still haven’t managed to even make that step. Tor and other end-to-end encryption are mentioned as good first steps, but all I have is WhatsApp… not sure that really counts. Don’t use out of the box, popular options for data you care about it says, which I agree with whilst writing on a WordPress blog running the vanilla theme.

Perhaps it’s time to start making inroads into my personal security again. The reason it hasn’t happened yet is because it’s hard, it’s boring and it can be pretty confusing to boot, but the alternative is harder and potentially actively damaging. In the mean time, though, I can definitely recommend giving the suggestions and ideas on Source a good read over:

A Guide to Practical Paranoia – Stephen Lovell (Source)
Why My Motto as a Security Journalist is “Assume Breach” – J. M. Porup (Source)

 

Peaks & Troughs [#25]

I believe that inspiration comes in waves. I’ve believed this for quite a while, largely because I’ll have periods of time where I can draw really well, or feel like writing every day, or take a chain of photographs I’m very happy with. When these periods occur, it feels like I’ve been hit with a wave of inspiration that is just carrying me forward, creating ideas that bounce off each other and inspire yet more to form in their wake. That concept of cyclicity is appealing, not just because it explains these bursts of creation, but also because it somehow negates the less fruitful periods in between.

I think it’s fair to say I’m in one of those less fruitful periods right now. That isn’t to say I’m not being creative though, far from it, but that creativity isn’t as immediately obvious. So perhaps I’m wrong about the whole wave-inspiration model. It’s something I’ve blamed in the past for failing similar challenges to the New 52 concept I’ve got going on at the moment. Challenges work great until you hit a trough between creative peaks, at which point they falter. But perhaps that idea is just a get-out-of-jail free card. A lie to make the failure seem, somehow, less.

Which is a fairly harsh way of looking at it. I’m not saying that taking a break, putting energy into something different or even just stepping back for a bit are a bad thing. They aren’t. That’s just how I look at it, the whole failure vs creation dichotomy. It isn’t a good way of looking at it, but it’s my way.

Still, as I said, maybe I’m wrong about the whole premise. Right now I am writing. I’ve written something every day this week, but none of those things are finished enough to publish. That isn’t a failure unless viewed through a very specific lens, which probably isn’t helpful in the first place. It’s just a different kind of progress. And that’s okay.

Sometimes, it’s okay to make incremental but unrealised progress. Right now, I’m learning how to edit in Adobe Premiere Pro. It’s absorbed quite a bit of my free time, time I would normally use to write. Once I’ve gotten to a stage I feel comfortable using the program I will have developed a very useful skill, on top of which the time required to utilise that skill will decrease massively. My creative output will increase. But in the mean time, from a birds-eye view, it will appear to wane and falter. That’s okay, but it isn’t great for time sensitive challenges.

What I’m really trying to say is this: I think my belief is wrong. I don’t think creativity comes in waves. I think certain types of creativity appeal more, or less, at certain times. And once a certain type of creativity has risen to the surface, it takes over for a while, making switching back and forth difficult. Right now, I don’t want to be writing; I want to editing photos or videos. That’s where my head space is at, that’s the creative itch I want to scratch.

Which is, truthfully, just a very long winded way of saying that I don’t have anything to write about this week. But, also, that sometimes that’s okay.

A Gap in Time [#24]

My last post was on the 8th. Today is the 20th. Do you see a little problem there? In short: 12 days are longer than a week. Sad times.

For 22 weeks I have written a minimum of one article every week. Frequently, I’ve actually managed more; in fact, the total number since the start of the year is currently at 31 published, and I know there are several more sitting at > 50% completion. Still, the challenge was one article per week for 52 weeks and I didn’t even manage half. It’s a better track record than many previous challenges, but still not a fantastic end.

However, I’m not going to stop here. You’ll notice I’m still numbering today’s post, but skipping one. The week of #23 will forever be blank but the challenge will continue, one article per week until the end of the year. I’ll be interested to see how many other blank spots appear (hopefully none).

As for the why, I think that’s the part which is most frustrating. A combination of tiredness, apathy and forgetfulness is the real answer. Last week was a build up to a fun weekend celebrating a family birthday, meaning we were staying with my partner’s parents. As a result, there was a push to get the photographs from our recent trip edited and ready to show, so that took priority of me team and wiped me out creatively. Every evening was spent gutting out a third of the stills I took and actually editing several dozen favourites, whilst lunches were spent sorting out bills etc. or just taking a break. Writing took a backseat because I was tired.

I had hoped to write something on Sunday afternoon after we got back, but as tends to happen the day disappeared. We’d intended to return before dinner and actually arrived home at 10pm, without dinner. At that point, I just forgot. It’s that simple. I came very close to missing previous uploads whilst in the Hebrides due to lack of internet and just scraped through. I was proud of that. I’m not so proud today.