Insta Inspiration [#44]

The recent update to Lightroom (and descent into League) means that photography has taken a bit of a backseat once again, but I have actually managed to turn posting to social media into a bit of a trend. I’m enjoying it so far, which is good, but have discovered that my reasons for enjoyment are very different across the two platforms I’m utilising.

On 500px, the kick I get from uploading a new image is very much a stereotypical social-media hook. I enjoy seeing people’s enjoyment; getting likes, follows and comments. Sure, each upload comes with a slight worry about how it will rank compared to those that came before, but each image that reaches Upcoming or Popular status feels like an achievement, which makes me want to upload again. It’s a simple feedback loop that keeps me engaged with their website, even if some photos do unexpectedly well or bizarrely poorly (seriously, as far as I’m concerned my shot of the Old Man is the best photograph I’ve edited to date).

However, my engagement with Instagram has come from a very different source, which has surprised me. Possibly because I’ve been using the service as a log book for several years, I really don’t care how much traction my images get. In fact, unlike 500px, I basically view likes on Instagram as irritations, creating notifications on my phone to be swiped into oblivion. That does change if I know the person that has liked the image, especially if they’re someone who enjoys photography or creative outlets themselves, but otherwise I’m completely nonplussed by direct engagement metrics on the platform. So why bother uploading there in the first place?

It sounds completely strange, but I actually find Instagram much more valuable as a tool than as a service. Uploading an image is less about the sharing as having a very quick and intuitive way of tweaking settings and playing with filters to see if I can improve it a little more. Once that’s been done, I’ll often fire up Lightroom again and actively compare the two images, slowly tweaking Lightroom’s settings to make it more Instagram-like before re-exporting a ‘final’ version for 500px. I strongly believe that the style of images presented on both platforms should be different, and never try and copy Instagrams filters wholesale, but they do tend to point me in a new direction or just help with refinement.

That’s the process that I used on my Old Man shot and is largely why I love the outcome as much as I do. I thought it was a great photo before I ran it through the Instagram tweaking process, but the version that came out the other end blew me away. Taking those changes and reproducing them myself ultimately led to a final image that I think is better than either of the previous two outcomes. Other times I’ve decided to just upload to 500px, partially because I couldn’t see how Instagram could make the image better and partially because the process of getting a file onto Instagram is incredibly frustrating. In pretty much every instance that I’ve chosen this route I’ve regretted it, often re-uploading to 500px at a later time having flip-flopped on my decision.

Just to show what I mean, here’s my latest upload, a shot of a snow leopard checking out his recently snow-bedecked surroundings at the wonderful Hellabrun Zoo in Munich, Germany (taken on a trip almost two years ago):

Snow Leopard, Winter, Munich Zoo by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

I uploaded the image to 500px first because I didn’t think it could be tweaked any more. I also wanted to retain a very natural feel, which isn’t exactly Instagram’s forte. That said, here’s the same image uploaded a few minutes later and tweaked subtly in Instagram:

Now, I wouldn’t ever consider copying that style wholesale to 500px. It definitely isn’t as natural looking, with a weird purple haze, and it’s lost some of the ruggedness of the environment as a result. However, something about that combination of settings on Instagram really makes the leopard pop, creating a much nicer sense of depth and focus. I was extremely tempted to try and replicate the look, except for the colour, and re-upload to 500px. Unfortunately, I can’t picture in my head what settings to push around in Lightroom to achieve the outcome I want, so right now the original remains.

How I’ve come to use Instagram is not at all what I expected, but speaks volumes about how clever their rendering algorithms are (or how much I still have to learn about Lightroom, of course). For now, it feels strangely inspiring knowing I can quickly iterate a number of ‘looks’ for my image and then replicate the bits I like. That’s a creative process which seems to be providing quite a hook.

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.

Welcome to the Grid [#42]

There are a lot of new web technologies emerging at the moment which really feel like we’re entering a new era. Over the last decade, the likes of HTML5, ES6+, flex box etc. have brought the web, and the technologies on which it is built, very much into the modern day. Accessibility, responsiveness and flexibility have become standards, instead of the nice-to-have pipe dreams they were when I first built a website. Still, a lot of the new features and developments have been addressing limitations of what the web was back in the early noughties.

Right now, then, is a little different. There are still plenty of problems with how the web operates, limitations to its functionality and misuses of its resources, but with a little time and effort a website can become everything it was ever designed to be, and much more. The next round of technological implementation, then, is redesigning the way the web works. Do you need an active internet connection to be ‘online? Not any more. Want a website to do more than simply house and interlink static text? That’s getting pretty common.

Despite these huge leaps forward in terms of functionality, one element of those old, dark days has remained missing. Right when I started to learn HTML the standard approach was to mimic page setting from magazines by using <table> elements. That practice died a deserved death, but ever since the web has been slightly restricted in how it can display information in a dynamic, yet rigidly structured, manner. There have been improvements, such as display:table, flex box and semantically clearer HTML (section, article, aside etc.), but ultimately none have met the ease of application of a table layout.

Hopefully that’s about to change, thanks to CSS Grid. It’s a technology I’ve heard bits and bobs about for some time, but I’ll admit it hasn’t excited me like service workers or PWAs have. Thanks to (yet another) great article from A List Apart, I’m now firmly on board the Grid train and willing it to go faster, and faster, and faster. Honestly, I love the whole concept, but for me one of the most exciting aspects is the quick prototyping available through template-areas. For a full breakdown, read the article, but the “aha!” moment for me was seeing how this:

.cards {
        display: grid;
        grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr;
        grid-gap: 20px;
        grid-template-areas:
               “a a b”
               “. d d”
               “c e e”;
}

Is automatically translated into this:

Layout of 5 grid blocks and 1 empty cell, showing how CSS Grid can span columns and rows, auto-fill containers and be easily spaced.
The beauty of CSS Grid.

That’s not just replicating all the functionality of the table-based layouts of yesteryear, it’s taking the best part of it, the flexible rigidity, and removing all the irritating parts, leaving just the essence. It’s wonderfully simple yet extremely powerful and has clearly been thought through to an obscene degree. The fact that even blank cells are inherently catered for, rather than having to just set a blank <div> or similar, is just fantastic. Vendor/browser support will be the next big hurdle, but by the sounds of things that’s coming along extremely well. Give it a year and CSS Grid looks like it could well be the new standard approach.

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!

Stickers, Eclipses and Lighthouses [#35]

Today is a day for another round-up of interesting pieces from across the web. Nothing too special, but hopefully a little intriguing.

First up is Google Lighthouse, one of the many branches of the Alphabet behemoth and a pretty interesting little project. I haven’t actually managed to get it up and running, but I’ll definitely be trying it out on theAdhocracy some time soon (and probably weeping at the result). I don’t need to test it, though, to see it will be a very useful tool in battling the increasingly problematic issue of internet lag.

Second is the article which led me to Lighthouse in the first place: AMPersan, by Ethan Marcotte. Not much to add to this one, just another voice adding weight to my uneasiness with the idea of AMP and similar projects. Well worth a read if you’re interested in the open web.

In third place is a collection of ‘achievement’ stickers doing the rounds of the blogosphere right now. Originally designed by Jeremy Nguyen, published on The New Yorker and personally discovered via TheLogoSmith, the stickers are a humorous look at the pitfalls of being self employed. They’re specifically designed for freelance designers, but I feel a lot of them are applicable across disciplines. If you work from home, you’ll probably find yourself smiling and nodding.

Fourth on the list is a simple article from Martian Craft outlining “The Importance of Routine“. The post is aimed at remote works and is far from news to me, but it is a well written example of how to apply this kind of thinking. I’m saving it here more to try and force myself into setting something like this up for my own free time.

Finally, I was blown away by the “Lifetime Eclipse Predictor” visualisation created for The Washington Post (discovered via Source). In the wake of the recent total eclipse in the US, along with reading various posts on the rarity of such events, I’ve been left with a real urge to try and make sure at my path eventually coincides with a path of totality. It is a ridiculously awesome coincidence that our moon’s diameter and planet’s solar distance align so accurately. I mean, even if there are other life-hosting planets out there, we’re certainly one of an incredibly small number that can witness this phenomenon. That makes it practically a responsibility to see a total eclipse, at least once.

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

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)

 

Echoing Frustration [#17]

I received an Amazon Echo for my birthday. I honestly wasn’t expecting to, so it was a really fun and exciting surprise to unwrap; although, I have to admit that my initial reaction was “What am I going to use this for?”.

So, a month on, what do I find myself using the Echo for? Because we do use it, all the time (probably every day, in fact). The obvious use for an Echo is music. It syncs nicely with Amazon Music (obviously), Spotify, Pandora and a bunch of other services. Straight away though, we run into problem number one with the Echo: I live in the UK. So that long list of music services is actually just Amazon and Spotify. Sure, I have a Spotify premium account, so that list suits me just fine, but it is something to keep in mind. If you live in the UK, a lot of the features and services that actually use the Alexa platform just don’t exist.

But, still, Spotify works wonderfully. It took a few days to get used to the way Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, wants you to request songs but once we worked it out it became surprisingly natural. There are some issues, particularly with albums with unusual names such as Watsky’s X Infinity. It should be pronounced “times infinity”, but Alexa only understands “ex infinity”. Still, not the most irritating problem in the world.

No, that title goes to the single largest gripe that I have with the Echo and Amazon’s implementations in general. Because Amazon really want you to use their own music platform on the service, not their direct rival Spotify, the interaction with the service is as stripped back as possible. To be fair, Spotify has been removing features continually for years anyway, but I use most of what’s left pretty consistently. Chief amongst those extras is Last.FM integration which is frustratingly absent from the Echo. This has caused some pretty big issues and a whole lot of irritation.

I initially hoped to hook up a recipe in IFTTT, but Alexa’s API only allows you to know when a song is being played through Amazon Music, not third party services. It also turns out that IFTTT has dropped Last.FM support. That’s a whole other complaint for another time but… dammit, really?!

But, I thought, I’m a Prime subscriber as well. That means I can just use Amazon Music on the Echo and create an IFTTT to record a list to a Google sheet. Not the most elegant solution, but coupled with the Universal Scrobbler, it would be relatively low maintenance. Except, you see, Prime Music and Amazon Music aren’t the same thing. I hadn’t noticed this before, as I use Prime for shipping, storage and TV, but apparently Echo doesn’t work with Prime music itself. Sigh.

So, at the moment I’m stuck in limbo. For a brief time it looked like casting from my PC or phone would work, albeit at the complete loss of voice control, which is pretty much the main selling point of an Echo. Unfortunately, that appears to be hit and miss at best. I’ve temporarily accepted defeat, but I will say this: the moment a competitor comes out with a product that lets me Scrobbl music, I will be switching immediately.

Because, here’s the thing. In spite of this huge, gaping black hole of missing functionality, we use the Echo every day. It sits in our kitchen, where it has completely replaced a collection of speakers, digital radios and iPods with a single, elegant device. It lets you change songs, check the time or convert measurements whilst elbow deep in food preparation or washing up. It’s even replaced our old egg timer, allowing us to time multiple dishes all at once, and looks set to do the same with our shopping list. My initial thought of “What am I going to do with this” has been answered many times over with a wealth of surprising little features. Plus, it sounds great; we pretty much use it as our main audio player in fact. Despite everything I’ve said above, I am a complete convert to voice controlled audio players and cannot wait to see what functionality comes to them in the future. It’s just that, right now, the one piece of functionality I most want is missing. Fingers crossed, not for long!