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.

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.

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)

 

Trakting My Media

I am an idiot.

Yesterday I wrote about my frustration that no Last.fm style service existed for TV and film. Last night I went home and found two such web apps in less than ten minutes. It turns out, I was Googling wrong.

There may actually be more than two out there, but it was Trakt and Simkl that caught be eye. Idiotic names aside, both appear to be healthy and robust options with exactly the functionality I was after. Simkl is clearly the baby of the two, with less interactivity with third party services and no current mobile applications on offer. Trakt, on the other hand, appears to have undertaken the Spotify model and launched with a robust API, resulting in adoption by dozens of third-party services. Only time will tell if they complete that model, eventually buying out the few they like and pulling the rug out from beneath the others…

Trakt also wins out in the aesthetics department, with a much more modern and refined style, layout and UI. Conversely, Simkl feels like a leftover remnant of the Web 2.0 era. Trakt does lose points for hiding some relatively key features behind a pay wall, such as in depth analytics and IFTTT integration, but all the features you absolutely need only cost your login credentials, so it isn’t a major roadblock.

I conducted some (very) informal testing last night to see which I might prefer long term. Both were pretty easy to setup, search and navigate though though I found Trakt simpler to retroactively scrobble a show to (a pattern begins to emerge). Trakt’s functionality enabling you to set when you watched a show, going back months, means that the hurdle of cinemas/analogue TV becomes fairly manageable. Simkl likely has these features hidden within its less intuitive UI, but I never found them.

Whilst watching a film in the evening, I tried to test out the mobile options. Simkl simply doesn’t have any at the moment, which is a fairly major black mark. Trakt, as mentioned, has a huge variety but none are actually that great. Most of the Android apps only cater for TV, whereas I need a service that does film as well. The remaining options were a mixture of poor design, buggy features and bad reviews. Even when I did work out the best way to search their archives I found all but one (Cathode) failed to actually return the film I was watching, despite it being present in the Trakt database. Even then, once found, I couldn’t retroactively scrobble the film, instead being forced to choose ‘just watched’ or ‘currently watching’.

To be clear, this is definitely not Trakt’s fault. It would be nice if they launched their own mobile app with a focus on their core features, such as scrobbling, but I can understand why they’ve gone this route. For me, it will mean I can use Cathode when I’m at a friend’s house or the cinema to scrobble as I watch; if I forget, I can add it in later from the Trakt interface itself. That’s a fair compromise and offers a level of flexibility I’m surprised isn’t also behind the pay wall.

For now, then, Trakt has won my support. I signed up to both with test accounts to try them out and both get top marks for making it easy and fairly clear how to permanently delete those accounts. I’ve since signed up to Trakt ‘properly’ and back-filled my viewing habits for 2017 so far. You can follow along here, if you’re at all interested.

It also turns out that my “New 52” challenge has already become more taxing than I had anticipated. Allowing myself a whole week should have removed any stress, but come Tuesday morning on week #2 and I was panicking. I didn’t have any ideas and realised that I’m away at the weekend. I felt like I was running out of free time and it’s amazing how that was sufficient to freeze out my rational mind entirely. The result was a rushed out, imperfect article on a non-existent issue. I felt a little stupid when I realised. I was tempted to remove the #2 from the title and stick it on this post instead, but I’m not going to. I’m going to leave that flag there as a reminder to chill out a bit more in the future. Hopefully it helps.