Friday, November 30, 2007

Tidying up the Giant E-Brain

Well, life is changing rapidly after my last little upset. The rest of this post is going to be just as geeky, but then they say "know your audience"... ;) (Uh, not in the biblical sense.)

So I bunged my MacBook into a local service outlet having accepted the fate of a fiery datahell for my old bytes. Service was quick (Apple get parts out quickly) and free (Academia has great warranties). New hard drive, and also took the opportunity to get the facia replaced (ooh, shiny white like angel new), plus looks like they cleaned the screen too. Now that's what I really needed, it turns out. Anyway.

A day on, and I've re-installed fundamental applications, and am in the process of sorting out my datalife. For posterity (hehe, that means "bum"), I'll make a note in this post because, well, it's a blog, and blogs are supposed to be full of mundane day-to-day details. (Complaining (via comments) only makes this blog Stronger.)

So, things I've done or am doing...

1. E-Mail 1: Unsubscribe from all the stuff I really don't need - I'm on far too many things like poltitical newsletters, random mailing lists and company alert things. "UNSUBSCRIVE!"

2. E-Mail 2: Mark entire Inbox (11,000+ messages) as "Read". Actually, that was more of a slipped keypress and a bad Thunderbird interface design. Oops. Still, I am actually RELEASED from a plague of unread mail following me about like a big mailfolder smell. Now I can just delete mail, as I should have done before, en masse and by subject/sender. Currently down to: 6369 messages in Inbox.

3. RSS Feeds: Unsubscribe a few that I really don't read. But also use Google Reader to put "important" feeds (generally people I know personally, and more "newsy" feeds) into a "monitor" folder. (Google Reader allows multiple folders - phew.) Then tell my Desktop notifier to only bring in that folder. Means I still have quick access to things I find interesting, but I haven't got a scary large "to read" number sitting at the top of my screen. And, well, big numbers count for a lot.

4. Starting to vacate that old hard drive ready for back-ups. Moving all my old desktop's data to another PC, and taking the opportunity to sift it fairly well while doing so. As promised, am removing all the "cruft" for the various "projects" I have, like pictures and music mash-ups. Never going to go back to them, anyway, so all source files can bugger off.

5. Bit the step of taking the bullet, and ordered Apple's new Big Cat. I'd mostly decided to do this anyway after reading the huge review at Ars Technica (hehe, that means "Bum Craft"), and figured I might as well start afresh. One of the few pieces of software I think is worth paying for, even if it is an OS. Not been impressed/inspired by any software in a long while, so think it's worth it. (Especially at student prices, ahum.)

6. Still looking at the various back-up options suggested in the last post's comments. Not sure I can be bothered to pay for remote back-up - I thought Jungle Disk looked pretty good until I realised you had to pay $20 for the software. Sneaky. Unison looks more useful if you're syncing desktops, which I'm not particularly. I'll probably see how Time Machine goes, especially as it provides some kind of snapshot-through-time, meaning I can delete stuff after 6 months and not worry too much. Also, integration with OSX will be pretty nifty. (See relevant Ars Technica page for in-depth moreness.)

So I think things are going well - I'm actually eager to upgrade and enthusiastic about backing up, as it means I can start playing about with deleting stuff. A major thing I've noticed from going through this is how "user un-centric" my datalife is (was?). Geeks are info hoarders, or I am at least. The Net can often be seen as a "playground" in which information is plentiful and bounteous (is that a word? No? Tough) and "staying on top of it all" is a modern day challenge.

But I can't help thinking this is the wrong way round. Information Overload and User-Centricity are fundamentally at odds with each other, maybe. And User-Centricity (also not a real word) is (I've decided) all about the Zen. Less is more.

So I'm switching from a model of "slurp and filter" - in which I keep tabs on everything, and store stuff in case it's useful or I need it later - to a "relax and snipe" model - in which I go to the information when I need it. Focusing on the user, rather than information, should make things generally much more pleasant. Think of it as redefining what the technicals are for. To not get in my way.

And with that, I'm off to delete more crap.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Tech Support: Lose Data, Gain a Soul?

My Macbook's hard drive did last night what any hard drive promises to do: die without leaving even so much as a back-up note. (OK, ok, so I was supposed to write that note. Happy now, yer 'onour?) Sleep was replaced with fret, but dawn brings light, and with it action. Or pondering. Even some kind of calm.

I have a few choices, as ever. What's weird is what kind of questions each one brings up.

  • Choice 1. Standard route: Get a new HDD under warranty. Hey, it's free, but it means giving back my old drive, which removes any possibility of getting the data back through some kind of recovery/forensics service.

  • Choice 2. Buy a new drive myself. Get to keep the old one, maybe get the data off if the heads haven't f***ed it over completely (a possibility it seems, after having read around the finternet a bit).
Herein lies the oddness though - the choice comes down to whether or not I want my data back. Now, there's a lot of data there - with the main stuff being photos, but also various Uni notes, random bits of code and sporadic witters in text form.

But what is my relationship with this data, and what should it be? My immediate regret about not having backed-up has partially given way to a kind of liberation. In a sense, I'm also free of all that data, free to start again, free to flyyyyy... Uh. Yeah, free.

I'm a geek, I like to keep everything in neat and tidy folders. I like to keep lots of tiny files just in case I might find them useful again one day.

But maybe it doesn't have to be like that. Isn't just hanging on to all that stuff, beyond its relevance, just a form of "information materialism"? A hoarding of data, of bits and bytes, rather than of physical objects. After all, it's all "emotional" in a sense - except it's generally more often time that's been invested, than cash.

But it doesn't really matter if a year's holiday photos get lost. There'll be more. (Plus I have negatives for half of them ;) Creativity cares not of the past, only of the now, dammit! Should regret about lost data be shuffled into the same boat as living in the past? Just how much of that data was relevant to today?

Well, I've spent some time getting in touch with local companies that do data recovery, and will try to get some idea of the prices anyway. It'd be nice not to have to scan photos again, but not a killer. I'm tempted to start afresh for free, sort out that external HDD enclosure that's lying around, get hold of Time Machine and, most importantly, work out just what data I want lying around. It's almost too easy these days - everything and anything can be stored forever. But maybe that's the wrong way to think about it - maybe we should be choosy about what data we obtain, and what data we keep. Maintenance is more than backing up, perhaps.

It's a philosophy, not a practice. Time for a new one?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Coding: Less Kung Fu, More Buddha Machine

A post on the Nixon-McInnes blog about movement-based interfaces for coding integrates well with the idea of Metaphysical Code, but takes it in the wrong direction, I think. Code is not physical. Code is about the flow of information. Movement is about the flow of force. There are some nice comparisons to be made between the two, but interface wise, I think we can do better.

Personally, I'd love to see a more systemic approach to coding. Perhaps a better sibling to coding is music: both have a number of "threads" interacting over time - both in and of themselves (FOR loop = a snare drum loop), but also with each other (Global scopes = a general 4/4 beat). Shifting between the two, parallel and serial, places an emphasis on the process rather than the output (which, perhaps, is what all coders are really interested in...?)

So maybe a new wave of coding interfaces should take some lessons from the Reactable and from the Buddha Machine: simple components representing "chunks" of code that are combined systemically to create a process/flow. Note the similarity between "Buddha Boxing" in the video below (where 2 people take it in turns to add or remove simple music loops) to Pairing in Extreme Programming:

Thinking about it, we generally already take a systemic approach - it's called Software Design. Functions, Objects and Modulators interact just like Reactable objects. Flowcharts and Interaction Diagrams are mapped out using napkins, whiteboards, software, so why not map them out with tangible items?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Keeping an eye out

More ripple effects and pulses to keep fingers on. Heck, I even bought an FT today...
If we were living the Cyberpunk lifestyle, I'm sure this stuff would be coming in as numbers straight to my eye - or at least my wall - by now. "Scribe flicked a micro-second glance at the glo.wall - minus signs flashed red against the dull smoked background. Time was almost up." Something like that.

Monday, November 19, 2007

OPEC mull over the Dollar Exchange Rate

An accidental broadcast reveals worry amongst OPEC members regarding the US Dollar. Interestingly, they at least seem more "media-savvy" than those dealing with the ongoing Northern Rock situation, and understand that merely reporting a potential problem may, in fact, lead to the problem coming about faster than a jet-propelled cruise liner:
[Saud Al-Faisal, Saudi foreign affairs minister] said a reference to the US currency in the declaration could cause the dollar to "collapse".
More Stuff of Note at another FT article which kind of show that (conspiracy?) fears centered on Iran opening a Euro-based Oil Bourse are probably more moot now - a symbol, perhaps, of how transparently thin the US economy is. Or, as Iran's president put it:
“They get our oil and give us a worthless piece of paper,” he said. “We all know that the US dollar has no economic value.”
Of course, "leaked" discussions and high-end circumspect are still "unofficial" - in which case, there's no need to worry. Just as the Home Office said.

They'll let us know when to panic, right?

[Addendum] The BBC reports that the US rapper Jay-Z has already made the switch to Euros. Here's hoping street krewz will all adopt a generally more Euro-friendly position. maybe hang some lovely French brie round your neck? Or b-b-brrrakk people in the face with some good ol' Salami?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Formatting Fixed, but Q: XHTML inside HTML?

Previous breaking on has now been fixed. It was a good opportunity to test out the Feeddigest support, and have to say they responded fairly quickly and fixed it efficiently. Always a bit wary of leaving comments to languish in wasteland forums, so great to find one that you can trust :)

On a related note, it's techie Question Time, yayyyy (like Jonathan Dimbleby talking to The Lone Gunmen). I noticed I have a mismatch - uses HTML, but my blog uses XHTML. As such, when the content of the latter gets imported into the former (via Javascript), it seems (to me) that there's an unholy alliance/transgenic hybridisation that I was trying to avoid. ("Behold! An HTML page spliced with an XHTML feed... with five asses!")

From a "technical" perspective, is this "bad"? The W3C Validator doesn't have any problem with the page, as it doesn't call the Javascript. And if bad, what's the best way of resolving it? Convert one to the other? Find some way to convert XHTML within an Atom feed to HTML?

Or can I just ignore it? :)

TBH, I'm asking mostly out of curiosity. It's not something I've noticed before, but with the increasing extent of syndication and cross-site content, I can't believe it's not an uncommon occurrence. That said, nor can I see anything in FeedDigest or FeedBurner that takes it into account.

Feed my face with your o(pi)nions!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Passwords: a UI for the Memory?

I'd been avoiding it for some reason, but I've done it - I've finally entered my card details into the Verified by Visa (VBV) scheme. I don't know why I don't trust it - maybe it comes across as yet another place to enter my details, and generally the less places that have it, the better. Or maybe it's just the text-entry boxes for entering your card's expiry date, or just the uninspiring graphical layout you're presented with (damn, should have grabbed a screenshot...).

Still, it's done. It's probably safe. But one thing in particular struck me as odd.

You're asked for a password, so that in future you can re-authenticate yourself with the scheme. Fair enough. But it got me thinking about passwords in general - in general, we have pretty vague guidelines for passwords. Guidelines tend to focus on using a diverse character set to avoid brute-forceability. They also like to suggest the avoidance of common words, but the use of a memorable phrase - probably shrunken to its acronymical form. (Hey, that's a fun word!)

What struck me about providing one for VBV was twothreefold, actually.
  • First, I could only use numbers and letters - no spaces, no punctuation. There go my usual strong passwords, then.
  • Second, I noticed that when you get asked to re-authenticate, you get asked for certain letters of your password, rather than the whole thing. Fair enough, but it's weird to notice just how much you rely on finger memory for entering passwords.
  • Third, as you have to use at least one letter and one number, there's no way to integrate it with my current bank password, which is letters only. This is where the password-as-a-memory-interface thing kicks in. Both my banking password and my VBV password - to me, as a user - are essentially accessing the same thing. But I'm forced to use 2 different ones. Why can't I, say, authenticate against my own bank's security, instead of going through yet another system which just encourages me to forget or write down my password?

Memory is context-dependent. As systems become more "fragmented" in terms of how much data can be shunted from place to place, maybe more thought needs to be put into how we remember who we "are".

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Photos, no, everything breaking at

Odd, my photos from Flickr are showing up as HTML on the front page (i.e. everything beneath this if you're on that page already). Can't think of anything I've done to change this, so hopefully it'll switch back at some point. If not, I'll be looking into it.

Grrr, bloody technology.

Update: Hmm, looks like it's FeedDigest to blame, as it's not just my photos that are doing it, and their RSS feed is converting angled brackets into character entities. Having a look now for possible reasons and solutions...

Update 2: Fixed! See this post for details.

Get E-mailed Responses on Blogs

Ooh, nice. Looks like have added the ability to be e-mailed responses to your comments on blog posts. I'm assuming you need to a) have a gmail account (I might be wrong) and b) be posting to a blog, but isn't simply everybody MUNCHING FROM GOOGLE'S CAKESTAND these days?

And yeah, other places have had this for ages. But I'm still playing Gamecube games, so go figure.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Wun of those Weeks: Women in the World

Looks like it'll be one of those "surreal" weeks - and it's only Monday.

Supermodel chooses pay in Euros over Dollars (and I thought the Iranian Oil Bourse was a threat...)

Kylie starts her own social networking site - see Kylie Konnect. I guess they decided against adding "Klub" on the end there.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Facebook and OpenSocial: Function vs Friendship

Wow, what a week. Hopefully I'll blog about it some time in the future. In the meantime, I've not had much chance to catch up with what's going on with Facebook-"challenger" OpenSocial in the last few days.

Phil is covering a lot of it at the moment, with some interesting questions and thoughts. However, from what little I've read of it, the primary focus is on widget portability, rather than network/user portability. In which case, one wonders what the priorities (and hence the business models) are for these services: Do users go to where the functionality is ("build it and they will come"), or do the applications go to where the users are? OpenSocial suggests the former, but my experience with Facebook and MySpace suggests the latter.

As such, I'm agreeing a lot with what Jeremy Keith is saying about it all - namely that what you really want, as a user, is to import and export your contact lists, not get access to the same app that everyone else everywhere has.

The paradigms are getting blurry, that's for sure. What do users really want - function or friends? Portability of both seems like important steps, but does competition get in the way of that? Are Google and friends really just doing something that now needs to happen at the National level?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Danah Boyd re-builds walls on Facebook

This is my problem with Facebook, too. It's an all-or-nothing thing (thing... thing...).

Danah Boyd has to choose her "real" friends now.

When will people wake up and realise that having networks that are too transparent is a very real problem. Information - including social info - is all about context. The exact same thing goes for the debate over privacy and ID cards (vs supermarket loyalty cards, say) - one context, a shop, may be ok. Another context, a government, is a completely different matter because they're up to completely different activities. I can give my mobile number to my doctor, but not to marketing companies.

I'm not sure whether you can actually manage contexts in a formal, technical fashion such as an SNS would be based on. ICT is based more on "openness" and ease of information transfer than on information expiring, being blocked, etc. Privacy does not come easily under network capitalism.