A Quick Note

I’ve not written much here since the start of the year. I’d started off with such good intentions. This isn’t one of those “sorry I haven’t been posting” blog posts, so don’t worry. I don’t apologise for it… it is what it is.

What’s happened is my brain has been mainly filled with three things the last few months: work, politics, and hobby. I don’t want to write about politics, not really, though it’s definitely something I could provide a running commentary on (this might please my Twitter followers most, if I were move politics to here). Work… well it’s work – I’ve been doing my best to keep it at the office, as it’s been very intense of late. There’s been a few very interesting technical challenges I could write about, but I can’t go into some of the specifics necessary, due to the nature of what I do. Plus, normally by the time I get home I don’t want to sit in front of a computer again. So that’s left hobby, and I have a whole other blog for that… although I’ve been concentrating on the practical side of the hobby for once, so haven’t been writing much there either.

So in short, we’re in one of my regular “blogging takes a backseat” phases. You should be used to them by now! I do still feel “the pull” to write, and regularly feel like I should be writing here more (as opposed to venting on Twitter), it’s just not happening for a variety of reasons.

C’est la vie.

To paraphrase Good Ol’ JR: “business will eventually pick up.”

Knowing When to Stop/It Doesn’t Have to be Perfect

I mentioned over on my hobby blog that I’m trying to know when to stop, rather than doing something and then tinkering with it endlessly because “it’s not good enough” or similar (or simply because I can). This is a frustrating habit of mine, because it’s a waste of time and effort, and usually leads to extra and unnecessary stress.

This is something that happens in loads of different situations, but within the context of my hobby projects it happens more often than not, and it’s the main reason I don’t finish anything near as much as I’d like, and it’s in this context I think I can make the most progress in “fixing things” overall.

It just so happened I came across two videos (one recent, one older) by Tabletop Minions which are on this exact topic:

Knowing When It’s Best to Quit

The Price of Perfection

Addendum: “It’s not good enough” has frequently been a case why I haven’t blogged regularly – similar to what’s described/linked in “How to Talk Yourself out of your New Year’s Blogging Resolution… One Day At A Time” – so overcoming this habit will benefit more than my hobby projects. It’s still early days, and posting has been a bit “spotty” since going back to work after the festive break, but I’m slowly getting there…

Gripes About the Instagram Algorithmic Feed

The algorithm-driven Instagram feed was rolled out a while ago, but it’s only recently I’ve noticed much of a difference. Unfortunately the difference, particularly in the last couple of weeks, has been increasingly negative. So much so I really wish there was a way to opt-out!

Basically it comes down to I’m not seeing what I want to see at the time I want to see it, often leading me to just close the app after scrolling down a little bit. So as a way of “increasing engagement” it utterly fails.

A trivial example: I follow WWE on Instagram. Every Monday and Tuesday night, they post 6-12 photos from the goings on at Monday Night Raw, and Smackdown Live. Every Tuesday/Wednesday morning, I would like to open up Instagram and be able to scroll through to see what happened. This used to work, but some time in the last few weeks it changed so these photos show up randomly in my feed over the next 2-4 days – after I’ve already got the information from other sources, and definitely past the point I want the photos to show up at the top. The photos never show in chronological order, and never show as a batch of more than 1-2 at a time.

For the accounts I follow who aren’t brands (i.e. friends, shared interest accounts, etc), often it’s the people I like or comment on the least who appear near the top, and often the most trite, uninteresting photos they’ve posted. Why show me the video of a friend’s baby’s adorable first laugh, another friend’s stunning macro photography, or a popular post from an interest account, when 4 out of 6 of the photos at the top of my feed are #MondayMotivation meme nonsense? With the other 2 being drinks/food from someone’s night out 3 days ago?

Is it just me? I don’t think so, but maybe it’s just particularly bad on my feed? What’re your experiences with Instagram lately?

Twitter Trolls Should Lose Ability To Include @Names in Tweets | Hunter Walk

Hunter Walk with a neat idea for dealing with Twitter trolls I’ve not seen suggested anywhere else:

Basically the concept that when an @name is inserted into the tweet, it becomes targeted, the difference between just expressing an opinion about a person and the desire for that person to see the opinion. For example imagine these two tweets:

“Hunter Walk is an asshole” vs “@hunterwalk is an asshole”

The former doesn’t appear in my mentions. The latter does. I never see the first unless I’m actively searching for my name on Twitter. The latter does regardless of my desire to interact with the sender. Accordingly, once an @name is included, the standard for harassment should be lower, because intent can be assumed.

Source: Twitter Trolls Should Lose Ability To Include @Names in Tweets | Hunter Walk

Getting Started with Online Privacy and Security in 2017 – First Steps

So after the preamble, which should give you a frame of reference to what I’m aiming to do in this mini-series of posts about improving my online privacy and security, this short post will talk about the first steps I’m taking to tighten everything up. As this is all at the very beginning of my learning journey, all of these might change in the future. If they do, I will update the post and add a comment below.

In this post I look at two of the fundamentals of privacy on the web: the web browser and search engine. I’m mainly looking at the desktop for now, rather than mobile, mainly because it’s simpler to focus on one thing while I wrap my head around this stuff!

A Change of Browser

I’ve been using Chrome for years, after it usurped Firefox as the “fast, alternative” browser for Windows. These days, Chrome has become seriously bloated – it’s routinely consuming multiple gigabytes of RAM on my desktop. It may be (usually) fast despite of that, but it slows the rest of the computer. What’s more, it’s so deeply wired into Google’s ecosystem that it’s arguably as much a data hoover for Google as it is a browser.

So I was in the market for a new browser to begin with, and I was looking into alternatives like Chromium or Opera. But once I started diving into things a bit more, pretty much every recommendation for privacy-minded software recommended good-old Firefox, so that’s what I’ve gone with. I followed the configuration guide at PrivacyTools.io, as well as:

  • Turn on Do Not Track
  • Set Firefox to never remember my browsing/download/search/form history
  • Never accept third-party cookies
  • Only keep cookies until I close the browser
  • Never remember logins for sites
  • Turned off Firefox Health Report, Telemetry, and Crash Reporter

Extensions

Most of the extensions I had installed in Chrome were privacy-minded anyway, so were equally applicable to Firefox. Some additions came recommended. At the moment I am using the following:

Mobile

The situation on mobile (in my case, iOS) is a bit less clear. For now I’m not using the Chrome iOS app, reverting to Safari with the addition of a content blocker.

Downsides

The biggest issue with the above setup is it removes a few conveniences: remembering pinned tabs between browser sessions; having to login to websites every time you visit; having to retrace your steps to find a page in the future, if you don’t bookmark it at the time… that sort of thing. I might do a little tuning on this, relaxing the settings a little, but overall I think this might be one of those things that I need to live with.

A Change of Search Engine

Apart from a brief flirtation with DuckDuckGo a few years back, I’ve always used Google as my search engine. It’s constantly been the most reliable, fastest, and all-round best at what it does.

Even so, I’ve never been 100% happy with the fact that Google collects just about every data point they can, that it’s all wrapped up in your Google account, linked to everything you do in their other services, and made available for advertisement targetting (amongst who knows how many other things). As someone who’s had a Gmail account since they were invite only, I know Google has a fucktonne of data on me already; the genie is well and truly out of the bottle in that regard.

That doesn’t mean I can’t stop giving them more data. Sure, they’ll get the odd bit here and there when I use YouTube, or the odd email that hits my old, pretty much unused Gmail account, but that’s really it – if I change my search engine to somewhere else.

The obvious thing to do would be to revert back to DuckDuckGo, as I already have experience of it, and it’s accurate enough… but I wanted to try something different for the moment, while I’m still in the learning phase of this little project.

I tried all the recommendations at PrivacyTools.io. Searx generally gave me terrible results, but is an interesting idea; Qwant gave me some decent web results, but the included News results were mostly irrelevant, and I couldn’t find a way to turn these off. StartPage had been recommended in other places too, and overall was the best performing of the bunch – possibly not surprising, as it’s effectively a proxy for Google search, so seems like a win-win in this case. For now, I’ve set it as the default search engine in Firefox.

Mobile

For searches on my iPhone, I’ve set the default search engine to DuckDuckGo, as it’s the best of those available.

Getting Started with Online Privacy and Security in 2017 – Preamble

In 2017 I’m trying to be be a bit more privacy and security-minded when using the web (on all devices). I’ve been increasingly interested in these areas for a few years, and especially since the Snowden revelations, and recent events like the IP Bill, aka the “Snoopers Charter,” in the UK have pushed me further towards them. Over the next few weeks I’m going to look into (and try to document here) various things I can do to increase my security, decrease the amount of information applications and services can collect on me, and generally “take back control” of my online privacy.

I work in the tech industry, I’m fairly conscious about this stuff, and understand a few of the elements and technologies, but it’s really a very basic understanding. What I do know might be out of date. At this stage it might be too little too late… right now I don’t really know.

Upfront: I fully recognise that if the police/MI5/NSA/FSB/whoever really wanted my data, nothing I could do would be able to stop them.

security

Also upfront: even with that in mind, whatever I put in place won’t be considered “perfect.” What I’m looking to do is balance convenience, practicality, and security. If something is too difficult or fiddly to use, it will end up not being used.

Thinking specifically about the IP Bill, far too many agencies for my liking will have complete, unfettered access to what I get up to on the internet. Beyond that one example, the amount of web ad trackers we have to contend with nowadays is snowballing, as are the services amassing data to pay for those “free” apps we enjoy.

While it might be that none of these data collectors have nefarious purposes in mind (if you’re trusting), data security breaches are becoming bigger and more frequent. Data being stored is likely to leak or be stolen at some point, so the best you can hope for is to limit the amount of potentially harmful data1 being held.

On a lighter note, here’s a great spoof from Cassetteboy about the IP Bill

So all this is a bit of a long-winded preamble to saying look out for the future posts where I talk about what I have learned, how I’m applying it, any recommendations I have, and how you can do the same. The first post on some of the basics, and links to reading materials will be coming today/tomorrow. In the meantime, are there any tips or good sources you’ve come across? Feel free to share in the comments.


  1. Insert definition of what you would consider “harmful data if leaked” 

What Is Going To Happen In 2017 – AVC

Fred Wilson on what he’s predicting for 2017 (with a bend towards to tech industry)

Happy New Year Everyone. Yesterday we focused on the past, today we are going to focus on the future, specifically this year we are now in. Here’s what I expect to happen this year:

Out of the list, this one stands out to me as the “sleeper” we might need to pay more attention to:

  • Cyberwarfare will be front and center in our lives in the same way that nuclear warfare was during the cold war. Crypto will be the equivalent of bomb shelters and we will all be learning about private keys, how to use them, and how to manage them. A company will make crypto mainstream via an easy to use interface and it will become the next big thing.

Source: What Is Going To Happen In 2017 – AVC