Archive: Technology

I have moved my blog over to DuncanStephen.co.uk.

Apologies for the confusion, and for moving my blog just a year after the last time I moved it. I promise this will be the last time I move.

Find out why I have decided to make the change.

I hope to see you there.

Visit Duncan Stephen.

Several years ago I bought the domain name duncanstephen.co.uk. I have never really been sure what to do with it, but I have kept it up because, well, it’s my name. I have had holding pages up, but never anything of real note.

I have had a bit of time off work this month, but I hadn’t planned anything. So I decided once and for all to make a proper attempt at putting a good webpage up there. The result is this new design.

Screenshot of the new website

I used this as an opportunity to experiment with new techniques. This should look pretty good on both mobiles and desktops — though it’s reasonably straightforward here since there is not really much content to speak of. (I am working on making this blog a bit more mobile-friendly in due course.)

I found it fascinating working on this design. It reminded me of when I was first learning about web design a decade ago. For the first time in years, I truly pushed myself to learn new things, and I was hooked on trying to get it all working the way I wanted it to.

But while I found the code a challenge to work on, visually I have taken a simple approach as usual. I drew influence from two sources in particular: Microsoft’s Metro design language and the BBC’s Global Experience Language.

I am a big fan of their less-is-more approach. I have always loved minimalist design, and I have increasingly strived to create designs that are simple and clear. Hopefully I have achieved it here.

The design uses icons from the Wireframe Toolbar Icons set.

It should work fine in all major browsers, although I have noticed a few quirks in Opera Mini, as well as older versions of Internet Explorer. Please let me know if you spot anything unusual.

Early on during this morning’s Japanese Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso overtook Felipe Massa. Massa didn’t make it difficult for Alonso — not that you would expect him to.

Scuderia Ferrari immediately tweeted on their official Twitter account:

[blackbirdpie id="122917348792479744"]

Just for fun, I cheekily replied:

[blackbirdpie id="122917459014590464"]

They responded!

[blackbirdpie id="122917576102780928"]

I have to admit to doing a little victory dance in my chair at having riled Ferrari enough to provoke them to reply.

I wasn’t being terribly serious with my tweet. It’s not especially that I thought Massa let Alonso through, or even that doing so would be wrong. Nor was my tweet about team orders. It was more about how Alonso can assert his authority at Ferrari.

But it’s interesting that Ferrari are touchy about the suggestion.

All good banter though.

Beneath the jump, an image of the tweet for posterity.

Click for more »

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the rioting at looting that has been taking place in parts of the UK. But I fully support the sentiment behind Operation Cup Of Tea, the “Anti-Riot” that took place on Facebook and Twitter at 8.30pm today.

Stay positive and have a cup of tea.

Operation Cup of Tea

WTF

When adding social media icons to a website, take care over the order in which they appear.

Google has never quite worked with social media. After buying Blogger, it never seemed to know what to do with it. Then there were the high-profile flops Google Buzz and Google Wave. It was tempting to think that the mighty Google had lost touch completely while Facebook and Twitter gain more ground all the time.

Google+ is another attempt to take on Facebook. The twist is that this time it might work. It threatens to buck the trend of gaffe-prone Google product launches. People are actually excited about it. I’m excited about it. And I can’t remember when I last felt excited about a social media offering.

Google have obviously spent a lot of time and effort on making sure that Google+ works. A big emphasis has been placed on the user interface, with changes being rolled out across all of Google’s major products.

Circles

Google Circles interface

On that front, the biggest head-turner has been Google Circles. There is nothing particularly revolutionary at all about the concept. You separate people into different groups, meaning that you can share certain information with your close friends while keeping it hidden from occasional acquaintances.

Facebook has had this feature for as long as I can remember. But it’s never been sexy. Google has realised that people are attracted by flashy and playful interfaces as much as (or even more than) interfaces that are merely functional.

I was initially not impressed by the idea. But I have found that I have created many more circles than lists in Facebook. In Facebook I only have two — ‘Close friends’ (which I don’t particularly use) and ‘Limited profile’ which hides certain profile information from certain people.

But on Google+, I now have separate circles for six groups of people, with the intention of creating more. At the time being it is difficult to tell if the Circles feature will be useful in a way that Facebook’s lists feature isn’t.

A relatively clean slate

But what really strikes me about Google+ is the fact that its main selling point is that it’s not Facebook. Most are focusing on the privacy aspect of this. I am not sure if Google is less of a worry than Facebook on the privacy front.

But where Google has the upper hand is on its image. Over the years, Facebook has built up a lot of baggage. Facebook is now a massive deal with complicated systems of etiquette. Look at how people (only half jokingly) talk about relationships only becoming ‘official’ when your relationship status is set on Facebook.

For this sort of reason, Facebook has become a minefield. I often think twice about adding someone on Facebook just because of all the baggage that comes with it. Some people might take offence. Do they want to be Facebook friends with me? I am never sure. Which pretty much means that I add almost no-one these days.

Google Circles has a major advantage, in that it doesn’t come with all of this baggage. Moreover, it cleverly avoids calling everyone friends. When I signed up, by default I had circles called Friends, Family, Acquaintances and Following (for people I have never met but whose posts I find interesting).

The crucial inclusion of the Following circle means I can feel more comfortable about adding people. Already it is starting to feel more like Twitter or Tumblr in terms of the people that are on there, but with the functionality of Facebook.

Partly this is because, for the time being, Google+ is mainly full of the geeky types that I only know online anyway. Time will tell if Facebook users and more ‘real life’ friends will join Google+. But for me, it is a massively good sign that I have already happily added a number of people to my Google Circles, some of whom I would not consider adding on Facebook.

The other features

This is where it starts to unravel a bit for me. Beyond Circles, which is more about a change in culture rather than any revolutionary new features, I am not sure what else about Google+ is exciting.

I have tried, but I just do not understand Google Sparks. What is it for? It seems like a really bad version of Google News or Google Alerts.

Meanwhile, Hangouts looks like it could be fun, but probably not for me. Out of curiosity, I tried it out on my netbook, which has built-in the only webcam I own. But it seemed like Hangouts almost killed it! Admittedly, my netbook is a bit old and is creaking at the seams, but it wasn’t the best of experiences.

What’s to come

Overall, though, the most exciting thing about Google+ is that it heralds a change in direction for Google. It sounds like there is more in the pipeline and that they are intent on shaking up the social web. Circles is a great start.

If you happen to want to, you can add me on Google+.

An infuriating security question: "Your favourite shape"

Is there anything more annoying than those security questions you need to login to certain websites? I cannot understand how they are supposed to make websites more secure.

I understand that passwords can be cracked and the security question is a safety net. But let’s face it. All the advice on passwords is that they are not to be real words. You should insert numerals, use mixed case, special characters; the works. If a password like that can be brute forced, a “security” answer made up of dictionary words, and based on known facts about your life, will be a piece of cake.

Facts like my mother’s maiden name, my hometown or my first primary school are not exactly secret. They can be easily answered by anyone with the slightest knowledge about me.

As far as I am concerned, it is the security equivalent of sticking a Magic Eye puzzle in your porch just in case someone manages to break down your door.

Worse still, a bad security question can lock you out of a website for good. I have seen a security question that was actually impossible for me to answer because it was asking about a life situation that simply did not apply to me. It was offensive as well as being shockingly unusable. I decided not to register for that particular website after all.

What am I supposed to do in that situation? Maybe I could just make an answer up. But how could I remember it? The only way is to write it down. Then it will only get lost in an obscure drawer, or maybe some criminal hacker’s pocket.

Then there are those questions on topics that you simply don’t care about. One certain website that I tried to login to recently left me stumped. It’s the sort of website I might only login to once every few years. So my answers to questions like these really could be anyone’s guess:

What was the surname of your favourite teacher?
I’m not sure I had a favourite teacher. Certainly, the person that immediately sprung to mind was not who I would call my ‘favourite’. And who was my favourite teacher five years ago might not now be the person I remember fondly now. My favourite teacher back when I was still a school pupil is probably totally different to the person I consider the best one now. As it is, I have absolutely no idea how I answered this question.
What is your most memorable place, but not where you were born or live?
What on earth? What is a ‘memorable place’? Not only do I struggle to have any interest in such a question whatsoever, but I cannot even tell what sort of place it might be. Could it be Edinburgh? The local park? Behind the bike sheds? No idea.
What is your favourite musical instrument?
To play or to listen to? It depends on so many things. It could be piano, marimba, vibraphone, Omnichord… It could be anything, depending on my age or mood.

When you add in the fact that answers are case-sensitive, and that you don’t get repeat attempts at the same question, it soon became clear that I wasn’t going to get access to this website. There is no way for my password to be reset.

Apparently my only recourse is to use the electric telephone. But unless they subject me to a similar barrage of obscure questions, I don’t see what advantage this offers from a security perspective. I can picture it now.

“You are Duncan Stephen?”

“Yes! Yes I am!”

“And you have changed address?”

“Yup!”

“OK! No problem at all! On the basis of this phone call we will now send your new password through the post!”

I was pretty excited to learn this week about Domesday Reloaded. The Domesday project aimed to take a snapshot of British life in 1986. 25 years on, the BBC are looking to update it to document the changes that have taken place since then.

I have been interested in the Domesday project for a while. The idea that a snapshot of Britain was taken, in the form of maps, photographs and text. Yet, the data was unavailable to most people.

The Domesday project was as much an ambitious experiment with technology as anything else. The technology was just about available, but a lot of pioneering work had to be done, and the hardware required for it was prohibitively expensive, leaving many of the contributors somewhat miffed.

Since then, it has become one of the most famous examples of digital obsolesence. This was due to a combination of the technology required to read the discs becoming increasingly rare, and idiosyncratic code.

The Domesday project came at a time when the technology was available, but the standards were not yet there to make it stable enough for long-term preservation, or even easy access in the short term. It’s a reminder that digital technologies are hugely enabling, yet frighteningly fragile.

Then there are the copyright issues surrounding both the content and the technology.

Joys of browsing Domesday Reloaded

The BBC should be applauded for finally managing to open up some of the data to the public on the web. The Domesday project was created before the web was invented. This isn’t how the content was designed to be viewed, so navigation is a bit cumbersome.

But aside from this gripe, the Domesday Reloaded website is turning out to be a fascinating resource.

I was born in 1986, the same year in which the Domesday project disc was published. So the Britain described here is a place that I don’t remember. But enough of it is familiar for it to feel incredibly relevant to me. It’s almost like being given a little upgrade to my memory, so that I can have snippets of knowledge from just before I was born.

Take the photographs for D-block GB-328000-690000 — the centre of Kirkcaldy, my hometown (D-block being one of the 4km by 3km areas the UK was divided into). It took me a little while to recognise “Kirkcaldy’s busy High Street”. But once I spotted British Home Stores, I was right there.

Yet, despite the familiarity, it is almost a completely different world. My memory of the High Street before it was pedestrianised is very limited. But it is just within touching distance of my memory for me to feel a strong connection with it.

The text entries are also fascinating. Most of the contributions were provided by primary schools. A decision was taken by the Domesday project not to edit the contributions, so the quality and style of writing varies from area to area.

As such, what strikes me the most is that it informs you as much about the prejudices of the school pupils and their teachers as it does about the area. It also retains their poor spelling and strange grammar.

For instance, an entry from Dundee (D-block GB-336000-732000) called ‘Traffic in and out’ is a basic survey of vehicles travelling on a road, with guesses as to where the vehicles are going and why. It lacks the academic rigour you would ideally want from a historical document.

But while some of the entries may seem banal, it was designed to be this way. The aim was to genuinely document society by capturing childrens’ curiosity with everything. This way it wouldn’t leave out what adults perceive as being obvious, when it wouldn’t necessarily be so obvious to someone in 1,000 years.

Missing D-blocks in Dundee on Domesday Reloaded

The really big shame is that not every part of Britain was documented. I could understand remote rural areas not being included. But sadly some highly populated areas have also been missed out. For instance, two D-blocks that cover the centre and east of Dundee lie blank, as does much of London.

But what exists is a joy. Even in the little amount of scanning I have done, I have already learned new information about the area I live in, which has set my mind racing and inspired me to investigate further.

Challenges for the modern day equivalents

What also struck me is how we actually already have readily-accessible modern-day equivalents of the Domesday project, almost by accident. The BBC is asking for users to update the content for D-blocks that were documented in 1986, to take an equivalent snapshot of 2011. I may go out and take some photographs for that.

But this sort of local information is staggeringly well documented already. We have Wikipedia, which can be edited by anyone but retains an academic approach that the Domesday project lacked. As such, it is a treasure trove of local information that can probably be relied on more.

Meanwhile, Google Earth and Google Maps provide masses of images of all corners of the country. It absolutely dwarfs what’s on Domesday Reloaded.

But the big question, which can’t be answered at the moment, is whether the wealth of information available on the web can be packaged up into a Domesday-style snapshot and preserved forever. The challenges of web preservation are massive.

Like the Domesday project, we could find the digital information almost slipping through our hands. The BBC know that themselves. With a stroke of a pen, it was decided that a significant chunk of British web heritage will be removed when the BBC removes some of its archived pages from the web.

Today’s XKCD led me to look at the Wikipedia article ‘List of numbers‘ out of curiosity.

I was surprised to see listed among the ‘notable integers’ were a few telephone numbers, such as 999 and 911. I guess these were included on the basis of their “cultural meanings”, although they are not integers. (They have since been removed from the article.)

But I was surprised that the most culturally significant telephone number of the past decade — that’s right, 118 — was left out. So I decided to fix that.

Notable integers, including 118

(Don’t worry, I only did this in Firebug, not on Wikipedia itself.)