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Book review: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy, by Violet Blue

sggp coverI read a review copy of this (it comes out August 25), so the text isn’t necessarily final. Still, I’m quite confident that I can recommend it: it’s a good overview of basic privacy principles and techniques. It pays special attention to the ways in which girls and women are targeted online.

There’s a useful list of bits of information you should never share online, coverage of data collation practices, a good discussion of privacy settings, and some ninja tricks for people who want to go beyond the basics.

I disagree with Blue on only one point: she recommends setting up an autoresponder to tell people you’ve changed your email address. I disagree. They’re a blunt tool and — unless you can set your email program only to autorespond to those in your contact list — provide every spammer and scammer who hits your old address with a direct path to your new one.

I’m also a little worried that some of the techniques might require more specifics. Often the instructions given are quite high-level, and I wonder if the average reader of this book will be tech-savvy enough to follow them easily. But that’s a minor quibble and one that can probably be resolved by some quick Googling on Average Reader’s part.

I’ll add one very recent addition to the useful-tools collection: I’ve been testing the EFF’s browswer add-on PrivacyBadger for the past week and have been very pleased with it.

Overall, this book is a quick read and sensible advice. It hits the mark, emphasizes the importance of paying attention to privacy without being judgmental, and provides a collection of useful tools and resources. I’ll get a copy for my daughter.

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Blinky gloves

I’m experimenting with wearable computing as a way to get back into programming. It’s fun because it involves more than just pixels on a screen; you get to mess with real-world stuff like LEDs and circuits and sensors and whatnot. And it’s low-risk because it’s hard to shock yourself badly or make stuff blow up when you’re working with 3 to 5 volts.

Eventually I’m planning to make a turn-signal jacket for biking, much like this one, but I wanted to get a sense of how to work with the various necessary bits — sewable processors, LEDs, conductive thread and so on — before adding programming to the mix. I thought I’d start by just adding some uncomplicated LEDs to the back of some gloves so that when I stick out my arms to signal a turn there’s a little bit of extra light there to make it yet more obvious what I am doing.

I was going to just sew some LEDs to my gloves, using the conductive thread as a resistor and connecting them directly to a battery holder for power (so the LEDs would be on whenever the battery was in). This is a good enough plan, but then I found tiny boards pre-programmed to light up 4 LEDs in random blink/fade patterns and I liked the idea of that better. So I bought two Lilypad twinkle boards and a bunch of sewable LEDs (normal LEDs are also sewable of course, but not so much washable which for gloves is definitely a factor) and some stainless-steel thread. I wanted LEDs in a colour other than red or white (which have legal meanings for bike lights) but only red and white were available. I used red, then, so they look like taillights and not headlights, which I thought might be confusing for people behind me.

Here’s a picture of the circuit concept. There are 4 LEDs, each with their positive end connected to a petal on the board (the white and green clips) and their negative end connected to a wire connected to the negative port on the board (the yellow and black clips). The wire then connects to the negative end of a battery. The red clip connects the positive port on the board to the positive end of a battery (not shown). When the circuit is closed, the LEDs blink and fade in random patterns.
Circuit proof of concept

Since the proof-of-concept worked I started sewing, connecting the LEDs each to one of the four ports on the board by sewing a very short seam with stainless-steel thread. It’s terrible stuff to work with; very high friction, very sharp, very prone to tossing off tiny thread fragments that short out your circuits, very hard to seam-rip. After my first experiments with it I started to wrap several of my fingers in first-aid tape to protect them. You can use stainless-steel thread in a sewing machine as a bobbin thread, which is probably a less personally damaging idea but not one that would really have worked with gloves. I tested each seam after I finished it to be sure it worked.

Testing each sewn connection

After all four LEDs were attached to the glove and the board, I ran a long seam from the negative port on the board to each of the negative ends of the LEDs, testing each one as I went.

Testing the thread connections on negative board point

Once that was all working it was time to attach the battery and sew the seam from the positive and negative ports to the battery case. I put the batteries on the inside of the gloves to shield them from the weather somewhat.

Showing the battery case on the inside of the glove

They work! The patterns are mildly mesmerizing so I don’t look at them while I’m riding.

Finished gloves

Once I was satisfied that they were working I covered the exposed stitches with black fabric paint to help protect the thread and keep it from throwing off the aforementioned circuit-shorting fragments.

It’s a good and successful first experiment but there are a couple of obvious improvements I could make:
– Move the batteries farther away from my wrist. I put them close to the wrist elastic on the gloves to keep them protected and to keep them from getting joggled around too much but I think it would be easier to pull the gloves on and off if they were closer to the far edge of the glove.
– Add a switch so I don’t have to pop the battery in and out all the time. This is just a matter of sourcing a suitable switch; they do exist, but not easily through Canadian suppliers. The joys of Canada Customs await.

Fortunately I have helpful cats.

Carson feels a need to help with the electronics

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Choose Privacy Week

(h/t to BoingBoing)

Lovely video from the American Library Association about privacy, what it means to people, why we should worry about it, various (mostly American) legal issues, and why librarians are your friends.

If you don’t have 20+ minutes to watch, start watching at about 19:30 for a good summary of pros, cons, the importance of balance and the need to pay attention.

Choose Privacy Week Video from 20K Films on Vimeo.

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Facebook and information control

In the past week or so there’s been much fuss about several privacy-reducing changes to Facebook and how they are causing people to lose control of their information.

The changes (which I’ll detail below, with my recommendations on how to respond to them) do open up how people’s information can be used.

Remember Facebook is just a free tool and it’s trying to do the standard capitalist thing of leveraging what it’s got — lots and lots of information about lots and lots of people — to make more and more money. I don’t agree that it is a healthy paradigm, but they’re not doing anything objectively unusual or worthy of hysteria.

That said, we do not have to like it or agree with it and we certainly do not have to go along with it.

It also doesn’t mean you’ve lost control of anything. You control what you tell Facebook. It isn’t holding you down, administering sodium pentothal and interrogating you; it’s just a free tool. It’s all totally up to you what you do or do not choose to divulge. So keep a clear eye on what Facebook will do, or might do, with whatever information you choose to provide and act accordingly. (As you would anywhere else online.)

Change 1: Instant Personalization

This is the change that’s getting all the press, which is unfortunate since it’s not the biggest problem.

Instant Personalization (which I see has suddenly become a “pilot program”) lets select other websites use your Facebook data to personalize your view of their own sites. You need to be logged in to Facebook for this to work, and at the moment it only applies to three websites (Microsoft Docs.com, Pandora and Yelp) and fortunately it is easy to turn off. Even if you leave it on and even if it expands to other websites in future, apparently it notifies you or somesuch when you visit such a site and gives you another opportunity to decline.

If you want to turn it off go to:

Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and websites > Instant Personalization Pilot Program > Edit Setting

and un-tick “Allow select partners to instantly personalize their features with my public information when I first arrive on their websites.”

Good. That part was easy. Especially since you can’t even use Pandora in Canada, and why anyone would use Microsoft’s Docs.com when Google Docs exists I can’t imagine.

Change 2: Community Pages and Connections

The bigger, more important and much more intrusive change is the introduction of automated Community Pages, which are created automatically and which make the Likes and Interests in your Profile more or less public in a sideways sort of way.

You can no longer have free-form text in your Profile, only automated “Connections” which link to automated “Community Pages”. Facebook explains it:

Community Pages are a new type of Page that enable you to see what people are saying about the things that matter to you, and discover the friends and people who share these connections with you. They are similar to any other Page to which you can connect, although they won’t generate stories in your News Feed, and won’t be maintained by a single author. Where available, they also show Wikipedia content for the relevant topic, which Facebook has licensed under the creative commons license.

If you choose to include any given Connection, your profile is linked from its automated page, thus making that information visible to all and sundry as well as making it pleasantly open for data mining. In short, you’re being asked to stop being a human and start being a consumer on your Profile.

If you decline all Connections, your Profile becomes blank. I think they’re hoping this will annoy people enough that they’ll cave in and use Connections.

It’s apparent to me that there is no “community” being formed through the use of this feature. In fact, the level of euphemism being used here reminds me of a real estate listing I recently read advertising a house with a “reverse ravine view!” — meaning, of course, that it’s at the bottom of a very steep hill.

I use Facebook to talk to real people, not to indicate my consumer preferences so they can then be bundled and sold.

I’d say that if you’re not interested in intrusively personalized advertising (“John Anderton, you could use a Guinness!” [Minority Report]), it’s time to delete your Profile information. What’s to lose, really? Does anyone really spend much time surfing through their friends’ profiles to see what TV shows they watch and where they work? Don’t you already know that kind of stuff about your friends? I don’t think it’s a big loss.

So delete away. Put a sentence or two in your Bio if you like; the Bio can still be freeform text.

Change 3: The Like Button

The other way that Facebook is creating publicly linked information about you is through the Like button. The idea is that any website can install a Facebook “Like” button now, so you can Like things across the Internet and not just while you’re in Facebook. Facebook says:

When you click the Like button, a link to that page is added to your Facebook profile and a story is shared with your friends.

Note that as well as sharing these Likes in your news feed, clicking that Like button (wherever you see it) creates a Connection between your profile and one of those auto-generated Community Pages, again making life very nice for the data miners while providing…. what benefit, exactly, to users? None that I can see.

If you don’t want those Connections created then avoid using this feature. If you want to tell your friends about something cool, you can put it in a status update.

Get Firefox

While I’m offering unsolicited advice, I strongly recommend you get and use Firefox along with the Adblock Plus extension. It gives you extra control over what you choose to see or block. Adblock Plus is so good that I didn’t even know Facebook had ads until I used someone else’s computer one day.

While you’re at it, give the Firefox and Adblock Plus folks some money. Good stuff is worth paying for. And have you ever been bothered by aggressive ads for open-source software? …I thought not.

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The Annual Food Groups Collage

M modelling eggsStarting in Senior Kindergarten, it seems to be traditional to send kids home with a badly-photocopied Canada Food Guide and some badly-photocopied grocery store sale flyers and assign a Food Groups Collage as homework.

For SK, fine, this is more-or-less appropriate: you’re five years old. You can practice reading and cutting and sticking and since it’s your first go-around with the Food Guide you might learn something. Grade 1… OK, maybe it’s a good review. Grade 2… WTF? This again? And now again in Grade 3, by which time the whole thing is just a waste of paper and gluesticks and everyone’s patience, even with the novel additions of “Good Tooth Care,” “Physical Activity” and “Safety Rules” to the assignment. This time the photocopied food pictures were so bad you could barely tell what they were, so we cast about for alternatives.

I thought it would be more interesting to do something a bit more active and connected to reality, as well as finding some way to inject some actual new learning in there somewhere.

29/365 Feb 1: The annual Food Groups CollageFirst, we needed some pictures of food. Being lazy, I figured taking our own pictures would be faster and easier than doing a whole pile of image searches. We have a camera, we have food. Ta da! So I settled on having M explore the kitchen, pull out foods from each food group and stage a bunch of pictures. So far so good.

Comic Life sample screenshotI have strong opinions about teaching kids to use technology appropriately — so how to work in some learning on that? I remembered I had a demo of Comic Life, which makes photo montages super-easy. M could learn how to use it in about three minutes (thus actually learning something), and then we could all escape the whole cut-and-stick part of the assignment which, by Grade 3, is neither fun nor appropriate. Excellent.

A stuffed Blufadoodle modelling some fruits and veggies It took us about an hour to do the photos, since not only did M need to dig about in the fridge and cupboards but the various foods had (apparently) to be artistically arranged with some stuffed animal models (and we had the Physical Activity, Dental Care, etc. photos to do). I think searching for all the images we needed would have taken much longer.

It took M about another hour to put together her seven collage pages and get them all properly labelled in Comic Life.

A stuffed dog showing interest in pastaMy only involvement was to take the pictures I was told to take (I could’ve let M do it but my camera is new and I’m still a bit overprotective of it, and her own camera is not great) and to get M started on Comic Life — no helicoptering necessary. I’d share the final result but the 7-page PDF is 358Mb (oof).

Anyway. I thought I’d share the idea since this assignment seems to be issued annually to pretty much everyone and I think this version of it a) is super easy, b) is more active and less tedious than the usual cut-and-stick, c) helps the kids connect their own foods and activities to Food Guide concepts, and d) involves an appropriate bit of technology use.

Also: no effing gluesticks. Hallelujah!

28/365 Jan 31: Dental care

Edited to add: here’s a screenshot of one page

I suppose 21st-century technology is good for *something*


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Where is my jetpack, part 4835
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Quotation of the Day for December 3

Quotation of the Day for December 3, 2009

“She wondered why someone would bother to write that; but then, ‘Why bother’ was never a question you could ask about more or less anything on the Internet, otherwise the whole bunch of them shriveled to a cotton-candy nothing.”

– Nick Hornby, in his novel Juliet, Naked.

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Yesterday my database developer called me a geek. Twice, in fact.

I have to admit I like the pretty pretty lights.

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Today I have been playing with my new toy, which is a birthday present from D & M: one of the teeny-weeny little iPod Shuffles. It is perfect for solving a First-World Problem I was having, which is that my usual iPod Classic is kind of heavy to carry about while exercising and also (if stowed securely) it is hard to manipulate its controls mid-workout. No such issue with this new toy, which has the controls on the headphones.

It looks rather like the monolith from 2001:




It is hard to properly grok the tininess of the thing, but perhaps it’s a context issue: this microscopic thing, this size-of-a-stick-of-chewing-gum thing with no moving parts, has 100x the memory of my first computer. Its Apple-y design yumminess combined with the stick-of-gum resemblance leads me to propose this piece of wisdom for this year:

iPods are not food. Do not eat them.

(edited to add birthday wisdom from previous years: 2006, 2007, 2008)

Happy 1234567890 Day

How glad I am that we don’t normally have to think in Unix time. Still, any excuse for a celebration…

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Low, but funny

He should be better soon -- now that the Apple Store is getting rid of DRM, Cory Doctorow will get rid of his Steve Jobs voodoo doll.

(xkcd, of course)

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Best wear goggles too

User Friendly

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Xkcd’s vision becomes reality

Wired points out that YouTube itself has installed a button to do exactly this:

The placement of the button is interesting. It’s exactly where the post message button used to be, meaning quick commenters will discover it only when they accidentally click the new button. Hopefully they’ll do this with their speakers up at work.

I logged in to YouTube and checked — yep, there it is! Should be interesting. Not quite the StupidFilter, but getting there… and there’s no place quite as prone to excesses of stupid as YouTube, so every little bit helps…

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It’s a jetpack!

The Martin jet pack can, in theory, fly an average-sized pilot about 30 miles in 30 minutes on a full 5-gallon (19-litre) tank of petrol. (BBC)

A mighty dorky-looking and range-limited jetpack, but hey. The 21st century owes us jetpacks, and it’s a start.

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This is not a drill

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Ow, my brain

Antimatter: does it fall up or down?

Fascinating to think about, and now they’ve designed an experiment (download the PDF) which will, with luck, provide an answer. But reading the paper made something in my brain seize up, I think.

(h/t to Slashdot)

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I love the Internet, pt. 7 billion and 2

GraphJam: pop culture in graph form = much geeky happiness.

song chart memes

song chart memes

song chart memes

Death by spoon


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29* things to be happy about

If Mark Morford can come up with 29 things to be happy about, I imagine I can too.

  1. Central heating and a non-leaky roof. I’ve spent enough time living in tents that I really grok the utter luxury that is the concept of Inside. Get wet? No problem; you can go inside where it’s warm and dry off. If you’re living in a tent it may be days before you stop experiencing pervasive shivery damp.
  2. On a related note — dry feet. There are many lovely benefits to outdoors work, but the all-day-every-day wearing of sodden hiking boots and sodden wool socks is not one of them. Pull the socks off at the end of the day and casual observers seeing only your feet might place bets on how long your corpse had been underwater. Dry feet are a great, great thing.
  3. xkcd
  4. RSS. O how very much time this saves.
  5. Cleo the MacBook. This is far and away the most pleasant computer I’ve ever used. Pretty, too.
  6. Zappos Canada. As of this moment they have 1233 women’s shoes in a 6.5WW. As opposed to any local stores which have, in round numbers, zero such shoes.
  7. The wonderful women of WNET, who tell me about things like the existence of Zappos. And who give great advice about absolutely anything. And who tell really dirty jokes.
  8. Webkinz World. Totally cute and harmless little games and Sims-like rooms to decorate for the online versions of Webkinz stuffed animals. Uh, I only do it to help out my kid (hrmph).
  9. Catbeasts. I mean, check out the wildly goofy expression on Elwood here as he (very inconveniently) bites through the window blind’s cord: Elwood eating the cord for the window blind
  10. The library. The lovely library robot phones me when my holds are in, I pick them up, then when I’ve read something I can give it back instead of having to wedge it into my overstuffed bookshelves. All for free! This is very happy-making.
  11. Borax. Can’t beat it for getting the euphemistic “pet odors” out of stuff.
  12. Friends who blog for an entire year without once requiring the invocation of Godwin’s Law or any of its corollaries.
  13. Seven years ago at work we had a videoconference link to one single other location. It cost upwards of $5k. If the video worked, the sound didn’t and vice versa. Today I can download Skype and get a great audio+video connection for absolutely free. Now we’re getting something close to acceptable 21st-century technology.
  14. iPods are pretty nice bits of technology too. Thousands of songs, several dozen audiobooks, half a dozen movies, a few hundred podcasts and some random photos and mine is now barely half-full. Subway delay? OK, I’ll watch another podcast. Overseas flight? Hah, no problem. Feeling evil? Put on the Feeling Evil playlist. An iPod and a library (see above) mean you can pack a whole lot of entertainment into remarkably little physical space.
  15. My local bra shop. If you are neither shy nor modest, they make bra shopping supremely efficient. Take off your top, let the woman eye and measure your goods, and hey presto she brings you a small selection of bras which magically fit and are not ruinously expensive. Next time, pull the bedraggled remnants of last year’s purchase from your purse and she is a) unfazed and b) able to both recognize it and produce a new version for your immediate purchase. Contrast: go to The Bay, wander about randomly, end up in the change room under fluorescent lights with 15 bras in various sizes, one of which fits but is ugly. Ugh.
  16. Dread Zeppelin. Led Zep done in reggae style by an Elvis impersonator. Too silly.
  17. CBC Radio 3 (warning: sound). No better place to hear good Canadian indie music.
  18. Strindberg + helium
  19. Scrabulous. If the Scrabble people have any brains whatsoever they’ll cut them a sweet licensing deal and call it good, because they’ve absolutely nailed the online Scrabble concept.
  20. Common Craft’s Explanations in Plain English videos. They use markers, bits of paper, and Lee Lefever’s hands and they are brilliant.

  21. Butterflies
  22. The Shape of a Mother
  23. The heated floor in our bathroom, and the programmable thermostat that makes sure it is warm by the time I get up in the morning. Worth.Every.Penny.
  24. Champagne
  25. Large Canadian Roadside Attractions
  26. All those pocket knives and oh-so-dangerous tiny embroidery scissors confiscated by the airplane police? You can buy them in big lots on eBay. Need 40 pairs of cuticle scissors, a batch lot of corkscrews or 20 pounds of multitools? The NTSA will auction them to you for cheap, so you’ll have extras next time they nick the one you’d forgotten at the bottom your purse.
  27. Online versions of old Infocom games.
  28. Married to the Sea:
    Married To The Sea
  29. Chocolate. Chocolate is definitely a happy thing.

And there it is. 29 things to be happy about. Much easier to compose than 88 lines about 44 women, too.

*: approximately. HTML makes an exact count tricky while I’m writing, so I expect I’ll end up with a couple of quick edits to add or remove items. Or I could be less of a write-in-code person and turn on the graphic interface, I suppose.