Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

Connecting Digital Items to Analog Notes   Leave a comment

There is a growing community of folks who prefer, to varying degrees, analog tools, such as pens, paper, and pencils. Lots of people are sharing ideas, be it Sketchnoting, Bullet Journals, and blogs such as The Cramped or, appropriately enough Write Analog. I have several hypothesis as to why. It may legitimately be a way some folks can think and focus. I know I have those tendencies. As with distraction free text editors, for some people, obsessing over tools is a good way to feel like you are getting something done while avoiding the task at hand. Finally, some folks simply enjoy old-school office supplies, and, in a world which is increasingly paperless, want to find a way to use these tools in their day-to-day work, rather than simply admire them.

However, much of my life these days tends to exist in the digital realm. I know my Outlook inbox has a lot of mail in it, in part because it has an attachment or link to a SharePoint that I need to access. I keep both my professional and personal calendar online, and occasionally make a pass at getting the whole household on one system. Much of the information I generate tends to wind up stored as ones and zeros.

This spills over into my journals and notepads. My handwritten activities often bounce between things that come from my head (which is put on paper) and things online that relate to it. For instance, something I read in a blog post will spawn an entry in a journal. Or, I might take a digital photo of a whiteboard that I want to associate with the notes (but, at the same time, share with my team). Creating these connections is the challenge of analog tools in a world that want to be paperless.

Most of these sorts of things are either conventional web posts, or stored “in the Cloud,” using SharePoint, Evernote, or other cloud storage options such as Copy or OneDrive. What all these things have in common is the ability to point to something with a uniform resource locator, or URL. You may know this as a “web address.” This blog, for instance, is That one is fairly simple, and could be written down in a notebook fairly easily. But, when you start to get to specific items, it gets long. The URL for my post about the Riverbanks Zoo is While relatively long, it is clear what it points to.

However, you have to write down the URL exactly for it to work, and then type it into the address bar of your browser exactly for it to work. URLs can be tricky this way. Evernote is a good place to stash a picture of a whiteboard. However, a share URL from there is quite cryptic:–and one wrong character (even the wrong case) can throw it off. Microsoft SharePoint is commonly used to store and share files in the corporate world. However, its URLs are even longer and more challenging:,%20Ohio/A%20Subdirectory%20Power/Really%20Important%20Spreadsheet%202015.xls. There is no way this can make its way reliably into the analog word, much less the return trip.

ME Journal PageThere are a few products out there that try to bridge this gap. One example is the Quo Vadis Multimedia Enhanced journal. I won one over the summer, and played with the system a bit. The basic journal is nice. Mine is just shy of US letter size, and filled with Clairefontaine paper–the same used in my beloved Rhodia pads. This means it is great paper, and the very definition of “fountain pen friendly.” As a notebook, there is nothing to complain about.

What makes it unique is that, on each page, a QR code is printed. With a SmartPhone app, you can scan the code, and attach and view digital objects to the page. The objects can include video, audio, pictures, files, or links. The app is a bit quirky, with an awkward interface, and periods where I have to reset my password. It does an OK job capturing and storing items. Unfortunately, a code I scanned a few months ago doesn’t show up in my “library” (though scanning the code gets me to to item–strange). Also, it is somewhat of a dead end. I can’t share things out of it, and it doesn’t link to more common tools. I could muddle through with it, if the overall system held value.

There are other flaws as well. There is only one QR Code per page. On some pages, there may not be anything to link to, which, at worst, makes the QR Code meaningless. On other pages, I might want to make multiple links. Further, I’m tied into using that notebook, or ones like it. I couldn’t use other notebooks, nor can I tie it to other documents, such as a map or brochure. The pre-printed code doesn’t offer the flexibility you might need or desire for an analog/digital system.

StickyBitsThere was a service called StickyBits that was a similar implementation of this idea, but enhanced the flexibility of the system. Rather than having the QR Codes pre-printed into a journal, you could either print or purchase stickers with the QR Code on them. When you needed to make a connection, you could put the sticker in your notebook, scan it with their app, and then create what you needed. At the time it was released, I didn’t really think through the utility: I played with it for a day or two, then let it fade. Unfortunately, it has since joined other Web 2.0 start-ups in, well, closing shop.

I actually started to consider building StickyBits on my own, doing some coding in Perl and HTML. It seemed like a major undertaking, and it’d be something just for myself–after all, one start-up already failed with this concept. It is a bit of a niche intersection of folks who use analog tools and digital tools and want to somehow create interoperability. Simply put, I had better things to do with my time.

Short URL Mark-UpThen, I read an article, “Connecting Your Paper Notebooks to the Digital Age,” which made me realize that I was out-thinking this. Rather than being dependent on the QR Code, it leverages a URL shortener, such as Bitly. By assuming that there is the same domain and server name (the part), the shortened URL is written down with some demarcation (he uses greater than/less than symbols). The article suggests also underlining upper case letters for clarity.

Using this scheme, I would write “<1HGmax9>” in my notebook, and it would point me to the article that inspired this. The author suggests Bitly, as you can forward your own domain to it, but it doesn’t sound like a hard requirement, so long as you can use the same URL shortener. Multiple URL shorteners could be used with a different demarcation symbol–brackets could be used, for instance, for my company’s in-house shortener.

This scheme has several advantages. First, there is no need for a sticker or something printed on the page. You simply write it on the fly wherever it is relevant. This also means you are not tied to a specific notebook-or even a notebook. A Post-It, margin of a magazine, or any other relevant place can be used. The short URL frees you from having to use a specific application or a device with a camera. This is quite a flexible solution.

One other advantage is from other features of the URL shortener. Most URL shorteners can allow customization of the short URL. A meaningful title, such as “DataCenterMap” could be used. In addition to making it easier to write down, it makes it easier in other contexts. I have even been taking greater advantage of this in my emails that I don’t expect to wind up on paper, as I think it makes it more obvious what a given URL is for.

My quest to link my beloved pen and paper to the omnipresence of digital media has taken me from specialized tools to a very simply DIY approach. In doing so, I’ve come to the conclusion that this will be a niche interest, and each individual will probably find an approach that best suits them. I am doubtful that specialized products, such as the ME Journal, will find much success. But I have found that there are ways to achieve the end which offer the flexibility I desire in the analog world, and can extend their utility in the digital one as well.

ISP Down Two   Leave a comment

About fourteen months ago, my Internet Service Provider (ISP) had a multi-day outage. Caused by a break in their fibre and no redundancy, my ISP was down for about three days. While they have had a few smaller outages, it started to stabilize. Their customer service ran from apathetic, to hostile (once, I got yelled at because of how I tried to explain how my name is spelled).

It is the twenty-first century, not 1996. Internet access is no longer the domain of a few quirky geeky, but has become woven into much of our daily lives. In my opinion, ISPs should not be having multi-day outages in 2014.

My ISP had their second outage this week. It started, for us, last Wednesday (April 24). A call to tech support–just under the wire of their closing time (7 PM)–told us it would be Friday or Saturday. Friday morning, they were saying Saturday morning. They were not explaining what was going on beyond describing it as a “fibre outage.” I tried again on my way home from work: the new estimated time to restore service was Monday.

I walked in the door, and told my wife we needed to change ISPs. By 10 PM, after some family time and supper, I was on the new ISP. It took longer to get my wireless access point talking to the new modem than anything else. Fourfold faster speed for roughly the same money, and better support hours.

Out of curiosity, I tracked the outage. On Monday, during the few times I could get through, I was told they were no longer quoting an estimated time to be back up. A reporter reached out to me for details for a “consumer alert” story. I canceled earlier today, and have heard that they are back up as of this writing (9:10 PM).

We’ve made a few decisions over the years to make switching easier. Our personal email is no longer tied to our ISP but online services like GMail. Our household network is set up in such a fashion that the modem can be swapped out at will (give or take a compatibility glitch). Planning not to be tied to a single provider was a wise decision.

As for our old ISP, I’m not sure what to think. Are they making the investments in their infrastructure to be a viable Twenty-First century ISP, or are they risking a long decline?

Customer Service Through Social Media   Leave a comment

I’m impressed by companies that give good customer service. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to it: you see chains that have a reputation for superior customer service, and mom and pops that act as though they are doing a favor by being open. At the end of the day, it comes down to the culture of the organization, rather than size.

Social media has helped a lot more companies respond to their customers a lot more quickly. The other advantage, I think, is that the companies are getting better insight not just to large complaints that can make or break a company, but little annoyances that probably wouldn’t change the relationship negatively. Social media allows companies to interact with individual customers, and on issues that they may not feel the need to escalate to them. I’ve experienced it many times myself.

The first time was a few years ago, when I was having trouble with my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. I made some grumbling on twitter–not that I saw it as Kitchen-Aid’s fault, but just an issue had to deal with. Within half an hour, I got a message from their twitter account asking for details. This lead to a phone conversation, which helped pin down what I was doing wrong. I don’t think I would have bothered to call on my own, and they wouldn’t have known there was an issue. But the fact that they could say “how can we help” definitely raised their esteem in my eyes.

A @Levenger Circa disk broke. #officesuppliesThis week, I had another incident. My disc-bound notebook is a blend of many companies’ products, thought the core is the Levenger Circa system. One Wednesday morning, I discovered the bottom-most disc had cracked in half. I have no clue how that happened, though I suspect it was somehow my fault. I noted that I’d need to go get a replacement, but, as is my way, griped about it on twitter.

Levenger noticed this, and inquired about it. I got the sense that it was a fairly uncommon occurrence. We exchanged a few messages, over the course of which they offered to replace the disc. By Friday afternoon, I had the replacement back in my notebook.

They certainly didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to monitor twitter and respond to me. Any reasonable person could look at my broken disc and say that it was an accident that had nothing to do with Levenger. But the fact that they both monitor twitter, and were willing to replace my disc was definitely above and beyond the call, and makes me much more likely to do business with them in the future. I truly don’t think this would have come about in the absence of social media, and companies that know how to take advantage with it to interact with their customers on a one-on-one basis.

Think Before Clicking Send   1 comment

Our business runs on email. The problem is that it is very easy to say something in email that you might not say to someone’s face, especially if it is heated. Click send, and your angry rant appears instantly in front of them (and anyone else on the distribution). Worse: it can be forwarded globally.

There is one simple rule I have for email, that I share with everyone on my team: if upset, write the email, but don’t click send. “Save as Draft,” then take a walk. Work on something else. Ten minutes, an hour, a day later, come back to it and reread it. Odds are, you’ll re-compose it to be more civil.

And you may just get to keep your job.

Advice: Back Up Your Web Recipes   1 comment

Three years ago this month, there was a major outage at work. We had teams working more or less around the clock trying to first catch the issue as it was happening, then resolving it. It was not something in my area of responsibility, but my boss at the time wanted a member of his executive team on the call overnight. I drew two back-to-back near-overnight shifts.

The morning after the second shift, my last day before taking some PTO, I checked in with my boss as soon as I got into the office. He was British, and just returned from a trip to the UK. He offered me a piece of shortbread he brought back, which I gladly accepted–I was starving! I gave him my briefing, as well as some transition items for my PTO. He offered me another piece. “I was planning on it,” I said, as I took the cookie.

For that odd reason, I always tie the winter holidays to shortbread. The next year, a food blog I follow followed, “I Really Like Food,” published a recipe for chocolate chip shortbread. It entered the Christmas goody rotation, along with pralines and other goodies. We’ve started to make a variety of treats to give to teachers, our offices, and family. I started that process this weekend. since they don’t have nuts, I wanted to make sure to make the shortbread.

I had forgotten that “I Really Like Food” is no more.

New Shortbread CookiesThis happened with the peppered queen, but, between having it in my head and Google cache, I could recreate my version of it. All I had was blog post where I listed the ingredients. Google cache was no help, and it wasn’t in the Wayback Machine. I looked at recipes for shortbread until I found one that had the same list of ingredients. they seem to be as good, though there may be too many chocolate chips in them. Yes, there is such a thing.

I texted my wife about the situation. She texted back to make sure I had captured the Word War Two Oatmeal Molasses Cookies, which are our new favorite. I had just finished typing it in the format I like.

“Print it out & put it in your

binder, just in case your hard drive dies.” She takes cookies very seriously.

That’s the key lesson. The internet is a great source of all sorts of information, and it’s a great place to store you material. On two occassions, I’ve blogged about the risks of storing things in the cloud. I suppose a related risk and lesson, is to assume may be true of any information in the cloud. If it’s something that’s important to you–be it a recipe, a manual to a device, or something else, grabbing a local copy is wise. You may not be able to get it back.

Posted 2013-12-16 by Mr. Guilt in computers, food, Internet, IT Opinion, rant

Harder to Love Instagram   2 comments

Instagram ShareInstagram seems to be getting harder and harder to love.

Back in December, it looked like I was going to stop using Instagram. The issue was over a licence whose language could be interpreted as claiming rights to the photos I took. I had written a script to get the HTML code to embed pictures from instagram into my blog. Over the course of several hours, I rehosted them on Flickr (who supports the Creative Commons licence)), and pointed blog posts to those images. My plan was to stop using it all-together. However, Instagram backed off that langauge, and I kept using that particular tool.

Still, I kept the photos I used for this blog either on WordPress or Flickr, just in case. Instagram is owned by Facebook. Even though I have an account on the latter, I don’t fully trust it,and am prepared to jettison it at a moment’s notice. The primary place I used Instagram photos on the blog was in my monthly hodge podge. Most people who follow this blog may follow me on social media. However, putting photos in the hodge podge allowed for more context to be put around them. Also, my blog is as much about my remembering things as it is about sharing. What makes it here are things I don’t want to risk getting lost in more ephemeral places. Typically, I’d go back at the end of the day, click the “share” button on one of my pictures that was already posted, and add it to Flickr. Piece of cake.

With the latest update, however, this workflow seems to have been impacted. While I can share to Flickr at the initial posting of a photo, the button is not present when I go back to a photo already uploaded. A look at a few forums on the web confirms that I am not the only person to have encountered this behavior.

My first thought was to dust off the script. However, my first pass at trying to use it shows they changed the HTML code, so that it can’t be used. Instagram released an embed feature, but, unlike Flickr, it puts an ugly frame around the picture (and doesn’t really offer controls around the size of the image, etc.). The pictures are saved to the camera roll on my phone, so I can manually upload it to Flickr as a work-around, but it’s not as simple.

My hope is that this reflects a bug in the software rather than a change in policy, and it will be remediated in the next release of the app. However, as Instagram becomes more and more annoying, it makes me want to pick a different tool for my spontaneous photo sharing.

UPDATE: This very afternoon, an update was released, which resolved this issue. So, just a bug. Huzzah!

One Hundred Megabytes of Data   5 comments

Our summer vacation was my first trip outside of the United States since 2003. While cell phones were common, they could do little more than make a phone call. In the intervening ten years, SmartPhones have become ubiquitous. While I’m constantly pulling out my iPhone, I can go days without actually talking to someone on it. Every time we’ve traveled, it served as our map, guide book, restaraunt guide, travel agent, camera, and occasional pacifier. It’s hard to imagine going on the road without it.

During our trip, we were forced to.

Most carriers’ plans will work in the US, but not, by default, outside of the country (likewise, a Canadian plan won’t work, by default, in the US). As it was a driving trip, I wanted to at least have phone service for emergencies, as well as for the odd work call. I also wanted data for all the reasons already mentioned. WiFi is pretty common, especially in hotels, so we could use our phone in a lot of places. To cover us outside of that zone, I set up our “overseas data plan” to give each of our phones 100 MB of data–a fraction of our usual data plan. In an average week, we each use 200 MB. On one hand, that includes work e-mail and other things we could shut off. On the other hand, we were in unfamiliar territory.

Conservation became the watchword. First and foremost, I held off my social media participation. My wife figured out how to cache map directions when we had WiFi, to reduce our data dependence. Guidebooks from AAA found a place in the car. In short: for a week, we had to revert to a pre-iPhone state. Could we do it?

We could. For the first day or two, while standing in line, I would pull out my phone and refresh twitter, only to be reminded that data was turned off. Eventually, I found other ways to occupy dead spaces–cleaning my camera lenses, talking to my wife, or just looking around. As noted, we had to plan a bit more carefully. We relearned a few truths. We grabbed any map we could, to help navigate absent clear directions. We were reminded that guidebooks are far from comprehensive in their listing of food offerings. When it came to hours and prices of activities, they are only as up-to-date as when they are printed.

I could certainly tell when we had the data on. Without the data, we were more likely to wander aimlessly looking for just the right restaurant. With data on the phone, we had plenty of options, and could navigate there confidently. We knew what direction we were heading, and waht was around every corner. When driving from Montreal to Toronto, it was a nice failsafe for finding a hotel. We went from mere mortals to omniscient superbeings.

Does this mean we’re too dependent on data? I’m not sure that’s an accurate characterization. The limitations on guidebooks and maps is inherent to the medium. Maps only work if you have them with you. With a bit more effort, we could have survived without mobile internet, but I think we would not have been as smart about where we were, and would have missed out on opportunities for some great things. The limited data, however, helped balanced some of my worst habits around checking twitter (or, worse, work e-mail). By the end of the week, pulling out my phone idlely was dramatically reduced.

We don’t have any trips scheduled in the near future, much less internationally. But the next time we do, making sure we have some level of international support for our SmartPhones will be on the packing list next to “dig out our passports.”

Back Up Your Cloud   3 comments

In Last week in Slate, Tienlon Ho wrote a piece titled “Can You Live Without Google?” He described the impact on his life when he was locked out of his Google account, due to one file on his Google Drive that may have violated Google’s Terms of Service (sounds like legitimate security work may have been confused with hacking). By access to his Google account, he lost access to files he was working on in Google Drive, his calendar, mail, photos, and even his primary phone number. He learned just how dependent he had become on Google.

In the last five years, mobile computing has become the dominate player in our computing landscape. These devices allow us to access data everywhere, and make us less dependent on one machine. By storing data in the Cloud, it doesn’t matter if you happen to have your laptop, SmartPhone, or tablet with you, your data is with you, and has the current version.

While consumers may be able to build and maintain a private cloud, consumers typically are using an offering from Google, Microsoft, or another provider for low- or no-cost. Unfortunately, as Mr. Ho discovered, it also puts you at their mercy. The provider controls the terms of service, and, as we discovered with Instagram, they can change them on a whim. Or, the company could go out of business, or simply decide to discontinue the service (such as with Google Reader). Add to that the periodic security breaches that seem to occur.

Depending on cloud services exclusively can put your data at risk.

I do see the usefulness of these services, but I also take steps to protect myself. Most of my actual data is stored on my personal systems, with automated backups.* There is little that is in the Cloud that is not also on these systems. Case in point: while I use Flickr to store my photos, the original files (both the shots from the camera and the version ultimately “published”) are on my laptop, and backed up. While it would make a mess of my blog, I would still have the photos, and could find a way to rehost them. It would be extremely inconvenient, but not catastrophic. Likewise, I synchronize cloud services to local applications where possible (as opposed to relying solely on the web interface).

The one bit of good news is that Google makes a point of letting you pull your data out as you need to. For a long time, there has been a team called the Data Liberation Front. Their mission has been to provide Google’s users a way to easily pull their data out into a portable format for no incremental cost. This can either be through Google Takeout, to pull out large amounts of data, or some other export or synchronization. For instant, there are clear instructions to export or sync your Google Calendar. While other cloud providers may not put quite this level of thought into allowing their users from moving away, there generally is some level of official or unofficial advice given, and, failing that, clever people on the web who can offer suggestions and tools.

It is one thing to have the ability to pull data out. In order to ensure you don’t find yourself in Mr. Ho’s situation one day, you need to have an explicit backup as part of your standard regime. For some things, simply syncing them with a desktop application will capture the data for you. Other things, such as Google Documents or Flickr photos, may require a more explicit action. Once you develop a technique, you will also need to understand the required frequency. For my needs, weekly may be adequate; if Google Docs is where you do most of your work, daily may not be frequently enough.

(It appears that if you have a Cloud storage app, such as SkyDrive, Dropbox, or Google Docs, the local copy happens automatically. It’s even backed up automatically as part of my local backup system.)

I’m not suggesting that Cloud services should not be used or even relied upon. However, if you value your data, it is important you consider what you would do if the service becomes unavailable. Do you have your data? If you have not given though to that, it is time that you do.

*I admit that I need to improve my off-site rotation, but that’s another story.

Posted 2013-04-29 by Mr. Guilt in computers, Internet, IT Opinion, rant

Two-Factor Authentication   Leave a comment

two factor picEarlier this month, Evernote, a very handy web application, was hacked, forcing them to have all their users reset their passwords. This is far from the first time I’ve found myself in this situation. Currently, I have about eighty sites that have passwords. Managing them can be challenging. Some sites, like GMail, are holding fairly critical data for me, so reducing the risk is important.

Fortunately, two-factor authentication is becoming more common. The notion is that, to access an account, you’d need two things: something you know, and something you have. You use this at an ATM machine: you swipe your card (something you have), then type in your PIN (something you know).

For enterprise environments, RSA makes a key fob that generates numbers based on an algorithm. The server knows how the algorithm is seeded for each key, so it “knows” what number is displayed at a given moment. To get into a system that uses it, you need to type the number on the fob (something you have), along with a PIN that only you know (something you know). However, getting consumers using free cloud services to buy RSA fobs seems unlikely.

Fortunately, most of us have something we have that can serve a similar function: a cell phone. More and more web services are offering two-factor authentication by sending a text message. Type in a number from the text message along with a password achieves a similar level of security. This could be used for access to your site from unauthorized computers (such as a shared computer at the library), validate password resets, or other critical security activities. The advantage is that, even if your password is stolen, the thief would not be able to use it to gain access to your data, as they would also need your phone to validate the request.

Many common sites have started to offer some level of two-factor authentication:

Links go to instructions for setting it up.

I would not be surprised if other sites start to roll it out as well. I would encourage you to start to enable it on sites you use that offer it. It may save your data!

Twitter Archive   Leave a comment

tweet graphLast night, Twitter enabled me to download an archive of all my tweets, dating back to January of 2007. This was about six months after Twitter become public. At that point, the “@” notation was not part of the system, but a convention the users themselves were using. As of right now, I have made 39,789 tweets, so there is a fair amount of data there.

My first tweet: “On the bus.”

Twitter for me didn’t really pick up until two things happened. First, dedicated twitter clients allowed it to move to something I felt I had to go out of my way to use, but was a little feed I could monitor out of the corner of my eye. This was particularly handy during major events. Like many, Twitter was how I learned about the Miracle on the Hudson as it happened.

Second, I started to get friends on twitter, both folks I already new joining, and making friends who I know primarily through twitter. This is turned twitter into my “virtual water cooler.” Whenever I needed a break, there were usually some folks chat for a few moments. It also proved to be fun during major national events, like the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, or the elections that occurred that year. At times, even just watching the same TV show with other users was fun.

I also discovered that twitter was a good way to document my life. I’ve been known to page through my twitter feed to figure out when I did something. The archive was interesting in that I could see my real-time thoughts to what was going on. It was really fun to go back and read the tweets from when we first brought home Beso and Luna, or some of the vacations we’ve had. The archive is proving to be an interesting diary to my life over the last five years.

I’ve really found Twitter to be a neat tool. I can gather a variety of information, and can share as much (or as little) as I like. For example, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid having my employer’s name directly mentioned. It has created a community that I’m happy to be part of.

If you don’t already follow me, here’s my twitter feed.

Posted 2013-02-17 by Mr. Guilt in computers, Internet

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