Archive for the ‘IT Opinion’ 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?

Old Betsy and Dot-Matrix Printers   4 comments

Old BetseyMy first job supporting computers was at the library at Miami University. I was responsible for a number of computer-based indexes to periodicals and journals. During my time, a computer-based card catalog–an innovation at the time–was rolled out, and expanded my scope. My job was to make sure all the terminals were functioning, as well as provide instruction to the users as to how to use the systems. At this point, in the early Nineties, computers were no where near as ubiquitous, and the technology was still relatively basic. All of the systems were dumb terminals, hooked to a central server.

Among my duties was the care and feeding of the printers. In those days, inkjets weren’t common, and laser printers were quite expensive. To print the references you needed, the cheap solution was a dot matrix printer. In the case of the library, it was scores of Okidata 390s–you can still buy them today.

These really were reliable printers. Where my inkjet seems to take several moments of priming and humming before printing the first line, the Okis just went. When I consider the environment they operated in–a lot of start-and-stop print jobs in a publicly assessable area–the tractor-fed paper rarely jammed. Even then, it was usually due to a fellow student attempting to “fix” something. I’d have to lug a new box out to the card catalog every once in a while, but, for the application, the continuous feed paper was a perk. The ink lasted forever, and when I did need to replace it, a new cartridge just snapped in. There was no “aligning printhead” or other action on the printer. One person in my role could typically take care of the estate with a five minute pass every hour. Everything was just simple.

Granted, you couldn’t print graphics on it, and, if you wanted any speed at all, you were limited to the 3-6 typefaces built in. But, for just printing data, they got the job done reliably. Sometimes, when I have to pace back and forth between my desk and the office LaserJet, I wonder if it’s really worth what was given up.

I seem to not be the only one who feels this way. Over the weekend, I saw an Oki at a bookstore, lovingly tagged Old Betsy. The plastic clearly yellowing with age–it wouldn’t surprise me if it had been there nearly all of the store’s twenty-eight years. I pointed it out to my wife, and the clerk said that she was the most reliable printer in the shop. I absolutely believed her, and, for a moment, wondered if we had one kicking around our closet.

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

Virtual Cat Name for Mac OS X 10.9   Leave a comment

As I previously mentioned, Apple decided to change their standard, and not use a cat name for the latest version of their desktop operating system, OS X.

In my opinion, OS X is the best desktop version of UNIX. It can use standard tools at a prompt when you want to geek out, but has good tools, such as a native version of Microsoft Office. Using cat names for this was a great way to show the power of the OS, while also creating awareness around our endangered felines.

10.9 was released yesterday (October 22), and I think we can do something about this. I’m calling for OS X using cat fans to help select the “Virtual Cat Name.” I’ll leave voting open until Wednesday, October 30. On November 4, I’ll reveal the winner, and, we’ll all start referring to “10.9 felid” as opposed to…whatever that place in California is. I’ll even make a wallpaper.

Please vote below, and tell your friends!

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!

Apple Running Out of Cat Names?!?   1 comment

“We don’t want to be delayed due to a dwindling supply of cats.”
–Craig Federighi, Apple, on OS X 10.9 naming

There are over thirty species of cats:

  • African Golden Cat
  • Andean Cat
  • Asiatic Golden
  • Black-footed Cat
  • Bobcat
  • Bay Cat
  • Canada Lynx
  • Caracal
  • Cheetah 10.0
  • Clouded Leopard
  • Eurasian Lynx
  • Fishing Cat
  • Flat-headed Cat
  • Geoffroy’s Cat
  • Iberian Lynx
  • Jaguar 10.2
  • Jaguarundi
  • Jungle Cat
  • Guina (Kodkod)
  • Leopard 10.5
  • Leopard Cat
  • Lion 10.7
  • Manul (Pallas’)
  • Marbled Cat
  • Margay
  • Ocelot
  • Oncilla
  • Pampas Cat
  • Puma 10.1/Cougar/Mountain Lion 10.8/Catamount/Painter/Ghost Cat…
  • Rusty-spotted Cat
  • Sand Cat
  • Serval
  • Snow Leopard 10.6
  • Tiger 10.4
  • Wildcat/Scottish Wildcat/European Wildcat/African Wildcat/Arabian Wildcat/Domestic Cat
  • Panther 10.3 (not a distinct species)

from ISEC

We’re running out of cats quicker than you’re running out of names for Apple operating systems. Sad that this little bit of advocacy (and class) is going away. Especially given the lack of small (yet no less wild) cat names among versions of OS X.

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!

Fears of Link Death   Leave a comment

Back on Vox, I used a service called ClipMarks. It was a handy little thing. If I found an interesting article, I could activate a browser plug in, and highlight a few key passages of text. This would then generate a blog post on my blog, which I could add my commentary around. It was a very easy way to call attention to an article and offering my own perspective on it. Punditry made simple!

As happens with Web 2.0 things, it was a great idea with a limited revue model. They have since been bought out by a similar service, Clipboard. Clipboard works in a very similar fashion to ClipMarks, except that it uses a Java-based applet rather than a browser extension–a big win, as it increases it’s cross-platform nature. However, there are two issues. The most immediate one for me is that it requires use of the iframe tag to embed a clip. This is a problem for users, as it does not support that tag (there is a WordPress plug-in for blogs hosted elsewhere). I’ve created a template to work around that for future posts–not nearly as clean and easy, but it’s a pure HTML solution, so it will be compatible.

The larger problem, however, is I’m seeing some subtle signs of “link death.” Because the ClipMark servers are not exactly the same, clips I did back on Vox (and earlier here) are illegible due to the lose of a CSS. You can’t go back to my earlier posts as easily. I’m not sure if anyone is even going back that far in my writings, but it definitely creates a hole.

More broadly, it makes me worry about other content on my blog. While I’m concerned around articles I link to, it will likely be isolated to one or two posts. However, some of the services I leverage would have a huge impact. Most of the photos I post are linked over from Flickr. While that may be on the “too big to fail” side of the equation, and has, in my opinion, a better revenue model, if it folded, almost every post I have with pictures would suddenly have broken link images. I recently started including more pictures I have taken with Instagram, linking over directly rather than porting them to Flickr. This is a site I have greater concerns about, should it either close or its new owner, Facebook, decide to kill support for that.

Truthfully, this is an issue for anyone who has a blog and is not 100% hosting themselves (or paying someone to host everything). Should one of the services you use fold, you will have both of these issues. First, there is the immediate destruction of your workflow. More worrisome is the impact on archives. For a random blog such as mine, this is less of a concern–how many people are really going back to my archives?* However, this can have a larger impact for commercial or academic sites. It is already an issue for some historians: as the Internet and web services become increasingly primary documents of history, the effect of hosting providers closing is causing this legacy to be lost.

I’m afraid I have no true solution. Most of my photos are kept on my home system, so I’ll always have those backups. However, I confess I’m not as good about backing up the actual posts. Doing so would at least ensure that my writings (as insignificant as they may be) would be available should they be useful.

*I’m actually surprised by how many.

Posted 2012-10-18 by Mr. Guilt in computers, Internet, IT Opinion, rant

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