I held off upgrading to Catalina for a long time. I was hanging onto a few 32bit only apps and also I’ve experienced trouble in the past with new OS iterations. As we have reached 10.15.5 I decided to take the plunge and upgrade. We are running a few Macs in the house. Both MacBooks support Catalina natively, but my iMac is a 2009 model and as such is technically unsupported. I’ve been upgrading my 2009 iMac for a few years using the DosDude patch and it has always worked perfectly. The upgrade of the MacBooks went great, and even the iMac seemed to be coping well.
I first got hold of this Raspberry Pi 1 Model B back in May 2012. At the time, I bought the pi to replace an ageing Apple TV 2 which I had jail broken and was using as a kodi media centre. It worked well, but I preferred the Aluminium apple remote & IR sensor on the ATV2 so the pi was largely mothballed.
A few years later I bought a Raspberry Pi 2 Model B and this became our main Kodi media centre, replacing the Apple TV 2 and coupled with a Rii keyboard. It was much faster & more stable running Libreelec.
Over the last few days I’ve had a massive increase in traffic from Chinese data centres & ISPs. The traffic has been relentless & the CPU usage on my server kept spiking enough to cause a fault in my cPanel hosting. I’m on a great hosting package with UKHOST4U and the server is fast & stable, but it is shared with a few other websites. This means that I couldn’t just blanket ban Chinese IP ranges. Even though we don’t sell our products in China, it seemed like a very heavy-handed approach, and to block via .htaccess with the entire range of Chinese IP addresses was causing a 2-3 second delay in page parsing (pages normally load in around 600ms).
I’ve been using social networks for many years. My original masters thesis revolved around the then emerging technologies of social networks. I coupled the ideas of early day twitter & Facebook & combined them with a virtual learning environment for universities. Back then, I thought that social media, the semantic web & Web 2.0 as we called it, was the future.
Through the years I’ve adopted more of these platforms and integrated them into my life. I’ve continued to study them from both a personal & a societal point of view, and in the last few years my view has shifted radically.
I’ve been a huge fan of Cory Doctrow for a while now. With regular appearences on 2600’s Off The Hook radio show, not to mention his work for the EFF, he is well known in internet circles.
This video is over an hour long, but goes a long way to explain the direction in which our technology (and the companies who run them) are going. If we leave it to the quasi-monopoly companies we have already, we are in for a rough ride. Recommended for any internet user, especially those with a penchant for smart home devices (he outlines some good real world hacks, including hacking a pacemaker). A great advocation for ignoring all of the apps & walled gardens & returning to the open internet.
There are times algorithms are of great use, such as those used by search engines to gather up millions of documents, sort them & hopefully present the one closest to your search term. I take issue with the algorithms developed by the likes of Google, but more with respect to how they censor results & control information flows. Their information retrieval techniques have always been astonishing & their ability to sort & serve data with algorithms is commendable, however, they are now straying into the murky territory of policing the information we see which is disconcerting. I very much recommned switching to https://www.startpage.com/Start Page for your search. Google results without google & their creepy data mining.
However, on the whole, the Google search algorithms aren’t the ones I’m concerned most about. That dubious award goes to the likes of social media algorithms. I was a major fan of the original Twitter for example. Back when Twitter started, we had a simple, chronological timeline. Tweets were shown in order of post time and it was impossible to miss a tweet. We didn’t have access to a retweet button, you had to do that manually with an RT and copy & paste. This meant twitter was much less spammy as it took the actual effort to retweet. We also didn’t have the like button. If you liked something, you either smiled to yourself, or you replied & started a conversation. It was social.
Fast forward to 2017 and Twitter is an algorithm infested quagmire. If you use the official app or a web browser, you are presented with a hideous mess of tweets you may like, based on tweets liked by people you follow. You also have a selection of tweets you may have missed and a whole bunch of other crap tweets you have no interest in. Combine that with sponsored tweets & Twitter have quietly achieved infinite scroll. You literally can’t catch up on all of your tweets as it will just keep presenting you with content which you never asked to see. They have also introduced the quick retweet buttons and threaded conversations, meaning your timeline is now chock full of noise and junk. The simple & easy to follow timeline of the past is now an algorithmically controlled advertising & data mining leviathan.
I personally try to limit the amount of noise I see online. I’ve read hundreds of books from the fields of tech & psychology which all suggest that we are suffering from information overload. The ‘attention merchants’ as many like to call the social media companies & content creators are finding more ways to aggregate data & content in order to keep your eyeballs on their platform. Numerous academics suggest that human beings simply haven’t evolved & developed the mental capacity to take in so much data. Our brains simply aren’t able to deal with so much data, leaving us lethargic & burnt out.
I personally felt like there was a rapidly diminishing return on the value of Social media. I gave up Facebook completely over 6 months ago due to their algorithms & the febrile political and social atmosphere developing on the platform & I also deleted all Facebook apps from my smartphone. Snapchat is gone. I now stick with Twitter & have closed down all of my other social accounts.
I found that the algorithmic changes implemented by tech companies worked too well. I was hooked on social media and constantly trying to absorb stream after stream of information & content. With no end in sight & the possibility of infinite information & an infinite scroll in apps, I decided to take control of my social media usage. Add into that trendint topics & hashtags & recommended users to follow & you are combarded with information you didn’t seek.
I initially considered stopping using all forms of social media but decided instead to focus on using only Twitter and tailor my experience away from their algorithms & back towards something I can use. This meant making some changes to the way I use the platform.
The first thing I decided to do was to unfollow all but my favourite friends on twitter. No more companies, no spammy content, no people I’d added through curiosity or after a single exchange. I wanted a concise list of people to maximize the value of twitter & minimise my exposure to information. I managed to get down from 1400+ people I was following to around 300. I’m constantly reviewing this list but find it manageable. I unfollowed all news outlets and breaking news accounts, I stick to reading that on news websites when I choose to.
The second step I took was to turn off retweets for everyone I follow. No exceptions. I was interested in original content & I’ve found that links people actually take the time to recommend with a tweet and a link are much more valuable to me than those which are simply retweeted, often blindly. It took a while to click-through to everyone to turn off their retweets, but this dramatically changed my twitter experience. Now, when I wake up in the morning I may have 40 tweets to catch up on which takes a matter of minutes. Before I literally couldn’t catch up so I would give up and potentially miss important tweets. The first major problem with algorithms, they decide what I’d like to see rather than letting me decide.
My next step was to ditch the official website & apps altogether. Twitter bundles its algorithm features and sponsored tweets directly into the apps. This means that even with a small following count & no retweets, it will still show you algorithmically gathered content & bombard you with noise. The key is to use the Twitter API. I’ve used the Tweetbot app on ios for years and ideally, it shows everything on your Twitter timeline in chronological order. No algorithm junk, no sponsored tweets. The great thing I discovered was that TapBots have a version of Tweetbot for Mac OS. This means I can get the same ios style twitter interface directly on my mac. Whats more, I can use iCloud or Tweetmarker to sync my apps across all devices so it remembers where I left off reading on the timeline. I decided to go for Tweet Marker as this is an open & cross-platform service and can be used on Linux and other platforms I use regularly.
With tweetbot, I can now effectively manage my twitter experience & also reduce data overload. I’ve found my social media usage is back to early day twitter. I can check in a few times a day when I have a moment & get caught up on everyone’s tweets. I can then step away and do other things & resume later in the day. It is the perfect workflow for me.
Other advantages of Tweetbot include the ability to mute hashtags or keywords. Any keywords you add will allow Tweetbot to filter out entire tweets from your timeline which contain those keywords. These ‘mute words’ sync across your tweetbot apps. I have a few setup now as in 2017 my twitter was becoming a shouting match for politics instead of a useful resource. By adding a few simple mute words I can rid my timeline of the politics, saving me getting into a rage with fellow Twitter users. If 2017 has taught me anything, it is that political discussion & social media do not work. Without face to face discussion debate isn’t possible. So I now filter out the politics & stick to reading news sites without the debate & I chat to real people in person about the state of the world. Much more productive.
Over the Christmas period, I’ve decided to protect my tweets. This is for personal reasons, but mainly because I’d rather not have the whole world & people I no longer talk to gaining an insight into my time with friends & family.
The above workflow for Twitter is the ideal way to regain control of your social media from algorithms. It’s the main reason I stuck with Twitter. It’s not possible to apply a similar workflow to Facebook because of a lack of API access, so Twitter is the ideal platform still available to tailor in this way. By reducing the algorithmic noise you really will feel better about social media again.
I find Instagram is now unusable because of the algorithm, I miss so many people’s photos. A lot on Instagram is time sensitive, such as when someone posts and they are local to you, but you don’t see the post until days or weeks later so youuo can’t comment or meet up. I find that it is a much less social platform. It’s fun to browse pictures, but as a social platform, it fails miserably. I now also find that every other Instagram post is sponsored or an advert, so again information overload starts to creep in & the time sucking ability of social media begins to affect my productivity.
I’ve found modern social media to be anything but social & I’ve also discovered it becoming more addictive, with many of the negative side effects of addictive behaviour, from reduced attention span, to full-blown anxiety. It feels so nicely to wrangle it back into a usable technology.
Obviously, the issue of algorithms is a vast one. I’ve still not discussed those used by music streaming services or video streaming services, not to mention online shopping sites, but I’ll address these in future posts. I really just wanted to get some thoughts down on paper while I’m still reading around this subject & working out fixes.
I’d love to hear your hacks for getting around modern algorithms, especially in social media. I could take about this subject for days on end, but I’d much perfect to hear your thoughts.
*A fix has been issued for Kodi, if you download this experimental High Sierra remote fix version, install and reboot your mac you should regain apple remote functionality, at least within Kodi.
This issue is driving me mad with Kodi as the remote is now essentially useless. I’m working on a fix and pulling a few things apart in the OS to see if I can figure out what is going on. It doesn’t help that the official Kodi forums seem to be ruined after a ruined MyBB upgrade so I can’t hop onto the forum to discuss with other High Sierra or Kodi users. The fact that the apple remote isn;t working with high sierra is quite a big issue for my daily workflow as I control Kodi with the remote while working.
As a stopgap, I’m using the Kodi remote app on my iPhone to control Kodi. It works, but means I have to be looking down at my phone & then up at the Mac. I miss how simple & intuitive the apple remote is for controlling Kodi, but until a high sierra remote fix is complete I’ll have to make do with a software remote.
If you have found a fix, leave a comment below & I can try it out and update this post as necessary.
If you would like to try the Candelair driver, you can download the preference pane for free on their website.
A speaker that caught my eye right away was the SoundPEATS P4 speaker. The speaker itself is a cylindrical speaker, much like the amazon echo. The product itself looks amazing but the most surprising thing for me was the price. At under £34 delivered it seems too good to be true. SoundPEATS wasn’t a brand I had heard of before browsing Amazon but the reviews seemed to be overwhelmingly good and the speaker itself looked pretty solid. A few days later I took delivery of the SoundPEATS P4.
I was instantly impressed.
The package came extremely well packed from amazon which is always a worry with speakers, as any cracks or breaks in transit will rattle for the life of the speaker. The soundpeats packaging itself was very snug and secure. The speaker was much heavier than I thought, but in a good way. The housing feels robust and well made and the lovely fabric mesh covering reminded me of premium hifi speakers. The speaker feels like a premium product and the finish is brilliant.
The box contains the SoundPEATS P4, along with a micro USB cable for charging, a 3.5mm aux cable for use with older & non bluetooth devices and a concise instruction manual. I didn’t need to use the instruction manual as it was very intuitive to get started. The P4 came with a full charge, ready to go.
When you first turn on the speaker, it plays a harp sound to let you know it is on. Following that, for the first minute the speaker plays an audible beep, much like a submarine sound effect. This lets you know that the bluetooth is in discovery mode, allowing you to pair a new device. If the speaker already finds a paired device when it is turned on, it will automatically connect.
I connected the P4 to my iPhone 6 via bluetooth and instantly I was up and running using the P4 as my audio output device.
The first thing that struck me as soon as starting music playback was the level of bass. This speaker produces a lot of bass for a device of its size. I found that I had to turn off my bass boost EQ setting on the iPhone and I opted for the rock EQ to level out the bass and allow for a little more treble. I would suggest you have a play with your EQ settings as the natural bass this speaker produces is a little beyond even my expectations. It has a lot of low bass grunt.
The SoundPEATS P4 has very few external buttons, making it very easy to operate. It has a power button on the base which also allows you to answer bluetooth calls via the speaker. On the top of the speaker is a volume crown, allowing you to increase & decrease the volume. The P4 has its own small amp built-in, so the volume on your bluetooth device and the volume on the P4 work independently. I would recommend max volume on your device & then controlling volume from the P4 crown, but you can see which you prefer. Controlling volume from your music device might be prefered if, for example, your phone is in your hand and the speaker is mounted on a table.
The crown also features a touch sensitive skip button for skipping to previous and next tracks. This controls your device over bluetooth and is very responsive.
The battery life of the P4 is exceptional. I’ve been using it off & on all day and haven’t yet had it run out. The Micro USB for charging means you can charge the speaker from almost any USB port. I’ve been opting to charge using a spare apple USB wall charger and the supplied cable. The P4 has a 2000mah battery built-in which is rated for at least 6 hours of continuous playback. I’ve yet to find out how long it will actually last as it just doesn’t seem to run out in my regular every day use.
The P4 features Bluetooth 4.1 so is very low drain on devices such as smart phones, and allows for the extra features such as track skip and call answering. The cylindrical design allows for 360 degree sound and the two built-in speakers along with bass cavity allow for decent clarity & very thick bass.
The official stats are as follows
Maximum Working Range: Up to 33 feet (10m) in open space
Battery Lithium battery: 2000mAh
Working Time: 6-8 hours
Charging Time: 4 hours
Dimension (L * W * H): 6.85 x 2.83 x 2.83 inches / 174x 72 x 72 mm
Weight: 17.98oz / 510g
1 x SoundPEATS P4 Bluetooth Speaker
1 x Micro USB Cable
1 x 3.5mm AUX Cable
1 x User Manual
Then came iPhones, smartphones, tablets and smart watches. All relying on a 3G or 4G signal and constantly connected to the internet. People stopped syncing content to their devices and started relying on mobile connectivity. For many reasons, this was the prefered business model for all hardware and software vendors. It meant services like Spotify could rent music to you without ownership ever being offered. People could stream from Netflix and Amazon prime without ever owning their content. The media software companies had a lucrative never-ending revenue stream and the mobile network vendors had endless data usage to keep them in cash. Nirvana for those who would rather lease content than own it.
Having been born in the early eighties & being interested in tech since the ZX spectrum, I’ve always approached things differently. I prefer ownership, I really dislike streaming anywhere other than on a solid broadband connection, I like to have content which is available offline. I travel a lot, I like my MP3’s to be stored on my iPod, my ebooks stored on my kindle and my laptop to be stuffed with movies that are available offline. I like ownership of my content. No chance of changing terms and conditions, and access anywhere on the planet regardless of connectivity.
So we bring it back to RSS. With my web content I’d moved more towards the Spotify model. I would visit websites as & when I remembered, but I’d only have access to that content while online, so often I failed to even check websites from one month to the next. I forgot about many of the gems I used to read daily with RSS. The blog posts I’d read on my XDA or my Palm IIIc while traveling (because the wider internet & social media weren’t available on the go, so I’d actually read real in-depth content). I had become a 140 character junkie, only ever reading a synopsis or an extract. I became aware of a lot of subjects but an expert in non of them. It was time to find a new RSS reader & start reading full length content again.
I searched high & low for a decent RSS reader & I finally settled on Reeder for OSX and OS Sierra. I also have the same app for my iPhone, but I’ll review that separately. Reeder is a fully featured RSS reader. It can show standard RSS feeds, but it can also download full articles, even when the RSS feed is extract only. I guess it does this by visiting the websites canonical link and downloading the full article. Reeder displays your RSS feeds much like an email client. You get all of your post titles/headlines in the left pane and you get the article text in the right pane.
The advantage of an RSS reader like Reeder is that it strips out formatting and presents text in an easy to read format, complete with pictures. It does strip out adverts from content which can be a plus, especially when saving bandwidth & from a privacy standpoint.
With regards features, one of the features I most use is the integration with Feedly. To save me setting up my RSS feeds on every machine I use, I setup a free feedly account and added all of my RSS feeds to the one account. Then, using your feedly credentials in Reeder, you can sync your feedly account and view all of your RSS feeds in the reeder app. Reeder downloads all of your RSS articles for offline viewing & can be set to sync at intervals of your choice. Articles can be set to disappear when read, enabling you to concentrate on fresh content. The built-in mercury reader is ideal for displaying richer full text articles & the reading themes, much like you get in an e-book app or within a reading extension like reader view in Firefox allow you to set the page and text colour and adjust font size and style for easier reading. I find a larger font on a black background allows me to read a lot of content without fatigue. I do like the formatting controls available.
The benefit of RSS is that I don’t have to remember to check websites for new articles. The content is aggregated, sorted and formatted for me to read. I rarely miss an important story in my field now & I’m generally more informed than I have been for years. I always relied on RSS during my university studies to stay current and at the bleeding edge. I’m disappointed that I let this habit of reading RSS be replaced by individual apps and a generally bloated reading experience & would recommend RSS to anyone wanting to regain control of their informative content.
Reeder has a ton of features which I’ve probably not even come across yet. My favourite so far is the Mercury reader. If an RSS feed is just a post extract, asking you to click to read more, simply pressing the G key on your keyboard will fetch the full text from the website & format it in seconds, without the need to visit the website.
Reeder also has extensive sharing features, so if you are an influencer or expert on social media, it’s a great way to find & share relevant articles with your peers. Sharing to services such as Evernote, Twitter, Facebook and Buffer are baked right into the application and allow you to share an article in seconds. Great for growing your online reputation as an influencer.
Reeder supports a lot of RSS feed services such as Feedly, Feedbin, feed wrangler and Feed HQ, and also allows integration into services such as Instapaper for read later functionality. If you prefer to manage your RSS feeds yourself, either for privacy or maybe you only use a single device, than you can add any RSS feed locally without the need for third-party support.
Overall, Reeder has completely changed my information retrieval habits. It’s a flashback to 10 years ago for me as I’ve strayed more and more into individual apps for news and neglected a lot of the awesome blogs & news sites I used to frequently read through RSS.
If you are new to RSS I highly recommend you check it out. The modern web can mean we are bombarded with information. Information overload can lead to people switching off completely from website content and just sticking to their social feeds, but I guarantee if you find bloggers & websites who write about subjects you are passionate about, you will benefit greatly from reading full text articles over tweets and snippets.
Reeder is the perfect choice for those already interest in RSS or those wanting to streamline their information consumption. Offline availability is vital to me. My feeds may provide 1000 articles a day, 100 of which I may read. Now that I can get them offline I can read them on the go. I can remain offline and read without distractions, I can catch up on them on the plane or train. If I’m delayed in an airport, I can read offline content rather than paying for overpriced wi-fi to access sub par apps and tweets.
Please do check out this app. It is a premium product for Mac OS and does carry a £9.99 price tag in the apple app store for Mac OS, but it’s a worthy investment and will radically change how you consume information.
Remember, you can always subscribe to this site via RSS, might be your first subscription 🙂
Now some pictures of Reeder in use.
Over the last few months I’ve had a crackling over the headphones when playing music, which steadily got worse. And only a few weeks back I lost all audio. I was gutted!
It turns out that the very reason I love this iPod, the wolfson DAC, was also the culprit. Over time, the audio chips de-solder from the logic board. This could be due to changes in temperature when using the iPod in hot conditions, such as in a car. I tried to reflow the logic board but to no avail. It was time for a new logic board.
This iPod is now 11 years old & spare parts aren’t easy to come by. I managed to find a Canadian seller on eBay who had a refurbished iPod video 5th generation logic board for sale. The board was £55 delivered & took around 4 weeks to arrive after getting stopped at customs (without extra charges).
Fitting a logic board into a 5th Generation isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires stripping down the iPod into its component parts, including un-pealing ribbon cables which are attached with glue & completely dismantling the chassis. It’s not an impossible task if you take your time, and I’d advise you take pictures along the way to keep track of component & cable locations.
Once I had the logic board in place I reassembled the iPod and plugged it into my iMac. I instantly had an issue. After restoring the iPod software in iTunes I found the iPod stuck in a reboot loop. The Apple logo would display on-screen, followed by the screen flashing and the iPod rebooting. This would happen indefinitely.
At first I suspected a faulty logic board, but I managed to get the iPod into Disk Mode and the screen displayed fine & was recognised by the iMac. This demonstrated that the logic board was fine. I then entered the diagnostic secret menu on the iPod and ran some self tests. Again, all came back as normal. I suspected a formatting issue, so I plugged the iPod in to the iMac in disk mode & used Disk Utility on my mac to format the disk. After formatting the disk iTunes again wanted to restore the iPod, I let it do its thing & the iPod booted first time. This could have been an issue with iFlash quad, or it could be that the storage device is somehow paired to the logic board. Either way, formatting in Disk Mode using disk utility, then restoring in iTunes fixed the issue.
I was happy to see my Ipod boot up quickly & I started to sync my entire library (over 140GB) over to the iPod. This takes a long time as the USB interface on these old iPods is slow. I let it sync overnight and came back to it the next day.
As soon as I started scrolling through the menus it felt different. Only slightly, but I noticed a search option. To my surprise I had been sent the logic board from an iPod 5.5 generation. These where the last of the 5th Generation iPods, the last with the Wolfson DAC which is so sought after, and the one with many improvements. We now have search & brightness controls, and the menus feel snappier. This now means I’ve got a 5.5 Gen iPod with 256GB of flash storage and a fresh battery. Gone are the days of not carrying all of my music. No longer am I bound by 3G/4G signal for my music. This iPod is perfect for travel, ideal for the airplane. Last time I flew to Berlin when the iPod was broken, I only had my iPhone 6. To my dismay I only had 12 songs stored locally, which meant a long travel time with only a handful of tunes I hadn’t even chosen.
I generally hate streaming over cellular. It’s unpredictable, costly & dependent on Signal. It also ruins battery life. I’m so glad to have my iPod up & running again & I can see me using this for another 10 years. If you have a 5th Generation iPod & still use it, let me know in the comments.
I started searching online for a solution and there seemed to be solutions for loads of older versions, but nothing about the current 3.0.3 plugin. After successfully getting the plugin to run on various other copies of wordpress on the same server I started to look at the config of the problematic blog. The only thing that differs on this site, compared to my others, is the level of security I have set. I quickly discovered that the All In One security plugin (also known as WP security) was stopping the Cloudflare settings page from loading. Simply disabling the WP All In One Security plugin allowed me to load the cloudflare wordpress plugin and get around the blank grey settings screen.
I can now configure wordpress without any issues to use Cloudflare. Once I set all of the API settings in the cloudflare plugin I reactivated the WP All In One security plugin and had it reinsert all of my .htaccess rules. surprisingly, the Cloudlfare plugin now plays nicely with the WP All In One Security plugin and I can get on with my day.
If you are having issues with a blank settings page using the cloudflare plugin with wordpress, have a look at your security plugins & disable one at a time until you are able to enter your API credentials. Then re-enable and hopefully you can carry on with your blogging.
Hope this works for you. Please do let me know if it does.
As I see it, net neutrality is already dead. While it may be possible for anyone to create a website or web content & share it with the rest of the world, we have reached a point where a handful of gatekeepers restrict access to that content through their ubiquity & their algorithms.
Take my website for example. The vast majority of my traffic, more than 90%, now comes from google organic search. Only 5 or 6 years ago I would receive traffic from MSN (now bing), Yahoo, AOL, Ask and a plethora of other search engines. I would get hits from DMOZ and other directory sites & I would get lots of links from other blogs and websites.
Today, the majority comes from Google. Google has become the defacto search engine & this is a direct challenge to Net Neutrality. For one, algorithms cater all of your searches to you. This may sound wonderful, but it creates millions of separate filter bubbles. Before google made the algorithm changes that catered search results based on your own activity, a website would climb the ranks based on real world popularity. If you had an amazing blog post or popular webpage it would be promoted up the rankings for all users, regardless of their own browsing habits. This produced a genuine meritocracy in search & every website had its chance to shine, given the content was good.
A few years back, content was ranked based on how many other people linked to it & how authoritative it was deemed. This system could be gamed, but on the whole it worked very well. Around 2012 Google started to make changes. Probably due to the introduction of the Chrome web browser, Android phones and chrome books. Users started to integrate their online lives with Google. A google account was required for Youtube & Gmail and a whole host of their services. At this point, google had the perfect way to start slurping up all of your browsing data, all of your email contents, your google+ posts, your hangouts & messages. This allowed for specific catering of search results & pretty much ended authoritative content on google. This shift to locking users into google services was the first step of the major tech companies in shutting down net neutrality in a new way. It’s no good having great content if Google deems it of no use. This could have huge implications. Think political, social and corporate interests.
Google have made themselves the internet (and not just google, between google, facebook, twitter, instagram & spotify there isn’t any room for competition). By making themselves the first port of call for most web users, they have become the gate keepers. The judges of quality, the architects of our information.
This problem is further compounded by Google’s advertising model. My browser is very secure, I use Ghostery, Adblock & Privacy Badger to block as many trackers & adverts as possible. My search looks very different to that of most regular users, see the screenshots below.
As you can see from the above example, searching for badges on Google, in the top screenshot I’m given search results which aren’t filtered by any factors such as my browsing history, location or email contents. This is as close to how google used to work as possible. Without tailoring of my search results I’m mostly given the most relevant and best websites. This doesn’t take into account any blocking from search results google may have done of perfectly relevant content that has been deemed algorithmically unacceptable.
Now the bottom two screenshots tell a different story. That’s how my search looks when I’m logged into google & my ad blockers are turned off. They are hijacked considerably by advertising. Paid links. Most of the content above the fold is advertising content & is given more prominence through styling. It urges a user to click the content. This is not democratic. The more you can pay, the more you can sap search traffic towards content which may be incorrect, irrelevant or misleading. If you have the money, you can top all search results.
It’s the same below the fold, the bottom of the page is full of advertising and noise, the actual search results get lost amongst the noise. This is another way in which net neutrality is being destroyed. My search here is pretty mundane, just searching for badges in the UK, but imagine it was on searches such as climate change, political campaigns or even denial of events. If you had the bank roll & the manpower, you could top all relevant search results & influence a large part of the debate. Given that Google is now the defacto search engine, you could literally get any story in front of everyone searching a topic. The ability to shape or re-write history is yours if you can afford it. This will have profound effects on politics. We have already seen the power of the internet in politics both in the UK & USA and this will only get worse as people discover the power of the internet, not only to influence, but to avoid scrutiny.
I personally use startpage and duck duck go to search. It is not as convenient as being logged into a google account, but I know the results aren’t tailored & that my search history isn’t shaping my view of the internet. I recommend you all consider spreading your search wings & find less intrusive search engines.
Moving on to social media, if it’s photos you are sharing, you probably use Instagram (Facebook), if it’s instant messaging & text messaging, it’s probably whatsapp (Facebook) or Facebook messenger. If you want to share personal thoughts with close friends & family it’s probably Facebook you are using, and for more generic less personal sharing or professional social media use you probably use twitter. For your video watching, you probably use Youtube (google) & for music, no doubt it’s spotify.
You can see the issue here, nearly all of our online lives are controlled by a few companies. It is they who decide what we are allowed to see & they who take payment to promote the websites & views of those with the most money. You probably spend the majority of your time flitting between services owned by Facebook, Google & Twitter. This leads to a serious erosion of net neutrality as you are only exposed on the internet to content they see fit & proper (of course unless money is involved, in which case you can buy as many users eyeballs as your funds will allow).
Facebook is a company I have now distanced myself from. I have an empty profile on there & have even blocked access to Facebook urls in my hosts file on my computers. Facebook is the worst example of both data mining of users data & the filter bubble effect. Facebook wants to keep you online & on their platform, be it via a web browser or app. The Facebook feed used to be a basic set of status updates, you could visit & spend 10 minutes catching up with friends & sharing photos. It was a pretty benign service. I now see it as a serious threat to the open internet. Your Facebook feed is now a never-ending, algorithmically generated quagmire of information, all tailored specifically to you. If Facebook knows you are interested in something, it will show you more of that. Lots more of that. It’s almost impossible to finish using Facebook. All of your likes, all of your comments and all of your activity go towards building a picture of you. They profile every user & compare you to other users. Content other users similar to you like is shown to you. Your bubble becomes smaller and smaller until everybody is exposed only to information which they relate too.
This tailoring of information may sound wonderful if your interest is in something innocent, say kittens or coastal walks, but imagine if your interests are a little more serious. We saw in the UK how Facebook essentially split the country in half. Those of us on the Pro EU side & those on the Anti EU side. Each group were shown more & more information which reinforced their own view, while never being shown the other sides of the argument. This isn’t debate, it’s the reinforcement of divisions in society, the reinforcement of prejudices and without neutrality it has got way out of hand. I stopped using Facebook shortly after Jun 2016 after reading more & more about their algorithms & the filter bubbles they create.
As a web developer I can see the engineering thinking behind these algorithms. As feats of engineering they are superb & very accurate, however as someone who studied Web Development in a humanities department back in 2005 I can see that applying only engineering thinking to social platforms is a recipe for disaster. I believe that the referendum in the UK was extra devastating because of social media. Both sides, from what they could glean from their Facebook pages, thought they couldn’t lose. All of the information they received via Facebook reinforced their own views without ever challenging them. That is not a debate & with such algorithms it will only drive deeper divisions between every niche community in the world. With a referendum or a vote, chances are one side will always lose. It’s the whole point of putting things to a vote, but social media reinforced to both sides that their argument was beyond question to such an extent that the devastation was even greater for the losing side. And it spills out & has real world effects in society.
As I was saying earlier, I learned Web Development very early on. Back then it wasn’t really a thing & my degree route was actually called Web Content Management. We did web design & development, but we also did internet law, internet infrastructure, information architecture & information retrieval. We studied web accessibility for disabled users and a whole host of humanities focused modules alongside the technical modules. This gave me a great oversight of the internet, not just from an engineering standpoint but also that of a user & society in general. Back then, you didn’t google for things, you searched. Youtube didn’t exist, bandwidth was expensive & videos online kept to a minimum. It was much easier to read genuine fresh content, to learn new things & discover new ideas & ways of thinking. Back then it was a neutral place. Discussions were done on IRC or over instant messaging clients. They didn’t take place in public. Tweets didn’t exist & certainly wouldn’t have been used as authoritative quotes in the media. News wasn’t broken, it was triple checked, confirmed, edited and then published. We didn’t use personal information, we used nicknames or handles. We didn’t share private or identifying information. The net was a better place.
If you wanted to publish ideas, you first had to learn a bit about the internet, almost like getting a license to drive. We had netiquette (if you used ALL CAPS you where very angry). If you wanted to write to your MP, you had to write or email, not just shout abuse at them on twitter.
The internet will always have bias as long as engineers are programming the algorithms, but any tailoring based on your own interests introduces another layer of bias which is not healthy. If you think of a traditional library such as a university library, you would go to the shelves housing the subject you where interested in & every single book on those shelves would carry equal weight. Your selection would be based on reviewing a sample of books & choosing the most relevant. Search engines have taken this away from information retrieval as searches are first skewed by paid advertising, then by algorithms & finally by a users search profile. If you are constantly being shown things you are familiar with and never any variation, you will never develop a rounded knowledge of any subject. Imagine walking into a library & there being salesman pushing their books at you, shouting for your attention, it just wouldn’t happen.
I fear for the future of the internet if more people move towards these major tech players. The underlying technology of the internet will probably remain neutral, but if all the portals people use to access the internet are controlled by the likes of Facebook & Google, people will only ever be exposed to the content that is deemed fit. This could lead to major headaches for all democracies. Online electioneering is already beginning, the billionaires are bankrolling the politicians & secretly funding campaigns. They are creating misinformation & fake news is now a thing. They are mining vast quantities of data from social media & targeting users in extremely precise ways online. This funding is known as dark money & as it’s impossible to keep a track of online ad spending it introduces the ability to win elections by buying influence with unlimited spending. All of this information is ours to give, and modern web users give it freely. That needs to change. Consider your privacy, do you want pictures of your children appearing in advertising because in the terms & conditions you agreed to it states that all content becomes the property of Facebook? I know I wouldn’t!
So consider your web usage. If a website requires you to sign-up to browse, look for another service. Try some of the different search engines, they may be slightly less convenient, but your privacy is worth much more to you. If you use a Gmail or Hotmail account, remember that your emails are being scanned & used to cater your search results. Always log out of social media & google when not using them. Consider a service such as Proton mail or self hosted email. Don’t put your most intimate details onto Facebook & twitter. The moment you upload that content you lose control of it. Remember, these services make money from your clicks, they are designed to hold your attention and keep you on their websites. Be careful what you click ‘like’ on. Don’t help them market to you.
Install ghostery to stop these companies tracking your movements around the internet. Don’t rely on Facebook & Twiter for all of your news and facts. Anything that uses an algorithm will never give you balance & will only divide people further.
I intend to write more on this subject. I’ll address different areas one at a time, but hopefully this post will at least get you thinking. There is a world of wonderful & informative information out there on the Web, don’t let Google & Facebook hide it from you.
GPG is important for emails as it means that an email remains encrypted between the sender & the receiver. It works on the principle of key pairs. Each user generates a pair of keys, one private key remains secret and on the user’s computer, the other, known as a public key is free to distribute on the internet and allows you to pass it on to those you wish to communicate with.
It is important that your private (secret) key always remains private & you never share it with anyone. The keys are paired so that both are required to encrypt & decrypt emails. I won’t go into the technicals of it, if you are interested there are a lot of free resources which will guide you through the technology.
Encryption also requires a password to be set when creating your key pair. This password allows you to unlock your keys & use them to encrypt your email. Both sender & receiver need to set up a keypair & share their public keys with each other. This allows encrypted communication between both parties.
On OSX/ OS Sierra you can use the free & open source GPG Suite to install the tools required to start encrypting email. The suite includes the GPG keychain which allows you to create your key-pair for your email address, and it also allows you to store the public keys of your recipients & to upload your public keys to public key servers. It allows you to manage & store your keys.
Also in GPG suite you have GPG mail which integrates with the native mac mail client. Much of the encryption process is automated once you setup your keypair, including downloading the keys of recipients you address your emails to. You can also sign your emails with GPG Mail which confirms your email as authentic to the recipient.
First, install GPGsuite using the .DMG file available on their website. If you are using Sierra or require cutting edge enhancements, opt for the beta package.
Once installed you will have an extra option in your settings preference pane called GPG Preferences. This allows you to set your GPG preferences, such as update checking and the public keyserver you would like to use. Most people can just leave this set with the default values.
The first thing you will want to set up are your keypairs. Make sure you have added the email account you want to start using with encryption as one of your Mac Mail accounts. If you use a free account such as Gmail you can still add it to your Mac Mail software & encrypt emails using that account.
Next, head to your applications folder & select the newly installed GPG keychain application. Open the application and click New in the top left corner. You will be presented with the following screen, showing you your Mac Mail email addresses. In these settings, select the email account you would like to use with GPG encryption, select the box to upload your public key (makes it much easier for people to correspond with you) and enter your passphrase.
The passphrase is a vital part of your encryption as it unlocks your keypair for use. Make sure it is a strong password & one you can remember. Also, my advice is to use a password you only use for encryption. This password is never for use with any online services such as websites. A single hack of any of those sites could reveal your password, so encryption passwords are only for local use.
Once you are happy with your passphrase, click generate key. Your GPG key pair will be generated & public key uploaded to they keyservers.
You should then see your newly created key within GPG Keychain. You are now good to start creating encrypted emails.
My advice, if you are going to start encrypting emails between friends, family or colleagues is to first send them an email with your public key attached. This way, they can import it into their keychain to allow them to email you. They can also send you theirs back. This isn’t a requirement if you have both uploaded them to a keyserver, but it’s always a good idea before you start encrypting communications between you. It’s also a friendly way to allow the other party to know that you want to encrypt your emails & to expect future emails to be encrypted.
Now, fire up Mac Mail and compose a new email, you will see a new OpenPGP option in the top right of your compose window. This will be green if using an email account for which you have created a keypair & will be greyed out if composing from an account without a keypair. In the screenshot below I’m emailing between my own account & my unused gmail account which also has a keypair. As you can see the OpenPGP button is green which means a keypair is present & I can encrypt on this account.
You will also see in the above screenshot the two blue icons. They are blue if they are enabled, but are greyed out if either a public key isn’t present for your recipient or you have opted not to encrypt. If you do have a public key for your recipient in your GPG Keychain you can activate one or both of these buttons. The left one which is a padlock is your encryption button, the right one is your GPG signature to securely sign your email. If sending to someone with whom you have a public key, I would always sign & encrypt.
Once you are setup, emailing is just as straightforward as before. Write your message, your subject and add any attachments you would like. Note that only the body of the email is encrypted, the subject line is not so be careful what you use there as it is publicly viewable. Once you are ready you can hit send, at this point you will be given an OpenGPG prompt for your pass phrase. This is your encryption pass phrase which you setup at the time of creating your key pair. This password will be required every time you encrypt or decrypt an email. You can opt to save the pass phrase in your keychain but I would advise against that. The whole point of encryption is to make email for your eyes only (and your recipient of course) so keep the passphrase to yourself & commit it to memory. It’s just good practice.
The last part of the puzzle is decrypting email. Below is a screenshot I took of the email I just sent between my two accounts. When opening the email you will be asked for your encryption passphrase, this is to unlock your own keypair to decrypt the email. You will see from the screenshot that the email looks like any other, with the exception that it has signature and encryption details. The padlock shows that the email is encrypted.
If you follow these steps you will ensure any correspondence sent between you & your friends/family can’t be read by any third-party. This means that if your email account is hacked, the contents of your messages remain private. Perfect for family photos, private information and general personal chatter. It also means that companies such as google can’t read your emails for advertising & data collection purposes. The message remains scrambled with encryption across the whole internet, no matter who intercepts it.
Once you get used to this process it will become second nature. I like the ‘at rest’ security of encrypted emails. I’m less worried about personal emails being hacked or stolen in a data grab. If my server is compromised, my emails are not. I also like the fact that using a completely unique password for my encryption means that my encryption password is never in the wild online. I’ve committed a complex password to memory & I’m not likely to forget it after typing it so many times.
No security is perfect, but this is by far the biggest bang for your buck with regards securing your communications on a day-to-day basis.
You must keep your key pair secure. You can back them up using GPG keychain, both your public & private key, but you must keep them safe. Never put your secret (private) key online or into cloud storage. If you ever lose control of your keypair, someone could pose as you and send emails masquerading as you, not to mention decrypt emails if they guess your passphrase. GPG Keychain has the ability to revoke keys if you feel they have been compromised. You can then generate a new keypair & upload to keyservers as required.
This is just a brief outline of how to get started with OpenPGP using GPGSuite. If you would like to know more, you can read up online. A good starting point is the GPGtools site itself.
If you would like to send your first encrypted email, drop me a message at john AT johnlarge.co.uk using my public key which you can retrieve from the keyservers or download by clicking here. If you want to add to this post or correct please do let me know, like my other cybersecurity posts I’ve kept it as simple and non technical as possible to make it accessible. The post will evolve over time.