Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

April 10, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Stem my bleeding heart

Screenshot of the heartbleed.com web page

If you read tech news on the internet, then you will have almost certainly come across the Heartbleed bug. As well as being probably the first programming bug to have a logo and brand name, it’s also very serious. It affects, or affected, a significant number of web sites and web services – pretty much anything that used SSL or TLS and the OpenSSL library. This will include many sites using the open source Apache and nginx web servers, which between them account for a majority of web sites.

The Heartbleed bug was in the ‘heartbeat’ component of OpenSSL, and first appeared in a code commit made at around 11pm on New Years Eve 2011 – make of that what you will. The first stable release of OpenSSL with the bug came in March 2012, and it was only fixed relatively recently. It’s therefore estimated that 17% of the world’s web sites may be affected.

If you administer a server that uses OpenSSL, then you’ll need to make sure that you update to the latest version which fixes the bug. But you may also need to revoke your SSL certificates and acquire new ones, and, if you suspect any foul play, do a full security audit. You can check your server using this tool – I’ve verified that this site was never affected.

If you’re just a regular user of the internet, then you may notice that some web sites will have forcibly logged you out. Some may also require you to change your password, and possibly re-connect any third party apps linked to your account. IFTTT emailed me to suggest changing my password, and Pocket has advised its users to do the same. Ironically, so has the web site Should I Change My Password which notifies of data breaches. If you are not already, I would suggest using a password manager such as 1Password, RoboForm, Keypass or LastPass. LastPass users can also find out if any sites they use have been affected by Heartbleed.

Some security experts have suggested that users change all of their passwords, although only once the web sites have implemented their fixes. This may not be necessary and PayPal has said they were not affected by Heartbleed. However, if you’re not using strong, unique passwords for every web site then now may be a good time to do so, regardless of whether sites have been affected or not, and the aforementioned password managers will help you in that regard. A lot of sites will now accept passwords that are more than 20 characters long, with special characters, which should be very, very difficult to crack.

April 9, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Farewell, Windows XP

Windows XP Desktop Yesterday saw the release of the last security updates for Windows XP, ending over 12 years of support from Microsoft. XP was the longest-lived of any of the Windows operating systems, and one that I used regularly at home and at work, from late 2001 right up until last summer.

I got to start using Windows XP within a month of its release in the late autumn of 2001. We had it on my parents’ computer, although I set it to dual-boot with Windows 98 – the operating system that came with the computer – as there were a couple of programs that wouldn’t work.

Indeed in the early days compatibility turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Windows XP was the first operating system in the Windows NT (‘New Technology’, not ‘Neil Turner’, sadly) family to be made available to home consumers – previous NT releases, including Windows 2000, where aimed more at business users. Home users were used to Windows 95, 98 and Me, which had a different architecture. Though XP had the ability to mimic these earlier operating systems, many games refused to run. And you needed new sets of device drivers too, if XP didn’t already come with them.

The computer my parents had just about met the minimum system requirements for Windows XP. It had a 400 MHz AMD K6-2 processor, a 10 gigabyte hard drive and 128 megabytes of RAM, which had been upgraded from 64 MB. 128 MB was the minimum that XP required, which was towards the high side even then.

Underneath, Windows XP wasn’t massively different than the well-received Windows 2000, but the new ‘modern’ interface was controversial with some if I remember correctly. I liked it personally but I know some people used to call it ‘Tellytubby’ or ‘Fisher-Price’ mode. Either way, you could easily switch back to the ‘Classic’ interface if you so wished. Or, if the blue of the so-called ‘Luna’ interface wasn’t to your liking, you could change it to a silver or olive theme, but Microsoft never really bothered to add many other official themes – ‘Royale’ was the only other one I came across and it was never officially released.

One innovation Microsoft introduced with Windows XP was ‘ClearType’, its name for anti-aliased fonts which de-pixelated the text on screen. Except it was off by default and buried away in Control Panel, so most users weren’t aware of it. It wasn’t until Windows Vista followed in 2006 that ClearType would be enabled by default. Apple, on the other hand, enabled anti-aliasing from an early stage on Mac OS X which helped it to look better when compared with Windows at the time.

Early issues with its new interface and compatibility aside, Windows XP has had extraordinary staying power, with a significant number of computers still running it even now. I suppose migration away from XP wasn’t helped by Windows Vista being poorly received – again, high system requirements and poor third-party driver availability gave it a bad name. And Windows 8 has had a flaky introduction, with a poor experience on non-touchscreen devices. It won’t surprise many that Microsoft is planning on re-introducing the Start Menu in a future update. But Windows 7 is a solid operating system which is well-supported and has another six years of updates ahead of it.

So, farewell Windows XP.

April 8, 2014
by Neil Turner
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How to measure influence on Twitter

My Twitter bio There are a number of sites out there which claim to measure how influential someone is on Twitter, and other social networks. Klout is probably the best known, which gives everyone on Twitter a score out of 100. I’d tell you my score but I opted out in 2011, and, in any case, I get the impression few people bother with Klout anymore anyway.

The problem with using a third-party service like Klout is that it gives you a score, generated using a secret, proprietary algorithm, that is largely meaningless. What would be better is actually looking at individual Twitter accounts yourself, to work out if it’s influential or not. And there are a few things to look for.

1. Has the account been verified by Twitter?

If the account has that magical blue checkmark next to it, then Twitter has verified the account as belonging to whoever it claims to be. This generally means that the person is important, has a reputation that needs to be maintained, and is therefore likely to be influential.

Not all verified accounts are so authoritative though. As I found in November, some verified accounts only have around 100 followers and never tweet, so it’s one factor to be considered, rather than the main indicator.

2. Does it have a large number of followers?

Pretty simple this one – the more people who follow an account, the more likely its messages are able to be amplified. Again, there are limitations here, as any number of shady web sites will sell you Twitter followers. And there are accounts out there with hundreds of thousands of followers that never tweet anything.

3. Is it followed by a large number of verified accounts?

There are some accounts out there with thousands of followers which are not verified. Just being a celebrity isn’t enough, apparently, so some official accounts of well-known and influential people are not verified. But if a lot of verified accounts do follow a particular non-verified account, then that latter account may still be worth paying attention to.

4. Is it retweeted a lot?

When you retweet something, you amplify the message to your followers, who may not already follow that account. If an account has tweets that are regularly retweeted, it’s a sign that the user posts engaging content that his/her followers are happy to share themselves. Therefore, their influence spreads beyond just their own followers.

5. Does the account interact with other accounts?

Broadly speaking, you can put Twitter accounts into two boxes – conversationalists, and broadcasters. I’m mainly a broadcaster – tweeting links, and mostly talking about myself, because I’m a massive narcissist. But others spend more time replying to other accounts, and engaging in a conversation. There’s a lot of overlap, but someone who regularly responds to replies sent to them is more likely to engage with you. This doesn’t necessarily make someone influential, but if they already meet some of the criteria that I mention above, then they may be worth engaging with.

These are just a few things to look out for when trying to find someone who can influence people. If you have a message you want to pass on using social media, such as promoting an event, raising awareness for charity, or just plain marketing – then targeting the correct people can really help.

One final tip is to make sure that the people you are speaking to are relevant to your message. Most Twitter users have some kind of niche, which should be obvious from reading a few tweets (or even just their bio) – ensure that you target the users with similar interests. Not only are they more likely to engage with you, but you’re less likely to get ridiculed for pestering people on social media about something they don’t care about.

April 7, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Office 365 University

Office 365

Over the weekend I bought a copy of Microsoft Office for the first time. In the past, I’ve managed with either what’s been pre-loaded on new computers, or, since I got my own computer, OpenOffice or its variants.

But now Microsoft offers Office 365 University. For £60, you get to use Microsoft Office on two computers, and an unlimited number of mobile devices, for four years. The catch being that you need to be a full-time student, or a member of staff at university. Thankfully, the latter is true in my case. Continue Reading →

April 6, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Kickstarted: Greedy Wizards

Oooh, my copy of Greedy Wizards has arrived. Backed on Kickstarter a few weeks ago.

What was it?

The eleventh project I backed on Kickstarter was Greedy Wizards, a two-player card game about two wizards who battle over who gets to eat a delicious cake.

How much did I pledge?

£9 – again, one of the higher pledges that I’ve made.

What did I get?

I got the above-pictured copy of the game, which is a special edition only available to backers (although I don’t think the game itself is any different, just the cover) and a pin badge.

The project flew past its original goal of £1750, ultimately raising nearly £8000 – almost four and a half times more than planned. Pleasingly the people behind the project were able to get things going very quickly and so my pack of cards was dispatched within a few weeks of the end of the funding period.

At this point, I would tell you what it’s like to play the game, seeing as I’ve had it for four months now. Indeed, the fact that I had not yet played the game was part of the inspiration for writing this series of blog posts about projects that I have backed on Kickstarter, as by writing about these projects I would force myself to make use of the things I had received in return. And one of the reasons why I backed this particular project was that it was a two-player game that Christine and I could play against each other – games such as Munchkin, which we also own, require a minimum of three players.

But, as you have probably gathered, we haven’t got around to playing it – and this is partly why this blog post is being posted so late on a Sunday night, as I was hoping that we would get time to play it. Alas, things conspired against us and we didn’t get time. On the other hand, when we do get around to playing it, it’ll give me something else to write about.

If you’re interested in purchasing your own copy of Greedy Wizards, then at the moment you’re out of luck. The official web site states that the game will be on general sale, probably on Amazon, ‘soon’, but when that will actually be remains to be seen as it’s not there right now.

April 5, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Links from Delicious for April 5, 2014

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Delicious Bookmarks:

Digest powered by RSS Digest

April 4, 2014
by Neil Turner
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The rise of social media and the fall of blogging

I’m still trying hard to write a new blog post for every day. At times, several ideas for blog posts come at once and so I can get several days’ worth written in one go.

This isn’t one of those times. Coming up with interesting blog posts has been difficult this week, hence yesterday’s and today’s largely reflective and apologetic posts. Which made me wonder – how was it so easy for me to publish multiple posts every day ten years ago?

Back in the halcyon days of the first part of the last decade, not only would I post a new blog post every day pretty much without fail, but two-three new posts was the norm and sometimes five or six would be possible. So if I could do it then, what has changed to make it harder to do now? I think the answer is social media.

In 2004 ‘social media’ wasn’t really a thing. Sure, blogging was popular, but there was no Twitter, Flickr had only just launched and Facebook was still just for American university students. So, for me, my blog was the only place to post anything that I wanted to share with the world.

Now that’s changed. Yesterday, not including retweets and replies, I posted eight tweets. Although many of those were also shared to Delicious, and will appear in a digest tomorrow, if I want back ten years then each of those may have been a blog post (or at least combined into one or two). Similarly, all the results of those inane quizzes that I used to would be worthy of a blog post – nowadays, they tend just get posted to Facebook (and even then only if it’s an interesting result).

So what’s left are the long blog posts, which naturally take longer to write. Which means that, when faced with the past couple of weeks when I’ve been either too busy, too tired, or not in the right frame of mind to write, it gets difficult to come up with anything.

When put this way, it’s obvious why few people maintain blog posts nowadays. Other services now provide better platforms for other content. If I want to share a photo, I’m likely to get more views and attention on either Instagram or Flickr. If I can distil my thoughts down to 140 characters, then it’s more likely to get noticed on Twitter, than it would in a one paragraph blog post. The blogging community is so small now that narcissistic people like me prefer to use other platforms for specific things, like short posts and photos, where there’s more engagement.

Is that an argument against blogging altogether? Not in my view. I still think it’s important to have your own space that you control. I could move everything over to WordPress.com or Tumblr and be part of those much larger communities, but having a place where you own and control your own words is important to me. It’s possible that in another ten years there may not be Twitter or Facebook, but this web site could still be here if I wanted it to be.

April 3, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Recovery

Last week was an intense one for me. As well as the funeral and the wedding, I spent two nights in Bristol for work. Christine and I have been planning a trip to Bristol for some time, although in the end I didn’t get to see much of it outside of my work commitments. So we’ll still be planning a trip there sometime.

I’ve also had a couple of late nights at work this week, and seem to have picked up a stomach bug as well. So last night I was in bed before 7pm, and barely noticed when Christine got called into work at midnight, nor when she came back at 2am.

I’m somewhat better now, but very much looking forward to a day of annual leave tomorrow where I have nothing planned. Although should the weather turn nice I may venture outside for a bit.

Consequently I’ve not felt much like blogging anything, nor have I been at home much to do anything computer-related. I’ve (still) got a big backlog of things to read in Pocket to tackle. Hopefully the quiet weekend will let me catch up.

April 2, 2014
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

No longer a need to prove it

Photo of a Portman Group Prove It card

Back when I turned 18, in 2002, one of the first things I did was order a ‘Prove It’ card from the Portman Group. At the time, it was one of only three cards that could be used to prove your age when buying alcohol – the others being your passport or a photocard driving license. I didn’t have a driving license then, and didn’t really want to take my passport around whilst out drinking. So this was the best option, even if not all pubs and bars accepted it – in the early years they were notoriously easy to create fakes from.

Twelve years later and I still have the card. It’s not the exact same one as they were re-issued some time ago, but it’s still years old. The picture is still one of me aged 18. And until now it’s still been in my wallet.

With the end of my twenties looming next month, I decided it was about time to take the card out of my wallet. The last time I was asked for ID when buying alcohol was a couple of years ago, and in any case I have a driving license now – albeit a provisional one. Furthermore, the Portman Group discontinued the Prove It scheme in 2007, and whilst it should still be valid, I haven’t bothered to try it.

April 1, 2014
by Neil Turner
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How to write a good April Fools’ Day joke

Firebox's Katie Hopkins Talking Head April Fools Day joke

So today is April Fools’ Day, or ‘Internet Jackass Day’ as some like to call it. Various news web sites will try hard to write something faintly believable in order to fool some of their more gullible readers.

Firebox has, as usual, launched some intriguing new products, as has ThinkGeek. There’s the Pokemon mini-game in Google Maps on iOS and Android. There’s the usual silly article from The Guardian, and CERN has decided to use Comic Sans on its web site.

I’m not doing an April Fool this year, mainly because I don’t think I can top my 2010 effort, where I announced I was standing in the upcoming general election. Impressively, some more distance friends actually fell for it – mainly because they didn’t get on to the really silly campaign promises towards the end. Because it had an air of believability about it – I’ve run for student union positions before, and the timing was right – it made for a good April Fool, if I may say so myself.

Whilst it’s a bit late now, my advice for writing a good April Fools’ Day joke is to spend some time reading The Onion. They are the professionals when it comes to satire, to the extent that sites like Literally Unbelievable exist to poke fun at those who fall for their stories.

The jokes work best when they’re timely – relating to a current event or issue – and could actually fool some people. Avoid the usual clichés of announcing a closure or an unlikely merger as they have been done to death in the past.

Finally, don’t do what Google did and announce an actual product on April Fools’ Day. Ten years ago today, Google announced Gmail, with one gigabyte of storage – 500 times more than what Hotmail offered at the time. As such, some people – including myself – initially thought that Gmail was another April Fools’ Day gag (a whole gigabyte of storage? Nah!). It wasn’t, and now Gmail has had its tenth birthday today.