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My perspective may be skewed
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2nd-May-2015 08:17 pm - Brush those teeth
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




It may be important to note that over on her very own photoblog, Maggie has released a set of toothbrushing selfies

2nd-May-2015 07:11 pm - The School Missive
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




We are four months away from Maggie’s first day of school – real school, that is, as opposed to nursery school. Recently, I seem to be reading a lot of articles about overzealous notes sent home with children and/or sent to parents.

Maybe this is a new thing. More likely, I’ve skimmed past these for years, and it is only since we have received confirmation of Maggie’s school a couple of weeks ago that I’ve actually noticed them.

So this recent one is a dire warning about Instagram. It has a straw man argument about the Instagram terms of service, and then goes on to imply that:

a) The internet (well, instagram, in this case) is an unhealthy place for children, and
b) Good parents should shelter their children from the world instead of prepare them for it.

The first one, I understand. For many people tasked with raising children, the internet is strange and unfathomable — after all, when I started university, there was no Google, no Yahoo!, no PayPal, no Hotmail. And I am a parent of a four-year-old. School administrators can quite easily be my age (but understandably less web-savvy), or older (and even more understandably less web-savvy).

Fear of the unknown is common. And the belief that new technology is causing moral decay in the new generation dates back at least as far as the written word.

The second one just gets my goat.

I mean, I get it. I get the people who don’t have kids — or even those who have them, but aren’t, you know, professionals responsible for the care and development of children — and look at particular situations and say ‘you should have taken more care there.’ Hindsight is great.

And I can understand the group of parents who give in to fear, and must protect the children at all costs.

But how in the world can a person dedicated to educating young people promote an agenda of avoidance over preparedness?

Or, more greedily, what can I do when I encounter this? Because I do not doubt what I would do. I read that letter, and I wonder — do I write back? Call the school? Visit the head teacher? Try to change schools?

I believe that kids will pick up the culture from their environment. This means that good parenting is most often setting a good example, and less often the lessons you intend to set. (Also: remember that kids notice more than you think they do.) And it means that the general approach and philosophy of a school is more important than the ability of any given teacher.

Can a school that prefers sheltering children to preparing them really succeed at the latter?

Methinks this is a hypothetical puzzle that will receive a lot of brain time …

7th-Jan-2015 06:52 am - Zero
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




Last night, Maggie explained zero to me.

Do you know what zero is Daddy?
What’s zero?
It’s none. Like, how many elephants do you have? That’s zero.
Elephants?
And do we have imaginary cats in the house? Yes. Of course we do.

Of course we do.

26th-Nov-2014 07:00 am - The rebirth of blog
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




It’s a strange world.

I’ve found myself writing a couple of times lately — just emails, but emails where I wanted the tone to differ from work. Or twitter. And it was hard. I’ve never found writing hard before.

(That’s a total lie right there. Writer’s block is a thing that I have had. But writing has not previously been hard in this specific way.)

In any case, I was sitting there, typing away. And I read something that sounded more appropriate for the office. I tried again. Nope.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

Nope.

To me, there’s a clear cause here. For the first time in my life, I’m just not writing enough. The Big Bad Blog, Livejournal, university papers, letters to girlfriends, songs, poems, Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I’ve been writing things – writing a variety of things – for more time than I can remember.

But today, I write emails and white papers for work, pretty much. So that’s got to end.

So, dear reader that has stuck around. Welcome back to the Big Bad Blog.

I’m not sure what’s going to show up here. But it won’t be nothing. Let’s have fun.

18th-Aug-2014 02:04 am - You like me, you really like me
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




This week, I read two very different articles about using the like function on Facebook.

First, I read about Mat Honan of Wired liking everything he saw on Facebok for 48 hours. Then I read about Elan Morgan avoiding Facebook’s like function for two weeks.

The results speak for themselves.

Honan managed to change Facebook into a nightmare site, full of trashy linkbait. All the reasons we put up with Facebook’s horrible privacy track record were lost in a giant trashpile of “… and you won’t believe what happened next!” By contrast, Morgan saw the trash pile diminish and his friends emerge. From his description, it sounds like the Facebook News feed that conned us into signing on to the service re-emerged when the likes were thrown in the trash.

A reminder

After reading the two articles, the first thing I thought was well yeah, duh, of course.

But these things are only obvious now that my attention has been drawn to it. Facebook’s like function is not, in truth, a tool for Facebook users to indicate that they like something. It is not a thumbs-up to the author of the status. These things are spin.

The like function is Facebook’s primary tool to track what you are looking at, and it feeds the algorithm that places garbage in your Facebook News feed.

And if you overfeed the algorithm, it grows to Godzilla proportions, and decimates the Tokyo that is your News feed. Starve it, and it dies. Or, at least, becomes a weak shadow of its former self.

Strangely enough, while I had been finding Facebook much worse lately, I did not associate it with my recent decision to be more participatory — which, essentially, means that I’ve been liking more things. If anything, I was trying to like my way out of it – trying to like more ‘better’ things, in an effort to turn the algorithm. I should have been starving it, instead.

I really like you. You really like me.

So I’m going to take a page out of Morgan’s book, and stop liking you on Facebook.

Not just you, though. Everything.

I’ll still try to be more participatory, but using comments instead. It might even cause some conversations with friends. Which is exactly what Facebook is meant to encourage. But what it needs you to avoid.

And if you stop liking me? I’ll understand. From here on, I’ll assume that you would have liked what I wrote. You just don’t want to feed the algorithm.

3543888150_ae75e9ac6f_z

Image is Thumbs up, by Vincent

10th-Aug-2014 11:22 am - I love spam
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




We all hate spam. The scourge of the internet, and all that.

But while it is a persistent annoyance, sometimes there’s a gem. Like this one, from “Crystle”:

I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was wondering what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?

I’m not very internet smart so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

Feel free to surf to my blog; healthy weight loss

I just love it. How do you set up a blog? Please visit mine, which is already set up.

Whoever authors these things is an absolute genius.

have a cigar

Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




Apologies to international readers – today I’m speaking to my fellow UK residents. Although I suppose a variant of this applies to EU visitors to the Big Bad Blog as well.

There has been a trend of late for governments to force your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to track what you’re doing online. They are required to keep a record of the sites you visit, the emails you send, and the calls you make. The idea being is that the government can then retroactively spy on you, as they will have a huge amount of data on your behaviour, if they ever have reason to suspect you of a crime.

Of course, with all your data collected, there is always the worry about hackers. Or your ISP selling the data. Or whatever happens in your favourite dystopian science fiction future.

But good news! In April, the European Court of Justice found that such laws violate our right to privacy!

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your ISP has stopped collecting all this data. To help keep your data private, I recommend scooting over to the Open Rights Group page, where they have created a convenient online form you can use to ask your ISP to delete your data.

Or, if you don’t want to use their form, just download the letter template, and ask them yourself.

30th-May-2014 07:55 pm - 3D movies kind of suck
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




Earlier this week, I actually got to go to the movies. It’s a rare occurrence, given the presence of a small child in my household. And – in an even less frequent twist – it was not rated G. Or U, as they say here in the United Kingdom.

No, the movie was X-Men: Days of Future Past. It featured violence, naked-Jennifer-Lawrence-in-blue-paint, and perhaps even a swear word somewhere along the line.

It was also in 3D.

Believe it or not, this was my first 3D movie.*

Yes, more than ten years since James Cameron re-introduced 3D to mainstream releases with Ghosts of the Abyss, and five years since Avatar somehow ensured that every big budget movie had a 3D version, no matter how unnecessary, I have only just now donned the glasses in a darkened theatre.

audience

It sucked.

First impressions: godawful

As with any movie you see in the theatres, an hour of advertisements had to be endured before the movie you paid too much money for could be revealed on the screen. These started as standard, two dimensional advertisements. And then, the message:

Put your 3D glasses on now.

We did.

And then we were brutalised by the most horribly rendered 3D graphics ever revealed on screen. It was sickening.

I mean, literally sickening.

It was like a lesson in what happens when 3D is done wrong … our brains were not equipped to cope with the visual signals they were receiving. Everybody in the theatre took off their glasses and/or looked away from the screen. It was … wow.

Second impressions: hey!

The remaining 3D ads were neither hideous nor wonderful. They were just ads.

And then the movie began.

X-Men: Days of Future Past put some effort into the 3D version of their title sequence. It was clearly specifically designed with 3D in mind, and the graphic artists they employed were good. They knew their 3D stuff, and took us on a bit of a ride.

It was kind of awesome, and showed what 3D is capable of.

On the other hand, a title sequence is not a movie. When it came to the movie itself …

General impression: it adds nothing

For the most part, 3D did nothing for most of the scenes. It didn’t interfere with the storytelling on the screen, but it failed to enhance it, either. The best that could be said is that it usually faded into the background.

When it was noticed (in a good way), it always seemed gimmicky. The best 3D was when it just was. Which isn’t much of an argument for it.

Less favourable impression: it’s not quite right yet

While the 3D effects usually went unnoticed (at least, after I stopped gawking around trying to see the 3D), this wasn’t always the case. There were the green screen scenes.

Usually, to spot a green screen scene, I have to remove myself from the movie, and think instead about the process by which the scene I’m watchin might be created. I think about a particular scene, wonder how they did that, and conclude: “that had to have been a green screen.”

Not in 3D.

In 3D, green screens were obvious. They are also used more often than I would have thought. In 3D, they were incredibly obvious.

I suppose that I can’t be sure that I noticed all the green screen scenes, but I would bet that I’d have to guess based on the probability of the foreground and background coexisting in a single shot, rather than just trusting my eyes.

3D is a lot younger than 2D effects. It’s visible.

Problematic impression: it takes you out of the film

X-Men: Days of Future Past takes place (mostly) in the 1970s.

The filmmakers use a variety of techniques to make it feel like these bits of the movie are representing America 40 years ago. One of them is to switch over to “archival television footage”.

In 3D.

Yeah, that doesn’t work.

Least favourable impression: destroying cinematography

The thing that struck me the most about watching the movie was the cinematography. It didn’t know what the hell to do.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is being shown in theatres in 3D, worldwide.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is being shown in theatres in 2D, worldwide.
X-Men: Days of Future Past will go on to be sold on Blu-Ray, to be streamed on Netflix, to be shown on network television during primetime. To be shown on Film4 at 11pm on a Wednesday.

The majority of the viewings of the film will be in two dimensions. Even most die-hard 3D lovers, if they really like this movie, will see it more often in two dimensions than three.

So it needs to be shot to be consumed in 2D.

But movies these days — at least, special-effects ladened superhero movies — are judged primarily on initial release, and primarily on the 3D initial release.

So it needs to be shot to be consumed in 3D.

What was most clear during the movie is that a good 3D shot and a good 2D shot look very, very different. And so the movie seemed content with making sure that every shot was neither a bad 3D shot, nor a bad 2D shot. Most scenes have purposeful depth — to make it clear that this is 3D. But they don’t try to do anything with it, because then the scene wouldn’t work in 2D.

And so it goes.

Trying to satisfy two methods of shooting ruins the cinematography. Or so it would seem.

Final verdicts

There are three final verdicts from the Big Bad Blog on 3D films:

  1. The glasses suck. Yes, I’m the kind of person who has to try on 50 pairs of glasses before maybe choosing frames. Your mileage may vary. But trust me, they suck.
  2. The technology is too young. In X-Men, at least, the best you can say is that they didn’t ruin the movie. And you can’t get a much bigger budget to pull this stuff off than X-Men had.
  3. Truly artistic movies will struggle being both 2D and 3D. They are simply different mediums; so long as a movie is expected to have appeal on both 2D & 3D screens, the possibility of having truly great shots would seem to be limited.

In conclusion, 3D should go away. It’s not awful enough to make me say “no” to a group of friends going to a movie, but my first experience has me thinking that I won’t be seeking it out, either.

3d_glasses

* You shouldn’t believe this. It’s not my first 3D movie. I’ve seen “movies” in 3D that exist specifically to show off 3D (and have no story), and also 3D movies in the old red/blue glasses style. But it was my first real 3D movie using current technology.

28th-May-2014 06:41 am - Why is America opening my mail?
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




Recently, in preparing my will, I had my sister send me some documents.

So she did something which seems perfectly reasonable: she sealed them in an envelope, and paid a company (FedEx) to send them to me. Signed delivery.

She sent the documents from Canada. I received them in the UK.

When they arrived, they looked like this:

WIN_20140509_113118

What’s with this? Since when does U.S. customs open packages that are in transit? How does this invasion of privacy in any way contribute towards their mission:

We are the guardians of our nation’s borders.
We are America’s frontline.
We safeguard the American homeland at and beyond our borders.
We protect the American public against terrorists and the instruments of terror.
We steadfastly enforce the laws of the United States while fostering our nation’s economic security through lawful international trade and travel.
We serve the American public with vigilance, integrity and professionalism.

Opening mail in transit does not safeguard the American homeland.
Opening mail in transit does not protect the American public.
Opening mail in transit does not foster America’s economic security.
Opening mail in transit is, I would argue, not consistent with integrity or professionalism.

I suppose that it is vigilant, and not actually illegal. So there is that.

On the other hand, it feels more like a pointless violation of my privacy.

Ultimately, FedEx is going to pay the price for this — there’s now no way I would entrust them with a package moving internationally. Because they will bring it through the United States, where U.S. Customs might decide to open it.

Unless, of course, they make changes to ensure that these packages are no longer processed through America, which would (I would assume) lead to a loss of American jobs.

So well done, U.S. Customs. You have done a bit of harm to one of your country’s businesses. At least you were vigilant about those dangerous pieces of paper headed from Canada to England.

9th-May-2014 07:06 pm - The password conundrum
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Originally Posted at Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog.




Until recently I guffawed at password managers. They were for the weekminded.

Me? I didn’t need them.

It’s simple, really — I have a formula. I combine a site’s name with a mnemonic, which generates a sequence of letters, numbers, and symbols which is long, hard to guess, and doesn’t fit with any sort of normal dictionary-style attack.

The whole thing is pretty much perfect. It allows me to visit a site, and punch in a long, complex password. Right out of my head. It’s written down nowhere. It’s not used for any other website.

Sure, sometimes I have websites complain that my password is too long. Or contains “illegal” characters. Or doesn’t start with a letter. And I complain under my breath that they shouldn’t complain that my password is too secure, and use a dumbed-down version of the formula.

(Oh, and hello, Microsoft. I was surprised to find that you belong in the group described in the previous paragraph. Shame on you.)

Oh, but the security breaches these days. It seems that a new site has a breach every few days. So I need to create a new mnemonic, or integrate the current one in a different way. Or use the dumbed down one.

But I don’t go through every website to change to the new mnemnoic, so I have a mix of two. Or four, if you count the dumbed down versions. Or more.

And it’s getting ridiculous. Because they’re long, semi-random strings, I make occasional typing mistakes when typing in the password. And now I don’t know – do I re-type the password I just used? Do I move to the dumbed-down version? Do I move to the older mnemonic? The newer formula? I can find myself typing in a half-dozen different passwords, before either getting in or locked out.

My previously brilliant approach to having memorable, unguessable, unique passwords has evolved into a mess of alternatives that I can no longer keep straight.

In other words: it’s time for password management.

cloud_computing

The Options

Looking through the world of password managers, I see three that stand out from the pack.

LastPass seems to be the general market leader. And both RoboForm and Keeper seem to offer good quality solutions …

But.

All the (good) solutions I have found have something in common. They are provided by companies based in the United States. And it seems inevitable that the U.S. will pass a legal requirement to make web sites “wiretap ready”. Which is another way of saying that there will (probably) soon be a requirement that every U.S.-based website put a backdoor in their website which will allow the police — and hackers, because that’s the nature of online security — access to the data therein.

Essentially, I have to assume that an American service will be compromised. And I don’t want all my passwords to be compromised.

So, Internet. Over to you.

Is there a quality password manager that is headquartered in Europe (and stores their data here)?

Do any of these options work in a way that will keep my passwords in a protected place off of American soil?

Image is Secure Cloud Computing, by FutUndBeidl.

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