Discovering the IndieWeb movement was a 2015 highlight for me. It addressed many of my concerns about the direction of the modern internet, especially regarding ownership and control over that data. But to truly own your own data, self-hosting is a must!
Background: Self-hosting your own stuff
I’m an ideas person. I have a number of projects – or, rather, project ideas – lined up, which I need to record and review. My blog provides me with the ideal space for that, as some ideas may attract the attention of others who are also interested. But why does this matter?
As someone who naturally likes to share experiences and knowledge, I see no benefit in not sharing my ideas too. After all, the web is all about sharing ideas. This matters to me, because the web is widely regarded as the most valuable asset civilised society has today (aside from the usual – like natural resources, power, warmth and sustenance)!
Owning your own data
As a small business owner, I sometimes benefit from various common business practices. For example, the standard accounting principle of straight-line depreciation means that after several years, capital assets once purchased by the business have little-to-no use for the business, meaning they become potential liabilities (both in the financial and risk-management sense). This means I am able to get hold of used, good-condition computing hardware of 4-5 years old at very little cost.
Even 10 year old servers still make for good general purpose machines. I’ll be using one of these for this blog, soon. Expect plenty of caching!
This is useful for me, as a blogger and an IndieWeb advocate, as I can not only publish and manage all my own data, but also physically host my own data too. As I have fibre broadband running to my house, it’s now feasible to serve my blog as reasonable speeds with 10-20 Mib/sec upstream (“download speed” to you), which is sufficient for my likely traffic and audience.
This ties in nicely with one of my core beliefs, that people should be able to manage all their own data if they choose. I am technically competent enough, and have the meants at my disposal to do it. So why not!
Another driver towards this is that I wish to permanently separate “work” and “pleasure”. My business web hosting and cloud service is for my customers. Yes, we host our own web content as a business, but personal content? Well, in the interests of security and vested interests, I am pushing towards making personal content something that is only hosted for a paying customer.
Of course, I would encourage anyone to start their own adventure self-hosting too!
Many bridges to cross
Naturally, taking on this type of arrangement has various challenges attached. Here is a selection of the tasks still to be achieved:
Convert some space in house for hosting
Create a level screed
Sort out wiring
Fire detection/resistance considerations
Power supply (e.g. UPS)
Get server cabinet & rack it up
Configure firewall(s)/routing accordingly
Implement back-up – and possibly failover – processes
Step one: documentation
Whilst I am progressing these endeavours, it would be remiss if I didn’t document them. There is a lot to be said for the benefits (to a devop, anyway) of hosting one’s own sites and data, but naturally my blog must carry on while I am in the process of building its new home.
A quick jiggle around of my site’s menu structure will hopefully clarify where you can see this work, going forwards (hint, check the projects menu).
Taking it from here
If you are interested in hosting your own servers and being in direct control over your content/data, why not subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed or subscribe by email (form towards footer). Or if you have comments, just “Leave a Reply” beneath!
Let’s be clear from the outset: there’s no word that adequately defines MozFest. The Mozilla Festival is, simply, crazy. Perhaps it’s more kindly described as chaotic? Possibly. A loosely-coupled set of talks, discussion groups, workshops and hackathons, roughly organised into allocated floors, feed the strangely-complimenting hemispheres of work and relaxation.
Nothing can prepare you for the 9 floors of intensity.
How MozFest works
Starting from the seeming calm of Ravensbourne’s smart entrance, you stroll in, unaware of the soon-experienced confusion. A bewildering and befuddling set of expectations and realisations come and go in rapid succession. From the very first thought – “ok, I’m signed in – what now?”, to the second – “perhaps I need to go upstairs?”, third – “or do I? there’s no obvious signage, just a load of small notices”…. and so on, descending quickly but briefly into self-doubt before emerging victorious from the uneasy, childlike dependency you have on others’ goodwill.
Volunteers in #MozHelp t-shirts, I’m looking at you. Thanks.
The opening evening started this year with the Science Fair, which featured – in my experience – a set of exciting hardware and software projects which were all in some way web-enabled, or web-connected, or web-controlled. Think Internet of Things, but built by enthusiasts, tinkerers and hackers – the way it should be.
“Open Hardware” projects, interactive story-telling, video games and robots being controlled by the orientation of the smartphone (by virtue of its gyroscopic capability).. the demonstration of genius and creativity is not even limited by the hardware available. If it didn’t already exist, it got designed and built.
An Open Web, for Free Society
A multitude of social and policy-driven themes permeated MozFest
As made clear from the opening keynotes on Saturday morning, MozFest is not a place for debate. Don’t think this as a bad thing. The intention is simply to help communicate ideas, as opposed to getting bogged down in the mire of detail. “Free” vs “Open”? Not here. The advice given was to use one’s ears much more than one’s mouth, and it’s sound advice – no pun intended. I have generally been considered a good listener, so I felt at home not having to “prove” anything by making a point. There was no point. 😉
Several themes were introduced in the keynote speeches which really resonated with the attendees – sorry, the participants of MozFest. That of online security and surveillance, more than two years after Edward Snowden’s revelations, was as prominent as ever. Participation was another key theme, and to me one of the most poignant ideas of the whole weekend. Participation was not encouraged or expected; it was simply threaded into the very fabric of one’s presence. You participated, to a lesser of greater degree. This was one of the most socially inclusive experiences I have ever known.
Stories by the Fireside
I cannot overstate how social inclusion at all levels permeated MozFest. From the smallest of teams – 2 individuals, to the largest groups I saw, people were constantly engaged in conversation, development – personal, social and technical, and – perhaps surprisingly – quiet reflection, too.
Creativity and individuality – there’s a lot of it
Quiet zones were available for those needing a little downtime. The cerebral intensity of the weekend is clearly felt.
The concept of the fire-side story appeared several times, reminding us that the web isn’t just a resource in and of itself, but rather a medium to convey information. Storytelling, one of the oldest methods of such conveyance, was a prescient theme. Represented through journalism, community and leadership, the scale of recognition (and a reminder) that the web is, primarily, a means to convey stories, took me somewhat aback. It’s inescpable logic, almost lost amidst the omnipresent noise of today’s social media.
Looking to the Future
Not only was MozFest a means to appreciate, understand and build upon the means to share information, it was also firmly invested in its future. Science and education were extremely well represented by group talks, workshops and forums.
Pathways were a means for guiding participants through the plethora of activities.
In fact, the sheer number of topics on offer, and guaranteed clashing of events sure to interest you, simply went to prove one thing: the web is not just big, it’s bigger than you can imagine. How the event planners and coordinators of MozFest actually found a way to combine the multitude of themes and interests into “Spaces” and “Pathways” is a huge credit to the thought-leadership behind this event. By encouraging leadership, the Mozilla Foundaiton has shown itself to be a more-than-capable leader in as diverse a field as there can be.
What I learned at MozFest
On arrival, I didn’t know what to expect. First-timers don’t. I had a vague incling that I would face a learning curve, adapting to the culture and activities of the event. Like a wandering spirit, I probably stared starry-eyed at the overwhelming number of quickly-scribbled “adverts”, pinned, taped and hung up everywhere, telling me about “this event” or “that workshop”. Even now, in reflection, I feel that the above post barely scratches the surface of the experience.
It’s sensory-overload, pure and simple.
MozFest is a journey. Physically, many people made long journeys to attend and participate. To those people, I am grateful – you have made my life richer by your efforts. But psychologically, emotionally and intellectually MozFest is so much more than the sum of its multitudinous parts: It’s an idea, a belief that together we can build something better for much time to come; build something to last that has intrinsic “goodness”. And we are not actually talking about the web. The conversation has evolved. The web might be the medium, but the story is now about us.
The question is, how do we nurture our most sublime nature, and be all we can?
I had been cultivating a fascination with Jekyll for blogging for a short while. It looked oh so clean, and minimalist, and sleek. It has its fans, for sure, and I am one of them.
If I were starting my blog from this day, I would almost certainly consider using Jekyll for it, rather than WordPress.
WordPress: better the devil?
But, I am not. Back in 2007 (can it really be so long ago?!), when I started blogging, I didn’t give much thought to my requirements eight years down the line. And the funny thing is, they have hardly changed.
Org2Blog is everything I need from blogging. It’s quick, because I can compose my text in Emacs, and also supply my category and tag information directly too.
When saving the post in Emacs, I can save a local copy using the same date-title-based file name schema that Jekyll would expect (e.g.: 2015-10-28-Assessing_Jekyll_as_an_alternative_blogging_platform.org).
Further benefits to Emacs/WordPress duality
As indicated by the previous filename example, blogs can be saved locally on my hard disk in Org-mode format, allowing me the option later on to convert everything for a Jekyll-based future. In other words, making the decision to hard-switch from one system or another need not be rushed and can, in fact, be assessed based on technical need.
Another “turn-off” from Jekyll is that, despite various attempts to make it easy to migrate WordPress posts, I found the process awkward and the documentation confusing. There is more than one way to skin this cat.
For me, Emacs provides such a comfortable environment using Org2Blog that it’s really hard to justify the alternative approaches of org-jekyll or Org+Jekyll.
Disadvantages to using WordPress
Well, it’s not elitest 😉
But aside from that, there are a few serious disadvantages. And these are ones you already know about: there’s lots of (potentially-vulnerable) PHP running, which is a security risk and also makes WordPress … slow.
Also, WordPress makes microblogging, or “notes” in IndieWeb parlance, not very easy. I want to publish my own microblog on my site and publish it elsewhere, but this will take futher investigation.
WordPress, also, has a reputation. It’s a bit like Walmart (or Asda in the UK). It’s a great, hulking CMS that everyone knows. It’s everywhere. Everyone uses it. Which means there’s less that’s “special” about it. And that’s a shame, because for all of that it’s really quite brilliant.
What WordPress gives me
Managing SEO settings per-post in WordPress
Like others, I’m a firm believer in the IndieWeb movement, but I don’t have enough time to write software for personal use right now. Luckily, many talented and dedicated individuals have stepped up and kindly donated their time and code to enable the IndieWeb on WordPress sites. This suits me down to the ground. At least I can support the movement by advocating and using their code.
WordPress also gives me flexibility. If I wish to write a short post about some coffee I’ve tried, I can. Picture too. If I wish to incorporate a video or music in a page fo rsome reason, the built-in editor makes that effortless. As it does, embedding a tweet too. WordPress is doing favours for the web at large, by keeping our writing options open and encouraging open sharing, rather than feeding us silo-centric drivel-data that we see so often from certain social networks!
One last thing WordPress gives is the ability for people who are not computer-confident to use a device like a Chromebook, or even their phone, and still provide a compelling and easy-to-use platform for sharing content.
Free software such as Linux is great at many things, including keeping your data very safe. That is, if you are in relative control of it yourself.
Transferring sensitive files from one machine to another – offline, via USB stick.
Linux is also used by the likes of Google, Facebook, et al., not to mention most western governments. In fact, its flexibility, suitability and cost-effectiveness means it’s pretty much there, in most pieces of consumer electronic equipment, plus any networking kit employed in telephone exchanges and data centres, through to the end points – the receiving servers which constitute “the cloud”.
Its use and application is rich and strange: sometimes in your interests, and often, arguably, not so. But whether you’re a Linux/UNIX, Windows or Mac user, taking care of your own data is vital for a life of value!
Making your digital life private, again
Is it possible to retract data that you previously opted to store online, and be confident that cloud service providers no longer keep it stashed somewhere? There are two responses to this:
Let’s assume for a moment that “yes” is, by far, the prevailing truth. “Yes”, data which I previously uploaded was properly deleted when I deleted it, and an online service provider no longer has any copy, nor any meta data about my data (ok, I’m laughing now).
“there are many ways in which you can protect your data, and protect your privacy”
Many of us have done it: uploaded photos to Google Photos, posted images or event information to Facebook, shared our location on Twitter, set up an account on … well, the list goes on. But forgetting the “privacy” policy of such entities, just for a second (well, ok then – it’s not that easy to put aside “We store data for as long as it is necessary to provide products and services to you and others”, but even so!!), there are many ways in which you can protect your data, and protect your privacy. It starts with a little effort and time.
First things, first: get a backup routine!
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is your data security. For example, consider the following:
Is any of your personal data stored on company equipment?
Do you absolutely know, hand on heart, that your data is backed up?
Did you go ahead and do that yourself?
Did someone sign a certificate and say, in no uncertain terms, that they did that on your behalf?
When did you last audit your data?
A friend of mine recently lost years of pristine digital photos due to a failure of company equipment (“the company laptop”) and because he hadn’t backed them up to a secondary device – even though he had one of sufficient capacity in his possession!
Don’t let this be you! Get a routine in place for backing up. Even if it’s only monthly, usually cameras and phones have enough capacity to store a month’s worth of shots.
Designate somewhere safe for your backup!
A safe location can be anywhere. You don’t have to get a fireproof safe – although I’m not saying don’t! But if you backup your personal data at home, try not to keep your backup at home. A USB drive costs so little these days, that it’s the perfect medium for backing up photos and then taking it to work and locking in your desk drawer.
Encrypting your data is always a good idea for a removable storage device, provided you can easily remember a strong password. Although the ease of managing encrypted removable storage varies between operating systems (note, it is very easy to encrypt data on GNU/Linux).
Test restoring from your backup and backup again!
A backup is no good if you can’t restore files from it. Luckily, with a simple backup process you can easily monitor and validate that your backups have occurred successfully. If you are confident that your system backups work ok, do another one. Then store. Wash, rinse, repeat.
How does this keep my data private?
By setting a rule for yourself to back-up your own data, you won’t become so dependent on cloud services for backing up your photos.
Common objections to keeping data off the cloud include the oft-argued (but ill-conceived) notion that it’s free of cost. Let’s just examine this for a brief moment:
Data centres cost hundreds of thousands, to millions of £/$/€ to build
Running costs are tens to hundreds of thousands of £/$/€ each month
They must be staffed, too – requiring monthly salaries
If everyone is uploading for free, how can it pay for itself?
There must be an end-purpose: the end does not justify the means!
The value of your “free” data storage is in the metadata that is stored with it. Tied to your user account (that same user account you might use to log in to other services, signifying your activity at other times even when not using the primary service…) is data – in the form of metadata – that describes it quite clearly.
What photo metadata tells my cloud provider about me
That photo which was kindly synced to your cloud provider’s account will contain data, like:
Where you were (where you live, work,visit, or where friends, family live, work, etc)
What local time it was (when you may not be working, placing you into a social demographic)
What equipment you were using (which brand you like to buy)
What network you were using (who you are a customer of)
What the weather was like at the time of the photo
Who you were with from the faces of people you were with & photographed … thus registering where they were at that time too (thanks to facial recognition technology and perhaps against their will)
Due to prominent colouring in the photo, whether you were inside or outside
… and much more.
When free is not free
If I am a massive indexing engine and I start aggregating and analysing these data, I will be able to determine some interesting trends:
How many people use my service in an area/region/country
How many people who use the service were in a particular area/region/country at a specific time
How many of those use Camera brand “B” or Phone brand “A”
How many faces I recognise (people who have opted in to facial recognition)
Who is in whose “networks” and extended networks (friends of friends)
How many faces I don’t recognise (potential targets for acquisition – new users)
How many people like being outdoors on a bright, dry day
And how many don’t
Whether you like being outdoors … or not
Who you like being with during those conditions
What you might be doing at that time, on that type of day, in those conditions, with those people, while using your “brand X” device.
we are now at a stage where it is easier to get a phone, and rely on Facebook for photo storage
Some people I know seem apathetic towards online security, and yet suspicious towards cloud service provider’s intentions too. Perhaps we are now at a stage where it is easier to get a phone, and rely on Facebook for photo storage, than to “bother” seeking alternatives. “The answer is not readily to hand, so let’s move on.”
Living a life less ordinary
The problem with systems is that they need parameters. Do a search on something, somewhere, and you’ll be sure to see ads and sponsored links of that thing, somewhere else. This is, and has been for a while, the new internet “norm”.
Breaking out of this “think, search (hunger); feed (consume with contextual data)” lifestyle has been described as the “search bubble”. A self-fulfilling data management and presentation matrix based on your lifestyle habits.
By adopting a simple routine such as taking care of your own data and not subscribing religiously to online services, it’s possible to find not only more sanctity in life’s unique moments, but also more richness from the due consideration of others. Where people know you a little less, and are curious to know you a little more.
Looking for a free software program to help me learn to touch-type, and shortly after my search started I found GNU Typist. And GNU Typist (gtypist) is a gem.
The instructions are simple and the purpose of the program is equally simple: to “condition” the user into adopting and maintaining good typing habits. After starting the basic lessons (“Quick QWERTY course”), it soon became clear that my touch-typing capability was far poorer than I had hoped and my typing speed these days is generally just luck-driven.
Thankfully, a considerate fellow called Simon Baldwin decided to write gtypist, and here we are. The online documentation is equally useful; not only do you get help regarding how to acquire, install and invoke gtypist on your machine, but also a list of alternative free software typing programs which are a good fit in various situations (general, education, games-playing, etc). Like most GNU software, a man page is also provided.
It is so easy to take this effort for granted, and yet how useful is this resource! Such is the way with free software: quite often, somebody already had that itch and had to scratch it.
Brasilia style – a good option for any Saturday morning
I’m consciously reworking my way through Taylors’ range of filter coffee. Many times before we’ve had the Italian style medium roast and, in addition, we’ve also gone for the number 6 strength “Hot Lava Java”. But sometimes you need a milder option, to more gently ease you into into a state of caffienated bliss.
Score out of 5 … 3. It’s a mellow cup, but perhaps missing some depth to the flavour. Not disagreeable at all though. Would still recommend.
View from the Admiralty Buildings, Greenwich (22 Mar 2015)
Despite it’s controversial history and, some might argue, “dodgy” financial underpinning, I can’t help but admire Greenwich. It’s a part of London relatively untouched by the progress of time; where the city-at-large surrounding it has left it be, as a kind of comforting “nod” back to its imperial glory.
These days, of course, it’s not the done thing to refer to the British Empire as glorious. Oh no, that’s far, far too politically incorrect. Instead, we must loosely use in reference words such as “enslaving”, “pillaging”, “disempowering” and, simply, “colonising”.
Such are the mists of time, allowing us now to moralise on a spirit of adventure and exploration, taking for granted that the world is now known, the risk of travel is small and our collective enlightenment a “given”.
Yet I pause for thought when considering the next leap into the unknown – space, and what harvests me may assume ours to take and do with as we please.
If ever there was a time to unify people towards common goals, for the betterment of us all, now is it.
I’ve decided I need to dance more in my life. Being a techy-programmer-web_developing-CEO-type, there is so little time anyway. With the remainder, I usually indulge in sci-fi, walking the dog, eating… and occasionally sleeping too. Yet, being almost an artificial intelligence by any reckoning, I can tell you that Androids are too busy to dream.
Well, this has to stop! No more sleeping! Only raving. It’s essential.
A trip to Miami is essential too. After all, you can’t be #superhuman all the time!
My partner and I took a train to Wimbledon. It was an uncharacteristically warm day, summer-like in all regards except the browning of the leaves. The trees looked tired as we marched along to the station; we weren’t missing this film for anything.
In contrast to the anticipation building up inside of me, waiting to see this film, Wimbledon itself was very ordinary. People going about their normal lives. Appetizing whiffs of just-cooked food were wafting over from the market stalls. Traffic was permanently in a hurry with barely any regard for pedestrians’ safety. And the shoppers held an equally high regard for the traffic too, voluntarily stepping out in front of anything coming.
And the shoppers …
voluntarily stepping out in front of anything coming.
The matinée showing at the bijou HMV Curzon cinema was starting just after lunch. I wanted to get there early so that, in anticipation of the queues, we would be assured of a good seat. When picking up our tickets, we spoke to a member of staff behind the bar/counter about the expected numbers.
Staggeringly, four seats had been booked. Including ours. Citizens: four.
To my slight relief, more than four people eventually turned up and attended the showing. Twenty, maybe. Perhaps thirty, tops. In a 110-seat room. And they were comfortable seats too. The best you’d find in any cinema, with lots of leg room and deep, comfortable cushions.
A Tale of Two Cities
After reading Lawrence Lessig’s blog post of his recent cinema outing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with 500 movie-goers attending their picture house, I wondered how there could be such disparity across the pond. For us, there was no line to stand in before entering, and perhaps adding insult to injury, our tickets were not even checked by a member of staff when we walked in to pick our (unallocated) seats.
Perhaps it was the over-air-conditioned screen that turned people away. Considering that outside it was the very end of the British summer and we saw temperatures of 20 deg C, inside was another story altogether. We were lucky if it was more than 14. But I don’t think this was the reason for the poor turn-out; any evidence of forward-thinking would surely have improved the attendance?
What does this say about continued British apathy towards such fundamental issues?
A somewhat senior lady who attended the film, mentioned to me on her way out, “I don’t think I meant to come and see that. I thought it was something else.” Citizen Kane, perhaps? I hope she wasn’t one of the original four who bought in advance…
Perhaps people felt it was a story already told. In some ways it was – but arguably, in many ways the whole story had not been told until now. A couple of reveals towards the end of the film were new information to me. Stuff I wasn’t aware of, from reading the Snowden book.
I am glad that a healthy number of people in the US are curious about this subject and decided to explore it further. You might expect this from the residents of Cambridge (Mass.), with its connection to Free Software and socio-political activism, and well done to them.
So, a quick glance at the population numbers of both areas provides some fairly meaningless stats on which to close.
Cambridge’s popn = 107,000 or so. Wimbledon’s: around 60,000. Roughly speaking, for every 214 residents in Cambridge, one person attended Saturday’s matinée there. Only one person of every 3,040 in Wimbledon managed the same feat. What does this say about continued British apathy towards such fundamental issues?