Tag Archives: internet

Farewell to DMOZ

DMOZ (also known as the Open Directory Project or ODP) claims to be the most comprehensive human edited directory of the Web. It is hosted and administered ┬áby Netscape Communications (a subsidiary of AOL) and uses a hierarchical ontology for organising site listings. The data is made available as an RDF-like dump under a Creative Commons Attribution license and apparently still powers the core directory services for many of the Web’s largest search engines and portals. The other main distinguishing feature of DMOZ is that it is constructed and maintained by a community of volunteer editors.
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YouTube Suddenly Requires Flash

In November 2010 I removed the Adobe Flash Player plug-in from my iMac and have never re-installed it. This broke a number of websites but there were some simple workarounds to get things going again. In the case of YouTube I installed Connor McKay’s YouTube5 Safari Extension which had been working very well until recently. Note that YouTube does have an experimental HTML5 Player which I have tried but it has some limitations and the YouTube5 Safari Extension seemed like the better option (use one or other, not both).
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Ads on my Blog?

I have my blog configured to publicise new posts on Facebook and when I posted my previous entry a friend commented over there that he was surprised to see ads on my site. I asked him about it and he sent me a screenshot which shows an ad for Sky TV after the post but before the “Share this” buttons. Apparently when he clicked on the “About these ads” text it said something to the effect that I had chosen to allow ads. I don’t remember doing that so I had a poke around in my account and found something under Settings > WordAds:

To keep your blog free, we sometimes run advertisements on your blog, and you can remove these with the purchase of a No Ads upgrade or a Bundle.

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Some Google Developments

In October 2011 I published a blog entry titled Google vs Facebook in which I discussed changes to Google Reader, the main one being the removal of some social features. I continued to use Reader but the ability to “like” and “tag” feed items disappeared and was replaced by a +1 button. On March 13th this year Google posted A second spring of cleaning in which they announced the planned removal of a number of lesser used and outdated services including Google Reader, which was to be retired on July 1st. Although the majority of the population were no doubt blissfully unaware of the impending demise it prompted a huge amount of discussion amongst RSS geeks, with reactions ranging from resigned acceptance of something which had clearly been on the cards right up to wailing and rending of garments (OK I admit I have no evidence that anyone actually did that). Here for example are some Thoughts surrounding Google Reader’s demise posted by Matt Haughey two days after the announcement. Since then I noticed the +1 button disappear but after a while (a few weeks?) it came back again.
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Using the Facebook Graph API

In my Mac address book I have a group called “Facebook” in which I put my Facebook friends. Over time the group tends to get out of sync with reality so I occasionally check for and repair any inconsistencies. When I view my own Facebook profile it says I have 205 friends but what I wanted was a way of getting Facebook to give me a list that I could compare with my address book. One problem is that Facebook users can change the name associated with their account whenever they feel like it, and for a while some of my friends were doing it with surprising regularity. What I needed was access to the unique id that Facebook must have been using – something that would never change as long as an account existed. So earlier this year I was pleased to discover the Facebook Graph API which “presents a simple, consistent view of the Facebook social graph, uniformly representing objects in the graph (e.g., people, photos, events, and pages) and the connections between them (e.g., friend relationships, shared content, and photo tags)”.

The easiest way to try it out is to use Facebook’s Graph API Explorer app. When you start the app for the first time you will need to either enter an existing access token or click “Get access token”, at which point you will be asked to “Select Permissions” (I don’t select any because the basic ones are included by default) and then “Log in with Facebook”. Once you have a token you can use the “Submit” button to submit API queries, the default one being to get information about your own user account (id, name, first_name, last_name, link, username, gender, timezone, locale, verified, updated_time and type). Under the “Submit” button is a list of “Connections” and if you click on “friends” you will see a list of all your friends (name and unique numerical id). Rather than copying and pasting this into a file I used curl on the command line to download and save my friend list. If $ID is my id and $TOKEN is a valid token (they expire after a while) then the command is:

curl https://graph.facebook.com/$ID/friends?access_token=$TOKEN > friends

Using this method I obtained a list of 200 people and added their unique ids to their address book entries for future cross referencing. But remember my Facebook profile says I have 205 friends, so what about the remaining five? I can view their profiles on Facebook but for some reason they are not found by the API query and I can’t think of anything they have in common which would explain their omission. By the way, if you want a graphical view of your Facebook friend network and you are OK with something that uses Java then TouchGraph seems pretty good (it also fails to list the same five friends).

Google vs Facebook

Google recently announced some significant changes to Google Reader, its web based feed aggregator. Not only will there be a new look but Google will be removing some social features in order to drive adoption and use of its relatively new social networking and identity service, Google+. I use a number of Google services but Reader is definitely the one I spend most time in so I am probably going to be using Google+ more as a result. I got a Google+ invite from a friend when it was still invite only. I signed up and created a profile but have not done much with it and only have seven people in my circles. Google also announced recently that they will be discontinuing Google Buzz. Launched less than two years ago, Buzz was seen as an attempt by Google to compete directly with Facebook but it was a total flop and they are determined to make Google+ succeed where Buzz failed. One of Google’s main problems is that it started out as a search engine and over the years various services have been added but not properly integrated – apart from Google Reader there is also Gmail, Google Groups, Picasa Web Albums, Google Docs, Google Calendar etc.

Facebook was launched in 2004 (six years later than Google) and has always been a single integrated service. It wasn’t long before it reached a critical mass of users which resulted in huge growth. I started getting Facebook invites around 2006 but I held out until October 2008 when an old friend from the U.S. visited and mentioned various mutual friends who I would be able to re-connect with if I was on Facebook. By December 2009 I had about 150 Facebook friends and today I have just under 200 (I have a policy of only sending friend requests to, or accepting them from real people who I have met in real life, otherwise I might have had a lot more). All my Facebook friends are also in my Mac OS X address book, where I have about 470 contacts altogether, so at least 40% of people I know are on Facebook! This massive user base gives Facebook a huge advantage over any new rival services due to the Network Effect. However, Google+ does seem to be getting traction, specially in the U.S. where over 13% of adults have apparently signed up.

I don’t necessarily want to switch from Facebook to Google+ but I will try to find more friends who use it and add them to my circles. I may even start posting a bit, but then I don’t post much on Facebook anyway (if it’s just a few words then I will tweet it and if it’s fairly substantial I will post an entry here on this blog). Getting back to Google Reader though, I do “like” a lot of feed items and presumably after the change that will be done through G+ using a +1 button. In the meantime, to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible I followed the instructions on Google+ for deleting my Buzz account. I will probably also post something on Facebook asking friends who use Google+ to add me to one of their circles. Oh and here is my Google+ Profile.

Blog Relaunch

I created this blog in July 2008 and this will be my thirty fourth entry, averaging almost exactly one entry per month. I also post a bit on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, and do some editing on Wikipedia etc but I have decided to prioritise this blog and would like to be posting at least once per week. I post partly for my own benefit but I would be much more motivated to do so regularly if I had a bigger audience, so I have decided to “relaunch” the blog.

I started by putting a prominent link on my website which may drive some traffic this way. When I have posted this entry I will link to it from Facebook etc and possibly send out a mass email to all my contacts. This is not a single-issue blog so there is no specific audience I am targeting, but I tend to write about the Internet, Mac OS X, politics, activism, hiking and cannabis (if I start posting more regularly I will extend the range of topics covered).

So what can you do to help? Well for a start if you have a WordPress.com account and you are logged in you could just click the “Subscribe” tab above – the more subscribers I get the more inclined I will be to spend time writing well researched entries. By the way, if you are thinking about starting your own blog I can recommend WordPress.com. If you don’t have a WordPress.com account then do you use Google Reader? If so then you could subscribe to my blog feed. I subscribe to 55 feeds in Google Reader, including my own, which allows me to view various statistics. Failing that you could subscribe in any other feed reader.

Feel free to comment on my blog entries – I do get occasional comments but more feedback would be welcome. You could even contact me if you want me to write something on a particular topic and I may be able to oblige. Finally if you have an opportunity to link to this blog or to specific entries that would be a great help.

Living Without Flash

Mac OS X 10.6.5 included fixes for 55 vulnerabilities in Adobe’s Flash Player. This is part of the reason why Apple have now stopped shipping Flash on all new Macs. Of course users can install the Flash plug-in themselves but having Flash installed can reduce battery runtime by up to a third (see Ars Technica review of the 11″ MacBook Air), so there are good reasons to avoid it. The problem is that although Flash is a proprietary technology controlled by Adobe it is widely used to serve video on the web. This situation arose because although HTML has always included a tag for embedding static images it has not until relatively recently had a tag for embedding video. With HTML5 that has all changed but Microsoft have been dragging their feet and Internet Explorer (unlike all the other major browsers) does not yet support HTML5 video. This means that websites have been slow to adopt the new technology because they generally need to support IE users. However, with the success of Apple’s iPhone and iPad (neither of which support Flash) content providers have been given a kick up the backside and an increasing number of websites are now able to serve HTML5 video.

For a long time I had been using the ClickToFlash Safari plugin to block Flash on my iMac. One of the main benefits was the elimination of all those distracting Flash adverts but when I did want to watch a Flash video I could play it with a single click. The problem was that Safari was telling websites “Yes, I have Flash” so they were not serving alternative content when available. About a month ago I read that Steven Frank had removed the Flash plugin from his Mac altogether and I followed his lead, installing the YouTube5 Safari Extension so that I could still watch stuff on YouTube.

After removing Flash from my iMac I found that certain things no longer worked, for example Google Street View, the flickr slideshow and the excellent TED website. However, I then read about the iPad user agent string trick on Daring Fireball. The “Develop” menu in Safari has a “User Agent” option and if you set it to “Mobile Safari 3.2.2 – iPad” then websites think you are browsing on an iPad and may well give you something that works without Flash. The trick doesn’t always work but I am going to persevere with my self-imposed exile, partly out of stubbornness, partly in solidarity with people who are using devices that can’t do Flash, and partly to inform webmasters through their logs that there are people who run Mac OS X without Flash.

So what do I miss most? That is easy – the BBC. I am subscribed to the BBC news feed via RSS and often go to a story that consists mainly of an embedded video where I just get a message telling me I need to install Flash. Although the BBC site apparently works on an iPad it goes to some lengths to check that you are really on an iPad and is not fooled by changing the user agent string. This is very annoying and there doesn’t seem to be a way around it. I have no idea why the BBC is going out of its way to unnecessarily force users to install a proprietary plug-in. The same thing applies to BBC iPlayer on the web but here there is a workaround – I use a command line tool called get_iplayer.

Changing Passwords

Another geeky post I’m afraid, but this completes a logical trio of posts about online account management (see also I Just Want to Delete my Account and Rant About Website Logins). So in the last instalment I explained how I had managed to delete a lot of my online accounts but that left me with about seventy that I still use (or am likely to want to use at some point). Now I am sure you have often seen security advice about periodically changing your passwords. Well the vast majority of my accounts used one of three different passwords, one of which I first used probably ten years ago. So my next little project was to change all my passwords.

Some people advise using a different password for every online account you have, and there are good reasons for this. You might sign up for an account on a dodgy site which just records your username and password then tries them on all sorts of popular websites, hoping that you have an account with the same combination on one of them. Because I have so many accounts, and not all of them work with the Mac OS X Keychain, I decided not to follow this advice too strictly. So first I thought up some new passwords that I had never used before and wrote them down on a piece of paper, calling them p1, p2, p3 etc. I used some of them as passwords for a single account, in particular those which I rely on a lot or where the consequences of unauthorised access would be more than an inconvenience. The others I decided to use for whole groups of existing accounts. Now, knowing which password I wanted to use for each account I set about logging in to the accounts and trying to change the password. Sometimes it was easy but there were a number of problems and the main purpose of this post is to make a record of them so here goes.

On a few sites I never managed to find any way of changing my password – it seems like you are stuck forever with whatever password you use when you sign up. Then there were sites where you can’t choose a new password yourself but you can request a password reset, which is not very secure because the plain text of your new password is sent to you by email. Also, if someone somehow gets control of your email account they might go to various popular websites and request a password reset for that address, thereby possibly gaining control of more accounts. Some websites may ask a security question before sending a password reset but many don’t – they assume that only you will ever be able to access emails sent to your address.

With a couple of accounts I followed the procedure to change my password and it seemed to work but it didn’t actually take effect – I still need to look into that. Having to change my password on so many sites I became aware of the total lack of standardisation which made it quite a frustrating experience. Even just finding where to go to change your password was often tricky. You are almost always asked to enter your new password twice, which is a good feature because without it you may make a typo and set it to something other than what you intended, forcing you try all likely typos or give up and request a password reset. Many sites have a useful “password strength meter” which lets you know how unguessable your password is as you enter it.

Now the big question – what sort of passwords are allowed on a site? Here again there is a total lack of standardisation, both in the allowed range of password length and in the set of allowed characters. Some sites allow essentially any ASCII characters while others allow only alpha-numeric characters, and many others allow alphanumeric plus a small range of symbols. On top of that, sites will often require passwords to include both letters and numbers or a mixture of upper and lower case. I guess some might even require at least one non-alphanumeric character. So in general it may not be possible to construct a single password which satisfies the requirements of a given set of websites. I came unstuck because all my new passwords contained at least one non-alphanumeric character so I couldn’t use them on some websites. I came across at least four websites that require alphanumeric passwords and at least four others that severely constrain the symbols allowed (of those, all allowed an underscore, three allowed a hyphen, two allowed a period, and one allowed an asterisk and a caret). So I had to come up with one more password (alphanumeric) to use for this group of accounts.

In the end I managed to change the vast majority of my passwords and only about half a dozen are still using old ones. I am glad to be done with it now and I have this vague idea about some sort of utopian solution where all websites that have user accounts share the same standardised system for creating an account, logging in, changing password, logging out, and deleting an account.

Farewell to Usenet

Usenet is a worldwide distributed Internet discussion system established in 1980 which I have been using on and off since 1988 (before the advent of the Web). Google Groups host an archive of Usenet posts dating back to 1981, including this one which I posted to comp.lang.postscript in November 1988 while I was at Dartmouth College in the United States. On returning to England in 1990 I was without Usenet access until I started working at the University of Hertfordshire in 1999 where I eventually started posting again (mainly to comp.sys.sun.admin). The UH news server didn’t work very well so by the time I left my job there in 2005 I had already got myself an account at the German Usenet provider News.Individual.NET who run a pretty tight ship. In April 2005 they started charging 10 EUR per year which I have been happy to pay ever since. I read and post using a command line Usenet client called slrn which I installed on my iMac using MacPorts, but I am currently only subscribed to three groups. Over the years I have learned about NNTP (the Network News Transfer Protocol) and picked up a lot of the culture and history of Usenet but I am about to leave it all behind. Why?

I guess it is all part of an ongoing attempt to simplify my online life and spend less time sitting in front of my computer. The only Usenet group I really engage with now is comp.sys.mac.system, where I have made about two thousand posts over the past six years. At the moment the group is fairly calm but it does seem to attract trolls and I have often become involved in heated arguments, which I could do without. In future if I need to ask a Mac related question I will do so in the appropriate Apple Discussion Forum (see my User Profile). I don’t know if any of the csms regulars will miss me and some might even be glad to see the back of me, although I do believe I have made a positive contribution overall. I don’t think Usenet is dying but after nearly 22 years I have had enough of it and feel it is time to move on. So long, and thanks for all the fish.