Confessions of a Facebook Re-entrant

It’s only fair to admit that I am back on Facebook. I was quiet about it for some time, but the fact is that some of my family only mention news on Facebook, and looking over my wife’s shoulder started annoying her. So, I’m back (and have been for a long time, just hidden as my dog, who is probably my best feature, anyway).


Launching Hoppy Collie Brewery

If we’re in regular contact, you have probably been bored by my homebrewing talk already. Well, I’m taking it up a notch — I’m starting a small brewing company in London to make West Coast style ales, hopefully getting a few Fosters taps turned off and replaced by something better.

If you have a minute, check out our embryonic website, and perhaps you could ‘Like’ and/or ‘follow’ Hoppy Collie. It would mean a lot!

And yes, I do think it’s funny that I left Facebook, and then came back with a company page, but marketing is marketing. Also, Viola is still booking face.


Google: Don’t Be Evil is Bullshit (Even if They Mean It)

Less than a month after I left Facebook behind for reasons including privacy concerns, Google has announced, fairly and for all to see, changes to it’s privacy policy. We are all used to endless and incomprehensible software licenses; to clicking on ‘Agree’ when we don’t even read what we’re agreeing to. You might want to take a minute to look at this move, though.

You Don’t Think Enough About Data Privacy

Google’s privacy policy changes can be summarised: all their various services will share personal data. It seems innocent enough, but perhaps you should take a look at what that means.

The average Google user has handed a lot of personally-identifying information over to Google:

  1. Google Search: Internet search attempts (what you search for, maintained for at least two years)
  2. Google Search: Internet search results (what you actually clicked on)
  3. Google Search: your web presence (any time you are identified on the web)
  4. Gmail: your email (especially ‘personal’ email, which you might go to lengths to not put through a ‘work’ server)
  5. Android: phone records (usage patterns and other meta-data, if nothing else)
  6. Android and Google Latitude: your physical location
  7. Google Maps and Google Navigation: where you are and where you are going
  8. Google+: personal interactions and friendships

So, the average Android user with a Google account has willingly handed over all this information about themselves. And all this data is analysed, correlated, reported on, and synthesized, ostensibly to better target ads for you.

Don’t Be Evil is Bullshit (Even if They Mean It)

Google has been at the forefront of data search, retention, and analysis for more than a decade. Their web search tool, along with a host of other services, are genuinely useful to a lot of people. They are also genuinely useful to Google, law enforcement, and marketing firms. Your Internet searches, combined with targeted web search, email (especially personal email), phone calls, physical location, and social networking, give Google an incredibly detailed idea of who you are. Their stated reason for this is to target ads to you. However, at the same time, they are gathering, collating, and analysing data about you in a way that was impossible before. They are a potential one-stop shop for marketers (which is their explicit aim), as well as US law enforcement and security services. To say nothing of data leaks, either by intrusion, employee mistake, malice, or the activities of a party that claims the data from Google (the US or UK governments, with their amazing data protection record, immediately spring to mind).

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, if you want privacy, you must be doing something wrong. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Mr. Schmidt said in a CNBC interview in 2009. Much like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Schmidt believes in a future without privacy. That he makes millions of dollars from the private details he wants you to reveal is clearly just a coincidence.

What Can You Do?

If you decide to do something right now, you can remove your search history from Google. The EFF has a how-to that is pretty easy to follow. They also have some ideas on protecting your search privacy which you might find interesting.

You might decide that there is too much data being collected about you altogether. It is difficult to avoid in an increasingly interconnected world, but you could ask yourself if you really get much out of social networking and other sites that you willingly give data to. Remember that if you are not paying for a product (or service) you are the product. Servers, power, and Internet connectivity are not free!

There are some people who will argue the damage is done: the genie is out of the bottle. Yes, once something is on the Internet, it will be available probably forever, one way or another. But we can always limit the ability of corporations, malicious individuals, and government entities to gain further information about who we are and what we do. Turn off the flow of information and they may still know something about you, but the picture becomes much less clear.

The most important thing you can do is: think about what you are doing online, understand what is it that you are offering up, and decide if it is worth the service you receive.


Facebook contacts export

Here’s a quick note about how to get your contact list (emails, phone numbers, maybe more) out of Facebook.

Firstly, Facebook doesn’t let you export. So there’s that.

You can connect Yahoo mail, and/or Hotmail to Facebook. There are pretty straightforward tools on the Yahoo and Hotmail sites to do this. Hotmail will also let you connect to Linkedin, if that’s something that you want to do.

Once you have them in Yahoo or Hotmail, you should be able to export them, right? Wrong. As part of the process, Facebook locks the export ability. You can edit every Yahoo contact to remove the Facebook block, but that’s a lot of manual work. And, despite the Yahoo documentation, just adding contacts to a list does not make them exportable.

But you can install Yahoo Mail and Hotmail on your Android phone (I used my Nook Color, but it’s the same idea). The applications will let you sync users to your local contacts.

Once you have local contacts, you can use the built-in export tool to save them as a single-file vcard.

Copy the vcard to your computer, and now you can import (Linux users: Evolution is way better at this than Thunderbird).

I will come back and clean this up soon, but if you need a way, this worked for me.


Facebook: goodbye, and why

Today is the last day to have a Facebook account that’s not updated to the new timeline layout. Tomorrow, they automatically update everyone, which requires some work from the users to keep privacy settings the same. This all sounds pretty unimportant on Facebook’s site, but some of the UK tabloids aren’t so sure.

The way this change has come down has made me think a lot about privacy and social media. While there’s no doubt that Facebook has changed the way we communicate forever, I’ve decided to delete my account. I was a heavy Facebook user, but the more I think and read about it, the more I think I need to spend more time thinking about it. Everyone should think about what Facebook is, what they do, and consider deleting yours too. Here’s how. And here’s why I’m doing it:

The reaction over the ‘upgrade’ to timeline isn’t about the timeline feature at all. It’s that when we release any information on Facebook (or any other site, for that matter) it no longer belongs to us. We don’t pay Facebook, and they have to make money somehow. We’re all giving them something much more valuable than money: data.

Facebook is building a future without any explicit right to privacy. It is all very good if that’s what you want, but you have to understand: if you are not buying a product, you are the product. Someone has to pay for data centres, equipment, staff, and you certainly don’t get a company rumoured to be worth $100 Billion dollars providing a free service with no plan for profit. Novelist Charlie Stross has a thoughtful piece about that on his blog, which I encourage you to read. Suffice it to say that your holiday pictures, ‘like’ buttons, status updates, and other self-published data are the richest marketing and intelligence gathering resource the world has ever seen.

And just in case you have a Facebook account but ‘don’t use it’: you don’t have to have an active Facebook account to have privacy concerns. Just having an account someone can ‘tag’ in pictures, and other reports is bad, as well. They will grow a history of you that you have no control over (even though, frankly, you have no control over what Facebook does with the information you give them, anyway).

I have a friend who thinks that being on Facebook is like being pregnant. Since he’s on it now, he thinks that there’s no point in going back. His data ‘isn’t important’ because it’s self-screened, and he ‘can’t get it back anyway.’ Well, maybe, but maybe not. It’s never to late to start thinking about what you’re doing, and perhaps decide to make a change. You can stop giving data away; turning over mass amounts about yourself, be it to Google (think about it: web searches, IM, email, calendar, phone records, and their own social network — they know all about you), Twitter (yes, they can track you in 140 characters — it’s probably actually easier), or Facebook (the most obviously uncaring of the club, and also the most powerful) is probably unwise, but should we try to do something about it?

I am, at least until I’m done thinking about it. The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. You should at least think about what you’re doing, too.


Reading List

An important part of writing is continuing to read. It helps develop style, gives you something to talk about at the pub, and of course it’s fun — otherwise we wouldn’t want to write, would we?

So, I thought to take a minute to share my current reading list with you:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. One of the reasons I got my Kindle was the wealth of free ebooks from ‘the canon’. Skipping the more traditional literature education — completely — I missed the Russian fiction. This is a lovely book, incredibly written, but I’ve been reading it for a year, in bits and bobs, and I would swear that very little has happened — although it has — and that I’ve read a ream of epaper — even though I haven’t. Maybe it’s something to do with the idea of reading Russian fiction. Anyway, get a copy from Gutenberg and see if you agree. I got my for free from Amazon, but it seems like they want to charge you for ‘delivery’ now. Sad, Bezos, sad.

Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain by Matthew Engel. Mr. Engel is a journalist. He loves trains a bit, and so do I. This is his history of and love letter to the British train and rail system. It is lovely, and I have been savouring it for a long time, because I prefer to read it on trains. It is definitely worth a look in.

Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Conflict and Intrigue, Vol. 2: Fables from the Panchatantra, Jatakas, Bidpai, Kalilah and Dimnah and Lights of Canopus by Ramsay Wood. This is Mr. Wood’s second volume of retold tales from the fables of Bidpai. It is accessible, timeless, and lovingly presented. I’ve only had it for a week, but it is the front of my reading list now. Get it before it goes out of print, and check out the first volume: Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal.

Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror! edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan. A short story collection that mixes Sherlock with Cthulhu, this is a decent set of one-sitting reads with a couple of absolute gems. I use this as a filler book, for when I’m tired of whatever else I’m reading. Highly recommended, as I burned through half of it in a day, and then realised the great thing about short story collections is that you don’t have to finish them in one movement.

Proven Guilty (Dresden Files 8 ) by Jim Butcher. What can I say about the Dresden Files? They are not the high literature, but are fun, quick, and certainly by book 8 Mr. Butcher’s style is much better. I’m reading on the Kindle, which means when I’m travelling light and don’t want Tolstoy, I’m probably following the exploits of Chicago’s most famous wizard private investigator. Fun, easy, and good if you don’t expect too much.

So, there you have it. What are you reading?



Computers are not magic. Nothing in technology is. Computers are tools that follow the operator’s instructions. Commands can be complex, and underlying code can possibly be send incorrect instructions, but in the end, there is no room for interpretation. Computers cannot ‘get mad’ at you, or have a bad day, or do something that they’re not told to do. Not yet, anyway.

I deal with technical problems every day. Generally, I try to solve them, with methodical and unambiguous techniques that produce quantifiable results. That’s a complicated way of saying I work on a problem until it’s solved and I know why it happened. This is a cornerstone of my entire professional life, and the process is simple. No matter how complex your problem, troubleshooting follows the same steps:

  1. You have a problem. Define it.
  2. Identify the variables (what can change, especially what you can change).
  3. Change one variable
  4. Test. Do you still have the problem? If not, quit, you have solved it.
  5. Change your previous variable back.
  6. Change another variable.
  7. Test.
  8. Repeat until a solution is found. Eventually, you will be rewarded.

Sometimes you get a complicated problem, with interaction between multiple variables. But that’s when your process has to be absolutely methodical and boring. Even if the system is burning down around you — especially if the system is burning down around you — you must stay calm; troubleshooting takes as much time as it takes.

I bring this up because, over the years, I have encountered a staggering number of technical people — engineers, computer scientists, systems and network administrators — who do not manage to be methodical, for one reason or another. Many people in the IT field don’t have a good troubleshooting process, and waste a lot of time and effort as a result — both their own, and that of those they work with (like me). Even if they solve a problem, they won’t know the cause, won’t be able to recreate the problem, cannot come up with a permanent fix, and cannot apply this experience to future problems.

Sometimes these folks are highly pressured and attempt everything they can think of at once. Sometimes they ‘don’t care what the problem is, as long as it’s fixed.’ Many times they simply do not have a background in or experience of problem solving, and also don’t understand what benefits a step-by-step process brings. But a cool head, methodical work habit, and good documentation, combined with sensible precautions (you did back up, right?) will always yield the desired results. Rushing and not knowing why things are working will only lead to problems down the road.

I would like to thank the science teachers I had in California public school, who taught me how to design an experiment at an early age. I’m not sure if it was third grade or seventh, but valid experimental procedure has become my ingrained response to solving technical problems. Without it, I wouldn’t have had a good job in university, wouldn’t have managed a technology career, and would not have the life I lead today. My hat is off to you, my former teachers. Here’s hoping there are still some people out teaching the basics.


Let There Be Beer!

New adventures in homebrewing.

I started brewing beer in July. I like beer — there’s no mystery to that, but a lot of people who like beer don’t learn to brew it. I’m not sure why: it’s simple, fun, and when you are done, you have beer. I used to run out of beer; now I have too much.

I have to admit that scribe of our times, Mr. Wil Wheaton gave me the kick I needed to start. I thought about brewing for some time, but his joyful posts about his first batch pushed me over the edge. I searched the Internet, hemmed and hawed, and eventually decided to go all grain with a kit from The Homebrew Shop. I also got some books: Self-sufficiency Home Brewing by John Parkes, Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels, and How to Brew by John J. Palmer. I read them all cover to cover, starting with the smallest and working my way up from there. I highly recommend all three. I renewed my CAMRA subscription while I was at it.

My first batch was the London bitter all grain kit that came with my starter set. My friend Marc — a homebrewer as well — happened to come through London from California, and brewing took the edge off his jet lag. It was invaluable having someone experienced there for my first brew. His trip straddled a week-long conference, and by the end of it we had quite a nice real-ale style bitter. This first batch lasted a good month or so, and was delicious.

I was hooked.

A romance with some very hoppy Pacific Northwest ales at the Euston Tap led me what I really wanted to brew next: an Imperial IPA. Something heavy with hops, and also with alcohol. My American Empire Imperial IPA mark 1 was based on a recipe from HomeBrewTalk, but I didn’t really understand the names of the different ingredients, so I couldn’t follow the process exactly. I also had extraordinarily fond memories of Redhook Doubleblack Coffee Stout, so I found another recipe and tried to follow that.

Neither were exactly right. Both were delicious. American Empire came in at 115 IBUs and 8.1% ABV. It was the first keg to blow (empty, in non-brewer talk). Oh, yes, in the meantime, I bought some kegs, got some gas to make fizzy beer, and a refrigerator (gotta keep those kegs somewhere). I also started buying from BrewUK. They have excellent customer service, good prices, the yeasts I was looking for, and are just plain nice. None of this could happen without BeerSmith, which helps me every step of the way, even under WINE on Linux.

My next brew day I tried for three batches, but with only one boiler it wasn’t possible. Two batches is not quite a full day, but a triple is 18 hours or so. Three ales were on the brewsheet: one Redhook ESB style, one Sierra Nevada IPA style, and a North German Pilsner that I intended to ferment with Kolsch yeast. I got the first two off, but the Pilsner was a push too far, and some beast from the rainfall must have got in there, because I couldn’t get the boil done before it smelled odd. But it turns out Pilsner grain smells like that, so maybe it was fine. I chalk it up to inexperience; this is all a learning process.

With my wedding on the horizon, serving my homebrew sounded like a great excuse to buy some more ingredients and kit, so I brewed a Belgian Dirty Blonde and a Rauchbier. The Rauchbier is still ageing, but the wedding had the ESB (which turned out to be more of an American IPA), the coffee stout, and the Belgian. They were all well-received, or people were too polite to say otherwise. I like them all, anyway.

Tomorrow is my fifth brew day. I’m not opening a brewpub this year — but I am looking at the Brewlab microbrewer’s course, dreaming of the Hoppy Collie pub. Not today, and not tomorrow, but it’s not impossible.

I think it’s pretty simple. Brewing is to beer what cooking is to food. If you like beer, you should try brewing. In the end, you will know more about beer, and might appreciate it a bit more.


Like school days

I’m reading Faulkner when she comes in. She sits on the bed, close enough that I can feel her.

‘What’s going on?’ She sounds just like she did when we were in university. A little more sober, maybe, but otherwise pitch-perfect.

‘Trying to read. Not successfully.’

‘Go ahead and ask. I know you’re dying to ask.’

‘Where is he?’

‘I don’t know, and even if I did, I would tell you I don’t. You need to give it. Put the past behind you.’

Her hand is resting on my arm, then my ribs, and then, well, it’s also like university, that part. Excitement, lust, and a little desperation as a new ingredient. Then she leaves.

I can hear her, in her room, afterwards, watching television — the shrieks of some slasher film carry through. I get up to go to the bathroom. Her bedroom is at the end of the hallway, and the door is open.

‘Everything okay?’ She is sitting on the edge of the bed watching a scary movie with a blanket over her shoulders, just like she used to do.

‘Great,’ she whispers — trying not to wake everyone, I guess. ‘You?’

‘Yeah, great.’

I walk out of the hallway and into the bathroom. When I go back to bed, her door is shut, muffling the television’s noise.