Mar 072014

Langara is a local college offering degrees in a number of subjects, including Computer Studies. I know one of the instructors there, and he asked me to give a talk at their monthly Computer Tech meetup. As a topic, I picked Simple Principles for Website Security, a shorter version of talks I’ve given at the XML Summer School.

Apart from the fact that I was recovering from a bout with the virulent stomach bug that seemed to be going round Vancouver at the time, it was fun. A good bunch of people, decent questions, and the student newspaper took advantage of the opportunity to write a column and make a video about basic internet security. One of my aims in this talk is to make the audience paranoid, pointing out sometimes the bad guys really are out to get you, and talking a bit about risk analysis and the trade-offs involved in writing down strong passwords (using a password manager is better, of course). And the door prizes for Langara students were quite impressive!

Thanks to Raymond for inviting me, and Gail and Holly for organising everything. I put the slides up at slideshare if you’re interested.

Aug 272013

For the XML Summer School this year, I’m teaching about HTML5, CSS3 and ePub in the Hands-on Web Publishing course. The basic premise of the course is to show what technologies are involved in taking a bunch of Word documents or XML files and turning them into a decent-looking website or ePub. The course includes lessons on relevant bits of XSLT transformation (since Word is XML under the covers, if you dig deeply enough), scripting in Ruby to automate as much as possible, and, of course, enough information about HTML and CSS that people can make a decent-looking website in class in the hands-on part.

As a starting point for the exercises, we’ll use a generated template from HTML5 boilerplate, since, if you pick the right options, it is relatively clean and simple to understand. Looking at the current common design practices used across a number of options (HTML5 boilerplate, Bootstrap, WordPress templates for example) coupled with web components and the sheer size and number of HTML5-related specifications from WHATWG and the W3C, I’m wondering just how much more complicated it can all get before the pendulum starts swinging back again towards simplicity and separation of content from processing. Even a bare-bones template has a number of lines in it to deal with older versions of IE, or to load some JavaScript or (mostly) jQuery library. It’s no wonder we’re starting to see so many frameworks that try to cover up all of that complexity (Bootstrap again, or Ember, for example).

In the meantime, at least I have a reasonably constrained use case to help me decide which of the myriad possibilities are worth spending time teaching, and which are best left for the delegates to read up on after the class.

Aug 222012

A large part of my decision to move back to technical work, and less project management, was due to how much fun it was last year working on the web applications course for the XML Summer School. And now it’s that time of year again to brush up on my coding for this year’s version. Fortunately, although I’m running a bit late in my preparations, Matt has done sterling work getting the code base working, and Norm and Paul are doing their bits too.

This is all very different to the healthcare document analysis I’ve been doing recently, so I need to refresh my memory on Ruby, Sinatra, OAuth, and co, as well as catch up on recent changes (in particular to OAuth2, which finally made it to RFC not so long ago). Last year I worked through Singing with Sinatra; this year I get to see what Matt did for our XML web publishing application (taking XML files, converting to HTML for browser viewing, adding various webby bells and whistles) before the delegates do.

I’m mostly talking about the security and identity aspects of web sites (as well as helping out on the other sections), with the stated aim of making everyone paranoid enough to be careful. The hackers are getting more sophisticated these days, which means website coders have to be more careful.

Jun 262012

This year’s Northern Voice was held downtown, and was smaller than the last couple of years. I like the small conference personally, it’s easier to chat with lots of different people, the lines at registration aren’t as long, and the conference as a whole feels more personal. This is the strength of Northern Voice for me, it’s a pleasant contrast to large conferences where keynotes are sold to the sponsors and there are advertising banners everywhere. Yes, Northern Voice has sponsors who show up and have a presence and maybe even a table, but they are all respectful of the spirit of the conference. For which I, at least, am grateful.

I spent the first bit of the conference helping out on the registration table. A certain amount of hectic, but not too bad. I then moderated Martha Rans’ talk on Copyright for Canadians did a good job, I thought, of giving information without overwhelming everyone. The Artists Legal Outreach site has more in-depth information, in what they call toolkits.

Lunch at the W2 cafe was great and the big wooden circles in the middle of the atrium space were full of people chatting while balancing plates and glasses. After lunch I sat in on MooseCamp for a while, knitting and listening and relaxing. And singing with Nancy and the ukuleles. I really must get back to singing, it’s been a long time since I sang regularly.

Another important talk was Daniel Cowen’s talk on privacy. A lot of the subject matter was familiar to me from my work at Sun, where I was part of a privacy and identity group, but Daniel took it a step further by seeing how much someone without specialised tools or knowledge could find out about someone online. In four hours they had a worrying amount of information about a woman they code-named “Tara”, enough to run any number of social engineering attacks or compromise any “secret question” systems. People in the session were genuinely shocked at just how much information is available online, and how many details, innocuous in themselves, can be added together.

Friday ended with the wine tasting and party in the atrium.

Saturday dawned bright and early with Blaine Cook’s wonderful keynote, celebrating diversity in culture, life, and technology platforms in the face of globalisation and market forces. He tied together architecture, rainforest, and people fighting to save their culture with the domination by large platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to encourage diversity and independence.

Shane Birley’s keynote was of a different style but had some of the same underlying themes, celebrating individual voice, charting his personal journey online, and encouraging all of us to try out new ways of communicating and sharing who we are. All delivered in inimitable Shane style, of course!

All in all, it was a lot of work and I was exhausted by the end of the two days, but it was all worthwhile. The energy and enthusiasm was obvious with all the discussions and interactions and it’s also been great to see all the tweets and blog posts continue.

May 182011

That was what we put on the front of the t-shirts this year, #nv11. Some bright spark (I forget who, sorry, the two days blur together a bit) pointed out that the t-shirts were green with NV, which was an impressive pun, or at least better than anything I could come up with on my own.

As always, the days were full, and this year I made it to the party at the Academic as well, which gave me a chance to chat to different people. I’m still trying to figure out whether I liked the Moose cocktail the Academic designed for us or not. The food was good, and the candy bar went down well with everyone.

I managed to miss the morning keynote (the school run took priority), so for me the sessions part of the conference started with the first panel I moderated: Courting Controversy: Dancing with the Devil. Rebecca Coleman, Kazia Mullin, and Lorraine Murphy had everything so well organised that I didn’t need to do anything, I just sat there and watched and listened, prepared to help if they needed it (which they didn’t). They have all summarised their takes on the panel; there are lots of useful hints in there as to how to deal with controversy (and anyone who allows any sorts of comments will). I’m glad I got to listen to this one.

I sat in on the Social Media and Online Defamation: Keeping Out of Court panel for a bit, some interesting information there about the upcoming Supreme Court decision on whether linking to something libellous means that you are considered to have libelled someone yourself, which is a frightening concept and will definitely have a chilling effect on spreading news if it goes the wrong way. Rob Cottingham has a summary in cartoon form. It was interesting comparing this panel with the courting controversy one; “play it safe” vs “be brave”.

I didn’t make it to any sessions after that on the Friday, dealing with various issues or chatting with people in the atrium, but I did make it to the Township 7 winetasting, albeit at the end. And then, of course, the party.

The party was followed by the morning after, being in time to welcome people to the second day and introduce Chris Wilson for his keynote From Dial-up Modems to Post-“Social Media”: A Journey. I enjoyed it, especially when he reminded us all just how fast technology has changed and how much of what is available today would have seemed unbelievable 10 or 15 years ago.

After lunch I moderated Tim’s Sex, Lies, and Wikipedia talk, which, of course, didn’t need much moderation. Tim hasn’t written up his talk, but a search on “Tim Bray wikipedia #nv11” will bring up lots of summaries written by others.

Anthony Marco’s Podcasting with Soul: Try A Little Tenderness was a mix of music and advice on podcasting. He used the music to show how the same basic message (or melody) can sound very different, depending on how it’s presented, and talked about how to get that joy and inspiration into podcasting. I found it interesting, even though I don’t listen to podcasts, with inspiration for written blogging as well.

The last panel was Altruism vs Narcissism: what’s in it for the online reviewer? with Monica Miller, Kyrsten Jensen, Nicole Christen, and Marina Antunes. I ended up asking quite a few questions of the panel to get more details on interesting items. The advice can be best summed up as: keep your integrity. Don’t say you like it if you don’t, but also don’t be too harsh on small independents. In some cases, just don’t post a public review, but in most cases, say what you really think (while stressing it’s your opinion and experience, not Universal Truth). The session was lower energy than lots, since it was getting a little late in the day, and Kyrsten had almost lost her voice, but I think people found it interesting.

And that was it! Northern Voice over for another year.

Apr 182011

Every year, when we start organising Northern Voice, the question comes up about keynotes. Keynotes set the tone of a conference, they indicate something of what the organising committee is thinking, or what they think the community that supports the conference might want to hear about. This year, I wanted to find someone as a keynote speaker who could talk to us about the less sunny side of life, and remind us that some of the personal stories people share online aren’t about good things happening, they’re about life happening, and life isn’t always fair, or easy. The rest of the organising committee agreed, and we’re glad that April Smith agreed to present. “Storytelling From the Heart of the City” opens Northern Voice on Friday May 13th.

The Saturday keynote is a different slant on the web, from Chris Wilson, who’s played a key role in building many of the web technologies we use every day. I’m not actually sure what he’s going to talk about, but I have no doubt it will be an interesting view of the web world so many of us now inhabit, sprinkled with interesting anecdotes. I’m looking forward to it!

Two keynotes, two different slants on what the web enables, two different journeys. I’m not very good at chronicling my own journey, but I admire those who do, and I hope (and expect) that the Northern Voice keynotes will give strength and inspiration to all of us.