Cyber Security and the Duty of Science

NSA Stop the Lying and Spying

Cross-posted from Making Sense of Science.

If there’s one area in which I believe science can and ought to improve, it would be the communication of science to the public at large. Granted, this is no easy task, especially in an environment in which many scientists feel gagged, unable to speak out publicly for fear of losing funding or their job. And the media, increasingly reliant on clickbait and ad views to remain viable, is far from a reliable spokesperson for the scientific community at this point in time.

However, public and political antagonism towards science is part and parcel of the discipline. Changing the public’s assumptions, or to use a trendy term, “nudging” people towards changing their behaviour, is a challenge that I believe the field of science needs to continue engaging in. And one area in which science could and should strive to be more vocal is the area of privacy and security.

You’ve probably heard about the egregious actions of government organisations such as the NSA in the US and GCSB in New Zealand, who, among other things, conspired to deliberately weaken industry security measures in an effort to make it easier for them to intercept the public’s data and communications. By cracking encryption technology and covertly putting back doors into widely used software, such organisations not only violate civil liberties, but also put the public at risk of cyber attacks perpetrated by criminal organisations.

Such revelations have made me realise two things. For one, we need scientists—not just judicial bodies—to help oversee and hold to account the likes of the NSA and GCSB. We need cryptographers, mathematicians, computer scientists and social scientists—arm-in-arm with rights activists and legal experts—to make sure that the government is doing as it says.

As well as advocating for better standards at the government level, we also need scientists to lead to way in educating the public about how they can protect themselves when online (read: all the time). After all, we can hardly trust the government to do so.

From simple things such as recommending the use of a password manager to protect our online identities, to the more complex, such as helping lawyers and journalists protect their sensitive information from prying eyes, there is much that scientists can do to help. The question is how and through which channels.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue / CC BY

A Place to Call Home: Six Weeks In Auckland

After a successful first quarter at the University of Auckland, I’m thankful to be able to spend a few quiet days at home, and reflect on my experiences so far—before it all kicks off again in a couple of weeks’ time.

Rather than giving a long-winded recap of my first five weeks of study, I will instead summarise it by saying that the experience has so far exceeded my expectations. Although I have greatly missed my family in Christchurch, I’m fortunate for the wonders of telephony, and the myriad distractions that life in the halls provides.

For a more thorough review of my University experience thus far, take a read of my first three blog posts for The Inside Word, a blog written by first-year students at the University of Auckland.

  1. Apples and Pretzels, or How I Survived Week One of Student Life
  2. Clubs, Classes and ‘Crying Monday’
  3. Life in Auckland: What I’ve Seen and Done

The best part of University so far? Without a doubt, the independence it affords. And the free time.

This point was driven home to me by one of my lecturers the other day. After class, he was talking about how, when he got his first job, he looked back on his time at University and reminisced about how much time he had on his hands back then. Then he began teaching, and shortly after had a kid, only to realise how much free time he used to have at his last job. Now, after having completed a PhD while raising several kids and continuing to teach, he can only smile knowingly whenever he hears students say how they have so little time.

The message here, as I see it, is not to fill one’s schedule to the brim, but instead to devote time to the things that really matter — whether a hobby, sport, or further learning. It’s interesting how the work that matters most to us can often be sidelined by the mundane and comparatively unimportant tasks of day-to-day life.

I hope you’ve had a wonderful Easter weekend. A special thank you to all of the friendly people who have welcomed me to Auckland, and made me feel at home at University Hall. It’s been a great experience so far, and I look forward to more of the same in coming months.

Week One in Auckland

Here are a few photos taken during my first week as an Auckland resident and University student.

For the full written account, have a read of my first blog post as a blogger for The Inside Word — a student blog written by an awesome team of ten University of Auckland freshers (first year students).

More words and photos to follow in the months ahead!

The view from the top of Mount Eden Domain.

The view from the top of Mount Eden Domain.

My workspace, in a state of exceptional tidiness.

My workspace, in a state of exceptional tidiness.

The view from my window, overlooking the Auckland Domain (and North-Western Motorway).

The view from my window, overlooking the Auckland Domain (and North-Western Motorway).

Why ‘digital natives’ prefer print to digital

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“I like the feeling of it,” Schembari said, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”

Textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally.

The Washington Post

I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by the findings of this study. The observation that resonated most with me was that, among students who read hardcopy books, the likelihood of multitasking was 1%, versus 90% for those reading books on a screen. In some ways, the best feature of the book in today’s age is not portability, affordability, or aesthetics—but simplicity.

Unlike digital devices, books don’t have notifications, ringtones, Facetime, or messaging. At most, a book might have an index, illustrations, and a few end notes. But that’s about it.

The other advantage of books, of course, is their physical nature. While reading, you can see and even feel the progress you’ve made, which, as linguist Naomi Baron posits, helps in “building a physical map in my mind of where things are,” which researchers suggest aids our comprehension.

None of this is to say that the physical book is inherently better than digital. The two are entirely different forms, and the subject matter can affect which form is better for the task.

Personally, I find that my reading is split about 50/50 between digital and print (most of my long-form reading is on paper, whereas I find reading short-form articles far easier on my smartphone). The article cited above is right in pointing out that certain textbooks, such as those concerned with the sciences, can be greatly enhanced by virtue of being digital.

Perhaps more important than the finding that young people prefer to read on paper, is the idea that our assumptions about the superiority of digital versus analogue are not always correct.

The smart watch, for example has been touted as the next big thing, but personally, I’m ambivalent. I appreciate the singular nature of my wristwatch. It tells the time—in my choice of 12 or 24 hour—and it has a stopwatch. I’ve spent enough time trying to tame the onslaught of notifications from my smartphone, that I don’t really fancy having another device to unexpectedly interrupt my day.

I could be proven wrong, of course. I don’t doubt the potential of technology, and the information it can provide us, to make us healthier and more productive. If smart watches encourage exercise, help us get places on time, and allow us to get help quicker in an emergency, that is great.

But at the same time, we mustn’t fall into the trap of trying to fit every conceivable feature into every new device that is developed.

When the objective is to learn new information, or delve into a new novel, then sometimes a paperback, a quiet place, and a cup of coffee is the optimal combination.

Reading” by Sebastien Wiertz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Moving North

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In less than 12 hours’ time, I will be leaving Christchurch, the city where I’ve spent the last 18 years of my life, and moving to Auckland, where I will be taking up residence at University Hall, and beginning studies at the University of Auckland. Even after typing those words, the very thought of it still seems surreal.

Part of me is sad to be leaving home—and especially family—behind. There’s no other city I would have rather grown up in, and I have many connections—both people and places—that I know I will miss when I’m gone.

That said, it also feels like the right time to branch out; to experience a new city, meet new people, and generally broaden my understanding. Although I’m incredibly nervous about the move, I also realise the importance of taking risks, and the otherwise unseen possibilities that a change of scene can present.

Time will tell though, and I look forward to sharing my observations with you along the way.

What I can tell you now, though, is that I will be studying a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Computer Science (CS for short), at the University of Auckland. I’ve long had an interest in technology, the web in particular, and I look forward to both deepening and broadening my knowledge within this field.

I expect that study and running, as well as hall life, will occupy much of my time, but I also hope to continue developing websites in my spare time, and maybe even release a product of my own. My writings here and elsewhere will continue as a matter of course.

For now, I should really get back to packing, seeing as though I have to get up at 5:30am tomorrow. I expect that it will be a whirlwind week from the moment I get up.

Auckland City, New Zealand” by Stuart Baird is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

How to Add an Accent Colour Using Action Hooks in WordPress

Recently, while developing a WordPress site, I had a very specific requirement: namely, to add a custom ‘accent colour’ to each page, for links, buttons and various other elements. At first, this seemed straightforward—create a custom field using ACF (which has a built-in colour picker) and then hook into wp_head(). I added the following code to functions.php:

function custom_accent_colour() {
	if ( get_field('colour_picker') ) { ?>
		<style type="text/css">
			/* Various custom styles using the value of the field colour_picker */
		</style>
	<?php }
}
add_action('wp_head','custom_accent_colour');

The theme I was using, however, had a nifty feature that reloaded the page using AJAX, which, as I soon found out, caused the accent colour to stay the same from page to page. There are undoubtedly more elegant, solutions to this particular problem, but at the time I had recently read an article on Using Action Hooks in WordPress, so I was eager to put a new technique into practice. So I copied the original theme file (page.php in this case) and dropped it into my child theme.

I then added this after get_header():

<?php do_action('after_header'); ?>

With that in place, it was just a matter of hooking into the new action hook. I replaced the last line of that first code snippet with the following:

add_action('after_header','custom_accent_colour');

The best thing about action hooks? You don’t need to touch your original theme files. If your theme developer is gracious enough to include a few action hooks by default, you can omit the do_action() bit and just add code from the safety of your child theme’s functions.php.

Choosing the Company and Not the Job

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Among some of the most thought-provoking career advice that I received in 2014 was to imagine not the job I hoped to have in the future, but the company I hoped to work for; a company whose goals, values and culture align with my own. Time will tell whether this was advice that I would pass on, but the logic is difficult to argue with.

A company whose ethos I find inspirational, even as an outsider, is Automattic, whose founder, Matt Mullenweg, was the original developer of WordPress, the software which powers this blog—and as of January 2015, over 23% of the top 10 million websites. Matt recently shared his company’s creed on his blog, and it encapsulates in its brevity and discerning use of metaphor, everything which a modern company should aspire to:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

Indeed, many of these values are as suitable for an individual as they are an organisation. I find it refreshing that, rather than speaking generally about what ‘we’ as an organisation should aspire to, Automattic’s creed addresses the reader in the first-person singular, acknowledging that shared values start with the individual and not the collective.

In my experience, too many organisations resort to the use of vague, generalised adjectives to describe their values and culture, or produce spiffy diagrams that unfortunately raise more questions than answers. I’m a strong advocate for goal-setting, and taking the time to articulate the values that an organisation aspires to—provided that those goals and values are actionable and unambiguous.

Blogging is hard, but worth the effort

Blogging

Lately, with the freedom of the summer holidays, I’ve tried to make a habit of updating my blog on a regular basis. And the longer I go, the harder it seems to get; either the ideas dry up, or I don’t feel comfortable publishing what I’ve written.

Thankfully, though, these aren’t challenges unique to me. One of the obstacles, I’ve come to learn, is something called ‘the curse of knowledge.’ Although it doesn’t apply directly to blogging, the idea could be extended to say that, inherently, we as writers assume that everyone else knows what we know, and therefore tell ourselves that whatever we’re writing is common knowledge that everyone will have already read.

Hearing other writers allude to this phenomenon, and the need to block it out, has been greatly reassuring.

Another challenge with writing a blog is the question of quality. Knowing that your writing is going to be accessible by a large proportion of the world’s population can be daunting, especially when most of what’s published online these days can never really be erased.

Some wise words from blogger and programmer Steve Yegge comforted me on this front:

“People aren’t going to hold you to some exacting standard; they’re not going to demand that every blog entry you write be interesting or useful. Nobody can insist that you blog with regularity — blogs aren’t bowel movements, although certainly some of my entries have shared a certain family resemblance to them. But people are pretty forgiving, on the whole.”

— Steve Yegge, You Should Write Blogs

None of this is to say that you should publish everything and anything that ever occurs to you; it still pays to run each idea through a quick mental filter before publishing. Is this offensive? Fair? Does it sound snarky?

Being able to publish freely and openly on the internet is a huge privilege, if you think about it. Once upon a time, to have your voice heard by more than your own social circle, required sending a letter to the paper, thereby subjecting yourself to the whims of the editor, or becoming sufficiently esteemed to write a column of your own.

In closing, another quotation from Steve Yegge:

“That’s a key thing to realize about blogging: you can’t please everyone, and you won’t please everyone, so focus on making yourself happy. The rest will just happen naturally.”

Is Nine-to-five Really the Best Way to Work?

I’ve been working on a number of different web design and development projects over the past week, and during my attempts to get work done, I’ve come to realise just how little discipline and consistency I have when it comes to work. Despite intentions of working from 9 until 5 and then calling it a day, I frequently find that I work for a couple of hours in the morning, take a break, work a couple more hours, have dinner, watch the news, and then, realising that it’s getting on, do a bit more work before bed (which is invariably at a later time than I intend).

Yet, the conventional wisdom in our society still seems to maintain that nine-to-five, with two days off at the weekend, is the optimal way to get work done. Partly, I suspect, it has something to do with the nature of the work in question: creative work, such as designing websites or writing an article, requires motivation that perhaps more menial or repetitive tasks do not. But a large proportion of our work force engage in tasks that would not be classified as menial, and which demand attentiveness and focus in order to produce the best possible output.

We often hear statistics about how little time people who work in offices actually spend working, and how much time they instead spend browsing Trade Me, social media sites, and I suspect travel websites too. I think we’re supposed to react with shock, and feel ashamed about our collective lack of discipline and integrity – but the fact that so many of us do it surely points to a different truth.

Maybe our current work culture, in which sitting at a desk for a prescribed number of hours is thought to produce the greatest outcomes, is rather more counter-productive than we think.

None of these questions are remotely new, of course. I know many companies, especially those in the tech space, have challenged such long-held assumptions. But many others, to my knowledge, have not. If you have any thoughts to add on the topic, please leave a comment below!

Handwritten notes are more effective than typed ones

Taking notes on the computer is detrimental to learning, and it’s not just because of Facebook, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles […] Even when all distractions are eliminated, handwritten notes are still dramatically more effective at helping students retain information, according to the study.

Boston.com

This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Reflecting on my high school career, note-taking was one area in which I could still do with a lot of improvement. It is difficult during class to resist the urge to take notes verbatim, mainly because it requires less effort at the time, but this new research gives me no excuse to continue doing so.

When you consider the reduced distraction and increased retention of summarised hand-written notes, versus verbatim typed up notes, it logically makes sense to stick with the old ways, even though the progressive side of me wants to embrace the power of modern technology.

In saying that, I will be studying Computer Science in 2015, and as a result I may require a laptop on hand if I ever want to try out a piece of code or take advantage of a proper text editor. Which method of note-taking is most effective, therefore, may depend on the circumstances.

But in general, for subjects that are word-intensive, I’m inclined to agree with the science that hand-written is the more productive method.