DrupalCon Portland 2013

Daniel Stout2013-07-02T06:00:17+00:00

I am going! DrupalCon Portland 2013There’s a pattern to conversations that plays out over and over. Someone I’ve just met asks me, “What do you do?” I say, “I work for the UW.” Then they ask, “Are you a professor?” I reply, “My title is Senior Drupal Developer.” I then give a brief explanation of Drupal or mention something about the web.

Among non-technical people, Drupal needs a bit of explanation. I’ve been doing Drupal full-time for two and a half years, and it’s been nice to see the phenomenal growth of Drupal sites since the Drupal 7 release. In late May, 3,300 of my fellow Drupalers gathered in Portland, Ore., for DrupalCon Portland 2013. DrupalCon is the big, annual Drupal conference. Actually, there are three DrupalCons this year. The first was in Sydney, then Portland, and Prague is coming up. But the annual North American gathering is the largest.

In one of the sessions I attended, the presenter asked, “Is this your first DrupalCon?” A lot of hands went up. In recent years, UW-Madison has hosted a DrupalCamp each summer. Last year, DrupalCampWI also coincided with the Midwest Drupal Developer Summit. Like everything Drupal, it’s a traveling gig, and Drupal Developer Days just ended a couple of days ago in Dublin. A new acquaintance from DrupalCon Portland wrote to me from the Dublin session. She’s mixing business and pleasure, and that’s what I did in Portland too. More about that another time. I attended the Acquia higher education meetup and heard estimates that 20% of the attendees at DrupalCon Portland were from higher ed. The university crowd finds Drupal an attractive proposition.

I gave a presentation on Drupal at the UW-Extension Technology Conference held at the Pyle Center last November. I heard lots of stories about people here planning or thinking about Drupal sites. Madison has a stronger Drupal presence than, say, Milwaukee simply because of adoption in higher ed. That’s my industry, but there are plenty of other high-profile examples of Drupal sites from WhiteHouse.gov to Emmys.com.

One of my friends in Portland is a tuberculosis specialist. She was down in Atlanta recently for a tuberculosis conference. Not having heard of Drupal, she speculated that DrupalCon would have a few hundred attendees like her tuberculosis conference. My friend is correct: Drupal is specialized, but the web is a pretty big playground. The thing I noted about DrupalCon more so than other tech conferences I’ve been to is that despite everyone being in one place for the same thing, it felt like there was a lot of diversity about what people were doing and thinking.

During the Friday code sprint at DrupalCon, I looked around and thought, “This is amazing!” There were 600 or 800 people who attended the code sprint, and the wi-fi at the Oregon Convention Center strained to keep up with the load. But it felt like a moment of unity. Hundreds of people all came together for the same thing. You talked to people around you. You overheard conversations. It felt like this big melting pot, a grand stew of different thoughts, perceptions and interests.

Here’s a group shot of the conference attendees after Dries Buytaert’s keynote. I’m in there, but you’ll have to look at the full resolution picture by Trav Williams on Flickr to find me. Hint: I’m near the center of the photograph.

The 3,300 attendees of DrupalCon Portland 2013.

Making connections at Twitter airport

Daniel Stout2012-12-03T18:00:32+00:00
Making connections at the Twitter airport

Photo: Daniel Stout

William Gibson once said that Facebook is like a mall, and Twitter is like the street. He doesn’t use Facebook but frequently walks up and down the Twitter block. One approach to Twitter is to follow only those who follow you back. You see it in people who are following 2,100 people and have 2,000 followers. They get to tell people that they have thousands of followers, but it seems like artifice.

I’ve dabbled in Twitter. It’s a hobby. I dip in every once in a while to see what’s going on, but I make a point not to follow it too closely. Approaching Twitter like the street is too much noise. It’s like everyone on the block is talking at the same time, and it’s not always clear who they’re talking to. When people follow 2,000 other Twitter users, the Twitter feed is deemphasized. The focus becomes you and how people are interacting with you–mentions, retweets, etc. Maybe that approach works. I definitely see people using Twitter in that fashion.

I see Twitter like an airport. In an airport, you’re making connections, often with a plane full of strangers. You are standing at the ticket desk and strike up a conversation with the person ahead of you in the queue. And if you want, you can search–keywords, hashtags, whatever–finding people who are on the same route that you’re taking. You can have single-serving friends as the unnamed narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club called them. Or you might find someone next to you on the plane that has surprising depth.

Facebook is overrun with photos of babies and small children. It’s like young parents have taken Facebook for themselves. I look on Twitter and find a lot more unexpected things. There are people I know in real life on Twitter but getting outside of your routine social circle is part of the Twitter experience. Maybe that means following a celebrity. Or maybe it means following someone who inspires you. Or someone who think is interesting. Twitter has grown such that wherever you want to fly, you can get there. The kinds of things I’m into seem out-of-place in the Facebook mall, but I find plenty of common territory on Twitter.

I can explore in more depth what’s on my mind on a blog. Twitter is another way of exploring interests, but it’s different from blogging. It’s easier to find people there and interact with them conversationally, at least in my experience. Blogs aren’t the first place people turn anymore for information. There was a period maybe seven or eight years ago where a lot of Google searches ended up at blogs. There are still many blogs, but the big ones are mostly commercially run. Blogs went from being a place to interact with your friends to a snappier, more modern form of news outlet.

Twitter’s depth is twofold. The diversity and multitude of voices is one strength. You can see what different people are saying about the same thing. Also, Twitter acts as a launching point. You come to the common hub of Twitter and follow links to many other destinations–whether it be articles, photos or whatever. Those are not Twitter’s only strengths, but both of those are key.

Walking from terminal to terminal in an airport is tiring, and I feel that sometimes I want to limit the connections and random street chatter. I keep people I want to read in my followers list and avoid users who post a very, very lot. Maybe that’ll change as I experiment more with Twitter. For now, it helps keep the information flow manageable. I don’t spend a lot of time with it, but I usually find interesting things when I wade in and see what my fellow passengers are saying.

Getting ahead of spambots with Jetpack Comments

Daniel Stout2012-10-18T18:00:07+00:00

Jetpack for WordPressI’ve been singing the praises of Jetpack for WordPress to my blogging friends. Yesterday, I wrote here about the proofreading tools. Today, there’s another great feature that’s garnered some attention. Defenses for dealing with blog comment spam have gotten better over the years. A lot of different strategies have come and gone, and some work a little, some a lot, some not at all. But it’s mostly been a stalemate for a long time. WordPress comes with the Akismet plugin that helps to hold most comment spam at bay. It’s not perfect, and you may have to spend some time “training” it by marking spam as such that get around its filter.

Jetpack Comments promises a new approach to the battle with spambots. James Huff, the editor over at Weblog Tools Collection, noticed a dramatic decrease in spam after turning on Jetpack Comments. His spam intake went from 10,000 a day to just a handful.

The basic idea is that Jetpack Comments work. They use an iframe tag and JavaScript to activate the comment form. Will spammers figure out a way to circumvent Jetpack Comments? If their payloads aren’t being delivered, they may. For now, Automattic has outsmarted the bots. Enjoy it while it lasts!

All the warnings in the world: Companies tracking us online

Daniel Stout2012-03-01T22:07:36+00:00

Target logoThe book Database Nation, which O’Reilly published in 2000, was an early call to arms for protections against the data mining of millions of citizens. Simson Garfinkel made the case that our privacy was being increasingly violated and manipulated by corporations and governments for a variety of reasons. In the post-9/11 world, his ideas spring even more to life. I used the book as a source for my master’s thesis in early 2001, which was about online privacy in regards to the practices of a sampling of newspaper websites.

The point is that people have been sounding the warning of the encroachments on our privacy for years. And in some cases there have been some significant intrusions. For the most part though much of it flies under the radar of our day-to-day lives. Charles Duhigg writes in How Companies Learn Your Secrets from The New York Times Magazine that Target and many other companies are uniquely identifying customers and using a variety of data-crunching methods to sell us more stuff. And because we’re all human, it has taken people with backgrounds in psychology and other fields such as math to put this all together.

Duhigg profiles a couple of companies including Target and also Proctor & Gamble. By using data about consumers, P&G was able to turn the weak launch of their Febreze product into a billion dollar business.  The key was understanding how habits work. Target and others have discovered that people get set in their purchasing habits. But there are inflection points in a person’s life that renders them more malleable. Maybe it’s a pregnancy, the purchase of a house, or even a divorce.

The Times article got notice because of a story that came from one of Target’s stores in Minnesota. Target has focused on pregnancies as a time to create new purchasing habits with their core customers. Target wants people to consider Target for more than, say, cleaning supplies. They want to be the go-to store for just about anything.

There was this man in Minnesota who walked into his local Target near Minneapolis and was upset. He was clutching some coupons that Target had sent to his teenage daughter. They were coupons for baby-related items. The store manager looked at the coupons and apologized although the corporate office sent the coupons.

The manager called the man a few days later to follow-up with him. This time the man apologized. When he had gone back home, he found out the truth: his daughter was pregnant. Target had figured out that the man’s daughter was pregnant before he did.

So it is well-known that our privacy is disappearing. Much of it is voluntary, such as on Facebook, but what of the ones sounding the alarms? In many ways, the tracking of consumers has greased the wheels of commerce. It is much easier for companies to find likely customers of their products. The demographic profiles that are available for sale contain extremely detailed information about our proclivities. To what end?

Alarmists are anticipating a massive transgression of our privacy — perhaps a rounding up of undesirable people in a totalitarian political climate. It’s 1984 writ large. Except the authorities won’t care about watching us through the television sets. It’ll be in the devices we carry closest: our mobile phones, our automobiles, our laptops.

We’ve had all the warnings in the world, but these new methods of tracking are intertwined with new technologies. To go backward is simply that, a step back. We will continue to move forward knowing that the potential for abuse exists. Tracking has become more sophisticated since Garfinkel wrote his book, and I wrote my master’s thesis. It hasn’t happened suddenly but has been gradual. And the doomsday scenario of a surveillance society will eventually come true.

Or maybe it already has.

What technology tools do you use?

Daniel Stout2011-05-02T20:13:22+00:00

For a little over two years, The Setup has been profiling people of various walks who use technology in a significant way. There are four simple questions of which the purpose is to determine who the person is and what technology tools they use whether hardware, software, devices, etc. It’s an interesting look behind the scenes to see what people use to get their work done. People interviewed range from Gina Trapani to Jeffrey Zeldman to Warren Ellis. You can get at a list of everyone who has been interviewed on the Archives page.

This is not the first site to capture information about people’s tools. Flickr has had a variety of photo pools over the years cataloging what’s in people’s bags and such. Or here’s a site taking a look at what’s on the desks of creative people.

It’s a humanizing thing. Partly, you can see what other people use to get things done. But also you can read the stories behind the choices that led people to use a given tool. The Setup features technology tools used by technology-oriented people. It’s amazing to see how much penetration Apple has with the movers and shakers. Another trend that plays out on The Setup is the use of laptops. Even if people have a large, freestanding screen on their desk, more often than not it’s connected to a laptop.

So if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, go over and check out The Setup. It’s one of those little diversions that make the web such a fun place.

What’s a good alternative to Yahoo’s Delicious bookmarking site?

Daniel Stout2011-01-15T21:14:14+00:00

Diigo logoEver since a leaked slide indicated that Yahoo might shut down their Delicious (formerly del.icio.us) social bookmarking service, there’s been a lot of to and fro about what the other options are. Last spring, I dumped Delicious and found an unsung alternative that’s excellent, has a very international user base, and also has a bunch of features that you won’t find on Delicious. It’s called Diigo.

Diigo does the social aspects of bookmarking that a site like Pinboard doesn’t do as well. I’m still using Diigo’s free service, but there are a couple of levels of paid accounts as well. Diigo has made inroads with educators especially and seems to have a nice .edu focus. There are lots of smart people on the site. You can join groups on a variety of interests, which you can post links to.

Diigo offers several ways to interact with the site, and you may want to experiment with these to find what works best for you. They have a toolbar that I have installed in Firefox. I found I didn’t use the toolbar much, and instead I put a Diigo icon next to the Home button that features a drop-down to key features. It doesn’t take as much room as the toolbar, and gives me quick access to making bookmarks or highlights. You can also use a bookmarklet called Diigolet. It’s a bit of JavaScript that works as a quick and dirty bookmarker.

There are a number of other features such as saving caches of pages at a specific time like you can with Zotero. I actually use both Diigo and Zotero. You can also highlight text on any web page, and it’ll remember your highlights. Diigo I use mostly to bookmark things or interest or articles I want to read later. Zotero is my research tool. Gone are the days of using clunky, outdated software like EndNote.

So check out Diigo. It’s a great alternative to Delicious. I like it a lot.

Managing Privacy: Taming the super cookie

Daniel Stout2010-11-02T06:10:07+00:00

Most people who surf the web regularly have heard of cookies. Cookies, once upon a time, were used mostly just to keep login or shopping cart information. From a computer science perspective, the web is stateless. That is, if you go from one page to another, the web doesn’t remember what came before. So cookies were a way to keep state. Cookies help websites remember you.

Over the span of the past decade, cookies have also been put to additional tracking purposes. They’re used to track your movements, clicks, searches and other data about your web surfing behavior. Third-party cookies can track you as you go from site to site.

The problem, from the companies’ perspective, is that a certain percentage of people are aware cookies are being set, and through one method or another are deleting their cookies. “Wouldn’t it be great,” these corporate marketers asked, “if we could set a cookie that the user couldn’t delete?”

Adobe’s Flash, a platform for many types of user abuse, became the preferred method for creating LSOs, or Locally Stored Objects. The LSO can hold a lot more data than a standard cookie, and they’re especially pernicious because they’re difficult to delete or even detect.

As I wrote this summer, there are several plugins for Firefox that can help increase your online privacy. Ghostery is one plugin that manages the setting of tracking cookies. But how do you get rid of super cookies? Fortunately, there’s another Firefox addon that will do the job for you. It’s called BetterPrivacy.

When I first ran BetterPrivacy, it found 2 LSOs on my browser, but that’s because I’m cautious. I suggested this plugin to a friend, and she had well over 100 different locally stored objects. That’s a lot of tracking information that she was completely unaware of.

To try out BetterPrivacy, you can download it from the official Mozilla Addons for Firefox website. You can also read more on the plugin’s homepage. How many LSOs did it find in your browser?

And I should add that this is one of the primary reasons that Firefox remains my default browser. The breadth and quality of the plugins available for this browser far exceed any other browser. Plus you don’t have to worry about unique serial numbers, as with Google’s Chrome.

There are more stringent positions that you can take toward online privacy, but running the BetterPrivacy addon is an easy way to manage the super cookies that companies use to track you.

So, you’ve heard of Firesheep?

Daniel Stout2010-10-27T06:14:38+00:00

In a series of posts this summer, I talked about various approaches to online privacy and security. Some people run proxies/tunnels of various sorts that, if they’re at a public wi-fi hospot, will protect their browsing. I take a somewhat simpler approach and use browser plugins such as EFF’s HTTPS-Everywhere, which enables end-to-end encryption for some popular websites. And sometimes people dismiss approaches of security simply because, they believe, it doesn’t affect them in any meaningful way. And that attitude has kept sites like Facebook operating in a security gray zone. The users aren’t clamoring for it, so why bother?

Yes, so, why bother? Because this week a software developer in Seattle by the name of Eric Butler released a Firefox plugin called Firesheep. Firesheep is easy to download, install, and use, and that’s the point. Firesheep is, or should be, a wake up call to those large web companies who have taken disregard for people’s information, accounts and privacy to new levels.

Here’s how it works. You install Firesheep and then take your laptop to a coffee house or some other busy, public wi-fi hotspot. And then you just wait. And pretty soon people will be logging into their favorite websites, and Firesheep will snatch the cookies that their insecure authentications generate. And you see their names and pictures showing up in your browser. Then click on one and you have full access to their Facebook account or some other site. It’s dead simple to use, and it’s being downloaded at a very fast clip. Firesheep, which was released on Sunday, is spreading like wildfire.

So that means, if you’re using public networks, your accounts are vulnerable. This is not something new. It’s been that way. It’s just that almost anyone could do it now. Firesheep is important because it has raised a thorny issue. Security experts have been complaining for years about these sites. But Firesheep makes it crystal clear to the average user how insecure their data is.

I won’t recommend that you download and try it. That is up for you to decide. But just know that Firesheep is out there, and it’s time to do the easy thing and make sites more secure.

HDMI ditched by LG, Sony, Samsung in favor of HDBaseT

Daniel Stout2010-07-20T21:19:02+00:00

Home theater custom installers have complained about HDMI ever since its introduction in 2003. For one thing, the connector was too small for the number of cables running in the cord. The cables tended to break around the connector, or the connector would fall out of the receiver. HDMI cable also could only be run for short distances compared to other cable standards. And in its seven years of existence, the HDMI spec has received several, incompatible upgrades, and the current version now stands at 1.4a.

The big manufacturers of HD televisions have heard the complaints, and they have a solution: it’s called HDBaseT. A company called Valens Semiconductor came up with idea to run HD video, audio and even 100W of power through standard Ethernet cables. LG, Samsung, and Sony have formed an alliance with Valens and created the HDBaseT Alliance. Version 1.0 of the specification was ratified in June, and products featuring HDBaseT are set to hit stores late this year and into next year.

What does this mean? Several things:

  1. HDMI is dead. This technology will finally hit the graveyard. It’ll join the likes of 8-track tapes as technologies that never really hit their stride.
  2. New gear is coming. Hold off buying new home theater equipment until the new standard has arrived. Or upgrade your HDMI gear now and hold on to it until well after HDBaseT establishes itself.
  3. Ethernet cables are cheap. Gone are the days of overpriced HDMI cables. When a simple Cat-5e or Cat-6 Ethernet cable will suffice, there’s no point in paying through the nose for expensive cables. I like Monoprice for high-quality, reasonably-priced cables.
  4. Custom installers will love this. The new HDBaseT standard solves many if not all of the problems they’ve had with HDMI. It has a common connector that stays put, and the cable can be run for long lengths. They can also terminate cables in the field. That is, they can cut a length of cable and put connectors on it at the worksite. HDMI cables only come pre-produced, so custom lengths are out.

Another advantage of HDBaseT is disappearing cables. With the HDBaseT cable carrying HD video, audio and enough power for a TV, you’ll be able to run a single cable to your HDTV. All in all, this is an exciting development for home theater buffs and will make the job of setting up your home theater easier than ever.

How can I protect my content online?

Daniel Stout2010-07-05T23:13:00+00:00

You may be putting your words online, developing a readership, and gaining revenue through advertising. The problem with putting content online is that it’s easy to steal. Even if you put a copyright notice on your page, people can still publish your content on other sites. If you’re using a Content Management System that publishes an RSS or Atom feed of your content, then it’s even easier for other people to republish your work.

The hard answer though is that putting content online essentially makes it available to anyone and everyone. There are several ways to deal with this problem, and a few sites have sprung up with novel solutions to deal with this issue.

One company that is trying to build a business around controlling the act of copy & paste is Tynt. Tynt works by placing a JavaScript call on your content page, which then is activated when a user copies text on your page to the clipboard. The copied text is modified slightly by the addition of a unique link back to the original content. If someone posts that additional information onto another web page, you can track how your content is being used. But that’s a big if. Whether someone just deletes the text link before posting is of course an obvious question of how effective Tynt is.

Some web users are so up-in-arms about Tynt that they’re posting instructions on how to circumvent Tynt’s JavaScript. It’s not a difficult process, which adds another question as to Tynt’s effectiveness. The Ghostery add-on for Firefox that we described recently here, for example, has the capability to block Tynt and many other intrusive JavaScript libraries.

Another more common approach to protecting your content online is to use a service that searches for copies of your content. The most well known of the various services that provide plagiarism protection is Copyscape. For free, you can go to their homepage and put in your URL. It will let you know if there are copies of your content published elsewhere online. Copyscape offers some advice as to what to do next if it finds copies of your content, but you’re basically left to your own devices to get the content removed, the most severe of which is a DMCA takedown notice.

Copyscape also offers some paid services such as a $5/month service that will automatically check for copies of your content once a day. Copyscape has been around since 2004 and has spawned many imitators that offer a variety of different features and capabilities. Some of these include FairShare, CopyGator, plagium, and PlagiarismDetect.com.

Another way to find copies of your content is to use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The Wayback Machine can also be useful in determining when a particular piece of content was copied.

The open nature of the web makes it easy to copy content, and the development of RSS and Atom feeds has only made that task easier. The web is a great way to reach a lot of people without spending a lot of money, but the price of that access may be the ease with which others can duplicate your greatest asset. There isn’t a perfect solution to the question of copied content, but by using one or more of the tools listed above, you can educate yourself and take action.