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In Wired’s “It’s Time For An RSS Revival“, RSS gets a bit of love – some would say: “much needed love”. RSS isn’t a new web technology; its original version was published in 1999.

“The most amazing thing to me about RSS is that no one really went away from it,” says Wolf. “It still exists…”

Well, of course RSS still exists, and there are many websites, personal and commercial, that publish one or more RSS feeds. What purpose do these “feeds” serve?

If you have never used an RSS feed, you may not know what you’re missing. RSS stands for “RDF Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication“, but that does not explain much. An RSS feed will publish a list of “items”, each pointing to a webpage on the site publishing the feed. Details about the link may include a page title, a summary of the link’s content or the whole text, an audio attachment (think ‘podcast’), publication date, etc. Usually, these lists are used to publish the latest updates on a site. That’s how they allow you to use them to discover new opinions, news, updates to pages, etc. without having to go to each individual page. “Feed reader” software combines the RSS feeds of multiple feeds, thus giving you a single tool to discover news from multiple sites.

Such feed reader software is what I have used for more than a decade now, to keep up with the many news sources I like to consult. Combining multiple sources in a single tool on a mobile device (tablet of smart phone) was the first driver for my decision to go that way. The possibility to read those feeds even when you’re not even online was the second driver: indeed, once you have downloaded the feed, you do not need an internet connection to get your dose of news – and that was very handy in those days when mobile internet access was hard to get and expensive!

Even today, when I’m practically always online, I still prefer browsing “the news” through a feed reader. That allows me to bypass the homepages of sites filled with screaming titles and adverts, and use just the item titles to judge their value to me. I find this so much more compelling than surfing from website to website, that an RSS feed reader was the first mobile app that I paid for – I’m using Byline on iOS, and I love it!

I can only encourage you to try out a web-based RSS reader like Feedly if you want to discover what RSS is all about. Then go looking for the RSS icon on the sites you care about, and add those feeds to your Feedly account. When you decide to use a separate application or app to read your feeds, there’s plenty of choice – and more may be coming, if Wired’s talk of a revival comes through. And no, you don’t have to be tired of Facebook to start reading RSS feeds – just don’t be surprised when you discover that RSS feeds are more interesting than a stream of messages on one of the many social media…

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Dave Winer writes:

Wait till the press figures out that Google knows everywhere you go. Not only on the web, but in the world.

Only a fool knows everything. A wise man knows how little he knows.

African proverb. The photo is (c) W.Van daele.

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Want to learn something about SSL and SSL certificates? I sure do, having just encountered an revoked certificate blocking an app at work. So I read “Revocation is broken” by Scott Helme. In summary:

We have a little problem on the web right now and I can only see this becoming a larger concern as time goes by. More and more sites are obtaining certificates, vitally important documents that we need to deploy HTTPS, but we have no way of protecting ourselves when things go wrong.

As you can guess, that didn’t really help to solve our problem – but it’s a clear explanation of the current state of affairs in certificate validation land, at least for browsers!

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December 2017 Was A Dark Month

The weatherman had already announced (in Dutch) the bad news two weeks ago, and now our solar panels confirm the fact: December was a very dark month, in terms of sunshine. At the same time, temperatures are higher than what we would expect this time of the year – yes, we had a bit of snow on two occasions, but apart from a single night we had no real freezing mornings in our neighbourhood…

Anyhow, the solar panels on our roof produced an all-time low of electricity last month: in fact, we hit an all-time low, well below 60% of the mean of the previous 8 years. Combined with eleven months before December that were mainly below average as well, that makes for a disappointing total of electricity produced.

Are we experiencing just a few fluctuations in the weather, or is it the impact from climate change that produces more clouds and hence less sunshine? Contrary to some (yes, I’m pointing at you too, Donald), I do not have enough data to answer that question conclusively – let’s leave that to scientists rather than gut feelings, OK ?

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I have known for a long time that there is no such thing as ‘perfect online security’. But I do try to apply at least some of the guidance taught by experts. Not just on my computers, but also (and foremost!) on mobile devices – even your phone texts (SMS traffic here in Europe) give away a lot of information to anyone who cares to intercept it. But it’s hard to know what to do exactly, and for a long time advice was scattered all over the internet, in blog posts, articles, etc., each mostly about a single subject.

The last few months, the situation has improved considerably, thanks to the efforts by a number of essential players in the field. I’ll enumerate the most prominent of sources here.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation created the Surveillance Self-Defence website. This site contains a whole series of articles ranging from explanations on how parts of the web work to tutorials on how to manage passwords or using PGP for your email. You’ll need a lot of time to read and digest all the information on this site, but the level of detail provided is certainly worth the effort. In their own words:

SSD includes step-by-step tutorials for installing and using a variety of privacy and security tools, but also aims to teach people how to think about online privacy and security in a sophisticated way that empowers them to choose appropriate tools and practices even as the tools and adversaries change around them.

I hope I don’t have to tell you that the EFF is an essential resource to keep up to date with subjects like digital privacy, free speech, and innovation?

The Security Planner project is an initiative of the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The project has a strong academic approach, including peer review of all its publications, and its advisors include Bruce Schneier (whom I have quoted already several times on this blog!).

The principal motivation for Security Planner was our shared experiences (and frustrations) when we are regularly asked the question: “what could average people do to protect themselves online”? Although there are some good guides out there, there is also a lot of conflicting advice.

The advice on Security Planner is organised around themes like ‘Computer’, ‘Online Accounts’ and ‘Phone’, and they clearly indicate what you can gain w<hen you implement their advice. Currently available in English, they are promising versions in Spanish and French soon.

On the WIRED website, you’ll find their ‘Guide to Digital Security’. Just ignore the garish design of the home page, the articles are worthwhile reading.

In this guide, we’ve included a few ways to improve your online security posture based on those different levels of risk. These won’t prevent the next megabreach or banish ransomware from the earth. They’re not all-encompassing. But they’ll help get you in the mindset of the types of steps you should be taking based on your particular situation.

Wired includes a discussion of Google’s Advanced Protection, and talks about the use of Faraday cages and blankets (yes, blankets!) as part of a sophisticated security approach. Specialised stuff, indeed, and overkill for most of us – but it may help you be aware of all the threats that exist in the real world.

You may also have a look at the (long) article titled ‘The Motherboard Guide to Not Getting Hacked’ over at the website of Motherboard (part of Vice). It’s not as comprehensive as the previous sources mentioned here, but it contains a lot of links that may be of use to you. And for my part you can quote them when talking to your employer:

And if your employer asks you to change passwords periodically in the name of security, please tell them that’s a terrible idea. If you use a password manager, two-factor authentication (see below), and have unique strong passwords for every account there’s no need to change them all the time—unless there’s a breach on the backend or your password is stolen somehow.

The above sources are mainly directed towards individuals. If you want some pointers about how to deal with privacy and security for groups, have a look at the ‘Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook’, published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (Harvard Kennedy School) in November 2017. The approach here not only includes subjects talked about in the previous sources I mentioned, but includes the ‘human factor’. In their words, when talking about a campaign to get elected for public office:

In today’s campaigns, cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility. Human error has consistently been the root cause of publicized cyber attacks, and it’s up to the candidate and campaign leaders to weave security awareness into the culture of the organization.

That brings us back to the main point in all these publications: if you’re using computers, tablets, smartphones and other devices, be aware of the risks – and act accordingly!

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On December 23, 1999, I wrote the first post on this blog. Remember Userland’s Manila? That was my tool of choice then, because it was available online, without installation, and free to try. In those days, I wasn’t ready to produce HTML by hand, and I still don’t want to do that. Picking a blog tool was the start of my study of content management solutions. Remarkably, the Manila website is still up and running, inviting you to start a trial site – I’m not certain where that will lead you, though.

When Userland seemed unable to continue to offer a good service, I started building a copy of my blog on WordPress. I did exactly what I tell everyone to avoid: I migrated each and every post from Manila to WordPress by hand. You see, Manila had this one feature that I also needed in whatever tool able to replace it: a complete, yet simple backup mechanism. The HTML from the Manila backup could be pasted into the WordPress editor without much intervention. That’s how this site remains what it became over the course of the years: a not so virtual memory for travels on the Web – and in real life as well, of course.

Happy holidays!

 

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If you read this blog more or less regularly, then I assume that you have at least a bit of nerdiness in you.

So if you need a Christmas stocking filler for yourself or, say, a web developer, you might want to look into Tim O’Reilly’s “WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us” (here’s a link to the hardcover version on Amazon, but I’m sure you can find your own supplier ). If you don’t believe me, just read what Cory Doctorow has to say on the subject:

Tim O’Reilly’s history with computers and the internet pre-dates the rise of these grotesqueries, the financialization of the tech sector. He writes beautifully about the passion, the excitement, and the tremendous progress that technologists (from every walk of life) have brought to the tech sector, and cleanly cleaves the technology from its economic and political context. He dares to assert that we can love the sin and hate the sinner. That the reason tech went toxic was because unethical people made unethical choices, but those choices weren’t inevitable or irreversible.

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