Rando

Random junk

Listening to the 2016 Hottest 100 without Flash

Unfortunately a combination of travel and time difference meant that for Australia Day this year I missed out on one of favourite yearly events – listening to Triple J’s Hottest 100.

Fortunately, they know that there are many Australians around the world that can’t listen to it real time, and make a full replay of the whole thing available for streaming on their [massive spoiler warning!] Hottest 100 sitelet.

Unfortunately, it seems to have a hard dependency on Flash, something which I gave up on about a year ago and don’t want to try.

Fortunately, the streams are listed fairly obviously in the HTML of the page, and they are perfectly compatible with VLC. If you have VLC (and why wouldn’t you), you can use the following stream URLs and simply paste them into the box that appears when you go to Media->Open Network Stream:

PART 1 (#100 – #76)
PART 2 (#75 – #51)
PART 3 (#50 – #24)
PART 4 (#23 – #1)

wpgpg – WordPress Encryption using GPG

I’ve been looking for an excuse to tinker with KeyBase.io’s kbpgp, a JavaScript implementation of PGP. As a fun experiment in masochism I thought it would be an interesting learning exercise to build GPG encryption of page output into WordPress and then decrypt it using kbpgp.

I have a working proof-of-concept now done; it is a little fiddly to get going and most definitely does not adhere to best practices regarding storage and use of private keys and passphrases. But it works! WordPress output is encrypted with a simple plugin that calls GPG, and can then be decrypted with a simple Chrome plugin.

It is currently dubbed wpgpg. Here is a super boring video of what it looks like in action.

My Firefox Tweaks

Despite everything I’m still a Firefox user and can’t see myself changing any time soon.

I have been making more and more changes to my standard Firefox configuration (outside of extensions) and keep forgetting to document them, so here they are (at least, a few of the ones I can remember – I assume I’ll find/remember for).

dom.event.clipboardevents.enabled = false

Overrides the ability of sites to handle clipboard events. This stops bad websites from preventing you from being able to paste your secure passwords into their password fields. (Docs)

network.http.speculative-parallel-limit = 0

Disable the completely rude speculative pre-connections feature which will open connections to sites based on several hints without you actually clicking on them. (Docs)

browser.pocket.enabled = false

Gets rid of that Pocket stuff which was stupidly added by Mozilla in v38.0.5. (Docs)

browser.urlbar.unifiedcomplete = false

Disables the annoying “visit” thing that pops up in the address bar as of v43:

visit-firefox

(Docs)

app.update.auto = false

Disables auto download and install of updates. (Docs)

browser.newtabpage.enhanced = false

Disable the ad tiles that turned up in v34.

browser.altClickSave = true

ALT-clicking a link to save it to disk worked happily until Firefox v13, when it was disabled by default.

browser.urlbar.trimURLs = false

Stops removing the ‘http’ part of URLs in the address bar. (Docs)

browser.display.background_color = #CCCCCC

I likes me a grey background.

privacy.trackingprotection.enabled = true

Enables Firefox’s tracking protection, blocking several trackers which allegedly enhances privacy. I typically have this set to false, because it can break a few things (some video players seem to rely on these trackers), but it’s good to know about. (Docs)

Google Ending Deceptive Download Buttons in Ads

Google announced yesterday that they’re ending the practice of allowing advertisers to use deceptive “download” or “play” styled advertisements in AdSense ads, dubbing it a form of “social engineering”.

If you’re an Internet user that has ever tried to download or watch anything on an ad-supported site, you will have seen these stupid annoying ads. On some sites they’re styled carefully to match the look and feel of the rest of the site, so they can look like actual native content – but they’re not, of course.

They’d look something like this:

download-play-ad

(Even worse, often they seem to link to third party versions of popular free/open source files – Adobe Acrobat Reader was always a popular one. I can only assume these third party versions are wrapped with adware or malware to justify the adverts.)

Here’s an example I just pulled off AusGamers right now:

ag-download-ad

If you’re a user, these make browsing the web irritating at best, but really they’re outright deceptive and can even be dangerous.

It’s obvious why these ads exist – there are enough users out there clicking on them to make them profitable. The cost of running the ad is less than whatever profit the advertisers are making from selling whatever the hell it is that they do.

As a result, it’s obvious why they end up on sites like AusGamers. AdSense rewards site operators on a per-click basis. Ads that perform well reward them more. On sites that offer a lot of downloads where the user’s brain is already in “GIVE ME THE DOWNLOAD BUTTON” mode, it is pretty easy to see how they work.

I have always hated these buttons for this reason. I was massively embarrassed when I started seeing these on AusGamers – putting AdSense on our download pages was something we did only relatively recently. So I decided to try to turn them off.

After figuring out the AdSense control panel I discovered that you could in fact block certain types of ads. However, each ad needs to be blocked individually in the Ad Review Center. This is what it looks like right now:

ad-review-centre

If you click through you’ll see there are 12 ads there – several of which are stupid download ones – but that this is only page 1 – 12 of about 106,961! Now, Google anticipated that you might not want to click through hundreds of thousands of pages of ads, so you can actually block entire ad accounts.

I went through several times when we first had these ads turn up and started blocking ads and accounts. Here’s a screen capture from a couple years ago:

blocked-ads

This is just one page of many (… many) which contains all the ads I’d blocked. Further, I’d blocked all the accounts I could find responsible for these kind of ads. But it made basically no difference to the number of these ads that showed up on the site.

It was an unstoppable tide of bullshit ads that – despite spending many hours manually blocking ads and blocking accounts – I could do nothing about. It made me sad.

I’m relieved to see Google taking action on this. It will make the web better. It will make users safer. And it will make site operators that run AdSense feel less like jerks for having these deceptive ads on their sites.

Moving on from the USA

It’d been just over two years since I moved to the USA, and my time here is now almost at an end. Sadly I’m not going back home to Australia just yet – in January 2016 I’m moving to London.

There are few cities that can genuinely be considered capitals of the world – and London is at the top of the list. A nexus of culture, finance, technology, and history, it has everything I could possibly want in a place to live. (Except, perhaps, too many English people that remember the result of the last Ashes series.)

With the exception of Brisbane – which for me will always be home – there is nowhere else I’d rather be going.

I’m excited about a new adventure in a new land; from a personal point of view I’m looking forward to being able to explore the United Kingdom in more detail, and being at the doorstep to the rest of Europe. From a professional perspective, I can’t wait to check out their entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem to develop new insights that I hope to bring back to Australia.

When I first moved here, I’d planned a whole series of posts that I fully intended to write about the journey, mostly targeted to Australian startups that were looking to expand to the US – how the visa process works, what you need to do when you arrive, what it’s like living in the US, how the midwest compares to the more common destinations… As I look back, I realise I did precisely no writing on this topic.

I hope to rectify this in the coming weeks by providing some reflections of my time in the US.

Idle thoughts on Mozilla, Firefox and Thunderbird.

I’m a big fan of Mozilla and have been a Firefox and Thunderbird user and advocate for many years. The last few years of development on these projects have left me somewhat disillusioned. Firefox seems to be slowly converging on Chrome, with disruptive UI changes making each update irritating, rather than exciting. Thunderbird, despite regular updates, feels like it has stagnated.

I feel like Mozilla have already won the browser wars. I’d love to see more effort going into Thunderbird and Lightning – groupware being something that open source is still really struggling with despite many valiant efforts.

It’s hard to convince myself this is a big deal; web-based groupware is pretty good these days. But I use Thunderbird every day. I’ve become almost dependent on a bunch of excellent extensions. I love having the option to be in complete control of my email.

I wrote about this in a bit more detail at Medium.

Update:

This seemed to resonate with a few people – ended up being the 18th “Most Read” article on Medium and was featured in their Technology section. Also spawned interesting discussion on reddit and Slashdot.

forgetting-firefox-stats

WPUpCheck – keeping WordPress up-to-date

WordPress is a great piece of software, but it’s popularity and superficial ease-of-use combined with the fact that computers are hard means running a site on WordPress is not always as simple as it seems.

I wrote about some of the ways to reduce the risk with WordPress over on the Mammoth blog a while back.

One of the biggest risks is a WordPress site that is out of date. There are three main components to the WordPress site:

– Core: the base functionality you get on a brand new installation.
– Plugins: all the other stuff you install for functionality
– Themes: what things look like

Each component is typically its own code base, requiring maintenance and updates. Many users only know they have updates available when they log in – and many of them don’t log in that often, especially if their site is primarily static.

WPUpCheck is a simple Windows tool that polls a WordPress site periodically to check for updates in any of these three components. If it detects available updates it will bring it to your attention via a balloon in the system tray.

The goal is simple – try to ensure a larger number of WordPress sites are no longer running obsolete, out-of-date, potentially vulnerable software.

Anyone interested in beta testing it can download WPUpCheck now.

Disruption: why is the US so different for startups?

AVC’s¬†Fred Wilson wrote a post recently looking at platform monopolies and why they’re great targets for disruption.

It’s clear that almost everything about the US is different for startups. A lot of it is just its sheer size – having ten times more people than Australia changes everything. Probably the biggest complaint in Australia though is the lack of VC funding and a reduced appetite for risk.

It’s not clear to me which one of these is the chicken and which one is the egg. Is the startup scene awesome because of the VC? Or does the VC exist because of the startups?

Since moving to the US, the most striking thing I’ve noticed here is the prevalence of these large, giant “platform monopolies” – but not just in the tech space. Many aspects of daily life in the US seem to be managed by these giant institutions. Navigating these large institutions is cumbersome and tiring (especially if you’re a foreigner and have no idea how things are glued together) – and as a result, there are a lot of middlemen that try to make the process easier.

For example, if you’re looking for health insurance, trying to deal with the insurance companies is a real pain. So, there are hordes of health insurance agents and brokers that sit in between you and the insurance companies to try to make that easier. They take a small fee.

If you’re starting a company and need to pay your employees, you need to be aware of the specific tax issues in your state and federally. Even for a one person company this is challenging; I can’t imagine what a headache it’d be if you were trying to set up in multiple states. But don’t worry – there are many payroll companies that specialise in this, all for a small cut. (The first time I ran a payroll here in the US I was staggered by the fact that the company used UPS to courier me an actual payslip on an actual piece of paper. )

Near where I live there’s an entire business that appears to exist solely to cash cheques – a form of payment that is basically extinct in Australia, but because it’s so common here there are these weird cheque companies that exist. I assume that they must make a bit of money on each cheque they cash.

The list goes on. Almost anything complicated you want to do, there’s a support system that seems to sit in the middle to make your life easier.

Fred Wilson comment on this in his article:

The Internet, at its core, is a marketplace that, over time, removes the need for the middleman. That is very good news for the talent that has been giving up a fairly large part of its value to all of the toll takers in between them and their end customers.

This is where a lot of the interesting disruption is happening in the US – people tired of these old, monolithic systems looking to make a change. The payroll issue is being addressed by companies like ZenPayroll. I have no idea what people are doing about cheques but I thought it was entertaining to see that you can deposit a cheque here now by taking a photo of it. And everyone¬†is trying to crack the healthcare nut – health industry startups abound and appear to be highly favoured as targets for funding (hey, the US spend more money per person on healthcare than any other country – it’s good business).

There are many other examples, including ones with global application – Uber and Lyft are probably the most significant and most recent examples; their impact on the transport industry is still being felt. The music industry is another one – all those poor record company executives are going to be a relic of days gone by.

Every country, every society, every community has its own entrenched systems, their own way of doing things. The bigger the environment and the longer they’ve been around, the more likely you are to find middlemen. Technology makes it possible to go back and re-evaluate the old way of doing things. Better automation, communication and integration means a lot of the old ways of doing things are ready to be swept aside – and that’s where a lot of the disruption is happening.

Ultimately I think that it’s this potential for disruption that makes the US startup scene so vibrant and interesting. It’s the fact that every opportunity to change the status quo has the potential to pack a huge punch – even capturing a small percentage of the market here can mean a big business. The bigger the established players in a sector become, the more naturally resistant they become to change – meaning a lot of opportunity for smaller players to start to carve out a niche.

When you encounter someone saying “this is just how we’ve always done it”, pay attention – you might be on the verge of something big. These are tough fights to pick, but – as is being shown by Uber – if you make the right moves at the right time with the right technology, you can revolutionise a space.

Initial Binary Lane Feedback: Positive

So far the feedback for the newly launched Binary Lane has been really positive:

Feedback on Whirlpool has been similarly positive:

bl-do

bl-wp-1

… and also a good thread on LowEndTalk.com, a developer-focused community for infrastructure services.

There’s still a lot of work going on behind the scenes. New features are still be developed – most recently, a new BYO ISO system, allowing people to install their own operating systems, including things we haven’t supported before like FreeBSD.

Stay tuned.

Binary Lane – a new hosting service from Mammoth Media

I’m proud to announce that the Mammoth team has launched a new product this week – Binary Lane.

Binary Lane is our new take on virtual private server hosting. Our service Mammoth Networks has been in operation since 2010 and has grown steadily to become a respected name in VPS hosting in Australia, and the mPanel – the software that drives this service – has matured and evolved until it has become, in our humble opinion, one of the best platforms for managing virtualised servers on the planet.

Binary Lane features several significant differences that we thought justified a new brand. The main changes:

  • Binary Lane uses KVM for its virtualisation back end, instead of Xen. This gives us a bunch of great new features – including live migrations, allowing us to almost instantly move guests between host nodes.
  • We’re in a new data centre, right here in Brisbane. We’ve had a great relationship with PIPE (formerly SOUL, formerly Comindico) and have been in that facility for years, but we wanted a local presence in our own city. The new NEXTDC data centre and their DC-as-a-service model really fits what we want to do.
  • New IP transit. Again our PIPE/TPG/SOUL connectivity has been awesome, but getting transit from a single carrier has reduced our flexibility a little bit. We’re working with the unbelievably great team at APEX Networks to provide our transit.
  • All SSD storage. SSDs are the future for server systems. The price has reduced to the point where building entire storage systems out of SSDs is feasible for a huge variety of application types. While bulk data storage is still a little bit away, we feel that the performance offerings of SSDs are impossible to ignore.

The Binary Lane brand is also something that gives us a little more freedom internationally – Mammoth Networks was, for various reasons, somewhat restrictive in the United States :) Startups, let that be a lesson to you – even if your target market is Australia initially, always think about the rest of the world when you start building your brand!

Of course Mammoth Networks isn’t going anywhere – it will still continue to receive all the attention it gets currently. We’ll be doing updates to mPanel that may appear on one or the other site first, but eventually both sites will be updated with any new features that are added.

Big congratulations to our awesome development and operations teams at Mammoth for their really hard work on this project and special mad props to our technical director Nathan O’Sullivan, whose tireless efforts leading the charge have again resulted in shipping another great product.

Oh yeh – we’re so confident you’ll love Binary Lane that we’re offering a free seven day trial. Go check it out, marvel at the speed, wonder at the power of mPanel, and be amazed.

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