5 Good Things to Start in 2015

At the beginning of December I wrote about 5 things that I’d learned and had (re)confirmed. There’s been a lot going on since then and it’s been astounding me how willing people are to make the same mistakes, especially in on-line communication, and just go out and do things that are hurtful, ignorant and, well, just plain stupid. I’m always writing this with the idea of being helpful to my students so here is a list of 5 things (not necessarily the only 5 things or the top 5 things) that would be good habits to commit to in 2015 when it comes to electronic communication. Think of it as the 5 things I’ve learned, specifically addressing the on-line world. Some of these have come up in the blog before but I think this is the only time they’ve all been in the same place. Eh, let me know. (Note: we’ve all done things like this at some point probably so this is a reminder from a fellow sufferer rather than a lecture from a saint. My feet of clay go up to my navel.)

  1. Just Because You Can See Something Doesn’t Mean You Have to Comment.

    There’s a famous XKCD comic about this (see above) and it is both a time sink and a road to unhappiness to think that everything that you can see needs to be dealt with by your intervention. Now there are times when it almost always makes sense to assist, much as in real life: when someone is being threatened, when someone is being bullied, when someone else is actively harassing someone. But when you notice that someone you vaguely know is happy about using a selfie stick and posts some silly pictures? No, that’s not the time to post an insulting video about selfie sticks and then link him in so he knows he’s being insulted. Really? That makes sense? Don’t be that person. We all have strong opinions about some recreational stuff but, most of the time, no-one’s getting hurt so why make someone else feel miserable?

    It’s sometimes hard for people to know when to leap in and when not to but there are some clear indicators. Are you doing it to make someone else feel bad about something that they like? Yeah, why are you doing that? Go and find something better to do. Are you doing it to show how smart you are? It’s probably working in the opposite way. Are you bullying people to complain about people bullying people? Do you need to read that sentence again?

    Doesn’t mean that you can’t comment but it means you need to choose when to comment and the best way to comment. If you really feel that something you run across needs input, don’t do it in a way that is thoughtless, mean, bullying, unnecessary or insulting. If someone says “Yeah, I don’t need your input” – then stop. If you really screwed up the communication – apologise. Simple. Learn. Try to do better in future.

  2. Vent BEFORE Typing

    Oh, yeah. If only I could take back some of the things I typed when I was angry. These days, I try to be grumpy off-line so I’m constructive on-line. Way more effective and I have to apologise less. If someone isn’t getting the point, then don’t get ruder or START USING ALL CAPS. Back off. Use your energies elsewhere. The science is pretty clear that straight-up chest bumping arguments only solid opposing opinion. Discuss, back off, discuss again. Be cool.

    (Ok, so sometimes I have a small vent at the air for a while and then grab a calming tea before I come back. This brings me to the next point…)

  3. The Internet Can Wait

    The Internet is not a communications system that has hard real-time constraints. Guess what – if you don’t respond immediately then you can go back later and see if anyone else has said what you wanted to say or if the person commenting has read through some stuff and changed their mind. 3,000 people saying “HERP DERP” is not actually helpful and a pile-on is just mass bullying.

    Especially when you are agitated, step away. Don’t step away into Day Z and get sniped by human hunters, though. Step all the way away and go and relax somewhere. 3D print a flower and look at that. (You may have actual flowers you can observe.) Watch an episode of something unchallenging. Think about what you want to say and then compose your response. Say it with the style that comes from having time to edit.


    That’s really less than convincing. Take some time out.

    What are you basing that on? I thought the evidence was pretty clear on this.

    There. That’s better. And now with 100% less Hitler!

  4. Stay Actual Rather Than Hypothetical

    It’s easy to say “If I were in situation X” and make up a whole heap of stuff but that doesn’t actually make your experience authentic. If you start your sentence with qualifiers such as “If I were..”, “Surely,” or “I would have thought…” then you really need to wonder about whether you are making a useful point or just putting down what you would like to be true in order for you to win an argument that you don’t really have any genuine experience to comment on.

    It’s been so long since I’ve been unemployed that I would hesitate to write anything on the experience of unemployment but, given that my take on welfare is for it be generous and universal and I have a strong background in the actual documented evidence of what works for public welfare, my contributions to any thread discussing welfare issues can be valuable if I stick to what could be used to improve people’s lot, with an understanding of what it was like to be unemployed in Australia. However, I would almost never leap in on anything about raising children because I don’t have any kids. (Unless it was, I WANT TO BOIL MY CHILDREN, in which case it’s probably wise to check if this is a psychotic break or autocorrect.)

  5. Don’t Make People’s Real Problems a Dinner Party Game

    One of the few times I have been speechless with rage was when I was discussing gay marriage with someone on-line and they said “Well, this would be a fascinating discussion to have over dinner!” and they were serious. No, human rights are not something for other people to talk about as it it were some plaything. (I walked away from that discussion and frothed for some time!)

    And this goes triple for anyone who leaps in to play “Devil’s Advocate” on an issue that really does not require any more exploration or detailed thought. If we are discussing a legal argument, and not human rights, then sure, why not? If we’re talking about people not being allowed to use a certain door because of the colour of their skin? We’ve discussed that. There is no more exploration of the issue of racism required because anyone with a vague knowledge of history will be aware that this particular discussion has been had. XKCD has, of course, already nailed this because XKCD is awesome.

    I see this now with many of the misconceptions about poverty and the pernicious myths that want to paint poor people as being “less worthy”, when a cursory examination of the evidence available shows that we are seeing a rapidly growing wealth divide and the disturbing growth of the working poor. The willingness to discuss the reduction of rights for the poor (compulsory contraception, food credits rather than money, no ‘recreational’ spending) as if this is an amusement is morally repugnant and, apart from anything else, is part of a series of discussions that have been running for centuries. We can now clearly see, from our vast data panopticon, what the truth of these stories are and, yet, go onto any forum talking about this and find people trotting out tired anecdotes, “Devil’s advocate” positions and treating this as an intellectual game.

    People’s lives are not a game. Engage in discussions with the seriousness required to address the issue or it’s probably best to try and find somewhere else to play. There are many wonderful places to talk rubbish on the Internet – my blog, for example, is a place where I work and play, while I try to change the world a little for the better. But when I roll up my sleeves in big discussions elsewhere, I try to be helpful and to be serious. The people who are less fortunate than I am deserve my serious attention and not to be treated as some kind of self-worth enhancing amusement.

  6. Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself

    Gosh, I said there were 5 and now there are 6. Why? Because you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes. I’ve made all of the mistakes above and I’ll probably (although I try not to) make a few of them again. But as long as you’re learning and moving forward, don’t be too hard on yourself. But keep an eye on you. You can be shifty. But don’t be strict about your own rules because rigidity can be a prison – bend where necessary to stay sane and to make the world a better place.

    But always remember that the best guidelines for bending your own rules is to work out if you’re being kinder and more generous or harsher and meaner. Are you giving an extra point 6 when you promised 5? Are you stopping at 4 because you can’t be bothered?

We all make mistakes. Some of us learn. Some of us try to help others to learn. I think we’re getting better. Have a great 2015!

Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 14

Thursday the 24th was a very straightforward day as we were bringing most of the coursework to a close and moving into the evaluation phase – not just for the students but for the course itself. We started with a tutorial on security, where we went through a range of issues and looked into the most commonly occurring problems, as recorded by the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) webpage. A lot of the problems we get are caused by:

  • Programmers not checking what users type into their programs.
  • Programmers not properly limiting what programs send to each other.
  • “Back door” exploits where hard-coded usernames and passwords are left in.

We had a chance to discuss white hat and black hat hacking – patching a bug will get you a small cheque and a shout out, reporting an exploit to a criminal syndicate can make you rich. (And hunted or dead, for that matter.) It’s an interesting area – ethically and academically.

I’d asked the students, on Tuesday, to pick an area of security to talk about for 5-10 minutes and this proved to be a really interesting activity, taking longer than the hour I’d allotted for it. Topics included the Stuxnet Worm, and you can imagine we got a lot of interesting discussion out of this one, mobile device problems, the RTM Work from 1988, Botnets, Cross-site scripting issues, and the Heartbleed bug. (Compulsory XKCD comic here.)

XKCD 1354 – Heartbleed explained concisely and accurately.

I like asking the students to go out and find things because, by presenting it to each other, we get infectious enthusiasm and we have people applying their knowledge to reinforce what we’ve learned in class.

Then, for the final hour, we sat down and discussed the course itself. The students are still free to put in anonymous reports on things they don’t feel comfortable discussing with me, but I wanted to get a feel for what we should be improving. Overall, the course has been a great success and, teaching-wise, it’s gone pretty well. We have to smooth out some administration issues on our side but we already knew that and we’re starting the planning process for the next time in the next week.

It’s really great for me to get a sense that the students both enjoyed the course and learned from the course. As we always say, engaging isn’t always effective, but in this case it appears that it has been and, so far, the results I’ve seen reflect that we’ve achieved a great deal in a short time.

Only one day left, which is mostly a final talk from me, some “thank you”s and a dinner. Then we all start our flights home.

Only two more updates for this trip to come – the final Friday and my overall reflections. Hang in there, I’m nearly done!

Teaching in Hong Kong, Day 12

After another busy Monday, we had a discussion of all of the material that had featured in the podcasts and the podcasts themselves. It was quite obvious that the students had picked up the concepts involved and had a good working and application-level understanding of what was going on. (It turned out later that the students had in fact formed a study group for some of the podcast material, watching as a group for discussion. Nice to see that can happen without prompting!) This Tuesday was an important day because it was the last day of formal ‘coursework’ in the sense of new material being discussed in the course.

We covered network security, which is one of my many areas of interest, and went through all of the many ways that horrible things can happen to nice people. I had original wanted to extend this part of the course beyond the base course content but it had quickly become apparent that jamming more into this course wasn’t going to help anyone so I covered some of the material but not in as great a depth.

A vast amount of the stuff that we cover in security is actually really well summarised at XKCD, here’s an example:

XKCD 936 – It’s ok to stop using NVdisdf&Y3 as your password.

The end of the day was a briefing session, as we were off to Macau the next day for, well, getting a sense of the culture around here and seeing how another SAR functions in its new relationship with China. I also reminded the students that passports were required and, armed with excellent local knowledge from Louis Wong at the OAL, we prepared for a Macanese adventure.

Once again, XKCD says it all – “Share Your Knowledge With Joy”

In a recent XKCD post, Randall Munroe asks us why we criticise people when they don’t know something, rather than taking it as an opportunity to inform and delight them. After all, what is the actual benefit of belittling someone if they haven’t happened to have been exposed to the same information as you.

Well, that’s an excellent question. And, if you’re an educator, it’s the essential question.

We know that out students come to us without the information that they need. Because of this, they are regularly going to not know things and, sometimes, that’s going to be frustrating, but that’s what we’d expect.

I’ve run across it a few times myself when I’ve been surprised that people haven’t known basic (and to me common) terms in other languages like French or German. Why should they? I was raised in England, intermittently around French speakers, and have been exposed to European languages in one form or another for 40 years. I studied French at school and have German-speaking friends and colleagues, who I’ve visited. When someone doesn’t know what bon mot,  or soupçon means, that’s not actually an indicator of anything, except that they don’t know it yet. Ok, hand up in shame, I have, in the past, been obviously  surprised when someone didn’t know something but, over the last few years, I’ve worked really hard to curb it and try to be positive and informative, rather than being a schmuck.

After all, when I was a wine making student, a Microbiology PhD student sneered at me, quite effectively, because I didn’t know how to prepare a certain type of sample. The fact that I had never been shown, it hadn’t been a pre-requisite, and that it was actually his job to show me apparently eluded him on the day. Net result? 10 years later I remember being made to feel small but I still don’t remember how to prepare that sample.

I know what it’s like when someone decides to feel superior through exclusivity, rather than get a kick out of sharing the knowledge. Even if it wasn’t my job, even if knowledge sharing wasn’t something I enjoyed, even if it wasn’t the only ethically defensible choice – I should still be doing the right thing because I know what it’s like to be on the other side.

Thanks again, Randall, for a potted summary, in fun cartoon form, to remind us what it means to not be a schmuck.

How the Internet Works: For You and On You

I would link to a recent April 1st post on Randall Munroe’s XKCD (it’s http://www.xkcd.com/1037/ if you need to know) but I can’t because I’m not sure what you’ll see when you get there and some of the possible images are not safe for work. The theme of his post is umwelt, the notion that your perception of your own world is highly personal, influenced by your previous experiences and the lens that you have on your environment.

This is the image I see now – using my default browser. It is, very much, what you make of it. (I attribute the image to XKCD, but I can’t link to it for obvious reasons.)

A well? The Ring? The Sun? Your perception of what this mean depends on your senses, your experiences and your world to date.

Some people saw images of unlikely earthquakes. Some saw images of groups being stalked by velociraptors – but only when they elongated their screens enough to see everything on the page. Serving military saw a supportive post that encouraged them to keep an eye on the missiles. Panels adjusted based on who you were, which browser you used, where you were, even what size screen you used.

How did this work? Your browser provides a great deal of information as to what it is, to allow sites to adjust for browser variation. At the same time, the Internet Protocol (IP) address of your computer, the address that other computers use to get to it, gives away your location and your organisation. That’s why students at MIT got MIT jokes and people in Israel got an XKCD comic in Hebrew.

I can’t think of a better way to introduce students to the idea that gazing into the abyss also involves the abyss gazing into you. There are two great summary pages here (Reddit) and here (Google document).

This is the Internet and it’s ubiquitous. This is a great way to discuss the amount of information that is being sent back by every browser, from every platform. The amount of information that can be obtained by underlying systems that most people are unaware of.

For me, what I found most amusing is that a friend sent the link of the image to me saying “Hey, Voight Kampf test” (from Blade Runner) and I saw a picture of something completely different and thought my friend was mad. That’s something else to talk about – what it would mean if information itself mutated depended on who you were and where you were.