A Mysterious Package For Dr Freeman

I checked my post this morning, only to discover a mysterious mystery. An apparently ordinary looking envelope…

But dear reader, this modest parcel was in truth anything but ordinary, for inside lurked something tremendously suspicious. A typewritten letter accompanying a second, plastic envelope.

Text of the letter (misspellings preserved):

Dear Gareth,
I hope this letter finds you in time for I may not have long.

Within this letter contains one small piece of an unending jigsaw. A tiny fragment of my research that has led to me upturning a lot of rocks and finding a hideous insectoid life living beneath it. Inscedoid that have their antennae in a vast array of important government pies.

As a fellow skeptic you will undoubtedly know the importance and significance of such a finding when you open its plastic cover and read beneath its pages.

Who am I you are asking and why have I been burdened with such knowledge.

We have never met but your reputation as a fellow investigator of the unknown has been spoken with hushed reverence in many circles in which I traipse and it was vital that this envelope left these shores as soon as possible.

We are through the looking glass here. If you wish to continue with my work in finding the truth go with care.

I wish you more luck than I have had.

Sincerely

X

3.9.2012

Ex historia damnatur qui non referre.

What strange clue was this?

Quickly Google Translate informed me that the final quote in latin was a literal translation of the phrase “From the history of those who do not is condemned to repeat it.” Rapidly my tightly disciplined mind deduced a mistranslation of George Santayana‘s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Curiouser and curiouser. My tormenter was not a native speaker of the Roman tongue, likely a crank rather than a true scholar of the insectoid / inscedoid race. Few of us who research this grim threat possess the tools to utterly penetrate the arachnoid mystery. More often than not promising candidates, brave men and women who offer some hope that the menace may be quelled or at least understood, disappear never to be found, as perhaps this poor fool had.

Along with the letter was another package.

Hmmm… A simple graphological analysis revealed that the handwriting suggested the following traits: modesty (indicated by a lack of underscore and indeed the lack of a signature), impulsiveness (no starting strokes), orderliness (orderly writing), and mysteriousness (indicated by the mystery). But what was inside? Hastily I peeled back the pastic cover, careful to preserve all possible fingerprints.

Ye gads! A copy of that most secret magazine ‘Freemasonary Today’. Legends tell of this illicit container of mystic lore, passed from one High Carbuncle to the next for a thousand years. Written on the skin of slain unicorns, in the blood of baby Pandas. How had such a rarity found its way into the postal system? Surely the automated machinery of the illuminati is designed specifically to prevent such an outrage? Was this a trick? A false piece of provocative evidence designed to blow my cover as an investigator? The lizard men are crafty, and their masters the insectoids / inscedoids even more so.

I had to resolve the puzzle of it’s origin.

It seemed my confounding epistolarian had concealed the originally intended recipient of the package with a mere sharpy mark. Something any common or garden house cleaner could erase.

To the cupboard!

Aha, a veritable clue! With judicious applications of special issue Tesco All Purpose Cleaner I was able to reveal the address, hidden beneath the crude sharpy mark. The package it seemed, had been originally intended for a certain gentleman of London… Could it be?!?

Armed with the address, I went straight to that tool gifted us by the lizard cameras themselves. Google’s all seeing ‘maps’.


(Details redacted to protect the conspiracy)

Aha! Now my search was narrowed to a certain segment of London, wherein the original recipient had at one time lived / lives / will live (assuming time travel). To Facebook to confirm my suspicions.

Aha, a veritable admission from my associate, codename ‘Mark’! I questioned the origins of the mysterious package. Where had ‘Mark’ found such a thing? The reply came!

The brave theft admitted in his own hand…

Funnily enough the came from the creepy guy who used to live in the house before us who we think was a spy. He had extra security cameras installed, 7 locks on the door had guns on the wall when we were shown the house and said he worked for the government AND was a member of the masons!

Finally, my suspicions confirmed, and a mystery solved. Mr Freeman, we meet once again. Mark, I salute you!

Starship Sofa

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Over the past year, I’ve contributed a handful of readings to the wonderful Starship Sofa science fiction podcast. Ciaran O’Carroll and Tony C. Smith began the show in 2006, as an in depth discussion of the life and works of a variety of New Wave and Golden Age Science Fiction authors. Ciaran left the show last year, but far from this being the harbinger of podfade, it spurred Tony on to new heights of fevered podcasting activity. The Sofa began to acquire the audio rights to a host of science fiction stories, poetry and factual articles, and started soliciting it’s own fictional content in the form of flash fiction.

Continue reading “Starship Sofa”

WordPress Hack Attack

Evil Hacker

Synopsis:

I detail my experiences with a WordPress hack across multiple shared hosting sites, the steps taken to recover WordPress and secure against future attacks.

Introduction:

On the December 15th I discovered a number of my WordPress installations had been compromised. Rather than a concerted attack, this was likely the result of widely available scripting tools that allow ‘crackers’ to exploit known vulnerabilities in out of date WordPress installs. Due to the large number of WordPress installs on my server, and a reluctance to run bleeding edge software, I’d been a little remiss in updating WordPress. While none of my installs were more than a couple of months out of date, 5 of my 8 WordPress installs were infected.

Viewing the source code of my sites in Firefox confirmed that advertising links had been inserted directly into the wordpress PHP code – behind a DIV visibility tag – presumably to increase the Google ranking of trojan or spam sites. Additionally, the SQL databases in which WordPress stores it’s data had, in several cases, had additional users added. These fictitious users were most often called simply “WordPress”.

I’m going to outline in this post the steps I took to deal with this infection and to reduce the chance of future attacks. I’m not a security professional, or even a programmer, so my advice is provided ‘as is’. Implementing these measures won’t protect you from a dedicated hacker – if someone wants to crack your website in particular, especially on shared hosting, no amount of effort will stop them. However, these techniques should recover your site, and make WordPress a little less vulnerable to automated scripting attacks.

Continue reading “WordPress Hack Attack”

How Twitter and Facebook are fragmenting my online identity

services2For subscribers of this blog (and it does get one or two hits), who’ve been wondering why I haven’t been updating with greater frequently, I’d like offer an explanation.

There’s a profound fragmentation going on right now in online identity. The change from isolated web sites (with technical, and in the early days, financial barriers to entry) to readily updatable, easily subscribable, often free blogs, acted to more tightly integrate the public web. An unfortunate side-effect of newer forms of blogging, more sophisticated social networks, and the surfeit of emerging web services, has been to splinter identity across multiple platforms. Ultimately this problem may be solved by more open and intercommunicative social networks using something like Open ID, by an ur-MySpace aggregating all the disparate services, or by next generation life stream scrapping utilities. Until then here’s where where I am..

Del.icio.us – makes bookmarking easy, available anywhere, and subscribable like a blog. It’s also a great way to keep informed of your friends projects.

Twitter, Jaiku – moblogging platforms, which allow you to create a mobile social network of sorts, create and receive updates on the go.

Facebook – my social network of choice. I’m on Bebo, Myspace, Live Journal, Orkut, and now Pownce; but Facebook plays host to my primary ‘online identity’. Facebook’s newsfeed provides a great way to keep up with the goings on of real friends; and it’s open API and platform are providing an evolutionary paradigm, an environment in which shared ideas, intense competition and rapid development are accelerating the improvement of social applications.

Tumblr – I use as a meta blog, adding all my feeds, and posting photos, videos, songs, and cool articles. I made the decision a while ago to keep the focus of dbspin.com on original articles and occasional media projects, which reduces hits, but hopefully increases quality. Additionally, I’m finding less and less time to blog proper, and in turn, feeling that each blog post must attain some arbitrary level of quality and originality. I believe quality is becoming more important relative to timeliness in the blogosphere; as rapidly updated information moves to micro and mobile blogging platforms, and as more people begin to suffer from feed aggregation overload. Tumblr’s also just a great way to give a technophobic friend a really user friendly blog they can update online, or via their phone.

An interesting point to note, is that for non developers there’s really no need to buy webspace any more; given that most features from web pages, to blogs, video hosting, to podcasting, are possible and easier to implement via free web services.

Right now I’m involved in three major projects. One is a prospective web2.0 / mobile service company, two is a documentary film, and three is co-writing a satirical (and partly parodic) novel. I can’t talk about the first two right now, but I’m more than happy to suggest you check out the book, which is being updated in real time on the web (please avoid if even moderately easily offended), or the main satirical review site – with over 100 movie, music and other reviews (again offensive); not too frequently updated right now, but that should change in October.

Emerging uses for Twitter

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As Twitter leaves the realms of ‘joiner geek’ social network, and (partly due to it’s integration with platforms like Facebook), becomes a more popular and diverse service, its utility is being more rigorously critiqued. What is Twitter for? Its a cogent question. In a world of blogs, microblogs, and social networks, what’s the use of twitter? Is it merely a loose knit social network, or a (nano) blogging platform? Is it just the latest fad? Lets look at some real world uses of Twitter, how its utility differs from more traditional blogging platforms, and some scenarios in which it could be more effectively used.

Real world use

Right now, twitters use is primarily as a loosely coupled, mobile social network. The barriers to membership and use are low – as the platform is quick to join and simple to use; and adding ‘friends’ can be done easily and quickly. Perhaps too easily, since no confirmation is required to ‘subscribe’ to a user. Mass adding of contacts within twitter is a quick way of creating an audience – as some of those added will tend to add back the mass connector, creating potentially unwanted one way connections.

Connectivity

Twitter has strong but limited communication features. Users can receive updates (‘tweets’) from their ‘friends’ via web, RSS, IM or (free) text message. They can send their own tweets, through Twitter or a host of other websites, IM or paid text messages.
Tweets are either undirected, direct, or aimed at a user, but visible to the general audience (signified by the @ symbol). A general audience in this context can be either the public at large, or a users entire friend group, depending on privacy setting. Blocking is available – and users can only directly message their friends.
However no fine grained control is available – users cannot for example, chose to receive text message notifications of tweets from one specific user, or group of users. In fact no user groups or gradations of connection exist within twitter. Aspects of this functionality may ultimately emerge from third party applications.

Moblogging

With built in text messaging functionality, Twitter has the capacity to function as a ‘short message’ (140 character) moblogging platform. While it lacks MMS picture support, it has the advantage of immediate one to many connectivity. As such, it can be used to provide news updates and reports of ongoing events.

Public Conversation

A conversation emerges in the ‘friends’ feed of a users twitter; visible from their profile on Twitter.com or via RSS. Although direct messages are not visible to all, as previously stated, frequently publicly visible messages are directed at a user, through use of the @ sign. This allows a users friends or readers to engage in conversation, and allows a user to publicly flag the existence of their communication with high status users. In effect this serves to pull users on the periphery of the network into more direct conversation with more centrally connected users. In this role Twitter can provide a form of ad hoc business social networking.

Linkblogging

Blogging grew in part, out of link logging, and the low time cost and mobile nature of Tweets, makes Twitter ideal for sharing links with a directed audience. Due to the character limit of ‘tweets’, links are often truncated using services like Url.ie or slink.in.

Future Use 1 – Group management

As previously mentioned, creating user groups is not yet a feature offered by Twitter, but their addition would allow significant additional emergent uses of the platform. Work teams, clubs, and institutions could use Twitters push messaging to notify members of meetings and updates. Rather than acting as a replacement for traditional systems of notification (e.g.: email memo’s), Twitters immediacy would make it ideal for notification of last minute changes of plan, or time sensitive communications – especially with large or loosely affiliated groups.

Future Use 2 – Mobile applications

Applications are already being built around twitter, but none have yet taken advantage of the powerful utility of the mobile communication capabilities built into the platform. Twitter applications should in theory proliferate virally, due to the public nature of visible ‘@’ directed communications – in a similar fashion to the recent viral growth of applications on the Facebook platform. However this can only take place if an applications utility necessitates two way communication with its users. ‘Mashups’, which utilise the API’s of two or more external services to create a new service providing additional utility, hold great potential in this regard. Combine low cost two way mobile communication, with social application proliferation, API sourced data, and multicasting, and a variety of potential services become obvious. The viability of businesses which utilise Twitter in this way will be dependent on the future reliability of the platform, and on Twitters tolerance of providing host to an emergent ‘ecosystem’ (positive construal) or ‘parasite infestation’ (negative construal) of applications.

Facebook as Social Aggregator

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Social Network ‘Facebook’, has made an enormous splash this week with the release of the ‘Facebook Platform‘, an opening up of the mature Facebook API to internal widgets with access to Facebook’s ‘core functions’. Whilst this move has been criticised by some influential members of the syndication community, it places Facebook at the forefront of mashup’s and the read-write web. In one fell swoop, Facebook has become a socially enabled aggregation platform.

‘Zuckerberg describes the Facebook core function that the new third-party applications can tap into as a “social graph,” the network of connections and relationships between people on the service’.
Dan Farber on ZDNet

Social Aggregation

Let’s look at some ways that Facebook collates user information, and serves this summated information back to a users social network.

Facebook offers users three direct methods of adding to the ‘News Feed’ activity stream of their connections on the Facebook network.
‘Status Updates’ are brief, 160 character messages, updatable by text message or from within Facebook.
‘Posted Items’ are smart links which retrieve a brief descriptive paragraph and photo from a provided link; updatable from within Facebook, and through browser and web based bookmarklets.
‘Notes’ are text, images and links – essentially blog posts; updatable from within facebook itself, and via imported RSS feed. Notes contain an additional feature, a social equivalent to pingbacks, allowing posters to ‘tag’ friends mentioned in, or related to, a post.

Controversially, Facebook also provides an aggregated feed of indirect socially relevant user actions – profile changes, photo uploads and contact addition etc.

Finally, with the addition of ‘Facebook Platform’, Facebook can now socially aggregates the information flow to and from users and their installed applications – for example, tweets updated via and integrated Twitter application.

All of this aggregation is done parsimoniously and noninvasively, with an emphasis on usability and integration with the social map of a users Facebook network – for example, if a user updates a number of notes in quick succession, rather than each note appearing in the news feed of his connections, a lists of titles will appear.

Fine Grained Control

The aggregated ‘Posted Items’, ‘Notes’, and ‘Status Updates’ from a user’s connections, can each be exported as an RSS feed. In addition to the feeds available from applications within the ‘Facebook Platform’, this means that users can now (or will soon be able to, with third party developer support) use Facebook to export feeds of updates to the attention streams, social bookmarkings, and blogs, of their connections.

By allowing users fine grained control over which aspects of their social activity on the site are published to the ‘news feed’ of their connections – for example a user can choose to de-list notification of their new connections completely, or on a case by case basis – and control over the sources and quantity of the information they aggregate from their connections; Facebook have built the beginnings of a social write application to compliment feed reading, on the Read/Write web. Together with the social elements of next generation browsers, this could provide the template for how such services work in the future.

Maturation is inevitable and necessary, and Facebook are only at the beginning of the development of their internal services – for example ‘Posted Items’ can function as social bookmarks, but without tags or folder utility, cannot replace a dedicated social bookmark application.

Balancing the desire of application providers for greater access to the Facebook API, with the privacy of users and the overall usability of the platform will be a difficult challenge. Right now it seems that Facebook are erring on the side of caution – for example, Twitter integration seems for the moment hampered by a lack of write access to user ‘Status Updates’ through the Facebook API.

What to do with all this information?

Beyond hyperbole, what does all this mean? Right now, it means I can import the ‘Status Updates’, ‘Notes’, and ‘Posted Items’ of my Facebook connections; right into Google Reader. I can also export my own aggregated updates, and construct a feed blog, or metafeed – increasing the utility, and decreasing the exclusivity, of my updates to Facebook.

This flow of information will grow richer as more useful applications are added to the ‘Facebook Platform’, as Facebook continues the roll-out of its third generation of internal services (like Market Place and Video); providing a portable, rapidly updated aggregation of social events and conversation – a friends feed, which comprises a deepening, dynamic, and semi-public conversation.

The Future

What’s next? Increased portability of Facebook mobile updates (currently the limited SMS notifications available are restricted the the US), and the easier establishment of networks, would greatly increase the utility of such powerful information aggregation; as would RSS feeds of the ‘News Feed’ activity stream itself. Right now, Facebook is a fantastic tool for large, loosely connected, public social networks, but increased privacy options and network building flexibility could make it a more useful tool for work groups, businesses, and families. Although it’s important to note that company networks do already exit, each new network must be suggested directly to Facebook – with little direction as to the amount or type of requests needed before such a network will be created.

Look out soon, for applications leveraging the social aspects of the Facebook platform in innovative ways – enabling collaborative video editing or games for example.

Open source and information portability advocates would no doubt like to see greater portability of the (user generated) networks with give Facebook its value. Such portability may become ever more difficult, as users become more locked into the services provided by a specific social network, and the social groupings which exist there.

How to Edit YouTube Videos

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I spent about eight hours yesterday working out how to do this. A working method was surprisingly hard to come by, so hopefully this will be of use to someone. Luckily it’s really easy once you know how. This technique should work not just for YouTube, but any other flash video site, like Google Video, DailyMotion etc.

 

Caveats

You should be aware before you start that posting remixed video online (if you don’t own the copyright to your source video) could theoretically get you into legal trouble.

These instructions are for Windows. Here are some simpler instructions for the Mac. Let’s face it, video stuff is faster and easier with a Mac, if you can afford one.

It’s also important to note before you begin, that uncompressed video files are enormous. You’ll likely need at least 1 free Gigabyte per 5 minutes of video you plan to convert, and much more to do editing later.

If anything goes wrong, I disclaim all responsibility. These instructions are provided as is.

All that said, here’s how to do it..

Download the video

There are lots of ways to download a video from YouTube. Here are a couple.

Throw the address of the video you want into one of these sites
Keep It Simple, Video Downloader 2.0, KeepVid.

or

Install Firefox, GreaseMonkey, and one of the these scripts.

Once the file has downloaded, you’ll have to convert it before Movie Maker or Adobe Premier Pro 1.5 (haven’t tried this with more recent versions) will open it.

Download Super

The free program ‘Super’ will convert almost any multimedia file to almost any format.

Download Super. The link is difficult to find on the horrendously designed site, but keep looking, it is there!

Convert the File

  1. Install and Run Super
  2. Find the file you’ve downloaded, and drag it into Super.
  3. Along the top of Super, set the settings like so [Image]
    • Output Container: avi
    • Output Video Codec: huffYUV
    • Output Audio Codec: WAV -(pcm U8)
  4. Right click anywhere in Super, and click ‘Specify the Output Folder Destination’. [Image]
  5. Select the folder where you’d like to put your finished file and click ‘Save Changes’
  6. You may wish to increase the size of the output video (by default Youtube’s resolution is 320*240). To do this simply change the Video Scale Size setting (e.g.: 640*480) [Image]
  7. Your finished settings should looks something like this [Image]
  8. Now click Encode. After a few seconds the video should start to encode [Image].
    In a few minutes (depending on video length), the process will finish.

That’s it!

You should now have a video that most video editors can import and edit without glitches. Happy remixing!