April 10, 2019

Disinformation documentaries

Today I watched an interesting documentary (in Dutch) from Flemish public television about Russian disinformation in the US and Europe. Among the cases it explores are Russian blaming of Belgian F-16 fighters for killing civilians in Syria and the defamation of a Finnish reporter that investigated Russian interference in Finland.

The techniques used to disinform are not new however. While social media is the prevalent medium today, masses have been misled or centuries by parties that have incentive to do so. It reminded me of Merchants of Doubt, a 2014 feature-length documentary that tells the stories of the tobacco industry fighting medical counterpressure with lies, and climate change deniers tainting scientific consensus with fake science.

The main takeaway is that sowing lies causes people to doubt truths spread in the mainstream media. Little false discourse is necessary to achieve a sufficient level of confusion about eg. climate change. When people are confused, they stick to what they want to believe and ignore information that disconfirms their beliefs (see cognitive dissonance). That is the goal of the disinformers.

These documentaries remain relevant today with climate change denier Trump in office and the Russians doing their thing as we speak. They teach us to be wary of counter-information, wherever it may come from. Recommended to watch!

November 29, 2018

Selecting text where you can't

Sometimes you want to copy-paste text from a web page, but it won't work. Here are a few common reasons and workarounds.

1. The text is embedded in a link

The text might be contained by a link. If you click+drag to select text, you will move the link element! Sometimes it is not visible that the text you're trying to select is, in fact, a link.

Solution: hold the ALT key while selecting (Option key on Mac). This will allow you to select text in a clickable area like a button

Try to select me!

2. Selecting is intentionally disabled on the site

The site developer probably does not want you to copy the text. This happens regularly on news websites. They include JavaScript code that captures all your clicks and selections and 'kills' these events. Do not try this on a site where you don't want to lose progress of some sort

Solution: block JavaScript on the site

  1. Install the μBlock Origin plugin (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge)
  2. Click on the μBlock icon to scripts for the site
  3. Reload the page
  4. Copy/pasting is now possible.

You want to re-enable the JavaScript after your copy-paste, a lot of sites depend on it today to function properly.

PS: μBloc Origin is a versatile, lightweight and open-source ad-blocker. It is probably better than other adblock plugins you might have installed.

May 01, 2018

Installing your Firefox add-on permanently

When you're developing a cross-browser add-on, you probably want to try it out for a while in your daily browser. Unfortunately, contrary to Chrome, if you temporarily load your extension in Firefox, it will be gone after a restart.

That's because Firefox needs to sign your add-on before you can install it anywhere.

The documentation explains so, but in a convoluted way. It's actually pretty simple:

  1. Register at FF's Developer Hub (top right) if you don't have a FF account yet.
  2. Go to the add-on submission page.
  3. Choose 'on your own'. This wil immediately sign your add-on, but it won't be listed in the add-on site for distribution. Ideal for a test version.
  4. Upload your zipped add-on files.
  5. Sign, download the .xpi file & enjoy. It can be installed from about:addons → gear icon → Install Add-on from file
February 23, 2018

Dear Professor,

Like most students, I made a resolution this semester to have a fresh start, to attend all classes and make sure I understand the main points in the lectures. I've been able to live up to that promise these two weeks, but I'm afraid you just made me break it.

The reason? It's not your stuttering, I can live with that. Your verbal skills and physical presence are decent too. The problem is, there is almost zero added value in coming to your class.

Almost every single word you say is projected black-white next to you.

Then, what do you expect me to do when sitting there? Should I listen to you, or read the PowerPoint content? When I try to listen, the slides distract me. When I try to read, your talking distracts me. The people around me checking their 9GAG feeds on Facebook don't help either. I'd rather just browse the slides at home.

This is the prime example of PowerPoint illiteracy. Slides are meant to support your message, they should not overwhelm everyone with an exhaustive summary of the course content. Do you want to distribute your course notes? Awesome, just publish them online, thank you. They would form a terrific summary for later reference.

But please, do not project these slides. They're the reason I won't be in your class today.

With kind regards,

Thor Galle

PS: check out this TED talk. It might help you.

January 21, 2018

Technology extension opportunities in real life

It's striking how some insights from school can slip into daily life when you least expect them to. Today my sister showed off a Brother LW-20, an electronic typerwriter. She had rescued it from our grandparents who wanted to discard it. It's a nice example of how a new technology (the computer) substitutes an old one (the typewriter), something I learned about recently.

When hearing "typewriter", I would think about the mechanical type with pounding metal letter sticks. Yet, this particular model was on the market somewhere in the 90's: a period were computers were growing fast. A computer had more possibilities concerning word processing than typewriters, Microsoft Word was already available in the 80's.

And that's where the insight striked: according to a paper of Adner & Kapoor (2015), old technologies can still survive for some time while better technologies are available, given that there is an extension opportunity for the old technology. More specifically, some innovations for the new technology can be "spilled back" to the old one.

This seems to be the case for the Brother: a German Wikipedia article tells us it was marketed as an affordable, dedicated word processor. It had some "modern" features like a screen to edit text on and compatibility with floppy storage for documents: features that got spilled over from computers.

It's the closest thing to a computer my grandparents have ever owned, and at the same time, it represented the last gasp of the typewriter.

October 27, 2017

Whatever happened to Google Tasks

As a meek Google user, I've been sporting their Calendar for years. Years in which I have used a feature that is being casted into obscurity: Google Tasks. It once started as a fancy addition to Calendar. Now it seems to be present only for legacy purposes:

  • You have to activate it by activating a separate Tasks "calendar".
  • The tasks overview still has the calendar styling from 2009.
  • You can't display them at the same time as Reminders. You have to "switch". One of the most clumsy UX things I've seen from Google.

Then why not only use Reminders? There is no overview of Reminders on the web version. Now let this just be the most useful way to keep an eye on long-term deadlines. I will stick with the 2009 tasks, until the reminder overview jumps from the phone to the desktop. Or until the plug gets pulled, of course.

October 10, 2017

A week at Hackages

Last week I got the opportunity to join a TypeScript/Angular/Ionic training at Hackages in Brussels. They're a consulting and teaching company specialized in modern web technologies.

The training followed a learning-by-doing methodology. We were submerged in a continuous exercise session, of which a large part revolved around fixing common mistakes planted in example code. Sometimes important concepts were briefly explained & demoed, but mostly we tried to fulfill the requirements of an incomplete program, with little pointers on how to code these.

So, we were still scouring the web for documentation, like you would when learning a new language on your own. The difference with self-study is: 1) you can ask when you're really stuck for a while 2) you're doing pair programming.

This is generally a valuable learning approach. But I have my critiques:

  • The line between learning by fixing mistakes & being frustrated by annoying bugs is thin.
  • Maybe this is not the best way to learn "good practices": the internet or your intuition does not always point in the right direction.
August 23, 2017

Ideating the logs tab

Sometimes I want to share thought that doesn't fit in a single tweet, nor deserves a full-blown blog article.

That's why I started this section of my site, where I'll log these thoughts or whatever they might be. You'll be able to scroll right through, every log should fit on a large screen in its entirety.