Author Archives: exhipigeonist

Gnome 3 – early observations

Gnome 3 is “stable and […] could lead to an even better desktop than the one we previously had but which lacks features and flexibility at the moment”. – Linux Mint Blog

Linux Mint 12 was released last week.  I was hesitant to upgrade my OS from the previous version because I knew it was using the new Gnome (3.2, opposed to 2.32), and I fear change, but I’d been having a problem with the window manager for a while (maximised windows would be a few pixels out from of where they should be so when I close them it often doesn’t register properly and closes other windows I have open behind – it’s all very annoying) and wanted to reformat anyway, so . . . I 3.2ook the plunge.

Gnome 3 looks quite nice, but in practice I don’t feel it is an improvement on Gnome 2.32.  It simply doesn’t have enough configuration flexibility anymore.

I previously posted about my clean, simple desktop running on Linux Mint 11.  I had a single panel at the bottom with the few programs I regularly use, and quick access to a menu listing only those programs I may actually click on one day.  It was a pleasure to interact with.  I was productive.  But Gnome 3 (check out a video demonstration here) makes this sort of simplicity impossible.

The focus on simpler interfaces is one I understand.  Make it easy for an unfamiliar user to find what they want.  Streamline the settings so they’re easier to follow.  This makes GNU/Linux more accessible.  But one of the effects of this, in both Gnome 3 and Unity (Ubuntu’s new desktop environment), is the severe limitation on customisation.  I am now left with a permanent panel across the top of my screen that I can’t remove or hide (panels are distracting and take up precious screen real estate) and I can only alter its contents with the assistance of specialised ‘extensions’ that I can install.  For example, there is an accessibility icon in the panel by default, and one of the most popular extensions simply makes it disappear.  Extensions aren’t such a bad idea, but because there are so few of them available, and because their options are usually (always?) limited to ‘on or off’, there’s simply not much you can do.

But it’s not just the extensions that restrict the user; the options for system settings are also heavily ‘streamlined’ – or in some cases entirely absent.  I had to find the command for the old printer settings program (I’m surprised the package was installed) in order to add a network printer because the new interface didn’t have the options I needed to configure it!

I was going to go into a longer rant detailing the problems, but Hitler does a more entertaining job =)

It may seem like power and average users are losing out here in order to appeal to a new audience.  However, my experience makes me a little optimistic.  I can remember a few years ago when Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE instead of Gnome) first shipped with KDE4.0 rather than KDE3.whatever.  The new KDE looked amazing, but there was little users could do to customise the experience.  It wasn’t until 4.3 that it could finally begin to compete with KDE3 in terms of usability.  But this was intentional – it takes a while to build a desktop environment, make it stable and add features.  And it’s better if the wider community is involved during this evolution.

I’m hopeful this is what will happen with Gnome 3.  It has just been shipped with Linux Mint, a distribution quickly making its way to the top of the GNU/Linux polularity contest, and many power users are playing around with it, writing new features and sharing them with others.  One day Gnome 3 may be just as configurable as my old desktop.

(I’m also optimistic because I recognise similarities between the Gnome 3 desktop environment and operating systems on mobile devices.  I long for the day that I can get GNU/Linux on a mobile phone, so I hope this is part of the conscious direction for development.)

I can deal with the new environment for now.  I’m even getting used to the menu.  (I believe this is what is called the ‘acceptance stage’.)  But next time I plan to reformat I might finally give XFCE a spin.  (And not just because it has a mouse mascot – though that certainly adds to the appeal!)

Comments and spam

The biggest technical problem I’ve come across since this blog went live on my server is that I couldn’t get comment email notifications working.  If someone comments, I had to manually check my comments summary page regularly in order to find out.  The issue is that I do not have an SMTP server running on the server, so the following takes place:

WordPress: Hey, SMTP server! Someone just commented! exhipigeonist will be totally stoked to hear about this!
WordPress: Uhhh, you’re quiet tonight.  Anyway, I was wondering if you could do me a favour and, you know, email people when this sort of thing happens. Options have been checked, intentions have been made, etc.
WordPress: I choose to read your silence as a ‘Yes’!  There, it’s out of my hands now and not my problem.  I don’t even have to check that it happened and give a confirmation message to anyone.  Time for a break!  *goes off to expel excess RAM into the memory pool*

I’m a little surprised this isn’t a standard thing the installation checks (or if it does, notifies the installer) during setup.  Anyway, I finally fixed it yesterday by configuring the WP Mail SMTP plug-in to use my gmail account to send notifications.  This is not optimal, especially as I’m trying to reduce my dependency on Google services, but I at least have it set up so it appears to be from my admin address.

While I was fixing comment settings I decided to deal with some of the spam I had been receiving.  I’ve been getting regular comments on various posts advertising laptop batteries.  I just delete them because they’re nonsense or irrelevant and appear to be from spambots.  I set up a filter so these have to be moderated while legitimate comments are likely to go through.

However, this morning I awoke to a moderated comment on my robot cupcake entry which said,

Short Circuit 1+2 were good movies 🙂 “Los locos kick your ass. Los locos kick your face. Los locos kick your balls into outer space!”

I’d recently re-watched the second movie and, even though I know such comments (or more specifically, the name and its link) are designed to game Internet search results, and I in no way endorse the products, I thought this comment was cute and just had to let it through.

It also makes it clear that there are actual people going through blogs and writing comments.  It’s not just an automated process.

So I put it to you, spammers (who probably won’t read this): entertain me, make me laugh, and I just might approve your comments.

Update: Probably related, shortly after publishing this post I began receiving large amounts of spam.

I have revised my stance on allowing spam; all of it will be deleted, even if it is entertaining.  (I have even removed the comment I mentioned in this post.)  In fact, I have set WordPress to moderate all comments, making it impossible for spam to get through at all.  Unfortunately, this also harms legitimate discussion until I can think of a better way around it.

Why did I ever think it was a good idea to provoke spammers?  *facepalm*

Caring is sharing

Some of you may have noticed that I have added a Creative Commons (CC) license to the photos posted on this blog.  As a person who loves the idea of free culture, the decision was actually a bit more complicated than I expected.


First of all, I’m a fairly private person so I’m hesitant to publish images of myself for the rest of the world to share and remix.  What if they are used in a way that makes me uncomfortable?

Of course, this is a case of me trying to control my public identity.  A similar example is the fact that I am yet to post images of myself on here.  Yes, I don’t currently have a photo I like enough to share, but I believe the main reason is that I don’t want my appearance to have too much of an effect on how others read the content.  I don’t believe it’s all that relevant.

CC licensing, then, isn’t such an issue for privacy right now so I can safely ignore it.  However, it does highlight a possible future need for the publication of some images that are not for others to use.  I don’t yet know where I stand here.  Perhaps I’ll return to this later.


I then needed to determine where I stand on commercial use of cultural works.

I don’t want something of mine that I have shared lovingly with the world to be used by an evil corporation in order to make more money.  This is a typical sentiment that leads to a ‘non-commercial’ condition being included in many CC licenses.  However, in reality, the effects of such licenses are much more complex than that.

Take Ubuntu, for example.  (Actually, I recommend taking Linux Mint, instead – download it here!)  Many GNU/Linux distributions are put together by people or companies that in some way receive money from their work.  This could be through donations, support, licensing or CD/DVD sales (even if they break even, or lose money).  The point is, if the many pieces of software that have informed these distributions had specified a non-commercial license, their compilation would not be financially feasible and, in some cases, technically impossible.

The problem is imagining a worst-case scenario, like I did at the beginning of this section, and doing all you can to prevent its eventuation, however unlikely, at the expense of legitimate cultural use of your work.  I kinda like living in a world with Ubuntu, so I don’t support the non-commercial licensing of (potential) cultural works.

(Nina Paley has written and spoken on this issue, if you’re interested in finding out more.)

Clarity and metadata

The third issue I encountered wonders how best to ‘advertise’ these licenses.  I want people to feel free to use my images so this needs to be fairly prominent.  Listing details at the bottom of each image post (I’m using a WordPress template plug-in for this) helps.

But I wanted to embed license and author details within the images themselves, as this would make them easier to find.  I installed a handy program called ExifTool and wrote a script on my server computer so I could easily write the desired ‘author’ and ‘comment’ data in all the .jpg files within a single folder.  It worked great!

(However, when using a Windows PC I notice the data are not readable in the standard file properties window.  I’ll have to play around to make sure I’m editing the correct thing.)

 Current license choices

The following image is of a cute spider.  It was crawling on the outside of a car while I was a passenger.  My favourite part is how one of its weird feeler thinggies (a ‘palpus’, apparently) appears to be covering its eyes (actually, they’re fangs, but they look like eyes) from the sun so it can look in on us.

Click for full-size version

If you would like to put a funny caption on this and post it to icanhazcheezburger (remix), use it on wikipedia or simply put it on your own blog or whatever, you can! – under the following conditions.

  1. You must attribute me as the author.  (Attribution)
  2. You distribute any altered image under the same or similar license to this one.  (Share Alike)

If you would prefer to use it in a way that conflicts with one of the above conditions, you can ask for permission to do so.

This appears to be a fairly good license because it allows for a lot of flexibility. (And also helps to diffuse any lingering fears of corporate exploitation.)  However, I do have concerns that the presence of these conditions, although simple, may deter some from using my images.  Perhaps one day I’ll change the license and simply declare such images as being part of the public domain.

Just more to think about, I guess.


Creative Commons License

Images appearing in this post are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Terms of Surrender – iPhone 4S

I have received no interest for participation in my iPhone research Project yet, but I did get a hold of an iPhone 4S box and documentation to begin looking at.  With the help of YouTube unboxing videos, I can fairly accurately piece together the activation of the 4S and then simply confirm my findings later.  Here are some initial observations.

User agreements in the iPhone 4

Part of my research looks at the construction of user consent in using technology that may go against their best interests in some way.  I began looking at the iPhone 4 when Allen and Warden publicised concerns in April over the use of iOS4’s location tracking functionality (“Got an iPhone or 3G iPad? Apple is recording your moves“).  This sparked a loud backlash from users who were angry their devices were tracking them in a way they didn’t consent to.  In at least one respect, this concern is legally justified – iOS4’s tracking even when you turn off location services went against the Terms of Service (Apple referred to this as a ‘bug’) – but mostly such concern stemmed from a discomfort upon realising the implications of certain functionality, both routine and legal, for such devices.

While others began discussing the length of the iPhone 4’s Terms and Conditions, I began looking closely at its content.  It turns out that, due to certain wording and technical aspects of the activation process, users need to agree to many, many more words than those appearing within the one document – I counted 48,000 words in total (not including phone service provider agreements) earlier this year, and some of these documents have been revised (read: added to) since.  I began to recognise a legitimacy to the argument that not only is it unlikely that a person will read the full terms relevant to their service; it is actually unlikely anyone has read and understood the extent of this agreement.  This raises legal issues (which I don’t want to touch because it’s not my area) as well as strong questions about informed consent.

iPhone 4S’s ‘untethered activation’

Early reports on the iPhone 4S mentioned it would introduce a new ‘untethered activation process’.  Because one of the major contributing factors to the previous model’s word count was its reliance on iTunes (the iTunes agreement is long and links to several other documents), I wanted to see if activation without a computer would drastically reduce the word count.  Also of interest to me was how the smaller screen interface would impact on the readability of the agreements users click through.

Once the 4S was released I began looking at YouTube videos documenting the activation in an attempt to identify the agreements included.  Interestingly, apart from a ‘WIRELESS CUSTOMER AGREEMENT’ (seen in nikoncmk’s video at 0:29) there was nothing.  At what point, then, are users agreeing to the complex iPhone Terms and Conditions?  Previously, iTunes presented users with a scrollable box of text with an ‘Agree’ button.  Now there is no screen at all.  Was it written on the box?

iPhone 4S Terms and Conditions

The box has no mention of an agreement.  It wasn’t until I looked through the ‘iPhone 4S Important Product Information Guide’, the small booklet that gives you no indication that you need to read it*, that I found the terms listed.  Page 2 mentions the booklet contains a ‘software license’, but it’s not until you see it on page 12 that you are told “BY USING YOUR […] (“iOS DEVICE”), YOU ARE AGREEING TO BE BOUND BY THE FOLLOWING APPLE AND THIRD PARTY TERMS”.

If what I have found is correct, that the only mention of the iPhone Terms and Conditions during activation is in a small booklet few people even look at let alone open, this is concerning to me.  It’s one thing for users to knowingly skip over such agreements and laugh to themselves about the silliness of it all, but it’s quite another for this willful ignorance to not even be an option for most users.

Interestingly, I noticed in all the 4S activation videos I saw that users refer to the ‘wireless customer agreement’ as ‘The Terms and Conditions’ (or some variation), as if they see the legal text and don’t even register the title, assuming they’re agreeing to the iPhone documents.  (This raises epistemological questions about this willful ignorance – can one be truly willfully ignorant if they are agreeing to a different document to the one they think they’re not reading?  Gah!)

The content of the iPhone Terms and Conditions (you can download the text here) contains all the usual weirdness: you can’t help someone else update their iOS software (2b); you can’t sell your iPhone unless you include all the original contents of (and including) the box (3a); and the software is licensed, not sold, to the user (1a), which makes sense but is perhaps not entirely intuitive.  However, one big improvement is the resulting word count of the agreement, partly due to better legal phrasing.

In the iTunes agreement (required to activate the iPhone 4), users are told they must agree to the terms before clicking ‘Agree’ and using the software.  This means users must actually know what these terms are, which requires reading them.  The iPhone 4S Terms and Conditions, on the other hand, uses terminology that doesn’t suggest a requirement of conscious understanding.  Users have access to the terms and they ‘agree to be bound by’ them.  If they actually feel like reading the documentation they can, but it’s not a legally binding requirement for use of the service.

But perhaps suggesting this is an improvement is going a little too far.  Acknowledging that users don’t (or can’t) understand the contents of these agreements and making it legally possible for them to participate anyway** doesn’t do much to reduce the complexity and sheer scale of the written content relevant to such agreements.  Though the latest iPhone Terms and Conditions (as of the 15 August 2011 version) are only 10,000 words long (only!), it still refers to other documents that are relevant to most iPhone users.  How many do not use an Apple ID, Google Maps, iTunes, iCloud, YouTube, or any of the other ‘Services’ mentioned?  With each click of a button, how much bigger does your legally binding document footprint grow?  There is a seriously disproportionate relationship between the simplicity of a mindless click in order to use your new, shiny toy just that much sooner, and the complex set of documentation users must now adhere to as a consequence.

Purchasing an iPhone introduces a major shift for many in terms of the services they connect to, so it could be argued that the complexity of this process is justified.  I do agree, to a small extent.  But I believe the iPhone examples help highlight the inferiority of user agreements in constructing informed consent from users, a pressing issue that we need to address.

* ‘Important’, here, suggests to me it has information useful for reference, not that it might include a legally binding document you should read before continuing.

** Not to suggest Apple, or any other company, would take legal action over users just because they didn’t completely understand the agreements they are bound by.  I’m just pointing out the difference between the semantics of ‘you agree to everything within this complex document’ and ‘you agree to be bound by what is in this complicated document’.  The latter better allows for ignorance, which I argue is not only the norm; it’s nearly impossible to be completely informed.  (And this doesn’t take into account the constant updates to these documents.)

Gender and sex interchangeability on Facebook

I heard that Facebook’s ‘sex’ field once said ‘gender’, instead.  This somewhat disturbing interchangeability of two very different words, I feel, helpfully highlights the disconnect between Facebook and the complex individuals it attempts to categorise.  Understanding the difficulties involved in gathering historical information on closed software interfaces, I nevertheless looked for evidence to support the claim that the field name had changed from ‘gender’ to ‘sex’.

‘Sex’ influences gendered pronouns on Facebook.  This is clearly visible on profiles, and just about anywhere users are referred to in some way.  This imposed one-to-one relation is also apparent from the language used in ‘He/She/They: Grammar and Facebook‘, a June 2008 post from The Facebook Blog.  It is claimed that some languages have difficulty with non-gendered pronouns.  “For this reason”, they write,

we’ve decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven’t yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as “him” or “her” in the coming weeks.

The post goes on to say,

We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account […].

(Of note is the fact that it is currently impossible to remove gender from your account, like it supposedly was in June 2008.  Hiding your sex status from everyone does not stop Facebook from referring to you using gendered terms (or using a gendered default picture, if you have no profile photos visible) that relate to your declared sex.)

According a a Facebook user (quoted in Emily Rutherford’s June 2009 article ‘Choose One‘) “this is the only peep ever heard from Facebook regarding this issue”.  Two years later, there are still no other mentions of these options in The Facebook Blog.  Google encountered similar issues with non-gendered language translation in Google+, but managed to get around it because they felt user privacy was more important than the discomfort felt by those few who are uncomfortable reading ‘their’ or ‘they’.  (Also of note, Google are not guilty of instituting a culture of sex/gender interchangeability.)

Looking further I found a few interesting conversations and projects people worked on in response to concerns over this limitation.  Sadly, it appears any and all petitions calling for a revision are ignored.  However, I did come across one highly intriguing comment in the Expand Gender Options on Facebook Petition page that claimed setting your language from ‘English (US)’ to ‘English (UK)’ changes references of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’.  That couldn’t be right, I thought, and had to test it out immediately.  But lo and behold, changing the language on your profile options page or the welcome screen, for example, changes the field title.

I have absolutely no idea why this is the case.  Is the gender/sex difference actually considered to be a ‘language difference’ by the Facebook team?  Are different people in charge of the UK translation who happen to have different views on the appropriateness of this field — and hold the power to implement different terminology?

I’m still yet to find any evidence of when — or if — Facebook changed the terminology for all users, but this discovery reveals a situation whereby Facebook is using different terminology to relate to the same field, depending on what settings are used.  I played around with it and confirmed that this difference extends further than self-expression within your own profile — open up the profile page of a user that displays their sex or gender to you and switch your language settings between UK and US English and see what I mean.

This language setting, then, represents a sort of cultural lens through which we understand other users.  What it also represents, however, is a systematic disregard of users’ sex and gender performance.  If I wish to declare my sex in a particular way but others read it as my gender identity (or vice versa), I am being misrepresented.  Some may feel comfortable declaring male or female using one language rather than the other, but the recognition of misrepresentation may destroy any sense of freedom experienced through this act of expression.

In my previous post on sex legitimisation on Facebook I wrote

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

Now I know there are two systems operating simultaneously I realise it’s actually worse than this.  No one can express their sex or gender identity accurately on Facebook unless they believe, just as Facebook has asserted, gender and sex are exactly the same thing.

You are here

Earlier this year I mentioned to my dad I’d like to set up a web server at home. I’d want something second-hand with low power consumption that has an SSD and is effectively silent. You know, kinda like an ASUS EeePC. Dad had the crazy idea that I could actually just use an EeePC. ‘Brilliant’, I thought, and shortly got a 900A model very cheap from the Internet.

( I know I can host a wordpress blog with my domain name using my ISP’s webspace, and that this might actually be much easier, but this would mean I couldn’t play around with technology and have as much fun!)

I initially tried Ubuntu 11.04 on it but had a few small, technical problems. That, and I hated the Unity interface. For some reason I had it in my head that Ubuntu would be an easier distribution to use as a web server than Linux Mint 11, which I use on my other computers. I finally replaced it last week and, after many hours spent installing and reinstalling WordPress, it worked! I thought it could be nice to celebrate my week of uptime by posting a few photos of my physical server setup.

Click for full-size version

Internet, this is my web (and printer) server, sheeelob. (You can thank Cassie for the great name idea!) sheeelob lives on my desk under a small, wooden bookcase thing(?) that I once found on the side of the road. I leave the battery out to conserve power, but leave it close by for emergency relocations or power cable rearranging. Keeping the system simple, only essential programs have been installed – look how tidy the desktop is! That big orange thing is the security cable that makes it extremely inconvenient to use an external monitor.

(And to answer your question, yes, the composition of the above photo did take into account the prominence of my dinosaur card.)

Click for full-size version

And when I’m not configuring software or transferring images manually (I’ll eventually set it up so I can do all of this externally) sheeelob slides neatly out of the way.


Creative Commons License
Images appearing in this post are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Sex and gender legitimisation in context

This year I’ve been looking at, among other things, the representation of sex and gender in digital spaces.  My thesis argues that restricting user options in profile fields – not just sex and gender, but these are great examples – alters the way individuals self-identify, through social feedback loops.  Digital representation introduces major issues of marginalisation and safety (which I won’t go into here), but I’m also looking at the limitations of digital technologies in representing real, complex individuals.

Wanting to get into the habit of posting regularly, I thought I’d share something I noticed recently about misrepresentation by context.

When asked for my sex I respond that I am ‘male’.  This is what I self-identify as biologically.  (I don’t identify as male gendered, but I’m going to avoid that discussion to keep this example simple.)  I have ‘guy parts’ and I personally understand sex as correlating to this aspect of my self.  Categorisation is often difficult and inexact but, while a little uncomfortable with the gathering, use and publication of such information, I am fairly happy to categorise myself in this way.

However, I also believe that sex is not a simple binary.  Not everyone falls neatly into a category of sex that allows only one of two responses.  If I casually identify as male, I am doing so without explicitly acknowledging that this comes with the following concession: I don’t believe in the binary notion of sex.  I am male, but this isn’t to be equated with ‘the opposite of female’.

When creating a Facebook account, you are asked (required) to declare your sex as either male or female.  What is interesting here is that, though I personally identify as male, if I chose that option the system would actually be misrepresenting my sexual identity; it represents me as male, but it represents me as male in the context of the limited and often insulting binary idea of sex.

The meaning of words change depending on their context.  If I told someone from the UK that I dislike football, I would have to address the ambiguity of this statement by including, ‘but by that I don’t mean I dislike soccer’.  ‘Football’ can mean different things depending on the national or cultural context, and not simply the sport being referred to; it could relate to the experience of seeing a game in person, playing first-hand, or represent the wider culture of football fans.  In conversation I could provide further details and state exactly what it is I dislike about football, and any qualities I actually find redeemable.  Digital systems, especially those with binary options, rarely allow for such elaboration and precision of response.

Words play an integral part in self-expression.  When the meanings of words we value become heavily simplified and determined by their context within digital systems, when our range of response becomes limited, we lose an important tool for performing our identity.

Some digital systems address the issue of misrepresentation, in regard to gender and sex.  For example, Diaspora* has an optional text field for gender, allowing users to write whatever they want, only if they want.  (I think this is a pretty good response, but I don’t think it is the optimal solution.  I’ll talk more about issues in designing gendered spaces another time.)  The point is that digital systems demonstrate a strong tendency toward allowing users to, often publicly, identify themselves only within a strict vocabulary defined by the system itself.

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

You will be awarded a cake

In celebration of yesterday’s inaugural International Robot Day, a few friends came around, we ate some food and watched Short Circuit. We called an intermission in order to enjoy some amazing robot cupcakes.

 Click for full-size version

 Click for full-size version

These lemon and macadamia cupcakes came from Baking Bird whose products are all vegan, made with natural ingredients and come in recycled packaging.

They tasted amazing! (Surprisingly, there are a few left for later!) The only problem was that the intermission occurred shortly after Johnny 5’s cries of “No disassemble!”, making it difficult to separate and eat the robots without a strong sense of guilt =)

Creative Commons License
Images appearing in this post are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

iPhone Research Project – Participants Needed!

I’m in need of two people who are buying new iPhones (one iPhone 4, one iPhone 4S) to assist me with a small research project that will document the activation processes of both and, hopefully, provide interesting results for a discussion on the construction of user consent that will form part of my thesis.

If you or anyone you know is considering purchasing a new iPhone in the near future (I’m not in a rush), and may be up for helping out with a completely anonymised study, can you please link them to the following .pdf poster?

iPhone Research Poster

I still have a few old drafts relating to this that I haven’t cleaned up – perhaps I’ll post something about it soon.  In the meantime, if you’re interested and have any questions (even if you can’t help out) let me know!