Kids Playing Minecraft @ Gamescom 2014 courtesy of Marco Verch
Kids Playing Minecraft @ Gamescom 2014 courtesy of Marco Verch

The Minecraft Generation

How a clunky Swedish computer game is teaching millions of children to master the digital world.

Clive Thompson, The New York Times

Yes, this article is over a week old and you may have seen it, but it’s too good to pass up. My first introduction to programming began with the release of Lego Mindstorms in 1998, where I clicked together physical Lego brick coupled with motors and sensors, then clicked together blocks of code into chains, similar to the lessons that can be found on Code.org

Minecraft is one of the most popular games of all time, and with good reason. It is not simply a video game in the conventional sense that we’ve become accustomed to. It isn’t even a game at all by many of the standards of story, structure, outcomes, and goals. There’s no princess to save, no final boss to beat, no planet to defend (minus the survival mode that you can choose to play). Instead there is an open world that you can fill with any creation that you can imagine, and it’s a world that encourages hacking and discovery.

The discovery process is important here, as well as the freedoms that players enjoy. There is no tutorial when you start planning, no predefined path that you must take. Instead the rules of this world are revealed as you explore, and some new rules are created when you choose to create them. The game has been out for seven years now, and we are quickly approaching a point where children growing up playing Minecraft are entering colleges and vocations and using the skills that they honed from play to create new things in our world. I’m excited by the possibility of a world of creative thinkers, and hope that discovery via play is encouraged even more.


https://twitter.com/kanyewest/status/699376240709402624

Suit Aimed at Kanye West Begs Question: Are Tweets Legally Binding?

Joe Concha, Law Newz

Let’s say you’re Kanye West and you say that your latest album, ‘The Life of Pablo’ will “never never never be on Apple”. Now let’s say the album comes out and it’s for sale on Apple’s iTunes service. Does your Tweet count as deceptive advertising?

If you’re Justin Baker-Rhett, you not only believe that, but you’re willing to open a class action lawsuit against West and Tidal, the music streaming service founded by Jay-Z that he is part owner of. It’s been suggested that over two million new subscribers came to Tidal at $9.99/month to get the supposedly exclusive album that you can buy elsewhere and stream on Spotify, the much larger rival to Tidal that many of these subscribers would already have.


Prince Font Floppy Disk courtesy NYMag
Prince Font Floppy Disk courtesy NYMag

The Legend of Prince’s Special Custom-Font Symbol Floppy Disks

Brian Feldman, New York Magazine

Honestly, I am far more a Bowie fan than I’ve ever been a Prince fan. The main thing that I was reminded of at news of his passing last week that despite being a pretty heavy web user, taking interviews in chatrooms in the 90’s, he was also a bit abstruse. When Prince famously changed his name in the early 90’s, his design team put together a


A complete guide to the new ‘Crypto Wars’

Eric Geller, The Daily Dot

The timeline put together by Eric Geller only goes back to early 2003 and the aftermath of the Patriot Act and the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 which though never officially passed helped pave the way for the current crop of encryption debates in the US. While it’s not all encompassing, it’s a good overview of where we are on domestic encryption views and how we got here post 9/11.

For a more detailed look at the years prior to 2003, Steven Levy’s 2002 book ‘Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age‘.


New Study Shows Mass Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear and Self-Censorship

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept

Privacy activists often refer to a “Chilling Effect” that goes far beyond the actual surveillance and direct silencing of free speech, into the scary realm of modified speech and thought based on the knowledge that surveillance might be taking place. Greenwald points to several studies that show that this is not just a hypothetical, but a reality in which people are less likely to use Google or Wikipedia to research specific topics in fear of looking guilty of made up crimes by their governments.


UX, According to Larry David

Joe Pendlebury, UX Chap

Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David had a lot of strong opinions, both on the show and in real life. Joe Pendlebury collected some hilarious gems from the show and related them to user experience design, and the need to balance development and design with user expectations and needs.

Hat tip to Jeff De Wit for this one! Submit your own stories for next week


The British government is considering paying out research grants with bitcoin

Joon Ian Wong, Quartz

Blockchain technology is poised to make a large variety of currently opaque or hard to track systems much more transparent over the coming years. One suggestion being research is using Bitcoin or something similar for the British government to disburse research grants, making it much easier to track and independently verify that money is being allocated and distributed as promised.

Next up on my run-through of things that have improved my workflow is development tasks. This is one area where I know that I need a lot of improvement, as there are so many tools out there.

Starting Projects

I typically begin each WordPress based project via Vagrant and a VVV box on my local machine. We did a meetup on this and other local development environments last month, and some notes and links can be found on our recap post.

I started using Brad Parbs’ excellent addon Variable VVV, or just VV. It’s made creating new development sites even easier, and adding blueprints on top of that have made it even even easier. For instance, this basic blueprint installs the Genesis framework, installs a Genesis child theme that I made that is in need of update, activates that child theme, installs Gravity Forms, activates and licenses it, installs and activates Jetpack, and loads some test content from wptest.io so I can see how the site that I’m creating looks with various content. Not bad for what becomes a one line command!

{
  "genesis": {
    "themes": [
      {
        "location": "An up to date Genesis Zip",
        "activate": false
      },
      {
        "location": "davidwolfpaw/obm-genesis-child",
        "activate": true
      }
    ],
    "plugins": [
      {
        "location": "An up to date Gravity Forms Zip",
        "version": null,
        "force": false,
        "activate": true,
        "activate_network": false
      },
      {
        "location": "jetpack",
        "version": null,
        "force": false,
        "activate": true,
        "activate_network": false
      }
    ],
    "options": [
      "current_theme::obm-genesis-child"
    ],
    "demo_content": [
      "link::https://raw.githubusercontent.com/manovotny/wptest/master/wptest.xml"
    ],
    "defines": [
      "WP_CACHE::false",
      "GF_LICENSE_KEY:: My Gravity Forms License Key"
    ]
  },
}

The most important thing for me is that I have things to start with. VVV and a starter theme or plugin do more for me than just save time. They also save mental energy and keep me away from that dreaded blank page that makes even simple projects more daunting. With a starter I feel like I’m half done when I get started, because in essence I am. Every project doesn’t need a complete rewrite, and the time and energy saved can be better put to the specifics of this one project.

Maintaining Projects

I’ve been getting better at committing code to a version control system for every project. I’m still working on most things solo, but when someone else needs to jump in or review, it’s been a big help, at least in making me look more professional. For clients we use Bitbucket, but in general I’m going to start posting more things up on Github. I’m at least going to put up a gist library of common code snippets that I use and reuse with lots of projects, as that cuts down the amount of work and places where mistakes could crop up if I am constantly redoing it.

I keep copious notes, often in Drive in a client folder, that I can review for later, as well as the tasks in Trello that I mentioned yesterday. Even if I’ve got a feature or change that I know is not coming up now whether through time or budget constraints, I prefer to keep it in mind so that it doesn’t surprise me later. Plus, there are often easy wins, like being able to reuse member registrations for one portion of a project for another, that can allow me to offer extra value to clients with little additional work. Writing something right the first time is a lot easier than writing it one way then having to shoehorn a feature in later.

Conclusion

I specifically didn’t go too in depth, because when it comes to tools, I mainly feel that what works for you works. I use Sublime Text as my editor, but there are a lot of great ones out there. I personally don’t really like using an IDE for general web development, and like the versatility and breadth of plugins that Sublime offers. I also think the process that works is the one that you stick with. Despite the things that I know that I need to get better about (setting up projects in Sublime, utilizing Grunt as a task manager, etc), I can still be productive and slowly add new knowledge over time.

Do you have any specific tools or processes that have saved you lots of time or that you expect to save time in the long term? I’m always looking for ways to level up, so let me know!

Yesterday I did a meandering intro to the series for this week on personal growth and development and the tools that I use. I’m starting with communication in all of the forms that I have it, though some organization tools will creep in as well.

Email

I handle most of my email through the AirMail App (OSX). It allows me to connect a variety of accounts, has a clean interface that I can modify, exists outside of my browser, and has a few features like snooze and unified inbox that I really like.

The tool isn’t the important part though, it’s how I handle it. I’ve begun limiting my email hours when I’m in heavy tasks, shutting down AirMail with dedicated check and response times at 10AM and 3PM. I’m taking baby steps on this, and again am only doing that while I’m in the middle of large work, though the intent is to build that into a daily habit.

I don’t check email on my phone, and I’ve turned off all notifications for email across all devices. I stay near inbox zero daily, as even double digit inboxes scare me. I’ve not yet outgrown using my inbox as a to-do list, but I’ve been saved tremendously by Unroll.Me, a free service that allows me to bulk unsubscribe from email lists, as well as put unimportant emails into a “rollup”, which I can view at my leisure. This makes my inbox look less chaotic, and if I did have notifications on, I’d get far fewer in the day. This service is absolutely free. Use it and be amazed.

Chat Communications

I live in Slack most of the day. Their tagline is “Be Less Busy”, but the amount of communication that it gives me certainly expands the conversations that I have. That said, clarifications are more easily made, and communication is easier when it can be asynchronous but not tied to the formality that people expect of email.
Slack Channels

Social Media

I spend too much time on social media. I don’t keep up with them very much, and I basically only have two active profiles, mainly Twitter. The reason I feel that I spend too much time on them is how ingrained they’ve become as habits, to the point that I don’t even think before opening a new tab and hitting “f” or “t” then enter.

I don’t currently use any apps to manage posting, though I’m trying to get into HootSuite. I don’t use anything but the web apps to access either of these sites, though I do use Twitter on mobile frequently. I try to keep my following list down enough that I keep a semi-diverse but interesting feed, without having too many people that I have a very light touch on.

Project Management

I’ve tried at various times BaseCamp, Do, Podio, Asana, and probably others for project management. Each has pros and cons, but none really stuck with me. BaseCamp is the strongest contender for unused tools, though the monthly cost made it less appealing to me. Now that they’ve changed billing, we might start using it as a team.

For now, the tool that I’ve stuck with and enjoyed the most is Trello. The card system puts everything in front of me in a visual manner that I enjoy, and I don’t feel bad spinning up a new board (Trello’s structure for projects) for new ideas. Trello is another tool that is free and has changed up something fundamental in how I work, and I highly recommend you look into it even for organizing your personal life, as I do with a few boards. Pairing it with Google Now lets me add cards to my to-do list with voice commands, which is the only way I’ve kept from forgetting so many tasks.

Document Management

Document management is a simple decision process for me. Is this a text document or spreadsheet? It goes into Google Drive, so I can edit it online from any device. Any other file goes into Dropbox, so I can be sure that I’ve got some backed up copies of it. Both tools I use the free versions of, though I also use paid Google Apps for the business. Dropbox for Business may be a purchase this year, as sharing specific folders with clients would be great. I prefer this to a service like Drive or Basecamp for individual files, because I get to skip the step of having to download the file and move it somewhere, as it’ll be automatically synced to my device. This is especially useful for code and the like, especially if it’s something that I haven’t made a git repository for on GitHub or BitBucket.

Conclusion

That’s my list, which I’m sure will be different from yours. Is there a communication tool that you’re really passionate about or that you think would save me time or mental energy? Please let me know in the comments!

I’ve been in a contemplative mood again recently. I still enjoy what I do, and am grateful everyday for the opportunities that have been afforded me, but I can’t help thinking of more. For me more doesn’t mean more money specifically, though it can certainly help to buy some of the things that I do want. The things that I want are freedom, purpose, and meaning.

Again, I’m not going to act like I don’t already have a tremendous advantage by even being able to take the time to consider these things. Instead, I want to think about entitlement.

Entitlement is like a slur, but it can be seen more positively as progress. I am entitled to a standard of clean and secure living that progress in the USA has brought. I am entitled to a communications platform that has reshaped humanity more rapidly in a few decades than centuries of slow developments before it because of progress in technology and cooperation among humans.

All of this is a lead-in to my focus of the week, and for the posts that I’m publishing. One of my constant goals is “write more”. Scratch that. one of my constant wishes is to write more, but it’s not a goal if I’m not working on actually doing it. Sure, I’ve been keeping a regular schedule for the past four months at This Week in Web, but it doesn’t fully scratch the itch. I’m starting with an overview of how I manage my time and work-life currently, with the following posts this week:

Tuesday: Methods and tools I’ve applied for organizing communication
Wednesday: Tools and techniques that have improved development tasks
Thursday: Maintaining a personal life, community involvement, and networks
Friday: Habits and tools I use for continuous learning

Even if you don’t end up using any of the tools or techniques that I discuss, I always think it’s worth introspection to consider what you’re doing. It often takes repeated suggestions for me to even look into something, and even more of a push to turn methods into habits. This week I aim to be part of that push for you.

Technology and Elections

Elections are kind of a big thing right now. The United States suffers from unreasonably long election cycles in presidential races, to the point that most major candidates have been on the trail for over a year already, with more than a half year left until election day.

What if that was all for naught? What if someone could harness the internet to affect the results of an election? AndrĂ©s SepĂșlveda claims to have done exactly that on multiple occasions for elections across Latin America, and is using his 10 year prison sentence for related hacking charges to detail exactly how he operated, and how candidates and officials can better protect themselves from others like himself.

This isn’t just idle thinking. While Facebook promises that it has no interest in controlling elections, both internal and independent studies of activity on the social network indicate that in tight elections, it could swing outcomes based on what is or isn’t shown in newsfeeds. More importantly, if Facebook decided to do this, there’s nothing that could legally compel them to cease, or even disclose that they’re doing this. The last point is important, as it could be nearly impossible to externally perceive with certainty whether they use their invisible hand to guide politics.

If you’ve got more interest, take a look at a TedX talk by Princeton computer science professor Andrew Appel, who has been a longterm advocate of open sourcing electronic voting machines, and demonstrating several ways that they can be tampered with on his Princeton research page.


Researchers Crack Microsoft and Google’s Shortened URLs to Spy on People

Andy Greenberg, Wired

Most of the usage for Bitly and related services is for convenience, with security mainly intended as an afterthought, if considered at all. URL Shorteners are services that allow you to take any URL and shorten it with a custom URL. For instance, last week’s newsletter can be visited if you click through the link http://dino.team/1ML14DD.

The issue with services like this is that after you know the shortener url (like t.co, fb.me, and wp.me for Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress.com, respectively), you can start guessing at URLs. Researchers at Cornell Tech were basically able to brute force live URLs for several services that linked to private pages, including Google Drive files, map directions, Microsoft Drive, and more. Basically, the amount of security (beyond private pages) on these links was security through obscurity: it was assumed that people who weren’t given the link wouldn’t be able to stumble upon a 6-8 character combination.

It’s hard to avoid this sometimes, as multiple of these services will create short links for you without giving the option. While several companies have already pledged to improve their security by increasing the character count of the short URLs (which already can defeat their purpose to an extent), some companies have opted to turn off short links entirely. Microsoft OneDrive did this, though the researches point out that URLs saved still point to their respective pages.


Emoji Pillows by Flickr User Wicker Paradise
Emoji Pillows by Flickr User Wicker Paradise

Apple did not invent emoji

Eevee, Fuzzy Notepad

Emoji have been growing more heavily in popularity of late, what with every messaging platform having to support them by default now. A programmer and writer with one of the best URLs ever has written a comprehensive overview of the Unicode Consortium


I am Alex St. John’s Daughter, and He is Wrong About Women in Tech

Amilia St. John, Medium

It takes a lot to piss of your daughter enough for her to right a rebuttal to your views online. Amilia St. John, daughter of WildTangent founder, took to Medium to discuss how disgraced she was with the views of her misogynistic father, who is preaching hiring and promoting techniques that make it hard for technical women like her to thrive in the workforce.


The Strange Tale of Social Autopsy, the Anti-Harassment Start-up That Descended Into Gamergate Trutherism

Jesse Singal, New York Magazine

Launch a Kickstarter to start an anti-harassment company to specifically deal with cyberbullying. Become a cyberbully yourself. The implosion of Social Autopsy before it even began is a testament to how skewed the arguments over gamergate and online bullying can be.