Tag Archives: Internet

Heartbleed: What You Need To Do

Heartbleed LogoThis week, tech news websites have been raising the alarm about Heartbleed (a massive Internet security scare), and the mainstream media are slowly catching up. With this media exposure, a lot of non-technical people are uncertain of the risks, and consequently have a lot of questions. Below is a quick summary of the threat, and some recommendations of what you should do.

Please note that I am not a security expert, but through my work in IT, I have developed a strong interest in security. It is something I take seriously, and spend a lot of time thinking about. However, this guide comes with no guarantee: use it at your own risk.

The Threat

In the beginning, all web traffic was unencrypted: this meant that information was sent across the Internet in plain text, readable by anyone on one of the Internet’s many backbone or ISP servers. In short, the Web had no security: if you sent a password, an email or a credit card number, there was a chance someone could read it. As commerce warmed to the Web, protection was added in the form of a technology called Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which uses public key encryption to protection data in transit. If you visit a website whose address starts with https:// (instead of the normal http://), it means that SSL is in use, and your data is (in theory) protected.

Out of all of the different ways to use SSL, the most popular on the web is a library called OpenSSL, used on over half of all SSL-enabled Web servers on the Internet. For years it has proven to be stable, efficient and secure enough to literally power the world of electronic commerce. Heartbleed is a way of exploiting a weakness that appeared in OpenSSL two years ago, and seems to have gone unnoticed since. The nature of the attack (covered very well by the Ars Technica and the New Yorker) allows a clever attacker to bleed small amounts of information from a server, using a flaw in the design of OpenSSL’s heartbeat mechanism (hence the name heart+bleed). The information the attacker gets is completely random, but it can include passwords, credit card information and anything else recently accessed on the server. A persistent hacker can repeatedly attack the same server, bleeding information until something interesting turns up. Like, for instance, your username and password.

Despite the flaw in OpenSSL existing for over two years, it seems to have gone unnoticed until recently, when researchers at Google and Codenomicon uncovered it and took swift action to have it patched, before going public with the information. At least, that is the best case scenarios. Worst case is that other less scrupulous users have known about it, and have been exploiting it covertly for months. It leaves no trace, so we may never know.

The upshot is that thanks to some quick work on the part of many IT professionals, lots of servers are now protected against a Heartbleed attack. All the sites I have tested, including the majors (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia) have been fixed, although it seems that an alarming number of servers are still vulnerable, presummably due to poor system administration.

What To Do

The first thing to do is stay rational, and understand that this attack may not be as bad as people are making out (the media live for sensation, remember). It is possible it was not discovered before Google, and the rapid response worldwide has nullified much of the threat. With that said, if you value your privacy, identity and money, then it is worth taking precautions nonetheless. Do keep in mind that any service you have used in the past two years might have been open to this attack, and you won’t know unless you do some work testing them out. With this said, I would recommend you do the following:

  1. Make a list of all the sites you use, from the most sensitive (email, bank) down to the least (lesser used services lacking important data).
  2. Test each of the sites on your list that you feel has some sensitive data, or that shares a password with a site with some sensitive data. There are quite a few tests available online, but this one seems to work well (as far as I can tell) and is very easy to use. Simply enter the site you want to test in the large text box, and hit the Go! button (screenshot).
  3. If a site passes the test (screenshot) it means the bug has been patched, or OpenSSL is not in use. This means it is safe to change your password, and even though the site may not have been compromised, you should. Login and choose a secure, new password (in theory this means preferably 8 characters, hard to guess, not used on other sites, but see notes below). If your account was compromised before the attack, it is now safe.
  4. If the site fails the test, it means that it is still vulnerable, and changing your password may, ironically, cause your account to be compromised. If you use the same password elsewhere, this could be bad news. For such sites, contact the site’s support team and share the results of the test with them. Ask why they have not patched their server yet. Once patched, change your password.
  5. If you run a site that uses HTTPS, you will want to update your cryptographic keys and certificates as soon as possible, as these might have been compromised, meaning any communications going forward may be at risk of interception.

Of course, if one of your accounts was compromised, data might have been taken from within it, and changing your password will not get that data back. If you have lost credit card details through this, your bank should refund the money as it is has not been lost through your negligence.

Two Notes On Passwords

  1. We all have a lot of passwords. We know they should all be different and complex and long, but few of us have the time, interest or energy for this. My recommendation is to have three levels of password: one that you use only for the most important sites (email, banking), one you use for sites you use a lot (Facebook, Twitter) and finally a throw away password for sites you don’t value. Each password should be 4 random words stuck together, to make it very long, with some numbers and punctuation thrown in to make it stronger (e.g. goatManicure72!FenceBanana). This should give you good protection in case of an attack. It will be easier to remember than a more random password, and very hard to crack. Please don’t use the example given above….it is no longer secure!
  2. Your email is the center of your online existence, and deserves the highest level of security. If someone can get into your email, they can reset all your other accounts, which you registered under the same address. Accordingly, I use 2-factor authentication on my Gmail accounts (personal and work). This requires me to receive and enter an SMS code any time I use my Google account on a new computer. A bit of a hassle, yes, but more than worth it when something like Heartbleed breaks out. Even if someone knows my password, without my phone they cannot use it.

Final Thoughts

This week has been a reminder that the Internet is an amazingly fragile resource which we all share and rely on. Hopefully lessons will be learned and applied by companies, coders and individuals in the wake of this extreme event.

Friends Without Benefits

Holding HandsWhat Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, Instagram, and Internet Porn Are Doing to America’s Teenage Girls

This is an abridged version of the full article from Vanity Fair. It has been prepared for educational use with students in lower secondary school (ages 11-14). Inserted at times are (hopefully provocative, discussion-inducing) questions for consideration by teachers and students. Some educators may find this material too risqué or difficult to approach, and in some places teachers may face strong pressure to not discuss such material. However, if teachers are not tackling such issues, then who is?


This year, 81 percent of Internet-using teenagers in America reported that they are active on social-networking sites, more than ever before. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and new dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Blendr have increasingly become key players in social interactions, both online and IRL (in real life). Combined with unprecedented easy access to the unreal world of Internet porn, the result is a situation that has drastically affected gender roles for young people. Speaking to a variety of teenaged boys and girls across the country, Nancy Jo Sales uncovers a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers. What is this doing to America’s young women?

Questions: To what extent is this an American phenomenon? If social networking is less popular where you are, why? And how long, if ever, until things change?

The Tinder Guy

She wanted it to be like the scene in the Lana Del Rey video for “Blue Jeans”—“hot and slow and epic.” The scene where strangers meet and fall into an easy intimacy, making love in a pool—“and they look so hot and it’s just, like, totally epic.” A boy at her school—she didn’t want to talk about him now; he’d broken her heart; but “like, whatever.” She’d “deleted him” from her phone. “I was stalking him too much, seeing him doing fun things on Instagram, and it hurt.”

They’d been instant-messaging on Facebook, and one night he told her he loved her. And then “I found out he was talking to, like, four other girls.” And now she wanted to do something to get over it, maybe to get back at him. “I mean, I should have known. All men are basically whores.” When he didn’t turn out to be her “true love”—“like Bella and Edward, or Bella and Jacob, you know?”—she decided she had to “lose it to someone,” so why not with someone she would never have to see again? And yet, she hoped it would somehow be like the Lana Del Rey song. “I will love you till the end of time,” it goes.

The guy she was supposed to meet that day—the guy from Tinder, the dating app kids were using to hook up—“I know, like, five guys who’ve done it; girls use it too, but they pretend like they don’t”—he was cute and had tattoos on his arms. He looked “James Franco–ish,” but younger. On Tinder you could meet people in your age group. She was 16; he was 17.

Alone in her room, the night before, reading her friends’ Twitter feeds and watching YouTube videos (Selena Gomez and “baby animals being cute”), she’d started feeling lonely, restless, and bored. “Sometimes I just want to talk to a guy so bad.” So she downloaded the app and started swiping through the pictures of boys in her area. She “hearted” his picture, and within a few minutes he had hearted hers, and then they were instantly texting.

“Ur hot,” he wrote. “U wanna meet?”


They arranged to rendezvous at a shopping mall in Los Angeles not far from the neighborhood where they lived. “Of course it was going to be a public place. And if it turned out he was really some gross old man, I’d just run away.” But there he was, standing by his car, looking almost like his picture. . . . Almost. There was something different about his face—it was “squishier. Like, he was almost fat.” But now here they were, and she didn’t know quite how to get out of it.

He smiled and kissed her on the cheek. He smelled of Axe Body Spray. She was sorry she’d spent so much time getting ready for this. “I even waxed,” she said. He wanted her to get in his car, but she knew she shouldn’t. They started walking around the mall, “talking about nothing, nothing. It was awkward, totally weird.” He asked if she wanted to sit down, but there was nowhere to sit except in restaurants, so they wound up going inside a Pottery Barn and making out on a couch. Later she posted something on her Tumblr blog about the difficulty of finding love.

Wheeling In The Bitches

“Gotta wheel the bitches in. Gotta wheel the bitches in,” said the teenage boy on a city bus in New York. “Nowadays you can do it so easy. There are so many apps and shit that just, like, hand you the girls. They don’t even know that’s what they’re doing, but really they’re just giving teenagers ways to have sex.”

This year, 81 percent of Internet-using teenagers in America reported that they’re active on social-networking sites, one of which is Tinder, a mobile dating app that teens use to hook up.

Questions: Were the girl and boy in the above stories looking for the same thing, or something different? How are boys and girls depicted differently? In your experience, is this a realistic representation of males and females?

Sex, Lies & Social Media

If you’re between 8 and 18, you spend more than 11 hours a day plugged into an electronic device. The average American teen now spends nearly every waking moment on a smart phone or computer or watching TV. This seismic shift in how kids spend their time is having a profound effect on the way they make friends, the way they date, and their introduction to the world of sex.

Kids have always been interested in sex, of course; but there have never been more ways for them to express that to one another, at any moment of the day, no matter where they are. They don’t even have to be together, and often they are not. “You can be sitting in class getting a boner ’cause some girl is texting you” said a boy in L.A. “It’s kind of distracting.”

As quickly as new social media appears, teens seem to find ways to use it to have sex, often sex devoid of even any pretense of emotional intimacy. There’s sexting, and there’s Snapchat, where teenagers share pictures of their bodies or body parts; on Skype, sometimes they strip for each other or masturbate together. On Omegle, they can talk to strangers, and sometimes the talk turns sexual. And then there is Tinder, where kids can meet each other on their phones. “It’s like Grindr used to be for gay guys, but now kids are doing it,” said a girl in L.A. “No one cares about anything but how you look.”

Questions: Is the sentiment expressed in the line “No one cares about anything but how you look.” heightened by social networking? Is it a good thing?

“We don’t date; we just hook up,” another girl in L.A. told me. “Even people who get in a relationship, it usually starts with a hookup.” Which can mean anything from making out to having sex. “When you have sex with a guy, they want it to be like a porno,” said a 19-year-old girl in New York.

Questions: What happens when young boys learn about sex predominantly through online pornography? Consider the idea that “learning about sex from porn is like learning history from Hollywood movies”.

The Girls At The Grove

“Social media is destroying our lives,” said the girl at the Grove.

“So why don’t you go off it?” I asked.

“Because then we would have no life,” said her friend.

The girls had been celebrating a birthday at the busy L.A. mall, and now they were on their way home; they carried bags of leftovers from the Cheesecake Factory. There were four of them: Melissa, Zoe, Padma, and Greta. They stopped to sit down and talk awhile at an outdoor table.

They were pretty girls with long straight hair—two blonde, two brunette, all aged 16. They wore sleeveless summer dresses and looked fresh and sweet. Greta, they said, was famous—or Instafamous, having thousands of followers on Instagram. She showed me a gallery of her Instapics; some were of her dog and some were of Greta pouting and wearing “the duck face.” Some of her followers, she said, were “random dudes in Italy and Arabia.”

Melissa said, “I have Facebook, a YouTube account. I’ve used Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine . . . ”

“Path, Skype,” Zoe said.

“Tumblr,” said Padma.

“I have a Twitter, but I don’t use it except for stalking other people,” said Greta.

They all laughed knowingly.

“I think everyone does it,” Greta said. “Everyone looks through other people’s profiles, but especially being teenage girls, we look at the profiles of the males we find attractive and we stalk the females the males find attractive.”
“It’s a way to get to know them without the awkward ‘Oh, what do you like to do?’ You already know,” said Padma.

“You can know their likes and dislikes,” Greta said. “‘Oh, they like this band.’ So you can, like, casually wear that band’s T-shirt and have them, like, fall in love with you or something. Or you can be like, ‘Oh, they listen to that music? Ew. Go away.’”

I asked them how they knew when a boy liked them.

“When a boy likes your [Facebook] profile pic or almost anything you post, it means that they’re stalking you, too. Which means they have interest in you,” said Zoe.

I asked them how they made the transition from social-media interaction to real-world interaction.

They blinked.

Questions: Does it matter if social skills online do not transfer to the real world? Are real world social skills still relevant?

I asked if they had boyfriends.

“There’s this boy Seth,” said Greta, “and when he liked my profile picture, I knew it was like, ‘Hey, ’sup, you cute.’ Then we held hands at a party. We were cute. But the one thing I didn’t like about him was he didn’t follow me back on Instagram. Social media causes soooooo much anxiety.”

They all agreed on that.

“The thing with social media is, if a guy doesn’t respond to you or doesn’t, like, stalk you back, then you’re gonna feel rejected,” said Melissa.

“And rejection hurts,” said Padma.

“And then you’re gonna go, like, look for another person to fill that void and you’re gonna move on to stalking someone else,” Melissa said.

“That’s how men become such whores,” said Greta.

“Guys actually take the Facebook-talking situation way too far,” meaning sexually, said Zoe.

They were nodding their heads.

“Like, when guys start a Facebook thing, they want too much,” said Padma. “They want to get some. They try with different girls to see who would give more of themselves.”

“It leads to major man-whoring,” Greta said.

“They’re definitely more forward to us online than in person,” said Zoe. “Because they’re not saying it to our faces.”

“This guy Seth, who is normally timid in real life,” said Greta, “sends girls messages asking for nudes.”

Questions: Why are people less inhibited online? To what degree should our online behaviour match our real world behaviour? Should we tolerate people who are too forward online?

“My friend, she was VC-ing,” or video chatting, “this guy she was kind of dating,” Melissa said. “He sent so many nudes to her, but she wasn’t trusting that he wouldn’t show the pictures to other people. So she Skyped him and showed him nudes that way. He took a screenshot without her knowing it. He sent it to so many people and the entire baseball team. She was whispered about and called names. It’s never gone away. He still has it and won’t delete it.”

Questions: Will those photos ever go away? Is there any way to share such private pictures safely online? Will someone you trust today be trustworthy tomorrow?

I asked if they knew girls who posted provocative pictures of themselves. They all said yes.

“More provocative equals more likes,” said Greta.

“It attracts more guys and then it makes other girls think about doing it just for the attention. They’re attention whores,” said Padma, frowning.

“My father thinks all my photos are provocative,” Greta mused.

“I think some girls post slutty pictures of themselves to show guys the side to them that guys want to see,” said Zoe. “It’s annoying.”

“Girls call them sluts. Boys call it hot,” said Padma.

Questions: How far are you willing to go to get attention online? At what point are you going too far in terms of what you share and how you portray yourself?

Mirror, Mirror

In the video for ”We Can’t Stop,“ Miley Cyrus writhes around on a bed, sticking her ass up in the air. She grinds her ass into the crotch of a woman twerking. She writhes around in an empty bathtub, sticking her ass in the air some more. She appears at the V.M.A.’s twerking into the crotch of Robin Thicke, causing an international sensation.

In the video for ”Summer Fling,“ Willow Smith stares at the nipple of a teenage boy while offering him her phone number. Willow’s 12. She sings about having a summer fling: “It’s just a couple nights, but we do it anyway.” A boy shoots water into a pool party at which Willow and her bikini-clad friends jump on a trampoline, spreading their legs.

“Of course girls want to emulate this stuff,” Kim Goldman said one afternoon at her home. Goldman is the director of the Santa Clarita Valley Youth Project, a counseling service for teens. “Girls talk about feeling like they have to be like what they see on TV,” she said. “They talk about body-image issues and not having any role models. They all want to be like the Kardashians. Kendall Jenner posts bikini shots when she’s 16 and gets 10,000 likes, and girls see that’s what you do to get attention.”

“We’re seeing depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation,” said Goldman. “I think social media is contributing to these things. We have kids who’ve had sex with people they meet on Chat Roulette. At one of the junior highs we work with, we found out there were a few kids engaging in an online orgy. They all signed into a video chat room.” One of their parents walked in on it. “Sex is everywhere. Everything is sexualized.”

Questions: To what extent do students feel that they are influenced by popular culture role models? Do students understand that fame does not equal happiness?


“I first started seeing people doing selfies in sixth grade,” said Emily, a senior at a private school in L.A. “Back then everybody was on MySpace. In sixth grade everybody started getting phones and they started posting pictures of themselves, and it was weird, ’cause, like, a lot of the pictures were supposed to look sexy and they had the duck face and we were all, like, 11.”

“Guys do selfies, too,” said Alexandra, a girl at a public high school in L.A. “They post pictures of themselves smoking, like, ‘Look how boss I am, look how gangster.’ They think that makes them hot. If a guy posts a picture in his boxer shorts, people say that’s funny, but if a girl does it, they say she’s a slut. It’s a double standard, but girls still do it ’cause it gets them more likes on Facebook.”

“My little cousin, she’s 13, and she posts such inappropriate pictures on Instagram, and boys post sexual comments, and she’s like, ‘Thank you,’” said Marley, a New York public-school girl. “It’s child pornography, and everyone’s looking at it on their iPhones in the cafeteria.”

Porn & Feminism

Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus are the co-directors of Sexy Baby (2012), a documentary about girls and women in the age of porn. They went on a research mission to a porn convention in Miami where “they were selling stripper poles to college girls and housewives,” said Bauer. “There were so many mainstream women idolizing the porn stars and running after them to take pictures, and we were like, ‘Whoa, this exists?’”.

“We saw these girls embracing this idea that ‘If I want to be like a porn star, it’s so liberating,’” Gradus said. “We asked, ‘What is this shift in our sexual attitudes, and how do we define this?’ I guess the common thread we saw that is creating this is technology.

“Technology being so available made every girl or woman capable of being a porn star, or thinking they’re a porn star,” said Gradus.

Porn is more available now than at any time in history—especially to kids. Ninety-three percent of boys and 62 percent of girls have seen Internet porn before they turn 18, according to a 2008 study in CyberPsychology & Behavior. Seventy percent of boys have spent more than 30 minutes looking at porn, as have 23 percent of girls. Eighty-three percent of boys and 57 percent of girls have seen group sex online. Eighteen percent of boys and 10 percent of girls have seen rape or sexual violence.

“When it comes to children, there is really nothing to argue about,” Alliston went on. “Kids are defined by our laws as not being able to consent to sex or to using pornography. There are few protections against them seeing it, and some people take the attitude that it’s inevitable and benign. I think a lot of people who make this argument don’t realize what porn today really looks like in terms of how the women are treated.”

Questions: In past decades, pornography was seen as empowering to women, but much of the pornography on the Internet today is very degrading to women. What effect does this have on how girls and women view themselves in relation to sex? What effect does this have on how boys and men expect women to behave in terms of sex?

The Anti-Daphne Movement

“In the eighth grade, I had friend—it was a toxic friendship,” said Daphne, now 19 and in college in L.A. “We got into a fight. I can’t even remember what it was about—probably I had bought the same shoes as her or something. It got really bad, and one of her friends, a guy, decided to make a YouTube video starting an ‘Anti-Daphne Movement.’

“Their goal was to get me to kill myself.

“It was, like, a 10-minute video. He showed a picture of me. He said my name. He recounted all the details of the fight. He said I was ugly and that I should kill myself. He told everyone on Facebook, ‘I’m a member of this movement. If Daphne has ever done anything to you, post about it.’

“It caught on really fast. I had a lot of people writing really mean messages to me and deleting me as a friend [on Facebook]. I had never done anything to these people. At school they would put gross things in my bag, cottage cheese in my binder. It got over all my homework.

“It took three months before I got the courage to tell my dad. My dad got the school to get [the boy] to take the video down. The guy who did it didn’t get in any trouble. The principal was friends with his mom. The principal said I must have done something bad for him to act that way, and I was actually suspended for a few days.

“I didn’t know this boy at all. He was kind of a weird kid. People thought he was quirky and cool. He would say he was ‘brutally honest,’ but mostly he was just rude to people. I had to stay in the same school with him all through eighth grade. I went into therapy for what happened. It’s made me so much more insecure. It’s really hard for me to trust anyone.”

Questions: How often do you stop and think that social media might be used against you? Have you ever considered using social media to target or harm someone else?

Sex & The Soul

What kind of love lives are teenagers headed for after they graduate high school? Sadly, more of the same, according to Donna Freitas, a former professor of religion at Hofstra and Boston Universities. Freitas’s The End of Sex (2013) might as well be called The End of Love. The book studies hook-up culture on college campuses.

But Freitas’s research, conducted over a year on seven college campuses, tells a different story. “Both young women and young men are seriously unhappy with the way things are,” she said. “It’s rare that I find a young woman or a man who says hooking up is the best thing ever.”

She describes the sex life of the average college kid as “Sex is something you’re not to care about. The reason for hooking up is less about pleasure and fun than performance and gossip—it’s being able to update [on social media] about it. Social media is fostering a very unthinking and unfeeling culture. We’re raising our kids to be performers.”

And researchers are now seeing an increase in erectile dysfunction among college-age men—related, Freitas believes, to their performance anxiety from watching pornography: “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them.” College kids, both male and female, also routinely rate each other’s sexual performance on social media, often derisively, causing anxiety for everyone.

Questions: What kind of relationships do you want in the future? What kind of relationships do you want now? Is social media something that helps or hinders in getting what you want?


Credits: This abridged text utilisies assumed fair-use in presenting this copyrighted material for educational use. The presentation of the material, and the surrounding questions and text are by Ross Parker (https://rossparker.org, @rossparker.org) and shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Hold Hands image by Hilde Skjølberg on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND.

An Evening With CogDog (aka Alan Levine)

CogdogLast night I was lucky enough to play host to the very knowledgeable and laid back Alan Levine (aka @cogdog on Twitter) as he presented to a group of 50 educators. With teachers from 12 schools from around Hong Kong, and a few intrepid students, we had a small, intimate group, an excellent speaker and a fantastic location (the Assembly Hall at LPCUWC). Over the course of 2 hours Alan presented a wide range of ideas, which were eagerly noted down for later application in the classroom. The list below is a summary of some of the ideas I picked out, and my take on them, but it is by no means exhaustive or authoritative.

True Stories of Internet Openness

For the first half of the show Alan focused on the theme of Internet openness, but from a social/content point of view, rather than the more traditional hardware/protocols angle. Through the use of a range of resources, anecdotes and ideas, he weaved a compelling prompt to share what we do online.

The Internet Is So Big – even bigger than the Grand Canyon (which has been Google Maps Streetviewed, as one example of just how big the Internet is). It is so big we simply cannot comprehend it, or in some ways, even understand how just big it is.

You Can Get Lost – there is so much data and so much detail (often in one place, such as in this 320 giga pixel panorama of London), that it is incredibly easy to lose yourself. But we often also find the unexpected, because we simply don’t know what is out there.

All Because People Share – and because there is such a variety of people on the web, you get a huge variety of sharing. Take for example Into The Continuum, a website which shares crazy Mathematica formulas for creating art.

Massively Collaborative – mix this sharing with some imagination and you get some crazy, massive online collaborations, from which emerge ways of interacting never before possible or conceivable. Take for example The Johnny Cash Project or In B Flat.

And The Tools Are Evolving – with new standards, such as HTML 5, we can create ever more interesting things on the web. A great example is Snow Fall, an interactive story from the NY Times. Another great (self-referencing) example of this is Evolution of the Web, which uses a very innovative interface to help explore the progression of web technology, using some of the latest HTML 5 and CSS 3 techniques.

But Think Of The Children! – and yet, with all this positive potential, we too often focus on the negatives of our new found connectivity. How about spending more time looking at the amazing new ways we have to inspire each, such as 25 Days To Make A Difference.

It Has Become Our Lives – and whether you like this connectedness or not, it is inescapable. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web (not to be confused with the Internet) hoped that it would become not only an information share, but also “a realistic mirror of the ways in which we work and play and socialize”. And he was right.

CogDog Responds – one of Alan’s reactions to all of this, is to share what he calls True Stories of Internet Openness: these are video-based personal anecdotes of amazing things that have happened to people who have opened up and shared online. And the message, if it needs to be stated again is this: share, share and share some more, you never know what amazing things might happen. True to this message, Alan even found some time to record some true stories from the audience during his talk.

Digital Storytelling

Launching into the second half, Alan stepped up a gear as he moved into what I guess is his main passion: digital storytelling.

Getting Started – for those new to digital storytelling, Alan recommended reading The New Digital Storytelling by Bryan Alexander, and in doing so made some links back to the age-old oral tradition of storytelling.

Improv -moving deeper into storytelling Alan made a connection to the art of improv as a way to get creativity started, and to help people lower their inhibitions. He showed us one of his own tools, PechaFlickr, which facilitates improv based on random images based on a keyword. We played a couple of rounds of this (well done to Charlotte, Katrina and Alex), and it really energised the room. Alan did mention that the “Pecha” part of the name comes from Pecha Kucha, which is another really interesting line of investigation (for another day). Another one of Alan’s interesting Flickr API creations is 5 Card Flickr, which is another way to build a narrative, but a little more structured than PechaFlickr.

Narrative – really firing on all cylinders by now, we moved onto narrative structure, and how we can tell compelling stories. How do we hook people, so they are interested. The following videos were all viewed and discussed in this light:

The video below I absolutely loved, and it lead me to this excellent visualisation.


Just Like The Pros – in approaching our own digital storytelling, it is useful to consider some of the models and approaches used by the professionals. One such model is the BBC’s 5 Shot Method, another is the Three Act Structure. These can help us to engage the audience, using formulas which work, and which are familiar. A member of the audience (a Media teacher from RCHK, whose name I do not know) mentioned the following fantastic video, which plays on such models, showing just how familiar we are with them:

Teaching & Learning – having convinced us of the importance of narrative, and shown us what it looks like, Alan introduced Dan Meyer’s Three-Act Maths (each of the items in this spreadsheet links to a page with more detail), which is a way of using movie narrative to get students engaged in solving math problems. Another example, MinutePhysics, gave another example using narrative in teaching and learning.

Simplicity – wrapping up a 2-hour mind explosion, Alan closed with a disarmingly simple thought on narrative, storytelling and hooking your audience: “Arouse and fulfill“.  Whether you are teaching school kids, selling a product or just telling a story: first arouse the interest of your audience, and then fulfill it. Easy!



After saying various goodbyes, I was fortunate enough to snag Alan for dinner and drinks, which we had in a small restaurant in the village in which I live. It has taken almost a full 24 hours for most of the buzz to wear away, during which I have tried to record as much as I can. My own personal and professional thanks go to Alan for a fantastic time, sentiments which I am sure will be echoed by other participants.

Credits: cogdog image by Alan Levine, shared under CC BY SA (just a guess on the license, but sure it is right ; ). Thanks to Nick Cotton, Kalpana and LPCUWC for their help in hosting the event.

Internet Scavenger Hunt

Sherlock HolmesWhile I came up with the idea for this activity independently, it seems like it is already a well known Internet phenomenon (what isn’t?). The basic premise of an Internet scavenger hunt is to is to provide students with a set of clues, which they then solve with the aid of a range of websites. The clues can be made available offline, or the entire process can be online. The activity encourages problem solving, creative thinking and collaboration, and can be used to introduce specific new skills to students.

I recently used such an activity as part of a taster day for primary school students visiting our campus. The theme of the day was Sherlock Holmes, which meant that problem solving was a natural fit. The premise was that students had to rescue Watson, who had been kidnapped, using skills which might be taught in the ICT classroom. During the first part of the lesson, students worked in teams to find clues hidden around school. These clues were then brought back to the classroom, where teams worked online to solve them. The final outcome was a numeric code, which opened a combination lock, freeing Watson.

The students were engaged throughout the activity, although some of the challenges were perhaps a little too complex for the time involved. With sufficient scaffolding around half of the groups finished the entire task within the allotted 75 minutes, with all of them making it at least half way through the problem solving component. Some groups did require extensive scaffolding, but many very able to work fairly independently.

If you wish to run this activity, please feel free to use the Sherlock Holmes Online Puzzle, which contains a full set of clues and instructions. Keep in mind that the content is ICT-centric, but I am happy to lend a hand, should you have any questions.

Sherlock Holmes image by ~hnl on deviantART shared under CC BY-NC.

Your Work: Dead or Alive?

The following tweet landed on my feed this morning, and it really got me thinking. I so often try to tackle printing as an environmental issue, that I forget the fact that it is, in many ways, simply an inferior way to work.

This led me to compose the following email to my colleagues, as an opening salvo in a new offensive against the poor practice of printing:

Colleagues, you all know that I am opposed to printing. But there is more to it than just environmentalism.

If you want to think of your work as “living” (eg actively used, collaborative, flexible, responsive, meaningful) then why consign it to static paper? Why not share your work online, build an audience and set your work free. Put it in a blog, or an online document, invite commentary, make everyone an owner.

This is the future of knowledge for our students. Lead by example. Paper is a dead end. Isn’t it time to upgrade?

Fortunately Chris Betcher put his thoughts down in a shared, digital environment, and so we are all able to make use of them. Imagine if he just printing them out, and filed them away.

Firefox: Essential Plugins 2012

Right from the start of its life as a browser, Firefox aimed to ship with a small set of functionality which could be extended using Addons. If there is something you need to do, and Firefox does not do it out of the box, there is a good bet that there’s an addon to help you out. Since its release 8 years ago, I have tried quite a few plugins. Whilst many have been discarded, and some have been integrated into Firefox, a few have become essentials which I don’t like to be without. The following is my current list of must-have extensions, in descending order of usefulness:


  1. Download Statusbar – get rid of the annoying downloads popup window, and replace it with a slim, discreet statusbar.
  2. Speed Dial – visual bookmarks for your most visited sites (Firefox now does this automatically, but this plugin gives more control)
  3. Omnibar – the inspiration for this list, this addon combines the Location and Search boxes into one allowing for smarter browsing all around.
  4. Aaapptabs – if you use AppTabs (and you really should), this hides the things you do not need.
  5. Flagfox – useful for uncovering scams, and for learning more about the Internet, this shows you which country a website is hosted in.
  6. Delicious Bookmarks – use Delicious to quickly bookmark pages for future use and sharing.
  7. ColorZilla – grab colour codes from web pages so you can use them elsewhere.
  8. PDF Viewer – fed up of downloading, saving and viewing PDF documents? Just viewing them directly in your browser.
  9. Wappalyzer – see what technologies are used to build, store and deliver the website you are looking on. Very useful for curious web designers.


Note: whilst writing this list I can almost hear a crowd of voices shouting “but Chrome/Safari/Opera/IE does that already” to a backing harmony of students telling me that “Chrome is the best browser, man”. Whilst there is now a great selection of browsers on the market, and they all improve constantly, my experience is that Firefox provides the best combination of stability, rendering, performance and extensibility of all. Even more importantly, it is not controlled by Apple, Microsoft or Google, and so represents an important not-for-profit stronghold in an increasingly commercial web.

Me vs Me

I am planning projects for the year to come, and as part of a unit on Digital Citizenship I am trying to get students to think about the way they project (or create identities) for themselves. I will be asking them to compare their identity within their own family to their identity online. This is what I call “Me vs Me” (a nod to the old Mad comic “Spy vs Spy“), and students will be asked to create a visual representation of these two facets of themselves. To make it clear what I mean I put together the following example work…I hope no one takes it seriously:

Thanks to Bbpics on Wikimedia Commons for the image of the model.

Stop Joseph Kony

Joseph Kony, head of Uganda’s LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), is responsible for the abduction, sexual enslavement, multilation and militarisation of thousands of African children. Although he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, he remains essentially invisible to the world’s media, governments and armed forces. Kony2012 is a massive online and real-world campaign to push for the capture and prosecution of Joseph Kony this year. Watch this video, share it, and take action.

My current thinking is to bring this to my students in the hope that they will be inspired to take action.

Edit 09/03/2012: it seems like this story is taking the world by storm. When I watched the video it had 40,000 views: two days later the figure had jumped to 49,000,000 and within the last three hours it has accrued a further 3,000,000. This really attests to the power of social media, although of course there are years of grassroots campaigning behind this seemingly spontaneous combustion. I guess Malcom Gladwell’s “tipping point” should be invoked here. As is to be expected, a huge number of critics have surfaced regarding all manner of issues to do with the operation and methodology of Invisible Children. It is nice to read a level headed response to these, and whilst they need to be acknowledged and dealt with, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this movement shows that a huge swathe of humanity are willing to stand up for their less fortunate brethren. I think the critics need to take a good hard look at themselves and ask if their negativity is due to a lack of personal success in this very same sphere.