Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Not using HTTPS on your website is like sending your users outside in just their underwear.

#ALAMW16 exhibits,
viewed from the escalator
This past weekend, I spent 3 full days talking to librarians, publishers, and library vendors about making the switch to HTTPS. The Library Freedom Project staffed a table in the exhibits at the American Library Association Midwinter meeting. We had the best location we could possibly wish for, and we (Alison Macrina, Nima Fatemi, Jennie Rose Halperin and myself) talked our voices hoarse with anyone interested in privacy in libraries, which seemed to be everyone. We had help from Jason Griffey and Andromeda Yelton (who were next to us, showing off the cutest computers in town for the "Measure the Future" project).

Badass librarians with
framed @snowden tweet.
We had stickers, we had handouts. We had ACLU camera covers and 3D-printed logos. We had new business cards. We had a framed tweet from @Snowden praising @libraryfreedom and "Badass Librarians", who were invited to take selfies.
Apart from helping to raise awareness about internet privacy, talking to lots of real people can help hone a message. Some people didn't really get encryption, and a few were all "What??? Libraries don't use encrypted connections???" By the end of the first day, I had the message down to the one sentence:
Not using HTTPS on your website is like sending your users outside in just their underwear.
Because, if you don't use HTTPS, people can see everything, and though there's nothing really WRONG with not wearing clothes outside, we live in a society where doing so by custom is the respectful thing. There are many excellent reasons to preserve our users' privacy, but many of the reasons tend to highlight the needs of other people. The opposing viewpoint is often "Privacy is a thing of the past, just get over it" or "I don't have anything to hide, so why work hard so you can keep all your dirty secrets?" But most people don't think wearing clothes is a thing of the past; a connection made between encrypted connections and nice clothes just normalizes the normal.

We've previously used the analogy that HTTP is like sending postcards while HTTPS is like sending notes in envelopes. This is a harder analogy to use in a 30 second explainer because you have to make a second argument that websites shouldn't be sent on postcards.

We need to craft better slogans because there's a lot of anti-crypto noise trying to apply an odor of crime and terrorism to good privacy and security practices. The underwear argument is effective against that - I don't know anyone that isn't at least a bit creeped out by the "unclothing" done by the TSA's full body scanners.

No Pants Subway Ride 2015: cosmetic trierarchs CC BY-NC-ND by captin_nod

Maybe instead of green lock icons for HTTPS, browser software could display some sort of flesh-tone nudity icon for unencrypted HTTP connections. That might change user behavior rather quickly. I don't know about you but I never lose sleep over door locks, but I do have nightmares about going out without my pants!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Best eBook of 2015: "What is Code?"

When the Compact Disc was being standardized, its capacity was set to accommodate the length of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, reportedly at the insistence of Sony executive Norio Ohga. In retrospect it seems obvious that a media technology should adapt to media art wherever possible, not vice versa. This is less possible when new media technologies enable new forms of creation, but that's what makes them so exciting.

I've been working primarily on ebooks for the past 5 years, mostly because I'm excited at the new possibilities they enable. I'm impressed - and excited -  when ebooks do things that can't be done for print books, partly because ebooks often can't capture the most innovative uses of ink on paper.

Looking back on 2015, there was one ebook more than any other that demonstrated the possibilities of the ebook as an art form, while at the same time being fun, captivating, and awe-inspiring, Paul Ford's What Is Code?

Unfortunately, today's ebook technology standards can't fully accommodate this work. The compact disc of ebooks can store only four and a half movements of Beethoven's Ninth. That makes me sad.

You might ask, how does What Is Code? qualify as an ebook if it doesn't quite work on a kindle or your favorite ebook app? What Is Code? was conceived and developed as an HTML5 web application for Business Week magazine, not with the idea of making an ebook. Nonetheless, What Is Code? uses the forms and structures of traditional books. It has a title page. It has chapters, sections, footnotes and a table of contents which support a linear narrative. It has marginal notes, figures and asides.

Despite its bookishness, it's hard to imagine What Is Code? in print. Although the share buttons and video embeds are mostly adornments for the text, activity modules are core to the book's exposition. The book is about code, and by bringing code to life, the reader becomes immersed in the book's subject matter. There's a greeter robot that waves and seems to know the reader, showing the ebook's "intelligence". The "how do you type an "A" activity in section 2.1 is a script worth a thousand words  and the "mousemove" activity in section 6.2 is a revelation even to an experienced programmer. If all that weren't enough, there's a random, active background that manages to soothe more than it distracts.

Even with its digital doodads, What Is Code? can be completely self contained and portable. To demonstrate this, I've packaged it up and archived it at Internet Archive; you can download with this link (21MB).  Once you've downloaded it, unzip it and load the "index.html" file into a modern browser. Everything will work fine, even if you turn off your internet connection. What Is Code? will continue to work after Business Week disappears from the internet (or behind the most censorious firewall). [1]

I was curious how much of What is Code? could be captured in a standard EPUB ebook file. I first tried making a EPUB version 2 file with Calibre. The result was not a lame as I thought it would be, but stripped of interactivity, it seemed like a photocopy of a sticker book - the story's there, but the fun, not so much. Same with the Kindle version .

I hoped that more of the scripts would work with an EPUB 3 file. This is more or the same as the zipped html file I made but I was unable to get it to display properly in iBooks despite 2 days of trying. Perhaps someone more experienced with javascript in EPUB3 could manage it. The display in Calibre was a bit better. Readium, the flagship software for EPUB3, just sat there spinning a cursor. It seems that the scripts handling the vertical swipe convention of the web conflict with the more bookish pagination attempted by iBooks.

The stand-alone HTML zip archive that I made addresses most of the use cases behind EPUB. The text is reflowable and user-adjustable. Elements adjust nicely to the size of the screen from laptop to smartphone. The javascript table of contents works the same as in an ebook reader. Accessibility could be improved, but that's mostly a matter of following accessibility standards that aren't specific to ebooks.

My experimentation with the code behind What Is Code? is another exciting aspect of making books into ebooks. Code and digital text can use a open licenses [2] that permit others to use, re-use and learn from What Is Code?. The entire project archive is hosted on GitHub and to date has been enhanced 671 times by 29 different contributors. There have been 187 forks (like mine) of the project. I think this collaborative creation process will be second nature to the ebook of the future.

There have been a number of proposals for portable HTML5 web archive formats for ebook technology moving forward. Among these are "5DOC"  and W3C's "Portable Web Platform".   As far as I can tell, these proposals aren't getting much traction or developer support. To succeed, the format has to be very lightweight and useful, or be supported by at least 2 of Amazon, Apple, and Google. I hope someone succeeds at this.

Whatever happens I hope there's room for Easter Eggs in the future of the ebook. There's a "secret" keyboard combination that triggers a laugh-out-loud Easter Egg on What is Code? And if you know how to look at What Is Code?'s javascript console, you'll see a message that's an appropriate ending for this post:

Best of 2015, don't you agree?

[1] To get everything in What Is Code? to work without an internet connection, I needed to add a small number of remotely loaded resources and fix a few small javascript bugs specific to loading from a file. (If you must know, pushing to the document.history of a file isn't allowed.) The YouTube embed is blank, of course, and a horrible, gratuitous Flash widget needed to be excised. You can see the details on GitHub.

[2] In this case, the Apache License and the Creative Commons By-NC-ND License.