Thoughts on politics, law, and the web.

How Alfred Changed (Ruined?) My Life

From day one when I started working at Automattic, there was a strong focus put on different tools and apps that would help out with our daily tasks. Everybody is a power user, with their own tips and tricks, which means there are plenty of different things to explore.

One of the tools that was used by a few people, and championed by my pal Bryan is Alfred (If you don’t use a Mac, sorry, you may as well stop reading now). At first I was suspicious. I installed the app, but was never all that convinced. It didn’t fit neatly into my existing workflows, and it felt more like a hinderance than a help. In the past couple of months though, Alfred has become indispensable… so much so that I find myself lost when I use other people’s Macs.

Note: Some of the functionality I am describing requires the PowerPack, which currently costs £17, but you can try out the core features for free. The PowerPack has definitely been worth it for me, but bear that in mind.

What is Alfred?

There are plenty of other articles online to explain exactly what Alfred is, so I’ll be brief.

Alfred is the ultimate quick controller tool for your Mac. It’s like TextExpander, OSX Spotlight, Clipboard manager, and multi-search toolbar all rolled into one… but even better than that.

You start by assigning a hotkey to bring up the Alfred search box. It looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 22.58.35

I experimented with a bunch of different key combinations until I settled on ⌘+K. This might seem like a weird choice, but it felt like the best option given the way my hands naturally sit on the keyboard.

This unassuming search box has the power to become the command centre for your whole Mac.

Web Searches

How many times do you search Google, Facebook, IMDB, Wikipedia, or anywhere else a day?

To borrow Bryan’s advice: Whenever you search a website, consider adding it as a custom search in Alfred.

This is what the screen looks like:

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 23.19.49

I have a whole pile of custom searches, but most of them are for work, so I’ve only shown those that will be common for most folk.

Setting these up is pretty straightforward, so I won’t go into details – instructions can be found on the Alfred site itself. What’s important is how it works. Say I want to search IMDB for a particular movie. I would call up the Alfred box with my hotkey, and then type IMDB, followed by the movie title. Like so:

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 23.23.25

Hit enter and I get taken straight to the search results, rather than having to go to imdb.com first. The same sort of setup can be used for almost any site that has search.

Snippets

One of the features I use most often is the ‘Snippets’ feature. This has two main functions: a clipboard manager, and a storage for commonly used pieces of text that you don’t want to have to type out over and over again. You can access this through the main Alfred box, but of course you can assign a specific hotkey if you use it frequently. For me, that’s ⌘+O.

If you are familiar with tools like TextExpander, you’ll find the concept familiar: you input all of your predefined texts into Alfred, and then you can recall them at will through the use of a short phrase. I used to use TE and really liked it, so was hesitant to move over to Alfred’s way of doing things. It seemed counter-intuitive to press a key combination to bring up a window and then type in the keyword for my predef, rather than just typing in the predef directly.

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 23.05.06

Whilst it takes a bit of getting used to, where Alfred really wins is its fuzzy search matching for predefs. Whilst before I would have to remember the exact phrase, in Alfred it will show you all of the similar responses. This means you can have far more variations than you could remember, and find them easily through the use of a common word. When dealing with DMCA takedown notices, I use the word DMCA in the title. Start typing one, and the list narrows down to the relevant ones. Combine this with the clipboard history (which you can set the retention duration for, or disable altogether), and you have everything you need for working in support at your fingertips.

What’s even cooler is that Alfred will remember the selections you make most frequently, and float them to the top of the list, which is a major time saver. This is something that applies for all of the app’s actions, and is difficult to explain just how helpful it is without trying it for yourself.

Workflows

Workflows are one of the more sophisticated parts of Alfred. Here, you can create complicated recipes that do all sorts of things (or use ones already created by other people).

Here are some examples of the sort of Workflows I have set up:

Alfred Logo

Launch Alfred Preferences – I am constantly modifying or updating the snippets I use in Alfred. As a result, I’ve set up a hotkey (⌘+P) to bring up the preferences panel. You can download this here.

Connect to VPN – I have a number of VPN services that I use to connect to different countries for testing and anonymity purposes. Rather than have to manually connect up to these through the Mac task bar, I have it set up so I can hit one key combination to connect to London, one to connect to the USA, one to Romania, and so on.

Shorten URL with bit.ly – By typing in ‘bit into the Alfred box, I can paste a URL and have it automatically shortened using the bit.ly service. What’s even cooler is that this works with your custom shorteners. In my case, it shortens using http://allmy.fr – which I own.

Control PopClipPopClip is an awesome wee tool for the Mac that another colleague and friend Mark introduced me to. It pops up a whole host of configurable actions you can take on text when you select it. I wasn’t a big fan at first, as it was popping up at inappropriate times, but it did have a lot of potential to be really useful. I created a workflow to toggle PopClip on or off using a keyword, or to bring up the menu with a hotkey when you want it. You can download that here.

Check if a site is down – To check if a website is down globally, or if it’s just me experiencing problems, I type ‘down’, followed by the URL. Alfred checks with http://downforeveryone.com/, and displays the result.

Add a task or appointment to Things or Fantastical - Quickly add a new task or appointment to the Things task manager, or the Fantastical calendar app, rather than fire up the apps themselves.

Open apps with a hotkey or short phrase – e.g. typing ‘sn’ into the Alfred box to open Simplenote. (More detail on the hotkey part in a section below)

Search for and play songs from Spotify – Self explanatory. (#)

Randomise your MAC address – for when you need a new MAC address to bypass time restrictions on the WiFi in hotels/airports/cafes.

IP Address Check – Quickly check your internal and public facing IP addresses. I use this to confirm if I’m properly connected to a VPN or proxy.

Show Workflow Commands – Remembering these workflows is hard. This workflow creates an on-screen list of all the commands with details of what they do. Very handy!

There is a whole pile of different examples over on Packal.org, so that’s a good place to start if you are looking for inspiration.

1Password Integration

If you aren’t using a password manager yet, stop reading and go install one. Seriously. You remember a master password, and these applications both generate strong passwords as well as storing and filling them in on websites automatically.

I used to swear by LastPass, and was perfectly happy with it thank you very much. Then I discovered that Alfred integrates with 1Password.

As well as being able to trigger the 1Password application with a hotkey or phrase, I can search for stored logins from the Alfred box, hit Enter, and get taken straight to the website and automatically logged in.

This means you need to spend a bit of time tidying up your stored URLs to ensure that they are correctly set to the login page rather than the signup page, but it’s worth it. I’ve now completely switched over to 1Password as a result.

Hotkey Trickery

One of the more complicated tricks (in terms of setup) I’ve found with Alfred relates to the use of Hotkeys.

Hotkeys are awesome things. They let you fire up apps, or specific workflows without having to search for anything in the Alfred box. The problem is, a lot of the key combinations that are available are already used up by system commands in OSX.

A guy called Daniel Setzermann has come up with a novel solution to this. It essentially involves installing a couple of tools to re-map your Caps Lock key to the unusual key combination CMD + ALT + CTRL + SHIFT – aka the ‘Hyper Key’. This kills the use of your Caps Lock key, but really… when do you ever actually use that anyway? Never. That’s when. At least, you shouldn’t be. If you need to change text to all caps, you can always get a workflow to do that for you.

This takes a wee bit of time to set up, and even I was hesitant to go through the steps, but stick with it; it’s well worth the initial effort.

The beauty of this is that you can now set up really great hotkeys like CAPS + S to launch Spotify, or CAPS + C to launch Chrome, etc. Here’s an idea of what my workflow for this currently looks like, though I’m still adjusting it to find what combos stick best in my memory:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 00.04.42

Daniel explains how to set this up really well on his site over here. (Scroll down a wee bit till you find the relevant bit)

But… this sounds awesome. Why has it ruined your life?

It is awesome. At first, I was reluctant. Changing habits and your engrained workflows is difficult, and I didn’t really get how Alfred would be all that useful at all, even despite the explanations of some really smart people.

Having stuck at it though, I don’t think I could live without Alfred (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration). Alfred is like the gateway drug to productivity.

One of the results of using Alfred more is that I’ve finally reduced the size of my dock, and hidden it completely (until I mouseover). I no longer need to launch things from the dock, and I can quickly see what’s open by Command Tabbing, so I’ve opened up a whole extra bit of screen real estate that I was previously chained to.

Whenever I use somebody else’s Mac, it’s a nightmare. It feels unbelievably clunky and old. I’ve switched from a personal approach based heavily on clicking and moving the mouse about to one that is primarily hotkey based. I haven’t even really scratched the surface of what’s possible in this post… and I’m still discovering new things every day. Alfred lets me launch things quickly and smoothly, to concentrate on what I’m actually meant to be doing. No more trying to remember where that particular network admin page is located… Alfred knows.

Alfred knows.

The Tories, Human Rights, and Scotland

Ever since they climbed into power on the shoulders of the Lib Dems, the Conservative Government has been threatening to do any number of the following:

  • Defy the judgements of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)

  • Repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA)

  • Withdraw from the ECHR entirely

Aside from point one, where we saw the disgusting braying of mis-guided MPs as Westminster voted not to give (any) prisoners the ability to vote – thus racking up penalties against taxpayers in the process – these stated aims have so far been tempered by the unwillingness of the Lib Dems (or anybody else) to support them.

Now we hear that if the Conservatives win a majority in Parliament next year, that they will move to do some, or all of the above. Of course, we’re not entirely sure yet, as they haven’t seen fit over their entire term in power to begin to explain what a so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’ might look like. Plenty has been written on the lunacy of these plans by those far more able and influential than I, so I won’t spend time going over the same ground. However, one of the more interesting (and perplexing) possibilities that has been floated is the power and possibility of the Scottish Government blocking any removal of human rights obligations in Scotland, even if the situation is different in the rest of the UK. As the prolific blogger PeatWorrier commented:

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 11.59.45

A few people have been discussing this possibility already, so it’s worth having a look at this in a bit more detail. Firstly, it’s important to know why the Tories are so hell-bent on attacking the conception of human rights as we know it.

Why do the Tories hate human rights so much?

The newspaper headlines will paint a story of pragmatic and concerned Conservatives who wish to deport ‘murderers, terrorists and rapists’, or stop them from having the vote. The notion of human rights as some sort of whiny legal set of technicalities akin to the dreaded ‘health and safety’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’ is presented, and almost always accompanied by sensationalist examples of people claiming that perfectly reasonable behaviour is infringing upon their rights. That these arguments don’t actually fall under the gambit of the HRA or the ECHR is irrelevant, so long as the words ‘human rights’ are in there somewhere, it’s enough to send Daily Mail readers everywhere into a frenzy-induced spell of foaming at the mouth.

However, there are two real main reasons why the Tories hate human rights. These are:

  • A dogged, and overblown sense of British sovereignty (the word British is important)

  • The inability to push through decisions whilst in Government because of the restrictions imposed upon them by the HRA and ECHR

This isn’t about any one example that we have seen over the past few years.

It isn’t about giving the prisoners the vote, or not being able to deport ‘that guy with the hook’, or even Christian Bed & Breakfast owners. This is about the Conservative Government’s ideological position – a uniquely British sense of entitlement based on a fundamental Diceyan view that nobody can over-rule a decision of the Westminster Parliament – not even Parliament itself.

This view is not without merit, and the positives of which are regularly put forward in arguments posited against the ‘meddling’ of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. The theory is that Parliament is voted for by the British people, and so that Parliament should be sovereign at any one time, not bound by the decisions of any other body, including previous Parliaments.

However, whilst this idea of Parliamentary sovereignty sounds grand and principled, and no doubt served the Empire very well in times gone past (thank you very much), it is almost certainly no longer the case. As proponents of the Union were quick to declare during the debate on Scottish independence: ‘now is not the time to fragment communities and cause division, we are better together.’ What they failed to mention of course is that the British idea of Parliamentary sovereignty is incompatible with the idea of collective governance, or supranational jurisdiction. That is the real threat to the international bonds that tie us to other countries through trade and mutual obligations – not the independent status of a country itself.

Scotland Can’t Keep the HRA or ECHR Alone

The two possibilities opened up by the Conservatives lately are:

  • The UK would ‘negotiate’ changes to the relationship with the ECHR, so that decisions of the ECtHR would merely be ‘advisory’ rather than binding to Westminster and British courts

  • Failing the above, the UK would seek to withdraw from the ECHR completely, and establish a ‘British Bill of Rights’

It’s safe to say that the chance of the first scenario happening is slim to none, so we’ll focus on the second.

To quote from the Scotsman article mentioned above:

But if the opinion of Scotland’s elected representatives at Holyrood is to keep the Human Rights Act and its final court in Strasbourg, would Mr Cameron really be prepared to override that opinion?

The suggestion is that if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR completely, that somehow Scotland could retain the current system separately. This ignores how the system actually works in practice.

Scotland and the ECHR: 

For the avoidance of any doubt, Scotland is not an internationally recognised state, nor a (separate) member of the European Council. It would be impossible for Scotland to remain part of the ECHR if the UK was to pull out. We had our chance for this to be a possibility, and we voted no. Equally, Scotland would have no special say over any other British region in whether or not the elected Westminster Government decided to remove the UK from the ECHR.

Scotland and the HRA: 

The Human Rights Act is written in to the fabric of the Scotland Act 1998 (which brought about the creation of the Scottish Parliament). As a creature of statute, the Scottish Parliament cannot pass laws that are incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, and are required to make a statement effectively recognising this before a law is passed on for Royal Assent. This is part of the reason why it has been suggested that Scotland should be ‘consulted’ before doing away with the HRA. Whilst this makes for an interesting political confrontation between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster over the type of country we might want to live in, it doesn’t seem clear how exactly Scotland could be consulted, or have any sort of say in the possible repeal of the HRA.

Accountability: 

Technically, the obligations contained within the HRA could be transposed into an Act that only applied to Scotland. This would require Scottish public authorities to act in a manner which is compatible with the ECHR rights, and allow individuals to bring actions against them where their rights were breached. However, it is at this point that things begin to fall apart.

The force of the ECHR comes from the ECtHR in Strasbourg. This greater authority that exists at a level above member states is necessary to protect people from decisions of their governments. Whilst the conversation in Scotland isn’t framed this way at present, it would be difficult to see where this force would come from should Scotland retain some form of HRA separately to the rest of the UK.

For example, if a human rights claim was raised against a decision of the Scottish legal system, who would hear the case? As already explained, Scotland would not be a signatory, and so recourse to the ECtHR would not be possible. There would be no appeal to courts elsewhere in the UK either, as (god forbid) they don’t have jurisdiction, and they would be ill-equipped to do so in any event – given that they would be operating in a completely different rights based framework.

Whilst a commitment to the operation of human rights in Scotland could be adopted, and enforced by the Scottish Parliament, it would lack the necessary accountability to operate in anything but a shadow of the form that currently exists.

This renders the proposition completely unworkable.

I believe that it is right for the Scottish Government to defend the HRA, and our continued membership of the ECHR – this is something that we all need to do. However, to suggest that Scotland could somehow operate the European human rights framework separately from the rest of the UK is fanciful.

For a more detailed legal look at this topic, see this post on the UK Human Rights blog.

The End of Poll Tax – and Scottish Labour

It’s been tough to keep up with the developments in the past week, and even tougher to get time to sit and write about them. It’s as if politicians who advocated for a No vote in the independence referendum have seen things not only as a relief, but an active endorsement to pursue even further controversial measures. Hopefully time will prove this to be a mistake on their part.

Labour Councils to Pursue Poll Tax Debts

Firstly, we watched with incredulity as Labour-led councils announced that they would be using the increase in voter registrations prior to the independence referendum to check for those who may owe money from a refusal to pay the unfair Community Charge (aka poll tax) that was levied by the Conservative Thatcher government over 20+ years ago. (#) (#)

It’s almost unbelievable that this was even floated in Scotland, let alone accepted by the Labour party, who have repeatedly used the issue as a reminder of unjust governance. The strength of feeling about this particular issue is one of the reasons why the Tories have been effectively wiped out in terms of Scottish votes ever since. (To be clear, Conservative council leaders in Aberdeen were some of the first that floated this particular idea, but to accuse them of idiocy seems like a moot point. The hypocrisy of Labour is what is particularly galling.)

Poll Tax Limitation, and Writing Off Debt

Thankfully, the outgoing First Minister Alex Salmond announced that legislation would be brought forward to prevent this from happening:

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 23.26.12

I’ve seen references online from those who seem to think that this was unnecessary, as councils would be unable to pursue debts of this age under Scots law anyway – something that isn’t strictly true. Whilst  Salmond’s assertion that it would be illegal for councils to start new proceedings against people they have never previously had interactions with (as evidenced in this devastating exchange with the Aberdeen Tory Councillor) is correct, the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 allows for a significant length of time past the original 20 years to collect poll tax owed. This is dependant on a variety of factors – including whether or not the obligation itself has been acknowledged. (s.7(1)(a)-(b)) In other words, the period of prescription is not fixed, and it is therefore possible that councils could manage to claw back some income in certain limited situations. Whilst important to note the slim chance involved (and hence the need to legislate), the likelihood of any income being generated from this route seems to be mostly fantasy.

‘Tax Dodgers’ Charter’

Others have decried this move as a ‘tax dodgers’ charter’, seeing it as a potential loss of hundreds of millions of pounds to local councils at a time when budgets are increasingly being squeezed.

This is ludicrous.

The money in question should never have been levied as a tax in the first place. Those who had the courage to refuse to pay at the time were an integral part of the reason that the disastrous experiment was abandoned just a few years later. The idea that they would now somehow have a change of heart after a couple of decades is preposterous – presuming, of course, that they are even still alive.

You can’t lose something that you never had in the first place.

This, by the way, is what the Scottish Conservatives (that titan of a political force) had to say:

The Scottish Conservatives said effectively cancelling poll tax debt raised “many unanswered questions” and claimed many people in Scotland would be “astonished” to have a government “which is basically advocating not paying tax”.

(source)

It’s worth noting that unpaid poll tax debts have been effectively written off in England, due to the differing laws regarding prescription and collection. To suggest that Scots should have to pay back unfair debts that have already ceased to be collectible in England and Wales is clearly nonsense. It’s exactly this sort of uninformed attitude that increases the tension and calls for independence in the first place.

Tax and the Electoral Roll

The right to vote should not come along with an obligation to pay the state for the privilege. This is something that has already been well fought and established. It is true that councils have an obligation to pursue tax that is owed, as a creature of statute. However, to go after voters who have been freshly re-engaged in politics because of the independence referendum, in order to attempt to collect a tax that is all but dead is despicable. Rather than choosing to highlight the issue to the Scottish Government and attempt to have the law changed, Labour have instead attacked the very people that they are meant to stand up for.

Their relevance in Scotland is rapidly coming to an end.

Don’t Study at Strathclyde University: My Crap Student Experience

Strath-logo For the past two years I have been a part-time, distance learning student on the Internet Law LLM course at the University of Strathclyde. Despite enjoying the content of the course itself, and the expertise of the lecturers in my department, the overall student experience as a whole has been almost overwhelmingly negative.

Let me be clear: individual staff members have been quick to respond to any issues, and as helpful as one would expect from an institution of higher education. However, the policies of the University suck – demonstrating a complete lack of concern for the welfare of their students. For that reason, I not only take no pride in being associated with Strathclyde, but also would not consider undertaking further courses there in the future – at least not as a paying consumer.

Here are two examples of why:

1. Increased fees without warning.

When I signed up for my course, it was a part-time, distance course. That meant that it would span over 2 years. By its nature, it could not be completed quicker.  When I went to register for my second year of tuition, I was greeted with the news that my fees were no longer £3,300 as before, but £3,700 – four times the rate of inflation at the time. This would have been fair enough had I just signed up to a new course, and thus agreeing to the increased fees, but I was a continuing student. My course was pretty much worthless unless I continued on with the second year, and so I was at the whim of whatever increases the University decided to impose – even when they were as substantial as this.

I was about to embark upon a lengthy immigration process to bring Grace over to the UK, and so every penny counted. I had budgeted extremely carefully to ensure that I had enough to pay the fees in the period provided, and to suddenly be told – at the point of registration – that the cost was now £400 higher was a shock. Even more galling was the fact that the University made Masters students sign a declaration stating that they understood the importance of budgeting properly, as we were responsible for the financial commitment.

Yeah, good one guys.

Only after I kicked up a huge stink online (as well as querying why distance students were paying around £850 more per year than attending students), did I get anybody to give me the time of day. Despite being very friendly, it was clear that there was little they could do, except lay out the party line:

The University accepts that the process by which continuing students are advised could be improved and a review of how this could be done is already underway.

As I put it in my correspondence to them at the time:

I am pleased to hear that there is a review underway to address the concerns I have raised for future students. However, this means little to my situation. It seems that the answer is essentially: “Too bad.

I work hard to structure my life in order to responsibly finance my life and the degree, and feel like this effort has been ridden roughshod over by the commercial interests of the University – who don’t even seem that bothered.

After a lot of correspondence, there was only one route left open: to go through a formal complaint process. The prospect of having to do this whilst switching job, taking on the UK immigration process, and studying for a Masters seemed like too much to take, so I swallowed it.

2. No student card for you!

Originally I was issued a student card for a period of 12 months. After that 12 months, I wrote to have it renewed, and received a new card for my second year of study – expiring in October 2014. The result of a late re-sit of one of my modules meant that the submission of my dissertation is now due in March 2015.

Noticing that my student card was set to expire, I e-mailed to get my card renewed for the next academic period. I was informed that I would not receive a new card, as these are only issued for the ‘minimum period of study i.e. 24 months.’

Ignoring the fact that I was issued two separate cards for 12 months each, I can’t quite believe that this is the policy of the University. When I queried how I was meant to get into the library (you know, to write my dissertation) I was told that I would need to get a letter from my department to confirm I still needed access.

This is complete madness. I am a student at the University. I am writing a dissertation, yet I am not allowed a student card to cover that period? Yet another example of a blanket policy imposed that completely neglects to take into account the standard of student experience. Why should I need to get a letter from a department to confirm that I am a student, when I am still enrolled? Something that is such a small detail to the University, but which has a big impact on my student experience. Oh, and don’t forget that I have paid them £7000 for this pleasure.

I’ve e-mailed to ask for further details of why such a policy is in place, but have yet to hear back at time of writing. I will update this if and when I get a response.

These are just two examples of occasions where I have run into a wall when dealing with the University.

I enjoy my course. The content is interesting, and the lecturers have been helpful and responsive – but the overall attitude of the University to student experience sucks. There seems to be absolutely no concern at an upper level for student concerns, and it’s left me feeling more of a burden than a part of the community – sadly overshadowing the positives of the course itself.

Next time I choose to spend thousands of pounds on education, I won’t be doing so with Strathclyde University.

Update: One day after writing this blog I have heard back from the University about point 2 above. The person who I was in correspondence with dealt with my frustration admirably, and has raised the issue with her manager. As a result, they are sending out a new student card that is valid until the end of my time as a student at Strathclyde. I’m pleased about this income, but disappointed that I had to kick up such a fuss over something that would have been so easily fixed.