IT Services's blog posts for 2016

Are you making use of your web space?

Apr

13

 

Did you know that anyone with a Sussex ITS username can set up a personal website on the University’s servers..?

Look – I did it. Take a look, as it gives some suggestions as to what you might like to use your web space for. You don’t have to have any fancy coding skills – I have the coding skills of an 8 year old – because documents that you put into the right folder are then automatically available online.

First, you need to set up your web space. Once you’ve done that, a folder will appear on your N: drive called public_html. Documents in this folder will be available online, providing they’re the right file type. PDFs, pictures and any browser-friendly text files will sit nicely up there.

To make a really simple text file that will display as a web page, open any text editor (but NOT word processing software, like Word) – on a PC you can use Notepad and on a Mac, it’s TextEdit. Write a simple document in there and save it as a .txt file. Drop it in your public_html file and you’ll get something simple that looks like this.

To add formatting, you’re going to need to change it into an HTML file and add HTML tags to make it look pretty. Here’s the difference – I’ve just used one HTML tag to make a section bold. You’ll notice I’ve lost my line breaks, because that’s what happens when you use HTML; you need to use HTML instructions to get any kind of formatting. There’s a world of stuff to go into and this blog post isn’t really going to suffice as an HTML for beginners class, but there’s loads of information out there if you want to get started. There are loads of video tutorials on the internet that could help you put a good webpage together if you want to take it on.

So without doing any fancy coding, you can put up an introduction to yourself, or display a message about files you’ve made available on your webspace. I’ve done something along those lines for you to see just using a .txt file, created in Notepad and saved in the public_html folder, and it will also show you what the web link to your documents is going to look like.

Otherwise, you can stick documents into your public_html folder that you want to share with people, and send them the link so they can access it through a web browser. It’s worth remembering however that people can be rightfully wary about clicking links in emails so make sure that your audience is expecting to receive it, or that the email is reassuringly genuine-looking!

For more information about these personal web spaces, see our FAQ on publishing information online.

A Look at Linux … part 1

Mar

02

Q: What do Amazon, this fridge and the Hadron collider have in common? 

 

A: They’re all run on Linux.

 We all know that one person, right? That one person who has more computers than they surely need, who says derogatory things about Microsoft as often as possible (and you learnt AGES ago to not even mention Steve Jobs to them…) and they probably hang out with Anonymous every Friday night and write indecipherable things on a black computer screen with green writing. When someone drops into conversation that they run a Linux machine, you think to yourself “Ahhh, one of them; I won’t possibly understand anything they say about computers” and direct the conversation to The Office/Peep Show/Stewart Lee instead in search of common ground.

However, really, Linux is all around us. It’s not as unusual as you might think. Linux is no longer just the toy of those who, you know, know how to make computers from scraps of metal and cables. Linux dominates the world of supercomputers and is the backbone of many major services that we all use on a daily basis such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

But what is Linux, where did it come from and what can we do with it?

Officially speaking, Linux isn’t an operating system (it’s what’s called a kernel) but it’s most easily described as one, standing in defiant opposition to Mac OS and Windows. It was developed by a Finnish chap called Linus Torvalds back in 1992 – see where it got its name?

Pronunciation is worthy of a paragraph all to itself, but I’ll stop at just mentioning that a) no-one is really sure how they should say it the first time they do so in knowing company, and go “Hey, do you use Linnux, Lie-nux, Lee…” until they go “Linnux, yeah, why?” and b) there’s actually no official line on this and c) his name gets pronounced Lee-nus, and it’s not generally pronounced Leenux, so d) it’s generally agreed to be Linnux.

So the kernel was created and then let loose; Torvalds intended Linux to be a free and unrestricted basis for developers to work from and have almost total creative license to make of it what they wanted. Let’s put it this way – Torvalds grew up in a radical left-wing household and whilst he doesn’t ascribe to any politics himself, Linux is the computing world’s socialist against Microsoft’s capitalist. Linux has created a community of impassioned developers who work, across the world, to change the way that people can not only access but create the computing world around them.

Command Line User Interface

If you want to use Linux, you get hold of what’s called a ‘distro’ – and that’s shorthand for distribution, which is in turn some sort of code for something you can use which looks like some manifestation or another of an operating system. Ubuntu you might have heard of, and that’s a distro. It’s often debated, but Android is also really a Linux distro. The distro can have a graphic interface, so it will look like a desktop that you and I regular computer users are accustomed to; you will have icons of things that are clickable, menus, windows and so on. Alternatively, the distro can have a command line user interface, so something that operates via commands typed line by line. That’s an extremely powerful tool for computer users as it gives you huge flexibility with what you can get your computer to do.

That said, the Linux community now often puts the hard work in for us by preempting the things we’d like to be able to do so the average computer user can now, without too much fuss, use a Linux-based computer in the same way as you would a Windows machine, and you’re going to be able to do quite a lot with it very cheaply.

So what can you do with it?

Well, those above-mentioned regular computer users (I should call us RCUs; it sounds good) might be a little reluctant to get on board, but running Linux is not as daunting as it sounds.  Firstly, we’ve all had those laptops which have just ground to a halt, or become really frustratingly slow.  A good thing about Linux is it can run from a CD, so if you can still get your laptop on, you can run Linux and rescue files that might be drowning in the quagmire of a dying laptop.

The next thing you can do is … carry on using the laptop!  Run Linux, use Linux, immediately have a working laptop again.  It’ll look a bit different and won’t be able to do everything the old one can do, possibly, but it will still be able to do a whole lot.  You can download a lot of open source software such as OpenOffice (free software that does much of what Microsoft Office does for you), media players to listen to music and watch movies, web browsers, email clients, PDF readers.  You’re good to go, basically.

If you’re feeling adventurous, or you have more technical knowledge than us RCUs (it might catch on, you know), there’s very almost, nearly, no limits to what can be done with a Linux machine because it provides the blank page – and the big world wide internet harbours the instructions – to create anything from basic to absolutely not basic automated devices.  If you combine the versatility of a Raspberry Pi – something that looks like a tiny computer that went to school without putting its clothes on, and is very, very cheap) and a good Linux distro you have something that you can program to water your gardenfeed your pets while you’re away or you know, make your own smart phone.


What do we do with it?

SAGA (GIS software) running on Linux

We have a lot of Linux users on campus, and here in ITS we have a growing department dedicated to looking after our Linux systems.  Our main users dwell in the realms of maths and physical sciences, so chemistry, physics, life sciences, astronomy and so on.  We’ve also got some Linux users popping up in geography now as they make use of GIS (geographic information systems) to capture and analyze data.

We deploy CentOS v6 as the distro on campus, but some of our more widely used services such as Lecture Capture run on Ubuntu 14.  CentOS is more associated with scientific functions, whereas Ubuntu is a popular distort with a more comfortable user experience, as it’s more straightforward.  (As an aside: we’re considering deploying Ubuntu 14.04 lts on campus more widely, so please contact us if this would be of interest to you…)

Our high performance cluster is run on Linux servers, as is our central database.  Around 80% of all of our servers in our data centre are running Linux which includes our home directory (where your files are stored), the campus directory and our application delivery service, Exceed onDemand.

Linux commonly forms the backbone of IT Services delivery like ours as it’s basically a more customisable way of doing things; we have more scope of control to adjust things to work exactly how we need them to.  Also, by having a Linux server at the back end of things, it means that we’re able to have them work in such a way that they can communicate with Mac, Windows and Linux systems.

What can *I* do with it?

Now that’s a very good question.  In the not too distant future I’ll publish part 2 of this article, in which I detail what happens when an RCU meets Linux and attempts to restore an old laptop to a decent state, and depending on how I get on, I may or may not try and do something interesting with a Raspberry Pi.

PA55W0rDs ar3 Ch@ng!ng

Feb

26

The wisdom is simple; a strong password is a long password (and more rhyming fun later in the post).  That’s why, from February 24 2016, new ITS passwords created must be ten characters or more.  Currently, Sussex ITS passwords have to be exactly eight characters long but we’ve been trialling ten character passwords and we’ve made sure that all our systems can now accept them.

Passwords still:

  • are case sensitive
  • need to contain one character which isn’t a letter (a number, a space or any of these accepted characters)

How to make a strong password

It’s long been recommended that a good strong password involves some clever substitutions of letters for non-alphabetical characters and mixing up large and small letters, meaning, for instance that ‘password’ could be come P@55W0rD.  However, with the clever hacking programs that exist out there nowadays (apparently) this sort of password can be, in fact, extremely easily figured out.  Software, for example, could run millions of tests for a password in a second, speeding its way through normal dictionary words and substituting letters for their oft-used non-alphabetic counterparts.

Now it’s recommended that you use a nice long password of completely unconnected words.  This is much, much harder for hackers’ software to chance upon, and it should be easier to remember.

If you want to give this way of concocting a password a go but you’re struggling to come up with some memorable words, there are a couple of ways to generate some nonsense streams for yourself.  One way is to look at a picture and use the first four words that come to mind.  For more randomness, use Flickr’s interesting images from the last 7 days (randomly selected, high rated images) and use four words that picture inspires.  A nice picture of the Chicago skyline gave me Chicago tall white centre which, according to this handy password strength checker is a “very strong” password with a rating of 92%.  Stick a random number on the end and that goes up to 100%.

Alternatively, someone’s realised that we’re really, really good at remembering rhyming phrases (I bet you can all remember what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue in).  Marjan Ghazvininejad and Kevin Knight are two clever scientists who have worked out that while the above correct horse battery staple idea is good, a 60-bit password is better – simply as software is getting better and better and faster and faster at cracking passwords – but potentially difficult to remember.  Based in the Department of Computer Science and the University of Southern California, they wrote a whole paper on the subject.  Not only that, they made a website that generates a random little poem for you, one which creates a 60-bit password.  And not only that, but it’s helpfully in iambic pentameter – the most memorable rhythm, apparently.  Have a go.

Again, I had a go.  I couldn’t not.  I can’t actually share with you the first poem generated, because it contains such a delightful coupling of words that it has instantly become my go-to password.  Sorry.  But some of the next (yes, you will generate multiple password poems because it’s too fun not to) were good, and, endorsed by afore-used passwordmeter.com, they would make very strong password poems.

SO pleasingly, one of my randomly generated poems went as follows (I added my own punctuation):

Professor, married, celebrates;
Unwanted striding emanates.

I can see the prof in my head – he has tweed trousers and his hands are in his pockets, despite his jubilation.

One pitfall of these poetic passwords is that for some purposes, they’re going to be too long. Some password-box designers will have set the character limit to less than these couplets allow. Never mind; modify. For this case, Prof,Married, alone has a strength score of 97%, so consider a truncated version for variation.

 

Keeping your password safe

I don’t need to tell you this, but don’t use the same password for multiple sites, however tempting it is.  Instead, consider a password manager app like LastPass, KeePass and 1Password.  The idea of having all your passwords behind one master password often rings alarm bells, but on balance it’s much safer than using one password for many different accounts here, there and everywhere.

Don’t let your password manager be your desk drawer or your diary; don’t write your passwords down and store them “somewhere safe.”  We store your passwords very securely; you should too.

If you ever get an email purporting to be from ITS asking you to enter your password, don’t.  We’d never do that.  It’s yours, and we’ll never ask you for it.

Tweet Tweet

Feb

15

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.30.36Harness the power of the little blue bird

As I see it, there are two ways to use Twitter at uni. For arguments’ sake, I’m going to name one the student life approach, and the other the academic life approach. That’s because there are probably two ways to see university really, isn’t there?  There’s the one where you go because it’s a rite of passage and it will help get a probably fairly unrelated but fun and lucrative job in, say, advertising. Then there’s the one where you go because it’s a life in academia for you or you’re one of the lucky ones who’ve always known what you’ve wanted to do, and your degree is the next paving stone on that particular path.

Many of the tweets from the former are actually beyond the limits of my understanding due to the, er, swift evolution of English colloquialisms, and I think that’s intended, and that’s fine. For these purposes, I’m going to look at how a good academic focus on Twitter can help you get more out of #unilife.

There’s a lot going on out there on the Twittosphere. There’s a huge amount of academics on Twitter, and the reasons why aren’t in the least bit mysterious.  (Shhhh: academics seem to like to get their point across.  And procrastination isn’t just reserved for undergraduates you know.)  Through the use of hashtags and some crafty wordsmithery, Twitter can connect you with a whole customised, tailor-made world all revolving around your particular academic endeavours. Others who use related hashtags will be sharing relevant articles and other readables, and inevitably getting into discussions.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.30.36

Be an excellent academic tweeter

As always, first impressions do, I’m afraid, matter. Twitter has become more and more customisable so take some time over getting your profile looking right, and represent yourself as fully as possible by using a relevant banner image for the top of the page, choosing an appropriate (don’t read this to mean boring) profile photo and consider your short biography carefully. You can now include websites, tags and Twitter handles in these bios, so use this spot to make a statement about your reason for being on Twitter. Are you a #historygeek? Tell them. #WomaninSTEM? Tell them here. If you’re associated with any research groups, add their Twitter handle in your bio or simply show your affiliations by including your School’s handle. Sum up your academic interests as succinctly as possible to help make the most relevant connections, but don’t forget that we’re all human and we have some unrelated interests as well. Likely to throw in some tweets about music/Star Wars/cats/canal boats? Add a hashtag!


And hashtag your life away.
 Twitter is the birthplace of the hashtag. They’re often overused, so use sparingly (or, alternatively, hilariously). Hashtags are searchable too, so a search of #theoreticalphysics, #anthropology or #ArtHistory, for example, is going to immediately land you amongst peers. There are several useful hashtags that bring students and academics together. #ECRchat stands for Early Careers Researchers, #PhDChat and #PhDLife do what they say on the tin, and #AcWri is used to identify tweets about academic writing. #studentlife, #unilife and #SAchat (student affairs chat) generally, but not exclusively, identify and collectivise undergraduates, and find other people sharing your pain with #dissertation, #thesis, #finalyear, and so on. Join some academics lamenting the end of the weekend (and talking about more relevant things, presumably) by using #ScholarSunday.

phd hashtags

Hashtags commonly used with #PhD

Talk (tweet) to people!  A lot!  Academics on Twitter are surprisingly responsive, and Twitter gets more and more interesting the more you get into exchanges with people. Talk to people with common interests, regardless of their level of expertise.  They’re likely to respond.  You’ll find you get more followers that way as well, if that’s what you’re after. (Anecdote: I once challenged Ben Goldacre of Bad Science/Bad Pharma fame on a tweet of his about risk, and ended up having a decent discussion with him and gaining 25 new followers.)  Enlarging and strengthening personal and professional networks is only ever a good thing and on Twitter, those networks are just out there for the taking.  You really never know where each connection might take you in the future.  If you’ve read an article and have something good to say about it, see if the author is on Twitter and send them a few nice words.

Eavesdrop on events. If you can’t get to a particular conference, find out its hashtag (clue: it’s probably the initials of the conference and the year it’s taking place in) and follow it while it’s on. Many conferences now have someone responsible for live tweeting during the event, highlighting salient points from speakers’ spiels and delegates themselves take it upon themselves to keep the world up to speed with what’s going on for those lucky few with the conference name tags. (Be warned: you’ll get pictures and full reviews of the free lunches and the evening antics too.)

 

Make some lists. These lists are a bit like those that you might find on IMDB where people (with too much time on their hands) compile a list of their favourite comedy movies, or films that averaged a score of 50 or less on Rotten Tomatoes that were set in a desert in 1969 with a certain actor in. These lists are ultimately more useful for others, so it’s quite a philanthropic thing to do but it does make you look like you know loads. See this chap, for example. He knows loads of sociologists – way more than you know. But now you can know them all too. Hunt some lists out, find 600 new – and relevant – people. Then later, make some lists – probably when you really, really need to write a paper.

 

beyonce

Remember, academics can be funny people too.  Check out #AcademicsSay for proof.  And never fear, of course there are also plenty of cats in this corner of the interwebs; #AcademicsWithCats even gave rise to this year’s inaugural Academics with Cats Awards.

 

 

 

 

For more info on how to make best use of Twitter, check out (buy) this eBook written by the University’s very own Dr Catherine Pope: http://thedigitalresearcher.com/new-ebook-making-the-most-of-twitter-a-step-by-step-guide-for-academics/

 

 

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