Like many developers around the world I have a subscription to Pluralsight, an online service that provides high quality training courses for Software Developers (and many other professions/skills).
However, unlike many other developers and despite having a couple of decades of development experience behind me, I don’t shy away from the courses marked as Beginner.
I know that many will think these courses as being beneath them but while some of the material may be fairly basic for me there is always something to learn, even if it’s ‘just’ how to explain something to a more junior developer.
Sometimes there is a small pearl of wisdom that the instructor just throws out there, not really part of the subject matter but a personal preference or a useful utility that I hadn’t heard about before.
Recently I was watching a short 2 hour course on ‘Angular Forms‘ by Mark Zamoyta where he used an online utility called PutsReq to stand up a temporary API endpoint to allow him to create his form, POST the data and handle the response – all without actually having to flash up Visual Studio (other IDEs are available) and create a local WebAPI to target.
Now, there may well be other similar utilities out there and some may well be better – but Mark felt that this was good enough to do the job at hand and demonstrated how to use it.
While I consider myself competent in .NET, C#, MVC and WebAPI I am still on the Angular learning curve and fully admit that my CSS is somewhat shaky. Having watched some of Shawn’s other courses I’m pretty confdent that I will come out of this 9 hour course better equipped for what lays ahead.
Above I mentioned that I have over 20 years experience, I think it is important to ensure that it not the same 20 years!
Even now in my early 50s I want (need?) to evolve as a developer, keep up with the ever advancing technologies, to learn new skills that I can use day to day.
In the past I watched many courses by the late K Scott Allen and always gained more that the course title suggested. With over 50 courses to his name there is something for everyone in his back catalog even if you’re not a .NET developer. It’s true that many of his courses are being ‘retired’ now but many of us are still supporting legacy systems so just because it isn’t new and shiny doesn’t mean it’s obsolete.
So, whether I’m polishing my existing skills, learning new ones or improving my ability to explain the basics – I’ll still be watching Beginner courses on Pluralsight and I advise you to do the same.
Back in 2013 I bought myself a shiny new, custom built workstation from Scan Computers. Costing me around £1300 I had opted for a pretty decent spec for the time:
Intel i7-3770 3.4GHz CPU
32 GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce GTX 650Ti
250 GB SSD + 500GB spinning rust HDD
By todays standards this is probably pretty lame but it certainly kicked my old PC into a cocked hat! Able to run three monitors and all the speed I needed with a good amount of headroom.
That said, it still runs pretty well today (some 8 years later) and has served me very well throughout my contracting/freelance work. Today it’s my daily driver while I’m working from home.
Booting from cold to logged in and ready to work takes around 25 seconds (pretty slow in these days of instant gratification but it take me that long to pour a coffee so it’s not a problem) and I’ve never really had any major speed issues with anything I’ve thrown at it …. until recently that is.
Over the past few weeks I’ve experienced numerous reboots without any warning whatsoever. Fortunately I’m working via a Remote Desktop Connection to my work PC so all that happened was my connection dropped and I lost nothing. Still frustrating nonetheless.
After trawling through the event logs etc and finding nothing I wondered if this was the end of the road for my trusty workstation – was the hardware starting to show it’s age and let me down?
If so then could I use the MacBook Pro or Surface Pro instead or was I looking down the barrel of specing up a new system and seeing if I could justify the cost considering I’m not working for myself anymore.
For some reason the first thing I thought about was the CPU – maybe it was showing it’s age and I was over-revving it (even though my work PC would be doing all the hard work when I’ve experienced the reboots!). So after looking around for some recommended utilities I installed ‘Core Temp‘ and fired it up – the aim being to monitor the CPU temperature to see if it was increasing to critical levels and causing it to ‘panic’!
Now, the screenshot to the right isn’t from the initial monitoring but what it looks like now and if you know anything about CPU temperatures (I didn’t until I looked it up) you’ll know that this is running within the normal range. This wasn’t the case a day or so ago!
When I initially opened Core Temp the Workstations 4 cores were running in the low 80’s – a quick Goggle told me this wasn’t good and while it may not be my problem it was certainly something that needed attention.
Now, I’ve hoovered out my case a number of times over the years, it’s sitting on the floor under my desk after all, but I was certainly surprised to find that I couldn’t actually see the fins in my CPU heatsink from above.
After removing the heatsink and fan assembly and separating the two this is what I found..!
Now that’s pretty disgusting, but in my defence that’s not just my skin cells – my home office is in the loft room and recently we’ve been in and out of the attic spaces to update the insulation and board it out for storage – this all creates a certain amout of dust which my workstation has been doing a good job of collecting (on the CPU and as it happens the GPU heatsinks).
After a good clean and a fresh layer of thermal paste my teperatures are now back in the normal range (as shown in the above screenshot from Core Temp) and I’ve not suffered a reboot since.
So while I can breathe easy now this has been a warning shot across my bow – this thing isn’t going to last forever afterall.
The experience has prompted me to review the content of this system to see how badly impacted I would be if (when?) it goes bang for good – and the results were encouraging.
There isn’t really anything on here that I couldn’t access from the Mac or Surface. Pretty much everything is either in the cloud or on my Synology NAS (which is also backed up on AWS S3).
All in all I’m happy that I don’t have to put my hand in my pocket for a new system and that the current one is not a single point of failure – I would still be able to call on one of my other systems and get back up and running in pretty much no time.
Back in June I announced that I was ‘pulling the pin‘ on the limited company I had been contracting through for the previous nine years. At the end of that post I said that although I hadn’t found a permanent role I was hoping to do so in the near future – well, I’m happy to say that I didn’t have to wait too long.
Completely out of the blue I received a message on LinkedIn from a previous client. They had noticed that I was looking for a permanent role and wondered if I would consider returning to work for them.
Well, three months on and I’m about to (hopefully) complete my probation period and become a full employee.
Looking back at my time as a contractor I can honestly say that I don’t regret a thing about it. I have worked with numerous clients, in numerous sectors with numerous technologies. While some were more enjoyable than others I believe I learned something from each engagement – even if that was how something shouldn’t be done or a technology that was more trouble than it was worth.
It’s no secret that contractors turning perm are quite sought after and this experience is one of the reasons for that.
But this isn’t a one way street and I was pleasantly surprised by the package that was offered, over and above a healthy salary – which may not be quite what I was used to while I was contracting, but the additional benefits such as medical expense cover, bonuses and pension it’s coming pretty close.
It was an easy decision to make to return. They have a great team, a great product and a great vision. They understand the importance of keeping the code base clean and the technologies up to date.
In a previous blog post I announced that the FillLPG for Android application was no longer in active development (which I then updated but let’s not lose focus here) and indicated that a time would come when I would remove it from the Google Play Store.
Well, that time is upon us.
The tipping point came today when I received feedback from two different channels, a review on the Play Store and an email from a fellow developer.
Let’s be honest, jokes are normally funny because they are at somebody’s expense. Whether it’s about a mother-in-law, a profession or ‘an Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman’ – somebody is always on the end of it and nobody like to be made fun of.
Now, these jokes are all well and good as long and you are not the subject – that said I’m a Cornishman and I get some stick over that but in general it’s just banter and I personally don’t find it offensive or oppressive.
Some of this I do find over the top and some people will find offence in just about anything (including this blog post I expect) but I do understand that we are more enlightened and have more appreciation of how these jokes can have a serious impact on others and we need to be mindful of that.
All that said, I saw a tweet yesterday which made me put my head in my hands;
In this episode, which non-techies will find boring as hell, security expert Steve Gibson analyses the technology and gives it the thumbs up from a security and privacy point of view. This is a man I trust when it comes to these things.
But here’s the thing that you may have missed – this is the foundation for app development, it is NOT a tracking app itself.
If people bothered to tap on the above settings option to open and read the details, instead of taking screenshots, posting them on LinkedIn (and probably Facebook and Twitter) claiming that something underhanded is going on, then they would have seen that this functionality is only activated when a compatible application is installed.
In case you are concerned that someone could create an app and secretly access this functionality for nefarious reasons, not just any Tom, Dick or Harry can knock up Covid-19 Tracking App using this API.
Only third party companies affiliated with a public health authority or government can use it and that will be tightly controlled by Apple and Google.
So what do I do now?
Frankly, nothing. There is nothing you can do to remove this nor is there any need for you to do so. If you don’t install a tracking app, this functionality won’t be activated on your phone. Simple as that.
If you don’t trust Google or Apple (or your Government) then you probably want to think about changing your phone to something a bit less “smart”.
As an aside….
Above I linked out to the Security Now podcast with Steve Gibson where he gave the thumbs up to the technology.
Well, research suggests that for the system to work effectively it would need at least 80% of the population to install it on their devices – and if the above hysteria is anything to go by, that’s just not going to happen.
Many of us know that when we send an SMS (aka text message) it is sent in plain text and can be read by anyone with sufficient access.
This is normally limited to your cell provider but there are hackers out there using readily available hardware to act as a cell tower and initiate a man-in-the-middle attack.
Now I don’t know about you but I seldom send a regular SMS message – I use WhatsApp most of the time. Not only does it allow group chats (very handy for communicating with the family – especially during Covid-19 Lockdown) but it also provides end-to-end encryption. This means that only the intended recipient(s) and myself can read the message content.
It’s not that I’m doing anything illegal of course, it’s all about privacy.
Now, before you start down the ‘what about terrorists and paedophiles’ route I’ve already covered my thoughts about that argument, normally spouted by Government officials when trying to justify an erosion of our privacy and freedoms, in a previous blog post.
The UK Government (and they are not alone by any means) are continually using this argument to attempt to force technology companies to weaken their encrypted messaging systems. They are calling for backdoors to be put in to allow ‘authorised’ agencies to access the data to aid with criminal investigations.
My argument is that should the tech companies relent and add these backdoors then the bad people will just use something else or, crucially, write their own. This would leave the rest of us on hobbled, insecure system with ‘authorised agencies’ trawling around peoples private messages attempting to justify their hard won access.
So what is involved in writing your own secure messaging system? Surely it’s not just an app on the phone. Surely there needs to be servers and things to receive and forward these messages to the correct recipients. How would a regular user set these things up?
Well, yes there does need to be some form of delivery system but that doesn’t mean we need to write it – there’s already one out there, it’s on just about every phone out there and it’s been tried and tested for years. I am of course talking about the humble SMS text message.
Hang on, SMS isn’t secure!
True, the way SMS works doesn’t add any encryption to the process – plain text goes in and plain text comes out.
But this doesn’t mean that we can’t encrypt the message before we send it and for the recipient to decrypt it at the other end.
Now, I consider myself as a pretty competent developer – but I’m not what I would think of as a “rockstar developer”. I won’t have any of the big tech companies banging on my door offering me a massive salary and stock options to work for them. But surely I could write a mobile app which would allow the user to send and receive encrypted messages over SMS. As it happens – I can, and did just that.
As a proof of concept (you’re going to hear that term a lot in this post) I wrote an Android application, using Xamarin, which handles Key Pair generation, Key Exchange via QR code, Encryption, Decryption and integration with the devices SMS functionality.
Encryption is handled by the Open Source Sodium.Core library which is a fork of libsodium.net (also Open Source) which is itself a wrapper around the well regarded libsodium library – yep, Open Source all the way down.
In the image below Bob is sending a message to Alice, they have already exchanged their public keys using the app to display and scan a QR code containing the required data.
Lets break this down a bit and explain, at a high level, what is happening here;
Inside the Shhh.SMS app Bob selects Alice as the message recipient and enters his message (he can add emojis if he likes – that all works too!)
After clicking Send devices SMS app is opened with the encrypted message ready to send
Bob will need to specify the recipient from his contacts
Alice receives the SMS just like any other and uses the SMS apps ‘Share with’ functionality to send the encrypted message content with the Shhh.SMS app
Shhh.SMS opens and if it can verify the message it displays the decrypted text
After passing the message over to the devices SMS application is only exists on Bob’s phone in it’s encrypted form.
When Alice receives the message it is only decrypted for viewing within the Shhh.SMS application.
Moreover, while the message was being sent it was encrypted using keys that only exist, securely, on the sender and recipients devices. The cell carriers involved in the delivery of the message have no way of decrypting it.
So what’s the point?
Let’s get this absolutely straight – I did not write this app so that bad people could communicate with each other about bad things. That’s not the point I’m trying to make here.
The point is that the encryption genie is out of the bottle and it cannot be put back in. It’s just math!
“…it’s a proof of concept and lacks polish but that’s not the point”
If the world Governments think that outlawing the use of encrypted messaging applications is going to stop bad people from using them then they are frankly deluded.
This app took me a couple of weeks of evenings to put together – sure, it’s a proof of concept and lacks polish but that’s not the point. The point is that if I can write this in a couple of weeks as an investigation, what could others with a more sinister mindset achieve?
The general public are, generally, good people. So why should we all be treated as if we are criminals?
When privacy is criminalized, only criminals will have privacy.
If you want to submit pull requests to fix problems or improve the app then please feel free to do so – but do bear in mind that it will never be my intention to release this as a production app via the Google Play Store.
By the way – did I mention that Shhh.SMS is only a Proof of Concept? Good, just checking 🙂
TLDR; I’m another statistic – IR35 and the Covid-19 outbreak have forced me into a position where I have to close down my contracting company and seek alternative employment.
Well, that’s that! Today I instructed my accountant to ‘Pull the Pin’ on my company and start the process of winding it up. A sad but somehow inevitable day for me – I’ve seen it coming for a month or so but it’s not easy being here now.
I’ve been contracting through my limited company for the last 9 years and in the time I have worked on numerous projects across numerous sectors – an experience that has, I believe, left me a better developer that I would otherwise had been. I have no regrets – none!
But a combination of unfair an tax legislation and a worldwide pandemic have left me in an untenable situation – while the company might (just might) survive the Covid-19 Lockdown the specter of IR35 looms large on the horizon and I’d rather take a different fork in the road instead of heading into more uncertainty.
While this results in files that are difficult for humans to read, browsers are still able to load and parse the data (unless the minification process has been a bit heavy-handed).
These files are normally used in preference over the unminified versions because of the reduced file size – making for quicker page load times.
As we enter week six of the Covid-19 lockdown here in the UK I am still ‘between contracts’. I’ve had a handful of video interviews but these haven’t led anywhere yet – but I’m not sitting around idle.
Notwithstanding the decorating, gardening and spring-cleaning (of office and summerhouse – I’m not trusted to attack the house itself) I have been hitting Pluralsight online tech training hard for the past few weeks.
Taking the time to get up to speed with the most recent changes in .NET Core, Blazor and Xamarin were an initial target for my attention but I’ve subsequently moved on to those courses that I had bookmarked thinking – “that would be interesting/useful to look into if I ever get time”. Well now I have the time.
The police chief was forced to u-turn in his threat while the forces involved with the other two incidents say that the officers were ‘well intentioned but over zealous’ – but to my mind, that’s not the point.
The point is that there will always be people in a position of authority or power who overstep their remit – and when it come to our privacy that’s not a good thing.
In my previous post I stated that ‘As Directors we are not able to furlough ourselves and therefore would not be eligible for the Governments Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme‘.
I also said ‘the details of these measures are still coming out and there is a great deal of confusion so what I’m about to write may well change going forward‘ – and it has (although a bit quicker than I expected).
If you don’t know who Martin Lewis is then check out the Money Saving Expert website. Basically, when this guy says something, especially it’s all in CAPS then he’s checked and double-checked the facts. He wouldn’t make this kind of statement without being absolutely sure.
If he says that Limited Company Directors CAN furlough themselves – even if they are the sole employee of the company, then that’s good enough for me.
Yesterday (17th March 2020) the Government announced that they would be postponing the rollout of IR35 changes into the private sector due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Despite the Minister referring to ‘off roll payroll working rules‘ (maybe indicating that he has no real idea what they are) he confirms that the changes will be tabled again ready for implementation in April 2021.
This comes far too late for many genuine contractors and associated services such as accountants who have had to close their businesses down as clients imposed blanket bans or ‘Inside’ determinations requiring the engagement of Umbrella companies and significant reductions in income.
It also comes the day after HMRC provided evidence to the House of Lords and were found seriously wanting in their response to scrutiny. While the House of Lords cannot force Government to defer the bill we have to hope that this contributed to the decision to pause the rollout (regardless of what they say).