CrossFit Hand Care

I’ve struggled with keeping my hands in decent shape. I’ve never had “tough hands,” so stepping into all the pull ups, toes to bar & knees to elbow was a real challenge. I suffered from torn, bruised, bloody hands a lot that first year. Read On»

Review of the Minimalist Barefoot Belleville TR 102 Mini-Mil Boot

As a fan of barefoot shoes (which some people call minimalist footwear), I’m always on the lookout for new footwear. I’ve been looking for proper minimalist boots for years. Read On»

Droid Razr Maxx – How To Remove Stock Apps

Get Rid of Those Annoying Stock Apps on Your Droid Razr Maxx Read On»

 

Start – Shut Down – Power Off

Nearly six years ago I started contributing articles to The Herald. Then-editor Dickey Drysdale and I went back and forth on the format. In fact, the conversation about my writing started over a year before that first article was published.

Now I sit in a very different world. My former team is now at the helm of Vermont Computing and I’m in a role with my new gig (whistlekick) that has little to do with technology. I find myself a bit less in the know of what’s going on and more focused on other things. I’m still interested in technology, but it doesn’t have the place in my life it once did.

As much as has changed in the last six years, the biggest is the rate of change. Six years ago, computers were still developing rapidly. Smartphones were an exploding industry. Now, both of them have stagnated – your computer and phone from last year are probably quite capable of doing what you need them to do today. This is the first time in history that the computers people use day-to-day aren’t changing that much. Which makes it the right time for me to step away. Yes, this will be my last piece for The Herald.

You’ve likely noticed over the last couple years that my writing was on how new technologies are – or could – impact your life. My goal in this very last piece is to give you some of the strategies I use to evaluate things. Businesses need to stay up on what’s going on and individuals should. With my last column, I’m hoping to leave you able to fend for yourselves.

Read. You have to read news articles. As with any subject, you want to look at different sources and boil things off into some sort of truth. I use several websites for all sorts of news, but when it comes to tech news, I’m looking at CNET, Wired, MSN & Slashdot – as well as Google News and Techmeme as aggregators. When I write a piece I might spend up to an hour reading and researching, but you don’t need to. Even 15 minutes a week should tell you all you need to know about trends because that’s where you want to concern yourself. Forget about the latest smartphones – what’s rumored in the next one?

A lot of what comes up in these trends requires context and maybe even some understanding of a specific technology. There’s no better way to flesh out my knowledge than with a Google search. Often, Wikipedia comes up as the best source for understanding an established technology. If it’s something more progressive, I’ll do a search in Google News. Sometimes the developments coming through in news articles are small, so it requires looking at several of them over time.

I use Snopes often to find the falsehoods being spread over social media. Please, for the sake of everyone that has to read it, before you re-share an article that someone else posted or sent, look it up. If it’s from a website you’ve never heard of, it’s possible it’s fake. Sharing a news article is like repeating a rumor – if you have no idea of the validity, you have a responsibility to check it out before passing it on. Otherwise, you’re just gossiping. Fake news is only an issue today because people spread it without checking it out.

Finally, follow the money. Every single piece of technology I’ve written about, every life-shifting development, has had a major financial impact. No one invests years of time and millions of dollars simply to make people better. They do it for money, which means finding the financial forces in a news piece can help you understand where things are headed and whether something in development will actually make waves when it’s released.

Thank you to everyone for your support over these years. Reading the articles, emailing me about them, stopping me on the street to discuss them – all meant a tremendous amount. I wrote this column because I enjoyed it, and I will miss doing it. I hope you’ve learned something from my time, and I hope you continue to learn and find ways to use technology to make your life better.

Oh, and don’t forget to backup your data.

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Commentary on “The Top Hackers Arrested in 2016”

I was crawling around the web looking for things to write about when I discovered this gem of a post. If you aren’t able to read it, the article goes into light detail on the top five individuals arrested for their hacking exploits in 2016. It’s a subject I find interesting because it’s at the intersection of two things I find fascinating – technology and human psychology.

Let’s start with the lingo. A hacker in today’s terminology is someone who does illegal things with a computer. It used to mean someone who “hacked together” solutions to problems. The hackers of old were people who wrote their own code and developed a lot of the techniques we use in today’s computer security industry. The world is better because of these hackers, which are now sometimes referred to as “white hat hackers.” The bad guys, on the other hand, are “black hat” hackers. The ones that ride that blurry line in the middle, sometimes doing illegal things but without the poor intentions, are “gray hat.”

On this list of the top 5 hackers is one ISIL operative who leaked information about 1300 US military and other government workers. A Kosovo citizen, he accessed the data by breaking into an insecure web host located in the US.

Next on the list is a guy who stole 50 terabytes of data from the NSA. That’s just an insane amount of information, with an estimate of more than 500 million pages of government records. Even on a very fast internet connection, one that almost none of us have access to in this area (and assuming it was able to maintain that speed), it would still take nearly two months of continuous copying to get that data. That’s commitment!

My favorite entry on the list is titled, simply, Mike – The Nigerian Scammer. It seems that there is an actual Nigerian behind the Nigerian Prince email scam that we’ve seen for years, if not decades. His network of associates numbered more than 40 people, across multiple continents. This guy was able to dupe people out of more than $60 million, which he then laundered through connections in China, Europe, and the US.

The last two on the list are sort of boring. The first is a 20-year-old man from the Philippines who defaced a website and stole voter records. The final entry isn’t even an entry. Apparently, two teens convinced a number of Instagram users to give them their account details.

The scariest part of this list is how small it is. We should have lists of Top 10, Top 25 or even larger. We don’t, though, because we rarely make arrests in hacking cases. Much of what happens behind the scenes is government sponsored and the crimes that are privately motivated often cross international borders. We’re unlikely to get international agents to spend limited resources helping us prosecute a digital intrusion to a private company.

Which leads to the obvious question about how to protect yourself or your business. The short answer is to stay proactive – up-to-date antivirus protection, regular spyware scans and being aware of anything that seems odd. When in doubt, hire an expert. If you’re a larger organization, hire more than one. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but when it comes to your technology, especially your business tech, it’s worth far more.

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How to Avoid Fake News

Starting last November we saw a lot of news stories pop up discussing online news hoaxes, often referred to as fake news. These articles reached critical mass during the 2016 presidential election and some have even said they had an effect on the election’s outcome. While it’s impossible to know that with any certainty, fake news is certainly a problem.

As with most things on the internet, fake news is motivated by money. An organization that specializes in these types of articles writes something that is both topical and of interest, often scandalous or inflammatory, and then releases it to the world. These articles spread over social media and the hit counts go up. Why? The organizations that publish these articles monetize their websites with advertising, which generates more money with more visitors. It’s a brilliant but nefarious business model because the articles being published are so simple to produce.

The article publishers do their best to appear legitimate, sometimes going as far as to copy the look of a recognized website. We live in a day where most people find their news on an aggregation site like Google News, or on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Critics have pointed at Google, Facebook and others to lay blame, which has led to an adjustment in the way they operate.

Google has addressed the issue both on the aggregation side – by banning known fake news sites from appearing in Google News – and from advertising revenue – by banning fake news sites from making money through the Google AdSense program. Facebook and others have also taken steps to reduce the exposure of fake news articles.

As long as there’s financial motivation to do so, fake news will exist. It’s not always easy to spot, but there are some things you can do. First, check the domain name of the article – most major news outlets use domain names ending in .com. If the website you’re on claims to be CNN but has a domain other than CNN.com, it’s probably fake.

While there are news outlets that write inflammatory pieces, most do not. If you’re reading something that is clearly designed to create an emotional response, it very well could be fake. You’ll most likely see this happen on social media from others, too. Many people won’t even read the article, they’ll just chime in based on the title. Read the article. Always read the article, since it gives you a chance to really know what’s going on with the piece.

Further, if you read from the same news sites often, you’ll get to know the editorial style of the writing – fake news isn’t likely to pass that test. A lot of people can pick up on a phony article, and the best thing to do is research it. It’s unlikely that a tiny newspaper in who-knows-where is going to scoop the major media on something that actually happened. Not for long, anyway.

There’s a lot of fake stuff on the internet and you can usually find the truth with a bit of research. Let your search engine be your friend, and don’t forget the power of snopes.com, a website that’s dedicated to combatting fake news and similar information online.

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amazon echo murder

Did Amazon’s Echo Witness a Murder? Probably Not.

You know I don’t give the mainstream news much slack. Especially when it comes to inflammatory comments that make people paranoid about technology. Fear sells advertising, but it’s not doing anything to advance society. When reporting intentionally skews “news” in a way that makes people fearful, I get upset.

Which brings us to this latest pile of so-called reporting on Amazon’s Echo device witnessing a murder. The short version, if you’re unfamiliar, is that Amazon produces a voice-controlled device called Echo (part of the Alexa product line) that will listen for you to ask it questions. The device can give answers and perform some basic tasks, like controlling compatible lighting, similar to Apple’s Siri or Google’s Google Now. In this case, the device was near a man found murdered in his home.

Police have requested that Amazon release all the audio files tied to the man’s device in the hopes that they may yield some clue of what happened around the time of the murder. This request shows a lack of understanding of how the product works and opens up some privacy concerns. The majority of reporting on the subject shows little understanding of these two facts, though.

Yes, Echo and similar devices are always on and waiting for you to prompt them to action. The devices do not constantly listen to what’s going on and upload audio files to their servers – not only is this invasive, it would require an insane amount of storage. Echo, Siri and other voice assistants do upload the files of questions so they can be processed by large server banks – for technical and non-malicious reasons that we won’t get into here.

While there have been cases of companies effectively spying on users, these cases are rare and generally found quickly. There are people that enjoy exploring new technologies and finding how they work – and looking at the information being sent back to the figurative mothership is something that most of them do as an early step. In other words, even if Amazon wanted to dedicate gratuitous amounts of storage to every single Echo user’s audio files, someone would have caught on by now and blown the whistle.

While there are software programs that do this, they’re installed intentionally, either by the owner of the devices for surveillance purposes or through some sort of infection. In the unlikely event that this device was able to record all the time, Amazon wouldn’t have the files.

Though I suppose the law enforcement officers could have believed the victim’s dying words were “Alexa, how do I keep from getting murdered?”

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Google Project Fi Review

60 Days with Project Fi: A Review of Google’s Cellular Service

A few months ago I mentioned that I was exploring Project Fi, the cellular service offering from Google. I was excited about the idea of paying less money while receiving similar coverage to the juggernaut that is Verizon. I made the leap a couple of months ago, and I’m ready to tell you about it here in my Project Fi review. Is Fi right for you? I can’t say, but I can certainly tell you the pros and cons.

Waiting for Project Fi

Project Fi ReviewI had waited for Project Fi to come to my area… and after a long time, it still wasn’t available. I had checked the coverage maps and knew that it would work reasonably well for me, assuming the coverage was as good as the partners they had selected – T-Mobile, Sprint and recently, US Cellular. The sticking point was a Zip Code check, which always told me that my area didn’t qualify. So I fibbed – I put in a Burlington zip code. And it let me in.

I ordered my phone, and it let me ship to my house, in the area it said didn’t work. I had little trouble setting up the phone, porting my number or getting it to work as any other Android phone would. The phone I selected, the Nexus 5X, proved a good phone with decent hardware. It was a step up from the Galaxy 5S I had used.

The phone isn’t the reason for switching, so it wasn’t what I cared most about. It was the service – the idea of using three different carriers to get decent service, use WiFi for calling and texting when possible, and cutting my bill dramatically. In that regard, Project Fi has worked wonderfully.

Project Fi vs Verizon

For years my Verizon bill was well over $100. I was originally on a grandfathered unlimited data plan, but when Verizon jacked that plan up to nearly $140 a month, I scaled down to the 5GB plan. I was still paying $120 a month for a single phone.

I started with a 4GB plan on Google’s service, which cost me… get this… $62.93 with taxes. Sweet, I was paying half. I started watching my usage, though and noticed I wasn’t going to come close to the 4GB plan. Fi watches this too… and reimbursed me on my next bill. $22.44, in fact.

I’m now on a 2GB per month plan. If I go over, I’ll pay more the next month. If I’m under, I get reimbursed. I’m not aware of any other carrier that does this, and I think it’s wonderful. With the credit from the previous month of $19.62, my last bill was under $30. I’ll take it.

Project Fi Review: Conclusions

The service, while I’ll freely admit is not as good as Verizon, is solid. I find I can get service almost anywhere. The places I can’t, I get WiFi. I found an app from Comcast/ xfinity that allows me to connect to any open xfinity WiFi network automatically. If you have Comcast as your internet provider, it makes Project Fi that much more compelling.

At this point, I’m much happier with my cell phone. It works well, I pay a fair amount for it, and the idea of not being locked into any contract – or even data amount – is wonderful. Oh, yes, unlimited talk and text is included in the $20 base plan. Each GB of data is $10 above that. A few dollars a month in taxes and fees, too.

Is Project Fi for You?

Should you buy it? If you use or want to use, an Android phone and you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of coverage (especially here in the Northeast) for big savings, then yes. If you have Comcast internet service, that’s a huge boost.

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The Vulnerability of Electronic Health Records

It seemed like fantasy just a few years ago – the idea that our medical providers could instantly access all of our relevant information. They could share findings and theories without coordinating phone calls or mailing charts. While there’s a lot of room grow, we’re there. If you’ve been to any medical provider in the last few years you’ve seen the changes. There’s still some paper milling about, but most of what is recorded is digital – and even the paper gets transferred to digital records sometimes.

If you talk with the people using these systems, you hear about the challenges. Lack of training, processes that need to be streamlined… these are challenges that every industry has faced as it went electronic. I have no doubt that things will get better over time.

There’s a concerning element, though, and it’s around security. You may have heard that our electronic systems tied to the power grid have long been vulnerable to attack. The upside to these systems is that there are relatively few points of entry. The medical systems, however, have a lot of points of entry.

For most of these systems, different providers are able to share access. That means that a small medical office that is responsible for managing their own security could give entry to the larger system. Think it can’t happen? It happened recently in England. In fact, the issues were so severe that major trauma cases were diverted to another hospital.

As we increase our reliance on digital records, we leave those records exposed. More so, for the sake of efficiency, we remove the non-digital options. While the need for maintaining “offline” methods is minimal, there are cases where it becomes important. This compromise in England is a perfect example.

Here in Vermont, it’s unlikely someone would be diverted to another hospital for an electronic failure – at least currently. A few weeks ago we saw that previously-“secure” devices like baby monitors were used in a massive Denial of Service attack that brought down Twitter, Netflix, Spotify, Airbnb, Reddit, Etsy, SoundCloud and The New York Times. As we expand “the internet of things” we create more vulnerabilities and more points of entry to our lives.

Many of the devices in hospitals are already connected to the internet. I am generally a positive person, but I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before something disastrous occurs. My advice – double-check everything and be aware of your own health. If you’re undergoing surgery, make sure there’s someone who can advocate for you and stay aware of what’s going on.

Remember, no one will ever care about your health more than you. Nor will anyone ever care about your technology more.

 

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computer on fire

The Dreaded Single Point of Failure

I spent 15 years as a technology professional. Over that time I watched people make the same mistakes with their technology – be it computers, phones, servers… It really didn’t matter. Regardless of what the device was or who the person was, there was always a resistance to preparation for disaster.

Just two days ago I was reminded of the failing of technology when I woke to a loud beeping noise. You might imagine, my home has a lot of things that beep, but I ultimately traced it to the battery backup (UPS – Uninterruptable Power Supply) connected to my desktop computer. And my three monitors. And laptop. And printer. Woops.

It was two am, so I didn’t look into it, simply shutting the unit down so the beeping would stop. The next morning I went to turn it back on and – POP! I heard a loud noise from the computer. I’ll spare you the boring details of the diagnostic process, but my computer died. So, too, did the battery backup. Nothing else did, but it could have been much worse. Instead of being out $500, the damage could have been more than double. I violated one of my golden rules – I had a single point of failure.

I’ve written often about backup – and I’ll spare you that lecture save to say that I lost no data because of multiple layers of backup. I didn’t even have to look at level 2, 3 or 4 – or even check the old hard drive to see if it was salvageable. I simply installed Dropbox on the replacement computer and away I went.

What could I have done differently? I could have had two battery backups, each on different electrical outlets. Ideally, they’d be on different electrical circuits, but that’s unlikely in a small room. I could have used higher grade battery backups – but the ones I had were good, and there’s no guarantee that a “better” one would have fared differently. After my self-assessment that’s exactly what I’ve done – added a second UPS and spread things across them.

Now go check your backups.

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Artificial Intelligence Continues to Promise

Depending on how you define AI (Artificial Intelligence) you could argue we have it in millions of phones. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and, recently, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant have been in a number of news articles comparing and contrasting their features. Samsung recently purchase of Viv, the latest company from the folks that originally built Siri. What’s in store for AI?

At a recent developer event, Google showed off their Google Home device, which is designed to compete with Amazon’s Echo. Both of these units enable you to pose search queries and play music with voice commands and without pressing any buttons. Of course, you can do more than those two things – with the promise of a lot more. The true value lies in the future upgrades the companies are promising.

When we think about human intelligence, our ability to decide and think is really based on a lot of history coupled with input from your current place in the world. If we think about intelligence and thought in this way, AI is simply a question of collecting and organizing information which is then used alongside sensor input like temperature, location and what’s seen from the camera.

It’s this perspective on AI that Viv is pushing, and that’s what Samsung is so interested in. The more information shared between devices, the smarter AI can be. The promise of Viv is in opening up the system for many devices to communicate. If your car connects to your wireless network, it can interface with your phone and know who’s going to use the car (calendar) and make sure it’s at the correct temperature (weather) when you get in to drive to work, your favorite music or podcast is ready to go. It can even remind you to leave a few minutes early to gas up (text).

If we look at AI this way, we can see that designing systems like this is actually quite possible. The true challenge is getting the companies that produce the devices to agree on a standard for device communication. I’ll continue to wait, because I have no choice, but I’m excited to finally start having my phone tell me what to do.

 

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Is That a Fire in Your Pocket?

You’ve likely read about the trouble Samsung faced with the launch of their Galaxy Note 7 phones over the last few weeks. It seems that a few of them caught fire, even burning people, which led to a lot of negative publicity. The problem seems to lie in the battery, but this isn’t the first time bad batteries have created issues.

Over the years we’ve seen lots of these problems, in cell phones, laptops, tablets and pretty much anything else with a rechargeable battery. A quick scan through the Consumer Product Safety Commission website – cpsc.org – shows recalls from most of the consumer electronics manufacturers you might think of. It’s not just consumer electronics with the problem, either. In 2013 Boeing had to ground its whole fleet of planes after the batteries on two of them caught fire.

Why, though, does this happen? It’s a question of chemistry.

The internal components of a rechargeable battery are separated individually. It’s the controlled combination of these components that generates energy. In order to keep things lightweight, those components are separated by very thin materials. If something damages the battery, either as a result of the manufacturing or some kind of physical issue during use, the lithium in the batteries can ignite and cause a fire.

Over time these processes have improved, and defects are far less common. It’s the current media climate and the prominence of cell phones that has made this such a juicy news story. In 2006, Sony-made batteries were recalled by the million – nearly 10 million, in fact. While the story did receive some press, it wasn’t the big deal this has been.

My advice – for any new electronics, be careful with it for the first week, especially if it has a battery. Don’t leave it on without supervision and watch for anything in your pocket getting a bit too warm.

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What’s An API?

A short time ago, Google made news for purchasing software company Apigee (not to be confused with Apogee, the folks who made the Duke Nukem games). If you saw any press reports, you saw that Apigee isn’t just any old software company, they’re regarded as the leader in API management. That’s all well and good, unless you’re not sure what an API is.

API stands for Application Programming Interface and, in really simple terms, is the way one piece of software can easily talk to another without the two being written together. If you’ve ever used a program that automatically saved something to Dropbox, that was through an API. Dropbox isn’t going to hand over their code to everyone that wants to make something that works with Dropbox – that’s a security risk. So, companies like Dropbox offers these secure connections, called APIs, that other companies can connect their software to.

If you’re a large company with a lot of other companies interfacing with your APIs, there are things you might want to know. Who’s using my APIs? How often? How much data are they using? What are they doing? Are there features that aren’t working efficiently? Apigee provides tools to gather information as well as keep these APIs secure.

So, why would Google drop $625 million dollars for Apigee? It seems like a move to improve their cloud platform offering that competes with Amazon’s. If you didn’t know, a lot of apps and websites use Amazon’s cloud to host their stuff. Google isn’t event second – with 8% market share to Amazon’s 31%. Google doesn’t like being second, let alone 3rd. Microsoft, if you were wondering, has 11%.

With the addition of these tools Google can, though it’s not yet fact that they will, offer a more robust product to customers. We know that Google loves to offer a broad product suite for everything they tackle – and this would be no different. With this part of the market on track for $12 billion in 2016 and $55 billion in 2026, you can see why Google might shell out a few hundred million to grab some market share. Time will tell if it works.

So, the next time you use a piece of software that connects to information from an entirely different company, you can thank the programmers that created the APIs.

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