Those Darned Girl Scouts!

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, August 17, 2011)

Several great nuggets of tech news occurred over the past few weeks.  Here’s a sample to help clear your palette of all the economic-political junk that seems to be everywhere.

Happy Birthday, Internet!  Last week, the Internet celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first publication on the World Wide Web.  The first web page was published on a CERN server in the Swiss Alps, and it provided technical details on how to create your own web page and how to search the Web for information (without using Google).  No report was provided on whether Al Gore participated in the celebration.

Innovative Communist.  North Korea appears to be raising money by unleashing an army of hackers on South Korea’s gaming community.  The scheme is pretty straight forward.  First, hack the servers to artificially accumulate gaming points.  Second, sell the points to other gamers looking to add features to their avatars.  South Korean police state that a squad of about 30 hackers made $6 million over the past two years.  And just like that, we have a new group of individuals which sponsor international terrorism – Lazy gamers that don’t earn their points!

Girl Scout Android Hacking Badge.  What does Little League Baseball, watching the Disney Channel, and computer hacking all have in common?  These are all activities enjoyed by the current generation of pre-teens.  DefCon, the annual hacker conference, added a session for 8- to 16-year olds called DefCon Kids Village.  A ten-year old Girl Scout, code name CyFi, presented a zero-day smart phone exploit that allows the user to fast-forward actions in an unnamed social game.  After the presentation, they all went to see the Smurfs.

Anonymous in the News.  First, Anonymous attacks Syria’s Ministry of Defense website to protest human rights abuses.  In response, the Syrian Electronic Army goes after Anonymous by taking down AnonPlus.  Next, Anonymous threatens to destroy Facebook on November 5 for spying on users and cooperating with authoritarian governments.  Not to be outdone, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cuts off cell phone service to passengers in a pre-emptive strike against protesters of a fatal police shooting last month.   Of course, Anonymous hacks BART and posts BART users’ information to Twitter.

London Burning.  Just like Facebook brought down Mubarak, Blackberry Messenger appears to be the communication medium of choice used by London rioters.  RIM is providing support to identify and track down the rioters, and many rioters have been rounded up.  (BTW – RIM’s website…yes, hacked.)  In other developments, the Prime Minister is publically advocating social media bans in the interest of public safety.  Scotland Yard confirms the use of facial recognition technology to identify rioters.  And finally, an independent group of online vigilantes is also using facial recognition to identify looters that appear in online photos.

End of the World.  Solar storms erupted this week, and officials cautioned users of electronic equipment to prepare for possible disruptions of service.  This storm is the largest in over 4-years, but Earth should escape the full force of the eruption due to the position of the earth relative to the eruption.  More large eruptions are expected as the sun enters the active phase of its 11-year solar cycle.  Scientists say the worst storms will occur during 2013.  However, since the end of the world is expect on December 21, 2012, solar events in 2013 are not anticipated to create a significantly impact.

Google vs. Apple.  Google buys Motorola Mobile for $12B.  It’s now Google and Apple in a battle for world domination.  Stay tuned…

Follow me on Twitter @gregory_a_baker

 

Shop Your Tech

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, August 10, 2011)

I love going out to Best Buy and looking at the newest gadgets.  I love holding them in my hands, turning them over and pressing the buttons.  All the time I’m thinking, “Wow!  This is amazing!  I can’t believe they have something that can do this!”

So you would think that in my business, I would always be looking to do a technology refresh on everything from the coffee pot to the copy machine.  In reality, my outlook toward buying business technology is more in common with the business owners we serve.

I really don’t enjoying buying new technology for my office.

At first glance, that may not make sense.  But think about it.  The typical business owner is generally only worried about making sure their customers are provided the best service possible.  Cool is not part of the vocabulary.  If you don’t believe me, walk into any Augusta business owner’s office and inform them they need to perform a server upgrade in order to support the latest release of their accounting software.  Please make sure you include the many cool, and very useful, features of Windows 2008 R2.  No matter how convincing or how persuasive you are, I guarantee their first question will be, “Do I have to update my software?”

Intuitively, business owners understand what technology helps provide service to their customers and what technology simply keeps the office running.  In the first case, the decision process is careful and deliberate.  Capability is integrated with the business strategy.  Nothing less than the life of the business is at stake.  However, most of the time, the desire is to get the problem out of the way as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

This brings me to a trap that business owners face when dealing with “routine” technology purchases.  It begins with a purchase or lease, often times significant in price, that is required to perform an office function.  Over time, the cost of the technology needed to perform the function drops, but the price this business owner pays does not.  Since it’s not directly related to the delivery of services, there are no additional competitive bids or price comparisons.  If it works, don’t fix it.

This scenario plays out on a regular basis when we engage new customers.  Recently, we encountered a situation where a customer was tied into a 5-year lease for a piece of network infrastructure that they could have purchased for 25% the total cost of the lease.  You might ask, “How in the world did they get into that lease?”  The response:  It’s just always the way it had been done.

Don’t allow your technology purchases to take the path of least resistance.  Periodically check the internet.  Occasionally get multiple quotes.  We are all trying to do more with less.  Technology should enable your success.  Not prevent it.

Tech Leaders: Made in Augusta – Congratulations to the 61 new students from the Augusta area that will be attending Georgia Tech this fall.  The Georgia Tech Alumni Club of Augusta will be hosting a Send-Off party for the new Yellow Jackets on Thursday evening, August 11, at the Jones Creek Clubhouse.  All are welcome to show support for this next generation of technology leaders.  Give me a holler for more details.

My Android Got Hacked

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, August 3, 2011)

So there I was in a meeting with the practice manager of a major primary care practice, and all of the sudden the Black Eyed Peas started spewing from my Android.  Several choice words came to mind that, thankfully, I was able to catch before my lips started moving.

“Sorry about that…” was the actual spoken phrase used as I pulled out my phone and quickly ended my Pandora app.

Later in the meeting, I couldn’t help but thinking, “That was odd.”

As it turns out, not really.  In the few days prior, my phone had been acting strange.  It was slower than normal.  Apps quit without reason.  Strange text messages started appearing.  If it had been a computer, I would have thought that it was infected with a virus.  But that can’t happen to phones, right?

Yeah, right.  Here’s a CNET News headline from August 2, 2011: “Android Trojan records your phone conversations.”  Below that one were a few more stories related to various scenarios where Android phones become infected.  It’s no surprise that virus writers target smartphones.  The type of personal information people like to keep close at hand creates a tempting target.  Since security software is sparsely deployed to mobile devices, smartphones may be an easier target as well.

So as you kids head back to school, here’s a few things you can do to help your parents keep their phone protected.

  • Make sure any apps that your parents download come from a reputable app market such as Google Market.
  • When installing the app, check that the permissions requested by the app are consistent with the app’s features.  For example, be wary of a flashlight application that requests access to your personal data.
  • Abnormal or slow behavior could be a sign that your phone is infected with malware.
  • Install anti-virus software designed for your phone.  I’m working my way through the free software available in the Google Market.  The few that I’ve tried tended to slow my phone down a bit.  I’ll let you know when I find one I like.

For more information on the spread of viruses across Android devices, google “Android malware”.

BTW – all you iPhone users, your devices share Apple’s natural immunity to viruses.  But don’t get too smug.  iPhones infections do occur, albeit rarely.  As long as you don’t click on things that you know shouldn’t be clicked, you should be fine.

Spotify Revisited — A couple of weeks ago I offered a free Spotify subscription to a devoted reader that could convince me their life would end without Spotify.  Congratulations to Anthony for a very persuasive argument.  You should have received your Spotify invite by now, and I hope your collection of vinyl can finally follow you wherever you may go.

 

Confessions of a Rocket Scientist

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, July 27, 2011)

I have a confession to make.  I never saw the space shuttle.

OK, I know.  What’s the big deal?  Most of the people in Augusta can probably make that same statement.

However, most folks might expect something different from me.  You see, I have a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering.  Technically, that makes me a rocket scientist.  A rocket scientist that never saw a shuttle fly.

Shameful.

It wasn’t because of lack of interest.  As a kid, I remember watching the first test flights of Enterprise as it soared off the top of a 747.  I recall teachers stopping class at Evans Jr. High so we could watch the first shuttle launches.  I saved every copy of the Chronicle that mentioned anything about the shuttle.    Everyone shared optimism and excitement about the shuttle.  Exploration.  Innovation.  Space is where we belonged.

Then came January 1986.  We lost Challenger and its crew.  For some reason, I was at home from school that day and stayed glued to the TV.  A failed O-ring.  It wasn’t supposed to happen.  But it did.

Of course, shuttles began flying again, and the program demonstrated solid achievements during the next decade.  Launch of the Magellan probe to Venus.  Launch of the Galileo probe to Jupiter.  Deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope.  Multiple Spacelab missions.  Multiple communication satellite deployments.  In-orbit repair jobs to Intelsat and Hubble.

But the shuttle had lost a little of its coolness.  Communication and military satellite deployments migrated back to expendable launch vehicles for cost and reliability reasons.  The Soviet Union collapsed, and the political motivation for a space program went with it.  The year 2001 turned out far different from the Space Odyssey envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke.  It was more like a Tom Clancy novel.

For the past ten years, the shuttle’s sole mission was the construction of the International Space Station.  Nearly 40 shuttle flights to assemble.  A lifetime cost on the order of $100B.  The loss of Columbia and its crew.  America has a large investment in the space station.  There is just one small problem.

We can’t get there anymore.

With the retirement of the shuttles, the U.S. government possesses no vehicle capable of manned access to space.  What’s worse, there is no plan to develop a new system.  In a mere 42 years, the United States has gone from Neil Armstrong’s giant leap to depending upon the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for space travel.

Shameful.

Fortunately, NASA no longer holds a monopoly on space travel in the U.S.  Remember Paul Allen and SpaceShipOne?  If you haven’t been keeping up, google “spaceshiptwo” and take a look.  Good technical solution.  Sustainable business model?  Perhaps.  I hope so.

With the landing of the Shuttle Atlantis, the United States closes another chapter in the exploration of space.  While the country has lost its lead, this certainly won’t be the last chapter that is written.  A country of dreamers, innovators and explorers cannot stop reaching.  Especially when we all seem to believe that space is cool.