Forget T.V. … There’s Nothing Online

Forget T.V. … There’s Nothing Online (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 9/26/13)

All right, it’s official.  I’m bored.

I’ll be the first one to tell you that it shouldn’t be this way.  The kids are all put to bed.  The wife is enjoying the latest Project Runway.  I’m left to the quiet solitude of my man cave.  It’s just me, my MacBook and the entire Internet.  Yet, I can’t help thinking to myself that there’s nothing on.

Don’t believe me?  OK, let’s just start from the beginning.  Follow me as I go online.

First, a quick check of email and texts.  No late night emergency calls…good.  No failed backups or other alerts…double good.  A couple of random notes from customers and vendors…nothing urgent.  Quick note back to the customers, vendors can wait until tomorrow.  Now to the other stuff…hum, a couple of notes from Joe W.  Delete.  Delete.  Moving on.

Next, I need to do a quick remote into work to check on a job I started before I left.  It’s still running.  Good.  Now let’s aimlessly poke around at a couple of other things.  Twenty minutes wasted and nothing accomplished.  Perfect.

Finally, time to start getting to the good stuff.  Open the browser, and of course, the news sites come first.  I can’t be uninformed, after all.  (We all know that the country is going to heck in a hand basket.  If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you whine about it appropriately?)  And look at that.  All the idiots are still acting like idiots.  There must be something in the water.

On to technobabble sites!  In general, the tech media does a good job in entertaining me.  Not so much lately.  I don’t know how many articles about the iPhone 5S would be appropriate; however, two articles everyday for the last few months seems excessive.   Also, we get it – the “C” stands for color.

Side comment – I’m going to back track a little and point to what are now several articles on how the finger print scanner on the iPhone 5S has been exploited.  All it takes is your fingerprint, a high-resolution scanner and a little liquid latex.  So simple even a Blackberry user can do it.

Maybe there’s a good article on computer security…hey, looky here…another expose on the NSA.  They’ve really had a great decade when you think about it.  Check out their bucket list.

  • ·      Collect all cell phone data and save for later use – Check!
  • ·      Collect all financial transactions and save for later use – Check!
  • ·      Subvert industry encryption standards so that nothing is private – Check!
  • ·      Collect all medical records into a single database – Oops! Looks like Obamacare got that one first. Oh well…

And so I sit here 5 hours, 23 minutes and 47 seconds later in no better condition, and coincidentally no closer to a completed Metro Spirit column, than when I started.  In sheer desperation, I inch my cursor toward the BuzzFeed Cute Feed when I see it.

Justin Timberlake covering the King of Pop.

My friends, I wish that I could play it for you right here.  4 minutes and 21 seconds of pure musical pleasure.  If your bum is not groovin’ by the end of this song, there’s nothing more anyone can do.  🙂                                          

Until next time, I’m off the grid@gregory_a_baker





What’s Old is New Again (or Did It Just Stay the Same?)

What’s Old  is New Again (or Did It Just Stay the Same?) – (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 9-19-13)

Back in the Saddle – How many of you still have your old Yahoo! email account?  If you do, you’re in luck.  Yahoo! is on its way back up.  Back in the day, Yahoo! was the hottest property on the Internet.  However, like so many others that rode the wave of emerging technology (can you say “Palm” or “Blackberry”), Yahoo! lost its direction over time.  Google beat Yahoo! in Search; Apple passed Yahoo! with its iTunes media platform; Amazon proved the best in eCommerce.  Eventually, Yahoo! settled in as a mediocre social portal, albeit one with a significant online following.

Then a miracle happened.  Last year, Yahoo! hired Marissa Mayer as President and CEO.  Mayer was a long-time Google employee – employee #20 to be exact – and while at Google, she held key positions in a virtually all of Google’s divisions.  The opportunity at Yahoo! was a natural fit.  In her first year at Yahoo!, Mayer has gotten Yahoo! steered back in the right direction.  Mayer’s more notable accomplishments over the past year include the $1.1B purchase of the blogging site Tumblr and directing a focus on delivering mobile applications.  Oh, by the way, the Yahoo! Home page was redesigned for the first time in four years.

The effort is beginning to pay off.  Last month, ComScore reported that Yahoo! surpassed Google and regained the #1 spot as the most visited website.  Yahoo! is still way behind in areas such as e-commerce and online media, but hopefully, this is a sign for good things to come.

Terrorist Prefer Gmail – In a speech defending the PRISM spy program (if you remember, that’s the program where the NSA searches your online personal data for terrorist activity), former CIA and NSA Director, Michael Hayden told an audience in Washington, D.C. that “Gmail is the preferred Internet service provider of terrorists worldwide.”  At face value, the assertion seems shocking, and several questions come to mind.  How could terrorist exploit a U.S company like Google?  What is Google doing to stop them?  And more importantly, what is the government going to do to get these bad guys?

After letting the knee-jerk reaction pass, one more question comes to mind – Should we really be surprised that terrorists use the most popular email service in the world?  The answer is no, of course not.  The statement is kind of silly when you think about it.   It’s like saying we should be concerned that terrorists prefer iPhones (the most popular mobile device), or that terrorists prefer Toyotas (the most popular automobile), or that terrorists prefer soccer (the most popular sport).  While likely true, does it justify creating a secret police state to monitor each of these hugely popular commercial items?  Unfortunately, it appears that the current set of elected representatives believe we should.

In that case, here’s another question – If we throw away our freedom, the founding principle of our country, and establish a police state in the name of security, doesn’t that mean the terrorists win?

Home, Sweet Connected Home – Recently, I’ve noticed an increasing number of technology articles on household appliances.  The increase was subtle – a review of a robot vacuum here, the release of a new wireless light switch there.  Now, people have been talking about household automation for years, and there are gadgets a-plenty.  But it’s never really taken off in the consumer market.  Has something changed?

Well, I guess I wasn’t the only one to notice.  CNET, the popular geek website that provides reviews for all things tech, created a new section focused on the connected home.  If you are interested in smart coffee makers, receiving alerts from your dishwasher, or checking the status of your latest load of laundry, this is the site for you.  As for me, I think I’m going to start small.  If I can program my thermostat from my iPhone, I would consider that a major win.  Then I’ll move on to texting my microwave.

Until next time, I’m off the grid @ gregory_a_baker







Hello, My Name is Steve

Hello, My Name is Steve (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 9/12/13)

This past weekend I was officially banned from Minecraft.

No, it’s nothing unseemly or sordid or anything like that.  Actually, I never got further than running the Minecraft demo.  However, that was enough to know that this was forbidden fruit.

Let me explain.

It all started about a week ago.  My daughters somehow convinced my wife to buy Minecraft for our iPad.  Now installing a game on the iPad isn’t a big deal.  Literally hundreds of games have cycled through our iPad.  Just between the different Barbie fashionistas, American Girl Doll apps, and Farm Story derivatives, we’ve downloaded enough electronic stimulation to keep a bus load of fourth graders busy for weeks.  That said, we do keep tight control on content.  All apps were downloaded and installed according to a couple of strict house rules:  1) Nothing inappropriate, and 2) Free downloads only.  (Well, except Angry Birds.  And Animal Jam…but that’s on the PC, so it doesn’t count.)

Needless to say, when I came home from work one evening and discovered Thing 2 enjoying the premium Minecraft app, I was somewhat shocked.  I thought to myself, “Could it be possible that paid apps are now allowed?”  Of course, that’s a ridiculous notion.  With so many free apps out there, why would anyone want to buy one?  Then I remembered that my wife recently authorized the iTunes purchase of all three seasons of Vernoica Mars.  Maybe a subtle shift of the tide was afoot.  I moved in closer to see more.

To the uninitiated, Minecraft might seem like a first-person throwback to 1990’s era graphics.  It’s actually much more sophisticated.  You are a character named Steve.  Steve wakes up within a world where everything is made out of blocks.  The ground, trees, water, animals, people.  Everything is a block.  The object of the game, just like in real life, is to ensure Steve lives and prospers.  In order to provide for himself, Steve must learn to create tools and protection from the resources around him.  For example, a tree can be chopped down to create wood planks, which can be made into a wooden pick-axe, which is used to dig stone, which can be used to create a furnace, which can be used to smelt iron, which can be used to build better tools, and so on.  Everything is not fun and games, however.  During the night, zombies and other monsters roam the world, specifically looking for Steve.  The first night is particularly hard since Steve starts with nothing.  If Steve can’t get a basic shelter created within the first few minutes, Steve will be sent back for reincarnation while the zombies enjoy a healthy serving of brain stew.

My daughter spent the next hour walking me through the intricacies of Minecraft.  She particularly likes Creative mode where Steve accesses unlimited resources to build splendid castles (sans mobs).  It was like watching a TLC decorating show as she walked me through every room in a 10-story high-rise condo.  Personally, I like the challenge of Survival mode, but I found it very difficult to convince my little princess that I should get a turn on the iPad.  Somehow, she didn’t think that was fair.  That’s fine.  As the Daddy, I have access to other resources.

I grab my MacBook Air and download Minecraft.  On my first day, a zombie kills me exactly 3 minutes after sundown.  My second day is not much better; a Creeper tags me 10 minutes after I was being respawned.  The third day I learn to explore…and die by falling into a ravine.  Time to ask Google.  After a few minutes on, I’m a new Steve.  (BTW – You need to punch the trees.)  Once you gain a few skills, it’s amazing what you can accomplish within the 5-day limit of the Minecraft demo.  I’m about to enter my credit card to get access to the full version when my wife stirs me from my trance.

“Honey, it’s 3am.  Don’t you think it’s time to come to bed?”

Needless to say, I immediately recognize that I had stumbled into a place that must be treated with the greatest caution, an alternate reality that one must partake in measured doses, yet impossible to fully leave.  Oh Minecraft, don’t suffer my loss, as we both know I cannot return to your land!

OK, so it wasn’t that dramatic.  And I didn’t get completely banned.  Our family has time limits on using electronics.  My wife says that as long as I follow those rules, she won’t take away my MacBook.  Sounds like a plan.

Until next time, I’m off the grid @gregory_a_baker



Public Hot Spots – If You Can’t Abstain, Please Use Protection

Public Hot Spots – If You Can’t Abstain, Pleae Use Protection (reprinted from the Metro Spirt, 9-5-13)

Mobility remains one of the leading buzzwords in today’s technology world.  When the iPod and iPhone transformed the industry of mobile computing, virtually all information and applications became accessible with a touch or a swipe.  The transition to this new world occurred virtually overnight.  Go anywhere and you’ll see Augustans using some sort of smartphone to link into their personal media library.

The growth in smartphone use is enabled by the revolution in wireless communications.  Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen the transition of digital cellular protocols from the slow GSM and CDMA standards to today’s 3G and 4G networks.  The protocol used by most smartphone users is Wi-Fi.  Wi-Fi is the definition given to the wireless communications that adheres to IEEE 802.11 standard, and most people commonly refer Wi-Fi variants according to their speed, Wireless-G and Wireless-N, for example.  Whatever the speed, Wi-Fi is the chief mechanism by which we connect our mobile smartphones and tablets to any apps or data that reside in the cloud.

Unfortunately, Wi-Fi inherits a weakness that is present in all forms of wireless communications – Security.  Namely, anyone that can receive a wireless signal is potentially capable of connecting and conducting mischief.  Many wireless networks are secured by using encryption and multifactor authentication methods.  (If you operate a hot spot for your home or business, and you don’t use encryption, shame on you!  You might as well send me all your electronic records to publish in the Spirit!)  Unfortunately, standard Wi-Fi security methods are not suitable for hot spots created to allow public Internet access.

At this point, I’d like to say that there’s a new emerging technology that’s going to address the need for secure public Wi-Fi.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Public Wi-Fi is provided as a convenience, and these services are provided “At Your Own Risk.”  It’s up to you to protect yourself.

So you might be asking…how do you do that exactly?

The first thing you need to do is change your mindset.  When you are on public Wi-Fi, assume that someone is watching you electronically.  Yes, I know that sounds very Big Brother, but it’s not as implausible as it seems.  Anyone logged into a public Wi-Fi can see the activity of all other users, and the software tools to hijack user sessions have been widely available for years.  A good analogy would be walking down a crowded city street.  Most of the other folks are just like you and will probably leave you alone.  However, you still keep your valuables close.  It’s just common sense that pickpockets will exploit any opening they can find.

If you do connect to a public Wi-Fi, you need to take several precautions to keep yourself protected.  (Unfortunately, given the large number of mobile devices, I can’t get into the specifics of each device.  If you have any questions, see your device vendor or other trusted technology resource.  Google is a great place to start.)

 1.     Enable your device firewall – The firewall blocks unwanted communications from accessing your device.  Select the option “Block All Incoming Connections,” if available on your device.

2.     Disable file sharing – File sharing allows devices connected on the same network to share information.  Turn this off, or disable it for public networks.

3.     Use SSL (HTTPS) – When logging onto a web site, ensure that you are using an encrypted connection.  This type of connection encrypts your activity, effectively hiding it from others on the network.  To verify encryption, check for the padlock in the address bar and verify the URL points to an https address.  The use of SSL also applies to desktop clients such as Outlook.  Check the connection settings to verify that “Use SSL” is selected.

4.     Use Virtual Private Networks (VPN) – VPNs are the second-most secure way to utilize a public network.  The VPN creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between your device and a private network.  VPNs are typically utilized for businesses, but you can configure a VPN to access data at home. 

5.     Turn off Wi-Fi when not in use / Save the sensitive browsing for home – The best way to protect a device is to remove it from the network. 

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker