Granddaddy Knows All

Granddaddy Knows All (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 9-24-15)

My father has a number of different sayings that he uses from time-to-time.  By far, his favorite is “Stay out of the way of crazies.”  This saying requires no explanation, and the number of times that we’ve applied this principal is incalculable.  This saying has proven so valuable, Dad gave it a name – “The First Rule of Life.”  He’s even generated a couple of corollaries to further refine its application.  The first corollary relates to interaction between crazies – “No two crazies can occupy the same space at the same time.”  The second describes a crazy’s state – “A crazy in motion tends to stay in motion, but a crazy at rest is still a crazy.”

Another one of my Dad’s sayings would always be heard when we were involved in a labor-intensive project.  We would be out in the summer heat clearing brush, digging trenches or something, and my Dad would pause, look at me and say, “You know, son, everything that has a handle needs a motor.”  We would then head off to my grandfather’s and borrow the powered version of whatever we were using.

Looking back, I find it interesting that my grandfather always seemed to own whatever power tool we needed.  He spent his life in construction, so it should be no surprise that he would have a large number of tools.  However, I suspect the breath of his inventory resulted from the application of another saying, a saying that my father and I relearned every time we started a project  – “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”

Household projects are becoming more interesting as our homes are invaded with Wi-Fi enabled devices.  Perhaps you’ve heard about the next wave of technology; they call it the Internet of Things.  The futurist paint a picture of all these devices swarming around us, coordinating with each other to remove all physical labor from our society.  I don’t think it’s that grandiose.  Plus, that kind of sets us up for Skynet, yes?  I prefer to think about the Internet of Things in far simpler terms – “If it has a button, switch or dial, it needs Wi-Fi.”

Everyone should take a minute and inventory every item in their house that has a button, switch or dial.  [BTW – The chances are good it already has a handle and a motor. If you cross-reference this household inventory with the recently released Internet-enabled products, you will see an amazing correlation.  Wi-Fi stove and refrigerator – Available.  Wi-Fi coffee maker – On the market.  Wi-Fi thermostat – Pick up at any hardware store.  Wi-Fi smoke detector or security system – Well, duh.  About the only things I haven’t seen is a Wi-Fi enabled electric toothbrush, curling iron or vacuum cleaner!

Hold it, scratch that last one off – the just released Roomba 980 robot vacuum cleaner has Wi-Fi.  You know, just in case you need to vacuum the house while on vacation.

A major obstacle to the Internet of Things is connectivity within the home.  Everyone that has configured a home network understands that more than one access point is needed to eliminate all the dead spots in the house.  For example, given where I put the access point in my house, a dead spot exists in my kids’ bedrooms.  Every few weeks they complain that the Internet keeps dropping while reading in bed.  And every few weeks, I tell them that I know how to fix it.  I just need to find some time to do it.

Fortunately, necessity continues to be the mother of invention.  In this case, I believe that the solution will be the combination light bulb/access point.  The first time I heard this idea, I thought it was pretty loony.  After a few minutes of thought, however, I began to see its brilliance (no pun intended).  What other item is located in every location a person might occupy and already connected to the power grid?  And by the way, this item is almost always in an unobtrusive, overhead location that is conducive to great signal strength.  How would it not work?

Like all great ideas, someone is already doing it.  The Sengled Boost is a LED-bulb that integrates a Wi-Fi booster into the design.  BTW – They also have another light bulb that plays music.

The Internet continues to change the way we live, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.  I’ve got to believe that in the near future, fathers and sons laboring in the summer heat will discover that everything would be much easier if they could just connect the ditch witch to GPS or the sprinkler system to the Weather Channel.  Now most people say there’s a technology gap between the youth of America and the rest of us.  I don’t believe that is true.  I know for certain that when those fathers and sons call granddaddy for help, he will have everything they need.

Until next time@gregory_a_baker

 

 

Virus Alert!

Virus Alert! (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 9-17-15)

The last two weeks reminded me of something that I had forgotten – I hate viruses.

Now since I know that you read this column for my brilliant technical insight, I’ll forgive you for jumping to the conclusion that today’s column will be related to malware.  No, it’s a quite bit simpler than that.  My nasal cavities were invaded by legions of carbon-based nanites.  The first signs of the invasion occurred two weeks ago when during lunch I detected the first of these biological time bombs explode within my head.  The sorties continued all afternoon.  By Wednesday morning, the microscopic kamikazes had me begging for mercy.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been that sick.  For a solid week, my full range of motion consisted solely of lifting the remote to change channels.  On the positive side, the Hannah-and-Her-Horse commercials seem to have run their course, so I didn’t needlessly suffer that mental anguish.  However, after a week of channel surfing, I believe that I worked out a mathematical framework to conclusively prove that the quality of entertainment is inversely related to the number of programming options.  Some of the classic thermodynamic models that describe how disorder in the universe always increases should work quite nicely.

OK, I know what you are thinking, “Poor little Greg got sick…boo-hoo.”  Truly, I appreciate your concern.  Just because I know you care, here’s some malware tidbits for you to enjoy.

Actually, it’s more than just tidbits.  This weekend, the Bsides Augusta conference brought the entire, stinking universe of security threats to Augusta.  Approximately 600 security professionals converged on GRU/Augusta University with the goal of sharing threat information and techniques to defend against those threats.  Conference Keynote speaker Ed Skoudis kicked off the conference by systematically describing the vulnerabilities in our societal infrastructure – everything from the power grid to transportation to WiFi-enabled Legos – and described some of the training environments being assembled to help prepare the Internet First Responders.  The remaining sessions covered a very broad spectrum of network security topics.  The speakers were not bashful about presenting technical detail.  Fortunately for Augusta Tek readers, I’m very skilled at Geek-to-English translation.  Here are some takeaways that you should consider:

  •  If you got hit with the crypto-virus this year, don’t feel too bad.  The crypto-virus is big business with crypto-organizations operating “campaigns” and staffing “help desks” to provide unlock keys.
  • All website ads should be treated as suspect.  The technique of injecting malicious code into ad servers is rapidly increasing.
  • After 10 years of training, users still open email attachments from senders they don’t know, and they still use “password” and “12345678” as passwords.  (And no matter what they try, system administrators still don’t know how to fix stupid.)
  • As if attacking the national infrastructure isn’t bad enough, a big concern exists regarding the increase in WiFi-enabled “stuff.”  We now know that moving cars can be hacked.  Can someone hack a thermostat to overload your breakers?  Can someone hack an oven to burn down your house?  Can someone hack an Internet-connected teddy bear to mindwash your kids?  Right now, there are more questions than answers.

I’ll be honest.  By the end of the conference, I put my mobile phone in airplane mode and swore that I would never connect to the Internet again.  However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me as I drove home.  Throughout human history, we have consistently explored and conquered new frontiers.  While these frontiers provide an enormous amount of promise, the early adventurers always encountered great danger.  Why should this new frontier of the Internet be any different?  For us to realize the full promise of the Internet, the dangers must be understood and mitigated.  Facing danger is always risky, but the Bsides attendees are letting us know that they are up to the challenge.

Until next time@gregory_a_baker

 

 

Power Off

Power Off (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 9-3-15)

I learned something today.  It’s nothing earth-shattering.  It’s just a tidbit of information that I found useful.  I hope that others would find it useful as well.

Unbeknownst to myself, Georgia Power publishes a webpage that is actually quite useful.  This webpage displays the current status of outages across the state of Georgia.  For example, at this very moment, I’m looking at an outage on Deans Bridge Road.  A few minutes ago, another outage near Old Petersburg Road was visible.  That outage has since been removed from the map – Go Georgia Power!  In addition to notating all the current outages, this site also provides the latest status on when the power will be restored.  How cool is that!  But wait, it even gets better…

Once you register to activate your web account, you can configure alerts to notify you of power outages.  Granted, most folks don’t need this – if the TV and lights go out at the same time, guess what?  The power is out.  However, many folks, such as small business owners and IT managers, would greatly appreciate a heads-up if the power fails at the office.  The small print says the alert is triggered once ground crews verify the outage, so unfortunately, these alerts are not real-time.  It’s better than what we have now, which is nothing!

I know you’re dying to take a look, so here’s the URL, http://outagemap.georgiapower.com.  Of course, it’s easier just to Google: Georgia Power Outage Map.

Speaking of Google, you may notice that within your Chrome browser, some ads are not running automatically anymore.  You can thank the nice folks at Google for that.  Starting last Tuesday, Google disabled autoplay for all ads created using Adobe Flash.  The ads are disabled using a new feature in the latest Chrome update.  The Chrome update identifies any Flash running on a page and pauses its execution.  The remainder of the page will load as normal.

This action is just the latest in the long string of razor cuts that are slowly and mercilessly exterminating Flash from the Internet.  Website usage of Flash has slowly decreased since Apple banned Flash from its platforms.  Steve Jobs posted the case against Flash in a well-known manifesto still resident on the Apple website (http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughts-on-flash/).  Apple is not alone.  Most tech companies have expressed their disdain for Flash – one of the latest being Facebook’s security chief Alex Stamos.  He’s calling for Adobe to announce an end-of-life date for the software.

Why all the vitriol toward Flash?  After all, the Flash platform has provided streaming services and rich webpage content for the last generation of webpage design.  Unfortunately, Flash suffers from a couple of unforgivable ailments.  The first problem is in regards to security.  Flash is horrible.  Stories about Flash’s security failings go back several years.  In 2014, GFI Security reported that Adobe Flash possessed the largest number of high severity vulnerabilities for any non-browser software application.  The second problem is that Flash is a battery killer.  In order to support cross platform operation, Flash renders graphics in software.  This method for graphics renders is must less efficient than using dedicated hardware modules.  Many tests have demonstrated while using Flash, battery-life performance could be reduced by more than half!

Until recently, alternatives to Flash have not been readily available.  Albeit inefficient, Flash is very good at doing what it does, and it’s taken a few years for competing technologies such as HTML5 to catch up.  It looks like a turning point has been reached this year with Google dropping support for Flash in You Tube and it’s Ad network.  Most of the other technology heavyweights are following Google’s lead and finally purging themselves of an albatross.

Until next time @gregory_a_baker