Don’t Make it Easy – A Look at Securing Your Data

“You’re password will expire in 5 days. Would you like to change it now?"

Sound familiar? This annoying practice, which inevitably results in you simply incrementing the number at the end of your current password by one, really was meant to bolster security. The thing is passwords are really not the most effective way of securing data. Despite the fact that they seem a corner stone to the current security models, there really are much better solutions. Perhaps the way we understand security needs to change.

The problem begins with the fact that a human have to remember these passwords. This leads to passwords that are not secure, random, lengthy, or difficult to crack at all. Then there’s the presumption that your password is secret, and that it somehow confirms your identity. The whole point of security though is to establish identity, to shake hands. When you speak to someone in confidence there is a trust because you know whom you are speaking to. On the Internet it’s difficult for us, and the servers, to confirm with whom the data is flowing between.

Enter the world of Two-Factor Authentication. First making its appearance in corporate remote computing, then in increasingly difficult to secure Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs), adds an extra step. When logging in, you need both your password, and a number - which is only valid for a minute or so. First there were key fobs, now most have applications for your smartphones. Those text messages that you get from your bank are a similar implementation of this model. Would be attackers will have a tough time even with the simplest of passwords with this additional layer of security. It’s far more unlikely that the same person with malicious intent, and skill, to gather your password, also happens to be able to lift your phone from you while you’re out on the town.

Two-Factor Authentication is no longer just for those wishing to thwart Chinese gold farmers on World of Warcraft (WOW), or corporate espionage. Google implemented Two-Factor Authentication a number of years ago, complete with both the text message solution, mobile apps for both Android and iOS, and backup codes for you to stash at home in case your phone is lost or stolen. I strongly encourage you to turn this on1! It’s requires a little bit of effort, but secures what is easily one of the most crucial parts of your personal data – your e-mail. If someone can gain access to your e-mail it’s literally a Pandora’s box… The ability to reset all of your passwords is just the start. In most cases all someone would need is access to your e-mail and the ability to answer some simple questions (using information which is most likely publicly available) to change your password and lock you out of your online world, with very real world complications.

Yet another piece of the puzzle are those ‘security’ questions we just talked about. Answering, “What is your mother’s maiden name?” may be the easiest way to get to the continue button, but it’s also the easiest way for someone with nefarious intent to gain access. There are many strategies for making these answers more secure, though I must admit these schemes seem a bit hard to adhere to, and leave one scared that they will be locked out of their account.

I’ve made several mentions of Blizzard’s security protocols and that is because they are presented with a very serious security problem. Play them or not, their massively multiplayer games are an important part of many peoples lives. So important in fact, it is a lucrative business for many oversees hackers to exploit customers’ accounts and sell them for real money. When someone has spent years building his or her account and then it is stolen and sold the highest bidder, people get upset. Aside from the authenticator and text messages, if you loose access to your account somehow, you will be sending blizzard your drivers license and various other information to confirm your identity before they let you back in. This is a painful, yet important piece of the puzzle. Resetting your password is often the weakest link in the chain. Don’t take my word for it, check out the eye opening hack of Matt Honan of Wired.

What’s the solution?

Well, for one, make every password you have completely unique, as long, complex, and random as possible… but how does that work when you have 100 different accounts? I’ve been using a solution called 1Password for a number of years. You can store your passwords all in one place, along with various other login information, secure notes, and personal data, using one overriding password. 1Password has the ability to store this in the cloud via an encrypted file, and has plugins for all the major browsers making it possible for you to have passwords so complex, even you don’t know them. This is a bit scary, I admit, but take the leap; your security is worth it. There are several alternatives of course, most notably LastPass – an open source solution with a very similar feature set. Each of these programs has generators to create completely unique and random passwords for you and recognize when you’re at a login screen, and fill in all the fields appropriately.

You’ve secured your passwords, enabled Two-factor Authentication wherever possible, what’s next? Encrypt your hard drive. OS X makes this incredibly simple. Just turn on File Vault, and if you’re worried about performance dings, don’t be. Especially with SSDs, it’s completely seamless. Many don’t realize how much is stored ‘in the clear’ on their hard drives. This becomes even more important for laptops, or any computer that is leaving your house. Unless your hard drive is encrypted, they won’t need to login to your computer to pull all your personal data off.

If you don’t have a password on your phone, or laptop you are insane - completely bonkers.

A password on your phone means, in most cases (e.g. iOS), that it is then encrypted. More importantly your phone has so much personal data, countless other accounts, not to mention unprotected access to your e-mail. Forget the time delay, make in instantly require a password! It may require a few extra milliseconds to respond to a text, but the security gains are far to great to ignore. Also, why people set their phone down without hitting the lock button is beyond me (I’m looking at you 40+ year old). The button is there for a reason; do yourself a favor and click it before you set it down or throw it in your purse. Your screen is the largest battery killer. I understand that it’s a bar phone, and you can’t flip it closed when you’re done, but the lock button performs the very same function. Press it. All the effort in the world wont make a bit of difference if they can just pick up your phone and take over your life.

All of the above are good solutions, but they certainly add an extra layer that most people fail to see the importance of. The trick is to make security easy. Consumers are inherently lazy, they don’t want another road block between them and what they want to get done. This is why Apple’s new iPhone 5s and its fingerprint identity sensor is so important. Sure the tech has been around for a long time – I remember visiting the tanner and using my fingerprint back in ‘05, but making it easy to identify that you are who you say you are is a game changer. Especially because of the reach of their iPhones, Apple has the critical mass to make it work.

I hope it takes off. I hope an API is released allowing you to authenticate with all of your apps using the touch of your finger. Fingerprints are a fairly good biometric, worse than DNA, better than hand geometry. Biometrics are really just a more natural form of Two-Factor Authentication – no random number generator required.

Tin Hat

The real solution would seem to be some encrypted key that is stored in your body; similar to PGP, but a biotech implementation. Forget wearable, I want implantable! Frankly, the lack of progress on that front is disappointing to me. Much like self driving cars, I fear the ‘creepy’ factor gets in the way of true innovation, simply because we’re not willing to think about things differently.

Things are getting better though. One of the most basic problems in security is obtaining a truly random number (the basis of all encryption schemes) – which is a surprisingly difficult task. Though quantum computing may seem like science fiction, Intel is now shipping a new, processor level, random number generator that your computer can call. It takes advantage of the on processor entropy source… Yes, I am talking about that shifty concept you learned about in physics. Essentially, we’re talking about the random emission of electrons, that the processor usually ignores, being used to generate random numbers at blazing fast speeds.

I’m still waiting for the stuff of science fiction to materialize. Considering that computers were invented inside the lifetime of some of societies’ oldest members, it’s difficult to speculate on where we’ll be in 50 years.

Streaming Media, a State of Play

We’ve come a long way since your grandmother’s radio, your father’s bunny ears, and your childhood cable… or have we?

The radio was heralded as the downfall of print news media, cable as that of radio, but now the Internet threatens all of the above - or at least what remains of them. New technologies often have to fight an uphill battle to replace the old. Some of these battles are of technical nature, but more have to do with the business interests of the currently installed industry leaders.

Internet speeds in the United States, though nothing compared to those of many in Europe and Asia, have come a long way since the dial-up of your childhood. Increasing speeds have reached much of the rural and poor. The increase in bandwidth has paved the way for streaming content at fast enough speeds to make it a viable replacement to cable. Even with the increasing demand for HD content of ever-greater quality (e.g. 1080p, and now 4K), the bandwidth and compression technologies have managed to keep up surprisingly well. Whereas in my high school years I was resigned to patiently waiting for a grainy 5x5 inch video to buffer, I have now come to expect zero latency from the time I press purchase to the time my 1080p movie fills the 60 inch plasma.

Just as the publishers and media moguls have stunted the transition to e-readers and web content in their resistance to change and the uncertainty of their place in the new markets, so to have the cable companies, premium cable channels, and movie houses done whatever they can to ensure their relevance in the future. In both cases however, their reluctance to move forward and reinvent themselves as the landscape changes, will ultimately be their demise. Once relevant, regional newspapers and magazines are going bankrupt or being merged at an ever-increasing rate, or being purchased by billionaires with nothing else to do, like Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post. I’m not arguing that the large media companies of old are not valuable; on the contrary, I think that their content is sorely needed in today’s world – where quantity over quality often prevails. They choose not to play the game though. Instead, standing on the sidelines, they let the market move on, despite them. Why would you pay for the New York Times when you can find the same news story on one of the countless other news sites? Left propping up print media, are those who genuinely value the quality content that is provided. The problem is, the business model the industry was built on was predicated on the fact that the public needed them to get their news, which is simply no longer true.

Video content is not all that different. At first the only source of content was on a VHS tape, or from over-the-air. Then came cable. Cable meant that we could get great content into our homes, no static, no fuss – but it came with bloated offerings and complicated contracts. Cable news channels eventually started competing well with the larger traditional broadcast networks. Now the ‘big three’ (i.e. CBS, ABC, and NBC) are struggling to compete against FOX, AMC, CW, ABC Family, and countless others. We’ve effectively transitioned to cable, now for the next step. On-Demand media is the next logical step. The cable industry is built on the idea that we all subsidize the more niche networks and programs… very much like universal healthcare actually, cost sharing. Just as people grew tired of paying a subscription to the New York Times, only to get one or two articles that they really wanted to read, people are sick of paying for 200+ channels, when they only watch 3 shows.

The thing that the cable companies held over our heads for so long was that no one else could provide what they had. The security that the networks held was that no one else could afford quality TV production, and the primary asset of the large movie houses had was that blockbusters cost millions of dollars. While the industry resisted offering it’s content on any other platform aside from its cable offerings, Netflix was gaining steam. Netflix first tackled the rental market, leaving only Redbox behind, and now it will conquer cable.

Act One, Netflix Streaming: We got used to binge watching entire seasons all at once. No need to waste your time flipping through the channels trying to find something to watch, each time you sit down at your TV you know exactly what you’re going to be watching – the next episode of course. Never mind entire seasons, you can stream entire series from the pilot to the last episode and experience a certain satisfaction that there is no need to stress over catching the next episode at 5 pm every Wednesday, or even to worry about whether your DVR recording was canceled.

Act Two, Netflix Original Content: They finally figured out the advantages of making their own content. Making their own content means they don’t have to worry about the demands of the networks in their ever more seedy and contracts, or how long of a delay there is between its original airing and its release online. In a stroke of genius they’ve also opted to release entire seasons all at once - ripe for binge viewing and hooking viewers. Not to mention the fact that this is some damn good content. If you haven’t already heard of, and finished, Orange is the New Black or House of Cards, well, you must not be online.

I find it incredible that these cable networks insist on keeping their eyes averted from what is clearly the future of video consumption. HBO GO requires that you have an active cable subscription, with no option to just pay HBO directly. Hulu Plus (the networks’ paid solution to streaming TV) is now offering fewer and fewer episodes and fewer and fewer shows – which is why I just canceled it. I’ve officially been a ‘cord-cutter’ for 3 years or so now, opting for a more à la carte approach. Netflix and Hulu Plus, augmented with the purchasing of entire seasons on iTunes, have been more than capable of meeting my needs. It seems that things are getting worse rather than better though.

Streaming Bastards

My current frustrations are largely fueled by more and more networks pulling out of Hulu Plus, and of the ones left, the alarming new practice of only offering the most recent episodes. If I can’t see the first episode, then I wont start watching it now. Even in their own apps, or on their websites networks no longer seem to offer all the episodes form the first season on. I don’t understand what they’re thinking. If I haven’t seen anything from this season, or of the series at all for that matter, what makes you think I want to start with Season 6 Episode 14? It’s ludicrous, not to mention bad business!

The best part is that I’m willing to pay for these services… I’m willing to pay for Hulu Plus, so long as it offers me something of value, and I don’t mean 1,000s of anime videos. I’m willing to pay for HBO GO. I’d rather go to a nice steak house than get some prime rib from the local Golden Coral.

There’s no question where the market is going, the question is will they keep up? With Apple TV, Amazon Instant, Chromecast, Ruku, Smart TVs and Blu-ray players, consumers will have the option of watching 7 seasons of How I Met Your Mother on Netflix for $7.99, or watching True Blood, requiring a $130 cable subscription - I’m betting they choose the former.

There are plenty of paths forward for the cable companies and networks, the question is will they choose the wright one, or will they go the way of the newspaper?

The Constants

Routines, we all have them, find comfort in them. Post college, I found myself with lots of free time, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

I recall hearing about adults with strange hobbies, and thinking who has time for that: “He roasts his own coffee beans in his garage.” Paradoxically, I find myself filling my free time with more and more hobbies as my free time becomes more and more limited. I used to spend an inordinate amount of time doing nothing – which is not to say I don’t still spend a great deal of time watching Netflix. As my free time became more and more sparse, and thus more and more valuable, I’ve picked up more and more things that I enjoy.

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff that life is made of...Time is money. -Benjamin Franklin

In reading Benjamin Franklin’s biography, I was affected by his prescriptive daily schedules while he was in school. He had blocks of time that were allotted to all kinds of tasks and various subjects, including exercise. No time was wasted. If he wasn’t spending him time enriching himself, he viewed it as morally wrong.

At the risk of sounding cliché, the importance of time is less apparent in youth – when time seems semi-infinite. When one starts to contemplate mortality and what will be left behind, how you will leave your mark, how you will change the world, then suddenly wasted time becomes a luxury that can no longer be afforded. When we’re young we have little money and a great deal of time, when we’re old we have more money and less time.

My hobbies are now numerous and I run the risk of wasting time in a wholly different way, i.e., spreading my resources and time out too thinly, over too many things, and never being particularly great at anything.

Read (and Listen)

Among my new favorite things is reading. Reading to me is like asparagus: I hated it as a kid, but love it now. I recall a standoff with the parents over my not wanting to touch the asparagus on my plate, me obstinately refusing to shovel the sprigs into my mouth, and my parents refusing to let me leave the table until I had cleaned the plate. These days though, the green stuff is now among my favorites, so too is reading.

The Internet is filled with loads of poor writing, with more emphasis being put on timeliness over substance or wit. Enter The Economist, which has become one of my greatest wehttp://www.economist.com/ writing is fantastic, their global perspective refreshing, and their pro-American yet outsider viewpoint is useful in formulating my own opinions on American politics/policy. I can’t stress enough how valuable The Economist is to me.

One of the downsides of my job, that of many in the nuclear field, is my considerable commute. I drive roughly an hour both to and from work daily. While many carpool, saving a great deal of money on gas, I find the time I spend waiting on others and the inconvenience of not being able to arrive at work when I please, too big a trade off. What I do enjoy, and one of the reasons I do drive myself, is the time I have in the car to listen to audiobooks and podcasts.

I used to spend all of my time in the car listing to NPR, but that was back in Michigan and Indiana, where I had the incredible Elkhart station, WVPE (which I stream via the NPR app these days). Down here… well, I’ll spare you from my ‘I loath the south’ critique of the local NPR stations. Let me just say, I’d prefer Diane Rehm over that Clemson guy who talks about bugs and flowers any day of the week.

These days though, if the latest album from Vampire Weekend, M83, or GaGa’s single isn’t blasting on my 12-speaker sound system (over the top I know), it’s podcasts and audiobooks that you’ll hear. I don’t know what I would do without my Audible subscription. I listen to anything from biographies, to tech non-fiction, to thrillers, to sci-fi. It affords me the ability to enjoy books I’d otherwise not have the patience or time to read in print, while making use of what would otherwise be a wasted 2 hours out of my day. I’m also a loyal subscriber to a great many of the TWiT.tv podcasts, most notably TWiG, which I’ve listed to every week for years.

Workout

Getting back into the gym was a long time coming. Until a little over a year ago, I hadn’t gone to a gym regularly since high school. I had gotten back into running - much more of a constant in my life - and quickly discovered that the heat and sun of the Georgia summers made running outside all the time impossible, not to mention a health risk. What began as a merely a way for me to run in the air conditioning, quickly developed into an obsession with weight lifting.

A few too many glutinous business trips, decadent meals out, and my most physical task of the day often being walks to the coffee pot, had left my body in very poor condition – certainly not that of a single, twenty-something gay man.

Over the course of the last year, things have really changed. I went from barely being able to run a 5k a couple years ago, to casually running a 10k, or more, just for fun, cycling 30+ miles, and lifting 2-3 times a week. I also went from eating a largely vegetarian diet to a diet rich in protein and low in carbs (save the incredible amounts of candy I still consume), loosing 30+ lbs, and gaining a great deal of muscle mass. The 4-Hour Body was instrumental in shaping my new diet and way of life. Case and point: my obsession with consuming a high protein breakfast within 30 minutes of waking. Later I switched to a more moderate approach to the whole carb/protein question as I began to struggle with energy during my endurance activities – yawning during your run is a dead giveaway that something is missing.

It took some time for me to figure out new ways of cooking and ordering while dining out, but it’s really not that difficult. Being that there are so few healthy options for food on the go, especially here in the south, if I’m too lazy to cook or having a busy week I find that protein bars and shakes make up a significant portion of my diet.

Working out is an incredible way to boost your confidence, build a sense of accomplishment, stay healthier, focus your energy, and deal with stress. Go to the gym today, make time – the feeling afterwards is well worth it! Buy a scale and stay accountable to yourself!

Cook

Working in tandem with the above endeavor, I’ve always had a passion for cooking and good food. However, I had to throw many of my childhood ‘comfort food’ recipes out the window, though tasty and full of fond memories, many were a little too carb loaded and not as fresh as I’d like. I find myself cooking a lot more Asian inspired dishes these days: curries, stir-fries, and the like – sans rice. Basically typical meal plan is as follows: pick up some great looking produce, quality meats, throw it together as simply as possible, rinse, and repeat.

Without a doubt some of my favorite dishes are of the rich French sort, which are anything but simple, and certainly not the fare of athletes or someone trying to stay fit. I occasionally pull out one of my numerous cookbooks, but so often it’s hard to find something simple and protein rich; most dishes tend to be rich in other ways (e.g. cream, pasta, and cheese). Food takes on a whole new face when you ask, “What is my body getting out of this?” There’s a juice bar at the local organic market and I find myself scrutinizing the nutrient density of the things they put into the juicer, “No celery please it’s just water, no apple that’s just sugar – more kale.”

Tinker

Coding has been something that has always captivated me. I remember asking my mother for a book on C++ for Christmas one year, sure that if I was to be anyone, I needed to get started now – everyone knows all the greats in the computer science world didn’t pick up their craft in college… I also recall stay up all night in IRC chat rooms, SSH’ing into random people’s servers and learning the command line before I finally got up the courage to install Red Hat on my laptop back in middle school.

The only class I ever received a received an A+ in at Michigan was Engr 101 – the programing course that all students in the College of Engineering at Michigan have to take. I loved that course; I lived it, breathed it, and literally dreamt about it. I never went into computer science because I was worried that if I did something I loved for a living I would grow to hate it. My prime example being the frustration I felt when dealing with my parents on tech support calls, or their lack of understanding for why a hard reboot was not how the computer should be shut down on a regular basis.

Later, my favorite parts my major were the opportunities for coding. Lots of Nuclear Engineering problems – at least academically speaking – can benefit, or necessitate, the use of coding to solve them. This was undoubtedly my favorite part of my coursework. Any assignment that included coding I did far better in, just for the fact that I was excited about the method, I could get into it.

I recently attempted to port this phenomenon to my current job. After a difficult quiz, which I performed poorly on, I was struggling to find new ways to focus and get excited about studying something that was anything fun. I endeavored to make a nuclear wiki – a repository for all of my notes. Sure it was time consuming, but it got me doing something I love and forced me to review a lot of material all over again.

There’s also the possibility, though slim, that it could actually solve a problem. If you’ve ever worked at a Nuclear Power Plant, you’ll be all too aware of the incredible frustration in finding information. In an age in which ‘Google’ is a verb, it seems unfathomable that I can’t just get what I want when I type into a search box. In my experience though, the nuclear industry places an incredible lack of importance on efficiency and innovation. Both of the companies I’ve worked for use incredibly cumbersome, poor performing, and unintelligible, systems for data management. Poor infrastructure and server speed aside, basic human factors are thrown to the wind… of course I want to see the document’s title in a document search program, are you kidding?

We use nonsensical nomenclatures and systems that do not interoperate. You can know exactly what you’re looking for, and know that it’s written down somewhere, but good luck trying to find it if you don’t know it’s in a document titled: 1X4DB1208-1. We use programs that have been co-opted from other industries and are ill-suited for the task we insist on using them for, never mind the fact that they don’t work with modern browsers. Have you gone to a website on the internet that is so baked into the old IE framework that it breaks if you open it on anything other than IE5 from Win XP…? Yea, we got that. The irony is that this is all done in the interest of rock solid stability – a farce.

Anyways, I imagine a world in which you can search for “CVCS” and get all the information, procedures, and documentation there is on the system without knowing the secret language. It seems like such a huge problem, with relatively simple solutions, we’re just not willing to put in the time and effort to see it through, because we don’t see the incredible efficacy gains that will be made – especially with the new engineers who don’t know all the secrets. The movers and shakers of today’s world have entire teams that are devoted to developing in-house tools that make their employees’ jobs easier, and thus more productive. But then, the nuclear industry is no Silicon Valley startup, in more than one way.

In today’s hustle and bustle, we need constants; things that never change, things that comfort us. What are yours?

The Last Computer

We’ve been saying that for a while haven’t we? A year and a half ago, when I bought my iPad, I was sure I would never buy another laptop… well, turns out I was wrong.

Last weekend I bought the new 13’ MacBook Air Haswell i7.  All the benchmarks put it either at, or above, the current MacBook Pro lineup, which is due for an update here shortly.  I was had previously convinced myself that I was going to be waiting for the new MacBook Pro Retina.  But, then I came to my senses.  Who am I kidding…?  My need for processing power has diminished exponentially in the past few years.  I certainly don’t have the time for gaming, nor the skill for video editing and creation.  Every once in a blue moon, I find myself on a photography kick again. 2D images however, RAW or not, require more RAM than CPU, and after all, anything would be a vast improvement over my ’09 iMac.

A confluence of circumstances led me to actually pull the trigger last weekend – not the least of which being my want to buy something, anything.  I had found myself using my desktop less and less, and I wasn’t sure if it was because it was so restrictive – stationary that is – or because it was slower to navigate to web pages than my iPad.  I was eventually able to convince myself that I was no different, required no more computing power, than the average user.  The vast majority of my time is spent either at work, or working on work… neither of which requires a great deal of computing power.  Whereas in my undergrad I found myself being thankful that I had one of the first dual core processors and was able to make use of multithreaded processes to run my reactor core simulations with expedience over the computers in the library, today I do little more than word processing and web browsing – all perfectly ordinary.

I did it.  I bought a new computer, even in the face of the impending future updates to the MacBook Pros.  As we shift more and more to cloud computing, the processing power of your own personal computer becomes less and less valuable.  We are shifting back to the earlier explored, and subsequently abandoned, model of the terminal and the mainframe.  The only difference being, that instead of the horrendous ‘HP thin clients’ and crappy remote desktops of your workplace, we’re using Google, Apple, and Amazon’s semi-infinite computing power and spare computing cycles, to do the hard work for our perfectly capable, but comparatively underpowered, machines.

Even the harder work of video and photo editing can now be done in the cloud.  Google+ is doing some amazing things in the cloud with your photos these days.  And these on demand computing resources increase the possibilities and usefulness of the thing that can be done with your photos.  Beyond the normal ho-hum import, algorithms can now determine which of the 15,000 photos you took last year were of the best quality and of the most interest.

Perhaps more importantly, this model, as it has always been, appears cheaper to the user.  One can now buy a Chromecast for $35 - an ingenious device.  The Chromecast is essentially a 35$ computer terminal that interfaces with the cloud.  Your computer sends the demand for content to Google, which then handles all the processing and encoding, and relays it down to the cheap device which is presumably connected to your very expensive display (i.e. a large TV).  Until now, at least personally, the advent of “Smart TVs” has been relatively uneventful, chiefly because of the incredibly underpowered TV processors that were handling the mess of a user interface.  No one wanted to use that shit… it was messy, clunky, and slow.  Google can do that all in the cloud for you now... it’s gorgeous, and you don’t even have to buy a new TV!

Do we really need all that processing power in our homes, or can we leave it to the cloud?

Just as more and more users are getting used to the idea that more and more of their personal data is stored in the cloud, we hear the stories of the NSA downloading the Internet in its entirety.  Now, my lack of confidence in the cognitive ability of most Americans means that I think the implications escape most, but for the savvy the implications are vast. 

“Big Data” is awfully similar to “Big Brother”.  This Orwellian scenario isn’t that far fetched though… even as a miscreant youth of 10, I was aware that the NSA would begin recording my calls if I mentioned certain key words, or that I might expect to see strange tracks in the carpet if my conversations were anything other than on the up-and-up; perhaps I saw too many movies.

Regardless of your feelings on who is, or is not, monitoring the Internet, a more basic question bothers me.  What if the cloud goes away?  What if access is somehow revoked…? Do you want to have the ability to process data regardless of the charity of large corporations?  Should such circumstances arise though, I’m sure my ability to share and crunch data in the cloud will be the least of my worries.

I am currently reading a Sci-Fi book – a genre that I do not often find particularly interesting: Pandora’s Star, by Peter Hamilton.  The book is incredible.  As with most Sci-Fi though, I find myself confused.  Confused that we have not yet arrived at an already conceived of, and in many senses, fully developed way of living.  Why am I not browsing the web via neural inserts?  Why is my e-butler not handling all communications and alerting me of any pertinent information?  Why am I not connecting to the ‘unisphere’?  Why is my entire life’s memory not being continually backed up in the case that I meat a demise, untimely or otherwise?

So many questions, so few answers, but yet despite the declining computer sales of late, the landscape remains relatively unchanged from my days a child, longing for my first laptop so I could SSH into some remote Linux server and IRC chatting with geeks around the globe.

Facebook, a perversion.

I've long said this, and I'll say it again, Facebook is but a mere phantom of what it used to be.

I know where this is going, and what I will sound like when I get there (inevitbly far before I ever get there), but I think I need to risk it - for my sake.

My first exposure to Facebook was visiting a good friend of mine at University of Michigan my senior year of high school. This was back in early 2005. At the time, Facebook had literally JUST made it to U of M. Facebook was initially founded by students at Harvard, and slowly brached out to include students from other ivy leagues. Shortly thereafter it began to include other schools in the Big Ten (Michigan). During my visit to Michigan, we met some people while out one night and then the next day Facebook was introduced to me, "Lets see if they're on Facebook..." This is back when not even everyone at the select schools that had Facebook, back when the front page of Facebook listed the schools that it included, were even on it. This seemed so cool. As long as you went to Michigan, you could essentially see everyone else's Facebook that went to Michigan. At this time you needed to have an e-mail address from one of these schools that Facebook listed on the front of it's site to be able to have access... I wasn't in college yet.

While applying to schools, a certain college, which I shall not name, immediately accepted and gave me an e-mail address. Though I hadn't accepted my admission nor wanted to go there, I was able to use this e-mail address to get my first Facebook account. Now I could "Facebook Stalk" too... I enjoyed Facebooking and it's entertainment for a while, waiting anxiously for my other e-mail address to come.

Once I did finally have an e-mail address for Michigan, I switched over and then I started meeting people that went to Michigan. I could literally search and find ALL of the people in my class that were going to be going to Michigan and thumb through them all. You could also narrow your search using things like gender, sexual orientation and the like, and find ALL of the people willing to disclose this information. By all I mean that in many catagories there were only say 50 people in all of Michigan that you'd look through. This was really crazy to me. People would start talking to me that I'd never met before. Everyday there was some new amuzment, "OMG this group of girls from NJ, who I don't even know, friended me. They're messeging me and everything..." This was a large part of the summer before I went to school. When I did finally get there, I met people that lived in my dorm - I'd already been talking to them all summer though. Or I'd see people at a club that had been talking to me for months and be like, "Hey. James right?" So random, yet so cool to a kid looking to make new friends at a new school.

My freshman year is when Facebook added the ability to post pictures. Wow this was amazing. And of course, only college students were on Facebook, it was no big deal to have pictures on there of whatever, only friends were going to see it, only friends at Michigan for that matter. We all were using Facebook in what seemed a very protected space, one in which parents, family members, borthers and sisters were not allowed.

Slowly Facebook added more and more colleges, ever smaller and random. This was the first round of random friending that occured. People from highschool you handn't talked to were starting to get on Facebook. Then they added high schools, this is when people's younger siblings started friending. All the while, privacy settings and making sure you were aware of what was visible to whom became more and more of an issue. At least for myself, Facebook was initially a place where I was friends with only the people that were actually my friends in the post high school world, or at least people who only knew me as who I was in college. One of the advantages of going away to college, in my opinion, is the ability to define your own identity and choosing who you surround youself with. Suddenly whatever identity you've made for yourself, or that you ascribe to in the college setting is now supposed to fit in with the pre college life (siblings, people from home, from high school). For many this may not be an issue at all, but it certianly is for other poeple. Someone who is completely out in college and when new relationships are established this is very clear, but hasn't nessisarily gone around and told every other person with whom relationships were already estabilished, for example, might find this uncomfortable.

Soon after that, you didn't even need to be in high school to be on Facebook. Now not only could kids in middle school or younger potentially join, but now parents, relatives, everyone could be on Facebook. I resisted this change very strongly. I would simply decline friend requests from siblings, or anyone that didn't exist in the college setting. I certianly didn't think it was appropriate to be friends with my little sisters or younger cusins for example.

Eventually I broke down and accepted that these people were on Facebook. The first step for me was to allow the friend requests, but provide limited profile information - in some cases basically zero. Later I began to limit it less and less. Now my friends on Facebook inlcude just about anyone you could imagine, family, friends from college, high school, grade school, work, and even bosses. What was once a comfortable semi-private place is now a only slightly less public than a billboard. Any status update or picture is essentially visible to not only my whole social network, but assumedly everyone.

Whenever I go to post something I think about my audience. For the most part, at least recently, I decided I'd rather just use Twitter. On Twitter I know exactly who my audience is. This comes at a cost though, I know that I'm excluding people, friends, that I would want to see what I'm posting. However, as soon as I think, "I should tell people on Facebook to start following me on Twitter." I imidatily think, "well... there are a lot of people on Facebook I don't want to follow me on Twitter." In most cases though, I've decided against using the bloated Facebook network, at the cost of leaving some friends out of the loop.

So what's the solution? Well, I can't honestly say I don't know, but I would think it'd look something like smaller micro networks that include only the people in the part of your life that your in, and then larger networks to cover the rest. Something like a small network, with only your closest friends or perhaps with only people in the same part of life, where you can be more comfortable and then a separate place where you're just 'friends' with everyone. This model fails though, when you talk about people moving on or out of these established networks. For example, now that I'm out of college, I would fit into the catagory of people who I would have told you shouldn't even be on Facebook.

LinkedIn seems to be an attempt at addressing this problem. You can use LinkedIn for only proffesional connections. The problem is though, that people were already using Facebook as a sort of multipurpose tool, so the true benifits of LinkedIn and Facebook as separate entitites are lost. What needs to happen is some sort of structuring of these different social graphs. Some sort of diliniation needs to be in place if the true benefits of these social networks, benifits that I saw my first years of college, are to be maintained. Otherwise, people will, or at least schould, become more and more uncomfortable with what Facebook is evolving into. Honestly, how many articles have you seen or read about Facebook affecting student's job search or getting fired?

I don't honestly believe that people are any more crazy or wild than they used to be, I think that the work force, the pool of college students, is much the same as it as 10 years ago; it's just that people are documenting it in a more public way. Either employers need to realize that more, that their prospective employees aren't really different despite what they find on Facebook, or the users will have to start 'protecting themselves'. Unfortunately, I don't see the former being the case anytime soon.

I think we'll soon see a shift somehow. My hope is that it will be to a collection of social networks, each with a more clear purpose and audience. For now though, I think we're left to make these networks and define these audiences for ourselves. I am going to stick with Twitter, and leave Facebook to figure itself out.

My Switch from the iPhone to Android [Part 2]

Hardware:

I’ve now had this phone for sometime. I love Android. I’m glad multi-tasking is finally making it’s way over to the iPhone with iPhone OS 4.0, because I don’t think I realized just how much I missed or wanted it until I had it again (Blackberry’s also have it). The Nexus One is fast, and nice to look at. By nice to look at I mean both with respect to the screen and the physical phone itself. The trackball, while I hardly ever use it for navigation around the phone, is very usefully as it doubles as a notification light. This was something that I always missed about my Blackberry when I switched to the iPhone for the second time, the ability to look at the phone and know if there is something new there waiting for you is nice. Also the charge light indicator is very handy, something also missing on the iPhone. I will say the strobing trackball is a bit obnoxious in a dark room... it's very bright. I'd be happy if the charge indicator light just flashed a little red, like the Blackberry. As far as voice quality goes, great. I have not, however, had someone on the other end ever say, "Hey are you using noise canceling techknowlegy, you sound so clear?" I don't know how effective or noticiable the noise cancelation micraphone really is.

The process of answering calls I find to be a bit shaky, and a bit annoying. You swipe, simalar to the iPhone, to answer a call but I find there is a delay from when the phone starts vibrating and ringing to when the call informatin shows up, and that sometimes you don't swipe 'well enough' and have to do it several times before the call is answered. Often I find myself wondering if I'll be able to answer it before the caller gets sent to voicemail.

While the screen is far birghter and easier to look at than the iPhone, it really does kill the battery. I've yet to determine which is more to blame, the multi-tasking or the screen, but battery performance seems significantly impacted by something. This is coming from someone who has been used to charging his phone every night and maybe sometimes once during the day; it's been a long time since I've had a phone I didn't need to charge at least once a day. It's also possible that my phone finds itself searching for signal too often, as coverage with AT&T in my area is spotty. Whatever it is, my battery life is short, annoyingling so. The upside is that it charges very fast. Even still, I'd like to have to plug in my phone at most once per day.

I've tried all sorts of things to help the battery... tried making sure that tasks are killed automatically and regualary, that the screen timeout is short, that bluetooth and wifi are off... nothing seems to be helping. I've even tried not running widgets, and if I do run them making sure that they aren't using the network or gps that often (12 hours instead of 3) - still, nothing. Feeling like I shouldn't have widgets up everywhere because it might drain the battery is very similar to not having widgets at all.

The softkeys (Back, Menu, Home, and Search) seem to be less responsive than I'd expect. If I want to go to the home screen I find myself automatically pressing home many many times to get the desired result - expecting the first press not to work properly. Typing on the touchscreen I don't see this problem at all, I don't know why the softkeys are any different. Maybe I haven't figured out the secret way to touch them?

I like the camera. I find it takes pretty decent pictures, and the LED flash is great. However, the LED flash really seems overly bright, and washes most subjects out completely at times, better than no flash at all though. There is also a significant lag from when you ask it to take the picture and when it's taken, do to the auto focusing and the LED flash. I also find myself wanting the camera app to recognize I have the phone in portrait and change the orientation of the app to match, but it seems to want you to shoot exclusivly in landscape. Not that it matters much, but I find taking a picture blindly is harder on the N1 than on the iPhone because of where the shutter release is placed and how awkwardly that makes you hold the phone if you and your subject are in front of the lens.

I'm pleased with my Nexus One. I wish that it worked on AT&T's 3G network. They now have a version that works on AT&T, but it seems to me that the discrepancy in 3G frequencies negates the advantages to GSM and being unlocked...? Why not either have the carriers decide on a standard frequency, or be the cell phone manufacturer producing phones that work completely on either network? It will be interesting though, to see what happens when the Nexus One becomes available on all networks in the United States. I think we'll start to see that as a growing trend. Blackberries are available on all netwroks, but each seem to have their own flavors and revisions. I would persoanlly like so see us get away from a place where the cariers are impacting the user's experince so much and into a place where they have to compete on a network strength and pricing alone, and leave the phone's up the the people who do phones.

Meanwhile no contract plans are becoming more and more available from all carriers... It's looking good for the consumer.

All this said, I can't wait to see what Apple has done to the iPhone with the new revision, most probably coming out this September.

My Switch from the iPhone to Android [Part 1]

I'll have to admit, I came about the switch rather abruptly... But after finding myself without any phone at all, I decided that I might as well give Android and the Nexus One a try. Here I am, less than a week later, and I am more than pleased with my decision to ditch the familiar iPhone and dive into Android.

What was/is my initial impression? Well, I've tried to organize this a bit...

Software:

The first thing that becomes obvious from the moment you boot it up (after painfully waiting for it to finish it's first charge at the behest of Google I might add) is the ridiculously well integrated use of all of the Google Apps and the cloud model. This is to be expected on a mobile OS made by Google I suppose, but it truly is the single biggest strength of the platform in my opinion. Seeing as how I'd just recently COMPLETELY switched over to Google Contacts, Calendar, GMail, and basically every other Google app the experience was amazing. I'd always been using the Google cloud for GMail and had switched between Google Calandar and iCal over and over. Sometime in the last couple months though, I'd set up Google's Sync with my iPhone, and all of my computers also pulled all of my information, my life, from the Google cloud. Having all of my stuff on in the cloud made setting up my Nexus One as easy as entering my Google credentials, which is the first thing that it has you do.

In a matter of minutes everything I would expect, productivity wise, was there. I must also say that the Nexus One being an unlocked GSM phone was amazing... I didn't have to spend any time at a wireless store getting them to switch my service to a new phone (a usually lengthy process). It was almost surreal, to be honest. There was a sort of "this just works" feeling to it.

The next most noticeable thing was the vast degree to which I could customize the device. On an iPhone there are only a handful of settings. You can choose a ringtone and a sound for text messages. There really isn't much else there... On Android one can set up specific sounds (of which there are many to choose from) and methods of being notified about just about anything - including application specific notifications. When I say that, I really mean everything... One can adjust how often syncs are performed for each individual application, as well as things as specific as if the track ball will light up, if it will vibrate, if there will be an audible alert, and if so what. As if that weren't enough, the only way the iPhone can alert you is through a pop-up, there is no collection or organization of various notifications. On android there is this notifications bar, where you will find iconic representations of all of your notifications. If you'd like more information you can pull the 'blind' down and see all of the details. Fantastic.

All of this customization started to remind me of my Blackberry days, where I more controlled my user experience, not Apple...

More on the hardware to come later.

Ehm... Android Handset I Suppose.

My posts have become significantly less frequent... Several reasons really, no longer being on vacation being a large one, but also I've found myself bogged down with some larger articles regarding the iPhone and must have apps. I'm going to go ahead and shelf that, perhaps indefinitely, and turn instead to the Nexus One.

My iPhone is, presumably, in the possession of some cab driver in Chicago at the moment. A Nexus One has been purchased, but yet to arrive on my door step.

My next several posts shall almost certainly revolve around my experiences with the new device.

I'm excited to see how this goes. Less than excited about the nature of the new purchase, but what can I do... Tech reviewer by circumstance?