post

Tinfoil Hat & Edward Snowden

tinfoil-hatsJust after the horrific tragedy of 9/11, I began to see quite disturbing things unfolding in the U.S. in the name of “security” that was (in my, and many other’s, minds) clearly trampling on the Constitution. Most of my friends teased me for several years about wearing a “tinfoil hat” to shield my brain, but then Edward Snowden came on the scene, ensuring that the unconstitutional domestic surveillance underway by the National Security Agency (NSA) was exposed.

Photo by Laura Poitras / Praxis Films

Edward Snowden
Photo by Laura Poitras, Praxis Films, under a CC BY 3.0 license.

While I was (and am) less disturbed by some of the global spying activities the NSA is performing—other than egregious hacking of world leaders’ mobile phones and such—there is no question that making U.S. citizens aware of the extent of the domestic spying was the first wake-up call for those ignoring the signs of the obvious, disturbing and unconstitutional activities going on.

After essentially reading every single news article and snippet about what Snowden (and others, I might add) have released to date, yes I believe Snowden did the world a great service and is a patriot. No, I don’t think he will get a pardon (yet) since it’s still too early on and Congress has not yet bothered to rein in the NSA in any meaningful way with regard to domestic spying.

The U.K. news organization The Guardian has an entire section called the NSA files which is likely the most comprehensive compendium of items sparked by Snowden’s whistleblowing document release. It’s a bit daunting to wade through, so I was intrigued this morning to see that Business Insider just compiled this bullet-point list of items Snowden had provided to select journalists that were released between 2013 and 2014. It’s pretty amazing to see them listed and realizing just how profound were these leaks and, in my view, extremely important. 

Here are just a handful of those links just to get you started:

  • The NSA accessed and collected data through backdoors into U.S. internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, with a program called Prism. — June 6, 2013
  • The NSA has a program codenamed EvilOlive that collects and stores large quantities of Americans’ internet metadata, which contains only certain information about online content. Email metadata, for example, reveals sender and recipient address and time but not content or subject. — June 27, 2013
  • Internal NSA document reveals an agency “loophole” that allows a secret backdoor for the agency to search its databases for U.S. citizens’ email and phone calls without a warrant. —Aug. 9, 2013
  • The NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, according to an internal audit. —Aug. 15, 2013
  • Expanding upon data gleaned from the “black budget,” the NSA is found to be paying hundreds of millions of dollars each year to U.S. companies for access to their networks. — Aug. 29, 2013

Read more here at Business Insider

post

What!?! You Don’t Know How to Use a Web Browser?

confused

Confused about how to use a website?
IT’S 2016 PEOPLE…CLICK SOMETHING!

On a daily basis I am just astounded that people don’t know absolute basics about how to use a web browser, download a PDF from a website, use the “Lost your password?” link to reset their password if they forgot it or it didn’t work, and a myriad of other stupid-simple tasks.

While I admit that there are a host of non-intuitive design paradigms out there for websites, basic things are basic: People should know (by now) how to do the items I mentioned above at the very least.

I’ll give you one example from today. I had a client from our website development company (Innov8Press) reach out to me since a user tried her password that was sent to her but it didn’t work. Rather than click the “Lost your password?” link under the login box, she went to the website’s contact form and sent in a note.

So I tried her username and password combination originally sent and they worked. I informed my client to have her use the lost-your-password process since we’d taken great pains to build out one that is incredibly intuitive and nicely designed. I haven’t heard back from anyone yet, but am not holding out hope that we won’t be “helping” this person again. (UPDATE: Client just said this: “She said she tried again and couldn’t get it to work, so she is going to send in a paper registration.“).

pdf-iconIn one of our other businesses we offer PDF reports that people buy. Though we have set up force-downloads on our server, some browsers ignore that and load the PDF inside the browser (e.g., Safari on Mac and Chrome if set up to display PDFs in-browser, which many corporations do for their users).

It turns out that many people simply didn’t know that they couldn’t come back to their account on our site again-and-again to download the report whenever they want to view it. Most importantly they didn’t know to do a “Save as…” in their browser to save the report out to their downloads folder or desktop.

So here’s a question for you: Am I being a cranky old man or should basic, stupid-simple web browsing tasks be something that people should know how to do in 2016?

post

Steve’s 2016 Road Trip

Just completed another “Steve’s Road Trip” for 2016. Though I’d originally intended to head out to Rocky Mountain National Park this year, my time is limited so, once again, I headed up to the north shore of Lake Superior with my new Nikon D500 camera (which I’m in love with, by the way).

These are a handful of “keeper” photos from the several hundred I took as I experimented with the HUGE number of camera settings! The place I stay at is about three hours away so is even perfect for a weekend getaway.

Click any photo thumbnail to view a larger version and scroll through the photos (to see the full resolution versions of each photo, go to my Flickr album here):

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar

post

Listening Point – Part Two

Listening_PointIn the summer of 2014 I made my first visit to Sigurd Olson‘s Listening Point and wrote about it here. On my 2016 road trip and photo adventure I made another pilgrimage to Listening Point, this time in attempt to be there by myself with no, or minimal, interruptions. I wanted to just “be” and listen…exactly how Olson described his experience of this place in his book of the same name.

It was a success (except for the guy across the lake who fired up a chain saw just before I left) and I’d love to be able to stay in the cabin one night…but that’s out of the question. Still, it was enough to stop there and experience this place, and think about Olson and his legacy, one more time.

Below is a video of the place so you can get an idea of what it is like and a link to my Flickr photo album of Listening Point.

post

Taking Photos? Use a “Real” Camera Instead of Your Phone

lakesuperiorUsually my annual “Steve’s Road Trip” adventures are out west to the mountains, or down to the desert southwest, but for the second summer I’m headed to the north shore of Lake Superior before summer gives way to the fall. I’ll also go up to Ely for a day (and stop at former National Geographic photographer, Jim Brandenburg’s gallery) and so I can also head over to Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point and take some photos. (You can read my 2014 post about my first visit to Listening Point here).

When I mentioned my trip to a buddy of mine he asked, “Are you going to shoot with your iPhone?” I thought he was joking, but in the past we’ve talked about the “photography revolution” since smartphone shooting has essentially killed the “point and shoot” lower end camera market, and ad campaigns like Apple’s Shot on iPhone make it seem like anyone running around with their iPhone will get National Geographic-worthy photos (reality check: you won’t).

So that begs the question: Do you shoot important photos with your smartphone? [Read more…]

post

Private Internet Access Pulls Out of Russia

pia-logo2_12xgPrivate Internet Access (PIA), my VPN of choice, just made a gutsy move that any of us who use the service are applauding, and one I’ll wager will also pay off with heightened awareness of their service.

You may have heard about a new “anti-terror” law that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law this past week. At its core the law dictates that communication companies doing business in Russia will have to keep a record of their users’ calls, text messages, photos, and internet activity for six months, and store ‘metadata’ for three years, according to the International Business Times.

Since PIA’s servers in Russia keep no logs—and key to the PIA service is that do not log any traffic or usage by customers on any of their servers—the Russian government seized their servers!

This is what was sent out late yesterday to PIA customers:

To Our Beloved Users,

The Russian Government has passed a new law that mandates that every provider must log all Russian internet traffic for up to a year. We believe that due to the enforcement regime surrounding this new law, some of our Russian Servers (RU) were recently seized by Russian Authorities, without notice or any type of due process. We think it’s because we are the most outspoken and only verified no-log VPN provider.

Luckily, since we do not log any traffic or session data, period, no data has been compromised. Our users are, and will always be, private and secure.

Upon learning of the above, we immediately discontinued our Russian gateways and will no longer be doing business in the region.

To make it clear, the privacy and security of our users is our number one priority. For preventative reasons, we are rotating all of our certificates. Furthermore, we’re updating our client applications with improved security measures to mitigate circumstances like this in the future, on top of what is already in place. In addition, our manual configurations now support the strongest new encryption algorithms including AES-256, SHA-256, and RSA-4096.

All Private Internet Access users must update their desktop clients at https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/pages/client-support/ and our Android App at Google Play. Manual openvpn configurations users must also download the new config files from the client download page.

We have decided not to do business within the Russian territory. We’re going to be further evaluating other countries and their policies.

In any event, we are aware that there may be times that notice and due process are forgone. However, we do not log and are default secure against seizure.

If you have any questions, please contact us at helpdesk@privateinternetaccess.com.

Thank you for your continued support and helping us fight the good fight.

Sincerely,
Private Internet Access Team

Thank you PIA team for keeping us safe and taking a stand against repressive regimes like Russia.
post

Microsoft’s “Skype Meetings” Fail

skype-meetingsHere is how to acquire a perfectly good technology, Skype, and morph it into such a horrendously bad user interface (UI) kludge as to make it a running joke in tech circles. Virtually everyone I know is quitting Skype and is using an alternative*.

I’ve used Skype for over ten years. The Windows and Mac versions were never the same, but they were both standalone clients and it was relatively easy for me (on a Mac) to coach someone (on Windows) on how to use the platform and I frequently used it for collaboration. Not anymore!

The UI on Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, the Web and now this God-awful-excuse-for-meetings, Skype Meetings, are each different and seem to change frequently. The only way for someone to coach someone through getting set up and using Skype in any form is to actually have that version (and device) in front of them. Otherwise it’s basically impossible to tell someone what to do and what to click to get the thing to work (or do something simple like screensharing).

If you don’t believe me, click on these screenshots from Google images showing the explosion of UIs for Skype:

Don’t believe me that it is hard to coach someone on how to use Skype? Windows has standalone clients (XP, 7, 8) and Metro UI in 8.1 and the new Win10 version, but ALL OF THEM ARE DIFFERENT so try telling a friend, family member or colleague the process of setting up their audio input and speakers and then sharing their screen with you. Go ahead….I’ll wait.

Oh…you couldn’t do it, heh? Then try finding and sending them a URL for their particular version. Oh….there are at least half a dozen places on the Skype site to find how-to information so that doesn’t make it any easier.

My guess is that Skype Meetings is supposed to change all of that by leveraging Skype’s audio, video and screensharing in to a single platform. If my experience trying to get setup today is any indication, THAT certainly won’t happen!

[Read more…]

post

Suburban Chev’s Completely Worthless Live Chat

suburbanchev

Saw a commercial last night about a General Motors “up to $X cash back” on several of their cars, including the 2016 Chevrolet Volt. The $7,820 cash back would take the “Premier” model price-point drop down around the current 2017 entry-level model’s price.

So before heading over to our local dealer, Suburban Chevrolet, I was at my computer doing some other stuff so thought I’d try out their live chat and just ask about availability. There was no 2016 inventory on their website, but dealers know they have a limited window to dump last year’s models and will swap out vehicles when needed.

This live chat was such a complete and utter waste of time that I am drop-jawed American car companies still use such plaid-sport-coat sales tactics and it felt like I was car shopping in the 1970s.

Just so you know, the live chat was all about qualifying, and obtaining an email or phone number, instead of answering ANY simple question (one they should know, of course).

Read how this third party chat group evades answering anything… [Read more…]

post

Bitcoin: Is It Time To Get In?

bitcoin

Is it time to buy in to the cryptocurrency bitcoin? Is now the time when you should expend time, energy and effort to become a “bitcoin miner“, get a bitcoin wallet, or is bitcoin risk still too high?

At one point in late 2010 I read this article in Slashdot about bitcoin and started poking around to learn more about it. As I thought about this new digital currency in downtime during the holidays that year, I strongly considered getting in to bitcoin mining and was even online looking at hardware to buy.

My enthusiasm was muted, however, since all of us were just coming off the global economic crisis of 2007-2008. After having struggled to keep our business afloat, slashing costs and personnel, and getting into lines of business solely to generate cash—my trust level in entering in to the fray surrounding an unregulated, digital currency with a bunch of unknowns was pretty dang low.

It is also likely I probably would have not made much—or had seen my bitcoins stored, and then lost, at Mt. Gox—but even a few dozen bitcoins mined in early 2011 (when each one was worth US$1.00) means selling them at today’s value of $684 each would have yielded a nice little gross of nearly US$25,000.

Sounds like a lot of money, right? Not so fast there cowboys and cowgirls. The bitcoin space is still the wild, wild west and a tenderfoot often got shot or died of thirst crossing the desert. [Read more…]

post

Why My iPad Pro 9.7″ is Perfect

ipadpro

Apple announced the new iPad Pro 9.7″ and looking over its tech specs I knew I had to order one…and did right away….and it arrived March 31st. I’ve now used it daily for over a month and the “wow” factor has died down somewhat, so today seemed like the perfect one to jot down my impressions.

Why My iPad Pro 9.7″ is Perfect
OK. Perfect might be too strong a word since there really isn’t such a thing in technology. Devices and tech overall is a continuum and the moment you buy something that sinking feeling that, “…if I’d only waited until…” comes over you as you realize the next iteration of it will be better, cheaper and faster.

For me, the reason I’d use a superlative like “perfect” is because it is so much better than any other iPad I’ve used before. It’s very fast; best battery life ever; the screen, and Apple’s True Tone display technology, is stunning; and when paired with the Apple Pencil it finally lets me take notes like I was writing on paper without all the futzing around making sure my wrist wasn’t leaving digital ink marks all over the page.

apple-pencil2Seriously. That note taking capability is my killer-feature. It is something I’ve wanted to be amazing and perfect from day-one with iPad but it was not. Handwriting sure is now though! There are several note-taking apps I use but have settled on these three and each has their one defining feature for me:

1) Notes Plus: Has built-in character recognition that’s pretty good if your handwriting is legible (I print vs. cursive so it works great)

2) Noteshelf: Numerous features I love and use often like Dropbox backup, but the stationary (in-app purchases) templates are remarkably useful

3) Microsoft OneNote: The handwriting is under “Draw” so is really for sketching (no character recognition) but I use OneNote for organizing so many aspects of our three businesses (as well as my many side projects) that I like having it work well on iPad and the Draw capability is a bonus.

But Steve, Can iPad Pro Improve?
Like I said above, the next version will be better, faster and probably the same price instead of ‘cheaper’, but it’s likely I’ll have this one for at least two years. Especially since I spent over $1,000 on it and accessories (gulp) and I don’t use it as a primary computing device anyway due to its limitations.

Where I think the big value will lie is with removing more of those limitations within iOS itself. As you know if you’re an iPhone or iPad user already, there are inherent security model aspects to iOS that are quite stringent when it comes to apps sharing data with one another (i.e., you cannot). Because of those security concerns, almost every highly productive task I can easily perform on my iMac or Macbook Pro requires several additional steps and apps to accomplish on iPad.

Those multiple steps just make me mad and frustrated all the time and this “nearly perfect” iPad only removes a fractional amount of that frustration due to its speed. But one thing is certain: Apple will continue to improve iOS along with their devices.

Should You?
Should you buy the ‘Pro’ or stick with the regular iPad? Only you can decide on what you need, but if note-taking or sketching is something you will do often then the Pro model is it. I’ve had mine for nearly six weeks now and I feel delight every time I use it…it’s that good…and I’m using it frequently throughout each day, every day.