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A Vacation in Rome: Angels, Demons and Dirt

angelOur vacation this year was to Rome, Italy and it was good and bad. I’ve been trying to reconcile this trip in my own mind but am still wrestling with it so thought best to get it out of my head and in a post.

Our family approached this trip with great anticipation. My kids are 26 and 19 so it is likely our last vacation together as only the four of us. Having never been to Rome, we planned for months. Here’s what we discovered, though these opinions are more mine than my wife or kids:

THE BAD

Tough to see, but the area in front of our five star hotel is littered with cigarette butts and trash...which is *everywhere* in Rome

Tough to see, but the area in front of our five star hotel is littered with cigarette butts and trash…which is *everywhere* in Rome (click for larger view)

1) THE FILTH: Oh my God is Rome filthy. Old is one thing, but cigarette butts, wrappers, cans and bottles, homeless people’s food debris (and urine) is everywhere, and no one has cleaned a sidewalk here since the time of Caesar (or so it seems). It is just simply dirty.

What really stunned me, though, was the endless graffiti. It covers every surface from upscale hotels and office buildings, to subway cars to every shop and apartment building.

graffiti1

Even in the town near Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port city, there was graffiti on buildings.

Over several days as we were in neighborhood after neighborhood, tony shopping districts, the subway, towns outside Rome, and even major attractions, and the thought that kept coming in to my mind constantly was, “Man…Rome is a shithole!” and I couldn’t figure out if Romans didn’t care about Rome, or corruption is rampant so no one does much work, or something that makes people put up with this in a city with as much potential as this one.

graffiti2

Every subway car was covered, windows etched with knives, and graffiti was all over the inside too.

This filth, or lackadaisical attitude about the cleanliness of the city, even translates to the overwhelming majority of cars driven by Romans in the city. Nearly every vehicle I looked at on the road, in parking lots and parked on the side of roads was scratched, dinged and just simply dirty. Even new cars. I just didn’t get it, especially from this land and people who have designed and given us Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

I actually had my small wallet in a front pocket but the pickpocket got it anyway

I actually had my small wallet in a front pocket but the pickpocket got it anyway

2) THE CRIME: Our last day we were riding the metro bus from a museum near the Vatican and my wallet was pickpocketed. Even though I’d taken incredible caution for the entire trip—especially since every guidebook warns over-and-over again to wear a moneybelt and be extremely cautious—this time I slipped it into my pocket so someone grabbed it. To say I was upset and angry is an understatement, so much so my daughter got off the bus since I was “making a scene.”

Coat of arms of the Carabinieri

Coat of arms of the Carabinieri

We went back to our hotel room to cancel my credit cards and place a fraud alert on our credit report, when a call came in from the front desk. Turns out a team from the Carabinieri, the Italian national military police, had busted a gang of Romanian pickpockets and they found my wallet in one guy’s backpack!

I got everything back. To say I was stunned and amazed is putting it mildly. Based on all the TripAdvisor forum posts, the articles and forum post at travel expert Rick Steves website, this type of crime is rampant in Rome and, as Steves said in one article, “...at least one person on every tour is pickpocketed.”

The scams, people hustling, and the ripoffs made me feel like I was traveling to a third world country, not a modern one like Italy.

But there was a lot of good and amazing things to see and experience and we had those too, thankfully.

[Read more...]

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Open Letter to Vlad Shmunis, CEO, RingCentral

CLICK FOR A WEDNESDAY, JULY 16th UPDATE
CLICK FOR A FRIDAY, JULY 11th UPDATE

ringcentral-logoAs a RingCentral (RC) customer since May of 2010, we have enjoyed your service and its capabilities. After my initial 40-50 hours of working with your Philippines-based support folks (yes, it was that painful to setup), we finally got everything up and functioning with our two lines (using Cisco analog telephone adapters), our 800#, fax line, and extensions. It has worked quite well ever since and we’ve evangelized RC to many clients and friends, many of whom have signed up with your service.

But man…is it ever hard to upgrade! Though we have had few issues with RC and little need to contact tech support, dealing with your folks in the Philippines is virtually impossible when it comes to upgrading our service or buying new phones!

[Read more...]

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Listening Point

Listening Point on Burntside Lake

Listening Point on Burntside Lake

Wilderness. It is a concept fading from our consciousness as more humans populate the earth and those growing up now increasingly have their attention focused on the virtual.

The wild places—those where it is just you, the natural world, and the past, present and future you become aware of when you truly listen and observe what is around you—are arguably more important now than ever before in our fast-paced world.

This is something that Sigurd Olson lived and taught. If it weren’t for Olson, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) would not exist.

Yesterday I had a chance to visit Olson’s cabin on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, a place he called Listening Point, and one now on the National Historic Register.

[Read more...]

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Podcasting in Minnesota

podcastmn-logoPodcasting first began in earnest around mid-2005, driven in large part by a guy named Adam Curry. Curry has often been cited as the “godfather of podcasting”—at least from the promotional side while a guy named Dave Winer figured out and delivered the technical capabilities to make podcasting actually work—and at least Curry is still active with his No Agenda podcast.

During 2005, Curry would often play promos from podcasters around the world. One local Minnesota tech visionary, Garrick Van Buren, had started up a podcast group called PodcastMN (site is gone but here is a link to an archived version). Van Buren graciously managed the show feeds, set up the meetups, and was the guiding light of the group. At one of our meetups he suggested that the group record a short promo and send it to Curry.

Curry never played it, but many of us forgot all about it (and mostly about Curry himself) and went on with our respective podcasting adventures. Some of us stopped our original shows, some morphed in to others, but I’ll bet everyone still listens to a lot of podcasts themselves!

The PodcastMN folks at this particular meetup were (in order of appearance):

  • Sue GrandysUncomfortable Questions was a show I always enjoyed — it’s been said ‘everyone’ has a story and Sue always pulled it out of people — but her last show was in 2012
  • Mike O’Connor – His show Sex and Podcasting was done as an experiment, one leveraging his background in community radio. He stopped in 2005 but then started up again with GeezerCast, an effort that entailed, “Podcasting to my unborn grandchildren.
  • Eric LarsonEricCast is his show and he’s been recording virtually non-stop since the beginning

It’s been nearly 8 years since we were at that meetup and podcasting is still alive and well in Minnesota as well as nationally and internationally (see Remember podcasting? It’s back – and booming). How many podcasts are out there? Stitcher, a podcast listening service and mobile app, states that they are, “… the easiest way to discover the best of over 20,000+ radio shows, live radio stations and podcasts.”  More shows, and video podcasts, are coming online every day as well so this medium is still in its toddler phase. It will be interesting to see where this goes when it becomes easier for listeners (or video podcast watchers) to discover and stream new shows.

Give a listen to this short ‘promo’ to Adam Curry recorded in October of 2005 so you can hear just a handful of we early podcasters here in Minnesota, and how we positioned our shows:

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Vatican City Explained

We’re preparing for a family trip to Italy and I’ve been collecting interesting things to read and watch beforehand. It’s always good to have historical context before any trip, so the places one goes has a deeper meaning than what the guidebooks or venue signs display.

A short video like this one is perfect for our adult children to whet their appetite for more. Several of these factoids I didn’t know either and have sparked an interest in learning more:

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I’m Jewish and Related to Hitler?

sjb-dna-compositionAs we are all connected and come from a few thousand humans 60,000 or so years ago, you are probably both too.

After attending two parties last night, on the drive home my wife and I had a very interesting conversation about ancestry, how we’re all connected, and how two of her nephews discovered that they had completely different perspectives on their respective heritages. One saw himself as German (since their father’s direct ancestry is German) and the other brother identified with his lebanese background (since their mother’s ancestors hailed from Lebanon). It was a surprise to both of them.

That sparked a renewed interest in my ancestry so today I invested some time in poking around my 23andMe account to see if I could gain more insight in to my own genetic ancestry.

Like that one nephew of my wife’s, with the surname “Borsch” I’ve also always identified with Germany as my primary ancestry. Imagine my surprise when I saw that new visual representation you see above which clearly shows that the primary concentration of my ancestral DNA is British and Irish! Only 9.2% is closely aligned with French & German. Guess I have to rethink my ancestral beliefs.

But it got even more interesting as I dug deeper and discovered my .007% Jewish DNA and that Hitler and I shared a (thankfully) very distant male as an ancestor… [Read more...]

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Connected Home & the Twin Cities

sb-st-tc-comLast week I was interviewed by Julio Ojeda-Zapata, the TwinCities.com and St. Paul Pioneer Press technology reporter. We talked about my enthusiastic use of the leading home automation platform SmartThings, Apple’s announcement of their HomeKit at WWDC, and home automation in general.

His article starts out with:

A slumbering Steve Borsch of Eden Prairie did not move when an iPhone notification pinged at his bedside. He didn’t budge for a second alert either.

The third time was the charm, and good thing. It was January, the temperature outside was minus 14, and his home was freezing because the furnace had mysteriously turned off.

Read the article at TwinCities.com…

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Slo-Mo Sprinklers

Foolin’ around this morning shooting video on my iPhone. After viewing it I really liked the haunting bird song, along with the moth flitting about back-n-forth, and it put a smile on my face so thought I’d share it.

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Frontline’s United States of Secrets

frontline-ussecrets

Last night was part two of the PBS Frontline program called United States of Secrets. It was one of the best, most thorough overviews of what is going on with the NSA’s vacuum surveillance that I’ve ever seen.

You owe it to yourself, and the future of our children, to be aware of what’s going on.

NSA Finally In The Light

nsa-logoI’ve been deeply concerned about the massive, sweeping surveillance going on for over TEN YEARS! Whenever I bring up this topic (and online security in general) too many of my family and friends just shrug and say, “Oh well.” Frankly, I just don’t understand why most people don’t seem all that concerned about our fundamental erosion of liberty caused by the NSA’s mass surveillance.

Thankfully the Edward Snowden whistleblowing finally shined a light on what I intrinsically knew was going on shortly after 9/11 (see Snowden’s revelations and the overall controversy at The Guardian’s NSA Files website section). Yes, I feel vindicated for my paranoia but that attestation is not something I longed for…instead I hoped the government’s drive to classify their constitutional violations and illegal activities as “keeping America safe from terrorism” would stop.

Unfortunately that whistleblowing has made it increasingly hard for companies who sell their technology outside of the United States. For example, the NSA was inserting hardware in Cisco routers which caused CEO John Chambers to write a letter to President Obama asking for it to cease…now.

We’ve only seen the beginning of the backlash and erosion of our competitiveness around the world since no one trusts us anymore.  [Read more...]

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Is the Wells Fargo Mobile App Anti-Security?

wellsfargo-app

The Wells Fargo iPhone app disallows using the “Paste” capability in the phone to paste in long, high entropy passwords copied from my LastPass vault.

It is always interesting to me how banking apps, both web and mobile, specifically making a smartphone or tablet app very hard to use if you use a password with high entropy (see this Wikipedia article on password strength and especially “Entropy as a measure of password strength“).

Since I use a password manager (LastPass) with literally hundreds of sites in my ‘vault’, I use very strong passwords. They are comprised of upper/lowercase letters; numbers; special characters; and are ones that make it simple to have quite strong passwords for anything that matters (and they’re all different!).

So what do I have to do on my iPhone? Open my LastPass vault app; login to LastPass; find my Wells Fargo account; touch it and, in the popup, choose “Copy Password”; and then open the Wells Fargo app and choose the Password field; then choose “Paste”.

EXCEPT THE WELLS FARGO APP DISALLOWS PASTING A PASSWORD IN THE PASSWORD FIELD!

The problem is this: There is NO way I could ever remember my password since it is so long and contains so many characters of different types. Curiously the Wells Fargo app also disallows pasting anything in to the Username field…so I can’t even do a workaround by pasting my high entropy password temporarily in to the Username field and then typing it in the Password field.

Get your shit together Wells Fargo. With this app developed this way you are DISCOURAGING THE USE OF STRONG PASSWORDS! 

Of course, they do say on their website here that, “We take your privacy and security very seriously. Read about why our mobile banking services are secure. Learn more…” but I’m not going to dumb-down my password to use their mobile app.