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Why Cross-Site Tracking for Ads is Disturbing, But Also Badly Targeted

We’ve all had these sorts of experiences: A friend or loved one uses your computer to, for example, look up skateboarding and you soon notice that when you’re on some news site you typically frequent but suddenly the advertisements are now skateboarding related? Then you go to Facebook and the same thing happens with those types of ads appearing?

What’s bothersome to me is BOTH the ads AND the cross-site tracking companies that advertisers use so they can “follow us around” and display what they think are relevant ads. The problem is that my wife and I share a single Amazon Prime account so I logged in to Amazon as her this moring, bought her a new backup hard drive (her current one died), and then looked at my news reader and clicked on this Ars Technica article.

The ads were suddenly for beauty products like this one:

While I get my beauty sleep and care how I look, I do NOT use Clinique so I come across with a “better glow.”  😉

Here’s the thing: Ars Technica is a geek site and highly technical in its articles and why I so enjoy reading it. But I usually only read it in a browser with ad blocking turned on because, after they were acquired in 2008 by Advance, the parent company of publisher Conde Nast, their ads slowly-but-surely became larger and more intrusive like the HUGE one above (which, by the way, is in THREE other places on the page as I scrolled down.

USING AN AD BLOCKER
Ads are intrusive overall regardless, but they are REALLY annoying when I’m reading on my iPad which is what I typically do. Why? Because constantly loading ads in a header or sidebar means that, as I’m reading and maybe halfway down the article, it suddenly jumps to the top of the page! I get SO pissed off that I typically hammer on the publisher through tweets or an email, but they don’t care so never respond.

On my iPad I use 1Blocker to block cross-site tracking and ads, primarily to stop that behavior I just mentioned but also since it is a MUCH better experience to not be punched-in-the-face with ads since they are never discrete…they only want to intrude, interrupt, and completely take over one’s reading experience. They also make their “close boxes” as hard as possible to use so we inadvertently launch the ad’s website so the publisher gets credit for click-through!

Here is the exact-same article on my iPad:

If you’re interested in an ad-blocker (and, in some cases, a cross-site tracking blocker) for iOS, here are some options.

Google’s Chrome browser is the one I use but they are taking NO leadership for us. Only for themselves, advertisers and cross-site tracking companies since Google’s business model is primarily ad-centric and they provide us with all of those “free” services (e.g., Gmail; calendar; voice; and more) to get better-and-better at advertising to us and selling our data to others.

WHAT I DO
I don’t use ad-blockers or cross-site tracking blocking in Chrome usually since it interferes with too many web development activities which I perform within our Innov8Press business. Instead, I create site-specific browsers using Coherence 5 so cookies are self-contained within my “search” browser, for example, since Coherence allows you to turn any website into a full-blown macOS application in seconds. And, using the power of Google Chrome, allows each app to have separate settings and extensions.

STOPPING CROSS-SITE TRACKING
Fortunately there is hope. Apple’s decision to stop the cross-site tracking of advertising companies in the newest version of the Safari browser (version 11) — and put the power back in to the hands of those of us doing things online — has come to the fore with great controversy.

Publishers are obviously upset since their business models are advertiser-centric. While I completely understand their motivation, don’t they know that bitch-slapping us with ads, making them as HUGE as possible, hiring cross-site tracking companies to follow us around, does nothing but make everyone want them to STOP!!

Perhaps if publishers showed some restraint and took the high-road, things would be different. But for now I know I will do WHATEVER IT TAKES to block ads and cross-site tracking companies.

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Colorspike is a Portable & Programmable LED Lightbar for Filmmakers and Still Photographers

There is a recently launched Kickstarter for a portable and programmable LED lightbar called colorspike that is pretty amazing. Whether you’re a filmmaker (or wannabee like me goofing around shooting 4K video with my Nikon D500) or a still photographer, this new gadget is sure to open up huge creative possibilities.

The few professional filmmakers I’ve been able to meet over the years have one saying they all agree on:

The crew doesn’t matter, everything off frame doesn’t matter, all that counts is what’s on screen…it’s the shot that counts.

Though there are a lot of variables in getting to that on-screen shot outcome, there is no question that achieving the perfect shot is heavily dependent upon lighting. Trying to get lighting effects like a flickering campfire, police/fire/ambulance lights, or various kinds of mood lighting is typically achieved with colored gels smeared on lights. Besides being a pain-in-the-butt to use, using gels is slow, tedious, and very creatively limiting.

If it’s the shot that counts, getting that shot might take multiple (and sometimes dozens!) of attempts to get lighting effects set just right to achieve the shot. Colorspike looks like it will definitely give us a virtually unlimited lighting effect and color palette to work with as we shoot video or stills.

If you pledge $299 you can get one and they expect to deliver in March 2018. Check out the colorspike Kickstarter page to learn a lot more and see screenshots of the app too.

Before you go, however, take a few minutes to watch the video below and you’ll likely begin to imagine what you might do with this clever tool:

via BoingBoing

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Wells Fargo: Why the Bogus *Incoming* Wire Transfer Fee?

As my wife and I are rapidly approaching the “third half” of our lives, I’ve begun removing money from one of my brokerage accounts and wire transferring sums monthly to an account at Wells Fargo.

My wife noticed a “wire transfer fee” of $15 for each transfer. Hmm….Schwab (where we trade) has zero fees for outgoing wire transfers so I sent in this message to Wells Fargo customer support:

Never noticed before that you charge a $15 fee for **incoming** wire transfers until my wife alerted me to *her* wire transfer from Charles Schwab to Wells Fargo and it $15 fee.

This is ludicrous. A $15 fee for an incoming wire transfer? Schwab charges nothing for outgoing transfers so why does WF charge a fee for one coming in? This is nothing but bits across a wire and internal server gateways opening and closing. There is zero human cost in this equation (other than initial programming time) so a “fee” is NOT appropriate.

With all the personal and business money we have with WF, there is NO REASON to nickel-and-dime us on wire transfers like this one and I want someone in a managerial capacity to contact me directly and let me know why.

NOTE: Schwab actually has a $25 fee for outgoing wire transfers, but if you have enough dough in accounts like we do there they waive the fee and there is no fee for incoming transfers. With all the personal and business accounts we have at Wells Fargo — let alone the money we have there and transactions we run through our merchant gateway — my expectation was they’d not charge incoming wire transfer fees. The response from Annette in customer service came as no surprise as you’ll see below.

[Read more…]

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Why My New VPN is ProtonVPN

The team of scientists and engineers that came out last year with the wildly successful end-to-end encrypted email service, ProtonMail, has now officially made public their new highly secure (and very fast!) virtual private network (VPN) called ProtonVPN.

As a ProtonMail user I’ve been incredibly pleased with the service and its security and this morning I signed up for their newest offering, ProtonVPN. I did so mainly because of the features, but also because it’s from a company I trust and, as a beta user, found it to be fast, robust, secure, and rock-solid.

I’m also stunned by how quickly they’ve nailed the key features needed in both email and VPN to keep us private and secure. A big plus also is that the company, Proton Technologies AG, is based in Switzerland, a country whose laws favor privacy, security and non-disclosure which is the perfect place to headquarter the firm:

“ProtonMail was founded in 2013 by scientists who met at CERN and were drawn together by a shared vision of a more secure and private Internet. Since then, ProtonMail has evolved into a global effort to protect civil liberties and build a more secure Internet, with team members also hailing from Caltech, Harvard, ETH Zurich and many other research institutions.

Today, we help our community of millions of users secure their private data online. More than 10,000 supporters have assisted us in this mission by donating to make this project possible. Thanks to your support, we are continuing to develop state of the art email privacy and security technology from our home base of Geneva, Switzerland.”

ProtonVPN has several key features that are a bit geeky, but have turned my head as someone who is deep in to cyber security:

  • Secure Core: This architecture gives their secure VPN service the unique ability to defend against network based attacks. Secure Core protects your connection by routing your traffic through multiple servers before leaving our network. This means an advanced adversary who can monitor the network traffic at the exit server will not be able to discover the true IP address of ProtonVPN users, nor match browsing activity to that IP.
  • Strong Encryption: All your network traffic is encrypted with AES-256, key exchange is done with 2048-bit RSA, and HMAC with SHA256 is used for message authentication which means it is VERY secure.
  • Forward Secrecy: The encryption cipher suites they use only include ones that have Perfect Forward Secrecy. This means that your encrypted traffic cannot be captured and decrypted later if the encryption key from a subsequent session gets compromised. With each connection, ProtonVPN generates a new encryption key, so a key is never used for more than one session.
  • Strong Protocols: They exclusively use VPN protocols which are known to be secure (OpenVPN and IKEv2). Though I’m not a cryptographer, every one that is whom I follow online swears by both of those protocols which have been examined and certified secure by top cryptographers all over the world.
  • Physical Security: The company has gone to extreme lengths to protect ProtonVPN’s Secure Core servers to ensure their security. Critical infrastructure in Switzerland is located in a former Swiss army fallout shelter 1000 meters below the surface. Similarly, our Iceland infrastructure resides in a secure former military base. Our servers in Sweden are also located in an underground datacenter. By shipping our own equipment to these locations, we ensure that our servers are also secure at the hardware level.

Other Key Features Include:

  • Open Source: Goes without saying that their transparency level is very high and having their software reliant on open source software examination and certification is a big selling point for any of us.
  • No Logs Kept: Under Swiss law they don’t have to keep them so they do not.
  • DNS Leak Protection: They ensure that your browsing activity cannot be exposed by leaks from domain name service (DNS) queries.
  • Kill Switch: Their desktop and mobile applications come with a built-in Kill Switch feature which will block all network connections in the event that the connection with the VPN server is lost.
  • Tor VPN: ProtonVPN comes with Tor support built-in. Through their selected Tor servers, you can route all your traffic through the Tor anonymity network and also access dark web sites. This provides a convenient way to access Onion sites with just a single click.

Take a look at their pricing page. They have a free offering (which is currently shutdown due to the overwhelming response and signups this week) and I signed up for the “PLUS” level today since, as a current ProtonMail user, I got a bit of a larger discount on both ProtonMail and ProtonVPN as a bundle.

I need to end with this: I’ve analyzed more than a dozen of the top VPN providers and previously chose Private Internet Access (which I still have active since I’m paid through April of 2018) and, especially for the non-geeks out there, it’s still the easiest to use, they keep no logs, have the most data centers, and still has my strong recommendation.

But if you’re extra-serious about your VPN — or have specific needs to be highly secure when online — I’d absolutely recommend you immediately go and signup for ProtonVPN.

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The Mystery of the Lexar SSD

It was a dark and stormy evening as I walked the aisles at our local Eden Prairie, MN Costco store. Imagine my delight at discovering a display selling a Lexar 512GB solid state drive (SSD) for only $124.99! Not only was this an unheard-of price for such a tiny little drive with a big capacity, the next-closest competitor last week was Samsung’s T3 500GB for close to $200 (available here at Amazon for $197.99).

When I got home I immediately tried it out and experienced the amazing write-speeds from my SSD iMac to this external SSD (44GBs transferred in just over 4 minutes). My wife took one look at it and said, “I want one!” so I went back the next day to buy one and they were all gone (and there were at least 50 available when I bought mine the night before).

No worries,” I thought. Figuring I’d find them online I searched and searched and searched. The only place I could find them were on eBay from some miscellaneous seller with lukewarm reviews (at a higher price too) and I’m not about to do that.

This is the smallest, high capacity external SSD drive I’ve seen yet.

Unable to find any of these drives anywhere but eBay, I finally tweeted to @LexarMemory to see if they could solve the mystery of these apparently unavailable SSDs and point me in a direction where I could buy one:

I connected with tech support and essentially received an “Um…I dunno” but a bit more information was revealed about these SSDs being available “in a limited number of stores.” With my experience working as a manufacturer’s rep in consumer electronics in the late 70s and 80s, it is highly likely that this SSD’s Costco appearance was a dry-run to see how this drive, at this price-point, would sell.

Based on how quickly these drives sold out this test was most certainly a success. That said, I’d strongly suggest that LexarMemory get a move-on rolling these drives out at retail since Western Digital just announced this tiny SSD drive (in three capacities: 256GB; 512GB; and 1TB) and they are a much more recognizable hard drive brand than Lexar.

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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…]

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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.

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Why is Skype’s Audio Quality Suddenly So Bad?

UPDATE on March 26, 2016
skype-logoNearly every Saturday morning since 2008 my pals and I from Minnov8 have recorded our podcast using Skype. We’ve been using it for our tech podcast recording and are now up to 355 shows so far. But over the last three months Skype has become absolutely unusable. The hiss is horrible, dropouts rampant, and we gave up and went to Google Hangouts last week. That audio is stunningly perfect and pristine.

So why not just bag Skype and use Google Hangouts instead? The issue for us using Hangouts for recording is being able to feed various audio sources into that recording and also isolate each track. With Skype and two computers (my iMac and Macbook Pro) connected to a Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 it was easy to do so AND record in real-time in Logic Pro (which really minimizes my time having to do a bunch of post-production on the audio). People were always amazed when they heard the quality we could achieve from a few people doing home recording, but we’re all geeks and know what we’re doing to achieve professional results.

Our ongoing question these last few months has been, “What the hell is going on with Skype and why does it sound like sh*t?” We suspect that it is due to Microsoft’s continual mucking around with the once-effective peer-to-peer audio routing to accommodate web and mobile calling, along with all of their other Skype-related initiatives. Here are just a few of the things they’ve rolled out in just the last couple of years:

too-loud2While none of that explains what has happened to the audio quality in peer-to-peer group calls, perhaps it’s no surprise that the computer-based desktop client—or Skype’s underlying, and formerly great, SILK-codec‘s audio quality—has taken a backseat to just entering a bunch of new markets and supporting a bunch of devices?

Or maybe they’ve widened the ‘backdoor’ for the NSA? Whatever the reason we’re intending to quit Skype forever because the quality of the audio is what matters to us and to our listeners! It’s just so bad that we are unwilling to continue wrestling with Skype.

What’s your experience?

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Seriously Minneapolis StarTribune? “U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order”

Click for an update - 4:04pm
iphone-in-handTo say I was stunned reading this editorial in this morning’s Minneapolis StarTribune is an understatement. I rarely get fired up enough to write a letter to the editor, but this time I felt compelled since they got this so wrong and I’m embarrassed for them that they published this editorial.

I just sent them my rebuttal and I reprint it below with the StarTribune’s paragraphs in italics and green. Also, since the StarTribune apparently did little-to-no research, I’ve provided them with helpful links.

Curiously the StarTribune changed the linkbait-like editorial title in the online version by toning it down, perhaps realizing that characterizing it as “Apple defies order” is wrong: National security is at stake in Apple’s faceoff with feds.

U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order

Apple Inc., the world’s largest info-tech company, now stands in defiance of a federal court order, saying it will fight attempts to force it to help the FBI crack the iPhone of a San Bernardino terrorist involved in a major attack on U.S. soil that left 14 dead and 22 injured. Apple says the government is overreaching and would be setting a dangerous precedent.

The company is wrong on both counts, but the world of encrypted information is a complex one. It is worthwhile to proceed carefully, because this could prove to be a critical showdown in the growing clash between privacy and national security.

Your editorial, “U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order” was one of the most stunningly naive positions I’ve read yet when it comes to the controversy over Apple’s stand on weakening the encryption of one, single iPhone. A weakening that would instantly open a Pandora’s box of cyber threat problems of which you are obviously clueless and seemingly dismissed out-of-hand.

First, it should be noted that the government negotiated for two months with Apple executives. When those talks fell apart, Justice Department officials turned to a federal judge, who ordered the company to create a way to bypass the security feature on the phone. The FBI had obtained a warrant to search the phone and, not incidentally, the consent of the employer that had issued the phone to Syed Rizwah Farook.

First off, it should be noted that the FBI permitted San Bernardino officials to change the password on the terrorist’s iCloud account (rebutted by FBI, now blaming official) and only then, obviously realizing their mistake, requested Apple’s help. Had they not done so Apple has stated publicly it would have been possible to obtain the shooter’s iCloud backup data. Since this mistake was made, the FBI then negotiated with Apple to recover what they could. Discovering that doing so was not possible, and subsequently failing in convincing Apple to create software to weaken iOS (the operating system that controls the iPhone and iPad) so they could break into the device without having it ‘wiped’ by its ten password attempt limit, the FBI then obtained a court order hoping to force Apple to create a method to do so.

Apple has complied with what Justice officials characterize as “a significant number” of government requests in the past, including unlocking individual phones. Apple CEO Tim Cook has become increasingly concerned about customer privacy, particularly after 2013 revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about massive government surveillance operations. The company has continued to tighten its security systems and decided to no longer maintain a way into individual phones. Farook’s iPhone 5c was among those with a 10-tries-and-wipe feature that essentially turns it into a brick if too many false passwords are entered. Newer operating systems employ ever-more-sophisticated security features.

The government’s authority to get private information, such as texts, photos and other stored data, through a warrant is not at issue. The key here is whether the government can compel a private company to create a means of access that the company contends will weaken its premier product.

Cook maintains that creating a “master key” to disable security on Farook’s phone ultimately would jeopardize every iPhone. With more than 100 million in use across the country, that is no small threat. There are, however, technology experts who say Apple could create a bypass — allowing for what’s called a brute force hack — without affecting other phones.

With respect to your position on Apple’s creating this sort of “bypass” for this single iPhone, all while acknowledging this is not a “small threat” for the 100 million iPhones already in existence, you then opined, “There are, however, technology experts who say Apple could create a bypass” “without affecting other phones.” This is your supposed justification for minimizing the threat of putting in a backdoor (or what you euphemistically characterize as a “bypass”) for those 100 million+ iPhones already in existence? Who are these so-called “experts” anyway?  [Read more…]

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New Receiver Makes a Home Theater Awesome

PioneerElite_VSX-45Are you growing weary of having to constantly upgrade your technology? Me too, except for things I use all the time like my iPhone, computers, Wifi routers and items like those.

But upgrading home theater components is usually not top-of-mind when it comes to getting new gear. Even though we have a big Samsung TV, a phenomenal speaker system and devices like a TiVo, new AppleTV and Roku, my fairly expensive Yamaha receiver had not been upgraded for about five years. Still, it was good enough, or so I thought.

My head was turned by a hot price on the Pioneer Elite series VSX-90 receiver and I told my buddy Eric about it. Though it had a few more features than its little brother the VSX-45—and I know the Pioneer Elite series well since I used to work for the company in the early 90s—I didn’t need those additional features in the 90.

I’d told Eric since he also needed to upgrade two of his receivers. He did need some of those extra features, and he’d gone shopping at Best Buy. He purchased two of the VSX-45’s at a rock-bottom Best Buy sale price of $249 (now it is back up to $449.98) and had decided to take one of them back and get one VSX-90. So he called me and offered it to me at the same price so I bought the VSX-45 from him since the sale was off.

Why am I telling you this tale of receiver upgrading? Because your TV and movie watching experience—regardless of how good your TV is or your streaming box—will be A LOT better if your audio isn’t mediocre. If it is mediocre it will negatively impact your entire experience! [Read more…]