COVID-19 Shutdown – My Pros and Cons

You are probably like me right now: torn over the “should we or should we not?” question to open up our country during this pandemic. That question made me think deeply about my own views and what are my pros and cons:

PRO SHUTDOWN

On the one hand there were, and still are, so many unknowns. But we do know that the shutdown did “flatten the curve” of infection and it’s potential to spread:

1) There was no way the U.S. healthcare system could have handled potentially 2-5 million cases with hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and the projected best case death rate of 100,000 to 200,000. Overwhelming the healthcare system was not an option.

2) The U.S. was not (and still isn’t) prepared for a pandemic with testing or even antibody testing. How many are infected is just a guess so estimating herd immunity (and even if that immunity is long-lasting) is unknown.

3) We also don’t know how many strains there are. Five have been genetically identified so far, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated that — like coronaviruses are known to do — mutations *will* accelerate and, God forbid, one of those mutations will spike the mortality rate.

4) Imagine that the mortality rate did spike and the virus’ virulence becomes substantially stronger. The likelihood that, pre-vaccine over the next 12-18 months, these sorts of mutations could see death rates climb in to the low to middle single digits.

5) Those dangers are obvious, but the one we can’t get cavalier about is opening up too fast, getting complacent, and causing an exponential increase in infection. If we do, #3 and #4 above will happen (and may anyway this winter season) since we don’t have a vaccine yet.

CONS ON THE SHUTDOWN

On the other hand the shutdown is devastating the economy which is bad for everybody.

1) According to the Wall Street Journal yesterday, the U.S. economy shrank at its fastest pace ever as GDP dropped 4.8%. If we don’t start to open up parts of the economy and fast, we will slip in to a depression (and are already in a recession).

2) But beyond that statistic, this one is the real issue: searching Google on “U.S. living paycheck-to-paycheck” turns up dozens of articles that outline that 49% to 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck (some articles are from ‘news’ outlets that have political agendas, in my view).

3) Fortunately people aren’t spending as much money and are saving more (incomes are down but savings rate is the highest in 39 years, according to MarketWatch) so hopefully that will help.

4) Unfortunately, we don’t really know the current 2020 state of American’s finances. Why? The Federal Reserve performs this Survey of Consumer Finances every three years, and the last one was done in 2016 (the 2019 survey results will be published “in late 2020” according to this press release by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell).

SO WHAT TO DO NEXT?

There are a number of really smart proposals out there about how to open the economy but *very, very carefully* so that asymptomatic people don’t exponentially infect others and spike the mutations and possibly the mortality rate. Do a Google search on “proposals to open the U.S. economy” to see more.

Most people have become quite knowledgeable on how to protect themselves, even though the instructions about how to stay protected are seemingly all over the map (and Trump’s goofy and rally-like briefing outbursts don’t help). That means that most of us will instinctively know how to stay relatively safe and either not be spreaders of the virus or catch it ourselves.

We do need to get the economy back up and running but cautiously. As Morgan Stanley biotechnology research analyst Matthew Harrison put it in an April 6 op-ed, “Hope that…the U.S. has not reached crisis levels…will be shortlived, as the reality sets in that the path to reopening the U.S. economy is going to be long, and marred by stops and starts. It will be fully resolved only when vaccines are widely available in spring 2021, at the earliest.

I do wish we had smarter and more savvy leadership without personal aggrandizement as the primary goal. But this is the hand we were dealt by the Electoral College in the United States, so we’ll have to push to help our current ‘leadership’ move toward the best strategy.

Good luck to us all and stay safe.

Virtual Backgrounds Online Can Be Cheesy, Professional & Fun

After I wrote the post Effective Green Screen Gear You Can Buy Inexpensively, many people asked me about where I get my virtual backgrounds for usage in Zoom so I’ve added links below.

I thought I’d toss up a few screenshots of me using a few of the backgrounds I’ve downloaded. While the first one in the upper left of the image above is a composite one I created in Photoshop from two others, all the rest were downloaded from free sites like these:

But it’s not just Zoom that offers virtual background capability. Many other virtual meeting software offerings are scrambling to offer virtual background capability since people love the feature. Here are links to a few popular offerings with direct links to their virtual background help pages:

Surprisingly Google Meet or Hangouts does not offer virtual backgrounds (yet).

NEW GEAR
Hopefully it will ship before my next scheduled webinar, but the $295 Blackmagic ATEM Mini will help me go to the next level. This device will enable me to input up to four HDMI inputs (like all of my good cameras) as well as HDMI out from my laptop, iPad or iPhone.

One of the best features of this device is that it will also enable me to input virtual backgrounds directly in to the switcher. So, for example, when I switch from my laptop presentation to my live camera feed on me, its output is as a “webcam” so will show me over the virtual background of my choice. In addition, every app that accepts a webcam will see me overlayed on a virtual background.

If you’re interested in the ATEM Mini (or the ‘Pro’ version) you might want to check out a few of these videos on YouTube.

BUT IT’S NOT JUST VIRTUAL BACKGROUNDS…
Don’t look or sound like you are using a computer, smartphone or tablet for the very first time when you’re in a meeting! Even if it is your first time, practice with someone beforehand and, at the very least, LOOK AT YOURSELF so you can come across well online.

These tips are the best ones I’ve found yet on YouTube, and thought you might enjoy it:

Good luck and stay safe.

It Sure is Great to Have ‘Hair on Fire’ Internet During a Pandemic

Check out the speed of our Cox Gigablast service in the image above. The speedtest on the left was a server on the Cox network close to my home, and the one on the right is a connection to a test server all the way across the country in New Jersey. This kind of speed is incredibly useful for us, especially during this time with us all working and staying in our homes. If you can get this kind of speed as well, it might be worth it to upgrade your internet connection now.

My wife and I were fine on our previous Cox internet speed (300Mbps down and 30Mbps up) but then the pandemic hit. Our online usage spiked dramatically and then our son moved home for the foreseeable future and was online all the time. Then his work figured out how to let him perform his analysis work from home, and that word “dramatically” became two words, “Oh-oh!”

That “oh-oh” was because our son would need to download HUGE files (300-600GB in size) as well as be consuming tons of bandwidth every work day. As such, I knew we’d need significantly faster speeds and a lot more bandwidth. Fortunately Cox fiber to the home was available in our brand new development, so even my slower speed was brought to the curb with fiber. But I discovered that it wasn’t simple to get upgraded to Cox’ Gigablast service, a broadband tier which promised speeds and throughput close to 1 gigabit per second download speeds and nearly the same for uploading.

An example of an optical network
terminal on the exterior of a house

Now that we knew significantly faster speeds and bandwidth was needed, I upgraded online in my Cox account. I was puzzled that, after several hours and multiple reboots of my modem and router, the speeds were the same. I then called in to technical support and discovered that I needed an optical network terminal (ONT) which would replace my modem in order to achieve these speeds.

This need for an ONT was puzzling as a Cox fiber expert had to come out a couple of months after our internet was installed as we had an outage (a crimped optical connector by the original tech cracked) and this expert indicated that I could simply go online and upgrade to get Gigablast. My expectations were then set but, after talking to customer support folks on the phone didn’t really know what was needed and why it wasn’t working, and couldn’t help me figure out what was needed. Read More

COVID-19 and the ‘Wheat and Chess Board Problem’

I’m seeing so many people struggling with understanding why our nation (and other nations) are essentially in lockdown, especially when “more people die of flu” and “just a tiny few have been identified so far“.

Do you understand how quickly the growth of a virus can move throughout humans? The wheat and chess board problem below is a great illustration of how exponential growth works — similar to how a virus spreads in a human population — and why the governmental reaction is happening to restrict our movements at this point in time.

THE CALIFORNIA EXAMPLE
As of yesterday, all non-essential services in my current State of California are shut down and people are mandated to “shelter in place” so as not to communicate the novel coronavirus to others. But why is this happening now?

According to How overwhelmed is California’s health care system about to be? California may not even be able to handle the surge of COVID-19 cases with the current hospital beds:

“Projections by state health officials have indicated that California hospitals could handle a surge — right now, statewide — of about 10,000 patients. But given the potential for the virus to spread so far and so fast, some models project the state could need twice that, closer to 20,000 extra hospital beds.”

A few facts about the State of California and the death rate and the state’s ventilator need is in order:

  • As of the end of 2018, the population of California is 39.56 million people.
  • Approximately 3.4% of people 60+ years of age are dying from the virus. Others in multiple younger age ranges are ending up with lung damage and both require ventilators to survive or minimize that lung damage.

Yesterday California Governor Newsom made announcements and sent a letter to the Trump administration stating that 56 percent of the state’s population — 25.5 million people — is projected to be infected with the coronavirus over an eight-week period.

With California’s citizenry being left to move about as before the virus emerged, the projection is that within two months a whopping 25.5 million people would have COVID-19 and therefore 3.4% of 25.5 million = 850,000 dead (and an unknown number of younger people with lung damage).

THE WHEAT AND CHESS BOARD – A LINEAR VS. EXPONENTIAL GROWTH EXPLANATION
The reason for the lockdowns is that the deaths are caused by acute respiratory failure requiring ventilators for those afflicted. If there aren’t enough ventilators the death rate goes way up.

The spread of a virus, especially one as communicable as this novel coronavirus, is exponential…and that’s the problem. Left unchecked (i.e., we were NOT locked down) the virus would spread exponentially.

You maybe saying, “Steve…I still don’t get how or why it would grow so fast and why the government’s numbers of people infected are so high.” It’s not your fault if you don’t understand since your brain understands linear growth easily, but your brain is NOT good at understanding exponential growth.

Linear growth is always at the same rate, whereas exponential growth increases in speed over time. If the coronavirus spread at a linear growth rate the numbers are larger than most people can understand since they are so enormous.

To understand both types of growth, let’s look at a chess board which has 64 squares on it and is one where you place grains of wheat on each square.

1) Linear growth is always at the same rate, so this is easy when you put one grain of wheat each day for 64 days. At the end of 64 days you have 64 grains of wheat.

2) How many grains of wheat would be on the chessboard when you finish with exponential growth? Since exponential growth increases in speed over time — just like a virus would spread — let’s see what happens when you double the number of grains each day for 64 days like you would if you were at the mall, in a restaurant, and moving about as you did normally before the virus hit:

  • FIRST DAY: You place one grain of wheat on the first square on the chess board
  • SECOND DAY: You double the grains of wheat on the second chess board square … so now there are two grains on that second square
  • THIRD DAY: You double the grains again and now you have four grains on the third chess board square
  • FOURTH DAY: You double the grains again and now you have eight grains on the fourth chess board square
  • FOURTH THROUGH 64TH DAY: For the next two months continue to double the grains each day and place them on each subsequent square.

At the end of 64 days you would have 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 quadrillion grains of wheat! (NOTE: A quadrillion is a thousand trillion).

THAT is why we are in lockdown and trying hard to flatten the curve, performing social distancing, and trying to stop the exponential spread of this virus until a vaccine (and other mitigation strategies) can be found.

Here’s an interesting video to give you an idea on how quickly exponential growth occurs:

As Always, Be *Extremely* Cautious About Installing Browser Extensions

Browser extensions are fraught with danger — which is why I rarely use them — especially those extensions that request your permission to:

  • Access your data for all websites
  • Access browser tabs
  • Access recently closed tabs
  • Read and modify bookmarks
  • Download files and read and modify the browser’s download history
  • Input data to the clipboard
  • Display notifications to you
  • Read and modify browser settings.

I mean…seriously!?! There is not a snowballs-chance-in-Hell that I would ever give permission to a browser extension to rummage around in my browser and change things, possibly add malware code in to my computer or device’s memory (i.e., the clipboard), as well as essentially look over my shoulder while I use that browser!

Photo of investigator and security expert, Brian Krebs

Brian Krebs

As you may have already guessed, I’ve been wary of browser extensions for a long time. I wrote about how dangerous browser extensions are back in 2011: Why We Need a Google Condom for Chrome Extensions and again in 2017: Why Browser Extensions Are Dangerous but there are an increasing number of security experts now recommending caution on your use of browser extensions. One such expert is the cyber investigator Brian Krebs who writes the excellent Krebs on Security blog. His latest post was just published on March 3, 2020 and gives great advice and reasoning behind limiting the browser extensions you install: The Case for Limiting Your Browser Extensions.

Add to that my specific intention to limit (or completely stop) tracking as best I can — which is why I’ve moved from Google’s Chrome to Firefox as my default browser — is why I am not just concerned about malware and rogue extensions, I’m more concerned about third-party trackers and the companies that enable them to flourish to our detriment.

A CRACKDOWN ON EXTENSIONS

Fortunately there is a move by major browser companies (i.e., Google with Chrome and Mozilla with Firefox) to crack down on rogue and dangerous extensions. Ars Technica had this article published January 30, 2020: More than 200 browser extensions ejected from Firefox and Chrome stores:

The crackdowns highlight a problem that has existed for years with extensions available from both Mozilla and Google. While the vast majority are safe, a small but statistically significant sample engage in click fraudsteal user credentials and install currency miners, and spy on end users—in at least one case, millions of users, some of whom were inside large companies and other data-sensitive networks.

WHAT IF THE EXTENSION IS FROM A TRUSTED COMPANY?

Even trusted companies can give you a useful browser extension but you need to decide if you’re willing to make tracking you easier. For example, there is a long-time webpage capture browser extension which boasts “millions of users” and comes from a trusted company, Nimbus Web. Though I routinely need to capture long web pages, I would never install their extension and instead I capture page sections manually. Why wouldn’t I just install Nimbus Web’s extension? Because of the following from their privacy policy which allows them to collect and use our user data from the installed extension, combine it or leverage aggregator’s data, and facilitate advertising to us:

“When you use the Websites or Products, we automatically gather information made available by your web browser (such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome), Internet service provider (such as Comcast or Time Warner), and device (such as your computer, phone, or tablet), depending on your settings for each. For example, we may collect your IP address, information about the operating system or type of device you use, the date and time you access the Websites or Products, and the location of your device.

Generally, the information addressed under this section is anonymous and does not, standing alone, directly identify you; however, it could possibly identify you when associated with other information. For example, if a third party were to see your IP address, they would not automatically know your name—yet your name could be associated with your IP address by your Internet service provider if you are the named accountholder.

You could argue that the above is boilerplate and all organizations do some form of this type of data aggregation. But when that data is has specific intents like the following, it shows how they intend to use your data AND allow it to be shared by third parties:

To Advertise to You. We also use Cookies and web beacons, including those placed by Third Parties, to deliver advertising that may be of interest to you. For example, we use the Facebook web beacon to better target and retarget users and potential users of the Websites by advertising to them on Facebook. Twitter, Google Analytics, Google Adwords, and other Third Party Cookies may also be used in our advertising endeavors. We may also use a web beacon in email messages sent to track your response. Cookies and web beacons also help us and our Third-Party advertising partners ensure you do not see the same advertisements over and over and to identify and block unwanted ads.”

What about Third Party practices? 

Third Party Cookies and Web Beacons: Advertising agencies, advertising networks, and other companies (together, “Third Parties”) who place advertisements on the Websites and on the Internet generally may use their own cookies, web beacons, and other technology to collect information about individuals. Except as expressly provided herein, we do not control Third Parties’ use of such technology and we have no responsibility for the use of such technology to gather information about individuals. It is up to you to familiarize yourself with the privacy practices of such Third Parties.”

Remember this quote when something like this useful extension is free, “You are not the customer. You are the product.”

WHAT EXTENSIONS CAN YOU SAFELY INSTALL?

In my main browser Firefox, I have only one extension installed: the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) Privacy Badger. EFF describes Privacy Badger as:

…a browser add-on that stops advertisers and other third-party trackers from secretly tracking where you go and what pages you look at on the web. If an advertiser seems to be tracking you across multiple websites without your permission, Privacy Badger automatically blocks that advertiser from loading any more content in your browser. To the advertiser, it’s like you suddenly disappeared.

Though Firefox’s new privacy and anti-tracking capabilities are excellent, Privacy Badger completes the capability I seek to make tracking and surveillance even harder for the hundreds of third-party trackers out there. Firefox’s creation organization, Mozilla, also has a rigorous vetting process for extensions and has a short list of verified extensions that do not violate their Recommended Extensions program guidelines.

Here is the best article from Mozilla that I’ve seen yet on how to determine whether or not a browser extension is worthy of (and safe to) install. but if you already know these tips (or have read Brian Krebs’ article above), at least pay attention to wise advice like this from Dan Goodin, the writer of the previously linked-to article from Ars Technica:

“There’s no sure-fire way to know if an extension is safe. One general rule is that there’s safety in numbers. An app with millions of installs is likely to receive more scrutiny from researchers than one with only a few thousand. Another guideline: apps from known developers are less likely to engage in malicious or abusive behavior. The best rule is to install extensions only when they truly provide value. Installed extensions that are used rarely or not at all should always be removed.”

Google Can Track Your Individual Chrome Browser Install ID

UPDATE on 02/07/2020 at 6:38pm PST
Looks like Google is adamant that they do NOT track this way: Google denies Chrome tracking allegation, explains use of ‘X-Client-Data’

As I take steps to extract myself from Google (and others) ubiquitous tracking, I’ve been paying attention to anything related to Google’s Chrome browser. In my news feed yesterday, I came across this threaded discussion in Hacker News:  Google tracks individual users per Chrome installation ID.

I was stunned to learn that every install of Chrome generates a unique ID just for you and it’s possible that Google is using this install ID to track us. As soon as you log in to any Google account with that new installation of Chrome, it’s also likely linked directly to your individual Google profile.

Not only is this completely “evil” on Google’s part if true and they’re using this ID for browser fingerprinting, but it also means it is a complete violation of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) and would result in massive fines for the company.

In order to get a deeper sense of what was going on, I went out and did a bunch of online searching (using my now preferred search engine, DuckDuckGo, of course). There are dozens of developer and tech site articles and posts that helped me fully understand what is going on, and why developers (and those of us who care about security and privacy) are so upset, concerned, and making a huge fuss to get an answer out of Google.

From LongRoom News:

On Tuesday, Arnaud Granal, a software developer involved with a Chromium-based browser called Kiwi, challenged a Google engineer in a GitHub Issues post about the privacy implications of request header data that gets transmitted by Chrome. Granal called it a unique identifier and suggesting it can be used, by Google at least, for tracking people across the web.”

Even the adblocker software company, Magic Lasso, shared this insight on their blog about the controversy and explained the problem and how this potential tracking occurs:

Each and every install of Chrome, since version 54, have generated a unique ID. Depending upon which settings you configure, the unique ID may be longer or shorter.

Irrespective, when used in combination with other configuration features, Google now generates and retains a unique ID in each Chrome installation. The ID represents your particular Chrome install, and as soon as you log into any Google account, is likely also linked directly to your individual Google profile.

The evil next step is that this unique ID is then sent (in the “x-client-data” field of a Chrome web request) to Google every time the browser accesses a Google web property. This ID is not sent to any non-Google web requests; thereby restricting the tracking capability to Google itself.”

Google needs to address this and quickly. Just about every developer I know has abandoned Chrome and are using Firefox exclusively (as am I).

Take a look at CNET’s CES 2020 Coverage … It Is The Best

It’s been years since I’ve gone to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, so had considered doing so this year as I could grab a cheap airfare or would likely just drive there as I’m only 4.5 hours away! With other commitments I found myself unable to go to CES, so this morning I went on the hunt for good videos from the show, and came across ones from CNET at their dedicated CES website.

As much as I was delighted to find that site and it is filled with excellent videos from the tens of thousands of products at CES, I must admit that I’ve got a love-hate relationship with CNET though, even though I fully realize they (like most media companies) are struggling to find the sweet-spot on making money vs. pissing off their visitors to the point they’ll stop visiting:

  • Their websites are a nightmare of popups, snarly ads, and visual noise which are especially bad when reading on my iPad.
  • For years their “CNET Downloads” site saw near-malware installation on PCs and Macs and I spent many hours cleaning (or helping clean) people’s systems who inadvertently trusted them.

So even though their dedicated CES website is organized very well and it’s easy to find specifically what might interest you, instead of the website you might want to go to CNET TV channel on YouTube instead.

If you don’t want to go poke around their site, embedded below is their “Best of CES 2020” recap you’ll likely find interesting:

SNL’s Holiday Gift Guide

Thought I’d be helpful since the holidays are approaching quickly. Enjoy this compilation of Saturday Night Live holiday skits with several I’d never seen before:

The Premiere Issue of Wired Magazine 1.1 Changed Tech Reporting

In January of 1993, I was attending the MacWorld expo in San Francisco. At a furious pace I was hustling down a hallway to get in to a ballroom presentation when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a magazine that looked pretty dang cool. It was the WIRED Premiere publication (issue 1.1) and I stopped dead in my tracks and picked one up.

Quickly leafing through it I instantly knew I’d found exactly the right publication for everything I was doing and thinking as it pertained to the future of technology! Ripping out the subscription card I immediately filled it out to subscribe.

I wish I could convey to you what a big deal this magazine was when it appeared, and how profoundly it covered the big ideas and the overall zeitgeist of that era which birthed the commercial internet, companies like Google and Amazon, and tapped in to the explosion of tech and its changes on the world.

The constant (and sometimes jarring) design, colors and layout choices were often disconcerting, but always pushed-the-envelope in keeping with what they were covering: emerging, disruptive and futuristic tech.

Looking back on that first issue now is also a bit amusing — and I wish I could link to a live copy online but cannot find one — but there is one advertisement I found particularly delightful from Apple, proudly touting the ability to fax from the Powerbook 170 which I just so happened to own at that moment:

Click image for a larger view
The third ad from the front of the magazine was this one from Apple.
Note that the “killer app” for use of this Powerbook 170 is “Fax Transmittal”.

For at least 15 years, Wired magazine was my tech-bible. I devoured each issue and learned a lot along the way, and have used the Wired iPad app to download and read each issue. Unfortunately there is so much tech writing online now, the magazine has become less relevant (dare I say “boring”?) and I reluctantly just cancelled my subscription which will expire with the February 2020 issue.

SOME WIRED TIDBITS

Here are some items you may find of interest:

  • The Internet Archive has TechNation “internet radio show” (the term ‘podcast’ was not yet invented) and you can listen to Dr. Moria Gunn interview the founders of Wired magazine, Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rosetto, and it is very enlightening (This part of the show starts at 32:18). They discuss how “Wired” is different from its predecessors, addressing the complete societal impact of technology and its latest breakthroughs. Other topics include the phenomenal success of “Wired”’s premier issue and why the BBC is “wired” while National Public Radio is “tired.”
  • Lastly, here is the Wired Magazine Promo Reel from the lead-up to the premiere issue that I found at the Internet Archive (which, by the way, I have always found to be THE best resource for anything digitally significant from history):