Tuesday, December 27, 2011

iTunes - Podcasts - DEFCON 3 - Feat. Me

If you are into hardware and software experimentation you might have noticed, with some amazement, that 2012 is the year of DEFCON 20. That's two decades of hacker convention fun and games. I missed the first two but was invited to speak at DEFCON 3 which was held August 4-6th 1995 at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. So I was delighted to encounter this link recently: Past speeches and talks from DEF CON hacking conferences in an iTunes friendly m4b format. I took a listen to my session (on Why Hacking Sucks) and was pleased to find it still sounded pretty sane. A helpful interaction is how I would characterize it, at least for me.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Will Christmas Kindles Torch the Internet and Evaporate the Amazon Cloud?

I got an Amazon Kindle Fire from my wife for Christmas and I'm a bit worried about the effect on the Internet. I should explain that I got my Fire a few weeks ago because my wife and I like to give each other digital gifts before Christmas Day so that by the time Christmas Day arrives we have said devices fully configured and can actually play with them (I got her an iPhone 4S).

The problem I see is that Amazon has been selling about one million of these Fire things a week and many of them may not be fired up, so to speak, until Christmas Day. Here's what happened after I fired up my Kindle Fire: It gave me instructions on how to put my music in the cloud, and store it there for free, and those instructions were very easy to follow, so my laptop was soon engaged in uploading 6,471 files. Engaged as in "I need to spend several days trying to do this."

When it was done, those files added up to over 30 gigabytes of data, sitting in the cloud somewhere, ready for me to listen to them at the tap of a screen. Now imagine 2 million people getting a Fire for Christmas and accepting that invitation to put their music in the cloud. Suppose they each have, on average, 20 gigabytes of music. That's 40 million gigabytes or 40 petabytes added to the cloud and Internet traffic on Christmas Day. I hope Capacity Planning at Amazon.com has been doing some planning. And those folks who manage the tubes, they better be ready to put out some fires.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mac OS X Help: Specifying criteria in Spotlight

I just updated this post with a Mavericks screenshot, but the basic point holds true for the past few versions of OS X: the Spotlight search tool on Macs can be very powerful, but a surprising number of people don't seem to know how to tap that power (and for a long time that included me).

Apple has a good basic article on Spotlight. Remember that you can always press Command+Spacebar to pop up Spotlight. And you can use the Spotlight pane in System Preferences to change these categories around, their order, and even which categories appear.

You can type calculations into Spotlight and find that 256*2-680 is 168.

You can get the definition of a word by typing it into Spotlight and then checking the Look Up section of the results.


Monday, November 28, 2011

CyberMonday SmartPhone Shopping Tip: Avoid CA, MA, RI, and maybe others

This is a quick tip for anyone looking to buy a new iPhone or other smartphone this holiday season:

Don't buy in California, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island. 

If you are in one of those states and can cheaply get to another state, or happen to be passing through another state on business or to visit family, you can save $40 or more if you purchase your phone out of state.

Why? The answer is in small print at the Apple store and--possibly in different words--on some mobile provider sites:

In CA, MA, and RI, sales tax is collected on the unbundled price of iPhone. 

In other words, you might be getting a great deal on the phone but these states charge you sales tax as though you did not get a great deal, and that's a bum deal.

Consider that the Apple iPhone 4S series has unbundled prices of $649, $749, and $849 for the 16MB, 32MB, and 64MB models respectively. That means a sales tax of 7.75% on the 16MB 4S you buy from AT&T or Apple for $199 comes in at $50 versus the $15.42 you were probably expecting. That's sticker shock if you have not been through this process before.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

RIP: The Golden Age of Unlimited Internet, It's Been Capped

The golden age of unlimited Internet is over, capped usage is now the norm. Alas for uncapped bandwidth, uncapped bandwidth is no more, and this has serious implications for everything from programming to data security and economics.

Soliloquies aside, the pleasure of making a prediction that comes true--I have said for some time that all bandwidth will eventually be capped and metered--is often undermined by the reality of what one predicted. (For example, about every new form of data abuse I have said "Typically, this is going to get worse before it gets better" and I am, sadly too often, correct in that assessment.)

I have written extensively about bandwidth capping in the context of both satellite Internet service and 3G Internet service. I have lived with daily bandwidth caps in the 400 megabyte range, courtesy of HughesNet's premium $80 per month satellite service. I have lived with the AT&T MiFi 3G cap of 5 gigabytes a month or 166 megabytes per day (for $60 per month). Apparently I am now going to live with the 200 gigabytes per month cap of Cox Cable Preferred Internet Service, currently $40 per month. 

Of course, it is clear that 200 gigabytes for $40 is a better deal than 5 for $60 or 12 for $80 (if you multiply the 400 megabytes per day that HughesNet 'gives' you by 30 days you get 12 gigabytes, but in reality you seldom get 12 gigabytes because you keep daily use below that, worried that you will exceed your cap, which costs $10 to reset every time you blow through it with a big download or streaming audio/video).

What is wrong about Cox Cable's cap, and I have to use wrong rather than a softer touch like "questionable" or dubious" or "unfortunate," is that Cox Cable does not disclose its cap before you contract for Cox service. I know this because I just went through the labyrinthine process of getting Cox Cable service in San Diego. While everyone from Cox with whom I have spoken has been very polite, friendly, and helpful, nobody said "That comes with a 200 gigabyte per-month cap and we reserve the right to charge you more money if you go over that."

Nobody. Not the first time I placed my order, nor the second time I placed my order because the first order went astray. In other words, Cox had ample opportunity to mention the cap and the consequences of exceeding it. They did not. Given the otherwise articulate and engaging nature of the service personnel that Cox puts on the line, I tend to assume they are trained not to say anything about the cap. 

So, the cap is here. It is not disclosed. And next I fear, it will be reduced. Once we are all hooked on whatever bandwidth consuming activity floats our boat, be it streaming video, audio, online gaming, hi-def photography, video calls, or something as yet not deployed, the bandwidth providers will start clamping down, shrinking the cap and raising the rates. So here are some potential implications:
  1. Using the Internet will cost more in the future, not less. We will pay per gig, not per month.
  2. Deployment of any security services that use bandwidth will meet resistance or get turned off if people are paying per gig.
  3. The rich will get more Internet than the poor (and of course the poor will get poor and the rich will get richer, a golden rule pretty much everywhere, from the USSR to the US of A).
  4. Programs that use bloated code or content will be penalized by bad reviews.
  5. Apps that are coded efficiently and elegantly will prevail.
I recently had the honor of speaking to a group of computer science students at the Jacobs School of engineering at UCSD. One topic we got into was the need to keep code lean. I mentioned to them a very interesting article that was mentioned to me by my good friend (and computer scientist extraordinaire) David Brussin and written by someone in Australia who also has to deal with bandwidth limitations, Troy Hunt.

The amount of 'bloat' that Troy found in iOS apps will surprise many, but it really wasn't a surprise to me. Why? Because my wife and I have used an iPad on a capped--and thus closely monitored--satellite Internet connection for over a year. We know how far the needle jumps when you add an iPad to your wireless Internet device mix. I fear the time will come when we pay dearly for that, by the megabyte.

p.s. Just noticed this report: Sprint is slowly but surely killing unlimited data

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Quick Tip: How to Change the IE8 Default Search Provider from Bing to Google or Other

This tip is for the relatively small number of people who are running Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 and cannot seem to change the default search provider, that's the one found in the Search box at the top right of the program window. By default this is Bing but I prefer Google.

I recently ran into a problem trying to change this on a system I was using. The process for making the change that was described in the Help for IE8 did not work, but after some digging I found something that did work for me. It is actually a service provided by Microsoft. Basically, you go to the following web page and follow the instructions labeled "Create Your Own" on the right (this can be used to add just about any search engine as your default):


You may need to close IE8 and then reload it for the change to take effect. Of course, you might ask why I didn't just upgrade from IE8 to IE9, but this was not my computer, just a computer I was using. However, I would agree there are some good reasons to upgrade to IE9, as described by my brother, Mike Cobb, in this article: Is Internet Explorer 9 security better than alternative browsers?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not Happy With AT&T? The network of possible reasons is expanding

As a consumer, few things annoy me as much as TV ads extolling the virtues of something that is currently not working right, like AT&T's 3G data service. About this time yesterday I went to the AT&T web page that tells me how much of the 5 gigabytes-per-month 3G data plan on my MiFi wireless access point I have used. Simply going to this page is a fine example of how to: A. annoy your customers, B. tarnish your brand. Why?

1 .The Mobile Hotspot MiFi 2372 data device for which I paid $100 is treated like a cellphone in all AT&T literature (it is not a cellphone) so I have to log into a secure page to find how much of my $60 per month 5 gigabyte data allowance I have used, even when I am connecting from the device itself.

B. The first thing the page says is that information about my minutes is not available. Duh! This MiFi device has no minutes, it just has data. The info about the data usage is below the fold. This gives me zero confidence that AT&T knows what it is doing when it comes to mobile data services.

C. I have to do this any time I want to check my usage, which is sometimes multiple times a day because AT&T keeps sending me emails warning that I am about to go over my limit even when I am nowhere near my limit. (But they will charge me if I go over the limit).

D. I get logged out of the data usage page after a few minutes "for security reasons" which means that I cannot leave the page on the screen and monitor usage in real time. (Speaking as a CISSP, I see no reason to consider my data usage protected information, and no reason for my provider to deny me constant access to it.)

Even HughesNet, the satellite Internet service provider whose service levels and bandwidth caps I have lambasted in the past, does a better job of keeping me informed, in real time and with little effort, of my bandwidth usage relative to their daily cap.

This might sound like an obscure issue with a niche product, but I believe it is the shape of things to come. Bandwidth caps are the norm for 3G and soon 4G and maybe for other services too. Consumers of capped bandwidth need ways to monitor their usage to avoid additional charges. Putting on my marketing and branding cap I would say that cynical consumers will assume that those providers of capped bandwidth who make it tough to monitor usage are hoping to rake in the extra fees for going over the limit.

Now here's the real kicker: The usage page was down yesterday. That's the page that tells me how much data I have used. And it remains down 24 hours later. Today I got another "High Usage Data Alert" email from AT&T but had to place a voice call to check my usage. It took the AT&T person who assisted me several minutes to figure out what I meant by "How much data have I used?" Then she told me I had nothing to worry about because my monthly usage cycle had started over today, the 12th. To which I replied: "Yes, I know that is what is supposed to happen, but I just got a warning message, at 4PM today, the 12th, telling me my usage was high."

To which she replied "I apologize for that, it was sent because you were nearing your limit yesterday."

This rendered me temporarily speechless because I couldn't decide which aspect of the absurdity I wanted to highlight first. So when she asked "Is there anything else I can help you with?" my response was simply to ask when the web page would be coming back. Her reply: "They're working on it but we have no exact time."

And then I turned on the television to see an AT&T ad about the amazing "network of possibilities" with AT&T data networks. I suppose one possibility is that AT&T may get a clue about how to deliver useful and accurate data to its customers in a timely fashion. Designing a more practical 3G MiFi/WiFi device might also be a possibility. Watch this space for a review of the Novatel 2372, the first device to inflict a five colored LED on color blind computer users.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Give Back a Bit: Fixing the "Read More" problem in Blogger posts

I just found a problem in Blogger with the Read More jump feature, then I fixed it thanks to some helpful souls out there on the internets. You can see the thing I'm talking about if you view this post on the home page of the blog. The first part of the post appears on the home page of the blog but the rest of the post is not visible until you click the link that says "Click here to read the rest of the story..."

This was just not working on this blog before I fixed it today. The link, referred to as a jump and often denoted by More or Read more, did not appear, so there was no easy way to get from the home page to the rest of the story (you couldn't even see that the rest of the story existed).

Apparently this problem exists with some Blogger templates and not others. Using Google I found a solution and it is listed below the jump on this story. I wanted to thank the person who wrote the fix but his blog seems to have disappeared, so I am repeating the fix and thanking "swathipradeep," whom I assume is Swathi Pradeep, for coming up with this code and sharing it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Satellite Internet Service: Amazing technology but not broadband (and why that matters more and more)

A new report on satellite Internet service has just been published by the Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance, or RuMBA (clever name, huh!). This free whitepaper, full of table, illustrations, and extensive references, is worth reading if you are:
  1. A nerd or geek like me
  2. Ever wondered how this satellite Internet thing worked
  3. Have an interest in computer security
  4. Live in a rural area
  5. Care about the future of rural America
  6. All of the above
Disclaimer: I wrote this paper (all 22 pages of it) in my spare time, as a way to help rural communities like the one in which I live. So there is an agenda in my plugging this white paper, but no financial incentive. RuMBA is a not-for-profit group (and for the moment I'm a fairly unprofitable person).

As I say in the paper, the fact that satellite Internet service works at all is a major technological achievement. I just have a problem with the idea that satellite Internet service is being touted in some quarters as a way to provide rural communities with access to broadband.

I don't want to give anything away, because I really do want people to read this paper, but satellite Internet is not and can never be a substitute for proper broadband service. By "proper broadband service" I mean something that can support a data center or at least deliver a high-availability, low-latency, uncapped connection at speeds of more than 10Mbps.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Queer Codes? All about QR 2D barcodes

Have you noticed more of these strange symbols lately? These are QR codes or 2D bar codes. They store information, a lot of information. Whereas a regular barcode that is made up of lines can store 30 numbers, a 2D QR can store 7,089 numbers!

I happen to know this because of a great article on the subject that I just read: Top 14 Things Marketers Need to Know About QR Codes by fellow Search Engine Watch columnist Angie Schottmuller. This article appears in the April 26 issue of Search Engine Watch and they bill it is as: "a great crash course on tools, tactics, and best practices to confidently help you jumpstart a 2D barcode marketing campaign." And I agree wholeheartedly.

The article is also a good general introduction to the technology and why people are using it. Since one goal of this blog is to make technology more accessible I thought I would highlight Angie's article for that reason. And that makes one less article I have to write, which is good, because I know that someone, at some point, is going to ask me: Stephen, what's a QR code? Now I can simply point them in Angie's direction.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Iron Chip: A good example of "biology meets computer" via microarray

Got to love hyperlinking. It takes you to so many interesting places. Like this lecture on a common genetic disorder which also explains how chips called microarrays can be made to detect biological substances, like proteins.

Prof. Martina Muckenthaler, PhD Head of Molecular Medicine University of Heidelberg
This one hour video-taped lecture from one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, Professor Martina Muckenthaler, PhD., Head of Molecular Medicine at the University of Heidelberg is a real geek-treat. What is particularly like about this video is:

a. the professor’s superb pedagogical style as she leads her audience of university students from a simple introduction to hemochromatosis to a detailed explanation of its mechanisms at the molecular level, followed by the technology she has been developing to perform her research.

b. the English subtitles, which are very well done and a great example of going the extra mile to share knowledge and information.

Even if you watch just the first 15 minutes you will get a good sense of why the world needs to know more about haemochromatosis (the British English version of the spelling is used in the subtitles). Hemochromatosis is not easy to explain and I'm speaking as one who has spent a lot of time trying to explain it (mainly because my wife has it). So I was delighted to encounter this video in my ongoing ferreting out of useful information about this debilitating, frequently misdiagnosed, and potentially fatal condition.

Every person needs to do as much self-education as possible when it comes to their health. For example, if you have learned through genetic testing that you have mutant alleles of the HFE gene (C282Y and H63D) then this video will help you understand what that means.

To watch the video, click the image above or use this direct link (http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/1136907) which I encourage you to share. There is also a paper here on the technology of microarrays. And Wikipedia has an entry on DNA microarrays that I found quite helpful.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Capping the Net: AT&T T-Mobile deal spells bandwidth caps, captive users, and rising costs

IMHO: If the AT&T purchase of T-Mobile goes through we will see a new era of rising prices for bandwidth, the expansion of bandwidth caps and captive users. I have been saying for some time that the future of the 'net is looking bleak, at least from the point of view of the average user.

The days of cheap and seemingly limitless bandwidth are coming to an end. Maybe not tomorrow, or even this year, but the writing is on the wall and it says you will have to pay a lot more for bandwidth, and you will pay by the gigabyte. No more all you can eat for X dollars per month. Try 5 gigabytes for $50 and $50 a gigabyte for overage. No rollovers, no exceptions, unless you opt for the platinum plan, a mortgage payment priced top tier of connectivity affordable only to the few.

The golden age of surfing without thinking about the bandwidth you are burning, the salad days of unlimited movie watching over the web, through your Xbox and onto your HD flat screen? It's about to end. Get ready to sit around the hearth and reminisce about the good old days of unlimited data plans and all the online gaming you could eat.

Melodramatic? Only time will tell. Set a reminder to check back here in 12 months (I use the calendar on my iPhone). But before you bet against these dire prognostications, checkout Stop the Cap, a great website that I've been watching for some years now. The have a wealth of material on many aspects of broadband pricing, service levels, and telecom lobbying:

Many companies in the broadband industry are engaged in a high-priced lobbying campaign to manufacture a “bandwidth crisis/exaflood” or “shortage,” suggesting that consumers are abusing their broadband connections at such a rate it threatens the integrity of the Internet and its distribution platform...[but]...most of the companies complaining refuse to open their records to independent verification “for competitive reasons.”

If you do visit Stop the Cap you will see where I got the inspiration for the graphics in this post. Anyone who wants to raise awareness of cap-creep and other net-farious telco activities is free to re-use or link to my images. However, use of these images by any telco without written permission is prohibited. (Okay, so it's highly unlikely anyone from AT&T or T-Mobile or Comcast or Time Warner or Verizon is going to read this, but I'm just saying, you've been warned, right.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

API Pop-Up Box Bug in Twitter Seems to be Fixed

I hope I am not speaking too soon, but the Twitter bug that has been bugging me for the better part of a year seems to be fixed. Twitter is no longer asking me to log into the Twitter API (for the record I have never had anything to do with the Twitter API, apart from trying to get rid of that login box).

Since I had complained so much, I felt it was only fair to let people know of this incremental improvement in Twitter. Not that all is well at Twitter, according to this Fortune magazine cover story. But one good sign might be this quote from Jack Dorsey, cofounder and former CEO of Twitter, is now back on baord as Executive Chairman of product (development, improvement, completion, or whatever):
"We're just humans running these companies."
Some might say that quote should be on the wall of every C-level office in techno-startup-land.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Twitter's New Interface Still Has Issues (API Pop-Up Box Asks Me to Log In)

So, if I was running a social media service like Twitter, one which faces stiff competition, I would place a priority on fixing bugs. After all, if there are other places where people can share what is going on in their lives without bugs, people will tend to share there instead. Which is why it makes no sense to me that Twitter has had a known bug in its new web interface for about a year now.

This bug randomly pops up a dialog box asking for User Name and Password. If that wasn't bad enough, the box seizes focus and suddenly appears over the top of another browser window, which is annoying to say the least. However, that's not quite as annoying as the statement on the Twitter site saying "We are still in the preliminary stage of identifying the causes of this problem."

Great! Six months or more of complaints and you're still in the preliminary stage of finding out what the problem is? What other company gets to treat its customers like this? As a CISSP the headline statement that "Your account is not being phished/compromised" is particularly worrying. I mean a. How do you know? b. What a great scam. Here's how a bad actor intent on stealing user names and passwords could proceed: Create a phishing box that looks like the one that Twitter claims is not a scam. People Google the problem and get assurance from Twitter that this is not a scam, and the scam cheerfully carries on.

For about 15 minutes some 15 days ago I thought the bug was fixed, but n-o-o-o it came back, and it is ugly. It makes the new interface impossible for me to use in Firefox. I'm not going to switch browsers just to use the new interface. It should work in Firefox, which has more users than Twitter. So I am still using the old version of Twitter, which is not a huge inconvenience, but now Twitter has started telling me "You’re using an older version of Twitter that won’t be around for much longer." 

Great! Who would have thought this was a good business plan: Introduce a new version, discover and document bugs, fail to fix them, then make people use the new version. Just in case you think this is me being dumb or curmudgeonly, check out this page where Twitter cheerfully documents the bug as though it was of little concern, and more than 100 people describe their frustration with this ongoing problem.

I was going to supply my own comment but Twitter was over capacity last time I tried. IMHO this is not a sustainable business model, unless the point is to drive Twitter traffic to other interfaces or other social media services such as Facebook (which has never told me it is over capacity and has, despite an awkward interface, relatively few bugs).