Monday, April 29, 2013

Going Back To The Old Skool

I wouldn't call myself old, but I do find myself old enough to remember the last time we had certain things that now seem to be in vogue.

In the 1970s we had cameras that took shots that look just like Instagram's.  In the 1980s, Sony unveiled the Trinitron FST, which had a "Flatter, Squarer, Tube" because we were trying to get away from convex screens.  Once we got very good flat screens, LG unveiled a concave LCD.

We appear to be going back to the Old Skool.

If this keeps up, soon you'll have Netflix with VHS scan-lines and iTunes with record needle popping sounds or CD jumps.  How about a new eBook reader with "page jam" technology?  

Some things from the old days make sense today:  Wind-up items are incredibly important, especially in developing countries, and to be perfectly honest there should be wind-up flashlights and radios in every home in the developed world, too.

We seem to be over-relying on electronics and this is becoming very apparent.

Over the weekend I had to repair a Fisher Price motorised swing. The motor component that failed was available from Fisher Price for quite the fee.  The same component was inside a Freshmatic air freshener from AirWick.  It took all of 10 minutes to dismantle the Freshmatic, which for $12 had provided two AA batteries, a can of manual air freshener spray and the crucial motor I needed for the fisher-price swing.  

When I saw how much circuitry was inside the air-conditioner, my immediate reaction was "Why isn't this wind up?".  Not only would it be greener, but it'd also be cheaper.  We're going down a road where everything seems to be battery powered, motorized, CPU controlled and most importantly, everything is prone to failing in wet conditions.  

I think we need to wake up and re-evaluate where we've ended up here, because it's not immediately apparent until you find yourself in my situation where you're dismantling air-fresheners for electronics parts to repair your baby swing.  What next? Dismantling electric fly-swats so you can repair your photo-frame?

Whilst I find going back to the 70's and 80's humorous from a quality standpoint, there's a certain irony in how we've "progressed" since then.  I can only assume that 30 years from now we'll have things like electric toilet-roll dispensers and other stuff that's also supposed to make life better even though it's inconceivable right now.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Data Breaches And Corporate Karma

Today I was doing some basic research to gauge security at the big three telco companies in Canada.  The whole point of this research was to gauge whether any of them proactively look for customer data breaches on the Internet and then act on taking these information breaches down once they're discovered.  

I started with Bell Canada.  Naturally, as soon as I found a data breach, I reported it to Bell Canada - not for their sake, but for the sake of the customer who hasn't been protected. I then added a notch to my count of known issues. 

As the easiest way for me to report it is over twitter, I converted the credentials to their "One Bill" number and passed it to Bell Support.  That way, Bell knows who the customer is, and I'm not further leaking or spreading the information that's already out there.  As soon as Bell Canada gets the customer's password changed, it's no longer a threat.

However….  Anyone that's phoned Bell Canada will know this phenomenon: You get asked to punch in the phone number on the keypad, hang around on hold and then the first question the support person asks you is for the same number you already punched in earlier.  In the case of Twitter, I provided an acct number that's uniquely identified within Bell Canada, and they wanted yet more information.  I simply wasn't about to hand over her name and phone number too as that would be a public breach.

Anyway, as for the breach location, I'm treating Bell Canada as they treated me when I asked them who they leaked my info (Bell's stance is documented here) and so they're now stuck up breach creek without a paddle, too.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Mainstream Media and Protecting Law Enforcers

It's a sad state of affairs again, now that we have seen another major event in the USA where someone has caused trouble in Boston, and the news is putting speed ahead of clarity or accuracy and this time, safety too.  

As the Police in Boston and surrounding areas were conducting their duties of trying to round up and apprehend the suspects, the news media was aggregating social media images from the public and posting them online.  This put the officers in potential danger.

Things got so bad, the news media didn't even have a clue as to what it was posting, as seen in this image, where the bottom tweet is the aggregation of images from around twitter showing officers in peoples gardens with guns, and the top tweet is the same organisation (680 News) retweeting the Boston Police warning to not broadcast the officers positions.  

When confronted with something like this, you have to wonder what is going on.  They could argue on the one hand that broadcasting these aggregated images is "in the public interest", however, arresting the suspects without endangering the officers' safety is more likely "more in the public interest".

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Twitter During Big Events

As you're well aware by now, yesterday there was a series of explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  I first heard of the news through Twitter.  I got most of my information through twitter after I realised that the news media was just looping the same three seconds of video and knew nothing.

The thing that stood out most was twitter rapidly morphed from the "micro-blog" service that it usually is, into a full on emergency communication network.  We were getting information from the Red Cross, The Mayor's Office in Boston, every major national service or security division and this was very informative.

Due to the nature of the switch there's a very apparent etiquette that kicks in.  It basically runs like this:

  • Turn off your scheduled-tweets - nobody wants stuff unrelated to the big event clogging up their feed and making it more difficult to filter information.
  • Turn off your branded tweets - nobody wants to hear about your products right now.
You can think of this as the equivalent of when a TV station suspends normal broadcasting schedules.  When you post on twitter, it's a form of broadcast, so basically you ought to stop it and let the important stuff through.

Two problems that kicked in were as follows:
  1. The above didn't happen with many people.  This became painfully apparent (Debbie Gibson getting complained at for posting beauty tips was one that springs to mind - it turned out to be scheduled tweets).  From a software design point of view, scheduled tweet managers should have a remote kill switch that is triggered by Twitter or some suitable authority that can solve this issue.
  2. Real-time tweets expire very quickly, but people are still retweeting them half an hour or more later.  A classic example was "Another potential device found"... Sorry, is that now, or the device that was found 45 minutes ago?  A simple time-stamp on the tweets would solve this issue.
Whilst it's very good to see how the twitter sphere reacts in an important event, locating safe people, spreading information/pictures/links, etc, but there's a few issues that still need to be ironed out.  They're not particularly big issues, but they compound needlessly in a situation where clarity is the order of the day.  

The good news is they're easily fixed if someone would take the initiative to do so.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vaccine Distribution Questions

Today in the news, there's talk of another possible flu pandemic, for the newly emerging strain H7N9.  As is often the case, it's coming from birds in China.  
You have to question where this is ultimately leading, as it looks like we're going around in circles here. 
You have 15 possible H’s (the proteins that stick the virus to the host) and 9 possible N’s (the stuff that aids in releasing the infection from the host), making only 135 possible combinations (H1N1 through H15N9). 
Now why is it I can 3D print a gun receiver over the web, but we don’t have a vaccine mixer that can be put in each City to mix up a batch of vaccines over the web, given this "known quantity" of possible permutations?
It would appear that all new flu's run like this:  First, the media hypes it, and then having hyped it to the point where the public is scared, we introduce the concomitant vaccine shortage.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ontario Judges And The Circus They Run

When I see a story like this, I have to shake my head.

The whole point of the mayor going to court was to determine whether the accusations were true or not.  The gravity of a courtroom should mean that if a person is not found guilty, then by default they must be innocent of those accusations.  

When you keep that in mind, you suddenly realise that what the Judges panel ruled here was this:
Innocent people must bear the cost of legal proceedings incurred in proving their innocence.

I would say that this staggers the imagination, but then again this was a panel of Ontario judges that did this, so I fully expect a cock-up of epic proportions because (Q.E.D.) that's largely what they do.

I've never kept it a secret in that I have no respect for them, but often people don't understand why.  So, here's why…

If I go for an operation, I expect the surgeon to be highly trained in the proceedings that they will follow during the operation.  If I travel by air, I expect the pilot to be highly trained in the aircraft that I am sitting in, the route that I am travelling, and the airport configuration where we are taking off and landing.  If I'm sitting in a court room during a technical case, I expect the judge to have professional experience in the things being discussed.

But that's not the case.  Here, the judges are learning about physics, medical issues, programming, biology, finances, and a whole host of other topics, whilst the cases are under way.  In other words, what is a court room to the public is a class room to the judge.  

Years ago, I had to testify in an expert capacity in a witness stand (in Toronto) regarding a .Net program and as expected, the judge didn't know the difference between a CLR and MIDL, or a server from a load balancer, but apparently to be a judge that judges, experience in what you're judging isn't a necessary qualification.  

From my 30 minutes in the stand, I got the impression that putting a baboon in that seat would have been just as productive in finding the truth of what happened.  I then followed the case until its conclusion, and I wasn't surprised when the judge ruled against the technical evidence.  When the defendants went to appeal, another panel of judges who had no more experience at technology than a newborn child then repeated the same mistake.

At that point, I realised that the courtrooms here are not actually about justice.  It's basically a dance of money and wit, and if someone's lawyers can paint a believable scenario that convinces a judge, then the judge will rule according to the story.  A knowledgable judge would have spotted the BS in front of him if he'd taken a look at the source code that was available for him to peruse.  Of course, this judge didn't look at the code because they weren't experienced in programming, even though somehow in his mind, being a non-programmer is perfectly fine to be a judge on programming cases.

In my mind, putting my grandma in the judges place would be a perfectly valid equivalent. 

Given the court rooms are not about justice, this is why I'm not surprised that the same judges now say that Mayor Ford needs to stump up $100,000 for costs incurred whilst one of their own determined that the same man is innocent.

The problem fixing this as I see it right now is if you complain about a judge, then they just put in another judge, but as the phrase goes, "You can shuffle the clowns but it won't change the circus".

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Google Glass And The Media

One of the recurring arguments I've seen a lot of media attention around recently is Google Glass, Google's first public foray into wearable computing.  Those who have followed for years the likes of Professor Steve Mann and his "witnessential" program will recognise immediately that media is hyping something for all the wrong reasons.

The primary argument is that it will create a loss of privacy because people will be monitored and recorded.  This implies that right now you can go into a restaurant, for example, and you're not monitored or recorded.  That's simply not correct.

For instance, right now as you read this, your IP address has been recorded, and likely along with the IP address your http request for this page was recorded.  Even though you're not using it, your phone also has recorded your every move today, and if a court issued appropriate documentation, your phone company would have to surrender these movements.

The subway train you rode to work on had cameras recording your journey. As did the platforms, escalators and concourses.  The road you walked along had cameras belonging to the police, and most shops that you walked past would have had cameras that likely caught a glimpse of you as you went by.

Over the weekend, I was on the phone in my house and some friends took some video of the kids and shared it online, so the recording of the conversation in my own home is public.  This morning on Facebook I saw a photo taken of friends in a restaurant at the weekend.  As it was taken on a smartphone, so it was stamped with both the time and GPS location.  In the background are two people and one is YOU.  You probably appear in hundreds, if not thousands of photos like this, on instagram, Flickr, Facebook, and Google Plus.  This is life right now.  

I think the real issue is people don't like to think that they're being recorded, and nobody wants to accept that they're responsible for what they say and do.

To me this is a non-issue because the media is hyping up the fact that we're about to lose something that has already been lost.  What will they scare people with next? That the Dodo is about to become extinct?