Monday, 29 June 2015

Nothing good comes out of Google

Google Chromecast

Remember the days when Google was selling itself, quite successfully, under the “do no evil” banner? Well, it worked on me; I was hooked, and it took (and is still taking) a huge effort to disconnect myself from the prying conglomerate. Not that one can ever truly disconnect from Google nowadays.
But still, Google has some interesting products up its sleeve, and for a brief while I was tempted. This is the story of how I learnt my lesson.

I suspect you’re familiar with this problem I was trying to solve with Google's help:
(you stay somewhere that’s not your house) + (you’re short on entertainment) = (not that great a feeling about staying away from your house)
Say, you’re staying at a hotel. How do you keep yourself busy once the dust is settled? Don’t tell me you do so with a TV. That’s so 20th century!
I used to entertain myself with a book. Then we’ve evolved to have additional options like laptops and now smartphones and tablets. One problem still remains with those: a small screen. Wouldn’t it be nice to tap on the reseource that’s already there, the hotel’s large TV, but use it to your advantage and play your own stuff? 
That’s what I had in mind when I stepped in to my local OfficeWorks and bought myself a Google Chromecast. Sure, Google is invasive and all, but how bad can it be when Google clearly state one can switch off the Chromecast reporting? That privacy option is available, but only after the initial setup (read: only after Google learns what your wifi password is). Sort of a fair trade, I thought: As it happens, I can easily create a wifi network to play my own contents with, and by sticking the Chrome into the hotel TV’s HDMI input (note not all hotels let you do that!) I can watch my own stuff.
I thought this meant problem solved.

Setting up the Chromecast at home seemed to be a breeze. The Chromecast generates its own wifi network, to which I connected using my iPad/iPhone and the Chromecast app. It then asks you to select your own wifi network and provide its password, after which it uses your Internet connection to update its firmware. So far so good (assuming you’re happy with Google familiarising itself, and by proxy the NSA, with your wifi password).
Trouble started when I sought to replace the home wifi network with the one created by my portable wifi router. The problem is simple: that portable wifi that I take with me to hotels does not have an Internet connection; it’s just there to share stuff between different devices (camera, tablets etc). But, and here comes the bugbear: the Chromecast will simply not work without an Internet connection, even though it does not need the Internet in order to work!
In other words, Google may give up on its ability to know what it is that you are doing with your Chromecast through the privacy settings it offers, but it will not give up on its ability to know who you are, where you are (through your IP address), and when you are using your Chromecast. And let’s face it, the concession on the “what” department isn’t that much of a concession anyway given that Google is likely to know what you’re watching anyway (as in the case of you using its Chrome browser).
Which is to say: The Google Chromecast may be a lovely, useful, device to use; but first and foremost, it is just another one of many devices for Google's surveillance brand.
Personally, regardless of the spying elephant in the room, the Chromecast thus became completely useless to me: given the architecture of my travelling gadgets, I do not have an Internet connection to supply the Chromecast with. Hotel wifi cannot be trusted anyway, because it would usually block Chromecasts, and even if I have my own mobile Internet I’d hate to use it on account of Google gobbling up too much of my allowance.

Thus I ended up returning the Chromecast to OfficeWorks the day after I had bought it. To give credit to OfficeWorks, they gave me my money back without a shred of trouble. Very nice of them!
Me, I learned my lesson. I’m pretty much done with Google.

Image by Maurizio Pesce, Creative Commons licence (CC BY 2.0)

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Savouring the Savoury

OK, So I’ve embarked on a sugarless diet (better referred to as sugar reduced diet). Is that it, then? Did I give up on pleasure food?
In plain English, what do I snack on now that the vast majority of conventional snacks, from your chocolate bars to cookies and ice cream have been banned?
I have so far developed a three pronged approach to this question.
First, there’s water. Water is calorie free (!), healthy when consumed at reasonable amounts, and when drunk in bubbly form can be surprisingly filling. I was surprised how far I could get away water during summer months. Alas, recreational consumption of water during the cold winter months is quite unattractive.
Second, coffee. Coffee fills me up quite well, and in the form I like it best (soy flat white at cafes or latte at home) it offers good value for the calorie. I like my coffee strong and bitter, so sugar need not apply. Alas, coffee consumption as of 14:00 hours is a dangerous affair given the half life of caffeine in the blood and the potential damage it might incur on the night’s sleep. Even decaf coffee has caffeine in it, enough to interrupt sleep when taken at the wrong time.
The third option is the most interesting one, coming straight from Israeli culture. It’s probably a weather thing, but whereas the dominating snacks in Australian culture come from English origins (read: heavy stuff, featuring sugar fortified with more sugar), Israelis know how to snack on nuts. Pistachios, almonds and cashews are, as far as I am concerned, pretty attractive snacks.
Then there is the Supreme Master of all snacks, the roasted + smoked sunflower seed. It used to be that Australia would only have tiny non-smoked sunflower seeds draped in salt, but nowadays one can get the real deal: sunflower seeds roasted and smoked in Israel (as per the photo). You can note the seeds are quite big, the cooking is optimal, and while salt is there it is not so abundant that it is visible.
Mind you, this could be a case of replacing one problem (sugar) with another (salt). I try to solve it by resorting to non salted solutions when they are available, but so far could only find unsalted cashews, almonds and roasted chickpeas.
Another problem is the calorie intake: these nuts sure pack heat, and it is all too easy to overeat. 100 grams of pistachios, for example, which take me about a minute and a half to consume, are equivalent to a proper dinner at a bit more than 2,000KJ.
On the other hand, there is no denying the health value. The nuts contain protein, iron and fibre that are all good for you. They are rich in fat, true, but that fat is also of the good kind. In other words, when it comes to snacking the smart thing to do is it in reasonable measures. Then again, that is the case with all food.

I’d be lying if I was to say I deny myself of all sugar. Apart from the occasional dish that has been prepared with some sugar inside, I do give in to the dark side and surrender myself to a Lindt chocolate or artisan ice cream. It’s just that I do it at far lower frequency and quantity than before, and by all [anecdotal + unverified] accounts this reduction is doing me a lot of good.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Security Is a Process

I do not disguise the fact I have been trying to migrate the people I am in regular contact with into using the Signal messaging app (or, as it known under Android, TextSecure). I will also add I've been pretty successful. The reasons why I consider Signal the best communication method after face to face have been elaborated here; suffice to say it is its security that puts it above the rest.
More often than not, the reaction I receive upon asking/begging my friends to install Signal is that of lazy rejection. "You already asked me to use Telegram" or "You already asked me to use PGP emails" are both reactions I have heard several times.
What these people don't seem to want to get is that keeping things secure is not a one off affair. Security is a process. It's ongoing. One has to step up with the times. One needs to identify the things they would like to keep secure (in my case, private discussions), identify threats to those things, identify the vulnerabilities that may apply, identify risks (essentially, where threat meets vulnerability), come up with mitigation strategies, and - and that's the catch - repeat the whole process again and again because the world does not keep still. That's risk management in a nutshell for you.
Not only do most people fail to get that, their basic disposition is to mock me over my passion for privacy/security. Because, as you know, they make sure that their private information is headline news. Or, sarcasm aside, because they live a life of blissful ignorance when it comes to online threats.


The problem is, online threats just keep on getting bigger and bigger.
Today we have learned of a huge security problem affecting passwords in Apple systems, specifically on OS X (that's Macs for you) and iOS (that's iPads and iPhones). The crux of the matter is that there is a way to steal passwords from secure lockers on these systems, either Apple's secure keychain or a very popular password manager in the Apple ecosystem, 1Password. Personally, since I rely on 1Password (and have warmly recommended it), this is a big deal for me.
I was therefore very interested to read the analysis published by 1Password's own publishers, AgileBits, on their blog here.
Reading the linked material, it is clear Apple has some severe issues with its sandboxing (that is, the facilities its systems utilise in order to prevent one application from stealing another's information). I find it very interesting to note that, contrary to common belief and past evidence, the researchers that identified this new Apple vulnerability consider Android's sandboxing facilities superior to iOS'.
Since Tim Cook himself has been selling Apple lately on account of its security and privacy credentials, this is a big deal with potentially big financial ramifications.

Let us go back again to the original point of this post, the point about security being a process.
This latest Apple zero day vulnerability (it's called "zero day" because there is no fix for it) demonstrates that fact. It's not like we can avoid storing passwords on our computers anymore; at the very basic levels, our browsers need to be able to allow us to enter a password so that we can, say, login to our web mail. The only thing that we can do, other than throw the whole of Apple's gadgets away, is to learn and adapt our ways. As it is, there are things we can do to mitigate the risks: we can avoid installing dodgy stuff on our Macs. We can also be careful with the add ons we install on our browsers. If we do these things then our browsing is still pretty safe and 1Password is still the great and extremely useful tool I consider it to be.
The point is, the problem is more or less solved even without Apple patching its territory simply by us adapting to mitigate the risk.

image by David Gohring, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Work - What Is It Good For?

Work, what is it good for?
Absolutely nothing
Say it again
-Sung by Bruce Springsteen, misheard by yours truly


The recently reviewed Zen Pencils got me thinking. As I have noted in my review, one insight that hit a soft nerve of mine was the one asking why we have to lock ourselves in an office for 40 hours a week in order to generate 10 hours of productive work. Doesn't that turn work into a prison? Wouldn't future generations of humans, centuries (but perhaps decades) from now look back into what we did to ourselves and feel flabbergasted at the sadistic torture we've inflicted upon ourselves, the waste of that most precious of commodities called human life, simply by going to work?
Not everyone would agree with such far stretching conclusions. Check wile.e.coyote out in his comment to a previous post of mine dealing with work: the coyote was openly mocking my disenchantment with work.
At the other hand of the spectrum, science fiction author Charlie Stross' analysis of work is heading down my thought lane. [No surprise there, since Stross' insight has been known to affect my perceptions on a regular basis; I highly recommend his blog.]

All of the above inputs have worked to help me congeal my views about the modern institute we refer to as "work".
First, I will state the obvious and argue that using work as the main feeder for one's self esteem is a dangerous affair. Sure, Tim Cook can pat himself on the back and say "you've done well". But if you look at the 7 billion people on this planet, only a tiny minority of them can do the same without losing face; the vast majority are stuck in dead end jobs, doing all sorts of things they wouldn't do out of their own free will if it wasn't for the need to bring food to the table and a roof above the head and the various restrictions imposed on them from above to block them from becoming Apple's CEO.
The question then turns into that Stross is asking: do we really need to work in order to be able to be able to acquire the necessities of life, given that technology coupled with over population have brought us to a state where there are not enough jobs for everybody? Given that job shortages are only going to grow worse as newer technologies, such as the self driving car, come along? Given that we are already producing more than we need and more than the planet can sustain?
Do we really need to imprison ourselves for 30 hours a week, every week?
Which brings me to the crux of the matter. I argue that, as per contemporary world order, work is not about being productive but rather about the division of status between members of society, with status being the true scarce resource, the true currency of our society. Status gets paid with dollars, which in turn correspond to power.
Think about it. Why do various professions hosted almost unanimously by middle aged white men hold the highest salaries, while the truly important jobs - the ones that make life or death differences, the ones that affect people's entire lives, jobs like nurses and teachers - earn peanuts in comparison? Is it because those middle aged white man contribute more to society? Yeah, what a joke.
It's because the middle aged white man have managed to shape society to a manner that benefits them best. A society that propagates their elevated status while offering limited mobility to the masses and delusions of grandeur such as The American Dream.
And what if the masses are imprisoned for 30 hours a week? That's a benefit; think of the damage these people can do if they were to be set loose.

Image by Bille Wilson, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

Sunday, 14 June 2015

That Sugar Movie

I have laboured here quite a lot, recently, discussing my weight loss affairs, the benefits it seems to have brought along, and attempting analysis of the underlying reasons.
Then I watched this video:

Now I do have to add a very strong disclaimer with regards to the video:
I have no idea whether the things this Robert Lustig guy is saying are true or not; I am simply and very strongly ignorant of the science behind it. When Lustig says that one molecule turns into another and then turns into another, I am completely incapable of verifying if what he’s saying is true.
This will not be the first time I am presented with a scientific argument that I have to either accept or reject without having the skill to do so on my own (think: big bang, quantum mechanics). Normally, I rely on peer reviews: if the bulk of the experts in the field seem to agree on things, regardless of how insane they sound (think quantum mechanics again), then I will take their word for it as I enjoy using a smartphone containing billions of transistors relying on quantum mechanics to work.
It’s just that in this particular case, the case against sugar, the peers seem to be awfully silent. There is a lot of flak flying about from parties claiming to have the magic formula worked out, but not much in the way of proper support for one’s claims - whether for or against Lustig. In this field of weeds, Lustig does stand out as a person claiming to use science rather than personal feelings or revelations.

Let us assume, for a minute, that Lustig is right in his claims and that sugar is the real enemy of the 21st century person’s diet (and thus health). Let us assume sugar is a poison.
If he is right, then his claims do easily explain how I managed to lose weight and felt this has been achieved rather easily. The claims explain why my health stats have improved across the board to levels I have never witnessed before. The claims explain why exercise does not contribute much to weight loss and why I was able to lose weight without it (not that the lack of exercise is in any way recommended!). And last, it explains why I have been feeling much better since I have started counting calories.
As a P.S. I would add that Lustig even explains why drinking water after fruit makes you fart.

If Robert Lustig is right, the bulk of my dietary success can be attributed to the severe cutting of sugar intake in my diet. While the scientific debate continues, I do wonder aloud whether the correlation between what Lustig is saying and the success of my diet is more than coincidental.
In other words, is it really all about that sugar?

Friday, 12 June 2015

Parental Rewards

Smiling Sun (Explore)

The other day I was walking my son to school. Or rather, walking with my son from our remote parking space to school, remote because the driving/parking displays I have seen around school during drop off times seem to have been taken directly from a Freddy Krueger horror flick.
At one moment, as we were holding hands to cross the road, my son looked up at me and said "Abba [that’s me], I really enjoy our walks to school together". And he gave me one of his big, explosive and sincere, smiles. 
It was one of those moments to cherish and remember. As far as parenthood is concerned, this is as rewarding as it's ever going to be.

Image by Norbert Posselt, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Getting Rid of Pests: A Practical Guide


Here’s a short, practical guide for you on how to get rid yourself of pests in modern day Australia:
  • Got Jehova’s Witnesses knocking on your door? Tell them you’re Muslim.
  • Your phone keeps ringing with cold calling call centre people trying to sell you stuff you don’t want? Answer the phone with a hearty "Allah Hu Akbar".