Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Airport


The main differentiator between the mature amongst us and the rest, in my humble opinion, is that the former are well aware that all things must pass. At one stage or another one has to say goodbye to everything in one's life, and usually the bigger and more important the thing one departs from the harder the departure is. Often these departures are sudden and unexpected; in other occasions one only realises a departure took place retrospectively. Eventually, we all have to say goodbye to life itself. It's hard for me to think of a way for that to take place in a pleasant manner.

I thought of the above as I making an airport drop off and saying my goodbyes. By now I have grown to hate to airports: whereas once they use to stand for gateways to the exotic, now they're venues for intrusive security checks, ridiculous questioning and the portals for rotting on crowded and extremely tight and uncomfortable confines for hours if not days.
There is more to it, though. Airports are our training grounds for saying goodbye. Each time I say goodbye to a loved one at the airport I die a little.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Se7en


In my previous post I reported how a simple technological innovation – a smartphone app with an attitude – is helping me take control over my diet. In this post I would like to do the same with regards to the other side of the same equation, exercise.
I have two problems with exercising. First, I don’t have time for it. Or rather, it is very hard for me to prioritise exercise above other activities. And second, exercising sucks while so many other things don't. I do, however, recognise the importance of being earnest about exercising.
Science came to my aid recently, determining that even brief exercise can do wonders to a human being if it’s done regularly (as in, every day or almost every day) and if it is done to a level that takes one’s breath out. Enter the new concept of “the 7 minute exercise” into our lives.
One of the beauties of this new concept is that it is easy to automate. I already covered how the gamification of exercise can help, but now this gamification is potentially in our pockets. Smartphone users can already enjoy multiple apps that will guide them through this daily ritual, and me, I am here to report that it works! Granted, the 7 minute exercise regime won’t get me ready to run a marathon any time soon. It does, however, make me feel much better than the alternative does. The two advantages the concept offers, the ease of fitting into one’s schedule (7 minutes) and the ease of management (smartphone app) make for a highly effective exercise regime. And no, one does not need special equipment for these exercises.
It goes without saying that the potential for smartphone usage in the field of exercising goes much further. There is nothing preventing people from using the same apps to run longer exercises. There are even apps out there with detailed personal training videos that allow users to tailor design their own exercise regime and enjoy the benefit of not having an ultra fit trainer giving them the evil eye whenever they’re unable to drive their fatty ass towards a simple push up (speaks the voice of experience). Plus there are no recurring gym fees.
I will add my regular caveat that you might not want these smartphone apps to call home to its makers and the data brokers paying the makers with all your exercising data. I will note, though, that in this particular case it should be fairly easy to disable the apps’ ability to call home without losing core training functionality. As long as you do not mind losing the ability to benefit from server side benefits (it can be hard to think of those in the context of exercise) you should be fine.
Once again we see how simple technological innovation, aided by science, can clearly make a difference to our lives. That is, if one can find seven minutes to spare.


Image by Irish Typepad, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Monday, 16 March 2015

Counting Crows

It started shortly after the new year started, but it had nothing to do with new year resolutions and everything to do with technology: I have been counting my calorie/KJ intake since early January, with great results to show for it.
Yes, I wanted to take control over my weight for a while now, but it wasn’t until I got to read about the release of a specific calorie counting app – CARROT – that I actually started doing so after a hiatus of several years.
The thing about calorie counting is that it is dead boring, it is depressing, and it is also repetitive: if you tend to eat the same things, roughly, the lure of entering the same pieces of information again and again diminishes rather rapidly. The tendency is to stop, because you already know what you’re going to get, but the sad reality is that the distance between that stopping and losing control over one’s food intake is very short.
Where CARROT fills the gap is attitude. As calorie counters go, CARROT is a very primitive one; where it shines is having a robotic SIRI with an attitude voice that tells you exactly what your smartphone thinks about your eating habits, meat bag!  I know, it doesn’t sound so special, but through this rather amusing behaviour CARROT makes it easier to surrender my food logs to. Even while remembering that here is yet another American company collecting tons of information I wouldn’t want to share with anyone (and almost certainly selling it to various data brokers).

My first insight, once I started using CARROT, was “no wonder I’ve been putting on weight”. As things were, I would go over or near my calorie intake limits just by eating my three regular meals. Add a bit of something on top, like a medium flat white, and boom – there’s weight to be gathered.
It hasn’t been easy to keep up with keeping my intake below the limit, but by mixing and matching from the following three strategies I have been generally able to do so:
  1. Decrease meal sizes.
  2. If one meal goes over, then the rest of the meals shrink.
  3. Exercise.
[21/3/15 update: I would like to add a fourth strategy of similar importance, which is - avoid eating out! Restaurant and even fast food meals tend to start at 3000KJ, which comes close to half the energy the average person should consume in a day.]
Yes, I know all eyes are on number three, and every healthy member of society should exercise and all that, but it is also the least effective of these strategies. Sure, exercising is good, but it is incredibly easy to overestimate the energy spent and overeat. The former two approaches are more reliable. And you know what the magical thing about them is? Once I got used to eating less, I am finding I do not feel the need to eat more. I am actually happy with eating just as much as I eat.
Case in point: the other week we made our way to a chicken parma place for our office lunch. I ate it all like a good boy, and it was yummy, but come dinner time I did not feel the need for yet another meal. It’s not just the chicken parma: Since I rarely consume sugary stuff anymore (part of my calorie intake regime is ensuring vile substances do not enter the system), on the rare occasion I do sample something like Cadbury chocolate it just tastes like foul sweet with sweetness on top. Other, less sugary stuff, tastes better than I could ever recall.
Where I’m heading for with this is the sense of appreciation I have gained for several foods. I know it would take you by complete surprise, but as it happens the food that’s more efficient at keeping me alive while not exceeding my recommended KJ intake tends to also be the more healthier food. There are exceptions, sure, but it goes without saying vegetables can be eaten all day and all night with minor repercussions whereas fast food comes bundled with heavy penalties.

So far, the results speak for themselves. I have lost several kilos (plus minus, since weight varies by the glass of water that I drink or the time of day). My clothes feel different, my belt buckle went up a notch, and I feel better. I will add that my efforts were given much extra support by a bout of antibiotics that seems to have empties my stomach, but on the positive side my newly earnt habits mean that I am not putting the weight back on right away.
No, I do not doubt my old ways will make a very successful comeback. But for now, I’m enjoying the ride. That said, if anyone could make hummus a bit less than the atom calorie bomb it currently is, I would greatly appreciate it.


Image copyright: Grailr LLC

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Email Option


I recently noted Signal as the app to solve most of our communications problem with: an open source based messaging app offering top notch end to end encryption. Signal, however, does have a significant drawback: it is an SMS like messaging app. That is, it requires a smartphone, and it is uncomfortable to use with long messages or attachments. [I will note there is another problem with Signal, and that is Apple: according to tweets that have since been removed, Apple has been rejecting proposed updates for the app on rather stupid grounds of the type that would let conspiracy theorists suggest it’s holding hands with the NSA. That said, a new version of Signal was made available today.]
In other words, for some things email is still the best communication method. Problem is, by default the email format is very open, having never been designed with true privacy in mind; as things are, we should regard all the information we post by email to be in the public domain. Solutions have been available for a while, such as getting your emails PGP encrypted, but those are a pain in the backside for the non technically inclined to implement. It is therefore nice to see some development to the field.
Tutanota is one such development. It’s a German provider that will let you have a 1GB web mailbox for free. Just like several of my other favourite cloud providers, Mega, SpiderOak and Tresorit, Tutanota claims to have all your data encrypted before it receives it so that Tutanota itself cannot read the emails it is holding for you. The emails are end to end encrypted, with the decryption taking place on the user’s browser. Unlike PGP, Tutanota will even encrypt the subject of your emails as well as attachments.
Other interesting notes about Tutanota include its claim to be open sourced based, its ability to send encrypted emails to non Tutanota users (which requires offline password coordination), its ability to act like any other email provider and send non encrypted emails, and its servers being located in Germany. A country where, unlike the USA, proper privacy protection exists by law.
No, Tutanota would probably not shake the NSA off your back, especially not if you use Tutanota’s mobile apps and have them backed up to Apple’s iCloud. However, Tutanota definitely offers a way to prevent commercial interest from reading your emails: unlike Gmail, Outlook/Hotmail or Yahoo, your emails are yours and are never read by Tutanota.
Which, in my opinion, makes email exchanges between Tutanota users a pretty good way to communicate. Now you know where to get me even if you do not use a smartphone.


Image rights: Tutanota

Friday, 6 March 2015

Cirque du Cash


Back when I was a little boy, my uncle took me to see the circus. I remember the experience as one of my more fascinating childhood memories: the huge circus tent at the banks of Tel Aviv’s Yarkon river, one of my uncle’s employees winning a pressure cooker pot at the fair where one was expected to spend money before the show, and then the show itself. It was called Circus Mederano and it was wow!
Recently, at another continent on a different world, we took our son to see the circus for the very first time. I looked forward to the experience myself, given I’ve only been to the circus once before. Our circus of choice was Cirque du Soleil, whose Totem show is currently visiting Melbourne. And yes, I was hoping to be able to give my son that same awesome experience I once had.
Then it kicked in. The cynicism, I mean. First, there is the unavoidable matter of ticket prices, which border and eclipse the 3 digit realm depending on one’s choice of seat. Then there is the website that forces users to book their seats and enter their credit card details over a Flash built website from 2012 – hackers must love the circus! There really was no ticket ordering choice but online; luckily for us, I noticed the iPad version of the site, inflicted by Steve Jobs' lack of affection towards Flash, lacks seat selection facilities but also lacks the shit security hazard known as Flash, too. So we booked over the iPad.
Long story short: The show was good. It was very well organised, it had all the impressive things one expects to see at a top notch circus, and it had all the money grabbing one expects there too (e.g., $20 for the right to park on the nearby grass). My son? He was excited throughout and so thoroughly enjoyed the affair that immediately upon it finishing he asked (demanded?) we go again next year. If you are considering the experience, I would recommend investing in the more expensive seats as the show does tend to orient itself toward those in the front part of the circle (yes, geometry freaks, in French Canada circles do have a front side).

Did I enjoy the show? No, I didn't. And the fact I didn't troubles me.
I did not enjoy the show because I often see much more interesting things on TV. I watch movies that offer much more elaborate action. I read books that are far more imaginative. I play computer games where I, not some person I have never seen before and will never see again, perform stunts that far eclipse what any earthly circus can perform.
I have been to many different places. I have sampled many different foods. I worked at all sorts of different organisations doing all sorts of different things. At work, I deal with different people from different cultures on an hourly basis. I have even migrated from one country to another myself, with all the cultural shock and adaptation that comes with that.
In other words, I have, in my life time, accumulated a vast number of experiences. These have conspired against me to turn me into some sort of a cynic: it really takes a lot, nowadays, in order to impress me. The competition is fierce, and frankly, a circus does not stand a chance.
Between you and me, I couldn't care less about circuses. I do care, however, when my levels of cynicism rise to degrees that render experiences I do hold dear - such as travel - ineffective. I will admit: when I consider visiting a city I haven't been to before, I am starting to think along the lines of "what can that city offer me that I haven't experienced before". I know there is more to any city than meets the eye, but I also know that I have been to some of this world's most glamorous cities - I live in one of this world's most glamorous cities - and that topping those experiences is a tough act to follow.
It occurs to me that in order to break through this thick layer of cynicism I am required to venture to places I have never been to before. That probably means that, when choosing a holiday destination, I should probably avoid anything Western and instead go for the extraordinary: your India. Your Japan. Your China. Anything else would be just more of the same.


Image by TBWABusted, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

No Excuses

There are two core reasons why people do not use encryption to make sure their online interactions with friends and colleagues remain private:
  1. They are oblivious to the fact their conversations are being tapped, or otherwise oblivious to the issues with having their conversations tapped, and
  2. Using encryption is a pain in the ass.
Well, as it happens, as of today neither of these reasons need apply. There simply are no excuses for not encrypting your conversations.

Let's start with reason #1. Edward Snowden has already informed us of our friends at the NSA listening in to everything we do online; just the other week we learned the NSA has broken into the vast majority of this world's mobile phones (imagine how many years in jail you would get for committing the same crime). Even if you sincerely do believe the folks at the NSA are your friends, then surely you would have a problem or two with their just as capable counterparts from China or Russia. Face it, you're never alone anymore.
Then there is the mandatory data retention that the Liberal government is about to impose on Australia and Labor will help them do so because Labor are such wimps and because Labor is not much better than the Liberals in the first place. Any criminal with half a brain would be able to avoid their data retained, but you - do you really want the whole of your life to be available to any clerk? Any policeman wishing to check on their ex? Or any hacker managing to put their hands on the data, simply because it's there to be picked and it's looked after by the lowest bidder?
Or do you seriously trust the likes of these two cronies being interrogated by Green Senator Ludlam here to look after you and your retained data?
No, you probably don't. I can't blame you; even our own Communications Minister and wannabe Prime Minister Malbolm Turnbull doesn't. That's why he's using Wickr, a Snapchat like service that seems to actually provide the security that Snapchat was alleged to provide until it turned out to be a complete fraud. Well, if encryption is good enough for the guy in charge of Australian communications, it should be good enough for you.

The question is not whether to use encryption or not, but rather how. And as of today we have an answer.
It comes down to this: if you're an iPhone user, install an app called Signal; if you're an Android user, go for the equivalent app called TextSecure. What Signal and TextSecure do is provide end to end encryption for all your communications with other users of these apps; Signal can also encrypt calls, a service that in Android is handled by another app called RedPhone.
Messaging encryption apps have existed for a while now; Telegram offers a fine example that I still favour. Where Signal/TextSecure rise a level above the rest is:
  1. Signal/TextSecure use of top notch encryption, including forward secrecy. Whereas Telegram uses the same encryption key throughout the life of a secure chat, Signal negotiates a new key for each session. If our NSA friends put their hands on such a key they would find its use rather limited.
  2. Signal/TextSecure use encryption constantly and by default.
  3. Signal/TextSecure can be used by the dumbest of users. Unlike email PGP encryption, for example, the user is not required to know anything special or do anything special.
  4. Signal/TextSecure are open source. We do not need to trust a vendor like Wickr to tell us that we can trust them and that their service is robust; affairs are open for public scrutiny.
  5. Signal and TextSecure are totally free to install and use.
Through these bullet points, Open Whisper Systems - makers of Signal and TextSecure, headed by famous hacker Moxie Marlinspike - has managed to offer the public an incredibly useful service. Us people can, once again, use the Internet in order to communicate with one another freely and without fear.
As for me, I'm stopping my use of insecure chat services. I already got rid of the abomination called Google Hangouts from my phone. I also see no point in investing any more efforts in acquiring and maintaining PGP email capabilities.
If you want to get me, you know how to.


Image copyrights: Open Whisper Systems
Check here and here for more details on Signal/TextSecure as well as installation links.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

No Comment


Many interesting things happened today, no doubt about it. I learnt that the much anticipated Deluxe Edition of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti is finally out. But then I also learnt something about Google's use of CAPTCHAs.
You probably encountered many of those during your journeys through the Internet. You know, those annoying things that ask you to type a cryptic pattern of text in order to verify you are no bot? Well, Google recently took them a step further. The layman thought this was in order to make the human verification process simpler; but the cynic read this article to learn that Google's CAPTCHAs are just another trick from the vast Google arsenal that is aimed at sucking in more private information from the people of this world.
Since Google's CAPTCHAs are a required step when one seeks to leave a comment on the pages of this blog, I urge you to not leave comments here.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Great Expectations

A friend had recently told me of their school plans for their toddler.
At the area they lives in there is only one high school that's considered good. It happens to be a Catholic school. In order to ensure the child will be able to get into that school, the parents need to have to child enrolled into a feeder primary school; naturally, this feeder school is also a Catholic school. In order to be able to register the child to that feeder school, the parents are required to have their child baptised. In order to achieve baptisation, the parents need to attend meetings with a Catholic priest, get their child presented before the congregation, and attend mass. Which is quite a pain, but even more of a pain given they are agnostics who generally try to steer away from religion.


I know what you're thinking: you've been reading this blog for a while, you know what this blog's attitude towards religion is, and you're pretty sure I'm telling you the above story in order to express my utter disgust with a parent about to sacrifice their child on a Catholic church's altar.
Thing is, I'm not. It would be very hard for me to criticise a parent who, lacking in choice, goes to great lengths in order to provide their child with the best education on offer. Sure, I think I can say with certainty I am never going to send my child to a Catholic school, but I am also not in a position to criticise my friend here.
The real problem is not my friend sending their child into the throes of the Catholic church. The real problem is with Australia's education system. And the real problem is with Australian culture, a culture that sends parents very strong signals telling them that sending their child into a state run high school is the equivalent of rape while sending them to a private school is far more an indicator of social status than wearing the dearest Rolex and driving a Ferrari.

I will admit feeling the stress myself.
Almost everyone around me is planning on sending their children to private high schools. Due to the waiting lists involved with that, the majority has already put their children in some private school's waiting list since they were of the age 0. As a direct result of doing so, these parents have pretty much signed and sealed their kids' path through school, from Prep to VCE.
In contrast, I stand out as a parent who has no idea what high school would even be remotely suitable for my child, not to mention sorting enrolment out. The conclusion is therefore obvious: I'm a bad parent who is letting his children down by failing to secure the best education for them.


Image by www.audio-luci-store.it, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence