Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I Regret Nothing

Regrets, I've had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.
Paul Anka, My Way (made famous by Frank Sinatra)

Do you have any regrets?
Usually when people are asked whether they regret something, the expectation is for them to say something big. Something like “I should have married that girl” or “I should have bought that new company called Apple back when Steve Jobs came begging for money to help assemble this computer on a wooden board a friend of his had invented”. Me, I’m different. I’m with Mr Anka on this one.
In my opinion, most of the time the bigger choices of our lives are so clear that there isn’t much room for wasting brain power contemplating a choice. And as such potential dilemmas go, the more you have at stake the more obvious the choice tends to be. So no, I do not regret failing to buy Apple back when it was worth an apple.
This doesn’t mean I do not have regrets. I doesn’t take much for me to feel bad for wrongdoing a friend, for hurting an ex dating partner, for being a bad parent or for annoying my wife. I classify those as Being a Dick, and I often mull over my accumulated regrets out of a lifelong career in Being a Dick.
My point is simple. First, do your best to avoid being a dick. Second, and more interestingly, I wanted to note my regrets are less to do with missing out on personal opportunities and more to do with abusing potential opportunities in order to hurt others.

Image copyrights belong to Amorphia Apparel, producers of one of my favourite shirts. I do not regret not asking for their permission to reproduce the image here.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Apple Predictions

It started with the first iPhone’s entry into our lives, and since then the trend has been too clear: each year, we [as in I, mostly] spend a significant portion of our disposable income on Apple gadgets. So much so it would be more efficient if Apple could start some sort of a salary sacrifice subscription fund and get it over with.
Given recent product announcements from the House of Apple, I thought I’d list this year’s Apple gadgets expected spending. You know, so that when my predictions turn out to be all wrong you’d be able to quote me and demonstrate just how stupidly short sighted I was. So here goes:
  1. Apple Watch? Not on my watch. First, it doesn’t satisfy any of my needs. Second, battery life. In other words, in order for me to abandon my current "strap and forget" wristwatch, Apple needs to offer me some functionality I can’t live without. So far it doesn’t.
  2. Retina MacBook Air: My biggest disappointment following this week's announcements was the lack of mentioning of a Retina Mac Air model despite persistent rumours of a 12” model utilising Intel’s new fan-less Broadwell CPUs. As much as I love my current MacAir, it is getting a bit too old. Old enough to merit a replacement? Maybe in a year’s time.
  3. iPhone 6 Plus: I won’t be around the bush here, I’d love to have this huge tool in my pocket. Even if the 64GB version I’d go for sells for $1150 – the price of a MacBook. However, my current two year old iPhone 5 is still very much alive and kicking; as long as that is the case, I cannot justify such a spending. Barring an unforeseen breakdown, which is not too unlikely for a smartphone past its second birthday, I expect to be putting my hands on next year’s 6 Plus S instead.
  4. iPad: No, I am not about to replace my iPad Mini Retina, which has been doing an awesome job at turning my whole life paperless (what a great working tool it is!). However, it's not too unlikely our now old iPad 3 will need replacement within this year. Plus the only member of our household without an iPad is starting to feel like she’s missing out on something.
That’s 4 no-s for you. History tells me to expect a 50% accuracy rate with that prediction.

Image by Anthony Agius, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Video Gaming Fillers

For reasons that make absolute sense, I don't like it when I'm asked to pay for services I used to receive for free. Case in point: online playing on the PS4, which requires PlayStation Plus membership at $70 (AUD) per year. Compare that with online playing on the PS3, which requires nothing but an Internet connection.
Yet I recently became a PlayStation Plus member. The reason? There is more to it than online video gaming action. PlayStation Plus comes with other bonuses, most notable of which is the ability to get certain games for free each month. As it happened, one of this month's games turned out to be a game I wanted to have a go at: Velocity 2X. It's an "arcade of old" style shooter, but it packs interesting punches: from time to time it turns into a platformer, and - more interestingly - the regular shooter action receives an adrenaline boost through the ability to teleport across the screen. The game uses that ability quite brilliantly. The result is high on, well, velocity.
Velocity 2X is probably not the game I'm yearning for the most. It's not of Mass Effect grade, but rather a filler. The point is, $70 a year offers decent value in the filler department: I get to mess around with a constant supply of nice and perhaps not so nice games to try out. Life can be much worse.
It could still be that those $70 are a waste for another reason. At the moment my PS4 is still yearning for a proper big title to rob me of my life with. That is about to change shortly with the upcoming acquisition of Destiny, followed by the November releases of Grand Theft Auto 5 for the PS4 and that most anticipated of games this year: Dragon Age Inquisition. You know, that game that's Mass Effect set in a Dudgeons & Dragons like universe. Once those arrive, the fillers would be forgotten.
Then again, Dragon Age's cooperative multiplayer promises to be everything Mass Effect's cooperative multiplayer was and then some, which would mean I would that online capability. So those $70 won't be wasted.

One other thing to note with regards to PlayStation Plus is to do with the downloading aspect. Modern games constitute fairly large downloads, measured in the gigs. Between that, Spotify playing music in the background and Netflix, it has become clear our ADSL connection simply doesn't cut it anymore. We need the NBN.
Problem is, with the Liberals in charge and their impression of fast Internet being pure bred carrier pigeons, I foresee much misery ahead.

Image by grimnjou, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Basic Guide to Online Anonymity

I am often asked by people of no particular denomination what it is that they need to do in order to remain anonymous online. I therefore thought I’d share some insight here.
First, let’s have a closer look at the problem. Note the main issue people are trying to work around is not how to prevent the contents of whatever it is they do online from falling into the wrong hands. Although there are plenty of issues in that department, well implemented encryption can do a fine job as long as it's comprehensive. No, the thing that bothers these people is how to prevent their metadata from being acquired by others. As in, how to avoid leaving tracks behind when one operates online.
The first and most obvious need is to hide one’s direct activities. That is, prevent records of what one did online from accumulating somewhere in the first place, with “somewhere” usually standing for your ISP (Internet Service Provider). There are three core avoidance strategies there: proxy, VPN and TOR.
Using a proxy server implies that all your requests to access certain parts of the Internet are made on your behalf through your proxy server of choice. Whoever is looking at the breadcrumb trail you’ve left behind will see you communicating with that server, but unless they have access to the proxy server's own records did they will not be able to know what you did. On the downside, using a proxy server does not mean the connection between you and the server is necessarily encrypted. By the nature of Internet things, a lot if not most of traffic isn’t encrypted. Therefore, while leaving not much in the way of metadata behind, you will still leave lots of data behind. That is where the VPN solution steps in.
The VPN solution takes the proxy approach a step further. Everything coming and going out of your computer (or smartphone or tablet) is channelled through an encrypted tunnel between you and the VPN server. There are some very sophisticated ways to tell the nature of what’s passing between you and the VPN, but not much more.
In the eyes of the rest of the world, it is not you who is communicating with the world through the Internet, but rather the VPN server. That means you put your trust with that VPN server – and that’s a lot of trust to put in someone’s hands. On the other hand, there are VPN providers whose main purpose in life is to provide a reliable channel that does not keep any records of your activities (check here for best of breed references).
TOR steps in to provide an even more secure solution. With TOR, your traffic goes in and out of the TOR network’s exit nodes several times; research indicates that after three such hoops it is effectively impossible to determine where the traffic came from. Sounds cool, but TOR has its issues: it is very slow, and by piggybacking on it you use the generosity of several nice people who lend their hand to provide an exit node. TOR is therefore not suitable for high volume traffic, like downloading or streaming; I prefer to leave it to the world’s oppressed so that they have an easier time using the Internet for constructive causes.

So far we have discussed means to hide an Internet user’s IP address from the rest of the world. That is, how to prevent your computer's identifying address from getting collected in direct association with you. Whether through proxy, VPN or TOR, your main achievement is that the other side – the place on the Internet you’re communicating with – does not know who you are; instead, they recognise “you” as the proxy server, VPN server or that last TOR exit.
However, there are other ways of knowing what you’re up to online. When one uses the Internet one leaves behind a long trail of metadata. Trying to be anonymous online is, in effect, an act of making an effort to minimise that trail of metadata. For anyone other than superman, completely eliminating one's trail is as achievable as getting to that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
One fine example of this trail is the matter of DNS. Every time you ask to access a certain website, someone needs to be able to identify where exactly that website resides for you. That someone is called a DNS server. The DNS server contains the location of popular websites, recently used by others websites as well as other DNS servers that might know more about the locations of things on the Internet. By default, most of us use the services of our own Internet provider’s DNS server.
The catch with using your Internet provider’s DNS server is that by doing so you are letting your provider know where you wanted to make your computer connect to through the Internet. Not the smartest way of going about if one wants to keep one’s online activities for oneself.
There are solutions available in the shape of other DNS servers. No one is forcing you to use your provider’s; you can relatively easily direct your browser or your router to use another. Google offers popular DNS servers that hold onto user requests info for 24 hours only, although it probably does the most it can analysing that data for its core business of selling advertisements.
The plot thickens, though. For example, the better VPN services will direct your querying computer to their own set of DNS servers. However, there is often some unreliability in the air that causes “leaks”: despite the best of intentions from your VPN provider, your computer still directs some or all of its DNS queries to your ISP's server. One can check for such leaks through the help of web facilities such as this.
One can and should make even further efforts in order to ensure their online anonymity. For example, there is no point in going through all of the above measures if you’re still logged into Google’s services (say, your Gmail account). Or, for that matter, if your computer is running an email application that checks with Google for updates regularly. Or if your computer checks on a named Apple or Microsoft account for updates. As recently discussed here, you may even be identified through the unique settings of your browser; on the other hand, you may choose to fight back by spoofing your browser’s identification using such tools as Random Agent Spoofer add-on for Firefox.
I can continue further with this list of additional things to be aware of if one wants to ensure online anonymity. I won’t, though, because the point I am trying to make is that this is an effort for which perfection demands such attention levels that there is no point in trying to achieve it. Take the Dread Pirate Roberts from the illegal drugs trading TOR "dark Internet" site Silk Road: this criminal mastermind was identified through the anti-abuse CAPTCHA service he applied to his site (see here for details).
One needs to understand that when one attempts online anonymity, one is – in effect – wearing protective onion rings on top. Most companies and people will be thrown off the track by the outer shells, but the experienced hacker can go deeper. Authorities such as the NSA, with their infinite arsenal of knowledge, resources and vulnerabilities will get you if they put their mind to it; as my colleague Edward Snowden has shown, they might not be able to crack all manner of encryption yet, but they can sure as hell infiltrate anybody’s computer if they put their collective mind to it.

If that is the case, then why bother with aspiring for online anonymity in the first place?
In our recent climate of terrorism fear mongering and governments trying to look tough by being tough on terror, we’ve been hearing that “nothing to fear, nothing to hide” argument all too often. Usually in the context of allowing governments to keep track of everybody’s exact history of online and mobile phone activities. Yes, our governments are seeking the legal right to know exactly where we were, when and what we did. We are told that we needn’t worry about them being able to do so, because we have nothing to fear as long as we have nothing to hide.
Or do we? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a governments with proven track records in losing people’s information, being hacked to death, or just harbouring plenty of petty criminals to have access to my detailed financial information. I do not want anyone and everyone to know the finer details of my health records. And if you have a chat with Jennifer Lawrence, she will tell you that she doesn’t particularly want various third parties looking at her private photos. In other words, we all have something to hide. Even if we are law abiding citizens, and I consider myself to be one, we still have things we want to keep to ourselves.
The problem is, all this information of ours that we put online is getting collected by multitudes of governments and companies who use our information to their own selfish purposes. Usually it’s to make money, and often it is done in ways that we would not approve. None of us will let someone we bump into on the street grab our phone, take our photos from it and print them for the whole world to see. Yet that is exactly what most of us are doing by the mere act of taking a photo with our smartphone, with the slight difference that the person collecting our photo is actually one or many companies.
Most people seem happy to live in blissful ignorance with regards to these issues. I don’t, which goes a long way into explaining why I will make an effort to have the ability to be [near] anonymous online.

Image by Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Playing Ball

One morning the other week I had myself an opportunity to watch children at play.
Proceedings started early, before the start of a school day. A young child was playing hand tennis, for lack of a better word, with his mother and a bouncy plastic ball. The two were enjoying themselves in a relaxed manner, trying to maintain continuous play as the ball moved from one to the other.
After several such minutes a group of other kids approached, and they wanted their go. The mother retired to let them take their turn. Immediately, and without saying a word, the goal of the game changed: instead of keeping things running, the goal turned into smashing the ball as hard as possible and as quickly as possible so as to prevent the other player from hitting it. Instead of a variation of catch, the kids were now playing something closer to real tennis.

I could not avoid reminiscing about my own time at the playground. Back at those days, the days before we had much in the way of the modern day alternatives – computers and TV – the only real alternative to outdoor play was book reading. Which meant that I read a lot and played a lot.
Perhaps due to that lack of alternatives, ball games were managed through some unwritten contract that dictated, by force of mutual benefit, that the main objective of the game is to keep on playing. Games were thus quite open and inclusive of those who did not handle a ball as well as others. More interestingly, given my contemporary observations, the competitive edge of the game was generally absent. Sure, we kept scores and all, but it wasn’t about winning; when the main objective is to keep on playing one has to ensure the other players receive constant motivation to play.
I do wonder, though, whether this difference in play style is solely a result of modern times’ excessive stimulation and overabundance of entertainment alternatives. Could it also be a cultural thing, too?
I cannot claim to have much in the way of evidence on this matter. However, I do wonder – aloud – whether that essence of what being Australian is all about has its say here. Sports is a major part of Australian culture, and right beside it are competitiveness and winner-ism. If one grows up to learn that the main goal is not to win or beat your opponent but rather to thrash them, then by default thrashing becomes the core objective of gameplay. To use a pub, it is the name of the game.
It would be interesting to observe contemporary kids in less sports obsessive countries as they play with a ball. For now, though, I will note the rather sad nature of modern gameplay between Australian males of primary school age and hold it against Aussie culture.

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

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Photography Apps

As noted here before, and as you probably know for yourself, a modern day's smartphone camera does a pretty good job. Sure, it’s not as good as a proper camera, but unlike a proper camera it’s always there for you to use it.
Picture quality aside, I have two problems with the core concept of using my smartphone for proper photography: the lens being of fixed zoom, and the inability to manually control the camera’s settings – exposure, aperture and ISO. Into this gaping hole we have many apps coming to the rescue. Most do so by offering various filters, as if saying “if the picture’s not as good as you’d like it to be, we’re here to help you screw it up a bit further”. I don’t care much for those, but I would like to discuss a couple that do a good job.

First is HDR, a simple app that let’s you take a couple of photos of the same subject and merges them together. By selecting exposure on a light area in one of the photos and on a darker area in the other, the result is a photo that captures more detail than the default single shot. The iPhone already has HDR ability built in, but the HDR app does a better job at it, presumably through letting the user pick the dark and light areas.
The result can be quite nice:

The other app I’d like to praise is Photogene. Essentially, this is your Adobe Lightroom equivalent on the iPhone (I know that by now Adobe is actually offering Lightroom for iOS, but Adobe’s is a very heavy handed – and expensive – offering).
With a bit of tailoring, I find I am able to make my photos express much more of what I want to say in the first place. Check this before/after example out:

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Conversations with Israel

To celebrate the recently announced ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, here’s a brief outtake from a conversation I had a few days ago with an Israeli:
Israeli: I am very sad after hearing a four year old was killed [by mortar fire from Gaza, see here].
This blogger: You are aware that 400 other four year olds have already died in the conflict?
Israeli: Yes, but I can only relate to the one I see and feel.

There are plenty of ways to analyse the above. For example, one can point a finger at the role of Israeli media in this conflict. I will refrain from that and instead repeat what I have said her before: that I am very pessimistic about the chances of achieving peaceful long term resolution to this conflict.

Image by Toban Black, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Paradigm Shift

Decades ago, I have realised keeping things to myself may not be a good recipe for happiness. Since then I’ve been actively offloading things off my chest. Most notably, I have had this blog with which to share what’s on my mind for almost a decade now. Sharing I did, to the point of self harm through loss of sleep, family friction and rendering my brand significantly less attractive to prospective employers. Yet, in my opinion, sharing was worth the admission price.
Now, however, I have reached a point where the main topics on my mind, the issues I am grappling with, are subject matters that I consider off limits to public sharing. Such matters have always existed – you cannot find everything there is to know about me through my blog – but now, these matters weigh more than the shareable. Also worth noting: this new status quo is not expected to change in the short term.
What does this mean? It means that this blog is going to be a lot more like my Twitter account. It will deal with stuff that’s out there, in public discourse, albeit with the extra depth that’s available when one is not limited for length but is rather limited by time. It means this blog is going to turn less personal. And it also means that I am not going to post here as often as I did in the past.
I blog, therefore I am – no more.

Image by Alex Pang, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence