Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Openness


In my previous post I discussed Apple's mega fuck-up, a catastrophic failure that compromised (and in many cases, still compromises) the security of all Apple devices since at least June 2013 and probably much longer. The question is, how could such a disaster take place in the first place, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again?
With regards to the first part of the question, Edward Snowden has provided us with ample material to raise suspicions of some conspiracy aimed at allowing authorities to track all Apple users up. And you know what? I wouldn't dismiss such speculations off hand. I will, however, note that regardless of conspiracies, software defects happen all the time; they are a statistical inevitability.
The more important part of the question is therefore that second part, how do we prevent such disasters from happening again. I will tell you how we shouldn't go about: we should not go about the way Apple had done so far, keeping its code in secret in the hope that this secrecy would improve users' security. "In the hope"? Apple has been known to rave about its security for years; we all remember those "I am Apple" vs. "I am PC" ads, where Mr Windows PC was mocked for his insecurity. Clearly, the last laugh is on Apple's behalf (or more accurately, its users behalf).
Fact is, again and again we witness how security through secrecy just doesn't work (did I mention Snowden?). Luckily for us, we do have a model that works and works well, and that is the open source model: instead of keeping one's secrets in the dark, one publishes one's code and lets the entire world scrutinized it for weaknesses; and when those weaknesses are found, they are advertised so everyone can learn how to protect themselves. More importantly, when these weaknesses are advertised they also tend to be quickly addressed.
No, I do not expect Apple to reveal its source code to the public any more than I expect it to cease its tax avoidance schemes. However, us users do not have to wait around for Apple; we can just turn to the open source alternatives that are already available for us to use.


Image by J. Albert Bowden II, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Why VPN?


My reputation for looking after my online sself often comes with a reputation for paranoia. Amongst the many examples I can quote is the one that has me mocked for my insistence on using public wifi networks only through a VPN service. What's the deal, I'm asked; why bother?
Originally, my intention there was to avoid snoopers who tap the network and can thus imitate me when my connection is not encrypted. Say, for example, I am logged in to Facebook; if my connection with Facebook is not an encrypted one, anyone logged into that network can theoretically listen to my communications and even pretend they are me. The matter was discussed here already, and since then Facebook and many others have started encrypting their interactions. The point is still valid, though: on a public network, I prefer to protect myself from the unknown. Mock me if you will.
Yesterday, I received all the proof I ever needed for my precaution. Apple released an iOS update, a rather strange iOS update: not only did they update iOS 7, they also provided an iOS 6 update that applied to my old and long neglected iPhone 3GS. What's going on there?
Today we learned what was going on (read here). Essentially, everything Apple - be it an iPhone, iPad or a Mac - was totally exposed to "man in the middle" type attacks where someone else pretends to be the website you are after. In other words, if someone wanted to get to you, they could have pretended to be google.com the next time you ran an Internet search. From there the road to your credit card number or other sensitive information is rather short. The horrible thing about this exploit is that this vulnerability applied for a very long time (according to Wikipedia, the previous iOS 6 release took place on 19 June 2013), and still applies to the currently un-patched Macs.
I have no doubt institutions such as the NSA were well aware of this exploit to Apple devices, and that they used it to compromise many an iGadget. But I don't worry that much about them; they're assholes, but they are not assholes of the type that wants my money. The NSA has the facilities to stage a google.com fake when I surf the Internet at home, but the smaller time crook can [usually] only achieve such a feat through a public network. And that's where using a VPN service helps.

Is there a point to this story, other than "use VPN when unsure?"
Yes. The point is that there are too many unknowns when using the Internet, and non of us can pretend to be fully secure when accessing it. However, by using certain protection measures one can make oneself too much of a hassle for crooks to deal with. And that is all we need.


Image by Phil Campbell, Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Death of Taxes


Earlier this week I was discussing taxation with a friend who told me he hardly ever pays any taxes. Between his investment properties and his accountant, that is a pain he does not need to endure.
Today I was chatting with another friend who is considering buying a car. He will lease it under his company name, so as to deduct the costs from his taxes.
There is nothing illegal with these two cases. Everything they do is done in the open, above the table. It's just that these two cases demonstrate all too vividly how easy it is for people with assets to avoid paying taxes. Or rather, if you do pay normal taxes - you know, something like 30% of your income - then you're either too poor or too much of an idiot.
I am having a hard time determining which of these two I happen to be.


Image by Michael Fleshman, Creative Commons licence

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Makers

Ah, school holidays, how I miss thee. Sure, by the end I had my tongue out as we were running out of viable options to keep our astute son satisfied with, but still – holidays are holidays. Ye who do not have kids may live from one public holiday to another, but us parents mock thee for we get to live from one school holiday to another. If one can call that living.
One way to keep our budding engineer entertained is through various advanced mechanical/electronic contraptions. We seem to have had it all this recent school holiday: RC helicopters, RC cars (dare I add: hobby grade!), electronics assembly kits, Lego Technic, you name it. We even took our slot cars contraption out the closet but never got to it.
Clearly, most if not all of the above proved too advanced for our six year old. Yet the question remains: having now been there and done that, where do we go from here? What could we do next if we want to keep the passion alive?
There are all sorts of avenues to grow to. Most, like Lego Mindstorms or the Scratch programming language are kids oriented but are probably too advanced to be digested by a kid who – in this age of the iPad and the instant gratification that comes with it – is still wondering why he needs to bother to learn how to read in the first place. Thus far his parents are failing to convince him of the merits of reading despite both being avid readers.
Personally, the avenue I would like to find myself expanding to is the one offered by Make Magazine. That is, make my own hobby grade toys, if you like. Recent editions of this now bimonthly magazine pointed me towards drool inducing options such as making my own drone or making various contraptions using Raspberry Pi boards. It’s all very tempting! Sure, the costs of entering this “make” universe are not insignificant, but the dollar per time spent ratio should be much better than most other leisurely activities. The educational benefits, on the other hand, are incomparable.

Me, I live in the real world. I know there is no chance in hell I will get to make my own noodle drone before I get to spend my promised eternity in hell. This directly implies my son and I are destined to spend our years of school holidays together in mediocrity.
Thus, yet again, I arrive at the conclusion I arrived at before: the biggest hurdle between me and a life well worth living is the eight hour working day. Such "normal" days have us run around like headless chickens taking part in the race to drop our son at school, do our time at the office, and then pick the son up from school. By the time we prepare and consume our dinner we are too exhausted to make anything other than make a TV play something to ease the pain with.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Next Issue


There are some obvious trends in the way we tend to consume our ever digitising entertainment media. I think it is safe to say the future lies with said media residing on the cloud and with us paying to acquire access to this cloud. That is the model employed by Spotify for music and Netflix for movies. So successful has this model been that others are running to find an answer, most recently Apple - up until now the undisputed king - offering its iTunes Radio.
It also seems obvious that the more casual the consumption of the media, the easier it is to use the model of operation that has us accessing content residing at that great library in the sky as opposed to us buying individual pieces of cloud for personal use (ala Amazon and its Kindle). This explains why we are fine with Spotify and Netflix but not so fine using a similarly inclined service for book reading.
If these are the trends, then where do we go from here? What's next after music and movies?
The answer I am contemplating is magazines. Unlike books they are casual in consumption; and unlike books I care less about DRM because my consumption of magazines is generally of the "read once and throw away" frame of mind. The reality is I hardly have time for magazines; most are too shallow to begin with.
With that in mind, I went looking for services to satisfy my thirst. Services that would allow me to read any magazine I feel like on my iPad. Two services seemed to answer my criteria.

The first, and seemingly the best in the crowd, is Next Issue. For $10 USD a month, a subscriber receives "all you can eat" access to more than a hundred magazines. These include some classy ones, like Wired. $5 USD more would get you access to even more content in the shape of news oriented, more frequently published magazines, such as Time.
The problem, as always, is with Next Issue being closed to Australians. Or, in other words, you can only join if you have an American or Canadian credit card.
Moving onwards, I stumbled on a very similar service called Readr. It's very similar to Next Issue: $10.50 a month grants you access to a large number of magazines, albeit a different collection of magazines to Next Issue's. There is no Time here, nor Wired; actually, there was nothing remotely exciting in the popular science or tech departments nor in the automative department. Readr did prove to have some interesting stuff, like Widescreen Review and Stereophile, but personally I did not find enough there to continue beyond my free trial.

I did get a bit of an appetite, though, so I went looking for more conventional ways of magazine consumption on the iPad. Again, it became evident everyone outside the USA is being shafted: Amazon, for example, offers a print + digital subscription for 6 issues of Wired for a measly $5 USD. Outside the USA, a yearly digital only subscription to the same magazine stands at $20 USD.
Once we step into the realm of purchasing specific magazines for digital consumption the playing field does significantly expand. Pretty much everything is available, either through Apple or through specific apps (such as Make Magazine's).
Of the numerous contenders I currently seem to prefer Zinio the most. Zinio seems to have three advantages: the first is a huge collection of magazines to pick from (Time was the only one I could not find), the second its support for all useable platforms (as opposed to iOS alone), and the third being regularly received subscription discount offers. The latter make it easier for the patient reader to "catch" a subscription to their magazine of choice at a price closer to what an American reader would pay. One does need to remember to cancel the automatically renewing subscription if one wants to always be on a discount, though.

Overall, my impression is that the digital magazine market is currently where the digital music market was 3-4 years ago. Publishers are dipping their feet in the water, but are generally afraid to step in. Someone should tell them to get on with the show.


Image by Manoj Jacob, Creative Commons licence

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Disappearing Acts


I noticed something strange with my Spotify playlists the other day. Looking over them at a glance, I could not avoid noting several of them claiming to be empty. Now, what business do I have creating empty playlists? When time allowed I had a deeper look.
Turned out almost all of the Israeli music I had “collected” through Spotify is gone. Vanished into thin air. Metropolin? Gone. Mashina? Gone. Ninet? Who's that? Tamouz? Disappeared like a fart in the wind. Even Shlomo Artzi decided to pretend he was never on Spotify.
This is not exactly a new phenomenon. A few months ago some Doors albums I liked to listen to vanished, then made a comeback in slightly different albums (which meant I had to redo my playlists), then disappeared again as the old albums came back. It’s all happening, I tell you.

I suspect this is not a Spotify issue but rather one caused by record companies. Which brings me to say I really can’t say I understand what goes on in the minds of those record companies. Do they seriously expect me to now say “mmm, with my Spotify collections all gone, I better off rush into my nearest record store and buy this music”?
Well, no. And for reference, bit torrent does not have this problem: its music never disappears.
If the record companies want us to go down the legal path, they better join the game. It started a decade and a half ago, and it is not going to end any time soon.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

How has your day been?


I’m asking because mine was far too exciting for my taste. It included:
  • A flat tyre,
  • School drop off (and later, pickup),
  • An ant infestation,
  • Australia Post playing tricks on me with its package delivery,
  • A specialist telling me I’m still alive,
  • And work.
All the while, in the background, I have been receiving news of major concerns with regards to family members’ health. From time to time I’m happy with the full on, but seriously, I can live without a heart attack this week.


Image by Taro Taylor, Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Atari Lives


There is a special room in my heart dedicated to the Atari 2600, my first ever games console and my first proper glimpse into the world of computers. I therefore took notice when many people I'm in touch with were unaware of the existence of a vast collection of Atari games that one, anyone and everyone, can play directly on a computer browser (alas, it doesn't seem to work on my iPad).
Check it out here and fire away!

What I will say is that while some games definitely failed to survive the test of time, some are still proving addictive. I always thought the Atari interpretations of Space Invaders and Missile Command were the best, and I now know I was right all along.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

What Happened to All the Beautiful People?


For reasons still eluding me, my son's school year started a day later than everybody else’s. Which meant that we could spend some time together during the first day of school and his last day of school holidays. We chose to spend it at the swimming pool.
It was an interesting day at the swimming pool. Affairs were not even half as full as they used to be just the week before, during school holidays; the main participants were the parents of little kids and their kids. Actually, they were the only participants.
The sight of parents with little kids wearing nothing but swimming attire on, and only parents with little kids with nothing but swimming attire on, proved quite insightful. With perhaps just one or two exceptions, all said parents – yours truly included – were wide and overweight. What do I mean by wide?
Normally, when one goes to the beach or to the swimming pool, one is surrounded by beautiful people. They are the type of people that like to parade around in their swimming attire while the rest of us stick to hiding places, and they are the ones that attract the eye. Yet at the swimming pool the other day there were no such creatures; the glamorous stick insects were gone, replaced by parents.
And thus it occurred to me. What is it that turns the formerly attractive twenty something year olds into these thirty year old tanks? Having kids. So, what did happen to all the beautiful people? They became parents.
Yes, I realise many of those bloated people I have seen do recover with time. Just the same, I am sure this recovery process is much harder with little kids around. In other words, label this post's insight under “one other thing they do not tell you about having children of your own”.

P.S. If there is one thing I took with me these school holidays, it’s extra weight around the stomach.


Image by marsmett talahassee, Creative Commons licence