Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Psychics and their Tricks

Posted on January 21st, 2013 in Education, Life, Technology | No Comments »

This is a particularly interesting way to introduce people to the value of their information:

Great presentation, but I’m not sure ‘tricks’ like this really educate. They don’t recommend any action at the end of this video. I suppose my recommendation would be to sign up for your free annual credit report. That’s as good a first step as is available right now.

Rap News on Surveillance

Posted on November 16th, 2012 in Computer Security, Entertainment, Politics and Law | No Comments »

I think Bruce Schneier said it best: “Wow.” There’s not much else to say about something like this.

Phone-based Microsoft Scam

Posted on January 2nd, 2012 in Computer Security, Technology | No Comments »

A phishing scammer called me this afternoon. He spoke with a strong Indian accent and said he was from “Microsoft Technical Division.” He told me that my computer sent them error reports indicating that it was infected with a virus. They wanted to help me remove the virus.

I was rather stunned since the last time I used a Microsoft operating system by choice was 1999. Still, I wanted to see where this went, so I asked them what I should do.

They wanted to start by verifying that I had the virus. This involved looking for warnings in some part of the control panel. I just agreed with the prompts the man on the other end of the phone gave me. I remain familiar enough to understand what sorts of screens he was walking me through, but since I’m not an active Windows user, I wasn’t able to learn much about their procedures here.

Eventually, they wanted me to visit, which I will not link to here. This allowed me to determine that they were, as I suspected, scammers. You can read more about a previous version of the scam on Microsoft’s website.

At this point, I knew I wouldn’t be able to fake them out any more. I told them I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that they had my phone number, and I wanted to call them back to ensure that they were a legitimate operation. The man on the other end of the phone didn’t bat an eye at this. He immediately gave me a phone number, which I immediately Googled. The number he gave me was used in other scams previously.

I thought I would write about this experience for two reasons. First, it’s worth knowing that something like this particular scam could happen to less tech savvy folks. Second, this is a data point in a trend of phishing attacks becoming more personalized. I expect to see more attacks like this, not fewer.

Book: The Friar and The Cipher

Posted on January 2nd, 2012 in Books, Computer Security | No Comments »

I picked up a copy of The Friar and The Cipher by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone from a used book store called Recycled Books in Denton, TX over Thanksgiving weekend. Sometimes when I’m in a book store with that much personality I will find a book that fascinates me, I’ll pick it up, and I’ll read it all rather quickly. The last time I did that was with Surveillance. I enjoyed finding both of those books in their respective used book stores, and reading something unscheduled and totally off my radar is something I plan to do again in the future.

I finished reading The Friar and The Cipher in less than a week, but it’s taken me quite some time to write the review of it. I was interested in the book because I love cryptography and everything on the dust jacket of the book indicated that it was roughly half about the Voynich manuscript. The Voynich manuscript is one of the most interesting puzzles in cryptography and linguistics. It’s a 240 page book written in the early 15th century, and its contents remain a complete mystery. The script is not latin, arabic, or any other recognizable alphabet, but the arrangement and frequency of the characters appear to have many of the same characteristics of natural languages. Deciphering it would almost certainly become a world-wide story regardless of what it actually says.

However, having read the book, saying that The Friar and The Cipher is about the Voynich manuscript feels extremely misleading. Most of the book is about Roger Bacon, whom the authors believe is the author of the Voynich manuscript, and the history of science and the Catholic church. Although the book is extremely readable, chapter after chapter about Roger Bacon, Thomas Acquinas, and the early debate between science and religion was not what I expected. Luckily, I find those topics interesting as well. In fact, I’ve read quite a bit about the debate regarding the interplay of science and religion. If I didn’t have that background, I would have felt rather cheated.

Frankly, this book didn’t satisfy my desire to learn more about the Voynich manuscript, and I would only recommend it as a book about the Voynich manuscript because of the dearth of material covering that mystery. Still, you might be better served by picking randomly from the further reading list on its Wikipedia page.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Lawrence OP

The authors don’t present material as unbiased journalists; they emphatically present their opinions that Roger Bacon has yet to receive proper recognition for his work and that Bacon is the most likely author of the Voynich manuscript. As a result, the book reads as rather one-sided. They lay much of the blame for this on the Catholic church, which may be justified, but they also seem willing to take shots at Christianity in general. They take the position that science and religion are completely incompatible as if there weren’t even a debate about it. They also make broad statements about “the church” as if they are fact even though they directly contradict other authors without even mentioning the other interpretation. (For examples, read the Amazon reviews. I won’t repeat their examples here.)

Books that purport to explore a mystery should at least attempt to be unbiased. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already familiar with both cryptography and the debate between science and religion. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about those topics with knowledgeable folks, then you will find it hard to discern between fact and opinion while reading The Friar and The Cipher. Still, the book was not irredeemably bad. I did learn a little bit more about church history, and it’s sparked my interest in reading more unbiased accounts of that time period. Besides, it was a quick read. There probably aren’t that many people who would be interested in The Friar and The Cipher, but it’s interesting if you consider yourself to fit that category.

Book: In The Plex

Posted on December 28th, 2011 in Books, Technology | No Comments »

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy is the single best account of Google from conception to the present. The book is a coming of age story of a multi-billion dollar company. It starts at the birth of the company and ends with the transition of power from Eric Schmidt to Larry Page, who earlier this year became CEO of the company he co-founded with Sergey Brin.

In The Plex focuses more on “how Google thinks and works” than on “how Google shapes our live.” To that end it is a better book about the business of technology than a book describing the impact of Google on our culture. I was a little surprised by this because The Perfect Thing is the best single description of the cultural impact of a piece of technology that I’ve ever read. However, Levy’s decision to focus on Google’s business impact probably gives the book more shelf-life (Yeah, I’m not apologizing for that pun.) since Google’s impact on our culture is still being played out. Google introduced many of the fundamental ideas about cloud computing to the average person, and society definitely hasn’t fully grasped the implications of “the cloud” in our society. Still, the early history of Google and their process for building and managing a technology company are well-documented in the book, and this will prove valuable for many years to come.

The book consists of seven parts, with a prologue and an epilogue. The first four parts are outstanding, classic Steven Levy work. Google’s unreal, rapid growth; its famous hiring practices; and its lavish employee benefits are all well-cataloged here. Levy does an amazing job conveying tons of information in an extremely short space here. I enjoyed Levy’s choice to organize this material topically as opposed to chronologically. So many things were happening so quickly with Google, that describing them in the order they happened would have utterly overwhelmed the reader.

The last three parts of the book are where he starts to lose me. Levy sort of gives Google a bit of a pass on some rather important mistakes that they’ve made. Part Five covers everything from YouTube and Android to all the random other things that Google does, but it feels slanted towards “successes” rather than mistakes, which are briefly described in the epilogue. Part Six covers Google’s ventures in China, but it also feels a bit pro-Google. What part of “Don’t be Evil” includes actively supporting the Chinese government? Part Seven focuses on the impact Google has had on the government and the various lawsuits that have become major national news (e.g. Book Search). These also seem rather slanted to me. For example, many of the Googlers who went to work for the White House or other branches of the government complained that they weren’t able to work at Google speed while they were there. This implies that Google is somehow impressively fast, when the reality is that a cadre of Molasses manufacturing executives could switch to government work and discover whole new levels of sluggish bureaucracy.

Those last three parts weren’t so much inaccurately puffing up the accomplishments of Google as much as they were simply not quite telling the whole story. Levy minimizes many of the “negatives.” Google’s Buzz snafu was relegated to a couple of pages in the epilogue. Google’s WiFi data collection as a part of their street view project is similarly lacking in coverage. Levy should have investigated these incidents thoroughly. How does a company as important at Google make mistakes like these? A book with the subtitle “how Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives” should provide more detailed answers.

The only pro-Google aspect of the last three parts that was missing or incomplete was the China hacking incident. Although this was covered from the Google perspective, it was a major incident for other technology companies and more importantly for the U.S. Government. The incident forces several questions implied by the information technology revolution like: How should we respond to international hacking incidents? What is the role of the U.S. Government in protecting companies that have been hacked by foreign governments? And what is the legal process for adjudicating international hacking incidents? These are critical questions that were first brought to the national conversation by the Google hacking incident. We don’t have answers to them, but they aren’t even adequately described as important in the book.

Steven Levy is one of my favorite technical authors, and I’ve read many of his books. I just recently finished Insanely Great, and I previously read both Crypto and The Perfect Thing. If I were ranking them, I would probably have to place this book at the end of that list, which is more to say that his other books were fantastic and this one was merely good.

Purdue Sets Rube Goldberg World Record

Posted on April 25th, 2011 in Entertainment, Technology | 1 Comment »

If you have followed this blog for a while now, then you know that I love Rube Goldberg machines. Once in a while someone builds a machine that makes news all over the place. Back in 2005, Shawn Jordan, who was the team captain when I was on the PSPE team at Purdue and is currently an Assistant Professor at Arizona State, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live after winning the national competition. The PSPE team won it again in 2008. You might remember the one that OK Go made for their music video. Luckily, with the advent of YouTube, we get to see these machines as they operate.

This year, the the two Rube Goldberg teams from the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers combined forces. The result of their collaboration was not only a win at the University level (Nationals went to the University of Wisconsin-Stout), but also a world record. The best post about the machine is on

It only took 3,500 hours of work to build “The Time Machine,” a 244-step Rube Goldberg machine created by 17 Purdue University students. Though the team didn’t have the number of steps in mind while building it, the students happily discovered after it was built that it beat the former world record of Rube Goldberg experiments by 14 steps, landing it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Here are two videos of the machine. The first has commentary and a wide-angle perspective of the whole machine. The second has closeup shots of all the transfers and transitions.

A Factor of 26

Posted on March 2nd, 2011 in Education, Life, Technology | No Comments »

Matthew Lasar of Ars Technica recently wrote an article about Cisco’s latest Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast (pdf). In it Cisco claims that worldwide mobile data traffic will increase by a factor of 26 in the next four years. Obviously, Cisco is in the networking business, so they have some incentive to make the future of networking look good, but even if they are only half right, that’s a huge increase.

The most compelling piece of this story for me is summarized by two lines in the executive summary:

Average smartphone usage doubled in 2010. The average amount of traffic per smartphone in 2010 was 79 MB per month, up from 35 MB per month in 2009.

Smartphones represent only 13 percent of total global handsets in use today, but they represent over 78 percent of total global handset traffic. In 2010, the typical smartphone generated 24 times more mobile data traffic (79 MB per month) than the typical basic-feature cell phone (which generated only 3.3 MB per month of mobile data traffic).

Prior to getting an iPhone, I spent about 6 years using a simple Nokia phone. It was my primary phone, and I used it almost exclusively for phone calls. Put simply, the way I interacted with computers fundamentally changed when I got an iPhone. The best analogy I can think of is when my family bought our first home computer. I knew what computers were before getting one, and I knew how to use them to some degree. However, I didn’t realize the impact they could have on my life until the first day I spent on that home computer. I believe the same is true for anyone going from a standard phone to a smart phone. In fact, I believe this is the minimum we should predict if Cisco is right.

How many people will experience a similar transition as a result of those two points I highlighted from the executive summary of the Cisco report? Smart phones are better than computers for numerous activities, and phones are being used for an increasing number of things that were traditionally desktop-only or laptop-only. More importantly, smart phones are only 13 percent of the total mobile phone market. Add this to the fact that mobile phones are the only real connection to the Internet for much of the world, and it becomes pretty clear that we’re still at the beginning of the computer revolution.

We can (and should) also think about Cisco’s prediction in global terms, but finding the best analogy to describe the sort of change that Cisco is predicting is hard. One way to think about it is by comparing it to previous instances where practical access to education, information, and participation was granted to large populations over a short period of time. Prior to both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement in the United States, we were basically limiting our “best and brightest” to at most a third of our society. Quite simply, by limiting access to higher education and acceptance of certain races or genders in society, we limit human innovation. The digital divide is another fundamental limitation to human innovation, and bridging this divide could change the world just as much as the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movement. (See also this book I read several years ago.)

Consider the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. He was born in India in 1887. His family was not particularly well-off, but given just a little access to basic information, he became a world-renown mathematician. Here’s Wikipedia:

By age 11, he had exhausted the mathematical knowledge of two college students who were lodgers at his home. He was later lent a book on advanced trigonometry written by S. L. Loney. He completely mastered this book by the age of 13 and discovered sophisticated theorems on his own.

By 14, he was receiving merit certificates and academic awards which continued throughout his school career and also assisted the school in the logistics of assigning its 1200 students (each with their own needs) to its 35-odd teachers. He completed mathematical exams in half the allotted time, and showed a familiarity with infinite series.

When he was 16, Ramanujan came across the book A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics by George S. Carr. This book was a collection of 5000 theorems, and it introduced Ramanujan to the world of mathematics. The next year, he had independently developed and investigated the Bernoulli numbers and had calculated Euler’s constant up to 15 decimal places. His peers of the time commented that they “rarely understood him” and “stood in respectful awe” of him.

Obviously, not everyone can be a mathematical genius or even a genius of any kind, but the fact remains that there are many people in the world who currently never even have a chance to be one simply because they don’t have access. This could change rapidly if Cisco’s prediction turns out to be accurate. Here’s another fascinating tidbit from the report:

There are 48 million people in the world who have mobile phones, even though they do not have electricity at home. The mobile network has extended beyond the boundaries of the power grid.

This might be even more stunning than the prediction that mobile data traffic will increase by a factor of 26 in the next four years. Cicso discusses this further later in the report:

One of the most astonishing developments of the past few years has been the extension of mobile services even beyond the boundaries of the power grid. Mobile phones are reaching every corner of the earth. There are already 32 countries where mobile data has broken the electricity barrier. By the end of 2011, this effect will be visible at the regional level, when the total number of mobile users in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia exceeds the total on-grid population in those regions. By the end of 2013, the number of mobile users in the Middle East will exceed the Middle Eastern on-grid population, and by 2015 the number of mobile users in South Asia (India and surrounding countries) will exceed the South Asian on-grid population.

Thinking of this dramatic change in terms of the absolute best and the brightest may not the best way to frame the debate. It is probably better to think about how this growth in mobile data traffic could affect the ‘average’ person in the world. In 2006, only about 27% of the people in the United States had a college education. To many Americans, this seems extremely low. To much of the rest of the world, it seems like an unattainable pipe dream. Now, there’s a lot that’s wrong with using this metric as an absolute goal because a college education isn’t an end in and of itself; it’s a means to an end. Still, education is extremely important to society. What would it look like for the average person on the planet to have access to higher education materials? Even if they never end up getting a piece of paper to hang on the wall, simply having access to the information itself would dramatically change lives.

In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted a multi-lateral treaty called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This treaty attempted to establish education as a ‘right’ of humanity. Sounds great on paper, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to see everyone have every educational opportunity they desire? In reality though, education isn’t a right; it’s an economic good. It costs both time and money. Simply saying education should be viewed as a right in a treaty doesn’t change economic reality. One amazing potential result of Cisco’s prediction is that education could become a lot less expensive for a huge number of people on the planet. An increase in mobile communications by a factor of 26 in the next four years would do more for education than the UN’s treaty did in the last four decades.

Genuine political freedom may also become a lot less expensive. I haven’t seen a great article about this yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to an in-depth analysis of how communications technology impacted the recent protests and revolutions in Northern Africa. It clearly played a critical role, and I’m not sure we fully understand the implications of this yet. Furthermore, we must understand what this means if we’re to predict how the sort of increase in mobile communications that Cisco predicts would change the world. How much of the world would be able to organize relatively peaceful revolutions away from authoritarian leaders and towards a more free and open society four years from now? I’m not qualified to make this prediction, but it’s another possible result.

If Cisco is right about mobile data traffic exploding by a factor of 26 in the next four years, then can we really even begin to make predictions with even a remote chance at accuracy? I don’t think we can. The best we can do is be optimistic about the future, and I think we have a lot of reason to be optimistic.

Still At The Beginning

Posted on November 30th, 2010 in Life, Politics and Law, Technology | 1 Comment »

We’ve reached the time of year when people start reflecting on the recent past. The latest issue of Time Magazine looks at the past decade. Pogue’s latest piece reflects on his 10 years at the NY Times. I love this sort of introspection, and I’m looking forward to seeing more over the next two months. Still, when we read things like this, we would do well to consider that we’re still very near the beginning of the computer revolution.

What does it mean to still be at the beginning? No one completely knows what this means because we can’t predict the future. Pogue’s piece does a nice job of pointing out some trends that are likely to continue in the future, but I think the best description of the future that I’ve seen lies in a RailsConf talk by Gary Vaynerchuk:

I can’t summarize Vaynerchuk’s talk because it’s about half Q&A and half completely rambled together. He starts out by giving some of his background, which is quite interesting, and he ends up talking extensively about the future of technology and business. He’s extremely energetic, genuinely humorous, and despite the talk being held at a technical conference, there’s no technobabble because Vaynerchuk isn’t a technologist. I suppose I should also warn you that there’s some language in here that the FCC would not approve for TV. Luckily, YouTube doesn’t care, or about half of this talk would be bleeped out.

I do want to talk about two things Vaynerchuck gets dead right in his talk. First, he’s optimistic about the future of technology. If you’re not familiar with the concept of an Internet optimist or an Internet pessimist, here are a couple paragraphs from Adam Thierer introducing the concepts:

The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.

The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.

Clearly, there are negative sides to both of these positions. Thierer promotes a pragmatic optimism for Internet technologies, which is a sort of middle ground that generally sides with the optimistic view, but doesn’t buy into the fringe arguments on both sides. Vaynerchuk sides with the optimists in his talk, and the optimistic view makes the most sense to me, particularly in light of the past decade or so. How much has new technology changed your life in the last ten years? And how much of that change was for the better? If your answer is “most,” then you too are on the path to Internet optimism.

The second thing that Vaynerchuk nails in his talk is the recognition that the skills of a small town three generations ago are more likely to succeed in the future being brought about by new technologies. As he puts it, the skillset of our great grandparents’ generation may actually be more important to success than the skillset of our parents’ generation. The organizations that succeed will be the ones that clearly and genuinely care about the people with whom they are working. This is already happening in business (as Vaynerchuk indicates), but it will happen in every area of our lives.

One important reason the skills to succeeding are changing is, as Vaynerchuk repeats throughout his talk, that “the truth is undefeated.” The truth will only become more important in the future of technology. Technologies are making it impossible to cover up how you really feel. For businesses, this means (in part) that slick advertising alone won’t work; they actually have to develop a product worth buying. For governments, the future looks more like honest transparency than WikiLeaks, but there’s still a lot to do before we get to the sort of future possible even if we were limited to existing technology. For individuals, the picture is even more complicated. Technology is impacting some fundamental social constructs, like privacy and identity. Maybe Wheaton’s Law has been right all these years: “Don’t be a dick” because the truth will eventually become widespread.

As much as I enjoy reflecting on the past, Vaynerchuk’s thoughts on the future are excellent YouTube viewing. The future is going to be awesome in ways that we can’t really envision right now. We’re still at the beginning.

Gilbert’s Letter

Posted on July 9th, 2010 in Entertainment, Sports, Technology | No Comments »

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on another planet in a parallel universe, you know by now that LeBron James will be playing basketball for the Miami Heat next year. The story is on the cover of basically every newspaper (Favorite: The Cleveland Plain Dealer). ESPN did an hour-long special for the announcement, but I really wasn’t all that interested. The NBA is less fun to watch than college basketball, and since the Pacers weren’t even in the LeBron sweepstakes, I was even less interested. For me the most interesting part of this story is how LeBron James’ decision has devolved into a debate about typography.

One person who probably watched the announcement is Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron’s former team. He took the news particularly hard and wrote an epic letter expressing his feelings. The letter is a study in how to take the low road. It’s basically a psycho ex-girlfriend letter. More importantly, it’s written entirely in Comic Sans, a surprisingly hot trending topic on Twitter.

When I first read the letter, I thought it was fake entirely because of the font choice. However, the letter is hosted on and it’s been covered by ESPN. Thus, it has to be a legitimate letter. Of course, the big question is why did Gilbert choose Comic Sans? It’s such a silly font to use for such an important, multi-million dollar topic. Further, many type designers hate Comic Sans and wish it could be uninvented. There’s even a website about this: Ban Comic Sans.

Vincent Connare, the designer of the Comic Sans typeface, has been giving radio interviews about the choice. When asked about why he though Gilbert picked Comic Sans, Connare said, “You don’t know if he’s being sarcastic, if he’s being angry, or if he didn’t even think about it.” He does think the font choice could work for this kind of letter because it epitomizes the lack of seriousness that the Cavs have for LeBron James now.

I guess I’m left kind of dumbfounded. I sort of thought that Comic Sans on the Internet had gone the way of the blink tag. Let’s hope this doesn’t resurrect it.

The Making of OK Go’s Latest Video

Posted on June 7th, 2010 in Education, Entertainment, Music, Technology | No Comments »

If you haven’t seen OK Go’s latest video, it’s an absolute must-see. I tweeted about this when it was somewhat newer, and it holds up as entertaining many viewings later.

I’m posting about the video now because I just stumbled upon an interview with some of the folks that designed the contraption. It turns out that three of them work for NASA JPL:

  • Mike Pauken, Ph.D., a senior thermal systems engineer
  • Chris Becker, a graduate student at the Art Center College of Design and a JPL intern
  • Heather Knight, a former JPL engineering associate (instrumentation and robotics) who is now preparing to start work on a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University
  • Eldar Noe Dobrea, Ph.D., a planetary scientist working to study landing sites for the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory.

The interview is short and worth reading.