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Geekdom

2 Steps To Better Security

Security is a funny thing, more of an illusion most of the time, shattered into pieces when a critical system is compromised. For most of us email is weakest link, an opening to the rest of the things we need to keep secure. What damage could be done by somebody with access to your email?

Could you post your email password on the internet and live to tell about it? I could. I’m about to.

Okay, so this isn’t my real email account, but I’m going to use this account to prove a point. I’m putting the following gmail address and password out there because I want one of you to email me from it. I will give five dollars to the first person that can. (seriously) And yes that is the real password.

Email: [email protected] Password: horriblepassword

There is a catch though, even with my password there is nothing you can do. You’re missing something critical. My phone.

What does my phone have to do with all of this? Well, I’m using something called 2-step verification from Google. Anytime a new computer (or mobile phone, whatever) tries to sign into my gmail account Google will send a six digit code to my phone via SMS. That code then needs to be entered after the password, once every 30 days. Without the code you can’t log in. No ifs, ands, or buts. Without my phone, that password is useless.

Go ahead try to sign in. My five dollars is looking pretty safe right about now isn’t it?

You can find 2-step verification under you Account Settings in your gmail. Just follow the prompts, the setup is very simple.

My wife and I both moved to 2-step verification a couple of months ago and the minimal inconvenience of having to enter that code now and then (no more than every 30 days) is well worth the peace of mind it brings. I would never go without it again.

I’ve been blunt in past blogs about how horrible most people’s passwords are. I say that lovingly, out of concern for other people’s security. But the truth is, most are not nearly as good as they should be. Adding 2-step verification is not a substitute for a strong password, but it sure makes it tough for the bad guys. Remember, the harder you make it, the safer your five dollars will be.

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OMG Minecraft 1.0!

There has been a lot going on at home in the last month. Somewhere in the hustle and bustle I missed Minecraft 1.0 being released. I don’t know if you Minecraft, but I do. My wife Minecrafts, my family Minecrafts, our cats probably Minecraft.

 

I’m not going to get lost in all the great updates to this version. The big deal here is that Minecraft is finally out of Beta and is officially released. We’ve been playing the beta pretty much since it came out and run our own server. Updating the world we’ve built up over the last year was pretty fun, finally seeing our work fully polished.

 

For those unfamiliar with Minecraft it is a very simple game, easily accessible to non-gamers. The premise is that you start out with nothing in a fully craftable block-world. Your first task is to build or seek shelter because at night… monsters come out. The rest is up to you. If you’re the creative type Minecraft is an amazing canvas. There is literally no limit what you can craft with the elements around you. Engineers will feel at home with the amazing construction and mechanical capabilities.

Unfortunately version 1.0 means you’ve missed the beta pricing but it is still well worth money. Get it right now, you won’t regret it!  That is our server below:

 

 

 

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Now’s the time to buy (or: We’re all connected)

The computer industry is always full of change and excitement.  Most of the time that’s a good thing.  Sometimes, not so much.

Currently we’re looking at the beginning of a global component shortage.  Hard drives are going to be in limited supply over the next bit.  It seems that some of the world’s top manufacturers have been experiencing production issues recently.  As a result, the global supply of hard drives will be cut significantly in the coming months.  The beginnings of this are being felt here already.  Suppliers are starting to restrict hard drive distribution to resellers.  They’re doing this in an effort to help system builders weather the coming storm.  But what does that mean for the rest of us?  What will the impact be?

Prices will rise as availability drops off.  New computers will become more expensive, and delivery times will be lengthened as it becomes harder to get critical components.  If you’re considering a new computer, now’s the time to buy, folks.  If you wait, it’s going to hurt.  Sounds pretty grim, right?  So where is this shortage coming from?

Over the last few months, Thailand has experienced the worst flooding they’ve seen in 50 years.  Thailand is the #2 manufacturer of hard drives, housing major production sites for Western Digital, Seagate, and others.  The flooding there has hobbled or completely shut down several major factories, and the ones that are still open are having trouble getting supplies for subcomponents.  But more importantly, it’s caused over 350 deaths and disrupted the lives of almost 2.5 million people.  The Cabinet of Thailand just declared a 5 day holiday to give people a chance to escape floods closing on their capital.  Thousands of people are being re-relocated (yes, you read that right), and over half a million people have required medical attention so far.  There’s no way to assess the total damage to people and property as yet.  All we know so far is that it’s not going to be pretty.

So while I’m paying more for new hardware over the next few months (and I will, because I’m a junkie for the stuff), I’m going to take a moment and remember Thailand and the people who are more seriously affected than I am.

We’re all connected – here’s wishing for the best, for all of us.

 

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From Banner Ads To TV Commercials

So I’ve started a new project at home. Well, not so much a new project as fine tuning a previous one.

We use Windows Media Center as our PVR. It is connected to two TV tuners so we can watch and record shows. We don’t have any cable boxes from our cable company. This affords us total control over how media is recorded, stored, and accessible. It also let’s us do some things we otherwise couldn’t.

One of those things is stripping commercials from both our recorded and live TV. That is my current project.

If you’ve read my post a few months ago on filtering out advertisements on our network you’ll know I really dislike being bombarded with advertising. Since then we’ve also set up Adblock Plus on all of our mobile computers, to keep everything nice and tidy while we’re away from home. The last piece in this filter is our TV.

I’m not going to get into the ultra geeky details on how I’m setting this up. I’m still testing a couple of solutions, most of which are surprisingly simple, and free. What I want to discuss today is the how it feels to forget about these types of noise in our day to day life. I’m still thrown off a little when browsing the “noisy” internet on a friend’s computer. I forget what that is like.

I suspect after some time of no longer seeing commercials on TV I’ll have a similar experience at friends’ houses.

Of course this system won’t be perfect. In order to pull commercials from “live” TV you run into a slight delay to compensate for the gaps, and some commercials are missed entirely. I figure I am getting about 30% still coming through right now, with only an hour or two of time invested. It already feels great.

Some people have pointed out that I’m bypassing the very business that either pay or subsidize the content I enjoy. I’ll agree there is some validity to that argument but I’m looking a little further than that. I’m not happy having content thrust at me and not having control over it.

I think this is what being a geek is all about. Having the drive and determination to tweak the everyday things around you. Installing buttons and levers where there are none. Making technology work for you, even in ways it may not have been intended to.

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The Interface Is The Thing

I’ve long believed that, when it comes to computers, the parts you interact with are critically important.  Sure, a fast CPU and a ridiculously large hard drive are nice.  But even if you have the world’s fastest computer, your experience will still feel crappy if you’re using a blurry old CRT screen and a $10 bargain bin keyboard and mouse.

In the spirit of this, I’m always on the lookout for new gadgets and neat things that will make my computing experience better, more interesting, or just different.  Most things I just look at, think to myself “that’d be neat, but I don’t really need it,” and move on.

Every few months, though, I go off the deep end and scour the Internet looking for the next wonderful thing that will transform my computing experience entirely.  Most of the time there’s something “just over the horizon” that has the potential to be truly awesome, but if I want something today I have to settle for a minor incremental improvement instead of a revolution.  Sometimes I’m even able to resist buying the new “slightly better” gadget and wait.  Sometimes I’m not.

This time though, I didn’t have to.  I managed to find something that was:

  • Not just an internal piece of hardware that I’d never know I’d installed if I didn’t put it there myself
  • Actually related to the interface of my computer – that is, the entire look and feel experience
  • A big, big change
  • Something I’d wanted for a long time, but just hadn’t been practical

So I crunched some numbers and came up with a plan:

Step one:  New video card.

I’ll admit that the video card and monitor setup I already had was more than adequate for anything I did with my computer.  I had two good monitors and a really nice video card.  I already played all my games on max settings.  To be truly honest, I’d been playing all my games on max settings before I got that card too, but that’s neither here nor there.  This plan required a new, faster video card, so I got one.

Step two:  New monitors.

This is where the video card comes in.  Step two is three shiny new tilt-and-swivel monitors.  Now, a lot of people have two-monitor setups, and three monitors are becoming more common as well for really busy people, so this in itself is no big deal.  The big deal for me was this next bit:

Three monitors in portrait mode makes for an awesome gaming experience:

As an added benefit, I’ve found that swapping the central monitor back to landscape orientation and leaving the others in portrait mode is really good for productivity.  The vertical screens are really good for reading documents and long web pages, and the central monitor is good for more most other computer tasks. (See?  It’s practical, too!)

So I’ll leave you with this thought:  How do you feel about your keyboard, mouse, and monitor(s)?  Are they helping you get things done, or getting in the way of your computer experience?

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Tragedy Strikes!

Last week, tragedy struck at Smart Dolphins HQ.  This tragedy didn’t come in the form of flood, hurricane, fire or lightning.  Its arrival was heralded not with a flash, or a thunderous boom, but with a faint pop and a soft hissing sound.  Yes, that’s right – the worst of all possible things had happened.  The coffee pot had given up its life in a sizzling cloud of coffee vapour.

Word of the tragic event spread quickly through the Dolphin populous.  It’s no secret that technology professionals everywhere are powered by caffeinated beverages.  Knowing the peril they faced, the Dolphins sprang into action.  There must be a meeting!

At the morning tactical meeting, the Dolphins chewed through each item on the agenda with singular purpose (or porpoise), until at last it was time to discuss the looming threat on everyone’s mind – no coffee.  Somehow, a replacement for the failed appliance must be obtained.  But who would obtain the coffee pot, and how?  The Smart Dolphins coffee maker was a special affair, near and dear to everyone assembled, and could not easily be replaced.  An exact match for the pot itself would have to be found – no easy feat.  Someone would need to undertake this quest.

After much vigorous discussion, Ty won the privilege of questing for the replacement coffee pot.  But being a proactive group, the Dolphins couldn’t stop at simply arranging for the coffee pot’s replacement.  During the discussion, it was determined that other items were fairly urgently needed (though their significance paled in comparison to the coffee pot).  And the Dolphins could sense that things would be needed in the future, as well.  Many solutions were put forth.  Some Dolphins wanted to use a whiteboard, and list things on it as they were required.  Others thought a more technologically advanced solution, perhaps involving a shared shopping list phone application, would be appropriate.  Others still suggested a weekly email.  There was also debate regarding whether specific people should be assigned responsibility for the items, or all should volunteer as they saw a need.

The jury is still out on all that stuff, but the coffee pot is on its way (Ty has dodged many perils on his quest).  In the meantime, this is how we’re coping:

Yes, there have been a lot more Dolphin sightings at the local Tim Hortons.  Dolphins are nothing, if not adaptable.

 

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Saving More Than Battery Power

Summer is finally here to stay. For me that means I can get out on my mountain bike. Riding is something I live for, and have for a long time. In fact, it was a huge reason for moving from the maritimes to BC.

I’m not here to talk about riding though. (I am working on a post about Jump Ship which we watched over the weekend…) Instead I want to touch on an experience which really got me thinking about how connected I am, maybe a little too wired in.

When I’m out riding it is about getting away. Living in the moment is pretty key when you’re up in the air or flying down a trail. It really isn’t a great time to hear your phone ring or beep to let you know you’ve received a text.Taylor Leigh

I’ve made a habit of turning my phone totally off. Until this summer I’m not sure I had ever turned my phone off. Spending the day in the woods away from distraction is something I cherish. The absence of any electronic distraction was such an incredible novelty that I sometimes don’t turn it back on for the rest of the day.

What really surprised me though was the amount of texts and missed calls I was greeted with. “Oh my gosh, did you lose your phone!?” and so on. Keep in mind we are talking about just a few hours. I have to admit this bothered me a little. I recall not too many years ago leaving my phone at home more often than not.

I love being connected, I really do. I just don’t want to forget what it is like to be disconnected. I feel this is so incredibly important. So important in fact that many people are a little uneasy about doing it.

I’m not going to throw my phone into the ocean any time soon. But I am going to be a bit more adventurous and make sure to live a little more simply some days.

As cliche as it sounds, taking the time to “stop and smell the flowers” sometimes means putting Angry Birds away for a little bit…

Your digital life will still be there waiting for you.

 

Photo: Ty Hedden  –  Rider: Taylor Leigh

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Dropbox – Sharing (Part 2 of 2)

Dropbox has the ability to share files and folders. From your own Dropbox you can create and share a folder with other Dropbox users. This allows for easy collaboration on projects. There is also a “Public” folder from which you can allow people to download a particular file simply by clicking a link. The illustration below shows how easy it is.

Dropbox

Clicking the “Copy Public Link” option creates this: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6452346/Dropbox.docx. Copy and paste that address into your internet browser and you can download the document. I’ve used this to share large amounts of photos. Have you ever tried to email photos? It’s Painful. Dropbox makes it much easier for everyone involved.

A property management client of ours uses Dropbox extensively. They have a team of employees who do maintenance for the properties they manage all over the island. Each of the employees has an iPhone4 with Dropbox installed. Inside of Dropbox are hundreds of files with contact information for the thousands of tenants they deal with. The files are updated at their main office and synchronized with Dropbox ensuring that the maintenance employees have the most current information 24/7.

As I mentioned earlier, Dropbox is free. With the free version you get 2GB of storage and all the other features I mentioned. If you need more space you can pay $9.99 a month for 50GB or $19.99 a month for 100GB. Both options are a great deal.

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Dropbox – The Basics (Part 1 of 2)

DropBoxUsing modern terminology one might describe Dropbox as storage space in “the cloud”. If one wanted to use it just for storage the cost is already justified (2GB is free). Install the Dropbox agent on your home computer and dump important files into it and you have free online backup. Not only does Dropbox store your files it will also keep a one-month history. That means you can undelete a file or revert to a previous version at any time.

Now you’ve got free online backups of up to 2GB of your data. This already sounds like a pretty sweet deal. It gets better. Say you’re on a trip and desperately need access to a file you know is in your Dropbox. Not a problem. Get on any computer with internet access and log into the Dropbox website. From there you can access all of your data. You can even add more files. Have a computer at work? Check with your friendly IT department and see if you can install Dropbox. Have an iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry? Dropbox has a mobile app as well. There is no limit to how many devices you can use to access your data.

This came in handy for me a few weeks ago. I was the best man at my brother’s wedding and had to prepare a speech. I started working on it at home and saved it in my Dropbox folder. In the weeks leading up to the wedding I made small changes while at work and rehearsed the speech from my iPhone. No matter where I was, I always had the latest version of the speech available.

Worried about keeping sensitive documents on the internet? Don’t be. Dropbox uses SSL encryption (the same encryption used for online banking) when transferring your data and stores it on their servers using AES-256 encryption. That’s 2256 possible keys to crack the encryption.  That’s 2256 more secure

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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Shooting The Messenger

There is one particular conversation I get myself into which often results in dirty looks and disbelief coming my way. This would be the age old debate about Macs and viruses. I’m going to lay it on you right here and now, whether you like it or not:

Macs get viruses.

I’m going to be fair of course and emphasize that there are WAY fewer viruses for Mac OS, but they’re out there. At one point in time it was almost accurate to say that Macs don’t get viruses, that is not the case today.

Mac OS is built on the Unix Kernel, which by nature is generally regarded as being more secure than Windows. It is however not impervious. There are many reasons why it is wise to consider malware protection for Mac today.

– Software. Even if an operating system were “virus proof” you need to run third party software, which is not.

– Adoption. Ten years ago it wasn’t worth writing malicious code for Macs. Today the platform is more popular than ever.

– Dual-booting. Many users run Windows on their Apple hardware, or as a virtual machine. A virus picked up while booted into Mac OS (while not affecting Mac OS) is a potential risk to a Windows install on the same drive. I know, seems like a low blow, but it needs to be considered.

– The greater good. A Mac with no malware protection on a network with Windows machines is not wise. While the Mac will be unaffected by viruses that target Windows, there is no need to allow it to pass them around. Antivirus at all endpoints only makes sense.

– Apple says so. On the Apple website there is a brief article on protecting your mac from viruses. One obvious recommendation is to run antivirus software. While Apple doesn’t put emphasis on antivirus software, there is protection built into Mac OS. It isn’t a bad idea to run a third party virus scanner though. Sophos is a great option, and is free for home use.

I realize a few people are going to take issue with some of the points I’ve made. It is time to let go of this perception of invulnerability. It just is not the case today, things have changed.

Besides, what have you got to lose by taking steps to protect yourself and your data?

While it felt a bit odd at first, I know that installing antivirus software on our own Mac at home was just the smart thing to do.

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