Recent Fun Stuff

Haven’t taken the time to post here, but in the last couple of months there have been quite a few fun moments. My family & I got to try some chocolate macarons that were unbelievable.  I got to meet Chance the Chimp. Oh, and a client asked me to appear in their video on How to Clean Your Tongue without Gagging.

Fun stuff!

 

Privacy Implications of Listening Devices

A post (warning: offensive language) made it to the top of the /r/technology subreddit on reddit.com today that highlighted a disturbing statement from the Samsung Smart TV Privacy Policy:

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

For the record, I don’t own a Samsung Smart TV. And this sentence doesn’t say anything that any of us wouldn’t have guessed… had we thought about it.

But… how many devices do we own today that are listening all the time? And exactly how much of what we say is being recorded and sent to 3rd parties for “voice recognition?”1

I can think of a handful of other devices which are actively listening all the time and are often found in our homes (like the Xbox One / Kinect) or even on our persons (e.g. Google Now on Android — “OK Google” anyone?) and in newer automobiles.

Samsung’s privacy policy is the first instance I can think of wherein I’ve actually read a warning that your “personal” or “sensitive” information may actually be leaking to 3rd parties.

Unnecessary Cause for Alarm?

I would imagine that the bulk of information being transmitted out of our living rooms via Samsung TVs is largely uninteresting to anyone.

But what are the policies that govern the storage (long term or short term) of this data? How sophisticated are the tools that interpret speech? Are transcripts of this speech stored separately or together with audio recordings?

What government agencies have or will gain access to either audio recordings or speech transcripts?

Perhaps the data doesn’t get stored by anyone for any longer than it takes to decide if you’ve issued a command to your device. And maybe there is no reason to even question what happens to all of the information scooped up by these listening devices.

I don’t want to sound like a conspiratorial alarmist. But on the other hand, maybe keeping some tinfoil close by isn’t such a bad idea…

Photo Credit: frank peters via BigStock

1Geek moment: “voice recognition” is likely a misnomer. It is quite commonly and quite incorrectly used to refer to technologies that recognize speech. True “voice” recognition is a much different technology than “speech” recognition, and involves identifying who the speaker is rather than what he or she is saying. If Samsung or its 3rd-party vendor does have “voice” recognition, that’s a completely different cause for alarm.

New Small Business Podcast

I’m really excited about a new project I’m working on with Rod Thomson and Josh Muccio: The Growth Show is a podcast focused on helping small businesses grow.

Each of us comes with a little different perspective: Rod is 30-year veteran journalist who specializes in helping businesses understand and work with media, Josh is a young entrepreneur who has already flipped his first company after building a fantastic presence online with local SEO tactics. We published our first episode on Friday, and it promises to be a lot of fun!

New Social Tool

Ben Werdmuller from Known explains the Webmention protocol from the viewpoint of a developer.
- Webmention: an introduction for developers

Recently I started experimenting with a new social tool called Known.

Using webmentions and other fun innovations that seem to be originating with IndieWebCamp, Known gives content creators powerful features that allow them to syndicate their content to multiple platforms and pull in interactions (“likes,” “retweets” and so on) back to their own sites in order to maintain a permanent copy that is under their own control.

You can see more of what I’m playing with by checking out my personal Known site: social.thedavidjohnson.com.

The Fix to My Laptop’s Dead RAM Slot

Today, I doubled the RAM in my Gateway NV57h.

And it didn’t cost me a dime.

Well… not today, anyway.

I’ve had this machine for almost 3 years (in itself a record, but that’s another blog post). It was a nice middle-of-the-road machine that I bought after an uncharacteristically brief research period. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t expecting it to last long, since I am (at times) a bit of a road warrior and it was purchased to be my daily driver.

I realized it was slowing down some about a year after purchasing it. So, I did the obvious and bought new RAM for it. In fact, I doubled the RAM that day… or at least that was the intention. I happily removed the factory-installed 2GB memory sticks and popped in fresh 4GB ones.

Imagine my horror when, on boot, Windows reported 4GB of RAM.

What?! There must be some mistake.

I shut the machine down, re-seated the new RAM (and verified that I had, in fact, put the new sticks in). Rebooted. 4GB.

One of the new sticks must be bad, I thought.

So… I swapped them. Still 4GB. So… it isn’t the sticks. Must be one of the slots.

So… I booted up with a stick in only one of the 2 slots. Machine worked. 4GB.

With a stick in only the 2nd slot, the machine never came up.

Just to be sure, I put the original RAM in. Booted up with what should’ve been 4GB (2 x 2GB sticks). BIOS and Windows both reported only 2GB.

Shoot. The 2nd slot is dead. No wonder it’s been running slow!!

I contacted Gateway, since I was just inside the warranty period. After explaining my predicament, they authorized an RMA. All I had to do was ship the machine in.

That was 2 years ago. I didn’t have time then, nor have I had it since, to be without my daily driver for the time it would take them to fix it up and ship it back.

So… I decided—more through inaction than anything else—to live with it. And it really hasn’t been too bad, frankly.

A few months ago, I decided that an SSD upgrade would be a nice boost, and that did wonders for the machine’s performance. In fact, it was so nice that it made me think I might be able to hang on to this machine for maybe even a whole year more!

But for the last few months… I’ve started to really bump up against the upper limits of this thing’s performance. Maybe its my habit of having too many Chrome tabs open… or maybe everything just uses more resources now… but with 2 screens full of Google Chrome and one of the Adobe products (usually Photoshop) running, I’d find that my physical memory usage was at 99%. Even worse: I started getting warnings about low memory.

Yechhh….

So… today, on a whim, I decided to open the case and just try to fix it.

I could never understand why on earth there was no physical sign of difficulty. The slots both appear to be soldered nicely to the motherboard. There’s no hint of cracking on the motherboard itself, nor on the physical structures that make up the slots. The machine has undergone no trauma of which I’m aware… unlike the machine before this, which I managed to run over with my convertible one day.

So… I went through the gamut of test all over again. All this time, I’ve had a RAM stick sitting in the “dead” slot not doing anything. It never seemed like there was a good reason to remove it, so I left it.

After doing some tests… even flashing the latest BIOS from the manufacturer, I was unsuccessful and not really getting anywhere. So… I ran some Google searches about dead memory slots. I even ran across one post that showed a nifty memory slot fix involving a guitar pick.  It just so happened that I had a guitar pick handy, but that didn’t help.

Now… let me just say that for the last 21 years, my daily work has revolved around technology. For large chunks of that time, fixing technology was even a major component of my life. I do my own IT support, and always have. In fact, right or wrong, I handle all of our own internal IT needs.

…which is why I feel really stupid saying what I’m about to say.

I don’t honestly know know which board I was reading (I’ve gone back to look at the pages I visited today while trying to solve this, and I haven’t found it)… but some joker in a thread about dead memory slots actually made a remark that went something like this:

Any chances you seated the RAM incorrectly 3 times in a row? I’ve done it.

I didn’t think too much about it at the time… probably due to my vast IT experience. But as I continued tinkering, it started to haunt me.

Wouldn’t you know it?

I opened everything back up, looked at slot number 2, and realized the memory stick wasn’t seated.

Could it be that simple? Have I done without the full capacity of my hardware for 2 years over a failure to seat a memory stick properly?

Yep.

I’m typing this on my newly responsive machine with 8GB of RAM.

Sheesh.

Gateway NV57h RAM Slot
Here’s what my (properly seated) RAM looks like now

Starbucks Android App Finally Has Mobile Tipping

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Starbucks letting me know that their Android app was about to get a refresh.

This was good news, because for months now the iOS app has provided users the ability to tip right from inside the app. Since I never carry cash, I almost never leave tips—something I’d be more than happy to do.

The new version of the app was made available a couple of days ago, but today was the first time I’ve made it to a store to test out the tipping function.

The app has a beautiful new UI, which I checked out right away after updating to the new version.

Onboarding inside the app was easy and intuitive. The email a couple of weeks ago had warned that you’d need your password handy upon updating as login would be required. No problem for me, as I’ve been in the habit of reloading from inside the app, which (thankfully) requires the password anyway.

I immediately looked around for the tipping function, but couldn’t find it. It occurred to me after a few minutes of poking around that perhaps it wouldn’t make sense to “tip” until you “pay.”

So today I visited one of my local stores and checked out with the app as usual. This time, a notification appeared offering several options for a tip: $.50, $1.00, and a third option that equaled the balance I had on the card (I was close to needing to reload, so it was under $2). The notification also prompted me that tipping would be available until a time that worked out to be 2 hours after my transaction.

So, I tapped $1 and saw the following:

Screenshot: Starbucks Android App with Mobile Tipping
Screenshot: Starbucks Android App with Mobile Tipping

As you can see, the app also allows you to modify your tip if you accidentally bumped the wrong amount. Nice touch!

All in all, I’m very happy with the new app, although I was a bit wary of the new permissions required. Thankfully, I’m using cyanogenmod, so I have the ability to block permissions at a much more granular level, thanks to Privacy Guard. I’ll take a closer look at those shortly.

One other pleasant surprise, for the first time, updating the Starbucks app didn’t cause the “Default Card” setting in my account to get goofed up. That was a mildly irritating “feature” of virtually every other previous version of the app.

Great job, Starbucks!

Protect Your PIN Number from Infrared Camera Theft

Since none of us use cash anymore (except for that one guy in accounting), often your PIN code is the only thing standing between a would-be thief and the piles of treasure you have stashed in your checking account.

Actually, the card plus PIN number is a reasonably good, if simple, implementation of the “something you have” plus “something you know” principle of security. Neither the card nor the PIN number is much good without the other. (We’re ignoring the fact that most debit cards can also be processed as credit cards for the moment.)

Obviously, hanging on to the card itself is a good start, so that covers the “something you have” side of the equation. But sleight of hand, accidental drops, and old-fashioned purse-snatching still happen today.

So that leaves us with the “something you know” piece: your PIN.

Why Be Concerned About Infrared PIN Theft?

Being a security-minded person, I’m sure you’re already in the habit of covering your fingers when entering PIN numbers. After all, it takes only a tiny bit of effort, and it prevents cameras and sneaky eyes from catching what you’re entering, right?

You Won't Believe How Easy It Is to Steal Your PIN Number

But what about heat?

You did know your fingers transferred heat to those keys, right?

And since heat dissipates at a linear rate, the heat signature reveals not just which keys got pressed, but also the order in which they were pressed!

But that’s not really a problem, right? After all, who has equipment that can detect heat?

Until recently, the ability to walk up to a PIN pad and detect which buttons had just been pressed required an expensive (and bulky!) infrared camera that would pick up the heat signature left by your fingers.

But with the advent of relatively inexpensive ($349) iPhone attachments,  infrared smartphone camera technology is easily within reach of a ne’er-do-well… especially since they might recoup that much or more in just one ATM transaction. But even for one who’s looking for something less expensive (or who uses an Android device instead of an iPhone), there’s this Kickstarter project, or even a tutorial on how to build one with an old floppy disk! (…for the Macgyver types, evidently).

In other words: stealing your PIN even up to 1 minute after you enter it is pretty easy these days.

So What’s the Solution?

It’s pretty simple, really. Just touch your fingers to several buttons and hold them there while you’re entering your PIN.

Heat multiple buttons up, obfuscate the ones you pressed.

Not so sure about all of this? Mark Rober made this video to demonstrate:

Oh yeah… and don’t use PINs that are easy to guess!

Join Michael and Bruce

My friends at Ortiz | Kleinberg, LLC are launching a nifty campaign this week to connect past clients up to their new community. A direct mail sequence will ask those interested to visit JoinMichaelAndBruce.com and enter their email addresses.

The firm is offering Publix gift cards to everyone who signs up. Alternatively, their clients can choose to donate, and the firm will give the gift cards to Habitat for Humanity of Sarasota in their honor.

The offer is only open to past clients, so if the names and email addresses don’t match up to their client database, then the gift card offer isn’t valid. (Sorry! If you haven’t worked with them in the past, this isn’t for you.)

Neat idea! We’ll be watching with interest!

Dropbox Pro: More Space, More Features

Dropbox today announced that “Pro” accounts, which pay $9.95/month, will get an automatic bump to 1TB of storage (from 100GB). Nice!

Even better, we’re getting new features like remote wipe for devices, and something I’ve wanted for a long time: expirations for shared links.

Once you send out a shared link, you no longer have any control over how many times it’s shared or used by those to whom you have not intentionally granted permissions.

They’ve also added passwords for shared links, which is nice for when you want to have a little additional control over stuff that gets out in the wild.

Granted, it’s still remarkably easy for a malicious person to push your files out to the world, so these are perhaps small blessings, but nevertheless, I feel they’ll be helpful.

Read the full announcement from Dropbox here.

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