Friday, February 05, 2016

Introducing: Tech Tips with Carmi on CJBK

It's been a couple of weeks since I launched my new show on NewsTalk 1290 CJBK here in London, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying the daylights out of the experience.

Tech Tips with Carmi is an hour-long program that runs live on Saturday from 11am to noon. The goal is simple: Give London's tech community a voice, and serve as a a weekly outlet to share news, talk about the issues that matter both here and beyond, and answer any tech questions that come in along the way.

Every week, we invite some of our city's and region's smartest tech wizards and geniuses to join us for the kind of radio that opens eyes, opens minds and sparks conversation. Tomorrow's show features folks from two of London's - and indeed the Internet's - most prominent game developers, Big Blue Bubble and Big Viking Games. We'll talk about the state of the gaming market here, and how that benefits even folks who've never played a game in their life. It's quite the hotbed here, and we'll get the lowdown tomorrow.

We're live from the Green Room at the Covent Garden Market - middle of downtown, can't miss it, or click here for the Google Map - and there's always room for folks to drop by and hang out. We also invite callers to call in (519.643.1290), email (techtips@cjbk.com), text (101290) or tweet us @CJBK. If you've got a question that needs an answer, set an alarm for 11 a.m. Saturday and have at it.

If you want to tune in online, point your browser here - player.cjbk.com - or download the app (iOS and Android).

Hear ya then!

Time to drop this brain into gear...

Creativity is a funny thing. Sometimes it fires on all cylinders, and the ideas seem to tumble all by themselves out of my brain and through my fingers. When the creativity gods are smiling on me, ideas seem to coalesce out of nothing, while the words that bring them to life virtually tie themselves together with barely any effort.

Other times, the spigot seems to go dry, with blinking cursors on paper-white displays replacing the easy flow that once was. On days like this, I can stare at the relentlessly alternating vertical line of pixels and rake my mind for inspiration, yet all that emerges is a whole lot of silence.

I'm not entirely sure how any of this works, and fortunately the quiet times are few and far between. Yet this week, that's where I find myself. I'm not any more or less busy than I usually am - which means I'm typically flat out from before dawn to ridiculously late - but instead of carving out precious moments to create in those in-between slices of the clock (read early morning, late at night or while I'm waiting to pick up a smaller version of me after school) I'm allowing my usual channels - social media, blog, whatever - to lie silent.

Living on the wrong side of the creativity curve, however temporary it may be, bugs me. I know the mind eventually finds its own gear and returns to form, but I'm not willing to wait for that to happen on its own. Time to kickstart my muse.

Your turn: How do you break the creativity logjam?

Monday, February 01, 2016

Why Shodan should scare the hell out of you

The Internet has always been a bit of a scary place for the uninitiated. Well, it just got scarier thanks to, Shodan, a new search engine. You can find it at shodan.io, and unlike Google, it doesn't search for websites. Instead, it's a search engine for the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to once-dumb devices - like your refrigerator, baby monitor and running shoes - that are increasingly becoming smart thanks to the addition of computing power, sensors and wireless connectivity.

How it works: Like any search engine, Shodan automatically searches for resources and adds them to its index, which makes them searchable by anyone with an Internet connection. Unlike any search engine, instead of looking for websites, it looks for webcams and other Internet-connected devices that don't have all their security features activated*. So if you ever set up a webcam or a baby monitor and didn't bother to use a password, don't be surprised if it shows up here.

What it means for you: The feed for your child's "smart" baby monitor could end up on this search engine, along with feeds from schools, in-store security cameras, home-based webcams, traffic cams, you name it. And you'd probably never know that a complete stranger is watching your kid, or house, or whatever. It's frightening beyond words.

What it means for the industry: The vulnerability highlights just how weak IoT security is, and how little attention the industry has been paying to the issue in the rush to sell us more stuff. Cheap webcams and related hardware are partially to blame: to keep prices down, security corners are cut. Video streams may be unencrypted. The few included security features are typically set to "off" by default at the factory, and documentation and security help are either non-existent or difficult to access, so unaware consumers unwittingly install them in a wide-open state. There are no government regulations to force vendors to tighten security and no common standards similar to those that have long been in place for consumer product safety.

So what's next? The risks will only grow as IoT becomes The Next Big Thing in tech, and the number of connected devices grows from the millions into the billions and beyond.

What we must all do, right now: Open the apps that come with our connected devices and activate the security settings - smart passwords, encryption, whatever's there - before we do anything else. Otherwise, we're vulnerable to search engines like Shodan making it ridiculously easy for anyone to peek inside our homes and lives.

Your turn: Are we giving up too much of our privacy in exchange for an ultra-connected life?

--
* In case you're feeling geeky, the new section is located at images.shodan.io. Interestingly, it's only available to paid subscribers. But anyone can use the feature for free by simply adding the following setting to each search in the main search engine: filter port:554 has_screenshot:true. Shodan will list the vulnerable devices just like a Google search. Click one and you're watching a webcam half a world away.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

On picking your battles

"You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks."
Winston Churchill
The first thing that hits me as I absorb these rather timeless words is not all barking dogs merit stones in return. Some, like Frasier the Wonderdog, simply want to say hello, and tragically happen to sound endlessly vicious in the process. Look beyond the big, scary bark and you may be pleasantly surprised at the sweetness behind it.

Second, Churchill nails the there-are-only-so-many-hours-in-the-day thing. The world makes endless demands on us, and doing the polite thing and responding to them all is a recipe for burnout. Do what you can, as well as you can, and leave the rest behind. Over time, it becomes plainly apparent which dogs deserve a cuddle in return, and which ones can be left baying endlessly by the side of the road.

Your turn: If you could understand a dog's bark, what would he/she be saying?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger - 30 years on

Hard to believe today is the 30th anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Thanks to the slow march of history, we all know the orbiter, OV-099, on its tenth mission and the 25th flight of the program - was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses after a leak in the o-ring joining sections of the right-hand solid rocket booster (SRB) burned through the side of the rocket and, eventually, into the side of the adjacent external tank. The tank failed 73 seconds after launch, and the ensuing accident destroyed the vehicle and killed the seven astronauts aboard, including teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe.

Challenger's 10th mission, STS-51L, ended in a puff of smoke high in the crystalline-blue sky, followed by a sickening plunge into the Atlantic Ocean while a shocked nation tried to make sense of it all.

But on the day of, we knew nothing about the mechanical reason for an accident that seemed beyond the realm of believability. All we knew at the time was the horrifying reality that the most sophisticated flying machine ever built had self-destructed in front of a global audience, that a technology sold to the government and the public as something that would make spaceflight routine was anything but.

Since I view pretty much everything through the lens of technology, I see January 28, 1986 as the day our unmitigated belief in the perfection of tech was irrevocably shattered, as the investigation into the Challenger disaster uncovered a creaky organizational culture that chose to ignore growing concerns from engineers.

The long-story-short version is burn-through of the o-rings was a known issue. Engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that designed and built the SRBs, wrote about the risks in a 1970 report as the Space Transportation System was being designed, and multiple flights - including STS-2, the program's second mission - exhibited worrisome erosion of the o-ring joint due to burn-through. NASA blindly green-lit launch after launch, figuring every successful flight validated the safety of the design. The reality was they were playing with fire, and it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out.

Morton Thiokol engineers protested NASA's decision to launch on that bitterly cold January morning. The temperatures were well below the rated design of the o-rings, and NASA, faced with growing pressure to adhere to an absolutely unrealistic flight rate, ignored their warnings. The super-cold o-ring failed to seat properly at launch, and the telltale sign of black smoke that puffed out from the booster milliseconds after ignition foreshadowed the disaster to come.

While the return-to-flight program resulted in a complete redesign of the troublesome o-rings and a top-to-bottom rethink of NASA's organizational culture, the space agency never fully purged the rot from its ranks. Challenger's lessons were not heeded, and Columbia's crew paid the same ultimate price on February 1, 2003 when their orbiter, OV-101, flying the STS-107 mission, came apart on re-entry high over Texas. The cause, then as now, a faulty organizational culture that systematically minimized the risks of foam shedding from the shuttle's external tank, and diverted engineers' concerns for mission after mission until, tragically, it was too late.

Five-and-a-half years after the last flight of the shuttle, NASA is building a new platform for deep space missions. The monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, topped by the Orion capsule, will take humans further into space than they've ever gone before. At the same time, SpaceX and Boeing are developing human-rated space vehicles - Crew Dragon and the CST-100 Starliner, respectively - that are scheduled for their initial test flights within the next couple of years.

One hopes the lessons of history don't fall on deaf ears, and the pressure to fly doesn't compromise safety to the point that careers are ended and lives are destroyed. To repeat the errors of the past would sully the memory of those who gave their lives in the pursuit of exploration and the advancement of human potential.

Sometimes, rocket science isn't as much about the rockets as it is the people who design, build and fly them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It's #BellLetsTalk Day: Talking is good. Doing is better

Mental illness affects one in five Canadians - meaning there's a reasonable chance it's already touched either you, a family member, or a friend.

By 2020, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation projects depression will be the world's #1 cause of disability. Here in Canada, the Canadian Medical Association estimates mental illness accounts for 15% of all health care costs - or $50 billion every year. It is also a driver of poverty: Two-thirds of Canada's homeless have experienced mental illness, and someone who suffers from mental illness will live 10 years less than the average Canadian.

The numbers are frightening. And you'd think we'd be doing more to address this. Yet mental illness isn't like cancer or a broken leg. It isn't the kind of disease that gets countless people wearing pink ribbons or signing casts. It's the one illness no one wants to discuss for fear of being stigmatized, marginalized, left behind. Don't tell your boss, the thinking goes, because in this age of precarious job prospects and mass layoffs, it could get you fired. Or it could keep you from being hired in the first place.

So it's no surprise that, according to the CMA, two-thirds of mental health sufferers do so in silence. The Canadian Mental Health Association CMHA says that stigma not only keeps people from seeking and receiving treatment, but it's also a barrier to broader acceptance within the community. Rock, meet hard place.

Bell is holding its 6th annual Bell Let's Talk Day today, and in fairly short order it's become one of this country's highest-profile initiatives to finally break the silence that surrounds mental illness. It raises money - every time a subscriber makes a mobile or long distance call or sends a text, the company will donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives, while it'll make the same donation whenever anyone tweets or posts to Facebook using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag - but it also raises awareness.

All well and good. And awareness is the first step toward reducing the cost - to individuals, to those who love them, to colleagues and society at-large - and ensuring those who need help do, in fact, receive it in the same way they would if they were suffering from any other disease.

But we can't simply talk. We must act. We must change the way we view others, the way we deal with those who may be suffering in silence. We must be kinder and more empathetic. We must be better at recognizing the signs and positioning ourselves to offer genuine help.

One day each year to raise national awareness and funds is an amazing, inspiring and important start. But the game won't be over until this becomes part of our everyday reality, where we all run toward those who suffer, and not away from them. And until those who suffer feel comfortable enough to share their stories without fear of losing even more than they already have.

Your turn: To participate, share a tweet or Facebook post using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. If you're a Bell subscriber, make a call on your mobile phone or call someone long distance. And don't be afraid to be that person who recognizes the signs. Just be there. Because sooner or later, mental illness touches us all.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Thematic Photographic 365 - Lens

Framed in red
December 2014
Deerfield Beach, FL
We all see the world through some kind of lens. Whether it's a pair of eyeglasses or sunglasses perched on our nose, a camera cradled in our hands, or something less tangible, the world isn't as we see it until we view it through something.

That something, that lens, is this week's Thematic theme. I look forward to seeing how you interpret it and make it your own.

Your turn: Take a photo that evokes this week's theme - lens - then share it on your blog, website, Facebook page or wherever else you hang your hat online. Leave a comment here letting folks know where to find it. For bonus points*, tweet it using the #ThematicPhotographic hashtag. For more details on how Thematic works, click here.

* Um, we don't actually give out bonuses, or points, or anything remotely akin to prizes. But the rewards of a photographic life are priceless, right?

Here's why you must share your passwords before you die

You've got to feel for Peggy Bush. The 72-year-old Victoria, B.C. resident lost her husband, David, to lung cancer last August. The couple owned an iPad, and she continued to use it after his death to play games.

She ran into problems after the app stopped working, and she tried to reinstall it. While she knew the four-digit PIN used to unlock the device, she was unable to log into her late husband's Apple ID - and you need the Apple ID in order to install or update software on the tablet. Without it, you've got a very expensive doorstopper.

Apple asked for a death certificate, along with her late husband's will - in which he left everything to her. After she provided these to the company, Apple balked, and insisted she also provide a court order before they'd let her into the account.

While Apple's terms of use are pretty clear - users "agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your Account may be terminated and all Content within your Account deleted" - the company has granted access to surviving family members in past cases, including relatives of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq in 2004 who won a court case to regain access to his account.

After the issue spilled into mainstream and social media last week, Apple backed down and allowed her to reset the password and access the account - no court order required.

The bottom line: The issue of so-called "digital legacy" (what happens to our digital accounts after we die) is only going to become more mainstream as we shift more of our lives online. Facebook was ahead of the curve when it instituted "Memorialized" accounts last year, along with specific rules and processes for family members/loved ones to follow in case someone died without leaving express instructions in advance. Those kinds of frameworks would have saved folks like Peggy Bush a lot of trouble and heartache.

But framework or no framework, this case serves as a reminder to us all that it's high time we have certain conversations with our loved ones about how our digital assets are to be handled after we're gone. No one ever wants to talk about stuff like this, but we need to, now more than ever.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Where the rubber hits the road

Don't tread on me
London, ON
January 2016
Thematic. Tires. Here.
The photographic process starts long before you pick up a camera and point it in the right direction. Like digestion, it begins when your brain begins to churn the possibilities.

And those possibilities started to form before I even made it outside on my way home from the office last night. I had to be somewhere in negative time, so I couldn't linger over the composition. The late afternoon light was already fading, made worse by the thick cloud cover overhead. I gave myself one minute to set up, shoot, and get on my way.

So as I strolled across the parking lot toward my very filthy vehicle, my mind raced as it quietly searched for something worthy of attention on this very unspectacular day. And when it bore in on my tire tread, I knew this was it. With pre-set guidance re. what I was looking for and how I wanted to capture it, I'm pretty sure I was done composing and shooting in less than half that time.

In the end, it isn't a sunset over a fiery-red, reflective ocean. Nor is it an X Games action shot. It'll never grace a magazine cover (they still exist?) or a design website. But even slightly off-normal views of very normal things during an otherwise normal moment in a similarly normal place can have their own charms.

Each and every day, this uber-dirty patch of rubber partners with three other uber-dirty patches of rubber to keep me from being flung into a ditch or into the path of an oncoming ice cream truck. The least I could do was give it its moment in the somewhat muted sun.

Your turn: A time when you captured a normal object or scene in an abnormal way. Aaaaaaaaand...go!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On play

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."
Plato

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Twitter was down. The world did not end.

I woke up early this morning to news that Twitter had experienced an overnight service outage. From about 3:20 a.m. until just around 6am Eastern, users who tried to access the service via its website, mobile website and app were either unable to do so, or things took so long to respond that it was useless to even try.

This happened while most folks in North American slept, so the fact that there aren't mushroom clouds on the horizon is strictly a matter of timing. Among the various social media platforms out there - including Facebook, Instagram and even Pinterest - Twitter is often seen as the one that everyone turns to when big news is happening. Because of the way it's built, it works nicely as what I like to call the Internet's early warning system.

So when that early warning system goes dark, where does everybody go?  They take to Facebook and any other tool they can get their hands on. And they complain. Because nothing fixes an outage like a good whine.

The service is slowly coming back up: It'll load for most people, but posting new Tweets is a bit hit-and-miss. I guess the data centres need some tea. Which gives us all time to reflect. Here are some things to keep in mind the next time Twitter - or some other important-to-you social media or message service - goes down:
  1. You don't pay for the service. So no one owes it to you.
  2. There are many other tools and services out there. As you would do in a traffic-jammed commute, simply take another road.
  3. This is not a tragedy. Walk the floor of any ER or cancer ward, or take an all-expenses-paid tour of Mosul or the beaches of Lesbos for a reality check on how the word should be defined. This, OTOH, is a simple inconvenience.
  4. There was life before Twitter. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we all lived rather nicely without any kind of social media. Amazing, isn't it?
  5. Silence can be golden. Sometimes, all it takes to snap us back into some kind of balanced perspective, is a little time away from the technologies that make it so easy to lose that balanced perspective. Maybe being temporarily unable to share every last snippet of your life in selfie-lensed grandeur is actually good for the soul.
Your turn: Do you even care when Twitter, Facebook et al go down?



Monday, January 18, 2016

Thematic Photographic 364 - Tires

Retro commuter
Toronto, ON
August 2015
I had to add some air to my car's tires the other night, and as I crouched in the dimly lit, never-been-cleaned far corner of a local service station late on a bone-chilling evening and waited for the creaky old compressor to do its thing, I realized how rarely I take pictures of the rubber that hits the road.

Since their contact patches make the difference between sticking to the road and flying off of it, they may very well be the most important parts of any vehicle. But as I balanced in the shadows of my car, I wondered why I don't shoot scenes like this more often. It might seem like it isn't worthy of attention, but I come from a place where everything is worthy, and creativity revolves around making ordinary things seem extraordinary.

Hence this week's theme, tires.

Your turn: Take a picture of a tire or tires, then share it on your blog or website. Leave a comment here letting everyone know where to find it. Visit other participants and feel free to share more snippets through the week. For more info on how Thematic works, click here. If you tweet, feel free to use the #ThematicPhotographic hashtag. And have fun with it, because photography should be fun, and that's what Thematic is all about, too.

On different strokes...

"The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases."
Carl Jung

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The one thing you must know before upgrading your phone's operating system

Upgrades to mobile phone operating systems - Apple's iOS, Google's Android, etc. - often promise exciting new features on existing hardware. And they're free, so millions of users dive in as soon as the downloads become available.

We all love the sound of free, after all, don't we?

The reality is often anything but pleasant, as older, weaker hardware frequently bogs down under the weight of the new software. And now, a $5 million class action lawsuit against Apple says it knowingly crippled users of its older iPhone 4S models with the most recent iOS9 upgrade.

The lawsuit, launched by Chaim Lerman, accuses Apple of engaging in deceptive trade practices and false advertisement by claiming iOS 9 was compatible with older phones, including the iPhone 4S.

Unfortunately for iPhone 4S owners, reality was a lot crappier: After they upgraded, their phones froze, crashed and generally failed to perform properly. The lawsuit says Apple knew this would happen, but still marketed the OS as being better - faster, more feature-filled - on older hardware.

To make a bad situation worse, once you upgrade, you can't downgrade. So owners were stuck: Either keep using their now-crippled devices or trek to the Apple Store and buy a new one.

Will this have much of an impact? Likely not. It's a small dollar amount for the world's most valuable tech company, and a similar lawsuit a few years ago went nowhere,

But it serves as fair warning to smartphone (and, let's be realistic, tablet) owners: The next time a new free operating system upgrade becomes available, think twice about upgrading if your device is more than a couple of years old.

You know, that old flip phone is looking better and better with each passing day.

On loving what you do

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do."
Steve Jobs

Which begs the obvious two questions: What do you love to do, and why do you love it in the first place?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Touchscreens are about to get a radical upgrade

Within the space of about a decade, touchscreens have revolutionized how we interact with electronics all the way from smartphones and tablets to laptop and desktop computers and appliances and cars. Most vehicles sold today feature a touchscreen front and centre, which allows car manufacturers to get rid of the sea of buttons that once dominated the instrument panel.

That's both good and bad. Good because it simplifies things for carmakers - fewer buttons for designers and engineers to test, certify and fiddle with, and easier upgrades because all the features are in software. Bad because using a touchscreen while driving can be ridiculously frustrating. That's because conventional touchscreens lack the tactile feedback - i.e. feel-it-with-your-fingers - of a good old fashioned button. With a touchscreen, there's no hitting a button or activating a switch or slider by feel. You've got to use your eyes to confirm you're hitting the right spot on the otherwise flat, featureless surface. And if you're looking at your screen, you're not looking at the road. Which I'm pretty sure is lousy for safety.

But what if a touchscreen could replicate the touchy-feely world of those beloved old buttons and switches? The giant auto parts maker Bosch says it has the answer: A so-called next-generation "haptic" touchscreen that vibrates in a very precise manner to create the feeling of pressing a real button.

The screen is called Neosense, and unlike conventional haptic screens that simply vibrate to confirm a touch or a press, this one is far more precise. It vibrates so precisely and is tuned so carefully that when you run your finger over graphic images of buttons and actual features, you can actually feel them as buttons and features. You can even "feel" what it's like to activate sliders and other types of controls.

Similarly, you can brush your fingers over certain elements and feel them without actually activating them - meaning no more accidentally bumping the screen and pressing the wrong thing. When you mean to press on a virtual button, it feels like you've actually pressed a button.

The company is currently in talks with a number of major carmakers, and these trick new screens should start taking over from older-tech touchscreens over the next few years.

The possibilities are, to quote a cliche, endless. And it can't come a moment too soon to an industry so in love with tech for the sake of tech that it's forgotten why buttons, switches and sliders were so perfect from a user interface perspective, and what we lost when we allowed them to be almost completely replaced by something vastly inferior simply because it looked cool.

Your turn: Does your vehicle have a touchscreen? Are you a fan? Or not?