Upping authentication with a U2F device

The Thinker by Rodin

As the saying goes, you are not paranoid if they really are out to get you. When it comes to online security, it’s fair to say we are justifiably paranoid. Which is why when I learned about a much better way to authenticate myself on the web, it didn’t take much arm-twisting to buy my first U2F device.

U2F what? What is it and why would you want one? The “2F” part stands for “two-factor”. When you login to many sites on the web, you have the option for two-factor authentication. This usually means that in addition to providing something you know (typically a username and password) you also provide some other different type of credential. This ups the likelihood that you are really you.

For example, when I login to my Google account on a new device, because my account is set up for two-factor authentication login, I have it send my cell phone a text message. The code I receive in the SMS message is then used to complete my login to Google.

That sounds pretty secure, but it’s not nearly secure enough. That’s because it’s still vulnerable. If someone knows your username and password, they probably also know who you are. And if they know who you are they can probably get your mobile number, if they don’t have it already from being your “friend”. And if they know your mobile number, it’s possible to trick your carrier to send the SMS to a different device. Moreover, there’s no security in SMS messages. They are sent as plain text over the cellular network. Suddenly, two-factor authentication seems a lot more like one-factor authentication.

This was a problem even at Google. To solve it they bought their employees a whole bunch of U2F (Universal Two-Factor) devices manufactured by a company called Yubico. These devices stopped phishing attacks dead, effectively making accessing Google much more secure for its 85,000 trusted employees.

My Feitan U2F device with NFC support
My Feitan U2F device with NFC support

Hey, I want some of that! And now you can too!

How does this work? First you need to know that U2F is a standard. Any manufacturer can make a U2F device, but arguably Yubico was first to market in a significant way. Second, it’s a hardware device, basically a chip embedded inside a piece of plastic, usually connected to a USB-A interface. The chip lets it create keys, similar to keys to securely access websites. It creates two keys, a private key that cannot be externally read and which exists only on the device, and a public key that works only with the site that you connect to. However, it only creates the public key after you login (usually with a username and password) and it verifies the site is authentic. Once the site has the public key, it can be used only with your device.

Is there a downside? Not in the technology itself, although some of the older models are slower than the newer ones at generating keys. Its main drawback currently is that not enough websites have integrated it. The big ones like Google and Facebook support it. One other drawback: not all browsers support it, at least natively. Chrome, Firefox and Opera do. Most of the rest can support it via a plugin.

Still, the list of sites that do support it is growing. Both Windows and Mac support U2F during login. When enabled, you must plug in the device, essentially authenticating your computer with the operating system. Other sites that can use it include: Dropbox, Twitter, Salesforce, GitHub, LastPass and Dell. Of these the one that tickles my fancy is LastPass. Like lots of people I used it as my password manager. Unfortunately, it’s a feature of LastPass Premium only, but if you spring for it, it makes it much more secure plus it removes the hassle of having to constantly type in your often not terribly secure master password. Unfortunately, most banks don’t support U2F yet. You would think that they would want to be on the leading edge of this technology.

These devices can effectively store an unlimited set of keys. In addition, you don’t always have to attach it to a single profile. If you have multiple profiles, the same device can securely support them, or even an anonymous association with a website.

In my case, I keep a lot of customer information in Google’s cloud, accessible only to me through my Google account. So I have plenty of reason to up my security practices.

One issue is whether you want to use these devices with mobile devices. It can be done, but most mobile devices don’t have a USB-A port. However, pretty much all of them support the NFC (Near Field Communication) standard, used for systems like Apple Pay. In this case, you just place the device next to your mobile phone when you login. So it might behoove you to buy a U2F device that comes with NFC support too.

That’s what I ended up buying, not a Yubico device with this feature (which costs about $50), but a Feitian ePass NFC FIDO U2F Security Key, which is equivalent but costs $30 less. It’s simple to use in both cases and I can easily store it on my key ring.

The device does not solve all security issues on the web, but it easily and elegantly solves the authentication issue. Even if you lose your key, you still have protection. Because it is used with two-factor authentication, someone would still have to know your username and password. Meanwhile, you could buy a new device and create a new public key for use with the website.

Some content management systems can work with it. WordPress is used by about 40% of websites, so if you have a WordPress site you can install the Contact plugin to allow U2F authentication.

I’m looking forward to less hassle and more security from my U2F device, and my clients should be too.

Linux Mint may be the Windows killer

The Thinker by Rodin

I haven’t used the Windows operating system as my principle operating system for ten years. For a decade I have been using an iMac with its MacOS operating system and paying a premium for the privilege. I didn’t mind though. I just couldn’t stand Windows anymore. And since MacOS was basically written on top of UNIX, I could leverage my UNIX skills completely.

Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)
Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)

My loathing of Windows though was not enough to keep me from buying a Windows laptop. I don’t use it much and given this I didn’t want to pay the premium for a Mac laptop. I formally left the Windows world about the time I retired in 2014, where using Windows 7 was required. My laptop came with Windows 10. The more I used Windows 10, the more I realized I liked it less than Windows 7. It’s so flashy and so terribly annoying. Amongst its many faults is that it will frequently update itself during booting it up, sometimes taking ten minutes or more before I could actually use it. There’s that and it feels so bloated with all the flashy controls, not to mention all the junk software that came installed.

I’ve made it a goal to move off the Mac when I retire my iMac. The only alternative though seemed to be Windows. I couldn’t see myself going back to that. But maybe there was finally a distribution (“distro”) of Linux for the desktop that was finally mature enough to replace both Windows and MacOS?

This led me to a little project to partition my laptop’s drive so I could at least boot up to another operating system rather than wait for Windows 10 to be usable. In case you haven’t heard, Linux is an operating system. Haven’t heard of it? If you have an Android-based smartphone, you are already using it. Google’s Android operating system is actually a wrapper around a minimized version of Linux. So if you’ve been thinking that Windows was the most popular operating system, you are wrong. It’s really Linux, hidden inside your Android smartphone.

When Google created Android, it realized it was a completely different platform so the old constraints like “can I run Microsoft Office on it?” didn’t apply. They could build it properly and since Linux was already used on devices of all sorts (not to mention servers, where it predominates) they wrote a wrapper around free and open-source Linux and called it Android.

So if you are looking at trends, you are realizing that Linux is taking over. It’s only lagging behind on the desktop. One reason Linux is lagging on the desktop is that there are so many variants (distros) of Linux. I picked one pretty much at random to place on a partition on my laptop: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is nice but it doesn’t behave like Windows. It also doesn’t behave like MacOS. If you are going to move to a Linux desktop, it should at least work similarly to what you are already using.

It didn’t take me more than a week for me to say goodbye to Ubuntu. A friend recommended the Linux Mint distro saying it was written to be Windows-like. So I installed it and took it for a spin.

One thing I noticed right away: Linux Mint booted up fast: really fast, at least compared with Windows 10. Windows 10 gave the illusion that you could use it right away but in fact it sort of hung after you logged in while all sorts of background programs tediously loaded. Mint though was quickly loaded and usable. And it had a Start-like button in the bottom left corner and task bar on the bottom just like Windows. Clicking on the button brought up a Windows-like navigation pane. Nice!

But what was under the hood? Firefox came preinstalled, but also LibreOffice, an open source Office-like set of programs. I quickly learned that only the fussiest people would complain about these programs compared with Microsoft Office because probably less than 2% of us need the most advanced features of Office. LibreOffice is perfectly fine and you have to look hard to figure out what is different.

Pretty much everything I needed was already installed, but there was a Software Manager off the “Start” button that made quick work of installing lots of other useful software. What wasn’t in the Software Manager was often available from various websites. If you download a Debian package (.deb files) from a website, Firefox will recognize it and it is quickly installed. Since there is usually a Debian package for programs written for Linux, this means that few programs Linux programs that are not available for Mint.

While Mint comes with Firefox, if you love Chrome you can download that too. Only it’s not quite Chrome, but Chromium, basically the open-source version of Chrome. Google adds their own proprietary layers on top of Chromium to do things like make it friendlier with its services like GMail and call it Chrome. Since I do IT consulting, I didn’t have problems finding very familiar software I use every day. Filezilla is available for Mint. Since I couldn’t find a Debian package, I had to hunt for a RPM (RedHat Package Manager) package for XAMPP, a program that lets me install a local development environment for the web. This required some “hands on” work from the command prompt to install it, but it was the exception.

Strangely, I hooked my wife, a Windows bigot who spurned my iMac. Her needs are modest: mostly Firefox, Thunderbird for email, VLC for playing videos and Steam for playing games. It turned out there was a Steam engine for Linux that was preinstalled on Mint, as well as Firefox, Thunderbird and VLC. She put it on a rebuilt laptop, throwing away Windows 10 entirely and replacing it with Linux Mint. Tomorrow she is off to Las Vegas to visit friends, and doubtless she will show off her laptop with its Windows-friendly Linux Mint OS on it. She loves it and is amazed by how quickly it boots and is usable.

If you have to run Windows, you can run it virtually inside of Mint using WINE (a Windows emulator) which is also preinstalled. As for replacing my iMac, I don’t think there’s a way to run MacOS virtually inside of Linux. But there are Linux distros that try to emulate the Mac’s user interface. These include Elementary OS, Deepin Linux, Backslash Linux, Gmac Linux and Trenta OS. Of these, Gmac Linux looks the most Mac-like.

About the only software I can’t easily replace is Quicken. I could run it as a service online; I’d just prefer not to trust all my financial data online. Obviously there is some software like Photoshop that is not available for Linux distros, but may be some day. There are some programs that offer 90% of its functionality and are free. Chances are there is an open-source version that’s close enough to those you use everyday on Windows that you won’t mind trading a few differences for the cost (free!)

Playing with Linux Mint though has me thinking that it may kill off Windows. It behaves very similarly, is faster, more nimble, much more stable and doesn’t feel lethargic and bloated like Windows. Yet it’s also so familiar while feeling easier to use. Microsoft may be seeing the beginning of the end of Windows. To compete it may opt to turn Windows into a Linux distro, much like Android became a very unique distro of Linux for handheld devices. Or by being introduced to it through people like my wife, Windows users may discover Linux Mint and make the switch too.

There is no Planet B

The Thinker by Rodin

When I have time to fill in my retirement, I can easily spend it among the endless documentaries on YouTube. I have spent a lot of my free time watching videos on space-time. Space-time is the matrix in which we live and it’s very much a real thing. There is no way to separate space from time. It (not they) literally comprises the fabric of the universe, fabric that can be warped by gravitational forces. It’s fascinating stuff if you can wrap your head around it.

Some of these videos take on the topic of traveling to distant stars. They talk about why it’s prohibitively expensive in time and energy to even come close to approaching the speed of light. If we hope to escape our solar system and colonize planets around distant stars we will have to figure out how to do this. What I’ve gleaned from these videos is that there is basically no way to do this. In the embedded video, the sun is reduced to the size of pea. The videographer then shows the distance of our closest star, Proxima Centauri, which would be 125 miles away. Moreover, Proxima Centauri would be the size of a radish seed.

Proxima Centauri is about 4.25 light years away. If you could get a spacecraft to go ten percent of the speed of light, which doesn’t seem technically possible due to the energy required, it would take 42 years to get to Proxima Centauri. The chance of finding a habitable planet around it is virtually nothing, which means the closest habitable planet is likely to be much farther away. Moreover, humans hoping to emigrate there would have to bring everything they need with them. Many generations would live and die in the void of interstellar space on this journey. Given the law of entropy, it’s unlikely their vessel would make it to its destination with any of its passengers alive.

Which is why in practical terms that humans should look closer to home. Mars is probably the closest possibly habitable planet, but it really cannot be considered habitable. It has 1/100 of the earth’s atmosphere, its atmosphere is toxic and too cold for us and everything is covered in a fine dust that would probably have us looking like coal miners. We’d probably have to live underground. Most likely going there would be a one-way trip, as our muscles would likely atrophy in the lighter gravity. Pretty much everything would have to be imported from earth, at least for many decades. Just getting there would mean being exposed to high does of cosmic radiation that would change our DNA and likely mean our children would have birth defects. In short, actually living on Mars would probably be hellish. No sane person would want to stay there. Even getting there and back might kill you or at least shorten your lifespan. Perhaps we’ll find ways to shield ourselves from the cosmic radiation on the journey, but it’s unlikely.

Venus has a more earth-like gravity but is literally hotter than hell not to mention filled with an atmosphere of lethal gases and constantly swirling storms. There is some talk that maybe a moon of Jupiter or Saturn could support a human colony. Getting there would take much longer than to Mars and there is no moon that can really be considered Earth-like. Some appear to have water (ice) and something resembling an atmosphere, but life there would be problematic at best. Many of these moons seems to be rocked by earthquakes.

All this leads this space-buff to conclude that we humans are stuck here on Earth, barring some sort of incredible technology that seems extremely unlikely or some asterisks to the laws of relativity that don’t appear to exist. It’s understandable that humans will want to explore new frontiers. It’s also abundantly clear that we are quickly making the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation, pollution and deforestation.

Attempts to colonize these brave new worlds will likely prove disastrous and prohibitively costly. Yet that’s seems to be where people like Elon Musk are anxious to go. If he can shoot a Tesla toward the outer planets, a manned trip to Mars can’t be that far away. He’s hoping to do something like this in the 2020s. I confess I will be excited if he or NASA succeeds in something like this. While it is likely to be exciting, it is certainly fraught with peril. Assuming the astronauts make it back, it’s likely that their DNA will not be quite what it was. Astronauts who have spent long time periods in the International Space Station have already noted chromosomal abnormalities. Science Magazine in 2016 noted that lunar astronauts had a much higher risk of heart disease. This is likely due to the higher cosmic radiation in the space between the Earth and the Moon.

While mankind’s desire to explore other worlds is understandable, if much of our motivation for getting off-planet is to deal with the population crisis then we are being hopelessly naïve. Which means that as painful as it may appear to be, it will be infinitely less costly to address our climate, population and pollution crises here and now. Our lovely Mother Earth that we are quickly destroying is all that cocoons us.

Hopefully the Trump Administration’s foolhardy rush toward oblivion will be short-lived. Hopefully Americans will come to their senses and elect politicians that will address these problems. Resolving seemingly intractable problems like our religious and ethnic wars, or poverty or population control simply must happen or we doom humans and our ecosystem to extinction.

There is no Planet B for humans to colonize. We live on a planet that should be our Eden. We must make it that or perish.

Why are we surprised by the consequences of our Wild West tech economy?

The Thinker by Rodin

Whoops. Well it looks like Facebook has some egg on its face, and its share price is off ten percent or so last time I looked. The problem? Facebook unwisely let Cambridge Analytica create a Facebook app. If you played their app, it gave them access not just to you, but all your friends Facebook accounts.

Cambridge Analytica claimed their app was for academic/research purposes, which is how they got the permission. As we now know they copied tons of data about you and your friends: about fifty million of us American, or about one in six of us. They mined the data to learn about our passions, biases and foibles. They thought they could persuade people to vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton from what they learned about you and your friends from the app. Although Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by three million ballots, Trump won the Electoral College thanks to 50,000 or so votes in three key states.

We’ll probably never know if this alone swung the election. It probably didn’t hurt. But what really helped Trump were the many state laws mostly in red states that narrowed the voter pool to favor those who tended to be white. It’s curious that those laws, all perfectly legal, don’t earn our scorn while this breach of Facebook’s rules has everyone up in arms all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is really sorry and has taken some steps that might prevent this in the future. Meanwhile, all this information about us is outside of Facebook somewhere, maybe still on Cambridge Analytica servers, maybe sold to other parties. This is data about us that we voluntarily and probably mindlessly gave away to Facebook is of course just a drop in the buckets of hacks and misappropriation of data that happens every day. It’s not going to get better. In fact, it’s going to get worse. Recently passed rules repealing net neutrality basically allow ISPs like Comcast to sell our use and search patterns on the Internet to any interested parties. This is not by accident; it’s by design. It’s part of Trump’s MAGA plan.

So Zuckerberg is sorry but I think what he’s most sorry about is the nine billion dollars of his personal wealth that got wiped out. It may stay wiped out until he can earn our trust again. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending. The Washington Post is happy to show you how to get off Facebook. But really, what did you expect? This is one more foreseeable consequence of our wild, wild, “anything goes” Internet. It also demonstrates why you might want to rethink your love of Libertarianism. We aided and abetted this misuse because we like free stuff and Facebook is free, or sure appears free. And besides, you can spend hours a day playing their Farmville app … for free!

Implicit in this fiasco is the expectation from some that Facebook (a) was capable of ensuring that apps would not be misused and (b) cared about the problem. Facebook though is really an extended startup company. It succeeded by being fast and being agile, and that meant breaking the rules or in cases like these setting the expectation that there were no rules.

It’s hardly alone. Many of these successful startups and lots of the unsuccessful ones operate the same way. Gaining market share, traction, usage, page hits and metadata about people like you and me is their true capital. At some point though you become big enough where you can monetize this information. Facebook was something of a laggard in this area. Twitter is too, and just recently reported its first profitable quarter. Facebook though may be unique because it excels in micro-targeting. If you need to reach someone between 40 and 45 in towns of less than 50,000 people who prefer their toast dark brown and support LGBTQ rights, I’m betting they could find these people and you could throw an ad at them. That’s how much they know about us because we tell them somewhat indirectly in our many posts to our Facebook friends, likes and shares. Why wouldn’t Cambridge Analytica use this platform, particularly when they likely suspected the agile, entrepreneurial culture at Facebook would make this easy? Did they worry that Facebook would catch on to their scheme? Maybe. Did they care about the consequences if they did? Nah. Their mission would be accomplished long before Facebook got around to figuring it out, which they never did. You can’t be both agile and careful.

What do Facebook and these other companies care about? It’s not too hard to figure out: making gobs of money. With no government oversight and a Congress and administration that encourage tech companies to be entrepreneurial, all they saw were green lights. Maybe some executives worried a bit that this strategy would ultimately be counterproductive. Clearly there weren’t enough of them for it to matter and I doubt the size of their stock options depended on how careful they were to look out for the company’s long term interests.

The honest Facebook reaction should have been, “Why on earth should you care? We’re a profit-making company, like every other company on the planet. You knew this when you signed up. Besides, we give away our platform for free. We allow you to easily connect with extended friends you would otherwise probably quickly forget about.” Unless the heavy hand of government gives them a reason to care, they probably will just go through the motions. They are not motivated by your concerns or concerns about how governments like Russia use their platform against our election laws. They are motivated to minimize damage like this when it occurs so as to cut the company’s losses.

If you want to hit them where it hurts then #deletefacebook. I use Facebook but I don’t particularly like it. What we really need is the equivalent of the World Wide Web in a social network. The WWW was created to run on top of the structure of the Internet. It’s free and open source. If we must have social networks, we need an open source social network of peer-to-peer social media servers where you carefully control information about yourself and who it goes to. I’d like to think that’s in our future.

But this Facebook brouhaha and the many other “oops” like this in our tech economy shows the downsides of these proprietary platforms. Facebook should hope for regulation. That way maybe it will eventually survive. With these significant and predictable problems users may simply walk away when they realize the dubious virtues of platforms like Facebook really aren’t worth their largely hidden costs. Here’s hoping.

Project Muni

The Thinker by Rodin

I have a new project of sorts: convince our city to construct a municipal network.

What’s a municipal network? “Munis” as they are sometimes called are publicly controlled Internet Service Providers. So rather than get Internet from Comcast or Time Warner, you might get it from your town or city instead, or more likely some legal entity chartered by your town or city.

Munis seem to be catching on. They tend to spring up in places that don’t have high-speed Internet, which means they are mostly more in rural areas. Some years back across the Connecticut River from us in Leverett, Massachusetts the citizens decided they were done with dialup. So they created LeverettNet. For $73.89 a month subscribers get a 1 gigabit per second true fiber Internet access to the home out in what is arguably the middle of nowhere. In my city across the river we already have high-speed Internet, and it’s called Comcast. For about $75/month you can get “up to” 60 megabits per second Internet to the home. (Comcast offers a good deal for the first year you would expect.) But there’s no true fiber to the home here; it’s stepped down to coaxial cable. Comcast doesn’t offer a 1-gigabit per second service like Leverett does, but you can buy 2 gigabits per second in some places of our city … for $299.99 a month. Ouch!

Like in most communities, Comcast is the only game in our community. There are plenty of communities mostly in the hill towns around here that are largely left to fend for themselves. Comcast doesn’t go there because it’s not profitable. There are fewer subscribers and the houses are further apart. The town of Leverett has only 1900 residents so they had to figure out how to do it themselves. In one sense though they were lucky. Amherst, Massachusetts is not too far away. They could get service there and extend it across the telephone polls to the town.

It’s too early to know if we will be successful in getting our city of 30,000 to build a muni. We haven’t formally petitioned the City Council yet. It seems kind of redundant since Comcast is available everywhere. But it’s the only game in town. Leverett across the river with a much more spread out population though has figured out it can deliver a service nearly seventeen times faster than Comcast’s for about the same price. That sounds … appealing!

So a group of us are organizing. Right now this involves mostly reaching out and research. On the face of it though there is a business case to be made for a city muni. Perhaps the best-known muni and one of the most controversial is one built for the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee against the strong wishes of Comcast. Its most popular service is the 100 megabits per second service, priced at $57.99 a month. This suggests that a muni should cost about a third less for similar service compared with Comcast.

It turns out that saving money is just one of the many reasons for communities to build munis. In our research we’ve uncovered a whole lot of other reasons. Here are just some:

  • Comcast is responsible to shareholders, so they have every incentive to bilk customers for all they can get. It’s not too hard since they are the sole provider. A public board though would oversee a muni. It would be not-for-profit and presumably accountable to its subscribers and our city government.
  • Comcast is “innovating” by doing away with Net Neutrality, although it claims it won’t slow down services for websites. But it certainly could, particularly if they think they could make a buck doing so. A muni would probably require Net Neutrality.
  • Comcast has no competition and thus no reason to lower prices but plenty of reasons to raise them. Verizon did introduce its FiOS service in a few neighborhoods but quickly learned it wasn’t profitable to do it citywide. They will make money in services that have fewer competitors, so they are concentrating on wireless access.
  • Comcast isn’t improving their network. Many of the telephone polls have their optical fiber on them, but not all of them and less so along stretches of road that are less populated. It’s all stepped down to coaxial cable at some point, but in places there is a lot of coaxial cable between your home and a fiber drop. There’s no reason for Comcast to improve their network because there’s no competition and doing so would lower profits anyhow.

I believe that high-speed Internet access is a requirement today. It is really a new utility, the same way power, gas and sewage are. To meet the needs of citizens in these communities, Internet service should be managed by some sort of governmental body. The private sector model is largely a failure. It has failed in the hill towns around here because the private sector won’t serve that market. It’s a failure also because you only have one choice in most markets.

It’s time. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created to bring electricity to Appalachia because the private sector wouldn’t. Massachusetts is making half-hearted efforts to subsidize high speed internet for the hill towns via a Wired West initiative, but it’s underfunded and mostly languishing.

One of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because of the frustration of people in more rural communities. I’m sort of in this boat now. Here the economy has grown little if at all since the Great Recession. That’s is part of its charm to me. (I can actually see the stars at night again.) But it’s not too hard to see that a good part of the reason these communities are suffering is that they suffer from an unequal playing field. Cities with their natural higher densities are going to be profitable to serve so they will get robust high-speed Internet and maybe residents can choose from multiple providers.

In most cases these hill towns around here don’t have the money to create their own munis. Towns like Leverett found ways to do it through issuing bonds, and that’s probably how it will get built where I live if we can convince the City to sanction one. By having robust high-speed Internet out here in the more rural parts of the country at an affordable price, communities like mine can begin to seriously address the rural vs. urban divide, much the way the Tennessee Valley Authority brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

For the foreseeable future though not much in the way of resources will come from the federal government. So mostly we must roll our own, if we can figure out a way to do so. In the case of my small city I think it will encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to move here, where the cost of living is lower anyhow and where many natural beauties are literally just outside your door.

You can learn more about municipal networks at muninetworks.org. If like me you are frustrated by the lack or high cost of high-speed Internet maybe you should do what I am doing and rise up and demand it.

Vivaldi: a pretty cool browser

The Thinker by Rodin

So I’ve been putting the Vivaldi browser through its paces for the last few days. Until Thursday I had never heard of Vivaldi, but my friend Roger mentioned it at a meeting so I figured it was worth checking out.

It was especially worth checking out because for whatever reason I have browser issues on my Mac. I bought my second Mac a few years ago and pimped it up with the most memory I could get. (Unfortunately I could not get a flash drive for it at the time.) I found Firefox to be too unstable, Safari to be too annoying and so I relied on Chrome instead for my daily web browsing.

Then Chrome seemed to bog down too. It was fine for a few days then slowly degraded. It seems to have the biggest problem with sites that are highly dynamic, i.e. doing lots of things in the background by frequently updating the page’s content. In short, it had issues with Facebook and Tweetdeck, both of which do a lot of this.

It got so unstable and frustrating that I moved Facebook and Tweetdeck access to Firefox, where for mysterious reasons it seemed to perform better. In any event I keep lots of applications open on my computer and I reasonably expect that they should all behave well and work quickly. But MacOS is hardly perfect. It may not crash as often as Windows, but it does crash from time to time, and certain applications close slowly if they close at all.

Like most people I spend most of my time online in my browser, so it has to work right and be nimble. Firefox recently finally got the feature that moved me to Chrome: each Firefox tab is now multi-threaded, at least since Firefox 54. Multi-threading should add overall stability by keeping each tab in an independent environment, but threading also adds additional overhead. I think that’s what’s happening with Chrome. All those threads, probably inefficiently managed, just add complexity and thus cause eventual instability.

So Vivaldi was worth a try. Vivaldi is being developed by some of the original Opera browser developers. Somewhere along the way Opera steered away from its original focus: making a browser that is truly focused on being usable and simple. So these developers started working on Vivaldi. One likely difference: they built Vivaldi on Chromium. Chromium is basically an open source web-kit, made available by Google. Google builds the rest of Chrome on top of this framework.

Judging from the swift response from Vivaldi, it’s these extra features added on top of Chromium that is bogging down Chrome. It’s kind of understandable. Chrome is an entryway to various Google services so it is optimized to present those services like GMail and Google Drive. The Chromium framework though appears to be pretty solid and sleek, which left the Vivaldi team with a good platform that allows it to take advantage of a lot of Chrome’s features. For example, pretty much any Chrome extension will work on Vivaldi, so you can install those crucial add-ons like Adblock and Adblock Plus on Vivaldi too.

Vivaldi though builds in a lot of features that are only available as extensions in Chrome. One I use a lot is making screenshots. It’s quite simple to make a screenshot in Vivaldi by clicking on a small camera icon on the status bar. By default it makes a screenshot of the entire page, but it’s easy to capture just portions of a page if you want. Or you can do it with keyboard commands. There are a lot of keyboard commands built into Vivaldi and I’ve only discovered a few of them.

One of Vivaldi’s most useful features is tab stacking. It’s one of these innovations that you wonder why no one though of it before. It allows a tab to contain a bunch of related pages under it. And the browser’s tab tiling feature allows you to display two or more of the web pages in the tab stack at once on the screen, or various unrelated tabs. Seeing multiple web pages at once on the same monitor is really neat. It’s another feature that you wonder why no one has thought about it before.

There is a lot of customization possible in Vivaldi: where you want to put the bookmarks bar, for example. It can be attached to any side. A side panel that takes you into features like bookmarks, downloads, notes and settings is easily turned on or off, and there is a visual clue at the left side of the status bar. Themes are easily customized and you can do things like set the degree of roundedness you want on a browser tab.

Other things I’ve discovered so far that I like:

  • I can use the backspace key again to go back a page
  • There is a rewind-to-start button to take you back to the first page opened in a browser tab. There is also one to take you to the last page opened in the browser tab.
  • The URL field shows you how much of the page is being loaded by visually putting a progress bar behind the URL. You can also see a count of the objects that were loaded at the same time.
  • You can easily add notes about a page by typing them manually in the side panel or making a snapshot of the part of the page that’s of interest and attaching it to the note. If doing research this is a great feature.
  • Web panels allow you to put a web page into the side panel. It’s a very scrunched version but it’s useful and again helps you look at multiple pages at once.
  • It has a wonderful history feature that let you easily see your browsing history across days, weeks, etc. as well get graphical reports.

The only features I haven’t found so far that I miss:

  • Automatic language detection and translation. This was a compelling reason to use Chrome, as it integrates with Google’s tremendously useful language translation service.
  • You have to go to Google’s Extensions page to install extensions. There is no shortcut but you can easily bookmark that page.

In short I find Chromium very impressive. I’m using it as my principle browser and seeing how it goes. So far the lights are virtually all green and the speed and usability is very impressive. I’m hoping its stability will be better than Chrome’s and it won’t bog down like Chrome.

Bitcoin reevaluated

The Thinker by Rodin

In December 2013 I looked at Bitcoin and called it libertarian bit nonsense. Like most pundits, I’m not good at admitting I was wrong. But I was wrong about Bitcoin. In December 2013 a Bitcoin was worth about $716. As of today one Bitcoin is worth about $3250. (See this index chart.) So if bought a Bitcoin in December 2013 and traded it today for U.S. dollars, your return on investment would be 354%. That’s an annual return of 96%. You are not going to get that sort of return from an S&P 500 index fund.

The dates I picked were random so coins bought at other times might have lost money. In truth if you had bought a Bitcoin in December 2013 you would have to have waited until November 2016 to see a positive return on your investment. For the last year or so though Bitcoin appears to be picking up real traction, taking the new currency to surreal highs.

One reason I was wrong in 2013 is that back then I did not anticipate its major use. Back then it was used for shady transactions but existed on the fringes of this world. Bitcoin seems to have found its niche as a method for facilitating ransomware. Illicit hackers are using it to get money from you when they do things like hijack your computer and won’t let you access key parts of it until you pay them sufficient Bitcoins. (Even then it works only about half the time.) If they asked for dollars or yen then hiding their tracks would be much harder. Making you go out and buy Bitcoins and then sending it to them though makes anonymous electronic thievery much more possible and practical. While each transaction is recorded in the Bitcoin itself, there is no mechanism in the transaction to positively identify the buyer and seller. Thus it’s much harder to catch electronic thieves at work.

I doubt these thieves hang onto their Bitcoins. Bitcoins are still a hassle to trade. Bitcoin exchanges are few and their trustworthiness not to mention solvency are problematic. Thieves probably don’t see the Bitcoins they collect as investment since they are hard to spend on real world goods and services. Most likely they are quickly converted into a local currency where they are then used to buy goods and services.

As a libertarian currency, Bitcoin is having some success. It is theoretically money that can be stored and used independent of taxation, although legitimate sellers that accept Bitcoins probably have to charge taxes on Bitcoin transactions. The percent of sellers that accept Bitcoins though is still tiny, which provides evidence that their value comes from being able to transmit value relatively free from prying eyes. This is one aspect of cash that allows it to endure into the 21st century.

So while Bitcoins may appeal to the libertarians among us, its primary usage is probably to facilitate crime, thus its value and surging price. The harder it becomes to trade illicit money with conventional currencies, the more valuable Bitcoins become, since there are a finite number of Bitcoins out there. Most governments are getting quite good at monitoring transactions of conventional currency. Transactions that are too large result in inquiries that may slow down or stop the transfer of money. With Bitcoins this is currently not much of an issue. Governments are getting better at regulating these transactions. At one time China blocked Bitcoin transactions altogether. They are accepted on certain Chinese exchanges now, but China is proposing to make Bitcoin exchanges subject to money laundering laws and to collect information verifying the identity of buyers and sellers exchanging Bitcoins.

As I noted in 2013, the more a Bitcoin is traded, the larger its digital fingerprint becomes. Some of these coins are becoming so digitally huge that they are inefficient to verify it is a legitimate coin. This is frustrating to many in this community, which is causing other more practical digital currencies to emerge like Ethereum. Currencies like Ethereum try to address issues like the huge blockchains in many Bitcoins and to build in features like identifying buyers and sellers and a limited blockchain ledger. If they gain traction then this undercuts Bitcoin’s ability to keep these transactions confidential.

Whether Bitcoin or some other form of digital currency, all such currencies that rely on blockchain technology are inherently risky, for the same reason that I noted in 2013: they are potentially hackable because they are encrypted. So far to our knowledge no one has successfully hacked into a Bitcoin. If it happens though that a hacking algorithm or a quantum leap in computing power reveals an easy way to mine new Bitcoins then the coin should drop in value precipitously and become essentially worthless. However, if a coin can be “minted” by a provable and legitimate source, say a country’s equivalent of a Federal Reserve, then such digital currency should hold value. This could be done by such organizations holding a registrar of coins it has “minted” that are publicly electronically available.

If that happens though then the onus for having a Bitcoin also goes away, as its value is in its surreptitiousness. Electronic coins that only go through legitimate exchanges and follow policies for tracking and handling illicit uses become essentially legitimate currencies because they are issued and accepted by trusted institutions.

So there are likely to be many more digital coins in our future. Bitcoin’s future as an electronic currency though is likely coming to an end as it becomes computationally inefficient to record transactions with Bitcoins and as advancements in computers, like potential quantum computing potentially render obsolete our current methods of encrypting data, making the encryption keys faster to crack.

Bitcoin’s time has arrived but with its success it is also likely quickly passing into obsolescence. What comes next is unknown but any permanent way of electronically storing untraceable electronic value was probably always myth.

Don’t let your house get too smart

The Thinker by Rodin

At the Home Depot today I was looking at light bulbs. LED lights are now as cheap as compact fluorescent lights were some years ago, which is great because they use minimal energy and last for decades. Most of them come with features. I bought a LED bulb for a lamp I was buying that changes color. Each time you turn it on the color changes subtly. There were many variations of dimmable LED lights; many variations on color changing LED lights and one bulb that for about $15 had a Wifi connection. It was that last one that gave me pause: an intelligent light bulb? Apparently yes and you can use it with various home security systems to program the times you want it on and off, and even control it with a smartphone app.

As a gadget guy and a retiree with plenty of time on his hands, I like the idea of turning my home into a smart house. I even like the idea of appliances like Amazon’s Alexa where you can say something like, “Alexa, what’s the temperature now?” and it will tell you. I tried this device when I was in Michigan last month visiting my aunt. She has Alexa but all she does with it is tell it to play music and to stop playing music. So 99% of the time it streams innocuous piano much. However, when I asked it, it told me the temperature outside easily enough.

I like the idea of being half a world away and having remote cameras show me that my cats are doing okay and something telling me that the furnace has died. Our furnace igniter did actually die while we were in Europe. Thankfully we had a house sitter who took charge of the situation, which of course happened inconveniently during a blizzard. She got it fixed. However, a smart house system could have let me know there was a problem and ping me with a text message or email.

I don’t seem to be in a hurry to get an Alexa or to make my home smarter. Frankly, the Alexa device scares me. Alexa and Google Home are apparently very good at listening surreptitiously. I suspect if my wife and I were arguing it would pick that up. Perhaps I would get targeted ads from for divorce lawyers afterward. For me, Alexa and similar appliances cross a line I don’t want crossed: letting a company or potentially anyone know more about me than I want to give out, which is already plenty. That’s why we bought a VPN. Given that I am rarely more than a dozen feet from a computing device, there is little impetus to make my life that much more convenient.

I am more concerned about hackers than I am worrying what Amazon or Google is learning about me when I install one of these smart devices. A thief could potentially remotely turn off a smart front porch light bulb. I notice that many doors now come with locks that can be unlocked remotely. This also concerns me. If I lose my key I might not be able to get into my house without a locksmith. But a house that can be unlocked electronically potentially allows anyone with the right skills and intent to let themselves in.

And that’s precisely what we are doing in principle by creating smart houses. We’re entrusting a wireless technology to be absolutely secure when it isn’t and likely won’t ever be secure. There are too many backdoors including the most vulnerable ones: our own smart devices, which keep the electronic keys to these devices. So to the extent I want my house to be smart, I mostly want it to inform me about events only.

So yes, please tell me if the furnace or AC isn’t working. Tell me if a window is not secured when it should be. It can phone the cops if it suspects a burglary has happened when I am not at home. I don’t want a device that silently listens to my yammer and keeps notes. I only want to be able to remotely control devices that add security, not take it away. I don’t want to be able to unlock my doors remotely, but I might want the ability to lock them remotely.

Internet security is something of an oxymoron. You can’t trust it completely. However you can trust hardware devices that can only be controlled manually. If all my smart appliances were wired to a central switchboard, I would trust that. For the same reason, I trust my circuit breaker box. I can fully understand it and since it’s a mechanical device it cannot be controlled remotely. Since data can be transferred over power lines, smart devices could use them for communications instead of Wifi networks. All would report over the power line to the smart device, perhaps in the basement that controlled the smart house. The device would have physical switches that you could turn on and off if you wanted to allow remote access to various smart devices. It would also need some hardware to ensure that data could not accidentally be sent to the power company.

We may get such a solution at some point. Right now though no one seems to be thinking this through adequately, which is why I will very selectively make my house smart, if I allow it at all.

What’s up doc? (or playing with my FlightAware app)

The Thinker by Rodin

I remember when Google Maps first came out. It was pretty amazing for the time. You just dragged the screen with your mouse and content around it filled in! It seems pedestrian now but at the time it was mind blowing in its usefulness and simplicity.

Something like Google Maps for our air traffic has arrived. Yes, I’m aware there are lots of sites out there that track flights, and plenty of apps too. And most weren’t particularly interesting to me because they only gave basic information like “Is my flight on time?” and “If I can’t make my flight what else is available?”

What I wanted was to see all the flights that were going on in real time on a map. Where are they now? Where are they going? Where did they come from? Did they leave on time? Did they take off on time? How long is the flight? What is flying now at 40,000 feet above me right now? You might wonder, “Why do you want to know this stuff?” I really don’t know. Curiosity I guess. Thankfully the FlightAware app installed on my iPad scratches this itch perfectly on easy to use maps. (There is a FlightAware website, but the app is much more usable.)

FlightAware app
FlightAware app

This is a great way to kill time. It turns out though that the more time you spend just surfing this sort of Google Maps of the sky the more you learn about our aviation system. It’s neat and scary and more than a little awesome to see how congested our skies actually are. And doubtless there are flights that don’t appear on the app, although sometimes the app will surprise me. I live in Northampton, Massachusetts. We have a small little airport not big enough for even a Lear jet. But sometimes even a private pilot in a two-seat biplane just buzzing around the Holyoke range shows up.

Last night I was looking at Sydney, Australia. Amidst all the regular jet traffic, it was also tracking a helicopter flight, obvious from both the helicopter icon and its weird flight pattern.

Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?
Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?

To get this level of insight half a world away in near real time is fascinating. Doubtless there is a huge infrastructure of networked servers behind all this magic that FlightAware is tapping into. I just didn’t expect it to be global in scope. I can see Air China flights from Beijing to Moscow. I watch Aeroflot flights between cities in Russia I’ve never heard of. I see some crazy flight paths, like one from New York to Delhi that works goes way out of its way to avoid dangerous airspaces.

Curious to learn more I often press the icon associated with the flight. In a sidebar I see details of the flight and then a map comes up showing the flight path. Here is the flight path of a flight from JFK in New York to Warsaw, Poland that was close by last night:

JFK to Warsaw flight path
JFK to Warsaw flight path

Some of the things I have discovered on my FlightAware app include:

  • There is a huge amount of international air traffic, even here in the United States. Much of it goes over my head, although I am largely unaware of it. Naturally JFK and Newark send lots of planes out to Europe and Asia, but so do Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington and much of it flies over my head. The outbound flights unsurprisingly are mostly in the evening. Inbound flights tend to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Essentially there is a huge air train of passenger and cargo flights arching out to the north-northeast in the evenings, mostly passing over Newfoundland but sometimes Labrador.
  • There are some amazingly long flights. I stumbled on one of the longest: Los Angeles to Jeddah with a total flight time of nearly seventeen hours. It’s pretty easy to guess the international flights. The icons on the screen show large airplanes and they tend to move north-northeast in the evenings.
  • At the same time it’s amazing how quickly jets actually move us. Mexico City is less than four hours flight time from most of the United States. You can fly between pretty much any two points of the continental United States in five hours or less.
  • At night you see a lot of cargo jets going to Memphis, where Fedex has a transfer point. A lot are also going to Covington, Kentucky too, which is basically Cincinnati. I believe it is a UPS hub. And many of these are long haul cargo flights from Europe and Asia.
  • The United States gets a lot of serious weather. It’s obvious comparing the USA to other countries with all the storms I see, mostly in the south and Midwest. Sometimes flights will go out of their way to avoid these storms. In Europe I rarely see weather like this.
  • Airspace can get pretty congested. It’s amazing that they can manage the chaos of all the planes descending and taking off, particularly around New York. Watching Atlanta’s airspace is fascinating because two runways get most of the traffic and jets tend to line up neatly behind one another to land in a sort of delicate ballet.

Some things I particularly like about the FlightAware app:

  • It’s easy to get details on flights by just clicking on them on the map
  • There are various map layers you can hide and expose as interested but the default works fine most of the time as you don’t need the detail
  • When you click on a flight, it’s easy to see how long the duration of the flight is and how much of the flight has happened
  • The size of the airplane icon is indicative of the size of the jet, making it easy to spot the larger airplanes in flight.
  • You can save searches of favorite flights, airports or cities and get to them easily
  • You can search for a flight and see exactly where it is and how long until it reaches its destination, along with delay information
  • It stores about a week of flight history. After my recent flight back from Europe I was able to find it in the history and trace our flight path over Labrador.
  • You can create flight notifications and save them your favorites

In general I find it just fascinating. The vast size and scope of our aviation system is rendered apparent in the app, along with its constantly fluid nature. No wonder I have a hard time putting it down!

Marching for reality

The Thinker by Rodin

So the missus and me drove across the river to participate in the March for Science yesterday. No, not the Potomac River. We don’t live near Washington, D.C. anymore. The river in this case is the Connecticut River and the place was Kendrick Park in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. You know, where the spinster Emily Dickinson wrote all that love poetry to imaginary lovers.

We weren’t alone. Mostly we sat around with hands in our pockets as other marchers filed into the park. Some had signs. Some were in costume. One young kid was dressed as an astronaut. One man dressed as Ironman. There were some people in uniform. No, not cops. Actual scientists. We also had some medical professionals. Anyhow, they wore white lab coats. Slowly what looked like a couple of hundred people at best grew into a much more sizable crowd. It was hard to count the crowd as they streamed in impressively toward the start of the march at 10 a.m. My guess is that we were at least 600, with as many as a thousand.

The short march to the Amherst Town Commons meant forming a long queue on the sidewalk. It took a good half an hour for all the people in the park to actually start ambling down the sidewalk. So let’s say there were 800 of us marchers. Considering how few people live in the Pioneer Valley, at least north of the Holyoke Range, 800 is quite a crowd. Aside maybe from football games and graduation ceremonies at nearby UMass Amherst (where many are from out of town), it’s rare to see a crowd of this size around here. It’s kind of unnatural.

Amherst MA March for Science marchers
Amherst MA March for Science marchers

Which made this march of among the four hundred or so across six continents pretty impressive in the grand scheme of things, at least in terms of per capita representation. We hardly packed them in like they did on the national mall. We didn’t have Bill Nye the Science Guy as our speaker, just a local neurologist and a few others from the crowd who came forward before we marched. It was all very low-key and had a spontaneous feel to it, organized as a lot of these are in a few weeks using a Facebook group and depending a lot on word of mouth.

Our neurologist spokesman in the lab coat spoke about how ironic it was to have a march for science. No one ever recalled this being done before. That’s because until recently the idea of a march for science seemed absurd. It’s kind of like marching for sunny days. This was of course before our Electoral College unwisely put into office a president who doesn’t believe in climate change, and whose head of the EPA is working to turn it into the Environmental Degradation Administration.

Amherst MA March for Science marchers
Amherst MA March for Science marchers

So the march had a very surreal feel to it, as the virtues of science should be obvious to anyone with at least half a brain. For much of our country’s history, we were proud of our scientific achievements and our scientists. Like Albert Einstein, they showed up on our stamps. Those of us who remembered the space race remember how science was supercool back then. It also brought forth the information age, evidenced by the smartphones most of us carried, each with enough power and circuitry to best the computer that in 1997 beat chess champion Gary Kasparov. Science has also extended human life enormously, helped provide the means to feed our exponentially expanding population, cleaned much of our air, put a man on the moon and has at least one spacecraft actually traveling between stars. Who could possibly be against that?

It turns out plenty of people are against it, at least when it interferes with their agendas. For science whether it likes it or not tends to be a disruptor. It provides incredible advancements and insights but it does so sometimes by offending those who don’t like what it reports. Science discerns what is, but not always perfectly. As science gains better insights into reality, what we thought was reality sometimes gets revised. And that’s also why some people are offended. Science can find no God that matches the one we are told exists in our Bibles or Koran. If it could I’m sure scientists would be first to broadcast the news. Scientists aren’t saying there is no God, but that science doesn’t reveal one. A process that requires peer review and skepticism is of course perceived as a threat to those who depend on ignorance to retain power.

And thus the absurdity of a march for science. But we live in an age of alternative facts, an oxymoron so enormous it’s hard for the rational among us to put our brains around the notion. To say you believe in alternative facts essentially says that you suffer from profound cognitive dissonance. If I arise around 7 a.m. and look to the east I am likely to see the sun rise. In the world of alternative facts, it could be a sun setting, or not a sun at all. Perhaps it is the hand of God, or the hand of Manos.

So perhaps we were not marching for science, but marching for reality. As one of the more popular signs at yesterday’s rally said: “There is no Planet B”. And that pretty much says it all. We march not just for reality, but for our lives and those who come after us. To deny reality means to doom humans as a species on this planet. To deny that pumping more carbon dioxide, methane and greenhouse gases into the air and think it’s not causing the atmosphere to warm is really insane. Your local science teacher can prove it pretty simply in a test tube in the chemistry lab of your local high school. If you are going to dispute that then either you are denying reality or you are doing it to gain short-term advantage and profit for you and people like you. It doesn’t matter which it is, because it is evil.

I am convinced that we are nearing the end of this anti-science age. This cannot stand because to deny reality means death itself. If there is one phobia we all share it’s a fear of death. Which makes science deniers evil and if they actually believe what they preach likely clinically insane too. Marching for science is marching for reality. We all want to live. We will not allow those who lead us to kill us.