Google just did an end-run around your mobile phone company

Google-Hangouts-logoI’ve been a user and fan of Google Voice since it was still GrandCentral. From its humble beginnings of a “phone number for life” to ring your other phones to full desktop calling and texting, it’s been an indispensable product for my daily use. Two days ago, Google finally merged the functions of Voice into Hangouts, its messaging product. What they’ve done is something more disruptive to the mobile phone industry than anything any other company has done in recent memory.

Consider this: if you use the calling and texting features of Hangouts, all of your calls and texts are free to everyone in the US and Canada. If you do international calling, they have rates as low as a penny per minute to many major cities. Just like that, Google has completely destroyed the idea of paying for either minutes or texts. This may explain why so many carriers have been restricting data plans.

But Google isn’t just giving you a way to run out your cap. They’ve also effectively equipped every single Android phone with WiFi calling and texting without any carrier-specific modifications. If you live in an area where the service is good, you can grab T-Mobile’s $30 prepaid plan and use only Hangouts for calling and texting. Even when the 4G allotment runs out, they still give you unlimited 2G/3G data after that. Cell service has never been cheaper.

While everyone salivates over the idea of larger iPhones, a smartwatch with no well-defined purpose, and payments with your phone that don’t eliminate the pain point of carrying a card, Google has basically forced mobile operators into a situation where their cash cows, calling and texting, have been killed in a back alley. Now they’re all dumb pipe operators, just giving you a chunk of wireless data to use as you see fit. You could even use a WiFi-only device with no cell plan at all and do most of what a cell phone can where you have coverage. That level of disruption is far larger than anything coming from Cupertino’s Reality Distortion Field™.

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You have to take responsibility for your own personal security

Icloud_logoFriends, let’s have a little chat. Most of you have probably already heard about the iCloud compromise that sent hundreds of nude pictures of female celebrities racing across the Internet (including a few less-than-legal ones snapped before they turned 18). As a crime, it’s not really all that different from voyeurism and should be treated as such. Other than the trolls who think they have a right to get their jollies at anyone else’s expense, I don’t think you’ll find a lot of pushback on this position.

Where you will see a lot of pushback is when you start talking about how a user should have handled their personal security more effectively. For some reason, suggesting that a smarter, more proactive, more defensive posture in regards to your personal data would have been a good way to reduce the odds of being caught up in a compromise gets you slapped with ugly accusations of “blaming the victim”. Despite Apple also being a victim here (it was, after all, their system that got broken into), there’s no shortage of advice on telling them how they could have avoided the problem or at least discouraged all but the most determined attackers. There seems to be one heck of a double standard going on here concerning who we are and are not allowed to dole out security advice to.

All that aside, it’s quite the spectacle to see how Apple failed to protect users’ data. While they offer two-factor authentication on most other services, iCloud is conspicuously absent from that list. There’s also some solid evidence that Apple did not implement basic security features like tarpits and failed login controls (which lock accounts for a period of time after a number of unsuccessful attempts). Combined with tools that allowed brute force attempts to crack the passwords of select accounts and a mutation of a law enforcement tool that allows siphoning data from a phone, it was a matter of when, not if, these accounts would be compromised.

Even had Apple done everything right (and you can probably bet that will now change sooner rather than later), it still presents a very attractive target. Most smartphone users are not sophisticated. You grab your phone and just start using it, probably with whatever default settings it came with. If Apple, Google, Microsoft, or whoever said “hey, setup this backup”, you’d probably do it without considering what that entails. All of your pictures, videos, text messages, emails… backed up conveniently in a single location that is a tantalizing trove of personal data that someone might want to get access to. If you’re a famous person, you basically have a big, red bullseye on all of your digital assets.

If you want to take pictures of yourself naked, you’re absolutely without your right to do so. You’re absolutely a victim if someone steals and publishes them for any reason whatsoever. You do, however, need to be mindful that once you’ve created that data, you need to properly secure it to reduce your chances of it being stolen. Don’t back it up to a shared hosted solution like iCloud, DropBox, or Google Drive unless you’re encrypted the data first. Delete anything you don’t actually want to save. Employ remote wipe options for your phone (available on both Apple and Google products) so that the loss of a phone won’t expose that data. And maybe, just maybe, consider that not creating any media that you would be mortified to have out in the wild.

Every company will experience breaches now, even the ones that generally follow good security practices. Are you being smart with your data before you’re the next one in the crosshairs?

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First World Problem: MC Frontalot vs Weird Al Yankovic

Uh oh. Weird Al Yankovic has a new album leaking out and it looks like we now have competition for song about first world problems. Seriously.

Here’s MC Frontalot’s version:

And now Weird Al’s (updated with the official music video):

Same subject, very different takes.

So who did it better? Sound off in the comments.

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Switching it all: From the HTC Evo 4G LTE on Sprint to the LG Nexus 5 on T-Mobile

After many, many years of loyalty to Sprint, Shauna and I broke ranks and jumped ship to T-Mobile when our contract was up. After just a week of being on a new handset with a new carrier, I can see what a world of difference it makes to not only change the hardware, but also change the carrier supporting it. Here’s why I changed and how it has worked out so far. Continue reading

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On Excommunication

I’ve already pretty clearly drawn my line in the sand on the Ordain Women movement, so I can’t express any amount of surprise at the news that the leader of the movement may be facing an excommunication hearing. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what this means, so it’s worth providing some clarification and context.

First off, all Church discipline is meant to be private and internal. Nobody’s name is put on a list and stapled to a bulletin board. When a public or well-known figure is the subject, they may often choose to publicize the action in an attempt to garner public sympathy. This is neither effective nor encouraged. The Church does not operate by public opinion, especially in matters of Church discipline. It is a theocracy, not a democracy. It can only serve to drive a deeper wedge between the Church and the individual.

On that note, let’s be clear about what an excommunication hearing means. It is not a punishment. It is an opportunity for someone who has publicly stated a disbelief in church doctrines to determine if they are willing to do what is needed to realign themselves with church teachings. All too often, individuals who have reached this point are unlikely to realize that they have an opportunity to repent and square themselves with The Church and The Lord. If they don’t take that opportunity, they have their membership revoked to prevent them from doing further damage to their own eternal spiritual well-being. It is perfectly clear from Ms. Kelly’s response that she does not see this opportunity for what it is and will “stick to her guns” as it were.

I find the entire situation very sad and disheartening. Questions within the LDS Church are welcome, and any class I have ever been in invites theorizing and open discussion. We all have questions, and we all try to figure out the answer to them. What there is not room for, however, is attempting to redefine the doctrines of the Church without the appropriate position of authority. Engaging in highly visible and public dialog that undermines the purposes of the Church and the harmony of other members with its doctrine are right out. The privilege of revealing the Lord’s will for the Church as a whole is reserved exclusively for the prophet and president of the Church.

Unlike some others, I find no joy in people who drive themselves out of this faith. I believe it to be very spiritually damaging to both themselves and those around them. It’s a rare thing when someone in this position returns, something that is equally disheartening. Telling someone with doubts or questions to leave is, in many cases, the worse sin when you are in no position ecclesiastically to make that judgement.

I believe that this Church is true and that God’s will will be revealed on His schedule through His chosen prophet. If that will is contrary to my own or isn’t happening on my preferred timeline, I’m the one who needs to change, not the Church. This will probably involve hard things for me just as it will for many people. His servants will make mistakes along the way, but none of those mistakes will jeopardize my eternal salvation.

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Moving to the country (we’re gonna eat a lot of peaches)

We don’t have a date yet, but Jesse and I are hoping to move our family to the Cedar City area sometime this summer. Our house will be going on the market in the next couple of weeks, just as soon as we finish some projects to increase desirability and all that. Once we have an offer on our house, we’ll get more serious about looking down south, but we’re basically looking for a place with some more land where we can have some fruit trees and a giant garden and some chickens and goats possibly and live all country-like. I know you all are thinking there are places we can do that in Salt Lake County and before you excitedly start sending me links to MLS listings so we don’t move out of the area, we have some other reasons for moving:

First of all, the air quality here is terrible. We’ve known that for a while, but I recently stumbled upon this site which shows you the reported pollutants in your county. Salt Lake County is among the 10% DIRTIEST counties in the entire country. Some of the biggest pollutants showing for our area are LEAD and ARSENIC which, incidentally, my kids tested high for in a recent heavy metals testing we got back. We tested the house for lead paint of course and found none. It didn’t make sense until we saw this website report. Iron County, on the other hand, is among the CLEANEST 20% in the country. Even the highest pollutant (of only two reported pollutants), ammonia, is about HALF the amount of what is reported in Salt Lake County. We’ve had some genetic testing done and have discovered that we are genetically vulnerable to environmental toxins and want to be in a cleaner environment to give our kids the best chance of healing.

Also, my parents are planning a move to southern Utah and we could really use some family support/help with the kids. There is a lot we will miss about living here, but the idea of living in a small town really appeals to us and we feel really good about the decision. Since Jesse telecommutes full time, he’ll be keeping his same job and everything. Easy Peasy.

Stay tuned for info/invitations to our final summer backyard bbq bash.

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Lower Bells Canyon Reservoir – May 2014

This gallery contains 4 photos.

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Building a Better Social Network

Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

One of the biggest limitations of using a blog to own your own content is that you more-or-less give up controlling access to your content. Everything is out in the open by default. The workarounds are to either secure individual posts with a password or force registration on your site to secure posts. Both methods are cumbersome and awkward. Social networks have largely risen by attempting to provide a fix for that issue. Unfortunately, the trade-off is you give up ownership of your content. Social networks also tend to be very noisy since while you can control who sees your posts, you have very little input as to which posts of someone else’s you want to see beyond “all or nothing”. These issues are easily fixable.

The most widely recognized way to secure any data which should have a limited audience is with public key cryptography. Each individual would distribute a public key that can be used to encrypt a message for their eyes only. They would then use their private key to decrypt the message for their viewing. In the real world, most messages are encrypted with a symmetric key which is then put into a digital envelope with the public keys of anyone who should be able to read the message. It’s very fast and allows multiple recipients. This has been used with encrypted email for over two decades.

It wouldn’t take too much to extend this to blogs. RFC2440 and RFC4880 both specify standard ways in which public keys can be published. As part of a blog setup, the blogging engine could generate a public-private keypair, put the keypair in your browser, and publish the public key on an embedded keyserver. The SKS keyserver has the added benefit of replicating the key to other keyservers and being able to looking against them. This makes discovery of public keys, either your own or those of people you want to share with, very easy.

As a real-world example, let’s say you want to write a post about your top-secret award-winning macadamia nut clusters and only want to share it with your friends Alice and Bob. You don’t want Carol to know about it because the two of you compete for “best baked goods” at the church social every year. When you publish your post, it gets encrypted with a symmetric key. That symmetric key is then encrypted with your public key and the public keys of Alice and Bob (cue maniacal laughter from Yzma here). Carol won’t be able to see the post because her public key wasn’t used to encrypt the symmetric key. This gives you iron-clad guarantees of privacy because unless you add Carol’s public key to the list, she’ll never be able to read the post.

Blogs also make an ideal platform for solving the noise problem. Every single post gets placed into one or more categories with tags to further refine what the content is about. (Dear haters of tags: shut up. Machines are still not smart enough to determine content relevance without them. Facebook’s news feed is a prime example.) One you’ve chosen who to share your content with, those individuals can then filter based on category or tag so that they’re only seeing the content they want. Prime example: if you want me to shut up about politics, you could create a filter that anything I post tagged with politics is filtered out. It still relies on the publisher to tag their content, but it definitely provides much more control than Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Now how do you view all of this content? Just bust out your trusty RSS reader. Yes, Google Reader died, but a dozen or more companies have taken its place. I’m personally very happy with Tiny Tiny RSS. It would be a small thing to add a basic RSS reader into a blogging platform to complete upgrading blogs into a real social network.

I know you’re probably thinking this seems like an awful lot of work, but there’s a number of reasons why this makes sense. Facebook has been steadily trying to “smartly” filter your news feed, but it often ends up frustrating users beyond belief. Brands who use Facebook have seen engagement levels steadily drop as Facebook tries to shake them down for advertising dollars. RSS is guaranteed delivery to a reader; Facebook is not. Twitter has a tendency to be far too noisy and conversational. Most posts there end up being time-sensitive and fall off quickly, so it’s easy to miss things. And as much as I like Google+, it’s real power is as a way to influence the search results of other people.

You’ll notice that none of the major social networks really care about noise. For those that offer any kind of privacy or sharing options (Facebook and Google+), you’re also explicitly trusting those companies to be in on each and every posting. There have also been many high-profile examples of the privacy controls failing. Creating sharing standards which can be implemented by various platforms and placed under your total control is the only long-term solution to all problems.

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Destination 210: Focusing on health, not weight

I’ve been dropping weight at a glacial pace for the last several weeks. It’s still coming off, but maybe at a rate of a pound a week, tops. I’m still losing fat mass, but that’s also going pretty slowly. I’ve decided to re-focus on general health, specifically eliminating the need for medications for blood pressure and cholesterol. Since I’m already working on both weight and exercise, I’m going to focus on the kinds of foods I’m eating.

The biggest factors in blood pressure appear to be potassium (which I know I’m low on) and magnesium. I’m adding in at least one sweet potato a day to get the potassium covered, and I’m going to increase my intake of dark leafy greens for magnesium. I’m also going to start doing some epsom salt baths as a way to increase my magnesium intake, something we already do with our kids.

Cholesterol is a lot more complex. There’s some competing opinions on what foods help, but there’s a general consensus around nuts, fatty fish like salmon, and olive oil. In short, you need some of the “good fats” around to keep blood cholesterol in check. Oranges and other citrus also seem to top out on the list, but the whole fruit, not the juice. Other fiber-rich foods like beans also get a nod.

Measuring results with blood pressure is easy. I already have an automated cuff I can use to take measurements at least twice a day. Cholesterol is going to be more complex since it’ll require a blood test and a trip to the doctor’s office. By my next annual check-up in September, I hope to be in good enough shape to stay off the meds. Why take what you don’t need?

Really, this is the nuts-and-bolts of nutrition and taking care of yourself. I started off reducing my incoming food, then added more exercise, and now am tuning the foods I consume. This is full-scale lifestyle change, not a “diet” where you hit a goal and stop. I’ll let Alton Brown bring it home.

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Ordain Women and doing it wrong

Ordain Women ProtestLike 87% of LDS Church membership, I do not support Ordain Women. I believe both their goals and their methods to be deeply flawed and out of touch with how the Church operates. I want to lay out some reasons why I think they have set themselves up for failure.

Ordain Women strikes the immediate wrong tone in their name. It’s a demand for an outcome, not seeking an answer to a question of gender roles within church leadership and authority. Asking the question “why is the priesthood a male-only privilege” is a worthy pursuit and worth asking. I fully support seeking a response both personally and by inquiring of church leaders. I do not support asking if your only goal is to get a specific answer.

Speaking of inquiry, honest inquiry happens in a certain way. Sending private letters to church leadership seeking a response fits this mold. So does discussing it with your friends and ward neighbors. So is prayer. Note that these kinds of inquiry are all low-key and conducted in meekness. Doing it in front of a crowd of TV cameras and reporters is not seeking an honest answer; it is attempting to shame another party into caving to your demands. So is attempting to disrupt an important spiritual meeting to “be heard” when the problem not is that you aren’t heard, but that you aren’t getting what you want. It is flat-out bullying, and it has no place within this organization.

If you believe that the LDS Church is headed by God, and that God reveals his will through a chosen prophet of the church, then you can reasonably assume that should the ordination of women be of God, it will be done according to the Lord’s timeframe. Public pressure will change absolutely nothing in this regard. It is, at best, a non-productive activity with no effect on if or when a final answer will be received.

Regardless of what the answer is, Ordain Women has gone about seeking it in the worst possible way, one that alienates with confrontation and demands. It is entirely possible to get answers to tough questions without going this route. I hope Ordain Women supporters will realize this sooner rather than later. Those who do not may subsequently jeopardize their membership in the Lord’s kingdom as the so-called September Six did two decades ago.

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