Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Self Driving Cars - the missing stats

In January I described the results of my December survey on autonomous vehicles and the next day another surprising report came out on this topic. Google - a major promoter of this technology - often mentions that their cars have been involved in a tiny number of accidents and the majority were not serious or the other driver's fault.

It turns out there is a more important metric that was recently reported - how often did the test driver have to take control when the car "requested" or the driver decided on their own to do it. Companies reported many such incidents but  there is no way to know how many avoided accidents but it is safe to assume this some of them did. It is important to remember that Google's big change in this area was to switch from cars with driver controls to ones that are completely autonomous - no steering wheel in sight. They decided it would be impossible for most ordinary drivers - not the test drivers in their current vehicles - to be sufficiently alert to respond to emergencies.

We know that airplanes can and do fly themselves much of the time but there is still a pilot in the cockpit. These pilots are highly skilled and take their jobs more seriously than the average human cruising down the freeway. In spite of these unique circumstances, there is growing concern that airplanes are so automated that even a conscientious pilot may not react properly in an emergency.

As a side note - much of the research in this area is focused on tech enhancements that improve the driving experience and safety but stop far short of autonomous operation. These changes range from self-parking technology to adaptive cruise control that alters speed based on the vehicle ahead.

This Forbes report is a good read on this topic.

Two mobile photo apps that will help you get to the next level

It's been a while since I've taken a "deep dive" into photography so I think it's time. If you want to take your smartphone photography to the next step, you should get two types of apps. The first will help you take better pictures; the second will help you understand how images are captured so you can go back to step one and take better pictures.

There are many apps that will do these things. I'm going to describe Shoot and Exif Photos for the iPhone; DSLR Camera Pro and JPEG Exif Viewer for Android appear to be similar although I have not used them.

Exif Metadata shown on the left
It's easy to "point and shoot" with any camera today but if you wonder why your pictures don't look as good as you think they should, these two apps will help. The camera app in your smartphone can be replaced by many others that you download. I really like Shoot that allows you to control exposure settings like you would with "real" cameras. If the scene is too dark and you can hold the camera steady, you might slow the shutter speed below 1/15 Sec - the default value for Apple's camera app.

Second, you should install an app like Exif Photos that lets you see the metadata - the information about a photograph - after it's taken. In addition to date and location, you can then see why a picture was bad - or maybe good! If it looks grainy, you could see that the ISO was very high; if it's blurry, you might notice the shutter speed was too slow for an action shot. Remember there are really only three settings that determine image quality - shutter speed, ISO and lens opening (aperture). By using these apps, you can learn the basics of how a camera works and gradually improve your own images.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Apple's fall 2015 lineup

In its semiannual product roll out Apple made several significant announcements. Here's a short list
          • A 13" iPad
          • iPhone 6s and 6s Plus
          • A long over due version of Apple TV
          • iOS 9 with split screen
          • 3D Touch
          • A Smart back button

1 - a 13" iPad which could be a serious competitor to similarly sized laptops as well as the Microsoft Surface tablet. This last comparison is all the more interesting since a Microsoft employee came on stage at the Apple event to show how MS Office works on the iPad  - what were they thinking??

2 - iPhone 6s and 6s plus - significant improvements in several areas in spite of the "s" designation.

3 - A long over due version of Apple TV to compete with a variety of other Internet connection devices from the likes of Google, Amazon and Roku.

4 - iOS 9 - the latest version of its mobile operating system was released. Of the myriad of features included only one appeared "major" to me. Some Android devices have had a split screen for years and Apple played catch up with a great version of its own. I do a lot of writing on my iPad using a Logitech keyboard/case and now I can read or copy from a source (web page on the right) and compose a document or email (on the left). I have MS Office and Apple's office suite on my iPad so I have power tools at my fingertips wherever I am. I can also have email opened on the left and check or update my calendar on the right which makes scheduling a breeze.

5 - 3D Touch is likely to be the biggest one of all. It combines old style pressure touch with common capacitive touch.

6 - In another development that some would say is a "catchup" move iOS 9 now has a "back button" of sorts which I really like because it is tailored to the application. For example if you tap a date in an email message it will open your calendar to that date and display a "back to email" icon at the top of the calendar. The same thing happens if you click on a web page in a specific document - you will see a back to that source on the web page. I'm sure the debate will rage about whether the more generic Android version is better than the more tailored version of Apple.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ransomware: a serious and growing threat

Last month I explained how you could avoid visiting "bad" web sites. This article describes the very serious threat of Ransomware. I don't like to write "scary stories" about online dangers but this one is serious and has afflicted several acquaintances. The latest plague on the Internet Land is dubbed Ransomware because these attacks take control of your computer and demand payment. There are two different versions - one not too serious and one really, really serious.

In the first case, clicking on a link in an email message or web page takes you to a fraudulent web site. You will immediately lose control of your computer which is now controlled by code in your browser. The web page displayed will be overlaid by messages saying your computer is locked and you need to "call this number" (don't) for assistance. You cannot get rid of the message or do anything else with your computer. Even if you restart your computer or the browser, the problem often persists. There are so many browsers and operating systems versions I can't tell you exactly what to do. I will say the problem is usually not "fatal" meaning no loss of data and there are ways to deal with it that should be found by a search - obviously on another computer.

The second case is much more serious. Again, clicking on a malicious link (do you see a pattern here?) can cause a total lock up of your computer AND YOUR DATA. Your data is encrypted (unusable) and you will be instructed to pay a fee of several hundred dollars to fix the problem - which of course they may or may not do when you pay up - remember these people are criminals. Sometimes your data can be retrieved by an expert and sometimes not. What can you do?

Prevention is the only good approach because there is no certain cure; you should have a good back up system. Assume all your data will be lost sometime. This can include a backup disk strategy that is well thought out - unconnected backup disks (otherwise they might also be corrupted), disk rotation including off-site copy, etc. Increasingly we are turning to cloud storage to put our information in an entirely different location. Dozens of these service exist - Dropbox, Box, Sugar sync, MS iDrive, Google drive, Apple iCloud, etc.

Of course the best strategy is to use more than one - combine local storage with a remote service. I was a cautious at first but my preference now is to use cloud storage - iCloud and Dropbox - for my "originals" and make copies on to my local hard drives from time to time. Having the originals stored in the cloud makes them accessible from any device anywhere. I use the word "originals" advisedly since the original meaning of original no longer applies. My originals are the cloud based working copies - which are occasionally backed up locally.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Recognizing suspicious websites

You would certainly be cautious when opening your door to let someone into your house. You should be just as careful when opening your computer to someone you don't know. A single mouse click can let a total stranger take control of your computer and all the information in it. We often hear you should only click on links sent to you by people you know. The bizarre assumption here is that you don't know how to spot bad web sites but all of your friends do - so apparently ALL of your friends are smarter than you. I doubt that.

The important thing to remember is that a web site is identified by two different character strings. The first one is the one you see displayed as a "link". It might be something like "click here" or www.IBM.com. It could also be a picture. The words are usually underlined and often a different color. The second string is the real "website address". It is always a string of characters such as www.com.com/abcde/mnop.html and it is always hidden from view. This is the one that matters. The one you can see may have no real meaning at all and if someone were trying to get you to go to the Toyota web site, they could show www.Honda.com but connect it to the address www.Toyota.com.

More likely scammers would link www.Honda.com to a fraudulent web site. That's how it works - what you see is not what you get. If you are not certain a website link is legitimate you need to view the actual (hidden) website address. How you do this varies from device to device but you can usually right click or copy the displayed link and paste it into the address/search field of your browser. The supposed www.IBM.com link might look more like "www.companyyouveneverheardof.ch - a company you've never heard of with a website registered in China (ch). Be very suspicious when there are two unrecognized letters following the first period. These are country codes - MX Mexico, RU Russia, etc.

NEXT MONTH I'll explain the two versions of Ransomeware - and what you can do about them

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

These are a few of my favorite things (apps - that is)

Since apps are generally inexpensive and easy to try out I'm just going to make a list of my favorites as a starting point. You can check them out and judge pretty quickly whether or not you want to try them. PS Photoshop is the most expensive ($10) but it's worth it if you want to do serious photo editing.

I have only used these apps on the iPhone and iPad. I can't be sure they are available on Android or Windows but many probably are. (Note: I'm not a big time gamer - not even a small time gamer!)

Storm, WunderStation, Work Time HD
ImageChef+, Panorama(DMD), Photo Delight, PS Touch (Photoshop lite), FrameMagic, SnapStill
Keynote (presentations), Pages (word processing), EasyCalendar, Microsoft OneNote, Calculator(MyScript), Dropbox
IMDb (movie database), TV Guide, Pandora

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Because we can - the curse of modern software - Pt 2

(Part 1 was published in February - read it here)
I was thrilled recently when I discovered our new microwave had one hundred "power levels" - exactly ten times as many as its predecessor - which cooked quite well until it quit cooking. Then I discovered a scary fact: that amount of power was what you would expect from the radiation leak of a medium sized nuclear reactor - a scary thought indeed. Upon further research I discovered that power level 100 (new) is exactly the same as power level 10 (old). Just one of many problems we can blame on Ada Lovelace  (1815-1852) better known as "the first programmer" - yes the first programmer was a woman!

A few decades back when you designed something - a car or a toaster for example - every feature you added required metal or plastic pieces and usually some wiring. read the rest of the story here.
Once the product was created, modifying it was very difficult and usually accomplished by the kid next door souping up a hot rod in a month's long undertaking. For better, but often for worse, things are different today due to the curse of software.

Now a new feature or a modification - like increasing the power levels on a microwave - can be done by assembling a series of ones and zeros (called programming) and these can be injected into your stereo or carburetor with the click of an "upgrade now" button. This has lead to the "Because We Can" syndrome. Programmers are known for their dedication to their task, creativity and long hours. And of course the marketing department adds to the problem by dreaming up new "features" in day long brain storming sessions. These powerful forces combine to crank out millions of zeros and ones (called features) every month.

Is it any wonder most of us can't figure out most things we own that run on electricity. It started with our inability to program a VCR so we couldn't even use it to tell time let alone schedule recordings.
I've previously used the example of "feature bloat" in Microsoft Word which grew by their own admission from 150 to 1,500 commands. Why? Two reasons. Something had to change to sell upgrades over the years and software is incredibly easy to modify.

Now - years after we gave up trying to program our VCRs - we face the challenge of programming our microwaves, refrigerators, smoke detectors, auto dashboards and thermostats and - even more exciting - we will be able to do it from any place in the world. Due to this great advance in technology - willy nilly adding more digits - you can now know precisely to the one hundredth of an ounce how much weight you gained over the holidays!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Help may not be on the way

Raise your hand if you've ever ask a nephew, neighbor or colleague for help with your computer - maybe trying to change a page margin or turn off the bold setting in MS Word. That's what I thought, put your hands down. There are really a small number of "experts" like your nephew - maybe 5% of users. Everyone else just tries to get by and learn as little about technology as possible - "I don't want to study it, I just want it to work" you say - and life goes on. Now, imagine the future Internet of Things where "they" want to connect everything you own to the Internet.

"Everything" includes your washing machine, your thermostat, your blood pressure cuff, your garage door opener and your mother's heart monitor. Now imagine what happens if you really don't understand how it all works. It's one thing to have a not so pretty Word document but what if you decide when you wake up that you don't want the coffee maker to start right away and turn it off with your everpresent smartphone - but accidentally disable grannie's pacemaker. Those darned icons look a lot alike without your glasses. The bigger point is that if you think using a handful of PC programs is hard, what will it be like when dozens of other "things with computers" are "upgraded" with a host of features and commands - just like MS Office. "I need to call Philbert 'cause I can't figure out how to make toast"! I'll continue this topic next month with "Because we can - the curse of modern software".

The Wayback machine

You might think that information on the web stays on the web - but sadly it does not. Quite often embarrassing or incriminating pages just disappear as fast as you can say "delete". Since web resources are routinely quoted for much of our work, what happens when those links are no longer available. Whether it's a class report, a research study or a legal document, the veracity of our work often depends on the sources. This New Yorker report goes into great detail on this very critical topic and the Wayback web archive that hopes to solve the problem.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The future of tablets

It's likely tablets will continue to grow in power, storage and size. If they hope to replace laptops, they will need to be bigger and rumors abound that Apple will introduce a 12 inch model this year. This could be related to the recent agreement between Apple and IBM which is beginning to bear fruit - including their first roll out of business apps.
Speaking of replacing laptops, a good keyboard is a must companion for your tablet and the latest models by Logitech are astounding. I do most of my typing - including this newsletter - on the one shown above at a coffee shop recently. If you want to use a tablet as a productivity tool, you really should get a keyboard.