Monday, June 15, 2015

Peaches and Scotch

LastPass was just Hacked, Here's Why I'm Still Using Them

A coworker emailed me that my favorite password manager service, LastPass, was just hacked.  I read through the alert and followed the instructions to change my master password.  At first blush, this is bad news.  A company whose primary job is to protect access to every account I have was hacked.   Even if they _say_ nothing was stolen: Oh crap.

But, after a a little reflection, I realized this is still better than no password manager or even rolling my own.   First, I do take them at their word that no credentials are ever stored on their servers unencrypted, and that encryption used is secure.  The only way that somebody can steal my passwords would be to download my encrypted passwords and know my master password.  If you want my bank login so bad that you'd hack LastPass and then torture me to give up the master password, you must be looking at different bank statements than me.  

More importantly, though, LastPass is monitoring proactively and doing the right thing when they detect anomalies.  That to me is way more than any paper or home-rolled service can provide.  If you are not using a password manager, you are likely either writing them down on paper or using the same ones everywhere.  The latter is instant hacksville. The former is as secure as what you are writing them on.  Do you have staff monitoring the post-it notes you write your passwords on?  Do they notify you when something remotely suspicious happens related to your passwords?

No, I still enjoy the bliss of generating random passwords that even I don't know, and letting LastPass ensure they are relatively safe.

That said, there are some things LastPass could do better:  Notification for me came through reading a blog post three days after the hack.  I would have liked earlier notification and to have had it in the LastPass app as well as email.

So, if you are not using LastPass (or _some_ password manager), don't be scared off by recent events. If you are, change your passwords and move on.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

El Cheapo MP3 Players Have Come a Long Way

We recently got one of these Tecsun MP3 players for our 3 year old's birthday. Loaded up with all of her favorite songs, she totes it around all day singing along.  Unlike most MP3 players, this has a speaker built in.  The sound quality is excellent for what it is, the retro design is fun, and most of all she loves it! It doesn't display song names, so it's not what you would want for a personal player (besides, isn't that just our phones by now?). But for a fun beach or poolside player, or for your favorite music-loving munchkin, it's hard to beat an el-cheapo MP3 player.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What If Is Out! What If Is Out!

Comic genius Randall Monroe has published a new book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. With Monroe's trademark simple comic style and witty but well researched answers, "What If" is sure to be an entertaining read.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them

The following is adapted from by book Trello Dojo, all about getting the most out of the awesome organize-anything service Trello.

I obviously am a fan of Trello, and can't imagine anybody finding it difficult to use or confusing. However, I do occasionally run across people who, for various reasons are unwilling to give Trello a try or spend a few minutes with it and give up. I've had a few readers share similar stories- they personally thought Trello was the bee's knees, but their customer wouldn't be bothered.

My first solution, obviously is to tell them about this book. But for work projects, I do have another solution. Instead of asking the other party to participate in the board directly, simply set up a weekly status call using Join.Me. This simple app requires no download or login for the other party- they simply go to the website and see your screen.  I've found a short (15-30 minute) weekly call to go over "what's happened, what's happening next, and what's being held up" is a terrific practice for managing projects.

While on the call, pull up your project board, and discuss the project (NOT the board). Be sure it's updated, add and move cards as needed, but don't mention Trello at all unless they ask. Best case your reluctant Trello-er will love what they see and will want to join in, at which point you can simply invite them to the board. Worst case, they still don't care about Trello, but you're organized and gain their confidence.

While it may not work in every situation, this can be a great way to wean projects into Trello without hitting people over the head with it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

In Which a 99$ Gadget Gives Me the House from the Future

I sat on the worn 70s vintage red striped couch, tired from a day of swimming, muching popcorn and watching The Jetsons. To a young tinkerer (and admittedly sometimes lazy individual), the draw of our bubble-housed, flying-car, robot-vacuuming future was inescapable. I had no doubt that one day my bed would tump me out on to the morning conveyor belt to an automatic shower and insta-breakfast while my robotic maid straightened my room. (To a twelve-year old boy, that last one was a biggie). A few decades later, I still have to make my own bed and I don't fly to work, but my home is getting smarter bit by bit, thanks in no small part to a little white box tucked away in a bookshelf cabinet.

The box, a $99 gadget from SmartThings called the SmartThings Hub, was set up in under 10 minutes, and connects all sorts of home automation devices to a service that lets me control and monitor them from anywhere using my phone or tablet. They offer tons of switches, dimmers, and sensors on their site. Each has a video showing exactly how to set them up- typically a simple one-minute process. By answering a few questions in the app, I can then add smarts to my home to automatically turn things on and off, alert me to various conditions, and take action for me.

You may be thinking you don't have a need for this, but you may be surprised. Here are some of the conveniences this gadget has brought:

  • I can control my lights (and soon, garage door) from my phone, from anywhere. Did I forget to close the garage? My house notifies me and one tap later I close it while I'm out fishing.
  • My gun case is locked and up high, but I also have a motion sensor inside. SmartThings alerts me whenever the gun case moves. It could very well save a life.
  • Whenever my wife and I both leave the house, my house knows and turns off lights. If there's motion while we're away, it notifies us. When we come back, it can turn on lights as well.
  • When there's no longer any motion in the living room, it turns on the bedroom fans and turns off any lights that were left on.
  • I'm brewing beer, and SmartThings logs the temperature at the fermenter to ensure a consistent temperature.

Next on my list of things to automate are several more lights, locks, garage door, and watering. What impresses me the most with SmartThings is that after the novelty of controlling lights from your phone wears off, it's still bringing intelligence and value to our home.

If this sounds a little nerdy - well, it is. But, I also think it's the "next big thing" in technology. Think smartphones before everybody had them. Already, the media hype engine is revving up around the "Internet of Things" and various big-name players are jumping into the market. What sets SmartThings apart, though, is that they play well with lots of different systems and do not require a monthly fee. I can pick up a ZWave switch at Lowes, or a Phillips Hue bulb and the system sees it just fine. Similar systems I've tested either require a monthly fee, or are not as polished.

Disclaimer: I'm using a referral link to SmartThings, but it's a good deal. You get 10% as a new customer, and I get $10 to automate my next thing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Those click-bait articles in your feed? They started in 1926.

At first it was a trickle.  "Lose weight with this one crazy trick" appeared every so often.  Maybe a "Three tips for saving money on your XYZ" here and there.  But now?  Now it's everywhere.  Now, it seems, everywhere you turn you "won't believe what happened next" or find something that "will blow your mind." A glance at my CNN newsfeed shows that the infection has spread to mainstream news as well. Breaking just today: "Humpback Whales did THIS to Boaters".

Shoot, I'm guilty of it myself.  Like it or not, in the increasingly noisy world of the internet, titles like this stand out.  Websites routinely test and hone in on the titles that grab the most attention.  Increasingly powerful analytic tools have made it possible to drill into exactly which titles generate the most traffic and revenue.

What you may not know, however, is that this technique is nothing new.  The man credited with first applying the formula to marketing died at the age of 90 - in 1990.  The ad he created carried the headline "They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano.  But When I Started to Play..."  Seriously, what cold-hearted soul could read that and not want to immediately buy piano lessons?

I'm no marketing expert, but I personally think this trend is about to fizzle.  Like anything, once it reaches a certain volume, people start to tune out.

You'll never believe what trend will be next.