Where or What is “The Cloud”?

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We hear a lot about “The Cloud” or “Cloud Computing” these days, but never a good explanation of what it is or why we should care.

The easiest way to explain “The Cloud” is that it represents any data that you store that is not on your computer, or any program that you run that is not located on your computer.  So, instead of purchasing a new program, for example, you buy access to the program from a company that lets you use it over the Internet.    If you bank online, you are banking “in the cloud” because you are using a product that is not located on your own computer to do your transactions.   Or if you store and edit your photos, you are “in the cloud.”

The benefit of cloud computing is twofold.  First, you as a user do not need to know anything about the technology, you can just use the product.  Users do not need to know where things are stored, only that they can get access to them when they need them.  It reduces the “technology” background and aptitude ones needs to use an application.  Second, as a user, you do not need to worry about the administrative aspects of the application.  If a program bug is fixed, you do not need to worry about running update patches because that is done for you.  If a new version of the software is available, you do not need about purchasing that new version, because access to it is done for you.  And, you do not need to ensure your data and programs are backed up, because that is done automatically by the service.  Patches, updates, storage, processing changes are all done for you in the cloud.

You may already be using applications in the cloud if you get your email from a service such as Google.  In fact, Google provides access to a number of productivity packages, including a word processor and spreadsheet application that are run in the cloud, and thus need very little technical expertise to run.

There are some downsides to using applications in the cloud as well.  First, if the company goes away, or elects to eliminate a product from their portfolio, you have no old version to fall back on.   Second, if your provider’s site is hacked, you run the risk of having your programs not available for some period of time.  Or, hackers could get access to your strategic data.

Cloud providers tell you not to worry because these events will not happen.  If it is a reputable and profitable organization, it is unlikely the applications will cease to work.  Further, most cloud providers tell you that their security is far superior to that of its clients.  While that may be true, they also attract more hackers to their site.  It is not clear at this time where those tradeoffs lie.

So, is cloud computing good or bad?  That depends.  As a place to back up your data, the cloud is a great location (because someone will back up what you are backing up).  If the applications work the way you want them to work, and there is no delay in using the applications, they there is no reason not to use them.   If you do not want to hassle with getting and installing the software, patching it, and keeping it up to date, then the cloud is a way to achieve your goal.  If you want to share what you are doing with others who are in remote locations, then working in the cloud is good for you.  Although most cloud services are inexpensive or free to the individual user at this time, there is no reason to believe it will continue to be true in the future.  When it is not, good old fashioned cost/benefit analyses that take into consideration the costs of programs vs. services should be completed to decide which is best for you.

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Backup Early … Backup Often!

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The best advice I can give anyone using a computer is that you should back up your computer often, especially  if you are storing anything important on it.  If you think someone else is backing it up, you may be wrong — and you might not find out until it is too late.  I remembered that lesson harshly today.

I also have a “smart phone” (one which can get email as well as do a number of other functions).  This phone synchronizes with my office email, contacts and calendar.  In an ideal world, this means that I always have all of my information available wherever I am.  Normally it works beautifully.  I can make changes in my calendar on my phone, and it automatically appears on my computer.  Similarly, I can add a contact on my computer, and it adds it to my phone automatically.   Theoretically, these are all backed up at work AND by my phone provider.  Imagine my surprise this morning when I tried to find a contact and learned that they were all gone! I checked my calendar on my computer and it appeared as though all of my appointments were there, but the color coding of entries (which helps me remember why I am at a meeting) was all gone.  Since I depend on my email, calendar and contact list, this information knocked the wind from my sails.  But, I knew I had backups.  So, I called the phone provider, and we could not get the backups working.  I called my work and they have provided my backups, except that there are two sets of contacts and two calendars and my phone is still synching with the blank ones.  In other words, as long as I am tied to my computer I am fine, but if I must get away from it, I have virtually no information.

I am sure that ultimately this will all be fixed and I will be fine.  As an IT professional, I had thoughts of how else I should have backed up the information.  Someone suggested printing it all out.  However, I have over 1,000 contacts, and that seemed like an excessive amount of work — even without considering the calendar!  It turns out that if you are using Microsoft’s outlook, there is a handy little feature that allows you to export your contacts to an excel spreadsheet (I didn’t look, but it probably also allows you to import from that spreadsheet too).  Of course, I immediately did that so I would be sure to have something left if the problem got worse.

This puts me in a better position, but I should not be done there.  After I get the spreadsheet, I need to back up my hard drive.  That way if my computer also crashes (it was a very bad day), I still have a copy of my phone directory.

Let’s think about you now.  While it would be quite aggravating to have to re-create my calendar and my contacts, it could be done (further, it would probably encourage me to clean out some old information that I no longer need!).  But, what if that information included photos of a grandchild, or a recording of voices of a relative who has passed on, or scans of handwritten poetry from your great grandmother?  Those things cannot be recreated no matter how hard you try.  If you do not have them backed up, you have simply lost them.

Computers are terrific tools.  But, like any tool, they need to be maintained properly.  Furthermore, like any tool, they can break.  Problems with viruses or worms, power spikes, sudden violence, and maybe even software that is poorly written can cause your computer to break.  It is frustrating enough when the tool breaks.  Don’t make it devastating by losing something important.

There are multiple ways to back up your computer.  You can, of course, copy important files onto CDs or DVDs and keep those in a safe place.  That can be a lot of work, and CDs have a tendency to get lost.  Another solution is to purchase an external hard drive and copy your documents to the hard drive regularly.  As long as you do it regularly, that approach will work.

Other people prefer to keep either their original work or a copy of their work “in the cloud.”  Many sites that print photos or allow you to search genealogy also allow you to store your information there.  The advantage of those sites is that your information is backed up and maintained without your intervention.  Some people like to have their information stored at a place they can find it, like dropbox.com.  Again, the site has the advantage of being backed up.  However, a generic site like dropbox will allow you to keep all of your copies in one place.  Whether you should back up your information to an external drive or to the cloud depends on how much control and activity you want to have in the process.

Just be sure you back up those data.  Paraphrasing my hometown’s attitude toward voting, “Back up EARLY, Back up OFTEN!”

CAPTCHA’s and RECAPTCHA’s

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CAPTCHA’s, reCAPTCHA’s and their cousins have become common  anywhere you respond to something on a website.  You may not know the name, but you probably have seen something that looks like the image below (taken from the CAPTCHA site).

A CAPTCHA is a computer generated distortion of words (such as you see above) that allows the computer to ensure that the responder is actually a person.  Humans clearly can understand the two words above are “overlooks” and “inquiry,” but a computer that is trying to do word recognition would have trouble identifying the words because they are distorted both by the waves and background images.  (All CAPTCHA’s have an audio option for those who are visually impaired.)

According to the official website,

The term CAPTCHA (for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) was coined in 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas Hopper and John Langford of Carnegie Mellon University.

Over 200 million CAPTCHA’s are solved every day.  You tend to see the CAPTCHA’s on sites where you are registering (such as creating an email account) or voting  (such as answering a poll).  The goal is to prevent users from writing a program that could do actions automatically and thus overwhelm the system or bias the results.  The CAPTCHA is used, for example, on sites that provide free email addresses to ensure that it was actually a human applying for that email address.  Many people with questionable purposes were applying for those accounts, and using them to send spam or break into applications.  While it is still possible to open an email account for those purposes, the existence of the CAPTCHA requires a person to be involved, and thus slows down the bad guys.

The CAPTCHA’s are also used for any kind of online poll.  So, for example, suppose your municipality wants to vote on the best location for a festival.  In order to avoid computer-generated voting (to bias the results), they might include a CAPTCHA to be sure there is a person casting the vote.    Sometimes blog sites include a CAPTCHA to ensure the comments on posts are not just spam.

The CAPTCHA is an interesting use of the technology, but the reCAPTCHA does more.  Early on we saw only one word used in a CAPTCHA, but usually you now see two as in the image above.  When there are two words involved, it is called a reCAPTCHA.  These puzzles not only prevent bots and spams from causing problems, they help to digitize books, newspapers and old time radio shows.

Think about how long it would take to type in the content of an old book.  Even if you use scanning software and text recognition software, it will take a long time because the original is old, yellowed, perhaps torn and for other reasons hard to read;  the results of the scan and text recognition are not very reliable.  An example of a scanned bit of text (taken from the CAPTCHA site) is shown below.  You can see the errors in the interpretation.

The results of a scan of an old text

It would be useful to find a group of people who would help identify and correct mistakes from the scanning of the old documents.  As stated before, there are over 200 million CAPTCHA’s solved each day, each taking about 10 seconds to do.  If you could get the people using the websites to check the words, that would give you over 150,000 hours of work each day — FREE!

But, you ask, how do you know if the person is entering the data correctly?  The reCAPTCHA provides two words, one you know and one which is taken from one of these old books or magazines.  When the person enters the two words, the software checks the first word (the one that is known) and if that word correctly matches, then we can assume the second word is correct too.  If we have multiple people who receive the second word (the one from the old document), and they all agree on the word, we have more confidence that we have gotten the correct word.

So, every time you enter a reCAPTCHA, you are not only preventing SPAM, but also helping to digitalize an old document!  The CAPTCHA folks have other projects that we will address at another time.

Understanding Facebook “likes”

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The other day I overheard two women talking about Facebook and using the term “likes.”  The first woman was talking about some videos she loved that came to her Facebook page each day.  She noted that she was not sure why they came to her page each day, but she was glad because she enjoyed watching them.  The second woman asked her if she had liked them?  The first responded that yes, that was what she was saying, that she liked the videos.  No, the second responded, did you “like” them?  It took a while, but finally the second was able to communicate her question so that the first understood her.

I was reminded of the  Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First?”  where they go on about which baseball players are playing what bases.  The trouble comes, of course, because the players’ names are Who, Which,  I Don’t Know, Why, Because, Tomorrow, Today, and I Don’t Give a Darn.

Clearly Facebook having a function, “like,” to which its users refer as “likes” can provide the same confusion, especially for relatively new users.  There are three basic ways in which Facebook uses “like.”  The first is a way of expressing an opinion about one of your friend’s posts.  If you friend updates his or her status,  posts a photo, or shares an article, you can click “like” to indicate that you enjoy or approve of the item.  This message is then shared with the friend who posted.  Some people find this option difficult to interpret because there is not a comparable “dislike” option.  So, people “like” posts even when they are negative or sad to express empathy with the other individual.

A second way in which Facebook uses “like” is with Pages.  A Page in Facebookland is an entry about an organization or group for its fans.  There are fan pages for entertainers, restaurants, not for profit and for profit stores, universities and almost anything else you can imagine.  At the top of each page is a “like” button.  If you click the button, Facebook registers you as one of the fans of the organization.  You will get messages that are posted on that organization’s page.  In addition, that organization can send you messages and track your characteristics.

The third way in which Facebook uses “likes” is outside of Facebook on webpages.  These appear often on news or magazine sites next to a particular story.  When a person “likes” the article, a message appears in the person’s news feed for his or her friends to see, thereby sharing that story.  In some cases it sets the “like” for the fan page as well, and then the messages from the organization appear in the person’s news feed.  I suspect this was the kind of liking the woman in the story above did.   I know that she is glad she “liked” that site because she likes its daily videos.

Scams that Cost you Money

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This must be the time of year for scams on Facebook and email.  This morning I opened my email and saw the following from a friend:

I hope you read my email on time, I have been robbed and left stranded in Edinburgh, Scotland where I made a short trip to days back.
I lost my bag and all personal effects in it(passport, Credit Cards etc).
The embassy here issued me a temporary ID card and will allow me fly home without a Passport, but I will have to settle my bills myself.
I’ve also made contact with my bank but it will take me days to retrieve my credit cards or access  money in my account from here.
Can you please lend me some money to  pay my bills and book a ticket back home?
Kindly let me know. I will check my email often to read from you

Richard

It sounds like a horrible situation, doesn’t it?  And it is your friend, you should help.  This message may come to you via email or Facebook, but it is a scam!  In this case, someone has broken into my friend’s email address and sent the messages.  He hopes to find a few people who will help their friend by sending money to them.  The money, of course, goes to the thief, not to the friend.  Generally the thief has come and gone before anyone knows to start tracking him and he gets away scott free!

This message is tugging on those heart strings.  It is particularly common for messages like this to be sent to seniors, by people posing as their grandchildren!

How do you know it is a hoax?  Generally these thieves have just enough information about the individual to make the request sound like it is coming from a relative or friend.  So, before you send money,  call the person or a close relative of the person (for example, your child when inquiring about a grandchild), and see if he is even in a foreign country.  If that is not possible, ask the person from whom you received the email or Facebook post some question the answer to which is only known by the real person.  In other words, verify the story before you spend the money!

If it is not your friend or relative, then try to contact them to tell them their account has been compromised — he may not even know it!

How to examine Scams and Spams

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My post yesterday talked about scams that propagated by money or control or ignorance.  Today I received a message on Facebook that is ever as much a scam, but it is the kind that pulls on your heart strings instead of your purse strings.   The message came in as

URGENT ……… To all the parents whose children — have a profile on facebook! There is a man who tries to make contact with the children to talk about sex. His name is Thierry Mairot. please, copy and paste on your wall! Thank you for protecting your children! PLEASE share as an emergency. He poses as Justin Bieber! His profile appears as Justin Bieber! PLEASE SHARE (( shared from a friend of mine – pass it along ))…..

We all want to protect our children and grandchildren from people like this, and so we pass this along to warn our friends.   Instead, I first checked Snopes.com.  I went to the site and typed in “Thierry Mairot” into their search box at the top right corner of the page.  I found an entry that had a very similar message to the one above.   Let’s look at what Snopes provides you.

  • At the top of the entry, Snopes provides a rating of the veracity of the message.  A red dot (such as the one at the top of the page about Mairot) means the rumor has been shown to be false.  If the dot were green it would mean the rumor has been shown to be true whereas a yellow dot means that the rumor is unconfirmed and a white dot means the rumor cannot be classified.  Of course if there are multiple parts to the rumor, it might get both red and green dots meaning that there are some parts that are true and others that are false.
  • The next information is an example of the message that has been investigated.  You will note that the one on Snopes does not mention Justin Bieber, but is, in essence the same message.
  • Associated with that example is a date when it was seen.  Note in this case, Snopes first started investigating the rumor in September 2010!
  • After that summary information, Snopes will provide a discussion of the origin of the rumor (to the best of their ability to track it down), and the variations it has taken over time as well as related rumors (in this case, the related rumors include “social deviants” posts).
  • Finally Snopes provides the last date the entry was updated.  In this case it was last updated in October 2010, meaning they have found no new information about the rumor since that time.

Checking Snopes.com allows you to dismiss the rumor without further action.  So, you will not generate lots of spam by forwarding it onto your friends and relatives.  You also will not annoy your children and grandchildren on a non-issue, and hence are more likely to keep those channels of communication open for when there is really a problem.

Google Searches and your Privacy

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Google has been a most wonderful search engine since its inception. Most of us do not think twice about using it to find information on the Internet. But, have you thought about how it has affected your privacy? Type in your name to Google and see what it finds about you. After entering “Vicki Sauter,” I found over six million items. I doubt they are all about me, but many of them are and that is what I would expect since I have published extensively, have a large internet presence and am involved with a number of not-for-profit organizations. (The number gets smaller very quickly if you limit it further — If you search instead on “Vicki L. Sauter” you get “only” about 90,000 items, and if you search for “Vicki L. Sauter” + Internet, you get about 6,000 items.) My point is not to brag about how many times it found a reference to me, but rather to make you think about how much information can be gathered about you simply by typing your name into Google. Your professional and personal accomplishments, and even interests may be available for everyone to see.

If the person searching is clever, he might be able to find out even more information about you. Did you know that someone can put your phone number into Google and get a reverse lookup?  Many sites will be found, but most of them will point back to your name, address and city/state information.   If your phone number falls within a range used by a company, that information might be located as well.

There are other services available as well.  If you put a phone number into the white pages, not only will it list your address, but it will provide a map to your home. In addition, it will provide a range estimate for your age and a list of other people who also live at that address (whether or not their information is included in a directory listing).

Did you know that if you use Google Maps and type in your address that it is likely to bring up a photo of your home? In fact, it is likely that a user could not only see your home, but navigate up and down the block to look at how your home fits in with others in the neighborhood.

There are many more ways someone can find information about you via the internet. As an example, let me share an experience I had about several years ago. For reasons that are not important to this story, the people from my elementary school and high school did not keep in touch over the last forty years. Neither did they, their parents or siblings live in the old neighborhood. One day out of the blue, I received an email from a name that I did not recognize that had the name of my elementary school as a subject line. I opened it and realized it was from an old friend who had changed her name when she married. We exchanged some emails and decided to start looking for others in the class. Within a few years, we had located about two-thirds of the people in the class. People had moved, some as far away as England and Greece, changed their names, and some even had died. Yet, with a certain tenacity, we found them. What is nice is that some group of us get together annually for a reunion, and most of us keep in touch via email or Facebook. We clearly could not have had that level of success without the Internet.

While that is a positive story, I want to remind you that people who have less positive motives can also use these tools. That is why it is so important to be careful about what information you share and whose email you answer.

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