Unlocking Liberty

This week a US judge asked Apple Inc. to help them unlock the iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooters. The CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, has resisted this order citing risk to his customers and implications that extend past the case itself. Since then, notable people have stood up in defense of each side. On the one hand some say that not unlocking the phone is helping terrorists. The other side says that this sets a dangerous precedent, and that the FBI is just using one case to open the door for unlocking any device they want in the future. I don’t claim to be an expert on security, government, or terrorism. However, there are a few things I’d like ‘we the people’ to keep in mind as this discussion unfolds.

  1. The government does not have a good track record of using their abilities in a limited scope. Recall if you will the Patriot Act. Many people were okay with it initially because of its promise to aide in stopping the terrorist threat. However, years later we know that it’s been used to access innocent citizens’ information on disturbing levels and has been active past the time it was intended for. I want to hope that our government would not use device access methods maliciously, but I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to rule out the possibility.
  2. It’s unnecessary to force Apple’s hand. If any organization in the world should be able to crack an iPhone it’s the FBI. They have some of the best tech minds in the country, one of the most technically developed countries in the world, at their disposal. Aside from that, there are independent hackers available for hire. John McAfee , creator of McAfee antivirus, recently volunteered to do this for free. That would allow us to access the data without setting a legal precedent that allows the government to force companies into unlocking customers’ devices.
  3. We’re slipping into a dangerous mindset where anything is acceptable if there is a remote possibility of catching terrorists. Not that we shouldn’t be vigilant about tracking terrorists and securing the country, but at what point are we doing ourselves more harm than good? If we continue down the trail of sacrificing liberty for security then we’ve already accomplished the terrorists’ goals for them. They will have defeated the American spirit and caused us to relinquish ourselves to servitude. Not servitude to an oppressive regime they placed on us, but one we created ourselves, driven by our fear of them. Also, on a more conspiratorial note, we can’t assume that ill-intentioned individuals or organizations wouldn’t use that fear as a carrot to drive us farther and farther down a path that releases liberty and gives them power. The use of terrorism seems increasingly like the wars of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Is it Eurasia or Eastasia that we’re fighting now? I can never keep track.

In summary, there will be innumerable situations through the years where the question of security vs liberty will be raised. Don’t be quick to assume that everything marketed as anti-terrorism is pro-American, and when in doubt err on the side of liberty.

The Price of Free

When looking at which tech toys to use it’s easy to differentiate by the upfront cost. An iPad, for example, can be twice the price of some of its competitors. This can certainly be prohibitive, no matter the quality of the device. I very much enjoy my Macbook Pro, but I would not be using one if work had not provided it for me. For many people it’s just not feasible to pay such a large cash amount upfront, and understandably so.

But is the monetary cost of the device itself the only consideration? Maybe we should be asking how or why other companies offer theirs for less. For the purpose of this article I’m going to pick on Google simply because they are the largest company utilizing a competing model. They are certainly not the only ones but have arguably been the most successful at it. The model I’m speaking of is that of advertising. Every time you go to their website Google displays tiny advertisements that other companies have paid large amounts of money to have placed there. But we all know that the most effective advertising is targeted advertising, getting exactly the right ad to exactly the right person. This is where the rest of Google’s services come in. By providing a litany of well-built, completely free services Google invites thousands of users to connect to their systems. While doing this, they gain mountains of data about you, your interests, your social circle, and their interests. This allows them to create increasingly personalized advertisements for you and cash in with companies who want you to see those advertisements.

Bringing it back to the devices, when you purchase an Android tablet or phone the cash price is usually going to be lower up front. However, it is geared toward Google services (rightly so). Most people will use the built-in apps provided by Google and, in doing so, send large amounts of data about themselves to Google over time. This can be in the form of email (Gmail), IM’s (Hangouts), Movies/Music/TV (Play Store), location data (Google Maps), etc. It’s likely few if any of us realize the extent of the data that we send them. It’s all built on the foundation of advertising so it all works toward fueling that end. On the flip side, companies like Apple have a more traditional business model. You pay a price for a product. Yes the monetary cost is higher, but it’s the entire cost up front. They do utilize cloud services and have you input your data to use various features. But the data is collected in order to allow you to use those services, not to assist advertisers.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t like Google is hiding anything. They offer a free service or low-cost device and in return they get to use your data to target ads towards you. It’s all laid out from the start in their user agreements. The problem is that none of us really read those things. We just click through the agreement in a rush to see what cool features are in store for us. So, the takeaway here is just to be mindful. Nothing in this world is free, especially when it is made by a for-profit company. If you have privacy concerns then take a step back and evaluate what information you’re giving over for the services you use. If you’re happy with the return you get from those services and the more relevant advertisements that result from your data being used, then please continue to happily use their services and products. Just never assume that the only cost of your device was the cash value.

Disclaimer: This post was written using Google Chrome on an Apple Macbook Pro.

Web Hosting Tools

Over the last year or so I’ve been getting more into web hosting for myself and friends. Below are the solutions I’ve chosen to use and I would recommend them to anyone.

  • Name.com: This is the site I’m using both to register my domain and to host the site. They are easy to use, affordable, and have great tools along with instruction on how to use them.
  • WordPress: If you’re like me, you enjoy using the web and would like to harness the power of today’s innovations but don’t have the programming skills (or time) to write it from scratch. Enter WordPress. Sign up for a hosting solution (such as Name.com mentioned above), install WordPress, and your site is ready to go. From there it only requires simple gui-based configuration to customize your site and start taking advantage of the online world. Plus, there are tons of free WordPress plugins that will enhance the capabilities of your site for free.
  • MailChimp: If you’re in need of a newsletter signup utility look no further. MailChimp will easily integrate with WordPress to have you signing up subscribers in no time.

Windows 8 Evaluation

My opinion of Windows 8 after using it for a bit:
  1. I think it will work well for personal machines. I’m going back to Windows 7 on my work laptop. In our case the apps we use just aren’t compatible enough with it yet and the interface doesn’t yield itself to higher work efficiency.
  2. Evaluate very carefully whether or not the software that is essential to you will work. Windows 8 is a big technology jump so you need to use the compatibility wizard and be sure. Don’t assume that if it works with Windows 7 it will be fine.
  3. All of the benefits remain. It is super fast, even more so than 7. It’s a fresh approach to interacting with a PC and I think that the majority of users will enjoy it as they get used to it.

What to expect when you’re expecting… to change cell carriers.

I recently decided to go back to Verizon from using Straight Talk. When we had our son we cut back on our expenses a lot and are only just now sorting out how much of that is truly necessary. Anyway, we decided to go back to the smart phone world and to do so on a network we knew was reliable, Verizon.

People had warned me ahead of time that moving your number from a prepaid carrier can be difficult. We did as much research ahead of time as possible and moved forward confidently. My wife was certain she wanted an iPhone, and their prices dropped on Apple’s website first so we ordered it from there. You can choose all of the options for your new Verizon plan from there and everything so it all seemed very streamlined. The problem is, when we received the phone it could not activate. Something became stuck in the process of porting the number. I spent a large portion of a weekend on the phone with Verizon support. They were able to port the number over but it became stuck in their system, which they said could take 7-9 more days to resolve. We were exasperated at this point, so we just went into the Verizon store on Monday and said forget it, we don’t even care if we lose the old number. Their response to us? Can’t touch it. You ordered the phone through Apple so we can’t work with it. We ended up buying two completely different phones and returning the first to Apple. We also both got new numbers instead of having Verizon port our old ones over.

Eventually we were able to run blissfully through fields with new iPhones and everything worked great, but it was a painful process to get there. Below are my tips on how to avoid this.

  1. Order your phone either through the actual Verizon store or off of their website. According to the guy I talked to they cannot work with any other devices if you bring them in, not even from their resalers in the same area.
  2. If you’re going to order the phone off of Apple.com or another site instead of the Verizon one, opt to get a new number. The guy I talked to said this is always how they do transfers. They get the phone up and running with a temporary number and then port over your old one.
  3. Instead of bringing your old number over to the new carrier at all, make it a flexible virtual number by transferring it to Google Voice. This is what we did with my number. I can now point it at any device, including my new cell phone. I can even tell the service to ring the house phone or my wife’s if I don’t answer. There are a wide range of features and there is only a $20 one-time fee for transferring a current number.
  4. No matter what option you choose for porting an old number over, DO NOT touch the old service until EVERYTHING is up and running. This causes bad things to happen. Just let it sit completely alone. Don’t even have your old phone on. The systems don’t play nicely together otherwise.

I hope you can avoid my pain and suffering. In the end, having known a few simple things would have probably made the process go flawlessly.