Author Archives: Michael

Beware the Daily Special

When it comes to your devices, impending danger can take many forms. So far we’ve seen potential catastrophe in the form of inquisitive toddlers who think all fish deserve to be together and multitasking moms who mistakenly bake their laptops at 350°F. This time, it’s a newbie waitress. Beware the daily special. Protect the stuff that matters.

The Many Dangers That Threaten Your New Device

Tis the season for new electronics. One study found that over half of Black Friday purchases were of new gadgets. What’d you find under the tree? New Android tablet? Supercool new Macbook Pro? Xbox? All are fairly expensive toys, and one of the defining things of electronic gizmos remains their vulnerability to most things in the world, just by nature of being increasingly technical pieces of tiny machinery that don’t get along well with gravity and liquids, powerful magnetic fields, rambunctious pets…and ever-curious kids.

Electronics have gotten a bit better at survival, at least. Many laptops come with antishock mechanisms that attempt to protect your hard-drive in case of a drop. Just this morning I knocked my iPhone off our loft railing, sending it sailing onto the coffeetable in the living room below. It was totally fine, but I probably wouldn’t have wagered on that outcome. It’s predecessor iPhone died after a short fall from counter to floor. Two iPods before that fell victim to the various liquids invariably involved with bike commuting.

Beyond a good case, your physical options to protect your device from the many and varied accidents of the world are limited. But fortunately, you can protect the most crucial aspect of those devices: your work, your data, your media. Fortunately, these days that stuff is portable. You can copy it and put it elsewhere, or a bunch of elsewheres in the case of cloud storage.

Sinking a laptop will probably always be an expensive mistake. Manufacturers aren’t terribly inclined to engineer away the effects of every unlikely accident: there’s just too many different possibilities.. But, the things you build with your shiny new tools, are easy to protect with just a tiny bit of effort with relatively minimal cost.

File-Sharing Is Riskier Than You Know

The sheer ease of file-sharing in 2012 is astounding but what might be even more shocking is the number of people who choose to download files like music and movies illegally. Despite steps taken to stymie file-sharing (exorbitant fines, the high-profile demise of upload site Megaupload, slicker detection algorithms to hunt out wrongly shared files, and, of course, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), millions of people all over the world are still doing it. According to an article from The Guardian, over 43 million people illegally downloaded songs in the UK alone during the first six months of the year. But the landscape overall is still largely unchanged; virtually everything you could possibly think of is available just as quickly and still without cost. File-sharing though seemingly innocuous, is a risky habit that makes you, your personal information and computer or phone susceptible to harm.

Let’s start off with the most obvious thing: malware. A study a few years ago found that nearly 20 percent of files downloaded from the internet, legal and illegal, contain some form of malware. This malware could come in the form of a browser-redirect code — in which you type in some URL and the malware sends you somewhere else — one that throws up bonus ads all over your websites or a virus even more likely to cause serious damage to your computer. A whole lot of malware exists to steal personal information from you: social security numbers, credit card numbers, passwords. It burrows into your operating system and does its thing most times without you even knowing about it.

If you’re using BitTorrent to illegally procure files, you’re possibly opening doors in your system for things to enter without your knowledge and therefore without your consent. That is, this is a problem within the torrenting applications themselves — which might be cracking open your security firewall without your knowledge — not necessarily the files themselves.

There’s two more points about file-sharing that get a bit less attention. The first is that by running a bunch of torrents, you’re you’re negatively affecting your machine’s performance and leaving less bandwidth for other applications to do important things, like back up your system. If you’re sharing a connection with maybe some roommates, this could be trouble. Or, what’s even worse, is if you’re on a sharing binge while on your work computer. A lot of stuff invisible to you might not be so much to your irritable IT guy. There’s not much more embarrassing than getting ratted out to the boss for stealing _The Hangover Part II_. Most companies also have No File-Sharing policies so if getting berated isn’t enough of a deterrent, getting fired should be.

Finally, if you’re illegally file-sharing, you might just get busted. It happens and the Recording Industry Association of America and the US judicial system are largely unforgiving. Stealing files is, after all, illegal. Granted, trouble is more likely to come your way via malware, but the law is most certainly not on your side. And if you’re going to dive into the murky seas of file-sharing, at the very least pack an anti-virus program. Or two or three.

Hard-Drive Failure More Costly Than You Might Think

I suppose it’s impossible to put a dollar figure on human frustration, the burning rage of hours or days worth of work, decades worth of memories, or the required seven years of past tax documents suddenly disappearing for no apparent reason into a piece of complicated computer hardware: a failed hard-drive. Maybe tally up the cost of smashed nearby household items? Frustration aside, there is actually financial accounting to be had in a data loss incident, and it’s not pretty.

A study done recently by researchers at Pepperdine University came up with some figures. First is the cost of hard-drive recovery. It can often be done by specialists — the near four-percent failure rate of hard-drives has created its own industry. The average cost for a non-rushed 160 GB hard-drive recovery is around $1,500. It can reach upwards of $3,000, depending on how fast you need it. This is also assuming of course that your data can even be recovered, which isn’t a guarantee.

So, you’re out $1,500 (plus a replacement drive), but that’s hardly the end of it. Let’s just assume your time is valuable, even if your dead hard-drive is used only for home applications or even goofing off. Data recovery takes time, and that means time without your computer — time away from projects, communication, whatever. The loss is going to cost you something in those days of getting caught up. Come up with your own figure but, generally, we’re racing upward quickly from that $1,500 in lost-time costs. The Pepperdine study estimates that, in a business environment, a hard-drive trip to a recovery firm will cost an average of $1,750 in lost productivity. So, now we’re at $3,250.

That’s a whole lot of money for not being backed up in the cloud. Which is the essential cost-effectiveness of online storage: guarding against the failures of personal hardware. Figure that something like Google Drive (previously Docs) is totally free up to five gigabytes. Every 25 Gb after that costs $2.49. Pretty cheap. A cloud storage product like Norton Backup offers a whole lot more — like automated backups, time machine features, on-point customer service, and beyond — for a bit more money, but a year of it for $24.99 is a steal compared to the few thousand bucks of a failure. Even without a hard-drive failure, drive upgrade costs — to new, faster, and higher-capacity products — will outpace cloud subscription fees easily. Storage technology is nigh impossible to keep up with.

In the grand scheme of cost-effectiveness, there’s also the issue of connectivity. With the cloud — backup, drive, or otherwise — all of your machines/devices can be connected at all times to one drive which is amazing. Add up the time and hardware needed to keep a set of shared files available to five computers at once at any time — assuming such a thing would even be possible — and you’ve easily surpassed that $24.99 (or even the non-special $49.99 for backup) a year. And once again, if frustration had an easy dollar conversion, the situation would look even more lopsided.

Find out what your stuff is worth here.

The FCC Plays Digital Mapmaker

If you jumped with joy when wireless providers began announcing service extensions into the subways of New York and Washington D.C., you most likely share space in the category of modern human society that absolutely must at all times be connected. If you’ve ever experienced anxiety when that special time comes around before takeoff when the airline flight crew requests that you turn off your mobile device, or cursed Amtrak’s disastrously unstable wi-fi service, you’re among us. Being connected constantly is a brilliant and ultimately frustrating thing, because you’re no longer able to draw your own maps. Or, rather, you can but that map is overlayed with other maps of wi-fi networks and 3G towers. It you want to get really dramatic, it’s like a prison without walls. You’re welcome to leave at any time, but all of that information and information storage is staying right here inside.
There are, of course, vast tracts of the United States that remain unconnected, limited to unreliable and expensive satellite internet service or dial-up and no 3G or 4G towers in range. This is the far side of the wireless divide, and it’s where, I, a fellow member of that connected generation, manage to live. The strip of county road up the driveway is one of 653,392 miles in the United States currently considered dead zones. And the FCC estimates that there are 1,738,828 other residents living in those dead zones, without that ability — increasingly taken for granted — to be connected anywhere at any time.
This lonely address can’t even get dial-up internet — the lines are too old — to say nothing of DSL or cable or, _ha_, FIOS. A satellite dish mounted to the side of the cabin connects us to the internet at fairly high rates of speed (depending on traffic), but with severely limited download/upload allowances. We get 350 MB of data a day. A single television show streamed over Netflix would max that out. And, with that kind of restriction, it would take me about a year to back up my hard-drive to the cloud. Fortunately, I’m able to do my backing up on sorties into town (covered by 3G) and, yes, our house has a few portable hard-drives floating around, however unreliable.
The rural connectivity problem is something well-recognized by the federal government. While on one hand, it means being able to stream TV and tap into cloud storage, that connectivity or lack thereof, means lost opportunities (jobs and otherwise) for citizens outside of it. So, the FCC is now handing out grants to rural wireless providers to bring some of those highway miles into the wireless world. This is great, albeit slow going. The first round of funding (Mobility Fund Phase I) was announced earlier this fall: 83,000 miles of highway at a cost of $299,998,632.
That’s a start. Our house isn’t included in that batch, but I’m not too worried about it. Though I also haven’t had a hard-drive fail in some time. Here’s hoping for Phase II or III and, in the meantime, here’s hoping the storm going on outside right now doesn’t knock out the satellite connection (it happens), leaving our address off the connected map altogether.

How to Ease into the Cloud

The cloud revolution would never have happened if it were something that consumers could only blindly jump into. Just think about that: one day you suddenly ditch your hard-drive and all of its many years of accumulated video, music, documents, software, and beyond, and trust it all to a hopefully very reliable broadband Internet connection and a series of distant servers. The very idea of an all or nothing approach causes even me, a tech writer and tech optimist, a fair amount of anxiety.

This is a bit like what Google attempted last year with the introduction of its Chromebooks – a series of laptops designed around external, cloud-based storage and software. However, its flat sales might be indicative of consumer hesitation towards the all-in approach. Fortunately, the development of cloud-based computing has made it very easy, natural even, to take a more incremental approach towards cloud-based adoption.

In fact, several aspects of the cloud are already intuitive enough that you might not even realize they have anything to do with “the cloud” when you use them. Google Docs – soon to be known as the more cloud-nodding Google Drive – was an early cloud-computing tool, and a wildly successful one. This was almost certainly many consumers’ first regular experience with not just storing documents in the cloud, but with using actual cloud-based software.

When I started using Google Docs for writing several years ago, I sure didn’t use it for all of my writing, but when I needed to work on a document from multiple places or with other people, it was a perfect solution and my usage has only increased with time. Although, I still do a fair amount of writing in WordPad (which is more idiosyncratic than anything).

Another thing you probably haven’t thought about in cloud terms until very recently is music. Remember the heyday of MySpace? You were in a very real sense streaming songs from the cloud. Flash forward to 2012 and we now have several super-advanced music oriented streaming services, including the titan Spotify. I can say that Spotify has all but eliminated the idea of the iTunes music collection in my life. There are still a few things I need to keep stored locally that the service doesn’t have available for high-quality streaming, but I have become bold enough to start deleting things from my hard-drive.

So, maybe by now, you’ve warmed up to the idea of cloud-computing a bit. You’ve got some documents floating around Google’s servers and that album you haven’t thought about in years is now streaming through your speakers. So let’s talk security. It’s only the next natural phase.

Very basically, the cloud allows you to store your files in more than one place: at home and in the cloud. Your computer is vulnerable to all sorts of things from devastating malware attacks to errant cups of coffee. With Norton Online Backup (or many other backup providers) you can backup to the cloud seamlessly, easily and by allowing the service to do all of the legwork. Your role is simple: sign up and give the service some basic instructions about what and when to back up. That’s it.

Of course, once you’re in this deep, you may way to see what else the cloud can do for you. Maybe you could start with uploading your music collection to either Apple or Amazon’s streaming services in order to stream your music rather than share it. Or perhaps with Dropbox, a neat and very user-friendly service, that allows users to place a cloud folder anywhere on their computer, allow yourself access to various important documents on the go – from anywhere you choose to access them from.

And this is just the beginning – storage aside, there’s an entire world of web applications waiting to be discovered or that we haven’t even thought of yet. Imagine being able to use something as powerful as Final Cut Pro via a software sharing service. The future of the cloud is very bright.  Now that you have a better idea of what it’s all about, the only thing left to do is jump in.


Why Science Needs The Cloud

Science has always been an inseparable part of a peculiar catch-22: certain sciences are limited by certain technologies, and certain technologies are limited by certain sciences.

Let me explain.

Ultimately, what makes any particular science better or more accessible than another is the evidence that makes it both provable and repeatable. And scientists across nearly every field of interest from quantum physics to climate change have demanded the ability to collect and analyze incredible amounts of data to prove or disprove their theories. Thanks to the continued advancement of computers, researchers continue to embrace their increased ability to run exceedingly complicated simulations and churn out infinite amounts of potentially life changing results. Up until recently, two key hurdles kept finding themselves in the scientific community’s way: where was all that information going to be stored and how accessible would it be to the minds that needed it?

These are issues approached by an article in a recent Science Magazine supplement (considered to be one of the “big three” heavyweights in science journalism/research publication) – specifically, the 2011 data collections booklet — that looks at the issue of increasing amounts of climate data.

Climate data in particular is a bit more niche in terms of data volume for several reasons: for one, climate science is a rapidly expanding field and the more we learn the more data we discover we need to collect and analyze. Two, we’re gaining new ways of recording climate information very quickly through new instruments from all around the globe. As of 2009, we were collecting temperature data from nearly 13,000 stations across the planet (this figure has since shrank as station technology has improved). We also have greatly expanded capabilities for collecting data from satellites too.

In addition to the newly collected data, there are still mountains of old data from a very long time ago that has yet to be transferred to digital databases.

However, models are the worst data “offenders” by far. The current, fifth phase of the massive Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, a “set of coordinated climate model experiments,” will generate 2.5 petabytes of data by the time it’s all said and done. Of that, not a single bit is thrown away. If your laptop has a 120 GB hard-drive, one petabyte is just over 8,000 of those laptops. Access to that information — and climate data in general — needs to be distributed across the globe, and it needs to be presented in ways understandable to a variety of people. It’s an incredible challenge for the cloud like few others.

It’s not just abstract, scientific theories at stake in this scenario, nor is it your household budget stashed in a Google docs spreadsheet. The information being generated from scientific instruments about the predictability of extreme weather, droughts, and rising water levels — amongst other conditions — are essential and need to be considered by policy-makers and any and every entity with a hand in shaping our future on the planet.

Whether we realize it or not, directly or indirectly, human lives, billion dollar decisions, and global politics are still components of cloud computing.


An American Cloud Story

For all its benefits, the cloud raises a particularly ugly specter of division.

On the one hand, in large cities and with some amount of disposable income, fast internet is a fact of life like running water or electricity. It’s only when you step outside the benefits of lighting quick access that you might be surprised to discover that Spotify and Netflix aren’t all they’re supposed to be, that your backup is either running really slow or that you’re hooked into, heaven forbid, DSL or dealing with a single bar of 3G.

On the other hand, perhaps you live somewhere just completely off-grid and deal with extremely spotty satellite-based internet or dial-up on a regular basis, or perhaps you’re just one of a great many Americans that can’t afford high-speed access.

Either way, without quick and stable access, the cloud becomes all but meaningless because it’s really an all or nothing proposition. When most of your computing is based on instant and continuous access to memory, losing service to the rain or having internet choked by a phone-line makes the cloud something limited to a futuristic novelty, not a computing way of life.

According to The New York Times, as of last year, just over 200 million Americans had access to high-speed internet. That’s a lot, but still less than two-thirds of the country. Those 200 million are being catered to by the information age like royalty: video-on-demand, online medicine, online education, cloud storage and streaming. It really is an amazing time — for those 200 million Americans.

The other 125 million or so are simply left in the dark, and this has sweeping implications — two parts of society are not just drifting apart, but racing further and further apart. Further, this distribution disproportionately affects non-white Americans with just over half of African-Americans having wired internet access at home.

The New York Times also suggests rather ominously that the costs of high-speed internet, unlike most emerging technology, is not likely to drop over time. And as the subset of Americans that doesn’t have high-speed internet loses out on opportunities for job-seeking and education that high-speed access provides, expect the gap to only reinforce itself, if not grow larger.

So, the risk for providers of cloud-based services either providing services entirely in the cloud or making the transition towards it is alienating the part of the country already actively being alienating by the digital divide. For cloud-based services, it’s vital not just to that other third of the country but to their own future too.

We need to encourage programs that increase access to unconnected America and help subsidize high-speed service, which would theoretically pushing prices lower. There are government programs that do this now, along with helping to finance pushes into rural areas.

It’s also vital that high-speed internet is regulated fairly and with access in mind; this means ensuring that competition is able to thrive among providers. The interests of the information cloud and its industry are precisely aligned with the interests of the large swath of the country as yet unserved by high-speed internet.

America at large is not ready for go all-in for the cloud, but it could be.


Privacy vs Security: The Modern Compromise – Part 2

Three of our regular In the Personal Cloud editors have been given the task to sound off about the Security vs Privacy debate. On the one hand, users want the ability to determine what pieces of information about themselves are accessible and to whom. On the other, users also want the ability to conveniently access their information at a moment’s notice. Where is the compromise? Find out what our editors thought.

In the world of data, you run into a paradox of sorts. You can lock it up tightly in your own hard drive where no one can see it without actually breaking into your house and copying it all ‘90s hacker movie-style, but the trade-off is that consumer hard-drives fail, and not just that, you’re pretty likely to fail yourself by way of spilling a Coke on the thing or stepping on it, etc.

Or you can give up some of that privacy and upload all that information to a super-high tech storage drive (or drives, really) owned by some company somewhere and while you’re getting a fairly extreme promise of security, you’re also having to take said company’s word for it that they’re not going to snoop in your files (or, say, screen them for ill-begotten mp3s).

For example, Google uses your search data for all kinds of things like selling better ads. I also happen to have thousands of documents stored with Google in the form of Google Docs. Google, under its terms of service, has license to use that content in the same way. Which is uncomfortable, despite the fact that I’m actually using it right now. I can, however, imagine a situation where I might be less willing to store a document this way.

These things are ever-evolving, and we as consumers are more in control of it than we may think; I can always use a more secure cloud storage provider. In any case, the most vital thing at this still-molten stage of the cloud storage evolution is hyper-vigilance. Be aware, and be proactive. You can compromise for the sake of data security, but be sure you’re remaining alert and in control.

…and that was Michael’s take. In short, he reiterates the old tech adage that it’s not a matter of if, but when you’re hard drive will fail, but he is concerned about the fact that although it’s often more convenient to store your files in the cloud, some cloud services will scan your files in order to target you for ads. Stay tuned to In The Personal Cloud to find out where our next editor stands.  

Top 5 Rules to Protect Your Files

1) Backup, backup, backup
Simply, the best way to keep a digital file safe is to have another one. Or have lots of other ones. Most cloud backup providers keep many duplicates of your files stored in different physical locations on different file systems. An asteroid could land on a data center somewhere, and its contents would be safe and sound in another one somewhere. You can’t say the same thing for your hard-drive.
2) Never have only one copy of a file
See above. You spent months on that project on your just going to leave it on a single hard-drive? Hard-drives can have failure rates approaching the double digits. At the very least have a duplicate on CD, or external hard-drive, or, heck, even a USB memory stick is better than nothing.  Continue reading