“It’s getting dark in Tianjin, China with about six hours to go before the Lunar New Year. As we approach the Year of the Horse the buildup is gradual but steady as the level of excitement is reflected in the dull roar of continuous fireworks echoing through the city that gradually builds to an indescribable intensity as the night roars on.” It’s so difficult to describe in mere words the experience of Chinese New Year.
Also referred to as the Lunar New Year, it marks the beginning of Spring Festival, an extraordinary holiday that lasts for about a month and is celebrated across Asia and other parts of the world. Although the Chinese now use the same Gregorian Calendar as most of the western part of the world, the Lunar New Year and start of Spring Festival is a time to celebrate and be with one’s family.
According to ancient legend, the color red is used to scare away the mythical beast Nian and is hung on doors to protect the family. Nian represents all that is terrible and the tradition is to use fireworks and the color red to scare away the badness the beast brings.
The dramatic highlight of the first night of the Spring Festival is the demonstration of the Chinese passion for fireworks. Fireworks were invented by the Chinese and are used to mark just about any celebration from the birth of a new child to weddings to restaurant openings. It’s common for fireworks to be heard every night in most large Chinese cities but the celebrations during Spring Festival are legendary.
Modern Chinese Spring Festival is a time to be with your family and a time to rid the Nian of the past and celebrate the hope of a brighter future. If you ever have the opportunity to experience the intensity of the Chinese New Year celebrations and Spring Festival, it’s certainly worth going.
Watch out for a deluge of online scams promising great deals as a result of the current Government shutdown. They’re promising anything from unbelievably cheap cars to cheap health care plans under the new Affordable Care Act commonly referred to as “Obamacare.” Online scams are in the form of fake websites, email spammers, and even phone calls or text messages. The cyber thieves’ goals can be to obtain personal information, credit cards numbers, and even so far as to attempt to con you into a wire transfer from your bank account.
Symantec’s security website issued a warning of spammers using fake headers to get past email filters and get seemingly official and legitimate offers to your inbox. Watch out for emails promising deals as a result of the Government shutdown and clearance sales on fleet vehicles, cars and trucks. For that matter it is wise to be suspicious of any offer involving special deals as a result of the shutdown. Be cautious of anyone who emails you and question why they would have your email. Spammers are able to spoof commonly known email headers and even people you know personally.
As a general rule never give your personal information such as name, address or phone number let alone more private information such as social security number, family names and employment information to any stranger who calls you on the phone no matter how official they sound. If it’s a company name you recognize, hang up and call them back at their listed number to verify the caller.
The Government shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for those shopping for health insurance this week. Starting October 1 the Health Insurance Exchange went live. Scam artists are taking full advantage of the overwhelming response and confusion associated with this new provision of the Affordable Care Act. Not only are the various exchanges inconsistent with their security protocols they are so new there that it’s easy for cyber thieves to take advantage of the confusion and lure people into a fake site to steal their personal information and even their money.
Trend Micro, a computer security company, has published warnings for consumers. The best way to avoid healthcare scams associated with the Affordable care Act is to head directly to the Federal Government website to either find the sites directly or verify the authenticity of sites you might find from a search engine such as Google or Bing.
Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Scam artists and cyber thieves will always jump in and take advantage of the confusion surrounding situations such as the Government shutdown and the newest provisions of the Affordable Care Act to make a quick buck at your expense. Be careful of such offers, verify the source and authenticity of anything that requires your personal or private information, and be suspicious of all emails that include links to websites or phone numbers with a too good to be true offer.
When it comes to saving money on your mobile phone, unless you are the type who craves the latest and greatest technology every six months, resist that urge to throw in the towel on your year-old phone.
Don’t commit to another two-year contract thinking you’re getting an $800 phone for about $150, because you aren’t. Two-year contracts that come attached to discounted phones are nothing more than a finance plan. You’re paying ninety or a hundred dollars for a plan that you can get elsewhere for fifty or sixty dollars.
Take the difference and multiply it by 24 months and that’s how much you’ve financed over two years. Don’t forget to factor in all of those hidden “connection fees.” Unlike a typical finance plan, however, the mobile carriers will gladly carry on charging you that same inflated rate far beyond the two-year contract and usually won’t let you out of the contract cheaply if you lose or break your phone or your needs change.
If your mobile phone contract has expired, cancel it. There’s a cheaper plan out there if you already have a good phone and are happy with it.
Most mobile phones in the United States are sold “locked” to the carrier. Not to mention that the major carriers all use different wireless technology. Unlocking a phone is useful for using a sim card from another carrier or another country if you plan to spend time abroad and wish to connect your phone to their local mobile network.
Before buying, check to see what your carrier’s unlocking policy is once your phone is paid off and if it will work on other carrier’s networks, or outside the United States.
Don’t confuse “unlocking” with “jailbreaking” an iPhone or “rooting” an Android. Jailbreaking or rooting is for advanced users only and allows the installation of unauthorized and possibly dangerous software and will likely void your phone’s warranty.
Consider how much data and how many minutes you really need. Unlimited minutes and text is pretty standard these days and very few people will ever need more than the typical plan’s 2GB of high speed data in a month. You can save money on your mobile phone plan if you are a light user by picking a cheaper option.
Some tips to avoid using too much of your data plan: Go crazy on the emailing, texting, and mobile web sites, but avoid spending your afternoons streaming videos. Also keep in mind that using “VOIP” apps like Skype, Viber, and Google Voice won’t count toward your voice or texting limits and can save money on international and roaming. If you connect to your home or office Wi-Fi network you won’t incur data charges but your voice calls and text will still count.
There are some great deals out there. Look for the prepaid or Pay As You Go phones that don’t lock you into a contract and allow you the flexibility of change as needed to suit your needs.
There are several advantages to not having a contract: You’re not locked in to a plan, if you break or lose your phone you aren’t forced to continue paying for it, the carrier can’t hit you up with an outrageous bill for unwittingly dialing China for two hours and you can always add minutes —if you get low— to avoid paying for services you don’t need.
There are less expensive but good phones that can be picked up for contract prices without the contract hassles. What was top of the line six months or a year ago may be available for a bargain today. Consider buying a used phone or a low-cost import from overseas that is readily available online.
Go to your carrier and ask these questions and tell them you came in to save money on your mobile phone bill, not get pushed into a hard sell on an expensive new contract. Check the prepaid options sold at electronics retailers that your carrier may not willingly tell you about. Spend that saved money on something else.
When it comes to kids and video games, most parents cringe at the thought of what their children are playing and whom they’re playing with online. How does a parent know if the game their child is playing is age appropriate, or a violent, explicit, video game that would make Quentin Tarantino blush?
The video game industry, to its credit, has voluntarily adopted a useful and informative rating system that should be followed when making a decision to allow your child to play. Known as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), it can be broken down as follows:
- EC (Early Childhood) - Suitable for ages 3 and older. Games with this rating are marketed for toddlers who may not grasp most other video games.
- E (Everyone) – Suitable for ages 6 and older. There is an E10+ rating for games designed for ages 10 and older. Basically nothing to worry about.
- T (Teen) – Think PG movies. Games will have mild or non explicit violence and language, only mildly suggestive content, and contain strategies or plots that are understandable and appreciated by teenagers.
- M (Mature) - These games contain mature content such as language, graphic violence, and possibly sexual content that is inappropriate for children. Think R rated movies. Such games should be discouraged for children and never be played without direct adult supervision.
There are some who blame the video game industry for the production and marketing of violent video games to children. There may be some truth to these allegations but the industry has made the ratings as clear as they can be and expect parents to do the job of raising their own children. There are plenty of adults who enjoy playing video games.
There are some really well designed games out there that are not only appropriate for children but can offer enjoyment for all ages. Most games are best played with friends either sitting side by side on the living room sofa or networked across the house or the Internet. One of my favorites games for playing with my own children is Portal 2 from Valve (rated E10+), available on the Xbox360, PS3, and PC/Mac. Portal 2 is a single or multiplayer science fiction puzzle game with a dazzling array of special effects and imagery along with superb voice acting and intense interactive puzzles that require both imagination and teamwork to solve. My other favorite is Minecraft by Mojang (not rated), a superb multiplayer building, survival, and exploration game available on PC/Mac, iOS, and Android that is enjoyed worldwide by people of all ages. Minecraft is a recently released online game that uses simpler block style graphics allowing it to run on older, less powerful computers or tablets. It offers a vast interactive virtual world where your children build or explore cities, castles, tunnels, or just about anything they can imagine while fending off an assortment of not so scary monsters. It’s inexpensive and simple enough to play for the inexperienced parent.
Always be aware of who may be playing with your children online. Game publishers have no way of predicting or regulating what other players might do or say. Getting involved and joining your kids once in a while is essential to being aware of the virtual world they play in. I’m betting if you haven’t tried playing video games with your kids, you’re in for a surprisingly fun treat.
Talk to your children about why they can’t play Battlefield, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and other excessively violent and explicit video games. Instead try to steer them toward something more constructive and creative that you can enjoy with them. Talk to their friends’ parents and avoid the old – “but my friend plays it” – trap that causes many parents to give in. You don’t need to be a gaming junkie to stay on top of your children and protect them from violent video games.
The Patent Troll of Tyler
Tyler, Texas, a city with less than half the population of Scottsdale, was recently the unlikely location of a legal battle that had threatened the very foundation of the Internet as we know it. It was here that an obscure biologist from Chicago, Dr. Michael Doyle of Eolas Technologies, filed suit challenging ownership of what is termed the “interactive web,” or the ability to interact with a web page allowing the user to play video, rotate a picture, and other interactive features we use online every day.
The legal battle stems from what many consider to be obsolete and overly lax software patent laws in the United States that allow a patent on computer software. While software code is “written” and can be copyrighted to protect unlawful duplication, a patent can protect an idea or broadly defined functionality of software, even if the technology itself is obsolete. According to the Eolas website, in 1993 Dr. Doyle, working at the University of California – San Francisco, “led a research team that developed fundamental web technologies that resulted in the patent, which enabled Web browsers for the first time to act as platforms for fully-interactive embedded applications.” The problem is that he never actually produced any commercially successful technology and instead created Eolas Technologies much later for the express purpose of engaging in litigation on this and other obscure patents they had collected. The popular term for a business established to engage in predatory litigation in this manner is patent troll. Typically, patent trolls engage smaller businesses that can’t afford the resources to oppose litigation in court and are forced to settle for a more reasonable amount.
Eolas, which moved its address from Chicago to Texas by maintaining a very small office in Tyler, presumably reasoned they had a better chance of successful litigation from jurors in Tyler rather than Silicon Valley or Chicago. The Eastern District of Texas had become a hotspot for aggressive litigation by patent trolls. In any case, the eight person jury took only a few hours to deliberate and ruled in favor of the various big name player such as Google, Yahoo, JCPenny, and others who went to Tyler to stand up and fight rather than roll over and settle for what was a crucial and pivotal threat to internet commerce. The decision is based more on details over a timeline rather than the patent laws themselves so while the case is important, it may not set the precedent needed to stop other patent trolls.
Eolas Technologies, which had previously been successful with a suit against Microsoft, was outgunned this time and it’s likely they’ll be down for at least the short term. Although Eolas will likely appeal this decision it may be years before we hear from them again. In the meantime, patent trolls will continue to exploit outdated laws and attempt to bully smaller, less powerful businesses that often are forced to settle under threats rather than deal with the costly litigation they simply can’t afford.
Valentine’s Day gift decisions are hard enough but if you’re looking to buy something special for your high tech Valentine you may feel completely lost. Considering the fleeting nature of technology you have to consider that whatever you buy this year will most likely be shelved in twelve months for the next big thing. It may seem pointless but technology gifts are still among the most coveted and appreciated, especially for those true tech lovers among us.
Most people don’t have huge expectations for Valentine’s Day gifts but if you have some money to spare and you want to get something fun then consider an inexpensive tablet, a new TV, or a subscription to Netflix. Tablets sit comfortably across that line between cameras and smartphones so not everyone has one. While the iPad is always popular you may want to look for something in a more affordable price range, especially since Apple may be on the verge of releasing a major upgrade. Amazon’s Kindle Fire is extremely popular and for about a third the cost of an average iPad it’s a far better value for casual couch web surfing and reading. The Fire runs a proprietary interface on top of Google’s popular and robust Android Operating System and while there are some limitations Amazon imposes to steer you toward their own products, the Fire is still a very capable and useful tablet that offers fun and entertainment as well as practical usefulness. A Valentine’s Day gift should always be fun.
A new TV is always a favorite Valentine’s Day gift for any tech nut. It’s difficult to recommend a specific television since prices fluctuate daily. The optimal screen size should be more a function of room size rather than ego but TV features and technology have advanced considerably and a new TV is almost certainly going to bring a smile to anyone who doesn’t have the latest and greatest. Plazma is no longer something you need to steer clear of and offers far better contrast ratio than LCD screens. Smart TVs with built in WiFi are the way to go these days. You can watch streamed movies, TV episodes, and video clips from popular services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu directly on the set. The good news is that even many of the least expensive sets have these features as standard so you don’t need to sell your car anymore for a large flat screen TV. As far as screen size, consider this basic formula: Five inches per foot. So if the sofa is ten feet from the screen, look for something in the 50″ range. It also depends a lot on the available space, your budget, and how good your eyesight is so it’s not a hard and fast rule. Also consider a Blue Ray disc player for those who already have the TV of their dreams. Most disc players also have WiFi and can make a great and inexpensive upgrade to a good TV that doesn’t have those “smart” features. In any case, you will enjoy many romantic evenings watching theater quality movies in your living room.
Don’t forget a subscription to Netflix or a gift card to Amazon for the movie enthusiast who prefers to stream or download movies rather than collecting actual discs.
Although high tech toys are likely to be obsolete and superseded by the latest and greatest we haven’t seen yet, they are still appreciated as Valentine’s Day gifts and certainly have a longer shelf life than flowers or candy and can be shared and enjoyed together for the coming year.
SmartPhone popularity has exploded since the iPhone was released and soon followed by the various Android and Windows based phones. In fact, with all the new tablets and eReaders out there that use both WiFi and mobile networks such as 3G and 4G it’s hard to know where to draw the line between a phone and a personal computer. These days you can browse the web from your phone and make phone calls from your tablet. While shopping and making purchasing decisions this holiday it’s important to understand the basics of how these things really work and what options you really need.
Bandwidth and data refers to the speed and capacity capability of the network you are connected to or your service plan. Phone calls use a relatively small amount of bandwidth. Streaming video and emailing large attachments demand a lot more. Your phone company sells data plans based on monthly allotments measured in gigabytes (GB) or megabytes (MB). One thousand MB approximately equals one GB.
WiFi or 3G/4G?
Pretty much every smartphone you buy now is going to have both WiFi and mobile network capability. “3G” or “4G”, depending on the company you sign up with, refers to the carrier’s mobile network and works just about anywhere in the vicinity of modern human population. 3G is being replaced by 4G on all the major phone networks and is basically similar but faster. The terminology and technology such as LTE, HSPA+, and WiMax, will vary between the major players but for your purposes they all do the same thing and the performance varies more as a function of your location and phone rather than the network. Phone calls and data such as web, email, downloads, Netflix, etc will work over these mobile networks. Often tablets, eReaders, and even home and automobile security systems will allow an optional ability to connect to these networks as well for an additional cost.
WiFi, on the other hand, is different. WiFi refers to the wireless internet connection you use to connect your laptop computer to your home or workplace internet. It is also used to connect many other devices such as tablets, printers, and televisions. Pretty much all modern phones now also possess the ability to connect to a WiFi network and most will do so automatically when properly set up. We spend about ninety percent of our day within range of a usable WiFi network such as your home, workplace, coffee shop, and even on board some airlines. Depending on the location, WiFi will generally be as fast as or faster than your phone carrier’s network and most importantly, outside their jurisdiction of control meaning they can’t bill you for using it.
The dilemma the mobile phone companies have is this: The more advanced and faster the mobile devices become, and the more software that demands more data usage (such as Netflix), the greater the strain on their ability to deliver the high speed data to their customers that they promised. In other words, we can’t all watch Netflix at the same time or the speed drops and the video stops loading. The phone companies are struggling to handle this problem and are addressing it in ways that may affect your data hungry customer experience.
When you sign up for a data plan, it’s important to understand what it means and how much do you need. Most people won’t need an expensive unlimited plan but most people also have no idea how much they actually do need. Unfortunately with these new and faster high speed networks we have seen an end to cheap unlimited data plans. When the phones and network were slower and data hungry apps were rare, it was easy for the phone companies to offer unlimited data because they knew you couldn’t use a whole lot even if you tried. Now with multi core processor phones possessing high definition screens and data hungry apps like YouTube and Netflix pulling data through high speed 4G networks the phone companies realize there just isn’t enough bandwidth to spread around.
Basic data plans can be 2GB, 5GB, 10GB, or even a low use plan such as only 200MB. You can usually monitor your monthly use online or directly from your phone to keep track of how much you use and how much you need. Most companies won’t cut you off if you exceed your monthly allotment but they will either severely degrade your performance through the end of the billing cycle or begin charging you extra. This is an important question to ask when you purchase a phone and a service plan. Keep in mind you can always upgrade your plan but it may not always be possible to downgrade if you are in contract. Again, data usage while you are connected to a WiFi will not be counted against your monthly plan.
- Email and texting with only occasional small attachments use very little, maybe a hundred megabytes per month.
- 30 websites visits every day uses less than 1 GB per month.
- One hour of streaming music per day will use about 1.76 GB each month.
- Two hours of streaming video can consume about 1.3 GB, so don’t watch a full length movie more than about once or twice a month depending on your plan.
- Streaming high def video can use about 4GB per movie and will easily push you past your monthly limit immediately.
Clearly if you expect to watch a lot of Netflix over your mobile carrier’s network you can expect to pay through the nose for that kind of service. The best bet is to make sure you are connected to WiFi and not the carrier network before using your phone to watch video.
“With great power comes…”, well, you get the idea. Understanding how your phone consumes data and how you can monitor it will not only save you money but increase your enjoyment. Keep an eye on how much data you consume each month and adjust your data plan accordingly. Next time you think your phone is broken because it’s taking forever to load your favorite website check your data use history and see if you’ve already used up your monthly quota.
Last week I introduced this article, “Living in a Hacker’s Paradise,” about the dangers of using weak passwords and some possible solutions in the future. Today I will explain some steps you can take today to understand the problem and protect yourself online.
There are a few ways thieves can get your passwords and masquerade as your identity online. A common technique is to perform a little online research of the individual’s social networking profiles, public records, and other searchable information and then to simply guess possible passwords. This is why you don’t use the names of your pets, kids, spouse, birthdays, known nicknames or anything else from your personal life. Likewise, don’t flood social networking sites with the same information that otherwise secure sites may use to identify you in the event you forget your password. A mother’s maiden name, favorite food, favorite pet’s name, city you were born, high school, etc. are all examples of the information that a hacker can and will use against you. Don’t use words right out of a dictionary, in any language. Your typical modern laptop is more powerful today than a supercomputer from years ago and they can run through entire dictionaries in multiple languages guessing passwords until they stumble across the right one. Such “brute force” programs can also guess random combinations of numbers and letters in a reasonable time in order to crack a short password of fewer than five or six characters. Keep in mind that a hacker may not be across the globe but possibly in your own home or office. Don’t write passwords on a piece of paper you keep in your desk drawer or on a sticky glued to the bottom of your computer. I expect many readers are cringing right now wondering how I know their secrets.
Here are a few tips on password security you can utilize without having to worry about keeping track of hundreds of passwords and without using the same password twice. Be sure your passwords are eight to ten characters long and a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and even symbols if the site allows it. You should also change your password, even if only slightly, at least once a month on sites you visit frequently. There are a wide variety of password management programs of various qualities you could use and some offer a very good solution to this problem. Another solution, both simple and free, is to come up with a short sentence you can remember and change only a couple words in that sentence for each site and then use the first letter of each word in the sentence as your password for that site. For example, your password sentence could be: “This one is Paul’s January password on smartfem.com!” which translates to “T1iPJpos!” and gives me a ten character, very secure password unique to this website but also very easy to remember. Notice I used the numeral in place of the word “one,” I have three capital letters, a symbol at the end, and the first two letters in the domain name for smartfem.com which could be replaced with, for example, “fa” for facebook.com or “am” for americanexpress.com.
One little disclaimer, this is not my actual password and secret sentence so don’t bother trying it out, nor is losing your password for this website going to present a security risk in itself since SmartFem doesn’t collect or store any personal information other than your name and email. In fact, you may have a similar but different system that works for you which is fine as long as you keep it to yourself, change it once a month, and don’t write it down. The harder it is to guess, the safer you are online.
I welcome questions on computers, technology, and online security as it pertains to you, your family, your job, or any other aspect of your life that you would like me to write about and hopefully clarify. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a comment below.
The Internet is a fantastic tool for managing just about any aspect of life you can imagine. Banking and paying bills, your job and career, education, even your social life such as dating, catching up with old friends, or just managing your family. An inconvenient side effect of all this online activity is the need to have a unique password for every web site you use.
How can a person keep track of all the different passwords and still feel safe online?
Unfortunately, we are living in a hacker’s paradise. According to a recent study by ZoneAlarm, a leading computer security company, 79% of those surveyed use risky practices when it comes to password security. The survey also revealed that 29 percent of respondents reported having their personal email hacked and 52 percent knew someone else who had been hacked. One of the worst things you can do is use the same password over and over on various websites including banking and social networking, a practice that 26% of those surveyed admitted to doing. Hackers know if they get your name, password, and email address for one site, they have about a one in four chance the same password will get them into your bank accounts. With the rise of the Internet we’ve seen an equal rise in identity theft, cyber stalking, and other online scams. Law enforcement is often overwhelmed and powerless which leaves it up to you to protect you and your family.
Interestingly, this problem is considered so important lately that the United States Government is getting involved. Don’t worry, we aren’t likely to have laws on password security nor is the Government going to issue your passwords or a national cyber identity card. In fact, in a recent speech at Stanford University, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke was clear that the problem is one that is best solved by private industry. Imagine the creation of secure web portals where you only have to log in once and all your online activity is securely routed to you through trusted networks that verify the source of transactions and data prior to it finding its way to your personal computer, no more passwords. Clearly, such a technological feat would be more within the realm of possibility for Google or Microsoft rather than the Department of Commerce. Unfortunately, none of this utopian future is going to protect you from malicious hackers today and you need to take steps right now that not only keep you organized, but also safe online.
Next week I will cover a few techniques you can use yourself to understand and avoid the pitfalls of password security when I continue with “Surviving in a Hacker’s Paradise.”
I welcome questions on computers, technology, and online security as it pertains to you, your family, your job, or any other aspect of your life that you would like me to write about and hopefully clarify. Please write to me at email@example.com or submit a comment below.