Show of 6-29-2013

Email and Forum Questions

  • Email from Alex: Dear Tech Talk, Frequently, my mouse will stop responding. Anything that I was doing will lock up and I have to reboot the computer. What is the problem. Thanks, Alex.
  • Tech Talk Responds: But if your mouse stops working and you can’t type into your computer at all, it’s possible that the computer itself froze. That means that you could have other problems. Let’s assume that the mouse is the problem.
  • My first recommendation is to check the mouse battery. If the wireless mouse signal gets weak because the battery is too low, the mouse just stops working. This  is usually my problem. I actually carry an extra battery for my mouse when I travel. Not two, because TSA takes then away.
  • Another possibility is electrical or radio interference. These days, almost any device from your Wi-Fi router to your microwave to your cordless or mobile phone can cause this kind of interference.
  • You may want to test your mouse with other electrical devices removed or turned off to make sure that those devices aren’t transmitting large amounts of radio interference.
  • You may have a weak signal. Usually the wireless mouse connect to a signal from a tiny USB dongle. Put your mouse close to the receiver. Roll the mouse to see if the pointer is in synch on your monitor and then move the mouse further away from the receiver as you continue to check. Once the mouse stops responding, you’re too far away.
  • If this is the case and you don’t want to reorganize your workspace, you can actually purchase a USB extension cord. One end is a normal USB plug that goes to your computer and the other is a USB socket where you can plug the receiver module for the wireless mouse.
  • Your mouse should always have the latest drivers for either your machine (in this case, HP) or its manufacturer (in this case, Logitech).
  • If all else fails get a USB mouse and see if the problem persists.
  • Email from Sue in Reston: Dear Doc. Will Windows XP keep working after support ends? I love my XP machine is does everything I need and don’t want to change. Thanks, Sue.
  • Tech Talk Responds: Windows XP will keep working. The only thing that happens when support ends is that bug fixes, patches, vulnerability fixes, and so forth will no longer be made available.
  • There’s really no harm in continuing to run Windows XP with the exception of what we refer to as “unpatched vulnerabilities.” What that means is somebody discovers a bug in the software that could be somehow exploited by malware writers to insert or cause malware to be installed on your machine. If you’re running Windows XP past the security date, that unpatched vulnerability will remain forever unpatched.
  • If you’ve got anti-malware software that continues to work on Windows XP, that’s one way to at least minimize the threat. Good anti-malware software will probably catch the malware that tries to exploit those kinds of vulnerabilities. The catch is how long will good anti-malware tools continue to support XP? This I don’t know.
  • The other factor is that as XP declines in market share, the actual authors of malware are now focusing their efforts and their attentions on things like Windows 7 or Windows 8. Those types of malware may not even apply to Windows XP anymore. In other words, you may actually be kind of more secure by having the older operating system that the malware authors aren’t paying attention to either.
  • Email form Ngoc in Ohio: Dear Tech Talk, Why does my browser warn me that “Only secure content is displayed?”  This is not on every webpage, just sometimes. Love the show. Thank, Ngoc from Ohio.
  • Tech Talk Responds: Let me first explain what this message is all about. When you connect to a site via HTTPS, the remote site fetches the files and other information that appear on your screen using the encrypted HTTPS (‘S’ standing for secure) connection.
  • HTTPS confirms that you’ve connected to the specific site requested and not some impostor and it encrypts the information as it travels between your machine and the server so people can’t listen in on what you’re doing. HTTPS and regular old HTTP (without the ‘S’) can be used at the same time, and therein lies the problem.
  • Now, a web page may be fetched using HTTPS, but sometimes, that page also references content using an unencrypted HTTP connection. An example might be an image on that site. For the browser, strictly speaking, this is still a security hole.
  • Somebody that’s snooping might not be able to see the words or text on the page – the really sensitive information – but they might be able to see the pictures that you’re seeing and from where they’re coming. So the browser warns you.
  • Lots of web pages still have this problem, and as a result people see the warning message and get annoyed by it.
  • If you’re using Internet Explorer, go to  Tools > Internet Options > Advanced. In the list of various options under Security, uncheck the item that says, “Block unsecured images with other mixed content.” That should make that warning go away.
  • If you’re using a browser other than Internet Explorer, there will be an option similar to that usually down one of the Advanced Options paths.
  • Email form Leslie in Richmond: Dear Tech Talk. I’d like to get in touch with my old college roommate. How do I find out her email address? Thanks, Leslie.
  • Tech Talk Responds: Finding someone’s email address is typically very, very hard. Not everyone wants to be found. It’s easy to set up a free email account with information that has nothing to do with who you really are. So even if you know a lot about the person whom you’re trying to find, they still may not be findable.
  • My first method is almost always Google. For many people, Google might take you straight to them. It would be easy to find me because there are so many links.
  • If they want to be found and you suspect that they have accounts with services like MSN, HotMail, Yahoo, Facebook, or others, it might be worth checking the member directories within those services if they have them.
  • And finally, there are for-pay services that claim to be able to find out all sorts of information about people. These are mostly culled from public records also accessible elsewhere. I’ve never used one and cannot recommend any specifically. I used one of these paid services and was quite successful when searching for someone from the past. I could use their free interface which showed that they had located the right person. Then I paid for access to get the details.
  • Email from Donna: Dear Doc and Jim. How to I stop my homepage from changing? It is annoying to keep having to change it back. Love the show. Donna in Kansas.
  • Tech Talk Responds; If your Home page keeps changing after you have set it then I start to suspect malware. The Home page is nothing more than the web page that automatically opens when you launch your web browser or hit the Home button.
  • For our purposes here, let’s say that you already set the homepage, but something is changing it. There are a couple of reasons why this might be happening.
  • Malware could be changing your homepage without your permission. Download the latest version of your malware program and scan your computer. If you don’t have any a good free option is AVG (www.avg.com). They have both a free and paid version. I like to use ESET on my home computer.  They have only a paid version for around $39.
  • Another cause could be that you allow programs to change the homepage during the installation process. When installing all updates, make certain that this option is unchecked.
  • Email from Craig in Oakton: Dear Doc. Does my information get deleted from the cloud if I delete the associated software? My example would be LastPass or Norton Identity Safe. I’m now using Norton Identity Safe. If I delete LastPass from my computer, do my passwords get deleted from the Cloud or are they on the computer? Love the show, Craig.
  • Tech Talk Responds: With cloud information, it depends entirely on the specific service and the software involved. Let’s start by talking about Last Pass. LastPass actually copies the information to both your computer (or computers) and the cloud. You can then use LastPass on many different computers, all with access to that same store of encrypted password information.
  • If you simply uninstall the LastPass software from your machine, then you’re not telling LastPass to delete anything from the cloud.  You’re simply telling it that you no longer want to use LastPass on that computer. Your information is still stored (encrypted of course) in the cloud on LastPass’s servers, and on any other machines on which you have the LastPass software installed. The software is designed so that you can remove it from one computer and continue using it on other computers, or via the LastPass web site. To remove your information from the cloud, you need to go to LastPass and actually delete your account. This is completely separate from removing the software from your machine. When you delete your account, what you’re really telling LastPass is to remove all of your information from the servers. If you have other machines that still have LastPass installed, you would then also uninstall LastPass on those machines to remove the local copies of your information.
  • Most applications that have a computer-installed component work the same way. If you want to stop using the application and remove your information from the cloud and locally, you’re looking for a multi-step process: Delete the online account; Uninstall the software from your machine; •Repeat step two for each machine.

Profiles in IT: Edward E. Iacobucci

  • Edward E. Iacobucci was an American businessman who co–founded Citrix Systems.
  • Ed was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 26, 1953
  • His father, a biochemist, moved his family to the U.S. in 1960 to work for E.R. Squibb & Sons and then Coca-Cola.
  • Roberto Goizueta, then Chairman of Coca-Cola, became a close friend of the family and Ed’s godfather.
  • Both men, his father and Goizueta, strongly influenced Iacobucci’s business ethos.
  • Ed graduated from Georgia Tech Institute with a B.S. in systems engineering.
  • Iacobucci began his career at IBM in 1979.
  • Iacobucci led the teams that developed IBM DOS and OS/2 and joint IBM-Microsoft design team that designed the IBM personal computer.
  • At IBM’s Boca Raton labs in the mid 1980s, Ed had become convinced that thin client network computing run from a PC server operating system could save businesses much time and expense.
  • In 1989, Iacobucci left IBM to co-found Citrix Systems, Inc. and implement his vision of server-based computing.
  • Ed’s vision for Citrix revolved around server-centric, multi-user computing, or what we now call “virtual hosted desktops” or sometimes “virtual desktop infrastructure”
  • He led the company as chairman and chief technology officer through all of its market and product development phases.
  • In 1997, Iacobucci forged a five-year joint development agreement with MS to include Citrix multi-user capabilities within MS Windows NT Server.
  • In 1998, he received Ernst & Young International Entrepreneur of the Year award.
  • He served as Citrix chairman through 2000 when the stock crashed.
  • In 2002, Iacobucci co-founded as served as president and CEO DayJet Corporation, an on-demand airline service that sold individual seats.
  • He and his engineering team built a computer system for solving highly-complex optimization problems for the on-demand air service.
  • The young company forged a five-year agreement with the FAA to pioneer the Next Generation of Air Transportation technologies.
  • DayJet was forced to cease operations in 2008 when it was no longer secure capital.
  • In 2009, he co-founded VirtualWorks Group, to help companies manage data across many platforms.
  • At one point he described the vision for the company as “content virtualization,” a play on the “desktop virtualization” that Citrix had pioneered.
  • Iacobucci served as President and CEO until May 20, 2013 when he stepped down for health reasons.
  • Ed died June 21, 2013 and is survived by his wife and three children.

Website of the Week: www.coffitivity.com

  • Cafe noise boosts productivity 
  • There’s a reason your favorite coffeehouse is packed with patrons wielding laptop computers, and it has nothing to do with free wi-fi.
  • Studies suggest that working amid clinking cups and light crowd-chatter increases productivity and enables us to think outside the box.
  • But for those who can’t afford to languish all day over $5 cups of coffee, one web start-up is bringing the coffee-shop experience to your kitchen (or cubicle) with a free digital soundtrack that simulates café noise.
  • The site, called Coffitivity, was inspired by recent research showing that the whoosh of espresso machines and caffeinated chatter typical of most coffee shops creates just the right level of background noise to stimulate creativity.
  • The Web site, which is free, plays an ambient coffee shop soundtrack that, according to researchers, helps people concentrate.
  • In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.
  • The site’s creators are now working on creating custom cafe sountracks for specific countries — like plugging in a few Aussie twangs for listeners down under.
  • Website:http://coffitivity.com/

The Technical Interview Should be Dead

  • The entire technical interview process, as traditionally performed, is has been found to be not effective.
  • The fundamental concept of being brought into a room, grilled on the spot with technical questions that must be answered without any of the usual resources, and then being made to write code on a whiteboard, is a poor predictor of future performance.
  • This is a better way. Here is some advice that I found in Tech Crunch for hiring managers.
  •  Quickly filter out the technically inept by asking half a dozen basic technical questions.
  • Talk to them about technical problems they’ve faced, tools they use, decisions they’ve made, pet peeves, etc. You’re discussing technical concepts, you are not grilling them with technical questions that must be answered correctly. Behavioral interviewing has been found by Google to be effective.
  • Discuss their past projects, how they got them done, and the decisions they made en route. Maybe have them talk you through some of their code.
  • Don’t hire anyone who hasn’t accomplished anything. If a developer doesn’t have a portfolio they can talk to you about, not even any side or pet projects…then don’t waste your time talking to them at all.
  • Try to establish “cultural fit” … although be very careful that you’re just talking about work culture, eg enterprise vs. startup, and that this doesn’t lead to “subconsciously excluding people who aren’t just like you.
  • Finally, if they’ve gotten this far, give them an audition project. Something relatively bite-sized, self-contained, and off-critical-path, but a real project, one that will actually ship if successful. Hire them on a paid basis for a week or so to build it, and keep a close eye on their code and progress. (If you do pair programming, have them pair with your existing team.)
  • Hire them. Or don’t.
  • This process is better for everyone. Employers learn far, far more about potential employees; waste less time in interviews; and get them an excuse to pay people to do all those little beneficial things that would otherwise be back-burnered indefinitely.
  • The only real problem is that it doesn’t scale. Google, for instance, would need to find literally thousands of one-week audition projects every year for its candidates, which is probably not realistic.

Mobile Phones are making Cash Obsolete in Africa 

  • When he rolls into a gas station to fill his tank, Barkhad Dahir doesn’t get out of his car. He punches a few buttons on his cellphone and within seconds he has paid for the fuel.
  • With the same quick keystrokes on his phone, he pays for virtually everything he needs: groceries at the supermarket, a few oranges from a market stall, a shoeshine on the street, a cup of sweet milky tea from a café.
  • Here in one of Africa’s poorest countries, where illiteracy is high and traditional banks are almost non-existent, a mobile revolution has created an informal electronic banking system with more efficiency and convenience than anything in developed countries..
  • In the cities of Somaliland, the future has arrived: cash is disappearing, credit cards are unnecessary, and daily shopping is speedy and digital. Almost every merchant, even hawkers on the street, accepts payment by cellphone.
  • It’s an innovation that could transform the continent. Africa is already leading the world in the use of mobile money, and its growth is accelerating.
  •  In countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, mobile-money accounts have become much more widespread than bank accounts.
  • More than 17 million Kenyans (two-thirds of the adult population) are using mobile-money services, mainly to transfer money to family members or business partners in distant locations, but increasingly for bill payments and small loans.
  • Somaliland, a region in northwestern Somalia that has broken away and declared independence from Mogadishu, has one of the world’s highest rates of digital transactions.
  • Most transactions are on Zaad, a service of the biggest mobile-phone company, Telesom. A survey last year found that the average customer made 34 transactions per month – a higher rate than almost anywhere else in the world.
  • “I don’t even carry money any more,” says Adan Abokor, a scholar and democracy activist in Somaliland.
  • “I haven’t seen cash for a long time. Even small payments, like a bus ticket, can be made with Zaad. When my kids are at school and they want a sandwich, I send them the payment by Zaad. It’s immediate – there’s no waiting for it, no counting of cash.”
  • The system is impressively simple and secure. Subscribers give an occasional lump-sum payment to Telesom and then use this balance to pay merchants digitally.
  • To make a purchase, they dial a three-digit number, enter a four-digit PIN and then enter the merchant’s Zaad number and the amount of the payment.
  • Every merchant – even street vendors – keeps their Zaad numbers prominently displayed. Within moments, the customer and the merchant both receive text messages to confirm the payment and the transaction is done.
  • Mobile money has also drastically reduced the cost of crime and security for consumers, private companies and government offices.
  •  The Coca-Cola branch in Somaliland, for example, is the only cashless Coca-Cola company in Africa. About 80 per cent of its sales to its retail distributors are done through Zaad, while the remainder are done by electronic bank transfers.
  • Many companies use Zaad for all of their salary payments to their employees. “It has made life easier for our people,” says Khader Aden Hussein, general manager of the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa, who uses Zaad to pay all of his 300 employees and almost half of his suppliers. “
  • Of the 3.5 million people in Somaliland, more than 500,000 subscribe to Telesom, and more than half of these subscribers are using Zaad.
  • The mobile-money system grew out of Somaliland’s heavy dependence on remittances from Somalis who work abroad – an estimated $1-billion annually.
  • Remittances are increasingly sent home electronically and mobile money became a natural outgrowth.
  • There are other key reasons for the dramatic rise of mobile money here: the lax regulation of the telecommunications sector, which has had the unintentional effect of encouraging innovation; the weak local currency, which has created a dollarized economy (since Zaad is denominated in dollars); and even Somali cultural factors.
  • The biggest African user of mobile money is Kenya, where the most popular service, M-Pesa, has 15 million subscribers through the leading cellphone company, Safaricom.
  • It was originally used mainly by migrant workers to transfer money home to their families. But now it is widely used to receive salaries and pay bills and school fees. 

The DARPA Robotics Challenge

  • DARPA announced the results of the Virtual Robotics Challenge, a five-day-long qualification event during which 26 teams from around the world directed a humanoid robot to complete astonishingly difficult tasks, with little to no human intervention, including picking up, attaching, and turning on a fire hose.
  • Seven teams advanced, earning funding and the use of a government-provided robot, the 5-foot-10, 240-pound Boston Dynamics-built Atlas, in the next phase of the DRC.
  • The highest-scorers among that group will compete in the final showdown, yet another multi-task obstacle course scheduled for December 2014, with a top prize of $2 million.
  • Gazebo, the simulation software that DARPA funded, provided to every DRC team, and used for this recent qualifier, is available right now.
  • Its free to download for anyone (Linux/Ubuntu only, for now, though OSX and Windows versions are coming).
  • You can also download a fully detailed virtual model of Atlas, one of the most advanced humanoid robots on the planet, as well as the exact arena and challenges used in the recent event, which ran from June 17 to 21.
  •  Everything those teams had access to, and everything they had to overcome, from the dimensions and compliance of the seat those virtual Atlases had to scramble into, in order to drive a utility vehicle across the course, to the friction property of the robots’ hands as they gripped the steering wheel, is fully available.
  • Gazebo pre-dates the DRC, as what Open Source Robotics Foundation CTO Nate Koenig calls a side-project.
  • It was similar to the kinds of simulators that individual robotics labs whip up for their own research, to model the environment a system might have to contend with, as well as the system itself.
  • But according to Koenig, he was approached by DARPA last year to not only provide a simulator for use in the DRC, but to turn Gazebo into a simulator fit for the entire world.
  • DARPA supplied $6M in funding to the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) over a three-year period.
  • It was enough for Koenig to assign 10 full-time programmers to overhaul and expand Gazebo.
  • The simulation software has become exponentially more detailed over the past year, allowing users to model and determine everything from the performance of sensors to the failure point of joints under load.
  • One of Gazebo’s best features: the control algorithms you set up within the simulator, or a virtual robot, can be instantly fed to its real-life counterpart (and vice versa).
  • In other words, if you’ve determined how to make a robot climb a ladder in the program, you can plug that code into the physical system, and watch it go.
  • Download Gazebo: http://gazebosim.org/
  • Open Source Robotics Foundation website: http://www.osrfoundation.org/