Show of 03-06-2021

Tech Talk March 6, 2021

Email and Forum Questions

  • Email from Lynn in Cleveland: Dear Doc and Jim. I have wanted to buy an SSD for my laptop for a while now, but the high prices for large SSDs have been holding me back. I was checking on eBay last night and saw where a person is selling used Crucial MX500 512GB SSDs for just $70 each! What is your opinion on used solid-state drives? Do you think I should buy one? Lynn in Cleveland, OH
  • Tech Talk Responds: Installing an SSD as the boot drive in your laptop is probably the best upgrade you can make. I really think you should pass up this deal and buy a new SSD instead. There are several reasons why I don’t recommend buying a used solid state drive:
    • Unlike traditional spinning hard drives, SSDs can only be written to a limited number of times, and every write action uses up a portion of an SSD’s useful life. And since you have no way of knowing how many times a used drive has already been written to, you have no way of knowing how many write cycles it has left.
    • Even though a used SSD might appear to be working fine, it could contain non-working memory cells – a condition that tends to get worse in hurry once an SSD starts to fail.
    • In today’s market, $70 for a used 500GB SSD is not really a bargain at all. In fact, you can that very same SSD brand new at Amazon for that same. Moreover, you can get a 1TB SSD for just a little more
  • Email from Helen in Rockville: Dear Tech Talk. I keep seeing references to Cloud Computing and I was just wondering what it is (how it works and how it could maybe benefit me)? I have been using computers at work for many years but this term is new to me. Helen in Rockville, MD
  • Tech Talk Responds: The term Cloud Computing refers to any computing service that is provided over the Internet instead of via a program or app on your local computer or mobile device. Here are four of the most common examples of “Cloud Computing” services (some of which you’re probably using right now):
    • Online Email Services, like Gmail or Outlook.
    • Online File Storage Services, like Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, or OneDrive.
    • Online Backup Services, like Carbonite, iDrive and others.
    • Online Photo Editors, like Pixlr, PicMonkey and others.
  • Those are just a few of the most common forms of “Cloud Based” computing services. In fact, most anything that can be done locally can also be done using an existing cloud service.
  • Email from Bob in Maryland: Dear Doc, Jim, and the persistent Mr. BigVoice. I see that as the Gig Economy is growing, some with software skills are starting to mount a defense against exploitation: Check out this article about gig workers who gather their own data to check algorithm’s math. Drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other firms are building apps to compare their mileage with pay slips. One group is selling the data to government agencies. What do you think, Doc? All the best, your faithful listener, Bob in Maryland
  • Tech Talk Responds: That is an interesting article. Armin Samii, an UberEats driver had been biking for UberEats for a few weeks last July when he accepted a delivery he estimated would take 20 minutes. But the app led him up one of the steepest hills in Pittsburgh, a 4-mile one-way trip that clocked in at an hour. Then he noticed that Uber had only paid him for 1 mile—the distance between his origin and destination as the crow flies, but not as the man bikes.
  • Samii is a software engineer. So he created a Google Chrome extension, UberCheats, that helps workers spot pay discrepancies. The extension automatically extracts the start and end points of each trip and calculates the shortest travel distance between the two. If that distance doesn’t match up with what Uber paid for, the extension marks it for closer examination. So far, a few hundred workers have installed UberCheats on their browsers. Google briefly removed the extension last week when Uber flagged it as a trademark violation, but reversed its decision after Samii appealed.
  • The digital tool joins others popping up to help freelancers wrest back control over work directed by opaque algorithms, with pay structures that might change at any time. The need has only grown during the pandemic, which has seen companies like DoorDash, Amazon, and Instacart hire more contractors to support spikes in demand for deliveries.
  • Email from Paula in Minneapolis: Dear Doc and Jim. I use my cell phone a work all the time. Sometimes when I am at a meeting a notification pops up on the lock screen, one that I do not want my co-workers to see. Is there any way that I can stop them. Paula in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • Tech Talk Responds: Allowing your notifications to pop up on the Lock screen puts the security of your online accounts at risk? It also diminishes your privacy.
  • If you have Two-Factor Authentication enabled on your online, the text messages you receive that contain your authentication codes will be displayed right on the Lock screen. One factor compromised.
  • It is very easy to hide your notifications from your phone’s Lock screen. Just follow these steps.
  • Follow these steps if you have an Android phone:
    • Tap the Settings icon (it looks like a “gear” or “cog“).
    • Tap Privacy.
    • Tap Lock screen.
    • Select either Hide sensitive only, Hide all notifications or Don’t show notifications at all
  • Follow these steps if you have an iPhone:
    • Tap the Settings icon (it looks like a “gear” or “cog“).
    • Tap Notifications.
    • Tap Show Previews.
    • Select either When Unlocked or Never.
  • If you followed the steps above your most sensitive notifications should no longer be displayed on your smartphone’s Lock screen.
  • Email from Anna in Kilmarnock: Dear Doc and Jim. I have an older laptop that’s still running Windows XP and I have question about it. My laptop is a Dell Latitude D620 that has been upgraded to 4GB of RAM and 320GB hard drive. Can you recommend the best version of Linux to install on this computer? There are so many Linux versions to choose from and I have no idea which one to pick. Anna in Kilmarnock, VA
  • Tech Talk Responds: Your laptop is fast enough and has enough RAM to easily run pretty much any Linux distro that’s currently available. Your choice should depend on what you actually plan to do with your laptop once you have installed Linux on it.
  • If your only goal is to have a working computer that you can start using right away by surfing the Internet, sending and receiving email, editing photos and other routine computing tasks, then I strongly recommend that you install the latest version of Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop.
  • Linux Mint is the most Windows-like flavor of Linux when used with the awesome Cinnamon desktop. It is also a very easy Linux distro to install and get working on a wide variety of hardware platforms. And once it’s up and running, it tends to run very smoothly. With Linux Mint, most of the programs you’ll need to run such as the Firefox web browser, the GIMP photo editor and others will either be installed right along with the operating system or can quickly be installed with just a few clicks of the mouse. Download link: https://linuxmint.com/
  • Email from Barry in Barry in Baltimore: Dear Tech Talk. I bought an Acer Aspire S7-391 laptop with Windows 8 at an estate auction. I was able to buy it for only $20. I’m hoping that’s a good deal. Once I got the laptop home and booted it up I found out that it has 3 user accounts on it. One account is an administrator account without a password on it. The other two accounts are standard accounts with passwords. I would like to reset this machine back to the default settings. Barry in Baltimore.
  • Tech Talk Responds: You can easily reset your laptop back to the factory defaults which will automatically wipe out all the existing user accounts. All you need is access to the Recovery Management Utility (which you have via the unlocked administrator account). Search for recovery. Select Acer Recovery Management from the list of search results. Click Restore Factory Settings and follow the prompts.
  • The laptop will restart a few times, and then you will be prompted to perform the initial setup just as if you had bought the laptop new.

Profiles in IT: Arthur Lee Samuel

  • Arthur Lee Samuel was an American pioneer in the field of computer gaming and artificial intelligence. He coined the term “machine learning.”
  • Samuel was born on December 5, 1901 in Emporia, Kansas and graduated from College of Emporia in Kansas in 1923.
  • He received a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT in 1926, and taught for two years as instructor.
  • In 1928, he joined Bell Laboratories, where he worked mostly on vacuum tubes, including improvements of Radar during World War II.
  • He developed a gas-discharge transmit-receive switch (TR tube) that allowed a single antenna to be used for both transmitting and receiving.
  • After the war, he moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where he initiated the ILLIAC project, but left before its first computer was complete.
  • Samuel went to IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1949, where he would conceive and carry out his most successful work. He is credited with one of the first software hash tables, and influencing early research in using transistors for computers at IBM.
  • He created a checkers program for IBM’s first commercial computer, the IBM 701, which caused IBM’s stock to increase 15 points overnight.
  • He thought that teaching computers to play games was very fruitful for developing tactics appropriate to general problems.
  • His program used a search tree of the board positions reachable from the current state.
  • Since he had only a very limited amount of available computer memory, Samuel implemented what is now called alpha-beta pruning.
  • Instead of searching each path until it came to the game’s conclusion, Samuel developed a scoring function based on the position of the board at any given time.
  • The program remembered every position it had already seen, along with the terminal value of the reward function. He termed with “machine learning.”
  • Samuel’s later programs reevaluated the reward function based on input from professional games. He also had it play thousands of games against itself.
  • The Samuel Checkers-playing Program appears to be the world’s first self-learning program, and as such a very early demonstration of a fundamental concept of AI.
  • His pioneering non-numerical programming helped shaped the instruction set of processors. Logic functions are one example of instructions that supported his work.
  • Working essentially alone, doing his own programming, he invented several seminal techniques in rote learning and generalization learning, using such underlying techniques as mutable evaluation functions, hill climbing, and signature tables.
  • He played a large role in establishing IBM’s European laboratories and setting their research directions, especially in Vienna and Zurich.
  • In 1966, Samuel retired from IBM and became a professor at Stanford, where he worked the remainder of his life.
  • Arthur Samuel remained an active computer programmer long after age forced him to give up active research. His contributions included work on the SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Language) operating system, on software for the Livermore S-1 multiprocessor.
  • He worked with Donald Knuth on the TeX project, including writing some of the documentation. He continued to write software past his 88th birthday.
  • The Stanford computer he used tells us that he last logged into it on February 2, 1990, and his home computer was still used throughout the summer.
  • He was given the Computer Pioneer Award by the IEEE Computer Society in 1987.
  • He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on July 29, 1990.

Observations from the Bunker

  • Steve Jobs Steve Jobs had a different take on intelligence:
  • According to Job, a lot of it is memory, but a lot of it is the ability to zoom out.
  • Like you’re in a city. And you could look at the whole thing from the 80th floor. And while other people are trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B reading these stupid little maps, you can just see it all in front of you.
  • You can see the whole thing. You can make connections that seem obvious because you can see the whole thing.
  • To Jobs, intelligence was based on making connections. On connecting the dots.
  • While there are at least eight different forms of intelligence, let’s focus on two.
    • Crystallized intelligence is accumulated knowledge. Facts. Figures. In simple terms, book smarts.
    • Fluid intelligence is ability to learn and retain new information and use it to solve a problem, or learn a new skill, or recall existing memories and modify them with new knowledge. In simple terms, street smart.
  • Plenty of people are book smart. Plenty of people are street smart. Those who are both are somewhat rarer.
  • Improving fluid intelligence requires you to take a deep dive, and then move on to something new repeatedly. The only way to improve your fluid intelligence, and keep it high, is to continue to experience new things. Learn new things. Try new things. Challenge yourself.
  • Do that, and not only will you benefit from a constant flow of new information and skill, your brain will stay will keep forging new neural connections. Which makes it easier to keep learning and getting smarter.
  • The more you know, and the broader your experiences, the more you can leverage the power of associative learning: The process of relating something new to something you already know by spotting the relationship between seemingly unrelated things.
  • In simple terms, whenever you say, “I get it: This is like that,” you’re using associative learning. And whenever you think, “Wait I could apply this to that,” you’re using that learning to make smart connections.
  • Like how Steve Jobs used his experience auditing a calligraphy class in college as the inspiration for Apple’s early typefaces. Or how Kevin Plank used his experience playing college football to develop Under Armour’s moisture wicking garments.
  • The more you learn, the more likely you will be able to associate “old” knowledge to new things. Which means you have only to learn differences or nuances.
  • All of which makes learning even easier, which research shows will result in your being able to learn even more quickly — and retain a lot more.

Deepfake Videos are a Real Threat

  • New Deepfake videos of actor Tom Cruise have made their way onto TikTok under the handle and they look real.
  • They’re so realistic, in fact, it’s possible that you wouldn’t even know they’re computer-generated had you not been alerted by the account’s handle.
  • And they were made using not much more than sample footage of Cruise and deepfake technology that’s getting easier for anyone to use.
  • Two years ago it would have been easy to differentiate between a real and an AI-generated video of somebody. Now it is difficult.
  • Rachel Tobac, the CEO of SocialProof Security, warns that deepfakes like those of Tom Cruise threaten to further erode public trust in a world where media literacy is poor and people already can’t agree on what’s true or false.
  • Deepfakes are especially dangerous because video is widely considered indisputable evidence. A prominent individual could be deepfaked into performing a hate crime, or a person who legitimately committed an unjust act could use deepfakes to craft an alibi.
  • As deepfakes have gotten better, companies including Microsoft have built tools that can detect them, generating confidence scores based on signals that a piece of content is manipulated, like the appearance of subtle fading or greyscale elements invisible to the naked eye.
  • And in fact, a website called CounterSocial was able to detect the Tom Cruise videos as fake when they were run through its own artificial intelligence algorithm.

Trend of the Week: Cheating on Proctored Online Exam

  • Students are using HDMI cables and hidden phones to cheat on exams administered through invasive proctoring software like Proctorio.
  • With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage around the globe and no quick end to remote learning in sight, many students have found themselves taking exams under the watch of proctoring software like Proctorio, which surveils students through algorithmic systems that, among other things, detect eye movements, track keyboard strokes, and monitor audio inputs.
  • Universities sometimes shell out thousands of dollars per exam for Proctorio, which helps at least give the impression that academic integrity is being maintained during remote learning.
  • One French student used a 10-meter HDMI cable that ran from his laptop to a TV screen in another room that mirrored his screen. His friend would then look up the exam answers and send it via WhatsApp to his phone, which was also on the keyboard and out of sight of the webcam.

Idea of the Week: NFTs (non-fungible tokens)

  • The musician Grimes sold some animations she made with her brother Mac on a website called Nifty Gateway. Some were one-offs, while others were limited editions of a few hundred – and all were snapped up in about 20 minutes, with total takings of more than US$6 million.
  • Despite the steep price tag, anybody can watch or (with a simple right-click) save a copy of the videos, which show a cherub ascending over Mars, Earth, and imaginary landscapes.
  • Rather than a copy of the files themselves, the eager buyers received a special kind of tradable certificate called a “non-fungible token” or NFT. But what they were really paying for was an aura of authenticity – and the ability to one day sell that aura of authenticity to somebody else.
  • NFTs are a cultural answer to creating technical scarcity on the internet, and they allow new types of digital goods. They are making inroads into the realms of high art, rock music, and even new mass-markets of virtual NBA trading cards. In the process, they are also making certain people rich.
  • NFTs are digital certificates that authenticate a claim of ownership to an asset, and allow it to be transferred or sold. The certificates are secured with Blockchain technology similar to what underpins Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
  • A Blockchain is a decentralized alternative to a central database. Blockchains usually store information in encrypted form across a peer-to-peer network, which makes them very difficult to hack or tamper with. This in turn makes them useful for keeping important records.
  • Most NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is a cryptocurrency, like bitcoin or dogecoin, but its blockchain also supports these NFTs.
  • Producer 3LAU raised US$11.6 million on an NFT auction around his latest album. The top bidder received a ‘custom song created by 3LAU with winner’s creative direction’, an NFT for each track on the album, unreleased music, and even a physical copy on vinyl. 3LAU
  • There is no shortage of buyers: the NFT market is already worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Even humble sports trading cards will never be the same.

Wi-Fi Extender vs. Mesh Network

  • Both Wi-Fi extenders and mesh networks promise to improve and extend your Wi-Fi signal, but they achieve this through different means.
  • A range extender is usually a box that plugs directly into an outlet “wall wart”-style. It may or may not have external antennas, and as the name implies, it extends the range of your Wi-Fi network.
  • If, for example, your Wi-Fi network is strong in your home’s living room, bedrooms, and kitchen, but it doesn’t reach the den, then a strategically placed range extender may help get you the coverage you need.
  • Extenders typically have a different network name (SSID) from the main home network, such as “Home Wi-Fi” and “Home Wi-Fi Ext.” While extenders can help a great deal, the problem is that the Wi-Fi signal degrades the further away you get from the source (your ISP router or modem). So, if you use two extenders to hit the basement, for example, the speed and strength of your Wi-Fi will often be noticeably slower.
  • Mesh networks are often referred to as systems that “blanket” your home in Wi-Fi. A mesh system is made up of a source router and additional “satellite nodes” that can be placed around the home. The number of nodes you need depends on the size of your home and the coverage the particular system covers. Some manufacturers have systems that cover up to 5,000 square feet with a single router and node, while others need three or more devices to cover an area that size.
  • Once they’re installed, mesh devices connect to each other to provide a strong Wi-Fi signal across your entire home under a single network name. As you move through the home, your mobile devices simply connect to the device with the best signal for that part of the house.
  • Like extenders, mesh systems also repeat that original signal coming from the source of your ISP-provided modem or gateway. However, the difference is that these routers are far smarter and more powerful than a regular extender. If you get a tri-band mesh system, for example, the system typically dedicates one of its bands for data backhaul.
  • A mesh system is going to be more expensive. Even if you just need a router and satellite, that’s going to run you in the hundreds of dollars compared to a less expensive extender that can be picked up for $50 to $100.
  • If you just have one room that is a dead spot in the house, then a single extender might be the better choice. If you will need multiple extenders to make it work, however, a mesh system is often the better option.