Saturday, April 30, 2016

On taking control of your freaking life

"You either get bitter or you get better. It's that simple. You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down. The choice does not belong to fate, it belongs to you."
Josh Shipp

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is there such thing as too much coffee?

One mug. To start.
London, ON
April 2016
As I stare at my filled-to-the-top mug, I wonder if you can ever have too much coffee on those mornings when nothing else seems capable of kick-starting your brain.

Just as quickly, I realize the answer is no. And this will likely be the first of multiple refills. Bring it.

Your turn: What's for breakfast today?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The longest road

The weather's been really wonky for much of the past month, so my best intentions of getting an early and fast start to the cycling season remained just that: Intentions.

But yesterday was different. The weather was as perfect as it gets, and after I got home from giving a talk, my wife said a ride would be good for me. And since she's always right about stuff like this, I quickly found myself on the road headed to parts unknown.

I ended up pointing the pink wondermachine westward - a fast way out of town - on what would eventually turn into a glorious 30km loop through the countryside. I was feeling pretty good about myself - cruising at an above-average-for-this-early-in-the-year pace, solid acceleration out of corners, strong overall feeling of control and a smile seemingly stuck permanently on my face - until I turned for home onto a road I'd never taken before. I thought it was a shortcut, but it soon turned into a steepening climb up and out from the river valley that slowed me down like a hand from the heavens. I gutted it out, refusing the give in to the inner voice that kept saying it was OK to walk the rest of the climb.

Needless to say, the last leg of the ride, even after I crested and continued the remaining, flat few kms to home, was a bit slower than the outbound part. But I made a mental note to come back to this place again and again.

Because some workouts challenge the mind as much as the body, and I learned an important lesson about relentlessness in the six or so minutes it took me to grind my way to the top.

Your turn: Your toughest climb. Please discuss...

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Panama Papers - The 6 things you must know

Aaaand we're back....

I've been rather silent of late - probably the longest interval between blog entries in, well, ever. I'm not entirely sure why I lost my muse for a bit, but I can reaffirm that I didn't much enjoy it. My fingers feel best when they're massaging an Apple keyboard, or exploring the controls of my Nikon, or holding the bar ends of my oh-so-pink Specialized wonderbike deep in a turn as I pound the pedals and accelerate toward the next curve. So tonight it's the Apple keyboard's turn, and it feels good. Let's do this, shall we?

Disclosure: I have a day job that allows me to wander into radio and television studios and talk about geeky things. Sometimes I even get woken up early to talk about geeky things from the darkened comfort of my home. Hopefully the dog remains asleep when that happens, but there are unfortunately no apps that can mute the sound of an excited schnauzer at 6 a.m. Or any other time, for that matter.

Once upon a time, the geeky things in my geeky world were separate and distinct from the decidedly non-geeky things that make the top of the evening newscasts. Those days are apparently over, as technology is increasingly woven into the very fabric of the everyday stories that make the mainstream news. Geek news is no longer the exclusive domain of geeks, and every story, whether we like it or not, always seems to have a geeky dimension that matters in some way to the average folks who lead average lives. Pocket protectors no longer define "tech".

Which explains why I got called yesterday* to explain the tech dimensions of the rapidly unfolding Panama Papers story, why I spent a good chunk of today talking about it, and why it'll probably dominate my analyst's agenda for some time to come. As I often do when I'm asked to weigh in on a story, I like to pull together some rough notes that I then share with the producers and hosts I work with. It gives them insight into how I dissect a story, and gives us a roadmap for the interview. Here's what I jotted down for this one:

The short-story version is this isn't just something that affects the rich and famous. We must all worry about it, too, because even little people like us are generating lots of data that someone will find valuable.

The list of people involved is huge - and I have a feeling it'll ripple out even further by the time additional analysis is done - and released - on the full 11-plus-million pages of leaked information. The list includes Iceland's Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Pakistan's PM, Nawaz Sharif, Ayad Allawi, ex-interim PM and former VP of Iraq, Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko, Argentine President Mauricio Macri (who had campaigned against corruption), Alaa Mubarak, son of Egypt’s former president, and even actor Jackie Chan.

Beyond the names themselves is how easily even the most routine of fiscal transactions can be tracked and ultimately shared publicly. All it takes is a leak here, a leak there and before you know it your entire financial history can be laid bare for all to see.

The Wikileaks/Edward Snowden leaks should have been our biggest clue that anyone and everyone can fall victim. This time it's a who's who of political and business people whose private affairs are on display. But what it it's one of us? What stops an angry ex-spouse, business partner or employee from digging around and surfacing similar data on us?

We're inadvertently laying the foundation for something just like this to happen to us, everything we do is now stored, saved and tracked. And we aren't asking questions about what's being done to keep all of that information - OUR information - safe and secure.

Scary times, and our blase attitude toward information security isn't doing us any favors. In the meantime, here's a quick Q&A as reference/background:

Q1 - This is being called an "unprecedented" leak of millions of documents from the database of Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm. How does a breach of this magnitude even happen?
A1 - We can talk about how even the most seemingly secure data can be quickly and quietly stolen thanks to staggeringly obvious gaps in internal security. I could easily walk into an office with a USB drive and walk out, undetected, with tons and tons of unencrypted, damning data. What I do with it afterward is anyone's guess.

Q2 - So it's Vladimir Putin. What does a data breach scandal involving one of the world's most notorious politicians have to do with you and me?
A2 - We can talk about how even ordinary citizens can be victimized. Our data is being gathered and stored everywhere - banks, retailers, governments, tech companies - and we're all one breach away from being exposed. There is no such thing as "below the radar" anymore. Everyone's data is valuable to someone, and we're all at risk. You don't have to be an oligarch and one-time communist spy to become a victim. We should all be worried.

Q3 - How hard can it be to connect the dots between millions of documents? Who has the time to analyze all of this and build a damning case against us?
A3 - Not that long ago, it would have taken years of grinding, extensive, complex analysts to paint a picture. Now, increasingly sophisticated, automated analysis and search tools - something like Google for Forensic Analysis - make short work of looking at a giant blob of data and telling a fascinating, potentially damaging story. With a USB drive in one hand and the right app in the other, even a semi-skilled hacker could easily go to town on pretty much anyone he/she wants.

Q4 - Are the risks getting worse?
A4 - Yes. Think of how much more we rely on apps, systems, web/cloud services today compared to just a few years ago. Think about the Internet of Things, and how the amount of data being collected from our day-to-day lives will increase exponentially and even logarithmically over the next few years. That data - our data - is valuable. And more of our data is being stored and exposed with each passing day.

Q5 - Can we protect ourselves?
A5 - We can. But it takes diligence and attention. Some tips:
  • a) Don't overshare. Don't grant access carte-blanche. Question companies/apps/services that request blanket accesses to your information, and be prepared to delete apps or close services when you think they're overreaching.
  • b) Encrypt everything. Virtually every device, app and service now offers enhanced security via end-to-end encryption. Go into the settings and turn it on. Also use dual/multi-factor authentication whenever possible (i.e. add fingerprint/voice/swipe/etc. authentication to existing password-based access methods. Two locks on a door are better than one.
  • c) Be password-smart. Use hard-to-guess passwords, change them regularly and use different ones for different apps and services. Never share them.
  • d) Clean up old devices, apps and accounts. Don't leave old data hanging around. Take deliberate steps to ensure it isn't easily harvested by criminals. Properly dispose of old hardware, too.
  • e) Review data security policies. This applies at work as well as with any company you do business with. They should all have data usage and terms of use policies on-file. If they aren't safeguarding your information, ask why and be prepared to go elsewhere if you're concerned.  
  • f) Google yourself. Every once in a while, go online and do basic searches for yourself to see what's out there - and whether or not that makes you nervous. 
Your turn: What else do you want to know about the Panama Papers? It's going to be burning hot all week, so have at it. I'm all ears...

ICYMI, here's a rundown of who' I've spoken with so far:

  • CTV News Channel, Scott Laurie, weekly Clicked In segment
  • NewsTalk 1010 Toronto, John Moore
  • NewsTalk 1290 London, Andy Oudman (we'll explore more on our weekly Tech Talk segment tomorrow)
  • CTV London, Gerry Dewan (video here, just over 11:00 in)
  • 610 CKTB Niagara, Larry Fedoruk (podcast/audio here)
  • NewsTalk 1010 Toronto, David Eddie
  • CFRA Ottawa (my weekly Tech Tuesday segment with Rob Snow - MP3 here)
(And, yes, I get a little thrill every time my producers play Van Halen's Panama just before an interview. I'm strange like that.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Andy Grove, Intel giant, has died

Sad news from the world of technology: Andy Grove, the former President, CEO and Chairman of Intel, has passed away at the age of 79.

He may not be a familiar name to most, but in the tech space, he was - and always will be - a rock star. He was the one who led the company's shift into microprocessors, and most of the computers we use today owe much to the architectures and technologies developed on his watch.

If you used any technology today, as I have done to share word of his passing, I hope you'll pause for a moment and think of him, and all those he led, who made it possible.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

On Einstein's Theory of Human Stupidity

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."
Albert Einstein
I made the mistake of scrolling through my social media feeds this morning. Somehow, Einstein's words seem especially appropriate as I wish I could un-read what I've already read.

I'm guessing human stupidity was around long before Twitter (10 years-old tomorrow) and Facebook and their ilk came along. But it seems like it's so much more visible today as a result. Bummer that.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

On giving thanks for the velo

"Whoever invented the bicycle deserves the thanks of humanity."
Lord Charles Beresford
I seem to be in a bike-focused mood this weekend, so please forgive me for posting quickly and running out the door. The road awaits, and I've got a few kms to log before the rain moves in.

I hope you're able to hit your proverbial road today, as well. Whatever you're up to, may it be fun, fulfilling, and safe.

Update - 4:10 pm: I'm back from being beaten up by 40 km/h winds. Despite spitting rain and a route that had a lot more uphills and downs, I managed to add another 30.26 km to the tally. Ridiculous? Sure. But holy cow did it feel good.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Where I get back on the bike

Where the rubber hits the road
London, ON
March 2016
The weather's been glorious for much of the week, so as the weekend approached, I found myself staring at the pink Specialized bike that's been parked in the living room for months - my wife is infinitely patient and lovely, and she puts up with my weird cyclist-parking habits - and thinking that it was time to roll it out and give it a workout.

The obligatory cycling selfie
So today dawned warm and greyish, and that was good enough to get it out of the house, give it a bit of a cleaning and tweaking and see if I remembered how to ride the thing.

Fortunately, my gyroscopic memory remains intact, and I managed to spin for 26.8 km without incident. I didn't set any speed records, but that wasn't really the point in the first place. Instead, I returned home with a grin on my face and a determination to make this cycling season count more than the last couple of years have. Since my little, ah, incident (here, if you're just joining us), I've admittedly been more than a little afraid to get on and ride. If we're being brutally honest, I've been a wimp, using any excuse in the book to stay out of the saddle.

I'm posting this today to remind myself, on those days when I'm [this close] to making another excuse to not take the bike, that cycling to me was in the not-too-distant past way more than a means of getting around town. It was my culture, my identity, and my passion. And it will be again, fear be damned.

For the record, I parked my wheels in the garage when I was done. My wife deserves a bike-free living room.

Your turn: Do you ride? Where will your bike take you this year?

Monday, March 07, 2016

Thematic Photographic 368 - Night

The lights are on, but nobody's home
London, ON
February 2016
There's never enough time in the world to do the things we want to do. Between running the daily minutiae of life and then recovering from said minutiae in anticipation of the next anticipated wave of minutiae, free time is a precious commodity.

We always tell ourselves we'll do X whenever we have a little bit of extra time. But that extra time never materializes. And X, whatever that may be, doesn't get done.

So my solution is simple: Change up our perception of extra time, or free time. It isn't a gloriously long two-week vacation. Or even a leisurely Sunday afternoon. Think shorter moments. Think in-between moments, when you're moving from one piece of minutiae to another.

This picture is a result of one of those in-between moments. As I walked across the Western University campus, from the parking lot to where the Little Man was attending a party, I slowed my pace and shot whatever I could. It was an icy cold winter's night, and I had the wrong camera for the job. But I shot anyway because that X thing I'd been meaning to get done was calling me.

I call this photography on the run, and if you haven't tried it, you're missing out on a whole lotta fun.

We may not be able to slow the universe down, but I'm pretty sure we can all be trying just a little bit harder to make moments along the way. They don't have to be spectacular. They just have Take the time.

Your turn: Take a picture that suggests, evokes or otherwise reflects this week's theme, night, and share it on your blog or website. Leave a comment here letting folks know where to find it. Visit other participants and feel free to pull in others, as well, because a busy Thematic is more fun than a quiet one. Head here for more background on how this works. And please accept our thanks - it's all about your vision, after all.

News through an ancient lens

Film and video
London, ON
February 2016
For more Thematic data, head here
The mechanics of journalism have always been tightly influenced by the evolution of technology. Newspapers have evolved from manual typewriters and ink-stained hot type to electronic workflows and vanishing printing presses. The typical radio studio of 2016 - now filled with flat-screens, social media and enough bandwidth to launch a space mission - is barely recognizable to anyone who came of age spinning vinyl and taking requests by phone. Likewise, television has evolved from film to video and now digital.

We'll leave the macro-economies of the Internet and its often frightening impact on the business of journalism for another day, but suffice to say the online/mobile/social wave of change will similarly leave the media space virtually unrecognizable within a few short years. Assuming it even survives in any recognizable form at all.

Which is why when I come across old data types like these - 40-year-old film and a 25-year-old video camera - I have to pause and wonder how they pulled it off with such seemingly ancient, ponderous and expensive technology. Today's video journalists shoot digitally, edit in the field on iPads and upload from wherever they can get the strongest signal. I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been like to shoot on film (sparingly, lest you bust the budget) and then have to build in enough time to drive back to the newsroom, get it developed, then edit it all together.

I realize the journalists of tomorrow will look at our tablets and smartphones with an identical sense of wonder. And assuming the industry survives in some form into the distant future, I hope every generation has the opportunity to look back and be thankful to have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Because anything that advances the storytelling state-of-the-art deserves to be remembered fondly by those who tell the stories in the first place.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

On loss, light, and Steinbeck's final work

"It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone."
John Steinbeck
The Winter of Our Discontent
I didn't appreciate Steinbeck as much in high school, when I first studied his work, as I do now. Another sign of the inevitable creep of time, I suppose. And yet here I find myself slowly nodding in agreement: I'd rather have and lose than never have in the first place.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

That's just nuts

I have no explanation for this photo of peanuts beyond the simple fact that not everything needs an explanation. Life is short, and I'd hate to think I had missed an opportunity to be happily frivolous.

The question, then, is how are YOU are going to be happily frivolous, as well? Do tell...

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Data from outer space

Safe travels, Commander Kelly
London, ON
March 2016
For more data-infused goodness, head here
The other day, I sat in the cozy comfort of my home office and watched the utterly surreal sight you see here of three spaceman helping three other spaceman get into their spaceship.

A few hours later, their Soyuz craft departed the International Space Station and fired its rockets to lose  286 mph of velocity and drop the far side of its orbit deep into the atmosphere. Not long thereafter, said Soyuz plunged through the atmosphere, trailing superhot plasma in its wake, and then the ship settled safely into a rocket-assisted landing on the Kazakh steppe. After almost a year in orbit, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and his fellow #YearInSpace cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko as well as Sergey Volkov, were finally back on the planet.

As routine as these flights seem to have become, I still - and likely always will - view them as nothing short of unreal. The building blocks of establishing human life on another planet are being built right here, right now, and we get to watch it in breathtaking HD from the comfort of home.

In a sense, the screen grab you see here is just data. Pixels on a screen. A video like so many others that we'll watch today and every day. But this data is special. It came 320 km above our heads, from a ship flying at 28,000 km/h through the most hostile environment humans have ever dared explore. It's been massaged and shared just so, through an impossibly complex global network that's existed in its current form for fewer years than most of us have been alive. And it finally makes it into our homes, and allows us witness history.

We live in an incredible age. Moments like this remind me of the need to stop what we're doing every once in a while and drink in the wonder of it all.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

On the flip side of sorrow

"Sorrow is one of the vibrations that prove the fact of living."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Yin. Yang. How do you know what happiness feels like without having experienced its polar opposite first?

Facebook's new emojis go beyond the "Like"

After months of testing, Facebook took the wraps off of its new "Reactions" emojis this week, and as expected the Internet melted down.

Users have complained for years that "Like" wasn't always an appropriate way to express non-verbal emotion - for example, when your friend's pet just died or she lost her job. So Facebook has finally expanded the list of emojis available to users. In addition to the traditional Like, users can now click on a Love, Haha, Wow, Sad or Angry emoji. too.

After piloting the new emojis in Ireland, Span and Chile, they've been rolled out globally on both the website and in its mobile apps. You'll want to update your mobile app to take advantage of the new capability.

Using them is fairly simple: Just long-press over the bottom of a post on mobile (or hover over it with your mouse on a desktop browser.) A panel with the six emoji options pops up. Select the one you want and voila, you're done! Notifications throughout Facebook have been updated to reflect the number of "Reactions" to a given post, and Facebook displays how many of each a given update has received.

On the surface this seems like a simple extension of the Likes that we've been using for a few years. But behind the scenes, there's a longer-term plan.

Facebook says it "counts" all of the new emojis as Likes. For now. But that doesn't mean that over time it won't start tracking them individually - and then using that knowledge to more closely target ads and other marketing. The fact that Likes (and Wows, and Angry, and...) exist off of Facebook, on partner sites, gives Facebook another powerful avenue to collect user data.

That data is lucrative, and these new emoji are little more than a long-term data play. That's smart business, and we should never be under the illusion that Facebook is doing this to be nice. Facebook is always focused on growing audience, deepening engagement and selling the results to advertisers.

With this firmly in mind, this is another brilliant move by the company to keep us in its world for more time, and to interact with it, and each other, more profoundly.