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Archive for the ‘Software, Technology, and Wow I Didn't Know That’ Category

On November 11th China’s Alibaba, the nation’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure, posted record sales of over $25 billion in a single day – known in China as “Singles Day,” a national holiday dedicated to the nation’s singles population.  The e-commerce shopping site hyped the day extensively, with 15 million products available from over 140,000 brands of merchandise.  They processed over 800 million orders, at rates said to be on the order of 175,000 transactions per second.

That’s a big deal, reminding us why the cloud is a big deal too.

Alibaba dominates the Chinese cloud, with about 60% of that market, but U.S. firms still lead globally, led by Amazon Web Services and Microsoft.  China won’t issue data center licenses for foreign customers, which gives local firms like Alibaba and Tencent Holdings a big leg up there.  And it shows.

Last year Chinese automaker Geely, which runs its operations in Alibaba’s cloud, ran a one-hour marketing promotion that resulted in the sale of more than 2,000 vehicles.  Clients like Geely know that Alibaba will spin up a lot of servers on short notice when they need the computing power.  They can make 10,000 computers available in a half hour.  Think about that.  Even if you owned 10,000 PCs, it would take you longer than that just to switch them on!

If anyone doubts the coming dominance and rapid build-up of cloud infrastructure, take note that Alibaba is just one of a number of companies with a massive investment in a state-of-the-art data center on the banks of a huge artificial lake.  It’s a massive complex that looks like a bit like a giant server itself.  It sucks and pumps water from the lake to cool down its seemingly countless servers.  Eventually the water runs through a canal and back to the lake.  In winter, that water is actually used to heat the office.  Amazon employs a similar approach in Seattle and also in Switzerland.  Data centers in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland are or will be employing their geothermal landscapes to much the same purpose, keeping those servers cool and humming non-stop.

As to why it’s a big deal: this is how people shop now.  China’s Singles Day event is proof of concept, where 500 million consumers now comprise its middle class.  That will only grow.  It’s already a $5 trillion market.  And within about 4 years, it is predicted that China will account for about 60% of global e-commerce.  Win China, and as Forbes Magazine recently noted, you win the world.

 

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Cloud storage services have become big business.  And a handful of familiar names are quickly grabbing up ownership of most of it.

For starters, Amazon is by far the largest cloud provider today, garnering (according to Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy) “several times as much business as the next 14 providers combined.”

Microsoft is next largest in terms of sales of the infrastructure services that store data and run applications.  But at last read, they were still less than one-fifth Amazon’s size.

And Google places third, even though they are now by market value the second-largest company in the world, though with only about one-fifteenth of Amazon’s cloud business revenues.

Still, Microsoft and Google aren’t standing still.  Microsoft’s cloud unit, called Azure, has won over some large customers lately including Bank of America and Chevron.  They are said (according to a recent article in Businessweek) to have done it by focusing on salesmanship and relationship building skills, something not necessarily the forte of the Amazon business model.  Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has pushed his sales force into “a roving R&D lab and management consultancy.”  They’re hooking up smaller startups with potential investors and giving larger prospects access to a sales team that helps them market their Azure-based apps to their own customers.  Win-win.

Microsoft is also increasingly moving its traditional Office suite to the cloud via initiatives like Office 365 and the new Dynamics 365 products and branding.  This makes it more likely that when companies consider moving off their own data centers they’ll consider Microsoft favorably, exploiting that existing relationship when it comes to migrating to a public cloud.

To step up its game, Google recently hired the co-founder of VM Ware, Diane Greene, to run its cloud business, starting with a cloud sales force they are building from scratch.  Google also recently announced a partnership with Salesforce.com to take advantage of its list of preferred cloud providers, according to Businessweek.

One big advantage both Google and Microsoft will try to exploit over Amazon is the fact that Amazon often competes fiercely with many of its own prospective cloud clients.  Wal-Mart and others are not keen on seeing their AWS payments benefit the very retailer they most compete against.

It’s still too early to say who will end up on top, but the battle is fierce, and you can expect all three of these tech titans to be in that mix for years to come.  It’s already a $35 billion market that’s projected to grow to about $90 billion within four years according to Gartner analysts.

As AWS’s Jassy notes, “This is the biggest technology shift of our lifetimes.”

 

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“I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” said Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Fenyman.  His sentiments were echoed by Bill Gates, who said recently that Microsoft’s quantum-computing project is “the one part of Microsoft where they put up slides that I truly don’t understand.”  Even Albert Einstein couldn’t wrap his head around it, so to speak, declaring that the thinking behind quantum mechanics was fundamentally flawed.

And yet… Scientists have since proved the theory repeatedly and conclusively.  More to the point, computers today are being built upon the principles of quantum mechanics – they actually exist.  And wouldn’t you know it, Google (a division now of Alphabet, Inc.) is taking a lead role.  (So is China.)

The oversimplified guiding principle here is that in the quantum world – the world at the atomic level – a strange phenomenon exists known as ‘superposition’ which states that a single atom can be in two locations at the same time.  In our ‘real’ world, that’s simply impossible, and so we can excuse Fenynman, Gates, Einstein and ourselves for not ‘getting it.’

But as Vijay Pande, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture firm says, “If this works, it will change the world and how things are done.”  He’s not kidding.

How these things work is less important to most of us than what their working may portend for the future.  At the ‘how’ level, quantum computing involves using qubits rather than the traditional computer’s bits.  In bits, everything is either a one or zero.  In qubits, they can be a one and a zero at the same time.  This allows qubits to process a lot more information than bits, which are set in a specific state – exponentially so when they are combined.  Thus, while 1 qubit can equal 2 bits, and 2 can equal 4, by the time you get to 10 qubits you have the ‘equivalent’ (loosely speaking) of 1,024 bits.  And at 20 qubits, you have over 1 million equivalent bits.  You get the idea.

The practical application of this compounding expansion of computing technology becomes very relevant when you start looking at really deep and complicated problems, for example unbreakable encryption, or simply creating algorithms to calculate the fastest routes to the airport with minimum traffic.  A classical computer would take 45 minutes to take the data of 10,000 taxis and perform that task; an experiment with a quantum computer from the Canadian firm D-Wave (whose quantum PC is pictured above) did it in less than a second.

Because large-scale encryption can be enabled (reverse-factoring prime numbers is a common encryption technique) as well as unbound (or cracked), quantum computing power has attracted the attention of the NSA, where code-breaking quantum computers could be devastating to the national security.  NSA employees and vendors have already been put on alert that they will soon need to overhaul their encryption techniques.  Of course, the NSA (like Google) is building its own quantum computer.

The potential exists to upend entire industries, which of course is why Google is employing its quantum computing powers in the realm of AI.  Word is they already have a 22 qubit chip, frozen inside ‘cryostats’ in Santa Barbara, and that they plan to use their complex (and expensive) setup to deliver quantum computing via the cloud, possibly charging by the second according to reporters at The Wall Street Journal.

There are still some very real hurdles to overcome, from error-checking to the expensive containers for the chips used to power then, but if computers have taught us anything the past 50 years, it is that the future will always be faster, and hence more powerful – and the sky, or perhaps more to the point, the atom – is truly the limit.

 

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In the post-Equifax hack world, it would be easy to give up the ghost and just assume you’re going to get hacked at some point  Easy, but of course not prudent.  Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to make stealing your information harder – at least via your password-ing skills – without making your life harder too.  Here are a few we’ve found in our readings on the topic.

First, let’s start with the misguided notion that passwords must be ultra-complicated in order to be hack proof.  Not so say the experts.  While T!sK8%gB$x@ may be effective, its complexity is not necessarily… necessary.  The idea that passwords must be convoluted started with some 2003 guidelines from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that insisted you need a random combination of letters numbers and symbols.  Turns out, that wasn’t as effective as they thought it would be.

While you should still avoid easily guessed passwords, a strong password can in fact be logical and easy to remember.  Start with this bit of advice, courtesy of blogger and Internet radio host Kim Komando: A password should simply be able to withstand 100 guesses.  According to Komando, experts tell us that the bad guys can “guess” a password correctly about 73% of the time.  Worse, they can access other accounts of that user thereafter with mostly just slight variations on the original password.  (Come on, admit it… you do it too.)

Note too that dedicated hackers turn to your media feeds (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) to scour info about you that may be useful.  That should rule out using numbers from your birthday, or pet names or other special favorites that could be easily deduced.

Today’s experts suggest that instead of complex, difficult to remember combinations, try using a phrase (or a “passphrase” in the parlance) that is easy to memorize but hard for others to crack.  Maybe your favorite cookie is a macaroon and your grandmother was a stenographer in Buffalo.  Ilovemymacaroonstenographerinbuffalo would be mighty difficult to guess, wouldn’t it?  Or you might use a phrase in which you take the first character of each word, and perhaps pump it up with just a couple numbers (or symbols), like: 18fsasyaofbfutcann63.  That’s the first words of the Gettysburg address (Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, framed by the year of the address, 1863.)  You may not like our phrase, but surely you can find one of your own.

All that said, the newest NIST guidelines now suggest passwords of as many as 64 characters, and even allow spaces.  Most of us still use the minimum required, usually about 8 characters, including numbers and special characters.  That’s not the most hack-proof approach, and it’s true that stretching it out will increase the safety of your password but, really… 64 characters?  Here again, stringing together a chain of words that only you could logically know and construct with a couple special characters thrown in, is about the only way to get there.

One final tip: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  You don’t need to change your passwords that often.   When a password expires, explains NIST’s Paul Grassi, “it isn’t a motivator to create a brand new password, it’s a motivation to shift one character so you can remember the password” — thereby, of course, defeating the purpose of the change in the first place.

If you’ve created a truly strong password, set it and forget it – well, not literally, but you know what we mean – stick with it unless you’ve been notified of a breach of security.  And when in doubt, use two-factor authentication, whereby the site pings you back with a text message or email, and you can receive notifications on changes.

The solutions really aren’t all that difficult or complex.  The weak link here is that we are all, after all, such creatures of habit.  And we all know it.

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Given the sorry state of computer security these days (see: Equifax), we all know something’s gotta’ give.  And Apple, among others, may be on to it.  The firm’s new phone expected shortly, the iPhone X is slated to have the ability to unlock your home screen via its built-in face recognition – a first in the phone wars, and sure to be copied in time by others.  But as always, be careful what you wish for, as we’ll see in today’s post.

Face recognition itself is not new.  It’ used in security cameras around the world.  In China it’s used to verify the identity of ride-hailing drivers and allow tourists to enter attractions.  In the U.K. it’s been used to arrest a suspect outside a soccer (er, football) game.  The ability to “record, store and analyze images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of privacy, fairness and trust,” according to editors at The Economist in their lead editorial from Sept. 9th.

The reason for such high promise?  Faces work.  Other biometric data like fingerprints and irises require close proximity.  Anyone with a phone can take a picture for facial recognition purposes, which can work for identification at a distance, apparently with high accuracy.  A Russian app compares pictures of strangers with ones in a social network and already boasts a 70% accuracy rate.  Of course, as The Economist points out, this also means that Facebook could compare its database of images, which it keeps private, with those of, say, visitors to a car dealership, and later target auto ads to them.

China’s government is said to keep a permanent record of its citizens’ faces, and the about 50% of the U.S. population is already in the FBI’s photo database.  It’s a powerful new weapon for tracking criminals, as 1984-ish as it sounds given the potential cost to citizens’ privacy.

Faces contain a lot of information, and machines are quickly learning to read that.  Once again, there are upsides and down.  Some firms are using these data to identify rare genetic conditions far earlier than otherwise possible.  Systems that measure emotion might give autistic people a better grasp of otherwise elusive social signals.  On the downside, The Economist points out, are algorithms that do a better job of looking at pictures of gay and straight men, and then correctly identifying their sexuality (80%+ success rate for the software vs. only 60% for people).  This would be terrifying in places where homosexuality is still a crime.

For all the pros and cons, (read more in the Sept. 9th, 2017 issue’s article, “Nowhere to Hide”) the technology is not going back in the bottle.  Cameras will become even more common with the growth of wearable devices.  Sunglasses and make-up are no defense, as systems can out-game them, even reconstructing the facial structures of people in disguise according to researchers at Cambridge.

While Google has explicitly turned its back on facial identification for fear of misuse around the world, other tech firms are less picky.  The Economist notes that Amazon and Microsoft “are both using their cloud servers to offer face recognition.”  Governments will likely not want to pass up the benefits where laws can be constructed to allow them.  Change is coming, and your face along with millions of others, for better and for worse, is likely to be a big part of it.

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A bit off-topic, but useful we thought, would be to share a few tips on “stress-free” ways to backup, first posted by Michael Hsu at The Wall Street Journal.  Hsu shares his tips for backing up your phone’s pics and videos, as well as copying them back to a hard drive.  Below, we’ll share his tips for iPhone and Android users alike, utilizing services from/for Apple, Google and Flickr.

For iPhone users willing to pay a monthly fee, Apple’s iPhoto app coupled with an iCloud subscription will put every photo in the cloud and manage space on your phone in the background, so no deleting is necessary.  You can begin at $1 a month for 50 GB or go to 2 TB for $10 per month.  It’s found in the phone’s “Photos & Camera” setting, under “iCloud Photo Library.”

On the Android side, Google Photos lets you store an unlimited number of photos and videos free, provided the photos are under 16 megapixels and video is shot at 1080p or less (which is normally the case anyway).  You can free up phone space periodically (manually) after your photos are backed up from the “Free up space” menu setting.

Flickr offers 1 TB of storage without restrictions for photo backup as well.

To set up the above two options, Hsu says: Open their settings, select “Backup & Sync” in Google Photos or “Auto Uploadr” in Flickr and toggle them on.  After that, the apps will upload files whenever your phone is connected to Wi-Fi.

Here’s his advice for downloading your backed-up photos to a hard drive.

For iPhone, open the Photos app on a computer, choose “Photos” then “Preferences,” and then click “Download originals to this Mac.”

On Flickr, login from your browser, select “Albums” under the “You” menu, hover over the album called “Auto Upload” and then click the “Download” icon.

Google Photos allows you to batch download to the extent that you can grab 500 items at a time.  From your PC, log into photos.google.com, select the most recent photo you want to download, hold the Shift key and select the oldest photo you want to download.  Then press Shift+D to acquire the group of them as a zip file.

There are other options out there as well, but these should get you started.  There you go… and you’re welcome!  (With all credit due to Michael Hsu of WSJ)

 

 

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Recently, Qualcomm Inc., a leading supplier of mobile-device chips announced its Spectra imaging system, which (according to the Wall Street Journal, 8-21-17) “can extract depth information from objects including faces.”  In other words, your password will soon – finally! – be replaced by an image of your face.  It’s about time, eh?

The company plans to use the technology soon in its next line of mobile processors, and around the same time, Apple may soon, it is rumored, offer a similar feature on the iPhone.  Might facial recognition finally be the password replacement technology we’ve longed for?

The technology differs a bit from that used in security cameras around the world.  Your phone or laptop camera, after all, don’t need to spot you in a crowd, it just needs to distinguish one face – yours – and it can do it very well, since you’re likely to be only a foot or two away.  Its structured light technology is said to splay tiny infrared dots across an image of your face (or other target) and, by reading distortions, capture incredibly detailed and accurate information.  And because of its use of infrared technology, it can work in the dark.

Apple has not confirmed any of this yet, according to the Journal, but it does appear to have the necessary patents, technology and, perhaps, inclination – say at the unveiling of the 10th anniversary iPhone.

Best of all, Qualcomm has indicated that its Spectra chip with facial-depth recognition capabilities will be available for future versions of Android phones.  While previous versions of the Samsung phone could be ‘fooled’ by holding up an image of another person’s face, the Spectra chip boasts of having the added capability of “live-ness detection,” thus making it less likely to be fooled, even with a 3-D printed mask.

You’ll teach your phone the same way you do with thumbprint recognition today, and images will be securely stored on the device itself, not in the cloud.

Eventually, supply chains being what they are, the technology will trickle down into less expensive devices, with the potential to actually become “mundane” one day according to the CEO of biometrics company Tascent.  That’s a good thing, as the improved simplicity and security that come from being able merely to look at our devices is likely to curb our otherwise bad password habits through which we all too often put our finances and personal information security at risk.

 

 

 

 

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