Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Census and computing

The US census brings to mind one of the reasons computers advanced.

The 1880 census took 8 years to tabulate. Of course, the census is done every 10 years, so a long wait for results makes this data almost useless. The fear was that the 1890 census would take more than 10 years to tabulate, which of course makes no sense.

Enter Herman Hollerith and his fabulous mustache. He invented a tabulating machine that helped with this purpose. This tabulating machine allowed them to count survey results in one year. Of course, many early computers used punch cards, so this was one of the forefathers of those computers. I did not know (until I read a little bit of the Wikipedia article) that his company was one of the companies that would merge to form IBM in 1924. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Anyway, the 2010 census results are being tabulated, and you can already see the response rates posted for all towns. Making things more interesting is the use of data mining. We can now use the computers to not only count results, but to do projections, spot trends, and all sorts of stuff that would have been impossible 100 years ago. It looks like President Obama will get the first report by December 31, 2010. Considering surveys were sent out in March and data collection ended in July, that's really amazing turn around time. Now, if everyone just did the data entry on the computer, imagine how quickly it would go!

Anyway, here's the site with the response rates:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Using Google Earth to make $75,000

Just another case of learning from my students...

In class today, we were discussing Google services, including the advanced Google search options, image search, and Google Maps. It came out during class that the town of Riverhead, NY used Google Earth in a very interesting way. People started getting summonses for having illegal pools, and it came out that they were using Google Earth to find this out. Really! Turns out they wrote about $75,000 worth of summonses before people caught on and complained.

NPR did an interview with the chief building inspector of the town, and he said they did it for the protection of the neighborhoods, saying "I use it strictly for safety." Of course, there is some validity there, because as he states, there are requirements to make sure children don't drown, and I agree with that. I also think that, well $75,000 had something to do with it. I'm a little cynical when someone won't admit to that. Of course money making is part of it. It's not just about safety.

In the "DUH" statement of the year, he stated "Most of the people that complained were the ones that didn't have the permits." Of course those are the people that complained, because they were the ones who were directly affected and may or may not have had their right to privacy violated.

The town is no longer doing this, so I think that tells us how they feel about whether it was a good decision. If they thought it was, they would have kept on doing it. My opinion? As someone who worked for a company doing government contracting, we were told that the government could not spy on its own citizens. The government tried to implement domestic spy-satellite imaging through the innocuous-sounding National Applications Office, but this idea was withdrawn over privacy concerns. If the government can't do it using our own satellites, why can they do it using Google's? Again, my opinion, they shouldn't be doing that, but that's me.

The other interesting part is Google. This sort of use of Google Earth is not prohibited, either in the main terms of service or the government agency terms of service addendum. Yes, I checked. In theory, this is fine per Google's viewpoint. Then again, they haven't updated the terms of service in a while.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dead Online

Had an interesting discussion during class the other day. We were talking about online gaming and I mentioned the case of Shawn Wooley, the 21-year old who killed himself over Everquest back in 2002.

It always made me wonder how word would get out about things like this. If you are part of online communities (aside from Facebook, where people can post information to the "wall"), how do people find out? When my aunt Judy died in 2000, I remember the hassle of having to get copies of a death certificate to places like banks, retirement companies, health insurance providers, and other places, and with the advent of the Web, this becomes even more complicated. How do you get access to Web sites and other accounts if someone dies? Are things like World of Warcraft, Amazon Associates, Paperback Swap, and other sites things you would want people to have access to after you died? At this point, a World of Warcraft (or Starcraft, or whatever) account might actually be something people would put in their will...a site like Amazon Associates or Google AdWords might have unclaimed income (and continue to generate income). No one is going to change their will every time they change their passwords, so there has to be some other solution.

This is one of those areas where no one has *the* solution yet, so here are a few sites that I have read about.

First of all, there is Death Switch. Death Switch will send you a message at various times and if you do not click on the link and enter a password, they will assume you are dead. At that point, you can have the site email out your usernames, passwords, etc. that you might want your wife, children, friends, etc. to have. Of course, if you take a really long vacation, or if you die and forget to change the email address of the recipient, there are problems!

Another way to do this is to use Legacy Locker. This is a site that is similar in concept, without the replying to emails. The person would assign two verifiers to verify that they weredead, and if so, the information stored on the site would then be released. Of course, there are security issues there as well, if the two verifiers are people who conspire against you!

A little morbid, to be certain, but it's interesting that companies have found ways to make money off of this.

They both have very limited free versions. For the paid versions, Legacy Locker costs $29.99 a year at this point (or a one-time, $299.99 fee), and Death Switch is $19.95 a year.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Zero-Day exploits

I have pretty tight security on my home system. I have my anti-virus, my anti-spyware, and router with built in firewall. I keep my operating system and anti-virus up-to-date. I feel pretty safe on a day-to-day basis. I sometimes forget that this is not true. We are all vulnerable to "zero-day exploits". These are basically newly discovered ways for you to get a virus (or get hacked, etc) even if your virus scanner and operating system are 100% up-to-date. This is the part of computer security that people don't always understand. Anti-virus programs, anti-spyware programs, the operating system, and things like that all get updated AFTER problems happen, so someone needs to be the first group of people to get this virus. Unfortunately, fixes are often reactive (oh, no, we didn't think of that!) rather than proactive (hmm, how would I exploit this system if I were a hacker?).

Yesterday, Adobe (the company that makes Acrobat and Flash, among other tools) released a statement saying there was a vulnerability in even the latest version of Adobe Reader. This is a free tool most people have installed that reads read-only versions of documents. Sounds pretty innocuous, right? Well, there is an exploit that allows this to beat security. If I were to download a file, my firewall, anti-virus, anti-spyware, and operating system would all be beaten by this exploit.

What helps is avoiding high-risk activities online. File sharing networks and torrents obviously present advantages in the form of free stuff, but even if you have all the protection I mentioned before, you are subject to zero-day exploits. This one is an exploit with Adobe Reader, but it could happen in iTunes, or in Windows Media Player, or Internet Explorer, or Firefox, or any other software package. It can also happen when people download software through these networks and actually run a program on their machine. Just remember that despite the updated anti-virus, you are vulnerable. This doesn't even take in to account the folks who have anti-virus software that they don't subscribe to and don't receive updates to.

(For those of you who understand digital signatures, this is a very clever exploit that seems to take advantage of stolen certificates. Who knows, maybe the hackers used a zero-day exploit to steal the certificates!)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Back to School (Fall 2010 Edition)

Today starts a new I mentioned at some point, I will be teaching two classes at Bergen.

I think in my case I have become very comfortable in Passaic. As a full time faculty member, I have a lot of freedom as to what I do in my classes. As I am a creature of habit, when I found something that worked, I stuck with it.

I have been teaching since 2001, and I hope I have improved each year, but the only place I have taught a formal class is at PCCC. I am impressed with the amount of work the department chair does at Bergen to provide support for the faculty teaching the intro course. I know some faculty resist things like standard tests, etc. However, I generally do not find this offensive. I may be in the minority, but I feel like if we as a community college want four-year colleges to accept our courses, there needs to be some standardization. I have heard it argued that the four-year schools do not standardize, but all we can do is keep our side of the street clean.

My prep time is less because the full time folks have done work setting up tests, assignments, etc. I generally spend a lot of time on assignments, so they have freed up my time. As such, I am going to try new things that I would not have had the time to do at PCCC. There is no doubt that this will make me a better educator.

So today I have INF 101 004, an Intro to IT course similar to PCCC's CIS 107, and INF 163 001, similar to PCCC's CIS 152. My experience at Bergen will certainly serve me well, and I am excited to get started.