Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dining on a Budget

I enjoy saving money, and I also like food. A good intersection of these two interests is the Web site I've been using this site for a number of years, and it's a pretty good site if you want to save money and try new restaurants. I know people see things like this and think "scam", but I've been using for years.

For example, my girlfriend and I went down to Baltimore in January. Rather than break the budget, we decided to see what restaurants were close to the hotel we were staying in were on the Web site. We purchased some gift certificates, and saved somewhere around $150 on food.

Here's how the site works. As a consumer, you go on their site, you purchase a gift certificate to a restaurant, and you use it. Different restaurants offer different types of certificates, but the ones I see most commonly are $25 off any purchase of $35 or more, or $10 off any purchase of $25 or more. A $10 gift certificate costs $5, and a $25 gift certificate costs $10. By that math, if I went to a restaurant and got $35 worth of food, it would cost me $20 ($10 for the gift certificate, and $10 for the difference between the gift certificate and the bill). Even that would be a pretty good deal, but also does one other thing that makes it a great deal. Generally, they have some code or another you can use to save even more. For example, right now they have a deal where you can take 70% off any order. So, going back to our previous example, that $20 gift certificate would cost me $3 instead of $10, and the $10 one would cost $1.50 instead of $5. Therefore, that $35 bill I mentioned before would cost me $13.

Now, restaurants can do things a little differently. Just a quick look at the site shows some restaurants do a deal where you can get a $100 off a $200 purchase for $50 (and, if you used one of the common 70% off coupons, a $200 order would cost you $115). Some restaurants charge a little more for their gift certificates, which make it less good of a deal, and others don't let you use them on weekends. However, it is a nice idea if you are looking to try a new place, or travel. They will apparently make it right if a restaurant you go to stops accepting them (I've never had that experience). Gift certificates don't expire, so you can use them or trade them in if a restaurant stops accepting them.

If anyone owns a restaurant, you can sign up with the site as well and offer the gift certificates to your site, though I can't speak to that experience, it seems like a nice way to get people to come in and try your restaurant.

You can generally find the discount codes if you sign up for their e-mail list, or if you visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Google Image Stalking

So, Google is introducing a few new features, and as always, the applications can be used for evil.

One of the features aims to allow users to ask questions through their microphone, and have Google search for the words you speak rather than requiring you to type them in. It will recognize your voice and send the words to the search engine.

Another new search is the Google Search By Image. This feature claims that it will let you upload a picture and find information about that picture. For example, if I have a picture of me in front of a building, Google Search By Image would attempt to identify that building. That seems really interesting.

I decided to test it out with some pictures of a trip I took. I went to the Google image search, and downloaded the Firefox extension which allows you to right click on any image in your Web browser and search the Google Search By Image tool for it. However, it doesn't work with Firefox 4.0 yet, so I decided to try it in Google Chrome. I then dragged a few images in to the browser.

I had some pictures of a cruise I took last summer, so I decided to try those.

First, I tried a picture of a lighthouse I saw in Canada. It came up with some pictures that were very similar, but they were the lighthouse in Cape May, NJ.

I decided to try something easier, and I dragged a photo of the Statue of Liberty there. Google Search by Image correctly identified it and returned other images of it and a link to the Wikipedia article.

I tried a picture of a random chunk of the NYC skyline, taken from sea, and that also did not return anything useful.

I tried a picture of a pretty distinctive tour bus from St. John's, Canada, and it wasn't able to match that either.

Verdict on the image locator: weak so far.

Google also claimed it could locate an image that is on the Web. I dragged an image of something I am selling on Craigslist, and it was able to immediately find and display that for me. I dragged another image of something I am selling on eBay, and it was able to find that. Finally, I tried an image I downloaded randomly, and it was able to show me where that image came from. I would say this is a success.

Verdict: This could also be pretty powerful if you are checking to find where an image came from, in case you want to use legally it in a publication, but isn't going to be able to determine where a vacation photo was taken unless it has a pretty obvious or distinctive monument in it.

Google does claim there is no facial recognition that will be available. Color me suspicious.

For a number of years, Google had a free 411 service called Google 411. Many people felt like the reason Google was doing this was to allow testing of their voice-recognition algorithm. All of a sudden, they have Google voice search. I would assume they tested and improved their algorithms in part with their free 411 service.

Now, Google is going to claim there is no facial recognition that is available. However, they will be amassing a powerful database of photographs. The Google privacy statement seems to allow them to keep Web requests, and my interpretation of an image is that it is a Web request.  Given what they did with Google 411, I would suspect that they will save the images you upload for their own testing purposes. Could facial recognition be something they are testing?  Who knows.

I tend to trust Google more than some of the other big name companies, but just because they aren't making facial recognition available to the public, doesn't mean they aren't gathering our uploaded photos to test their software.

I also have some concerns about how, if this technology develops, people might use this to stalk or harass other people. For example, let's say someone uploads a few pictures to their Facebook, or hacks their phone, or steals their digital camera. If someone is trying to hide from someone, those pictures may be searchable and usable. In addition, let's say a criminal finds a digital camera and notices people wearing nice jewelry in it. Could the pictures possibly lead them to a person's residence? As I said before, this does not seem to be at that point yet, but always something to think about.

Monday, June 06, 2011

One in Every 14 programs downloaded is malware?

A few weeks ago, Microsoft blogged about Internet Explorer 9's new "SmartScreen Application Reputation" feature. Microsoft quotes a statistic that 1 in every 14 programs downloaded (on the Microsoft platform) is confirmed to be malware. Of course, statistics can be twisted, so I am not sure what Microsoft defines as "malware". I also assume they are talking about files downloaded through Web browsers, and not files downloaded from the Internet.

From my experience, the riskier the behavior the user engages in, the more likely it is they are going to have a problem. When a friend has a computer crash, it generally has something to do with the activities they engage in on the computer. For example, if people visit shady sites to download videos or music, they risk running in to problems. Making things even riskier (though not affected by this study, I assume) are the file sharing networks.

Even if you have an updated antivirus program, and antispyware, and a firewall, you still risk running in to problems. A virus released today may not end up being blocked by antivirus tools for a few weeks. First, the virus has to come to the antivirus company's attention, and then they must figure what it does and how it does it, and then program a fix, test the fix, and make it available for updates. Then, the user's home machine needs to download the update and apply it.

These viruses are called zero-day viruses, and it isn't unreasonable for it to take weeks for a low-priority virus to get blocked. Further complicating matters is that many home users do not always pay for updates to the antivirus tool. It's generally better to have a free, up-to-date antivirus tool than an outdated commercial one, because new viruses are written all the time. I have in the past personally used the free AVG antivirus, and there is also a free version of avast! antivirus available.

Of course, Linux and Macintosh computers deal with less viruses, not because they can't be written for those operating systems, but because Windows has the largest market share and generally has more inexperienced users. If Macintosh ever became more popular than Windows, hackers would certainly work to find exploits for that operating system too.

So, Microsoft will claim IE9 is safer than Firefox, and Firefox will claim they are safer than IE9. If nothing else, turn a critical eye to both claims. And, if you want to be safe, stop doing risky things. They say the safest sex is abstinence, after all, and the same concept applies to computer activity.

Link to Network World article