Lately, we’ve been reading and hearing about a number of new computer hacking incidents. If you work for the US government, your personal data may have been stolen as part of the massive Office of Personnel Management hack last month. If you’ve enlisted the services of the Ashley Madison website to cheat on your spouse, you may be alarmed to know that your data was also stolen by hackers who are threatening to release this embarrassing information unless the site is shut down. Good luck getting any sleep.

If you own a smartphone running the Android operating system, you woke up recently to news of yet another vulnerability discovered in the operating system that runs 80% of the smartphones out there. And finally, if you own a late-model Jeep sports utility vehicle, you have no doubt heard that hackers can take control of your vehicle while you’re speeding down the highway.

These are just a few of the latest examples—I’ve been following this for years, and it seems to me a constant cycle of hacks, demonstrated vulnerabilities, patches, updates, followed by new hacks. It’s Keystone Cops meets Whac-A-Mole, only it’s not a game and real damage occurs. As more and more sensitive data is placed online and more types of devices are equipped to communicate over networks, the problem will only get worse.

Is there a solution? Information Technology technicians continually strengthen firewalls to protect their local area networks. Others advocate for stronger data encryption, even though governments and law enforcement warn that this could provide safe cover for terrorists and criminals.

I’ve got a low-tech solution: get as much of your sensitive data offline as  possible and keep it that way.

Sounds paranoid? I suppose it might seem that way to younger people who have grown up in the world of interconnected data. I’m not a programmer, IT specialist or data security expert. I am, however, responsible for the security of over 210 terabytes of data, so I have to err on the safe side.  So my starting position is this: Nothing is unhackable, so plan accordingly.

I can explain this with an analogy. The valuables in your home are likely protected by a door that has some sort of lock. Regarding such locks, my friends and I used to joke that, “it keeps out the honest thieves.” The understanding here is that a really determined thief with the right tools or skills won’t be stopped.

When the maker of a lock, be it for a home, a bicycle or even a huge safe claims that their product can’t be broken into, I just laugh. Such a statement is total hubris—it asserts that there’s nobody out there smarter than the lock’s designer. Inevitably, someone comes around who can pick or crack the lock because, frankly, there’s always someone smarter.

Continuing the analogy, it makes sense to me to assume that if the bad guys can get to the front door and stay there undetected for a long enough period, the lock will be picked or cracked. Not by everybody, but eventually by someone with the right skills. My solution is to not let anyone get to the door in the first place. The lock can’t be breached if nobody can physically get to it.

So how does this relate to the reality of digital security? The “front door” in our analogy is the firewall and other network security applications and settings employed to protect digital assets. The lock-picking thief is the hacker. The way that the thief gets to that door is via the network. Without the network to provide access, it doesn’t matter how skilled the hacker is—they can’t get to the “door” in the first place.

This is the basic concept of “air gapping,” a simple security tactic that involves removing all outside connections from a computer or local area network. This removes the conduit through which the hacker can get to the “door.” With this situation, the hacker has to obtain physical access to the computer to get the goods. In a strange twist to our analogy, the hacker would likely have to learn to pick locks!

At HMML, a complete set of our digital images resides on a huge server system on our local area network. This system isn’t on the internet, but since there are elements of the campus IT infrastructure that are connected to the outside world, this data is theoretically susceptible to outside security risks. Convenience is the trade-off; this set of images is far easier and faster for workers at HMML to access.

We have, however, planned accordingly. Another set of our images at HMML is air-gapped. In our microfilm vault, there are cabinets containing hundreds of external hard disk drives. The drives aren’t connected to anything and are not powered up. An air-gapped hard drive is even more secure than an air-gapped computer; proof-of-concept hacks have been demonstrated on the latter. The vault is behind several layers of digital card access security interspersed with mechanical locks. The whole facility has motion sensor and alarm systems. This set of images would be far more difficult for a hacker to get to. You can read about HMML’s data storage strategies in this issue of Illuminations magazine.

In my own work and personal life, I employ similar methods. Although I take full advantage of cloud services such as Google Apps, DropBox and the like, sensitive information is on external hard drives that are eventually stored in secure off-site locations. It’s very handy to have certain things connected to the world so that folks can collaborate on projects, share necessary resources and so on. But this convenience is always a trade-off with security. My motto has always been: Don’t put anything online or in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.

In our modern lives, we strike a balance between security and convenience that fits our comfort level. Having an ATM cash card is a security vulnerability, but it’s also convenient enough for folks to accept the risks. If a person’s credit card gets hacked, the cardholder usually isn’t held responsible for the resulting charges. Therefore, most folks don’t have enough at risk (or perceived risk) to get too excited about the threats that exist.

This will change. More folks are putting their digital assets on cloud service, where they tend to assume that their stuff is safe, even though it may not be. There is the up-and-coming trend of the “internet of things,” where appliances, home control systems, and other sorts of things that used to be standalone, “dumb” appliances will be connected to and remotely controllable via networks. People are going to have to make informed decisions about the level of risk they’re willing to take with so many paths leading to so many “front doors.”

As for myself, the convenience of being able to operate my home thermostat from my smartphone isn’t worth the risk of having the possibility of someone remotely turning the furnace off in the middle of winter. Others would accept that tradeoff—all I can say is, “Plan accordingly.”

And for all the folks who were on the Ashley Madison website who are now waiting for the hammer to fall, you’re on your own.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Apple’s official announcement last week of the Apple Watch, a product that was revealed months ago and won’t be available for purchase until late April.

As with most Apple product introductions, the tech press and blogosphere are abuzz about the latest Shiny Object from Cupertino even though almost nobody has actually had a chance to use the item. In the absence of hard facts, the pundits and oddsmakers have resorted to mostly either criticizing the device or speculating on what Apple’s foray into the luxury goods market entails. What can I possibly add to this cacophony?

Well, there are a few things that might qualify me for punditry on this:

I use quite a few Apple products and like them. Right now, my Apple inventory includes an iPad 3, iPod Touch, iPhone 4s ($0.97 with two year contract!), Apple TV, an eleven-year-old Powerbook G4 that my Dad is still using, and a MacBook Pro Retina, which I think is the finest personal computer you can buy. I don’t think I’m a fanboy, though, as I use three Windows PCs on a daily basis and use a Roku streaming media player along with the Apple TV device. All have their advantages and disadvantages.

I was an Apple user back when the company was all but dead. When I joined a digital prepress services company in the autumn of 1997, Steve Jobs has just rejoined his former company as “interim” CEO, and not a moment too soon. At that point in time, Apple was not the cool purveyor of desirable tech that it is now. It was a disorganized, unfocussed firm producing an incoherent array of computers (way too many models) and devices (such as the much-maligned Newton) that baffled newcomers to the brand and disappointed the graphics, audio, and video professionals who relied on Macintosh computers to get their work done. Increasingly, the latter group was turning to Macintosh clones to get the machines with the specs they wanted. Sadly for Apple, most of the pros needing really powerful Macs were buying machines from Power Computing and Umax; they were better “Macs” than the actual ones from Apple.

A friend of mine loaned me the recent issue of The New Yorker containing a 17,000-word biographical piece about Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s well-known senior vice president of design. It’s an interesting read for any Apple fan, and one thing I noted was that Ive was at Apple during the Dark Days as well, so he also knows what the company was like when it nearly became an interesting has-been. The article also has lots of factoids about the design philosophy behind Apple’s new watch.

I happen to like and collect vintage wristwatches. Well, collect is perhaps too strong a word, but I’ve got a few of what I consider to be nice examples. I don’t have the money to collect the really valuable stuff (Rolex, Ulysse Nardin, etc.) and never will, but I think I have a reasonably good sense of aesthetics about what constitutes a handsome timepiece.

So will I be lining up on April 24 to purchase one? The short answer is no. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t find the Apple Watch interesting and, well, “watchable” for a couple of reasons.

It’s the First Post-Jobs Product

The first important aspect of the Apple Watch is that it’s their first totally new “post-Steve-Jobs” product line. For a dozen years, the Ive-Jobs team produced hit after hit, creating beautiful, functional tech items that often created new device categories. The Apple Watch is a Jonathan Ive-Tim Cook production and is facing high expectations from Apple fans and shareholders alike.

The device is good-looking, far more so than most wearable tech, which tends to look geeky. Like most of Apple’s creations, it’s a rectangle with rounded corners (a particular favorite of Jobs) and restrained outer decoration. It’s almost understated, which a decided advantage compared to wearable tech such as Google Glass.

The watch aficionado in me isn’t intrigued, though. Apple Watch will come in two sizes (38 and 42 millimeters), but even the smaller size is a bit too large for my taste. Of course, the thing has to be large enough to use as an electronic touch-screen device, so there’s a tradeoff between size and functionality. My aesthetic is towards a more modest size; wristwatches started getting huge in the early 1970’s and that’s the vintage where my interest fades. Guys in particular seem to dig really huge chunks of metal on their wrists but it always struck me as a kind of overreaching. I also find rectangular watch cases to be clunky, although the Apple Watch is more elegant than the “cushion” style watch cases that started appearing at the same time as the increasing size.

Apple Watch is a “sidekick” sort of device. For many of its advanced functions, you need to have a iPhone (version 5 or newer). In this way, Apple Watch acts as the “remote outpost” of your iPhone, sending notifications, making payments via Apple Pay, and other such things. Those who gave up wristwatches because their mobile phone already had an accurate timepiece might not want to carry a second device (and keep two devices charged). For those who are constantly interacting with their iPhone (you know who you are), Apple Watch might provide a more discreet way of being endlessly distracted. In some ways, the device’s dependance on a mobile phone is reminiscent of the ill-fated Palm Foleo, a subnotebook computer that worked in conjunction with the Palm Treo smartphone. Widely panned when it debuted, it might be the case that the device duo was ahead of its time. I doubt, though, that it’s the type of comparison Apple would want you to make.

Since I’m not constantly consulting my mobile phone and don’t even have it with me at all times, I can certainly live without Apple Watch. Also, I can’t quite imagine how I could wear or use the thing without looking like a complete narcissist.

Apple Aims for the Stratosphere

The second important aspect of Apple Watch is that it’s Apple’s first entry into the world of personal luxury goods, a market segment where normal rules of logic disappear. In his interview for The New Yorker, Ive stresses the practical nature of Apple’s designs, and I would agree. For the most part, Apple’s products, though elegantly styled and costing a bit more, perform useful tasks and are made of high-quality, appropriate materials.

In the luxury market, though, the concepts of features, benefits, and practicality get distorted. For example, exclusivity becomes both a feature and a benefit. Practicality takes a backseat to creating something that signals the owner’s status. Materials get expensive, not because they’re the most appropriate, but simply because they are expensive.

The various models of the Apple Watch will cover market segments across three levels. Apple Watch Sport will be the least expensive, featuring an aluminum case and synthetic band. At a starting price of $349, this version is targeted at the fitness device market.

Apple Watch is the mid-range model. It will have a stainless-steel case available in two finishes (polished steel and black) and a variety of wristbands, including some handsome leather choices. It will retail for between $549 and about $1100.

Apple Watch Edition will be the luxury product. This version features a case made of 18K gold, more choices of luxury band materials, and fancy buckles of precious metal. Oh, and this version can cost up to $17,000.

Now it might not matter to everybody, but the first thing that struck me about this range of products is that, despite the huge price variation, all these watches will have the same guts. In terms of functionality, a person sporting the $349 version can do everything that the person wearing a five-figure model can do.

This is in contrast to everything Apple has made before this. If you’re a Mac user and elect to purchase a Mac Pro instead of a Mac Mini, you’re getting more stuff: more and faster processors, more RAM, much more connectivity options, etc. If you buy the more expensive iPhone, you get more memory, faster processor, and the like. All of these are elegant, well-designed products, but if you pay more, you get more capability.

With Apple Watch, you get luxury materials if you pay more. How the device works and what you can do with it stays the same. It remains to be seen if this matters to the buyers of the Apple Watch Edition.

It’s a bit different in the realm of conventional watches. There are two ways to create a super-expensive watch for the luxury market. One is to use a lot of high-priced materials and encrust the watch in diamonds and such. To the true horologist, a connoisseur of the watchmaker’s art, this is considered the easy way out. For these folks, the hallmark of a true luxury watch is the complexity and capability of the mechanical mechanism inside.

No mechanical watch is as accurate as even the cheapest mobile phone’s clock, but that hasn’t stopped watchmakers from continually improving the accuracy and capabilities of the precision mechanisms inside their wares. At its core, a mechanical watch has a power source (a mainspring) a regulation device (oscillating balance wheel and escapement mechanism) and all the other gears that translate this regulated rotary motion into the motion of the hour and minute hands to tell the time. From there, it gets more complex, and the more you pay, the more you get:

-The various gears and wheels in a mechanism run in bearings that are often made of synthetic rubies. These are referred to as jeweled bearings, and the more expensive the watch, the more jeweled bearings.

-Basic mechanical watches are wound by turning the crown. For more money, one can get a self-winding watch; here, an internal rotor mechanism translates the movement of the wearer’s arm into rotary motion to keep the mainspring wound.

-Calendar mechanisms are the next level of mechanical complication; these range from simple day-of-the-month displays to ultra-complex perpetual calendars.

-It gets expensive from here on up. Luxury timepiece mechanisms can contain chronographs (stopwatch mechanisms), alarm and striking functions (quarter hour, half hour, etc.), moon phase calculations, repeaters (can chime the hours and even minutes at the touch of a button) and more. The sky’s the limit, and so is the price.

Apple’s luxury watch takes the easy route of wrapping the standard innards with more expensive materials. In this way, it reminds me of Hasselblad’s introduction of high-priced digital cameras that are basically Sony components covered in exotic materials.

Luxury watchmakers (the smart ones at least) are already ramping up their marketing to counter Apple’s entry into their rarefied field. In the very issue of The New Yorker with the piece about Ive, the very first ad in the magazine (inside the front cover) is for the Rolex Yacht-Master II. Reading the ad copy, it’s clear to me that some of this is directed at Apple. For example:

The Rolex Way: The way me make watches, the only thing we will ever make.

This emphasizes Rolex’s exclusivity with regard to purpose. They make watches and only watches, while Apple makes other stuff. The implication is that Apple can’t be as focused on watchmaking as Rolex is.

Rolex-made in Switzerland. Conceived designed, manufactured and tested by Rolex in Switzerland.

This emphasizes the European tradition of the Swiss watchmaker in contrast to Apple, who would find it less successful to highlight its reliance on Chinese manufacturers, which are periodically the subject of debates about working conditions, human rights, and the like.

Finally the watch is described. It’s a chronograph with a special “countdown” feature that is mechanically programmable. This is the sort of chronometer-grade movement with complications that you aren’t going to find in a mere thousand-dollar watch.

Like a bookend, the back cover of the magazine also has an advertisement for an (incredibly) expensive watch. This one is a Cartier, with minute repeater and perpetual calendar complications powered by a “flying tourbillon” movement. All in a see-through case, so you can observe all the glorious, jaw-droppingly-complex mechanical innards. This thing is a true outlier, being produced in an edition of only 50, but is no doubt a horologist’s delight. If one has the means, a true connoisseur might obtain one rather than crowd the garage with another Bentley or two.

Mechanical timepieces also have one more trump card to play. When you buy something like a Rolex, it’s a lifetime purchase, something you can pass on to your heir. It’s mechanical, can be repaired, and with proper upkeep will outlast us all. Apple Watch is a “version 1” type of tech product. We all know that version 2 will be better, do more, and that eventually any version will eventually stop working or become obsolete.

Which means that, as is the case with iPhones, MacBooks and iPads, we’re expected to buy a new one every three years or so. The phones are usually cost-subsidized by the wireless carriers, but the others are not (this may explain the plateauing of iPad sales), and it remains to be seen if customers put the Apple Watch into their roster of expensive, constantly-being-replaced tech stuff. If one plans to do that with the Apple Watch Edition, they’ll eventually spend the same sort of money they would have spent on the aforementioned Rolex.

As for me, I’ll continue wearing my various examples of lower-priced horological delights, knowing that they, too, will outlast me and become prized possessions of someone else at some point. As for the future of the Apple Watch, time will tell (pun intended).

As 2014 come to a close, people tend to look back and reflect on the year that was. For those who blog about technology, it’s a good time to take stock of the predictions and punditry unleashed on the world to see how much of it was on the mark and what turned out to be little more than rumor-mongering, false conclusions, and general numbskullery.

Herewith are some thoughts on my older posts and the way things turned out.


Remember them? Aereo was thought to be a serious threat to television broadcasters and cable TV providers right up to the point where they lost their case in the United State Supreme Court. Personally, I thought their argument had merit (as did the lower courts), and that if they had positioned their company as a “hardware rental” service rather than a streaming video distributor, they might have done better in their final battle. I still feel that their methodology didn’t violate copyright and was a perfectly logical (and clever) workaround. The High Court basically categorized Aereo as a cable TV company. Afterwards, though, when Aereo tried to be treated as a cable company (and obtain redistribution rights from broadcasters as guaranteed by law with proper fees, etc.), they were rebuffed once again.

So now Aereo is legally a cable company but not one that can actually become a cable company, achieving the networks’ goal of erasing Aereo from the television landscape and firing a strong shot across the bow of anyone else contemplating such tactics. My prediction: Network television will at some point be streamed on the internet, and the companies doing it will be the networks themselves.

Apple Television Set

Almost two years ago, I predicted that there would be no Apple television set, a mythic beast that is predicted on a yearly basis by other tech writers. So far, we haven’t seen one, and I still don’t see it coming. It remains to be seen what Apple will do to keep its Apple TV streaming media box competitive with the likes of Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, and Google’s Chromecast devices, not to mention that almost all Blue-Ray players and gaming consoles can also deliver streaming video.

In the music field, Apple was far ahead of competitors with its powerful combination of iPod and iTunes. With television, the playing field is much more level, and I doubt that Apple will be able to achieve that sort of dominance without drastically changing the user experience involved in setting up and using streaming TV (more on this below).

Microsoft Surface

Microsoft is now on version 3 of its flagship tablet computer, and they seem to have finally gotten it right. Reviews of the Surface Pro 3 have been largely positive, and Microsoft’s advertising has finally gotten around to actually pointing out what the device can do for customers, going so far as to point out the differences between it and the Apple MacBook Air. Good for them, I say—it’s about time that somebody produces a PC computing device that can actually withstand comparison to an Apple product. Since none of Microsoft’s OEM “partners” seems willing to produce such a device, (continuing their low price above all strategy), I applaud Microsoft for their tenacity. I use a MacBook Pro and iPad all the time, but if my employer offered the Surface Pro 3 instead of the functional-but-uninspired HP laptops they offer, I’d have one in a minute.

Microsoft Office and Mobile Computing

A while back, I predicted that if Microsoft offered a version of their Office productivity suite for Apple’s iPad, they would effectively concede the mobile computing market to Apple.

Well, pigs have flown, hell has frozen over, and Microsoft Office can now be had on IOS and Android devices.

Capitulation? I don’t think so. Much has changed at Microsoft since I wrote that particular post. In August, 2013, when Steve Ballmer announced that he would be stepping down from his position as Microsoft CEO, there was a flurry of speculation about who would succeed him. For many pundits, the likely candidate was Stephen Elop, who had just been re-employed by Microsoft after his tenure at Nokia. My thinking at that time was that it would be a bad idea to turn over the company to Elop, who had essentially gutted Nokia, preparing it for acquisition (on the cheap) by Microsoft. Other pundits claimed that Elop was essentially jumping from one “burning platform” to another.

The CEO job eventually went to Satya Nadella, former chief of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise division, a move that signals new directions and priorities for the software giant. Nadella seems to understand that mobile computing is indeed where future growth lies, but that more than anything else, mobile computing is about being connected to services and infrastructures collectively referred to as “the cloud.” To this end, he is working to make Microsoft into the dominant provider of these services, rivaled only by Amazon. The move to:

  • Platform as a Service (PaaS)
  • Software as a Service (SaaS)
  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
  • Cloud storage, backup and synchronization
  • Online database and web serviceOnline conferencing, collaboration, communication, calendaring

is likely a more accurate description of the “post-PC” world than simply fretting about mobile devices and the platforms they run on. Nadella seems to have adopted this mindset, enabling Microsoft’s services and cloud platforms to run on anything, anywhere. Maybe the dinosaur can dance after all.

Dumping Cable TV

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about how I ditched cable TV and went internet-only for my television viewing. While listening to my friends complain about their rising cable TV bills, I continue to do so with no regrets. There are some caveats, though:

I. The process of subscribing to online video services and setting up devices such as the Roku or Apple TV are still too convoluted for folks who aren’t “tech savvy.” The person attempting to “cut the cable” needs to be willing to fiddle with network passwords, device ID numbers, and the process of registering their systems on various websites to achieve the functionality desired. If Apple is looking for a true television breakthrough, making this process easy and intuitive is where they could really shake things up.

II. Going “cable-free” doesn’t mean getting free television. I was surprised to read an article recently where the author made the assertion that cable-cutters are essentially freeloaders unwilling to pay for anything.

I wish. Here’s a monthly breakdown of what I pay for my “free” television:

  • Midcontinent Communications (internet service): $50.16
  • Netflix (premium plan with 3-disc option): $25.63
  • Amazon Prime (needed to access Amazon’s “free” video content): $8.25
  • Acorn TV (streaming service for lots of British TV): $4.99

That’s $89.03 in fixed monthly costs. I could drop the “three-DVD” option from my Netflix account to save $15.00 a month but would miss out on lots of documentaries and older movies that are only available on DVD.

But the spending doesn’t stop there. Soon, two shows that I enjoy, Justified and The Americans, will start their new seasons on cable’s FX channel. To see these shows without waiting a year, I’ll be paying $3.00 per episode per week, either through Amazon or iTunes. This will add another $24 per month to my fixed costs, bringing the total to within ten dollars of what I was paying for my cable TV plan before dumping it.

Of course, if I went back to cable TV, I’d still keep my Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts anyway, so my overall TV expenditure would likely be in the $150-$175 range by the time all the costs were counted. In any case, the question a user should ask before taking the plunge is, “What’s this free television going to cost me?” For some people, staying with cable or satellite TV could be the better move.

Not for me, though. My viewing preferences for things such as documentaries, British television, and old movies, (including silent classics) simply aren’t served by network or cable TV. And since I never really wanted to watch that fool who tried to get eaten alive by an anaconda, cable TV doesn’t have a lot to offer me.

The Year Ahead

So, I’ve had some hits and some misses over the past year or so. In the tech world, things move fast. Today’s rising tech star can be tomorrow’s corporate roadkill. Old dogs (I’m talking about you, Microsoft) can learn new tricks. Some technologies seem to be forever “just around the corner.” And, in case you’re wondering, that fool didn’t get eaten by the anaconda on cable TV.