Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Keep Your Viruses to Yourself, Thank You Very Much!

Netzwerk Zugangskontrolle - keine Chance für Malware by Sophos D/A/CH Presseinfo.The low cost of hi-tech

The borders between work and home have increasingly become blurred thanks to technology. For many of us, the day we bought our first cell phone was significant in many ways, but one thing that probably didn’t occur to most of us was that that liberating device was paradoxically also a ball and chain that would make us ever available to a demanding world.

As technology has become cheaper, both business provided equipment and personal tech have meant that we are increasingly taking work home. My company for example provides at least three different ways that I can connect to the office network from home – quite separate from the completely crude method of copying files to a flash drive to take home. So despite the standard of the 40 hour work week, we all pretty much work longer. The only difference is whether you work till the lights come on at the office or work until you realise that your generator is the only one left on in the neighbourhood at home.


The other side of the story

This issue was a problem debated long before the current technology revolution and was once touted as a sign of great devotion, but is now often seen as a grave risk to the person’s physical and emotional well-being. Technology has just made the situation much worse. Something not often discussed is that the same low cost of technology (or increased purchasing power of people) means that we are taking more technology from home to the office. In addition to the cheapness of the technology is the fact, as has been discussed again and again on this site, that technology is now an inseparable part of our existence. This results in a huge problem.

We bring our personal blackberries, laptops, digital cameras and flash drives to the office and use them in conjunction with company provided computer equipment. We connect them to our PCs.  Sync our calendars and contacts. Copy stuff back and forth between them. Did I say the lines are blurred? They no longer exist! Now company systems and networks are designed to be closed systems with carefully planned points of entry and egress. This is for several obvious reasons. First is security from loss of company data to data thieves. Secondly is protection of computer equipment from viruses and other malware. So companies set up firewalls to keep out hackers. They invest in thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of naira on antimalware software. Elaborate systems for logging into computers (with password and ID being the most basic) are implemented. However, all this protection is wasted when an employee takes a flash drive from an internet cafe bearing a virus that Symantec hasn’t even heard of yet and plugs it into her computer at the office.

That Anne Robinson phrase

Businesses very often have pretty stringent and well iterated security tools and practises to protect their computer equipment. Many of these tools and practices are rather inconvenient for people to use and adapt to. We may now be used to having to create complex passwords that we have to reinvent every three months, but it wasn’t always so. A true story is told of a help desk agent, who in frustration at a user who just could not seem to create a password that met the company password complexity standards, finally offered to create one for the user. He gave the user a password that had the right mix of letters in both lower and upper case, numbers and special characters. He gave the customer the letter “I”, the character “@”, the letters “m”, “A”, and “f”, the number zero in two places and lastly the letter “l”. The customer was very grateful for the assistance, until he decided to write it down. The help desk agent’s manager had to intervene to calm down the customer’s fury at being given a password that said “I@maf00l”.

Though we have these stringent rules at work we are not as disciplined with our personal technology. So people install antivirus software, but never update them. We don’t backup our data and we are not particularly careful about the devices we connect our equipment to or the websites we visit. We now bring this “polluted” equipment to work and connect to our systems. 9 times out of 10, the antivirus software installed on the company computers catches the virus before any harm is done. It is that 1 time of the 10 that causes all the damage. Yes you are the weakest link.

As a result of this type of situation, some of my colleagues were up all night this last Friday cleaning out their servers that were virus infested. I and another colleague spent all Saturday in the office making sure that that infestation didn’t reach our in Lagos. And no, this is not what we are paid to do. As part of this effort we woke up colleagues on the other side of the planet, some of them on vacation, to assist with the effort. Never mind the thousands of man-hours lost as a result of the servers and the data that were not available.

So forgive my understandable ire, when I say with admirable restraint and no profanity, that since you are not going to take time out to do it right then don’t take your personal flash drives, external hard drives and the like to work and connect them to your computer. As much as is humanly possible keep your personal tech separate from your company equipment.

Keep your viruses to yourself.


Picture © Sophos Germany

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Complete and Utter Garbage

My microwave oven of nearly ten years stopped heating last week. Because of its age, my knee jerk reaction is to replace it. However, my wife has convinced me to try and get it fixed. What if it can’t be fixed? What then? The mindless thing to do is simply put it out with the rest of the garbage and let waste disposal take care of it. This almost certainly means that it will end up on a landfill somewhere. And that is a very undesirable situation indeed.

My last post talked about donating or giving away used computer equipment when we grow tired of them and want to buy the latest and the greatest. I should perhaps have presented the thought that you could hold onto and use the computer for a few years longer yourself. With the right software and a few hardware changes and some other ideas, those old computers could still be pretty useful to you. The flip side of this discussion though is that sometimes the equipment is simply dead. The Intel Pentium motherboard is fried. The cathode ray tube on the monitor blew up. Your precocious 4 year-old poured juice into your 586 laptop or tossed it from the balcony. There’s little or no coming back from this and you have to dispose of it. The problem is that there really is no safe means of disposing of dead electronics in Nigeria. We may not think about it, but every cell phone, walkman, CD player, computer or TV we have thrown out has environmentally hazardous chemicals that can and is doing significant damage to our environment because we do not have any practiced standards around waste disposal and recycling. We may think it isn’t our problem and it actually may not be. Not yet. However it will be a huge problem for our children and their children.

Wikipedia describes the chemicals and dangers of this “electronic waste”:

“Toxic substances in electronic waste may include lead, mercury, and cadmium. Carcinogenic substances in electronic waste may include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Capacitors, transformers, and wires insulated with or components coated with polyvinyl chloride(PVC), manufactured before 1977, often contain dangerous amounts of PCBs.[11]

Up to 38 separate chemical elements are incorporated into electronic waste items. Many of the plastics used in electronic equipment contain flame retardants. These are generally halogens added to the plastic resin, making the plastics difficult to recycle. Due to the flame retardants being additives, they easily leach off the material in hot weather, which is a problem because when disposed of, electronic waste is generally left outside. The flame retardants leach into the soil and recorded levels were 93 times higher than soil with no contact with electronic waste [12].”

On a recent trip to the UK, I was impressed with the sorting and recycling standards that have become entrenched in the daily practice of the citizenry. Depending on where people lived, there are different dustbins and garbage collection units for different types of materials where glass, plastic, paper and metals are sorted by the resident; or separate trashcans for bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste. They have proper recycling plants that reuse these materials for new products and make sure that the hazards do not poison people and the environment.

In Nigeria our streets are clogged with hazardous wastes. Carcinogens leach into the water table. potentially explosive chemicals pile up in our backyards. Even worse, we are serving as a dump for discarded items from foreign nations adding even more toxicity to our environment beyond what is self-generated. Apparently 50% of the world’s global electronic waste is dumped in 3 countries – India, China and Nigeria.

While the Lagos state government is facing the waste disposal issue along with other environmental issues, the really isn’t very much going on to recover wealth by recycling items which is the other side of the electronic waste story. We consume a huge amount of non-renewable materials in the manufacture of electronics. The succeeding generations of electronics will have to be made from materials recovered from this generation of electronics when they become waste. If we have no mechanism for recovering or recycling those materials then we not only have to use up more scarce materials to manufacture new items, but we are burying billions of dollars in reusable materials (here I am talking as if we have a manufacturing sector).

Right here and now in Lagos, Nigeria, I really don’t have very many safe and responsible options for my old microwave oven. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a pretty scary situation to be in.


(Photo Courtesy RedOrbit.com)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Your Junk, Someone’s Gold

I have a simple question to ask: What do you do with your old computers?computers2

The computer I am currently using is the third computer that I can call my own by virtue of paying for it and designating it mine (I’m excluding the computer I bought for my kids). The first one I had was falling to bits, but still fully functional when I gave it away. The second one, I sold within a few months of buying it because it’s specs were not what I needed. I have had the current one for two years and it is beginning to show its age. I have been toying with the idea of replacing it, but I have convinced myself that there is still life in the old dog. In particular, the forthcoming Windows 7 should give it a new lease on life – or I could get really radical, wipe out Windows Vista from it and try to live on Linux. Or If I’m really willing to make a change without spending a cent, I could appropriate my kids’ iMac and give them my laptop instead.

In thinking about replacing this laptop, the thought comes to mind as to what to do with it if I buy a replacement. I could sell it and make some money to offset the cost of the new one. On the other hand there are several agencies and organisations that would be grateful for a good, fully functional computer to help change people’s lives with. I could make a donation to one of them. You could do the same with your old computers.

For instance, I am somewhat associated with an organisation called Freedom Foundation. Freedom Foundation has several programs that include providing rehabilitation for prostitutes, drug addicts and area boys. The organisation also runs schools for the less privileged children in Lagos. Any one of these services would find it useful to have a freely donated computer to keep records or to use for computer training.

Please don’t think of it as an opportunity to offload useless junk. Don’t give away equipment that would be a burden rather than a boon. Give away stuff that still does what it was designed to do. If they are old and slow, you could install Linux in place of Windows which would make them a lot faster as Linux uses computer resources better than Windows. Linux also happens to be free (give me a shout if you need help with this). There are even special versions that come pre-bundled with educational material that would be great in schools. You could also replace, at a small cost, bad keyboards and mice. Change bad power plugs. Make it useable.

Organisations and individuals dispose of computers that no longer meet their needs everyday. We can actually make it a policy to spread the wealth – not just computers, but other serviceable goods that we no longer use. I know that this is Africa and we, as individuals, have an extended family system to which we can pass many things on to (at least we used to). However there are a lot of people out there that don’t have the privileged relatives who can give them stuff. I think we can make a wider impact if we seek out people like this. A great way is to partner with organisations that reach such people and let them have our giveaways. Hey, forget the giveaways, we can actually go out and buy brand new stuff to donate.

However, this blog is focused on information technology and I’m advocating that we give the gift of computing to people and organisations who can use them to elevate their services to the needy. I advocate that we give the gift of computer literacy to young children who may never be able to afford the learning on their own. I advocate we find that struggling young graduate and give him or her a tool that could help their dreams come true.

I’ve talked before about the One Laptop Per Child programme founded by Nicholas Negroponte with the plan to create a child-specific, fully functional laptops built and designed at the cost of $100 dollars. This programme has donated thousands of these computers, called the “XO” to children in many nations (it actually costs about $150). In reading on their forums many people have protested the project claiming that these needy societies need water, food, medicine and shelter more than they need computers. They are right. However, the only way to help raise people above the level of destitution is to educate them and enable them to think and imagine beyond where they are now. Computers really help with accomplishing that. One day, with the help of computers, the person reaching out a hand to beg for bread could be providing a solution that changes their society.

Put your old computer in someone’s hands. You never know what they might become.


Picture © Draiker at www.flickr.com.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Game On

As a little boy, like many of my generation I had a great deal of fun rolling a bicycle tyre (of unknown) origin down the street, steering it and controlling its speed with a stick. I won and lost a lot of table soccer matches using bottle caps as the players, buttons as the ball and biro covers to move the players. And of course many trees gave their lives for millions of children worldwide to make paper aeroplanes with. Now I have kids of my own.

Today’s kids will be appalled at such primitive pleasures. Everywhere you go you see boys and girls with their heads bowed over portable video game consoles such as the PlayStation Portable (PSP), The Nintendo DSI or GameCube and a host of others. You visit your friends and see slotted beside their DVD players versions of the XBOX, PlayStation or Wii (in some cases, all three). A lot of people resist buying these systems, especially the portables, for their kids. I don’t blame them. Once a child has a game system in his or her hands, the whole world fades away. You often have to yell into their ears to get their attention. They can neglect physical activity to the detriment of natural childish fitness and become withdrawn from their environment – at least this is the argument many have made. Aside from that, these systems are expensive. Not only do you need to buy the basic console, but you also need to buy the various game titles for the systems as well as memory cards, carrying cases and protective covers for the portable units. You need spare batteries, accessories and many other things that you didn’t bargain for.

You could put your foot down and decide you are not buying any of these consoles for your kids or for your home. If you do choose to buy a game console for your kids (and I am focused on the pre-teens here) there are some things to take into account in making your choices. For example what kinds of games are readily available for your console of choice? Will they be age appropriate for your kids? Will the available games include educational titles? Will game play be hard or easy on their hands, eyes and backs? Are there parental controls that can be set to let you restrict the games they play or their ability to access their internet (yes some of these consoles can access the web)? How long will you let them play games in a single session? Will you let them play only on weekends or during the school week. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, will you have time to play the games with them?

wii-xbox-playstation1The three top game console makers right now are Sony with their PlayStation (2 and 3) and their PSP, Microsoft with the XBOX, and Nintendo with the Wii and DS systems. This doesn’t take into account PCs, many mobile phones, iPods and Zunes which all support games being installed on them. The Sony and Microsoft Consoles are mainly designed to enable games with high end graphics and complex game-play with powerful processors that can do serious number crunching. The upshot of this is that the games that end up being developed for them or at least that end up being easily obtainable tend not to be appropriate for young children with a lot of violence or at least adult situations (adult in the sense of evoking complex emotions, requiring mature decisions and glorifying gratuitous behaviours). As a consequence of this, games that are classified as “edutainment” (games that entertain and educate), while available are harder to come by.

The leading Nintendo offerings, the Wii and the DSi, don’t have the raw processor power, storage capacity and high-end graphics that the others have. On the other hand, they are designed specifically to be family and child friendly systems. The end result is that while many of the same games available for the XBOX and PlayStation are also available for the Nintendo systems, there are a larger percentage of family friendly and educating game titles available for the Wii and the DSi. I have seen maths and Language training games for the DSi. There is even a DS game title in the UK for learning driving theory. At the same time, there are straightforward fun games for kids such as Cars, Mario Karts and many more. The Wii in particular lends itself to intense physical activity that is good for the body and the mind and is my recommended system to everyone right now. As a matter of fact, I use the Wii for my workouts and can work quite a sweat with Wii Play Tennis. If you really want to push yourself to the limit, You can play Wii Play Boxing. You get almost the same cardio workout as the real boxers, less the pain of actually being physically punched.

So, if you must get a game console for your kids, take the time to look at what will help them learn more about the world around them, improve hand-eye coordination and can be good clean wholesome fun. Let them get a lot older before they strap up for a game of Doom.