“Ahoy! Ahoy! Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?”

It’s Sunday morning and I’m doing what many folks do on Sunday morning, reading the newspaper and other news sources. On CNET, I came across a remarkable milestone.

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 12.28.55 PM100 years ago today on September 25, 1915, the first transcontinental telephone call occurred in the US.  Alexander Graham Bell asked from New York City: “Ahoy! Ahoy! Mr. Watson, are you there? Do you hear me?” and his associate Thomas Watson replied from San Francisco: “Yes, Mr. Bell, I hear you perfectly. Do you hear me well?”

The innovation that permitted this to work was the vacuum tube amplifier.  Prior to the connection to San Francisco, there was a connection from New York City to Denver. To complete the wire to San Francisco, the signal needed to be amplified.

Later that day, the first commercial coast-to-coast call was made for $20 for 3 minutes or roughly $400 in today’s currency.

Though a century seems to be a very long time ago, it really is amazing the technological advances over the past 100+ years. When I was a kid, making a long distant call was a very big and very expensive proposition.  Today, it’s just a call (or a text or an email).

Innovation in the computer industry — Personal recollections (part 3)

For the past couple of months, I’ve been describing some of the experiences that I’ve had during my more than 30 years in the computer industry. I recently read the latest book by Walter Isaacson, who wrote the 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.  This book is entitled: “The Innovators How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”  The book’s basic thesis is that innovation is not really about the lone genius inventing in a garage.  Rather it’s the collaboration among a variety of people with varying skill sets, dispositions and intelligence, along with the right environment that sparks innovation.


BSD Daemon Mascot  (c) Marshall Kirk McKusick

My first missive was about my early years in the business, focusing on my time with Arco and how I learned to engineer solutions.  The second was about my experiences working for Sanders Associates in the defense industry.  It was at Sanders that I developed my base expertise in operating system design.

This was the background for what was to become my front row seat to some of the technological advances described in Issacson’s book. More importantly, it was the most productive and enjoyable phase of my career.

In 1984, I started working for Digital Equipment Corporation (also, DEC and Digital) in a group working on DEC’s version of UNIX entitled Ultrix. In 1984, UNIX was an anathema to the company.  Their flagship VAX-11 minicomputer with the VMS operating system, plus  RSX-11 and TOPS-20 were mainstream and provided huge revenues to the company. When I joined, DEC had just released its first version of Ultrix, which was largely a repackaging of the Berkeley Distribution System (BSD) version 4.2 without any real additional DEC specific functionality. It was the perfect time to join the team.  It was a small but passionate team that thoroughly enjoyed tilting at the mainstream windmills represented by VAX/VMS and the constellation of applications that supported and extended the VAX’s capability. Continue reading

Fake Facebook Privacy Messages and other legends and rumors

In the late 90s, a new but virulent type of email chain was common.  This was the  Foiled Abduction” claim that swept through email inboxes.  The message was something like this: “Be careful at <some retailer>.  A man has taken a child, changed the child’s appearance in the bathroom and attempted to leave with the child.”

facebook-logoThe popular term for this type of false assertion is urban legend, which is but one form of Internet rumor. This started a host of similar and usually very unsettling claims and rumors.  Another famous one was the guy who woke up after a drinking binge in a tub of ice finding out he’s missing a kidney or other vital organ.

There are some common attributes of urban legend and other rumors:

  • They seem plausible — When you read one, it really sounds true.  Usually, there is some verification sentence like: “There was a news story on Timbuktu’s Channel 4 news that says …” or “The brother of my good friend had this happen to him.”
  • They target a real fear — Every parent is concerned about their kids in a big-box store.
  • The details are ambiguous — Once you grab someone’s attention, let them fill in the blanks
  • There might be a thread of truth in the message — The best lies are ones that have some element that is true. Back to the child abduction: It’s very conceivable that someone attempted to abduct a child at a big box store at some point in time. Certainly, there have been other abductions of children in public spaces.  Just not the one described.
  • They almost always encourage passing the message on — Since the message can’t go viral without it being passed on in some fashion, there is usually an urgent plea (or threat) to encourage you to forward the message.

Continue reading

Is a fingerprint more secure than a password?

On CBS This Morning on Tuesday morning, there was a segment on how “easy” it is to fake someone’s fingerprint to gain access to a computer or device using fingerprint authentication.  If you’re interested, you can find the segment here.  In it, a security expert describes how he’s able to take a photograph of someone with their hands visible, crop a finger, blow the image up, print it, then create a fake fingerprint using glue.  He claims to be able to use that to authenticate on an iPhone.


Source: Maryland State Police

I know that security experts have been able to perform a similar trick with a fingerprint they captured from glass, but the twist here is that this guy claimed he was able to do it from a picture.

So, assuming it’s true, what does this mean? At this point, not a lot. Let’s see how this knowledge translates in the field. Generally, security is a cat-and-mouse game where vendors, enterprises and individuals continue to improve their security, while criminals and other “bad guys” continue to improve their penetration methods.

Biometrics, particularly fingerprints, have shown to be effective at authenticating individuals, with an extremely low error rate. They aren’t a panacea, but are certainly more effective than a 4 digit pin or weak password. It’s also a lot more convenient.

Continue reading

It’s been quite a year … On to 2015!

As 2014 closes, it occurs that it has been quite a year technologically for good and bad.  Here are some thoughts as we move into 2015:

Malware, Breaches, Oh My!

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 10.45.13 AMAs I predicted in last year’s New Year’s post, security and privacy has commanded center stage. The Sony attack is but one incident that has proven to be very disruptive.  It goes to show that emails and other messages are not ephemeral. They lie in wait for discovery, either legal or illegal.

More importantly, the Sony breach is the clearest example yet of the tactical and strategic damage an enemy can inflict on our culture, infrastructure, government and way-of-life.  Now I don’t know whether North Korea or a disgruntled ex-employee are responsible for the hack, but the impact was profound and far reaching, beyond just the employees and executives of Sony. This was a proof-case of how easy it is to disrupt us. In 2015, we will see more of this type of breach. Cyber-terrorism is a potent class of weaponry in the arsenal. Continue reading

Innovation in the computer industry — Personal recollections (part 2)

Recently, I published the first episode of my experiences in the computer industry: Innovation in the computer industry — Personal recollections (part 1).  In this post, I described how I became interested and initially trained in computer hardware and software, as well as experiences from my first job in the industry.

While my experiences at ARCO were extremely interesting and what I learned was valuable, it certainly wasn’t the front row seat to the participation and observations of some of the most innovation advances to come.  That would happen when I joined Digital Equipment Corporation.  But first, I needed to find my niche in the industry which ended up in operating system (OS) development. Continue reading

Innovation in the computer industry — Personal recollections (part 1)

I’m just finishing up the excellent book by Walter Isaacson, who wrote the 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.  The book is entitled: “The Innovators How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”  The basic thesis in this book is that innovation is not really about the lone genius inventing in a garage.  Rather it’s the collaboration among a variety of people with varying skill sets, dispositions and intelligence, along with the right environment that sparks innovation.


source: Simon and Schuster

However, what has enthralled me in reading this tome is that my career in the computer and software engineering business paralleled much of this development of computers, networking and social media.  Though I can hardly take any real credit for the advances described in the book, I had a front row seat to much of what Isaacson describes.  Also, I heartily agree with his conclusions as to the recipe for successful collaboration and innovation.  Sadly, my most innovative and enjoyable experiences in this industry occurred early in my career when collaboration was more valuable than protection of intellectual property.

So, for the balance of this post and a few posts to come, I thought I’d overview some of the parallel experiences that I had.  If you don’t care, stop reading now, but I’d still recommend reading the book if you’re interested in how technology was developed over the past 60 or so years. Continue reading

Password Managers — Worth it?

Given all the news lately about login accounts getting hacked, its time to discuss password managers and the advantages and disadvantages of using a password manager. Overall, my impression with password managers is that it’s generally a good idea to use one to manage passwords for websites and to have secure access to information that you might need, like social security numbers, drivers license numbers, credit card numbers, etc. However, be aware that there are some limitations.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 5.13.20 PM

In this post, I will discuss 1Password by agilebits.com.  However, there are other password managers on the market you might consider, such as LastPass, Dashlane and Mitro.  This isn’t a recommendation for one solution over another, just a recommendation to consider using one. Continue reading

Privacy and secure data

James Comey, the Director of the FBI in a 60 Minutes interview last night discussed the issues with Apple and Google’s new restriction that doesn’t permit them to respond to a federal warrant since the data on one’s phone can now be encrypted without either Apple or Google having access to the key. Here’s the segment from 60 minutes.  I’d recommend watching to place his comments in context.


source: FBI

As I’ve noted in previous posts, my concerns with security transcend governmental access to one’s data. For most US citizens, corporate access to your information, coupled with increasing hack attacks is by far the larger concern. Though I believe that proper, controlled access to phone data is highly useful for crime fighting and anti-terrorism efforts, in my view, it doesn’t outweigh the bigger privacy issues with devices. Continue reading

What is the “Cloud”?

So, I was at a gathering of friends and one of them asked me: “I keep hearing about the “Cloud”, but I don’t understand it.  What is the Cloud?” It’s an interesting question, because like it’s meteorological namesake, its existence is ephemeral and changing all the time.


Source: Sam Johnston (includes Computer.svg by Sasa Stefanovic)

Let’s start with the name: Cloud. Like many things in technology, the name is largely a marketing term.  It’s a marketing term that had its genesis in the technical realm. For years, my colleagues and I used the picture of a cloud in architecture diagrams to indicate network paths and services. Sorta like: I’m in Boston communicating with you in Palo Alto and between us I’d show a cloud to indicate: There are messaging services here, but exactly how the messaging happens is not important to the overall architecture of our work.  A few years ago the term cloud was co-opted to mean any storage and services being delivered in the network, usually in the Internet. Again, the “how” is not as important as the “what”.

So, what is the Cloud (with a capital “C”)?

It’s an all-encompassing metaphor for any and all services that are delivered via the Internet (note: There are Intranet cloud services, but let’s focus on what the average consumer sees). As the figure above shows, these services can run the realm of computing services that in the past might have been run on local computers. More specifically, if you use Gmail, Dropbox, on-line photo storage, on-line backup (e.g., Mozy or Quicken on-line backup), synchronization of your address book with your devices and computers, you are leveraging the Cloud. Continue reading


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