25 April 2014

We fear what we cannot see.

When I was a little tyke I remember how scared I was of dark places. I would turn on every light and often take a baseball bat with me - just in case there was a monster waiting for me. Even as I waltzed into adulthood, where this silly fear of nothing shrouds into darkness, I am often guilty of replacing unfounded paranoia with yet more invisible boogiemen.

It is completely reasonable to be afraid of what we cannot see. Surely what we do not know is far more terrible than what we do. When we find out that a politician is having an affair with a woman in another country we re-elect him - because at least we know what terrible things that one was doing. The others? They are probably beating children and raping farm animals while stealing grammy's retirement.

Sometimes the concern hits the absurd realm when someone is telling their friends on their phone that they tossed away their microwave due to radiation concerns - completely unaware that those same waves are traveling through their brain on that cell phone they are jabbering on. Just the core concern about microwaves, radio towers or power lines could be classified as silly when countless studies have shown that they pose less risk than stepping on a banana peel.

However, the most ridiculous phobia of nothing that society has created is nuclear radiation. I used to share that unfounded anxiety. We were taught from the youngest age that there was no worse weapon than an atom bomb. (That is not true, but we will save that for another day.) Since the accident at Fukushima, we are convinced that there is no scarier power source than a fission reactor. Even Germany, who tends to have some relatively intelligent individuals, decided to eradicate all nuclear power plants due to hidden terror. Their concerns seem perfectly reasonable. That is, until we know the truth about radiation.

I will not bore you with all of the sievert calculations, but we need to recognize that radiation is natural. Anything containing potassium is radiating, including your bananas and potatoes. Electromagnetic waves and subatomic particles are hitting us all day, every day, and we get more of them the faster we move. Pilots and flight attendants are unknowingly swimming through radiation as they take you on holiday to DisneyWorld.

Stars churn out radiation and supernova spit out radioactive elements that warm the planet we live on. We owe our very existence to radiation because, without it, human beings would never have evolved on our planet. So why are we so afraid of it? Because we have been told scary stories about these invisible particles that will surely be the death of us all.

You know what is truly scary? Coal. Four thousand times as many people are killed annually from use of coal as an energy source as fission fuel. Yet, even knowing how much safer nuclear energy is, entire countries have sworn it off due to Three Mile Island (TMI), Cherynobyl and Fukushima.

TMI and Fukushima had zero directly attributable deaths. Yes, there was radiation exposure that likely will impact a few of the Fukushima 50 (true heroes) - but the accidents did not directly kill a single person. Chernobyl had 56 direct deaths and an estimated 4,000 due to radiation exposure.

TMI was mostly a media event, Fukushima was an old nuclear power plant that needed to be updated and Chernobyl was a thermonuclear weapon accident. What I mean by the latter was that the U.S.S.R. originally used Chernobyl as a reactor for nuclear weapons and converted it to be a power plant, which is why it did not have a containment dome over it like every other nuclear power plant. It has been argued that Chernobyl was a product of the cold war and also, due to the accident, brought an end to it with the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

That is it. The entire history of nuclear power and those are the three big accidents, so we need to ignore it as a power source while coal kills thousands of people annually and is even reducing the average lifespan of people in China near the plants. But we are not afraid of coal because we can see it - that smoggy air polluting the world is not sneaking up on anyone.

Much like the monsters lurking in the shadows, we need to stop fearing the invisible particles traveling around us. Whether it is gamma, ultraviolet, X, micro or radio waves - our phobias are somewhat unfounded. These hidden gems allow us to listen to music, talk to friends, heat a burrito and create electricity. Yes, in ridiculously high doses they may increase your health risk (some of those morning talk show hosts will melt your brain) but this is true of everything we consume - even water.

Perhaps it is time to stop being afraid of nothing.

24 April 2014

Help kick the booty of pediatric brain tumors with me.

I am running a 5K this year and pleading for a few dollars from you for the most worthwhile cause out there.
While I may have a brain tumor, I recognize that I am one of the very lucky ones. The tumor was operable, I am extremely healthy, I have an amazing family and I was young enough to kick this suckers back-side for as long as it takes.
This Run Of Hope is for those that are not nearly as fortunate. When children find a tumor in their noggin it is in a spot that has major repercussions on their health and far more damaging to their daily functioning. Worse yet - it is often not even operable. And yet, these young superheroes are kicking their tumors rumpus, too. But they need our help.
They succeed thanks to all of us giving money. Any donation - big or small - will make a huge difference. Your support goes directly to research where they are finding the tools and creating the medicines that help these kids live long and productive lives. Whether it is "tumor paint" research (based on venom from scorpions) or this new immune system response therapy - they are on the threshold of truly revolutionary techniques for helping and possibly (someday) eliminating a brain tumor.
Click the button below to donate to this worthy cause - and thank you so much for giving - whatever you can. You are making a difference in these children's lives.

14 April 2014

Windows XP has never been safe, so nothing has really changed.

Windows XP has never been a secure and stable operating system. It will show our favorite blue screen of death every so often and tech staff know to re-install the operating system or restore from a backup every few months to keep it fresh. Yes, over the years there have been hundreds of worms that have snuck their way through despite Microsoft security support, so using XP without virus or spyware protection is just asking for trouble. However, despite all of the issues, Windows XP has always been "good enough" to get the job done. Even with Microsoft dropping support, there is no more rush to upgrade today than there was yesterday.

The amount of FUD and dire warnings circling about XP today is pure nonsense. You are running decade old software and just because the manufacturer has moved on does not make it any better or worse. For the few remaining XP die-hards, you just need a plan for how to use it safely. Heck, even the IRS plans to continue to use XP beyond the death date and we all know what a stickler for deadlines they are.

Personally, the only place I touch XP today is in a virtual machine for running old versions of software. For my core personal systems I have long since moved on with Windows 7/8.1, OS X or my favorite Linux flavor of the week. Most of the corporate installations of XP are in VM's and devices, such as the tens of thousands of ATM's still relying on the software.

Yes, you read that right. Banks everywhere have been using software that has always been insecure and temperamental to handle your money and they continue to do so today. They can get away with this because those machines are not directly connected to the internet - they are hidden behind firewalls and routers that are inaccessible to the naughty bits floating on the TCP/IP pipes. Microsoft not releasing updates does not impact them because they were not applying those updates anyway.

Speaking of which ... Ending Microsoft updates does us a favor, in a way. Constantly installing and rebooting a VM when we only turn the sucker on ever few weeks is an unnecessary hassle for something used so infrequently.

Even if you have an old XP machine sitting around that you do not want to part with, you can keep it as safe as it has ever been. Here is a wonderful article that covers all your bases and this is the short version: Make certain it is behind a firewall, has security software installed and take regular backups of your information. That is pretty much all there is to it. Yes, if you are browsing for porn on that machine then the system will probably not last for more than 15 minutes but you already knew that.

Yes, I would recommend moving to a newer operating system, but there is no need to fret over all of the dire warnings about poor little Windows XP. It will be around for years to come and still be just as messy as always.

12 April 2014

My heart bleeds for the open source community.

Nearly everyone on the internet (that would be our entire planet and the folks on the ISS) has heard of the "Heartbleed" OpenSSL bug. In short, this coding error has allowed any mildly skilled hacker access to read the memory of any vulnerable system and likely is a favorite backdoor for your favorite Russian spam bot. Since OpenSSL is used on such a wide range of devices and web sites, this is quite possibly the biggest security hole to hit the internet since Windows 98. We are left with end users scrambling to change their passwords and geeks spending late nights at the office evaluating every server, switch and router under their guidance. While the implications are huge, I am equally concerned about the false image this paints of the open source community that developed, what is otherwise, a magnificent piece of software.

Before we dive into why I firmly believe open source software is still trustworthy and useful, I would be remiss if I did not tell you how to protect your online identity. If you are using a password manager the vendor should have notified you regarding any passwords to change and how to proceed safely going forward. There are articles out there that list the web sites you should be most concerned about, which is nearly everything except AOL. (Crazy, right?) I would also like to give a shout-out to all dual verification methods since using them will protect you against any future security holes like Heartbleed.

For the tech heads and part-time hackers out there, this site has an excellent explanation of what causes the bug and how it can be exploited. In addition to updating Linux servers, you will need to check with all of your software and device vendors to verify that there are no issues with their products as a result of this glitch. Even equipment by Cisco (routers, modems, switches) could be impacted so make certain you check everything. Comically, it is the businesses that were most up to date on software and hardware that are most at risk since the bug only came into existence a couple of years ago. I guess we must reluctantly give kudos to the cheapskates still running Windows XP and out-of-service Watchguard routers that they refuse to upgrade.

There are plenty of tinfoil hat theories (I'm looking at you, Wired) out there that the NSA paid the OpenSSL programmer, Dr. Robin Seggelmann, to put this flaw in his code so they could steal all of your critical information. The NSA denies they even knew about the issue and is pretending to be kicking themselves that they did not use it. While you can bet the kids college tuition that the Dr. Seggelmann did not intentionally add the bug for the government, it is a certainty that our fine nation took advantage of this minor heartache.

Let us start with the obvious: All programs have bugs. They are created by human beings and while we put our heart into the code, sometimes we miss a beat. Whether it is iTunes, Microsoft Office, Gmail or open source products like Firefox, Handbrake and Drupal - they all have bugs. The difference between the corporate versions and the ones coded by your neighbors is that the latter airs all their bloody laundry while the former does everything they can to keep them a secret (or ignore them).

Does that make open source more dangerous? That is all a matter of perspective. If you are living in Redmond then the answer is "absolutely". If you are dual booting Ubuntu on your MacBook Air then you may think corporate code is more risky. The problem for the individuals shouting the virtues of their open code is that the vast majority of us take the shrink-wrapped licensing approach.

While there is no doubt that this was a serious issue, there are countless other coding errors out there that naughty individuals (or governments) are using in nefarious ways. The NSA has little concern about the OpenSSL hole being filled since they have hundreds of others they are exploiting as I type this.

In the words of Bill Nye, please consider the following: If you were in charge of the NSA, where would you go to buy a trap door? An open source programmer, whose life work is open to everyone? Or would you offer a big payoff to a major software vendor where the source code is behind a locked door? Do you believe that corporations are any more bug-proof than collections of individuals that have their source information available to the universe? When you know that all programmers make mistakes, it is a safe bet that neither is more bug proof than the other. In fact, when competitions have been done to see whether an OS X, Windows or Linux workstation is hacked fastest the open source device is almost always left untouched.

It is human nature that is partially to blame. We all want the latest features and gadgets and I am equally guilty. When a new update is released, I rush to install it because we want whatever cool new stuff comes along with it. Most of the time that new software is better and more secure - but sometimes it is far more dangerous. There is value to taking our time to carefully evaluate the implications of every improvement we are making to our tech universe. Yes, we should all apply security updates as soon as we verify they do not break anything, but do we truly need to upgrade to the latest version the week it is made available? This Heartbleed incident is begging all of us to take our time.

Except about changing our passwords. We need to do that immediately.

05 April 2014

Politics and the true cost of our Lake Washington School District bond.

The Lake Washington School District is advertising a new bond will cost tax payers 25 cents more (per $1K of home value) annually more than what we are paying today. There is an energetic "no" group saying the district is lying and the real cost is much more. Who is right? Well, both of them, of course. However, the money debate should be secondary to the quality of education being provided when deciding whether to fund a school district.

Let's start with the debate. What the district writes is true. It will cost 25 cents more for the first year. They have done this by re-assessing the value of all property and lumping all previous loans in one which ultimately saves tax payers money. When the bond is included we will be paying 25 cents more than we expected. Makes sense.

Toby Nixon on the Kirkland City Council did some Google searches on how to calculate a bond and figured out the "true cost". His math said they are robbing tax payers of 90 cents. The "no" crew took his numbers as gospel and shouted about our education system fleecing the loving taxpayers from the Rainier mountain top. Now, while it is true that the bond, on its own, costs more than 25 cents, the school district is not hiding this and already advertised the amount. It is 61 cents. So, while the quarter advertisement might feel disingenuous, the truth is that the district is not hiding anything. (Oh, and that 90 cent number is inaccurate, Toby, since it is based on 2011 property values.)

These numbers are but a small part of the big picture. Compared to our property taxes, the average Lake Washington School District land owner is paying five times as much to the federal government, even if we are financing this bond. Unlike the IRS bucks, your property taxes go entirely into your community. Your dollars fund the future genius of our cities, including the next Toby Nixon on our city council. They create an environment that has supported companies like Microsoft and Google who thrive thanks to our sons and daughters. This is how our community pays it forward, much like the property tax owners who paid for my education.

A convincing argument could easily be made that every penny we give to the district comes back to property owners through increased property value. While our entire country lost most of their home value during the Great Recession, our homes in Redmond and Kirkland have gained back nearly everything we lost. That is due, in no small part, to our outstanding district. Families are moving to Redmond and Kirkland to put their children in these new buildings.

Oh, but the anti-bond crowd does not like the fact that our district is building new schools to house all of the new children. "Our families are living in much older houses so why are we tearing down schools that are 40 years old?" I can understand someone not appreciating a school district policy based on experts determining that they can break even, over the 30 year run of a school, by creating a whole new building through energy savings while also providing a state of the art facility. Unlike our homes, a school district spends enormous money on power and keeping up with technology and education standards is expensive which often negates any financial benefit to remodeling.

Why not increase the class size to 50 students? Because there are state regulations that will not allow that. Why did the district say it was building room for all these students before and now we are out of room? Because the location where students are living has changed and, frankly, the birth rate is up. Why build schools when there is capacity at other schools? Because shipping elementary students on an hour bus ride to a school with capacity would have a very negative impact on their education. Remember - this is about giving quality education to children, right?

No question, tax payers should and do have a voice in district policy. We should be concerned that they are spending our money wisely. When we question how they are approaching a problem, the school board should, and does, use experts in that given issue to determine the best course of action. That is how existing policies were made. If you question them, then attend a school board meeting and let them know. I have. Jackie Pendergrass and her crew will listen and act on your words. That does not mean they will agree but your words will impact their choices.

The kicker of this whole discussion is that we have allowed the "no" crowd to judge our school district by the cost of educating our kids rather than the quality education they are providing. That is a politically smart move on the part of the opposition because if the debate is about what is best for our students then this bond would have already been approved. Twice.

The mission of the Lake Washington School District is to make our kids future ready for the working world and to create the best schools in the nation. They are helping develop the smartest kids in our state and has the test scores and the extremely low high school drop out rate to prove it. Our students, schools and district are constantly receiving awards and being recognized nationally for their work. We should be celebrating the success of our district and putting some energy into thanking our teachers, custodians, counselors, board members and administrative employees. (Thank you!)

When we clear away the political nonsense, what we find is that the money is irrelevant. Property owners will get their investment back in increased property value and better employment opportunities in our area. There are valid reasons for every concern that has been voiced and a venue for working with the district to improve the direction. The only question remaining is whether the property owners in our community are willing to help the future leaders of our community.

I am. I hope they are, too.