Now That I Have All This Free Time…

During the current crisis that has brought most of the world to a stand still, many have found themselves with extra free time due to Stay Home Orders issued by many states.

If this applies to you, my hope is that you are in a work from home situation, or that you are currently placed on furlough at most and that your place of employment will have your position waiting for you once we get through this difficult time.

Whatever your situation, you may find yourself compelled to tackle some things you haven’t quite been able to find the time to do. Most people seem driven to tackle some home improvement projects, or to take up some physical activity (possibly out of guilt for abandoning their ill-fated New Year’s Resolution as most tend to do).

Nothing wrong with either of those “to-do’s”, but might I suggest that you use this time to do a personal tech security audit? Without question, protecting your personal information nowadays has always been important. But during the current epidemic we find ourselves in it may be more important now than ever. Unfortunately, the less desirable among us has seized this time as an opportunity, so there has been an uptick in scams and breaches. The good news is there are a few simple tools and techniques you can use to help keep your digital information secure.

Use A Password Manager

As any cyber security expert will tell you, the use of passwords is the weakest link in everything. In fact, in a perfect world, we would abandon the use of passwords altogether. The fact of the matter is, people are horrible at creating secure passwords. We all are. Yes, you are as well. Regardless of how clever you may think you are, the fact is your brain will ultimately settle into a recognizable pattern when attempting to think up new passwords. The real problems arise when once your pattern is cracked, infiltrators can then use that pattern to figure out the passwords for your other secured accounts. Although a more broad adoption of biometrics would be a much better solution, the fact is we are still stuck with passwords.

As such, it is important to use a Password Manager. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of LogMeIn’s Last Pass. I use it for my most important accounts – such as my bank account. In fact, I have no idea what my bank account password is. Instead, like I do with other accounts that I want to keep most secure, I let Last Pass generate a truly random and secure password (the most I can tell you about my bank password is it’s 36 characters long).

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 8.58.20 PM

Last Pass gives you the option to control the length and complexity of the passwords you have it generate, and it stores them all in your personal vault. Install the app on your cell phone, and it will control all of those logins for you when needed. And speaking of biometrics, the app confirms it’s really you by using your device’s existing technology – whether that’s face recognition or a fingerprint scannger. With Last Pass, the only password you’ll need to remember is the password to your Last Pass account. It’s very important that you setup the secure password recovery options, because even the folks at Last Pass cannot see or reset this password for you.

Stop Using Your Credit Card

Now more than ever, more and more of us are ordering online. Thus it should come as no surprise that many have fallen victim to credit card theft – especially as some have become desperate for certain household necessities that they choose to place orders from less-than-reputable websites. Sure, there are still solutions like PayPal and Venmo, which are secure in their own right, but ultimately they are still a one payment source solution.

Thankfully there is an easy solution – during desperate times and during normal times. The service I like to use is Privacy.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.31.29 PM

Privacy lets you generate multiple, unique virtual credit cards – each with their own numbers, CSV codes, and expiration dates. Ordering from a site that you’re not so sure about? Use Privacy to generate a single use card that can only be used for that particular purchase. Any attempts to use the card afterwards is denied – and Privacy alerts you as such! In fact, Privacy alerts you of all purchases you make and keeps a monthly ledger of all your purchases. In fact, each card you setup can be locked to the vendor you chose. For example, I use Privacy for all of my recurring subscriptions such as Netflix and for all of my Amazon purchases and my Prime subscription. If I ever chose to skip a month for Netflix, I can simply pause the card assigned to it. Simply put, all digital transactions I conduct online are done with Privacy cards. From ordering take out to support restaurants, to paying monthly bills, I never use my bank issued card.

No One Is Watching You

This particular trick is still circulating, and angers me personally because I have family members who have fallen victim to it.

While surfing the web or simply composing an email, you receive a “security” pop up or notification indicating that system monitors have detected problems with you computer and they need you to act now. Clicking on the so-called warning basically opens the door to your computer. The first thing the “security professional” likes to do is show you a screen shot of your desktop, or access your webcam if you have one connected as a way to “prove” to you that they are truly who they say they are. Simply put, they are not. Microsoft, Apple, Google, or no other company is actively watching you or monitoring your system for problems, nor will they contact you in this manner. Nor will they ever call you. Ultimately what happens is the victim is instructed to pay a fee to “fix” the problems found. Unfortunately this is nothing short of a con and theft. If you ever see such a message, don’t click on it. It it won’t go away, simply go to your system’s Start menu and select “Shut Down”. Wait a few minutes then power back up. This will typically end this annoyance.

Don’t Click That Link

Lastly, please be sure to be EXTRA careful with email. As has become the norm during times of peril, email phishing scams are increasing almost daily. You may have already received emails from vendors and merchants you trust informing you as such – they will never send you emails requesting your personal information. Most importantly, they will not send an email with a link for you to click (which is the scam itself) to take you to a website to provide such information. Thankfully, many email spam filters tend to catch the bulk of these types of scams, but sometimes a few will slip through. A good rule of thumb to live by is simply to remember that if you didn’t initiate any changes to an account (such as a password reset request), treat all “we need you to update your information” requests as spam. Use the correct contact information from the service that supposedly sent it, and confirm if they actually sent the email. Most likely, they did not. Delete the email immediately. Better yet, depending on the email provider you use, block and report the sender as spam.

At all times, it is important to protect yourself in this digital age. Unfortunately during the worst of times criminals tend to ramp up their attacks and attempts to steal your hard earned money. Hopefully the tools I’ve provided here can help you keep your information secure.

Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments.

 

2020 Cord Cutting State Of The Union

TV

My fellow Earthlings,

It has been a little over 7 years since we ditched cable, and it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of Cord Cutting. It has gone from a back-room whispered, almost hush-hush dirty little secret to a mainstream topic of conversation and a valid choice to consider. In September of 2019, PC Mag reported that the majority of US households – a whopping 74% – have a streaming service.

Over the years, there have been some attacks against Cord Cutting – many of those attacks coming from cable service providers themselves. The leading criticism being that you can’t actually save money, and may actually end up paying more than just holding onto your cable or satellite service. I won’t go into all of the details and the math here, but this is fundamentally false with a few exceptions – the biggest being consumers who feel driven to sign up for multiple streaming services.

It also brings me back full circle to I point I have repeated over and over again, and will continue to repeat. That is, saving money isn’t as much of a driving factor as is choice and quality of programming available. The fact is, perhaps the greatest outcome of the growing popularity of Cord Cutting has been what I like to refer to as The Split Off Effect, in which networks have decided to create their own streaming channels with their own content and original programming. Perhaps the highest profile example of this has been the successful launch of Disney+ as well as the highly anticipated launch of NBCUniversal’s peacock.

We have literally gone from “how in the world will I make this work?” to the point of having a dizzying amount of choices! Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. We are no longer pigeon holed into having to accept bloated, over-priced cable bundles with little to no choice in what programming we receive, to an almost overwhelming amount of cable free choices.

So how do you make sense of it all? How do you choose from the hundreds, even thousands, of streaming channels / services you may see in the channel store of your device of choice? A great place to start is Consumers Advocate’s in-depth reviews of some of the more prominent, well known content providers as well as others many may not be familiar with. The team of researchers there have taken the time to analyze each service based on criteria such as Plans & Trial Periods, Supported Devices, and so on. You may want to do yourself a favor and bookmark this site, as the team keeps it updated (last update as of this writing was February 15, 2020). Also, don’t forget to visit my Bare Bones Cord Cutting article, in which I highlight what I still consider to be some of the best FREE options available.

As always, please feel free to reach out with any comments or suggestions and stay tuned for more reviews and picks as the world of Cord Cutting continues to grow!

His Limits Have Not Been Defined

Bryson WIth Coach

 

 

 

“He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t show discouragement at any time…I believe he has come a long way, and I also believe he has a long way to go. Meaning, his limits have not been defined.” 

– Coach Strahm

These are some of the words he spoke about Bryson tonight as he presented him with the Most Improved Award for this 7th grade season. We are so proud of him – his love of the game, his focus, and his overall love of learning. It’s been so awesome to watch him grow year after year, and we look forward to all that God has in store for him in the future!

Keep going son – we know that God is still writing a very special story through you!

 

 

Sling TV Performance

Decided to give Sling TV another shot (can’t lie – decided to do so because I missed a football game I wanted to see! Lol). Sling made me a great offer, so I decided to go for it. Haven’t used it since back when it first launched.

Can’t tell if it’s just how it’s performing on my TCL Roku TV, but quite frankly it’s clunky, slow, and frequently crashes. My son and I have recorded response times from button clicks to be upwards of 40 seconds from time to time – and that’s when simply navigating the guide!

Considering it will be upwards of $45/month if I choose to keep it, I’d expect much better performance. I still have Philo at $16/month and it performs flawlessly.

Anyone else have Sling TV and find the app performance to be lack-luster at best?

A New Kind Of Social Media

Not my original idea, but I’ve heard it being done on several tech podcasts that I like to listen to. I first heard it from Gastronomad writer and photographer Mike Elgan, and found it to be a fascinating idea.

Mike, like many others, was completely fed up with the likes of Facebook and began closing such accounts. Most of his frustration came not only out of privacy concerns, but the sheer level of toxic conversations and bullying – mainly those of political nature. But Mike wanted to have a way to still share his photography in a way that was a bit more toned-down and which still allowed people to comment, if they so choose, and to interact with him as well. Like a lot of other photographers I’ve heard discuss this, he was actually disappointed with the demise of Google +,  because it was a perfect platform for this type of engagement without the image compression used by the likes of Facebook.

As it turns out, Mike discovered, Google Photos is a great alternative! With it’s unlimited storage, and original image storage capability, Photos also allows you to create Shared Albums which can be shared to individual users or publicly via a created link. And, not only can people view the photos, they can also comment and Mike can respond. Mike playfully titled his “Nicebook”.

So I thought I’d create one of my own, just to see how it goes. I already use Google Drive link sharing extensively (especially for my podcast), and share Photos albums with family. But I thought I’d give the public-facing option a try just to see how it goes!

As such, I’ve created For All

There are only a few recent photos there now, and I’ll continue to add more as time goes on.

Inbox Zero Is REAL!

GMail

When I was still in college pursuing my Network Engineering degree, I was required to take a Database Management class. The professor who taught the class, Mary (I cannot for the life of me remember her last name because she INSISTED we refer to her by her first name!) was one of those oddly goofy, eccentric types. Simply put, she was a stereotypical Nerd, who absolutely loved everything about the course she was teaching, with a pleasantly refreshing sense of humor.

Like all other professors, Mary laid out course expectations as well as best practices for achieving course objectives. One thing she said has stuck with me for all of these years:

“When you are working on your projects, make sure you’re not working while you’re distracted. And don’t fool yourself – there is no such thing as ‘multitasking’. Either consciously or subconsciously, you are actually ignoring something else. With Database Administration, this can have disastrous results!”  

That same principle Mary laid out about multitasking seems to also echo across the email landscape – specifically as far as Inbox Zero is concerned.

Although there are ample tips, tricks, and suggested best practices for managing one’s email, Inbox Zero quite often feels like the most impossible goal to reach. But I’m here to tell you there is a subtle, simple, automated trick for Gmail that can actually accomplish this seemingly lofty goal!

It Starts With A Change Of Mindset

One important thing to consider about email is to remember that email shouldn’t be used as a file storage solution. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but think about this: for some time now, I had email in my inbox dating back as far as 2006. Gmail launched in 2004. The vast majority of these emails were those I had told myself I would get to later, or that I felt I needed to hold onto “just in case”. However, upon reviewing many of them later on, I realized a truth about my email behavior and decided on a simple rule – if I don’t read or act on any email within x amount of time, then I’m not going to so it might as well be deleted.

One thing I’ve always been somewhat of a fanatic about is organizing emails into folders, directing incoming into their respective folders with the use of inbox filters. Since I handle all bills online, this helps me keep notices and communications with each service provider organized. As such, I have multiple email folders. And as one might imagine, these had also become over-filled as the years have gone by.

Establish A Time Frame

Ultimately I decided on some simple constructs regarding my general inbox, the folders I have setup for different bills, and the folders I have setup of other notifications from other services newsletters. You will need to come up with time frames that work best for you, but in general mine is as follows:

Inbox – 30 Days.  Any “general” emails I receive in my inbox that aren’t filtered into specific folders. I’ve allowed myself 30 days to read, review, and/or respond. In my opinion, if I haven’t done so after 30 days, I’m not going to and there really is no need for these emails to simply sit in my inbox.

Bill Payment Due Notifications – 7 Days. As mentioned, I have multiple folders for these – everything from utility bills, to car payment reminders. Since I’m disciplined at adding these to my calendar (and Google helps make this super easy as it is), I have no need for these emails to linger beyond 7 days at most. I’ve even considered shortening this to maybe 2 days, but a week is ample time.

I have a few other miscellaneous folders that handle things like service and performance notifications that I set up to be sent to me from my Plex Server , which I don’t keep longer than a day. As such, I think you get the general idea.

So How Does It Work?

Other than realizing I had literally thousands of emails over a decade old just lying dormant in my inbox that I would physically never be able to address, I had also begun some spring cleaning of my Google Drive and realized the amount of space I was wasting on these old emails. Yes, if you’re not aware, email counts towards your Drive storage.

My initial approach was to find or come up with some sort of IFTTT recipe. But with the changes to the GMail API that Google implemented earlier this year, I simply couldn’t accomplish what I was looking for with IFTTT. But with determination (and some frustration) I finally found what I was looking for with the use of a tool that I had forgotten Google actually makes available to all – Google Apps Script.

Specifically, I came across this 2013 article from a very useful blog known as Skipser. In the article, Arun provides detailed instruction on how to use a very simple Apps Script that runs silently in the background, and immediately begins cleaning up your inbox and any other inbox folders you may have (if you’re like me). You can copy and create multiple scripts for each folder you may have in your GMail account.

There is one small suggestion I would add if you plan on applying this to multiple folders. The scripts themselves will be stored in your Google Drive. Again, if you’re an organizing freak like me, you may want to create a specific folder to house them in. For example, I created a folder and simply named it Email Scripts. For the first script you create, move it into that folder. Then, as you copy the script to adjust the parameters to apply to other folders, do so and move each of them there. Otherwise, Google will just automatically dump them into the general “My Drive” folder. If not having them in a folder doesn’t bother you, just leave as-is. In either case, the scripts will still run.

For those of you ready to jump right in without heading over to Skipser, here is the overview of the setup:

  1. First open this Google Script and select File -> Make a copy. This will create a copy of the script in your Google drive and open it.
  2. Set the value of “LABEL_TO_DELETE” with the label you want to enable auto-delete and “DELETE_AFTER_DAYS” with the age of an email in days after which it should get deleted.
  3. Select Run -> Initialize. Google will ask you to grant required permissions. The script will be running for only your personal account, so nobody else will have access to your data.
  4. Select Run -> Install. This will install and start the script for your account.

You are now all set. The emails in the label you specified will now get deleted automatically once they age out with the number of days you chose. Just make sure you don’t delete the script from your Google Drive. Also, if you want to stop purging mails any time, just open the script once again from your Google drive and select Run -> Uninstall.

You will note that it’s as simple as two lines of code:

var LABEL_TO_DELETE = “crapmail”;

and

var DELETE_AFTER_DAYS = “10”;

For your own personal use, simply change the values within the quotes. For example, I mentioned that I set emails to auto delete from within my general inbox after 30 days. Thus my values are as follows:

var LABEL_TO_DELETE = “inbox”;

var DELETE_AFTER_DAYS = “30”;

I simply copied this script into the designated folder and changed the label value to reflect specific bill folders that I mentioned earlier and the days value respectively.

If you have a lot of email like I did, you will need to simply give it time – the script isn’t an instant fix. You will notice the total count of emails you have start to decline as time goes by. You can also check “Trash” to be pleasantly surprised to see that you too had emails you were holding onto since 2006.

It is that simple! As you can see, with the use of this simple 2-lined script, you can conceivably reach the all-so-coveted  Inbox Zero! Simply make a couple of tweaks to fit your needs.