Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Top Free Online Educational Resources

Once upon a time I attended a forum at my university where I studied for my undergrad. At the forum a student asked the speaker with consternation in her voice, how she could continue to learn once she had graduated. I was so shocked by her question, I mean it is definitely something we need to keep doing. I just was surprised that this college student hadn't learned yet, how to learn on her own. As I sat there I ran down a list in my head of the many ways that I like to learn that were not a part of my formal educational experience. I don't know anyone in my circle of friends or anyone who reads my blog that doesn't already know how to learn on their own. However, I thought I might put up a few free online resources. And perhaps they will be of use to someone.

Formal Lecture Style:
Khan Academy: This website has over 2,700 video lectures on subjects from mathematics to humanities or even test preparation. It is really a great resource to supplement classes you are taking. For that matter they are great if you aren't taking any classes and want to learn the subjects on your own.

iTunes U(iTunes Required)
Many of the world's best universities have provided a number of lectures that anyone can download. Perhaps there is a subject in college that you always wanted to take but never had time or money to do it. Well, the good news is iTunes U allows you to essentially audit just about any kind of class you want. And you can take the classes from any number of the world's top universities for free. Many of the Podcast lectures are available outside of iTunes. However, iTunes U does a great job organizing and aggregating the free lectures into one easy place. A few years ago I was taking a genetics class and as part of my study, I would listen to lectures from a Stanford genetics class to supplement my education. It made a huge difference, I came to class very prepared. One summer while working, I listened to a European history class,  I enjoyed it so much I tracked down the e-mail address of the professor who taught it and thanked her. She responded and ended up giving me exclusive access to content she provided normally only to her students. The bottom line iTunes U has great content and offers a great user experience.

MIT's OpenCourseWare: MIT has had some lectures up for a few years now, however they recently expanded their offering with a dedicated website with over 2,000 classes to choose from. You can receive an incredible education for free. Even cooler if you so desire you can obtain certificates for completing courses.


Radio Lab is one of the best podcasts, definitely top three in my book or my blog... ha ha, sorry (bad joke) I couldn't resist. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich entertain with rich and creative use of sound to illustrate intriguing human stories and science. These podcasts are intellectually stimulating and are delightfully entertaining. Give this podcast a shot you will not be sorry.

This American Life provides an intimate look at lives of Americans, go figure. There is a great mix between real stories and short works of fiction. Each podcast is topical and provides a number of angles and insights to life. The stories are entertaining: they will make you laugh out loud, nod in agreement, and sometimes feel somber with sympathy. The stories are well vetted and worth listening to.

Freaknomics Radio looks at a number of different aspects of culture and society but from a very analytical perspective, think quantitative, think economic. This results in a fresh and very interesting look into the world we live in. I highly recommend this podcast.

TED has a tagline that does well to describe what it is all about, "Ideas that are worth sharing". This organization finds and promotes people and more so their ideas. The presentations often comforts and inspires me. TED reminds me that there are actually people in the world that are actively trying to make it a better place. (More TED)

Grammar Girl These casts are really short, but they offer valuable tips on writing and grammar. They are fun, valuable, and they can be pretty entertaining too.

99% Invisible has been receiving great reviews and was recently featured on Radio Lab. This design podcast covers an array of interesting design topics. For example I recently listened to an episode on music design and they talked about an iOS app called RJDJ, this app uses your mobile device's mic to influence the sound being produced, creating a soundtrack. I have played with this app for about two years now, it is pretty interesting. If you want to hear an example of this app in action click the link to download a recording I made in the NYC JFK Airport (download). I really recommend listening to 99% invisible, it is worth it.

Stuff You Missed in History Class I have listened to over hundred of these short fact filled casts. The hosts are history gurus, they share mini-classes on different events or people of historical note. In short these podcasts are are a great way to get your history fix.

This list could go on and on... because there are podcasts on just about any subject you may be interested.

YouTube EDU Is similar to iTunes U in that it has a great deal of college lectures on there. There are some pros and cons to YouTube EDU. First the good is that it is accessible on just about any device and browser. This means that it can be far more handy than iTunes U. The bad however, is this resource is not nearly as organized as iTunes U. 

There are number of other resources that are out there. These are just some of my favorite resources to turn to for free education. I will add more to this post later.

Cyber Security Part 3 - Future of Warfare - China Privateering

One of the main challenges that the first world faces in cyber security is that  developing nations do not  always have an interest in creating and enforcing laws against cyber crimes. A strong example of this is what is being called, "Ghostnet".

Ghostnet is the codename given to a campaign of targeted cyber attacks launched from China. This past year 760 companies were target by cyber criminals in China. Experts allege that some of these attacks have been launched by criminals that were state sponsored, traced to known government facilities in China. 

Richard Clarke, an expert on cyber security and former cyber security adviser to the White House, said, "I don’t think you can overstate the damage to this country that has already been done.” It is hard to estimate the damages done to U.S. corporations, but Roger's a former FBI agent said that a declassified estimate of the stolen intellectual property's value through these attacks reached nearly $500 billion. This estimate is based off of known attacks, this means that this is sure to be a very conservative estimate. Think about that $500 billion dollars, in intellectually property stolen by these targeted cyber attacks. To give some sort of perspective on a number that is so far removed from our daily lives. The entire Afghanistan War over the last ten years has not yet cost the United States $500 billion dollars. 

Why do these cyber attacks benefit China? An article in the Wall Street Journal discussing these targeted cyber attacks raised the point that stealing intellectual property is far cheaper than developing it. The Chinese have become masters in reverse engineering. However, even reverse engineering takes time and money. Favorite targets by cyber criminals have been companies that develop products that require a vast amount of resources to develop. In this same article there is a citation from a government intelligence official that claims that these GhostNet hackers attack on commission. There are well documented cases of corporations getting targeted by Chinese attackers over the last few years. Google was a victim of a targeted cyber attack in 2010 that was well publicized, they claim that this attack was also carried out by Chinese hackers. 

Now in the interest of full disclosure the Chinese have denied any such activities. And as I previously stated in a previous post it can be rather difficult to track hackers, so it is important to maintain some degree of skepticism. However, cyber attacks uniquely offer developing countries plausible deniability and great reward. These hackers are like cyber privateers, as stated before some hack on commission. Assuming the experts on cyber security are accurate in their analysis we can say that at least historically developing countries (China) can sponsor cyber criminals without any concern of consequence. $500 Billion in intellectual property gained in a year with a fraction of the time and money invested. 

Many Americans are concerned that we have exported too much of our manufacturing base to China. I think the Americans that believe this are perhaps right. However, America's strength has always been in intellectual property and if we loose our edge via serial robbery by targeted cyber attacks it leaves America in a very weak position. It has huge implications on the future of America's global trade and economic future.

Again, not to sound like a broken record but cyber security needs to be taken seriously. The government and corporations in the United States need to work together to fight to secure our property against foreign threats. Corporate America and the Federal Government should develop a stronger security relationship. The government should be protecting America's interests. 

Update:  Chinese Hackers Attack US Chamber of Commerce: This targeted attack had been going on for quite a long time. It was only recently detected. This supports what I have already written in my previous posts.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cyber Security Part 2 - Future of Warfare - Challenges of Cyber Attacks

Cyber warfare poses a number of challenges that make fighting the war extremely difficult. This post will outline a number of these issues. If you missed part one follow the link to read about Stuxnet and the Future of Cyber Warfare.

Tracking a hacker?
Bouncing Attacks
Have you ever considered how this might work? In truth the difficulty varies a great deal. An inexperienced domestic hacker could be tracked down in minutes. However, veteran hackers can be nearly impossible to track domestically. Tracking an experienced hacker in a foreign nation is harder. Even if you could do it many nations do not have laws prohibiting cyber crimes. (for many nations it is not in their best interest to prohibit it.)

More specifically tracking a veteran hacker is difficult because they often bounce their attacks separating their computer and the target. There are a few different ways this can be accomplished but one thing is consistent throughout, the use of proxies. A proxy will allow a computer to send a request to a proxy, which will then send a request to the target. Quick Diagram: [Hacker's Computer] > [Proxy] > [Target] Now, experienced hackers will have their requests bounce between five to ten proxies before the request reaches the target. This makes it really difficult to track an attack to the originator.
(learn more about bouncing techniques)

It can also be difficult because experienced hackers also understand how to hide evidence of their path. They will edit weblogs that track IP addresses, removing their IP address altogether. The proxies take different forms from proxy servers, compromised systems with backdoors, or computers with open ports. The bottom line is proxying is a tactic that is simple to implement and a great way to attack anonymously.

Lack of Infrastructure
Most weapons have certain infrastructure signatures that give clues to intelligence agencies. Like biological weapons, cyber weapons have next to no signatures. For either biological or cyber no silos are required, reactor, refinery, fuel, mining, or missile. The only thing required for cyber attacks are a computer terminal, internet connection, and the knowledge. This makes it very hard to see developing cyber threats. The best indicator of a growing threat is fluctuations in both successful and unsuccessful attacks. Even this can be difficult to gauge because many organizations do not want to admit that they have had their networks compromised or attacked. This again however, does not provide a great deal of information about who an attacker is.

Worms / Viral Attacks
The Stuxnet virus took advantage of a viral element, it spread itself all over the place remaining dormant until it reached its targeted system. Tracking down the original source of a virus can be tricky, as many of them use spoofing techniques to again hide the true path of the virus. The number of machines infected by a virus and the rate of spread can make it really hard as well. For example a virus called SQL Slammer or Sapphire in 2003 infected nearly 50% of the major internet servers in its first fifteen minutes in the wild. It is estimated the Sapphire increased its infection base by double every "few seconds".  (read more about viruses)

This is interesting and informative, also pretty long. You don't need to watch this,
but I am providing it in case you would like  to learn more about viruses and 
worms. I recommend skipping the first six minutes of this video. 

Finally many attacks are designed as to be undetected. Many attacks are not designed to bring systems down, but use them for other nefarious reasons, like stealing data. If a virus designed for this means is noticed by the user it is likely to be eliminated. When viruses or other cyber attacks are performed with this design, they are designed to have small footprints, leave little to no traces, and hide their presence. This can make it very difficult to protect against. Also you cannot track a hacker that you don't know has attacked your system.

State Sponsored Attacks
I mentioned earlier in this post that some states do not have laws prohibiting cyber crimes. This is because many states have a net profit at the end of the day because of cyber criminal activity. This makes these states unlikely to crack down on cyber criminals operating in their states. This makes this war even more difficult. The enemies are protected by the sovereignty of the state in which the hackers reside.

The next post will deal with intention, what motivates a cyber attack?

    Saturday, December 24, 2011

    Cyber Security Part 1 - Future of Warfare - Stuxnet

    I have been meaning to write about Stuxnet for over a year now. The advent of guns, aircraft, chemical or biological weapons, and the atomic bomb caused paradigm shifts in how wars are fought and security viewed. Stuxnet is as significant in my opinion as these other developments. It represents a new kind of war, a new kind of threat, and a new necessary shift in security.  This new kind of threat can penetrate state boundaries, it is almost untraceable and undectable.

    What is Stuxnet?

    Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus from Patrick Clair

    Now that you have additional context about Stuxnet you can see why it is significant. The fact that it uses a zero-day exploit is not surprising, but that it used 20 different zero-day exploits is. I digress, zero-day exploits will always exist. Although a lot can be done to improve the security of a network,  networked computer systems are never impervious to attack. Often encrypted systems have been touted as unbreakable and historically a young teenager has cracked them. Recently in the news it has been confirmed that one of the U.S. most advanced drones was brought down by an Iranian cyber attack. It is currently in their possession. Advanced missile systems were not required, merely a computer system. This reminds me back in 2009 when it was reported that terrorist insurgents in Afghanistan were able to hack into the drones to gain access to "secure" videofeeds requiring little more that some $26 dollar software.  (read more)  North Korea a mostly impovershed nation even has a very capable Cyber unit, they are suspected of bringing down a prominent South Korean bank for many days. We may think these countries too underdeveloped to be a threat using technology against us. However, I think the more each of us study the capabilities of other nations the faster first world citizens will come to conclusion that, we need to take security more seriously.

    The fact of the matter is I think that the first world governments and private sector needs to invest a great deal more in cyber security. Symantec a leading cyber security company found that directed cyber attacks are up 400% this year. This is the reality of our present and future, directed cyber attacks will continue to increase. If that doesn't scare you the Stuxnet virus is open source and can be downloaded and tweaked by any interested party. This has pretty scary implications.

    Download Stuxnet Source Code

    As I have been researching this topic in greater depth I found a number of very surprising things. I decided that in the interest of not having a post be to lengthy I will break up my findings into a couple of posts.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011

    Loving your body

    Yesterday I met with some friends which was really serendipitous, it was a total chance meeting. I had not seen them since 2008 and over two thousand miles away. I shared a really wonderful conversation about bodies with one of them. The focus was having a healthy view of our bodies in a society that although touts being "health conscious" about bodies generally promotes a toxic inner attitude about them.

    She shared insights that were noteworthy. One of the first things we talked about was how bodies are a reflection of our lives. For example, when we are four years old our bodies are small. As we hit young adult age our bodies change into more adult bodies. While the years pass our bodies continue to change we may loose hair, hair color, our skin may wrinkle. These are all natural things that are a reflection to some extent of ourselves. This is not all, our scars tell stories and our any other markings our bodies tell a story.

    There are more specific and dynamic stories of our lives reflected on our bodies. A more specific example could be finals week. During finals week, I normally would have a sleep deprived existence filled with studying for tests, finishing final projects, and packing and cleaning. These different priorities reflect on my body, you can visually see that I haven't had as much sleep. These manifestations may be bloodshot eyes, bags under my eyes, or maybe even getting a cold. The bottom line is our body reflects our priorities too. We do not have time for everything. This is not an excuse for not taking care of our bodies, but it is a healthy thing to recognize and consider while viewing our own bodies and others.

    You know your life and you understand your priorities. It is important to consider bodies in the context of your life and priorities. There are times when our bodies or bodies of others are maybe not in their ideal form but, are very beautiful when considering priorities. I think the ultimate example is pregnancy, there is a real beauty in this context. A woman may not view her body at this time as something beautiful. However if you consider the context, there is no question it definitely is.

    Although considering our bodies in context is important, it is important in as much as it helps maintain perspective and consequently love for our bodies and respect for others. Truly loving your body also mean taking care of it.

    The foundation of loving your body first is incredibly important. If you do not have this foundation no amount of exercise, dieting, or style will change an unhealthy view of your body. Although, these things can definitely be good and healthy choices.

    Third, be careful of comparisons. They are often more harmful than good. This viral video that most of you have probably already seen illustrates the importance of this point. You may find that you are comparing yourself (real) to a fabrication.

    Friday, October 28, 2011

    Siri is a Game-changer

    A couple months ago I was catching up with an old friend. He kind of flattered me for a few minutes. He said, "you have been able to call certain industries while we were growing up. You had a first generation iPod and told your friends that this was going to be huge. You told everyone the iTunes Music industry was going to cause a paradigm shift. Years before Halo was released you said it was going to be a big game in the gaming industry, it ended up becoming one of the most successful gaming franchises in the history of gaming. You called the iPhone and phone revolution that it caused. What's next? What is the next game-changer?"

    I do not presume to be able to call shifts in industry. However, for a month or so I have been considering something that I think will be a game-changer. Many of you are already familiar with a new feature on Apple's iPhone 4s called Siri 'Personal Assistant'. This is one of the biggest steps in computer-human interaction that has happened in literally years. Computer-Human Interaction is going mainstream… this is not the only step that is so big here. First, I would like to provide a little more context.

    Computer-Human Interaction and Artificial Intelligence are way more complex than most probably ever suspect. To illustrate I will share an excerpt of one of my favorite podcasts RadioLab,

    ["If a computer were a person you can imagine someone sitting in your living room and you say… can you hand me that book?
    It would say, "no because there is a coffee cup on it".
    "Okay, well, pick up the coffee cup and hand me that book."
    It says no, "I can't do that because now I am holding the cup."
    "Okay, put down the cup, then pick up the book…"

    You quickly learn, said Bryan, that really simple human behaviors are made up of a thousand subroutines, I mean if you really think about it the book task requires: knowing what is a book. You have to learn about elbows and wrists. How to grab something… know about gravity. If it is a machine you have to teach… it Physics… everything in the world for it to pick up a book."] (Clever Bots - Radio Lab - 2006)
    Now coupling Naunce Speech Recognition software, Siri's artificial intelligence, Wolfram Alpha, and the web Apple has been able to create a powerful assistant.

    If you go to Apple's website and look at the information about Siri you will notice a yellow tag in the top left corner that says "Beta". Apple rarely releases Beta software to the public, so you might be asking why Apple did this time around. You may suggest that it was to sell more of their new iPhone 4S. However, that would be shortsighted although no doubt true. However selling more iPhones is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Introduction to Clever Bot. This is an A.I. that was designed by Rollo Carpenter, it was designed to learn intelligence by communicating with other humans. At first Rollo developed this AI offline. He and his buddies communicated with A.I. and as they did, it learned more and more. In 1997 Rollo launched his A.I. on the worldwide web. This resulted in an explosion of learning for the A.I. Today it has had more than 65 million conversations. This means that Cleverbot has a lot of data it can pull human questions and human responses from, using it's algorithm. Rollo said,"talking to Cleverbot is a little like talking with the collective community of the Internet." If you chat with Cleverbot you will see that this is really true.(It is like a time capsule). In fact there is an A.I. Contest held every year where A.I. programmers pit their A.I.s against judges that try to determine if they are A.I. or Human. This test is called the Turing Test named after Alex Turing who is considered to be the father of A.I. He had said that if A.I. ever reached the point where it could fool a person 30% of the time, it will have gained some degree of thinking. We have surpassed that even with Cleverbot. At the last contest it achieved with the judges guessing it was human 59.3% of the time. That is greater than a 50/50 guess. This is pretty amazing!

    I bring up Cleverbot because like the web produced incredible learning to the A.I. in a short time. You better believe that Apple is collecting large quantities of data from it's beta run with Siri. Million's of Siri requests every single day. This will allow the Siri team to improve the A.I. from what I have seen Siri is really already very functional. I would estimate that with two or three years Siri will ubiquitous and a feature that people wonder what they ever did without it.

    Speaking of ubiquity, can I make some other predictions? I predict that Apple will include this technology in all of their Mac lineup and all of their home entertainment offerings. (iPod, Apple TV, and the rumored Apple Television set.) "Siri, can you check to see if Stranger Than Fiction is on Netflix streaming? If it is streaming can you put it on the television before we get home?" I believe that this is feature is not long off.

    And one last thought and question that I am still really wondering about. Is Siri possibly an inroad Apple will use to get into search market? Is this push of computer to human interaction a vehicle to make search more human and more interactive? I guess we will see over the next few years. I think if you look at the strategic pieces that have been positioned over the last couple years, it could be possible. (Construction of huge data center, iCloud, and all the Siri related technologies, iAd mobile advertising platform designed by Apple, mapping company purchases.)(I used statistics from the RadioLab podcast mentioned above, wikipedia)
    Update 11/08/2011: "Google chairman Eric Schmidt has told a U.S. Senate antitrust subcommittee that Apple’s Siri personal assistant is a potential threat to its core search business. The admission reverses a statement that Schmidt made in September last year where he had said that Apple did not pose a ‘competitive threat.’ Schmidt argued that the arrival of Siri is a ‘significant threat’ and even cited two publications that have called the voice recognition app a ‘Google killer.’" (excerpt pulled from electronista article)

    I think this validates some of what I discussed. It doesn't verify that it will grow to be what I think it could. However, it does show that other industry leaders think that it could potentially blossom in the direction that I have discussed. Time will tell...

    Saturday, October 15, 2011

    Top 10 Techniques Internet Trolls Use

    You may be dealing with an Internet Troll if:

    1. They attack the person not the argument.
    2. Trolls post a short statement designed to bait their victims into an argument. (These statements will be non-qualified and they will be juvenile.)
    3. They will insist in having the last word, even if they are words of conciliation.
    4. They will introduce tangential inflammatory content in the form of quotes, images, websites, or youtube videos.
    5. They will take your arguments out of context as a means to weaken your statement.
    6. They will put "words in your mouth". Point five and six are closely related and applied.
    7. Trolls often claim years of experience, inside information, sometimes even cite having the acquaintance of someone who "would know",  yet their argument will fly in the face of facts and good common sense.
    8. If it is possible they are more likely than not to post their comments anonymously.
    9. If you ask an Internet Troll a sincere question, they will not directly answer your question.
    10. Repetition, they may spam in a very literal manner, but often times they will repeat step one and two until the desired reaction is reached.