Grandpa’s Navigation

When I was little, I thought my grandpa had installed an advanced navigational system in his car. This was crazy, as it was the 70’s. Not only did we not have computers, we didn’t even have LED screens. Heck, even the radio was a twist-dial that only got AM!

Nevertheless, when GPS was developed a couple decades later, I was more surprised than anyone else. I had never realized that this sort of system didn’t exist until suddenly everyone was talking about it.

How did I wind up at this absurd notion? Let’s consider the evidence:

Whenever we went anywhere in his car, grandpa would insist on going out to “get it ready” at least 5-10 minutes early. Sure, in the winters we had to warm up those old cars for a good while before you put it in gear. But I naturally assumed he had a purpose to this the rest of the year, too.

As soon as we piled into the car, grandma would ask, “Now, are you sure you know where you’re going?”

Rather than a yes or no answer, grandpa would say, “Don’t worry. We’ll get there.

As a grown and married woman, I now realize this translates to, “I’ll point the car in the general direction and hope things turn out alright.”  But as a kid, I figured he had some sort of ace in the hole to help him make that statement with such certainty.

And now here’s the kicker: when we got to the next town, grandpa’s turn signal would start blinking a good quarter mile before the actual turn!

I didn’t know anything about cars in those days. I had no idea he was nudging a lever to turn the signal on because I never saw him do it. So I got the notion that the signal was telling him when to turn.

This felt true because almost every time, when grandma would say, “Your turn’s coming up – you have to slow down!” grandpa would suddenly sit up straight, looking as alarmed as anyone that he was coming up on the turn too fast. I figured he hadn’t noticed that his blinker had been going for several minutes.

Grandpa always had a confident air about finding things, the same relaxed, no-worries approach of people nowadays who are using GPS. No matter how convinced grandma was that we’d taken a wrong turn, he’d always maintain that we were fine, right on time, gonna be there in any moment. And when we finally reached it, even if the house we were visiting suddenly appeared to be on the opposite side of the street of where they’d both been looking, he’d shift into park with a flourish and and give grandma a jaunty grin.

Yes, kids, in our day we didn’t have fancy computers with accurate navigation. We got by on cockiness, patience, and luck.

Oh, and it helped that none of the passengers could pull up maps on their phones to prove we were going the wrong way.



I was just sitting there …

As an IT manager, I’m constantly summoned to coworkers’ desks when things unexpectedly go wrong. Roughly 90% of the time, their saga begins with, “I was just sitting there and all of a sudden it did this …”

I usually sigh, give them a long look, and remind myself that they  believe this is true. They’ll stick to that story to the death and be terribly offended if I suggest that they, in fact, did cause the problem.

And yes, most of the time it is the user’s fault.

When they say, “I didn’t touch anything, I swear!” I always chuckle to myself. That’s a pretty weird thing to claim when you’ve just spent three hours at your desk, presumably working on this very computer. But I understand that what they’re really trying to say is, “I didn’t push a button labeled ‘Self Destruct.’ ”

What “I didn’t do anything” usually translates to is:

  • I clicked through an error message without reading it.
  • I was downloading a bunch of stuff, but since none of it was work-related, it doesn’t really exist.
  • I opened a spam e-mail attachment, but dropped my mouse as soon as I realized it, so it wasn’t really me doing it.
  • I currently have every application on my machine open at once. Is that bad?
  • I’ve plugged a few personal devices into the machine and hidden them under my desk, but I’m not going to mention that because I don’t want you to tell me to unplug them.
  • Sure, I clicked yes when that application prompted me to run updates this morning. But you’re IT so surely you already know about that.

We often joke in IT that we’re solving absurd mysteries all day. It’s like Hugh Laurie in House, always trying to perform a complicated diagnosis, even though the patient refuses to give all the facts. I wonder how many doctors have similar stories – a patient walks in with a broken wrist and says, “I don’t know. I was just sitting there, doing nothing, and all of a sudden it broke.”

Secure Websites – who can you trust?

How do you know which websites to trust with your credit card information? My answer: almost none of them. That’s a strange thing to say when 99% of my purchases are done online, both at home and work. And yet, there are very few web services that you should trust with your info.

lockWhat most people have been taught is to look for the Padlock icon on your browser to tell whether a site is secured. I dispense that advice myself, but would you be shocked to hear that anybody can add that to their site for about $100  (or for free with a little coding)?

Let’s talk about what that Padlock really means.

It’s a “Site Security Seal” which simply means that the website is using public data encryption to help you upload your information securely. (*The process of this public encryption is something I love explaining, but we’ll get to that another day.*) This is a good thing — and by no means should you ever give your credit card info to a site that doesn’t have this seal — but it only protects the info for the quick passage from your computer to the website’s host.

Why does that matter? Because to get from your house to the webserver, every page request is relayed through dozens of ISPs. Any of these could potentially be storing your info if it’s unencrypted.

So if you’ve entered your info into a secure site, what’s the problem?

If you’ll allow me an analogy: Pretend you’ve got a burning secret that you want to tell your best friend and you’re paranoid about anyone else overhearing. You don’t trust cell phones, texting, anything like that, so you employ a spectacularly complicated method involving invisible ink, carrier pigeons, and a Flintstones decoder ring.


But you forgot … your friend is a blabbermouth.

And that’s the problem in a nutshell with websites. Internet standard is to enforce this Padlock security protocol when sending/receiving critical information, but there is absolutely nothing enforcing these businesses to keep your info secure after they’ve received it.

You’d be shocked at how many businesses keep their customers’ credit card info in places that can be accessed from the outside, just waiting to be burgled. It’s insane.

Me, I’ve always followed the Amazon model. They built their business on getting people to trust credit card transactions, and in the early days they went to great lengths to explain to people how their practices worked. The server that held the credit card info was far removed from the servers that gathered the info initially. They even claimed that this financial server had no internet access, though today you’d just bullet-proof the firewall that contained it.

Before I scare you away from ever shopping online again, I’ll tell you who you can and should trust. The big players who employ large networks security teams: eBay/Paypal, Amazon, your banking institution, major department stores. (Yes, Target got hacked last Christmas, proving that nobody is foolproof, but your odds are much better with major companies like this.) It’s when you start shopping small business that you need to be on guard.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of 3rd party credit card processors and most new sites today will use them; GoDaddy is a major pusher for this type of eCommerce solution. There’s nothing wrong with it. It allows small businesses to create websites without having to know anything about security. It gives you, the user, another level of security because the eCommerce processor holds all the credit card info so securely that the business itself cannot log in to see all of your card info. It works great.

So how will you know when your website is using one of these? Um … yeah, that’s the trouble. Most of the time, you won’t. Once in a while you’ll get a message about being redirected to the eCommerce site to complete your transaction, but the more fashionable method is to make it all look and feel like one seamless site. Furthermore, you as the end user will probably never know which eCommerce site they are using and you can’t be expected to stop and read reviews of them before you buy those designer sweat socks that are going, going, gone.

So my rule whenever I’m ordering from a business smaller than a national chain is simple: don’t give your info to them directly. Look for the sites that allow you to use PayPal – that’s the easiest way to make sure your info is secure because PayPal mandates that all the sites that use their services redirect to the PayPal website for transferring information.You’ll get the message that you’re going to PayPal and you can verify in your browser’s address bar that you are actually on the PayPal website before you enter any passwords. That’s one site that doesn’t mess around when it comes to security protocols.

Pretty, sexy, and smart

One misstep of modern feminism is that we keep trying to make women choose between being smart and being pretty; we’ve all but stopped acknowledging that someone can be both.hedy1

I’d like to present a new role model for today’s young ladies: Hedy Lamarr. If you’re under 50, you’ve probably never heard of her, but back in her day all of America knew her name.

Hedy was a Hollywood starlet from the mid-30s through the 50s. She starred opposite some of the great actors of the time – Clark Gable, Charles Boyer, Spenser Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. She was also one of the early pin-up girls, and it’s not hard to see why her picture was found everywhere – she was voluptuous, beautiful, and fun.

One of her famous quotes was:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

hedy3You’ve got to love a girl who can be rich and famous and not take it all too seriously. But you’re probably wondering why any of this makes her a good role model.

Turns out, Hedy had an impressive brain, too.

At a dinner party in 1940, she met a composer, George Anthiel, who was talking about the German submarines. They were so difficult to hit that the Allies were working on radio-controlled torpedoes. But this was inherently flawed, as it proved to be just as easy for the enemy to block the radio signals as it was to send them in the first place.

Hedy had an idea, jotted it down on a cocktail napkin, and shared it with George.

Hedy, not Hedley

The concept was called “Secret Communication System” but is better known today as “frequency hopping.” Both the sender and the receiver would rapidly jump between dozens of random frequencies, thus ensuring their communication couldn’t be intercepted and interfered with.

By 1942, Hedy and George had secured a patent and granted the Navy rights to use it.

hedy-newsThe idea lived far beyond the German subs, though. Thought the military still uses this system for missile guidance, the biggest impact is that her concept is the basis of all wireless technology.

If you’re reading this on a smartphone or over a wi-fi internet connection, it’s all because of Hedy.

So what do you think? Did being beautiful and elegant detract from one of the bright engineering minds of the century?