Resolve in 2016 to stop texting while driving

Distracted Driving

I drive 18 miles of interstate each weekday before sunrise. Ahead of me, lines of fast-moving tail lights stretch into the dark toward the horizon, toward my destination, like glowing breadcrumbs aligned along a well-worn trail.

As I draw near to a set of those tail lights, I glimpse something else: the soft white glow from phone screens as people text or read while they drive. I see even more of them after dusk on the commute home, because traffic is heavier and slower at that time.

The least distracted among these drivers announce their divided attention by veering into other lanes and almost into other cars, or they drive 10-15 mph below the limit amid high-speed traffic with two wheels in another lane the whole time. Those drivers who fail to correct often wind up in a wreck surrounded by emergency vehicles on the roadside.

I see an average of one wreck per day along my short stretch of Interstate 64 in eastern Missouri. Usually, more than one vehicle is involved.

According to the National Safety Council, more than one-quarter of all car crashes result from smartphone use. But that percentage represents confirmed numbers. By my count, 60 percent to 70 percent of the people I can see in the other cars along my 36-mile round-trip commute have their faces angled down at their phones instead of up at the road, so I believe the NSC’s estimate is soft.

What happens when drivers stop looking at the road, even for what they think is only a moment? A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that sending or receiving a text requires an average of 5 seconds – the time it takes to drive the length of a football field at 55 mph.

The overall distance is longer when you consider that few of us on the interstates keep the speedometer at 55.

I admit to being one of those distracted drivers until a few years ago when, along the same stretch of I-64 on a cloudless day, an SUV bounced off the concrete divider and careered across all four lanes into my driver’s side door, totaling my car. (My phone was in my pocket at the time.)

Neither I nor the other driver were hurt, but he resisted giving me his name, address, driver license number, or insurance information for my own insurance records, saying the crash was not his fault. This sounded odd considering the road was dry, the weather was perfect, and witnesses at the scene said nobody was near his vehicle when he lost control.

So, I said, “Fine.” Then I turned to the police officer who was interviewing us for the accident report and said, “Either you obtain his cell phone records for your investigation, or I’ll find an attorney who will.”

The driver’s insurance company cut a check for all damages within 72 hours.

Few things in life are certain except these: death, taxes, and the risk associated with distracted driving. Dozens of studies going back more than a decade confirm this danger, underline it, and yet so many drivers still ignore it. This is why I drive Interstate 64 with a grip on my steering wheel that could strangle a garden hose, and I watch not just the other cars but other drivers as well.

I know, the pressure to look at our phones while driving is great. Driving is monotonous, boring, so we use smartphones as a cure. On top of that, each of us perceives ourselves to be superhuman in some way – like thinking we handle driving distractions better than everyone else.

But nine people die every day in the United States from distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the chief cause is smartphone use. Resolve to not inflate that statistic in 2016, and repeat that resolution – and stick to it – every New Year’s thereafter.

Avoid holiday phishing attacks by taking these 3 precautions

3 ways to avoid phishingThe season for giving is also the season for taking. Lurking among the people exchanging gifts and glad tidings are shady characters whose only goal is to pluck opportunity from the well of goodwill filled each year during the holidays. For them, a Merry Christmas involves sending malicious messages via email.

Security researchers say these kinds of messages, while not unusual, flourish around Christmastime as family, friends, and workplace colleagues exchange kind thoughts in the spirit of the season. The main vehicle conveying most of these thoughts has been the e-card, which grows in popularity as we widen our circles of digital friends.

Cyber criminals relish this growth because it improves the likelihood they will reel in a sucker when they go “phishing” in this stream of e-correspondence. Recent reports on data breaches say an estimated one in 10 email users wind up getting hooked by a phishing lure.

“It’s easy for busy, distracted consumers to become victims of these schemes,” said Craig Young, a researcher at Portland, Ore.-based Tripwire, a cyber security provider. “But armed with a few basic security practices, they can drastically reduce their chances of being victimized.”

Among the practices that Young and others advocate:

  • Avoiding email from unknown addresses, or email with undisclosed recipients, and not opening the attachments in these emails. That includes e-greeting cards. If possible, confirm who sent the greeting before opening it.
  • Watching for bad spelling and poor grammar in email subject lines. Cyber criminals focus on results, not quality, because they send thousands of messages at once hoping for just a few responses. A subject line containing errors is strong proof that opening the email would be an even bigger mistake.
  • Running anti-virus software and keeping it up to date. The protections within these programs may be enough to ward off threats in emails that are opened by accident.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable due to multiple users in corporate accounts – and multiple approaches to answering email among those users. That is why employees must be made part of the solution, instead of being left to become part of the problem.

“Enterprises … need to place more reliance on employees to help them defend their organizations,” said Rohyt Belani, CEO and co-founder of PhishMe, a threat management company based in Leesburg, Va. “Consistent training turns employees into informants that can spot attacks before they turn into catastrophes.”

Dive into the Deep Web (but watch where you swim)

Deep Web Image

If you ever watched the rain fill a hole in the ground, then you can understand where the term Deep Web comes from.

For the past 10,000 days – the approximate age of the World Wide Web – we’ve poured gallon after gallon of content into that vast networking structure known as the Internet and watched as that content seeped into every crevasse of our lives. And the number of sources is as vast as the structure itself; none of us truly knows where all that content originates.

Now, imagine that, instead of overflowing, the hole gets deeper and deeper to contain the content pouring into it. You can see across the surface and maybe a little below it. But other content submerges to where you need special tools for access.

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo! and web browsers such as Firefox merely skim this surface, collecting indexed information from its source. These kinds of tools probe only about 5 percent to 10 percent of the Web’s content.

Deep-Web diving, on the other hand, reveals the immense amount of information not indexed by standard search engines. Much of it is exchanged through peer-to-peer networks and resides on databases, unregistered websites, query-sensitive dynamic pages, limited sites, non-HTML sites, broken or hidden web links and backlinks, scripted content, and web archives, among other sources.

The list of useful deep-diving tools is long, but among the most common tools are Freenet, IceRocket, I2P, SurfWax, the WWW Virtual Library, a series of search applications provided by Deep Web Technologies, and the Tails operating system. There are also customized tools targeting specific caverns nestled in the Deep Web.

A word of warning, however: The deeper you go, the darker the Web gets. This is why in recent years the terms “deep” and “dark” have become conflated regarding the Web. At Deep Web’s bottom layer, there be dragons who dabble in questionable or outright illegal behavior. Using Tor, a free browser designed to protect the user’s anonymity, deep divers can peer into portions of this darker area.

Granted, not everyone at this depth wears a black hat. Good guys dwell down there, too, such as journalists, law enforcement, the military, and whistleblowers. But like anywhere else, trouble can be found if you go looking for it. So, exercise the same caution swimming in the Deep Web as you would in deep water. Keep a lifeline handy like this one (accessible through Tor) and enjoy the voyage.

Colin Powell: Digital transformation success requires leadership

2008 photo of Colin Powell

Colin Powell in 2008. (Photo by Rob Reed / Creative Commons)

Digital transformations rely on much more than technology and investment to succeed; they require buy-in from everyone involved, from the board room on down. Ensuring that buy-in requires strong leadership.

No less an authority on leadership than Colin Powell insists as much. The former U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs is on the record as a firm believer in digital transformation.

In today’s digital society, “if you do not get at the front of change, change will override you,” he said recently. “(The world) has gone from analog to digital, and we are in up to our ears.”

Powell’s acknowledges his motives in this regard are more personal now; he says he stays abreast of the latest tech to keep up with his grandchildren. For a large portion of his career, however, Powell lived at the nexus of both war and peace, first as an Army four-star general, then as the nation’s top diplomat.

In both roles, he led large numbers of people through times of significant transition. The Cold War ended on his watch, supplanted by a globalized economy driven by economics and the information revolution. Two monolithic institutions, the U.S military and the State Department, suddenly needed to change course, and Powell was in the driver’s seat.

He admits being intimidated at first by the size and scope of the disruption. Yet Powell believes that his years of Army training prepared him for the challenge of quelling it.

“When I became … a general, and I was running wars and large military operations, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who were experts in their fields: communicators, artillery men, you name it, and I drew on their expertise,” Powell said in 2009. “It was important to know what they think.

“After listening to all the experts, I was supposed to use that expertise to inform my instinct. … It is an educated, informed instinct that is daily shaped by my experts, but at the same time you’ve got to apply judgement to it. That’s where the human dimension comes in.”

The same strategy applies to digital transformation in the business world. Transformations are large engagements requiring risk and resources. A well-informed CEO will understand how to balance the two.

“You’ve got to have CEOs who not only apply their experience but are willing to take the risks that your data people and subordinates aren’t willing to take, because that’s not their job,” Powell said.

Good CEOs also train their staffs properly, recognize good performance, correct poor performance, allow staff autonomy, and remembers to treat everyone with respect and compassion, Powell says. Each of these elements factors into effective digital transformations along with the technology. Remaining mindful of all of them allows business leaders to stay ahead of the digital curve.

“You can’t just match change,” Powell said. “(Competitors) will be somewhere else by the time you match them, and you will still get left behind.”

11 programming languages that will improve your life

11 programming languages you should learn nowNot long ago, I wrote a piece for Perficient describing how learning to write computer code can improve one’s life, no matter who you are or what you do. I explained code writing’s value beyond being a marketable skill – that it promotes technical literacy and instills a sense of community, and that it heightens critical thinking and teaches us how to deal with failure. The piece was well-received, and the feedback suggests readers return to it periodically for review.

Soon after it published though, people asked the inevitable follow-up question: “If I have to invest the time and money into learning a programming language, which one should it be?”

I thought about issuing a quick response, then hesitated – for weeks. What seemed like an easy question lost that quality as I realized no single answer exists; programming benefits each person differently, and at peak effectiveness no one language stands alone. In my early programming days, the languages one learned were created to communicate simple instructions to a computer. Now, programming languages are created to make our lives and the world around us better. How you work or play, or how you mix the two, determines which languages are optimal.

Currently, a dozen programming languages sit atop most should-learn lists. Some are broadly practical; some apply to specific needs. All of them interact with other languages, so learning two or more is wiser – and potentially more profitable – than sticking with one. In alphabetical order, they are:

C – A general-purpose language developed in the early 1970s, C retains market popularity and usefulness due to its small size and robust nature. Numerous other languages borrow from C, which makes it a bedrock language and the first for anyone who plans to develop operating systems or create embedded applications.

C++ – Designed in the 1980s to enhance C, this language now qualifies as a general-purpose language used to build application software, systems software, server and client applications, and video games, and is central to Adobe programs and Firefox, among other software.

C# – This newer language, pronounced “C sharp,” utilizes principles from C and C++ and was developed by Microsoft to build enterprise applications for the company’s .NET initiative, making it essential to Microsoft platforms and services such as Azure.

Java – Developed by Sun Microsystems in the 1990s, this language has gained a huge following because it was designed to work across multiple platforms. Java is considered a standard for games, mobile apps, and web-based content, and it is the main reason programs written for Mac platforms can run on Windows.

JavaScript – Despite the name similarity with Java, this language has C at its core and runs only on browsers, whereas Java can run at the machine level. Every modern website with interactive or animated features uses JavaScript, and it appears in game development and desktop applications.

Objective-C – This popularity of this general-purpose language was waning until it became a key building block for development of Apple systems. It powers not just OS X and iOS, but also is important for creating iPhone apps.

PHP – A server-side scripting language like JavaScript but with general-purpose programming capabilities, PHP (known also as Hypertext Processor) is essential to dynamic websites and content management systems such as WordPress because it can be embedded into website markup language instead of sitting in an external file. PHP appears on most of today’s data-driven websites.

Python – The true beauty of this server-side scripting language is its simplicity; programmers can do more things with fewer lines of code than other programs, making Python a good language for beginners to learn. Google and Yahoo use Python a lot, and it is useful for sifting through giant data sets.

R – This language is important in the statistical computing and graphics environments, and can be found anywhere the need for statistical analysis arises. If you enjoy math and deal with heaps of data, this language ranks high on your should-learn list.

Ruby – No, this does not refer to the gemstone or anyone in Donald Fagen’s playlist. Ruby is a dynamic though simple object-oriented language that lies beneath the Ruby on Rails framework. It has the power necessary for developing websites as well as web apps, and is gaining popularity among tech startups for its versatility and ease of use.

SQL – Called “Structured Query Language,” this special-purpose lingua franca is good for relational database management systems and quite effective at extracting small details from large data sets through its “query” function.

Ted Cruz is wrong about Net neutrality

Net neutrality logoThe last thing any of us need is someone in a position of influence explaining Net neutrality but who doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand Net neutrality.

Yet, Ted Cruz has decided to do it anyway.

The junior Republican senator from Texas trumpeted his mischaracterization of the issue last week in the Washington Post opinion piece, “Regulating the Internet threatens entrepreneurial freedom,” in which he champions the idea that online innovation suffers unless the Internet is devoid of federal oversight.

The term “devoid” is not overstatement. Cruz prefers that Washington leave the Internet entirely in the hands of the legislative process, where service providers, market forces and special interests hold sway. To this end, he urges nullification of all Internet regulation, now framed within Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act.

In Cruz’s mind, Net neutrality “would put the government in charge of Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.”

In fact, Net neutrality refers to the Internet as it is now: a place where service providers and government agencies treat all online data equally and access is unlimited; a place where the powerless have as much influence as the powerful; a place where startup businesses can grow into corporations without monopolistic interference.

The issue became a big deal in April when the Federal Communications Commission agreed to consider a two-tiered system where Internet providers can set arbitrary rules on access. Then in May, the FCC also agreed to consider reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, which would prevent providers from threatening to reduce access in exchange for fees.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (Photo by Getty Images)

President Obama supports reclassification. Cruz however believes the providers should be in control because reclassification is just a nice way of saying the government will levy an Internet use tax. He has even gone as far as calling Net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet,” a catchy little phrase that possesses a certain rubbery, pejorative quality certain to help it bounce around the Web for a while.

Never mind that it misrepresents both Net neutrality and Obamacare; Cruz is a Princeton and Harvard grad, a champion debater and a loyal partisan toady. Conservative straw polls rank him high among likely GOP presidential nominees in 2016.

It would tarnish Cruz’s carefully honed image for him to appear on the same side of an issue as the president. So, it makes more sense for him to mangle Net neutrality’s definition than risk political capital.

To be fair, the term “Net neutrality” is sufficiently vague enough that anyone with a flair for drama and self-promotion can abuse it with ease. One could easily argue that the term also means you’re indifferent about what happens to Internet.

If only it had a better name. Comedian John Oliver suggests that maybe Net neutrality’s working title should be more honest: “Preventing Cable Company F**kery.”

But that might be too honest for Ted Cruz.