Saturday, June 9, 2007

Auto Completion Malfunction

I know that this has happened to you. You are sending out an email and Outlook (or whatever mail program you use) decides to "help" you and after you type in a couple of letters it fills in the blank for you.

This is called auto-completion. Quite often this is a helpful feature. There are, however, times when auto-completion can have unintended results, results that, at best can amount to humorous faux pas between friends and at worst can cause sensitive information to be disclosed to the wrong party.

One of the problems with the feature is that in most cases, it appears to just do a pattern match on addresses in your address book or inbox. The computer cannot distinguish between the email address of you closest friend, the email address of some joker that spammed you last week or the email address that you mis-typed last month.

I had an auto-complete malfunction happen to me recently, that was pretty funny. I sent birthday wish, via email, and of course accidentally to the wrong person. Fortunately, the accidental recipient caught the mistake. We had a good laugh about it and added each others' birthdays to our calendars.

Quite often, however, an auto-complete malfunction could cause a major problem. Imagine the same situation only I am an attorney sending sensitive information to a client and it goes to the wrong person. This could cause harm to the client an the attorney could incur financial liabilities.

The bottom line is that while auto-completion can be a useful time saver, it can also increase your exposure to errors if you are not careful. If you use auto-completion, be careful. Look at the To, Cc and Bcc fields before you hit the send button. Once you hit the send button you cannot take it back.

If you use email to send sensitive information, every addressee should be in the To/Cc/Bcc fields as a result of a deliberate choice. You might want to consider turning auto completion off, and selecting your email recipients from an up-to-date address book. By doing this you can save time and avoid another common email problem -- mistyped addresses.


Saturday, June 2, 2007

Mini Series on Online Accounting -- Introduction

Well I just got through upgrading from Quickbooks 2004 to Quickbooks online. I put it off as long as I could. I was perfectly happy with the software but Intuit ended support for online invoicing with Quickbooks 2004.

If I may digress and make an observation. As a user I was inclined to whine a bit about being forced to upgrade. As one who develops and supports software for a living, I think that it is reasonable to expect that customers will upgrade after 3 years. Supporting old versions of software take resources that could be used to add new exiting features and all software vendors must balance between the two.

The end of support for online invoicing with Quickbooks 2004, left me with some interesting choices.
  1. Go back to my 20th century practice of stuffing the invoices in envelopes and taking them to the post office. That worked great if you like getting invoices 90 days after the due date.
  2. Use my on line banking for invoicing. I was all set to do this, but there was one problem. In order to add a client that was a business, the "Add Client" form was asking me to enter my clients Employer Identification Number. I really did not want to ask my customers (who PAY me money) for information that seems rather private. So I canceled the online invoicing from my bank.
  3. Upgrade to the latest desktop version of Quickbooks. A reasonable option, but if my computer ever has to be sent away for repairs again it will be tough.
  4. Upgrade to Quickbooks on line -- Access my accounting information from anywhere for a low monthly payment (slightly more than I am currently paying for on line billing)? Sounds good to me.
Going through the process gave me a lot of material for this blog. Enough for a miniseries of sorts. My plan is to post a series of entries related to my experience. The following list (subject to change of course) highlights the topics that I plan to cover.
  1. Describe my impressions of the product and the upgrade process.
  2. Explore the more philosophical issue of storing sensitive data in a web based account.
  3. The advantages of on-line applications over desktop applications.
I hope to complete the series by the end of this month (June 2006).

Stay tuned -- more to come....

-- RMKnightStar

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Walk For Education

On Saturday April 21 I had the pleasure of spending the day with a group (mostly Engineering Students from the north east) handing out information about college enrollment in the Fort Greene housing project in Brooklyn.

We had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people. We answered questions about getting into college, shared information about scholarships and financial aid and encouraged a some students to keep on pursuing their education. This event also gave me a chance to connect with other engineers interested in positively impacting the community.

This event was sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers and was part of a larger national effort that occurred in cities all over the country. One thing that I should note is that NSBE is a student run organization (one of the largest) and that much of the work and coordination of this national event was done by students (who are pursuing degrees in engineering and science).

I should also note that NSBE's impact reaches beyond the college campus in other ways. NSBE also has Pre-College Initiative aimed at -- promoting college, academics, technology, and leadership to pre-college students.

Yes, this is a plug for NSBE. Their mission is "to increase the number of culturally responsible Black Engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community". On so many levels this mission is good both for African Americans and for America as a whole. If you are interested in increasing the number of young people going in to the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fields or helping to make sure that all students have the opportunity to further their education, please get involved with this or other organizations with similar goals.

-- RMKnightStar

Friday, April 6, 2007

Unchain my files -- and please set them free

I have come to the conclusion that much of our the information/data that we own, is actually not ours. Whether files that we have purchase (e-books, songs etc...) or information that we have created (word documents, spreadsheets and presentations). We can only access them through applications running on the computer that these files "live" on.

I came to this conclusion when I recently had to send my computer in to be fixed. I was glad that the repair (on a 3+ year old computer) was covered. There was one catch, however, I had to send the computer back to the manufacturer for 8 business days.

That left me with a dilemma; how will I get by for close to two weeks without a computer? I am sure that I am not alone; most of us have come to rely upon our computers. I use it for communication (email, instant messaging and social networking), accounting (QuickBooks, on line banking), creative exploits (software coding, presentations, spreadsheets, letters, family photos) and a myriad of other activities (personal and business).

The thought of not being able to access my financial books, old emails or work files associated with the various projects that were in progress was very unsettling. Things happen at such a fast pace these days, not having access to YOUR information can be at best, inconvenient for individuals and at worst, devastating in the case of a small or home based business.

Fortunately, I was able to remove my disk from the computer to be repaired and put it in an enclosure so that I could attach it to a backup computer that I have. I am up and running with my disk, but there are some gotchas.
  1. Even though the data and applications were on my disk, they were not "installed" on my backup computer. I was able to run some applications without installing them. Other programs needed to be installed in order to run them.
  2. Even when I ran the applications, they did not have the settings from my old computer. Even if I had the settings from my old computer, they would not be correct. My C: drive was now the E: drive.
  3. Of course there was the thorny issue of whether I could legally install my software on the backup computer while my old computer was in the shop.
There are other instances when our data is held hostage. Any one who has had to "hotsync" their PDA, upgrade their computer, upgrade an application or buy a new cell phone, has had to rescue their old data.

In my humble opinion, this is a fixable problem. We have the technology to make a person's personal data, portable. There are two things that could go a long way to "un-shackling" your information.

Portable hard drives
Back in the day (so to speak) hard drives were large and fragile. You would not want to carry them around. Today we can slip 60GB right into our pockets (think iPod). Add USB and blue tooth connectivity and voila you have your personal data available to you and any of the computing devices that you use. Your PC at home, your PDA, your MP3 player and your automobile's entertainment and communications system. In order to do this properly, this storage device would have to have encryption (for privacy in case it was lost) and there would need to be utilities that would back up your personal data (preferable to a web account for easy recovery).

Universal standards for information representation
Today, most applications store their information in a proprietary format. So if I use outlook to manage my email and contacts, I cannot use other mail clients like Mozilla Thunderbird to look at the file. Even moving from Outlook Express to Outlook requires some sort of "migration". One of the reasons for proprietary formats is performance (speed of loading the information and size of the data file). While in some cases that may still be a valid argument, the advances in technology have made performance less of an issue than portability. In any event, software makers can support open standards with the caveat that your performance may suffer a wee bit. I think that there are many among us who would opt for "portable", always accessible, data even if it takes a few extra seconds to access it

I will admit that this is probably not an issue that is on everybody's mind all of the time. I will also admit that rather than propose a comprehensive solution, I have just presented a couple of ideas. Given the growing dependence on content and data (the stuff in our computers, PDAs etc...), it may be time to start giving it some thought and opening up a wider dialog on this.

I'd love to hear your comments on this.

-- RMKnightStar

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Welcome To My Blog

Happy April,

This is a bit of a new experience for me. I am very comfortable with technology (being a technologist), and I have written a monthly column in the past for a local newspaper. But blogging, this is a huge step for me. This gives me an opportunity to connect with a huge audience.

For the most part my blog will concentrate on two things:
  1. The advances in technology and how it impacts people.
  2. Closing the gap between the African American community and the country as a whole.
I have made a conscious decision not to create two blogs. Many of my entries will touch on technology and closing the gap. Some things that concern me are
  • Closing the digital divide.
  • Revitalizing interest in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) education in ALL communities.
  • The potential for information sharing that Web 2.0 technologies could offer to community groups in disparate locations.
As I said this is a new experience for me. Please feel free to post comments. I want this to be a dialogue. I hope that my participation in the blogosphere will be helpful to those who visit my blog.