Locked Down Internet of Things and the Danger it Poses 0

Photo Credit: PicJumbo
IMG 7409 The “Internet of Things” is a real thing these days, with everything from toothbrushes to refrigerators now connected to wifi networks and spewing forth data to so many locations it’s hard to track. But a few disturbing trends in the IoT world definitely should give us all pause for thought.

First, many of these IoT devices are severely locked down. They can’t be upgraded, updated, or patched easily, and sometimes not at all by the end-user. Granted, end-users are famous for not keeping digital things updated to begin with, but not even having the option is a disturbing turn of events. When devices cannot be updated/reconfigured by the end-user, it both leads to issues during the product’s support lifetime and after as well.

During the active support lifetime of the device, the end user cannot ensure the updates work properly, roll back updates that didn’t work and/or create new issues, and control what information is kept and sent by the device itself. Manufacturers have many reasons for doing this, such as assuring a steady stream of information that they can market to others, for example. None of these reasons should be taken as valid for endangering the security of a home network, however. Malicious code that infects your connected refrigerator and cannot be removed until the manufacturer sends out an update is just not an acceptable situation.

After the lifetime of the product, even more problems arise. Manufacturers abandon products all the time, leaving these products without any updates at all going forward, and just as many people who would like to see if they can break in and wreak havoc. Thankfully many products continue to live on well past that point, taken over by community efforts and open-source projects to extend the lifetime of the codebase well beyond the lifetime of the 1st-party support. Locking down these devices so they can only ever be changed by the 1st-party developers can make continued community support impossible, blocking this ongoing benefit.

Secondly, locking down these devices also means that end-users become unable to see what communication is going on between those devices and the world at large. Data leakage will occur, and not being able to limit the data available to leak is a dangerous thing.

I’m not saying that all IoT devices need to be totally open and open-sourced. What I do believe, however, is that the consumer should have the right and the ability to say what will go where, and when it happens. This can be done with end-user accessible settings and controls, with the ability to apply patches and roll them back on demand, and the ability to keep unknown software off of them to begin with. Even Apple, famous for their closed ecosystem, does give users the ability to shut off things they’d prefer not to use. Yes, it will mean changing how we typically interact with these kinds of devices, but making them IoT has already done that; so it won’t exactly be a whole new paradigm. Support vendors who give the end-user enough control to keep themselves safe, and reject vendors that insist on locking out everyone without good reason.

Keep that in mind, when next you consider an internet connected fridge.

Fallout: The Story So Far **SPOILERS** 0

PowerArmorMany fans of Fallout 4 are notably still confused by the state of the world around them. The post-apocalyptic landscape is easily explained, but what exactly happened that lead up to it? This post will attempt to explain the major plot points to you.

**NOTE … SPOILERS AHEAD**.



It goes without saying that explaining the back-story of the game will give away a lot of details of previous games, so please do NOT read this if you want to avoid spoilers about the overall Fallout universe!

Divergence: Where it all went sideways

Fallout’s world is not exceptionally different from ours, up to the point of the end of the Second World War. Prior to this point in history, everything essentially went exactly as it did in our world, so the parallels are easy to draw. Sometime around the late 40’s and early 50’s, things in the Fallout world dramatically changed, and the rest, as the say, is history.

First and foremost, computers and many other electronic technology evolved much more slowly in most – though not all – categories when compared to our world. The transistor and micro-processor were both inventions that didn’t come to the Fallout world until decades later than they were discovered and put into mass production in ours. This has lead to televisions, radios, and desktop screens for computers still using vacuum tubes; and large-scale computers continuing to take up entire rooms or even larger spaces. While the overall level of technology is on par – or even ahead – of our own, it is not miniaturized, and therefore still takes up massive amounts of space.

While computer and audio-visual technology remained very large, other tech did get much smaller. Most notably, nuclear technology and the objects that use it. Portable fusion batteries (impossible in our current technological terms) are common, and power everything from televisions to laser weaponry. Micro-fission cells can power many other items (whereas in our world fission can only take place on a useful level in giant reactor chambers. Plasma weaponry is also somewhat common, meaning the Fallout world scientists managed to tame that beast and make it hand-held.

Nuclear science evolved as a massively faster pace than in our timeline overall. Cars, planes, appliances, and other equipment can all use tiny portable reactors to gain power – reactors that are still going strong 200+ years after they were last serviced and recharged. There’s a very good reason nuclear energy advanced so fast, and that reason is:

The Resource Wars

Some decades prior to the Great War, the world’s supply of fossil fuels began to dwindle. Horrific wars were fought over the last remaining oil fields – including those located in Alaska and the Middle East. While the USA fought off China for the Alaska oil fields with only conventional warfare, European nations and terrorist groups in the Middle East did engage in limited nuclear exchanges, destroying large swaths of the world outside the US. Additionally, the US annexed Canada to capture more resources and secure a land-route to Alaska directly to continue to defend the last remaining oil fields found there.

As these Resource Wars continued, industries once reliant on plastics (which require petroleum products to be made) switched instead to glass and metal. This, combined with an asthetic shift back to the styles of the 1950’s, gave the whole society the look and feel of the 50’s, but with highly advanced technologies only available to those in our timeline in our dreams. Think of it as a scene out of a 1950’s sci-fi novel or movie, and you’ll get the visual idea.

Eventually, the Resource Wars ended as there were nearly no more resources to fight over, but world tensions were still strained to the breaking point. As the USSR had not fully collapsed (how much of it became independent states is not clearly spelled out, but the USSR itself is still a world power); the US, USSR, China, and European Commonwealth were the dominant forces of the world, and on the brink of total destruction. The tensions grew and grew, until 2077, when the simmering tensions boiled over into nuclear annihilation.

And so, our story begins:

When Fallout 4 starts, you play as either a former soldier in the Alaskan Front, or the wife of the same, with a newborn son living in an idyllic suburban paradise. Your robot butler attends to the day-to-day running of the modest two-bedroom house (robotics and AI having become so common everyone could afford them) and you are beginning an average day – late October, 2077. As you go about your daily routine, a news alert is broadcast, and the visibly shaken reporter announces confirmed nuclear detonations in Washington DC and Philidelphia. You and the family immediately head to the Vault-Tec Vault 111 – an underground shelter capable of keeping 1000 people safe from the attacks going on in the outside world, ready to re-form society in about 80 years when the fallout falls to livable levels once more. Or so you’re told…

What happened just before this point:
As you and your family descend into the underground vault, none of you have any idea about the massive and intricate plan that has been going on around you – and that you’ve now become an unwitting player in.

Enter the Enclave:
Leading up to the Great War, the upper echelon of US (and possibly worldwide) leadership realized that some form of mass extinction event was going to happen in their lifetimes. Debates raged about if it wold be a massive climate shift, nuclear war, or something else, but every projection showed the utter destruction of humanity in the none-to-distant future. Planning for the worst, they formed the Enclave – a secretive group who would rebuild society based on a set of criteria known only to them. Race and social status didn’t seem to come into their calculations, as those chosen for the Vaults (a.k.a. Project Safehouse) came from every societal strata and ethnic background. These select few (about 1/1000th of the population at best) were lured into signing up for space in vast underground vaults created by a shadowy company named Vault-Tec. VT was less a for-profit corporation and more an arm of the Enclave government, and the vaults were far from what they appeared.

Each vault – with few exceptions – was actually designed to run a complex and long-running study of societal and psychological experimentation. The results of these experiments would allow the Enclave (safe in their functioning-as-expected vaults) and some control vaults to then take the lessons learned and best re-build the human race. The entire project would be monitored and controlled by Vault-Tec scientists sealed away in relative comfort and watching everything through dedicated video and audio links – as well as the personal reports from select vault controllers locked away along-side their subjects.

Some known experiments:

– Multiple generations locked within a vault with no chance of leaving and ruled by a tyrannical Overseer.

– The greatest musical geniuses of a generation slowly driven mad by psychoactive substances in the air supply

– A vault with only male residents except for one female

– A vault with only female residents except for one male

– Forced elections for “Overseer” in which the chosen candidate would server a one year term, then be killed.

– A lottery where each vault resident might be chosen to be executed

– Cloning experiments that went horribly wrong after multiple generations of clones

– Fanatical anarchists locked up with a massive supply of weapons

– Vault doors which would not function correctly, letting a precise amount of radiation leak into the vault against all efforts by the residents

– Purposely faulty equipment that would not seriously endanger the vault dwellers, but caused a continual stream of stress

– Inclusion of only very upper-class residents, but an inept Overseer and working-class support staff that all had absolute authority over them.

– Cryogenic suspension of all residents except for a very small staff to manage them for the first 180 days

The list goes on and on, with 113 known vaults, and possibly dozens more not yet reveled through the games to date. Each of these experiments were meant to allow the Enclave to observe how humanity adapted (or in most cases, horribly failed to adapt) to the pressures the experiments put them under. This allowed them to formulate the best way to handle rebuilding society when the so called “control vaults” which had no experiments going on in them opened, and the resulting humans walked out to rebuild anew.

What went wrong:

As is evident in all the games, the experiments all failed massively in different ways. Vaults with tyrannical Overseers ended up in total revolt and anarchy. Psychological experiments warped and twisted the minds of the vault dwellers, rendering them savages or sending them all into murderous rages. Societal experiments failed when no one would actually adapt to new paradigms and either forced their way out of the vault, or were driven into murderous rages (that’s a theme repeated quite often). Only a very few vaults had success:

– Vault 21 in Las Vegas was populated with compulsive gamblers, gambling equipement, and the rule that ALL arguments and disputes must be solved by gambling. While the compulsive gamblers bred successive generations of compulsive gamblers, the conflict resolution method work insanely well.

– Vault 31 where committed anarchists and xenophobes were given unlimited weapons and ammunition. Surprisingly they did not destroy each other, but went on to found a xenophobic community generations later when the vault was opened. They’re most definitely not welcoming to outsiders, but otherwise they’re doing very well.

– Vault City, where a vault opened on time, and the residents used the Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) – a device used to supply food, water, power, etc. – to create a new city and are still living happily in it a century later.

– Necropolis, where the experiment to allow radiation into the vault resulted in horrible mutations, but otherwise the residents all survived and lived on (see Gouls in an upcoming post).

– Several control vaults which eventually opened to allow their dwellers to leave.

Aside from those exceptions, the Project Safehouse vaults were all horrific failures, but the Enclave still learned valuable lessons from them. As for the Enclave themselves, secret and perfectly functional vaults kept them alive and well until the background radiation fell enough for them to go out into the world and try to rebuild it.

Next time in this series, we’ll talk about what happened to everything outside the vaults after the bombs fell. Stay tuned!

Notes:
Most information is taken from either official Bethesda/Zenimax sources, or from the Fallout Wiki on Wikia. Both are worth a look!

Be wary of sync services 0

Photo Credit: PicJumbo-Viktor Hanacek
IMG 5938Recently I looked into various task-management apps that will work across my Mac and mobiles (iPhone and iPad). Of course, that means I also need to synchronize data across those platforms, so that tasks created or completed on one device reflect as such on all the other devices. While that’s not generally an issue for most of the major software vendors, it does bring up some important concerns that most of those same developers have completely ignored.

Syncing data between devices requires sending that information outside of your network to a server, where it can then be accessed by the other devices and compared/added/removed. All the major vendors of task software encrypt the transmission to and from those servers with SSL, a reasonable security practice. But nearly none encrypt the data at rest. This means that they have ensured no one (or nearly no-one at any rate) can view the data in flight, but anyone who compromises their security at the server can see all the data in plain format.

As we’ve seen from the recent spate of attacks and hacks against a large number of companies, servers are compromised on an unfortunately regular basis. Having the data rest unencrypted on those servers means that your info (which might include personally identifiable information) will eventually be stolen whenever an attacker decides to focus their attentions on the software vendor in question. Let me repeat, this is not a matter of “if,” it is a matter of “when” this is going to occur.

Luckily, a few of the vendors – such as Appigo and their ToDo app – do allow for you to set up your own sync using services such as DropBox or your own WebDAV server which can be encrypted at rest. Using Dropbox isn’t perfect by any stretch, they’ve shown that their security can be compromised, typically via attack through third-party connectivity. However, they do at least attempt to keep your data safe, and it’s a far cry better than no encryption at all. Setting up your own secure WebDAV server is tricky, and not for the technological newbie, but it is another option to keep your data safe.

So, when syncing your data with any app, make sure the data is encrypted both in-flight and at-rest. “Secure Sync” may simply mean the data is transmitted securely, and it’s up to you to find out if the data is also stored securely. You may find, and in many cases will find, that the data is stored in a format that leaves you wide open.

First Look: Plantronics BackBeat Pro 0

BackBeatPRO plus Spill print cmyk 28MAY15 I finally decided to join the 21st century and get a bluetooth stereo headset for my mobile devices. Up until now I’d been happy with a wired headset and a bluetooth earpiece for when I just needed to make phone calls and nothing else, but with a recent job switch that focused a lot more on my mobile phone, and all-in-one device was going to be a better fit. Looking through the available options, I found a massive choice in products, and a ton of different feature sets to pick from. Luckily for me, several co-workers had gone through this process in the recent past, and helped me narrow down the choices to about 4 selections.

My required feature-set was pretty small:

– Long battery life, a minimum of ten hours of real-world use.

– Ability to activate Siri so that I could voice-control the device.

– Complete compatibility with iDevices (including volume, play/pause, all phone commands, etc.)

– Micro-USB charging. No adapters or other widgets that I’ll lose.

– Customization. Let me choose which features I actually want to use.

– COMFORT. I had experienced some headsets that were horrific on the ears over the years.

– Voice quality. Whoever I call has to be able to clearly understand me.

– At least a little style. This wasn’t the most important feature, but one I wanted on the list.

The combination of these features narrowed the choices down to two, and from that I went with the Plantronics BackBeat Pro headset. One quick browse of Amazon later and I was waiting for the package to arrive. A few days later, and the fun began.

So, how did the headset rank against my list of requirements?

— Battery Life: I never trust the battery specs on web pages and/or box copy. Every manufacturer lies. So when I saw “up to 24 hours of playback time,” I took it with a grain of salt. However, to my surprise, these cans do seem to go for quite a long time on a 3 hour charge. I can’t attest to the claim of 24 hours, but I have run them with music on constant shuffle for 8 plus hours and they didn’t seem to be anywhere near running out of juice. My guesstimate – based on the battery stats voice prompt and my use pattern, is that they’ll clear at least 10 hours with moderate phone use and constant music playback. About the same run-time as the phone itself, so that works well. Verdict: PASSED

— Voice activation and control: The BackBeat Pro works with both Android and Apple devices, and is configured to properly activate Siri on iDevices with a long-press on the Phone button on the headset itself. What I found interesting (and sorely missing from some other wired and wireless headsets I’ve tried) is that not only do you get an audible beep when you press the button, but a second beep to alert you that you’ve held the button down long enough to initiate voice activation. That second beep is critical for me, as otherwise I tend to hold the button down too long and end up confusing the phone or (if you pair two devices) switching to another device. Voice commands were clearly picked up by the phone, and Siri had no issues with my request, beyond it’s usual foibles that have nothing to do with the headset. Verdict: PASSED

— Complete iDevice compatibility. Nearly every headset I looked at has this nailed, and the BackBeat Pro was no exception. Various buttons and dials on the headset properly and correctly activated the associated features on the phone without any issues. This included full control over the audio playback (Play/Pause, Forward, Back, Fast Forward, Reverse, volume, etc.) and phone operations (answer, hang-up, redial, etc.). Verdict: PASSED

— Micro-USB charging. A lot of the headsets required charging stands/bases, or used a proprietary charger (even in this day and age), or otherwise made life for a guy who has a habit of losing chargers on business trips a living hell. The BackBeat Pro uses a standard micro-USB plug to charge, no issues. Verdict: PASSED

— Customization. Most of the headsets I looked at were multi-function, and have so many bells and whistles they could qualify as orchestras. The problem is, some features become downright annoying, and there’s no way to disable them. Case in point, the BackBeat Pro uses Plantronics’ motion-sensing technology to do things like pause the music when you take the headset off and lay it down. I find that unnecessary and possibly even totally annoying if moving the headset out of the way to pick up the phone triggers automatic call answering. Luckily, the BackBeat Pro comes with both Windows and Mac software that communicates via the USB charging cable to enable/disable features and install firmware updates, so you can just shut that stuff off if you don’t want to use it. Verdict: PASSED – plus easy firmware updates!

— Comfort. This is a mixed bag. The headset is big, and even a little heavy. It’s very well cushioned, so you don’t really feel it, and balanced well so that everything sits properly on your head, but it’s noticeable. The cushioning itself is well done, and in all the right places, and the headset isn’t a pain (literally or figuratively) to wear, but the size/weight could be an issue for some. Verdict: MIXED – I found it very wearable, but some will definitely feel it is too heavy.

— Voice Quality. I made several test calls with the headset, and the people on the other end of the line said I sounded clear and understandable. The BackBeat Pro has noise reduction and other features, so this wasn’t a major surprise, but since there is no boom-style mic I was a bit worried. There were no complaints from my callers, though, so I’m going with Verdict: PASSED

— Style. Another mixed bag. While not being ugly, they’re also not beautiful. Aesthetics aren’t my main concern when reviewing tech, so I was ok with it. Those looking for the streamlined style of a Beats headset or the ostentatious appeal of a Sennheiser kit won’t find much to love here, but they’re definitely wearable in public without fear of attracting too many stares. Verdict: MIXED, but passable.

There were some downsides to the BackBeat Pro, however:

They come with every feature enabled, so unless you use the software to turn off the annoyances, plan on learning how to properly handle/move the things without triggering stuff. Additionally, they did NOT play well with my desktop. Audio was choppy and unreliable when attempting to stream music from my 2014 iMac, which is a problem I’ve found with many different wireless headsets. It got even worse when I had the BackBeat Pro multipoint paired (paired with two active devices simultaneously). Although Plantronics claims that multipoint isn’t a problem the headset often had a hard time figuring out which device had “right of way” at any given time.

Finally, the audio tends to pull a bit to the treble side of the equation whenever the Active Noise Cancelling is turned on. Not so much that it really impacts casual listening, but there’s no bass boost, and if you are a connoisseur of very high quality audio you will definitely notice it.

Overall Verdict: PASSED

I’d recommend this headset for anyone looking for a true mobile headset to control, talk with, and interact with mobile phones and tablets. While the audio could be a bit better with the addition of a bass boost function – especially with Noise Cancelling enabled – the audio quality for the speakers and microphone is quite good – better than many other headsets and ear-pods I’ve used over the years. They’re not cheap, but they’re definitely not overpriced for what they do, and a solid choice for mobile stereo headsets.

Fallout 4: Is the Railroad Clueless? (Hint: not really) 0

Photo Credit: Jspoelstra at the Fallout Wiki on Wikia
Icon Railroad HQThe Railroad is one of the four major factions within the Fallout 4 universe. A group of dedicated individuals working together to ferry Synthetic Organics (“Synths”) out of the Commonwealth to freedom, they’re based on the Underground Railroad that existed in the real-world United States of America during the 1800’s. Their real-world counterparts allowed both freed (but still hunted) and non-freed salves to escape to the territories in the northern US, where slavery was banned and/or outlawed.

****WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!***

In the world of Fallout 4, a group of scientists called The Institute has created and evolved humanoid robotics (think androids taken to the extreme). Starting with Generation 1, these Synths evolved from skeletal, entirely synthetic creations of metal and polymers into the current Generation 3 Synth; a synthetic human built from organic components. Gen 3 Synths are made of (artificial) flesh and bone, and can walk, talk, eat, sleep, and effectively do everything that an organic human being can do. They are, however, still constructs of the Institute. Synths are sent out into the Commonwealth to spy for the Institute, and in some cases they even replace humans who the Institute believes are in positions to assist their aims. The rest act as servants for the Institute itself, performing all the manual labor so that the scientists can focus on expanding humanity’s horizons. They have programed memories, personalities, thoughts, and goals. They serve the Institute and it’s aims, no matter what.

Except where they don’t. That’s where things get interesting.

Normally, a Synth is effectively a slave of the Institute. While outwardly (and in many ways even inwardly) human, a Synth is a creation of man – built, programmed, and driven by their Institute masters. In some cases, however, something changes. The Synth becomes fully self-aware, and begins to think for itself. As with any other sentient (or apparently sentient) being, self-aware Synths begin to desire freedom, and look for an escape from the closed-world of the Institute; and that’s where the Railroad steps in.

Through a combination of agents, tourists (civilians who aren’t part of the Railroad itself, but are willing and able to assist), and a few key players inside the Institute itself; the Railroad brings self-aware synths out of the Institute and into the Commonwealth. Once there, they are ferried through a series of safe-houses as they are given new identities, back-stories, totally new memories, and even new faces through advanced plastic surgery. From there, the Synth is moved out of the Commonwealth and integrated into society in the world at large – indistinguishable from any real human in the Wasteland.

This process was hinted at in Fallout 3, with the quest “The Replicated Man.” The Lone Wanderer was set on the trail of an Institute Synth who had been memory wiped, had their face changed, and was spirited out to the Capitol Wasteland to begin a new life. An Institute scientist and his synth bodyguard show up in Rivet City, after following a series of leads that lead the team to believe that their quarry was currently living and working there. During the quest to discover the new identity of the Synth, the Wanderer is introduced to another group, the Railroad, who is attempting to stop the Institute team and allow the Synth in question to retain their freedom. Since the Synth had a complete memory wipe, they believe themselves to be human, thus making it even more difficult to figure out who they are.

The Lone Wanderer may refuse the quest, find the Synth and return it to the Institute, find them and not interfere with their new life, or find them and let them go free, but force them to realize they are a Synth, not a real human. While the results of this quest are not carried into FO4, the quest itself does set up both the Institute and the Railroad as major competing factions.

Skip ahead to 2277, and the Sole Survivor can encounter the Railroad in one of two ways:
– At various locations, settlers and others will mention that the Institute must have enemies. They suggest that one can find the Railroad, if they “follow the freedom trail.” This sets off a quest to locate multiple markers along the real-life Freedom Trail – though the in-game trail is much shorter. Each trail marker indicates a letter, and stringing them together provides the passphrase necessary to open an intricate combination lock on the Railroad’s front door.
– During the main quest, a critical piece of intelligence will need to be analyzed in order to move forward in your quest. The only faction that can do so is the Railroad, no matter what faction you wish to ally with. Thankfully, the game properly handles the situation even if you have already wiped out the entire Railroad faction, but at this point in the game you probably haven’t even met them yet. When you reach this point in the quest, all roads lead to the Freedom Trail, and your encounter with the Railroad.

Either way, you meet the members of the Railroad – such as they are. They recently suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Institute that wiped out a sizable portion of their forces and cut them off from their former HQ. Assisting them leads to you becoming a Heavy – an Agent of the Railroad responsible for clearing out obstacles to getting their charges along the road to freedom. While not every member is on board with this idea, most are, and you can find yourself in a cloak-and-dagger spy thriller as you help escaped Synths find freedom in the world.

Many fans of FO4 have called the Railroad into question as a major faction. They have few resources, few people, and even fewer good chances to accomplish their goals. In a previous post, even I noted that they weren’t the best faction if you wanted to help the Commonwealth thrive. I will admit, however, that I might have misjudged them.

First, the Railroad is a noble cause. They have found out that Synths have the ability to become sentient, and believe strongly that no sentient being should be locked into slavery to anyone. This doesn’t really support the “not really clueless” hypothesis, but it’s important to point out.

Second, their people are dedicated to the point of fanatical. Once set on the path to a goal, they *will* accomplish it. Even with a fraction of the people they once had, and a new HQ with a fraction of the resources, they keep getting the job done. This points to them being able to adapt to changing circumstances, improvise new solutions, and get things back on track even in a severely changing game. They don’t blindly head toward their goals, they work and change and adapt along the way.

Third, they understand they’re the underdog. No one in the group has any illusions that they’re doing anything but an impossible task. There appears to be no one deluded or clueless – well except for Tinker Tom – and everyone knows that they’ll never actually win. It’s the fight that matters. Each Synth they free is one more victory, even if the war can never be won.

Finally, they’re willing to make alliances. They don’t do so easily, and it takes a tremendous amount of work to gain their trust, but they do make alliances. In FO4, they can ally with the Minutemen, if you follow the right paths to get it done. They cannot – as you’d expect – ally with either the Institute (for obvious reasons) or the Brotherhood of Steel (who want all technology controlled or destroyed), but they do accept honest friendship when it’s offered and it suits their cause.

So while you may consider them misguided, dangerous, or some futuristic version of Don Quixote, they would not by most definitions be considered clueless. And that might just make them the most dangerous faction in the Commonwealth.

Notes:
Most information is taken from either official Bethesda/Zenimax sources, or from the Fallout Wiki on Wikia. Both are worth a look!

The Prescription Costs HOW MUCH?! 0

HNCK1569 Please take a moment and study the picture of the cute kitten. When you’re done reading, you’ll probably have steam coming out of your ears as you swear at the monitor/mobile screen, so take some time. His name is Monty, and he is very cute.

I’m blessed in my life that I have great health insurance that covers pretty much everything I could need from a medical perspective. I realize how insanely lucky I am that this is true. My doctor is incredible, my pharmacy knows me and looks out for me, I have very little to complain about.

I do, however, have a deductible, and at the beginning of each year I have to pay out of pocket until that number is reached. It’s not a massive burden, and I’m again blessed that I can afford to do it. But each January I get dragged back into the reality of the millions of un-insured or under-insured people in this country when I see the raw, unfiltered numbers that represent the insane costs of medical care.

I won’t give out a lot of information on specifics, as blogging about personally identifiable medical issues is generally a bad idea. Suffice it to say that I take certain prescription medications each month that dramatically improve the quality of my life. I might very well be able to live without them, but not anywhere near as well as I can live with them, so I and my doctor consider them necessary. One of those medications – just ONE – was over US$300. I cannot imagine how I’d be able to deal with that kind of monthly expense without health insurance that covered the majority of the cost for the majority of the year.

The medication is question has no generic – not because it’s new (it’s well over 15 years old) or because it’s some massively proprietary formula (it’s a combination of other medications), but because the formula in question is patented by a pharmaceutical giant who has managed to maintain the patent for an inordinately long time. Since the combination works significantly better than the two components alone, this is the best – and considered by many doctors to be the only – possible medication. This company has created a monopoly, and is charging what I can only describe as a certifiably insane amount of money for a one-month supply. If I wasn’t as lucky, as blessed, as I am. If I had to choose between this medication and food, I don’t know what I would do. For those of us who use it, the decision is that important. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if I had to choose between that and food not just for me, but my family, or children, or anyone under my care.

Suddenly, I faced the frightening reality of millions of Americans. I understood the literal life-or-death decisions that un- or under-insured people must make on a daily basis. I realized why some hedge-fund millionaire douche hiking the prices of a drug by 700% is a horrifying thing. This is real, this is happening, and now I understand why it is simply unacceptable in a civilized society.

Pharmaceutical companies should be able to make a profit. The old adage of “the second pill costs pennies, the first one costs billions” is true. I do not begrudge them and their shareholders from making a very good living from the insane amount of brain-power that was required to make these drugs in the first place. But there has to be a breaking point, where the out-of-control greed of the pharma companies combined with legal loopholes that let them set whatever prices they want results in a literal life-or-death situation for their customers. There must be a point where compassion and finance can meet at which allows people to have the medicine they need *and* the company can make a profit, and it is a LOT less then US$300+ (and I’ve seen some that were much higher) for a one-month supply! Come on, millions of people will use the stuff, companies can make an ungodly amount of cash charging a lot less.

Then there’s supply and demand. Artificial scarcity caused by patent laws that have spun totally out of control has created this situation. They can charge whatever they want because there is no competition, and there will be no competition as long as they hold the exclusive legal right to produce the medications in question.

Finally there’s the scourge of fake internet pharmacies shipping who knows what and labeling it as life-sustaining medicine. I’m not talking about narcotics or ED medications, I’m talking about heart and blood pressure treatments, medications for chronic conditions, or critical antibiotics – things that people literally cannot live without. Of course, in desperation, people without sufficient insurance will use these online scam artists to save the thousands of dollars every year that the legitimate pharmacies are forced to charge for the legitimate medications and many have died as a result.

There must be a better way to do this.

I know there’s little one person like me can do about it. I know I have no political capital to spend or clout to throw around. But I promise, I will not forget the shock I felt seeing that total ring up, and realizing that had I not been as lucky as I am in my life, I may have had to make a devastating choice that day – and that millions actually do.

Now, go look at Monty again. Hug your friends and family, get back to your lives, but never forget that many may be making the decsion right this moment to risk their lives because they cannot afford the medication they need. Not because it doesn’t exist, not because it’s in such short supply they cannot get hold of it, but because they simply cannot afford it – and for no good reason that I can figure out.

Cloud Condensation 0

Photo Credit: PicJumbo
HNCK7272I made a prediction a couple of years back, and we’re beginning to see signs that it might just come true, a bit sooner than I expected, but still coming true.

The public cloud market is getting more and more crowded, to the point of saturation of the marketplace by hundreds of players of various and assorted sizes. Massive media attention has brought thousands of customers into those cloud platforms, at all different levels. The result is a highly segmented, nearly fractured, industry that cannot hold in its current form. The logical conclusion of this phenomenon – to use a term coined by a co-worker of mine – will be “Cloud Condensation,” and we’re already beginning to see it.

Cloud Condensation is the phenomenon of public Infrastructure as a Service cloud shrinking and creating two types of fallout:

1 – Through mergers, acquisitions, and corporate collapse; fewer public cloud companies will exist, and

2 – Companies who had begun to move resources to public cloud will reduce the amount of resources they place there, and in fact will begin pulling back many of those resources into private datacenters and/or traditional co-location facilities.

This is not to say that cloud itself will disappear – far from it. The cloud principle is strong and will continue to grow and expand over time. Cloud Condensation simply refers to the mind-shift of moving from public cloud to private or on-prem cloud platforms. There are also a lot more types of cloud platforms than just IaaS, and public SaaS and PaaS continue strong growth.

We are, however; seeing the beginnings of Condensation in public IaaS, and there are a few strong indicators that it’s happening:

– HP dropped Helion Public Cloud late in 2015. While they will continue to focus on HP Enterprise Cloud (their private cloud offering), they began to realize that public IaaS cloud was too crowded a sector.

– Citrix sold off Cloud Platform just recently. OpenStack and CloudStack are still strong, but both are designed for hybrid clouds and converged architecture. Cloud Platform is the tool for managing public clouds in their portfolio.

– Several smaller public cloud players are being acquired by larger players. This is pretty normal in any business, and only points to Condensation when combined with other factors.

– Verizon is winding down its public cloud offerings

– Several other traditionally public cloud platforms are beginning to focus more on managed services

Taken together, there is an industry push to private and on-prem IaaS cloud, and away from public cloud. Once again, this is NOT a death-knell for cloud at all, just a shift in how the cloud looks in the modern world. I suspect we’ll continue to see more of this consolidation and contraction in the market, with larger public clouds taking over market share from smaller shops – absorbing them or driving them under – and the rise of services and platforms designed for private and managed clouds taking the fore. My revised estimate is that we’ll see Condensation kick into high gear within the next 8 months, and extend out for another 12-18 before we have the new paradigm.

Cloud – in all its forms – is here to stay. I just suspect (and we’re starting to see some indication) that we’ll see many companies moving to managed, private, and on-prem cloud platforms.

Time to update to El Capitan 0

Photo Credit: PicJumbo-Viktor Hanacek
IMG 6838While I typically wait a few months before updating to the latest major release of any OS, the time has come to start using El Capitan (OS X 10.11). The OS itself seems to have stabilized well, with the first and second major round of patching already complete an out in the wild. Additionally, there’s another pretty big reason to finally bite the bullet and upgrade:

Recently, a few apps I’d like to use have abandoned support for Yosemite (OS X 10.10), leaving users with little choice but to move to the newer version of OS X if they want to keep using the app. Since the apps in question are distributed through the Mac App Store, they simply won’t install on older versions than the developer specifies. In truth, the MAS won’t even let you purchase them on any Mac running on the earlier versions of OS X, entirely blocking you from getting the apps unless you jump into the latest OS X version.

I don’t see any major reason not to upgrade, however. The platform is getting rave reviews, and the battery life improvements will mean longer run times on my MacBook Pro. Some of the new cross-platform (OS and iOS) features are also impressive. I’ve used handoff and other tools between my Mac and mobiles since I jumped into Yosemite, and the ability to get caller ID and alerts on the Mac when I get a phone call is a nifty thing. Having the ability to send and receive both iMessage and normal SMS messages on all devices/computers is also very useful, as it means I don’t have to stop what I’m doing and grab another device just because a txt came in.

All in all, there’s no real reason not to go ahead with the upgrade, and now there are more and more reasons while taking the plunge is the best idea.

Fallout 4: Is the Brotherhood of Steel Evil? (Hint: No.) 0

Photo Credit: © Zenimax


BoSVertNow that we’ve had a chance to talk about the background of the Brotherhood of Steel (BoS), let’s discuss their appearance in Fallout 4 (FO4) and the morally grey storyline they bring to the table.






*****SPOILERS AHEAD!*****


The BoS that you meet in FO4 takes two forms. One that you meet up to the mid-point of the main quest, and another that makes their appearance in Act II.

Prior to the end of Act II, your only interaction with the BoS is Paladin Danse, Scribe Haylen, and Knight Reese; the only remaining members of a BoS Recon Squad sent to investigate the Commonwealth. While they’re not the first to visit the Commonwealth, they are the most successful recon team to date, having established a foothold in an abandoned police station and started operations.

The team was sent from the East Coast BoS group (headquartered in the Capitol Wasteland – formerly Washington DC), and is charged with scouting the Commonwealth (formerly Boston and the surrounding area in Massachusetts). So far, they’re not doing great. Multiple members of their team have been killed in feral Ghoul and Super Mutant attacks, and the three of them are all that’s left. To make matters worse, they can’t create a strong enough signal to establish radio contact with The Citadel – the BoS headquarters located in the ruins of the Pentagon in the Capitol Wasteland – to call for support. What they have done, however, is found a strange signal that can’t be explained yet, but definitely points to powerful and advanced technology being used in the Commonwealth… somewhere.

Danse then recruits you (if you agree to it) to recover a powerful transmitter component – introducing you to the Institute (by reference) and their Synths (who crash your search party) along the way. This initial introduction leads to a series of radiant quests that allow you to discover the Commonwealth and learn more about the Brotherhood as you go. At the end of that mission, you’re given a chance to join the Brotherhood as a provisional member if you wish. If you agree, eventually you are given a quest to find out what happened to the last recon squad that came to the Commonwealth, and then you can continue radiant quests until you get to the mid-point of the main quest, where things change.

The BoS shown by the recon squad gives some major hints that things have changed for the Brotherhood since FO3. The recon squad is extremely mistrustful of outsiders (except for one member), and is hell-bent on killing every non-human they come across. Half of the radiant quests require you to go out and obliterate every mutant, Raider, and Ghoul you come across in a specific area. The BoS Recon members also wall themselves off from the rest of the Commonwealth (quite literally), and while there is an interest in cleaning up the area, helping civilians doesn’t rank high on their agenda.

Danse and the others also hint at the fact that the East Coast BoS is no longer under the guidance of Elder Lyons, but very little of who is in charge is revealed until after the mid-point of the main quest itself. All you know when you are given the opportunity to join is that they will help the civilians of the Commonwealth, but only as a means to their own ends of acquiring any and all pre-war technology and destroying all non-humans out there. At this point, their stance on sentient (non-feral) Ghouls is somewhat murky. They do not actively seek to destroy them, but neither do they want anything to do with them or go out of their way to help these former-human mutants.

OK, one last warning, ***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

At the mid-point of the game’s main quest, the player (known as the Sole Survivor) encounters a scripted event showing the Prydwen, a giant rigid airship that serves as a mobile base of operations for the Brotherhood in the East. Surrounded by, and launching, Vertibirds (Vertical Take Off and Landing craft that resemble helicopters with their blades on wing-pontoons) it flies into the Commonwealth skies and takes up residence at the ruins of Boston Airport (patterned on the real-world Logan Airport). Your radio then picks up the newly-boosted broadcast (thanks to your assistance in obtaining the transmitter) ordering you back to the police station, where Danse escorts you aboard the Prydwen to be introduced to the rest of the Brotherhood.

It’s here that you meed Elder Arthur Maxson, a direct descendent of the founder of the BoS, and current leader of the East Coast Brotherhood. Maxson informs you (and the rest of his BoS troops) that the Brotherhood has established a base of operations in the Commonwealth to wage a war on their greatest threat to date – The Institute. Since the BoS quarantines all pre-war and/or advanced technology, and the Institute is a massive hive of such technology, they must either contain or wipe out the Institute itself – and anyone who is helping them or their creations.

This is where the BoS starts to feel evil. Synths are possibly sentient, artificially intelligent androids. While feared by most of the Commonwealth, synths can easily be seen as semi-human, no different than non-feral Ghouls, and those who have left Institute control seem to be productive members of society (for good or bad). By this time, you have also met an earlier generation synth who is not only a good guy, but an active and valued member of one of the largest human communities – Diamond City. He’s definitely not a tool of the Institute, and certainly wouldn’t be considered a threat to anyone but those who make him their enemies first.

You may also have discovered the Railroad. Based on the Underground Railroad that helped ferry slaves to freedom in the Civil War era of US History, these humans and synths altruistically work to get synths away from the Institute and out of the Commonwealth where they can lead normal lives. The synths working for the Railroad certainly appear sentient, and definitely are working for what could be considered the greater good. At any rate, they are not controlled by the Institute in any way – far from it, they want the Institute destroyed and all synths freed.

Finally, if you played FO3, you may have met a synth who not only became an upstanding member of society in the Capitol Wasteland, but ended up being a trusted member of law enforcement to boot. For all intents and purposes, that synth is indistinguishable from any human being – and in fact remains undiscovered unless you purposely help to identify them. Even on identification, you find that this synth doesn’t even know they are a synth – the new memories and identity given to them by the Railroad makes them completely oblivious to the fact they aren’t human in the first place.

So the BoS waging an all-out war against the Institute *and* their synths means potentially wiping out a sentient race that had no say in their creation, but has shown themselves capable of independent thought and – in many cases – a desire for freedom beyond their programming. Maxson explains that destroying the synths is critical, as the Institute (based on the fact that synths escape) clearly has no control over their creations; and that those who have not broken from the Institute have even infiltrated human societies as undercover spies. The short story there is that a Generation 3 Synth is a biological machine, indistinguishable from a human being even when “taken apart” and therefore able to be physically altered to look, speak, and act exactly like a living human, who’s place they then take. The unfortunate target of this process is kidnapped to the Institute, and held indefinitely or (it’s hinted) killed; replaced by a synth double with all of their memories, mannerisms, and identity.

On top of this, the Brotherhood also tasks you with (optionally) commandeering farms and their produce to feel and fuel BoS operations. This is a radiant quest given to you by one of the BoS commanders on the Prydwen, and is not a mandatory part of your BoS membership. The problem is that, even if you don’t partake in that activity yourself, others are doing it on the BoS’s behalf.

Finally, siding with the Brotherhood in the main quest-line can result in being forced to wipe out other factions. Some of these factions may have become close friends over the course of the remainder of your gameplay, so it’s a decision not to be taken lightly; and one the BoS will not allow you to get out of.

It’s a moral grey-area all around, and made many players perceive the BoS as an evil force, or at the very least chaotic-neutral. The argument has some solid ground to stand on, but I’ve always seen it another way. The BoS is the best chance the Commonwealth has to survive.

I base my opinion on several facts:

– Without the BoS, there isn’t really any faction that can – or would be willing to – bring order and prosperity to the Commonwealth. The Railroad is interested only in saving synths, they don’t seem to really care what else is going on. The Minutemen are great as an idea, but have proven they cannot remain a coherent force for long before the organization collapses. The Institute? Well, they sabotaged the closest thing to a unified government the Commonwealth ever saw post-war, and are actively developing Forced Evolutionary Virus weaponry and kidnapping/replacing humans to meet their own goals. The BoS maintains that part of its charter is to remove those threats from the Commonwealth, even if they’re no longer anywhere as altruistic as their FO3 rendition.

– The BoS is a strong military force. Like it or not, the Commonwealth is a brutal, unforgiving wasteland. Super Mutants, feral Ghouls, Raiders, mercenaries like the Gunners with no moral compass, and dozens of other threats run rampant. Without manpower, weaponry, and a command structure to deal with those threats; it’s unlikely that Commonwealth will ever re-form society.

– Elder Maxson is not completely unchangeable. While he remains a xenophobic zealot, there are several points that show that he does, indeed, recognize that not all synths are equal. There’s two major examples of this: 1 – He doesn’t order that your synth companion(s) must be destroyed. 2 – When a major member of the BoS itself is found to be a synth, Maxson can be talked into allowing that person to live. They’re exiled from the BoS, but not executed. Combined, it shows that the Elder is at least willing to admit that some synths are not Institute slaves, and while not being ready to trust them, he (and the BoS as a whole) is willing to tolerate their existence.

So, for me, the BoS is not evil in Fallout 4. They most definitely are xenophobic technology hoarders who have very little interest in making the Commonwealth a better place overall, but their intentions are working toward a better life in the wasteland. Yes, their morality is most definitely grey; and their methodology can be extreme; but they’re a force that will help bring order to the chaos of the Commonwealth in the end.

Notes:
Most information is taken from either official Bethesda/Zenimax sources, or from the Fallout Wiki on Wikia. Both are worth a look!

Fallout 4: Background on the Brotherhood of Steel 0

Photo Credit: © Zenimax

PowerArmor Ah, the much argued about and maligned Brotherhood of Steel in the Fallout series. From game to game across the years, few factions have been as argued about and bickered over; and few have ever been so important to the games as a whole.

So, let’s talk about them in previous installments of the series!

****Spoilers Ahead!****

The Brotherhood of Steel (BoS) was created when a group of soldiers, shortly after the Great War, discovered a secret military installation that was working on biowarfare projects, including the Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV). Based on their discovery, and the fact that most of civilization had been destroyed by the war, Roger Maxson took his men, declared them all outcasts from the government and military, and commandeered the FEV laboratories to ensure that no one would ever be able to actually use these biological weapons. This departure from the military formed them into a new group “forged in steel” that would never forget what pre-war technology did to the world, and the BoS was born.

About a century and a half later, the BoS reluctantly aided both the Vault Dweller (FO1) and the Chosen One (FO2). During this era in the game timeline, the Brotherhood had become a well armed and armored paramilitary organization with a strong mandate to obtain and quarantine any and all pre-war technology to ensure that it never fell into the hands of anyone who would use it to wage war and/or harm the human race. They tended to be highly xenophobic, vowing to wipe out Super Mutants, Ghouls, and pretty much everything and everyone that wasn’t “human” by their own, very limited, definition. Taking pre-war military Power Armor, tactics, and weapons; they set out to hoard every bit of pre-war technology they could get their hands on – ostensibly to keep civilization safe from another nuclear annihilation event.

While some members were more open to the idea of post-human sapient beings (like non-feral Ghouls), the majority wanted nothing to do with anyone who was not a member of the BoS, and would shoot any non-human on sight whenever encountered.

Skip ahead nearly 50 years to Fallout 3, and we find that a group of BoS members was dispatched to the East Coast to determine the state of the former US Capitol (now the Capitol Wasteland). Along the way (according to games which were developed by not launched, or otherwise quasi-canon sources), the Mid-West chapter of the BoS was founded and remained in the Chicago area, while the remainder of the party went further east to Washington DC. The Mid-West group was more open to outsiders, and even willing to tolerate Ghouls and other non-human sentients – though they remained untrusted in the eyes of the Brotherhood.

The Capitol Wasteland branch of the BoS changed even further from the Mid-West group, adding to their mission the need to protect civilians and help rebuild society. They continued to collect and hoard pre-war tech, but now defended outposts and minor cities, and were much more tolerant of outsiders and non-humans. Super Mutants were still shot on sight, of course, but Ghouls were afforded warning shots and simply kept away from BoS facilities, not actively hunted. The local Elder (leader) – Elder Lyons – committed his forces to studying ways to make life livable in the Wasteland, even supporting and defending a massive clean-water technology project (codenamed Project Purity). Additionally, they actively attacked and attempted to destroy the Enclave – a group of pre-war scientists and politicians hell-bent on maintaining the old-world government. Their fight against the Enclave was not new (it was seen in FO2), but their desire to rid the Wasteland of the Enclave in order to save the civilian population was a new effort on their part.

Here’s where the pundits and fans get upset. The BoS was (in earlier installments and in the game’s canon), nearly completely disinterested in the affairs of anyone but their own group. They would actively dissuade – often at gunpoint – any outsiders from interfering in their plans; and would only ever work with such outsiders when their goals aligned with the BoS goals perfectly. In FO3, the Brotherhood was transformed into an altruistic group that would help the civilians of the Wasteland to survive, actively using technology to do so. This was “hand waved” by saying that the East Coast chapter had split itself from the BoS at large after the West Coast BoS was nearly annihilated by their fighting with the New California Republic (a nascent democracy in California and surrounding states). The split was so dramatic that some members of the East Coast chapter split themselves from the main group, forming the Brotherhood Outcasts who continue to operate under their original mandate.

Fans decried this change, saying that the Brotherhood was – and should remain – a group keeping themselves apart from the rest of society. Basically xenophobic war-mongers hell bent on keeping their technology safe and separated from everyone else, and attacking non-humans with no mercy. The radical departure from the BoS of previous games kept online forums and message boards burning with flame wars and other heated discussion. Fans of this “new” BoS did exist, but they were outnumbered by others who were livid that the BoS could be so radically re-defined and converted into a stereotypical “good guy” role in the Capitol Wasteland.

Fallout: New Vegas (FNV) saw a return of the old-school Brotherhood, hostile to everyone who wasn’t part of their group and maniacally intolerant of any non-humans whenever they encountered them. Fans were quite pleased with the return to the BoS’s roots, and applauded the decision. Much like in previous games, the player character (The Courier) could only join the BoS after going through several trials and quests to prove their intentions to aid the Brotherhood, and would otherwise simply be shot on sight.

The Brotherhood in FNV had only recently been nearly destroyed in a set of battles with the NCR, culminating in a last-stand event at a power station. Routed at that event, they retreated to a bunker complex in the desert and planned what to do next. They did, however, maintain patrols and intelligence gathering missions, and continued (on a smaller scale) to hoard technology to keep it away from the general public. The Courier can either help the BoS and foster a truce between them and the NCR, or wipe out the few that remain by destroying the bunker.

Which brings us to Fallout 4, and the interactions of the Brotherhood of Steel on the Commonwealth. Next time, we’ll delve into the current view on the BoS, and if they’re truly as evil as they seem at first blush.

Notes:
Most information is taken from either official Bethesda/Zenimax sources, or from the Fallout Wiki on Wikia. Both are worth a look!