What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

A term that has gained popularity over recent years is the “Internet of Things” or abbreviated as IoT.  What is the IoT and how does it affect you?  Let’s find out.

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things in a concept that describes devices that we would not consider computers being connected to the Internet.  For example, I have a smart television that is connected to the Internet – it lets me stream Netflix without an additional computer or other device.

The TV as computer is not a terribly hard stretch of the imagination, as it has a screen and an input device (the remote).  The IoT includes many devices that we would not consider to be a computer.  Here are some examples:

 

How does the Internet of Things affect me?

The most likely way that the IoT will affect you is by being a part of your home.  Many people are finding benefits in smart devices.  The smart TV allows me to watch streaming television and movies without adding a new device.  Smart refrigerators will tell when you’ve run out of milk and order you some more.  Doorbells have camera that will alert your phone when you have a visitor.  I’m not 100% sure what benefit the smart toilet brings, but I’m sure those people who have one will never go back.

The second way that the IoT might affect you is through computer security.  There is a risk that these types of devices will not go through the same rigor of security testing that traditional computer software might endure.  The lack of a traditional screen or mouse and keyboard might make them less likely to receive software updates, and security holes might allow an attacker to control the device, or use it to take part in another attack like a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS).

 

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What is meta?

The word meta is originally Greek, meaning “with, across, after” (thanks Google!).  In the modern, and certainly technological sense of the word, we’ll focus on the with definitions.

One of the technological uses of the prefix meta is as part of the word metadata.  Metadata is information about information – for example, the information in this blog post is a set of letters in a specific order.  But there is also data about this data: who wrote it, when it was published, and how many times it has been viewed.  This information is metadata.

Another common use for metadata is in digital photography.  The primary data in a picture is the image itself.  The metadata can contain a data and time when the picture was taken, the location where it was taken, and photography settings like aperture, focus, and shutter speed.

Meta is also used as a noun to describe self-referential content or inside jokes on the Internet.  For example, putting a Confused Travolta in an otherwise unrelated gif is considered meta as an inside joke.

 

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Excel Shortcut – the Power of F4

Here’s a short and sweet tip if you’re working in Microsoft Excel: pressing the F4 key will repeat the last thing you did, in the cell you’re currently in.

I used this today to add extra rows in my data.  I created a list of state abbreviations and wanted a row between each. Here’s how:

  • Right click on the first cell (A1 for me), and select “Insert…”
  • Select “Shift cells down”
  • What was in cell A2 is now in A3
  • Click on cell A3 and press the F4 key
  • What was in A4 will now be in A5!
  • Rinse, lather, repeat!

I got in a rhythm of F4, down arrow, down arrow, F4, down arrow, down arrow, F4… and was able to quickly space out my data.  This can also be used to apply background color to cells, text formatting, and many other things!

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Excel Shortcut – Pulling Characters from the Middle

Today, I’m doing a little work in excel (writing code that writes code – a story for another day).  One of the things I needed to do was get a list of all of the U.S. state abbreviations.  I had a list to start with, but it was formatted like this:

‘alabama’: ‘AL’,
‘alaska’: ‘AK’,

Now I could have gone through and written out AL, AK, etc in the next column, but Excel has some tricks to do this.  The first thing I did was copy and paste the full set of data onto the spreadsheet.  With all of the data selected, I went to the Data tab, and selected “Text to Columns”.  This is a useful tool that will break up one column into two or more.  Select Delimited, and hit next.  Because we’re trying to split the state name from the abbreviation, select Other, and type a colon ( : ) in the small text box.  You can now hit finish, and you will have two columns, one with the name, and one with the abbreviation.

As I’m typing this out, I realized that I could have been done here by setting the apostrophe as the delimiter.  Doing this gives us 5 columns: spaces, state names, colons, state abbreviates, and commas.  Simply delete the columns you don’t need, and you’re done. 

Now I had a column with 6 consistent characters in it: a space, an apostrophe, the two-letter abbreviation, another apostrophe, and a comma.  This is where we can use the Excel formula MID to grab the state abbreviation.  Thanks to the Udemy Blog for a breakdown of LEFT, RIGHT, and MID.  The formula =MID(A1, 3, 2) pulled out the abbreviation.  Let’s break this down:

  • The equals sign ( = ) lets Excel know that we’re writing a formula.
  • MID, the name of the formula will pull out characters from another cell.
  • A1 is the cell that contains the data we’re messing with ( ‘AL’,)
  • 3 – We’re starting with the 3rd character
  • 2 – We want 2 characters in the new cell

Press enter on the formula, and you will see just AL in cell B1.  Now we can copy and paste cell B1 onto cells B2 through B50.  Excel will automatically adjust the formula as for each row.  All of our state abbreviations are done!

Just one more thing – we just copied B1 to B2, and instead of pasting AL, Excel adjusted and pasted the formula!  We’ll want to copy off just the abbreviations as text, not formulas.  So copy cells B1 through B50, and paste into cell C1.  At the bottom of your paste, Excel will show a small “Paste As” menu.  Click on this to open up more options and select “Paste Values”.  Now we just have letters, not formulas.

To clean things up, delete columns A and B, and your data will be ready to go in the new column A.

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What is an API?

An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a general term for how computer programs communicate.  This includes sending data across the Internet or accessing the camera on your phone.

Term breakdown:

  • Application: another name for a computer program.
  • Programming: other developers can write programs to use this.
  • Interface: the other program can interact with the API.

One example of an API that you might use every day is the iOS API for iPhones and iPads.  At the time of writing, the current version is iOS 11, and general information on the APIs are available here.  This allows software developers to write apps for Apple’s devices, and use the camera, microphone, or speaker.

Have you noticed how the map on almost every website and app look the same?  You can thank the Google Maps API. Google has made their mapping software available to developers, and it has become ubiquitous to the point where if a map isn’t theirs, it looks weird.

Combining these two is the Uber app.  Uber is a ridesharing company (which may be featured in a future article) that connects drivers and riders.  The iPhone app uses the GPS in the phone to determine your location, then shows where you, and nearby cars, are on a Google Map.  Uber didn’t have to create maps from scratch, or build a GPS device – they were able to use the APIs made available by other companies.

Some APIs are available free to the public, some are a paid service, and some are private within organizations.  They can be a great way to write software that integrates with a device, or create something new without reinventing the wheel (or, map).

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What is Ransomware?

Another wave of Ransomware has been in the headlines recently, taking over the computers of large corporations, small businesses, and regular people alike.  But what exactly is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of Malicious Software (“malware”) that gains access to a computer, encrypts files, and offers to decrypt them… for a cost.  Let’s go through each of these steps.

  1. How does Ransomware gain access to a computer?

    Ransomware uses the same tricks that other malware uses to gain access.  Usually, you will receive a file or a link in an email that installs the Ransomware program on your computer.  This might look like a spreadsheet, or a picture, but is actually the malware.

  2. What is encryption?

    Encryption is like a locked safe – I may know that information is inside, but I can’t see it without a key.  A simple example of encryption is a Caesar Cypher.  The encryption used by Ransomware programs is much more complex, and cannot be undone without the password.

  3. What is decryption?

    Decryption is the undoing of encryption.  When you put the key/password into a decryption program, it can take the previously unreadable data and return it to readable information.

  4. How do they offer to pay?

    Most Ransomware programs will show a screen that explains that your computer has been locked, and that you can unlock it for a fee.  Sometimes this will appear to look like an antivirus program, and sometimes it identified itself as Ransomware.

    The most common way to pay the ransom is through the cryptocurrency called Bitcoin.  We’ll have a future articles on Bitcoin later, but for today let’s just think of it as online money.  You can purchase Bitcoin from several places online, then you will transfer it to the owners of the Ransomware.  Unfortunately for law enforcement, this is a difficult process to trace.

    Once you have paid the ransom, the Ransomware owners will provide a password that is used to decrypt the files on your computer.

  5. How can I protect myself from Ransomware?

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (literally in the UK).  Be careful when clicking on links or opening attachments in emails.  Backup important files on an external hard drive or online service that isn’t always connected to your computer.  If your hard drive is connected when Ransomware infects your computer, it may encrypt the external drive as well.

 

Ransomware can cost time, money, or lost business if not prevented.  Hopefully this gives you a little more knowledge about what Ransomware is, and how to protect yourself against it.

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