Beware of Phishing Attacks

The majority of the time your online accounts get ‘hacked’, it is because of social engineering more than technical vulnerabilities. This is applicable for normal folks like us and obviously high-value targets face the full ‘brute force’ of the technical attacks. Social engineering hacks or ‘phishing’ makes you believe that the communication mostly via email is from a person you know and trust and it makes you click a link in the email that will further ask for your login details. Once you enter those in, bam! They’re in.

Yesterday, I got an unusual email from my dad [1]:

Phishing Attack

Fortunately, it rang plenty of alarm bells when I opened the email. First, the tone of the email was casual and if you know my dad, his emails even with his sons are extremely formal. Even the ones he sends as personal emails start and end very officiously.

Second, it asked me to click on an allegedly Google Docs link. My dad (and his assistant) are barely able to use email let alone Google Docs. Sometimes I wish they were more technically savvy but in spite of trying several times, I haven’t been able to teach him. In fact, his email is operated entirely by his assistant and we communicate with him via his assistant (we call her Maushi so it’s not that formal of an arrangement). He dictates his email to her and she types it out and sends it to us. Third, if it was some kind of official work, he would call me and tell me about it several times within the span of that call. This email was way too short to be anything from him. Finally, if you hover over the link in the email, it doesn’t point to Google Docs and also, the To: field in the email was blank indicating the use of BCC: My brother confirmed that he too got the same email and so did another family friend.

Anyway, my suspicions were confirmed when I directly called his assistant and told her to change their email password. Obviously, she hadn’t sent the email. But I learnt something more scary. Couple of weeks ago, my dad had received a similar email (except it asked for money to be wired) purportedly from my brother. But instead of calling him first, they exchanged a few emails with the spammer and only when it got a little too suspicious[2], did they call my brother. However, the spammer correctly targeted my dad’s fondness for wanting to send money even when we explicitly always tell him that we don’t want any. Luckily, he did not send any money but I’m sure he must’ve clicked some link in the email that may have given them access to his address book. It must be similar to the script that lets Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn to import your address book.

This post is just meant to warn you to not trust any email containing links from your personal contacts especially if it sounds a little suspicious. Always call or Whatsapp them to first confirm whether it really came from them. The few minutes (or hours) you wait for their reply may end up saving you a lot of trouble.

Footnotes:
  1. the screenshot is from my Spam folder where the message now resides []
  2. they wanted to money to be sent within India whereas my brother is currently in Canada []

How the little things in design matter.

Six Months of Cooking Experiments

I usually don’t make New Year resolutions but I decided to give it a shot this year and deliberately didn’t announce it. I wanted to try out cooking various recipes beyond the usual desi fare. We have diversified our home cooking; so much so that we cook desi food less than half the time now. Of course, my wife is the primary cook in the family and I try to cook at least a few meals during the week including one of the weekend breakfast. However instead of cooking regular meals, I decided to experiment and try out certain recipes that we eat outside but have never tried cooking at home. I focused mostly only meat dishes since we enjoy our non-vegetarian fare although my wife has forced me to add sides[1], that make the plate more green.

I relied primarily on the excellent NYTimes Cooking app and used Paprika app to store recipes from other websites. I tried to mix up various meats such as beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and even some seafood. Of course, the possibilities are endless and I’m just getting the hang of making slight modifications to the recipes. For now, I follow the recipes to the tee and instead focus on technique. If nothing else, you should invest in a good kitchen knife, a big cutting board, and a heavy cast iron skillet. Also, I not only focused on cooking a good meal but also plating it well enough to make it visually appealing. I documented my efforts on Instagram; sometimes even the process especially with steak that now I can cook well with comfort especially without using a grill. Jamie Oliver’s Dress-the-board steak is one of my favorite recipes; very simple, quick and yet extremely delightful.

Anyway, here are a few of the dishes that turned out well. There were a few others that tasted great but weren’t visually appealing for Instagram. I’m looking at you, Rhubarb Skillet Chicken.

Rack of lamb (partial) with naan and salad

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Spicy chicken liver masala

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

The perfect pork chops?

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Continuing our Greek week with grilled Branzini

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Steak with shiitake mushrooms tossed in chimichuri

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Braised short ribs #CookingExperiments

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Dress-the-board bone-in ribeye to kick off the weekend. So good.

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

That's how I Valentine! #ScrewRoses

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Cast iron skillet steak

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Moroccan lamb shank Tagine

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Feel free to drop any gems of wisdom that you may have gained in your cooking experiments.

Footnotes:
  1. broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, roasted cauliflower, french beans, mashed potatoes, etc. []

“Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” Ta-Nehisi Coates does not mince words when it comes to describing the true history of the Confederacy.

“Every day, 164 people move to Austin, Texas, the nation’s second-fastest-growing city. The next morning, they all get in line at Franklin BBQ.” It’s official. Austin is America’s next great food town.

Horrific account of post-partition targeted violence and how “the riots fatally undermined any trust Pakistani leaders may have had in their Indian counterparts.”

“Code has been my life, and it has been your life, too. It is time to understand how it all works.” An excellent primer into understanding code, algorithms, software, programming, and all the everyday jargon that you were afraid to ask but always wanted to know. It’s a long piece at 38K words but take your time to savor every bit, pun intended, of it.

An excellent list of ideas of what Twitter can be. I wouldn’t mind a read-only Twitter with only the ability to favorite (call it Like though) or even a curated timeline for live events by topic.

Privacy vs. Free

“I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” said Cook. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

Tim Cook presented this blistering attack on most Silicon Valley companies in his speech at EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event in Washington, DC. Privacy concerns about your online data have always been existed ever since Google started offering their awesome web services for free but have received renewed attention since Edward Snowden’s revelations. No one can deny the truth in Tim Cook’s words. You can nod and still choose to use the services of the companies he refers to. But hopefully, you’re making that choice consciously i.e. you’re trading your privacy for free services.

I’ve been trying to move away from Google services and choose to pay for any services that its competitors offer if it is nearly the same quality [1]. It may be near-impossible to not use services from companies that rely on your personal information to make a dime but it may help to spread them out across these companies. At least with Apple, I’m relatively sure that it is not using my private information to earn money. They charge a premium for their excellent products and I’m more than willing to pay. That way, I’m putting a cost to my privacy. Most may not and that’s fine. But it’s misleading to assume that you care about your privacy and yet have all your eggs in Google’s basket; simply because their entire business hinges on marketing your data. More than 90% of Google’s revenue still comes from advertising; a technology they learned to monetize in the mid-00s.

Apple was hated in its initial days for proprietary software and incompatibility with most hardware. That hatred was justified because if everyone owned an Apple product then the world would have fewer choices. Right now, the only criticism against Apple seems to be its high prices which is a strange protest because it begs the question of willingness to pay. Are you willing to pay what Apple asks for their products? If not, there are several alternatives out there that either compromise on quality or have hidden costs that require your private data to make up the difference. You may make an argument based on economic disparity but advertising dollars often are skewed toward the higher income demographic.

Similarly, given Android’s marketshare, if everyone is using Google products and services just because it is free, the world is worse off because not only are you tied into their ecosystem but also are subject to their targeting algorithms for marketing and advertising. But Google is smart. They often provide opt-out settings so the tech-savvy people who fill the comment threads can stand above the fray and claim that they’re not being taken advantage of. But for all the tech savviness, they forget the arguments they made against Apple and neglect the fact that most people do not opt-out and that makes everyone worse off. Further, you cannot opt-out of certain services. Just try to disable your search history and then try to use Google Now. Obviously, it wouldn’t work but you fail to see why it isn’t in Google’s interest to make it work. I’ll definitely not be using Google’s new fangled photo service. I prefer to spread my data across various providers. That way, no one has access to everything.

In the end, it all boils down to what’s important for you. In some societies, privacy is not valued and price is the primary factor for making buying decisions. Google fits well there. In other societies or sub-sections of the populations, quality of product and willingness to pay for that quality matter, Apple wins there.

Footnotes:
  1. I still haven’t found decent alternatives to Google Search. Gmail is good simply based on search capabilities. But most of my communication is now spread across WhatsApp and Messages for Mac []

You Need Humanities

Last week, Indian Twitter [1] was discussing merit and its role in social or professional advancement. While this correlation is tenuous at best (see this comic strip), there is an underlying assumption that smartest people on this planet are those in the STEM fields. You may definitely earn much more in STEM fields but the assumption that it is due to the smartness of the people is erroneous.

My training was in architecture which is one of the rare fields that necessities the use of both sides of your brain. It’s an art as well as a science (while not being the best at either but that’s a different story). Luckily we had a smattering of humanities in our coursework through architectural history and other topics. Most treated it as something that we needed to study to tick off the courses checklist but at least under that excuse, they were exposed to certain social and economic topics which sparked interesting conversations in the canteen.

On the other hand, my countless friends in engineering and medicine were never exposed to any humanities education after 10th grade and even as they matured, most never understood or appreciated the nuances of society, culture, and its indelible impact on our behavior. I regularly saw misleading and erroneous arguments made on blogs (and now on Twitter) not due to malice but simply due to ignorance. Some generalizations like – blacks are lazy and prone to crime, Muslims are violent religious fanatics, the poor just want handouts and loot stores, etc. – are common.

Some are open to learning beyond their prescribed textbooks and have done exceedingly well but for the most part, I think engineers and medical doctors are largely ignorant of economics, sociocultural norms, and history. I blame the lack of exposure to these subject and very narrow specialization that our education system has subjected them to. Not only are they ignorant but a subsection of them feel superior to the rest of us just because we opted to study the humanities, as expressed in the photo in the tweet above.

I used to but nowadays I don’t try to change their minds. I wish them all the best in the discovery of their ignorance which is what our education should be. My education in architecture, public policy, and urban science hasn’t taught me everything but it has definitely made me more curious and aware that there are factors underlying every behavior and even if it doesn’t justify those behaviors, it certainly explains them. All I ask is to acknowledge this.

Footnotes:
  1. If nothing, it’s an excellent source for topics to blog about []

“Today I can update my site leagues faster than when I was chained to a desk and wires and HTML and Fetch and static files—20 years ago, before some of you were born” – Jeffery Zeldman.

Lake Travis before and after the Memorial Day floods. Amazing contrast especially if you were aware of the severity of the drought until earlier this year.

How class differences perpetuate. If you’re one of the fortunate ones, the least you can do is acknowledge it and not be an asshole.

99% of the Bitcoin Addresses have no Bitcoin Wealth. 1% of the Bitcoin community controls 99% of the Bitcoin wealth. So much for being egalitarian.

A Beach Vacation

Be patient. You’re on island time now” said a sign behind the counter at a coffee shop in Port Aransas. That’s exactly how we felt – on island time. With no pressing deadlines and nowhere to go, we could finally kick back and relax. Otherwise even vacations with tightly packed itineraries can be stressful for us. But this time, we did it differently.

Due to our busy work lives, we couldn’t get away last year. We finally got a chance to take a much-needed beach vacation before the summer heat sets in. Nothing too far or fancy, we booked a condo right off the beach at Port Aransas. This small town is on a barrier island off the south Texas coast. Most of the island is a protected reserve with the exception of several condominium complexes set right off the beachfront. No more than 3,000 people call this town their home and vacationers outnumber them 10 to 1 during the peak summer months. Our daily schedule was simple. Get up at leisure, have a quick and light breakfast in our condo and head straight to the beach. Spend couple of times on the beach with the kid who was returning to the coast after nearly 2 years. Since he’s just beginning to form memories, this could very well have been his first time.

As the sun rises, we drive down to the town’s center for some wonderful fish and shrimp tacos and then head back to the condo for a well deserved afternoon nap. Late afternoon, we could either hit the beach again or drive down to Padre Island, one of America’s ten national seashores. It’s a pristine naturally-preserved 50-mile coastline with only with seaweed as litter. It’s the perfect place for a long beach walks with the kid running up and down the beach with the occasional splash in the sea. We can stop for a while to gaze at some barnacle-crusted driftwood otherwise just pass other beach visitors who are just as peaceful.

The evening ends with yet another stomach-stuffing seafood right on the seafront in two of Corpus Christi’s famed restaurants. One of them offers excellent choices in fried seafood (fish, shrimp, oyster, crawfish, etc.) and the other is a slightly more-classy [1] place with grilled and stuffed fish. We head back to our condo and can take yet another walk on the beach, which is a mere 100 feet from our condo doorstep, separated only by grassy sand dunes. The other option during the evenings is to drive down to Corpus Christi, the larger town on the coast to visit the Texas State Aquarium or the USS Lexington, the now-retired aircraft carrier museum.

We just rinse and repeat our schedule for the next three days until it is time to leave which the kid obviously is not ready to. But return we must. But we’ll be back.

More photos after the fold:

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Footnotes:
  1. I use that term very loosely []