Mainly Good News on the Tech Front

Items I've meant to post for quite a while now, in summary fashion:

1) Good news on cloud storage: Gizmodo recently had a great comparison of various cloud backup sites for personal use. As I have long "intended" to explain, I rely on both SugarSync (Gizmodo's overall winner) and Dropbox (the simplicity winner) for their complementary advantages. SugarSync, which is extremely flexible and powerful, backs up our household system as a whole -- three of my computers, one of my wife's, plus each of our smart phones (Android/Google Nexus S) and iPads, all connected and automatically backed up and synced. Dropbox, which is less flexible but even simpler to use, works best for me as the way to store the working versions of files I'm constantly changing -- especially the "bundled" files created by Mac programs like Scrivener, DevonThink, and a few others. I work on an article on one computer with Scrivener; I save it to the Dropbox folder; I open it up on another computer; and it all just works. Also, for reasons I won't get into, Dropbox usually is faster than Sugarsync when backing up very large files that have only slight changes. I recommend them both.

XKCD.png2) Good news on passwords: xkcd had a great cartoon earlier this month, with sample frame at right, illustrating a difficult-to-explain, easy-to-implement point about creating "good" passwords for online sites. This is a question I go into at some length in an upcoming article in the "real" magazine. (Say it with me: subscribe!)

For now, I'll just point you to the cartoon and its elaboration of the surprising-but-true fact that a password made of several randomly chosen "normal" words -- "curious purple fox" -- can be both much easier for a real person to remember, and much harder for an assailant's computer to crack, than a gibberish one like e*S2SWf!SRGB, or a word with "tricky" substitutions, like "p4ssw0rd." More to come on the general cloud-security theme.

3) Additional prospective good news about browsers: Firefox 7 is being designed to have fewer memory leaks, and therefore to run faster and more stably, than its predecessors.

I've always liked Firefox but in recent months have mostly stopped using it because of its terrible memory-hog qualities. If you leave a lot of tabs open, its memory consumption grows and grows through the day and, in my experience, often ends with a freeze or crash. So more and more I've used Chrome. (Not IE, because I'm working on Macs. Usually not Safari, because I never got used to it. And not always Chrome, because it doesn't work well with the Atlantic's blogging software from Movable Type. For that I use Firefox.)

Having mainly given up on the full-release versions, Firefox 5 and very recently Firefox 6, I'm now running the beta of Firefox 7 and also the "Aurora" version of Firefox 8, both available from Mozilla. (You can run either the Version 7 beta or Aurora-Version 8, but not both at the same time. Mozilla seems to have given up on the version 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 sequence of identifying releases, and is making whole-number increases several times per year.) As advertised they seem much better on the speed and memory fronts. Aurora, on which I'm composing this, is still in the rough-and-ready pre-beta stage, with updates every day or two, but is more stable and usable than I would have expected. So, good for Mozilla.
4) Finally, mixed bad-good news on the tech/privacy front. Earlier this month, LinkedIn joined Facebook in the ranks of companies I fundamentally don't trust. This was because of its decision to start listing its users' names and photos as part of online ads, unless each user explicitly forbade them to do so. That is, it "defaulted" everyone's setting to Yes on approving appearance in the ads, unless a user noticed the change and switched the setting to No. Here is what you would see by default in your own account settings, if you knew where to look:


The approval check box was turned on automatically, without your knowledge or permission. To stop your name and picture being used in ads, you had to go in and remove that check.

That was the bad news, and really abusively bad at that. The better news is that LinkedIn recognized more quickly, and with more apparent sincerity, than the usual perpetrator of such switched-default schemes, Facebook, that this was a mistake. They changed the policy. For more on the episode, see NakedSecurity and Digital Times, plus the LinkedIn announcement. Also, Eric Bonabeau, of Icosystem and a former guest blogger here, has a very interesting examination of some further ramifications of LinkedIn's privacy policies and privacy problems.

As always, we take good news wherever we can find it. More of it these days in the tech than the domestic-politics realm.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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