Are You a Digital Nomad?

Are You a Digital Nomad?

Once upon a time, traveling from state to state and country to country in an RV was the dream of retirees. Then came the Internet, and as early as the mid-1990s, people found themselves able to work remotely. The phrase “digital nomad” was born around that time to encompass those high-tech workers who could work independently, setting up tech networks and working where they wanted to work.

The world’s experiences with the COVID pandemic resulted in an explosion of remote work. Thanks to a lot of creative thinking, all sorts of jobs and activities went online. No longer the purview of purely high-tech workers, remote work expanded to include clothing salespeople, librarians, winery hosts, personal brand coaches, and more. Give people a laptop and a reliable Internet connection, and they’re as ready to work in a hostel in Barcelona as they are in an apartment in Singapore. 

Does that make all remote workers digital nomads? There’s debate on that. 

Some consider only those people who have independent, entrepreneurial-style gigs that let them travel and work from anywhere to be the “true” digital nomad. Others think that the type of employment and employer don’t matter—if you’re taking advantage of 100% remote work and avoiding long-term fixed residences, then you, too, should consider yourself a digital nomad. 

All that to say, since the legal requirements and technical resources for both views are basically the same, the debate seems like a distinction without a difference

Keeping it Legal

Of course, whether you admit to being a digital nomad is another story, particularly when traveling to different countries. From a legal perspective, traveling for vacation is one thing; that assumes a basic travel visa. Those visas usually include in the fine print that you’re there for a holiday, not to work. If you want to actually work in a country, where ‘work’ means “I’m here and will be making money,” then you are often legally required to apply for a work visa. 

Different countries have different requirements, and sometimes those requirements are fairly vague. The most critical thing to remember is to do your research in advance to make sure you are following the proper legal procedures is important when crossing international borders. It’s like insurance. Sure, you can drive without it, and if no one catches you, fine. But if anything goes wrong, you might be in a world of trouble. 

Remember Your Digital Safety

The digital nomad lifestyle depends on technology, and that means you have to be on your A-game when it comes to making sure that your online accounts are protected. Having a password manager and using multi-factor authentication is no longer a “nice to have” but an absolute necessity. 

In fact, you’ll want to step it up and make sure you have a personal VPN, that your bank is top of the line when it comes to security, and a plan for what to do if your devices are lost or stolen (that means backing up your files regularly and testing that you can restore from those backups).

What Resources Exist for Digital Nomads?

Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there to help you navigate the digital nomad lifestyle!

What You Can Do in 5 Minutes 

  • Wikipedia has a great page on being a digital nomad, including links to countries that embrace the concept and have clear(ish) guidelines on how to work in their countries. 
  • Subscribe to the Digital Nomad subreddit to get a sense of what others are experiencing as digital nomads. 

What You Can Do in 15 Minutes

  • This comprehensive article by Legal Nomads offers a LOT of tips and tricks to make working remotely easier. If you’re committed to becoming a digital nomad, definitely check this out.
  • If you have a day job that allows for 100% remote work, check in with your HR person and manager just to make sure there are no restrictions on where you might end up in the world. They might not care, but in some fields, information (like encryption technology) can’t leave a country. 

What You Can Do in 30 Minutes (or more)

  • Want to learn more about the cultural aspects of doing business in other countries? One great site to visit is eDiplomat, which focuses on the cultural do’s and don’ts for many countries around the world. Want to know about cultural etiquette in Vietnam? How about reports on living conditions in Croatia from a diplomat’s perspective? There’s a lot on this site to explore. 
  • Want to get the most out of the experience and actually make enough money to support the lifestyle? You need to sit down and start some serious research and budget planning to figure out where your goals and what you can actually afford to align.

Wrap Up

There are a lot of considerations for entering into the world of the digital nomad. Visas, cybersecurity, banking, and money management… This is the tip of the iceberg! Still, travel is amazing, and you may find that the risks involved are absolutely worth the reward of the experience. Just be careful, make sure you have a community to talk to, and don’t forget to be smart with your passwords. 

Photo by David Espina on Unsplash

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What You Don’t Think About When Instant Messaging…

What You Don’t Think About When Instant Messaging…

Long gone are the days when you’d have to dial your friend from a landline to coordinate plans. Nowadays reaching your friends and family can happen anytime, anywhere quite literally in an instant…

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Instant Messaging (IM) was invented in 1971 as a computer-based messaging system. That’s barely younger than the Internet itself! It took a while for this to become popular, but AOL made that happen in the late 1980s. Social media companies and gaming platforms expanded on the idea, and telecommunications companies developed their own.

Sure, IM is a powerful communication tool, but not all messaging services are created equal. 


IM and SMS—Don’t Get it Twisted

First of all, SMS uses an entirely different infrastructure than IM, and yet the end result is the same: text-based communication between multiple people in real-time. Still, IM was more successful at the start because there was a proper keyboard involved. Despite also being developed in the late 1980s, SMS didn’t take off until telecommunications companies allowed for cross-company communication AND people had something like a real keyboard to type on.

SMS has some surprising limitations. There is a character limit of 70-160 characters for a true SMS message, and precisely the limit depends on how the telecommunications company you’re using implemented it. Still, thanks to a hard limit in the standard that defines SMS, it cannot go over 160 characters. Instead, the SMS app will break a message into parts to ensure it all goes across the airwaves as needed.

Another limitation is that true SMS _requires_ cell service. 

If all you have is wi-fi, then your mobile device’s native app has to do some behind-the-scenes shenanigans to convert it to a different type of message for it to send. That’s where services like Signal, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger come in handy.

One side note about SMS and security: For those who have turned on multi-factor authentication (MFA) on your accounts, GO YOU! However, it turns out that receiving your second factor via an SMS message is both common and not actually ideal. Where possible, using a third-party app like Authy is a better choice.

We know, annoying, right??? What gives?!

IM and Encryption

Back to actual IM services, the most important differentiator between IM apps is not whether it has the best emojis (though emojis are pretty cool). It’s whether the messages are encrypted the entire way from one phone to the next. Apps like Signal and WhatsApp support end-to-end encryption by default, but Telegram only supports end-to-end encryption between two parties. Even with that, you have to turn it on; as soon as you invite others to the chat, the message is not encrypted the whole way through.

That’s because as with everything on the Internet, the devil is in the details…

Some apps that claim encryption don’t encrypt what’s stored in backups, don’t encrypt by default, or don’t securely delete old messages wherever they are. Some apps like iMessage are a great option, but there’s a notable difference if everyone is using an iPhone (all the encryption! woohoo!) versus messaging across different operating systems (which will put you right back in SMS land).

Looking at all the trade-offs, IFM’s go-to is Signal. Signal offers top-notch encryption, is not owned by any big companies that thrive on collecting data about you, and is easy to use.

IM and the World

Most messaging apps work best when messaging other people who use the same service. That means that depending on where you are in the world, you’ll find different apps to be most useful for communicating with the natives. 

The all-around most globally popular is WhatsApp. Facebook Messenger is a pretty strong runner-up, though by how much depends on the country. But if you’re in China, you’re more likely to use WeChat.

Some messaging apps, like Telegram and Messenger, are very much part of a social network that feeds how and where they are used. Telegram, in particular, was in the news for its use in Ukraine as part of communicating about the war. 

With so many messaging options, it’s worse than trying to choose an email client! But that’s a different post.

In Closing…

Whether you call it texting, IMing, DMing, or just messaging, the desire to have a quick and easy way to send a message to a friend or colleague is necessary for how we function in the modern world. It only takes a little more thought to make sure that your communications are secure from snooping, and then you won’t have to think about whether any particular message needs to be secured before you send or receive it.

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All About Memes: Origin, NFTs, Identity Theft, and More

All About Memes: Origin, NFTs, Identity Theft, and More

Ahhh, memes. Those funny images that go viral on social media. Would you be surprised to learn that the concept of a meme predates the Internet? It’s true. So then, just what is a meme?

The word “meme,” according to Dictionary.com, was coined in 1976 by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe the cultural transmission of ideas. The latest definition is as follows:

  1. an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.
  • a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.

You could argue that memes are actually a concept far older than the word itself. Case in point: folklore. The main purpose of folklore is to share ideas across generational and social boundaries, very much like memes, and that activity can be documented as far back as 6,000 years ago. WAY older than the Internet!

The First Modern-Day Meme

Enter the first modern Internet meme:  Baby Cha-Cha-Cha

Now whether it’s actually the first is open to debate, but the Dancing Baby is most commonly known to be the first viral video on the Internet. Since memes are an expression of culture, exactly what you might think of as a meme will vary as culture evolves. Baby Cha-Cha-Cha is a great example. In its day, it was absolutely a meme, a resounding new idea that spread everywhere and expressed the crazy design possibilities of the Internet. Today? Eh. Where are the catchy words to go along with it? The phrase that will make it the perfect amount of snark?

Memes, Copyright, and NFTs

If you create a meme, and it goes viral, you become rich, right? Nope. You probably won’t get bragging rights either since people will have no idea where the meme came from once it spreads fast enough through the interwebs. 

Memes generally fall under the heading of “fair use” when it comes to things like copyright protection. Public Knowledge has a great article that describes the whys and wherefores of that, but at the end of the day, creative expression that takes an image and turns it into something new (new meaning, new interpretation, new insight) will almost always fall under fair use.

This is a good moment to point out how owning a meme and NFTs can overlap: 

Artists create things, but once their thing is sold (and sometimes even before that), they lose all control over that asset. If the asset is resold, the original artist usually doesn’t see any commission. An NFT can serve as a receipt that makes sure that every future transaction gives the artist some additional compensation for their creation. This is a potential game-changer for artists, but it’s not perfect. (Learn more about NFTs in this post.)

Artists (and let’s assume that people who create memes count as artists) have already started exploring selling their memes as NFTs. The idea of owning the original digital file of a meme is compelling to some. One of the challenges here, though, is that owning the original digital file does not necessarily give you copyright ownership of it, and it doesn’t mean you own any of the copies. The idea of NFTs as a way to give artists more control over their work has merit, but the idea hasn’t quite worked the bugs out. 

Memes and…Identity Theft?

And what about memes and identity theft? As cute as they are to see in your media stream, those little image files can contain malware—code that can help a hacker compromise your computer or mobile device. They can also encourage you to respond with personal information. How many times have you seen a meme like “Porn star name generator!” with a list of crazy names next to various dates? It is hilarious and absurd. It is also data harvesting with an eye toward identity theft.

Some memes build on a picture of a person who will forever be associated with that one image. Decades later, when a potential hiring manager does a search on their name, it’s still that one image that somehow defines them for the rest of their lives. The image of Disaster Girl is a perfect example of that. Zoë Roth was a child when that photo was taken over twenty years ago, and yet, that’s her legacy as far as the Internet is concerned. 

So, Why Should You Care?

Memes aren’t going to go away, nor should they! They are hilarious and they express information in ways words can’t. They’re fun to see, fun to use in presentations, and fun to have as shorthand to express agreement, disgust, sarcasm, and support; they are just that powerful a form of expression.

But this wouldn’t be the Identity Flash Mob blog if we didn’t have a few suggestions for you to keep yourself safe online, even where memes are concerned.

  • If someone sends you a file that you don’t expect, don’t open it. If it’s someone you know, ask them to send you the link where they got it, or at least where they created it (if they’re the originator).
  • If you are posting photos of yourself online, either lock down the permissions as to who can see them or accept that someone might pick up that image and run with it in ways you never imagined. 
  • If you are posting photos of your children online, really, really lock down those permissions. Please. Your child will thank you when they’re older. If you can’t resist sharing the cute, listen to or read the transcript of this excellent Vox podcast.

With that, it’s time to go see what new creative memes have been created. Catch you on the flip side! 

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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Officially Submit Your Emoji Idea…And More On the Beloved Digital Icons

Officially Submit Your Emoji Idea…And More On the Beloved Digital Icons

Did you know there are around 3,460 official emojis? 😮 That’s the count for ones officially blessed by the Unicode Consortium, arbiter for the representation of text in all modern software products and standards. They provide the code a computer will use to refer to the right emoji. They provide the description. They provide the keywords. They even provide a visual sample. And then every software vendor out there that supports emojis can do their own artistic take on what the emojis should look like on their platform. (Some software vendors may also offer emojis unique to their platforms; the dancing parrot on Slack comes to mind.)

Before There’s an Emoji

OK, so lots of official emojis, more being added all the time…but there has to be more to it than that, right? Oh yes, yes indeed. It’s like a breakdancing contest 🕺where people are introducing new moves all the time, hoping it becomes a Thing.

Analogy aside, though, there is an official process for how an emoji becomes an emoji. The short, short version is that it starts with an Emoji Proposal to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee. Anyone can submit a proposal, but there are rules. Lots of rules. For example:

  • You can only submit something between 📅 April 4 through July 31 📅 of any given year.
  • You need to verify 🔎that someone else didn’t propose the same thing.
  • You need to understand 🤓 the gory details regarding the limitations of what can be an emoji. 
  • You need to follow a specific format 📜 for submission.
  • You need to include a sample image in a specific file format, of a specific size, with specific variations.

And so on and so on and so on. 

Emojis and Diversity

Emojis reflect how we communicate via writing. The very first emoji came about in 1997 and was a graphical representation of emoticons (think: creative use of punctuation to create smiles, frowns, shrugs… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), which were themselves first used (or so the story goes) in 1982. Hundreds and thousands of emojis later, skin tones that reflect the diversity of the world were added as an official modifier in 2015. There are still debates as to whether that’s enough, and it’s really bizarre where the skin tones came from in the first place. They came from work done in the 1970’s by a gent named Thomas Fitzpatrick, who was studying how skin burns in the sun and came up with a list. Now, why there are five skin types defined by the Unicode Consortium and six skin types defined by this Fitzpatrick fellow, I have no idea.  

Getting Geeky with Emojis

I’ll be honest: I generally can crank out a blog post in an hour or so. But not this series! It was way too much fun to dive into the rabbit hole to see all the different emojis, read the descriptions written by very geeky people, and learn about how a seemingly-innocuous emoji that I use every day does not always mean what I think it means! (‘OK’ 👌 symbol, I’m looking at you!). I’m sure you want see what is in this 🐇 hole with me, so here are a few links for you to follow:

Wrap Up

While there are over 3000 official emojis available (not including all the skin tone variations), not all platforms support all emojis. “Pregnant Person” , for example, is really hard to find. “Pregnant Woman” and “Pregnant Man” , no problem. The decision on which emojis to include is entirely up to the software vendor, and it is a combination of user demand, software brand, and cultural expectations that drive the decisions. There are probably still MORE than enough emojis out there for you to tell your story, but stay tuned…more will almost certainly become available over time.

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

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Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Women: Broken But Not Hopeless

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Women: Broken But Not Hopeless

March is Women’s History Month in the United States. March 8 is International Women’s Day. March has been a great time for an overwhelming number of #womenintech posts and memes!

IFM is run by two women who, between them, have over 50 years of experience in tech, but we don’t really want to focus on tooting our own ♀ horn. Instead, we want to examine some important aspects of technology that particularly (but not exclusively!) impact people who identify as female. Earlier this month, we wrote about digital personas and how they influence what you see (and what people learn about you) online. In this post, we’re going to take a different look at how a pair of specific and immensely powerful technologies influence all humans, but with particular implications for women and minorities, online: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML).

AI and ML

But first, what are AI and ML? AI is short for artificial intelligence. It’s another way of saying “super-smart algorithms.” If I asked you to look at two sets of data that describe two personas, you will be able to compare them in your head and draw conclusions. (That’s because you are a smart human, and that kind of analysis is literally what humans have been designed to do over eons of evolution.) However, if I took 3 million of those personas and put them in front of you and asked for real-time analysis… Yeah, not so much. That’s what computers are for! And that is where AI shines. AI can index and analyze all that data at lightning speeds and then make decisions, based on the options in their code, as to what to do next.  

But AI by its lonesome has limitations. If it finds some personas that don’t match anything in its algorithm, then we have a game of “stump the chump” with a computer. Which is fun, granted, but people spending Big Money on Big Data generally aren’t amused. That’s where Machine Learning comes in. Machine Learning takes the options in the code ‘under advisement’ and instead looks at the data that doesn’t match and says “awesomesauce! Let’s just adapt this code a bit, shall we?”

It sounds like magic, but honestly, it’s just really complicated decision trees. Does the data fit in A? No? Then go to B. Does it fit in B? Yes! Great, go to B+1. Say that 10 million times fast. 

AI, ML, and Other People – the Downsides

With the sheer amount of data online, we wouldn’t have a particularly functioning Internet if it weren’t for the ongoing evolution of AI and ML. Think about it: how can search engines do their thing? How do big web commerce sites know to offer me particular recommendations? How do voice-recognition systems recognize so many different voices and accents? How can systems do facial recognition with so many faces out there?

AI and ML are absolutely critical, no two ways about it, but they share a particular problem: AI and ML and all their children start with a human. Statistically speaking, that human is probably male. Someone(s) had to write that code, and in writing that code, they cannot help but introduce some bias into the system they are designing. For example, an audit by Harvard University showed that facial-recognition algorithms consistently had the lowest accuracy for dark-skinned women and the highest accuracy for light-skinned men.   In an ideal world, the developer is a member of a highly diverse team where biases are quickly identified and dealt with in the code before anything goes live. I like that world. I want to live there. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we currently live in. I can point to a gazillion articles that say women and minorities are not well represented in tech (keeping the focus on AI and ML, I really like this article from Wired). If biases aren’t dealt with in the development phase, we are going to see all sorts of problems. In fact, we DO see all sorts of problems, in healthcare, in criminal justice, in hiring systems… the list goes on. I can even point to how the algorithm can drive individuals towards extremist views

Mitigating the Bias in AI/ML

All that sounds pretty dire. Is the value of having speedy search engines enough to justify the societal costs of biased AI? That’s the question, isn’t it. If there was no way to address bias in AI and ML systems, then I’d probably say no, it’s not worth it. But, if it all worked as designed… Medical treatments could happen at the very earliest moments where interventions would be most useful. People could get the support they need before they make life choices that will get them arrested. Hiring systems would actually be neutral and fair, and not solely dependent on human judgment (still a little dependent, though). Heck, AI could even start generating its own datasets!

It’s not like we don’t know that bias in these systems is a problem. There is quite a bit of literature out there on how to handle it, too. Do a web search on “how to prevent bias in AI”. I personally can’t decide which article to read first: the one that promises three ways, four ways, six ways, or seven ways to reduce or mitigate bias in AI systems. And this is just the popular content out there. Going to a site like Google Scholar will net you properly researched studies from real data scientists on the topic. 

Even the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (more commonly known as the OECD; think high-powered, treaty-based, international organization) has guidance for how AI should be designed. No one is required to follow those guidelines, but they’re a good place to start. Microsoft, a company that does quite a bit with AI, has some pretty extensive guidelines and governance as well. So there is hope and some established guidelines out there. 

What it Means for You

So, what does this mean for women (and everyone else)? Well, since I’m not Queen of the Universe (if I were, I would wave my magic wand and get equal representation in the fields of automation, AI/ML, and all of tech for that matter) I’ll just say: be aware this is a thing. Know that the data you put into the system, be it a streaming service, search engine, or social media site, will automatically influence what you’re going to see in ways that might be really hard to stop. You (or your doctor) are going to be shown curated material based on what the supersmart algorithm and its buddy, machine learning, think you want (or need) to see. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but what you’re being shown is only a small slice of the information pie, and it’s based on what a computer thinks you want to see. Your medical care provider might not even realize that they are also relying on AI to help them be more efficient in how they handle patients, and that information might be right (or not) as well. 

Just because the computer told you so, doesn’t mean it will always be correct. Feel free to question what you’re seeing, or feel free to feed it more data so that music selection on your streaming service is exactly what you want. 

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