Google glass – Yet another review

Introduction

So you have heard of this cool new gadget from Google called “Google Glass“, read a few articles about it online and still feel curious about it?

If so, then read on because in this blog post, I am going to write about my experience using Google Glass.

After the end of this post, if you still have questions, feel free to ask me and I will answer you.

Here we go.

Getting a Google Glass

Google Glass is not available to the general public yet. Instead, you apply online via the Google Glass explorer program and then you wait patiently until they select you. Once selected, you will receive an invitation code that will allow you to order Google Glass from Google’s website.

A few weeks later, I received an invitation code. I was so excited to try out Google Glass but as some Google Glass explorers, the price tag made me pause for a while and think. The fact that there is no way to tell how they feel / work unless you buy them or run into someone kind enough to let you try them. I decided to buy and try them out. After purchasing Glass online, it was shipped and it arrived in two days.

I was really impressed by how neat the package is; it comes with:

  • Glass
  • Mono ear bud
  • Glass replacement nose pads
  • USB cable / charger
  • Dark shades

The box comes with all the accessories mentioned above.

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Glass package

When I ordered the unit, there were no other color options except for Tangerine.

Tangerine color is good looking, however people easily notice that you’re wearing Google Glass. On the other hand, people wearing the darker color of Glass don’t stand out. A few explorers wearing grayish colored Glass barely caught my attention (even though the screen of Glass is big enough not to be noticed).

Glass package

Those shades can be just snapped into the Glass.

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I also ordered stereo ear-buds. This is the package:

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Once opened, you see instructions on how to mount the ear-buds:

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Notice also that you can change the color of the ear-bud caps. Pretty nice idea:

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Google Glass smartphone app

Once you turn on Google Glass, you will be prompted to first install the “Google Glass” app from the Google Play store into your smartphone. The purpose of this is to pair your Google Glass device with the smartphone via Bluetooth.

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The Glass app interface looks like this:

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Here are some option screens found in the Google Glass application:

  • MyGlass: shows what applications are already installed on the Glass device
  • Glassware: This is what Google calls the applications that are written for Glass
  • Wi-Fi: This screen allows you to configure Wi-Fi connectivity in your Glass device
  • Devices: All the registered Google Glass devices
  • Screencast: Very interesting feature. It allows you to see everything that the Google Glass is projecting on its screen on your smartphone’s screen (In fact, this is how I managed to take some of the screenshots for this article).

In this picture below, you can see that I have installed a couple of Glassware on my Glass device:

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To install other Glassware, just go to the “Glassware” page, select the app and touch the “+” icon:

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Once paired, you are now ready to use Glass.

The Google Glass experience

In the following sections I will be talking about my experience with Google Glass, how to use it, what it can and cannot do for you and some of the limitations I experienced while using this Google Glass eXplorer Edition.

Controls

Let me first start by talking about the controls and physical buttons the Glass offers. As you can see in the picture below, the side part of Glass is sensitive to touch and tapping:

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  • Single finger tap: simulates a click
  • Two finger tap: two fingers can be used at the same time to do certain actions
  • Swiping: tap with one or two fingers then swipe to the left  for back, to the right for down and down for cancel

Additionally, there are two physical buttons:

  • Quick take snapshot button
  • Power on/off button

Configuring Glass

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On-head detection

Essentially, this functionality allows Glass to tell when you removed Glass from your face and when you put it back on. First, you need to calibrate it by removing Glass and putting it again (as it instructs you).

Wink

The wink feature is supposed to make it so easy to take a picture by simply winking. Again, you need to calibrate Glass by winking a few time so that Glass learns and differentiates between a wink and a normal eye blinking.

Unfortunately for me, I could not calibrate it well so it ended up taking a picture each time I blink! :)

Wi-Fi network

This allows you to connect Glass to a Wi-Fi. The process will take place between the Google Glass app on your smartphone and using Glass itself. This is necessary because there are no keyboards to type passwords on using Glass only.

Screen Lock

It is possible to screen lock your Glass. First you have to go to the configuration wizard and enable screen lock. By default it is off:

glass-screen-lock-off

After you enable it, you will be asked to enter a series of swipe gestures. Just use one finger or two fingers and swipe (down, left or right) on the side of the glass.

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After entering the gestures, screen lock will be enabled:

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Now when Glass’ display is off and then you awaken it, you will be greeted with the lock screen:

glass-screen-unlock

To unlock Glass, simply repeat the same pattern you used to setup the screen lock.

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Voila! You unlocked Glass and can now command it again with your voice.

Connect to Mobile phone

You may be wondering why exactly Glass needs to connect via Bluetooth to your phone. This is why:

  • When Wi-Fi is not available, Glass uses the Bluetooth connection to talk to your phone and then access the internet to:
    • Play music
    • Browse the net
    • Email notifications, …
    • etc…Essentially any action that requires Internet will go through Bluetooth to your phone then the internet.
  • GPS: Glass is not equipped with a GPS device, instead it will use the GPS information from your phone. In order to navigate with Glass (Google Maps app), you need to enable GPS on your smartphone first

Google Glass Voice control

Google Glass is mainly controlled with voice commands. Glass should be awake first.

To awake it, just tap Glass, tilt your head up a bit or simply press the power button. Once on, you should see on its screen the time and then the command phrase: “ok glass”.

When you say “ok glass” a series of subsequent verbs / commands will be displayed on the screen:

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This is a short list of functionality you can achieve after you say: “ok glass”:

  • Sending an email or text message
  • Getting directions to (with Google Maps)
  • Google search (power with Google Now)
  • Initiating a phone call
  • Initiating a video call with Google Hangouts
  • Listening to music (if Google Music is installed)

I use Google Now on my Android OS. I find it very useful to get short answers for some common questions. Glass allows you to use Google Now features by simply saying “ok glass” and then saying the command or the question. A nice question I always ask when demoing Glass to my friends is: “ok glass, do I need an umbrella tomorrow in Bellevue?”.

Another funny thing I say is: “ok glass, show a video of funny cats”

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Google Glass Apps

In this section, I will illustrate the use of some built-in apps and other Glassware.

Browsing the web

Glass comes with a powerful browser. Honestly, I am not sure if it uses your phone to render web pages and then cast the rendered canvas from the phone to Glass or it has a browser. Nonetheless, when you say: “ok glass, google” and then say a query string, you will be presented by a list of web pages.
A single tap will open the selected page. If the page is too big to render, you can scroll. To scroll, simply touch with two fingers and hold until you see the crosshair icon:

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While keeping the two fingers touch, you can now move your head in the direction you wish and this will change the view / scroll:
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You can think of scrolling in this manner as if you had a binocular and you can only see a small view of a bigger picture. All you have to do is move your binocular and you can see the reset.

In order to follow links from a website, just touch with two fingers and focus on the link and then single tap to open the link:
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Evernote

You can install the Evernote Glassware and link your existing Evernote account with Glass. Later, at any point if you need to remember something, simply wake up Glass and say: “ok glass, take note with Evernote” and start dictating your note:

glass-ok-en-taking

When done, the note will be uploaded to your Evernote account.

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Music

Install the Google Music Glassware and start listening to music. It is even more fun if you have a subscription to the music service. Just say: “ok glass, listen to The Fox”

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Please know that you don’t have to have any ear buds plugged at all to listen to music or hear phone calls or any other voice notification. Glass uses bone conduction technology. However, if you have ear buds, the sound quality is much better.

The music stays playing in the background unless you stop it. So you can have other Glassware apps running in the foreground at the same time as you’re listening to music

Google Maps

It is so fun to ask Glass for directions and have the directions shown to you on the small screen and the turn by turn sounds played into your ear. To use navigation, just say: “ok glass, navigate to Black Bottle, Bellevue” (or any other address of your choice).

Glass’s display will turn off when driving a long stretch but will come up again when you are about to change direction. The turn by turn voice will always be talking to you when needed.

Google Now

Google Now is the most interesting feature ever. It is not just found in Glass but it powers it like it powers the “Google Now” app on your smartphone.

Google Now on Glass has its own cards displayed if you scroll back (once Glass is active).

This card showing movies because I last asked “What are the movies playing in Lincoln Square”:

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If you scroll further left, you see more cards. This other card is showing game result between two teams that I last inquired about the game score:

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And of course, just swipe down to remove the card.

This last card is showing me trip information based on a calendar event that is coming up soon:

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Email / SMS

Once Glass is paired with your phone, you will get a visual notification when you receive an email. Similarly, when you receive a text message you will also see a part of it. You can then instruct Glass to read the message, delete it or reply. If you choose “Reply” then you can start dictating your reply and then it will be sent automatically (unless you cancel this action).

I was so happy with the accuracy of the speech recognition accuracy and the ability to work in fairly busy environments.

Taking pictures and video

Taking pictures and video is super easy. Just say “ok glass, take a picture” or just press the physical button on Glass.

Let me ask you this:

How fast can you pull out your phone from your pocket and take a picture of an event that you did not see coming but want to capture?

Look at this picture below. I was in the cafeteria and suddenly the fire caught my attention, it took less than a second to capture this:

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Taking a video is similar: “ok glass, record a video” and you’re done.

Settings

If you scroll all the way to the left you will reach the “Settings” screen. Tap it to set up Glass (Wi-Fi, Wink, etc…).

If you don’t tap it, you can see some brief status information, such as the remaining battery life and what sort of data connectivity is current established:

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Conclusion

I have to say I loved Google Glass too much, however I had four reasons that made me decide to return Google Glass:

  1. Back when I ordered it they had no prescription lenses or other color choices
  2. The price tag was too high (1500$ without tax). Not only the price was high, Google was not clear what happens to explorers when Glass becomes available to the remaining public and how much it will cost
  3. Battery life: Lo and behold, when you record video, take lots of pictures, keep listening to music or use Hangouts for a video call then expect that the battery won’t last more than (at most) one hour. Yes, you heard me right. This was the biggest reason I had to return Glass. It is not really convenient to have a device that lasts less than one hour when used extensively, for example a video call with loved ones
  4. Glass heats up: When Glass is used for a while without letting it rest, it will heat up. You can feel the heat behind your ear. It is annoying. Not only that, Glass will become slow and unresponsive. At one point Glass displayed this message “Glass must cool down to run smoothly”

Would I buy Google Glass again?

Surely. When the price is lower and battery life is improved.

Early MS-DOS and Word for Windows source code released

Hello everyone,

What I am sharing made the news already, but in case you missed it, here it is:

On ~March 25, 2014, the Computer History Museum (CHM) announced today that it has, with permission from Microsoft Corporation, made available original source code for two historic programs:

  • MS-DOS, the 1982 “Disk Operating System” for IBM-compatible personal computers [link]
  • …and Word for Windows, the 1990 Windows-based version of their word processor [link]

For more reference, please check here:

http://www.computerhistory.org/press/ms-source-code.html

 

Enjoy!

How your Yahoo! Mail account can be hacked with phishing – A real life example explained

Introduction

In this article, I am going to illustrate a real life scenario where an attempt to hack my email account was carried by fooling me into giving my user name / password through a fake website that looks like Yahoo! Mail.

Such attacks, where the victim is lured into entering information in what looks like an innocent website, are called “phishing attacks”. Wikipedia defines “phishing” as the following:

Phishing is the act of attempting to acquire information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money) by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication

In the subsequent sections I will show you how the attack is carried, how you can inspect such emails by yourself and then conclude by giving you some safety guidelines.

The attack

A few days ago I received an email to my Yahoo! Mail account with the subject “IP Check!”:

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Of course, such a subject is highly unusual and besides when Yahoo! sends emails they are accompanied by a small Yahoo! icon.

I click on the email to see its contents:

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As you can see, the content of the email does not make much sense. The attackers could have been more creative so I fall into the scam but even still, I always double check all suspicious emails.

I clicked on the sender’s name, in this case the sender show as: “Y! Notifications” in order to see the email address of the sender.

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The sender is “Eugene Bass” who has an AOL.com email account. You should ask yourself: “How come Yahoo sends an email to its users using AOL email”?

After you ask this question you should grin! :)

So far, no harm done except for impersonating a sender. I continue examining the contents of the email and I see a link. Now the fun part starts!

The first thing to do is: “DO NOT CLICK”, just move the mouse over the link and observe the status bar (at the bottom of your browser window):

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Two things we observe which are common factors of most phishing attacks:

  1. The link is hidden and looks nice. What you see is a “Click here” and not the full address
  2. The link takes you to the attacker’s website. In this case, you will be redirected to “http://espanaga.hostingsiteforfree.com” website

These two indicators are enough for me to just delete the email and block the sender.

Going down the rabbit hole

For the sake of educating the readers of this article, I continue the investigation and explain what happens when I click the malicious link and go to the phishing website.

WARNING: do not do that if you are not a tech savvy person. I used a disposable virtual machine to open unsafe links and do my phishing investigations.

Clicking the link takes us to this page:

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Looks like Yahoo! Mail’s website, right? :)

In fact, it does look a bit like it. Take a look at the actual Yahoo! Mail website:

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The most important thing to observe is the address bar. The phishing site has the address bar’s background colored in red and there is also a red shield icon (and next to it a text saying “Unsafe website”). It is hard to observe the difference between the two websites because the attacker makes sure that the phishing website look as close as possible to the real Yahoo! Mail website.

To further inspect the malicious page, and using Microsoft Internet Explorer 11, I press F12 to trigger the debugger / webpage inspector.

My goal is to see where the information gets submitted to when I press “Sign in”:

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After locating the form element in the page, I observed that the “action” of the “form” tag leads to another page on the attacker’s website called “login.php”.

Now let me explain to you in layman’s terms what is actually happening:

  1. You receive an email
  2. You get fooled and follow the link from the email
  3. You land on a site that looks like Yahoo! Mail that is asking you again to enter your user name / password
  4. You innocently enter the information and press “Sign in”
  5. The page “login.php” (in this case) which is also hosted on the attacker’s website, will collect the user name / password and store them or email them to the attacker.
    1. The funny thing is that if you enter any wrong information it does not matter
    2. The “login.php” does not validate your credentials, it merely log them. Why don’t you type then: “Hello attacker” as user name and “Busted” as password as a way to frustrate the attacker and tell him that you discovered his/her or their game? :)
  6. Voila! Your email is hacked
  7. The “login.php” page, having collected your credentials, will now redirect you back the the real Yahoo! Mail website. This is an important step so it does not raise your suspicion!

Your web browser can save you

Modern browsers can defend you from phishing attacks. Web browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Google Chrome have anti-phishing technology built-in. The technology mainly works and identifies a site as a phishing site as soon as it knows about it. For that reason, the phishing website can go undetected for a while until the browsers picks it up and mark it as such.

Microsoft Internet Explorer for instance employs the “SmartScreen” technology to detect such websites and warn you when you visit them. If you had clicked on the link you received via email and your browser already knows about this phishing website, you will be notified like this:

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In that case, just click the “Go to my home page instead”. I am tempted to say “click on the links with the green check mark next to them” but that too can be used by scammers to fool you!

The most important fool proof indication is the address bar. If the address bar (where the URL is entered) is red and you see the red shield, this is an indication of something “phishy” :)

If the address bar is not visible (and you did not hide it manually), you should be suspicious as well.

Safety notes and conclusion

One can never be more careful these days when surfing the web. To increase your online safety, these are simple steps you can follow:

  • Always verify the sender’s email address (not just the name). Click on the name to see what’s the real email address. Untrusted / unknown senders should trigger your suspicion
  • Never click on links unless you really have to:
    • Verify the link and see if it really point to where it claims to be. In our example above, the link should be related to Yahoo! Mail and not some free hosting provider
    • If you click the links, be very suspicious if you are prompted to enter your credentials again
  • Never download attachments:
    • Attachments can be very deceiving. An EXE file disguised as an innocent PDF file. That can be a malware, a backdoor or a virus.
    • Even if it is a real PDF or MS Word Document, be careful. Document processing software can be buggy and a malicious input document can exploit your machine
    • In case of doubt, download the document but do not open it. Let your Antivirus scan it first
  • Use “Two factor authentication” whenever you can. This is a long topic and requires an article for itself, however know that if your web mail provider offers two factor authentication then opt-in for it. If your password is compromised the other factor is less likely to have been compromised (for example, the second factor can be a challenge code your receive as SMS on your cell-phone)

Please leave your comments and suggestions. If you have a similar insightful phishing story that happened with you or your loved ones please share the story so it enlighten others.

Thank you.

Resetting NTFS files permission in Windows – Graphical Utility

Update 09/17/2013: New version release. Check the download section

Hello,

It seems many people found the post entitled “Resetting NTFS files security and permission in Windows 7” very useful, however many were having problems executing the steps properly.

For this reason, I made a small graphical utility to achieve this task:

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Usage

This utility needs administrator privilege in order to run. Once you run it, it will elevate itself.

To use it, first click on “Choose folder” to select the folder you want to reset permissions then press “GO” to proceed.

Sometimes it is necessary to take ownership of the files before resetting their permission. For that reason please check the “Take ownership” option.

[Click here to download the utility executable] or [the source code]

Please support my efforts and time put into writing entries and maintaining this blog by donating money through Paypal:

Thank you.

Me, myself and smoking cigarettes – A little story

Introduction

Hello everyone,

In this blog post I am going to share with you my story with smoking cigarettes for five or so years, how it all started, why I stopped and how.

I will try to make this post pleasant to read and inspirational so by the end of it you will get encouraged to think again about your smoking habit.

Before we begin, would you care for a short story?

My dad was a heavy smoker

For 20 years of his life, my dad was a heavy smoker. In fact, his smoking habit made me hate cigarettes and smoking. Here’s his story:

In my youth, my dad worked abroad but he would return back home from time to time.

Each time he’s abroad, I start to forget what cigarettes smells like in a car with windows closed. What a bliss!

One time, after he came back for a visit, he was driving my sisters and myself to school. I was like 12 years old, the smoke in the car bothered us so I said to him in fury: “Go back abroad, we were happy without the smell of your cigarettes”.

Little did I know that what I said as a young boy had a huge effect on my dad. My dad continued to smoke during his visit and then traveled back to work overseas.

A year later when he came back, we were surprised to see that he had given up smoking completely.

The family asked him: “Why did you stop smoking?” and his reply was humble and simple: “It is bad for my health”.

What happened, how and why he really did it stayed on my mind and kept me wondering secretly.

One day, I was at the same barber where my dad and I have our haircuts. The barber, like most barbers, befriends and chit-chats with his clients.

On one occasion, the barber boasted: “Did you know that your dad stopped smoking because of you?”

“What?!”, I exclaimed. The barber replied back: “Yes, your dad said that you hurt his feelings. It was hard for him to hear that you did not miss him rather you were wishing him to go away just because of cigarette smell. You and your words were the reason he stopped smoking”.

Later in my adult life, I asked my dad: “So how did you stop smoking?”

His reply was simple but not very helpful: “I just decided to stop so I stopped. Cold turkey”.

Me: “What about temptation and the 20 years habit?”

Dad: “Yes, at first it was hard but I maintained my decision and after a while the desire to smoke started to fade away slowly but surely. Now, If I smell cigarette smoke on people it really bothers me”.

How I got hooked to smoking

One of my very close friend is a heavy smoker. He smokes around 30 cigarettes a day (at least). Hanging out with this friend makes you a passive smoker.

One day I decided to borrow a cigarette from him and see what it tastes like.

The first cigarette was a bit hard and disgusting to smoke. As a beginner, I did not swallow the smoke, however I still coughed and hated the taste.

I loved the feeling I got from the first cigarette though. It was a pleasant dizzy feeling with a mix of relaxation and tension relief. The feeling did not last long enough and so I wanted to smoke one more to extend those pleasant feelings.

Over the course of weeks, one cigarette lead to another. Just because of the feeling I got from the first cigarette, my mind believed the promise that smoking gives a pleasant dizzy feeling.

For a period of three month, I was smoking occasionally but only when I hang out with friends that smoke and that let me borrow cigarettes from them.

Slowly but surely, three month of occasional smoking by borrowing cigarettes from friends made me more dependent on cigarettes.

During that initial period, I never bought a pack. It was not because I am cheap, instead it was because I felt that if I have my own pack I will smoke more.

After a while, I did not accept to borrow anymore so I started buying my own packs but with one condition: I will exercise my “strong will power” to retain my “occasional smoker” status.

Every smoker knows that smoking will eventually become out of control and there will be times when you will smoke more than your “will power” was willing to permit.

Bottom line: I got hooked!

The “benefits” I enjoyed while smoking

Shortly after I started carrying my own pack, cigarettes became my buddies, always in my pocket.

I would take breaks, go out and spend my private five minutes with my cigarettes or with other smokers.

I started to form the “typical smokers’ habits” by observing others, watching movies or ads.

A cigarette in the morning is a ritual for many, it became my own ritual as well. After lunch, a cigarette is a bliss. Sometimes, as I learned from observing my friend, I would take a break in the middle of the meal and smoke a cigarette then continue eating.

With alcohol, cigarettes taste much better. I smoked more with drinks!

At work, when stressed out it was a perfect excuse to take a break.

Chain smoking was not a strange thing to me, in fact, I was a natural. I did not see or learn from anyone how to do it. It felt obvious to me to light the next cigarettes using the previous cigarette before it dies out.
I would chain smoke when I abstain for longer periods without smoking (as if subconsciously trying to compensate).

So why was I smoking for five years, almost a pack every two or three days?

As I come to think about it now, it seems I believed that smoking was pleasant and beneficial:

  • It helped me with stress and stress relief
  • It gave me a moment to escape from situations and be alone
  • It was enjoyable while drinking alcohol or black coffee
  • It was an ice breaker that helped me socializing with other smokers
  • It was a reward to myself after a long stretch of not smoking
  • I was simply hooked and smoking was a way to relief the addiction

As I will explain in the next section, all those “benefits” are nothing but an illusion.

Why I decided to stop smoking?

My smoking habits and addiction started to interfere with my health and my social image.

At least once a month I would have an infected throat or become susceptible to  flu and remain sick for a long time.

I would be doing a physical activity or simply running but mucus nor coughing would cease from interfering with my performance.

I would be in social gathering and I would stink.
Similarly, being in a company of a special one, a kiss makes me too much self aware and uncomfortable because in my own mind I think that “I stink”

Certain places frown upon smokers. Hanging around fancy buildings or outside restaurants next to dumpster bins is a very humiliating act by itself.

When I had to go for long flights, it was agonizing not to be able to smoke when I wanted.

Some airports had small cubicles for smokers. In such cubicles, other smokers will cram inside with you so that you all smoke together. An active smoker is also a passive smoker in that room.

Some other times, I would be partying late, having fun and drinking a lot and then realize that I ran out of cigarettes. Imagine the pain when I figured out that the only way to smoke is to beg or borrow a cigarette.

While I never did that myself, some people would approach me to buy a cigarette for one dollar!

What about standing outside a night club and stopping total strangers and begging for a cigarette (perhaps I did that once or twice)?

What if you were living in an apartment complex where they have a strict “NO SMOKING” policy. Imagine each time you want to smoke, you have to walk out of your apartment, take the elevator all the way down to the street, find a smoker friendly spot around the building and have a cigarette. That is at least 15 minutes lost per cigarette!

During my 5+ years, I had suffered from various embarrassing and humiliating experiences, diseases, set backs and other things and all of that is because of smoking.

Dear reader, if you are a smoker or ex-smoker, you may have identified yourself with one of the scenarios I described above. There is no need for me to tell you more about all my other experiences with smoking, just reflect back and look at your own life as a smoker.

How I stopped smoking?

First, I asked myself the golden question:

What am I really getting when I smoke?

By answering sincerely, my response was:

Nothing beneficial

Being inspired by my dad, reaping no benefits whatsoever from smoking and due to all of the reasons I described above, I took the decision to stop smoking.

Taking the decision is the first step. Believing in yourself that you can do it and making sincere efforts to stop smoking is the second step.

It was during the birthday party of a neighbor that was my smoking buddy that I took the decision to stop smoking.

I bought Allen Carr’s (The Easy Way to Stop Smoking: Join the Millions Who Have Become Non-Smokers Using Allen Carr’s Easyway Method) book in order to boost my will power and stick to my decision:

This book was awesome, it helped me stay in check until my initial 20 days period was over and the temptation to give-in to smoking was slowly fading away.

I will not discuss the difficulties I had or how I faced them (read the book above), however I tell you that I kept my decision and never gave in again.

Closing words

I hope this write-up was inspirational and I wish you all the luck in your journey if you decide to stop smoking.

Before I conclude, this was one of my favorite smokers’ joke that I would like to share with you:

Two old ladies are outside their nursing home, having a smoke, when it starts to rain. One of the ladies pulls out a condom, cuts off the end, puts it over her cigarette and continues smoking.

Mary: What’s that?

Janette: A condom. This way my cigarette doesn’t get wet.

Mary: Where did you get that?

Janette: You can get them at any drugstore.

The next day, Mary hobbles herself into the local drugstore and announces to the pharmacist that she wants a box of condoms.

The guy, obviously embarrassed, looks at her kind of strangely (she is after all over 80 years of age), but very delicately asks what brand she prefers.

Mary: Doesn’t matter son, as long as it fits a camel.

The pharmacist faints.

Meeting Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi

Introduction

On 05/24/2013, Amma (also known as Mata Amritanandamayi Devi) was visiting Bellevue, Washington as part of her north America tour.

It was the first time for me to go and see her. Many of my acquaintances talk about her, be it acquaintances from France, Belgium or those from where I currently live (in the Seattle area).

They say she has lots of energy and that she can help me in my spiritual path. A quote attributed to her is worthwhile mentioning:

Amma’s hugs and kisses should not be considered ordinary. When Amma embraces or kisses someone, it is a process of purification and inner healing. Amma is transmitting a part of Her pure, vital energy into Her children. It also allows them to experience true, unconditional Love. When Amma holds someone it can help to awaken the dormant spiritual energy within them, which will eventually take them to the ultimate goal of Self-realization. — Amma

She hugs people for free, however during her visit, a 3-days retreat (that costs $290) is offered.

During the retreat, spiritual lectures are given, a proprietary meditation technique called “IAM – Integrated Amrita Meditation Technique®” is offered for free among the other things that are part of the retreat.

I mainly went to the retreat in order to learn the IAM meditation technique and also to get to experience this infamous hug and see how it bestows unconditional love.

The rest of the article will describe my experience from my point of view. Please know that I am not bashing or defaming Amma in any way. This blog post is to share my observations and thoughts with others.

Receiving the token for the Darshan

At around 5 PM, the volunteers started distributing tokens (a number printed on a piece of paper) so that they organize the queue of people wanting to get a hug or what they call a Darshan (which means a blessing).

The queue was too long so I had a chance to observe and also read something useful on my Kindle.

The people around me looked mostly new age hippies (no offense). Many of them were dressed in white, some had long breaded hair, lots of teenagers and lots of toddlers with their parents.

To my surprise the majority were Westerners rather than Indians [though the Seattle area has a large population of Indians, due to IT companies such as Microsoft or Amazon].

After like 40 minutes waiting, it was my turn to receive that little piece of paper with a number on it. Only later I discovered how long it will actually take before my time comes to receive the hug (or Darshan).

Amma enters the hall

It was 7 PM. Shortly before Amma entered the hall, a volunteer came from the kitchen to make a statement that all volunteers working in the kitchen have a “Food handling card”. This was emphasized so that people who eat during the retreat don’t worry about what food they eat [that was very professional and responsible].

At around 7:15 PM, Amma enters the hall. The moment everybody was anticipating (including me). A swami (I forgot his name, sorry I am not good with Indian swami names) came and introduced her. He said that she will speak Malayalam (language mainly spoken in Kerala). He added that she can speak many languages (28 of them) *BUT* she won’t perform this feat today and instead she will just focus on conveying the message.

He continued talking about her in terms that she is the incarnation of the Divine Mother; she is our mother and we are all her children.

Amma started to talk for almost 15 minutes in Malayalam, and then the swami started reading from papers what seems to be the translation of what she said.

Then she spoke again and he translated. This went on for like three rounds.

Essentially, a myriad of helpful and inspirational messages were given [nothing really new if you listen to other teachers or read spiritual books]. Here is a  small outline of the messages conveyed:

  • Awareness, once awakened, will guide us the same way the sun lights our way
  • Lack is emptiness
  • Lack of awareness blinds us
  • Actions without awareness are bad
  • When we see everyone and everything as part of ourselves then there is no more jealousy or hatred. It is our perspective of the things we perceive externally that make us see the difference. When we look inside, we are all connected and all the same/one. [This reminds me of “Seeing with equal heart – reference in the Bhagavad Gita]
  • Forgiveness help us on the long term
  • Never give up. Persist, be patient and selfless service. Patience help us achieve a lot in life
  • Silence the thoughts in the mind so we hear from our own true nature
  • If you don’t have love in your heart yet, then do actions with your body. Love will come with selfless service
  • Past is history, future is mystery and the present is a present (gift), appreciate it
  • The internet is filled with pornography, it cause us to be impure
  • Be responsible before making children
  • Stop killing trees
  • And then she told a shortened and slightly modified version of this story: http://www.zawaj.com/story-30-days-of-carrying-my-wife/

After the discourse they announced that Darshan will start and will end when everybody received a hug.

It was around 8.30 PM and I figured, in a couple of hours I will finally receive the hug.

Waiting for the hug

There were volunteers holding big boards with number ranges so people know they should advance and prepare themselves to go on stage and take a hug.

Meanwhile, I figured I can stretch my legs and walk around the big room where Amma is and see what they have.

At the back of the room, just behind all the chairs, volunteers set up stands to sell various [overpriced] merchandise.

Some were selling Amma magazines and news. What’s funny is one volunteer told me: “Subscribe and you get to know all Amma’s news and work. If you don’t have time to read then just look at the pictures. At least that’s what I do”

Her sales pitch put a smile on my face. Of course I will not pay for something that I won’t even use just a bit, not to mention the trees cut to make the magazine…

Looking at other stands, I see a lady selling crystals, healing wands and what not.

On another stand they were selling various pictures of Amma (okay, understandable), Jesus [what?! Yes indeed], Krishna, Shiva, Ganesh and what not.

At one stand they were selling various Amma dolls. Yes! Dolls of small size, medium size and big size. What is interesting was the price of the dolls. The big sized doll (if I remember well) was around 105 USD.

One of the ladies at that stand was from France. I was delighted because I get to speak some French. The first thing I asked her in French was: “What’s your name?”. I was expecting a French name but instead she gave me some Indian name.
[Oh! I said to myself and then I remembered, it is not the first time I hear about that. When you join such movements, they give you a new name in an effort to drop your identity and establish a new one. The whole process starts by assigning to you a new name].

  • I asked her: “So you came all the way from France?”
  • She said: “Sort of, actually, I have been with her since the beginning of the tour”
  • Me: “And they pay you for the trip and such?”
  • Her: “No, we pay for the trip. It is a privilege to be with her and in her presence”

I thanked the girl, wished her luck and went outside of the room where they sell food items and other services.

Astrology stands: they were offering Western Astrology service and Jyotish.

Snacks and beverages: Various beverages and snacks. At one stand, there was a nice Austrian man. I was delighted to talk to him and German as much as he was surprised to find a German speaking among the crowd.

I went back inside to peek and see if it’s my turn yet. It was already 12AM (the next day). But no, I still had around 40 minutes wait.

There was a girl outside (in her ~23+), looking a bit lonely, perhaps tired. She was reading a book. I approached her and started a conversation with her:

  • Me: “Hi, what’s your name?”
  • Her: “Mary [not the real name]”
  • Me: “What are you reading?”
  • Her: “Oh, it is a book by Amma, I read it many times, I love it”
  • Me: “How did you meet Amma?”
  • Her: “It is my boyfriend. He met her and then insisted that I see her”
  • Me: “Is he here now?”
  • Her: [replying a bit with frustration] “Yes, he’s inside staring at Amma”
  • Me: “And since you met her, what’s your feeling about her?”
  • Her: “Oh, she was there for me. I could sense her presence when I needed her. Here, look:” [she produced a medium sized Amma doll from her bag and showed it to me]
  • Me: “Nice”
  • Her: “Yeah! I talk to her and she listens to me”
  • Me: “I see.” [In no means I was mocking her. I listened with open heart trying to connect and see what she feels. After all, I came here with a sincere desire to learn and experience] “So, where do you come from?”
  • Her: “San Francisco”
  • Me: “Oh nice, I have been there once. It is a big area, what area exactly?”
  • Her: [with a bit of hesitation, perhaps disappointment on her face, she finally replied:] “Well, my boyfriend and I live in a car at the moment”
  • Me: [again being aware of my self not to emit any judgment or any kind of negative emotions (pity, feeling sorry, etc, etc...)]…I did not say anything back. I did not feel comfortable to continue talking about this subject.

The conversation went on and we shared various spiritual experiences. I thanked the girl and wished her luck, excused myself since it was about time to get the hug.

I felt happy to have spoken with an honest and friendly person like her.

I went inside, sat on a chair waited like 10 minutes before entering the queue to finally get the hug. It was 12:50 AM.

Getting the hug

I stood in line and start walking slowly towards the stage. Finally I was allowed to go on stage where there were like a dozen chairs so people can wait while their turn to take the hug comes.

We kept on shifting chairs as participants got their hug. Just slightly before my turn came, one volunteer came and asked me what’s my mother language and I said “Arabic” then added: “But I understand English” (obviously :P).

A moment later, they told me to come forward and kneel between Amma’s legs.

She hugged me (my head pressed against her chest, slightly beneath her head) and she whispered something totally incomprehensible in my ears a few times.

She kept pressing me for like 15 seconds and then released me. Immediately, the volunteers gave me some sweets (A small Hershey chocolate) and told me to sit (still on the stage) a while to let the effect of the hug settle in.

I sat there looking at other people, trying to be self aware of any minute change within me: be it psychological, emotional or physical. I just felt happy because finally I did what I set about to do since like 5PM the previous day and I could finally retire back home and have some rest [it was 1:30 AM now].

I descended the stage, looked around me for a while and noticed there are still lots of people there.

I sat there an additional half an hour, jotting down my thoughts and experience (which you are reading about right now).

I left at 2:00 AM so that the next day I can learn the meditation technique.

The “IAM – Integrated Amrita Meditation Technique®”

Okay, today is the day where they start teaching the meditation technique.

The first thing they did was to explain a bit about it and then they passed us non-disclosure agreement form to sign before they teach the technique.

They stressed that after we sign the form and only so, we will be entitled to stay and learn the technique. We can be sued if we share the method with anyone that did formally learn the technique from them.

I signed the form and learned the technique over two days. An hour or hour and half twice a day and we become certified.

Of course, I will not share the technique with you. If you want to learn it, find instructors in your area.

Having learned various other meditation techniques, I found this technique a blend of various practices from yogic postures to prepare the body, breathing exercises and focus on chakras and finally sitting in silence.

What struck me as really odd is one part of the technique where, as the teacher explained, we are required imagine/visualize the following: “see yourself protruding at the lotus feet of Amma, imagine her beauty, thank her and invite her to bestow her blessings upon you”.

This visualization really irritated me and made me remember idolatry stories from the Bible.

When we got the final lesson, they handed us certification cards that we can present to them in the future (in case we want to refresh our skills and learn it again).

During a Q&A session, I got a chance to ask a swami one question about Amma:

  • Me: “Please tell me, I did not feel anything due to the hug. Please don’t tell me I am not sensitive enough or ‘It is my fault’ or ‘I am too negative’. I have been told that many times in the past each time I don’t get a spiritual experience and now I tend to believe it is just a stock answer given to defend the teacher”
  • Swami: [He smiled and with an air of confidence replied] “You just wait. You got your hug yesterday and did not feel anything. In fact, one of my relatives had the same experience but he persisted. He kept on coming until after 5 years he felt something. My friend, the seed has been planted. One day, perhaps while driving, you will suddenly feel Amma’s love and know that this is her. Be patient, persevere and don’t lose hope, but most importantly do not put any expectations. The experience you are looking for can flower at any moment”

[Of course, he replied exactly as I was expecting but with nicer words and a future promise of hope that things may happen to me and it will be due to Amma].

When I was in India many years ago, in an Ashram, meeting a Guru, I also had no experience and also received same excuses: “It is my fault or my negativity”, etc, etc…By the way, that Guru and his mocking answers to my sincere questions require a blog post by themselves.

I got used to such answers but to be honest, I don’t buy into Gurus anymore…especially those Gurus that claim divinity.

If one day I am driving and start crying and feel a loving feeling, why should I attribute this feeling to Amma and not to one of the many “Gurus” I met previously?
Is there is a priority queue by which the experiences will unfold in turn based on which Guru has more spiritual power? :)

My thoughts

I did not stay longer after I learned the meditation technique and just left.

During my stay in the retreat, I could not help but observe the following:

  • People revere her: People, teachers and old time followers of Amma revere her. They consider her as their divine mother
  • We are her children: The teachers and swamis keep on saying that we are her children and she is our divine mother. This is so insulting.
  • Supernatural powers: They attribute to her divine qualities with no proofs whatsoever.
  • People can be made to believe anything: with enough gullibility, despair and feeling lost, the human mind can create all sort of experiences and feelings. Those people can, if they truly believe, really feel whatever the swamis are attributing to Amma. [Dear reader, I advise you to learn a bit about the power of suggestions and hypnotic techniques]
  • Fanaticism: I could be wrong, but this is the not first time where I sense people in such gathering have a sense of a fanatic character to them. I question: where is your sense of individuality, questioning and authority?

Anyway, I refuse to follow any body or attribute super natural powers to other humans.

Teachers should teach us how to fish and not give us fish, err…I mean a hug. Besides, if I was given a fish today my hunger will be satisfied…I was given a hug and my hunger was not satisfied. If it was satisfied then that will only be a beginning for me: a flame has been ignited and now it is my duty to keep it alive.

When one meets a teacher or a fraudster alike, what really matters are these questions that I always ask myself:

  • How will my life *on earth* be any different?
  • How can I be practically a good human being?
  • Whether I believe or not, how can I better serve others?
  • How can I be a good member of society?
  • What can I offer to my family, loved ones and my current country of residence?

The essence is to live life with respect and considerations and utter honesty and integrity towards oneself and others.

I don’t care anymore whether I get an experience or not, for I know that the quest is a personal one and my thirst can be quenched by my own hard work, realization and efforts.

A week later, I met an acquaintance who frequently visits Amma, when she’s around, each year and takes his children to be blessed by her. I told him my thoughts about my first time experience visiting her and he said:

  • Amma never meant to be followed [oh yeah? well, then stop amassing crowds and making tours around the world]
  • People follow and revere her. For you or me, take the lessons, look at her as an example of generosity and giving without asking anything in return. [really? she is indeed generous, giving part of what people donate and not her own fortune...]
  • Who can sit for 10 hours straight and keep on hugging people and be with and for the people? [hmm...what's the point in that? if she stops hugging will people still hang around? I doubt it]
  • Look at the schools, hospitals and housing she provides. This is selfless service. [hmm again, yeah, we should be grateful for the donated money, the people's hard earned money is spent on the people....but hey, why not donate to some other charities instead of donating to a hugging "Saint" ?]
  • Whether you get an experience from the hug or not, just always remember the essence of the hug and her actions. [I would rather remember real saints, real philanthropists that spend from their own fortune and hard earned money]

His words were wise of course but for every thought he provided I added counter arguments.

Conclusion

Here we come to the end of my report, thoughts and experience. I hope this write-up makes you think and reflect about your life among others here and now on earth.

No need to wait until you die to get a reward in a heaven that may or may not exist. Do not wait for anybody for your salvation, learn and find truth on your own. Teachers are welcome to learn from but not to follow.

I end this by quoting Matthew from the Bible:

Matthew 6:34(NIV)
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Please feel free to comment and share your experience or thoughts with politeness and responsibility.

My religion

Today I was flipping through an old notebook and I ran into a note that dates back to 09/26/2011.

It was a nice reminder and worth sharing, I hope you find an inspiration by reading it.

The note’s title was: “My Religion” and it reads:

  • I am a free human being. I believe in being a good citizen, respecting the law and justice
  • All humans have equal rights that do not transgress the rights of others
  • All humans have the freedom of choice, thought and religion (or non religion)
  • As I’m created (constructed) so shall I be deconstructed
  • I believe in my deeds
  • Be aware and considerate. Love and serve others in the means of your capacity
  • Harvest pure thoughts and learn to purify your heart and mind from thoughts that can harm others and cause you to harm yourself
  • Treat your neighbor as you want him/her to treat you
  • No fear can instill in my heart as long as I do no harm or misdeed in/during my life on earth
  • Religious or non religious people are still people. May everyone find personal peace
  • May freedom from fear prevail
  • Live and express yourself. Make your homeland earth like your own personal dwelling (like you do in your home). Treat it with respect, earn your living and respect other peoples’ boundaries