Showing posts with label annoying. Show all posts
Showing posts with label annoying. Show all posts

Friday, July 6, 2012

In MumbleWare versions 8.2 and below, the SA password must be set to propq

An e-mail from a vendor, somewhat anonymized:

From: ****
Sent: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 08:22 AM
To: ****
Subject: MumbleWare Case 123456789

Hello ****,
Thank you for contacting MumbleWare Product Support.  I am writing to you in reference to case number 123456789 regarding your request to change your SA password. In MumbleWare versions 8.2 and below, the SA password must be set to propq. If a different password is used, MumbleWare may not be able to communicate with the database and error messages will be generated. The attached KB article references the fact that the SA password must be set to propq in MumbleWare versions 8.2 and below. The second KB article lists the steps involved in moving from MumbleWare 8.2 to 8.3.   
It's only been a decade since we first asked  the obvious question "Can we change our SQL Server SA password without breaking your application".

I guess we finally can.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Add Robert Half to the Epsilon Breech Fiasco

On my work e-mail:

Today we were informed by Epsilon Interactive, our national 
email service provider, that your email address was exposed due 
to unauthorized access of their system. Robert Half uses Epsilon 
to send marketing and service emails on our behalf. 

We deeply regret this has taken place and any inconvenience this 
may have caused you. We take your privacy very seriously, and we 
will continue to work diligently to protect your personal 
information. We were advised by Epsilon that the information 
that was obtained was limited to email addresses only. 

Please note, it is possible you may receive spam email messages 
as a result. We want to urge you to be cautious when opening 
links or attachments from unknown third parties. We ask that you 
remain alert to any unusual or suspicious emails. 

As always, if you have any questions, or need any additional 
information, please do not hesitate to contact us 


Robert Half Customer Care 

Robert Half Finance & Accounting
Robert Half Management Recourses
Robert Half Legal
Robert Half Technology
The Creative Group

I did not ask to be on RH's e-mail list.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The benevolent dictator has determined…

…that you are not qualified to decide what content you read on the device you’ve purchased.

If the New York Times story is true, Apple is rejecting an application because the application allows access to purchased documents outside the walled garden of the iTunes app store.

“Apple told Sony that from now on, all in-app purchases would have to go through Apple, said Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading division.”

I keep thinking that there’d have been an outcry if Microsoft, at the height of their monopoly, had exercised complete control over the documents that you were allowed to purchase and read on your Windows PC’s.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Just another day in Internet-land

So I’m goofing off at work, gambling with other peoples money using my fully patched but rootable browser, running on a fully patched but rootable operating system, occasionally downloading digitally signed malware while I contemplate the possibility that my medical records are on a P2P network somewhere, knowing that I really should be patching the remotely exploitable database that I just installed on my shiny new sever that was thoughtfully preloaded with malware, and I’m thinking to myself:

“What’s new and interesting today?”

Nothing. Just another day in Internet-land.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Oracle Continues to Write Defective Software, Customers Continue to Buy it

What’s worse:

  • Oracle continues to write and ship pathetically insecure software.


  • Customers continue to pay for it.

From the July 2010 Oracle CPU pre release announcement:

Oracle Product Vulnerability Rating License Cost/Server
Database Server Remote, No Auth[1] 7.8/10 $167,000[2]

Awesome. For a mere $167,000[2] I get the privilege of installing poorly written, remotely exploitable, defective database software on a $5,000 2-socket Intel server.

Impressive, isn’t it.

I’m not sure what a ‘Times-Ten’ server is – but I’m glad we don’t have it installed. The good news is that it’s only half the price of an Enterprise Edition install. The bad news is that it is trivially exploitable (score of 10 on a scale of 1-10).

Oracle Product Vulnerability Rating License Cost/Server
Times-Ten Server Remote, No Auth[1] 10/10 $83,000[3]

From what I can see from the July 2010 pre-release announcement, their entire product catalog is probably defective. Fortunately I only need to be interested in the products that we have installed and have an Oracle’s CVSS of 6 or greater & are remotely exploitable (the really pathetic incompetence).

If I were to buy a Toyota for $20,000, and if anytime during the first three years the Toyota was determined to be a smoldering pile of defective sh!t, Toyota would notify me and offer to fix the defect at no cost to me other than in inconvenience of having to drive to their dealership and wait in their lobby for a couple hours while they replace the defective parts. If they didn’t offer to replace or repair the defects, various federal regulatory agencies in various countries would force them the ‘fess up to the defect and fix it at no cost to me. Oracle is doing a great job on notification. But unfortunately they are handing me the parts and telling me to crawl under the car and replace them myself.

An anecdote: I used to work in manufacturing as a machinist, making parts with tolerances as low as +/-.0005in (+/-.013mm). If the blueprint called for a diameter of 1.000” +/-.0005 and I machined the part to a diameter of 1.0006” or .9994”, the part was defective. In manufacturing, when engineers designed defective parts and/or machinists missed the tolerances and made defective parts, we called it ‘scrap’ when the part was un-fixable or ‘re-work’ if it could be repaired to meet tolerances. We wrote it up, calculated the cost of repair/re-machining and presented it to senior management. If we did it too often, we got fired. The ‘you are fired’ part happen often enough that myself, my foreman and the plant manager had a system. The foreman invited the soon to be fired employee into the break room for coffee, the plant manager sat down with the employee, handed him a cup of coffee and delivered the bad news. Meanwhile I packed up the terminated employees tools, emptied their locker and set the whole mess out in the parking lot next to their car. The employee was escorted from the break room directly to their car.

Will that happen at Oracle? Probably not.

Another anecdote: Three decades ago I was working night shift in a small machine shop. The owner was a startup in a highly competitive market, barely making the payroll. If we made junk, his customers would not pay him, he’d fail to make payroll, his house of cards would collapse and 14 people would be out of work. One night I took a perfectly good stack of parts that each had hundreds of dollars of material and labor already invested in them and instead of machining them to specification, I spent the entire shift machining them wrong & turning them into un-repairable scrap.

  • One shift’s worth of labor wasted ($10/hour at the time)
  • One shift’s worth of CNC machining time wasted ($40/hour at the time)
  • Hundreds of dollars per part of raw material and labor from prior machining operations wasted
  • Thousands of dollars wasted total (the payroll for a handful of employees for that week.)

My boss could have (or should have) fired me. I decided to send him a message that hopefully would influence him. I turned in my timecard for the night (a 10 hour shift) with ‘0’ in the hours column.

Will that happen at Oracle? Probably not.

One more anecdote: Three decades ago, the factory that I worked at sold a large, multi-million dollar order of products to a foreign government. The products were sold as ‘NEMA-<mumble-something> Explosion Proof’. I’m not sure what the exact NEMA rating was. Back in the machine shop, we just called them ‘explosion proof’.

After the products were install on the pipeline in Siberia[4], the factory sent the product out for independent testing & NEMA certification. The product failed. Doh!

Too late for the pipeline in Siberia though. The defective products were already installed. The factory (and us peons back in the machine shop) frantically figured out how to get the dang gear boxes to pass certification. The end result was that we figure out how to re-work the gear boxes in the field and get them to pass. If I remember correctly,  the remedy was to re-drill 36 existing holes on each part 1/4” deeper, tap the holes with a special bottoming tap, and use longer, higher grade bolts. To remedy the defect, we sent field service techs to Siberia and had them fix the product in place.

The factory:

  1. Sold the product as having certain security related properties (safe to use in explosive environments)
  2. Failed to demonstrate that their product met their claims
  3. Figured out how to re-manufacture the product to meet their claims
  4. Independently certified that the claims were met.
  5. Upgraded the product in the field at no cost to the customer

Oracle certainly has met conditions #1, #2 and #3 above. Will they take action #4 and #5?

Probably not.

[1]Remotely exploitable - no authentication required implies that any system that can connect to the Oracle listener can exploit the database with no credentials, no session, no login, etc. In Oracles words: “may be exploited over a network without the need for a username and password”

[2]Per Core prices: Oracle EE $47,000, Partitioning $11,500, Advanced Security $11,500, Diag Pack $5000, Tuning Pack $5000, Patch Management $3500. Core factor of 0.5, discount of 50%  == $167,000. YMMV.

[3]All other prices calculated as list price * 8 cores * .5 core factor * 50% discount.

[4]I have no idea if the pipeline was the infamous pipeline that made the headlines in the early 1980’s or not, nor do I know if it is the one that is rumored to have been blown up by the CIA by letting the Soviets steal defective software. We made gearboxes that opened and closed valves, not the software that drove them. We were told by management that these were ‘on a pipeline in Siberia’.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What’s an Important Update?

Windows update runs (good).

Windows update classifies some updates as important, and some updates as optional (good).


Windows update decides that a Silverlight update is important. It appears security related (good) but also add features (maybe good, maybe bad).


Windows update decides that a security definition update is optional (bad).SNIP2

How can a definition update for a signature based security product be optional? That’s annoying, ‘cause now I have to make sure to check optional updates just in case they’re important.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Items on your computer may not yet have been classified for risks.

I finally figured out the problem with the Internet. Microsoft has not yet classified the risk of installing Flash’s OCX control:


It would be nice is there was a way of giving Microsoft a hint. A minor modification to the dialog box would be sufficient:

 Flash-Classficiation - Corrected

I can dream, can’t I?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

No, we are not running out of bandwidth.

The sky is falling! the sky is falling!

Actually, we’re running out of bandwidth (PDF) (again).

Supposedly all the workers who stay home during the pandemic will use up all the bandwidth in the neighborhood. Let me guess, instead of surfing p0rn and hanging out on Reddit all day at work, they’ll be surfing p0rn and hanging out on Reddit all day from home.

The meat of the study:
“Specifically, at the 40 percent absenteeism level, the study predicted that most users within residential neighborhoods would likely experience congestion when attempting to use the Internet”
So what’s the problem?
“..under a cable architecture, 200 to 500 individual cable modems may be connected to a provider’s CMTS, depending on average usage in an area. Although each of these individual modems may be capable of receiving up to 7 or 8 megabits per second (Mbps) of incoming information, the CMTS can transmit a  maximum of only about 38 Mbps.”
Ooops – someone is oversubscribed just a tad. At least now we know how much.

Wait – 40% of the working population is at home, working or sick, bored to death, surfing the web. And they’ll be transferring large documents! Isn’t that what we call the weekend? So is the Internet broke on weekends? If so, I never noticed.

What about evenings? We  have a secondary utilization peak on our 24/7 apps around 10pm local time. That peak is almost exclusively people at home, working. Presumably this new daytime peak will dwarf the late evening peak?

Here’s a reason to panic. If it gets bad enough, the clowns who threw away ten trillion dollars of other peoples money on math they didn’t understand will not be able to throw away other peoples money while telecommuting:
“If several of these large firms were unable or unwilling to operate, the markets might not have sufficient trading volume to function in an orderly or fair way.”
My thought? Slow them down. When they flew at Mach 2, they smacked into a wall and took us with them.

Got to love this:
“Providers identified one technically feasible alternative that has the potential to reduce Internet congestion during a pandemic, but raised concerns that it could violate customer service agreements and thus would require a directive from the government to implement.”
Provider: “Yah know? I’d be cool if we could get the government to make us throttle that bandwidth. Yep, that’d be cool.”

How about Plan B – shut off streaming video:
“Shutting down specific Internet sites would also reduce congestion, although many we spoke with expressed concerns about the feasibility of such an approach.”
Wait – isn’t that what CDN’s are for? The Akamai cache at the local ISP has the content, all that matters is the last mile, right? For reference, with a few hundred thousand students working hard a surfing the web all day, we slurp up about 1/3 of our Internet bandwidth from the local Akamai rack directly attached to the Internet POP, (settlement free) and another 1/3 by peering directly with big content providers (also settlement free).

I’m not worried about bandwidth. If any of this were serious, we’d have been able to detect the effect of 10% unemployment on home bandwidth. Or the Internet would have broke during the 2008 election. Or what-his-names sudden death.

A more interesting potential outcome of a significant pandemic would be the gradual degradation of services as the technical people get sick and/or stay home with their families. I’d expect a significantly longer MTTR on routine outages during a real pandemic.

Would the cable tech show up at my house today, with two people flu’d out? Not if she’s smart.

  • The report is oriented toward the financial sector. The trades must go on. There are quarterly bonuses to be had.
  • The DHS commented on the draft in the appendices. They’ve attempted to inject a bit of rationality into the report.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Content vs. Style - modern document editing

On ars technica,  Jeremy Reimer writes great thoughts on how we use word processing.

His description of modern document editing:

Go into any office today and you'll find people using Word to write documents. Some people still print them out and file them in big metal cabinets to be lost forever, but again this is simply an old habit, like a phantom itch on a severed limb. Instead of printing them, most people will email them to their boss or another coworker, who is then expected to download the email attachment and edit the document, then return it to them in the same manner. At some point the document is considered "finished", at which point it gets dropped off on a network share somewhere and is then summarily forgotten...
We use an application that was optimized to format printed documents in a world where printing is irrelevant, and our ‘document versioning’ is managed by the timestamps on the e-mail messages that we used to ‘collaborate’ on writing the document. What a mess, yet it's our perverse idea of what technology should be in the 21st century.

I'm sold on the idea of
  • online collaborative editing of documents
  • minimal formatting
  • continuous versioning
In other words I like wiki's. Some of my wiki docs are a decade old. I can find them. I can revert them back a decade if I want. I can rely on them in a DR event. I know who changed them & when they changed. I know what they contained before they were changed. They have bold, italics and headline fonts. I'm happy.

I'm even happier after I delete the hundred-odd useless fonts that come with my computers. I figure one or two each of serif, sans-serif and monospace is more than adequate. If I see more than a handful in the drop down font menu, I'm annoyed enough to start deleting them. We can thank Apple for that mess. The really cool people who bought early Mac’s needed to show off their GUI text editors by printing docs with six different font’s on a page (on a really crappy dot-matrix printer). It took them a while to figure out that it’s the content, not the style.

I'm really amused when archaic processes are updated by superficially skinning them over with technology.

True story, happens all the time:
  1. Senior manager with long title dictates memo to clerical staff.
  2. Clerical staff types memo in word processing software.
  3. Clerical staff prints memo.
  4. Senior manager signs memo.
  5. Clerical staff scans signed memo and saves as a PDF.
  6. Clerical staff e-mails memo to staff with subject line 'Please read attached memo from senior manager with long title'.
Someone isn't getting this whole technology thing. If the message from the senior manager with long title was really important, I'd have thought that it'd be in the opening paragraph of an e-mail from the senior manager with long title directly to the interested parties. If it were, I'd have read it instead of deleting it. It's the content that matters, not the container.

Equally amusing is the vast resources that we spend making web sites look pretty. It seems to me that the focus on a web site should be something like
  1. world class content
  2. decent writing style and readability
  3. make it look pretty
Instead we do something like:
  1. make it look pretty
  2. game the search engines
  3. optimize for ad revenue
  4. generate content (optional)
If you want me to read your content, don't waste your time making your site look pretty. I'll likely use a formatting tool to strip all that prettiness out anyway. That is – of course – if you have any interesting content amid all that prettiness.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

You have Moved an Icon on Your Desktop

Your computer must be restarted for the change to take effect.

We used to joke about Windows 95 and it’s ridiculous reboot requirements.  The line we used was:

“You have moved an icon on your desktop. Windows must be restarted for the change to take effect.”

Those were not the days, and I thought that they were pretty much over.

Apparently not:


I can’t think of any circumstances where a reboot should be necessary to complete the installation of application software. That was last century. I’m OK with reboots for things like kernel updates, firmware updates, and perhaps even driver updates.

But a browser?

It’s possible that the reboot is being forced by non-Mozilla browser add ons – I don’t have any way of knowing. But if an add on to an application can force the application to force the operating system to reboot, then the application and OS design are both defective.

Friday, June 19, 2009

No, I Don’t Want iTunes Installed. You can quit asking.

I don’t like software vendors that try to sneak software onto my computers. I really don’t like software vendors that don’t pay attention to my requests to not run in the background at startup.

This evening I came home and saw the Apple Software Update popped up on my Vista desktop:


Problem one: iTunes is check marked by default. I don’t want iTunes. I don’t need iTunes. And I don’t like having software vendors try to sneak  software onto my computers.  This isn’t unique to Vista. Apple does the same thing on OS X. It’s annoying enough that I’ll probably uninstall Quicktime and throw away the $29 that I paid for it.

Problem two: I specifically instructed Apple’s Quicktime to not automatically update, and I specifically have disabled the Quicktime service from running at startup, but somehow it ran anyway.

 Apple-Update-1 Quicktime-startup

I’ve also checked the Software Explorer in Windows Defender and the ‘Run’ registry keys for Apple related startup programs & didn’t find any. I’d sure like to know what’s triggering the Apple updater so I can nuke it.

Something makes me think that the only way I’ll get rid of this malware infestation is to search and destroy all Apple related registry keys.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Consulting Fail, or How to Get Removed from my Address Book

Here’s some things that consultants do that annoy me.

Some consultants brag about who is backing their company or whom they claim as their customers. I’ve never figured that rich people are any smarter than poor people so I’m not impressed by consultants who brag about who is backing them or who founded their company. Recent ponzi and hedge fund implosions confirm my thinking. And it seems like the really smart people who invented technology 1.0 and made a billion are not reliably repeating their success with technology 2.0. It happens, but not predictably, so mentioning that [insert famous web 1.0 person here] founded or is backing your company is a waste of a slide IMHO.

I’m also not impressed by consultants who list [insert Fortune 500 here] as their clients. Perhaps [insert Fortune 500 here] has a world class IT operation and the consultant was instrumental in making them world class. Perhaps not. I have no way of knowing. It’s possible that some tiny corner of [insert Fortune 500 here] hired them to do [insert tiny project here] and they screwed it up, but that’s all they needed to brag about how they have [insert Fortune 500 here] as their customer and add another logo to their power point.

I’m really unimpressed when consultants tell me that they are the only ones who are competent enough to solve my problems or that I’m not competent enough to solve my own problems. One consulting house tried that on me years ago, claiming that firewalling fifty campuses was beyond the capability of ordinary mortals, and that If we did it ourselves, we’d botch it up. That got them a lifetime ban from my address book. They didn’t know that we had already ACL’d fifty campuses, and that inserting a firewall in line with a router was a trivial network problem, and that converting the router ACL’s to firewall rules was scriptable, and that I already written the script.

I’ve also had consultants ‘accidently’ show me ‘secret’ topologies for the security perimeters of [insert fortune 500 here] on their conference room white board. Either they are incompetent for disclosing customer information to a third party, or they drew up a bogus whiteboard to try to impress me. Either way I’m not impressed. Another lifetime ban.

Consultants who attempt to implement technology or projects or processes that the organization can’t support or maintain is another annoyance. I’ve see people come in and try to implement processes or technologies that although they might be what the book says or what every one else is doing, aren’t going to fit the organization, for whatever reason. If the organization can’t manage the project, application or technology after the consultant leaves, a perceptive consultant will steer the client towards a solution that is manageable and maintainable. In some cases, the consultant obtained the necessary perception only after significant effort on my part with the verbal equivalent of a blunt object.

Recent experiences with a SaaS vendor annoyed me pretty badly when they insisted on pointing out how great their whole suite of products integrate, even after I repeatedly and clearly told them I was only interested in one small product, and they were on site to tell me about that product, and nothing else. “I want to integrate your CMDB with MY existing management infrastructure, not YOUR whole suite. Next slide please. <dammit!>”. Then it went down hill. I asked them what protocols they use to integrate their product with other products in their suite. The reply: a VPN. Technically they weren’t consultants though. They were pre-sales.

That’s not to say that I’m anti consultant. I’ve seen many very competent consultants who have done an excellent job. At times I’ve been extremely impressed.

Obviously I’ve also been disappointed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Resume Driven Design

Sam Buchanan, a long time colleague, commenting on a consultants design for a small web application:

“I'm telling you: this app reeks of resume-driven design”

In ‘Your Application is a Rotting old Shack’ I whined mused about applications that get face lifts while core problems get ignored. Let’s assume for a moment that business units finally figure out that their apps have a crumbling foundation and need structural overhauls. Assuming that internal resources don’t exist, how do we know that the consultants and contractors that we hire to design and build our systems aren’t more interested in building their resumes than our applications?

I’d like to think that I would be able to tell if a consultant tried to recommend an architecture or design that exists more to pad their resume than solve my problems. It’s probably not that straight forward though. Consultants have motivations that may intersect with your needs, or they may have motivations that significantly deviate from what you need, and if their motivations are resume driven, there is a chance that you’ll end up with a design that helps someone's resume more that it helps you.

Short term employees may share some of the same motivations. If they are using you to fill out their resume, you’d better have needs that line up with the holes in their resume. I’m pretty sure that ‘slogged through a decade old poorly written application, identified unused code and database objects’ or ‘documented and cleaned up an ad hoc, poorly organized, data model’ isn’t the first thing people want on their resume.

They probably want something shiny.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Minimal Installations & the Consultants who Have no Clue

I've got a simple mantra that I sometimes express as the 'Least Bit Principle'. It's not complicated. In any system, install and configure the least number of services, packages, configurable entities, permissions or privileges necessary for system functionality. This goes way back to the days when one needed to disable defaults services while hardening a new server (chargen anyone?) and it applies to any complex system, such as operating systems, databases, routers, firewalls, etc. It's not new, it's not radical.

The fundamentals of this principle are self evident.
  • What is the minimum software needed to support the application functionality? (Hint: It's not 'Entire Distribution')
  • What are the minimum file system privileges necessary for application functionality? (Hint: It's not 'Everyone/Full Control')
  • What are the minimum database privileges necessary for application functionality? (Hint: It's not 'DBA' or 'DBO')
  • What are the minimum services that need to be running to support the application functionality? (Hint: You don't need chargen, rsh, rcmd or IPX)
For software installation, general expression of this principle is that if a package or feature is not installed, it does not have to be maintained, patched or upgraded, and more importantly, if the package or feature is not installed it cannot be accidentally enabled in an unconfigured or partially configured insecure state. When code red and slammer hit, how many of the victims  knew they were running SQL server or IIS? Many of them didn't know that the vulnerable software was even installed and running, much less that they had to patch it or they'd be screwed.

This is extremely valuable for Solaris and Oracle. For both of those, we are able to minimize the installations and defer a significant number of patch cycles simply because the vulnerable feature or package is not installed.  If the vulnerable software is not installed, we do not have to consider the vulnerability. It's even on Microsoft's radar. With server 2008, it is finally possible to install a minimized version of the operating system. I dream of the day when my IIS server will not have a GUI browser, and I'll be able to ignore vulnerabilities and patches that infect the pathetically insecure userland software that infests my servers.

So a vendor (Sun) offers to help out with a proof of concept. They delegate the actual install to a VAR. The consultant paid by the VAR (or Sun) shows up and starts to build an 'Entire Installation' server. We insist that 'Entire Installation', which includes software that we will never, ever use on that server, is not appropriate and does not meet our standards. We declare to the consultant that what we need is 'Reduced Networking Core System Support'. The vendor (Sun) provides and supports minimized installation options for the software (Solaris) and we expect the consultant to perform a minimal installation plus the specific packages necessary for supporting the intended application. What's so hard about figuring out a dependency tree and installing the minimum software necessary to resolve the dependencies? The consultant balked.

In this case, fatigued from having to deal with clueless consultants, we said screw it. We'll end up running the proof of concept with an 'Entire Installation', throwing it away and doing the minimal installation later when & if it moves to production. It shouldn't have to be that way though. It's 2009 and I expect consultants to think and act like it's the 21st century.

Why are all my 'vendor' posts also tagged as 'annoying'?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Breaker One-Nine This Here's a Tweet!

"Ah, breaker one-nine, this here's the Oprah. You gotta copy on me, Shaq-Man, c'mon? ... Yeah, that's a big 10-4 there,  Shaq."

What's your '20 good buddy?

It's a fad, no doubt.

What's next?  Lot Lizards?

Over and out.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

QWERTY is Mainstream?

Touch screens and QWERTY keyboards on mobile devices are finally mainstream just about the time when they really should be obsolete. That’s too bad, really. Voice control should be mainstream, not qwerty keypads. I should be be able to have basic mobile phone control and mobile communications without reaching for my phone and poking around on it.

It’s 2009. For mobile devices, touches, swipes, swirls, stabs and keypads are archaic. Phones should be heard, not seen.

How close are we?

Microsoft Voice Command is a partial solution. It allows basic phone control with speaker independent voice. It works with Bluetooth so I can tap the headset and say things like ‘call Jake Botts at home’ or ‘dial 612 555 1212’ and it generally figures out what I want. It also allows voice access to the calendar (‘What’s my schedule’), and can navigate menus and contacts (‘show Jake Botts’ or ‘start solitaire’ or ‘start google maps’). Additionally, it reads incoming SMS’s & messages and announces incoming phone calls by name or number. It’s not comprehensive though. Once the command executes, Voice Command drops out of the picture. So I’m still stuck with viewing and touching the phone.

Motorola (and probably others) have similar features. Motorola’s speaker independent voice dialing was great at recognizing my voice with a bluetooth headset at 80mph in a convertible. But then it would sometimes get confused in a quiet room. Go figure.

Microsoft Live Search does fairly decent voice recognition on a limited set of tasks. It suffers from a few flaws. It doesn’t use bluetooth and it doesn’t speak back to me. It also fails the ‘context’ test. I tell it ‘traffic’ and instead of showing me a traffic map, it searches for driving schools. And in most cases, it’s still touch dependent.

I know about Jott and Nuance, but haven’t tried either one, and my carrier appears to offer an add-on service that has some interesting features. Vlingo has something that looks close, but it is still touch dependent. My vision is to be able to do what Vlingo can do without taking my phone from my pocket. Adando tries to solve the problem  using your home computer as the smart part of the equation. Your phone bridges your voice back to your home PC. You PC does all the work. Clever, I guess.

I think Apple send us down the wrong path by perfecting the touch-swipe-stab-pinch-flick interface. I can’t do any of those while driving in a convertible at 80 mph. ( Well…I can, but I really shouldn’t… )

Its about time we re-think phone interfaces, isn’t it?

Monday, March 30, 2009

When Software Vendors Make Security Assumptions

Bob recently ran into a situation where in order to run a vendor provided tool, he had to either modify his security practices or spend a bunch of time working around the poor tool design. The synopsis of his problem:
"Problem with that, though, is that it wants to log in as root. All the documentation says to have it log in as root. But on my hosts nobody logs in as root, unless there’s some big crisis happening."
This wasn't a crisis.

This seems to be a common problem. We've had a fair number of situations where a vendor assumed that remote login as root was possible, that there were no firewalls anywhere, that all systems of the same platform had the same credentials, and that unsafe practices are generally followed.

  • Really expensive enterprise backup software that assumed that there were no firewalls anywhere. The vendor advised us that technical support couldn't help us if the customer was firewalled. (This was a while ago, but the product still requires the worlds ugliest firewall rules).
  • An 'appliance' (really a linux box) that because it used the brilliantly designed random port-hopping Java RMI protocol for its management interface, couldn't be firewalled separately from its console (really a Windows server).
  • A financial reporting tool that required that the group 'Everyone' have 'Full Control' over the MS SQL server data directories. No kidding - I have the vendor docs and the f*ugly audit finding.
  • A really expensive load testing product that assumes that netstat, rsh and other archaic, deprecated, unencrypted and unsecure protocols are enabled and available across the network.
Why are vendors so clueless?

Here's a couple of hypothesis.
  1. Bob and I are the only ones in the world with segmented networks, who have remote root login disabled and who have rational security practices. To the vendors, we are outliers who don't matter.
  2. The vendors’ developers, who insist that the only way that they can be productive is if they get a sandbox/dev environment where they are root and they don't have any security restrictions, actually get what they ask for. The code they write then works fine (in their unrestricted environment) so they ship it. Customers don't object, so the practice continues.
I suspect the later.

(OK - maybe there are other possibilities, but they aren't as amusing as picking on developers...)
It doesn't have to be this way. A couple decades ago I installed a product that had specific, detailed instructions on the minimum file system permissions required for application functionality for each directory in the application tree, including things like write-only directories, directories with read, but not file scan privs, etc. (an early version of what's now called GroupWise)

Today? I still see vendors that assume they have 'Full Control', remote root, unrestricted networks, etc.

My solution?
  • Escalate brain deadedness through the vendors’ help desk, through tiers 1-2-3 to the duty manager and don't let them close the ticket until you've annoyed them so badly that the product manager calls you and apologizes.
  • In meetings with the vendors’ sales team, emphasize the problem. Make it clear that future purchasing decisions are affected by their poor design. ‘You’ve got a great product, but unfortunately it’s not deployable in our environment’. The sales channel likely has more influence over the product than the support channel.
  • Ask for a written statement of indemnification on future security incidents that are shown to have exploited the vendors poor design. You obviously will not get it, but the vendors’ product support will have to interface with their own legal, which is painful enough that they'll likely not forget your problem at their next 'product roadmap' meeting.
  • Do it nicely though. Things like ", I've got an audit finding here that makes your product look really bad, that's going to hurt us both..." are more effective than anything resembling hostility.
If enough customers make enough noise, will the vendors eventually get the message?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Killbits for Users?

I read with great interest recent information on the Windows 7 release candidate. Based on the above article and the comment shown below, I’d like to see a couple more features added to Windows 7 prior to RTM.


My requests:

  • A Killbits like feature that disables the ! and ? keys upon multiple successive applications.
  • Elimination of the Caps Lock key functionality.

Both would be small but important steps in the evolution of the Internet.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Regulation E.

Spent the weekend digging into Regulation E., particularly Section 205.11. That’s the part where you try to convince your regional bank that you really didn’t authorize those charges, that you were not ‘card present’ in New York, and you didn’t have homeless people in your house rummaging through your stuff, borrowing your debit card, jetting to the east coast, buying cosmetics and jetting back.

This isn’t unexpected. We’ve kept this debit card attached to a special checking account that we never have more than $400 in at any time, just for this reason. The theory is that transactions will start to fail before the damage gets too expensive. In practice, I’m not sure if the bank will honor the overdraft attempts or not. I’d be un-amused if they had some sort of ‘convenience’ feature that turned the fraud into overdrafts and then into 22% loans. That would be a bad day.

This particular card was only used at a small number of merchants, mostly local and regional grocery chains, so my guess is that either a local/regional merchant or their upstream provider has a leak. The bank had already pulled the card and reissued it a couple days before we saw the bogus transactions.

So now I’m in paranoid mode, or more likely I’m in more-paranoid-than-usual mode. The good news is that I can finally close the loop on what I’ve been saying for years, namely ‘I wouldn’t be paranoid if everyone weren’t out to get me!’.

BofA-AlertsUnfortunately the regional bank doesn’t have anything that helps mitigate something like this other than checking your online statement every day and sending a postal letter to ‘Regulation E Department’ when bad things show up. Bank of America, on the other hand, lets me do a few interesting things. First they let me use my cell phone as a two-factor SMS based proxy when logging in to their web portal with what they call SafePass® (details here).

Second, they allow me to generate single-merchant, limited value card numbers for online transactions with what they call ShopSafe®. With ShopSafe I can spin up a different card numbers with different limits and expiration dates for each online vendor on an ad-hoc or as needed basis. This allows me to approximate single use cards.

Third, they have a reasonably robust SMS alerting system that allows me to set up alerts for routine activity that may or may not be an indicator of irregular activity, such as ‘any charge over $50’ or ‘Transaction outside of US’. BofA-Alerts2They send me the SMS, I decide if it’s irregular. I like the idea of getting an SMS when someone logs into my account, changes my address, charges purchases online, orders checks, etc. Having some information ‘out of band’ can’t hurt. Unfortunately none of this really prevents anything, it just makes detection faster and easier.

The images list the various alerts that are configurable.

The only down side to getting an SMS every time you use your card is that some merchants don’t post transactions at the time of purchase. Occasionally I’ll buy something at noon and get woke up at 4am with an SMS from BofA telling me that I bought something 16 hours ago. Overall though, that’s better than any alternative that I know of, and in this case would have alerted us to the fraud much sooner.

For me, the more SMS’s the better.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Universal Phone Chargers

This might be interesting:

…17 leading mobile operators and manufacturers….[have] set an ambitious target that by 2012 a universal charging solution (UCS) will be widely available in the market worldwide and will use Micro-USB as the common universal charging interface.

I’ve had ‘uses standard mini or micro USB’ on my ‘required’ check list for any phone, bluetooth headset, pda, navigation or other portable device for quite a while. That’s simply because I’m tired of trying to maintain multiple chargers at work, home, in each of my cars and whenever I travel. Today, If I travel with a laptop, I carry a USB->Mini cable and mini->micro adapter, and I charge my phone & headset from the laptop. If I travel w/o a laptop, I carry a couple of Motorola mini USB battery packs along (P790’s). The bottom line? If it isn’t mini or micro USB, I don’t buy it.

What’s nice about this is for manufacturers is there will no longer by any reason to include a charger with the device. For consumers, it will mean that a new phone, PDA or headset will not require the extra purchase of (in my case) three car chargers and a couple of sync cables. Everyone already has a drawer full of mini/micro USB chargers and one in every car (or at least I do).

It’ll be interesting to see if this is more than just a press release.

Via Tech at Play