Archive for the ‘Blogging, Computers & the Internet’ Category.

Get A Password Manager

After reading this, everyone should be getting a password manager.

I am convinced that the best way to get someone's password is to break into crappy sites like hobbyist bulletin boards.  I am on 10 or 12.  "So what", you say?  What can someone to do to you on a bulletin board?  Not much, but since you likely have scores of passwords, and you likely don't use different passwords for every site, then that user name and password on that crappy bulletin board may also work at Citibank.  Then you are in trouble.

I got a password manager last year (lastpass) and changed every password but one to 12 digit randomized passwords that the program then remembers.  That database is protected by a complicated password I have never used anywhere else and is not a real word, and protected by two-step log in (via Google authenticator).  The only other password that is not random is my email password I have to use so often from so many mobile devices that I have a long phrase I use for it that I can remember.

This is undeniably a hassle, particularly for mobile devices where lastpass and other password managers are behind and harder to use (in part because there are not as many browser plug in abilities).

I won't say this is bullet proof, but it is much better (I hope) than where I was before.

Is it safe enough?   Here is my theory, which requires a brief joke first.  Two men are camping in the woods when an angry bear shows up, clearly ready to devour them.  One man quickly starts putting on his tennis shoes.  The other says, "You don't think you can actually outrun that bear, do you."  His friend said, "No, but I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."  You can never be safe, but maybe you can make yourself a comparatively less inviting target.

Update:  The biggest hassle of all is changing your password on a hundred sites.  There is NO standard for where to locate the password-change links.  You will think at first smugly that surely it is all in the "my account" section of each web site.  OK, don't believe me.  You will find out.  It is a mess.   And Whitehouse.gov was one of the worst, by the way.

Your Arguments Are Totally Idiotic, Which I Know Even Though I Didn't Read Your Article

Since I am not a very large blogger, and not overtly political (most of the time), I seldom have my articles end up in organized trolling campaigns.  But over the last week I had a flood of comments on this three-year-old article about teacher salaries.  This sudden interest in an old article (particularly when many others more prominent than I have written on the topic more recently) puzzled me until I saw that the Center for American Progress had come out with a study saying that, surprise, teacher salaries were way too low.

I seldom participate in comments wars on my own articles, and prefer to post updates or clarifications in the article itself for all to see.  However, this was particularly frustrating when it was clear that most commentators were coming to the site with some preconceived notion of what the article said, and did not feel the need to actually read the article before commenting.  So, we end up with numerous folks saying "what about all the overtime work", as if I totally ignored that thought and hadn't even considered it, when there was a whole section on teacher overtime in the article.  I finally lost it when I got a comment that said "I don't know where this guy gets his numbers..."  This is a total cop-out response I see in comments all the time.  It allows one to imply the numbers are shady or unsourced without having to actually provide specific criticisms of the data.  I responded:

On the Internet, underlined bits of text, often in a different color, are called “links”.  By clicking on these “links” with your cursor, you will go to other sites.  In the case of this article, the source of data are all from the BLS, a part of the Federal Department of Labor.  The “links” will take you directly to the pages where the data was taken (though since 3 years have passed the links may lead you to newer versions of the data). 

There were also a number of comments along the lines of "well, I don't make anything like those numbers" to which I was forced to respond

In a distribution of millions of values, all the values in the distribution don’t normally match the average.  Some will be above and some will be below.  Though an average is different from a median, it is fairly safe to assume that something like half** of teachers make less than the numbers in the article and half make above those numbers.  As discussed in my second update, if you are in a rural area, you are more likely to be in the “below” category.  If you are in an urban area, you are more likely to be above

** with salary data, since the floor is typically closer to the average than the ceiling (salaries can't go below zero but can in theory go infinitely high), the median is generally below the mean, so likely more than half of teachers make less than the average.

IOS App Recommendation -- Tripcase

I really am not a productivity app sort of guy.  I have a lot of games, but most apps strike me as just dedicated browsers for someone's web site.    To date I am a big user of the Kindle app and the Feedly RSS feed reader app and the Gmail app.   Oh, and Google maps (the Apple maps program still sucks).   And that is about it.

But I have been using Tripcase (free) to bring together all my travel info and I really like it.  All one has to do is forward airline, hotel, car rental, restaurant, etc confirmations to a certain email address and the program parses out what information it needs.  The only work is that each confirmation gets set up as a separate trip, but it is easy to merge three or four together to get all of one trip in a single record.  It provides a nice interface with travel information and provides notifications for such things as flight delays and gate changes.

Site Issues

Well, we had just a mess of problems here.  We have had off and on DOS attacks for a week or so, and then last night I managed to embed some oddball code in a quotation in one of yesterdays posts that caused other heartache.

After a lot of debugging, I am hoping all is well again.  I have changed the caching and security options at Incapsula, which I use as a gateway for traffic.  For many of you, you will see substantial performance improvements but at the cost of some caching which may delay your comments showing up by 10 minutes or so.

Where's Coyote?

As most of you may know, our company privately operates public parks.  Just before Memorial Day, our largest contract (which covers a lot of our overhead) was shut down by a fire in the Sedona area.  Since that time, our landlord the US Forest Service has announced it is going to keep all of these locations closed indefinitely out of fear of flash flooding (fire-damaged hillsides create a lot more runoff in eve light rain due to loss of ground cover and chemical changes in the soil that make it less permeable).  I think they are over-reacting, but it is not my decision to make.

The result of this is I have been in total operational scrambling mode and may remain so for a while, reducing the amount of blogging I do.

Where's Coyote?

I have not been posting much of late.  The combination of all our locations opening for the season and a lot of regulatory compliance work in reaction to new laws was keeping me crazy.  Then Oak Creek Canyon caught on fire near Sedona.  We operate numerous locations in the canyon, so have been consumed with evacuation and helping customers.  So I won't be around much for a while.

Sorry for the Site Downtime

For once, not a hosting issue.  Apparently a corrupted .htaccess file, since editing that file back to an older version seemed to fix things.

XKCD is Pretty Awesome today

I Am Not Sure I am Going to Update Major Software Any More

It used to be that updates of software products were something to look forward to.  I used to be a bleeding edge guy who, like as not, was using beta versions of most software.  Now I avoid updates and upgrades like the plague, particularly since companies like Apple make it virtually impossible to roll back any software update.  The four products that have scared me off of upgrades altogether are:

  • Windows 7 to Windows 8
  • Old versions of Office to the new versions with the stupid toolbars rather than menus where I still can't find what I want all the time.  On a bunch of my computers I still use Office 2002 and 2003 and it works just fine.
  • Most all itunes updates, particularly 10 to 11 which has done nothing but make critical options harder to find and make the platform, at least on Windows, less stable.  I am told people are having major difficulty with the 11.3 to 11.4 update
  • iOS 6 to iOS 7, which decreased battery life without adding any real user features.  So glad I still have not upgraded, though I am sure I will have to soon.

And don't even get me started on software like windows 8 and most of the recent Adobe products that require some sort of user login to even use the product at all.

Is Bing Censoring US Searches on Chinese Topics?

The other day I had a little fun with Bing's search results on Windows 8 problems.  But this seems much more serious.  From a reader:

No comment.

That’s Microsoft’s response to new revelations that the search engine is censoring Chinese searches in the United States — not just in China. Searches on Chinese topics in the U.S. now produce markedly different search results than Google, results that mimic those  in China. China broadly censors the Internet, blocking topics like the Dalai Lama and Tiananmen Square.

The censorship blog Greatfire.org was the first to point out  that Bing’s search results display information propagated by Chinese authorities. A Chinese language search in Bing for the Dalai Lama (达赖喇嘛 in Chinese) produces two results from China’s Wikipedia (Baidu Baike) and one from the state-owned television station CCTV. In Google, the same search returns two Wikipedia entries and the Dalai Lama’s official site.

Click here to see the results in Bing, versus the results in Google.

Even more shocking, a search for the anti-censorship software FreeGate produces the result: “Due to restrictions on Chinese laws and regulations, we removed the results of these search terms. For more information, see here.”

Microsoft responded to a request from Charlie Smith’s Greatfire to explain the discrepancy. At first, the  software juggernaut replied: “We’ve conducted an investigation of the claims raised by Greatfire.org. First, Bing does not apply China’s legal requirements to searches conducted outside of China. Due to an error in our system, we triggered an incorrect results removal notification for some searches noted in the report but the results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China.”

But after finding the “due to Chinese laws and regulations” search result, Microsoft replied: “Thanks for your inquiry. We have no comment on this topic.”

Much more detail at the link, with examples and screenshots

Is Bing "Managing" Search Suggestions

Go into Google and search "Windows 8 is " and you will get auto-suggestions "Crap, Rubbish, Awful, Terrible, Horrible, Slow, A Disaster, A Flop".  When this was first noticed, folks suggested Google was playing games, though personally having tried Windows 8 a couple of times I thought the suggestions were dead on.  So Don Charisma tried the same thing with Microsoft's search engine Bing:

bing-windows-8-is-search-2

It appears that Microsoft got the message and has done a little managing of their algorithm, because now you get this:

bing-search

Cool?  Great?  Amazing?  Seriously, who are they fooling?  Even Yahoo, which is powered by Bing (I think) doesn't give this kind of result

yahoo-search

 

 

Windows as a Stand-Alone Server

I have written before about how much trouble I had using windows as an unattended server for an application -- in this case for the XBMC video system on my TV's around the house.  No matter what I did, how many tweaks I made, how many websites I checked for advice, within a day or two some application or popup would take control of the screen and send my unattended application to the background.  This would not be such much of a problem if it was just me using it, but with a non-tech-savvy family members trying to interact with the device with a TV remote, it was unacceptable.  Eventually I switched to the Linux version of XBMC in a distribution call Openelec and I have had zero problems since.

I was reminded of all this at the San Diego airport.  They have these big beautiful screens with flight and weather and travel information.  But apparently they have problems making the windows popups go away as well (that's some sort of HP registration message in the window):

click to enlarge

 

The most amazing example I have ever seen was on a giant, giant advertising screen on the front of a casino in Las Vegas, which had a huge windows popup covering whatever ads were supposed to be served up.  I wish I had my camera but I was out jogging at the time.

Update:  A reader sent me this, via gizmodo, from Cowboys stadium

click to enlarge

Windows 8 Even Worse Than I Thought

Up to this point, after some initial bad impressions trying Windows 8 briefly, I have avoided it like the plague.  However, my son needed a new laptop and the only ones that really met our requirements only came in Windows 8 flavors, so we bought one.

What an awful mess.  The system boots up into a tiled mess that looks like some cheesy website covered in moving gifs and viagra ads.  To make matters worse, nothing on this tablet-based interface is organized at all logically.  The interface is like the room of an ADD child that dropped all of his toys and books in random spots.  I am sure these tiles have some sort of navigation paradigm, but it is completely different from any used in past windows versions.  I could not, for example, figure out how to easily exit the store except to alt-tab out (there is no exit or quit option and right-click context menus which are one of the great advantages of windows over mac don't seem to work a lot of the time).  Again, I am sure there is some way to do it, but I have no idea what it is and no desire to learn new navigation commands.  Perhaps Microsoft intends that one use a gamepad instead of a mouse -- I would not be surprised at this point.

Unlike older versions of windows, windows update did not run automatically at first bootup.  I knew from past experience there were likely dozens of security patches I needed to install right away.  I hunted for quite a while just to find the windows control panel (so I could run windows update).  It was buried in a sub-menu of a toolbar on the right side of the screen that only pops up if you find a tiny (unmarked) spot in the corner of the screen with your mouse.   It amazes me that anyone thought replacing the start button with an unmarked spot on the screen was a good idea.

Of course, the control panel is called something entirely different now, but I did eventually find windows update and there were, as expected, over 70 security patches that needed to be installed.  But for some reason they would not download immediately, but kept giving me a message that they would be downloaded at some future indeterminate date.  I finally found a way to force them to download.

My next step was to get rid of the stupid application tile interface and get the computer to boot directly to desktop and get the old start button back.  This requires a free upgrade to windows 8.1, but there is no obvious way to do this, even through windows update.  I finally had to search the internet to find the link.  This sent me into the windows 8 app store.  What a total mess that is!  If anything, it is more poorly organized than the Apple app store.  Like the Apple store, it seems aimed at people who want to browse applications virtually at random rather than find something specific.  Incredibly, there is no search function.  Yes, I know, I have to be wrong about that, but I scrolled all over that damn storefront and cannot find a search box.

So I cannot actually find the Windows 8.1 upgrade.  The web site tells me that I should be presented with a prominent option to download it in the store, but I am not.  It is nowhere to be found.  I found an FAQ somewhere that suggested that I would not be offered the 8.1 upgrade if my 8.0 installation is missing certain patches, so I am going back to windows update to see if there is something I am still missing.

I was wrong about windows 8 -- I once wrote it was bad but perhaps not as bad as Vista or ME.  But it is.  This is the worst thing I have ever seen come out of Microsoft.  It is inexplicable that this company with such a strong market share in the business world could saddle its flagship OS with an interface more appropriate to an XBOX.

In the past, I have said that I would not want a desktop with a tablet interface.  But at the end of the day, I would not want a tablet with this interface.  Perhaps with hours of work, I will make this computer usable.  Who would have ever thought I would have longed for the day when I had to spend an hour with a new computer removing bloatware.  Now I have to spend a day trying to emulate the windows 7 experience on windows 8.

People have developed many hypotheses for the lingering recession.  Some say it was too small a stimulus.  Some blame the sequester.  I blame the Windows 8 launch, which I think has a lot to do with suppressing PC sales and thus much of the electronics and retailing sector.

Snuggles Update

snuggs-home

This is Snuggles, happy to be home finally from her surgeries and near life-ending coyote encounter.  Thanks to everyone who sent in their best wishes.

Like most of us she is a bit vain so she asked for the head shot, since from the sides she is a total mess of randomly shaved patches, bite marks, and Frankenstein-like stitches.  She has lost about 25% of her body mass, so she is no longer the World's Largest Maltese (TM).  She has, though, upped the ante in the competition for World's Most Poorly Groomed Maltese (TM).

For dog and pet lovers, I don't have to explain why we spent thousands of dollars to keep her alive.

For those of you who are not (and I was really in that camp a few years ago as this is my first pet), I will tell you what I told a cynical friend:  "I did not necessarily spend thousands of dollars to save the dog.  I spent it to save my kids from heartbreak.  And just possibly, to preserve my reputation in the eyes of my family (sorry kids, I really wanted that new Alienware laptop so Snuggs is not going to make it)."

Update:  I find the rational choices discussion in the comments unsurprising given the diversity of responses I have had from friends.  Key facts here:  1.  I could afford it (grandma was not going to get put out on the ice flow to save the dog); 2.  I was entirely responsible for the costs;  3.  The hospital, unlike in the human world, gave me a very detailed cost estimate of what the procedure would cost in advance.    When the costs went over, we challenged them and they agreed to a refund.  4.  My daughter had a very difficult day yesterday.  This morning I found her sleeping snuggled up with the dog in bed.  Put a price on that.

Huge Improvement for my Router with DD-WRT

I have found home routers to be hugely problematic.  Typically, they do OK at basic wired network routing functions, but they often have awful reliability in their wireless connections.  Go to any review site, and find their top-rated routers.  Then go to Newegg or Amazon and read the reviews for even these best devices -- you will see a litany of unreliability, particularly with the wireless functionality.

Some of this can be chalked up to interference issues, but I possess moderately sophisticated tools for ferreting this out.  A bigger problem for me is with routers that have to be reboot every 2-3 days to keep them working.  My most recent router I purchased had some software issue where mobile devices like iphones could not access Google.com and a few large sites through the wireless, a problem I eventually decided was due to some issue with handling sites that have dual ipv4 and ipv6 functionality (which I could never fix).  My Cisco E3000, otherwise a fairly solid modem, had an awful setup program whose first time settings for things like the guest network could never be altered.

So I finally in desperation burned dd-wrt onto my pile of unsatisfactory routers.  DD-WRT is a third-party, free, presumably open-source firmware that works with many commercial routers.  So far, all of my old routers now work great, and the prior problems I saw are all gone.  DD-WRT lacks the friendly automated setup routines of commercial firmware, and a few things are harder than I would wish them to be (it would be nice to have one-click reservation of an IP address to a device, rather than having to retype its MAC address).  But the defaults tend to work fine and it is a huge relief to come home from work and not have to immediatley help diagnose some family network issue.  I have been able to re-purpose one of the old routers into a bridge so I can get wireless in my backyard now.

If you have reliability problems with your router or home wireless, this might be something to try.  For certain routers, like my Cisco E3000, the process of flashing to DD-WRT is a bit complex. There are lots of web sites and ebay retailers who will sell you modems with dd-wrt already installed, and I think that Buffalo is actually selling a dd-wrt version of one of their routers.

Masked Credit Cards

I wrote the other day about shifting to unique passwords for every single web site I visit (there were 300 I had to change!) to limit the damage from a data breach such as that at Adobe.  The irony was that to make this work, I adopted a password vault program to remember all these 300 strings of random characters.  Which means that I am putting a LOT of trust into one site, instead of a moderate amount of trust into multiple sites.

The same sort of approach is being investigated with credit cards, where intermediaries are providing masked credit cards with one-time numbers (hat tip to a reader).  In some ways Paypal has a masked approach where the transaction is settled off the retailer's site entirely, though I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with Paypal's security.

Republican Web Folks Still Suck

Somehow I managed to get on the NRCC email list.  I don't generally mind these things, as I am on several lists from both parties and it is kind of interesting to see what marketing come-ons they are using at any particular moment.

But the NRCC has been spamming the hell out of me.  This in and of itself I think shows a lack of understanding about the medium.  You lose effectiveness really fast if you send, say, five emails in five minutes, which is what I just received.  Worse, though, is that there is no opt-out link in the email.  Who in this day and age is dumb enough to send out even quasi-legitimate marketing material and not include an opt-out?  Morons.  I am one of the those people who actually can and do write rules to sort my email box, so I can take care of the problem, but this is just bush league.  If you are a GOP member, I would not be fooled by your parties happy talk that it is closing the gap on digital communications with the Dems.  I see no such evidence.

During my brief foray into politics Chairing Equal Marriage Arizona, we were trying to message from the center right on the gay marriage issue.  We found out, to our dismay, this is not at all a comfortable approach for established gay rights organizations (to say the least), but we thought it an intelligent and necessary approach to win on the issue in a red state.  Anyway, one thing we found quickly is that there is no bullpen out there of talented web people on the Right, at least in Arizona.   They are all on the Left.  If I were a member of the GOP and actually cared about their fate, I would sure be looking for a way to fix this, perhaps with some sort of internship program to start developing a bench.

Passwords

I am registered at a LOT of sites - blogs, hosting accounts, stores, message boards, etc.  A few years ago I started using the Lastpass Chrome add-in to track and remember all these passwords.

One problem though: like most people I was using the same few passwords over and over.  I had fixed, mostly, the most egregious mistakes, such as using the same password for low-trust sites like bulletin boards as for critical sites like banks.  But Lastpass showed me was that I still had a lot of password duplication.

The Adobe security breach finally got me off my butt.  My user name and password were among those that Adobe lost (which was particularly irritating because Adobe was one of those software companies that demanded a registration even when one should not have been necessary).  There was nothing at Adobe of mine they could screw up -- the registration was obviously to try to sell me more stuff but I never bought anything.  But there were possibly other sites using the same password they could screw up.

So I began a mission to change my passwords to 12-digit randomly generated strings of letters and numbers.  Having Fastpass helped a ton, as I would never have remembered all the sites with which I had registrations.  There were hundreds.

This was a real slog, a task so boring it was equaled only by the month when I ripped all my CD's to my hard drive and surpassed only by the 3 months when I ripped all my DVD's to hard drives.  The problem was that every web site was essentially a little portal-like adventure puzzle, trying to figure out where the hell the options for password change could be found.  I challenge those of you who have registered at WhiteHouse.gov to sign a survey to find the place to change your password.  At JetBlue, there is no such option in the user accounts -- you have to log off and click "forgot my password" at the logon screen and then click on the option to reset the password, but the reset email never shows up.  At two or three sites I had to email the site web manager to send me a link to the password change page.

Anyway, it's finally done now.  There are a couple of sites I use from my iPad for which I had to create unique memorable passwords because iOS does not have very good support mechanisms for such services as Lastpass, though as Chrome for iOS gets better, I expect that to make the problem easier to manage.  I had forgotten how many of these passwords (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) were plugged into things like my Roku.  It was irritating with the crappy remote to enter these random strings of characters as new passwords.

Of course security of the Lastpass account becomes a problem.  I guess I have to trust them.  My password for them is unique and never has been used anywhere else and contains no real English words.  I use 2-step verification at all times to log into it, so hopefully I am moderately well-protected.

M.U.L.E. Returns

One of my favorite early C64 games may be returning to mobile platforms.  M.U.L.E. would work great as a networked iPhone game.  Hopefully these folks do a good job with it.

I Am Not Sure the State of Florida Understands This Whole Internet Thingie

Every three years I have to endure a sales tax audit from the State of Florida.  This year they actually sent me well in advance a list of all the paperwork they needed.  I sent everything to them electronically weeks ago.  So why do they have their auditor fly to Phoenix, stay in a hotel, and do her analysis of this paperwork on her laptop in my office?  In the hour since she has been here she has not asked me for one thing.  It is just bizarre.  Given that I have been audited by them twice in the past and never owed more than forty or fifty bucks in back taxes from computation errors, I am pretty sure her flight cost way more than the expected value of her trip, particularly since she had done nothing so far she could not have done (better probably) in her own office.

Spam of the Day

I get egregious amounts of spam related to my blogs, but this was a new one:

I wanted to touch base with COYOTE to obtain some more background
information, mission statement, goals, history and interview for a
piece I am writing for CORSET magazine on sexual issues. The interview
will be conducted via email and ental approximately 10 questions for
the piece.

Still Holding Off on iOS7

There was some back and forth at Glenn Reynolds site about delaying iOS 7 upgrades.  The day before the iOS 7 rollout I emailed all my family and told them not to install it until some time had passed and Apple had a chance to do revisions.  This is my general policy with all major OS upgrades (and many program upgrades) but all the more so with Apple software because they never allow download of older versions of things like iOS or iTunes and thus make it impossible to roll back problematic releases.    Now that we see issues about battery life and slow performance with iOS 7 on certain iPhone versions, I am glad we are waiting.  Feature-wise this is a very incremental release (masked to some extent by a totally new visual look) so I can certainly wait.

(The other software that is very much in this category is Quickbooks.  Their history of buggy software is terrible, and because upgrades tend to modify the database in ways that cannot be rolled back, it is another example of software where one needs to be very, very careful before upgrading.  Let others be the bleeding edge).

Coyote Blog 9 Years Old Today

My first post was on September 29, 2004.    Thanks for the support over the years.  Those first few months were bizarre, and felt like lecturing to an empty room.  6266 posts with 54,901 comments, which probably makes me solidly mid-size as far as blogs go.  I have no idea any more how many readers I have -- page views lost all meaning in the era of RSS feeds and with Facebook and Twitter, it's even more difficult to track.

What Microsoft Windows Has in Common with [Original Cast] Star Trek Movies

Skip every other release.

Here are the original cast Star Trek Movies:

VI:  OK, kind of

V: Bad

IV:  Goofy but enjoyable

III:  Truly terrible

II:  Awesome, to the point that the two Chris Pine et al reboot movies have drawn more heavily on the Wrath of Khan than the original show

I:  Flat, boring

 

Here are the recent Windows releases:

Windows 8:  Sucks

Windows 7:  Excellent

Windows Vista (6?):  God awful

Windows XP :  Very Good

Windows ME:  God awful

Windows 98/2000:  OK

Do you see the pattern?  Windows 7 redeemed the awful Vista in the same way XP redeemed the awful ME.  I can only hope the to-be-released-in-October Windows 8.1 fixes some of the awful mistakes in Windows 8, not the least was the grafting of a butt-ugly touchscreen tablet interface to a PC OS most of us use with mouse and keyboard.  Until then our company is still only buying Windows 7  computers.  Some of my employees buy their own computers -- I provide all the company's tech support and have told them they are on their own if they buy Windows 8 and then can't find the control panel.

In Praise of Social Media

Over the last several days I have been desperate for information on the Chariot Fire east of San Diego.  This brush fire destroyed the campground next to ours and came right up to our gates, so it was touch in go for several days to see if we would lose it.

I am often disdainful of social media but the best up to date source of information, bar none, for me was the Brush Fire Partyline started on a Facebook page.  It was a fabulous resource in a news situation when the local media was often 12 hours behind the story and official government announcements were at least 24 hours tardy.  (If you click through and their header image has not changed, you will see the red burned area stop just short of Laguna Campground, the campground we operate.