August 27, 2008

Learning Curves

In order to give my brain cells a workout I bought a new phone.  Three days later, I think I have half the stuff figured out.

As most everyone knows, I had a Treo with a Palm OS on it.  It was easy to use - the Palm OS being very intuitive.  Had a nice sized screen on it and a full keyboard.  I liked it - bought some cute little apps for it and fell in love with the calendar.

Two years later, I must have a PDA type device with a calendar.   I must have a portable brain to remember things like dates and times and phone numbers.  I lose cards with appointment times, I lose pieces of paper with lists on them, I forget to take notebooks with me... but I seldom forget to take my phone.  Yes I said seldom because I have even been known to walk out without my phone.

When my touchscreen started acting wonky on the Treo and I got the notice of "hey get a new phone because you're on the new every 2 plan"... I decided it was time to upgrade.

Very sadly, Palm has been nearly stagnant over the last couple of years. They are coming out with a new phone soon, but it will have the Windows system on it - no I don't have the least interest in that. So, I decided to look into Blackberry. 

I checked out the various models and decided that the Curve would be a good match. (as long as it wasn't "pink")   I would like to get the new Bold 9000, but I have no idea when it will hit the Verizon stores and I have no great wish to change carriers.  Also, I don't want to pay the huge bucks for a brand new phone.  I'll let others shell out the money and get the kinks worked out.  The Curve has been out for a while and seems to be pretty stable.

But as usual, whenever one makes a change in platform, there is a learning curve.  At times it can be downright annoying.  Mainly because I'm used to a particular way of doing things.  So far as I can tell, this phone does all those things too, just slightly differently.  Therefore, things I was able to do on my old phone without a thought take me some extra time right now... until I finally figure out the process.

I know it's good for the leetle gray cells to do some actual work to remember things as opposed to coasting along - OTOH it can certainly be frustrating in the short run.

Pros and cons...

Treo - it's easy - dead easy. It's got very pretty apps the developers have spent lots of time making things look good and work well.  The drawbacks - very very short battery life (even with an extended battery), it's heavy - who knew a few ounces could make such a difference, it gets terrible horrible cell reception at my house.  There were sometime loooong pauses when it was trying to pick up a cell signal when I was using other apps.

The blackberry - it's very very light.  It gets great reception - I even get 2 bars in parts of my basement!  It's fast - I have yet to have it slow down when I'm trying to do something. The battery life is phenomenal.  The fonts are great.  Added later... It syncs to my Outlook calendar and contacts beautifully.  The cons:  it's difficult to figure out where they put stuff!  It's like they hid things on purpose in obscure menus so you'd never find them.  I had to turn on the tasks in the calendar!  There are menus to adjust for every little thing, naturally none of the stuff works the way I want it to.  

As you can see, most of my issues with the Curve are "how it works".  I figure it will be another few weeks before I'm used to many of these things.  I really wish the calendar app was nicer - it's... functional (which is what I need) but not very nice at all. If I could take Date Book 6 (from my treo) and put it on my Curve - I would be deleriously happy. 

Sadly it seems you can have one or the other - a lightweight phone with excellent cell coverage or one with great apps... not both. 

Oh well.  I'll get used to it.

Posted by: Teresa in WebTech at 09:52 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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August 19, 2008

Because I Am Clueless

Being clueless is highly annoying.  I need to do a website redesign for a group, but the original needs to stay up and running and NOT NOT NOT be inaccessible during that time. 

Do I know how to do this?  No.  Would it be on the web?  Oh very likely.  Can I find it?  No.  Am I annoyed?  You bet.

It was going to be fairly easy because the plan was to change hosting providers.  Unfortunately, that plan has fallen through.  Now we'll see if I can figure this out without bringing an entire organization to a dead stop.  *sigh*

No, I don't do web design - I am design impaired.  Yes, we do need an update - urgently.  Yes, I do want to pull out my hair.  Why do you ask?

Posted by: Teresa in WebTech at 05:45 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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August 09, 2008

Computers, Complexity, and Users

I have come to the conclusion that computers are just too complex for regular everyday people.  And I'm not talking about the software. 

A couple I know just moved to a new place...brand new.   I told them I would help them move their computer. 

Well, life being what it is, all the family turmoil meant I was away on their moving day.  I had given them a few tips on ways to mark the various wires so they could easily plug it back together again... sadly it was not that easy. 

He meant to mark the wires, but waited until moving day to do it - bad thing to do.  The movers got in the room and (even though he asked them to leave the computer alone) they unplugged everything.  Thus leaving a royal mess. 

To add even more fun, they decided to move his office (where the computer lives) into a different room than originally planned.  Unfortunately, they had also decided to save money by not dropping cable outlets in every room.  This new room had no cable - they did not have a wireless set up - oops.

I told them what to buy (I was happy to see wireless prices have dropped dramatically since I looked at this stuff a few years ago).   Then I headed over to get things set up.

Let me say now... holy crap!  He has a desktop computer with surround sound!!! Along with an all in one printer, fax, scanner machine.  A surge protector to plug it all in AND a UPS.   The number of wires for the speakers made it look like a dropped plate of spaghetti under the desk. The funniest part... after looking at the mess of wires just for sound - he's got a wireless keyboard and mouse!!! 

First trip: had to do a bunch of moving about with the UPS because there was not a plug available anywhere near it. I did  a temporary move in order to get things running so I could set up the wireless card. I got that installed, went through the setup (minus a real internet connection) and waited for a bit because the cable guy was there.

Cable guy left because he claimed the electrician didn't leave him a particular "string" he needed to use to thread the cable. (later I found out - it was there and he was an idiot... figures) Well, the computer was up and running the wireless card was talking to the router - all they really needed was the cable and all would be good.

Second trip: I got a call saying they couldn't get the computer to turn on.  So, I set out to fix it.  Had to completely revamp the "layout" of things under the desk so he had room for his legs.  It turned out that, not having an understanding of exactly what a UPS does (uninterpretable  power supply) is a bit of a drawback.  But I will tell you, if you don't know, the surge protector plugs into the UPS, the UPS plugs into the wall - not the other way around. 

After moving all the sound wires around, the UPS to a different spot, the computer to a different spot - we finally were able to get things up and running.  Then the wireless card wouldn't connect!!!  It could see the network, but would not connect even with a strong signal.

Eventually I figured out that I needed to reenter the network key - for some reason (possibly because of all the moving, plugging, unplugging, booting, rebooting, the new cable connection... who knows) reentering the key gave us success! 

But the system they have is quite simply WAY WAY WAY too complicated for them. They don't know how any of it works, they don't know what plugs in where, they don't have any idea what to even try if something goes wrong.

This leads me to my computer tip of the day.  To all those who are not good with hardware... keep the surround sound for television and buy a laptop!!!  Your chances of a successful computer experience are directly related to the amount of knowledge vs the amount of hardware. 

I know it will eventually become much easier - it's already better than it was when the first systems came out. But there's a LONG way to go. 

Posted by: Teresa in WebTech at 06:44 PM | Comments (5) | Add Comment
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August 06, 2008

Thank You Dan Kaminsky

A couple of days ago I blogged about the DNS vulnerability that has been in the news.  "Journalists" have tried to explain it to the layman, but it simply confuses the non-techy types because it is... technical. Thus you have non-technical people trying to explain a technical problem to other non-technical people.  Yeah, that'll work. 

Yesterday Dan Kaminsky gave his presentation to a standing room only crowd at Black Hat.  (amusingly, you will find the short, unassuming single paragraph about Dan's talk about half way down this page)

Kaminsky (finally) reveals gaping hole in internet

He has had tons of criticism thrown at him over the last month, but here's the bottom line...

"The fuss was justified from the perspective that this is an impactful finding that has the potential to bring down the internet," said Nitesh Dhanjani, a senior manager at Ernst & Young.


Sounds melodramatic doesn't it.  Yet the flaw could do just that.  Think of what that might do to your world.

In the five months since he discovered the flaw, Kaminsky has shouldered considerable burdens in trying to get it addressed. He spent countless hours trying to marshal engineers from Microsoft, Sun Micro, and dozens of other companies. And he's endured criticism that he shamefully exaggerated the threat in a cynical attempt to drum up hype for his Black Hat presentation.


I'm glad he's persistent.  I've seen it happen over the years, people find a flaw that is serious and when they present it to the company(s) involved they are ignored. When they become exasperated and go public in order to get things moving, they are then vilified.  It's a no win situation. 

Until something really bad happens, no one wants to believe it ever will.  Then once the unthinkable occurs everyone starts pointing fingers. Making things far worse, this is a flaw that involves just about every tech company providing networking hardware and software. 

When most bugs are found, they belong to one Operating System or one piece of hardware or even one piece of add on software.  Put very badly and incompletely... This flaw involves any company putting out DNS servers AND the hardware routers they might live behind because of the manner the routers treat the DNS transactions.

The enormity of it is staggering.

I don't know Dan.  I'm sure he'll never see this.  But whether he knows it or not, he's got my thanks for sticking it out and seeing the job through.  I wish I could have been at Black Hat to see the finish. 

Posted by: Teresa in WebTech at 11:57 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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But What About The Ads?

I came across this article today.

New Google box for offices can search 10 million files

The Web search leader said the latest version of the Google Search Appliance, a pizza-sized box that holds a self-contained search system for managing an organization's electronic files, can store up to 10 million documents in a single box.


First of all, the visual of 10 million documents in a pizza box is rather an odd one.  One has visions of sitting on the lid trying to get the box closed.  Not to mention many paper cuts from trying to get all the stray papers to stay in the box.

But inquiring minds want to know - what kind of ads pop up on the search screen when you're searching for something like "invoice for most recent toilet paper order".  

Posted by: Teresa in WebTech at 04:13 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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August 05, 2008

Check Your DNS

Okay so I've been a bit negligent.  There is a DNS story that has been floating around out there for a while and I've been ignoring it.  (so much else going on).

Oh, you want to know "what the hell is DNS?"

Domain Name Server

These are the servers that turn those words in the URL into a number.  So, if you type in (or even click a link) that is to www.yahoo.com a DNS server is consulted and it will tell your browser that you want to go to the machine with the number 69.147.76.15.

The numbers are the real internet address, but people don't remember numbers as well as they remember words.  In the interest of making things easier for humans to use and remember - they came up with this solution.  Make a translator so people can use names instead of numbers.

What's the story?

Now there's a hole.

The Chicago Tribune has a pretty sketchy article about the problem here.  Basically the issue is that many DNS servers are vulnerable to something called "cache-poisoning" because of their firewall software. 

What does this mean to you?  It means you ask to go to www.yahoo.com and you get sent to a site elsewhere in the world - it may even look quite a bit like yahoo.com. The objective is to start trying to get information out of you.  Just like phishers do with those emails about your bank account being in trouble. 

Dan Kaminsky is one of the security mavens working on this problem.  He has developed a little tool to check your DNS server.  Go to his site and look in the sidebar at the top of the page.  It says "Check My DNS"  - click it. That will tell you if you might be vulnerable to this redirect problem.

But here's the thing.  You might be okay one day and not okay the next!  I checked mine 2 days ago and again tonight.  The first time I was given the all clear.  Tonight it says - "you're vulnerable".  On a whim I checked it 5 minutes later and it said I was okay. 

How can this be?  Because many hosting services use a number of different DNS servers. They redirect the traffic as they see fit to different DNS servers.  Therefore, you might be using one DNS server one day - a different one the next (even the next minute!).  For that matter, the port randomizer might pick random numbers that appear to go in sequence for a while - this is not good but can happen with a bad random number generator.

If you're worried, if you've had DNS problems with your provider in the past, you can change this on your computer.  Open DNS is a good alternative to the problem of "which DNS am I using now?" 

They have step by step directions on how to change your DNS addresses on your machine.  Because my DNS response changes - I will be looking into using this.  It's a simple matter to change on one machine.  Doing several or even a router change is a bit more involved, but can be done. 

Even if you are given the all clear, if you have had problems getting to some web sites in the past, you may want to switch to Open DNS and see if it solves the problem.

In the meantime, always be alert when surfing until this issue is fixed. Even if you know you've typed in the correct address or clicked a bookmark - you can be redirected.  Guard your personal information well!

It's still the Wild Wild West out there.

Posted by: Teresa in WebTech at 09:44 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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