Monthly Archives: April 2012

A sample of the WIN 8 Metro Interface

In case you haven’t been listening, the users’ howl over the new Metro Interface in Windows 8 is getting louder by the day. The consumer preview has been out for a while now and folks are discovering that they can’t disable the Metro Interface like the could in the earlier Developer Preview. The much maligned Metro Interface is geared more to smart phones & tablets but requires a HUGE shift in thinking if you’re a traditional desktop user like Dr. Data. The interface will be great for those of us with touch screens but if you’re a mouse & keyboard person, not so much.

Early reports on Win 8 indicated that Microsoft was going to offer both Metro and the classic Windows desktop that many of us know and love but this choice has yet to materialise in any of the preview versions. While it is still early days in one sense, there’s a bit less than six months between now and the official release sometime in October, 2012. Add in the fact that Win. 8 will be released to manufacturing most likely in August and suddenly it’s later than we think.

Some commentators have argued that Microsoft is more intent on giving Metro a test drive than putting a tried and true interface out on the road for a spin and Dr. Data is somewhat inclined to agree with them. On the other hand, the folks in Redmond have had a habit over the past 15 years of alternating good and bad releases. Remember Windows XP? Remember Vista? Windows 7 was a big hit so it’s now time for another Vista-esque debacle.

Other commentators have said that they’re going to move to Linux or a Mac. These may be folks who have been looking for a good – or any – excuse to move to a different platform but where does that leave the rest of us? If you’re like Dr. Data who has scads of Win applications that he does not want to run under WINE on his Ubuntu machine, you may find yourself sticking with Windows 7. This is OK but we will have to hope that Microsoft releases a “good” OS to follow Windows 8 before support ends for Windows 7.

In the meantime, we can draw comfort from the fact that there is something that we can do to get around this potential impasse and I’m not talking about complaining to Microsoft. A software package called “Classic Shell” is available to all right-thinking people who don’t want to go Metro. This software was introduced back in the bad old days of Vista to get around the changes/problems introduced in that operating system. The software is FREE but Dr. Data is concerned about those Windows users out there who boot up mainly to check e-mail or go on Facebook, Many of this segment may be better served by migrating to a tablet but the rest may be hard pressed when it comes time to decide.

There is some more commentary at Tom’s Hardware and ZDNet.

And just for fun, have a look at this video of a real live person trying to figure out Windows 8:

[tube]v4boTbv9_nU [/tube]

 

If you’re like most internet users, you regularly sign up for a site or service that requires a password and the passwords for everything gets to be a pain in the rear. I’m currently working with a client who has a good number of WordPress sites. Recently, this person’s sites were all compromised and a bogus Administrator account was set up for each one which used the same name. The client wondered how all this happened and if she was the victim of some personal attack.

Usually, these incursions are NOT because your name is “Bob”, because you’re a Freemason or anything like that. Most likely it is because your site(s) has been  hammered by repeated attempts to gain access from Viet Nam, China, the Ukraine, Holland & probably a lot more places. The hacker – or hackette – doesn’t  care whom the site belongs to – just that it’s a WordPress site. They employ web-crawling software robots that look for WordPress sites and when one is found, they immediately try to break in by using the default user name – “admin” and various combinations of characters as a password. Since it’s a robot doing the dirty work, it doesn’t matter how many times they try to gain entry. Sooner or later, the robot will either find the right combination of characters or give up because it has reached some specified limit of attempts set by the hacker.

If it does get it, the robot will make a note of the user name/password combination for that site and then set up a bogus account with administrator privileges and a second robot will use that account to spike your site with malware, links to scare-ware sites, etc. If you have more than one WordPress site, the robot will use the combination as a starting point for your 2nd site, etc.

The lessons to be learned from this are:

  • DO NOT use the default user name for WordPress – or whatever – on a permanent basis. Use it just long enough to create a less than obvious user name for  the Administrator account.
  • DO NOT create a password that is a repetition of the user name or any variation of it such as “spotnap” for “pantops”, substituting upper case letters for lowercase ones & vice versa, etc.
  • DO create a password that is a combination of upper & lower case letters, numbers and special characters such as “!$%(), etc.
OK, so you don’t have a blog site. These same principles apply to user names and passwords for everything from Amazon.com to Zappos.com and you should try to use as many different combinations as possible. So how do you remember all of the different passwords? I used to work for a company that required its employees to change their password every 60 days. All you had to do was to cruise by someone’s cubicle after hours and you were likely to find a Post-it™ note with the latest iteration of their password scribbled on it. Instead, use a password-keeper to store all of your passwords. I have used one called “Password Safe” since the mid-90’s and it’s free at pwsafe.org. Besides Windows, there are versions –  some times with a different name – for Linux, iOS, Android and OS X. Of course, there are a bunch of similar products out there and a good many of them are free. Just remember to use it!

Therefore, DO NOT have a bunch of sites using “admin” & the same password over & over again. Don’t use “admin” at all! Have a different administrator name and password combination for each site.  The password should be a combination of Upper & Lower case letters, numbers and special characters.

One of the themes of my recent TechnoRants© has been security and in particular MAC security.  ZDNet published a short interview with Eugene Kaspersky from Computer Business Review about Apple’s lag in taking OS X security seriously. Kaspersky is the CEO of the privately held Kaspersky lab which produces antivirus and other security products.

Eugene asserts that its always been easy to develop and deploy MAC malware and that, security-wise, there is no significant difference between Windows and MAC OS X. He expects to see Apple soon have the same sort of security problems that Microsoft had to deal with a dozen years ago. If Apple wants to have the continued trust of MAC users, the company will have to step up it’s game vis a vis’ security.

The article is a quick read that is well worth your time if you own a MAC or are contemplating buying one.

A number of my recent TechnoRants© have dealt with computer security. This latest threat deals with the Domain Changer virus which will impact PC’s , MAC’s and probably Linux machines as well so listen up!

The FBI recently broke up a hacker ring based in Estonia that was responsible for unleashing the Domain Changer virus. The concept for this new bit of nastiness originally turned up in January ’07,  has been perfected in this most recent release and is based on a long-postulated threat to Domain Name servers. So, what does it do?

First of all, I’m not going to try to explain Domain Names. Instead, have a look at the Wikipaedia article on the Domain Name System. The Domain Changer virus has infected at least 86,000 computers and is lying dormant until July 9th of this year. On that day, it will “wake up”,  redirect your browser to “fake” versions of actual websites, slow down your internet speed and disable your anti-virus & other security software. The hackers would then make money from ads on those fake websites, many of which are probably for software to “clean up” your PC and get rid of whatever is slowing it down. The hackers would win two ways:

  1. They would obtain your credit card information
  2. The “software” would load more viruses/malware on your system.
In other words, this is the internet equivalent of “Thank you sir! May I have another?”
How do you know if you’re infected? Go to the Domain Changer Working Group website and read the brief information about the Domain Changer virus. There will also be a link at the top of the home page
that will direct you to instructions on how to Detect an infection. The detection bit is all done via the internet and you won’t have to download any software, etc. There are instructions for Windows XP, 7 and MAC OS X.
If you are infected, there is information about tools  to disinfect your system. Finally, there is general information on how to protect your system from being infected.
If you’re a Windows user and have questions, need additional help, etc. Drop Dr. Data a line and I’ll try to give you a hand.

 

. . . to everything else. This is one of those tales that I think are simply amazing and it all begins with Crossing The Appomattox.

I have a friend and former colleague who now lives in Austin, Texas. We first met way, way back in the 1970’s. I took a job as a computer operator at an automotive parts distributor in Chamblee, Georgia. A lady named Daisy Thorpe  told me of the guy who had run the show in the past but had moved on to better things. This fellow stopped by his old workplace one day for a quick visit and Daisy introduced me to Loren Wilson. I think we shook hands and that was about it. Nothing monumental about anything.

Fast forward about 8 years to the mid-1980’s. By that time, I was working as a programmer/analyst for The Michie Company – a Legal Publisher in Charlottesville, VA. I was on a business trip to California to begin taking delivery of a much-anticipated editorial automation system. Michie was bringing a new guy on to take charge of the project and he would be joining us out in California. Long story short, the guy’s name was Loren Wilson. Over the next few months and years, we discovered that we knew some of the same people in Atlanta and lived in subdivisions built by the same man. Loren and I worked together for the next 15 years or so until he retired to Austin because of medical issues.

Fast forward again to Monday of this week and my tale of Crossing The Appomattox. Loren & I had kept in touch over the years and I had sent him an e-mail telling of The Parsons’ Rant. He decided to drop by & happened to read the Appomattox story. Two days later, Loren sent me an e-mail containing a link to a collection of photos taken between 1947 & 1957. The bulk of the photos were of the Hercules Powder Company plant in Hopewell, VA. My father worked for Hercules as did my mother – that’s where they met – other family members and some of our neighbours.

It was a treat to look through those old photos. I had worked at Hercules in the summer during my college years and I saw buildings that I had worked in and a familiar face or two. My mother was an industrial nurse at Hercules and there was this one photo showing one of her successors sitting behind the same desk and probably in the same chair as she had. I passed the link on to my brother who had also done summer work at Hercules and had a few of his own tales to tell.

He looked through the collection and noted that a number of the pictures were taken by “N. O. Howard” – better known as “Norm Howard”.  Mr. Howard was a ham radio operator and a figure in the Hopewell Boy Scout leadership who lived about two blocks from our house. His son was one of two passengers involved in the boating accident on the Appomattox River that took the life of my uncle so many years ago. If I had never met Loren Wilson, I probably would never have known about the photos and who took some of them.

And now you know the rest of the story.

The first computer I ever encountered was the SAGE system (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) used by the 33rd Air Defence Command at Fort Lee, VA. This 1950’s behemoth consumed as much floor space as offered by an average-sized ranch-style house. This thing used vacuum tubes and each tube was individually air-conditioned. You did not just walk thru the computer room, you also walked through the computer.

Earlier this year, I purchased a TonidoPlug2. This is a Linux machine that fits in the palm of your hand. It runs on a trickle of current and can be connected to your router via either Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Mine has a terabyte of storage and is essentially a file server that I can access from anywhere . . . including my tablet.

Then there’s the Raspberry Pi, a pocket-sized PC that costs $35.00. Like the TonidoPlug2, you have to supply the storage – in this case, an SD Card – and uses the Linux operating system. Of course, you’ll need a monitor but it has a HDMI connection so all you need there is a TV w/ HDMI. Add a keyboard and you’re good to go.

Tech Republic has a gallery that documents the unboxing of the Raspberry Pi from the shipping folder to being hooked up and ready to go. They also have a gallery with 5 alternatives to the Pi. Even if you’re not interested in owning one of these puppies, the photo galleries are worth a look!

I’ve never been much of an “early adopter” – you know, one of “those people” who have to try the latest technology the second it hits the market. Indeed, the only time I’ve done that was when the now ubiquitous thumb drives hit the market. Before that, there was only floppy disks and computers with vacuum tubes. The thumb drive was a real game-changer and PC’s with floppy drives began disappearing from the market. That IOmega thumb drive had a 250 megabyte capacity and cost an arm & a leg. Today, 4 gigabyte thumb drives are as cheap as chips.

So, with Windows 8 in the offing, I had planned to let the new OS stew a while before loading it on my main PC which has scads of software – much of which I probably don’t need – and settings which have tweaked to the nth degree. In other words, I’m not going to fool with that system unless I have to. All of this got me to think about my secondary PC. You might remember that in part 3 of my Linux rant, I mentioned that I was dual booting Ubuntu and Windows 7. I purchased this machine to use as a back-up/test bed. If I really fouled things up, it would not be much of a loss and most of the time, I boot up under Windows only to apply the latest updates.

So, maybe it’s time to use the Windows side of that machine for its original intended purpose. Windows 8 is due to arrive on shelves this Fall – most likely October – and I’ll be amongst the first geeks to get a copy of the upgrade version and install it. My Adventures with Windows 8 will be documented here on The Parsons Rant and you’ll be able to follow along.

Stay tuned.

Looking Upstream

I come from Hopewell. Hopewell, Virginia – to be precise – at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers in a region I refer to as “Upper Tidewater”. I have always had a fascination with the Appomattox River. As a boy, I played along its banks and roamed the streets in the Mansion Hills section of Hopewell trying to see the river from a different perspective. I always dreamed of having a boat that I could take up and down the navigable portion of the river between Petersburg and Hopewell. This did not sit too well with my mother for her brother had drowned in the river a few years before I was born.

This was not the only tragedy along my portion of the river. In 1935, a Greyhound bus returning from Richmond, VA on Route 10 approached the bridge. In those days, the span was a drawbridge and on this particular day, at that particular moment, the draw was open to allow a boat or two to pass through. There were no cars waiting at the barrier ahead of the bus and the driver suffered a heart attack. The bus broke through the barrier and plunged into the cold waters of the river. It was said that the sound of the chassis scrapping against the steel lip of the bridge could be heard all over town. Of the 15 people on board the bus, only one survived. Among the dead was the wife of a long time family friend.* (See Comment)

Looking Downstream

About 14 years ago, I took my canoe on the waters of Swift Creek and on out into the river. There are a series of long wooded islands in that portion of the river, built upon the silt and gravel of all the years that the river has crossed the Fall Line from the Piedmont into the Tidewater and dropped its burden as the current slowed. I made it to one of those islands and thus only paddled part way across the Appomattox. I guess that making my way along and across the Appomattox remains on my ‘Bucket list”.

My father once told me that he had been up near the headwaters of the Appomattox; so far up that the river was narrow enough for him to step across. Now, I generally believed what my father told me at that age in spite of the fact that he liked to prey upon the gullibility of childhood and lay some whoppers on me. I suppose that today, he would have run afoul of the child protective services and I would be the recipient of years of psycho-therapy. Since kids of that ancient era were apparently made of more sterner stuff, I survived the leg-pulling and today smile inwardly whenever I think of my father’s tall tales.

 

The First Bridge Over The Appomattox

Nonetheless, it has been my ambition ever since that tender age to go upstream to the point where I, too, could step across the Appomattox River. This past weekend, I finally made that ambition come true though at this stage of my life, the expedition had something of an air of “Mythbusters”.

As Hopewell is the site of the last bridge over the Appomattox, so the former village of Appomattox Courthouse is the site of the first bridge. For those of you who happened to be awake during that portion of American History in high school, Appomattox Courthouse was the scene of  General Grant’s surrender to Robert E. Lee  Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Grant at the close of the war of  Northern Aggression Civil War.

Virginia Route 24 follows the route of the old Richmond to Lynchburg stage road that the Army of Northern Virginia took as it made its way towards Appomattox Station and the hope of resupply from three Confederate trains sent from Lynchburg. Lee’s army never made it to the station and found its way blocked at Appomattox Courthouse. The stage road crossed the river at roughly the same point that the highway bridge does today.

A Wee Dam

At that point, the river is lined with green, grassy banks and Sycamore trees. Picnic tables sit beneath the trees on both sides of the road. The headwaters of the Appomattox lie roughly 1 & 3/4 miles west of the bride and outside of the National Park Service property. It would be theoretically possible to bushwhack my way upstream – over private property – to where the nascent river is narrow enough for a child to step over but that is something for another day or another lifetime. Therefore, I must conclude that if my father indeed was able to step over the Appomattox, it was here at the bridge.

On this day, I was not able to step across for the National Park Service has placed a (very) wee dam across the stream where the river re-enters the. woods. Composed of a few flat and small blocks of granite, the dam is a landscaping trick to create a small, shallow pool beneath the bridge and gives the impression of a somewhat more substantial river than exists at this point. That, combined with the sand and gravel that has accumulated above the (very) wee dam over the years as well as springs flush with winter rains, makes the Appomattox River a bit too wide to step across at that point. Maybe two steps and a pair of duck shoes would do it.

The paternal “Myth” is not completely busted, though. In a couple of months, the river will have narrowed in the summer’s heat and you can indeed step across it. Perhaps, I will come back at that time.

This has got to be the worse name for any product . . . Ever!  Any company that uses this moniker must have a death-wish for their product. To be fair, I’ve never been crazy about the term “Pantyhose” either. Instead, I prefer the more dignified & gender neutral British term for this garment: Tights.

In the interest of full disclosure, I studied ballet in my long-lost youth so the concept of tights on men is no big deal for me.

What is different now is that instead of being a matter of male attire for dance, theater or winter warmth, they are starting to become – at least in Europe – a fashion accessory. A UK-based blog devoted to legwear recently posted about this trend-in-the-making and there are a number of forums scattered here and there around the web devoted to men and tights. There are women as well who join in on the discussions.

There are a number of reasons why men are turning to tights and they include medical ones:

  • Relief for muscle problems
  • Relief for circulatory problems
  • Relief for Sciatica
as well as others. Some guys find them less bulky than thermal underwear beneath their trousers Some who are on their feet all day appreciate the relief tights give for tired/aching legs. And then, there are some guys who just plain like them. Now, there appears to be another reason – fashion – as well.
On the distaff side of the aisle, there is a whole range of reactions. On one end, there are the “haters”; women who believe that tights are the work of the devil and cannot fathom why males would be interested. There is a segment of females who believe that a guy wearing tights – for whatever reason – is on his way out of the closet as well as another group who believe that hosiery for men is OK but not on their husband/boyfriend. Finally, there are those women who believe that tights are good for what ails you and think that it’s about time that men caught on to this.
It should be noted here that tights – and leotards – were originally designed and made by men for men and are just another item that ladies borrowed from the male closet and never returned. Of course, a great percentage of men are totally insecure about their masculinity and anything with even the slightest taint of femininity is an anathema to them.
However, things – and men – do change. Years ago, guys wearing earrings were a great oddity and only the bravest of the brave would dare to wear them. Today, men with earrings are so common that few of us comment on or even notice them.
Where this nascent trend will go is anyone’s guess.

 

 

At least 600,000 Macs were infected by the Flashback Trojan. Did Apple fail to protect its users? Or were users defeated by their own misguided fantasies of invulnerability?

Like ripples in a pond, the ruckus over the “success” of the Flashback Trojan continues to spread. Even though there’s a fix for it and all is – supposedly – well, people are wondering: “How could this happen?” Was it the fault of  Apple? Was it the fault of the user? Was it the fault of both?

If you can remember back to 2006, there was the snarky series of ads – I’m a Mac/I’m a PC”. In one of them, Apple flaunted its perceived invulnerability to all the nasty things that Windows PC get. Apple has been slow to realise and respond to the threat of MAC malware and users have blithely gone about their daily business without bothering to think about the potential danger to their systems.

ZDNet is offering the great debate on just who’s to blame. It is a worthwhile read for MAC users as well as the rest of the computing community.

 

By the way, Howard is a PC but he does have an iPhone.

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