Back to the grindstone…

…making new webmasters and developers and support engineers.

Yep – it’s a shiny new semester.

It’s about now that I begin to envy the established bloggers – the ones who find it easy to write hundreds, or thousands of words a day… but enough carping, back to work.

Today I received a welcome piece of news – the server I donated to the college has been placed in a datacenter rack and is operating. We’ll see how well that works out, but if all is well, then we will have a Linux system accessible throughout the college network – but isolated from the “real” world. It will also have more compute and storage resources than the antique RS-6000 publicly available… and allow for server-side programming. In time we may mount a BSD VM – for shell work only, to demonstrate the differences between System V and BSD styles… but first we need to get the base system verified.

I rebuilt my apple* server this week; it is up and running but without any significant content as yet. Also the homebrew barebones ESXi server is running quite nicely, and in use as a staging and testbed server for cloud operations.

User interface designers and system architects should read the book  Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt (link to Amazon) – especially chapter three – and apply the knowledge to your designs. You might also learn some useful driving tricks. This is the best thing related to computing I’ve read this year. So far.

With the new semester under way, the intent is to update the blog at least weekly, perhaps more often than that.

[note: I do not have an Apple-branded machine in working condition. But I do have a server named for a fruit.]


ON the question of the day: Google+ or Facebook?

Once again the muse lives elsewhere, but a comment thread on Facebook deserves a better discourse than that limited media can sustain.

This morning, most of the world woke up to find massive changes in the User Interface of Facebook – many of which were “inspired” by Google+. Venting, fist-shaking, etc. ensued. Meanwhile, Google took the opportunity to take the wraps off a bit, and open Google+ to everyone. It’s still classed as “beta” but now anyone can join.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m in the early adopter camp. Stuff comes swinging by, I take a look, sometimes getting just a tippy-toe wet, other times jumping for full immersion. Thus I’ve been using G+ for about three months. Color me a bit skeptical at this juncture.

It’s not a replacement for Facebook.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t put too much stock in Twitter or LinkedIn – they are the most threatened by this development… especially LinkedIn. It might be why LI put its IPO back on the shelf. They may have waited a bit too long.

I don’t think we’ve found the “winner” in the social space as yet – I think FB and G+ represent the peak of an era which is about to end. They backed the wrong technology.

Google especially reminds me of Samuel Pierpoint Langley in the 1890s. He was head of the Smithsonian Institution, a learned man, with all the establishment of the day backing his experiments in heavier-than-air flight. His devices flapped their wings.

As we know, two bicycle mechanics from Ohio came up with the proper answer, and while it involved wings, it was the profile of the wing, not the flapping, which was critical.

I think there are the equivalents of the Wright brothers out there, toiling along in a garage somewhere, about to launch the new social media upon us  — and they will center around the phone. It’s this last which Facebook and Google have so neglected.



Ruminations on a semester finished…

Summer School is over. Done. Kaput.

This was an experiment, on two levels. One, for me to take a course prior to teaching same; and second, adapting a semester-long course into a six-week quickie version.

Note to self: do not teach advanced classes during a six-week session. There is not enough time for the knowledge to sink in – the eureka moment arrives a bit late for most students.

Second note to self: students do not necessarily recall much if anything useful from prior semesters; even down to the trivia of how to log in to computers in our Hands-On-Lab (procedure has been the same for six years now). Do not expect students to have practiced any of the skills taught in prior courses.

Taking a class in preparation to teach it was an eye-opener. I have a much better idea of where the confusing parts are, which parts will be easy, and how problematic a lecture-intensive class is for non-native English speakers.

I do hope the students this fall read the book before class. It makes it easier on me and they’re more likely to pass the quizzes…

Help! – my hotmail account’s been hacked…

Except of course I never had a hotmail account.

But I know a lot of people who do… and who also have yahoo accounts, gmail accounts, and probably other email accounts as well – which they only access via a web browser.

The real story title is: “Help me – my browser-based email has been hijacked!”

First step in the cleanup – triage. How bad is the damage?

If this is your primary account – the one which you use for everything (online banking, shopping, brokerage, insurance, social media and so on)… you’re potentially in very deep trouble. For most folks issuing the help-me message, this is their primary account.

Now, let’s find out just how bad this is… can you reset the password? You should do so, and ditch the easily-guessed password you were using. Here is one password generator; there are many others. But get clear of the easy passwords.

Next, check your webmail system for forwards – this is hiding in settings. Are you forwarding your emails anywhere? Do you recognize every account listed? If not, you have a substantial headache ahead, because your newfound pen-pal is reading all your mail… including the one just generated by the system which confirms you just changed your password. Next step – remove the unknown mail forward assignments… and change the password again.

Now comes the painful part – you need to immediately reach out and change every password on every site where you used the compromised account as your primary email contact. Remember – your secret pen-pal has the necessary codes to reset your accounts, and may already be doing so. If you can’t get in anywhere… start calling or using other methods.

Still feel that easy password was a good idea? You should use randomized passwords everywhere, and never the same one on multiple sites. (Easy for him to say, but if you read down the blog, you’ll see I went through the same exercise a few months ago, albeit for a different reason).

If you want to save this headache in the future, a good password is a good starting place. I tend to go one step further; my primary email is not accessible via web-based systems, and can only be accessed by a dedicated email client. That’s right, I use a separate program just for email. For most of Internet history, this was the norm; web-based is a recent “convenience” – and is vulnerable to all the gotchas of web-based clients.

I use and recommend Forte Agent and Mozilla Thunderbird. Forte Agent I’ve used since its beginnings – but this is not an easy package to master, and many are turned off by having to pay for it.

The hacker’s tale…

I’m sitting at the computer, busily working away on a couple of projects, and then there’s a drop in throughput to the network… sites won’t load, and now – even one of the local servers won’t respond. Network bandwidth use is up like crazy; and then it drops.

Time to check a couple of logs. I use an Intrusion Detection System of my own design, and it’s caught a problem, and shut down a port on the switch to prevent further damage. I log into the Linux box from the hardwire console, run lastlog, and there it is – one account has been accessed from – uh huh. I don’t think that is from the college, or any local ISP, and a quick check with ARIN says this block belongs to RIPE (uh oh) – and RIPE says it’s from Romania.

Oh dear. We have a hacker.

First things first. This system is disconnected from the outside world (and it was never connected to the inner network); so let’s make a copy for analysis… done. Now let’s look at the image, and see if we can figure out what happened. Hmm… seems the original account holder decided to change his password to “l234” – oh joy. How do I know this? From a logfile, showing all the login attempts, by an automated scanner (from Kiev). The scanner was able to fool the guard-shack software by operating in slow-motion; testing a new combination at a psuedo-random interval of 15-100 seconds apart. It’s been working on this since mid-March… but only on this one account. And – this system is generally hidden from view. How did it know to come here?

Turns out, the account holder advertised he had a new account on a new system and was learning Linux and posted messages about this in several forums… gee, thanks, guy.

Time to clean it up. The IDS is on a separate system, and when it noticed unusual traffic, simply contacted the switch and shut down the offending port, and then sent a few messages about what it did to the usual suspects. By turning down the switchport, the hacker lost connectivity immediately and was unable to execute the usual cleanups. Now I have a history file to peruse, and see what happened.

Three hours pass… and it’s clean. I have a system image preserved for posterity (or at least for the rest of the month), and an improved password policy in place on the system. I thought I had one in place, but a routine update overwrote the file with defaults – I see the update I used was replaced in the repository shortly after I used it; put that one down to bad luck, and add the affected files to the comparator cron job.

Live and learn. Back to electron mining.

…and for the account holder who created the vulnerability? His account and one other (also advertised on WoW forums) have been obliterated. I hope he didn’t use his clever password elsewhere…

Time to move…

It will be moving day soon. Not for me, but for students wanting to take their accomplishments forward.

Since January, I’ve been teaching a course in Web Architecture. In practice this has left students with a number of websites, in various states of completion/construction/disrepair and so on. Most will have a customized WordPress install, and a Drupal 7 system.

For the time being, the course is hosted mostly on my little in-house server. By the end of the calendar year, students will have to move off this server.

But where to go?

There are generally three possibilities: host it yourself, pay for hosting, or  take it down.

Host it yourself works only IF (big IF) you have: 1) requisite knowledge to install and configure a web hosting environment; 2) a computer to do this on; and 3) appropriate rights for hosting from your service provider. While my class teaches the first component, the others are beyond my control.

I think most will opt for paid hosting; or take it down. It’s too bad the college doesn’t provide hosting support for student projects.

Passwords and Accounts

I’m beginning to be overwhelmed.

A few weeks ago, I lost a USB-key (or flash-drive) with a copy of my master Firefox profile on it. The master profile has all the passwords on it. Think about that for a minute. ALL THE PASSWORDS. In one place.


After a rather frantic day changing the passwords on 227 different accounts, and struggling with a new password regimen, it became clear: I need a way to manage passwords. I probably also need better passwords, or at least more of them.

In the process, I also found which sites had rather poor password policies, and I’ve made a list of places to re-assess. In this day and age,  password policies of “all numeric” or “only eight characters” or “upper-lower case only no numbers” are absurd. I’ve already decided to change vendors in some instances, due to absurdist password policies.

I still have to figure how to manage the passwords. There are several commercial solutions, as well as some open-source, but they almost all suffer from one or more drawbacks. I guess I’ll end up making a compromise, somewhere.

The first problem is with the hardware solutions – you have to carry it around with you, it needs batteries, it only stores a small group of passwords, what if I lose it? I don’t think I’m going to use a dedicated hardware unit.

The software solutions, well, I think I’ll have to go with one of them, but for an alternate path, I’m also beginning to use OpenID. I have accounts on several of the providers, but after having poked around a bit, I think I’ll end up using the Google-based provider most often. In order for this to work, of course, you have to have a Google Profile – and thus a new webpage was birthed.

Along the way I’m also going to finally take the plunge into the smartphone pool – StupidPhone™ is starting to wear out, and it’s about time I stepped forward from the trailing edge of technology. Whichever password manager I pick needs to run on an Android-based phone.