25 January 2016

Dumb Design

(No, this isn't about religion.)

Those that design stuff, physical and digital, should be required to use it in real life. Google "enhanced" its gmail interface so that every time you try to launch it, instead of going directly to the log in page, you end up at "Now a word from our friendly sponsor." And to add insult to injury, the default log on has been changed to "stay logged on." Google is one of the biggest culprits of "Dumb Design," perhaps because it is a company filled with engineers and no real people.

And then there is Amazon. I admit up front that making the charge cable double as a USB port is brilliant. However, the Fire (HD) charge cable is black-on-black. Yes, each end only goes in one way, but it is really Dumb Design to mark "This End Up" in stamped black, as well as being tiny, making it a real pain to get it right. I am looking at an example of "Intelligent Design" on the cable for a D-Link USB hub. It is black-on-black, but they recessed the "This End Up" indicator and made it larger, so it is a no-brainer to get it right.

All these tech companies profess to test human factors, but I wonder how much real world testing actually goes on. Microsoft (not picking on them, just have some knowledge) has long been a proponent of human factors, but you would never know it from using Windows.

Time for some real "Intelligent Design."

17 January 2016

We're The Phone Company And We Don't Give A Shit

Cable companies (rightly) take a lot of heat for their dismally poor customer service, while phone companies give out the same kind of lousy service quietly. Take my DSL, which I get from AT&T (through their purchase of someone else). For the last 2 months, it has been so slow that, among other things, I can't access Facebook. Now I know an anecdote is not a statistical survey, but bear with me. So, after trying to access their trouble shooting site by logging on, and not being able to because of the slow speed (Catch-22, anyone?), I have a chat with an online tech (not sure why that works, but it did). He was very helpful, saying that, yes, there was a problem with my DSL, but he didn't know what it was and couldn't fix it. However, he could roll a "service" truck, as long, of course, as I was willing to pay for that, and they would "surely find and fix the problem," although if it was in my house lines I would have to pay for that fix. And trust AT&T to tell me where the problem was (yeah, right).

What other service company, when you report a problem in their service (OK, OK, yes, cable, but otherwise) tells you they will charge you to come and diagnose the problem?

Phone companies (and cable guys) have you by the technology short hairs. A quick Google, when I was desperately considering Comcast cable modem Internet, shows an entire Consumer Reports site devoted to thousands of Comcast "customer service" horror stories.

Hell is(sorry Jean-Paul) being dependent on the phone (and cable) company for modern technological access.

10 April 2015

Dell Service Sucks Big Time

I am sorry to have to say this, but the "new" Dell sucks. You may get good hardware from them, but tremble in fear if you have to contact them for tech support, or if you have an administrative issue.

My brand new laptop (Feb2015) has issues accessing the Internet. And, yes, I tried a different machine on the same connection, and it works just fine (you can start breathing now). Now the support desk, which appears to be in India, did have a guy who tried hard. However, that required my allowing Dell to take over my PC, abd the end result, after about 45 minutes, was nothing.

The support desk is eager, and sends out innumerable boiler plate emails filled with boilerplate slogans. And if, as they request, you reply to the emails, they don't seem to read them.

I told them to give me suggestions and I would try them (I also tried some things myself). The end result was that they wanted to nuke the laptop and reinstall Windows, with, of course, no guarantee that would solve the problem.

And today was absolutely the last straw. They sent me an email from a "no response" ID and asked for a response in the email. So, OK, dumb me, responded - EMAIL UNDELIVERABLE.

As for the administrative issue: I asked for and got Win 7 Pro installed, rather than Win 8.1. But on my Dell account, they show the laptop having Win 8.1 installed, and of course the updates and drivers are specific for that configuration, rather than Win 7 Pro. So forget any update for the Ethernet card that might fix my problem. In addition, I sent an email telling them about this and asking them to fix it. There was an autoresponse saying they would be back to me in 24-48 hours. Guess what happened ;-) So a second email, same autoresponse, same "if an email falls in the forest, does anyone respond?"

For many years I was a Dell advocate, even when they went through their quality control problems and various reorganizations. And I admit that, except for Internet access, the laptop works fine. But I cannot recommend a company with this poor service, unless of course you are a techweenie with a death wish.

22 March 2015

Blah, Blah, Blah

The latest "email replacement," Slack, is gathering the usual hype. This NY Times analysis posits that information sharing will create a new work environment. Email didn't do it, so maybe this is the magic bullet.

So let me, once again, knock down this clay pigeon by starting with a quote: "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." George Bernard Shaw

My experience in corporations, and my study of corporate culture, indicates strongly that many people don't want their conversations to be public; information, after all, is power. Others never want to say anything in public; meetings show that distinctly. And still others hog the conversation, regardless of medium.

And communication itself can be a form of power, as Dilbert shows, because obstruction is power, whether not responding (http://dilbert.com/strip/2003-03-03) or creating confusion through responding (http://dilbert.com/strip/2007-03-25).

The medium is not the solution to interaction. You can't change people's personalities or corporate politics through a medium.

17 March 2015

Parasite

A Google search finds this definition for "parasite:" "a person who habitually relies on or exploits others and gives nothing in return." Change "person" to "phone company" and you find that it fits exactly.

On my new smartphone from AT&T (they are far from the only offender, I am sure), which requires a "data plan," there is a lot of installed stuff that sucks up data without asking permission or notifying you, and complains constantly when you disable it (although, of course, you can't completely disable or even get rid of it).

And then there are the apps which, while having nothing to do with the operation of the phone, require access to your contacts, your phone logs, your phone calls, and, for all I know, your blood type.

I have to say that I find phone companies even more offensive than cable companies, which is saying a lot. When I was studying to be a mad scientist, a lot of people, including some scientists, were concerned about fields of study that had bad, and even terrible implications. The researchers would make soothing noises, saying "well, it doesn't have a real world application." But smart people would say "if it exists, someone (or many people) will do something with it."

So much for communication technology bringing the world together. All it seems to have done is create "a giant sucking sound (Ross Perot was right about one thing)," pulling your money and your privacy into their black hole.

I think it is past time to start the Institute For The Cure of Technology Parasitism.

15 January 2015

Really Strong Passwords

WINDOWS: Please enter your new password.

USER: cabbage

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password must be more than 8 characters.

USER: boiled cabbage

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password must contain 1 numerical character.

USER: 1 boiled cabbage

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password cannot have blank spaces.

USER: 50damnboiledcabbages

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password must contain at least one upper case character.

USER: 50DAMNboiledcabbages

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password cannot use more than one upper case character consecutively.

USER: 50DamnBoiledCabbagesShovedUpYourAssIfYouDon'tGiveMeAccessNow!

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password cannot contain punctuation.

USER: ReallyPissedOff50DamnBoiledCabbagesShovedUpYourAssIfYouDontGiveMeAccessNow

WINDOWS: Sorry, that password is already in use

13 December 2014

Take My Password, Please

Passwords have long been a problem, especially for people who have many accounts. They are also a significant chink in everyone's digital armor (relax; I'm not going to launch into a lecture on "strong passwords").

Now there are software "password managers," such as Dashlane. I am not singling them out for any specific reason; they just happened to come to my notice through a friend's Facebook posting. I expect any day now to see a news item that Dashlane's password manager software has been hacked, due to an unnoticed security defect. That will be followed by yet another surge of identity theft and bank account draining.

Let me make this real clear: NO SOFTWARE IS SAFE. The INTERNET IS NOT SAFE. (Take that, cloud vendors).

If you feel compelled to keep a digital list of your passwords, put them into a Word or Excel document, store that in a USB stick, and keep it in a safety deposit box (seriously). Or, write them on paper and put that in the box. And if that sounds paranoid, just Google "bank and retailer accounts stolen." If major corporations can't keep their data safe, what makes you think you can?

03 December 2014

Come Into My Parlor, Said The Internet To The Consumer

By now you (all of my gazillions of faithful followers) know my low opinion of Internet security. Actually, "Internet security" is really an oxymoron.

As this recent NY Times post points out, "There has been more than a 10,000-fold increase in the number of new digital threats over the last 12 years." And yet so many people continue to do so many things online; not only shopping, but banking and bill paying. And hackers are dining out on your private information: "Last year, over 552 million people had their identities stolen, according to Symantec, and nearly 25,000 Americans had sensitive health information compromised — every day — according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Over half of Americans, including President Obama, had to have their credit cards replaced at least once..."

Until companies pay more attention to security (simply hiring a Chief Security Office is not anywhere near enough), you better be a bit less enthusiastic about the Wonderful World of the Internet.

05 May 2014

I Don't Need No Stinking New Technology

"Obsolete" is a much-used word in techdom, implying that an "old" technology (from last year, say) is no longer of any use. But the truth is that, while faster, more, and cheap may still often be the case, something does not become obsolete as long as it does the job it was bought for, as this blog post from the SF Chronicle points out.

Fax machines, landline phones (got dropped cell phone call?), answering machine, alarm clocks, wrist watches, and even record players are still with us (NY Times). Yes, there are fewer of them, and they may perhaps someday actually be obsolete. But if it works and it ain't broken, despite what the technorati may say, you don't need the latest and greatest.

20 April 2014

All Zipped Up

Enduring, simple technology is all around us, but sadly, fashionistas and technologists just can't leave well enough alone.

As this fall down funny article in the NY Times from Delia Ephron shows, the zipper, which is over 100 years old, has been converted into a torture device. I have experienced the horrors she describes; standing in the rain and trying to zip my otherwise excellent raincoat while getting drenched.

Just say "no" to those who would "improve" or "modernize" simple technologies.

08 April 2014

Smart Machines, Smart Crooks, Dumb Us

Right, let's add technology to all these devices so that, among other things, they can fail in spectacular ways or, worse, gather information for crooks, as noted in the NY Times. - Anything you can do, I can hack.

Time for all those technoids out there to consider how to protect their Frankenstein devices rather than eating lunch at the right places in Palo Alto and Mountainview, and rubbing shoulders with VCs.

31 March 2014

Phone Home

By now everyone has heard more than they want to about the lost Maylaysian Airlines plane. What makes no sense is the method used to allow the black box to send "pings" so a plane underwater can be found. It depends on a battery with a limited life as well as the fact that the black box will sink along with the rest of the plane. And as if that weren't enough, the battery needs to be stored under proper conditions or it won't work properly.

Now all modern cars have airbags which deploy on impact. It seems to me that it would be simple to attach a device (preferably a couple of them at least) to a plane that would be deployed on impact and could float. Even if it wasn't tethered to the plane, like a buoy, it would still indicate about where the plane went in. And it could be made so it would be resistant to drifting, so it would stay close to the spot.

I make this idea freely available to anyone. No thanks necessary.

28 March 2014

Not So Smart Phones

So the "mobile" era is upon us. Land lines are being discarded, apps are ruling our personal and business lives. So saith the usual suspects. Meanwhile, back in the real world, crappy apps and bad connections are ruling our personal and business lives.

"Smartphone users are frustrated and deprived by bad service, including slow application load times and frequent service crashes."

This insight comes from Crittercism, which says it monitors real world apps running on smart phones. NY Times

And if that doesn't make your day, there is also the fact that smart phone operating systems regularly crash, especially under the load of apps doing such useful things as Candy Crush and Facebook.

So the next time the pundits say a new era is upon us, stop and think for a moment about the fact that, in this case at least, "past performance may indicate future results."

17 March 2014

All You Can Steal Buffet

The total loss of privacy continues as company gather "big data" and then lose it to crooks who belly up to their systems and steal them blind while screwing ordinary folks like you and me. Check out this grim graphic from Bloomberg Business Week.

At this rate, everyone in the US will have their identity stolen. Welcome to the Brave New World.

06 March 2014

A Good Password Is Hard To Find

Of course, if you forget your password, it shouldn't take 8 years to recover it, as it apparently did for the New Delhi police ;-)

23 January 2014

Drive, He Said

There are some benefits and quite a few drawbacks to turning cars into computers, not the least of which is that any computer can be hacked. As Click & Clack point out on their "Car Talk" site, hackers can alter "your car’s black box data, rolling back the odometer, changing a VIN number, or, worse, accessing someone else’s car to steal it or even make it crash?"

In Dec2013, "hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek (working legit with the Defense Department) demonstrated they could gain remote access to the electronic control units (ECUs) in both a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape, control the brakes, gas pedal, steering wheel and even the infotainment system."

And "Tom Kowalick, who chairs a black box group at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), says people are routinely hacking into those boxes, which are similar to event data recorders on airplanes, using cheap devices bought on the Internet. Why? So they can alter entries that show them speeding, or failing to apply the brakes before an accident."

Stop the car, Hal. I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that.

25 December 2013

Reading You

It is ironic that people are so up in arms (and rightly so) about the NSA's invasion of privacy, but few seem to realize, or if they do, protest, that the digital world is steadily invading your privacy in ways the NSA can only dream of.

As this NY Times article shows, e-books gather information on what you read and the ways you read. I've already been exposed to this through my Kindle, which sends information to Amazon whenever I add or delete books, even those not purchased from Amazon, slowing down the operation of the device and generally pissing me off. But that is nothing compared to the intrusive things these start ups want to do/are already doing.

Google reads your mail - "Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail." Henry Stimson, Secretary of State, 1929-33

Amazon reads your purchases.

Facebook reads your friends, likes, and posts.

Maybe there should be more protesting about this invasion of privacy by corporate persons, since among other things, it allows the NSA to read all that stuff without having to go to the time or expense of gathering it.

07 December 2013

Back To The Past

Big government has many technology problems, including huge failed IT roll outs and conversions. But an even more fascinating problem is the continued use of technology only found elsewhere in museums, such as floppy disks (yes, those) by The Federal Register. NY Times

So next time you're faced with getting data off of obsolete media, check with the local government offices first rather than some expensive tech specialists; they may just have what you need, and not in a storage closet, but in everyday use.

02 December 2013

Metaphors Embedded In Technology

Humans are, generally, conservative, not in politics (although that may also be true) but in their cultural likes and dislikes. And so ebooks are adopting the book metaphor to get reluctant readers aboard. NY Times

Early TV adopted many of the features of movies and especially theater, as did the early movies, which were mainly (except for a few innovative directors) filmed plays.

It will be interesting to see what happens as ebooks evolve. I suspect one place where we might see the future of ebooks is in graphic novels, many of which have broken out of the narrative sequence of books, and even the frames of comics.

18 November 2013

Drugs Just Want To Be Sold

The sale of banned items is as old as organized society, but until the Internet it was a niche with complex distribution and physical points of sale. And yet government still tries to play Whack-A Mole, attempting to shut down such things as Canadian drugs at way cheaper than US prices, gambling, and various "dark" markets, including the infamous Silk Road, run by the Dread Pirate Roberts. NY Times

But just as, in legal markets, there are always those in banks and Wall Street seeking to push the limits for the sake of making buckets of dough, there are those, in illegal markets, who will do the same. It would be simpler, cheaper, and more efficient to legalize and regulate/tax drugs, because the Internet will continue to make it easy for frictionless commerce.

15 November 2013

One Way To Steal Them All

A lot of people seem to be excited about One Coin device, which stores all your account numbers on a single device. What they seem to be forgetting is how easy that makes it for thieves to steal everything at one time. And no matter what One Coin says about security, remember that all those banks and retailers and other whose sites were hacked (Adobe, anyone?) claimed they had rock solid security too.

My advice? Forget flashy new tech and stick to old-fashioned credit cards swipes.

21 October 2013

Oxymoron

The Federal government is the home of the most big failed IT projects in history. You would think that by now they would have learned their lesson, but sadly, the latest example is the online health insurance signup, as shown in this NY Times article.

Now, online signup has been around forever (or at least since the start of the Internet), and should be a no brainer. But, as always, the government decided to build its own (mistake #1), use the usual legions of contractors (mistake #2), and not do any standard load analysis (mistake #3). Result, of course, has been near disaster as well as huge cost over runs and overly complex plans to "fix" the mess.

"Buy, don't build." They could have simply bought a sign up system from another insurance organization, such as, for example, Kaiser which has a system large enough to suit. But, no, we're the government and we do our own thing.

13 October 2013

I'm From The Government, And I'm Here To Help

Yet more sad examples of the inability of government (especially the Feds, but true at all levels) and other institutions to project manage IT rollouts, with the usual consequences: cost and time over runs, breakdowns, people locked out from badly needed services, and the usual excuses from the usual suspects.

Obamacare - NY Times (they should have at least studied all the problems of portals from years ago)

Food assistance in 17 states - NY Times

Online college applications - NY Times

There is no excuse for technology failures of this kind, except, of course, for ignorance and incompetence.

23 August 2013

Complex Systems Are Prone To Unexplainable Failures

"Complex systems are prone to unexplainable failures." Fail-Safe, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (1962)

So the Nasdaq had a pricing problem and was turned off for 3 hours. NY Times And as the article points out, this is only the latest in a long series of glitches, crashes, and "technical problems." Trading is becoming all electronic and the electrons are created and transmitted by technological systems so complex that no one understands them and finds it hard, if not impossible, to fix when they blow up.

The stock market is only one place where technology is taking over. Manufacturing is becoming more a process of robots, cars are computers with wheels, appliances have a mind of their own, and communication is now a "feature" of the Internet. So we should not be surprised that technology, which is, after all, built by fallible humans, fails suddenly and, sometimes, catastrophically.

26 July 2013

Security Is So Last Century

Everyone should do online banking and give up their credit card numbers, right? Well, that big sucking sound you hear is the Russian mafia draining your bank accounts and using your credit cards. - NY Times

These guys made it look easy, and it was. How could major retailers and banks, who supposedly have IT security people and worry about their customer's data (they do, don't they?) been like corner candy stores knocked over by a smash and grad 2-bit thief? Simple - the Internet is not secure, never will be, and all the laws and regulations are meaningless because the people who suffer -- you and me -- are not the corporate persons whose technology security proved full of holes like Swiss cheese. Make them suffer and perhaps they will get more serious about security.