Category Archives: Tech

Parental Control Software and Big Boobs


My kids (ages 11 and 9) are getting more and more familiar with the internet, and enjoy spending time on the computer. Mainly they play games and watch funny YouTube videos (“Simon’s Cat” is their favourite), but a few times Ryan has mentioned facebook and chat rooms and instant messaging and such, and they are both heavily into a game called Minecraft, which is all the rage these days. They have gone to message boards and watched videos on how to mod the games, and recently Nicky wanted help in downloading a mod which required modifying .jar files. There’s enough scary stuff on the internet that I’m getting less and less comfortable with them just perusing at their leisure, so I looked into various parental control software packages.

Step one was made a couple of years ago and was amazingly simple. I set up a free account on OpenDNS.com and changed my router to use it for DNS rather than my ISP. Not only is it faster, but they have controls that filter various categories, so I selected things like porn, nudity, adware, dating, gambling, hate, and a few others. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to get to these sites, just that if you try to get to bigboobs.com, the DNS server will simply not tell you where it is. (bigboobs.com is just an example I grabbed chose at random. Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a real web site.) The DNS setting is done on the router, which means it applies not only to the computers, but the Wii, Ryan’s iPod Touch, and anything else we add in the future. That was a very easy first step and blocks a fair bit of the stuff I don’t need my kids seeing. As part of research for this article I actually went to bigboobs.com to make sure OpenDNS was blocking it. It wasn’t, so I had to fix my OpenDNS settings. I guess I will have to visit bigboobs.com periodically from now on, just to make sure everything is still working. With OpenDNS, I mean.

Step two has been ongoing for a while, though it seems to be at least temporarily solved. I’m looking for a software package that will allow me to monitor and limit my kids internet usage. I first tried a free solution from Blue Coat Software called K9 Web Protection. It looked pretty good, but I couldn’t make it work at all. I installed it, rebooted the machine, and got nothing. I wasn’t able to connect to the internet at all, and every time I tried to run the administrative program, it crashed. During the uninstall procedure, it brought up a window and asked me why I was uninstalling, so I told them. To their credit, a Blue Coat support guy responded via email within a day or two and sent me a newer version to try. It had the same problem only this time when I uninstalled it and replied to the original email, I got no response. Strike one.

The next one I tried was Kidswatch. I installed the trial version and it seemed pretty extensive. It allows you to limit exactly what times you are allowed to log on to the machine, what times you are allowed to use the internet, what web sites are blocked, what types of web sites are blocked (i.e. social media, online shopping, etc.), all kinds of stuff like that. The list of options is actually pretty impressive. It can also send you daily or weekly email reports of internet usage – which web sites were visited, how long was spent on each of them, stuff like that. It can send you immediate emails if a site is blocked or certain keywords are found on web sites, chat rooms, or IM sessions. This sounds great, but I started getting false positive reports all over the place – unless Ryan is doing google searches for “Megan Fox boobs” while sitting right next to me. It reported that he went to facebook when he didn’t, it reported all kinds of other web sites he didn’t visit and searches he didn’t perform. It ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

I had been using the free trial of Kidswatch for a week or two, not sure yet whether I wanted to buy it or not. It’s not that expensive – $45 allows you to install the software on up to three computers. But then I got an email saying “we’ve noticed you’ve downloaded our software but haven’t bought it. If you use this code, we’ll give you a $10 discount”. I know this is standard practice in many industries, but it seemed backwards to me — if I had originally been thrilled with the software and had bought it right away, I wouldn’t get the discount? It’s the same with banks – the loyal long-time customers who never consider switching banks pay the highest mortgage rates, while the people who threaten to move to another bank pay less. That doesn’t seem fair to your best customers. Anyway, I didn’t end up buying it because of all the false positives. Strike two.

There’s another package called NetNanny which is supposed to be good, but I haven’t looked at it. It’s the most expensive though – $40 per PC. I was almost ready to install this one when I asked around on Twitter and someone said that they were “just using the free Microsoft one”. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but there is – Windows Live Family Safety.

Vista and Windows 7 have parental controls built in, so you can limit when you can log in to particular user accounts as well as the total amount of time they are logged in per day or week. This package adds more stuff, allowing you to set up multiple computers to have the same limits, modify these limits from anywhere, as well as adding web filtering (general categories as well as specific sites), game and program restrictions (eg. I have Skype and the webcam software blocked) and contact management if your kid uses Windows Live. It can monitor IM activity if you use MSN Messenger, but not other IM software. It would be nice if you could allow the child to log onto the computer at certain times but not use the internet, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. You also can’t combine the time restrictions with the web restrictions, so you can’t say “Allow minecraft.net on weekends but not Monday-Friday”.

So this is what we’ve been using for a few months, and it’s pretty good. If I run into problems with the Windows Live stuff or I need more functionality than it provides I may give NetNanny a try, but I’d want it on at least two computers, and I’m going to have to be damned sure that it’s going to do what I want before I spend $80 on it.

Macs suck too


If you’re a Windows user who has ever been infected by malware, and you’ve posted about it on facebook, twitter, or a blog, some Apple fan-boi has likely told you “That wouldn’t have happened if you used a Mac!” There is some truth to that, but the implication that Macs are inherently safer or more secure than Windows machines is simply false.

Please don’t take any of this as a rant against Apple in general or Macs specifically, or believe that I think Windows is far safer than Mac OS X. I don’t own a Mac, but I love my several-year-old iPod as well as my son’s iPod Touch (way more than my wife’s Walkman). I’ve used Macs a number of times in the past few years and damn, they’re slick. Apple has by far the best visual design team in the world – things generally just work the way you expect them to and in some cases, even better.

I’m primarily a Windows developer, and I’ve written tons of software for Windows over the last twenty years. I am slightly less experienced when it comes to Macs, but I have plenty of experience on other unixes, and modern Macs aren’t that different. I have done some Mac work in recent years, and in my previous job I worked on NeXTStep, which was essentially the predecessor to Mac OS X. If you’re comparing the unix systems of the 90’s with Windows 95 or 98, then yes, you can certainly say that the Windows operating system itself is less secure, because security just wasn’t a consideration when those systems were created. Unix was built from the beginning to be a multi-user operating system, and so there had to be separation between different users on the same machine, and between normal uses and super users. But Windows was designed to be a single-user OS, so the assumption was that you were doing everything, and since this is your machine, you should have access to everything. Multiple users, administrative privileges, and even things like file permissions were added later and for a while, there were lots of things that just didn’t support these features very well. But over the years, more and more software was changed to use the new security features, and Microsoft gradually deprecated and then completely disabled the old insecure methods of doing things. I know we at Sybase had to make changes to our software to deal with security-related changes when new versions of Windows were released.

Right now, when it comes to spyware, viruses, worms, or things like that, I can’t really argue the fact that if you are using a Mac, you are less likely to get infected than if you are using a Windows machine. But the reasons for that have nothing to do with how safe the operating system is. There are two primary reasons:

  1. Macs are simply less popular than Windows. This doesn’t mean that they’re inferior, but if you look at market share, Windows machines make up almost 90% of all the machines out there. If you’re going to write a virus that will take over a machine for use in your botnet or have it scan a machine and send you somebody’s credit card information, why would you write your virus specifically for a computer that only 5% of all computers are running? You’d write it so that it could infect as many people as possible, and that means Windows. I know of no viruses (virii?) that affect the BeOS operating system, but is that because it’s completely secure? No, it’s because nobody uses it.
  2. Mac users are generally more computer-savvy than Windows users. We all have a brother or cousin or mom or Aunt Helen who knows nothing about computers but has one just for email and browsing facebook (and installing fifty browser toolbars). How many of those people own Macs?

Every year at the CanSecWest computer security show in Vancouver, they have a contest called “Pwn2Own” where contestants try to find and exploit security vulnerabilities in various pieces of software (usually browsers) on various platforms. The winner wins the hardware they broke (hence “Own” in the name) as well as cash. The contest began in 2007, and the only platform broken that year was the Mac, though it looks like it was a Mac-only thing at the time. Every year since, it’s definitely been a multi-platform contest, and every year (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011) the Mac is one of the first platforms cracked. In 2011, it took five seconds. It shouldn’t be surprising that Apple software developers are just as likely to write buggy software as the rest of us.

As the platform becomes more and more popular, people are indeed beginning to write viruses for the Mac. This one ironically poses as anti-malware software in order to get people to install it, just as many Windows malware programs do. This might be a good time to remind people that a web page cannot detect viruses on your computer. If you see a banner on a web site saying that your computer is infected (or your computer isn’t running as fast as it could) and you should click here to install something that will fix it, they are lying.

I find it ironic that Mac people keep advising their friends to get Macs in order to be safer. If people keep doing this, two things will happen: Apple’s market share will increase, and more and more non-techies will be using Macs. This will make Macs a bigger target, and more malware will end up being written for Macs. The act of telling people to use Macs for safety is actually making them less safe. So if you’re an Apple person who’s constantly telling all your friends that they should be using a Mac, it’s really in your own best interest to shut the hell up.

Cloud computing is like groovy, man


I downloaded a package from sourceforge.net this morning and saw an advertisement for a whitepaper from IBM on cloud computing. This line in the ad intrigued me:

CloudComputing

I wonder what kinds of cloud computing initiatives IBM was working on in 1971, when TCP/IP (the protocol used by the internet) hadn’t been invented yet?

Bye Bye Bell


During a recent conversation at work, a colleague (John) mentioned that his phone bills are usually under $10/month. I thought about our $60+ phone bills (not including mobile) and asked how on earth that was possible. He said that he uses VOIP and not only does he pay almost nothing, but he gets more features than Bell supplies. Again I asked how, and he pointed me at voip.ms. After a little research, I decided to try it out. It’s working now, but getting everything working was far from simple.

VOIP, for those of you who don’t know, is short for Voice Over IP, which basically means your telephone service is provided over your internet connection. As long as you have broadband always-on internet service, you can use it to provide telephone service as well. In my case, I pay $1.99 per phone number and then 0.5¢ per minute per call (both incoming and outgoing). Note that there are no long distance charges, so a call to friends around the corner costs the same as calling the other side of the country – but a one-hour call costs all of 30¢.

To make this work, I first needed to sign up for a voip.ms account. This was free and very easy. Then you need something to convert your phone signals into internet traffic; in my case I bought an analog telephone adapter (ATA) from Linksys. My research for this purchase was not exactly extensive – it consisted entirely of asking John which one he bought, and then buying the same one. I plugged the device into my router and then plugged a phone into the adapter. Guess what? No dial tone. This made sense, since I hadn’t told the adapter how to get to the voip.ms server, nor did it have a phone number for me to use, which means that I have some configuring to do.

(Attention technophobes – you might want to skip this paragraph.) The adapter supports both a web interface and a phone interface. The phone interface is minimal and cumbersome – I had to pick up the phone and dial * four times and that gave me a voice menu. The menu options (not many of them) are listed in the manual and everything seemed very cryptic. Luckily there is also a web-based interface, which would make life a lot easier, but getting that enabled was a bit of work as well. The adapter had already been assigned an IP address by DHCP, but to get the VOIP stuff working, I had to open ports in the firewall which requires a static IP address. I entered a key sequence to disable DHCP and another to assign a static IP address, and then another to enable the web interface. Then I hung up and went to the IP address in a browser. Success! Now I could modify all the settings. Except that there were a zillion different settings, each with meaningless (to me) acronyms, and I didn’t know what the settings were supposed to be.

The web interface was orders of magnitude easier than the phone interface, but even so, you’d be lost without a good knowledge of telephony terminology. Unfortunately, I don’t have such knowledge. I eventually found a description of how to configure my particular device on the voip.ms page. Once that was done, things should have worked, in theory. To test it out, I ordered a new phone number (what they call a “DID”) from voip.ms, which cost me $1.99 / month. It gave me a Waterdown number (area code 289) instantly, and I was able to make outgoing calls. Incoming calls required a little more configuration but with more help from John, I soon had that working. I then started the process of moving my existing phone number over from Bell, and a week and $25 later, that was done. I cancelled the temporary number, physically disconnected the Bell line, and away we went.

Cool options available with voip.ms:

  • You can set the name and number for call display. For example, when I call someone, I can set it so that their phone displays 867-5309 and “Jenny”.
  • I get emailed every time someone leaves a voicemail. A .wav file is attached containing the message. When I dial the number to get my voicemail from home, I don’t need to enter a PIN.
  • I can set up a dialing rule so that I don’t need to dial ‘905’ for local calls.
  • If there is no answer (after a time period that I choose), I can:
    • go to voicemail
    • forward the call to another number (for example, my cell phone)
    • play a recording
    • give a busy signal
    • hang up
    • give a “this number is not in service” message
    • give a “this number has been disconnected” message
    • do nothing
  • If the line is busy, I can choose any of the above options as well, and it doesn’t have to be the same as if there’s no answer.
  • I can set up any number of phone numbers that all ring on my phone. These numbers can be anywhere in North America, and it would be a local call for people there. For example, I can set up a phone number in Huntsville (for $1.99/month) that my parents and Gail’s dad could call locally, and it would ring here. Nobody would pay long distance for that call.
  • I can have the ring sound different depending on who’s calling or what number they dialled. In theory. John tried this, however, and couldn’t get it to work.
  • I can add numbers into my local address book for speed dial on any phone. If they call me, I can set the name that’s displayed. This is handy, for example, because our cell phones always show up as “Unknown name” and the boys don’t answer the phone unless they recognize the name. (They haven’t memorized our cell numbers yet.) So I added our numbers to the address book and now my cell comes up as “Graeme cell”.
  • I can set up multiple mailboxes and a “digital receptionist”. For example, I can say “Press 1 to leave a message for Graeme, 2 for Gail, 3 for Ryan, and 4 for Nicky”.
  • I can put calls into a calling queue, complete with hold music. “Your call is important to us, and is being held in priority sequence. Please hold for the first available Perrow family member.”
  • I can set up a “ring group” so that when a call comes in, both my home phone and my cell phone ring, and the first one to answer get it.
  • I can make rules for specific numbers, so that telemarketers get the “This number has been disconnected” message, or some go straight to voicemail without ringing the phone.
  • I can do almost anything above differently based on time of day. For example, I could say that between 11pm and 7am, only ring twice before going to voicemail, otherwise ring 5 times.
  • I can get a complete list of every incoming and outgoing call, and how long it was. There are a number of graphs available, showing things like call lengths and total cost.
  • 911 works, although it does not automatically forward our street address to the 911 operator. It also costs $1.99 / month extra.
  • Other than 911, all of the above options are free included in the price.

Drawbacks:

  • The 911 thing I mentioned. It works, but we have to tell the operator our address. Not a big deal.
  • No call waiting, but I don’t care. We didn’t have it for many years and only added it recently. I don’t remember why we even added it – we usually just let the second call go to voicemail.
  • If we’re doing a lot of internet stuff, like the boys are watching YouTube videos or I’m watching a lacrosse game, call quality could drop. John said he’s noticed this a few times but not often.

As I said, it was non-trivial to get everything set up, and the ATA device cost about $60, and moving the phone number cost $25. But if I end up with $10 monthly phone bills rather than $60+, those extra costs get covered pretty quickly. We’ve only been live for four days, but I have not noticed any drop in voice quality. And if nothing else, damn it’s cool.

The Guild


While listening to Wil Wheaton’s podcast a few months ago, he played an interview he did with Felicia Day, creator, writer, and star of The Guild, a web comedy series (a TV show but only available on the web). I had never heard of The Guild, but Wil did a number of guest appearances on it and kept talking about how great it was, so I thought I’d give it a try. The Guild is undoubtedly one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, on or off TV. The writing is brilliant, the characters are hilarious, and there are even shocking plot twists and cliffhanger moments that make you look forward to Tuesdays. Each episode is only 6-8 minutes long, and a new episode is released every Tuesday. A “season” lasts for about 12 weeks and season four just finished last week. I started watching The Guild when I was off work, so I managed to catch up with all of seasons 1 through 3 in a couple of days, and during season 4 I tried to watch it every Tuesday night.

The Guild is about a group of six people who play some kind of online game, similar to World of Warcraft (which I’ve never played). Note that you don’t need to know anything about gaming (I don’t) to enjoy the show. The game has taken over their lives and they even use each other’s game character names when talking in real life. In fact, of the six of them, I only know the real name of one of them – Clara, because her character name is also Clara. Oh wait, Bladezz’s name is Simon but even his sister calls him Bladezz. The other characters (except Tink, I believe) have had their real names mentioned, but only a couple of times. The main six characters are part of a guild known as The Knights of Good, meaning that they play together as a group and fight against other guilds. The guild members are:

  • Codex is the main character, played by Felicia Day. She’s a single woman who’s very insecure and always concerned with what the other guild members think of her.
  • Zaboo is a young man of Indian descent who is good with computers but has no social skills whatsoever. (When he moves in with Vork, Vork tells him, “Men only shower together when there’s more than one shower.”) He lived with his very controlling mother until season 3 when he moved in with Vork.
  • Vork is a 40-something balding guy who is extremely cheap and follows rules to the letter. He’s the leader of the guild.
  • Tinkerballa (known as Tink) is a bit of a mystery. I believe she’s a med or pre-med student, though her personal life is pretty much off-limits to the other guild members. I don’t think they even know her real name. Tink is beautiful and not only is she well aware of this, she uses it to her advantage whenever possible.
  • Clara is a stay-at-home mother of three (or two, depending on the season – one seems to have vanished) very young children, who she routinely ignores while playing the game. Her husband, George aka Mr. Wiggly (named after…. um, never mind) once joined the guild temporarily but was completely inept at the game.
  • Bladezz is a high school student who works at a local burger joint, “Cheesybeards”. Bladezz is always making off-colour sexual comments and was described in a recent episode as “skeevey”. Good word.

The Axis of Anarchy is another guild that the Knights of Good are constantly battling with. Their leader is Fawkes, who has a strange love/hate relationship with Codex. Fawkes always has this little “I’m smarter than you but I suppose I can bring myself down to your level” smirk on his face when he’s talking to someone. Fawkes is played by Wil Wheaton, who does a great job of playing an evil yet oddly charming douchebag.

When I first started watching it, I assumed that it was done as a web series because it wasn’t good enough to be picked up by one of the big networks. Because you know, the sitcoms that are shown on the big networks are all really good. cough $#*! My Dad Says cough But it looks as “professional” as any network sitcom, the actors are all really good, and as I said before it’s very funny. If it were a network show, they’d have to expand it to 22 minutes per episode, and tripling the length of each episode would likely water it down too much. Having a “live studio audience” watching the taping of each episode would not make the show any better, and God help Felicia Day if she were to add a laugh-track.

Being an internet-based show aimed at geeks, it is a little surprising that the website for The Guild is so confusing. If I were to design it, I’d have a page for each season and links to each episode in that season all in one place, so it’s easy to find episodes. There is a blog that has a page for each episode, but that bumps you off to Bing where the episodes are hosted. Once you’re there it’s not easy to find other episodes – the “related videos” on the right seems to be a random assortment of episodes from all the seasons. One page I went to (season 4 episode 10) had a link to season 4 episode 5 instead so I had to start poking around until I found the right episode. From the time I started looking to the time I was actually watching the right episode was at least five minutes – should be a matter of seconds.

But being an internet-based show aimed at geeks, it is not particularly surprising that there is a fan podcast for The Guild. It’s called Knights of the Guild and features a guy named Kenny who is a member of the crew, though he hasn’t mentioned (in the few podcasts I’ve listened to) exactly what he does. After every episode, he does a “companioncast” during which he interviews many cast and crew members and talks about that episode. This is recorded right after the episode was filmed, which is months before it actually airs. Most of these interviews are pretty interesting, though some are kind of Chris Farley-esque. “Remember when happened? That was soooooo funny” isn’t much of an interview question. It does seem a little weird to have a 90+ minute podcast about a 7-minute episode, but whatever, it’s fun.

I suppose The Guild is not for everybody, but I think a lot of internet geeks like myself (I have a blog, I use twitter, and I use terms like “epic FAIL”) would love it. As I said, you don’t need to be a gamer (or even a geek) to like the show, but if you’re a gamer or a geek, give it a try at watchtheguild.com.

America is the new China


If you are an American citizen, you should be very frightened at the direction your government is heading. Last week’s Security Now podcast talked about two different but related issues regarding privacy and censorship of the internet. Both issues involved the US government attempting to legislate away some problem that they don’t know how else to solve, and in both cases the legislation will accomplish precisely nothing.

The first is COICA, the “Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act”. The idea of this bill is to allow the government to force the delisting of particular web address from DNS servers around the country, so if you tried to go to http://www.copyrightinfringer.com, the browser would fail to look up the IP address for that name, so you wouldn’t be able to get there. There is no due process here – the US Attorney General could order a web address added to the blacklist (which all ISPs would be required by law to respect) even without any kind of trial. This is obviously at the request demand of the RIAA and MPAA to catch people pirating music and movies, but the bill is worded vaguely enough that the AG can take down any site he wants. As the EFF puts it, “had this law been passed five or ten years ago, YouTube may not exist today”. The idea that the US government is considering censoring which web sites its citizens can visit is more than a little scary. There are millions of Americans who are thankful that they don’t live in China because the internet is so heavily censored there, and now their own government is considering the same thing. The really dumb thing about this legislation is that it’s going to make it slightly more difficult to get to web sites on the blacklist, but not impossible. You can still use the IP address directly to get there, and all the legislation does is make the translation from name to IP address unavailable from US ISPs. I guarantee you that within hours of this bill being passed, there will be people outside the US creating open DNS servers and web sites listing the IP addresses of blacklisted web sites. There will be Firefox plugins that automatically check one of these other servers and retrieve the IP addresses that way. There already exist legal means to take down web sites that contain illegally copyrighted data. So what will this law accomplish?

The second one is even more frightening. The FBI wants the government to legislate that all cryptographic systems have back doors that the FBI can use to decrypt anything. Law enforcement agencies have been complaining for years that they can’t do the internet equivalent of wiretapping because the encryption that is used is unbreakable. And they’re right: the encryption in use nowadays is unbreakable, despite what you might see on TV. If something is properly encrypted using a modern encryption algorithm, the only way to decrypt it is to correctly guess the key that was used to encrypt it. This is called the “brute force” method, but because keys can be any characters and any length, the number of possible keys they have to check is essentially infinite. And the only way to know if your decryption attempt has worked is to look at the resulting data and see if you recognize it as something useful. Encrypted data just looks like random noise, and it’s not even possible to detect that it’s encrypted. If you were to encrypt a file twice, even brute force becomes impossible. Even if the bad guys guess the correct key the first time, they wouldn’t know that they got it right because the decrypted result looks like more noise. So when they say “unbreakable”, they mean it – without the key, the data is simply inaccessible. By anyone. Ever.

I understand that this ties their hands, but I’m afraid it’s too late to complain about that. This legislation is doomed to failure because strong encryption routines are already out there. Does the FBI honestly think that terrorists will continue to use Skype if they know the US government can listen in on any conversation (which they currently cannot do)? No, they’ll just write their own version of Skype using the existing unbreakable algorithms. Or they’ll send email and attach encrypted files. The terrorists are not going to stop using unbreakable encryption just because the government tells them to stop.

Not to mention the obvious – if all encryption has a back door that the FBI can use to break it, how long until the bad guys figure out how?

In my job at Sybase, I am responsible for the encryption aspects of the SQL Anywhere client and server. If this legislation goes through, we will have to:

  • immediately stop sales of our existing products in the US
  • remove the existing encryption algorithms from our products for sale in the US (we’d likely keep the existing stuff for sales outside the US)
  • obtain a specification of the new encryption algorithms that the US government will allow us to use
  • implement them, test our product with them
  • implement some kind of tool that will allow our customers to decrypt data that was encrypted with the old algorithm and re-encrypt it with the new one
  • ship the new software and politely ask our customers to stop using the software they already have and install the new stuff

This is a significant amount of work that we’ll have to do in order to comply with this law, and thousands of other software and hardware companies will be similarly affected. Some, like Skype, will likely need to redesign their entire product. The only impact will be that people that were already law-abiding will know that the FBI can get into their data if they want to. If there are any terrorists or criminals using encryption software, they just won’t bother upgrading so they’ll know that the FBI cannot see their data. And none of the above even addresses the civil liberties issues with the government being able to spy on its any of its citizens’ private data.

Not a single terrorist or criminal is worried about these bills being passed. But American citizens should be.

Book Review: Memories of the Future Vol. 1


Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of my all-time favourite TV shows. I watched it religiously when it was on in the late 80’s and early 90’s and I bought each season on DVD as soon as it was released. I also enjoy former TNG cast member Wil Wheaton’s writing, so imagine my excitement when he started writing reviews of TNG episodes a couple of years ago. He wrote an article about every ten years or so – OK, it was more often than that, but that’s how it seemed when you were patiently (or not) waiting for the next one to come out. He posted links to them on his blog, and then gathered them all up, did a few more, and put them in a book called Memories of the Future. There will be at least two volumes; each covering one half of the first season of TNG; only Volume One has been released. I don’t know how much further he’ll go – I asked him on twitter if he was planning on continuing the books or podcasts right up to season 7, but he never responded. Geez, you get 1.6 million followers and suddenly you don’t respond to questions? Bastard. I’d respond to you, @wilw.

Anyway, this book is a must for TNG fans. Wil rips each episode apart, telling you what was good and what was bad, which is fun to read because there were a number of really bad episodes in the first season. There is a lot of humour in the episode recaps and technobabble, and I found the behind-the-scenes memories really interesting.

Wil also gives some insight into the whole TV industry and how it works – like when person X is writes a script for an episode, but then their original script is hacked and changed without their knowledge by someone else who doesn’t get credit. By the end of the process, the writing of this really bad episode is still credited to person X, who really had nothing to do with how bad it is. It seems unfair, but that’s how it works. Wil pulls no punches, naming names on who were the worst writers, directors, and guest actors that he worked with.

Wil is very complimentary to the other cast members of TNG, particularly Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, who are indeed excellent actors. One person he’s not very complimentary to, however, is himself. He seems convinced that he was the worst actor on the set, and that a large contributing factor to that is his youth. A number of times he mentions that if he wasn’t such a self-absorbed teenager at the time, he might have done a better job. Of course “self-absorbed teenager” is a redundancy, and Wil himself does acknowledge this at one point, when he tells the story of apologizing to (I think) Patrick Stewart for being the way he was when he was a teenager and not appreciating things as he should have. Stewart tells him that everyone at the time understood that he was a teenager, and that that attitude came with the territory. Of course, some of this self-deprecation could just be modesty – he only makes a point of mentioning when he did a lousy job. Perhaps there were a number of episodes where he thought he did a great job, but he decided to keep the “Wow, my performance was really great in this episode” thoughts to himself.

Wil was also doing weekly podcasts called “Memories of the Futurecast”, where he would read part of his review of one episode a week. In many cases, he’d expand on the stuff in the book, or mention memories that had come up since the book was written or that he didn’t include in the book for whatever reason. Those were pretty cool too – Wil is a good storyteller and is also pretty funny, though I find sometimes that the funny loses steam fairly quickly. In one or two of the podcasts he mimicked a conversation between himself and some pretend person – the first two or three lines were pretty funny, but then he kept going and the next seven or eight lines were just not. More is not always better. It’s kind of like my seven-year-old: “if I say or do something and daddy laughs, then obviously if I do it every ten seconds for the next hour, it remains funny.” Wil doesn’t go that far, but there have been a few times where he starts one of these jokes or “conversations” and after the second or third line I think to myself “OK, that was funny, but stop there. Please just stop there.” and he doesn’t. These long drawn-out jokes don’t appear in the book though, just the podcast.

The one thing I don’t like about the book is the language – there’s a fair bit of cursing and some sexual language and stuff like that. This is true of all of his podcasts actually, he’s quite the little potty mouth. It doesn’t bother me directly – I’m no language prude, and some parts of this book are quite hilarious because of the language. Example: when talking about Q giving them the whole Farpoint thing as a test, Wil explains why this will not be a problem: “in Starfleet, we save the universe and fuck the green alien chick before breakfast. We got this one.” My problem is that my 10- and 7-year-old sons are both TNG fans (ironically, Wesley Crusher is their favourite character along with Data) and I think they would get a big kick out of some of these stories, but it’s just not appropriate for kids that age to read about anyone fucking green alien chicks, or any other colour of alien chick for that matter. Perhaps I can find some stories that the boys would like and read parts to them.

As I said, if you’re a TNG fan, you owe it to yourself to check this book out, or at the very least, find the reviews through his blog. I am anxiously awaiting volume 2 and any subsequent volumes.

Privacy on Facebook


Attention Facebook readers: You might want to click the “View Original Post” link at the bottom of this note. Facebook sometimes messes up the formatting. Irony: Writing about Facebook in an article available on Facebook and telling people to go somewhere else to read it.

Facebook is one of the world’s most popular websites, with over 350 million users. An awful lot of those people share all kinds of information on Facebook that they wouldn’t normally share with people, and a lot of them seem to have forgotten who they’ve added as friends when they update their status. I’ve seen people who post status messages like “Woohoo! Got laid tonight!”, forgetting that mom, Aunt Mary, and the boss are all reading this. Privacy, or the lack thereof, has always been a big issue with Facebook. Thanks to some recent changes to their privacy policy and settings, an awful lot of people are sharing an awful lot of information with the world that they probably don’t really want to share, and may not even realize that they are sharing.

Gail and I attended a “Facebook 101” seminar at a local school a couple of months ago. A local (Oakville) parent started looking into Facebook privacy, and was appalled at (a) the amount of information available by default to the world, (b) the number of people who don’t know this, and (c) the number of kids joining Facebook and not considering the ramifications of what they post. He started doing this seminar so that parents unfamiliar with Facebook (and even those who are) were informed about the privacy aspects. There were a number of parents there who had older kids than ours, and whose kids were on Facebook. Some of them didn’t really have a good idea what Facebook was or what their kids used it for. After the meeting, I checked on my privacy settings. I was aware of most of the information given in the seminar, and I had already changed my privacy settings, so I didn’t have to make many changes. I then started poking around my friends’ settings and their friends and so on just to see how much information I could glean about these unknown people, to see if what this guy had told us was really true, or if he was more of an alarmist, pointing out the extreme cases. Fairly quickly, I came across a fair amount of information about people I don’t know, the best example of which was the page of my manager’s teenage daughter, who I have never met. Her privacy settings were set wide open. Despite the fact that I was not her friend, I could see who her friends are, pictures of her, where she went to school, and even her her email address, home address, and home and cell phone numbers. I immediately emailed my boss to tell him, and a day or two later her page had been locked down. Even my very limited research told me that this was not an isolated case, and that the guy running the seminar was not an alarmist at all.

Facebook has recently changed its privacy policy as well as the privacy settings. The settings are much more straightforward than before, and it seems easier to lock down your personal information, but there are three huge issues with Facebook’s privacy policy:

  1. As I said, it’s easier to lock down your personal information – or at least it’s easier to lock down the information that Facebook allows you to lock down. There are now some pieces of information (for example, your networks, sex, what city you live in, and your list of friends) that Facebook now considers public information, which means that you cannot prevent people from seeing that information. It is more than a little disturbing to me that Facebook has decided that they have the right to decide that for you and won’t allow you to change it.
  2. The old default security settings weren’t bad, for the most part – your friends and people in your network could generally see most of your information. There were some pieces of information that were available to everyone, but not everything was. But the second big change was to the default security settings – the new settings mean that by default, everything is globally visible. If you had modified your security settings before the change those settings were kept, so security-conscious people didn’t notice any difference. But the vast majority of Facebook users had never touched their security settings, and are now sharing all of their information with the world.
  3. When you install a Facebook application, the application developers get access to all of your information, even if you’ve marked it as private. Even worse, the application developers get access to all of your friends’ information as well. (This has always been true, but you used to be able to turn it off. Now you can’t.) This means that every time you install an application on Facebook, my information (assuming I’m on your friends list) is sent to the developer, and not only do I not have any control over that, I am not even informed of it. The application developers are then free to do whatever they like with the information. Technically they are subject to Facebook’s terms of service, which says that they are not allowed to use the data in any manner inconsistent with the user’s privacy information, but there’s no way for Facebook to police that.

If you don’t like these rules, you can just delete your account, right? Well, sort of, but that still doesn’t solve the problem. First off, Facebook doesn’t give you any easy way to delete your account. There is a way to “deactivate” your account, but there’s no “delete” button there. Apparently if you search hard enough you can find a way to delete it, but does Facebook actually delete your information from their servers, or just make it harder to find? Secondly, even if they do delete it, they still have backups of everything, so the information is all still available to them. Thirdly, (and this isn’t specific to Facebook) if someone on the internet can see your data, then they can save it to their hard disk, and nothing Facebook does can delete that. At the seminar I mentioned, the guy showed pictures that were taken at a frat party back in the 90’s, where two obviously drunk guys were standing at a party next to a stand-up cardboard cut-out of Hilary Clinton, and one of them had his hand on her breast. That guy, years later, became a speechwriter for Barack Obama, and when that photo re-appeared, he got into some serious trouble, jeopardizing not only his job but his entire career. Think about that when you post those pictures from last weekend’s kegger.

I read a comment online somewhere that said something like “Facebook shouldn’t be sharing information about their customers”. Another commenter responded succinctly and summed up everything: “You are not Facebook’s customer. Advertisers are Facebook’s customers. You are the product.” The more public information Facebook has on you, the more they can offer advertisers.

The easiest rule of thumb for internet security is: if you ever put anything on the internet, whether through Facebook, YouTube, a blog, a message board, or even email, whether it’s information, pictures, or videos, whether it’s intended to be publicly visible or not, you must always assume that it will be accessible by everyone – forever. Facebook is proving this – if you post information or pictures on Facebook and expect that only the people you allow to see it will be able to see it, you’re wrong, and it’s not because of some glitch that may or may not come up in the future, and it’s not because someone might squirrel the information away and publish it themselves later. It’s because Facebook is less concerned with your privacy than with how much they can make by selling it.

Here are a couple of related articles: one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and one from Jason Calacanis.

People think Y2K was a bust, thus proving it wasn’t


I read an article recently about a significant virus or some other kind of security problem that people were being warned about. One of the comments on the article said something like “Yeah, well they warned us about Y2K as well, and that was a bust.” I have read similar comments before and even heard similar sentiments from people I know. The truth is that Y2K was a real problem that would have caused real chaos if it hadn’t been fixed in time. However it was fixed in time, and the fact that no significant problems occurred on January 1, 2000 is a testament to the amount of planning and work that went into fixing it. The fact that the general public thinks it was a bust proves that it was successful.

I know that there were Y2K problems in the database server that I worked on at the time (and continue to work on), and I know that they were fixed beforehand. Our problems were fairly minor, but I know of other problems that were not. Gail worked for a large steel company at the time (still does, kinda), and some time in the late 90’s, they did some Y2K testing. They simultaneously reset all the clocks on all the computers in the plant to 11:30pm December 31, 1999 and fired ’em all up again. A few seconds after the clocks hit midnight, everything shut down. The problem was eventually traced to an exhaust fan deep in the bowels of the plant, which decided that it hadn’t had any scheduled maintenance in a hundred years, so it shut down. All the systems that depended on that fan to be running also shut down, and the failure cascaded upwards until nothing was running.

If they hadn’t done the testing, the plant would have shut down a few seconds after midnight on New Year’s Day, and it might have taken them a couple of days to find the problem and a couple more to get a new fan installed. This is assuming that the fan was the only problem. When every hour not producing steel costs your company hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars, a five-day outage would be devastating. Now think: what if that same brand of exhaust fan was used in your local power or water treatment plant? Could half your city live without power or running water for a week in January? What if a similar failure occurred in an air traffic control system? Or some safety-related subsystem in a nuclear power plant? Or the computer controlling the respirators in your local ICU?

The fan was fixed or replaced and the test was repeated. I don’t know how many times they ran the test, but when the real December 31, 1999 arrived, the plant kept producing steel like it does through every other midnight. Many hours and dollars were spent in advance to make sure that the problem was solved before it happened. This was done in countless other factories, businesses, hospitals, airlines, and such (not to mention every software development company) so that when January 1, 2000 arrived, all the hardware and software would handle it.

The people who were expecting nationwide blackouts or planes to start dropping out of the sky at midnight were surprised to find that the number of actual problems was very small. Many people assumed that this meant the whole “Y2K problem” was overblown or some kind of industry hype. It wasn’t. It was a real problem with an absolute deadline that could not slip. It was solved in time thanks to the combined effort of thousands of software developers (who, admittedly, created the problem in the first place) and IT professionals who put in a lot of effort so that people would never know there was a problem.

This, of course, is part of the thankless world that IT professionals live in – if they do their job properly, you don’t notice them. You might even mistakenly think that they do nothing. Every morning, you arrive at work and check your email or internet connection and find that everything is working properly. How many of those mornings have come after nights where the IT staff were up until 4am fixing some network or hardware problem? I’m sure you don’t know, but I’ll bet that it’s more than zero. Tell ya what – next time you see your sys admin walking through the halls at work, say thanks.