Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Recertified, Un-moused, and Port-holed

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    You can't believe just how fast a year goes by. It seems like only yesterday I was rebooting all the Hyper-V virtual machines because the server certificate for Hyper-V had expired. And now it's gone and done it again.

    The certificate is renewed automatically, but it disconnects the VMs when it does this. Which causes the mouse pointer to go off and hide, and you can see only a quarter of the screen in the VM connection afterwards. Trying to do all that UI stuff without a mouse is hard enough, but doing it at the same time as looking though a tiny porthole, where you can't see most of the screen, is even harder.

    However, rebooting all the VMs is something I try to avoid. OK, so I usually have to do it each month for patch Tuesday (or twice this month with the out-of-band update for Internet Explorer). A reboot all round is a pain because the virtual domain controller can't re-sync Active Directory until I boot up the cold-swap backup DC (one day I'll figure a way round having physical DCs). And the server that interfaces with my weather station and the solar panel inverter gets confused and has to reload all its readings.

    So, this year, I decided there must be a better (and quicker) way to regain control of my VMs. And there is. As described in http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2413735, you just save the VM and then restart it. I'm sure I've tried this before without success, but it worked this year. Perhaps one of the patch Tuesday updates to Hyper-V changed something inside.

    But maybe I should be upgrading to Server 2012 instead. I still have 2008 R2 on most VMs, and even one running Server 2003 (it was two until I got rid of ISA Server). According to a blog post I read this week I have only 450 days of support before Server 2003 reaches end-of-life. Maybe when I get a free week I can look forward to a holiday in the server cabinet.

    Or retire from work and give up computing instead...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Digital Trainspotting

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    I know that computers and digital electronics have almost completely taken over our world, but it was still an eye-opening experience to see just how much they have infiltrated one of my peripheral interests: model railways.

    Many years ago, when space and time permitted, I indulged physically in the world of railway modelling. It's almost mandatory for the real anoraks and ex-trainspotters who are generally into railways (the full-size ones). Even if it's only by joining a local society and/or visiting model railway shows. Though my early experience as an active modeller, some 30+ years ago, came to an end through a combination of moving house and Clive Sinclair (I bought a ZX80 and never had time for any other hobbies after that).

    At the time, in conjunction with an interest in electronics, I was attempting to replicate a section of the East Coast Main Line complete with fully operational signaling, block working, switching, track circuitry, etc.; an area of the real railway environment that has always fascinated me. But, though the full size railways were pretty much fully digitized and electrically powered even back then, the ability to replicate it in model form was severally hampered by the lack of suitable, easily-available hardware.

    Yet a trip over the holiday weekend to the model railway show at York (one of the primary shows of the year - and somewhere that, years ago, was an annual pilgrimage) revealed just how much has changed; and what it actually possible now for even the most ham-fisted railway geeks amongst us. Especially those with a parallel interest in computers.

    Most of the electrical control logic for my unfinished project was based on banks of miniature 9 volt relays, miles of wiring, a few integrated logic chips containing AND/OR gates, and big hot transformers to supply all the current it required. All of which could be easily hidden in a cupboard. But the visible items, in particular signals at 1:148 scale (2mm to the foot / N-gauge) required working lamps of around 1.5 mm diameter. In those pre-"cheap and hugely varied range of LED" days, the smallest was a 3 mm diameter "grain of wheat" bulb. Building a working 4-aspect colour light signal was a task well beyond my capabilities, and nothing even close was available commercially. Yet, now, you can buy ready-made 2mm scale colour light signals in a range of styles. Even though, it seems, 3-aspect is the maximum; but I also found cheap 1.5 mm diameter LEDs so it would be reasonably simple to build 4-aspect signals and other more esoteric combinations such as junction signals.

    Meantime, the availability of reliable 2mm scale locomotives and chassis was a real problem 30 years ago. A few German chassis were available at huge cost if you fancied building the superstructure yourself, or adapting a kit. But even with these high-quality items, the principle of powering them with a variable DC voltage meant realistic speed and slow running was not guaranteed. Now the trend is digital command through a constant 15 volt AC signal applied to miniature decoders in each loco. From what I saw, accurate and reliable running seems easily achievable even in 2mm scale locos measuring less than three inches in length.

    The digital command control systems allow control of anything that is electrically powered. Internal lighting for coaches and buildings, loco head and tail lights (that change automatically), signals, turnouts, road crossing barriers and gates (and warning lights), even the flickering glow from the firebox of steam locomotives. Plus the use of high-intensity white LEDs to replicate arc welding in a workshop that seems to be almost mandatory on many layouts now. And the hand-held controller is, of course, wireless these days - so you can wander about while driving.

    And one relatively new feature, driven by the command control systems, is digital sound. On many layouts, the locos sounded just like the real thing, with the engine note changing to match speed, the sound of air brakes, and a realistic tickover when stationary. On one sales stand I even discovered that you can program the sound chips with the actual type of the loco, and it emits sounds recorded from the real thing. Amazing.

    But it doesn't stop there. In the "olden days" we used to build track plan panels with embedded lights, just like the real thing, and populate these with the switches for turnouts and isolated sections that allow multiple locos to be used. With digital command control, isolated sections are no longer required and combinations of turnout settings can easily be set up in one action. And when you add in a computer, you can easily introduce additional logic features such as block working and proper locking of signals and turnouts.

    In fact, several of the layouts were completely controlled by a laptop computer that displays a clickable live track plan that controls everything. In some cases, automatically driving all the trains as well. Though I guess this just matches my continued surprise when I go to a social event where there's a disco and discover that there are no record decks or even CD players any more - the DJ just runs the whole thing from a laptop.

    I'm not sure we aren't heading for a time when railway modelling becomes a spectator hobby. OK, you still need to build it first, but there were some complete layouts for sale at the show. Perhaps in the future the younger generation will just order their model railway online, set it going in the spare bedroom, and spend the rest of the evening tweeting and facebooking their friends with status updates about the trains they've seen going past.

    Maybe trainspotting is about to see a whole new lease of life...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    My Email's Gone Cloudy

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    For the past several months I've been fighting to resolve network connectivity problems, especially with the Office 2013 version of Outlook. And then, suddenly, this week all the problems went away. Without me doing anything!

    Those brave souls who subject their Monday morning coffee break to my rambling diatribes will no doubt recall some of the efforts I've made. Getting rid of ISA Server. Reorganizing my DNS infrastructure. Replacing my wireless access point. Upgrading the internal network to 1 GB switches. Replacing the load-balancing router. Upgrading both ISP connectivity packages. And generally fiddling with settings and options in Outlook.

    While all this has provided some dramatic improvement, especially in the areas of web browser responsiveness and removing the occasional failed connections, it made absolutely no difference to the way Outlook resolutely and randomly disconnected, spend minutes trying to synchronize with the mail server, and left sent messages in the Outbox for up to an hour before dispatching them.

    Wits end was becoming a regular destination during my working day, especially when waiting for an urgent email to arrive. Those conversations where someone says "I've just sent you an email..." became embarrassing "I'll call you back" events, and last-minute emails sent just before the team went home didn't get read until the next day. I was fast becoming an email pariah.

    Of course, I regularly phoned our tech support people to try and solve the problem, and they were generally helpful until I mentioned that it happened on all my computers, on Windows 7 and Windows 8, and so it probably wasn't a hardware or software issue - at which point the usual response was "It must be your network that's the problem." They assured me there were no issues with the mail server or the configuration of my mailbox. Maybe I should just move house, or go back to snail mail.

    Yet now, huge joy, it's working fine. No delays. No loss of connectivity. No more hourglass or warning triangle on the Outlook notification icon. Messages fly out before I even see them hit the Outbox, and incoming messages appear almost before they were sent. Why? Because this week I was upgraded from Exchange Server in our local datacenter to Office 365 Exchange Online running in Azure. So maybe not all of the problems were actually my fault?

    I wonder if I can send the IT department a bill for my network upgrades...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Book By Any Other Name

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    So last week saw the sad demise of Bruce Robertson, the managing director of the UK-based Diagram organization that specializes in artwork and design for books and other publications. While I'm sure he'd most like to be remembered by the great work his company has done, the somewhat unfortunate fact is that he's probably best known for founding the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year.

    I'll admit that I hadn't heard of this (or him) until I read his obituary in the newspaper. Not that I always read the obituaries, but I like to check if there are any interesting recently dead people (was it Phyllis Diller who said she always read the obituaries to make sure she was still alive?)

    And a concise history of the prize is (as you'd expect) on Wikipedia. Some of the less controversial titles include the famous first prize winner "Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice", the 1984 winner "The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today", and the rather amazing "People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It".

    Other more specialist titles include a guide to banishing fairies from your home called "Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop" (I especially like the use of "one's" rather than "your"), the no doubt fascinating historical guide called "Highlights in the History of Concrete", and the technical treatise named "Unsolved Problems of Modern Theory of Lengthwise Rolling" (supposedly a vital technique in metalwork).

    What's illuminating about the prize is that the judges are urged not to read the books in case they discover that the title is actually meaningful and not odd at all. Probably the same applies with computer books, especially if you're not a computer geek. For example, on the first few pages of Amazon's computing books section I found "Analyzing Neural Time Series Data: Theory and Practice (Issues in Clinical and Cognitive Neuropsychology)", "Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation" (does that include cake?), and "Python for Data Analysis: Data Wrangling with Pandas, NumPy, and IPython" (probably a completely nonsensical title if you are more familiar with zoology than computing). I also came across "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware", and just had to break the no-reading rule to see what on earth wetware is. Turns out to mean your brain. And I thought it might be about underwater computing.

    And what about "iPad for the Older and Wiser"? You can't help but wonder if there is an associated guide called "iPad for the Younger and More Stupid"...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Infinity = 40

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    At last our phone company has managed to drag a strand of high-speed cable across the six miles from the exchange to the green box at the end of my garden. In a flash I've been transported from the "back of beyond" into the exciting world of the "digital now" (at least, that's what it says on the publicity blurb they sent me).

    According to the leaflet, the new service is called "Infinity" and is immediately available with speeds "up to eighty times faster than ADSL". Of course, you do have to take into account a few over-excitable marketing terms here. It's actually still ADSL, but closer to you than it was before. Also, the multiple increase in speed simply reflects how slow it was before (less than 2 MB in my area). And when I phoned and asked if "Infinity" was a description of the actual speed I could expect, I wasn't really surprised to discover that it's actually around 40 MB maximum. I'm wondering how long it will be before the Advertising Standards Agency people start to ask difficult questions.

    What they provide is "Fibre to the Cabinet" (FTTC), so you still have wet string between the cabinet and you (note that I refuse to call it "Fiber" on the grounds that it's buried under our green and pleasant English fields). And at the pointy end you get a modem that translates the signal into a PPPoE interconnection that any suitably-equipped router or hub can consume.

    I always said I'd upgrade my ADSL line when FTTC did arrive, and I was on the phone to a business salesperson at BT (the phone company) the same day as I got the letter. Obviously take-up is somewhat slow because I got a fitting date only a week ahead; maybe because I have a business service rather than a residential one. And within three days they'd delivered by post the hub/router, a box of cables, and a welcome pack. The modem itself, and hopefully the requisite installation skills, would be coming with the engineer.

    And everything did arrive on time, and worked. The engineer replaced the wall socket with a new one (or rather, one exactly the same as the old one but with an "Infinity" label), went off down the street to the cabinet and wiggled the wires for half an hour, plugged in the modem, and I was almost instantly cable-enabled. He also plugged in the hub/router they provided, and did a speed test to prove it would give 40 MB down and 10 MB up.

    But then we got to the bit where I asked him to configure the hub with wireless turned off because it lives inside the server cabinet next to a lot of other sensitive networking stuff. If you happened to read my wireless security diatribe a couple of week ago, you'll recall a mention of how Virgin (my other ISP) tells you that your new cable hub has wireless enabled, including for a free open "guest network" connection. But you can turn it all off.

    So you won't be surprised to hear that the BT hub has the same, but they don't tell you. When I originally placed the order, I'd been careful to verify with the sales guy that wireless could be completely disabled in their hub, and was told it could. What soon became clear is that you can turn off your own "primary" and "guest" networks, but you can't turn off the public open (and unsecured) "BT Wi-Fi" wireless network feature. There's absolutely no capability to configure it. It's on all the time, whether you agree to that or not.

    I suppose it would have been a good opportunity to experiment to see how the free open Wi-Fi system worked, whether it used the same IP address as "my" connection, and whether it actually could eat up all my bandwidth. As I still have the hub (BT might decide they want it back sometime), I guess that's a task for a rainy day when I run out of other jobs.

    Instead, as you'll see later, I simply tagged in a Netgear router that has an RJ45 Ethernet port for cable connections and can handle PPPoE. But that was only after some rather tortuous conversations with a guy at our local electronics store, and a search of the web for a wiring plan. All initiated by the fact that my existing ADSL modem/router can do both PPPoA (ordinary PPP over ADSL) and PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet). So, in theory, there's no reason that it can't be used with a PPPoE modem.

    Or so you'd think. The BT cable modem has an RJ45 Ethernet output socket, but the old ADSL modem has an RJ11 "telephone-style" input port. No problem - I can (according to Amazon and several other online stores) buy, or make up myself, an RJ45 to RJ11 interconnect cable. Though figuring the pin connections from the many different diagrams on the web looked less than simple. So I popped down to the local electronics store and asked if they had one. I have to say that I wasn't prepared for the half-hour spirited discussion that ensued, and I'm still not sure which parts were accurate.

    According to the expert man I talked with, after you switch to "Infinity" the ADSL port on your modem is redundant. You cannot use it at all, for anything. Therefore, you cannot buy an RJ45 to RJ11 connector - there is no such thing. Even if there was, it wouldn't work. Yet, according to BT, you can use your existing ADSL modem as long as it supports PPPoE, can expose a network username and password, and can be configured with an MTU of 1492. All of which my existing modem can.

    In fact, the load-balancing router on my network, next down the line from the modem, can do PPPoE. It has an Ethernet input port, and I confirmed that it worked fine plugged into the BT Infinity cable modem. I could have just used that setup, but I wanted a perimeter network (what we're no longer allowed to call a DMZ) with port forwarding to a web server, so I needed a separate hub/router between the cable modem and the load-balancing router.

    In the end I decided to replace the several-years old ADSL modem with one that has Gigabyte connections (not that I'm actually going to reach the limits of a 100 MB port), and where the firmware is a bit more up to date. And, of course, has an RJ45 Ethernet input port. But I also bought an RJ45 to RJ11 cable from Amazon - at some point I'm going to find out whether this would have worked. Maybe you already tried this, or can tell me whether it's a realistic option before I break something experimenting.

    Best of all, however, the purchase of a new modem/router means I have another ADSL router to add to my growing collection of spare ones...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Call In a Specialist

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    In the rapidly expanding realm of computing technologies, it's reasonable to assume that most developers have only a limited spread of knowledge. I regularly hear it said that keeping up with the welter of new frameworks, platforms, systems, and capabilities is almost impossible. Except that it's only occasionally you actually get abruptly confronted with this uncomfortable truth.

    I freely admit that I'm fairly solidly fixed in the Microsoft world these days, but even then there are loads of areas that I have only viewed from afar. I've never tried to build an app for Windows 8 store; or played with StreamInsight and SQL Server Integration Services; or even seen an Xbox in action – never mind tried to write programs for it. And my experience with WPF, WCF, BizTalk, and SharePoint can optimistically be described as fleeting.

    So the "how little you really know" event happened to me twice this week. The first was when writing map/reduce code for HDInsight. Unless you use the Hadoop streaming interface, or some fancy framework, the code has to be Java. Not a problem - Java isn't one of my strengths, but if you know a few procedural programming languages such as VB, C#, and Pascal (as opposed to declarative languages such as Lisp) working in a different one is not a major problem.

    In fact, a friend who is multi-lingual often remarks that, once you've learned a couple of foreign languages, adding new ones is much easier. So it is with programming languages. You just need to figure out the equivalent dictionary words (in programming terms, the objects and methods) and master the pronunciation (the programming runtime environment).

    Yet, try as I might, I could not get my Java code to execute. It compiled fine without errors, and loaded. But it seems that I missed some fundamental stage between the compiler and the runtime environment. Perhaps because there are endless different examples and reference topics on the web that say different things, and the object libraries in Hadoop on HDInsight seem to bear no relationship to the online docs and examples.

    And then, later in the week, I was chatting to a neighbour about the websites and apps he develops for his own company. When I've built websites, my basic tool has been a text editor and my technologies have been HTML, JavaScript, and ASP.NET code. Yet he's never written or worked with any of these. He uses a Mac, RapidWeaver, drag-and-drop app development tools, and a bunch of SEO tools I've never heard of. He produces great websites that are regularly in the first page of the search engine results, and has apps that run on iPad and Android. And I have no idea how any of this works.

    I guess the days of being a "developer" in the IT world are long gone, but maybe even a specialization such as "web developer" is now a thing of the past. Perhaps we are an industry of increasingly narrow focused specializations, because each is so complex - and is just one of a rapidly expanding domain. Maybe now you need to be a "rapid Android app developer", or an "SEO optimization engineer", or even a "presentation style management administrator".

    But I suppose this fragmentation is just like what's happened in other, much older professions. I probably wouldn't want an osteopath to fix my teeth, or a pulmonary hypertension cardiologist to write the prescription for my new spectacles...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    An Automatic Upgrade to Uncontrolled Access

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    How could they get it so wrong? I've been very happy with all the other Netgear hardware scattered across my network, including ADSL modems, switches, and the NAS box, but I'm beginning to wonder if the WNDR 4500v2 wireless router I upgraded to last year was such a great idea. Especially when a firmware update seem so problematic. It's a shame because, other than the management UI issues, it's a really nice piece of kit that seems to offer very solid, fast, and reliable wireless connectivity.

    The latest problems all came about because I read of a serious security vulnerability in the wireless feature of Virgin cable modems, which it seems are based on Netgear wireless routers. I have wireless disabled in my Virgin modem, and you can't actually upgrade the firmware yourself anyway - I assume Virgin will do an automatic update at some point. But it prompted me to check for updated firmware for my Netgear wireless router (which I use as an access point for my network). Supposedly it checks automatically, but you can also kick off a version check manually.

    So I did, and after 10 minutes it was obvious that it couldn't connect to the Netgear server. Maybe it uses some esoteric port that my firewall blocks, or maybe it's just broken. So I toddle over to the Netgear website and discover there is an update that fixes several issues and vulnerabilities. No problem; read the release notes, download it, and install it through the router's web UI. Which seems to have worked fine when everything comes back up again.

    Interestingly, the release notes say you should do a full settings erase after upgrading, but then says that you should write down all the settings you changed from the default values, since you may need to re-enter them manually. My guess is that you'll definitely need to re-enter them afterwards. But mine is configured with a fixed IP address and set up as an access point, so I'd need to mess around plugging in wires just to reload the configuration from a previously saved config file (although this turned out to be the least of my worries).

    Instead, after the update, I ran through the settings to confirm everything was as expected. It's nice to see that they have finally finished the UI section for setting up the router as an access point (see Missing The (Access) Point). And it actually does say "Access Point" in the main menu instead if the cryptic "AP Mode" entry. They even populated the empty section of the "help" pop-up. Though help sections for some other pages of the configuration seem to bear little relationship to the actual UI.

    They also removed the link to configure the MAC address-based access control settings from its previous home, and now it lives in the main menu. And when I did find it, I was amazed (and seriously perturbed) to discover that it was completely disabled - and that half a dozen unrecognized devices were shown as connected. Reloading the previous configuration from a saved backup file made no difference. How on earth can they get away with that?

    So I set about reconfiguring the access control using a list of MAC addresses I thankfully printed out a while ago. And realized what a hash they've made of what was a quite usable and informative approach in the previous version. Yes, after you turn on access control you can quickly allow or block any currently connected device. The list also shows the NETBIOS names of each device and the IP address on the network. Though several non-Windows devices don't show a name, and some don't show an IP address either. It does say in the UI that "intruders" will also show up in the list, but without a name how can you tell?

    In the previous version it remembered all allowed devices and allowed you to add a description for each one so it was easy to see what they all are. In this new version you can create a list of "allowed devices that are not currently connected" and provide a description. Though you have to turn off any devices that are connected and reboot the router so they aren't shown in the "currently connected" list before you can add them as an allowed device with a description – otherwise you get a "duplicate MAC address error" message. And after all that effort, when they do connect again, the list doesn't show the name or description (even though the router now knows what they are) so you still don't know what's actually connected.

    Besides which, it's a long multi-click routine to add each device to the allowed list, made worse by the fact that the list is hidden under a "Click here" link every time the page loads. And if you make a mistake and want to remove an item from this list you're back in the half-finished UI world. There's a checkbox next to each item and an "Add" button, plus a small unmarked blue square that turns out to be the "Delete" button when you adopt the usual practice of clicking wildly around the page to see what happens.

    And then, as computers that are allowed access are shut down, they appear in the "allowed devices that are not currently connected" list. Except they often appeared with the last two segments of the MAC address set to "00" and no name/description. It's almost impossible to tell what's going on. Yet, strangely, after a few days it seems to have started remembering the names of devices - at least those that have a NETBIOS name - and successfully shuffles them from one list to another as they come online or go offline. Perhaps if I just leave it alone it will sort itself out.

    You now also have to allow or block wired devices that are on your network, but don't use wireless. Where a device has both wired and wireless interfaces you have to allow both separately. Why? All this does is stop something physically connected to your network from trying to open the config UI. OK, it does add some extra security if you don't know who might get physical access you your network, but it seems perverse blocking this but still allowing wireless access to the config UI. I suspect that any intruders that manage to get into the premises will have more pressing things to do that plug their laptops into the router – even if they did remember to bring an Ethernet cable with them.

    But at least Netgear did manage to populate the pop-up help section with useful advice about using the access control feature. Though it seems odd that they "strongly suggest" choosing the "Allow all new devices to connect automatically" option, rather than "Block all new devices from connecting". If you allow the connection of any previously unknown device that you didn't specifically add to the blocked list, what's the point in turning on the access control feature?

    Mind you, MAC-based access control might be less vital if the router had the two most obvious security features that others seem to include - the ability to block access to the management UI from all non-wired connected devices (to prevent wireless intruders from accessing the configuration) and the ability to reduce the power of the wireless signal so that it doesn't fill the whole street. I was hoping to find these options in the updated firmware, but no luck. You can change the maximum speed of the wireless connection, but nowhere does it indicate if this changes the power of the signal.

    Of course, I'm guessing that I'm in a very small minority of people who bother with setting up access control, and that millions of these routers will never see any firmware updates anyway because most users will set them up and never look at the management UI again until something breaks. Maybe the firmware updates should be applied automatically, as with Windows update? Though an automatic update that automatically turns off security settings (as this one does) would be seriously worrying.

    And should I actually be concerned about someone in the street connecting to my wireless network? They'd need to know the SSID (which I configure the router not to broadcast) and the passkey, though it seems that the latest firmware upgrade fixes a vulnerability that might allow intruders to bypass the authentication. Well, it would put them on my internal network behind the firewall, even though they'd need a username and password to connect to any other resource. It would also allow them to soak up some of my bandwidth, which could be a problem because one of my ISP connections is metered and chargeable beyond a certain limit.

    Plus, with the increasing focus on ISPs blocking "inappropriate content" of various kinds, how long would it be before I get a visit from the thought police when my ISP records lots of attempted accesses to nefarious websites or illegal file sharing sites? I'm guessing that there will be plenty of technically savvy young people whose home connection is monitored or filtered, and who figure that someone else's Wi-Fi is an alternative source of connectivity.

    However, it's increasingly the case that open Wi-Fi connections are popping up all over. When I first saw one or two appearing in my network connections dialog, bearing SSIDs that include the names of our major telcos, I wondered where they were coming from. The answer is that most new wireless routers include a guest network that is enabled by default. OK, so it's isolated from your own connection, but it shares your bandwidth. And I sincerely hope they also use a different IP address, or we're back with the thought police issue again. I haven't got round to testing this - I disable the guest network on all my routers, but I'll bet that most non-technical people don't even know it's there.

    In fact it seems like a rather interesting (and somewhat insidious) way that the major telcos have found to widen Wi-Fi access without paying for it themselves, or even telling people what's happening. In most cases the customers have to pay for the router when subscribing to a package from an ISP, and they certainly pay for the electricity it uses. Though to be fair, and only because I have a business package, Virgin did tell me about the guest network capability of their modem. But that's because they punt it as an advantage - it allows visitors to my company premises to "enjoy the benefits of wireless connectivity".

    Meanwhile I've discovered how hotels can afford to offer free Wi-Fi. During our recent trip to Iceland, the free hotel Wi-Fi required an email address and "click the link in the email" confirmation - which meant I had to use a real email address to avoid getting kicked off after 15 minutes. Since then I've been flooded with spam emails, all in Icelandic...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Royal We Is Working On It...

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    I really am trying to get used to the dumbed-down (sorry, I should say "user-friendly") move towards simple language and a less technical description of the options and features in modern software UIs. Messages such as "We're working on it" and "Something went wrong" feel like they would have been programmer's jokes only a few years ago, but now they are the accepted way to communicate with the "average user".

    I came across another today on my Surface RT: "We've found new updates today, and we'll install them for you soon." No option to say "Well just do it now" or any indication of when "soon" might be. OK, so I can fire up the old Windows Update dialog from the Start screen and get all the usual functionality. But it's more the use of "we" that I find odd.

    In the days when I wrote for Wrox Press here in England we used "we" extensively as a way to involve readers, and help them feel we were sharing their pain when programming or administering software. But when Wrox closed down and I started writing for US publishers I was told that you talked to readers, not worked with them. It was "you" not "we".

    So does "we" in the software you use, rather than the books you read, mean something different? Are the programmers who wrote your O/S actually sharing your pain? I reckon the use of "we" is designed to make users think that there's a huge group of vigilant technical operators just waiting for them to turn their computer on and do something.

    Maybe it's a bit like you see on those TV programs about nuclear power stations, or in NASA mission control, with hundreds of people fervently staring at banks of computer screens with slowly decrementing counters that determine when "soon" becomes "now" and they can "install them for you". Mike at desk 93 has just hit the big red button to install the latest updates for Mrs. Smith at 17 Willowlessgrove Avenue in Walmington-on-Sea, while Sarah at desk 426 is about to let Mr. Jones in Longleaf, North Carolina know that we've finally finished working on it.

    Of course, what I see in real life is that the new simplified interface paradigm actually benefits most average users. And I'm sure that there's been a ton of research and market testing to prove it's only us technical geeks that find it annoying. In fact, I probably wouldn't have been quite so prompted to write this rambling diatribe had it not been for perusing the management UI of my Virgin cable modem to see if there was an update available (more on that next week).

    As I was exploring I found the firewall settings page, and decided to check the configuration. Even when you choose "Advanced" mode, all you get is a drop-down list with three options: "Low", "Medium", and "High". And a pop-up help tip that says just "This will set how aggressive your firewall protection is". There's no indication of whether the setting covers inbound connections, outbound connections, or both, and what ports or protocols it affects.

    The default aggression setting is "Low" and I wasn't sure if it would snarl at me and take a bite out of my leg if I chose "High", but I tried it anyway. Which resulted in nothing being able to connect to anything on the ‘Net. And on "Medium", everything seemed able to connect to everything (the same as on "Low"). In the end I left it set to "Low" – I've done a penetration test to prove all inbound ports are closed, and I have a configured firewall behind it in the load-balancing router, so I guess it's not really that important.

    Mind you, I came across an interesting view on the use of "we" recently when talking on the phone to some sales guy. He said that you can tell the size of a company from whether people say "we" or "I". If it's a large organization, especially one with hundreds or even thousands of employees, the person talking to you will say "I" and "me", as in "send me some details of your interesting new product". If it's a tiny company or a one-man band, the person will say "we" and "us", as in "send us a free sample of your exciting new product" (i.e. no corporate gift policies).

    But that's enough rambling from us for this week – we'll be working on it and writing again soon...

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