• The Old New Thing

    The subtleties of a Will Ferrell movie, and other observations from the in-flight entertainment on a Chinese airline


    My flights to and from Beijing were on Hainan Airlines, a Chinese airline. One consequence of this is that Mandarin Chinese is the primary language of communication; English is a distant second. It also means that the in-flight movies are subtitled in Chinese, so if you can't read Chinese, you are restricted to movies in languages you understand.

    I wasn't interested in the English-language movies, although I did watch a little bit of "The Other Guys", a Will Ferrell vehicle. In one scene, Ferrell's character and his friend have dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Ferrell's character says to the waiter, "謝謝" which means "Thank you" in Mandarin. The waiter responds, "唔該" which means (in this context) "You're welcome" in Cantonese.¹

    Part of my brain wondered if this language mismatch was some sort of subtle commentary about the nature of Will Ferrell's character, that he's perhaps a bit of a poseur, or that he's out of place and doesn't realize it?

    And part of my brain couldn't believe that the other part of my brain used "subtle" and "Will Ferrell" in the same sentence.

    Anyway, the only other language I knew that was offered by the in-flight entertainment system was German. So I watched Willi und die Wunder dieser Welt, a movie-length version of the German children's television show Willi wills wissen. And watching the movie reminded me that Germans are obsessed with poop. During the course of the movie, you see a flying fox pooping, you see a polar bear pooping, and you investigate a Japanese toilet. I didn't stick around for the whole movie, but I wouldn't be surprised if you also saw a scorpion pooping in the final segment.

    (In the Canadian segment, somebody talks with Willi in heavily Canadian-accented German which was apparently learned phonetically. I could barely understand him. It reminded me of my high school German class and the students who couldn't shake their thick American accents.)


    ¹There are several phrases that roughly mean "Thank you" in Cantonese. The two primary ones are the aforementioned "唔該" and "多謝", and the rules governing proper use of each one are complicated.

  • The Old New Thing

    Microspeak: Informing a product


    Microspeak is not always about changing a word from a verb to a noun or changing a noun to a verb or even changing a noun into a verb and then back into a noun. Sometimes it's about data compression.

    This testing won't inform RC, but we'll need it to inform an RTM release.

    First, you need to familiarize yourself with a less-used sense of the verb to inform, namely to guide or direct. A typical use would be something like "This data will inform the decision whether to continue with the original plan in Product Q." In other words, this data will be used to help decide whether to continue with the original plan.

    But of course, at Microsoft, it's all rush rush hurry hurry no time for slow sentences just get to the point. So we drop out a few words from the sentence and instead of informing a decision about something, we just inform the thing itself: "This data will inform Product Q."

    Therefore, the sentence at the start of this article is shorthand for "This testing won't inform [some sort of decision regarding] RC, but we'll need it to inform [that same decision in] an RTM release." In other words, the result of this testing won't have any effect on the release candidate, but it will be used to help make some sort of decision regarding the RTM release.

    Another citation, taken from an executive slide deck:

    • Other take-aways
      • What learnings can we get today to inform the release?

    I like how that brief snippet combines three pieces of Microspeak: take-away, learnings, and inform.

  • The Old New Thing

    Why are the Compression and Encryption options check boxes instead of radio buttons?


    Tanveer Badar asks why the file properties Advanced dialog shows two checkboxes (compression and encryption) even though NTFS supports only one or the other at a time. "Why not have two radio buttons instead of these silly check boxes?"

    Actually, if you want radio buttons, you'd need three, one to cover the "neither" case. Let's look at what those radio buttons would look like:

    Compress contents to save disk space
    Encrypt contents to secure data
    Neither compress nor encrypt

    This takes an implementation detail (that NTFS currently does not support simultaneous compression and encryption) and elevates it to the user interface, so that it can provide maximum confusion to the user. "What a strange way of exposing compression and encryption. If I want to turn on encryption, I should just check a box that says 'Encryption'."

    The current implementation (two check boxes) matches user expectations, but then says "Sorry, we can't do that" if the user picks a combination that is not currently supported. But who knows, maybe someday, NTFS will support simultaneously encryption and compression, and all that will happen is that the error message goes away. You don't have to redesign the property sheet (and invalidate all the training materials that had been produced in the meantime).

    Either way, it's a leaky abstraction that sucks, but at least the suckiness isn't shoved in the user's face.

  • The Old New Thing

    Some notes on my trip to Beijing disguised as travel tips


    Single-use tickets purchased from subway vending machines are valid only on the day of purchase for use in that station. Do not buy your return ticket at the same time as your outbound ticket because it will not work. This detail is clearly explained on the ticket that you receive after you have paid for it. (Also, the vending machine will ask you how many "sheets" you want. It's asking how many tickets you want.)

    Subway station names are printed in both Chinese and pinyin, but the pinyin omits the tone markers, which means that you will have no idea how you're supposed to pronounce the station name, should anybody ask you to say it. (See below.)

    Unlike in some cities, where the subway logo is bright and distinctive (and therefore easy to spot from a long way away), the logo for the Beijing subway is not consistent in color, which makes it hard to pick out from a busy streetscape. (One sign I saw used the high-visibility color scheme of beige-on-brown.) The logo is a monogram of the Latin letters "D" and "G", because the Mandarin word for "subway" is pronounced "dì-tiě". You might think they would use "D" and "T", but you're being too literal.

    Even worse, the Olympic Green station entrance nearest the convention center is so unobtrusively marked that if you aren't standing on the correct side of the building looking directly at it, you won't see the sign at all and you will end up spending an hour walking around Beijing looking for it. (For reference, the station entrance is opposite convention center entrance C-2.)

    When you fail to find the Olympic Green station entrance, you might consider going to a security guard booth (they are all over Beijing, the city being somewhat security-obsessed in a mostly-theater sort of way) holding a subway map with the Olympic Green station circled and asking, "火車?" because you don't know the Mandarin word for "subway" and have to make do by asking for the "train". Do not expect the security guard to have any clue what you're asking for. (Okay, I sort of undermined myself by pronouncing the first word in Mandarin but the second in Cantonese, because the two languages occupy similar portions of my brain and I often get them mixed up. But still, the first two cues...)

    In general, if you ask for directions but don't know more than a few dozen words of Mandarin, you're going to be in a world of hurt. My plan was to hold a map, point at it, and ask, "我在哪裡?" ("Where am I?"), and then calculate what direction to head based on the answer. Do not expect people to answer the question you ask. They will instead ask you other questions like "你去哪兒?" ("Where are you going?") but since answering that question is beyond your vocabulary, all you can do is repeat your original question, and they will give up, frustrated. Telling them that you're from the United States doesn't help, because they don't speak English.

    (The "Where am I?" technique worked great in Germany. The person I asked would locate me on the map, and even orient the map, then follow up with additional questions that I struggled to understand and answer.)

    It has been suggested that my profound difficulty in getting directions was exacerbated by the fact that I look like somebody who should know Mandarin. If I were some European-looking person, I wouldn't have had as much of a problem because, I'm told, Chinese people naturally assume that if they see a Chinese person on the street, that person speaks Mandarin. (The person may speak a regional language as well, but you can count on them speaking at least Mandarin.) If you look Chinese but don't speak Mandarin, then they will just get frustrated at this Chinese person who refuses to speak Chinese.

    This roughly matched my experience. Pretty much everybody assumed that I spoke Mandarin. The exception? The street hustlers and scam artists. They had me pegged for a foreigner.

    By the way, I eventually solved my problem by looking for a bank. The manager on duty spoke some English, and combined with my rudimentary Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien (thank heaven for cognates), I was able to get the information I needed. Of course, by that time, I had wandered so far astray that the nearest subway station was nowhere near the one I was looking for originally!

    Oh, and do not expect the hotel concierge to give you an up-to-date map. The information on the map had not been updated to take into account recent subway expansion, which means that its directions on how to get to points of interest were unnecessarily cumbersome. (What's more, the hotel itself did not appear on the map, because it was covered by an inset of the Olympic stadiums. This makes it hard to orient yourself once you step outside.) In fact, most of the time the street I was standing on didn't appear anywhere on the map (or at least I couldn't find it), so I had no clue where I was.

    The air pollution in Beijing is legendary. The week before I arrived, the United States Embassy declared that the Air Pollution Index in Beijing topped 500, earning the rating "Hazardous for all people." On the other hand, the official Chinese government pollution index was "only" 341. (Mind you, 341 is still off the chart. For grins, compare the scales used by mainland China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia.) You don't really notice the effect of the air pollution until you return to your hotel at the end of a day outdoors and wonder why your throat is sore and you feel like you spent the day in a smoke-filled bar.

    Walking through the Forbidden City makes you feel like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. You fight your way across a courtyard to reach the building at the other end. Upon reaching the building, you cross the gate and before you lies... another seemingly-identical courtyard. This repeats about twenty-five bazillion times. They should really call it the Forbidden County.

    If you're trying to get to the Summer Palace, do not accidentally leave your map in your hotel room thinking that "This is such a prominent tourist location it must certainly have adequate signage, or at least be present on the 'things nearby' map at the station." The only nearby attraction on the map at the station is the Old Summer Palace. The only directions to the Summer Palace is a single arrow on the plaza level of the station. The arrow tells you to Frogger across a busy four-lane street (and over the fence). If you go to the crosswalk some distance away, you end up wandering in the wrong direction for a while and turning around when you figure "This can't be right." On the way back, you try a slight variation on the path out of the station and notice that there's a directional sign for the Summer Palace facing away from the station. (I.e., only people returning to the station can see it.) You follow that arrow and wonder if you're on the right street since it's pretty much an empty street as far as the eye can see, but you gradually find tour buses so you figure you're getting closer. You then find the Summer Palace parking lot and say, "Cool, there must certainly be a sign to the Summer Palace from the parking lot" but you'd be wrong. You then see a tour group in the distance and take your chances that they are going into the Summer Palace (rather than returning) and follow them down an unmarked side street, then another unmarked side street, before spotting the entrance to the Summer Palace.

    China clearly has yet to figure out this "foreign tourists not visiting as part of a guided tour" thing. My guess is that since it was a closed country for so long, there was no need for directional signage because all foreign tourists were necessarily accompanied by a government-approved tour guide, and the government-approved tour guide knows how to get there.

    The Summer Palace is very scenic. I bet it's even prettier in the summer.

    Orthographic note: Out of habit, I use traditional characters even though China uses simplified characters. With one exception, I'm reasonably comfortable with reading both sets of characters, though when writing I prefer traditional. Traditional characters feel more formal and "standard" to me, whereas simplified characters feel too casual for normal use. (Like writing "u" and "b4" instead of "you" and "before".)

    The one exception? The character for "car": 車. The simplified version is 车 which to me is unrecognizable because it destroys the ideographic representation of the top view of a car. (The central box is the body of the car, and the horizontal bars at the top and bottom are the axles. The simplified version is just a number "4" with some extra bars.)

    Mostly-theater: X-ray machines are omnipresent, but they are largely ignored. People just walk right on past them. The TechEd conference I attended had three security checkpoints: One with an X-ray machine and a metal detector, and two additional checkpoints where security personnel checked that you had a valid badge before letting you pass. What nobody appeared to notice is that if you took the publically-accessible skybridge from the Intercontinental Beijing Beichen hotel next door, you could enter the inner sanctum of the conference without ever passing through a security checkpoint.

  • The Old New Thing

    How do I limit the size of the preview window used by Aero Snap?


    A customer reported that the translucent preview shows by Aero Snap showed the wrong dimensions for their application window. "As you can see in the screen shot, the preview is too wide. Our application window has a maximum width, but the preview is fully half the width of the screen. How can we disable the Aero Snap feature?"

    Whoa there, giving up so easily? Sounds like you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    To control the size of the preview window used by Aero Snap, you respond to the same message you've already been responding to in order to tell Windows the valid range of sizes for your window: WM_GET­MIN­MAX­INFO.

    Start with our scratch program and make the following changes:

    void OnGetMinMaxInfo(HWND hwnd, LPMINMAXINFO pmmi)
      pmmi->ptMaxTrackSize.x = 400;
    // add to WndProc
        HANDLE_MSG(hwnd, WM_GETMINMAXINFO, OnGetMinMaxInfo);

    We specify in the On­Get­Min­Max­Info function that the maximum width for the window is 400 pixels. (In real life, of course, you wouldn't hard-code the width, but this is just a proof of concept program.) Since we don't touch ptMaxTrackSize.y, we impose no additional constraints on the window height beyond what comes with Windows by default.

    Run this program, and use Aero Snap to shove it against the edges of the screen. Observe that the Aero Snap preview respects our maximum window width.

    I never heard back from the customer, so I assume this simple solution worked for them. The fact that they had to ask this question tells me that they hadn't been handling the WM_GET­MIN­MAX­INFO message at all; instead, they were enforcing their window size procedurally after the window manager already decided on the wrong size. Either they didn't seem to mind that the maximize and restore animations showed the window animating to the wrong size, or they couldn't figure out how to fix that problem either.

  • The Old New Thing

    What appears superficially to be a line is actually just a one-dimensional mob


    In China, queueing is honored more in the breach than in the observance. If you see a line for something, you must understand that what you are seeing is not really a line. It is a one-dimensional mob. You must be prepared to defend your position in line fiercely, because any sign of weakness will be pounced upon, and the next thing you know, five people just cut in front of you.

    I first became aware of this characteristic of "Chinese queueing theory" while still at the airport. When the gate agents announced that the flight to Beijing had begun boarding, a one-dimensional mob quickly formed, and I naïvely joined the end. It wasn't long before my lack of attentiveness to the minuscule open space in front of me resulted in another person cutting in front. At that point, I realized that the Chinese implementation of queueing theory was already in effect even before we left the United States.

    As another example: After the plane pulls up to the gate after landing, the aisles quickly fill with people anxious to get off the plane. In the United States, you can rely upon the kindness of strangers to let you into the aisle so you can fetch your bags and join the queue. But in China, you must force your way into the aisle. Nobody is going to let you in.

    Colleagues of mine who have spent time in both China and the United States tell me that it's an adjustment they have to make whenever they travel between the two countries. For example, in the United States, it is understood that when you are waiting in line for the ATM, you allow the person at the ATM a few feet of "privacy space." On the other hand, in China, you cannot leave such an allowance, because that is a sign of weakness in the one-dimensional mob. You have to stand right behind the person to protect your place in line.

    Bonus airport observation: How ironic it is that your last meal in your home country often comes from a crappy airport crfeteria.

  • The Old New Thing

    We've traced the call and it's coming from inside the house: Grid lines in list view report mode


    A customer wanted to know how to remove the grid lines from a list view control in report mode. The customer was kind enough to include the source code for the relevant part of the program and drew our attention to the line in the resource file that he believed to be the source of the problem:


    The customer didn't know it, but that line in the resource file was of no help at all in diagnosing the problem. Fortunately, we found the root cause in the source code provided:

    void CListPage::OnInitDialog()
      ListView_SetExtendedListViewStyleEx( hCtrl, 0,
         LVS_EX_LABELTIP |

    The grid lines are there because you explicitly asked for them!

    The customer accepted this answer without response. One of my colleagues suspected how this situation came about:

    If I may guess, the initial developer of the code did what the spec required at the time, which was to have grid lines. The initial developer then left the company, and a new developer inherited the code.

    Now the design team changed their mind and asked for the grid lines to be removed, but the new developer doesn't know the history of the code and therefore doesn't know where in the code the grid lines are turned on or even know that the default state for grid lines is off and that you have to turn them on explicitly.

    Chances are within the next two months, the design team will change their mind again and the developer will have to put the grid lines back, but at least this time he knows how to do it.

  • The Old New Thing

    Kindergarten writing exercise from my niece


    When my niece was in kindergarten, a regular classroom assignment was for students to write a few sentences about something happening in their lives. For one of the assignments, my niece wrote the following:

    My auntie has a baby in her tumy. If it is a boy I will call him Kevin. If it is a grl I will call her Alula.

    We have no idea where the name "Alula" came from.

    The baby turned out to be a girl, but her aunt chose a different name.

    My niece did not hold up her end of the bargain and call her new cousin "Alula".

    Update: Upon further reflection, I think the proposed boy's name was "Derik", not Kevin. Not important to the story, but included for completeness.

  • The Old New Thing

    It rather involved being on the other side of this airtight hatchway: Invalid parameters from one security level crashing code at the same security level


    In the category of dubious security vulnerability, I submit the following (paraphrased) report:

    I have discovered that if you call the XYZ function (whose first parameter is supposed to be a pointer to a IUnknown), and instead of passing a valid COM object pointer, you pass a pointer to a random hunk of data, you can trigger an access violation in the XYZ function which is exploitable by putting specially-crafted data in that memory blob. An attacker can exploit the XYZ function for remote execution and compromise the system, provided an application uses the XYZ function and passes a pointer to untrusted data as the first parameter instead of a valid IUnknown pointer. Although we have not found an application which uses the XYZ in this way, the function neverless contains the potential for exploit, and the bug should be fixed as soon as possible.
    The person included a sample program which went something like this (except more complicated):
    // We can control the behavior by tweaking the value
    // of the Exploit array.
    unsigned char Exploit[] = "\x01\x02\x03...";
    void main()

    Well, yeah, but you're already on the other side of the airtight hatchway. Instead of building up a complicated blob of memory with exactly the right format, just write your bad IUnknown:

    void Pwnz0r()
      ... whatever you want ...
    class Exploit : public IUnknown
      STDMETHODIMP QueryInterface(REFIID riid, void **ppv)
      { Pwnz0r(); return E_NOINTERFACE; }
      STDMETHODIMP_(ULONG) AddRef() { Pwnz0r(); return 2; }
      STDMETHODIMP_(ULONG) Release() { Pwnz0r(); return 1; }
    void main()

    Wow, this new "exploit" is even portable to other architectures!

    Actually, now that you're on the other side of the airtight hatchway, you may as well take XYZ out of the picture since it's just slowing you down:

    void main()

    You're already running code. It's not surprising that you can run code.

    There's nothing subtle going on here. There is no elevation of privilege because the rogue activity happens in user-mode code, based on rogue code provided by an executable with trusted code execution privileges, at the same security level as the original executable.

    The people reporting the alleged vulnerability do say that they haven't yet found any program that calls the XYZ function with untrusted data, but even if they did, that would be a data handling bug in the application itself: Data crossed a trust boundary without proper validation. It's like saying "There is a security vulnerability in the DeleteFile function because it is possible for an application to pass an untrusted file name and thereby result in an attacker deleting any file of his choosing." Even if such a vulnerability existed, the flaw is in the application for not validating its input, not in DeleteFile for, um, deleting the file it was told to delete.

    The sad thing is that it took the security team five days to resolve this issue, because even though it looks like a slam dunk, the issue resolution process must be followed, just to be sure. Who knows, maybe there really is a bug in the XYZ function's use of the first parameter that would result in elevation of privilege. All supported versions of Windows need to be examined for the slim possibility that there's something behind this confused vulnerability report.

    But there isn't. It's just another dubious security vulnerability report.

    Exercise: Apply what you learned to this security vulnerability report. This is also paraphrased from an actual security report:

    There is a serious denial-of-service vulnerability in the function XYZ. This function takes a pointer to a buffer and a length. If the function is passed malformed parameters, it may encounter an access violation when it tries to read from an invalid buffer. Any application which calls this function with bad parameters will crash. Here is a sample program that illustrates the vulnerability:

    int main(int argc, char **argv)
     // crash inside XYZ attempting to read past end of buffer
     XYZ("x", 9999999);
     return 0;

    Credit for discovering this vulnerability goes to ABC Security Research Company. Copyright© 20xx ABC Security Research Company. All Rights Reserved.

  • The Old New Thing

    Creative naming in pursuit of subverting the no-fun zone


    For a time, the Information Technology department at Microsoft cracked down on what it believed to be frivolous mailing lists. All mailing lists inside the company had to have a valid business purpose.

    The nascent wireless networking team found a way to circumvent this rule: They created a mailing list for discussion of non-business topics but officially said that it was for discussing Wireless Networking Interference.

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