But Others Get Hacked Too!

Rob pointed to a UConn news release in the Jabber chatroom this morning about UConn having a server compromised with the personal information of their faculty, staff, and students.

I wish their ITS people the best. That’s a tough situation. It’s an uphill battle that Universities are fighting, people want information, and IT staffs at the Universities are under a lot of pressure to build systems to make that information available, and security is hard.

But what’s more than a bit disconcerting about the University’s own news release is this paragraph:

“Hacking into university computer systems is not uncommon. Other universities who have had problems include the University of Iowa, Stanford University, Purdue University, Middle Tennessee State University, Boston College, Northwestern University, George Mason University, Michigan State University, Tufts University, the University of California, Berkley and Carnegie Mellon University, among others.”

My own quick translation of this is:

“Hi, our official peers and other prestigious universities screw up too! That puts us in elite company with our peers! Come to UConn, we get hacked like other top tier universities!”

I think the PR people at UConn fell asleep on this one.

[p.s. They also spelled “Berkeley” as “Berkley”. Ug.]

New Challenges

On July 18th I’ll be taking a new job as a Senior Systems Engineer with the National eXtension Initiative. I’ll still be at NC State University, but I won’t be directly involved with campus computing. Instead, I’ll be forging and forming relationships within the entire Land-Grant University system.

I never thought I’d leave the College of Engineering, but it’s a good opportunity, and I’m excited about the idea of pulling together a system that gets the “best of breed” cooperative extension information out to the public.

Many, many challenges await. (Or better, as the retiring director of my group would say – many “opportunities” await). I’m looking forward to all of them (and I get to still use a Macintosh ;-).

The timing is a little tough. Our director in ITECS is retiring, and I’ll only have a few days with the new director, Keith Boswell. I had the opportunity to be on the search committee for the ITECS director, and I think ITECS is going to be in great hands with Keith. He seems like a good leader and someone that looks out for his staff and I would have been honored to be part of his team. I imagine that’ll be continuing to connect back with Keith and the others in ITECS. I hope so.

Searching for Algorithms

So I need help. I really think I’ve been programming far too long.

I have a Diet Coke addiction – actually it’s an Aspartame addiction, and while you might think that would be what I need help with (and it probably is) – that’s not what I’m writing about.

See, I go to the vending machines to satisfy this addiction a fair amount. Enough that you begin to recognize the patterns of the machines. Inevitably during the summer, because there’s fewer students around, the vending powers that be fill the machines less frequently, and the machines seem to suffer more “malfunctions” of various types.

Well, normally, when you use the dollar portion of the machine, if you want your change back, it will give you your dollar back. Some time back, I noticed that if you put your dollar in, pressed the button for a sold-out selection, and then wanted your change back, you’ll get coins.

I noticed this after doing that once or twice.

This has now come in quite handy that the dollar bill acceptors on the the 20oz machines are malfunctioning, but work on the 12oz machine. The Diet Coke on the 12oz machine is sold out, so I go to the 12oz machine, put the dollar in, press the button, return change, and use the change for the 20oz machines.

Voila! Real-life algorithms. Who says that 4 years of Computer Science wouldn’t come in handy one day?

Who Would Win?

In honor of it being just over three years since we started meeting as a group of Engineering System Administrators, I resurrected a previous icebreaker question in yesterday’s meeting as we went ‘round the room and introduced ourselves.

Who would win in a fight: Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Scott McNealy, or Linus Torvalds?

The answers were fun, the first question back was “What kind of fight?”

Some of the funnier highlights:

“Steve Ballmer, because he’d buy someone off”
“None of them, I think that guy from Oracle [ed. Larry Ellison] would win”
“Steve Jobs, because he’d distract them with shiny computers”
“Steve Jobs, because he’s a little crazy”
“None, they’d spend the whole time arguing about the terms of the fight”
“If it’s an email fight, Linus Torvalds has them”
“None of them, Marth Stewart would probably take all, she’s got some prison experience”

and my personal favorite:

“None, because all their fanboys would do all the fighting for them”

I think overall, Ballmer got the nod.

What a fun meeting and fun group. Providing an opportunity (regrettably often skipped and cancelled too often) for that group to come together in email, in meetings, and in IM, is certainly my proudest accomplishment over the last 5 years. I just provided the setting – each of them made the group.

Apple, We have a Problem

I love Apple’s products, I really do. And while I don’t really value the company’s secrecy, I do certainly value their innovation, and their product marketing/branding is usually top-notch.

But they aren’t above being absolutely brain-dead stupid.

So I’ve seen hints at this in my RSS reader in the last few weeks, but failed to follow up until today. Today I finally have seen the kicker with regard to QuickTime Player and Full Screen video.

Now, you theoretically have to buy QT Pro to watch movies in “full-screen” mode in QT Player. Some sites have it that you can work around this in iTunes (iTunes allows you to click the “fullscreen” option for movie trailers).

Well today – in a somewhat related hint at macosxhints.com – all you need is this AppleScript:

tell application "QuickTime Player" activate present the front movie end tell

load a movie, put that in script editor, click run, voila! full-screen!

This makes the greyed-out menu option for full-screen video even more completely ridiculous. Too bad that great software engineering by the QuickTime team is completely overshadowed by brain-dead product packaging and marketing.

(actually it could be brilliant marketing, forcing customers $30.00 because they think they must shell that out to watch full-screen video, never mind all the other features of the software are worth the licensing fee, however, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s right).

Company Clothing

Kevin Briody’s post reminded me of one of the best reasons to work at a University, especially one’s Alma Matter.

I remember when I (briefly, thankfully) worked for CompuCom that I had at least two week’s worth of CompuCom logo clothing and other vendor clothing after just 6 months on the job. The CompuCom clothing became pretty useless after I left there.

And that may be the greatest part about working for one’s Alma Matter, the company clothing never really goes out of style.

(okay, except for the University’s “three wet rats” logo, which thankfully does not appear to be licensed anymore)

Keep It Simple

This week I was helping an Engineering department setup a new computer. I don’t do this much anymore, most of that is done by part-time staff, or other full-time staff in our group, but it was a Macintosh, and I’m probably the best one to assist there. Besides, I like it, it makes me feel young(er) again and like I’m actually being productive.

Well, in this person’s office, there were two activated ports, one of which was just a foot or two from her computer. The other was across the room, near an old thin-wire connector that had previously been her connection to the network. This person had a old 10MB/s thin-wire to twisted-pair converter/hub that was previously providing the network connection to her Macintosh (the Macintosh doesn’t have a thin-wire interface, therefore it needed a converter/hub of some kind previously)

When some of our part-time staff went through and hooked up everyone’s new ports, all they did in this person’s office was run a Cat-6 cable to the hub!

The staff did not check to see if the port two feet from the Macintosh was enabled, nor did they even check to see if the long cable coming from the Macintosh was long enough to go directly in to the new wall port).

Among other things, this is taking a 100MB connection and dropping it to at least 10MB. Worse, it’s adding unnecessary complexity to the situation, complicating troubleshooting, and very likely introducing a source for problems or errors into the network.

One of our full-time staff has mentioned that he’s also found this in at least one other place in the building, which actually turned out to be causing problems for one of our Administrative users.

I wrote the full-time and part-time staff a note that described the situation and keying with the sentence:

Folks, we have to do better than this.

It’s a small thing. The network worked, but it was not setup like it should be. I told the part-time staff:

You have to ask yourself when going into a situation: Does this seem right? Is there a simpler solution? Is there a better solution? And then take that to a full-time staff member. The answer is that sometimes there are going to be kluges, but it’s fine and good and outright encouraged to ask questions about it.

I told the full-time staff:

The same goes for you. You should be asking the same exact questions and talking to your peers about it, and you should be providing better oversight for the part-time staff.

And I told fellow management that:

This kind of thing is ultimately our fault. I’d like to strongly encourage you to make sure that your full-time and part-time staff members are thinking through problems and opportunities, and that you encourage them, even in times that we are under pressure to solve something “right now” to solve it “right”. “It works” is by no means a indication that a problem was solved in the correct manner.

Even if time does not allow “the right fix” (which sometimes it doesn’t), please strongly encourage them to reflect on whether or not they think there’s a better solution, to make note of it, to tell you, or their peers, and then maybe we can go back and get it right once the time pressures are relieved.

For this particular situation and others like it, I leave you with the wisdom of Leonardo Da Vinci, taken from the Franciscan friar, William of Ockham:

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Maybe in a way it’s not the right thing to say or do. Our full-time and part-time staff, on average, do good work, even great work. They do the things right thing more often than not. And heaven knows, I probably sound like I’m preaching (and not in a good way). But the little things like this do actually matter. And staying on the little things does matter. Because if we don’t, one day we’ll end up in situations like this one, described at “The Daily WTF” that happened to remind me of what happens when simplicity, design, and asking the right questions doesn’t happen.

Who Cares?

So, just to get this post in under the wire.

The blogosphere (at least all the ones that I read) are all a-twitter about whatever relationship Apple and Intel are going to have (to be announced by Steve Jobs, maybe, at WWDC in about 30 minutes). There is viewpoint after viewpoint, backtracking, couching, reports on reports on reports. This is the tech geek equivalent to Michael Jackson, the runaway bride, and every other pop culture issue.

And it means about the same thing. Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. As Rhett said to Scarlett (I’m a southerner, I can get away with it):

Frankly, I don’t give a damn.

(and to be fair, hardware does not excite me, I’m a software dude through and through).

You know what the most exciting tech news to me today?

The fact that I can set a Dock preference to visually indicate whether I have an application “hidden” or not:

defaults write com.apple.dock showhidden -bool true

(thanks to Smash via Kevin Briody )

This is great tip, and it’s help reinforce my changing behavior from a minimizer to a hider – which I’ve found to be more productive.