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Tag Archives: technology

Minty Fresh

It’s been four years since my last attempt at creating a bare minimum Linux Internet machine.  I figured I would give it another try.  All my previous attempts were either failures, or they left me with a laptop that I didn’t know what to do with.

This time, I am creating a travel laptop that is just for Internet.  And for anything else, I’ll connect to my home machine with TeamViewer.  So that limits the installs I have to make down to:

  • Web browser – Now that I use Vivaldi for everything, I don’t have to worry about the differences between IE and whatever else I have available on Linux.
  • KeePass – I need to log in to websites, of course.  And the KeePass database is held in the cloud, which means I need…
  • DropBox – I had the foresight to use DropBox instead of OneDrive when I first set up KeePass.  Although there are OneDrive clients for Linux, none are official MS products.
  • IM – A chat client for keeping in touch when I am on the road.
  • VLC – For playing music and videos.  Fortunately, it is cross-platform.
  • Some image viewer – Still evaluating which one to use…

And that’s all.  I’m pretty much in Netbook territory here, but this is a spare laptop and I should make some use out of it.  It won’t be my bedside laptop, since I need some other software there that isn’t Linux friendly.  But anyway, this post is about Linux Mint.

In my prior adventures with Linux, both Ubuntu and Mint, the install process and compatibility issues were an absolute clusterfuck.  This time around, I blindly installed the latest Mint version on a USB stick and ran with it.  The Mint OS loaded up without a single hiccup and I had sound and network in the Live CD desktop.  That is a very positive sign.  So without any other testing, I chose to install the OS, completely erasing the hard drive.  That’s usually when things go south, but to my amazement, within 15 minutes of starting this whole process, I was on a functional Mint desktop with no strange errors, warnings, or bugs.

I started right away downloading and installing the software I needed, which wasn’t much.  I learned quickly what worked well and what I should not bother investigating further.  Some things I will eventually need to learn more about – the things that Windows makes so easy, like setting a program to launch at startup.  Some things involving permissions were a pain, but I also have an appreciation for security, so it’s ok.

And now, I’m writing this post on my Mint laptop, connected to my Windows desktop via TeamViewer.  It’s been almost pleasant.  And while I still can’t recommend Ubuntu or Mint to a neophyte, because I wouldn’t be able to assist them if they had issues, I applaud the Linux teams for the progress they have made in the four years since I last attempted this experiment.


The Worst Developer

I think it’s a universal truth that no matter where you work, you hate the software that you have to use.  And it’s even more true when that software is written internally, meaning not store-bought or otherwise 3rd party.  As someone who writes this type of software that everyone hates, I can understand the frustrations.  But this story is about the software that I didn’t write, but was written by and for the company I was working for.

The particular software was primarily written by one person, who had been with the company since the start, which was decades.  I was supposed to create the software that would replace it, but the company went under before that came to fruition.  However, I did have enough of an opportunity to shed a ray of hope that better things were coming, at least software-wise.

The purpose of this maligned software was order entry and contact management.  It was used by the sales force to create quotes, sales, credit memos, and also to track membership for the company’s special program.  For as long as I could discern, there was friction between the sales team and management.  Aside from mutual distrust, there was also resentment in that the company wanted to micromanage how things were done on the floor.

The company came up with a very precise, very specific way of selling from which no one was to deviate.  And the software was written entirely to enforce that specific methodology.  The people on the sales floor obviously didn’t subscribe to this methodology and simply felt that they were being treated as human robots, without any free will to conduct the sales transaction in the way they felt comfortable doing.  The software developer constantly complained that the users were not using the software correctly and were always figuring out loopholes, which became bugs.

I have a lasting impression from my first few days working there when I was in training for that software.  That impression was validated by another user near the end of my time at the company.  After sitting through the training session, I felt like a complete idiot.  I didn’t understand anything.  Nothing made sense.  And it was all because the software was written so terribly.  And that feeling made me question my capabilities for working at that company.  I tried to reassure myself that it was just because I was unfamiliar with the industry, but the user that confirmed my feelings was an industry pro and couldn’t understand the software either.

There were many issues that I took with the software.  The first was the ridiculous color scheme and color choices throughout.  It screamed “amateur”, and when I’ve been formally trained to write professional business software, this was not acceptable.  Required fields were highlighted – in yellow.  And not pastel yellow, the eye-bleeding danger yellow.


Taking that issue further, there were many dialogs that used “folksy” language.  There was no “Cancel” button.  Instead, you had a “Forget It” button.  Unless it was a “Never Mind” button (which has a keyboard shortcut of Alt-V, because Alt-N to suggest “No” would be too much for a user to understand).


You had an option to “Undo Previous Whoops” on a dialog that asked specifically, “What Do You Want To Do?”


Here’s some messages the application could pop up:

  • Programmer Goof – Trying to use Add code for something else!
  • This Credit Memo will result in a net credit to the member of $x.xx. Is this what you intended?
  • Does Member desire a refund check from Corporate?
  • Is this Credit Memo being created to “Undo” this Sales Order as though it never existed?
  • Whoops — too many windows are open.  Close some windows and try again.
  • You have tried to pick up more than was ordered. Please RTFS and re-enter valid amount in correct box. (The application’s name started with “F”, which was a convenient out if he was ever accused of telling the user to “read the fucking screen”.)

I mentioned that the software was written to enforce the sales procedure as defined by the company.  This actually caused a big headache at one point because they changed policy one time which required a lot of code changes to support it.  But anyway, when you would start a new sale or quote, you would be prompted with question after question about how the sales was to take place.  These questions were supposed to be asked to the customer, which would prep the sales form with certain data.  As you would suspect, the questions were all worded folksy and unprofessionally, and most were pointless, only nagging at the sales person to upsell this or that and don’t forget to ask about this.  Some examples:

  • Don’t forget SUNDRIES!!!
  • We’re Pushin’ Cushion!!!
  • How ya gonna Cut it, Glue it and Dress it Up???
  • Whatcha gonna put it on?  How you gonna seal it?
  • What’s gonna keep it down?
  • How you gonna keep it quiet?
  • How you gonna cut it, glue it and finish it off?
  • What’s gonna keep it from slidin’ around?

Because the entire process was so drawn out and pointless, the sales staff started memorizing the keystrokes that would let them fly through the popups and just get to a blank sales form.  The developer, when he learned of this practice, was furious.  They were skipping over all the hard work he put in to make them do their job correctly – the only way to do it correctly.  So he took action.  To keep them from skipping through the screens, he randomized the buttons on the popups.

Yes, it may sound absolutely incredible, but this developer literally made the application more difficult to use on purpose by changing the interface to require the user to read the screen.  What was lost on him was that the user wasn’t reading the questions on the screen, they were only reading the buttons to find out what they had to click next.  And if they misread anything, they got a sales form that wasn’t what they needed and had to start over.

And this developer was very proud of his work.  He had defeated the users.  And that really was his only goal.  Not to make things better; only to win.  And when he wins, everyone else loses.

My GPS History

It was back in 2008 that Woot sold me my first GPS unit, a Mio 720T.


Being new to the GPS world, I was pretty enthralled.  This particular unit I ended up giving to my now ex-wife, and I bought a lower-end model, the Mio 320.


This one didn’t have a lot of the nicer features of the 720, but it was very hackable, and I was able to add voice navigation and spoken road names, which wasn’t a feature that came natively.  In fact, the device was rootable, and I had installed a lot of different software on the device.  You could actually get to the desktop of the base Windows CE system.  It was a cool experience.

One of the other things I remember about that unit was its pickiness about the power cable.  It always wanted to jump into USB storage mode, like it was plugged into a computer.  I don’t remember exactly what I did to fix it, but I suspect the rooting of the device assisted in that.

The problem with the Mio is that it was inaccurate.  The UI was really awesome, though, so I put up with it for a very long time.  It wasn’t until 2014 that Woot offered a decent replacement, a Garmin Nuvi.  A totally no-frills GPS device.


This was a great little GPS.  It did everything I needed, which wasn’t much.  After I learned to make the UI a bit more data-happy, it became the ideal device for me.  This device lasted a little while, but failed due to the USB connector breaking in the back.  One day, I was simply unable to get it to charge anymore and as the battery wore down, I felt a little sad.  Like this was the last time it was ever going to operate.  There was no way to recharge it.  The long walk down the green mile.

In 2016, Woot sold me a new GPS, this one with a dash cam built in.  Prior to that, I had experimented with using a cell phone as a dash cam and the results were sort of mixed.  I was driving without a GPS and I missed that convenience, but I couldn’t see mounting both GPS and dash cam devices on the windshield; that was ridiculous.  That meant my next GPS unit was a Magellan.


This unit was kind of a shock to me, because I had gotten so familiar with the Garmin UI.  Everything that was different about the Magellan, I hated.  Over time, I learned to live with it, but I never really liked it.  It wasn’t worth the effort to become emotionally invested anyway, because the device quickly developed a problem where the touchscreen would not register your touches in the right place.  Your clicks would activate buttons a quarter-inch to the right of your finger.  This made it impossible to click buttons on the left side of the screen.  And that gap grew over time, eventually making the device unusable.  It had other issues too, like never really muting.  It would screech whenever the speaker would normally make sound, even though it was muted.  It was unpleasant.

A little over a year later, Woot offered a Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT dashcam/GPS and I jumped on the chance to get it.  Looking at the specs, I was pretty awed.  It was a technological marvel.  But the reality of this device is what I am writing about today.


To say that this device is overkill is an understatement.  There are so many features packed into this thing that I’ve disabled, and there’s more I want to disable if I can find out where to do it.  But let’s start right at the beginning.  Garmin is kind like the Apple of the GPS world.  They’re the biggest and the most popular, so they feel they can write the rules.  And like Apple, they lock you in.  The GPS won’t charge unless you’re using an actual Garmin power cable.  That is bullshit.  Fortunately, the Internet can show you how to modify a USB cable to work with these devices.  However, the unit complains every time I start it up that the power cord doesn’t have a Traffic Antenna in it, so traffic reporting is disabled.  That’s fine, but the dialog doesn’t time out; you have to click OK every time.  Ugh.

So I have it powered up and running, now I have to deal with the map.  They have icons for everything – food, gas, bank, attractions, whatever.  There’s no room to see the roads!  Then there’s the notifications – school zone, speed limit changes, sharp turn ahead, railroad tracks.  Then there’s the alerts.  This thing will tell you when traffic starts moving in front of you, when you drift out of your lane, or when you’re going to collide with someone.  The end result is that something is happening on that fucking screen all the time.  All the time.  That is not what I want from a GPS.  And it’s not something anyone should want.  Seriously, like I hear an alert and look over to see “Forward Collision Warning” when I should a) already know this is a possibility and b) be looking ahead to take defensive action.

It has really opened my eyes as to the practicality of these warning systems.  I’ve recently seen a commercial for a car with accident avoidance that alerts, “Brake!”  It’s probably too late to do anything about braking at that point, despite whatever distraction the alert causes.  I got a lot of false alarms last night that I was going to collide with a truck that was passing me on the right and others saying I was drifting out of my lane.  How accurate is this technology?

I’m unconvinced that alert systems are beneficial. I think we need less alerts and more information.  I think 360 degree cameras would be a great benefit.  Of course, I say this while I’m surrounded by idiots who don’t think going 20 MPH over the flow of traffic and weaving between cars is any sort of danger.  But for now, I’m turning off every alert I can and just returning this state-of-the-art device to the same functionality level I had from my 2014 Garmin.

Back To The Fringe

It’s been over five years now that I ditched Opera as my browser.  In that time, I’ve been using Internet Explorer and everything has been going quite well.  Believe it or not, I’ve never gotten a virus or malware using IE.  And I’ve also gotten it to do everything that I needed with JavaScript and custom protocol handlers.

Despite this, the writing has been on the wall, in kind of an inverse fade where the message grows bolder as time goes on.  The final straw was when Flickr displayed this message:


So, I guess that’s it.  IE is starting to get the same treatment I was getting when I was using Opera:  You are not welcome here.  So I figured the natural replacement would be MS Edge.  I didn’t like Edge initially because it seemed to be a very stripped down browsing experience.  But then again, it’s been a few years, certainly they’ve made improvements since then?

I launched Edge and immediately got to work writing Extensions (which weren’t supported before) to add the functions I needed.  I was successful converting two of the three functions, so I was satisfied for the time being.  I started using Edge as my default browser.

Within a week, I became disenchanted with Edge.  The thing that kept brewing and finally boiled over was the bookmark management.  Can you believe there is no way to edit a bookmark in Edge?  After over two years, you still can’t edit a goddamn bookmark?  And more than that, the bookmarks aren’t anywhere outside the browser where you can edit them either!  The whole “modern” app design that Microsoft has adopted where everything is self-contained completely works against Edge.  So, I went on the hunt again.

My options were the same as before: Firefox or Chrome.  I’m not using Chrome out of the same distaste for Google that Chrome users have for Microsoft.  Firefox just never seems to have their shit together.  Firefox is a great backup, but I can’t see it as my daily driver.  So, given those two options, I went back to Opera.

No, of course not.  But I kind of did.  I downloaded Vivaldi, which is made by a company of the former Opera owner.  It’s the spiritual successor to Opera.  You want options, you got options.  Everything can be changed, and some in ridiculous ways.  But the things I really needed, Vivaldi gave me.  And it’s built on Chromium, so I get Chrome without being beholden to Google.

If there’s a testament to make here about going back to your home, here’s mine.  I downloaded Vivaldi and started setting it up like I used to when I used Opera.  Within two hours of using the browser, I started using mouse gestures like I was back on the classic Opera browser.  The gestures were already built in (no plug-in needed) and worked just as I remembered them.

My previous post’s argument about having tight integration with the mobile environment turned out to be the biggest letdown, since Microsoft abandoned Windows Phone.  Microsoft seems to be embracing Android, so I guess at some point in the near future, I’ll get some non-Google Android phone and put all the Microsoft apps on it.  but on the desktop environment, I guess I’m going to return to being independent and use Vivaldi.

Stress Previews

One of the best things I have done is to sign up for UPS and FedEx’s package tracking services.  Basically, UPS/FedEx verifies that you own a street address, then every time a package comes in for that address, you get email updates on when the package will arrive and another notification when it is delivered.  It’s great.  Much better than having to get updates from whatever website you purchased an item from.

The USPS also has a service like that, which I also signed up for.  However, USPS has taken that service a step further.  Now they send you a picture of the mail you are getting.  How modern and cool.  It was an opt-in service, to which I opted in pretty much immediately.  What happens is, every day, you get an email with actual pictures of your mail in it.  You can see the from and to addresses and the postage (if you care about that).  You see the entire front of the envelope.  How awesome!

Soon, I started getting emails from USPS with images in them.  I quickly opened up the emails to see what I was getting.  There it is, my soon to be arriving mail!  And I quickly found out, I didn’t care.  Mail is not the same as a package.  And to be honest, I don’t think I would care to see a picture of my in-transit package.  It’s a box with a label on it.  Woo hoo!

Adding to the “don’t care” argument is the amount of junk mail I get.  I don’t get a ton of it, but any junk mail is too much.  Getting an email with a picture of a car dealership flyer is like a double insult.  Now I have to look at the fucking thing twice.  Once in an email and once more as it goes in the trash.  Then, there is this slight problem of my ex-wife’s mail (and junk mail) still coming to my house.  Yes, yes, I know I need to take care of that, but the trash can is sufficient for now.  Still, seeing that mail in advance doesn’t do anything for me.

And lastly, when I see a letter coming from the hospital, that is not marked as pre-sorted postage (i.e. junk), I get slightly freaked out.  Why would they be mailing me something?  Is it a bill?  Is it a late bill?  Have I been found to have a zombie virus?  And I can’t find out right now.  I have to wait.  But I know it’s coming, whatever it is.

Although it doesn’t apply to me at this time, what if my partner was getting mail that I wasn’t supposed to see?  Or vice versa?  That’s a situation I’d rather not deal with.

So, the USPS image preview concept is very cool, as a concept, but it is less than ideal in practice.  Personally, I think the issues outweigh the benefits.  We’ll have to see how long this experiment lasts.

New Frontiers

As an old customer of Verizon FIOS, I was transferred with many others to Frontier.  I never had any significant issue with the transition.  Yeah, their web portal sucked for a while, but my service was uninterrupted and my rates didn’t change.  I had renewed my contract just a couple of months before the changeover.

A lesson I’ve learned, but will probably never be able to apply again is, don’t make any changes to your grandfathered account.  Recently, I decided to change my home phone number.  I never used it, but my ex-wife used it everywhere and all the phone line did was fill up the voicemail with her collection agency calls.  So I wanted a fresh start.  I called Frontier and over a couple of calls, I had a new number.

The next month, I got a bill in the mail from Frontier.  That was odd, because I didn’t think I had any real service done.  The bill was my monthly statement.  That is odd, because I had paperless billing activated.  Further the bill was not for my usual amount of $106, but for $165.  That’s no good.  As I was scanning the papers, I noticed my new phone number was now my account number.  I was suddenly a new customer to them, one with no promo pricing.  That’s no good at all.

I logged in to the web portal and saw that all my past bills were inaccessible (since they were under an old account number) and my autopay was deactivated.  So I got on the phone with billing support.  The guy was pretty confused about the whole situation and eventually gave up, saying the department that needed to handle problems like that was gone for the night.  They would call me the next day.  Unsurprisingly, they didn’t.

I called back during normal business hours and got someone more experienced.  She understood that all that was needed was to restore the discounts on my account.  So after a bit of work she said she couldn’t get it back the way it was.  The reason is that my cable package was migrated from Verizon and there was no Frontier equal.  My bill would go up by about $10/mo.  I kept my mouth shut and the rep said she would transfer me to “retentions”, who would have more power to change the billing.  Ok, then.

The retentions rep also understood the problem and worked to put the discounts back in.  Unfortunately, she still didn’t have any access to restore my cable package.  However, she explained that my cable package was going to change from about 20 channels to 75 channels.  And that’s not so bad.  I rarely watch TV, but the one time I checked it all out, the online channel guide was useless because I couldn’t filter it to only my subscribed channels.  So I always got “this channel is unavailable”.

So, for the privilege of changing my phone number, I had to upgrade to their lowest cable package, which was more than my existing package.  To be fair, that change was inevitable.  I would have to bite that bullet when my renewal came about.  In the end, I got a $25 credit, 75 channels, and the ability to stream cable through my Roku devices.  All for an extra $120/yr.  Oh, and a new phone number, which is really all I wanted.

Long Dead Spirits In My Car… With Machine Guns

I’ve got guns in my car and they won’t go; spirits in my car and they won’t go.

I’ve had my car for about 7 years.  That’s a pretty good run.  Very soon after I bought it, I swapped out the stereo and speakers with aftermarket ones.  Then I upgraded to a dedicated amplifier for the front speakers.  This setup has given me a lot of enjoyment over the years.

Recently though, when the temperature gets high, as it does often around here, I get this small issue.  What happens is a rapid popping comes through my speakers at full volume.  It typically scares the shit out of me, but I’ve never been so scared as to be unsafe on the road.  Still, having a machine gun open fire in your car is not the most pleasant experience.

When this happens, I have to turn the stereo off completely.  Muting the speakers doesn’t help.  Moving the fader doesn’t help.  So my diagnostic conclusion is that the problem is with the amplifier I have in my trunk.  The heat must finally be killing it.

Yesterday, I finally had enough of this nonsense, so I went to the trunk and unfastened the amp from the wall.  I waited for the machine gun to start, then I started banging the amp around.  I figured if it was a loose connection, something would change.  Nothing changed.  I then removed and retightened the power lines, in case they were loose.  No change.  Some more banging.  I assume parents can understand this method of troubleshooting.  If something’s not acting right, knock it around a bit and see if it gets better.

I finally give up and disconnect the amp fully.  I go inside and immediately order a replacement.  Not bad, $60 on sale – that’s probably more than half off what I paid originally.  Then I go out to buy groceries for dinner.

POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP – WHAT THE FUCK!!!  Why are my speakers machine gunning again?  There is nothing connected to them anymore.  You can imagine my complete confusion in this scenario.  It’s like a corpse screaming after you’ve done the autopsy. (That imagery is courtesy of a death metal CD over the weekend.)  So, I’m driving and the speakers are blasting at me.  I want to find out how this is happening while I’m still driving, but I can’t take too long because it’s destroying my ears.  My brain runs through any impossible situation.  Could the speaker wires be frayed out and touching a power source anywhere along their path?  Why would that stop when the stereo was off?  No, the speaker wires are dead-ended.

Covering each speaker in turn with my hand, I found the source.  The noise is coming from my center channel speaker and the tweeters in my doors.  But how?  I didn’t connect those speakers.  Ohhhh!  Those speakers are still connected to the original factory amplifier.  That amp doesn’t get an input signal anymore, but apparently, that is the amp that is failing.  After 7 years of (non-)use.

So now, I have an order for an amp that will be arriving Wednesday that I don’t need and I have an amp that deserves profuse apologies.  Today, I’ll be able to disassemble the car and unplug that factory amp and reinstall the aftermarket amp.  While I’m at it, I might as well remove all the Zune integration.  Its time has come as well.

What I Wanted, Not What I Expected

On a thrift store run, I had a disappointing experience searching for CDs – nothing of interest at all.  On the way out, I dropped in to the electronics section of the store.  I scanned the shelves for nothing in particular until a cassette deck caught my eye.  It was totally vintage, probably from the 1980’s.  It had buttons and switches and analog level meters.  Very cool.

I’ve planned to get a stereo for a while and I have picked out the stereo components I want already.  But for a while, I had considered going the vintage route.  Not so much for the sound quality, which could be hit or miss for its age, but for the aesthetics.  It’s an early era of “wow! technology!” that originally morphed into visual insanity before being left behind in favor of minimalistic design (thanks, Apple).

While I was ogling this vintage tape deck, I realized, I didn’t have anything to plug it into.  And, I only had one cassette tape in my house.  So, why bother.  I put it out of my mind and kept on scanning the shelves until my eyes bumped into a stereo receiver – the matching component of the tape deck.  That device was even more vintage looking, with rows of buttons and sliders.  This receiver solved the problem of having nothing to plug the tape deck into.  Soooo, after verifying I could afford all this equipment, I bundled up both pieces, paid for my treasures (a wallet-busting $18), and cheerfully packed them up in the car.

Before I made the purchase, I did a cursory check as to whether the components were even worthy of owning.  The brand is MCS, an acronym for Modular Component Systems, which is a house brand of JC Penney.  The internet indicated a small appreciation for MCS because the components were manufactured by reputable Japanese brands of the era like NEC and Technics.


The receiver I picked up is an MCS 3237, which seems to be made in 1986 or after.  It’s got a digital AM/FM tuner with 16 presets, seek, and scan. There’s a good number of inputs: phonograph, tape, video, and auxiliary.  It’s got buttons for High filter, Low filter and Loudness, and sliders for Bass, Treble, and Balance.  It can drive two selectable sets of speakers, which is neat.  This supposedly is a 35W amplifier, which sounds weak when you hear about 800W home theater systems now, but owners report a very good sound from those watts.


The tape deck is an MCS 683-3543.  It doesn’t have any fancy features like auto-reverse and only has Dolby B noise reduction.  But it does support Chrome and Metal tapes, which I would think elevates it above the lowest consumer decks.  However, more research shows that it suffers from poor speed accuracy.  Entry level specs at best.  Luckily it’s not meant to be the centerpiece.  I’m still sticking with CDs.

Without any speakers, this stereo will be used with headphones, which should be a pleasant experience.  I should be able to find a silver-faced vintage CD player to mate up with the system to complete the setup.  I won’t be getting into vinyl, so I have no need for the phonograph input.  With a planned budget of a little under $1000 for my future stereo system (that doesn’t include speakers), it’s kind of ridiculous that I can get some sort of satisfaction for under $20.


I get the devices home and do a thorough cleaning on them.  They’re in pretty good shape.  I plug them all in and grab a set of headphones.  It took me a while to find the only cassette tape I had for testing.  All systems go!  Wait, no.  One of the channels is dead.  No sound from the left side.  Output meter is indicating nothing.  Also, it seems the tape deck is dropping signal on one channel randomly.  Ugh.

I don’t have electronic contact cleaner, so I grab a can of CRC Mass Airflow Sensor Cleaner and shoot all the switches and dials and buttons.  (MAF cleaner is pretty much the same thing)  The volume knob is amazingly smooth now, but it made no difference to my output problem.  I’m not a person who can troubleshoot electronics, so my choices at this point are pay to have it fixed, or pitch it.

I ran the tape deck through my mixer in my office (I guess I did have something to plug it into) and got no channel drops for the entire duration of my test cassette.  Very odd.  When I was listening though headphones, the output dropped and the VU meter fell, too.

I guess I’ll start with the amp.  At least get a quote and see how much more than $10 I’ll need to have a working system.

Never Let Your Guard Down

Today, I learned I had been “hacked”.  I say “hacked” in a figurative sense because there wasn’t really a whole lot of hacking involved.  I somewhat left the door open and someone just fiddled around and got in.

I have my own email server that manages a few domains.  I have one domain I don’t do anything with, and on that one, I had created a couple of test accounts for, well, testing.  The problem is, I never disabled them when I was done.  It’s been a while since I did that, so either I didn’t think about the consequences or assumed that since I was working on an inactive domain, no one would try accessing it.  You can’t assume that.

Since “hackers” just use a bunch of scripts to automate “hacking”, they can just let the scripts run and go eat some more pizza.  And that’s what happened to me, probably.  A script found my domain, then immediately went to work trying out different common username/password combos.  And although I have security features that will temporarily blacklist an IP address after so many failures, that had no effect.  The script will just wait until the ban is lifted then continue on.  Time is not a concern.

So, once they got some working credentials, then it was time to deliver the spam.  And boy did they ever.  I had gigabytes of log files and 22k email messages queued for delivery.  How I learned I was hacked was by chance.  I happened to try sending an email during one of the spamfests and got the email returned with the message:

DED : You’ve reached your daily relay quota

At the time I got that message, I thought it was being returned by the domain I was sending to.  Later, on a whim, I decided to check my own server and was shocked at what I saw.  I immediately shut down the email service and started clearing out all the trash.  Then I changed all the account passwords and disabled all the unused accounts and restarted the server.  The log files showed someone trying to log in using and failing.  Bastards.

It’s my own fault, for sure.  But it’s terrible that you can’t stop being paranoid for a second on the Internet.  They’re always out to get you.

Leasing Your Life

A couple issues came up around the same time, so of course, I feel like I need to give this consideration to see if it’s a “thing” or not.  It’s all about giving up control for various reasons.

The first item is some recent news that people who bought some home automation system called Revolv are going to find themselves out of luck soon because the company that owns them (Google, pretty sure) is shutting it down.  This is ridiculous.  How and why would you ever want such a critical device dependent on another company.  And why would they make a product that couldn’t function on its own?

This seems to be the promise, that you trust a company and they will take care of you and manage everything.  Why is this accepted?  You aren’t buying a product, you’re buying a service.  Yes, that sounds correct, but I don’t think people really get it.  They purchase a physical device and think they own it, but they don’t.  It only works while you keep the subscription active.  In this specific case, the subscription cost is zero, but it can still be terminated at any time.

Along the same lines, I’ve noticed my employer is getting sucked into more and more subscription services and that bothers me.  Our time clock software runs on some other company’s web servers.  Our printers have been outsourced and are managed by an outside company.  Our wireless network is managed through some cloud-based application.  And I hear we are changing our security badge system soon.  I have a pretty good idea how that arrangement is going to be.

So, how vulnerable is my employer to downtime?  After researching the time clock system, I can’t tell if our time clocks will work if there is an internet outage or if the time clock company is down or hacked or out of business.  It’s obvious that we’re paying a monthly fee for this service, but if they go out of business, we have nothing usable.

The printers may continue to function if their company goes under, maybe not.  I don’t know how new users would be granted access to the printers.  The Wireless system is probably the same way.  If the supporting company closes up, we’d probably be frozen in time until we replaced the system.

That’s a lot of trust to be granting to multiple companies.  Gone are the days where you buy something and run it into the ground.  Now everything is subscription based with an unknown lifespan.  It’s a terrible way to live.