Spot phishing e-mails with Outlook 2010

I got e-mail the other day from Turbotax saying someone had filed my taxes for me.¬†Obviously a cause for concern, right? Here’s how I determined the message was fake in about three minutes.

Some people will tell you not to even open a message like this, but¬†if you’re a computer professional, at some point someone is going to want you to prove the message was fake. I think this is something every e-mail administrator, desktop support professional, security professional, and frankly, every helpdesk professional ought to be able to do.

So here’s how you can get the proof. And generally speaking, Outlook 2010’s default configuration is paranoid enough that this procedure will be safe to do. If you want an extra layer of protection, make sure you have EMET installed and protecting Outlook.

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Best Buy needs to clone Micro Center, not Radio Shack

So Best Buy is planning to close 50 big-box stores, downsize others, and try to focus its efforts on selling cell phones, tablets, and e-readers.

Sounds to me like they’re trying to become Radio Shack. Read more

The many troubles with e-books

A brief essay by free software pioneer Richard Stallman on the problems with e-books made the front page of Slashdot today. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Stallman. I found myself vigorously agreeing with parts of it, and vigorously disagreeing with other parts of it.

But mainly I found myself disappointed that he didn’t really elaborate much. Maybe it’s because he covered similar ground once before in his 1997 dystopian 1984-ish short story, The Right to Read.

And, to me, that’s the problem. We’re on a slippery slope. Today it sounds ridiculous that it could be illegal to loan your laptop or your e-reader or your tablet to someone else. But prior to 2009, the idea that you could buy a book and then at some point the party that sold it to you could take it back from you without permission sounded ridiculous.
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Linguistic analysis isn’t hooey

For the second time in two months, I’ve seen a case where a linguist analyzed writing and tried to conclude whether someone was or wasn’t the author of a suspicious e-mail message. The first was a threatening letter purportedly sent to Christopher Coleman, who was convicted last month of murdering his family, and the other was Paul Ceglia’s attempt to prove he owns a substantial share of Facebook.

The inevitable flood of comments calling such analysis “black magic” followed. But as an author, I have to give validity to it.

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Why piracy matters

Rob O’Hara offers an interesting perspective on piracy.

I agree with him. 20 years ago, copyrighted material offered presence. It was something special.

Computer software was mostly sold in specialty stores. And if you wanted something, the store might or might not have it. There was a bit of a hunt involved. I still have fond memories of going to Dolgin’s, Babbage’s, and other long-gone stores to buy Commodore software. Sure, I pirated some stuff (who didn’t?) but mostly confined myself to out-of-print stuff that you couldn’t otherwise get.

Believe it or not, I took pride in having a shelf of paid-for software.

Music was the same way. Back then, the average record store had a comparable selection to your local Target. If you decided you liked Joy Division or Sisters of Mercy, you had a long road ahead of you to collect all their stuff. Acquiring material that was far off the Top 40 path took time and effort, not just money.

Today it doesn’t matter what you want, you can probably find it in 30 minutes online. Legally, or, in most cases, illegally. Like a friend asked me about 10 years ago when broadband connections became attainable and this stuff started to change, “How can data be rare?”

The solution some people give is touring. That works for musicians, but not so well for everyone else. Book signings aren’t very profitable for most authors. There’s no close equivalent at all for software. Charging for service works for application software, but not at all for games.

The solution is to find other ways to make a living.

The loss? Culture, frankly. Music gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. Record labels can’t (or won’t) take a chance on promising young bands whose first few records don’t sell. Had U2 come on the scene in 1999 instead of 1979, it never would have made it. The Joshua Tree was a huge seller, but who’s ever heard of Boy and October? By today’s standards for first and second albums, they were flops.

The result is we see a lot more acts like Justin Timberlake, who can make a lot of money fast. If they fade from view, it doesn’t matter, because the record companies can always manufacture a replacement. Which leaves little reason to take a chance on someone who does things differently and takes a few years to really burst onto the scene. The environment doesn’t really favor the development of someone like Talking Heads, the Moody Blues, or much of anything else that deviates from the norm today. Or U2, for that matter, who may sound mainstream today, but they sure didn’t in 1980.

I see other arenas suffering too. Name me an innovative video game. There’s been very little innovation since Wolfenstein 3D came into being in 1992. Virtually everything since is just a variation on that same theme: Shoot everything that moves in a 3D environment. Yawn. That wasn’t even very innovative–it’s just that it happened in 3D. There were plenty of shoot-everything-that-moves games out there in the mid/late 1980s for the Nintendo NES.

Creative people who want to have a house and a car and a few things to put in it find other ways to make a living. Like writing or doing graphic design for Pizza Today or another trade magazine. It’s steady work. It’s not glamorous and won’t make you famous, but it pays the bills. And it’s niche enough that it’s unlikely to be pirated.

Someone may find a way to make things work in this new reality. Odds are it won’t be someone in Washington. And it probably won’t happen tomorrow. Which is a shame.

Why Firefox will probably always have mixed acceptance in corporate environments

I saw an article in Information Week today about Firefox in the enterprise.

The fanboys on both sides took offense, of course.

I’m a longtime Firefox user and an IT professional, but yet I agree with the premise that Firefox will always have trouble in that environment.The biggest reason is inside the firewall, in the corporate intranet. Some commenters complained about lazy in-house design, but that’s not the whole story. Many web-based enterprise applications are designed for Internet Explorer and only Internet Explorer. One app that I support takes it a step further, and only works with IE 5.5 or IE 6. That’s going to be a problem when the order comes down to deploy IE 7. The product is discontinued, so at that point we’ll have to either migrate to something else, or have people connect to a terminal server so they can run IE 6.

I have another web-based application I support (but if I ever change jobs I’ll deny ever hearing about it) that works with IE 7, but if and only if an administrator logs on and manually registers some ActiveX controls. That product is called Microsoft Project Server 2003 Web Access.

Yes, you read that right. Even Microsoft can’t properly support its own web browsers.

Any corporate web-based app that uses ActiveX will never run on Firefox. Those that check for a specific IE version might run on a hacked version of Firefox, but if you ever have any problems, you’re on your own. Corporate suits don’t like that.

And since computers and applications tend to live almost forever once they’re deployed, IE’s stranglehold on those environments may not be measured in years. We may be talking a decade, or even more.

I’ll submit the refrigerator-sized VAX systems I walk past nearly every day in the server room as evidence of the longevity of some systems. The computers themselves may not be quite 20 years old, but the applications they’re running are at least that old.

Firefox also tends to go against corporate culture in other ways. One of the first questions a corporate suit will ask is who they can sue if it breaks. Never mind that if a Microsoft product breaks, they probably waived all legal rights as part of the EULA. The guys in corner offices who wear ties know more about that than anyone who works on computers. A wave of the hand makes that problem go away.

Yeah, right. But don’t bother trying to tell them that.

A second problem is that many IT decisions are made, or approved, by people who admire Bill Gates’ wealth. Since Bill Gates became the world’s richest man by selling computer software, his computer software must be the best, period, end of story.

Many of the books decision-makers read perpetuate this belief. One example is the highly popular and influential book Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan. In many circles, this book is a must-read. I have to admit I’m getting as much out of this $11 book than I got out of my college economics class, if not more. But Wheelan trots Gates out again and again as a master visionary, a master programmer, and lots of other things that he clearly isn’t. The examples serve to make Wheelan’s point, which is the most important thing, but they also perpetuate the myth that Bill Gates is the greatest computer scientist and visionary of all time, when the fact is he’s an astute and ruthless businessman who happened to find himself in the computer industry. His track record as a programmer and visionary isn’t all that great.

But because of this myth, spread largely outside of the computer industry proper, many influential people will insist on using the Microsoft product any time there’s a choice. They’re not interested in Wordperfect or Quicken or Dreamweaver or Firefox any other product not made by Microsoft, as long as Microsoft makes something that competes with it.

The Millionaire Mind by Thomas Stanley explains this mentality somewhat. When a person’s job is to make money, they don’t want to do product research and they don’t want to take chances. When they buy tires, a dishwasher, or a refrigerator, they walk into the store and buy the most expensive one, because the most expensive one must be the best. They don’t want to spend time doing market research because they could spend that time making money. And they want something they believe won’t break, because time spent dealing with broken stuff is time they can’t spend making money.

Basically, any time spent discussing or researching a purchase is time that can’t be spent making money. So in the mind of a bean-counter or an executive type, it’s much cheaper in the long run to just choose the Microsoft product and forget about it.

The logic is completely faulty–it’s an excellent example of a red herring logical fallacy, as Bill Gates’ wealth has nothing to do with the quality of his competitors’ products–but arguing that point isn’t likely to get you anywhere. Even if the decision maker is wrong, the time spent arguing about it is probably worth more than the potential savings by going with a different product.

At home, none of this matters. And at home, I’ll keep using Firefox. I’ve been using Firefox since 2002 when it was an obscure project called Phoenix, so I think you can call me a longtime fan.

Firefox made remarkable progress from 2002 to now, while IE has gone from IE 6 to IE 7 in the same timeframe.

But in the corporate world, very little of that matters. Incumbency has its advantages. Some companies will embrace it because of its many advantages. In other companies, users will sneak it in the door, the same way they snuck in PCs in the 1980s and 1990s while the mainframe-centric IT staff wasn’t looking. But in the majority of companies, it’s likely to stay shut out, perhaps because something important requires IE, but if not, the mere absence of Microsoft’s name on the product will be enough to keep it out of some doors.

I don’t expect to ever have Firefox on my PC at my current job. It’s my employer’s loss, but it’s not my decision.

Microsoft lives to see another day

Microsoft lives to see another day. I’m of two minds on the Microsoft breakup. As a good little Republican, I believe in free enterprise and history demonstrates again and again that the best way to kill something is to regulate it. Government is reasonably good at protecting us from thugs, when it wants to be, and it’s best at protecting us from thugs when it’s not meddling in things it’s not good at doing.
However, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Microsoft is a thug.

Microsoft rightfully recognized OS/2 as a threat to its empire and wanted to get it gone, quickly, before the public realized that Windows 3.1 was just a pile of unstable crap not worthy of being called beta software and started buying something that didn’t crash three times a day. Knowing that IBM is a big, slow company whose various divisions usually don’t even realize they’re part of the same behemoth, Microsoft attacked. As Windows 95’s release date grew nearer, Microsoft knew IBM’s PC division would want to sell Windows 95 pre-installed on their PCs, since no company wanted the distinction of being the only company that couldn’t sell you a Windows 95 PC. Microsoft told IBM that if they wanted to bundle Win95 with their PCs and continue to sell OS/2, well, then, they could just go buy their Windows 95 licences at retail.

Finally, IBM negotiated a compromise. They got their Win95 licenses, but at the price of not being able to market their vastly superior alternative anymore.

Microsoft saw a little company called Netscape as a threat, because its cofounder, a young, hotheaded programmer fresh out of college by the name of Marc Andreesen, publicly stated his ambitions to make his Web browser more important than the operating system it ran on. That’s a lofty goal. Strong talk. But what 23-year-old college graduate doesn’t walk across the stage thinking he or she can conquer the world? Bill Gates wouldn’t understand that feeling, seeing as he never managed to get a degree, but anyone else with the self-discipline to play the game for four years does. And when you’re Marc Andreesen, who managed to write both popular Web browsers, one of them while you’re still in college, you have more than a feeling you can change the world. You already know it. You have evidence! So of course you talk big.

Andreesen paid a tall price for thinking big and talking big. Microsoft went to NCSA and licensed the other Web browser Andreesen wrote, slapped its logo on it, and called it Internet Explorer. Initially they sold it as part of the Plus pack, but since Netscape was a far better browser, Microsoft wisely decided to compete on price. They improved it and started giving it away. Back when the Japanese started selling minivans at below cost, it was called dumping. But laws that apply to everything else don’t apply to computer software, because lawmakers and judges are morons who have no understanding of technology, and Gates, being the son of a lawyer, knew it. So Microsoft got away with it. Netscape, unable to compete, died a very slow, painful death.

But consumers are so much better off now, aren’t they? Rather than pay for a Web browser that sometimes crashes (or, as usually was the case, getting it for free when they sign up with an ISP who bought a bunch of Netscape licenses in bulk), they get a browser/operating system combo that crashes a lot and often takes the whole system down with it.

Now, somehow, a tiny company in Seattle that specializes in streaming audio is a threat to Microsoft’s OS monopoly. I guess when people are listening to underground radio stations using a piece of software that doesn’t display Microsoft’s Windows logo, they’re not thinking wonderful and lovely thoughts about Microsoft and therefore they’re a threat. So Microsoft makes streaming audio part of the OS and foists it on people, even if they don’t have a sound card. Listening to MP3s is an essential, inseperable function of the operating system, after all.

Now, RealAudio makes my life pure hell sometimes and I’d love to see the company roll over and die. But just because they had a good idea and a poor implementation and ambition to grow doesn’t give Microsoft the right to kill them just because they have a product the marketplace likes and some day might use that revenue to become bigger competition than they are now. The logical conclusion of that logic is for Microsoft to send out hit men to take out any programmer who dares work for somebody other than Microsoft or a company like Symantec or Adobe that Microsoft can wrap around its little finger.

And yes, Justice Penfield Jackson is a moron with a big mouth. He was understandably livid at Microsoft for its courtroom antics and doublespeak. However, rather than opening his mouth, ordering their breakup, then opening his mouth some more, he should have just held them in contempt of court. They fabricated evidence when they shot the video that attempted to prove that Edward Felten’s program didn’t work. Jackson caught them. The solution isn’t to extract revenge by opening your mouth outside the courtroom. That’s just stooping to Microsoft’s level. Holding them in contempt and saying why would have been more than enough.

But it’s increasingly looking like none of this matters, for once. Microsoft’s back to its old tricks, bundling more and more stuff that people may or may not want into their operating system, and now they’re doing more than just bullying their competitors. They’re bullying their customers as well. Not many companies will appreciate Microsoft forcing them to spend thousands of dollars to prove they’ve never ever installed a copy of Windows twice. The companies that are guilty, of course, have no leg to stand on. But a lot of companies end up paying for Windows twice. A copy of Windows comes with every PC they buy, but as part of a volume agreement with Microsoft, they end up buying, for whatever reason, an additional copy of Windows for every PC on their network. But now that Microsoft is flailing around for revenue, you’re guilty until proven innocent. If you own one PC and Microsoft knows about it, then it’s entirely possible you own two PCs and you loaded your copy of Windows on it too.

Some of the audited companies are understandably upset and suddenly looking for alternatives, where they were formerly in Microsoft’s camp 100%.

And, of course, Microsoft’s attempts to force people into upgrading, even when Windows 95 and Office 95 are perfectly suited to many tasks, will alienate some. Microsoft’s oft-misunderstood .Net initiative has infuriated people that I never expected to leave the Microsoft camp. Some buy right into it, but some always do. Meanwhile, Linux and its associated software marches on, getting better every day. Ironically, a similar tactic that Microsoft used to murder Netscape in cold blood–giving the software away for free–now threatens the cash cow of NT/2000 server. Servers are enormously profitable–you just take your desktop OS, call it a server, charge five times as much for it, and then charge a few bucks per seat for the privelige of connecting to it. The real cost of a Windows NT/2000 server usually runs five figures. And most companies have several servers. Linux, meanwhile, is low-cost (free if you want), more stable, and more versatile.

Since Microsoft’s current business model requires not just profits, but sustained exponential growth, Linux’s attacks on the server front may allow justice to finally be administered, no matter how incompetent the U.S. Government’s Keystone Kops turn out to be.

One can only hope.