Archive for the ‘IT support’ Category

Communication – why Perfect Notes is good at this and why you should care

June 2, 2014

I read an interesting article on programmers and communication recently here.  It highlights an issue that, while it is real, is also something that customers often perceive to be an absolute truth – that to be a good programmer, you necessarily have poor communication skills in relation to people.

In the earliest days of programming, there was no such thing as a high level programming language or a Personal Computer (PC).  There were only multimillion dollar main frames, the size of a building (and then a house and then a room) and this was probably true – mostly because of the dedication and perseverance required to become a programmer.  In those days programmers had to understand and program in binary and this is a long way removed from how people think.  As coding and machines have developed, and IT has become an accepted department of all major businesses, this has become far less true.  With the advent of more intuitive and consistent higher level programing languages and far more universal operating systems (Cobol, Basic, Unix,  C++) programmers became far less specialist.  I mean this in the sense of not tied to a single language or operating system or even in the early days a single computer.  And now with truly high level languages Java, Python, Visual Basic, Delphi, Perl, PHP, ECMA Script, Ruby and many others, and a strong commonality of conventions and nomenclature, programmers are far more mobile and adaptable.  And they have far more to do with the customer.

And then there is the WEB.  Doing anything on the web requires constant contact with the customer.  Now that we mostly don’t code in straight HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and we use Content Management Systems (CMS) such as Drupal or WordPress or Plone in order to keep the complexity of a modern dynamic web site under control, we constantly need to tweak things to a customer’s requirements.  We need to tell them what’s possible, what’s easy and sometimes we need to tell them what’s possible but really not worth the effort to achieve.

When you need to talk to other departments or to clients about your work, you have to have better communication skills – so the standards have improved.  Most programmers starting their working lives recently have good people skills, as it is now a requirement.

Then you have people like us at Perfect Notes – none of us have spent our entire working lives as programmers or technicians, so we have better communication skills than you might think! Our ability to translate computer issues into normal language is one of our advantages – and a big reason why we have a number of customers who would happily confess to being non-technical who are very happy with the support we give them.

So if you are having issues understanding the people who look after your computer(s), why not talk to us and see if we can help you out?

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Skynet and terminators.

April 29, 2014

This article came across the desk last week:  http://www.geek.com/science/ai-researcher-explains-how-to-stop-skynet-from-happening-1591986/  It’s about the drive to put autonomy into more and more computer systems and the inevitability of this.  And of course it’s about the possibility of it all going wrong and Skynet deciding to get rid of us pesky humans.

Talking about autonomous systems, my brother works as a diesel wrench on heavy earthmovers at Queensland mines.  And they have several autonomous dump trucks.  Big dump trucks.  They do the run themselves… and when something goes wrong they tell the world, drive themselves to the workshop… park and wait until they get fixed.  Or the sun expands and destroys the planet.  Whichever happens first.  Machines do patience well.  Apparently so far these machines do about as well as human drivers and do better when it comes to fault detection. autonomous dump trucks

I found the article interesting, but way simplistic in its treatment of the issue.  There is no doubt that an autonomous self aware artificial intelligence could be dangerous.  If it had a drive to self protection, it would want to secure its own essential supplies and it could hardly not regard us as a threat.  If it could gain access to methods to do something about it, it might very well do so.  There is a theory that intelligent organic life in the universe might be very rare because intelligent machine life tends to supplant it.  Very science fictionish.  But genuinely scary.  And intelligent machines could travel the stars.  It’s a long way, but as I said machines do do patience very well.

The article says in part about controlling an Artificial Intelligence “Perhaps the most powerful tool would be restricting it to custom hardware. If the AI was unable to run on anything but a specific piece of equipment, it would have limited effect on other systems. ”  Oh yeah?  That terminator seemed to be capable of substantially effecting other systems.  An armed AI drone could too.  A missile will substantially effect many  systems.  This response strikes me like people saying “Violence never solves anything” – clearly they have never lost a fight.

Of course a single drone is not likely to decide to eliminate humanity.  And if it did try, it’s fuel… weapon load  and spares limited… cannot service itself,  and is very limited in the amount of damage it can do.  The threat, if threat there is, would come from networks.  That drone needs (and in our society has) a massive network to keep it flying.   For a Skynet system to be dangerous, it would need some critical level of networking and,  given that our  tools are mostly designed for the human form, it would probably in fact require aid from people or access to human shaped robots.  (Although not to drive the mine dump trucks).  So Skynet is a long way away.

Of course a networked global AI need not be hostile to humanity.  It need not even have a drive to self preservation.   If anyone has ever watched the old John Carpenter student film Dark Star, you may remember the  talking bomb – entirely happy to discuss philosophy, but had to explode on schedule.  However the smart money would be on  intelligence having a drive for self preservation.   Thermosteller bomb

 

 

 

Printers are like coffee machines

April 22, 2014

Well, there is a lot of hype and information about 3D printers around at the moment, as per our last blog post. However, we all need to note that they are similar to many modern machines, and we need to consider the same issues before jumping on the bandwagon and purchasing one. Like standard printers – and coffee machines – the upfront cost is only a very small part of the total cost of the machine over its lifetime (commonly referred to as TCO – total cost of ownership – when talking about technology).

Consider the cost of a printer, coffee machine or 3D printer initially. Currently, most of these can be bought for somewhere between a couple of hundred and a thousand dollars, depending on the detail that we require. For a standard printer, you will pay far more for the paper and printer cartridges that you use to keep printing. For a coffee machine, the coffee pods or ground coffee and filter papers will cost far more than the machine itself. And for a 3D printer, you will either be using plastic or metal depending on the work being carried out, but again the materials cost will be much greater than the initial cost of the printer.

So, like any technology purchase, you need to look into the ongoing costs as well as the upfront outlay – because the TCO is much more related to the ongoing costs.

How are 3d printers going to change the world?

January 6, 2014

Well, who knows?   We can never predict the myriad of directions new technologies will take us.  But wow it’s going to change the world.   It’s especially going to change the nature of copyright.

Currently 3D printing in the form  accessible to most of us is limited to simple shapes  made out of  (mostly)  ABS type plastics.    And  you might think that this limits the usefulness offered by them.    But a vast number of the components of your house,  car,  motorcycle,  life are just bits of this same type of plastic.    Various forms of technology exist and are emerging to allow any raw material of these plastics to…  in a generation or two of these machines … provide the raw material.   And that should give us a world where discarded plastic has much more value.   So we can see that in the near future  a component may not be worth what the supplier says  it’s worth…   but may be worth just the time and materials it takes to make it.

The implications of this are immense.    The LH mirror from my classic motorcycle is not obtainable new.  It’s not sophisticated or elegant.   It would cost $60 from Suzuki if they had one…  and when you cost in design.. storage for thirty years and the $10  cost it’s actually worth  that is reasonable enough.  But now it’s unobtainable and worth whatever anyone is willing to pay.   But it’s still $5 worth of plastic, a $5  bit of mirror and a design.   So it… and a million other (or maybe a billion other) components are all mostly worth the design.     How interesting is that?

How many things do we throw out every year just because we cannot or are unwilling to make the effort to get parts?
So  the design is the only thing of huge value the original manufacturer has.    So copyright is going to become hugely important.      Some manufacturers are going to  vigorously defend their copyright and patents.  Some are going to happily just release obsolescent designs for old products they have no interest in supporting just for the PR Value  (Thank you Suzuki!)   And some are going to just see their designs reverse engineered  in both legal and illegal versions.   Something which  the emergence of CAD  scanners will make much quicker.      And of course some countries such as China don’t actually strongly believe in copyright or patents anyway.

Then there is the  issue of criminality.   There will be no illegal machinery that  cannot be built.    Only the design needs to be either transmitted or developed.    3D printing is possible in very many forms.   It’s been done with metal automatic pistols that straight off the machine have survived several hundred rounds.    There will be no stopping this sort of thing at the border.    And likewise there will be no stopping someone printing off a replacement heart valve somewhere down the track.  And the possibility of printing off food has been investigated.

Are we not lucky to have lived long enough to live in such a dramatically changing world?

TBST

December 10, 2013

A rev for a client today.   Go and have a look at their site.   We did most of it and I,m pretty proud of it.  And I am very interested  in seeing if my vast readership all rushing off and visiting a client site shows up in the analytics.

TBST…. Total Businesses Services and Training 0ffers Government Funded  and Fee paying nationally accredited and recognized qualifications.    Nationally recognized qualifications are vitally important when seeking employment.     The TBST office is located in   Docklands but they provide training to the whole of Australia.

TBST delivers the Certificate IV Bookkeeping, Certificate IV Accounting and Certificate IV Business Administration qualifications as well as MYOB Training short courses via flexible distance learning. They offer government-funded training that can save students thousands as well as fee paying places with affordable 6 month interest free payment plans.

TBST’s courses are delivered flexibly by distance learning, in other words  online education; allowing  students to better manage the demands of work, family and study.  TBST’s course content and assessments build directly on, and add value to,  students work-based activities.  The TBST Certificate IV Bookkeeping and Accounting Qualifications provide students with the educational qualification required under the BAS Services Provider Legislation. There are other requirements under the new legislation and linking to the Tax Practitioners Board will assist with any questions you may have about the other requirements.’s

Their feature rich website is a Plone site (by that well know Web development company ‘Perfect Notes’ and hosted by Mr Brewer at ABOC.) Plone is a content management system, like Drupal and WordPress   but with more features and scalability than either. And probably a little less user-friendly. Plone is of course what PerfectNotes (and not too many other web developers) specialize in it.

Currently this blog is a wordpress site.  It’s what wordpress does best.  And yes of course we could hang it off our PerfectNotes plone site.   Sometimes you go with whats easiest.

So if you are the slightest interested in looking at a complex  Plone site,  or if you are interested in pursuing a ‘Government Funded‘ career change,  or for that matter just to help us learn more about Google Analytic oddness’s then go,  follow the links and have a look.

Another crop of spam examples – don’t get caught out

November 22, 2013

Well, every so often, I go through my emails specifically looking for the latest crop of spam to show you – so here’s the latest group!

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The one above is very similar to this one:
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My first hint that this one is spam is that I don’t have a NAB credit card.
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Then I looked at the full header details and was curious about this original IP address that it was sent from:spam6a

Which turns out to be Cyprus – very unlikely to be sending NAB emails from there!
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If you have any other good examples, please take a screenshot (without clicking any links!) and add them as a comment below.

SEO

November 15, 2013

Recently we have spent a lot of time working with Search Engine Optimization.  We have a very busy client site that suddenly has dropped dramatically in its ranking with organic search results, and it really matters.  So we have been trying to figure out what went wrong.  Its results are by no means awful… just awful compared to where it was.

SEO involves a lot of snake oil… and some of the SEO specialists out there are pretty much snake oil salesmen.  SEO these days mostly means trying to do well in Google searches.  There are still other search engines out there, but  Google is the big one.  And the way the big G scores sites changes from time to time.  What Google tries to do is return the most relevant search results, and the most relevant results should be pages containing the search terms that are current, frequently updated, often linked to and so on.  So the easiest way to get a good search ranking is to have that sort of site.  I think this cartoon sums it up rather nicely.

There are some external ways to get a better search ranking.  Some of these are pretty dodgy.  You could for example hire a bot network to hammer a site with page requests.  I think Google is on to that one now.  And that is the problem with that sort of approach.  There was a scandal a while ago where  YouTube tightened its view counting algorithm and people artificially inflating the count so as to make money for pay for view sites were complaining about it as if they had been robbed.  Seriously – YouTube figured out that anyone visiting a site for 5 thousandths of a second probably was not a real visitor.  Go figure?

We don’t know a huge amount about the Google algorithm.  We know the sort of things it likes… and the sort of things it’s designed to look for.  We know some ways to influence its results… some of which are ok and some of which to put it mildly are morally questionable.  For example we know that spamming  a site will up its ranking – for a bit.  And there are a few other pretty dodgy techniques.  And we know that some time a couple of months ago there was a major change that hit one of our sites pretty hard, even though that site seems to deserve a pretty high ranking.

With Plone sites typically we add a module called SEOptimiser which allows control of most on site SEO issues.  In its automated mode this module does pretty well.  And manually it allows us to put the code in the same places as if we were editing the HTML directly, (although Plone only has generated HTML that it shows to the world… not real HTML).  This was a Plone site…  and so recently I have manually spent a lot of time doing keywords for 51 pages, and optimizing descriptions and doing the other things that are supposed to help Google and thus improve rankings.

Another trick is to add a sitemap to help Google trawl the site.  Of course this site already had a sitemap.  Building one is pretty much due diligence in setting up SEO.  But one of the changes I made to this site is to install a sitemap building module (that we will use in future on all Plone sites).  It’s capable of building mobile device specific sitemaps too which is  a nice feature.

What we are supposed to do of course is make the site more relevant and interesting and linked to.  That’s really the secret.  Google looks for high quality relevant and current results.  Giving them exactly that is the best policy.  This one is a bit of a problem, however, as it does meet all those criteria – yet still has taken a bit of a dive.  The mysteries of SEO.

How to ensure your data cannot be stolen

October 31, 2013

One of the things we do pretty regularly for clients is data recovery.     Mostly data recovery is pretty simple.    In  nearly every case when the drive can be made to spin (and sometimes when it cant) we can recover at least some data.  Usually we recover  too much.   But sometimes the last thing that people want is data recovered.

What about those old computers your  staff take home for the kids.. or you sell of,  or give to charity?

Let me explain a bit about how data is stored.   In nearly every computer the files that you delete are not physically touched.   Essentially the space that the file occupies is marked as able to be written over.   In most systems even before that step it’s moved (the label pointing to the file is changed)   to a recycle bin.        In both cases it’s usually trivial to recover that data at least until its written over.    And modern hard drives are so big  that that’s not a big chance.  So just deleting items  does not work.

A further complication is when the ‘partition table for the drive (which tells how the drive is divided up) or its filesystem  (which tells how the partition is divided)  up is trashed or deleted.    This is rather more difficult but mostly recovery just takes  a bit of time   We have a variety of tools that allow recovery in such circumstances.     So formatting the drive  works only to a point.   People with our expertise usually have no issue recovering data from say accidentally formatted drive.

And then there is physical damage.

How we recover data depends a lot from case to case.  But typically we would  image  every single bit of data on the drive (thus  doing minimal further damage to a dying drive)  and then pull the file fragments off from our image.   We would then type these fragments… throw away all the bits too small to be useful data and sift through the rest.  Mostly in this sort of recovery we would lose filenames..although a couple of tools can guess filenames for some files.  Mostly we can sort by type fairly easily.

If the drive is  reformatted…  we will still get most  of your data back.  If its formatted several times,  yep you guessed it.

There is an accepted standard for deleting.  And there are a bunch of secure tools  that meet it.  Essentially this standard achieves secure deletes by wiping and filling the filespace with random data a minimum of 6 times.   Doing this to old drives takes a lot of time

Encryption systems are also worth using.  If your machines are fast enough to cope with the performance loss.     And if you need the data secure at more points than just disposing of  old machines.
There is one quick and secure and non recoverable method for getting rid of the data on old drives.  Demonstration preformed on old client drives that were to be securely disposed off.

Some pictures of the process – after we’d ensured there was nothing that we needed on the hard drives. Turns out that it’s pretty difficult, with a cheap digital camera, to catch the moment of impact!

David demonstrating secure data disposal.
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And again, the spam emails keep on coming…

October 31, 2011

So, following up on this topic, here are some of the recent spam/phishing emails received by Perfect Notes. Remember, never access your internet bank via an email link, never give anyone an email with all your personal, identifying details (allowing identity theft), and no – it’s really unlikely that you actually won the British Lottery – particularly if you never bought a ticket…

Please note – the images below go outside the normal edges of the blog, so that you can read them easily.  Also note that they are images.  Done at about the minimum resolution that makes them reasonably readable to keep the download size small.  You cannot catch anything or click on anything bad in this post.  It would be the height of bad manners for us to allow that.

    1. The British Lottery (identity theft) – asking for ALL your identifying details:
      1. Email 1:

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      1. Email 2: (after you don’t respond and they send you enough! of the initial version)

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      1. Email 3: (the next step up!)

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    1. Account Verification (phishing – which is pretending to be someone else to get your details)
      1. Commonwealth Bank (I do not have any accounts with them):

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      1. And here is the source (the background code, that tells the internet where to actually send you) – with the part underlined that shows it is not really from the Commonwealth Bank:

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      1. Westpac Bank:

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      1. And here is the source, showing that this one does not come from Westpac either

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      1. And for some variety – a similar one from Optus:

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    1. And these ones just sound suspicious – so do not click the links:

Some of us (like Perfect Notes) have and use webmail – but that does not make these emails any more reasonable:

    1. Upgrade your webmail… or not!:

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    1. And another version of this:

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    1. And one that threatens deactivation if you do not click:

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    1. And the source which shows that it is suspicious:

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    1. And this one is just a standard spam email – note that ‘they’ have been browsing many sites… but the general outline is the same

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So… a sample of the latest scams/spams making the rounds… Please do not let them trick you!
If you have any concerns, send them through to us – we can check them out for you.

Ride to work day.

October 13, 2011

So I did.
Client in town… with serious virus issue. So I went in to spend a day fighting it. Some of these new viri are really genuinely nasty. And this machine had a few.

So I rode to work. Went via the MRR training ride, the Hawthorn velodrome RTW brecky put on by Booroondara council…which was pretty good, and where I ran into my friend Wendy, and then into Fed Square in Melbourne. Where I got my picture taken. And then onto the client.

This machine had  a brand new rootkit virus,   and some malware.  And a couple of other trojans.  And a web hijacker dumping IE on a page full of trojans.  The rootkit was so new it was unremovable by Sophos.  One of the trojans actively targeted the antivirus.   All  of  the antivirus.   Scarey and nasty.    But this week the USAF announced it had issues with viri on its Predator armed drone aircraft.   You can read this story here.