Saturday, 27 August 2011

Password with eight characters

It was the best joke at the Edinburgh Fringe, as reported by the BBC and others. Comedian Nick Helm won an award from UK digital TV channel Dave ... and stop me if you've heard this one ...
I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
This got me thinking about passwords. (Yes, there had to be a reason for telling a joke in this blog.) We're interested for two reasons: we need passwords of our own and we set up systems where users need passwords.

Googling choosing passwords brings up over 7.5 million results. The top one, from, is a good summary. I won't go into details about my personal password strategies but I will admit two things:

I have a little program, called Xyzzy, produced by Haxial software ... this can generate pronounceable but imaginary words, with optional numbers added. Unfortunately, Haxial no longer exists although Xyzzy is still out there on the web. An alternative, online, is a Java-based generator from Multicians and there is a JavaScript option.

Passwords are a balance between being able to remember (because we never write them down do we!) and being difficult/impossible to crack or guess.

The infamous hacking song from the BBC's Micro Live put it like this ...
Try his first wife's maiden name,
This is more than just a game,
It's real fun, but just the same,
It's Hacking, Hacking, Hacking.
I recommend you follow the Wikipedia link as it tells you how the hackers got into the system ... and I bet it's not what you think.

My second admission is to put punctuation into passwords ... this includes plings (!) and circumflexes (^) and other seemingly esoteric things. This is a good practice and is the reason why you should not restrict your web site users to alphanumeric characters. The 'difficulty' of a password increases geometrically with every character in the string but also every character that could be in the string, so using anything you can get your fingers on makes sense. But stick to characters in the character set your webpage and server are using: the odd bit of Tamil probably won't work in Europe.

Friday, 19 August 2011

What's in your cupboard?

I've been doing some clearing out. I realised that over the years since we moved to ATSF Towers, and to some extent even before that, I have accumulated a lot of obsolete bits and pieces.

It started with an old Mac that I was keeping around as an emergency backup. Well, the power supply failed and so it had to go in the electronics skip at the local dump. No graceful retirement in central Africa for that old dear ... just crash and smash!

I realised that I actually had at least a whole shelf of software that would only run under older versions of the Mac OS (that is before OS X) and that even where I was into a long upgrade cycle (such as with Photoshop) I didn't need to keep all the old versions. It included boxes of software that installed from floppy discs for goodness sake! I was embarrassed by how long I'd kept this stuff hidden on a shelf and not even looked at it. (At least I'd thrown away my original copy of Netscape Navigator, which I paid for and which came in a box.) There were even a few old Windows things that wouldn't run under Vista they were so old, so this isn't just a Mac thing. The irony there is that an old DOS CD-ROM still works perfectly in my virtual PC ... so that can stay.

With the departing Mac went a SCSI card, although I had copied over what I needed from the remaining SCSI discs (huge capacities of one and four gigabytes) and security-wiped them before they too crashed into recycle limbo. I decided to 'Freecycle' my Jaz, DAT and DVD-RAM drives, and someone actually wanted them.

Why do we end up with obsolete software and hardware? Sometimes it's because it seems like a good idea at the time: the DVD-RAM drive was for backup and archiving but it turned out to be far too slow and then DVDs came down in price instead. I don't think anything I had backed up onto DAT tapes (and even some Exabytes) would run now so I don't regret binning those. Sometimes even the systems you made them for vanish (CD-I anyone?) and, of course, operating systems change over time.

Apple's move over to the Lion version of their OS is causing some grief, particularly because they have decided to drop support for programs that do not run directly on their current Intel processors (see this BBC story). Oddly, Apple did not give people any real notice of this and for most people the way they find out is a dialogue box saying that their application won't run. IMHO this intention should have been flagged with the launch of the previous version of the OS. Discussions on the excellent Mac-In-Touch web site have covered this problem in depth, even suggesting that there may be a way around it. It's unfortunate that a very cheap OS upgrade is likely to lead to a substantially larger bill for updating applications. Personally, I'm putting it off for the time being and whatever happens I'll be keeping an older OS version available for 'special occasions'.

But back to downsizing ...

It seems easier at the moment. DVDs for archiving (in duplicate and reburned every few years) and even hard discs since they are so cheap. The Mac backup system called Time Machine regularly backs me up to a separate internal disc (which is due for an upgrade) and even lets me dig back to previous versions if I really mess something up. Projects for the web using open source systems like PHP and MySQL don't require boxes of software, just the occasional O'Reilly book to help understand them. Even Word, Powerpoint and Excel are currently replaced by a version of Open Office. It just leaves dear old Photoshop and Dreamweaver among the regulars and even their boxes have got smaller.

So look under your desk, open those cupboards at the back of the room. What can you chuck out or recycle now? I just shout 'millstone' every time something goes out. It's a good feeling as long as I don't think about the money it cost at the time.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The business mindset – are you adjusting?

Allthough we're in the iMedia business, our clients by and large are from traditional business. As such they have a different mindset to technology and innovation – but is that changing? In the past you might have found clashes of approach with your clients. Remember, you need to convince them of your proposed solutions to their business problems so you have had to talk to them in their terms. That has meant understanding their businesses and mindsets and tailoring how you speak about your proposed solutions to their needs so that they line up with your proposals.

But, the general business mindset has shifted a lot faster than before in the last five years; maybe as fast as our expansion in the use of technology platforms. We need to line up with our clients' mindsets so what are they?

Christoph Smaltz from Headshift gives some well founded advice for us in his blog July 25th, From traditional business to social business. He analyses the shift in traditional business thinking to the socially aware business thinking - driven by social media. He puts forward four key changes.
  1. Businesses have moved from 'transaction' where they supply products/goods for their customers and finish the communication with them, to 'interaction' where they are concerned with the customer 's experience with them, they listen, amend, accept criticism etc. They just don't sell goods/services or whatever.
  2. The older classifications of B2B and B2C have changed to P2P (person to person). The premise has changed to a person wanting to interact with a person, not with an anonymous business entity.
  3. The past was about control or 'gatekeeping' information and communication within a business. Now it's about facilitating communication between all levels and with customers. This means that the business has to provide a communication platform (technology driven) to facilitate rather than control.
  4. The last concept he develops is the change in communication within and around the traditional company. Traditionally communication was hierarchical – the top-down approach. Social communication via technology has shifted this to be networked even inside companies. Communication is equal between employees and customers.
Well worth a look, Christoph's blog might help you communicate some of your thinking to your clients. It may prompt you and your management to rethink some of your business strategies of how you communicate with your clients. Mindsets change; but we have been used to them shifting slowly. Now we have to recognise that the speed of technological advances can and does have spin-offs for the way our clients conduct business and that we have to notice the shift in business terms!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Government buys into copyright 'update'

Last week the government response to the Hargreaves report on copyright was published. It seems that they have accepted the report pretty well lock stock and barrel, which may at least save the report from the black hole the Gowers report seemingly fell into. It will also suit many in the interactive industry, who wrote an open letter to the powers that be urging acceptance and then welcoming it.

There is much common sense in the recommendations. Format shifting is something 'we all' end up doing and I have always thought it a bit ingenuous of rights owners in granting a licence that only allows intangible use of something while tying it to a physical artefact such as a CD. There is a circle to square over making this work in a European framework that asks for reasonable remuneration for rights holders in such cases (such as a blank tape levy). A right of parody possibly seems better than it actually is; the existing French right includes a requirement to be funny, which must be an interesting thing to argue in court. Data mining (by which I think they really mean indexing) should be OK as long as you can't reverse-engineer the original from the bits that you mine.

No, the 'were they listening at all?' moment comes over orphan works. In principle, the idea of being able legally to publish a work where you really can't find out who owns it or can't track them down to pay them makes sense. The difficulty is that it could open a hole big enough for unscrupulous or ignorant publishers to drive a bendy-bus through, and that was what really worried the photographers. A compromise solution was to agree to non-commercial use of orphans (whatever 'non-commercial' means exactly), but even this has been ignored. I can't see a compelling case for orphans licensing outside of the heritage sector. If you're the British Library or the BBC and you have an item in a box with no label on it that clearly has an historic relevance to your project then I can be persuaded. Using an orphan photograph of a polar bear instead of getting one from a library is not what such legislation means at all.

Two things could ameliorate this: better treatment of moral rights of authors/photographers (particularly as manifested by metadata attached to photographs on the web) and a better way for an aggrieved photographer to take action. Sadly, Hargreaves had no brief to consider moral rights, so that battle is still on-going. En passant I note that the moral dimension is perhaps more a subject for the Culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, than Business minister Vince Cable. The watchword is that copyright is the means by which culture does business, and it should be a two-way street.

There is an unexpected bit of good news in the government's response. It's on page 12:
The Government will, subject to establishing the value for money case, introduce a small claims track in the Patents County Court [which deals with all kinds of intellectual property, not just patents] for cases with £5000 or less at issue, initially at a low level of resource to gauge demand, making greater provision if it is needed.
This is something I and others have been banging on about for a while: for small (ie SME) creators, the fees you get for an individual publication of your work are relatively small and so a court for such small claims is overdue.