Today in “Adobe Hates You” news

It has come to my attention that there exists a “no-code” website creation tool from Adobe called Muse.

Muse, like countless such tools before it, purports to allow a user to create and manage a site without writing any code. This is a laudable goal.

As with most such tools, the work is done locally, and the tool only sends the files to the web server when the user is satisfied they’re ready. The actual transmission of the files from the user’s machine to the web server is hidden.

Fifteen years ago, we could be pretty certain that the transmission was happening using FTP, a venerable protocol that has fallen COMPLETELY from favor because it’s staggeringly insecure. Nothing about it is encrypted — not even usernames and passwords. This means any fool with a sniffer can own your web site, which is generally considered a problem.

For this reason, FTP usage has dropped off considerably in recent years; I don’t think I’ve run a server with FTP enabled in over a decade. There is, however, a work-alike protocol that leverages the excellent SSH libraries to create a secure, encrypted transmission channel. It looks like FTP and acts like FTP, but under the hood it’s secure. This is a good thing. SFTP has almost completely replaced FTP as a result.

And this is why we know Adobe hates you, because Muse, a tool introduced in 2012, does not support anything but FTP, and they’re not planning to add SFTP any time soon. Their actual advice is to use an external FTP client if you need a secure channel.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

Dear Adobe: DIAGF.

In which web nerds make you cry

A long time ago, there was the boom. It was fun. It always is, with other people’s money. Then the boom stopped, and I needed work. I got a pretty good opportunity freelancing, and made a real living at it for a while, largely because I spent a good chunk of my suddenly “at liberty” time figuring out a new web technology called cascading style sheets, or CSS.

What they actually do isn’t important to the story, but I’ll note they were weird and different and confusing, and suggested major changes to the way web pages got built. That the change was a huge improvement, semantically speaking, didn’t make it easier for the folks mired in the old way. But I wasn’t, and so I waded into the deep end of CSS work unencumbered with “how we used to do it” -ism, and with a very serious weapon on my desk. A guy named Eric Meyer, see, had written a book called Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide (for O’Reilly, obviously), and I made it my bible.

With it, I managed not to go bankrupt. With it, I kept my house and my car and even had some money to spend on fun things. I was still leveraging these skills years later, in 2007, when I joined my current employer.

Because, in no small part, of that book, and of Meyer’s active participation in developer forums and the CSS-D listserve. And I’m certainly not the only person who has that kind of story about Meyer and his book and his activism.

I don’t do that sort of work anymore. I still find it fascinating, and I still read the blogs and now Twitter feeds of lots of the people who defined markup and web work in the early 2000s, which is how I found out that Eric Meyer’s young daughter had cancer, and how I found out, a little while ago, that she died on Saturday. She was six.

Six.

Today, apparently, is the day of the service. Web people all over are making their Twitter avatars purple, in honor of Becca Meyer, who had a favorite color as only children can. And this is where nerds make you cry.

In HTML and CSS, colors are typically specified by a six-digit code in hexadecimal, like #FF0000 (which is a red). You can, though, use just basic words for some colors. “Red” works, as does “blue” and “black” and even things like “lightcoral”.

There is an organized movement online now to include in CSS4 the named color “beccapurple”, equivalent to #663399, as a memorial.

I think that’s mighty fine.

“The truth is everything is breaking all the time, everywhere, for everyone.”

This is one of those articles that’s so true it hurts. Here’s the first bit:

All programming teams are constructed by and of crazy people

Imagine joining an engineering team. You’re excited and full of ideas, probably just out of school and a world of clean, beautiful designs, awe-inspiring in their aesthetic unity of purpose, economy, and strength. You start by meeting Mary, project leader for a bridge in a major metropolitan area. Mary introduces you to Fred, after you get through the fifteen security checks installed by Dave because Dave had his sweater stolen off his desk once and Never Again. Fred only works with wood, so you ask why he’s involved because this bridge is supposed to allow rush-hour traffic full of cars full of mortal humans to cross a 200-foot drop over rapids. Don’t worry, says Mary, Fred’s going to handle the walkways. What walkways? Well Fred made a good case for walkways and they’re going to add to the bridge’s appeal. Of course, they’ll have to be built without railings, because there’s a strict no railings rule enforced by Phil, who’s not an engineer. Nobody’s sure what Phil does, but it’s definitely full of synergy and has to do with upper management, whom none of the engineers want to deal with so they just let Phil do what he wants. Sara, meanwhile, has found several hemorrhaging-edge paving techniques, and worked them all into the bridge design, so you’ll have to build around each one as the bridge progresses, since each one means different underlying support and safety concerns. Tom and Harry have been working together for years, but have an ongoing feud over whether to use metric or imperial measurements, and it’s become a case of “whoever got to that part of the design first.” This has been such a headache for the people actually screwing things together, they’ve given up and just forced, hammered, or welded their way through the day with whatever parts were handy. Also, the bridge was designed as a suspension bridge, but nobody actually knew how to build a suspension bridge, so they got halfway through it and then just added extra support columns to keep the thing standing, but they left the suspension cables because they’re still sort of holding up parts of the bridge. Nobody knows which parts, but everybody’s pretty sure they’re important parts. After the introductions are made, you are invited to come up with some new ideas, but you don’t have any because you’re a propulsion engineer and don’t know anything about bridges.

Would you drive across this bridge? No. If it somehow got built, everybody involved would be executed. Yet some version of this dynamic wrote every single program you have ever used, banking software, websites, and a ubiquitously used program that was supposed to protect information on the internet but didn’t.

Go read the whole thing.

(Via MeFi.)

BTW, Quinn Norton makes similar points here.

Save the Sounds!

Tragically, these sounds may go extinct.

Also, if you turn on too many of them, your officemates may have strong feelings about your own survival. Exercise caution.

Another excellent intersection of “fire” and “awesome”

A Reuben’s tube is an apparatus used to demonstrate standing waves in physics; it’s akin to the gas lighter in your fireplace, but with sound added. At certain frequencies, the flames will vary according to the standing wave produced in the tube.

Things get exponentially more awesome if you make a 2-D tube, and apply more interesting music. At the link, the vid is cued to the music, but it’s really worth watching the whole thing.

Worse than Eich

So the net was aflame over Mozilla naming known homophobe Eich to CEO, and he was (rightly) out of the job just as quickly.

Having Condi Rice on the board of Dropbox is insanely worse. She’s objectively pro-torture, and represents the administration that put the NSA programs in motion — and now she has a position of authority at a company that holds users’ potentially private data?

Fuck a BUNCH of that. Might be time to DropDropbox.

911: Stuff you need to do RIGHT NOW if you haven’t already

Use an Apple device? And by this I mean any iPad, iPhone, or Mac?

Then you need to install all available OS updates with a furious quickness, for there is a security bug to end all security bugs in the SSL code on your device. All platforms are affected.

It’s a seriously bad, bad, bad bug. It may be the worse security bug of all time. No certificate validation is happening, which means that site you think you have an encrypted connection to might not be who they say they are. That’s an ID thief’s dream come true.

This bug is bad enough that it’s entirely possible that it was deliberately introduced at the behest of the NSA. The crypto we use daily relies on provably unbreakable encryption, so the only vulnerabilities they can exploit rely on broken implementations; this is a known tactic that the NSA and similar organizations have used. The timing certainly works.

More here.

You can check to see if you’re vulnerable using this site. On a Mac, you’ll need to use Safari to get the best possible reading, but it’ll mostly work with other browsers.

Shoring up the argument that it’s part of a deliberate effort: an even worse bug has subsequently been discovered in the Linux GnuTLS code.

Skipping the technical stuff, the takeway for you, the Heathen reader, is that you absolutely MUST upgrade your iOS devices and Macs today, right the fuck now. Full stop.

Fortunately, Apple makes this pretty easy. Just go to Settings -> General -> Software Update on an iPhone or iPad, or to (Black Apple) -> Software Update on a Mac.

Oh, Microsoft. You’re adorable.

My company routinely deals with government entities that have legitimate security concerns, so it’s not surprising that, sometimes, I receive mail that is digitally signed, or has some encryption component.

Usually, this is done poorly, which is no surprise, because mail encryption is still not seamless. However, yesterday I got a mail that Outlook won’t open at all. Instead, I get this:

Screen Shot 2014 02 07 at 10 33 32 AM

The hilarious part of this is that the mail opens fine with no hint of trouble when read from my Mac’s Mail.app client, or from either of my iOS mail clients. Security, Microsoft style!

Someday, Microsoft will pay for all the time they’ve wasted with shitty online meeting technologies

Back in the boom, we tried to use online meeting tools, which inevitably led to shit-tons of time wasted at the head end of every meeting trying to get LiveMeeting to work.

It never really did.

In the years since, other companies have entered this space, and some of them are basically flawless. Trouble is, the good ones cost money, and most of our customer IT orgs are (a) cheap and (b) too paranoid to let their people use GoToMeeting, so we get forced into trying to connect with the execrable “Lync” — i.e., rebranding LiveMeeting bullshit — across the Internet.

MSFT makes their products so that they’re effectively free, but never bother solving for corner cases — like, say, a cross-site meeting that’s not all on the same network or active directory domain. Worse, Lync has no end of weird foibles and fuckups. For example, if you end up on 2013 instead of 2010 (which will happen if you upgrade Office), it’s no longer possible to join a meeting without having corporate credentials on the hosting party’s network.

That’s fine, though, because obviously nobody ever wants to meet with people outside their company, right?

CHRIST. It’s enough to make you want to strangle someone.

Dept. of Technological Anniversaries

Thirty years ago, on January 22, 1984, computing changed forever. The ad was a teaser; remember, it ran only once, but during the Super Bowl (Raiders 38, Redskins 9), so it’s safe to say lots of people saw it.

Jobs’ demonstration of the actual machine two days later made it clear that Apple was playing the game at a higher level than anybody else. Remember, at the time, the IBM PC was state of the art for personal computing: huge, bulky, unfriendly, and based on a command line interface. There was no sound beyond beeps and boops. Graphics were a joke on the PC, and required an add-on card. The GUI Jobs demonstrates here is, by comparison, from another planet. The technical information he outlines is similarly cutting edge, especially for a mass-market computer. To say this was an exciting development is to understate things by a couple orders of magnitude. The Mac changed personal computing in enormous and profound ways. Jobs’ examples of IBM missing the boat may seem grandiose, but he’s fundamentally right.

(Something else to keep in mind: in this video, Steve Jobs is twenty-nine years old.)

I didn’t join the Mac faithful right away — in ’84, I was in junior high. I made it through high school with a TRS-80, a cartridge-based word processor, and a cassette tape drive as my mass storage. (Bonus: without the cartridge in, the CoCo booted straight to BASIC.)

I went to college in 1988, but since my campus was more PC than Mac, I bought an AT clone that turned out to be the fastest machine in my whole dorm. That was kind of fun. It also turned out that computers made sense to me in ways that other people didn’t get, and so I stayed in the Windows world for a long time but for some very rewarding side trips largely because people were paying me to do so.

But I got there eventually, mostly because of how awful Windows became, especially on a laptop. In late 1999, I was traveling a lot, living out of a laptop, and writing lots of Office docs. Windows 98 on a laptop was a dumpster fire in terms of reliability — crashes were frequent, and the idea of putting your laptop to sleep was just a joke. Windows couldn’t handle it, so you were forever shutting down and rebooting. Then a friend of mine showed me his new G3 Powerbook. In the days before OS X, Macs were only a little less crashy than Windows, but it was enough to catch my eye. The functional sleep/wake cycle, a big beautiful screen, and a generally more sane operating environment closed the deal, and I made the switch in early 2000 to a 500Mhz G3 Powerbook.

What’s interesting now to me in retrospect is that I realized I’ve been on the Mac side for nearly half its life. I’ve used Macs way longer than I used PCs (1988 to 1999). I see no future in which I switch back. Had Apple not switched to a Unix-based OS, I’d probably have gone to Linux for professional reasons — and, honestly, desktop Linux would probably be a much better place. (Having a commercially supported Unix with professional-grade software written for it, running on premium hardware meant fewer people worked to make Linux on the desktop viable for normal humans.) Instead, Apple built OSX, and changed everything again.

Original Macs were sometimes derided by so-called “serious” computing people as good for design and graphics and whatnot, but not for “real” work; by shifting to the BSD-based OSX, Apple gave the Mac the kind of hardcore underpinnings that Windows could only dream out (and, really, still doesn’t have). The designers and creatives stayed, and a whole extra swath of web-native software people joined them as the Mac (and especially the Mac laptop) became the machine of choice for an entire generation of developers. That shift has been permanent; if you’re writing web code in Python or Ruby or PHP, you’re far more likely to be doing so on a Mac than on Windows simply because the Mac has so much more in common with your production servers than Windows does.

The end result is that the Mac platform is in better shape today, at 30 years old, than it’s ever been.

I tallied it up the other day. I’ve had five Macs as my personal machine, counting the G3 I bought back in ’99. I’ve bought two others for my household — a 2009 Mini that serves as my media server, and a 2012 11″ Macbook Air I bought Mrs Heathen last Christmas. Somewhat hilariously, in doing this tally, I realized that (a) I never owned an “iconic” square Mac like the one in the video above; and (b) four of my five Mac laptops have looked almost exactly the same: the 2003 Titanium Powerbook G4 (1Ghz, 512MB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive — a very high end configuration at the time!) was one of the first of the “sleek silver metal” Mac laptops, and that style was carried over to the upgrade I bought in 2005, though by then they were made of Aluminum. In 2007, I made the jump to the Intel-based Macbook Pros; the bump in power was pretty huge, but the chassis was substantially the same.

My 2010 update didn’t look much different, and the only significant visual difference between the 2010 model and the one I bought last fall is that my new one doesn’t have an optical drive and is therefore slimmer.

Eleven years is a long time for a product to look pretty much the same, especially in computing, but I’ve yet to see anyone complain that the MacBook Pro looks dated. That’s what paying attention to design gets you. I suspect that, eventually, the Pro will get a more Air-like profile, but right now the power consumption and temperature issues mandate the more traditional shape.

Anyway, Apple has a minisite up about the anniversary. It’s fun. Visit.

How to tell if a vendor holds both you and their own employees in contempt

The following is a screenshot of a recent communication I had with Dell after I requested information about some new employee machines:

Screen Shot 2014 01 10 at 3 48 14 PM

The areas in the red boxes are random advertisements inserted into every message this guy sends me. He can’t turn it off. I get different ones on every message.

That’s completely fucking bananas. What idiot marketing droid came up with this shit? Sweet Jesus, man, how did that ever survive the light of day? Think about it: every message sent by our actual REP includes spam.

Marketing people, man. I just can’t get past the fact that someone in Austin thought this was a good idea.

And now, painful satire for nerdy heathen

Introduction to Abject-Oriented Programming.

Sample:

Inheritance
Inheritance is a way to retain features of old code in newer code. The programmer derives from an existing function or block of code by making a copy of the code, then making changes to the copy. The derived code is often specialized by adding features not implemented in the original. In this way the old code is retained but the new code inherits from it.

Programs that use inheritance are characterized by similar blocks of code with small differences appearing throughout the source. Another sign of inheritance is static members: variables and code that are not directly referenced or used, but serve to maintain a link to the original base or parent code.

Today in Minor Improvements

My super-goofy yet awesome keyboard has returned from its hospitalization rejuvenated and shockingly clean. It’s possible that they were able to build their own Wiggins out of the hair I’m sure they found inside it.

This caps a series of home/office logistical tasks I feel inordinately happy about sorting out, including:

  • Something called “mudjacking”;
  • Getting the retarded tablet fixed;
  • Repairing the front door lock;
  • Returning a client laptop to the client 8 months late;
  • Acquiring a haircut;
  • Getting an annual eye exam;
  • Having AT&T hook up the goddamn cable; and
  • Having AT&T come back out and fix the broken cable box 2 days after installation.

Syncing your watch in 19th Century London

Obviously, your go-to source for the accurate time was, and remains, Big Ben — even if you can’t see it, you can HEAR it, right?

But what if you wanted to be as accurate as possible? Obviously, if you’re far from Ben, you’d hear the chimes later than someone quite close to it — with the speed of sound being about 1,126 feet per second, it matters.

Fortunately, there’s a map you can consult, with concentric rings showing the delay from “true” time.

Neat.

iPhones and AAPL prices

Apple is, at this point, sort of like Alabama. They’ve been so good for so long that the press in both cases just can’t wait for some imagined comeuppance, and so the new pattern we see after every Apple event is a litany of folks explaining how much the company has lost its way post-Jobs, and how it’s obviously drifting and leaderless, and how they’re completely over. Indeed, after the event yesterday, Apple shares fell 5%, and they remain significantly below their 52-week high of $705.

Well, if this is what “over” looks like, I’ll damn sure take it. Apple remains one of the most profitable companies in the world — in fact #2, behind Exxon Mobil, and the dollar gap is less than 10% despite the fact that Exxon has 2.5 times the revenue of Apple. They continue to sell just about as many phones, tablets, and laptops as they can make. As a consequence of being a money-printing machine, they’re also sitting on a cash mountain of about $147 billion.

And yet, as I write this, a single share of AAPL sells for about $470, which values the company at only about $427 billion. That’s still enough to make it the most valuable public company in the world (ahead of Exxon, Google, GE, etc.; its old rival from Redmond is waaaay down the list), but it strikes me as low.

Why? At this price, the firm’s P/E ratio is 11.7. That’s a rate that implies an over-the-hill firm in a mature market (e.g., it’s not far from Exxon’s P/E, or Microsoft’s). And note further that this ratio includes in the value of the firm all that cash, which (when factored in) would depress the P/E even further (to less than 8, if my math is right). That’s absurd in a world where Apple prints money at this rate. Google’s astoundingly less profitable, and its P/E is 26. Even at Apple’s lofty $700+ price per share last year, its P/E didn’t suggest it was too expensive.

I’m certainly no investment advisor. Make no mistake. It sure seems to me, though, that nitwits claiming Apple is over are riding backlash and not meaningful analysis.

A Brief Summary of the Last Several Minutes

“Hey, I need to figure out how many times I’ve done [thing I do with email], so I need to gin up a fancy search.”

(Fiddles with native search tools. Curses.)

“Hey, didn’t I see something about a cool search utility for Apple Mail somewhere?”

(Checks local notes.)

“Yup, sure did! And there’s a free trial! Man, this is gonna be easy!”

(Downloads. Installs. Runs.)

“Oh. Right.”

Screen Shot 2013 07 19 at 3 56 30 PM

(The sad thing is that this doesn’t represent even most of my mail; I don’t have anything like complete archives for stuff pre-1999/2000, which for me means 12-13 years are missing. On the other hand, the index will happen faster as a result.)

Things that couldn’t possibly be a bad idea

Way back in 1994, when I moved to Houston and took a job at TeleCheck, I was absolutely shocked to discover that, in their machine room, there was still an honest-to-shit PDP-11 running RSX, alone in room full of Vaxes and Alphas.

“Good lord! Why?” I asked.

Well, it was complicated. TeleCheck used to be a loose confederation of state-by-state franchise operations, before one guy had bought up most of them (and, eventually, all of them). When they were still mostly franchises, though, a guy had had the idea to create a stand-alone computing services company to do the IT and programming for the franchises, plus some other clients as needed. He called the firm RealShare. (IT at TeleCheck was still known as RealShare well into the 1990s.)

By the early 1990s, nearly all the franchises (all except Australia, New Zealand, and two US states) plus RealShare were under one very leveraged roof held by a handful of execs (all of whom became hugely rich when FFMC bought TeleCheck in like ’92 or ’93, but never mind that). By that point, RealShare’s outside client list had dwindled to ONE: the vaguely-named MultiService Corporation of Kansas City. And MSC’s services ran on the PDP-11, and MSC wouldn’t pay to upgrade, so there they sat.

At the time, 19 years ago, it seemed obvious to me that this was a terrible idea, and that while they COULD stay there for years, they’d be left behind by the broader industry. In technology, holding on too long to older tech can become very, very expensive! Besides, by that point even the technologically conservative TeleCheck had moved on to Vaxes, and in fact was slowly migrating to the wave of the future that was Alpha. (Yeah, about that…)

I left TeleCheck in 1997, off to greener pastures. I assume that lone PDP has long since been powered down. After all, that was almost two decades ago.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover today that there ARE PDP-11s still in use, and that the organization using them intends to keep them on line until 2050, and has taken to trolling through vintage computing forums to find talent to keep them running!

“Wow! That’s amazing, Chief Heathen! I assume, at least, that they’re not being used for anything IMPORTANT, like financial processing, right?”

Well, you’d be wrong. True, it’s not financial processing they’re doing. It’s nuclear plant automation in by GE Canada.

An obsolete system from a defunct company with effectively no user base and fewer knowledgeable developers and administrators? What could possibly go wrong?

Dept of Old News

There’s a pretty good video floating around concerning what would happen if Superman punched you at full force, but it turns out it’s basically exactly the same riff that Randall Munroe did in his very first What If a few months ago when he answered the question “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light?”

Answer in both cases: rough equivalent of a GIANT-ASS NUCLEAR BOMB. But given Munroe’s profile at this point, it seems kinda unlikely that the Superman-fist guy hadn’t seen Munroe’s work, which makes his effort seem cheesy.

In which we grouse about RSS readers

So Google Reader is going away in 20 days, which is troubling. I’ve been a big fan of it for a long time, but — like Gmail — I only use it as a back-end service. Just as I never log into Gmail to read mail, I never log into Reader to read sites. I use nice, native clients way cooler, nicer, and more fully featured than a web app. GR just provides the back-end sync.

For most of my life with GR, I used the Reeder app on my Mac, my phone, and my iPad. It’s really, really great. A while back, though, the Mac version developed a problem where it wasn’t able to sync with GR anymore. No idea why, or if I was the only one with the problem, and I got no support from the author, so I fell back to using the venerable NetNewsWire on the Mac (which can sync with GR) and kept using Reeder on my iOS devices. I do most of my reading on the iPad anyway.

Except now I have to change, and change nearly always sucks. Especially in this case, as it turns out that my use case is that of a power-user, and nobody wants to take my money.

Following the glowing coverage, I looked first at NewBlur, and was about ready to make the jump until I discovered something troubling: Apparently, NewsBlur quietly and automatically marks any item more than two weeks old as read, and there’s no way to change that. Hope you weren’t saving that! That’s a serious dealbreaker — I leave items unread all the time as ticklers for later action — but at least I discovered it before I signed up for an annual subscription. NewsBlur is also wasting time and money (from my point of view) building out a sharing-and-discovery featureset I find utterly uninteresting. I’m already on Facebook and Twitter, and I post here. I don’t need to have a dialog with other users in my feedreader, and I don’t need to “train” my reader to find sites for me. Just work the list I give you, and be done with it. I have American money. I’ll pay you.

Then I looked at Feedly, which is one of those high-concept things. The first troubling aspect is that it’s apparently free, and I’ve been burned on that before (and in fact I’m being burned by that RIGHT NOW). Secondly, the app is just a disaster of overdesign. Where Reeder is quiet, minimalist, and fast, Feedly is cumbersome and too pleased with itself by half — really, I just want the text. I don’t need you to reformat the stories into a facsimile of a magazine, for Christ’s sake. Feedly also appears to be just a browser, not a reader that grabs your subscription updates and presents them to you locally. This matters, because sometimes, I don’t have a network connection. Also troubling: Feedly is built to use Google Reader, and while they’re working quickly they still haven’t launched their in-house sync back-end. The end of the month could be a very messy time for them. No thanks.

Finally, I looked at Feedbin, which is probably the most promising option since it’s the one the Reeder author is working towards, and if he gets done I’ll be back with the right apps again. However, at present there’s no acceptable way for me to USE it — the Reeder author has only completed the Feedbin port for the iPhone version, which is my least-used client. Feedbin itself has a web interface, but it’s pretty crappy. The only iPad client is something called “Slow Feeds” that insists on sorting your subscriptions by update frequency, not by subject, which seems utterly useless. (The stated point of SF is to keep the rarely-updated feeds from being lost in your subscription list. This is a problem I never, ever have with Reeder, because its default mode is to show you ONLY feeds with new stories. This seems like a much better way to solve the problem.)

As of now, I’m assuming that Reeder for Mac and iPad won’t be ready in three weeks, and that I’ll be back to running NetNewsWire on my Mac (which can’t sync with anything but GR, but is still a workable stand-alone reader) and not reading news at all on my phone or iPad, at least until Reeder finishes with the ports.

Just like 2004. Yay! Giant steps backwards!