Don’t trust the internet

, posted: 28-Dec-2009 10:00

Over Christmas Day lunch with my extended family, an uncle mentioned he was upgrading his laptop on Boxing Day to take advantage of the sales.  His laptop wasn't that old, so I was curious as to why he was considering a replacement so soon.  His reply was his current laptop had a virus, and the virus was so bad the software he had wasn't able to remove it.  I asked to borrow his infected laptop, and with the promise of beer and food if I could fix it, I booted it up the next day, and was presented with this gem:

SecurityTool

(source: 2-spyware.com)

SecurityTool is a very clever piece of deceptive software.  It entices a naive user by presenting a banner on a webpage saying that it has done a quick scan of their computer, and has found viruses that should be removed (this is impossible, no webpage can scan your hard-drive).  The user, believing the advert, downloads and installs this, and then the fun begins.

It configures itself to boot up at startup, changes the desktop background to white and puts a white overlay hiding your icons, and will not let you shut it down (it takes up the whole screen) until you buy a full version. It presents "viruses" that it has discovered (which are all fake) and encourages you to purchase the full version for your protection.  Even my constant pressing of Ctrl+Alt+Del were futile - the program quickly hides the Task Manager behind the screen above.

SecurityTool is very simple to remove - boot into Safe Mode, run msconfig and stop it booting up at startup.  Also, delete the executable and the system returns to normal on the next restart.

As a programmer, I was amazed at how simple the idea of this software is - tell the user they have viruses, don't allow them to do anything until they purchase the full version, the whole time they believe you as they are none the wiser.

All this leads into the point of this post: don't trust the internet.  Some years back when we used to do IT support for a handful of large companies, the biggest threat to their network's security and stability existed between the monitor and the chair of every computer.  An ill-informed user can wreak havoc (just ask the Waikato DHB) with their downloads.

For some reason, unbeknown to me, if a user reads something on a webpage or in an email, they trust it 100%.  All of their common sense and knowledge goes out the window.  They ignore all warnings and information given to them by those in the know, and they follow what they read on screen.

Other things to watch out for:

  • A Nigerian (or any other country) prince doesn't have millions to transfer you.
  • The flashing banner saying you are the millionth visitor are fake.
  • Your bank/TradeMe/PayPal/Gmail et al. have not lost your data, nor will they ask for your password in an email.
  • A friend will not send you an email out of the blue, with an attachment you were not expecting.

If you suspect a rat, you can be sure you'll find one.

Being confused about something online is not unusual - don't act on what you read, ask someone you trust (who knows what they are talking about), or seek advice from a legitimate computer store.  You can save yourself a lot of wasted time and unnecessarily lost data by seeking good advice.

Have a relaxing break everyone!



Behind the scenes at Telecom Wholesale

, posted: 23-Nov-2009 23:40

43760823On Thursday last week I was invited on a tour of the Telecom exchanges and cabinets organised by Jay Best (adslgeek) and run by Telecom Wholesale.  My knowledge of the inner workings of the broadband network was pretty limited compared to others on the tour, however it was very interesting to see exactly how internet is delivered to your doorstep.

All my photos were taken on my Nokia E71, see the end of this post for better high-res images from other tour participants.

The geek contingent gathered at Telecom HQ on Hereford St in Auckland to begin the tour.  Four of us from Geekzone (scottpalmer, wazzageek, juha and me), plus a large group from GP Forums and the Press F1 forums.

The tour began at the Mt Albert exchange, and straight down into the cable pit which is underneath the exchange.  The cable pit is where all the cables from the cabinets and other locations come into the exchange.  All of the cables are kept under pressure 24/7 - should a cable be accidentally cut, water will be kept out through the pressure difference plus an alarm sounds alerting a technician.  The leak can also help a visiting technician to find the break and lets them fix the cable before it becomes customer impacting.  I'm embarrassed to  admit that my South Auckland upbringing had me laugh at a piece of cable join called a "pot head".  Very different from what I've seen at lunchtime on main street Manurewa!

43767998From here, this is where my technical knowledge gets rusty.  From the cable pit, the cable pairs are punched into blocks which is then paired to where the phone lines are actually allocated.  Fibre pairs also come into the exchange, run from the new roadside cabinets (see further down for more info).

In the event of a power outage the exchange is fully operational; a separate room of batteries make up the UPS, plus it has two V12 (?!?) diesel engines to run the exchange in the event of an extended outage (these are tested weekly).

The one thing that amazed me about the exchange is the vintage of the equipment.  Most of the gear was top of the line in the 80s, long before the idea of running ADSL over it was ever conceived.  Fast forward to today, and it is expected to run voice and internet, which I think it does very well for its age.

After leaving the exchange, we visited one of the old style cabinets.  Purely a distribution point, a large cable comes in from the exchange, and it is split out from there to the different residences.  There is no smarts in this cabinet; it is very basic, small, and has done its job well up until this point.

As part of their FTTN (Fibre To The Node) project, and in order to deliver ADSL2/VDSL to more people, Telecom has realised it needs to bring it's exchange equipment closer to the customer.  These new technologies operate at higher frequencies which heavily degrade over distance - the only way to make them work is to run fibre to an area, and pair off from there.  With that thought in mind, the old style cabinets don't work.

43762538 We were shown the new "Whisper" cabinets, and it packs an impressive amount of tech gear.  Worth around $150k each, Telecom Wholesale installed 95 of these cabinets in total last year.  This year, they are installing 5 a day.  The cabinets have their own power supply (with backup batteries) with the ability to plug in a generator for extended outages. Air-conditioning keeps the equipment cool, and when fully sealed up (the cabinet has two parts - an outer cabinet, plus a fully sound insulated inner cabinet) you can't hear it ticking over (hence the Whisper name).  There is plenty of room for other ISPs are able to install their own equipment in each cabinet should they wish to run their own network.  It really is impressive how much equipment these non-obtrusive cabinets hold, and I couldn't help but wonder how completely unawares passing pedestrians are to the high tech gear just off to the side of the footpath.

With all the expensive equipment in them, each cabinet is alarm monitored in real-time, with Telecom Wholesale alerted if the doors are opened.  They come in two neutral colours designed to blend in with their surroundings, plus are covered with silicon based paint - graffiti is quickly and easily removed with paint thinner and a rag.  The cabinets have been designed and are built in New Zealand by Eaton Power Quality in Christchurch.

Once we finished inspecting a single bay cabinet, we had a look at cables running underground to the cabinet (in a Telecom manhole) which also included half a metre of water.  We were assured that everything works fine whether submerged or not.

43773613To finish up we took a short drive to a double bay cabinet - pretty much the same deal, just with more room for equipment.  The best part of the afternoon came after heading back to Telecom Wholesale in Airedale St, where a pile of Hell's Pizza and beers awaited.  We had a Q&A session for roughly an hour with the Telecom Wholesale team - had I not been concentrating on eating pizza and drinking beers I would've taken notes to expand here. There are some very clever and passionate people who work there.

My impression from our day out is this is a very different Telecom under Dr Reynolds.  We were given full access to take photos, ask any question, and blog uncensored about our experience.  I would've thought that Wholesale would be sensitive about the photography of some of their gear (there was some equipment we couldn't take flash photography of, but non-flash was fine), but we were given full access to everything.  Our discussions ranged in topics, and nothing was off limits - we were given good, clear, no BS answers. This is a very different attitude from the old "evil" Telecom we've known.

I like this "new" Telecom, and inviting tech community members to see infrastructure is a big step in the right direction to improving the public's perception of them.  Beers and pizza help too.

 

On leaving we were given two handouts to take away (available to download here) which give even more technical documentation of the tour.

Videos:

Photos:

Other links:

 

Thanks Telecom for inviting me on the tour, it really was a unique opportunity and I'm glad I went.  Now how about a discount on my monthly broadband?



Thanks Hometune!

, posted: 18-Nov-2009 10:00

Untitled-1I have to admit, my knowledge of cars is pretty pathetic - I know that my car has a steering wheel, the accelerator pedal makes it go, and it takes 91 petrol.  My eyes glaze over when people talk about their cars.  I was never into cars as a kid, and I have trusted a variety of different mechanics over the years to service my vehicle.  Yes, I have no idea how to change the oil in my car, and no motivation to ever learn. 
On Monday my car was up for a 10k service, a Hometune technician turned up on time, left me a courtesy vehicle, and rang me later to advise what was needed.  Front brake discs had to be replaced (which I was warned about by Firestone when replacing my tyres in January), and an oil change and new air filter.  The seal on the rocker cover gasket was broken causing my car to leak oil.  To my dismay, oil had also splashed onto the cam-belt, which meant it would have to be replaced as well (it had only just recently been done at my 100k servicing).
Hometune straight away admitted that they should've warned me about it when I had the cam-belt done, and since they'd forgotten to tell me, they were going to replace the cam-belt and clean up all the oil free of charge.  They could've easily told me that the oil leak was bad and it damaged my cam-belt and I would've been none-the-wiser.  I would've reluctantly paid for the cam-belt to be re-replaced, and cursed the day when I bought my car.
I'm very impressed with what the integrity they've shown with my last service, and it's nice to know that an industry where we often hear about people being ripped off through ignorance, that there are still some good guys about.
Their website: www.hometune.co.nz
 
Disclaimer: I gave Hometune a reference in August 2008, which we received a discount on our next servicing.  I am not receiving anything for this blog post.



Moderating the masses

, posted: 2-Nov-2009 10:24

About a year ago Mauricio asked me to join the moderators here on Geekzone (which I was rapt about).  Before that time, I was very curious to see what happened behind the scenes here, and was able to get the odd sneak peak from scottpalmer and freitasm through #geekzone chat - I thought it would be helpful to blog about what happens here, for those who are also curious.
The biggest difference for a moderator is how we see posts made on the site, as shown below on one of my own posts:
mod view
Across the top we get an extra button (edit) which allows us to move posts and edit the content if we need to (we then append [Mod (N8): Message] to inform the user).  On the bottom left, we have a handful of functions such as Trust (gives a user their Trusted icon), Stick (sets that post as always appearing at the top of the forums) and Hide (useful when spammers post and we need to remove a post).  My favourite link is Ban, which does the obvious.
You will also notice on the moderator's view the IP address that appears under the avatar - for every post the IP address of that poster is saved.
We also have a private Moderators Forum to discuss posts on the site, user bans etc - unfortunately I can't screenshot it here, however, it looks the same as all the other forums here, just with more smack talk between the different moderators.
To finish, my top 5 pet peeves from Geekzone users:
  1. SPAMMERS! - what's the point in going through the signup process, for us to hide your post and banninate you forever?  We're not interested in what you are selling (we hide/ban on average one user a day), and your post is normally gone within the hour.
  2. Spelin and gramer errors - some days I wonder whether the New Zealand schooling needs an overhaul, with some users lacking the basic ability to put a coherent sentence together. Issues with its and it's plus their, there and they're are common.
  3. Formatting - it doesn't take long to add links and images (resize, resize, resize!) to illustrate your post - take the extra 2 minutes, and it helps all of us understand.
  4. Complaints about ISP speeds - unless it's a question about your setup or sync speeds, don't post about your ISP being slow.  If you want better speed, swap to a different ISP - it's not that hard.
  5. Astro-turfing - if you have a website you want reviewed, or a product to promote, use the correct Offers and Wanted forum - don't pretend to be an independent third party that's discovered this "amazing product" then link to it - it's blatantly obvious: your IP and email address, plus a WHOIS of the domain exposes you for the d-bag you truly are.  Don't do it.
Other than my whingeing above, I enjoy moderating and participating in the forums on the daily basis, and it's always great to put faces-to-names at the Geekzone pizza evenings and other events - I also enjoy regularly catch-up with the other moderators and ex-moderators.
In my time here, I've seen that there are some very clever people contributing to Geekzone, and I look forward to possibly meeting more of you in the future.



How charitable are charities?

, posted: 19-Oct-2009 14:40

piggy bank On Stuff yesterday it was reported that the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation last year spent 43% of its revenue on administration costs.  In a similar vein, from the highly publicised Dancing with the Stars series, 40% of all the revenue gathered from text and the 0900 vote line was also spent on administration (source: Scoop).

While it is reasonable to have overheads for staff, office lease, telecommunications costs etc, where does the line get drawn for reasonable costs vs extravagance?

The Stuff article reminded me of a Voice-over-IP phone system we installed for a well-known charity around 2 years ago (we have since sold the VoIP part of our business to another party).  For me, this was an eye opener on how different charities were in reality to how I envisaged them to be.

Charity A (as I'll refer to them) purchased a brand new four storey building in a reasonable area.  Since it was old and in a state of disrepair, the decision was made to gut it, and refurbish it completely.

Here is where my issue begins.

The final product was amazing - the office had high quality carpet and fittings, air-conditioning in every room, a fully furnished kitchen with appliances for staff and visitors, and automatic opening glass doors between the different common areas.  All of the internal glass was also etched with Charity A's logo.

The building and fit out was, in my eyes, suitable for a top NZ company, not for a charity that is supposed to be helping and investing as much of their dollars into the people that really need it.  Charity A could have easily gotten away with much less, and better used the money saved.

Has this whole experience made me cynical? To a point.  What it has highlighted is you need to be careful who you are donating to, and don't hesitate to ask how much of your donation is actually reaching the cause.

Charities should be looking to have trustees who have experience running successful businesses, they know how hard it is to get a business started, and should help rein in unnecessary spending.  Every dollar should be spent as though it were their last.

Remember: a charity doesn't necessarily mean they are there to help the community, it just means they don't pay out profits to shareholders.



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I'm Nate Dunn, and I work for 3Bit, own Tuihana Cafe, and am a moderator here at Geekzone.

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Disclaimer
The views and opinions represented on this blog are personal and belong solely to the blogger and do not represent in anyway those of 3Bit Solutions Limited or any other company.


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