Geoff The Spy

Like so many of us, as he upgraded his PC, my friend John&#185 didn’t know what to do with the old one. He had a relative, a grown man, with no computer, and John asked if I’d set him up with this old one.

This is something I’ve done dozens of times, and I almost always reinstall Windows. This time, I thought I’d try something a little different.

The end user wasn’t going to play games or work in multimedia. He was going to use the computer for web surfing and email. Instead of Windows, I installed Ubuntu Linux.

My thought is, this guy doesn’t know anything technical. Why saddle him with an operating system that’s got a bullseye on it, attractive to anyone writing spyware or viruses?

The install went flawlessly. I inserted the Ubuntu disk, answered a few questions (actually, John did all of this) and let the PC do its thing. The only bumps in the road had to do with installing Flash (I wish Ubuntu came with this already installed) and attempting to upgrade the video driver.

I rebooted after updating the driver and ended up with a blank screen! Damn you penguin. As has happened so often in the past, I had fixed the computer to the point of breaking it!

The bad video driver was quickly removed. John watched as I typed some cryptic commands into a text based terminal screen. One bad part of Ubuntu (and all Linux distributions) is, most people would be lost at this point with a dead PC! There are fewer ‘Geoff’s’ to call for technical assistance with this esoteric operating system.

John was pretty pleased (and hopefully his relative will be pleased too). The old computer is quite agile and more than beefy enough for its new assignment.

Refurbishing this computer was the purpose of his trip, but John brought more goodies with him. His wife’s company had thrown out some older laptops… which she then rescued from the trash. I could have one, but there was a problem. It was unusable!

The laptop, a very sweet Fujitsu Lifebook Series B subnotebook (a tiny laptop, perfect for traveling) had Windows 2000 installed and was password protected. The password kept me from getting to the programs and the lack of a CD drive kept me from installing a new operating system (like Linux) as a replacement.

In situations like this, I become obsessed.

The Fujitsu has only a USB external floppy drive. It was a comedy of errors as I realized none of my current home machines had floppies, plus I had no floppy disks. There was lots of ad libbing and part swapping to be done.

I scrounged the hardware, then headed to the net, trying to find a solution. Amazingly enough, there are simple single floppy programs which will read and then allow you to overwrite a password. I didn’t have to crack the code. I just inserted my password where the original had been.

I felt like a spy as the computer was now programmed to consider me the administrator.

This was great for me, but you have to worry about the level of protection built into today’s modern computers. In essence, Microsoft led the original owners to believe these laptops were under electronic lock and key. A guy in his pajamas sitting on the floor shouldn’t be able to crack open this laptop… but I did.

Before I went to bed, the laptop downloaded a few years worth of patches from the Microsoft site and was fitted with a wireless card.

This morning, I brought the machine downstairs and played with it a little while eating my breakfast. I was proud of my accomplishment.

“Why do you need another computer,” Helaine asked?

It’s an obsession I suppose. Some folks go nuts over shoes or jewelry or cars. For me, it’s wire and computers. Neither should ever be thrown out – ever.

&#185 – John’s friends call him “Big John.” He is a massive man, well over six feet tall. John’s heart is proportional to his height.

My Night Of Spyware Eradication

I think I’ve gotten them. I’m hoping they’ve been slayed. Who really knows?

Tonight at work, one of my computers started acting a little nuts. The farther I peered inside, the more things I saw that were out of whack.

One-by-one looking at the list of running programs I found what seems to be a full suite of spyware/adware from Hey guys, thanks for the programs. Not!

How did they get there? This is a machine that’s never used for web browsing.

As it turns out, when we had a dedicated high speed T-1 line installed, this machine was put out on the Internet to test it. Running Windows 2000, it was like telling burglars where to find unlocked doors.

Microsoft has got to take a bit of responsibility here too. What were they thinking. This is a security nightmare.

I know my way around the inner workings of these machines and it still took me hours. Technophobes don’t even have a chance. These bits of rogue programming are impervious to the uninitiated. They certainly wouldn’t go away with just one swipe of one spyware program.

Please, never again.

What I’ve Been Up To At Work

The past few weeks have been spent getting ready to use some new equipment at work. Our very dependable, SGI based, Liveline Genesis system has been replaced by Weather Central’s :Live.

Actually, replaced is not a good word, because :Live is really an add-on which extends the system. We’re still producing some graphics in Genesis but it now it doesn’t go on-the-air.

The SGI system we were using has to be at least 10 years old. These systems run slow by today’s standards. Our hard drive was only 4 GB! From time-to-time I had to go in an mercilessly blow out perfectly fine work created by the other guys in the weather department because we just didn’t have enough room.

Computers and homes are very similar in that you can never have too much closet space. And, of course, the hard disk is the closet of computing.

The problems with the SGI system were legion. It never handled the look of fonts correctly. Its interface, developed in he dark ages of computing, was anti-intuitive and often different in different parts of the system. It took long amounts of time to render animated segments, like a satellite loop or fly through, before they could be shown on TV.

On the other hand, it was nearly bulletproof. The system hardly ever crashed or locked up.

Because the SGI system was based on the Irix operating system, from time-to-time you’d have to delve into the **ix environment to attack a problem. It is a bit scary to do, because it is so foreign to most computer users. Over the years, as I have become more conversant in Linux, another **ix language, Irix has become more understandable.

Every time I have a problem, and work with one of Weather Central’s tech support people, I wonder how they do this with computerphobes? Often we can skip the first 5 or 6 steps. Imagine trying to describe this obtuse text oriented operating system over the phone!

The new :Live system allows us to show animations with no rendering time (though files still have to load from the hard drive to memory, which does take some time). It also integrates multiple layers of animation and still images, which makes it much more flexible. The most interesting part is the ability to stand in front of my green chroma key wall and use my finger as a mouse, drawing or placing objects on the TV screen in real time (or :Live, I suppose).

Right out of the box, it looked much sharper, cleaner and modern than what we had been doing. Simple things, like forecast pages, now run with animated backgrounds. Maps and icons look crisp. The satellite imagery is a little blockier and pixelated than what we were using, especially when viewed at a regional or tighter level.

Because the commands to create each graphic element are programmed in quasi plain text, I have started to write some new ‘scenes’ to suit our needs.

The downside is, this is a Windows based system – Windows 2000 to be exact. It has crashed more than once. So far, not while on-the-air, but awfully close. It also seems to have memory leak problems, not a surprise in a Windows environment. That means, if you run a sequence through, to check it out, you may be pushing the car closer to the edge of the cliff with each mouse click.

I already see some changes I’d like added to the system, which is probably a blessing and curse to those who designed it. I will help them make it better, but probably at the cost of being a pain in the ass.

At the same time we added :Live, we’ve also begun running our own, locally produced, high resolution, computer forecast model. I’ll get into that later.