Dumb, dumber, dumbest? Even dumber than that!

November 13th, 2012

I haven’t been back here for more than a year. Not that I didn’t encounter anything worth reporting here (when will that happen?), but nothing was so outrageous that I felt I had to stop whatever I was doing or had to do to report.

Today it happened.

Back in August I was invited to write a chapter for a compendium (I do not want to embarrass them so I’ll leave it as vague as that). When I got their format and submission instructions, I got bad vibes: “Only .doc or .docx files will be accepted; absolutely no LaTeX, PDF, or any other format.” Then it got even better (worse?). Figures have to be uploaded as separate files, in .tif format. When was the last time you heard .tif? According to my memory, it was decades ago.

The submission due date was 15-nov-2012.  I like to be ahead of deadlines, so I just tried to upload my submission. The submission page provided a single file upload. Figuring that I’d need to upload that .docx file, and those .tif files, I created a single archive containing all of them and tried to upload it.

I was immediately “slapped” (in red letters): “Microsoft Word files only (.doc, .docx).”

Perhaps someone can explain to me how to upload a .docx file and a collection of .tif files in a single submission that will only accept a Microsoft Word file?

Upgrade or downgrade?

October 18th, 2011

Software developers, and software consumers, always update and upgrade. Or at least they think so. But sometimes (many times?) the upgrade is actually a downgrade.

A case in point, the latest versions of the Firefox Web browser: I am a fan of Firefox! It’s my first — and, as much as possible, only — choice for a browser. (There are still some sites for which you have to use something else, but the numbers are dwindling.)

But, recently, an upgrade to a latest version (7.0.1 on the Mac — though I think this started with v. 6.) left me disappointed. In the past, whenever you went to a page, the address field showed you the URL of the page you were viewing (that address that starts with http://). Maybe I’m crazy, but I use that information a lot, sending URLs of recommended pages to other people, verifying that a connection is secured (by seeing https:// instead of http://), in short, this is important information.

The downgrade is that in the latest version, for most (if not all) visited pages, the address field stays blank. There is a little icon to its left, and if you click on that icon, another information page will pop up, blocking part of the page. Close that info page, and the missing URL will be visible in the address field. But this comes at the price of three additional clicks: first, on the icon to the left; second, on the “more information” button; and third, to close the info window that just opened. Three clicks to see an address that used to show up immediately. And it’s not like they saved screen real estate; the space is still taken, but by a blank white strip. Useless.

Can someone explain to me why?

Attention online shoppers!

November 26th, 2010

We wanted to buy Mom a present, a KitchenAid 6 Quart Mixer. We found what looked like the best deal on the empire red one on (Amazon), especially with the announced post-purchase $50 rebate, bringing the total down to $271.99. Scanning through the other color options, we discovered that the Meringue color one was $22 less, so we added it to the cart. But Mom was hesitant: she liked the savings, but her heart really wanted the red one; who could blame her, I like red too. OK, $22 is not such a huge difference. So we switched back to the red one. But, wait a minute, there was no longer a rebate offer on the red one. Back to the white one, rebate still on, but on the red one it’s gone! After some thinking, I decided to log out of Amazon, clear the browser’s recent history (cookies and all), then we relaunched and went back to Amazon, to that red mixer. And, bingo! The rebate is back on.

Lesson: they track you, they profile you, and they play with the incentives they offer you (or not), based on some model that I haven’t yet figured out. But it appeared like the model decided that we were sufficiently in love with the red mixer that we would be willing to buy it even rebate absent.

Lesson 2: in many cases, wiping clean the history slate and showing up with no info for them to mine can be advantages. As a matter of fact, I have set my browser to clean up every time I close it; in addition, I find myself clearing history several times during the day.

There should be better ways to fight Big Brother; we are working on it. Until then, clear that history!

The shoemaker goes barefoot!

August 22nd, 2009

Libraries are the most known ‘information houses’. So you’d hope that a library (and its Web site) would exhibit stellar information presentation properties. No such luck. In my experience library Web site are among the most confusing, convoluted, frustrating site you’ll ever run into. I have had numerous encounters, which could provide dozens or more examples of this. I was just trying to access a book on one of our University’s Library’s electronic book subscriptions. With all the site hand-overs I cannot categorically state whose to blame for creating such a Kafka-like experience, but I still hold my Library responsible for not complaining and demanding a correction. Maybe it will happen. Here is what I sent to my library representative:

“Dear <name removed>,


I have just spent (wasted?) an hour trying to access a book on our Safari collection. I managed to find it (<link removed>) and the page gives me a link. Given that there is no indication what I can/not do with this ‘hit’ (other than export/save/email the ref — which is a separate link) I did the only reasonable thing, clicked on the link. That sent me to another page (<link removed>) which is totally blank, except for a link (<link removed>) and some search fields, all of which keep taking me further AWAY from (what I thought to be) my ‘hit’.

Maybe I’m an idiot, assuming (that awful word) that I could just click the link and see the book. But that would be way too easy, wouldn’t it?

Please do not hesitate to show me in which way I’m an idiot — as long as I can get to see the book; or, perhaps it’s not me?

Thanks, all the best.  ”

So far no reply. Will report further, if there’s anything worth reporting.

Ooops, FYI, you just destroyed some of your data; oh, well, too bad. OK?

August 22nd, 2009

So you have created several PDF files, then you figured out the best would be to merge them into a single file. Acrobat lets you insert PDF files into other ones. But …

If you want to insert one PDF into another, and they have form fields, you will get a message telling you that any form fields that have the same name ‘are now one and the same’; in other words, if you had in each document a form field with the same name (e.g., generic ‘name’) but with different values (say, because you filled out the same original form for two individuals), you now stand to lose one of those values because within the same file, form fields with the same name assume the same value — the last one entered.

While that ‘feature’ is a nuisance, the real problem is that the message box that is trying to alert you to this ‘feature’ only has an “OK” button, no other option. No “Cancel”, “back”, “abort”, “oops”, nada. The only option is the equivalent of “OK, go ahead, destroy my data”.

Your only way out is to (externally, from the Operating System) to kill Acrobat and start all over again. Very graceful.

Why make things difficult if you can make them more difficult?

August 22nd, 2009

When scanning a document into Acrobat, you have to decide whether to scan to a new document or to append to an existing one. What if you think you have a document that you’d like to append to, but find out that you don’t? Too bad; you’ll have to start all over again. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just let you browse for the file to append to, and if you don’t find it, just create a new one right there and then? Conceivably, you’d want that new file in the same location you thought you’d already had the appropriate one to append to. Ahhhhh.

Thou shalt have your mail delivery resume when USPS tells you!

July 2nd, 2009

USPS.com has a feature I loved until a few minutes ago: schedule a hold mail. When traveling, I’d rather the post office hold my mail than my mailbox on the street. In the past, I had to go to the post office and fill out a card. Now, you can fill it out on their Web site, and it’s great, unless …. you are traveling for more than a month; the usps.com system only can look ahead one month at a time. After you authenticate your address, you have a drop-down menu to select the date when you want them to start holding your mail. The next menu is for the date you want delivery resumed. This one only goes out one month: don’t you dare traveling longer! You can choose between “the post office will resume … ” and “I will pick up …”, meaning I could just tell them “after this day drop off my mail and start delivery again” and I’ve done it a few times and it worked perfectly. But since I’m going away for more than a month, I though I’d just choose “I’ll pick up” and avoid the one-month-only duration. No such luck. Even when I choose “I’ll pick up” they won’t let me continue until I enter a resume date. In the confirmation page they promise me to resume normal delivery on that day. But wait, I don’t want you to, I won’t be home yet. So I thought I’d outsmart them; I’ll just schedule another stop starting the following day. Are you kidding me? Outsmart the bureaucracy, armed with a computer program? Forget about that. You cannot schedule another hold while you have one registered already. So, if you know you’ll be traveling three trips in a row, and you’d like to schedule them all in one sitting, the bureaucrats and the programmers have ganged up against you. They just want you to come back again. I’m still trying to figure out how to stop them from delivering my mail a full week before I’m back.

Can I change my passwords, please?

April 16th, 2009

Get this: identity theft is not a joke. Bad people roam cyberspace regularly looking for opportunities to take away your identity and your money (in whichever order happens to be the easiest).  Still not convinced? Here is one example: False Security: ‘Scareware’ Spreads (Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2009). Ask anybody who has been a victim and they’ll tell you how much time, money, and mostly aggravation it costs when you get hit.

A couple of years ago I had to go through a very exhausting exercise with my accountants until they finally got the idea that they have to secure all sensitive communications with a password (and not include it in the message; not in any email message!). Just these days I’ve had a similar episode with a mortgage broker. First he sent me a credit report — which includes all the ‘goodies’ an identity thieve would look for — in an email message. When I pointed this out and asked him to not do this again he apologized and promised. Then, today, I get another sensitive document. This time he remembered: “the password is the last four digits of your Social.” I don’t consider this a good password (more on this later) but it is better than nothing. Then I scrolled down his message and found two occasions of previous forwards, each time with the statement: “PW xxxx”. There, just scroll one screen and you got it. Of course I got really furious, and shot back a message that I had not known I was capable of producing. Looks like some people haven’t quite gotten used to reality in today’s digital world. But this brings us exactly to the point of this piece.

We all got used to user names and passwords. We have them on our computers, voice mail boxes, email accounts, and various online accounts. We usually get to choose them — “some restrictions may apply” — and to change them. Sometimes we are forced to change a password every so often; standards are evolving towards restricting the ‘life span’ of a password to no more than 180 days, often only 90 days. And you won’t be able to reuse the same password for a long time. When someone got my friend Bob’s email password, it was a pain for a couple of hours, but then he managed to get his account back by getting his provider to change the password.

Except our life passwords.

“Can I have your date of birth for authentication?” asks the person on the other side of the line (it can be a bank, an insurance company, many other entities you get to call). I give her mine and add: “my DOB is not a very good authentication method”, “why?” she asks,  “because so many people know it”, “I know,” she says, “I only want to make sure who I am speaking to.” Sigh.

Or, they might ask you for your Social Security Number (occasionally, now, only for the last four digits — mine just traveled through several clear-text email messages); Mother’s Maiden Name; sometimes just your Zip Code. So many people post their DOB on Facebook and other social networks; anybody can find out your ZIP code by entering  your name into a search box on line.

What happens if someone knows your SSN/MMN/DOB/ZIP? They pretty much have access to all your personal information. They can call your bank, your retirement account broker, anybody, and ask them to change the address, to move the money, whatever they want. By the time you find out, it may be too late. And, you don’t have the option to change them, the way you can change your password.

And that  is why I say it’s time to move away from SSN etc. as the way to authenticate people. If you look at your Social Security card, you’ll find it written there that it is unlawful to use your SSN for identification purposes. How many people would have to be prosecuted if this was taken seriously? In a fast digital world these antiquated authentication methods are no longer adequate.

A combination of technology, policy, and education are called for. Technology can offer much more reliable alternatives; I will skip any technical details here. On the policy side, just like it is no longer legal to use your SSN as your driver’s license number, it should become completely illegal to use any of these measures as sufficient authentication. Authentication methods should be built on at least one piece of information that only you know (that’s the only true secret), your ‘life password’. Yes, it is technically possible. And people should learn that they should never ever share that ‘life password’ with anyone. Anyone. And, of course, if somehow that password gets compromised, we should be able to change it, unlike our SSN or DOB.

When we have such authentication in place, I won’t worry about my SSN traveling in clear text in an email message.

Will it stop all identity theft? Of course not. But it will make it a lot more difficult, and therefore much less likely to happen.

Nobody’s perfect

April 15th, 2009

I love the Mac. Much nicer and better than Windows. Mostly. But I beg to differ with the ‘religious zealots’ that will blindly endorse anything Mac to be better. Here are a few examples:

1. The Mac gives you only that little corner at the bottom right of the window to resize; miss it by a fraction, and you end up in another window. Even worse, if the window in question goes as far down as the dashboard, you’ll be struggling not to — and probably, inadvertantly will — open several programs down there. Windows got it right: grab any edge of the window and drag. Simple.

2.  Dialog and error boxes on the Mac pop up attached to the top of the generating window. In Windows, if you need to view something hidden by the pop-up box you can just drag it out of the way; not on the Mac, it is glued, nailed, and screwed to its ‘parent window’ for no obvious benefit.

3. Menus on the Mac are only available ‘up there’ top left. On Windows, every window of a program has its own menu bar, which saves traveling back and forth to the top left of the screen. (Someone showed a mouse and the wear pattern under it and asked what computer it was: the constant up-amd-to–the-left motion required to access menus on the Mac gave the answer!)

In other words, nobody’s perfect. In other other words, why can’t they get those minor things right?

24-hour clock, or not?

April 15th, 2009

The first thing I do when I get a new device with a clock is change the settings to 24-hour format (what some of you call “military time”). The discussion why I prefer this to the more common 12-hour format can be left for another time. So when I got my new iPod (160 Gb Classic), I was delighted to find out that I could have that choice; after all, it is not always available. Once I completed the settings and started playing music, I was surprised to find out that on the screen saver that kicks in after a few minutes, in addition to the ‘playing’ icon and the battery level, there, in large and clear digits stood a nice and clear digital clock — in 12-hour format. First reaction? I messed up. Back to settings, make sure it is indeed 24-hour format. Play some more music. Screen saver comes up. 12-hour clock. Duh!