Author, improve thyself

I was looking up Ida Gandy, who wrote a book called An Idler On The Shropshire Borders that was a starting point for some writing I did in the 70s.

Librarything invited me to ‘Improve this author’. Since, to the best of my knowledge, she died in the late 70s, there’s probably not much scope for improvement.

Well, perhaps if I join the site I can add some detail, but I really need to acquire more information before I share it.

David Harley
Unimproved author and curmudgeon

Skyline Pigeon

Wondering if Skyline is the worst Sci-Fi film I’ve ever seen. But since I used to have a subscription to the Sci-Fi channel, probably not. Anyway, it was fun picking up the visual references (which I suppose might have been the idea): Independence Day, every zombie film you can think of, the Alien series, Jurassic Park I and II, Predator, War of the Worlds, Godzilla, From Dusk Till Dawn… I’m going to run out of room. Didn’t catch a 2001, Star Wars or Dark Star reference though. Maybe I dozed off.

David “everyone’s a critic” Harley

A Fairy Tale

[Also published – because of the subject matter – on the Anti-Malware Testing blog]

Long ago and far away in a town called Santo Iago, the townsfolk were beset by plagues and pestilences. Sometimes green, poisonous frogs rained down from the sky. Sometimes great ferocious horses from the neighbouring city of El Troya rampaged through the town and the farms that surrounded it, trampling the crops and terrifying the children. Sometimes flying bugs would descend upon the farm animals, burrowing painfully into their hide and proving almost impossible to dislodge.

Over the years, however, a community of sorcerers arose in Santo Iago and developed notable skills in defence of the townsfolk, using a variety of spells and incantations. While they were unable to eradicate the plagues and pestilences completely, they did contrive to reduce the damage that was done, enabling the townsfolk to live a tolerable and sometimes even reasonably prosperous existence.

Yet the townsfolk were not happy. Certainly, those who were unfortunate enough to bear the brunt of new plague, and sometimes lost their livelihoods in consequence, had ample cause to complain. However, even those more fortunate grumbled that surely all those wizards could find a way of stopping all those plagues altogether?

Some even muttered that the wizards and sorcerers were surely casting spells themselves to _cause_ the plagues and pestilences, so that the people were obliged to give some of their hard-earned ducats and florins and centavos to those same wizards.

And in time, there arose a group of townsfolk called truthsayers or soothsayers, who had learned some of the ways of the magicians and undertoook to examine their spells and potions and incantations. Then they would tell the townsfolk which spells they believed to be most effective against the current wave of disasters.

Unfortunately, some of the truthsayers proved to be better at this form of spell divining than others, and when they passed on their opinions to the town crier, so that he might proclaim them to the populace, both he and the people became very confused, because different truthsayers said very different things about the same spells. This was not only because some knew the ways of divination and magic better than others, but also because their ways of divining changed according to the time of day, the nature of the plague, and even which quarter of the town they happened to be in at the time.

Still, the better soothsayers and sorcerers started to work together and learned from each others’ experience. In this way, they hoped to make a real difference to the lives of the townsfolk, and even banded together in a league called the Alliance of Magicians, Truthsayers, Soothsayers and Oracles. But one of their number began to whisper to the townsfolk, saying that the other truthsayers were too much in league with the sorcerers, and that only he knew the ways of the sorcerers well enough to say which of the sorcerers’ spells could be trusted. And some of the townsfolk noticed that his nose was getting longer as he talked, but this didn’t mean anything to them because in Santo Iago few of the bookshops sold Italian fairy tales.

But then this man (who called himself Ricrol The Trustworthy) went to the sorcerers and said that if they would share their treasure with him, he would tell them which spells he would be recommending, and if their spells weren’t included, they could come to some agreement. And his nose was getting longer all the time, but the sorcerers didn’t notice: they were too busy grumbling among themselves, because most of them weren’t sure that he was very good at divination, and knew that he didn’t even have his own oracles. But they also knew that the townsfolk not believe them if they said so. And because they were frightened that Ricrol would not recommend their spells even if he _could_ make them work properly, some of the richer sorcerers shared some of their treasure with him. But others, who didn’t trust him to interpret the auguries correctly, refused to share any treasure because he would not tell them how he was going to go about until he’d been paid.

When Ricrol had performed his rites, he told those sorcerers who’d shared their treasure what he was going to tell the town crier. And sure enough, some of them found that he’d made mistakes in his divination, and after much consultation, he told the town crier that their spells were good and had been cast in the right way. But he also said that the magicians who hadn’t given him some of their treasure had cast their spells in completely the wrong way, and that no-one should use those spells any more. And he told everyone that his divination was better than anyone else’s because he hadn’t been given treasure by one of the sorcerers. And in a way this was true, for more than one sorcerer had shared treasure with him.

Now when the sorcerers who hadn’t given Ricrol some of their treasure heard that he’d told the townsfolk that their spells were useless, they were very angry, because they were experienced wizards who knew that their spells were as good as anyone else’s. But then they thought that if there was something wrong with any of their spells, they needed to find out what so that they could do a better job of protecting the townsfolk who’d already bought their spells. And indeed, the Alliance of Magicians, Truthsayers, Soothsayers and Oracles had already passed a decree saying that it was very helpful for everyone if truthsayers were willing to tell the magicians what had gone wrong, so that they could fix their spells. Because Ricrol was a member of the league and had agreed that the decree should be passed, they asked him to tell them which plagues and spells he’d looked at, and how he’d performed his divination, as laid down in the decree.

But Ricrol, whose nose was, by now, getting very long indeed, said that he couldn’t quite remember how he’d come to his conclusions. However, if they would share some of their treasure with him, he would look through his book of divination and tell them what they wanted to know, and he’d be able to tell the town crier that they’d come to an agreement that suited all parties.

While the entire community of sorcerers and truthsayers was sitting open-mouthed and wondering what to say next, Ricrol strolled off home for some lunch, and to play some tunes on the new lute he’d just bought with some of the treasure he’d already been given.

But just as he stepped outside, a new plague of winged lawyers descended upon the town and a flock of them came straight for Ricrol. He tried to run back inside, but tripped over his own nose, and before he could get up again, they disembowelled him with their sharpened quills. Which wasn’t very nice for him, but at least everyone else (reasonably) happily ever after.

[This is, of course, a fairy tale. Obviously, nothing like this could ever happen in the real world. Least of all in anti-malware detection testing.]

Previously published here. Written, IIRC, while waiting for a delayed flight out of Geneva. And not something I would ever have considered publishing on the AMTSO blog… 

David Harley 
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

Random Thoughts of a Professional Traveller

[On the way back from a conference in the UK in September 1012]

“The onboard shop is now open for hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, and sex.” Either my hearing is going, or Virgin Trains is really going all out to provide a comprehensive service to travellers before handing over its franchise to First West Coast.

In fact, it’s not just my hearing that’s deteriorating, but my tolerance threshold. The hotel I just left, though further from the conference than I’d expected, was fine: clean linen, good breakfast, excellent shower, and the TV had more than four channels. What more can you ask?

But why must cheerful, friendly young members of staff insist on saying “No problem” when they take my order? If I’d thought it was going to be a problem to order something from the menu, I’d have ordered something else. While resolving never to stay at Fawlty Towers again.

So now I feel obscurely and irrationally guilty at have made them waste time on serving me when they could have been in the corner working on their first novel, or their patter for “Britain’s got talent”, or working up courage to ask the receptionist out for a drink. Not to mention the resentment I feel at seeing myself turn into the sort of curmudgeon I laughed at when I was their age.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

A Front Row Seat in the Security Theatre

[This is a piece I wrote in 2007 following a trip to New York to publicize the AVIEN book at Infosec, courtesy of ESET. I can’t remember who I wrote it for, but they didn’t use it. And I recently found it lurking on my laptop, so I figured I might as well put it up here before I lost it again.]

It was my first flight to the USA since 9/11 – actually, before 9/11 – unless you count looking across at the American Falls from the Canadian side of Niagara. It was a much edgier experience than I remembered. The restrictions had tightened again in the year since my last foreign jaunt in 2006. At check-in, my somewhat over-sized (listen who’s talking!) camera had to go into my suitcase, since I could only take one item of hand luggage, and I’d rather my camera was mislaid than my laptop. I had to tell the airline where I was staying, too. That was fortunate, as it happened. Opening the suitcase to put the camera away, I realized that I’d left my customary folder of travel information in my suitcase, and I was going to need it at the other end, for the immigration form.Check-in was behind me, but the obstacle race wasn’t over. The long, long queue to go through security at Gatwick snaked through the entire terminal. I found myself in conversation with another middle-aged Limey who was, he told me, in New York on that very day in 2001 when the Twin Towers fell. It turns out he was also in Paris when Princess Diana was killed and geographically close to several other history-defining tragedies of the past 20 years, so I was secretly slightly relieved (pleasant chap though he was) that hewas going to Las Vegas, since I was bound for New York.

Still, the queue gave me plenty of time to transfer everything that might upset the metal detector to my fleece pocket or laptop bag. Possibly for the first time ever, nothing sounded an alarm, and I reassembled my worldly goods: pens, coins, belt, shoes, cell phone, keys, all present and correct. Even my camphor stick passed without comment. However, my laptop was randomly selected to have its DNA tested. The swab revealed no toxic or explosive substances, and I passed on to Departures, fully metalled once more.

But did I feel safer for it all?

Cryptographer and security guru Bruce Schneier coined (as far as I know) the phrase “security theater” (well, he is American), and many people apply the phrase to airport security. I think he means security measures that don’t actually add significant security (and may even reduce it), but make us feel safer. To put it crudely, we may feel that since airport security restrictions are so inconvenient to us, they must be inconveniencing terrorists and criminals too. I suppose they may reduce the risk from shoe bombs, but even I can think of ways to smuggle a significant threat onto a plane in less than 100 ml of liquid, and I’m fairly sure it’s possible to turn a laptop into a weapon without leaving traces that can be picked up by a cotton bud. Here’s a classic example from 2001: just after the attack on the Twin Towers, the UK government forbade aircraft to fly directly over London. Obviously, air controllers and pilots did as they were told. However, would a modern-day Guy Fawkes have been deterred from making a kamikaze attack on the Houses of Parliament or the City of London? Of course he would. Just as surely as sheep are deterred from grazing by “Keep off the grass” signs.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World 

24/7 Ranting

[Updated version of an article previously published on another blog.)

I have  a real problem. Not with the concept of always-on, follow-the-sun service, though I wish sometimes that people would remember that a normal one-man company can’t usually offer spontaneous media engagement or 500 instant words on comparative testing at 3.15 in the morning. But I’ve just been reminded of the wretched 24/7/365 construct, and until I get this rant out of the way, I can’t take the document I’m reading with the seriousness it otherwise deserves.

24/7 I get, even if it enrages me when it turns out to mean “24/7 except on public holidays” or “we keep normal hours but we never turn off the website and you can email us any time you like (but there are no response time SLAs)”. Though even then it’s the misuse of the concept  that  vexes me, not the concept of limited working hours.

24/7/52: all day, every day of every week? Works for me, as long as I’m not on the helpdesk roster. (At this point in my career, 15 minutes on anybody’s helpdesk is more than I want to spend: been there, done that, wear the scars under the t-shirt.)

But every hour of every day of the week of every day of the year? That has all the comprehensibility and grace of a multiple negative wrapped around a split infinitive and 543 grammes of grocer’s apostrophes. (Or grocers’ apostrophes.) And what happened to leap years? Or do you give your  staff the day off once every four years?

Exit, humming “for tomorrow may rain so I’ll follow the sun…” (As Andy Warhol didn’t say, in the future every song you ever heard will be on Wikipedia.)

David Harley 
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow