Picking up blogging again

While my blog has been silent for over a year, I’ve been inspired to start posting again. This was mostly because I’ve been relating various anecdotes to different people and many of them have said “you should really write a book about your experiences.” I also visted the Computer History Museum in California during the fall of 2016, and the combination of seeing their collection and going “I’ve worked with one of those” and seeing how much history has been lost made me decide to create some content of my own*.

Upcoming posts in the Computer History category will (mostly) detail my personal experiences with computer hardware and software for over forty years (yikes!). These posts will combine items from my personal collection as well as information I know about them. I will be researching these posts and will add links to external reference sites where I can.

The Personal Recollections category will (mostly) be narratives about my experiences working with the people who work with computers. These will be from my memory, to the best of my ability. In cases where I have posted the story to Usenet or a forum (BBS, DECUServe, etc.) site and they differ in a non-minor way from the version I post here, I will try to provide links to my prior posts. Not all of those sites still exist, though. When I name people, they will either be first names only or will have consented to being mentioned (when you read some of these posts, you’ll know why).

As always, all photographs will be by me, unless otherwise credited.

* Both categories will often have footnotes (like this one). Often, some of the funniest bits will be in the footnotes. You can either click the blue asterisk(s) when you come across them in the main article, or just read your way down to the footnote(s) at the end.

This site is now Flash-free

All of the videos on this site are now encoded using open standards. In addition to not requiring the user to have Flash installed (or click-to-play if installed), this means that users can finally view them on portable devices (tested with both Android and iOS).

The theme I’m using is a heavily-modified version of TypoXP 2 and converting it to be responsive would be a massive undertaking. At some point I will have to migrate to a newer theme, and responsiveness will be one of the selection criteria. Until then, all I can suggest is liberal usage of the pinch-to-zoom feature on your mobile device.

Is no crypto always better than bad crypto?

SSL (Secure Sockets Layer, the code that forms the basis of the https:// in a URL) can use any number of different encryption methods (protocols) and key strengths. While all of the protocols / strengths were presumed to be secure at the time they were designed, faster computers have made “cracking” some of the older protocols practical, or at least potentially practical. Additionally, concerns have been raised that some of the underlying math may have been intentionally weakened by the proponents (for example, NIST and the NSA) of those protocols. Perhaps an underlying flaw in the protocol has been discovered. Due to this, web browsers have been removing support for these older, insecure protocols.

Additionally, even if a protocol is still considered secure, a browser may start enforcing additional requirements for the SSL certificate used with that protocol. “Under the covers” this is a rather different situation, but for the purpose of this discussion I will lump them together, since the average user doesn’t care about the technical differences, only that a service that they used to be able to access no longer works.

In theory, this is a good idea – nobody wants their financial details “sniffed” on the way between you and your bank. However, the browser authors have decided that all usage of those older protocols is bad and should be prohibited. They make no distinction between a conversation between you and your bank vs. a conversation between you and another site (which could be a web server, UPS – battery backup, a water heater, or even a light bulb!) in your house or company. Instead, they force you to disable all encryption and communicate “in the clear”.

To add to the complexity, each browser does things in a different way. And the way a given browser handles a particular situation can change depending on the version of the browser. That isn’t too bad for Internet Explorer, which doesn’t change that often. Two other browsers that I use (Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome) seem to release new versions almost weekly. In addition, the behavior of a browser may change depending on what operating system it is running under. Browsers also behave differently depending on when the host at the other end of the connection obtained its security certificate. A certificate issued on December 31st, 2015 at 23:59:59 is treated differently than one issued one second later on January 1st, 2016 at 00:00:00.

In the following discussion, the terms “site” and “device” are generally interchangeable. I sometimes use the term “device” to refer to the system the browser is attempting to connect to. “Site” might be a more accurate term, but for many users a “site” implies a sophisticated system such as an online store, while an intelligent light bulb is more a “device” than a “site”.

In a perfect world, people could just deal with the browser blocking issue by installing new software and / or certificates on all of the devices they administer. Sure, that would be a lot of work (here at home, I have several dozen devices with SSL certificates and in my day job, I have many hundreds of devices) and possibly expense (the companies that sell the certificates don’t always allow users to request updated certificates for free, and updated software to handle the new protocol may not be free – for example, Cisco requires a paid support contract to download updated software). However, it is not that “easy” – any given device may not have new software available, or the new software still doesn’t handle some of the latest protocols.

This leads to an unfortunate game of “whack-a-mole”, where a browser will change its behavior, a company will implement new software to deal with that new behavior, but by the time the software has gone through testing and is released, the browser has changed its behavior again and the updated software is useless. A number of vendors have just given up supporting their older products because of this – they have finite resources and they choose to allocate them to new products.

The browser authors seem to feel that this is just fine and that users should either turn encryption off or throw away the device and buy a new one. Since the “device” is often a management function embedded in an expensive piece of hardware, that simply isn’t practical. A home user may not feel that replacing a working device is necessary and a business likely won’t replace a device until the end of its depreciation cycle (often 3 or 5 years).

This strikes me as a very poor way for browsers to deal with the situation. Instead of a binary good / bad decision which the user cannot override, it seems to me that a more nuanced approach would be beneficial. If browsers allowed continued usage of these “obsolete” protocols in certain limited cases, I think the situation would be better.

First, I agree with the current browser behavior when dealing with “Extended Validation” sites. These are sites that display a (usually) green indication with the verified company name in the browser’s address bar. In order to purchase an EV certificate, the site needs to prove that they are who they say they are. For example, your bank almost certainly uses an EV certificate. Users should expect that sites with EV certificates are using secure methods to protect connections. If a site with an EV certificate is using an obsolete protocol, something is definitely wrong at that site and the connection should not be allowed.

Second, the current behavior is OK when dealing with well-known sites (for example, amazon.com). This is a little more difficult for browsers to deal with, as they would need to keep a list of sites as well as deciding on criteria for including a site on that list. However, there already is a “master list” of sites which is shared between various browsers – it is called the HSTS Preload list. It could be used for this purpose.

Now we get to the heart of the matter – how to deal with non-EV, non-well-known sites. Instead of refusing to allow access to a site which uses an insecure protocol, a browser could:

  • Display a warning box the first time a site is accessed via an insecure protocol and let the user choose whether or not to proceed.
  • Re-display the warning after a reasonable period of time (perhaps 30 days) and ask the user to re-confirm that they want to use the insecure protocol to access the site.
  • On each page, indicate that the page is using an insecure protocol. This could be done by displaying the URL in the address bar on a red background or similar. Google Chrome does something similar with its red strikethrough on top of the https:// in the address bar. Unfortunately, in most cases Chrome will simply refuse to access a site it deems insecure.
  • NOT require dismissing a warning each time the user accesses the site.
  • NOT require a non-standard way of specifying the site URL in the address bar, bookmarks, etc.

Security experts will probably be thinking “But… That’s insecure!” It certainly is, but is it less secure than using no encryption at all (which is what the browsers are currently forcing users to do)? I don’t think so. In many cases, both the user and the site they are connecting to are on the same network, perhaps isolated from the larger Internet. For example, most devices here are only accessible from the local network – they are firewalled from the outside world.

Technical note: I am only talking about insecure protocols in this post. There is a different issue of bugs (problems) in some particular implementation of SSL – for example, OpenSSL. However, those problems can usually be fixed on the server side by updating to a newer SSL implementation version and generally do not remove protocols as part of fixing the bug. My post is focused on servers that are too old and / or cannot be updated for some reason, which is a completely different issue from server implementation bugs.

What do you think? I’d like to see comments from end users and security experts – feel free to try to shoot holes in my argument. I’d love to see comments from browser authors, too.

This web site is moving to a new URL

After 20+ years at tmk.com, I’ve sold the domain. The new home for all my stuff is glaver.org. Please update your bookmarks accordingly, as tmk.com is only guaranteed to work until the end of January, 2016.

If you’re wondering what a glaver is, click on the “So what’s a glaver anyway?” link in the “INFO” section on the right-hand panel.

Edited to correct a global search-and-replace that clobbered the tmk.com name.

Brother Printer Upgrade Follies

“Well, I’ve been to one world fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard…”
— Major Kong, Dr. Strangelove

That pretty much sums up my feelings about the firmware update “procedure” Brother provides for their printers. Some time ago I purchased a Brother HL-6180DW to replace an aging LaserJet 2200DN which had decided to either feed multiple sheets or no sheets from the paper tray.

I have no issues with the HL-6180DW as a printer – it has worked fine for over a year, does everything I ask it to, and successfully pretends to be the LaserJet 2200DN that it replaced so I didn’t have to update any drivers. However, I went to reconfigure it the other day to change its hostname and was greated by the dreaded https strikethrough in Google Chrome (the “Your connection is using an obsolete cipher suite” error):

“No problem,” I thought to myself “I’ll just download the latest printer firmware.” I discovered that it is nowhere near that simple.

The first thing I did was download the latest updater from the Brother support site. Running the updater produced an un-helpful “Cannot find a machine to update.” error. Searching on the support site, this is apparently because I did not have the Brother printer driver installed. Of course I don’t – the whole purpose of this printer is to emulate printers from other manufacturers so people don’t have to install drivers when replacing the printer.

I then downloaded the printer driver from the Brother support site and ran it. It self-unpacked into a directory tree which contained no documentation. Fortunately, there was only one .exe. Unfortunately, running it appeared to have no effect other than popping up the Windows “Do you want to let this program make changes to your computer” alert box. Back to the Brother support site, where this support document bizarrely states:

“Case A: For users who connect the Brother machine to their computer using a WSD or TCP/IP port

Connect your computer to the Internet.
Connect the Brother machine to your computer with a USB cable.
The driver will be installed automatically.”

So, in order to install a network printer driver I don’t want, I have to find a USB cable and connect the printer to a PC via a USB port? That is downright bizarre… Armed with a USB cable, I do that and lo and behold, a new printer shows up which claims to be the Brother, attached via USB.

Back to the firmware update utility. Hooray! My printer is detected, and after agreeing that Brother can collect lots of information I don’t really want to give them, I finally get to click on a button to start the firmware update. After a long pause, it tells me that it cannot access the printer (which it detected just fine a few screens back). It tells me that I should check my Internet connection, disable the firewall, sacrifice a chicken, and try again. I proceed to:

  • Disable Windows firewall on my PC
  • Disable the Cisco firewall protecting my network
  • Disable IP security on the printer
  • disable IPv6 on the printer
  • Disable jumbo frames on the printer

None of which has any effect whatsoever.

After more flailing around, I decide on a desperate measure – I will change the printer port from USB to TCP/IP in the printer properties. A miracle – running the update utility produces a request for the printer’s management password, after sending my personal data Yet Again to Brother (or is that Big Brother?). After an extended period of watching the progress bar move at a varying rate (and jump from 80-odd percent complete to 100% complete), the update has finished!

After making sure I can still print from the other computers who still think they’re talking to a LaserJet 2200DN, I go back into the PC I used for the updating and re-enable Windows Firewall. Then I re-enable the Cisco firewall protecting my Internet connection. Lastly, I restore all the settings that I changed on the printer.

“All is as it was before…”
— Guardian of Forever, Star Trek

Back to Chrome to make sure this fixes the https strikethrough… no such luck. Hours wasted for no gain.

I have NO IDEA why Brother thinks this is a good idea. Maybe they’re paranoid about people getting access to the firmware images (although anyone with access to the network and a copy of Wireshark could capture it “on the fly”). The update utility messages could be vastly improved, instead of the “Doh!” (Homer Simpson) that it does now. The support documentation could also be improved to actually explain what the utility needs in order to update the firmware.

Of course, my decade-old HP LaserJet 9000DTN came with an add-in network card which has a simple “Download firmware update from HP” button on its web management page (which, amazingly, still works despite HP having rearranged their web site multiple times since that card was new).

In a corporate network where I would have to get IT support involved in disabling my PC’s firewall, or (good luck!) disabling the corporate firewall in order to satisfy the Brother update utility, I think people would simply give up and not update the printer firmware.

And don’t think you can cheat and tell Brother you’re running Linux – the downloads for Linux don’t include a method to update the firmware.

De-bloating the Dell Server Update Utility – Yet again

Dell has released the 2015.09 SUU, and it continues to expand:

10/08/2015 08:13 PM 15,559,686,144 SUU-32_15.09.200.74.ISO

If I was growing at the same rate, I’d no longer fit through my front door. The SUU has grown by over 2.5GB since the previous release, only 2 months ago.

Even after de-bloating we’re left with a resulting size of 7,082,702,599 bytes, which is well into double-layer DVD territory. If the SUU continues its current rate of expansion, the next update may not even fit on a double-layer DVD.

Ghost Like Sun – Human Satellite (CD + MP3)

A while ago, I wrote an article about the IUMA demos from Ghost Like Sun. In that post, I mentioned that I’d be interested in hearing from any of the Ghost Like Sun members, particularly with information about the second album.

In early September of 2015, Leigh Newsome found that article and emailed me. We’ve been corresponding about the second album, which was titled Human Satellite and was distributed at live shows and via some online CD sales (I’m not sure how I missed it!).

Human Satellite - Cover

He sent me the album as individual .wav files and also graciously allowed me to make it available to readers of this blog. I have created a CD image which you can download here (370MB Zip file containing .bin/.cue suitable for use with burning utilities like ImgBurn). I have also encoded the tracks to VBR MP3 files if you’d prefer that format here (54MB Zip file containing 9 .mp3 files).

Here is the track listing:

1. Underneath      4:35
2. Everyday        4:22
3. Friend?         3:36
4. Golden Blue     3:39
5. Static In Here  3:57
6. One Connection  3:50
7. White Bird      4:42
8. Negative Girl   4:43
9. Human Satellite 6:01
Total Time: 39:28

Leigh reminisces:

“The CD was recorded over two months in California in early 2000 at two studios: GLS studio & Moody Studio. The GLS studio being our recording studio which was basically a 1 bedroom cottage I rented in Willow Glen (San Jose). I was fortunate to have a bunch of recording gear, so tracked most of the guitar and vocals. Moody Studio was my friend’s studio in Pacifica where we tracked the drums, bass, and live guitar parts.

The band for this album was: Ed Havel (vocals), Tami Plescher (vocals), myself (guitar), Peter Dosanjh (bass), & Scott Landucci (drums)

All the songs were written by myself and Ed Havel, except for WhiteBird (which is a cover song from the 1960’s band It’s Beautiful Day).

Our engineer was Paul Moody who now works at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco.”

Here is all of the CD artwork (each of the images is clickable to reveal a larger version). Like the previous album, the artwork is quite complex and these scans don’t do it justice. If you prefer, you can download all of the images in a single PDF file here.

Human Satellite - Cover

Human Satellite - Booklet P2

Human Satellite - Booklet P3

Human Satellite - Booklet P4

Human Satellite - Booklet P5

Human Satellite - Booklet P6

Human Satellite - Back

Human Satellite - CD

I’m glad to report that this album maintains the classic Ghost Like Sun sound while expanding their musical horizons at the same time. I’ll close with a quote from the original IUMA blurb: “GhostLikeSun blends male and female vocals with translucent sound to produce the aural equivalent of your finest shimmering visions.”

Enjoy this “lost” album!

De-bloating the Dell Server Update Utility – Continued

Dell has released the 2014.12 SUU, and it continues the tradition of expanding:

12/18/2014 07:13 AM 10,589,175,808 SUU_14.12.200.69.ISO

It is no longer sufficient to simply delete all the .exe files in the \repository directory if you still want it to fit on a single-layer DVD. You should delete all of the files in \bin\Windows and \java\Windows as well. This will leave you with 4,467,253,896 bytes, which is small enough to fit on a single layer DVD.

At some point in the future, unless Dell deals with the SUU bloat by splitting the Windows and Linux discs, you will need to use a double layer DVD, even with the Windows executables removed.

Dell OptiPlex 9020 mini-review

I previously reviewed the OptiPlex 755 here, along with entries about upgrading them and installing Windows 7. Click here for those entries.

Since then, I upgraded to OptiPlex 960 systems, but I didn’t feel that it would be fair to review them since I had built them from spare parts (starting with “barebones” chassis from eBay, which are scratch & dent discards from Dell Manufacturing, and adding the necessary parts) and this wouldn’t paint a true picture of the 960. I will say that the OptiPlex 960 is the first Dell business tower system that I would consider truly attractive – they obviously spent a lot of time on the case aesthetics.

My 960’s are getting a bit long in the tooth, since I have been using them since late 2010. Windows has been getting twitchier over time, with things like Virtual PC not wanting to start, “Internet Explorer has crashed”, and so on. This is a still a record for a Windows install, since earlier versions tended to die from “bit rot” and need a wipe and reinstall every few years.

I decided to try the newest OptiPlex model, the 9020 Mini Tower, as on paper its specs looked quite good. It eliminated the floppy disk / multi-card reader bay (which I don’t use, anyway) and was rearranged internally to provide a more useful layout and selection of expansion card slots. I had hoped that this would avoid some of the hassles I’d had in the past with getting a video card to fit into the system. With two PCI Express x16 slots (one of which is only wired x4), I hoped I would be able to experiment with my Intel X540 10 Gigabit Ethernet cards.

Unfortunately, when I went to the Dell business site to configure and purchase a 9020, it seems that they only have pre-configured models available. You can’t specify which processor you want, or even if you want extra memory installed! None of the pre-configured systems were available with a set of options I felt comfortable starting with, so I ordered the 730-8285 configuration from an authorized reseller. This system’s specs are:

  • OptiPlex 9020 Mini Tower
  • Intel® Core™ i7-4770 Processor (Quad Core, 3.4GHz Turbo, 8MB, w/ HD Graphics 4600)
  • Operating System: Windows 7 Pro 64-bit (includes Windows 8.1 Pro License and Installation Disk)
  • Graphics Card: AMD Radeon HD 8570, 1GB DDR3, 1DP 1DVI
  • 8 GB 1600MHz DDR3 Memory (2 x 4 GB)
  • Keyboard: Dell KB212-B QuietKey
  • Mouse: Dell USB Optical Mouse MS111
  • Hard Drive: 1 Terabyte 7,200 RPM
  • Internal Audio Speaker
  • Intel vPro Technology Enabled
  • Resource DVD contains Diagnostics and Drivers
  • 16X DVD+/-RW Drive
  • Chassis Intrusion Switch
  • Dell 3-Year NBD Warranty

At the same time, I ordered a Samsung 840 EVO SSD (250GB) and a pair of 4GB memory modules (to upgrade the system to 16GB total). I planned on using a BDR-206BK Blu-ray burner and HIS R9 270 video card, along with an ASUS Xonar D2X (for digital audio output) from inventory to round out the system.

Upon opening the chassis, I discovered that Dell is using a new, 12V-only power supply. This is based on a concept by Fujitsu (PDF whitepaper here). Unfortunately, despite that paper ending with “The 12 V Only System is not an industry standard yet but a proprietary solution, which is currently implemented by all Tier 1 Systembuilders like e.g. Dell, HP, Fujitsu!”, each of those manufacturers seems to use a slightly different implementation. Thus, there don’t seem to be any 3rd-party manufacturers building compatible power supplies. A search for supplies only turned up people complaining about the problem, not any replacements.

The theory behind the 12V-only power supply is that most of the power requirements on the motherboard are for 12V (newer systems have had 12V rails dedicated to the processor for some time), and the remaining voltages can be more efficiently generated on the motherboard.

So, I’m stuck with the somewhat-anemic stock 290W power supply, and don’t have a good way to power the HIS video card I was planning on using. It might be possible to do something using a reverse SATA power adapter to convert the 2nd HDD SATA power connector into a pair of Molex 4-pin connectors, then use a PCI Express power adapter to convert the HIS card’s connector to a pair of mating Molex 4-pin connectors. However, this may lead to overloading something, as the HDD power connectors are supplied via a single pin from the motherboard. It doesn’t seem to be worth risking damage to the motherboard to try to make this work.

So I am now looking for an attractive case (attractive in the sense of the OptiPlex 960, not in the “Fast and the Furious” sense with neon lighting, see-through panels, etc.) and will buy a generic motherboard (probably from SuperMicro) and components to build a system from scratch. At least I won’t be limited to half-length single-slot video cards.

In summary, I would classify the OptiPlex 9020 as “Not Recommended” due to the inability to configure the system as needed. The power supply issue is probably not relevant for most business users (the primary target market for OptiPlex users). Dell originally designed the OptiPlex line “for customers who are traumatized by change” (actual quote from a Dell Marketing VP many years ago), with a guarantee that the same system configuration would continue to be orderable for a year. The limited number of packaged configurations available means that the customer may wind up with multiple versions of the 9020 if ordered in separate batches.

Bear in mind that this reviewer represents the “traditionalist” view. Articles in the trade press keep telling us that “the next generation of things (be they desktops, notebooks, or tablets) will be the last big update” because the world will have moved on to something else by the time they are due for replacement. If you take that viewpoint, the smaller form-factor OptiPlex 9020 models (which can be treated as non-upgradable) may be an appropriate fit for the business environment. But selling a “classic” mini tower form factor system with limited options and where add-in cards are limited by lack of power just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

De-bloating the Dell Server Update Utility (SUU) DVD Image

Dell issues a quarterly Server Update Utility (SUU) image which is used to update most firmware on PowerEdge servers (and some other Dell devices). As I use FreeBSD on my servers (which is not supported by Dell) I have to boot the Dell CDU CD to get a standalone Linux system suitable for launching SUU. Unfortunately, the SUU ISO image has become increasingly bloated over time, and is now too big to either burn to a double-layer DVD or upload to the 8GB vFlash card in the iDRAC. I suppose there’s some method for dealing with this if you’re running a Dell-supported operating system, but us FreeBSD users are left out. Here is a list of the last 4 quarters of SUU images, showing their sizes:

01/03/2014 08:08 AM 7,986,208,768 SUU_740_Q42013_A00.ISO
04/13/2014 08:00 AM 8,434,493,440 SUU_14.03.00_A00.iso
07/26/2014 06:36 AM 9,057,501,184 SUU_14.07.00_A00.ISO
10/21/2014 03:23 AM 9,922,859,008 SUU_14.10.200.117.iso

The main part of the bloat is that the disc contains two versions of every update utility, one for Linux systems and one for Windows systems. Since the CDU provides a Linux system, we can delete all of the Windows files with no impact. I found it easiest to copy the entire SUU DVD to a scratch directory and then delete all the .exe files from the \repository directory. There’s quite a few of them:

F:\repository>dir *.exe
Volume in drive F is SUU743_117
Volume Serial Number is 442E-5D5D

Directory of F:\repository


400 File(s) 5,490,684,272 bytes
0 Dir(s) 0 bytes free

Once I deleted these un-necessary files, I burned the remaining files (preserving the directory structure) to a DVD (a single layer DVD is now sufficient) with ImgBurn. There are more Windows files in other directories (for example, a Java runtime) but it isn’t necessary to delete those to get the size below the limit of a single layer DVD. Booting CDU and then switching to my modified SUU disc worked fine, and installed the few updates I was missing on my PowerEdge R710.

I don’t know why Dell doesn’t create separate SUU ISO images for Windows and Linux – it would cut people’s download times in half. Until they decide to do something, the above method should give you a usable SUU DVD.