Tag Archives: Microsoft

UK Hi-Tech Crime Wave and Why I Use A Mac

Last night, the BBC showed a documentary on the UK Hi-Tech Crime Wave, which even for someone pretty up to date with the selection of security threats was pretty worrying, and was probably downright terrifying for the average user without proper virus checking, firewall or spyware detectors! As Dave Oliver has also chosen to comment on Howard’s decision to get a Mac, it also seems like a good opportunity to highlight why a Mac is now my main machine rather than a PC.

Looking at the programme first, it was primarily a whistlestop tour of the various methods by which criminals are making money from the Internet. Amongst other things it included a former chair of a local Police authority who had £2000 spent on a debit card that he never lost, which led to a discussion of skimming, where shops swipe the card information on the magnetic stripe on the back of your card (and still there even on new Chip and Pin cards), and then use the numbers online. They also interviewed an online retailer who has had problems with people using such stolen card numbers to buy goods, and who says that with his current losses eating into his profit margins, he soon will be unable to afford to keep the business going.

From there, the programme looked at the more PC based threats, firstly looking at the phising scams that have hit almost every major bank worldwide. From there it moved on to the more worrying key logging, and screen logging spyware, including another small businessman whose PC got infected with such spyware that recorded all his account details. The programme also looked at how the banks are trying to avoid the keyboard loggers by using drop down menus, but that the criminals are fighting back with applications that record the contents of your screen as well.

The final part of the programme looked at how infected, broadband connected PC‘s are used, detailing an attempted extortion against an online gambling site, where a bot-net (an group of infected PC‘s remotely controlled) was used to mount a denial of service attack, and then the attack followed up with both e-mail, and telephoned threats of extortion. According to the programme, the UK is one of the largest sources of infected PC‘s, and to be honest I’m not surprised.

The programme finished by encouraging everybody to ensure that they had up to date anti-virus software, firewalls and anti-spyware software installed, and to some extent that is where a lot of the UK problems come from. There are several people I know who still maintain that they don’t need to keep up to date anti-virus software as they don’t open any suspect e-mails. However, even people who are careful still get infected. I know of two people whose brand new PC‘s were infected in the short time the new machines were connected to download the latest virus definitions!

This leads neatly on to the reasons why I mainly use our Mac rather than a PC. Firstly a bit of background. We actually have both a PC and a Mac, and I would never have considered a Mac prior to the arrival of MacOS X. In my time with the PC I’d always messed around with alternative operating systems, particularly those that were Unix-like such as Linux, and particularly BeOS. However whilst they all had advantages over Windows in terms of interface, security and so on, ultimately I still needed to come back to Windows for software compatibility, and support. Whilst it was fun to play around with the different systems, for a machine that I could reliably keep up with e-mail, write documents and browse the web, and easily fix on the occasions it went wrong, Windows could not be beaten.

Things changed somewhat with the demise of BeOS. After that, Scot Hacker a leading advocate of the BeOS platform who wrote a regular column in Byte magazine wrote an article called Tales of a BeOS Refugee detailing how he went from BeOS to MacOS X, which led to me looking a bit deeper at what the Mac had to offer.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, when I spotted an end of line EMac in a sale, I picked it up. Initially it was used in a similar way to BeOS, for specific tasks, with web browsing and e-mail remaining on the PC. However over time I have gradually switched. The big changes were when the e-mail was switched over, which was as a result of a couple of events. Firstly back in 2001 Beth got sent a virus through her yahoo account – which she browsed with a web browser, and the virus downloaded onto the PC, so I decided to try and set up our e-mail so she could use a calusari.demon.co.uk address, but keeping the mail separate. When it happened, all the PC solutions cost money, or required a switch to Linux, so I left it. However a while after we had got the Mac, Microsoft Outlook, which I was using for e-mail really messed up, to the point where I couldn’t send and recieve e-mail. Looking at the Mac, it included a full Sendmail server, and following a guide on O’Reilly I was able to set up our current system where Beth and myself have separate e-mail accounts. Similarly over time, one by one, things that I used to do on the PC have switched over to the Mac. Compatibility isn’t a problem either – the whole St James Parish Profile was put together using the Mac version of Office , with the other contributors using PC‘s.

Alongside the fact that I am able to do everything I need, one of the other things that keeps me on the Mac is the security. As more and more people have issues with viruses and spyware, the Mac remains largely unaffected. Whilst there are the same security issues that affect other platforms, whether due to the size of the market or whatever, the Mac isn’t affected by the volume of viruses and spyware that affect Windows. It is worth saying at this point that whilst there isn’t a problem now, technically the Mac could be attacked in the future, (have a read of this MacWorld article for some of the myths) so I still ensure I maintain up to date protection. However it is true to say that largely I don’t worry too much about it. As the US National Security Agency said in December 2004:

The system’s default configuration is one of the most important security features provided by Mac OS X. First, as stated above, the root account comes disabled in Mac OS X. Second, network services are all initially disabled. Third, the initial logging setup is consistent with good security practice.

Compare this with a Register review of Windows XP security after Service Pack 2 which was supposed to sort out the problems:

While we found that there are indeed a few minor improvements worthy of acknowledgment, in particular, some rather low-level improvements that don’t show to the admin or user, overall, SP2 did little to improve our system’s practical security, leaving too many services and networking components enabled, bungling permissions, leaving IE (Internet Explorer) and OE (Outlook Express) vulnerable to malicious scripts, and installing a packet filter that lacks a capacity for egress filtering.

Whilst it is true that I could probably do everything I do on the Mac on the PC, and it is perfectly possible to sort out the security flaws on the PC, I’m quite happy with the Mac.

Despite having worked with Dave and had him try and persuade me to switch back for years, he has failed. It is worth highlighting that his most persuasive attempt, was when he updated his PC to Windows XP SP2. Whereas my Mac Security Updates often don’t even require a reboot, SP2 left him spending the entire weekend rebuilding his PC after the update screwed up the machine.! So am I going to swap my ‘rubbish‘ Mac whose ‘setup is consistent with good security practice‘ for an OS that does ‘little to improve our system’s practical security, leaving too many services and networking components enabled, bungling permissions, leaving IE and OE vulnerable to malicious scripts‘? Of course not, I want a machine I can turn on, read my e-mail, browse the web and be done.

As to what machine I advise people to get, I don’t regard myself as a Mac Zealot, in that I don’t particularly care whether the processor is a PowerPC or Intel. However, putting aside security, if you want a machine that you can write a few letters, browse the web, send e-mail, and espcially if you want to work with digital pictures, video or music (iLife comes for free with the Mac), you owe it to yourself to take a trip to somewhere like the Apple Store, and take a look at what a Mac can do.

If you want more totally biased operating system comparisons, take a look at this article on Operating System Advocacy.

If you don’t have up to date virus protection, take a look at these:

Norton Internet Security 2005 Norton Internet Security Mac 3.0

IT Marketing

My regular selection of updated software turned up today as part of my MSDN subscription. This time it also included a beta copy of the increasingly late Visual Studio 2005, plus a bit of advertising in the form of a lenticular picture of a caterpillar, I assume because Visual Studio will turn into a beautiful butterfly, or something like that!

Anyway, the caterpillar got added to my growing pile of promotional materials from various sources, so here it is alongside the Channel9 Guy I picked up on Tuesday.

Channel9 Guy with Caterpillar

Apologies, but the 3-D effect doesn’t transfer overly well to web, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it is suprisingly effective, certainly moreso than the similar pictures that fascinated me as a child. I have to say that it does make a change getting one of these instead of a pen, or the cardboard toads that Quest periodically send me, even if the pen is generally more useful than a 3-D caterpillar…

Microsoft Developer Day

So today, I had a free day of training thanks to Microsoft, complete with lunch, and a stack of freebie loot too!

When I heard about the event, although it meant giving up a Saturday, I thought it was definitely worth the effort, as did a number of other people from work (nine from SSE in total), and also Phil and Catherine came along for part of the day too.

It was the first time I’d been onto the Microsoft Campus, having seen it for a number of years alongside the railway going into and out of Reading, and very nice it is too, complete with a lake, ducks, and even what looks like a picnic area.

There was a broad range of sessions, and to some extent I stuck to sessions I thought would be beneficial work wise, covering data access, .NET attributes, code refactoring, test driven development, .NET debugging and Pocket PC development. In between all of that we had a good lunch – a barbeque, and plenty of opportunity for chatting.

None of the presenters were actual Microsoft employees, although there were a number around helping run the event. All were good, although perhaps the most memorable was Jim Cooper, an Australian with a beer obsession. Every example application either reminded us to buy him beer, or revolved around beer in some way! He also seemed to get slightly obsessed with Catherine at one point in the attributes session, although I don’t think he realised her husband was sat next to her!

On top of all of that, everybody got a copy of the latest Visual Studio 2005 Beta, a CD wallet and keyring, plus various people got spot prizes varying from books to complete software packages.

All in all, a very worthwhile way to spend a Saturday – the kind of training day that usually would cost the best part of £1000 per participant. Something I’d definitely do again if the opportunity arose.

For some other opinions of the event, have a read of Dave’s review, and also a review by Ian Smith, a fellow Channel 9’er to whom David introduced me.

Excel VBA Postscript

As a postscript to my grumble about Excel VBA earlier in the week, I spent most of the day on the same problem again.

A number of our users still have Excel 97 on their desktops, and although the fix we put forward worked fine on recent versions of Excel, it doesn’t work on Excel 97. The reason being that on loading under VBA, Excel 97 interprets dates according to the Excel settings, not the VBA settings.

Just to clarify what would happen, if you have a sheet containing dates on a copy of Excel 97 running on a non-US PC and save it as CSV, Excel 97 will convert all the dates to US short date format on save – i.e. mm/dd/yyyy. However when you reload the same file into the same copy of Excel on the same machine it then interprets all the dates using the localised date rules, in our case UK settings – dd/mm/yyyy, and suddenly 1st May becomes 5th Jan and so on.

I tell you, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when we found this out, and one of our guys in Scotland had to do it for himself as he didn’t believe it. Suffice to say that we have now written our own CSV export routine…

Whose Language is it Anyway?

Over the past couple of days I’ve been having one of my periodic frustrations with Microsoft Excel. This time it was down to date formatting. Basically I was asked to produce a VBA macro that saved off the contents of one worksheet to a CSV file.

This is in theory pretty straightforward as Excel has an option on the Save dialog to save in CSV format. However I didn’t bargain on the complications of Excel.

One of the common problem areas that people come across on Excel relates to it being a US product, so by default it will use the confusing US numeric date format, of mm/dd/yy. As a result we will always ensure that all of our dates are defined with a textual month, which avoids too many problems, we also ensure that the international settings are set to UK, which usually avoids problems. When you save out a CSV manually, the dates come out fine. However when you do the same thing in a VBA macro it ignores the settings, and converts everything to the US numeric date format.

After some digging around, I found that this is because VBA maintains a different language setting, so although I was working on a UK English machine, with fully UK English settings, VBA was in US English.

Having found this out, I then tried to force VBA into UK English, not possible as the language libraries are separate too. So this morning I got a copy of the VBA Software Development Kit, complete with language files. I ran through the install, and got to the screen where it allows me to choose the language in which to install VBA:

Language Choice

As you can see, not much of a choice at all – the only English provided is US English. If I want to get the dates to save in any other way than the confusing US numeric dates, I have to manually output the file.

As one respondant to a similar query about dates online said VBA is very US centric…