• Newsletter Issue #386

    April 23rd, 2007

    THIS WEEKS TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Is The Tech Night Owl LIVE just a Mac show? Does The Paracast concentrate strictly on UFOs?

    The answer to both is no. But at one time, the tech show had the word “Mac” in its title rather than “Tech.” When I looked at the subject matter of the various interviews, I realized we had moved far afield from our initial focus to encompass a wide range of technology-related issues. I would have changed the title pretty quickly, but faced opposition from my erstwhile partners at a failed online radio venture. In the end, the title of the show was changed anyway, and I went out on my own.

    As far as The Paracast is concerned, your hard-working hosts both got interested in the paranormal by way of UFOs. Our interests expanded from there, and you can see where we do indeed have guests that talk about all sorts of scientific mysteries, ghosts, strange creatures and conspiracy theories. In fact, having just one show a week really doesn’t give us the chance to cover all the subjects that are apt to interest the hosts and you listeners. So maybe things will change in the future, but I have no special announcements to make right now.

    On this week’s all-star episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we called upon security expert Alan Oppenheimer, of Open Door Networks, to explain the recent updates to Apple’s new 802.11n AirPort Extreme.

    We also presented industry analyst Ross Rubin, of the NPD Group, who spoke on the possible impact of the four-month delay for Apple’s Leopard operating system, plus various trends in the tech industry.

    In addition, long-time digital music writer Eliot Van Buskirk provided an update on the forthcoming age of DRM-free music downloads and other current issues.

    On The Paracast this week, artist and scientific speculator Neal Adams delivered new insights into Earth’s history. He was invited after I saw him on a TV show explaining his theory as to why the Earth had actually expended in size over a period of billions of years.

    In addition, contactee Eric Julien explained what he calls “The Science of Extraterrestrials,” and we then provided our unfiltered analysis of his claims.

    MORE MAC SECURITY MONKEY BUSINESS

    One of the lamer suggestions I heard from an instructor at some unmentionable educational institution some years back was that you could boost the number of graduates simply by lowering the standards. At the time, I thought the person who made this foolish statement probably could use a new job, perhaps one at a local fast food restaurant.

    I’ll explain what I’m getting at shortly.

    To begin with, as Apple patches more and more security leaks in Mac OS X, you have to wonder when or if any of them will be exploited. I mean, if you read the nasty details of a typical problem, you can’t help but feel just a little less secure.

    Take the most recent update released this month. Among over two dozen fixes was one that addressed this deficiency: “A memory corruption vulnerability exists in fsck. It is possible to cause fsck to be run automatically on a disk image when it is opened. By enticing a user to open a maliciously-crafted disk image, or to run fsck on any maliciously-crafted UFS filesystem, an attacker could trigger the issue which may lead to an unexpected application termination or arbitrary code execution.”

    All right, we’ve all got to be on the lookout for a “maliciously-crafted UFS filesystem” or a “maliciously-crafted disk image.” Heaven knows what’ll happen.

    On the other hand, has there ever, anywhere, been such an attempt other than in a laboratory?

    Indeed, every last one of these vulnerabilities can be classified as strictly theoretical. They are real, no doubt, and there is the potential that someone could exploit them to gain control of your Mac and do nasty things. But in the real world, this just hasn’t happened.

    There’s clearly a disconnect here of some sort, which is explained in some detail in a recent column from my friend, Daniel Eran, at his Roughly Drafted site. His particular target is an InfoWorld article in which they lowered the standards for an attempt to take over a Mac to allow for local rather than remote access. Failure turned to success, but all it meant in the real world is that you should watch the people who come to your home or office and attempt to connect to your Mac’s network.

    I have a client, for example, who won’t given anyone his system passwords, not even a service person. His partners, all Windows users, have rendered him totally paranoid on the issue, no doubt because they suffer regular bouts of malware infections. But maybe it’s their fault after all. They also demanded that the security setting of their wireless routers be reduced from WPA to the notoriously-insecure WEP. My client is resisting, to his credit.

    In the scheme of things, I get the impression that some tech writers will keep acting as fear merchants on problems with Mac security until something really bad happens. Then they can sit back and say “I told you so!” with appropriately joyous language.

    To be sure, we did have viruses back in the days of the Classic Mac OS, although very few were more than minor annoyances. They find more Windows infections in a day, usually, than on a Mac through its entire 23-year history.

    So why have we been so safe, at least so far? Well, some suggest it’s because of the Mac’s thin market share. If there were more Macs out there, you can bet we’d be inundated with malware in the same fashion as our Windows counterparts.

    Maybe, maybe not. You see, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but far too many of those online fear merchants seek simple solutions, or pithy quotes without regard to the truth.

    There are, for example, over 20 million users of Mac OS X. Surely that’s enough to spread a particularly virulent virus infection far and wide, particularly since the vast majority of Mac users never touch virus prevention software.

    More to the point, as Daniel Eran and others have observed, the Mac is particularly prevalent in the creative industries, in percentages that meet or exceed that of Windows. Wouldn’t an Internet criminal want to be the first to infect that crowd? Consider the ego satisfaction, and perhaps the money earned for converting millions and millions of Macs into spam-bots, just as Windows boxes are now.

    Or maybe those online malcontents simply hate Microsoft so much that they feel no immediate incentive to attack Macs. Besides, Mac OS X is built on a tried-and-true Unix platform, whereas Windows was never originally designed for network security. Sure, Microsoft has spent billions of dollars of development money trying to make things better. Perhaps Vista is superior to XP in this regard, although you still hear of security leaks that affect both operating systems.

    On the other hand, every time I install another security fixer-upper from Apple, I have to wonder if we have become too complacent, because it can and will happen here. But I’m not losing any sleep over it. At least not yet.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: TODAY’S WIRELESS SERVICE JUST DOESN’T SOUND RIGHT

    Just the other day I read an article that the final vestiges of the U.S.A.’s analog mobile phone service were being phased out. I can understand the reasoning, since it’s probably cheaper to move to an all-digital system, where they can compress the data as much as possible to pack more capacity on a cell tower.

    Now I’m not about to get involved in the analog versus digital argument, other than to insist that the latter can sound identical to or better than the former under the right conditions.

    Instead, I’m going to complain about the biggest problem of all with today’s wireless phone systems, aside from dropped calls and poor connections of course. And that’s sound quality.

    Consider that the average wireless phone sounds worse than the traditional analog phone of 100 years ago, and you’ll understand what I mean. Or just think about two kids with a pair of cans and some cord.

    Instead of the crisp, clean sound of the old Ma Bell system, you get a grungy, sandpaper veneer that makes even a pleasant voice sound almost irritable. But whose fault is that?

    Well, I suppose you can sometimes blame the phone itself, especially after you drop it a few times on a concrete surface. I wonder how the things survive, but even the brand new phone just out of the box and newly activated may not always deliver decent sound quality. From one call to the next it’ll vary from near-analog quality to the infamous sandpaper effect.

    Now I do understand the limitations of these services, having to handle billions of calls daily on what is essentially a radio-based system. Maybe I should accept the fact that it’s a miracle that it works at all, at least most of the time. On the other hand, the wireless companies are pushing music and videos these days. They want you to accept your wireless phone as another essential component of your digital lifestyle.

    I would hope that Apple’s forthcoming iPhone will deliver superb audio, but I can’t recall any of those brief hands-on reports mentioning how well it handles a simple phone call. Maybe that’s meant as an afterthought, although I thought that was still the main purpose for these gadgets.

    Perhaps we should just blame the wireless providers. They surely spent billions of dollars building their vast, sprawling networks, but they also want to pack as many calls into a given amount of bandwidth as possible. A call on their system is an income source, and the more they receive, the happier their stockholders will be. What’s more, their overpaid executives will be able to keep their jobs.

    Or maybe it’s your fault and my fault. We should be demanding better audio, and moving to another provider because of a larger bucket of minutes for the same price, or another cool phone, won’t do it. In the end, they’ll deliver poor sound quality too.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #386”

    1. […] Story continued in this week’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter. […]

    2. LonePalm says:

      I am amazed at the poor sound quality of today’s phones, especially cell-to-cell. Part of the problem, at lest on my phone, is that the speaker shares space with the camera. Very poor design. My solution is simple – a $20 wired headset, which I use most of the time. My next phone will be BlueTooth-capable. I hope to find a BlueTooth headset that provides decent quality sound.

    3. I am amazed at the poor sound quality of today’s phones, especially cell-to-cell. Part of the problem, at lest on my phone, is that the speaker shares space with the camera. Very poor design. My solution is simple – a $20 wired headset, which I use most of the time. My next phone will be BlueTooth-capable. I hope to find a BlueTooth headset that provides decent quality sound.

      I have a Motorola H700, and it sounds pretty good. The problem with these devices, in general, is that they don’t hold up too well on the long haul. I’ve gone through several from both Motorola and Jabra while reviewing these products. This, unfortunately, is what you won’t learn from some publications that examine a product for a few days and pronounce it reviewed without a follow-up.

      Peace,
      Gene

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