Oracle java security policies makes us all poorer and less safe

May 23, 2014

First a brief history lesson.   A couple of years ago, there was a flurry of malicious Java exploits, where supposedly safe Java applets broke out of their sandbox and did bad things.   Not good of course, but hardly unique to java.    In addition to fixing the problems, Oracle has responded by ratcheting up the java security warnings in several steps.   My personal interpretation of these actions is that Oracle is covering their ass – “we told you it was dangerous!”, but the practical effect of it is to make us all poorer and less safe.  Here’s why.

Back in the “old days”, java applets could run in a sandboxed environment, and were presumed to be harmless.  Sandboxed applets were not allowed to do many things that were considered either dangerous to your machine or your privacy, but they still could do almost any computation or graphical presentation; and anyone (well, any programmer) could write one and deploy it on a web site.   There were millions, or at least many thousands, of cool and useful applets on the web, all running in sandboxes and doing useful things for us.

Nowadays, browsers refuse to run these applets, unless you drastically reduce your security settings (which few would even consider doing.) so almost all of these useful applets have stopped working; and we’re all poorer as a consequence.

For the few applets whose owners are sufficiently motivated to pay real money (about $100/year) and jump through a lot of administrative and programming hoops to keep their applets runnable, there now are scary warnings the user has to click through, even for sandboxed applets.   Furthermore, the latest release (Java 8) removes some capabilities from the sandbox, so those applets, if they are to run at all, have to run un-sandboxed, with unrestricted access to the users machine.

Both the unnecessarily scary warnings, and the escalation of applets from sandboxed to unrestricted, make everyone less safe.   Seeing warnings which are intended to be ignored only trains the users to just say “yes”.  The similarity of the interaction between the sandboxed warning and the unrestricted warning further erodes the attention-worthiness of the warnings; and the actual  escalation of applets out of the sandbox is obviously more dangerous.

All of this might be worthwhile if the code signing process somehow guaranteed a safe outcome.  It doesn’t.  All it really establishes is that somebody used to have $100, and was willing to spend it.  But Oracle told us this was dangerous, so don’t sue them.



Online Backup

May 9, 2011

Harkening back to the very first entry in this blog, which was about “Carbonite” backup; which I judged to be “not ready for me” yet.   Yet, I liked the idea of online backup and investigated several other services available at that time (2008).   I eventually settled on

My experience with elephantdrive has been a bit rocky.  Initially, their client and backup strategy wasn’t quite ready for prime time – it sometimes seemed to get stuck in some kind of retry/fail loop.  Their restore capability sometimes failed my test restorations in odd ways.  Their upload activity logs were nonsensical.   They fixed these problems over time, and for the last year or so I’ve had no complaints.  Elephantdrive’s overwhelming virtue is that they offer cheap, unlimited backups;  and I have reasonable confidence that if I survive the tsunami that destroys my house and computer, I can still get my lifetime of data back.

Elephantdrive was one of the sites hit by the recent “Amazon Cloud” outage.  While investigating and waiting for Elephantdrive to resume service, I found some very interesting entries on their official blog, explaining why they had discontined offering  unlimited backups.  They still haven’t officially informed me that I will soon  be paying 4x as much for the same service, but their business logic is hard to argue with.  Essentially, by offering unlimited service, they attract all the parasites (like me) who take them at their word and use too much service to be economical to support.

So, with no hard feelings, I’ll be leaving Elephantdrive soon, for another vendor who still believes that unlimited service is feasible.   Their economic problems are interesting, but they’re not my problem.

Special Delivery

January 13, 2011

Having just received my second delivery of the day, I wonder – isn’t it massively inefficient to have three separate fleets of trucks crawling the streets, delivering small objects?

In view of this, instead of the post office cutting back service, perhaps they should try to get the  contract to do residential delivery for Fedex or UPS.   That would sure keep those underused postpersons busy.  Or alternatively, hire Fedex to deliver the mail.  I don’t really care which.

Note that this would not necessarily involve wholesale changes in collection or distribution on a global scale, only the final delivery; so it could be done very locally, where it makes sense.

PayPal’s time bomb

November 2, 2010

Imagine my surprise today, when I discovered that I had pre-authorized to take up to $15,000 dollars per month from my paypal account without any further authorization from me.  (Don’t panic – they haven’t actually done anything bad).  The PANIC item is that I was completely unaware that I was party to this agreement, along with a dozen others from such well known sites as Itunes, Ebay and Skype.

I previously thought that Paypal was a haven from sleazy credit card billing practices.  Apparently not.   I recommend you check your paypal account – look in your “profile” page, under “my pre-approved payments”.

I have to admit, that when I am using paypal to buy a $20 memory stick, I don’t read all the gobs of fine print that might be on the forms I blink through on the way to authorizing the payment, but it’s obviously way too easy to pre-approve a major financial relationship as an accidental by-product.

God announces urban renewal plan for Haiti

January 19, 2010

Jan 19,2010  God announced today that he plans to demolish and reconstruct large parts of Port Au Prince.  Residents are cautioned to stay outdoors at around 3PM local time on Jan 12, as the demolition phase of His plan is likely to be quite violent.

Reached for comment on His day of rest, he said he’d been too busy implementing the plan  for the last week to file a press release,  and did not offer any apology.  “This is how I always work”.

Extending the rule of Law

March 30, 2009

Here’s a modest proposal.  Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld should be kidnapped by Spanish commandos and transported to an unnamed location.  This is perfectly legal according to the Obama administration.  (at least it would be legal if we did it.)

Once in this unnamed location, they should be waterboarded until they admit that they are being tortured.

At which point they can be resurfaced in a Spanish court to plea guilty to crimes against humanity.

When the internet crashes

October 22, 2008

.. no one will be able to tell you why.  This didn’t make it into my adventures in hell page, but it’s typical.  A few days ago, logging into my web site’s shell account suddenly acquired a 2 minute lag between password and prompt.   As this was extremely annoying, I started collecting relevant data and  complaining to the site’s technical staff.   No one had any explanation, or infomation about why there was suddenly a delay, but the curious fact I turned up was that only some points of origin were affected.    After about 12 hours, the problem, whatever it was, went away.

This kind of network glitch seems to happen to me every year or so. It’s never the same strangeness twice, and threre’s never any explanation.  No doubt, something, somewhere was broken, and someone who was affected by the broken hardware or software eventually noticed, and fixed it.   Meantime, at least one of the victims is left with no information, no tools, and no recourse.

This general pattern is common to essentially all software driven activity.  If it works, great.  If it doesn’t, you’re pretty much up a creek without a paddle.   So one day if you wake up and find every channel dark, you’ll know why.  I just told you.

The language “C” and the perfectability of software.

July 2, 2008

An interesting software event occurred today: I fixed a bug in a “C” program, which I have known must exist for about 10 years. During those years, I’ve made several concerted attempts to find this particular bug, but I never could pin it down. It was a rare glitch in a system with many major glitches, so fixing it was only a quixotic quest for perfection, not a necessity. I finally stumbled into a repeatable test case while debugging some newer code.

What has this got to do with “C”? The bug was a simple fencepost error, where a buffer was overrun by 1 byte. This could have been detected automatically, and would have been in some more modern languages. It’s not clear that this could have been detected by anything other than a permanent runtime system which always checks – a specialize test environment might have run for years without producing the right kind of input data.

I worry about the uncountable millions of lines of “C” code that run everything from my desktop computer to the planes I fly in. They can’t really be replaced or rewritten. “C” is an easy target because it’s such a wonderful language for producing buggy code.
My top ten list of way to be screwed by “C”

This happened to be a type of problem that could have been detected automatically. There are plenty of other bugs that can’t be found that way, or by any known method. In some sense, the worst bugs are the ones you don’t know exist until you see a result you don’t like. There’s no way to avoid those.

Going Digital

May 19, 2008

I’ve been a semi-serious photographer since I was in high school, and I’ve always shot slides for the most part. I was an early adopter of digital photography; initially I carried three instead of my usual two cameras, and captured key scenes with both film and electrons. After the first few years, as digital cameras improved, the film cameras started being used less and less. Eventually, on a couple of trips, film just went along for the ride.

So now the time has come, I have 20,000 slides in boxes; most carefully cataloged, and most have never been seen since the last post-vacation slide show. While the full glory of a perfectly projected slide is hard to match, the practical considerations are that anything not in digital form is just not going to be used. Years ago I had a few slides converted, and more recently I’ve bought and used a slide scanner to scan a few hundred; but it’s just too slow and tedious.

… so, I’ve gone whole hog; I bought an expensive slide scanner with a feeder, and can feed it a box at a time. 1000 slides scanned, 19,000 to go. I figure about a year at a leisurely pace ought to do it. Who knows, I may dispose of my darkroom too!

Notes on converting slides
Notes on converting lp records

Things God forgot to mention

April 22, 2008

My take on the creationist nonsense is this: Completely independent of any theological argument, just as a practical matter, where should you look for advice about the world we live in? The self described omniscient God, or to modern Science. Consider that God forgot to mention a few pretty important things.

  • Geography: The existence of 4 entire continents, with people on 3 of them.
  • Cosmology: The existence of a billion billion additional stars in the universe, in addition to the few thousand you can see.
  • Medicine: the existence of living things too small to see, but which can kill you.
  • Natural History: Dinosaurs, and almost everything else.
  • Engineering: Anything beyond muscle power.

You get the idea.