Two items of interest

Here are a couple of items of possible interest to some of you.

First, a group of companies, organizations, and notable individuals signed on to a letter to President Obama urging that the government not mandate “back doors” in computing products. I was one of the signatories. You can find a news account about the letter here and you can read the letter itself here. I suggest you read the letter to see the list of signers and the position we are taking.

Second, I’ve blogged before about the new book by Carey Nachenberg — a senior malware expert who is one of the co-authors of Norton Security: The Florentine Deception. This is an entertaining mystery with some interesting characters and an intricate plot that ultimately involves a very real cyber security threat. It isn’t quite in the realm of an Agatha Christie or Charles Stross, but everyone I know how has read it (and me as well!) have found it an engrossing read.

So, why am I mentioning Carey’s book again? Primarily because Carey is donating all proceeds from sale of the book to a set of worthy charities. Also, it presents a really interesting cyber security issue presented in an entertaining manner. Plus, I wrote the introduction to the book, explaining a curious “premonition” of the plot device in the book. What device? What premonition? You’ll need to buy the book (and thus help contribute to the charities), read the book (and be entertained), and then get the answer!

You can see more about the book and order a copy at the website for The Florentine Deception.

Thoughts on Microsoft Word

The award-winning science fiction writer, Charles Stross, also writes a wonderful blog that touches on a variety of subjects. One of his recent posts is about his deep, abiding hatred of Microsoft Word. It is a wonderful polemic, with all kinds of detail to back up his arguments.

I happen to agree with much of what he writes. I hate that I am forced to use Word by publishers who seem to think there is nothing else. Currently, one of my grad students is working on a paper that requires all submissions to be in Word, which is almost enough reason (for me) to not bother submitting to them…but he wants the publication. Here we are in the 21st century, with standards and programs to do data conversion. Why the heck are people continuing to support the Microsoft hegemony?

No, Word is not — and has never been — the only choice. For instance, with my coauthors, I wrote several books for O’Reilly using Adobe’s Framemaker, although I don’t think they accept that any more (and my department gave up making the exorbitant license payments for Framemaker). Most of my academic papers have been written over the year in LaTeX or Apple Pages (or its predecessor, AppleWorks), both of which work well — although LaTeX is painful to use without a good front-end editor, such as TeXShop. Years ago, I used troff for my first book on viruses and my MS thesis was done using a Xerox Star system (how’s that for ancient history?).

For pretty much forever, my mailer has had a front-end filter that rejects Word documents attached to email. A pointer to an explanation message is included in the bounce reply. There are two primary reasons I tell people I don’t use Word — first, it has been a vector for viruses and attack software for a very long time, and second, I normally use a Mac or a Unix system, and Word costs extra to install (if I wanted to do so). (NB, the combination of no Word and using the Mac means I have never been the victim of a computer virus in 35 years of computer use.)

Why should I have to pay extra to support a non-standard (as in standards-compliant) word processing format? And why should I encourage the use of a known vector of malware and attacks? (And no, don’t tell me to install Open Office: why should I have to install a huge package to support compliance with non-standard cruft?)

The situation is a little better now with the XML format in use by MS Office products, but I still resent the expectation that I will use it.

I will recount a short anecdote from about 15 years ago. I had a research grant from a government agency. I had several students who needed the support. After getting the award, the university handed the negotiation of the contract terms, and without telling me, agreed to have me submit a monthly progress report on computer-readable media in Word format! Arrggh! I had several discussions with the program manager at the agency about switching to some other format, but no — the contract called for delivery in .doc format, so I had to do it.

So…. I cast about on campus and found an old system running a very old version of Windows and Word (version 3? 4?). The next two months, I wrote the reports using (I think) what was then AppleWorks. I saved out each page as an individual postscript file. Then, I included the Postscript as images in a file in the old version of Word….which I then wrote out to 5.25 floppy disks (I did mention this was an old computer, right?).

A week after the first report was sent, I got an inquiry about where the reports were. I explained that, as per contract terms, they were on the computer readable media. Then a week later I got a complaint about the format, which I answered with a photocopy of their email telling me what the terms were in the contract. A week after the second report went in, our univeristy office got a contract modification from the sponsor stating that I could generate the reports in whatever format I felt most appropriate, and they would have a contractor convert it to their internal standards. Of course, we signed it.

Morals of the story — people really can convert when they need to, and be very careful insisting that I follow the letter of any contract or requirements: I just might.

Don’t blindly accept de facto standards. And read Stross’s blog.

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