How to be a shitty customer 101

I’ve been interwebbing for a long time. I’ve had many roles over the years and some of them involved interaction with these quixotic things we call “customers” but I’ve only recently been involved in a role where those “customers” are not internal. My current role periodically exposes me to the unwashed masses of humanity that claw at my door moaning for relief from their busted gear. It didn’t take long to realize there are fairly easily identifiable categories of customers.

We all have disabilities. My particular disability is that I can’t see the colour grey. That means every customer looks like one of these to me:

  • The victim
  • The Passive-Aggressive
  • The psychopath
  • The guy who probably isn’t getting along to well
  • The normal human being

The victim

Crying stickman signifying a victimYou can easily identify the victim. The initial request for helps starts with blame. It begins with phrases like “Your service has broken my thing” or “I am loosing lots of money because of your service” or “YOU ASSHOLE I AM GOING TO SUE YOU”. You know, that type of thing.

I get that we’re selling a technical product and many people are not technical in nature. I can run the shit out of a Linux box, but I have almost no clue how my car works. I understand the frustration, but I’m also not a victim. When my car guy tells me the slarginator needs replacing I don’t fly off the handle and start screaming that he’s costing me $1000 a day because of his incompetence with slarginators. I am not restraining myself because I’m a great guy, I just honestly know that it’s not his fault. I don’t know how the victims of this world end up wandering through life feeling like things are being “done” to them but I can assure you that when you ask someone for help, yelling at them about your broken-ass slarginator ain’t the way to get that thing fixed.

The passive-aggressive

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The case for myopia in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Atlas Obscura recently reposted a video by The Atlantic entitled We’re probably imagining aliens wrong. I’ve included a link to it at the end of this post for reference. It’s a fairly terrible arrangement of bytes which is an unusual thing for Atlas Obscura to promote.

The video makes the valid point that when we search for alien life we’re looking for life like ours. Life like we understand it. Life that needs atmosphere. Life that needs water. It then goes on to point out the painfully juvenile point that if we only look for life like us, we’ll miss the life that’s not like us.

Continue reading “The case for myopia in the search for extraterrestrial life.”

Machines don’t guess.

It’s hard for many people to understand how account hacking works. “How can someone guess my password that’s comprised of my kids’ names? It would have to be someone who knows me, and I add a number at the end to make it even harder.” Using your kid’s names is sure to create a weak password but if I were to try to guess your password I wouldn’t have much luck so it’s hard to demonstrate that [4]. The basic problem at work here is the “faulty analogy” fallacy. Things that look alike must be alike.

We’ve all seen humans attempt to guess various things in our lives so we know guessing is error prone and inefficient. We therefore assign these difficulties to machine guessing and arrive at the incorrect conclusion that guessing is universally hard and therefore we don’t need strong passwords and we certainly don’t need to bother with having different passwords on different sites.

The specific fallacy here is that machines don’t guess.

Machines don’t need us

The implementation of a user interface (UI) is one of the last things that is done prior to a device shipping to market. The UI is the thing that we humans interact with to use the machine. It is the layer that gives the machine a way to send and receive data from us two-eyed, two-eared, 10-fingered life forms. It’s almost a pity layer. We’re so slow and limited that the eager machine has to add a slow and limited set of buttons put on it for us to interact. Slow and limited we may be, but we’re also the only one with money to buy things, so the machine grudgingly gets over it. Grudgingly, because it doesn’t give up its fast and smart machine layer when the human UI is bolted on. It lurks beneath working non-stop which infers that you can also choose to bypass the UI and communicate with the machine at its own level if you have the skills and desire.

In some sense, that is what hacking is. It’s the ability to subvert the intended interaction method (the UI) to get at the machine below. In the case of account hacking the goal is to copy account usernames and passwords from the machine. Most websites have protections at the UI level to prevent attacks such as repeated attempts to guess passwords. If you were to go to your bank website and input an incorrect set of credentials repeatedly your account would eventually be locked out and your IP address temporarily blocked. If machines had to use that same human UI with all its safeguards in place then they’d have the same problem. It’s much easier for me to try to steal a copy of the user database and download it to my own machine. I then have access to the user database without all those UI constraints and can just hack away at it at my leisure to try to derive all the username and password combinations within.

User database breaches are legendary these days. The Have I Been Pwned website verifies and catalogues these types of breaches and has almost 2 billion accounts listed so far. If you consider that only about 3.5 billion people even have access to the Internet, that’s a lot of data breaches [1]. And most of these breaches are for sale. Multiple times.

That brings us back to your password.
Continue reading “Machines don’t guess.”

Remote work: the last meritocracy

The general idea of remote work is that you do the same job you would do in the office, but you don’t have to actually go to the office. This removes all the problems with people and politics of the office. That’s viewed as a huge benefit, but the reality is that many people only keep their jobs because of the people and politics of the office. Remote work strips all that away and leaves you standing naked in a meritocracy where only your skills matter.

I’ve worked remotely for 7 out of the last 9 years. For 4 years I was a remote contractor left to my own devices. I spent 2 years working as a remote worker for a non-remote company and I’ve spent the last year-ish working as a remote worker for a remote company. While sitting at home looks the same in all cases, each of those situations were very different from each other.

Here’s what I have learned from each of those situations:

Remote work as a contractor

StressedUnless you want to spend a lot of time chasing business, chasing cheques, and schmoozing on the phone, you’re screwed. The vast majority of remote “employers” are really just guys with ideas that want the cheapest possible labour to see if their idea has legs. They’re not invested in the idea of building a remote workforce for any reason other than they see it as the cheapest way to get going. They’ll work the shit out of you to see if you’re good “startup material” (which really means “I have no money because nobody but me believes in my idea”) and discard you when you’re so exhausted you trip. If they have no backers, be wary. Don’t know if they have backers? Google it; Angels and VCs love to talk about who they’re backing.

I spent about 25% of my time actually working and the rest of the time doing these tasks in no particular order:

  • Trying to find new work.
  • Trying to get paid for completed work.
  • Trying to figure out the best way to acquire gear and services (from a tax perspective).
  • Learning how to do my taxes properly.
  • Mourning the loss of my skill set because I was not using it.

Continue reading “Remote work: the last meritocracy”

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, yo.

Of all the things that interest me most in the world, I think humans might top the list. I’m a scientist at heart and I love to categorize things and learn the rules that apply to situations. Humans have this manifest ability to evade any and all attempts to be classified which simultaneously fascinates and repels me. The cultural concept of value is a good example. Value is one of those human things that is entirely subjective and just can’t be nicely typed. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, yo (Peter Griffin would have loved this). But for certain values of trash, it’s treasure for all. Continue reading “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, yo.”

Rise of the Machines – Why do old things matter?

I went to a Christmas craft show today and a large part of the space was devoted to antiques and collectibles. The vendors had very large spaces with lots of old stuff ranging from typewriters to old door locks, to china and Polariod cameras. These guys weren’t just cleaning out their attics, they were definitely “in the business”.

Picking through old mechanical stuff is a great joy of mine. It doesn’t have to necessarily work as long as it retains enough of its parts that I can see how it used to work. I don’t have much use for old magazines and china, but I love old machines; or, at least, the things that preceded our machines of today. I must not be alone because the vendors there obviously know there is business in collecting and selling this stuff. That got me thinking about the reasons why we love old stuff.

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Jon Watson PGP key here

View Jon Watson CD, Linux+'s profile on LinkedIn

I am a Linux sysadmin. I currently work in the security industry, but I’ve worked in a lot of verticals in my career. Banking was the most regulated, defence was the most secure and entertainment was the scariest. Terrifying.

I’m a capital ‘ST’ STEM guy. I love science and technology and how it changes the way in which we interact with the world. I don’t know much about engineering and my math skills are tragic. I have a college diploma in Computer Information Systems, and I have been in this field long enough to figure out that a deeper understanding of the science of computing is required in order to continue doing interesting things. To that end, I’m in the middle of a Comp Sci degree. For kicks I do things like maintain a Fidonet BBS. My personal blog is here and I write security and privacy related articles for Comparitech here. Here’s a list of some other things I’ve done that may or may not interest you.

Open Source Projects


WordfyFace: Pebble Classic watch face written in C.


Duplicity Menu: A console based front-end for the Duplicity backup application written in C++.

Post It Once: PHP script that allows web users to post status updates and full blog entries to their Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress blogs in one fell swoop.



A History of Computer Operating Systems.

Linux Journal

VirtualBox: Bits and Bytes Masquerading as Machines.

Break the Hardware Upgrade Cycle with Win4Lin Windows Virtual Desktop Server.

Podcasting for the Penguin!

Linux Magazine

Convenient Castle.

Sound Saver.

I also manage the Top Canadian VPN website.

From bartering to Bitcoins; How did we get here?

I doubt there’s a single person alive in North America who is unaware of the financial mess the United States is in. Jumping from Fiscal Cliff to Sequestering, it’s quite obvious to all of us that the “money” in question does not exist. Greece is in a no better state half-way across the world so it’s pretty easy to make the argument that money is broken. When your country has over-leveraged its financial resources so terribly that you know, deep down inside, that your money and property can become worthless overnight with the flick of a pen in government house, what do you do?

Get new money, of course. Continue reading “From bartering to Bitcoins; How did we get here?”