Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Yesterday I was in Seattle and had a couple extra hours between appointments, so I headed over to Kirkland to check out the Smart Cars being sold at the Green Car Company. I climbed in a few of the ones they have on the lots there, and then I took one for a test drive.

Obviously, there's something appealing about a small two-seater that the EPA states will get 42 MPG, but which real-world people say they actually get anywhere fromSmart ForTwo Demo Car at Green Car Co. 45 to 60 or so MPG. Seriously - 60 miles to the gallon. For someone like me, which commuted 80+ miles a day in a full sized pickup that gets about 15 or 16 miles to the gallon, that's a big difference.

The Green Car Company gets these cars from ZAP in California. ZAP imports them into the United States from Europe, where you see these little things quite literally everywhere. When I was in Germany earlier this year I saw bunches of them.

You might think safety would be an issue, but not really - check out a crash-test video here. ZAP does all the "Americanizing" retrofit process so it is legal to license in the states, and the emissions stuff has also been taken care of. All those changes add to the price, though - the Smart ForTwo sells for just under $27K - and the convertible is $2K more than that.

Anyhow, about the car. I was impressed. It's well put-together and if you ever get a chance to sit in one you will be shocked by how much room is inside. I mean, there's a lot of room - much more than I need to fully stretch out. Even a person much taller than me should be able to sit comfortably. The seats are good and the finish is what you'd expect to get from a real car. In other words, this is not the Yugo or Metro style little car. It's for real. A number of modifications to meet the U.S. auto standards have been made, and overall it appears to be a solid, well-made machine.

After staring at these things for awhile, then sitting in them and being more impressed than I had planned on, I asked if there was one that could be taken for a test drive. Truth be told, after sitting in one and hearing the gas mileage stories (and even after hearing the sticker price), I wanted to see what they're really all about. The car has - get this - a 0.7 liter engine (heheh) that's (not get this) superturbo-charged. It has an electronic shifting system, and you can run in in automatic mode or  shift by hand using the electronic lever that has become common in many cars these days. A step-up option on the car includes shift paddles behind the steering wheel, for those who don't want to move their hands the 24 inches from the wheel to the shifter.

This car is fun to drive, for sure. It will do 85 miles per hour, so highway driving is perfectly realistic. In fact one of the employees at Green Car Co. drives one four days a week on his long commute (his is much like mine - lots of miles each way), and he is getting around 65 miles per gallon on the highway. Wow. It also turns on something smaller than a dime, and can fit in the smallest parking spot you can imagine (in fact you can fit two of them, at least, in a standard parallel curb spot by parking them nose-to-the-curb).

So, the test drive. After being shown the controls (nothing unusual) and handed the keys, I took it out on the road to cruise some corners, neighborhoods and hills. Kirkland is good for that sort of terrain. I headed out the lot and stepped on the gas, and the car wrapped up and took right off - with a bit more power than I'd assumed it could muster. This was going to be fun, I thought.

The car handles well. The wheelbase is quite long and wide for  such a small car, and I felt completely comfortable driving it around corners and in all the street conditions.

There are two things that stand-out as somewhat unusual about this car when you drive it for the first time.

The first thing in the brake pedal, which feels quite strange when you apply it because the pedal is attached to a mechanism that lowers into the floor rather than being hung from above on a pivot. So when you step on it, its kind of sinks down as you push it with your foot. It's not bad, just unusual.

The second things that stood out is the automatic shifting, which lags between gears. I mean that as it shifts, a clutch mechanism (there must be a clutch in there somewhere) disengages and the transmission shifts, then the clutch re-engages. The result is a period of a second or less when the engine is not powering the drive train. It's weird feeling, but not that big of a deal. This car is designed differently than any other I've driven, so I can accept the fact that it's different. And in this case different is not bad - it's just not what you are used to. By the way, if you are doing electronic shifting using the floor shifter or the paddles, you don't experience the lag between gears. And if you're interested in maximizing both power and fuel economy, electronic shifting by hand is the way to go anyhow.

The air conditioning was better than I thought it would be on a tiny car. The stereo was adequate but not something that will blow you away or anything.

Overall, this was a fun and interesting car. The fuel economy is insane, it handles very well, and it sure got stares and waves even during my 15 minute test drive. If it was less money I'd buy one without hesitating, but the thousands of dollars that are added to the sales price of a European one (one assumes to cover the cost of the "Americanization" and then some more dollars added on for the "new and cool" factor) cause me to have to do some serious math. I could save lots of money every week in fuel costs, but to get to $27K, it would take a huge amount of savings to justify the purchase.

But chances are I will be sitting down and doing the math.

And this video shows just how, uhh, versatile the car can be...

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Tuesday, 01 August 2006 09:48:23 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Sunday, 30 July 2006

This could be very bad... In a news.com article published Friday, a couple of security companies (it's the good guys this time, at least - but they are planning to present it at Black Hat this week...) discuss how they've discovered a way to use your web browser and its built-in JavaScript engine to access information and resources inside the network where the browser resides and send it off to someone else or to launch attacks that appear to come from inside the network. This may be the next big wave of attacks.

SPI Dynamics is one of the companies mentioned in the article. They're discussing the results of their research at the Black Hat event this week, but they have also posted the article and a sample ("proof of concept" as they say) web page that does some of what they've discovered for all to see, use... and copy for that matter.

SPI Dynamics, by the way, has a quality set of expert articles, white papers, webcasts, and more on their web site.

Not sure how I feel about publishing this kind of stuff, but in the real world the bad guys will figure it out quickly enough anyhow, and I imagine they already have. The key to keeping this from becoming a major security event will be making sure cross-site scripting attacks cannot happen on web servers and using protective systems that catch malicious script on client machines before it gets run. Ultimately, JavaScript really needs to be revisited, but to do that probably means changing the way web sites work and coming up with a whole new standard.

JavaScript opens doors to browser-based attacks By Joris Evers

Malicious JavaScript embedded in a Web site can let a miscreant map a home or corporate network and attack connected devices ...

... "We have discovered a technique to scan a network, fingerprint all the Web-enabled devices found and send attacks or commands to those devices," said Billy Hoffman, lead engineer at Web security specialist SPI Dynamics. "This technique can scan networks protected behind firewalls such as corporate networks" ...

... Both SPI Dynamics and WhiteHat Security came up with the JavaScript-based network scanner at about the same time, he said. The companies plan to talk about their findings at next week's Black Hat security event in Las Vegas.

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IT Security | Tech
Sunday, 30 July 2006 07:06:54 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Friday, 28 July 2006

Tell me what you think, share what you know... In large part, I help catch bad guys for a living. So I have my own perspective and base of experience, but please share yours.

You may already be familiar with the term "phishing" and possibly you have a good idea of what it means. If you're not familiar with the term, you should be. Essentially, bad guys set up fake "phishing" web sites, typically by copying an online banking or other e-commerce site. The bad guys then send out emails or use other means to try to get you to visit the fraudulent web site they've set up, in hopes you'll think it's legitimate and "update" Phishing - click for Univerity of Colorado's takeyour banking or other private information there. In reality you're not communicating with the actual bank or e-commerce company at all, and you're not really updating anything - Rather, you are providing confidential identity and financial information to cyber-criminals. The bad guys then use that information to steal money, defraud you and others, and to create a new identity or leverage yours for their own gain. They're good at what they do, and the fact of the matter is, it works well enough for those who are the best in their "industry" (and it is its own micro-industry, as we'll discuss) to be motivated to make a career of it.

The general technique of convincing you via trickery to give up your private and sensitive information is called "social engineering." Bad guys act in ways that cause you think you're communicating with a legitimate business, but in reality you're being defrauded of information and - in turn - your financial and identity assets. More recently even myspace.com and similar sites have been faked, so we know these criminals are creative and go after us where we live. Whether it's a phone call from someone who sounds like a legitimate business person or a web site that looks like it's the real thing, it's all social engineering - tricking you into believing you're communicating information to a legitimate person or business when you're not.

You've likely seen emails show up in your in-box that pretend to be from ABC Bank or XYZ Credit Union. Beware any email that request information from you. The emails typically say something has happened to your account or that they;re verifying information, and you need to update your information by clicking a link to go to the bank's web site. But those emails are fakes, and so are the sites that load when you click the link. They're sent (well, spammed really) to anywhere from a few thousand to millions of people at once. Even when only a very small percentage of victims actually take the bait (hence the term phishing, eh?) , the bad guys win and come out ahead - big time.

Unfortunately, people do take the bait. I see it every single day in my work. Just the other day I dealt with a situation in which someone who provided their information to a phishing site fraudster was ripped off for $19,000. We're talking about serious stuff here... Now, when you lose money it's sometimes recoverable (but not always - you can sometimes be held responsible for giving away security secrets, after all). But if someone steals your private identifying information - things like driver's license numbers, dates of birth, social security numbers and the like - it's bad news. You're in trouble. Recovering from a stolen identity can be nearly - and oftentimes completely - impossible. You can get a couple thousand dollars back if you get tricked into giving up a password, but you can't take back your social security number once someone knows it.

You get the picture.

So, phishing is when someone sends an email and tries to get you to provide your secret information on a web site that looks like a legitimate one, but which is really just a fake copy that some bad guy controls. A lot like walking into what you think is your favorite coffee chain and walking out with a Strychnine latte, really. And on top of that, you paid the bad guy who you thought was your friendly barista $5 for it - and left a tip.

We've covered some of the basics of phishing fraud - just the first thin layer of the problem, actually. Over the course of some future posts, we'll dig a bit deeper into the details of what makes up a phishing campaign and what can be done about it. We'll also discuss pharming, spear-phishing and other cute terms that start with "ph" but which are really just about the farthest thing from cute you can imagine.

There are solid reasons for this madness that plagues the financial service and e-commerce industries. But truly understanding the problem means more than just knowing what phishing emails look like and avoiding fake sites. The fact that the sites are even there in the first place, that the email actually reaches your in-box, that you can't tell a fake site from the real one - all of these things are problems in and of themselves. To truly prevent the problem - and let's face it, prevention is the golden key here - we need to know and understand much, much more.

For instance, do you know why certain banks, credit unions and online retailers are targeted over others? Here's a hint: It's not always about how many customers they have to target or how big a name the bank is, although that can be a factor. Many of the biggest targets are credit unions with just a few thousand customers. And do you know what the phishers actually do with the information they fraudulently trick you into providing?

Do you have any idea who the bad guys are?

That's a taste of what we'll be discussing here over the next few weeks. I'll publish some of my thoughts on these topics and more. Not the secret stuff that lets us catch them, but the information consumers and institutions can use to help combat the problem. It's an opportunity to learn and share information. If you have ideas, thoughts or comments about the phishing problem, or online fraud in general, please leave a comment on this entry, or write about it on your own blog, or alternatively you can email me (but please use the comments if it's safe and reasonable to do so in order to provide the benefit to others - I tend to get a lot of emails that would be much better from a community standpoint if they were posted instead as comments). I'll leverage my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of others like you to help build parts of the future discussion. With hat tips all along the way, of course.

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IT Security | Safe Computing | Tech | Things that Suck
Friday, 28 July 2006 22:04:12 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Lots of people get credit card applications in the mail. Recently (possibly as a result of increasing interest rates and therefore the potential to make more and more money) it seems like the number and frequency of credit card applications arriving in my mailbox has gone though the roof. Last week alone I received over 20 of these pre-approved applications. It's just nuts.

Another crazy thing is, one credit card company will send several each week. They're spending lots of money mailing me fancy color-printed paper to try to get me to sign up for a credit card at an interest rate (and a variable one at that) which I'd never touch. The ones with the low fixed rates are more appealing, but I really don't want or need more credit cards.

There's a lot better deals out there. What's the best credit card deal these days? Is there such a thing?

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Friday, 28 July 2006 21:59:17 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Internet phone service is bad and getting worse, according to a new survey released last week. That's interesting, since I have been using Vonage at home for quite a while now and my experience has been that it's improved significantly over time. These days its much better than the local "classic" wired telephone service. But apparently my VOIP experience might not be the norm, at least if you believe the people doing the testing:

Nearly one in five Internet phone calls are “unacceptable” in quality - with annoying woes ranging from echoes to clicking sounds. The problem is lines clogged with video, audio and other data that interfere with service, said the study by Brix Networks, which makes products that test the quality of so-called Voice Over Internet Protocol...

...Brix arrived at its conclusion after almost one million Internet phone tests were conducted by users at the company’s web site, testyourvoip.com. The tests, started in late 2004, immediately revealed quality problems and Brix continued with the tests through early this year, before compiling and releasing its results...

All I can say is I really like Vonage. Between the call quality I get (very good) and the extra features, not to mention the lower price relative to POTS service, there's no way I'd go back.

(story via the Boston Herald)

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Thursday, 27 July 2006 23:59:50 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Wednesday, 26 July 2006

Forget "Hello, World." More like "Look Out, World!" Greg's gonna learn how to program. Just enough to be dangerous, I am sure... I mentioned this more than a year ago, but have yet to take advantage of it. And at the time all the content was not yet available.

Microsoft has more than 10 hours of online video training geared toward beginners (that would be me) on how to program using Visual C# 2005 Express. Woah, cool.  Dubbed the Absolute Beginner's Video Series, it takes you from "Hello, world" to a RSS reader app. This is totally for me. Not only that, you can choose to stream the video or download it, and the project files are right there to download, as well. Nice - I can spend some airplane time learning how to program!

There's also a C# Windows Forms Controls video series and for those wanting VB.net instead of C#, the same series is also available for that language.

I'm glad to see this kind of content available - it's exactly what getting-old management types like me who wish they'd learned to program a modern language need.

The content of the C# and VB.net tutorials was provided by http://www.learnvisualstudio.net/, which has a whole slew of great looking content available for people wanting to learn programming, from absolute beginner to more advanced level programmers, as well as people in-between.

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Wednesday, 26 July 2006 19:11:49 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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