Friday, July 27, 2012

The Importance of System Administrator Appreciation Day

[Article first published as System Administrator Appreciation Day on Blogcritics.]

Every year on the last Friday in July, nerdkind recognizes System Administrators’ Appreciation Day.  It may sound silly to those of you that have never done the job, but over the years – well to me anyway – I’ve found there’s some legitimate value to it.  Even sites like ThinkGeek celebrate it with sales on techie goodness.  Years ago I wrote a small angry post on “why your IT department hates you,” and its main focus was something I called Social Swiss Army Knife Theory. We can call it SSAKT for short.  That was a long time ago… a time before my writing became the polished gems you know and love today (please, hold your applause and/or laughter).  But trust me the sentiment still stands. Most of the time when we seem angry or bitter, there’s a good reason.

System administrators (and I’m going to lump most tech people in here) get the short end of the corporate stick. Period. And most arguments the rest of you have against that statement are invalid.  Over time society has forcibly relegated the tech crowd from actual human beings to on demand help centers, as if we have some sort of Google engine that runs inside our heads 24/7. Eventually the techs’ names aren’t associated with much else other than solving computer problems, resetting network accounts, replacing parts, or even just executing the most mundane computer tasks for grown adults that a child could do without too much thought.  In short – Swiss Army knives. A multi-tool to do what other folks simply can’t.  And soon, even the formality of a “hello” isn’t even uttered before the onslaught of issues and requests begin.  All urgent.  All with deadlines.  And all expected to be resolved like magic.

So why do admins have the right to be more bitter than all the other departments in the world’s corporate structure?  Respect.  That’s all it boils down to.  Someone will always be there to bug us when something’s not working, or freak out about when something’s going to be fixed, or when that impossible project is going to be done on top of the other things that need to be done.  But when everything’s working great, and problems don’t even show up on users’ radar because the tech team has it well under control before they even know about it, there’s no one there the hold up the “10’s” on the scorecards for them.  And I don’t think that’s fair.  There’s no other team that has to stay on site and work the occasional 24 hour shift just so business can run without issue.  Or drop everything they’re doing on a relaxing Saturday afternoon just to log in or come in and make everything is OK. Or be on the phone for two hour calls on a vacation thousands of miles away.  While you’re comfortable in your bed, your sysadmin could be on the clock.

Sysadmins and techs are responsible for every email you send and receive, every phone call you make, and every aspect of day-to-day business that involves a computer – which let’s face it, is everything. We go out of our way to try and teach people about digital responsibility, viruses and malware to look out for, and just how to stay safe in the digital age.

So today’s for the techs.  Whether you’re just starting out putting together your playbook, been in the game for a while running the show in the enterprise, the tech that does wiring, PBX, Database, Domino, Exchange, AD, Web, or any of the other oh so many custom systems that are out there – I salute you.  Having a career that started as an IT intern as a teenager and ending up in the ranks of project and tech management, I know what kind of nightmare scenarios you’ve been through, and what kinds of hell you’ve been in.  I appreciate what you all do to keep our world spinnin’ round.  Keep up the good work folks.

As for the rest of you – As much as it may seem like it I’m not writing this to admonish you or call you bad people.  I just want you to be aware of how things work.  These techs that probably make your job possible to even do, don’t solve problems with a magic wand.  It takes research, training, practice, and a lot of trial and error to learn things and get things done.  It’s the type of work where the consequence of mistakes is business coming to a grinding halt. And unfortunately there’s far less recognition than what’s deserved.  And we’re not looking for a parade or parties or anything crazy like that.  Just one day out of 365 where maybe you bring up something other than how your computer’s not running right, or just saying hello like we’re normal people.

System Administrator Appreciation Day and the DC Universe [tf charts]

Crazed Hope. Iron Will. Cool Tech.

The way I see it based on how the DC Universe runs - not only what I do but what we all do.  There will of course be a post to follow today on the importance of Sysadmin Day, but for now, to all the professional nerds out there, Happy System Administrator Appreciation Day! It's by your work that the digital age is made possible.

And to you non-techs that rely on them, thank your local pro nerd today!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Son Also Rises [tf charts]

This week's TF Charts is courtesy of Batman and the much anticipated Dark Knight Rises. To everyone seeing Dark Kight Rises tonight, have a good time, and I hope you enjoy it.  Eat a lot of popcorn.

Also, if you spoil it for me, I will destroy you.  I don't have a utility belt.  Or Bruce Wayne money.  But what I do have are a very particular set of skills.  Skills I have acquired over a very long career.  Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mobile Tech Patent Fallout: The Only Winning Move is Not to Play [tf charts]

Today's chart is more of a comparison - 1980's military fiction vs present day mobile tech reality.  I can't even remember what I was looking for online when I stumbled onto a War Games fansite and became nostalgic.  So here's the result.

This morning we learned that Sprint users rocking the Samsung Galaxy S III are without one of their features thanks to an over-the-air security update.  That update removes universal search functionality from their handsets.  This is fallout from Apple's patent lawsuit regarding universal search and their attempts to ban on Samsung's Galaxy Nexus.  The Nexus is apparently next, as Google and Samsung have reported an upcoming software patch to disable universal search on that model as well.

As I've always asserted, corporate patent wars ultimately hurt paying customers.  This may only be one feature, and maybe there's not a lot of people that use it, but what's next?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

DNS Changer Malware and the FBI's July 9th Deadline - A Few Answers

Depending on how close you are to your local nerd, you should have already heard about a computer virus that is claimed to eventually cause thousands of people to lose their internet access in just a few days on July 9th.  Some folks don't even know it's coming, some have waved it off as a hoax, and some have even gone so far as to claim immunity because of course, nothing could penetrate their primitive anti-virus shields, regardless of everything I've been trying to tell them.  At any rate, it's happening.   So what exactly's going on?   The culprit behind this scheduled havoc is a particular class of malware known as DNS Changer.  Before I get into what exactly it's doing, I should give you a short primer DNS and what it does - because after all,  like it's named, DNS Changer changes DNS.

"Phone Numbers for the Web" - A Quick DNS Primer

Think about phone numbers for a second.  Suppose my phone number is (123) 456-7890.  If someone has that phone number written down, and just that phone number, they have no idea who exactly they're calling if they punch it into a phone.  The information they have to contact me over the phone is incomplete.  Now if they have two pieces of information - the phone number and my name to go with it, then that makes far more sense.  Now they know that I'm at the other end of (123) 456-7890.

DNS is exactly the same thing.  Internet websites have what's called an IP address (think phone number for a website).  Now let's make an example.  I'm going to give you an IP address, and you tell me what that address goes to.  Ready? OK, here it is:  Complete gibberish to you?  I'll tell you what.  Take that number and put it into your web browser where you put in what website you want to go to, and tell me if it doesn't take you right to Google.  DNS is what allows your browser to cleanly translate domain names to IP addresses - in this case it matches up to ""  Just like a phone number.  You don't get out your cell every time you want to call me and dial out (123) 456-7890.  You go to my name.  Your address book, as it turns out, is a mini list of DNS entries, matching numbers to names.

That was just a basic primer, but it gets far more complex than that when it comes to the Internet.  There's not just one DNS server, but many that communicate to allow you to browse the web.  You browse the web primarily using the DNS servers that belong to your Internet Service Provider (Comcast, Verizon, Roadrunner, or whoever you pay your bills to).

What Does DNS Changer Do?

So now that you have a better idea of what DNS is, let's look at what DNS Changer does.  In the end it can do the same thing that email phishing scams can do in the sense that it can lead you to fake and fraudulent websites to try to steer you in the wrong direction.  This works a little bit differently though - instead of sending you fake links hoping that you'll click them without paying attention, DNS Changer literally changes your DNS settings, giving the intruder the ability to change where you go and leave your computer wide open to a number of cyber attacks.  The image to your right is a great concise diagram from the official FBI website that shows how it works.

The FBI has been able to identify networks of these rogue DNS servers that can potentially do you harm through what was known as Operation Ghost Click, and have taken a number of steps not only to disable them, but to help internet users until they do.  They've been working with ISPs and providing known clean DNS servers so that affected users can redirect to them to browse safely.  On July 9th, support for these temporary clean DNS servers ends, so everyone has to make sure that they're up to snuff.

What Can I Do?

But fear not friends.  There is something that can be done.  First and foremost, go to this website to check if your current DNS settings are legit and not hijacked:  If the image comes back with a nice green background like at the top of this post, then your DNS settings are in good working order.  If it comes back red, that means your DNS settings have been jacked to hit rogue DNS servers and you have some fixes to make.  There will be a link too that will point you in the right direction.

If it comes back red, there are steps you can take.  The FBI as well as the DNS Changer Working Group (DCWG) have sites set up to guide you through the process that you can get to at the bottom of this post.  The most important thing to remember is that if your check does come back red, as I mentioned that means that you could be vulnerable to additional malware and viruses.

Check in with your local nerd if you have any issues or questions.  I've also set up a temporary email address you can send your questions to through July 9th, at

DNS Changer Checker:
DCWG DNS Changer website:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Technical Fowl Starts Crunching Numbers

"this is a pie chart describing my favorite bars.
and this is a bar graph describing my favorite pies"
-Marshall, How I Met Your Mother
Data.  It's what makes the world go 'round.

Every aspect of everything in this world, and as far as I'm concerned some things outside of this world, can be chopped, divided, categorized, classified, and ultimately qualified or quantified into beautiful data.  They become tiny snippets of information that can be combined, calculated or even further broken down to represent everything around us.  So go ahead and tell me that it's not data, but money or love like it's sung in the songs, but how can you quantify it?  Oh that's right, sweet data.

Now if a pie chart was made on me, one nicely sized slice of it would be labeled "engineer."  And engineers love data.  LOVE it.  Any engineer that claims anything different is either lying about being one of our illustrious numbers or still in their first year and just hasn't put together a decent lab notebook yet.  In my case that engineering was the electrical flavor, so those notebooks consisted of circuit diagrams, waveforms, columns of data and I-V curves, and all sorts of other meticulously categorized and charted data.

... and doodles too.  What?  Running tests in labs took time, and I needed something to do.

the 4th of July is awkwardly on a Wednesday in 2012
That was a pretty narrow scope but the basic theory still holds.  I still love the data. And just as important I still love to doodle.  Over the last couple of years I've started to grow a fondness not just for data and doodles though, but the combination of the two in charts and other forms of data visualization.  I appreciate Marshall's charts and graphs on How I Met Your Mother despite his friends' intervention, and was 100% on board with Barney's hot/crazy graph, better known of course as the Vicky Mendoza Diagonal.  I'm borderline addicted to Jessica Hagy's Indexed, and check in with I Love Charts every morning to see what Jason Oberholtzer and company have in store for the day (one of mine was featured today by the way, if you're interested).

Visualized data and infographics can be used for both good and evil though.  Data can be arbitrary, and even good numbers can be skewed and bent to fit the message, but a lot of times they can just be something interesting and hopefully something that comes with a little bit of humor.  And as for the delineation of good versus evil, well I'll let you make the call.

I doodle a couple charts based on some stuff I see on Twitter - one of them was for a short lived push that was the Sushi Avengers Initiative (if you really want to know I'll tell you) but they're nothing earth shattering or crazy.  Just simple graphical representation of observed data.  And I like drawing/charting/graphing them too.   So instead of limiting them to the twitterverse, it'll be a thing here from now on at technical fowl -  hopefully at the rate of once per week to satisfy the need for data I know you have, even if it's secretly.

And if the side effect is being a chartist in residence at I Love Charts, then so be it!