michaelkirkland.org/blog


svg_graph

I've decided to release a tool I developed for the self quantification system I'm building. svg_graph is a Javascript object that builds timeline graphs and injects them into XHTML documents.

I've tested it on Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera, and it should work on any browser that supports XHTML and SVG. Unfortunately IE doesn't support either, so it won't work there.

More information and download here.

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USB Shenanigans, part 2

In Part 1 we demonstrated a lean usb bootable system that could be used for shenanigans. That approach requires a rather unattended system, and has the potentially noticeable drawback of requiring a reboot.

Here we'll discuss a method to get similar results without a reboot, and perhaps without even access to the computer in question. That method is the Windows autorun feature, which of course only our friends from Redmond are "helpful" enough to provide.

The autorun feature is a simple script that must be in a file named autorun.inf at the root of a drive. It lets you set a command to be run if the drive is doubleclicked in My Computer, one or more commands to be presented when the drive is inserted, and change the icon used in that list. All very thoughtful and convenient things for people up to no good.

The following is an autorun file that we'll be using:

[autorun]
shellexecute="stuff\stuff.bat"
icon=%systemroot%\system32\shell32.dll,4
action=Open folder to view files
shell\Open\command="stuff\stuff.bat"

This gives us a command in the list displayed that looks very similar to the default "just open the drive" command:

Many people will barely look at the dialog before clicking ok and running whatever shenanigans you have in the command. So long as you do actually open a folder on the drive for them, they may never notice. We can make it less obvious by appealing to our friends in Redmond's tendency to spam about the crapware they like to include. Put an image and audio file on the drive, and Microsoft will happily fill out the dialog with nonsense:

Microsoft has toned down this silliness in Windows 7. You'll not be able to crowd out the real command with spam, and your shenanigans won't be the default action. You can still make your script look inviting, but you'll be a lot less successful as people start upgrading:

I'll assume this is on purpose, most likely at least somewhat due to the multimillion node strong botnet built with the help of this sort of trickery.

However, there are still other ways to pull these shenanigans on Windows machines, without any (human) trickery and we'll cover them in part 3.

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Google releases a browser

Today Google released their new browser, Chrome. It's very pretty, sleek, and it implements an idea that's a been sorely needed in the browser space for a long time.

Chrome separates each tab into its own process, so if a page or plugin (*cough* Flash *cough*) causes a crash, it can only take out that tab. The rest of your tabs and browser instances keep going on their own.

This has been desperately needed in browsers for years. Most people keep at least one, and often several browser instances open at all times so it's quite a nuisance when some silly plugin brings the whole show down. Firefox has made some kludges to handle this, like the ability to restore a session after a crash, and they probably would have moved in this direction eventually.

Chrome also has a new, streamlined Javascript engine, v8. This, along with the robustness that a multi-process browser brings, makes Chrome an excellent platform for the web applications (like Gmail and Google Docs).

That's what Chrome is really about. If they can get it installed widely, they (and anyone else) can make an end run around Microsoft's OS monopoly. The clincher is an open document standard, which is why Microsoft has been fighting the Open Document standard so viciously, and trying to force their proprietary format through the ISO process. Without that, Microsoft can hold on to their OS monopoly by withholding Office from any serious competitors.

There are a few disappointments with Chrome. There's no ad filtering, and as yet no extension mechanism to implement it (though they've promised to rectify the latter).

Google is, of course, not going to be terribly keen about people stripping advertisements from the web, but they also will have to face the fact that it's necessary. I realize they have to walk a fine line with this, but they're in a great position to help mediate between the extremes of filtering absolutely everything (as many Firefox users do with Adblock Plus and EasyList/Element) and the downright offensive lengths some advertisers will go to to annoy the crap out of people.

Google could start a clearing house for web advertising with a voluntary code of conduct requiring advertisers to tag their ads appropriately for filtering by the browser. Public key encryption could be used to verify that an ad is released by a member in good standing. Users who don't want to see animated ads, ads with sound, ads for porn or whatever could filter those and let less obnoxious advertising through to support the sites they visit. There could even be an automatic negotiation between the browser and ad server. A user who may be willing to accept text ads could be presented with those instead of being forced to block all ads to keep the annoying ones out.

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On the Google/Microsoft/Yahoo love triangle

David Kirkpatrick of Fortune published an editorial on the stumbling dance between Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. He's mostly right on the old-school business issues, but he misses a lot on tech and what it means.

They seem to have gotten the idea that Microsoft's search has caught up with Google's technologically, but they provide no justification for that opinion. (On an anecdotal note, shortly after the previous entry was crawled by the msnbot, I started getting links from them on "traffic" from the UK.) It seems like he's just repeating talking points or fishing for advertising dollars.

Google is still unequivocally the best search engine to use, but Kirkpatrick is right in that this doesn't really matter much for Google's bottom line (but wrong on why). Google makes it's money by buying and selling advertising. If it owns the destinations those ads are ultimately served on, great, they get a bigger slice of the pie, but they're just as happy to split it with anyone else.

That's where Google and Microsoft part ways. Google isn't threatened by Yahoo existing alongside them offering search and mail, in fact they're quite happy to sell ads for them. Microsoft cannot stand the idea of anyone, anywhere competing with them. For them, it's all or nothing. Microsoft needs to get it's hands on all the pie, where as Google will just make more pie.

Where does Yahoo fall in this? They're just fine where they are. They're in the red, and Google isn't going to crush them for daring to compete. Microsoft would certainly like to, but they haven't the ability. Yahoo's visitors are almost all going to be people using Microsoft's operating system and browser which will default to their search engine and other things. People visiting yahoo.com have made a conscious decision not to use Microsoft's web services, and that's not going to change if Microsoft buys them.

Google can get away with buying web services because people like them (and they don't change them for the worse). People don't like Microsoft, so expect an exodus of visitors from Yahoo if they get their mits on them. Most of those will go to Google, and there will be a bloom of independent implementations of things Yahoo does well, like Flickr. Don't be surprised if Google is one of them.

Kirkpatrick thinks Google has an Ebay like hold on the ad market, but they really don't. There are lots of other similar services. Google gets the most attention because they've got a lot of goodwill, but they could easily be overtaken in this market if they pissed people off. Unfortunately for Microsoft, that's not particularly likely to happen, and they've got such a terrible reputation that they'll never be able to match Google's goodwill. Neither can traditional advertising companies, who haven't built us lots of cool toys as Google has, and who seem incapable of knowing when to say 'no' to ad buyers.

So no, Google's advantage isn't control over any market, and while they've got some cool tech, that serves mainly to increase the size of their market for everyone. Ultimately, Google's real advantage is that people don't think they're bastards.

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What I've been reading

Intel has announced they won't be using Vista, ever. I'm not the least bit surprised, I mean who would use Vista voluntarily, but I'm impressed they had the balls to so publicly poke Microsoft in the eye.

There a couple of important petitions floating around. The first, at ruinediphone.com is about the absurd pricing structure Rogers is proposing for the iPhone in Canada. The second is for Bill C-555 which very tamely gives some legislative guidelines to some of the rather arbitrary surcharges commonly put on cell phone bills, like the nonsensical "system access fee".

I'd prefer the telecom business be as unregulated as possible, but the government must step in when the market fails as it so blatantly has in this case. Hell, we've fallen well behind the Americans, not to mention the rest of the world.

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