Northern Spy: Surf's Up
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Northern Spy: Surf's Up

By Rick Sutcliffe

The wave of Apple's future was supposed to be a simplification of the user interface, a de-skeuomorphism of visual elements, and a unification of MacOS and iOS. The most recent version of the latter went a long way toward this mark

However, MacOS 10.9, a.k.a. Mavericks, is, on the whole, a stay-the-course mild enhancement of Mountain Lion 10.8, nothing radical. Thos who want radical change will have to wait for MacOS 11.

The important changes are in the upgrade process itself. First, it is free to anyone who has Snow Leopard or higher (i.e. can access the Apple Store). This will increase adoption rates and customer satisfaction, and give IT departments at most organizations hissy fits, because they will not be able to prevent their user base from doing independent upgrades. Second, iWork is also free--at least if you are new to the eco-system, or you have a previous version of Pages, Keynote, and Numbers installed. But even this is no obstacle, as one can easily install a demo version, then have the Apple store do a free upgrade.

Indeed, even upgrading to new versions of programs can be made automatic in the new OS. And, this upgrade went well, with installation taking about thirty minutes on a fast pipe. As with 10.8, incompatible applications are set aside, but the only one detected was Default Folder. However, the Spy had to upgrade Graphics Converter as well, as his version didn't function. Coincidentally, Firefox, Thunderbird, and NisusWriterPro got upgrades, but these were handled separately. The only not-yet-fixed incompatibility the Spy is aware of is in the Western Digital disk manager WD Drive Manager, whose users now cannot access their files from the drive. Undoubtedly a fix will come, but if the WD drive was being used as the Time Machine repository, it is temporarily out of commission.

The only glitch here was with the year-old Retina MacBookPro, which was to have a firmware upgrade as part of the process. This didn't work on the first download, as everything froze. The Spy feared his machine had been bricked, but a restart and try again apparently succeeded, and all is well. So is his late 2007 MacBook Pro seventeen inch, which is the earliest machine that can run Mavericks. In other words, the new OS runs on exactly the same set of machines as Mountain Lion--a refreshing change over the last few increments, which all saw some models left behind.

On first impression after initial boot, nothing much had changed except the wallpaper and menu bars. Yes, there are now as many finder menu bars as there are monitors, and the semantics are similar to those of application windows in that the monitor "in focus" has the active menu bar, with the other bars dimmed. A file opens on the active monitor. The docks in the various monitor windows all look and behave the same way as each other, though when opening files, they too know which monitor is in focus.

Not much is visibly different in the Finder, except that cloud connectivity is enhanced enough to make it clear where Apple is going in this respect. The Spy, however, declines to use the cloud for anything more important than routine sharing of files with no sensitive information, and this via Dropbox. He's not prepared to delegate the storage and backup of anything unique or important to the cloud--too much risk to suit him. Even the icons haven't changed--an oddity considering the detail lavished on iOS in this respect. One useful enhancement is tabbed finder windows. Press command-T to add a tab to a window and you get a tab bar including a button for more tabs. Command-W closes the current tab until only one is left, then it closes the window. Also, the window brought up by Command-I has more information, including a preview of file contents, but it doesn't always get the file-opener icons right. Finally, the old finder colour labels have been re-cast as sort-on-able tags and given more prominence--though they are still just labels, and don't do anything. The Finder is on its way to becoming a browser.

The major application enhancements are to Safari, which now has social media improvements and much better speed. Calendar, Contacts, and Notes are all facelifted, but without major new functionality. Notifications have become interactive, which is nice. Their use does grow on one. The ability to use atelevision (with AppleTV) as an external monitor seems nice in theory, but the Spy has no need for an AppleTV, and isn't sure how this plays out or could be useful.

Turning to new applications, Apple has brought iBooks and Apple Maps to the Mac, though it is hard to see much use for either. The former is a sit-in-an-easy-chair-to-read app, and the latter is for travel--both for portable devices, so perhaps OK on an Air, but not on desktops. 'Course, the Spy may soon be the only person on the planet using a desktop machine. He hasn't looked at the new iWork apps, but then, he's done little with them over the years. Pages is OK, but Scrivener-NisusWriterPro-BBEdit is a triple patty burger that satisfies even his voracious appetite for wordsmithing. Numbers is not a replacement for Excel, and he has too much legacy code in the truly awful VBA to switch. Keynote he does use, but only for one-off presentations where he needs to pack visual and verbal info into the same presentation on a high-powered basis--not for daily lectures, where he already talks and writes too fast even without electronic help.

Under the hood, battery life for portables is supposedly improved by slowing applications not in active use. The Spy hasn't tested this, but does note that in waking from sleep, scrolling, and switching apps Mavericks seems sluggish or hesitant at times. Perhaps 10.9.1 will address this, as it may address troubles with the most recent Retina MacBookPros.

Should everyone upgrade? Yes. The process appears after three times through to be relatively painless, and entirely so on the wallet. Nothing is broken, the upgrade is free, comes with definite improvements, and the cut and thrust of it is that this may be the most straightforward upgrade of the last ten or so.

The pitter patter of little feats

Under one of his other hats, the Spy runs a small commercial web hosting company. Yes, its on a nice fast server and his customers are there mainly to pay for the machinery hosting his own sites and to force him to keep up to date for his students' sake, but the job comes with all the problems and pitfalls common to any such enterprise--in this case, spammers.

Like everyone else hosting on a LAMP machine, he runs MAilScanner to control spam, and actively works the system, tagging mail as ham or spam, blacklisting the bad buys and whitelisting the good guys. He has cPanel for hosting and many associated tasks, and the Configerver front end to MailScanner to help with mail specifics. Until a week ago, this was all simple, obvious, routine.

Then the floodgates opened. Some lowlife got the bright idea of sending our email to an account on the server with the From field the same as the TO (both faked and non-existent) but the ReplyTo another faked account at gmail or Because the messages appeared to be local they weren't scanned, but when bounced went to gmail or, who then blacklisted this server for sending spam, thus causing grief for all our customers who correspond with people there. As an aside, the Spy recommends that anyone with a gmail account cancel it and buy one from a reputable supplier. Their interface is good, but you get what you pay for. Google is good at automatically labelling things spam without looking into the details of what is really going on, but very poor at handling complaints about spam and abusive mail coming from their own servers. Indeed, they ignore such complaints, an attitude no one else could get away with.

Blacklisting the sending IP numbers did no good, as the spammer had a large supply --possibly also faked. Marking the messages as spam didn't help, as the system apparently thought they were local. Requiring DKIM verification did not work for the same reason. Verification was being done against a local account so of course the DKIM keys were valid.

As the traffic reached tens of thousands per day, "experts" were at first of little help, and the DC folk said they'd never seen anything like it before. Soliciting help from the mail community elicited the suggestion that he enable MCP (Message Content Protection) in MailScanner, and scan and delete on specific content. The enable was easy, but MCP has no front end, so the rules files had to be created and edited using ConfigServer Explorer, but it did work--so far.

This spam a sophisticated undertaking, and it can't have been set up to attack one account on an obscure server like this one. Moreover, it seems somehow a little pointless, as the only effect is to get the server banned by gmail, to whom the bounces go. (OK, maybe that was the whole point, but the thing has the bad flavour of either (and if there is one thing the Spy can smell it's rot):

- graffitti on a bathroom wall that just has to be painted over every time it appears


- a dress rehearsal for a really big bot net attack on one or more major operations.

The Spy suspects the latter, and that someone is in for big time troubles. These guys had no trouble sending 125K messages my way from dozens of IP addresses, with thousands of fake To and From and ReplyTo addresses, and dozens of slightly different text content instances. With the kind of horsepower apparently behind this, they could easily send hundreds of millions. Hang on to your surfboards, or they may get broken.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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