The Jeeves Test

What is a browser for? What should it do, or not do? What should it be?

People within the Mozilla project have been recently discussing the user value of some new features in Firefox. I think a person’s view of questions of this nature will depend on their view of the role of the browser. One option is the “featureless window on the web” view – the browser is nothing, the site is everything. But as one participant said, this leads to all the value-add and features being provided by the sites, which is not a recipe for user control, or for using the browser to advance the Mozilla mission.

I think the best vision for Firefox is as your “Internet butler” – quiet and refined, highly capable, provides what you need even before you know you need it, who gently guides you out of trouble but generally does his thing without you needing to think about him or provide explicit direction or management.

Bertie using an early voice interface prototype

So I’d like to propose the “Jeeves Test” for evaluating feature proposals for Firefox. It works like this: imagine Bertie Wooster, relaxing in an armchair in his apartment, with a cigarette, a gin and tonic, and a tablet computer. Then take the user value proposition of an idea, write it in appropriately deferential language, and see if you can imagine Jeeves whispering it into his ear. If you can’t, perhaps it’s not something we want to do.

To make that a bit more concrete, here are some examples of things that might pass: “Here’s an English translation of this Serbian page, sir”, or “For your safety, sir, access to this malware page has been blocked”. And here are some which might not: “For your convenience, sir, I’ve exempted aol.com from your popup blocker”, or “You’ll be pleased to find, sir, that the user interface has been substantially rearranged”.

There may be occasions where we’d want to do something which doesn’t obviously pass the Jeeves Test, if the effects on the broader web ecosystem of making the change are significantly positive. Some of the things we do to improve web security but which have a short-term compatibility impact might fall into that category. “Let me ensure this site doesn’t load for you, sir” generally doesn’t go down well, after all. But in those cases, that longer-term or broader value has to be clearly articulated – before we make the change – if we are to avoid an exasperated “Dash it, Jeeves… why?” from our userbase.

Eurovision Bingo

Some people say that all Eurovision songs are the same. That’s probably not quite true, but there is perhaps a hint of truth in the suggestion that some themes tend to recur from year to year. Hence, I thought, Eurovision Bingo.

I wrote some code to analyse a directory full of lyrics, normally those from the previous year of the competition, and work out the frequency of occurrence of each word. It will then generate Bingo cards, with sets of words of different levels of commonness. You can then use them to play Bingo while watching this year’s competition (which is on Saturday).

There’s a Github repo, or if you want to go straight to pre-generated cards for this year, they are here.

Here’s a sample card from the 2014 lyrics:

fell cause rising gonna rain
world believe dancing hold once
every mean LOVE something chance
hey show or passed say
because light hard home heart

Have fun :-)

Anonymity and the Secure Web

Ben Klemens has written an essay criticising Mozilla’s moves towards an HTTPS web. In particular, he is worried about the difficulty of setting up an HTTPS website and the fact that (as he sees it) getting a certificate requires the disclosure of personal information. There were some misunderstandings in his analysis, so I wanted to add a comment to clarify what we are actually planning to do, and how we are going to meet his concerns.

However, he wrote it on Medium. Medium does not have its own login system; it only permits federated login using Twitter or Facebook. Here’s the personal information I would have to give away to Medium (and the powers I would have to give it) in order to comment on his essay about the problems Mozilla are supposedly causing by requiring people to give away personal information:

twitter

Don’t like that? That’s OK, I could use Facebook login, if I was willing to give away:

facebook

So I’ll have to comment here and hope he sees it. (Anyone who has decided the tradeoffs on Medium are worth it could perhaps post the URL in a comment for me.)

The primary solution to his issues is Let’s Encrypt. With Let’s Encrypt, you will be able to get a cert, which works in 99%+ of browsers anyone uses, without needing to supply any personal information or to pay, and all at the effort of running a single command on the command line. That is, the command line of the machine (or VM) that you have rented from the service provider and to whom you gave your credit card details and make a monthly payment to put up your DIY site. That machine. And the cert will be for the domain name that you pay your registrar a yearly fee for, and to whom you have also provided your personal information. That domain name.

If you have a source of free, no-information-required server hosting and free, no-information-required domain names (as Ben happens to for his Caltech Divinity School example), then it’s reasonable to say that you are a little inconvenienced if your HTTPS certificate is not also free and no-information-required. But most people doing homebrew DIY websites aren’t in that position – they have to rent such things. Once Let’s Encrypt is up and running, the situation with certificates will actually be easier and more anonymous than that with servers or domain names.

“Browsers no longer supporting HTTP” may well never happen, and it’s a long way off if it does. But insofar as the changes we do make are some small infringement on your right to build an insecure website, see it as a civic requirement, like passing a driving test. This is a barrier to someone just getting in a car and driving, but most would suggest it’s reasonable given the wider benefit to society of training those in control of potentially dangerous technology. Given the Great Cannon and similar technologies, which can repurpose accesses to any website as a DDOS tool, there are no websites which “don’t need to be secure”.

You Couldn’t Make It Up

I was in the middle of debugging some code when a background Slashdot tab from 10 minutes ago suddenly started playing a sponsored video. Truly and genuinely, the opening of this video contained the following:

Did you know that it takes you 15 minutes to get back into the work zone after being interrupted by an alert or message?

Yes. Yes, Slashdot, I did…

Fairness

We’re having a general election here in the UK, and so there has been more than the usual amount of talk about “fairness”. Fairness is one of these slippery words, the definition of which depends very much on your worldview. But ignoring even that, I’d like to propose a new rule to be observed in political debate, worldwide:

Politicians should be banned from arguing for change using the words “fair” or “fairness” unless they also specify what level of change would be “unfair”.

Let’s take the common example of taxes. We often hear phrases like “the rich should pay their fair share”, or “it’s only fair that those with the most resources shoulder the burden”. If a politician says this, they need to be asked “OK – so what level of taxation would go beyond ‘fair’ and get into ‘unfair’?” They would be allowed to define it in any number of concrete ways, e.g. “I think it’s unfair to take more than 50% of a person’s total income”, or “I think it’s unfair to leave anyone with less than £15k of income after tax”.

But the one answer that should not be allowed is the equivalent of “‘fair’ means paying more than they pay at the moment”, however much that is. In those cases, talk of fairness is actually covetousness in disguise – people are being taxed simply because they have money and the politician wants some of it for their own purposes. Covetousness knows no limits. If they want to argue for this, they can – but they should not have the gall to try and call it ‘fair’.

Politicians don’t like making such commitments, because then they would have to (shock!) keep them, or be easily held accountable. But the convenient thing about “fairness” is that it’s very elastic – people can generally be convinced to agree that any tax rise is ‘fair’, as long as it doesn’t target them. After all, most people like the idea of spending other people’s money on stuff that they want to happen. But without any sort of upper limit defined, taxpayers can never know when a particular politician might be coming back for another bite of their earnings – and that most certainly is unfair.

HSBC: Bad Security

I would like to use a stronger word than “bad” in the title, but decency forbids.

HSBC has, or used to have, a compulsory 2-factor system for logging in to their online banking. It used a small widget called a Secure Key. This is good. Now, they have rolled out an Android/iOS/Blackberry app alternative. This is also good, on balance.

However, at the same time, they have instituted a system where you can log on and see all your banking information and even take some actions without the key, just using a password. This is bad. Can I opt out, and say “no, I’d like to always use the key, please?” No, it seems I can’t. Compulsory lowered security for me. Even if I don’t use the password, that login mechanism will always be there.

OK, so I go to set a password. Never mind, I think, I’ll pick something long and complicated. But no; the guidance says:

Your password is not case sensitive and must be between 8 and 30 characters. It must include letters and numbers.

So the initial passphrase I picked was both too long, and didn’t include a number. However, the only error it gives is “This data is invalid”. I tried several other variants of my thought-of passphrase, but couldn’t get it to accept it. Painful reverse-engineering showed that the space character is also forbidden. Thank you so much, HSBC.

I finally find a password it’ll accept and click “Continue”. But, no. “Your session is invalidated – please log in again.” It’s taken so long to find a password it’ll accept that it has timed me out.

Top 50 DOS Problems Solved: Renaming Directories

Q: How do I rename a sub-directory? The only way I can find is to make a new one with the new name, copy all the files over from the old one, and then delete the original!

A: As you have found, the MS-DOS REN command doesn’t work on sub-directories. For a programmer it is a relatively trivial task to write a utility to do this job, and DR DOS 6 has a RENDIR command used in the same way as REN.

The manual for MS-DOS 5.0 advises the reader to do what you’re doing already, and indeed DR DOS 5 didn’t make provision for renaming directories. You can, however, use the DOS shell program to rename directories. If you want to stick with the command line, the best alternative is to get hold of a utility program written to do the job. Such programs are commonly found in shareware/PD catalogues.

Better think carefully before choosing that directory name…

Top 50 DOS Problems Solved: Whoops, I Deleted Everything

Q: I accidentally deleted all the files in the root directory of my hard disk for the second time this month. I managed to reinstall everything, but is there a way of avoiding the problem?

A: There are two approaches you could try, both of which have applications for other things too:

  • Modify the files so that they cannot be deleted without first explicitly making them deletable. You can do this with the DOS utility Attrib which was supplied with your system. … To protect the file use the command:

    ATTRIB +R filename

    The +R switch means “make this file read-only”.

  • Stop using the DEL command to delete files. Use a batch file instead which will prompt you before taking action.

    … <batch file code is given> …

    This batch file has a useful enhancement beyond the precautionary message. You can use it to specify multiple files, for example:

    DF *.BAK FRED.BAS ?.DOC

    With one command this would delete all .BAK files, FRED.BAS, and all .DOC files whose names begin with a single letter.

A delete command which takes multiple arguments – wow…

Happy Birthday, Mozilla!

17 years ago today, the code shipped, and the Mozilla project was born. I’ve been involved for over 15 of those years, and it’s been a fantastic ride. With Firefox OS taking off, and freedom coming to the mobile space (compare: when the original code shipped, the hottest new thing you could download to your phone was a ringtone), I can’t wait to see where we go next.

Top 50 DOS Problems Solved: Shrinking Hard Disk

Q: My hard disk seems to be getting smaller! There is a megabyte less free space than there was a month ago, yet I have not saved anywhere near 1MB’s worth of files. What’s going on?

A: This is quite a common problem, but most sufferers don’t realise they’ve got it. What happens is that some of the free space gets allocated to a non-existent file.

In other words the disk filing system has, in your case, a megabyte allocated to one or more files that don’t have a directory entry. They cannot therefore be seen with the DIR command, nor deleted.

Fortunately it is possible to turn these lost chains, as they are called, back into real files which can then be seen and deleted in the normal way. Simply type this command:

CHKDSK /F

If you have any lost chains, Chkdsk will tell you so and ask you if you want to convert them into files. Answer ‘Y’.

FILE0000.CHK, FILE0001.CHK, FILE0002.CHK…

How to Responsibly Publish a Misissued SSL Certificate

I woke up this morning wanting to write a blog post, then I found that someone else had already written it. Thank you, Andrew.

If you succeed in getting a certificate misissued to you, then that has the opportunity to be a great learning experience for the site, the CA, the CAB Forum, or all three. Testing security is, to my mind, generally a good thing. But publishing the private key turns it from a great learning experience into a browser emergency update situation (at least at the moment, in Firefox, although we are working to make this easier with OneCRL).

Friends don’t publish private keys for certs for friends’ domain names. Don’t be that guy. :-)

Top 50 DOS Problems Solved: Why doesn’t COPY copy?

Q: I want to copy all the files from a 5.25-inch floppy disk on to a 3.5-inch floppy disk, including the ones in some sub-directories. The COPY command won’t copy the contents of sub-directories, but when I try to use DISKCOPY I get the error message “incompatible format for drive’. What’s going wrong?

A: There are three commands to copy files from one disk to another: COPY, XCOPY and DISKCOPY. They work in different ways, and for any copy operation you need to choose the tool that’s most appropriate for what you want to do.

The problem with COPY is that it only works on the directory you specify and it cannot create new directories on the new disk. XCOPY works in a similar way to COPY but is more intelligent. You can tell it to look inside sub-directories, and it will automatically create those sub-directories on the new disk.

The command you need to type in, assuming you are copying from drive A to drive B, is:

XCOPY A:*.* B: /S

Is is the /S switch that tells XCOPY to work on subdirectories too.

Who remembers using a copy command which didn’t work with subdirectories?