Tuesday, December 16, 2014

About that Herbie Hancock book

The first Hancock story I mentioned last week is the opening story in his new book.  He tells the story better than I do.

I’m not far into the audiobook, but I wanted to hear a bit of it the other day between chapters of Kim Zetter’s new(ish) book on Stuxnet.  That one is good, too- Zetter balances making the story approachable to non-techies with detail enough to keep those with some knowledge of the events engaged.  Unfortunately, the audiobook version means I don’t have access to the extensive footnotes unless I buy a print copy, too- but I spend enough time on the road that the audiobook was the fastest way I would get to digest the book.

A note on the audio of these two books- the reader of Zetter’s “Countdown to Zero Day” speaks slowly and clearly, so slowly that I find the book much more listenable at 1.5x speed.  Herbie Hancock reads his own book and tells his own stories, his delivery is, not surprisingly, fantastic.

Yeah, I still owe you that other hospital story.  Remember, patience is a virtue.  It is not one of mine, but that’s another story.


Computers are efficient. And other lies.

Sometimes stuff gets put into perspective.  With force.

I was recently reminded of a few things which happened several months ago while I was visiting friends in hospitals (this happens more and more as you get old- or they are visiting you).

All events occurred at large, modern facilities- the kind with computers in every patient room plus roving computer carts, and all the patient info readily available to authorized personnel.  Of course, by “all” I mean “all information which has already been entered into the right systems”, which leads to my first observation.

Hanging out with my friend for an afternoon I got to overhear some of his conversations and frustrations with the medical staff.  It was a busy afternoon for him, no sooner had one team of specialists left him than another would wander in.  Each team came in with a handful of patient files, and checked up on him in the computer when they were talking to him.  And he invariably had to fill them in on some test result or comment from other specialists about his challenging situation- it was common enough that he kept a journal to make sure he could pass the latest info on to his caregivers.  Remember, computers everywhere, in rooms, staff stations, and mobile carts.  Oh, and paper files in a binder outside each patient’s room.  And that wasn’t enough to get info shared in a timely manner.  The computer systems were apparently less than efficient, so data input was tedious- thus forcing the reliance on paper, further slowing the timely input of data.  Somewhere the technology became a burden instead of an aid, and that compounded aggravation for the people who relied on the systems to do their jobs.  We’ve all seen poorly implemented technology like this, but seeing it in a hospital where a patient, your buddy, has to keep notes to make sure he bridges failures in communication with medical staff, that’s pretty terrifying.

Just as this was sinking in, one of the aides came in and took his vital signs- and scribbled them down on a scrap of paper to input somewhere else later.  This was not an anomaly, my buddy assured me that happened every time his vitals were taken throughout his stay, expensive machines display numbers, aides scribble them on scraps of paper for later input.  Damn, that’s the way to share important information in a timely manner.  And efficient, too.

doctor at office

That afternoon I wandered down to the waiting room a few times as doctors were examining him.  One time I overhead an interesting conversation, there was a pretty ugly technical problem and the person looking into it was the kind of network admin I want working in healthcare.  I’m sure he thought the waiting room was empty as he used the phone in the hall, so I got to overhear a pretty candid exchange.  He was investigating a connectivity problem with the wireless telemetry system, the system which monitors patients and reports the vitals and more to staff throughout the floor.  Wireless telemetry systems are generally used for patients who need continuous monitoring, but are somewhat mobile, such as post-operative recovery and patients with self-administered pain management.  The telemetry wireless was down and patient data wasn’t filling the screens in the halls and nurses stations, and that threatens patient care.  The admin was polite, and chose his words carefully, but he was obviously livid.  It was clear he was a network guy, not a medical professional, but his primary concern was patient care (as you would hope in a hospital).  It sounded like poorly planned maintenance had caused the outage, and proper procedures weren’t followed, resulting in the outage.  Another pretty scary scenario given the systems affected by the outage.  As appalled as I was that this happened, I was impressed with the admin’s focused outrage.  “Not only can’t this be happening now, it can’t ever have happened, and it can’t ever happen again” was one comment he made over the phone, a line I’m not likely to forget soon.  At the end of the call he explained to whoever was on the other end of the line that the issue would be reported to senior management- not IT management, but senior medical management.  As bad as it was that this problem happened, I was glad to hear that a network admin had a direct path to report issues to appropriate executives directly, even in a huge facility like [redacted].  That’s the way it should be, the head of medicine needs to know about preventable and unusual threats to patient care, regardless of the source.  Imagine what technology could accomplish without insular silos disconnecting technology from consequences- maybe my buddy could put away his notepad.

Another incident happened as I was leaving a different friend’s room at the end of visiting hours in another large, modern facility.  But that’s a story for another day, I’ll leave you to reflect on this little set of horrors until then.


Friday, December 12, 2014

The other Herbie Hancock story

Herbie Hancock’s other story

As promised, the second lesson from Herbie Hancock’s interview a couple of weeks ago.

Hancock was asked about the ease of musical creation and experimentation with modern computers and electronics. Not surprisingly, he loves the lower barrier to entry and the ease of experimentation- especially compared to the amazing lengths required for electronic musical experimentation in his early days. Then he said something striking, he talked about having to learn all of the old ways, the basics, the fundamentals- and then having to unlearn them to get the most out of new musical technologies.

The foundation provided a deep understanding, but could also hold him back from fully utilizing the new tools; that applies to many advances in technology, from understanding point ignition and carburetors before tackling modern computer controlled ignition and fuel injection, to advances in networking, virtualization, and cloud technologies.

Mastery includes knowing not only what to learn, but what to unlearn, and when- and knowing how to unlearn without forgetting.

I’m pretty good at the unlearning part, the rest I’m still working on.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Herbie Hancock Stories

Herbie Hancock 2010 by Guillaume Laurent

Herbie Hancock

After the horror of faux country bubblegum abuse of “Crazy” I saw part of an interview with Herbie Hancock, it more than made up for the horror. Hancock has a new book out, “Possibilities”. I haven’t read it yet, but it is in my Audible queue for my next road trip. Based on the interview I heard, I’m really looking forward to hearing the book in his own voice.

Miles Davis 22

Miles Davis 

The first story came from the days when Hancock played with the great Miles Davis. During one show Herbie played an obviously wrong chord, and he was mortified at his mistake. Miles’ reaction was to pause very briefly, then play the “mistake” into the song until it was no longer a mistake, but part of the performance. And nothing was ever said about the mistake- because it was no longer a mistake. At face value, that is a great story about a gracious and talented musician. Beyond that, you can find a lot of inspiration and run with it as it moves you. It certainly can be applied to the mayhem of InfoSec in a few different ways.

There are a couple of quotes we often hear in InfoSec (and in the rest of life), both carry the same message, but come from two very different people.

In recent years, the more common quote comes from Mike Tyson:


Mike Tyson Portrait

“Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth.”

The older quote, which I’ve heard attributed and misattributed to many people, is from Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf, translated and paraphrased from the original German:

Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

As accurate (and quotable) as these quotes are, they are negative. I think Herbie Hancock’s story of Miles Davis dealing with the unexpected is a much better model for us and the challenges we face, no matter how idealistic that may be.

Tomorrow you can have the second story.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Manual labor and the horrors of television

File:Patsy Cline II.jpgWillie UK2K7 2

Are you either of the people shown above?  If not, please don’t try to sing “Crazy”.

The past several weekends have involved a fair amount of manual labor, which has reminded me how happy I am that I don’t do that kind of thing for a living anymore. On one of my beer breaks I flipped on the TV to see what horrors it held for me, and I was reward with one horror, and a couple of great stories.

First, the horror: Someone who was neither Patsy Cline nor Willie Nelson was attempting to sing “Crazy” on what passes for country music TV. It was pathetic. (Patsy Cline made that song hers, but Willie wrote it and his take on it is authentic). There are some songs that simply shouldn’t be done by folks who aren’t up to the task, Crazy is one of them. Stick to that pitch and tempo corrected bubblegum country crap, don’t defile masterpieces.

You may be wondering about the InfoSec angle here- but there really isn’t one. Most of us who are in InfoSec did it very badly and passed it off as good enough for quite a while when we started out- and many of us still do. That’s the nature of what we do, we rarely have the luxury of delivering “masterpiece” quality work, we do the best we can in the situation; expecting perfection is na├»ve in our world. In InfoSec, even Patsy Cline would be reduced to singing “99 bottles” with some regularity- and as with pop music, in InfoSec we get what the market demands and what the market will pay for. By the very nature of what we do we are technicians, not artists. If I were deep I might reflect that this may be why so many in InfoSec have artistic outlets- but that’s a simple answer to the complexity of humanity.

Now, about the good stories… those are for tomorrow.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Yeah, I’m sick of hearing it too. So just go vote.

(ISC)2 member?  Read on.  Not a member?  You may not care about this one- although if you are in the InfoSec field the results of the election may be of interest.

It is election time for the (ISC)2 again.  As I’ve said before, I don’t have much hope for fixing that mess, but some folks are really trying to make a difference, and if it won’t die I guess I should support them.

The candidates are listed here.  As you peruse that list, you’ll note that all candidates hold some (ISC)2 cert, most CISSP- that’s because it is a requirement for board service.  If I were educated I’d start tossing around phrases like selection bias, confirmation bias, sunk costs, and stuff like that.  Instead I’ll just say that I would prefer a more diverse board.  The US is well represented, and the slate is almost exclusively male.  But, there are some folks out there trying to reduce the suck, and they believe they are making progress.  Vote for the ones you think will try to steer the beast in the direction you want.

For me, I’m happy condemning Wim Remes to another term of board service, and would happily sentence Allison Miller to join him.  That left two votes, I removed “US males” in an effort to push diversity and made my choices from the remaining three.  Use whatever method you like for choosing candidates, but vote if you are eligible.

And I didn’t even get a stupid “I voted” sticker…



Monday, October 13, 2014

Introducing the Shoulders of InfoSec Project

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants"

Most famously attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, this quote reflects the sentiment of a new project.  In InfoSec we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

It was just supposed to be a talk at DerbyCon, but as I dug into the topic I realized it needed to be more than just one talk.

Another relevant quote is George Santayana’s oft-misquoted:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In information security we have a very bad habit of ignoring the past; many times it isn’t even a failure to remember, it is a failure to ever have known who and what came before.

Thus, the Shoulders of InfoSec Project.  It is an attempt to compile a lot of information about early figures in InfoSec (and hopefully it will move beyond just the early figures).  There are some great resources out there already, notably the University of Minnesota's Charles Babbage Institute which includes a great set of oral histories of security luminaries.  The goal is not to compete with, but to complement and highlight other relevant projects.

A note about the name: the project’s name is “Shoulders…”, not “Giants…”, because you do not need to be a giant to offer a shoulder to help others see further.  Many people

There are two components to the project at this time, a low-volume blog and the wiki.  The project wiki is a work in progress, it includes an ever-expanding list of names, each with a dedicated page including links to relevant information, and will hopefully gain some more color and context as the project develops.  The wiki also includes a references and resources page which has links to several related sites and projects.

The presentation I delivered at DerbyCon is up on Adrian Crenshaw’s Irongeek site if you would like to see some of the ideas and people featured in this project.

Suggestions and contributions are welcome, see the wiki for information about contribution to the project.



Monday, June 23, 2014

What’s the best tool for the job?

This year I’ve been thinking about fundamentals a lot.  That includes  patch management, and in preparing a presentation on the topic I pondered the question:

“What is the best patch management tool?”

I thought back to my favorite patch and systems management tools from past jobs when I ran mixed (but mostly Windows) networks for small businesses.  That reminded me of a lesson about tools I learned many years ago.

What is the best [insert category here]?  I believe there are two answers:

The one you have

The one you know

Note that these may not necessarily True, but in the real world “truth” can be pretty fluid.  There certainly may be better [whatever category] tools than the ones you have now, but you can’t make a difference with them tomorrow- and “a little better tomorrow” is our goal.  The tools available to you, and which you know how to use, those are the ones you can make gains with immediately.  If you really are pushing the limits of the tools you have available, consider what works and what doesn’t work with the old tools- then look for better tools and processes, making sure you don’t lose anything you currently rely on in the transition (or at least know what trade-offs you are making).

Get the most out of what you have and you’ll make progress and be better prepared for when the elusive Budget Fairy appears with the Magic Resources Dust- you’ll be better able to make the case for new tools if you can show that you are pushing the existing stuff to its limits; as we all know, the Budget Fairy is hard to find, and harder to get money from.

The bottom line is that we can’t let our existing tools artificially limit us.  I’ve heard variations on “I can’t do X without a new tool” since my days as a mechanic- and while it is sometimes true, it is sometimes just an excuse for doing nothing.



Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is OWASP broken?

That’s a silly question.  I wasn’t going to comment on the current struggles of the Board of Directors for fear of adding to the Pointless InfoSec Drama, but I need to say a few things about it.  I am not an OWASP insider, but I do support their mission.


OWASP has done a lot of great things, and continues to do so today.  As I said, I’m not an insider, but there appear to be some struggles at the global Board level and possibly organizationally at the national and international level.  And I don’t really care- I hope it gets sorted out soon, but the power of OWASP (and a myriad of other organizations, not just in InfoSec and tech) is largely in the local and regional chapters and events, and in the OWASP projects.

If you believe in OWASP (or any other organization struggling with high-level issues), I encourage you to focus your efforts locally, that’s almost always where you can make the most difference.  In the case of OWASP, there are also the numerous projects- you don’t need to be local to work on them.

As Tip O’Neill frequently observed, “All politics is local”.  Please don’t waste time on drama, focus locally and keep up the good work.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A small rant on presenting at conferences

The more conferences I run the more sympathy I have for other conference organizers, even the big commercial ones, and the more inclined I am to follow their rules and requests- but I expect the conferences to have a clue about what’s involved in delivering a good presentation and facilitate that, not hinder it.

If there are glitches at a BSides or other smaller, volunteer-run, or new events I’m OK with that.  It happens.  What I can’t stand are conferences which try to manage the speakers in ways that prevent delivering quality presentations.

First and foremost, I hate having to rely on the conference’s laptops for presentation.  I completely understand the desire to avoid the regular struggles of getting the right settings between a new laptop and the projector or display at the beginning of each session, but most “house laptop” situations I’ve been in are far worse than the lost couple of minutes of the VGA adapter shuffle.  The most common gripe I have is the loss of presenter view.  I want my notes, damn it- stop stealing them from me.  If I have to use your damned laptop, with its lack of fonts, odd and/or old versions of software, aspect ratio distortion and such- please, in the name of all that is good, give me presenter view.

And then we have your slide templates.  I’m sorry, but they suck.  Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Sucks.  Sure, mine suck, too- but in ways I expect.  Your templates and themes take away layout flexibility, they screw up notes pages, and sometimes even hinder basic functionality I rely on.  But then, you want me to use your crappy laptop, so those functions don’t work anyway.

I get it, you run cons, you don’t speak at them, so I’ll forgive you for past transgressions.  But not future ones, our audiences deserve better.