Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sorry Tale Of Tony the eBayer, The Stolen Account And The Abomination That Is Microsoft Vista

Some two years ago I was commuting into New York with Joe and Tony and Sue and Karen, and Tony was complaining that his AOL wasn't working properly. I asked a few questions which Tony, an older gentleman and not very computer savvy despite doing an incredible amount of business using one answered, sort of. Tony sells records. Yes, records. Real honest to Azathoth vinyl records. Acetates too (they're the ones that need to spin at 78 rpm). When I remarked without thinking that I wanted to get an old 10 inch 78 as a prop for my Call of Cthulhu roleplaying manly high stakes Baccarat game, Tony appeared next day with two of them for me, gratis. I was motivated to try and help him as a result of this kindness, but Tony would prove to be help-resistant to a surprising degree.

After a few questions and the eventual acquisition of the answers to them (a process not as linear with Tony as with others) I found out that his nephew had adjusted the veeblefetzer1 on the computer and knocked out the AOL client. Not only that, the computer was running Windows 98. I offered to come over and try and fix things, but Tony works all but Wednesdays and Sundays. Wednesdays are not on for me, and Tony was spending Sundays at various family obligations for a few weeks. Neither of us wanted to tackle the thing at night. I kept at it for a few weeks but eventually gave up.

Eighteen months ago Tony again began to complain that something else wasn't working. I asked him about his anti-virus and he claimed he had Norton installed2. He also told me he had a persistent broadband internet connection, and the hairs on the back of my neck started to stand up. Symantec had dropped support for the version of Norton Anti Virus that worked on Windows 98 some months before. I did a quick Mr Brain Theater production of Explaining To Tony How To Find, Install And Maintain A Freeware A.V. Product and came to the only logical conclusion. I advised him in the strongest possible terms to buy a new computer. I explained that he was in terrible jeopardy, what with all the online banking and eBaying he did. I told him that he was dicing with I.D. theft by being cheap on this one. He vacillated then said he'd think about it.

Every month or so I'd ask him if he'd gotten any further forward in buying a new computer, and he would protest that "everything was working fine" on his old one. I would ask about the AOL thing and he would then start complaining about how that didn't work, forgetting that he had just told me it did. It was high comedy in action, and Joe, Sue and Karen got a giggle from it all as I once again tried to get him to see the danger. This went on for about a year.

Then Tony had his eBay account stolen and had it used to shill fake football tickets. He got that sorted out and came complaining to me. I shrugged and said that I had no new suggestions, that I had explained this might happen and that this might very well be the tip of a very nasty iceberg. I suspected his computer had a trojan keylogger on it that was keeping a log of his typing and sending it to some git elsewhere when he wasn't looking (not that he would have recognised what was going on even if he saw it happen)3. I was adamantly not going to get involved in trying to delouse a Windows 98 computer that would be re-infected within hours if not minutes of my fixing things. I begged him to reconsider the idea of a new computer and warned him not to do any online banking from that computer ever.

The next few weeks would have been funny if they weren’t so predictable and sad. eBay now no longer knew who was the real Tony and who was the fake. Tony had his auctions closed. He had his account locked. He was spending hours e-chatting to eBay "help" desk personnel each week.

He finally saw sense and bought a new computer and asked me to help him install it. I, of course, agreed. I asked him if he had gotten any anti virus software as part of the deal, and he said he hadn't so I recommended Norton Internet Security, a package that I use and my Father uses with no problem. I have never had an infestation and have had a number of saves from infection from Other People's Media. This is the sign of a product worth having in my book. I told Tony that we could download it, but that I felt he should buy the disc version. This was because I had visions of Tony needing to reinstall at some point and of my having to ask him what he did with the self-extracting download. Not optimal.

Tony went out to try and buy a copy. This proved difficult. When vendors didn't have it they would tell him he didn't need it "because he had AOL" or "because he used Optimum Online". Obvious tripe from people who didn't understand the scope of either the problem or the software suite itself. I tried explaining to Tony that these people were doing him a disservice. I tried to explain that viruses no longer make their way solely through e-mails that you have to open up, but can propagate by visiting websites, occasionally when you don't know you are doing so. I contemplated trying to explain about port sniffing, service hijacking and permissions escalation. But Tony is like unto a babe in arms when it comes to matters of technology, so instead I just said "Tony, if you don't do what I say you will be in the same boat with your brand new Dell next week as you are now on your prehistoric one. Buy the software."

Well, Sunday happened along with the stupid requirement to wind the clocks forward an hour several weeks ahead of the rest of the asylum. I did not oversleep and began to gather a small tool set prior to leaving home4. Half an hour before I was due to be there, the phone rang.

"Stevie, it's Tony. This monitor is too small. I bought a 15 inch one and I took it out of the box and it is too small. I'm gonna send it back and get a bigger one"

I sat silent for a couple of seconds while I said goodbye to the couple of hours sleep I could have had in light of this new breaking information, then said "Well, whatever you want, but you should be aware that if we don't do this today I won't be able to make it again for about three to four weeks."

"Three to four weeks? What, you busy next week?"


"What about the week after that?"

"I shall be at I-Con all that weekend. Sorry."

"So you won't be able to make it for three weeks?"

"Three to four weeks. It's Tax Time don't forget. I do my own and require several days of decompression during the process."

"Tax time?

"You know, forms, tables calculators, swearing. Taxes."

"So you won't be available then?"

"Tony, why don't you take a few minutes and decide what you want to do. If you want to install this computer I'm ready to go now. If you really can't live with the small monitor, we will have to reschedule."

He hung up and I continued getting my stuff together. The phone rang.

"I measured the screen5. It's as big as my old 17 inch monitor."

"Yep. That sounds about right" I said

"It looks smaller. I bought the smaller one but it is the same size as my old monitor. Who'd have thought it?"

"So. We on?"

"Well, I might as well keep this monitor. It's the same size as my old one. I bought the small size, I don't know from sizes, but it is the same size as my old 17 inch monitor."

"So. We on then?"

"Well, it's the same size as my old one. I bought the small size but I measured it and it is the same size as my old 17 inch monitor."

Eventually I managed to get a straight answer and set out for Chez Tony in the fabulous Steviemobile, arriving there a few minutes later clutching a deli coffee that I planned to sip for a quarter hour or so. Tony immediately offered me coffee. He would do so again approximately every five minutes throughout the morning. He announced that he had managed to find the Norton software, and had got it at half price. I immediately cringed at the thought of some unscrupulous git selling Tony an out-of-date version that would require human sacrifice to get running on Vista, but by some miracle he had actually got the right version.

The old computer was easily removed from his tiny, cramped office which was stuffed with every imaginable thing except for lamps. He had exactly one of those, and had taken the precaution of dropping it and breaking it about ten minutes before I arrived. How it managed to find the floor amidst his collection of coins, baseball memorabilia, records and CDs is a miracle deserving of a Discovery Channel investigative report on its own. Luckily I had brought along a small array of tools, including my CSI-style pocket Mini Maglite.

I suggested we put the new computer on the desk rather than on the floor. This plan was vetoed6. I shrugged and wired the thing up. Wrestling the cords round the back of the "hutch" style desk was a problem at times because the desk had not been engineered with computer installation in mind and so didn't have many of the holes and gaps in the various cross-members that purpose-built furniture usually does these days. The cords, having been packed in tight loops for months, tended to bunch up behind solid planks where they were a bugger to shift.

In some time at all we had the wretched thing wired up and properly connected to its keyboard, mouse, monitor (small sized, but the same size as the old one when measured), the old printer but not the scanner because we ran out of ports. The speakers, for some unknown reason, used a USB port to draw power rather than having a traditional power supply. Tidy, but it took a needed port for something that it wasn't really needed for. Then it was time to throw the first, second and, after some small reticence, third switches and coax the wondrous thing into life.

Windows Vista BuggerYouAbout Edition flared into life, sort of.

I was flabbergasted when the license agreement required not only an agreement to accept a software license, but also a separate agreement to license the hardware Tony had bought and paid for. Since we weren't about to reduce a brand new computer to a paperweight without a fallback plan, OS-wise, I disgustedly told him to accept both.

There was a short delay of several minutes while the computer "configured" itself. Then it asked for the details for its first User Account.

I told Tony to think of a name and a password and put it in. This he did, and there was another delay of several minutes while Windows Vista did some "optimising".

Then it wanted to download some updates.

Then it wanted a reboot.

By the time we had finished buggering about with the operating system more than an hour had elapsed. McAffee launched itself.

"I thought you said you didn't buy any anti-virus software?" I said. Tony looked blankly on.

I went on a hunt through the paperwork and discovered a "complementary" 30-day "evaluation" copy of MacAfee had been included in the bundle. I considered explaining to Tony and asking what he wanted to do, ran an internal movie of the possible outcomes from this and said "We're dumping this and replacing it with the Norton Internet Security software you bought." I pulled up the control panel, switched it into traditional view mode so I could actually find stuff, and deleted the MacAfee software.

Boy did that cause Vista to whine. I let it turn on its own AV and firewall for the time being and installed Norton Internet Security.

Which wanted to spend some time downloading AV templates, lists of phishing sites to block, lists of kid-unfriendly sites to block etc. This was acceptable. At least I know this is time well spent. Once that was up and running it turned of Vista's own AV and firewall. Things "Vista" might not be so bad after all, I thought7 .

I spent some time making bookmarks for AOL, eBay, PayPal and Google. The new browser format was throwing me and so this took much longer than usual.

Then Tony got fixated on the free AOL icon on his desktop. I spent five minutes extracting from him the story of how he used to get his AOL mail. This involved highly untechnical jargon which went out of its way to avoid any reference to the computer he used or how he used it and strayed into a number of unrelated topics, but eventually I "got" that he would like to get his e-mail from the AOL client rather than the browser.

Not a problem. I simply ran the install, which took about five minutes. It would have been shorter but Tony lost track and couldn't remember what "password" meant at one point, and what his account name had been on another. By now my coffee was gone and my smile was becoming a thing of Hammer House of Horror: Eyes bugging out, veins pulsing in my temples, cords standing out on my neck with the tension of my clenched jaw and lips pulled towards my ears with a virtual wire coat hanger wedged in my mouth, all from the effort of not reaching over and strangling Tony. I clicked on the Microsoft Works icon to show Tony how it worked.

A sad mistake.

There followed half an hour of frustration as the software walked us through the alligator infested, water moccasin festooned swamp of its registration process. Did you know that Microsoft want you to set up an account to register their software now? You still have to punch in more than two dozen alphanumerics in a "license" box, but in addition you have to create a MS passport account (they call it something different but forgot to alter the boilerplate at one point and gave the game away) in order to ensure a good customer experience. Right.

In typical Microsoft fashion the f____ing process hung at one point claiming a password problem and had to be restarted, only to claim three screens in that the account name was in use already. It took forever to complete the licensing registration, without which the software would not start.

How do I know the software would not start?

Because I found a copy of MS Office lurking on the disc and tried to start that, but couldn't for the life of me find the 25 digit key I was supposed to hand-type into the wretched license screen8 . No doubt I would then have had to re-sign-on to Tony's passport account to actually have the computer he bought allow the software he bought start so he could do what he had bought it all for to do.

It got better9.

The new machine seemed to take an inordinate time to boot, and it gradually dawned on me that the bloody thing was checking with Microsoft via the web to see if they would give Tony permission to start his fully bought and paid for computer.

This is the very limit of my patience. These bastards have got some kind of nerve, selling the poor sod software than bait and switching him into some sort of rental model. I can only hope that this straw finally breaks the camels back and persuades the open community to get moving unifying the mishmash Linux environment into something that people can confidently run at home without a degree in computer science and for which software houses can profitably develop popular packages like games. If I could reliably play my RTS Command and Conquer games on a Linux platform, run Turbo Tax on it and get an acceptable MS Office-like performance from Open Office10 I'd switch in a New York Minute.

I can't see companies buying Windows Vista the way it stands today. The parasitic network load alone could be ruinous and what happens if Windows Genuine Advantage (the thing that gives the computer permission to actually be a computer today) makes a false identification of your Vista as a pirate copy?11 Why, your machine shuts down and you can't do a bloody thing about it. In some states that behaviour is actually illegal.


I finally left Tony's house four hours after I got there. That included a thirty minute dash to CompUSA to get a cable for his printer. Call it three and a half hours to do about an hour's worth of stuff. Intolerable. I would have been there longer but I had an appointment to see the Stevieling play basketball in Hicksville that afternoon.

The next day I met Tony on the train. He complained that the computer took too long to start. I advised him to not power it down but to just log off. He responded by telling me it took too long to start. Then he complained that the Norton software had produced "some sort of list" and put up a message about "something fraud something 30 000 files". I explained (twice) that the Norton software needed to scan his computer, and that he should let it when it wanted to. He ran through his list of complaints a couple of times more and I repeated my answer. Then I told him that if the message was from Norton, and was green he was usually OK, but if it was red he should read the message very carefully before clicking on anything, and if he didn't understand the message to write it down and show it to me the next time we saw each other.

The next evening, around 9:30 pm, he called to ask if the message "No Fraud Detected" meant he was OK.

I instructed Mrs Stevie to stop leaping for the phone and let the answering machine get it first like I always do.

  1. Generic placeholder for some component who's primary characteristics are that you don't know what it is and you don't know what it does.
  2. True. What he didn't mention, because he didn't understand the rammifications, was that he hadn't had a subscription to NAV - and hence hadn't had any virus template upgrades - for five years.
  3. Although there is increasing suspicion in the online community that there are systemic problems with eBay's security that have allowed hackers access to high-clearance level credentials. eBay has been hacked in such a manner several times in the last few months.
  4. Just a couple of sets of micro screwdrivers and a small flashlight. Since I got my Leatherman Wave tool and strapped it frimly to my belt o'usefulness I have little need of much else. Between that and my 25 year old Victorinox Swiss Army Knife that never leaves my side I have most of the tools one needs for improvised small jobs not requiring a hammer. I love my converged portable tools.
  5. He really did. I found a wooden, 6 ft. folding carpenter's rule next to the screen when I got there. Obviously, for all his other faults, at one time Tony was into tools.
  6. A decision he later regretted. The shorter case along with the underslung eject button for his DVD burner make for an awkward under-desk arrangement. Like the old saying goes: "You can drive a horse to water but a pencil must be lead"
  7. Another example of my keen analytical powers at work
  8. And if they're gonna insist you have an internet connection and that you peform a laborious registration with a web site, why in Azathoth's name can't they get the bloody key off that sodding site and save my fingers?
  9. As in: it got worse
  10. Please don't write to me about how Open Office is as good if not better than MS Office unless you understand concepts like Mail Merge and know what Pivot Tables are for. I need an office suite to provide more than a multi-font typewriter and a (very) basic spread sheet. Until the last release OO's spreadsheet didn't offer pivot tables because no-one involved understood clearly what people in the real world use spreadsheets for
  11. Of course, this never happens. Oh wait, yes it does. Has, in fact. WGA has been screwing up on XP for over a year and has an impressive number of reported false "fake" hits

No comments: