Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

I make it easier and faster for you to write high-quality software.

Friday, April 2, 2010

On writing a book

Well, I’ve performed my final author’s review, and Professional Cocoa Application Security is all with the printers. This post is about my experiences writing the book, not the book material itself.

My original motivation for writing PCAS was that it was a topic someone needed to talk about, and nobody had hitherto done the talking. I was actually initially approached by Wiley to see if I’d write anything at all – their commissioning editor had seen my Objective-C FAQ and this blog, and liked my style. I said that I didn’t want to write a book, I wanted to write this book. It was the best way I could pay back the community that has helped me so much in the years I’ve been a Mac developer.

It took about 6 months to write the draft – my original estimate was much shorter but once we realised I couldn’t meet that we revised it, after which I stayed on track with the updated schedule. That’s six months of nearly full time work. Some other books probably don’t take so long, but in this case I had set myself a very ambitious scope and needed to research quite a lot of the topics before I could write on them. If you’ve already got a series of blog posts, training material or something that you just want to turn into a book, I can imagine the drafting process being much quicker.

I’ve found that book authorship is not the best vehicle for self-study. You get a biased view of the material, looking for things that would be interesting to readers rather than things you will need to use yourself. Because the goal of the book is to provide utility to the readers, you end up with a gotcha-oriented approach to research, looking for the subtle benefits or issues that are not obvious on a casual inspection. That said, it was still a good motivation to learn about the technologies I wrote about, so I’m glad I did it. Parts of the writing process were a lot of fun: I got to find out about some cool frameworks and APIs, absorb loads of information and re-emit it in a form that is, I hope, engaging and interesting. I’ve looked at my bookshelves and have about 6ft of books that I used as source material – and that doesn’t include websites, ebooks and journal papers. On the other hand, I’m not going to deny that I had occasional days that just felt like a long slog to get the day’s section written. I didn’t mind solving hard problems, but there are some subjects that just seem impossible to say anything interesting about. It’s when writing those sections that you find yourself staring at a half-written sentence for an hour, wondering just what it was you were thinking when you wrote the ToC.

You’re not going to get rich off the advance :). I was in a good position where I could live off practically no income while writing, meaning that devoting a few months to producing the drafts was not a problem. What I have become rich in is exposure and recognition, even before the book was published. Because both the proposal and the book content must be peer-reviewed by a technical reviewer, “I am writing a book” says “there are people out there who trust that I know my subject”. Of course, “I have written a book and you can read it” carries more weight, so I expect this exposure to increase after publication.

I’ve worked on reviewing proposals too, and the things you really need to make sure if you are trying to punt a proposal to publishers are:

  • You need to tell the publishers that the market for your book exists, who is in that market and how big it is. They’re not going to go and look for the buyers on your behalf (but they will get a reviewer to make sure you’re not talking bullshit).
  • Having identified your reader, the goals and content of the book must be appropriate to the reader. Don’t put an introduction to Xcode in your Advanced iPad Apps book, just to make up an example.

This theme carries on into the review process for the actual content. The technical reviewer (a role I’ve also taken before) is not just there to check that the code compiles. Responsibilities include verifying the accuracy of the content and appropriateness for the target reader, and indeed review comments I’ve made on book drafts have been split roughly evenly between “this isn’t quite right” and “your reader won’t understand this” (though I’m more verbose in the actual review).

So, in short, you will not make money writing a book. You will gain kudos and satisfaction. If you’ve got something that you think the world desperately needs to know, and you know that you can explain it in a way the world will want to pay attention to, then by all means write! If you want to make a few thousand dollars, or want an easy project between apps, then I’d suggest finding something else. Writing’s fun, and it’s worthwhile, but it’s certainly not an easy life.

posted by Graham Lee at 12:20  

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nearly the end-of-year review

My first post (Farkers, feel free to replace that with “boobies”) of the year 2009 was a review of 2008’s blog and look forward to 2009. It’s time to do the same for the 2009/2010 blogyear bifecta.

Let’s start with the recap.

2009 was a comparatively quiet year for iamleeg, with a total of 45 posts (including this one). Although I gave up on LiveJournal, leading to an amount of “mission creep” in the content of this blog, I think that the vast increase my use of Twitter led to the decline in post frequency here. I’ve come to use Twitter as a replacement for Usenet, it’s much easier to share opinions and discuss things on Twitter where there’s more of a balanced conversation and less of iamleeg telling the rest of the world how things should work. The other main contributory factor was that I spend my days writing for a living currently, split between authorship, consultation and the MDN security column. I’m often all written out when it comes to the end of the day.

So, the mission creep. 2009 saw this blog become more of a home for ideas long enough to warrant a whole page on the internet, losing its tech focus—directly as a result of dropping LJ, which is where non-tech ideas used to end up. However, statistics show that the tech theme is still prevalent, with only four of the posts being about music or dancing. Security has become both the major topic as well as the popular choice; the most-read article was Beer Improves Perception of Security.

During August and September the focus started to shift towards independent business and contract work, as indeed I made that shift. Self-employment is working well for me, the ability to choose where I focus my effort has let me get a number of things done while still retaining a sense of sanity and a balance with my social life.

So what about next year?

Well, the fact that I have a number of different things to focus on leads to an important choice: I need to either regroup around some specific area or choose to remain a polymath, but either way I need to be more rigorous about defining the boundaries for different tasks. My major project comes to an end early in 2010, and after that it’s time to calm down and take a deep look at what happens next. I have a couple of interesting potential clients lined up, and have put onto the back burner my own application which will definitely see more work. I also have some ideas for personal development which I need to prioritise and get cracking on. The only thing preventing me from moving on a number of different projects is convincing myself I have time for them.

So the blog will fit in with that time-management strategy; I won’t necessarily decide that 9:00-10:14 on a Monday is always blogging time, but will resolve to put aside some time to writing interesting things. One thing I have found is that working on one thing for a whole day means I don’t get much of it done, so factoring that into my plans will let me take advantage of it. Half an hour working on a new article at lunchtime could be the stimulus required to get more out of the afternoon. My weapon of choice for organising my work has always been OmniFocus, it’s time to be more rigorous about using it. It doesn’t actually work well for time allocation, but it does let me see what needs to be done next on the various things I have outstanding.

Obviously what becomes the content of this blog depends on what happens after I’ve shaken down all of those considerations and sorted out what it means to be leeg. Happy new year, and stay tuned to find out what happens.

posted by Graham Lee at 17:47  

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Operation Chokehold

So Fake Steve Jobs has announced Operation Chokehold, a wireless flashmob in which disgruntled AT&T customers are to use data-intensive apps for an hour in protest at the poor service and reduced investment AT&T provide on their network. At time of writing, Operation Chokehold has 3,000 fans on Facebook – a small fraction of the ∼82M AT&T Mobility subscribers in the U.S. Fake Steve has latterly wondered whether it is illegal (using the “it’s now out of my hands” defence, popular with people who don’t understand what incitement means), and seemingly back-pedalled, considering aloud whether people might try a shorter duration or physical flashmob of AT&T stores instead. It would appear that the FCC (the U.S. agency responsible for regulating national and international communications) has weighed in, declaring a wireless flashmob to be irresponsible and “a significant public safety concern”.

How is it a concern? Due to the way the phones work, you don’t need to the capacity to support all of the users, all of the time, in order to provide a reasonable service. Think of running a file-sharing service like DropBox or Humyo. If you offered up to 10GB storage per customer and have 10,000 customers, then you need 100TB of storage, right? Wrong. That’s the maximum that could be used, but let’s say in practice you find average use to be 100MB/customer. It turns out that 1TB of storage would be the minimum you’d need to satisfy current demand, if you had even 1.5TB then you’d comfortably support the current customer base while allowing for some future use spikes or growth. The question most businesses ask then is not how risky it is to drop below 100% capacity, but how much risk they can accept in their buffer over average capacity. The mobile phone network operates in the same way. To avoid dropped calls you don’t need the bandwidth to support 100% of the phones operating 100% of the time, you need to support the average number of phones the average amount of time, plus a little extra for (hopefully foreseen) additional demand.

The argument by AT&T and the FCC against the wireless flashmob then is that because the network is oversubscribed as an accepted business risk, it would actually be possible for the concerted operation of a large number of users to cause disruption to the network. This eventuality is evinced every year in the early morning of January 1st, as people phone or SMS each other with New Year greetings. People making legitimate calls during this time could be disconnected or unable to place a call at all—while that would undoubtedly make the protest noticed by AT&T it’s that aspect of it which makes it a potential public safety concern. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the network doesn’t have either dedicated capacity or priority quality of service (QoS) treatment for 9-1-1 calls, but it’s possible still that some 9-1-1 calls might not get placed correctly. That’s especially true if the caller’s handset can’t even connect to a tower, which could happen if nearby towers were all saturated with phones making data connections. While it’s possible to mitigate that risk (dedicated cell towers for 9-1-1 service, which emergency calls are handed over to) it would be very expensive to implement. There’s no business need for AT&T to specially support emergency calls, as they don’t make any money from them, so they’d only do that if the FCC mandated it.

But then there are all the non-9-1-1 emergency calls—people phoning their local doctor or hospital, and “business critical” calls made by people who somehow think that their business is critical. Even the day-to-day running of government is at least partially conducted over the regular phone networks, as was seen when the pager traffic from New York on September 11th 2001 got posted to WikiLeaks. These calls are all lumped in with the regular calls, because they are regular calls. The only way to mitigate the risk of dropping these is to increase the capacity of the network, which is exactly the thing that people are saying AT&T don’t do to a satisfactory level. If the contracts on AT&T Mobility are anything like the contracts on UK phone networks, then subscribers don’t have a service level agreement (SLA) with the provider, so there’s no guarantee of provision. The sticking point is the level of expected provision doesn’t match that. If the providers operated multi-tier subscription services like the broadband providers do in the UK, then they probably would do QoS management so that preferential customers get better call service—again, assuming the customers can connect to the cell tower in the first place. But again, that’s a business issue, and if the guy participating in Chokehold has a more expensive plan than the girl trying to phone the hospital, his connection will win.

Will Chokehold fulfil its goal of making AT&T invest more in its infrastructure? I don’t know. Will it actually disrupt public safety services such as 9-1-1? I doubt it. Is it a scale model for a terrorist attack on the communications infrastructure of the US? Certainly not. Much easier to jump down a manhole and snip the cables to the data centres.

posted by Graham Lee at 12:19  

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

NSConference videos

Scotty and the gang have been getting the NSConference videos out to the public lately, and now sessions 7-9 are available including my own session on security. The videos are really high quality, I’m impressed by the postproduction that’s gone in and of course each of the sessions I watched at the conference has some great information and has been well-presented. All of the videos are available here.

I’ve also put the slides for my presentation up over on slideshare.

posted by Graham Lee at 23:20  

Friday, July 3, 2009

Just because Brucie says it…

Bruce Schneier claims that shoulder-surfing isn’t much of a problem these days.

Plenty of people discovered “my password” at NSConference, so I disagree :-) (photo courtesy of stuff mc).

posted by Graham Lee at 23:59  

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Follow-up-and-slightly-over on safety/security

The one thing which makes this a less-than-standard follow-up is that the original was not posted here, but over on paranym Graham Cluley’s blog. I originally wrote about the (fictitious) difference between safety and security. For those who didn’t clickety the linkelode, I wrote that Jon Gruber’s distinction between safety and security was just a neat lexical game to sidestep popular Mac-press opinion. I also wrote that I wanted to cover the original article, Snow Leopard security is all relative. Well, now I shall.

So Dennis Fisher argues that “very few users will switch to a Mac or from a Mac because of security”…”But if Snow Leopard turns out to be a major security upgrade over the current versions, that’s an important step for Apple and its customers.” I’m not sure I agree there. As far as I can see, the fundamental place where Fisher and I start to disagree is on what value security marketing has.

I infer from the article that Fisher takes security marketing to be a zero-sum game between the competitors: every time Apple wins, Microsoft necessarily loses: Microsoft have “out-secured” Apple and it’s up to Apple to “out-secure” them back. I believe that many consumers consider security as a “hygiene factor”; invisible most of the time, but unacceptable when it becomes an issue. That would make it hard to market a secure OS, but impossible to sell an insecure one. An important distinction, let me explain. People will not consider security as a factor in any product which seems secure enough, but will not touch any product which does not seem secure enough. Therefore a loss for any one company pulls its rep down with respect to the competitors, but there isn’t really any such thing as a security marketing “win”.

Where does that leave Apple? Well, a “major security upgrade” could go in one of two directions. Either it means moving from 0 concern over Mac security to a smaller value of 0 concern; or it could lead people to think that there were some security holes in Leopard that Apple decided not to tell us about and patched up in Snow Leopard. It seems to me that there is, at best, no value in marketing based on the security posture of the OS (though security features are, admittedly, different), however there certainly is value in improving the security posture to avoid the negative market perception of vulnerabilities. There is also value in responding openly and quickly to security issues to stem the rep bleeding any problem would cause.

Knowing Apple, though, they’ll find the other way; the way of making security posture a winnable marketing game and winning that game.

Fisher’s article states that the real question “is whether Snow Leopard will be more secure than the current version of OS X” – whereas for the moment the real question is whether Snow Leopard will continue to be secure enough.

posted by Graham Lee at 23:17  

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The rokeg blood pie^W^W^Wplot thickens

So, having already discussed Klingon Anti-Virus, the under-research Klingon threat detection tool made available by Sophos, it seems that more information has been made available. From no less, or indeed more, of a source than the blog of my Clu-ful conym.

This seems to confirm the impression that the tool has been developed for some special internal use and might not be downloadable much longer. It’s hard to tell, though; most of the company is being very quiet about it (indeed it wasn’t until today that much internal noise was generated about the tool at all).

Of course, maybe I’m being duped. This could be some sort of company experiment to see, well, either how much free marketing they can get or who in the company is responsible for the press leaks. If it’s the latter, then I need you all to take a look at my CV as I’ll probably be relying on it – and you – soon ;-).

Anyway, take a look at the tool if you’re interested, I’ve had reports that it works well but still haven’t heard much feedback about the quality of the translation. BTW, interested in a Mac version of the tool? I can’t promise anything but leave a message after the beep and I’ll forward requests…

posted by Graham Lee at 00:16  

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Detect the gagh lurking in your system!

Following up on my previous ability to get to the top of a Google search for a Klingon word (that one was chuvmey, as in my post Model, View, chuvmey) here is yet another attempt. At what? Why, at skewing the mental associations between science fiction television and the digital security industry, of course!

Sophos Klingon Anti-Virus is a threat detection tool for Windows computers, but in Klingon. Ever wondered what Conficker and Rokeg blood pie have in common? No, neither have I. In fact, I doubt anyone has. Nonetheless, try out the tool and see what Romulan back-doors have been installed on your box.

(N.B. this means we have to expand our remit from “Enterprise” security software, to include at least the “HMS Bounty” from Star Trek IV)

posted by Graham Lee at 12:53  

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Rootier than root

There’s a common misconception, the book I’m reading now suffers from it, that single-user mode on a unix such as mac os x gives you root access. Actually, it grants you higher access than root. For example, set the immutable flag on a file (schg I think, but my iPhone doesn’t have man). Root can’t remove the flag, but the single user can.

posted by Graham Lee at 13:36  

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Did you miss my NSConference talk?

The annotated presentation slides are now available to download in Keynote ’08 format! Sorry you couldn’t make it, and I hope the slides are a reasonable proxy for the real thing.

posted by Graham Lee at 20:40  
Next Page »

Powered by WordPress