Job Training Goes Open Source


In December of 2006 NJIT was awarded a grant to develop freely distributable course module curricula to support job-market specific training for the financial sector workforce. The New Jersey Regional Economic Innovation Alliance (NJEIA) and its associated industry partners have identified segments of the financial services industry that would benefit from potential employees who have certain enhanced skill sets when hired.

Developed to close the apparent gap between the skills that high-school, community college, and four year institution students were graduating and the needs of employers in the growing financial services workplace, the program, IPI Financial, is a collaboration among educators and IT professionals to develop and package effective training courseware archives.

At an IPI meeting last week, two NJIT professors from the School of Management, Asokan Anandarajan and Katia Passerini, presented their proposed training curriculum for the first of the financial training packages. Included in their presentations was commentary from financial institutions about the types of skills that were needed, but lacking, in potential employees and newly hired personnel.

Financial institutions such as commercial banks, the Federal Reserve, and Goldman Sachs, had no strong interest in requiring educational institutions to provide greater technical skills to potential employees. Those institutions provide their own technical training to master day-to-day job functions once an applicant is hired. The skills that those institutions were most interested in improving or establishing were employee "soft-skills," in the workplace. Focus groups identified the following needed areas of improvement:

1. Communication skills, both oral and written
2. Skills relating to conduct (including mode of dress and proper business etiquette)
3. The ability to deal with peers,superiors and subordinates
4. The ability to understand different cultures when dealing with people of different international backgrounds
5. The ability to engage in critical thinking
6. Lateral thinking in problem solving
7. Knowing how to work effectively in a team
8. Overall integrity in the workplace environment

Does this sound like the need for liberal arts education to anyone?

The IPI Financial group expects to produce these training curriculum archives in a freely available and downloadable form by Spring of 2008. These course archives are expected to complement and supplement the educational resources that already exist in schools and will include lecture and study materials generated by subject matter experts in the specific employment areas that are targeted. Each course archive will be a self-contained learning environment that will require a computer with an unzip utility, a web-browser, a PDF document viewer and a multimedia client program to study the curriculum content.

The format and type-content of the individual course archives for this financial services training model is expected to be applied to other targeted industries where similar learning skills enhancements are needed for the future workforce.


Et tu, Moodle?

I'm not the greatest proponent of Distance Learning coures as they have been developed and implented at many colleges and universities (including NJIT). The idea of expanding a student population without having to budget the expense of building additional classroom space drove administrators and academic departments to shoehorn existing course offerings into a web browser accessible format and register additional "online" students. A result of those efforts was to produce online enrollments that sported (especially for undergraduate studies) drop out rates of about 45%. Oher attempts at improving distance learning courses and content delivery soon produced blended learning (or hybrid) courses that required students to attend classroom sessions that supplemented their online studies. The drop out rates improved and adult-oriented programs like Weekend University began to pick up some academic steam.


The usual notion of distance learning is to have a professor/instructor at some central location teaching students at remote locations, but what if students remainined in a classroom, and the teacher taught from a remote location?


The Spring, that question was asked by Bishop George Ahr High School and Continuing Professional Education provided the answer.


The well-accomplished Latin teacher at Bishop George Ahr High School was leaving for France before the start of the 2008 school year and, while they didn't want to replace that fine instructor, they needed a solution to provide four years of Latin educaton to their pupils. CPE at NJIT, using Moodle as a content delivery platform, provided detailed one-on-one staff training and course content conversion to place the curriculum materials in an effective distance learning format.


Beginning in the Fall of 2008, the Latin students at Bishop George Ahr High School will be able to view multimedia lectures from the classroom, home or any remote location, receive detailed feedback about their performance, participate in real-time chats with their instructor and take their examinations in a protected and proctored classroom environment. The administrators at Bishop Ahr tested this new program at the end of this school year and solicited feedback from students and parents and reported that everyone was excited and supportive of this new initiative for the start of the next school year.


If Web 2.0 technologies can usher in Latin instruction in a distance learning format, what could be next, English?

Summer Camp for Geeks


That's what the flyer (and webpage) called the KansasFest computer conference of July, 2007, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original Apple ][ computer.
The Personal Personal Computer


It takes an extraordinary group of people to convene (for the 19th consecutive time) to celebrate a computer platform and philosophy that the manufacturer abandoned in 1992, but the original promotion by Apple Computer touted the Apple ][ computer as the "personal, personal computer," and that idea resonated with millions of people worldwide.

The days of Apple IIe labs and Apple IIGS clusters nestled on Appletalk networks in grammar school computer labs ended in the mid 1990's with Apple's failure to provide an upgrade path from the aging ][ series to the Macintosh. Schools were left with thousands of dollars of terrific educational software and no computer on which they would run. Schools began to move to PC hardware and Microsoft based programs.

Those early Apple computers never stop appealing to a dedicated group of users. Unsupported by Apple Computer, User Groups were created on online services such as CompuServe and Genie and new third party hardware and software continued to be developed and sold.

KFest 2007 was a remarkable mixture of the new and old --both products and people. The conference has actually grown in size over the past few years with oldtimer attendees (like me) meeting and greeting teenage and twenty-something devotees who hadn't been around long (if at all) when the Apple ][ line had been born or discontinued. There were attendees for the US, Australia and Canada with one of the Canadian presenters making the trip to Kansas City from Toronto on a Vespa motorbike.

There were presentations on new software, old hardware and foundation operating systems, there was a keynote address by David Szetela, the first editor-in-chief of Nibble magazine and, later, Apple Computer executive. My own presentation "FreeBSD, the Macintosh Unix" was preceded by Geoff Weiss's excellent presentation of software mapping between Microsoft's Vista and the Apple operating systems.

The real joy of this conference,though - the real reason for attending-- wasn't to make a presentation or watch other talented presenters loose their expertise upon the attendees. The real joy was in hanging out in the dormitories at Rockhurst University where we were housed and watching brilliant people shine. There was non-stop software developing, hardware hacking and on-topic/off-topic discussing all night long. Then, when people needed a quick break, they piled into a 1973 Chevrolet school bus driven from Oklahoma to Kansas City by an attendee to make a 3 AM Denny's Restaurant run. After that fast refueling, everyone was back at it again, hacking and programming and opining until it was time to go to breakfast. The red-eyed stumble became, at least for me, the dance of every day.

The conference lasted about 5 days and it was a little sad to watch the attendees and presenters scatter on the last day. But, even before the end of the conference, Kansasfest 2008 was announced (specific dates pending) and, to a person, the attendees and presenters remaining to hear that announcement were eager to say they'd be back next year.

The old rallying cry of Apple ][ users was "Apple II Forever," now it might be "Apple II Users Forever." The convening of this group of remarkable people every year is now about who they are and who they may inspire to carry the banner of world-class independent software and hardware development to the 20th anniversary of the gathering next year.

Spring Cleaning


"Serendipity will get you through times of no Internet better than Internet will get you through times of no Serendipity" --Perfesser Pedagogue

Heeding those words of wisdom:while Serendipity35's code sorcerers update the magic spells that guide us through the cyberspace cloud (and may also knock us offline intermittently over the next 24 hours), we direct you to the current list of spammers and general e-mail bad guys for your reading pleasure.

If your socks drawer is already arranged, if you've already washed and waxed the cat, and if you know that even Spring Training baseball on TV is still a week away: there is no better time to update your spam filters to keep your e-mail Spring Cleaning right on track.

You might notice hotmail.com (still) on and yahoo.com (newly) on the banned e-mail spammers list. Hotmail.com has failed for years in preventing spammers from using their hostname; yahoo.com has had recent problems with spammers flooding the market with real and faked yahoo.com e-mail relays. It is likely that yahoo.com will far sooner have its current spam troubles solved than hotmail.com ever will.

And it is probable that the code warriors at Serendipity35 will have the blog back up and running, by the time any of us get this whole spam block thing figured out. It just might take a little (more) serendipity.

None Shall Spam

Hot stock tips, male enhancement patches and pills, replica high-end None Shall Spam!wristwatches, diet potions, pirated software (but at a Discount!), forged messages from financial institutions I've never even heard of, offers from the nephew of the president of Nigeria to share his multi-million dollar bank account, and on and on and on: I've Had Enough!

The first thing I do every morning when I get into my office is check my e-mail --well, that used to be what I did. Now, the first thing I do is spend 10 to 15 minutes deleting the junk e-mail that some anonymous miscreant has shoved into my Inbox. I have to filter out a hundred or so unwanted, unsolicited, forged and fraudulent messages before I can begin to read the real e-mail that I depend on for my job.

And my modified morning routine exists despite the installation of a (slightly) functional commercial content-based anti-spam program on NJIT's e-mail gateways.

Content-based junk e-mail filtering programs scan the content of each piece of e-mail that passes through them. Using a scoring system, they assign point values to features contained within the header, subject and body of the messages. Typical things that cause points to be scored are: html in e-mail, non-standard fonts, large font sizes, banned words or phrases and fictitious or empty To: addresses. If the points assigned within the e-mail exceed a certain threshold (usually 5.0), the e-mail is placed in a quarantine and the intended recipient of the e-mail is notified, daily, that there are quarantined e-mails that can be accepted for delivery or deleted. On top of the hundred or so junk e-mails I get, there are usually 20 - 30 e-mail messages caught in the quarantine for me each day. The university anti-spam system is catching about 1 in 4 pieces of spam and, given the huge volume of junk e-mail, that is a junk e-mail solution of very little value.

The fundamental problem with filtering e-mail based on content is the dynamic nature of e-mail content. Like snowflakes, no 2 e-mail messages are ever exactly the same. The header, subject and body of the message can all be altered (or forged) by a skillful spammer who knows the types of content that content-based anti-spam programs check. Since e-mail messages can be changed a lot faster than e-mail filtering programs can be updated, the spammers are always several steps ahead. Because content-based e-mail filtering is so unsuccessful, effective e-mail filtering has to based on the the parts of the email process that are static and never change regardless of the type or content of the messages that are sent. The network rules that govern the transport and delivery of electronic messages define and enforce those unchanging parts of the e-mail process. Those rules are described in the RFCs and they can be used to produce powerful anti-spam tactics because the spammers can't play by all the rules.

A few days ago, I installed 2 rules-based e-mail filtering programs on 2 different servers. One of those servers, dl1.njit.edu, handles about 75000 e-mails per day, the other server, www.smsd.tv, handles about 750 e-mails per day. www.smsd.tv uses a milter (a mail filter) program called milter-greylist, dl1.njit.edu uses a milter called spamilter.

Milter-greylist uses a very basic e-mail approach. It supports lists of users who can be predefined to whitelist (allow), blacklist (reject) or greylist (delay) their incoming e-mail. Blacklisted users can be entered manually or derived automatically from a number of internet based RBLs (realtime blackhole list) that are dynamic lists of broken, compromised or mis-configured e-mail servers through which spammers often send their junk. Greylisting e-mail messages is done by delaying the e-mail delivery by sending this special error code and message back to the originating server : reject=451 4.7.1 Greylisting in action, please come back later.
A properly configured e-mail server will try and resend a message for up to 72 hours until the e-mail is delivered or it receives a permanent delivery failure. Most of the mass spam is sent through hacked and/or mis-configured e-mail servers that don't recognize the 451 delay code (it is part of the RFCs regulating e-mail traffic) and never resend the e-mail message. E-mail that is never resent is never delivered by the local e-mail server and the message never darkens anyone's Inbox, again.

Spamilter is a more complex rule-based e-mail filtering program. It checks the domain name of the sending server against a blacklist to see if it has been reported as compromised (broken). It verifies the e-mail sender by sending an e-mail back to the originating sender to see if it is a valid address. It can verify whether or not the hostname supplied in the transport of the e-mail (called the HELO) can be independently resolved to a valid host name, it can inject the IP address of a rejected host into the server's firewall and block any connection from that host (not just e-mail) for 48 hours; it can verify the IP address the sending server uses to connect, and it can even check the e-mail attachments for dangerous filename extensions. If any of the verification functions fail, the email will be rejected or tagged by pre-pending "Valid Sender?" to the subject. A desktop email program can filter the messages from the Inbox and place them in a local quarantine folder. Those trapped messages can be used to document and report spamming attempts to the spammer's internet service provider.

On www.smsd.tv, in one 24 hour period, 704 internet e-mails were logged. Of those e-mail messages, 353 were delivered. Unknown addresses were greylisted and delayed 56 times and of those 56, 19 were delivered. The remaining 295 messages were either whitelisted on arrival and delivered, or were messages sent to e-mail addresses that didn't exist on www.smsd.tv. Milter-greylist blocked about 2/3rds of the messages it saw as potential spam and delivered the other 1/3rd. Of the 353 messages that were delivered, 1 delivered message that made it through the filter was actually spam. That e-mail message was an advertisement from a prior contact and its only qualification as spam was that it was a bulk e-mailing that used a customer list. That e-mailing contained no "opt out" or unsubscribe information or links as required by the CanSpam Act.

On dl1.njit.edu, in one 24 hour period, 90,000 inbound e-mail messages were rejected by Spamilter. Only 142 inbound e-mail messages were delivered.
dl1.njit.edu supports many mailing lists and group e-mail accounts that have widely published addresses. Spammers have automated programs that continuously look for published e-mail addresses on the World Wide Web and in Usenet newsgroups. Those addresses are "harvested" and inserted into bulk mailing lists that are blasted non-stop with junk e-mail. The dl1.njit.edu test was done during Winter Break when there was almost no one on campus or in staff or faculty offices. NJIT was closed, and that accounts for the tiny number of e-mail messages actually delivered compared to the outrageous number of attempted-and-rejected messages sent to accounts on the server. 17 of the rejected messages were blocked by lookup in a blackhole list of known compromised servers, the rest were blocked because of fictitious Sender addresses.

www.smsd.tv maintains a list of e-mail addresses, networks and domains that have sent any spam to a smsd.tv address during the past 3 years. Those addresses are rejected by the e-mail server before they ever pass through milter-greylist. Blocked addresses include all of hotmail.com and many networks and domains in eastern Europe and Asia.. When a piece of spam is delivered to an smsd.tv address, the originating IP address of the e-mail is immediately blocked along with the network that allowed the transport of the message. An e-mail is sent to the responsible party or parties listed in the Whois database registry informing them of their ban from www.smsd.tv's network, the reason(s) for the ban and a source copy of the entire offending e-mail embedded in the body of the message. If the responsible parties decide to contact the administrator of www.smsd.tv, they must use the postal address listed in the Whois database registry.

The ban of an entire network or domain for one piece of junk e-mail is, certainly, a harsh and sweeping measure. It can be argued, though, that it is the only way to bring e-mail back under control and prevent it from becoming so overwhelmed by garbage that it can no longer function as a useful communication tool. Instead of spending our time and money on solutions that allow us to separate bona fide electronic mail messages from the mountains of garbage some criminal spammer is dumping, we should immediately sever the communication pathway those messages travel to invade our Inboxes. If we immediately unplug spammers and their supporting networks from our networks at the first offense, and make the network reconnection process long and difficult, we can make clear to system and network administrators that our goal is to put them out of business. Once disconnected, if the administrators don't fix their networks and banish their spammers, it will make little difference to us. Their access to our Inboxes will have already been banned and we will never hear from them again, anyway. Their customers, unable to communicate with segments of the internet will migrate to other service providers that do run compliant servers, don't harbor spammers, and have full network connectivity.

Contact your ISP or your system administrator to ask about implementing server-side rule-based anti-spam measures.