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New Login system for Liszt

When I first built Liszt, it required (logically) that users have a username and password. Well, more correctly, it required that I have a username and password, since I was the only one using it. As it grew and I got better at programming, I kept slightly upgrading the credential process and permissions system–the last iteration used a salted password based on a proprietary hashing algorithm.

When storing usernames and passwords, the worst way to go about it is to store passwords in plain text. If your password is “password”, then you just put “password” in the database. Hashed passwords are a little better. It involves taking a one-way Hash, which is a way to take a variable length string like “password” or “pwd” and maps it to data of a fixed size, like 36 characters. The problem here is that if multiple people have the same password, if a bad actor were to steal the User database in Liszt, they could cross reference hashed passwords with password hints.

Liszt never had password hints though, so…but whatever.

Encrypted passwords are alright, but since encryption has a sibling named decryption, it’s safe only as long as the encryption key is safe.

The safest way to store passwords oneself is to combine the user’s password with what’s called a salt. In the case of Liszt, I took a hashed combination of the users ID number, combined with a hashed combination of the user’s password, hashed the result for good measure, and saved that in the database. That way, even if everyone had the same password, it wouldn’t show up in the database as the same password. Everyone gets their own gibberish.

Much of my philosophy on how to properly authenticate users comes from YouTuber Tom Scott–most specifically, his “How Not to Store Passwords (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZtInClXe1Q, which I’ve just explained in brief) and “The Fictional Day Google Forgot to Check Passwords” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4GB_NDU43Q). And as I onboarded more and more students, it made more sense to start using alternative providers–Since most clients used Microsoft Office 365, having Microsoft handle the authentication made the most sense. That way, I never have to deal with the passwords.

I wrote much of the code to handle the OAUTH login myself, based on snippets I found online and bolting them to Liszt’s Single Sign On system. Liszt doesn’t use external frameworks for the simple reasons that 1) They either didn’t exist and I wasn’t smart enough to use them when I get started, and 2) It would be a massive undertaking now, and Liszt is kind of its own platform. Because of this, I didn’t use a lot of third-party libraries.

In late 2020, I finally integrated the PHP package manager Composer because I needed it for some storage work I was doing (maybe a blog post in there too), which opened up the possibility of using some existing packages and modules I previously either didn’t use, or integrated manually. One of these things is the League of Extraordinary Packages’ OAUTH Client.

At the beginning of 2021, Liszt contained four login systems. The first was the original Liszt username/password combo, the second was Microsoft 365 for registered users, the third was Microsoft 365 for students and clients, and the last was

A hacked-together beta version of the Google OAUTH code, which worked fine on the Google end, but I never really properly wrote the Liszt end. My work in January has been to reduce Liszt to one login system that can handle multiple providers. Which is…really what I should have done at the beginning.

This sounds reasonably simple, but here are some of the challenges:

  • The Liszt Login code is one of those things that I play with every couple of years, and as long as it works, I don’t question it. So the code–which does a lot of things including allowing for cross-domain logins (logging into Liszt automatically logs you into Liszt Swipe, Liszt Studio (defunct), Liszt Account Management, ScoreShare, AudioAtlas, and anything else that uses the Liszt login system). This is…pretty hairy.
  • Liszt accounts and Liszt student/client accounts are totally separate entities, and it’s possible to have access to both. And what’s more, it’s possible to have access to multiple client accounts. Undoubtedly what would happen is that a student would try to log into Liszt instead of the Liszt Portal, and then that ends up being an email.
  • There’s no onboarding process for Liszt, and only a rudimentary one for Liszt Portal.
  • There’s also no account sign-up.

Also, I wanted the following:

  • I wanted the ability to add service providers (Google, Apple, etc.) later.
  • I wanted the ability to have a third class of authentication–There are registered users, there are registered clients, but I also wanted a basic identity provider–unregistered visitors. People who might need to be authenticated in some way, but I don’t need a full account for. I call this “fingerprinting.”

So there’s just a ton of access control flow going on. Here’s what that looks like now.

For starters, when I coded the original Liszt Office 365 login setup, I used my personal email account. Since we’re upgrading, I moved it to NoteForge. Sound easy? Yes. Is easy? Microsoft now requires that commercial or business accounts be verified, which is a reasonably straightforward, though undocumented process. What that ultimately means is that instead of this:

Microsoft 
kylevanderburg@outlook.com 
Let this app access your 
liszt.me 
Liszt needs your permission to: 
Read your profile 
Liszt will be able to read your profile. 
Accepting these permissions means that you allow this app to use 
your data as specified in their terms of sen•ice and privacy 
statement. You can change these permissions at 
https://microsoft.com/consent. Show details 
No 
Yes

Liszt now asks for permissions like this:

Microsoft 
kylevanderburg@outlook.com 
Let this app access your 
NoteForge 
NoteForge Liszt needs your permission to: 
Maintain access to data you have given 
NoteForge Liszt access to 
Allows NoteForge Liszt to see and update 
the data you gave it access to, even when 
you are not currently using the app. This 
does not give NoteForge Liszt any 
additional permissions. 
Read your profile 
NoteForge Liszt will be able to read your 
profile. 
Accepting these permissions means that you allow this app to use 
your data as specified in their terms of sen•ice and privacy 
statement. You can change these permissions at 
https://microsoft.com/consent. Show details 
No

Even though it’s the same app, in the view of Microsoft it’s different, so all users will have to re-authorize Liszt. Only this time, it comes with a nice blue checkmark.

So Microsoft (or Google or whoever I end up using as providers) verifies the login–Liszt never sees the password or login information, it just gets Profile information, who you are, what your email address is, etc. Then Liszt has to figure out what to do with you. And that flow is, simply, complicated.

The most straightforward cases are either registered users or identified clients/students logging in–It just passes the info on to the appropriate part of Liszt. Next are users or clients who haven’t logged in before and need their Microsoft username applied to their Liszt profile. Reasonably simple.

What about Clients who are trying to log in as Users? Or vice versa? Now Liszt tries to nudge you in the right direction:

ACCOUNT ERROR 
Liszt couldn't find a client account with your credentials. but did find a Liszt user account with your information. Are you perhaps 
looking to log into Liszt? 
Liszt

Alright, we have those. Next up are people who are clients in multiple Liszt sites–which are arguably few, but better to take care of this now while I know what the code does. If you’re logging in at the wrong place, Liszt will now try to nudge you towards the right client site.

At NDSU, we tried allowing students to self-enroll in 2019, and that worked really well. But, it was a completely manual solution. As in, I wrote some code that said “enroll at this website, get attached to the Marching Band.” With this system, I’ve built in hooks to allow students to self-enroll by inputting a code, which will grant them the appropriate access and assign them to the appropriate groups. That’s not hooked up yet, but it’s ready to be written.

People who are logging in who just need to be fingerprinted? That’s easy–since we’re not checking them against a database, we just package their data and send it to the appropriate Liszt-built system.

Finally, there’s the user onboarding flow, which is designed for creating new registered user accounts. That group will either want to get access to an existing site, or to create a whole new site. That last group, I’m not ready to automate yet, so Liszt collects their information and creates a workorder. Those new users to an existing site, however, now get the option to type in a secret code (provided by the administrator) which creates a permissionless user for that site. Admins can go in and assign the required permissions afterward.

Complicated? Sure. Better in the long term? Way better. In fact, I coded the Google login code for the system in about ten minutes this morning.

Progress? Very yes.

The new version of the Liszt login system goes live later this week.

Nonsense Teaching: Due Dates

I did a lot of nonsense teaching things last semester. Or rather, things that seem like nonsense, but that are grounded in my composition/creative and programmer/system-building tendencies. Some of these things worked. Probably the last part of a 3-part series that I thought I’d forget about but somehow didn’t.
Part 1: Late Work Passes
Part 2: Choose-your-own-adventure Projects

I read somewhere (if I had to guess, it was in A Perfect Mess) about how the most efficient use of crosswalks is when about half of pedestrians waited for the lights to change, and about half of pedestrians dart across the street to dodge traffic. If everyone were to wait, it would be terribly congested. If everyone were to ignore the signals, it would be chaos.

This semester I let my students pick their own due dates. Which sounds like madness. Here’s why it wasn’t.

I got this idea originally from Sanna Pederson at OU, who used to let us turn in our graduate musicology term papers whenever we wanted to. This worked fine for grad students, or at least it worked fine for me. Presumably if it didn’t work, she wouldn’t have done it.

For Entrepreneurship and Skills for Academic Success, students picked their own due dates, with some restrictions. In Entrepreneurship, required projects had set due dates, while optional projects were left to student discretion. For Skills for Academic Success, students could choose their own due dates, but one project had to be completed each week. (More information on the curriculum in Part 2).

In both classes, the first project is a “semester plan” where students plot their assignments for the semester. They get credit for schedule management, which is exactly what I want them to do as part of these classes. If they need to update their semester plan, they can do so via letter.

I kept track of all this in Excel, because Blackboard was no help.

As I mentioned in part 1 when talking about Late Work Passes, my late work policy is that all work is accepted in the week that it’s due. So if students pick a due date of Monday, I’ll accept that work through Saturday.

In Excel, I had a column for student name, class, and project. Next, I had the student’s due date, followed by a column showing the weekday of the due date (=WEEKDAY(D2)). This allowed me to calculate the late-work deadline with the formula (=D3+(7-E3)), or (=Due_date+(7-(Weekday of Due Date))).

When a student submitted an assignment, I just cross-referenced my spreadsheet to see if the assignment was valid. Like with the Late Work Passes, students basically took care of this and I could have ignored my spreadsheet. But I didn’t. And I won’t.

Grading

I figured that this would take up a lot of time, and to offset that I changed up my grading policy. I don’t necessarily need 100 points of gradation to give feedback for creative work, so I moved to check-grading, which looks like this:

Check-Plus: Acceptable; Needs no further work
The submitted assignment is polished, professional, and indicative of the level of work expected from a professional musician. Any improvements to the project would only add to the level of professionalism of the assignment. Receives: 100% of points.

Check: Acceptable; Could improve
The submitted assignment is acceptable and meets the purpose as requested, however, it still leaves some things to be desired such as additional information, formatting, word usage, etc. Receives: 80% of points.

X: Try Again
The submitted assignment is rejected for one or more of the following reasons:

  • It is not formatted in a conventional, useful, or ergonomic way.
  • The information it contains is lacking or false.
  • It is not presented in a manner that represents your work as a professional musician.

Receives: 60% of points

X-Minus: No apparent effort
The assignment was either not submitted, or the material submitted was so lacking that detailed feedback would be a monologue rather than a dialogue. Receives: 0% of points

Basically, for every assignment you submit, you can get an F, D, B, or A. But because I’m interested in feedback and iterative change, any check-graded assignment can be corrected and resubmitted for a newer grade, as long as it’s resubmitted by the end of the week it’s returned. Which is nice because it forces me to return work on Monday or Tuesday.

It also works recursively. Turn in an assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. It’s not only choose-your-own-due-date, but choose-your-own-grade, since you can keep submitting a project until your grade is where you want it.

How’d it all work?

In short, like it was supposed to, mostly. Let’s break it down into the due dates and the grading.

For the due dates, there was some legwork to get everything set up in Excel. But students who would normally follow due dates followed their own due dates, and students who have trouble with due dates had trouble with due dates. I think that fewer students had trouble following the due dates this semester, but I’m not quite sure. Students who totally missed due dates who came to me during the last weeks of the semester were given (or rather, just had) the opportunity to edit their semester plan, so nothing was technically late.

Some of the Skills for Academic Success students were pretty lackadaisical about due dates–they were close, -ish. I’m chalking that up to COVID.

My intention this semester was to have sample due dates available as part of the assignment slates in Entrepreneurship (for those students not wanting to pick their projects a la carte). I didn’t get to that for the fall, but I’ve updated that for the spring.

The big thing that comes up when I tell people I let students pick their own due dates is that everyone will just pick the end of the semester. They really don’t. Maybe they’ll pick the end of the semester for a major project, but otherwise they’ll pick reasonable due dates.

Due dates didn’t surprise me too much. I’d do it again.

Grading, on the other hand, that kind of surprised me.

What surprised me in one sense is that it removed the middle from my classes. There were students who did nothing, and there were students with full credit, and almost nobody in the middle. Then I realized that with the resubmission process, this is how it should look. Then it corrected itself as the semester went on, which was even more surprising. The occasional student took advantage of grade re-submission, but not as many as should have. The class probably should have generated a bunch of As and Fs. There was a bit of a middle.

Students generally turn in acceptable work or none at all. This is probably due in part to the fact that I only used this grading scheme for creative classes, i.e., there are no wrong answers. But if asked to write a bio for the first time, or write up a travel budget, they do satisfactory work. Or none.

The idea of doing no work baffles me, and I have no correction for it.

I’ll probably keep the grading scheme for this spring too, but I’m not totally convinced of it yet.