Snow and Wind

Just a short slice of winter on video...shot from the front porch. The outside temp was about 10 degrees F, wind about 10 mph, gusting to very darn windy indeed.

A "Fix" for Windows XP Movie Maker 2.1 Artifacts

A few posts ago I described a situation in which Windows Movie Maker running on Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP2 leaves persistent video 'artifacts' on the computer display after it has closed (or crashed). Today I found a way to fix this problem, for a certain definition of 'fix'. This trick probably applies to XP Home as well.

Cobb's First Law of Digital Comms

Cobb's first law of digital communications states:  You should never say anything in a digital communication that you wouldn't want your mother to read.

Why? Because there is a chance that at some point in the future your mother might read it. The probability varies, but it is there, whether your mother uses a computer or not; just ask the scores of embarrassed CEOs and public officials who have seen some of their nastiest emails reprinted in newspapers.

In the context of this law, "digital communications" means email, instant messaging, SMS, Twitter, web pages, blog posts, blog comments, social network content, and more. The term "say anything" means write or post and includes images as well as words. What constitutes digital communications will change but the law will remain the same.

I came up with the basic premise for this law before blogs were invented, before the web as invented, even before Internet email started to take off and millions of people began sending messages under the mistaken assumption that only the intended recipients could read them. However, it was email that really brought the 'message' home, so to speak.

Leaving aside the wrongly addressed and incorrectly cc'd emails, the fact is that email is like a postcard, not a letter, it can be read by any machine it passes through (with the possible exception of some specially encrypted email, although there are people who can read that too--and some of them can be hired by the lawyers that your ex-spouse or ex-employer hired).

I started using digital messaging in the early 1980s on services like The Source and CompuServe. Although these were 'closed' networks with paid admission, it was clear even then that the contents of digital communications could easily be exposed by human errors, technical errors, court orders, and business decisions, to name a few. It was also clear that digital messages could linger a long time after they were sent, read, and supposedly deleted.

Like many 'early adopters' I learned the hard way that it was better to moderate the wording of one's messages, or simply leave some things unsaid, than to face the embarrassment of rash words getting into the wrong hands. I don't think I ever went so far as to call a client a jerk in a message that ended up in the client's hands, but I did discover, to my chagrin, that there is no 'unsend' button in email applications and an email retraction never arrives before an emailed statement.

I happen to think there are some very positive ethical and philosophical implications to the reality I have tried to encapsulate in this first law of digital comms. I will try to lay out my thoughts on this in more depth in a future post. But here's the short version: the transparency and persistence of digital comms tend to reduce the fudge factor in human existence, forcing us to be true to ourselves in all aspects of our lives. For all the talk about the ways in which things digital can be faked, the underlying thrust of our world becoming more digital is that we are faced with a fuller, and truer, picture of ourselves, across multiple dimensions. We are more likely, over time, to engage in dialog than to stay silent, to be ourselves in all things, to both give and seek acceptance, to accept diversity of thought and lifestyle rather than to censure and straightjacket.

Of course, this will all take time, so in the meantime I humbly suggest that we all keep the first law of digital comms in mind. Big brother is one thing, mother is another.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays Video

I was going to post this on Christmas Eve but came down with a nasty head cold. Spent most of Christmas Day in bed, sniffing and sweating [and not in a good way]. Feeling slightly better this Boxing Day, so I posted this Christmas video I made on YouTube. For more about the video, scroll down the page.



What you are looking at in the video is a driver's eye view of the snow plow going down part of our notorious drive after about 18 inches of snow fall. The vehicle doing the snow plowing is a four wheel drive Arctic Cat ATV or "quad" (specifically a 2004 TBX 400). The plow itself is made by Warn, the company that makes winches. Using this setup and plowing ourselves, instead of paying someone with a bigger plow to do it for is, will probably pay for the ATV in two seasons.

Oh, and the driver, and camera-person, is yours truly. This video card's message is at the end of the drive. Enjoy!

Go South Cobb! Marching band chosen for Obama parade

About ten days ago my wife pointed out this article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about a high school band selected to march in Mr. Obama's inauguration (technically he is Mr. Obama between being Senator Obama and President Obama). She had noticed the article simply because of my last name, Cobb.

Now I  was already aware that Cobb County was named after an indirect ancestor of mine (that branch of the tree split off many generations ago). But I was not familiar with South Cobb High School. Apparently the students and staff of the school have worked really hard to turn the band around in the last five years and make it something really special.

Getting to march down Pennsylvania Avenue for the inauguration of the first black president of the United States is a huge deal and the school's excitement was matched only by their concern that this honor is truly honorary, there are no funds attached. So I emailed the principal and asked where people should send donations. He sent me a very nice reply:
"Your email address [@scobb.net] made me smile...I've attached the donation letter and encourage you to contribute or share with other Cobbs as you feel appropriate :-)

Thanks for your interest in our students. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out www.cbs46.com and click on the video portion of your story. It will put a face with the other Cobb name...hope we do your family proud!"

I'm sure they will, and I have posted the donation instructions here, so anyone who feels so inclined can lend their support to this great accomplishment. You can also donate online here. A formal donation request letter from the school is here. We'll definitely be watching for these kids on inauguration day.

Go Blue Eagles!

10,000 Megabytes for a Buck!

I blogged about the declining price of storage when the first terabyte drives for consumers came on the market, and then again when the price dropped below $250 for a terabyte drive. I recently bought my first one terabyte drive when I saw this Microcenter ad. To put this in perspective, the ad is selling, for $99.99, about $8 million dollars worth of data storage (at 1985 prices).

Do I need a terabyte drive? Not really, not right away maybe; but you have to realize this is a significant moment for an old timer like me. My first hard disk computer was a Kaypro CP/M machine with a 10 megabyte drive. The price of that system was around $3,000 when it was introduced.

When I built my first PC from scratch in 1985--using a hand soldered motherboard I picked up at a Silicon Valley swap meet, with a BIOS chip flashed in an actual Silicon Valley garage--the 30 megabyte hard drive that I put in it cost me $250 cash, handed over at the back door of a Sunnyvale warehouse just off the 101.

To be clear, that was 30 mega-bytes. Of which there are 1000 or so in a gigabyte. So at that rate the cost of a terabyte of storage would have worked out to be somewhere North of $8 million! So when I saw a price tag of $99.99 on a 1TB Western Digital drive, I just had to buy it. After all, it represents over $80,000 of 1985 storage for a dollar of 2008 money.

What am I going to do with this drive? Probably put it in my trusty IBM Thinkcenter box in place of the current 200 gig drive. Then I can use the 200 gig drive as a laptop backup device and the 1TB drive will be a central repository for all the video files I have been accumulating from various projects. I had been shifting  them to data DVD at the end of each project to keep my laptop drives from maxxing out, but then I find I need the files again and I put the DVD down somewhere and...you know how that goes.

Much easier to keep files online, luxuriating in the amazingly affordable vastness of a terabyte drive, for just pennies a megabyte.

Hemochromatosis: Support and Discussion

So, it has been about six weeks since my wife was diagnosed with hereditary hemochromatosis and I have lost track of the number people I have told about this truly insidious condition. I have told my family, my friends, and anyone who reads this blog. It really is a sick bastard of a condition and more people need to know about it.

One of the burdens of finding out you have hereditary hemochromatosis is the need to tell all your "blood" relatives. Chey did that and got some telling responses. She found out that her mother's brother, long out of touch, has been in really bad shape for some years now, with a. heart disease that has required extensive hospitalization and has doctors baffled, b. serious liver problems despite the fact that he is not a drinker.

Bingo! Both of those sound like the kind of organ damage that hemochromatosis does. And his sister, Chey's aunt, died of liver cancer at a very early age. Clearly, the need to run routine tests for hereditary hemochromatosis as a standard part of preventative health care is emerging as a theme in this new world of unwellness we are exploring.

Another theme is complexity. The treatment for hereditary hemochromatosis sounds simple: frequent phlebotomy. But the reality is a little different. First of all, a diagnosis of hereditary hemochromatosis is typically followed by a whole bunch of doctor visits and tests to determine what damage the condition has inflicted so far. As mentioned in my previous post on this, women naturally mitigate or the effects of the condition, to some degree at least, from puberty through menopause. This does not mean their organs are not being damaged.

When Chey had arthroscopic surgery on her shoulders years ago the surgeon mentioned seeing crystals. Dude, those were probably iron crystals, and if a patient has those then there is a good chance she has hemochromatosis; point that out to the patient and she can start dealing with it.

But no, this guy did shoulders--did them very well-but that was all he did (in fact, I went to see the same guy for soreness of the shoulder that turned out to be caused by a herniated disc, which he didn't diagnose because--you guessed it--he's a shoulder guy).

That was just one of the many times over the years that a greater physician awareness of hemochromatosis (and greater levels of patient awareness on the part of physicians) could have resulted in less damage to Chey's organs.

We are now awaiting the results of tests, pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, liver, etc. We think the heart is okay because she did well on a stress test earlier this year. Lungs seem good too, something we know from a very thorough testing at the quit smoking clinic last January.

In the meantime, Chey continues to experience extreme fatigue, bad headaches, and severe stomach pains; not all day, not every day, but most of the time on most days. With a lot of time to think while waiting out the pain, she is beginning to see the past in a new light, the last ten years of it anyway. She realizes that she was much sicker much sooner than she admitted to herself at the time. She was understandably loathe to accept that, somewhere around 2004, she had become technically disabled, i.e. she could not have held down a 9 to 5 job for 5 days a week.

There's still plenty of room to hope for a return to a more normal existence. We draw inspiration from "The Man Who Turned Orange" in Season 3 of Mystery Diagnosis on Discovery (Episode 2). Here was a marathon runner who described a rapid decline to the point of feeling, and walking, like he was 80. Depressed and suicidal, he was brought to his knees, literally, by what turned out to be hemochromatosis. With treatment he finally got back to the point where he could run a marathon again. Chey has never been the marathon type, but if she got to the point where she could walk the dog every day, that would be wonderful (and the dog would be really happy too).

Anyway, the whole point of this post was to help people with hemochromatosis get in touch with other sufferers. So, here are three resources we have found. There is an old fashioned mailing here and a somewhat more accessible forum here. It really does help to talk with others who have the condition. And we don't think you have to be Canadian to join this forum. If you know of others, please comment on this post and let folks know. Thanks.



Let's Hope Spammers and Criminals Don't Find This

I realize that yesterday's post about jpeggery only included one actual JPEG. So here's a couple more and they are quite disturbing.

You wouldn't think they were scary, looking at the first example, a pair of screenshots of the Eudora email program (yep, I'm really old school when it comes to email). The odd thing is that the upper shot, where the dark blue rectangle is just hovering on the page, is weird. It was just sitting there, even when I wasn't using the program. When you pull down the File menu in Eudora to select Check Mail it normally looks like the segment in the lower shot.  In other words, in the upper shot the screen seems to be retaining a piece of menu after the menu is closed. And Eudora is not the only place this happened, in fact the rectangle appeared over every application.

Consider the second pair of shots. This time the phantom rectangle has picked up the Save menu item from the Paint program, and below that a blog menu item called Details.

What appears to have happened is that after Windows Media Player crashed while playing a video, it left something in a graphics layer/frame/buffer which that program accesses. And that something persisted, across applications. It even stayed in place through a system stand-by and wake-up.

Do you begin to see what I see? There could be a way to inject persistent messaging that users can't remove without a reboot. Why would someone want to do that? Here's what Compter Security 101 teaches us. First there will be some people who do it "Because we can." Then some people will figure a way to exploit this to annoy/disrupt/market/infect/spam systems without system-owner consent. If doing this has perceived value, it will be done. And then the way to do this will have value and it will be sold. And so on.

Hopefully getting this phantom code entity into a system requires a hard-to-duplicate set of conditions (like you have to crash Windows Media just right).

An Odd Box of Images: Round up of jpeggery

As life goes by on the Internet highway I sometimes take a moment to snap pictures of odd things I see. Figured I would share some of them from time to time. Like this recent weather report from Google. The graphic for the current conditions in Cherry Valley is either missing or an attempt to depict a white out. I thought it was pretty funny. The actual conditions were very snowy but not a blizzard. Later in the day the white square was replaced by a the image you see on the left of the bottom row of icons.

And speaking of snow, I just uploaded a short video of the fun to be when you live in a cottage on a hill in upstate New York that relies on a wood stove for heat during the winter. This is a sneak preview. I may move the video to a different host but for now you can see it here.

Coldplay Viva La Vida Satriana Ripoff? The Internet helps you decide!

There's an interesting Web 2.0 twist in the lawsuit brought by guitar legend Joe Satriani against Coldplay for alleged plagiarism in Viva La Vida (one of the tunes used to sell iPhones). Thanks to the magic of the Internet you can play both songs at the same time. I think this is quite telling.*

Here's one of the places that has both performances on the same page so you can decide what you think. If you time your "Play" clicks just right, and you have decent bandwidth, you can get them playing on top of each other.

Having admired Satriani's musicianship for many years, as well as his extensive knowledge of the history of guitar technique, I am inclined to take him seriously. This could well be a My Sweet Lord He's So Fine moment, although that case--in which George Harrison's 1970 hit "My Sweet Lord" was found to have plagiarised "He's So Fine" composed by Ronald Mack and recorded by the Chiffons in 1962 lasted for a lot longer than a moment--the moment the question was raised, the public could start deciding for itself, albeit without the benefit fo the Internet.

Regardless of the outcome of the Satriani Coldplay case, there's a fascinating historical twist: Apple Computer used this possibly plagiarized tune to promote its iPhone less than two years after the conclusion of decades of trademark litigation involving Apple Music, of which Harrison was a co-founder.

*Note: The author of this blog post was declared "tone deaf" by his third grade teacher, Mrs. Ashby, and makes no claim to having any special knowledge about music, except a. He knows what he likes when he hears it, and b. He claims he can recognize any Otis Redding recording within 3 seconds.
.

Geeks Who Give? What a great idea!

As if all the hope embodied in our president elect were not enough to put a smile on your face, along comes another very hopeful sign: Geeks Who Give. These particular geeks are in Philadelphia and they are using Twitter to give their food drive some momentum. You can follow them here: http://twitter.com/geekswhogive. Or help spread the word by placing this badge on your web site:
Geeks Who Give

Another Great Hemochromatosis Resource

Thanks to a comment on my previous post about hemochromatosis I can pass along another web resource for anyone looking to learn more about this common, dangerous, yet treatable condition. The Canadian Hemochromatosis Society web site at toomuchiron.ca has loads of information.

I'm very grateful to Bob Rogers, Executive Director of the Canadian Hemochromatosis Society, for pointing me to the site. I particularly like the way the "What is it?" page is written. It provides a very straightforward explanation of hereditatry hemochromatosis.

What Am I Thankful For? A diagnosis of hemochromatosis

I have been trying to find the right way to write this post for about two weeks. Now we've arrived at the time of the year when it's traditional to speak of things for which we're thankful, I figured I would put it like this: I am thankful for a diagnosis, even though that diagnosis is hemochromatosis.

That might sound strange given what is written on the cover the "bible" of hemochromatosis, The Iron Disorders Institute Guide to Hemochromatosis:

It's Real • It's Common • It Can Kill You

And it's all true! If left untreated, hemochromatosis can kill you, often through some form of liver disease. And hemochromatosis is particularly prevalent among people of Celtic and Northern European origin. It is incurable. It is genetic. If you have it, you may pass it on to your kids. Here are the basics, as presented by the Iron Disorders Insitute:

What Am I Reading? Right now, Roger Ebert on Death to film critics!

Roger Ebert really nails the sad state of newspapers in a piece titled Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult! He concludes with a great line: "The news is still big. It's the newspapers that got small."

The article laments, among other things, the laying off of film critics by newspapers that has being going for over a year now. As a film producer I can attest to the fact that getting your film reviewed in any depth in 2008 was almost impossible, but until I read Ebert's piece I didn't realize just how lucky we were to get the reviews that we did get for Dare Not Walk Alone (you can find some of them summed up here and linked here).

Of course, I probably shouldn't say we were lucky. The film sure as heck deserved to be reviewed. Our distributor, Indican Pictures, did their part too. What we weren't lucky enough to get was an in-depth newspaper film critic review, the kind where the critic talks about the artistry of the film, the visual themes, things like the recurrent pool-beach-baptism-redemption imagery.

One other item in Mr. Ebert's article to which I can personally attest is the report by Variety's Anne Thompson, relayed by Mr. Ebert, that "earlier this year the Village Voice fired Dennis Lim and Nathan Lee, and recently fired all the local movie critics in its national chain, to be replaced, by syndicating their critics on the two coasts, the Voice's J. Hoberman and the L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas."

Turns out, because Dare Not Walk Alone opened in Los Angeles before it opened in New York, it was reviewed by the L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas. That same review was then republished in the Village Voice ahead of the New York opening. And that's how we credited it on DVD cover. I'm just sorry we couldn't get Mr. Ebert's opinion of the film before we went to print.

Turducken? Feeling chuffed with my Thanksgiving post

I just completed a blog post for Thanksgiving over on the Monetate Post-Click Blog and I'm quite pleased with it (back in the old country people would say they were "chuffed" when they were feeling pleased with something).

I've spent quite a bit of time the past two months studying various aspects of blogging, notably the role of the corporate blog. I've been getting a lot of good insights from reading Naked Conversations by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. I remember skimming through this book in my local Barnes & Noble not long after it came out (in 2006 I think) but at that time I did not have a "corporate" blogging role and some of the points didn't really sink in. Now I'm contributing to a company blog the advice from Scoble and Israel really clicks, things like: write in first person and be authentic, timely, and relevant. The turducken piece follows that advice. Here's hoping it generates some buzz. I mean, there can't be that many other bloggers talking about turducken in the context of search engine marketing, can there?

Please Adjust Your Set: New template is almost there

Okay, so I've got things pretty much the way I want them with this fairly heavily customized version of the Thesis template for WordPress. I had a lot of trouble reducing the page width from the default of 1024 pixels (expressed in ems in the template). The answer in the end (emd?) was to adjust the base font size down a notch or two. This worked great in all browsers except IE (so far I have checked Safari, Firefox, and Opera).

The issue in IE is that the page looks way large with IE's Medium font size setting. If you use the View/Text Size setting in IE and choose Smaller, things look good. Given that some IE users have the default IE size set to Smaller I am going to leave things as they are at the moment. If I find an easy auto-size fix for IE then I will implement it.

Do Not Adjust Your Set -- Makeover in progress

Yes, the site looks different today, and it may look different tomorrow. I'm experimenting with some different styles and templates. But the content will still be here. This new template features a random selection of photographs on the right (all taken by yours truly--right click on an image to get more info). Below is a shot of what the site used to look like. The end result of this experiment should be a more aesthetically appealing blog.

[caption id="attachment_199" align="alignnone" width="470" caption="Previous Cobb Blog Look"]Previous Cobb Blog Look[/caption]

Now on DVD: Dare Not Walk Alone

Yesterday was the "official" release date for the retail DVD of Dare Not Walk Alone. This DVD is something of a milestone for those of us who worked on this project. It comes a staggering 5 years after Jeremy decided to make the film and about 4 years and 3 months after Chey and I got involved. Jeremy is now married and no longer in his twenties. Chey and I are still married (and still in our fifties).

We are all extremely grateful to everyone who pitched in at various stages of this long and winding road. If this film beats the odds (again) and suddenly becomes "an overnight sensation," we will be able to say, in all honesty: "That was a very long night, but totally worth it." What follows is the press release that went out through erelease and PRNewsire.

BROOKLYN, N.Y., Nov. 11 /PRNewswire/ -- Dare Not Walk Alone, a feature-length documentary about little-known events in America's civil rights struggle, is now available on DVD at Wal-Mart and other stores. The film clearly illustrates what President-elect Obama has called "the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time." While documenting Dr. King's heroic campaign to end segregation, the film also paints a disturbing portrait of lingering inequality, some 40 years later, in one community where that campaign was waged.

The Dare Not Walk Alone trailer can be seen at the film's web site: http://darenotwalkalone.com.

Created by Brooklyn-based artist and director Jeremy Dean, Dare Not Walk Alone has been hailed by critics as "a powerhouse of a picture" and "important filmmaking." However, making the film was an uphill battle, according to executive producer Stephen Cobb. "The director insisted the film go beyond documenting the bravery and brilliance of Dr. King's victorious strategy of non-violence to explore the aftermath of that victory," said Cobb. "But a lot of people thought this approach was too radical for a mainstream audience."

Yet this is one small-budget independent documentary that beat the odds and achieved DVD distribution through major stores like Wal-Mart, Target, FYE, Movies Unlimited, and Amazon.com. The film's distributor is Indican Pictures.

"When Indican told us Wal-Mart ordered DVDs," says Dean, "we were thrilled, but also stunned. That's almost impossible when you're an indie project with no star backing."

Although the DVD is not on the shelves in every Wal-Mart yet, the retail giant is shipping from Walmart.com, according to Cobb.

"Our hats are off to both Wal-Mart and Indican," said Cobb. "We're delighted with Indican because they have moved us closer to our goal of giving everyone in America a chance to see this film."

The DVD features interviews with Ambassador Andrew Young and the late James Brock, owner of the motel in St. Augustine, Florida, where Dr. King was arrested. There is also an interview with Dean who is currently on a campus tour, most recently appearing at Notre Dame University's WorldView Film Series.

About Dare Not Walk Alone

Featuring rare archival footage, the film also contains recent interviews with participants in the campaign to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The project began in 2003 when director Dean was still in his twenties. After post-production work at Atlanta-based Crawford Communications, the final cut debuted in 2007 and was quickly signed for distribution by Indican Pictures. Theatrical screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and Portland garnered praise from critics:

"Powerful slice of roiling American history."
-- Los Angeles Times

"Has great potential to do real good in the world."
-- Boxoffice.com

"Minutely attuned to disparities of class and race ... a triumph of outrage and empathy."
--Willamette Week

"Deserves to be seen."
--New York Times

"Packs a punch."
-- Village Voice

Contact:
Jeremy Dean, writer and director
347-429-2427
email: info@dnwa.info
Web Site: http://darenotwalkalone.com

Warming up to Walmart

Recently, two things happened that changed my opinion of Walmart. If you plug "walmart" into Google you will probably find that the top 10 search results includes at lleast 3 sites that are critical of the retail giant. As the company has continued to grow over the last two decades many Americans, myself included, have had mixed feelings: Convenience versus impact on local stores. Low prices versus a shopping experience that is sometimes less than stellar.

I actually know some people who say they don't shop there. I know others who shop there but don't talk about it. I also know some people who will be critical of me for saying this, but here goes: "I shop at Walmart." Not all the time (the nearest one is 30 minutes from where I live). I like to do a fair amount of my shopping more locally. I stop in at Bob's Corner Store most days for milk and bread, cereal and maple syrup and such (Bob's is also where I get my mail--it's a post office and gas station as well as a store).

But from time to time I do make a trip to Walmart and recently two things have caused me to upgrade my opinion of the company. They might sound selfish, but here they are:

1. Walmart decided to carry a DVD that I played a part in creating, a feature-length documentary called Dare Not Walk Alone. Obviously Walmart carries hundreds of DVDs so what makes this decision exceptional? Well, for a start, Walmart is very selective about which documentaries it carries, so getting selected is a big vote in favor of the film (and a major accomplishment for our distributor, Indican Pictures).

Consumer Confidence Index At All-time Low

Just in case you thought you were alone in feeling totally bummed about the economy, consider this:
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- A key measure of consumer confidence fell to an all-time low in October as the financial crisis weighed on American household budgets.
Consumer confidence index at all-time low - Oct. 28, 2008.

The index fell to 38 in October from a revised reading of 61.4 in September, slamming the index to its lowest level since its inception in 1967. In other words, Americans are more depressed about their finances than at any time in the last 40 years.

And of course, there was an analyst on hand to state the obvious: "Consumers certainly appear to think the sky is falling," said Adam York, economic analyst at Wachovia Economics Group.You don't have to be Chicken Little to see that.

Other economists, who were not named in the report, possibly for their own protection, had expected the index to have declined to only 52. (Apparently economists are still making good money in secure jobs.)

Reason #17 To Vote Early If You Can

Many states now allow early voting and I just woke up to one more reason why early voting is a good idea.

I'm not saying that I wouldn't vote just because there was ten inches of snow on my car and the driveway needed to be plowed before I could get out. But on the other hand, I'm sure glad that I've already voted!

Daylight Saving Time Offset Again

Just a reminder that next week America will be less behind Europe than usual. This has some implications for transatlantic businesses and families. This weekend the clocks will Fall back in the EU and UK. So Paris will be 5 hours ahead instead of 6 and London will be 4 instead of 5. Things go back to normal (5/6) early on November 3. There are several some ways of looking at this. First a table from the very helpful WebExhibits site:

Go to the site and they have a handy feature to input any future year and get the dates of DST changes. This little table covers the next year or so:

Happy 35th Birthday Oil Crisis

That's right, 35 years ago today the first "oil crisis" officially began. That's when OAPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) placed an embargo on oil as punishment for U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. However, while the war was the proximate cause of the oil crisis, the underlying cause was of course that Republican rascal Nixon.

That's right, Nixon's decoupling of the US dollar from gold two years earlier had done a number on the finances of the oil producing countries. They were used to being paid in gold-backed dollars that ensured a direct correlation between the price they got per barrel of exported oil and the prices they paid for the western goods they imported (like cement, steel, medicine, and fine automobiles). The price they had to pay for imports started to go up, but without--what had previously been--an automatic increase in the value of their oil exports.

And so, once again, the West blamed the Arabs for getting angry at being screwed by the West, the Arabs muddied the waters by bringing Israel into the argument, and a crooked Republican president was right in the thick of it, and there you have the last 35 years.

Bamford Breaks Out: Shadow Factory exposes NSA, CIA, Hayden, Bush, 9/11

When it comes to books about the US intelligence agencies there's a lot of mumbo-jumbo and plain old BS out there. The shining exception has been the work that James Bamford has published about the National Security Agency [NSA]. And Bamford's latest book, the just released Shadow Factory, is really going to shake things up in the IC (spook-speak for Intelligence Community).

I ordered my copy from Amazon today and I urge you to do the same. But before your copy arrives you can get an idea of some of the shocking information it contains by checking out this explosive interview available in mp3 and Real Video. If the world was not in the middle of an economic meltdown right now, revelations like this would be headline news. Spoiler Alert: This interview includes explanations of how:

  • the NSA pays foreign companies and private contractors to create copies of all your Internet traffic;

  • the CIA prevented the FBI from tracking the 9/11 terrorists in America;

  • contractors in America swap tapes of our soldiers in Iraq calling home to their wives and girlfriends;

  • the head of the NSA, now the head of the CIA, General Hayden, agreed to Cheney's demands for an illegal domestic surveillance program to avoid personal embarrassment.


Bamford first brought the National Security Agency to the world's attention in 1982 with The Puzzle Palace. Back then the very existence of the NSA was classified, the book was essentially banned in the US, and Bamford was...

Love Forever Changes: The concert DVD you really need to hear

I rarely recommend products sight unseen. And I know that when times are tough, folks cut back on their impulse buys. But you won't regret buying this DVD.
My copy turned up earlier this week and although I was too busy working to watch it, I had a chance to download the soundtrack to my in-car audio system before I embarked on a 5 hour drive from Philly to upstate New York. Wow! What a blast.

Note: this is not a product referral post, this link to the DVD at Amazon does not earn me a penny. I just to share the love.

If you already own Forever Changes, the 1967 album by Love, then you will love this DVD. If Forever Changes has not yet entered your life, this DVD is great way to open those doors of perception. It features the entire album, played live, in original sequence, by the creative genius behind the album: Arthur Lee (a musician whose role in the history of rock remains widely under-appreciated).

The concert was recorded in 2003 in England, where Forever Changes was a fixture on record changers throughout 1968. Speaking for myself and a lot of my friends, we listened to Forever Changes way more than Sergeant Pepper.

That Arthur Lee's life took so many tragic turns made it seem unlikely that this concert would be anything more than a dim echo of faded glory days.

Obama and Terrorists? Try Palin and Witchdoctors

So, once upon a time Obama knew this guy who had been part of the American counter-culture in the sixties (a time when there were violent excesses on both the left AND the right of American politics). Obama emphatically rejected the political philosophy of this guy (who is currently a professor at an accredited American university).

And Palin has a problem with this? Palin, who has been hanging out, quite recently, with this guy Mutthee who boasts of his success in persecuting people in Kenya. This is a man who accuses women of witchcraft, women not convicted of any crime, but personally singled out by him. This friend of Palin then organizes campaigns of ostracism to drive these women from their homes and worse (the burning of women as witches is still practiced in Kenya today, something that doesn't seen to bother this friend of Sarah Palin).

So the question becomes why, after every American media outlet made a big deal about video of Obama's pastor, do so many now ignore video of Palin accepting the blessing of a witch-persecuting preacher? The video is right here.

And why has nobody called on Palin to renounce Mutthee's philosophy, as expressed in his sermon just before Palin accepted his blessing? He wants to take over our public schools and cast out the teaching of witchcraft. And this guy would like to see a lot more tongue-speaking, devil-casting kids in our schools. So a vote for Palin would seem to be a vote for the good old days of witch-hunting in America. But hey, it's [still] a free country.

Broadband Lines That Reach Into Rural Communities, Yes!

If you want to get all selfish and "single issue" about political candidates, then there was one line from the first 2008 Presidential Debate that got my vote: "broadband lines that reach into rural communities."

Of all the energy-saving, eco-friendly, game-changing moves that America could make, which would pay for itself within a few years but also reap dividends for decades, it is "broadband lines that reach into rural communities." The benefits to rural communities would be enormous, more companies could locate there and more people could telecommute from there. America as a whole would benefit because more telecommuting means less traffic, less pollution, less demand for oil.

So I'm voting for the candidate who talks about this topic like he means it, the candidate who is smart enough to make it a priority and put it out there on the national stage. Yep, that's my candidate. Can you guess who it is?

Yes! It was Senator Obama who said "I also think that we're going to have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind, our roads, our bridges, but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities." (Check the debate transcript at CNN if you think I'm making this up.) It looks like we actually might have a presidential candidate smart enough to understand the difference between broadband lines and inferior alternatives like dialup and satellite. If my brother can get a 6Mbps line in a small fishing village in Spain, surely every village in upstate New York should be able to get the same.

CDS: My question for the presidential candidates tonight

Senator Obama, Senator McCain,

As you know, under the Bush administration unregulated credit default swaps--which billionaire Warren Buffet describes as "financial weapons of mass destruction"--now exceed $40 trillion. Can you explain to the American taxpayer

a. What a credit default swap is;

b. Why credit default swaps are currently unregulated;

c. How a company with $1 billion of outstanding debt can have $10 billion of outstanding CDS contracts and;

d. How a default on $1 billion in corporate debt, assuming debt recovery at 40 cents on the dollar, becomes a $6 billion loss to credit default swap sellers.

Oh, and a follow-up if I may: What are your plans, if any, to regulate the CDS market in the future? Please be as specific as possible in your responses.

Thank you.
p.s. This is a closed book test, but candidates may refer to the Wikipedia article and this diagram.

Under Pressure? Wikipedia can help

A few posts ago I wrote about the need to have the right amount of air in our tires. I was going to make a witty reference to the song "Under Pressure," you know, the one with the wicked bassline that's been used in ad campaigns for everything from Propel Fitness Water to Zales Jewelry, and movies such as Grosse Pointe Blank, The Players Club, Stepmom, 40 Days and 40 Nights, The Girl Next Door, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and The Heartbreak Kid. It's the one that rapper Vanilla Ice sampled without permission for his big hit, "Ice Ice Baby."


My problem was not that I couldn't remember the name of the song but I wanted to say who wrote it and that's where things get tricky. Was it Queen or David Bowie? This was not immediately clear from my initial Googling. A few days after the post I realized that all I needed to do was to go to Wikipedia, where an entire page is devoted to the song at this URL:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_Pressure.


It seems that rock music is one area where Wikipedia is growing at a phenomenal rate, adding details down to a level that some people might think obsessive, but others, like me, find fascinating, and actually rather helpful. Thanks Wikipedia!

Oil Prices Down as Supply Drops? There goes the froth

A Wall Street Journal headline today said "Crude Hits Seven-Month Low" which is good news, but infuriating. First of all, it strikes me as proof positive that most of the dollars per gallon in excess of $100 were pure speculative froth, that is, rich people gambling as they try to get richer by distorting the value of a vital ingredient of the world economy, one that is not far behind food and water in term of human survival (given the extent to which current economies are petroleum-based).

In the midst of hurricane season with oil rigs knocked off line and Nigerian rebels blowing up pipelines left and right, in other words, with supply in doubt, oil drops. Where are all those Wall Street talking heads who popped up to parrot the line that $140 a barrel oil "is simply a reflection of supply and demand"? My gut feeling is that they should be publicly stoned with Economics 101 textbooks (obviously it is not stoning when a wood-based material is used, and it probably wouldn't be deadly, just painful and humiliating).

Second reason this situation made me angry was that gas is still close to $4.00 a gallon in New York and it really should be a lot less. Let's say the price of a US gallon of gasoline topped out around here at $4.30 when crude was $142 a barrel (mid-July). That's a little more than 3 cents per dollar of crude. With oil at $100, gasoline should surely be about $3, not $3.85, which is what I paid yesterday. I realize that the finer points of this calculation vary by state, and some states have taxes that are per gallon and per dollar of retail value. But it seems to be that if oil is close to $100 a barrel then gas should be a lot close to $3.00 a gallon than it is. One thing's for sure, you can bet on another quarter of record profits for Exxon-Mobil-BP-Shell-Chevron-Etc.

Labor Day for Virtual Workers?

A few days ago I wrote a post over on the Monetate Blog to make the point that every worker should be proud on Labor Day, even those of us who work with bits and pixels and other nebulous, virtual things. Code slingers and geeks and digital tinkerers are responsible for a significant percentage of the GDP, not to mention the joys of MP3s and Hi-Def TVs and cell phones and IM and texting and such.

Happy Labor Day!

Desperately Seeking Sven?

I'm not going to say a word about this. I'm just going to give you the headline: Mad Cow Rules Hit Sperm Banks' Patrons. And no, that's not from The Inquirer. It's from the Washington Post.

Huffington Post Pick-Me-Up

I thought the Huffington Post was all about politics, but then I saw a post by Verena von Pfetten that said glasses are the new gorgeous.

While this may only be true for Verena and a handful of commenters on the piece, it perked me up quite a bit.

Could this mean that wearing glasses for over 40 years will finally start paying off?

The first glimmer of hope for me was John Lennon, who started wearing National Health Service glasses in the late sixties. That was more than a fashion statement, it was subversive politics of a kind you seldom see these days. NHS glasses were free from the British government's health service, of which Lennon, like me, was a big fan. But before he wore them, many people, myself included, considered them uncool. Suddenly they were cool because a Beatle was wearing them and a lot more people opted to wear them instead of a. designer frames they couldn't really afford, b. going without glasses. He helped make the NHS cool.

So maybe Verena von Pfetten is more politically savvy than she lets on.

When Blogs Work and Politics Don't: The Tire Pressure Debacle

The Tire QueenRight wing reaction to Barack Obama's comment about tire pressure is yet another example of how political discourse has devolved in this country. It says so much about the world today that a politician can be mocked for saying that properly inflating the tires on our cars could save more oil than would be produced by an oil drilling program proposed by his opponent. Even if you favor said drilling program, you have to be brain dead to downplay the value of proper tire pressure when gas is $4 a gallon (by defiintion the only people who aren't interested in reducing their gas consumption are those who are too rich to notice the price at the pump). Fortunately, this storm in a glove box has led to some good blog posts, like this from Dan Neil in the LA Times. Here are my own random thoughts:

1. My father taught me to check the pressure in the tyres of the family car on a regular basis, probably because I learned to drive in a country that typically pays 3 times as much as America for gasoline.

2. I have routinely fumed about under-inflation in America since I moved here in 1976. Few things irk me more than driving down the Interstate behind a car or minivan or SUV that has obviously not got enough air in its tires. Even when gas was cheap, wasting it was wrong. Not to mention the negative effects on tire wear, braking, safety, etc.

3. America badly needs educating about tires. A lot of people have no idea what the pressure should be or how to check it accurately. Factors like temperature and load are largely ignored. Read Dan's blog. Read the articles on this site. Have a family meeting to make sure all drivers are with the program.

4. Driving on properly inflated tires is something real you can do to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, so if you can't be bothered to do it, what standing do you have in the national debate?

So be a patriot and invest $10 in a decent tire gauge, then use it, regularly. Please.

What's With The Rugelach-Bashing?

I recently had one of those Emily Litella moments (see entries for Emily Litella and Gilda Radner in Wikipedia if you've forgotten who Emily was). It got me thinking about the sad state of political discourse these days.

While driving from Outer Philadelphia to Upstate New York a few days ago, I took the back roads to avoid some badly-managed late summer road work on the Interstate (ah, the joys of GPS-based motoring--freelance detours without the fear factor). Fading in out out over the hills, the radio in my Jeep picked up something that sounded angry and white and pretty far to the right. I caught a phrase that sounded like "get rid of all these rugelach-eating liberal commie gun-banning elitist...something, something." And I'm thinking rugelach? Rugelach? Really?

Best Diner in Conshohocken?

...or "What a Difference a Smile Makes"

I've just come back from a great week working in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, at the offices of my new gig, Monetate. As might be expected, given their past successes, Messrs Brussin and Bookspan are putting together an excellent team. And the location at100 Four Falls Corporate Center doesn't hurt.

In fact the location helps, a lot, because, as I quckly discovered, this is an office building with a hidden advantage: A great little diner/deli tucked away on the ground floor. Called the Green Tree, it made going to the office each day more of a treat than a chore. What better way to start the day than with an individually prepared egg and cheese muffin for breakfast, cooked to order and reasonably priced, served with a smile?

Then keep things going mod-morning with some Green Mountain coffee and a fresh banana. Power through lunch with some interesting dishes, including big salads, served with a smile. Then come back on day two and find they remember your name. Day three and the staff are still cheerful and the menu is still fresh? What's with this place?

I began to wonder if it was just me being homesick and getting infatuated. So I hung out there for a while to do some people watching (and job-related research reading). I soon realized that this was one of those rare places where a business and its customers are in love with each other. Like a bartender who remembers your 'usual' on your secondf visit, the staff seemed to be fully engaged in the job of serving up more than just a bite to eat. I saw guys in suits and Rolexes melting at the simple things like remembered preferences and personal details. High power attorneys, including at least one judge, would chat with the staff about stuff like grandkids and plans for the weekend, in what was clearly an ongoing conversation.

By the end of the week I knew I was going to miss the place. On Friday afternoon I dropped by to get a last cup of coffee. A very corporate-looking businessman in a very expensive suit was waiting for a sandwich. I said to him something casual like "Are these guys good or what?" And just like that we were pals, diner buddies. He couldn't say enough good things about the place. This was obviously a guy who could afford to eat anywhere but clearly he'd learned that money can't buy what the Green Tree dishes up.

Working in the Word Mine

Victor Kiam might be dead, but his slogan is still remembered: "I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company." That was his landmark ad for Remington. Well, I can now say "I liked the company so much, I went to work for it." That's right I am now working for Monetate.

What's Monetate? A startup started by two Davids, Mr. David Brussin and Mr. David Bookspan. It is also:

“A new way to create personalized site experiences for visitors to e-commerce web sites.”

And my job is to tweak that description, capture the essence of the product, and then make sure the world of online retailing knows all about it. Should be fun.

p.s. That's Victor Kiam in the photo, not me or one of the Davids.

Cool Stuff for Online Stores

Had a very interesting chat today with David Brussin whose new company, Monetate, has developed a very powerful tool for online retailers. This tool/product is also called Monetate and what it does is pretty amazing. Suppose you’re shopping on the web, maybe for new boots. You visit a couple of sites that sell the boots you want. As you flick between sites to find the best price, an offer pops up, giving you 20% off on the exact product you want, if you order today.

If you're selling boots and your site that makes that offer, you may well get the order. Making that offer is what Monetate does.

Even better, from the site owners point of view, Monetate can extend offers like this based on very specific criteria, like "free next day delivery on big screen TVs" but offered only to customers who are within 50 miles of the warehouse. You might think online retailers already have the ability to do this sort of thing and a few do. But many are still struggling to implement this level of personalization. Monetate is relatively easy to implement (it's SaaS, but without the need for clients to code to an API). Plus, you can make personalized offers even to people who have never shopped at your site before.

How does Monetate do this? I'm about to find out. I will report back soon.

Two Blasts From The Past In One Day: Monetate and IMCD

I got two exciting calls today from friends and former colleagues, David Brussin and Michael Miora. two of the guys with whom I co-founded InfoSec Labs and ePrivacy Group.

Mr. Miora is a seriously qualified information security and disaster recovery expert (as in Michael Miora, CISSP, ISSMP, FBCI). He has been working on a product that helps businesses recovery from disasters. It is called IMCD, from Incident Management CD, because one of its many clever tricks is to store, one on CD (or USB thumb drive or SD card) everything your company needs to know in an emergency: who to call, contact details, systems and software applications and data, by department, priority, location, and so on and, Wow, there really is a lot of stuff you need to get your hands on fast when the nasty stuff meets the whirling blades.

One reason I'm familiar with this product is that my brother (Mike Cobb, CISSP, ISSAP, MCDBA) was heavily involved, coding the interface and algorithms and such. The exciting news today was the availability of the new version, boxed and priced to sell, on places like Amazon, for $99.00. At this price it's a very cheap insurance policy and potential life-saver for owners of small-to-medium businesses as well as in charge of regional offices of larger companies. The next step in the marketing plan is to move into brick and mortar retail stores like Staples and OfficeMax. I look forward to seeing it on the shelves soon.

The news from Mr. Brussin was also very exciting--his new company's new product is ready to rock and they've just activated the first client. David is one of those people obsessed with making things work better through the appropriate application of technology. He was running his own networking company before he turned 20 and has been coming up with bright ideas ever since, like the anti-spam router, still the single most effective anti-spam tool you can buy. This latest company/idea is a means of making online retail sites work better (a by-product of spending too much time Internet shopping?). It sounds like David has put together an ace tech team to build this thing and I look forward to learning more about it.

What Fighting Spam Taught Me About Marketing (and Market Forces)

Yesterday I reflected on the emergence of the spam problem and some early work on anti-spam strategies. I'd like to continue the topic today with a second observation from early in 2001:

2. A lot of people want to receive relevant offers.

This is not the same as observation #1 in my previous post: Some people like unsolicited email. Back in 2001, point #1 was true: a not insignificant percentage of email users were open to getting email they didn't ask for. This percentage dropped rapidly over the next few years as the quantity of unsolicited email that these people received increased, together with the proportion of that email which was deceptive and distasteful.

What did not change is point #2; it is human nature to be receptive to a good deal IF it is relevant. We realized this...

Anti-Spam? But some people like(d) email surprises

Back in January of 2001, some of my buddies and I did some serious thinking about spam, the obnoxious unsolicited email, not the canned luncheon meat (email spam is sometimes referred to as unsolicited commercial email or UCE). For several days we sat around a table in a room paneled with whiteboard in the basement of a house in a suburb of Philadelphia. Collectively we came up with some useful and enduring insights. With spam now accounting for up to 90 percent of all Internet email traffic and new, more malevolent variations appearing weekly, I thought it might be useful to revisit some of those insights in this post...

A Small Wonder: World's fastest autogyro

I recently came across a story that intrigued me and at the same time lifted my spirits. It concerns a small flying machine called Woodstock.

But first some background. I've been interested in aircraft at least as far back as my first transatlantic flight (in a Bristol Britannia operated by B.O.A.C. ). That was when my father was on his way to work for the Renfrew Aircraft company in Canada, where we lived for the year that I was six. When I was 10, he and I went on a church outing to Heathrow Airport (my folks belonged to a pretty cool church). We had a guided tour of the Boeing maintenance facilities (where I learned that each of the four engines on a Boeing 707 are held on by just three bolts).

My brother and I got my our first helicopter ride when I was 11 and he was 6. Many years later he completed his training for his helicopter license while staying with Chey and me in San Francisco.

Lavish G8 Menu: A hotch-potch of complacent inanity?

Gotta love those British journalists. They have such a knack for spotting irony. In the Times this morning the headline read "G8 leaders feast on 13 courses after discussing world food shortages." This was followed by a truly sickening menu of the exotic foods upon which the leaders of the world's richest and most powerful nations feasted while pondering a massive increase in world hunger.

And it's not like the Times smuggled the menu out--the summit organizers were actually bragging about it, proving, once again, that the people who currently rule the planet have no clue. I mean, either you eat the fancy food in secret or you make a big show of eating plain food, for a change.

Then the Guardian's economics editor Larry Elliott, writing under the headline "A G8 removed from the real world," ponders what action, if any, the G8 will take. Will they do something decisive, for a change? Warns Elliott, "It would be foolish to bank on it." After pointing out that the last summit was way off base, he concludes that we would be "far safer to expect a repeat of last year's hotch-potch of complacent inanity."

And really, the G8 would have done better to dine on "aged hotch-potch of complacent inanity," perhaps served with a side order of humble pie, instead of wolfing down things like corn-stuffed caviar and truffle soup or sea urchin 'pain surprise' style.

Erosion Threatening America: And it's not global warming

At the supermarket you try to buy fresh, natural produce. but you recently heard that more than 60% of the food on the shelves today likely contains GM ingredients (a recent survey said 80% of Americans want food labels to indicate the presence genetically modified ingredients but 99.9% of GM food it is not labeled as such).

In the meat aisle you look for some meat to grill at the weekend when friends come over to watch the game. You see some are Black Angus steaks on sale, but are vaguely aware that under USDA rules any beef meat can be labeled Black Angus if the animal has a "black hair coat". You just hope the steaks taste okay.

At the checkout you swipe your debit card and hope that there is not some malicious code in the store that is capturing your card details and shipping them offshore for use in fraud schemes (which was happening for a while at nearly 300 otherwise reputable grocery stores).

Come the weekend, you fire up the grill and settle in to watch the game, unaware that one of the teams has been illegally spying on its opponents for years. At half time a friend asks about an email he got from the IRS asking for bank account information so the agency could send his tax refund via direct deposit. You tell him the message is a scam and the IRS does not use email because it can't be trusted.

In fact, you have this growing feeling that there is too much that can't be trusted these days; surely this erosion of trust is not good for the country. As the second half of the game begins you find yourself surreptiously surfing the Web on your laptop, entering search strings like: trust economic payoff, trust erosion growth, and such like. You find a widely quoted paper from 1997 that showed trust having a significant impact on aggregate economic activity, specifically "the coefficient for Trust [...] indicates that a ten percentage point rise in that variable is associated with an increase in growth of four-fifths of a percentage point" (Knack and Keefer, 1997). You find another paper from 2000 that concludes "a ten-percentage point increase in the number of respondents revealing themselves as “generally trusting others” is associated with a rise of per capita income in purchasing power standards of three-fifths of a percentage point" (Van Puyenbroeck and Cherchye, 2000).

So, increasing trust within America by ten percent could actually provide a big boost to an otherwise sagging economy. Is that feasible? Consider the numbers in this IBM study. America's trust level is 36. The figure for the Netherlands is 55 and for Norway it's 65. The UK is at 44 and Ireland's at 47. In other words, if Americans had the same level of trust as the Irish, an annual GDP growth rate of 3% percent could be boosted to 3.8%. If we reached Dutch levels of trust, that 3% GDP figure could be 4.6%. And if we achieved Norway's trust level, we could hit 5.4%, a veritable powerhouse of growth, achieved not by raping the land and ruining the environment and hogging resources, but by engendering trust between individuals and institutions.

Child Porn: Why One Man's Innocence May Worry IT Managers

Computer security news out of Massachusetts this week could be a sign of big troubles to come for IT managers in enterprises, government agencies, and SMEs, in the U.S. and around the world. It's not a virus or worm or Trojan as such, although they may be involved. No, it's a case in which an innocent man lost his job and his reputation, and may now win a landmark suit against his former employer. Why? Because he was fired for having child pornography on his company laptop without adequate forensic evidence that he put it there.

The case of Michael Fiola could become a landmark of sorts, although some observers seem to have missed the point I'm going to make: Any employer considering taking action against an employee, based solely on what is 'found' on an employer-issued computer, must have solid forensic evidence to justify that action, and preferably be in a position to justify the action on additional, non-forensic grounds. Why? Because failure to do so could have serious consequences.

Legal Precedent, the CIO/CISO Remit, and Indian Affairs

Q. Have you spent much time at the U.S. government's Bureau of Indian Affairs web site lately?

A. No.

I didn't think so. Because, when you go to www.bia.gov it's not there. According to a recent news story that may be about to change, but don't hold your breathe. There hasn't been a web server at bia.gov for most of the past 7 years. Why? The short answer, which I consider to be highly instructive to Chief Information Officers and Chief Information Security Officers everywhere--inside the government and out--is this: "Because the judge just said No."

Allow me to elaborate. Back in 2001 a judge told the BIA to take its site off the Internet because it was not secure. And, in a judgment that strikes me as a brilliant application of commonsense, he added: "Don't put it back until it's secure."

How does a judge determine if a web site is secure? The same way that the Federal Trade Commission does: submit it to examination by an objective, independent third-party who is suitably qualified, such as a CISSP (Certified Information System Security Professional). And that's what the BIA did, in 2003, and again in 2004. Basically, the BIA kept reworking its systems to try and achieve a standard that I like to call "secure enough." That means the site can withstand all of the obvious, predictable and realistically feasible attacks.

And that pretty much sums up the real world standard used by site like Amazon.com and BankOfAmerica.com. For example, a site won't fail the "secure enough" standard just because it's encryption could be defeated by a brute force attack that would take $50 million super-computer to execute. A site will fail if it is found to be vulnerable to a known cross-site scripting attack or a SQL-injection hole that was patched six months ago.

Well now there is a Court Order permitting Internet reconnection for Indian Affairs and the agency is "on the path to full reconnection to the Internet." Note that this is not happening because the judge's security experts gave the site a clean bill of health. On the contrary, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit and agreed with the agency that the judge was out of line when he issued the Consent Order Regarding Information Technology Security that suspended the site back in December, 2001. So, the court gave permission for the "information technology systems of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Office of Hearing and Appeals (OHA), the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST), and the Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA) to be reconnected to the Internet." It will be interesting to see how long that takes, and how secure the site proves to be, in a real 'real world' test.

In the meantime, companies might ponder how they would fare if all Web sites had to pass a security review before they were allowed to go live.

Anti-spam: A Stephen Cobb Podcast

A couple of months ago I recorded a 15 minute, interview-style podcast with Brian Kraemer of TechTarget on the subject of spam, then I promptly forgot about it. Well, today I remembered and figured I would embed it in a blog post.



For those who prefer a direct link to the original MP3 podcast file, all 14 megabytes of it, here it is: Cobb on Anti-spam.

I hope you find it useful listening. The target audience was mid-market CIOs (that is, Chief Information Officers at companies with 100-5000 employees or revenue up to $1 Billion). But I think it would be of interest to most SMEs (that is, small-to-medium sized enterprises). Finally, here's a link to the podcast on the TechTarget site.

Freelancers Unite! A way to get health insurance and a voice

If, like me, you've worked as a freelance writer (or coder, developer, editor, consultant, etc.), then you know the pain of trying to get affordable health insurance for yourself and your family, of trying to get paid on time, and generally trying to get the respect you deserve [to say "America runs on freelance labor" would not be an exaggeration].

Now there's an organization that is uniting freelancers to get action on some of these items, most notably health insurance. It's called the Freelancers Union and actually has been around since 1995 when Sara Horowitz, a former labor lawyer, founded Working Today. This was renamed Freelancers Union in 2003 to better reflect its expanded role, which includes lobbying on issues of concern to freelancers (the union received 501(c)4 status in 2007). The original focus was to serve freelancers in New York City but the group is now on a national membership drive. The timing could not be better, with a lot of people being laid off from salaried jobs and rates for individual health insurance is now higher than house payments in many states.

That's right, according to the Census Bureau, the median monthly housing cost was below $1,200 in 20 states in 2006 and $1,200 which the monthly premium we were paying for basic husband/wife BlueCross coverage, no dental, no optical, limited hospital benefits, with a large deductible and hefty copays; that was until we dropped our coverage because we couldn't afford it, which is not unusual for many baby boomers who are now in the health insurance 'dead zone' i.e. too young for Medicare but old enough to have acquired a few health problems and thus really hammered by rising premiums.)

Checking over the web site it appears that Freelancers Union's health insurance rates are about half those for individual plans. Definitely worth checking out if you freelance.

The End of the Internet As We Know It?

Could the day be approaching when blogging about how much you dislike the Church of Scientology or a certain political candidate gets you knocked off the net? Or worse, a heavy knock on the door?

Love it or hate it, the Internet of old appears to be on its way out. A few years from now, two recent news items, when taken together, may reveal a turning point. Most recent was the agreement of several major ISPs to censor Internet traffic. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has coaxed Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint into dropping the long-accepted notion that ISPs are immune from liability for content posted by users, much the same way that phone companies have eschewed liability for what people say in phone calls and, to get historical about it, printing machine makers took no responsibility for what was printed with their presses. This principle, that the carrier is not responsible for what is carried, is even established in law, notably under the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

But as David Kravets, writing at Wired.com observes, under the Cuomo deal, "the ISPs seem to acknowledge a moral role in policing the internet."

An Historic Night for America, Great Hope for the Future

One month shy of the 44th anniversary of the signing of the first civil rights act, the headline from New York Times says it all: Obama Claims Nomination; First Black to Lead a Major Party Ticket.

We've come a long way! And we need to acknowledge that a lot of younger voters are a big part of what made this happen, and that really is a welcome dose of hope for the future.

Sydney Pollack: A great maker of movies

Just wanted to note, with considerable sadness, the death of Sydney Pollack, at the relatively young age of 73.

Pollack's body of work is enormous and impressive (he racked up what must be be one of the longest IMDB listings there is).

Yet, in a business too often tainted by a wealth of unpleasantness, Pollack always seemed like a genuinely nice guy with a good sense of humor and a lot of heart. He directed one of the funniest movies of the last thirty years (Tootsie) and some of the most compassionate (The Electric Horseman and They Shoot Horses Don't They). But he could also nail a cold-blooded and subversive thriller, as in Three Days of the Condor. As a producer and executive producer he helped get some very important and challenging films into theaters (Michael Clayton and The Quiet American). All that and a darn actor to boot! You could always rely on him to get it just right. His craggy face and wry smiles will be missed.

Unseemly In Any Context: One angry video sets Hillary straight

I can't say I'm a fan of Keith Olbermann, the host of "Countdown" on MSNBC, because I've never watched the show. But I might start watching him after viewing this video of his reaction to Clinton's assassination remark (this link takes you to The Fix at the Washington Post where you can watch the clip without ads).

Billed as a "Special Comment" and delivered in the spirit of Edward R. Murrow's opinion pieces criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy, this was a blistering, high energy critique of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And it wasn't all wind and fury. Olbermann deftly referenced previous assassination allusions made by candidate Clinton, reinforcing the impression that this was not a 'slip of the tongue' or 'out-of-context' anomaly, but rather a simple window into the way her mind works: "I'm going to keep campaigning into June, after all Obama could be dead by then."

I'm not saying that she thinks like that in the sense that she;s actually wishing something bad happens to her opponent, but rather she's wedded to a way of thinking about politics that hopes for the worse if that's what serves your agenda best. Given that the Clintons are already heavily identified with that mindset, you'd think Hillary would try harder to disavow it, or distance herself from it, but instead we keep getting flashes of it, suggesting a flame still burns that is more about personal ambition than public service and the public good. This is not someone I want to see in the White House.

(About the only thing that I didn't like about Olbermann's piece was his final remark, "Good night and good luck." That belongs to someone else and although this "comment" piece came close to the spirit of Edward R. Murrow, I think there are plenty of other ways to sign off without borrowing his.)

Worst Executive Decision Ever? American Airlines goes for broke

When your industry is in trouble and times are tough, the time may come for an executive to make tough decisions. After all, that's why they've been paying you the big bucks all these years, right? So how much is the following idea worth? Charge people who choose to travel on our planes $15.00 for every bag they check.

Consider the following top ten ramifications:

  1. The toll it takes to collect the $15 per back toll (time, resources, aggravation, goodwill).

  2. The strain on gate agent staffing and potential fraud in handling the cash, check or charges.

  3. The chore of promulgating and enforcing rules and arrangements for travelers who arrive with a ticket but say they can't pay for the bag check.

  4. The carry-on baggage explosion? Mayhem in the boarding area as passengers battle to be first onboard in order to grab overhead space.

  5. The regulation of the secondary market in cabin luggage space? For example: "I'm traveling light, I'll put your bag under my seat for $5?"

  6. The added flight delays because it already takes a long time to figure out that the overhead is full and there are three bags that are going to have to be checked. Now we will argue about whose three bags it will be, because the losers have to pay.

  7. The longer security lines and times as more passengers try to get more stuff into their carry-on quota (there's a whole bunch of stuff that is verboten in carry-on bags like more than 3 fluid ounces of most liquids, baseball bats, golf clubs, pool cues, ski poles, big screwdrivers, etc.).

  8. The number of flight attendants who decide it's not worth the aggravation and quit, or worse, carry on working with an even sourer attitude than before.

  9. The effect of people packing more stuff into a single checked bag, leading to more weight surcharges and the resulting time spent arguing and collecting, followed by more muscles pulled by ground crew, health insurance and disability claims, not to mention errors in load distribution as average per checked bag weight shifts.

  10. The lasting damage to public perception of your airline as the one who started this whole mess.


Wouldn't you love to have been at the meeting when they decided this was a good idea? And who supplied the research that said Americans will continue to fly in large numbers regardless of how unpleasant the experience becomes. I already see people doing the math on journeys you can do in a day of driving, like New Jersey to Detroit or Chicago, which is cheaper than flying if there is more than one person in the vehicle. Plus you can pack anything you like in the trunk, no hassles, no surcharges, no security lines. Heck you can even have a 32 ounce big gulp in the passenger cabin. With executive decisions like this one, American Airlines could single-handedly revive the Great American road trip.

What's Missing for Clinton, the DNC, and the Pundits? A clue about Florida voting

In the endless posturing and prognostication about what to do about Florida's aborted Democratic primary one group of voters is missing, unheard from and unhappy. These are voters who, like me, were registered Democrats in the state of Florida at the start of 2008, and who did not vote in the primary. Why? Because the DNC said that my vote would not count. No delegates from Florida would be seated.

And so, like untold numbers of Floridians, for whom voting is an effort at the best of times, I did the sensible thing, I didn't vote. Hillary Clinton may speechify about making sure every voice is heard and every vote is counted, but I'm sitting here with a vote that she can't count, a vote not cast.

If I had gone to the polls and cast my vote it would have been for Barrack Obama, but I stayed away, on no less advice than that of my party. So while pundits do and redo the numbers, hash and re-hash the rumors of deals, they overlook the fact that no candidate won the Democratic primary in Florida, not Hillary, not Obama. The DNC denied the vote. There is no fair way to seat the delegates.

When you're watching the Olympics this August, imagine that just before the starting gun is fired for the 100 meters final, the President of the IOC walks onto the field and says there will be no 100 meters final this year. Then someone starts running for the finish line. A few ruuners give chase while others are still in their blocks looking stunned. Belatedly an official starts the clock running. The first person across the line claims victory and a new world record. Mayhem ensues. Welcome to our world, the surreal world of voting in Florida. Or rather, welcome to what used to be our world. My wife and I are leaving the state this year, headed to a state that manages to hold elections without embarrasing and disenfranchising its citizens.

Killing and Burning the Future: This is no way to solve the fuel crisis

Global warming got you down? Feeling bad about the environment? Worried about energy shortages? Then don't watch Burning the Future. It tells one of the saddest stories in American history, the rape of a whole swath of our country by the coal companies.

And if you want some light reading, don't pick up The Legend of Colton Bryant. It tells the story of a young American destroyed by the oil industry, which is slowly destroying the land where he was born and raised.

And if you're wondering how this country is supposed to survive if we rein in the oil and coal companies, consider two things. 1. The first oil crisis was in 1973 and in 35 years we have failed to get serious about surviving without foreign fuel. 2. Why even bother to survive if the only way we can think to do that is to rape the land we live on?

How The Democrats Blew 2008: Florida's SAD voters

"We can now safely predict that the Democrats, once the clear favorites to sweep both houses and the presidency in November of 2008, will blow it."

Here's how: Hillary Clinton fights all the way to the convention in late August, demands she be awarded the Florida and Michigan delegates. This wastes so much money, resources, and goodwill that could have been spent defeating McCain in November, he wins.

McCain's 2008 victory is sealed by the Stay Away Democrats. These "sad voters" as the media may well christen them, are the people who feel their party failed them. Tens of thousands of these sads will be Floridians, specifically Floridians who didn't vote in their state's primary because their party said their vote wouldn't count.

To these people, and I know some of them,  the idea of awarding Florida's delegates to Clinton is so absurd, such a travesty of democracy, they will keep their wallets closed in the two months between convention and election day, and on that day they will stay home. If you think that won't happen, consider how a Floridian Obama supporter will feel if Clinton does get the nomination. Thousands of Floridian Obama supporters didn't vote in their state's primary. Their candidate did not campaign there. The entire vote had already been declared invalid. You could argue, indeed the Democratic party did argue, at the national level, that NOT voting in that election was the right thing to do. And your reward for doing the right thing? Your candidate is denied the nomination.

I can think of no precedent for this situation and right now the Democratic party is acting like it has no clue how huge this problem is. And maybe 2008 is already too broken to be fixed. The implications are enormous, a potential national tragedy. Brought to you by: The Democrats.

What Are Facebook Friends For? Maybe data mining

Further evidence that Facebook does not 'get' privacy is brought to you this month by the BBC, which recently built a Facebook application that could mine personal data from anyone who played it, and their friends. (In a nice touch of irony, the application was called The Miner, as in 'data miner' get it?)

A video clip from the BBC's Click programme can be seen here (you can find a text report here). It turns out that, by default, Facebook gives application developers wide-ranging access to anyone who installs the game, and their friends. Notice the theme here: "and their friends." In other words, you might be exercising due diligence over what you do with your Facebook account, but just one careless friend could undermine your privacy.



And you'll love the Facebook response: Using an application to abuse access would be a violation of the Facebook terms and conditions. Oh well then, no problem. That should take care of that. And here I was worried that someone would steal my credit card, but no worries, using someone else's credit card is a violation of Visa's terms and conditions. Those terms and conditions are probably what's limiting online credit card fraud losses to just a few billion dollars a year. And that's considerably less than what some analysts think Facebook is worth.

1-866-395-5011 or How Dell Loses Customers

Over the past two months we have been subjected to some serious harassment by Dell Computer, from which we purchased, last year, the one and only Dell Computer we will ever own. Nice computer, terrible company, particularly the part known as Dell Financial, which is apparently based on the other side of the planet. Most of the calls are hang-ups, sometimes half-a-dozen within a three hour period. Many have blocked caller ID. Many of the callers have Indian or Pakistani accents but lack the courtesy I normally associate with people from those regions. Sometimes, after we manage to get a word in and request that the calls stop,  we are assured that they will. But do they? Nooooo!

Best quote so far? "At your request your name has been added to our do-not-call list but bear in mind this will take 3 or 4 weeks to take effect." So let me get this straight: The web site says "Using an efficient, standards-based approach, Dell helps customers build dynamic IT infrastructures" but a change to a Dell customer list cannot be performed under 21 days?

Think we doth protest too much? Click here to see how many angry hits Dell's number gets on Google. Some of these links lead to forums where multiple posts make it clear that loads of people have been, and are getting, harassed by Dell. Of course, the idea may be get out of the computer financing business, annoy people so much that they pay off the balance, which is what we did (not that it stopped the calls).

I am mailing Dell a "cease communication" letter on Monday (certified of course). Violations supposedly carry a fine of $1,000. Maybe Dell is so clueless we will get lucky.

Amazing Coincidence

In yesterday's post I remarked on the need for CIOs and CSOs to raise the INFOrmation SECurity threat level. (Okay, I didn't actually say that, but that was the implication of what I did say.) Why? Because times are tight and that puts a fresh edge on computer crime, data leakage, and plain old data theft.

I also made the point that data theft was nothing new, something you can see for yourself if you Google the words data and theft and a year of your choosing. Serendipitously I chose 1985, and one of the results was this headline: "F-4 Design Data Taken in Theft at Parts Firm" from the Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1985:
"Computer cards containing sketches and design specifications for the F-4 Phantom jet fighter have been stolen from the Camarillo offices of a firm under investigation for alleged illegal shipment of F-4 parts to Iran, authorities said."

And wouldn't you know it, about an hour after yesterday's post I saw this story: Joint Strike Fighter secrets possibly compromised. Now, I should point out that this story does not say secrets were compromised, but it describes some less that stellar goings on at the Pentagon's Defense Security Service, which is apparently underfunded (like our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and Walter Reed and Fort Bragg). There are three main points to note here...

Tough Times and Threat Levels: New wave of infosec issues:

Protecting information, and the systems that process it, is part science, part art. There is no scientifically established correlation [that I know of] between economic conditions and security breaches, but commonsense tells us that the temptation to steal, cheat, defraud, or simply fudge a little, can be greater when times are tough. Witness the Lending Tree case. "Several former employees of LendingTree are believed to have taken company passwords and given them to a handful of lenders who then accessed LendingTree customer data files."

Do such things happen in good times as well as bad? Sure, but I think the human mind is better able to justify certain acts, like data theft, when people are haunted by fears of foreclosure, bankruptcy, gas lines and food lines. And make no mistake, while stealing a loaf of bread might seem the most direct answer to the threat of hunger, data theft is an increasingly viable alternative when a desperate person needs money. Indeed, from an INFOrmation SECurity perspective, one things that makes the current economic downturn different from previous cycles is the existence of a thriving underground market for purloined data, on top of the ever-present market of unethical employees and employers.

When I was researching my first computer security book in the 1980s there was no shortage of examples of bad behavior involving data (e.g. "2 Arrested in Theft of DMV, Credit Data by Alleged Ring" LA Times, December 11, 1985; "Alleged Data Theft by AT&T Probed" Dallas Morning News, November 19, 1985; "Two Arrested in Theft of Customs Computer Data" Miami Herald, July 20, 1986, etc.). Two decades later there is a lot more data stored on computers, a lot more ways of stealing it, and a lot more ways of selling it. Consider:

New SQL attack methods are discovered.
New SQL attacks launched.
New methods of defeating disk encryption publicized.

These threats are real. These are not security experts crying wolf to drum up business. The need to batten down the hatches is greater than ever.