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.

Blogging Diesels to Death: A taste of data pollution?

Here's a blog post and comments that contain many of the thoughts, right or wrong, surrounding the anti-diesel movement. As you may have gathered from my previous posts, I think it is dumb to ban diesel cars in America (which is essentially what California has done, aided and abetted by Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, and Maine).

Until the infrastructure is in place to transport all goods and persons using electricity (which implies a massive shift to rail, of which I am a keen advocate) we need to be clear on the advantages that diesel offers over gasoline in internal combustion engines. With diesel you get more work per unit of fuel and per unit of pollution.

Any meaningful discussion of vehicle efficiency and pollution must take into effect the amount of work being done by the vehicle. Carrying one person to work and back once per day is way different from hauling one contractor and his tools from job site to job site throughout the day. That's how a lot of gasoline is consumed and there are no easy answers on the market right now for contractor who wants to go green while still hauling hefty loads.

So I'm getting tired tendency to focus on passenger cars as the root of all pollution and fossil fuel dependency. Drive past any diner at lunch time and you are likely to see a raft of pickup trucks that are being used for work, not just going to work or the grocery store. If they were diesels they could still do all that while causing less pollution.

Critical Acclaim? You be the judge

Wow, that was nerve-wracking, watching the reviews come in after your movie opens in LA. Personally, I took every critical remark personally. But more objective souls pointed out that the primary accomplishment was to open in LA, period. Second level, open without getting panned. Mission accomplished! Third level, garner some praise for the eventual DVD cover. Also a Mission Accomplished! So, here is the cream of the Los Angeles reviews for Dare Not Walk Alone.

"Powerful slice of roiling American history" -- LA Times

"Packs a punch" -- LA Weekly

"Mesmerizing and heart-rending" -- L.A. City Beat

"Dean's ability to explore history through such a local nexus creates a uniquely intimate document." -- Variety

"The racial politics of the current presidential election make this film all the more significant." -- Film Journal

"Clear-eyed look at the adversaries of Martin Luther King Jr.’s utopian “dream”...reminds us that, for far too many Americans of color, “free at last” has meant trading one sociological prison for another." -- LA Weekly

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

"A very strong comment on the capacity of people to ascend from their suffering." -- Boxoffice

For more about the film, check out the official web site.

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?

Does Sunset Degrade Satellite Signals? Reflections on HughesNet, Part 1

Satellite Internet users are not a happy band, or so it would seem from a stroll through the forums of DSLreports, a long-running and very reputable source of info on all forms of broadband. Indeed, the front page recently highlighted HughesNet Satellite Broadband and here are some typical comments:

'Keep your dial-up you'll be happier.'
'Needs to be Reported to the FCC!'
'Use only as last resort alternative to dial up'

***I have my own comments, and they are quite extensive, so fair warning: this is a long post.***

If you think your ISP is bad, consider that Comcast cable scores 66% at DSLReports and Verizon DSL gets 65%. HughesNet is much worse, at just 51%, and even that is probably skewed in Hughes favor. Why? Because satellite is currently the only broadband option for a whole swath of the country, mainly rural areas. And that swath includes many people who are accustomed to "making the best of things." Frustrating as the HughesNet service can be, you find yourself putting up with it because there is no alternative. In reality, satellite Internet service, whether from Hughes or anyone else, is just not broadband and in the end, it's just not good enough.

Broadband implies the ability to watch streaming video, listen to streaming audio, perform software updates online, play multi-player action games online, do real-time equities trading, use voice-over-IP, and VPN to the corporate network. When you read the fine print in your satellite service contract you will find that none of these are fully supported. Some may be possible under some circumstances with a satellite connection, but they are not guaranteed, and definitely don't work well in many cases. The two main reasons for this are a. latency, and b. daily bandwidth limits. I will get to both of these in a moment.

But first, the Red Head. When you talk to HughesNet customers one thing that immediately makes them see red is "The Red Head on TV." This is how people are referring to the current HughesNet ad campaign on TV in which a preternaturally cheerful lady promises an end to nasty old dialup and the advent of broadband regardless of where you live (and apparently her hair is red--I'm color blind).

As a HughesNet customer your mind, familiar with the reality of what she is selling, rapidly discounts her promises even as she makes them. And then you get the kick in the teeth. She has the gall to end the ad with a jaunty: "You're welcome!" Like it's some kind of favor that HughesNet is doing me for $80 a month. I mean what Mad Men thought of that?

So what about the sunset? I will have to get to that in the next post.

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.