Free Enterprise Security Advice Could Save Thousands in Customer Care Costs

When your company has to notify its customers about a change to online security procedures and decides to use email as part of that notification, make sure that the email message does NOT contain any deceptive URLs. Otherwise the email may confuse a lot of customers who end up contacting your company, putting a dent in the customer service budget and thus the bottom line.

Before you say something like "My company would never use a deceptive URL" be sure you know what deceptive URLs are and how they arise, because they can seem innocent enough. Indeed, I have seen them slip under the quality control radar at big companies like Bank of America and Countrywide that do at least have quality control. Typically a deceptive URL is created by or within html email. Here is an example:

Note that I edited the screen shot above to obscure the name of the company that sent this particular message (about new security measures) and my own email address is also edited to something bogus.

Basically this part of the email is inviting recipients to log in to the company web site. The URL of the site is spelled out rather than just being a click here type link. People often spell out links in order to make it clear to the user where the link leads. In text-only email a URL has to be spelled out in order to work (in most email clients). But the above message is html and so the link text is actually within an href=URL tag. This means that the apparent URL can be different from the actual URL in the link, a fact that phishing scams have been exploiting for years. For example, you might see a link to in a message that appears to be from PayPal, but in fact the link leads to:
both of which are bogus web sites that are in no way connected with the real PayPal.

How do you know where a link goes before you click it? One way is to view the source code of the message, something that is easy enough to do in most email clients (in Eudora, for example, you just right click anywhere within the message and select "View Source"). However, viewing email source, while easy, is laborious, and so a good email client will reveal the URL of a link when you put your mouse pointer over it, then warn you if the link you are about to click is deceptive (i.e. does not match the text of the link). Eudora has this capability and provides further detail like this:
And here you see the problem this poses for an otherwise legitimate company. Good old Countrytom wants you to go to a special page at, but presumably did not want to put that great big [but genuine] URL in the text of the email. So they obscured it but in so doing set off the deceptive URL alarm. As email clients and web browsers get more aggressive in the fight against phishing this sort of thing is likely going to show up more often, thereby confusing more customers. And everyone in enterprise-land knows that more confused customers = increased customer service burden.

So what is the solution. Here is the real money tip in this free security advice: use a simple URL. Could it be that simple? Yes. There is no reason, other than a lack of imagination, for Countrytom to use that great big long URL for a response to email. Sure, marketing would like to track where responses are coming from, and IT might balk at some extra work with redirects and site structure, but a simple phrase and a few lines of code could fix that, as in any of these URLs that could easily appear in the text of the email AND the URL so as not to be branded as "deceptive" by the email client:

None of these strikes me as a turn-off for recipients and I bet they generate less customer confusion than the pesky but otherwise very helpful deceptive URL flag.

The Art of Acting Means Being Different People

Yes, these two people are the same person, my cousin, the actor Nick Tennant. To my mind, that is what great acting is all about, the ability to assume an identity to the point where the audience sees the character and not the person playing the character. Nick has that ability.

Take just a simple example from popular culture: Magneto in the X-Men movies. The character is played by Ian McKellen, but when you are watching the movie you don't sit their thinking "that's Ian McKellen." You're thinking "that's Magneto." And you're not thinking "that's Gandalf" or "that's Richard III" or maybe "that creepy Nazi neighbor in Apt Pupil." The character assumed by the actor is what you see, and IMHO what you should see, not the actor "being someone else."

Another good example would be Hannibal Lecter, engraved on the movie-goers mind by Anthony Hopkins (BTW, young Nick--above--attended the same drama school as Mr. Hopkins). That performance, powerful as it was, does not prevent you believing that Anthony Hopkins is the gritty but harmless New Zealand eccentric Burt Monroe in the must-see sleeper: The World's Fastest Indian (safe Christmas present for anyone interested in motorcycles or engineering feats of any kind).

For the record, the photo on the left is one of Nick's standard "head shots." The picture on the right is Nick duirng his time as Grumio in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2003 production of the bard's "Taming of the Shrew" and Fletcher's "The Tamer Tamed." It was Nick's idea to play the groom's role in a realistic stage of grubbiness. Hence the look you see.

Hooray for The Hogfather: Sky's Rendtiion of Pratchett Discworld Novel Debuts

Two days ago, London's Curzon Mayfair hosted the premiere of "The Hogfather," Sky's hi-def film screen adaptation of the Terry Pratchett Discworld novel that will be show on Sky 1 this Christmas (Sky 1 being part of BSkyB, or British Sky Broadcasting, the Murdoch-owned, UK-based satellite broadcaster that operates the Sky Digital network). For more details of the film see IMDB and Sky's TV guide.

Although I live in America and won't see The Hogfather this Christmas, I do expect that one of the hi-def channels in the US will pick it up. But to be honest, I would not know about this movie if my cousin, Nicolas Tennant (a.ka. Nick Tennant and Nicholas Tennant) had not been cast in it (along with Sir David Jason playing Albert, the alluring Michelle Dockery playing Susan, and Ian Richardson as the voice of Death). This led me to venture into Discworld for the first time and read the book, a step I am very glad I took.

Of course, I had seen a steadily growing number of these novels on the bookstore shelves for years, but had always been put off by the fact that a. fantasy fiction is not my favorite genre, b. the covers looked really cartoon-ish and uninviting (the American editions have recently been released with more subdued covers--but the trick to getting the most from these books is to create your own image of what the inhabitants look like rather than accept someone else's). Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Hogfather--the book, finding it to be a delightful mix of whimsy, humor, surprisingly contemporary political satire and comic allusion, and yes, deep thought (or at least deep-thought provoking notions).

And because the character that Nick plays is Corporal Nobby Nobs of The Night Watch, I worked my way through that sub-section of the series. I found these novels to be a fine anti-dote to depression, or at least a reliable escape from the distress of daily life.

BTW, the 'andsome bloke in the photo is Nick, so anyone who sees him as Corporal Nobby Nobs will know what a brilliant actor he is. (Corporal Nobby Nobs is introduced as "a small but irregularly formed figure" whose ears could look suggestive--in a later book we are told "the only reason you couldn't say that Nobby was close to the animal kingdom was that the animal kingdom would get up and walk away.") The following dialogue is just a taste of what Discworld can be like:

Sergeant Fred Colon: War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?
Corporal Nobby Nobs: Dunno, Sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?
Fred: Absol -- well, okay.
Nobby: Defending yourself against a totalitarian aggressor?
Fred: All right, I'll grant you that, but --
Nobby: Saving civilization from a horde of --
Fred: It doesn't do any good in the long run is what I'm saying Nobby, if you'd listen for five seconds together.
Nobby: Yeah, but in the long run, what does Sarge?

Celeb Trivia du Jour: Michelle Dockery appeared in the original stage production of "His Dark Materials" which is currently being filmed with the latest Bond, Daniel Craig, in the role of Lord Asriel, and starring Nicole Kidman.

Thousands of Voters Were Disenfranchised in Florida

This is where technology meets politics: electronic voting. It is clear to anyone with an open mind that something went wrong in the already infamous Sarasota County this last election when approximately 18,000 ballots cast on the county’s paperless touch screen voting machines registered no vote at all in the congressional race.

And this is where I turned to make a donation to help get to the bottom of things. I have previously made my position on electronic voting clear. Computers cannot be trusted to count votes.

Cost of Diesel Dampens Hopes

While the price of diesel fuel is not directly related to gyroscopically stabilized transportation, it does raise questions about efforts to improve the fuel efficiency of the transportation system and reduce dependence on foreign fuel.

My wife and I own a diesel-powered Jeep Liberty which we like a lot, but the high price of diesel in the U.S. is really making it hard to justify. We regularly see diesel sold for a premium of around 35 cents per gallon over regular unleaded gasoline. In rough terms this means a diesel vehicle has to get 26 miles per gallon versus 22 for a gasoline model, or 35 versus 30. In other words, the economic incentive to use deal just isn't there is diesel is priced significantly higher than regular gasoline.

In thinking about this problem I visited the EPA site which has a cool feature that let's you compare vehicles. I commared a diesel Jeep with a gasoline Jeep, and at first it seemed the diesel was a better deal. But then I noticed the figures that the EPA used for fuel costs. They were not what I am seeing at the pump. Fortunately, and this was a smart move by the site designer, you can input your own numbers. That produced the following:

The diesel is $60 a year cheaper. Hardly enough incentive to overcome the downsides (such as searching for a gas station that carries diesel).

Maybe the new rules on diesel fuel will improve matters and the price will be equalized, but right now there seems to be a pause in diesel production as manufacturers switch over to the new designs (for an explanation, see here and also here).

That means you can't buy 2007 Jeep Liberty diesel right now. But Jeep Grand Cherokee diesels will turn up in showrooms later this year. Sadly, if diesel/gas pricing does not move closer to par, the economic incentive to buy them will not be there when they do.

Where Have All the Segways Gone?

On a couple of recent business trips I saw several groups of Segways, leading me to rethink my notion that this device was something of a flop (and thus not a good omen for other gyroscopically stabilized forms of transportation).

First LA, where the Segway is used on the Universal Studios complex. I stayed a few nights at the large Hilton there and saw staff using the Segway to speed up trips between different parts of the very large property. I also noted that you can rent Segways in Santa Monica.

Then I was in Chicago, again staying at a Hilton, from where I spotted what appeared to be a US Postal Service Segway training class headed down Michigan Avenue. Looked a bit like robotic ducklings following their mother. I tried to capture the scene on my Treo's camera but no luck.

A Blow Against Apathy: High school students raising money for Darfur

This story caught my eye and gave me hope, high schoolers raising money to help Darfur. There is a web site where schools can sign up. I think this is a very good sign.

Ubuntu Progress Continues Here

As promised...this is where the Ubuntu thread continues from the original "Cobbon blog."

Ubuntu is now installed on the 1999 Compaq Presario 305 and the 2000 iMac G3. The trick with older machines that have less than 200 megabytes of RAM is to a. use a lot of patience, b. use the prompted alternate install method, which uses the files located here:

What you want to download are the image files called "alternate" like: ubuntu-6.06.1-alternate-i386.iso

These don't boot a full graphical Ubuntu, but they will lead you through a text-based install that does remarkably well at hardware detection, including the graphics card, sound system, and network interface (a Buffalo WiFi card in the Compaq and the built-in Ethernet on the Mac). The patience is required for the lengthy wait between stages.

You will also need some patience once these installs complete as the default Ubuntu desktop is not the fastest. Next step with these older machines is to change the desktop.

Cobb on Arts & Entertainment? Yes!

Yep, this is what's next. A separate blog for thoughts on arts and entertainment.

And let me start with a shameless plug for the current and very hot novel by my favorite novelist/restaurateur: Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Definitely worthy of its National Book Award nomination. If you think you are cool, try this book on for size. I'm sorry it didn't win, but I am sure there are many awards in Dana's future. I know she is working on another novel right now, even as she orchestrates the fine dining experience that is known as The Rose and Kettle, one of the many good reasons to check out the gem of upstate New York: Cherry Valley.

Also, an arts and entertainment posting would not be complete without a recommendation for your listening or viewing pleasure. My thanks to Mark (a poet with colour and World's Best House Painter) for turning us on to Lemon Jelly. All kinds of weird elements merge to make beautiful music. Not really lounge, not really house or trance. Not Tubular Bells but not unrelated. Maybe a pinch of Ogden Nut Flake? Have played the Lost Horizons album over and over, like we used to play LP sides back in the day, with the disc stacking arm off to the side to force a repeat. Here is a video to give you some idea (the band does not preview their tracks on Amazon).

Note: Cobb on A&E is firmly opposed to the pirating of copyrighted material and strongly encourages anyone who wants to play a piece of music or a work of video for their own pleasure to purchase a legitimate copy.

Where is the Action on Darfur?

Why isn't the world doing more to stop the genocide in Darfur? I keep searching for the answer to this question and can't find one. I can find plenty of information, like the Wikipedia page and the BBC News Q&A. But I still can't make sense of the lack of action.

I can find plenty of organizations--like this one--that are trying to raise awareness. But where is the action? How can the trillions of dollars that industrialized nations pour into military spending not contain a few million dollars to kill the Janjaweed. Seriously, what would it take? I think there would be plenty of volunteers ready to go and kill these murdering rapists if there was a way to get them armed and into the country. How about private planes and private arms? Isn't this a fight that good people should fight, like the war against Franco? Isn't it time for another International Brigade? Or has apathy already claimed this century as its own?