Turntide Still Working Away: Not perfect but pretty close

"Not perfect but pretty close" is what this Computerworld article concluded about the anti-spam technology I helped create a few years ago.

It was maybe early 2001 when I was sitting around a table in a basement in Pennsylvania with a couple of friends discussing ways of fighting spam. Back then there were not many people who believed spam would become a huge problem. Many dismissed it as a mere nuisance. Boy, were they wrong.

Anyway, we had been focusing on a way of certifying email as legitimate, so only legitimate email would be allowed to get through to your inbox. This was the inverse of attempts to stop spam by allowing all email in unless it came from a known bad source. Early anti-spam products were emerging that followed the allow-all-but-known-bad model, including some attempts to filter messages on a case-by-case basis according to their content. But a couple of us were skeptical about this approach. It seemed to be based on an anti-virus scanning model (and we all knew how well that was working--not!). Furthermore, when these filter systems produced false-positives that meant valuable messages might be delayed or lost.

So we analyzed spam from the spammers perspective. What was the motive? What would be a dis-incentive? Virus writers were not being deterred by legal penalties and so we doubted that approach would dissuade spammers. But we realized spammers are different from your classic virus writers: spammers are in it for the money.

So we followed the money. What we found was a fairly simple formula. If a spammer can't get X number of messages into network N within Y period of time, the spammer will move on to the next network, N1, and so on. This is because the spammer makes money off such a tiny percentage of responses. To be cost-effective there have to be huge numbers of messages delivered on target within the relatively short period of time that exists before a particular spam site is shut down.

Aha! we said. If only there was a way to slow down messages from spammers. One of us, David Brussin, realized that there was a TCP/IP mechanism for slowing down network response, and we figured out how we could couple that to a spam detector mechanism. The result was a device that sat on the edge of a network, or at an ISP, and slowed down network connections if they appeared to be delivering spam. The first test results were amazing. The device, dubbed "SpamSquelcher" after those knobs on ship radios which tune out noise, literally saved a regional ISP from being overwhelmed by spam.

Selling this idea to end-users was a tough one. The device worked best on larger networks. This was not something you could give away to end-users for free and hope that big companies would pay for licenses. Eventually the product was re-launched as TurnTide and acquired by Symantec which incoporated it into their product line. Today there are a lot of corporate and academic networks using this technology to save bandwidth and protect their networks. If a lot more of them would do the same, particularly ISPs, then the net voume of spam might actually go down.

Vacations: The good news and the bad news

With holidays in full swing I was struck by this eWeek headline: The Vanishing Veg-out Vacation. Seems that less and less employees are taking time off and, when time off is taken, less and less relaxing is being done.

Is this bad? Well, all of us have probably encountered employees whose attitude could use some improvement, and a vacation--a proper vacation--might bring about that improvement. And burn out is definitely a risk if you don't take time to clear your head. Furthermore, I have bemoaned America's stingy approach to vacation days ever since I emigrated here over 30 years ago. I think of my sister-in-law and her seven weeks of annual vacation working for Surrey County. Or my cousin who works for the BBC and has just completed a year's career break (unpaid time off to clear your head and grow your self, with full benefits and position reinstated upon your return).

But there may be good news hidden here. Many office jobs are transitioning to a more fluid, organic structure. Less emphasis on time in the office, more emphasis on results, regardless of where you put in your time, at home or at Starbucks. If picking up groceries is something you can do when you feel like it and not something to be jammed into lunch hour or rush hour, then maybe you will feel less need to leave the job behind for weeks at a time. Jobs are becoming more a way of life for some people, whether in a startup where you live the job because you have to, or in an enlightened enterprise where you live the job because you enjoy it. If you do enjoy your job then setting it aside to spend time on a beach might not be a good idea, unless you are feeling burned out (which, just FYI, can happen at jobs you enjoy as well as at jobs you don't).

And here is another thing about vacations: They cost money, particularly the ones you spend somewhere outside your own back yard. Sounds like a statement of the obvious, and it is, but it's an obvious fact that is often overlooked in financial planning. Money spent on traveling leaves little residual evidence except in your heart and soul and your memories. There have been several times in my life when I have found myself asking "Where did all my money go?" And I have always been surprised by how much of the answer is made up of travel, air fares, hotels, restaurants, stuff that leaves few tangible assets behind as evidence (aside from the souvenirs and snapshots you bring home).

I'm not saying don't travel. I think it is a wonderful thing to do and I have reaped huge inner rewards from my journeying. But bear in mind it narrows the gap between outflow and inflow, the gap that is the wealth you create.

Fizzing Ahead of the Curve: Berocca finally getting noticed

Twenty-one years ago, as I was heading off on a transatlantic trip, my wife handed me a metal tube of fizzy tablets and said "Take these with you." Ever since then I have carried these tablets--called Berocca--with me on most of my travels across time zones. Take one Berocca tablet, drop it into a glass of water, and you can:
  • replenish your vitamins,
  • settle your stomach,
  • turn nasty hotel water into a reasonably tasty fizzy drink.
But I have always been mystified as to why you can't buy Berocca in America (I buy mine when I visit family in England or order over the web from New Zealand). Finally, the New York Times is taking notice. Hopefully, the fact that some people take Berocca for a hangover will not dissuade Bayer from selling them in the land of the Puritans.

Funniest Radioactive DVD Ever? Ross Noble gets my vote

Finally got my copy of Ross Noble's "Sonic Waffle" DVD from Amazon UK. Rewarded with belly laughs, giggles, tears of laughter, big grins that last for hours, and generally uplifting after-effects that last for days. Somehow ordinary words like "hilarious" don't do it justice.

And talk about value for money. You get the very tight "Live at the Apollo" show which was screened on cable in the US in 2006. That was my first exposure to this Geordie comic and I was going to try transferring it from my DVR when I thought to check Amazon for a DVD. You also get a full-length unedited show from tsfa. From this show you get a real sense of what it is like to see Noble perform in person. And you realize what you might have suspected from the Apollo show--he makes this stuff up as he goes along. Taking cues from the audience is a fine comic tradition, as is the art of hanging your repertoire of jokes on those cues, but Noble uses audience input to create his show, live and off the top of his head.

Bonus features are the commentaries and the back story short film. The latter is firmly in the Python tradition and leads to the crowning absurdist epiphet: Radio-Active Kung-Fu Refrigerator Boy and Monkey-Slayer Ross Noble. As for the commentaries, I find these rib-ticklingly funny, first the commentary on the ssss show, then the commentary on the commentary--a first to the best of my knowledge ("This is me commenting on the commentary you heard earlier...you might not realize it but that commentary was entirely unscripted" and so on.)

I strongly urge anyone who is a fan of the Pythons and/or Eddy Izzard and/or The Big Lebowski to check out Ross Noble. He is unlike anyone else but those three reference points should be good predictors of your predisposition to find Noble knee-knockingly amusing. Not that everyone will find him equally entertaining. My wife insists she is not interested in seeing his shows a third time and only watched one half of one DVD commentary (she also promises to hit me if I repeat any of the material ever again--that's fair enough because I am content to enjoy a Noble-sque view of things and make up my own absurd banter when the mood strikes me).

But the burning, almost radioactive, question now is this: Why would someone who lives in America order from amazon.co.uk? As of right now, there are no Ross Noble DVDs published in the US. So I ordered one from the UK, having noted that it was not region coded. but so far that's the only way to get this DVD. Why? I don't know. But I do know it plays fine on my Toshiba SD 3980 PAL/NTSC Region Free DVD player.

Millionz: Right and wrong ways to think about your financial future

I'm sure that, at one time or another, we have all dreamed of "making a million." This dream often includes a time factor that can be described as: fast, overnight, instant.

Unfortunately, too much focus on that sort of time frame can lead you to miss the time frame that worked for most millionaires in our country's history, namely "slow and steady." As the landmark studies done by the guys who wrote the Millionaire Next Door series make clear, most millionaires become millionaires by spending less than they earn. The difference between the two, between what you earn and what you spend, is known as wealth.

The tough part is to get to a point where what you earn is far enough ahead of what you spend for the difference--known as wealth--to accumulate. For many people, the earning side of the equation is the tough one. Wages at the lower end of the earnings scale have not increased in real terms at anything like the rate they have grown at the upper end. (When was the last time the fat cats in Washington voted to increase in the Federal minimum wage which sets the base line for wages in most states?)

Yet many people, through hard work and constant striving, do get to the point where they are earning enough to cover their essential expenses. Sadly, that is the point at which some people fail in their efforts to accumulate wealth, and thus achieve financial security, right at the point where their earnings rise above the cost of paying for their basic needs. Spending on frivolous or unnecessary items is a huge temptation, especially when you've gone a long time without any spare cash. And there is that voice--I think most of us have heard it--that says: "What the heck, now you've got some cash, why not splurge a little?" And a little splurging may be okay if it boosts our drive to do better, strive harder. But too often we go one splurge too far, or two splurges too far, until we have splurged away that gap between income and expenditure.

Now I'm not saying that accumulating wealth is the one true path in life. There are many ways to be happy without being wealthy. And being wealthy is not all about driving flashy cars and living in huge mansions. One of the joys of wealth is that you can share it with others. Another is that you can make a difference in the shape and direction of society. But one thing I have learned after thirty years of living in America, is that there are precious few "fall-back" positions in this country for people who have not accumulated some wealth by the time they reach a certain age or run into a sudden need.

A significant percentage of the needs that people cannot meet by themselves are met by people who have accumulated wealth. So the art of accumulating wealth is well worth studying, for everyone's sake.

The Most Fun on Four Wheels? Artic Cat ATV Tough to Beat

First off, let me say that I should be wearing a helmet, but some complex risk assessment told me it was better to wear my safety orange hat and avoid being shot by deer hunters than protect my head from branches (or a fall) with the helmet. Maybe an orange helmet should be my next ATV-related purchase.

I am grinning because I have just negotiated "Suicide Drive" which is one of the trails on our property in upstate New York. I will post a picture of it as soon as I figure out how to take a shot that shows just how steeply it rises from the back of the cabin going about 200 feet almost straight up (okay, not 90 degrees to the horizontal, but I'm going to say 45, at least it feels like that--I will get out the inclinometer next time).

For those who have not tried an All Terrain Vehicle, these things are a blast. Mine is a 400 c.c. Arctic Cat with 4-wheel drive and a mini-pickup bed behind the seat (you can just make out the chain saw in there, useful for clearing trees that have fallen over and blocked the trail).

We purchased this machine at Performance Recreation of Richfield Springs. You couldn't ask for a better dealer. The help and support we have had from them is fantastic. From helping us choose the right machine for our needs, to basic riding lessons, delivery, and super prompt attention to the one minor problem we have had so far (now fixed, no charge, free same-day pickup and delivery). If you are looking for an ATV or snowmobile and are within 100 miles of these guys, it is worth the trip.

The Arctic Cat web site requires IE but is still worth visiting. And their mail catalogues are stuffed with cool accessories. I have a winch which has already proved to be a very good investment. Next up is probably a shotgun/rifle scabbard and rails for the pickup bed to hold more wood. In the meantime I plan to cut some fresh trails to explore the old stone walls we have found. This machine can take you absolutely anywhere if you take it slow and easy, letting you park and explore places you would probably never see if you had to hike in there on foot. Then, when you feel like a kinesthetic kick, find a smooth trail and open her up. By the time you reach 25 m.p.h. you will feel like you are flying.

Ubuntu Moves On

The rest of my experiences with Ubuntu will be appearing on "Cobb on Tech" which is also located on Blogspot at cobbontech.blogspot.com along with other tech stuff.

See you there!

Teach for America: There is much work to be done

I was struck by the truth of this statement by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and an evangelist for education reform in low-income areas:
"Six percent of the kids who are growing up in the communities where we were working will graduate from college," says Kopp. "We believe that that issue has to be our generation's civil rights issue."
Based on my work with Dare Not Walk Alone and my experiences in the predominantly black neighborhood of West Augustine, I am inclined to agree. I think there is a whole sector of American society that has been below most folks' radar for the last twenty years or so. These are families, even entire communities, where nobody, not the parents or the kids, has a high school education.

Not that a high school education is, in itself, a great benchmark, but the correlation between graduating high school and "making it" in our society is well established. Yes, you can get by without one, but it is going to take exceptional effort, and the kind of hope that rarely flourishes in this part of our society. And frankly, if it wasn't for hurricane Katrina, I think a lot of Americans would still believe these neglected souls don't exist.

So, I say Wendy Kopp's organization is to be acclaimed for stepping up to this challenge and framing it in these terms. Read the NBC story here.

Cool Firefox Trick: The "get me out of here" option

I have previously posted about the problems of deceptive URLs, one small aspect of the whole phishing industry. I think I have also noted that one of the reasons I like Eudora as an email client is the warnings it provides when a deceptive URL is present in an email message.

Well, on the left you can see a related feature in Firefox, my browser of choice. It's the "get me out of here" option that appears when you have navigated to a suspect web site. I think it was a stroke of interface genius to provide a simple link that says "Get me out of here!" When you click that link you are indeed taken away from the site, to the Firefox home page. If you opt to "Read more" you will reach a nice little tutorial on phishing and the anti-phishing feature in Firefox.

Nice one Firefox!

The Money Gap Gets Wider: Rich Folks Should Start to Worry

After some of the interesting comments on my remarks about a million dollars, I did some digging and found this staggering fact in an interesting piece by Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer, from July:
Last year, the average CEO of a company with at least $1 billion in annual revenue made $10,982,000, or 262 times what the average worker made, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released Wednesday....Put another way, the average worker--who earned $41,861 in 2005--made about $400 less last year than what the average large-company CEO made in one day. That assumes 260 days of pay (52 weeks x 5 days a week).
Now, as a business person who gets some of his business from other business persons, it might be wise of me to keep my thoughts on these numbers to myself. After all, at times I have been hired by companies with at least $1 billion in annual revenues and I might like to work for them again. But 262x?!* Come on! That is just too much. (I'd love to hear from a CEO who truly believes he or she is worth that much.)

To picture the size of this disparity I created the bar chart that you see on the left. The black bar is the average big company CEO income. The red bar, more like a tiny red strip is the average employee's income.

And that 262 is an average. Which means some CEOs are taking home an annual salary of even more than 262 times the annual earnings of the average worker. In all my study of economics and all my years in business, I don't see a way to rationalize that. Sure, a CEO might make some amazing deals and lead the company into huge profits, but what about the employees? Any company doing more than $1Bn a year has to have several thousand employees, some of whom must have helped in the earning of those profits. Spreading the wealth is not only morally right but good business, in the long run.

So, dare I say that CEOs who pocket megabucks lack long term vision? I certainly think there is a good case for saying that sustainable prosperity depends on social equity. Sure, several generations of the mega-rich few may enjoy life conscience-free in the stratosphere of luxury, but how long can that last if the poverty gap keeps gnawing away at social stability?

And yes, I started this blog by saying that $1 million is not what it used to be. But surely there is still such a thing as too much money. I think a salary 262x that of the average worker might be it.