The SPAM Rule: There is no SPAM in your email

The number of people and companies who abuse the word SPAM continues to amaze me (that's me speaking as someone who started ringing alarm bells about unsolicited bulk email about ten years ago).

I see everyone from well-meaning hi-tech startups to established email companies talking about avoiding email SPAM. The fact is, email SPAM does not exist. It is email spam. The word SPAM is a trademark of Hormel Foods, used for a meat product that comes in a can (and the SPAM on the can in the special font is a registered trademark).

If you want to be taken seriously talking about spam in email you need to follow the rules: There can be spam in my email inbox but never SPAM and seldom Spam. You can say "Remove Spam From Email" but not "Remove SPAM From Email." The only time the stuff in email is SPAM is when it's hanging with a bunch of other capital letters like SPAM IN MY INBOX.

Are we clear now? I hope so.

The "Oilmen Lie" Rule

As a rule, the men who lead the petroleum industry cannot be trusted to tell the truth about their industry. In other words, you should never accept at face value what oilmen tell you about the oil business. And by oilmen I mean the men who run the petroleum business, not the many honest, hard-working folk who risk their lives to bring us the oil and gas products to which our country is sadly addicted. 

(For the record, I am saying "men" quite intentionally, because historically the oil business was started, and is led and run, almost entirely by men, not women. I am not saying that women are incapable of discovering novel uses for naturally occurring substances. Many have. However, while managing a large petroleum-based enterprise with ruthless efficiency and blatant disregard for the environment is not something a woman cannot do, not many have.)

I realize that publicly questioning the moral integrity of the leaders of a large and powerful industry in a blog post is a bit risky. Who knows when someone might be checking out my background—maybe as part of a hiring or employment process—and come across this post. But hey, if you can't get to say what you believe when you're pushing 60, then when?

I'm not just talking about all the lying BP executives have been doing in the last 40 days (and before that when they said they could do deep water drilling without screwing up life as we know it for millions of people). I worked with oilmen for three years back in the 1980s. I was Chief Oil and Gas Tax Auditor for a state that became the tenth largest oil-producer in the Union.

I approached that job as I do most things, with a passion for the past and as a path to the future. I read the history of the oil business. And I went on Petroleum Accounting courses. I did a week-long petroleum auditing boot camp out in Texas Hill Country, courtesy of the Texas Comptroller's office. 

I also did a lot of research for politicians and taxpayers who wanted to see an increase in the state's oil production tax—the one I was tasked with enforcing—from 5% of gross value to 10%. In hearings for those proposed tax increases, the oil industry spokesman told state lawmakers that the oil industry would leave the state if the tax was increased. Eventually the tax was doubled and the state eventually rose from 17th to 10th in the production rankings. That oilman lied. 

He also lied when he said, in about 1983, that there was no need to double the production tax because the price of oil would soon double, from the then current price of $30 per barrel, to $60 a barrel, so the state would soon see a doubling of oil tax revenues without changing the tax rate. Oil did not reach $60 a barrel until about 2006.

A great way to gauge the honesty of oilmen over the years is to read these four books:
  1. The Seven Sisters by Anthony Sampson.
  2. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin.
  3. Texas Rich: The Hunt Dynasty from the Early Oil Days through the Silver Crash by Harry Hurt III.
  4. Oil! by Upton Sinclair (not the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood”).
Among the interesting things you will learn from these books is the way oilmen lied to Arabs in order to cheat them out of a fair price for their oil. And the fact that controls on the price of oil in America were originally put in place at the request of the oil industry, not imposed by the federal government. This may come as a shock if you grew up with the huge propaganda campaign oilmen mounted in the 1970s to get domestic oil prices deregulated. Yep, a whole lot of lying went on.

BTW, the last of those four books, Oil! may have the shortest title but it is one of the richest reads in twentieth century American literature. Forget the movie for which this book was butchered (There Will Be Blood). This long-neglected novel reveals a lot about American history that they just don't teach in (American) schools. Like the rule I'm citing here: Oilmen lie!

Facebook Tool Might Help With Privacy Settings and Awareness

Using Facebook means sharing personal information with at least some people, but Facebook sometimes makes changes to the way sharing works. Knowing exactly what you share and with whom can be hard to figure out. And at least some of your information is visible to everyone, even people who don't use Facebook, thanks to something called the Graph API. Confused? Fortunately, someone created a web tool that shows you what the Graph API reveals. Here's a sample of my Facebook information, as revealed by this tool:

How revealing is this? In one sense it is no revelation at all. It's no secret that I like Stagecoach Coffee. I've blogged about their great French Toast more than once. But in this screen shot I cropped the full report which shows I like a lot more than just these three things. Frankly, I was not aware that people who are not "on" Facebook could see this information and I am probably not the only person sharing this false assumption.

There are some potentially serious implications. What if you "like" something that is not liked by your boss or perhaps a prospective employer? Maybe you like the idea of legalizing marijuana. Some people could read that the wrong way. "Like" is the new Facebook term for "Fan" and maybe, perhaps a few years ago, you "fanned" some crazy stuff. Do you even remember all the things you fanned? (I had totally forgotten some of my likes).

So, my hat is off to Ka-Ping Yee, the software engineer and UC Berkeley graduate who created this little application that could have some big implications. (In that sense, he's a good example of a "white hat hacker," a gifted technologist who has shown us some of the pitfalls of a particular technology.) For example, thanks to Graph API you can check out people on Facebook without being logged into Facebook. You can just plug in their Facebook ID and look around. You can even enter random names and ID numbers. Some information is protected by privacy settings, some is not. And the reports that Ka-Ping Yee's web page displays contain live links (e.g. the report above shows a live link to the Stagecoach Coffee page) so you can just click your way from one piece of data to the next.

All of which is a little worrying when you factor in something I have blogged elsewhere, namely Facebook's founder Marc Zuckergerg's alleged indifference towards privacy. The various privacy missteps that Facebook has taken since its inception, and the difficulty many users have trying to keep up with changes to the way Facebook handles privacy settings, tend to add credence to the claim that Mr. Zuckerberg does not care about privacy. Consider what happens when you want to change your privacy settings.

Facebook makes you go through a two-step process if you want the most private of settings. When you want something to be visible to Everyone or Friends of Friends all you need is to select from a pull down list. But making something visible only to yourself is not visible as an option. You have to go through an extra step and choose Customize to see that choice.

That suggests the interface designers are not keen for you to get restrictive with your privacy. Of course, it could be a simple design flaw, but Facebook users are likely to be sensitive to such things these days, particularly when they learn that none of the settings can hide your "likes" from the Graph API and the outside world.

(If I have this wrong, please leave me a comment and let me know. I changed the privacy setting for "Things I Like" to "Only me" but they are still visible to the Graph API, as seen here:

Mark Zuckerberg Faces the Privacy Meter: Facebook trends open book

Face it folks, it's time to dust off the Privacy Meter for a quick check of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. According to an internal source, Mr. Zuckerberg has placed himself in the camp made (in)famous in 1999 by Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, who was reported to have said: “You already have zero privacy anyway, so get over it.”

Mr. Zuckerberg's position was recently described by a Facebook insider in response to this question: "How does Zuck feel about privacy?" Response: “He doesn’t believe in it.”

The details of this revelation can be read here and I'd have to say it hardly amounts to a public statement by "Zuck" himself (for the record, Scott McNealy's declaration was not a public statement either, and should be placed in context, something I tried to do in my 2002 book on privacy).

I doubt that either Mr. Zuckerberg or Mr. McNealy would say, on the record, that they don't believe in privacy. What both men seem to share is a frustration with privacy concerns as they relate to digital systems. Human beings can be annoyingly inconsistent and hard to predict when it comes to matters of personal information. That makes it inherently difficult to design online communications and online communities that satisfy every shade of sentiment with respect to the sharing of personal information. And that's why I created the Privacy Meter:

Not exactly a high tech device, it nevertheless serves its purpose: to help people assess their own attitude to their personal information. I developed the privacy meter as a teaching tool, specifically to teach Chief Privacy Officers and other C-level execs that:

a. Everyone has a different place on the privacy scale, there is no "correct" score;

b. Entities like companies and agencies cannot handle privacy issues according to one person's views about privacy.

In other words, the fact that you're an open book kind of person does not make it okay to impose an open book approach on people who are more closed book. If you are closed book you can't impose that view either because it could limit your organization's ability to serve its customers. Most importantly, the way you handle other people's private data has to be in accordance with their view, not yours. That principle was established, in the context of computer data, back in 1974, and remains one of the pillars of privacy best practices in the realm of data protection (see Chapter 3 of Privacy for Business, available as a free .pdf file here).

Several years ago I put together a short set of slides on the privacy meter and the potential benefits and problems arising from getting privacy positioning right or wrong. You can click here to download the slides as a .pdf file which I recently updated to include Facebook's current privacy perception problem. That slide is pretty easy to understand:

Just a few hours after Wired puts out the story that your CEO doesn't believe in privacy, PC World publishes a story about the latest privacy invading scam that your system is enabling. Not good. Just the sort thing that can hurt your share price and tarnish your brand. Which is why your personal feelings about privacy should probably remain private when you are running a company.

[BTW, you can now download the full 240 page text of Privacy for Business (2002) as an Adobe Acrobat document from this web site; there's no charge and no registration required.]

New Public/Private Consortium to Drive Small Business Growth With Broadband

Interesting initiative I just spotted: A New Public/Private Consortium to Drive Small Business Growth Through the Access to Broadband
Constant Contact and SCORE “Counselors to America’s Small Business” will help increase small business success with the Broadband Plan, training, tools and resources for high speed Internet use. Learn more at (

An Irish View of the Celtic Curse

I was browsing the Iron Disorders Institute web site last night and came across a story about hemochromatosis in an Irish newspaper. Since hemochromatosis is known as the Celtic Curse--on account of its relatively high rate of occurrence in persons of Celtic ancestry--I thought this would be an interesting perspective on my wife's condition (and it could be a story you missed if you searched for hemochromatosis because the spelling of haemochromatosis is used, as in England).

How Irish is the Celtic Curse? Across Europe as a whole the chance of someone experiencing iron overload are one in 400; in Ireland, it's almost five times higher at one in 83. And one in five people in Ireland carry the gene that can lead to this condition. Of course, the problem is not confined to the Emerald Isle. With so many people having emigrated from Ireland to North America over the centuries it shows up pretty widely here as well.

The article is a good introduction to the condition with enough detail to give you a clear picture of the implications without getting too technical. It's also an interesting non-American perspective. What it does not explore in much depth is the distinction between treatment of iron overload and treatment of organs damaged by iron overload.

In other words, it is relatively easy to reduce iron levels through blood donation, not so easy to cure the damage to liver, pancreas, heart, joints, and various parts of the endocrine system. Indeed, some of that damage, due to failure to diagnose hemochromatosis at an early stage, can be permanent and leave a person--as in my wife's case--with a pretty miserable quality of life. That's why there's a great need to increase awareness of the Celtic Curse in the general population and in the medical community.

Which brings me back to the Iron Disorders Institute. It is an institution worthy of support. My wife recently completed a detailed study the Institute is doing on the experiences of hemochromatosis sufferers. My guess is that it will reveal a shocking lack of knowledge about the Celtic Curse in the American medical community, and a dire lack of treatment for all its effects.

Mac Mini RAM Upgrade Tips

I just upgraded the RAM on my Mac Mini and it has made a big difference to performance so I figured I would share some tips on this type of upgrade. (So many people share helpful information on the Web I've been feeling guilty that I have not done more sharing myself, so hopefully this will help make amends.)

Ironically enough, my first tip is to watch someone else's video of how to do a Mac Mini RAM and hard drive upgrade (it may make sense to do both upgrades at once--you have to take the thing apart in both cases, pun intended--but you don't have to do both, the video is helpful either way). This is the best video I saw during a fairly extensive review of what is out there. You can find it here on Vimeo.

I suggest you watch the video and, if you still feel like going forward with an upgrade, consider the tips I have written up here before you start (unfortunately, hardware can be more difficult to work with than it appears in such videos).

My second tip comes after you separate the outer case from the innards: Get a magnetic to use with your screwdriver. I use a magnetic hook. You attach the magnet to the metal shaft of the screwdriver so it will pull the screw out of the hole when I lift the screwdriver (helps to keep screws getting lost inside the case or on the floor). (These magnetic hooks are Neodymium and coated with soft plastic so they don't scratch. They have a holding power of about 9 pounds and I use them for hanging up key rings. You can order them here.)

Third tip is to mark the corner that requires a screw that is longer than the other three. I marked this on the optical drive cover with a thin Sharpie.

My fourth tip concerns removal of the 2-wire power connector as shown in the video. Do this very carefully, prying the black connector out of the socket. do NOT pull on the wires as they may be brittle (I ended up breaking one and fixing it was a pain). I think the key to getting this one right is using good lighting and possibly a magnifying glass.

Next up is the pulling the drive unit out of the innards, so to speak. You need to do this with care because there is a ribbon cable that wires the drive unit to the innards and it must not be strained or disconnected.

Complicating matters is an edge connector that must be pulled out, which means you do need some force to get the two parts apart. Then you will need to support the drive unit while you perform your RAM upgrade. The video glosses over this but the solution is very simple, just place the outer case under the drive unit.

Here you can see the drive unit on the case with the innards exposed ready to proceed. But first, I suggest you carefully place the whole thing on a tray of some kind and take it some place you can blow off the dust with an air can (or suck off the dust if you have a computer vacuum).

What looks like mold growing on the unit in the picture is dust. The fan unit is likely to be full of dust as well. Blow this out carefully, in a well-ventilated area. No point opening the case without performing this bit of preventive maintenance (Mac Minis are known for being super quiet but mine had started to make some noise--this cleanup returned it to quiet mode).

The video has good instructions on changing the RAM. My machine had two 512 megabyte memory cards and I simply replaced the top one with a 2 gigabyte card. This gives me 2.5 gigabytes total and seems to make the Mac Mini work a lot better (programs load faster than I'm not getting so many delays when running multiple programs at once).

Final tips concern re-assembly. Be careful that you thread the BlueTooth antenna cable the right way or it could get pinched. Also make sure that the wires crossing the ribbon cable do so neatly, within the fold of the cable. Finally, as recommended in the video, test things before you put the outer case back on. This has been a habit of mine from my earliest days making PCs out of cloned motherboards. The cover doesn't go on until everything checks out, otherwise you jinx things!

Well, that about does it. One final tip is to make sure you have access to the video while doing this. I downloaded it to my Windows laptop so I could watch it while the Mac was in pieces. Good luck with your upgrade!

My 10 Year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee Turns 100K

Okay, so this is not exactly monumental news from the road, but it is a cool milestone. My ten year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo passed 100,000 miles on my drive back from Philadelphia yesterday evening.

I was going to take a picture of the odometer at precisely the 100,000 mile mark but pulling over on the side of Interstate 81 in the dark for a snapshot didn't feel like a responsible thing to do.

The vehicle is still running smoothly and continues to deliver a very comfortable ride. For those who frown on SUVs I should point out that a. There's no way you can get up and down our driveway in the Winter without a vehicle that has a 4 wheel drive system that can be locked into low range, and b. The carbon footprint of continuing to run this vehicle versus buying a brand new vehicle that is more fuel efficient is an interesting calculation to make.

My "Satellite is Not Broadband" Letter to the Editor, FCC Test Data, and More

dish-ice-200I just noticed that my letter to the editor of the Daily Star about rural broadband was published (back on February 15). I have pasted the letter at the bottom of this post.

The letter is part of my ongoing campaign to evangelize the need for affordable broadband connectivity in rural areas. I truly believe that if affordable broadband is not made available to what are currently "dialup-only" areas, once-thriving villages will eventually become ghost towns. On the other hand, if such connectivity is made available, then many rural areas can be transformed through better jobs, better education, and a variety of digital community-building initiatives that are currently impractical.

fcc-broadband-test-resultSometimes you will hear people say "rural households can get satellite Internet, so they have broadband available to them."

As I have described at length before, my opinion is that satellite Internet service is NOT broadband and never can be. In my letter I try to explain that in plain English in the context of recent efforts by Otsego County to get federal funding for improved broadband access.

On a brighter note, one positive step the federal government is taking in this field showed up recently on the special FCC site called The agency has posted a test that anyone can use (rural or sub/urban) to check their connection's speed. This test evolved out of growing suspicion that most broadband providers claim to provide higher performance than they actually deliver. (For example, I pay for a download speed of over 1,000kbps but as you can see from my test result, I get nothing like that.)

I urge you to test your own connection. In the meantime, here is my letter titled "Satellite Internet not same as broadband."

Dear Editor,

Your coverage of Otsego County's struggle to provide affordable broadband to rural residents is much appreciated by those of us whose property prices are being hit by the lack of broadband access. ("County's request for Web funding denied," Feb. 4.) I have seen neighbors move already, putting property up for sale because of the lack of broadband.

With all due respect to Rep. Betty Anne Schwerd, whom you quoted, satellite Internet service is not broadband.

A broadband Internet connection should support real-time trading, Voice over IP (like Vonage), video streaming (like YouTube and NetFlix), and Virtual Private Networking (VPN is required for many telecommuting jobs).

Satellite does not support these core broadband functions, as stated on the website of HughesNet, one of Otsego County's two main satellite providers. The other provider, Wild Blue, is not accepting new customers in parts of Otsego County due to capacity issues. These can cause a big drop in performance. As a HughesNet customer, my median download speed is 258kbps, much slower than the "headline rate" of 1.6mbps for which I pay $70 per month.

Cheap dial-up delivers 56kbps plus better latency than satellite (which will always be weak in this regard because every bit travels 45,000 miles into space and back).

Sadly, lobbyists for cable and phone companies, fighting requirements that they serve rural customers, have tricked politicians into thinking that "everyone in rural areas can get broadband thanks to satellite." This is deceptive at best. Satellite Internet is not broadband and, if there's no broadband where you live, you cannot participate in all the opportunities that the Internet affords. As a result, the value of your property, like mine, will continue to decline relative to areas that have broadband.

Stephen Cobb
Cherry Valley