Life after the University of Leicester, pronounced Lester, plus academic bang for bucks

(In which the author gets back to his blog after a virtual expedition to a place called Leicester...)

I was going to start this blog post with something like: "As regular readers may have noticed..." But frankly, I doubt there are many regular readers left out there, mainly because I've not been blogging on this site on a regular basis for several years. Why? Because of my preoccupation with two things: cybersecurity and going to school.

I didn't stop writing blog posts, but they've mostly been about cybersecurity, and most have appeared on or on S. Cobb on Security and

As for going to school, most of the going has been virtual, that is: distance learning over the Internet. Most of my "spare" time for the past 24 months has been dedicated to working on a postgraduate degree at a university in England, specifically an MSc in Security and Risk Management, namely at the University of Leicester. And while the name Leicester looks like it might be pronounced "lie - cess - ter" the correct way to say it is "lester".

Copyright Leicester City F.C. Knowing this pronunciation is more useful today than it was when I started my studies there in September of 2014. Why? Because millions more people around the world have of heard of Leicester today than even six months ago, thanks in part to the amazing story of the Foxes, a.k.a. Leicester City Football Club (I will go into other reasons in another post).

To be clear, I'm not an expert on sport; indeed, I'm not even a huge fan of sport in general. The "sport" I follow most closely involves driving cars (Formula One car racing). So I will leave it to this BBC article to do the telling of this one: Explaining the Leicester City Story to Americans. The bottom line is that the team that owns the totally cool logo on the right, the Foxes, achieved what some sports fans say is the greatest underdog comeback in any sport, ever.

But let's return to a far more modest come-back, my return to blogging after spending two years studying for a Master's degree while holding down a full-time job (not only is the job full time, it requires a fair bit of travel - for example, in 2015 I took more than 50 commercial airline flights).

Was the studying worth it?

Yes! Let me make that clear. I plan to write a separate article about the details of my degree programme (it was in England, hence the English spelling of program); but even without going into detail I can say for sure that it was worth the time, effort, and money.

[caption id="attachment_2247" align="alignright" width="294"]ul-criminology No, it's not Hogwarts on a sunny day, it's the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester (but like Hogwarts, it has hidden depths, in this case extensive cohorts of distance learning students).[/caption]

On the topic of money, I should be clear that my employer, ESET, one of the world's largest security software companies, has a very enlightened and generous tuition reimbursement program (I'm in their San Diego office, so it's a program, not a programme).

By using the annual reimbursement from ESET and the interest-free installment plan offered by the university I was able to stagger my payments across 2014, 2015, and 2016. I was fortunate enough to be able to front the payments without economic hardship. And, as luck would have it, the British pound declined in value relative to the US dollar during my studies (more on that later).

This fortuitous set of circumstances, plus some planning on my part, meant that I was able to recover most of my tuition through ESET reimbursements. However, even without such a wonderful company incentive, I think many US professionals could find that a UK postgraduate degree is an attractive option for knowledge and career enhancement. I base this on three factors that I will address in more detail: hoops, bucks, and bang.

Hoops: Most British universities eschew the "hoops" you have to jump through to get into many US schools. UK universities are more inclined to consider mature applicants for Masters degree programmes based on their potential for academic study, as demonstrated through career and life journey.

Consider my MSc in Security and Risk Management (the SRM programme). My fellow students included police and military personnel, both serving and retired, who had entered those services direct from high school. In other words, not all of them had a bachelors degree. This seems eminently fair to me.

Sure, I have a bachelors degree, but it dates from the 1970s and the subjects were English and Religious Studies (Comparative Religion in US terminology). Is that a better foundation for a masters degree in security and risk management than 20 years as a police officer, or peacekeeper in a post-conflict zone, or a CISSP? I don't think so.

What everyone on the course had in common was an understanding that we would be held to a high academic standard in our course work, and would not be able to proceed to a full degree if we fell short. Again, this seems fair to me. The university has enough confidence it its ability to identify good candidates that it is not reliant on an applicants checking boxes (called ticking boxes in England) and taking a bunch of tests. I should point that there are certain standards, and these can vary between institutions, but you may find that the general approach is refreshingly different from what you have encountered in the US.

pound-dollar-chartBucks: The tuition fee for the next intake of the SRM MSc in Leicester's highly regarded Criminology Department is £13,015 which is about $17,000 at the current retail exchange rate of around $1.30. The chart on the right shows that I paid my first installment when the pound was over $1.70, and I was sure it was worth it at that price. When I paid my last installment it was about $1.40 and boy was I chuffed (English expression for "pleased with oneself"). Then came Brexit and an even bigger drop. Of course, I have no crystal ball, so I can't guarantee the pound will stay this low, but it has a lot of climbing to do to get back to 2014 levels.

BTW, that $17,000 tuition fee is not per year, that is the fee for the entire course. It even includes several books per course, sent to you by DHL, wherever you happen to be studying (for my cohort that meant anywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe).

Also included is excellent room and board if you attend Study School in Leicester. These are three day events and there are one or two per year. Attendance is not required but I found them very helpful, and enjoyable (I flew over for three of them between 2014 and 2016).

Of course, I had to buy the airline tickets, and I spent some of my own money on additional books, not to mention the care and feeding of a big color laser printer (I'm sorry, but I just can't read and annotate academic articles on a computer screen). All told, the degree was, in my opinion, something of a bargain. But that doesn't mean it lacks punch as a professional qualification.

[caption id="attachment_2255" align="alignright" width="300"]uk-uleicester Leicester is a couple hours' drive north of London, close to the center of England. I grew up 25 miles away, in Coventry, which is between the L and A in England on this map.[/caption]

Bang: In my experience, degrees from British universities in general tend to have a certain cache in America. I'm not going to argue whether or not this is justified, but I can put some stats around the place from which I obtained my "bargain" degree (borrowing heavily here from the university's own materials).

On the world stage, the University of Leicester has been ranked among the top 200 universities in the world for many years. It was 167th in 2016, ahead of Brandeis, George Washington University, Texas A&M, and the University of Miami.

In UK terms, Leicester won Times Higher Awards every year from 2007 to 2013, the only university to win awards in seven consecutive years. Leicester was awarded the prestigious title of University of the Year 2008/09 by the Times Higher Education magazine. The judges cited Leicester’s ability to “evidence commitment to high quality, a belief in the synergy of teaching and research and a conviction that higher education is a power for good”. In short, they said Leicester was "elite without being elitist". The UK has a number of national ranking tables for universities and Leicester is consistently in the top 20.

Of course, some universities are better for some subjects than others. The primary driver of my decision to go back to school was to gain a better understanding of crime and so I looked for schools that had a good reputation in Criminology. In 2013 the Guardian ranked the University of Leicester third in the UK for Criminology. This ranking is perhaps not surprising given that Leicester's Department of Criminology has a large number of widely published faculty, but it also reflects an exceptional score for student satisfaction with teaching.

Summing up

It's good to be done with my degree, which I will actually collect in person later this month (expect graduation photos on Twitter @The StephenCobb). And of course, it's good to be free of that constant feeling of "you really should be studying" instead of whatever else you happen to be doing. That said, I never felt that my studying conflicted with my work, largely because the subject of my studies was my work - after all, I am a security researcher by title and trade.

It helped that the work output for the course was essentially six essays and a 15,000 word dissertation. Six essays may not sound like a lot, until you factor in the scale of the essays, which range from 3,000 to 5,000 words, plus references. In other words, you are not attending classes, you are doing the reading and research for the module topic, then writing up your results in the form of an extended academic argument around the question you have chosen to answer. (One essay is actually a research proposal with literature review, and there are some tests on referencing and statistics.)

You have three questions to chose from in each of the six modules, but considerable scope to frame your essay on your own terms; for example, I managed to make all of my essays about, or relevant to, cybercrime and cybersecurity. That enabled me to use a lot of my essay research and writing for work, a good example being the data privacy white paper that I published last year on The paper is an essay re-worked as a guide to US data privacy law.

You will remember that I mentioned high academic standards. That privacy paper has garnered a fair amount of praise and is looked at by several hundred people a month; however, the grade that the essay earned me was barely above a pass (largely because there was too much descriptive accounting of privacy protections and not enough argument around the actual essay question). In other words, a lot of us were sweating our grades after each module.

Fortunately, I got better grades on the other five essays and the dissertation, all 80 pages and 15,000 words of it. I produced two papers on my way to the dissertation, available from my security site, and the dissertation itself should be published later this year. I am also using material from that research in my session at HIMSS next month (as in Health Information and Management Systems Society Annual Conference, a conference likely to be attended by more than 40,000 people).

With that, I will wrap up this "back from school" blog post and make a promise to provide more about the programme at Leicester and the pleasures and perils of adult education and distance learning in a future post. Thanks for reading!

50 Shades of White Privilege: #1 Birth and #2 Education

[Update: I originally published this post in October of 2014 when public discussion of "White Privilege" surfaced in mainstream media and it became clear to me that some white people did not understand the concept. I am republishing this article now because of a tweet about Black Lives Matter that I sent out earlier in the day: "If your response to Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter then you are definitely missing the point and probably white". Several hashtags and phrases appeared in response to that tweet:

  1. we are all given the same start

  2. #nooneowesyoushit

  3. #iearnedmine 

I think my original article demolishes #1 and #2, and I am pretty sure #2 is a red herring. To point out the many ways in which our society acts as if black lives matter less than white lives is not to say that anyone is owed anything, except for a level playing field, equal respect, equal access to justice, capital, healthcare, and so on.

As for #3, how can I put this? I did earn the money in my bank account, but being white meant that throughout my career more doors were opened wider, and less obstacles were placed in my path, than if I had been black. I got mortgages and loans more easily. I got better medical care than if I were black. And I never got stopped or harassed for driving or walking while black. To put it simply, every successful black man that I know had to work a lot harder to get ahead than I did. So here is what I wrote in 2014, republished with a promise to continue the originally promised series of posts as soon as I have finished my dissertation.]

Original article:

White privilege exists. I know because I'm white and I have benefited from that simple fact every day of my life. After six decades of living, I can say with confidence that my life has been easier than it would have been if I was not white. White privilege exists in America and Britain, Canada, Australia, and pretty much anywhere else dominated by white people. And when white privilege goes unacknowledged, it presents -- certainly in my experience -- a serious barrier to achieving racial harmony.

Why write about white privilege?

I have benefited from white privilege in so many ways, some positive, others non-negative, that I thought I would list them. By articulating my experience of these different shades of white privilege, my hope is to enlighten -- pun not intended, but I rather like it -- some of the remaining "white privilege deniers" out there. And if other white folks can articulate their experiences of privilege to their white friends and relatives and colleagues, then maybe we will stand a chance of achieving some sort of racial harmony, for one thing is quite clear: racial harmony is still a promised land, a place in human history that has been glimpsed but not yet attained.

What is white privilege?

Before I get to my Shades of White Privilege list, I wanted to offer a few notes about how the term white privilege is being using in the second decade of the 21st century. I find it interesting to track #WhitePrivilege in Twitter. And there is an interesting definition in Wikipedia -- I know it's not a primary academic source, but it can be a useful starting point. Right now the Wikipedia definition says:
White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people in the same social, political, or economic circumstances. [October 19, 2014]

The footnote to this definition lists a variety of other definitions of white privilege that are sourced and worth checking. Two notable articles that help explain the concept are "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh, and "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person..." The latter is particularly helpful in getting past the idea that white privilege does not apply to white people who have experienced hardship and prejudice.

For example, although I generally think of myself as having lived a charmed life, I have experienced being flat broke on a number of occasions. At one point I was homeless as well. But I have no doubt that getting through those tough times was a lot easier for me than it would have been for a person of color. I think it is important to acknowledge that reality, rather than fall for the fantasy we too often hear from our fellow white Americans: "If I can work my way out of tough times, so can they."

For me, white privilege embodies two concepts:

  1. despite the many advances toward equality over the last 50 years, being born white still makes life easier [in America, Britain, and many other countries] than if you are born non-white;

  2. we need to change that.

I begin my look at the shades of white privilege with #1 Birth.

White Privilege Shade #1 Birth

I was born white in a very white time and place: Britain in the 1950s. At that point in time there were about 50 million people living in Britain and more than 99.99% of them were white. So how could I experience white privilege? Were my parents rich? Not in British terms. But I was born in a very comfortable and well-built home that had electricity and indoor plumbing. I was delivered into the world by a well-equipped midwife and pronounced healthy shortly thereafter by a well-educated doctor who made house calls. The fact is, although my family was not rich by British standards, Britain was rich by world standards.

How did Britain get to be rich? Was it through industry and innovation? Well, there was a lot of that, but where did the capital come from? Two hundred years of systematic theft on a global scale, enterprises such as:

  • relentlessly plundering lands that belonged to non-white people,

  • stripping them of their natural resources,

  • relocating millions of those non-white people for cash and other remuneration, and

  • exploiting those non-white people for cheap labor.

Sure, my dad was a hard working man and my parents maintained a modest lifestyle to make the most of his earnings, but like generations of British people before them, they were experiencing a more comfortable lifestyle than 90% of the rest of the planet, thanks to what the country of their birth, and mine, had taken from others, people who were not white like them. (Before you ask, let me assure you my parents don't disagree with this version of events.)

White Privilege Shade #2 Education

As a beneficiary of Britain's global plunder-fueled affluence in the twentieth century, I got a free education from the age of five all the way through to graduate school. The educational facilities were excellent. There was free milk. School lunches were free until I was 11. Healthcare was also free and by 15 I was nearly six feet tall (that's me second from the right in the back row).

At times I had to study hard and compete for scholarship funds, but I did not lack for educational resources, or emotional and psychological support. From age 12 to 18 I attended a prestigious 400 year-old school within walking distance of our house. We lived in a quiet neighborhood where every adult who wanted to work was able to do so. We had a comfortable lifestyle. The thought that my efforts to succeed might at any point be thwarted by racial prejudice never entered my mind. Indeed, thanks to white privilege, race has never ever hindered my progress in life.

Just in case you're thinking "that was long ago and far away and things are different today," consider this: "Top universities turn out black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them." That's a quote from a recent USA Today analysis which revealed that even in America today, where tech graduates are very highly sought after, black and brown tech graduates are less sought after than white.

More Shades to Come

[Update: July 2019] I wanted to get the ball rolling with this project, so I started with Shades 1 and 2 and posted them right away. Then I started to write White Privilege Shade #3: Immigration (why was it so easy for a penniless white guy to emigrate to America). However, the demands of work and my role as a caregiver have kept me from completing the project. Fortunately, I have been able to retire and hope to return to this writing soon.

In the meantime, I want to say a few words about prejudice.

Being white doesn't mean you won't ever experience prejudice, but I think some white people who have experienced prejudice take that to mean they are not beneficiaries of white privilege. So let me be clear, white-on-white prejudice does not take away white privilege.

For example, the year that I was six we lived in a very white town in Canada where I was picked upon and roughed up for being English. Oddly enough I decided to go back to Canada as a postgraduate teaching assistant, but after a year the university cut the funding of foreign graduates in favor of Canadian students and I never got to finish that degree.

Decades later I've put that all behind me and can honestly say that some of my best friends these days are Canadians. More important, none of those experiences did anything to diminish my white privilege, although they did give me a tiny taste of what non-white people may feel when they are subject to racial prejudice. In fact, my partner and I have a theory that white children benefit greatly from the experience of living - even if for a short time - in a place where they are "different."


* The photo shows the King Henry VIII School rugby team, 1968. I played "second row" in the "Under 15" squad, so-called because we were under 15 years of age when the season started (September 1, 1967). The school was named after its founder and dates back to 1545, the same year that Francis Drake, one of the first English slave traders, was born.

Talking cybersecurity futures at TEDx San Diego

What can we do to ensure a better future for technology? A future with less cybercrime and more trust in digital technology? I addressed these questions in a TEDx talk in San Diego, titled: Ones and Zeroes: A Tale of Two Futures. I drew on my studies in the Criminology Department at the University of Leicester and the San Diego Cyber Boot Camp:

The ethics of faking it until you make it

The advice to "fake it until you make it" has popped up several times recently in my online meanderings, raising some interesting questions. I want to ponder them for a moment and present a couple of illustrations, one a video and another a story.

I started to think about this when I did some research for a friend on overcoming the fear of public speaking. I found an article that had several pieces of advice, include this: "try faking it until you make it" where "it" equals "being a confident public speaker".

(BTW, I really do mean that I was doing this research for a friend and not myself. I do have my own problems with public speaking, but they are the opposite of lack of confidence, and more in the area of piping up too often and for too long, something I have been working on for many years: namely, knowing when to pipe down.)

Unfortunately, my friend interpreted the article as a recommendation to fake talking about something you don't know much about, that is, faking being an expert when one is not. The author of the article didn't really mean that one should engage in professional impersonation, but it could been read that way. And my friend had a point: it is one thing to fake feeling confident, which is often the context in which this "fake it until you make it" phrase appears; but is it okay to fake a skillset until you actually acquire it?

For example, most of my writing these days concerns security (on We Live Security and on S. Cobb on Security). So, would it be okay to fake being a security expert until you became one? Many people would reflexively answer no. Yet even as I ask that question, I flash on the feelings I used to have in the early days of my career in information security, feelings like "I'm not really an expert" and "these people are taking a chance acting on my advice."

On the other hand, I never actually claimed to be a computer security expert, people just began to treat me that way, most likely because I wrote a book about computer security (after spending several years researching the subject and dealing with real world security problems, then covering the topic for IT publications and learning what I could from people whom I considered experts).

It turns out that this sense of being a fake in one's chosen profession is quite common, and it may be more common for women than men. Why? I think that many societies teach males to fake their emotional state and self-image as part of growing up. This is reflected in phrases like "Be a man!" which are directed at boys who are not yet men. Now, I've always been a firm believer that women can doing anything that men can do, as epitomized by the factory worker in the photo at the top of this post (she's measuring tubing with a large micrometer, a tool that will appear later in this blog post). However, it is quite possible that the way in which we are raised leads men and women to react differently to the phrase "fake it until you make it."

To get a different perspective on this, we can turn to TED, as in a TED talk, one that has been viewed by tens of millions of people. I recommend listening to the whole talk, but if you a pressed for time you could skip to the 15 minute mark. This is the point when Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, gets into the issue of feeling "fake" in a professional situation (she talks about this in the context of research that shows how adopting certain physical poses with our bodies can change our physiology).

My opinion? There is a role for faking it until you make it, or better yet, as Amy Cuddy says, faking it until you become it. Let me give you an example that may account for my take on this. My grandfather faked it until he became an engineer, and by doing so he probably saved himself and his younger brother from a life of poverty.

Ernest Cobb was born in England in 1894, the third of four sons in a modestly wealthy family. However, when my grandfather was 14 his father, also Ernest, sustained serious financial and property losses. That meant my grandfather had to go out and look for work to support himself and his younger brother. This was in Coventry, an industrial city in the British Midlands, a cradle of automotive engineering and the home of many classic car and motorcycle marques (e.g. Triumph: 1885, Lea-Francis: 1895, Humber: 1896, Daimler: 1896, The London Taxi Company: 1899, Rover: 1904, Sunbeam: 1901, Hillman: 1907,  and Jaguar: 1922).

micrometer-trans1sThe story goes that young Ernest was out looking for work when he saw a group of men lined up outside a factory. He asked the man at the end of the line what they were waiting for. He was told there was a chance to get a job, but only if you could operate a micrometer, a device that my grandfather, a son of landed gentry, had never seen before.

But he joined the queue and watched as the foreman handed the person at the front of the line a micrometer and a piece of metal to test their ability. By the time it was his turn, my grandfather had observed enough to handle the micrometer as though he knew what he was doing, thus faking his way into a job. My grandfather went on to master many tools and instruments, eventually creating a successful tool-and-die making company. He retired quite comfortably in his fifties when he sold his quarter share of the firm.

In the past, when faced with challenging times myself, I have taken inspiration from this story about my grandfather. It still makes me smile sometimes as I do my two-minute power poses that I learned from Amy Cuddy.

Privacy for Business

I published "Privacy for Business: Web sites and email" in 2002. Much of the content about privacy principles in business is still relevant. You can download the book free of charge in electronic form as long as you respect the copyright and license agreement.

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How to fix your Google Chrome bookmarks if you can't stand the new "enhanced design"

Has Google messed up your Chrome bookmarks with its "new, improved" bookmark system? Don't panic! You can fix it and go back to the way things were, where your bookmarks are organized the way YOU want.

The obscure but simple fix is described below (this works as of April 27, 2015). If you want to know more about the "Enhanced Bookmark" changes that Google has been forcing onto users, scroll down below these steps or click here.

(Note: I am certainly not the first person to describe this fix. That's because Google has been rolling out the new "enhanced" bookmark to Chrome users over time, for several months. Indeed, you might not have seen the new bookmark interface yet, but now you know what the fuss is about.)

Steps to return your Chrome bookmarks to the normal folder arrangement

1. Go to chrome://flags > by typing chrome://flags in the URL bar and tapping Enter. You should see something like this, with one of the worst warning messages you will ever read in any software ever (don't those self-important "user interface enhancement" nerds at Google realize browsers are no joking matter!):


2. Find the "enhanced bookmarks" setting by using Find (Control/Command + F) and typing enhanced bookmark as seen here (the auto-fill will find it as you type):


3. Use the blue drop down box control to Change the setting to Disabled, as seen above.

Note: You should not make changes to any other settings on this page unless you are sure of what the effects will be. That part of the warning is appropriate.

4. Make sure there is no unsaved work in any of the pages you have open in Chrome and then click the Relaunch button at the bottom of the page:


That should make sure your Chrome bookmarks look the way they always have, so when you look at a bookmark it looks like this:


If you haven't yet seen the new "enhanced" Google Chrome bookmark it looks like this:


Now you know how to make it go away, I will explain why I think this new system is bad, and why forcing it onto Chrome users was a really dumb move by Google, not to mention arrogant.

What the flip did Google do to my bookmarks in Chrome?

your-choices-chrome-bookmarkApart from gobbling up screen real estate, the new user interface for bookmarks in Chrome severely limits your organizational options. For example, it appears to offer no way to choose the folder for the bookmark other than the choices it suggests.

For example, there is a very specific folder on my system for pages related to something called HIMSS, but that folder does not appear as a choice, and I can't get to it from this box.

Google says I have to put the bookmark in the Bookmarks Bar or the Sysadmin folder (seriously, WTF has Sysadmin got to do with HIMSS).

But Stephen, what about the "VIEW ALL BOOKMARKED ITEMS" option, you ask. Oh no, you don't want to go there, because "there" is where you see just how badly Google has messed up your carefully curated bookmarks, about 15 years' worth of bookmarks in my case, maybe even more for you.

I mean there I was, cheerfully bookmarking pages in Chrome, gathering material for a research project in the third module of my Criminology degree course, saving the pages in: Mobile Bookmarks > MSc > Module 3. Then boom! Some arrogant, "I understand users better than you" expert at Google, says "Stephen, your system sucks, try this!" And here is a glimpse of what you see when you view all bookmarks in the new in-your-face interface:


Believe me when I tell you that no amount of scrolling down the list on the left takes me to "Mobile Bookmarks > MSc > Module 3". That structure is just not there. And I will add more thoughts about that on this page when I have calmed down. For now, I want to put this "fix" out there. If you want to come back for more, please bookmark this page (he said with no trace of irony at all, honest).


Taxes, Lady Godiva, Coventry, privacy, and the first Peeping Tom

Naked Woman on Horseback might sound like a porn video but it's also a timely topic for the month of April, the month when taxes are front of mind for many Americans: personal income taxes for the previous calendar year must be paid on or before the 15th of the month.

For me, the topic of paying taxes conjures up many images, some more pleasant than others. The oldest of these images is indeed a woman on a white horse: the celebrated tax protester, Lady Godiva, for which my home town of Coventry in England is famous.

(Or rather, Coventry should be famous for Lady Godiva, but I suspect that many Americans eat delicious Godiva Chocolate in complete ignorance of the story behind the logo of the naked lady on the horse, for she truly has no historical connection with chocolate - the confection did not even exist when she made her famous ride.)

Lady Godiva was the wife of the Earl of Leofric, ruler of the central region of England, known as Mercia, in the early years of the eleventh century. Leofric was one of the most powerful Earls in the country prior to the Norman invasion of 1066 (Leofric died in 1057). Historical records show that both Leofric and his wife were great benefactors, donating land and money to establish monasteries as well as jewelry for shrines, even gold-fringed vestments for St. Paul's cathedral in London.

The Lady Godiva Clock in Coventry, with Peeping Tom.Unfortunately, the power struggles that beset England in those times consumed resources that included taxes levied on the Earls' subjects. These were not predictable annual levies. Times of conflict would produce successive tolls to fund armies, at least until the posturing or fighting was over. When Lady Godiva implored her husband not to impose more taxes he is said to have declared something to this effect: "The day I stop raising taxes is the day you ride naked through the city." So that is what she did.

If you're looking for a really bad pun you could say something about calling his bluff in the buff, but the good folk of Coventry took this act of courage very seriously. At Lady Godiva's request they all went inside at the appointed hour and shuttered their windows; all except one, whose name was Tom.

As Lady Godiva rode by on her white horse, long blonde hair draped across her body, Tom peeped out. Legend has it that Tom, the original Peeping Tom, was struck blind by God for his voyeurism. On the bright side, Leofric kept his word and "abolished the onerous taxes."

This story is commemorated every day in the center of Coventry where, every hour, on the hour, a clock displays the figure of Lady Godiva riding by, while from above leers the despicable Peeping Tom.

To be honest, the ride of Lady Godiva is more legend than documented historical fact, although the lady herself was very definitely a real person. She outlived her husband and and at the time of her death still maintained a large estate, as recorded in the Domesday Book. By the time I was born, and this was several centuries after Lady Godiva's "allegendary" ride, the city of Coventry had a well-established tradition of re-enacting the event, by which I mean a woman would ride a horse in a large procession through the city. The citizenry did not go inside, instead they came out to watch. The woman was not always naked and nobody was blinded.

The Godiva procession has been revived in recent years and the city of Coventry has done more to tell the world about its most famous lady. Less attention is paid to Peeping Tom, but he has become synonymous with voyeur throughout the English-speaking world, even as the digital revolution has expanded the potential for voyeurism and invasion of privacy. The digital equivalent of blinding those who look where they shouldn't has not yet been invented, but this age is yet young.

p.s. I have no idea why Godiva Chocolate chose Lady Godiva as a logo, but I do give them credit for the Lady Godiva program it started in 2012 "to celebrate inspirational women around the world." The program seeks to support "extraordinary women who embody the spirit of Lady Godiva through their attributes of selflessness, generosity and leadership." Amen to that!

Complacency is the curse of comfort

A writer once wrote: Complacency is the curse of comfort. I think what he means is that a comfortable life can lead us to become complacent about the world's problems, which can then turn up on our doorstep to discomfit us. Actually, I know that is what the writer meant, because I am that writer.

Back in the 1970s, when I was a long-haired student of the arts, my favorite writers, other than Shakespeare, were Montaigne, Bacon, and Blake. I liked Michel de Montaigne because he put so much of himself into his writing and pioneered literary non-fiction centuries long before it was called that. I liked Francis Bacon because he claimed the entire world as his subject matter. And I liked William Blake because he invented self-publishing, held picnics in the nude, and wrote some wicked proverbs, like: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."

I was fascinated with these proverbs and the way we humans will quote memorable sayings for centuries after the sayer has died. As a student I remember thinking that it would be cool to say something that memorable. I had been scribbling poems since I was eight and by eighteen I was writing everything from free form verse to sonnets (the latter were usually written to girlfriends, as in hand-written and hand delivered, so they have not survived). One day, it occurred to me to write a saying or proverb.

I looked around at my world of white privilege and felt how seductive it was to relax back into the comfortable life that was all around me; and then I saw my parents go out in the evenings, often after a hard day of work, and try to raise money for worthy causes, try to raise awareness of injustices that afflicted others, often on the other side of the world. I realized that there was more to being alive than being comfortable. That's when I came up with: "Complacency is the curse of comfort."

Of course, I then had to figure out how to spread my proverb to the world. I carried on writing poetry but my efforts to get published went nowhere. I thought about being a playwright but that seemed even less likely to get me published than being a poet. I did plot a number of novels and I figured that I would put those wise words into the mouth of one of my characters. (All of this was before self-publishing and digital publishing became a big deal, and although Blake was a brilliant poet and artist but his publishing business was not a big money maker.)

Eventually, my career in computers and security took up all of my writing energy. In a period of seven years I wrote more than twenty big thick computer texts. They accumulated sales of more than one million books, but they were all what you might call non-literary non-fiction.

When blogging came along I saw a chance to "publish" a few things that were more creative, like the story of the little redback spider and the truth about what Willie Sutton said. And now of course, I have published my proverb. One of the many benefits of the Internet is that it simplifies laying claim to words. I have Googled "Complacency is the curse of comfort" numerous times and it does appear that I am the person who said this.

I am also the person who said: "The best weapon with which to protect information is information." True enough, but hardly a universally useful saying. So I need to work on more inspired aphorisms, like Blake's:

  • The most sublime act is to set another before you.

  • The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.

  • If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

I live if hope!

Crossing the North Atlantic: 1 plane, 3 ships, and a guitarist

I came to America on a ship. That statement, which is true, can be useful in conversations. For example, when I want to emphasize my age. At that point in the conversation the fact that I came to America from somewhere else is usually apparent from the remnants of my English accent.

Proper-plane: Britannia

However, the truth is that my first visit to America was by car, from Canada, when I was six. And I got to Canada not on a ship but in a plane, one that had propellers on it, just like this:

That's a Bristol Britannia, which first flew a few months before I was born. The plane entered service in 1957 and my family flew on one from England to Canada in 1959. The Bristol company has a storied history dating from 1910 until the present. The flight was wonderful. I got to sit with the pilot for a while and received an enameled pair of B.O.A.C. wings.

Proper Ship: Saxonia

For about a year my family lived in Renfrew, Ontario. I attended Queen Elizabeth Public School. When we returned from Canada to England a year later, we traveled on the Cunard liner you see below, RMS Saxonia, built in Scotland in 1957:

Despite a rough late autumn crossing from Quebec City to Southampton, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were not in first class, but we had an assigned steward at our table in the dining room and he was terrific. For some meals I was the only one at the table (did I mention it was a rough crossing - my mother lost 14 pounds in 5 days). At the end of the trip the steward gave me a certificate he had drawn, stating that I not been seasick the entire trip. Little did I know that the Saxonia would reappear in my life many years later.

MS Mikhail Lermontov

Back in England, I attended King Henry VIII School for Boys and then went to university in Leeds where my first year roommate was guitarist Steve Donnelly. During the final year of my Bachelors degree I applied for and received a post-graduate teaching post at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada. To get there I booked passage on a Russian ocean liner, the MS Mikhail Lermontov:

In the mid-1970s the Lermentov was making round trip cruises from New York, via London, to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in Russia. Traveling at a leisurely pace, the ship was a floating showcase of Soviet culture, and a way to obtain U.S. dollars from the mainly American passengers who took the round trip.

I have no doubt that my "student" fare of 100 Pounds Sterling for passage from London to New York - cheaper than airfare and a real bargain when you consider it included as much luggage as you wanted - was a ploy to expose young people to the wonders of the Soviet Union. These included some terrific Russian cuisine, Russian dance performances and all sorts of classes (balalaika, borscht, Russian literature and of course, the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov himself).

However, the most memorable cultural experience for me was passing under New York's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at dawn and sailing past the Statute of Liberty as the sun came up. After that, the trip by Greyhound bus from New York to Hamilton, Ontario, was a bit of an anti-climax.

TS/S Stefan Batory

After graduate school in Canada I went back to England, choosing an ocean passage again, from Montreal to Southampton on a Polish ocean liner, the TS/S Stefan Batory that was originally built in the Netherlands in 1952:

The Polish crew were great and the service was wonderful. In fact, the Batory went on crossing the ocean from Gydnia to Montreal until 1988, the last regularly scheduled transatlantic passenger service.

Note: TS/S stands for Turbine Steam Ship. MS in a ship's name stands for Motor Ship, indicating that it is propelled by an internal combustion engine. These abbreviations are a great source of trivia questions, like what does the RM in RMS stand for? It's not Royal Majesty, but Royal Mail.

The Steve Donnelly Connection

Some 29 years after my last transatlantic crossing by ship I met up with my former college roommate whom I had not see in more than 30 years. To cut a long story short, and leave out the many expressions of wonder, it turns out that after Leeds, Steve had played guitar in a house band on the Saxonia! So my roommate had sailed the seas in the 1970s on the same boat that took me from Canada to England as a boy.

And get this, the ship Steve played on was Soviet at the time! It turns out that in August 1973 the Saxonia was bought by the Soviet Union-based Black Sea Shipping Company. She was renamed after Leonid Sobinov, a famous Russian tenor, and put to cruising!

Not only that - and this is where it gets really spooky - as the conversation continued, we realized that Steve had played in another ship band, on another Soviet vessel: the Lermontov! Apparently, she had been upgraded to a Western-style cruising ship in 1982.

A few years ago, I was at a wedding reception in Toronto and late in the evening the bride's father, a gracious host and serious follower of rock music, asked me: "What's the biggest coincidence you've ever experienced?" I had to tell him the one about the two ships and the rock band roommate.

The epilogue is a sad but telling one:  In 1986, in an incident that prefigured the tragic fate of the Costa Concordia, the Lermentov hit rocks while sailing close to shore and sank. That was in New Zealand waters. Steve was not onboard. In fact, all aboard were saved, except for one crew member. She now rests on the ocean floor and is considered one of the world's finest wreck diving experiences.


Let me end this strange tale of ocean travels with Steve on guitar...he's the serious looking one on the right.

You will also find Steve on all Nick Lowe albums since Dig My Mood, and on Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire plus Sheryl Crow's eponymous album. Fans of Bill Nighy may know Steve from the 1999 movie Still Crazy, for which Steve provided most of the music and guitar solos. More recently Steve appeared on Bonnie Raitt's first studio album in seven years: Slipstream. Finally, check for the iconic Fender coming in at 1:48 in the following, that's Steve Donnelly:

Of Spiders and Sin

What follows is the definitive telling of my story about the Australian redback spider and its pedagogical employment in a theological context. This is a tale I have told many times in the company of friends but it has never been recorded for posterity, until now. I have included some notes below the story that might be of interest and will add more later as they occur to me.
The phrase ‘liberal Baptist church’ might sound like an oxymoron, but I grew up in Coventry, England, and the theology of some English Baptists is quite liberal. Indeed, I was raised by a congregation of souls so liberal that I became a Sunday school teacher even though I had never been baptized and had not yet – nor have I since – accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Back then, as the sixties were turning into the seventies, Sunday school was more about the geography of poverty, feeding the hungry, and boycotting companies that did business with the white regime in South Africa.

The person who leads the services in an English Baptist church is referred to as the minister, although said person might be addressed as Reverend. From time to time, our regular Reverend went on holiday and Sunday services were conducted by guest ministers, which is how I first encountered the redback spider.

The guest minister that Sunday was from the continent that is the home of said spider, Australia. The deacons who arranged his visit were apparently unaware that some Australian Baptists were much closer in spirit to their evangelical cousins in the southern states of America, and their manner of sermonizing more that of preacher than minister. Such was the case with this unfortunate fellow, as his address to our Sunday school children would reveal, quite painfully as it turned out.

“Good morning children,” this preacher began, “I come from Australia, a place some people call ‘the land down under,’ and in that land we have some amazing creatures.”

His unfamiliar accent, and his dramatic emphasis on the last two words, definitely got the attention of his young audience, which ranged from about four to fourteen. The preacher continued, “One creature, the redback spider, is no bigger than the nail of my little finger, but his bite is deadly.”

To my English ears, this last word, which should have carried a lot of weight, sounded like ‘diddly’ which may explain how this children’s sermon went astray.

He continued, “Although he is so small, just one bite from this little fellah can kill you … dramatic pause … dead.”

Again, the ‘dead’ sounded like ‘did’ to me but the preacher’s delivery left no doubt that death was what this small but fearsome creature delivered. One bite could end your life. I could see some of the younger children sitting up a little straighter, eager for whatever came next.

“Now then children, what does this remind us of?”

The preacher paused for an answer. Scanned the young faces. Nothing.

“Just one bite and you’re dead. What does this remind us of?”

More silence.

“Sin!” he proclaimed, apparently failing to detect in the faces before him the signs of confusion that this word caused.

The preacher took a deep breath and forged ahead, asking a question he assumed would solve the riddle: “How many sins does it take to keep you out of heaven?”

More silence with just a hint of embarrassed shuffling from the adults in the congregation. The preacher was undeterred.

“Come on children,” he continued, as though this was the first thing you learned in Sunday school, “How many sins does it take to keep you out of heaven? Is it two? Five? Ten? A hundred?”

The sequence of numbers was enunciated with what sounded to me like a mild but mounting sense of despair. It was at this point that young Mark Jacobs from my class shot up his hand. No more than seven years old, Mark was a bit of a handful, but very quick on the uptake. I could tell he was sure he had this one figured out.

“Yes!” exclaimed the preacher, extending his palms towards Mark, who loudly delivered his answer, a logical deduction from the clues provided, but also – I like to think – a reflection of the spirit of the church in which he was being raised:


My heart went out to the preacher as he stood there and said about all he could say at that point: “No. It’s one. Just one sin can keep you out of heaven. Now let us sing hymn number 127: “All Things Bright and Beautiful."


1. The chorus of that hymn, written by Cecil Francis Alexander in 1848, goes like this:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

I have no idea if Alexander had the redback spider in mind when she penned line two.

2. Very few renditions of this hymn today include the third verse of the original, which goes like this:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

In fact, several members of our congregation refused to sing the hymn at all, owing to the fact that its author held views so opposed to their own.

3. The English Baptists believe in adult baptism, a belief I greatly respect because it holds that nobody should take this step in life unless they make an informed decision to do so. I was never pressured to make this choice, again something I greatly respect. I remain unbaptized, but always welcome at that church.

4. Many years later I encountered redback spiders in Alice Springs, Australia. They were pointed out by the very gifted engineer who worked on my wife's off-road racing vehicle, in a dark corner of his garage. He had recently been bitten by one, causing a very nasty injury, but fortunately he survived.

5. My wife was living in Alice Springs at the time because she was in charge of network security at a place called JDFPG for Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, which is probably one of the largest computing facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.

6. JDFPG has a rugby team called the Redbacks with an awesome emblem. I know because one of their shirts is a prized possession of mine.

7. Theologically speaking one can argue that both Mark and the preacher were correct. Hard line protestant thinking on sins is that just one is enough to keep you out of heaven -- and thus send you to hell when you die -- unless you accept Jesus Christ as your savior and are baptized, in which case your sins are washed away. Technically, if you committed an infinite number of sins, you could still get into heaven because God's forgiveness is infinite.