Brexit: 11 p.m. GMT on 31 January 2020

[UPDATE: 00.01 on 1 January, 2021 — The UK completed it's departure from the EU. A bad idea has now become a bad reality, IMHO.]

I always thought that joining the ECC/EU was good for the UK.

I always thought that leaving the ECC/EU would be bad for the UK.

I am not happy that Brexit is happening. Period. Full stop.

No, seriously, that is the whole article. Nothing more to read. Too sad and angry to write any more.

What Am I Thankful For? A diagnosis of congenital amusia

In November of 2008 I wrote: "we’ve arrived at the time of the year when it’s traditional to speak of things for which we’re thankful, I figured I would put it like this: I am thankful for a diagnosis, even though that diagnosis is hemochromatosis." Now I'm back with thanks for another diagnosis, one that thankfully does not involve physical pain and suffering, although it has had quite an impact on my life.

The difference a name makes

It was my partner, Chey Cobb, who received that diagnosis of hemochromatosis. The thankfulness we felt at getting this diagnosis came from having a name for the constellation of symptoms that had forced her to quit working and turned her daily life into a daily struggle (one that, sadly, has continued to this day). We were both surprised by what a difference it makes to have a name for the suffering you've been going through.

As inveterate researchers, we saw Chey's diagnosis as a starting point for exploring treatment options, finding support groups, and lobbying policy-makers. I started a Facebook page and website to raise awareness of hemochromatosis, which is widely under-diagnosed and not well understood by many doctors. We personally validated a CDC study that found the average time to get one's hemochromatosis correctly diagnosed was nine years, enough time for the condition to cause irreversible damage to joints, liver, heart, brain, kidneys, and other organs.

Sadly, we saw a replay of this diagnosis phenomenon three years ago when doctors confirmed our daughter's suspicions that she had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The day she got that confirmation she called us in state akin to elation, tinged with validation, even though she knew all too well that the road ahead was going to be a very tough one. But we understood how much it meant to have a name for what you've got.

Now hear this

When you get a medical diagnosis, particularly one that's taken many years to obtain, there are two phrases that are likely to come to mind right away: "that explains a lot" and "I knew I wasn't imagining things." (The latter is likely to be familiar to female readers - numerous studies show that the tradition of doctors telling women their symptoms are "all in your head" is still a thing.)

The diagnosis that I am thankful for today "ticks all the boxes" as they say in England: it explains a lot, and it validates a whole bunch of thoughts and feelings I've had since December, 1959. That's when, during rehearsals for the school Christmas concert, I first learned of the problem for which I now have a diagnosis: congenital amusia.

Technically, "a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination," what I have is sometimes called "tin ear." Indeed, what the teacher said to seven year-old me was: "Stephen Cobb, stop singing, you have a tin ear." What Mrs. Ashby did not know, and I have only just learned, is that I was born that way. In other words, congenital amusia means that I have always been, from birth, somewhat tone deaf.

(I don't want to go into detail about the congenital amusia in this article - I put together the 4amusia website for more information - but studies show that 4% of people have this disorder. My particular form of amusia is not severe, it doesn't mean I don't enjoy music, and I don't lack a sense of rhythm; but, regardless of how hard I try, I can't sing or learn a musical instrument - my brain lacks something in the pitch processing and retention department.)

What I am so thankful for today is the knowledge that my inability to carry a tune or learn a musical instrument is not due to laziness, sloth, or weakness of character - qualities of which I, and many other people with my condition, are routinely accused. I am so grateful that I can now say, with scientific certainty, that those accusations were inappropriate.

Lingering effects

I'm sure I could write a whole chapter about how much it hurt to suffer those accusations, the self-recrimination and doubt that it induced. I know I could have done without the castigation of teachers who were sure I could learn to play the recorder - a rite of passage in English schools of the 1950s and 60s - if only I would apply myself.

Then there's the chapter on how frustrating it was to grow up in the sixties with a strong poetic streak but no ability to voice the songs I composed, not to mention fruitless hours failing to learn guitar. Sure, I could pose for the album cover, but I was never going to be on the album.

But today I'd much rather give thanks for the unexpected gift of this diagnosis: the empathy it has given me for this thing called neurodiversity, the growing realization that human beings are not all wired the same way.

While I realized long ago that organizational aversion to people who are "different" is bad for organizations, and bad for "differently-abled" people who can bring great insight and real value to any mission, I have to admit that I didn't truly 'get' neurodiversity until I learned that my own brain had a wiring issue.

And as I look at what is happening today in terms of research, it strikes me that there is great potential for humans to learn more about the many different ways in which we are wired. These days a decent school is going to recognize something like dyslexia at an early age and respond appropriately. Hopefully, schools will soon be recognizing that some children don't hear pitch the same way most people do.

While I sometimes get quite emotional about this topic, let me be clear that knowing more about neurodiversity isn't just about people feeling better about themselves, it has seriously practical implications. Knowing the ways in which you are different makes you better able to be the way you are, and it sometimes happens that there are benefits to being wired differently. Society is better off as a whole if we can see that, and go with it.

*With a huge thanks to those scientists who believed people when they said "my failure to learn an instrument was not for lack of effort."

It's official! I'm making some big changes

I have retired from my corporate position and we're moving to England!

After many enjoyable years with ESET—the organization I've worked for longer than any other—I began to think it was time to change things up a little, or down a notch, depending on your perspective.

And I knew that—owing to several factors on which I will elaborate later—the change would involve a move. So we began to look at living somewhere other than San Diego.

When Chey and I went to the UK earlier this year—for my mum's 90th birthday—we arrived at the conclusion that we would like to move closer to her. We now plan to complete our relocation by early September, to a cozy place just a short walk from mum's flat in Coventry, the thousand year old city in which I was born. And when we've unpacked and the dust settles, I expect to be sitting in a comfy chair in small study with a big internet pipe, conducting independent research into the darker aspects of humans and technology.

I will probably reemerge as Stephen Cobb, Independent Researcher. Down the road it could be Stephen Cobb, Public-Interest Technologist. (And I wouldn't rule out Prof. Cobb since Coventry has two thriving universities and there are several more nearby, including my alma mater, the University of Leicester).

What? When?

Timing is not always everything, but it did play a big role in this set of changes. By the end of 2018 I had reached a point in time that is referred to in America as "full retirement age." This is when Americans can start receiving the full amount of their pension (if you were born in 1952, that age is currently 66). What I mean by "pension" is Social Security retirement benefit, but we decided to use the term pension because in England "social security" means something quite different.

As 2018 unfolded I began see this pension as a "social retainer," a way for me to finance a different approach to my life's work, a chance to labor at my own speed, in my own way. I will write more about that work in a different place, but suffice to say it involves - among other things - helping the world to "enjoy safer technology." As you may know, that phrase is how ESET - my former employer - frames its mission, and it's one reason that I worked there so long.

I realized that a pension potentially means being able to choose my own strategy - like writing a book to give substance to the points I want to make, or making those points as an independent voice, not someone employed by a corporate entity (to be clear, ESET had an admirable commitment to objective research and required me to stay "vendor-neutral" in my public speaking - but one ethical company cannot save the reputation of an industry that needs redeeming).

But why did I say: "a pension potentially means being able"? Well, the enabling power of a pension is dependent on the size of that monthly check from the government relative to the cost of living where you live. Exactly how dependent will vary based on your circumstances. All of which turns out to be quite relevant to our decision to move to Coventry in England, as I will now explain.

How much?

The "Too Long, Didn't Read" version is that the pension checks which Chey and I started to receive this year are not enough to live on in San Diego given that we don't own a home here. We are members of a fairly large group of people whose assets were wiped out by the Great Recession, so we entered this decade with no savings and no home of our own.

Since 2011, we have lived in rented property in San Diego, where the average rent is now over $2,000 a month. When we moved here we decided to live near the ESET building in Little Italy so that I could walk to work (which costs a lot less than driving, with way less stress). You pay a premium for this location but sadly, Little Italy has become less of a community in recent years, and more of an entertainment district. We have felt it grow less livable even as it has become less affordable, providing additional incentive to move from our current location. (After dozens of moves in the nearly five decades since I left home, I've come to see moving across the country or over the ocean to be no more of a pain than moving across town.)

Last year, rents in San Diego as a whole rose 7%, and the average monthly rent in Little Italy is now over $2,400, and still rising. We pay slightly more than that, for a decidedly smaller place than the one we rented for $1,750 when we first moved here in 2011. So, unless you already own property in San Diego, or have managed to accumulate and retain a large nest egg, the prospect of retirement here, however appealing it might seem, is economically infeasible.

Being researchers, we analyzed numerous "more affordable" places after our nest egg was cracked by the Big Bank Fraud (then smashed by the Great Recession and mopped up by the for-profit healthcare industry). Turns out we can live in a nice house in Coventry for less than half what we currently pay in Little Italy. True, Coventry has less than half the number of sunshine hours you get in San Diego, and twice as much rain, but our pensions should be enough to pay the bills plus occasional flights to see my brother in Spain, while keeping us in wax jackets and wellies to boot.

The changes we are making this year have already taught us a lot and as our journey continues I will endeavor to share what we discover along the way. In the meantime, I will be tweeting as @zcobb if you'd like to follow me there.

23andMe and Hemochromatosis

This blog post is a place holder related to a conversation that started back in 2016 when someone wrote to me, as follows:
I read your blog regarding Hemochromatosis and decided to look further into the 23andMe test. They tell me that their test results do not report on HFE. Do you know if this is a recent change with their testing or am I missing something? Below is the email correspondence I had with 23andMe [not reproduced here]Do current 23andMe test results show C282Y, H63D and S65C mutations? If so, where do I find this information in the reports?
The question was addressed to me because I had been researching hereditary hemochromatosis due to my partner's condition: hereditary hemochromatosis. This is due to a genetic mutation (HFE) which can cause the body to mishandle iron intake. This can lead to excess iron in your joints and soft tissue, an affliction known as iron overload. If not treated and managed, iron overload can cause permanent damage and may prove fatal. 

We had both been early customers of the 23andMe genetic testing service. Back then it was possible to get information about one's HFE status (known by codes like C282Y, H63D and S65C). However, in 2013 the FDA took issue with 23andMe and censored access to this data. (Some of the background to this, from 23andMe's perspective, is here.)

In response the FDA restrictions, people found a way to extract the HFE data from the raw 23andMe genetic data (to which the FDA did not bar access). That was the situation in 2016 when I received the inquiry cited at the top of this article. However, in 2017, the FDA allowed 23andMe to resume the provision of HFE results (as described here).

The bottom line is that the set of instructions that I wrote up in 2014, documenting the workaround to determine HFE status from the raw data, is no longer needed.

High blood pressure cure? For some, this treatment is not a conn

Short Version/TLDR

I used to have persistent high blood pressure (HBP) that was referred to as "essential hypertension," but now I don't. 
  • If you have HBP and low potassium, check out Conn's syndrome, also known as Primary Aldosteronism or PA. 
  • If you have PA/Conn's syndrome, an operation can fix it. 
  • I had the op in 2013 when my BP was 150/100 while on HBP meds. 
  • At the end of 2013 my blood pressure was 120/70 w/out meds, and it still is.

Why am I re-sharing this information?

I wrote about my experience with Conn's syndrome back in 2013. This blog post is simply a re-sharing of what I wrote back then (with one new piece of data at the end).

Why am I doing this? Every time I hear a person say "I have high blood pressure" or HBP, my thoughts go like this:
  • I know what HBP is like.
  • HBP is not very nice.
  • HBP can shorten your life.
  • I am extremely fortunate that I don't have HBP any more.
  • Should I tell this person about Conn's syndrome?
Of course, the answer to the "should I tell" question depends on a range of variables: who is the person saying they have high blood pressure? Where is this being said? Do I know this person? I try to weigh these variables before speaking, but as people who know me will tell you, I tend to err on the side of speaking up, sometimes to strangers. I also have a tendency to speak up about some things that other people might prefer to keep private.

However, a fair number of people have thanked me for sharing the story of my battle with high blood pressure because they found it helpful. And that is why I wrote about my experience, so people could "read all about it" if they wanted to, rather than listen to me talk about it.

So here are the relevant blog posts in historical order (as in earliest first - I am not suggesting that these articles are 'historic'):

What now?

I always intended to write one more blog post on this topic, documenting the long-term prognosis and perhaps adding some references. I guess this is that 'one more' blog post. Sadly, I don't have time to do a full reference list but this article on Conn's syndrome is quite helpful, as is this more technical paper). Also check out the Primary Aldosteronism Foundation website.

My sense from reading the literature is that there will be many more cases like mine: people cured of their HBP, often after years of being told that their HBP had no known cause and they just weren't eating and living right. These people will be identified by: [a] continual improvements in ultrasonography (US), computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); and hopefully [b] greater awareness of Conn's / Primary Aldosteronism.

The summer of 2018 marked the five year anniversary of the operation that returned my blood pressure to 'normal' without drugs. It has been a busy five years. I started a masters degree in late 2014 and graduated in 2016, all while carrying a very full workload (from an employer wise enough to subsidize graduate school tuition).

For the most part I have felt pretty healthy. There have been some issues with my digestive system and I sometimes wonder if they are a lingering side effect, not of the adrenalectomy itself, but the infection I got during my hospital stay. 

Nevertheless, that operation was well worth it and I feel very fortunate that—thanks again to a wise employer—my health insurance covered it. I am reminded that it is in the national interest for everyone to have access to affordable healthcare, so that the negative economic impact of conditions like HBP can be reduced by more efficient diagnosis and treatment.

The sting in the tale

An update from late 2019: my adrenalectomy did not cure my atrial fibrillation, which was probably caused by the excess aldosterone in my body during all those years in which my primary aldosteronism went undiagnosed. 

Sadly, "the current diagnosis of primary aldosteronism is suboptimal–its delayed diagnosis results in end-organ damage that requires complex increased awareness of primary aldosteronism is required in both primary and tertiary care so that an earlier diagnosis can be made for optimal patient outcomes." That's from a 2018 article in the Australian Journal of General Practice published by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (here's a link to the article).

All the more reason to let more people with high blood pressure know about Conn's syndrome / Primary Aldosteronism, so they can ask their doctors to investigate, before excess aldosterone has a chance to do lasting damage.

One of these days I will write about how many doctors and cardiologists missed the classic symptoms of my primary aldosteronism, and how I feel about that. In the meantime, I will keep telling people that there may be a cure for their "essential hypertension."

What's this #HeForShe thing?

Technically speaking, #HeForShe is a hashtag, a social media tool defined as: "a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic (Wikipedia).

The #HeForShe hashtag originated with, and is the name of, the UN Women’s solidarity movement for gender equality.

The idea behind HeForShe is to invite men and boys "to build on the work of the women’s movement as equal partners, crafting and implementing a shared vision of gender equality that will benefit all of humanity."

Tagging things #HeForShe is a way for me to share the fact that I have accepted that invitation and I have been using the hashtag for a while now. Why? Because I truly believe that gender equality does benefit all of humanity. I also believe that gender equality will not be achieved unless more men - most men, all men - commit to it, and make it a priority, in practical terms and not just as a vague aspiration.

Getting schooled on #HeForShe

I came to know about #HeForShe because I was studying at the University of Leicester when, back in May of 2015, it joined the UN Women’s HeForShe solidarity movement as an "IMPACT 10x10x10 champion," one of 10 universities around the world participating in the program with the goal of taking "bold, game-changing action to achieve gender equality within and beyond their institutions." Here's how the program was introduced:
"Announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January of 2015, HeForShe’s IMPACT 10x10x10 programme engages 30 key leaders across three sectors—the public sector, private sector and academia. All 30 IMPACT champions have made common commitments and have also developed tailored commitments, formally reviewed by an expert team at UN Women and approved personally by the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka."
But the fact that my school had embraced HeForShe was not why I chose to embrace it myself. Gender equality is something I have always believed in, from well before my first stint at university (University of Leeds, 1971-74). I can't say that I was born a feminist - the scientific jury is out on whether that is even possible - but I knew that I was a feminist-sympathizer as soon as I heard the word used in a sentence. That would have been around 1965, shortly after I became a teenager and read my mum's copy of The Feminine Mystique.

That book, and several other "radical" texts, showed up in our house in the mid-sixties when my mum enrolled in a teaching college under a government program to reduce the shortage of teachers created by the baby boom. Her decision - which my dad supported practically, emotionally, and philosophically - resulted in a real world experience of gender equality in action. Among other things it demonstrated that:
  1. Women can have a productive career outside the home.
  2. This is not a threat to men.
  3. Men and boys can do housework quite well if they try.
On top of that, mum's time as a mature student created a steady flow of interesting books into our house, notably the afore-mentioned 1964 classic, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. This has since been "widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism." As I read - entirely of my own volition - Friedan's analysis of women frustrated with society's narrow and deeply limiting definition of what a woman should be - wife, mother, cook, cleaner - it rang true with my own observations.

That's right, I had - for whatever reason - been observing women from an early age (maybe I was born to be social scientist). As a child I was surrounded by women, at home, at church, and at the shops. I listened to them talking. I read women's letters to the advice columns in ladies' magazines (which were definitely not feminist back then).

Rather fortuitously, my childhood in Coventry, England, was enriched by frequent visits from numerous aunts and great aunts, all of whom had all survived World War Two. My mum's mother had actually lived through aerial attacks in both World War One and World War Two. All of these women had lived through large-scale bombing campaigns, including the one in 1940 that killed over 500 people in Coventry in one night and destroyed two-thirds of the city's buildings (Wikipedia). My grandma and several of her sisters worked in munitions factories which were targeted in these bombing campaigns.

Often when I was small these women, most of them housewives with grown children, would sit and talk about those times gone by, and I would quietly listen at their feet. That is how I came by precious historical vignettes like this: my Great Aunt Tot standing in the middle of the street shaking her fist and swearing at a German Messerschmitt 109 as it made a daylight strafing run on the factory at the end of her road.

So maybe it is not surprising that I grew up thinking of women as strong, independent individuals; all the while becoming increasingly angry that society would not treat them equally. Yes, there has been some progress, but nowhere near enough. Hopefully #HeForShe can help us move things forward.

Of allies, male feminists, and good men

I hope to find time to write more about HeForShe but in the meantime I will try to use the hashtag wherever appropriate in order to raise awareness of gender inequality and the need for men to work to eliminate it.

What I will try to avoid is referring to myself as an ally of women, or a male feminist, or a good man. Those are designations to which I aspire, but it is not part to claim them.

Will "repeal and replace" hurt genomic medicine and victims of genetic conditions?

Let me give you the short version of my answer up front: Yes. If the current privacy protection for genetic medicine in the US, in which Obamacare/ACA has played a key role, is diminished by the "repeal and replace" efforts of the current US administration, then America's hopes for genomic medicine will also be diminished. Victims of some genetic conditions will be particularly hard hit, as will all forms of research that involve the human genome.

The even shorter version goes like this: Why would I give anyone my genetic information if that might lead to myself and my family being denied insurance or paying higher premiums, for medical, life, or longterm care policies?

brian0918, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fans of genomic medicine are apt to respond by saying there's no need to worry because there are laws to prevent that type of discrimination. To which I have heard many people say: I don't trust the insurance companies and/or the government to abide by those laws. And besides, laws can be repealed, and databases can be hacked.

In short, when it comes to enjoying the benefits of medical science, Americans face a bleaker future than the residents of other wealthy countries due to the absence of two rights: the right to health care and the right to privacy.


Who am I to present these arguments? For more than 25 years I've been studying information security, data privacy, and risk. I've been a Certified Information System Security Professional for more than two decades and I have a Master of Science degree in Security and Risk Management. I have also put in more than a decade as primary caregiver for someone with a genetic illness (variously known as hereditary hemochromatosis, genetic haemochromatosis, Celtic Curse, Bronze Diabetes, Iron Overload). In that role I have spent many years interacting with the families of hemochromatosis patients and the main support group for this condition, the Iron Disorders Institute.

What is the problem? The House recently passed legislation called the American Health Care Act of 2017 (H.R. 1628). There is a Senate version known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017. As far as I know, both of these pieces of legislation remove a gene-related provision of the current law, ACA (a.k.a. Obamacare). Here's the problem:
  1. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 a.k.a. GINA says employers and health insurers can't use your genetic data in hiring decisions and health insurance coverage; but, as Maryam Zaringhalam at Slate points out: life, disability, and long-term care insurance are not covered under GINA’s provisions, and those insurers "already use genetic testing results to deny coverage to otherwise healthy individuals".
  2. Furthermore, GINA only protects people who are genetically predisposed to a disease as long as they are asymptomatic. In other words: "once a person begins showing symptoms, GINA no longer matters" (Zaringhalam- see link in References below). For example, my wife was born with the HFE mutation that can produce a potentially fatal condition known as iron overload but she was asymptomatic for the first few decades of her life. Then, in her forties, due a phenomenon dubbed hemopause, she became increasingly symptomatic. She is now eminently "declinable" under pre-Obamacare rules.
  3. This GINA "loophole" as Zaringhalam calls it, was closed by Obamacare. That's because the ACA outlawed discrimination in health care insurance pricing or coverage based on preexisting conditions.
  4. Now the current administration looks set to return America to the days when preexisting conditions were considered grounds for charging higher insurance premiums.
  5. That would mean returning health insurance to the list of things you pay more for if your insurer has knowledge of your genes. Remember, that list already includes life, disability, and long-term care insurance.
I would be the first to admit that the above is a simplified account of the problem, but I stand by its accuracy and will go into more detail below. A complicating, and possibly offsetting factor in this story is the plethora of state laws on genetic data, medical privacy, and health insurance. Those might give you hope, but then you have to factor in the rampant hacking of supposedly private databases of personal and medical information that we have witnessed over the past few years. Bottom line? It is not hard to understand a response of "No way!" when you suggest to someone that they should get their genes tested, even when that test could potentially save their life, or those of their relatives.

There was no valedictorian and other observations on the way to my graduation

Last month I graduated from the Criminology Department of the University of Leicester with a Master of Science degree in Security and Risk Management (MSc SRM). I graduated in person, in England, with my own two-person cheering section (mum: Dorothy; partner: Chey).

The trip to get there was a long one, and I don't just mean the miles (6,000) or the years (two spent on the course, but many more getting ready for it). However, the journey was well worth making, and the graduation ceremony was well worth attending, even though it raised several questions that I feel obliged to answer here.

1. Why graduate in January?

The timing of my graduation ceremony was awkward to say the least, but it was due to the fact that the SRM program that I wanted to pursue has two cohorts per year, commencing in March and September, with two graduation ceremonies, July and January. I was in a September cohort for which the usual graduation is January.

That is not, in itself awkward, just unappealing, given how cold and grey January weather can be in England (for the photo of Chey and me on the right I had to crank up the Brightness).

But the exact timing was awkward, given that my employer, ESET, whose generous employee education program had funded my studies, decided to hold its annual North American Partner Conference (NAPC) that same week as my graduation.

The NAPC is a great event, hosted at the San Diego Hard Rock Hotel, and as head of the US Research Team I was expected to address the partners on the 2017 cybersecurity threatscape, the world into which they would be selling ESET's security solutions in the months ahead.

Fortunately, it was possible for me to do that, and go to the graduation, by speaking before lunch on the first day of the conference and then taking the direct BA flight from SAN to LHR later that afternoon. Unfortunately, that meant getting to our UK home base of Coventry late in the afternoon of the next day,  checking into a hotel, having dinner with Mum, and then rising next morning to head for Leicester. Not a lot of time to get over jet lag, but it was do-able.

2. Second or third masters degree?

At the end of my remarks to the NAPC I apologized for not being able to hang around for the whole two day event, making a joke about having to go and get my degree because the university refused to change the graduation date to accommodate ESET, even though it's one of the largest security software companies in the world.

That got a few laughs, but it's what I got over lunch that surprised me: questions about whether this was my second or third masters degree, or more generally: "How many degrees is that then Professor Cobb?"

I can honestly say my initial reaction was entirely factual: I said that this was my first masters, two degrees total. Some people obviously assumed I had spent a lot more time in academia than is the case. But I had to chuckle when I told my classmates about this at our department's pre-graduation buffet, because they all said they would have played along with the assumption: "Second or third masters degree? Hmm, let's see, hard to keep track."

Of course, my fellow graduands were all security people, many working in physical and operational security, and this accustomed to the odd piece of, shall we say, tactical social engineering. And for some of them this was their first degree, since it is possible to do a Masters degree in England without a Bachelors or, as in my case, without a relevant Bachelors. My first degree, back in the 1970s, was in English and Religious Studies (and the number computers involved was zero).

A big motivating factor in attending my second graduation is that I skipped my first one. Why? I was boycotting the royal family. Allow me to explain. I have always objected to monarchy and my first degree would have been handed to me by the Chancellor of the University of Leeds, a position held at the time by a member of the British royal family.

I did not think that was appropriate and I did not want her handing me my degree. At the time, this posed something of a dilemma for my mum, seen here on the right. As far as we knew, I was the first person in our family to get a degree, so it was definitely something to celebrate, but on the other hand, my mum and dad had raised me to stick by my principles, on top of which, they weren't fans of the royal family either.

In the end we compromised and I a posed for some suitably formal picture taking in my grandparents' garden, wearing the appropriate gown from a Leeds alum who was a friend of the family. (My grandfather might not have had a degree, but by the time he was 50 he was able to sell his share of an engineering firm in Coventry that he co-founded, and retire with a garden large enough for a bowling green and graduation pictures.)

3. Isn't that against the rules?

In America, the rules of academic hierarchy tend to be strict. For example, you will have a hard time getting a paid teaching gig at a US university if you don't have a masters degree. But rules can be bent at times, for example when a new discipline emerges. There was a time, not much more than a decade ago, when you couldn't hire someone with a computer security degree to teach computer security because such degrees did not exist.

This led to an interesting exchange when I was being interviewed for my job at ESET in 2011. The head of HR, who has since become a good friend, said to me: "Your resumé indicates that you taught master of science in information assurance classes at Norwich University, but how was that possible when you only have a bachelors degree?" To which I replied, "Well spotted! It was only possible because the Dean made an exception, based on my knowledge and experience."

In fact, the award-winning MSIA program at Norwich, created in 2002, was put together by someone with a PhD in applied statistics and invertebrate zoology, Dr. Mich Kabay. To create and deliver the program's online curriculum, Mich tapped myself and Chey and a small army of security industry experts, none of whom - to the best of my knowledge - had a degree in security at the time. His approach paid off in short order as Norwich was quickly named a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education (referred to as COE for short) by the NSA's Deputy Director for Information Systems Security.

I was initially surprised that people assumed I had multiple degrees, and then I felt flattered. I decided it meant that they think I know what I'm talking about. And that is actually true most of the time: I do try to talk only about what I know, or at the very least, to provide a clear disclaimer when I'm asked, or tempted, to talk about something that I'm not sure about.

Over the years folks have occasionally referred to me as Doctor Cobb, and I have immediately pushed back. I do not have a doctorate, even now. But I am less concerned when folks call me Professor Cobb. I have taught at university, and may do so again at some point. However, and just to be clear, I currently only have two degrees.

4. What happened to the valedictorian?

Another funny thing that happened on my way to, and upon return from, my graduation, was the multiple requests from my manager for a copy of my valedictorian speech. According Wikipedia, Valedictorian is "an academic title of success used in the United States, Canada, Central America, and the Philippines for the student who delivers the closing or farewell statement at a graduation ceremony (called a valedictory)." Fair enough, but notice which country/region is not on that list? Graduation ceremonies in England, and certainly the one that I attended at Leicester, do not have a valedictory or valedictorian.

The intent of the good-humored ribbing was to suggest that I had graduated at the top of my class. But that's another thing my class did not have: individual ranking. When I got my Bachelors degree in 1974, the results for all the students were posted on the department notice board, a physical object in a specific geographic location. Going to the department and looking at the board was how I, and all my classmates, found out that I got a First (English universities used to rank degrees as First, Upper Second, Second, and something else). As it turned out I was the first person to get a Joint First in English and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, and the only person to get one that year. But there was no list of results ranking my class. For my masters I got my grade via a website and that only showed one result: mine (which was Merit, one level below Distinction).

So it is quite possible that I was not the top student in my class. There were 33 of us graduating and none of asked about each other's grades - I think we were all just glad to have made it to the finish line, especially since most of us were holding down full time jobs, often in challenging places (like Kabul and Beirut to name two).

Indeed, whenever I was feeling like giving up I reminded myself that studying in San Diego was a lot easier than in a lot of the places my colleagues were coping with, so I should quit complaining, and besides, I was studying in my native language, which quite a few of my classmates were not (I confess that I'm awed by people who get a degree in a non-native language).

So in closing, but still speaking of languages, I promise my next post will be about the meaning and significance of the University of Leicester motto: Ut Vitam Habeant (here's a hint).

[Disclaimer: I have not yet written that blog post.]

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.