Sunday, January 07, 2018

Right again, dammit.

Sometimes I hate being right. (I am informed by my wife that this doesn't happen often enough for it to be a real concern, so…) Nonetheless, I knew that this would happen.

If you've read my book—and of course you have!—you may recall that I spent some time talking about the dark, dangerous side of the Internet. I love the Internet, but along with all of the wonderful things it has brought us, there's also quite a lot of ugliness.

An FBI SWAT team training in New York. Image used
under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Generic license.
I refer, for example, to various forms of bullying: name-calling, vituperative attacks, and malicious threats delivered mostly by folks who revel in their ability to deliver messages of hate while cloaked in the anonymity provided by the Internet. Often this hate is directed at women, of course, but we're all vulnerable; and much more frightening still, our children are vulnerable. (Bullying used to be restricted mainly to schools, but now that kids are pretty much connected 24/7, they're even bullied at home or while out and about. These kids—and some adults—must feel as if there is simply no escape from their assailants.)

In chapter 6 of Leveling the Playing Field, I recounted an interview with two of the Gamergate principals, Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz. You may recall the Gamergate incident: It began as a reasonable argument amongst gamers about ethics in game-related journalism, but quickly escalated into vicious attacks, name-calling, doxing, and death threats, all delivered (mostly anonymously) via the Web. Zoe and Alex were two of the favored (if that's the right word) targets, and the two of them essentially had to go on the run, afraid to stay at their own homes or to be seen in public with their friends and colleagues.
Zoe Quinn is one of the Gamergate
folks targeted by folks who attacked
her, released her personal information
(called "doxing":), and threatened to
"swat" her and her friends.
Perhaps worst of all, said Zoe, was the threat of swatting, in which an attacker calls the police and reports a fake emergency at the target's address. The caller might tell the police that he had heard gunshots at the target's address or that he knows someone is holed up there with firearms and/or explosives. You get the idea. The goal is to get the cops to deploy a SWAT team to that address; the attacker's presumed goal is to get someone at that address hurt or possibly even killed. This is why Zoe Quinn and others have called swatting "attempted murder by proxy."

It's incredibly dangerous. You have heavily armed, nervous, excited (and sometimes frightened) police officers breaking open a door and entering the premises of someone who has no idea what is happening, why these assault weapons are suddenly pointed at him, or why these people are breaking into his house. (I suppose that the smart thing for the victim to do would be to drop to the floor with his hands behind his head, but in those circumstances, who would have the presence of mind to do the smart thing? Then again, what if, when you drop, the cop thinks that you're diving for a weapon? And how is he or she supposed to know that you're not?!)

Swatting has been going on for several years now (the FBI estimates that some 400 cases occur each year), and it finally resulted—as we knew it eventually would—in someone's death. On December 28th, Andrew Finch was killed in Wichita, KS when he came to the front door in response to police officers who had been sent there by a swatting "prank." (Ironically, the address the attacker had wasn't even the correct address; Finch was not a party to the argument that caused the swatting call, and was therefore unaware that there was a problem, making the whole nightmare doubly tragic.)

Representative Katherine Clark
(D - Mass.) sponsored the Interstate
Swatting Hoax Act of 2015 and almost
immediately became  the victim of a
swatting attack herself. Image in the
public domain.
A few years ago, Democratic congressperson Katherine Clark introduced a bill that would impose serious penalties for such online attacks and hoax calls, especially ones that result in death. (Naturally, Clark herself became the target of swatting attacks and other online threats.) The bill is still in committee, and people who know about such things say that it has little chance of passing.

Some argue that we don't need laws specifically aimed at swatting, in any case. The L.A. Times Editorial Board, for example, argues that existing laws cover such situations: there are, for instance, already laws against making threats and against filing false police reports. However, most of these laws are local in nature, and each state determines how to file charges. In most cases, callers are charged with misdemeanors, but even if a felony charge is brought, the punishment may vary wildly.

Zoe Quinn is right: a swatting call is attempted murder by proxy. If apprehended, the "prankster" should be charged with attempted murder or another serious felony. If someone dies as a result of a swatting call, the caller should be charged with, at minimum, manslaughter.

And if it takes a federal law to ensure that this happens, then so be it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Bows and Arrows, Sticks and Stones

I've been reading about primitive bow-making. Not the kind of bow one might use on a gift box (though my efforts in that area are certainly primitive enough), but bows that one might use to shoot arrows while hunting or for target practice. You know, bows of the sort that archers use.

Bows and arrows have been around for many thousands of years, of course, and with the introduction of fiberglass, and then the addition of pulleys, sighting mechanisms, carbon laminates, stabilizers, and other such paraphernalia, the technology of bows has advanced such that some modern compound bows look only vaguely like the bows carried by Native American and early European and Asian archers. To my eye, they don't look like bows at all.

This is Albina Nikolayevna Loginova, a Russian compound
archer. She is the current world archery champion in women's
compound archery. Her modern compound bow, simpler than
some, nonetheless looks pretty complicated. Image licensed
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Unported license
I'm much more interested in traditional bows, generally made of woodthough they can also be made of hornand sometimes adorned or enhanced with backings of sinew, silk, or rawhide. They seem simple, and somehow pure. (Primitive is, of course, the wrong word for it, laden as that term is with both ambiguity and potentially negative connotations. Traditional is the favored term, one that works well, since a given tradition can be pinpointed somewhat accurately in both time and place; thus, one can pattern a bow after those of the Klamath, Kiowa, Siletz, or Comanche tribes, and we can also classify a bow shape or construction according to when it was made.)

As a technologist of sorts, I've wondered what attracts me to these seemingly less technical endeavors; why, for instance, do I get such pleasure out of seeing a straightforward, simple design? It's not that I don't appreciate the complexity of a modern compound bow, I do—and in much the same way that I appreciate any other sophisticated design, whether in a motorcycle, a computer, a building, or a piece of software. Basically, I'm a sucker for good engineering of any sort. Sometimes that engineering is pretty complicated, but often—as in the case of a so-called primitive bow—it's quite simple, at least on the surface. (A good bowyer—for that is what we call someone who makes bows—can explain the many ways in which traditional bows are actually quite sophisticated. But, at least at first glance, they look to the eye disarmingly simple, even rudimentary.)

Simple can nonetheless be beautiful. This is a yew longbow.
It’s a selfbow, i.e., a bow carved from one piece of wood.
A medieval longbow had a range approaching 400 yards.
Image placed in the public domain by the photographer,
James Cram.
As with most of forms of engineering, a traditional bow results from the melding of art and craft and science; as with any good woodworker, a seasoned bowyer puts his skill and knowledge and sense of aesthetics to work creating something new, building something beautiful with his hands and his heart and his brain. It's hard not to like something like that.

And yet, there's an irony here, one that I thoroughly enjoy. I'm reading and learning about primitive archery and bowyery, but I'm doing it in a modern home; when my coffee cools as I read, I walk over to a microwave oven to reheat it. I sit in front of a flat-panel TV, streaming an Amazon movie (which I'm mostly ignoring) and read a book about “primitive” bow-making, but the book I’m reading is being displayed on my iPad; as my eyes tire (which they do, because I am old), I can enlarge the font or change the background color. If I run across a particularly interesting illustration, I click a few buttons andthanks to Wi-Fithe illustration prints out on a printer upstairs near my desk. Later on, I may take some notes in the Kindle app I'm using to read this book and drop them, along with snippets of the associated text from the book, into a OneNote or Evernote notebook. Come to think of it, if I ever decide to try my hand at this, I may begin by using a CAD/CAM program to lay out a basic design.

I wonder if there's a word or phrase that describes the use of sophisticated technology to create primitive artifacts. Can't think of the term right now, but the most obvious example that comes to mind is nuclear war

Monday, November 27, 2017

Enjoy Every Sandwich

Back when I was the editor of Smart Computing Magazine, it was my pleasure to work with a talented tech writer named Alan Luber. Alan wrote columns, feature articles, hardware reviews.... You name it, and Alan could write it. And he wrote on word-count and on deadline. He was an editor's dream; we knew that if we had assigned Alan an article, it would be in on time and that it would be very, very clean.

Not everyone knew it, but Alan was fighting what would turn out to be a losing battle with cancer. And yet, in the last year of his life, he worked harder than ever, churning out quality copy for me and for other magazines; he wanted to leave a legacy, he said. And I suspect that work was something of an escape for him.

When he passed away on November 23rd, 2004, I was struck dumb; even though I knew by then that his death was inevitable, I was in shock. I had lost a respected colleague and a dear friend, and I ached for his family, his wife and his children especially.

Now, 13 years later, one of those children—the youngest, Mallory—has completed a labor of love in honor of her father. The Cancer Chronicles: A Story of Transformation and Triumph is an eBook collection of Alan's thoughts about his journey toward death and his reflections on a life well-lived. You should get this book. It's sad, but somehow uplifting, and flashes of Alan's dry humor stand out against the stark reality of his pain and his sure decline.

At the time, I wrote a column about Alan's death, which—with the kind permission of Sandhills Publishing—I will include in this post. Don't forget to check out The Cancer Chronicles; it'll be $5 well spent. (As I write this, in fact, the book is actually free, but I don't know how long that'll last.) We don't often get to see this clearly inside the heart and soul of someone about to die. When you read the book, you'll see that Alan faced death with a heart more peaceful than that with which most of us face life.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Low-Tech Coffee

As a tech writer and a recovering software developer, I am naturally something of a technophile. I've already mentioned some of my favorite tools for writing (computer, OneNote, word processor, Skype, email, etc.) and also for camping (GPS, RV campsite apps, Wi-Fi and cellular boosters, etc.), and I have to admit that I'm a bit of a gadget hound. If it's shiny and has buttons and lights, I like it.

Now this is a phone. It only did one thing, and it did it well. And
it made a very satisfying noise when you slammed it down into
the cradle. Image used under the GNU Free Documentation

On top of that, I'm old—and getting older all the time! I'd like to think of myself as middle-aged, but I suppose that would mean that I'd have to assume I could live to be 120 or 130 . . .  Not very likely to happen. But the thing about being a techie "of a certain age" is that I can remember what it was like before we all had computers and smart phones and GPS and The Facebooks and all like that. When I started writing news articles, we had to call people on the telephone to interview them! (And not on a smartphone, either; I'm talking clunky, corded phones with rotary dials.) If we wanted to check a date or a quote, we had to go to the library or local newspaper office. I mean, we had to physically go there! It was awful. All that moving around, speaking with actual people. Ugh. Very unsanitary.

Since I'm old enough to remember all of this, I'm still a bit awestruck by what the tech revolution has wrought. The idea that I can carry so much computing power in my pocket, that I can instant message someone on the other side of the country (or even the other side of the world), that my granddaughter can Facetime me to show me her newly painted room, that the little box on my dashboard (or the phone in my pocket) can tell me how to get to an exact location from 5 or 50 or 500 miles way . . . I'm still kind of shocked by all of this. I use all of these technologies daily—in fact, I'm rather knowledgeable about many of them—but they still sometimes astound me. I mean, our daughter Amy makes a living as an online fashion maven! That wasn't even a thing a few years ago.

So, yes, I do love technology: using it, writing about it, building it. And yet . . . 

Sometimes I find that the low-tech approach works better. It's simpler. Often faster. Almost always less expensive. For instance, I tend to make a lot of notes. I tell my wife that it's because my brain is always whirring away, coming up with brilliant ideas for articles, books, programs, and the like—but mainly it's just that if I don't jot an idea (or name or task) down within about 15 seconds, I'll lose it. I'll remember that I had an important idea, but it'll be gone; I'll have no idea what that idea was. I can hear the Whooosh! sound it makes as it leaves my addled brain. So, lots of notes; it's the only way I can survive. And in spite of the fact that I've tried many note-taking apps, I keep coming back to . . . I'm a little ashamed to admit this . . . a pencil and a pocket-sized spiralbound notebook. Yep. Pencil and paper. (Preferably lined paper, and preferably a #2 soft pencil.) It just works better, and it's faster. With an app, I have to tap the icon to open the app, then open a page (or start a new one), then attempt to use the tiny onscreen keyboard with my fat, clumsy fingers, then I have to save the note and quit the app. Honestly, for me, a pencil and paper is better, faster, and easier.

My favorite analog note-taking app. Complete with "stylus."
And note-taking isn't the only task for which I prefer a low-tech approach. As an avid RVer, I'm very much into all the gadgets and gizmos people use with campers, trailers, and motorhomes. In much the same way that editors argue about placement of semicolons or the use of the Oxford comma (now, don't get me started), RVers argue about the best way to do . . . well, anything. Whether it's making coffee, sealing a leaking windowframe, using solar panels, or traveling with full or empty tanks, those of us in the RV fraternity are happy to argue about all of it. (BTW, everyone at least agrees that it's best to avoid traveling with half-full tanks; too much sloshing around. That might be 150 lbs. or more of water surging fore and aft, enough to throw your rig seriously off-balance.)

But let's just concentrate on coffee for a moment. (I say "just," but that word does a serious disservice to possibly the most important liquid ever. More important even than bourbon. And that's not something I say lightly. I don't know why the inventor of coffee hasn't been canonized. Oh, wait . . .  yes, I do . . .  He was almost certainly an Ethiopian Muslim . . .   At any rate, all I can do before my first cup of coffee is grunt, and it's generally a nasty, spiteful grunt, at that.) There are dozens of ways that RVers make coffee on the road, many of them pretty high-tech. There are French presses, AeroPresses, and full-blown Braun- or Mr. Coffee-type coffee-makers. Some people take their Keurigs camping with them! (That's just . . . wrong. Those Philistines! Not that I would judge.) Not surprisingly, Coleman (a company that’s been in the camping biz for over 100 years) makes a $70 propane-powered coffeemaker; this seems to me an over-engineered solution, but again . . . no judging. Some people like to use the old-fashioned stovetop percolator. I like that. It makes sounds that remind me of the way that my mother's kitchen sounded in 1958, and it smells wonderful. And really, there's nothing very complicated or high-tech about how a percolator works. (It's just physics. My friend Rick Brown could explain it to you, if you have a few hours.) This is an almost perfect way to make coffee while camping.

Our little Melita, filter, and teapot, in our trailer, ready for business.
Photo by Lesley Scher.
But notice that I said "almost." When camping, there is usually a need to conserve water. Even if you have a ready supply of fresh water, your waste water is going to go into a holding tank, and once that tank fills up, you may have to break camp and find an RV dump station; there may be one nearby, or it may be a few miles down the road. Either way, it's a pain. No matter which approach you take, you're going to use water to make your coffee. But then you're going to use even more water cleaning up the grounds, washing out the percolator (remember trying to clean the grounds out of a percolator?), and cleaning the press or decanter or whatever you're using.

Lesley and I take the easy way out: We use a small Melita cone filter coffeemaker. You can get them in various sizes, but we just use the 1-cup size. Heat up some water on the propane stove, drop a filter in the Melita, add a scoop or two of ground coffee. Then place the funnel-shaped coffeemaker on your mug, pour the water in, and wait about one minute. Done. Decent coffee, no mess, nothing to wash (even the mug and coffeemaker can just be wiped clean), and no wasted water.

It's low-tech, simple, cheap, and fast. Although I'm sure that any day now, Melita will release a Wi-Fi-enabled cone brewer, and then I won't know what to do, especially if it has flashing lights. I can only be so strong.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Work "Camping"

Lesley and I just got back from two wonderful weeks "camping" on the Olympic Peninsula. I saw some beautiful scenery and had a chance to observe a couple of things I've never seen in the wild: I saw a herd of elk, peacefully bedded down in the middle of a campground in a beautiful park (Dosewallips State Park, for those who are interested; it's near Brinnon, WA.). They were stately and calm, as befits massive creatures who are secure in their grandeur, and who for some reason have decided to tolerate us puny humans. (Though they sometimes like to toy with us by surrounding some poor soul's trailer, motorhome, or tent, and then daring the camper to try and make it to his door—or flap, if it's a tent. As this is going on, one can hear in the background the quiet laughter of mischievous elk.) In any case, it's their park; we're just visiting, and it's best to keep that in mind.

This man left his trailer and came back to find it surrounded by elk.
After 30 or so minutes of grazing and snickering at him, the elk
departed and the man was able to re-enter his trailer.
The second thing I saw struck me as unaccountably sad. I've read of salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and I must have seen video of the process on Wild Kingdom or some similar show. But I've never stood on the bank of a river and actually watched these magnificent fish, battered by rocks and current as they fight their way upstream back to the very place they were born so that they could continue the cycle of life. And then . . . they die. They fought for days to get back to a very specific spot upstream in a freshwater river, they lay their eggs (or, in the case of males, fertilize a female's eggs), and then—having left their saltwater home, and having fasted throughout their upstream journey and battled heroically to revisit the place of their birth—they simply fade away and die, their mission accomplished. The banks and shallows of the river were covered with dead and dying salmon, some flailing weakly as if in protest.
This bull was bugling when Lesley shot this awesome photo. We stayed
well out of his way.

This has been going on for eons, of course, and it's part of nature. But it seems a cruel and relentless part.

As luck and commerce would have it, I didn't get to spend all that much time hiking and enjoying nature. I spent a lot of time in our trailer, editing a U.S. history book. (Occasionally I'd sit outside at a picnic table with my computer and do my work out there, at least until I was harassed by mosquitoes, bees, flies, or some other pesky nature-thing. Then I would head for the trailer and set up at our little dinette table, possibly with a cold beer to help settle my rattled nerves.)

You may have notice that I put "camping" in quotes up above. That's because it's hard to reconcile what I'm doing with the actual camping I did as a (much) younger man. In those days, a tent was a luxury; most often we'd simply hike until we were tired (which took a long time, 40-50 years ago, but which doesn't seem to take nearly as long these days), and then put down our packs, lay out our sleeping bags, and start a fire so that we could have something hot for supper. (This was very often a dehydrated meal in a vacuum-packed foil pouch into which one could mix hot water; the result was something vaguely food-like, and I recall actually being fond of a few of the meals. The mac-and-beef wasn't at all bad, and neither were the beef stroganoff or the chicken and rice. Not surprisingly, the food got to tasting better and better the longer you were on the trail. Sadly, I cannot recommend the dehydrated peanut butter.) These were the days when I learned from my friend George that all one really needed in the way of utensils and tools was a Sierra cup and a good sheath knife.

Lesley made shrimp and grits one
night. This is a far cry from dehyd-
rated mac-and-beef,
These days, though, I am old and soft, and I no longer look forward to sleeping on the ground and waking up to powdered eggs and sausage-like, patty-shaped objects of dubious origin. Instead, Lesley and I "camp" in a 19' Escape trailer that includes a 6 cubic foot refrigerator with a freezer, a two-burner stovetop, a queen-sized bed, a dinette table (removable to make another bed, should we ever persuade my granddaughter to accompany us, which is increasingly unlikely, as she now seems to have discovered boys and cars, either of which I'm sure must be much more interesting than grandparents), a sink, a small furnace, a hot water heater, and—THANK ALL THAT IS HOLY—a bathroom.

So, yes, it's hard to call this camping. Some, in fact, have called it "glamping," which is apparently a portmanteau of "glamor" and camping." We will continue to call it "camping," though, simply because I refuse to be associated with such a silly word as "glamping."

This is our trailer parked at the marina at Port Townsend, WA.
Note the antennae at upper right.
I mentioned that I spent a great deal of time working during this last trip, which brings me to a few other things I have now that I didn't have when camping back in the day. If you were to look carefully at the roof of our trailer, you would see a small collection of antennae, a pair of them, plus a single one some inches away from the pair. These are for, respectively, a Wi-Fi booster and a cellular booster. Because after all, what is camping without Internet access? In both cases, these find a weak signal and then amplify it so that it's usable. My excuse is that I use such tools to work—and it's true that during our last two trips, I spent a lot of time sending and receiving files, connecting to the online version of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS, as we lovingly call it), looking up facts relevant to the books I was editing, and otherwise engaged in various forms of digital communication as a way of allowing me to freelance from pretty well anywhere we happen to be. (One can find oneself completely without either a cell or Wi-Fi signal, but it's fairly rare, and it's usually possible to at least drive into a nearby town in order to mooch a few GBs of connectivity. At any rate, I found that I could connect most of the time, one way or the other, with some sort of usable signal.)

See?! I worked! I have to admit that a state park is a nice place to
office. It must have been casual day...
So, I no longer own a Sierra cup OR a good sheath knife (I really wish I'd kept the one I had in the Boy Scouts), and I no longer sleep on the ground beneath the stars, listening to what I sincerely hoped at the time was the wind whistling through the pines, as opposed to, say, a bear or a mountain lion stealthily creeping up to where I lay, shivering in my cheap sleeping bag. Now I'm warm and cozy and secure in my nice bed, with the soft glow of the various LEDs in the trailer reminding me that my phone is charging, the fridge is running, the microwave clock (did I forget to mention the microwave?) is set, and the cellular booster is turned on. Now, this is not just because I'm old and soft, but because I have work to do, and these tools allow me to do it no matter where I happen to be. And I also happen to be old and soft.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Cyber Insecurity

I know what you Tweeted last summer. Also this summer. And during that particularly nasty rainstorm in the winter of 2015. In fact, I know what you posted on YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, and Flickr. (Also VK, if you happen to be into Russian social networking.) And if you posted anything while you were supposed to be hard at work in an office building or manufacturing plant, well, there's a pretty good chance that I can find that out, also.

This is a series of social media posts that originated in my old
high school over the past several days. I can click on the icons
and see who posted what. 
Of course, none of this is secret, right? You didn't really post it on the Internet and expect it to remain private, did you? I mean, c'mon, if there's anything the Web is bad at, it's maintaining your privacy; just ask any number of breached and outed and exposed criminals, trolls, Hollywood insiders, and a slew of embarrassed members. (Not that one might not be all four, of course.)

The Internet is great at sharing information; that's what it was made for. (No, it wasn't set up to provide a backup communication net in the event of a nuclear attack. It was invented and intended for use by university researchers looking for ways to communicate and share data.) Unfortunately, it's not so great at protecting information.

As someone who has worked on the security side of technology, I have access to some tools that might make my search a little easier, simpler, or faster, but the truth is that all of that information is out there. Everything you've ever typed. Every Google search you've ever made. (Yes, even that one.) Everything you've posted, commented, searched for, or communicated is stored somewhere; and all it takes is a little time and effort to uncover. If it's supposedly protected by virtue of it being stored on a "secure" site (think Facebook, Dropbox, your corporate network, etc.), well, I have bad news for you. As security-conscious sages (including former FBI director Robert Mueller) have said many times: "There are only two types of companies: Those that have been hacked and those that will be hacked." (I might add a subset of the first type: those that have in fact been hacked, but don't know it yet.)

Robert Mueller was the 6th director of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. He is currently occupied
with other security-related endeavors. Image in
the public domain.
But I'm not necessarily talking about sophisticated, hardcore tech attacks here, the sort of thing that some shady operator in a basement in Odesa or Kiev or Omaha might use to force his way through a firewall or other cyber defense. Those types of attacks certainly exist. But why would anyone go through the trouble? It's time-consuming and expensive, and it requires skills that most of us don't have. And besides, there's often no need. The info is either already out there (in the form of social networking posts and other communications—many of which can easily be viewed or uncovered with a bit of sleuthing) or else it can be had simply for the asking.

That's what social engineers do. When they need the keys to the (yours, your boss's, your client's) kingdom, they just ask. Of course, they might have to lie a bit. (Well, let's say prevaricate. It sounds better.) They might (read: probably will) get in simply by emailing you a dodgy link. Occasionally, they might need to invent some pretext to get into an office: Perhaps the social engineer shows up at your place of business in a blue shirt holding a clipboard, and wearing a baseball cap with a service company logo. He either just waltzes in (if your company is foolish enough to leave its campus buildings unlocked) or else stops at the reception desk to tell the folks manning the desk that he's "here to check on your <insert name of make and model> corporate printers, to ensure that they're working correctly." Or perhaps he's (supposedly) with a janitorial service and he'd like to see if he can outbid your current provider, the name of which he just happens to know. (He also knows how much they're charging you. In fact, he seems to know a lot, more than enough to convince you that he's on the up-and-up.)

Or maybe he keeps it simple. He just picks up the phone and starts calling your employees; when someone answers, he says, "Hey, Sarah, this is Todd from IT. We're working on something here and I need to get into your system to see if you've been updated. It doesn't look like the last security update was installed, for some reason." Of course, he's using a phone-spoofing application that makes his call look as if it's coming from inside your building, so for all you know, it's legit. (Do you know everyone in your IT department? Really? Everyone?) And you wouldn't want your system to be out of date, would you? Vulnerable to attack?! If the caller is good—and professional social engineers are very, very good—odds are that "Todd" will eventually find someone to give him a password; after that, he's off to the races. And by "off to the races," I mean that he's successfully infiltrated your network. (Note that I’m saying “he,” but keep in mind that the social engineer could just as easily be female. There are some truly exceptional social engineers out there who happen to be ladies. I don’t think that they’re necessarily better liars or any more duplicitous than the guys, but perhaps we’re simply not expecting to get hacked by a woman. Whatever it is, the ones I know of or have met are very good at this.)

You see, social engineers are hackers of a sort, but they don't hack systems; they hack people. And people are easily hacked. We're great targets, because we're trusting and we're helpful. I hate to say it, but we need to learn to be more suspicious and wary. C'mon, people—stop being so nice, so trusting! We should all be more like those people we see writing in comments on the Internet: angry, cantankerous, distrustful. Well, maybe only a little like them. No need to get nasty or insulting.

And here I'm going to put in a plug for my friend, Chris Hadnagy. Chris runs (and, a penetration-testing company that specializes in using social engineering to uncover weaknesses in your company's "human network." He and his team are very good—scary good, in fact.  They can lie and wheedle and schmooze their way into almost any network. If you're wondering if your network has weaknesses, it does, trust me—especially your human network. It's porous and shaky at best, and Chris and his folks can help uncover those weaknesses. But my favorite of Chris's endeavors is the Innocent Lives Foundation (ILF). The foundation specializes in unmasking child predators and in providing useful, usable evidence to law enforcement officials so that these people can be found and prosecuted. It's a worthwhile endeavor with a talented board of directors and headed up by a guy who's the epitome of the "white hat hacker." (Also, he has a very large, vicious-looking dog, the name of which I can never remember, so I keep referring to it as "Fluffy." Someday, "Fluffy" is going to show up on my front porch and drag me out to the woods and bury me like a very large bone, and I'll never be seen again. So, if you don't hear from me…)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Amazon & Teddy Roosevelt

Many of us (including myself) have had a wonderful time for the past several years bashing those huge, soulless corporations. And for good reason, too. Many of them really do seem to lack souls; they care only about the bottom line and apparently not much about either their customers or their employees. They have managed to acquire many of the perks and trappings of person-hood, with very few of the responsibilities. (We all recall the 2010 Court decision that gave them many of the same rights as people, but it really goes all the way back to an 1886 decision determining that corporate money was protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.)

All of this is nothing new, of course. Bashing corporations and finding ways to keep them in check goes way back. My favorite corporation-basher is probably Teddy Roosevelt. In 1901, TR said, "To permit every lawless capitalist, every law-defying corporation, to take any action, no matter how iniquitous, in the effort to secure an improper profit and to build up privilege, would be ruinous to the Republic and would mark the abandonment of the effort to secure in the industrial world the spirit of democratic fair dealing."

TR was one tough dude. Read Mornings on
 to find out just how badass he
really was.
TR was a bit of a hard-ass. Seriously. This is a guy who, in 1912, got shot just before he was due to give a speech, continued on to the venue, gave the speech, and only then went to the hospital.

One of our favorite corporate targets of late has been Amazon. The company burst upon the scene in 1994 as an online bookseller, but quickly began selling . . . well, just about everything. Today there is almost nothing you cannot buy on, from widgets to watches, from glasses to guitars, and from fishing tackle to fishing boats. But they occasionally engender some bad press by being a bit too heavy-handed, and there are some ugly stories about their hiring and personnel practices. (I've known some Amazon employees, and many have said that it's a meat-grinder, very competitive, and that the best person doesn't always get that promotion. Admittedly, most of the employees to whom I've spoken have been somewhat disgruntled. I haven't found any gruntled employees who are willing to talk.)

Still, I buy lots of stuff on Amazon. They have excellent prices and speedy (usually free) delivery. But most of all, they have wonderful customer service.

Some time back, I bought a generator on Amazon. This is a small, portable machine meant to be carried along in our truck when we take our trailer out "boondocking." For the uninitiated, "boondocking" is camping in unimproved areas that lack water, power, and sewer services. Basically, you're (usually) out in the middle of nowhere, often not even in any sort of actual campsite or campground. We have solar panels and batteries, and we carry our own water and sewer tanks; if the batteries ever ran down and we really needed power, we could use our generator to top off our batteries or power any 120V items that were absolutely necessary. You know, like a hair dryer. Or a microwave. Or, during baseball season, a television.

The generator in question. Image courtesy of Champion
Power Equipment.
The generator arrived in a timely fashion, left on our front porch by our friendly UPS driver, whom we never see but who must exist, because we keep finding things on our porch. After a week or so, I finally got around to taking the generator out of the box, only to find that one of the internal pieces (a combination rectifier/heat sink/circuit board, if you're curious about that sort of thing) had somehow been dislodged, either during manufacturing or shipping. My guess was that somewhere along the line, the thing had been dropped. I called the manufacturer's tech support number and got in touch with a young man named Brian, who was happy to either approve warranty repairs or send me instructions on how to repair it myself. I opted for the latter, because the nearest qualified repair facility was a good 40 minutes away and, more importantly, would not be able to get to my little generator for at least 3-4 weeks. Since I intended to leave on a trip in about 2 weeks, I opted to give it a shot, so Brian sent over instructions.

The instructions were pretty straightforward, and I managed to get the rectifier back in its slot, suffering only minor injuries in the process. But when I filled it with oil, the oil immediately began leaking from the bottom of the generator. I suspected that, when the generator was dropped (or run over by a bus, or possibly thrown through a 10th-story window), something important had cracked and now it would no longer hold oil.

So, I went camping without my generator. That's how brave I am. I was prepared to be out in the wilderness, surrounded by bears and wolves and aardvarks and such, and me without a hair dryer!
We have some portable solar panels much like the ones pictured here.
Alas, they will not power a hair dryer. Image courtesy of Renogy.
When we came home, I went to that portion of Amazon's website dedicated to returns and was informed that, since more than 30 days had passed, the item could no longer be returned. I sighed. I wrung my hands. I fixed my monitor with the steely gaze I had perfected as an English teacher, but none of this did any good. (Come to think of it, it hadn't done much good when I was a teacher, either.) Anyway, I wrote a note in the provided Comments box, explaining my plight, and resorting to that most heartrending entreaty of young children everywhere: "But . . . but, it wasn't my fault!" I sent it off and pretty much forgot about it, assuming that I would have to find a way to box up and lug the generator 45 miles to the repair facility, and figuring that I would not see it again for months. Or ever.

But then I got an email from a very nice young lady who works for Amazon's customer service department.

Let's digress for just a moment . . .  Have you noticed that "customer service" has become a bit of a misnomer? When is the last time you dealt with such a department and came away feeling like you actually were a valued customer and had been offered actual service? Yeah, that's what I thought. With a few exceptions (Apple comes to mind), we all dread making calls to tech support or customer service lines. It's rarely productive and never pretty.

But that's not the case with Amazon. The email from Lagna (which, quite appropriately, turns out to be a Hindu name meaning "auspicious") said that Amazon wished to “obviate” my inconvenience, followed by—and I’m paraphrasing here:

"Oh, sorry. That was unfortunate. We don't like it when that stuff happens. We're going to give you your money back. Please order a new generator, and go ahead and keep the old one; maybe you can get it fixed, use it for spares, etc. Oh, and we'll expedite the shipping on the replacement and also refund those shipping charges."

And sure enough, I ordered a new generator, which appeared on my doorstep a few days later, and my account was credited the original purchase price, plus shipping. I decided that my inconvenience had indeed been "obviated." If you’re following along here, I ended up with two generators, only one of which I paid for. The other one is broken, of course, but I’d imagine that I could get it repaired, now that time is not an issue. Or I could use it for parts or donate it to Habitat for Humanity.

Amazon has become a powerhouse, of course, largely due to its pricing, inventory, and reasonable shipping policies. But the real reason so many of us go back to Amazon is the customer service. Even before The Generator Incident, I've leaned toward Amazon because if the item arrived broken, the company took it back, no questions asked. Wrong size? No worries. Not up to your expectations? Not a big deal. Send it back. You didn't mean to order that one? Not a problem; send it back. One of their third-party vendors screwed up? Not an issue; send it back and we'll deal with the vendor.

Of course, the thing is that Amazon makes a ton of money; the company can afford to offer good customer service. Amazon knows that what it loses in sales or margin, it can make up in repeat sales to satisfied customers. And so they try very, very hard to create satisfied customers.

So, good for them, right?! But that begs a very real question: How come Amazon can afford to offer truly good customer service, but other companies, companies that also make a great deal of money selling products or services to us, seemingly cannot? What's up with Verizon and Sprint? And what about Comcast and Time-Warner and the other cable companies? How about Best Buy? Your bank?

And don't even get me started on the airlines.