Archive for the ‘computers’ Category

More IT-Gone-Wacky Tales from FAST LANE

March 8th, 2012

Apparently there’s no pleasing me. A couple of years ago, I noted the incompetence of IT for the transponder program here in MA. Not only could they not suck money in real time or close to it to keep the $20 deposit flush for long trips, but if you called in to support, you have to give up your password over the phone to talk with a rep.

That’s right, your only security for an account that had access to your bank or credit card funds had to be spoken in the most insecure possible way, just to ask a question of support. Some support.

Well, that was true again and still last month. We replaced a vehicle and the stick ‘um stripes for the Velcro retainer did not hold on the new windshield. It seems they are designed this way and the FAQ on the MA DOT site says call in to get new strips.

Of course, I couldn’t even ask for that or explain at all why I was calling without spitting out my “secure” password. Not only that, but there is a separate PIN the agency assigns transponder users that you have to reveal. To see that, you need to log in with your account number and password, highlight the field at top and read that to the rep. Only then can you say you need to 2-inch strips to hold the box in place.

Honest to Ada Lovelace, computers were never designed to remove all mental processing capability from humans. We do that to ourselves and each other.

After eight minutes to inane bureaucracy, my silly rep was satisfied I was the person I represented myself to be and that I deserved the two strips. They arrived about four days later in a #10 envelope. Control freak I am, I thought and told the woman in support that this function should be automated and a menu choice from your account. Of course, that would be less for support to support.

Today’s episode was getting my monthly email of the FAST LANE statement. That includes a link to the DOT site. It has brought up the log-in screen and retrieved my account number and password from a cookie. Good enough.

Not today though. Instead, I got a screen worthy of the Bastard Operator from Hell. Not only could I not do as I had for years, but the stored data was gone. I had to track down my seven-digit account number (which serves as user name), and then bow to the new FAST LANE password schema.

So the old four-character (a.k.a. mnemonic) PW was not good enough. There was no advising about the level. I had to do what the screen said or forever be locked out of my account info. Instead, it meant contriving a new PW that was eight or more characters, and included “at least one of each”:

  • Upper-case letters
  • Lower-case letters
  • Numbers
  • Special characters (the punctuation and symbols on the keyboard)

Something you can remember? Forget it!

A tricky non-word or meaningful-to-you number with a funky symbol somewhere? Forget it!

The new PW had to meet five BOFH rules. So there.

Plus, there’s a note at the bottom of the PW hazing screen that you still need to have access to the DOT-assigned PIN as well to get any help from alleged support.

These IT satraps do have real power in their tiny provinces, power they abuse. The only question is are they ignorant of how much trouble they’ll cause in aggregate by their bureaucratic inconvenience or are they being malicious, as in “Let’s make ’em dance.”?

Well, Obviously, Harrumph! is Back

February 28th, 2012

GDlogoHair on fire. Apology on tap.

After five days, this blog is back up. I regret all who got database connection errors in that period. I did too. Most hits here come from Google and other search engine operations. So, if you were clicking around for something, I hope you found it elsewhere.

Logo note: The problems and solution came from GoDaddy. I claim fair use of its surely copyrighted and/or trademarked logo.

For the curious, the outage came in a server migration. I’ll be upgrading WordPress now. I could not before for some convoluted set of reasons whereby my old GD servers could not upgrade to the MySQL versions that WP and other modern apps require.

After telling me on and on for two years they couldn’t help unless I closed the account and reopened it, they announced thaty they could when I called again last week. Yet, it did require new technologies on new servers, saving off everything, shutting it down, and waiting up to four days for the GD IT fairies to work their magic.

I was away for the weekend, so that seemed OK. Yet it turned out that wasn’t quite the case. All of the GD tech are pleasant and most know a lot. It was the small seams that caused the garment to come apart.

After GD saved the DB with five years of blog content, a tech directed me to copy the whole server content to my HD…just in case. He assured me that almost certainly, the automated migration would restore the works. I just had to call in a day to put in the order for the new 4GH server transfer.

I did call in, only to hear, curiously, that the order was in and in a couple of days, all would be as it was on the new technology. As these things tend to go, that didn’t happen. I returned to see messages by URL that there was no database connection or by IP addresss to the new server that there was no database at all.

Turns out, the latter was correct. The third nice tech apparently does this transfer regularly. She told me correctly that I needed to follow three separate intricate, but well documented procedures, which she sent me by email. I had to create, restore and configure the DB manually with GD tools online. Where were my fairies?

This was the proverbial blind men and elephant in that each tech was savvy about parts of it. I didn’t get the big picture and real set of procedures until the third tech.

Far, far worse things happen in the computer and internet worlds.

Dreck Rolling Downhill

December 29th, 2011

In this season of annual-updated, photo-illustrated family letters, let us praise the continuing migration of the most relentless of beasts — the cute and personal LITE. Many under 30 escaped some migratory stages, but the herd of pseudo-candid will continue to seek new homes.

Today, I came across a witty and insightful “Oh No! Blogging is REALLY, REALLY dead this time!!!!!! : D ” post on  To my point, it includes:

We for­get JUST how utterly time-consuming blog­ging used to be, back when it was the only game in town. I remem­ber the early blog­ging days, don’t you? Remem­ber how kee­ping up with the blo­gosphere pro­perly took ten hours a day? Nowa­days, the only peo­ple who are left blog­ging are the peo­ple who REALLY want to, who ACTUALLY have something to say. Ever­yone else is uploa­ding cat pho­tos on Face­book. I think this is a good thing.

Yes, mimeographed (look it up) annual holiday letters preceded photocopied ones. They came before the dreaded desktop publishing (young’uns may need to look that up as well).

DTP all too clearly proved the poverty of the typical intellect, imagination and artistry. Putting layout, illustration and typography options at the disposal of the masses produced millions of newsletters and personal epistles in what is known derisively in journalism circles as circus layout (alluding to Ringling Bros. posters). It seems everyone felt their most trivial thoughts were brilliant and worthy of circulation when there was enough variations on fonts and type sizes. How could everyone else not realized how handsome and clever were their children, pets, houses, and on and on?

Along came the World Wide Web, which most folk use synonymously with the internet. A decade latter, it was blogs. They were the new habitat of the cute and cluttered herd.

Along came variations and most notably Facebook, as gapingvoid’s Huge MacLeod noted. There’s a home for all-too-easy display of cute kids and kittens, leading to a herd migration from blogs. Now those who need to show their beloved beings, or every meal they eat (seemingly in purple and black tones of unappetizing low quality), do so nearly instantaneously on FB.

Certainly a very positive outcome of this migration is that finding and keeping up with relevant and meaningful blogs has gotten easier. Many of the regularly updated ones are far more likely to feature news and views, and not furry, drooling or pasted-smile loved ones.

All hail the migration!

Publishing’s Future, in Parts

November 28th, 2011

sIn the walk-it-like-you-write-it mode, contributors to Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto break conventions. They conceptually and practically cover the current nascent forms of publishing.

Book Review Note: This is another in my ongoing series of technical book reviews.

Most obvious include that this work is in process. The intro material and part one of three is available now. Buy it and you get the upgrades as they are ready. The electronic versions are much cheaper. You can also stumble around on the authors’ site to read it for free online, but not take it away.

This work lives its content and requires flexible commitment by the reader. Nothing could be more reasonable for authors Huge McGuire (writer/technologist) and Brian O’Leary (publisher/futurist), and their set of essayists. They come from various angles on how books will come to be conceived, designed, written, laid out, distributed, updated and more.

This first cut is The Setup: Approaches to the Digital Present. It’s 91 pages at the moment. Coming up are in the next months will be The Outlook: What Is Next for the Book?, and The Things We Can Do with Books: Projects from the Bleeding Edge.

Part one tries with fair success at defining the concepts of old and new-style books. Various chapters by different writers cover largely conceptual material, backed up by small to moderate specifics. In the main, a shortcoming is that having set us up for a whiz-bang new world, their uses of links, graphics and other technologies are only so-so.

Never mind, their ideas are big and sound.

Sure, we’ve all noticed and used ebooks in various formats on disparate platforms. The writers in the manifesto tell us how we got to this point, from technological, artistic and business perspectives. It is well worth wading through the differing voices of part one to get a fix on how format and form, context and content, truly differ and how each affects the present and will affect the future of publishing.

Note for example that context is key, above content, already. Writers and publishers are already responding to the new truth that “Increasingly, readers want convenience, specificity, discoverability, ease of access, and connection.” That is bringing with it such features as automated updates and links that go beyond the footnote model. Extra information now has to offer two kinds of new utility. First it must be “immersive” — appearing at a point in the book where it is most useful, and second, it must be nontrivial — “Primary source material, topics not easily discoverable via search engines, or deeply curated dives into ancillary topics represent rewarding additions that readers will want to explore.”

That requires a heightened, self-aware level of savvy that the writers claim is in the works.

So you can see what’s happened so far and what is in the works, they dive into the related technologies as well as the concepts. There’s a good introduction to a dozen development, publishing and distribution tools with examples. There’s also a tutorial on the benefits and drawbacks of the different digital rights management (DRM) schemes. Distribution, design and metadata each get a section by a different expert.

While O’Leary’s Context, not Container piece is self-serving, it is specific about how O’Reilly approached epubs. He details the technologies and distribution methods they used. They clearly were not afraid of jumping in and learning in the process.

He criticizes publishers who fumble in this transitional period. Many do in fact just want to figure a way to continue as they have as much as possible, while keeping profit margins. He calls this attitude “container myopia.” He figures that new entrants and existing publishers who get it will thrive by delivering books or book-like-things that let the readers discover in the process, as well as reuse the material. The old minds who simply see digital publishing as a cheaper way to deliver will get left out.

Instead, this work includes calls for deep and early tagging, for products that solve readers problems and let them satisfy their curiosity with related material and seems to flow from the content. Publishers will have to adhere to current and emerging standards and encourage reuse of their products.  Success should come to those who help readers/purchasers manage abundant information well.

This first third is, as they admit up front, a teaser. I want the rest. The epub itself makes a compelling argument for updatable books, purchases that include improved versions as they are ready.

I already want more from writer/designer Craig Mod, who framed his section with Everyone asks, “How do we change books to read them digitally?” But the more interesting question is, “How does digital change books?” And, similarly, “How does digital change the authorship process?” He provides examples of divides between products delivered as printed, on an iPhone or Kindle, and on an iPad. The tablet leaps over the limitations of the other deliveries.

Another touchstone is Wikipedia. It lets us “develop a text in real time, erasing the preciousness imbued by printing.” Or in futurist terms “Time itself becomes an active ingredient in authorship.”

With its flaws, such as fairly lame links, the manifesto is plenty of value in its first third. More please.

Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto
Hugh McGuire, Brian O’Leary
Publisher:O’Reilly Media
Formats: Print Ebook Safari Books Online
Print: December 2011 (est.) $24.99
Ebook: October 2011 $7.99
Kindle at Amazon $6.39
Pages: 91 for first release
Print ISBN:978-1-4493-0560-4 | ISBN 10:1-4493-0560-1
Ebook ISBN:978-1-4493-0559-8 | ISBN 10:1-4493-0559-8
PressBook free version for online commenting. Click on ToC entry to read it.

Maxing Out Outlook

November 1st, 2011

thumbDespite the book on time management with Outlook® being under 300 pages, reviewing took quite awhile. I mention that because that is likely what many readers will find. I kept returning to implement.

Effective Time Management: Using Microsoft® Outlook® to Organize Your Work and Personal Life is just what it says. However, it could use an additional subtitle about changing everything about how you handle your desk and computer.

To receive the book’s substantial value, you cannot just take a tip here and another there. You have to change the way you receive, read and send email, how you plan, attend or conduct meetings, and master the to-do and journal functions many Outlook owners do not know of or use. Time-management guru Lothar Seiwert and productivity expert Holger Woeltje show specifically how to do all of that. They lay out the problems, describe the concepts for those and their solutions, provide real-world examples of best practices, and give step-by-step description of how to do it yourself.

People who feel harried and overwhelmed by information and tasks coming at all times from all directions can get tremendous help here. All it takes is looking at each aspect of the business day in a new framework and then implementing better systems to deal with them. It is not at all simple, but the authors put it all right there in front of you.

By the bye, as a technical writer, I also appreciated their index. That often contracted-out weakest aspect of technical books is actually useful in this one. For example, it uses concepts instead of just the precise words Microsoft and the authors use.

The authors do not stint on any area. They separate these into email, tasks, weekly planning, daily planning, meetings and goals. Each gets the full problems, solutions, examples, and procedures treatment. If you thought you understood what you face everyday, know that they have made a deeper analysis.

You may find yourself skimming the examples, with their generalized, bullet-point concepts. That will be OK, because they lead you into the procedures, which is the essence of each area. If you think you do not have time to upgrade the way you work, you are likely to conclude you must take that time, so you will end up in much greater control of your job.

One of the best aspects along the way is that the pair introduces and explains how to use Outlook features invisible to and unused by many owner. Think block building and journal use, and how to get the most out of OneNote.

As an aside, it is possible to use other productivity tools than Outlook. The authors do not generalize to those. They do show why they have found what they need in Outlook.

Effective Time Management: Using Microsoft® Outlook® to Organize Your Work and Personal Life
Lothar Seiwert, Holger Woeltje
Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA
October 2011
Pages: 272
ISBN-10: 0735660042
ISBN-13: 978-0735660045
$29.99 Paperback and $9.99 Kindle available at O’Reilly or Amazon.

Pushing Our Buttons

October 18th, 2011

Ah, them technologies. They are so tricksy.

Of course, I saw the viral vid of the 1-year-old tot frustrated by a Marie Claire maggy that didn’t swipe or flip like an iPad app.

By the bye, Marie Claire does have an iPad app. Would be the fun in trying to ridicule a pre-speaker gawking at sexy models in fancy clothes on screen?

Just a couple days ago, the FT’s Lucy Kellaway included lessons learned from the Blackberry blackout. One was the those in real power positions were the least concerned, while their minions stabbed and stared at unresponsive keypads and screenlets. Among her possible explanations for this inverse power/anxiety relationship were

  • (T)he more important you are the more you can afford to ignore other people’s emails. If there is something that you really have to know about, someone will track you down and let you know.
  • More likely though, if you are the sort of person endlessly looking at stupid messages on a small screen, you aren’t the sort of person to get to the top anyway.

There’s confluence. Both taut tot and meeting minions have been successfully programmed.

Among the many online reactions to the little one trying to swipe magazine pages, two typical comments appear. One is that this child fits perfectly in a digital world where old technologies are irrelevant. The other is how lame the parents are who don’t teach the kid the range of the available, like reading to her.

That as well as Kellaway’s observations both illustrate a nefarious affect of human brains. Truth be told, we are animals who are easily trained. We can fight against and even have a measure of power over that pathetic trait, but it’s hard.

Observe just how we deal with phones, old or new style. One rings, buzzes or gets musical and we respond. In the car, on the street, in a restaurant or at home, we think we are communicating, in fact that we must do so. Everywhere around you, glance to see how simultaneously absurd and amusing this is. People walking abreast, each talking to someone else. A parent chatting or texting while pushing a stroller, oblivious to both their miniature person and their environment. Someone ignores the person across the table or even in the bed to text or talk. A mall shopper walks into someone else or a post while describing what’s going to be for lunch.

As impossible as it seems to us, we can only control that training if we first look at the context and content. As difficult as it may be for our conditioned egos, if we examine a day or even an hour of phone, email and text messages, we’d have to admit they are junk, stupid junk. We are spending the only lives we get responding as instantly as possible to nothing in particular.

Here, even with two youths in the house, we have beaten that particular problem. For example, we have dinner together. If the land-line-like cable phone or a cell rings during the family meal, it rings to completion. Except years ago when I knew my distant mother was very ill, I would never interrupt the important for the surely trivial. The mantra is that IT CAN WAIT.

Yet, I know I have been programmed in many other ways. There’s that insidious mouse for a big one.

rotaryI was a computer user when that mean using an intermediary. There was data, usually stored on paper tape. You’d go to a programmer, almost invariable a middle-aged man. He’d type commands to produce a deck of punch cards or revised tape, which you fed into a computer for calculations or other results. I developed and ran the nationwide directory of construction equipment, manufacturers and dealers like that.

When I got my first personal computer in 1980, it required programming just to use the dedicated keypad for either word processing or numerical functions. There was no mouse, no GUI, and no World Wide Web — the internet as we know it. In the next decade plus, accessing data, graphics, and other humans on the net meant typing precise commands onto a dotted white on some dull color.

That was not better than colors, high-pixel-count images, and graphical interfaces. It was often faster though. Those much less capable PCs booted for use in a couple of seconds, a trait only tablets and the most advanced ones are just beginning to do now. A command-line interface was and remains vastly faster than mousing or even fingering around a page or displaying a keyboard that does not allow touch typing.

So, the mouse has gotten me and I know it. Pre-GUI, I used the kick-ass word processor XyWrite. Even with pull-down menus and such later, I worked for many years as a technical writer with FrameMaker as my text and layout platform. Both hummed with commands and keyboard shortcuts. There’s no way a sad little mouse user could begin to locate, open and climb down to the right spot in a menu before the shortcut person was four operations ahead.

Therein lies that intersection and the paths to the future. Those with flexible tools and those who understand how to get the power out of them have great advantages. Those who let themselves take the easiest path of being programmed by their technologies are like H.G.Wells’ gentle Eloi, They are subject to the realities of their devices and helpless in the larger world.

Honest to God, saying, “I wasn’t even born then,” is the hallmark of the ignorant and ineffectual. We needn’t all know how to drive a team of oxen, but our world is full of technologies from many ages. Not knowing how to read the still common analog clocks is neither cute nor a mark of a futurist. Nor is not being able to read and write cursive.

Delusion that only the most advanced technologies are necessary in this whiz-bang modern world is itself programming, programming for failure. The minds of even the most programmed of us can understand how things work and can draw on the devices of the last century and even before. There’s room enough in our brains for more than pop things and culture.

Those with broad general knowledge and diverse skills have great advantages. We drastically shortchange our abilities if we hold something and say, “This is all I need to know.”

Saving and Sorting Lives

October 10th, 2011

sA Microsoft researcher in England has thought more about our life traces than the rest of us have. In The future of looking back, he interweaves the pluses and problems of personal artifacts from his grandfather’s photographs to current digital and online tools we use to the newest stuff around his Microsoft Research in Cambridge UK.

The book is as much philosophic as technical. For his work and avocations, Banks understands collecting, analyzing, storing and retrieving artifacts of human lives. The result of all that could have been a huge, turgid work, but is not.

In 141 pages, plus supporting references, he presents the qualities and uses of our photos, data, video, audio, journals and more. He uses simple declarative sentences, which makes even the complex concepts easy to follow. Coupled with his clever design questions at the end of chapters, the reader ends up thinking about how to make the fullest, safest uses of inherited and current material. We shall be better librarians of our lives after reading this.

He’s straight-ahead in dividing the book into three sections — Stuff and sentimentality, A digital life, and New sentimental things. Those would be the nature of the objects we use to remember, the hows and whys of reminiscence, and new and pending tools for doing so. I’m fairly observant, but he bring in details, down to the weight and texture of photographs. He catalogs our now-digitalizable range of artifacts. I considered my many objects like they were suddenly laid out before me.

That would be enough, but his design questions are truly thought provoking. For just one example, he asks, “How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?” These chapter enders did slow me down, in a good way. I am thinking of my own set of several generations of objects with these in mind.

How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or
archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?

I only have one complaint. He seems to assume that more is always better, and to let the future users draw on technologies to sort and prioritize. I think instead that as we complain of information overload, storing many millions of artifacts would work only for someone with a team of biographers to reconstruct the life and times. I vote for selectivity and subsets in what we store.

Richard Banks
Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK
The future of looking back
Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA, 2011
184 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7356-5806-6
$24.99 paper, also available in Kindle editions, O’Reilly or Amazon
Review Shtick: This starts a series of book review on technology and other topics that interest me.

Asocial Mania

September 22nd, 2011

Thinking have I been, young Jedi, of NetFlix, FaceBook, and Google+, yes.

Perhaps the new mocumentary on them will be Clumsiness of the Geeks. Each has innovated spectacularly, innovated in figuratively spitting on and literally in pissing off customers.

Logo Note: I claim fair use for the satirical bastardizations of the accompanying art.

nfEach has recently, heavy-handedly overreached and offended large segments of their loyal bases with paternalism. As arrogant as the corporations have acted, it’s likely that the machers at each look at the other two and think how happy they are they are not as stupid. Well, they are. Each has been playing the troll under the bridge and each has been amazed when it finds that it has more bluster than savvy.

Briefly and for the worst of each:

  • NetFlix jacked prices way up, simultaneously breaking the beloved stream/mailer package.
  • FaceBook had puerile reaction (credit for quick, if stupid, moves) to Google+ innovations. Its response was to play daddy, telling the kids what games they could play, the rules, what clothes they’d wear, and how they had to arrange their desks and rooms. FB is still suddenly imposing scrolling news feeds, arbitrary lists of contacts and more, totally altering the interface and experience with neither warning nor option.
  • Google+ surely has more tricks it will spring, but the worst has been declaring that it has made a moral judgment of what users’ names can be. Even those who legally have a single name can’t use that. Nothing that smacks of what the children in charge think is a nefarious pseudonym can use its service. It is the nym edict.

Predictably people are upset. Those who dislike change are unhappy at each. Those who dislike people who dislike change are scolding like magpies at anyone who dares complain. NetFlix has lost at least 600,000 customers.

fkAmusingly enough though, management at each has maintained its arrogance. NetFlix’ CEO did kinda, sorta say sorry, in the we-did-the-right-thing-too-bad-you-don’t-like-it way. FB and Google both blow the freebie whistle — You don’t pay for the damned service. Like it or lump it.

The ties to these are:

  1. All three acted and continued to act with great arrogance and disregard for their customers
  2. Pleasing customers is easy and they have worked really, really hard to annoy and anger theirs

I came from business journalism, management, and technical writing spheres. A recurring truth set in each is that there are no secrets, no magic to pleasing customers. There are basic guidelines and rules that work though.

gpFirst and most important is to find out what your customers want. You can ask them and you may or may not get useful and insightful and applicable information. You can back that up with observations, whether it’s focus groups or usability testing or any of dozens of methods.

Where you want to arrive is the mystical, maybe mythical, state of thinking like a customer. This is where you grok your user. You know intrinsically what customers want. It’s damned hard.

Over my long technical writing career, I came to realize as a team member, a doc manager, and as head of the area technical society that the vast majority of tech writers can’t do that. They are literal, as in Emerson’s foolish consistency literal. That makes them great proofreaders and wonderful at avoiding spelling errors and inconsistencies. It makes them sucky innovators and writers.

This is why most software manuals infuriate users. The manual and particularly help (especially Microsoft products) may be complete and technically accurate, but they do not reflect human thinking or reasonable expectations. Instead as a doc manager and writer, I taught my peers and underlings to do as I did. I worked with the support staff and spoke directly to customers to learn how they used the products and what the expected problems were. When a user presses the F1 key for help in Windows, they definitely do not want to see a page about what the menu choices are. They want solutions to problems they have on that screen, GD it. What I told my direct reports is that a customer want us to make them smart, fast.

Think like a customer. Don’t use your insider knowledge to write a smug manual that restates the obvious. Likewise, make the help or manual index useful by including the concepts, not just the software-unique lingo. Think like a customer.

We can end that rant except to note that none of these three clumsy companies has been thinking like a customer. The paid company, NetFlix, figured to make more money by splitting its offerings and hiking prices for both. That was fair in a patronizing, paternalistic, capitalist sense of doing that abruptly with no warning and no option. Honk. Thanks for playing. You lose this round.

Google+ can pretend that being in an extended beta gave it some sort of immunity from customer consideration. Instead, the big shots in Mountain View come across like Puritans. They decreed that those with a single legal name are immoral and not worthy. Honk. You wear the SCHMUCK badge until further notice.

FaceBook is the less excusable. The youngsters there behave like 19th Century patriarchs. We decide what you will see, so, and say. They have gone from asocial to antisocial.

All three are allegedly technology leaders. All three are allegedly youth oriented. All three are allegedly modern companies. All three need stern lectures. They are too dumb to get it on their own.

Niner One One Respite

September 14th, 2011

Through the accident of calenders and school schedules, we headed to Block Island on September 11th. The side effect was a relief from the relentless, if understandably expected, leaping, braying 10th-anniversary commentary.

Leading up to and in that morning’s papers, NYT and Globe definitely included, were all 9/11, from not-news to full-page ads, to editorials. Americanism points were in the tally for everyone. Advertisers see a chance for another few bucks by association. Editors feign insight or wisdom where they had none. No one it seemed wanted to appear less patriotic and involved than the next exploiter.

We had long before found that this year, Sunday, 9/11 would be the very end of the tourist season there. Rooms were more available, enough restaurants were still open to satisfy, and we would not be madras to polyester with other interlopers.

We took cell phones for family contact…if necessary. However, Even though our guest house did not brag about WiFi, I figured that there’d be lots of free wireless around. Hence the decision about whether to go three days without internet, news or social media. I admit to a Jones on all.

We receive multiple newspapers (each of us having been newspaper and magazine writers and editors). We’re on the tubes throughout the day, and blog, tweet and blah blah blah.


Yet when it came time to pack, I looked at laptops and the iPad. I realized I had lots of room and any of them would be light. Upon arriving, I could fire one up or not.

The planned or-not won. I took nothing.

We left early, right after breakfast and the Sunday papers. We didn’t speak of 9/11 and had no reminder until the ferry left Port Judith. There and then a Coast Guard gunship paced us to and beyond the breakwater, well into the open sound.

That’s not usual and almost certainly a date-specific display of caution or precaution or something. It was certainly unnecessary and suited only for those simpleminded who are wont to chant, “Better safe than sorry.”

For three days and two nights, we did just fine. We spoke to each other, of literature, of the wildlife and other nature we saw or touched or photographed, of our kids a bit, of our current and earlier selves more, and of the comparative textures and tastes of food and drink before us. We biked every paved foot of the island. We marveled in the deep tones of the shingles — round pebbles thumping insistently to beat of the tide — as we walked upper Crescent Beach. We toured Indian and white-settler cemeteries.

Returning Tuesday PM to the newspapers, the net, and the news, we missed nothing. Commenters had nothing original nor insightful nor wise not palliative. They spoke flatulent words only competitively, because everyone else was doing it.

As emergencies and wars and crushing disappointments prove our mental and intellectual mettle, so do eulogies and memorials demonstrate our compassion and understanding. The many efforts we saw on returning failed. If the worst of times brings out the tritest of clichés in us, we had best speak aloud to ourselves what we intend to say…and then keep quiet.

Make Data Losers Pay

September 4th, 2011

It’s anxiety-making easy to find stories of lost and stolen personal data and intellectual property.

OK, boys and girls, one of the latest high-tech clumsiness was a repeat of an Apple employee losing the proprietary prototype of the next generation iPhone, maybe in a bar. This happened to Apple before.

Then there was the BP employee on a business trip who lost a laptop holding a spreadsheet with personal data from 13,000 oil-spill claimants. A wrap-up article includes citations of NJ BC/BS stolen laptop with data from 300,000 customers, another was the GAP losing 800,000 job applicants’ data, a hacker grabbing key SS and financial data from 226,000 customers of the Davidson Companies, and the Veterans Administration’s stolen laptop with data from 26.5 million current and past U.S. military members.

We all know how government agencies, retailers, financial institutions and even utilities demand personal data to get services and goods.They assure us both that they won’t sell our stuff — emails, phones, addresses, Social Security numbers, bank accounts ID and on and one — but we have to reveal all and (ta da) trust them.

It’s increasingly plain that we should not trust them. They have neither the technology systems nor the training in place to keep our data safe. They first rely on nothing or password systems that millions of kids among others could hack. They allow absurd amounts of complete data sets out at a time on single hard drives. Far too many move thousands or millions of sets of actionable data onto laptop hard drives, which every bozo and bozoette in the company can leave with for whatever honorable or nefarious purpose, or lose on an airplane, in a cab or at a bar. And they do.

lockedlapNearly all of the many, many cases of data exposure are human errors, both of the employees who lose the computers and other objects, and the systems people and managers who set up the safeguards. Their heads should roll. The companies and agencies should pay heavy enough fines and open disgrace that they change their ways. Applying magical thinking to data security is totally inadequate.

Think this is like using the term accident to account for inattentive or reckless driving that brings maiming or death. Sure the cops, prosecutors and judges can identify (there but for fortune…), but that is wrong, often fatally wrong, thinking. Some missteps definitely deserve punishment and prevention.

The humanity defense is not a solid one here. Nor is it in most places used. Consider how to apply, “It’s only human to…” Yeah, it’s human to take your eyes off the road, to lose things in a restaurant or bar when you’ve been drinking, to walk off an airplane totally forgetting expensive and essential goods, and for that matter, to lie, cheat, steal, rape or any of a large number of crimes and offenses you think you might get away with when no one’s paying close attention.

Actually many of our laws specifically call out human frailties. Because something valuable is not being guarded at a moment doesn’t make it up for grabs, for example.

For the deterrent factor, clamping down criminally and civilly on the schmo who puts large numbers of us at risk for direct stealing or ID theft should start immediately. One strike and you’re out. It should also cost the company a lot more than one-year subscriptions to credit-card watching services.

Yet because they’re good at protecting themselves, if not you, the managers will be harder. The facts are that lazy or dull-witted IT types and corporate managers who make security policy are culpable. Allowing huge chunks of key data affecting thousands or millions of human beings to flow out of control is asinine.

I suspect that much of the laptop-based losses fall back on that old employees-are-lazy syndrome that affects so many so-so managers. The conceit starts with a belief that if only those shiftless employees would put in anywhere near the effort and production that the sainted managers did, the company would be at least twice as wealthy. Even when measurable productivity soars beyond other countries’ and financial troubles can easily be traced to short-term management thinking, that’s the pretense. It’s delusional and destructive.

A common corollary is that employees will only do a decent amount of work if they always have to be on. Going to a distant customer or for a conference? Well then, be sure the carry a laptop with all possible applications and data you might conceivably need. Work in the airport. Work on the airplane. Work in the hotel. Work over dinner. Work. Work. Work.

The filthy secret is that what is human is overload. That leads to inefficiency of thought and output. That leads to fatigue and concomitant errors. That leads to oversights and mistakes as we try to pretend that there is no end to our multi-tasking abilities. Top being tired with a couple of drinks and, now did you leave that damned laptop in the booth?!

For managers:

  • Security policies don’t work well enough and need to be more thoroughly thought out and tested.
  • No sensitive data should leave the building without a lot better reason than it just might come in handy while you’re traveling.
  • Encryption, password and other software-based security has to be harder, even it’s inconvenient for employees short term.
  • Any data breach has to be analyzed to death, from management and IT aspects as well as the obvious employee possession ones.
  • Databases that travel should be neutered, that is separated from Social Security number and the like so that a lost or stolen hard drive is useless to others; they can be merged when the employee returns, to reflect any changes.
  • Those responsible for putting customers at risk need punishment fitting their involved incompetence.

Sorry, kiddies, it’s only human doesn’t cut…whether you’re drunk driving, drunk laptop toting, or half thinking security policies and procedures.