Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How to Look Like You're Working?

Here's an interesting tidbit.

Moneyweb reprinted a July 31 Wall Street Journal article, Ten things your IT department won't tell you, by Vauhini Vara.

The ten "secrets" are thoroughly presented in a format that lists the problem, the solution, the risks involved and how to stay safe.

  1. How to send giant files
    Very cool! I had never heard of the online services, such as YouSendIt Inc., SendThisFile Inc., or DropSend.
  2. How to use software that your company won't let you download
    This is more an issue of work-arounds. At least for where I work, there's a good reason to block certain software, such as Google Desktop -- Security!
  3. How to visit the web sites your company blocks
  4. How to clear your tracks on your work laptop
  5. How to search for your work documents from home
    Great... their solution is to use Google Desktop. :-(
  6. How to store work files online
  7. How to keep your privacy when using email
    Some common sense here: use https (a secure session). Encryption is another solution they mention, but I'm surprised they don't mention freenigma, which I love.
  8. How to access your work email remotely when your company won't spring for a Blackberry
  9. How to access your personal email on your Blackberry
  10. How to look like you're working
    Hit Alt-Tab ?? That's their solution? Give me a break! That doesn't even work in my environment. Best advice here is "Get back to work!"

Monday, July 30, 2007

12 Things that I Hate about You

Seth Stevenson's Slate.com article, There are 12 Kinds of Ads in the World, provides a useful framework around which all advertisements are broken down into twelve basic types. The categories are the work of advertising executive Donald Gunn. The Slate article also features a slide show, which highlights each advertising format and provides a related video link. You can't get away from the advertisements, though -- you have to disable pop-up blocking from Slate to get the navigation bar of the slideshow to appear.

  1. The Demo -- a visual demonstration of a product's capabilities. Think Ginsu.

  2. Show the need or problem (e.g., "Head-on -- apply it directly where it hurts").

  3. A symbol, analogy or exaggerated graphic to represent the problem. The cited example was of a guy who couldn't pass a football through a tire -- until, that is, he took some Levitra.

  4. The comparison -- Hi, I'm a PC ... and Hi, I'm a Mac.

  5. The exemplary story. For everything else, there's Mastercard.

  6. Benefit causes story. This add shows a trail of events that might be caused by the product's benefit.

  7. The "tell it" add uses a presenter or testimonial, like Lindsay Wagner pitching the Sleep Number bed.

  8. Ongoing characters and celebrities, like the Geico caveman or "Bob," the male enhancement pill fellow with the rictus grin.

  9. The symbol, analogy, or exaggerated graphic, which demonstrates the benefit of a product (e.g., the geyser, Old Faithful, becomes "regularity.").

  10. Associated user imagery, which showcases the type of people it hopes you'll associate with a product. Somehow, I don't think that "Bob," the male enhancement pill fellow with the rictus grin, is what they have in mind with this one; they probably mean cool, beautiful people wearing cool, beautiful jeans.

  11. The "unique personality property (e.g., with a name like Smucker's, it has to be good).

  12. The parody or borrowed format -- ads that parody movies, TV shows or other ads, such as parodies of that Ginsu commercial.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Unaccountable, unverifiable and inaccessible voting

To err is human, but to really foul things up takes a computer.

A July 28 New York Times article by Christopher Drew, Scientists' Tests Hack into Electronic Voting Machines in California and Elsewhere (login required), tells how three different types of electronic voting machines (Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems) were easily compromised by computer scientists at the University of California, Davis.

According to the article, investigators had created situations for each system “in which these weaknesses could be exploited to affect the correct recording, reporting and tallying of votes.”

Investigators had found possible problems not only with computerized touch-screen machines, but also with optical scanning systems and broader election-management software.

Executives for the voting machine industry countered that the tests had not been conducted in a realistic environment (such as in Ohio during an actual election) and that no machine was known to have been hacked in an election. Right. But if a computer scientist at a university can do it, I'll wager that somebody else could -- and probably did -- do it.

A proposed House bill would require every state to use paper records that would let voters verify that their ballots had been correctly cast and that would be available for recounts.

The 2004 election in Morgantown, WV, was my first exposure to an electronic voting machine. I was surprised and pleased to note that a paper roll on my machine was printing out a corroborating record of my selections. Before that, things were done the old fashioned way -- with little old ladies threading together paper ballots as they were handed in.

Friday, July 27, 2007

People get ready

I'm a newcomer to the work of Max Blumental, but the two latest pieces of his that I've seen have been excellent.

Back on July 18, he had a piece on The Huffington Post titled Generation Chickenhawk: the Unauthorized College Republican Convention Tour. The College Republican National Convention is where the cream of the next generation's GOP get their start, the breeding grounds of future Jack Abramhoffs, Grover Norquists and Karl Roves. It's really something to listen to these well-scrubbed kids parroting the party line about "fighting them over there, so we don't have to fight them here." But to a man, they all have some excuse as to why they aren't over there. All have "other priorities."

Blumenthal's latest piece on Huffington Post is equally chilling. Titled Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour, it's about a July 16, Christians United for Israel annual Washington-Israel Summit. These good people are nothing more than evangelical Christians who support Israel. The pentacostal flames that they are fanning, however, are in the hopes that a Mideast conflagration will help to bring about Armageddon, the final climactic battle between God and the Devil. These people want a ring-side seat.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Executive (out of) Order

There's something wrong with our system of government when the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches can be so out of whack. A recent Executive Order, "Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten Stabilization Efforts in Iraq," appears to be another blatant power grab in an incessant string. This one empowers the Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Defense to freeze the assets of an individual or group that is suspected of "threatening the peace or stability of Iraq or the Government of Iraq" or "undermining efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform in Iraq or to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people."

Where is the public outrage?

Stephen Pizzo, in his article in the Smirkingchimp.com, likens this latest erosion of our liberties to the classic analogy of a frog sitting in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil. It's just going to sit there until it's cooked.

Taken by itself, this latest executive order is merely turning up the heat by a few degrees.

Another favorite of mine is Executive Order 13422, which was signed by Bush last January and is now taking effect. This one places a political officer -- a commissar -- into Federal regulatory agencies in order to make sure that newly created regulations will reflect the wishes of the President.

How about another executive order, which states our position on torture in relation to the now-quaint Geneva Convention? It's okay as long as we don't do it with the express purpose of degrading and humiliating.

How about warrantless wiretaps?

So what's a poor legislative branch to do? Cite members of the President's staff for contempt? Guess what -- the Department of Justice, which happens to be under Alberto Gonzales, has said that it won't enforce any contempt citations against all of the President's men.

The heat is on, as Stephen Pizzo suggests.

Got some time on your hands? Check out this Wikisource listing of all of Bush's executive orders. The first one is a real stroll down memory lane.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Reaper has a first name, it's spelled OSCAR

An AP story on MyWay, Oscar the Cat Predicts Patients' Deaths, tells about a Providence, Rhode Island, cat with a predilection for snuggling down with nursing home patients who are within hours of passing away. According to an interview with Dr. David Dosa, who recently had published a New England Journal of Medicine article, A Day in the Life of Oscar, "He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die."

On at least 25 occasions, Oscar has been observed to sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours.

According to skeptics, maybe Oscar is just homing in on a heating pad that staff will put on a sick patient. However, that doesn't really explain every situation. Some cats just flat-out have psychic abilities. A cat of mine has the uncanny knack of yacking up a hairball in a location where I am most likely to step into it barefooted. This has been observed on at least a dozen occasions.

And now here's something you'll really like...

According to Iran's state-sponsored Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA),
'In recent weeks, intelligence operatives have arrested 14 squirrels within Iran's borders.'

'The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services.'
Interestingly, a search of the IRNA web page didn't have any hits on "squirrel." Perhaps I needed a better search term.

On this side of the globe, however, NBC News Producer Ali Arouzi obtained some Tehran man-on-the-street comments to the effect that perphaps these might have been cunning British squirrels, no doubt MI6.

However, at great risk to myself and my secret Iranian contact, I have obtained this exclusive image of one of the squirrels. Judging from the headgear, I think this is one of our boys from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota.

For additional background, NPR's All Things Considered on July 20th carried an analysis piece with interviews by an ex-CIA intelligence expert and a wildlife professor.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Every Picture Tells a Story

Early in the book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the under-age Harry Potter could be traced by the Ministry of Magic if he performed illegal magic. Perhaps even magic has a unique signature.

A current item in Ars Technica, titled Harry Potter and the Serial Number of Doom, by Nate Anderson, reveals some interesting details about digital photo images. An industry standard "Exchangeable image file format" (Exif) data record is embedded into modern digital images.

The article cites an Electronic Frontiers Foundation item from July 20, Harry Potter and the Digital Fingerprints. Prior to the official release of J.K. Rowling's seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, someone had gone to the trouble of photographing every page of a leaked copy of the book with their digital camera, and they made the entire text available through BitTorrent.

By using an open-source program called ExifTool, the folks at EFF can tell us that the leaker of the book had used a Cannon Rebel 300D, what the camera's serial number is (560151117), and more than 100 other facts about the photos.

Out of curiosity, I downloaded the Windows executable of ExifTool and tried it out. The Windows version supports a handy drag & drop interface, where you can drag an image onto the executable and read a CMD-style terminal window listing of the Exif data.

An image that I had taken with the camera in my cell phone contained the cell phone model number and all kinds of other details, including what version of PhotoShop I had used to clean up the image. Another image taken with my Canon PowerShot S60 contained even more detailed information.

I did a non-scientific survey of pictures in the photo sharing site, flickr, and I couldn't find too much information on a random selection of photos, including my own. I checked out the privacy and permissions settings for my flickr account, and I discovered that they have a global setting that lets you hide your photos' Exif data. When I went back to my account and checked on the Exif data for my pictures, I noted that was just barebones information, such as the image type, size and resolution.