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03 April
2004

Welcome to "In the DataCenter" - Topical Internet TV Tech Commentary

Microsoft and Sun Kiss and Tell

Well, a miracle finally occurred - Sun and Microsoft announced today that they were going to kiss and tell. The long-running antitrust lawsuit and bad blood is now at an end. In fact, they are eager to spread their prosperous love!


All the world loves a lover, and no one should miss such a wonderful opportunity. So in the spirit of spreading more good news, I'd like to invite people to tune into a topical Internet TV in-depth technology commentary program we've been working on at TeleMuse Networks called In the DataCenter, where we will find out that Making Up isn't Hard to Do.


In partnership with ExecProducer, a stealth company working on very cool realtime video projects, In the DataCenter uses state-of-the-art video, server, and Internet technologies to instantly create rich media for wired and wireless networks.


Why am I doing this stuff, when I already write for the "dead tree" press? Well, it's hard to instantly respond to a news announcement like the one today from Microsoft and Sun and place it in a magazine with a 3 month cycle. Yet it's at exactly these times when expert commentary is most desired. So instead of reading it, we "webvid" it.


So I'm pleased to announce our first public In the DataCenter written, shot, produced and sent to my newsletter groupies the same day the announcement was made. And no, I didn't know about it ahead of time. I hope you enjoy it as much as my subscription audience did.

Posted by lynne : "Welcome to "In the DataCenter" - Topical Internet TV Tech Commentary" at 02:20 | link to entry
07 May
2004

In the DataCenter: A Tale of Two Opinions

SCO, IBM, and Dr. Lessig

Santa Cruz Operation, the company that purchased the rights to Unix from Novell and then launched a series of lawsuits against IBM and high profile users of Linux, has had a somewhat difficult time of it enforcing what they claim is their "rights", enduring reactions ranging from denial of service attacks from hackers to legal wrangling over just what rights they bought from Novell in the first place.


So it's no surprise that once again, they are tacking into the wind. But is SCO sailing into calmer legal waters, or is it simply a lull before the storm? Did the "Eldred" case championed by Dr. Lessig of Stanford Law School provide the key to a new approach? Please join me In the DataCenter as I examine SCO's new direction in A Tale of Two Opinions. [Format: mp4/Unix or QT6+/Mac or Windows].


Posted by lynne : "In the DataCenter: A Tale of Two Opinions" at 15:50 | link to entry | Trackbacks (0)
31 May
2004

UC Berkeley Students Collateral Damage in Budget Cuts

Is Clark Kerr's vision finally vanquished?

After 44 years, the UC system has decided to give up and winnow out qualified students, bumping many to the overloaded community college system. These students, in turn, will bump out qualified students hoping to work themselves into the Cal State and UC system in Kind of a "Survivor" meets "Goodbye Mr. Chips" reality show - but with a real downside.


Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berndahl expressed the concern in April's Cal Monthly magazine that "everything Berkeley has achieved over the past half century as a university could be lost within a half decade". Is Clark Kerr's vision finally vanquished?


What is the impact of these higher education budget cuts on the Silicon Valley high-tech industry? Will the next generation have the skills to compete in a world economy? Join me in my next installment of In the DataCenter as I explore The High Cost of Innovation.


Posted by lynne : "UC Berkeley Students Collateral Damage in Budget Cuts" at 18:35 | link to entry
30 June
2004

So Scott McNealy Says "No" to Java Going Open Source.

Jon Paczkowski got it wrong, but I got it right

So Jon Paczkowski of GMSV is surprised that Scott McNealy of Sun said "No" to Java going open source. Didn't surprise me. In my "In the DataCenter" commentary Making Up Isn't Hard to Do months ago, I warned my audience not to presume:


"...But if Microsoft is on the run, why should Sun settle right before trial? It all comes down to money and open source. Sun, a proprietary unix vendor, has watched its dominance in the Unix market steadily sink under a
sustained attack by the freebie killer Unix clones. A cool $1.6B will sure help the bottom line of a company that also announced, almost as an afterthought, a 9% RIF and a "bigger than expected" net loss. They need cash - clearly, and Microsoft has buckets of cash.


But what does Microsoft get out of all this? Well, aside from this annoying lawsuit, they get something much more significant - a Unix vendor who needs Microsoft more than Microsoft needs them. Oh, and that Java licensing stuff that started all these suits - they get that settled as well, to their liking. All's well that ends well, right?


The upshot - don't expect Java to go open source, IBM. And don't expect Sun to support Unix clones, either. They've crossed their Rubicon, and in running a hardware server business, cash is king."


Posted by lynne : "So Scott McNealy Says "No" to Java Going Open Source." at 22:20 | link to entry
19 August
2004

In the DataCenter - ISP's and Video Stream Revenues

Chat with Dan Kusnetzky of IDC on the vanishing value per video stream

A debate recently arose among the datacenter staff. The oldsters think the cost per stream is more than the value per stream right now, because the cost of media is high and everyone looks at things single (one at a time). But the youngsters have noticed that a lot of new content creators are coming online wanting lower cost deployment of media, and some even lower the production time/cost itself through use of services like . They worry that the value per stream is eroding fast, and that's a lot of ISP's bread and butter.


So even if the value per stream is currently high, as you increase the number of media creators, what does it do to the revenues of the service providers? Does it increase their value per stream?


I asked Dan Kusnetzky, Program Vice President, System Software at IDC what he thought of the vanishing value per video stream debate. And here's what he told me...


Dan: "Cost reduction strategies show up again and again as one of the leading concerns of IT management right now. Higher than that, however, is a need to make IT support the business function. Where these two come into conflict, I would suspect that business value would win out over cost reduction. After all, if something you're doing produces enough revenue to the organization, isn't it worth doing?"


Lynne: "Some of the younger ones think that you can cleverly schedule it around, to not increase value, but I think that's just too complicated to try. Also, I've noticed they're always doing multiple activities per stream
already (IM, video, email, games, and a little actual work...). I told them %25 of 18-34 age group watches videos, but only %1 creates them (lower than weblogs), because the time it takes to do a video is about 2-4 weeks manually. With automation, it's looking like it increases immediately to %10 right off, and they produce multiple content, which in turn is reradiated (watching the video logs of course). From my logs, it looks like a 10x increase saturates and drives bandwidth immediately and it's not just one-to-many but many-to-many (to use my topology here), so maybe the oldsters are correct?"


Dan: "I don't think that there's a single blanket answer to this. Has anyone analyzed the revenue produced per stream, what times those streams are viewed and the cost of producing and distributing each stream to see if there is a way to maximize revenues without also upsetting viewers? While I think that there just may be a way to optimize this, I'm not at all sure that going to this effort would produce enough benefits to be worthwhile. I'm a supporter of the "keep it simple" school of management.


I'm also a supporter of the 'let's make sure we're doing the right thing' school. As some wise person once said 'Doing the wrong thing, no matter how efficiently or well, is still doing the wrong thing.' "


Lynne: "We're just tech guys and gals here, watching the logs, but we do see the combinatorial nature of the interaction in serving usage, and we also watch the traffic and other monitoring. So we do see an effect. It's just - what does it mean in terms of driving bandwidth and value per stream for the service provider?"


Dan: "I'm just a reformed software engineer myself. As I became a business manager and analyst, I started to see business as a system and use the same input, process, output view of business processes. A great deal of the time, that type of analysis produces useful results. I had to learn that how people felt about a system was also valid input. If people don't like something, they won't use it no matter how well engineered it is.

Posted by lynne : "In the DataCenter - ISP's and Video Stream Revenues" at 16:47 | link to entry
25 August
2004

In the DataCenter - ISP's and Video Stream Revenues Part II

My chat continues with Dan Kusnetzky on the vanishing value of video streams

Continuing on the discussion of evaluating the vanishing value of video streams, Dan and I broaden the discussion to encompass other companies, not just ISP's, who are dependent on moving more bits across that wire.


How much value a video stream provides is not only important for a datacenter group debating this issue to understand. It is also important to companies like Cisco. According to some of the "M&A" guys I chat with, Cisco's entire acquisition strategy right now is predicated on delivery of VOIP/VOD/MMP - and massive video production aka MVP ("Massive Video Production Debut") fits right in. It's all about end-to-end quality from the tech perspective, and building service models that deliver value from the business perspective.


So what does Dan Kusnetzky, Program Vice President, System Software at IDC say about this...


Dan: "Tracking revenues of a product versus development, deployment and support costs is a very useful tool. A quote I read somewhere sums it up. 'Doing the wrong thing, no matter how well or how efficiently, is still doing the wrong thing.' A company isn't going do well if it is losing money on each sale regardless of how much revenue is being produced. Looking at revenues without also looking at the cost structure of producing those revenues is only looking at half of the equation from my perspective.


Knowing this type of information makes it more easily possible to emphasize products that produce high levels of margin and de-emphasize products that don't."


Lynne: I have been over to Cisco recently talking about MVP among other issues, and Rob Enderle wrote it up ("Enderle Writes on The Death and Rebirth of the Movie Industry") as well. Do you think they might be on to something? It took me close to three years of work on this project alone, so it's not a no-brainer to do this and my track record shows that I'm usually at the forefront of a trend. I'm confident here, but do you think they know it?"


Dan: "Cisco is always looking for ways to carve out more revenue for each network packet they deliver. They're also looking for ways to increase the need for basic capacity. What you're doing, if it catches on, will do both.


Thank you Dan for your insight into this emerging but exciting new area of video streaming and content creation.

Posted by lynne : "In the DataCenter - ISP's and Video Stream Revenues Part II" at 18:50 | link to entry
24 November
2004

Do Patents Matter? Lynne Jolitz Says "There's Gold in those parchments"

In the DataCenter on the recent "take no prisoners" approach to patent litigation in Silicon Valley

Ever since the Internet bubble burst, I've heard the same old refrain "Why file a patent? It's costly - patent attorneys and research alone may cost up to a quarter of a million dollars. It's slow - grants typically take 3-5 years, assuming you pass muster. And it's useless - you've got to defend patents, and you get precious little for licensing them.


In my career, I've filed, fought for, and received patents, alone and with others. There's no bigger rush than getting that parchment with the gold seal and red ribbon with your name on it. It is cool.


Recently an inventor of a granted patent, upon hearing of my latest grant and frustrated by his own lack of recognition, lashed out at me, saying "but what chance do you actually have of defending the patent?" Which got me thinking - Do Patents matter anymore?


Think this area is mined out. Hardly. Recent trends in patent litigation are proving very profitable to lawyers, entrepreneurs, and technologists. So dust off those patent portfolios and join Lynne Jolitz as I discuss Do Patents Matter?, a special In the DataCenter production.


Posted by lynne : "Do Patents Matter? Lynne Jolitz Says "There's Gold in those parchments"" at 04:45 | link to entry
04 March
2005

Do You Smell Smoke -- Oops, there goes a Server!

Google's datacenter servers - cheap processors, open source kernel, but power constrained

It takes time, but it's lovely when you get borne out in an article, as Martin LaMonica discusses how Google manages to handle all those search queries. And it's really simple - get cheap X86 machines, use an open source stripped-down kernel, fiddle with the filesystem to do simple block transfers with a simple triad mirror (master - dual slave) configuration. So low-cost, easy, and direct.


Of course, I recall the enterprise guys at the time laughing at using commodity cheap servers for "real enterprise applications". So I guess Google isn't a real enterprise application company, hmmm?


But there is a little nit in the ointment, so to speak. Power! Having lots of cheap servers and simple management reduces people overhead, but at the cost of much greater power consumption. As Urs Hoelzle, VP Operations and Engineering at Google says ""The physical cost of operations, excluding people, is directly proportional to power costs," he said. "(Power) becomes a factor in running cheaper operations in a data center. It's not just buying cheaper components but you also have to have an operating expense that makes sense."


Posted by lynne : "Do You Smell Smoke -- Oops, there goes a Server!" at 00:11 | link to entry
06 June
2005

D-Day - Apple-IBM Axis Collapses

Jobs finally goes X86

Well, I figured it was happening finally. The hint was there *if* you knew where to look. Looks like nobody else twigged to the firing of those Linux developers at Intel for timing - even though I had a thoughtful discussion with an analyst just last week over that very issue and asked whether that meant Jobs was going to Intel. He said "No way" but this time I wasn't sure he was right - he went back to check things out one more time, was guaranteed it wouldn't happen, and then "Voila", it did. But his mistake was talking to Apple contacts. I didn't bother. I looked at what Intel was doing. Since I've dealt with Intel on the silicon side over the years with SiliconTCP, it didn't take a lot of digging to put the pieces together.


Markoff and Lohr (NYTimes) have one of the best articles on the topic today - less hand wringing and more substance than most. But they could add one more line that would tie it up, something like:
"The real story is Apple vs. Dell. High cost factor for Dell is Windows. Mac still sells at a premium above Wintel, and the OS & developer base is open source, so Jobs is out of the Mac developer debacle and cost leveraged. And he still has Microsoft Apps like Office in the stable ... for now."


Apple may be having the hissy fit, but IBM doesn't care. IBM doesn't even need Apple anymore to showcase their chips given all the game console manufacturers who are using them. Apple has always been high maintenance and low volume - the worse of all sins to a processor vendor - but IBM tolerated them because of their "Hollywood" artist image. But now it turns out gaming is even more "mogul" than Macs. Who wins? Intel for one, who's been desperate to get some Hollywood patina for years, enterprise systems and desktops being so boring.


Customers and vendors will also win - in the short run. Prices will drop and applications development should broaden, especially in leveraging open source development for the X86 more effectively. But the long run remains bleak for Apple's desktop and laptop division. It was the only decision possible for Apple if IBM wouldn't give them the price breaks they needed for margin. But it probably wasn't the best decision.


Posted by lynne : "D-Day - Apple-IBM Axis Collapses" at 20:53 | link to entry
28 June
2005

When Your Bandwidth Runs Out

Regulating costs in datacenters not easy for small businesses

Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher had an amusing item about how awful it is to be successful enough to "run out of bandwidth". "SiliconValleyWatcher was off line for about 6 hours as traffic surged above our monthly quota. And I couldn't open up the pipes because there was no way to buy more bandwidth online. I found that I would have to wait until the next morning and email the sales department!!!"


This little problem is why you negotiate with a managed service provider for overage bandwidth. A good ISP should be calling Tom about his burst, not waiting for Tom to call call them after his blog has been knocked offline as punishment for the sin of being successful. But negotiating bandwidth overages when you are a small business isn't usually done - everything is so "on the cheap" that even simple contract items (which could be automated) don't exist. Is it any wonder I run my own datacenter?


I wrote about this in one of my essays on datacenter management and monitoring. I've been told that no one needs to know this stuff anymore, because everything works perfectly. Think that's the case?


Posted by lynne : "When Your Bandwidth Runs Out" at 21:25 | link to entry
16 July
2006

Exploitation of Child Labor in Tech? I Can't Hear You Over My IPOD...

Tech industry blindness on product assembly practices

This spring I interviewed a number of "The Tech" museum award laureates who have used technology to improve the human condition (usually extremely frugally). One of the most exciting innovators is Saeed Awan, director of the Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions & Environment based in Pakistan. They tackled the problem of child labor in the rug weaving industry. Instead of simply outlawing the practice (which would be futile because these child laborers are the major breadwinners for their poor families), they "engineered out" child labor by developing a "improved, ergonomic and, most important, adult-friendly loom". Coupled with economic practices (loom ownership allows bidding on lots by adults), this innovation moves the breadwinner status back to adults (primarily women) and moves children back to schools. A perfect use of technology and worthy of a "tech" award.


But where technology providers giveth, technology providers also taketh away...


While the beneficiaries of our industry attend Tech soirees and provide much needed attention and funding for moving children out of low-tech exploitatative industries, they simultaneously cast a blind eye to the practice of using children and young adults to assemble their own high-tech products in countries such as China. As Kathleen E. McLaughlin of the San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service notes in her article, China's high-tech assembly sweatshops such as Foxconn "...seeks 16- to 21-year-olds to work in production for $72.50 to $80 per month, plus housing and meals, and hourly overtime. Most workers are under 25. Just a few miles away in Hong Kong, and in other richer nations, that's the target demographic for iPods and other consumer tech products with hefty price tags".


There will be protests galore, and as always happens with global outsourcing, Apple (and Cisco, Dell, HP, Intel, Nokia, Sony and so on) will insist they have no influence and then later announce they have improved the working conditions of these migrants, and finally will announce they are pulling out of agreements. And the status of these young people will remain the same - stateless, powerless, and eventually burned-out and useless.


But if we used Mr. Awan's loom as an example, perhaps there is another solution. Most assuredly the reason that very young adults and children are used for this work is because they have the youth and strength to put up with deplorable working practices. If only we could find a way to "re-engineer" these practices to favor older adults, just as the new loom engineered-out child labor. Then the parents of these young people would be the ones doing the work and earning the pay to support their families. And these kids would be in school working for a better future, as our children do in our country.


It can be done. But will it be done? I'd like to imagine that our industry-wide blindness to how our products are made is merely one of ignorance and not apathy. Mr. Awan showed us the way to make things better. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from his example?

Posted by lynne : "Exploitation of Child Labor in Tech? I Can't Hear You Over My IPOD..." at 21:57 | link to entry | Comments (0)
23 September
2006

Fun Friday: Google Test Positive, Laser Bits, Gender Blues

VentureBeat on Google/YouTube bandwidth, Intel-UCSB breakthrough, and women in tech (again)

While we were working on getting all those Jolix 386BSD fans their Porting Unix to the 386 articles (we have been swamped BTW - and yes, there's more coming), a few other items of interest this week...


If you made money on Google (or if you wished you had made money on Google), you might try using The Google Test to evaluate your next investment. According to Matt Marshall of VentureBeat, "Entrepreneur William Jolitz posits a contrarian view on YouTube, praising its expensive use of bandwidth as a key to its success. Read on about how YouTube meets the “Google Test."


Bandwidth-driven business models may seen counter-intuitive to a technologist - after all, we like to make products that make money, and when we fail we tend to face a firing squad. So I can understand it when a techie gets all worked up about those $1M/mo bandwidth bills without getting anything in the way of dollars back. It's always bothered me that companies like Google, YouTube, and MySpace seem to violate laws of nature. But guess what, kids - making these big Internet moves doesn't seem to have as much to do with moving $$ product (after all, any techie can upload a movie or make a GenY webpage with a plethera of packages) and more to do with getting eyeballs and mindspace. Yes, this was true when I was at IGN Networks way back in the dotcom bubble, and it's still true today.


So I heartily recommend that tech guys and gals read this little piece, not to depress you, but to allow you to learn how those top-flight venture firms like Sequoia make their decisions. After all, if they want to spend the money, aren't we up to the challenge of making it work out?


On another exciting topic, looks like Intel and UC Santa Barbara have made a a promising breakthrough in using laser light to make a much faster interchip switch. According to the article "The breakthrough was achieved by bonding a layer of light-emitting indium phosphide onto the surface of a standard silicon chip etched with special channels that act as light-wave guides. The resulting sandwich has the potential to create on a computer chip hundreds and possibly thousands of tiny, bright lasers that can be switched on and off billions of times a second." As one of my engineering friends said when we chatted, this makes low-power SiliconTCP all the more valuable (see InterProphet for more information).


Finally, an interesting essay from up-and-coming Renkoo CTO Joyce Park on women role models in business and her dismay over the HP Dunn affair. Since I've written on this topic often, I couldn't help putting in my own two-cents. :-)


Happy weekend reading - there will be a "Google test" on Monday.


Posted by lynne : "Fun Friday: Google Test Positive, Laser Bits, Gender Blues" at 00:19 | link to entry | Comments (0)
20 February
2007

FilmLoop and Alexa - When Fake Rankings Kill Companies

Or why VCs should stick to term sheets and stay out of the datacenter

There's much sturm und drang about the nasty setup and selloff of a little company called FilmLoop in the business community this week. While there can be much debated about liquidation preferences, drag-along rights and sharp practices, there is one issue relevant to the datacenter operator - the claim by some VCs that Alexa rankings are a good validator of an Internet company's audience and future traffic. And now, since we've stepped out of money-land and into datacenter-land, let's examine this assumption a bit more carefully. Is Alexa a good validator of a business, or not?



First, how does Alexa obtain traffic information for its ranking? Since the only way you can honestly obtain information is by monitoring the switches in the datacenter itself and analyzing the traffic, one might assume that Alexa has some deal with datacenter operators who provide them this information. If you thought so, you'd be very wrong. All Alexa does is provide a toolbar that supposedly tracks your favorite sites and reports this information back to them. While this may seem a good substitute, it really is an absurdity, since most people do not use such a toolbar and the small audience who would choose to install such an item is unlikely to be representative of the audience you are claiming to model. It also doesn't work on all browsers (I'm using Firefox right now) or systems like Unix or Macs. So their toolbar user base is definitely not the group who I talk to, even though I have a very good following. It's just silly to even consider it is anything but a joke.


So if it is such a joke, why are some folks so wedded to the notion that it actually means something? Well, while I told you it can't track real traffic, it *can* be used to *fake* traffic on websites that no one really visits. How? Let's say you have a little group of friends and a website that no one cares about. By making sure each of your friends and their friends all install the Alexa toolbar and then visit this site, you can artificially inflate the traffic numbers even though no one else ever visits, because the numbers are extrapolated to a larger audience than exists!


So the sad little story is Alexa is essentially meaningless. It does not track pageviews -- it guesses activity based on a toolbar reporting mechanism instead of visits and packet traffic. It doesn't have enough information to determine actual activity. Good ratings can be faked and real ratings cannot be tracked. As people like Om Malik have observed, anyone who depends on this for a business investment is a complete and utter fool, but these fools exist and entrepreneurs should be forewarned. If poor little FilmLoop was sacrificed on the alter of bogus Alexa traffic rankings after years of hard work and struggle, who will be next?


Posted by lynne : "FilmLoop and Alexa - When Fake Rankings Kill Companies" at 01:02 | link to entry | Comments (1)
26 April
2007

Taking a Byte out of Cookies

Memories no longer persistent with easy cookie deletion

When I wrote Memories and Cookies for Byte several years ago after the dot-com boom went bust, I got pushback from the editor. Why would anyone care about persistence, monitoring and cookies structures? As a Director at one of those Internet datacenter companies at the height (and fall) of the bubble, I knew that cookies were very important to bizdev and sales as an indicator to tracking unique visitors. Of course, the underlying assumption was that cookies were persistent even though browsers allowed one to selectively delete them. On my modern Firefox browser there is even a special "remove all cookies" button that makes non-flash cookie removal a snap (flash cookies, aka local shared objects in flash-speak, are persistent objects embedded in the flash plug-in, and not removed by the browser's cookie mechanism; this is one reason lots of sites are going to flash). And remove them we do -- up to 1/3 of computer users remove cookies at least once per month, according to comScore, and 7% of computers account for 35% of all cookies served.


While not surprising, this has serious implications for ad monetization.


Simply put, an old customer may appear as a new customer because he removed a cookie and then returned to the site. Each time he receives a new cookie, he appears as a new unique visitor because he doesn't have a cookie (he's deleted it). While retail sales depend on building a returning audience (try running a restaurant or a barbershop or Zappos.com longer than six months without a "loyal customer base" -- it doesn't work) and value their returning customers, Internet companies using ad monetization arrangements as their revenue model depend on a pyramid scheme of ever-escalating audience ratings using unique "eyeballs". Returning customers don't mean much to investors hoping for a six-month flip.


Some sites attempt to get around cookie deletion by comparing the IP address to a known list of cookie assignments. If the cookie assigned matches the IP address, then the assigned cookie is "reinserted" into the cache. This of course assumes that the IP is static, which is kind of silly because most DSL and cable links are dynamically reassigned upon termination of connection or, in the case of always-on connections, every quarter or so. It also assumes that there is one computer per static IP, which is even more silly because almost all companies which use static IPs also use NAT. Finally, maintaining and comparing lists of cookies and IPs can result in a tremendous amount of data storage and management. We routinely consolidate, compress and delete gigabytes of IP, reference and search term logs daily. Which begs the question -- is cookie tracking really worth the bother?


So, by how much does cookie deletion distort a dot-com's unique visitor counts? It could easily be overstated by 2.5 times or more. According to Dr. Magid Abraham, President and CEO of comScore, "These ‘serial resetters' have the potential to wildly inflate a site's internal unique visitor tally, because just one set of ‘eyeballs' at the site may be counted as 10 or more unique visitors over the course of a month. The result is a highly inflated estimate of unique visitors for sites that rely on cookies to count their audience." If you notice that serial resetter sounds a lot like serial murderer, you're paying attention. Serial resetters kill ad monetization schemes.


Recently I discussed the potential for gaming Internet traffic numbers using gimmicks such as Alexa's toolbar and how this can impact valuations and company survival (see FilmLoop and Alexa - When Fake Rankings Kill Companies). Likewise, a small group visiting and deleting cookies can have a disproportionate impact on unique visitor counts based on cookies. As I said earlier, "the only way you can honestly obtain information is by monitoring the switches in the datacenter itself and analyzing the traffic".

Posted by lynne : "Taking a Byte out of Cookies" at 15:14 | link to entry | Comments (0)
19 October
2009

Delusional mom or out-of-control government agency?

TSA and security monitoring

A toddler is snatched by TSA officials from a weeping helpless mom in the middle of a busy airport and wisked away. Nobody helps. Nobody cares. A horror for any parent. But is this story true? Is our civilization so depraved and cowed that government can violate every aspect of decency and not be challenged or even noticed? I suspect many good citizens might agree with this - after all, isn't government bad?


But of course "who watches the watchers"? There's nothing like evidence to mess up a good story, and evidence we have. TSA released nine different camera shots of this distraught mom demonstrating *nothing* happened to her or her child. Nothing at all. Sorry folks - nothing to see here. Please remember to pick up your shoes and water bottles on the way out.


The fact that TSA had to release this video footage (long, detailed and from multiple camera angles to mitigate claims of "doctoring") demonstrates how paranoia dominates, and also why the appearance of airport security for the masses is consequently just as ridiculous as the culture.


When I reviewed one of Schneier's books on security and culture, I was struck by his observation that security is handled in an "overt" fashion... public searches, obvious cameras, announcements, shoe and lotion inspections, and so forth, to provide the appearance of serious involvement. But many of these "glamurity" measures, while juicing up the public, are not the ones that are likely to uncover the real bad guys - remember that a group of determined terrorists took over planes with box cutters - those little blades to cut open boxes - not AK47's or switchblades or cologne. It was organization, intimidation and the element of surprise that allowed them succeed.


So the greatest concern regarding security in airports isn't necessarily inspecting baby bottles (although on the basis that a bomb could be slipped into an unsuspecting child's backpack or grandma's purse, *everyone* must be searched - see, there's that "organization" and "planning" stuff by determined bad guys again). Nope, the smart investment is in areas of automated photo recognition (do I know you?), examination of flight records (frequent flier? holiday to Tuva?), purchasing habits (cash or credit card? one-way or round-trip?) and ID (are you who you say you are and why are you traveling anyway?). This means realtime database analysis (a form of "business intelligence" pioneered by guys like Tandem to track your phone calls and credit cards - we *are* a consumer society after all) and lots of digital cameras. Oh, it also helps to have smart police who use their "instinct" to check out things - even though 9 times out of 10 there's nothing there, there's always that "tenth" time...


So what's the moral of this little story? That bloggers lie to get hits? Well, I think that we already knew that. That some women are crazy? Given the road rage I see daily it's not just women here, but there's a thick percentage of "crazies" everywhere. Nope, the moral is pretty simple: You are being recorded, and not just from the cameras you see or the cameras the staff knows about, but also from cameras the staff and you *don't* know about. This data is *collected* and *analyzed* and can persist and be pulled for review long after you've had that "claimed" incident with TSA or the janitor. To be fair, it's unlikely to be reviewed - after all, millions of people pass through crowded airports and this means petabytes of uncompressed data that has to be stored somewhere so the persistence time is likely short. But since claims must be made quickly in a 24/7 Internet world, anyone who blogs that "TSA stole my lunch" yesterday on my business trip may actually face video surveillance footage that either shows the staff scarfing down fajitas or shows...nothing at all.


But why, you may ask, are there so many cameras? Aren't one or two enough? Isn't that a "waste" of taxpayer's money. Not necessarily, because subverting security is something that insiders like staff are prone to, hence like banks the vast amount of data collection revolves around monitoring the workers with access - did she just go around the gate? did he just feel up the customers? did they steal from the luggage? and so forth.


But as a personal observation, I'd like to point out a common sense analysis that doesn't rely on technology nor expertise, but only relies on an understanding of human nature. I felt the most unbelievable aspect of this woman's blogged claim of TSA child abuse was that nobody in line at the airport inspection station noticed or said anything during this "incident". Now seriously, I know this is a paranoid "fear culture" where "nobody helps nobody but himself" (to paraphrase a con man), but do people really think that the woman waiting behind this distressed mother or the businessman just ahead of her waiting on a laptop inspection or the grandparents three feet away are *not* going to notice something as unusual as an agent taking a toddler away from his weeping mom? That during an unfolding drama people waiting impatiently to get to a plane will not notice the delay, press in closer and begin to demand explanations?


This is why this woman's posting was complete nonsense - it completely ignores that we are social creatures who always want to know what's happening with others. We comment. We rant. We watch. We get upset. Just as a couple of chimps arguing over a banana will cause the rest of the troop to press in closer, people will get involved - especially if there is a child. Grandma will crowd in closer to learn what is going on, the businesswoman four feet away will express concern for the toddler, a twenty-something will ask to speak to another agent. It is human nature to meddle in the affairs of others - that's what being social animals is all about.


America is full of problems we need to solve to avoid a distopian future, and misconduct by those with badges does occur and must be dealt with appropriately. But there are also lots of scammers, liars and jerks who feed off of the paranoia of our society and make it look a hell of a lot worse than it is. These bottom feeders destroy trust, blacken reputations and encourage cynicism. Instead of focusing our energy on solving real problems, we are instead distracted by idiots enamored with celebrity. We waste time. We waste energy. We lose as a society.


So while some might wish to dismiss this incident, I'd like to expand upon it as an object lesson in how going too far to aggrandize oneself can result in serious blowback. And I'd rather see a fame-obsessed woman trying to get a blog audience to raise her google adwords paycheck exposed as a liar and use this lesson to engage in a discussion of real security needs than see the converse - that in a crowded airport nobody would come to the aid or even question essentially the official kidnapping of a toddler. That so many people are still willing to believe the worst here despite evidence to the contrary says everything about trust in our democracy.


Posted by lynne : "Delusional mom or out-of-control government agency?" at 19:45 | link to entry | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)