Delusional mom or out-of-control government agency?

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.

Taking a Byte out of Cookies

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.

FilmLoop and Alexa – When Fake Rankings Kill Companies

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?

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

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.

Exploitation of Child Labor in Tech? I Can’t Hear You Over My IPOD…

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…

When Your Bandwidth Runs Out

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?

D-Day – Apple-IBM Axis Collapses

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.

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

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.”

Do Patents Matter? Lynne Jolitz Says “There’s Gold in those parchments”

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.

In the DataCenter – ISP’s and Video Stream Revenues Part II

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…