20 December 2007

And now for something completely different...

A little humour at this festive time...

Phone Menu at the Mental Health Institute

Hello, and thank you for calling the Mental Health Institute

If you are obsessive-compulsive, press 1 repeatedly

If you have multiple personalities, press 2, 3 and 4.

If you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, press 5 but do it v-e-r-y- s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully.

If you are dyslexic, press 6. Now press 9. Now press 6. Now press 9. Now press 6.

If you are delusional, press 7 and your call will be transferred to the mothership.

If you have short term memory loss, press 8. If you have short term memory loss, press 8. If you have short term memory loss, press 8.

If you have schizophrenia, listen very carefully and a small voice will tell you the number to press.

If you have a nervous disorder, fidget with the hash key until a representative comes on the line.

If you are co-dependent, ask someone to press a number for you.

If you are depressed, don't bother to press any numbers. No one will be able to help you anyway.

If you are paranoid, you don't need to press anything. We know who you are, we know what you want, and we know how to reach you.

If you suffer from low self-esteem, please hang up because all our operators are too busy to talk to you.

Christmas Carols for the Insane

1. Schizophrenia - Do You Hear What I Hear?
2. Multiple Personality Disorder - We Three Kings Disorientated Are
3. Dementia - I Think I'll Be Home For Christmas
4. Narcissistic - Hark The Herald Angels Sing About Me
5. Manic - Deck the Halls and House and Lawn and Streets and Stores and Office and Town and Cars and Buses and Trucks and Trees and...
6. Paranoid - Santa Claus is Coming to Town to Get Me
7. Borderline Personality Disorder - Thoughts of Roasting on an Open Fire
8. Personality Disorder - You Better Watch Out, I'm Gonna Cry, I'm Gonna Pout, Maybe I'll Tell You Why
9. Attention Deficit Disorder - Silent Night, Holy, ooh look at the froggy - Can I have a chocolate? Why is France so far away?
10. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells.

End of the year

While the calendar year still has more than a week to run, for many of us, the Winter Solstice is a time of reflection, and marks the end of the year on a much older calendar. Half way between Samhain and Imbolc, the shortest day (and longest night) of the year is traditionally a time for renewal of hope -- in the certainty that the light will return, that the days will lengthen, and the power of the cold is slowly weakening (although often, some of the worst weather follows the solstice.)

This has been a year of many transitions and inflexion points, both for myself and some around me. I've learned a few lessons, and have had to grapple with some challenging topics, some of which are previous topics in my blog. Business has had its ups and downs (especially with the extreme delays in decision-making by some customers), but I haven't ever regretted leaving my last job, more than seven years ago, and running my own company (for the third time.)

Another characteristic of the solstice is that everything around us in Nature is showing signs of death or decay. Trees have lost their leaves, grasses and plants have died away, many birds and small animals have disappeared. But all is not what it seems, because we know that the green shoots of spring are not far away. Gradually, the ground squirrels and hedgehogs will come out of their hibernation, and the birds will return, along with the insects, frogs and lizards. I guess there is a lesson there, although it doesn't make it any easier to climb stairs, or get out of a nice warm bed on a chilly morning. Perhaps it's because we all have slightly different rhythms, and suspect the renewal of spring isn't always an option.

Still, I feel that our beliefs and internal dialog are important characteristics of making our journey through life a positive one -- the old Hermetic axiom, "As a man thinks, so he becomes."

Wild Geese -- A Poem by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I don't often quote poems on my Blog, but this one is pretty good, and reflects my mood today quite well. Happy Eid to all Muslims, as they celebrate the end of Ramadan.

16 December 2007

Significant Increase in SPAM leading up to holiday period

Update August 2008: even more spam...

It's August 2008, and the level of spam I get in my Gmail account is reaching record levels. The picture speaks for itself -- basically, that represents 3.6 spam messages per minute, every minute for 24 hours, for the past month.

I've noticed a huge upsurge in the amount of SPAM reaching my mailbox, especially in the first two weeks of December. Unfortunately, this seems to have co-incided with a Joe Job against two of my mail domains, lanifex.com and gillingwater.org. I don't see these attacks as personal, since it's unlikely any Spammers would even bother to target me, but it's irritating having to deal with all the spam.

Fortunately, most of the heavy lifting is taken care of by Gmail, whose dedication and skill at intercepting spam borders on the miraculous. My current spam count for the past 30 days (according to the Gmail Spam folder) is 29,712 messages -- which I think must be some sort of record. That's an average of 41 messages arriving per hour.

Not all of the messages are directed at me -- due to the Joe Job, many of them are simply bounces from other people's mail systems, either with a spam trap challenging for a human response, or due to the mailbox being full. Oddly, many of the messages claim to be from "jerusha.davie@lanifex.com", a name which doesn't seem to be in Google. Unfortunately, I get all the bounces because my domain will collect any unknown user mail, and forward it to me--I guess I like to know what's going on. I just wish that a lot more mail server administrators would refrain from sending Bounce Messages for mail that has already been rejected as spam, since 100% of the From: or Reply-To: headers are certainly forged.

The risk here is that some legitimate email will be intercepted, although Gmail has a very good record of false positives, so I'm happy to accept the residual risk after mitigation -- but I will occasionally trawl through the spam folder, in case something slipped by that I wanted to see. A related risk is that Gmail will start sending all bounce messages to the spam folder -- making me miss a genuine one.

If only Gmail had some form of Cacti graph, so we could see the spam versus genuine mail on a time-series display, with history. I guess I could write something, but don't really have the free time. Still, I feel that nearly 1,000 messages per day arriving as SPAM means my spam to mail ratio is around 99% -- surely some kind of record?

14 December 2007

Food origin labeling

I noted with disappointment the recent decision by the New Zealand Government Food Safety Authority not to require compulsory country-of-origin labeling . Yet again, this is something that the Australians do better, as they have in so many areas. Perhaps we should consider moving to Australia as so many other New Zealanders are doing, especially considering the apparent economic advantages enjoyed across the Tasman, which is why nearly 10% of New Zealanders seem to prefer living there. Even better, let's just invoke a little-known provision of the Constitution document which established Austrialia's states, and add New Zealand onto the list. (After all, prior to the Treaty of Waitangi, NZ was governed as part of New South Wales from 1840-1841.) I guess one advantage of political or national union is that we could put an end to the ignominious defeats of our national Cricket and Rugby teams, by competing at the State level rather than as our own country.

I'm also very much a supporter of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in food -- but ONLY when the food and products prepared using GMO ingredients are clearly and correctly labelled, so that consumers have a choice. Included on the label should be some sort of unique identifier for transgenic items, which can then be identified in a publicly-available database.

Personally, I'm not afraid of responsible genetic modification of food products -- as long as there is disclosure, and the possibility of informed debate on the topic. Let the market decide -- but also the various governments should heavily fine and prosecute companies who try to hide the truth. The danger comes when governments intervene for what appear to be solely economic reasons.

Ordinary consumers, such as myself, are hardly equipped to make correct Risk Assessments in relation to the potential dangers of GMO foods--we rely on our government Food Safety bodies to do this job on our behalf. The risk here is just how much will the Food Safety authorities be swayed by economic arguments from the major agri-businesses -- who are more concerned with returning profit to their shareholders than the safety of their foods, let alone the unintended ecological impact, on which the jury is still out.

13 December 2007

The Convergence of Physical and IT Security

I've been thinking extensively about the on-going convergence of Physical and IT Security, especially within a corporate context. Many companies with whom I deal have a Security Manager of some type, who usually reports to the Chief Information Officer -- or just an IT Manager, who in turn reports to the Chief Financial Officer. Unfortunately, the corporate environment in Central Europe is still rather under-developed, as there are few organizations which recognize the role of Chief Security Officer (CSO) -- so that very few people with responsibility for compliance, corporate governance and security performance monitoring are at a C-level reporting grade.

Conversely, the importance of physical security is quite well understood, although often not well-implemented. In Austria, physical security is usually just a function of the Building/Object Management group, and is staffed by people who understand about locks, keys and door systems -- but not necessarily about principles of least privilege, and four-eyes oversight.

In my opinion, the international trend is towards a rapid convergence of both types of security, especially in terms of applying similar standards, methodologies and 24x7 operational monitoring. A recent customer of my company has done good work in implementing centralized monitoring of dozens of distributed locations, collecting a diverse range of output from devices such as alarm controllers, fire suppression and monitoring equipment, door access controllers, UPS (Power Supply) controllers, and even Camera Digital Video Recorders.

By centralizing all of this information in one command and control centre, the company is better able to respond to problems, and encourages early detection of potential crisis situations. As a secondary goal, convergence can allow for cost reduction, by having a single 24x7 threat response monitoring centre, who can be charged with both IT Security and Physical Security monitoring. After all, the computer doesn't care whether the intruder is detected in a LAN, or in the warehouse at 3 a.m. -- the incident response action and escalation paths will be much the same (although different personnel may be involved.)

But collecting information centrally isn't enough. You also need correlation, which means a clear understanding of the process workflow behind the security events -- and this starts with a detailed Risk Assessment, to identify the threats and their signatures. For example, security cameras act as a deterrent, and can be useful in post-incident forensics, to help identify perpetrators. But properly used, they can also detect intrusions, to trigger incident response much earlier. Naturally, cameras can be defeated -- for example, it's possible to adapt a DVD-recorder laser diode into a battery-operated laser pointer which can permanently blind most off-the-shelf security cameras (and incidentally, this can be used as a non-lethal weapon against unprotected security personnel, as it can cause instant blindness too.)

Therefore, the vigilant security manager has to prepare for such scenarios, through regular posture assessment and tiger-team testing, as well as drills and security-related staff training. Appropriate counter-measures need to be selected, and then constantly reviewed and improved. Ultimately, security is a demanding and continuously-changing battleground of strike and counter-strike, where we must always assume that the attacker is smarter, better-funded and more highly motivated than ourselves. We can only wait, prepare, be vigilant, and constantly assess our readiness -- and challenge our imaginations to anticipate the next moves.

Television : A Modern Sophist's Mirror

"For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of all things. . . The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it" [Bacon 1620, xvi].

Modern television is by many to be considered solely a form of entertainment -- a mechanism for television channels to deliver their true product to customers, i.e., consumer attention for advertisers. I feel however that it has a different meaning, where we can use the TV shows that someone professes to enjoy as a kind of Socratic mirror, in which is reflected the true intentions, ideals, likes and fears of the viewer.

So, what are we to make of the current plethora of television shows which grace our TV screens (or Bit Torrent trackers?) Can we learn something about our Western culture (I am confining myself to the current "Rex Artis" or cultural hegemony of the USA and its satellites in Australia, UK, New Zealand and even Canada) by identifying the themes which rise to the surface?

Perhaps TV writers are like the Delphic pythonesses, drugged on the steady stream of residuals emanating from the crevices of Producers' nethers, while mining insights and visions which are served symbolically in the context of a 45 minute sit-com or a 22 week story arc. Jung's collective unconscious suggests that we share a deep connection with all other humans at some level, which may be addressed through the historically unprecedented sharing of compelling stories by millions of people simultaneously (or time-shifted as the "Must-See TV" hour precesses across the time zones.

A dark place

One of the most psychologically revealing shows of recent years has to be Showtime's Dexter. My wife cannot bring herself to watch it, but I find it oddly compelling -- the story of a deeply damaged serial killer, struggling to be a productive and happy member of society, while cleaving to a unique moral code which allows him to act on his darker impulses, killing only those who "deserve it." As Florida is one part of the US where executions are common place, it makes sense for Dexter to pursue his career there. The show has excellent production, great acting with believable characters and compelling stories, with characters you care about. The recent and ongoing writers' strike fortunately didn't interfere with completion of the current series, with a finale which hit one out of the ballpark. I wonder however if people enjoying Dexter are measuring themselves against his clearly-defined ethical standards, or whether they continue to lead an unexamined life.

Heroes and Villains

Season One of Heroes was fantastic. Season Two was somewhat hit and miss, with Tim Kring admitting that there were pacing issues, and regretting an emphasis on the romantic angle, which fell somewhat flat. (I still loved the Hiro storyline though, as he is my favourite character.) The premature end of Season Two, yet another casualty of the Writers' Strike, didn't do much to rescue the show, but it's still not going to stop me from watching Season Three, whenever it arrives. The show itself, when we look beyond the great special effects and cool ideas, seems to be telling the same stories about relationships, families, secrets and lies which make for great viewing anytime. Ultimately all characters seem to be linked in various ways, and the struggle especially of the HRG to keep his family together, is simultaneously bathetic and profound.

Who's on First

As one raised in the shadow of Dr. Who stalking my nightmares, I have a fondness for the Timelord from Gallifrey. Even if we exclude the delectable Billie Piper, and some of the more dodgy scripts from the past few seasons, there have been some amazing stories -- especially "Blink", "Girl in the Fireplace" and "Empty Child." So, what does this tell us? I think it informs us with a sense of the connectedness of history -- that those people who make up are past are somehow still there, beyond the liminal "now", trapped in the amber of the past but potentially visitable by anyone with a TARDIS, or perhaps via a Shamanic journey. While it's always fun to see the aliens and other planets, the best stories seem to involve people, and mysteries as yet unsolved.

Guilty Pleasures

Californication. David D. just does it for me. Excellent, funny writing, with yet another po-mo take on the importance of family and relationships. I'm not sure I would go so far as Hank Moody did for Charlie, his wing-man and friend, but it makes compelling TV. Writers writing about writers with issues seems to too-strictly follow the dictum "write what you know", however it's also fun following all the cultural references, especially for fans of the late lamented Warren Zevon.

Another recent discovery which has rapidly appeared on my "Must Watch List" is "Curb Your Enthusiasm", by Larry David. I can't believe I missed such a great show until its sixth season, and will definitely add the DVD Box Set to my Christmas wish-list. Its tales of a hapless middle-aged neurotic Jewish guy, with a talent for misunderstanding and a Black Belt in Passive Aggression, make Curb very funny indeed, if sometimes a little edgy.

My curmudgeonly qualities are encouraged by the delight that is the sarcasm of Dr Gregory House, M.D. The perfect antidote to generations of past TV doctors, we have a vicodin-addicted cynic whose use of the Socratic method would impress any would-be sophist.

Journeys Into Redemption

Many stories deal with journeys -- through space, seeking a new home (such as the reincarnated Battlestar Galactica), or through time, such as Journeyman (perhaps an updated Quantum Leap with better grooming?) The recent made-for-TV movie Razor showed us just how good BSG became up until the Pegasus story arc, but recent episodes have left me somewhat disappointed (except for the ones with Lucy Lawless.) Come back Dr Baltar, all is forgiven! Sometimes the mirror to society symbolism is a little heavy-handed, but certain viewpoints might require a higher degree of philosophical water-boarding before its intended audience gains a further measure of self-insight.

Journeyman gives us a more mysterious Dr Beckett, traveling without conscious volition into his past and that of others, having to live by his wits and work out, along with the viewers, just what the heck is going on -- while also trying to prevent his family life from fracturing. I have hopes this show won't jump the shark, due to the quality of the writing, but am not certain that the network can refrain from interference.

Honourable Mentions

There are a number of TV series which have moved, inspired or simply entertained me in the past couple of years. Onto this list, I would like to add the following:

  • Flight of the Conchords -- Kiwi cultural cringe at its New York best.

  • Stargate Atlantis -- consistent Canadian SF fare, with occasionally interesting themes.

  • Blood Ties -- nice retelling of Tanya Huff's vampire/detective crossover

  • Bones -- excellent production values with some great stories, and on-screen chemistry in abundance

  • Pushing Daisies -- takes risks, but they sometimes pay off. Eccentric, quirky, oftimes amusing.

  • Aliens in America -- not what you might think. More "Family Values meets a Muslim" than X-Files.

  • American Dad -- cartoon, but more Adult Swim than Roger Ramjet. Edgy animation (but not as bad as Drawn Together.

  • Daily Show with Jon Stewart -- together with the Colbert Report, two of the first casualties of the Writers' Strike. Sadly missed.

  • My Name is Earl -- endearing retelling of the nature of Karma for Rednecks. Appealing, sometimes appalling.

  • Dresden Files -- wonderful books, nicely translated to the screen, cancelled in the first season.

  • The IT Crowd -- inspired British nerd silliness. Have you tried switching it off and on again?

  • Painkiller Jane -- started with a nice premise, but soon jumped the shark.

  • Numb3rs -- one of the few shows I have included in a university class I taught.

  • Burn Notice -- smart, funny, educational story about an ex-spy trying to get on with life.

  • The Sarah-Jane Adventures, Torchwood -- two spin-offs from Dr Who.

  • Primeval -- short-lived British time-travel mystery, with dinosaurs and intrigue.

09 December 2007

BBC's Planet Earth

I just have to write about the BBC series "Planet Earth", which was released last year on DVD. This is a fantastic series, which was two years in the making. Narrated by respected naturalist David Attenborough, and produced by the BBC together with Discovery Channel and a Japanese broadcaster, this series is one of the best nature documentaries I have ever seen. Filmed almost entirely in High Definition (HD), this series takes various themes in each program, including fresh water, oceans, caves, grasslands, etc.

The quality of the visuals, with breathtaking aerial shots, plus amazing action sequences, simply outclasses any other documentary I've ever seen. The DVD extras includes several "behind the scenes" interviews, which shows the impressive dedication and sheer hard work the crew of filmmakers had to go through. With the addition of sound effects, beautiful orchestration, and Attenborough's hypnotically calming delivery, the whole series is chock full of interest facts and discoveries. Who knew there was a massive mountain of bat guano deep inside a cave, with some of the largest colonies of cockroaches ever found? Or the stark beauty of snow leopards stalking Markhor in the Himalayas?

The series is probably best seen on a high-definition system (Blue Ray or HDTV), but even on standard definition DVD, it's an impressive piece of work, which highlights the tremendous variety of life on our beautiful planet. This is must-see TV, and should be compulsory viewing for all children everywhere.

07 December 2007

The China Syndrome: Update on (alleged) Google Adwords Click Fraud

As you may have read in my previous blog entry on this topic, I am convinced that Google's Content Network is not really the best place for advertisers to submit their ads, at least until they understand some of the issues.

Specifically, I recommend avoiding certain countries for placement of ads -- which of course doesn't mean that you won't get clicks from those countries (because you will if the click fraud is organized), it means instead that your ads won't be served to end users originating from those countries. The actual location of the Web servers hosting the ads is irrelevant. The web is such an international place, that the location of the server is often different from the location of the beneficial owner.

Today, I received an email and call back from Google UK, who kindly undertook to look into my complaints. I have to say that it is a pleasure to do business with the people at Google, as they know their stuff. Professional and courteous to a fault. This was in response to my informal request to the Google Country manager, Dr Karl Pall, who forwarded my concerns to the Google UK Public Affairs Manager, who in turn passed me on to a very knowledgeable Adwords specialist, Patrick Singer. I am still waiting for a response to my support request to the Google Adwords Quality Control team, which I expect will come next week.

The upshot of the call was that Google has done a lot of work to improve its transparency of reporting for advertisers. Specially, the newly introduced Placement Report is able to show which web sites were used to host the ads that I paid for. Together with the Campaign Report (which showed an average Invalid Click Rate of 10.66% (with up to 25% on one campaign), I was able to identify the source sites for most of the traffic which I consider fraudulent. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an easy way to identify which country or region generated traffic on specific referring sites, at least without some manual correlation.

Unfortunately, Google didn't agree with my assessment that most if not all of the China-originating clicks were fraudulent, although I agreed to wait until the full results of the Quality Control team are available next week. I do note that some of the suspicious Web sites had a 50% CTR -- with one site having 100% CTR, which I find remarkable! (It's almost as if the site was generated by a Web server designed for someone to click on the ads.... hmmmm.....)

So, the bottom line -- I continue to be impressed by the resources that Google are throwing at this. The Adwords Reports have tremendous depths, and would repay serious study -- but it's almost a full time job to master this business, and tuning the ads for the best effect would be a valuable service. (There are probably consultants who do this.) Unfortunately, I am still not convinced that any of the Content Network Clicks are valid, at least for certain countries and regions.

My hope is that the Google Quality Control team can "follow the money" -- to see if there is any pattern as to the financial beneficiaries of this apparent fraud. I am sure I'm not the only one affected by this. Sadly, my company's investment in Google Adwords has yet to yield a single valid lead, despite spending nearly 2,000 Euros with Google -- at least based on my knowledge of all sales communications and email enquiries. My next step is to add some sort of conversion tracking, i.e., some type of click-through form for collecting lead information, so I can add some more detail into the Google Reports.

05 December 2007

Time Machine Fun

This week I learned more about Apple's Time Machine. My wife's iMac needed to have its motherboard replaced, due to the capacitor plague. Kudos to Apple for extending the warranty to cover this issue, as it meant that we didn't have to pay for the replacement. Co-incidentally, a Grundig HDTV Satellite tuner failed recently due to the same problem (I opened the case, and saw the signs of the capacitor leakage.)

One of the consequences of the replacement of the motherboard is that the MAC address of the network card has changed. And this means that the external USB drive being used for the Time Machine backup was no longer recognized, since it appears that Time Machine embeds the MAC address in the drive identifier for the backup archive.

To resolve, there is probably some way to edit the MAC address, but I didn't bother. Instead, I noted that the USB drive was still using the Master Boot Record (MBR), therefore I decided to re-partition the drive with the Apple Partition Map, which is best used with the PowerPC-based iMac. I then used the "Change Disk..." option under the Time Machine panel of System Preferences, and started a new full backup, which corrected the problem, at the expense of some older backups.

04 December 2007

Massive organized Google Click Fraud in China

I have evidence of massive and organized abuse of Google's AdWords program, especially based in China. This is certainly not a new problem. Bruce Schneier blogged about Google's Click-Fraud problem last year in Wired -- although he focuses on two types of click fraud, whereas my own case seems to be a third type, no doubt driven by human click-farmers rather than 'bots. There's also an excellent article on this problem in Business Week, which specifically mentioned the Chinese connection.

Last month, I spoke with Dr Pall, country manager for Google here in Austria. I conveyed to him my concern, that as a small business advertising with Google's AdWords program, I simply didn't trust the results I was seeing, especially when I found that I was spending hundreds of Euros via the Content Network portion.

This month, I decided to collect some real numbers on the extent of this problem, to pass on to Google (to date, I didn't get a response.) Specifically, I set up some new ads for real products and services that my company provides -- products with a very specific and limited market focus. I deliberately enabled the Content Network option, and waited to see what would happen.

I didn't have to wait very long, as the screen shot below shows.

This activity occurred within a couple of days of my ads being activated. I find it very interesting to see that 100% of the click-throughs to my site are directed via charged Content Network -- which means every one of those clicks cost me money, and earned money for the Web sites which hosted the ads at the time. Not a single click came from a search. And the majority came from 42 different cities throughout China -- which of course means not a single one is genuine.

The bottom line -- be very cautious when enabling Google's Content Network. Watch it closely, and especially don't enable it in China (India also shows some evidence of fraud, but on a smaller scale.) I am hoping that Google will be open about this problem, to restore confidence in their advertisers after last year's settlement.

I will be doing some further analysis, and will post the results in my blog. I'd also be interested to hear from others who have seen similar patterns. Note that I don't think this problem is unique to Google -- probably, it is also prevalent with other advertisers. I really like Google's way of doing business, and will continue to do business with them -- but I feel that more needs to be done to stamp out such obvious gaming of the system, which costs money for no return and wastes valuable time.

Google -- what are you doing about this?