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December 31, 2005

More ACN Mail

Yes, I just did this last month, but the mail keeps coming. This one qualifies as the single best e-mail I have ever received. First the message, then a little analysis:

From: (redacted)
Date: Thu, 29 Dec 2005 18:56:40 -0500
Subject: question about your web site

Alright you little piece of shit.

Before you automatically delete this email because you are too afraid to go on, please reconsier. In fact I dare you to respond to me mother fucker. Why are you such a whiney little bitch? Do you honestly have nothing better to do than to make some gay-ass website that dogs on other people's brilliant ideas. (Yes Im talking about ACN) The only reason your pussy-ass wouldnt consider joining, isnt because of all those pathetic reasons you listed on your site, no no no. It's because you are afraid of failure. "Sure it works for some people, but most back out." Most people back out because they dont have the balls to man up and do something about their pathetic middle class blue collar lives. If you took one fucking day out of your life to consider what the important things are, maybe you would succeed and stop your pathetic attempt to be "different and stand up agains whatever the hell i want" Nobody wants to associate themselves with a person who creates absolute retarted shit like you. You will ameliorate you lifestyle the day you take it seriously!

Le Vrai Francais

ps Feel free to respond, thank you

This is absolutely brilliant, it does everything right, an exemplar of hate mail. Let's discuss what's so great about it:

The only specific mention of what he's writing about — my ACN post — is in a parenthetical remark. And not until the 6th sentence! I honestly had no idea what he was spewing about until I read a third of the way through the message. Good hate mail should bewilder your target.

This message doesn't engage the content of my ACN post at all. It only managed a vague reference to "all those pathetic reasons" followed immediately by psychologizing — "It's because you are afraid of failure." Good hate mail should brazenly assume your target's use of quotations, calculations, and reasoning are merely a cover for personal insecurities. After all, you know that they don't believe all that stuff they labored to write. You have an easy, simple, psychological explanation.

Observe the multitude of gratuitous insults. From the opening line calling me a "little piece of shit", he goes on to call me a "mother fucker" and a "whiney little bitch" who writes a "gay-ass website" containing "absolute retarted [sic] shit". Note especially that the first and last insults are both about shit — we've come full circle, a satisfying return to the tonic. Good hate mail should gratuitously insult your target, being careful not to justify any of the insults, and should do it in a classy way.

Look at the weird language at the end: "You will ameliorate you lifestyle the day you take it seriously!" What's a sophisticated word like that doing in a letter like this? The usage is correct (despite the nearby grammar being wrong) but it doesn't flow like a natural English sentence. It sounds forced. Good hate mail should include a little spice of weirdness to make your target stop and read it twice.

I needn't dwell on the spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. People seem to understand intuitively that these are an essential component of hate mail.

Finally, good hate mail should let your target know that you're itching for a fight. This letter opens by daring me to reply, and closes with the curiously weaker "Feel free to respond, thank you". I won't find fault with the change in mood — I'd be tired after writing something like that, too — but the important point is the repetition of the desire for a reply.

Your wish is my command. Well done, Le Vrai Francais — now you're famous. :)

Live in 3-D (Wylde Nept)

Ever since I created a few MP3 CDs to listen to in my car, I've been spending a large proportion of my car time listening to Wylde Nept, a mostly unknown band from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (I've written about the band once before, two years ago.)

Truth be told, I've only created three MP3 CDs to date — just to hold Metallica and Wylde Nept. I'll spin my laziness nicely by saying those three MP3 CDs hold 12 ordinary CDs, a huge quantity of music, so there's no rush to re-rip the rest of my music library.

Wylde Nept plays Celtic folk music. …wait, don't go! It's great music! They've released three albums to date and will release a 4th in Spring '06. I recently realized that the majority of my listening has been to their second album, Live in 3-D.

I looked through that album's track list and compared it to what I've been listening to lately, and was surprised to discover that I genuinely enjoy every single track in this album. It's all great. If you're looking for some fun music, consider this an endorsement.

Of course I do have favorites ("Johnny Jump Up", "Some Kind of Ride", and "Mrs. Durkin") but I recommend the whole album. I've never seen all three albums simultaneously in-stock so I've bought each separately as they were available. Fortunately, they recently made the two newest albums (including Live in 3-D) available through iTunes and Yahoo! Music, so you can download tracks even if the physical CDs are out-of-stock.

My only lamentation is that their T-shirt isn't available in Small. I absolutely cannot wear an Extra Large. (Hint, hint.)

December 28, 2005

Back From Vacation

Like everyone else, I was recently on vacation. Sorry for not posting an advance warning on the blog, lest you worry about me. (You're too kind.)

Not all is well, though. During the descent of my return flight, I couldn't get my ears to adjust to the changing pressure. And now, several hours later, they're still stuck. My hearing is funny, and my head feels funny, and before you start thinking about how funny all this is, you should know that it was a very painful landing. I'm not in constant pain anymore, but I'm a bit unnerved that everything I've tried to adjust my ears has failed.

If I'm still feeling this way in the morning, I'll pay a visit to an otolaryngologist.

On top of that, today I'm operating on an hour and a half of sleep. My last night on vacation was seriously disrupted by allergies. :(

Blogging will return to normal when I return to normal.

December 21, 2005

Warrantless Wiretaps

I've been asked to comment on the current controversy over no-warrant wiretaps used to intercept communications between suspected foreign terrorists and people within the United States.

I'm not able to reach any clear conclusions about the matter. I don't have enough time right now to study it in the detail it would require. But I won't let my non-legal-scholar status get in the way of a healthy rant. :) I have some useful links, too.

Let's start with President Bush's speech:

… consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, I authorized the interception of international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. This program is carefully reviewed approximately every 45 days to ensure it is being used properly. Leaders in the United States Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times on this program. And it has been effective in disrupting the enemy, while safeguarding our civil liberties.

Bush vaguely invoked Article II of the Constitution as the basis for his power to authorize these wiretaps. I require a little more elaboration before I can accept that kind of reasoning. Sure he's Commander in Chief, and these wiretaps are related to military operations, but it's manifestly untrue that the President has the power to do whatever he wants in the context of war. How do we reason that the President has this specific power?

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is the law that generally covers this area. From what I've learned, the Administration's argument is that this law doesn't apply in these cases because the intercepts take place outside the United States, i.e. they are performed by foreign intelligence services on our behalf. Even accepting arguendo that this is true following the letter of the law, I think it's clear that it violates the spirit of the law.

There's a large document from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review that I'm lead to believe is relevant. (I can't wade through 50 pages of legalese for this — sorry.)

At about this point I rush over to the Volokh Conspiracy to see what they've written about it, and yes, it's a long one. I really have nothing to add on the legal angle. I throw up my hands. I don't know enough to comment.

So let's talk about politics. I think it's very interesting that Congress was well-informed about this program and was therefore in a position to think about all these legal issues for quite some time. Why didn't they act? They could have said "no, Mr. President" at any time and forced a legal showdown. Why didn't they?

Incompetence is the default answer. Perhaps they didn't realize there was a problem.

Another is that Congress thought it would lose on the merits — that the President's Article II power would trump the FISA legislation. In that case it's not even important to amend FISA, because the relevant portions are just inkblots anyway. (For the sake of people like myself who would like to be able to read laws and believe they mean what they say, some kind of automatic judicial review would be swell. But somehow I doubt lawyer-validators would find all the corner cases…)

A more sinister possibility is that Congress was just waiting for a good time to spring an embarrassing political trap. But I don't think this is very likely because I don't think they could've held back for so long.

The worst possibility is that what the Administration has done really is illegal, and that Congress knew all along but didn't care. They "did the right thing" as far as prosecuting the war is concerned, and to hell with whatever laws might be in the way. I fear this the most because it would mean two branches of government believe we're ruled by men, not by law.

I don't like this controversy. The conflict between branches of government could have been eliminated through a little appropriate legislation specifically authorizing this kind of surveillance. Or, if Congress really means to prohibit it, they have been horribly negligent for several years by quietly allowing it to continue even as they've been aware of it occurring.

Congress should either have authorized it or fought against it. It was wrong of them to do nothing and let the controversy fester.

December 18, 2005

Encrypt it, Stupid!

I got this lovely letter in the mail today:

We are writing to let you know that a computer tape containing information about you and your mortgage account with ABN AMRO Mortgage Group, Inc. has been lost while being transported by DHL courier service to a credit reporting company. We deeply regret that this situation occurred and are keenly aware of how important your personal information is to you. We have no reason at this time to believe this information has been misused. Even so, we want to inform you of the situation, provide background about what happened, suggest some steps you can take and assistance we can provide to protect yourself from identity theft now and in the future.

As compensation, they're going to provide me 90 days of free credit monitoring. I've heard about exactly this scenario happening to other companies several times over the past few years, but this is the first time it's happened to me.

I'm frankly not very worried that I'll be a victim of identity theft. Even if the tape was acquired by criminals, they would make use of only a vanishingly small number of identities, so the odds of me personally being affected are very near zero.

That said, there's no excuse for this. It's a reflection of very poor business practices — particularly because this has happened several times and has been very public news. There's a ridiculously easy way to prevent it from occurring again. It's called data encryption.

Encrypt the data when the tape is written. Ship the tape with instructions for the recipient to call you when the tape arrives. When they call you to confirm receipt, mail them the decryption key.

Having the tape or the key alone is worthless. You need both in order to read the the data. Shipping them separately ensures that no single error in shipping will put the data in criminals' hands. Confirming receipt of one before sending the other ensures that even in the presence of widespread shipping errors, the data won't be compromised.

If either the tape or key are lost in shipping, don't re-send it. Just start the process over from the beginning, with new tapes and a new key.

Problem solved.

It's Shocking! Outrageous! that people aren't more careful with data. This is (or ought to be) easy stuff.

December 16, 2005

A Secret Project

You may have noticed the unusually light blogging this month. I have a very good excuse, but I can't tell you about it. I've been working on a secret project for the past several weeks and it's consuming a great deal of my time. (It's a personal project, not work-related.)

I'm not ready to say much about it yet, except that it will keep me busy through the end of the year. Blogging will continue to be light for the duration. A couple recent news stories have caught my eye, though, and I want to mention them briefly.

First, here's an example of regulations stifling business (plus a good bad pun in the headline):

In a letter to customers Monday explaining his closure, company founder Gordon "Grubby" Clark said he has increasingly been in trouble with state and local government because of his nonstandard production machinery - most of which he designed himself - and his use of toxic and polluting chemicals such as toulene di isocynate, or TDI.

He said he spent $500,000 in fire code fixes, another $400,000 defending himself against an employee's lawsuit and faced buying a multimillion "scrubber" to comply with emissions law. He also battled with the Environmental Protection Agency over pollution issues at his Laguna Niguel-based company.

"They simply grind away until you either quit or they find methods of bringing serious charges or fines that force you to close," he wrote.

Second, here's an article about irresponsibility that argues, convincingly, that people who fail to save for their retirement have demonstrated a repeated and longstanding pattern of irresponsibility. They are morally among the least deserving groups to receive assistance.

Third, what is wrong with the world's diplomats? The President of Iran has been engaging in increasingly hostile rhetoric against Israel, obviously designed to offend. It should be obvious to diplomats (who I expect to be professionally good at this) that the purpose of this rhetoric is to test the world's spine, to discover how much he can get away with. It's no coincidence that this is happening at the same time Iran is building tension over its nuclear program. This is a clear case where strong verbal condemnation and other forms of finger-wagging are totally inadequate. It's time to use the stick, not the carrot. Trying to be patient and nonconfrontational in situations like this is the kind of thing that gets Poland invaded.

December 13, 2005

Defending the Gold Standard

Things like this irritate me.

The gold standard has a problem. Not a real economic problem, but a problem of attribution. The gold standard is always getting blamed for worsening the Great Depression. This sort of reasoning completely mis-identifies the villain.

The gold standard was not the problem. The problem was rampaging monetary inflation caused by the government and by the Federal Reserve. The economy "got into trouble" because the gold standard was forcing this monetary inflation to slow down and reverse. <Insert standard description of the Austrian business cycle theory here.>

As countries went off the gold standard and "saved" their economies by devaluing their currency, they ignored the very real victims of that policy: people with savings, who saw the purchasing power of their savings evaporate. The penalty should have been borne by those responsible, the politicians and bankers who inflated the currency, but they instead deflected the burden onto innocent savers. We have endured a repugnant rate of currency devaluation ever since.

In the United States, gold was confiscated and then made illegal to own. If fiat currency was truly better than gold in any objective sense, it would not have been necessary to apply force to get people to switch. Gold and silver were the choice of the free market. Fiat currencies were imposed by force.

Incidentally, when people say how ridiculous it would be to carry gold coins today (because the gold content of $1 or $10 is so small), they've got the argument entirely backward. Before going off the gold standard, $10 was approximately one-half troy ounce of gold. The fact that today the same quantity of gold is worth about $260 is a measure of how much inflation has robbed the value of the dollar over the years. (And it significantly understates the robbery, because the demand for gold as money is much lower than it would be if we were still on the gold standard.)

December 12, 2005

Langone v. Spitzer

On Friday, Dec. 9th, Ken Langone stood up to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in a speech that was part of a Cato Institute event.

I've requested a full transcript; here's a short excerpt I caught on CNBC:

I believe business leaders have an obligation to take this guy on. Not for personal reasons, but for the benefit of this great nation America. I think we have a moral obligation to say "this is not what our public officials should be about."

This is exciting. I haven't kept a list of all the disagreeable things Eliot Spitzer has done in his role as Attorney General, but he's made a reputation for himself (in my mind, at least) as a man who uses his office to bully businesses into submission. He brings charges against them, or merely threatens to do so, and businesses back down or negotiate a settlement instead of incurring the cost of defending themselves.

It was obvious to me when Spitzer first became a media sensation that he was a man with political ambitions, which his run for Governor subsequently confirmed. It's all too easy for me to believe he's simply a very power-hungry and very dangerous politician. I'm pleased to see someone stand up to oppose him.

December 05, 2005

Stress - Part 1 - Realism

I recently had a longish discussion with a good friend about stress. She made the observation that some people she knows, including myself, never seem to be stressed out. She wanted to know our secret. So I thought I'd share a few things I think I know about stress.

I need to stress (heh) the fact that I'm not an expert in this field. I've read some psychology but I haven't made a serious study of it.

A little self-reflection tells me that my friend is mostly right about my not feeling a lot of stress. I tend to be a calm person, or if I'm excited it's good excitement. I don't experience much worry about day-to-day things, or my future. (In fact over the past few years I've been growing toward the opinion that I'm too content, because being content has made pursuing some goals seem less important and urgent than I'd like them to be.)

I believe one important facet of stress management is having realistic expectations. The previous week at work provides an excellent example. My group met for two days with a recently-created sister organization from a different site. The purpose of this face-to-face was to provide training for the new group, who will be responsible for providing debug tools on a microprocessor project. Their tools will be based fundamentally on our tools, hence we're the ones giving the training.

There was not much time available to create training material for this meeting. Realizing this, I knew we would have to provide training at a minimal cost to ourselves. I never felt stress to create a large amount of training material because I knew it wasn't possible to do so. There simply wasn't enough time, both because Thanksgiving meant many team members were on vacation, and also because we had a lot of other work to do and we didn't want to delay that work any more than necessary.

I rejected the impossible. What remained was the possible. We could provide "training on the cheap", consisting of demonstrations, already-existing presentations (not tailored for this group), and conversations to cover important principles, tips, and experiences. I personally spent only about five hours creating a demo and a set of notes. (The notes only ran to a page and a half of lists and broken sentences.) I did not create any document or presentation. Frankly, this was not a lot of work. Nothing to be stressed out about!

The training lasted for two extra-full (7am-6pm) days of solid meetings. My portion of the content wound up being about four hours, but we didn't have time to cover a significant amount of what I had prepared for. We could have filled three full days. The training exceeded everyone's expectations, including mine, and everyone went home happy. Could it have been better? Absolutely. But it would have taken much longer to prepare, and that's a cost we weren't willing to pay.

This was a very important two-day meeting, but an impartial observer may think that I treated it almost casually. And I agree, that would be justified. I knew it wouldn't be a big deal because I knew it couldn't be a big deal. Our own schedule would not permit it to have a large impact. Rather than fret over the impossible (the huge amount of work it would be to create a real developer's training session), I dismissed it and focused on what could be done.

When the goal is to provide "training on the cheap", the focus is on "what can we do?" instead of "there's too much to do!" The psychological principle here is that if you know your goal is impossible, but you pursue it anyway, your mind will rebel against it because you already know you're going to fail. It is essential to have realistic expectations — or stated more directly, realizable goals. When you know you can succeed, your mind is free to work on the issue instead of rebelling against it.

Next time, I'll write about stress related to uncertainty.

December 01, 2005

Net Worth Report - 12/05

This is the first net worth report I can evaluate against my goal. When I wrote about my goal I noted three things that were likely to be problematic. The last item, that stock options are extremely volatile, certainly affected me this month as INTC rose from $22.65/share to $26.68/share.

I'm open to suggestions for improving my methodology, here. I don't want stock option noise, particularly from unvested options, to swamp all my calculations. Here are the swamped numbers:

CategoryNet Worth 11/05Net Worth 12/05

My goal for this report was $301,588.41 ex-auto, or about $325,500 with it. Ignoring noise from stock options (which is hard because I set my goal at mid-month after the stock had risen quite a bit), I'm a little ahead of plan.

I will need to think about how to change my methodology to make evaluations easier in the future. In particular, I'm re-thinking my original desire to use plain numbers instead of attempting to accrue large items. My goal figures are a smooth progression, so it would be helpful to smooth my net worth calculation, too.

Excellent Customer Service

I've found a company that provides competent, timely, and useful e-mail tech support. It's HomeLink, who I contacted because I'm trying to get my new car's built-in system to activate my garage door opener.

I sent them the following message:

My garage door opener is not HomeLink compatible. To work around this I purchased, installed, and tested a universal receiver, model 635LM (from LiftMaster). This is a rolling code receiver. The button on the 635LM properly operates my garage door, so I know I installed it correctly.

I hoped I could program my car to operate with this receiver without buying a separate hand-held transmitter. Is this possible? The instructions I've seen always involve using a hand-held transmitter simultaneously with a HomeLink button.

I've tried the programming sequence without a hand-held transmitter, starting from the step of pushing the program/training button on my receiver, but my car's HomeLink system never makes any progress. It stays in a slow blink the whole time.

Is it essential to purchase a hand-held transmitter in order to program my car's transmitter? If not, how can I program my car without one?

I was careful to emphasize the fact that I correctly installed the universal receiver and that my question was specifically about whether additional equipment was required. I was nervous about saying anything that might provoke an unhelpful form-letter reply that wouldn't address my question at all.

I submitted my question late in the evening. To my great surprise and joy, I received the following reply early the next day:

Thank you for visiting our HomeLink website and for your inquiry. The answer to your question is yes. You must purchase a hand held remote to program the HomeLink system in your vehicle. The remote model number you need to purchase is 971LM or 81LM (either one will program to the 635LM receiver you bought). The remote must first work on the 635LM receiver before you try programming the HomeLink system. If you purchase the 971LM remote, then you must follow all the steps from the programming instructions (general programming and rolling code programming). If you purchase the 81LM then you will only need to follow the general programming and not the rolling code.

That's incredible. In case you missed it — I know I had to read it twice, out of shock — this reply did two marvelous things.

(1) It answered my question. And how! "The answer to your question is yes." This is wonderful, amazing, and profoundly good. I got a straight answer! Clarity, brevity, utility!

(2) It anticipated a question I hadn't yet asked, and answered that question, too! Not only did I get a straight answer, but I also got a concrete recommendation for my next step. With this information I am empowered to completely solve my problem. So I won't need to contact them again.

Customer service denizens of the world, take note. This is a good example for you to follow. HomeLink has earned a prominent spot on the list of companies I'm delighted to do business with.

Tiny Island