Category Archives: In the News

Ash Flakes Keep Falling on My Head…

I remember distinctly the first time I saw volcanic ash falling.

I was 11, Mount St. Helens had erupted several days before. Until that day the prevailing winds had kept the ash moving east rather than south. I was outside on the upper deck of my home, the sky was partly cloudy, and fluffy gray snow was falling gently.

That fluffy gray snow caused havoc.

Ash isn’t snow. Ash isn’t fluffy. It is made up of hard, caustic materials and when wet can conduct electricity.  We had to be careful washing our cars because the ash would scratch the surfaces. Most people didn’t drive unless they had to because of the damage that the ash caused the internal workings of cars and people for that matter.  

I can only imagine what it would do to an airplane.

The ash cloud is so thick it looks like land from space (NASA photo).  I’ve been tracking it – not even really thinking that this may cause friends of mine travel woes. One is in NYC with a bunch of 15 year olds that need to fly back to Europe. Another is in Italy and supposed to leave Rome for Amsterdam and then Portland on Wednesday. Although planes should be in the air – air traffic won’t be normal for some time.

Not sure I’d want to be in their shoes.

At the same time – I love this!

The thing is we so often think we are in control of our lives and disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes, storms et al are the best reminder that we live in an unpredictable world. The unexpected happens, and happens often, yet we seem to forget that. We think we know what will happen next and spend an awful amount of time, energy and money predicting the future only to discover that it is unpredictable.

We like the illusion of control it gives us.

But it is just that… illusion.

~ Tess

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The Naming of Things

"The Thinker"

In Old Possums Book of Practical Cats the first line is “The naming of cats is a difficult matter.”

I’ve been thinking of naming conventions ever since I found a hint of bias in myself. Have you ever had one of those moments where you look at a thought and it terrifies you? I did when I realized I was reordering words.

I have a friend who identifies himself as an Arab-Muslim American. In my head I reordered this to be a Muslim American of Arab descent. I was lying in bed one of those sleepless nights and wondered about this. Why would I do this? And what was going on in my head that I would find this necessary?

I talked to myself for many hours that night and decided there was something going on. I don’t call Hispanic American’s American’s of Hispanic decent. So, how does this work and why has the naming of American’s become an issue.

I talked to a few friends and found that they had been exposed to the same thing I had. Media outlets that talk about Muslim American’s and wonder why they don’t put American first.  

While pondering this I came upon two examples of countries that place their Nationalism in front of their Religion.

When I was traveling to England in the 80’s and 90’s terrorism was an issue from the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Irish folks defined themselves as Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. Religion last… Nationality first.   

I’ve been reading Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. Lebanese, like the Irish, put their nationality first and their religion last. Lebanese Shi’a, Lebanese Sunni and Lebanese Maronites.

You might think that this makes them more patriotic. After all as Fox News would say they are putting their nationality first. But think about this… we are talking about Ireland and Lebanon two countries devastated by internal strife and terrorism.

It’s basic grammar.

Lebanese modifies Shi’a making Shi’a the noun and Lebanese takes on the role of adjective. Remember adjectives modify nouns. Yet somehow, in the US, this basic grammatical relationship has been blurred when the word Arab is placed with the word American.

The media should know better.  

I am a English-Irish-Scottish-Welsh-Scandinavian-Atheist American. No one would think to question my commitment to my nation. English to Atheist modifies American. I am defining the subset of who I am, the set, the whole is American. In the same way any Muslim American, Arab American, Chinese American, Catholic American, and Jewish American are.

This is my polite way of saying STOP IT!

If this subtle internal bias has made its way into my head, with my limited exposure to the media and my baseline lack of bias, what is it doing to everyone else?  

I have done nothing to earn the privilege of being an American except be born here. But every man and woman who serves in our military and works to protect us has. They put being American before all else.

It is such a subtle distinction that is being made but it is insidious and dangerous.

If you find it in yourself take it out, look at it, acknowledge it for what it is and let it go.

If you find someone else doing it politely explain the grammar behind our naming convention and remind them of what happend in Ireland and Lebanon when they became adjectives modifying religious nouns.

~ Tess

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The Failure to Communicate

I’ve been very curious about where the breakdown in communications happened which lead to there being no notification that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was attempting to enter the US.

So I’ve been following the news and wondering what the failure was.

And thinking…

We tend to take the easy rout in these cases and point a finger at an organization saying “They didn’t do their job.” My sense is that it is always more complicated than that. Communication is difficult in the best of situations – in most cases it is like playing telephone. What the message is is never the message heard.

When I look at a process (and we are talking about process here) the process of communicating information we talk about hand-offs and points of failure. Usually when I did analysis like this it was within a small company with only a few departments and under 100 employees. Yet even that web of communication was so complicated; with multiple hand-offs, points of failures, and black holes. The black holes were the most fun, when I hit those no one could tell me how things were processed they magically happened “most” of the time.

You start looking at a large organization communicating with other large organizations within different countries…and the complexity goes up exponentially. Not only are we talking about the process but we are talking about the time the process takes to work.

While I’ve been musing on this and thinking about the complexity of it I happened to listen to a podcast of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

I know, not your typical news source, but in this case they handed me the key.

The question to one of the guest panelist went something like this (poorly quoted):

Last week a spokesperson for National Security stated that they had solved the problem and nothing like what happened with the attempted Christmas bombing will happen again. They have added a software program to the State Department’s systems. What software program is it?

The answer was spell check!

I had to check this out and it turns out that this was the reason our agencies couldn’t correlate Abdulmutallab’s fathers warning. Someone typed his name into the database incorrectly.

From the Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy’s opening statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security on “Flight 253: Learning Lessons from an Averted Tragedy.”

In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on the day following his father’s November 19 visit to the Embassy, we sent a cable to the Washington intelligence and law enforcement community through proper channels (the Visas Viper system) that “Information at post suggests [that Farouk] may be involved in Yemeni-based extremists.” At the same time, the Consular Section entered Abdulmutallab into the Consular Lookout and Support System database known as CLASS. In sending the Visas Viper cable and checking State Department records to determine whether Abdulmutallab had a visa, Embassy officials misspelled his name, but entered it correctly into CLASS. As a result of the misspelling in the cable, information about previous visas issued to him and the fact that he currently held a valid U.S. visa was not included in the cable. At the same time the CLASS entry resulted in a lookout using the correct spelling that was shared automatically with the primary lookout system used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and accessible to other agencies.

After all my deep thinking on all the possible points of failure in the system – I never would have hit on a misspelled name.

Sometimes it is the smallest thing.

Communication is difficult – communication through multiple countries, agencies, and people can hinge on minutiae. Who would have expected in this day of Google, Wiki, and all the other sophisticated systems out there that it would have hinged on the misspelling of a name?

Granted most spell check systems are not as amazing as Google’s search algorithms but it would be helpful to add something either in the spelling or in the data search function to provide relative searches and common name spellings.

I assume they are attempting to close this gap, but horrifying to know it existed in the first place.

~ Tess

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Google, China, Security… Oh my!

I’ve been reading more about the fallout of Google’s discussions with China regarding censorship and I came across an article that chilled me. To quote Shakespeare “A faint cold fear thrilled through my veins”.

In the week after Google stepped forward to challenge China’s stance on internet free speech and announced that attempts were made from within China to access data stored on Google’s servers. The Obama administration dropped China from a Priority 1 threat to Priority 2 status.

The Washington Times reported:

“The downgrading of intelligence gathering on China was challenged by Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta after it was first proposed in interagency memorandums in October, current and former intelligence officials said.”  

The decision downgrades China from “Priority 1” status, alongside Iran and North Korea, to “Priority 2,” which covers specific events such as the humanitarian crisis after the Haitian earthquake or tensions between India and Pakistan.”

As I said this chilled me.

Because priority equals funding and without appropriate funding I worry that we will not be able to prevent cyber incursions. This isn’t familiar territory nor is it stable ground. The internet is constantly growing and changing. New technology appears every day and the safety of our data, our government’s data, and the data of the companies that call us home are at stake.

The Washington Post reported that:   

Cyber-attacks from China aimed at U.S. businesses, the Pentagon and other government agencies have become commonplace, if not epidemic, in recent years. So have Beijing’s demands that Western companies collaborate in its efforts to censor political content on the Internet and snoop on the private e-mails of its citizens, several of whom have been prosecuted with e-mails supplied by Yahoo. China aims not just at eliminating the free speech and virtual free assembly inherent to the Internet but at turning it into a weapon that can be used against democrats and democratic societies.”

So this is not the time that I want my country easing off its attention to, or funding of, intelligence gathering regarding China.

Not that I don’t understand why the Obama administration is playing nice. Our country is in debt and China holds a lot of that debt. This has put us in a very messy and complicated political situation. I understand complexity but I also understand the value of information.

China wants to have its cake and eat it too.

They want all of the benefits of belonging to the modern world while still holding on to their traditional role of controlling the information their citizens see.  

My hope is that someone smarter than me is looking at this problem and finding a way around the politics to do the right thing. Or, if political pressure doesn’t work then maybe peer pressure will. A lot of companies have invested heavily in China over the last ten years providing a view into different ways of doing things and a different way of life.

That is the slow course to change but it is a powerful one.

~ Tess

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The Limits of Power

Last night I was reading Thomas Friedman’s book From Beirut to Jerusalem.

I’ve been gradually increasing my knowledge of Middle Eastern history and his book was recommended to me. I take it in small doses. History can be very painful and my mind needs time to work its way through the events and issues.

Last night I came across the following line.

“People who have never really wielded power always have illusions about how much those who have power can really do.”

I looked at it for a long time. Continued reading and then came back to it again. This morning I found it in my head wandering around and drawing attention to itself.

What can power really do?

Our Founding Fathers in an attempt to limit power created our system to spread power over multiple groups with different tasks, responsibilities, and authority.

This morning I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition and there was a report concerning President Obama and the status of his campaign promises. It wasn’t a bad showing but there were many things promised that he may not be able to deliver. After all there are many things that the President can do but many more he can’t. He can influence change but he can’t effect the change himself.

There is no political magic wand that he can wave that will make things happen.

We forget, or we don’t want to acknowledge, how complicated the world is. If we admit the complexity then we don’t have anyone to blame because often it isn’t a failure of an individual but a part of the process. Notice I didn’t say a failure of the process but a part of it.

That would be another thing our Founding Fathers did. They made change hard.

Change, even positive change, is disruptive and stability is created by continuity with the ability to navigate, abet slowly, the waters of the future. We talk, we argue, we compromise, and slowly we move forward.

As we come to the end of President Obama’s first year in office think for a moment about the complexity of the issues the country and the world are facing. Step back and look, not with eyes filled with black and white, but with all the colors and shadings that actually make up the world and remember this.         

“People who have never really wielded power always have illusions about how much those who have power can really do.”

~ Tess Anderson

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Go Google!

Google made a stand yesterday for privacy rights.

A CNN report states that the company’s infrastructure was attacked and that the attack originated in China. The infiltration and surveillance was aimed at Chinese human rights activists in the United States, Europe and China. For a good overview of the history of Google’s relationship with China see CNET’s Tom Krazit.

Anyone who works in within the structure of the global economy and whose company or clients are working in China understands the risk. At this stage in the game China is a rocky proposition because it does not have the same privacy or intellectual property laws as most of the rest of the world. Labor is cheap, the workforce is educated, but there is little protecting your patens and intellectual property.  

Free speech is meaningless there – and Google has worked hard to adapt to the Chinese landscape including censoring results displayed on Google.cn.

Take a moment and imagine a world where the government censored the internet?  

Can you imagine? I can’t.

I applaud Google’s statement that they have decided to stop censoring Google.cn and want to talk to the Chinese government about operating an ‘unfiltered’ search engine. Most important they have stated they are willing to leave and walk away from one of the largest economies in the world in order to insure the safety of their information and by extension ours.

“Don’t be Evil.”

One of Google’s stated an aim in its initial pubic offering was “don’t be evil”.

We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served-as shareholders and in all other ways-by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.”

Their current course may lead them to leave the Chinese market which I am of two minds about.

First – I don’t want anyone hacking into Google’s databases searching for information about anyone and from the press release it appears that is a major factor in their decision.

Second – if Google and the other big search engines were to leave China that would create a power vacuum that the government could then fill providing even more control over the information viewed by their population.  

So where is the good? The evil?

This isn’t an easy decision – even just looking at the moral grounds. My hope is that a compromise can be found. That somehow China will see the way clear to joining the world on more equal footing and that there will be economic pressures to meet Google halfway.  

No matter what happens it will be historic and the impacts far reaching and mostly unknowable.

~ Tess Anderson

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Black and White vs. Gray

At drinks on Saturday night we ended up discussing the tendency of people to like simple answers.

Coloring your life in black and white makes it easy. There is good and bad. There are things that are allowed and things that aren’t. And there is no gray area in-between.

But that almost requires the belief in evil, a belief that some people actually wake up in the morning with bad intent. Because people do bad things so therefore there must be bad people.

But are there?

Don’t we all have some internal logic that makes what we do sensible? When I took a training session on Crucial Conversations we were trained to ask “why would a reasonable rational person do that?” Of course that assumes that the person you are discussing is both reasonable and rational.

When I worked in an office – things broke – problems occurred – people disagreed. But not because someone woke up that morning and said to themselves “I’m going to cause problems at work today”.

So why would a young man get up one morning – strap on explosives – and attempt to destroy an airplane?

I spent some time reading the comments posted with the story. That was hard. Some of the time it was like willingly walking into a gutter filled with fear, hate and filth. But I wanted to know what people were posting.

Comments on news stories (or blogs for that matter) are not indicative of the feelings of the country as a whole. They are a subset of a subset of a subset. First off they are people who are online and read the news and who leave comments. And in the case of a sampling of the comments I read – they like their world in black and white.

They like to label things.

“All terrorists are Muslim”    

 And blame people.

“It was his Father’s fault.”

And blame organizations

“It was the US Embassies fault, the Netherlands fault, a failure of our security screening processes.”

Then there are those that are trying to counter those feelings. Questioning the simplistic ideas and trying to wait for more information. The more information that came out – the more these views predominated.  

Terrorism is a story of the “have-nots” attempts to hurt the “haves”. It is an impulse of hate and fear. Fear of what can’t be controlled. Hate of those who have what you want. Hate of those that you see as destroying or taking away what you have. It has nothing to do with religion. All religions have produced terrorists – when they feel subjugated by other groups. Our memory is simply too short – we have forgotten our home grow terrorists – McVeigh and Nichols and the atrocities perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

So why did this young man decide to become a suicide bomber?

We will know more as the days progress, and no doubt it will be couched in the language of religion. But this isn’t about religion. This is about control. And someone convinced him that the only way he could take control was by strapping on a bomb. Listen not to the words – but to the tone. Not to the quotations – but to who they are aimed at. The subtext will tell its own story. Stop listening for “Allah” or “Islam” and listen to what lies beneath.

There are no easy answers to why this young man did what he did. He did not come from poverty. From what has been reported, he did not come from an extremist family. His family was worried enough about him and the changes in his behavior to warn the authorities.

There is a complicated story here – filled with small steps that eventually led him to a flight landing in Detroit.

It won’t be an easy story – and although there will be people that we can paint in black and white – there will also be a lot of gray.

~ Tess Anderson

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Expectation of Privacy…

Supreme Court

So I have a question.

How many of you have an expectation that the text messages you send and receive on the phone, or other electronic device, provided by your employer are private?

I have no expectation privacy on devices owned by someone else – which is why I always had a work and a personal cell phone. But apparently some people think that they should have a right to privacy regarding electronic interactions that take place on employer owned devices. I’m curious where these people have been for the last ten years – just think of all the scandals regarding text messages over the last decade.   

The Supreme Court is hearing a case regarding the privacy of text messages. USA Mobility Wireless, Inc. v. Quon; USA Mobility Wireless, Inc. v. Quon

Most of the story is he said/he said regarding what the employee was told concerning their employer’s rules about personal text messaging on employer owned devices. As condensed from the SCOTUS website – at issues is:

  1. Whether a SWAT team member has a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages transmitted on his SWAT pager, where the police department has an official no-privacy policy but a non-policymaking lieutenant announced an informal policy of allowing some personal use of the pagers;
  2.  Whether individuals who send text messages to a SWAT team member’s SWAT pager have a reasonable expectation that their messages will be free from review by the recipient’s government employer.

The interesting thing about the second issue is that it hinges on the Stored Communications Act that was part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.  Think about that – think about what the universe of telecommunications and computing looked like in 1986.

To give you some idea – Compaq introduced the first 386 PC, Apple introduced Mac Plus, and MS-DOS 3.2 was released in April of that year. IBM announced its first laptop computer weighing in at 12lbs. And cell phones were huge… not as in popular but in size and weight.   

What most people don’t understand is that the Supreme Court rules on points of law – not the case. So, the point of law in question is based on the understanding of technology in 1986. And if the individuals in this case have a “reasonable expectation” of privacy in regards to their text messages even though their employer owns the equipment.

N.B. – if any of you out there think that this ruling will in any way shape or form effect the privacy of any text messages/phone calls/emails/instant messages/web browsing for your corporate employer – it won’t. If the police department and county in question had a more stringent and updated wireless/computer policy this would have never gone to trial.

 So – back to the case.

 The 1986 act defines two types of services:

  • RCS – Remote computing service   
  • ECS – Electronic communication service

The law states that an ECS cannot divulge the contents of a communication (i.e. the texts sent and received) to anyone other than the intended recipient(s). However – if you are a RCS then you are able to release all data to the subscriber – (i.e. the person who pays the bills).  

So – an employer’s right to monitor their employees and an employee’s expectation of privacy in our modern world is being defined by Congress’ understanding of the implications of technology in 1986.

Anyone else see something humorous here?

According the 9th Circuit Court, Arch Wireless which provided the devices and holds the contract with the county, is by definition a Electronic Communication Service (ECS) and as such had no right to provide transcripts of text messages to the subscriber – the Police Department – since the subscriber was not the intended recipient of the messages.  

Looking from both sides of the issue I believe that employers have the right to know how their employees are using the equipment provided to them. When I managed teams I had an expectation that when they were paid for an hour of work they did an hour of work. We had individuals who abused their phone/web/email privileges. They decreased the productivity of the group and since we billed by the hour – they were, in effect, defrauding our clients.

As much as I feel we deserve privacy – I don’t believe we can expect it in the work place. All that this officer needed to do to prevent his text messages from being read by someone other than the recipient was to have his own device. That makes you both the intended recipient and the subscriber – so it would not have mattered if Arch Wireless was deemed a RCS or ECS – his messages would have remained private.

It will be interesting to see what the court does with this. Their decision will affect public employees and the law regarding privacy.

I’ll check in again on this issue when the opinions/dissents are written.

~ Tess Anderson

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Struggling to come to grips

QuestionI’ve been struggling to come to grips with the event that occurred in Richmond California over a week ago. Apparently I’m not alone. A lot of people are thinking about it and trying to understand how, over the course of two and a half hours, a young woman could be gang raped and no one stood up and said this was wrong. The current estimate is that ten people witnessed the event, and 10 were involved in the event. Some moved from bystander status and joined in, but none of them tried to stop it or called the police. In fact – it is likely that kids from all over the city knew what was happening and did nothing.

Can you imagine what will happen when police get their hands on those text messages? 

The 911 call is a mystery to me also –

Someone leaving the scene bumped into a young man and they “jovially” told him and his friends about what was happening. The young man then went home and talked to his girlfriend and they called the police. That is how many people removed from the actual scene of the crime? And he didn’t call from the street – from what I heard he called from home. 

So how did this happen?

It made me think about the Good Samaritan experiment . Basically – what is the likelihood that someone will stop and assist a person in need. They used seminary students for the experiment. In the end – religion didn’t pay a role, but being in a hurry did – only 40% of the “Samaritans” offered to help the victim.

It also made me think about that moment between when you see an event and engage.

Last winter a fight broke out right next to me and I didn’t move. I didn’t help, didn’t back away, didn’t do anything. Granted a group of men started separating the fighters almost as soon as the first blow hit, the police were called as soon as I thought of my phone, and I’m only five feet tall and a whopping 110 lbs. But none of that felt like an excuse. I was only 95 lbs when I threw myself between two young men that were having a fight when I was in High School.

Last year a man collapsed outside the office building that I worked at. I saw him fall, and although I reacted I remember the pause as I weighed my options and their repercussions. Instead of going directly to him I walked to our receptionist and requested that she call one our co-workers who had training as a medic in the army and then called 911 as I went out to the fallen man. Within moments I was joined by my co-worker and I handed him my cell phone – and was a silent presence until the paramedics arrived.

Everything worked out okay – but that pause still haunts me as do the thoughts that went through my head. What happened to the girl who would jump into anything, take anyone on for the right cause, and go to anyone’s aid? I don’t know…   

Today as I was thinking about the people who watched, the people who walked away, the people who cheered, and the people who joined in… and wonder what my reaction would have been.

Talk of the Nation did a great show Friday (you can listen to the podcast here) about the psychology of groups like this and about that moment of action/inaction. I also found articles about how at times, the group behavior – though heinous – becomes the norm and to go against that norm can put you in harm’s way. Given the behavior of the group that did call 911 I wonder what social structure was at work and how much fear of reprisal present. 

But in the end, it still doesn’t make me feel any better. No one is off the hook for what occurred. It will impact the school, the community and the town. It changes the way we look at each other as we wonder what we are capable of and worry that when push comes to shove we won’t make a decision we can live with.    

Where do you think responsibility lies and who should be held accountable for their actions? Those that participated, of course? But those that watched and cheered? Those that watched? Those that knew and walked away? At some point we move from criminal to bystander – and California Law allows the prosecution of bystanders who witness and don’t report a crime involving a minor 14 or younger, but the victim here is one year too old to be covered by that law.

This event will leave everyone attached to it feeling stripped naked – more and more information will pour in over time and we will know every moment of what occurred except for one thing – that specific moment when each individual abdicated their humanity to the group and why.

 ~ Tess

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