Thursday, November 18, 2010

conversation in an airport

I heard this story while waiting for our flight to Houston. All characters live in Houston, Texas, where steak is king, heart disease is a major factor in 40% of all adult deaths, and donuts are 132% more popular than the US average.
Mmm...steak with ancho sauce and southwestern potatoes

''- I went out with my college roommate, his wife, and his wife's boss’ Grandpa, and he turned out to be a very interesting guy.  He has invested his money into a California outfit that claims to cure cancer by changing a patients diet.  The idea is that if people stop feeding the cancer by eating meat, dairy, juices, alcohol, any processed food, additives - anything, really, but raw and whole fruits and vegetables - the cancer will go away.  So, he said he had been eating this way for the last 10 years.

- He had a lot of energy and slept wonderfully. His allergies disappeared since he started eating this way. He has not been sick in years. He immensely enjoyed the taste of the stuff that he was allowed to eat, and did not miss the food that he was not allowed to have.

- The body is capable of producing all the proteins it needs, there is no reason to eat animal products.  Adults should not be eating dairy; it is for young kids only.  Vegetable juices and oils are not allowed, nor are products of fermentation (wine), distillation (spirits) or refinement (sugar), chemical additives (salt), or any kind of processed food (chocolate, cereal).

- I did this diet for a month, and never in my life had I liked the taste of spinach so much.  I could tell the difference in taste between different leaves in a bag of mixed spring greens.  My favorite snack was a leaf of spinach wrapped around a piece of Clementine or tangerine and an almond slice. Just as an experiment, I tried nicely prepared grilled vegetables with oil and all the fixings.It smelled of burnt oil and tasted disgusting - to me.  (I am sure it was not, though.)

- I found that eating this way has changed my routine. Eating used to take up a certain part of my life, and that part seemed to have disappeared. I was never hungry or full, nor had big meals. Instead, I ate whenever I felt like it, and stopped when I did not want to eat anymore.  I went shopping for fresh produce every day, and found that easy and quick.  I found myself never really thinking about food.

- I don’t know if they can cure cancer with this diet, but I cannot honestly make fun of the old guy who followed it for many years.  Definitely makes for a great story."

fruit (and vegetable) salad

Monday, November 8, 2010

Team communication dynamic over time

When a team is first put together to work on a complicated project, it is always very important to develop a shared vision of the project, build relationships within the team, and otherwise establish communication between people working together.  The best, and probably the only, way to achieve that synergy is to have team members communicate face-to-face, many times a day, with minimal interruption needed to reach another person.  This requires that the entire team works in close proximity in both time and space - ideally, common location and similar or heavily overlapping schedule. 

Later on, as the project gets on its merry way, relationships, roles and expectations, and communication patterns within the team get established and become somewhat stable.  Communication over the phone and email becomes more effective as the relationships within the team and motivations of the team members are established.   While talking face-to-face on a regular basis is still invaluable, a lot of work can be done well from different locations and on somewhat flexible schedules among the team. 

In practice, this pattern is often seen in how people approach their new jobs. Many people spend a lot of time in office when they first take a job, and later switch to a more flexible schedule and/or occasionally work from home when possible.

However, for some reason this pattern is almost never seen in software consulting.  The client decides whether they need help in the office, or will consider outsourcing (i.e. let the consultant work on his turf), and make either one the requirement for the lifetime of the arrangement.  Many projects could benefit from better communication early in the engagement, and more flexibility later in the project. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Canadian drugs, Russian hackers and multi-level marketing

Chester Wisniewski, a Senior Security Advisor at Sophos, recently presented a very interesting talk titled "How Hackers Become Millionaires?"(the slides should be available shortly) to the Texas A&M IT community.  While Chet did not present any clear path to making millions, he did discuss how hacking has morthed into and merged with traditional business in the recent years.

According to Mr.Wisniewski, the most targeted cyber attacks of various kinds targeted toward American internet users come from Russia.  It makes certain sense: Russia has excellent technical education, poor job prospects, and not much love for Americans.

The hacker himself (most are men) is only a tiny piece of the cyber fraud business, who is learning about vulnerabilities and building software exploits.  The hacking software is distributed via various channels - in some cases a legitimate site is modified to redirect users to download a trojan, but more often users are enticed to download an executable from a respectable-sounding site via clever advertising.   Social engineering is king, and most internet users remain clueless as to what is really running on their computers, and where their browser takes them.

One of the larger internet fraud enterprises in Russia is Partnerka - a multi-level marketing conglomerate that distributes drugs, porn, adult toys, bogus anti-virus software, counterfeit luxury items and other high-margin items.   Some nodes in the network are open to the general public, and use advertisement on legitimate blogs and forums inviting people to join reseller network and earn commissions by generating traffic to and orders for the stuff.  Other nodes are by-invitation-only, where an existing user must provide a referral for a new affiliate.

A huge portion of Partnerka-affiliated sites offer cheap Canadian drugs.  There are dozens of similar-looking but not quite identical domains peddling generic drugs at too-good-to-be-true prices.  A few even deliver the pills - usually manufactured in India by unlicensed and unregulated sweatshops.   More often the ordered goods never arrive, which is actually safer for the purchaser.

Like many other multi-level marketing schemes, Partnerka is a golden egg only for those at the top of the sales piramid.   A hard-working talented affiliate can make up to $200/day in sales commisions - hardly the millions advertised.   Those affiliates selling trojan downloads and fake dating services make more than the sellers of the physical goods which require shipping.  In both cases, most of the money trickle up to the top of the organization, to the very secretive group that owns the network.

Here's a paper by another Sophos researcher, Dmitry Samosseiko, about Partnerka with a surprisingly cheerful conclusion about working with law enforcement to bring down the fraudsters.


Monday, October 11, 2010

For the love of MSDN

I have been going through much .Net framework documentation on MSDN site lately.  I am also working on lock-picking - not any particular lock, just trying to learn a skill.
Exhausted from both those activities, and the HoustonTechFest (which was excellent), I came across a very interesting publication entitled The Document Which Used To Be Called The MIT Lockpicking Guide. In simple text with a few black and white pictures this document describes a physical object (a simple lock), it's construction, properties and behavior, and, finally, expected imperfections and analysis of their effect on properties and behavior of the lock. Then it goes on to describe a technique to pick a lock based on understanding of the lock's properties and behavior.
Thinking back to MSDN documentation with the AJAX, 6+colors color-scheme and many different icons and cryptic text, it delivers a lot less information both per square inch and per minute spent reading it. What would it take to have software documentation that shows the big picture, the particulars, the unexpected effects - in plain English, pages that load quickly, and perhaps enough colors to make the page look pleasant but no more?

Monday, May 10, 2010

What's the value of privacy?

Through the Keyhole

Privacy is generally thought to be a good thing, yet something that people are willing to give up (for themselves and others alike) in order to obtain some other benefit. The modern society offers numerous trade-offs of privacy and order,
privacy and property rights, privacy and access to valuable stuff. The modern consumer is generally blaze about what privacy is, but overall willing to
give it up for any and all considerations.
What I personally find missing is a basic quantitative idea of how privacy is valued. Simply, how much does it cost to keep?
In some cases, there is no market for privacy at all - no matter how much one is willing to pay, s/he should not be allowed to bring explosives into a public place, fly plaines, or even drive cars on public roads anonymously.
But more often than not, privacy can be sold and bought - for money, for convenience, and for stuff.
  • Test-drive a car in exchange for the dealership taking a copy of my DL.
  • Get 20% discount for providing a shop with my email address.
  • Receive frequent flyer miles if I use a credit card with my name on it instead of anonymous cash to make a purchase.
    (In fact, credit card companies have perfected the craft of buying privacy for stuff back in the 80s and early 90s, giving out hundreds of T-shirts to students who would fill out the credit application.)
The internet era brought in numerous companies that trade for privacy on the sly, without telling users that their services are not entirely free. Google, and now Facebook have the most users and generate the most buzz, but are hardly alone in this.
Trading privacy for service is not the only way to do business, but it is the most successful. Consumers consider their privacy to cost nothing, and thus think that they are getting something for nothing. The market is effectively voting for Google/Facebook and other privacy-trading outfits. The business models where consumers have a choice whether to trade-in their privacy, or pay cold hard cash are more work, and not nearly as popular with users as the "get stuff for free, but we get to know everything about you, and perhaps claim copyrights to your creative work too".
NPR declares this phenomena The end of Privacy. A popular blogger Penelope Trunk thinks that "your privacy is overrated".
I think my privacy is underrated, by people like Penelope. I am still hoping that the society will reach a point where privacy is valued for what it is -- a valuable trade-able consideration. People will learn to make an intelligent choice how much privacy to give up, and in exchange for what -- perhaps, supply fingerprints in exchange for a right to drive, but not for a free car wash.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Scary tales of going to grad school

A brutal story about going to graduate school and never ever finding success or even a place in life
"[...] what happens to graduate students by saying, distantly, "there are no guarantees." But that phrase suggests there's only a chance you won't get a tenure-track job, not an overwhelming improbability that you will.
There should be a special place in hell for the professors who—at the end of an advisee's 10-year graduate program with no job in sight—say, <<well, academe is not for everyone.>>"
And an horrifying news item about one such graduate - a biology professor, Harvard-trained Dr Amy Bishop at University of Alabama Huntsville campus. Dr Bishop shot 6 colleagues last Friday, fellow professors and a staff member. Three professors are dead, and one is in critical condition. Prior to the shooting, professor Bishop has learned that she had been denied a promotion and her position at the University of Alabama was coming to an end.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Facts of life about self-promotion


An interesting article about marketing yourself, gender differences, and what it takes to be successful and have a shot at changing the world: "A Rant About Women" by Clay Shirky
A fact of life - "... self-promotion will be a skill that produces disproportionate rewards".
Another fact of life - "There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. [Women] will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks."