The SPAM Rule: There is no SPAM in your email

The number of people and companies who abuse the word SPAM continues to amaze me (that's me speaking as someone who started ringing alarm bells about unsolicited bulk email about ten years ago).

I see everyone from well-meaning hi-tech startups to established email companies talking about avoiding email SPAM. The fact is, email SPAM does not exist. It is email spam. The word SPAM is a trademark of Hormel Foods, used for a meat product that comes in a can (and the SPAM on the can in the special font is a registered trademark).

If you want to be taken seriously talking about spam in email you need to follow the rules: There can be spam in my email inbox but never SPAM and seldom Spam. You can say "Remove Spam From Email" but not "Remove SPAM From Email." The only time the stuff in email is SPAM is when it's hanging with a bunch of other capital letters like SPAM IN MY INBOX.

Are we clear now? I hope so.

The "Oilmen Lie" Rule

This is one of the basic facts of modern life: As a rule, oilmen lie. In other words, you should never accept at face value what oilmen tell you about the oil business. And by oilmen I mean the men who run the petroleum business, not the many honest, hard-working folk who risk their lives to bring us the oil and gas products to which our country is sadly addicted. And for the record, historically, the oil business has been run almost entirely by men, not women.

I realize that publicly questioning the moral integrity of the leaders of a large and powerful industry in a blog post is a bit risky. Who knows when someone might be checking out my background—maybe as part of a hiring or employment process—and come across this post. But hey, if you can't get to say what you believe when you're pushing 60, then when?

I'm not just talking about all the lying BP executives have been doing in the last 40 days (and before that when they said they could do deep water drilling without screwing up life as we know it for millions of people). I worked with oilmen for three years back in the 1980s. I was Chief Oil and Gas Tax Auditor for what is now the tenth largest oil-producing state in the Union.

I approached that job as I do most things, with a passion for the past as a path to the future. I read the history of the oil business. And I went on Petroleum Accounting courses. I did a week-long petroleum auditing boot camp out in Texas Hill Country, courtesy of the Texas Comptroller's office. I did a lot of research for the politicians who were pushing an increase in the state petroleum tax that I was charged with collecting.

And I clearly remember the oil industry spokesman telling lawmakers that the oil industry would leave the state if the tax was increased. Well, the tax was doubled and the state steadily rose from 17th to 10th in the production rankings.That oilman was lying. He also lied when he said, in about 1983, that oil would soon be $60 a barrel. At that time, oil was about $30 a barrel. His claim was that the state would soon see a doubling of oil tax revenues without changing the tax rate. Oil did not reach $60 a barrel until about 2006.

A great way to gauge the honesty of oilmen over the years is to read these four books:
  1. The Seven Sisters by Anthony Sampson.
  2. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin.
  3. Texas Rich: The Hunt Dynasty from the Early Oil Days through the Silver Crash by Harry Hurt III.
  4. Oil! by Upton Sinclair 
Among the interesting things you will learn from these books is the way oilmen lied to Arabs in order to cheat them out of a fair price for their oil. And the fact that controls on the price of oil in America were put in place at the request of the oil industry. This may come as a shock if you grew up with the huge propaganda campaign oilmen mounted in the 1970s to get domestic oil prices deregulated. Yep, a whole lot of lying went on.

BTW, the last of those four books, Oil! may have the shortest title but it is one of the richest reads in twentieth century American literature. Forget the movie for which this book was butchered (There Will Be Blood). This long-neglected novel reveals a lot about American history that they just don't teach in (American) schools. Like the rule I'm laying down here: Oilmen lie!

The Airport Gate Number Rule

I've been doing quite a bit of flying lately and ran into a somewhat trivial but sometimes vexing rule that I first formulated many years ago when I was traveling extensively for InfoSec Labs and Rainbow Technologies:
Whatever gate number has been assigned to your connecting flight it will be a long way from where you are.
For example, you fly into Atlanta, Terminal B, connecting to O'Hare from gate C1. That is C1 out of 36 gates numbered C1 to C36. Great, a low gate number! Then you find that C1 is actually at the far end of C terminal. What you really wanted was C20 or C30. You get into O'Hare and find your connecting gate is G30. Could it be? A handy gate? No, G30 is as far from your arrival gate as you can get and still be in G terminal. And even when you make it all the way to the end of a foreign terminal, and all the signs are mercifully in English, things can still be pretty confusing. I took this photo at Seoul's Incheon airport, an otherwise wonderful airport (the cleanest, quietest, least crowded I have been to).

Not Talking Only Makes Things Worse

Looks like George W. Bush is hell bent on not talking to Iran. Not talking has a history of making things worse. A lot of Americans don't like to talk about some things, like birth control, race relations, or the policies of the government of Israel. In my experience, not talking is not good. It is not good for one's personal relationships, the welfare of one's society, or the security of one's country.

For example, parents who don't talk to their kids about birth control do them a great disservice (as does a president who appoints an opponent of birth control to the federal post responsible for birth control). Those parents sometimes end up having much harder conversations forced upon them.

Sometimes, not talking may seem easier than facing up to a tough subject. Some people would rather not talk about racial inequality. Some white folks don't feel comfortable talking to black folks, even when they really do want to talk to them, and vice-versa.

Over time, a lack of communication creates a communication gap, literally. I have to concentrate sometimes to understand what some of my black friends are saying, but I am happy to make the effort. The more we talk, the better we understand each other. The better we understand each other, the smaller the gap between us. The smaller that gap, the greater the hope we will reach the point where we can live in harmony and not hegemony.

The folks who pushed for the invasion of Iraq talk hot and heavy about exporting democracy as though democracy were the bedrock of our society. It is not. Democracy is a structure built on the bedrock of any society: trust. And you can't have trust without conversation.

You can't solve conflicts without conversation. For example, the British government never defeated the IRA. It talked to the IRA as both sides de-militarized the conflict. America should talk to Iran. And terrorists. And anyone who wants to engage in dialogue.

Refusing to talk now only makes it harder to communicate when we talk later. And sooner or later we will talk.

New Versions of Windows Will Always Be Late

...and seldom worth waiting for. What you want to wait for is the second update to the new version, the 3.11 to the 3.0, the SP2 to the XP, and so on.

I am quite familiar with the problems of inductive reasoning so I won't say it is impossible that a future version of Windows will ship on time. But I would never bet money on the folks at Microsoft giving me what they promised when they first promised it. Indeed, I would humbly suggest that IT managers who take Microsoft timetables at their face value are gambling with their company's profitability.

Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Remember that Windows 1.0 was announced in late 1983, promised for April 1984, only to be delivered in November, 1985. As someone who tried to use Windows 1.0, I can say in all honesty, it was not worth the wait. Arguably, we did not get a really worthwhile version until Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in November of 1993, a decade after the initial brouhaha. The rest, as they say, is history.

Hacking Democracy: Some Things Were Not Meant to be Computerized

As a crucial election draws near in America, the debate over computer voting systems is again getting attention, notably from tonight's airing of Hacking Democracy on HBO. However, from some of the reviews of this program (like this one in the Boston Globe) it is clear that even well-educated and otherwise intelligent people don't "get" the problem.

The most vital ingredient in a fair election is trust. The current generation of electronic voting machines are already untrusted (and you can trust security expert Bruce Schneier to provide authoritative analysis of why this is).

Critics of current systems have advanced numerous approaches to making future electronic systems trustworthy. While this is laudable, I contend that the goal is not achievable. No hardware programmed by people will ever deliver the same level as trust as a system of voting based on hand marked paper ballots. To imply, as the Globe's critic seems to do, that electronic systems are no more problematic than their predecessors, is to miss the point. There is a known history of addressing and resolving past problems to the point where the electorate accepted the outcome as fair.

Certainly the replacement of hanging chads with software bugs is not a step forward, but reverting to pencil and paper is not necessarily a step backward. And objections to analog voting methods based on the need to get quick results simply don't cut it as far as I'm concerned. For myself, and quite possibly a majority of voters, a reliable result at 5PM the next day beats a dubious results about 2AM.

So, for the record, and after very careful consideration, my position is that the use of programmable electronic devices to cast votes is not now, nor ever will be, as trustworthy or as verifiable as it needs to be for elections thus conducted to be considered fair.

Ignorance in Power is a Nightmare Scenario

Forget "ignorance is bliss" when it comes to those in power. Ignorance among the powerful is deadly. How deadly? Try 655,000 lives. That is the number of Iraqis who died since 2003 who might still be alive but for the US-led invasion, according to a survey by a US university.

Could ignorance kill more than half a million people in three years? Yes, if you invade a sovereign nation based on bad intelligence, guided by a flawed understanding of history and military strategy.

Could the number of people killed by this ignorance be wrong? Well, consider the follow-up story describing reactions and the rationale. The instigator of the invasion, President Bush, says "Six-hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at is's not credible."

But the report was prepared by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health which is hardly a group of dummies. It was peer reviewed by The Lancet, one of the most respected scientific journals in the world. The survey uses techniques relied upon in many fields, specifically adjusted for the given task, based on past efforts and critiques thereof.

The ignorance lies in simply rejecting such a study as not credible. You can disagree with it for sure, but to reject it outright shows a lack of understanding of scientific methodology. The next thing you know the President will be rejecting evolution as "just a theory." Hmm, like that other theory called gravity. Or is our President ignorant of that one as well?

The First Victim of Fundamentalism is Irony

"An Iraqi militant group led by al-Qaeda has threatened to massacre Christians in response to remarks about Islam by Pope Benedict XVI that have caused offence across the Muslim world. The Pope quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who criticised the teachings of Mohammad for endorsing the use of violence."

The Times of London.
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