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Archive for March, 2007

There is an old saying, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail.” So, in the common wisdom, we lose control of our data because evil hackers steal it, and this is certainly true to a point. Certainly if they can get it, they will use it. But are they the greatest threat? Our legislators apparently think so, and enact ferocious laws against them, and then feel they are leaving no stone unturned to protect the public. Now I believe that cyber-criminals should be pursued, caught, and punished, but according to a recent Ars Technica article based on a draft of a study made at the University of Indiana,

“60 percent of the incidents involve missing or stolen hardware, insider abuse or theft, administrative error, or accidentally exposing data online.”

In other words, hacking or deliberate outsider attack against a data base isn’t the largest part of the problem, yet these particular perpetrators receive the overwhelming amount of legislative attention:

“The USA Patriot Act reinforced long-term trends of targeting hackers with severe punishments; some unauthorized hacking offenses now carry more severe penalties than violent crimes. In contrast, those maintaining the databases have only recently been subject to notification laws, and remain largely unpunished for poor security.”

So we’re laying the majority of the lumber to the wrong group: we crucify exploiters (OK), but don’t really take on the corporate or institutional entities that just happen (not OK). “Whoops! There it goes!” is their refrain. “We didn’t mean to do that, it just happened!”

There are now laws requiring notification to the individuals when their data is known or suspected to be lost, and a few lawsuits have been filed against the firms that lost the data. But have these really tightened down personal data retention by the custodians of our electronic data? Not at all, the number of incidents continues on an upward spiral (and they’re getting bigger: see the recent flap about TJX’s colossal data loss). It doesn’t “just happen,” it happens because there’s no meaningful penalty for the corporations or governmental entities who were custodians of the data. They just don’t take it seriously because nobody’s going to do jail time. Yeah, very occasionallysomebody’s going to lose their job (see AOL recently) but by and large that’s an exception.

What makes all this even more galling is that most of us don’t know who has copies of some version of our personal data — it’s just been collected by somebody as part of a transaction, or a request for product information made at a county fair, or something like that. And of course how “right” all that data is, is open to dispute.

So what we need is meaningful criminal legislation that will make companies sit up and take notice, much as Sarbanes – Oxley has made CFOs understand that material misstatements of financial reports leads to actual jail time. I’m not holding my breath on this, at least with this Administration, who has distinguished itself by it’s unwillingness to hold business accountable even to existing legislation. But we can hope.

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I note sadly and with reverence that John Backus, one of the greatest of the pioneers of the computer technology world, has passed away at the age of 82. He was the manager of the IBM project team that invented the FORTRAN programming language in the early 1950s.

For the non-technological of you, let me put him into context. Before him, if you wanted to write a program for a computer, you wrote commands that reflected the underlying circuit structure of the computer: retrieve a value of a certain length from a particular location in core memory and place it in some register, fetch another value from another place in memory and add it to the register (checking for sign issues and possible overflows and handle them if they occur), and then store the result from the register to the first location in memory again.

After him, you said: A = A + 1 (increment the value of “A” by one).

In other words, by inventing the FORTRAN language, he created a way to harness the computer by writing programs in the language of problem, not in the language of the computer. This abstraction was a towering intellectual achievement that has seldom been outdone in any field. All computer languages since then are descended in a fashion from FORTRAN, and all are unquestionably possible only because of FORTRAN’s proving the concept that such a thing could be done at all.

My first programming language was FORTRAN, on an IBM 1620. I programming in FORTRAN in graduate school, and I have even written FORTRAN compilers (the programs that read in the FORTRAN statements and create a machine-executable program from them). So at it’s most fundamental level, FORTRAN is at the foundation of my career.

In graduate school at the University of Hawaii, one of my professors in the Engineering Department stated, “you don’t learn much from a bridge that stands,” and I have held that thought in my pocket all my career. John Backus said a similar thing, which also sustains me at appropriate times:

“You need the willingness to fail all the time,” he said. “You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.”

The New York Times has a very good obituary for him here.

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In spite of the pious wailing at all levels of government about “rebuilding this glorious city,” a prostrate New Orleans seems to be able to draw only vultures to the party. The latest to stick their snout in the trough of the reconstruction spoils is a politically well-connected pump company, Moving Water Industries, of Deerfield Beach, Florida, reports the Associated Press today. Connected? The owner of MWI and Jeb Bush were partners in a company to market these pumps, and the owner, J. David Eller, has given almost $130,000 to the Republican party in the last several years.

(All the following quotes from the AP, full text here on Newsvine or here on Yahoo)

MWI has run into trouble before. The U.S. Justice Department sued the company in 2002, accusing it of fraudulently helping Nigeria obtain $74 million in taxpayer-backed loans for overpriced and unnecessary water-pump equipment. The case has yet to be resolved.

So they had this “competitive bid” for de-watering pumps for the levee flood gates, and MWI got the contract. Then what? They jammed them in last summer, and starting in the fall they began to test them for real. Trouble arose almost immediately, and the AP obtained a copy of a memo reviewing the situation.

The memo was written by Maria Garzino, a Corps mechanical engineer overseeing quality assurance at an MWI test site in Florida. The Corps confirmed the authenticity of the 72-page memo, which details many of the mechanical problems and criticizes the testing procedures used.

[snip]

In her memo, Garzino told corps officials that the equipment being installed was defective. She warned that the pumps would break down “should they be tasked to run, under normal use, as would be required in the event of a hurricane.”

The pumps, 60 inches in diameter and capable of moving 200 cubic feet of water per second, are run by pressurized hydraulic oil. The supercharged oil cranks up a hydraulic motor, which in turn spins water-moving propellers. The pumps failed less-strenuous testing than the original contract called for, according to the memo. Originally, each of the 34 pumps was to be “load tested” — made to pump water — but that requirement for all the pumps was dropped, the memo said.

Of eight pumps that were load tested, one was turned on for a few minutes and another was run at one-third of operating pressure, the memo said. Three of the other load-tested pumps “experienced catastrophic failure,” Garzino wrote.

Now to the Corps of Engineers’ credit, they have withheld 20% of the payment on the project pending successful resolution of the situation, and they appear to be attempting to hold MWI’s feet to the fire, but it still reeks of a sweetheart deal, and the Corps is still stuck working with them, which continues to generate revenue for MWI:

Just in case [the pumps didn’t work], the Corps brought in numerous portable pumps last year and plans to do the same thing this year, officials said. In the meantime, the Corps has paid MWI $4.5 million for six additional pumps, and will use them to troubleshoot the defective ones, Bedey said.

The Corps said MWI has paid for all other expenses incurred in fixing the pumps — shipping them back and forth from a facility in Gray, La., and installing and reinstalling them.

Looks pretty much like the Administration sent around one of their friends for some of the spoils, and the poor career people in the Corps are trying to make the best of a very poor situation. Oh, and most of the wreckage from Katrina’s impact remains on the ground in the city of New Orleans. How much of that could have been hauled away for all this money, if the Administration had chosen to spend it making the reconstruction of New Orleans possible, instead of just feeding the maw of their friends?

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The current and pending scandals on the healthcare of our wounded soldiers and veterans wouldn’t be half so outrageous if they didn’t happen on the watch of an administration that has constantly engaged in public breast-beating about “supporting our soldiers” and suggested that any questioning of the administration’s conduct or policies in any regard is stabbing our brave troops in the back. It turns out that the most egregious stabbing is being done by the Bush administration itself.

Cronyism

Well, shades of Katrina! At Walter Reed, a mellow, good-old-boy, popular with the troops type of general takes over and basically can’t figure out how to drive the cockroaches out of the housing, among other things. He may be a great guy, even a credible doctor, but managing the military’s health services is not about conquering wounds and disease, it’s about conquering bureaucracy, and at that he utterly failed. So, he’s gone now.

The General’s successor (briefly) was a man who is already under investigation for incompetence in this position, his predecessor. What genius made this staffing decision? The now-ex Secretary of the Army, Francis J. Harvey, whose qualifications for the job consist of basically a career as a defense contractor, and an unblemished history of contributions to George Bush and the Republican National Committee. Best man for the job, right?

In fairness I will also point out, however, that Secretary Harvey’s firing was done by the new Defense Secretary, Robert M Gates. He came from being the President of Texas A&M University, and interim dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service (both of these: big gulp of concern). But before that, he was Director of the CIA, which position he rose to from an entry-level position. So at least the guy has the chops to handle a huge bureaucracy. And maybe he comes from a different mould than the main crop of Bush loyalists, and sees the necessity of actually acting positively when there’s trouble, instead of just calling for PR help and trying to shoot the messenger.

It also turns out that the Veteran’s Administration is coming under the gun, too. As part of the House and Senate hearings on Walter Reed, the VA’s performance is coming under scrutiny. And who do we have as the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, but Jim Nicholson. Now credit where credit is due — unlike so many others, he’s a decorated (Bronze Star) Vietnam veteran, so he’s been there. But let’s see what his actual qualifications are for running the second-largest government agency, with 155 health-care facilities and over 230,000 employees. Well, he was Chairman of the Republican National Committee, taking over after Haley Barbour, and in 2001 he was appointed Ambassador to the Vatican. RNC? Ambassador to the Vatican? Heckuva job, Brownie!

His gung-ho attitude, so typical of the current crop of Administration drones, may be seen in this quote, from the 3/5/07 New York Times, on the subject of problems in the VA:

“It pains me to hear about problems in our system, but I am a competitor, and I am finding that it is strengthening my resolve and deepening my commitment.”

Penny Pinching

The Administration’s drive to privatize any and all government services, to the greater benefit of contractors, has metastasized here too. The Defense Department awarded a contract to run Walter Reed Medical Center to IAP Worldwide Services, which just happens to be run by a couple of executives from — you guessed it — Halliburton. What makes this especially egregious is that a government audit concluded that in-house employees could do the job more cheaply, but that finding was ignored by the Department of the Army, and the contract awarded anyway.

Every time the Congress threatens to cut off funding for war, the Bush Administration rises up and crows “support our troops” and calls any oversight treasonous. “Spare no expense” seems to be their motto, as long as their contractor friends get their cut. I guess they think we won’t actually look at the numbers. What the numbers show is that the outlays for veterans’ care are not increasing as fast as overall health-care spending, at a time when the system is being overwhelmed with casualties with massive injuries. So, talk the talk, but cut the budget.

Paul Krugman has an excellent editorial in the Times on this subject, too, and from that I quote the result of this penny-pinching:

“To save money, the administration has been charging veterans for many formerly free services. For example, in 2005 Salon reported that some Walter Reed patients were forced to pay hundreds of dollars each month for their meals.

“More important, the administration has broken longstanding promises of lifetime health care to those who defend our nation. Two months before the invasion of Iraq the V.H.A., which previously offered care to all veterans, introduced severe new restrictions on who is entitled to enroll in its health care system. As the agency’s Web site helpfully explains, veterans whose income exceeds as little as $27,790 a year, and who lack “special eligibilities such as a compensable service connected condition or recent combat service,” will be turned away.”

Worse than pathetic.

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