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Archive for April, 2007

There is a growing body of opinion that our greatest strike against Islamic extremists would not come from our military, but by freeing ourselves from Middle-Eastern petroleum, and one of the best steps we could take to start healing our environment would be to wean ourselves generally from petroleum.

First I have to admit that due to work-related reasons I have to drive a car from my home to downtown Minneapolis every day. I mitigate this somewhat by (a) driving a Toyota Prius and (b) hosting a carpool. On occasionally lucky days I manage to ride the bus in, a welcome relief. I also own a Harley motorcycle, which for many months of the year would be viable daily transportation, even in Minnesota, and which gets around 45 MPG. OK, OK, the bike is fun, but would it make a difference?

In Europe, motorcycles and especially scooters are refined and civilized urban transportation machines, see Kymco, Peugeot, and Piaggio just for example. Most European cities are alive with these cute little buzzers, and they’re not being ridden by the tattoo-and-black-leather set, either, but by ordinary people carrying briefcases. But do they actually make a difference?

New York City, which is drowning in cars and emissions, is really taking some steps to address the problem, including Mayor Bloomberg’s recent proposal to charge vehicles to enter Manhattan (referred to professionally as “congestion pricing”). Another step was to commission the respected traffic-management consulting firm of Sam Schwartz PLLC to examine the impact of changing the Manhattan vehicle mix to include motorcycles and scooters.

The study examined the Manhattan central business district, from 60th Street to Battery Park, substituting scooters for cars in varying increments and then simulating the traffic patterns and loading. Note that they did not factor in lane-splitting, space sharing, or any other two-wheel-specific maneuvers, they just treated each buzzer as a car, but one taking up much less space and getting much better mileage, so the results are conservative.

By shifting the daytime vehicle mix from 100% cars to 80% cars and 20% scooters, the results show:

  • A reduction in CO2 emissions by over 26,000 tons (tons!) per year;
  • The saving of 2.5 million gallons of gasoline per year;
  • The saving of 4.6 million hours of delay time, or roughly 100 working (or playing) hours per person, and
  • A total saving of $122 million per year in fuel and labor productivity.

This is of course not to mention that being on two wheels is much more fun than being trapped in a four-wheeled cage, so people would be arriving at work in a much better frame of mind than otherwise.

Could we really substitute scooters for 20% of cars in Manhattan? I think it would be realistic for much of the year. Experience shows that people will make changes in their behavior in response to financial incentives — if this substitution is a desirable result, just tariff cars until you get the right percentage, offer reduced-rate and buzzer-only parking, etc. The same approach holds true for any city.

So, going Green and lightening the load on our environment can be beneficial and enjoyable at the same time. Hopefully we’ll all come to realize this, and see that making some of these changes will generate positive economic benefits across the board, in contrast to the currently-entrenched view that any changes for energy efficiency will somehow harm business and bring on doom and despair.

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Some very interesting stats from SearchSMB.com, a tech email newsletter:

  • The average business loses about 5% of its laptop computers per year to theft;
  • The FBI says 2 million laptops are stolen every year in the US;
  • The FBI itself loses 3 – 4 laptops per month.

Laptops are stolen in almost any conceivable situation — offices, homes, cars, planes, coffee shops, you name it. If the FBI can’t protect theirs, you are going to have trouble yourself.

Leaving out any monetary issues with the theft, the greater problem is the data on the computer’s hard drive. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Chicago School District lost two laptops that contain the names and SSNs of up to 40,000 current and past employees, and this is of course only the most recent loss of personal data by various corporations and governmental agencies. I used to blog on these, but they’ve become so frequent that I’ve essentially given up as I would have no room to write much of anything else, here’s a Wikipedia article with more details if you can stand to read it.

Well, there’s lots of ways to secure your laptop physically, but given the stats it would seem you have a pretty good chance of having your machine stolen at some point. Assuming you care about your privacy, are you doing anything to protect yourself, or are you just giving away all your personal data to whoever grabs the box? Personally, I’m much more worried about preventing a thief from getting all my passwords, or access to my tax returns, or whatever, than I am about recovering the machine. So make the assumption that you’re going to be ripped off, and take a few precautions to lock down your stuff:

  1. Keep your online IDs and passwords in a software vault like Password Safe. It uses government-grade encryption, and it’s free. A master password gets you in, and then you copy / paste the passwords into application. Tres easy.
  2. Select passwords that have a little substance to them, so they can’t be cracked by brute-force methods. My recommendations are here.
  3. Select files or directories that you really want to keep private, and encrypt them on the disk using TrueCrypt, Again, government-grade encryption, and it’s free. With TrueCrypt you can access your files from your programs just as if they weren’t encrypted, but they actually are, and there’s no intermediate decrypt step to use them.
  4. Don’t save your IDs / passwords in the browser, except for sites like newspapers or newsgroups that you don’t care much about.

People don’t use USB drives often enough. Get a USB keychain drive and put important files on it — encrypted if you wish, and then store or carry it apart from the laptop, so if the laptop gets honked off, they don’t have the data. This might not protect you from a smash-and-grab artist at a coffee shop (where the USB drive might be plugged in!) but lots of the time it’s a good solution. But don’t forget to have the data on the USB backed up carefully, these things are NOT persistent magnetic storage and are subject to disruption by being laundered or otherwise abused.

So there you have it. The goofs in these big companies can’t seem to get their ducks lined up, but you certainly can. And it’s your data.

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I keep hoping that somehow, against all reason, something right will happen in Iraq, what with everything and everyone we’re sacrificing there, and that somehow that “right” will then free our resources to really tackle Afghanistan, where we actually ARE in a battle to the death with the Taliban. However, these two news stories fill me with a cold and sinking feeling that we’re going to lose both of these struggles, and that the results will be with us for a generation, as they were from Vietnam.

First, the Iraqi Surge. Ah, this is where the people are coming from: it turns out that we’ve started cycling units back into Iraq faster than the standard 2-year rest period — the Times reports today that the 4th Infantry Division’s headquarters unit will be redeployed after only 7 months “back home.” Two more units will be recycled also: The 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division gets to go back after about 10 months, and 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division went back about 11 1/2 months. And everybody’s getting stretched: the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters unit (from my old stomping grounds in Hawaii) will be extended a month-and-a-half.

Two years off? Actually, for the last two years, the “realistic goal” is a single year between deployments, much less two. But I guess those experienced soldiers in the White House, and the generals they command, think this’s OK. Rubbish. They’re squandering our military human and equipment resources they way they’re using up our environment and our civil infrastructure (highways and bridges, for example) — just use ’em up and leave the cleanup for whoever follows them. Or maybe they’ll just privatize our bridges and let somebody else fix them.

Then, back in Afghanistan (where it all started, 9/11 and all that, and where it still rages, thanks to our inattention), President Hamid Karzai last week entered into a real Faustian Bargain by trading five Talibani fighters for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo. Now while I don’t mean to be hard-hearted about the fate of Signor Mastrogiacomo, the absolute level last thing you ever want to do is give in to kidnappers like this — it means you have proved to them that it works. Aid workers, community and economic development specialists, health-care providers, and everyone else not surrounded by a company of our Marines will now be a ripe target for capture, and hence the few that remain in that part of Afghanistan will be out of there shortly, one way or another.

What this illustrates is that the “tribal areas” including the whole of the province of Helmand, is rapidly slipping from the grasp of Karzai’s government and into the hands of the Taliban, who have been expanding their influence from the adjoining safe havens tolerated by the Pakistani government, which has its own Faustian Bargain with the Taliban and its supporters in their own government.

There’s no good way out of these predicaments, except of course to prevent kidnappings to begin with; the fact that you can’t is a powerful signal to everyone in the area about where the power lies. And the reasons we can’t prevent this are: 1) the complicity of the Pakistani government in allowing taliban safe-havens, and 2) we’re so tied up in Iraq’s civil war that we don’t have either the manpower or the management energy to properly address this resurgence of the Taliban.

It’s too bad this dismal event hasn’t been reported more in Western news media, it’s a real warning to us and we’re just not listening. Kathleen McGowan, whose fiancé was killed in Afghanistan in 2005, wrote recently in the Times:

The governments of Italy and Afghanistan should be applauded for valuing Mr. Mastrogiacomo’s life — after all, the struggle in Afghanistan is, at its most elemental level, about recognizing the value of all human lives. But this deal, however expedient in the near term, comes at a tremendous cost to Afghanistan’s future prospects for building a peaceful, tolerant and just society.

. . . and to our own ability to win against one of our most dangerous adversaries, the Taliban.

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