Whoopsie!

Here’s the link to the real RoadDave: http://roaddave.wordpress.com This is just a placeholder, as I made a mistake when getting moved from Live Spaces to WordPress.  The real, shiny and well-groomed RoadDave is not here, but here  Our apologies for my lack of motor skills and the inability to RTFM.

Nine Years Out

I was on an aircraft, leaving Ottawa, heading for Chicago nine years ago today.  It was a bright sunny, September morning, just cool enough to be enjoyable.  Wheels up, we headed for O’Hare winging along the border with the US. 

The objective was to fly to San Francisco to start work on a new set of presentations and computer images with a learned colleague in SF, then spend the next several weeks touring the US, doing the presentations to clients.  It was what we did back then:  On the road for weeks at a time, living out of a suitcase, on room service, a new city every few days.

Except I never got there.  The aircraft was rerouted, back to Ottawa, told to land and park it.  Something had happened.  Something bad.

There is something profound about dragging your luggage into a packed Ottawa airport witnessing 3,000 people not making a sound.  All eyes staring at the TV’s suspended over the heads of the crowds. 

Seeing a distraught young couple trying to get a dial tone on their cellphone to call family back in the US, watching their panic rise.  Handing them your own phone, so they can call and check in.  A distracted, muttered thanks from them, as they not dare to take their eyes off the television, watching the smoke billow out of the towers.  Nobody pushing, yelling or jostling, each of us wandering slowly, not understanding what our eyes were seeing and not wanting to look away.

I was home in time to take root in front of CNN, still not comprehending what I was seeing.  Calling my boss at home on the West Coast and rapidly explaining I wouldn’t be in San Francisco later that day.  It was early on the coast:  Nobody was up.  Nobody knew.  Then, almost instantaneously, everyone was up, plugged in and fully alert.  BBC, CBC, CNN, the major networks, all showing the same plumes of smoke. 

The replays came in, the second airliner plowing into the tower, the fireball arcing, spitting silver slivers across the September blue sky.  You knew it was a whole airplane, full of fuel, food and folks, but it looked so beautiful for a moment.  Your heart going up, then plummeting down in horror.

Then the image of a skyscraper telescoping in on itself, falling inward as the grey clouds of smoke billowed out and up.  Reporters not saying a word, the pictures telling the story.  I sat there, with my mouth open for a full minute, not knowing what to say, do or feel.

I still don’t know, nine years later, what to take from that day.  Confusion, sadness, anger, fear, curiosity, these feelings still tumble over each other when thinking about that day. 

So does the feeling of sleepwalking, not being entirely connected to your body, knowing something is not right and there is nothing, anything you can do about it.  Waiting, inexorably for the second tower to fall, as the reports started to come in about the Pentagon and something bad happening there.

After nine years of reflection, there is the indelible image of the grey pall of smoke across downtown New York, with two landmarks missing from the horizon.  It still doesn’t register properly. 

The rest of it, since that morning nine years ago, has been a jumble of madness, sadness and anger that has touched just about everyone on the planet in ways we never will fully comprehend, if we let it take control.

Or, we can look out the window right now at a sunny, clear, blue sky on a cool Saturday morning in September. 

Take a moment to give thanks to whatever particular belief set you might have, for the ability to enjoy these small things right now:  This second.

We might never make sense of 9/11 and the immeasurable losses since, but we’re still here and we’re still living every day with courage, grace, humility and gratitude. 

That is the best memorial.

 

The Stig

If you watch the BBC’s flagship car/motoring show, Top Gear, you’re probably familiar with the character of The Stig.  He’s the tame racing driver who does the high speed test laps of cars featured on Top Gear, as Clarkson, the Hamster and Captain Slow can’t get around the track consistently.  The Stig also trains the celebrity guests, who drive a hot lap in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment.

(If you’ve never seen Top Gear, here’s a link to their website.  Search for an episode and come back:  We’ll wait for you.)

The running gag with the character of The Stig since 2003 has been his anonymity, in which, the British media, the BBC, the production company and the show itself have been willing co-conspirators.  It adds to the slightly silly and iconoclastic bent of Top Gear.

Now, Ben Collins, in a roundabout way, has come out as the White Stig.  The BBC tried to get an injunction stopping Collins’ autobiography from associating Ben Collins with the character of The Stig and the BBC got shut down. 

The unfortunate part is that now a lot of non-gearhead/petrolheads know about Top Gear and The Stig.  It used to be our little secret:  A private handshake between the lads. 

If you could appreciate a piano being dropped on a Morris Marina out of a clear blue sky, or caravans being used as conkers, hung from construction cranes, then you were part of the club.  Oh and the news and reviews of the cars of course, then you understood the essential nature of Top Gear.

It really isn’t about the cars, more to the point, Top Gear is about enjoying automobiles, aside from their essential nature as transportation, but as their cultural identifiers, shorthand, or captions to a group of people.

For instance:  A BMW M5 with rubber-band 30 series tires and $10,000 worth of rims tells me you are a complete idiot who most likely does not have even the basic motor functions of a brain stem.  But you have a lot of money.

If your ride is a 1985 two-door Ford Tempo GL with running boards, neons and gradient tint rolling on 18 inch spinners, then you should be sterilized for the Good of Society and permanently banned from the Accessory aisles of Canadian Tire. 

However, if the same car has been restored to original glory, complete with the dog-vomit coloured upholstery, then you understand the essential irony of the car.  You actually have a mind:  A sick one, but one worthy of consideration.

At the same time, if you can react fondly to the Fiat 850 hatchback, or the 1972 TR6, without the kneecaps on the bumpers that ruined the 1974, then you grew up across the street. 

Incidentally, if you own an SUV and live in an apartment or high rise condo, without a rural address at the end of a logging road, you are unworthy.  Especially if your SUV is either a Land Rover or a Cadillac.  Please proceed to the fitting department for your personalized asshat.

That’s the thing with cars.  They touch weird nerves in unusual ways at deep, elemental levels that are hard to define, impossible to communicate and confusing to write about if you don’t have the peculiar genetic makeup that tags you as a gear head. 

That’s also what appeals to us about Top Gear.  It’s OK to be a petrolhead and why, at the end of the day, it’s sad that The Stig has been unmasked.

Some say that his left nipple is shaped like the outline of the Nurburgring and that he suffers from Mansell’s Syndrome.  All we know is we call him The Stig.

RIM Grabs Their Ankles

Last week, Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry, were allowed to continue selling their near-ubiquitous belt accessory in Saudi Arabia.  Although nobody is talking officially and on the record, the unattributed reason is that RIM caved and has agreed to put Blackberry servers in Saudi Arabia. 

The cynical may suggest that the presence of the Blackberry servers means the Saudi State Security apparatus can now examine the texts, voicemail, email and phone calls of anyone in Saudi Arabia, no matter where they’re calling.  That would be cynical and so would the assumption that all the other handset makers, including Apple and Google with their iPhone and Android respectively, have already given over the keys to the back door.

None of this especially surprising.  India, who has been making “No Blackberry here!” noises for a few months, is apparently in discussions with RIM to solve their dilemma.  The dilemma being, the Indian State Security apparatus wants to be able to read anything they want, when they want, as soon as they want, as well as listen in on calls, read texts and generally poke around.  RIM didn’t want to let them.

RIM is in a bad spot.  Their product is well known as a reasonably secure way for people to transmit email and text with a fairly good assumption of privacy and that is exactly the problem.  In North America we have a reasonable expectation that the government, if they want to read our email and tap our phones, have to go before a judge and get a time-limited warrant.  There is at least a modest assumption that our phone calls are somewhat private.  This is emphatically not the case in several dozen other countries around the world and RIM is taking it in the shorts.

So, how private is your email or phone calls on a handheld smartphone?  The answer is not even vaguely private, to the extent that you might as well post your email live on your own website and save the authorities the trouble of having to track it down.

Which comes back to the reason why?  The first reason is always “to get those evildoers of the Axis of Evil, a bearded tall man with a dialysis machine who lives in a cave, illegal file sharers, pedophiles and those who violate the copyright act.”

The second reason is straight-up economic espionage.  Sorry kids, it ain’t glamorous James Bond stuff, it’s just business intelligence.  Let us take a simple example to illustrate and we’ll hasten to add here, that this is entirely made up, out of whole cloth.

Canada is a world-leader in the production of the enzymes needed to produce ethanol from things like wheat straw, switchgrass and tree bark.  It’s called cellulostic-ethanol and it doesn’t use food to make ethanol, like the vast majority of ‘green’ fuels.  One company is very good at it.  In fact, they’re just a few kilometers away from where this is being written.

If you were (supposing here for a minute) the producer of the vast majority of Genetically Modified seed corn, who has just finished the final testing of a years-long multi-million dollar project creating the ideal corn hybrid that almost ferments itself, grows inches every day, is rot, disease and pest resistant and will make your company a sure-bet zillion dollars a year, would you be protective of your position?  Hell yeah!

So you want to know about what this cellulostic-ethanol enzyme producing bunch of a-holes is going to do to your business plan.  Of course you do.  By far, the simplest way to stop the production of that particular batch of their newest, most effective and cheapest enzyme is to have a fire suddenly erupt over a weekend and burn their joint to the ground.  Brute force always works, but let’s suggest you’re not quite ready, corporately, to engage in arson.

Could you, using a little technology, a little stealth, some simple detective work and a dose of moral ambiguity, find out exactly how well, or how poorly that competitor’s product is doing, will do, or is being received?  Hell yeah! 

Pick the right executive and have someone install a simple USB keylogger on the machine.  You can even do it with what appears to be spam email and then you’ve got the keys.  Snoop at your will.  You’ve protected your business position with your product and your bonus next year is going to be huge. 

Now expand that scope from business to business and make it country versus country.  Does Airbus Industries from France have a vested interest in Canada buying products from Airbus, instead of Boeing, in the US?  Hell yeah!  Who are the Russians talking with about Crimean oil deposits and what will that do to the price of oil?  What is the intent of the Chinese steel industry regarding scrap iron?  Are they heading towards making less steel from iron ore and coke and more from recycled scrap? 

You can go on ad infinitum and notice the thread:  It’s not the nuclear launch codes, troop dispositions, or what President Obama had for lunch.  That stuff is so 1980’s as to be laughable.  Where the real money and power is, is business espionage.

Which, coming full circle, is why business people liked the Blackberry:  It was reasonably secure. 

Does this mean that Saudi Arabia, India, China and Turkey are not actually concerned with ‘terrorist activities’?  It makes a convincing cover story, but the real issue is economic.  They want to know what the business people are doing, especially the foreign business people, who might have insights or needs that aren’t being served in the most profitable method by the government, or their appointed cronies.

RIM meanwhile, recognizes that India and China are their next biggest markets.  Only about a third of the world’s population is up for grabs.  If they have to grab their ankles to get that pie, then hang on.

Besides, their competitors have already sold out.

Blackberry Ban

Yesterday the Blackberry got canned in Saudi Arabia.  Turkey hates the Blackberry while India and China are looking at the ubiquitous hip device as a candidate for control.  Why, you ask?  Is it because the product is Evil?  No.

The Blackberry format of mobile device has encryption.  Pretty good encryption actually.  The consumer models aren’t quite a strongly protected as the business models with a BES (Blackberry Enterprise Server) in the back of the house.  Blackberry doesn’t route their stuff through ‘common’ carrier servers:  Research in Motion (RIM, the lads who own Blackberry) runs the email side with their own servers.  Many of the servers are in Waterloo Ontario, not far from the RIM HQ, here in Canada.

What is causing the “Blackberry Ban” is that RIM won’t let the governments of various countries stick their noses into what the Blackberry users are saying, sending or texting.  Without a Blackberry proxy server in Turkey or Saudi Arabia for instance, the state security agency can’t monitor what the citizens are doing.  Which also explains why India and China are considering banning the Blackberry.  Heavens forbid that some citizen of those countries might have something positive to say about Pakistan or Tibet.  The World Will End!

Where the icky part comes in, is the other mobile manufacturers.  How much are they complying with the various governments.  Apple, that paragon of all goodness must be playing footsie with the Saudi government, which means there is no ban on the iPhone.  Google’s Android isn’t outlawed in Saudi.  Nor is anything running the Windows Smartphone, Palm, or any of the other manufacturers.  Only Blackberry.

The paranoid out there will suggest that Google has given access to the various governments involved.  The cynical will suggest that Steve Jobs has handed over the keys to the iPhone so Turkish State Security can monitor all the iPhone fanboys downloading the latest instalment of Twilight, or another wretched Adam Lambert video.  Of course, we are not paranoid, or cynical.

Anyone who has a ‘smartphone’ regardless of manufacturer, should have a proper mindset.  The preeminent characteristic of that mindset is that the manufacturer is watching over your shoulder, watching every website you visit, every email you send and every text you tap to every contact in your address book. 

They’re looking for keywords that describe your shopping and social habits to sell to advertisers, for money.  The big profits for any smartphone company is not in the airtime or the data plan.  The big money is in market intelligence.  Where do you go?  What do you talk about?  Who do you talk with?  What stores do you go by?  When do you sleep?  What time do you leave the house? What tunes do you listen to?  What videos do you watch on your phone?  What websites do you use?  What apps do you use most often?

Yes, all that data is readily mined from your smartphone, especially if you have a ‘mobile’ app that features GPS locating. 

Am I near a Starbucks?  Well, the app can’t know if you are, unless the app knows where you are.  How does it know where you are?  Interrogate the onboard smartphone GPS and it will tell the app, plus or minus a few meters, exactly where the phone is located, the phone conceptually being attached to you hip.  Interrogate the database of Starbucks locations to find the ones closest, then display the locations on a map. 

You can now walk the block and a half to get your double-decaf, half-caf, soymilk, lite foam, half Splenda-half sugar, cocoa-dusted with a single shake of cinnamon, triple espresso latte chillerama with medium ice, only a little caramel topping and extra napkins with two straws, one that bends and one that doesn’t.  By the way, that order makes you a complete asshat.

Which means Mindset Number One for a smartphone user is that you have been ear-tagged like a dairy cow.  Willingly.  In fact you paid for the privilege of being ear-tagged and pay every month when you pay your wireless bill.  You pay for the ‘convenience’ of those apps and you pay again when your carrier resells the aggregate market intelligence to advertisers.  Do you think those targeted text messages from sandwich shops, clothiers or other advertisers just magically appear on your smartphone as a random guess that you might be near an outlet?  The answer is No.

As for nefarious uses of smartphones, we have to define nefarious.  To the Saudi government that could mean trying to open a website that tells you about the beaches at Haifa.  Israel does not exist to Saudi Arabia.  Therefore anyone wanting to find out about the beaches at Haifa must be insane, Jewish, or drunk, three things you are not allowed to be in Saudi Arabia.  Cross-tabulate that with your smartphone GPS and we now know where to send the squad car and the guys with the nets and the leg irons.

Perhaps the important question to ask is not why the Blackberry is under scrutiny by foreign governments, but why other smartphone manufacturers are not.

 

   

Chip My Underwear

In a news story Friday from the Wall Street Journal the much beloved Wal-Mart is in the first throes of putting RFID chips in your underwear.  An explanation is in order before someone goes off the deep end assuming Wal-Mart is going to monitor your butt while you ramble their megastores.

RFID means Radio Frequency IDentification and is a small plastic and metal chip that sits on anything it is attached to, waiting to hear from home.  Most RFID chips don’t contain batteries or other power sources:  They’re passive devices, not much bigger than a paper match.  Some are the size of a grain of rice, but they don’t actually do much more than one thing. 

What a RFID chip does do, is detect the presence of a specific frequency of radio broadcast signal, uses that radiated electrical energy as a power source and does the only thing it can do:  Burp up the unique number burned into the RFID tag itself as a very low power transmission. 

At the same time as the RFID scanner is broadcasting its signal, the scanner is also listening for any numbers that beep back on a slightly different frequency from the RFID chips that are within range.  Range is usually less than fifty feet.

Where the magic happens is that number that the passive RFID chip burps back.  If it is a unique number you can then look up that individual product (a pair of jeans for example) in an inventory database and see that number belongs to a pair of Wranglers, zip fly, size 36, Men’s, blue, prewashed, shipped to store 5834 on July 12th 2010. 

With a little more database work you can also see that the wholesale price was $4, shipping, stocking and overhead added $2.17 and the sale price was $17, for a tidy profit of ten bucks and change.  Then the databases in the back can also see that corporately we’re running low on size 36 Mens’ zip fly at that store, so the next shipment of clothing to store 5834 should have another dozen pairs of that size and style and then order them from the factory.

This can all happen in less than one second.  It ain’t rocket science and it ain’t new. Passive RFID chips are in your toll both device for the New York State Thruway, or eZee pay transponder, your work ID card and even your drivers’ license in some states, as well as in the newer US passports.

The question now becomes how permanent the RFID chip becomes.  Some clothing manufacturer have embedded the RFID chip in the actual clothing, hidden in a seam or pocket trim, as a permanent component of the garment.  According to the WSJ story, Benneton did just that a few years ago and caught a face full of consumer backlash. 

The problem is that the RFID tags don’t have the smarts to turn themselves off once the product is sold.  With nothing more than a handheld antenna and a transceiver, any pud with downloadable instructions can make any RFID chip broadcast back the number burned into it, if he gets in range. 

What Wal-Mart wants to do is attach a RFID chip to the sales tag, which is removed at the cash, or by the consumer when they get the jeans home.  Fair enough, the tag isn’t woven into the garment itself, so the tag doesn’t follow you around.  Wal-Mart is even being somewhat transparent about what it intends to do with the data, essentially inventory management and nothing more.

Other manufacturers?  We can only guess what they might consider and how transparent they might be regarding their use of RFID.  Would a brand-name clothing company permanently tag your favourite jacket?  It isn’t hard to do, physically, as a RFID chip could readily fit in the pull tab for a zipper.  Let us assume they’ve done exactly that:  Tagged that pretty summer-fall jacket you bought.

You enter the brand-name store and pass through the anti-theft detectors.  Unbeknownst to you, also in the anti-theft gate, there is a transmitter for the company RFID chips.  Your jacket zipper does what it can only do and pings back the unique number embedded in it.  Almost instantaneously that number is searched in the company inventory database and is found to be paired up to your Brand-Name Store Platinum Loyalty card that you used when your bought the jacket five months ago.

Now the store knows you and with a second or two more, knows your purchase history (you bought saucy underwear four months ago, as well as two tops, but have never bought their shoes or pants) over the the two and a half years of being a Platinum Loyalty customer.  Could you be greeted by name?  Quite possibly. 

Could other stores in the Brand-Name chain that sell different stuff, identify you as a potential customer?  Sure, why not?  All it takes is the sharing of the numbers in the RFID chip:  Brand-Name’s housewares stores could identify you by your jacket RFID tag and give you personalized service, even if you go to their most distant store, while on vacation in Buttcrack, Iowa. 

With a little truth management, they might even read the other tags in your clothing, to see what you bought from the competition.  That bra?  Ahh, not from us.  Sell her a Brand Name Store bra says the text message sent to a company handheld that the “sales associate” has chained to her hand.  Tell her about our shoe sale on now, just for Brand Name Store Platinum Loyalty customers, unadvertised and by invitation only.  All the sales monkey has to do is occasionally glance at the “customer assistance” handheld to see the coaching and prompts in real-time.  Your wallet, purchased from Brand Name’s affiliate, is now going to be emptied with some pretty slick sales tactics, targeted very precisely, at you, your buying habits and your history.

All of it eminently do-able.  No violations of the rules of physics involved, just some good database work and a bit of sharp programming, plus knowing that any RFID chip will burp back a number if you send it the right frequency.

Make The Drop, Dropped

In a previous post we mentioned the Ontario Eco Fee, a cash grab run by Stewardship Ontario to fund the proper recycling of various household hazardous waste products.  The high concept was that retailers would ding the consumer a fee for 22 categories of consumer products in addition to the retail price.  Again, the high concept was that fee would be passed onto Stewardship Ontario to fund the proper, sustainable recycling of those various products. 

As an example, a new home fire extinguisher would carry an Ontario Eco Fee of $6.66 above the retail price of $89.99 for a 10 pound Kidde ABC rechargeable, like the kind you might have in a basement workshop.  Then the Harmonized Sales Tax would glom its mitts into the deal topping the price out at $109.21. 

Conceptually, the retailer would forward $6.66 to Stewardship Ontario and they would use the money to fund a program that recycles old fire extinguishers.  Old fire extinguishers sometimes contain nasty stuff like Carbon Tetrachloride or Halon, neither of which are particularly good for the environment and should be disposed of properly.  Agreed and no issue there.  After properly emptying the extinguisher, the steel container can be recycled as scrap and melted down to make a blade for a shovel, or strings for a zither.  Steel is steel. 

Zinging the purchaser of a new fire extinguisher a bit to pay for a program to do it, sucks.  Then again, we can’t fund everything out of general tax revenue, either federal or provincial, so it still sucks, but at least it is a step in the right direction.  Again, at the high concept level, it’s at least an OK idea.

The final straw was Canadian Tire (Like Pep Boys in the US, but cross-bred with a Home Depot and a big hardware store) said yesterday it would not charge any of the Ontario Eco Fees as the program is utterly pooched beyond all redemption.

Today, the Ontario Minister of the Environment, John Gerretsen cancelled the Ontario Eco Fee because the whole program was so messed up as to be incomprehensible to mere mortals and applied so unfairly as to make people squirm with ugliness at the cash register.  Some places charged it, some charged it incorrectly, others ate the fees, while even more stores just threw their hands up and took mighty levels of abuse from customers as of July 1st, when the expanded fees came into effect.

The real reason the Ontario Eco Fee took a flaming-turd nosedive was the inability of Stewardship Ontario to actually communicate what the fees were for and how they were to be applied.  They skipped that little step of letting us consumers understand why and showing us what the money was going for before they stuck the fees to us. 

If you want to see who is actually responsible for Stewardship Ontario, here’s the link.  You’ll notice that the links for most of the senior management do not work.  Only the CEO, Gemma Zecchini lists her previous gigs, mostly working for the soft drink industry.  It doesn’t make her a bad person and we don’t doubt her sincerity, but the execution this time, truly did fail famously.

Again, back to high concept, the idea is sound:  We have to divert more hazardous materials from being dumped into the general landfill sites around the province, separating out the streams of ‘garbage’ into things that can be composted, things that can be recycled and things that should only go into secure, proper and controlled haz mat facilities.    

The various governments can’t/won’t pay for it, so industry, instead of having legislation inserted without the benefit of lubrication, came up with Stewardship Ontario to take on some of the responsibilities.  Imperfect, yes, right now, it isn’t quite working the way it was supposed to in the PowerPoint presentation.

So here’s a suggestion:  Dismiss the consultants who came up with the communication plan for Stewardship Ontario and start over.  In 25 words or less, explain to me, in simple language, why I have to pay a little bit more for some things and what you’re doing and going to do with the money. 

Show me those fees in action, diverting 88,000 old fire extinguishers from landfills for instance. 

Tell me the story of the company in Mississauga that takes a combination of recycled newspapers and biomass to make steam to generate electricity. 

Show me the company in Ontario that takes old rubber tires and turns them into something new, different or unusual. 

Show me the company that takes PET soft drink bottles, remelts the PET then weaves carpet underpad out of the fibers.  (We know about that one, because the underpad under our basement carpet is exactly that:  Remelted and woven PET bottles.)

In other words, make a case to the average Ontario jamoke that what you’re doing is good and will help us today, next month, next year and the next generation.  We’re reasonable people, we might grumble a bit, but we’ll go along with the Ontario Eco Fee.

If you can’t do that, then Stewardship Ontario is a sham and a con.