A day of false alarms…

I was a little weirded out when I welcomed the exciting world of personal surveillance into my home for the first time. Like most other technologies, though, once you get over the initial “newness” it largely fades into the background. I go though my day barely noticing the little pods that keep an eye on the homestead even when I’m not.

Truth be told, I’ve gotten to the point where far from being creeped out by having my own personal surveillance state, I’ve come to enjoy being able to look in on what’s going on periodically – and having a record of it that reaches back days for the inevitable “just in case” moments when that sort of thing proves useful to have around.

As someone who depends on one of these systems as part of a multi-component home security plan, I probably shouldn’t admit that even the most current version of the consumer grade products have their limitations. The issue of the day is the fact that apparently once the wind starts blowing at more than 20 miles per hour the software that runs the outdoor cameras decides that it is constantly seeing motion and throws “warning” messages every 37 seconds. I’ve gotten a constant stream of them all day long.

Sure, I check them because I tend a bit towards the obsessive, but someone with a lesser degree of paranoia just might become a little less observant given the sheer volume of false alarms getting tossed around. I suppose there’s a way to dial back that kind of sensitivity, but personally I’d rather have a day of false alarms once a month than run the risk of missing the one that might matter.

Faith in the cloud…

Storing data “in the cloud” is not exactly new. It’s the modern version of mainframes with dumb terminals repackaged to sound somehow more futuristic. For data intensive activities – lets say storing a master backup of my hard drive – having it reside in the cloud (i.e. renting space in someone else’s server farm) works well enough for most purposes.  It just hums along in the background making a faithful copy of everything I have stored on my home computer. The chances of that service and my computer both crapping out at the exact same time are remote enough to not cause a moment’s active worry.

With something like a password manager, though, you end up with a bit of a different story. For five hours today Lastpass, one of a handful of large and popular password managers, was offline. It’s probably not a crisis if you use relatively simple passwords, like 1-2-3-4-A-B-C-D. If you use this kind of service to manage a hundred or more passwords and each of those passwords is a unique 16+ character string, however, life is going to get inconvenient in a hurry if there happen to be sites you actively need to log in to on a daily basis. 

For five hours today Lastpass failed me and I was effectively locked out of sites I use regularly, but that require a daily log in. Some passwords I had to reset manually (while taking note of the new password to sync later with the application that’s nominally in charge of managing my passwords). Others I was locked out of completely while waiting for the systems people to bring their website back online.

No online service will ever have a 100% availability. That goes with the territory. As a paying customer, though, I do expect some basic communication from the company about what’s happening and what is being done to restore services, and more specifically an ETA on when we can expect the repair to be completed. Today, unless you went digging on Twitter, it was a resounding silence from Lastpass. Not an impressive bit of performance… and something that’s got me reevaluating the balance between the security of a paid professional management site versus just keeping everything on a damned spreadsheet so I can use it when I need it. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Home security. I’ve made a point to have an alarm system in ever house I’ve ever owned. Over the years and moving from house to house the systems have become progressively more complex, evolving from a few simple sensors towards something that’s constantly monitoring and able to show me the health and safety of the homestead in real time. In all my years of using a home security system, though, the only thing it’s ever actually alerted me to was various problems with the security system itself. It’s probably a good problem to have and I’m certainly glad it’s not constantly alerting me to real world problems at home… but I could have done with a little less time spent running diagnostics and troubleshooting earlier this week.

3. Better late than never. Ten minutes before 3PM, the powers that be expressed their concern about the weather and sent everyone home “two hours early.” That’s a fine gesture, of course, except that I would have had to travel back in time to take advantage of this generous offer. On my own authority I dumped in a leave request and departed the area at 2:30. It’s a safe bet to assume that I value my own neck a hell of a lot more than any of the aforementioned powers do anyway. My commute home took twice the normal amount of time and would have easily taken 3x as long had I waited around for others to make a decision and found 20,000 other people all trying to make a break for it at the same time. Thanks to the vagaries of the federal personnel system, though, even though I only took 90 minutes of leave and the powers subsequently approved a blanket 2 hours, I’m still out the 90 minutes I asked for because it was on file before the blanket leave was approved. Maybe it’s an even trade since I’m not stuck sitting on the road somewhere between here and there. Still, it’s just a helpful reminder that Uncle doesn’t put much of a premium on free thinking despite whatever lip service may be paid doing an “individual risk assessment.” That said, I regret nothing and will always use my own best judgement where issues of life, health, and safety are concerned – even if that means putting my money or my leave balance where my mouth is. It would just be nice if we didn’t play the same stupid game and win the same stupid prizes every single year.

4. Florida. I’ve mentioned the Sunshine State once already this week, but they can’t seem to keep themselves out of the news. I just find it mind boggling that all these years after the contested 2000 election any county in Florida has this much trouble counting little pieces of paper even when given the benefit of large and powerful electronic tools to do so. Surely if we line up enough Floridians they can account for enough fingers and toes to do the damned math, right?

The end is just the beginning…

One of the many perks of working from home is that it gives you a predictable block of time that’s uninterrupted by people wandering past your desk wanting to talk about their weekend or some project they’re working on. It’s the perfect time to accomplish one of two kinds of work. The first is the difficult to do items that require a lot of focus and limited interruptions. The second is the laundry list of mundane online annual training courses we’re required to click through… er… I mean “take” by echelons higher than reality. I spent some time today dutifully getting my clicks in. I was trying to actually get in the last of my clicks done for the year until I was rudely interrupted by one of Uncle’s vaunted websites that just wouldn’t open. That’s fine. I mean who really needs cyber awareness anyway. I think by now we’re all fully aware of the cyber.

The bigger problem I find is that in about 45 days the clock starts running again and all the previous year’s clicks are reset to zero. You might be tempted to think that you’d then be presented with new information or updated training requirements. You would, of course, be wrong. The preponderance of next year’s requirements will replicate this year’s classes with almost 100% fidelity. If you ever wonder why someone might be tempted to take this ration of training less than seriously, the fact that they’ve taken the same class every year for the better part of a decade could be a leading indicator.

The end really is just the beginning… and I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to take the exact same class another 15 times.

Skippy Blowemup…

I’ve always said that if I wanted to strike fear into the hearts of Americans, I’d find ten or fifteen fanatics, strap bombs to them, and send them off to ten or fifteen random coffee shops to blow themselves to pieces. It wouldn’t be in New York or DC. Those places are predictable targets. We’ve come to expect terrorist attacks there as just another feature of “life in the big city.”

I’d have pointed my boys (because let’s face it, the ones who are usually willing to get themselves killed in the process are almost always young men) at Kansas City, Boise, Tampa, Salt Lake City, or Cleveland. If I had more people and more supplies, they’d go to even smaller cities – maybe no more than 20,000-30,000 people. I mean do you really think the average person getting their caffeine fix in Henderson, Kentucky is looking some half-assed wannabe jihadist to come walking through the door with a pipe bomb strapped to his gut?

As much as I like to think I’m aware of my surroundings, no one knows more than I do how often and how easy it is to find yourself distracted. I suspect that even the best would say it’s difficult to impossible to stay “on” all the time… and even if you manage it, being suspicious of everyone walking through the door is a hard way to live. You’ll just have to assume that I’m right on that one based on my personal lack of trust in just about everyone.

Point is, we got lucky in New York today. We got lucky because Skippy Blowemup was a shit bomb builder. We won’t get lucky every time. I can’t imagine we’ll get lucky even most of the time. Terrorism with a small “t” has come to America. It got here a while ago, but it’s hard to believe we won’t see more if it. It’s just easier to get your hands on a pipe bomb or pressure cooker than it is to find a airliner and trained pilot sitting around. As a country we do a fair job of getting out hands around the big problems – I mean skyscrapers aren’t toppling on a regular basis. We’ve put security in place that helps prevent that from happening.

The real question, though, is how good are we going to be at catching the small timers with a death wish? Our daily life is built around the idea that we’re free to come and go when and where we please? How likely are any of us to put up with a pat down or full body scan every time we go to the local shopping center or get on a subway train?

I swear to God the longer I’m in it, the more I hate the 21st century.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Garbage equipment. To be fair, the equipment might not be complete garbage when it’s new in the box, but as soon as we open ‘er up and layer on security software and forbid users to have even basic administrative abilities on the machine, we’ve got equipment that behaves as if it’s old and slow and generally garbage. I know I don’t need the most current performance model for what I do, but it would be awfully convenient to have a computer that didn’t require a thirty minute start, restart, restart cycle at least once a week. The alternative is to stop asking for finished products or any information at all for at least the first half hour of any given weekday.

2. Random sickness. I labor under no delusions of being what anyone might describe as a “healthy person.” I’m fat. My blood pressure is high. I enjoy red meat and liquor. Knowing all that, there are some sicknesses that quite frankly come with the territory. It’s the ones that sneak in from nowhere, pummel your ass for 12-48 hours and then disappear that really piss me off. Setting in before a guy has time to plan for them and then disappearing before they can justify taking a sick day feels like being cheated somehow.

3. Common sense. I’m not convinced that the person who originated the phrase “common sense” ever spent any time actually interacting with the average human being. If they had, they’d have known that there is absolutely nothing common about people following even the most basic patterns of logic or decency. I’d be willing to go so far as to say that in general, people aren’t capable of either identifying or following their own self interest let alone applying some basic rules for living in civil society. Implying otherwise is something between farce and an outright lie perpetrated n the English language.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Ghosting. If you thought dating at 18 was an exercise in the absurd, you should really try dating at 38. I don’t do it often, which is a testament more to my incredible shrinking tolerance to people than it is the number of opportunities available. As obnoxious as I find most human interaction, I think the thing that bothers me most are the ones that just disappear. You plug along being your normal charming self, go on a few dates, and *poof* suddenly they disappear from social media and stop answering texts. It’s one of those times when having generally low expectations of people is such a valuable trait. If you had any kind of decent personality I’ll probably spend a day or two wondering if you ended up in a ditch somewhere, but after that I’ll file you under T-for-twatwaffle and move on with my day. In retrospect maybe I shouldn’t be annoyed and just appreciate that I’ve been saved from discovering that factoid six months down the line after I’ve invested more than a few hours and a couple of meals into figuring out if you are a total asshat.

2. EpiPen. I’m always a little perplexed when people seem to be surprised that it costs money to keep yourself alive if you’re not in perfect physical health. As I pointed out to a colleague, a hundred years ago, people who needed EpiPens or really any significant medical intervention to save them from the earth’s flora and fauna just kind of dropped dead. While I’m not endorsing that as the ideal solution for people with allergies, but when death is the consequence, spending a few hundred bucks to stay alive doesn’t feel like too stiff a price to pay. Somewhere along the lines in this country we’ve developed the idea that more and more “essentials” should just come at no cost to us. I have no idea where that kind of mindset comes from. There’s a cost for everything in life, the only real question is whether it comes out of our pocket in the retail line when we decide it’s a necessity or at the point of a gun when government decides the next installment of our tax bill is due. We can give the government enough power to feed us all, to house us all, to clothe us all, and to medicate us all… and on the day that happens we’ll all be well and truly slaves.

3. Accountability. I’m bombarded multiple times a year with reminders to fulfill approximately 178 yearly training requirements. Among them are such classics as ethics and cyber security. Let me not check those boxes on time and there’s hell to pay. Let me violate one of the rules, policies, or laws they cover and there’s a good chance I’ll end up seeing the inside of a courtroom if not the inside of a federal minimum security prison. I’m smart enough to know that the rules are always somewhat different for the rich and powerful, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It certainly doesn’t mean I have to give my vote to a candidate who doesn’t feel in any way constrained by the rules and requirements that have a tendency to make the job such a pain in the ass for the rest of us. Just once I’d love to see a little accountability and a story of a senior official caught in a web of misconduct that resulted in more than solemn-faced apology or blanket denial.

False…

It’s late. I’m laying in bed. Dozing. The closing credits of whatever 1940s vintage movie was playing on one of the old movie channels were scrolling. Something trips the security system and the sirens start screaming.

I’m by God awake now, listening for anything I might be able to hear over the screeching. Nothing. Now add the constant nagging of the phone ringing – the monitoring company doing their thing. Time for them later.

What you’re left with then is two snarling dogs and a bald, fat, nearly naked, adrenaline filled, and very, very angry man storming down the hall racking a 12 gauge 00 buckshot shell into the chamber, and letting off what I can only imagine was a passible approximation of the Rebel yell.

I’d like to think that under the circumstances even the most determined tweeker would take that opportunity to beat a hasty retreat.

The good news, of course, is that instead of being the classic home invasion, what I seem to have experienced last night is the more typical bad sensor triggering a false alarm. The homestead was buttoned up tight as a drum, though the alarm panel insisted that one of the doors was open. Getting that sorted out, as you can imagine, has immediately jumped ahead of a number of projects planned for this beautiful Sunday morning.

Open door policy…

The news channels are abuzz this weekend with the decision to allow as many as 10,000 Syrian nationals into the United States. Aside from the logistical issues of bring them a third of the away around the world. Aside from the national security implications of allowing 10,000 lightly vetted people into the country from a part of the world who still seems to think we’re the great Satan. Aside from the issues of international law, common sense, and domestic politics. Aside from all those things I think the whole idea stinks to high heaven.

For the last thirty years, the world has loved to take a swing at America the Punching Bag. We’re everyone’s favorite bad neighbor. We’re the country they absolutely love to hate. And they do hate us… right up to the point where the shit hits the fan and they need someone big enough and strong enough to save the world one more time. We’ll do everything they ask and more and when the crisis has passed we’ll be collectively criticized for not doing enough or not doing it right or not doing it faster. There’s never a nod of thanks or a word of appreciation. With the turning of the news cycle everyone will be right back to cheering “death to America.”

Before we announce an open door policy for tens or hundreds of thousands of people, I think ought to ask a simple question: How many of the countries demanding that America do “something” would let a hundred thousand American citizens just show up in their country with the expectation that they would then be responsible for these people’s health and welfare? How many of these wanna-be great powers would lift a hand to help if our house were on fire? I can think of one or maybe two, but even their offer would certainly have strings attached. I shudder to think what price countries who aren’t our closest allies would demand if suddenly America were on her knees.

I’ll never win humanitarian prizes for my foreign policy. That’s ok. Want to bring in 10,000 people? That’s fine too, but can someone please promise me that these people won’t be free to roam about the country until we’re sure someone over there isn’t smart enough to use a humanitarian crisis as an convenient cover for getting as many terrorists into the country as possible. There are potentially millions of people on the move. If you think our enemies aren’t pondering on ways to use that to their advantage you’ve clearly underestimated them. If we’re bringing people here, we owe it to ourselves to get it 100% right, because the bad guys only have to get it right one time to exact a terribly price for our hospitality.

Email…

Without going into the politics of it all, let me just say that if I, as a low level functionary in the great machine, decided to start conducting all of my day-to-day official work using the email server associated with jeffreytharp.com, I may or may not last out the week before someone at echelons higher than reality noticed and took one of the following actions: 1) terminated me with prejudice for violating security protocols and network standards; 2) Disciplined me to within an inch of my life ensuring that my career was effectively, if not officially, at an end; or 3) Turned me over to the local constabulary for prosecution. The likely outcome is some combination of the three.

The chances of my ever being named Secretary of Anything is precisely the same as the chances of my sprouting wings from my back and flying down to South America for the weekend. Still, with all that said I like to think if I were nominated and confirmed for such an august position within the government, I’d find some way to work within the system and still get my email set up exactly the way I like it.

In the rank and file, there are few things more demoralizing than seeing the great and the good blatantly walking around the rules they expect the rest of us to operate under. Even if it weren’t demoralizing it would cost you any shred of credibility you might have ever had in my eyes… and when it comes to working politicians, there’s precious little of that in the bank to begin with.