09 January 2002

"To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be."
   - Miguel De Unamuno

This is the start of a new year. We face a fresh beginning, with the whole of the calendar unblemished ahead of us. We aspire to health, happiness, prosperity, and some of us, a little more. Many of us begin a new year with lists of things we want to accomplish. We select things we want to learn, acquire, or do by the time the final bell rings out in the coming December 31st. The lists are lengthy, and speak of our desires. I want to learn Latin. I want to earn straight A's. I want to publish my novel. I want to go to Paris. I want to bungee-jump off the Space Needle. I want, I want.

Occasionally, endings creep into the resolution lists, too. When people resolve, "This year I will lose 20 pounds," or "This year I will pay all my bills on time," or even, "I resolve to be nicer to my wife/husband/sister/brother/son/whatever," what they are doing is preparing themselves for the shutting down of bad old habits, in the hope good new habits will take root. These are the resolutions I'm always interested in, because these are the ones that show me struggles, weaknesses, and humanity. My father used to marvel that otherwise sane, intelligent men and women would write out definitions of what they didn't want in their lives, and then spend time dancing around self-imposed borders and boundaries, rather than simply stating a positive, affirming direction for themselves and heading for it.

My father died at the age of seventy of COPD, which is "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," a kind of nasty grab-bag designation for ailments of the lungs. In my father's case, the death certificate identified COPD, with complications from emphysema as the contributing cause. However, no matter what the physician inscribed on the certificate, the real contributing cause was smoking. The poisons he inhaled from the cigarettes killed him, and a slow, painful, lingering death it was.

I remember an anti-smoking campaign put out by the American Lung Association. In it, readers were informed that every cigarette effectively reduced a smoker's life span by seven minutes. Seven unrecoverable minutes. That statistic was meaningful to me, even though I was only ten years old. In seven minutes, I could take a hot shower. I could eat an ice cream cone, or a chocolate bar. I could run around the block. I could swim ten laps in the pool. I could read five pages of a good book. Every cigarette meant one less shower, candy, playtime, or book. It was too great a trade-off.

I never took up tobacco, even casually, although my father and mother were both smokers. I used to nag them, in fact, reminding them periodically that they were going to "die young" if they didn't listen to me and stop. Later, when scientific studies began appearing that showed the awful effects of smoking on the organs and body functions, I stopped nagging. I reasoned that my parents were smart enough to take control and do the right thing without interference from me. I was wrong.

My mother smoked a pack of cigarettes daily, until at the age of sixty-two, she suffered a mild heart attack while out shoveling the driveway. The heart attack was a surprise to everyone, because there was no history of heart disease in our family. She put out the cigarette she was smoking when the ambulance arrived to transport her to the hospital. It was the last she ever had. While in the hospital, she decided her desire to live was stronger than her desire to smoke, and that was that. She came home, and threw out her cigarette case, lighter, and ashtray, and she hasn't touched tobacco since.
My father smoked until the hour before his death. The COPD gained control of his life three years before he died, reducing his range. He couldn't walk half a city block. He couldn't climb more than three steps without resting a minute. He couldn't talk for more than ten minutes, without dissolving into a hacking, wracking cough. He was often tired, because he had to sleep semi-reclined, so his lungs would stay clear. He continued smoking, over his doctors' and his wife's objections. He told them time and again, "I don't want to stop."

By the time he was in the final stages of the disease, he'd been taken delusional and cyanotic to the hospital more than once, because his lungs couldn't take in enough oxygen to support his brain. He couldn't get in and out of his bed without assistance. He couldn't take care of keeping himself clean. He was literally a thin shadow of the man he'd once been.

He was also too weak to light or inhale the cigarettes he insisted on smoking. My mother had the terrible task of turning off the oxygen inhaler, airing the room so there wouldn't be an explosion, and then actually lighting the cigarette for him. She told me his hands trembled, and he barely had the strength to do more than place the cigarette at his lips. She argued with him, but to no avail. He wanted to smoke, and if she wouldn't help him, then he'd find someone who would.

My mother crushed out the final cigarette before turning off the light beside my father's bed. She was exasperated after a particularly bad day, and as she adjusted his oxygen, asked him, "Are these cigarettes really worth all this?" She says he shrugged, then whispered, "Maybe not." She kissed his forehead, and left the room. He died quietly before the next dawn.

He left us wondering what it was about those cigarettes that made him love them more than he loved life, or us. I wish he'd followed his own good advice, and defined what he wanted for himself in positive terms -- maybe then he'd have stopped.

For those who read this and have "I'll stop smoking" on your New Year's resolution list, I have a suggestion. Erase the resolution, and write, "I want healthy lungs."

Excuse me. I'm off to lay some flowers on Dad's grave.


03 January 2002

"There is no calamity greater than lavish desires.
 There is no greater guilt than discontentment.
 There is no greater disaster than greed."
   - Lao Tzu

I've been watching the Enron scandal unravel itself in all its terrible splendor. I am in awe of the dollar amount lost to the investors in this enterprise, and not at all surprised by the public outrage against the management that sat watch while the company cratered. It's a very bad situation for an incredible number of people.

I'm no stranger to events like this. There was a time when I worked for a company that held a dubious record for achievement: the highest single year's net operating loss, at nearly $225 million, a record they held for a number of years. I joined the company several years after the loss was posted, as part of a brand new management team invited to try to dig the company, by then reorganized and merged and prettied up for new investors, out of the quarter billion dollar hole it had augured itself into. The task was impossible, but our CEO never had less than incredible optimism. When confronted with mounting losses and dwindling revenues, he'd cheerily ask, "Know what's great about our situation?" When we'd confess we couldn't imagine anything great about it he'd laugh and say, "With our NOL so big, we'll never have to post a profit!" That thought was usually enough to send me off to the local watering hole for the afternoon. The company's liquidity, or lack thereof, was a beer chaser par excellence. Needless to say, not one member of the "new and improved" management team, myself included, remains in the company, which is still limping along deep in leveraged debt.

But Enron's management has gone far beyond anything we could have imagined. The implications for investor's portfolios are alarming at best, horrific at worst. Once valued options are wholly submerged, Congress is calling for an investigation, and aspersions are being publicly cast. Lawsuits are being filed on an hourly basis.

I noted one thing that I confess, I find baffling. Enron used the services of Arthur Anderson (now known as Accenture) as its auditing agency. Every year, the auditors are supposed to review the company's books, and file reports with the appropriate authorities and investment groups regarding the fiscal health or unsoundness of the company under review. The auditing agency is one of the largest, and most respected, in the nation. Surely they must have seen signs that something was amiss with the bottom line before it slid into seven- and eight-digit negative numbers. We're not talking chump change, after all. How did they miss this?

I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the consulting arm of their business was busily charging nearly one million dollars weekly to Enron for "services rendered?" Even the most inexperienced, naive managers know that the suppliers who provide services to the business probably aren't going to be the most reliable auditors for those same services. If not, our business school curriculae are more severely broken than I can imagine. Regardless, Accenture made a lot of money from consulting, and even more money from auditing, and when the dust settles, Enron's still going to be on record as a colossal investment catastrophe, a record that might stand a few years longer than the paltry $225 million of former years.

Excuse me. I have to write a check to my application programmer. He's nearly finished auditing my programs, and tells me everything's just fine.


02 January 2002

"Whom unmerciful Disaster
  Followed fast and followed faster."
      - E.A. Poe, The Raven, st. 11

It seldom occurs to me to give vent to my feelings about computers, software applications, and the havoc they generate in our lives, in writing. It's certainly never occurred to me to write about those things in this forum. Until now, that is.

While the rest of the world watched football games and flowery parades yesterday, I sat in front of a personal computer system with a friend whose nerves were frayed. He'd been the unfortunate victim of a hacker's invasion, and the resulting mess took us nearly the whole day to unravel. I found out he was in trouble when on the afternoon of December 31st, my beloved woke me to inform me that he'd received email, and not only was the text of the email garbled, but his personal computer was flashing a message announcing its detection of a virus. I came to my feet in a flash and helped my darling take care of the problem. The virus was a nasty new one, a polymorphing Trojan Horse-style invader that not only steals all the addresses from your email address book, but when it finishes, trashes your computer's operating system applications. It's not user-friendly.

My beloved's computer system has been under my watchful eye since the day it arrived in our house. As a geek of long-standing (I'm talking about more than twenty years in the software business), I know that by the application of some simple, effective preventive maintenance procedures, we could safeguard the system with relatively little effort and cost. To that end, I'd purchased and installed Norton's SystemWorks, and implemented a schedule of routine backup and data storage. I regularly update the virus definitions and pay the pittance the company asks for yearly maintenance. When software patches and OS updates become available, I download and install them. I've taught my darling how to avoid getting the IP address trapped in the spammers' nets, and what to do when anything seems wrong (call me). The email application is commercial quality, and doesn't have great, gaping security holes through which hackers can gain control of the system. My spouse's machine runs clean as a whistle. On the few occasions when viruses have attempted infiltration, the antivirus software generally has pre-empted the strikes, instead quarantining or deleting the offending attachments and emails. This time was no different. By the time I reached the computer, the anti-virus software had taken care of the problem for me, and all I had to do was decide whether or not I wanted to salvage the infected files through an automatic repair option. Since we knew the files were garbage, I made the decision to delete.

After, I cruised online to the Symantec anti-virus center (http://www.sarc.com). I researched the virus that we'd just removed. There was plenty of information about the virus, and explicit, clear instructions for the steps to take to manually remove the virus from one's system. There were descriptions of the virus properties, how to recognize infected emails and attachments, and the "payload" the hackers deliver if you don't get the infection off the system before it executes itself. It was all pretty scary stuff.

The virus was first reported in September. In fact, it's classified as a "Virus or Worm," with at least six known variations. The virus uses email addresses from Windows Book files, Outlook Express Sent items, and Netscape Sent items to propagate itself. When it delivers its payload, the damage is severe, causing system instability on a large scale. This includes overwriting hard drives, erasing CMOS, and flashing the BIOS. Further, because it sends itself off in email, there's a chance it will release confidential information to others in the form of MS-Word documents. A thoroughly nasty bug, this one.

I learned to recognize the virus vehicle (the email). The subject line is "randomly generated text up to 60 characters long." The attachments (these deliver the payload) consist of "one randomly named infected executable, and several randomly selected text or document files " This was consistent with what my beloved and I saw. Our friend's strange email had two attachments -- "camera.exe" and a Word document. The payload takes square aim at "All Windows Program Execution files that are not .DLL files." This means all .EXE, .COM, .BAT, .PIF files -- in a word, the underlying operating system.

The virus also attempts to disable firewall functionality for the user, adds an entry to the "Shell=explore.exe" line in the boot section of the system initialization file (that invokes the virus the next time you boot your system), searches for more Windows system folders (Winnt, Windows, Win95, Win98, Winme, Win2000, Win2k, Winxp), emails an executable attachment to every person in the address book, and occasionally attaches .GIF files to emails (these are where some real fun can begin, since the hackers almost always prefer to send out pornographic images), Here's the kicker, though: the payload overwrites Ntldr.exe and Win.com on all drives with code that causes it to store garbage data in the first sector of the first IDE hard drive, which is what renders a personal computer unusable. Once this last is accomplished, .you're in possession of a $2,000 boat anchor.

The Symantec information ends with this: "Files that cannot be repaired should be deleted. If necessary, restore any deleted files from a clean backup." The hackers' worst enemy is a prepared, well-defended user in possession of both current anti-virus software and a backup.

When we finished ridding my darling's system of the threat, I said we should call and let our friend know his system was breached. We decided we could wait a couple of hours and inform our friend in person of what we'd discovered -- we were going to his house for our annual New Year's Eve get-together dinner party. We thought we might simply mention the issue to him, and he'd be able to take care of the problem the next day, and that would be that.

As it turned out, it wasn't that simple. He told us the person who he'd hired to monitor and maintain his office systems was a "Mac bigot" who hated touching Windows-based systems, and as a result, he didn't do anything with the system unless absolutely forced into it. However, the Windows-based system is the one our friend uses for all his email dispatches, for file transfers and faxes, and for business proposal delivery around the globe. His business is highly specialized, and international. And he's got all the wrong stuff -- an older version of the operating system, the Outlook Express email, and no antivirus protection. His expression was duly alarmed as we described what we'd found, and he asked me if I could help.

I agreed, and we made a date for the following day, which was yesterday. We spent the whole day together. In those seven hours, we revealed seventy-four infected files, three separate viruses, and a hard drive configured for a fast failure at a not-distant point in the future. We identified holes in system security, system configuration errors that affect performance and reliability, and a non-existent backup strategy. We found, too, that a young consultant had been using the system to scan the Web for pornography, and left thousands of nasty images on his disk. This explained, at least, the increase my friend noticed in sexually suggestive spam he'd been receiving. Together, we scanned, disinfected, deleted, and then purchased some tools to prevent a recurrence of the worst events. I plugged the biggest holes, but many still exist.

He's had the computer system two years. In that time, it's never been backed up, and it's never been monitored for performance. It's never had a refresh to the operating system, and it's never had a logging facility for user access. That system was a ticking time-bomb for his business. As it was, we ended the long day by crafting an apology/explanation email, which we sent out to the several hundred people whose addresses were stored on his system. We said, "Please run an antivirus program against your systems as soon as you can -- we are sorry for the inconvenience to you." When it all ended, we agreed I would come back periodically and help him get the system up to snuff over the next several months. With all the work we'd done, we only lost one 30K file -- a self-extracting zip file that couldn't be recovered after the antivirus repair. This was indeed the miracle of the day.

My poor friend. He's been at the mercy of everyone, and didn't really know it. When we parted company, he said, "I'm just trying to run my business, and do the best I can. Why do these people have to make it so hard for me?"

Why, indeed. What a way to start a new year. Excuse me, but I have to stop and back up my system.