Thursday, September 13, 2007

Google, XP, Prime Minister Abe and Homeland Security have all Incurred my Displeasure

Google, XP, Prime Minister Abe and Homeland Security have all Incurred my Displeasure

Let's start with Google. Recently, my three-year-old daughter, Aiko Cornucopia Boadicea Nishikawa, completed one of her very few three-dimensional art forms. A pictorial record is at the top of this blog entry.

The installation in question is a work in mixed media (air and plastic) and is entitled HOMELAND SECURITY. It is, in my opinion, a work of poised assurance which wittily encapsulates the hegemony of terror which has been imposed upon us by the so-called "protection" of Homeland Security, the ever-spawning and self-propagating bureaucracy which is currently in the process of trying to take control of the universe.

My daughter's forays into three dimensional art are few and far between. Usually, she contents herself with energetic two-dimensional "me can scribble!" sketches, expressive of the utterly confident artistic energy which Pablo Picasso so admired in small children.

Her last three 3D works prior to HOMELAND SECURITY are (the Japanese title is given first, with a loose - sometimes very loose - translation into English afterwards): SHINDA SEMI ("Dead Cicada"), BUTSUKATTA KATATSUMORI ("Smashed Snail") and TSUKARETTA WAN-WAN UNCHI ("Exhausted Doggy Poop".) All these three were in the "objet trouve" genre.

No shame in that. Picasso himself worked in this genre on occasion. However, by comparison, her HOMELAND SECURITY represents a giant stride forward in the development of this artist. And, naturally, as her proud father, I was keen to e-mail photographs to everyone in my communicative network.

This is where Google failed me.

While Gmail still works, it has failed (at least for me) to attach anything to an e-mail. For this reason, my "me proud father" aspirations have been thwarted, and I have been unable to e-mail the HOMELAND SECURITY pics to my father, my mother, my Uncle Don, and to the major art galleries which have begun to take an interest in my daughter's burgeoning art career.

I presume that Google will get its act together eventually, but, really, I had expected more.

My first ever experience with free web-based e-mail was with Hotmail, some years back, an experience that was such a downer that I became convinced, at least at the time, that free e-mail was worth exactly what you paid for it.

However, Gmail having performed pretty well for me for some time now (in particular, with its magnificently ruthless spam filer) my expectations have been raised.

My beef with XP is the same old whine: use this operating system for stuff that it's not really designed to do, such as running computer programs, and it falls over.

XP having fallen over yet again, over the weekend I reverted my ThinkPad to "factory contents" status, then resintalled all my backed-up data and software. The first couple of times I ever did this, it used to take about three days to get the system to my satisfaction. But I've now become such a master of the process that, this time, it barely took six hours.

As for Prime Minister Abe, well, this dude was so grotesquely irresponsible as to resign on Wednesday 12 September, right in the middle of a sumo tournament. So when I got back from the supermarket, where I'd been doing food shopping for the evening meal (salmon, scallops and flying fish eggs), and switched on TV with a view to blobbing out for a few recuperative minutes and watching a little sumo, there was, instead of the expected wrestling, the dismal political deconstruction of Abe's absquatulation from the political scene.

The TV showed various unsuspected passers by being ambushed by the news of his resignation outside Tokyo station. Nobody seemed remotely sad. Rather, typically, their faces lit up in what looked very much like pleasure.

So now this brings me to Homeland Security, and a very weird and almost inexplicable thing that happened to me recently.

I lately acquired a new domain name and, having bought it, went looking for hosting for it. I wanted bullet-proof Linux-based hosting that would be affordable and reliable, and I found just what I was looking for in the heartland of the United States of America.

I'll call the outfit that I signed up with War Criminal Nation Deathservers (hereafter "Warcrim.")

Before signing up with Warcrim, I did a Google on them, including a Google of Groups, to see if there was any bad-news scuttlebutt about them floating around. There wasn't. I satisfied myself that this outfit had been in business for some years, that people had done business with it but had not been provoked into saying anything bad about it, and that its terms of service were acceptable.

I then signed up, splashing out the munificent sum of US $84 (give or take a few cents).

I very shortly received an e-mail from Warcrim saying that my credit card payment had been accepted and that I would receive full details of my account (ftp protocols, nameserver details and so forth) inside of 24 hours.

More than 24 hours having passed, I got a bit worried. Since I'm conscious of the fact that, this year, on more than one occasion I've let my Atilla the Hun out of the kennel, I made a conscious effort to write a nice polite I-will-not-Atilla e-mail pointing out that I had not yet received the promised setup details e-mail.

Another 48 hours having passed without any such e-mail, I lost patience and let Atilla off the chain. I got hold of as many Warcrim e-mail addresses as I could find online, these being for Sales, Billing and Legal, and fired off three e-mail messages which were emphatic in the same sense as the Krakatoa eruption was erratic.

Result: zero.

I then got worried. Maybe I had given my credit card to some spurious site which was not the authentic Warcrim site. But, if so, why had they bothered to send me an e-mail? Any time you send anyone an e-mail, you risk self-exposure, because the spoor from your e-mail leads back to your lair.

With that in mind, I went to my Gmail account. It does not, as far as I can see, have any facility for downloading an actual e-mail message for analysis. No problem. I forwarded the e-mail to an e-mail account that I have here in Japan courtesy of Netyou, our local cable TV provider, then opened it with Outlook Express and saved the message as an *.eml file.

I then opened the *.eml message with NoteTab Light, which has become my standard text editor, and examined the trail which led back to the lair.

As an e-mail message bounces around the Internet, zinging from computer A to computer B, often taking a chaotic and circuitous route, it collects data which shows exactly what route it took. If you open up the actual *.eml file then you will find this data.

It's all technical gobbledygook but, in amongst a slew of stuff I didn't really understand, I finally found some plain English which seemed to say, very clearly, that, yes, the e-mail started off by being launched from a Warcrim computer.

As far as I could tell, then, the e-mail message was authentic.

This was very strange.

The facts I had to reconcile were these:

1. Businesses which have been online for some years are generally not fraudulent, or, if they are, will often have complaints about them which you can find by Googling Groups.

2. The provision of Internet services is extremely competitive, and it's no environment for slackers. If an organization promises to deliver something in 24 hours, it will generally do just that, unless prevented by acts of force majeure, comet strikes, alien invasions, a thermonuclear strike on company headquarters, or similar.

3. Since Warcrim has apparently eaten my US $84, this fact will show up on my credit card statement, and, with that evidence in my hot little hand, I will be able to go after them.

I then set about thinking about how I could get at these people, and I came up with the following ideas:

1. Write (both snail mail and e-mail) directly to the company's physical address, complaining;

2. Write, similarly, to the local media;

3. Ditto to the local cops (yeah, sure, they wouldn't be bothered, but I would send a copy of this correspondence to Warcrim itself, and that might bother them a little even if, in all probability, the cops had better things to do with their time);

4. write to the FBI, which, I believe, takes an interest in computer crime;

5. write to the senator who serves the local area;

and,

6. write to Homeland Security and denounce Warcrim as a terrorist organization.

This last idea struck me, at first, as being just a little over the top. But I thought that, in the present overheated environment, it might resonate. I could argue thus:

America is being held up for judgment by the world, with many people, globally, being critical of the United States. In this environment, any American company which indulges in computer fraud besmirches the image of America, and, in thus doing so, gives comfort to terrorists. We can say, therefore, that this kind of misbehavior is a kind of corruption in which crime equals terrorism.

That is, I admit, a bit of a stretch. But I was conscious of the fact that Homeland Security is an organization which long ago fled the realms of the rational.

After the no-fly list was magicked into existence by the warped wizards of Insecurity Is Us, the Homies (if I can call them that) were aberrantly delinquent in dumping people onto the list willy-nilly. Members of the United States senate ended up on the no-fly list. So did little babies. Sorry, ma'am, we know little Johnny is only three months old, but he's already on the watch list. Which means he can't fly. And you can't, either.

The question was not, really, whether Homeland Security would buy this idea. The question was whether Warcrim might think that Homeland Security might buy it.

By now I was thinking about the people who run Warcrim. Must be corporate officers listed somewhere online. Then, once I found out who they were, I could write letters to them.

Then, using a trick that I learnt back in my days as a debt collector (or, as we call ourselves, professionally, a "mercantile agent") I could get at them directly and personally in the following way. I don't know how this would play out, legally, in your jurisdiction, but this is what I did in New Zealand, routinely:

You want to collect a debt from X, but X fails to respond to your e-mail. You know that X lives at 27A Swindlecheat Boulevard. You then write polite letters addressed to "The Occupant" at numbers 26, 27, 28 and 29 Swindlecheat Boulevard, explaining, politely, that you are trying to contact X, but X has not responded to your letter.

You are at a loss to know why X has not responded, so you are wondering if you, Mr or Mrs Nice Occupant, could possibly take the trouble to make a quick phone call to say if X is still in residence at 27A or has shot through.

If you ask nicely, people will often (not always, but often enough to make this technique useful) respond. Sometimes they will actually drop you a line which includes X's forwarding address. Or sometimes, knowing that X is right next door (always cranking up that bloody lawnmower on Sunday afternoons) and they will wander across to X's place and knock on the door.

For X, who finds you coming at him (or her) from a completely unexpected angle, this is a shock, like having a bucket of scalding water dumped on top of you. The results can be gratifying.

So, my anger being on hot boil, I was all set to go.

Then I started thinking.

What is the worst that can happen? Assuming that I have not actually gone and given my credit card number to a fraudulent site (and the evidence of the e-mail headers suggests that I haven't) then, at worst, I have been ripped off for US $84. Which is not the end of the world.

On top of that, the wreckage of my printer is barely capable of printing. If I was going to fire off a string of snail mail letters I would have to either buy a new printer or go to an Internet cafe and pay to use their facilities, which would include a fully-functional computer.

By the time I was done, I would have burnt up a lot more than US $84 in terms of time, effort and postage.

So I decided, the hell with it. I didn't go so far as to say "Death to America" (at least not aloud - you never know who is listening) but I did vow that this was the last time, the very last time, that I would ever do any kind of business with any outfit in the US of A, if doing such business was avoidable.

I then went back on line to Google my way to another Internet service provider, and found a good one in Britain. Fractionally more expensive, but very high tech, and, when I looked at Groups, I found not complaints, not neutral stuff, but glowing recommendations.

So I signed up with them, and they delivered, and this, I decided, is the ultra high-tech totally bulletproof Internet service provider that I want.

But, meantime, my imagination kept returning to the US $84 question. I don't like being ripped off.

I've had the experience of trying to communicate with American corporations before. On a couple of occasions, I've written letters to American publishers with whom I've had business dealings, only to have both snail mail and e-mail vanish into an unanswering void.

But the business of providing Internet services is a lot more businesslike than the ramshackle machine known as the publishing industry. Warcrim's dereliction quite simply did not compute.

Given that my credit card account will show that they have taken my money, what makes them think that they can fail to provide services promised and paid for?

As my imagination revolved this problem, I kept returning to the Homeland Security behemoth, the outfit which makes a profession of paranoia.

America's terrorist problem is, as we all know, firmly based in the mountains of Pakistan, just across the border from Afghanistan. But America will never go in there and root out the terrorists because, quite simply, it doesn't have the balls.

The news in recent months included the information that, some time back, the American military had a major operation into those Pakistani mountains planned, but then one of the Yank politicians lost his nerve and pulled the plug on the operation.

So, absent the guts to fight terrorism, America has fallen back on displacement activities, like formulating nonsensical no-fly lists and cooking up the much-lampooned color coded terror alertness level system.

Homeland Security is in the empire building business, and, like Argentinian ants, empire builders will build wherever there is space to grow. Many years ago, back in the days when my parents used to read the Reader's Digest, I saw this apothegm: growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

And that is exactly Homeland Security's ideology.

While I went about my daily business, my imagination played with the following data, looking for a fit:

1. Reputable American computer outfits are, as a rule, not into rip-offs. It's too easy to out them.

2. The provisions of Internet services is a cutthroat business run by very slick operators who take corporate rivalry seriously, and will always go the extra mile to trump the opposition.

3. Modern American computer outfits are slicker than their publishing industry counterparts, and won't do delinquent stuff like simply lose your e-mail correspondence.

4. My initial "your payment has been received and details will arrive in 24 hours" e-mail message from Warcrim was surely computer-generated.

5. When an account is set up by an Internet service provider, typically a human being will be involved at the setting up stage. They check you out to make sure you're not fraudulent, and this task is not trusted to a machine.

6. It logically follows that, while a machine approved me, a human being flunked me. Why?

7. Homeland Security is an irrational organization which has a history of doing irrational things such as putting six-month-old babies on no-fly lists.

8. The no-fly list was cooked up in total secrecy, and nobody knew about it until people started getting turned away at airports. Even after its existence was revealed, the details (how do you get on this and how do you get off again?) were opaque.

All these details cooked around in my mind until, finally, I came to an outlandish conclusion which, despite its improbability, I now believe to be true. I believe it because, if it is true, it binds together the disparate data and creates a pattern which makes sense.

My hypothesis, which I have no way of proving, is this:

Just as there is a no-fly list which seeks to ban selected people from making use of the air travel infrastructure, so too there is a no-hosting list which seeks to ban selected people from making use of America's Internet infrastructure.

And I am on this list.

That probably sounds outlandish, but it is no weirder than the known and proven stuff that has been going on over the last few years: the CIA kidnapping people off the streets, taking them across borders then torturing them to death; quasi-randomly-selected hypothetical terrorists being incarcerated for years and years in Guantanamo in a largely symbolic assault on terrorism; and, yes, babies innocent of firearms training ending up on the no-fly list.

Now, if you accept that a no-hosting list exists, a list which specifies that American computer outfits must not provide server space to selected individuals, then it would be reasonable to hypothesize that any such no-hosting list will be a secret, and that the Feds will come after you if you blab about it.

If that is so, then it is reasonable to assume that, within each American Internet service provider, there is a human being who has the task of checking applications for Internet services against the no-hosting list.

Any such company would, undoubtedly, be under a legal obligation to keep the no-hosting list secret.

I took a shot at Googling "no-hosting list" in conjunction with "Homeland Security," but that was a bust. There are millions and millions of pages relating to Homeland Security, and I could spend weeks hunting for something which doesn't exist.

As to how I personally would end up on such a list, well, data mining could quite easily end up putting me there. A simple computer algorithm could sift my pages, deem me to be a bad apple then place me on the list.

This has its good points and its bad points.

One good point is that a decision I made some time ago, the decision never again to visit the territory of the United States, not ever, looks even smarter than it did before. If I am by chance on some mysterious no-hosting list then that would seem to amplify that probability that I am now (or will be in future) on the no-fly list.

Another good point is that the Internet is international, and Osama bin Laden can use it just as easily as George W. Bush can. Every part of the Internet connects to every other part, and it doesn't really matter where your server is, as long as it's in some place which has a reliable supply of mains electricity.

As for the bad point ... well, I may have been screwed out of US $84.

For the time being, I'm sitting back and waiting for my next credit card statement. If it shows, as I expect it to show, that Warcrim did, indeed, deduct the US $84 from my account, then I may start digging a little deeper, hunting for the names and addresses of the corporate heads of War Criminal Nation Deathservers. My Atilla the Hun does not like being cooped up in the kennel, and it is possible that, after mature consideration, I may decide that, yes, I will let it off the chain. And see how much damage it can do once it has been unleashed.

I don't, by the way, associate my problems with the Warcrim mob with the temporary (I assume it's temporary) delinquency of my Gmail account. I assume (correctly, I hope) that there are Higher Powers which are immune to the baleful influence of the malign Homeland Security. But perhaps this is wishful thinking, and perhaps the world in a worse state than I thought.

To wrap up, just a couple of comments on the sumo. Wednesday's session having been completed, with four days of the two-week tournament done, one yokozuna (grand champion) by the name of Hakuho is at 4-0, having won all his bouts. So, too, is Chiotaikai, and I my guess is that one of those two will win this tournament.

Another yokozuna, Asashoryu, is not competing this time.

He said he would skip some particular sumo obligation because he had a leg injury. He then went on a jaunt to his native Mongolia and was videotaped there playing soccer. Obviously nothing wrong with his leg.

The sumo federation penalized him by suspending him from the next two tournaments, and he has now gone home to Mongolia. With what long term plan in mind I have no idea.

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