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May 14, 2007

Geeks Must Rule in IT World

Information technology (IT) has gone through many transitions in the nearly 20 years I've been involved in it. The most significant changes I've observed are the prerequisites required for a professional career in IT -- and the concept of exactly what constitutes "technical expertise."

This evolution is evident in most areas of IT, and is most readily obvious in desktop computer support where the naked and austere command line interface has been eclipsed by the graphical user interface (GUI) as well as the graphical system management tools and wizards used by the "Geek Squad" or "Rent-a-Geek" (the latest naming-convention trend for computer-support businesses) to fix your computer problem. In short, advances in the technology itself have made it easier to be smarter, even in the more technically sophisticated sub-specialties of programming, systems management and network engineering.

Before information technology there was data processing -- the era of imposing monolithic "big iron" computers being pampered in frigid computer rooms, far away from its users who had only the vaguest idea of what wizardry sat on the other end of his or her hardwired connection. Technical proficiency generally required engineering and mathematical expertise, often coupled with directed training and apprenticeship in specific technical specialties. Some would also argue that IT was formerly peopled with more colorful personality types. When I first jumped on the bit wagon, the industry was still characterized as a bastion of tofu-eating, lotus-seated mystical genies (OK, weirdos, but smart ones) who spoke incomprehensible jargon and were largely incapable of holding civil conversations with lesser beings.

Cruising down the hall from a typical corporate finance department to its data processing department was such a elemental environmental change that a passport should have been required to make such a geographical transition.

While all highly exaggerated and stereotyped of course, the change is still conspicuous. In today's GUI-infested world of IT, everyone is technical and almost anyone can be a programmer. The cubicle section of any IT department (some things never change) invariably turns up the historic quintessential programmer types liberally interspersed with American Idol contestants and Rachel Ray types.

While hardcore technical gurus certainly continue to exist (after all, someone has to develop the foundation and tools we use to demonstrate our own technical expertise), they're typically not staffing the IT departments of your local businesses, not even the big ones. The current generation of typical IT professionals may not even be all that technical. IT as a profession has been "dumbed down," opening up the profession to a much wider range of professionals with diverse expertise and skill sets.

Let me be clear before I go on (and perhaps before you stop reading, fuming with insult). This does NOT mean that people in IT today are dumb. What this means is that IT no longer requires all that much technical expertise due to, in part, the paradoxical result of advances in technology itself. The current generation of computers and system management tools simply don't require it anymore. In addition to the desktop support example discussed above, programmers now work with programming suites that perform the more complex operations "behind the scenes." Help desk technicians reference online searchable libraries known as "knowledge bases" to look up the answers to your sometimes complex questions. Network engineers reference graphical monitoring tools to isolate and diagnose your connectivity problems.

In addition to advances in the technology itself, another reason for the paradigm shift is the growing need for business skills within the IT department itself. There is a growing partnership between IT and business units, and the line between them is becoming gray and more vague. The programmer who can't understand his or her client's business operations and needs is at a distinct disadvantage these days. As a result you often find non-technical business professionals being recruited for senior IT executive roles, further demonstrating that a successful career in IT does not require a specific type of DNA.

I began my professional career in finance and made the leap to IT on the wings of an already-written accounting system in need of subject matter expertise in order to knowledgeably support it business-minded users. I like to think that I went back to do my homework and actually earned my geek badge, but I know that the programmers who were "on call" those nights when my programs gasped and failed in mid-processing certainly wouldn't agree with that.

But has the pendulum swung too far in some organizations? Are IT organizations beginning to over-value business expertise, with technical prowess taking a backseat? Has that line become too blurred?


While the continuing shift is very liberating and egalitarian, the relative ease of "technical proficiency" has its dangers. Desktop database development tools such as Microsoft Access and FileMaker Pro, for example, can sometimes be the bane of a professional programmer's existence. A well-intentioned accountant can use the graphical interface provided with these tools to build a database to support some limited yet pressing need for information storage or simple reporting. Before you know it, this simple database is laden with snips of Visual Basic code and nauseatingly cute little ActiveX controls (programming code often used to create graphical functions, such as buttons, pop-ups and other types of animations) developed during some MBA course, and inevitably becomes mission-critical. Then the accountant leaves to become a “Dancing with the Stars” contestant and the "system" is dumped on the doorstep of central IT, and the programmer who drew the short straw is left to decipher an amazing array of spaghetti code.

Even more worrisome is IT management with no conservative technical background making decisions about the technical foundation on which to host the organization's crown jewels -- its information. I find this frightening because when you think about it in a very literal sense, having someone with no technical experience selecting your technology is like having your acupuncturist pick your medication. Same stadium perhaps, but not close enough to the diamond to play the game. Managers in any profession without baseline domain area expertise and experience can have unreasonable expectations and a proclivity to oversimplify, over-promise and under-deliver, a syndrome from which IT is not exempt.

This partnership era has tremendous benefits, and my admiration for hardcore technical knowledge is perhaps too extreme, especially given that I consider advanced technical literacy a core competency in male companions.

While the current trend toward partnership between IT and business units has tremendous benefits, I firmly believe that IT is still a place where the geeks should rule, especially when it comes to the IT infrastructure. IT organizations must be careful not to overvalue business expertise and undervalue its bread-and-butter technical staff. IT organizations that are too light technically can destabilize very quickly when the going gets tough, and may make bad and costly decisions. IT is no different than any other profession or industry. It must stick to the fundamentals and allow other business units to do their jobs, too. There is a big difference between partnership and mutation, and unless we want the program behind the ATM machines we use to be written by the bank teller, let's resuscitate the "tech" in "information technology."

Jacqueline Tucker is a lifelong Hamden resident, and the director of business management solutions at the Yale School of Medicine. She has over 14 years of experience in computer and information technology, and will share her observations of the world of technology once a month. You can reach Tucker at Jacqueline.Tucker@sbcglobal.net.

March 29, 2007

eBay Anonymous

I swore it would never happen -- not to me -- because I should know better. But I got romanced into it. In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been on eBay.

And not just shopping for someone else’s used junk, either. I’ve been selling some of my own, and semi-successfully at that. But when you reach the point where your dwindling household belongings are no longer your personal treasures but mere inventory and begin to judge the value of anything with which you come into contact by its eBay auction potential, you know it’s time to come up for air.

For those of you who have never experienced the online narcotic known as eBay, it’s a treasure trove of both new and used items available for sale or put up for auction to the highest bidder by both experienced salespeople as well as newbies, like me. Most people who gravitate toward online shopping find themselves on eBay every so often, as well as those looking for a little excitement in bidding one of the many thousands of online auctions available at any given time, day or night. Only a relatively small percentage of buyers escalate to the next level and become an eBay seller, but it’s really here that the true essence of eBay can be experienced.

The cool thing about selling on eBay is that people with absolutely no sales experience can complete the registration form, provide their credit card number and instantly become an international business. For a small item listing fee that varies with the starting price of your item (hence the credit card provided at registration), within minutes you can have potential buyers in Australia, Russia and Cedar Rapids ogling your grandma’s “Vintage Handmade Bed Covering” (translated, the blanket that your grandmother crocheted for you when you were 8 years old) and pondering to bid, or not to bid. Assuming someone buys your blanket (I mean bed covering), they pay (usually, but not always), you ship (usually), eBay gets its cut (your credit card again) and then the real fun begins.

Instead of being rated by the price of your stock or your ranking in the Fortune 500, you are rated after every transaction by the people you do business with through a system called “Feedback.” Following transactions, people can provide an 80-character, free-text critique of your worthiness as either a customer or a merchant. Feedback is extremely important to doing business on eBay since your potential customers will more than likely read it before deciding whether to do business with you. Feedback also has an element of validation and acceptance to it as well, and mature adults sit around waiting for it. They even ask for it.

Most people are fair with their Feedback, but there are kooks on eBay as well as in real life, and you are bound to run into more than a few on eBay. The only difference between eBay kooks and the kooks who live next door is that the ones on eBay can ruin your online reputation with just a few keystrokes, whereas your kooky neighbors may have to work a bit harder at it.

eBay is more than an online store and auction block. It’s a subculture all its own. Like any organization, it has its group norms (“never leave Feedback first”) and language (NWOT -- New Without Tags). Those who can’t acclimate are quickly weeded out by a tsunami of negative Feedback. But eBay acceptance gives one a taste of business success and the cyber-social high esteem of others. Aside from the brick and mortar businesses that use it as just one of many selling venues, eBay is a community of budding entrepreneurs trying its collective hand in the world of dot.com business mixed in with those looking for a new social outlet or hobby.

I can justify my recent foray on eBay as “research,” but as I mourn the blank spot on the wall where my Ansel Adams photo used to be (auctioned off during my manic “household décor” selling period), I know it was much more than that. I was going to be the exception to the rule and make a million dollars.

More than that, however, I had loads of fun. Where else could you either buy 1973 Topps Wacky Packages in mint condition AND compete on a somewhat level playing field with corporate moguls to see who can sell the most pre-owned Aigner handbags at the highest price?

But the caveat is that it cost money to play on eBay and those fees add up very sneakily, and you may find that eBay has turned into a very costly hobby. Or everything is going well and then you get the customer from hell who didn’t quite understand that the used coffee pot with the broken handle that arrived at his or her doorstep was the very same “used coffee pot with the broken handle” the customer agreed to buy. The pot didn’t magically morph into a new one in transit. Such situations are frustrating, but unfortunately buyers with unreasonable expectations have a prominent vehicle for their viewpoints in the Feedback forum, which can hamper your business and send you into a brief mini-depression.

While eBay cannot possibly police every transaction that takes place on its pages, the one piece of “Feedback” I’d leave for eBay itself is that there probably needs to be some basic standard of acceptance for sellers beyond a valid credit card and some semi-neutralizing mechanism to soften the blow of undeserved negative Feedback (such as a graphic or representational Feedback rating system rather than free text, some of which will make your hair stand on end). eBay does give numeric “points” for positive Feedback (and negative points for negative Feedback), but point scores are far overshadowed by the meatier (and occasionally lurid) accompanying text comments.

Don’t get me wrong. I think is eBay is fun, so by all means give it a try especially if you like online shopping because you can find a lot of really cool stuff there. However, unless you’d really like to try a low-overhead way of testing out the dot.com waters, it’s probably cheaper and less work to sell your pre-owned treasures at a garage sale. At least that’s what I found. If you do decide to give eBay a try make sure you do so under non-eBay engaged supervision, lest you find yourself replacing at full cost many household items that you need (and kinda liked) but sold and shipped one manic evening.

Jacqueline Tucker is a lifelong Hamden resident, and the director of business management solutions at the Yale School of Medicine. She has over 14 years of experience in computer and information technology, and will share her observations of the world of technology once a month. You can reach Tucker at Jacqueline.Tucker@sbcglobal.net.

February 1, 2007

Secret e-Chatter

One of the intriguing dimensions of information technology that initially appealed to me was its private language. It has its own vocabulary that only those of us who watched the movie “WarGames” -- and wondered how the computer monitor could continue to display the still-running nuclear holocaust simulation program after its network connection was pulled from the wall -- could love. There was something fascinating about the sometimes cryptic and occasionally whimsical language that motivated us to learn and understand it. There was also something just plain fun about a sentence that included terms such as bit bucket, daemon and (yikes) head crash.

But it's gone completely over the top during the past several years, especially since the advent of real-time communication programs such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and their progenitor, Internet Relay Chat (IRC). These programs don't lend themselves well to fully spelled-out (and usually very well thought-out) prose, therefore it spawned an abbreviated or representative language of its own, which has also been appropriated by its more mobile sibling, text messaging.

Instant messaging (IM) and mobile instant (text) messaging are both informal communications media that began with the useful intention of allowing for instantaneous and often location-independent communication in our increasingly hurry-up world -- a sort of e-mail on steroids. But unlike e-mail, IM had features and niceties not available or as readily used with e-mail, such as the ability to be selective about those with whom you communicate through the use of a contact or "buddy" list (thus eliminating the potential for SPIM, an IM version of e-mail spam), as well as whether you are available for electronic conversation at a given moment in time (your "status").

Often thought of as a step up from standard electronic mail communication for these reasons, the pitfalls of e-mail are also magnified with instant messaging. These include premature responses and the proclivity to "flame" (the sending of inflammatory or derogatory messages), and overlooking the fact that there are some communications that would actually benefit from a delayed response, or simply should not occur at all.

Many of the acronyms we see today actually began with other media, such as e-mail or genuine written-word communications (imagine that, kids!). IMO (in my opinion), ASAP (as soon as possible), PITA (pain in the arse) are all pronounceable mainstream acronyms that made our discussions more economical and helped to protect us from the dangers of carpel tunnel syndrome. But when they began to exceed four characters and/or constitute complete sentences, IMNSHO (in my not so humble opinion) it got completely out of hand. Sneak up behind one of your children as he or she toils away at the computer and you're likely to see BRB (be right back), PAW (parents are watching)” or a series of emoticons -- those successions of otherwise normal characters put together in such a way as to convey an emotion -- like the smiley face :-) -- to convey happiness. There is no emoticon yet that can convey the special place in the darker part of my heart I have put aside for these little character creatures.

Not all of the new jargon is comprised of acronyms, though. Some are contractions and some are actual words. "Blog" is a contraction of "web log," which is a chronological online journal. I have nothing against blogs (or bloggers), but I wonder what it is about the act of keeping a diary that warranted the coining of yet another unique Internet term, and thus another chance to display how out of date my technical vocabulary is becoming. I perused a technology dictionary not too long ago and lost count of the number of words that include the suffix “-ware,” most of which I did not recognize. I did learn, however, that when I call a help desk for technical support and am deemed unworthy to use a computer by the technician, I am duly dubbed “meatware” as in “that call was a meatware problem -- problem occurred between chair and keyboard.”

I also learned that some of the new jargon can be politically incorrect, or just plain tacky. Take “crippleware” for instance, which is software that is freely distributed but with major functions disabled (such as printing or saving files) until you pay a license fee or purchase an upgraded version. Good manners dictate that this should be renamed "functionality-challenged-ware." I might also call the latter some mainstream words, too, such as a "scam," "rip-off" or "bait and switch."

I think one of the reasons the newer jargon bugs me so much is because I don't understand much of it. Stay out of touch for a few weeks -- an eon on the technical calendar -- and you’re lost. In addition, you can also run the risk of dating yourself by using the acronyms and other computer jargon that you DO know. I doubt, for instance, that anyone knows what a Bernoulli Box is anymore, and I won’t bother telling you because you’ll never be approached by one on the street in the 21st century, and you really need to keep your mind-space available to absorb all of the new “-ware” words that will emerge in 2007.

While Internet chatter jargon has cast a shadow on the vocabulary of technology, not all of the technical terminology of the last several years has been reduced to incomprehensible acronyms or recycled concepts. There are still terms that pique my curiosity or act as ear candy for me. Take "firewall," for instance.  It conjures up images of a monolithic wall set ablaze and spitting lightning rods. After such an image, it might be a little disappointing to learn that at its most impressive a firewall is a piece of hardware that looks like a VCR and sniffs network traffic, and it can't even do that if you pull out its plug. Then there's "firewire" -- but let's not inspect that image since this column is G rated.

Some technical jargon has even leaked its way into everyday English language. “Off-line” used to mean a computer that was not on, but now it also means to talk to someone through an alternate and less public channel of communication. There's also “reboot” which used to mean resetting your computer, but now also means "a fresh start." I liked that one enough to use in my column name. Technology has also appropriated words from English and made them its own, such as spam. Mystery meat is now mystery e-mail, and both can be gross depending upon your personal proclivities.

I suppose I’ll get over my jargon grumpiness once I learn to pronounce acronyms with no vowels (it can be done -- I’ve seen it), and accept the fact that the language of technology is no longer reserved for those who earned their geek badge through more conventional methods. Until then, I’ll just SMHID (no more help -- you have to look that one up yourself). B4N.

Jacqueline Tucker is a lifelong Hamden resident, and the director of business management solutions at the Yale School of Medicine. She has over 14 years of experience in computer and information technology, and will share her observations of the world of technology once a month. You can reach Tucker at Jacqueline.Tucker@sbcglobal.net.

December 22, 2006

Be Wary of e-Strangers

"The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads. And mamma in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter's nap." Sounds very cozy, safe and warm, and the boogeyman is locked outside in the cold.

Maybe not, though, especially if you bought yourself or someone else in your household a computer with Internet access for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. In that case, the boogeyman doesn't even have the decency to hide under the bed or in the closet. He is sitting right there on your dining-room table, your children's play table or in your home office, nestled all snug in your computer with the famous Intel chip.

The Internet began with a bang and the best of intentions, and is still a very versatile and handy modern convenience. But with modern technology come modern problems, and the rise of Internet crime has made some of us a little wary of this electronic marvel. Internet crime, also known as cyber crime or e-crime, comes in many diverse forms ranging from scams that can bring you financial woes, to posing threats to your physical safety and that of your children. While the most common form of Internet crime involves the theft of credit card information, electronically enabled crime comes in many varieties.

The most common vehicles for crime directed at the typical Internet consumer involve e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, Web sites, computer viruses and spyware. System administrators must deal with an even wider array of potential threats, including computer intrusions (hacking), high jacking of Web site domain names (addresses) and cyber-vandalism.

If you have an e-mail account, you are subjected to threats every day with your daily load of spam. Spam can be as benign as a message containing a sales pitch, or may contain a virus that could damage your computer.

"Phishing" is a common source of Internet crime that occurs through e-mail, as briefly discussed in October's article on spam. Phishers, posing as legitimate business concerns (often ones that victims believe they do business with), send messages to e-mail users to attempt to induce them to disclose personal information such as bank account numbers, Social Security numbers and passwords (including bank and credit card PINs). This information is then used for a variety of fraudulent purposes including credit card theft, identity theft and outright robbery. The unfortunate fact about phishing is that it is highly successful, with at least half of all credit card fraud committed through this venue.

Online chat and instant messaging pose a heightened type of threat, often to children or other naturally trusting souls. Predators use chat rooms -- places where people send messages back and forth in real time -- to find potential victims. Once they identify a target, usually by watching his or her chat messages and checking his or her online profile for personal information, they often invite them to "private" chat rooms to carry on their suspicious conversations in relative secrecy. I'll let your imagination tell you what goes on in these rooms, and further warn that these electronic conversations often transition into plans to meet IRL (chat-speak for "in real life").

Even love and romance are not exempt from cyber threats. Fraudulent online dating scams prey on hopeful hearts seeking to meet that special someone. The victim is enticed by attractive photos and bios into sending or wiring cash to this would-be love interest for travel expenses so they can meet. The love interests never show up, of course, leaving their bank accounts in the same state as their hearts -- wounded and empty. I'm personally inclined to list this among the most despicable types of e-crime, along with child-related violations.

Spyware is another fraudulent online practice where software is installed, usually surreptitiously, on your computer and proceeds to collect information about you without your knowledge. The information collected ranges from the relatively innocuous variety (such as which Web sites you visit to be used for advertising purposes) to the more nefarious, such as logging your keystrokes to capture more personal information such as passwords and credit card numbers. Spyware, which often manifests itself by noticeably slowing down your computer, is often loaded on your computer by merely visiting a Web site or by attaching itself to some other software that you knowledgably download.

There are many products on the market to help protect you from this type of intrusion, including Windows Defender and SpySweeper, but the best defense is to avoid Web sites that you aren't certain are reputable, and to never download files or software of unknown origin.

Less common forms of Internet crime include cyberterrorism, which is using the Internet or a victim's computer to threaten or cause harm in order to promote a political or religious agenda, and cyberstalking, which is an online version of physical stalking and can be just as traumatizing. In the latter case, perpetrators often post derogatory information about their victims as a means for "smoking them out."

You must be constantly vigilant about protecting yourself from Internet crime. Using parental controls to block access to chat rooms, instant messaging or known pornographic sites can be helpful in protecting your child, but it is not a panacea. No security program can possibly block every dangerous or inappropriate Web site or function, and there is no substitute for good old-fashioned parental supervision and advice.

When you think about it, you can largely avoid falling victim to Internet-related crime if you follow the basic advice your parents gave you as a child.

First on this perennial list is, “Don't talk to strangers.” Applied to the Internet, don't talk to people you meet on the Internet as if you've known them all of your life, and don't even bother to read the junk mail that arrives in your e-mail account, even if it appears to come from your bank or other company with whom you do business. Remember, your bank would NEVER send you an e-mail message asking for your PIN or other private keys to your financial information, especially out of the blue. If it looks tempting or legitimate, call them. A two-minute phone call will save you from financial swindling and the potential embarrassment of having been duped.

Next on Mom’s and Dad's advice list is, “Don't take candy from strangers.” Don't accept "free" gifts or opportunities to make a million dollars from the comfort of your home, or agree to receive materials in the mail for re-shipment to international addresses. Remember, you don't get anything of value for nothing, at least not from people whom you have never met.

There's also the ageless question, “If everyone else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it, too?” Don't be taken in by "millions of other people have … [insert wonderful opportunity here] … " And finally, parents should continue to insist that they meet their children's friends, whether they are virtual friends or friends IRL.

You can report e-crime online through the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a central clearinghouse co-sponsored by the FBI for referring Internet-related crimes. But when in doubt, always call your local law enforcement agency.

I realize this is a somber message at an otherwise cheerful time of year, but the only way to keep it cheerful is to be informed and forewarned, especially about where the boogeyman lives.

Jacqueline Tucker is a lifelong Hamden resident, and the director of business management solutions at the Yale School of Medicine. She has over 14 years of experience in computer and information technology, and will share her observations of the world of technology once a month. You can reach Tucker at Jacqueline.Tucker@sbcglobal.net.

November 28, 2006

The Battle Between the Systems

Office politics took on an entirely new dimension in 1984 with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh computer, and even after 22 years I am still mystified by the passionate tensions that arise when discussions inevitably turn to debating the merits of the desktop PC versus the Macintosh. I wisely dodge these discussions in hopes of maintaining my technical non-denominational standing, but even this position is often viewed with suspicion by both camps.

The truth is, I don't even have a strong opinion on the matter. While their respective technical architectures may continue to be different, from a usability perspective there no longer are the significant differences there once were between the PC and the Mac.

For those of you who have inexplicably managed to avoid the issue, it all began during the 1984 Super Bowl XVIII when Apple Computer debuted its new line of personal computers, the Apple Macintosh. A masterpiece of a commercial featured a female athlete running from Darth Vader-like antagonists into a darkened auditorium full of skinhead drones and hurling a sledge hammer at a proselytizing Big (Blue?) Brother-like screen image, setting off an explosion in more ways than one.

The meaning of the explosion at that time, however, was that Apple Computer would set us free from our Orwellian/IBM professional destinies with the introduction of the Macintosh. The commercial was very innovative and entertaining, quite similar to the Mac itself. But the oddity of that commercial is that some people internalized its ideological theme. Since then I have been perplexed by just what it is about the Macintosh computer that turns people into technical evangelists.

To put my Mac-using friends at ease as I reflect on this risky topic, while I currently use a PC I had a Mac for several years and have absolutely nothing against Apple's desktop computer. But comprehending the noisy devotion that the Macintosh inspires continues to escape me, especially given that there aren't (relatively speaking) nearly as many of you.

While the Mac remains very firmly entrenched in some industries -- including academia and a variety of media -- and remains a favorite among the more artistic, it enjoys a less than 5 percent share of the desktop computer market. The remaining market uses some other variety of desktop, whether it's the ubiquitous Windows-based Intel PC ("Wintel" machines) or other operating systems used by the more technical contingency (such as Linux or other Unix flavors). But while the PC enjoys the numbers, the passion remains with the Macintosh and the Mac OS operating system.

So other than the ideological rhetoric it inspires, just what are some of the major differences between the Mac and the PC from a computer user's perspective?

One is the Mac's historically superior high-end graphics and desktop publishing capabilities. However, the PC has made some tremendous advances in this area over the past decade, so this isn't nearly as true as it used to be (if at all anymore), and PC users are no longer the second-class citizens they once were in this arena.

Macs are also reportedly easier to use, crash less often than PCs and are near ready to use out of the box. I think PC users really must concede these points from a 10,000-foot view, but upon closer inspection the Mac can also be very enigmatic -- spooky, even -- to the inveterate PC user, especially in the face of older Mac version error messages such as the "Sad Mac" or worse the bomb icon.

The PC user's three-finger salute (the control-alt-delete key combination to reboot a desktop PC) has no power here. But the newer versions of the Windows operating system have bridged the usability gap as well, and PCs no longer have your mother's command line interface. People are also comfortable in any computing environment once they become used to it, so it's doubtful that this remains a reason for choosing one over the other.

The Macintosh continues to be praised for its superior system security. It is believed by many to be a much safer technology than the PC platform. While it's true that the Mac is impervious to a majority of the viruses, worms and other technical vermin that continually threaten PCs, the Mac is not an inherently safer technology. If Macs are safer it's because hackers do not frequently write viruses for the Macintosh due to its relatively low prevalence -- they want a bigger bang for their dubious efforts. While one can certainly interpret the ultimate insult as an advantage, it's a selling point that up until recently Apple Computer largely avoided in fear of tempting the demons. Unfortunately, if a majority of PC users suddenly traded in their Wintel machines for Macs, the Mac would become the leading viral target.

Total cost of ownership (TCO) is another reason sometimes given for purchasing a Mac rather than a PC. In short, Macs cost a bit more but appear more durable and remain more technically current than their PC counterparts. It's these reasons that support the belief that the Mac install base may far exceed its market share since it enjoys a lengthier existence per unit. But the average consumer doesn't think this way when purchasing a relatively low-ticket discretionary item -- or at least I've never seen anyone pull out his or her HP 12C to calculate TCO when purchasing a desktop computer. Nor do most businesses think this way unless buying in bulk, but even then businesses and consumers alike generally have a variety of other reasons for their selections, such as compatibility with certain software, peer computing environment and, of course, one's technical principles.

So if there really aren't any significant user-oriented differences anymore between the PC and the Mac, what is the leading decision factor these days? In my opinion, it's compatibility with your peer computing environment and, unless you are technically self-sufficient, the availability and quality of technical support in your area.

Compatibility and inter-operability are significant factors in making a desktop choice. While the PC-Mac compatibility gap has been bridged significantly over the past several years, it's still not completely seamless, and some software continues to be developed exclusively for one platform or the other. If you stick with the standard or the majority in your environment, you're likely to have fewer compatibility issues and get along a better.

The issue of compatibility is so critical that it persuaded the federal government to rewrite its PC-based electronic grant proposal submission process (Grants.gov) to be Mac-friendlier at a cost of nearly $20 million. This was largely a compatibility decision given that a large percentage of these important health and research grant proposals originate from academia, where Macintosh saturation is especially high.

While there are no enduring differences for the user, from a computer support vantage point there are some remaining significant differences because they are based upon different technical architectures, and thus require the relevant technical skill sets to support them. Computing diversity can be very expensive, especially in the business world, in comparison to the cost of supporting a more standardized technical environment. So if you go with the standard or the majority in your environment you're likely to experience fewer issues related to inter-operability with your neighbors and get better support when you need it.

You'll also stand a better chance of avoiding desktop party politics.

Jacqueline Tucker is a lifelong Hamden resident, and the director of business management solutions at the Yale School of Medicine. She has over 14 years of experience in computer and information technology, and will share her observations of the world of technology once a month. You can reach Tucker at Jacqueline.Tucker@sbcglobal.net.

October 13, 2006

Spam Comes in Many Flavors

Hormel Food's processed meat product has taken a hit over the past decade by the Internet community's use of the term "spam," to refer to unsolicited junk e-mail. The association between the unlikely pairing originates from a 1970 Monty Python skit where Vikings in the mythical Green Midget Café sing the praises of "SPAM! SPAM! SPAM! Lovely SPAM!"

Despite a lawsuit to protect its trademark name from being adopted by an anti-spam software developer, Hormel Foods is largely a good sport and does not specifically object to the use of "spam" in reference to unwanted electronic trash, and even pays homage to the Python skit in its "Spam Museum."

Hormel does, however, object to the use of its SPAM image in direct reference to spam, or as a trademark for the crowd of anti-spam products on the electronic messaging software market.

The Hormel product name "SPAM" originated from a contest in 1936 that invited consumers to name its canned meat product. The winning entry was a contraction comprised of the first and last two letters of the words "spiced ham." Therefore, the acronym for the processed meat product is written as "SPAM," while the electronic nuisance that greets us each day in our e-mail inbox is "spam."

I remember getting my first spam (or noticing it, more likely) in 1998 when I began receiving daily e-mail messages from an Internet entrepreneur who wanted to sell me laser printer toner cartridges at a deep discount. Having only an inkjet printer at the time I wasn't interested, so I naively clicked on the "unsubscribe" Web link in the body of the message, to stop the e-mail advertisements. I was dismayed when I continued to receive even more but looking back, my guilelessness was similar to someone who buys a Powerball ticket and is genuinely surprised when she doesn't win.

That was eight years ago and spam continues to be a huge problem, with literally 10s of billions of these messages being sent to us each day. Thus the technical tug of war between those who send spam -- spammers -- and e-mail system administrators is instigated.

There are many varieties of spam, and not all e-mail spammers want to sell you anything. They may simply want to share their love of JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" with you (a recent spam wave known as "Hobbit Spam") or, more nefariously, they may want your credit card or bank account numbers (a type of spam called "phishing," which attempts to induce us to disclose private information for fraudulent purposes).

Just as spam takes many forms, so do anti-spam products. There are sophisticated anti-spam software programs that evaluate the sometimes voluminous content of each message based upon a complex set of heuristic test, and in some cases also teaches itself new rules as it reads more and more spam messages.

There are also programs that reference lists of known spammers and weeds out their messages before you even see them ("spam blacklists"). But even the most inventive anti-spammers are having a difficult time combating what is likely the latest glut in your inbox -- image-based messages that masquerade their content inside of embedded graphics, and therefore cannot easily be scanned by anti-spam products searching text content for keywords associated with spam. Advances in software have made it possible for spammers to randomize the content and format of these image-based messages, making each one unique and thus not easily recognizable to anti-spam software.

The good news (albeit temporary, as always) is that new anti-spam software has been released which attempts to control the glut of image-based spam. Once it is more widely deployed, we'll see the current wave of spam decline -- but only until the next technical advance that enables spammers to bypass current e-mail gatekeeper programs.

So the technical war continues, and unfortunately I have little useful advice to provide fellow e-mail scribes beyond what your e-mail service provider has probably already told you. Your provider has, more than likely, already implemented the most current solutions available to protect you. In my experience, these tools are not particularly expensive even for smaller e-mail systems, and some excellent products are provided free of charge.

It's very expensive for service providers to process the billions of messages sent each day by spammers -- it's one of those gifts that are more expensive to receive than to give -- so they have financial reasons for fighting this problem in addition to preserving your business and your goodwill. Switching e-mail providers is not likely to help you because they're all working with the same pool of available solutions.

One thing is clear, however. The technical tug of war between spammers and anti-spammers is not an effective long-term solution. I fear that the only thing that will significantly and permanently reduce the volume of spam is anti-spam legislation. While somewhat controversial to those of us who favor a more unregulated Internet and the unfettered preservation of free expression, legislation such as the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, while admittedly having a limited impact on the tide of both commercial and noncommercial spam, may be a step in the right direction.

So I'll watch with great interest the inevitable chorus of litigation and anti-spam legislative action alongside continuing technical efforts in anti-spam software development. And hope that some technical or legal action will once again make the world safe for "LOVELY SPAM."

Jacqueline Tucker is a lifelong Hamden resident, and the director of business management solutions at the Yale School of Medicine. She has over 14 years of experience in computer and information technology, and will share her observations of the world of technology once a month. You can reach Tucker at Jacqueline.Tucker@sbcglobal.net.


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