Sunday, June 25, 2006

An Alternative Solution

It’s hard to have confidence in Dubya’s pledges to keep illegally obtained data from being seen by unauthorized persons; the government can’t even keep the personal data it obtains legally from being seen by anyone who wants a peek.

I am one of a select group of 26.5 million veterans and their dependents, whose personal information was stolen out of some GS moron’s home. The government’s response was to tell us how sorry they were, provide the phone numbers of the three credit reporting agencies, pat us on the butt and send us on our way. They didn’t even tell us the name of the shitweasel who kept taking home computer files without authorization until someone finally stole them, allowing us the satisfaction of beating the snot out of him. The least they could do is publish his information, so he share in our enforced paranoia. (Veterans are the Rodney Dangerfield of interest groups in this country. Kids cook Mom breakfast in bed on Mothers Day; Fathers Day is for Dad to fall asleep watching the U.S. Open. When’s the last time you got a Veterans Day card? It should be a federal law that no veteran works on Veterans Day. It’s not like it would be a major sacrifice. You’d still have 98% of elected officials and corporate executives coming to work.)

This week the USDA had its systems hacked, jeopardizing the records of 26,000 DC area employees and contractors. Lucky me, I got nicked again. (I’m not complaining; my boss is a three-time loser.) At least the USDA will pay for a year’s worth of credit checks. The vets got bupkes.

I have a solution: publish the personal information of everyone who has ever dealt with the government in the Washington Post. Military, civilian, contractor, retired, active, elected, or appointed. Include anyone who ever got a student loan, FHA mortgage, farm subsidy, or small business loan. Then we’ll know for sure our confidences have been breached, and can avoid all this “we have no evidence anyone’s records have been used improperly” bullshit. The government then pays for the credit and identity protections they keep telling us we need every time someone steals our records. The cost would be zeroed out from all the money they’ll save by not having to pay for ineffective computer security any more.

It has to work better than what they’ve been doing.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Tunnel Vision

A leading indicator of 21st Century hell is the presence of advertising everywhere. On the walls above urinals, blue screens at ballparks for ads only television viewers can see, before the movie (trailers don’t count; Pepsi ads do). A gas station in Breezewood, PA has video ads on its pumps.

A new low has been reached in Washington, DC, America’s nexus of new lows. Video ads are now displayed on the walls of subway tunnels, sequenced to move in time with the train so you don’t have to risk whiplash watching them. (Swear to God this is true:

My trust of marketing people falls somewhere between politicians and lawyers. They won’t lie to you all the time, just when transmitting information. Their expertise is alleged to lay in a more directly profitable direction than honesty: they’re supposed to know how to contact just the right people your business needs to sell more of your product, which most of them probably don’t need. (The American economy is now almost wholly based on things we don’t need.)

The current ad playing on Metro tunnels for the Lincoln Navigator makes me wonder about their marketing team. How many of the people jammed into a Metro train are actively considering a luxury SUV purchase. “Hey, Ethel, screw the Lexus dealer. I saw an ad for a Navigator in a subway tunnel today.”

Let’s think of who Metro riders are, especially on the Red Line headed out for Northeast DC and Prince George’s County. Isn’t this comment any more likely to be generated: “Fred, instead of that KIA from CarMax, what about a Lincoln Navigator?”

I shouldn’t make too much of this; I’m sure these folks are smarter than me. (I live near Washington, DC, where everyone is smarter than me. Just ask them.) I mean, you’d have to be smarter than me to run a major American automobile manufacturing company, role model to industrialists around the world for forward-seeing, profit-building vision and efficiency. Wouldn’t you?

Or maybe not.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Flag Amendment

Here's the letter that went out today to both senators:

I am a veteran and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. (Inclusion in both groups is not an oxymoron.) I am appalled by the upcoming vote to amend the Constitution to allow Congress to pass laws outlawing flag burning. While I have no intentions of burning any flags and think those who do are reprehensible, I am frightened by what would be the first step to abridge the rights specifically laid out in the Bill of Rights over two hundred years ago. Passing this amendment would serve no constructive purpose other than to start us on a slippery slope to Constitutionally limiting our rights.

Americans’ rights have taken a beating over the past five years, with the Constitution being our only safeguard. Please don’t allow even that fragile bulwark to start to erode.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Casting an Increasingly Narrow Net

It seems like just a few days since I wrote to my senators and representative about a matter of high importance. I used to rant to all of you about them, but, frankly, none of you ever did dick to make things better. Now I’m going over your head.

Not that I’m kidding myself that these guys care. Every elected representative has one primary agenda item: get re-elected. Senator Sarbanes is retiring this year, so that doesn’t apply to him, yet he is the only one of the three to reply to my last letter. All right, I know it wasn’t really him, it was his office, but it was a nice note, written with an eye toward allowing the less enlightened to delude themselves.

Today the Washington Post ran an op-ed piece about legislation before Congress that would allow a handful of major telecommunication companies to control access to the Internet. (For more on this, visit the Post’s website at

Here’s the note I wrote to my elected representatives. I know they don’t care what I think, and they don’t care what you think. Enough of us get mad enough, and they might care what we think. Go ahead. If you have time to read this and half of the other crap you skim or watch on TV each day, you can write a letter.

As the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow, the Internet has become a prime method for economic and educational advancement by those who may not have the resources for more formal education, or traditional

business opportunities. Pending legislation eliminating net neutrality endangers these opportunities.

Allowing telecommunications companies to control Internet access essentially makes them censors of the Internet. They may dispute this, but we have an excellent of their good intentions in our own back yard: Comcast’s refusal to

provide its cable customers with access to the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) because MASN is a competitor of Comcast Sports Net. Other cable companies have refused specific programming that differed with their corporate agendas. This legislation would allow them the same control of the Internet.

Aside from the educational and economic opportunities, the Internet has become the ultimate safeguard of our First Amendment rights. Allowing large telecommunications companies to provide access based on the content provider’s ability to pay (or their political, religious, or personal convictions) has the grim potential to shackle large avenues of open discourse. This is anathema to the values America holds most dear.

In these times of domestic surveillance and government credibility gaps, an unfettered Internet serves a valuable function. Maryland is fortunate to have someone of your experience and considerable influence to represent us.

Please take advantage of the respect and influence you have earned from your peers to help to defeat this restrictive and un-American legislation.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Just Another Dick Head

A side benefit of last summer’s Colorado sojourn was listening to the Sibling Correspondent pimp the virtues of Dick Dale. For those of you not in the loop, Dick Dale is The King of the Surf Guitar, pretty much having invented the style, then remaining its prime practitioner. (His son is also an accomplished guitarist, known, of course, as The Prince of the Surf Guitar.)

The Crazy Like Me Correspondent and I were lucky enough to catch Dick in concert this week at The Ram’s Head in Annapolis. (An intimate venue with much to recommend it.) Going to one performance doesn’t really qualify us to be Dick Heads (as his camp followers are called), but it’s a good start.

Dale doesn’t just give a concert; he puts on a show. He plays some tunes you wouldn’t expect: “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Folsom Prison Blues” (to which he sings as much of “Ring of Fire” as he can remember), “Fever,” and the timeless surfer classic, “Hava Nagila.” (Dale makes you wonder how the Beach Boys missed covering this one.) Of course, the evening couldn’t go by without the classic, “Miserlou,” made famous (again) as the theme for the movie Pulp Fiction.

His relaxed banter is corny, but genuinely amusing. He also plays drums (well), double teams with his bassist on the same ax, plays bass using drum sticks instead of his fingers, and knocks off a few choruses of jazz trumpet quite nicely.

Dale turned sixty-nine last month but looks like he’s having too much fun to stop making his annual tour any time soon. That’s good news. Anyone looking for a fun evening watching an accepted master would do well to become a Dick Head for a night.

I took the Sole Heir to see Maynard Ferguson when she started playing trumpet; I wanted her to be able to say thirty years from now that she’d seen Maynard play in person. (Incidentally, Maynard and Dick Dale share May 4 as a birthday.) She had a ball, and I think she appreciated the sentiment. Now I can thank my brother for the same thing, as I have seen the King of the Surf Guitar and lived to tell about it.


Piling On

It’s not bad enough some hooplehead (don’t forget: at Veterans’ Affairs lost my (and possibly your) personal information; the credit reporting agencies have to pile on, too.

Yours truly recently requested a fraud alert to be placed on my account at the three credit reporting agencies. Instructions indicated that I only had to inform one, and the others would be notified and would comply.

I called TransUnion. They had an easy, automated, phone system for taking my information as securely as could be expected, and the alert took effect earlier this week. Experian notified me of their compliance a couple of days later.

Yesterday I received word from Equifax that I had to send them much the same information as was “misplaced,” except in a more current form. They wanted photocopies sent to a Post Office box.

This makes me feel much better. This is private information, the disclosure of which prompted the fraud alert in the first place. I feel a whole lot better dropping it into a computer system than leaving it in a batch where some minimum wage-earning cracker (they’re in Atlanta) can slip it out of the pile and sell it for a hundred bucks.

Here’s the real problem: they’re The Man. They have me (you, us) by the short hairs. Our private, personal information is now their property. They may do with it pretty much as they want; our wishes and intents don’t matter.

If this bothers you as much as it bothers me, all I can think of to do is get The Other Man involved: the government. (I almost wrote The Bigger Man, but then I remembered who really runs things in Washington.) Below is a copy of the letter I just emailed to my representative and both senator. Feel free to borrow from it if you wish.


I am one of the veterans affected by the recent loss of records by a VA employee. I immediately contacted TransUnion to place a fraud alert on my credit history. They had a special phone line set up to accommodate the high volume of calls expected. The process was quick, relatively painless, and fully automated, which relieved some of my worries about passing along private and potentially sensitive information. The web site I checked, and the TransUnion phone message, indicated that the other two major credit reporting agencies would be informed, and that fraud alerts would be placed at both of those locations.

Yesterday I received in the mail a notice from Equifax, informing me they would not place a fraud alert on my account until I provided photocopies of the following:

  1. Social Security Card, W-2 form, or current pay stub with Social Security Number.
  2. Driver’s License, State Identification Card, Utility Bill, or Lease Agreement with current address.

I’m asking for the fraud alert because personal information (such as my Social Security number) may have been obtained by parties unknown; Equifax now wants me to send the same information through to a Post Office box so they can “assure” me some minimal level of protection from someone else using it. This borders on the surreal.

There’s no practical way to live in contemporary society without access to credit, so the credit agencies are a necessary evil. Why they are allowed to grant requests as to individuals’ personal information, without informing that individual, has always been a mystery to me. (It seems all the vaunted privacy protections we have in this county are primarily intended to protect out personal information from ourselves. Credit agencies are under no obligation to inform us of irregular activity; my medical records belong to my doctor, not to me.) To create an additional potential security hole to an already extraordinary situation only adds insult to injury.

This is a relatively trivial matter when compared to the suffering of those veterans who are currently returning from Iraq less than whole. Still, millions of veterans who have served their country well and honorably have had their financial lives jeopardized through no fault of their own, and no one seems to want to do anything about it.

I’m just one individual, and I expect I’ll complain abut, but will comply with, the Equifax request. What I’m asking is that you use your considerable authority and respect in the Senate {House} to see to it that all those affected are protected as well as they can be.

Thank you for your time and attention.