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Enron’s other legacy

The company is long gone, its leaders have faded into history, but Enron’s emails are forever.

During its 2002 investigation of the bankruptcy of Enron, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) checked the energy company’s emails: more than 600,000 messages sent from 158 employees, mostly senior management.

The collected missives—a mixture of high-level business negotiations, discussions between managers and their spouses about holiday plans, and many, many requests to be unsubscribed from mailing lists—formed part of the evidence that led FERC to conclude the company had in fact engaged in illegal price manipulation, and the US Department of Justice to press criminal charges against former CEOs Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling.

After its investigation, the commission determined the emails were in the public’s interest and dumped them on a website.

Though ostensibly for research and academic use, the trove was so messy and unwieldy that it was effectively useless—until an MIT computer science professor named Leslie Kaelbling bought the data for $10,000 and handed it over to colleagues who cleaned it up, took out duplicates, organized the remaining 200,000 messages into folders, and released it into the world.

“What was weird was that the data itself was in the public domain, but we still had to pay a company for the service of giving it to us on a disk,” Kaelbling said. “After that, we just gave it away for free.”

If Enron went down for defrauding the public, the company has unwittingly repaid a small part of its debt to society through the gift of its emails.

The Enron Corpus, as the collection is known, has been used in more than 100 projects since that research team presented it to the public in 2004. As the biggest public collection of natural written language in an organizational setting, it has been used to study everything from statistics to artificial intelligence to email attachment habits. An online art project by two Brooklyn artists will send every single one of the emails to your personal inbox, a process which (depending on the frequency of emails you request) will take anywhere from seven days to seven years.

Making all this data public has had the benefit of allowing all kinds of research into corporate behavior that just wouldn’t be possible without it. The downside is that as these emails are used as training data for artificial intelligence projects – the Enron Corpus was the training set used for the prototype of Gmail’s “smart compose” feature, though not its final version – they represent a small and atypical slice of society. That’s an entry point for bias to creep into algorithms and other automated processes. I’m sure there’s plenty more to be done with and learned from the Enron Corpus. We just shouldn’t consider it to be the be-all and end-all of how people communicate.

(I found this story while doing a Google news search on Jeff Skilling following the news of his release. So credit the Enron Corpus for finding a way to spread the word about itself, too.)

The truth is out there on the Ministers for Keryl email

In response to my previous post about the homophobic “Ministers for Keryl” email, a couple of commenters said that we didn’t have enough evidence to determine whether or not the email was genuine or spoofed. So, based on that feedback I’m going to provide as much information as I can to see what we can learn.

The starting point for this kind of investigation is always the full headers of the email in question, as that’s how you can tell where the email originated, what path it took, and whether there’s anything bogus in there that would point to some kind of skulduggery. Different email clients have different ways of exposing this information to you. In Gmail, you click the dropdown menu next to the Reply button, and choose Show Original:

It opens the result onto a new webpage. Here’s what I get for the header information (it also includes the full HTML and Java code for the body of the email, which I will omit here) for the infamous “Ministers for Keryl” email:

Delivered-To: cakuffner@gmail.com Received: by 10.182.14.138 with SMTP id p10csp103284obc; Mon, 9 Apr 2012 11:33:58 -0700 (PDT) Received: by 10.224.98.3 with SMTP id o3mr10492149qan.62.1333996438456; Mon, 09 Apr 2012 11:33:58 -0700 (PDT) Return-Path: bounce-mc.us4_9329605.111797-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net Received: from mail125.us2.mcsv.net (mail125.us2.mcsv.net. [173.231.139.125]) by mx.google.com with ESMTP id a8si13886738qao.49.2012.04.09.11.33.58; Mon, 09 Apr 2012 11:33:58 -0700 (PDT) Received-SPF: pass (google.com: domain of bounce-mc.us4_9329605.111797-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net designates 173.231.139.125 as permitted sender) client-ip=173.231.139.125; Authentication-Results: mx.google.com; spf=pass (google.com: domain of bounce-mc.us4_9329605.111797-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net designates 173.231.139.125 as permitted sender) smtp.mail=bounce-mc.us4_9329605.111797-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net; dkim=pass header.i=MinistersForKerylDouglas=3Dyahoo.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net DKIM-Signature: v=1; a=rsa-sha1; c=relaxed/relaxed; s=k1; d=mail125.us2.mcsv.net; h=Subject:From:Reply-To:To:Date:Message-ID:List-Unsubscribe:Sender:Content-Type:MIME-Version; i=MinistersForKerylDouglas=3Dyahoo.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net; bh=Sr1KnAmgb/3XEASAZvhocc4+cHA=; b=e8rsMzkHmbg1qzZiRx3SVuTNq5fJ+NWjB9WsTd3YN9fjRK993EOa0se1P/HqnGMUrZo7TDF89H1P s/qbDgg95CMhYHYNMTdiTNVadBsT1jwdiuD27q8aiV19GoCpnVNAfRNEHBzWwHS3YgGcKTPm8QQY l6NzRMBaP+rqmgGZB38= DomainKey-Signature: a=rsa-sha1; c=nofws; q=dns; s=k1; d=mail125.us2.mcsv.net; b=cSuqm0G7Gnm0HemlKLpwfQT4dJyqIgwcVV31ziTnSK/G4jsWl8OlFm47bvAh7AmNkLTdCrZyH7mX gOMZ8an++wh/JMBIdozWwfDEzTCcjXn+BfIqOqe/88wB3xHP+qhGdPAWgUGbzEvxjfzJJGrv90cv c/2qL94pTDyNSTyRlYE=; Received: from (127.0.0.1) by mail125.us2.mcsv.net (PowerMTA(TM) v3.5r16) id hgclpc11djob for cakuffner@gmail.com; Mon, 9 Apr 2012 18:29:05 +0000 (envelope-from bounce-mc.us4_9329605.111797-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net) Subject: =?utf-8?Q?Support=20Keryl=20Douglas=20for=20Harris=20Democratic=20Chair?= From: =?utf-8?Q?Rev.=20Willie=20J.=20Howard?= MinistersForKerylDouglas@yahoo.com Reply-To: =?utf-8?Q?Rev.=20Willie=20J.=20Howard?= MinistersForKerylDouglas@yahoo.com To: cakuffner@gmail.com Date: Mon, 9 Apr 2012 18:29:05 +0000 Message-ID: 83ae24d69daa2a0b2455947fc65e3510466.20120409182858@mail125.us2.mcsv.net X-Mailer: MailChimp Mailer - **CID03a4f8c00a65e3510466** X-Campaign: mailchimp83ae24d69daa2a0b2455947fc.03a4f8c00a X-campaignid: mailchimp83ae24d69daa2a0b2455947fc.03a4f8c00a x-im: 38509-03a4f8c00a X-Report-Abuse: Please report abuse for this campaign here: http://www.mailchimp.com/abuse/abuse.phtml?u=83ae24d69daa2a0b2455947fc&id=03a4f8c00a&e=65e3510466 x-accounttype: ff List-Unsubscribe: mailto:unsubscribe-83ae24d69daa2a0b2455947fc-03a4f8c00a-65e3510466@mailin1.us2.mcsv.net?subject=unsubscribe, http://keryldouglascampaign.us4.list-manage2.com/unsubscribe?u=83ae24d69daa2a0b2455947fc&id=0c4af39c85&e=65e3510466&c=03a4f8c00a>\ Sender: "Rev. Willie J. Howard" MinistersForKerylDouglas=yahoo.com@mail125.us2.mcsv.net x-mcda: FALSE Content-Type: multipart/alternative; boundary="_----------=_MCPart_1217078024" MIME-Version: 1.0

That may look like a lot of gobbledegook if you’re not a techie, but there are a few important things to highlight. Where it says “Received: from mail125.us2.mcsv.net (mail125.us2.mcsv.net. [173.231.139.125])”, the key things are that “mail125.us2.mcsv.net” appears to be a MailChimp server – “mcsv.net” resolves to http://mailchimp.com/about/mcsv/ if you plug it into a browser – and that 173.231.139.125 is indeed the IP address for mail125.us2.mcsv.net – open a command prompt and do “ping -a 173.231.139.125” to see for yourself. We can therefore say that the email does appear to have originated with MailChimp, which as Noel Freeman noted in that Dallas Voice story was what the GLBT Political Caucus used to make the accusation that the email came from Keryl Douglas’ campaign.

That’s not enough for a conviction. As commenter Paul said to me in an email, it would be nice to be able to compare these headers to those from an email known to have come from a campaign via MailChimp. As it happens, I have several of those from the Keryl Douglas campaign in my mailbox. Here are the headers from the most recent one, dated January 23.

Delivered-To: cakuffner@gmail.com Received: by 10.182.81.230 with SMTP id d6cs32291oby; Mon, 23 Jan 2012 01:04:06 -0800 (PST) Received: by 10.224.168.84 with SMTP id t20mr7916103qay.2.1327309445041; Mon, 23 Jan 2012 01:04:05 -0800 (PST) Return-Path: bounce-mc.us4_7332577.43837-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net Received: from mail120.us2.mcsv.net (mail120.us2.mcsv.net. [173.231.139.120]) by mx.google.com with ESMTP id d10si4311876qcx.187.2012.01.23.01.04.04; Mon, 23 Jan 2012 01:04:05 -0800 (PST) Received-SPF: pass (google.com: domain of bounce-mc.us4_7332577.43837-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net designates 173.231.139.120 as permitted sender) client-ip=173.231.139.120; Authentication-Results: mx.google.com; spf=pass (google.com: domain of bounce-mc.us4_7332577.43837-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net designates 173.231.139.120 as permitted sender) smtp.mail=bounce-mc.us4_7332577.43837-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net; dkim=pass header.i=KerylDouglasforHCDP=3Dgmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net DKIM-Signature: v=1; a=rsa-sha1; c=relaxed/relaxed; s=k1; d=mail120.us2.mcsv.net; h=Subject:From:Reply-To:To:Date:Message-ID:List-Unsubscribe:Sender:Content-Type:MIME-Version; i=KerylDouglasforHCDP=3Dgmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net; bh=ntfeE12aE8Vd8ky8gyVOZYlgy90=; b=Al+GShpwJsaGcDiox+RHHVKr5LzftL/sSCdd0QZU0cx5LSN4DfPotIhBZYHDdziUBgtQMuUFWxpD /REnpk1Yrbj0Gz1kHdwFP1zwbluQEtuLmF6rT/YxtyyEvxZ0Mhm+RBIhos6HK8CIIk6vdYim6eZH otqd3xPJvpYJYeJ6e0E= DomainKey-Signature: a=rsa-sha1; c=nofws; q=dns; s=k1; d=mail120.us2.mcsv.net; b=Bfe7MCVMbSbZ19eaGOTOAUNNM6I4j/GcRXpswVR8oRDBH9Q9LOBDgF46wxn2bwl5Rx0Ngp+dV0Os Qb/K1+ZpYiaVrBSnmcqS82b5ojXxvPcnnM/u9cn7ai9b8vu1QAW+u5LYeX4/G6qQOqKl9y2paef/ /BUOIjno3/IXcKSQAjM=; Received: from (127.0.0.1) by mail120.us2.mcsv.net (PowerMTA(TM) v3.5r16) id h3kh8811djoh for cakuffner@gmail.com; Mon, 23 Jan 2012 09:03:58 +0000 (envelope-from bounce-mc.us4_7332577.43837-cakuffner=gmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net) Subject: =?utf-8?Q?You=20can=20repeat=20history=20in=202012=21?= From: =?utf-8?Q?Keryl=20L.=20Douglas=20Campaign?= KerylDouglasforHCDP@gmail.com Reply-To: =?utf-8?Q?Keryl=20L.=20Douglas=20Campaign?= KerylDouglasforHCDP@gmail.com To: cakuffner@gmail.com Date: Mon, 23 Jan 2012 09:03:58 +0000 Message-ID: d87e28aeb03746ebd23666dd05f508aea06.20120123090345@mail120.us2.mcsv.net X-Mailer: MailChimp Mailer - **CID0160311a9e5f508aea06** X-Campaign: mailchimpd87e28aeb03746ebd23666dd0.0160311a9e X-campaignid: mailchimpd87e28aeb03746ebd23666dd0.0160311a9e x-im: 38509-0160311a9e X-Report-Abuse: Please report abuse for this campaign here: http://www.mailchimp.com/abuse/abuse.phtml?u=d87e28aeb03746ebd23666dd0&id=0160311a9e&e=5f508aea06 x-accounttype: ff List-Unsubscribe: mailto:unsubscribe-d87e28aeb03746ebd23666dd0-0160311a9e-5f508aea06@mailin1.us2.mcsv.net?subject=unsubscribe, http://democrats.us4.list-manage.com/unsubscribe?u=d87e28aeb03746ebd23666dd0&id=7151477e83&e=5f508aea06&c=0160311a9e Sender: "Keryl L. Douglas Campaign" KerylDouglasforHCDP=gmail.com@mail120.us2.mcsv.net x-mcda: FALSE Content-Type: multipart/alternative; boundary="_----------=_MCPart_1410715978" MIME-Version: 1.0

They look more or less the same; the IP address and mail server in the “Received from” match up as before. The main difference I see is in the “List-Unsubscribe” line; where the Douglas campaign email has “http://democrats.us4.list-manage.com/unsubscribe”, the Ministers for Keryl email has “http://keryldouglascampaign.us4.list-manage2.com”. (Those addresses also resolve to the MailChimp domain, by the way.) I wondered what that might mean, so I checked a couple of other MailChimp campaign emails I have. There’s one from the Elaine Palmer campaign dated February 6 for which the List-Unsubscribe is “http://ElaineHPalmerforJudge.us4.list-manage2.com/unsubscribe”, and one from the Andrew Burks for City Council campaign dated December 22 for which the List-Unsubscribe is “http://andrewburksforhouston.us4.list-manage.com/unsubscribe”. Seems pretty clear to me.

Again, not enough for a conviction, but nothing that would lead to an acquittal, either. I think we’re at the limit of what I can tell from the emails, but we can certainly get closer to the truth than this. Since everything indicates that the Ministers For Keryl email did come via MailChimp, then the next step is to ask them to check their logs to see what they can say about where it originated. I doubt they’d turn that information over without a paid account or a subpoena, neither of which I have. Not that it really matters, since I don’t have the bandwidth to pursue this any further, but there are surely other parties who ought to be able to. Keryl Douglas, who according to Noel Freeman claimed at her press conference that her account had been hacked, would presumably be interested in ferreting out the truth if she really has been victimized. Having formally accused her of being responsible, the GLBT Political Caucus might want to get an answer. And of course, a professional reporter might want to take advantage of the resources that a professional newsgathering organization could bring to bear on the matter. My point is that this isn’t another he-said/she-said dispute, and it should not be treated as one. There’s an objective answer to this question, and while we may not be able to answer it definitively, we can at least narrow down the objective possibilities. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Perry’s email purging on hold

Never underestimate a truly determined hacker.

Gov. Rick Perry’s state office has temporarily stopped deleting emails every seven days — as its official document retention policy allows — thanks to the efforts of a Wisconsin-based political activist who thinks they should be preserved longer.

Government transparency advocate John Washburn has devised a computer program to automatically spit out requests, twice a week, for all of the emails generated by the governor’s office. That has had the impact of halting the routine destruction of the records, because the law says files can’t be destroyed if somebody asks for them under the Texas Public Information Act.

Soon after he filed the request, Washburn said the governor’s office assured him the “email purging has stopped.”

The Milwaukee-based activist made a similar request a few years ago, but he gave up after a few weeks because he couldn’t afford to pay for the documents he was entitled to receive. He ultimately got only four days’ worth of emails. Still, the files revealed some raw and unfiltered talk among aides and appointees, along with an important story about foster children who were sleeping in emergency shelters.

See here for some background, and here for Washburn’s adventures in pestering Team Perry, which is now in my RSS feeds. This ought to be fun.

A peek behind the scenes

Want to know what the Republicans were thinking during redistricting? Here you go.

Emails unsealed by a federal judge show that key Republicans involved in Texas congressional redistricting bickered over strategy and actively considered bypassing the Justice Department two months before the Legislature passed a redrawn congressional map.

More than 400 pages of emails sent by Republican leaders between October 2010 and June show frequent contact between key staffers for Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who was chosen by the Texas congressional delegation to be their point person on redistricting. The staffers were swapping map proposals, news stories and questions about the law via email.

[…]

Two months before either redistricting committee in the Texas Legislature had voted out a congressional map, key Republicans were considering bypassing the traditional Justice Department approval, opting to take the fight over redistricting straight to federal court in Washington, D.C.

“For (example), we agree that we are not going to seek (Justice Department) preclearance but will go to a three-judge panel in D.C.,” Smith wrote in an email sent April 3 to Denise Davis, chief of staff for Straus.

Davis responded that she would look into the matter the next day.

And indeed, that’s what happened. Since that first article came out, there’s been some followup in the Express News, and will likely be more as everyone pores over the data. If you have the time and the inclination, Texas Redistricting has the full document dump, with selected highlights here, here, here, and here. Happy trawling!

Do people really still not understand the concept of “work” email?

I marveled at this story from last week, which could easily have been from a 1996 archive.

An administrator at St. Philip’s College resigned after an internal investigation found she violated the school’s email policy by sending hundreds of nonwork-related message to co-workers, many of them deemed sexually explicit and racially offensive.

Donna Laird, the now former radiography program director, resigned May 18, according to documents obtained by the San Antonio Express-News through open-records laws.

Laird, who could not be reached for comment, told investigators that she sent the email to “alleviate stress at work.”

Many of the notes included pictures of pets, patriotic slogans and motivational sayings, but others featured semi-nude women, animals having sex or masturbating, foul language, and jokes stereotyping men, women, rednecks and people of all races.

In sending those messages to a group of colleagues, Laird showed “gross disregard” for proper use of her work email account, investigators found.

Seriously? There are still people out there who send that stuff out from their work email address to their coworkers? Didn’t every organization in existence adopt workplace rules that tell employees not to do that back during the Clinton administration? How is it that anyone might think that sending these emails is a good idea in the year 2011?

Yes, yes, Chuck Rosenthal proved that such people still existed as of four years ago. There probably are more like these two still out there. Thankfully, they haven’t worked in my office in a long time. But maybe I’m the one that’s living in the bubble, and this is the way it really is. You tell me: Does your office have a Donna Laird or Chuck Rosenthal in it? I include people who persist in sending innocuous but lame and annoying emails – the “pets, patriotic slogans and motivational sayings” genre – in this classification. Sending from their personal email account to other personal accounts doesn’t count – I’m looking for workplace offenders. If this describes your workplace, leave a comment and let us know.

News flash: Rick Perry fails to tell the truth

I’m as shocked as you are.

Contrary to his public statements distancing himself from a brewing controversy in higher education, Gov. Rick Perry continually pressed his appointees to university boards of regents to promptly adopt “reforms” that critics say are simplistic and harmful to research institutions, according to emails obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

I haven’t followed this story of Rick Perry’s attempt to do to higher education what he’s done to the rest of the state very closely. Go do Google News searches on Rick O’Donnell and Jeff Sandefer for details. Frankly, I’m just amazed that any of Rick Perry’s emails were obtainable by the press. I mean, those emails were from 2008 and 2009. How it it they hadn’t been purged already? The fact that these emails prove Perry has been lying isn’t particularly remarkable – I mean, what did you expect? It’s the fact that they were allowed to remain in existence that’s truly notable.

House passes texting while driving ban

Put that phone down and drive.

This is no LOL matter: Texting while driving could soon be prohibited statewide. The House preliminarily passed a bill [Thursday] that singles out “text-based communication” — texting, instant messaging or e-mailing — while driving as a punishable traffic offense. Using other applications, like GPS, Google or Facebook, on a smart phone would not be banned.

“Why is this being singled out when there are a multitude of things that distract us while driving?” asked Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who voted against the bill. “I’m concerned about limiting freedom and making people criminals for just reading an electronic message.”

But Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who authored the bill, told lawmakers the chances of someone having an accident while texting is 20 times that of a drunk driver. The majority of the House, 124 members, voted in favor of the bill; 16 members voted against it.

Current Texas law already prohibits drivers from using a mobile device in any capacity while driving in a school zone. Nor can teenage drivers under 18 text and drive. (Making an emergency call is an exception for both laws.) According to Craddick, texting is “just one more piece of the puzzle” that needs to be prohibited to keep roads safe.

Craddick’s bill is HB243, and it passed on third reading on Friday. The text specifies “a communication sent from a wireless communication device for the purpose of manually communicating with another person in a written medium”, which basically means texts, emails, and instant messages; whether you could get ticketed for a tweet or a Facebook status update or some other typing is unclear to me. Note Larry Taylor’s amendment, which narrows it to writing, not reading, and Marc Veasey’s amendment that adds in “The term does not include a text-based communication that is voice-activated and displayed in a manner that allows the driver to view the material on the dashboard or above the steering wheel.” In other words, there are still ways around this.

I have assumed for some time that Texas would eventually adopt a statewide ban, as many cities have adopted varying ordinances of their own. Among those that have already acted on this: West U, Bellaire, Galveston, Conroe, Seguin, and San Antonio. I have also assumed that the state would set a standard that would override local ordinances, but I don’t see anything in the bill that would specify that. So, even if this bill passes, be aware of those local variations.

Texting while lawmaking

This is a fascinating issue.

A bill by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi , would make an addition to the Texas Open Meetings Act. And it would apply to any public meeting, whether it’s a House committee or a small-town city council meeting.

The measure, House Bill 2977, says an official would be committing an offense if he or she transmits an electronic message — including an email, text message, instant message or Internet posting — during a public meeting.

No penalty has been included in the bill. But Hunter said he’s still considering how to deal with violators.

Hunter, who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, said he had a few reasons for filing the bill.

“For one, it’s discourteous if you’re conducting business on a cellular phone or BlackBerry when somebody’s coming in to testify. You need to be focused on those people,” Hunter said.

But perhaps more to the point, Hunter is seeking to take the state’s open records and open meetings laws into the digital age.

The state has to modernize the law, Hunter said.

“I also don’t think you should be communicating in a public setting with private interests, telling you how to vote, telling you how to think, telling you how to speak without that being open access to the public,” he said. He added that state legislators would still be allowed to text from the House and Senate chambers.

But rudeness and modernization are not the only reasons for filing the measure. There is a legal basis for his bill, too, Hunter said: If lawmakers don’t address the issue, it could end up the subject of a court challenge.

Here’s HB2977. The subject came up last year in a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. I think Rep. Hunter is correct that if the Lege doesn’t take action to clarify existing laws relating to open meetings, the courts eventually will, and I think there’s a lot of merit to what he’s saying. I’m not sure about drawing a line between public meetings and just being in the House or Senate chambers, since surely those same private interests are there as well, but the subject is worth debating. I personally think that applying the same guidelines for email to other forms of messaging on mobile devices would go a long way towards addressing these issues, though that brings up the matter of retention intervals. Like I said, there’s a lot to discuss here, and whatever gets passed initially will surely need to be revisited in the future, probably multiple times. It’s going to take awhile to figure this all out and come up with something workable.

“Don’t call me, I won’t call you”

Does anybody use the phone any more?

In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

“I literally never use the phone,” Jonathan Adler, the interior designer, told me. (Alas, by phone, but it had to be.) “Sometimes I call my mother on the way to work because she’ll be happy to chitty chat. But I just can’t think of anyone else who’d want to talk to me.” Then again, he doesn’t want to be called, either. “I’ve learned not to press ‘ignore’ on my cellphone because then people know that you’re there.”

“I remember when I was growing up, the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10 p.m.,’ ” Mr. Adler said. “Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ ”

Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward. “Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,” Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, said by way of opening our phone conversation. “I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.”

Though the beast has been somewhat tamed by voice mail and caller ID, the phone caller still insists, Ms. Martin explained, “that we should drop whatever we’re doing and listen to me.”

Even at work, where people once managed to look busy by wearing a headset or constantly parrying calls back and forth via a harried assistant, the offices are silent. The reasons are multifold. Nobody has assistants anymore to handle telecommunications. And in today’s nearly door-free workplaces, unless everyone is on the phone, calls are disruptive and, in a tight warren of cubicles, distressingly public. Does anyone want to hear me detail to the dentist the havoc six-year molars have wreaked on my daughter?

“When I walk around the office, nobody is on the phone,” said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at HarperCollins. The nature of the rare business call has also changed. “Phone calls used to be everything: serious, light, heavy, funny,” Mr. Burnham said. “But now they tend to be things that are very focused. And almost everyone e-mails first and asks, ‘Is it O.K. if I call?’ ”

I do about 90% of my business via email at work. I will admit that I encourage people to email me – I tell them I always have my BlackBerry on me, so they’ll reach me when I’m not at my desk – and generally try to get off the phone when possible. That said, for some things I prefer it. I do a lot of customer troubleshooting, and you just can’t diagnose a problem many times without being able to ask a lot of questions and make clarifications. That’s a lot easier and faster to do on the phone. At home, forget it. The phone is almost never for me, which is fine by me. People who call for me usually call me on my cell nowadays. If you’d asked me five years ago if this is how it would turn out, I wouldn’t have expected it. But there you have it. How much do you use your phone for actual talking these days?

Teaching safe social networking skills

This seems like a good idea.

The all-boys San Antonio Academy has long used an internal e-mail system provided by a company called Gaggle. So when Gaggle launched the Social Learning Wall application this year, the private academy’s administrators jumped at the opportunity to train their students on safe and respectful social networking techniques. The social wall allows students to create profiles that can be viewed internally and be filtered and monitored for content.

“Does it not make sense for us to help prepare (students) for the world they’re already facing and help teach them to avoid pitfalls that could cost them dearly?” Head of School John Webster said after reflecting on reports of people who had lost jobs or marred reputations through inappropriate social networking.

The academy has about 350 students in pre-K through eighth grade. But only the 200 or so fourth-graders through eighth-graders are allowed to use the social wall, Webster said.

[…]

If students do get into trouble, Webster said there will be consequences. For example, a student may lose e-mail or social wall privileges for a week or two for spreading an inappropriate joke. But Webster said using the site is meant to be a learning experience where any missteps taken will be in the contained school environment.

Linda Gielen, the academy’s technology facilitator, monitors the site. Gielen said thus far she has only had to speak with students about such things as using too many exclamation points, rambling or typing in capital letters.

Frankly, just teaching proper use of the CAPS LOCK KEY makes this a worthwhile effort to me. I don’t know how practical this would be for a public school to attempt, but I’m glad to see someone is thinking about it nonetheless.

Facebook mail

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about this.

On Monday, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the world’s largest social network plans to launch an updated version of its messaging service that will allow users to send emails and SMS text messages from inside their Facebook Messages account, and that the Palo Alto, California-based company will enable the site’s more than 500 million users to each have their own “@facebook.com” email address.

“We don’t think that a modern messaging system will be email,” Mr. Zuckerberg said during a presentation to announce the new service.

It’s times like this that I realize just what an old fogey I really am.

Though e-mail is still a primary form of communication for older adults, recent studies suggest this is not the case for young people. Text messaging has surpassed face-to-face contact, e-mail, phone calls and instant messaging as the primary form of communication for U.S. teens, according to a 2009 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Yeah, I don’t see text messages replacing email for me any time soon, or ever, and I hate IM with the fiery intensity of a thousand suns. I’ll just be over here in the corner, muttering about these damn kids and their newfangled ways.

Back to the original story:

“It’s not email, it handles email in addition to Facebook Messages … it’s true people are going to be able to have Facebook.com email address, but it’s not email,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Mr. Zuckerberg said users will be able to have an @facebook.com email address that matches their public user name. However, he said the new service goes beyond email and will allow users to integrate text messaging, email and Facebook chat. Users will also be able to send attachments through the new Facebook Messages platform.

As well, in an effort to combat spam, users who adjust their privacy settings to accept messages from only their friends will have all other emails bounced away from their inbox.

I dunno. The problem with the white-list approach to spam fighting is that sometimes you do need and want to receive a message from someone with whom you do not have a pre-existing relationship. I suppose in this model, you’d need to accept a friend request from them first, to which my reaction is that I don’t necessarily want anything more from them than an exchange of information.

Lifehacker quantifies another concern I have about this.

According to a report from last year by DNS service OpenDNS, Facebook was the second most commonly blocked web site on the internet, second to MySpace. You won’t find an email provider among that top 10 list.

That doesn’t mean that every workplace blocks Facebook or that no workplaces block Gmail, but the prerequisite to communication is access, and a lot of people who can’t access Facebook from work can still access their email accounts. In theory, Facebook Messages could get around this problem by sending you messages via SMS, but unless you want to do all your “emailing” from your phone, that’s not much of a solution.

Yeah, I know, everyone has a smartphone for this stuff these days, but if you’re actually at your desk at work, fooling around on your phone all day looks bad. At least if you’re checking your Gmail account on the work PC, you’re in position to easily switch over to whatever else you need to be doing. I guess I’d need to know more about what all of this means, but my initial reaction is that it’s not anything that would make me leave Gmail. Did I mention that I’m really old? For more, see TechCrunch and Dwight. What do you think about this?

Email counts, too

I have one thing to say about this.

City officials involved in negotiating a tax reimbursement deal with the developer of a controversial Walmart-anchored retail project near Washington Avenue made dismissive, and sometimes derisive, references to citizens opposed to the development, according to e-mails released to the Houston Chronicle.

For example, in response to a subordinate’s e-mail regarding potential fallout from a July 2 Chronicle report about Wal-Mart’s interest in the site, the city’s chief development officer, Andy Icken, wrote, “In that neighborhood I assume there are some who feel they have access to unique info that makes those folks uniquely qualified to decide what is good for everyone else. … Walmart deals with folks like this everywhere.”

Three weeks later, as neighborhood opposition intensified, Icken responded to a colleague’s comment about Wal-Mart’s growth in the Houston market by writing, “We have had 4 new ones built in the last 2 years without a community comment until they touched the effete in the heights!”

[…]

Councilman Ed Gonzalez, whose District H includes the area in which the Walmart is planned, also was discussed by staff in the e-mails.

As opposition to the project from community groups grew in late July, Icken asked Deputy Finance Director Tim Douglass, the city’s lead negotiator on the 380 agreement, to describe Gonzalez’s stance.

Douglass replied, “Ed is getting a little squishy. Says he’s getting bombarded with complaints. … Ed needs a little hand holding from MAP (Mayor Annise Parker) … he feels like he’s carrying the load on this.”

[…]

Icken said city officials met numerous times with community leaders to address their concerns, including two large meetings called by Parker. Those meetings better represent the city than remarks made in e-mails, he said.

“E-mails just have a way of capturing a thought at the moment, and I think I would simply say that the actions we took in terms of meeting with people and meeting with the community at large best speak to the overall attitude the city had,” Icken said. “And, obviously, in the end, the decision on whether that agreement was passed is one made by City Council and not by staff.”

Hey, Andy and Tim, I just sent an email to all of my effete neighbors saying that you’re a couple of jerks who are clearly too immature to be allowed to interact with the public. But don’t worry, that was just a thought captured at that moment. I’m sure it won’t affect your perception of the overall attitude we have about how the city handled this situation. Swamplot, Campos, and Nonsequiteuse have more.

New frontiers in open meeting laws

There’s an awful lot here to think about.

The Texas Legislature may become the first in the nation to tackle whether tweeting and texting is being used to circumvent open meetings laws and whether the private devices of public officials can be subject to open records searches.

“They are new tools to communicate with constituents … and in some ways they are a better way to engage the public in the public policy process,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

But he told the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the tools of the Internet and smart phones can lead to quorum and open meetings violations.

“Everybody here today has been texting and answering e-mails,” Elkins said. “It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a quorum of any body has texted each other to say ‘Yes, I’m voting and why.’ ”

[…]

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he would be concerned that people may think he was violating the law by texting during a meeting when, in fact, he may be dealing with a family emergency, a message from a constituent or even taking a moment to read the Gospel of the Day.

“Texting has become an excellent way to get staff to assist you during committee meetings,” Lucio said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he is concerned about subjecting private computers and private cell phones to public information requests. He said he also is worried that public officials may end up having to carry three cell phones to cover public use, campaign use and private use.

“Everybody ought to have some expectation of privacy, even if they are a public official,” Duncan said.

No question there’s a can of worms here, but I am sympathetic to what the Senators have to say. Among other things, many public officials are parents, and I’d bet they get lots of text messages from or about their kids, just like millions of other parents do. Basically, this is in some sense no different than email, and we had this conversation about email some years ago. Everyone more or less understands the rules with email – what you can and can’t send from your official account, for example – and it shouldn’t to too hard to translate those rules for other forms of communication. Just codifying what’s allowed and what’s not will do a lot to discourage official business from taking place out of sight.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be loopholes to exploit. That happens now with email. We’ve seen Governor Perry and various members of the Bush administration use personal email accounts for a lot of stuff that may have been official or campaign communications because they can avoid this kind of scrutiny by doing so. There isn’t always a sufficiently clear distinction between different kinds of communications, so any number of things can fall between the cracks by accident or design. With new technologies constantly emerging, those who want to operate in secret will always have an advantage, as the law will never be able to keep up. Confusion is an issue, too, as illustrated by this paragraph:

Not long after a Florida state commission recommended all agencies adopt policies on electronic messaging last year, the state’s utility regulation agency was caught in a scandal when staff gave out private Blackberry messaging accounts to utility lobbyists, who treated them to a Kentucky Derby trip. Though no texts were preserved, it gave the appearance of trying to circumvent the state’s open meetings law.

I’m not what they mean by “BlackBerry messaging accounts”, but as far as I know, one normally sends text messages to a phone number. You can use BlackBerrys for instant messaging as well, however, and I suspect this may have been referring to IM accounts, which can be on various services like AIM or Yahoo or Microsoft OCS if you are on a BlackBerry Enterprise Server that is configured to work with it. Personal IM usage would not be recorded on a BES, if that’s what these guys were doing. Getting a real handle on this will be a challenge, but using existing guidelines for email usage will be our best bet for where to start.

One last thing: The opening sentence of this story referred to “tweeting and texting”, but that was the only mention of anything related to Twitter. Say what you want about Twitter, it’s not normally used for clandestine communication. Yes, you can protect your tweets, and yes you can send text-like direct messages, but for the most part Twitter is the opposite of what needs to be dealt with here.

Like I said, it’s a complex issue. Vince makes a compelling case that what’s at issue is open records, not open meetings. I encourage you to read what he has to say on the subject.

Got evidence?

If you saw Wednesday night’s rather sensational coverage of the allegations that Metro CEO Frank Wilson had an “improper” relationship with an employee, you would have come away with the impression that things were about to go all Chuck Rosenthal at that agency. But if you read this Houston Politics post about that hearing, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.

During Wednesday’s hearing in the open records lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority, an attorney for lawyer and former City Controller Lloyd Kelley acknowledged that he had no witnesses ready to testify that the transit agency had destroyed specific documents his client had requested.

Instead, attorney Michael West told state District Judge Al Bennett that Metro couldn’t be trusted to comply with the court’s order not to destroy any documents. West also said he could produce witnesses who would testify that Metro officials — particularly its chief executive, Frank Wilson — had strong motives to hide or shred documents Kelley wanted to see.

When Bennett questioned West about this, West stated in open court that Wilson had a “personal relationship that is inappropriate” with his chief of staff, Joanne Wright.

When I asked West later if by “inappropriate” he meant a romantic or sexual relationship, he said he wasn’t certain.

So Kelley has no witnesses to testify that any documents or emails he’s requested have actually been destroyed as he’s loudly been alleging for weeks now, and the best he can do is produce someone to testify that Wilson had motive to destroy documents – the documents he can’t find anyone to say were destroyed – because these documents might have to do with an inappropriate relationship, the nature of which he’s not sure about. It sounds a lot less sensational when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

This doesn’t mean that documents weren’t shredded, or that Wilson didn’t have an inappropriate relationship with Wright. All the things Kelley is alleging may be true. But he’s not acting like a man who has evidence of the charges he’s made, he’s acting like a man who’s hoping to find evidence of them. Those are two different stories.

Metro CEO accused of inappropriate relationship with employee

Well, at least we now have some idea of what Lloyd Kelley has been looking for.

The president and CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority was accused in open court Wednesday of having an improper relationship with a female employee who works for him. That alleged relationship may include taxpayer-funded trips to Spain, additional compensation and benefits, and other items the public paid for with tax dollars, according to the attorney for former Houston Controller Lloyd Kelley.

Attorney Michael West, who represents Kelley, told Judge Al Bennett he has information which leads him to believe Metro President Frank Wilson had substantial motivation to keep specific documents or e-mails from coming out.

Kelley had previously sued Metro, alleging it improperly destroyed public documents related to a public information request from Kelley.

Insert your own Chuck Rosenthal joke here. The difference at this point is that the allegations about Rosenthal’s abuses were concurrent with the discovery of the emails. We don’t have the emails here, maybe because they’ve been destroyed and maybe because they don’t actually exist. For what it’s worth, the KHOU broadcast I saw said that Metro continues to deny the allegations. I sure hope they’re right, but none of this looks good.

Bradley’s penchant for secrecy

I don’t know what John Bradley’s goals are as the Chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. But if one of them is to dispel the notion that he’s Rick Perry’s stooge, who was installed for the purpose of covering the Governor’s ass on the Cameron Todd Willingham case, then he’s doing it wrong.

John Bradley, who took over as chairman of the revamped commission Sept. 30, told state senators this month that the commission must adopt new rules before proceeding with the inquiry.

Bradley, district attorney for Williamson County, has also sought to control the release of information about commission activities. In an Oct. 30 e-mail obtained by the Star-Telegram, staff coordinator Leigh Tomlin asked commission members, “as a reminder of our e-mail retention policy, please delete all commission correspondence.

“If you feel there is something that needs to be saved, forward it to my office.”

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who sponsored legislation that created the commission in 2005, expressed disapproval with the policy, saying “it’s going in the wrong direction.”

“Surely deleting all e-mail correspondence is a nice way of saying, ‘destroy all correspondence,’ ” he said. “It’s the same thing.”

Hinojosa also said that because commission members are appointed independently of the chairman, they should be able to “keep and save whatever e-mail they want to keep.”

Bradley said the policy “simply seeks to make sure that all relevant information is saved at a single location.”

“As you might imagine,” Bradley wrote in an e-mail, “with digital information being sent, forwarded and replied to at the touch of button, an agency can find itself with duplicates of the information in numerous places.

“That makes it difficult for a public information officer to respond to requests for information and be confident about complying with all the legal requirements connected to that responsibility.”

That sound you hear is my bullshit detector blowing a gasket. Having official communications emanate from a single source does not require email purges. The reason you do that is to make it hard, if not impossible, for there to be a complete record of the Commission’s activities. There’s absolutely no justification for a commission whose purpose is to review forensic science procedures and make recommendations about best practices to be concerned about secrecy like this. Unless, of course, they expect to be discussing things that might embarrass someone they don’t want to be embarrassed. This policy needs to be stopped before any real damage is done.

Bad web info! Bad! Bad!

The Chronicle would like to remind you that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Or in your Inbox, for that matter.

The Internet is the wonder of our age — a peerless tool for assembling information quickly. But, as we all know, it can also be a wickedly effective tool for creating mischief. Regrettably, it’s being used that way in the statewide debate over one of the amendments to the Texas Constitution, to be decided in the Nov. 3 election. Informed voters need to know this and act accordingly.

The trouble relates to Proposition 3 on the ballot, one of three proposed constitutional amendments relating to the collection of ad valorem taxes on real property. All three merit a yes vote.

[…]

Unfortunately, a misbegotten e-mail campaign has been launched against this proposition. This is downright harmful to the interests of Texas property taxpayers, who shoulder the load for most of the expense of public education and a good bit of the cost of local government.

Those who would sidetrack Prop 3 evidently believe that the word uniform somehow makes this a stalking horse for a statewide property tax.

Which is expressly forbidden by the state constitution, so no worries. Not that I could tell you why exactly such a thing would be so horrible, but then I’m not the type of person who generally bases decisions like that on multiply-forwarded emails. I’m not sure that showing this op-ed to someone who does make their decisions in that fashion will have much effect, but I suppose one must try.

Perry’s got a secret

Quite a few secrets, actually. He really, really doesn’t want you to know what he’s up to over there.

When a national news organization in 2003 asked the state archives for the execution memoranda written for former Gov. George W. Bush, there was no objection from Perry’s office to the public having the information. Because of Perry’s silence, Attorney General Greg Abbott ordered the documents’ release.

But when the Houston Chronicle and other news organizations sought similar memos written for Perry by his general counsel, the governor’s office has fought it repeatedly and obtained rulings from Abbott that the information does not have to be made public.

It is part of a pattern, a shroud of secrecy that has descended on the governor’s office since Perry took over as governor from Bush.

[…]

[T]here are a number of examples where Bush’s administration was more forthcoming than Perry’s.

Bush released lists of overnight guests at the Governor’s Mansion, often showing high-dollar donors staying at the official residence. Perry obtained a ruling from Abbott that it does not have to be public. Now, the list is not even maintained.

[…]

Bush put out his daily schedules in advance. The public only found out that Perry had gone scuba diving in the Bahamas with policy advocates and major donors because someone spotted them at a marina.

Castle said Perry’s schedules are available as historic documents and that the news media is notified of his public meetings in advance. She said the governor’s advance schedule is kept secret for security reasons.

You can still find President Obama’s schedule online even though the Secret Service is overwhelmed by the number of death threats against him. But letting people know where Rick Perry is going to be, that’s too big a risk to take. There are other examples in the story, including Perry’s well-known email purging policy, which establish the pattern even further. All I can say is that if you’re more secretive than George W. Bush, you must have something to hide.

Someone must be doing it, part deux

I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

Pharmaceutical spam can generate more than $4,000 per day in sales, confirming that spam continues to thrive because of those gullible few who click through and ruin it for the rest of us. And that’s not just an estimate: a security researcher from Sophos have combed through sales logs as part of his investigation into the growth of spam networks, noting that Russian affiliate partner networks—also known as “partnerka”—are responsible for some of the largest Canadian pharmacy spam businesses.

Dmitry Samosseiko’s report, “The Partnerka — what is it, and why should you care?” (PDF) focuses largely on these Russian networks and how they drive traffic, advertising, and more. Not surprisingly, online pharmaceuticals tend to be a very popular affiliate business, with one of the largest being one called GlavMed. GlavMed itself claims to be strongly anti-spam, but it has a sister company called “SpamIt,” a private group of e-mail spam affiliates that researchers suspect are also behind the Storm, Waledec, and Conficker botnets.

Samosseiko discovered a wide-open PHP backend to GlavMed that contained evidence that the company is indeed set up to benefit largely from spammers. This involves e-commerce software for spammers to launch their own GlavMed copies or to simply set up domains that redirect to GlavMed. Additionally, some of the documents Samosseiko discovered were sales records, giving a glimpse into the purchasing behavior of GlavMed’s targets.

According to the sales records from GlavMed, there were apparently more than 20 purchases per day per spam campaign, with GlavMed claiming a 40 percent commission on each sale. With an average purchase of around $200, that adds up to over $4,000 total per day per campaign (or $1,600 for GlavMed). As you can imagine, that total easily multiplies if more than one spam blast is run per day thanks to different affiliates, and it continues to skyrocket when we consider how many different online pharmacies exist that benefit from spam, including Stimul-cash.com, Rx-partners, Rxcash.biz, Evapharmacy, Rx-Signup.com and DrugRevenueget.

The story references an earlier study that showed 12% of people had tried to buy stuff from spam. Mere words cannot adequately convey my disbelief at any of this. Link via Dwight.

Someone must be doing it

Ars Technica: 12% of e-mail users have actually tried to buy stuff from spam.

[The Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG)] conducted 800 interviews by phone and Internet across the US with people who had e-mail addresses not managed by a corporate IT staff. It found that two-thirds of the group said that they were very or somewhat experienced with Internet security, and a majority used filters of some kind in order to avoid spam. Eighty-two percent were aware of bots and botnets, though not many believed they were at risk of being victimized by one.

Slightly less than half (48 percent) said that they have never clicked on a spam e-mail. That’s the good news, but that means the other half have clicked on or responded to spam. But why? The answers will undoubtedly horrify you. A full 12 percent said that they were interested in the product or service being offered—those erection drug and mail order bride ads do reach a certain market, it appears.

Seventeen percent said that they made a mistake when they did so—understandable—but another 13 percent said they simply had no idea why they did it; they just did. Another six percent “wanted to see what would happen.”

(Interestingly, a larger percentage of people who were interviewed by phone said that they had never acted on a spam message compared to those who answered online. Guess it’s true that users would rather not admit their foibles when speaking to a real person.)

“Although a small percentage of the computing population, these numbers still earn a significant enough return on investment to support a booming spam-driven underground economy,” wrote MAAWG. Indeed, with spam making up a very large majority of all e-mail traffic—Microsoft recently claimed it was at 97 percent—even low sellthrough rates are enough to make things very profitable. With botnets supposedly sending more than 80 percent of that spam (according to Symantec), there are now relatively few man-hours involved in making money from a spam-based business. Just set it and forget it.

I really don’t know what there is to say about this. Somewhere, PT Barnum is laughing his ass off. Thanks to Dwight for the link.

Mainframing

Ah, memories.

As hot new servers have grabbed more attention, mainframes have been plugging away behind the scenes. For decades, they have been the technological backbone for banking, finance, insurance, defense, health care, education, government and other industries.

“The perception is we’re old and gray,” said Jim Porell, an engineer who works on mainframes at IBM, the only company that still makes them.

Lately, more software has been written for mainframes, and they support everything from ATMs to Web-hosting to cell phones, not exactly ancient technology.

But while mainframes are evolving to handle more applications, the number of mainframes is shrinking, said John Phelps, the lead mainframe analyst for technology research firm Gartner. IBM has lost more than 75 customers who left mainframe platforms, and it has gained about 50 new ones. Mainframes are operating more efficiently, handling more MIPS — millions of instructions per second — year after year.

“The actual number of mainframes has shrunk, but the capacity has gone up,” he said. Better efficiency has become more important as users’ sensitivity to electrical usage, both for financial and environmental reasons, has increased, he said.

I haven’t used or supported PROFS in a decade, but I could still split a message file if I needed to. And don’t tell anyone, but the expense statement program we had on VM back in the day was easier to use than any of the PC and web-based programs I’ve had to use since then. There are many things about this environment that I don’t miss. But it had its good points, too.