David Foster Wallace on leadership

From David Foster Wallace’s “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub: Seven Days In The Life Of The Late, Great John McCain” (Rolling Stone: 13 April 2000):

The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to think is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a Scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

Lincoln was, by all available evidence, a real leader, and Churchill, and Gandhi, and King. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and de Gaulle, and certainly Marshall and maybe Eisenhower. (Of course Hitler was a real leader too, a very powerful one, so you have to watch out; all it is is a weird kind of power.)

Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem real obvious. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. Because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is his own self-interest. If you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying really is in your interest (and it really might be) — still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful … although admittedly it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious. But if you’re subjected to enough great salesmen and salespitches and marketing concepts for long enough — like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let’s say — it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.

Yes, this is simplistic. All politicians sell, always have. FDR and JFK and MLK and Gandhi were great salesmen. But that’s not all they were. People could smell it. That weird little extra something. It had to do with “character” (which, yes, is also a cliché — suck it up).

Srizbi, Bobax, & Storm – the rankings

From Gregg Keizer’s “RSA – Top botnets control 1M hijacked computers” (Computerworld: 4 October 2008):

Joe Stewart, director of malware research at SecureWorks, presented his survey at the RSA Conference, which opened Monday in San Francisco. The survey ranked the top 11 botnets that send spam; by extrapolating their size, Stewart estimated the bots on his list control just over a million machines and are capable of flooding the Internet with more than 100 billion spam messages every day.

The botnet at the top of the chart is Srizbi. According to Stewart, this botnet — which also goes by the names “Cbeplay” and “Exchanger” — has an estimated 315,000 bots and can blast out 60 billion messages a day.

While it may not have gotten the publicity that Storm has during the last year, it’s built around a much more substantial collection of hijacked computers, said Stewart. In comparison, Storm’s botnet counts just 85,000 machines, only 35,000 of which are set up to send spam. Storm, in fact, is No. 5 on Stewart’s list.

“Storm is pretty insignificant at this point,” said Stewart. “It got all this attention, so Microsoft added it to its malicious software detection tool [in September 2007], and that’s removed hundreds of thousands of compromised PCs from the botnet.”

The second-largest botnet is “Bobax,” which boasts an estimated 185,000 hacked systems in its collection. Able to spam approximately nine billion messages a day, Bobax has been around for some time, but recently has been in the news again, albeit under one of its several aliases.

Matthew, the blind phone phreaker

From Kevin Poulsen’s “Teenage Hacker Is Blind, Brash and in the Crosshairs of the FBI” (Wired: 29 February 2008):

At 4 in the morning of May 1, 2005, deputies from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office converged on the suburban Colorado Springs home of Richard Gasper, a TSA screener at the local Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. They were expecting to find a desperate, suicidal gunman holding Gasper and his daughter hostage.

“I will shoot,” the gravely voice had warned, in a phone call to police minutes earlier. “I’m not afraid. I will shoot, and then I will kill myself, because I don’t care.”

But instead of a gunman, it was Gasper himself who stepped into the glare of police floodlights. Deputies ordered Gasper’s hands up and held him for 90 minutes while searching the house. They found no armed intruder, no hostages bound in duct tape. Just Gasper’s 18-year-old daughter and his baffled parents.

A federal Joint Terrorism Task Force would later conclude that Gasper had been the victim of a new type of nasty hoax, called “swatting,” that was spreading across the United States. Pranksters were phoning police with fake murders and hostage crises, spoofing their caller IDs so the calls appear to be coming from inside the target’s home. The result: police SWAT teams rolling to the scene, sometimes bursting into homes, guns drawn.

Now the FBI thinks it has identified the culprit in the Colorado swatting as a 17-year-old East Boston phone phreak known as “Li’l Hacker.” Because he’s underage, Wired.com is not reporting Li’l Hacker’s last name. His first name is Matthew, and he poses a unique challenge to the federal justice system, because he is blind from birth.

Interviews by Wired.com with Matt and his associates, and a review of court documents, FBI reports and audio recordings, paints a picture of a young man with an uncanny talent for quick telephone con jobs. Able to commit vast amounts of information to memory instantly, Matt has mastered the intricacies of telephone switching systems, while developing an innate understanding of human psychology and organization culture — knowledge that he uses to manipulate his patsies and torment his foes.

Matt says he ordered phone company switch manuals off the internet and paid to have them translated into Braille. He became a regular caller to internal telephone company lines, where he’d masquerade as an employee to perform tricks like tracing telephone calls, getting free phone features, obtaining confidential customer information and disconnecting his rivals’ phones.

It was, relatively speaking, mild stuff. The teen though, soon fell in with a bad crowd. The party lines were dominated by a gang of half-a-dozen miscreants who informally called themselves the “Wrecking Crew” and “The Cavalry.”

By then, Matt’s reputation had taken on a life of its own, and tales of some of his hacks — perhaps apocryphal — are now legends. According to Daniels, he hacked his school’s PBX so that every phone would ring at once. Another time, he took control of a hotel elevator, sending it up and down over and over again. One story has it that Matt phoned a telephone company frame room worker at home in the middle of the night, and persuaded him to get out of bed and return to work to disconnect someone’s phone.

Presidential campaigns, campaign bios, & history

From Jill Lepore’s “Bound for Glory” (The New Yorker: 20 October 2008):

The biography was published in 1817 as “The Life of Andrew Jackson.” The next year, Eaton was rewarded with an appointment to a vacant seat in the United States Senate. In 1823, Jackson was elected as the other senator from Tennessee, and followed his biographer and friend to the nation’s capital. The two men took lodgings at the same Washington boarding house. The following year, Jackson was a candidate for the Presidency. Eaton headed his campaign. Jackson’s opponent John Quincy Adams refused to campaign at all. In keeping with the tradition of the first five American Presidents, Adams considered currying favor with voters to be beneath the dignity of the office, and believed that any man who craved the Presidency ought not to have it. Adams called this his Macbeth policy: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir.” Jackson’s supporters leaned more toward Lady Macbeth’s point of view. They had no choice but to stir: their candidate was, otherwise, unelectable. How they stirred has shaped American politics ever since. They told a story, the story of Andrew Jackson’s life. In 1824, Eaton published a revised “Life of Jackson,” founding a genre, the campaign biography. At its heart lies a single, telling anecdote. In 1781, when Jackson was fourteen and fighting in the American Revolution, he was captured. A British officer, whose boots had got muddy, ordered the boy to clean them: Jackson refused, and the officer beat him, badly, with a sword. All his life, he bore the scars. Andrew Jackson would not kneel before a tyrant.

Since 1824, no Presidential election year has passed without a campaign biography, printed about the time a candidate is nominated, chiefly for the purpose of getting him elected. (Although, since Reagan’s “A New Beginning,” in 1984, the campaign biography, as book, has been supplanted somewhat by the campaign film, screened at the nominating Convention.)

The election of 1824 brought the first campaign buttons, the first public-opinion polls (undertaken by and published in pro-Jackson newspapers), and the first campaign biographies. Eaton’s “Life of Jackson” was the one that established the genre’s enduring conventions. When Eaton revised it in 1824, he turned what was a history, if a decidedly partial one, into political propaganda; his changes are carefully annotated by Frank Owsley, Jr., in a facsimile edition published by the University of Alabama Press. Eaton cut out or waved away everything compromising (the duels Jackson fought, a soldier he had executed), lingered longer over everything wondrous (battles, mainly), and converted into strengths what pundits had construed as weaknesses. Eaton’s Jackson wasn’t reckless; he was fearless. He had almost no political experience; he was, therefore, ideally suited to fight corruption. He lacked political pedigree; his father, a poor Scotch-Irish immigrant, died before he was born—but this only made Jackson more qualified for the White House, since he was, to use a phrase that was coined during his Presidency, a “self-made man.”

In 1834, Davy Crockett wrote the first Presidential campaign autobiography. Vying for the Whig nomination, he then wrote an ornery biography of his rival, upbraiding him for having traded his coonskin cap for a swankier hat. “Mr. Van Buren’s parents were humble, plain, and not much troubled with book knowledge, and so were mine,” Crockett allowed. But Van Buren had since put on airs: “He couldn’t bear his rise; I never minded mine.”

Google PageRank explained

From Danny Sullivan’s “What Is Google PageRank? A Guide For Searchers & Webmasters” (Search Engine Land: 26 April 2007):

Let’s start with what Google says. In a nutshell, it considers links to be like votes. In addition, it considers that some votes are more important than others. PageRank is Google’s system of counting link votes and determining which pages are most important based on them. These scores are then used along with many other things to determine if a page will rank well in a search.

PageRank is only a score that represents the importance of a page, as Google estimates it (By the way, that estimate of importance is considered to be Google’s opinion and protected in the US by the First Amendment. When Google was once sued over altering PageRank scores for some sites, a US court ruled: “PageRanks are opinions–opinions of the significance of particular Web sites as they correspond to a search query….the court concludes Google’s PageRanks are entitled to full constitutional protection.)

How to grade or judge water

From Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s “The Water Rush” (Oxford American):

On the tables in front of us are pink “trial” judging sheets. Across the top run a series of boxes for water numbers, and down the side is the set of criteria we’ll be using. Arthur goes through the criteria one by one, and explains what to look for.

The first criterion is Appearance, which is rated on a scale from zero to five. Good is colorless; bad is cloudy. Self-explanatory, so Arthur moves along quickly to Odor, which is also based on five possible points. The box on the sheet has one example of a positive descriptor on the left side—in this case, “none”—and a row of possible characterizations of water odor on the right side: chlorine, plastic, sulfur, chemical, musty. Next on the list is Flavor, rated out of ten points; the left side of the box reads “clean” and the right side has the identical list of identifiers provided for Odor, plus “salty.” Mouthfeel is back down to a five-point criterion, and the relevant distinction is “refreshing/stale.” There’s a five-point box for Aftertaste (this one on a spectrum from “thirst-quenching” to “residue”), and finally we come to Overall Impressions.

Overall Impressions is scored out of fourteen points, which makes the total available points for each entrant an eyebrow-raising forty-nine. The fourteen-point scale is provided to us on an attached sheet. It was developed by a food scientist at UC Berkeley named William Bruvold. In the ’60s, he pioneered experiments in the acceptability levels of total dissolved solids in water, and he used his students as subjects; he incrementally increased the turbidity of the sample until the water came to resemble Turkish coffee and his students refused to drink it. Out of these experiments came this scale, which Arthur tantalizingly referred to the day I met him in Santa Barbara. Arthur seems a bit sheepish about the language of the document.

The fourteen-point scale, in its entirety, reads exactly as follows (all formatting original):

1. This water has a TERRIBLE, STRONG TASTE. I can’t stand it in my mouth.

2. This water has a TERRIBLE TASTE. I would never drink it.

3. This water has a REAL BAD TASTE. I don’t think I would ever drink it.

4. This water has a REAL BAD TASTE. I would drink it only in a serious emergency.

5. This water has a BAD TASTE. I could not accept it as my everyday drinking water, but I could drink it in an emergency.

6. This water has a BAD TASTE. I don’t think I could accept it as my everyday drinking water.

7. This water has a FAIRLY BAD TASTE. I think I could accept it as my everyday drinking water.

8. This water has a MILD BAD TASTE. I could accept it as my everyday drinking water.

9. This water has an OFF TASTE. I could accept it as my everyday drinking water.

10. This water seems to have a MILD OFF TASTE. I would be satisfied to have it as my everyday drinking water.

11. This water seems to have a LITTLE TASTE. I would be satisfied to have it as my everyday drinking water.

12. This water has NO SPECIAL TASTE at all. I would be happy to have it for my everyday drinking water.

13. This water TASTES GOOD. I would be happy to have it for my everyday drinking water.

14. This water tastes REAL GOOD. I would be very happy to have it for my everyday drinking water.