Archive for February, 2009

Tidbits

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I’m back from the Florida State Rally.  It was a good trip, primarily because I was able to visit Floridian friends who I haven’t seen in many months. As the weekend approached, more friends showed up.  Most of the people I hang with have jobs or businesses of their own, and so they took advantage of the new weekend rate offered by the rally to come for just a couple of nights.

One person who dropped in was Forrest Bone, organizer of the Tin Can Tourists.  Their vintage rally is this week, in nearby Bradenton FL, and it’s always a fun event.  We used to go in years past with our 1968 Airstream Caravel, but I haven’t been able to make it lately.  I’m seriously considering whether we can get over to Florida next year to attend that.   (Speaking of vintage rallies, we have 20 trailers signed up for the Vintage Trailer Jam 2009, with 5 – 1/2 months to go. Looks like we’ll have a full house in Saratoga Springs, NY.)

I made a new friend as well, an author from the United Kingdom who happens to be a fan of Airstreams, and who happened to be visiting Florida.  She came up for a few hours to tour the Vintage Open House on Saturday, and then we browsed the new Airstream display.

Our friends Wendimere (“The Health Chic“) and Bill came by late Friday night to spend the weekend and deliver a seminar on Saturday.  Wendimere did an interesting seminar on “cleansing” while I was on display as a human prop.  My job was to sit at the front of the room with my feet in a salt water bath.  At the end of the seminar everyone got to admire the gunk in the water.

On Thursday Brett and I also presented a seminar, entitled “So You Want To Be A Blogger?” which was well received.  On Saturday we ran a double booth at the flea market and sold aluminum tumblers, shirts, hats, back issues, subscriptions, books, stickers, and giant “Airstream” slippers.  The slippers were a huge hit.  We sold our inventory and took orders for several more pairs. From a commercial viewpoint, I was pleasantly surprised to do fairly well.  People still buy stuff, even in a down economy.

It is not well-known, but in Sarasota there is an Amish community, and they have restaurants.  We celebrated our successful day  by skipping the rally dinner and going to Yoder’s.  Good move — it was a seriously good meal at a very reasonable price.  Three of us ate for $38.  I love the cinnamon apple butter that’s on every table.  I ate nothing all day except a little cottage cheese, in preparation for what I knew would be a huge dinner.  I wasn’t disappointed.  I wish we had a place like that in Tucson.

Sunday is traditionally a day when everyone clears out of the rally grounds, but since we were all facing the prospect of work on Monday, no one in our circle was eager to rush home.  Brett fired up his Cobb grill and roasted his marinated salmon steaks, scrambled about a dozen eggs, and set out the toaster with Ezekiel Bread and English muffins.  Bill & Wendimere, David & Becky, Brett & Lori, and I (odd man out) hung out by the motorhome and had a very lively brunch for about an hour while we watched the Airstreams depart.  This turned out to be the most fun we had during the entire rally, so I expect it may become an annual event.
I was probably exceptionally lucky in that my flights both to and from Tampa were uneventful.  But I discovered a new twist on airline flying: Bathroom Bingo.  These days there’s a new regulation that prohibits passengers from forming a line for the forward bathroom during flight.  I got up to use the aft bathroom midway through our five-hour flight to Las Vegas, and found myself in a line of four women at the back.  After 10 minutes of waiting (and the line didn’t seem to be moving), someone said, “Hey, the front bathroom is available,” and pointed to the indicator light.  I scuttled up to the front of the cabin to find the someone in the front of the aircraft beat me to it.

Since I wasn’t allowed to stand up there and wait, I was sent to the back again.  But of course, an opportunistic aft-plane passenger had joined the line, so the wait was longer. At this point, some seated passengers were chuckling at my trips back-and-forth, and a few people even made comments as I went by, which made the whole episode much more amusing (for them).  Once again the front bathroom opened up, and about the time I reached the fifth row a first-row passenger casually stood up and snagged it.  I was beginning to think the passengers up front were toying with me.

The man in the fifth row where I was standing was observing all of this. He said, “I think you’ve got a shot here.”  So I stood in contravention of TSA regulations next to his seat for a few minutes, and eventually — BINGO! — I scored a chance at the coveted front bathroom.  A few minutes after I returned to my seat, there was an announcement from a flight attendant reminding all of us to please not stand up front waiting for the bathroom. “I don’t make these rules,” she explained.  No, somebody on the ground, who didn’t just drink a large bottle of tea, did.

After all the conversation and seminars from The Health Chic, I’ve been paying a bit more attention to what I ate.  Upon arrival in Las Vegas I had a two-hour layover and a serious appetite. Unfortunately, I’d made the critical mistake of not bringing my own lunch.  “Eating healthy” and “airport food” are not concepts that mesh well.

I thought of calling Wendimere and asking, “OK, what’s the least  bad thing I can buy here to eat?” but eventually I chose a “Wolfgang Puck”  turkey remoulade sandwich on my own.  Then I read the Nutrition Facts label.  730 calories.  Total fat 42g, 65% of Recommended Daily Value (DV).   25% of the DV for saturated fats.  I’ve been trying to watch my saturated fats, so that bummed me out.  It also had a whopping 1900 mg of sodium (79% of DV).  I ate half of it and then emailed Wendimere for a consult.  She wrote back, “Airport food is always a challenge, you did pretty good.  I try to always have a few protein bars in my bag when I travel.  Sushi is usually my first choice, which I think you can get in Vegas.” I think she’s got a business there, providing consultations to people on the go.

Well, often the best part of any trip is coming home, and in this case it was.  I haven’t really had the experience of coming back to a home base after a week and re-joining my family.  There was Emma in her white karate uniform and Eleanor in some new clothes she bought while I was gone, and the house looking like a home instead of a project.  Our Qwest DSL was up and running so I’ve even got my parents available on Skype video calls now.  And later this week we’re expecting more friends to arrive.  It’s been a good week and the next one looks to be good, too.

Florida State Rally

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

The Florida State Rally is a little bit special for me, perhaps because it was the first place that I publicly announced I was going to start an Airstream magazine, back in 2004.  At that time we were spending the winter in central Florida, and took our 1968 Airstream Caravel over to Sarasota to visit this event, the 2nd largest of all Airstream rallies.  I met a few people at that event who became good friends, one of whom is Brett.

And so, last fall when airfares dropped I booked a cheap ticket from Tucson to Tampa so that I could revisit this rally.  It’s the fourth time I’ve attended it, and it is almost exactly the same each time.  That sameness drives off many people who are bored with it, but my interest in the rally isn’t the presentations or the dinner, but the opportunity to see a lot of Airstream folks who are leaders in the community.  And you can’t really complain about Sarasota in February …

Tuesday I got up in the dry desert darkness at 4:30 a.m., caught a flight at 7 a.m., and by late afternoon Eastern Time I was driving over Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway with the windows rolled down, smelling the sea breeze blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico.

I love Florida.  It’s full of good memories, and good friends.  All I have to do is smell that curious tangy air (a mixture of salt water, humidity, and decay) and I’m transported back to all the great times we’ve spent in Florida.  I like driving by the little waterways and lakes scattered all over.  I like finding bits of “old Florida” along the roadside, remnants of campy tourist attractions and little shacks selling green boiled peanuts.

There’s a sense of things growing incessantly here, life just constantly bursting out of dampness, with flowering bushes and sandy grass and creepy-crawlies everywhere.  You get the sense that if Florida was closed for a couple of years, the living things would take over and by the time Florida re-opened there’d be nothing left of civilization but a few moss-covered heaps.  All of that and more came back the moment I rolled down the window and started on my way from Tampa down to Sarasota.

So now I am installed in Brett’s motorhome at the rally, and all the people I’ve expected to see are here.  Colin & Suzanne are here (with Malcolm), Hunt & Sue, Mel & Glenda, Herb & Sidra, and many others from the Vintage Airstream Club.  More friends will arrive this weekend. The folks from A&W are here doing embroidery as always, and I’ve given them my camera bag to be customized with the Airstream Life logo.  Steve Ruth of P&S Trailers is here, and we talked about him polishing and clearcoating my Caravel this May at his shop up in Ohio.  There are lots of other folks whose names I have forgotten over the years, but who wave to me and ask how Airstream Life is doing, or ask about Eleanor and Emma.  (Inevitably people look disappointed to hear that I flew to the rally without Eleanor and Emma.  For years I’ve known that they are the big attraction wherever we go.  I’ve learned to live with that fact that people regard me as essentially a transportation service for them.)

fsr2009opening.jpg

My primary tasks here are to take photos for future magazine articles and help Brett with advertising sales.  But there’s plenty of time to socialize and explore Sarasota, too.  The Florida State Rally is what you make of it, and so I usually design it to my specifications by organizing or joining ad hoc parties or outings, rather than attending the formal program.  But last night they had the Opening Ceremonies, which are a tradition full of pomp & circumstance, and I got caught up in it.  I went just to take a few photos but then couldn’t leave because of the constant sequence of rituals: an Invocation/prayer, the Canadian National Anthem, the American National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, acknowledgements of all the various officers of the club, etc.  Walking out in the middle might have been construed as disrespectful, so I was forced to stay until the general announcements, about 30 minutes later.

Having survived that, I am probably done with the official schedule.  Today’s official schedule included these items: choir practice, line dancing, beginning Joker (a card game), arts & crafts, bridge, and several vendor seminars.  Our actual schedule included breakfast in the motorhome, some general conversation, and then a few hours of work at the laptops, with the balmy Florida breeze blowing through the windows.  If I have to go to work, this is the best way I can think of to do it.  Our afternoon was spent talking to the vendors, browsing the new Airstreams, photographing a refurbished vintage trailer interior, and grocery shopping at some gourmet store in town.

fsrvintagehappyhour.jpg

Of course, every day at 4 p.m. there’s the time-honored tradition of Happy Hour.  Every Airstream rally has it.  The vintage section usually has the most lively one, and that’s where I usually go, but little Happy Hours pop up all over the place under various awnings.  Tonight’s theme at the vintage area was “the most memorable experience you’ve had Airstreaming (that you can talk about).”  Mostly people talked about various interesting disasters they’ve had on the road.  Being owners of trailers between 25 and 50 years old, sometimes it’s hard to stop with just one disaster story.

I’ll be here through Sunday, so there will be more reports from Sarasota this week.  Let me know if there’s something in particular you’d like me to check out.

Cox doesn’t want me

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

We’ve been using cellular Internet for about four years now.  With upgrades to the cellular networks, it has gradually become a very good option for most people who travel a lot.  In fact, Verizon’s service here in Tucson is so good that we have been using it as our home Internet between trips in the Airstream.

But it’s not very fast.  It’s adequate.  For big file downloads, I usually seek out a nearby wifi hotspot. (With a soft chair, a hot chai and a muffin, it’s no sacrifice at all to go to Panera Bread, or Bookman’s.)

Now that we are in the house more than we are in the Airstream, it seems inevitable that I would get some sort of wired Internet service, either cable or DSL.  Frankly, with cellular there were some tasks that took forever, such as uploading photos and using secure websites.  With cable or DSL I can get much faster speeds, and that increases my efficiency at work.

So I checked the local deals and decided to go for Cox Communications‘ cable Internet offering.  And then, in a stunning episode of customer disservice, I was abruptly reminded of why I haven’t patronized cable companies since 1995.

It always ticks me off when companies ask for a Social Security number, when they don’t really need it. Cox claimed it was required so they could run a credit check and “verify my identity,” which is a load of hooey.  I quote the Social Security Administration below:

If a business or other enterprise asks you for your number, you can refuse to give it. However, that may mean doing without the purchase or service for which your number was requested. For example, utility companies and other services ask for a Social Security number, but do not need it [emphasis mine]; they can do a credit check or identify the person in their records by alternative means.

I submitted my Social Security number (SSN) with reluctance, thinking at the time that I didn’t like the implication that they use credit scores to determine whether they should take a deposit from me.  My credit is fine but I am very troubled in general by the trend toward using credit scores to determine things like car insurance rates.  And I really hate the way SSNs, which are a prime asset to identity thieves, are demanded by almost everyone these days.  If you have a choice between handing out a credit card number or your SSN, give ‘em the credit card number every time.  You can always get a new one, and your liability is strictly limited by law — both of which are not true of the SSN.

The day after I sent in my order via Cox‘s website, I received a lengthy email with lots of information I didn’t need.  About halfway down was the piece I was looking for, my anticipated installation date.  It was marked “TBD.”  Huh.

At the very bottom of the form letter was a paragraph that said:

Comments
An initial deposit payment of $50.00 is required to schedule your installation. Please note that the charges for the Cox modem must be paid before we can schedule your installation.
Sincerely,
Your Cox Customer Care Team

But nowhere in the email was a hint of how to pay the $50 … or why.  No phone number at all.  If they wanted me to pay, wouldn’t you think they’d tell me how?

I went to the website, found the phone number, and promptly was sent into the 7th level of Hell, known in business circles as “the Voice Response Unit.” (In English, that means an idiotic talking computer.)

My usual response to VRUs is to keep hitting zero until they give up and hand me over to a real person.  This system was apparently well-defended against that tactic, so I punched 3 for “Billing” and asked what was going on.  “They can’t verify your social security number,” said the woman at Cox.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I’ve never seen that before.”

“So now what?” I asked, dreading the answer that I knew would come.

“I’ll transfer you.”

Well, that began a game of “hot potato” as various Cox representatives tossed me to the next person.  The third, or perhaps fourth, person had me go through the process of “verifying information,” so they got it all again: name, address, social security number, secret Cox PIN #, service address, billing address, etc.  And he told me …. (drum roll please) …

“We can’t verify your social security number.”

Perhaps getting a little testy at this point, I said in a chilly tone, “I know that.   What does it mean?”

He babbled something circular which amounted to saying that they couldn’t because they couldn’t, and said I would need to go to a Cox office and show my Social Security card “so we can verify your identity.”

Let me tell you, it was a mighty temptation to tell him that I was pretty sure that I had an identity, and a blue piece of non-secure paper issued in 1963 would prove absolutely nothing about it.  Instead, I told him the unvarnished truth.  I haven’t seen my Social Security card since I was about 12 years old, and yet in the intervening time I’ve managed to purchase homes, pay taxes, create corporations, obtain a US Passport, and even get cell phones without it.

But that is not good enough for Cox Communications.  Without showing a Social Security card and two other forms of ID, I would not be permitted to have cable service.  I was not worthy.

I gave the guy one more chance, asking if they would accept alternate forms of ID in lieu of my long-lost Social Security card.  No dice.  I was, potentially, an unidentifiable person to Cox, despite being a US citizen with a valid Passport, driver’s license, and a very good credit rating.  So, I said, “I guess this means we can’t do business,” and the guy agreed, and he canceled my order.

It amazes me.  I know that most of the customers probably don’t encounter this issue, but still I can’t believe that Cox would drive potential customers away over such a ridiculous, bureaucratic, petty requirement.

The story has a happy ending. Soon after Cox found me unsuitable to be a customer, I called Qwest to get DSL Internet.  I didn’t get a VRU, I didn’t get transferred, and my order was placed in a few minutes despite the fact that I have never done business with Qwest before.  My modem will arrive on Wednesday, and I didn’t get asked for a deposit.  I even pushed my luck by calling the next day to clarify a few questions, and got prompt, courteous, and intelligent answers. So even before I turn on the new Qwest broadband Internet service, I’m a happy customer.

(But they still asked for my SSN.  We’ll have to work on that.)

Not a quiet week at home

Friday, February 13th, 2009

It has been a quiet week in my hometown by Lake Champlain, in Vermont.  It’s February and everything is frozen.

But we’re not there.  We’re in Tucson, which is currently the center of the universe because the world-famous gem show is going on. It has been completely dominating the west side of town for two weeks.  There are something like fifty separate venues open, each with amazing collections of gems, jewelry, rocks, fossils, meteorites, beads, petrifications, crafts, tools, crystals, and gazillions of other things.

jim-meteorite.jpgThe gem show is probably considered to be a nuisance by some locals, but we like it.  We’ve been going for three years now, ever since we first accidentally discovered it on a pass through Tucson when we were full-timing.  Emma picks up tiny samples of discarded stones from the ground, and occasionally buys an inexpensive fossil or a particularly intriguing rock.  Eleanor buys beads to support her constantly-growing beading habit.  I just browse.  My major purchase is usually kettle corn.

The gem show has brought friends to town as well.  All this week we have had a courtesy parker, our friend Jim B “The Airstreaming Meteorite Dealer.”  His 25-foot vintage Airstream is in the carport.  He spends the days manning his booth at Tucson Electric Park, buying and selling.

Jim’s big sale this week was this 27-lb meteorite.  It’s a Campo del Cielo from Argentina.  It’s worth about a thousand bucks at gem show prices (a lot less than it probably would fetch at typical retail).

Our big purchase at the gem show this year was a fossil conglomeration that we’re going to hang on the dining room wall.  All I need are some hooks that can handle a 2″ thick, 30-lb slab of rock.

deicing-jet.jpgRight before Jim we had a visit from my old friend Andy, who occupied our Airstream for several days.  (It works great as a guest house.)  Andy was our “sunshine kid.”  He lives up in the frozen north, so we invited him down to defrost for a few days, and recall what the sun looks like.  So it has felt a little like a hotel here, in a good way.

Andy took the photo at right on the day he flew here.  Even though we’ve been grumbling about the “cold” Tucson weather lately (30s at night, 60s by day), I need only glance at this photo to remember what February is really like. When they’ve got to spray the jet with glycol before takeoff, you know it’s time to plan that southbound trip.

Another set of friends has dropped in as well. Roger and Roxy got zapped by the recent cold spell in the southwest.  They were on a two-week Airstream trip to northern Arizona, but it was literally freezing up there thanks to high elevation.  So they headed to the safety of Phoenix and then called us.  (We met them when we courtesy parked at their house in November 2007, but haven’t seen them since.)  We directed them to Tucson’s Gilbert Ray campground on the southwest side of town, and then over here to have dinner with us.  We took them out to Tucson’s funky art cinema, The Loft, to watch the Academy Award-Nominated Animated Short Films.  In other words, we took them out to watch cartoons.  Do we know how to show people a good time, or what?

The parade of guests will stop when Jim leaves, at least for a short while.  I am heading to Florida next week to attend the Florida State Rally in Sarasota. Among other things, I will be speaking on the subject of “So, you want to be a travel blogger?”  I’ve also got a big shipment heading down to Sarasota, comprised of various items from our online store which I am going to blow out cheap at the flea market.  I’ve got books, shirts, tumblers, slippers, keychains, and back issues of Airstream Life.  My friend Wendimere is also coming to speak, but her topic is much more interesting.  I think she’s giving a talk about good health and good sex in the Airstream.  I can’t wait to hear that one … delivered to a group of 70-somethings in Florida.

vtj-2009-logo-small.jpgI saved the best news for last.  We’ve going to run the Vintage Trailer Jam again this summer.  Last year it was a big success, and people have been badgering us to do it again.  So the three partners who put it on last year (Vintage Trailer Supply, GSM Vehicles, and Airstream Life magazine) are going to do it again, August 13-17, 2009.

If you’re not familiar, it’s basically a combination of a rally and seminars and party that we hold in Saratoga Spa State Park, NY.  It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun, and I’m glad we managed to get everyone to agree to do it again.  We started accepting registrations on Tuesday and already 14 campsites are sold (out of about 100 we can accept).  Given that there are six months to go before the event, I think that’s a solid indication it will sell out, so I’m pretty excited.  It’s fun to put on a party for 200-300 people.

sp09-cover-small.jpgWell, maybe I didn’t save the best news for last.  I forgot to mention that we mailed the Spring 2009 issue of Airstream Life magazine about 10 days ago.  People should start receiving it very soon.  It’s a pretty good one, if I say so myself.  This issue marks the first time I’ve ever printed a photo of my own on the cover, too.  See, even as Publisher I don’t get preferential treatment.  I should try bribing the Editor.

A healthy debate

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Each quarter I receive half a dozen or more proposals from writers for feature articles they’d like to write for Airstream Life magazine.  Usually, these proposals sit in my email Inbox for several weeks, while I do other things.  As I’m conducting the day-to-day business of the magazine, there’s a little part of my brain that is considering the possible use of the article proposals:  Do they fit in the magazine?  How could they be better, or more complete? Can it be part of a theme?

After a few weeks, clarity usually arrives and I write back to the author to tell them whether the article is something we can use.  Many apply; few are chosen.  Mostly this is because I get repeats of the same article suggestions perennially (“my first Airstream experience,”  “my Airstream of Consciousness,” “safety tips,” etc.)  Those are easy to weed out, as are the occasional screwball suggestions.  Those that make the cut will get a detailed and lengthy email from me, outlining specifically what I want, what the article needs to include, style & research tips, a word count guideline, and comments on photography.

But there are a few that really stump me, and I’ve got one such proposal on my desk right now.  The author is someone known to me, a proven writer, and that makes it harder for me to reject his proposal without careful consideration.  He wants to write about medical issues.  Normally I’d toss such a suggestion out with hardly a second thought — Airstream Life is not about such things.  But in this case the author makes an impassioned case for  the need to address the topic of medical care and how an Airstream can be an essential tool when you find yourself supporting a loved one (or yourself) who is spending a lot of time in the hospital.

This recently happened to some friends of mine, an Airstream couple who suddenly discovered that one of them needed some fairly serious surgery. This meant two weeks of diagnostic procedures, consults, and pre-operative examinations — and then the surgery itself, followed by another four days in the hospital.  Where’s a spouse to stay when you need to do all of this at a specialty care center far from home?  The Airstream, parked nearby, provides an ideal solution.

My good friend Bert Gildart also wrote in his blog a couple of years ago about how he parked his Airstream right in the heart of Washington DC at a care facility, to stay near his father when he was dying.  Other friends have used their Airstreams to visit the Mayo Clinic.  It’s done all the time.  What a comfort it must  be to have “home” and family right there outside the doors of the monolithic concrete building where you’re being poked and prodded.

Health is a big topic in my mind right now.  We are all generally fine, but nonetheless we have relocated to Tucson and that means we have all new doctors.  Being new patients, we’ve been subjected to a raft of examinations and tests, and between the three of us, we’ve managed to flunk a few.  My cholesterol is “slightly” elevated.  There’s a slight lump here, an odd mole there, a bit of anemia, etc.  Nobody’s perfect, and of course every little thing needs to be checked out.

Well, don’t worry about us.  We’re fine.  I mention this because it has opened my eyes to yet another element in our nation’s healthcare insurance crisis. Like a lot of small businesses, we’ve been forced by the high cost of health insurance to switch to a high-deductible health plan combined with a Health Spending Account.  In short, we now have a deductible of $3,850 per year, and we have to pay 100% of all our health care costs until we reach that deductible.  The Health Spending Account, financed by company contributions and tax-sheltered, pays the deductible.  This is cheaper overall than the type of coverage we used to have, which paid “first dollar” coverage on nearly every medical expense but cost a lot more each month in premiums.  If you don’t have this sort of plan, pay attention, because you probably will soon.

Having to pay for every doctor visit and prescription means you start to notice what healthcare costs.  That’s a good thing, if you don’t have a heart attack when you see the bill.  Several of our office visits were quoted as costing between $190 and $285.  We braced ourselves, then were pleasantly surprised to find that after the insurance company received the bills, they “repriced” the fees to much lower levels.  The $190 visit became just $70 after the insurance company waved its magic wand.  The $285 visit dropped to $120.  On average, we paid only about 1/3 of what the original bills stated.

This happens because the insurance companies all negotiate preferential rates with the doctors and hospitals.  Anyone covered by their insurance gets the cheaper rates.  Thus, we are discovering that the real value of having health insurance in the short term is not the elimination of financial risk, but the enormous discounts that come with it.  If we’d gone “bare” we’d be facing huge medical bills — and we’re healthy.  No wonder millions of Americans are forced into bankruptcy by their medical expenses.  If you don’t have insurance, you’re going to pay two or three times more than you really should for medical services.

So here I am, a relatively healthy guy with a relatively healthy family.  We try to take care of ourselves in our diet and our activities.  And yet, I am thinking a lot about healthcare these days.  It’s a sign of the times, I think, more than it is a sign that I’m in my mid-forties.  And I wonder: Is this indeed something Airstream Life needs to discuss?

This is why I hesitate to reject the article proposal.  It still sits in my Inbox, awaiting an answer.  The little part of my brain that considers proposals is still spinning, thinking, working on the problem of how to make this kernel of an idea into something that we can publish in the context of Airstream Life.  It feels like a social obligation — to somehow address this critical issue.

You probably never realized that this kind of thought goes into a quarterly travel magazine.  But this is what good editors really do.  It’s not about punctuation and grammar — it’s about feeling what the audience needs and what they are ready for.  Editors are like chefs, mixing up ideas to get just the right result.  Sure, it’s nice to keep your sleeves clean, but in the end you get judged on the flavors of the finished product.

In this case, I’m leaning toward shelving the proposal until we can find an opportunity to work it in logically, perhaps year or two down the road when another topic comes up that would be a good companion. But the internal debate isn’t over yet.  I’ll keep considering a while longer.

Oh, merry hackers!

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Most hackers are stupid.  (I’ll probably be hacked for writing that.)  They like to demonstrate how clever they are by stealing passwords from the gullible, breaking websites with out-of-date software, and putting up truly idiotic messages on the web.  This is like proving your cleverness by grabbing the purses of little old ladies, stealing 1973 Volkswagens, and spray-painting your name on people’s houses.  Stupid.

And like a mindless virus, they are persistent.  Whenever one matures enough to realize that messing up websites isn’t really a meaningful way to spend one’s life, another crop of teenage boys figure out how to visit hacker discussion groups, and the process continues.

Even though it’s not my job, I often find myself helping out folks who have been hacked and are trying to pick up the pieces.  Today’s minor episode started with an email I received:

Dear Customer,

This is a notice that an invoice has been generated on 02/03/2009.

Your payment method is: 2CheckOut

Invoice #763
Amount Due: $19.94 USD
Due Date: 01/15/2009

Invoice Items

Personal – appact11.com (02/02/2009 – 02/14/2009) $4.99 USD
Domain Registration – appact11.com – 1 Year/s $14.95 USD
——————————————————
Sub Total: $19.94 USD
Credit: $0.00 USD
Total: $19.94 USD
——————————————————

You can login to your client area to view and pay the invoice at http://www.webhosting.com/billing/viewinvoice.php?id=763

Hosting Team

This is a “phishing” attempt.  The email is bogus, invented simply to get people to click on the link and then enter their login information.  I knew it was bogus by several indications:

  1. I never registered any such website (“appact11.com”).  The hackers know I know this, but they hope that I will click on the link anyway to “clear up the misunderstanding.”
  2. The email didn’t come from any company that I recognize, and is deliberately vague (“Hosting Team,” “Dear Customer”).
  3. Despite how it appears, the link for the invoice actually went to an entirely different website.  I could tell this without clicking on the link simply by pointing my mouse at it but not clicking.

The link was actually to a website of an innocent fellow in Canada who does weddings, but the hackers obscured that by creating a secret web address on his site which looked like a standard login page.  If you fell for this one, you’d probably enter your web host login and you’d get an error message that said you did it wrong.  Since this is a fake, no combination of username/password would ever work.  Eventually you might get tired of it, or realize your mistake, but by then it would be too late.  The hackers would take the usernames and passwords you so generously entered and use them to hack your website, too.

The first guy who thought up this approach was clever, but the millions of followers who are doing it today are just copycats. It takes no special skills.

Being a good netizen, I wrote to the legitimate owner of the website and told him:

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it appears that your website at www.namewithheld.com has been hacked.  I received this email today (along with thousands of other people probably):   …

… and then explained to him what “phishing” was, and told him what to do:

You need to have this cleaned off your site, then change all passwords related to your site.  If you don’t know how, you should get someone experienced to help you.

I was a little trepidatious about reaching out in this way.  A lot of people would assume I was the hacker.  Others might respond with requests that I fix the problem, thinking that I was a higher level of good Samaritan than I am. I could get an angry email, or get sucked into a long series of explanatory emails.  I wanted to help, but I didn’t have tons of time to spend on this.

Fortunately, this contact worked out well.  Within a couple of hours, he wrote back:

I have contacted my web host and indeed my site was hacked.  They have removed the contaminated files.  I have reported the matter to Toronto Police Services and have also contacted the Ontario  Provincial Police.

They informed that this type of activity is very common.  As it originates off shore there is little they can do about it.  I am personally quite upset and feel somewhat victimized.  I am very embarrassed that my site and reputation have been brought into disfavour.  I am not sure what else I can do or say.

Thank you for being so watchful.  I do appreciate it.

Why am I writing about this?  Because hacks happen.  Phishing attempts succeed.  I hate to see it happen to innocent people and friends of mine.  Anyone who uses the Internet needs to be at least a little educated about the hazards of it.  A little mis-step in cyberspace can translate to an empty bank account in the real world.  Take care, folks. It’s happening every hour of every day.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine