Book Review: The Fine Art of Swindling edited by Walter B. Gibson (1966)

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that goes for stupid is as stupid does and a fool and his or her money are soon parted. This book collects a number of essays and nonfiction pieces that appeared in The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, and other periodicals or publications. Each essay explores a scammer or a scam in detail, but most of the scams come from around the turn of the century (as the book itself is almost forty years old).

Two things strike me:

  • The heights that the best scammers reached.
    Charles Ponzi, whose very name is synonomous with the pyramid scheme, bought a bank and a brokerage firm with the money he made from working class Bostonians who wanted to earn fifty percent interest in 90 days. Oscar Hartzell lived for over a decade in style in London while purportedly seeking to settle with the English monarchy for the Francis Drake estate–but really he was just after his “investors'” money. That’s long jack, my friends. Nowadays, nobody lives that high on the hog with so little production but venture capitalists, their pet executives, and government officials. At least swindlers used their wits and not their contacts.

  • The same scams are still running.
    Three specific examples: The Nigerian scam (help me transfer my ill-gotten gain from my African country); the here’s-a-bag-of-money-you-can-hold-it-if-you-give-me-slightly-less-of-your-money-as-a-deposit (which really needs a popular nickname), and the pyramid scheme (now more popular than ever as women’s “Gift Clubs”). The population is getting more technologically knowledgeable, but not necessarily more savvy.

Of course, the best swindles aren’t in this book, because the best swindles are not reported or solved. Still, the book’s an interesting read, but not widely available. I paid $6.00 for this copy….wait a minute…the penciled-in price claims it’s a 1966 first edition, but it looks like a book club edition….

Fine art of swindling, indeed. Curse you, Sheldon! Next time I am in your book shop, I am pulling the books out by putting my fingers at the top of the spine.

Thank Goodness Software “Engineers” Aren’t Civil Engineers

Otherwise, we would see this in the defect tracker:

Defect # 102033
Title: Striking bridge support at speed greater than 60 mph causes bridge to collapse
Severity: Critical
Problem: If a driver strikes a support beneath the overpass while exceeding approximately 60 miles per hour, the support will buckle and the entire span and bridge will collapse, killing the driver of the car that struck the support, the passengers, and any people passing over the bridge when the support is struck.

To recreate:

1. Drive northbound in car at 62 mph.
2. Guide car into support.

Support should not buckle nor should the bridge collapse when struck by such a light object at such a low rate of speed.

Status: REJECTED
Developer’s Note: In a real-world scenario, users would not deviate from the approved workflow by crossing the yellow line that demarcates the edge of the roadway. Also note that posted speed limits are 60 mph, so users would not exceed this posted limit.
Project Manager’s Note: Rejection approved. Add to construction notes document.

Thank goodness we keep these madmen in ill-lit cubicle cells where they can only harm information and not real people.

Ahhhhh…… Information-systems-industry-venom sacs emptied…..

Reaching the Outer Limits of Property Rights

Drudge linked to a story (registration required) in the New York Times about how radio broadcasters are exploring a new system, called Radio Data System, wherein the radio stations can push text advertising onto your car dashboards (or other radios, I would guess). Some critics assail the possibility of drivers becoming distracted from their driving, but I’m not so worried about that. I realize most drivers aren’t paying attention to their driving anyway, and that the text advertisements might only distract drivers from their phone conversations, newspapers, breakfast, or make-up application.

Instead, I am worried more about property rights slowly but continually eroding, almost invisibly. Because, citizens, when it comes to who holds broadcast or reception rights to your personal property, the answer always seems to be not you.

It used to be that if you bought something and it became your property, you had rights to use it and dispose of it as you saw fit. No one else had rights to use it without your permission, else it would be stolen (or borrowed by your irresponsible sibling, but that’s something else). The Constitution even addresses a particular instance of government appropriation, quartering, in the Bill of Rights. You owned something, you could use it as you saw fit, and unless you were doing something illegal, no one could stop you.

Technology changes things. With radio, you bought a device that allowed you to receive information broadcast by another person or a corporation. So you had a personal device through which you could opt to listen to a broadcast, and you could choose among available broadcasts that you wanted to receive. The act of owning a radio and receiving a broadcast require an explicit owner action. Granted, the user had no control over the content, but the user had the control over the reception thereof. The radio broadcaster could not force the user to listen.

The telephone represents a two-way communications device that most people possess as personal property. The telephone allows you to either receive a transmission (a phone call), or it allows you to create a transmission (pick up and dial out). In either case, the owner must explicitly use the device to broadcast. The owner retains the right of transmission through his personal property.

The right of transmission, as I have so eloquently labeled it, should be a fundamental corollary of basic property rights. That once I own a device, I and I alone determine how to use it and when to use it. As technology outpaces understanding and forethought, we’re in great danger that this right is being ceded de facto to corporations whose products send and receive data without explicit owner consent–often without owner knowledge.

I see this end-run around the right of transmission in any number of instances, including existing and projected technologies. RFID tags that continue broadcasting their signal after purchase, not for the benefit of the owner but instead for the benefit of the manufacturer, retailler, or their bestest, closet “business partners.” Silver boxes beneath your car seat that record what you’re doing so that the manufacturer can point its finger at you, not the automobile, if an accident occurs. Of course, the worst offender is computer software.

New Internet-connected software often, without explicit user consent–phones home to rewrite “patch” itself or to “improve the customer experience”–by transmitting information about you and your computer to, once again, the manufacturer and its closest friends. The user’s experience improves in that he or she only sees the targetted marketing and reminders to upgrade that the manufacturer thinks the user wants to see, which is probably better than all possible marketing the manufacturer could send you. The software in some cases will contact its home without seeking consent to fix manufacturing defects–“consent” is granted through a single click at some time in the past or a nebulous and unreadable license agreement. Because of its current Wizard-of-Oz nature, the software industry gets away with this because its magic takes place behind the curtain, its functionality apparently wizardry when it works.

But I digress from my thesis with the expenditure from my information-systems-industry-venom sacs. Unlike automobile manufacturers who issue recalls that require a user’s specific action to take the auto into the dealership for repair or upgrade, some software manufacturers insist they’ll fix it automatically. A person who purchases a house would recognize his or her rights have been violated if he or she came home from work to find the house has had its deck removed and has been painted eggshell blue by the previous owners–however, some software companies reserve the right to refactor and rewrite–that is, replace–private property of its customers. The more they condition customers to accept this as normal, the less customers will recognize the nature of their property rights.

I admit that the article linked above only provided a jumping-off point for thought regarding this matter. I have trouble imagining people will rush out to buy radios that provide an extra benefit for broadcasters and nothing for the consumer. However, these companies do see it as their right to push marketing and to take other liberties with your personal property, and we as consumers and as citizens must stop clicking Yes, signing unread or undisputed contracts, and accepting quietly this usurping of our property rights.

Suburban Knees Jerk

Memorandum to a neighbor:

Dear sir, and undoubtedly you are a sir and not a ma’am, I understand that the weather was nice in Casinoport, Missouri today, with a temperature reaching seventy-one degrees FARENHEIT, but what on earth prompted you to go to your shed or garage, get out, and start your lawn mower on the second of January?

Pray tell, how much shorter did you want your brown lawn to be?

Step Five: Classified

Fark led me to a set of helpful tips about how to handle giving your old computer to someone else. Here’s a summary of what Kim Komando, noted radio computer “expert,” suggests as steps or protocols for what you can do to safeguard personal information you might have on the P.C.:

    1. Don’t want a big hassle? Give the computer to a trusted employee, friend or family member.
    2. Reformat the hard drive and re-install the operating system.
    3. Buy software and overwrite the disk, again and again and again.
    4. You’re totally paranoid, so get out the acetylene torch.

That’s it, Komando? That’s all you have? What about step 5?

If you don’t know what Protocol 5 is, you’re not totally paranoid.

I guess not everyone can afford an atom-smasher in the basement.

When Frilly Meets Football

As I was reading the Febuary 2004 issue of St. Louis Homes and Lifestyles on the cycle at the gym (and I must have picked it up on the cycle, because for what sort of Man reads such a fru-fru magazine–hey, look, the person who left it here has the same name and address as I), I came across the article entitled “Running for Daylight: A light-filled domicile is where Rams’ head coach Mike Martz and wife Julie touch down”. As you all know, I don’t care for the St. Louis Lambs–I mean, come on, any football team with less than fifty years’ tradition in their city is a bunch of tax-sucking mercs. However, I like to look at the pretty pictures of rich peoples’ homes had nothing better to do for 20 minutes of intense cardiovascular working. I mean, aside from looking at the scantily-clad, physically-fit women as they sweat, but once you’ve seen the best, everything else is just furniture.

The text, amid the pictures, included this cute little nugget written by Carla Patton (whose name I included so the next time she Googles herself, she’ll read my blog):

The Martzes arrived here with the Rams from L.A. in 1995; Mike was then the wide receivers coach. With the exception of a two-year stint in the northwest with the Washington Redskins, they have lived here ever since.

You remember those two years, don’t you, when the Redskins played the Seahawks sixteen times?

(Note to Carla: The Washington Redskins are the Washington D.C. Redskins.)