Philip K. Howard – The Death of Common Sense

This article, written 20 years ago, is an excerpt from Howard’s book by the same name. It was published in US News and World Reports  on January 30, 1995.

howard

It is even more relevant today than it was then.

This is a copyright article – if anyone really objects to its presence here, I’ll take it down. But it deserves to be read, as does the entire book.


The Death of Common Sense
Philip K. Howard

In the winter of 1988, nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were walking through the snow in the South Bronx in their saris and sandals to look for an abandoned building that they might convert into a homeless shelter. They came to two fire-gutted buildings on 148th Street and, finding a Madonna amid the rubble, thought that perhaps Providence itself has ordained the mission. New York City offered the abandoned buildings at $1 each, and the Missionaries of Charity set aside $500,000 for the reconstruction. The only thing unusual about the plan was that the nuns, in addition to their vow of poverty, avoid the routine use of modern conveniences, and there would be no washing machines or other appliances. For New York City, the proposed homeless facility would literally be a godsend. Although the city owned the buildings no official had the authority to transfer them except through an extensive bureaucratic process. For 18 months, the nuns were directed from hearing room to hearing room discussing the project with bureaucrats. In September 1989, the city finally approved the plan, and the Missionaries of Charity began repairing the fire damage.

Providence, however, was no match for law. New York’s building code, they were told after almost two years, required an elevator. The Missionaries of Charity explained that because of their beliefs they would never use the elevator, which also would add upward of $100,000 to the cost. The nuns were told the law could not be waived even if an elevator didn’t make sense.

Mother Teresa gave up. Her representative said: “The Sisters felt they could use the money much more usefully for soup. and sandwiches.” In a polite, regretful letter to the city, the Missionaries of Charity noted that the episode “served to educate us about the law and its many complexities.” No person decided to spite Mother Teresa. It was the law of government, which controls almost every activity of common interest-fixing potholes, running schools, regulating day-care centers, controlling workplace behavior, cleaning up the environment and deciding whether to give Mother Teresa building permit. And what it required offends common sense. Law designed to make Americans’ lives safer and fairer has now become an enemy of the people.

Government acts like some extraterrestrial power, not an institution that exists to serve us. The bureaucracy almost never deals with real-life problems in a way that reflects an understanding of the situation. We seem to have achieved the worst of both worlds: a system of regulation that goes too far while it also does too little.

This paradox is explained by the absence of the one indispensable ingredient of any successful human endeavor: the use of judgment. In the decades since World War II, we have constructed a system of regulatory law that basically outlaws common sense. Modern law, in an effort to be “self-executing,” has shut out our humanity.

The motives to make the law this way had logic. Specific legal mandates would keep government in check and provide crisp guidelines for citizens. Layers of “process”-procedural deliberations-would make sure decisions were responsible. Handing out “rights” would cure injustice. But it doesn’t work. Human activity can’t be regulated without judgment by humans, adjusting for circumstances and taking responsibility.

The public’s fury with government was demonstrated in the November election, and the Republicans who won power now promise to get government off our backs. This rhetoric never turns to reality, though, because the public does not want to cut government essential services. The public is mad at how government works-its perpetual ineptitude and staggering waste-not mainly what government aims to do.

Moreover, the GOP’s Contract With America proposes to take only small steps in the direction of real reform. One proposal would impose a moratorium on many pending regulations- an idea equivalent to cutting off your leg to lose weight. Another Republican theme is to return government functions to. states, which could be a real benefit in certain areas like welfare but disastrous in others like environmental protection. The federalism idea ignores the fact that state governments are typically as ineffective and wasteful as the federal government. To liberate Americans from red tape, real reform must be aimed at simplifying how government works. Ending our suffocating legal system should be reformers’ goal.

LAW REPLACES HUMANITY

The tension between legal certainty and life’s complexities was a primary concern of those who built our legal system. The Constitution is a model of flexible law that can evolve with changing times and unforeseen circumstances. Today, we no longer remember that words can impose rigidity as well as offer clarity. Law had an identity crisis when Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then a law professor, suggested in 1881 that law was not certain after all but depended on how the judge and jury saw the facts. This stimulated a wide range of reform movements, especially to codify the common law into statutes. Progressives at the turn of the century, New Dealers in the 1930s and Great Society reformers in the 1960s expanded the role of government in huge ways.

Another form of lawmaking also took hold in the ’60s that focused not on government’s role but on its techniques. Legal details proliferated. The Federal Register, a report of new and proposed regulations, increased from 15,000 pages in the final year of John Kennedy’s presidency to over 70,000 pages in the last year of George Bush.

Precision became the goal. The ideal of lawmaking was to anticipate every situation, every exception and codify it. With obligations set forth precisely, according to this rationale, everyone would know where he stood. But the drive for certainty has destroyed, not enhanced, law’s ability to act as a guide. “Regulation has become so elaborate and technical that it is beyond the understanding of all but a handful of mandarins,” argued former Stanford Law DeBanay less Manning. No tax auditor, no building code examiner can possibly know all the rules in thick government volumes. What good is a legal system that cannot be known?

Instead of making law a neutral guidepost protecting against unfairness and abuse, this accretion of law has given bureaucrats almost limitless arbitrary power. A few years ago, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration decided workers needed more protection from hazardous chemicals. Bureaucrats decided that everything that could conceivably have a toxic effect should be shipped with a Material Safety Data Sheet describing the possible harmful effects of each item. The list grew and grew until it totaled over 600,000 products. In 1991, OSHA turned its attention to bricks. Bricks can fall on people, of course, but they had never been considered poisonous. The OSHA regional office in Chicago sent a citation to a brick maker for failing to supply an MSDS form with each pallet of bricks. If a brick is sawed, OSHA reasoned, it can release small amounts of the mineral silica. The fact that this doesn’t happen much at construction sites was of no consequence. Brick makers thought the government had gone crazy, and they feared a spate of lawsuits. They began sending the form so that workers would know how to identify a brick (a “hard ceramic body with no odor”) and giving its boiling point (“above 3,500°” Fahrenheit). In 1994, after three years of litigation, the poison designation was removed by OSHA.

The proliferation of rules may not produce the benefits of certainty and fairness, but it creates endless opportunities for smart lawyers seeking angles and advantages. Law, supposedly the backdrop for society, has been transformed into one of its main enterprises. For some billionaires, cable-TV companies, congressmen and litigators, close scrutiny and manipulation of the rules are a means to an end, The words of law give them lower taxes, a way to circumvent price controls, a secret means of playing favorites and a tool to grind the other side into the ground.

housing, gets regular citations for code violations like nonaligning windows and closet doors that do not close tightly. Does the city think that those clean, inexpensive rooms are somehow unworthy of a city that itself provides cots 18 inches apart for those who have no pltadc sel eep? A city inspector recently told the YMCA, after it had virtually completed a renovation, that the fire code had changed and a different kind of fire-alarm system, costing an additional $200,000, would have to be installed. “Don’t they realize th$a2tO Oth,CeM Xl can provide yearlong programs for a hundred kids?” asked Paula Gavin, the YMCA’s president. In our obsessive effort to perfect a government of laws, not of men, we have invented a government of laws against men.

THE NEVER-ENDING PROCESS

In 1962, Rachel Carson shocked the nation by exposing the effects of DDT and other pesticides in her book The Never-Ending Spring. There was also another side to the issue: Pesticides give us apples without worms and the most productive farms in the world. In 1972, Congress required the newly created Environmental Protection Agency to review all pesticides (about 600 chemical compounds at that time) and decide which should be removed from the market. The deadline was three years. More than 20 years have passed, and yet only 30 pesticides have been judged. Hundreds of others, including some on which there are data suggesting significant risk, continue to be marketed. “At this rate,” said Jim Aidala, a onetime congressional pesticide expert, “the review of existing pesticides will be completed in the year 15000 A.D.”

Making decisions, it almost seems too obvious to say, is necessary to do anything. Every decision involves a choice and the likelihood that somebody will lose something; otherwise, there would be no need to decide. This is the issue that paralyzes government decision making. “The problem with government,” argues economist Charles Schultze of the Brookings Institution, “is that it can’t ever be seen to do harm.” Bureaucrats find it nearly impossible to say yes. Yet the act of not choosing is not benign: We may eat something bad because the EPA never made a decision.

Sometimes government cannot act even in the face of imminent peril. In the early-morning hours of April 13, 1992, in the heart of Chicago’s downtown Loop, the Chicago River broke through the masonry of an old railroad tunnel built in the last century. Several hundred million gallons of water from the river were diverted into the basements of downtown office buildings, knocking out boilers, short-circuiting countless electric switches, ruining computers and turning files into wet pulp. Total losses were over $1 billion. Several weeks before the accident, the leak in the tunnel had come to the attention of John La Plante, then Chicago’s transportation commissioner, a public servant with 30 years of exemplary service. He knew that the river was immediately overhead and that a break could be disastrous. He ordered his engineers to shore up the ceiling. As a prudent administrator, he also asked how much it would cost. The initial guess was about $10,000. His subordinates then went to a reputable contractor, who quoted $75,000. Although the amount was paltry, the discrepancy gave La Plante pause. He put it out for competitive bids. Two weeks later, before the bidding process had even begun, the ceiling collapsed.

Bureaucrats don’t even seem capable of looking in the right direction. How things are done has become far more important than what is done. The process has become an end in itself. A weakness of human nature that prompts many to avoid responsibility has become institutionalized in layers of forms and meetings. As a result, government accomplishes virtually nothing of what it sets out to do. It can barely fire an employee who doesn’t show up for work.

The actual goals of government are treated like a distant vision, displaced by an almost religious preoccupation with procedural conformity. Public servants who dare take the initiative can be smothered. In the late1 980s Michael McGuire, a senior research scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, found himself in trouble. His lab is funded by the Veterans Administration. Its lawn also needs to be cut. When the lawn mower broke, McGuire decided to buy another one. During a subsequent routine audit, the federal auditor asked why the lawn mower was different. McGuire told the truth: He had thrown out a broken federal lawn mower (after saving usable spare parts). That prompted an investigation resulting in several meetings with high-level federal officials. After months, they rendered their findings: They could find d no malice, but they determined McGuire to be ignorant of the proper procedures. He received an official reprimand and was admonished to study VA procedure, which he noted was “about the size of an encyclopedia.” One other fact: McGuire bought the lab’s lawn mower with his own money.

Orthodoxy, not practicality, is the foundation of process. Its credo is for complete fairness: its demons are corruption and favoritism. But concepts like equality and uniformity have no logical stopping point; no place where they say, “The Chicago commissioner shouldn’t worry about bidding procedures with the river only a few feet above the leak.” No one risks drawing the line. Any potential complaint is answered with one more “review” or “fact finding” procedure.

One destructive message of this is that bureaucrats can’t be trusted to exercise their judgment. And the cost of this mistrust is almost inconceivable. The paperwork it generates in the name of “oversight” and “accountability” often costs more than the product it purchases. The Defense Department announced last year that it spent more on procedures for travel reimbursement ($2.2 billion) than on travel ($2 billion).

Setting priorities is difficult in modem government because process has no sense of priorities. Important, often urgent, projects get held up by procedural concerns. Potentially important breakthroughs in medicine wait for years at the Food and Drug Administration. Even obviously necessary safety projects can’t break through the thick wall of process. In 1993, during a snowstorm at New York’s La Guardia Airport, a Continental Airlines DC-9 had to abort a takeoff and ended up with its nose in Long Island Sound. Another 100 feet and many lives would probably have been lost. Two years earlier, another plane had slid off the runway, killing 27 people. The 7,000-foot runway is about 70 percent as long as those at most commercial airports, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, had been trying to add 460fe et for six years. But the agency had spent years talking to environmental agencies and community groups whose procedural rights took precedence over making the airport safer.

The irony of our obsession with process is that it has not prevented sharp operators from exploiting the government’s contracting system, as the weapons-procurement scandals of the 1980s showed us. Its dense procedural thicket is a perfect hiding place for those who want to cheat. It has also led to a system so inconclusive that fairness is lost: Advocates can bludgeon their adversaries endlessly in public disputes that become too costly to see to a conclusion. And nothineg ver gets done.

We must remember why we have process at all. It exists to serve responsibility. Process was not a credit card given out to each citizen for misconduct or delay; nor was it an invisible shield given to each bureaucrat. Responsibility, not process, is what matters.

A NATION OF ENEMIES

Finding a public bathroom in New York City is not easy. To remedy the problem, Joan Davidson, then director of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, a private foundation, proposed in 1991 to finance a test of six sidewalk toilet kiosks in different sections of the city. The coin-operated toilets, which cleaned themselves after every use, were small enough not to disrupt pedestrian traffic and would pay for themselves with the sale of advertising for the side panels. The proposal was greeted with an outpouring of enthusiasm. Then came the problem: Wheelchairs couldn’t fit inside them. The director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities said the idea was “discrimination in its purest form.” The city’s antidiscrimination law, she pointed out, made it illegal to deny to the disabled any access to public accommodation. A protracted battle ensued.

The ultimate resolution, while arguably legal, was undeniably silly: Two toilet kiosks would be at each of the three locations, one for the general public and the other, with a fulltime attendant, for wheelchair users only. The test proved how great the demand was. The regular units averaged over 3,000 flushes per month. The wheelchair-friendly units were basically unused; the cost of the attendant was wasted. Making trade-offs in situations like this is much of what government does. Almost every government act, whether allocating use of public property, creating new programs or granting subsidies, benefits one group more than another, and usually at the expense of everyone else. Most people expected leaders to balance the pros and cons and make decisions in the public interest. The government of New York, however, lacked this power because it had passed an innocuous-sounding law that created “rights” elevating the interests of any disabled person over any other public purpose.

Rights have taken on a new role in America. Whenever there is a perceived injustice, new rights are created to help the victims. Yet these new rights are intended as an often invisible form of subsidy. They are provided at everyone else’s expense, but the check is left blank. They give open-ended power to one group, and it comes out of everybody else’s hide. The vocabulary of accommodation, the most important language for a democracy, is displaced.

The “rights revolution” did not begin with any of this in mind. It was an effort to give to blacks the freedom the rest of the citizenry enjoyed. The relatively simple changes in law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sparked a powerful social change for the good. But that inspired reformers in the 1960s to consider using “rights” as a method to eliminate inequality of all kinds. Reformers zeroed in on the almost nuclear power that “rights” could bring to their causes. People armed with new rights could solve their own problems by going straight to court, bypassing the maddeningly slow process of democracy. The most influential thinker was Charles Reich, at Yale. In his 1964 article “The New Property,” Reich laid out a simple formula to empower citizens: Government decisions should be considered the property of the people affected. Government employees facing termination, professionals licensed by the state and contractors doing government business no longer would be subject to the judgment of government officials. Everyone would have a “right” that government would have no choice but to respect. In a follow-up article, Reich focused on what he thought was the area in which government largess was most important to the individual: welfare. He called for a “bill of rights for the disinherited.” His vision heralded a new era of self-determination. Power would be transferred to the wards of the welfare state. Who would draw the line? “Lawyers,” he proclaimed, “are desperately needed now.”

Reich got his wish. Today, even ordinary encounters-between teachers and students, between supervisors and employees- now involve lawyers. Like termites eating their way through a home, “rights” began weakening the lines of authority of our society. Traditional walls of responsibility-how a teacher manages a classroom or how a social worker makes judgments in the field-began to weaken.

The Supreme Court embraced Professor Reich’s concepts in a 1970 decision, Goldberg x Kelly, which held that welfare benefits were “property” and could not be cut off without due process. Congress began handing out rights like land grants. Floodgates opened allowing juveniles, the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill, immigrants and many others – even animals included under the Endangered Species Act – their days in court.

After 30 years of expanding rights against workplace discrimination, Congress has succeeded in “protecting” over 70 percent of all American workers. But are we witnessing a new age of harmony and understanding in the workplace? Hardly. Even those who are successful are bitter. Ellis Cose, in The Rage of a Privileged Class, describes the extraordinary anger of successful blacks-partners in law firms, executives in companies- who feel they are being held back because of race. These feelings, however, mirror those of white professionals who believe blacks are promoted primarily because they are black.

A paranoid silence has settled over the workplace. Only a fool says what he really believes. It is too easy to be misunderstood or to have your words taken out of context. Those hurt most by the clammed-up workplace are minorities and others whom the discrimination laws were intended to help. The dread of living under the cloud of discrimination sensitivity and the lurking fear of potential charges often act as an invisible door blocking any but the most ideal minority applicant.

Beyond the workplace, public schools have been the hardest hit by the rights revolution, especially when it comes to special education. Timothy W. was a profoundly disabled child, born with quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, cortical blindness and virtually no cerebral cortex. His mother thought he should go to school. Experts consulted by the Rochester, N.H., school district concluded he was not “capable of benefiting” from educational services, but a federal judge ruled that the school was obligated to provide a program because under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it didn’t matter whether he could benefit. Law books are filled with such cases as local school districts try to stem the hemorrhaging of their budgets. But the districts almost always lose. A right is a right.

Teachers, too, have suffered as the “rights” accorded students have allowed disruptive students to dominate classrooms. Except in the cases of egregious student conduct, most teachers often don’t bother to act at all against misbehaving students. The procedures they have to follow are just too onerous. The easiest course is just to do nothing.

Rights are not the language of democracy. Compromise is. Rights are the language of freedom and are absolute because their role is to protect our liberty. By using the absolute power of freedom to accomplish reforms of democracy, we have undermined democracy and diminished our freedom.

THE RETURN TO PRINCIPLES

Like tired debaters, our political parties argue relentlessly over government’s goals, as if our only choice is between Big Brother and the laissez-faire state. They miss the problem entirely Our hatred of government is not caused mainly by what government aims to do. It’s how law works that drives us crazy. Law is hailed as the instrument of freedom because without law there would be anarchy, and we would eventually come under the thumb of whoever gets power. Too much law, we are learning, can have a comparable effect. It is no coincidence that Americans feel disconnected from government: The rigid rules shut out our point of view. By exiling judgment, modern law changed its role from useful tool to brainless tyrant.

Before American law became the world’s thickest instruction manual, its goal was to serve general principles. The sunlight of common sense shines high whenever principles control: What is right and reasonable, not the parsing of legal language, dominates the discussion. With the goal always shining before us, the need for lawyers fades. Both regulators and citizens understand what is expected of them and can use their judgment. They can also be held accountable.

We have invented a hybrid government form that achieves nearly perfect inertia. No one is in control. No one makes decisions. This legal experiment hasn’t worked out. It crushes our goals and deadens our spirits. Modern law has not protected us from stupidity and caprice but has made stupidity and caprice dominant features of our society. And because the dictates are ironclad, we are prevented from doing anything about it. Our founders would wince; they knew that “the greatest menace to freedom,‘ as the late Chief Justice Earl Warren reminded us in 1972, “is an inert people.”

Law cannot save us from ourselves. Waking up every morning, we have to go out and try to accomplish our goals and resolve disagreements by doing what we think is right. Energy and resourcefulness, not millions of legal cubicles, are the things that make America great. Let judgment and personal conviction be important again. There is nothing unusual or frightening about it. It’s just common sense.

From US News & World Report, January 30. 1995. pp. 57-61. Adapted from The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard. Reprinted there by permission of Random House


The Old Wolf has spoken.

Music: Chilling passages

If this were one of the notorious clickbait websites, the title of the article would be “Five Musical Passages That Will Give You an Orgasm!”

But I have an elemental aversion to clickbait, so I’ll just share a few musical pieces with you that are guaranteed to give me gooseflesh. No matter how many times I listen to them.

In passing, those chills you get when listening to whatever piece of music gives you a rush come from a release of dopamine, the same pleasure chemical responsible for the joys of food, sex, and other more substantive things.

Note: These are not listed in any particular order – all of them can be my favorite at any given moment.

1) Allegri’s Miserere

Wait for the high “C.” Something like having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick, if that sounds familiar and you can relate.

2) Liszt: Les Préludes

The part that makes me weep begins at 14:02, but the whole piece is like Sara Lee’s All-Butter Frozen Brownies to my soul.

3) Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale)

This is the piece that was responsible for my first “music-gasm,” as it were, at a very young age – and Walt Disney is responsible. His use of this piece in the masterpiece Fantasia captivated me like nothing else had in my short 8 years.

The bit that always grabs me begins at 3:00 in the above clip, but the entire symphony is breathtaking. I know my parents listened to a lot of classical and broadway music when I was a baby, but this piece is the one that cemented my life-long love of classical music, and particularly that of Beethoven.

4) Barber: Adagio for Strings

Just this whole piece. If ever I feel like calling up melancholy anguish for the sorrows of the world, this is my go-to piece.

5) Beethoven’s Sonata 21 in C Major, Op. 53 (Waldstein)

Again, der Allermeister. Listen to Claudio Arrau knock my socks off, starting at 22:35, and then go back and listen to the entire masterpiece.

it goes without saying that there are many, many others – but these are some of the ones that come back to over and over again.

These are my favorites; go hunting, and find some pieces that move you in the same way.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Phishing: Watch those URLs

Today in my Yahoo! mail account:

Yahoo

If you click that “Sign In” link, you get taken to

http://www.oficinadentalpr.com/includes/drpbx/db/obfuscated.php

which is apparently a dental office in Brazil. (I tried contacting them to let them know that their website had been compromised, but their contact page seems to be malfunctioning.)

Edit: As of today, the entire “Oficina Dental” account has been suspended. Either they got infected and their ISP suspended them on general principles, or the whole page was a sleazy front for this scam operation. We’ll never know.

At any rate, this is what you get:

Yahoo2

Which leads you to the regular “Enter your critical personal information and credit card and bank data” page.

The ongoing lesson: Don’t click embedded links in emails. Just don’t.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Dear Congress: In case you forgot, reproductive freedom is the law.

In January of 2015, Washington DC approved D.C. ACT 20-593, effectively modifying the Human Rights Act of 1977 to ensure that people could not be discriminated against for their use of reproductive technologies (contraception, in-vitro fertilization, etc.). To wit:

“(c) For the purposes of this section, the term “reproductive health decisions” includes a decision by an employee, an employee’s dependent, or an employee’s spouse related to the use or intended use of a particular drug, device, or medical service, including the use or intended use of contraception or fertility control or the planned or intended initiation or termination of a pregnancy.”

On April 8th of this year, Joint Resolution H.J. Res. 43 issued by congress “disapproves” of the DC amendment.

It appears that Congress is trying to pry open the door allowing bosses to fire workers if they disagree with their employees’ reproductive choices.

Let no one think that by my posting this that I am in favor of abortion. With the exception of rare medical conditions affecting mother and/or child, or in cases of rape or incest, I sincerely wish people would opt for adoption. But until SCOTUS overturns Roe v. Wade, it’s legal, and employers have no right to discriminate against anyone for their reproductive behavior.

The ACLU may be taking things a bit too far with this article, which trumpets “Congress Just Launched Its First Strike Against Women and LGBT People Under the Guise of Defending Religious Liberty.” On the other hand, knowing how polarized the political and theological divide in this country is, they may be spot on. Only time will tell.

I could think of a hundred issues that I’d rather see Congress spending their time on.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

“Boom?”

And therein lies a tale.

79m7wNq

The above photo, found at reddit, illustrates he beginning of the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930. The top half of the image shows steam shovels carving away a hole for the foundation. Since Manhattan’s bedrock, ideally suited for the foundations of large skyscrapers, is closer to the surface in midtown and by the Battery, blasting was used to move that rock out of the way. (Historical note: the theory that this bedrock depth was responsible for the clustering of skyscrapers in those areas is giving way to other economy-based theories).

The procedure for this blasting was to drill holes in the rock face, have steam shovels cover up the area to be cleared with huge blankets made of twisted steel cables at least 1″ in diameter, and let fly. The resounding “whump!” was audible for blocks. The blankets were then removed, and the rubble cleared away by Mike Mulligan, Mary Jane, and friends. I loved watching this process as a kid, and construction companies would put windows in the walls around the building site so that rubberneckers could enjoy the spectacle. I was grateful to see these photos, as clear pictures of the process are difficult to find.

Earlier in life, however, there was a downside.

When I was about two, my parents lived in an apartment on Madison in the 90s. My room was next to the kitchen. One day I remember wandering into the darkened kitchen and beginning to play (I’m sure I had been forbidden to touch!) with the gas stove. It was cool to turn the knobs and watch the flame come on, and then turn them off and watch the blue fire dance around the burners before going out.

Remember this was in the early 50s: the oven had no automatic lighter, but you had to turn it on and stick a match down a hole in front to ignite the burner. I, however, knew nothing of that – all I know is that I must have turned that central knob, and when nothing happened, go back to the other four. However, the oven was filling up with gas, and the next time I turned on a burner, the inevitable happened.

With a roar, the gas-filled oven exploded. I was saved from serious injury by the fact that the oven door was taller than I was… when it blew open, it hit me on the forehead and I lost the front of my hair and my eyebrows, gathering a significant cut in the process, but my face and body were protected from the flames by the door itself.

I’m sure my parents were scared spitless, and relieved that I handn’t been killed outright. But my mother reported to me later in life that for a long time thereafter, when one of those construction blasts went off, my eyes would get as big as saucers, and I’d look at her, and ask “Boom?”

To this day I still don’t respond well to loud noises or being startled. I wonder if there’s a residual effect going on there? The most accurate of all Sun Microsystems “fortune” lines, at least for me, is “You will be surprised by a loud noise.”

Works every time.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Malware download from “eBay GMBH” (German Ebay)

Clearly not from the German version of eBay, but posting this here just in case anyone gets the same email and Googles for it.

Rechnung für [redacted] noch offen: Nummer 19879661
Sent By: Inkasso Ebay GmbH   On:Apr 04/22/15 12:59 AM
Forderung an [redacted].22 04.2015-Inkasso Ebay GmbH.zip (130 KB) | Download

Sehr geehrter Kunde [Redacted], Ihr Kreditinstitut hat die Kontoabbuchung zurück buchen lassen. Sie haben eine ungedeckte Forderung bei der Firma Ebay GmbH.

Aufgrund des bestehenden Zahlungsrückstands sind Sie verpflichtet außerdem, die durch unsere Beauftragung entstandenen Kosten von 43,90 Euro zu tragen. Wir erwarten die vollständige Zahlung bis zum 24.04.2015 auf unser Bankkonto. Namens unseren Mandanten fordern wir Sie auf, die offene Forderung sofort zu begleichen. Bei Fragen oder Unklarheiten erwarten wir eine Kontaktaufnahme innerhalb des gleichen Zeitraums.

Bitte beachten Sie, dass keine weitere Mahnung erfolgt. Nach Ablauf der Frist wird die Akte dem Gericht und der Schufa übergeben. Eine vollständige Kostenaufstellung, der Sie alle Buchungen entnehmen können, ist beigefügt.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen

Inkasso Voigt Marlon

Achtung: Dies ist ein Betrug. Keine angehängten Dateien öffnen!

Summary: I have an open invoice because of a declined charge with Ebay Germany. If I don’t pay immediately, a collection company will come after me and I’ll be reported to the General Credit Protection Agency. Notice that ZIP file up there in red, supposedly an invoice. Unzip it, and there’s another zip file. Unzip that, and there’s a file called

[redacted] Forderung 22.04.2015 – Inkasso Ebay GmbH.com (meaning, supposedly, a demand for collection.)

That’s a .COM file, or rather a simple executable file… in other words, a program. These are BAD NEWS for anyone who is foolish enough to open them. They’re just as bad as .EXE files. NEVER OPEN AN EXE OR COM FILE UNLESS YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IT IS AND WHOM IT’S FROM.

Interestingly enough, I ran a virus check on this file and it came up with nothing. However, submitting it to VirusTotal.com came up with this:

viruses

In other words, it’s a nasty. The anti-virus programs indicated came up with multiple offenders for this file – one example that I followed for illustrative purposes was Packed.Win32.Katusha.o, which is a Trojan that can connect to a remote IRC server once it has infiltrated a PC. Packed.Win32.Katusha.o will download harmful files from the server that will damage the infected machine even further.

If you run this insidious program, you have just opened wide a door to the criminal element, and your computer will be infected with keyloggers, other trojans, made part of a botnet of spamming computers, infected with the dreaded CryptoLocker, or who knows what else. It will, at the very least, cause you inconvenience, and at the very worst destroy all your files, give criminals access to your personal data and/or your email accounts, and cost you lots of money. These people are horrible individuals. They want only one thing – to make money at your expense, and they don’t care how they do it.

Don’t ever fall victim to them.

The Old Wolf has spoken.