Saturday, February 27, 2016

Microsoft Security Essentials--the scam

I got a phone call last night, a Friday night, at about 10:30.My phone said "unknown caller", which usually I screen, but as I thought it might be someone in my circle of friends and family at that hour, I picked it up. A woman with an Indian or Pakistani accent said something that I don't quite remember, but it led me to say, I think you have the wrong number. But she was adamant that she had not, said my name, and so I stayed on the line. She told me that my Microsoft Security Essentials components weren't working and that if we didn't fix it, Microsoft would have to revoke my ability to use the license.

A couple of things ran through my mind as she was talking. One was, why in hell are they calling at 10:30 PM on a Friday night? But then I thought, well, they're obviously not on Pacific time, so maybe they're calling in daylight where they are. And when I say "they", I mean that I could hear lots of sounds in the background, implying some sort of phone bank. It's funny that we know enough about the fact that companies employ workers in Asia that we can believe all that we are hearing is legit.

I'm not particularly adept at picking up on scams, especially in person. I've been taken in by a couple of young hucksters in town in my time, though only to the tune of of a few dollars. Luckily for me, I am kind of ornery when it comes to phone calls from people soliciting anything--it kind of pushes a button in me, which sometimes I feel bad about afterwards. But in this case it kind of got my back up that Microsoft was calling me at 10:30 in the evening. I did feel a little anxiety at the idea that some sort of access to the internet would be denied, so seriously, I could easily have been taken in. But when this woman told me to boot up my computer to start some process or other, I just didn't feel like doing that. So I said, "You know, maybe you could send me an email about this, because I don't really believe that you are who you say you are. Sorry. Goodbye." And I hung up.

Now, you  may have noticed that this blog isn't called "The Confessions of the Super Savvy", so I didn't get off the line feeling triumphant or anything. I actually thought, well maybe my internet access will be cut off or something. I even turned off my router so that no nefarious scheme could be enacted. But after a while, I thought, if this was a scam, there will probably be something out there about it. And sure enough, there was. Tons of stuff. I even came across something where Microsoft sort of wrung their hands, saying, we get calls about this every day, usually AFTER someone has been taken in by a scammer. I got the feeling that they thought this was a bit pathetic, but if you are outside their inner track, I think the spiel is convincing enough that you might fall for it, so don't feel bad if you do. Like I said, I fall for scams all the time. The only reason I wasn't taken in by this one is that I got riled by the intrusion.

Later, of course, I started thinking of revenge. I know, revenge usually serves no purpose, etc., etc. But in this case the purpose would be to slow them down a little, which is all to the good. I thought of several tactics, such as leaving them on hold, staging some sort of violent scene which would frighten them, or asking them if their mother really thought when they were born that this was the kind of work they envisioned their child doing. I don't know that I will get another call any time soon, so if you do, I urge you to be inventive. Like this guy:

Monday, February 15, 2016

milk float

This is just a funny little one that I had never heard or at least never noticed before, and now it's come up in two out of the last three books I've read. Once was in an older mystery novel called A Perfect Match by Jill McGown, and just now in Mick Herron's more recent spy novel, Slow Horses.

McGown, page 164: "He heard the milk-float clanking its ghostly way up to the pumps, and it seemed very important that he put out the empty bottle."

Herron, page 17: "On the street below, a milk float rattled past."

It seems fairly obvious that a milk float is some sort of conveyance for milk, but as with many things that a writer thinks everyday enough to need no further explanation, we don't really get a clear picture of it if we've never seen one. We don't have milk floats in the U.S., or I should say in my part of the U.S. We do have floats, but they usually associated with parades, like homecoming parades, the Rose Bowl parade or the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. Milk when it used to be delivered, was delivered in trucks, or before that in wagons. So I'm not sure what a milk float is closest to, but the phrase conveys odd images to my mind.

horse-drawn milk float in Montreal, 1942, Conrad Poirier

So what is a milk float? Wikipedia tells us that in Great Britain (and some other European countries), milk floats are vehicles run on electric batteries, though formerly they were horse-drawn wagons. Being electric, they are pretty quiet, despite the two descriptions above, which I think must refer to the milk bottles clanking around and not the sound of the milk float itself.

a milk float in Liverpool, 2005 Tagishsimon

Sometimes, they have an enclosed area in the back which keeps the milk colder, like this one:

Dairy Crest Ford Transit,Oxyman

Although I believe this last is actually a diesel operated truck, not an electric vehicle. As in the U.S., door to door delivery from local dairies has declined thanks to more places people can just go buy milk nearby, but home delivery does still exist. The routes are just longer, requiring higher powered vehicles.

I think the idea of slow moving milk floats progressing (mostly) silently through the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning is pretty cool. If you do too, you can check out a website called Milk Float Corner, where you can find out more about milk floats, watch videos and read the FAQs.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


This is a word I expect to have seen only in one instance and never see again, but words have a funny way of reappearing once you've really noticed them, so maybe I'm wrong about that. In a recent reading of A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd, "laterite" appeared not once but six times--I know because I used Google Books to find the different instances. Although it becomes clear that it's some sort of paving substance, it never really gets any clearer what that substance is.

"a well-trodden patch of laterite"

"a bald laterite square"

"the far end of the laterite compound"

"a rutted laterite track"

I suppose the one thing you can gather from this is that laterite is a commonly used substance, at least in the West African country that Boyd has invented to tell his story. But maybe we can learn a little more than that.

Wikipedia has an uncharacteristically "we throw up our hands" sort of comment about laterite:

Laterite has commonly been referred to as a soil type as well as being a rock type. This and further variation in the modes of conceptualizing about laterite (e.g. also as a complete weathering profile or theory about weathering) has led to calls for the term to be abandoned altogether. At least a few researchers specializing in regolith development have considered that hopeless confusion has evolved around the name. There is no likelihood, however, that the name will ever be abandoned; for material that looks highly similar to the Indian laterite occurs abundantly worldwide, and it is reasonable to call such material laterite.

More helpfully, though, they do agree that it is an iron oxide rich substance formed by long weathering of the parent rock. Laterite tends to be found in wet tropical places. 

About the origin of the word, however, things are a lot clearer. Again via Wikipedia, it was named by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a Scottish physician who after time spent in the Merchant Navy ended up in India. He seems to have been a man of diverse talents, as, in addition to becoming the surgeon to the Governor General of India, he also got together the Calcutta zoo. He was asked to do two very extensive surveys of regions in South India, which included reports on things as diverse as topography, antiquities and agriculture. In 1807 he named a rock formation he'd come upon laterite, taking later from the Latin for brick. (You can find a nice quote from him about lateite at a website called Z'shell-TeR .)There is even a monument to mark the spot where he defined it in Angadipuram, Kerala, India:

                                                    Werner Schellmann
For, although so far I've mentioned laterite as a paving surface, it is also quite commonly formed into bricks. Even Angkor Wat, the famous Cambodian temple known for its  beautiful sandstone relief work has an underlying structure of laterite. National Geographic has a nice short video explaining all this.

                                                    Werner Schellman

The usage I had more in mind,though, relates to laterite used as pavement in Africa.  The French used it a lot in their colonies, including their African ones. As William Boyd pointed out in his interview at The White Review, the part of West Africa where he grew up wasn't colonized, but the practice of using laterite for roads and the like must have spread to the region, since he uses the word so casually in his novel. An African road of laterite in Senegal looks like this:

                                                                         Dorothy Voorhees

Apparently, these roads work quite as well as gravel roads, but as there is clay in their composition they have a tendency to get slick when wet.

In Boyd's novel, I still am not sure what all the areas he mentions laterite in actually look like. The trails probably look a little like the picture above, but the laterite square could have been paved with bricks like this:

If it was made of laterite, though, it almost certainly would have been some sort of shade of rusty red. 

Monday, February 1, 2016


The Iowa caucuses are going on this evening, which is the way that a state's Democratic and Republican parties choose their delegates for their respective party conventions. Iowa generates a lot of buzz because it's the first state to do so in the election year, and is a kind of marker separating all the speculation that goes on before a single vote has been cast and the kind of speculation that goes on after there's a little hard data coming in. People claim to be able to predict a lot by what happens in Iowa and perhaps they even can.

I'm a Californian, and we don't have caucuses, we have primaries, so "caucus" is one of those many, many words and concepts that I have some vague and woolly understanding of, meaning, basically, no understanding at all.

But let's start with the word itself. For some reason, it always reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, and that's because, on investigation, there actually is a caucus race in chapter three. According to Spark Notes, the Dodo suggests a caucus race in order to get dry, which consists of all the animals running around helter skelter for half an hour until the Dodo declares the race at an end. Is it any wonder that I have a very strange notion of what goes on in those Iowa caucus rooms?

                                                               Project Gutenberg

Having suspected a British origin, I thought "caucus" might go back to the Romans, the "-us" on the end being the clue, but in this I was very wrong. It's actually an American word, which goes way back to the early days of the country, and has origins in a couple of possible sources, none definitive. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, its first in print in 1763 and may have come from the Algonquin word for counselor or adviser, which was caucausu, or from the name of a Boston drinking club, the Caucus Club, which may have been taken from the Greek kaukos, which means drinking cup. Whatever the origins, it was an American style institution from the get go, which makes me wonder how Lewis Carroll got interested in it.

The first usage mentioned in print referred to a private meeting of party leaders, but the term soon became more generalized and John Pickering in his 1816 book, "A vocabulary, or collection of words and phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America" called it a cant term referring to any meeting where party members agree on candidates or measures before more public discussions. (Quote is at Online Etymology Dictionary if you're interested.)

I wouldn't have been able to tell you before looking into this, but Iowa is far from the only state to hold caucuses. What's your guess? This article by Andi O'Rourke will tell you exactly how many states (and territories, that's a hint) use the caucus selection process. It also breaks down how each state uses the caucus process in its own way.

As far as the Iowa caucuses goes, the Democrats and the Republicans handle them in quite different ways. Both parties convene in a variety of precinct meeting places, like churches, schools, etc. There may be speeches and some last minute items of business. At this point, the Republicans cast secret ballots, pretty much like you would in a California primary (although, as I watch, it's really just folded pieces of paper handed in) and at that point, their work is done. For the Democrats, though, their work is only beginning.

Democrats gather into candidate preference groups. Then each group is counted. A candidate has to have 15% of the total votes in the room at the time of the count. If they don't, their group has to disperse and throw in their lot with another group, and that group now has to try and come up with the required 15%. Patrick Allen at Life Hacker has a good piece on all of this

Here's an example from a presidential precinct in Iowa, circa 2008.

Hmm. Maybe Lewis Carroll was more on point than I thought.