Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Quarantine, shmarantine! Let's send MORE flights into the infected areas!" (My Linux Experiment)

(Note: First, I want to welcome all the Linux lovers to SAM. I had heard that the Ubuntu and the broader Linux communities were pretty good people but wow! I have received a number of very nice emails and even some telephone calls offering both support and help and the referral traffic from sites like, and Free Software Daily has been impressive. Thanks to all!)

A couple of days ago, I talked about adopting a Linux distribution, Ubuntu, for one of my old laptops. I had a number of personal reasons for adopting this open source operating system but one of my explicit reasons for doing so was in order to become more resilient.

Resiliency, as I use the term here, is about being able to withstand bad times. Microsoft products, because of their popularity, are the primary targets for state and non-state sponsored hackers. One day, the bad guys are going to win and win big. This victory may be only temporary and the perpetrators may pay dearly for it in the long run but do I really want to be just another victim? Having (and knowing how to use) a Linux machine makes sense in this context.

One of the pieces of evidence I pointed to in that article was Jeff Carr's (of Intel Fusion) characterization of Africa as in the midst of a cyber pandemic. Most of the machines there are infected with viruses or are part of zombie networks (or both) due to pirated Windows software and a wholesale lack of anti virus protection.

Associated with Jeff's article is a pretty neat map of the projected level of connectivity (via undersea fiber optic cables) in Africa by 2011. This map doesn't show the explosive growth of the "big pipes" -- the undersea cables that carry most of the internet's traffic -- around the globe, however. To get this picture, you need to go to the BBC (Note: The pic below is just a screenshot. The full map is interactive and shows growth over time).

For me, this explosive growth (which is unlikely to stop in 2011) is the epidemiological equivalent of increasing the number of transmission vectors from an infected area instead of quarantining it.

That said, I am not sure what the answer to the problem is. I consider it almost inhumane to deny these parts of the world the benefits that robust internet and communication facilities provide. Likewise, I don't think you are ever going to see a company (such as Microsoft) take a "responsible" position that is fundamentally contrary to its shareholder's interests. Government control sounds even less palatable (though the government, after a hue here and a cry there, seems to now be taking the risk seriously).

Which sort of leaves just us. We have to act in our own best interests and, for me, at least, that means not putting all your ova into one open-top, woven reed container. So, I converted one of my machines to a Linux machine.

Having used my Ubuntu/Linux machine all week, what have I learned? First, it boots way faster than Windows did. Everything is quicker, snappier now. Second, all of the apps that come pre-loaded with Ubuntu mimic or improve on similar Windows-based apps. Third, most things are the same or about the same. Firefox, for example, works the same. Some of the drop down menus are in different places but I strongly suspect you can move them around if you don't like them where they are. I consider the fact that the user experience is similar in many ways to Windows to be a huge plus, by the way. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to learn a whole new workflow. The similarity in experience also allows me, I think, to really appreciate where Ubuntu is better than Windows, as well.

I also ran into my first snag this week. I went to download a piece of freeware only to realize that there was no Linux version of it. This led me to do a little research and was quickly able to find that the capability was already built into Ubuntu. I am pretty sure that all my surprises will not be that pleasant but that was pretty cool.

There are also things that I don't yet understand. System maintenance, for example. I am used to a whole series of activities (defragging the hard drive, clearing the temp files, etc.) to keep my Windows machine operating at peak efficiency. Do you not have to do this with Linux? I don't know. It is too early to be worried about too much of this stuff but at some point in the future, I suspect that I am going to have to figure it out.

In short, so far, so good.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Annex 1: "Plan B" Careers (How To Get A Job In Intelligence)

Part 1 -- Introduction
Part 2 -- The Intelligence Job Market From 20,000 Feet
Part 3 -- The Good News!
Part 4 -- Even Better News!
Part 5 -- Beyond The Big Three
Part 6 -- Beyond Borders
Part 7 -- Beyond Borders: India, Europe And South Africa
Part 8 -- Going It On Your Own
Part 9 -- The 5 Things You Must Have
Part 10 -- Advice From The Trenches
Special Report: Where The Jobs Are, 2009
Part 11 -- Advice From Intelligence Veterans
Part 12 -- Intelligence Job Links

I thought I was done with this series...until I received a very interesting email from the Federal Citizen Information Center pointing me to an article on about "Fallback careers" -- careers that you can fall back on if something goes wrong in your main profession.

All of the careers on the list had evidence of growing demand and required less than a year of schooling to get certified according to the Bankrate article.

As I looked at the list, I immediately thought of a use beyond the one intended by the authors. These careers could also be a useful way of filling in the time between graduation and getting a clearance.

Many entry-level analysts get stuck waiting to start work because of a clearance. Predicting when a clearance will be complete is one of the hardest things to do (we had one student whose clearance took three years -- by which time she had married, moved, had a child and changed jobs!). Having a useful Plan B in this situation might allow one to avoid a "challenging career in the food service industry".

Obviously, in order to pursue one of these fallback careers, the job seeker would have to have the certification before graduation (which would likely necessitate summer or night school) and might, therefore, not be an option for everyone. If this is the case, then maybe seeking such a certification makes sense while waiting for a clearance (time and financing permitting). Likewise, if job offers are not as forthcoming as one would hope and grad school isn't an option, then pursuing certification in one of these fields might also turn out to be a good option.

What are the eleven "Plan B" careers?
  1. Emergency medical technician
  2. Police officer
  3. Phlebotomist
  4. HVAC technician
  5. Drafter/CADD operator
  6. Medical assistant
  7. Truck driver
  8. Dental assistant
  9. Massage therapist
  10. Medical records and health information technician
  11. Nuclear medicine technologist
Some of these careers look particularly promising. With the number of analysts currently deployed in war zones, I can imagine that training as an EMT would be an excellent secondary skill to have.

I also have some concerns about this list, though. Police officer seems overly optimistic, for example. While the facts in the article may be true, the number of people already seeking jobs in this field make it seem overly competitive for a fallback career. Maybe if you included all security professionals (including bank guards and mall cops for example), it might make some sense. Otherwise, I would not advise anyone to go this route strictly as a fallback career.

I was also surprised that more information technology positions weren't on the list. Certified computer repair guys and website administrators always seem to be in demand. Getting some sort of technical certification in these fields will benefit an analyst in the lean times and when they are working as an analyst as well.
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Ubuntu Is Pretty Cool (My Linux Experiment)

I decided to install Ubuntu on an old laptop of mine this weekend and I feel, I have to say, more, well, resilient already. The intelligence implications are pretty interesting, too.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ubuntu, it is a Linux-based operating system (For those of you who are also unfamiliar with Linux, it is a catch-all term for a wide variety of operating systems based off a common, open source core. Linux-based operating systems are alternatives to operating systems offered by Microsoft (Windows) or Apple (Mac OS X). (For those of you unfamiliar with the term "operating system", you need to join the rest of us here in the 21st Century...)).

Now Linux is much loved by the technically proficient but not so much by the rest of us. As you can see in the pie chart, Linux has not quite captured a whopping one percent of the operating system market.

What makes it worse is that Linux has more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. Because the core of Linux (the so-called "kernel") is open source, anyone with the technical skill to do so can make a Linux variant (called a "distribution" in Linux-speak). So, the one percent? It is actually divided up among 50 or so different distributions and Ubuntu is just one of them.

Ubuntu is, however, one of the most popular and best supported of the Linux distributions. Because it is free and focuses on usability, it is often the first choice for newbies like me.

But why choose Linux at all? Here are my reasons (in no particular order):

  • I was curious. Trying out new tech widgets and gadgets is something I do for fun. I have been toying around with Linux for years now (using live CDs mostly) and had an opportunity to try it out so I decided, "What the heck?"
  • I had an old Windows XP laptop that was slow and required constant attention. One of the great things about almost any Linux distribution is that is small and efficient. It is often recommended as a good way to get some new life out of an older machine.
  • Ubuntu makes it easy. I picked the Ubuntu distribution because it was easy to figure out and install. The software takes you step by step through the process and even gives you the option to split your hard drive so you can have both Linux and Windows (or whatever) on the same machine.
  • I am not sacrificing much (if anything). As the title to this post suggests, Ubuntu is pretty cool. True, the user interface is a little different but, having oriented myself (and pretty quickly for an old guy, I am proud to say), it seems a little better than Windows. It does well all of the things my old Windows machine did poorly. I have faster web-browsing now through my trusty Firefox browser. Web apps (like Google Docs) are operating system agnostic and I have yet to run into a major plugin that is not also available for Linux distributions. Open Office (a free Office-like application) works very well with most of my Office files (and others). There are also tons of new productivity and gaming applications to explore as well, all with little (some would say no) risk of virus or malware infection.
Finally, and most interestingly, it makes me more resilient (Here is where the intelligence implications come in). Centralized networks attract attention. On the positive side (at least from the standpoint of those that control the network), the "rich get richer", meaning the most powerful node attracts other nodes to it. This is great if you have a product that dominates the market the way Microsoft does with Windows. On the other hand, it also attracts negative attention as well. One of the major reasons hackers go after Windows-based systems so much is because so many people use it.

Machiavelli first outlined the problems with centralized networks in The Prince (Don't believe me? See Chapter 4...). Good ones are difficult to take down but once taken down, they are easy to control because of the efficiencies inherent in the centralized system. Decentralized networks, on the other hand, are very difficult to take down but are also very difficult to control.

There ought to be (and, in fact, there is) an optimal balance between efficiency and robustness in any system. To me, a resilient system ought be closer to this optimal balance than not. I am not a Windows hater and will likely continue to use Windows. That said, I feel better knowing, understanding and owning a Linux-based system as well. A "black swan" event like a zero-day virus that wipes every Windows-based computer is pretty unlikely but if it does, I will still have a computer and (maybe) internet access (many servers run on some form of Linux already).

I am no cyber analyst and do not pretend to know the ins and outs of the subject matter. I am not the only person to note the problems with an over dependence on Windows, however. Fellow blogger, Jeff Carr, over at IntelFusion notes that Africa is in the midst of a "cyber pandemic" due primarily to an over-dependence on pirated versions of Windows.

In the end, understanding something about Linux, what it can and cannot do, seemed to make some sense -- an experiment in resiliency. As I proceed, my intent is to report here periodically about what I find. Your comments and questions about both the process and my findings are, as always, welcome.

Note: Two recent authors, John Robb and Joshua Cooper Ramo, have both written more extensively (and more eloquently) about this concept of resiliency for anyone interested.

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