The Ghost in the Machine

TECHNO TALES The horror, the horror.

Come on kids, circle up around the fire. There's no better way to mark Halloween than with a good old-fashioned horror story. Unfortunately for Jim and Audri Lanford, this one really happened.

Late last year the Lanfords, who run an Internet marketing business called NetRageous Inc. in Olney, Md., launched a new Web site at www.FreeFurby.com. FreeFurby.com rewarded Web surfers for filling out a marketing survey by giving away Furby toys. (No matter what you think of Furbies, we haven't gotten to the scary part yet.)

The Lanfords' goal was to create goodwill for an eventual e-commerce site. In the course of promoting the Furby giveaway, NetRageous contracted with its usual Seattle-based fax broadcasting service to distribute its press releases to 1,100 or so radio stations around the country. So one dark and stormy night, Audri Lanford, CEO of NetRageous, wrote a one-page press release and shipped it off for distribution. Alas, when the broadcasting service began to distribute the release, it included an additional 25 to 500 pages of random typographic marks, all attributed to NetRageous. And the automated system refaxed this compendium of gibberish to the same stations over and over and over again.

Other things were going on that day -- the Clinton impeachment, U.S. planes bombing Iraq -- and the radio stations were understandably irate about having their fax machines tied up. The complaints began to pour into NetRageous's offices, and they were notably lacking in goodwill.

"Our phone rang basically nonstop for seven hours," says Audri Lanford.

The problem was compounded and extended because when NetRageous called the fax service to stop the madness, the company's business day had not yet begun and there was no one in the office except a receptionist, who didn't know how to stop the fax. When the staff did arrive, it took NetRageous three hours to convince them there was a problem. "People in technical fields are often hard to convince if you suggest that their systems are at fault," says the Lanfords.

It took most of the day for the service provider to fix the problem. The fax company also wound up paying damages to some radio stations and compensated NetRageous by providing lots and lots of free faxing and paying for some of the expenses the Lanfords incurred.

NetRageous extracted these lessons for broadcast marketing:

1. If you use a service, make sure the company provides a 24-hour phone number and guarantees that it will be able to stop your transmission in case of an emergency.

2. If your service provider doesn't recognize the problem immediately, provide the unfortunate fax recipients the service provider's phone number. In other words, share your pain.

3. For companies doing their own fax broadcasting, physically pull the plug on the fax distribution machines, fix the problem in offline mode, then test and monitor carefully when you reconnect the systems.

Now sleep tight, kiddies. Don't let the bed bugs byte.

-- Derek Slater

Room 404, Where Are You?

GEEK APOCRYPHA So you're browsing the Web and instead of finding the site you want, your screen goes gray and up pops, "404 File Not Found," and you know that means that the page you requested could not be located on the server. You check the URL, check your spelling and move on to the next thing.

But why 404? Why not 403 orr 405? Why 40-anything?

The number 404 is a hypertext transport protocol (HTTP) status code. According to the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org), HTTP status codes were defined by a team headed by Tim Berners-Lee, the man widely credited with inventing the Web (sorry, Mr. Gore) and the first Web browser at CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics, www.cern.ch) beginning in 1990.

Which, of course, does not answer the question.

This from the Web site www.room404.com: When Berners-Lee and the other scientists were at work creating the Web, any request for a file was routed to a central database where people would manually locate the files and transfer them over the network. When they could not find a file, "usually because the person...typed in the wrong name," the scientists sent back the message, "File Not Found." They prefaced the message with the name of the room where they worked, the room where the data was physically contained -- room 404.

Berners-Lee, who is a principal research scientist at the MIT Computer Laboratory for Computer Science and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, could not be reached to confirm or deny this account.

-- David Rosenbaum

Help for the Financially Challenged

I.T. VALUE With the Y2K finish line looming, CEOs are tired of shelling out money for new, compliant systems. So it's become even harder for CIOs to get away with asking for IT investments without first explaining the business value of their projects. After all, "less than one-third of CEOs expect IT to have a high impact on cost reduction," according to Compass Analysis UK Ltd.'s recent survey of 650 CEOs and other senior executives conducted by the London School of Economics.

The survey, commissioned by the Guildford, England-based consultancy and entitled "The Compass International IT Strategy Census 1999," indicates that CEOs want better metrics to assess IT projects. This is where value analysis comes in. And to help IT executives do the math, there's Value Technology LLC's new Web site, ValueLink, providing a collection of tools and strategies.

For valuing IT infrastructure improvements, for example, the Benefits Jump-Start section of the site's Value Tool Box suggests a sleight of hand that ignores the infrastructure and instead measures the business apps the infrastructure will enable. For sales-force automation (SFA) projects, ValueLink suggests a formula that divides the salesperson's gross by time. That provides the salesperson's productivity average. Then you subtract the nonsales time the SFA will eliminate and recalculate and, voil, you get the value.

ValueLink, which went online in April 1999, is still a work in progress. Its creators, however, had the good sense to include a link in its News section to a CIO Section 2 story on IT valuation strategies ("Maximizing IT Investments," July 15, 1999). Funny thing, though. The article was written by John R. Stoiber who, coincidentally, is the CEO and president of Value Technology.

-- Kelli Botta

Time to Pardon Shoeless Joe

ON THE WEB As the last World Series of the century plays out this month, our thoughts turn to the century's most infamous Series: 1919, Cincinnati Reds versus Chicago White Sox, a.k.a. the Black Sox. Those were the games allegedly fixed by Arnold Rothstein and thrown by eight White Sox players, all of whom were afterward banned from baseball. The most famous of the eight was the great Joseph Jefferson "Shoeless Joe" Jackson.

Many Web sites are devoted to the man with the third-highest lifetime batting average in major league history. TThe best of the lot is the Shoeless Joe Jackson Virtual Hall of Fame (www.blackbetsy.com), which argues for his inclusion in the brick-and-mortar Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y., from which he is barred. The site is full of photos, memorabilia and facts (Black Betsy was the name Jackson gave his favorite bat; he hit .375 in the 1919 Series, slugged the only home run and fielded flawlessly -- an odd performance from a man supposedly trying to lose). The site also invites visitors to "Leave a note for Joe."

Jackson's last words were, "I'm going to meet the greatest umpire of all -- and he knows I'm innocent." Today, so does most everybody.

-- David Rosenbaum

"OFF THE SHELF"

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Race for the World: Strategies to Build a Great Global Firm

By Lowell Bryan, Jane Fraser, Jeremy Oppenheim and Wilhelm Rall

Harvard Business School Press, 1999; $29.95

THE KEY INGREDIENTS FOR SUCCESS in the new economy are pretty much the same for a small company as they are for a global giant: Exploit your intangible assets (talent, knowledge, relationships and reputation) better than your competition does. But knowing where to find these assets and how to use them is not so simple. The authors of Race for the World, all consultants at McKinsey & Co., sketch out a future in which only those world-class companies that understand these issues will survive.

Some of their thinking goes against current new-economy dogma.

The race, for example, may not always be to the swiftest but to the most deliberate. Some winners will be those companies that are able to delay strategic decisions, the better to take advantage of the global flow of information that technology is facilitating.

Another shrewd point: While global economies of scale are desirable, it may be more profitable to focus on markets where customers still have limited choice and most of the competitors are local incumbents with mediocre skills.

But the grand opportunities for market share won't all be in emerging markets. Companies looking to take advantage of economies of scale should note that currently the most intense market integration is occurring within and between the United States and Europe. Such integration, which brings a reduction of regulation and creates an increasingly homogeneous pool of consumers, makes selling and marketing a whole lot less costly.

With clear and easily digestible arguments and figures, Race for the World disabuses readers of the notion that globalization has extended...globally. One-third of the world's industries operate in locally defined markets (such as education, real estate and medical care); one-third in national markets (business services, power suppliers and branded consumer goods, such as beer or shoes). Only the last third (say, telecom equipment, shipping, manufactured commodities and consumer electronics) has, to date, gone global.

However, the book makes bold predictions about globalization's advance. It estimates, for example, that consumers will have access to 80 percent of the world's goods within 30 years, a quadrupling of their current access to a mere 20 percent. Similarly, companies will increasingly have access to the world's best resources: the best labor, technology and low-cost, high-quality suppliers. Of course, so will their competitors. Therefore, even companies that now dominate their national markets will come under intense pressure.

All the basic points here are about the overabundance of choices most companies must face, whether it is choosing markets, partners or technology. Race for the World is a strong guidebook for any executive contemplating those choices.

-- Gary Abramson

Where's Waldo?

Security -- The problem with an encrypted message is that it announces, "Hey! Smart guy! Try to crack me."

However, with steganography a message can be embedded in a digital image so that no one knows it's there. Except, of course, the person for whom the message is intended. That person can separate the message from the image with software recently developed by University of Maine engineering professor Rick Eason and Kyushu Institute of Technology professor Eiji Kawaguchi.

While Eason and Kawaguchi's software is new, with patent pending, steganography isn't. The word means "covered writing" and derives from the Greek. One ancient method of concealment was to shave the head of the messenger and tattoo the message on his head. After the messenger's hair grew in, the tattoo would be undetected until his head was shaved again. Modern examples are invisible inks and microdots.

Hiding information among the pixels is not new either. But whereas previous steganographic efforts focused on the least significant areas of an image, which were easy to manipulate without affecting the picture, Eason and Kawaguchi use the most complex, or noisiest, parts of the image where the pixels are densest, thereby making the message that much harder to decode. Just as Waldo, for example, is usually hidden in the busiest part of the picture.

While the military and industrial espionage value of steganography is obvious, Eason envisions other, more benign apps. "You could have a digital photo album," says Eason, a 43-year-old Tennessean who's been teaching at Maine's frigid Orono campus for 11 years. "You could embed notes in the picture: who's in it, what f-stop you used, the date, a personal memory.

"It's also good for ID and smart cards," he continues. "You put a chip on the card; you put a digital image in the chip; you put data in the image -- mom's maiden name, fingerprint information, iris photos. Makes it much harder to forge."

And as for finding Waldo? Forget it.

-- David Rosenbaum

This story, "The Ghost in the Machine" was originally published by CIO.

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