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Truth about computer security hysteria
Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

Mr. Rosenberger goes to Washington, take 2

Rob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Wednesday, 10 January 2001

I'VE GOT PEOPLE left and right telling me not to publish this column. They say I shouldn't give my detractors more ammo. They believe I should privatize my self-criticisms. They think I'll cripple my chances of influencing the nation's capitol.

Last month's antivirus meeting at the White House was a Kobiashi Maru[1] for me. I need to spank myself because I went to it. Yet if I had turned down the invitation, I'd spank myself for not going.

Too bad for me, then — I keep no sacred cows on this website. This issue impacts the virus world and computer users should know about it. (Plus I came up with a great Cinderella joke.) So let's begin.

As you know, I attended the White House's first antivirus industry roundtable meeting. My previous column spanked various people either because they didn't attend or because they limited the guest list. Now I need to spank myself because I attended. If I had declined my invitation, I'd spank myself for not going. (Think of me as a self-iconoclast.)

This fundamentally flawed meeting gained an air of legitimacy when someone invited an industry critic. And it trapped me in a no-win scenario.

My invitation came by phone on 21 November, yet I didn't truly commit to it until 9 December. I agonized over what to do. Should I decline it to point out the meeting's flaws? Should I accept it and hope for the best? Should I go, if only to analyze Richard Clarke and Michael Vatis on their home turf? Should I go just to exploit the PR value of hobnobbing at the White House? I finally decided to accept the invitation for all these reasons combined.

I agonized whether to send Vmyths.com columnist George C. Smith in my place. I view him as a much better choice to represent computer security critics at a White House meeting — and I would've picked up his tab if needed. Sadly, I felt the meeting's organizers might retract my invitation if I tried to substitute Smith. (He has quite a reputation among the D.C. elite.)

I agonized over who should cover the plane & hotel bills. Should it come out of my own pocket? Should I demand the White House take care of me? Would I feel beholden to Richard Clarke's staff if they paid my way? Would I better serve as The People's Skeptic, rather than serve no master at all? In the end I whipped out my AmEx card and went solely as the editor of Vmyths.com. The White House belatedly offered to pick up my tab; I turned them down.

I agonized over how to present myself at the meeting. Should I cause a ruckus? Should I sit on the sidelines and scribble furiously? Would the White House invite me to future meetings even if I acted like a milquetoast? I finally decided it'd make no difference if I played anarchist or wallflower. I labeled myself the "token computer security critic," watched the key players, and took notes.

I agonized about visiting my senators & congressman after the meeting. Would I look like a lobbyist if I did so? Should I set up meetings in advance, or should I just pop in unannounced? Would agriculture-centric Iowa politicians care about my crusade? Would I cause trouble for myself if I took on the lion in his den? I finally decided to just play it by ear.

Talk about irony — the government pursues Microsoft as a monopoly, yet the White House only invited a Windows rep to their antivirus shindig. What about Macintosh, Linux, and Java?

I agonized whether to out-brief the CIA & NSA. Would their own reps at the meeting see what I saw? Would my agent provocateur perspecti-- oops, wrong column! (Hey, it might happen someday. I got invited to the White House, you know.)

I agonized over when to publish my first column about the meeting. The day after? A week later? Smith published a column in Crypt Newsletter on the day of the meeting, which gave me some time to write my initial rant.


I EVEN AGONIZED over how to deal with the meeting's host: National Security Council member Richard Clarke. I wrote a scathing column about his latest "digital Pearl Harbor" tripe, but — should I publish it before the meeting? Should I wait? Should I throw it away and pray the White House invites me to future antivirus shindigs? I finally decided to post my column on 10 December (the day after I committed myself to the meeting).

I've got good news and bad news.  
  Gimme the good news first.
You received a 'Cinderella' invitation to the White House ball.  
  Fantastic! What's the bad news?
Your Nerdy Godmother forgot to wash the hydrofluoric acid off your glass slippers. Don't wear them too long.  
  Ouch. Remind me to take them off before midnight. Who's my Prince Charming?
Richard Clarke. (thud) Rob? Rob?  

I'd lose if I decided to go, yet I'd lose if I decided not to go. Who would represent the critics if a critic didn't attend? Who would document the meeting from a critic's perspective? Who would slap a military brass coin on the table if Richard Clarke babbled about a coming digital Pearl Harbor?

(Yes, Ricky: I took a very special military brass coin with me. I had enough brass in my balls to slap it down if needed. I mourn for every sailor on eternal patrol, from the Arizona to the Kursk to the Cole. Stop your "digital Pearl Harbor" fearmongering.)

Microsoft missed an antivirus meeting due to an Act of God. It almost sounds like a prophesy coming true, doesn't it?

A critic needed to attend this White House meeting ... yet a critic would have turned down the invitation as a farce. Call it a Catch-22, call it a Kobiashi Maru,[1] call it what you will. I got trapped in a no-win scenario.

So! You waited long enough for my spanking. Here it comes:

  1. I accepted|declined {thwack!} the White House's invitation.
  2. I should have {thwack!} tried to send Smith to the meeting. If they refused, I could have said "I gave it my best shot." If they revoked my invitation, I could have said "you can't revoke it because I decline it."
  3. I can't believe {thwack!} I actually thought about discarding a column {thwack!} to increase my chances {thwack!} of getting invited back {thwack!} to Washington. At my own expense! My ego doesn't pay me enough {thwack!} to make such an idiotic unilateral political compromise.
  4. I should have {thwack!} let the White House pay my way. Why should I feel beholden? The offer came after I published my diatribe. Granted, my role as The People's Skeptic would have improved Clarke's reputation — but Vmyths.com would have gained more influence (and more PR) in Washington.
  5. I wasted {thwack!} political staffers' time each time I popped my head in the door. So much for preaching the gospel, eh? On the bright side: I wasted people's time after Congress adjourned. Ooh, and I got to ride on a cute little toy subway between the House and the Senate.


AT LEAST ONE other person got trapped in a no-win scenario. My previous column spanked Microsoft security bigwig Howard Schmidt for not attending — yet I also would've spanked him if he had attended. And I would've spanked anyone who showed up in his place.

Who came up with the bright idea of inviting Microsoft, anyway? Bill Gates does not sell antivirus software. Redmond creates operating systems and application suites.

"But Rob," you point out, "Microsoft sells the world's most popular and the world's most virus-plagued operating systems. It makes sense to invite them to a White House antivirus industry roundtable meeting." Bah. Macintosh & Linux & Java suffer from viruses, too. You might as well invite Steve Jobs & Linus Torvalds & Scott McNealy to round out the OS representatives.

Talk about irony — the government pursues Microsoft as a monopoly, yet the White House only offered Redmond a seat at their antivirus shindig.

The record will show I'm an unabashed fan of Microsoft. Indeed, I'm one of the few pro-Microsoft virus experts out there. I like Windows 2000, I like Office 2000, I like Outlook 2000, and I like Age of Empires 2000 B.C. I don't like it when the antivirus world traps Redmond in a no-win scenario.

If Schmidt had gone, somebody would've asked "why doesn't Microsoft solve this virus problem once and for all?" Then all eyes would've stared at Schmidt, and I would've yelled an obvious outburst.

It does not bode well for Microsoft to snub the first White House antivirus gathering. Yet if Schmidt had gone, somebody would've asked "why doesn't Microsoft solve this virus problem once and for all?" Then all eyes would've stared at Schmidt, and I would've yelled an obvious outburst.

Somebody needs to defend Microsoft's good name, and I get to do the spanking around here, so {thwack!} good job, Howard. I admire you for snubbing the White House.

(Huh? Yes, I spanked an older man, and no, I don't read gay romance novels. Why do you ask?)

Actually, Schmidt tasked one of his top people to go to Washington so he could fulfill a prior commitment. A tree fell on the guy's home at the eleventh hour — too late for meeting organizers to make a substitution. I mean, you can't just show up at the White House and say "I'm filling in for one of my coworkers." (I want the film rights if you think you can.)

Hmmm, Microsoft missed an antivirus meeting due to an Act of God. It almost sounds like a prophesy coming true, doesn't it?

''Debunking Richard Clarke'' computer security audio CD now available