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   strategic master stroke
Friday, April 22 2005

setting: Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland, USA

For a variety of reasons (possibly including the fact that I was using a Mac) I'd been unable to use the household wireless 802.11b network at Gretchen's parents' house. I quickly found, however, that I could access another network in the neighborhood, but only if I sat in the living room. There actually were other networks available, but they were all encrypted.
It turns out that when a network is left open, man, they're left open. On the one I could get onto, I found that the access point (whose humble configuration pages didn't even mention a manufacturer) was still using an easily-guessed default password. Not that there was anything interesting to be done with it; I couldn't figure out what company had manufactured it based on the pages coming from its tiny embedded web server.
This brings up an important point that I've probably discussed before: the difference between most of the world's manufacturing and Chinese manufacturing. Chinese manufacturers tend to act as behind-the-scenes players, never putting any effort in the branding of their products. The things they ship are essentially brand-free. I've encountered these products in the form of add-in computer expansion cards, keyboards, small FM transmitters, and various obscure USB trinkets. Trying to figure out who manufactured them is always an exercise in futility; they're maddeningly generic. It's as if they're waiting for someone to come along later and slap a brand on them and resell them at a substantial markup (complete with a handbook actually copyedited by a native English speaker).
By the time most products get to Americans, they are always heavily branded, and this has been the case for many years. (My parents have a woodburning cookstove made in 1904 and its brand, "Majestic," is mentioned over a dozen times on its various surfaces.) If you have a video card made by ATI, for example, you only have to glance at it to recognize the brand. It might have actually been made in China, but savvy marketers at the parent company make sure you know the company marketing it.
It's only occasionally that generic Chinese products slip in through American ports without ever being branded. The best place to find these in most towns is at your local dollar store. But they can also be found on Ebay, which appears to host a thriving market of dubiously-sourced generic goods. (I love the $10 auto-cigarette-lighter FM transmitters I bought from Ebay - their packaging makes no mention of the FCC at all and they broadcast a quarter of a mile without any modification!)

In the mid-afternoon, Gretchen and I went over to Dina's parents' house for a social gathering designed so friends of the family could meet Dina's new husband-to-be Gilad. All families regard marriages as important, but with these particular families there are so many rituals vying for importance that the really important ones like marriage get whole archipelagos of sub-rituals attached to them. (I can't imagine such a meet & greet being hosted by even the most gregarious individuals in my extended family.)
By the time we returned to Gretchen's parents' house, her brother and sister-in-law, along with their 15 month old baby, had arrived from Pittsburgh. The last time I'd seen these folks was at the baby's bris. That bris, and my writing about it, got me in a world of trouble with my brother-in-law back in January of last year. I'd been dreading today's encounter, but it went about as well as it could have.
Now the baby is walking around on two feet and getting into things with his suddenly-available-for-mischief hands. He's at a stage that will last for over a year wherein someone will have to be watching him absolutely every moment that he is awake. (This stage ends when a child develops enough sense to avoid the new dangers that hands and a bipedal gate allow.)

Tonight there was a shabbat/party featuring more than twenty guests at Gretchen's parents' house. Gretchen and her folks had spent the whole afternoon and evening preparing the food (using outsourced Indian recipes) and getting the house in order.
At dinner I sat at a table surrounded mostly by strangers. The gentleman across the table turned out to be an economist and he was intrigued by a theory I advanced that came from my experience as a computer repairman. I said that I was sure Microsoft was doing as little as possible about spyware and malware because these were the only things left driving computer sales. Despite what you read, Moore's Law seems to have broken down and today's computer isn't doing anything that couldn't be done by a computer three years ago. Furthermore, commercial software hasn't advanced much in that time either, with most "upgrades" consisting of "interface churn." But when a beleaugered homemaker goes to switch on her computer and it takes 20 minutes to boot up and then assaults her continuously with popup advertising, it's not surprising that often her solution is to buy a brand new machine. This benefits Microsoft, Intel, and Symantec, and fills our landfills with lots of perfectly-good Pentium III processors. Spyware and malware have given these companies another whole upgrade cycle without them having had to do any investment at all. All the security vulnerabilities existing in Windows are proving to have been a strategic master stroke!

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