NOLA, part I

I spent last week in New Orleans on business. Work put me up in the French quarter, and each night after work, I had the pleasure of studying at a local martial arts school. I'm in the process of turning some paper notes into blog posts about the experience. For now, I'll just go with first impressions:

  • I miss Papa Roux back in Indianapolis. His jambalaya is way better than anything I've found in the quarter after a full week. I wonder if I can find an excuse to stop there soon, and whether I should complement his cooking or blame him for making the food in NOLA less fun by comparison.

  • Local adventures in Aikido and Eskrima were well worth the time and energy. More on these later.

  • I'm reminded how much I miss having a suitably regular martial arts training regimen.

  • The quarter is a neat place to people-watch, both during the day when people leisurely antiquing or clothes- or book-shopping share the streets with conference-goers and other work-motivated people, and at night when a net of police, bouncers, and private security try to keep the drunks from hurting themselves or one another too badly.

  • I should probably lay off the caffeine. A week without coffee has helped my sleep patterns somewhat.

  • Home is good. A week on the road is about my limit, unless I take the people I'm going to miss with me. I'm glad my son is still at the age where he's excited I'm back, and that A hasn't changed the locks or anything.

Emergency Contacts

A friend pointed me to an article recently that showed a slide show of "emergency contact" apps for smartphones. One was very well thought out: an app that stored emergency contact information, allergies, and other pertinent things for first responders on the user's phone. The other eight were all variations on a single theme: using the phone's data connection to send location and other information to a personal emergency contact. That model is broken.

Turn off your data.

The first thing I want smartphone users to do in a disaster area is to turn mobile data connections completely off. Why? Because some of the cellular infrastructure in the affected area is likely to have been taken out by the disaster, putting bandwith at a premium, and nearly everyone is going to be trying to communicate at once. The combination of damage to infrastructure and sudden rise in usage can cause more towers to crash and need to be restarted, or to lock up and stop taking new connections.

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Comfort Items

When we sheepdogs think about our gear, we spend a lot of time on the nuts and bolts: a sleep system, water storage and treatment, tools, defensive equipment, and so on. Those are all important -- often life-or-death important -- but it's also important to stash a few comfort items here and there. It's easy to forget that, in addition to saving lives, we're often in a position to save someone's sanity -- a survivor's, our own, or our team's -- and we should prepare for that, too.

My basecamp bag, in addition to the obvious survival gear, contains a case of decks of playing cards, several kinds of tea, a few chocolate bars, notebooks and pens, a portable Scrabble set (sorry, no dictionary, you'll have to duke it out), a book of bedtime stories, and a rotating stock of trinkets, toys, and snacks. A smaller subset of that (notebook, pens, a couple tea bags, one pack of cards, possibly chocolate) make it into the pack I carry as well. In a world where I'm fussing about the weight of my cookset, the compressability of my sleeping bag, and how many pairs of underwear I can afford to carry, that seems absurd to many people.

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Mundane Things

I had a long night Friday, and a funny conversation on my way home. I'd managed to nip out of work a bit early and pick up my son from school. We beat Friday gridlock out of town, bound for our "local" REI store, which is over an hour away in Indianapolis, IN. Too much driving for my taste, but I'd failed to notice Littlefish outgrowing his good hiking boots, and needed a replacement in time to have them broken in by next week.

Shopping was followed by dinner nearby with a friend we don't see often enough, after which we headed home with hope of arriving in time to get Littlefish tucked into bed at the usual hour.

Then there was traffic.

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Dangerous Things Are For Kids, Too

About two years ago, my son, nicknamed "Little Fish", and I had a little adventure. One Saturday morning, when the sky finally cleared after four days of almost-constant rain, we visited a park near our home to shake off our cabin fever.

One of Little Fish's favorite things was to wade through the shallow part of a creek there and play on the tiny delta in the middle. Usually, the water was about ankle deep on me, but thanks to the rain, waves lapped up against my knees as, hand in hand, my son and I waded in.

We were halfway to our destination when I felt the current surge, suddenly topping my hips and throwing bits of wood and other debris at us. Little Fish, terrified, tried to climb up me like some sort of monkey. I could lose my grip on the ground, allowing us to be swept away, or lower myself for more stability. I spared a split-second's thought for the cell phone wedged into my bra (where I had thought it would stay dry) before dipping neck-deep into the rising creek.

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Take the @#$% Stairs

Last month, I found myself sitting at an information security conference, in a room full of bright people all listening to a lecture when the hotel's fire alarm sounded. We all got up and filed out of the room. Eighty or so people milled at the top of the main stairway that led down to the first floor, patiently waiting for congestion to clear so that they could exit.

I glanced around, and sure enough there was a marked fire door -- something along the lines of "Do not open: alarm will sound." -- a mere dozen yards away. I loudly announced that, with the fire alarm already going off, there was no reason not to use the fire exit. This is why we have fire exits. I then proceded to take the fire exit...alone...down the empty staircase...and out the door with absolutely no one around to be in my way.

That's right, not a single person would follow me out the fire exit. I'd have been more persistant had there been signs of an actual fire, but still the crowd's behavior saddened me. I like to think of infosec as an industry skewed toward independent thinkers.

Authority

I'm not a soldier, or a police officer, or a medical professional, or any of those other people with certificates and uniforms that say "this person knows what they are doing". That lack of endorsement by any sort of recognized authority caused me to not write about these subjects for a very, very long time. However, I've had the experience of sitting down with people I respect who've worn all of those uniforms and more, being accepted by them, and trading stories. We've all been able to learn from one another.

I'm still self-conscious about putting what I know out there, in no small part because I realize how little I know. My samples are small -- maybe a dozen life-or-death encounters with people, as many with nature, over the course of a life -- and whatever number would have happened had I not avoided or short-circuited them before they did. A friend and colleague recently talked me into doing some informal teaching, and one of our conversations reminded me of something that happened when I was eleven or so:

My elementary school had received its first bomb threat. For a rural school of fewer than 300 students in the very early 1990's, this was completely unforseen. It was lunchtime when the call came to our school secretary. I was working as a "room aide", eating my lunch in the classroom of younger children so that I could make sure they behaved themselves during a lunch recess period forced inside by inclement weather.

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