This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, September 27, 1995

September 27, 1995 - one world government

I've been nursing an idea lately. In fact, I'm writing a book about it. It concerns the intriguing parallels between the dawn of printing and the establishment of the World Wide Web.

My idea begins with the fact that the invention of printing (in the European culture) had three results.

The first was the rapid spread of literacy. Staggering numbers of people learned to read and write, mostly so they could read the Bible.

The second was the Protestant Reformation. Because of increasing literacy and the proliferation of Bibles, people were no longer solely dependent upon the Catholic priesthood to interpret the Word.

The third result of the discovery of movable type was a reflexive action on the part of the Catholic Church, an ultimately fruitless effort to suppress a basic challenge to its considerable political power. We know it today as ... the Inquisition.

In modern times, we again see a surge in literacy. This time, however, the medium is an international computer network. Suddenly, Americans find themselves able to converse easily with people who live in distant countries. Suddenly, world events are no longer filtered through the TV and newspapers. It's direct contact.

I have begun to suspect that this ease of planet-wide communication constitutes as profound a challenge to nationalism as printing was to the Catholic Church of the late 1400s.

Here's my concern: Can the Inquisition be far behind?

It could be that this is an extreme notion. I hope so. But elsewhere in the world, physical torture of political dissidents is routine. Could it happen here?

This idea of mine does explain why we have begun to see a sharp rise in political rhetoric about "patriotism" and "national pride." This just might be an attempt to define a kind of heresy.

That heresy even has a name: "One World Government."

If you like conspiracy theories (and you'd be surprised how many people do), there are oodles to choose from.

For some folks, the masterminds of the New World Order are the Tri-Lateral Commission. To the born-again Nazis of Europe (and their skinhead American counterparts), it is, once more, Jewish bankers. To the failed Communists of the U.S.S.R. and their nervous cohorts in mainland China, it's a conspiracy of capitalists.

To certain members of the extreme right, the United Nations is behind it all, and even now positions its mysterious black helicopters to seize control of the United States. (This is the same United Nations, incidentally, that had so much trouble recently in tiny Bosnia. It makes you wonder how well they'd do in a country that stretches from one ocean to another.)

If you'd like to hear a different perspective ... on Wednesday, September 27, at 7 a.m., the Castle Rock Rotary Club will sponsor a talk by noted scholar Ved P. Nanda. (The club meets in the banquet room at the Village Inn, just off I-25 exit 182.) His subject is "The United States and the United Nations."

Professor Nanda is the Director of the International Legal Studies Program at the University of Denver College of Law. You may have read his carefully crafted, thoughtful analyses of world goings-on in the Denver Post. His credentials are far too extensive to list here, but suffice it to say that he knows whereof he speaks.

This event costs $10. Of that sum, $6 buys you a breakfast buffet. The rest goes to the Rotary, which sponsors, among other things, local vaccinations, highway clean-up, a Read To Me program in county schools, and an international exchange program for students.

To reserve a space, or for more information, contact Dave Watts, Rotary President, at 688-2401.

Saturday, September 9, 1995

August 9, 1995 - hacker story

The system was running slow. Anybody who has worked with a computer system knows that happens sometimes. I was watching it, but wasn't especially worried.

Then, on July 17, I got an e-mail message from the system administrator of the Royal Military College in Canada. He wrote that he had received some "unwanted attentions" from somebody calling in through the Internet, originating from OUR computer. He told me the accounts that this person had tried to log into -- all old accounts that our system software didn't use anymore. But I checked to make sure, and did find one old account that I removed.

On July 19, I got another call, this one from the Weber College in New York State. Same thing -- somebody tried to break into their library computer from ours.

This time, I called our Ameritech Library Services technical support staff in Provo, Utah. We both started looking at our computer on a random basis, every day. Nothing showed up.

On July 24, I got a phone call from a friend, someone running another library computer system, this one right here in Colorado. Excited, he announced that he'd just tossed somebody off his system, someone who was prowling around with "superuser" privileges (accounts which give you access to every system file, and the ability to add, revise, or delete virtually anything). My friend said he'd seen this person -- who was using an account called "hume" -- flee back to my system.

Immediately I logged in, and there he was -- an account called "kant." At this point, I unplugged our connection to the Internet. "kant" disappeared.

We stayed off the Internet for about five days to assess the damage. We found some 40 megabytes of data on our system in the "kant" account. We learned that kant tended to use our system most in the wee hours -- from 1-4. We learned that he had connected to our computer from a terminal server at the University of California-Irvine.

The contents of his directory were eye-opening. He had programs that sniffed out system passwords (to allow him access to the system). He had programs that when he logged off, went around and erased the obvious signs of his presence. He also had huge text files that spelled out in clear, beautifully organized prose, how to "crack" almost any kind of computer system. It was a complete hacker curriculum.
After five days of work with our Provo people, we re-opened our Internet connection. We had left a lot of kant's files alone -- which we were still examining -- but thought we had plugged the obvious holes.

On Monday, July 31, 10:30 p.m., I dialed into our computer to check it just before I went to bed. He was back.

The next three hours were a little frantic. From my home, I logged kant off the system, then hurriedly looked around the system to see what he'd done this time. Almost immediately, he logged back in, under another account name, but again with superuser privileges. I threw him off again. Then he came back on as kant. I threw him off. Then I got thrown off.

Then I logged back in and this time got a message from -- one of our people in Provo. "Why are you throwing me off?" he asked.

Cautiously, we tested each other. "What's my extension?" he asked. I told him. "Who's my team leader?" I asked. He told me. I started to apologize for over-reacting, when kant came back on again. He even had the effrontery to try to strike up a side-conversation with my system support person!

Finally, our Ameritech associate shut off the Internet access through software. And over the past week, we've taken a hard look at EVERYTHING.

We've erased kant's files (then up to 61 megabytes) -- and uncovered a few other tricks that gave him access to our machine.

Every single password has been changed. We've installed a variety of operating system patches to plug some little-known bugs that can be exploited.

Here's the good news: the hacker COULD have wiped out every single file we've got. He didn't. As near as we can figure, he (and it could well be a she -- I just THINK of kant as a he) was just appropriating our $100,000 computer as his personal toy, apparently setting it up as a hacker-friendly waystation on the cracker network. He wasn't interested in any of our data (other than passwords).

Here's the bad news: although we'll be back up on the Internet by the time you read this, and although we think we have vastly improved our computer security, we've also learned that absolute system security isn't possible.

Computers are like houses -- you can make them difficult and inconvenient to break into, but there's always a way around it.

Next week: hacking and the law.

Wednesday, September 6, 1995

September 6, 1995 - why circ isn't the whole story

As an honest librarian, it's important for me to know how well (or how poorly) the library is doing. As an honest library user and taxpayer, it's important for you to know, too.

The most commonly used measure of library service is circulation -- how many items get checked out in a year. In that number, most libraries also include renewals (the same person extends the loan on an item for another three weeks).

Generally speaking, the idea is that if people are checking out MORE books than last year, the library is better. If the library is checking out fewer books, then it's getting worse.

While some fluctuations from year to year are to be expected, circulation figures are in fact fairly reliable yardsticks for library performance. A drastic increase in library circulation usually does mean the library is getting better. A drastic decline usually means that it's lost funding, or lost the knack of matching up the things patrons want with the things the library is offering, or both.

It happens that over the past five years, library use in Douglas County has increased by almost 400%. From this year to last, things have slowed down tremendously -- largely because of the deliberate change of our loan periods from 2 weeks to 3 weeks. But even with that change, overall library circulation continues to rise.

Rather than just measuring the number of checkouts, however, a better measure is to calculate circulation per capita. By this measure, the Douglas Public Library District does very well indeed -- we're second in the state, just after Boulder Public Library.

Yet another measure is the "fill rate," usually determined through a survey. This is what we're after when we hand you a survey that asks if you actually found what you came in for, or had to settle for something else.

Another traditional measure is reference services, calculated as the total number of questions the library receives and tries to answer.

By this measure, the Douglas Public Library District is still among the lesser-used public libraries in the state. It happens that my wife and I use the reference services fairly frequently -- to track down population figures, article citations, things we read in the paper that seem to us unclear or unsubstantiated, used car prices, the relative safety of infant car seats, and much, much more.

Long before the Internet, the public has had access to a staggering amount of information through the relatively old- fashioned but utterly reliable technology of a phone and a reference librarian. The number is 688-8721. Try it.

Yet another measure of library services is programming. I'm not talking about computers, here, but about story times, public lectures, and other public meetings. Here again, the Douglas Public Library District does very well, offering more children's programming on a weekly basis than many libraries offer in a month.

There are many other measures as well. How many books get used within the library, but not checked out? Are the buildings and grounds well-maintained? Do the staff speak well OF EACH OTHER?

Among the more intriguing measures of library performance is revealed by the question: What percentage of the budget goes to new materials and to staff?

The "industry standards" for this are usually 10-12% for materials, and 65-70% for staff. As a relatively young library district, we have spent between 12-14% for materials, and a little over 50% for staff -- the rest of our money has been banked for capital improvements. As time goes on, and the district matures, however, we too will have to transfer a greater percentage of this money to the people who provide all our services.

But finally, the measure that matters is the intangible measure of "reputation," both within and without the library. Perhaps the single most important factor here is simple responsiveness.

When you walk through the library's door, how long does it take to get a smile and a greeting? When you ask for a book, or have a problem, does the staff find a way to say "yes!" -- or do they give you lists of reasons why they can't provide a particular service?

The public library, like any public institution, is healthy only so long as it remains focused on its job, and stays close to the people it serves. And while I may believe that the value of the public library is immeasurable -- its performance MUST be measured if we are to know its ultimate worth.