Saturday, January 31, 2009

Studying Computer Forensics

I'm sitting here watching a DVD of Crime 360 episodes. It's prep work for one of my classes in school.

It's been a long time since I actually enjoyed a class I was taking in school. That's because when I chose to go back to school to finally finish my undergraduate degree (in 1988), I basically chose courses that were the fastest route to getting that piece of paper—not classes in a field that I had a passion for.

The minute I found something more interesting to do, (which was work at Microsoft), I quit school again. It's too bad that I spent so many years of my prime confused about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Grad school is a whole lot different. I'm taking courses that I truly enjoy. And the teachers are people with real day jobs in the field we are studying; they aren't teaching just by a book. I am so glad I finally finished my Bachelor's degree so that I can pursue my dream and get a career that is truly satisfying. (I might be less happy about things if I don't find a day job soon — it'll be hard to study when I'm living on the street.)

Studying computer forensics is a whole new ball game for me. What kind of class lets you watch true crime TV shows for homework? Introduction to Criminal Investigations! That's what kind. What kind of class has you writing a case brief every week? Introduction to Criminal Law —which is more about criminal procedure than law.

I love the stuff I'm learning in both my classes, but Investigations is the more fun of the two courses. For the past few weeks my classmates and I have been looking forward to February 2nd. That's "Crime Scene Night." The stuff we do the rest of the semester will be based on our investigation of a crime scene staged by a veteran DC police criminal investigator.

For example, we have to present our investigative findings (as members of two teams) the week after crime scene night. Then, later in the semester, we each have to write a search warrant. A viable search warrant. It's not as easy as it sounds.

From what I'm learning in my Crim Law class—which is primarily a lot of reading—a search warrant has to meet several criteria if it's going to hold up in court. The most important criteria is probable cause. You can't get a warrant without it. We all know that just from watching TV. Establishing probable cause falls under its own set of rules, however, especially if the information came from an informant.

If a warrant doesn't hold up, any evidence found under that warrant can be thrown out on the Exclusion Rule. In addition, evidence derived from illegally obtained evidence can be thrown out under the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine. The key lies in understanding the Fourth Amendment and appropriately interpreting case law that is based on it.

And does an officer always need a search warrant to perform a search? There are exceptions, such as a "Terry stop," otherwise known as a "stop-and-frisk." Determining when you do and don't need a warrant is a decision that frequently has to be made under life-or-death circumstances. Police have to understand individual rights and the laws that protect those rights before they make any move to search or seize a person, place or thing.

It's one thing to know what the Fourth Amendment is, but it's another thing entirely to know how to apply it to real life criminal procedure. Like they say, every rule has an exception. Laws vary by jurisdiction and get modified by the Supreme Court over time. I understand now that police officers have to be really good at thinking on their feet. This stuff is complicated and rarely is as straight forward as they make it look on Law & Order.

If I can recite the Fourth Amendment on the final exam in my Crim Law class, I get extra credit. Woo-hoo! Because my memory is so poor, I've started the memorization process a few months in advance of the exam. It's 54 words, and by now I can remember the first 33 of them. Here it is.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Fascinating stuff!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

D.C. on Steroids

Here in northern Virginia, the hype and anticipation leading up to today has been phenomenal. Although I was not one of the hundreds of thousands of people who battled jam-packed subways and freezing cold to join the festivities on the Mall, I did get caught up in the emotion watching the historical event on TV.

I've never seen D.C. so alive. Estimates place the attendance at two million. Wow! Two million happy people in one place at one time. The positive emotion was felt all over the world. One woman interviewed on TV came all the way from Kenya for the event.

A nice family that I spoke to on the subway this afternoon came from Waldorf, MD. The mother and her two daughters were so thrilled, so overjoyed, to have been a part of history. They said they got up at 4:30 in the morning and drove to Virginia, parking across the street from my apartment building to take the Metro into the city. It took them seven hours to get to the Mall. That's dedication. And it is exactly why I didn't go. :)

But it was fun talking to them and seeing their smiling faces. I suddenly felt like I was in New York again!

What an exciting day. It's kinda neat to be in such close proximity to all of the excitement. I wish I could say "I was there," but I'll have to settle for "I was really close by!"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

113 Resumes

I am one of 260,000 people laid off from Wall Street in the past several months.

Since September 20 I've submitted my resume/application (or made some sort of job contact) a total of 113 times. The actual responses I get are few and far between. I get a response for about one in every 15 resumes sent. The reasons that the response number is so low vary. Over the past three months I've determined the following:

1. Many jobs listed on the Internet by staffing agencies do not exist. One recruiter actually told me that they post jobs that don't exist just to build their database of resumes. This practice should be illegal. Truly, it is false advertising.

2. No one actually sees resumes that are submitted through online job sites. Whether the job exists or not is irrelevant in this case. Your resume gets dumped into a database without passing the eyes of any live human being. Chances are, you'll never hear back. If I can't email or talk to an individual (a live human being) about a job posting, I know that I'll never hear back, which has proven to be true 99.9% of the time over the past four months.

3. If you do get a hold of a recruiter, they generally say, "that job has already been filled, but we'll add your resume to our database and contact you if there's a match." This is either true or, more likely, the job never existed in the first place. I've seen this where I've applied for a job literally a few hours after it was posted, only to find it's already been filled. Doubtful.

3a. These staffing agency recruiters are highly inexperienced. Most are 20-something and just do the job for a paycheck. I swear, most of the ones I've talked to have zero technical background and don't even understand the technical skill set needed for job that they are recruiting for. It's pathetic and can be frustrating at times.

4. Eighty percent of jobs are gained by knowing the right person, not by applying online. Networking is key. This is why keeping up with your LinkedIn profile and contacts is so important.

5. Competition is steep. On average, right now there are three applicants for every opening.

Applying for government jobs is incredibly time-consuming. For example, I applied for one job this week that cost me hours of my time just learning the application process. The application instruction document was 23 pages long. Then, once I've applied, figuring out which "supplemental documentation" is required for that particular vacancy is a job in and of itself. Circular references are common on these web sites, and figuring out the application process is 90% of the battle.

The good thing is that you know the job actually exists if it's posted on or or a similar agency web site. The drawback is that it frequently takes the agency's HR staff up to 90 days to get back to you. And that's only if you actually submitted all the correct documents, which you'll never know.

Never mind trying to get your account reinstated if you get locked out of one of these gov't agency web sites that you last signed into in 2005. You won't even get a response to repeated requests to have your password reset. There are hundreds of these agencies, and all have different application processes and requirements. It's sad that there cannot be one process for all federal jobs. Think of all the time and money that would save U.S. taxpayers!

With unemployment at 7.2%, these are difficult times. Networking is the key to getting a new job.

Monday, January 05, 2009

I Are a College Graduate

It's official. I graduated from UNC-Charlotte on December 20th, a feat that I embarked upon in September 1981. So, just 27 years and three universities later, I have a bachelors degree in Mathematics with a minor in Psychology. I changed my major so many times over the years that I should have ended up with about five degrees. But I'm not complaining. :) This opens the door to graduate school and a new career for me--something I've desperately needed for several years.

My other good news is that today I found out I've been accepted to the Masters in Forensic Science program at The George Washington University. GWU has one of the best (if not the best) FS programs in the country. It's also one of the most expensive. But it'll be worth it. The top four digital forensics examiners in the nation came out of this program. My concentration is High Technology Crime Investigation. My 18 years of IT work give me a great background for this program, but it's still not going to be easy. There is a lot that I need to learn about criminal law and collecting forensic evidence.

I am so excited to have been accepted. It's a competitive program that accepts 20 new students at a time. I wanted this so badly that I moved to Virginia after Wall Street chewed me up and spit me out. I went so far as enrolling at GWU as a non-degree student, signing up for two undergraduate prerequisites that start next week.

They just had to take me. If not, I would have kept on trying. I'm glad that bridge has now been crossed.

Overall, there are about 80 students in the program at any given time, so it's a nice compact community. Classes start in one week. Today was the first time since I can remember that I stood in line at a university book store. Man, book prices are exorbitant these days. A student can easily expect to spend $100 per class.

Thank god I wasn't the only student in line who is sprouting gray hairs. The rest looked like kids to me!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Driving a Prius

For New Year's I drove down to an old friend's house near Roanoke, Virginia. Tracy and I had worked at the Blacksburg Domino's Pizza in the mid-80's and have been best friends ever since. She is the only person from my Virginia Tech college days that I managed to truly stay in touch with. I visit her family every couple of years. Now that she is only 255 miles away, we can see each other more often.

Because Enterprise failed to honor my reservation the previous weekend for a mini-van (which I needed to pick up my dining room table from my friend Rashmi's house up in Laurel, MD), they owed me a free upgrade for my New Year's trip. I asked for a hybrid and got a red Toyota Prius.
I can't get over the mileage that thing makes. Although the on-dash system reported 47mpg (on average) for the entire trip, in reality it made closer to 43mpg. I'm not complaining, though. I only paid for about 12 gallons of gas for the whole 514-mile trip. Not bad! Especially since gas is about $1.55/gallon now.

The Prius is a great car. I could find only a few minor drawbacks. One was that I had no idea how to work the heating and A/C unit, so I just used the temperature up/down controls on the steering wheel for the first half of the trip. On the way back I discovered that the touch-screen LCD display in the middle of the dash has a page for adjusting the air flow. It's too bad the thing didn't have a navigation system. The monitor was there, after all.

One drawback to this little car is that the standard guages are displayed in green LED lights just beneath the windshield. This didn't bother me until nighttime. The green dash lights are so close to the window that they reflect onto the glass, directly in the driver's line of vision. It's not a show-stopper, but it would probably bother me long-term.

The other thing I didn't like was the center console. It has an 18" oblong lid that flips up from the front, so it's almost impossible to open while you're driving, as you have to twist your right hand under the latch and move to open it. Otherwise your arm is in the way.

And lastly, it has a push-button to start the car. It also has a push-button to put the car in Park. That takes some getting used to. The little tiny gear shift is funny - you slide it over and up for Drive, or over and down for Reverse. The knob goes back to its original position, though, no matter what gear you're in. And every time I turned on the power and tried to put it into gear, it would only go into Neutral. But rebooting fixed that problem. Every time!

So, yes, I recommend the Prius if you are cost- and energy-conscious. The low gas consumption is unbeatable. And it comes with a pretty decent sound system.

My trip was fun. I love Tracy's kids - they are 13 (Elizabeth) and 14 (Matthew) and are two of the best kids I know. Very personable, affectionate, and active in their church. We all went bowling on New Year's Eve, including Tracy's mom and a sister I hadn't seen in about 24 years.

I had warned Matthew that I'm terrible at bowling. I bowled a 69, a 70, and a 67. I hadn't bowled in years and had forgotten how much fun it is. Tracy asked me, "Is this redneck enough for you, Floozie?" (Old nicknames: Susie Floozie and Spacey Tracy.) She does live in a very redneck area - it's a mountainous area of southwestern Virginia called New Castle. Population: 172 people. Percentage of white non-Hispanics: 100%.

You see a lot of confederate flags in that area of the country. Most people own a truck (for deer-hunting) and have a gun case in their homes. Heck, even Tracy has a refrigerator on her back deck. (When her husband put that out there a few years ago for his beer and deer meat, Tracy just rolled her eyes. I told her then that she had officially become a redneck.) She's gotten used to it now.

The stories she tells me are great. We were in the car on the curvy, hilly road when Tracy was telling me about one old local guy who'd had so many DUI's that his license had been permanently revoked. So he rides into town on his riding mower, complete with rebel flag flying. We laughed hard about that one.

Back to the city for me! Happy New Year, all!