Buzz of the Week: A community in action

In these days of e-mail and e-learning, in which personal interactions can be kept to a minimum, people often find themselves searching for something ubiquitously referred to as community.

The concept is difficult to pin down, so it is often discounted by those who don’t understand it. It also has a dark side, tending to devolve into cliques or be eroded by gossip. However, at its best, community is inclusive, fostering familial-like bonds among a wide group of people with diverse interests.

Last week, we got a lesson in community. We saw how quickly those bonds can assert themselves. We were reminded that a community, though often discussed in amorphous terms, is made up of individuals and that helping individuals is one of its most important functions. All that crystallized in a single moment in time July 6.

On that Sunday, Marty Wagner, a longtime official at the General Services Administration who now works at IBM, was on the roof of his two-story home in Arlington, Va., trimming his cherished wisteria when he fell, suffering serious head injuries. He was transported to George Washington University Hospital in Washington and placed in the intensive care unit.

Within 24 hours, the news had spread throughout the government information technology community. People were almost desperate for information. At one point, an FCW Insider blog post providing an update on Wagner’s condition ranked among the most-read items on the Federal Computer Week Web site.

People in the government IT community were eager to do something — anything — to help Wagner and his family. True, this community is based in part on shared business interests. But financial gain was not the motivation in this case. After all, Wagner retired from government a year ago. Instead, people’s response was driven by an almost militaristic belief that communities rally around members in need.

But Wagner also is one of those rare individuals who is almost universally cherished. Even those who know Wagner only in passing can attest that he is remarkably honest, yet he never comes across as arrogant or prickly. That gives him the ability to question people on issues without putting them on the defensive. With a few articulate questions, he is able to spur people to reach outside their comfort zones and do better than they would have done otherwise. But he also appreciates someone who spurs him to reach. He thinks deeply about issues, and he puts those thoughts into action. He elicits loyalty, and he builds teams. That all adds up to a pretty good definition of leadership.

The community’s thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.


#2 Massive patch for Internet servers

It turns out that Domain Name System (DNS) software, one of the linchpins of the Internet, has a major security flaw.

DNS translates URLs and e-mail addresses, which make it possible for people to find their way around the Internet, into IP addresses that a server can understand.

Among other problems, the flaw could allow misdirection of Web requests, sending users to unknown Web sites, according to a report last week by William Jackson, a reporter at Government Computer Week, a Federal Computer Week sister publication.

Given the ubiquity of DNS, security experts must have experienced a mental blue screen of death when they learned about the vulnerability.

#3 Digital deception
Iran made headlines twice last week: first when it fired a round of test missiles and again when it was discovered that a photograph of the event had been altered.

The photo, as released by Iranian state media, showed four missiles blasting off. As it turns out, though, one of the four missiles was a digital addition, apparently in place of one that failed to launch.

The image garnered so much attention because it appeared widely in major news outlets before the digital sleight of hand was discovered.

Note to our media brethren: Whoops.

#4 When Macs rule the world
An observant moviegoer watching the blockbuster hit “WALL-E” can pick up a clue about the technology of the future, at least as envisioned by writers for Pixar Animation Studios.

The film, set in the 22nd century, stars a small robot designed to collect and dispose of garbage. At one critical juncture in the film, when WALL-E’s motherboard is fried and he must be rebooted (we won’t spoil the plot by saying why), the sound you hear is an Apple Macintosh starting up.

It’s a cheering sound for Apple fans, but Windows users are generally none the wiser.


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