Friday, April 30, 2010

The Monthly Ledger is in the mail

Hey, we just finished the latest issue of The Monthly Ledger, [FIND] Investigations' monthly newsletter. If you're not on the mailing list, you can sign up here.

The Monthly Ledger is full of ideas, suggestions, and our take on various issues relating to the business of private investigating. This month we offer a couple of great book suggestions, brag on ourselves a bit, and dive head-first into the issue of too much information. (see blog post TMI, below).

Here's to another great month of solving problems.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

TMI – Information Overload

I’m a reader. I tear through a magazine in a couple of hours, reading, consuming, and drinking in information. I like to discover what others are thinking, what topics are hot, what’s happening in the greater world…outside of our little burg of Nashville. I surf industry related blogs. I subscribe to several business related magazines. I try to blaze through a good fiction novel every other week or so. I consume information. I’m a reader.


Boarding a plane for Jacksonville, FL in March, I picked up a copy of "The Economist," a magazine that appeals to the marketing nerd in me. The cover of the February/March, 2010 issue bore, in a typically inoffensive British font, the title, “The Data Deluge.” So I boarded my flight, eager to learn what this uber-smart Anglo rag had to say about Too Much Information.

The first example of exactly how much data we’re dealing with came in the first sentence of the first paragraph of this 14-page special report: “When the Sloan Digital Sky Survey started work in 2000, its telescope in New Mexico collected more data in its first few weeks than had been amassed in the entire history of astronomy.” A newer telescope in Chile, scheduled to come online in 2016, will gather, “the same quantity of data every five days.”


What to do with all this data? (Or is it “these” data?)

Bytes, megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes, we’re even up to petabytes (seriously??) at the commercial and government level, and world-wide there exist today about 1.2 zettabytes of raw data stored (1,000 times 10 billion copies of The Economist magazine). Yottabytes are just around the corner (no one has come up with a way to imagine this number yet.) The point is, there’s a lot of information out there and it’s growing…fast.

However, data is not knowledge. In its now rare singular form, the word “datum” means “a piece of information” – in other words, a single observation or occurrence. “Data,” as a plural noun or singular mass noun (the latter being more commonly used), refers to items of information or a body of information.

If you’ll bear with my brief epistemological rant, in the end, it’s really not data we’re after, but knowledge. Like the hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings of Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, we often doggedly pursue the former, all the while hoping for the latter to magically spring forth, like Athena from Zeus’s head.

If you’re new to the “HHTTG” series, the pan-dimensional beings create a supercomputer called “Deep Thought” to calculate the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” After 7.5 million years, Deep Thought spits out the answer: which is, simply, 42. Deep Thought explains, in typically sci-fi earnest computer logic, that the question is really the crux of the issue, and that he is unable to compute it.

Knowledge requires a human element. The word's definition includes a nod to a familiarity with facts or data, but it suggests something greater than mere information storage. It suggests understanding, which can only be gained by experience.

Knowledge is the narrative we construct to tie together and explain the data we’ve collected. Which means…sometimes it’s wrong.


Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The highlight for me of that issue of The Economist was the phrase, “Torture the data long enough and they will confess to anything.” I had a nice chuckle over that one, and then it set me to thinking about the potential pitfalls of collecting all this information. A computer may be able to store yottabytes of the stuff, but we humans possess a far inferior capacity to comb through it all, figure out what it means, and translate it into something coherent. To turn it into knowledge, in other words.

For a case study in too much information and a complete human failure to turn it into knowledge, let’s look to Northwest Flight 253, in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate his crotch with a DIY thong bomb. In the post-operation analysis, it came to light that his parents had warned US officials that their odd son likely posed a threat to US national security. Those officials keyed his name into their huge database, containing over 550,000 people who “posed a threat.”

The database is rife with redundancy, typos, mis-filings, and it’s not at all unusual for a single name to get lost in the dross. No one connected the dots. No one really knew how. Robert Jervis, of the Boston Globe wrote in a January 2010 article, “The problems with our intelligence system aren’t primarily problems with information; they are problems with how we think.” They are problems with knowledge, and how we create it.

Jervis contends that we, as human beings, tend to “…excel at perceiving patterns and making up stories that bring the coherence that we need in order to act.” This seems like a good thing, a survival mechanism, an innate ability to quickly get our minds around a problem and do something. Problem is, once we see a pattern, we tend to get kinda stuck on that idea. We “see patterns quite quickly and then tend to ignore information that might disprove them.” This tendency to get stuck on an idea is known in psychological circles as “premature cognitive closure.” This is the exact type of intelligence process that lead the CIA into “knowing” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when, as we all know now, there were none.

One interesting observation that Jervis makes about the WMD snafu in Iraq is that the analysts ignored the fact that a substantial amount of information that should have been there, had Iraq been in possession of WMD’s, was missing. Think Sherlock Holmes making note of the dog “not barking” as the most important clue in a case.

The final point that Jervis makes is that the CIA’s conclusions, “often rest on assumptions that are not readily testable,” assumptions that may even be immune to dispute. If you assume that the lack of evidence pointing to WMD’s is a massive deception or cover-up on the part of Saddam’s regime, then the WMD program, like any negative, becomes virtually impossible to disprove.

Interestingly, people expect the government to have a perfect understanding of what the bad guys are doing, all of the bad guys at once, and yet people are, as Jervis notes, “often surprised to discover that their own spouses have been cheating on them.”


Data, Knowledge, and the Private Investigator

Fortunately, we private investigators usually don’t have to sift through yottabytes of data to identify suspected miscreants from a list of thousands. Our clients often supply us with that information up front, leaving us free to focus on a single target or person of interest. If we’re lucky, the client may be able to help paint a picture of the target’s activities and lifestyle, such a favorite bar or hangout or a subject’s typical daily schedule.

Our data gathering looks a little different (and more mundane) than the CIA’s does. We wade through records, pull trash, surf the usual social networking haunts, spend hours, days, or weeks quietly observing a subject’s behavior and activities, and we organize all of that intelligence for you.

For one case a few years back, we assembled two three-ring binders full of well-organized receipts, printed web pages, business cards, and personal correspondence, all pointing to the fact that the client’s spouse was having an extramarital relationship.  In addition to observing the subject (and paramour) and documenting their behavior with video and photographs, we were able to show our client (and subsequently the mediator) a certain amount of money that the cheating spouse had been spending on the paramour over the past several months. How much impact do you think that had on alimony?

Mostly, a private investigator’s job is just what I’ve described: to collect and organize data for his clients. But sometimes, a client needs something more: knowledge.

Often, our clients have hired us because they’ve found themselves in a bewildering and painful personal situation: a betrayal of some kind, by a spouse or business partner, say. These are situations in which the human factor, that magic x-factor that interprets data and sculpts it into a story that enlightens us, often leads us astray. When people are in the kind of emotional state that usually accompanies betrayal by a spouse, friend, or colleague, it’s particularly difficult to interpret facts objectively; we flawed humans tend to torture the information until it tells us what we want to hear, or what we have already convinced ourselves is true.

That’s why sometimes, a distraught client might need a little help on the knowledge front – an independent, experienced, objective third-party observer who can offer alternate interpretations of the facts at hand, uncolored by personal interest or emotion. A private investigator is your very own personal operative, the person you can rely on to gather the pertinent information and help you put it together in a meaningful way.

As PIs, we have to be very cautious about offering interpretations and opinions. However, it is certainly our job, and our responsibility, to test and question our clients’ assumptions, and to sometimes serve as our clients’ guide through the difficult and painful minefield of turning facts into knowledge. And it’s absolutely our job to be sure that we gather the facts necessary to support that knowledge beyond any reasonable doubt or refutation.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

[FIND] Investigations Gear now available

If you're interested, you can click on over to our storefront on cafepress and pick up a little [FIND] Investigations swag. Check it out.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How to tell if you're being followed.

Here's another bit of intel from our friends over at Burn Notice. This one's for the person who thinks they're being followed. I've had several requests from female clients asking me to find out if they are being followed. We've searched cars for GPS trackers, set up counter surveillance, and instructed them on cleaning runs. This video, like most from the Burn Notice folks, gives a short and simple solution to the question: "Am I being followed?"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Physical Fitness and the Private Investigator

After several days of scouring the Internet, I’ve found only one source that even mentions health and private investigators on the same page: The Alberta Occupational Profiles page lists "physical fitness" as one of the personal characteristics of a Private Investigator. Why is it that no one ever discusses health and fitness in the context of the work we do?

Hours of surveillance are the bane of fitness. We sit, we wait, we eat, and we watch, all the while slowly racking up pounds on top of pounds. Here’s a little tip for the working PI: make time for exercise, and eat healthy foods. It's that simple.

Exercise - Make a Plan

We here at [FIND] Investigations make it a priority to maintain at least a baseline level of fitness. We provide the space and encourage our staff to take the time to get some exercise at least five days a week. Some of us work out together. Others take their own time to get in a quick walk or run.

No single exercise regimen is right for everyone. The "get in shape real fast" approach is a sure-fire way to derail your good intentions with an injury, especially if you're over 35 and not exactly Lance Armstrong. Be realistic about your abilities and limitations -- age, physical condition, health issues, weight -- and plan your climb to fitness accordingly. Haven't run a mile in ten years? Go for a walk, increasing distance and speed gradually. Multiple knee surgeries in your past? Try swimming or biking. I’ll make the assumption that you are smart enough to check in with your doctor prior to starting any exercise plan. 

I know, I know…it’s hard enough to find the time to eat a decent meal, much less trek over to the gym and pump some iron. But really, it's not about time. People find time for what matters most to them. The issue is energy and motivation: how to heave tired butt out of chair in the first place. There's no easy way to do that, but we've found a trick that seems to help: make exercise into a treat. An indulgence, even. 

If what you love most is time with the kids, then why not shoot hoops with them, or take them for a long hike in the woods? Or if you're a competitive type, how about putting together a pickup basketball game or tennis tournament with some equally competitive PI buddies? Try taking your significant other on a romantic bike ride/picnic in the park. (See below for the positive effects of exercise on romance.) Sign up for a race to motivate your weekly mile count (such as the Warrior Dash, an insane-looking, mud-soaked obstacle course a couple of us are planning to run next month).

The best kept secret in the world of fitness is that you don’t need to join a gym. There’s really no need for expensive equipment. You don’t even have to run out and buy a pair of dumbbells. You just need a little space, and about an hour. And a workout partner can help with motivation and accountability.

A few of us at [FIND] are about three weeks into one of the commercial DVD workout programs, a six-day-a-week regimen of simple body weight exercises and cardio. We've already noticed a huge difference in energy, strength and stamina. And it's actually been fun to work out together and measure our progress.

But you don't have to go out and buy a DVD set. Remember high school PE class? Basketball practice? Armed services boot camp? Calisthenics? The 45-minute workouts come straight out of those playbooks, because they work. Try to do each one for just 30 seconds apiece, and you'll see what I mean:

Running in place (no need to explain)

Jumping jacks 

Butt kicks

High knees

Mummy kicks

Burpees (squat thrusts, suicide jumps, etc.) 


High plank / Low plank positions



Variations on all of these themes abound. Go online and search for any of these exercises, and you’ll likely be able to find a demo of the proper way to perform the exercise. I’ve included a few links above to get you started. Also, you probably want to mix it up on a daily basis and make sure to take at least one day of total rest to let your body recoup. The addition of some type of cardio to your exercises is also important: road or mountain biking, jogging or running, walking or hiking (find some hills to climb), rowing, or swimming.

Again, you can go online and get countless suggestions for walking, biking, running, or swimming schedules. If you’re out of shape, start with a brisk walk and work your way up to more intense exercises.


The Benefits

Conditioning has so many benefits it’s impossible to make an exhaustive list, but here are a few that relate directly to the work of a PI.

Increased Energy:  It may seem counterintuitive, but we’ve found that when the [FIND] Investigations team is on a set exercise schedule (at least one hour every week day), we are actually able to stay with surveillance for a longer period of time, take on more work, and remained focused.

Stress Reduction:   This profession, while most definitely fun, can produce an excess of stress, both physical and mental. With regular exercise, stress levels are naturally reduced.

Mental Acuity:  Several sources cite increased mental acuity in people who exercise on a regular basis.

Elevated Mood:  Exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood. Some studies show that exercise can help improve mood control in depressed patients. Not to mention that feeling of accomplishment your get when you get your body active and burn some calories.

This next benefit doesn’t necessarily relate to our work, but it certainly adds to quality of life. This is taken directly from the Mayo Clinic’s list of exercise benefits

“Regular physical activity can leave you feeling energized and looking better, which may have a positive effect on your sex life. But there's more to it than that. Regular physical activity can lead to enhanced arousal for women, and men who exercise regularly are less likely to have problems with erectile dysfunction than are men who don't exercise — especially as they get older.”

Increased strength, decreased body fat, better sleep…, the list goes on.


It's easy to live the stereotype: the overweight PI in rumpled suit consuming burgers and chain smoking on surveillance, client meetings over a second piece of pie in a greasy-spoon diner, evenings spent tilting back a few (or more) rounds of Jack with a beer back.

Problem is, the food coma you get in the afternoon after that Big Mac isn't so conducive to alertness, and neither is a hangover. I'm not going to tell you what to eat, but food writer Michael Pollan perhaps says it best: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." 

Final Thoughts

I live in one of the fattest regions of one of the fattest countries on earth. I’ve been fat and out of shape. I am not a crusader for exercise. It’s just that I’ve found that regular exercise and a healthy diet helps me to do my job better and enjoy my life more. I find that my team works better when they’re in shape. I love the idea that for the small investment of a time and effort you can see and feel almost immediate benefits.