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Grim 2007 Cyber Forecast (and a Nod to Late Pres. Ford)

The Washington Post's Business section today ran a story I wrote last week about the rise in spam and organized cyber crime -- a rise driven principally by a huge uptick in the number of security holes identified in widely used software products.

The piece includes a sidebar listing some symptoms Windows users might notice if their machine has been invaded by unwanted software. It's important to note that this is by no means a comprehensive list, and that many different types of malicious software can exhibit the same behaviors on an infected system. Still, a sick PC likely has more than one of those symptoms, in addition to others.

Also, the suggested antidotes do not include the single most important step Windows users can take to avoid dealing with malicious software altogether: Setting up their machines to run under a limited user account. These simple precautions are a must for anyone who is giving or getting a new PC for Christmas this year.

Also, my colleague Rob Pegoraro this past week wrote about some other basic precautions users should heed before doing anything with that shiny new PC.

Gerald R. Ford, R.I.P.

Finally, I note with more than a little sadness the passing of former president Gerald R. Ford, a good and decent man with whom I share an unusual bond. For nearly a year, I occupied a room in the house he built and lived in for many years (including six days as president) in Alexandria, Va. In fact, the story I wrote about the experience, "My Gerry Built Home," was the very first piece I penned for The Washington Post, back in 1996. Click to the next page to read the story, which ran in 1996.

My Jerry Built Home

By Brian Krebs, Special to The Washington Post, Oct. 13, 1996.

I am looking at an old photograph of former president Gerald Ford cheerfully scrubbing the evening dishes. It is taped to the window above the very same sink Ford stood at a quarter century ago, when the picture was taken. I am standing there now. I am munching a microwave pizza pocket and drooling crusty flakes down into the disposal. My eyes are drawn to the man smiling at me from the window. I smile a sort of cheesy smile back at him, and for a moment we bond.

The photo that ran alongside my 1996 piece.

See, I live in his house. A president's house! My room is the second one off the third-floor stairwell. At a little under $500 a month, it's not a bad deal, considering who used to live here and all. "Just mind the minefield," I tell my guests who dare to tread the darkened, fetid hallways. Zeus, my housemates' 18-month-old Rottweiler, is imperfectly housebroken.

Seldom do the former homes of former presidents suffer the indignities this one has. Often, they become small-time tourist attractions, giving grungy hamlets like Denison, Tex., a claim to history. But Gerald Ford, a good and decent and ordinary man, became president only because of a sequence of stunning immoralities by others. There were few presidencies quite as accidental as Gerald Ford's -- in every sense -- and it is perhaps no accident that this house stands as a monument only to decay and decrepitude.

It once was very nice. Ford built it in 1955, back when he was a little-known congressman from Michigan. It is a decent-size four bedroom split-level jobber on fashionable Crown View Drive in Alexandria, made of brick and wood siding. It's flanked on both sides by immense trees that dwarf the house, the kind with limbs that beg to be climbed or to have a tire swing hung from them.

The home was modern for its time, with wall-to-wall carpeting and all the best appliances. Out back, Mrs. Ford planted a beautiful rose garden along the east end of the yard. And Mr. Ford put a pool right in the middle, complete with a diving board and gas heater for the chilly winter months. He added some touches for the kids as well, creating a spacious rec room in the basement with a shuffleboard game built into the floor.

Eventually, an amazing series of events would catapult Ford and his family into the national spotlight, as he became vice president of the United States virtually overnight. The two-car garage on the east wing of the house was immediately converted into a fifth bedroom, and the Secret Service moved in and set up shop.

But they didn't get to stay long, since no less than four months later, Ford became the 38th president of the United States. After his sixth day as president, Ford said goodbye to Crown View and went on to an unspectacular but honest career as president, known principally for his occasional missteps, miscues and pratfalls.

A local businessman bought the house and lived in it for some months. Evidently, he did not like the neighborhood, and now the neighborhood does not like him. That is because instead of selling the house, he has rented it out. For the past 22 years.

In a nice, stable, home-owning neighborhood, this is a place that has attracted itinerants. Short-termers. Riffraff. People like me. I am 24. I have worked as a lifeguard, an orderly in a hypnosis clinic for smokers, a burger-flipper at Fuddruckers, a shelf stocker at Hecht's, a drink server at Ruby Tuesday. I know how to have a good time. I once passed out in my own closet.

My roommates and I get mail for 29 other people who no longer live here (sadly, no Ford mail). The tenants have exacted a toll on this once-handsome abode. The carpet has long since been pulled up; the wood floors are painted a flat black. Between the kitchen and the sunroom is an oddly wide archway with exposed hinges. One day last winter, when the furnace broke, one of the tenants ripped down the lovely knotty pine double doors, hacked them apart and burned them in the fireplace.

In the old game room now stands an imposing kegerator. For the uninitiated, a kegerator is simply a refrigerator with the shelves removed to make room for a keg and an optional tank. A tap is attached to the outside of the door with a hose running straight to the keg. The cost of maintaining the flow of suds is evenly divided among the six tenants, factored in under the "miscellaneous" column of our monthly rent statement.

Gerald Ford's pride and joy -- the lap pool in our back yard -- is now a stinking green slush pond of algae and decomposing organic matter. The stench is so bad that none of us ever goes back there anymore. Except Zeus. He lives mostly in the back yard and drinks from the shallow end. Maybe that's why he always looks as though he's put on some kind of aloe-mud snout-mask. He doesn't smell too hot, either.

Mrs. Ford's roses didn't last long. One tenant apparently mistook them for bramble and ripped them all up.

I am looking at another picture here, of the young Ford family during Jerry's early years in Congress. It is in the book "Jerry Ford Up Close," published during his presidency. The photo shows Jerry and Betty seated at the dining room table with their four kids in a scene of quiet grace and gentility. Jerry wears a suit and tie. Atop the table is a Lazy Susan and a bowl of fresh fruit. The speckled linoleum floor looks spanking clean, with a luster so intense it reflects the legs of the table.

I am standing in the same room now. The linoleum is still here, though its luster has been reduced to a sort of pitted, oily iridescence, like an adolescent's complexion. It reflects only years of disregard.

Upstairs, Jerry and Betty's master bedroom is tenanted by a young, reclusive unmarried couple. We seldom see them. The bedroom is perpetually dark because the huge bay window is covered with sheets and blankets. The occupants incessantly play "Sim City," a computer game in which you become the leader of a civilization and try to make it prosper. More often than not, it collapses in stinking ruin.

This summer, on President Ford's 83rd birthday, my roommate and I sent him a letter, observing how much the current occupants were enjoying his old home. We did not mention that the Fords probably wouldn't recognize the house but for the street address. Which is just as well. The man is 83. How much could the old ticker take?

A few weeks later we got a nice response. The Fords said how much they had liked the house, how much it had meant to them, how delighted they were it was being put to good use by people who cared about it. It made me feel bad, and I felt worse later that night when I sat in the hellish living room, avoiding the sofa which reeks of Zeus's errors, and watched my new pen pal on the big-screen TV. He was giving a speech at the Republican National Convention. He sounded so . . . hopeful.

From that day on, nothing seemed the same. And finally, just a few days ago, I moved out. Part of it is that I seldom stay any place very long; but part of it was I got spooked.

At night, as I tried to sleep, I began to hear noises. They were surely the sounds of an old house, settling into its foundation. But to me, they seemed more sinister. It seemed like the ghostly creak of a disapproving former owner, in a bathrobe, walking the halls, falling down the stairs.

By Brian Krebs  |  December 27, 2006; 12:27 PM ET
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