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The Importance of Branding

Book Review: Countdown to Zero Day

CountdownIn Countdown to Zero Day, investigative journalist Kim Zetter recounts the story of the discovery and shocking origins of the Stuxnet virus, which attacked uranium enrichment facilities in Iran, effectively crippling their nuclear capabilities.

The first part of the book reads like a high-octane thriller, following the employees of a very small technology security firm as they try to unravel the puzzle of a strange new “zero day” exploit – a new and unique virus that has had no security patches created for it yet – which means there has been zero protection.  She also covers the thriving and lucrative “gray market” for zero day exploits, in which our government is apparently a high bidder.

In the middle third of the book, Zetter delves into many examples of vulnerable US and worldwide infrastructures, their reliance on computer technology, and the dire consequences when that technology fails.  Critical systems can be easily unbalanced by “an autonomous worm delivered via USB flash dive or via the project files …”

Examples are taken from real life failures, like this one in 2008:

“Disabled protective relays played a role in a large outage in February 2008, when nearly 600,000 people in Florida lost power after a field engineer with Florida Power and Light turned off the protective relays at a substation while investigating a malfunctioning switch.  The result was a cascading outage that spread to thirty-eight substations, including one that fed electricity to a nuclear plant, causing the plant to go into automatic shutdown.”

And this one, also in 2008:

“In Poland in 2008 a fourteen-year-old boy in Lodz caused several trains to derail when he used the infra-red port of a modified TV remote control to hijack the railway’s signaling system and switch the tram tracks.  Four trams derailed, and twelve people were injured.”

After convincing the reader of the fragility of our national utilities and infrastructures, Zetter reveals some of the white hat hacking performed on the same systems, exposing even more vulnerabilities and lapses of common sense security measures.

In the latter third of the book, Zetter returns to the story of the small Belarus firm that accidentally discovered Stuxnet, but lacked the skill and experience to tackle the threat, and the people and firms who eventually untangled it.  She interviews them on the precarious balance between trying to help people – ordinary folk like you and me – and the political pressures created by national security.

The entire book is thoroughly researched, and includes excerpts from interviews with the key players, plus footnotes for intrepid readers who may want to read more on a topic.

If you’re a fan of thriller/adventure fiction, I highly recommend reading Countdown to Zero Day, and then following it up with Zero Day by David Baldacci.

How to Sell Winegrapes and
Promote Your Vineyard

GrapesIt’s that time of year again.  The vines are stripped bare, and the fields are muddy. Time to shop for new equipment, catch up on accounting and plan for this year’s vintage and harvest.

Vineyard owners rely on contracts with wineries to sell their fruit.  But sometimes a winery owner will just walk away from the contract, leaving the vineyard owner holding ripe fruit and in a panic to sell it.  Sometimes a vintage is surprisingly abundant and a vineyard owner ends up with way more fruit that he has contracts for.  And it’s not that easy to find last minute buyers – winery space is limited, and so are winery budgets.  Most purchasing decisions are made in the spring, so even if the vineyard owner discounts his grapes heavily, he may not be able to sell them before they raisin or rot.

That’s why this would be a very good time for all of your vineyard-owning friends to get a copy of my guide to marketing and selling and winegrapes.  How to Sell Winegrapes and Promote Your Vineyard is only $2.99 on Kindle and worth every penny.  I guarantee you will find ideas and advice in here that you won’t find anywhere else.  Even if you think you know your stuff, you may find a few surprises in this guide.

This short, snappy guide to marketing your grapes is distilled from my 25 years of experience in the wine industry.  I have worked for big brands like Justin and Wild Horse, and I have consulted for small vineyards and wineries on banking, finance, hospitality, and marketing.

And don’t forget to check in to the annual vintage threads in the Cellar Rats subforum at WineBerserkers!  Whether you are in the biz or just an avid wine fan, you can follow real time winemaker and vineyard reports from budbreak to harvest.

From Chernobyl to Chocolate

This is a blog post/interview I wrote in 2010 for the Tasty Image chocolate franchise.

1986 (2)

Felix, Simon (age 9), and Ada Swerdlow at their home in Mozyr, Belarus  in February 1986, just two months before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Simon Swerdlow, 13, was about to board a plane for the first time in his life.  He thought that this trip, like the summer vacations he had taken with his parents and his brother Igor, would be an adventure.  “I was excited,” he said, “but also nervous because this would be my first time traveling alone.  And I had no return ticket.  That was scary.”

The year was 1990, and 250 children were boarding the first international evacuation flight taking children out of the radioactive zones around Chernobyl, four years after the nuclear disaster occurred.

When the children and their parents arrived at Minsk Airport, they found an airstrip and an unfinished construction site.  “We were stranded there for three days,” said Simon.  “My parents had no luggage, we had no blankets.  People were sleeping on concrete.  The bathrooms were unfinished.  The organizers brought us food from the city and they did their best, but it was random stuff.  A banana, an egg, some juice.”

As Simon was about to board an old Romanian airliner, he turned and looked back at the airport.  His parents had climbed the bulwarks of the unfinished airport building to reach the top deck and were gazing down at him from behind glass panes.  They lifted their hands in farewell.

Twenty-five years later, Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl is still bringing children out of the affected zones to receive medical care not available in the former Soviet Union.On April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a series of explosions triggered by uncontrolled power surges, and the resulting fires sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke and fallout over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe, with an estimated 60% of the fallout landing in the Belarus region.

“We kids didn’t even know how bad it was.  But our parents knew.  Because almost every doctor and scientist in our town left with his family.  They took no clothes or luggage.  They said goodbye to no one.  They took their wallets and their families and they disappeared.”

A Childhood Before Chernobyl

Simon’s father, Felix, was a military officer and his mother, Ada, was an English teacher.  The family lived in Mozyr, a town on the banks of the Pripyat River.  “We had long summer breaks,” recalls Simon, “and so the whole family would get on a train and we would just travel.  Anywhere we wanted to go.  Often the seashore, but sometimes to big cities like St. Petersberg or Moscow to see museums.  We would travel to the southern republics to lay on the beach and eat fresh fruit—it would be like going from New York to Florida.  We didn’t really plan anything, we would just go.  We would stay in each place for a few days and then go on.  All summer long.  It was fun.”

Trains were the major source of transportation, and for many families, the only readily available mode of travel.

“My brother and I were constantly arguing.  Who got the upper bunk, how many cars in each freight train, where to stop.  We definitely drove our parents nuts.”

Simon remembers his mother as being a very good cook.  “She would often work twelve hour days,” he recalls.  “Our school had two shifts, because there was not enough capacity, and far more students than teachers, particularly teachers skilled in English.  So she would work both shifts, and then come home and bake pastries.  Students would come by our house, just to be invited in for treats.  My friends all knew she was a very good cook, so they would come even when I wasn’t home.  ‘But Simon is not home,’ she would say.  They’d respond, ‘It doesn’t matter!’  Anything we wanted, cookies, pizza, whatever, she would make for us.”

Simon preferred soccer and chess to classes, but enjoyed math.  “It was logical and didn’t require too much homework,” he laughs.  He would always sit in the very back of his math class and finish his tests quickly, then finish his friends’ tests as well.  Students’ desks were paired and they were given alternating tests to prevent cheating.  But Simon devised a system of signals using pens.  His signals said, in effect, “I’m busy on my own test,” or “I’m available, pass your test.”

“My mother and I walked together to school, and my mother could never be late, but I was always behind, half-awake.  She would say, ‘Hurry up, Simon’, but I was like, really mom, school is nothing to hurry for.”

Simon recalls that although he got good grades in school, he was a bit of a hellion.  “When I was ten, my friend Anton and I stole the teacher’s grade book and set it on fire.  Why?  Who knows!  My mother was punished for it and had to reconstruct the grade book from all the student slips for the whole year.  I felt terrible.”

“My father would take me to my room and say, ‘I promised your mother you will have discipline.  So I want you to yell and cry when I do this.’ And then he would slap his wrist and I would pretend to cry.  Then he would say, ‘Now I must go and really punish your older brother for he is really responsible.’ I would always feel relieved but also very bad for getting my brother into trouble.  Years later Igor and I compared notes and discovered that neither one of us was ever physically punished.”

Escaping the Dead Zone

By the time of the accident at Chernobyl, Simon’s brother Igor, who was five years older, was in the army and not eligible for emigration.  Simon’s father, a military officer, also could not leave the area.

“The local Communist Party Committee humiliated and ostracized the families of those who had abandoned our neighborhoods,” said Simon.  “They would publicly embarrass men and say things like, ‘Your brother is a coward.  A traitor. He ran away and abandoned his people.  He disobeyed  the Party.  Are you a coward too?”

“Teachers were commanded to submit daily lists of children not attending.  Some were sick, but some families just left.   The Communist Party wanted to prevent panic by preventing families from leaving so they would humiliate and threaten the relatives of anyone who left.   So people were afraid to leave.”

“But at the same time, they offered a reward to anyone who would plant the Soviet flag at the top of the damaged reactor.  A young soldier volunteered, and he died almost immediately afterward.  They have no respect for human life.  We are all like vermin to them.”

Simon’s parents, aware of the dangers of radioactive fallout, began a campaign to send him out when they heard of the first rescue flight, which was organized by Rabbi Yossi Raichik in the village of Kfar Chabad in Israel.   The organization had taken over an abandoned hotel and turned it into a school, medical facility and dormitories.

“Leaving the USSR was not so easy,” explains Simon.  “Even today it is difficult.  You must have more than a passport, you must have a letter of permission to leave first.”

“I didn’t understand it completely.  I knew the radiation was dangerous, and that something was wrong, but my parents made it sound like an adventure, like going to a health camp.  My mother gave me a little cassette player the night before.  I was so excited, but I was also nervous because I didn’t know how everything was going to unfold—when I would see my parents again, and my friends like Anton.”

On the day of his departure, Simon’s parents escorted him to a town square in Mozyr where buses were waiting to transport the children to an airport in Minsk.  The organizers announced that extra buses were also available for parents who wanted to come along.  At age 13, Simon was one of the older children in the group of 250, whose ages ranged from 6 to 17.  Youthful counselors aged 18-22 from the children’s home towns also accompanied the group.

“My parents had no idea that they would be able to come,” said Simon, “but they didn’t hesitate.  They had no luggage, nothing, but they said yes, we’re coming.”  Dozens of other parents also chose to accompany their children, swelling the ranks of the group to over 500 people.

No Planes in Sight

However, when the buses arrived in Minsk, they found an airstrip and little else.  The mammoth Minsk airport was an unfinished construction site.  “There were concrete floors and walls, some glass panes, some unfinished kiosks, and little else,” recalls Simon.

There were no planes awaiting the children.

Apparently the Soviet bureaucracy had some last minute doubts about releasing 250 minors to Israeli caretakers.  “We were told the planes would be there in four hours.  Then another four, then the next day …”

The wait turned into a three-day ordeal for the children and their families.

Minsk Airport

Minsk Airport, in an undated photograph

The organizers made repeated pleas to the Soviet government by phone but were ignored.  The organizers contacted British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell and begged him for help.  Maxwell was born in the Ukraine and emigrated to England at the age of 17; he had friendly ties with the Israelis and also had political connections to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the Soviet Union.

Maxwell procured pilots and two old rickety planes from a Romanian airline and somehow greased the wheels of bureaucracy with diplomatic oil.  By the end of the third day, the planes had arrived and boarded the children.

Simon turned and looked behind him, surprised to see that his parents had somehow scaled the exterior of the unfinished building and were standing behind the viewing panes on the top deck.  Simon thought it was awesome.  Ada and Felix privately feared they might never see their 13-year-old son again.

Bombs Over Kuwait

Mid-flight, the planes were abruptly re-routed to London.  Iraq had just invaded Kuwait.  The invasion started on August 2, 1990, and quickly escalated into two days of intense combat, during which most of the Kuwaiti Armed Forces were either overrun by the Iraqi Republican Guard or escaped to neighboring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

“I would love to know how that conversation went down,” chuckled Simon.  “How do you call up a plane and tell the unsuspecting pilots they are flying 250 children into a hot war zone?”

“We were relieved and happy to hear that we were going to London,” he said.  “We were just kids, and we had been taught that the Israelis were imperialist scum.  We knew nothing about the country or language.  But we knew about England; we had studied its geography, and some of us knew the language.  So we were very excited to see London.”

Airport security and local constabulary offered to help the counselors corral their excited children, who were confined to the airport until further flights to Israel were declared safe.  “We exchanged some money at the airport kiosks,” said Simon, “so each kid had the equivalent of about $16 US to spend and we all went crazy for sodas.  But in Russia, soda pop came in glass bottles, which were always returned for a refund.  Here, soda was sold in cans.  We all thought we could spend our money on soda and still get refunds.  So we were constantly trying to return the cans for money.  To distract us, the local policemen and policewomen took us to the video arcades and helped us play the games.  If we didn’t understand the instructions, they would show us what to do and they would give us the tokens they won.  We all thought England was a wonderful place.”

Eventually the planes departed again for Israel, filled with slightly sugar-crazed, exhausted children.

Welcome to Chabad

Hours later, the children arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport to a crowd dancing on the tarmac.  They held shields saying “Brothers and Sisters of Chernobyl, Welcome to Kfar Chabad,” the children’s new home, a village not far from the airport.

“It was thrilling, but also a little terrifying,” recalls Simon.  “As children we had been taught to be careful of strangers of course, and here people were grabbing our hands and pulling us into a circle to dance.  We thought maybe they were all crazy.”

The children were settled into dormitories with counselors from their home towns.  “That made us much more at ease,” said Simon.  “Our counselors made us feel at home, and gave us a sense of connection to our families and friends.”

In Soviet Russia, Simon’s family were not allowed to practice the Jewish faith.  Until arriving in Kfar Chabad, Simon had never heard Hebrew songs, poetry or stories.  “Kfar Chabad welcomed us like lost siblings,” he said.  “There were celebrations and holidays that we had never heard of.  Toys and traditions.  Everything was joyful.”

Everything was not, however, peaceful as the war between Iraq and Kuwait continued after the initial hostilities, affecting the entire region.

“Missiles would fly over the school,” said Simon, “and we would be literally grabbed out of our beds half-awake and dragged down the stairs into the bomb shelters.  We had to wear gas masks for fear of bio-terrorism.  Our counselors and teachers would sing songs and tell stories until it was safe to go back to bed.”

When the missile attacks occurred in day time, Simon said the children would rush to the windows to watch.  “I was terrible,” he giggled.  “I would mimic the sound to scare the younger children.  But then one day a missile landed in the orange grove next to the school and blew it to bits.  We didn’t think it was so funny after that.”

A New Beginning


Simon Swerdlow now lives in Florida and continues to support the efforts of Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl.

Since the first evacuation in 1990, Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl has sponsored over 95 evacuation flights, rescued over 2,700 children and reunited many of them with their families.  Simon Swerdlow is now age 34 and CEO of Tasty Image, an international chocolate franchise based in New York and Florida.  He is happily married with a six-year-old daughter and reunited with his family, who now live in the United States.  Swerdlow is multi-lingual, speaking Russian, Spanish, Hebrew and English and he heads up an international team of creative artists, marketers and chocolatiers.

“I owe my life to Chabad,” he says.  “It gave me a second birth, a new life.”

How to Create a Successful Email Campaign

Email is a free and easy way to reach a lot of people with your marketing message. So naturally there’s a lot of competition out there for your customers’ attention. How can you make an impact in a world of 8-second attention spans?

What Is an Email Campaign?

First, let’s look at what an email campaign really is. Some marketers refer to individual emails as “email campaigns.” But experience shows that a carefully planned and timed series of related emails gets better results. After all, you wouldn’t expect a presidential candidate to give one great speech and take off for the rest of the campaign. Experienced marketers refer to individual sales pitches as an “email blast,” and a multipart blitz as a “campaign.”

Multipart Campaigns  Keep Your Brand Top of Mind

People need time to warm up to a new company or idea, so creating just one email blast to introduce your company may be a waste of time and energy.  And for product or service-oriented marketing emails, the timing and delivery may not be perfect for every single customer.

According to Litmus, even if your customer has opted to receive emails from you, they spend less than 8 seconds deciding whether or not to read it. So no matter how well-crafted your first email might be, it may still end up being ignored or deleted because it arrived at a time when your customer was busy with other things. That’s why it’s better to send a series of emails on the same topic, while making sure to keep each one engaging and brief.

Newer customers will be at a different place in the buying cycle than older customers – meaning that some are still getting acquainted with the company, some may be ready to take the plunge when enticed with offers and coupons, and others may be ready to upgrade.

It’s almost always more effective to plan a stream of shorter, well-executed emails — perhaps 6 to 10 of them, spaced a week apart — that introduce the company, and then offer tidbits, stories, insights, special offers, and discounts. Keep each email short, include bright visuals, clear pricing, and actionable visuals, like  “order” or “learn more” buttons.

Here are some examples of how a multi-part campaign can be used to build your business: Continue reading

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