Tuesday, September 22, 2020

How to read Pravda

Back during the Cold War when I was a newly minted engineer (Electrical, thanks for asking!) I took a job at Three Letter Intelligence Agency.  Everything there was burn-before-reading Top Secret, and the security clearances for some of the new hires hadn't been completed yet.  So what does a big agency do with these folks?  

Well, they sent us to training.  One of the things that the taught us about was Traffic Analysis which is absolutely terrifying in today's Internet Age.  However, some of the things were less techie.  One of these were techniques on how to read Pravda.

Pravda, of course, was the official newspaper of the Soviet Union's Communist Party.  It was well known to basically everybody that it was a propaganda sheet.  Indeed, there was an old joke from the time about Pravda and its sibling newspaper Isvestia, playing on the meanings of both names.  "Pravda" means "truth" in Russian, and "Isvestia" means "news".  The joke went "There's no news in Pravda and no truth in Isvestia".  Good times, good times.

As it turns out, that joke was wrong - at least according to the trainer at Three Letter Agency.  We were taught that there's quite a lot of actual information that you can get from Pravda, if you know how to read it.  Here from memory are some of the techniques for gleaning what is actually going on from the most famous propaganda rag in history:
  1. The Front Page belongs to the Party.  Everything you see on the front page is the Party's most important messaging.  The more prominent the article, the more you can assume that it is pure propaganda.  Front Page above-the-fold articles are nothing but propaganda.
  2. Most of the time there will be actual journalistic facts reported in the story.  You know, the Who/What/Where/When stuff.  This will in general be in articles buried inside the newspapers, and/or buried in paragraph 25 (under the assumption that most people will scan the front page and maybe the first 2 or 3 paragraphs).  Our trainer essentially taught us to read Pravda backwards, starting from the end and working our way back towards the front.
  3. Things that really, really bother the Party will be prominently displayed.  Things that really really bother the Party will be on the front page, above the fold.  While this seems to contradict item #1 above, it really doesn't.  Sure, the actual contents of the article are nothing but propaganda, the information to be gleaned is that the subject is something that the Party hates.
An example of #3 from the 1980s was the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars").  The Party hated this with the fire of a million suns.  It made frequent appearances on page 1 of Pravda, talking about how awful it was.  Duly noted - SDI got under the skin of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

As it turns out, this skill has turned out to be handy in getting actual information out of today's New York Times (and other, lesser news outlets).  There's a lot that you can get from the news today if you ignore the front page.  Lawrence has a great example of this - skipping past the Supreme Court stories (item #3 above - this really bugs the Great and the Good) to things from page A29 - like what's going on with China?  Quite a bit as it turns out, but you need to read our newspapers backwards just like you would read Pravda.

Monday, September 21, 2020

15th Blogiversary

No, not here.  Flares Into Darkness has been cranking out high quality content for 15 years now.  While that may not be the Pleistocene Era of the Blogosphere, it sure has to be the Neolithic Age ....


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Beethoven - Symphony no. 5 in C Minor

 The Social Justice Warriors have come for the heads of the Global Elite.  The Elite sure didn't plan it that way, but here it is anyway.  

Beethoven's 5th Symphony is sometimes referred to as the "Fate symphony" - the famous four opening notes is said to symbolize Fate knocking on the door.  That seems fitting; perhaps we should call this music the "Irony symphony" because it's sibling symphony number 9 is the (inter)national anthem of the Global Elite but is being rejected by the street muscle that the Elite has been funding for decades.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.  Rather than being deep thinkers playing 4 Dimensional Chess, they're Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, unwittingly creating a monster beyond their control. 

You see, the street muscle (and the intellectual movement that gave rise to them) were supposed to tear down American Bourgeois culture, leading the way for the Global Elite to impose a benign and (dare I use the word?) paternalistic World Government.  For everybody's own good, 'natch.  Never mind the vast opportunities for graft by the Global Elite ...

Instead, the river of Culture War burst its banks and now looks fair to engulf the Global Elite itself.  No Beethoven for you, you icky White Male, you!  The only Good White Male is a dead White Male, and all that.  The irony is pure, distilled, 100 proof.

But the music is really, really good - and is justly famous for that.  Heck, it was included on the gold record sent on the Voyager space probe.  That's how famous it is.

So enjoy the music, at least while you can.  Ask not for whom Fate knocks; it knocks for you.  At least if the Social Justice Warriors get their way.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Movies IX - Zulu

It's 1879. The British are the British Empire, in possession of a modern army, and they think themselves insurmountable, especially by native peoples armed with spears and cow hide shields. One of the British territories is South Africa and they are engaged in taking control. They instigate a fight with the Zulus on a pretext and then invade the Zulu territory with 16,000 troops. The British are armed with Martini-Henry breech loading single shot rifles, 7 pound artillery pieces, and an early kind of rocket propelled grenades. 

The Zulu impi are armed with assegai and cow hide shields. They are a culture of warriors. The Spartans would recognize the Zulu. With training starting at the age of six, every man trained to battle. In the century before the arrival of the British, the Zulu had centralized power and either overwhelmed or displaced neighboring tribes to become the dominant power in the southern tip of Africa.

The British split their forces, confident in their tactics and firepower. The details of this are available and interesting, but I am trying to get somewhere, so suffice it to say they are not one large unit when things get pear shaped. Lord Chelmsford, the Commander-in-Chief, retains about 4,000 men, approximately half of them British regulars, the rest native auxillaries. They are in a forward encampment at Isandlwana when the Zulus found them. 21,000 Zulus.

The Zulus used a fighting tactic they called the horns of the buffalo. They would strike hard in the center and then "the horns" would encircle both flanks. They took heavy casualties but they closed with the British and the right flank was successfully breached. From there it became a slaughter. Essentially all the uniformed British troops were killed fighting or executed, along with several hundred of the native auxiliaries. They lost a thousand rifles, their artillery, and all the food and wagons.

Word of this loss reached a small contingent of British at a field hospital located at Rorke's Drift, located on the Buffalo River, near the Zulu border. 139 British, 30 of which were ill or wounded, were garrisoned there. The officers made a decision that trying to retreat with wagons filled with wounded was a recipe for disaster and decided to stay. They build up their defenses, sandbagged where they could, used wagons and boxes to build barricades. They broke out ammunition and prepared a plan.

The Zulu attacked with approximately 4,000 men, some of them armed with rifles recently acquired at Isandlwana, most of them carrying their traditional spears  and clubs. 

It should have been another Zulu victory. It was not. The British maintained discipline, used volley fire to effectively break up the Zulu attacks, and held out through a battle that lasted from mid-afternoon throughout a very long night. It was hand to hand much of the time, or firing at very close range. It continued until the Zulus could see a British relief column approaching the next morning and they broke contact and retreated. 

Of the 139 British, 17 were killed and 10 wounded. They had started the battle with 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Reports vary, but one I read said they just over 300 rounds remaining. It becomes part of the lore of the British army. An incredible stand against overwhelming odds. It resulted in the awarding of 11 Victoria Crosses. It also is likely that all the survivors had what we would now call PTSD, the lives of many of them were short, several were plagued by nightmares of Zulu attacks, and there were at least 2 suicides.

The Battle of Rorke's Drift is the subject of the 1964 movie Zulu. It is a great movie, one of the best British films of all time. It holds to the story fairly well, although it take poetic license in some places. It is respectful of both sides, showing the humanity and bravery, of both the Zulu and the British. 

Filmed on location, the battle scenes were carefully planned and shot as both the rifle bayonets and the assegai were real. The Zulus are real, as well, although there were only 400 Zulu actors, making the attack scenes much smaller than having 4,000 men in three wings charging in at the barricades. The wounds shown are not realistic, as a true rendering would never have gotten past the censors. There was no sing off before the battle. Some of the rifles in the background are Lee-Enfields, you can see the actors work the bolts. None of this matters.

If you haven't seen this one lately, here's a taste.

FloridaMan does something right

 You go, FloridaMan!

A group of anti-mask demonstrators marched through a Florida Target to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” encouraging others to liberate their faces by removing their masks.

The group reportedly marched through a Target in Ft. Lauderdale on Tuesday, encouraging shoppers around them to take off their masks as well

There's video, which is awesome.  And I love this:

“Breathe. Breathe. You’re Americans. Breathe,” one woman said as she marched through the store.

Sure are.  The Authorities should stop and think about that.

Thursday, September 17, 2020


 Department of Education is investigating Princeton University for Civil Rights violations:

The Department of Education has informed Princeton University that it is under investigation following the school president's declaration that racism was "embedded" in the institution.

President Christopher L. Eisgruber published an open letter earlier this month claiming that "[r]acism and the damage it does to people of color persist at Princeton" and that "racist assumptions" are "embedded in structures of the University itself." 

According to a letter the Department of Education sent to Princeton that was obtained by the Washington Examiner, such an admission from Eisgruber raises concerns that Princeton has been receiving tens of millions of dollars of federal funds in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which declares that "no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."


So some stuffed shirt University Prez goes full Social Justice Warrior.  Dude, never go full Social Justice Warrior.  You're looking at felony fraud and tons of violations of the Civil Rights Act.  Oh, and this is delicious:

"Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false," the letter reads. "The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made. Finally, the Department is further concerned Princeton’s many nondiscrimination and equal opportunity claims to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates may have been false, misleading, and actionable substantial misrepresentations in violation of 20 U.S.C. § 1094(c)(3)(B) and 34 CFR 668.71(c). Therefore, the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education, in consultation with the Department’s Office of the General Counsel, is opening this investigation."

This is how you do it.  They say it's about the principle, but it's really about the money.  Take that away and this nonsense will stop.  President Eisgruber will have to testify about all this under oath.  What's the over/under on how long before the Board of Trustees fires him?

Well done, Dept of Education.


Quote of the Day, blogging edition

 It's been a while since Tam has gotten QotD, but this is classic:

What kind of loser still writes a blog in 2020, anyway?

Made me laugh out loud, that did.  This one, too.

Trivia time!

 Here are some music trivia questions that really surprised me.  Answers in the comments.

1. Which artist/group had the most Billboard 200 #1 albums in a single year (extra credit: what year was it?)?

2. Which artist/group had the most albums in the Billboard 200 Top 10 simultaneously?  Who were #2 and #3 on this list?

3. Which album spent the most number of weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart?

Like all good trivia, these are obscure and unexpected (at least they were to me).

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

You may be guilty of hacking

I've been working in computer and network security for literally decades.  During this career I've been at companies that did security research.  We did a lot to help improve the sorry state of Internet Security and you are better off for it.  Now that may about to become illegal, depending on how the Supreme Court rules on an upcoming case:

A US Supreme Court case that could expand the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) to include prosecuting "improper" uses of technology not specifically allowed by software makers will chill security research and could be used to punish other fair uses of technology, a group of nearly 70 vulnerability researchers and security firms said in a letter published on September 14. 

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a 1980s era statute passed right around when I got into computer security.  It was passed to criminalize computer hacking - you know, breaking into someone's computer.  Simples, amirite?

Except nothing is simple, at least when the Legislature is in session.  Or when a District Attorney is prosecuting a case:

The original case that ended up at the US Supreme Court seemingly has little to do with election systems or even hacking. The case originates in the prosecution of Nathan Van Buren, a police sergeant in Cumming, Georgia, who had accessed the state records system to get information on a license plate in exchange for money. In addition to being found guilty of honest services wire-fraud in May 2018, the court also found him guilty of a single charge of violating the CFAA for accessing state and government databases for an improper use.

Now there's no doubt that Mr. Van Buren is a scumbag and a dirty cop.  But it's hard to see him as a computer hacker - he had a legitimate account on the computer system and he accessed it with his legitimate username and password.  Sure, he abused it once he was logged in, but this isn't at all what we think of when someone mentions the word "hacker".  Fraud, sure.  Probably other charges but hacking seems to be a category error.

But here's where Internet Security could be fatally crippled - legitimate security research by legitimate organizations could be made a criminal offense if the Supremes uphold the hacking charge:

A US Supreme Court case that could expand the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) to include prosecuting "improper" uses of technology not specifically allowed by software makers will chill security research and could be used to punish other fair uses of technology, a group of nearly 70 vulnerability researchers and security firms said in a letter published on September 14. 

This letter didn't come out of the blue.  It came in response to an Amicus brief filed to the court by Voatz, a manufacturer of voting machines and software.  Voatz has a, ahem, checkered reputation when it comes to security:

The letter — signed by computer scientists from the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University, as well as security firms Bugcrowd, HackerOne, and Trail of Bits, among others — is a response to a legal filing by e-voting firm Voatz in a case that could expand the definition of "exceeds authorized access" under the CFAA to include violations of user agreements and software licenses. While Voatz has participated in bug bounty programs granting participants legal protections, the firm also has reported a student researcher to state officials, dismissed serious vulnerabilities found by three researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and even downplayed a third-party audit of their entire systems by security firm Trail of Bits that both confirmed the MIT findings and also found even more critical vulnerabilities. 

It's like a car company threatening criminal prosecution of Consumer Reports for publishing repair statistics they collected.  Sure, it may be embarrassing to the company, but is it criminal?  According to Voatz, the answer is "yes:

The letter took shape following a September 3 legal filing, known as an amicus or friend-of-the-court brief, in which Voatz argued that testing laboratories, security reviews, and bug bounties are all authorized forms of security testing and should be enough to guarantee security. Independent code reviews and penetration tests, the company claims, are not authorized and the CFAA's language "exceeds authorized access" should apply.

So this is the point that you should start wondering if you yourself are guilty of hacking*.  After all, you just merrily click "I Accept" without reading any of those boring old License Agreement notices, don't you?  That agreement specifies what is permissible use according to the software maker.  If you go beyond that, does that make you a criminal?  According to Voatz, the answer is "yes".  Especially if you publish security information that embarrass the company.

Know your place, peon.  Or do the time.

I've posted often about "Regulatory Capture", where large companies try to use government regulations to stymie dangerous competitive startups.  I've written at length about how this is very damaging to the economy, although it is financially advantageous to the company.  This is worse.  Not only will it stifle legitimate security research that makes companies (sometimes reluctantly or unwillingly) improve their security, but it will stifle security improvement in an area that is critically important for the health of the Republic - voting.

And besides, it might make you guilty of hacking.  I wish I had more faith in the intelligence and wisdom of the SCOTUS.

* Yes, yes - you only use your Powers for good.  I know that, but does the District Attorney?

Monday, September 14, 2020

The breakup of the Democratic Party coalition

The Democratic Party is made up of various groups that do not have much in common.  Blacks are not hispanics, and vice versa.  Private sector unions are not public sector unions.  A lot of effort has gone into trying to convince suburban women that it's mean to vote Republican.  Meanwhile, there is a set of elite power brokers pulling everyone's strings.

One problem with this is that the hypocrisy has gotten too blatant, opening the door to Bernie Sanders and AOC and the radical left of the Party.  The other problem with this cozy arrangement is that the power brokers have essentially gone insane in their attempts to get rid of OrangeManBad.  Now consider what actions the Elite has taken and what they have done to the members of their coalition:

  • The Elite has stiffed Bernie (twice), alienating his supporters.
  • The Elite has sent their (white) radical street muscle into Black neighborhoods, burning and looting black businesses.
  • The Elite hasn't really done anything at all for the hispanic community.  Their support for communists has hurt them in Florida where Donald Trump is outpolling Joe Biden among hispanics (!).
  • The Elite has pushed outsourcing (most recently the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty which Trump killed).  Private sector unions have noticed.
  • The Elite has pushed the virus lockdown which has thrown millions of restaurant employees out of work.  Many of these folks belong to SEIU.  Now that emergency unemployment benefits have run out - and restaurants are going out of business because of the continuing lockdown - you have to wonder if these people will start to wonder why they support the Democrats.
  • Public Sector employees have done well, but the areas that locked down hardest are the areas where the government budgets are most in trouble.  New York City is going to lay off 40,000 employees.  The Elite has hoped that Biden will win and bail out the states and cities.  Good luck with that.
  • Lastly, suburban women are hit with a Democratic Party double whammy: schools remain closed in many (especially Blue) areas.  Women see their family lifestyles massively disrupted, and potentially are forced to consider giving up their own job to home school their kids.  At the same time they see radical rioters entering suburban towns.  Rioters are filmed telling people to get out of their homes which will be taken as "reparations".
Good job, Democratic Elites!  It looks like you've angered every single constituency that makes up your party, six weeks before the election.

These ideas are shamelessly stolen from an outstanding post at William Briggs (Statistician to the Stars!). I'm not entirely sure I agree with the conclusions but maybe that's just me.  Go read the whole thing.  It proves that sometimes Monday mornings get off to a good start.