2014/04/13

Mrs Tittlemouse is a short-sighted bourgeois reactionary

Reading a story aloud every evening for months on end does strange things to your brain. Thus, after the third or fourth month of reading 'The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse' by Beatrix Potter to my little daughter, something clicked, or maybe snapped, and I suddenly realised that the story is actually about Communism and the secret police, and has a surprising moral that is relevant to these post-Snowden times.

You may think this is deeply silly, and you're probably right. But since Mrs Tittlemouse is both quite short and now in the public domain, I can offer you a scene-by-scene interpretation right here.

The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse   ...and what it means
Once upon a time there was a wood-mouse, and her name was Mrs. Tittlemouse.

She lived in a bank under a hedge.

Such a funny house! There were yards and yards of sandy passages, leading to storerooms and nut-cellars and seed-cellars, all amongst the roots of the hedge.

There was a kitchen, a parlour, a pantry, and a larder.

Also, there was Mrs. Tittlemouse's bedroom, where she slept in a little box bed!

Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse, always sweeping and dusting the soft sandy floors.

This introduction serves to establish Mrs. Tittlemouse as a landowner obsessed with order.
Sometimes a beetle lost its way in the passages.

"Shuh! shuh! little dirty feet!" said Mrs. Tittlemouse, clattering her dust-pan.

And one day a little old woman ran up and down in a red spotty cloak.

The truth is that, Mrs. Tittlemouse's claim to 'ownership' of what appears to be a common right of way is only given weight through the use of intimidation,
"Your house is on fire, Mother Ladybird! Fly away home to your children!"

scaremongering,
Another day, a big fat spider came in to shelter from the rain.

"Beg pardon, is this not Miss Muffet's?"

"Go away, you bold bad spider! Leaving ends of cobweb all over my nice clean house!"

She bundled the spider out at a window.

He let himself down the hedge with a long thin bit of string.

and unwarranted physical coercion.
Mrs. Tittlemouse went on her way to a distant storeroom, to fetch cherry-stones and thistle-down seed for dinner.

All along the passage she sniffed, and looked at the floor.

"I smell a smell of honey; is it the cowslips outside, in the hedge? I am sure I can see the marks of little dirty feet."

Suddenly round a corner, she met Babbitty Bumble—"Zizz, Bizz, Bizzz!" said the bumble bee.

Mrs. Tittlemouse looked at her severely. She wished that she had a broom.

Babbity Bumble can't be intimidated however. He's a bee!
"Good-day, Babbitty Bumble; I should be glad to buy some beeswax. But what are you doing down here? Why do you always come in at a window, and say Zizz, Bizz, Bizzz?" Mrs. Tittlemouse began to get cross.

Mrs. Tittlemouse is experiencing cognitive dissonance caused by Babbity refusing to conform to the classical worker-capitalist paradigm.
"Zizz, Wizz, Wizzz!" replied Babbitty Bumble in a peevish squeak. She sidled down a passage, and disappeared into a storeroom which had been used for acorns.

Mrs. Tittlemouse had eaten the acorns before Christmas; the storeroom ought to have been empty.

In other words, Mrs. Tittlemouse would rather the storeroom go unused than have the space be productively filled.
But it was full of untidy dry moss.

Mrs. Tittlemouse began to pull out the moss. Three or four other bees put their heads out, and buzzed fiercely.

"I am not in the habit of letting lodgings; this is an intrusion!" said Mrs. Tittlemouse. "I will have them turned out—" "Buzz! Buzz! Buzzz!"—"I wonder who would help me?" "Bizz, Wizz, Wizzz!"

The bees, lead by Babbity Bumble, have formed a workers collective and—worse!—reclaimed the heretofore-unused real-estate as socially useful living space. No doubt the bees consider the unallocated resources the byproduct of a wasteful economy that hasn't been properly planned.
—"I will not have Mr. Jackson; he never wipes his feet."

Mrs. Tittlemouse decided to leave the bees till after dinner.

Tittlemouse is essentially driven back by the collective resistance of the bees, but is still reluctant to call upon Mr. Jackson, and for good reason as we shall see...

When she got back to the parlour, she heard some one coughing in a fat voice; and there sat Mr. Jackson himself!

...but Mr. Jackson has eyes, ears and noses everywhere, and he already knows that something's up.
He was sitting all over a small rocking-chair, twiddling his thumbs and smiling, with his feet on the fender.

He lived in a drain below the hedge, in a very dirty wet ditch.

Mr. Jackson is not good company. This is because Mr. Jackson is, in fact, an agent of the secret police. Dirty work is his speciality.
"How do you do, Mr. Jackson? Deary me, you have got very wet!"

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! I'll sit awhile and dry myself," said Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Jackson begins to toy with Mrs. Tittlemouse...
He sat and smiled, and the water dripped off his coat tails. Mrs. Tittlemouse went round with a mop.

He sat such a while that he had to be asked if he would take some dinner?

First she offered him cherry-stones. "Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! No teeth, no teeth, no teeth!" said Mr. Jackson.

He opened his mouth most unnecessarily wide; he certainly had not a tooth in his head.

Then she offered him thistle-down seed—"Tiddly, widdly, widdly! Pouff, pouff, puff!" said Mr. Jackson. He blew the thistle-down all over the room.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Tittlemouse! Now what I really—really should like—would be a little dish of honey!"

...until he finally reveals the true purpose of his call.
"I am afraid I have not got any, Mr. Jackson," said Mrs. Tittlemouse.

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse!" said the smiling Mr. Jackson, "I can smell it; that is why I came to call."

Protestations of innocence are useless...
Mr. Jackson rose ponderously from the table, and began to look into the cupboards.

Mrs. Tittlemouse followed him with a dish-cloth, to wipe his large wet footmarks off the parlour floor.

When he had convinced himself that there was no honey in the cupboards, he began to walk down the passage.

...Mrs. Tittlemouses' right to privacy and her protection from unreasonable search and seizure are ignored.

The truth is that, like the modern-day 'war on terror', the fight against communism considered civil liberties as mere obstacles, to be ridden over rough-shod.
"Indeed, indeed, you will stick fast, Mr. Jackson!"

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse!"

First he squeezed into the pantry.

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly? no honey? no honey, Mrs. Tittlemouse?"

Again, this symbolises the creeping abrogation of Mrs. Tittlemouses rights. Furthermore, although Mr. Jackson is searching for honey, other innocents are caught up in his search of her private property...
There were three creepy-crawly people hiding in the plate-rack. Two of them got away; but the littlest one he caught.

...and suffer the consequences of his paranoia.
Then he squeezed into the larder. Miss Butterfly was tasting the sugar; but she flew away out of the window.

Miss Butterfly probably represents the socialite elite. She's happy to flit through the window and fashionably play with the boundaries that Babbity and her comrades are trying to erase, but she didn't stay to fight.

"Tiddly, widdly, widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse; you seem to have plenty of visitors!"

"And without any invitation!" said Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse.

Note that Mrs. Tittlemouse, despite her obsession with hygiene and dislike of (non-mouse) visitors, was less comfortable still with Mr. Jackson.

Beatrix Potter is showing that the bourgeois are unhappy with the methods used by the state against revolutionaries, even when the state is believes itself to be acting in their interests...
They went along the sandy passage—
"Tiddly widdly—" "Buzz! Wizz! Wizz!"

He met Babbitty round a corner, and snapped her up, and put her down again.

"I do not like bumble bees. They are all over bristles," said Mr. Jackson, wiping his mouth with his coat-sleeve.

"Get out, you nasty old toad!" shrieked Babbitty Bumble.

"I shall go distracted!" scolded Mrs. Tittlemouse.

She shut herself up in the nut-cellar while Mr. Jackson pulled out the bees-nest. He seemed to have no objection to stings.

When Mrs. Tittlemouse ventured to come out—everybody had gone away.

...and while the real fight takes place she hides...
But the untidiness was something dreadful—"Never did I see such a mess—smears of honey; and moss, and thistledown—and marks of big and little dirty feet—all over my nice clean house!"

...and the riot is over, the state has destroyed the temporary autonomous zone, and left Mrs. Tittlemouse to clean up the mess.
She gathered up the moss and the remains of the beeswax.

Then she went out and fetched some twigs, to partly close up the front door.

"I will make it too small for Mr. Jackson!"

She fetched soft soap, and flannel, and a new scrubbing brush from the storeroom. But she was too tired to do any more. First she fell asleep in her chair, and then she went to bed.

Note that Tittlemouse shows no concern for the bee pupae that were gestating in their nest; no concern for where Babbity Bumble will live now that storeroom is empty and useless again. She's concerned merely with order for the sake of a quiet life and the maintenence of the status quo, oh and look—free beeswax!

In making the front door smaller, has Mrs. Tittlemouse let her love of order override the proper concerns of national security? Or has her initial distaste for Mr. Jackson solidified into rejection and disgust over his disproportionate, jack-booted response to the radicalised bees? Has she herself been radicalised?
"Will it ever be tidy again?" said poor Mrs. Tittlemouse.

Next morning she got up very early and began a spring cleaning which lasted a fortnight.
She swept, and scrubbed, and dusted; and she rubbed up the furniture with beeswax, and polished her little tin spoons.

When it was all beautifully neat and clean, she gave a party to five other little mice, without Mr. Jackson.

He smelt the party and came up the bank, but he could not squeeze in at the door.

The answer is no; The truth is that Mrs. Tittlemouse cares only for other mice and their opinions of her social elite; her racist prejudices prevent her from obtaining class consciousness through empathy with her fellow woodland animals.
So they handed him out acorn-cupfuls of honey-dew through the window, and he was not at all offended.

She's quite willing to accommodate Mr. Jackson and even continues to pay her taxes. She has seen the violence inherent in the system, but continues to conform.
He sat outside in the sun, and said—"Tiddly, widdly, widdly! Your very good health, Mrs. Tittlemouse!"

So there you have it. Mrs. Tittlemouse represents the landed bourgeois, the bees the workers collective, and Mr. Jackson the secret police. Truly a tale with a 'nightmarish quality' as Daphne Kutzer apparently wrote in her no-doubt less addled take on the story.

But a spectre is haunting Mrs. Tittlemouse - the spectre of what happens next time the bees come back through the window! How will Mr. Jackson destroy their nest, now that he can't get in through the front door?

Are we supposed to ask ourselves this question? Is Potter suggesting Tittlemouse's reluctance to call upon Mr. Jackson is misplaced, or is she secretly rooting for the return of the bees?

OK, but what does this have to do with the NSA?


The relevance of the fable to today is surprising. Imagine that instead of physically invading Mrs. Tittlemouses cupboards, Mr. Jackson has instead harvested her email, Facebook status updates and Yahoo webcam chat sessions. In response, Mrs. Tittlemouse didn't resize her front door; she audited all her crypto software, and ensured that all her Internet traffic was encrypted. But once the Internet is safe from surveillance, does that also make it safe for malfeasance?

This story illustrates a dilemma confronted by many throughout history. To what extent are we willing to compromise our core sense of identity in order to ensure collective security, and to whom does it fall to set these limits? In this story, Mr. Jackson unilaterally evicted the bees. As a consequence, Mrs. Tittlemouse accepts the risks of more bees taking up lodging in future, in order to maintain the tidiness (and access to beeswax) that is so important to her.

Today, the security establishment in the shape of the NSA, GCHQ and the other signatories of the 'Five Eyes' treaty have unilaterally decided where our rights to privacy begin and end. They've made an end-run around democratic limits by arranging for the NSA to spy in Europe, for GCHQ to spy on American companies such as Google, etcetera.

In response, Google now encrypts their datacenter links, journalists are more likely to use encryption, and any website that professes to value your data uses encryption by default. We are slowly realising that Mr. Jackson is not our friend, and, like Mrs. Tittlemouse, that we need to make our front door smaller.

2014/04/12

Heartbleed and the NSA: put your hand up if you've ever credited a responsible-disclosure vulnerability report to the NSA. Anybody? Anybody?

Heartbleed is no doubt the worst security bug to hit the Internet in a very, very long time, and this comes hot on the heels of serious SSL certificate checking bugs in iOS and OpenSSL.

Bloomberg says the NSA knew of Heartbleed and said nothing. The ODNI forcefully denies this. Unfortunately the denial is difficult to accept, and here is why. Vendors often credit the people or organisations who find vulnerabilities. As the ODNI themselves pointed out, the Federal government uses OpenSSL and, no doubt, many other open source security products.

It would make sense for the 'defensive' wing of the NSA to to audit these products and, following the logic the ODNI themselves laid out in the link above, responsibly disclose any vulnerabilities to the product owners.

Furthermore, it is an obvious PR win for the NSA to ask for credit, and they know how open source works, having done work on SELinux etc. People would say, "Hey, my tax dollars at work, making us all safer! Truly the NSA is a force for good in the world.".

(On the other hand, it is an obvious counterintelligence win not to ask for credit, because then the Chinese, Russians etc. (and Germans, the MSF, and UNICEF to judge by their target list) would say 'The NSA can find that type of vulnerability? Better scan our software!' and Coverity would add a check for that class of problem, making future bug hunting harder.)

But here is the problem: does anyone recall any serious security vulnerabilities that were found and disclosed by the NSA? I don't. We know they search for vulnerabilities; the ODNI admits this themselves. Thanks to Snowden we know that programs such as FoxAcid can query a library of exploits in real time using complex criteria such as value, risk of disclosure etc.

If the ODNI's assertions regarding disclosure of vulnerabilities such as heartbleed are true, where are the corporations and open source projects that can stand up and credit the NSA with finding the problems for which they have issued patches? Why is their blog post above a context-free assertion of fact, instead of a litany of examples of past actions?

This is my conclusion. Anyone who works on OpenSSL or any other open source project such as BIND or Apache, and who has received a vulnerability disclosure from the NSA, needs to stand up and say so. Their continuing absence proves Bloomberg right and the ODNI wrong, and we need to know.

2014/03/24

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

So I was given this book as a present by my brother – thanks! – which presented a good opportunity to read a book I’d normally never pick up; due to (a) what I know about Objectivism, and (b) what people who like Rand seem to get up to: see Paul Ryan, the Koch brothers, etc.

But! I will say this: to its credit, and taken as a book, considered apart from its philosophical, moral and political stances, then it is actually quite good. Why: the dialog crackles. The plot is constructed well enough that it kept tugging me on in the manner of a good thriller, and the people are well-drawn enough that I wanted to find out what happened to them. It was good enough that I didn't read any other books at the same time. As a minor weak point, in some places the descriptive prose is hideously clunky.

That said, everything else about the book stands as a good example of why artistic merit is often divorced from other value systems, and since the author and the book itself specifically demand not to be judged in isolation from reality, as art for the sake of art, I’m happy to unload on the book as follows.

Firstly, Rand has used to the fullest extent her liberty as author to construct a reality in which her argument is presented in the best possible light. There’s nothing wrong with this as a rhetorical device; otherwise what would be the point of a political novel? But it’s interesting to note what had to be left out in order to make her promotion of egoism and self-interest-as-Prime-Directive stick.

There is one mother and one father in this book, that of Keating and Dominique respectively, and both parent-child relationships are severely dysfunctional. They are both relations between grown children and their parents. Parent-child relationships where the child is younger, i.e. dependent, clearly don’t figure in a world where self-interest is all, and indeed how can it? Parents sacrifice a lot when they have children – free time, mobility, sleep, income – and all sacrifice is antithetical to Rand’s philosophy. She would call it selfish, saying that the parent is somehow trying to live through their child, second-hand. I don’t deny that some parents do try this, but certainly not all; and all good parents sacrifice.

This lack of basic relationality goes further; there is one uncle (Toohey) and one niece (Katy), no brothers or sisters, no cousins, no grandparents or grandchildren. Roark and Dominique, the heroes, are introduced to us almost from nowhere. Roark’s parents are hardly discussed, yet where was his absolute self-centeredness inculcated? Dominique’s mother is dead, so where did she pick up her psychological sadomasochism? How did she grow up, since Guy Francon clearly wasn't involved? Gail Wynand, for his part, is effectively an orphan.

The only person whose parents are introduced at all are Toohey’s, whom we learn he manipulated into subservience at an early age. Nothing else about them seems significant.

This lack of familial relations, and the sparse friendships represented, allow Rand to promote self-interest to the hilt. She obviates the need for vulnerability in true relationships, she elides material links except when they illustrate weakness of character as in Keating. Wynand and Roarck came from a poor background, but neither have ill or poor parents, grandparents or other family members to support. Roarck doesn't need to think about paying the medical bills of his father; and if he did, then in what light would this cast his decision to refuse work, or to get himself expelled from school?

Enough about what is missing. What is present is objectionable enough, and we can start with the rape of Dominique Francon. Limply described as a 'rough sexual encounter' in the plot summary in the Wikipedia article, the section dedicated to the rape scene itself devotes half its verbiage to pathetic attempts to defend it. But I ask you: in what kind of rough sex would one attempt to smash one's lover over the head with a crystal lamp-stand? Miles away from anywhere, in the middle of the night, where your lover could die of blood-loss, from the nasty head wound a successful blow would inflict?

It's not hard to object even though the author clearly doesn't. As written, Dominique didn't enjoy it; she fought like a demon, she felt herself defiled. She suffered terrible pain. She went into shock immediately afterwards on the bathroom floor. Rand can deny this is rape; that matters not in the slightest. It was rape as written; in the book Dominique refers to it as rape.

It makes things worse to try and offer the slight smidgen of justification available: that in the book, Dominique is a sadist, she enjoys suffering, she was in love and secretly wanted it. Worse because in the real world, tragically, women are raped, all the time, by men who falsely and wrongly believe all these things of their victims. And this scene in a book that offers Roarck as a model, a super-man worthy of emulation, and Dominique in her tormenting and submission to him following this as an ideal woman. When you consider that the book is often read and admired by young men, it gets worse still.

I'm far from the first and surely not the last to make these points. But what of the ideology? After all the book is explicit in its agenda, what of that?

This is where I get more mixed and less forthright, because Rand herself is highly mixed up. She movingly describes the designs of Roarck, and the scathing indictment of all others shows a real love of building and architecture. Yet it's when Toohey is insincerely promoting collectivism that we hear of sacrifice, charity, and love. Greatness, Rand is saying, rejects all these things in the furtherance of itself.

How wrong this is. And ironically the book itself is full of sacrifice, charity and love; without which Roarck could not succeed. Austen Heller sacrifices a good portion of his reputation in first hiring Roarck for his debut project, then defending him; the worker Mike sacrifices time and income to move with Roarck in order to work with him; Heller and later Wynand host Roarck as he relaxes; And Wynand very clearly grows to love Roarck, even in preference over his then-wife, in all ways except romantically.

It's Toohey, in the book, who does nothing out of love or charity. All his actions are self-serving, but they are dressed up in the language of collectivism. His deceit, however, is also self-serving. And it's when Toohey is insincerely extolling collectivism that the book expresses the distorted shadow of what love, charity and sacrifice are all about.

But again, the book constructs a reality to support it's argument, why should it not be distorted? However, to see clearly the nature of distortion I think it's most helpful to compare the book to a real-world scenario.
"Buildings and their manufacture are inseparable. You understand a building if you understand how it’s made. I want to know what buildings are for, how they work, what they can or should be made of, before I even begin to think what they should look like."
A quote from Roarck? No. Imagine that Rand was writing The Fountainhead today, and not about architecture, but about technology. Roarck and his purist sensibilities, and his refusal to compromise, are mirrored nowhere better than in one company: Apple.

Steve Jobs was famously self-centered, and the gadgets that Apple produced under him and his successors are the product of a laser-like focus on greatness, a word that Rand and Jobs both loved to use.

Jonathan Ive is the chief designer at Apple and deserves a lot of credit of the iMac, iPhone, and iPad. He worked closely with Jobs, and recently gave a (very) rare interview to Time magazine. The above quote is from him, except that I replaced the words "object" or "thing" with "building".

Watch me put some of his quotes into two buckets, named after characters you might recognise:

ROARCK   TOOHEY
"We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.""I don’t like being singled out for attention. Designing, engineering and making these products requires large teams,"
"We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects. ... our success is a victory for purity, integrity — for giving a damn."[The team] "is really much smaller than you’d think — about 15. Most of us have worked together for 15 to 20 years. ... We can be bitterly critical of our work. The personal issues of ego have long since faded."
"What people are responding to is much bigger than the object. They are responding to something rare — a group of people who do more than simply make something work, they make the very best products they possibly can. It’s a demonstration against thoughtlessness and carelessness,""Apple is imperfect, like every large collection of people."


See what I did there? Apple, surprise surprise, in the real world, values both greatness, collective effort, ego and egoless team work. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ive's description of Jobs himself:
"His ideas were bold and magnificent. They could suck the air from the room. And when the ideas didn’t come, he decided to believe we would eventually make something great. And, oh, the joy of getting there!"
And this is why for me the ideology of the book fails. Taken as a hymn to human achievement, greatness, and struggle in the face of adversity, the book works well. But the struggle in the book is cast as one against some of the key ingredients needed for humans to achieve greatness and to overcome adversity. The book takes human nature, puts it through a centrifuge to extract one single ingredient, and then extolls this above all others, to the detriment of the whole. How annoying.

2014/02/10

Affine transform for rotating in place an A4 ratio (A3, A5, etc.) image for e.g. converting landscape to portrait

I'm sure there's a better way of doing this with only one scale operation, but I don't know the maths. This took hours to find, and so hopefully it will save someone else the time. The Java code I'm sure can be translated to other languages relatively easily.

AffineTransform r = new AffineTransform();
               
r.rotate(Math.toRadians(90), width/2, height/2);
r.scale(width, height);
               
/*
 * -(Math.sqrt(2d)-1d)/2d
 * = half the distance as % left between
 * the ratios of Ax paper;

 *
 */
r.translate(-(Math.sqrt(2d)-1d)/2d, (Math.sqrt(2d)-1d)/2d * (1/Math.sqrt(2d)));
               
r.scale(Math.sqrt(2d), Math.sqrt(2d)/2d);

2013/11/14

The Armistice Centenary, War, and who we are.

I recently read that David Cameron said that he wanted to see a 100th Armistice commemoration "that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people".

Armistice was signed on Nov 11 1918, but the British blockade of German ports was only lifted in March 1919. The blockade killed some 800,000 Germans, mostly in the end phase, and the majority civilians. The blockade was used to impose the 'war guilt' reparations of the Versailles treaty which arguably led to WW2.
"The hundreds of thousands of noncombatants who have perished since November 11 because of the blockade were destroyed coolly and deliberately, after our opponents had won a certain and assured victory. Think of that, when you speak of guilt and atonement."

 - a senior German delegate at Versailles.
One of the reasons that the blockade took so long to stop was that the British civil service thought it was an elegant system:
"The Blockade had become by that time a very perfect instrument. It had taken four years to create and was Whitehall's finest achievement; it had evoked the qualities of the English at their subtlest. Its authors had grown to love it for its own sake; it included some recent improvements, which would be wasted if it came to and end; it was very complicated, and a vast organisation had established a vested interest."

 - John M. Keynes, "Two Memoirs"

"I have watched fighters in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Sudan, the Punjab, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosova enter villages, tense, exhausted, wary of ambushes, with the fear and tension that comes from combat, and begin to shoot at random. Flames soon lick up from the houses. Discipline, if there was any, disintegrates. Items are looted, civilians are battered with rifle butts, units fall apart, and the violence directed at unarmed men, women and children grows as it feeds upon itself. The eyes if the soldiers who carry this orgy of death are crazed...

"As long as we think abstractly, as long as we find in patriotism and the exuberance of war our fulfillment, we will never understand those who do battle against us, or how we are perceived by them, or finally those who do battle for us and how we should respond to it all. We will never discover who we are. We will fail to confront the capacity we all have for violence. And we will court our own extermination. By accepting the facile cliché that the battle underway against terrorism is a battle against evil, by easily branding those who fight us as the barbarians, we, like them, refuse to acknowledge our own culpability. We ignore real injustices that have led many of those arrayed  against us to their rage and despair."

 - "War is a force that gives us meaning" by Chris Hedges
"Aim ... to defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and more human, the hope that by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery. I have qualified optimism that this hope is well founded. There are more things, darker things to understand about ourselves ... We need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them."

 - "Humanity" by Jonathan Glover (also the source of the blockade info)
If the 100th anniversary of Armistice next year is to mean anything, it should be this. Say something about who we are as a people, by all means, but please, be honest.

2013/10/16

Bitcoin as a law enforcement/natsec honeypot: what is the evidence?

Paranoia appears to be the order of the day, given what we know about the NSA and GCHQ thanks to Edward Snowden. Absent from the stories so far is any mention of Bitcoin. I find this odd - Bitcoin is the most cypherpunky of all crypto technologies, after all.

I want to make the case, without necessarily endorsing it, that we should be much more suspicious of Bitcoin than we are at present.

1) Bitcoin was almost certainly a team effort. The design has been peer-reviewed and is found to be remarkably secure, complete and well-rounded[1]. I argue that this suggests that a peer-review or quality control process has already been applied. If one individual cryptographer had written Bitcoin, it would contain far more idiosyncracies than it does, not just in the cryptosystem design but also in the C++ code itself. The core protocol itself, which uses a Turing-incomplete programming language, has had only one major vulnerability found in its design and execution.

For comparison, the Amazon AWS API is also a huge team effort that was also (I assume) designed with the help of competent Internet protocol and cryptography experts, and also has suffered from only one major vulnerability, which was found by a certified genius, Colin Percival. Likewise Colin's own one-person-product, the highly secure backup facility Tarsnap has also had only one serious vulnerability to date.

Bitcoin is at least one order of magnitude more complex than Tarsnap, or the crypto used in v1 of the Amazon AWS API. We should have seen far more bugs of varying severities if it was a one man band.

2) The author(s) created, maintained and then apparently retired a pseudonym (Satoshi Nakamoto) while staying completely anonymous on the Internet.


As an achievement this is almost as impressive as Bitcoin itself, albeit of a different nature.

Using the Internet anonymously is much harder than one would think. Things like Tor are vital of course, but beyond that there is the practice of operational security to a very high standard. One slip-up is enough to junk the whole identity, e.g. logging on to a pseudononymous account from an insecure location, or even sending a cookie obtained via Tor 'in the clear', is enough.

As a real-world example, the assassination of Rafic Hariri in Lebanon was pinned on Hezbollah because one of their agents made a single phone call to his girlfriend with his dedicated operational phone instead of his personal mobile.

3) Bitcoin is, by design, highly vulnerable to network analysis. Network analysis can be used to comb through large graphs looking for patterns or suspicious behaviour. Because the entire transaction graph of Bitcoin is public, anyone can perform network analysis on the whole Bitcoin network. This is not so significant by itself, but becomes vitally important when combined with the next point.

4) In the absence of good network analysis, the Bitcoin network is not legally attackable at the point where hard currency is converted. Network analysis backed up with law enforcement or hacking, however, could be extremely effective, and this fits the MO for some large three letter agencies: as we have seen with the recent disclosures of NSA attacks against SSL and Tor, the most successful attacks are multi-pronged: they combine, for example, legal strong-arming with technical know-how and hacking.

Obtaining the transaction logs of a currency exchange would give a starting points from which the rest of the transaction graph can be de-anonymised.

5) One single party controls more than 25% of all BTCs in circulation.[2] Someone, somewhere has the ability to destabilise the BTC currency exchange market at will. If you think of BTCs as a commodity instead of a currency, it is obvious that anyone holding large reserves can wreak havoc by dumping their holdings on the market. They could also bankrupt or bleed the exchanges dry of working capital by converting large sums of BTC over a period of time.

6) Whoever wrote Bitcoin must have known that it would attract criminals and wingnuts like flies to a honeypot. After all, look at the history of cyptocash and you can't help but notice Jim Bell's 'assassination politics', or realise the potential for mischief within the combination of hidden servers and cryptocash. Once Bitcoin was established and hidden servers were possible via Tor, Silk Road was inevitable. Even with the demise of Silk Road, Bitcoin is still used for money laundering, paying for skimmed credit card numbers and for 0-day exploits - in this last case, maybe even by the NSA itself.

7) 'Satoshi Nakamoto' is an anagram of 'Ma, I took NSA oath!' :-) But seriously:


To summarise, Bitcoin was apparently designed by good cryptographers and peer-reviewed before it was released. It was almost certainly written by a team of good coders.[1] The entity that did this practiced impeccable operational security. Bitcoin was designed to be difficult to attack by non-state actors, but was also designed to be inherently vulnerable to network analysis, especially so when combined with legal and covert access techniques. A single entity retains the ability to severely disrupt the BTC market through its control of large reserves, and only the most unaware or blinkered recluse could have failed to realise its potential target market mainly consisted of rogues and blackguards.

Whether or not this points to a law enforcement or national security agency as I've suggested, I think it's evident that we cannot assume that the creation of Bitcoin was motivated by altruism, or even by the strain of libertarian cypherpunk ideology that gave Bitcoin such fertile soil in which to grow.

Dan Kaminsky was quoted by Matthew Green as saying "authorship is a better predictor of quality than openness", and likewise, motive is a better predictor of the true purpose of a tool than its quality. The motive of the creators of Bitcoin remains completely unknown.

***

Corrections and footnotes

[1] As per the HN discussion, apparently the first BitCoin client was quite buggy in the beginning. Only one exploit was used on the network, but see the Bitcoin CVE list here for a more realistic list of the software bugs encountered in Bitcoin. Worth noting is that this is a separate issue to bugs in the design of the cryptosystem. Thanks to nwh on HN for the pointer.

[2] I previously stated that "...and has tried to hide that fact" but this is based on a misreading of the paper. Thanks to mcphilip on HN for pointing that out.

There's an interesting discussion over at Hacker News where some good counterpoints are made.

2013/02/15

Spring 3.1+ Environment properties not being resolved when using dollar-notation placeholders in bean properties? Read this :-)

So after spelunking through the Spring source, I found out that it was my fault, of course. Why:
  1. I needed a in my spring XML, even with nothing else, just to tell Spring to look for ${...}.
  2. My spring schema version was on 2.5, which of course doesn't have the global Environment stuff and assumes you don't want it.
This lesson brought to you by many tram rides and a sleeping toddler.

2012/12/02

Patterns of Refactored Agency: blogger compels me to post this as the keyboard beckons my fingertips...

Patterns of Refactored Agency: Not that I agree with all of it, but it's a very interesting to apply the refactorings to various aspects of life and see what happens:
"I’ve found it to be a good general-purpose cognitive tool to try to see the world with agency located in unconventional places. Normally, we like to imagine ourselves as the chief agents in our lives – making choices, taking actions, pursuing our own interests that we have identified for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. It’s no doubt much more healthy to think in that way than the inverse – to view yourself, for example, as nothing but a puppet of external forces. But it is not so good to be trapped in a single fictional model of the universe. To understand large systems we need to go beyond the everyday model of agency and think in new ways."

2012/11/13

Napsterisation - how to educate the world? (for certian values of 'educate')

Napster, Udacity, and the Academy Clay Shirky:
"It’s been interesting watching [napsterisation] unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup."

2012/11/09

New Left Review - Rob Lucas: The Critical Net Critic

New Left Review - Rob Lucas: The Critical Net Critic:
In this argument, what Carr termed ‘intellectual technologies’ in particular—map, clock, typewriter—both augmented our mental abilities and transformed them. Each carried an ‘intellectual ethic’, a hidden norm of mental functioning, that might be obscure to users—and even inventors—yet which shaped them nonetheless. As these technologies entered general use, passing down the generations, their intellectual ethics became ingrained in the structures of human experience, acquired as standard by each individual. The history of technology could thus be read as a history of transformations in the human mind.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with the thrust of this article, the technology world needs more of this kind of thinking. Completely rejecting the humanities at a cultural level means that the world of technology can be remarkably unreflective.

2012/07/18

Three reviews of Pixar's Brave

These links all contain spoilers.

Ebert, The Guardian, and others will say this is Pixar being Disneyfied. But this post is not about them.
  • The New Inquiry: "Just Another Princess Movie" on why Brave is not just another princess movie.
  • On the other hand, Mr. Teacup says Brave is not brave, and that the central character is actually the Mother, for whom the message is "don’t play too much in the male world of politics and forget your role as mother, or you will be turned into a bear"
  • And on the third hand, at the American Prospect, Amanda Marcotte insists the film is feminist.
I leave it to you to decide. And no, I haven't seen it yet.

(Why was this saved as a draft since July? No idea...)

2012/07/02

Exit, Voice and Loyalty by Albert O. Hirschman

With a full title of "Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations and States", this is a fairly old (1970) but nevertheless current and interesting book. Written by an economist making forays into political science, his first point is that 'exit' is not necessarily the only response to discontent, dispute or 'unsatisfaction', and that 'voice' - aka protest, causing a stink, making a fuss - is also a perfectly legitimate response, and interacts with exit in interesting and sometimes unpredictable ways.

The book makes a second point, seemingly in reaction to a trend that was only just getting started in 1970, and is sadly now more-or-less embedded into the modern cultural mindset: the applying of free-market principles to absolutely everything in the public sphere - regardless of the benefit gained thereby. Healthcare, in the USA particularly, is of course a prominent and relevant example.

These points, concisely addressed in 125 pages, are slightly ironic given that Albert Hirschman commits the now-classic Thing That Economists Do by insisting on looking at everything as an economic transaction - families, political parties and cabinet politics all fall within his purview. That there are thoughtful things to be said illustrates the utility of this frame of reference, but to the exclusion of all others? Well, this is a treatise on economics after all. I shouldn't grumble :-)

(P.S. an interesting anecdote about how I actually read the book: when it arrived, via a second-hand book seller on Amazon, 12 pages in the penultimate chapter were blank, probably due to a printers error. 'How annoying,' I said to myself, and promptly checked the title on Google Books. No such luck - half the pages missing in my copy were also missing there, too. I checked Amazon 'look inside' and that was even worse. Finally, I googled '"Exit, Voice and Loyalty" pdf'. The first result was a complete copy of the book on a server with a domain ending in .cn. I downloaded the complete book, printed out the pages I needed, folded & glued them into the book, and went about my day. Make of this what you will.)

2012/05/13

Seemingly within the realm of conspiracy theory, but:

When half a million Americans died and nobody noticed | News | The Week UK:
"Typical was the headline on a short article that ran in the 19 April 2005 edition of USA Today: 'USA Records Largest Drop in Annual Deaths in at Least 60 Years.' During that one year, American deaths fell by 50,000 despite the growth in both the size and the age of the nation's population. Government health experts were quoted as being greatly "surprised" and "scratching [their] heads" over this strange anomaly, which was led by a sharp drop in fatal heart attacks.

For his Chinese melamine/Vioxx comparison, Unz went back to those 2005 stories. Quick scrutiny of the most recent 15 years worth of national mortality data provided on the US Government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offered Unz some useful clues.

"We find the largest rise in American mortality rates occurred in 1999, the year Vioxx was introduced, while the largest drop occurred in 2004, the year it was withdrawn," says Unz. "Vioxx was almost entirely marketed to the elderly, and these substantial changes in the national death-rate were completely concentrated within the 65-plus population."

2012/05/05

The 911 Wars by Jason Burke, and The Don Camillo Omnibus by Giovanni Guareschi

I read about The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke on Tim Bray's blog and thought "that sounds interesting", and so it is. I'm about half-way through this impressively researched book - it's 1/3rd notes, references, and indexes by weight - and so far I find it both highly educational and deeply depressing. Every time I put down the book I take a deep breath and think "what a mess!".

And so it's a pleasure to recommend the second book I'm working my way through as a light-hearted antidote. Regaling the exploits of the Catholic priest of a small village, Don Camillo, and his constant struggles with the Communist mayor, Peppone, it's hard to stay depressed after reading a couple of these short stories.

"Why fiction is good for you" at the Boston Globe is an interesting look at whether or not fiction is morally improving. Personally I would be a lot less happier without it.

What conditions give rise to great artistic achievements? Wealth, urban centers, belief in God. Wait: What?

20120513:See update below

Future tense, IX: Out of the wilderness by Charles Murray - The New Criterion:
"Upon reading Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers many years ago, I became fascinated with the ebbs and flows of human achievement, and especially those points in world history that have been associated with a flowering of great accomplishment. The most famous are Athens in the Periclean age and Florence in the Renaissance, but there have been many other less spectacular examples. Sometimes, the surge of great creativity is most obvious in a particular domain—literature in nineteenth-century Russia, for example—but strides made in one field are usually accompanied by strides made in others. Historically speaking, what accounts for the difference in the fertility of the cultural ground?"
Update: Firstly I should acknowledge that the title is the Arts & Letters Daily summary of the essay.

Secondly, reading a bit more about the author is enough for me to discount the conclusions of the article. Thinking about it a bit more, other, less predjudicial, reasons present themselves.

Assigning scores based on his own judgement to hundreds of pieces of data, it is no surprise that the overall result would reflect his own judgement more broadly. In addition, even if such scores were awarded impartially, which I doubt, it may well generate such a noisy dataset that you could slice & dice any which way you wanted to obtain your desired conclusions.

As such my posting of this article is probably a case of confirmation bias, and my update above is probably an ex post-facto justification. Who knew :-/