An Exchange with HackerOne

In a recent episode I rambled about a system that pays good guys for finding and reporting security holes in the software we rely on every day. Fired up with enthusiasm for the cause, I sent this message to HackerOne:

I appreciate what you are doing here, and would love if there were a tip jar where I could contribute to the rewards you give out for making the world a better place. Like Zaphod, I’m just a guy, you know? But I’d happily pitch a little bit each month to promote what you do here, and to support the people who actually make the Internet less unsecure.

I debated “insecure” versus “unsecure”, and went with “un” for reasons I don’t exactly recall. Beer may have been a factor.

I got a very nice letter back.

Thank you so much for reaching out to us with this feedback on what we are doing. We appreciate you taking the time to reach out to speak with us about what you think of the program and how you would like to participate it make HackerOne a success.

You are correct about us not having a tip jar, however, our community can support us by word of mouth let others know what we do and what our goal is and if you are a hacker or know any white hat hackers we encourage you all to use our platform and help us with making the internet safer.

We really do appreciate you reaching out and I am going to share your message with the rest of the company.

Best,
Shay | HackerOne Support

The missing word and tough-to-parse sentence make me think that this was a hand-typed response. I am happy to contribute to their word-of-mouth buzz. I do not fit the profile of the geek HackerOne is looking for, and I suspect no one who will ever read these words is pondering the question “How can I break things and still be a good guy?” But if that’s you, head to HackerOne.

On the other hand, If you own a commercial Web site and want to get a major security audit, consider posting a bounty at HackerOne. You’ll get some really skilled people trying to break in, only in this case they won’t rob you blind if they get in.

A Set of Facts That Might be an Opportunity for the Right Person

A simple, unordered (perhaps obfuscated-ordered) list:

  • I tried to read Feeding the Eels on this site from start to finish but I could not.
  • I am growing seriously tired of spending my weekends fiddling with code
  • At this time, I have only indirect influence on hiring php programmers at my company—I can recommend, but there are no openings in my group.
  • At this time
  • I know php upside-down and sideways
  • I have decided that this is a year for finishing things.
  • I like to teach
  • I seriously don’t want to dig into the guts of my WordPress theme to figure out why I can’t read all of Feeding the Eels
  • I write software for a living
  • There are a lot of punk kids out there who can dance with WordPress and php even though only grandads seriously think php is cool
  • Feeding the Eels has been dangling, almost-finished, for years.
  • I would never ask a kid to work for free

Maybe this is Why Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

The Battle of Puebla occurred on May 5, 1862. It was an unexpected victory for about 4,000 Mexican soldiers facing about 8,000 well-equipped French troops. Although it was a stirring victory, the outclassed Mexicans were eventually overwhelmed, and the French installed a new government in Mexico a few months later.

So… let’s climb on the alternate history bus and wonder what would have happened if the French had won at Puebla. Without that crucial lift to morale and Mexican national pride, would the French have won more easily? Would Emperor Maximillian have been able to hold his seat more comfortably for a couple of years?

A couple of years is all it would have taken. The Americans were slaughtering each other in their own civil war. Given a little breathing room, an enterprising European colonial power might have found it worthwhile to aid the southern states, and in return have a friendlier partner on Mexico’s northern border.

But, in part emboldened by their success at Puebla, the Mexicans never let Maximillian get too comfortable in Mexico City. As the US Civil war drew to a close, with France dealing with Prussia back in Old Europe and the Mexican Guerrilla warfare gaining intensity, Napoleon III bid adieu to Maximillian, and not long after that the emperor was executed.

Honestly, I don’t think for a minute that the French would ever have held Mexico with or without the Battle of Puebla. The colonization was a doomed endeavor from the start, and turned out to be a costly mistake for France.

So the Battle of Puebla may not have turned Mexican history that much. Maybe the Emperor would have lasted a couple more years, but that’s about it. That couple of years, though, may have been HUGELY significant to the United States.

So if you’re hoisting one tonight to celebrate Drinko-de-Mayo, stop for a minute and consider: about 4,000 hungry, ill-equipped Mexicans may have saved our nation. Now that’s something to celebrate.

3

The Best Friend You Didn’t Know You Had

I was reading the other day about how some hackers found a serious security flaw in php. php is a language used on Web servers to deliver content to your browsers; WordPress is written in php and thus every time you load a page here at MR&HI, code written in php is being run.

A LOT of the Web is written in php, so finding a security issue in that language is significant, but this episode is not so much about one particular flaw as it is about the constant battle between good and evil. This article gets technical fast, but there are a couple of important takeaways that you don’t need to be a geek to understand.

Pornhub offered $20,000 to anyone who could hack them, via the site HackerOne. This was a big enough incentive for a group of hackers to really go after them. They discovered one questionable practice by the programmers of that site, but it took a lot of long, hard work for them to turn that into an actual hack, digging through the source code of php itself until they managed to create an attack that could load and run code on the server.

Immediately they disclosed the vulnerability through responsible channels, earned their reward, and both Pornhub and the wardens of php moved to close the bug. Pornhub paid up the $20K, and HackerOne threw in a bonus.

And even shorter version: Pornhub paid some real dollars and made the Web safer for all of us.

You and I are fantastically lucky that there are people out there who will use their skills for a low-five-figure payoff, rather than exploiting that weakness for potentially millions. These are the white-hat hackers, incredibly skilled people who can write php-unserialize fuzzers to discover “unexpected” responses, but use their skills to make the world a better place.

Eventually these guys will have the hacking weapons that our own government lost control of, and when that happens, the Internet will become far more secure. In fact, if I were king of this country I’d give the good guys those tools right now. It can’t be only the Russians using that stuff. Worth noting: our government has discovered many security holes in the software that makes the world run, and they didn’t report those discoveries, leaving the holes wide open for them (and everyone else) to exploit. Our own government is not White Hat.

When you hear about a new terrible hole in security, remember: that’s when honest people found the hole. It’s geeks like Evonide that found it, and reported it. Often they chased that hole because some site like Pornhub gave them a reason to. So let’s stop and appreciate what the unsung good guys have done for us.

2

Checking Out the Sharks’ next Opponent

While working on, well, work, I’ve got the Nashville-Winnipeg game on. It’s been a pretty good game. Gritty but not dirty, some good skating, each team making the other pay for mistakes. Hockey.

The winner of this game will play the Sharks, after San Jose despoils Cinderella.

I’m not sure who I’m rooting for. On the one hand, Winnipeg may be the most miserable sports city, and as a former resident of San Diego I have to feel for people whose teams always lose the way San Diego teams do, but who also don’t live in San Diego. That would really suck.

But Nashville fans have a song for everything. Seems like every tape-to-tape pass has the fans singing the “Nashville Tape-to-Tape song.” And the whole damn arena sings. It might be the best fan experience in North American sports. (Don’t tell Las Vegas, because dang they’re building an awesome fan experience in the way only Las Vegas can.) Nashville is the hockey arena I’d most like to visit for a game.

On the other hand, I’m more afraid of Nashville. This might be naive; Winnipeg is really good this year. But Nashville has been a problem for a long time now.

On the other hand…

There are an infinite number of hands. I’m enjoying a good hockey game, and both these teams deserve to be here. Either will be a challenge for the Sharks. Either will make for a fun series.

____

A few thoughts about the Sharks/Knights series currently under way:

One of the great things about being a fan of a team is having rivals. I hate the Ducks and I HATE the Kings. Then there’s fuckin’ Buffalo, a hapless team that somehow keeps beating the Sharks (although now we have their best player). Las Vegas is new; they have no historic slights to fume over. I volunteer my team to be the team the Las Vegas Knights fans learn to hate. Step 1: Knock them out of the playoffs.

I call the Las Vegas Franchise the “Las Vegas Knights”. It is a far better name than the official title: the “Vegas Golden Knights”. “Las Vegas Knights” speaks to the character of the town itself; it echoes the allure of being there. It sounds like the title to a novel — or a memoir — or a song — or… It sounds like Las Vegas. Eventually the Las Vegas franchise will fix their name.

Talk about home ice advantage — whoo boy that city knows how to put on a show. To build the drama before the opening game of this series, they had a really cool lighting effect that made it look like a huge shark was swimming under the ice. Of course in their show the shark was eventually slain, but San Jose should seriously steal that effect.

While I think you would be hard-pressed to find a resident of the Las Vegas metropolitan area who agrees with me, there is supposed to be hardship when a team is first getting started. Without that hardship you can’t have fans who can say “I was with the team back when…” It’s the lean times that scar a true fan. (Scars are cool, right?)

I kind of feel sorry for the Raiders, trying to move football into a rabid hockey town.

3

Took My Data Privacy Training Today

The European Union is enacting a new policy concerning the way companies treat the personal information of their customers. Today I went through the training to make sure I understood what those rules meant to me.

Spoiler: nothing new. But there are a lot of other companies in this neighborhood that are probably scrambling. I’ll name names later.

The new privacy training was pretty much exactly the same as the previous data privacy training I have gone through, with the exception that there is a new report to fill out to make the decision process on using customer data visible to the outside world. There is also a new portal so people can see all the data my employer has collected on them, and request that that data be deleted.

But overall, the new privacy regulations in Europe might have been written by my company, they match our existing policy so closely.

Remember back when Google was “accidentally” collecting information about open home WiFi networks? Accidentally in this case means accidentally creating database tables and queries to store that information. I mean hey, accidents happen. That was a while ago, but that shit is really not going to fly now.

Hey! So much for “later”. I’m naming names.

The regulations go something like this:

  1. You have to spell out what you will be using the data for BEFORE you collect it.
  2. You have to protect that data.
  3. You have to let people see the data and tell you to delete it.

The Google thing was years ago. (There are plenty of current investigations, however.) But hey, remember last week when an Android user discovered Facebook was recording the recipient and duration of all his phone calls? Yeah, the beat goes on. In the aftermath of that I downloaded my own information and there were only a couple of surprises, none shocking. Hint: I don’t use Android.

At Google they must HATE Facebook for being so damn sloppy and leaking data all over the place, rather than just efficiently selling it. Regulators are swarming! Maybe now Google might consider putting in place basic security measures to prevent apps from rooting through shit that is none of their business.

My Facebook information was mostly unsurprising, but I suppose it’s possible that in the last few days Facebook has decided that fraudulently withholding some of the data they have collected on me is better than confessing to all of their shenanigans. Ironically, the ability for people to download their information was probably implemented by Facebook to comply with the new regulations. Sadly for them, the more people who download their personal info, the more trouble will arise for Facebook.

I encourage everyone to request a data download from Facebook. And from Apple, and from Google, and from Amazon. Probably Ebay, too, and the list goes on.

For the rest of this episode, I am full-on partisan. Just so you know. But there’s nothing I’m going to say that is not easily documented.

Google has a vast amount of data on you. If you use Google Wallet, downloading your data might be downright scary; if you use ApplePay instead you will find a big empty nothin’ concerning your spending habits. Apple built it so that it was not possible for them to learn anything about you from your spending. It was not easy to do.

I work for Apple. I am proud that my company puts privacy over profit — that HomeKit is slow to be adopted because it protects privacy and home-gadget manufacturers want to profit from personal data (and the hacking-resistance of HomeKit is more expensive to implement — something I’m also fine with), and I am proud that ApplePay was first out of the gate but isn’t growing as fast as the competitors because privacy requirements make it harder for banks to join in. Apple is losing money protecting privacy.

Unless protecting privacy becomes law. Then, suddenly, my employer is in the catbird seat, having built its information structure around privacy from the get-go. Apple has put a lot of systems in place to make sure they cannot collect large categories of personal data. Currently that data is an asset that they are failing to exploit. In the future, that data will be an onerous responsibility for any company that holds it. I hope so, anyway.

2

The Second Intelligence

Alice scratched her hide behind her earpatch with an idle claw, the way she did when she was distracted. Danny had done it again. The fishmother spawn of worms had taken her scientific paper and written a bestseller — neglecting, of course, to mention, except in very small footnotes, where his ideas had come from.

She tried to look on the bright side. If people understood that the First Intelligence had destroyed itself, that was something worth spreading. The Second Intelligence, her own people, should learn from that.

“Miss?” The earnest student watched Alice over his notepad. “Were you not aware of Mr. Burrowmaster’s work?”

“I’d hardly call it work,” Alice said, “But no, I have not read it yet. I’m not sure I will.”

“Really? It seems like something you would be interested in.”

“It seems like something I’ve already published.” Alice immediately regretted her unprofessional words. The people who mattered would know already; she was supposed to be above the bog of petty popularity. She wrapped her tail around herself and gripped it will all four hands.

“Could you explain Mr. Burrowmaster’s ideas?”

They were not his ideas. Alice took a breath. “Danny draws on a lot of research from field scientists like me. I think… I know… We know now that we are the second intelligence on this planet. We know the first intelligence disappeared suddenly. What I demonstrated with my research is that there is a singularity in the ice record. We have geological evidence now that there were glaciers in the past, but they disappeared quite suddenly.”

The student paused in his scribbling. “Can you explain glaciers for my readers?”

“You have seen ice, yes? Imagine great masses of it, collecting on mountain tops and slowly flowing down like a terribly slow, unstoppable river, carrying massive rocks and carving valleys. There used to be a lot of ice, we can tell by the valleys the glaciers left behind. We have to assume it all melted. That moment in geological time, give or take a million years, is when the first intelligence abruptly ended.”

“A million years?”

“It was a long time ago; it is difficult to be precise. But the evidence is overwhelming: They heated the world and melted all the ice, then they died. Countless species died then, to be replaced with a new countless. We should all understand that, lest we fall in the same trap.”

“Gustav Mudman believes that radioactivity killed them.”

Alice was impressed that the reporter for the university rag had done such thorough research, but it was time to bring him back to the fold of science. “Since the discovery of radioactive elements a decade ago it has been very popular to imbue them with every conceivable supernatural power. But there is no mechanism for them to suddenly rise up and destroy a civilization.”

“But there is the radioactive stripe.”

Alice rolled her eyes. “It is not a stripe, no matter what the popular press would have you believe. It is a hint, here and there, that perhaps a hundred million years ago there was a brief period on Earth where radioactive isotopes were more common. It would be foolish to place too great an import on that.”

The young reporter gathered himself. “Mr. Burrowmaster believes that the timing of the radioactive stripe, the disappearance of the ice on Earth, and the demise of the First Intelligence are too close to be coincidence. He thinks when the ice melted it created an upheaval that led to a war with radioactive weapons, that ultimately no mammal survived.”

“It’s a pretty picture,” Alice said, “But it’s purely conjecture.”

2

Old Lenses on New Cameras – A Beginner’s Guide

When considering whether to buy a “vintage” lens to put on a modern camera body, there are a few things to consider:

1) Will it work at all?
2) Assuming it works, what lens should I get?
3) How do I take good pictures with this thing?

This episode is to answer question 1. It’s the simplest.

When electronic auto-focus was invented, camera and lens manufacturers rushed to produce systems that took advantage of the technology. The lenses weren’t necessarily optically better, but they were a heck of a lot more convenient. Nowadays, auto-focus performance is one of the things lenses and cameras are graded on, and it can allow photographers to get shots they never would have before. Cameras can actually track a moving object and keep the focus on it.

But what became of all those old manual-focus lenses?

They’re still out there, sitting in closets and gathering dust in pawn shops, forgotten. And while optical and manufacturing technology has advanced in the last few decades, there are some very nice lenses that can be had for a very good price.

But before you go diving through eBay, scratching your head over Russian-made bargains and obscure Japanese masterpieces, there are a few fundamental questions you need to answer. The most important is, “Will this lens work on my camera?”

The question is pretty simple to answer, but first there are a few things you need to understand. They aren’t complicated, so pretty quickly you will be able to build a list of which lens mounts work for you.

A brief aside: The answer to the question “Can I make this work on my camera?” is always yes. You can find a way. HOWEVER, some lenses will require an adapter that has yet more lenses in it, which will cost a lot and impact the quality of the photo. So I’m concentrating here on simple mechanical adapters that don’t have any glass elements themselves.

Most of the “will it fit?” answer is simple geometry. Each lens is designed to fit on a hole on the front of a camera. The two key measurements of that hole are how big it is, and how far from the film or the sensor the hole is. If the lens expects a smaller hole than the one on the front of your camera, no problem. If it needs a bigger hole, you’re out of luck — you can’t enlarge the hole in the front of your camera without a saw.

Similarly, the lens expects to be a certain distance from the film (this is often called the flange distance or register). If your lens expects to be farther from the sensor, that’s fine; the adapter can push it farther back. If it needs to be closer, then even if you find an adapter the lens is going to be poking down into the guts of your camera, which is not good.

There is a tricky range where the lens expects to be just a tiny bit farther from the film, and in this range, though it’s theoretically possible to make an adapter, the adapter would have to be so thin it’s not practical to manufacture.

For example, my camera body has a Canon EF mount. The flange distance is 44.00mm, and the diameter is a mighty 54mm. I can safely assume that it will be easy to mount any lens that expects to be 45mm or farther from the camera, and needs a hole less than 54mm. There is a range between 44 and 45mm that is dicey; the metal used to make the adapter has to be extremely thin. (That’s too bad, because There’s a Minolta lens at 44.5 that I really want. It’s a magical lens, a lens that literally* redefines bokeh.)

You don’t have to go through the will-it-fit calculation every time, of course. I happen to know that old lenses with the very-common M42 mount work just fine on my camera with an adapter that costs maybe $5 or less. Therefore one of my common eBay search terms is “M42”. Here is a list with many of the mounts you will encounter. If you shoot with a Canon EF, the size of the hole is never an issue (the EF hole is very large), so this even more comprehensive list may be helpful.

Suddenly you have a very long list of great lenses to choose from! There are a couple more things to take into account, however.

When you are shooting, it is best to focus your shot with the lens aperture wide open. That means that when most lenses are “at rest” they are all the way open. Older lenses have a mechanical link to the camera, either a pin or a lever that is activated before the shutter releases, that closes the aperture down to your selected value.

Obviously modern electronic cameras lack that linkage. However, most lenses also have a button on the side of the barrel that closes the aperture. The original intent was to allow the photographer to get a better feel for the depth of focus they would be getting for the shot, but you can hold that down when you fire the shutter and get the f-stop you want. Pushing sideways on the lens is a great way to get unwanted camera shake, however.

As an alternative, you can look for lenses with “preset” in the description. These are lenses that allow you to disable the aperture mechanism (or sometimes these lenses just don’t have that mechanism). My Mir-42 is a good example of one of these; I can get the focus wide-open and then flip the switch on the side to put it into preset mode. Once that’s done I can shoot normally.

So now you have a couple of keywords to look for when searching for old manual-focus lenses. You know which lenses will physically fit on your camera, and you know which ones will be easier to work with. That won’t help you figure out which lens you should buy, but it will sure rule out a bunch you should not.

____

* yes, literally.

My Visit to One of the Most Expensive Buildings in the World

Most of the top ten most expensive buildings in the world are opulent resorts or mighty skyscrapers. There is a nuclear power plant in the mix, and then there’s Apple Park. The new headquarters for my company doesn’t soar up to scrape the ionosphere’s belly, and it doesn’t drip with ridiculous lavishness. The cost came not from coating everything with gold but from building to design tolerances that the construction industry simply doesn’t do.

To make everything fit so tightly in earthquake country first meant resting the whole damn thing on shimmy-shake pads. Thinking about that puts the scale into perspective: The building is a ring; the whole of the new football stadium for the San Francisco 49’ers fits in the “garden” inside the ring.

When I first got through security and walked up to the building, the soft morning rain and the sun at my back produced a rainbow that seemed to emerge from the middle of the giant ring. One prone to symbolism might find that portentous. I took a picture, but I can’t show it to you. (I might have cheated but the picture’s not that great.)

Inside, it feels like the future. Like the fictional sets of many, many science fiction movies, but real, and… functioning. Considering that this whole thing was built on so many simulations, so many never-been-done-but-it-should-work-probably ideas, the whole thing has come together quite nicely.

I was on the third floor and I stepped out of the elevator to see the treetops of the cafeteria. The cafeteria was indoors at that moment (there are stunningly massive sliding glass doors — four stories tall — to open the cafeteria to the outside on good days), but it still felt arboreal.

One thing that enhanced that feeling was the near invisibility of the fence at the edge of the balcony looking down. Glass, clean, almost invisible, making me feel like I was floating over the space below. Happily, I am not prone to vertigo.

It is a building that glorifies glass. The stories you may have heard about distracted employees running into walls is true. Glass and pale cool stone define this quiet world.

I walked through the center of the ring, the path making satisfying crunching sounds beneath my feet. I saw places that had not been ready for the recent rains, standing water on top of newly-planted ground cover. And there is no place in the area built with Apple’s beer bashes in mind. (*WHAAT?*) Yet, there was a serenity in those rolling hills that I really enjoyed. I can imagine a monastery feeling that way.

When we started our stroll through the center of the ring the sky was offering a gentle sprinkle, but by the time we got to the path to the duck pond it was dumping rain and I was more inclined to get back inside. From the organic chaos of grass and trees and rain to the quiet, controlled world of glass and stone once more.

The people I was meeting with — now residents of this place — pointed out spots where trim was missing or small finishing tasks were incomplete. I imagine it will be a year or more before the miles-long to-do list is completed.

My group will not be moving to the new campus; even before ground was struck Apple had outgrown its new headquarters. It holds something like 13,000 people — similar to the Hewlett Packard campus that was razed to make room — but where the old buildings stood between parking lots, the Apple Campus leaves much of the real estate for parkland which I look forward to exploring. Apple was named for the local orchards; in part it was Apple’s success that destroyed them. Nice to see at least a few acres of them come back.

I may not work over there, but I will be finding excuses to visit.

2

The Purpose of the Human Race

The other day, as I was riding home from work, I had an interesting thought. One thing about riding as slowly as I do — you get plenty of time to think about stuff.

Although, when the wind is at my back, pretty much the only thought in my head is “Whee!” and when the wind is in my face the cursing leaves no space for other thought. However, during the non-raining wind-from-the-side portions of my ride, I had time to chew on an interesting thought.

It started somewhere on Homestead Avenue, when it occurred to me that the Information Age was the inevitable consequence of being an organism that uses language. Our brains are built to interpret the world around us, breaking it down into the symbols that allow us to communicate abstract thoughts. We are biologically hard-wired to process symbols that represent the world; we are as hungry for information as we are for food.

But we didn’t stop at reducing the world into symbols, we began to recreate the world, using those same symbols as the building blocks. Early religions might be the first recorded attempts at building a symbolic world on top of the observable one, but any good story is a new world.

Facing a rainy headwind while I pushed down Park Avenue (a pleasant street), those thoughts were forgotten for a while, but by the time I reached Bird they had grown. We are now creating worlds entirely out of symbols. Worlds built purely out of language. World of Warcraft is an obvious example.

While WoW is crude compared to the (presumably) atom-based world we occupy most of the time, it’s easy to imagine that as we build ever-more eloquent languages (in this case programming languages and the frameworks that provide them vocabulary, which in turn express the desires of designers who communicate with more traditional languages) we will create more “real” worlds built solely with language.

By the time I’d huffed over the Curtner Hump and turned into the cemetery, I came down to a core question: Is this what we set out to do a million years ago?

Did we grow brains that had language so we could build better worlds, or was the ability to communicate mundane information twisted to introduce fiction? Are those cave paintings we know so well simply recording history, or are they expressing something larger that we all understand — the desire to build new worlds using the symbols we developed to understand the physical world?

What happens, then, when the world is entirely composed of symbols? What comes next? Are we finished?

1

How Quickly they Change their Tune

Remember when Republicans were all saying “Extend the patriot Act! Strengthen it! The FBI needs to be able to go after the bad guys!” and the Democrats were all saying “No! We have to protect civil liberty! Approving all this surveillance damages our democracy!”

That wasn’t very long ago. And by the way, ceding more power to the government is not “conservative”. It’s just one of many places where Republicans have proven to be the exact opposite of conservative.

Now the same people who loudly trumpeted the need to expand the ability of the FBI to investigate US citizens are crying about how the FBI is abusing its surveillance powers. You made this bed, Republicans, now lie in it. (And the lying has commenced, indeed.)

If that weren’t bad enough, the Democrats, who are often mistaken for liberals, have switched sides, too, trying their best to defend the FBI’s use of the power congress gave it. They’re crying about not being allowed to use the same low tactics the Republicans used to make political hay from the Trump/Russia investigation.

Why can’t just ONE Democrat point out that the FBI’s new power is a separate issue that may ultimately be more important than having an evil President for a couple of years?

An Engineer’s Approach to Tax Reform

A few years ago Malcom Forbes (I think it was) proposed a 17% flat tax – the same rate for everyone, no loopholes. That proposal would actually have increased revenue. How is that possible? Lower rates for everyone, but higher revenue? Crazy! But true. The increase in revenue comes from what Forbes (I think) called “loopholes”.

“Loophole”, when applied to the tax code, is a conservative code word that the liberals have not deciphered. Because really, no one wants loopholes in the tax code. Loopholes allow the rich to get richer, at the expense of the little guy. Of course liberals hate loopholes.

But in this case, “loophole” actually means “policy”. There are essentially two ways for our government to fund a goal: collect money and then distribute it where needed, or not collect money from where it’s needed in the first place.

Ideally, the tax code would be about exactly one thing: collecting revenue. But it is MASSIVELY more efficient, especially with our terribly inefficient government, to not collect money than it is to collect it, filter it through the bureaucracy, and return a fraction of the amount to the point of need.

Our current tax code is a relatively simple set of rules for collecting revenue, and a gargantuan codex of exceptions. Many, perhaps even most, of those exceptions are defensible for the good they do. Food for hungry children. Incentives for businesses to reinvest in themselves. It’s all over the map.

There are also purely evil clauses in the tax code, carefully designed to benefit specific campaign donors. Actually, there’s quite a lot of those. Actual loopholes.

So: we can’t just wave our hand and sweep tax law clean of all “loopholes”. A lot of people would suffer, and finally we’d pass a bunch of other laws to fund those goals in a less-efficient manner. But somehow we have to weed out all that evil.

From an engineering standpoint, it’s simple. Break the one huge, incomprehensible law into maybe five hundred smaller laws.

First you have the tax revenue collection law. It’s a simple baseline describing brackets or whatever. How we bring the money IN.

Second you have a framework that allows separate laws for single, specific exceptions to that rule. Single. Specific. Each voted on by congress separately.

“Madness!” you cry. “My legislator could never understand 500 separate bills well enough to vote responsibly.” You’re probably right, but your legislator already cannot understand the 500 exceptions in the one tax bill she votes on now. At least she could abstain on policy decisions she couldn’t get to.

So much debating, so much deal-making… so much more work for our legislators. THAT’S THEIR JOB! And when the chips fall, we will have a list of who voted for each provision independently. We would have an exact list of the people who supported “cash for bankers” and who supported “breakfast for children”. There would still be deals, but the deals would be a lot more transparent. And I think that’s a good thing. Each provision of the code would have to stand on its own merits. It is exactly what our legislators DON’T want. It’s a lot harder to hide the fact that you’re in the pocket of a special interest when that vote sits out there on its own.

Implementing this plan would be bloody and painful. Cash cows would wither in the light of inspection (vampire cash cows?), political careers built on hiding shit in the tax code would end. On the downside, the turmoil would probably paralyze government for a year or two, and more than a few of the programs I deem worthy would not survive. People would suffer.

But honestly I think the pain would in the end be worth it. If every “loophole” were scrutinized separately, we could eliminate a lot of pork while making the government a much more efficient expression of the voice of the people.

Harry Potter and the Two-Hour Prologue

Last week the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas and I decided to watch the first Harry Potter movie. It was my first exposure to the franchise. Considering all the hype, and the penetration of the film into pop culture, the movie was surprisingly mediocre. Of course, it’s possible to make a crappy movie no matter how brilliant the source material is, but in this case the biggest problem with the movie was simply in its storytelling. I suspect it is a faithful reflection of flaws in the novel itself.

The biggest storytelling flaw in this flick is that it takes forever for the story to actually begin. I have been accused of “walking to the story” often enough to recognize it when I see it.

We start with a prologue that reveals nothing which isn’t amply explained in short order. Then we have many scenes that do nothing but establish setting. Crappy home life (perhaps more interesting if we didn’t know what we already do), shopping for school supplies, and so forth. As far as the actual story goes, we finally hear a whisper of the name that will shape his young life. But only a whisper, and we proceed with a series of events that aren’t moving anywhere. There are, James Bond-style, offhand mentions of things that conveniently turn out to be important later, but that’s about it.

Once he’s at school, we get closer to a plot, but not very quickly. We get to meet important friends and rivals, but mostly it’s still establishing setting, building a whimsical and magical world. Don’t get me wrong, the movie does a fine job of this, but it’s all done through a series of unrelated events.

One of those disconnected events is that Harry’s natural broom-riding ability leads him to be the “seeker” for his house team in the sport of Quidditch. The game is like this: A bunch of people fly around under very complicated rules, scoring points here and there, then the seeker from one of the teams catches a tiny flying robot-magic-thingie and the game is over, all the rest of the activity having been rendered moot. It makes for some good action scenes, but they are not in service of the story.

The story, what there is of it, is that there’s an important thing that bad guys want to steal. The most interesting part of that story is Snape, a teacher and the head of the “asshole” house at the school. So many things suggest he’s a bad guy, but… when shit gets real his actions are noticeably absent of evil.

When one makes a movie based on a novel, the hardest decisions the screenplay writers face is what to cut. A movie simply can’t contain an entire novel. I wonder, looking at what they decided to keep, looking at scene after scene that did not serve the story, what they decided to chop. More of the same? Or were they worried that rabid Harry Potter fans would riot if the movie didn’t include the gratuitous prologue that was in the novel, and instead cut more interesting things to remain “faithful”?

The next night OSoMR&HBI and I watched the next movie in the series, and now we have consumed two more. So clearly HP-1 was not so awful we walked away from the franchise. This was partly because friends assured us the following movies got better.

Today I realized why. The first movie is ALL prologue. It is the reading you are supposed to do before coming to class. Being a story is a secondary goal, behind introducing us to the world.

Aspiring writers take note: WORLD BUILDING IS NOT STORYTELLING. I recently had the privilege of reading a friend’s draft of a novel, and I realize now I forgot to compliment her on the way she built a really strange world through the telling of her story. She hit the ground running and we got to see the world as the action unfolded, in a natural way. So, just do that.

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My Last Car

My faithful little Miata is getting long in the tooth; I purchased it new off the lot in the summer of 1999. Eighteen and a half years is pretty old for a car, but these days not exceptional.

Still, after spending the weekend replacing ignition components and discovering oil on my hands more than once, I have to admit that the car is not as mechanically tight as it used to be. It’s only a matter of time before it crosses the line from “reliable transportation” to “hobby”. I don’t need another hobby.

From time to time I peruse the Internet, fantasizing about the car that will replace the Miata. Convertible is an absolute requirement, two seats a preference. There are some pretty cool cars in this space, but the frontrunner remains the Mazda Miata. I could spend a lot more and get a somewhat more exciting car, but the Miata remains an excellent intersection between fun and economy, with no serious challengers.

But boy, that F-type purrs like a kitten. A tiger kitten.

As I consider the expected lifespan of my next car, the expected lifespan of me, and trends in technology, it occurred to me: It’s quite possible that this will be the last car I ever buy. Twenty years from now my driving skills will be degrading, and as long as I live in a town of any size, it’s entirely possible that self-driving on-demand cars will be significantly cheaper than car ownership, especially when you take into account how few miles I drive.

My last car. Wow. But…

I don’t really need to replace the Miata at all. There is almost never a time when both the family cars are out of the garage, and the few times it does happen could easily be handled with transport alternatives. I could rent a convertible for road trips. Perhaps I have already bought my last car. Wow.

Often, when I take the old girl out for a spin, I first have to remove the tool boxes and other items piled on top. Home repair and crafts projects lead me to pull items off the shelving next to the car and put them on the top or on the hood for access.

A typical look at the Miata

Perhaps the next four-wheeled item to occupy that slot in the garage will be something like this:

The next thing to live on the right side of the garage?

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Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and even governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.