My 2018 Resolutions

Last year I made several ambitious-but-attainable resolutions. I failed at all of them.

For 2018, my goal is much simpler: do better at everything than I did in 2017. The bar is pretty low.

4

Ah, Irony

In an article at I Fucking Love Science, about strange references in hundreds of scientific publications to a paper that doesn’t exist, is this sentence:

Nevertheless, it seems that the phantom reference is a symptom of wider problems within academic science publishing, such as low-quality control, careless editing, and – the real bugbear – predatory journals.

The article’s actually pretty interesting, and worth the thirty seconds it would take you to read it. But man. Low-quality control, in a sentence about low-quality editing. If you’re ever going to be really, really careful about a sentence you write, it should be the one critical of others’ editorial standards.

2

Funny How that Timing Worked

So if I have my facts straight, on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week The New York Times talked to our President-like Product* and asked him if, hypothetically, Mueller’s investigation of the Republican collusion with Russia were to be expanded to include Trump’s finances, would that be crossing a line?

Trump responded, with his usual thoughtless bravado, that such an expansion would indeed be crossing a line. Totally unacceptable.

Then on Thursday, it became known that Mueller has in fact extended his inquiry to include Trump’s finances. Whups!

There are a a handful of important takeaways here:

1) The NYT almost certainly already knew the investigation was expanding.
2) Trump did not know.
3) NYT was not above baiting Trump to say something he would regret later.
4) Trump is easily manipulated.
5) Trump can’t spot a trap question to save his life.
6) That same guy talks to Putin, who is no slouch at interrogation.

Number four above is the one that scares me most.

But let’s not lose perspective on the actual news. People with the power to arrest criminals are looking at Trump’s tax returns. No matter which side of the aisle you sit on, that has to be a good thing. If you believe he has nothing to hide, you will naturally embrace this chance to see him exonerated while keeping his finances private. If you think he’s up to his eyeballs in foreign entanglements, well, now’s the time to find out.

This is a good thing, as long as you believe in truth.
____

* I promised, after the election, to suck it up and no longer use disparaging names for our then-president-elect. Today I was unable to live up to my own standard, so I’m calling myself out to save you the trouble.

1

I’ll Make a Note for Next Year

I didn’t realize it was turn right in front of bicyclists without signaling day. Had I known that, I might have made other transportation plans.

Your Privacy, Sold (Again)

If you watched the last season of South Park, you know what can happen if your entire Internet history is made public. Riots, divorce, the collapse of civilization. But did you know that your Internet Service Provider can keep track of every Web site you visit? Forget privacy mode on your browser; that only affects what gets stored locally. It’s mostly good for letting you do credit card transactions on someone else’s computer, or at an Internet Cafe.

It does not keep a host of companies from recording every site you visit.

Up ’till now, those companies haven’t been allowed to share that information. But that’s about to change. The companies that keep that data have cashed in on the current legislation-for-sale atmosphere and have bought a rule change that will enable them to sell that data.

Our President will no doubt sign the bill, and if there’s any silver lining to all this, it’s that his own browsing history will shortly be available for purchase. If he, or other congressional leaders, had any idea what they were signing, they would have realized that they have more to lose than just about anyone else.

For instance, DNS records already made public don’t look good for the GOP. They were collected by a group who thought the Russians were trying to hack the RNC, only to find that the communication went both ways.

Anyone want to guess how much child porn is in The Donald’s browsing history?

Meanwhile, even though I don’t go to any sites that are remotely illegal, I’ll be taking measures I probably should have done long ago to protect my privacy, rather than rely on laws. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do; I’m not keen on using the Tor Browser (though I’m open to volunteering some server resources to the project). I’ll be looking at VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) to see if they offer anonymity.

I’d be happy to hear from anyone out there with knowledge in this area. In any case, I’ll report back what I learn.

2

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Scientific Survey

Pharaoh heard that in his prisons there lived a man who could interpret dreams. He called for Joseph, and his soldiers brought the young man before him.

“I have had a dream,” Pharaoh said. “In my dream there are seven fat cows, and seven thin cows. The thin cows eat the fat cows but they remain thin. What does it mean?”

Joseph pondered, and quietly asked God for guidance, and said, “it means that there will be seven years of plenty, and Egypt will prosper like never before. But there will follow seven years of hardship, and unless Egypt prepares now, by saving as much of the plenty as this great nation can, there will be great suffering.”

Pharaoh nodded, seeing the wisdom of Joseph’s words. It only made sense to prepare for hard times while things were going well, even if the precision of Joseph’s prediction was questionable.

“Um… Pharaoh,” said the trusted advisor on his left, the chief architect of the pyramid project about to launch, “Seven years of plenty! That’s great! If you ignore this man’s advice, I can make the monument to you even more magnificent.”

On his right, another adviser spoke. “If bad times follow the good, it is the will of the gods. WE will survive, OUR families will not starve, even if millions of the working class who just finished your pyramid die. That, too, is the will of the gods. The workers will die happily, knowing they contributed to your eternal might.”

Joseph listened to this discourse and said, “No, seriously, It’s going to be bad. I’m 99.9% sure it’s going to be really really bad.”

“Aha!” cried the architect. “So you’re not certain!

Pharaoh looked from his advisors to Joseph and back. “Make the monument bigger,” he said.

2

That Carbon Dioxide Tipping Point

I file this under politics because it is politics that is blinding us.

The oil industry* and their paid shills (known as deniers)** made a few waves recently when, in a carefully-worded survey of climate scientists, fewer than half were willing to single out carbon dioxide as the single greatest contributor to global warming.

“Half of all Scientists disagree with climate change!” was the nonsensical conclusion. A slightly-less-nonsensical conclusion was “Humans create carbon dioxide; if that’s not the primary driver of global warming, then warming is not because of humans.”

But let’s look at that for a moment. There’s another conclusion, and while it’s much more reasonable, it’s also much more scary: Carbon Dioxide isn’t the the primary driver of global warming any more. We’ve crossed a tipping point.

Meet Methane, and the point of no return.

While CO2 was the problem, there was something we could do about it: produce less CO2. Let the algae and the rain forests (whoops!) absorb the surplus back, and let our planet return to its previous equilibrium. We dithered, and denied, and the tundra began to thaw. Now the tundra is burping up enormous amounts of methane.

As a greenhouse gas, methane makes CO2 look like a punk kid with missing teeth.

So if many scientists don’t think Carbon Dioxide is the biggest contributor any more, that doesn’t mean they don’t believe the surface of our planet is getting hotter, it means that the game has changed. It means things have moved to a stage that we cannot reverse just by suddenly not being so selfish and short-sighted. It means there is nothing we can do to stop the change, and the sooner we turn our efforts to dealing with it, the less it will hurt.

But man, it’s gonna hurt.

___
* shorthand for all carbon-based energy companies
** almost all the publicized climate-change deniers are on the energy company payrolls. I say “almost” only because there are probably a few who are just stupid.

When does School Let Out?

Recently I was riding on a path and ahead of me was a small bank of flood-deposited sand and gravel. It looked pretty solid, so I thought I could coast gently over it and be fine.

Nope.

Plunk! and a scraped-up knee, bleeding down my shin as I plodded on to work. “Lesson learned!” I thought to myself. “Unless you have big, fat tires, that’s not the terrain for you.” So at the expense of a little flesh I became a wiser bicyclist.

Yesterday morning I was riding calmly through a little park. Many people walk their dogs on those paths, and I like to give dogs plenty of space when I come up behind them. It’s not fair to the dog to expect them to just step calmly aside when startled from behind. So when the human walking a pretty bulldog didn’t respond to my bell, I did what I often do: I left the sidewalk and circled around on the grass. I made a point of giving him a cheery “Good morning!” as I slogged through the lush lawn.

Only, this particular time, the deep green hid the fact that the step back up to the pavement was rather high. I hit it at too soft an angle, didn’t hop with my front tire, and spilled over the handlebars and onto the pavement. Plunk!

My OTHER knee is now scraped up, and I have a nasty contusion on my thigh where it hit the headlight attached to my handlebars. Lesson learned: Always assume that transition will be dangerous unless handled properly. So at the expense of a little flesh I am now a wiser bicyclist.

I just hope I reach the end of the syllabus soon.

1

Standing Rock and Internet Security

At the peak of the Standing Rock protest, a small city existed where none had before. That city relied on wireless communications to let the world know what was going on, and to coordinate the more mundane day-to-day tasks of providing for thousands of people. There is strong circumstantial evidence that our own government performed shenanigans on the communications infrastructure to not only prevent information from reaching the rest of the world, but also to hack people’s email accounts and the like.

Cracked.com, an unlikely source of “real” journalism, produced a well-written article with links to huge piles of documented facts. (This was not the only compelling article they produced.) They spent time with a team of security experts on the scene, who showed the results of one attack: When all the secure wifi hotspots in the camp were attacked, rendering them unresponsive, a new, insecure hotspot suddenly appeared. When one of the security guys connected to it, his gmail account was attacked.

Notably, a plane was flying low overhead – a very common model of Cessna, but the type known to be used by our government to be fitted with just the sort of equipment to do this sort of dirty work. The Cessna was owned by law enforcement but its flight history is secret.

What does that actually mean? It means that in a vulnerable situation, where communication depends on wireless networks, federal and state law enforcement agencies have the tools to seriously mess with you.

“But I only use secure Internet connections,” you say. “HTTPS means that people between you and the site you’re talking to can’t steal your information.” Alas, that’s not quite true. What https means is that connections to your bank or Gmail can only be monitored by someone endorsed by entities your browser has been told to trust completely. On that list: The US Government, the Chinese government, other governments, and more than a hundred privately-owned corporations. Any of those, or anyone any of those authorities chooses to endorse, or anyone who manages to hack one of those hundred-plus authorities (this has happened) can convince your browser that there is no hanky-panky going on. It shouldn’t surprise you that the NSA has a huge operation to do just that.

The NSA system wasn’t used at Standing Rock (or if it was, that effort was separate from the documented attacks above), because they don’t need airplanes loaded with exotic equipment. But those airplanes do exist, and now we have evidence that state and local law enforcement, and quite possibly private corporations as well, are willing to use them.

The moral of the story is, I guess, “don’t use unsecured WiFi”. There’s pretty much nothing you can do about the NSA. It would be nice if browsers popped up an alert like “Normally this site is vouched for by Verisign, but this time the US Government is vouching for it. Do you want to continue?” But they don’t, and I haven’t found a browser plugin that adds that capability. Which is too bad.

Edit to add: While looking for someone who perhaps had made a browser plug-in to detect these attacks, I came across this paper which described a plugin that apparently no longer exists (if it was ever released). It includes a good overview of the situation, with some thoughts that hadn’t occurred to me. It also shows pages from a brochure for a simple device that was marketed in 2009 to make it very easy for people with CA authority to eavesdrop on any SSL-protected communication. Devices so cheap they were described as “disposable”.

Moving On

Well, Donald Trump got almost as many votes as Hillary Clinton (some people’s votes don’t count as much as others), and now he’s going to be our next president. I’m going to have to take the same advice I would have given Trump’s supporters had the election gone the other way: “Suck it up, buttercup.”

In the interest of healing a fractured nation, and focussing my resolve, I will no longer (publicly) insult Trump. I will certainly criticize flaws in his policies (should he ever articulate any policies), and I will comment on all current and new criminal investigations brought against him. But no more (public) name-calling.

The same goes for his followers. Some of them will realize, as time passes, that their jobs are NOT coming back — in fact they’re vanishing faster than ever — and the community college system they could have used to move to a new career is withering and dying. They will realize that even more people are being grievously hurt by drinking their own tap water, and that pollution from fracking is killing their children. They will notice that terrorism didn’t just vanish.

Some of the people who voted for Trump yesterday will realize that they’ve been hoodwinked, and perhaps make another decision in four years. Others will continue to blame whatever scapegoat they are handed next and respond with the logic “If Trump’s not getting it done, what we need is more Trump.”

There’s not much I can do about that latter group, but name-calling won’t help. All I can do is be civil, provide a contrast to the shouting coming out of their noise-boxes, stand up for the truth, watch out for my neighbors, and hope that after four years the thieves leave with all they can carry but don’t actually light the house on fire.

Whoops. This is going to be really difficult.

2

Facebook 101: When they Say “Like and Share” Probably you Shouldn’t

If you haven’t already figured this out by the thousands of radio stations firing off memes on Facebook, let me spell it out for you. “Likes” are worth money. Here’s the part maybe you didn’t know: Likes can be sold.

My Facebook news feed is clogged with shit like, “LIKE AND SHARE IF YOU DON’T THINK CHILDREN SHOULD BE BEHEADED AND LEFT FOR THE VULTURES.” Or maybe “LITTLE CINDY-LOU IS DYING OF CANCER, LIKE AND SHARE SO SHE CAN SEE SHE IS LOVED ALL OVER THE WORLD. ONLY 2% WILL LIKE AND SHARE. ARE YOU ONE OF THEM?”

It’s always 2%.

Perhaps you say to yourself, “gee, I’m actually kind of against beheading children.” You like and share. Otherwise, you’re implicitly in favor of juvenile decapitation, right?

A few weeks later you get an item in your feed about vacations in Mexico. Not a sponsored item, mind, but a notification from a page you liked. “The heck?” you think to yourself. “I don’t remember liking anything about travel in Mexico.”

And in fact you didn’t. The Travel site bought your like from the child-beheadding page.

Well, to be more exact, they bought the page itself, likes and all, then just switched in their own content. People are making a sound business out of creating pages, getting likes any way possible, then selling the page.

These days, I block almost every item in my Facebook feed thingie that says “like and share”. When you look at the name of the source page, it’s amazing how often page name and content don’t match. Even when they do, I block. Don’t tell me what to like, Chumley, and I share only the good stuff. Which is maybe one thing a month.

1

Starmind: Chapters 3 and 4

It’s not often I find a novel where every damn chapter is worthy of comment. Starmind, by Dave Van Arnam, turns out to be one of those. Not because it’s good, oh no, not all all.

When last we left this little yarn, I was wondering what possible excuse the author could find for medical professionals to even want to try to put the halves of two different people’s brains into one body.

Dr. Brian pretty much says he just wants to see what will happen. There’s a first time for everything, after all.

Yeah, Dr. Brian. The Brain surgeon. I have stopped correcting myself as I read. Nascent writers out there, if for some reason you want to call your guy Dr. Brain, just do it. No need to be coy. (Or better yet, call him Dr. Mtumbo.)

At this time, there are six characters of note. Inside the head, there are two men and one woman (although one of the men is more of an emotive blob). Outside the head, there are also two men and one woman. Both women are attractive, in nonspecific ways. Only one of the men has been described at all.

In chapter three, two of the three men capable of this sort of thought decide it might be kinda cool to have their brains installed in a hot female body. Both women find the idea of being installed in a man’s body to be loathsome. So… 1969.

On the second page of chapter three I laughed more than once. The dialog! Holy crap!

Here’s a choice nugget — the doctor, talking to the reporter:

I will not speculate on any emotional ties that might exist between you and Miss Rost, but it is obvious that your concern runs deeper than I, as a medical researcher and practitioner, dare to take cognizance of.

He better not dare to take cognizance of it! Or this gem three tiresome paragraphs later, as Parker, the reporter, continues his stilted verbal sparring with Dr. Brain Brian:

I am a professional in my own field, as you are in yours, doctor; and in my case it means I know how to research those necessary background facts that make conversations such as this more meaningful than the customary exchange of platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position.

Both those quotes are parts of much longer paragraphs. Despite this unbearable verbal mass, they do little more than exchange platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position, along with a heapin’ helpin’ of as-you-know-Bobs. The reporter, for instance, tells the brian brain surgeon that it has been eleven years since the first successful brain transplant.

But I will say this: although there are some horrible moments in the discourse between the characters inside the head, it is way better that the interactions outside the head. At lest so far; the head occupants aren’t to a stage where they can engage in stilted verbal exchanges. Though there are plenty of problems inside the cranium, as well. Jailyn is witness to one of Joe’s sex fantasies, then exercises her will to make it stop. She apparently has none of her own. Sex, it seems, is something men want and women allocate.

There’s a nice twist, though, as the “simple” thoughts of the Idiot Adonis unexpectedly rise from the previously-unmentioned surviving lower parts of his brain and provide an emotional foundation for the two intellects who discover themselves so intimately connected. In the hands of a skilled writer, that might make the premise of a great story. I could picture a one-act play based on that theme.

Alas, we are not in the hands of a skilled writer, my friends. Yet still I read on, finding comedy where none was intended, hoping the pretty nurse kicks her boss of irrelevant appearance in the balls, knowing she won’t. The mystery of “why would anyone do something so stupid” has been answered with a “why not?” and on we go. The next question is: how will the author contrive to expose this odd trio to pseudogravitic multiwaves? And will he manage that before the ridiculous dialog slips from funny to tiresome?

Stay tuned, dear readers, for the answers to these burning questions!

1

A Long Night

Lying in bed, left hand clamped over my eyes, my right arm wrapped around my head to apply pressure so my sinuses don’t blow my face off. Everything hurts. My teeth hurt. Looking forward to the next sneeze, building somewhere in the background, a feeling of squirrels chewing my nasal passages, but when it comes, fifteen seconds of bliss. Or at least reduction in discomfort.

There are no more pills to take. I lie, wheezing, and think, “Maybe whiskey will help…”

Trump and Idiots

I have, on several occasions, said that people who vote for Trump are idiots. Having read the excellent article Why Trump Voters are not Complete Idiots I have been forced to question my stance.

The article, if I may be so bold as to recast, turns the US into a two-story house. The folks on the ground floor get by, the folks upstairs do well. By any measure, I’m living upstairs.

It’s important to note that while money is a big factor in where you think you live, it is not the only factor. Income is only one way one’s value in society is defined. Respect from those around you is another. Upstairs people feel more valued.

There’s no guaranteed pass to the upper floor, but a college education is pretty damn close to one. Go to college, move upstairs. And here’s where the core resentment toward immigrants comes in. It’s not the illegal immigrants coming in on the ground floor that rankle, it’s the legal immigrants, the educated ones, who step right onto the upstairs that piss people off.

It’s not how well you’re doing, it’s how well you’re doing compared to the other guy.

So Liberals and Democrats (not at all the same groups) make two basic promises: 1) we will make living on the ground floor suck less, and 2) we will make it easier for your kids to go upstairs.

But for a man just getting by, with his kids already past “college age”, there’s not a lot of upside there. He remembers when just being a hard-working man doing his job and not bitching too much was enough to feel secure in this country. Maybe he couldn’t get upstairs, but hard work meant something, and he could be confident that his family would be taken care of. For that guy, that was when America was great.

Trump, while not offering anything specific at all, implies that he will restore America to those good old days. But he isn’t offering to make living on the ground floor better, he wants you to believe that he’s changing the rules for who gets to live upstairs. For people who feel stuck downstairs and degraded by assholes like me calling them idiots, maybe it’s time to change the rules.

It gets a little ugly, though, when you consider that during this mythical period when America was great, the upstairs was occupied almost exclusively by white men. So when he talks about going back to the good ol’ days, he’s talking to the working white men whose fortunes have flatlined while all the other demographics in this country have caught up. But he’s making it a white-men-vs-the-world proposition. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much.

These folks have heard all the political double-speak before, but there they sit, downstairs, even while brown and yellow college-educated kids skip up to the luxury suites without breaking a sweat. Time to shake things up! Time to value the people who work with their hands, who actually make stuff. So people in the making-stuff group who want to shake things up are not inherently idiots. They are following an agenda that, at least superficially, gives them the better chance to get upstairs. The Democrats are telling them their grandchildren will have a more fair shot at the stairs, but that’s far away.

Blow up the system. When the debris stops falling, who knows who will be on top?

So far, that makes sense. But there’s still the question: Is Trump the guy to do that?

Let’s take another look at those good ol’ days. When a working man could provide for his family and maybe even send his kids to college. Or at least technical school, or a skilled apprenticeship. Those days actually existed, not long ago.

Was it the Republicans, or the white men upstairs that created those conditions? Well, no. Not even remotely. It was the labor unions. The Great America Trump wants us to remember is the America when workers had power. When there was dignity in labor and a comfortable life even while the fat cats upstairs got rich.

So, white men who remember a better past, is Trump really going to return us to those days? Will he restore the power of the unions?

Hell, no.

He couldn’t if he tried, and he’s not going to try. Among the many lawsuits Trump has settled, there are the union-busting ones. He is famous for shitting on the working-class people. Gleeful, even. He is the worst thing that could possibly happen to the working-class joe in this country. He is a spoiled rich man with a long history of disregard for the people he is now asking to put him in the White House.

So, back to my premise: are people idiots for voting for a fundamental change to the system? No. Not if they don’t believe that we are on a path that makes things better for their grandchildren.

But are they idiots for voting for Trump? Yes, absolutely. Trump is one of the people who put them where they are, and he has no intention of changing that. Just ask that man of the people over in Russia.

5

Email Security 101: A Lesson Yet Unlearned

So it looks like the Russians are doing their best to help proudly racist Trump, by stealing (and perhaps altering) emails passed between members of the Democratic National Committee. It seems like the Democratic party preferred the candidate who was actually part of the party over a guy hitching his wagon to the Democrats to use that political machine as long as it was convenient to him.

But that’s not the point of this episode.

The point is this: Had the Democrats taken the time to adopt email encryption, this would not have happened. When the state department emails were hacked, the same criticism applies.

It is possible to:

  1. Render email unreadable by anyone but the intended recipient
  2. Make alteration of emails provably false

But nobody does it! Not even people protecting state secrets. I used to wonder what email breach was going to be the one that made people take email security seriously. I’m starting to think, now, that there is no breach bad enough. Even the people who try to secure email focus on the servers, when it’s the messages that can be easily hardened.

There is no privacy in email. There is no security in email. But there could be. Google could be the white hat in this scenario, but they don’t want widespread email encryption because they make money reading your email.

Currently only the bad guys encrypt their emails, because the good guys seem to be too fucking stupid.