Thursday
Feb192015

The End Run 

I want to bring a piece of information to you. In an article published today by The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Josh Begley reveal that British and US intelligence agencies hacked into the computer systems of the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM cards, allowing them to steal millions of encryption keys at will. Here’s the link to the article.

 A brief explanation: Your mobile phone or wireless enabled tablet is essentially part radio. It communicates with the nearest cell tower using a radio signal. Therein lies a problem of privacy. Your phone and the cell tower are both broadcasting a radio signal in all directions. What if someone is listening in?

In your phone there is a small chip, about the size of a thumbnail, containing information. This subscriber identification module, or SIM, contains a code that encrypts all your phone calls and texts so that if someone intercepts the signal all they will get is a string of gibberish. Modern 3G and 4G encryption is actually rather good. So good, in fact, that GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British version of our NSA) and the NSA have trouble breaking it. Rather than breaking it, back in 2009 they decided to do an end run around it.

They hacked into the computer systems of Gemalto, the aforementioned SIM card manufacturer, and cyber-stalked its employees. (Gemalto supplies AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, along with 450 others) They figured out how to automate the theft of the codes burned into millions of SIM cards distributed worldwide. They also figured out how to associate these codes with individuals who own mobile phones.

What this means is that any time they want, the NSA and GCHQ can easily decrypt phone calls and text messages from any Gemalto-SIM phone. It is a massive, ongoing, and deliberate breach of privacy. I’ll be interested to see the reaction to this when it becomes generally known.

In the meantime, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recommends the use of apps such as Signal/Redphone (iOS/Android versions), Silent Phone, and Silent Text to encrypt your communications, if you feel the need.

Am I the only one who thinks that the NSA needs a top-to-bottom ream and steam to clean the place out?

Thursday
Feb122015

Against the Sacred 

Sanctity doesn’t work anymore.

By sanctity, and the sacred, I mean the belief that some acts are right or wrong aside from their consequences, and that some people (living or dead), objects and places have a value derived from their place in a supernatural or ideological belief system. I mean both religious sanctity and nationalistic or cultural sanctity, where history and cultural identity substitute for holy writ.

Sanctity and taboo worked as a substitute for science in the pre-scientific history of humanity. Culturally evolved food restrictions, behavioral rules, and far reaching taboos against the marriage of close relatives did the job before we knew about bacteria, psychology or genetics. But now we do know about bacteria, psychology and genetics.

The concept of the sacred poses a number of problems for us. First, it is non-negotiable. The value of an action based on scientific understanding can be weighed against other actions and their consequences. If it’s sacred, well, that’s it. End of discussion. Of course, one group’s definition of sacred inevitably conflicts with another group, and mayhem results. There’s a sliver of sacred land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that has been giving humanity trouble for the past 1300 years on just this basis.

Second, being non-consequentialist and non-scientific, the pursuit of sanctity leads people off in directions that are at best pointless and at worst destructive. Billions of people waste valuable energy and resources, risk disease, and cripple their societies while trying to follow rules that haven’t made practical sense for generations. That is, if they ever did.

Third, sanctity being absolute, it is an excuse for whatever barbarity the human mind can invent. If God said so and eternal damnation or paradise is on the line, then what’s a massacre here or there? The recent shootings in Paris and the Boko Haram killings in Nigeria inspired this essay, but these are actually small events compared to the holy wars of history. As an example, the 30 Years War (~1618-1648) killed off a quarter of the population of Germany, with some unfortunate areas losing two-thirds of their populations. Although there were a number of economic and cultural factors in that war, the dividing lines were based on religious authority.

Religious leaders have used the term “moral relativism” as an insult. I would counter that moral absolutism has killed hundreds of millions of people. I also notice that the most conservative and absolute religionists seem least concerned with human death and suffering and most concerned with relativism in the field of consensual sexual behavior.

Is nothing sacred? No, nothing is sacred. However, there are many things with value, for real, pragmatic reasons.

People have value. I mean living people, the ones right in front of you and far away from you. People, with all our needs and desires, full of imagination, rejoicing in companionship, sensing our environment, held together by a delicate layer of skin. We need to value each other for the very practical reason that we need to live together. To consider a person sacred is to base human value on a shadow.

Our planet has value. Again, this has nothing to do with a gift from a god or the responsibilities of a supernatural belief system. We need this place to be functional in order to survive. Theologians cannot debate us into or out of this understanding.

Books, artifacts, and places have value only in their utility. Utility sounds like a gray, joyless word, but the happiness we feel in the presence of beauty is as necessary to our species as air and water.

Campaigning against the sacred is a hard battle. The cultures and religions that promote the idea of the sacred evolved into resilient institutions. Sanctity is emotionally rewarding to the believer and interwoven with a coherent (if not logical) set of beliefs that is difficult to pick apart. Like any house of cards, removing one piece brings down the whole structure. Believers react violently to that.

Difficult though it is, people of good will must engage in this conflict. The Koran, the American flag, Jerusalem, the Field of the Blackbirds; these are just things and places. Jesus and Mohammed are dead and beyond our profane reach, whatever your belief about their divinity or place in an afterlife. The Pope, the Dalai Lama, and all such priests, monks, ministers, shamans and other religious types are just people. They have as much value as the rest of us but no more.

We can’t attack the sacred directly. That would engender resistance rather than wisdom. We can, however, encourage critical thinking, including the teaching of critical thinking skills in our schools. Conservative religionists have attacked just such courses in public schools, which makes me think that they are working. We can also encourage those who advocate for the sacred (secular or religious) to follow the path of their own ideas to their conclusion. Most people don’t go past an initial emotional reaction. When people actually try to reason their way through such a belief it dissolves into nonsense in front of them. This doesn’t always make a difference. The ability of humans to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time is universal. Nevertheless, we should try. Sanctity just isn’t working out for us.

Sunday
Nov302014

The Saudis Hold the Line

The big news in the oil world last week was a do-nothing policy by OPEC, and especially by the Saudis, the swing producer of oil. By swing producer I mean that Saudi Arabia has the physical, political and financial capacity to adjust its oil output to suit its policy goals. OPEC met this last week and decided to leave its output at 30 million barrels a day, despite the abrupt drop in world oil prices. Crude oil closed Friday at $66, down from $110 not long ago.

You’d think that the Saudis would want to cut production to tighten supply and bring the price back up. By some accounts, they can’t meet their national fiscal goals unless the price of oil is above $90 a barrel. They aren’t losing money, even at $66, as their cost of production is the lowest in the world at $3-6 a barrel. However, oil being essentially their only source of income, their national budget is in deficit at present prices.

My guess, along with some other observers, is that they are playing the long game.

The rising production of shale oil in the U.S. is a big part of the problem for the Saudis. Although temporary, our production increase has pushed down our demand for oil on the international market. It’s an expensive process, though. A shale exploration company has to drill multiple boreholes that turn horizontally and follow the thin layer of oil containing shale. Then they have to force fluid and sand into the holes in order to fracture the shale and let the oil out. This is hydrofracturing, popularly known as fracking. The nature of these wells is that they produce large amounts of oil initially and then rapidly decline, sometimes within months. Then the driller has to pack up the equipment and repeat the process elsewhere.

There are a number of oil producing shale formations in the U.S., but only a small percentage of the total shale area is highly productive. Some of the shale exploration and production industry was losing money even at higher prices. The business plan for a number of companies seemed to consist of outlasting competitors and reaping the benefits of future high prices.

The expensive production cycle and money-burning nature of the industry requires a constant influx of money, both as investment and credit. That is what the Saudis are after.

By maintaining the world supply of oil at present levels OPEC can keep the price of oil below the breakeven price for many shale oil companies. Beyond that, a lower oil price means that drillers lose access to credit. Just as the resale value of your house backs your low-interest mortgage, the estimated value of a drilling company’s oil reserves serves as security for loans. When the price of oil drops they have to resort to higher interest unsecured loans and divert present income to exploration, all of which discourages both banks and investors.

 OPEC doesn’t have to drive all of them out of business. They can pick off the stragglers, the companies most overextended and possessing the least productive oil field leases. A string of bankruptcies in the shale oil industry would not only lower production, but also choke off investment and credit. That would hamper present production and slow the return of the shale oil industry when prices recover. The threat of repeated Saudi intervention would keep banks and investors at a distance.

The Saudis are willing to spend some sovereign wealth to clear the field of competition. With currency reserves over $700 billion, they can endure $66 oil for a while longer. Much longer, I’ll bet, than the U.S. shale industry.

Wednesday
Nov122014

Putin’s Speech at Valdai 

This is a point-at post. I don’t have all that much to say except that you should set aside about 15 minutes and read the speech Vladimir Putin just gave at the Valdai Conference in Sochi. Vlad drops his gloves and wades into the U.S. like an NHL enforcer. The importance of this speech is not about belligerence, though. It is straight talk about Russia’s attitude towards the pseudo-unipolar world we’ve had since around 1990. The one sentence summary is that a unipolar world doesn’t work, and even if it did, the U.S. has massively screwed up the opportunity, so the rest of the world is going to make other plans.

Of course, Putin glosses over the sins of Russia. This is predictable. Nevertheless, as a critique of U.S. hegemony and a discussion of the consequences, it is valuable.

I should note that it has received almost no attention in the U.S. mainstream news media, despite the huge foreign policy implications.

At Club Orlov, here.

Sunday
Oct262014

The Politics of Desperation

There’s a dear old friend of mine, a former Marine, who forwards me emails that he gets from his conservative friends. Just to “light you up,” as he puts it. I oblige with rebuttals, Fisking the mostly fantasy-based talking points.

Recently he sent me a wild one, which got me thinking about the politics of desperation. This last email purported to be a summary of a couple of national television appearances (Face the Nation, in one case) by the Obamas. I’ll spare you the bulk of it, but one bit was about Obama wanting to change the national anthem to “I Want to Teach the World to Sing” and another bit was about Michelle admitting to attending flag burnings. The Onion could do no better. I mean, even if someone could conceive of the Obamas approving of those things, could anyone think that they were so lacking in political awareness that they would admit to these things on national television? It goes beyond being unhinged into not believing in hinges.

As other political observers have noted, it’s as if history began in January of 2009. President Obama does things that previous presidents have done and advocates for policies that previous presidents have advocated, but somehow his acts are cast as uniquely undignified, lazy, disrespectful, or misguided. Visit Snopes.com, the urban myth debunking site, and put “Obama” in the search bar for some entertaining mythology. The email rant barrage gives Nigerian prince scams a bad name.

It reminds me of a talk I attended earlier this summer, given by Dan Fenn. Dan is an old family friend, a longtime political observer, and perhaps the last surviving member of the Kennedy Administration. Although in his early nineties, he is still sharp and vital, working as a management consultant. He was speaking on the subject of the presidency, its relationship with congress over the years, and the difficulties experienced by the Obama administration.

One point that Dan emphasized was the outright heels-dug-in obstructionism of the Republican House and the filibustering Republican minority in the Senate, combined with a staggering lack of interpersonal respect from Republican members of Congress. Dan spent a few minutes on the source of that disrespect. It is racial, of course.

His point was about demographics. We are still a majority white country. I should note here that the definition of who is “white” has expanded over the past hundred years as various immigrant groups became more numerous and gained political power. The people who would now still be considered non-white are gaining numbers and it looks as if the people we now call white will no longer be a majority in 2050. It’s an inexorable demographic trend, and a certain subset of white people is panicking.

As Dan put it, if they could see Barack Obama as a one-off non-white president then he would only have to put up with run of the mill racism. In 2016 it would be back to middle aged white guys forever. This would be reassuring for both overt and covert white supremacists.

But no, what demographers know and white racists either know or sense is that this is not an aberration. The era of middle aged white guy dominance is slowly passing. This is a source of desperation that drives the absurd and vicious attacks on our first mixed-ethnicity president. Although I’m not a fan of his many Bush 2.0 policies, I have sympathy for him in this case.

Sidebar on covert racism: In a 2003 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, resumes with white-sounding names got 50% more callbacks than similar resumes with black sounding names. In another job hunting study by a sociologist at Northwestern University, young white men with felony convictions got more callbacks than young black men with equal qualifications and no criminal records. Being white was equal to eight extra years of experience. Welcome to post-racial America.

I’ll leave you with the Minor Heretic’s Law of Email Probability. The number of recipients of an ad hominem email concerning a major political figure equals the number of nines in the probability that it is false. One email address equals a 90% probability of bullshit. Two addresses equal 99%. Three addresses equal 99.9%, and so on.