Storm Clouds Over the Badlands

When I first began watching the TV series “Person of Interest”, I blogged about it here. I can now proudly proclaim that I have successfully binged all 103 of its episodes. This may not seem like all that much of an accomplishment, but for me completing a TV series is rare. I don’t think that I’ll ever do the same with “Game of Thrones”. Kudos to creator Jonathan Nolan for holding my attention.

Over the show’s five seasons it morphed from a buddy act to a battle for the future of humanity. In the beginning, two guys with the help of an all-seeing artificial intelligence try to do good and save people whose number has come up. Over time an ensemble coalesces into a resistance to a rival AI that is taking over the world. One of the series’ high points was its prediction of Edward Snowden and his data breach that outed the NSA’s spying on America. Homage was paid to Snowden in the show’s final episode when the wi-fi modem that he purportedly used to first breach the NSA network is filched from an evidence locker and is again used to breach the agency’s firewall.  

“Person of Interest” is fiction, but in this week’s New Yorker is an article that goes down many of the same rabbit holes that it had. Author Dexter Filkins’ “Enigma Machines” as the article (Paywall) is entitled in the magazine’s print edition, dissects a particularly arcane aspect of the Russian investigation. It involves the 2016 computer communications between the Trump organization and the Russian Alfa bank that could have been the mechanism for collusion.

The Domain Name System (DNS), a worldwide network that acts as the Internet’s phone book, is at the heart of this investigative piece. The DNS is ubiquitous on the Internet. You used it to find this post. The gist of the article is that much like the NSA use of phone metadata, who called who, when and where, a similar hack of the DNS existed in 2016. With this hack, as the article lays out, a meticulously detailed communications chronology is described.

Filkins has written an interesting article, but as the print edition’s title alludes to, it is ultimately unsatisfying and the reader is left with an enigma. This is the fundamental problem with metadata. It can tell you who and when, but never what. You know when two parties communicated, but you don’t know what they were saying. In the case of the Trump-Alfa logs, it could be collusion or it could just as well be marketing spam.

For the NSA, just knowing who a person of interest is communicating with is relevant. Piecing together such leads is how they eventually track and takedown terrorist networks. Filkins’ article does offer some tantalizing clues using the timing and frequency of the Trump-Alfa communications, but there is no smoking gun here and in the end it is all circumstantial. The NSA uses metadata as a filter to whittle down their leads to a manageable number that can then be prosecuted using more traditional means. Filkins concludes that any resolution to the enigma of the Trump-Alfa logs will require an analogous approach.

In The Atlantic, Franklin Foer, who first broke the Alfa Bank story in Slate, a week before the 2016 election, has revisited his story in light of Filkins’ New Yorker article. It provides some journalistic back story to this investigation. 

The Blue Wave

The Blue Wave

Tip O’Neill once quipped that all politics is local. That was certainly true around here in yesterday’s election. While much of the nation may have been focused on the special congressional election in Ohio’s 12th district, we here in Saint Louis had plenty of local action to contend ourselves with.

Anne did her election judge thing again, getting up at uh-oh dark thirty (3:30) and working upwards of fifteen hours. Later, I learned that she had to endure that marathon workday schedule without any air-conditioning. There was no way that I was going to get out of bed that early, so that meant that Anne had the car and I had to walk to the polls, in the rain. For an August election, the poll was jumping. I had to wait in line, which has never happened for a summer election. Ours is a heavily Democratic precinct, so I took that as a good sign.

This election was our statewide primary election. Claire McCaskill (D), who is running for reelection for US Senator, was nominated with over 80% of the Democratic ballots (500K votes), while challenger Josh Hawley (R) garnered less than 60% of the Republican ballots (389K votes). Come November, this will be our marquee race. There were 60K more Republican votes cast than Democrat, but Hawley has way more party consolidation to do than McCaskill. There is a lot more campaigning to do here before the November election.

The only other statewide vote was a proposition to make Missouri a right-to-work state. It was resoundingly defeated, by a 2-to-1 margin. Republicans had passed legislation making Missouri a right-to-work state, but labor was able to get enough signatures for this proposition, which put the new law on hold. With this defeat it is hoped that the Republicans won’t next attempt to overrule the will of the people, like they have in the past and pass right-to-work again.

For the rest of the ballot, a Democratic primary win means a win in November. Congressman Lacy Clay easily weathered progressive Cori Bush’s challenge and for the state legislature term limits had given us new choices for both the senate and the house. I picked a winner and a loser, but will be voting for both winners in November. The real action yesterday was at the county level.

Four years ago, Bob McCulloch was reelected to his seventh term as county prosecutor. One week later, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson by a police officer. McCulloch chose not to prosecute the police officer, exacerbating an already bad situation. Yesterday, Ferguson city councilman Wesley Bell beat McCulloch with 57% of the vote. McCulloch now joins the list of prosecutors who have lost their jobs, because they elected not to prosecute in a black lives matter case: Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and now Michael Brown.

But wait, there is more. Four years ago, Steve Stenger, McCulloch’s handpicked protégé was first elected county executive. After yesterday, Stenger is sitting on a 0.64% lead. If after the counting of absentee and provisional ballots, his lead falls below half-a-percent that will trigger an automatic recount. Stenger’s tenure has been marked with bitter disputes with the county council. His best ally on the council has been my councilman, who also lost his election yesterday. As of today, Stenger is now calling for a truce.

After yesterday, I’m really looking forward to November. Democrats as a party can be both bumbling and messy. We lack the lockstep discipline of the Republicans, but this year we are riled. If the Saint Louis electorate did not forgive or forget wrongs committed four years in the past, it certainly is not going to forgive or forget the daily insults doled out by the Cheeto-in-Chief. 

Back in the Lou

Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Mr. Howard!

Anne and I had a great time celebrating Dad’s birthday with him and my two brothers this holiday weekend, but yesterday we left Monterey and flew back to the Lou. It is hot, hot, hot here. We venture down to Cherokee St. for an art fair and to support a former colleague of mine, who is also a potter. Cherokee St. is known for its antique stores and Dan has talked about renting a truck, loading it up with antiques, hauling them all to NYC and selling them for a profit there. However, Cherokee seems to have gone considerably more upscale than I remember it being. There was a sign there for a fixer-upper apartment and they were asking $200K for it, which seems expensive no matter how you look at it.

It was good seeing my Dad and my brother Chris again, but since I’ve become the retired guy, I’ve been seeing them quite frequently these days. I hadn’t seen my other brother Frank for some time. In 2016, he ran for county supervisor and has been a very busy politician public servant ever since. In addition to dealing with the perennial county issues of roads and fire prevention, he is wrestling with increasing homelessness and how to deal with legalized marijuana.

The Bay Area’s sky-high housing costs are driving more and more homeless people east and into his very rural county and while, the state has legalized marijuana, a lot of the work of regulating it falls upon the counties. He was participating in a panel charged with examining issues associated with legalized pot, when one of the other panel members brought up the idea of infusing THC into water. Frank, who has a chemistry background said that that would never work. He explained to me that THC is basically a long polymer that would be more soluble in oil than water. Another panel member who has a background in law enforcement quipped that that was a very Breaking Bad kind of comment. 

Zion’s Weeping Rock

Zion’s Weeping Rock

We’ve enjoyed a few days of frost-free mornings of late. So, it is high time that I commence planning this year’s summer campaign. In truth, I’ve been planning our expedition since Christmas. You have to plan that far ahead to get a good campsite in a national park, come high season. That part is done. We’ve got spots dotted across America picked out that are waiting for us to unroll our sleeping bags under the stars.

Speaking of which, I have a new sleeping bag to try out this year. My forty plus years old one is still serviceable, but it is a summer weight bag and doesn’t keep me warm on colder nights. We also have a new tent. This one is a three-person tent, which should be much roomier than the two-person one that we last bought and because it’s not thirty years old, it hopefully won’t leak like the four-person tent that we also own. Ole Yeller, as I like to call the four-person tent was big enough to sleep the whole family, at least when the boys were still young. It also provided yeoman service on the multiple week-long bicycling excursion with the League of Michigan Bicyclists that we’ve enjoyed. It was big enough to sleep two and also hold all of our gear at night. This summer, we will be car camping and won’t need the extra room inside the tent. Anyway, as they say, camping is where you spend a small fortune to live like a homeless person. 😉

The photo is from last summer’s adventures. Weeping Rock is spring fed, with water drops falling from above, after seeping through the rock face. Weeping Rock is an easy, paved walk-up from the bus stop. The same stop also serves Hidden Canyon, which we also hiked. This trail is across the valley from the more famous Angels Landing and was not anywhere as near crowded. It also has chains, bolted in the rock walls, so you can hangout on a ledge here too.