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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. 

Fresh Food

Osprey with Fish

Life is cruel. Decisions made while young can ripple through ones life, haunting it in later years. Looking back over my life, I am pleased with my career that has allowed me to now enjoy a comfortable retirement, but it didn’t have to be this way. In college, I was a lackadaisical student and barely graduated. But graduate I did and got a job, a real job, and even got married. So there, Bailey Bombers!

On the road to my success, while I was still languishing in East Lansing, I got a job-job. I clerked at a mom and pop Spartan Foods grocery store. Eventually the call came that lifted me out of this dead-end. The fact that the call came from my advisor’s former babysitter is now only serendipity. Both the mom and the pop were pleased for me when I broke the news to them, although pop less so. 

I worked in tech as they now-a-days say. It wasn’t called that back then. One of my early assignments was the automation of the calibration process for crash dummies at Chrysler. The union worker whose job was the calibration of these dummies was less than enthusiastic towards me. I doubt that he still has a job.

I shan’t mourn for truck drivers either. I look forward to the replacement of these over-the-road cowboys, with more dependable robots. Mark me, the robot revolution is coming and Jeff Bezos is leading the charging of the barricades. 

We’ve had U-scans for years at our local grocery store. Just recently, their number has doubled. But their automation is primitive compared to that recently demonstrated at the new Amazon Go grocery store, which looks like a prototype for Whole Foods of the future. Speaking of which, while surveying Google maps, I could not find that old Spartan Foods store. Although, nearby, as in its place is a much larger Whole Foods. Like I said, life is cruel. 

The Zen of Working

Water Lily

“Work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work. Hello, boys. You have a good night’s rest? I missed you.” – Governor Lepetomane, Blazing Saddles

I bought a new laptop. The old one was getting pretty long in the tooth and while still serviceable, it was becoming more and more difficult to use. After I unboxed the new one and powered it up, the PC launched itself into endless Windows update mode. Eventually, I got to begin personalizing the machine. I loaded some software and photos. Adding everything that I could think of. It almost felt like being back at work, where in the closing months of my career, I lived a gypsy life. Going from one new machine to the next and setting each one up to my tastes, before I could begin working with it. 

As background to my activity, the staccato sound of a jack hammer filtered in from outside. MSD has arrived. They are drilling test holes in the street, trying to locate the existing infrastructure, before they begin trenching for the new sewer line. Gotta uncross the streams. Laclede Gas eventually joined the party and they were like that guest that just won’t go home. It looked like they were backhoeing out one of the neighbors’ laterals. MSD packed it in and Laclede was still at it. The streetlights came on and they continued working. The 10 o’clock news finished and the late shows were beginning and we were getting ready for bed, before they finally packed it in and wheeled away. I’m glad that I had a desk job and I’m even more glad that I don’t have to work it any longer.

V vs. Empire

V vs. Empire

We attended Science on Tap last night, where the evening’s talk was entitled, Digital Privacy and Other Civil Liberties and was presented by Professor Neil M. Richards, of Washington University in Saint Louis. In addition to his scholarly writings, Mr. Richards has written for the Guardian, Salon and Slate. He also has a book, Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age that formed the basis for the talk. Richards was an excellent speaker and his talk was on a subject that is currently much in the news:

Earlier this year Congress passed and Trump signed into law a decision to overturn new privacy rules for Internet service providers (ISPs) that were passed by the FCC last year. The rules never went into effect. If they had, it would have given consumers control over how ISPs use their data. The rules would have required consent from consumers if sensitive data, like financial or health information, or browsing history, were to be sold or shared. – NPR

The following paragraph is the Science on Tap synopsis of the evening’s talk:

Why is it bad when governments or companies monitor our reading or web-surfing? Intuition tells us such surveillance is bad but—in an age of global terrorism and rapid innovation—it fails to explain why the surveillance poses a problem. Professor Neil Richards offers a new approach to thinking about the ways we’re being watched—one that ensures our ideas and values keep pace with technology. While we might think of privacy and free speech as being in conflict, Richards will explain how the two are often essential to each other. He will explain the importance of “intellectual privacy” protection when we are thinking, reading, and communicating with those we trust; and as we increasingly depend on technologies that can track us, how protection of intellectual privacy has become an imperative.

I’m old enough to remember the days when the Internet was like the Wild West. It used to be that you could ride into any town as the man with no name, but those days are gone. Now, all you have to do is glance at any product or service and ads for that commodity with follow you around wherever you go. Now, when you surf, from behind your screen you are already being watched closely. So, the notion of Internet privacy already seems a thing of the past, but it doesn’t have to be that way and it still isn’t universally like that. To illustrate this point, Richards used the example of Fifty Shades of Grey.

This wildly popular story involving S&M is the stuff of guilty pleasures. It first appeared as a novel and then later as a movie. It is the type of material that you might enjoy, but is also the type that you might not want everyone else to know about it. You could buy the book from an old bricks and mortar bookstore, but the judging eyes of the sales clerk could be enough to dissuade you from that course. You could download it to your Kindle, but your ISP would have a record of that and now can sell that dirty little secret to anyone it wants.

Interestingly, if you choose to stream the movie version, your privacy is still protected. The story behind this loophole dates back to the days of VCRs and video rental stores. Back in the day, a federal judge had ruled that lists of movie rentals were not considered protected information. This ruling incensed a privacy activist, who also happened to patronize the same corner video store as the judge and who was able to convince the store’s owner into giving him the judge’s list of rentals. As it turned-out there was nothing salacious or damaging in the judge’s viewing habits, but this case soon came to the notice of Congress, who quickly decided to outlaw any repetition of this act and has done so to this day. What I see now is an opportunity for history to repeat itself again.

Boston

Charles River Esplanade

Dave flew out of O’Hare today, without any altercations, but of course he didn’t fly United. The Twitter-verse has been having too much fun with that meme. He sent this photo, which I placed as being taken near the foot of Beacon Hill, with the Back Bay in the distance. I had to lookup what an esplanade is, it is a long, open, level area, typically beside the sea, along which people pleasure walk. He will be in Boston for the rest of the week, meeting with his Harvard colleagues. I still can’t get over the fact that he could choose to work there as a Post-Doc. The boy has done well. Next week, he’ll continue heading east to Brussels and meet his alternative colleagues. In total, he will be two-weeks on the road.

I setup his phone for Europe and chose a simpler plan than what we used in London. We had opted for a fixed price plan that didn’t offer all that much data. I knew that we were in trouble, when I received a text from AT&T saying that I had used 90% of my data and it was only day two. We ended up incurring overages. Dave’s plan is $10 a day for unlimited text, calls and data. This plan will be good not only in Belgium, but also in neighboring France and Germany and also Ireland and Poland, both of which he will be connecting through. It will work in about a hundred countries, but interestingly, it does not cover Holland or Luxemburg. It also doesn’t cover the United Kingdom, but it does cover Wales, which I always thought was part of the UK.

Prime Meridian

Anne is shown standing on the rail that marks the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England. By convention this rail lies at 0º 0′ 0″ W longitude, but my iPhone told a different story. According to it the Prime Meridian is actually located 5″ west or about 100 meters west of where it is supposed to be. This reading frustrated me and I was already set for a full on iPhone rant, when Anne pointed out to me the explanation on a nearby plaque. As it turns out my iPhone was correct and the Greenwich meridian is misplaced. The coordinate system used for satellite navigation in phones takes into account later data on the Earth’s slightly irregular shape. Because of this there is a small difference between the Prime Meridian and the satellite meridian: the latter is about 100 meters further east. Wait though, if the Prime Meridian was decided to be 0º longitude, then isn’t it the satellite system that is wrong? Also on a wall at the Royal Observatory are various units of measure: a foot, yard and gallon. All of these old standards are obsolete, replaced now with newer, more accurate and permanent standards.