Metadata

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. 

Person of Interest

Seney Lily Pads

My current guilty pleasure is the techno spy thriller “Person of Interest”. This TV show originally aired on CBS, between 2011-2016, now all 103 episodes are available for binging on Netflix. It features Reese (Jim Caviezel), an ex-CIA agent and Finch (Michael Emerson), a wealthy computer programmer who combine forces to save lives by using a surveillance AI that sends them the social security numbers of people who it predicts are about to be murdered or less often commit the murder. Created by Jon Nolan, this show is basically a police procedural, overlaid with a Sci-Fi veneer. At least that was how it was written, but like all good Sci-Fi, time often turns fiction into fact.

The 2011 season’s episode “No Good Deed” features a very Edward Snowden NSA agent, who is threatening to disclose the presences of the AI and the US government’s involvement in spying on America. This episode aired two years before Snowden disclosed the breath of the NSA spying efforts, via Wikileaks. I have to wonder if in that two-year interval, if Snowden was watching this show. 

The Machine, as the AI is called, has access to all surveillance throughout the country, but mostly contends itself with where the L-train goes. Its presences is visualized via a collage of CCTV feeds, overlaid with tracking cursors on all the people in the scene. Originally, these voyeuristic collages served as a segue between commercial breaks, when the show was still airing on CBS. On Netflix, with no more ads, their presence soon becomes more of an annoyance.

Surveillance is a central theme in this show. In order to protect each episode’s person of interest, the first step is always bugging them. Once bugged, every conversation is then recorded and is often used as incriminating evidence. I am reminded of this summer’s dustup where former Whitehouse aid Omarosa surreptitiously recorded her former colleagues and then leaked those recordings.

We are now living in a surveillance state. The ubiquitous presence of cellphones that can act like electronic leashes makes us parties to our own monitoring. The tradecraft that is routinely demonstrated in this show gives one a heads-up on what is going on. We are all being watched now, all of the time. 

On Location

Lovers Point

I’m looking at the HBO series “Big Little Lies”. I’ve watched the first ten minutes and I haven’t decided whether to watch anymore. The series is set in Monterey and its first season garnered lots of awards (4 Golden Globes and 8 Emmys). A casting call for its second season is front page news in the Monterey Herald. In my miniscule viewing, the show opens at night and two homicide detectives are seen walking up to an elementary school, where a fundraiser has gone tragically wrong. The all-star cast is headlined by Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley, who play three women that get embroiled in a murder investigation.

Flashback and Witherspoon is seen driving her daughter to school, on the first day of school, for first-grade, across the Bixby Bridge. A jump-cut later she is involved in a near accident, just west of Lovers Point, three blocks from the school, which would put it in Pacific Grove. She trips, sprains her ankle and a voiceover says that maybe none of this would have happened, if she hadn’t fell.

Maybe it’s a private school? That would go a long way in explaining her cross-jurisdictional commute, but at this point I was confused, so I did a little digging. Supposedly, the principals all live in Carmel Highlands, which is a community that is south of Monterey and south of its more famous near namesake, Carmel-by-the-Sea and all of these places are well north of the Bixby Bridge. Unless you are also filming a car commercial, then this commute makes no sense.

As an aside, my brother Chris has sold a photograph of the bridge that was used in a review (HuffPo) of this show. Also, my Dad told me that in the ’50 he and Mom had looked at a lot in Carmel Highlands, before they eventually bought in Carmel Valley. Not that he would have seen any of his erstwhile neighbors homes featured in this show, because further research revealed that other than landmark Monterey area locations everything else was shot nearer to LA. 

Babylon Berlin

Cabaret Program Cover Art

A steam locomotive hurdles through the night only to be brought to a screeching halt by a burning tree fallen across the tracks and of course, there are those men with guns, who turnout to be Trotskyist train-jackers. This is the opening to the new Netflix German import, “Babylon Berlin”. Set in the spring of 1929, this period crime drama predates both the Great Crash and the rise of the Nazis. It shows the Weimar Republic at the height of the roaring twenties.  “Babylon” captures Germany’s dark glamour in a briefly exhilarating time between the wars. An era that has been mostly overlooked, considering what followed.

This is the biggest budget German language (subtitles volk) TV series ever made. If has been reviewed as “Cabaret” on cocaine. I think that crack is more apt. It’s not for the prudish, not that it is all that salacious, but because it is so earthy. One comparison has been drawn about women’s armpit hair. While other series like “Game of Thrones” or “Outlander” show depilated heroines, “Babylon” does not. Begging the question where those fantasy women find space to toilet. This comparison is used to emphasize this show’s realism over others, but don’t worry, because there is still just as much nudity in this show.

This is a crime drama and our protagonist is a PTSD suffering, self-medicating morphine addict. Otherwise, he seems like a standup guy, at least compared to the soup that he is swimming in, which includes sex, drugs, thugs, corrupt cops and those pesky Trotskyites. It is less a crime drama than an expose of Berlin.

I loved it! I must admit that I’m a sucker for stories about this time and place. I’ve read all of the Alan Furst Nazi era novels. Its attention to period detail enthralled me, like coin-operated electricity in the tenements. As of writing, I’m ¾ of way through the 16 episodes that dropped this month. I’ve been binging, but hey, it’s cold outside there baby. This is the show’s first two seasons.

The show is based upon author Volker Kutscher crime novels, of which he has written plenty. It has been well received in Europe and I would expect sequels to follow. It’s a thing now and with the Netflix US distribution deal, this only ensures its continued success in the future. 

Mindhunter

Mindhunter

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them. – Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s quote well encapsulates the new Netflix crime drama, Mindhunter. A police procedural that describes the genesis of the FBI’s serial killer unit. Set in 1977, I guess making it a period piece now, the show follows the travels of two FBI agents Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Tench (Holt McCallany). They’re running a dog and pony roadshow, trying to disseminate Bureau knowledge to local police departments. Occasionally, after their talks a reluctant officer will solicit their advice on a particularly disturbing local case.

In the crime drama genre this FBI unit’s story has been well told. From Clarice to the present, countless variations have been presented. Two things make this telling unique. First, it is an origin story. The show captures well the feel of the late seventies, particularly all of those annoyingly ineffective American cars. A Pinto crash scene is even included, albeit not a fiery rear-end one. Second, is the reliance on chatter over splatter, opening credits are played over the meticulous threading of a reel-to-reel tape recorder that’s used for interrogations. Except for the gratuitous initial scene the only gore shown is in the crime scene photos.

Groff as Ford brings a young naïve idealism to the team that seldom falters, even in the face of so much unspeakable evil. McCallany as Tench plays the grizzled old veteran. As an actor, he seems destined now to land any hardboiled detective role he may want. Together, they appear to have been selected to play good cop-bad cop from central casting. Later this boys club solidarity is violated with the introduction of Anna Torv, who plays a behavioral psychologist. She brings scientific rigor to what had been a do what feels good approach. 

As misogyny goes it doesn’t get much worse than depicted in this series, but it’s still on the spectrum. If you slide downward, you’ll find Harvey Weinstein, the groper-in-chief and their ilk are all there too. It is just a matter of degree, as is murder in the first. In the end, it all comes down to convictions.

Welcome to Saint Louis

Cheetah

Cheetah

I went to the Saint Louis Zoo today. It is close to home and is easy for me to visit. From today’s photo safari, I’ve chosen the above picture as the graphic for this post. Interestingly, there were two zoo keepers, both women, in the enclosure. One of them stood guard, while the other one was doing some digging. When I was viewing the cheetah exhibit, another visitor turned to me and expressed his amazement at how great this zoo is. He was even more amazed at the fact that zoo admission is free. I asked if he was from Saint Louis and not unexpectedly he said no. He came to town on business, his meeting ended early, his flight wasn’t until tomorrow, he had the afternoon off and so he went to the zoo. I saw him again later and he was even more excited. He told me that he had already seen three new to him species. I could have told him, you’re welcome, because as a Saint Louis County taxpayer I paid for it, but that would have been rude. We were both having a good time and since there were so few visitors, the animals seemed to also appreciate the extra company.

Another welcoming to Saint Louis is featured in this year’s Budweiser Super Bowl spot, “Born the Hard Way”. This ad tells the Anheuser-Busch origin story. It details Adolphus Busch’s journey from Germany to Saint Louis and culminates in his meeting with cofounder Eberhard Anheuser, over a beer. In this commercial Busch’s immigration is punctuated with travails. Crossing the Atlantic he is thrown from his bunk and requires stitches. In NYC he is met with the angry epithets, “You’re not wanted here” and “Go back home.” Later the riverboat that was bringing him to Saint Louis catches fire and he is forced to abandon ship. This whole story is told in flashback, as we learn later. This casts new light on the ad’s opening line that to any new immigrant would appear threatening, “You don’t look like you’re from around here.” Later, we learn that it was spoken as an introduction by Anheuser to Busch.

AB InBev is the largest brewer in the world and it has been a perennial Super Bowl sponsor. Most of their spots have been of the cute and cuddly sort, think Clydesdales, dogs and frogs. In our current highly charged environment about immigration and the controversy over Trump’s recent immigrant ban, this commercial seems pointedly political, no matter what the brewer says. In this way it feels reminiscent of Chrysler’s 2012 Clint Eastwood Super Bowl halftime spot, “Halftime in America”. I can only hope that “Born the Hard Way” is just as effective. Oh and Budweiser, welcome back to Saint Louis.