Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Nobody Changed the World by Being Polite

Recommended read: Against Civility: You can’t fight injustice with decorum.

Do We Want to Live in the Shadow of a Nuclear Power Plant?

A newsletter I get everyday from Wired magazine ran an article on the dangers posed to the public by malicious hacking. Here’s the pertinent passage:

AFTER LAST MONTH’S Petya/NotPetya ransomware outbreak you may be feeling like the next global attack could come at any moment. It hasn’t struck yet, but if the ransomware fear doesn’t get you, the phishing paranoia might. And don’t forget angst about power grid hacks. Reports this week revealed that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are scrambling to defend multiple US energy companies and manufacturing plants from hackers—including a nuclear power plant in Kansas. So far there’s no evidence that hackers have accessed the industrial control systems that actually direct physical equipment, so it’s not a doomsday scenario yet, but from an anxiety perspective it’s not great.

It’s not exactly a new idea that almost anything connected to the Internet is vulnerable to intensive hacking efforts. Hackers have usually gone where the money is, and that’s been financial institutions and individuals with an online identity. It’s beginning to look as though ransomeware has become the next scourge.

But things could become serious. Nuclear power plants, it now appears, are connected to the Internet, and the government reportedly believes that one of them, in Kansas, is vulnerable to hacking.

I have always opposed nuclear power plants. It seemed to me that, sooner or later, one of them would have a catastrophic accident that would spew tons of deadly radioactive dust directly into the atmosphere, to be carried by winds thousands of miles and deposited on the earth along its path.

Sooner or later happened at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, when a graphite-modulated reactor blew up and spread radioactive debris over thousands of square miles.

In 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi Plant melted down as a result of an earthquake and the resulting tsunami. It has still not been brought under control and continues to emit radioactive material into the ocean and atmosphere. Robots sent into the most radioactive areas of the plants have ceased to function because of the intense radiation.

There are three things to remember about nuclear reactors: 1. Meltdowns are catastrophes, and the damage to property and loss of life are simply unacceptable. That means that the likelihood of a meltdown must be brought to zero, which cannot be achieved with today’s technology and probably with no future technology. The only reasonable course is no reactors at all. 2. If a reactor can melt down, it will eventually melt down. This is a corollary of Murphy’s Law. 3. As a reactor ages, the probablity of failure increases, because reactor parts are subject to heat, radiation, and corrosive substances that cause them to deteriorate. The probability can be reduced by decommisioning the reactor well before it becomes dangerous.

Now virtually all the power plants are connected to the Internet, where they can be managed and monitored from a central location. Because they are online, they can be targeted by both small-time hackers and state intelligence agencies.

The same is true of the nation’s electric power grid.

The reason that these problems haven’t been fixed is money. The only way to ensure that hackers can be kept out is air. There must be air between the internal network and the Internet. Data must be encrypted end-to-end and transmitted over dedicated lines. This is how the military and the intelligence agencies have been exchanging data for at least 60 years over leased lines. Transmitting secure data over the air requires strong encryption, since third parties can capture the transmissions.

When state actors come into the picture, things become much more serious. Even encrypted communications are not perfectly safe. Given enough computing power a state can crack a cryptographic system and access almost any information stored within the system.

As long as local networks remain disconnected from any open network, the network will remain secure from all outside efforts to compromise it.

The same goes for electric power grids. Many of these systems were fitted with interfaces to the Internet in the belief that the Internet was benign. The system worked well until hackers, thieves, and spys began to penetrate what were then regarded as secure sites

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Chile Redux

Putting the clamps on Venezuela

Venezuela has committed the unpardonable sin, at least in the eyes of the U.S. and Venezuelan power elite. Since 1999, it has been electing socialist governments that are feeding and healing the poor. They have also clawed back much of the nation’s mineral wealth from the ravenous oligarchy that has neglected and impoverished the people for hundreds of years.

The average American knows little about Venezuela other than what she hears on mass media. What she learns is false, cherry-picked, or lacking context.

When the mass media agree on an issue, be very, very suspicious. They usually agree for one of two reasons: First, when the truth is obvious, they would look like fools to deny it. The Earth is spherical, Grant is buried in Grant’s tomb, Iran is ruled by a corrupt theocracy.

The second reason is that the power elite are often up to no good. Men love the dark when their deeds are evil. What better way of keeping the average citizen in the dark than to repeat contradictory, irrevelant or false stories over and over again? Unanimity of the media is effective. The mental fog thrown up to obscure reality is hard to penetrate; it takes work to see through it.

Fantastical concoctions of misinformation, defamation, stories made from thin air purporting to reveal the real plot behind events,   travel by email and blogs with thousands and even millions of viewers. The originators of such misinformation usually claim to have connected the dots to reveal the true reason for the evil in the world. If the propagandist can interweave several conspiratorial tales, it multiplies their impact, much like a good mystery novel.

Their purpose is the same as bullshit: to erase the boundary between truth and falsehood. Humans have problems with contradictory narratives. We tend to seize upon the simplest story or the one that seems internally consistent. As Pooh-Bah would have said, bullshit is “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”[1] The technique is to 1) confuse people to the extent that they don’t know what to believe, and then 2) repeat the big lie over and over until they believe. That’s the effect of the emails, irrespective of the writers’ intent.

But back to Venezuela. It should be obvious that the mass media, owned by our power elite, is presenting a united front against the the Maduro administration. Their intent is to convince Americans that the regime is corrupt, dictatorial and dangerous. Since contrary positions seldom appear in the media, the average American, having never visited Venezuela, studied its history, watched or read credible foreign news outlets, or even talked with a native Venezuelan, this propaganda is effective. Successive U.S. administrations have refined and perfected it for at least 125 years[2]

The mainstream media’s treatment of Venezula might be a little more believable if it were not so routine. Most baby boomers can recall the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Unless they do some serious research, however, they will never know the disgraceful role played by the U.S. military.

The invasion and genocide in East Timor by the Indonesian army in 1978–80 was ignored by the mass media because the U.S. encouraged the invasion. Our government even furnished arms to the invading forces. There was Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991. U.S forces invaded Iraq in 2003, selling the invasion to Americans on the basis of lies. Going further back there was Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The mass media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, shamelessly parroted the government’s war propaganda until the elite finally turned against the war.

Hugo Chavaz and his successor, Madura, have been in the crosshairs of the last four U.S. administrations (including the present one). It is not hard to predict how the media spin the story. They are portraying Venezuela as a failed state, with a corrupt government. They portray Nicholas Maduro, Chavaz’s handpicked successor, as a dictator. The object, of course, is regime change. The fact that Chavez and Maduro won a majority of the votes in elections that were universally proclaimed as fair is beside the point.

Venezuela sits upon the world’s largest oil reserves, the Orinoco Basin. Big Oil wants to keep its finger on the country for one reason: The bane of the oil industry is not scarcity; on the contrary, it is overproduction. Too much oil makes the price go down. It is in the interest of Big Oil that oil remains scarce and therefore expensive. The easiest way to control the price of oil is to control its production. They strive for an optimum price point that maximizes the price of oil but does not induce people to reduce their driving or become more energy efficient.[3].

True, Venezuela is suffering from a severe decline in the price of crude oil. Oil has been the sole source of international currency that Chavez and now Maduro have used to improve the life of the poor, and the decline has put the economy in a tailspin. Inflation has rendered food harder to buy and the poorer segment of the population is suffering hardship. Unfortunately, some shortages in essential foods are the result of hoarding on the part of the businesses owned by the oligarchy.

 Jimmy Dore recently interviewed Abbe Martin from Empire Files, who has recently visited Venezuela. The interview is enlightening and strongly recommended.

From the time Chavez became president in 1999, the oligarchy has been bent on overthrowing the government he founded. In 2002, with the encouragement of the U.S., they attempted a coup. They kidnapped Chavez from the presidential palace, and flew him to a prison island in the Caribbean. They replaced Chavez with Pedro Carmona, a wealthy businessman. Carmona declared the Constitution a nullity and proceeded to round up Chavaz’s supporters.

Carmona lasted a little over a day before a mass uprising ousted him and restored Chavez to power. Carmona fled to Colombia, where he now lives. The U.S. emerged from the affair with mud on its face.

The poor in Venezuela are Indians and Negro-Indian with dark skin. A small white upper class of Spanish ancestry have oppressed and exploited them for centuries. When you watch video clips of the rioting in Venezuela, examine the skin color of the rioters. Most of the rioters have light skin, which should tell you who is actually fomenting unrest. It is an irony that members of the upper class—who are not experiencing shortages—are the ones that are rioting.

They cannot bear the loss of power to the lower classes. They are furious that the wealth that they themselves were draining from the country is now devoted to a public purposes. Although the schools, clinics, hospitals, water systems and other public works that the Chavistas are building have already improved the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of average Venezuelans, those improvements are of little concern to the upper classes. They want “their” country back like it has been for hundreds of years and out of the hands of the rabble.
It remains to be seen how this game will eventually play out.

Finally, for commentary that is also entertaining, watch a takedown of a recent show on Venezuela.

  1. Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado, (1885) dialogue following No. 19.  ↩
  2. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, linguist, author, and public intellectual: Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon (1988); Reprinted edition (2002). To watch a moving and horrifying full-length film about Chomsky and the atrocities he has worked to expose, see Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992).  ↩
  3. It is likely that we will never run out of oil. Global warming will force us (if we are wise) to reduce our production of greenhouse gases. A large percentage of greenhouse gases comes from burning oil.   ↩

Thursday, June 21, 2018

America's Shame

The United States has treated Central and South America as a source of wealth that could be easily gotten with the gentle persuasion for which the U.S. Army and Marines are famous. This has been going on for well over a hundred years. After invading these nations, the U.S. installed right-wing strongmen to do its bidding and give the exploitation of the hapless populations a thin patina of legitimacy.

One does not have to look very hard to learn the fate of the ordinary people of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and other nations who faced murderous right-wing police states armed with weapons made by U.S. manufacturers and financed by the U.S. Government.
And now the beleaguered citizens of these nations who fear for their lives and the lives of their families have come to this nation, hoping to be taken in and accepted by the very nation that is responsible for their suffering.

We have a moral obligation to offer them bread, not a stone[1]. Our moral duty to them goes far beyond the generally acknowledged obligation to treat others fairly and humanely. These are the very people we have wronged, and we can never fully atone for the evils we have visited upon them, either directly or by proxy.

Our president, Donald Trump, won the 2016 election partly by demonizing the very refugees we have created, and he has followed up by treating them even worse as they seek refuge in the U.S., to the extent of separating parents from their children. In many cases they will be permanently lost to each other, because ICE[2] neglected to keep track of which children belonged to which parents.

Why is it that tough, steely-eyed law enforcers seem to almost enjoy making children suffer? Why must it be children? Is it because they are so vulnerable that it’s easy to control them? It reminds me of Ivan’s conversation with his brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov about the cruelty of adults to children:
You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense. It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal[3],….
Dear reader, the way ICE is treating these children is simply evil. The president’s allowing it to happen is perhaps even more evil, because he could have stopped it at any time. Now that he has ordered ICE to stop separating families, ICE is transporting over 2000 children previously separated to shelters all over the country without a thought of returning them to their parents. It’s inconceivable that a president would order this kind of treatment. Maybe you can now understand how little he and the ICE management are concerned with basic human rights when it involves people in their power.
Apparently, the Republicans are waking up, not to the cruelty of what is going on, but the risk to their reelection.

  1. Matthew 7:9  ↩
  2. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Land closer than 50 miles to the U.S. border is, for all practical purposes, a Constitution-free zone, in which ICE agents, as well as other law enforcement agencies, have more or less a free hand to do what they please. Don’t expect to retain any of your constitutional rights if an agent suspects you of being an illegal immigrant inside the 50-mile-wide strip.  ↩
  3. The Brothers Karamazov, Book V, Chapter 4 “Rebellion.” The entire chapter is a gruesome recital by Ivan to his brother Alyosha, an Orthodox monk, of the way in which adults abuse children. The next chapter is Dostoevsky’s famous story, The Grand Inquisitor, which bears even closer reading.  ↩

Monday, June 11, 2018

Executive and Legislative Power in the Ago of Trump - A Present Danger

Our federal legislators, it seems, are finally awakening to the fact that Donald Trump’s behavior has become dangerous to the nation and the World. It’s even beginning to dawn on the person in the street (PITS) that he has exceeded the power given to him in the U.S. Constitution. I’m thinking particularly of Article 1, Section 8, where the powers of the legislative branch are set out specifically. Here is a portion of that article enumerating the war powers of Congress:
  • To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
  • To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
  • To provide and maintain a navy;
  • To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
As we all know, Congress has completely abdicated its responsibility to exercise the war powers granted to it by the Constitution. In 2003, it passed a joint resolution giving the President virtually unlimited powers to attack Iraq whenever he deemed it to be necessary[1]
(a) Authorization.–The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to–
(1) defend the national security of the United States
against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and
(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council
resolutions regarding Iraq.
This subsection gave the president unlimited discretion to attack Iraq whenever he felt like it. Every time since WWII that the executive branch has had a hankering to use armed force against another nation, Congress has let him do it and then weasled out of declaring war by renaming it[2].
If you believe, like me, that the Constitution is a living document, and must be read in the context of the world as it is today and not 1782, or if you believe to the contrary that the Constitution should be interpreted solely by the original intent of the founders, there is no getting past the exclusive grant of war powers to Congress. Short of the problems presented by the possibility of nuclear war, the words mean the same thing. Further, there is no provision for delegating or assigning these fundamental powers of Congress to another branch of the government for any reason.

The issue of presidential power versus congressional power to make war has come into the spotlight now that ├╝ber-narcissist Donald Trump has become president. Never before has it been so important and urgent for Congress to claw back its constitutional war powers from an executive branch that has become impervious to the checks and balances that the founding fathers included in the Constitution. Checks and balances, incidentally, were established with the stated purpose of preventing the executive branch from dominating the government.

Our senators and representatives have reasons for maintaining the current arrangement. Declaring war is serious business. It commits the nation to common sacrifice, and most people are unwilling to sacrifice anything whatever for an unnecessary war, certainly not a war for the sole purpose of enriching a few defense contractors.

If you want to learn the reasons why the U.S. has been involved in “police actions” almost continually since WWII, you could not do better than to read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins. After reading Perkins, you will have gained a firm understanding of the true motives of the power elite in invading other nations. It’s not pretty.

But I digress.

Anyone who has acquired a passing acquaintance with American history knows that every war in which this country was engaged had the effect of strengthening the executive branch at the expense of the legislative. Alexander Hamilton observed this tendency in 1787. [3]

It logically follows that if war increases the strength of the executive, then the executive branch, as time passes, will become increasingly inclined to find excuses to go to war. Hamilton failed to mention that those who profit from war, especially arms manufacturers, would be numbered among a war’s most enthusiastic supporters.

Bernie Sanders recently spoke words well worth paying attention to. Watching this YouTube clip set me thinking once again about the subject. It’s high time that U.S. citizens started pondering presidential versus congressional power and how to find a balance that will protect both our security and our freedom. There is no reason why we should give up either one, but if it has to be one it should be to give up some security, because if we give up liberty we will inevitably lose security. Dr. Franklin wrote “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Historical Review of Pennsylvania 1759, p.289

A government in which the executive power dominates is either a monarchy or a dictatorship. If the legislative power dominates, very little will get done; legislators are deciders, presidents are doers. Thus, the greatest danger to a republic is an overpowering executive, pushing the legislative body aside and doing what it pleases. No one’s liberty or property will be safe from a chief executive with unchecked power.

We live in dangerous times, not because of enemies abroad, but because those charged with keeping us secure and protecting our liberty are either corrupt from extreme wealth or asleep from complacency. The real danger lies in ourselves for letting this happen.

  1. Public Law 107–243  ↩
  2. For example: Police action, conflict, use of armed force, military actions, war on terror, right to protect, and armed humanitarion intervention. The ability of government progandists to devise euphemisms is endless.  ↩
  3. Federalist Papers, No. 8, ¶5  ↩

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Collusion Delusion

An article in Medium (May 29, 2018), reprinted from the Washington Post, shows a new trick the political right uses to insinuate itself and its views into the minds of Internet users: gaming Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo.

Read the article and try it for yourself. Type “russia collusion delusion” into the three search engines. The result, while different on each search engine, carries the same message— the conservative-far right position that there was no collusion between Trump and the Russians.

People who perform research on the Internet rely heavily on Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo, on the reasonable assumption that each algorithm returns a representative sample of opinions and information. They are mistaken. When control of the nation and even the World is the prize, political parties as well as ambitious individuals will spend a lot of time and money attempting to fix the results of such ubiquitous and influential sources of information.

There are three remedies this writer can come up with: 1) users of search engines must get into the habit of not stopping after the first query, but continue, diversifying their queries in significant ways, so as to neutralize the efforts of parties gaming the system; 2) legislation to regulate the way the engines choose websites, so that gaming of all kinds is reduced to a tolerable level. This will not always be easy. Fox has the ability to direct millions of viewers to point their searches to sites it wishes to move higher up on the search engine rankings; or, 3) publicize what is happening. If enough users quit using the big three because they do not trust them, they will revise their search algorithms accordingly.

While I was engaged in writing the foregoing, it occurred to me that slight changes in a query to a search engine can produce large changes in the results, even when only synonyms are substituted for search terms. Try entering “Trump collusion” as compared to “Trump conspiracy. Then try ”Trump conspiracy Mercedes“ compaired to ”Trump conspiracy BMW.“ Now go way out and try ”Trump conspiracy Walrus“ and ”Trump Conspiracy octopus.“ The first item returned from the ”octopus“ query was from the LA Times, Mar 24, 2017: ”Is the Trump-Russia story an octopus or spaghetti?"

These examples, incidentally, were all from

Given results that remind one of the butterfly effect[1], it might be possible to develop a web browser plug-in that, after running an inputted query as entered, repeatedly makes intelligent modifications to the query and then runs it again and again. It might be worth trying out.

This is only partly in jest. Statisticians frequently use Monte Carlo methods in calculating frequency distributions; many times, it is the only way such distributions can even be calculated.

Think of all the headaches a working system like this would give to Google.

  1. The butterfly effect predicts that in a chaotic system, a tiny event (like the beating of a butterfly’s wings) can result in a hurricane far away.  ↩