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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Recent Cloak and Dagger Happenings
Bruce Schneier attempts to untangle the news that the NSA has been reading Iranian codes, and that Ahmed Chalabi informed the Iranians. In doing so, he runs across the massive difficulties of attempting to analyze an intelligence happening. Indeed, what follows is practically useless, unless you enjoy this cat and mouse stuff like I do...
As ordinary citizens without serious security clearances, we don't know which machines' codes the NSA compromised, nor do we know how. It's possible that the U.S. broke the mathematical encryption algorithms that the Iranians used, as the British and Poles did with the German codes during World War II. It's also possible that the NSA installed a "back door" into the Iranian machines. This is basically a deliberately placed flaw in the encryption that allows someone who knows about it to read the messages.

There are other possibilities: the NSA might have had someone inside Iranian intelligence who gave them the encryption settings required to read the messages. John Walker sold the Soviets this kind of information about U.S. naval codes for years during the 1980s. Or the Iranians could have had sloppy procedures that allowed the NSA to break the encryption. ...

Whatever the methodology, this would be an enormous intelligence coup for the NSA. It was also a secret in itself. If the Iranians ever learned that the NSA was reading their messages, they would stop using the broken encryption machines, and the NSA's source of Iranian secrets would dry up. The secret that the NSA could read the Iranian secrets was more important than any specific Iranian secrets that the NSA could read.

The result was that the U.S. would often learn secrets they couldn't act upon, as action would give away their secret. During World War II, the Allies would go to great lengths to make sure the Germans never realized that their codes were broken. The Allies would learn about U-boat positions, but wouldn't bomb the U-boats until they spotted the U-boat by some other means...otherwise the Nazis might get suspicious.

There's a story about Winston Churchill and the bombing of Coventry: supposedly he knew the city would be bombed but could not warn its citizens. The story is apocryphal, but is a good indication of the extreme measures countries take to protect the secret that they can read an enemy's secrets.

And there are many stories of slip-ups. In 1986, after the bombing of a Berlin disco, then-President Reagan said that he had irrefutable evidence that Qadaffi was behind the attack. Libyan intelligence realized that their diplomatic codes were broken, and changed them. The result was an enormous setback for U.S. intelligence, all for just a slip of the tongue.
There are also cases when compromised codes are used... The Japanese attack on Midway was extraordinarily complex, and it relied on completely surprising the Americans. US cryptanalysts had partially broken the Japanese code, and were able to deduce most of the Japanese attack plan, but they were missing two key pieces of information - the time and place of the attack. They were able to establish that the target of the attack was represented by the letters AF, and they suspected that Midway was a plausible target. To confirm that Midway was the target, the US military sent an uncoded message indicating that the island's desalination plant had broken down. Shortly thereafter, a Japanese message was intercepted indicating that AF would be running low on water. However, such clarity in intelligence coups like this is quite rare, and the Iranian news is near impossible to decipher. You get stuck in a recursive and byzantine "what if" structure - what if they know we know they know?
Iranian intelligence supposedly tried to test Chalabi's claim by sending a message about an Iranian weapons cache. If the U.S. acted on this information, then the Iranians would know that its codes were broken. The U.S. didn't, which showed they're very smart about this. Maybe they knew the Iranians suspected, or maybe they were waiting to manufacture a plausible fictitious reason for knowing about the weapons cache.
So Iran's Midway-style attempt to confirm Chalabi's claim did not bear fruit. If, that is, Chalabi even told them anything. Who knows? Everything is open to speculation when it comes to this.
If the Iranians knew that the U.S. knew, why didn't they pretend not to know and feed the U.S. false information? Or maybe they've been doing that for years, and the U.S. finally figured out that the Iranians knew. Maybe the U.S. knew that the Iranians knew, and are using the fact to discredit Chalabi.
I'd like to know more about this story, but it seems woefully underreported in the media and it is way too cloak and dagger to accurately analyze with the information currently available. The sad thing is that I suspect we'll never be able to figure it out.
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2004 at 08:59 PM .: link :.



Sunday, June 20, 2004

Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on Bagels, The Simpsons, and Cheesesteaks
Things will be quite busy over the next few weeks, so I'm afraid these random bits and pieces will have to do for now.
  • What the Bagel Man Saw (NY Times registration required): So this government statistician gets sick of his boring career and, in a move resembling Homer Simpson's decision to go to clown college, announces "I'm getting out of this. I'm going to sell bagels." So he became a bagel salesman, and instituted the honor system. He would drop off a box of bagels and a cash box to various businesses in the morning, and then collect an empty box and a (~90%) full cash box. It seems, though, that his statistician habits die hard, as he has kept rigorous statistics of his business.
    He had also -- quite without meaning to -- designed a beautiful economic experiment. By measuring the money collected against the bagels taken, he could tell, down to the penny, just how honest his customers were. Did they steal from him? If so, what were the characteristics of a company that stole versus a company that did not? Under what circumstances did people tend to steal more, or less? As it happens, his accidental study provides a window onto a subject that has long stymied academics: white-collar crime. (Yes, shorting the bagel man is white-collar crime, writ however small.)
    He considers a company honest if they pay 90% of what they're supposed to. It turns out that you're able to pull all sorts of information out of this economic model. Weather, for instance, plays a significant part in the payment rate: "Unseasonably pleasant weather inspires people to pay a significantly higher rate. Unseasonably cold weather, meanwhile, makes people cheat prolifically; so does heavy rain and wind." Interesting stuff. [via Sneaking Suspicions]
  • Speaking of the Simpsons, I was watching the Pieman episode tonight and was immediately depressed. I'm hardly the first person to make the observation that the show isn't what it used to be (I'm actually the last, as of the time of this posting), but it really has lost something. Tonight's episode started with one of those random prologues that make the Simpsons so great. They were watching a trashy Fox (but I repeat myself, hyuk!) reality show about a rich millionaire who brought a bunch of women to his personal island and blah, blah, blah. Then the producers revealed the secret: It wasn't an island at all, it's really a peninsula! It's actually quite funny, but the writers are repeating themselves. I guess it's supposed to be some sort of self-referential in-joke, but it comes off as being repetitious and boring (and repetitious). The Monster Island bit is one of my favorites from the show, seeing it repeated like this just annoyed me.
  • Meathead Sandwiches: For reasons unbeknownst to be (and possibly knowst only to him), Meathead has taken a vacation from lampooning Trent Reznor and NIN and begun writing about... sandwiches. As always, his writing is entertaining and funny, and I'm proud to say that the Philly Cheesesteak ranks as number one on his top ten sandwiches list. Unfortunately, in a later post on how to make a Philly Cheesesteak, he reveals that the sandwhich he loves is only slightly related to the true Philly Cheesesteak (He uses roast beef?). It is an odd phenomenon. Almost anywhere outside of Southeastern Pennsylvania, what is called a "Philly Cheesesteak" barely resembles the real thing. So what makes a "true" cheesesteak? First, the beef. Preferably a rib eye steak that is cut exceptionally thin (it is often partially frozen to allow thinner slicing, about 1/16 of an inch). Minute steak and chip steak can serve as desperate substitutes if needed. Next, the cheese. I prefer American myself, applied as Meathead describes it: "in artsy-fartsy diagonal fashion." There has been a fad here of using Cheese Wiz™, but I tend to stay away from that stuff (for reasons which should be obvious). Finally, the roll. I'm not really sure what to say about it - what you really need is a roll from a South Philly Italian bakery. Apparently these types of rolls are less common elsewhere. Other ingredients (mushrooms, onions, peppers - I never heard of mayo on a cheesesteak, but whatever floats your boat) are optional. Perhaps someday I'll do a more formal recipe, but this will have to do for now...
That's it for now. As I said, posting will continue to be light (as if it isn't normally light) for at least the next week or so - I might miss next Sunday's post if I don't have the internet set up at my new place (did I mention I'm moving? That's why I'm so busy of late...) Hopefully, though, I'll be all settled. Wish me luck.
Posted by Mark on June 20, 2004 at 10:28 PM .: link :.



Sunday, June 13, 2004

A Specific Culture
In thinking of the issues discussed in my last post, I remembered this Neal Stephenson quote from In the Beginning Was the Command Line:
The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And--again--perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won't nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you've got some tools.
[emphasis added] It is true that one of the things that religion gives us is a specific way of looking at and understanding the world. Further, it gives people a certain sense of belonging that is so important to us as social beings. Even if someone ends up rejecting the tenets of their faith, they have benefitted from the sense of community and gained a certain way of looking at the world that won't entirely go away.
Posted by Mark on June 13, 2004 at 09:32 PM .: link :.



Friday, June 11, 2004

Religion isn't as comforting as it seems
Steven Den Beste is an athiest, yet he is unlike any athiest I have ever met in that he seems to understand theists (in the general sense of the term) and doesn't hold their beliefs against them. As such, I have gained an immense amount of respect for him and his beliefs. He speaks with conviction about his beliefs, but he is not evangelistic.

In his latest post, he aks one of the great unanswerable questions: What am I? I won't pretend to have any of the answers, but I do object to one thing he said. It is a belief that is common among athiests (though theists are little better):
Is a virus alive? I don't know. Is a hive mind intelligent? I don't know. Is there actually an identifiable self with continuity of existence which is typing these words? I really don't know. How much would that self have to change before we decide that the continuity has been disrupted? I think I don't want to find out.

Most of those kinds of questions either become moot or are easily answered within the context of standard religions. Those questions are uniquely troubling only for those of us who believe that life and intelligence are emergent properties of certain blobs of mass which are built in certain ways and which operate in certain kinds of environments. We might be forced to accept that identity is just as mythical as the soul. We might be deluding ourselves into thinking that identity is real because we want it to be true.
[Emphasis added] The idea that these types of unanswerable questions is not troubling or easy to answer to a believer is a common one, but I also believe it to be false. Religion is no more comforting than any other system of beliefs, including athiesm. Religion does provide a vocabulary for the unanswerable, but all that does is help us grapple with the questions - it doesn't solve anything and I don't think it is any more comforting. I believe in God, but if you asked me what God really is, I wouldn't be able to give you a definitive answer. Actually, I might be able to do that, but "God is a mystery" is hardly comforting or all that useful.

Elsewhere in the essay, he refers to the Christian belief in the soul:
To a Christian, life and self are ultimately embodied in a person's soul. Death is when the soul separates from the body, and that which makes up the essence of a person is embodied in the soul (as it were).
He goes on to list some conundrums that would be troubling to the believer but they all touch on the most troubling thing - what the heck is the soul in the first place? Trying to answer that is no more comforting to a theist than trying to answer the questions he's asking himself. The only real difference is a matter of vocabulary. All religion has done is shifted the focus of the question.

Den Beste goes on to say that there are many ways in which atheism is cold and unreassuring, but fails to recognize the ways in which religion is cold and unreassuring. For instance, there is no satisfactory theodicy that I have ever seen, and I've spent a lot of time studying such things (16 years of Catholic schooling baby!) A theodicy is essentially an attempt to reconcile God's existance with the existance of evil. Why does God allow evil to exist? Again, there is no satisfactory answer to that question, not the least of which because there is no satisfactory definition of both God and evil!

Now, theists often view athiests in a similar manner. While Den Beste laments the cold and unreassuring aspects of athiesm, a believer almost sees the reverse. To some believers, if you remove God from the picture, you also remove all concept of morality and responsibility. Yet, that is not the case, and Den Beste provides an excellent example of a morally responsible athiest. The grass is greener on the other side, as they say.

All of this is generally speaking, of course. Not all religions are the same, and some are more restrictive and closed-minded than others. I suppose it can be a matter of degrees, with one religion or individual being more open minded than the other, but I don't really know of any objective way to measure that sort of thing. I know that there are some believers who aren't troubled by such questions and proclaim their beliefs in blind faith, but I don't count myself among them, nor do I think it is something that is inherent in religion (perhaps it is inherent in some religions, but even then, religion does not exist in a vacuum and must be reconciled with the rest of the world).

Part of my trouble with this may be that I seem to have the ability to switch mental models rather easily, viewing a problem from a number of different perspectives and attempting to figure out the best way to approach a problem. I seem to be able to reconcile my various perspectives with each other as well (for example, I seem to have no problem reconciling science and religion with each other), though the boundries are blurry and I can sometimes come up with contradictory conclusions. This is in itself somewhat troubling, but at the same time, it is also somwhat of an advantage that I can approach a problem in a number of different ways. The trick is knowing which approach to use for which problem; hardly an easy proposition. Furthermore, I gather that I am somewhat odd in this ability, at least among believers. I used to debate religion a lot on the internet, and after a time, many refused to think of me as a Catholic because I didn't seem to align with others' perception of what Catholics are. I always found that rather amusing, though I guess I can understand the sentiment.

Unlike Den Beste, I do harbor some doubt in my beliefs, mainly because I recognize them as beliefs. They are not facts and I must concede the idea that my beliefs are incorrect. Like all sets of beliefs, there is an aspect of my beliefs that is very troubling and uncomforting, and there is a price we all pay for believing what we believe. And yet, believe we must. If we required our beliefs to be facts in order to act, we would do nothing. The value we receive from our beliefs outweighs the price we pay, or so we hope...

I suppose this could be seen by Steven to be missing the forest for the trees, but the reason I posted it is because the issue of beliefs discussed above fits nicely with several recent posts I made under the guise of Superstition and Security Beliefs (and Heuristics). They might provide a little more detail on the way I think regarding these subjects.
Posted by Mark on June 11, 2004 at 12:09 AM .: link :.



Wednesday, June 09, 2004

In Smash's World
Mr. Smash has made something of a habit of attending anti-war rallies and recording some of their less-than-savory aspects for posterity. Reading about these events is a strange experience; it doesn't seem like reality. It almost feels like I'm reading one of Frank's In My World posts. Smash's latest piece crystalized it for me. Specifically, the people involved. You've got the former Ukrainian there to enlighten the A.N.S.W.E.R. folks. Then you've got a Guardian Angel named "Sledge" there to provide some protection, if needed. Best of all, there is "Red". Red is a recurring character in Smash's exploits. I say "character" becaues Red is so over-the-top that he is almost a caricature of himself.
I recognized Pete Reilly (aka "Red") from a previous A.N.S.W.E.R. rally in San Diego. He was the guy who called me a "f---ing fascist," and then ran off to complain to the cops. This time around, Red made the mistake of approaching Eric first, perhaps assuming that he was the most easily intimidated of the three.

"Why don’t you get out of here, you f---ing fascist?" It was Red’s favorite opening line.
It's funny, Smash posted a picture of Red this time, and he looks exactly how I pictured him. Smash likes to keep quiet and blend into the crowd, allowing him a certain fly on the wall perspective that gives him some funny opportunities (such as this interview). As I said, it feels strange reading this, as if it isn't reality... but it is.
Posted by Mark on June 09, 2004 at 10:25 PM .: link :.



Sunday, June 06, 2004

D-Day
Today is the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day. I was going to get my chain-smoking monkey research squad to do a full report, but they surprisingly pointed me towards Blackfive's thorough posting on the subject, so I will just recommend you read that:
...you will find links to extraordinary bloggers telling the stories of D-Day from their unique perspectives. Instead of term paper descriptions, you'll see the beaches and cliffs of the Normandy coast, you'll read letters of the survivors and hear about the great sacrifices made by our neighbors to the north...and you'll never forget the Greatest Generation.
There is some great stuff there. I found this piece on Allied deceptions particularly interesting. I have written about the brilliance of Operation Fortitude (along with a few of it's subsidiary Operations) before, but the author of this article goes on to explain other deception plans as well, including some lesser known and smaller operations:
Operation Taxable was designed to divert attention from Normandy by fooling the Germans into believing that a large convoy of slow-moving ships was crossing the Channel towards Pas-de-Calais. It was completely dependent on absolute precision in flight and navigation for its execution. In tandem with a few Royal Navy motor gunboats (Operation Moonshine) that were actually crossing the Channel, the flyers released ?window? ? metallic strips that would show up on radar and make it look like a large convoy was en route.
Fascinating stuff, and there's lots more where that came from...
Posted by Mark on June 06, 2004 at 08:57 PM .: link :.



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