A domestic dispute over space aliens

January 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Somebody had fun writing this news report about Cormac McCarthy’s ex-wife:

A domestic dispute over space aliens escalated Saturday morning when a lingerie-clad New Mexico woman allegedly pointed a silver handgun at her boyfriend, a weapon she retrieved from her vagina, where it had been placed while the accused was performing a sex act, police allege.

While using the gat as a sex toy, McCarthy reportedly asked her boyfriend, “Who is crazy, you or me?” The probable cause statement, drafted by Deputy Chris Zook, does not indicate whether McCarthy’s boyfriend dared to answer that query.

If nothing else, the story makes this customs report from Jordan more understandable:

Jordan Customs Department (JCD) staff in Aqaba on Wednesday foiled an attempt to smuggle 69,000 pills of Viagra sexual enhancement, as well as 18,984 toy pistols.

Cory Doctorow: 2014 is the year we lose the Web

January 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Cory Doctorow is as pessimistic as can be about the web in 2014. He thinks a netflix-driven drive from DRM is going to turn most HTML5 interfaces unseeable and unmodifiable:

Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that 2014 is the year we lose the Web. The W3C push for DRM in all browsers is going to ensure that all interfaces built in HTML5 (which will be pretty much everything) will be opaque to users, and it will be illegal to report on security flaws in them (because reporting a security flaw in DRM exposes you to risk of prosecution for making a circumvention device), so they will be riddled with holes that creeps, RATters, spooks, authoritarians and crooks will be able to use to take over your computer and fuck you in every possible way.

As near as I can work out, there’s no one poised to do anything about this. Google, Apple and Microsoft have all built proprietary DRM silos that backed the WC3 into accepting standardization work on DRM

Ecology for Hackers

January 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

My friend Sam is a remarkable hacker-activist, and one of the most aware people I have encountered. He listens deeply to the people around him, and opens himself to the spirit as well as the practicalities of what they are creating. Schooled first by electrical engineering and then by the occupy movement, he has now entwined those threads by developing into a nomadic technical contributer to all kinds of projects.

Thus I’m watching with interest his growing interest in permaculture, Open Source Ecology and related ideas.

Until now, I hadn’t paid much attention to these ideas. I’m temperamentally unsuited to living in a farming commune. Most discussion of permaculture seemed to come from people with a very different makeup to me: enraptured by the natural world, seeking a life of quiet stability in a small community.

So Sam’s approach caught my attention, if only for the superficial reason that he makes farming into slightly less of an impossible lifestyle choice:

You…start to tend the land by using natural processes to get the land to become ‘regenerated’ and then a productive living system gradually over your lifetime and transformed from dead soil or useless land into living soil and a forest garden in which you have planted trees that take 15 or 20 years to grow and can then sustain / feed you

All the while you continue on with your normal life elsewhere in the city or travelling or whatever… but through well timed purposeful, organised planting, sowing, watching and community building it can yield food and fuel. Then your land has more value over time and you then kind of inherit it later in your own life as a living system that will support you and others with fuel and food….

The way I would see it, I would attend the site at various points during my life to gently shape and guide the process but, for the most part, nature would take its course and the land and the system that would be developing there would be largely auto-catalytic and autonomous.

The full post is well worth reading. It steps much further back, linking agriculture to design and to some of the ideas of Buckminster Fuller:

I started to think about how I could use design to change the environment around me in such a way that would extend my internal functions and reorganise my environment so that it would work for me… so that it would, in the fullness of time, support me… as I think of my own future, I would like to eventually create a living system, by which I probably mean a forest garden, which I had designed after much studying and having made the tools to make the tools to make the tools.

Art Speigelman, interviewed by Molly Crabapple

January 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Molly Crabapple has a great interview with Art Spiegelman. Some favourite bits:

style is the residue of trying to do it right

By their nature, [comics] are not respectful. As a result, a lot of wild shit comes through. Even when people are trying to do pro-Assad cartoons, there’s all this stuff that leaks out. Because his version of the public narrative of what he’s about is too dissonant with the actual narrative.

I find it very hard to submit work because of [fear that editors won't like it]. Like I would rather set up a system where I have enablers.

Instead of editors. It’s like, “OK, you want to do something? Here’s some space. Do it.” Now it’s not practical. I’ve been an editor. You can’t run a railroad that way.

I get it but I have a very hard time fulfilling my part of it, which is submission. “Here! Take me! I’m yours!” I can’t do it.

Turkey admits selling “non-military” guns to Syria

January 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been working lately with Tolga Tanış of Hurriyet, to document weapons reaching Syria through Turkey — and to back the Turkish government into admitting their tolerance of it.

Turkish officials had furiously denied allowing weapons into Syria. That is, until Tolga’s column forced them to backtrack. At this point the defence minister finally accepted that Turkey had exported “non-military weapons” to Syria.

Tolga’s article was based on Turkish customs records collected in Turkstat, and then incorporated into Comtrade, the UN’s global trade database. From June, Turkish customs started recording exports under international category 9303, which covers hunting and sporting guns. By September the total was 47 tonnes of weapons, costing $1 million:

Commodity Month Weight (kg) Value ($USD)
Other firearms, sporting, etc, signal pistols, etc June 2013 3,568 $91,811
Other firearms, sporting, etc, signal pistols, etc July 2013 4,430 $83,462
Other firearms, sporting, etc, signal pistols, etc August 2013 10,220 $271,018
Other firearms, sporting, etc, signal pistols, etc September 2013 28,805 $619,035
TOTAL 47023 1065326

This kind of data can be pretty flaky — items easily get miscategorised through bureaucratic mistakes, attempts to minimize taxes, or a thousand other reasons. But the Turkish government accepted the truth of the data, and merely quibbled that Tolga’s reporting on it was misleading:

Ungrooved hunting rifle suitable for use for sports purposes and blank firing guns are not war weapons as suggested by the said report. This commodity’s exportation to Syria is not held subject to any limitation in line with the current international rules and regulations.

It’s a slightly garbled statement — “ungrooved rifle” is a contradiction in terms, and Tolga’s article accurately described the nature of the weapons.
But let’s accept the gist — recreational guns aren’t designed for war, so it’s OK to send them into an embargoed warzone.

I don’t know any other country that makes such a distinction between ‘fun guns’ and ‘gun guns’. Turkey certainly didn’t in the past. They have proudly trumpeted seizures of weapons destined for Syria, many of which would be classified as recreational:

Officers found 120 air rifles, 50 blank firing guns, 60,000 fireworks,
14,300 shotgun shells, 4,500 blank firing guns bullets, 107 rifle binoculars and 280 kilograms of bird’s eye [Source]

Some 110 air guns, 51 shotguns, 86 rifle scopes, 86 rifle clips, 104
gun clips and 50,375 bullets were seized in five operations conducted in
the last week of January, Yazıcı told daily Hürriyet. [Source]

Besides which, you have to consider how creative — or desperate — the Syrian rebels have been in making use of ostensibly weak weapons. Brown Moses has an entire playlist dedicated to DIY grenade launchers, many of them made from sporting shotguns. The image on the right, from The Atlantic, shows one such converted shotgun, albeit from before these particular export records.

Finally, remember: this portion of the arms flow into Syria became public, more-or-less by accident. But 47 tonnes of small arms is, well, small, in comparison to the needs of a full-blown war. We only catch small glimpses of the overall traffic, and can easily get a skewed picture of what is going on. It’s great to have something on record, but what is unrecorded is far greater.

Belgium: arms export licenses are subject to FOI

January 12th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Belgiums constitutional court has ruled that arms export licenses should be subject to Freedom of Information laws, despite a government attempt to exclude them:

La Cour constitutionnelle en annule la partie relative à la confidentialité.
La Cour constitutionnelle a rendu un arrêt ce jeudi annulant certaines dispositions du décret de la Région wallonne réglementant l’exportation d’armes. La décision est un nouveau camouflet pour un décret qui a vu le jour dans le sillon du conflit libyen et dont l’avant-projet avait déjà été durement attaqué par le Conseil d’Etat.

How GCHQ kept the world’s cellphones insecure

January 11th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Who says the Britain doesn’t have global influence? In the 80s we managed to hobble cellphone encryption so that our spies could listen in on calls. That’s according to Norway’s Aftenposten newsletter, which talked to 4 people involved in developing mobile communications systems in the 1980s.

A European working group designed the encryption system. They had to choose how long to make the keys — the more bits, the more secure it would be. The experts proposed a reasonably-strong 128 bits, but encountered unexpected opposition:

The British were not very interested in having a strong encryption. And after a few years, they protested against the high security level that was proposed. They wanted a key length of 48 bit. We were very surprised.

Why would Britain want a less secure system? To spy on Asia, it seems. According to two sources, “the British secret services wanted to weaken the security so they could eavesdrop more easily“:

The British argued that the key length had to be reduced. Among other things they wanted to make sure that a specified Asian country should not have the opportunity to escape surveillance.

This fits with the understanding which has been put together by security experts, often baffled by the weakness of GSM encryption. Cambridge academic Ross Anderson wrote in 1994:

Indeed, my spies inform me that there was a terrific row between the NATO signals agencies in the mid 1980′s over whether GSM encryption should be strong or not. The Germans said it should be, as they shared a long border with the Evil Empire; but the other countries didn’t feel this way. and the algorithm as now fielded is a French design.

Incidentally, Anderson also gets in the kind of anti-Murdoch swipe which was as relevant then as now, suggesting that somebody might “break the Royal Family’s keys for sale to News International

You forget your childhood at age 7

January 11th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I have very few memories from early childhood, to the perpetual surprise and occasional exasperation of those around me. I’m an extreme case of what is usual: a 5-year-old will have good memories of what they did at age 3, but a 9-year-old will have mostly forgotten. This study tries to pin down the time and nature of “childhood amnesia”, and suggests it happens around age 7:

at ages 5 to 7, the children remembered over 60 per cent of the events they’d chatted about at age 3. However, their recall for these events was immature in the sense of containing few evaluative comments and few mentions of time and place. In contrast, children aged 8 and 9 recalled fewer than 40 per cent of the events they’d discussed at age 3, but those memories they did recall were more adult-like in their content. Bauer and Larkina said this suggests that adult-like remembering and forgetting develops at around age 7 or soon after. They also speculated that the immature form of recall seen at ages 5 to 7 could actually contribute to the forgetting of autobiographical memories – a process known as “retrieval-induced forgetting”.

Software in 2014: a client-side Cambrian Explosion

January 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Tim Bray attempts a high-level survey of the development landscape in 2014. Server-side development is solid and improving. But the client-side is a mess — a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of different tools appearing, mutating and vanishing month by month. We’re dealing with the weaknesses of JS and CSS, the annoyances of the DOM, and the need to develop in triplicate for Android, iOS and the web. Eventually we’ll converge on some streamlined solution(s) for client-side development, but it’s anybody’s guess what that will be:

Historical periods featuring rococo engineering outbursts of colorful duplicative complexity usually end up converging on something simpler that hits the right 80/20 points. But if that’s what’s coming, it’s not coming from any direction I’m looking, so color me baffled. Maybe we’re stuck with clients-in-triplicate for the long haul.

Packing like Cameo

January 9th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve read a fair few blogposts on how to pack a suitcase. This guide from Cameo, though, must be one of the most thorough and impressive.

Syrian kidneys

January 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Syrian refugees are selling their organs in Lebanon, according to Der Spiegel:

Abu Hussein said that in the last few months he has driven 15 or 16 kidney donors – all of them Syrians aged between 14 and 30 – to the secret clinic masquerading as a residential building. The clinic has the most modern medical equipment and doesn’t want to limit itself to kidneys. “I’m currently looking for someone who has an eye for sale.”

Der Spiegel claims the going rate for a kidney is $7,000; according to Middle East Monitor it is just $670. The latter also cites a WHO guesstimate on the size of the market:

There is no exact information on the size of this business, but the WHO estimates that there is at least 10,000 kidneys sold worldwide, a large proportion of which originate in Lebanon; around 10 per cent of organ transplants around the world are such commercial transactions.

Urban Decay

January 7th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Bruce Sterling, quoting Victorian essayist William Dean Howells, explains the appeal of pictures of ruins:

The truth is, one cannot do much with beauty in perfect repair; the splendor that belongs to somebody else, unless it belongs also to everybody else, wounds one’s vulgar pride and inspires envious doubts of the owner’s rightful possession. But when the blight of ruin has fallen upon it, when dilapidation and disintegration have begun their work of atonement and exculpation, then our hearts melt in compassion of the waning magnificence and in a soft pity for the expropriated possessor, to whom we attribute every fine and endearing quality. It is this which makes us such friends of the past and such critics of the present, and enables us to enjoy the adversity of others without a pang of the jealousy which their prosperity excites.

Seems spot-on to me, and I say that as a committed addict of Urban Decay and the like.

A PhD in a sentence

January 6th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

LOL My Thesis gives those who have accomplished a PhD a greater challenge: describe it in a sentence. Some favourite attempts:


So-called metadata: a Russian comparison

January 5th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Something is seriously wrong when Russian courts are more protective of civil liberties than those in the USA. But that’s the case with metadata collection, at least on paper. Obama excused blanket phone surveillance because it only collected “so-called metadata”, so spooks did not need to “go back to a federal judge”. Andrei Soldatov, surely the best-informed journalist covering the Russian intelligence services, reports that they are more limited:

When Russia’s intelligence agencies collect metadata without a court order, it violates Russian laws. In September 2012, the country’s Supreme Court issued an interpretation stating that both a subscriber’s phone number and the connections between subscribers are confidential elements of phone conversations. The court ruled that “obtaining such information is an invasion of privacy and abridges citizens’ constitutional right to confidential telephone conversations” and that “agencies performing operational and search activities must obtain a court order to gain access to such information.”

Russian spooks doubtless dodge such legal bounds with the same fluidity as their American counterparts. Still, it is striking that the US government has sunk so low as to be seriously comparable to Russia.

Weapons in the Central African Republic

January 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

First the UN and now the EU have banned exporting weapons to the Central African Republic.

So I thought I’d take a quick look at where the weapons are coming from. This is going to come in two parts. First I’ll cover what is in official documentation. Then I’ll go back and take a peek at journalistic and NGO reports, which in this case turn out to contain far more useful information.

Step one is trade database Comtrade. According to that, Spain has consistently send small quantities of guns and ammunition in, month by month. A bit further back we see Slovakia, with a $1.5m shipment in May 2011. France, the former colonial power which still considers itself peacemaker in the region, has chipped in smaller chunks.

These are just total amounts sold, in fairly broad categories. To see some detail of specific transfers we can turn to
Then you can look at the UN Register of Conventional Arms. This shows international sales of weapons systems, as reported to the UN. It only contains heavy weaponry — in the self-description, “seven categories of arms, which are deemed the most lethal ones“. There’s also a smattering of information on small arms, which gets submitted even though it isn’t quite required.

The official database is less useful than the version by SIPRI, which combines it with other data sources.

Here we can see a separate transfer from Slovakia in 2008 for 3 armored vehicles. There are a couple of helicopters from Ukraine in 2011, and a plane from the USA back in 2006.

It’s slim pickings, though. Even for a small country (CAR’s population is about 4.5 million), this is clearly not enough to supply a war. The weapons come from elsewhere: old stocks, imports from neighboring countries, or transfers kept off the books.

In a day or two I’ll come back and take a look through the less official sources of information, and see what arms transfer routes we can infer.

To sabotage negotiations from the skies

January 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

emptywheel do great reporting on the political use of drones. They argue in particular that the US has used drone strikes to sabotage peace negotiations in Afghanistan, literally by assassinating the negotiators or their comrades.

So when a drone killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the US media seemed baffled that Pakistan was not happy:

Virtually nobody openly welcomed the demise of Mr. Mehsud, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians. To some American security analysts, the furious reaction was another sign of the perversity and ingratitude that they say have scarred Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.

But emptywheel cites reports that Mehsud’s party were due to attend peace talks the next day

[Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan] said the identity of those killed in the drone strike was irrelevant. “The government of Pakistan does not see this drone attack as an attack on an individual but as an attack on the peace process,” he said.

This fits an ongoing pattern:

in early October, the US snatched Latif Mehsud from Afghan intelligence after they had spent months trying to convince him to help them initiate peace talks… And with momentum gathering again for peace talks, Brennan even strayed outside the tribal areas of Pakistan in a botched attempt to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, but still managed to kill a senior fundraiser for the Haqqani network.

Where Iraq is at

January 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Here’s the latest graph of killings in Iraq from Iraq Body Count. We’re back up to death rates comparable to 2003-4, certainly worse than things have been for a few years.

IBC summarizes the events of the year:

The year started with protests and rising discontent. The Sunnis demanded reforms, while the government of Nouri al-Maliki abandoned any efforts to be cross sectarian, targeting Sunni politicians, arresting and interrogating and forcing some into exile. After the April 23 protest turned violent and the Iraqi Security Forces attacked protesters, killing 49 of them, the retaliation resulted in the number of civilian deaths tripling in the next 6 months. While 1,900 civilians were killed between October 2012 and March 2013, 6,300 were killed between April and October 2013.

I’d just add that the current rise is particularly worrying, in that it comes in winter. Iraq’s heaviest violence has tended to take place in summer. So if things are this bad even in winter, we can expect them to get much worse come summer.

Evaluating a tech team

January 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Julia Evans has been collecting questions to ask a tech company during a job interview with them. It’s a really good list. Many of the questions would also be useful in other contexts, including as something to ask about yourself. Some I particularly liked:

  • How/when do developers talk to non-developers? Is it easy to talk to the people who are will be using your product?
  • Can you give me an example of someone who’s been in a technical role at your company for a long time, and how their responsibilities and role have changed?
  • Has there been a situation where someone raised an ethical concern? If so, how was it handled? If not, have there really not been any?
  • Can I see some code the team I’m interviewing for has written? (from an open-source project you work on, for example)
  • How are disagreements solved – both technical disagreements and other kinds? What happens when personalities clash?
  • Is it possible to take sabbaticals or unpaid vacation?
  • How many women work for you? What’s your process for making sure you have diversity in other ways?
  • How does internal communication work? This one is super important and I need to remember to ask it more.
  • Do you contribute to open source projects? Which projects? Which teams work on open source? Do you work mostly in the community or do you have a private fork?
  • Do your employees speak at conferences about your work?
  • Is there any sort of institutionalized way of dealing with plateauing or preventing burnout?


January 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m sitting in Berlin, slowly returning to consensus reality after an intense week at the Chaos Communication Congress.

The CCC is close to indescribable. It’s a huge computer security conference, whose speakers routinely turn up and announce they have broken some key part of the world’s technical infrastructure. But the real action happens in the halls full of friends and tinkerers, working together on an unfathomably large collection of technical

Most importantly for me: it is socially and politically engaged, far beyond what you might encounter elsewhere in the technical world. I don’t mean just the deliberately political areas like ‘noisysquare’, where I spent most of my time, but the pervading attitude throughout the congress. Distrust of authority, desire to build an internet that resists censorship and surveillance, and a deep concern with the social implications of our work.

This year some fake ‘recruiters’ pranked the conference, with the help of the organizers. They approached some 500 attendees with job offers from a dubious-sounding private security firm. To the general pride of the congress almost all rejected the offer; the few who didn’t were taken aside, told about the prank, and asked to reconsider their morals.

I heard the Congress compared a few times to Burning Man. That more shows the lack of other reference points than any real similarity. Still, there was something burner-ish about the reappropriated police truck in the basement, complete with water cannon (“liquid democracy”) and covered in dancers and partiers. And then there was the mile-long series of tubes carrying messages across the building, pneumatically powered by a phalanx of vacuum cleaners. And the French digital rights contingent in their curtained enclave quietly drinking tea on low tables — an atmosphere designed to calm those in altered states, whether chemical or the sheer joy of hacking.

Going to the Congress feels increasingly like coming home, even if it’s a home I only see each year. It’s one of few environments that can make me feel simultaneously relaxed and inspired — awestruck and accepted by a crowd of incredible people, daunted by their accomplishments and aware of how much work needs to be done. It’ll be in my mind until the end of 2014.

For extra fun, here is a TV report from the first Congress in 1984. It’s still a surprisingly good description of themes that have stayed with the CCC for three decades: unease around journalists, data protection, legal wrangles and long nights of hacking

Budget for a Coup d’Etat

December 3rd, 2013 § 3 comments § permalink

How much does it cost to stage a coup? €21 million, according to this document.

It’s the work of a Congolese military group called the Union des Forces Révolutionnaires du Congo, keen to topple president Joseph Kabila.

Before they can do that, though, they need to raise some cash. So they have reached out to the diaspora — especially in Belgium — to chip in. And in the process, somebody has put together the budget. The UN got hold of this and included it in a report, giving us all a glimpse of coup planning.

Suborned generals aside, it’s the kind of vague document that will be familiar to any middle manager. Some areas are uncharted territory — “maintaining hold on power” after the coup is a single, unelaborated line item.

Other areas are elaborated into full-fledged fantasies. We know not only that broadcasters will be taken over, but what will be broadcast. “Day Zero” of the coup begins with 2 hours of classical music, for instance. I imagine it Clockwork Orange style, Beethoven playing as ministers are dragged from their beds.

The sums don’t add up, the plans seem half-formed, and the whole document smells of wishful thinking. And, having seen the bureaucracy required for government work, I can say for sure: this is one coup Uncle Sam won’t even think about funding.