Colleen Graffy: How to Lose Friends, Citizens and Influence

A very interesting read, even though it’s in the Wall Street Journal. She’s only told about half the story, too: I’ve heard they’re passing some sort of retroactive law aimed at people like Tina Turner who have already renounced their citizenship.
Just the notion is outrageous. It’s not that they will be retroactively disputing Mrs Turner’s change of citizenship. They will simply be extorting money from a foreign national. Just imagine if China did that to the many Chinese nationals who have settled down in the US and taken on US nationality, giving up their Chinese passports in the process.

Interfering with mass surveillance

When IT security professionals talk about methods to tap someone’s communications, they use the term “(attack) vector”. Strong encryption is by definition not breakable, so the only available points of attack lie before encryption is applied, or after the cypherdata has been decrypted. There’s no use “tapping the wire” (like Tempora). You’ll typically want to tap the applications at either end which provide the encryption.

The German “BKA Bundestrojaner” proposed to do this in a way similar to the CDC’s good old BackOrifice, which basically hooked into your webcam, sound card and keyboard as well as providing FTP-style access to storage devices. However getting that software onto the target computer is a challenge. You need to break in, or trick the target user to download and install your software. It requires a targeted effort.

Mass surveillance of encrypted communication requires a massive number of computer systems to be compromised. Take Skype, for example. Let’s assume that its protocol is unbreakable, and Microsoft refuses to allow direct access (as they claim). That leaves two vectors: either a generalized trojan like the Bundestrojaner that is tricky to get onto target computers. Or a modified version of the Skype software, disguised as an update. At its core, it’s the ideal trojan. It’s been done before, e.g. Hushmail served modified updates to some of their clients at the request of Canadian authorities. But let’s assume Microsoft doesn’t cooperate by allowing their Skype updates to be “spiked”. Their cooperation isn’t required if you have the cooperation of internet providers, because you can simply re-route requests for updates from Microsoft servers so that the bugged update is downloaded from a malware server instead, without the target knowing. This can be done for a massive number of users, and it’s not just theory. It’s been common practice in China and the countries of Northern Africa, where governments have served up “localized” versions of communications software like Skype to all users in those countries’ networks.

That’s where Tor and VPNs come in. They can’t prevent this from happening, but they do provide an extra layer of distance between yourself and your internet provider. If all communications leaving your wall socket are encrypted and anonymized, there’s not much they can do. They’d have to infiltrate your VPN end point, or a significant number of the Tor exit servers. While that is possible, it seems more like a theoretical possibility.

Use a VPN, or use Tor all the time if possible. It’s not paranoia: providers like Comcast have in the past swapped out web content, replacing it with their own notifications and advertisements. Mobile data providers do a lot of meddling to police the applications that are being used; it’s not beyond them to substitute data you’ve requested.

Put some distance, a layer of anonymity between yourself and your internet provider.

A thought on the surveillance leaks

Did Eastern Germans protest and revolt against the leadership of the DDR because they were sick of the state’s total surveillance and control, or because they desired higher income and material consumption? Despite the popular narrative, I really do believe the latter is what motivated the masses. But that’s because I have a cynical outlook.

The narrative is probably right too. Average citizens would never have dared to protest without a solid number of idealists leading by example and providing moral justification.

For those idealists, the recent leaks regarding Western state security services’ mass monitoring capabilities must have had a particularly nasty taste. Imagine risking your life, throwing yourself into the arms of the Free West only to discover that the West does the surveillance thing too.

Total, cradle-to-grave state control? No. But total surveillance? Absolutely. At first glance that isn’t completely true: there are laws putting strict limits on the surveillance of conventional communications media like mail in envelopes and telephone calls. Unfettered surveillance is limited to newfangled network-based communications. But if you think about it, the new media provide much more complete, more unfiltered insight into people’s lives than phone calls or letters. People write letters expecting they’ll be read (if only by the intended recipient). They don’t have that on their mind when they enter search terms, and in fact I think people do have an expectation of privacy when they do their online research (“breast cancer”? “alcoholics anonymous”? “gambling support group”?). The same goes for documents or for calendar appointments stored on the web. All of this stuff is replacing the old, protected methods of communication.

Probably the main reason the Stasi went to the trouble to install bugs and wiretaps was to catch information their victim’s wouldn’t have put in a letter (even assuming it wouldn’t be opened). Tapping the cloud delivers an awful lot of that stuff, from many areas of life. So the type of unregulated access our security services have claimed for themselves in absence of existing regulation is actually pretty disturbing. I think it’s more problematic than a phone wiretap, and almost as intrusive as the surveillance of Eastern Germany.

Observation on language

I see a curious difference between the US and the UK (and their respective satellites) in the way their written language is viewed and treated. Just considering the e-mails of people I interact with at work, I could readily pull up a half-dozen examples showing a US-trained colleague using bad spelling and worse grammar, versus a Commonwealth-trained colleague vividly using a wide spectrum of vocabulary in complete sentences. It’s prejudice, but so far my experience confirms this black-and-white model.

American primary and secondary education aren’t bad, no matter what TV tries to make you believe. There may be differences in emphasis which explain the difference. Maybe one system emphasizes creative writing more than the other, which may have more of a focus on reading comprehension and analysis. Perhaps. It’s all good.

What was new to me in recent years, is a general hostility towards well-formed, “long-winded” writing. It manifests itself not just in work e-mails, and I think it’s at least partially responsible for people’s lack of love for their language. If you see language as a means towards an end, it’s no surprise you use the simplest, shortest words to get your point across to as wide an audience as you can.

There’s pressure everywhere to use words sparingly, and people are not ashamed to ask for bite-sized, pre-digested summaries like “executive summaries” and “elevator speeches” (how I hate that term). I think if an executive doesn’t take the time to understand a complex topic outside of the time he or she has allotted to riding the elevator, it’s probably better not to bother them with it at all.

Have you noticed the rise of the “quick start guide” as an abbreviated addendum to products’ user or installation manuals? What’s that all about? Can’t be bothered to take the five minutes to read the manual? Not that I mind quick-start guides, but I think they’re a symptom of laziness regarding language. Reading is seen as a chore. There are two ways to reduce that chore, and the authors of the user manuals have chosen to reduce the number of words. The better alternative is to improve the quality of writing – though I admit a user manual for a vacuum cleaner does pose a challenge.

At work, I find that people tend to keep their communication short to the point of mangling their language with bullet points and incomplete sentences, but they’re perfectly happy to write long reports. And those reports often do tend to be long-winded, with copy-paste liberally used to copy swathes of text from brochures or technical papers.

To sum it up, I think people here don’t mind reading and writing if it’s an explicit piece of work. A good indicator would probably be “is reading or writing this something that could potentially be billable time in a customer project”.

Such a utilitarian view of language is a bit sad.

Working in multiple contexts

I like this quote from Alex Garcia, who is a photographer at the Chicago Tribune. He’s commenting on the dismissal of the Chicago Sun-Times’ entire photography staff and points out that text-oriented journalists can’t just take over by taking some shots with their smart phones. Doing so they would compromise the quality of their work.

…the best reporters use a different hemisphere of the brain to do their jobs than the best photographers. Visual and spatial thinking in three dimensions is very different than verbal and analytical thinking. Even if you don’t believe that bit of science, the reality is that visual reporting and written reporting will take you to different parts of a scene and hold you there longer. I have never been in a newsroom where you could do someone else’s job and also do yours well. Even when I shoot video and stills on an assignment, with the same camera, both tend to suffer. They require different ways of thinking, involving motion and sound.

Gaming the System

There are people everywhere who like to “game the system”, by which I mean they adhere to the letter of a social convention in a way which defeats the underlying intention of the convention. There are countless different areas and ways this can be done, and there’s necessarily a wide grey area between what most people would consider legitimate exercise of rights and what most people would consider abuse of privileges. A lot of subjectivity which I won’t bother to cut through.

it happens everywhere but I think there are regional differences. In Europe I often get the impression people are cavalier about abusing insurance-type benefits and don’t see the harm in stretching their facts to fit the criteria for eligibility. In the US you see people targeting the “little things” in this area. Anyone disembarking from an aircraft at a port of entry will notice the armada of wheelchairs waiting in the bridge. People who were perfectly happy to rush through the duty free stores in Zurich to buy chocolate will descend into those wheelchairs to be chauffeured through O’Hare.

As I write this, a bevy of Louis-Vuitton- and Chanel-equipped “this is River North” women has taken a moment to relax in the Starbucks seating group across from me. One of them carried in a small snow-white long-haired toy dog with a large tag attached to its neck. It’s too large for the dog to wear comfortably. At first I thought it might be a price tag, but it’s an official-looking plastic tag reading “SERVICE DOG”. I don’t know what’s afflicting the owner but I suspect the tag is some sort of a trick to get the dog into places which don’t normally allow pets.

“No harm done”, one could say. It’s kind of amusing for observers, so everyone is better off in the end if we just play along. On the sad side, it’s undignified behavior.

Seaplane Training

Last weekend, I took my first shot at seaplane flying. I’d had business meetings at a research facility in Seattle, during which the other visitors and I were periodically startled by seaplanes suddenly appearing quite large in the window, passing very low overhead on their way in or out of the lake. It impressed me mightily and looked fun, so in the afternoon I got on the phone, rebooked my return flight and arranged some dual time over the weekend with one of the local FBOs.

The first introductory ride was easiest. The instructor had spared me the full preflight and was lenient regarding my takeoffs and landings which made me feel good about myself and confident I’d have it nailed in no time at all. The briefing essentially consisted of the airspeeds for this particular plane, and her instructions to treat the plane just like during soft-field operations on land. And a short introduction to the bilge pump (empty a total of 14 float chambers before flight), water rudders (retract before takeoff and landing) and the Johnson-bar-operated flaps: this was a 1964 plane without mod-cons. Everything worked fine, and I was proud of my results.

The second session cut me down a notch. It was a lot more work to begin with, a throrough pre-flight requiring almost an hour if you’re unfamiliar with the procedure. Many of the checklist items are the same, but you can’t walk around the plane so the workflow is very different. There are also additional checkpoints related to seaworthiness, and you need to learn how to turn handle the plane at the dock in different wind conditions. Knowing your nautical knots helps for handling, i.e. it helps to have done a sailing course before.

Some sailing knowledge also helps for understanding traffic rules on the water. Seattle’s Lake Union is densely populated by boats of all types, from kayaks to speedboats to seafaring yachts. Especially last weekend, as it was the official start of the boating season. With rowing competitions, water skiing and many other water activities. I found it unnerving to maneuver my propeller plane through the kayaks. At idle power, with water rudders, but without brakes!

Flying a seaplane in good conditions isn’t really much more challenging than a land plane. However a seaplane does handle quite differently – with a lot more control latency – both on the ground and in the air so flying it precisely is somewhat trickier than I expected, and it will take me some practice to achieve an acceptable level. There are also plenty of maneuvers related to less-than-ideal conditions which I need to learn if I want to get a seaplane rating, and a fair bit of practice regarding on-the-water handling such as docking (which again is quite like sailing except that the consequences of misjudging speed or distance are more interesting).

It’s a different style of flying. Much more “cowboy” in the sense that the result is important, not the straight-line precision of approach. In fact if I had to sum up the differences between land and sea flying in one phrase, I’d say: sea = curves. You have the freedom, and often the necessity, to change course at very short notice. Even during your takeoff and landing rolls! Indeed, one of the more interesting seaplane-only maneuvers is the special short-field take-offs and landings they can do by whizzing around a curve while landing or taking off, in a maneuver called a “step turn”. It’s great for getting out of a small lake which was big enough to land in, but not big enough to take off in a straight line.

I look forward to learning more.

Aeronautics and Superstition

They don’t mix well.

Aviation is founded on science. Flight owes a lot to physicists, but nothing at all to gods, saints, demons or their prophets or flying horses. So I think it’s odd when someone expects pilots to pray before a flight, or thank gods after a safe landing.

To prepare for picking up a plane for which I didn’t have the operations handbook, I searched for that type’s checklists on the web and printed them out. I didn’t check the source, and later noticed they were from Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics. The emblem in the corner should have been a clue, but I noticed when I went through the checklist and found this:

Prayer? Check!
Prayer? Check!

Pray? To whom? And for what? Good weather? I’d prefer the pilot to call Flight Service for a proper weather briefing, or at least look up the forecasts at

There’s a similar entry in the checklist for shutting down and securing the aircraft. I suppose that one’s to thank Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, Jesus, Poseidon, Vishnu and Allah for a safe return to the airport. I’d prefer the pilot to rely on proper preparation, good training and diligent maintenance instead of believing there were factors beyond his or her control. You can see what that kind of belief leads to on the roads in many developing countries. The supernatural world (responsible for fate, destiny, divine providence) is believed to be a powerful force which always thwarts human effort. Why should a taxi driver be so arrogant to think he can outsmart the gods?

I think a good pilot should be exactly that arrogant. There’s no point in thanking gods, spirits or demons for good outcomes, or blaming them for bad situations. It’s all physics, brought under control with training, preparation and good judgment. Believing there is a mysterious, uncontrollable factor undermines your trust in the things you do know and undermines you when you are faced with things or situations you don’t know. Yes there is “luck” (e.g. the terrain available for an emergency landing), but it’s important to view it in the same way you’d view a hand of cards. Training and knowledge help to make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt. No reason to thank anyone but the people in your present and past who helped you succeed.

Now I don’t mind at all if those Christians (I looked it up: Liberty University is a Christian “university”) deploy their prayer in emergency situations, but only after all rational options have been exhausted. So why don’t they move that checklist item into the red sections? Not into a section with lots of activity, but into “Wing Fire” for example:

Not much you can do, really...
Not much you can do, really…

There’s not much you can do, except blow a bit of air over the wing and call 121.5. After you’ve done that, if you’re lucky there’s plenty of time for prayer while you descend. Until you start preparing for your emergency landing, if applicable. Good luck! Not literally of course, so don’t put it in the checklist.

Flying conditions

I notice there is a remarkable gap between working conditions for pilots in different circumstances. At one end are the pilots flying for regional US airlines. They are exploited mercilessly. Here is a clip of a Frontline report on regional airlines. They are not exaggerating, I’ve heard confirmation from insiders.
At the other end of the spectrum are pilots with flag carriers or large cargo operations. They seem to have lots of protection, good accommodation away from their home base, good training, and very good pay. I suspect that this film is from one of them.
Does anyone know why there is such a gap between the two groups? They’re both well trained.