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Archive for December 13th, 2016

We seem to be in an open state of cyberwarfare

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From this article in the NY Times:

The United States had two decades of warning that Russia’s intelligence agencies were trying to break into America’s most sensitive computer networks. But the Russians have always managed to stay a step ahead.

Their first major attack was detected on Oct. 7, 1996, when a computer operator at the Colorado School of Mines discovered some nighttime computer activity he could not explain. The school had a major contract with the Navy, and the operator warned his contacts there. But as happened two decades later at the D.N.C., at first “everyone was unable to connect the dots,” said Thomas Rid, a scholar at King’s College in London who has studied the attack.

Investigators gave it a name — Moonlight Maze — and spent two years, often working day and night, tracing how it hopped from the Navy to the Department of Energy to the Air Force and NASA. In the end, they concluded that the total number of files stolen, if printed and stacked, would be taller than the Washington Monument.

Whole weapons designs were flowing out the door, and it was a first taste of what was to come: an escalating campaign of cyberattacks around the world.

But for years, the Russians stayed largely out of the headlines, thanks to the Chinese — who took bigger risks, and often got caught. They stole the designs for the F-35 fighter jet, corporate secrets for rolling steel, even the blueprints for gas pipelines that supply much of the United States. And during the 2008 presidential election cycle, Chinese intelligence hacked into the campaigns of Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, making off with internal position papers and communications. But they didn’t publish any of it.

The Russians had not gone away, of course. “They were just a lot more stealthy,” said Kevin Mandia, a former Air Force intelligence officer who spent most of his days fighting off Russian cyberattacks before founding Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm that is now a division of FireEye — and the company the Clinton campaign brought in to secure its own systems.

The Russians were also quicker to turn their attacks to political purposes. A 2007 cyberattack on Estonia, a former Soviet republic that had joined NATO, sent a message that Russia could paralyze the country without invading it. The next year cyber was used during Russia’s war with Georgia.

But American officials did not imagine that the Russians would dare try those techniques inside the United States. They were largely focused on preventing what former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned was an approaching “cyber Pearl Harbor” — a shutdown of the power grid or cellphone networks.

But in 2014 and 2015, a Russian hacking group began systematically targeting the State Department, the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Each time, they eventually met with some form of success,” Michael Sulmeyer, a former cyberexpert for the secretary of defense, and Ben Buchanan, now both of the Harvard Cyber Security Project, wrote recently in a soon-to-be published paper for the Carnegie Endowment.

The Russians grew stealthier and stealthier, tricking government computers into sending out data while disguising the electronic “command and control” messages that set off alarms for anyone looking for malicious actions. The State Department was so crippled that it repeatedly closed its systems to throw out the intruders. At one point, officials traveling to Vienna with Secretary of State John Kerry for the Iran nuclear negotiations had to set up commercial Gmail accounts just to communicate with one another and with reporters traveling with them.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2016 at 7:49 pm

Biology continues to turn up surprises

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Andreas von Bubnoff reports in Quanta:

One summer day last year, Timothy Bromage, a paleoanthropologist at New York University, was chewing on a lollipop lamb chop while vacationing in Cyprus. Suddenly, he heard a pop. When a sharp pain followed, he realized he’d cracked a molar.

Back in New York, his dentist told him he’d have three hellish months if the tooth were repaired. “Or just give me five minutes,” the dentist said. “I’ll take it out right now.”

Bromage opted to have it taken out. That way, he could make a thin section from the tooth, something he’d wanted to do for years, to measure a new kind of biorhythm that he has been studying in the permanent teeth of mammals. This isn’t the well-studied circadian rhythm, but a longer one that varies, depending on the species, from two to 14 days. Bromage believes that it may set the pace for how quickly animals grow, and how long they live.

The biorhythm lasts for one day in rats; four days in macaques; five days in sheep; and six to 12 days in humans. Bromage has confirmed this relationship in dozens of other living and fossil mammalian species, including Asian elephants, which have a 14-day rhythm. (Exceptions exist: Dogs, for instance, don’t seem to follow the relationship.)

A generally slower rhythm in bigger mammalian species made sense: Bigger animals grow more slowly than smaller animals, just for longer periods. Bromage believes that the rhythm in teeth and bones reflects a growth signal to crank up the rate of cell division, one that the body’s tissues receive at regular intervals. The more often such signals are received, the faster the animal grows.

Not only does the rhythmic interval increase with body mass, but Bromage found that it also increases along with other features known to grow with body mass, like life span, lactation length, metabolic rate, length of the estrous cycle and even kidney size. This suggests that just by measuring the growth rhythm of one tooth, even from a fossil mammal, it may be possible to determine not only its body size but many other related features.

“Throw any tooth, any permanent tooth of a primate — just throw it at me, don’t even tell me what the primate is — and I’ll reconstruct their kidney size, lifespan, all of this stuff,” Bromage said. “It’s unbelievable what window of opportunity that material provides for understanding the key to life.”

After winning the prestigious Max Planck Research Prize with a colleague in 2010, he used the award of 750,000 euros to study if blood samples from animals reflect the same rhythms as tooth samples. The work has been expensive and time consuming — especially because mice and rats, the cheap work horses of biology, don’t have a multi-day rhythm and thus can’t be used.

His results, published early this year, aren’t yet strong enough to claim a discovery. And many chronobiologists remain skeptical.

Still, “What if he is right?” asked Robin Bernstein, a biological anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has studied body-size evolution and who now studies growth in humans and nonhuman primates. “I think he is one of those people that is ahead of his time,” she said. “This may pan out to be nothing, but it’s original, it’s really interesting, and I think there is a lot more to be done with it.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2016 at 7:06 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

The Putin Paradigm

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Masha Gessen has quite a fascinating article in the NY Review of Books:

Over the last few days, concerns about some kind of a hidden alliance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have exploded. There is the president-elect with his apparently fawning regard for the Russian leader. There are Trump’s top cabinet picks, with their unusual Russian ties: as national security advisor, Lt. General Mike Flynn, who has met Putin and done paid events for a Kremlin-sponsored TV station; and as secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has done billions of dollars of business in Russia and received an award from Putin. And then there is the revelation, from the CIA, that Russia may have actively interfered in the US election to get Trump elected.

Of course, Putin may well have reasons for wanting Trump to be president—not least Trump’s apparent skepticism toward NATO and his lack of opposition to Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. But a more important connection between the two men may be their common approach to leadership, which will almost certainly outlast any friendship that may form between them. During his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for the way Putin governed. “The man has very strong control over his country,” Trump said at one point. “He’s been a leader far more than our president has been a leader.” That revealed a lot about Trump’s concept of the presidency—he seems to believe that effectiveness is measured by the extent to which the leader “controls” the country. But how might that play out in practice? To what extent can Putin provide insight into Trump’s understanding of power?

There is still much we don’t know about how Trump will rule. But in the month since his election, some characteristic patterns have emerged—and they bear some instructive similarities to the style Putin has practiced over many years. Here are a few of them:

Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself. Take, for example, Putin’s statements on Ukraine. In March 2014 he claimed that there were no Russian troops in newly annexed Crimea; a month later he affirmed that Russians troops had been on the ground. Throughout 2014 and 2015, he repeatedly denied that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine; in 2016 he easily acknowledged that they were there. In each case, Putin insisted on lying in the face of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, and in each case his subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.

Trump has exhibited similar behavior, apparently for the same reason: when he claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote, he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself. Those puzzled by Trump’s election-fraud tweets, because they seem like sore-loser behavior on the part of the winner, or by his dismissing out of hand the CIA’s findings about Russian interference—against the views of many leading Republicans—are missing the point: Trump was demonstrating his ability to say whatever he wanted about the election, precisely because he had won it.

Both Trump and Putin use language primarily to communicate not facts or opinions but power: it’s not what the words mean that matters but who says them and when. This makes it impossible to negotiate with them and very difficult for journalists to cover them. In the wake of the election, many American journalists felt devastated not only because a terrible candidate had won but also because his victory seemed to be a verdict on their work. All the fact-checking in the world, all the well-documented calling-out of hypocrisy, all the effort that went into The Washington Post’s exposure of the flagrant misuse of the Trump Foundation or The New York Times’s obtaining Trump’s twenty-year-old tax return and the excellent explanatory reporting that accompanied both, could not keep Trump out of the White House. It felt like we had entered a world in which the media no longer had a job to do, or in which its relevance as a check on power had been entirely neutralized.

After the election, the media’s ability to do its job has been undermined even further. The standard model of reporting requires journalists to give the president-elect say in any news story about him. Thus we now have a series of stories in which reported facts are juxtaposed with a quoted Tweet that dismisses or contradicts the facts themselves. Even a factual narrative can no longer be aired without an immediate challenge contained within the news story itself—and without demonstrating that Trump has once again asserted his power to say what he wants, facts be damned, when he wants, convention be damned, and how he wants, logic and the English language be damned.

It is time to raise the stakes from fact to truth. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2016 at 6:06 pm

Evansville, Ind., cops caught beating a handcuffed man, then lying about it. They won’t face charges.

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

On Oct. 29, Evansville, Ind., police officers Nick Henderson, Mark DeCamps and Marcus Craig confronted 36-year-old Mark Healy while investigating a garage burglary. According to the officers, Healy resisted when they confronted him, and a physical altercation ensued. During that altercation, Healy broke free and began to run away. When again confronted, he stabbed one of the officers with a syringe filled with liquid methamphetamine. The officers then physically restrained Healy and arrested him.

That, according to local media reports, is what the police use-of-force report said. It was filed by the officers involved about three hours after the incident. A fourth officer, a sergeant, reviewed the report and deemed the officers’ actions justified.

But body camera footage from the incident obtained by the Evansville Courier & Press shows something quite different. In the footage, Healy doesn’t resist at all. And the officer who was stuck by the syringe wasn’t stabbed by Healy, he was pricked by the needle while Healy was handcuffed. Contrary to department procedure, the officer failed to ask Healy if he had anything in his pockets before searching him. As you can see in the video, as one of the officers searches Healy, he pricks himself on the syringe. He then calls Healy a “motherf—–” and strikes him. As Healy lays on the ground, Henderson and another officer then spend about three minutes beating him, yelling at him and threatening to kill him. The third officer just watches.

To his credit, upon viewing the video, Evansville Police Chief Billy Bolin immediately suspended all three officers at the scene as well as the sergeant who reviewed the case. He also recommended the three at the scene be fired and that the sergeant be demoted. That seems appropriate. But in addition to the beating the officers applied to Healy, they also clearly lied in their report. Both would seem to merit criminal charges.

It has now been six weeks since the incident, and all four officers remain on paid leave while their appeal is under review. Meanwhile, according to the Courier & Press, the Indiana State Police (ISP) investigated the incident and sent a report to Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nicholas Hermann. Last Thursday, Hermann announced that he will not press charges against the officers involved. I asked an ISP information officer for a copy of the report. By email, he replied that “our criminal investigations are not available to the public.”

From the Courier & Press:

During the news conference, Hermann explained at length his reasoning behind the decision — without outright saying he wasn’t pressing charges until several minutes in. He said his office could not prove Henderson purposefully struck Healy in a malicious manner. According to talks with Henderson and his attorney, Hermann said the officer struck the suspect with his elbow after pricking his hand on a needle that was in Healy’s pocket.

He said there was no evidence Healy was ever punched. Hermann played a statement Healy gave to police immediately after the incident in which he said there were “no punches thrown.”

This is meaningless parsing posing as legal jargon. The video clearly depicts Henderson striking Healy to the ground. That you don’t see what specific body part Henderson used to initiate that strike isn’t particularly relevant. If this video had been of a citizen striking a police officer, I doubt Hermann would have had much problem filing charges.

But let’s give Hermann the benefit of the doubt here. So what about the police report, which clearly contradicts what we see in the body camera footage? Surely that merits criminal charges, right? . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2016 at 5:57 pm

Posted in Law Enforcement

The US has fallen into a state of political nihilism

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Please this Atlantic column, which consists of some very thoughtful and perceptive comments from readers. One example:

After reading the latest cycle on the CIA report reaction [“Former Acting CIA Director Calls Russian Interference In Election ‘The Political Equivalent Of 9/11’”], I just finally understood a grim truth: President-elect Trump’s fear that any hint about election manipulation decreasing his sense of grandeur is greater than his concern about the role and process of elections in general. I say grandeur because he won the election, so his grasp is not tenuous; he is defending prestige alone, and that his pride could outweigh his concern for the engine of democracy is a grim truth indeed.

And another:

1. There are many discussion of the popular vote. Clinton’s lead over Trump is now 2.7 million votes. And it is often described this way [by New York’s Jonathan Chait]: “As votes continue to be tabulated in the days since the presidential election, Donald Trump’s deficit continues to grow (now at 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent of the total), while the imagined scale of his triumph continues to swell.”

But no one has pointed out that 7.6 million people voted for third parties. So the number of people who did not vote for Trump is now 73.1 million, compared to the 62.8 million who voted for him. So really, Trump lost the popular vote by 10.3 million. The vote was 54 percent against Trump to 46 percent for. I think it is worth pointing that out. It is also a better description of the potential size of the opposition to his policies.

2. I am a business attorney and work with a lot of small- to medium-sized family-owned businesses. Here’s a thing that most people may not appreciate: There is no job more like the king of a kingdom in modern society than the CEO of a family-owned business. These businesses often operate without boards of directors. The CEO is often the only shareholder or the majority shareholder. Everyone in the company works for him. These CEOs live in a bubble in which everyone they see does their bidding 24/7/365. Companies have no constitution. There are no internal rules, except those the company wrote for itself. The CEO can change anything any time. “You’re fired” is certainly important, but only the tip of the iceberg. A CEO can make any plan, start any project, buy any property, simply by deciding to do it all by themselves.

When the press describes Trump as authoritarian, they are correct, but he didn’t learn it from dictators. He learned it from his day-to-day work environment, where he had essentially unlimited power over a billion-dollar organization.

The best, fun, family-owned businesses try hard to install some character and moral sense into the heirs that might take over. Many require family members to work outside the company for at least five years, before they let them come to work in the family business. Often those family members do well, are successful on their own, and never come back. But those that do have at least learned how to behave in a outside work environment, where their supervisors have the power to give them instructions, and they have to perform. Trump never had any experience like that, as far as I know. I have certainly seen CEOs in this situations who lack moral character, and the result is not pretty. There is no check on their behavior at all. Typically, the spouse and children who are the only ones who might speak up without getting fired, are too afraid to do it. So the CEO rules like Sun-King in their own little kingdom.

My guess is that Trump thinks that being President will be just like his day job. He can give orders and things will get done. I think he will be surprised by the notion that he is limited by the Constitution, Congress, and the courts. “I alone can fix it” is just a reflection of how his world works in the Trump Organization. He has been the only person who gets to make any decisions for more than 30 years. That can certainly warp your sense of self. Mr. Trump’s appears to be the worse for the experience.

And there’s more at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2016 at 4:18 pm

Former CIA officer Evan McMullin weighs in on Trump hacking denial

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Jennifer Rubin’s post here has some strong sentiments. It begins:

Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer who ran for president as an independent conservative, knows better than anyone that debate, quibbling and disputes among intelligence agencies are the norm. Good-faith disagreements make it exceedingly hard to get 17 different agencies to agree with certainty on anything. “For there to be absolute consensus that the Russians did indeed hack during the election is significant,” he tells me in a phone interview. He explains that “their standard is a high one” when it comes to definitive statements. In this case, however, he advises, “We shouldn’t need the intelligence agencies to tell us the Russians did it. Just turn on the Kremlin’s cable channel in the U.S. to see their effort to undermine democratic institutions and the truth, to promote Donald Trump.” Ordinary people can figure it out for themselves whom the Russians intended to help.

Apologists for Trump say that the Russians wouldn’t have left obvious fingerprints to be traced back. McMullin says this shows ignorance about how Russia operates and what its motives are. “Putin understands he can do this even if it is traced to him,” he says. In fact, Putin gains stature and an aura of power if he can been seen as influencing a U.S. election. “This is the most significant, the greatest intelligence success in modern times,” McMullin says simply. “It’s a small ‘c’ coup,” he dryly notes.

McMullin ridicules the notion that we should give Trump the benefit of the doubt or suspend judgment when the evidence is overwhelming of some sort of “special relationship” with the Kremlin, including a flock of pro-Russian campaign advisers and the appointment of at least two voices sympathetic to Russia. “Look at the staff picks now or the nominations of people sympathetic to a country that is committed to undermining our democracy,” he urges.

“First and foremost, there is an ideological alignment,” McMullin says in explaining the Trump-Putin relationship. “Trump admires authoritarians.” There is also ongoing speculation about Trump’s financial ties to Russia. McMullin stresses the unacceptability of Trump’s possible violation of the Emoluments Clause barring foreign benefits and income from Russia or any other foreign government. “The nation needs to hold Donald Trump accountable to the letter of the law. Americans through their representatives need to hold Donald Trump accountable to the letter of the law.” If Trump gets away with a blatant violation of a clear constitutional provision, McMullin worries about the “slippery slope” phenomenon that will pave the way for many more constitutional violations.

McMullin does not intend to sit idly by while Trump runs roughshod over democratic principles and lawmakers of both parties twiddle their thumbs. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2016 at 3:44 pm

Rick Perry follows some very strong acts

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James Fallows has a post worth reading. It concludes:

.. [I]f he [Rick Perry] is nominated and confirmed, this could be the sequence of U.S. Secretaries of Energy:

  • 2009-2013, Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab;
  • 2013-2017, Ernest Moniz, professor of nuclear physics at MIT, former under secretary of Energy;
  • 2017- , Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember the department’s name.

Because many people don’t know this, it’s worth pointing out that the Energy Department officially runs most nuclear-energy and nuclear-weaponry programs for the United States, plus 17 of the famous advanced-research National Labs — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley, Fermi, and so on. That’s why the background in physics that Chu and Moniz shared was so relevant. Moniz also played a leading technical and diplomatic role in the Iran-nuclear deal.

Academic or research excellence doesn’t automatically translate into administrative success. The metaphor-for-a-moment point is simply that, if Perry becomes secretary, we’ll go from two leaders whose life work was part of the mission of the agency, to someone who couldn’t remember its existence.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2016 at 3:29 pm

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