Thursday, December 21, 2006

War Stories

As I have mentioned before, a guilty pleasure of mine is comic books. Recently, I gave a friend of mine War Stories by Garth Ennis, a series of WW2 inspired vignettes that I hoped to read myself. I finally got the chance to read them. I was not disappointed. They are . . . everything one would expect of the deadliest conflict in human history. They are devastating. They are moving.

"Then one morning I woke up and realized my life was atrocity"

The transition from life to atrocity is an easy one to make. Thanks to Ennis and company for reminding us of that crucial fact.

Friday, December 15, 2006


A vignette of violence and espionage.


April 1, 2002 Central Eurasia, Kashkar

Seven years out of Bosnia, Ahmed Muhammed bin-Uruk-dur settled into a stinking yurt in the Hindu Kush. The tent flapping behind him was struck by his guide less than ten miles from the southwest end of the Tarim basin. It was the farthest that his guide felt Ahmed could go- a weakling khat from Arabia- and far enough into the mountains to hide. Ahmed (which was not his real name) knew the location of every piece of mass in orbit at any given time, what each thing did, and how it did it. He knew the location of the EM-630 (EQSAT5) over Eurasia, and knew that it would, within fifteen minutes, begin its last string of telemetry to the 509th Wing of the USAF flying to Afghanistan. He knew that the telemetry would be converted into binary by a Chinese-manufactured Motorola 4505 microprocessor (silent cooling), and the binary would go through the B-2's mainframe to the fire control computers, where it would enter the tiny brain of a JDAM. Running in secure mode, the JDAM would know where it was going better than the pilot of the B-2 would. Incidentally, in this case, the JDAM would know where it was going better than anyone except for Ahmed.

The Motorola 4505 (silent cooling) telemetry microprocessor, being Chinese, originally had firmware that was loaded with backdoors and built in buffer overflows to allow the PLA to take control of American equipment. The Pentagon, realizing this during the manufacturing process, politely asked the Chinese to take out the vulnerabilities so the Motorola equipment could be installed in the B-2 bomber. The Chinese specialized the firmware so it could take especially good advantage of the B-2, then gave the processors back to the Air Force, which installed them on their two billion dollar bombers. For any given day eighty percent of the USAF's firepower was under the de facto control of the People's Liberation Army. On a side note, B-2 manufacturer Northrop summarily refused to use elite domestic programmers because none of them could pass the mandatory drug test.

Ahmed (which was not his real name) had a deal with the Chinese, and had it for long enough that he was able to craft code that could take advantage of the backdoors in the B-2's Motorola telemetry receiver. He also had LANDSAT-1, a massive overengineered NASA satellite (presumed out of service) that was wide open to Ahmed's laptop and dish. LANDSAT-1 had a beast of an antenna- if Ahmed were so inclined, he could make every satellite phone ringtone in the hemisphere play "Fat Bottomed Girl" at seventy decibels. As the telemetry was beaming from EM-630 (EQSAT5) en route to the B-2s of the 509th, it would be overtaken and mugged by an overcharge signal from the LANDSAT. The pirate LANDSAT transmission would find its way to the B-2 antenna, then to the Chinese buffer overruns in the Motorola 4505 firmware, from whence it would cheerfully begin executing commands to the B-2 fire control mainframe, which would reprogram the JDAM so that it went where Ahmed wanted it to go. It would all happen when Ahmed pressed the "Return" button on his laptop. Which he did.

From that point the JDAM was the assassin, hired muscle from the Chinese stolen from the Americans, and Ahmed was sitting in a transmission center. The Americans would realize something had happened and would wipe out every dish-shaped object in the Hindu Kush. It was time to leave.

Ahmed threw everything into his mesh gear, hung it carefully from the yurt frame, and snuck into the inky night outside. Naturally a night person, his eyes found the ridgeline and the glowing cherry spot of his guide's cigarette, the only point of light in the darkness. Slowly- more slowly than the second hand on a watch- Ahmed aimed his silenced pistol at a spot three and a half inches up and to the right of the glowing spot. The trigger pull was light, about a pound and a quarter, and the suppressor functioned so well that the only noise was the metallic slap of the automatic's slide. A giblet of frontal cortex sprayed into the night, and the guard slumped like a drunk. Quickly, Ahmed jammed everything that made him Ahmed into the pockets of his guide, darkness and slippery blood making things take longer than they should; in five seconds, the guide became Ahmed, and Ahmed lost himself. The skin had come off again, and the skinless man, NV goggles and mesh gear packed, headed out of the narrow valley like all the fires of hell were after him. Which, in a sense, they were.

Ten minutes later Muhammed Shubai- the target of the skinless man- met his end at the hand of a misdirected JDAM dropped from a B-2 in the 509th. The wedding had been going on for some time, but odd how his son hadn't showed up, isn't it? He had always tried to get Shem out of the business, trying to tell him, Shem, stop dealing with the poppies and the Russians or someone will get you. His son sneered. As Muhammed lay perforated, watching his daughter die by fire, he knew that his son was behind this, somehow, and wished for the vengeance of God upon him. Allah forgive me, I have wished my son to Hell. Muhammed died. The Air Force apologized.

Almost immediately Shem Shubai -the client- wired five million dollars into a German-run mutual, from whence it would find its way - through a long and laundered route- to the man who had once called himself Ahmed. That was some assassination, thought Shem. Shem would be dead within two days, after unsuccessfully trying to find the man he thought was Ahmed.

Forty five minutes later three F-18 fighter/bombers streaked over the yurt and the dead guide who had become Ahmed. They dropped a total of three one thousand pound bombs laser-targeted on the yurt, clearing the valley of all life and scaring the local dovekie population to somewhere more peaceful, like Chernobyl. Soon the Marines would come and find the man who had become Ahmed, al-Quaeda lieutenant and mastermind of the signals campaign against Operation Enduring Freedom. His body, cellphone, and mule would be dissected, analyzed, wrung out for every last detail, none of which would show that the man was illiterate, had never handled a single piece of electronics (not even a radio), did not speak Arabic, and - most importantly- was not al-Quaeda lieutenant Ahmed Muhammed bin-Uruk-dur. The guide's wife wondered where her husband was.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Ring in Four Color

I’ve always loved Wagner. It’s safe to say that now, certainly, but for a very long time it was not kosher to say you appreciated the man’s music. There are some good reasons for his banishment. He unwittingly wrote the soundtrack for the Third Reich, and, by extension, the leitmotifs for every bad guy in cinematic history. As I've mentioned before, the horror of the Reich has been magnified by our awe of it, an awe that was quite deliberately structured by Nazi propaganda architects, since making really great film is a good substitute for having a political philosophy. At least, it works as a substitute if you're a cynic and a loser who's never had a genuine feeling in your life. Indeed, what began as a party of hero worship soon turned, under Hitler's control, into what Hermann Rauschnung called "the Revolution of Nihilism": cynically manipulative, intellectually bankrupt, and one of the nadirs of human civilization. That's a harsh reputation for a composer to come back from.

It's said that classical music didn't die in the 20th Century, it just went into the movies to hide. Wagner is the lich-king of this undead realm; appearing in John Williams and in Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings (which I understand has been made into an opera). I'm not a snooty New Yorker reviewer, so I don't mind Wagnerian touches hiding in pop culture. I enjoy them. I can't watch a weeklong opera. Pop culture makes all this highbrow stuff understandable.

In any case, I never had the faintest idea of what The Ring was about until I bought these fantastic comicizations of The Ring by P. Craig Russell. Now I have a far better idea of the plot than perhaps I ought to; Russell does a fantastic job of translating the opera into lyrical- and often quite powerful- English phrasing. The art is four-color, very straightforward, a bit hippy, too literal in its visual representations of leitmotif, but barring a full Hollywood treatment, it's the best representation you're likely to get of this high-flying epic. I can't recall how many times I've run into the following phrase regarding Wagner's Ring:

"What follows is perhaps the most difficult to realise stage directions in the history of opera."

Well, no longer. Now you can practically hear the damn thing as you're reading it, and feel the chill with Alberich's words.

Outside In

The fundamental goal of all data modeling is to create a facsimile of the objective world in a semantic composite. A table of data does this by listing aspects of reality that matter to us (columns), then recording the data for these columns in a series of rows. The relationships between these columns is the important part, though, and these relationships are only really understandable when we view the data as a diagram. The problem here is that when we view the diagram, we hide the rows of observed data for each of the column values. Our diagrammed data model may become irrelevant as the data coming in changes, and we would not know it until it is too late.

We sympathize with the data diagram approach because that is how our brains see the world: as a series of fantastically complex interconnections. We don't store a whole lot of data in our brain. Instead, when we see an object, we make connections about various aspects of that object that link to other objects. In database terms, the human brain is a database where all the values are primary keys.

Our computer brethren, on the other hand, stink at drawing associations but are incredible storage devices. We rely on them constantly, minute to minute, on remembering our music for us, remembering phone numbers, movies, news, and whatever else will fit on our Blackberries and laptops. We would not, however, ask them for the shape of the data, or for a field that no one seems to want anymore, although the sophistication with which data design can do these things is increasing constantly.

Somehow the data needs to appear in the design diagram. Obviously it can't make a cameo in the flesh, because it would make a laughingstock of design. It requires some algorithm that can convert the pattern in the data into abstractions at the design layer. Perhaps the shapes could glow red when they haven't been selected from for over two years. Blinking red.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Flowcharts and Reformation

Not too long after I started reading the draft of my undergraduate thesis, I found myself completely and totally befuddled. In my usual fashion, I had written a document that assumes a knowledge level above and beyond that of its audience, who unfortunately happened to be me, in this case. It's probably unreadable even by a specialist, unless the specialist has a browser window and is feverishly entering names and places into Wikipedia, as I was.

While I like my work to be dense, I also do not want my undergraduate thesis to read like Foucault's Pendulum, mostly because I can not keep reading my own work like this. I will go crazy trying to figure out what I was saying. So, as I often do when faced by a phenomenon of overwhelming complexity, I started making a diagram.

Unfortunately, I have no Visio, and I have neither the time or interest in customizing one of the many UML modellers out there so that it could model different personalities of the 16th Century. That's not exactly work that could be re-used. So I went to Gliffy, an online browser-based Visio clone. I was so impressed that, well, I had to post about it. While I wouldn't use it for anything too technical, it's a great (and free) workspace for people to brainstorm in. As soon as my deadlines clear up I will publish a nice "Who's Who" flowchart of the Italian Reformation. There might be as many as ten people who would be interested! Thanks Gliffy.

Probably only a matter of time before Google buys it. In an IT world so strapped for cash, one of the few business plans worth a damn is designing software that you know Google would like. Then you just wait for Page and Brin to show up with a dump truck full of money.

Hmmm, sooo . . . what else would Google want? They've got a Google Office, a Google Visio (if they buy or reverse engineer something like Gliffy). What would I make do attract Google's Mad Millionz? Or Bonus Billionz?

Would they go for a Google IDE? I think the answer would be "no". Google is primarily interested in getting people closer to the hivemind, and IDEs are a barrier to that. Granted, they DO publish a 3D editor IDE, but a 3D editor is still rooted in reality (spheres and boxes), whereas a software IDE exists in a sort of idea space that is only interesting to programmers and metaphysicians. In many ways Microsoft's voyage into the IDE is what dragged them down in recent years, and Google probably wants no part of it. Semantic constructs don't pay the bills.

There's one piece of IT functionality that Google is unusually well prepared for, and that's test automation. They've got the hardware, they've got the pipes, and they have the knowledge. They could use their black magic to spider out all UI components, track user patterns among those components, then elaborate on those patterns until the application breaks and throws an exception. Then you assign an ID to that usage pattern, ID the UI components, and attach the exception. The resulting table could then be published. It's still a little too techy for the Google market, and I mean that in the sense that only software people would care, but if you make it slick enough, you never know, Sergei might come a'knockin.

Getting all travel data in one place for the consumer would be an awesome windfall, but doing it painlessly would take some sneakiness. does something like this, but even they are getting sucked into the eerie Cosa Nostra atmosphere that is the travel business. Sergei has probably had enough of violent crime.

A very nifty application would be one that tells you where you'd like to live. It could use a lot of the functionality of a dating site without the stalker aspect while still being creepy enough for Google to love. The user could fill out some questions, and the application could grade metro areas and the surrounding countryside based on such factors as:
1) Land (Climate/geography, i.e., desert mountains)
2) Density (Biking to work versus having a ten acre lot)
3) Economic Activity (Wealth/Type, i.e., median income/Ford Motors, high income/Dartmouth)
4) School quality (education level of children who graduate the system, teacher/student ratio, etc.)
5) Taxes
6) Availability and size of local parks, soil quality, "off the grid" power options (solar, hydroelectric)
This is all stuff that's already in Google Earth, you'd just need some simple algorithms to sift it and match it with users. Or, creepier still (in true Google fashion), you could skip the questionnaire and just guess what the user likes based on the personal data you already have of them, then show them the place they want to live.

The creepiness, of course, is why Google is so fantastically wealthy: the Hivemind will know us better than we know ourselves. And who could put a stock price on the future collective consciousness of the human race? I, for one, am ready to be assimilated.