A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Unite and Rule

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I’m sure all of you have heard the phrase divide and conquer. It’s basic wisdom. If you can divide a large united force into multiple smaller groups (preferably groups at odds with each other) it’s easier to conquer each of them one at a time. I feel as though there needs to be an addendum that says unite and rule.

Several of my friends have been circulating this piece by The Daily Show host Trevor Noah. It’s titled Let’s Not Be Divided. Divided People Are Easier to Rule. As the title promises, Mr. Noah tries to make an argument that we must all unite because united people are harder to rule.

I have to call bullshit on that. While divide people may be easier to conquer initially they tend to be harder to rule. Why? Because you have to appeal to each group in order to successfully rule them. But anybody who manages to appeal to one group is likely to put themselves at odds that group’s enemies. When you’re dealing with a united people then you just have one group to please, which generally means you only need to appeal to whatever tribe identity they share.

This is why rulers work so hard to instill nationalism into their people. We see this every day here in the United States. If you can trigger the part of Americans’ monkey brains that deals with their identity as Americans you can get them to roll over for almost anything. Do you want to invade Iraq? Do you have no pretense for doing so? No problem, just convince the people that Iraq is somehow a threat to the United States. Do you want to pass draconian surveillance powers? No problem, just convince the people that those powers will protect the people of the United States. And less somebody think this is unique to the United States, it’s not. It’s a common tactic used throughout history by rulers. Britain, for example, has probably played the nationalism game even better than the United States currently is.

Instilling strong individualism and a small group mentality into people will make them much harder to rule than instilling collectivism and a large group mentality.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 7th, 2016 at 11:00 am

Using Data Classification to Hide the Truth

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Continuing on my theme of the State having many layers of protection that hinder any meaningful change, I came across a story about how the Department of Defense used data classification to protect itself from possible budget cuts:

In January of 2015, as the US Department of Defense was chafing under the sequestration of its budget, the Pentagon leadership got some great news. A study prepared by the Defense Business Board (DBB) and a team from the global management consulting giant McKinsey and Company found that even with “moderate” changes to business practices, the DOD could save $125 billion over five years.

[…]

That good news, however, did not fall upon welcoming ears. DOD officials had no real idea how much bureaucratic overhead was costing them, as the costs were never accurately measured. When they saw the numbers from the DBB, the Washington Post reports, some of the Pentagon’s leadership was afraid of a legislative backlash. After DOD officials had complained for years about not having enough money to Congress, the department feared findings would trigger further cuts to the DOD’s budget. So the data for the study was designated as sensitive, and an overview of the report that had already been published to the Defense Business Board website was pulled.

You will never find a department within the State that will willingly submit to a budget cut. In fact, departments will go to great lengths to justify expanding their budgets. Different departments have different strategies to argue against cuts but they all work together to ensure that the State always has a justification to keep cranking up taxes.

I would have liked to see the looks on the faces of those Department of Defense (DoD) bureaucrats when they saw that they could cut $125 billion for their budget. I’m sure they made more than a few implied threats to the people who created the report to discourage them from performing such an investigation in the future. And if the DoD didn’t have a policy to mark any reports arguing in favor of a budget cut as sensitive before, I’m sure it does now.

People talk about changing the system from the inside but that’s not possible when every component of the system has hundreds or thousands of roadblocks preventing changes. Concealing information is one such roadblock. How can somebody make an accurate budget when the information they need is inaccurate or missing? So long as every department only reveals information arguing for the need to increase their budget there is no way anybody within the system is going to be able to make a valid (to the State, not to the people) argument for decreasing taxes.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 7th, 2016 at 10:30 am

Renting Freedom

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Robert Higgs is one of my favorite anarchist philosophers. He has a knack for pointing out the bloody obvious that many people fail to see. In October he wrote a short post pointing out that nobody who is required to pay taxes is truly free:

In the antebellum South, it was not uncommon for slaves to rent themselves from their masters. As a young man, Frederick Douglass did so, for example. His owner gave him leave to go out on his own, to find employment where he could, and to pocket the pay he received for such work, except that each month he had to pay his master a fixed sum for his freedom. Douglass worked in the shipyards of Baltimore, caulking ships. Aside from his rental payment for his own body, he lived as he wished, subject to his income constraint. He found his own housing, acquired his own food and clothing, and so forth, just as a free wage worker would have done.

It strikes me that this practice has much in common with the situation in which an ordinary private person finds himself in any modern country today. The person is in general at liberty to arrange his own employment, spend his earnings as he pleases, acquire his own food and housing, and so on, except that he must pay a rental for this personal liberty, which takes the form of a portion of his earnings that must be paid to the various governments that collect income and employment taxes in the jurisdiction.

People believe that feudalism and slavery are, for the most part, a thing of the past. We’re living under both of those systems but under different names. Instead of being serfs we’re called citizens. Instead of barons, lords, and other royal titles we have sheriff’s, city councils, and other bureaucratic titles. Much like the slaves of the South, we must rent our freedom. We can’t own land, we can only rent it. If we fail to pay our rent on either our freedom or our land one of the royal slave catchers will find us and kidnap us so that a royal judge can decide how best to punish us.

The United States isn’t the freest country on Earth. In fact, it’s one of the more draconian countries because it not only has ridiculous high rents but also because those rents are enforced by a ruthlessly efficient government.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 7th, 2016 at 10:00 am

So Much for Farook’s Phone

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Shortly after the attack in San Bernardino the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) tried to exploit the tragedy in order to force Apple to assist it in unlocking Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. According to the FBI Farook’s phone likely contained information that would allow them to find his accomplices, motives, and basically solve the case. Apple refused to give the FBI the power to unlock any iPhone 5C willy nilly but the agency eventually found a third party that had an exploit that would allow the built-in security to be bypassed.

One year later the FBI hasn’t solved the case even with access to Farook’s iPhone:

They launched an unprecedented legal battle with Apple in an effort to unlock Farook’s iPhone and deployed divers to scour a nearby lake in search of electronic equipment the couple might have dumped there.

But despite piecing together a detailed picture of the couple’s actions up to and including the massacre, federal officials acknowledge they still don’t have answers to some of the critical questions posed in the days after the Dec. 2, 2015, attack at the Inland Regional Center.

Most important, the FBI said it is still trying to determine whether anyone was aware of the couple’s plot or helped them in any way. From the beginning, agents have tried to figure out whether others might have known something about Farook and Malik’s plans, since the couple spent months gathering an arsenal of weapons and building bombs in the garage of their Redlands home.

Officials said they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime but stressed the investigation is still open.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anybody. Anybody who had the ability to plan out an attack like the one in San Bernardino without being discovered probably had enough operational security to not use an easily surveilled device such as a cellular phone for the planning. Too many people, including those who should know better, assume only technological wizards have the knowhow to plan things without using commonly surveilled communication methods. But that’s not the case. People who are committed to pulling off a planned attack that includes coordination with third parties are usually smart enough to do their research and utilize communication methods that are unlikely to be accessible to prying eyes. It’s not wizardry, it’s a trick as old as human conflict itself.

Humans are both unpredictable and adaptable, which is what makes mass surveillance useless. When an agency such as the National Security Agency (NSA) performs mass surveillance they get an exponentially greater amount of noise than signal. We’re not even talking about a 100:1 ratio. It would probably be closer to 1,000,000,000,000:1. Furthermore, people with enough intelligence to pull off coordinated attacks are usually paranoid enough to assume the most commonly available communication mechanisms are being surveilled so they adapt. Mass surveillance works well if you want a lot of grandmothers’ recipes, Internet memes, and insults about mothers made by teenagers. But mass surveillance is useless if you’re trying to identify individuals who are a significant threat. Sure, the NSA may get lucky once in a while and catch somebody but that’s by far the exception, not the rule. The rule, when it comes to identifying and thwarting significant threats, is that old fashioned investigative techniques must be employed.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 6th, 2016 at 11:00 am

The Real Life Ramification of Software Glitches

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When people think of software glitches they generally think of annoyances such as their application crashing and losing any changes since their last save, their smart thermostat causing the furnace not to kick on, or the graphics in their game displaying abnormally. But as software has become more and more integrated into our lives the real life implications of software glitches have become more severe:

OAKLAND, Calif.—Most pieces of software don’t have the power to get someone arrested—but Tyler Technologies’ Odyssey Case Manager does. This is the case management software that runs on the computers of hundreds and perhaps even thousands of court clerks and judges in county courthouses across the US. (Federal courts use an entirely different system.)

Typically, when a judge makes a ruling—for example, issuing or rescinding a warrant—those words said by a judge in court are entered into Odyssey. That information is then relied upon by law enforcement officers to coordinate arrests and releases and to issue court summons. (Most other courts, even if they don’t use Odyssey, use a similar software system from another vendor.)

But, just across the bay from San Francisco, one of Alameda County’s deputy public defenders, Jeff Chorney, says that since the county switched from a decades-old computer system to Odyssey in August, dozens of defendants have been wrongly arrested or jailed. Others have even been forced to register as sex offenders unnecessarily. “I understand that with every piece of technology, bugs have to be worked out,” he said, practically exasperated. “But we’re not talking about whether people are getting their paychecks on time. We’re talking about people being locked in cages, that’s what jail is. It’s taking a person and locking them in a cage.”

First, let me commend Jeff Chorney for stating that jails are cages. Too many people like to prevent that isn’t the case. Second, he has a point. Case management software, as we’ve seen in this case, can have severe ramifications if bugs are left in the code.

The threat of bugs causing significant real life consequences isn’t a new one. A lot of software manages a lot of equipment that can lead to people dying if there is a malfunction. In response to that many industries have gone to great lengths to select tools and come up with procedures to minimize the chances of major bugs making it into released code. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for example, has an extensive history of writing code where malfunctions can cost millions of dollars or even kill people and its programmers have developed tools and standards to minimize their risks. Most industrial equipment manufacturers also spend a significant amount of time developing tools and standards to minimize code errors because their software mistakes can lead to millions of dollars being lost of people dying.

Software developers working on products that can have severe real life consequences need to focus on developing reliable code. Case management software isn’t Facebook. When a bug exists in Facebook the consequences are annoying to users but nobody is harmed. When a bug exists in case management software innocent people can end up in cages of on a sex offender registry, which can ruin their entire lives.

Likewise, people purchasing and use critical software needs to thoroughly test it before putting it in production. Do you think there are many companies that buy multi-million dollar pieces of equipment and don’t test them thoroughly before putting it on the assembly line? That would be foolish and any company that did that would end up facing millions of dollars of downtime or even bankruptcy if the machine didn’t perform as needed. The governments that are using the Odyssey Case Management software should have thoroughly tested the product before using it in any court. But since the governments themselves don’t face any risks from bad case management software they likely did, at best, basic testing before rushing the product into production.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 6th, 2016 at 10:30 am

Take Care of Yourself

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Anybody who has worked in system administration, software development, or information security is probably familiar with the stereotypical “rockstar” employee. These are the employees that are too busy to eat, work ridiculously long hours, and replace sleep with caffeine. They’re often held up on a pedestal by other “rockstars” and sometimes even admired by their fellow coworkers and managers. Unfortunately, they also the model many computer science students strive to be.

The problem with these “rockstars” is that they have a short shelf life. You can only keep up that lifestyle for so long until you start facing major health issues, which is why I was happy to see Lesley Carhart write a short post aimed at hackers offering them advice to take care of themselves. Computer science disciplines need more people discussing the importance of taking care of yourself.

I’ve never been much for the “rockstar” lifestyle. I like getting a decent amount of sleep (which is about six hours for me) each night, socializing, eating decent food, exercising (which I’ve started to take very seriously this year), and not dealing with work during my off hours. While this lifestyle hasn’t made me a millionaire I can say that my quality of life is pretty awesome.

Don’t spend every waking hour working. Take time off for lunch. Eat a decent supper. Try to workout at least a few times per week. Go out with friends and do something not related to work. Go to bed at a decent hour so you can get some actual sleep. Not only will your qualify of life improve but your ability to handle stress, such as those days where you absolutely have to put in long hours at work or those days where you get sick, will be greatly improved as well.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 6th, 2016 at 10:00 am

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The Mythical Five Percent

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One of the reasons that I have a hard time taking political libertarians seriously is because many of them operate in a fantasy land where the electoral process is fair and the only thing needed for another party to gain prominence is hard work. Take the Libertarian Party struggle to reach the mythical five percent of votes. Many political libertarians naively believe that if their party can get five percent of the national vote that their party will be granted federal campaign dollars. But that’s not how the political process works. Washington is giving us a glimpse of what will happen if the Libertarian Party ever obtains anywhere near five percent of the national vote:

In order to gain gain major party legal status in the state of Washington, the Libertarian Party needed to get 5 percent of the vote in the presidential race. As the final counting for the state dragged on for weeks, the state party looked on eagerly as it seemed they’d just make the cut.

And indeed, according to the public data on the Washington secretary of state’s website on election results, they did! 5.01 percent as of this morning for Gary Johnson for president in that state. Seeing this, Ballot Access News thought major party status was a done deal.

But you didn’t think the state would make it that easy, did you? This week, as later reported in Ballot Access News, the secretary of state Kim Wyman announced that the L.P. did not in fact qualify.

Why? Because that public total doesn’t include the sacred-to-Washington-process write-in vote.

This is despite the fact, as Winger reports, that the state has never even announced any counts of such votes for the past 24 years. But Wyman insists that including the write-ins will be done, and will dunk Johnson’s percentage below 5.

This is another example of the layers of protection that exist within the State to protect it from unwanted influence. In this case the write-in votes, which haven’t been counted in almost a quarter of a century in Washington, appear to be the layer of protection against the Libertarian Party achieving major party status in Washington. Once major party status is denied to the Libertarian Party the politicians of the state will likely pass a law upping the required percentage to 10 percent or more to protect against this kind of thing happening again.

Politics by its very nature is a practice of deception, lies, and changing rules. Libertarianism is an anti-statist philosophy, which means it will never achieve success in the political realm.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 5th, 2016 at 10:30 am

Monday Metal: Confusion by Metallica

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2016 has been a weird year. Celebrities have been keeling over left and right, Trump somehow managed to win the election, and Metallica has released an album that doesn’t suck. I finally got around to listening to Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. Admittedly, it wasn’t high on my list of albums to listen to. Metallica’s track record as of late has been pretty piss poor. St. Anger was a complete shitfest and Death Magnetic was, at best, mediocre. But Hardwired… to Self-Destruct was, shockingly, quite good. While the album may not be redemption for Metallica is certainly is a huge step in the right direction.

This week we’re listening to my favorite song from the album, Confusion:

Written by Christopher Burg

December 5th, 2016 at 10:00 am

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You Can Have Either Guns or Cannabis in Minnesota

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Minnesota’s medical cannabis laws are, to put it nicely, absurd. Instead of legalizing cannabis across the board like Colorado, the Minnesota legislative and executive branches allowed law enforcement to effectively write the initial bill. The result was a bill that allowed patients with very specific conditions to access cannabis at prices that today remain artificially inflated due to the government granted duopoly of approved growers. Now that the bill is through minor tweaks are being made. One of the tweaks is adding more approved conditions to the list. Recently post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was added to the list:

ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) – The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday announced the decision to add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a new qualifying condition for the state’s medical cannabis program.

PTSD was one of 9 conditions considered for addition this year, including depression, arthritis, autism, diabetes, insomnia, schizophrenia, phantom limb syndrome and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – a genetic disorder that can affect the joints and skin.

I bring this up primarily because it’s an interesting intersection of cannabis and gun laws, especially for one beloved group of individuals that commonly suffer from PTSD and enjoy shooting sport: veterans. Unfortunately, due to the disagreement on cannabis between state and federal governments, using cannabis in a state where it’s legal means you lose your gun privileges. In fact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) recently updated Form 4473 to clarify this. In Minnesota, unlike states that have completely abolished cannabis prohibition, you have to register as a patient with the state, which means that it only takes one agency communicating with another to list you as a prohibited person in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

So now those veterans who suffer with PTSD and enjoy shooting sports have a choice to make. They can either treat their condition or they can own firearms. At least legally.

Illicit cannabis dealers are still happy to provide their product to people suffering from PTSD without requiring any registration with a government agency that might report them to the ATF. The lesson here is that if you’re suffering with any of the approved medical conditions that allow you to legally buy cannabis in Minnesota buy your cannabis illegally instead.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 2nd, 2016 at 11:00 am

A Beginner’s Guide to Privacy and Security

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I’m always on the lookout for good guides on privacy and security for beginner’s. Ars Technica posted an excellent beginner’s guide yesterday. It covers the basics; such as installing operating system and browser updates, enabling two-factor authentication, and using a password manager to enable you to use strong and unique passwords for your accounts; that even less computer savvy users can follow to improve their security.

If you’re not sure where to begin when it comes to security and privacy take a look at Ars’ guide.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 2nd, 2016 at 10:30 am