I told you guys that this would be big. Today’s New York Times has two stories about the insistence of security agencies on getting access to secure and encrypted messages on information systems such as Blacberry. The first talks about what the Indian government is asking the service providers to do. This one is the first page of the business section. About four pages in, also in the business section, is a story about nervousness on the part of providers about going along with government demands for plain text reductions of at least some messages under some circumstances. The gist is that providers will be antsy about complying with government demands and will avoid doing business in any country that has too muscular a disclosure process. But, it’s starting to look as though governments are so concerned that talk about innovation and losing business will be dismissed, when measured against the risk. The Indians are determined not to get caught in a repeat of the Mumbai attacks, and service providers can get into line, or else. The US, in the “overt” sector at least, is way behind the game on this score. They’re still talking about the possibility of discussing the submission of legislaton to Congress to expand wire tap access, but other places are just getting after the providers to do something now.
If you can’t be good, be lucky. If you can’t be either, fake. We are all uncomfortably aware of fakery. It seems to be everywhere, in every walk of life. Fake research, fake watches, fake masterpieces in art, fake drugs…fake, fake, fake. To get away from rampant fakery, many take refuge in nature documentaries, which at least show the natural world as it is. Right? Right? Well, not so fast there, Jasper. It seems that much of what we see, and have come to expect is not genuine, in the sense that the photographers captured some animal or animals behaving authentically in the wild. A new book discusses the methods used to get something useful on film or tape when there is really not much going on. Nature is really pretty boring much of the time. Nothing happens, at least nothing that will make gripping film, like a fight. So what do you do when your big ticket expedition to track the elusive Zipwhat turns out to be a lot of pointless driving around, and your schedule starts to slip rather badly? You can go to an animal provider and have the shot set up, using tame or at least tamer critters. The bear that’s chewing on a deer carcass? He or she could be a resident of a rather comfortable facility someplace, and has been rented out to help the film makers. Bury some jelly beans in the dead deer’s insides,and Bruin will likely chew his way into the hoard to satisfy his sweet tooth. It goes on like that. The author is Chris Palmer, and the book is Shooting in the Wild. It’s making a stir,as you can imagine, and is putting some people on the defensive, uncomfortably so. Discovery Channel and National Geographic don’t like being accused of phonus bolonus documentary making. Look, the demand for ‘product’ is high. People love this stuff, so crews are sent out to get footage. But animals often don’t cooperate. Many prefer inaccessible places and concealment to hanging around with humans, which is likely to get thems hot or run over or both. And the clock is ticking. And next season’s line-up has to be created. Time is money, buddy. Get me the shot. So, they do.
This morning’s New York Times carries a front-page story about efforts on the part of Federal agencies to secure expanded powers for “taps” on certain kinds of digital communication which,they claim, are allowing criminals and terrorists to discuss their various plans and plots with relative immunity from government surveillance. Fewer and fewer people are talking on land line telephones, the kind that can be “tapped” in the traditional sense. Congress will be asked to approve legislation requiring that any company offering digital communication of any kind provide the technical possibility of oversight and decryption, if the appropriate agency serves a court order to that effect. The Feds want both surveillance and unscrambling capabilities built into new systems and retrofitted into existing ones. Everybody is bending over backwards to insist that this would not be some cowboy thing, but would follow all the rules: probable cause, court order, etc, etc. Not everybody is happy about this, as you can imagine. Nobody knows how much or how little the Clandestine Services can monitor the persons or groups they want to keep an eye on. The wisdom is that they can do pretty much what they need to. The “ordinary” law enforcement agencies are the ones having trouble keeping up. You can expect a lot of yelling and posturing. Something will happen, probably a lot less than either side wants, but something everybody can live with.
PS One of the outfits right on the bullseye is of course RIM and its Blackberry service. RIM has already had run-ins with some Gulf States security services, as well as with India. The company claims that the push for disclosure is hurting their business. The agencies say: too bad. I think we can expect a lot more of this, and in a way it’s a real challenge to “open” philosophy of the Internet as conceived and propagandized by zealots in the 1990s. The very idea of bad guys abusing this wonderful instrument was ruled out. After all, as Anne Frank said “people are basically good”, right? Well, she got her answer on that one. Companies that do business internationally will protest that US law enforcement needs should not bind entities outside US borders. The government will say, if you’re doing business here, we want at least the ability, under some circumstances, to get into your stuff.
Today is the anniversary of Jean-Francois Champollion’s breakthrough in his effort to penetrate Egyptian hieroglyphcs. Scholars had been curious about these mysterious writings for a long time and many very smart people had come up with some ingenious attempts at solution. They were all wrong, for a number of reasons. One of these was the conviction that the script had to have some deep metaphysical freight. Ancient Egypt was the Land of Mystery, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, all big and mighty and imposing as all get out. So the idea that the hieroglyphs could just be the equivalent of “take cat to vet”, or Mayor Louie’s Memorial Outhouse or something banal and everyday was impossible to accept. Then the notion that the elements were pictograms and not representations of sound was hard to dislodge. When French soldiers campaigning in Egypt as part of Napoleon’s invasion of that country near the town of Rosetta found a funny looking rock, they called an officer over and said, hey, look at this funny rock. The officers all had had some classical education and recognized that one of the things on the rock was a text in Greek, which they knew, at least a little. The was also a text in hieroglyphics and finally a text in what turned out to be demotic, or everyday, Egyptian. The same text, written three ways could be the key. The French had to give over the funny looking rock to the British, as part of their surrender agreement, and the rock, now the Rosetta Stone, was schlepped to the British museum, where it now resides. The young French savant, Champollion, used copies of it and figured out how to turn the information on it into a breakthrough. Something clicked in his mind, and he had it. He cried out “I’ve got it”, passed out and stayed in bed for five days. It’s all a great story and it’s been told a number of times, but without the Stone, well, who can tell what would have happened. Man and the animals may differ only a little in many ways, but I’ve not heard yet of an animal that would spend most of its life trying to figure out how animals long dead communicated with each other. There is absolutely no survival benefit in this, yet people do it. Curiosity, thy name is Man.
It’s been some seven decades since the fateful summer of 1940, but interest in the crucial Battle of Britain doesn’t seem to wane. TheTimes Literary Supplement or simply the TLS reviews a small squadron (flight? wing?) of new historical studies and interpretations dealing with the events and finds them all valuable. A great deal of controversy surrounds who did what and who was shown to have been right and all the rest. One of the new books is a technical study of the Hawker Hurricane, the fighter plane that actually made up most of the strength of the RAF’s Fighter Command, even though the sleeker, sexier Spitfire gets most of the credit as a battle-winner. One of the studies goes so far as to say that the German BF-109 was really the best fighter, but they all had weaknesses…short range being the most important. I think you have to be a plane geek to go for this one, but performance characteristics are important in understanding things. For younger people wondering what all the fuss is about, one of these should help in getting a feel for what went on and why it was important.
The Times carried the obituary yesterday of former British agent Eileen Nearne, at the advanced age of 89. She was one of a small number of women who parachuted into occupied France to gather intelligence and prepare for the Allied invasion. She was caught, tortured by the Gestapo, and sent to three concentration camps before breaking out and making her way west to find American forces, who treated her as a German collaborator until it all got straightened out. She did not adjust well to post war life, and, despite what had happened to her, missed the clandestine life. Afterwards she kept herself to herself as they say, visited with her sister who also had been an agent, and lived in the seaside town or Torquay, alone except for her cats. Her death went unnoticed for some time, and she was slated for a pauper’s burial until police started looking at her things and found, among other decorations, a French croix de guerre. Some calls to London established her identity and she got the full military funeral. She never sought to capitalize or gain financially from her service, as it had cost her and others so very much.
I missed this, but yesterday was the birthday of Herbert George Wells… H.G. Wells to you. He was an interesting character. At one time, his books were very popular, and his views on science, art, literature and politics were taken seriously. Today, much of his large output is unread, but far from un-movied. Wells was one of the pioneer SciFi writers, a genre that has been expanded and renamed Speculative Fiction by some. To me, it’s still SciFi. Wells ground it out too. He had imagination, a quick, fluent style, solid scientific training and a good sense of what science’s effect on society could be. Among his major works are War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, & The Island of Dr. Moreau. All of these were made into movies; Machine and WotW more than once. Now that I think about it, Island probably was shot more than once as well.
Well, maybe. Dr. Doug Farrago is both ususal and unusual. He does the ordinary family practice doc things, so he’s usual. But he edits something called Placebo Journal which is a kind of parody of the straight medical journal. It contains cartoons, jokes, take-offs, riffs and other oddities that Dr. F comes up with himself, or those sent are sent in by his increasingly large circle of subscribers. The tone is definitely irreverent and getting published in PJ is not going to help your resume any. But if you are bloody sick of phramaceutical company advertising and might enjoy some rip-off “ads ” which ridicule the same, this little mag might be for you. Dr. Farrago sounds as though practicising medicine has rather lost its lustre for him, and he is casting about for something else. He’s working with some ‘creative’ types on a TV show. Some of the episodes can be viewed on the tubey thingy. Read more here:
Our post on Dr. Frances Kelsey and her role in denying the application for the sale of thalidomide as a tranquilizer and treatment for morning sickness in the USA drew a number of viewers. In today’s Science section of The New York Times, Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland has a letter that follows up on the original story by pointing out the important contribution to the thalidomide ban made by Dr. Helen B. Taussig. Her testimony at the AMA meeting and before a Congressional committee about what she had found in Europe and the photographs she used to illustrate the matter, coupled with her very considrable public reputation as a pediatric heart surgeon, were enough to kill the application beyond any chance of resurrection.
The current Scientific American has a number of articles on The End. You know, when everything is finito, Benito ,over, kaputt, done, finished. The Four Horsemen have done rid and we are all gone. But not quite. A number of the contributions seem to be cheating the editor a little, because they discuss what could happen next. So, sort of over. This fascination with Overness and the expectation that the Great End is coming up, just around the corner in fact, is certainly nothing new for humans. Maybe it goes way, way back deposited in our creaturely DNA by long experience of seeing comrades in creaturehood become something else’s dinner. Or maybe people just have too much time on their hands and so turn their minds to unprofitable speculations. But, End Times in some fashion are big business. There is no surer way to make a buck than to come up with a movie or TV show that shows us or Earth or both together coming to some spectacular end. Well, you can’t blame SA for wanting to cash in on the trend and maybe teach readers a little science on the side, sly old pedagogues that they are. It’s on the news stands and at least some of the articles are linkable from this site: