Thursday 24 December, 2020

The Butterfly Effect

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter,
forced to stay at home,
Browsing on my laptop,
searching on my phone;
Trying to order presents,
my internet’s too slow,
In the bleak midwinter,
so many gifts to go.

Oh God, what should I get them
to put beneath the tree?
What’s this? A gift subscription
to the LRB!
In this bleak midwinter,
with all our plans on ice:
An LRB subscription,
reasonably priced.

Although I am a long-time subscriber to the London Review of Books this is not an endorsement from me. It’s just that it made me smile this morning. And it’s the first ‘Xmas’ ad I’ve seen this year that hasn’t made my flesh creep. There’s nothing more nauseating than sociopathic corporations pretending to be on your side. Which at the moment is what they’re all doing, when the only side they’re on is that of their shareholders and executives.

Quote of the Day

I wish someone would gamify the virus so people understand how it works, and how it’s actually something like a game, and how we’re completely blowing it. One of the skills the virus has is it can mutate. So it’s in our collective interest to reduce the virus to almost nothing before it can mutate to something our vaccines can’t deal with. The more virus is out there btw, the more mutations there will be. The way we’re doing it now, it’s like we have all the time in the world. So a million people travel by air to go to family gatherings and then a month later do it again, and fly home, spreading all mutations of the virus everywhere. We don’t have a lot of time. We don’t have time to worry about who Trump pardons. We need to worry about what the virus mutates to and how it might not be very human friendly, even compared to the virus as we now know it.

Just what I was thinking. The virus is a more sophisticated adversary than we, in our hubristic human way, ever imagined.

Long Read of the Day

 What is a letter? Literary correspondence in the age of instant communications

Lovely essay by Hannah Williams in the venerable TLS .

It seems that the end of letters as a literary form has been lamented for almost as long as the form has been in use, with each improvement in speed, reliability or facility taken as anathema to the letter’s insistence on slow contemplation.

It’s no wonder that we’re desperate to eulogize it: authors’ letters are integral to literature’s myth-making; they build a meta-narrative that offers a glimpse into the genius of the creative process. As well as a way to deepen understanding of an individual and their work, they have always been a repository of both salacious rumours and petty rivalries; a bedroom curtain twitched aside, a seat at a dinner party none of us were invited to. Reading authors’ letters is sometimes envisioned as a way to “bring the dead back to life”, an aim Jonathan Ellis both celebrates and warns against in his book Letter Writing Among Poets (2015). They encourage a kind of hazy romanticization, as if they were the key to an ultimate understanding of a body of work…

Particularly apposite in the age of Substack. This blog is published every day on the Web, but its arrival in people’s email at 7am seems to be what many readers particularly like (at least if my inbox is anything to go by). Which suggests that email ain’t dead yet.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Liam O’Flynn | Sliabh na mBan


One of my favourite slow tunes. Beautifully played by the maestro himself.

The SolarWinds hack — contd.

Looks as though I underestimated the extent of the likely damage and the nature of the exploit. Bruce Schneier has the best piece on it that I’ve read to date. “The US has suffered a massive cyberbreach”, he says. “It’s hard to overstate how bad it is.” But it’s wrong to treat it as a massive Russian cyber-attack against the United States, on two counts. It wasn’t a cyber-attack in international relations terms but busines>s-as-usual espionage. “And the victim wasn’t just the US, it was the entire world. But it was massive, and it is dangerous.”

Espionage is internationally allowed in peacetime. The problem is that both espionage and cyber-attacks require the same computer and network intrusions, and the difference is only a few keystrokes. And since this Russian operation isn’t at all targeted, the entire world is at risk – and not just from Russia. Many countries carry out these sorts of operations, none more extensively than the US. The solution is to prioritize security and defense over espionage and attack.

So the SolarWinds exploit is not, as Senator Richard Durban said, “virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States” While President-elect Biden said he will make this a top priority, it’s unlikely — says Schneier — that he will do much to retaliate.

The reason is that, by international norms, Russia did nothing wrong. This is the normal state of affairs. Countries spy on each other all the time. There are no rules or even norms, and it’s basically “buyer beware”. The US regularly fails to retaliate against espionage operations – such as China’s hack of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) and previous Russian hacks – because we do it, too. Speaking of the OPM hack, the then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said: “You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.”

We don’t, and I’m sure NSA employees are grudgingly impressed with the SVR. The US has by far the most extensive and aggressive intelligence operation in the world. The NSA’s budget is the largest of any intelligence agency. It aggressively leverages the US’s position controlling most of the internet backbone and most of the major internet companies. Edward Snowden disclosed many targets of its efforts around 2014, which then included 193 countries, the World Bank, the IMF and the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are undoubtedly running an offensive operation on the scale of this SVR operation right now, and it’ll probably never be made public. In 2016, President Obama boasted that we have “more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.”

A key point in the Schneier piece is his view that the US (and most Western countries) have relatively poor defences against cyber-espionage intrusions like this. And there’s a critical asymmetry at work here too. Russia’s dependence on networks is probably much less than ours, simply because they’re in a different phase of economic development. That’s why North Korea has been able to engage in brazen cyber-espionage and other tricks. Retaliation in kind will have near-zero impact on them, because they don’t have the kind of intensively networked society that we have. It’s an interesting case of the power of the powerless.

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