Friday, 23 March 2018

now with added alligators - the $1.3T omnibus snow job doesn't drain the swamp

That $1.3 trillion omnibus bill was passed in the USA, partly using a ticket to avert a further US government shutdown.

It doesn't drain the swamp, it just adds more alligators, mud, live oak, gumbo limbo, royal palm and sharp saw palmettos.

Firstly, check it out (here). The 2,232 pages are almost unreadable. It's built by weight. I expect they work out the consultant fee at so many thousand dollars per page. And the need for it to have the thud factor because its for $1.3 trillion.

There's no embedded tables, it uses arbitrarily split sentences, spaced on around 8 word numbered lines.

There's no headers and footers so you have to guess where a section starts. There's no proper summary. It has all the hallmarks of a snow job and a shopping list for vested interests. Just send your requests to our consultants and we'll put them through the obfuscation mill. Here's an example from the tax simplification area - the so-called General Deadwood Related Provisions:


Already the media headlines are about bike sheds New Jersey tunnels and the wall, although the really big money seems to go to the military. The Pentagon gets around $656 billion of the $1,300 billion. Some 50.4% of the total, but its buried away in Section C. The new ultra-hawkish John Bolton as national security advisor has previous form for wanting to bomb places, so watch out.

I decided to take a look at a simple area: the new warplanes being acquired as part of the defence upgrade. Here's my table:

I casually picked the first item to examine in more detail. F-35 planes. Lockheed had agreed to deliver them for 'less than $100m each'. Not so here, with a per unit cost of $113 million. Maybe it's somebody's handling fees? A kind of swamp tax.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Cambridge Analytica : the dice were loaded from the start?

Above is Wired's postulation of Mark Zuckerberg's current appearance and the Damian Collins MP letter to him at 1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park. Since the news about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (CA), he has yet to comment. Whoever is managing facebook's reputational damage needs to step it up a notch.

The absent Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are presumably being schooled in media answers, whilst Facebook lawyers such as Paul Grewal advise staff on how to remain silent. It looks as if each organisation implicated is selecting a scapegoat to try to minimise damage. Kogan and Nix so far.

Facebook's security model goes back to something called IETF RFC 6749/OAuth 2.0, which is a multi-tier way to seek permissions and which in turn allow access to friend data.

Facebook third party developers were encouraged to use these friends permission protocols to monetise and to extend their own networks.

It means that although a subcontractor to Cambridge Analytica is having the finger pointed at the moment, there could be plenty of other examples of similar albeit less voluminous accesses from other app developers.

Of course, Cambridge Analytica took it to a further level. Their website boasts about the 5000 data points on every person. Here's today's screen shot from their site:

Although it's not quite as obvious as the teaser they inserted onto their website crowing after Trump's victory.

Check their site today and there is still a slew of PR from around the time of Trump's victory. Although, I can't help wondering if some of these stories may melt away a bit like the emails which can be set to self destruct after a user-specified interval. Who wouldn't have a Swiss crypto email system for those special moments?

I checked the Trump campaign payments to Cambridge Analytica by using the Federal Elections Commission records of the Trump campaign. Just shy of $6m dollars paid from Trump's people to CA, a drop in the ocean of his $348m campaign total. I also noticed around $4m of payments back to entities featuring the name Trump.

So when the currently suspended Mr Nix from Cambridge Analytica was interviewed last year by the FT about the Trump victory he commented that CA worked on 50 Republican campaigns in 2016. Then there's the Jarad Kushner commissioned work with his Trump San Antonio data science team. Nix has gone on to say that his organisation uses data to identify flippable voters and where to target voters to stay at home. Behavioural micro targeting. Just like that done by Strategic Communication Laboratories which is the parent company of CA, although their work has previously been within developing countries.

A not altogether legal aspect of this during an election is that it uses manual curation of the messaging streams, including suppression and injection. The Channel 4 television investigation illustrated that CA routinely uses third parties to insulate their actions. These seem to be both upstream (towards the data) midstream (during acting of influence strategies) and downstream (to insulate the client/candidate).

So we know about some of the upstream activity, but I wonder where CA would get the people to action the influence strategy itself? All those microtargeted adverts (often on Facebook) must have originated somewhere? Surely not the same place as the ones use in Kenya/Mexico/Italy?

Oh yes, and the same FT source mentions that the UK Brexit Leave campaign also used Cambridge Analytica. Oops.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

into the woods around Moscow

The media news cycle is gradually shifting around to Porton Down and the analysis of the Salisbury nerve agent. These kind of things all used to be hush-hush, but nowadays even the FSB flaunts its agents. An old Moscow cliche used to be about the use of black Mercedes SUVs by senior Russians (oligarchs and the like).

Last July, FSB (aka KGB) agents took to the streets in a fleet of black SUVs to celebrate their graduation. At one level it could be considered a serious breach of security, or on another level simply a 'don't mess with us' warning to the general populace.

The fleet of expensive Mercedes G-Wagens flaunted their way around central Moscow.

The drivers and passengers noisily drank champagne on the streets. A kind of mob of low-level agents taunting anyone else to 'bring it on'. Kinda where Putin started, actually, although then it was all a lot more clandestine.

Well, with this new found lack of security, I thought I'd take a quick peer around the FSB/SVR offices. Maybe find a chemical lab from which the revised Department Department 12 of Directorate S (Special Operations) could operate. This isn't a unit for mass manufacture of nerve agent, but a more specialised and smaller facility, perhaps close to the spying system's main headquarters?

Looking up FSB would be a bit obvious, but less so to look for the SVR (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki). That's the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation /Слу́жба вне́шней разве́дки, or SVR RF / СВР РФ.

It's not too difficult to find, although its co-ordinates on a geo-search are a little bit off. I wonder why?

It's actually to the south west of Moscow, but still close to the main ring road. This is where the offshore espionage people report.

Look around to see the ever expanding size of the campus, conveniently situated in the woods, but highly visible from the nearby suburb of Yasenevo.

So maybe a tiptoe towards the main entrance? Oops, what's that red flashing light? And those sirens?

Monday, 19 March 2018

anything hiding in the mechanical turk?

I see facebook may be about to receive a comeuppance as a result of the way its users had data processed by a Cambridge Analytica subcontractor.

My take is that a pivotal point seems to be the difference between academic and commercial research. If GSR/Global Science Research asked for data to further 'academic research' it appears unconstrained in ways that no commercial entity would be allowed.

The separate compartmentalising of the main players is another interesting facet. If everyone becomes firewalled subcontractors it is far easier to issue denials, "Not us, guv."

Although, come to think of it, the immediate issue of denials seems to be a first response to everything in these spin managed times.

I've never liked facebook. Zuckerberg's first version of face mash was a sophomore project to visually compare on-campus women. He was almost expelled for that, with privacy being one of the citations. Maybe that early disregard for privacy has persisted? You can tell I'm one of the people that think of Facebook as abusive by design right from its throw sheep and poke days.

One of facebook's recent patents is about 'socioeconomic group classification based on user features' - fundamentally another way to profile users so that they receive the right advertising. The basics are not new but there's a scrabble now to be one of the main providers.

Throw Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer/Renaissance Technologies hedge fund/Cambridge Analytica into the mix and the ability to run informational dominant psychological operations (psyops) starts to magnify.

That's the premise of at least part of the electoral influence. Psychographic messaging, derived from an analysis millions of facebook users. Plonking messages most likely to influence in front of voters. Politics downstream from culture.

Of course the technique is not legal, but everyone in the chain has for many months denied any part in it.

The Global Science Research data harvesting via a paid user personality test was cunning. Ask each user if it will allow the user's friends to be used to improve the data collection quality.

Thus grab data from an average of 160 friends per paid respondent capturing 50 million profiles. And maybe use some inexpensive manual help to massage the data?

But of course everyone is denying any part in it.

There's probably insufficient data.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

mining spotify playlists

I've been having some fun with Spotify playlists.

The little utility I've been trying is called the playlist miner. It crowdsources a playlist from the results of those curated by others.

Simply type in a search word that others will be likely to have used in playlists and wait a few seconds for all the relevant playlists to arrive in a list.

Then ask the Playlist Miner to curate a list from all the lists, with, say, 100 tracks in it. It'll skim through the found lists looking for top hits and then pipe them into a new personal list. The new list can be saved directly as a personal list on Spotify.

It's good fun to see what shows up, with a choice of top tunes or a more individualistic selection. Just for fun, I tried UK top tunes too. Here's my derived Saturday's top of the pops, which inevitably features some 'lead and lag' compared with the official chart.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

been away so long I hardly knew the place

The formal end of the cold war was sometime between 1989-1991. It was after Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika and Ronald Reagan's threat of the Strategic Defence Initiative (aka Start Wars).

As Reagan's speechwriters put it, the Ivan and Anya and the Jim and Sally had more in common within their domestic lives than worrying about respective governments' ideologies.

Today we see the individual fortresses being rebuilt. The erratic, narcissistic, so-called president of the USA has gone all national protectionist. The Russians have a scary thug as their leader. The UK is becoming more like Orwell's Airstrip One.

And then, today, the Russians have summoned the Brits to close the British Council in Moscow and the Consulate in St Petersburg.

Post-cold war espionage still affects le Carré jargon, but its languor has made it less direct. It is about to click up a few notches. By the 1990s Russia was ripe for mafia-style monetisation. Force, fear and subverted power were used to get rich quick and move the huge piles of money out of harm's way. Putin clawed through the ranks to become the feared power broker. He surrounded himself with other newly powerful people. Be loyal or die.

And, as Putin routinely lies, he also knows how to grab advantage from an opponent's truth. Want to close a few inconvenient UK diplomatic structures? Let the Brits deport a few Russians, then a judo-like retaliation by shutting down some British operations in Russia.

It's difficult to know how to categorise this form of tyrant. One thing for sure. His dark power will guarantee his re-election this weekend.

The Brits have known about the Russian presence in London and elsewhere for long enough. But now, suddenly, it's time to notice all those fill-yer-boots oligarchs with copious acres of prime London real estate. The Gurievs, the Goncharenkos, the Abramoviches, the Usmanovs...basking in wide leafy streets, whilst hiding their true business in labyrinth Kabarov corridors.

There's chatter now about making a list of the UK ultra rich residents with unexplained sources for their wealth. Like it's a new surprise rather than something profitable for UK business over the last three decades. Of course these people are not directly paying money to political parties, but there's other ways for convenient funds to arrive.

The oil greasing the wheels of Londongrad won't be given up that easily. Putin operates a very distributed empire. The SVR (Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service) don't seem to be in the news, yet probably know much about various of the Russian-linked crimes across the UK over the last few years.

The politicians juggle the paradox. Less Russian money in the UK economy. Brexit. Unstable global powers. Amazonioan destruction of town centres.

I'm not sure there's any escape route. I'm seeing some resonance with those Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabarov's ideas. The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

here be gorynich

Today I hear gravitas laden suits talking about 'hitting back at Russia'. Cyber attacks. Eviction of diplomats. Freezes on money laundering.

The catalyst is the recent attempted assassination in Britain with a 1970's nerve agent approximating Novichok-6. The UK government are being tight-lipped about detail and not openly joining dots with any of the other Russian deaths in London.

I remember the Litvinenko polonium murder because I received a letter from British Airways afterwards. Turns out I'd been in the same seat as Litvinenko on a different flight. In 2013 there was Putin opposer Boris Berezovsky, found hanged in London. As recently as Monday there was Russian exile Nikolai Glushkov, found dead with apparent strangulation marks in a house in New Malden.

Putin isn't saying anything about the specifics, although his view of defectors is well-reported. He uses these situations to amplify his 'dark power' ahead of the upcoming elections.

If a nerve agent was used in Salisbury, it is despite the 1990 Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia continued experiments and production, often under the guise of insecticides.

The nerve agents use binary combinations, amalgamating the main agent with phosphorus derivatives or iso-propyl alcohol to drastically increase the potency of these so-called newcomer weapons. The Russian Khimprom plant in Volgograd is a potential manufacturing site, although such a tiny amount was apparently deployed in Salisbury that it could have come out of a freezer cabinet.

Frederick Forsyth used a fictional equivalent in his Devil's Apprentice novel and there's similarities this time with the murder of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala-Lumpur airport around a year ago. A spray and a separate handkerchief. That was described non-specifically as a VX nerve agent.

The whole situation is wrapped up in spy defections, friends of Putin and the free-ranging oligarchs who have sliced money from every state-owned industry in Russia and deposited the huge proceeds in a blend of laundered and generally tax free situations. It's all companies within companies and houses within houses, like Russian dolls stretched to infinity. The finance industry has been only to pleased to help. My own guidance is that offices of banks in Mayfair instead of Canary Wharf may give a quick clue to the kind of business being conducted.

And meanwhile, Russia is having a competition to name their latest weapons. Gorynich seems to be leading the way at the moment. I think it means Dragon. Then there's the crucian carp. I wonder if Trump wishes he'd had that idea?

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

a slight return, via the adverts

I can feel like a trailblazer this week. Time Out has a two-pager about Tauern Spa in Kaprun, near Salzburg.

Our spot a few weeks ago.

The pictures in Time Out seem to be green fields and spring, although when we were there it was very snowy. As well as the vast indoor spa areas, there's other areas to explore.

Including the steamy outdoor pools, conveniently heated to 36C, and featuring one of those swim-to bar areas.

A fun way to relax after spending time on the glacier slopes.

Monday, 12 March 2018

music delivery via sonos

I considered re-installing the various sound systems since the move but instead have gone for a major simplification. I decided to use the network as the signal carrier for general music. I had the new place installed with an ethernet backbone in the walls and it's time to start using it. A simple wireless access point per floor, plus enough signal to reach the garage and I can then use it to piggyback a music stream.

I'm using Sonos for the main rooms, via a simple wifi connection. Initialise the speaker, then plug it into the mains in the required room and go. The controller application integrates my music library (which is the Sonos re-index of my iTunes) and a bunch of streaming services, as well as radio and delivers the same or different signals to varied speakers. So far it all works from Mac client or iPhone.

There's also voice control along the lines of "Alexa, play Monday Coffee Playlist", "Alexa, play Sia This is Acting", "Alexa, play BBC Radio 6" which all seems quite effective and recognises the correct room/speaker set. It's good to get the music flowing again, and after the initial set-up, it's all pretty easy to use and modify.

Saturday, 10 March 2018


Along to a talk about the Baroness Elsa (1874-1927), sometimes described as a proto-punk, or as the Mama of Dada.

Born Else Hildegard Plötz, she became the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven through marriage. She adopted her most idiosyncratic profile after her post World War I move from Germany to New York. Before that she'd lived close to the Baltic and then moved to become a Berlin chorus girl, like an early and even more outrageous Sally Bowles character.

Elsa's story was related by Dr Maggie Irving, who adopted one of the Baroness personas, whilst describing her in the context of Irving's own work on female clowns.

Irving's talk could only skim the breadth of Baroness Elsa's worldview. The Baroness painted her shaved head red. She wore extravagantly odd clothes, including a bird cage with live canaries. By the time she inhabited Greenwich Village, it had become her theatre, featuring Dada-ist acts.

Alongside her three marriages, she had many partners, as well as ongoing friendships with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. To the extent that the famous Duchamp 'fountain' ready-made art is sometimes attributed to her. The nom-de-plume R.Mutt was said to be one of hers, and 'armut', her punned German word for poverty.

Maggie Irving had her own protest about Elsa's lack of feature in Dada exhibitions. She had visited the Tate dressed as Elsa, partly to feature and partly to protest about exclusions.

I've separately looked at Baroness Elsa's fractured poetry. Experimental and sometimes staccato streams of consciousness. Ornately written, in multiple colours, I'd say the original handwritten is the best way to see it and get a better insight into the character of the Baroness. That of a determined loner, fearless but ultimately trapped in a time period that wouldn't move as fast as she could. Her influence persists. Check out these modern cover shots.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Sweetwater and various Masques

I notice that this year at SWSX in Austin they are trialling a scaled back recreation of Westworld. Normal folk can take a bus to a small wild west town of Sweetwater populated by faux robots similar to the automation of the Westworld made famous first in the 70s movie and then later in the HBO TV series. Yep, Season 2 is on its way next month.

Sweetwater reminds me of that PunchDrunk show - The Drowned Man, which was set in Temple Studios Hollywood and featured a whole floor of Wild West theme. If you could get past the casting gate, of course.

I was one of the lucky ones to experience it more than once - each time very different. There were 'home, home on the range' style cowboy camp fires and a small town to walk around in, including secret routes to other 'worlds', sometimes though the back of a cupboard hung with clothes or through a fireplace.

The huge wild west area was only one of a selection, including a mad scientist laboratory, a dark band playing the walk of terror, a huge and rowdy bar, a theatre out of a David Lynch Blue Velvet experience and a deserted motel, where things were not quite what they seemed.

I loved the idea of the experience it provided and of a preceding vast PunchDrunk experience at the BAC, which was based upon Edgar Allan Poe, and called The Masque of the Red Death. There are echoes of that idea in the Raven hotel in Altered Carbon, although I'd say the first hand Masque variant was altogether more creepy and mysterious.

And yes, Punchdrunk know how to throw an afterparty.