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The Russians Are Coming!

Daniel Drezner has a post at Foreign Policy about the (supposedly) recently discovered Russian spy ring.

He's less than impressed.

Here's what I just posted in a comment to him (quotes from his post are in italics):


"(I)s there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the interwebs?"

Probably not, but that may well be the point.

That is, it's one thing to find information on the interwebs. It's another thing entirely to verify it.

In fact, given that 80-90% of all intel gathered is "open source intelligence" (ie, gathered from non-secret sources), I think one purpose of this group may have been to establish a control set against the images in the press and in entertainment media. The Russians may have been asking, "How real are those images?" and trying to set up "everyday" people to compare them against.

Come to think of it, that might not be so bad a project for us.

"Why were the arrests made now?"

That's a real puzzler, as is any prosecution against spies. Standard practice is, once you ID a spy, you feed them disinformation to then pass along to their controllers. One of the few rationales I can think of (pay attention, this might be tricky):

* We have a source in Russia
* Who told us they have a source in the US
* Who's told them we've discovered this ring
* So we had to blow the ring to protect our source in Russia, as prosecution is what we'd be "expected" to do.

"(T)his sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie."

* Movies are intended to look expensive -- life isn't
* Movies are intended to not be boring -- life isn't

You're basically saying that since reality doesn't match a movie plot scenario (see Schneier), it's reality that must be wrong. Er, ah, no. All this points out is how crappy movie plots are vis-à-vis reality. It also points out how dangerous movie plots are when we let them set expectations as to what intel "really" is. (Which is why 24 has probably done more damage to our intel enterprise than any other single thing in the most recent ten years.)

If you wanted to make as realistic a TV series about intel as possible, it'd probably resemble Dilbert or The Thick of It more than anything else. Or it would be The Sandbaggers, which was made 30 years ago.

Minkin's Disclaimer

My all time favorite disclaimer in a book:

"All characters and events in this book are made up. If some of them seem familiar, it's because so many of us grew up playing the same games."

From Steve Minkin's A No Doubt Mad Idea, which I've talked about before.
Good: A large, faceless, bureaucratic institution that has no competition called an "insurance company."

Bad: A large, faceless, bureaucratic institution that has no competition called a "government."

Good: Paying an annual sum of $6,000 a year per person in a transfer called an "insurance premium."

Bad: Paying an annual sum of $6,000 a year per person (or, whisper it softly, less) in a transfer called a "tax."

Good: Aggregating the total cost to the nation and employers if paid in "taxes."

Bad: Aggregating the total cost to the nation and employers if paid as "insurance premiums."

Good: Rationing health care using dollars.

Bad: Rationing health care using medical advice.

Good: Not being able to "choose your own doctor" through price constraints and insurance company policies.

Bad: Not being able to "choose your own doctor" through resource constraints and government policies.


Good: Having a substantial percentage of the population uninsured.

Bad: Having the overwhelming majority of the population insured.

Good: Having high absenteeism and lost productivity due to poor employee health.

Bad: Having low absenteeism and optimal productivity due to good employee health.

Good: Having only private companies who have themselves grown to be large, faceless, bureaucratic institutions that have no competition be able to afford insurance premiums for their employees.

Bad: Having private companies who have themselves grown to be large, faceless, bureaucratic institutions receive competition from smaller, more nimble, more agile companies who are now able to afford health care for their employees.

Good: Having US employers at a competitive disadvantage to employers in countries that insure their citizens.

Bad: Giving US employers a level playing field in the global marketplace.

Good: Having citizens, employees, and small business owners who are lucky enough to be covered in the first place, live in constant fear of losing that coverage, either for themselves or their employees.

Bad: Having citizens, employees, and small business owners covered, and unafraid of losing that coverage, either for themselves or their employees.

Good: Having retirees fear losing their health care if their former employer goes bankrupt in a way that reneges on their fiduciary commitments.

Bad: Having retirees assured they'll never lose their health care.


Or, in sum:

Good: Fear.

Bad: Confidence.

A No Doubt Mad Idea, by Stephen Minkin

The cover of a novel. The image reminds me more than a little of Gualala, Calif., which as any trufan knows is the home of R. Twidner.

I remember going into the Huntley Bookstore at the Claremont Colleges, and seeing this face-out on the fiction shelves. The drawing was so appealing I reached right for it -- proof I will buy a book for the cover, if done well.

Minkin's novel is a mix of Northern California in the 1970s and his own term "ludics." That is, the study of games, not just for their own sake (though that too) but also as an element in culture and civilization more broadly. It's inspired by Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (that is, "Man the Player" - and wipe that smirk off your face).

There are illustrations of games at the start of each chapter. There are quotations running by along the bottom edge of the pages. (One time, when I spoke to Minkin, I mentioned that turning the novel into HTML would provide one of the few justifications I know for the MARQUEE tag.)

Here are my previous quotes of Minkin, and I tweeted a quote of his earlier today.
Originally published at my blog on business, Not That Kind of Operation.


I was reading this post by James Howard Kunstler, and was intrigued by what he calls "Jevon's Paradox"

"the more efficient you make a means for using a resource, the more of that resource you will use"

Having been reading The Economist's Pocket World In Figures recently as well, that stuck me as very odd. Because if the premise is true, one would expect the countries most efficient at using energy per unit of GDP to be the same as the countries that consume the most energy per capita.

Here's the efficiency ranking for 2003, efficiency defined as GDP per unit of energy use:

1 - Peru
2 - Hong Kong
3 - Uruguay
4 - Bangladesh
5 - Morocco

Here's the consumption ranking for 2003, defined as Kg of oil equivalent per capita:

1 - United Arab Emirates
2 - Kuwait
3 - Trinidad & Tobago
4 - Canada
5 - United States of America

The obvious thing to notice here: Not only do the rankings not match -- there are no countries that overlap the two lists at all. If one adds in the countries ranked 6-10 for each category, there still aren't any countries that show up on both. That would be 20 countries, or roughly 10% of the world's total, and the relationship between efficiency and consumption is random among them.

That made me curious who Jevon was, and why anyone was taking him seriously.

Turns out it's not Jevon but Jevons -- William Stanley Jevons -- and Kunstler has made the same mistake that people who say "kudo" as a singular for "kudos" do. (The word is "kudos" in all cases.) Leaving illiteracy aside, though, it comes from an observation Jevons made in 1865 (quoting Wikipedia here), "...that England's consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen's earlier design."

I suspect saying the driving force behind the increased coal use was the efficiency of Watt's design, and not the novelty of its usefulness, is not unlike the same error Jakob Nielsen makes regarding web usability and "chunking" web pages. Nielsen writes in his book Designing Web Usability, "In the usability studies I did of early web users in 1994 and 1995, few users ever scrolled. Maybe 10 percent or so of the users would scroll beyond the information that was visible in the window when the page came up. The only exception from this finding was users who had arrived at a destination page with an article that they found interesting or important to their work."

Fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon had a maxim: "90% of everything is crud." Rather than the obvious conclusion one could take from these data -- that 90% of Web writing is neither interesting nor important, and therefore one should recommend to Web writers to make their writing better -- Nielsen decided the culprit is scrolling. Yes, if only Aunt Ethel would "chunk" her 30,000 word treatise on the antics of her cat Fluffy, it would suddenly become useful and important, and users would read more of it.

Jevons is clearly making a similar kind of mistake when it comes to thinking it was the efficiency of Watt's design, and not its usefulness. Now, in a way probably frightening to object-oriented programmers, we see Jevons's bug being replicated among everyone quoting him, a century-and-a-quarter later.

Minkin FTW

Doing an egoboo search on myself in Google Groups, I'm reminded of the following passage from Stephen Minkin's novel, A No Doubt Mad Idea, regarding a twenty-questions game:

"Did you know that the Russian composer Aram Katchaturian described his 'Sabre Dance' as no more than a button on the shirt on the body of his work? No? You're not alone. Suppose my twenty-questions answer was that metaphorical button -- would that be fair?"

((Quoting from Minkin is itself obscure -- I've only ever seen three copies of this novel, two of which I've bought, the third is in the library at UCLA. Minkin has told me there were only 500 or so printed. Which is a damn shame, it's a great book.))

The strange coincidences of Miss Hanff

I originally did this as a comment on someone else's LJ. But I'd like to get it over here, so it's more easily searchable -- and to get a wider audience.


So. I've been owing you this for a while. I mostly do my LJ stuff at my job, where I work the graveyard shift. It's been such that I haven't really felt up to it. But, as I say, I owe you, and who knows? This might be the first draft of a letter to Le Carré, where I'd like to see what he says before he dies.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, 1998, and akirlu is on her royal progress as North American TAFF delegate to the UK, and I'm the consort along for the ride.

We go to London, and as a devoted reader of Le Carré and Hanff I want to see two things: "The Circus" and 84 Charing Cross Road. I know neither SOE nor MI6 ever had a HQ near Cambridge Circus, but there you go. I also know that Marks and Co., the bookshop in 84 Charing Cross Rd the book and movie, is now only marked by a brass plaque. Again, no problem, I'm just curious.

So we go to the physical location, 84 Charing Cross Rd and... Well, have you ever seen Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? There's a sequence in it when everyone is walking through a stamp fair in Paris, and then suddenly each of them put two and two together, and their heads start whirling about.

This was very like that. Because, you see, 84 Charing Cross Road is just on the edge of Cambridge Circus.

Now, let's fill in a bit. "Marks and Co." stands for "Marks and Cohen," and was the actual shop. Leo Marks -- screenwriter of Peeping Tom, friend of Helene Hanff, and cryptographer extraordinaire -- was the son of Mr. Marks. If you read Between Silk and Cyanide, Leo's memoir, you'll see that he frequently used antiquarian books as the plain text for various ciphers he would send with agents into the field during his days at SOE/MI6. In addition, Le Carré, who worked at MI6 at roughly the same time as Marks (a little later, but not much) does exactly the same thing. Note his use of the Simplicissimus in A Perfect Spy, acknowledged to be his most autobiographical book.

So... If one was a cryptographer who used antiquarian books as plain text, and if one was also the son of the owner of an antiquarian book shop, what would be the easiest way to distribute such books around the world?

One of the big questions that just slides by in 84 Charing Cross Rd is, what in the world was Marks and Co. doing having an ad in the Saturday Review for Miss Hanff to find in the first place? This hypothesis suggests an answer.

But it goes further.

Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins' character in the movie) had some very interesting neighbors. Namely, Morris Cohen and Lona Cohen (known during their UK days as Peter and Helen Kroger). The Cohens were Soviet spies of long standing, having been among those assigned to Los Alamos to try to get nuclear information during WWII. Not only did they live quite nearby to Frank Doel, they also worked -- wait for it -- as antiquarian book sellers.

I don't think that was an accident. I think the Sovs twigged on to what was happening at Marks and Co., and assigned the Cohens to try to keep tabs on Frank Doel. Hanff jokes this about in the book -- or rather, she publishes a letter from Nora Doel (Mrs. Frank, played by an almost unrecognizable Judi Dench in the film) that treats the whole matter lightly.

But I think Le Carré also knew what was going on, and placed headquarters at "The Circus" because, even if there was no staff housed there, there were considerable communications going through the place.

Heck, dare we say it? Could Frank Doel be the role model for George Smiley? Was he sufficiently bookish and anonymous in person for that, no matter how much wit comes across in his letters to Helene?

I can't point to any particular flame. But it seems to me there are quite a few wafts of smoke here. Certainly enough for a Waldropian story or novel. :)

"If Lucy Fell" -- HANS!

If Lucy Fell (1996) would be a mostly forgettable movie, except for the way some of the performances are plainly early versions of characters the actors would take up later. Lucy Ackerman, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is the template from which her portrayal of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City was drawn. Bwick Elias, flower-child idiot artist, is the ur-goon of every idiot Ben Stiller has played thereafter (notably Zoolander).

But there's also this great scene, at 0:56. Lucy and Bwick are on a date, at Bwick's apartment:


{Bwick joins Lucy on a couch, facing a painting we've seen him working on previously.}

BWICK: It's symbolic. {He gestures at the painting, which stays unseen.} Life equals love which actually equals death. Life equals death.

{We cut to see the painting}

LUCY: It's symbolic?

BWICK: Yeah.

LUCY: Symbolic death?

BWICK: Symbols of life, and death, and love. Life equals death which is in the middle. The sub-set is love. Which is really what the symbol is. Love. Life equals love equals death. It's symbolic.

LUCY: Wait. {She gets up off the couch, and walks over to the painting} You have a woman with "LIFE" painted on her, uh... area, and she's stabbing to death a man with a knife that says "LOVE" on it. And then in big, bold letters it says, "LIFE=LOVE=DEATH."
I don't know that it's very symbolic, Bwick. It's kind of spelled out.

BWICK: So... It sucks. HANS!

LUCY: No. It doesn't suck. It's just that it's not really... You know, it's... It's a literal painting.

{As she says this, an assistant who looks like Fabio -- long blonde hair, overalls, no shirt -- splashes some sort of fluid onto the painting.}

LUCY: It's not symbolic. Which is... Fine.

BWICK: Hm-hm.

LUCY: It's literal.

BWICK: Right. It just... Literally sucks.

{We see that Hans is patiently standing next to the painting, now with a blowtorch in his hand.}


BWICK: No, you're right. You're right. It just symbolically sucks. HANS!

{Hans turns on the blowtorch, and sets the painting ablaze.}

BWICK: It certainly isn't very literal any more, is it?

{Lucy turns to the painting, as it continues to burn.}

LUCY: No, it's... It's symbolic.


An "a-ha!" moment

jaylake points to a piece by Sy Hersh in The New Yorker about the various plots and counter-plots in the Bush Administration about Iran. But while interesting, there's a definite "kremlinological" moment that goes by in passing.

“They’re moving everybody to the Iran desk,” one recently retired C.I.A. official said. “They’re dragging in a lot of analysts and ramping up everything. It’s just like the fall of 2002”—the months before the invasion of Iraq, when the Iraqi Operations Group became the most important in the agency." {emphasis added}



"The most important..." you say?


Because the head of the Iraqi Operations Group was once described as, "a desk jockey." In fact, while the head of Iraqi Operations Group was a covert officer, then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan suggested that their identity wasn't a secret at all.

Who was the head of Iraqi Operations Group?

Valerie Plame.

"In 1997 (Plame) returned to CIA headquarters and joined the Counterproliferation Division. (About this time, she moved in with Joseph Wilson; they later married.) She was eventually given a choice: North Korea or Iraq. She selected the latter. Come the spring of 2001, she was in the CPD's modest Iraq branch. But that summer--before 9/11--word came down from the brass: We're ramping up on Iraq. Her unit was expanded and renamed the Joint Task Force on Iraq. Within months of 9/11, the JTFI grew to fifty or so employees. Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group."

So, let's not mince words with what Karl Rove did, when he burned the identity of Valerie Plame in a fit of pique (or at the orders of Cheney, depending on how grim you want it): Not only was she a covert operative. Not only was she working in Counterproliferation. Not only, out of the spectrum of CPD's work, was she in charge of operations for the Joint Task Force on Iraq, the single most sensitive country being monitored by CIA at the time.

She was in charge of CIA's "most important (group) in the agency"!

That was the level of damage Karl Rove did.

This administration keeps insisting we're in a fully legal "war."

If so, the evidence continues to build that Karl Rove violated Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution, and if convicted, should be locked up as the treasonous bastard he is.


Today I was walking to the kitchen at work for a soda, and heard a familiar line on the TV (tuned to MSNBC) as I went by.

I've told the story of this before, but only knew it vaguely. Now I can give an exact transcript. Wikipedia has an article describing the setup:

"United Airlines flight 232, aka "UA232" (United 232 Heavy), was a scheduled flight operated by United Airlines. On July 19, 1989, its Douglas DC-10-10 (Registration N1819U) suffered an uncontained failure of its number 2 engine in the tail, which destroyed all three of the aircraft's hydraulic systems. With no controls working except the throttles for the two remaining engines, it crashlanded on the runway at Sioux City, Iowa killing 110 of its 285 passengers and one of the 11 crew members."

OK. So, serious stuff. That didn't mean the pilot, Captain Alfred C. Haynes, lost his humor, though. Here's the exchange between Haynes and the tower I've only been quasi-quoting for years:

Sioux City Approach: United Two Thirty-Two Heavy, the wind's currently three six zero at one one; three sixty at eleven. You're cleared to land on any runway.

Captain: [laughter] Roger. [laughter] You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?

(full transcript here, in Acrobat format)


Interesting tidbit gleaned from the Wikipedia article:

"The flight crew discovered that the only way to control the plane was by adjusting the thrust on the two remaining wing-mounted engines. Dennis E. Fitch, a DC-10 instructor who was deadheading as a passenger on the plane and was not part of the flight crew, offered his assistance. The task of flying the plane (using the throttles) was assigned to him... In subsequent reconstructions of the circumstances of the accident in flight simulators, no pilot, regardless of seniority, has succeeded in reproducing Fitch's achievement of maneuvering the aircraft as far as the runway. Generally, others lose control while the aircraft is still in mid air."