Archive for January, 2014

Cold and dry and foggy

January 28, 2014

My favorite wxblog recently talked about how dry the West is this month, compared with a year ago. The one constant? Low clouds in the Columbia basin.

Can you see my house?

That’s not unusual for this time of year in the NENW. What is unusual is how long it’s dragged on, and the impact on our temperature variations.

I don’t know when it’s been this unchanging grey for this long. Here’s a screenshot from WeatherSpark, showing the official temperatures in the Spokane area. Left hand side-show the typical cold-night/warmer-day pattern you’d expect. Right hand side shows the same thing, now that we’re forecast to move back to more unsettled conditions. In between? Eleven days of 28F +/- 4F. And in the middle is a week of 27F+/- 2F.

Temperature variation, 13-29 January 2014

Temperature variation, 13-29 January 2014

It feels like we’re living in North Korea.

NSA as an autoimmune disease

January 26, 2014

An autoimmune disease is one where the body’s defenses turn on the body itself, where the various mechanisms for attacking intruders and disease mistake healthy tissue for diseased intruders. Some, like Type 1 Diabetes, attack organs that perform useful functions. Others, like ALS, and Multiple Sclerosis, attack the nervous system that ties the different parts of the body together.

Various of the NSA programs seem to fit this description. I’m not talking about the mass collection of American communications data that the President’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recently declared both unconstitutional and useless. That’s a topic for another rant. No, what I’m talking about are their various actions to make the Internet, and all electronic communications tools, insecure and unsafe.

The Internet is one of the most marvelous, if not the most marvelous, creations of the hand of man. It stands beside the space program in its sheer technical brilliance — and I speak as someone who grew up watching satellites being launched from his back yard. It has created new industries, enabled people with innovative ideas to compete in the marketplace, and tied the world together in a way that was inconceivable a mere thirty or forty years ago. It was designed as an open system, based on trust, and for the last decade and more, the NSA has worked to destroy that trust.

Consider their efforts to put backdoors in both hardware and software, to promote weakened crypto. Part of their efforts went into suborning the various cryptographic standards bodies in such a way that NSA personnel had full control over their actions. Even such organizations as the Internet Research Task Force’s Crypto Forum Research Group are co-chaired by NSA employees*. Other programs solicited zero-day exploits from US firms like Microsoft, or purchased them on the open market.

What this all amounts to is no less than attack on the basic infrastructure of global e-commerce. It’s as if you could no longer trust the road signs on the Interstate, or you found that an unknown number of overpasses had been wired with demolition charges. As others have pointed out, obscurity is no substitute for security. If there is a vulnerability in the system, be it one that was introduced by NSA or one that NSA found out about and didn’t tell anyone, sooner or later someone else (the Russians? Chinese? Mafia?) will find it and exploit it. Will we find out about it? Probably not, because the exploit will hide behind the NSA screen. Only an exceptional set of circumstances (as with the 2005 Athens Affair) would let the cat out of the bag. Now, maybe this won’t destroy the Internet. It will merely make it untrustworthy, incapable of securely handling financial transactions. Think of it as having just a mild case of multiple sclerosis. Thanks, NSA.


*The effort to oust this particular employee failed because the group chairman said that a mere co-chair had no powers. I’d respond by pointing out that there was a reason that the most powerful man in the old Soviet Union was the mere Secretary of the Communist Party.

TL;DR — Anime I never finished, Winter 2014

January 20, 2014

I watched a lot of anime over the MLK weekend. I also dropped a lot of programs. Here’s a representative sample.

The Three Sisters

Onee-chan ga Kita: Mother remarries and now there’s an older sister, who thinks her new little brother is incredibly cute. If you flip the genders, it’s incredibly exploitive, but older girl -> younger guy is evidently more acceptable than older guy -> younger girl.

Recently, My Little Sister is Unusual: Little sister is intermittently possessed by the ghost of a girl who died of unrequited love, or something, and who proceeds to molest and abuse and embarrass her, while attempting to seduce her older brother. Dropped before the end of the first episode. Maybe if she was an older sister…

Pupa: Older brother serves as meat farm for monstrously transformed younger sister. People harsh on this one because they had read the somewhat grue manga and were expecting a well-done 26min bloodfest. What they got was a well-done 4min of stills. If this was a contest for artful manga compaction, it would win first place. As it is, and ignoring the manga and the expectations, ….meh. Some things work in the four-minute format. This isn’t one of them.

Flying Psychos

The Pilot’s Love Song: Some people like it, but my one-sentence summary is: Society solves its social problems by putting all of its emotionally crippled aristocrats on a flying rock named the B Ark Isla and telling them to look for the end of the sky. Based on the previews, I was expecting 26min of tilt-rotor diesel-punk flying-boat porn. What I got was 4min of bad flying embedded in 26min of bad emoting. Flying technology has Morse radio but no DF, top gunners turret — for a rifleman. Flying school sends up students to learn formation flying in groups of 25, air to air gunnery with no ground training, flying in cloudy conditions without basic instrument training (AKA “trust your instruments, Luke“), extended over-water operations with no navigation training. That’s quite a bit to pack into four minutes. I’ve stopped watching the story and have resorted to fast forwarding until airplanes appear. I might even stop that.

What Am I Watching?
(for those who care)

Second half/second seasons of Silver Spoon, Chunibyo, Golden Time, and Log Horizon. Also watching Hozuki no Reitetsu (bureaucrats in Hell); Witch Craft Works (gormless boy protected by expressionless witch, in high school); Nisekoi (Raku Montague and Chitoge Capulet pretend romance to prevent gang warfare outbreak, in high school); Magical Warfare (two boys and a girl fight evil wizards while learning magic, in high school); Seitokai Yakuindomo (boy becomes student council vice president at a formerly all girls — yes, high school. Finds out they talk just as dirty as boys). Everything with “high school” in the description is likely to be dropped, except maybe Seitokai.

UPDATE: Yes, dropped Nisekoi and Magical Warfare. Too generic. Too contrived. As a self-proclaimed connoisseur of childhood girlfriend secondary characters, I’ll miss Onodera san. WCW is worth continuing, if only because of the ‘witch bitch’ ED, with its quintet of tortured witches.

Girls und Feminism

January 19, 2014

Last year, on Altair & Vega, there was an interesting feminist critique of Girls und Panzer. In that essay, author the_patches takes the show to task for false feminism.

Gendering the sport of tankery in this manner takes something from the province of men and boys and places it in the hands of girls and women–at least when compared to our social norms. The show plays on a subtle inversion of how we normally align gender roles. Since waging war is currently considered mainly the province of men, the idea of high school girls doing it implies an upending of the social order and therefore seems progressive. But it really isn’t.

While that certainly is one way to look at the feminist structure of GaruPan, I’m not sure it’s the best way. I agree with the_patches that the recruiting film, and remarks made in the anime make it clear that the social order has not been upended. Because of that, and despite the fact there is a certain amount of gender-symbolism-poaching going on, GaruPan isn’t really carrying that kind of a femininist message.

Hard to get more phallic than this

Hard to get more phallic than this

Instead, I’d like to think of the feminism of GaruPan as the basis of a gedanken experiment in an alternate approach to sports and team building and leadership.

GaruPan asks what a competitive team sport would be like as practiced by a gender with a more balanced testosterone/serotonin ratio. The use of tank combat as the target sport is brilliant, because anime about the more traditional sports brings a lot of baggage along. Those sports already have female teams, and most of the anime about them (not that there’s a lot) deal with the issues associated with women playing known sports in a man’s world. Since GaruPan is about Sensha-Dō as a sport, nobody in the audience has any preconceived ideas about what the rules, tactics, and ethos might be.

So what we get is a particularly womanly way of doing things. Onna-Dō, if you like. Tank teams are more supportive of each other from the start, for example, without the need for any chest-bumping male bonding rituals. There’s none of the samurai swagger of “I’ll go out and sacrifice myself for the team“. In fact the arc that has the Napoleonic arrogance of Kachusha clashing with the overconfident arrogance of the Ōarai team (yahoo!) is the one they come closest to losing.

In the end, Girls und Panzer doesn’t have a strong feminist message. But a core theme of the anime is an idea a boy’s team is most likely to overlook: “Sensha-Dō isn’t war, it’s a sport, and the tanks would be sad if we forgot that”.

My full set of commentaries on GaruPan can be found in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Girls und Panzer: A Study in Command, and the DVD.

NSA: The more things don’t change

January 18, 2014

…the more they stay the same.

So, here’s Obama’s speech. And here’s some commentary, and some commentary and some commentary. (UPDATE: here’s a belated commentary from Greenwald, and a line by line analysis by The Reg). Now, it’s my turn to do some commentary, on one specific part of the speech: bulk collection and storage of American communications data.

As far as I can tell, nothing much has changed, or will. Bulk collection and storage of phone call data will continue, despite the NSA-acknowledged fact that it hasn’t contributed squat to national security. I’d like to say it’s unconstitutional, but the government has worked very hard to prevent any associated cases from going to court. They say because of national security reasons. I say it’s because they’re scared spitless that SCOTUS will break up the party.

What the President proposed was that the data be held by someone other than NSA (this is in the speech, not in the official Presidential Policy Directive, PPD-28). That doesn’t pass the laugh test. Who would hold it? AT&T? You know, the communications monopolist that has spent most of the 21st Century profiting from illegal deals with NSA? Sorry, formerly illegal deals. A “third-party” company? One staffed by ex-NSA-ers because those are the only people with clearances? One that is beholden to NSA or DoD for the continuation of their contract? One that doesn’t have the status of government agency, and therefore can’t do lots of things that would protect this data from outsiders?

To my mind, if we are going to keep this data, then NSA are the best people to keep it safe. But, of course, none of these proposals can keep it safe from the US government and the intellectual and moral heirs of people like Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. That’s the main problem and that’s why safeguards were built into the Constitution.

Quite aside from the constitutional issues, what makes this so tragic is, we have no idea what other collection and analysis efforts are being stifled because all the resources are going into haystack maintenance. Even a massive organization like NSA is resource limited. There’s never enough analysts, linguists, database administrators, to do all the jobs that need doing. In the past, NSA has been accused of cherry picking — sitting on an easy target and then flipping through the requirements list until they found a line item that would justify it. It looks to me like that’s what’s happening here. Bulk collection of phone call and Internet data is easy — just pay the telcos to siphon it off for you. Collection against overseas communications that aren’t from Angela Merkel is presumably harder. Why waste time on the hard stuff when you can get 100% coverage of your US targets?

Oatmeal Extenders

January 16, 2014

It’s the dead of winter, it’s time to talk about ways of making a bigger, heartier, oatmeal breakfast without adding, you know, oatmeal. Something to keep you warm while shoveling that six inches of global warming off your drive. And once again we have our choice of bland or exotic.

Bland: A staple of the mid-America, mid-century dinner was succotash, beloved covered dish of many a church social. Standard succotash is corn and lima beans, but the other day MJ made something special — corn and carrots and peas and onions. Extremely delicious and close enough. The carrots, by the way, were from the garden; the last of the Winter Harvest Crops, and the corn was a traditional fresh-from-the-freezer variety. None of your stick-to-the-teeth garden corn like we produced this year. Despite the starchiness, I still added the potato flakes to thicken it. I thought about using corn flakes, but decided against it.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, one cup of broth, a fat dining tablespoon of Succotash a la MJ, salt.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Add the SMJ at the start and the potato when you take it off the stove..

Results: Most excellent. I think the onions are what did it for me. And the corn. And nothing stuck to my teeth. We still have a pint or so of the SMJ, left over from the church social, so I’ll be having this a couple mornings in a row.

Rating: *****

Exotic 1: Well, there’s exotic and exotic. Last time we talked about this we used shiritake noodles, which are exotic. Today, well use ramen noodles, which are merely exotic. Why ramen noodles you ask? Why not? They’re readily available, they crumble nicely, they add the bulk that we want in an oatmeal extender, and they’re not something you’d normally eat for breakfast unless you’re a college kid. Let’s take half a serving. That’s one quarter of a standard Top Ramen noodle pack. Their noodle slabs break nicely in half, and somewhat less nicely in half again. This isn’t about ramen flavoring, so we’ll just go with grated cheese.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, one cup of chicken broth, a quarter slab of ramen noodles.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Add the noodles at the start. The way they absorb water, you shouldn’t need any potato thickner, but have a response team standing by just in case.

Results: Didn’t quite work. I think the noodles absorbed too much of the stock too early, so the oatmeal didn’t have enough to cook in. The oatmeal didn’t break down the way it’s supposed to, so I ended up with a mix rather than a meal.

Rating: *****

Exotic 2: So, let’s try again. This time, we wait until three minutes before the end of the cooking before we add the crumbled ramen noodles. That’s the amount of time they’re supposed to cook, and the oatmeal will have had a running start on them.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, one cup of chicken broth, a quarter slab of ramen noodles.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Add the noodles at the seven minute point, or three minutes before the timer goes. Add potato flakes to fit in the interstices.

Results: Better, but it still didn’t quite work. There was more liquid, and the oatmeal was done properly, and the potatoes did their best to make the blend, but I still ended up with a mix rather than a meal.

Rating: *****

Support your local non-Democrat … the Brin Plan

January 14, 2014

As I said in an earlier post:

We have a deeply divided political system right now. Part of that is due to gerrymandering — drawing political districts so the opposing party has an overwhelming majority in a very few districts and a powerless minority everywhere else. …

What can be done to fix this? … Let’s start with the primaries. David Brin has an interesting proposal — if you are a gerrymandered minority, simply register as a member of the majority party, and vote for the most centrist of the contestants. Admittedly, this may require you to choose between Attila-the-Hun and Timūr-the-Lame, but it does give you an effective choice, better than the one you have now.

Brin has a good idea. He goes into greater depth here but doesn’t give some of the information you need to operationalize it. This essay will help.

One way to estimate the degree to which a given state or district is divided is to use the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI), a measure of how far the voters lean towards one party or another. Obviously, in a heavily partisan district, it’s almost impossible for a challenger from the other party to win, so the challenge to an incumbent comes from someone further from the center — yes, he’s Republican, but is he Republican enough?

How can you tell if you live in a gerrymandered state? Take a look at the PVI for your state’s districts. If you have two or three districts that are R+7 for every one that’s D+15, you’re gerry’d. A good example is Michigan, with 9 districts averaging R+4, and 5 averaging D+19. A more balanced state might be one like next-door Iowa. It has a total of four districts: D+4 and D+5, +0, R+5. If the divide was due to simple geography or demographics, you’d see something more like Washington state, which has a strong Red/Blue divide along the crest of the Cascades, separating the urban West (D+11) from the agricultural East (R+6).

In a highly partisan state the policy positions don’t get decided along party lines, instead, they get decided by divisions within the dominant party. That being the case, the only way you can influence those positions is by being a voting member of that party, and voting in that party’s primary. This means you have to start thinking politics early in the year, not just in September or October. In heavily red districts, the election is essentially over by late summer. Come November, the only thing getting decided is Municipal Sanitation Officer, and the referendum on Outlawing Poor People.

The idea of voting to influence the Reds is more important this year than ever. The few Republicans who were adult enough to push back against last fall’s government shutdown and threatened default will be subject to well-funded attacks on the right by Tea Party absolutists who believe you have to destroy the government in order to save it.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if your state is Republican-gerreymandered, or if you have the bad luck to live in a Republican enclave in a Democrat-gerrymanedered state, or even if you just happen to live in a district that’s natrually Republican. All that’s really important is that your distirict be safely red, say R+6 or above. Having said that, you’re more likely to be living in a red district if you’re living in a red state. Here’s a list of the top ten Red states that (as far as I can tell) hold meaningful primaries. I’ve left off states where the candidates are determined by party caucus, even if there’s a beauty-contest primary as well.

State Primary
10 TX 03/04/14
13 WV 05/13/14
12 NE 05/13/14
13 KY 05/20/14
14 AL 06/03/14
10 SD 06/03/14
8 SC 06/10/14
22 UT 06/24/14
19 OK 06/24/14
12 TN 08/07/14

Note that Texas holds its primary as early as May. Note also that Texas has some of the most anti-Democrat (and anti-democratic) voter restriction legislation in the country, so you need to start prepping now to have the proper ID and registration and so forth. Most of the rest vote in May or June, so you’ve got some time left, but do check on the voter ID requirements.

Once you have voted for your Republican in the primary, you can go on to vote for the Democrat (assuming there is one) in the national elections in November. That will let the politician know there’s more people on the left that he could be picking up votes from. My thought is, the only time you wouldn’t do this is if the Democrat is an obvious nut-case (free marijuana for all and defund the police!). People who vote for nutters like that are what used to be called Yellow Dog Democrats (I’d vote for a yaller dog, if’n he was a Democrat). Those kinds of folks are unpersuadable, and your Republican isn’t going to wast time on anybody who votes that way. You want to be plausibly persuadable, to make it worth his while to moderate his stance in order to get your vote.

Brandied Oatmeal

January 9, 2014

My New Years Resolution is to abandon all attempts to use booze in my breakfast cereal. The two previous efforts were Irish and Scotch whiskies. Both were meh. This one kept up the tradition. It was actually a Cognac, which everyone knows is just a brandy with a better marketing department.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, one cup of beef broth, two tablespoons brandy, salt.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.  Add the brandy at the start and the potato when you take it off the stove.

Results: A strong mediocre. Once again, you can tell it’s there, but knowing that it’s there doesn’t do anything for you, except to crowd your brain with information you don’t need.

Rating: *****

They say that no experiment is a failure if it leaves a big enough crater, but this one is just whimpering out. It may be that hard liquor has a place in oataku-land, but it will have to be as a minor player, adding nuance to something else. What something else? Give me time, I’m sure I’ll think of something.

Hmmm….maybe if I just poured it over the oatmeal once it’s in the bowl.

Medicare for all

January 4, 2014

A recent online article in Newsweek made the interesting claim that “If everyone in the U.S. was on Medicare, the savings would move the federal budget from deficit to surplus.”

Being a military brat, and career military after that, I’ve spent my whole life in a “single payer” environment. I loved it. These days, as a Medicare-eligible, TRICARE-eligible, working civilian with employer-provided health insurance, I’m in much the same situation. I think that’s pretty good, as well, except that the paperwork has grown, from zero, to WTF? I found the quality of care from the military doctors to be as good, or better, than I’m getting now. Doctors are doctors.

The article started me thinking about what it would cost to extend the US military health care system to the rest of the population. I did some very quick, very sloppy, digging around. I found numbers and estimates (about half Wikipedia and half official handouts) of annual costs that are more-or-less comparable. Here’s my summary:

US Military, including reservists, dependents, etc: 10 million
US DoD Medical Spending: $53 billion

VA-enrolled Veterans: 10 million
VA Medical Spending: $50 billion

Total People: 20 million
Total Spending: $103 billion

Average Spending Per Person: $5150

Average US Medical Spending Per Person: $8000

Even if I’m off by as much as 50%, extending military health benefits to the entire population would still be cheaper than what the “free market” has foisted on us. And zero paperwork. Of course, that might impact recruiting.

So, yeah. Medicare for all, and maybe something better.

New Year’s Day Oatmeal

January 1, 2014

I haven’t had an oatmeal post since last year, so I thought I’d share a new one, special for New Year’s Day.

We have a new tradition in the Oataku Family — noodles for New Year’s Eve dinner. A traditional Japanese New Year’s Eve includes soba noodles — long, square edged, buckwheat noodles. Being long, they are a traditional symbol of long life, and therefore auspicious. I guess we could have had pumpkin vines and done the same thing, but, traditional.

Unfortunately for tradition and auspiciocity, MJ broke the noodles into shorter, forkable bits, so I guess we’re in for a lot of short, forkable lives. Start by chopping and browning half an onion. Then add the shattered noodles, and just enough beef broth to cover. Simmer until done, 5 or 6 minutes. Thicken with a tablespoon or so of sour cream and let cook down. Most excellent.

At dinner time, control your urge to eat the whole thing and lick the pot. Save out a quarter cup, and soak overnight in the fridge in a cup of beef broth and oatmeal.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, quarter cup of soba leftovers, one cup of broth, salt.  Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats.

Results: The concentrated beef/onion flavor from the dinner was spread out over a relatively large amount of oatmeal, which made it a little bland; but that might be what you want on the first morning of the New Year.  A splash of soy sauce helped.

Rating: *****