Tomgram: William Astore, America’s Mutant Military

[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]

Tomgram: William Astore, America’s Mutant Military
By William Astore
May 14 2015

In September 2001, the Bush administration launched its “global war on terror,” to which its supporters later tried to attach names like “the long war” or “World War IV.” Their emphasis: that we were now engaged in nothing less than a multi-generational struggle without end. (World War III had theoretically been the Cold War.) In fact, only the “war on terror” would stick and, in 2009, even that would be tossed overboard when the Obama administration opted for a global war with no name at all. Nonetheless, the idea that we were now in an eternal “wartime” became part of the post-9/11 atmosphere. At the same time, George W. Bush famously called on Americans to act as if everything were normal — to spend, vacation, and visit Disney World.

In other words, the “homeland,” protected in new ways, was to be locked down and at peace, while Washington was to be a war capital into the distant future. In the process, the Bush administration invoked warring powers of every sort — from torture and offshore imprisonment to assassination and warrantless wiretaps. At the time, all of this seemed like a unique combination, but looking back, the marriage of war and Disney, of military might and consumerism, has a far longer history. Considered a certain way, Washington has been a war capital since December 7, 1941, and certainly the global capital of consumerism since at least 1945.

Unlike after World War I, post-World War II demobilization proved to be anything but complete. The various structures of the relatively new national security state and its intelligence networks, as well as the U.S. military, were left largely in place and soon expanded massively, as were the array of global bases from which the U.S. had fought its world war. From 1945 on, as the Cold War gained strength and staying power, war was distinctly on Washington’s agenda. In a big way in Korea and Vietnam, of course, but also globally in what was then called “the shadows.” And it didn’t end when the Soviet Union began to totter and finally imploded. The 1980s and 1990s saw a range of interventions, invasions, raids, air strikes, and the like in Afghanistan, Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Serbia, Somalia, and of course Iraq (again and again). In the twenty-first century, the U.S. military was simply let loose across the Greater Middle East and North Africa and eternal war (as well as military-first policies of all sorts) became the American Way. Meanwhile, in Washington, there arose a war-hawk party in Congress and beyond who never saw a military solution that didn’t appeal to them (no matter how ineffective it had proved in its previous incarnations). All of this, in turn, took place in a country in which corporations were mobilized to go to war while the population itself was demobilized in just about every way imaginable. In other words, Americans became ever more divorced from their military and ever more fawning about it.

As retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore makes clear today, there was something increasingly unconstrained about this phenomenon (and the funding and building of the U.S. military and the national security state that went with it). In a sense, Americans have yet to come to grips with what a never-ending “wartime” has meant in and to this country. Astore offers a place to start. Tom


Amtrak Says Shortfalls and Rules Delayed Its Safety System

[Note: This item comes from friend Paul Pangaro. DLH]

From: Paul Pangaro <>
Subject: NYTimes: Amtrak Says Shortfalls and Rules Delayed Its Safety System
Date: May 15, 2015 at 07:51:46 EDT
To: Hendricks Dewayne <>

pull quote:

In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.

Officials said Amtrak had made installation of the congressionally mandated safety system a priority and was ahead of most other railroads around the country.
But the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.

“The transponders were on the tracks,” said one person who attended a Thursday morning briefing for congressional staff members. “But they also said they weren’t operational, because of this ongoing spectrum issue.”

Amtrak Says Shortfalls and Rules Delayed Its Safety System
May 14 2015

WASHINGTON — The Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night was equipped with an automatic speed control system that officials say could have prevented the wreck, which killed eight passengers and injured hundreds. But the system, which was tantalizingly close to being operational, was delayed by budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules, officials said Thursday.

In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.

Officials said Amtrak had made installation of the congressionally mandated safety system a priority and was ahead of most other railroads around the country.

But the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.


Graphics cards beware, a new style of OSX malware can hide in the RAM of GPUs

[Note: This item comes from friend Bob Frankston. DLH]

By Chris Stobing
May 14 2015

According to a research paper posted by an anonymous team of developers, a new form of malware has been created that’s capable of hiding inside the RAM component of Nvidia graphical processing units, or GPUs.

Previously, the WIN_JELLY malware was only functional in certain versions of Windows and Linux, but now the engineers responsible say they’ve successfully developed a new beast which is capable of breaking into OSX.

The infection works by installing a random access tool (RAT) inside of a video card’s memory, which can lay in wait for the operating system to make a request, at which point the Trojan attacks and installs a backdoor that allows for full control of the computer and all accounts inside.

For now the malware looks like it still exists merely in the realm of proof-of-concept, however we should still be wary now that the news is out in the wild. Members of the team say they have never been one to work with companies on shoring up their security, and we can’t imagine that this situation is any different.

The developers of JELLY have however made a point not to blame any one operating system in particular, or even Nvidia for that matter. Instead they say, the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the security software designed to stop these kinds of problems from proliferating. According to them, the reason their malware works is because there isn’t an antivirus program in existence designed to scan the RAM of a video card, and that practice needs to change.

The malware isn’t meant be a threat as much as it is a warning flare to the security industry that every part of a computer can be exploited if there’s enough money to be made in it, and security software will need to account for that going forward.

The Robots Are Winning!

[Note: This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis. DLH]

The Robots Are Winning!
By Daniel Mendelsohn
Jun 4 2015 Issue

a film directed by Spike Jonze

Ex Machina
a film directed by Alex Garland


We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:

…He was crafting twenty tripods to stand along the walls of his well-built manse, affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.

As amusing as they are, these devices are not nearly as interesting as certain other machines that appear in classical mythology. A little bit later in that scene in Book 18 of the Iliad, for instance—the one set in Hephaestus’s workshop—the sweating god, after finishing work on his twenty tripods, prepares to greet Thetis to discuss the armor she wants him to make. After toweling himself off, he donned his robe, and took a sturdy staff, and went toward the door,
limping; whilst round their master his servants swiftly moved, fashioned completely of gold in the image of living maidens; in them there is mind, with the faculty of thought; and speech, and strength, and from the gods they have knowledge of crafts.
These females bustled round about their master….

These remarkable creations clearly represent an (as it were) evolutionary leap forward from the self-propelling tripods. Hephaestus’s humanoid serving women are intelligent: they have mind, they know things, and—most striking of all—they can talk. As such, they are essentially indistinguishable from the first human female, Pandora, as she is described in another work of the same period, Hesiod’s Works and Days. In that text, Pandora begins as inert matter—in this case not gold but clay (Hephaestus creates her golem-like body by mixing earth and water together)—that is subsequently endowed by him with “speech and strength,” taught “crafts” by Athena, and given both “mind” and “character” by Hermes. That mind, we are told, is “shameless,” and the character is “wily.” In the Greek creation myth, as in the biblical, the woes of humankind are attributed to the untrustworthy female.

These two strands of the Greek tradition—the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil; the more complicated dream of humanoid machines that not only replicate the spontaneous motion that is the sine qua non of being animate (and, therefore, of being “animal”) but are possessed of the mind, speech, and ability to learn and evolve (in a word, the consciousness) that are the hallmarks of being human—established two categories of science-fiction narrative that have persisted to the present day. The first, which you could call the “economic,” provokes speculation about the social implications of mechanized labor. Such speculation began not long after Homer. In a striking passage in Book 1 of Aristotle’s Politics, composed in the fourth century BC, the philosopher sets about analyzing the nature of household economy as a prelude to his discussion of the “best kinds of regimes” for entire states, and this line of thought puts him in mind of Hephaestus’s automatic tripods. What, he wonders, would happen if every tool could perform its own work when ordered to do so or in anticipation of the need, like the statues of Daedalus in the story or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, the poet says, “went down automatically to the gathering of the gods”; if in the same manner shuttles wove and picks played kitharas [stringed instruments] by themselves, master-craftsmen would have no need of assistants and masters no need of slaves.


Feds Say That Banned Researcher Commandeered a Plane

Feds Say That Banned Researcher Commandeered a Plane
By Kim Zetter
May 15 2015

A security researcher kicked off a United Airlines flight last month after tweeting about security vulnerabilities in its system had previously taken control of an airplane and caused it to briefly fly sideways, according to an application for a search warrant filed by an FBI agent.

Chris Roberts, a security researcher with One World Labs, told the FBI agent during an interview in February that he had hacked the in-flight entertainment system, or IFE, on an airplane and overwrote code on the plane’s Thrust Management Computer while aboard the flight. He was able to issue a climb command and make the plane briefly change course, the document states.

“He stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights,” FBI Special Agent Mark Hurley wrote in his warrant application(.pdf). “He also stated that he used Vortex software after comprising/exploiting or ‘hacking’ the airplane’s networks. He used the software to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”

Hurley filed the search warrant application last month after Roberts was removed from a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Syracuse, New York, because he published a facetious tweet suggesting he might hack into the plane’s network. Upon landing in Syracuse, two FBI agents and two local police officers escorted him from the plane and interrogated him for several hours. They also seized two laptop computers and several hard drives and USB sticks. Although the agents did not have a warrant when they seized the devices, they told Roberts a warrant was pending.

A media outlet in Canada obtained the application for the warrant today and published it online.

The information outlined in the warrant application reveals a far more serious situation than Roberts has previously disclosed.

Roberts had previously told WIRED that he caused a plane to climb during a simulated test on a virtual environment he and a colleague created, but he insisted then that he had not interfered with the operation of a plane while in flight.

He told WIRED that he did access in-flight networks about 15 times during various flights but had not done anything beyond explore the networks and observe data traffic crossing them. According to the FBI affidavit, however, when he mentioned this to agents last February he told them that he also had briefly commandeered a plane during one of those flights.

He told the FBI that the period in which he accessed the in-flight networks more than a dozen times occurred between 2011 and 2014. The affidavit, however, does not indicate exactly which flight he allegedly caused to turn to fly to the side.

He obtained physical access to the networks through the Seat Electronic Box, or SEB. These are installed two to a row, on each side of the aisle under passenger seats, on certain planes. After removing the cover to the SEB by “wiggling and Squeezing the box,” Roberts told agents he attached a Cat6 ethernet cable, with a modified connector, to the box and to his laptop and then used default IDs and passwords to gain access to the inflight entertainment system. Once on that network, he was able to gain access to other systems on the planes.

Reaction in the security community to the new revelations in the affidavit have been harsh. Although Roberts hasn’t been charged yet with any crime, and there are questions about whether his actions really did cause the plane to list to the side or he simply thought they did, a number of security researchers have expressed shock that he attempted to tamper with a plane during a flight.

“I find it really hard to believe but if that is the case he deserves going to jail,” wrote Jaime Blasco, director of AlienVault Labs in a tweet.


The Democratic Party Would Triangulate Its Own Mother

[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]

The Democratic Party Would Triangulate Its Own Mother
The latest squabble over the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows just how low America’s “Progressive” Party has sunk
By Matt Taibbi
May 14 2015

Barack Obama made headlines this week by taking on Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a dispute over our latest labor-crushing free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The president’s anger over Warren’s decision to lead the Senate in blocking his authority to fast-track the TPP was heavily covered by the Beltway media, which loves a good intramural food fight.

It was quite a show, which was the first clue that something wasn’t quite right in this picture. The Beltway press made a huge spectacle out of how the “long-simmering” Obama-Warren “feud” had turned “personal.”

And there were lots of suggestions that the president, in his anger toward Warren, simply let his emotions get the best of him – that he let slip impolitic and perhaps sexist words in his attacks on Warren, whom he described as “absolutely wrong” and “a politician like everyone else.”

Reuters, taking the cheese all the way with this “it just got personal” storyline that people on both sides of the Warren-Obama spat have been pimping to us reporters all week, quoted observers who put it like this:

“The president miscalculated in making this about Elizabeth Warren, that backfired badly. It only served to raise awareness of the issue and drive people away from his position,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who has worked with labor unions opposed to the pact.

“It never makes sense to make these kinds of issues personal,” he said.

Politicians do get angry. They even sometimes get angry in public. They are, after all, human, in some cases anyway.

But politicians mostly only take their masks off when cornered: stuck in a televised argument with an expert irritant, called to speak in a legislative chamber just as that nagging case of intermittent explosive disorder kicks in, surprised by a ropeline question on the campaign trail, etc.

But if you think that Barack Obama, one of the coolest cucumbers ever to occupy the White House, sat down for a scheduled interview in front of a professional softballer like ex-Times and current Yahoo pundit Matt Bai – a setup that’s the presidential media equivalent of a spa treatment – and just suddenly “lost it” in a discussion about the TPP, you’ve been had.

Almost without a doubt, Obama’s remarks were carefully scripted. And it’s likely all of these “whispers” suddenly circulating on the Hill about a percolating genuine personal feud between Obama and Warren also came from a focus-group-aided strategy meeting somewhere.

Even Bai approvingly described Obama’s move as an effort to triangulate the “professional left.” These tactics make a lot of sense politically, and within the Beltway, chiding the “unrealistic” progressives of the Warren ilk is considered almost a rite of passage for politicians on the blue side who want to prove they’re “serious about governing.”

Triangulating – beating up on the ideologues within your own party in order to shore up your centrist cred and reassure your money sources – is an especially brilliant solution for Democrats targeting national office. Those politicians need virtual monopolies on union and minority votes, but also need just enough centrists and white southerners to stay viable. To keep those latter votes, you need to make a few very conspicuous moves from time to time.


We May Have Robot Pets In The Not-So-Distant Future

We May Have Robot Pets In The Not-So-Distant Future
By Macrina Cooper-White
May 14 2015

For better or worse, robots seem poised to take over all sorts of human jobs in the not-too-distant future — replacing us in factories and offices and maybe even in the bedroom.

And people may not be the only ones facing stiff competition from the cyborgs. According to an animal welfare researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia, robots might soon replace our favorite pets.

“It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation,” Dr. Jean-Loup Rault said in a written statement. “It’s not a question of centuries from now. If 10 billion human beings live on the planet in 2050 as predicted, it’s likely to occur sooner than we think.”

Rault’s not the only scientist that thinks robotic pets are on the way. Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told The Huffington Post in an email:

“Cars have replaced horses. Home security systems have replaced guard dogs. Internet kittens are cuter than your kittens. Pooper-scooper laws are unnecessary for cuddly stuffed animals on your bed. And your pet bird should have never been kept in a cage to begin with. Robot pets are inevitable. And possibly overdue.”

A matter of sustainability. More than half of people in Western societies own a pet, according to Rault. As the population grows and becomes increasingly urban, he believes owning flesh-and-blood companion animals is likely to become economically unsustainable for many people.

“Efforts to develop cities designed to be green and pet-friendly are ongoing,” he wrote in an opinion piece for journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science. “However, a more realistic future is that pets may become a luxury possession for people who can afford to sustain their cost and fulfill their needs in terms of space, social, and mental needs according to possibly higher ethical standards raised by future societies.”

But could a robotic Rover give its owners the same benefits as a real one? Studies have linked dog ownership with lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and higher self-esteem. And scientists at the University of Arizona are investigating whether doggy germs give our immune systems a boost.

Maybe more to the point, could we love a pet that runs not on kibbles but electrical power? Would we accept affection from such a being?

Transformative technology. A 2008 study showed that Sony’s robo-dog AIBO helped nursing home residents in the U.S. feel less isolated. And funerals held for “dead” robotic dogs last March in Japan suggest that their owners really can develop a strong attachment to the devices.