Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Terror Problem. What Questions Should we Ask?

October 22, 2014 has indelibly imprinted itself on my mind. From the first tweet that a gunman was loose on Parliament Hill, I was glued to my computer, constantly searching for news and answers to try to understand the scope of that horrific event.

Once all was over and the details emerged, we learn that the scene of terror that engulfed our capital city was all due to a loan crazed individual armed with a rifle. In our post 9-11 world, an attack that ended in gunfire in our halls of government reverberates with the unique intensity and urgency we have assumed into our collect conscience since the war on terror was declared.

And it is through the "war on terror" lens that this event is being viewed. Whether by those that blame radical Islam for our troubles, or those that blame our imperial aggression in Muslim countries, the debate about the cause and effect exist solely within the post 9-11 terror narrative.

But in our search for answers, I don't think we ask ourselves the right questions. Why would Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (and Martin Rouleau) choose to assault and murder members of our military? What caused these troubled individuals to embrace radical Islam?

And more importantly, what would they have chosen if "radical Islam" was not a readily available option?

I think it's very critical that we pause and reflect on that question. The underlying assumption about the "radicalization of our youth" problem we are grappling with is the unsaid narrative that without the radical Islam influence, these individuals would not choose to terrorize society.

I believe that to be a serious error in judgement. For as I pondered that question, it occurred to me that these individuals wanted to hate somebody. They needed something to latch on to that would validate and allow them to express that hate. If not radical Islam, I believe they would have picked more "traditional" targets. Whether it be women, Jews or gays or any other group.

It is important to understand that many of these recent converts to radical Islam are looking for an answer to whatever internal angst they are dealing with. It isn't an easy choice, nor is it a simple or logical one. This is entirely an irrational response. But they have a need that needs filling, and perhaps like a desperate addict in search of a fix they will latch onto whatever cause that provides relief, clarity, a purpose, a target to focus on.

Someone to blame. 

We must consider in our response, are we trying to prevent the next Zehaf-Bibeau or the next Marc L├ępine? And is there really any difference between them? What problem are we trying to solve?

If the answer we choose is simply "Islamic terrorism" then I believe we will not solve anything, and those that seek to terrorize will just choose another outlet.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

NDP Party of Canada, Party of the Privileged Few

I have had all I can take with the "fight to save Canada Post's home delivery." Every time, it's about saving home delivery for those that currently have it. No one proposes getting home delivery back for those that have lost it before. And no one proposes starting home delivery for those communities that have never had it.

That's right. Never had home delivery. I grew up in a little town in rural Ontario. We never had home delivery. We had the Post Office. It was the only way of communicating with the outside world other than the telephone (and many of my peers had homes with party lines. Not the best for long conversations.) To get your mail, you had trudge to the Post Office, Monday to Friday only, and get your mail from your mailbox. Same to send any mail.

In the 1970s, my community had the singular distinction of having the highest proportion of Senior Citizens of any community in Ontario. So, it was a time before the electric scooter and we had no transit options of any kind. We lived in the snow belt where we measured snow depth in feet,  not inches. The Post Office was the gateway to the outside world, where you got your letters, post cards, bills, cheques and parcels (other than Simpsons Sears catalog orders.) The mail was central to our lives. Young and old alike had to walk (or drive) up to the Post office, in sun, snow and rain and drop-off and pickup our mail.

Then in the 80s Canada Post announced it was closing the Post office based mailboxes and installing community mailboxes. These mailboxes would be distributed around the community, closer to residents, so they wouldn't have to walk as far every day. And guess what? The community objected. The Post Office was where people met, swapped stories, gossiped and caught up with each other. That central meeting space would disappear, and the soul of the community would go with it.

Well not so much, the community adapted. There was still the grocery store, library, churches the Legion and other locales. The soul survived after all.

But for more than 40 (50, 60?) years, there has been no home delivery for many small communities in rural Ontario. From the time when mail was the be-all and end-all for communication, bills, cheques, gifts, etc. to now when most of what is delivered is flyers no one give a crap about. And since I've moved out on my own, everywhere I've lived, I've never had home delivery. Always a community mailbox. And somehow I survived.

So to all those people trying to save home mail delivery that cry "what about seniors, the disabled, the shut-ins?" I reply "Where the fuck have you been for the last 50 years? NOW you give a shit?"

Oh that's right because now it affects you. And now you're selfishly trying to save home delivery for yourselves. And the NDP is there for you.

Well screw you. Nobody campaigned to expand home mail delivery back when it mattered. And no one is campaigning to expand it now. You just want to keep it for yourselves, in a time when mail is becoming increasing irrelevant. Trust me and the thousands of seniors and disabled individuals that lived without it for the last half-century. You can live without it too. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

When Even The Simplest Things Are Hard..

Tim Hortons drive-through was nearly empty, so I took advantage. It was one of those new two-lane drive-throughs, only one car in the left land already placing an order and the car right ahead of me went to the right-hand lane. So I went into the left hand lane thinking that car should move on first. And the car in the right lane placed their order and drove on. And another car went into the right hand lane, placed their order and drove through.

"Holy crap! What is this guy ahead of me ordering?" Just as I'm about to back out of the left land to take right lane, the car ahead of me finally finishes their order and pulls through. I drive up to the order window muttering aspersions on the character of the customer that was ahead of me.

As it turns out, I was casting those aspersions on the wrong person. It wasn't the fault of that customer why their order took so long.

 "Good morning, welcome to Tim Hortons. May I take your order please?"

"I'll have a small black coffee, and two twelve-grain bagels toasted with butter."

"Small... what kind of coffee?"

"Black."

"OK. And two twelve-grain bagels toasted with...?"

"Butter"

"Right. Let me get you your total sir.  Ok that was a small ...?"

"black coffee"

"Right. And two twelve-grain bagels...?"

"toasted with butter."

"Right. Your total is $3.90, please drive through."

 I get to the office and enjoy my bagels. And nearly spit out my small REGULAR coffee.

*Sigh*

Saturday, 2 August 2014

First Rule of Security, Deny Your Enemies Information

The Canadian Government alleged this week that the Chinese Government hacked into NRC computer systems, and China's response has been "prove it".

On the surface, this request for proof makes sense, as what we have is a game of "we said" "they said." But when it comes to IT security, publicly disclosing the proof is the last thing you want to do. And yes, it would have to be a public disclosure. If the Canadian Government gave the Chinese Government the proof under a none disclosure agreement, it would be very easy for the Chinese to deny the proof, and say it doesn't show anything. Without public analysis of the proof, no one can verify anyone's claims. And a public disclosure would be mind numbingly stupid.

What is the first rule of computer security?

Deny any potential enemies information about your system. Seriously. Because the first step of any attack is reconnaissance. Deny your enemies the ability to scout your systems for weaknesses.

Let me use a none-computerized example.

You have something very valuable that you don't want stolen. Say a bajillion dollar necklace. When it isn't being worn, you want to store it someplace safe, so that thieves can't easily steal it from your home while you're away. The standard location is in a Vault or a Safe. So you select a quality Safe, but what's the first thing you do? You decide where to put it, preferably someplace hidden and none obvious. The more time it takes to find the safe is less time any thieves have to crack that safe. No safe is ever 100% secure. If you're really tricksy, you purchase two Safes. One you put in a semi-obvious location (behind a picture frame) and the other Safe you put in a very secure location, say in a special room buried underground that you have to access through the wine cellar by moving a rack of wine bottles.

One day you get home, and you find that someone found the secure Safe, but didn't successfully crack it. Do you disclose to the news media that a thief broke into your home, and found the securely hidden Safe? Only if you're a moron. If you let the news media disclose how your Safe was found, now every thief in the world knows where that Safe is. Chances are one of them knows how to crack it. Right now the only thief that knows where it is was unsuccessful. Now you put all your efforts into fixing that problem. You don't open yourself to thievery by giving away the details to the whole world.

It's the same problem, only much larger in scope, when it comes to computer security. Every detail is important. The type of servers and workstations, the operating systems, applications installed, network layout and any security systems that protect that infrastructure. Also important, the physical location, the people who have access, physical security, everything.

To disclose the proof of a successful attack you have to reveal everything involved in why the attack worked. What system was first compromised, how it was done, why the security systems didn't work (what people didn't follow procedure). Essentially, publishing the proof of how it is done gives everyone a blueprint on how to do it themselves. You're drawing a detailed map for them.

"So change the security system!" you might say.

Let's go back to my safe example. Someone knows where the safe is, and the make and model of it. They've tried once, they might try again. To have pulled off that attempt, they managed to learn where the safe is (remember it was super secret, who blabbed?), defeat the home security system and knew when the house was empty. And they got away with their identity intact. How much work is involved in solving this problem? Ideally, you would sell this house, build a brand new one in another country far away and redo all of the security/layout/secrecy of the safes for that house. You don't do that in a week. you don't even do that in a year. Some of that solution may be practically impossible.

And that's the problem with computer security. In a way, it's better to be hacked when your security systems/practices are weak. The solution is to adopt the state of the art systems and procedures. But what if you are already using some or all of the best systems and procedures, and you still get hacked? That's a friggin nightmare is what that is. Your strongest defense is obfuscation and secrecy. Because if better systems don't exist (or only offer marginal improvement) you're going to be vulnerable to another attack by the same people. And you know it. The last thing you want to do is add to your worries by publicly disclosing how it was done.

But what the hell, if the Chinese Government was successful, maybe it wouldn't hurt to tell the Russians and every cyber-criminal organization out there how to do it too.

Or maybe it would.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Ontario Election 2014, Post Thoughts - Part 2

(Part 1 here)

The Ontario election was a referendum on fiscal conservatism. Or so quite a few opinion pieces amongst various media outlets tell us. (I know these two are from the Natioal Post, they're the only ones I could find that were minimally hyperbolic.)

I think that is too simplistic a view of what happened. As I argued in Part 1, many voters wanted a minority government. When people want a minority government, they are not voting for or against a platform. They're trying to form a government based on compromises; attempting to force the parties to check and balance one another. What is written into the party platform is largely discarded, as logically in a minority situation, it can not be expected that a government will have the votes necessary to implement that platform.

Ask any voter why they voted the way they did, and you will get a variety of answers. The one answer that does commonly crop up is along the lines of  "Tim Hudak says he'll create a million jobs after firing 100,000 people? Right. Pull the other leg." People did vote against that message, which means if any conclusion is to be drawn, it was the message, not fiscal conservatism that was rejected. It is a tenuously drawn argument that links Tim Hudak's message of "firing 100,000 people equals hope" to a platform of fiscal restraint. Andrew Coyne tried, but even that argument was unconvincing. Granted, Tim Hudak was not going to fire 100,000 people, he was going to let attrition account for most of that. Not hiring replacements does not equal firing. However, the phrase "fire 100,000 people" stuck like glue to him. And he did sweet dang all to change that perception. If you want a concrete conclusion of what people rejected, it was that nobody believed Tim Hudak, and thought he was a bag full of bovine excrement. People can support the message of fiscal conservatism but reject the messenger. And unfortunately when at the ballot box, that's about all voters can do. It's not like voters can add a rider to their ballots, "I support the PC Party, but their leader is a moron and needs to go."

But I believe that the larger message that is being ignored is that there was a very vocal expression of voter unease leading up to the election. And as a result this election appeared to be more emotionally based then in the past. A prevailing sentiment was that voters were choosing the least worst option. Given that the PCs still finished in second place and that the Liberals were seen as the least worst, this wasn't a clear vote for a free-spending government. It was a wishy-washy collective "hold-our-noses and mark our X" vote. Draw specific policy conclusions at your own peril.

That general sense of voter unease and dissatisfaction is what we need to discuss and bring to light. Maybe many do want more fiscal responsibility out of this government, but no one is bloody well asking us. The results of the election selected winners and losers, and that's it. And that's just not good enough, which is true most of the time, but more-so for this election result in particular.


So what do Ontarians want from this government? It would be nice if someone asked us. Maybe then we can draw clearer conclusions. But to think that one ideology or another was clearly endorsed at the ballot box? To borrow Andrea Horwath's term, bullspit.

Ontario Election 2014, Post Thoughts - Part 1

With the latest round of voter malaise given voice by the recent Ontario election, Alheli Picazo took aim at the 'Decline your Vote' meme that started to gain popularity. While I agree with the spirit of the argument, I find that I cannot accept the logic of it.

She had two main points, "declining your ballot succeeds in 'sending a message' about as well as abstaining achieves a 'total revolution.'" and "after ballots have been counted, get involved. Become politically engaged with your party of choice." Let's start with first point. People want to decline their ballot because they want to send a message or make a point. Alheli is correct in the larger sense, this really matters not a whit when all is said and done. While a formal declining of the ballot will be counted (unlike spoiling your ballot) nobody in politics really cares what that count turns out to be. To a point. Where the argument fails is that it assumes a legitimate vote does send a message, that it means something. Unfortunately, the most a vote for a candidate does is add one to the sum total of votes. If your vote is for the winning candidate, congratulations, you had 1/1000th (or much less) of an impact! If you voted for a losing candidate, you had exactly zero impact. The same as if you had declined your ballot. No party that forms the government ever cares what the final numbers were for anyone else. They won. That's all that matters. Any larger message hidden behind the votes tallied is lost and ignored.

The recent win by the Ontario Liberals puts this point in sharp contrast. The Liberals won a majority of seats, resulting in a majority government. A very large segment of the population did not want that result. They wanted a minority government. (Listen to the views expressed during Ontario Today for an example of that.) The support for this majority government is very soft. One of the most tenuous majorities other than the one granted to Bob Rae in 1990. (That election still casts a shadow over Ontario politics to this day. Ontario had a one night stand with the NDP, and it has never wanted a second date.) But it is unknown how aware the Ontario Liberal party is that the message behind the result is they have been granted a pass with strict conditions. They won. They have four years to do whatever they want with all the power of a majority behind them. Will they just count on voters being fickle with short memories? We will have to wait to find out. So much for sending a message via a ballot. In the end your vote is nothing more than a number. A tiny sliver of a percentage point. It is the cumulative result that sends a message, and the winners get to pick what that message is.

The ballot box is a poor vehicle for sending a message, but it is one that all of us have. Because it has such limited power, I believe it can be used to send any message you want. Decline your ballot, spoil your ballot, vote for a no-chance candidate. Heck, drop trou and leave a big steaming pile in the middle of your ballot. I'll even cheer you on. (The police will likely not be as supportive.) If you choose one of the options of not voting for a candidate, there is a threshold at which a message will be sent. What will happen if electoral turnout/valid ballots cast drops below 40%? 30%? 20%? Can we agree then that the message is the electorate is dissatisfied with the electoral system, and that we have a crisis of confidence in how our governments are formed? We all better hope so.

As to becoming involved with the party of your choice, that isn't a realistic option for everyone. It's an option for the few. Personally, I prefer to remain none-partisan. I want to choose from the buffet table of political options. (As dismal as they are.) But not everyone can, or will, be a member of a party. It's rather the point of an electoral system; citizens don't have to be deeply engaged because the powers are being delegated to others. And yes, by choosing to delegate, you lose the power of your own voice. But how much of a voice do you have in a large party? Too many voices will dilute your own. It takes a certain personality to put up with being ignored, constantly being optimistic about your own input, and about being part of a team with a minor role. Not everyone has that fortitude, I suspect it is a minority of people that do. The party system only attracts certain kind of people for any length of time. That's a reality that's not going to change.

I do encourage everyone to stay politically engaged. The system we have may not be perfect, and could have a long way to go before being perfected. But it is the system we have. Make your voice heard; with friends, colleagues, heck even strangers. Use twitter, blogs, or any other online platform. Join a party, vote, write letters to the editor, stand on a soapbox with a megaphone. There's lots of ways to add your sliver of a percentage to influence change. But don't let that sliver drop to zero. I think on that last point Alheli and I can find 100% agreement.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Dear Everyone, You're Part of The Problem

As everyone in Canada is aware (whether they want to be or not), Ontario is having a provincial election. Support for the current Liberal minority was tenuous, and the unofficial Liberal/NDP coalition fell apart.

I felt it was about time. Especially as, in my view, the Wynne Liberals had introduced a budget that tried to out NDP the NDP. People called it the most progressive budget ever. I thought it was just a huge grab bag of spending commitments that this province couldn't afford. Not to say all the ideas presented were bad, they were just all grouped together like a Christmas gift giving spree that would cause regret when the bills came due in January.

I saw the budget as pure political calculation designed to challenge the NDP, double dare them to vote down the budget and trigger an election. The budget wasn't about Ontario's future, it was all about the Liberal party's desire to beat the NDP at their own game.

My political affiliation leans liberal, but I cheered when Andrea Horwath stood up to the dare and said she would not support the budget. While it was a political decision, it was a principled decision in my view. And then the mockers came calling.

"Elections are expensive and unnecessary."* "Congratulations Andrea, you've just handed Ontario to Tim Hudak."** "That budget was awesome! We'll never see it again!"*** "Proposed legislation before the government that I support is gone!"*** and these were comments I saw from NDP supporters. Liberal and PC partisan hacks I expected, but from NDP supporters?

*In a democracy elections are an essential, and often the only, way for citizens to exercise their democractic rights and obligation. A government of the people needs the people to participate. And minority governemnts may need that input more often than we are used to. They are a sign of an unsure population, of tough issues needing more input and direction.

**In an election, campaigns matter. If the outcome is predetermined when the writ is dropped, why do we vote? Granted, Horwath is running a lack-luster campaign so far, but that wasn't predetermined when the election was called. Her campaign is an indictment or endorsement of her fitness to lead this province.

***If there were good ideas in the budget, and I grant that there were, then they can be reintroduced by any future government. To wail and weep at the loss of the budget over the measures proposed is to support the notion that ideas have a lifespan, that they can never be proposed again. Same with any legislation that died. Ideas have a life of their own, they survive, change and grow. If they are good ideas they will be introduced again. If it is something that you really care about, push for new governments to support them. You know, like in a democracy where people have a voice.

People complain that there is too much politicing and not enough contest of ideas in our political system. But the very voters that complain about this, resort to playing politics and attack the personality, the motives and the character of those that run to lead us. They express the worst aspects of the political process they profess to hate.

Yes politics is often a depressing and soul sucking experience. But an election is our, your, opportunity to effect positive change. If you want to make it better, break the cycle and participate. Call out the pointless partisan attacks on all sides (muffin expenses, really?) and engage the ideas and the policies. Shout down those that engage in personality sniping. If you want politicians to rise to your expectations of behaviour, show them how it is done. Because otherwise we are getting the "government of the people" that we deserve. Don't like it? Look in the mirror first.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Lament for the Arcade

Nothing makes me feel like a fossilized old nerd like modern video games. I just can't play most of them. It's not that I don't want to, I just don't have the time (or want to devote the time) required.

I grew up in the arcade era with Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Defender, Karateka, etc. I owned and played on a Coleco Adam, Commodore 64 (then a 128), and migrated to IBM PC games through the 386. One consistent theme ran through all those games that I call "Arcadability."

Arcadability is how easy a game is to learn to play; if you only had a $0.25 and 15 minutes can you figure out the basics of the game and still have fun? This Arcadability factor could still be found on the Nintendo Wii and the Sony Playstations 1 and 2. There were quite a few games that you could just pickup and play and not have to devote hours upon hours in mastering.

The first games to lose their Arcadability were the sports games. I started to notice a pattern where I could quickly master the Beginner level of almost any sports game. Very quickly I was beating the computer with absurd, unrealistic scores. For instance take hockey. I could regularly beat the computer 24-1 in three 5 minute periods. Gets a little boring. Up the level from Beginner to Intermediate, and the computer smokes me 15-0. So I went from bored to frustrated. I wanted to be to increase the challenge of the game, not be dominated by it. Now? I can't even beat the computer at the beginner level. This really hit home when I tried MLB 2012 The Show. When it was my turn up to bat, I couldn't hit a damned pitch. I searched online and found a few forums that recommended you devote hours to batting practice before playing your first game. What. The. Fuck. I don't want to be a pro baseball player! I just want to be entertained and distracted for an hour or two.

Serious gamers wanted more in-depth games. They wanted more realism, to be the coach and the player. They wanted big involved worlds with mystery that they could immerse themselves into for hours at a time. Me? I lost that desire a long time ago. I only have a few hours per month (not per week, per month) where I'm playing console based games. But the video game market now largely caters to the hardcore gamer. And I started to think that I was in a market segment that game developers didn't care about.

And then the Flash Game and the tablet based game phenomena happened. Here were a ton of games that you could download and have an arcade like experience. Angry Birds, Plants Vs. Zombies, Bejeweled, etc. all found a huge untapped market. Arcadability does sell. But now they want in-game purchases to suck your wallet dry. But that's another topic...

I still enjoy playing on a console based system. It's just a better overall experience. If developers repackaged and upgraded some of my favourite PS2 games like SSX Tricky, Splashdown, ATV Off-road fury, etc. for the PS3 (or even the PS4) I would buy them. These games were fun, easy to learn, and relatively easy to master. They also allowed multiple players to share one screen...

Aside: God I hate the online gaming phenomenon. Why? Because mutli-player games have evolved to only allow you to play online against others. There's four of us in this house that want to play each other, but we can't, because we only own one console hooked up to one television. To play against each other, we need four consoles, four televisions, and four copies of every game. That's frigging ridiculous. I spent several evenings with my friends crowded around a Sony PS2 and a 27" CRT divided into 4 little boxes so that we could play each  other. And we had a blast. I now have a larger LCD High Def screen and I can only play by myself. What the hell? Why did split screen gaming die? It was a major reason the Nintendo Wii was so popular with families, which included adults. I was looking forward to having this experience with my kids, but it just doesn't exist anymore!

Console game developers are not writing for me anymore. I'm not sure why not. Sure the hardcore gamers are a huge part of the market, but I have dollars to spend too. I just can't believe that my money is worth nothing to game development shops.

Bring back the arcadability factor, and you'll have a customer. But ignore that? Well then I guess you just don't want my money.