The Roundup for December 1-31, 2019 Edition

Alone Amongst Ghosts by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


This month’s update is late, accounting for holidays and my generally re-thinking how to move forward (or not) with these kinds of posts. I find them really valuable, but the actual interface of using my current client (Ulysses) to draft elements of them is less than optimal. So expect some sort of changes as I muddle through how to improve workflow and/or consider the kinds of content that make the most sense to post.


Inspiring Quotation

Be intensely yourself. Don’t try to be outstanding; don’t try to be a success; don’t try to do pictures for others to look at—just please yourself.

  • Ralph Steiner

Great Photography Shots

Natalia Elena Massi’s photographs of Venice, flooded, are exquisite insofar as they are objectively well shot while, simultaneously, reminding us of the consequences of climate change. I dream of going to Venice to shoot photos at some point and her work only further inspires those dreams.

Music I’m Digging

I spent a lot of the month listening to my ‘Best of 2019’ playlist, and so my Songs I Liked in December playlist is a tad threadbare. That said, it’s more diverse in genre and styles than most monthly lists, though not a lot of the tracks made the grade to get onto my best of 2019 list.

  • Beck-Guero // I spent a lot of time re-listening to Beck’s corpus throughout December. I discovered that I really like his music: it’s moody, excitable,and catchy, and always evolving from album to album.
  • Little V.-Spoiler (Cyberpunk 2077) (Single) // Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most hyped video games for 2020, and if all of the music is as solid and genre-fitting as this track, then the ambiance for the game is going to be absolutely stellar.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • 99% Invisible-Racoon Resistance // As a Torontonian I’m legally obligated to share this. Racoons are a big part of the city’s identity, and in recent years new organic garbage containers were (literally) rolled out that were designed such that racoons couldn’t get into them. Except that some racoons could! The good news is that racoons are not ‘social learners’ and, thus, those who can open the bins are unlikely to teach all the others. But with the sheer number of trash pandas in the city it’s almost a certainty that a number of them will naturally be smart enough and, thus, garbage will continue to litter our sidewalks and laneways.

Good Reads

  • America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions // Ismay’s longform piece on cluster munitions is not a happy article, nor does the reader leave with a sense that this deadly weapon is likely to be less used. His writing–and especially the tragedies associated with the use of these weapons–is poignant and painful. And yet it’s also critically important to read given the barbarity of cluster munitions and their deadly consequences to friends, foes, and civilians alike. No civilized nation should use these weapons and all which do use them cannot claim to respect the lives of civilians stuck in conflict situations.
  • Project DREAD: White House Veterans Helped Gulf Monarchy Build Secret Surveillance Unit // The failure or unwillingness of the principals, their deputies, or staff to acknowledge they created a surveillance system that has systematically been used to hunt down illegitimate targets—human rights defenders, civil society advocates, and the like—is disgusting. What’s worse is that democratizing these surveillance capabilities and justifying the means by which the program was orchestrated almost guarantees that American signals intelligence employees will continue to spread American surveillance know-how to the detriment of the world for a pay check, the consequences be damned (if even ever considered in the first place).
  • The War That Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later // The combination of the (re)telling of the first Russia-Chechen War and photographs from the conflict serve as reminders of what it looks like when well-armed nation-states engage in fullscale destruction, the human costs, and the lingering political consequences of wars-now-past.
  • A New Kind of Spy: How China obtains American technological secrets // Bhattacharjee’s 2014 article on Chinese spying continues to strike me as memorable, and helpful in understanding how the Chinese government recruits agents to facilitate its technological objectives. Reading the piece helps to humanize why Chinese-Americans may spy for the Chinese government and, also, the breadth and significance of such activities for advancing China’s interests to the detriment of America’s own.
  • Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach: There is still much to learn from the radical legacy of critical theory // Benhabib’s essay showcasing how the history of European political philosophy over the past 60 years or so are in the common service of critique, and the role(s) of Habermasian political theory in both taking account of such critique whilst offering thoughts on how to proceed in a world of imperfect praxis, is an exciting consideration of political philosophy today. She mounts a considered defense of Habermas and, in particular, the claims that his work is overly Eurocentric. Her drawing a line between the need to seek emancipation while standing to confront and overcome the xenophobia, authoritarianism, and racism that is sweeping the world writ large is deeply grounded on the need for subjects like human rights to orient and ground critique. While some may oppose such universalism on the same grounds as they would reject the Habermasian project there is a danger: in doing so, not only might we do a disservice to the intellectual depth that undergirds the concept of human rights but, also, we run the risk of losing the core means by which we can (re)orient the world towards enabling the conditions of freedom itself.
  • Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai // This very curious article explores the recent problem of ships’ GPS transponders being significantly affected while transiting the Yangtze in China. Specifically, transponders are routinely misplacing the location of ships, sometimes with dangerous and serious implications. The cause, however, remains unknown: it could be a major step up in the (effective) electronic warfare capabilities of sand thieves who illegally dredge the river, and who seek to escape undetected, or could be the Chinese government itself testing electronic warfare capabilities on the shipping lane in preparation of potentially deploying it elsewhere in the region. Either way, threats such as this to critical infrastructure pose serious risks to safe navigation and, also, to the potential for largely civilian infrastructures to be potentially targeted by nation-state adversaries.
  • A Date I Still Think About // These beautiful stories of memorable and special dates speak to just how much joy exists in the world, and how it unexpectedly erupts into our lives. In an increasingly dark time, stories like this are a kind of nourishment for the soul.

Cool Things

  • The Deep Sea // This interactive website that showcases the sea life we know exists, and the depths at which it lives, is simple and spectacular.
  • 100 Great Works Of Dystopian Fiction // A pretty terrific listing of books that have defined the genre.
Link

Imagine if Donald Trump Controlled the NSA

Wired:

And exactly what could a President Trump do with the NSA? First, Hennessey says, there’s the question of what he could undo: He could, for instance, rescind the executive actions of President Obama aimed at reforming the NSA after Snowden’s revelations. Presidential Policy Directive 28, for example, issued in 2014, was designed to ensure that the NSA’s signals intelligence branch wouldn’t use its powers to promote American business interests or suppress political dissent abroad, and that it would minimize its invasion of the privacy of not just Americans but also non-Americans whenever possible. Trump could also defang or coopt the executive branch’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which opposed and helped to end the NSA’s mass collection of Americans’ cell phone records last year.

More fundamentally, Hennessey and other former NSA staffers worry that Trump could redefine the priorities of the NSA’s foreign intelligence mission. He could, for instance, refocus American spying efforts to take the agency’s eyes off Russia and instead target that country’s adversaries, like Georgia, Ukraine, or even the European Union. Given Trump’s murky financial ties to Russia, it’s still not clear how he would approach its authoritarian government if he were to take power. “Trump has indicated he has unusual views about Vladimir Putin as an individual and Russian activity around the world that’s very problematic for the security interests of the US,” Hennessey says. “We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the intelligence community’s high level priorities and the ability of the president to shift them.”

Despite what people believe, the NSA is significantly restrained in some of its activities as compared to its compatriots. As an example, there is still no evidence that the NSA conducts economic espionage for the purpose of enhancing specific American business’ interests. The United States does conduct economic espionage for trading and global threat assessments, but not to share the collected information with domestic businesses. A Trump presidency could change that and, in the course, truly blend best-of-class government surveillance with nationalist economic policies. While that might sound appealing to Americans it could also initiate a full-scale trade war…and one where the people of the world would likely come out far poorer.

Quote

The determination by Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration to protect networks of critical U.S. industries from hackers and cyberspies is creating an explosive growth opportunity – for lobbyists.

There were 513 filings by consultants and companies to press Congress on cybersecurity by the end of 2012, up 85 percent from 2011 and almost three times as many as in 2010, according to U.S. Senate filings. Twelve firms have submitted new registrations this year on behalf of companies including Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Motorola Mobility unit, Symantec Corp. (SYMC), United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) and Ericsson Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Stockholm-based Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson.

I’m sure the lobbyists are only there as good patriotic Americans, aiming to best ensure that Americans are kept safe and Congresspeople and Senators (and their associated staff) just get the best information possible. No way that, in the wake of US scaremongering, lobbyists are looking to massively expand ‘security’ projects to the detriment of Americans’ privacy and (almost comically) security interest. Right?

Quote

An often-overlooked dimension of cyber espionage is the targeting of civil society actors. NGOs, exile organizations, political movements, and other public interest coalitions have for many years encountered serious and persistent cyber assaults. Such threats — politically motivated and often with strong links to authoritarian regimes — include website defacements, denial-of-service attacks, targeted malware attacks, and cyber espionage. For every Fortune 500 company that’s breached, for every blueprint or confidential trade secret stolen, it’s a safe bet that at least one NGO or activist has been compromised in a similar fashion, with highly sensitive information such as networks of contacts exfiltrated. Yet civil society entities typically lack the resources of large industry players to defend against or mitigate such threats; you won’t see them hiring information security companies like Mandiant to conduct expensive investigations. Nor will you likely see Mandiant paying much attention to their concerns, either: if antivirus companies do encounter attacks related to civil society groups, they may simply discard that information as there is no revenue in it.

* Rob Deibert and Sarah McKune, “Civil Society Hung Out To Dry in Global Cyber Espionage