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The Hunger Masks

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“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and . . . then retreated back into their money . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

I don’t know how many of our readers are aware of a famous and very successful series of books and movies from the last decade called The Hunger Games.

They’re SF stories set in a dystopian future where glittering technology exists in a feudal society. In fact that technology enables it. For the purposes of this post the following is a key plotline:

[The Hunger Games] universe is a dystopia set in Panem, a North American country consisting of the wealthy Capitol and 13 districts in varying states of poverty. Every year, children from the first 12 districts are selected via lottery to participate in a compulsory televised battle royale death match called The Hunger Games.

Capitol citizens are extremely wealthy and life moves very slowly until the Games,… Many Capitol residents are extremely shallow, always looking for ways to be noticed. An outrageous sense of style and fashion are very important to the citizens of the Capitol… Capitol citizens are noted to have quite high ranking and integral roles and occupations for Panem as a whole…

You get the picture.

While not quite as gaudy as those characters, the following is a great example of how the same attitudes are rampant among our rulers nowadays, as San Francisco Mayor London Breed, had fun the other day in a San Francisco nightclub. I guess she’s read some of these counter-narrative articles on masks.

What she’s actually doing in that video is announcing the new law that you do not have to wear a mask if:

  1.  You are “having a good time,”
  2. “Feeling the spirit,”
  3. Watching the reunion of a band you like.

BTW, she insists that the reunion of the jazz band, Tony Toni Tone, is the story here, and not her defying her own mask mandate. I especially loved this quote:

“We don’t need the fun police to come in and micromanage and tell us what we should or shouldn’t be doing,” she said during an interview, contending she was drinking at the time and started dancing because she was “feeling the spirit” and “wasn’t thinking about a mask,” according to reports.

The irony in that statement is so fucking thick you could cut it with a knife.

Perhaps SF citizens should keep that in mind if an actual cop (very much not “fun”) or some other asshole hassles them about wearing a mask. Maybe print out her interview answers on a card to show cops that the law has been repealed by the mayor herself.

This is nothing new of course, for in the past year the following has occurred:

California Governor Newsom at a lovely dinner with other unmasked rich people at one of the world’s most expensive restaurants, the French Laundry. The staff are masked of course, per order of the Governor.

Barack Obama’s 60th birthday unmasked bash with his celebrity friends at their home in Martha’s Vineyard. The servants wore masks.

Obama’s Party

Nancy Pelosi’s fundraiser in the expensive vine yards of California. The servants wore masks.

And of course, the Met Ball a few days ago.

These people either don’t believe their own bullshit about masks (and other things) or they’re glorying in applying those rules to little people who can’t fight back, at least not without ending up in jail.

Or perhaps what we Untermenchen should take from all these events is that they’re just deliberately rubbing our noses in this shit. That the whole point is to make it clear who the boss is: that the rules apply to us, not them, and they want us to know it.

We are ruled by terrible, unkind, incompetent, uncaring people. I’m tempted to say that they are evil people, not out of deliberation but shallow callousness.

The skills of ordinary men

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I recently read two articles that actually cover some of the same ground, even though their topics could not be more different.

The first is from 2003, Electric Heroes, and it’s written by a lawyer looking back at one of his early cases where a woman sued an American power company over the death of her husband, who was a linemen.

They clambered up narrow steel ladders and then inched across four-inch-wide “angle-iron” girders made slippery with rain or morning dew, and when they reached out, they touched either the open sky or heavy steel cables whose purpose was to carry enough electricity to power the nation’s fourth largest city.

Because they were so well trained, they were able to work safely, routinely, under conditions that would terrify you or me.

The writer points out that these men (in those days they were all men) were also very careful, which made the case a little strange since this particular linemen had fallen 120 feet to his death or possibly had jumped. Not even his workmates could figure out what had gone wrong.

As the young workhorse lawyer gathering two years of information for the trial, he got to know these men very well.

They had a strong sense of duty, and they had a natural dignity that was boundless.  They were modest men, but they had quiet pride by the mile.  Amongst each other, they were very, very funny.  They cussed a lot, and after work they’d go out together for a beer, or to hunt or play poker or catch an Astros game.  And they stuck up for one another.  You’d think twice about crossing any one of them.

They took the case seriously from the beginning because one of their own had died in their midst, for reasons they couldn’t quite explain or grasp, and they were being accused of having caused his death by their indifference. 

In the end the case was settled out of court and the jury dismissed. The young lawyer had become so bonded with these men that he was incandescent with rage at what he felt his senior lawyers had done to them: as much as admitting that they had been indifferent to their workmate, their friend. But the young partner took him to lunch and, as he saw in hindsight, helped him grow up a bit:

“In the greater scheme of life, are you really furious that Mrs X is getting the fairly modest amount of money that will be left to her after her lawyers’ fees and expenses are extracted?  She’s not getting a huge windfall.  Our client can afford it.  It all goes into the rate-base, and ultimately it will be paid in tiny, tiny increments by all the families for whom Mr X helped keep the lights on during his twelve years with the company. Can you not see the justice in that result, even if it wasn’t the harsh and total victory you were gunning for?”

The second article is very recent and is written by a Captain Charlie Anderson of the Minnesota National Guard, describing their recent expedition to Kabul to extract American and Afghan civilians before the Taliban took over: A few good ‘Bastards’.

It’s a fascinating look at those events from a soldier’s view, but it’s also a good look at a component of the US military that’s often overlooked or disparaged, The National Guard. They’re part-time soldiers although equipped with the same stuff as the regular forces including, in this case, Bradley’s and Abrams tanks. Having said that I was surprised a few years ago to find out from a mate in the NZDF that the Hawaiian Air National Guard flies F-22’s!

But what shows here is that the training is also right up with the regular forces:

We’d practiced and trained for the past two years. The task force did a combat training rotation exercise at Fort Hood, Texas in 2019 and executed a successful rotation (the first post-Covid) at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California in 2020. While drilling at Camp Ripley, Minnesota we completed numerous tabletop exercises and worked the Military Decision Making Process repeatedly until it became muscle memory.

We had executed multiple iterations of gunnery tables and were continuing ongoing missions in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We were confident that as the CENTCOM Regional Response Force we’d be poised and prepared to project military power wherever it was needed to accomplish tactical and strategic goals.

When the time came to move out they were ready to go and got to Kabul promptly. Even so such units still endure scepticism from the regulars:

One captain I met from their brigade intelligence section told me he was under the impression that a senator had pulled some strings and got us deployed from Minnesota. When I told him about our task force and that we were already in the Middle East, postured for such a crisis event, he was speechless. Initially, there was an air of distrust, but we proved ourselves worthy partners, dispelling the myth about the perceived capability gap between the active duty and guard/reserve components. 

It was this paragraph that caught my attention in relation to the first article, as the commander of the unit, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad, described:

He underscored the life skills the National Guard brought to the 82nd Airborne. “We provided capabilities to the fight beyond trigger-pullers that 1/82 never would’ve been able to — engineers, plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, heavy machinery operators – we enabled advanced operations that directly impacted the military’s ability to get people out.” 

No need to call up the US Army Corp of Engineers to build barricades and reinforce walls when you’ve got a bunch of people who do that in their everyday lives.

The article is lengthy but well written and packed with a lot of coal-face detail about what they dealt with in a horrific and rapidly deteriorating situation. Well worth your reading time.

Written by Tom Hunter

September 18, 2021 at 9:54 am

Buffalo Rifles

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In these dark times of shut-in life it’s important to live vicariously.

So here’s some fun from Montana, the Quigley Shoot competition.

This is held once a year and is a target shooting competition with the old-fashioned single-shot rifles once used to hunt buffalo on the vast American prairies.

The shooting distances are out to 1200 yards or more and this has to be done with iron sights or, at best, vintage telescopic sights. Sounds tough but in the interviews the shooters do say that you get used to it and you can get accurate with practice.

These guns also have a hell of a kick, so a sore shoulder at the end of the day seems likely to me.

Written by Tom Hunter

September 14, 2021 at 8:52 am

Posted in Sport., Technology, USA

Chinese Xi Snot Risk Calculations

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Here’s fun to while away the time in lockdown.

A website set up by Oxford University: QCovid Risk Assessment.

You have to scroll down the first page and hit the ACCEPT button for the license to use the software, but after that it’s a matter of punching in your age, weight, health factors and so forth.

It uses British data of course, including stuff on your location but aside from a couple of factors the rest should apply here if you’re not of Maori or Pacific Island descent (obviously Britain would not have a lot of Covid data for those demographics)

There’s also this disclaimer

PLEASE NOTE: This implementation of the QCovid risk calculator is NOT intended for use supporting or informing clinical decision-making. It is ONLY to be used for academic research, peer review and validation purposes, and it must NOT be used with data or information relating to any individual. 

I wonder how long they’ll leave this site up, since obviously individuals will do what I and other have done here.

Running my data through the system I find that my risks from Covid-19 are as follows:

SICKNESSDEATH
1 chance in 11641 chance in 6211

In other words in a crowd of 10,000 people with the same risk factors as me, 2 are likely to catch and die from COVID-19 and 10 to be admitted to hospital during a 90 day period similar to the recent peak in Britain.

Of course the data is changing all the time as more is learned.

Still, I should probably be hiding under the bed with a mask on.

You can’t be too careful

Written by Tom Hunter

September 11, 2021 at 1:50 pm

The Shadow was only a small and passing thing

For those who enjoyed tracking hurricanes a few years ago there was no better choice than Brendan Loy (dead blog) who was a mid-twenties geek with a blog and a love of hurricanes.

Compared to a decade or more ago he’s on a lot of channels nowadays but back in the day he really got on top of Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy that hit NYC in 2012.

I was thinking about this today as Hurricane Ida decided to almost repeat Katrina’s path from 2005 but just went slightly West of the great Southern city. Which is a good thing because apparently the US has learned nothing in 16 years.

Or perhaps it’s just that Western bureaucracies have not been able to do real stuff for the last fifty years.

But what the hell.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

For the US Army Corp of Engineers.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 30, 2021 at 8:25 pm

Posted in Science, Technology, USA

Funny … and scary?

Things are perhaps getting too depressing and heated.

So it’s time for a KitKat moment.

I’m putting both of these videos up together with a simple question for readers.

Rating both videos, are they:

a) Scary

b) Funny

c) Funny and Scary

d) Neither Funny nor Scary

First up is “Inside Biden’s Office”:

Next up is our (slightly?) more distant future. You may have seen YouTube clips published by a robotics company called Boston Dynamics, showing off the robots they’re developing for various uses, starting with “pack dogs” for the US military. They are eerily like animals, and their humanoid robots increasingly move like humans.

Those videos have led to this parody – at least I hope it’s a parody. I’ve never had a lot of faith in the idea of built-in, programmed restrictions on robotic brains, starting with Asimovs Three Laws of Robotics.

Still, in this case I can’t blame the robot at all.

That’s what scary about it. 🙂

Written by Tom Hunter

August 21, 2021 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Humour, Technology

Tagged with ,

The hackers strike back

In a world, incredibly the Western world, where freedom seems to be under ever greater threat than before – due less to government than to people apparently not rating it as much as they used to – it’s nice to see an example of a fightback.

In this case the story is especially meaningful because there has been much coverage in recent years of how Information Technology (IT) is now enabling The Powers That Be to spy on us in ever more detailed ways. The old East German Stasi would have given up their first-born sons for the sort of spying tech that China’s security services are employing – and likely those of the West as well.

Belarus is one such country, never having recovered from its Communist culture when it found itself a new and separate nation after the collapse of the USSR (it having been of those “Republics”). Former communist bigwig Alyaksandr Lukashenka quickly figured out how to get on top and stay there in this new world, with all his totalitarian, authoritarian instincts born of a communist life having ameliorated not one bit. He’s been the leader of the nation since the early 1990’s, complete with the usual sham elections.

Naturally one of his tools was the internal security services, former KGB types, but now with extra computer power allowing huge centralised databases containing untold amounts of personal information on ordinary people.

Of course, while you can have such centralisation of data nowadays thanks to IT, you can’t actually centralise the IT itself. The very nature of modern IT systems is that they are distributed; the amount of computer power available to ordinary people is also vast, and increasing everyday, which means these ordinary people can do things that only nations could do – like finding ICBM sites from private satellite photos.

And so…

While refraining from naming an exact number of files, the hackers claim to have obtained classified passport records for the Belarusian security forces’ leadership, members of Lukashenka’s inner circle, plus State Security Committee (KGB) employees, including intelligence officers operating in the European Union.

On July 26, the group’s Telegram channel teased passport data for KGB Chairman Ivan Tertel;

Each individual’s dossier, the hackers claim, contains passport photos and data; his or her residence permit; the name of the government body or military unit for which the person works; the names of family members, “and so on.”

“Will many KGB agents be ready to operate abroad, knowing that data about them has already leaked?” one of the hackers asked rhetorically in a bot-assisted Telegram chat with Current Time.

Aside from passport data, the Cyberpartisans claim to have accessed the records of the Belarusian traffic police, which the hackers say include information on registered cars for the KGB, the anti-corruption police, and tsikhary (“silent men”), masked muscle men in plainclothes known for brutally rounding up suspected protesters.

It’s a great example of the lack of culture change since 1991 that Belarus still has an actual KGB, they didn’t even bother changing the name, so much in love with their totalitarian past are they.

The cyber hack is yet to be confirmed, but as the article points out:

To verify the Cyberpartisans’ claim of having hacked Belarus’ passport database, Current Time submitted to the hackers the names and dates of birth of two Belarusian citizens, who agreed to the information’s release.

After a few minutes’ search in their alleged data trove, the Cyberpartisans sent the two Belarusians’ complete passport details, their official places of residence and work, and also technical information — for example, that one passport no longer has the space to affix visas.

Seems like confirmation to me. The logo below is that of the hacker group.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 13, 2021 at 10:20 am

Stacked

While his competitors continue to fumble around with much delayed, modest successes like getting spaceships into sub-orbital flights, Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation continues to power ahead with stuff that’s at least a decade in front of them, not to mention national space agencies like China’s and NASA.

Following the successful atmospheric test flight of Starship SN15 – after a few catastrophic landings for earlier models – the next test ship, SN16, was simply scrapped while work moved ahead on a sub-orbital / orbital test vehicle.

This is entirely in keeping with SpaceX’s iterative development process of rapid design-build-test prototyping.

Only a few days ago, it was observed that the Super Heavy Booster (formerly called the BFR), the 1st stage of the Starship system, had been moved to its launchpad in Texas.

But just the other day, it was seen that an actual Starship sub-orbital/orbital model, SN20, was lifted into place atop the SHB:

How big is this thing?

Bigger than the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon. It’s also more than twice as powerful, punching out some 7200 tons of thrust compared to the Saturn V’s 3500 tons. One of the basic design decisions that still concerns me about the SHB is that it uses 29 Raptor engines to get this thrust, compared to the five J-1 engines of the Saturn. The more things you have, the more that can go wrong, even if computer control systems are many times better than in the 1960’s.

The Starship was later pulled off the SHB, effectively yet another test of how they will mate the things together and improvements that can be made to the process. With SpaceX it’s all about continuous process improvement, like any factory.

It gets even crazier. That launch tower in the pictures is also a capture tower; the idea is that the SHB will land vertically right beside the tower after each launch, and the tower will then latch on to it, ready for maintenance checks and refueling for the next launch. Personally I’d build two such towers at a minimum for redundancy, especially if a high flight rate is desired, and Musk is aiming for three launches a day.

However, it’s still testing time and this combo won’t be launched for a few months yet, but hopefully before the end of 2021. In that test flight both vehicles will simply be destroyed by allowing them to fall into the ocean, but in the case of Starship, not before it’s made at least one orbit of the Earth. Starship will land in the Northern Pacific Ocean, while the SHB will attempt a “soft-landing” (meaning a vertical landing with engines on) into the Gulf of Mexico, yet another example of squeezing every drop of learning possible from everything they do.

Incidentally, the decision by NASA to select Starship for lunar landings later this decade (see A Thousand Moons) – a decision challenged by Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin – has been confirmed by the GAO (Government Accountability Office) after a review of several months. It’s not a surprise. Starship may only be partway through its testing process, let alone having a lunar-capable vehicle developed, but it’s still far ahead of Blue Origin and company, who still have only draft plans.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 9, 2021 at 12:33 pm

No Chips, no motion

A couple of weeks ago in The Veteran’s post on Taiwan, I included a graph showing the degree to which the world relies on Taiwan for silicon chips.

I also made the point that the world would likely not even be able to feed itself if there was a major, lengthy disruption to the production of silicon chips, given the degree to which tractors and other farm equipment depend on them to work nowadays.

Here’s the latest evidence, from The Truth About Cars:

Have you heard the one about the dead cars? No, not the ones we find in junkyards, but the ones that haven’t had life yet, thanks to the chip shortage.

These so-called “dead” cars are vehicles that have rolled off the assembly line, otherwise ready for sale, sitting in fields or on lots near the factories that produced them, just waiting for chips.

… that number is set to grow, as GM announced that plants in Indiana, Michigan, and Mexico that produce the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra will halt next week, thanks to, you guessed it, the chip shortage.

GM had so far avoided chip-related shutdowns by skipping some features, and by … building some trucks and adding the chips in later

Written by Tom Hunter

July 24, 2021 at 11:55 am

Well, this is depressing

No need for this level of complexity

Specifically the news that the race is on to build killer robot armies.

They won’t look anything like James Cameron’s famous images from his dystopian hell of The Terminator movies.

(By the way, watch only the first two of the series. After the 1991 sequel they’re totally derivative crap designed only to pull money from your wallet, a warning from friends that I had already guessed at as I avoided them.)

Blonde and here to kill you.

Still less is it going to look like the Cylons in Battlestar Gallactica (BSG) such as “Six”, more’s the pity.

No, as is often the way of reality vs fantasy they’ll look a lot more mundane, probably not too different to the sort of drones you can buy off-the shelf nowadays.

And that’s what really frightening about them. Unlike nuclear weapons it doesn’t take a lot of infrastructure or resources to build large numbers of these things.

Also, don’t imagine that an “AI killer robot” is going to have some sort of human-level intelligence, or need to.

That’s not what Artificial Intelligence is really about, despite decades of SF stories like BSG.

The “AI” in this case will amount to little more than the ability to do the following:

  • Recognise a human target, which could be just any human or perhaps using facial or body recognition (or your cellphone)
  • Control flight and/or other movements towards the target.
  • Trigger a lethal munition to kill the target. Lethal meaning something as small as a single bullet.

It should be noted that all these capabilities are here now.

The temptation to open Pandora’s Box is irresistible. In early March, the U.S. National Security Commission (NSC) on Artificial Intelligence completed its two-year inquiry, publishing its findings in a dense 750-page report. Its members unanimously concluded that the United States has a “moral imperative” to pursue the use of lethal autonomous weapons, a.k.a. “killer robots.” Otherwise, we risk bringing a rusty knife to a superhuman gunfight.

Citing the threat of China or Russia leading the global artificial intelligence (AI) arms race, the commission’s chairman, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, urged President Biden to reject a proposed international ban on AI-controlled weapons. Schmidt rightly suspects our major rivals won’t abide by such a treaty, warning U.S. leaders, “This is the tough reality we must face.”

If other superpowers are going to unleash demonic drone swarms on the world, the logic goes, the United States should be the first to open the gates of Hell.

Of course we already have things like the General Atomic Predator drones (“General Atomic”, how 1950’s is that?) and others which have been launching missiles at people for over a decade now. But they have humans in the decision loop and they’re still big and relatively expensive, although much cheaper than a human-piloted fighter bomber.

The attack drones currently on the market are plenty dangerous as is. A good example is the KARGU Loitering Munitions System, currently deployed by Turkish forces. This lightweight quadcopter “can be effectively used against static or moving targets through its … real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms.”

KARGU’s mode of attack is full-on kamikaze. It hovers high in the air as the operator searches for victims. When one is located, the drone dive-bombs its target and explodes. If the concussion doesn’t kill them, the shrapnel will. Just imagine what a thousand could do.

That last is the future. What we’re talking about here is a swarm of such machines and again – not like SF – these don’t need any centrally organised intelligence, human or AI, to operate. For twenty years now computer simulations have mimicked the swarming movements of schools of fish and flocks of birds with just three rules.

Once you get into such swarms we’re no longer talking about just picking off a few selected targets:


To raise awareness of this imminent threat, the Future of Life Institute produced the alarming, if poorly acted film Slaughterbots. The finale shows dissident college students having their brains blown out by bird-sized quadcopters.

In a 2018 study conducted for the US Air Force, drone specialist Zachary Kallenborn correctly argued that lethal drone swarms should be declared weapons of mass destruction.

Cheap weapons of mass destruction, too.

Even without that miserable conclusion from the USNSC I would have found it hard to believe that various nations could be held back from pursuing development of these things.

In the future how tempted would some future POTUS be by the idea that the entire North Korean nuclear team, military and scientists, could be taken out in one hit by such a swarm, leaving nobody to launch a nuclear counter-strike? Or imagine an Israeli leader looking at the Iranian nuclear group? And that’s in democratic nations. What brakes might there be on the likes of Xi Jinping, Putin and Erdogan?

Of course every weapon system has been countered sooner or later. In this case it may be that in future we’ll each be guarded by a small swarm of counter-drones, starting with the wealthy members of society like Eric Schmidt:

In 2019, PAX published a list of the global corporations most likely to develop lethal autonomous weapon systems. Among the U.S. companies ranked as “high risk” are Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle, as well as Intel, Palantir, Neurala, Corenova, and Heron Systems. It’s worth noting that the top members of the National Security Commission on AI—all of whom support using these murder machines—include chiefs from Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 15, 2021 at 8:13 am