The revolution will be streamed

Also: smart people doing dumb things, and listen to your spinach

I attended a talk given by one of my company’s board members a few years ago. Board members are usually influential decision makers from adjacent companies that can bring relevant vision to a company, but are not a direct competitor. I can’t remember the name of this person, but at one point he said that one of his biggest motivators is the fact that “you have to deal with the world as it is, not how you want it to be.”

I think about that lot because it is brilliant, but it’s not brilliant because of what it says. It’s brilliant because of what it leaves unsaid. Honestly, it sounds kind of defeatist at face value. It can be read as: “you can’t do that because the world is not that way".

My takeaway was “if you don’t like the world, change it, then re-engage it on those terms.” That’s very motivating to me for a few reasons. First, it leaves the door open for virtually any kind of change because it implies that if the world were to change, you could do the thing you want to do. Second, it encourages long-term thinking which is in critically short supply these days.

Tactical thinking is planning three steps ahead of you. Strategic thinking is envisioning 100 steps ahead. But you can’t realize your strategy without developing shorter-term tactics to get there. Changing anything meaningful about the world is a strategy that takes time and resources, but it can be done.

That one little sentence packs a wallop, whether he meant it that way or not. I suspect he did.

Dismantling government internet control in improbable ways

We enjoy a fairly robust and unfettered internet in North America. It’s quite a bit more centralized than I like; I don’t like the fact that a (very) few companies have essentially centralized the Internet and therefore weakened its robustness, but by and large it is corporate interests, not government, that is degrading our internet here. Overseas, or “Rest of World” as we like to think of anything outside our little bubble, governments are the enemy of a decentralized internet.

The media eschews complexity, so it generally dumbs down internet control to phrases like “internet kill-switch” to illustrate the fact that the internet can be shut down in small geographies. That’s true, but it’s much harder to take down the internet than this type of journalism would have us to believe. The internet was designed to route around damage so simply taking out a router or two is usually not enough to take down the internet. It gets even more complicated when a government tries to surgically remove internet for citizens, but maintain it for themselves.

The government of Sudan learned this the hard way when it attempted to control the citizen protests that removed a generational dictatorship by disabling the internet. There’s a new government in Sudan now, so you can see how that worked out for the despots. The great part about this story is that the story involves a single person who sued their cellular provider for failing to provide internet access as promised in their service agreement. Abdelazim Hassan is a lawyer in Sudan who brought back the internet without going toe-to-toe with the government at all.

It’s hard to overstate the incongruity — the absurdity, even — of arguing the finer points of contract law in the wake of a civilian massacre, before a judge who answers to an unaccountable military regime. And yet, there’s nowhere but local courts to turn to when the government takes away the internet. There’s no international treaty protecting internet access, no global legal body that sanctions a rogue government or cellular provider. There’s just a guy like Hassan and his rather niggling complaint that someone didn’t live up to their end of a deal. 

And improbably, it worked. The court ordered Zain to give him back his internet, and, on June 23, it did. But Hassan was just one plaintiff, suing on behalf of only himself, so the court and the cell phone company took a narrow course of action: Ignoring the millions of other customers Zain served, the court switched mobile internet back on … for him

It’s worth mentioning that Rest of World has excellent journalism about parts of the world we never talk about here in North America.

The internet is populated with vegetables

I’ve long suspected that many of the people I have been interacting with for years on the internet seem too dumb to be human and may, in fact, be hyper intelligent vegetables. There is mounting evidence that I am correct, and I may have been corresponding with spinach plants this entire time.

It may sound like something out of a futuristic science fiction film, but scientists have managed to engineer spinach plants which are capable of sending emails.

Through nanotechnology, engineers at MIT in the US have transformed spinach into sensors capable of detecting explosive materials. These plants are then able to wirelessly relay this information back to the scientists.

Yup. That’s happening in the world.

The email angle is funny, but the basis of using plants to detect environmental changes is pretty sound. Because they are much more in tune with the earth and weather patterns than us car and house-bound humans, plants are pretty good at alerting us to changes before we can notice them. The problem, of course, is that they’re plants and communicate about as poorly as you’d expect. So, while email may not be the best thing to use as a message medium, more sophisticated notification systems are probably a really Good Thing (tm) to build.

Smart not smart

Internet security is hard and any site can eventually be beaten if enough bad guys focus enough resources on it. This is because attackers only have to win once, whereas defenders have to win every time. Much like a casino will always win in the long term, sufficiently persistent bad guys will eventually win as well. But the infosec community isn’t utterly hapless.

The infosec sector has a good set of principles we follow when we design systems to limit the damage of a data breach. One of the oldest and easiest to implement rules is that we never store passwords in plain text that is readable. Competent developers will always hash passwords which means that if a bad guy gets the password list, they won’t be able to tell what the passwords are in “plain text”.

Well, guess who didn’t get the memo? The group of people who think they are so smart that they need a group to tell everyone how smart they are totally screwed this up. The British Mensa association was hacked recently and every member’s password was compromised because, you guess it, they were being stored unhashed and in plain text.

If only they had hired someone smart like them.

I have to give Graham Cluley props for this opening paragraph:

The website of Mensa – the club for people who have scored highly in an IQ test but who feel their social lives would be improved by hanging out with other people who chose to join a club after scoring highly in an IQ test – is said to have suffered a cyber attack.

And just to add the final touch on this story:

The discovery of an attack was swiftly followed by two of British Mensa’s board members quitting, citing concerns that the organisation is not properly protecting members’ data.

Remember, drama addicts who clutch their pearls and faint are powerless. It is much easier to effect change from within and giving up your seat at the table removes all that power. But Mensa people know that, right?