Jon Webb's Blog

Friday, December 10, 2010

Harry Potter and Transport

Has anyone noticed how very many ways there are of getting from one place to another in the "Harry Potter" series? J. K. Rowling was obsessed with transport. Here is a partial list:

  1. Broomsticks.
  2. Hagrid's motorcycle.
  3. Flue powder.
  4. Apparition.
  5. Portkey.
  6. Knight bus.
  7. Thestral.
  8. Griffin.
  9. The death eaters travel through the air leaving smoke behind them.
  10. The Weasley's flying car.
  11. The toilets used to enter the Ministry of Magic.
  12. Sideways-moving elevator in the Ministry of Magic.
One or two ways of magic travel would have been enough. What is the reason for so many?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Tax cuts & Obama

I am as loyal a supporter of Barack Obama that you will find and I have been terribly disappointed by his decision to negotiate with the Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts. For me, this was the issue the 2008 elections were about, just as the 1998 election was won by George W. Bush on the basis of his "no new taxes" pledge.

Two things have made this situation more interesting, though. One is the article by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post ( arguing that by giving in on the tax cuts, Obama is getting more stimulus in the economy that he could have hoped to -- not just the tax cuts, but other benefits he will get in the negotiation, such as extended unemployment benefits, other tax cuts directed at the middle class, and so on. This is probably White House spin selling the idea to the left, but it does have a certain appeal.
But the thing that is truly fascinating about this moment is how fluid it is at this moment (6 December 2010). There are several different groups, any of which could derail the whole thing, but each of which has good reasons not to do so:
  1. Left-wing Democrats, who would like to see the tax cuts renewed only for people making less than $250K/year, and use the money from the newly increased taxes on people making more than that to extend unemployment benefits, and provide some stimulus in other ways.
  2. Right-wing Republicans, who are unalterably opposed to increasing debt (except when it involves a tax cut), who would like to renew all the tax cuts and do nothing else.
  3. President Obama, whose major promise from the 2008 election was not to renew the tax cuts for people making more than $250k/year, and who is smart enough politically to realize that this is a defining issue for his base.
  4. Republican leaders negotiating with Obama, who would like to roll this President on another issue, but who must also be aware that they can very easily end up looking like the President rolled them.
It is actually impossible to predict what is going to happen, on this major issue, which affects all of us.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Wikileaks and the "poisoned channel"

There is a technique in counter-intelligence called the "poisoned channel." It works like this. Your enemy has a communications channel -- they communicate with the public, or another party. You can counter this in various ways. One is to set up your own channel, pretending to be your enemy. People have no way to tell if your channel or that of your enemy is real. You can interfere with their messages, cause them to lose credibility, and so on. Another way is to take control or partial control of your enemy's channel. You can inject messages into it. Your messages can serve your own purposes, and your enemy and others will believe them.
In the case of Wikileaks, Pfc. Manning, when he downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from the intelligence web site, may well have been detected. When an intelligence service detects and intrusion like this, they may well decide to hang back and find out what's going on. He then sent the information to Wikileaks, which is apparently a loose coalition of people around the world, which gathered, edited, and posted his stolen information.
There are multiple ways that this information could have been posioned. Pfc. Manning may have been compromised. His transport of information to Wikileaks could have been interfered with. Wikileaks itself may include U.S. intelligence operatives. The Wikileaks servers may have been hacked and information inserted.
Note that the result of the Wikileaks affair has not been entirely to the discredit of the United States. First of all, there appears to be unanimity of Iran's neighbors that Iran is a threat and many of them think we should invade. This serves the purposes of U.S. foreign policy. Iran apparently believes it is thought of as a thread (they recently issued a statement assuring their neighbors that they are not) and this may affect their behavior. Even if one of the nations implicated as speaking against Iran know they were misquoted, they do themselves no good denying it -- and they believe the others think Iran should be invaded. It is a strangely fortunate outcome, don't you think?
A poisoned channel requires smart people, and one thing the Obama administration is is smart. Hillary Clinton is a smart woman. The State Department and U.S. intelligence services employ many smart people, who are normally quite good at keeping secrets. The "poisoned channel" is a well enough known technique that even I know about it.
Think about it.