Category Archives: Poetry

1953 Machina Speculatrix: The First Swarm Drone?

A talk I was watching recently suggested researchers finally in 2019 had cracked how robots could efficiently act like a swarm. Their solution? Movement based entirely on a light sensor.

That sounded familiar to me so I went back to one of my old presentations on IoT/AI security and found a slide showing the same discovery claim from 1953. Way back then people used fancier terms than just swarm.

W. Grey Walter built jelly-fish-like robots that were reactive to their surroundings: light sensor, touch sensor, propulsion motor, steering motor, and a two vacuum tube analog computer. He called their exploration behavior Machina Speculatrix and the individual robots were named Elmer or Elsie (ELectro MEchanical Robots, Light Sensitive)

The rules for swarm robots back then were as simple as they will be today, as one should expect from swarms:

If light moderate (safe)
Then move toward
If light bright (unsafe)
Then move away
If battery low (hungry)
Then return for charge

When Jesters Were Messengers of War


The “official website for BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and BBC World Histories Magazine” presents some graphic details for Medieval messaging protocols:

…jesters were often required to go to the battlefield with their masters to carry messages between the leaders of warring armies, demanding that a city surrender to a besieging army or delivering terms for the release of hostages. Unfortunately for the jesters, the enemy did sometimes ‘kill the messenger’ as an act of defiance (especially if they regarded the terms being offered as an insult) and some used a catapult or trebuchet to hurl the unfortunate messenger (or his severed head) back into his own camp as a graphic illustration of what they thought of the message.

The story ends with this “grave warning” from a certain jester’s final resting place:

If chance has brought thee here, or curious eyes
To see the spot where this poor jester lies
A thoughtless jester even in his death
Uttering his jibes beyond his latest breath.

US Army Considers Grey Hats for PSYOP Warriors

Leaflets have been so basic, so very black beret, that something higher up on the hat color chart seems to be coming to the military. How better to attract talent into a modernizing Psychological Operations (PSYOP) group than a grey hat?

Nothing is decided yet, I mean there’s still a chance someone could influence the decisions, but rumors have it that psychological warfare troops will be represented by wearing a beret in color of white noise:

The idea is essentially still being floated at this point, but it could be a recruiting boon for the PSYOP career field, which is tasked with influencing the emotions and behaviors of people through products like leaflets, loudspeakers and, increasingly, social media.

“In a move to more closely link Army Special Operations Forces, the PSYOP Proponent at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School is exploring the idea of a distinctive uniform item, like a grey beret, to those Soldiers who graduate the Psychological Operations Qualification Course,” Lt. Col. Loren Bymer, a USASOC spokesman, said in an emailed statement to Army Times.

Still seems a little fuzzy on the details, yet reporters also dropped some useful knowledge bombs in their story:

1) The new Army Special Operations Command strategy released just a month ago states everyone always will be trained in cyber warfare and weaponizing information

LOE 2 Readiness, OBJ 2.2 Preparation: Reality in readiness will be achieved using cyber and information warfare in all aspects of training.

2) Weaponizing information means returning to the influence operations in World War II, let alone World War I…I mean adapting to the modern cloud platform (Cambridge Analytica) war

“We need to move beyond our 20th century approach to messaging and start looking at influence as an integral aspect of modern irregular warfare,” Andrew Knaggs, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, said at a defense industry symposium in February. Army Special Operations Command appears to take seriously the role that influencing plays in great power competition.

Speaking of cloudy information and influence, an Army site describes how the Air Force in 2008 setup a data analysis function and referred to them as Grey Berets, or Special Operations Weather Team (SWOT):

As some of the most highly trained military personnel, the “grey beret” are a force to be reckoned with. Until SOWT gives the “all-clear” the mission doesn’t move forward.

The Air Force even offers hi-res photos of a grey beret as proof they are real.

Kessler AFB: “Team members collect atmospheric data, assist mission planning, generate accurate and mission-tailored target and route forecasts in support of global special operations, conduct special weather reconnaissance and train foreign national forces.” Click for original.

Meanwhile over at the Navy and Marines there’s much discussion about vulnerability to broad-based information attacks across their entire supply chain.

This might be a good time to remember the day of October 12, 1961 (only nine months after taking office as the President), when JFK visited Fort Bragg’s Special Warfare Center.

While Brigadier General (BG) William P. Yarborough, commander of the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center, waited at the pond, the presidential caravan drove down roads flanked on both sides by saluting SF soldiers, standing proudly in fatigues and wearing green berets.

“Late Thursday morning, 12 October 1961, BG Yarborough welcomed the 35th President, Secretary McNamara, GEN Decker, and the distinguished guests at the reviewing stand.”

General Yarborough very strategically wore the green beret as he greeted JFK and they spoke of Special Forces wanting them a long time (arguably since 1953 when ex-OSS Major Brucker started the idea).

A few days after the visit in October 1961 JFK famously wrote poetically to the General:

The challenge of this old but new form of operations is a real one…I am sure the Green Beret will be a mark of distinction in the trying times ahead.

Just one month later, 58 years ago (November 1961) the green beret became official headgear of the Special Forces, which earlier that year started being deployed into Vietnam. Finally on April 11, 1962 JFK issued a White House Memorandum to the US Army:

The Green Beret is again becoming a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.

What will the grey hat symbolize and what will become its history?


Update May 2020: Perspective from USSOCOM on SOF and US Strategy.

“During his most recent trip to Afghanistan, Clarke said, he found that commanders now spend 60 percent of their time working in the information space. Commanders think about how to use the information space to influence the Taliban’s thought processes and how to influence the Afghan.”

Searching in the Wild for What is Real

This new NY Books essay reads to me like prose and raises some important points about the desire to escape, and believing reality exists in places that we are not:

…when I look back at the series of wilderness travel articles I wrote for The New York Times a decade ago, what jumps out at me is the almost monomaniacal obsession with enacting Denevan’s myth by finding unpopulated places. Camped out in the Australian outback, I boasted that it was “the farthest I’d ever been from other human beings.” Along the “pristine void” of a remote river in the Yukon, I climbed ridges and scanned the horizon: “It was intoxicating,” I wrote, “to pick a point in the distance and wonder: Has any human ever stood there?”

Rereading those and other articles, I now began to reluctantly consider the possibility that my infatuation with the wilderness was, at its core, a poorly cloaked exercise in colonial nostalgia—the urbane Northern equivalent of dressing up as Stonewall Jackson at Civil War reenactments because of an ostensible interest in antique rifles.

As a historian I’d say he’s engaging in a poorly cloaked exercise is escapism, more like going to Disneyland than trying to reenact real events from the past (whether it be the white supremacist policies of Britain or America).

Just some food for thought after reading the ridiculously high percentage of fraud in today’s “wilderness” of software service providers.

Encoded Songs of General “Harriet” Tubman

Today is the day, that new Civil War movie I recently wrote about is released in theaters, documenting the life of American hero and abolitionist General “Harriet” Tubman. It’s long overdue, considering how important and well known her story should be for every American.

This “be free or die” movie is a hugely historic event in America and definitely should not be missed.

The movie delay isn’t alone. Recently I also wrote about the slow pace to restoring dignity to the $20 bill, replacing the disgraced face of genocide and slavery (President Jackson) with hers. It seems a bit odd that anyone would balk at removing Jackson’s tyrannical face, given how a heroic Tubman design stands ready to liberate the currency.

Consider how the U.S. treated Iraq, for example, where not even a year passed before new currency was rushed out to remove a tyrant’s face.

But less than six months after the war was declared over, Iraqis queued outside exchange points across the country yesterday to swap Saddam’s smiling face on the old banknotes for bills bearing images of ancient Babylonian rulers and historic monuments. “We’re liberating the currency,” said Ali Hussein, the manager at Wahda Bank in central Baghdad, one of 250 branches in the city where Iraqis can exchange old notes dinar-for-dinar with the new. “We’re urging people to change their money as fast as possible so that we can get rid of his ugly face for good.”

Even more odd is how the movie-industry has been unwilling to honor or depict the amazing story of Tubman in theaters, despite her being one of the most famous American heroes in history.

So that’s why it’s so significant, as today marks the first feature-length movie about Tubman ever seen in theaters, over 100 years after 1913 when she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

One of the key elements I am looking forward to is how General Tubman made extensive use of encoded songs in winning the war.

In the past I’ve written about Kumbaya and Calypso for this topic of encoding, and hope to see the movie driving discussion of underground railroad secret codes and also her security poetry.

  • Tubman used “Wade in the Water” to tell slaves to get into the water to avoid being seen and make it through. This is an example of a map song, where directions are coded into the lyrics.
  • Steal Away communicates that the person singing it is planning to escape.
  • If slaves heard Sweet Chariot they would know to be ready to escape, a band of angels are coming to take them to freedom.
  • Follow the Drinking Gourd suggests escaping in the spring as the days get longer.
  • Unnamed song sung by Harriet Tubman when approaching her group after taking a detour to get food for the day. This song lets them know it is safe to approach her.
  • Another unnamed song sang in the same situation but letting them know it is not safe to come out, there is danger in the way.

‘Poem to Get Rid of Fear’

Fear Poem, or I Give You Back

by Joy Harjo, the current poet laureate of the U.S.

“Because of the fear monster infecting this country, I have been asked for this poem, this song. Feel free to use it, record it, and share. Please give credit. This poem came when I absolutely needed it. I was young and nearly destroyed by fear. I almost didn’t make it to twenty-three. This poem was given to me to share.” — Joy Harjo

I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my children.
You are not my blood anymore.
I give you back to the soldiers
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.
I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.
I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you
I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.
to be loved, to be loved, fear.
Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

USAF StormBreaker Smart Bomb

GPS has been known unreliable for a very long time. Ten years ago I wrote about it here, and more recently participated in tests that successfully fooled Tesla navigation systems such that it made a car drive erratically and abruptly exit a highway.

Trouble in navigation probably is why the USAF is announcing new technology on bombs that optimistically gets described as the kind of cutting-edge millimeter waves and lasers you might find on driver-less-cars.

While the GBU-39 used Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites as the guidance method, the StormBreaker when operational will use GPS plus a millimeter wave radar and a semi-active laser as a seeker package.

Stormbreaker bomb (arguably a drone) after launch from USAF jet. Claimed by Raytheon to maintain target accuracy even during inclement weather or GPS failures

I’ll wager the backstory here is that GPS bombs were being not-so-smart after all (mass civilian casualties). Terms like “smart” and “seeker” only go so far when the things dropped from a plane, or flying themselves, blow up the wrong people.

Who can forget the 1950s version of pin point accuracy on bombs intended to destroy North Korea that killed USAF crews instead? And let’s not forget Igloo White bombing in the 1970s that not only missed targets but also cooked the books to be considered a success.

More to the point (pun not intended), Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2017 launched investigations and lodged formal complaints about the GBU-39

“They told us it was a mistake by the coalition, and after the war we will talk about it,” Hasan said of Iraqi officials whom he contacted for help. “Why would they make a mistake like this? They have all the technology. This is not a small mistake.”

Another east Mosul resident, Jasim Mohammed Ali, said his son and six grandsons were killed by what he believes was a coalition airstrike that destroyed his home on Nov. 17.

The coalition is still investigating the strike based on a complaint by Human Rights Watch, which — along with other experts The Times consulted — identified munition parts in the wreckage of Ali’s house as a GBU-39 small-diameter bomb, a guided munition used by coalition forces.

So the good news might be that bombs are going to be far more accurate and kill the right targets.

“An increase of 82 percent in child casualties compared with the previous four years” has been linked in Afghanistan to aerial attacks and remnant explosives.

I haven’t found yet that kind of reference in the USAF press release on why they felt the need to improve “smart” bomb targeting systems. It just seems like a logical jump from the HRW criticisms.

Also consider the USAF and other customers of US arms still have a lot of GBU-39 left to drop (as HRW reported again this year) so maybe they want to wait 30-40 years before declassifying real reasons as some rappers already have guessed.

The pilots said their bombs lit Baghdad like a Christmas tree
It was the Christian thing to do you see
they didn’t mention any casualties
no distinction between the real and the proxy
only football analogies

Apple Concedes in Right-to-Repair Fight

There are a lot of ways to tell this story about Apple allowing people to repair devices at a shop not owned and operated by Apple. It’s a wise move and here’s a personal anecdote why I would say so.

Nearly 25 years ago I worked as an authorized Apple repair engineer. I’d pore over videos sent to the independent repair shop I worked in. High-quality productions on CD from the manufacturer gave me x-ray vision, to see every step of decomposing and assembling Apple hardware.

In one hilarious day at work I was tossed a broken Apple product at noon by my manager and told to have it sorted out over lunch. Soon I had every screw and nut carefully removed down to the last one, parts laid out across the giant work space.

That means I did not just pull a part and replace using the “consumer-friendly” method of preset tabs and levers, common in today’s world. Instead I took apart, tested and rebuilt that device to be like new, given a carefully orchestrated training model from Apple themselves.

I said hilarious because when my manager returned from lunch he said “Damnit Davi, just pull a bad part and swap it. Do you have to understand everything? You could have joined us for lunch.”

Feed belly or mind? The choice for me was clear. He didn’t much care for the fact that I had just finished academic studies under Virgil’s Georgics (29 BCE) phrase “Rerum cognoscere causas” (verse 490 of Book 2 “to Know the Causes of Things”)

Sometimes I even put a personal touch on these repairs. One Apple laptop sent by the DoD was used in GPS development for strike fighters, so I made its icon for the system drive look like a tiny F-16 Falcon.

The generic Apple MacOS environment as it shipped

An appreciation for that extra effort meant a nice note from the US gov on formal stationary. Apple wanted computing to be “personal” and that is exactly what repair shops like ours were doing for customers.

Three years later I was managing a team of engineers who would desolder boards and update individual chips. As good and efficient as we were, however, everyone knew there was an impending slide into planned obsolescence economic models. Accountants might have asked us how many Zenith TV repair technicians exist, given Zenith itself disappeared. Remember these?

Zenith TV were meant to be kept for generations and repaired by local electronics experts, if not yourself

Profit models on the wall seemed to rotate towards shipping any malfunctioning products back to manufacturers, who would forward them to Chinese landfills for indefinite futures, instead of to engineers like me or my team who would gladly turn them around in a week.

Anyway it was 2010 when I owned an Apple iPhone. It died abruptly. Locked out of repairing it myself by the company policy, I took it to a desk in their billboard-like sensory-overload retail/fashion store.

An Apple employee looked at the phone and told me a secret sensor showed red, so no warranty would be honored. There had been no moisture I was aware of, yet Apple was telling me I couldn’t return my dead device because they believed that faulty device more than me?

Disgusted with this seemingly illegal approach to warranty issues, I quickly and easily disassembled that iPhone, replaced their faulty red sensor with a new one, and returned again. Apple confirmed (as a stupid formality) the new sensor wasn’t showing red, and gladly swapped the phone with a brand new one instead of repairing mine.

I wasn’t wrong, their inability to engineer honestly was…as they were forced to admit three years later:

…owners that were denied warranty repairs over internal moisture sensors that falsely registered water damage are a step closer to collecting their share…

Immediately after they swapped my defective phone I sold the new one and stopped using any Apple products, as I announced in my HOPE talk that year.

Good news, therefore, that today Apple finally has gone back to a mode of operating that honors the important consumer right-to-repair, as Vice reports:

After years of fighting independent repair, Apple is rolling out a program that will allow some independent companies to buy official parts, repair tools, and diagnostic services outside of the company’s limited “authorized” program. It’s a big win for the right to repair movement…

I’ve written about this on my blog for nearly 15 years already, so it’s encouraging to see progress even if it does come late.

RIP Senator Wellstone.

What the Bird Said Early in the Year

Recently I was fortunate to have a gate unlocked that led onto grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England for a stroll along the “Addison Walk” around a small island in the River Cherwell.

A paragraph in the 1820 topographical guide to Oxford gives some perspective on the walk’s namesake (page 85):

On the north side of the grounds is a long walk, still termed Addison’s walk, once the chosen retreat of that writer, when intent on solitary reflection. In its original state no spot could be better adapted to meditation, or more genial lo his temper.

Shield of C.S. Lewis’ 1938 poem
No monuments to Addison were found along this walk, although apparently the Spanish oaks famously lining both sides were planted by Addison himself.

As I exited the secluded leafy path and crossed a bridge I couldn’t help but notice an engraved shield of C. S. Lewis placed upon on an old stone wall.

Lewis seemingly wrote this poem to contrast his faith in eternity with his disappointments in a series of ephemeral life events. Despite the age and environment of the poetry, I believe it provides excellent food for thought in our modern era of cloud computing.

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you.
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.

It is said that in this poem Lewis was describing his feelings from taking walks along this same Oxford path I was on, where he engaged in deep philosophical/theological conversations with his “inklings” colleagues J.R.R. Tolkein and Hugo Dyson.

While some try to limit the poem’s relevance to Lewis’ own religious struggles (raised a Christian, after the death of his mother and in his teens he left the faith disappointed and rebellious, then returned later to his roots) his words seem much more broadly insightful.

If nothing else, we can recognize Lewis experienced many trust failures as he grew up, which tested his faith. This poem emphasizes how repeated failures need not be seen as terminal when belief matures to account for greater good. He found permanence by believing operations run on something beyond each instance itself.

Perhaps I should re-frame his poem in terms of a certain “open-source container-orchestration system for automating deployment, scaling and management”…and then we’ll talk about what the container said early in the deployment.

Eisenhower’s “proud confederation of mutual trust and respect”

On January 17, 1961 President Eisenhower gave a phenomenal speech about the future of technology, especially Internet authorization models. Consider his words in context of today’s social networks and data platform controls:

Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.

Video of the speech is available via C-SPAN

Many people reference this speech due to its stern warning against a congressional-military-industrial-complex diverting public funding to itself and away from education and healthcare.

People also tend to leave out the congressional role related to Eisenhower’s warning, probably because it was inferred and not explicit. Fortunately a professor of government explains how and why we still should include Congress in that speech:

When the president’s brother asked about the dropped reference to Congress, the president replied: “It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.”

Perhaps we can agree in hindsight that Eisenhower’s warnings were right. There is over-centralization in the American communications industry as well as a state of near-perpetual warfare. This means we should have also expected the “congressional-military-industrial-complex” to expand naturally into a “cyber” domain.

Of course, just like in 1961, we have more than one path forward. The tech industry should be moving itself away from power abuses and more towards something like Eisenhower’s prescient vision of globally decentralized “mutual trust” confederations.

Meanwhile, “For Nato, a serious cyberattack could trigger Article 5 of our founding treaty.”