Category Archives: History

Lessons from Guy Fawkes

Many years ago I rode through the English country-side with an Archaeologist (her house was filled with bones from the Mary Rose excavation) who pointed out the economic reasons for the hedge-rows, the meaning of every stained-glass window…and, as we passed the Holbeche House in Staffordshire, she told me the end of the Gunpowder Plot.

Even though I had spent some time in rural Devonshire (with people who said getting “pissed” on home-made hard cider and dancing half-naked with a burning barrel of hot tar on their back is one of the highlights of the year) I was not prepared for the reality of the Guy Fawkes story.

It was one thing to think about the Gunpowder Plot as just another excuse for lighting bonfires and having a party, but bearing witness to the house where the men who gave themselves up were shot, well, that was a different story entirely. The fact was a handful of men who wanted to end the opressive treatment of non-Protestants very nearly killed the King and all his successors. Not long after I couldn’t help but think it odd that the English celebrate a failed coup attempt essentially the same way that the US celebrates independence. Actually, maybe it would be more fitting to compare the Fawkes ritual to Burning Man, since Bonfire Night (supoosedly to celebrate a King’s survival) usually involves burning an effigy along with the fireworks.

Guy Fawkes

Anyway, the BBC has posted some interesting reports this year that make the obvious comparison to today’s fear of terrorism:

    “A plot to blow up the houses of parliament, with the monarch and politicians inside, has just failed. What can the government do to restore calm? Four hundred years ago the authorities in England faced exactly this question when they foiled a plot by disillusioned Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament.”

Many have suggested that Fawkes was tortured extensively and some say his shaky signature (Guido Fawkes) is sufficient proof. But the BBC quotes a historian from Cambridge who says “Victims often tell you what you want to hear, whereas the torturer – especially in this particular case – wants the facts. Torture isn’t the only or indeed the best way of getting at those facts. The authorities in 1605 knew that, and used other techniques to win secrets.”

End of the line for London’s Buses

I find it quite sad that the historic “Routemaster” red double-deckers are being put out to pasture, instead of updated and maintained as part of London’s heritage and gift to the world of transportation.

Something about the trust model of an open back entry space always intrigued me, as well as the fact that the driver was in a completely different role than the ticket-taker (similar to a train). I have known several people who spent their early years serving in either or both roles (rural routes often only employed a driver) and they shared many funny anecdotes about the security system used to keep passengers honest. In some sense the group of passengers themselves provided a baseline of behavior and could intervene if someone was out of line. I suspect it is the opposite today, with a driver relying on a surveillance system and virtual law enforcement techniques to protect the passengers from themselves.

There are some legitimate issue with the 50-year old design, which probably could have been improved. Similar to historic buildings that are updated and retrofitted to modern standards, at least some of these buses deserve to continue their services rather than be deprecated and wholly replaced by a series of economically driven short-term visions of the future. Fortunately, it appears a group is working on just that kind of mission, which they call the Heritage route.

Incidentally, London is scheduled to host an international transport security conference in central London, November 13-15, 2005. I wonder if anyone will cover the issue of domestic and secure fuel sources? With all the greasy fish-and-chip shops, one would think England’s public fuel supply-chain could be dramatically improved.

Weapons and judging intent

I’ve been pondering this case for a while. Does it seem odd to anyone else that a poison gas ingredients merchant would claim to not be aware of the intent of the Iraqi regime?

The court found him guilty of aiding war crimes, as “his deliveries facilitated the attacks”.

“He cannot counter with the argument that this would have happened even without his contribution,” the presiding judge said.

However, the judges ruled that van Anraat was not aware of the genocidal intentions of the Iraqi regime when he sold the ingredients for poison gas.

I could see him saying he would not expect it to be used on a particular enemy…but is that not the exact problem with arms sales? Consider this recent statement in the VOA by the US State Department, for example:

“Indonesia has made significant progress in advancing its democratic institutions and practices in a relatively short time.” As a result, the department has decided to waive conditions placed on the sale of lethal military equipment to Indonesia and on U.S. financing of Indonesian military purchases.

Needless to say, some folks were critical of the announcement and wondered how the US can influence, or even know, the intentions of the buyers. Also from the VOA:

A leading U.S. human rights group concerned with Indonesian issues criticized the wavier late Tuesday. Karen Orenstein is the national coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network. “The East Timor and Indonesia Action condemns in the strongest term possible the issuance of this national security wavier. This is just a clear abuse of executive power. You can’t press for military reform and human rights and accountability when you have no leverage to do so. We’ve just given away the store,” he said.

So does the US have preventive or detective measures in place to prevent abuse in Indonesia? Are they working towards preventing this kind of abuse elsewhere? Hindsight is 20-20, as they say, but what about preventing the Anraat of today? I mean what kind of message does the US give the world when they are the only country in the world to vote no on the UN measure against illegal arms sales?

Correspondence Patterns

I like the conclusions in this study:

“Darwin and Einstein correspondence patterns: These scientists prioritized their replies to letters in the same way that people rate their e-mails today.”

Not only does it vindicate my habit of attending to some communication instantly, while letting other things wait for eons, but it also raises interesting implications for confidentiality and data retention.

Death by Disney

I have issues with Disney for a whole number of reasons. Perhaps someday I will create a page to explain. I think it all started with a book I read as a kid about the CIA’s use of Scrooge McDuck and Huey, Louie, etc. in Latin America propaganda. Not that I disagreed with the use of comic-books, but if you read the actual comics they distributed you would know what I mean.

Bruce Schneier writes about the DMCA review by the US Congress today.

Posts on his blog seem more and more factual and less opinionated, perhaps due to time or just the general issue of dealing with the firestorm that can follow from giving any perspective. On the other hand, his links to “good information” all point to groups who oppose some aspect of the DMCA. Anyway, I read through the links that Bruce provided and this section stood out to me:

    (3) As used in this subsection-

    (A) to “circumvent a technological measure”? means to descramble a scrambled work, to decrypt an encrypted work, or otherwise to avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or impair a technological measure, without the authority of the copyright owner; and

    (B) a technological measure “effectively controls access to a work”? if the measure, in the ordinary course of its operation, requires the application of information, or a process or a treatment, with the authority of the copyright owner, to gain access to the work.

    17 U.S.C. 1201(a)(3).

I’ll try the trackback system again instead of posting directly.

ATM Fraud and Bank Security

The Register has a fascinating report on how British Banks failed to deal with the fact that phantom withdrawls from ATMs were a real problem, until a man of integrity discovered it and (arguably) saved the system:

“This is the story of how the UK banking system could have collapsed in the early 1990s, but for the forbearance of a junior barrister who also happened to be an expert in computer law – and who discovered that at that time the computing department of one of the banks issuing ATM cards had “gone rogue”, cracking PINs and taking money from customers’ accounts with abandon.”

I posted it on Bruce’s blog today as well:

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/10/us_regulators_r.html#c21979

Fuel Prices and Military Diesel

It’s not exactly clear why diesel has jumped higher than other fuel prices, but one thing is for sure: Diesel’s original intention was to create an engine that did not require dependence on foreign petroleum sources, or the corporations that controlled them.

Many people point to several key economic reasons for the rise in prices this season:

1) Diesel prices are impacted by the demand for heating fuels (distillates) so it has a seasonal fluctuation.

2) About 95% of production in the Gulf region is still not back on the market. This is probably related to the fact that over half of the Gulf platforms and a good number of drilling rigs aren’t running yet, not to mention 10 or so refineries are closed in LA and TX. Altogether this is apparently an impact of about 10% of total US production.

3) Speculators aren’t stupid and they find ways to increase demand in order to contribute to the rise in prices and get better returns on their investment.

That’s all fine and dandy on some level, but it reminds me of the letter from Shuster to the Energy Secretary back in 2000 when prices were doing something similar:

http://www.house.gov/transportation/press/press2000/presss138.htm

“We have received numerous reports regarding the alarming spike in diesel fuel prices, the most dramatic of which has New England customers paying 40 cents more per gallon than they paid just one week ago. By any account, diesel fuel prices appear to be rising out of control.”

No Hurricane to blame back then. Quite the opposite, a Congressman wrote the US Attorney General because “we believe to be price gouging and manipulating of consumers”.

http://www.house.gov/larson/pr_000210.htm

Again, that corresponds to Diesel’s own description and prediction of petroleum-based engery corporation behavior back in the 1800s — the very reason his engines will run on oil or fats from just about any source including fish, meat, vegetables, etc..

Moreover, as we know today, the market was in fact being manipulated in 2000 and consumers were being, please pardon my french, screwed by Enron:

http://www.house.gov/inslee/issues/energy/enron_tapes.html

“U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee announced this evening that he will offer an amendment next week to energy legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that will help provide refunds to consumers and the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) for high rates resulting from energy market manipulation”.

One last thing to consider is that the US military relies heavily on petroleum diesel production and has done a great deal to enhance/modify diesel engines for everything from ships to motorcycles (not to mention advances in trend analysis and condition based maintenance), but for some odd reason they haven’t done much to change the source of the fuel to something domestically and more sustainably produced (like B20 or even B5, which is working quite well in Europe).