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Wed, 27 Jul 2016

Another choice quote from Herb York’s Race to Oblivion:

Herman Kahn in his book On Thermonuclear War, written in 1959 when the rate of breakthroughs seemed to be still rising, ma[de] a whole set of extrapolations which turned out to be false. He predicted then that by 1969 we would probably have “cheap simple [nuclear] bombs,’ “cheap simple missiles,” controlled thermonuclear power, “Californium bullets” (by which he meant A-bombs very much smaller than any we now have), and a superior substitute for radar. He said we would be able to put payloads in orbit for only ten dollars a pound. He predicted that by 1973 we would be working on supersonic bombers and supersonic fighters two generations beyond the B-70 and the F-108 and that there would be manned offensive satellites and manned defensive satellites in orbit. Every one of these errors in prediction arose out of the twin false assumptions that the immediate past was typical and that the technological future could be predicted by simple extrapolation. These errors are also illustrative of what happens when analysts use sophisticated methods but poor or nonsensical inputs: the final result cannot be better than the inputs no matter how fancily they may be processed.

(From Chapter 8, “The McNamara Era”, page 158.)

This is a particular military example of what I like to call the ‘Flying Car Problem’, which is the tendency for predictions of the future to massively overestimate gains in one area while completely ignoring others, due to a reliance on flawed straight-line approximations of technological progress. The result is a feeling of vague disappointment when those predictions don’t come to pass: “it’s 2016 and I have an iPhone… but where’s my flying car?”

It’s worth noting that York was writing in 1970, about predictions made only 11 years prior and which were even by that time clearly ridiculous (and may have been ridiculous when they were written, though I’ll give Kahn the benefit of the doubt); from our vantage point here in 2016 we can see even more clearly that York was correct.

The difference between the mid/late 50s, when Kahn was writing, and the late 60s, when York was writing the first edition of Race to Oblivion, represents the second inflection point on a sigmoid-shaped curve, where the rate of change of technology (in this case, nuclear technology), suddenly changed back from an exponential to a much slower linear regime. The late 50s were in the thick of the exponential phase, and nobody knew at the time exactly how long it would continue.

I don’t think it’s a terrible stretch to say that the 50s and perhaps early 60s were analogous, in terms of nuclear and space technology, to the 80s and early 90s with personal computers. And Kahn’s predictions of pocket nukes and $10/lb orbital delivery are analogous to a host of breathless (but perhaps somewhat less apocalyptic) predictions of the PC revolution toppling nation-states and bringing about a new technocratic/individualist world order. As someone who lived through the PC and Internet revolutions but was born too late for the excitement of the Jet Age, these comparisons help put the “too cheap to meter” predictions of the past in perspective. They were wrong, sure, but they weren’t any more wrong than the turn-of-the-21st-century Internet utopians. It’s very, very hard to judge when that second inflection point — the one that brings you out of the exponential and back into the slow, linear curve of technological development — when you are in the midst of exponential year-over-year change. It’s only obvious after the fact.

And like York in 1970, we are now realizing that the future probably isn’t going to be quite as radically different as we thought it was going to be, even though there’s still a lot of technical work to be done. It’s just that the low-hanging fruit has mostly been picked; what’s left is the slow, expensive grind of incremental engineering, which generally doesn’t lead to what we perceive as sweeping social or lifestyle changes. (Though I’d argue that in fact it does result in just as much progress; it just doesn’t feel the same.)

At some point in the future I’ll probably devote a separate post to it, but Bruce Schneier’s new article Power in the Age of the Feudal Internet deals with this at length, as it applies to the Internet and networked society. As we come, ‘unevenly distributed’, over the peak at the top of the exponential-growth phase, many predictions of what the future will look like will have to be reevaluated.

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I noticed that on several Dell laptops that I’ve upgraded to Debian 8 ‘Jessie’ with the XFCE desktop environment, that the keyboard mute button had stopped working. Or rather, the button mutes the audio just fine, but pressing it again doesn’t actually unmute again. To get audio back, you have to manually invoke alsamixer and unmute from there.

After more searching than it seemed this problem ought to require, I found this StackExchange answer, which references a post on Rony Lutsky’s blog which gave me the solution.

It turns out that the fix is remarkably simple:

sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-pulseaudio

You can then, if you want, verify that it worked by running xfconf-query -lc xfce4-mixer before and after installing gstreamer0.10, but this isn’t a key part of the process.

From what I can tell, the issue is a missing dependency in one of the XFCE audio packages, but I’m damned if I know which one exactly.

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Tue, 26 Jul 2016

Here’s an interesting bit of Space Race trivia that I’d never heard before, from Herbert F. York’s book “Race to Oblivion” (mentioned previously):

The third pre-Sputnik satellite program was bootlegged by the Army. The Von Braun group had earlier submitted a proposal for a rocket for launching the IGY satellite to the committee duly charged with launcher selection. In what I understand to have been a fair competition, the winner was the Navy’s Vanguard proposal. However, the Medaris-Von Braun group was not one to be stopped by a mere decision of higher authority, and they went ahead and designed a new satellite launcher which they named the Jupiter C. […]

This Jupiter C was not really a Jupiter; rather, it was a Redstone plus upper stages consisting of clusters of small solid rockets. Its ostensible purpose was testing nose-cone materials for Jupiter, but the actual velocity attained (and not accidentally) was more nearly that of an Atlas, the development of which was the sole responsibility of the Air Force. Even on its very first launch, it carried an additional dummy stage, “filled with sand instead of power,” which if properly filled and fired could have been used to send it into orbit well in advance of Sputnik and the IGY.

I’d never heard this before, and it was surprising to learn that Von Braun and Co. could have, if they had been allowed to go full-tilt, beaten the Soviet Sputnik program. It is interesting to imagine what the ensuing decades would have been like had that occurred, and whether the US space program would have received the degree of investments that it did as a result of being perceived as behind the Soviets.

York references a book called “Countdown for Decision” by John B. Medaris, which is not available online — a used copy is now on its way to me, however. Seems like an interesting read.

Also, I think that perhaps York means “bootstrapped” rather than “bootlegged” in the first quoted sentence. Hard to tell, though, and I don’t imagine that the former term was in anything like the common usage (dictated by its usage in the IT field) it is in today, when the book was written in the 70s.

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Mon, 25 Jul 2016

As a result of an interesting link on Hacker News, specifically to a post on Alex Wellerstein’s blog “Nuclear Secrecy” called “A brief history of the nuclear triad” — which is a good read and thoroughly recommended — I discovered the text of Herb York’s 1978 autobiography ‘Race to Oblivion: A Participant’s View of the Arms Race’ online as HTML. I can only hope that the online text is legal, because the book is otherwise unavailable except as used copies, and it is certainly still relevant.

The book seems to be typically only read or studied by those in classes dealing with arms control or strategic policy, which is a bit unfortunate as there’s quite a few gems in there, completely aside from the book’s stated purpose.

In particular, the author mentions something (in chapter 5, marked as page 91) about the defense budget that anyone who has worked in the Federal sphere can probably relate to:

Defense planning is full of arbitrary figures and figurings that have been thoroughly rationalized only after the fact. The number of units of many types of equipment is almost as arbitrary; so are the total numbers of men in the various services; and hence so is the total defense budget itself. I would say that the defense budget is arbitrary by at least a factor of two. The fierce arguments that can break out over a cut of, say, five percent have their origins in the very great difficulties of making changes in large traditionbound systems and not in the fact that the numbers as they originally stood were correct in any absolute sense. Thus, the real reason that this year’s defense budget is so and so many billion dollars is simply that last year’s defense budget was so and so many billion, give or take about five percent. The same thing, of course, applies to last year’s budget and the budget of the year before that. Thus the defense budget is not what it is for any absolute reason or because in any absolute sense the total cost of everything that is supposedly truly needed comes out to be precisely that amount, but rather it is the sum total of all the political influences that have been applied to it over a history of many years, and that have caused it to grow in the way that it has grown.

Or, to borrow the technical term, what York is suggesting is that the defense bureaucracy, viewed as a system, basically has a fixed slew rate. You can expand or contract the defense budget, but because the system itself resists change, it’s very rare to have the political will to change it by more than 5% or so per budget cycle. It further looks more than a bit suspicious for this slew rate to work out so roundly to 5%, a number that we find deliciously convenient on account of our five digits. It makes me wonder if this value isn’t chosen — consciously or otherwise — as the breaking point between the forces of change and forces of stability quite often in budget negotiations.

I’m not convinced that this relatively-low maximum slew rate is necessarily a bad thing, when you are dealing with an institution as large as the DoD: it would probably be bad if it were subject to political whims that could change the budget more greatly than they do from year to year, and the result would almost certainly be more favoritism, if not outright corruption, but it does present a significant challenge: with that limit taken on premise, if you want the budget to be a certain amount by a certain time, or if you want it to be focused on some set of priorities at some future date, you have to start pushing it in the right direction far in advance of the target.

That in combination with relatively short political-leadership cycles (which tend to be ~8 years in the Executive branch and not too much longer in the House side of the Legislative; the Senate is somewhat slower-moving, but not by orders of magnitude or anything) creates a problem to getting anything intelligent done at all, outside of a crisis. (Others may disagree, but I still have some faith in our institutional ability to react quickly when the chips are down; it’s just a hell of an expensive way to run a country.)

In the coming decades, I think the challenge for established nation-state actors in the face of new adversaries — particularly non-state actors like, but not necessarily limited to, terror groups — is going to be not letting those groups permanently outmaneuver them by getting inside the OODA loop of the established players to such an extent that they become unable to adequately respond.

The silver lining to this for the West, if it can be said to be much of one, is that there’s no evidence that the emerging superpower states such as China and India are any better at all of this, or have a faster organizational “slew rate”, than we do. On this issue, we’re all basically in the same boat, and it’s a very large, very massive, and very slow-to-maneuver one.

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Sat, 23 Jul 2016

As part of making comments great again, I did a little hacking on Frank Hecker’s Feedback plugin for Blosxom in order to make it work with Perl 5.22, which is what the SDF currently uses by default.

It’s not exactly great moments in software engineering or anything, but in case anybody else was running into the same problem, I put the changed — I won’t go so far as to say “improved”, since I’ve barely tested it yet — version up on Github.

For now, the changes are only in the “dev” branch, while “master” contains Hecker’s original:

Anyone else still using Blosxom and the Feedback plugin is encouraged to play with it and test it out. The most important change is probably this one, which may or may not fix a parameter-sanitization vulnerability. I have no evidence to suggest that Feedback actually had the vulnerability; the problem was discovered in Bugzilla, which also uses the Perl CGI module, which led to the addition of a security warning.

The (potential) issue that this solves is discussed in the article “New Class of Vulnerability in Perl Web Applications” by Gervase Markham, and the change to CGI.pm is mentioned in the comments.

Some other changes made to Feedback include adding support for SMTP Auth, and the ability to specify a port for SMTP mail submission. These are useful if you need to use a standalone mailhost that requires authentication and use of port 587, which is increasingly common in shared-hosting environments.

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While poking around in the blog’s configuration files in order to fix the error that Perl had decided to throw with the feedback plugin, I noticed that Google was apparently unhappy with the lack of “mobile friendly” features. (In other words, it looked like shit.)

Not being one to argue with Google, I did the bare minimum required to make the site not-quite-terribly offensive when viewed from a phone or tablet. Not really because I think many people will actually use it that way, but mostly because Google now dings you in your search rankings if you don’t, and it’d be nice if some of the problems and solutions I’ve documented here were at least visible to people who are searching with the right terms.

So, there you go, Google. Progress.

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Thu, 21 Jul 2016

Do try to contain your excitement. The fact that comments had been failing silently for so long, and nobody seemed to notice and/or care (least of all me) is probably suggestive that it wasn’t really a problem that needed to be solved.

Nonetheless, it was easier to solve the problem than it was to just remove comments, and once or twice in the past I’ve had comments that were actually useful and insightful, so what the hell. They ought to work now.

If for some reason you get an error when you’re trying to comment (on an article that’s less than 90 days old), feel free to drop me an email.

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