May 19, 2016

George Washington on Religion in the USA

With all the crap going on in the USA right now over "Religion" I thought that a few people might be interested in what George Washington, commonly known as the father of our country, had to say about what religion means in the US.

In the summer of 1790 Washington made a visit to the Jewish congregation of New Port, New Jersey. Later they sent him a letter thanking him for his visit and asking just how safe it would be for Jews to live in the new country. You might understand that they have a reason to be worried about their safety. Every member of every minority religion in the US had and has a reason to worry about their safety. Just like Muslims do now.

Washington gave his reply in a letter that should be taught in every school in the US. I actually did learn about it in school, from a Jewish teacher.

George Washington replied with an eloquent letter stating his position on the subject. I include the full text here, the highlighting is my own.
While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens. 
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. 
If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people. 
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. 
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. 
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity. 
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. 
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. 
G. Washington
 It is important that when you read this that you understand what "tolerance" meant at the time. It is not what we think of now. In places with a state religion, such as England in the 1700s, all citizens were required to be members of that state religion. No other religions were tolerated. That is, no other religion was allowed. There were criminal penalties for being a member of another religion. Some countries had toleration laws. That means that other religions were allowed, but usually some rights were lost or members of tolerated religions paid a tax to the state religion even though they were not members of that religion. Only in the USA did people have the natural right to believe any damn thing they want and to practice their religion as they see fit so long as it does not infringe on other peoples natural right to do the same thing. A natural right is one you are born with, no one gave it to you, and no one can take it away.

When our political leaders call for religious discrimination, when they call for imposing their religious beliefs on other people, they are saying that George Washington was a liar. They are calling our entire revolution a lie. They are saying that the United States is a lie. They are saying that everyone who has died for our natural rights since long before July 4, 1776 died for a lie. They are saying that they died for nothing.

What I see happening in the USA right now brings me to tears. I am so frustrated by this crap. I really can't think of anything else to say. I guess I'll end by saying that hatred is not supposed to be an American value.

Mar 23, 2016

Crispus Attucks

On March 5, 1770 British troops shot down 5 British subjects at Boston Commons. This incident became known as the Boston Massacre. Many consider that event to be the start of the American Revolution. Crispus Attucks is widely believed to be the first person to die during the Boston Massacre. The first person to die in the American Revolution.

Funny thing, I learned about the Massacre in grade school. I first heard about it when I was younger than that. I didn't learn about Mr. Attucks until I was in my '50s. You would think that such an important person would have been mentioned during one of the many American history classes I have taken. The American Revolution is important to Americans. We tend to make heroes out of people who died at important events in our history.

But, you see, Mr. Attucks was not white. He seems to have been of both Native American and African decent. Two strikes against him right there for the white bigots who scrubbed him out of the text books used in the schools I attended. 

Turns out there is a monument to the men killed at Boston Commons. Mr. Attucks is the man lying on the ground. If you are an American, and even if you just want to understand something about America, read about Mr. Attucks and think about why I didn't even hear of him during the my first 50 years as an American? 

Americans are being gunned down in the streets of America just for being black. Mr. Attucks was killed for being an American, not for being black. Every black man gunned down in the US dies as an American. Even if he is shot for the color of his skin.

Mar 8, 2016

The Self Winding Smart Phone

Today I was asked by one of my many doctors offices for my cell phone number. I explained that my cell phone spends half of its life in my pocket with a dead battery and the other half of its life on a charger at home many miles from where I am. I further explained that I liked my phone better dead in my pocket because I keep a charger in my car so I can make calls whenever I want even though I can't receive calls. They gave up on the idea of getting my cell phone number.

Gee, wouldn't it be nice to have a self winding cell phone?

If you are a old enough you will remember a kind of primitive personal clock that was usually worn on the wrist or sometimes carried in a pocket. These personal clocks had "hands" and made a funny tick, tick, tick noise. These personal clocks were called "watches" (not to be confused with the iWatch). Believe it or not they could not take videos or access the web. Their only use was to keep track of the current time.  These devices are so primitive that their use predates the invention of the steam engine. These primitive time keepers were replaced by the dumb cell phone and forgotten years before the advent of the smart phone.

These ancient personal clocks were, believe it or not, powered by kinetic energy derived from tension in a spring. To keep the watch working properly you had to recharge it daily by taking a few seconds to "wind" the spring using a knob on the side of the device.

People didn't like having to wind a watch any more than we like spending time charging cell phones. (Though I do have to wonder how many friendships and even romances have resulted from people clustering around public charging stations. Winding a watch was never a social occasion and was rarely done in public.)

Some early gear tech genius came up with a method to collect kinetic energy from arm motions and store it in the spring. This feature was called "self winding" and it kept your watch from stopping when it ran out of stored kinetic energy. A good self winding watch could run for years without ever running down!

It turns out that several individuals and groups have developed methods for adapting self winding gear tech for use with modern smart phones. They use the same type of kinetic energy trap and use it to charge a battery rather than adding tension to a spring. These systems have been developed and tested and they work.

So... why the hell can't I buy a self winding cell phone?

Feb 25, 2016

FBI vs. Apple: The Subpoena is a rabbit trail

I've been following the news about the FBI vs Apple subpoena and realized that the more I heard the less it made sense. What the FBI was reported to be asking for would work, but it would take a very long time. Why would they do it the slow way when they can crack the phone so much faster? So, I read the subpoena. Very interesting read. Well worth your time to read it. It is a beautiful example of verbal jujitsu. It says very clearly exactly what the FBI wants Apple to do, er NO, it does not.

While the subpoena seems to state exactly what the FBI wants, every demand is followed by weasel words something like "in an alternative technical manner if mutually preferable." (bottom of page 4 of the subpoena). In other words, Apple can help the FBI crack the phone any way they want to so long as they do help the FBI. The details being reported by the media are all misdirection. Apple is not required to carry out any of the reported actions. Apple is required to give the FBI technical aid in decrypting it.

There are a few things that really bother me about the subpoena even if you do assume it is all baffle-gab. The FBI makes statements about the security structure of IOS version 9 that are disturbing to me. The FBI asserts that Apple has the ability to download and execute code on a locked iPhone. That may be something that, if true, Apple does not want advertised in public. That bit of information tells every Apple customer that while the FBI can not crack your iPhone Apple can. Apple can load code onto your iPhone, execute that code, and then clean up after itself so you can't even tell it happened. The subpoena says that Apple can download code directly to RAM bypassing the file system and then cause that code to be executed. The FBI claims that Apple can do that to a locked iPhone without asking permission from the owner of the phone and without leaving a trace that they have done it.

All of that means anyone with access to the IOS code signing key can get anything they want off of any iPhone. Not really a surprise, I suppose. I tend to believe that everything on a computer is public knowledge. On the other hand while I was very tempted to buy an Apple II I have never owned any Apple products. I learned my lesson from Microsoft. (Required gratuitous MS slam just so I seem unbiased.)

According to the FBI the iPhone encrypts data using AES. The FBI says that each iPhone has a unique 256 bit key that is "burned in" at the factory. The FBI says that the actual key is created from a combination of the password and the AES key. That means that if the FBI wants to try to crack the phone by trying all possible keys they want Apple to provide a tool that pulls out that 256 bit unique key, the file system, along with details of the algorithm used to create the actual key.

Why does the FBI want Apple to do that? After all the FBI has the phone. They can extract the entire contents of the file system by extracting the flash drive and hooking it up to another system that understands the electronics of the drive. They can then download the entire file system and play with the data to their little hearts content. Why not subpoena the algorithms? And, why not issue the subpoena through a secret security court? None of this needed to be done in public.

It is possible extracting the AES key from the hardware of an iPhone is hard to do. If it were easy to get they could get it from the raw hardware. They may need an atomic force microscope to do it, but they should be able to get it. The key is stored in a way that allows the encryption algorithm to read it. If any piece of code or any piece of hardware can read it then anyone who has control of the physical device can also read it. Unless it is designed to self destruct...

Given the file system, the base key, and the relevant algorithms the FBI can use N (N is an arbitrarily large number greater than zero) computers loaded with copies of the file system, the AES key, and the appropriate software to try passcodes millions of times faster than they could do it using a wire connected to a cracked iPhone. Using possibly thousands of computers to brute force a crack beats all hell out of what it appears they are asking for.

(The FBI realizes, properly, that messing with the hardware is risky. No matter how careful you are the data you want could be lost if the hardware is accidentally damaged or if it is built to delete data when tampered with. Getting a cracking tool from Apple is safer for the FBI. Imagine the uproar if the FBI lost the data on that phone while taking it apart. That would be a nasty political black eye for the FBI. The FBI must keep their collective asses covered.)

My bogometer pinned in the red when I realized that what the FBI appeared to be demanding from Apple was millions of times slower than the obvious approach. I concluded that much of the subpoena is misdirection intended to make Apple look bad and direct public discussion in the direction the FBI wants it to go.

It appears the FBI, and by extension the DOJ, wants to undermine belief in the security of Apple products, to force Apple to provide details of all the encryption algorithms used by IOS, and software that reads out each iPhone's unique AES key and also dumps the file system. That is exactly what they need to let them use a super computer to smash open the doors on every iPhone.

If everything goes right for the FBI they get a way to crack all iPhones, a legal precedent saying they can force companies like Apple to provide cracking tools for their products, and a chance to get public support for laws that criminalize personal security. They may even be able to make building a truly secure device illegal. To make matters worse the FBI just told every hacker in the world about a potentially devastating hole in iPhone security.

The art of misdirection is vital to magicians, con men, and used car sales men. I just learned that it is a well developed part of the FBI's arsenal. I'll be watching for it in the future.