March 28, 2008

The Competent Munition is no more

One of the first actual military projects I worked on was the Competent Munition program at the Charles Stark Draper Lab, in Cambridge, in the early/mid 1990s. It was a GPS and (optionally) inertial guided round for the USN's 5"/54 gun systems.

I see via Wired that the ERGM, its eventual program name, has been cancelled.

I don't know the story; I do know that a lot of really cool technology was created and stuffed into really tiny and really harsh environments in order to make the Competent Munition/ERGM a going concern. I don't really have any feelings one way or the other about its cancellation, but I do wonder about the progress and course the project ended up following.

If I don't find a decent summary somewhere in the wake of its cancellation, maybe that would make a fun paper.

Posted by jbz at 4:57 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 25, 2008

Gun silliness

I have never really been in favor of issuing handguns to pilots 'to defeat terrorism,' for a couple of reasons which nobody has been able to argue me out of. First of all, the cockpit of an airliner is the last place I want a gunfight. Second, if the pilot is at his or her duty station, then no matter what other person he shoots at, they will likely have passengers directly behind him or her. Finally, deliberately placing guns on civil aviation flights just seemed to me to be asking for accidents which really had a higher probability than a skyjacking, and given what bullets do to airplanes, that seemed a bad idea.

Of course, I did tell myself that at least they'd likely have appropriate equipment.

Today I read this, and the first thing I thought after saying "Yep, there you go, unintended discharge in flight" was hey, wait a minute, don't they make ammunition specifically for use in situations like this? Well, yes, yes they do, and it's called Reduced Recoil, Low Penetration ammo and seems to be a type of frangible ammunition.

I really, really, really want to know if that pilot's USP was loaded with RRLP ammo. If it wasn't, I want to know why not.

Posted by jbz at 11:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Flip out and kill the whole town

So I very rarely talk on this blog anymore, and I almost never talk about work. Not totally sure why, but there it is. I think I've gone a long time since I felt I had anything to say that I wanted other people to hear, or even to tell myself in a forum others can read. Depression does that to you. It's still quite true, but I did turn a bit of a corner today. Not 'towards the better' or anything, but a situation I'd worked myself into took on a different perspective due to the advice of a good friend who knew me, there when it mattered, better than I knew myself.

I work for a tech company, now, doing "analysis" for a C-level executive. That is to say, I investigate, analyze, write up, and in some cases roving-audit what our company is doing in the IT space and report to him on a regular basis. Sounds like the ideal job for me, and in many ways, it absolutely is.

Recently, I was tasked with handling the infrastructure planning and buildout necessary to support the launch of a new product - a small product offering, initially, to be sure, but one completely separate from our existing service and hosting infrastructure. I was given fairly vague inputs and requirements, vague guidance on budget, and not enough time to do the job properly.

That last is the problem. I have been running around our company taking careful note of where we do things 'like a startup' that we should be doing 'like an enterprise.' I've been doing this for long enough, and with enough focus, that when I was given this task I accepted it - and then instantly snowed myself into a standstill thinking about all the things that a proper project plan would need in order to get done in the timeframe given, with the staffing available (i.e. me).

See, I never did that. It's not what I do. I know what not to do for 'sustainable and process-oriented deployment' because it's what I used to do all the time; I'm an ops ninja, if I can blow my own horn just slightly. I liked to get handed tasks with stupid requirements and even stupider resource commitments so that I could say "Okay, then, you want it to what? By when? Fine. Just don't ask me how it's doing it, don't look in the server room, and for God's sake get a real team working on building the next, proper version of the infrastructure so that we can rotate onto that when it's available, but in the meantime, I'll ninja your shit."

My friend listened to me complain about the lack of requirements, the lack of input data, the lack of staffing, and the lack of a project management skillset for about half an hour. Then he said: "Dude, some people build things, and some people break things. You're an ops ninja. You break things. You make shit happen in impossible situations when that's what the company needs done. Stop trying to do shit in a manner which you don't do, and be yourself. You can't fix how your company does things at the same time doing a project in a manner that's almost entirely new to you with insufficient support."

He's absolutely right. I need to do one thing, and in this case, that's make sure the infrastructure is available to run the product when it needs to go to production. That's it. Sure, it would be nice if I could do this in a completely documented, trivially scalable, enterprise grade manner; but realistically, that's not what I do. Good, fast, cheap, pick any two? I'm the latter two, thanks.

Now, my job is still to improve how we do things. But I need to remember not to let that get in the way of the more urgent, tactical objective: to get this code hosted and available when go-time comes.

Time to slide the wakizashi out, flip out, and kill the whole town. Because ninjas are flippin' sweet.

Posted by jbz at 12:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 21, 2008

iTunes iPhone update server

This is info that is available elsewhere but it took me a while to figure it out from behind a work firewall. If you need to exclude the iTunes iPhone software update server from a block list, say on a work proxy server, use the following address:

Posted by jbz at 2:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 18, 2008

The Chichester Macbeth

A week ago last Wednesday evening I took a trip to Brooklyn and left my world. A friend and I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Paul Harvey Theater and saw the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Macbeth.

Just to get this out of the way: that was one of the (and possibly the) best production(s) of Shakespeare I have ever seen. I just know that I'm still openmouthed, days later, when I spend any time thinking about the show.

The Production

I have some small background from long ago in technical theater. As a result, probably the first thing I see is the set and lighting design. I never worked in sound, so although I'll notice extremely good, very interesting or abysmally bad sound work, I won't really register good, solid production work. One of the first things you can analyze about a Shakespeare production is the choice of sets. The original stagings at The Globe Theatre were, if history is to be believed, minimally built and propped, eschewing realism for production flexibility. As Shakespeare migrated to film, however, increasingly realistic (or even location) sets came into use as the technology made this possible. Modern theater productions, with their access to advanced staging technology, have a dizzying choice of styles. Some shows remain minimalist; others make clever use of a limited number of detailed sets, and some become interpretive - using scenery and props deliberately different from those which Shakespeare and his troupe would have had.

There are a few reasons a show might go the interpretive route. One is that the adaptation of the show to a 'new' or 'non-period' production is, in itself, one of the dimensions in which modern productions of Shakespeare can differentiate themselves without changing the actual text of the play. Sets and costumes can be used to evoke particular sets of imagery and ideas in the audience; in fact, mere hints, when done skillfully, can serve as 'shorthand' for entire realms of transposition.

This is the path that Rupert Goold appears to have taken. When you file into the theater to be seated, the set is visible, with no curtains. The Paul Harvey theater has a low stage, with seating rising from the stage and the front seats on a level with the performer's floor. For this show, a single room has been constructed on the stage. But even before that is clear, I have to talk about the lights.

The entire height of the stage area, reaching all the way to the arch of the proscenium, is bared. The walls of the room at the bottom extend upwards to infinity, painted matte black to deaden them out of view, but no curtains or drops are used. As a result, the room that the stage contains would normally soar upwards, an open cathedral-like space.

Instead, hanging down to almost head height by cables, are a dozen or so shaded lamps, reminiscent of 1940s hanging lights. The theme, indeed, is one of the early middle 20th century, with grimy white tiled walls and, at the back of the stage, a doorway barred by sliding gates in the style of an early elevator. An industrial looking refrigerator looms against the back wall, a primitive-looking television set atop it, a call button for the elevator bracketed to the wall next to it. Across the stage, around the corner of the wall and past the doorway, there is a large metal work table (almost a counter) and an old-fashioned steam radiator sits against the tiled wall nearly at the stage left border. The walls end both stage left and stage right in a blank space where doors would quite conceivably be in this notional room. The lights, though - the lights take this soaring space, and by hanging the illumniation down to such a low level, coupled with the height of the tiled walls, manage to instantly convert this airy room into a basement. It's definitely a basement.

it might be a basement kitchen, or even bathroom, but it's a service room. At the front of the stage, displaced to the left, is a sink. It is a period sink, porcelain, deep, with two faucets; it rests on a spindly metal frame. The important thing to note about the sink, however, is that the back of it (which faces the audience) is unfinished; the edges are rough, and we can see the plumbing passing through it to the faucets. By this simple and subtle touch, the entire swath of air between the audience and the actors is transformed from open space into a definite wall - albeit one which is invisible to us. You can see the mirror half of the room which isn't there, just because the sink is so obviously mounted to this nonexistent barrier - the roughness of its back shows that.

And with that simple shortcut, a huge open space is transformed into a tiled basement.

Not just any tiled basement, though. There are all manner of cues, from the size and style of the tiles to the radiator, that evoke all the movies we've seen of World War II Britain or even buildings in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s to 1960s. The fact that we know that Macbeth is set in Scotland pulls up the file of associations with the U.K. and wartime, however.

The opening of the show is violent, loud, and begins with warfare - and warfare involving artillery, with no doubt. The television lights to show us uniformed figures dodging through ruins - and Macbeth and Banquo come through the elevator entrance onto stage, wearing BDUs, carrying heavy packs, and with slung AK-47s.


Yep. Definitely AK-47s.

Oh-kay then.

Over the rest of the show, this space will become a kitchen, a torture chamber, a villa, a piano bar, a morgue, a hospital, a formal dining room, and even a train - all without making any change to the space itself other than the presence and dressing of two wheeled tables, themselves transformed from dining surface to kitchen counter to gurney. Brilliant.

The Cast and Acting

The first person onto the stage is perhaps the most well-known; Macbeth, in this production, is played by Patrick Stewart, with all his considerable skill. I have to say, though, that my two favorite moments of the show were both made so by acting, not tech - and neither involves Mr. Stewart. The assassination of Banquo is done on a train - and the train is created by the cast sitting in lines, at an angle opposite that which the tables are always placed (to emphasize the difference) and all in unison swaying as lights and sound are used to bring the train to life. It's a simple scene, but it's done amazingly well. The second, and one of the best single pieces of a performance, is when Ross arrives in England to meet Macduff and Malcolm - there to tell Macduff that his family has been murdered by Macbeth. The few minutes of this scene were absolutely exquisitely done. Michael Feast (Macduff) shone.

I'm not a huge theater fan, but I loves me some Shakespeare. Always have. I have an informal gradient in my head for judging what 'level' of Shakespeare I'm watching, and it goes like this.

At the lowest end of the spectrum, there's the 'reading' Shakespeare, where no matter what tech magic or staging and blocking wizardry, the show feels like two or more people reciting their lines in predetermined order, around a table. If there is any emotional content, it is individual; there is no emotional interaction.

One step up is (pardon my own purely descriptive labeling) is the amateur level. In a production of this quality, the actors are, in fact, reacting to each other in a comprehensible (if not necessarily believable) fashion. Usually, this means they have at the least managed to work in plausible stage motion, and are able to work on their stance, blocking and body language while also delivering lines. Moving up again, there is a 'professional' production. In this, all the elements finally appear and are interactive - line delivery, stance and motion, and technical elements. I should be convinced that I'm looking at a group of people, all working together; and I should have at least a notion of the scene they're trying to convey to me, as separate from the actual people and props on the stage. I might not buy it totally, but I should be able to get a picture of it, and it shouldn't have any noticeably dissonant elements.

After this, there are two ways that the production can attempt to lift the whole thing up a level. One is to appropriate a particular time and/or place in which to set the production; this might be the original setting of the play, or it might be some other time period and venue. If it is using the original setting of the play, then the technical production (sets, costume) and the secondary acting (language, accents if necessary) will matter a great deal. The process of 'transporting me' into the scene will depend heavily on how well these are done, because I don't have a 'picture' of Shakespeare's Scotland in my head. The original play is more notional than representative. If a production has exceptional work in these 'convincing' areas, then it will rise to the level of 'excellent Shakespeare.' It will transport me successfully.

There is another way to lift the production further, and that is to give it a unique flavor. This is even more difficult; in addition to just convincing me that I'm watching a scene in a known setting, a production may attempt to make a point by creating its own particular flavor. This is extremely hard to do; the actors are now tasked with not only making me believe that they are real people talking to each other about real things, but they have to convince me that they are in fact part of a self-consistent world that I have no direct cues for. The best fiction creates a believable world; the best and more ambitious fiction creates believable but unreal worlds, managing to make believability trump realism.

This production made a specific choice, as far as I can tell, to set the production in an unreal but describable alternate Scotland. It is Scotland; but it has some modern technology (vis. assault rifles and pistols, televisions and EKG machines and refrigerators). It is not our Scotland, though; and the ways it differs are what are fascinating. There is a flavor of fascism, not a specific regime, but fascism as it is known by the modern news viewer. The AK-47, weapon of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc]. The 'wartime' set, applicable to either wartime Scotland or Cold War Eastern Bloc, again. The costumes involve uniforms, and there are three major types - and what they are is informative.

In the initial scene, where Macbeth is returning from fighting an external invader (a 'legitimate war') - he and Banquo are wearing outfits which (other than their weapons) are very close representations of U.S. World War Two gear. immediately, when they return to their homes, they change into formal uniforms. The serving soldiers remain in a formal but gray/green outfit, reminiscent of the Soviet Army; the nobles however (especially the royals) change into a jet-black uniform strongly evocative of the Gestapo. At one point in the show, there is dance; the initial dance is a very German almost-polka, but some of the participants break into Cossack kick-dance. Again, 'Nazi' and 'Stalin' come to the fore.

What truly lifts this Macbeth, for me, though, is that in almost every case where I was most strongly pulled in I was pulled in by the actors, and by their interaction.

Completely pulled in.

I learned things about Macbeth (the play) that i hadn't known. At least five or six times I had to smother an 'Ohhhh.....' watching them. This show hit a level I have only seen once or twice - exquisite acting not just rising above the technical hinting, but incorporating it and making it absolutely integral to the end product.

Fun Bits

Food is all over this production. Mr. Stewart, showing his chops, delivers his 'briefing' to his assassins while making a sandwich late at night in the kitchen. He builds us up to wondering is he going to actually eat that? How will he do it without interrupting flow? Then, because he can, he does eat the sandwich, and he does actually finish a critical line while talking with his mouth full. Just to show us that he knew what he was doing, and yes, it would be funny. But he does it without losing the character of Macbeth - who is a man going mad (not driven mad) but going mad, poisoned by ambition. ,p> In the middle of the play, at the interval, we see Act III scene IV, which ends with the ghost of Banquo appearing to Macbeth at dinner. Macbeth cringes from the ghost, causing consternation among his guests; just prior to the ghost's appearance, he sees three of his serving girls move past him with daggers clutched behind their backs.

Immediately following the interval, that scene is redone, with Macbeth's whispered asides to his assassin completely replayed by the actors, but at twice the speed - and in silence. And this time, although Macbeth returns to the table, the girls have no daggers, and the ghost does not appear to us the audience - but he flinches, this replay showing us the scene from his guests' point of view. It's very, very well done.

During the assassination of Banquo on the train, as soon as the deed is done, all the various other passengers huddling in their seats rise and remove overcoats - and are revealed as the main cast, moving into set for their next scene. It's a simple trick to save time and cast members, here deliberately shown us, and again, it hammers home the elegance with which the play is being staged.

Damn, it was good.

Posted by jbz at 10:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

There was a man dwelt by a churchyard

Note: Today is for stories. I'm still working on the New York Magician stories, and there are more that aren't posted here; I include the one below to prove I'm not lying. The prior story is the first of a four-to-six story arc, of which three and a half are written.

My stories tend to a particular length (well, I should say story segments) because I mostly write them for E2, and they are of a good length to make a node there. I tend to break longer stories, as you can see, into segments of around that size. There is an added bonus that a node, or the story sizes I've been posting here, are right around the limit of what I can write in a sitting or a burst, and rather than let the words molder until there is 'enough' whatever that is, I tend to post them to let people beat on 'em.

There was a flash of black luminescence around my hand. The card was ice cold. I turned it quickly, a snap of the fingers, to see the front. Whatever was there was intent on not being seen. I could make out the card's shape, and the grubby off-white of dirty laminated surface, but every time I tried to focus in on the card itelf the blur that resided there reached up a little further into my forebrain, dug in its fists and squeezed.

I closed my eyes and pushed the card at the table. It left my hand, clearing my head immediately. I opened my eyes again to the more familiar blur of tears. "What-"

Brian's voice broke through. "You can hold the card. You, and only you, cannot read it."

I picked up the Desert Eagle. "Look, I came here looking for something, or someone."

"Yes." They both said it, in stereo. It was disconcerting. I had to fight down the urge to shoot one of them just to restore normalcy.

"There's someone downtown who shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be here at all. But he is, and he was called. Who called him?"

The other voice spoke. "You did."

"Bullshit. I can't call Others. I can hear and see them, that's all."

Brian's partner spoke again, looking down at the table's surface. "Doesn't change what happened. You called him. Perhaps not on your own. But you did." He looked up suddenly and stared at me through his blind eyes. "And now you know. That's all." He stood, far too quickly for his age, and Brian stood as well. I raised the pistol.

"Wait a damn-"

The room was empty. I jumped backwards reflexively, crashing to the floor as I tripped over some unknown piece of debris. The gun didn't go off (I don't take the safety off until I'm really ready to use it) and I kept hold of it, but at the cost of hitting the ground hard. I sat there for a second in the dimness, then stood up. The light had dimmed; the Coleman lantern was dark. I reached for it gingerly where it sat on the table, and my fingers tore through a thick coating of cobwebs. I pulled my hand back in surprise, then dug in my coat for my Maglite. The lantern was dusty, old, and the glass cracked. There were no mantles inside it.

The cards were gone, and the dust on the table's surface was thick and undisturbed.

"Oh, shit." I rubbed my head. "Shit, shit shit." Holstering the gun, I surveyed the room again. Nothing anywhere. The silence wasn't complete, not underneath the bones of New York, but it was much deeper than it had been some seconds ago. I couldn't figure out why what had just happened had the fright running up my spine; given what I dealt with on a daily basis, this was surely only somewhere middle of the road, but my sympathetic nervous system flatly refused to agree with me. The sweat was coming cold from my brow.

Then the noise started.

It was very faint, and very far off, but it was coming from the tunnel entrance opposite where I'd come in, and it could have been twenty feet or ten miles away. It was a regular metal-on-metal sound, though; nothing random and nothing soft. I twisted the Maglite to open up the field to the full width of the tunnel, pulled the Desert Eagle again, and moved into the tunnel, flashlight held out to my left. I was skirting the right wall, the light held approximately where it would have been in my left hand were I centered in the passage.

Gun in hand, I went to meet the noise.

Fifteen feet past the door, there was a metal grating from floor to ceiling. There was a huge round hole in the center of it, the bar edges flowing and melted at the hole’s periphery. I moved past it uneasily, into a lower tunnel which splashed around my boots. I hoped it was water, but my nose told me that if there was water down there, it wasn’t alone. The noise was rising in volume, coming from the darkness ahead. A regular thumping, or tapping, two beats then a pause, then again. Thump-thump.

After another fifty feet there was a flickering light ahead which took me some moments to realize was coming around a blind corner in the storm drain. I wasn’t positive, but it looked as if the tunnel turned right at least ninety degrees. I leaned against the right wall and raised the gun, watching the light and listening to the sound move closer to the corner.

The sound was regular enough to make concentration difficult. Thump-thump. I could only tell the source was still in motion from the movement of the light on the wall at the corner. Thump-thump. There was no way to determine precisely how close to the corner the other was, so I waited, sweating now in the chill gloom. Thump-thump.

The light, when it moved into my line of sight, was blinding. It came around the corner and stopped, and I lifted the gun. “Fucking freeze right there!”

Nothing happened for perhaps five seconds, then there was a booming laugh which reached out to me from behind the light (another Coleman, I could barely see, twin silk testicles of the mantles burning in their fragile ashen web of white gas). Then the lantern dimmed to the squeaking of its valve, and a voice no less enormous than the laugh said, in a rich Irish brogue, “Sure, and you’d be Michel, wouldn’t you, boy?”

The gun sagged downwards. I recovered enough to re-safety it. As I did so, the other figure moved towards me. In the lower light of the banked lantern, I could see a huge man, dressed in industrial coveralls and boots. In his left hand he held the lantern; in the right, a massive wrench, scraped in bright patterns where it had struck the concrete or stone of the tunnel.

I looked at him for a moment, then lowered the gun entirely. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name’s Kevin, boy. I knew yer gran.”

He was almost up to me. I fumbled the gun back into its holster, and when I looked up there was a huge paw outstretched, which it would have been churlish not to shake.

So I did.

Posted by jbz at 11:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 17, 2008

Glad to see I'm not the only one

...having trouble with Apple's 'Spaces' feature. While my frustration doesn't derive from anything as complex as that writer's ongoing requirements, it's the little things that drive me bats. My primary kvetch at the moment is the following. I have Entourage and Safari and Word in separate spaces. Entourage and Safari have been 'designated' spaces; Word I just 'opened' from another empty space. I only have one Word window open (well, two if you include the formatting palette) - so only one document.

As I'm typing in the word doc, the damn space will slide over to Entourage whenever the 'Activity' window pops up indicating that it's doing network tasks like getting mail. It will pull the Word doc *with* it. So suddenly, without any action on my part, I have the sliding animation, Entourage pops into the foreground, and my Word doc is now in the background on a different space. If I manually ctrl-# back to the Word space, it's now *empty* - because the doc got pulled over and shoved behind Entourage. It's impossible to get any work done.

Posted by jbz at 3:11 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 12, 2008

I Am Not A Number

At least the Duke of Westminster gets to say the much cooler "I am Number Six" rather than muttering in a stoned voice "Number Nine...Number Nine..."

Posted by jbz at 10:48 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Welcome again to the nanny state.

Let me get this straight - you're going to suspend and strip of his student government office an honors student in the eighth grade for buying candy? All because some dipshit bureaucrat decided that there should be a 'wellness policy' that forbids candy sales on campuses?

So apparently eighth graders are completely incapable of looking after themselves, and this school district has decided that the complete idiocy of the 'drug war' is not bad enough - now we're going to go straight to harsh punishment for buying candy, which is (last I looked) perfectly legal to buy for anyone who can get their hungry little hands over the counter with the quarters.

What are you teaching these kids? That their governing authorities can at any time reach down into their lives and punish them for completely arbitrary crap which doesn't appear to be actually illegal, and that there's no recourse nor protection for them from these bureaucratic idiots.

Oh, that's good.


Of more concern are the parents who think this kind of school policy is okay for their children. What the hell are you doing to your kids in the name of nanny-state convenience? Grow a goddamn spine. Parenting isn't just punishing when things go badly, or ceding the development of a personal ethos to a state bureaucracy. It's your responsibility to see your kid schooled, yes; it's also your responsibility to monitor that process and intervene when the schooling goes awry.

Unless, of course, you all think that this is a perfectly peachy outcome, in which case I hope somebody helps your children, because you apparently won't or can't.

Useless fuckers.

Posted by jbz at 1:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 9, 2008

I Swear To God

if one more white person comes up to me with the light of WALLOWING IN LIBERAL HAPPINESS AND GUILT in their eye and asks me excitedly "Oh, are you going to vote for Obama of course?!?" I swear to fucking God-in-whom-I-don't-believe that I'm going to go out, apply for a gun permit to get a gun I don't want just so I can go find them and shoot them in both fucking kneecaps.

This goes double for relatives and longtime friends, who should FUCKING KNOW BETTER. They lose elbows too.

Posted by jbz at 10:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 8, 2008

The money's not trickling down, stupid

The New York Times, in a somewhat mealy-mouthed article on the fun topic 'is this a recession' produces the following:
For a variety of reasons that economists only partly understand — including technological change and global trade — many workers have received only modest raises in recent years, despite healthy economic growth.

Um, did you check corporate earnings and executive pay, maybe?

Posted by jbz at 2:12 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 3, 2008

Seek and You Shall Find

The lawsuits of 2006 and 2007 had almost been a disaster. It had taken all the dancing skills of several grizzled civil servants at GS scales astronomically higher than usually seen to make the threat to the Project go away, and none of the team in the lab really wanted to know what had finally been done. They liked sleeping at night. But here and now, that wasn't an issue; the last line of code had been nailed into place, the last tap had been threaded, and the last bit of fiber had been hotspliced in an AT&T switching facility a week prior over in Salt Lake City where the Pacific Cross traffic came through. The Director was here in the PuzzleBox for the ceremony.

"Er, basically, sir, we're ready." The lead tech smoothed his T-shirt nervously. The Director looked at him for a few moments, causing him to search his conscience, but before he could blurt out the actual details of that last trip to Vegas, the Director nodded and turned away to corral the few brass who were lurking near the door. The tech sighed quietly and went to gather up his own team.

When all the VIPs had been settled in chairs near the main monitoring station, the tech went over to them. "Gentlemen, ladies, thanks for coming. I'm Park, project lead, and this is the first operational test of Project Syene. The filtergrids are coming online now, and we'll be ready to take traffic into the main array in about five minutes."

The Director coughed politely. "Park, could you give my colleagues a one or two sentence explanation of how Syene will help us avoid any, er, unpleasantness like the recent legal troubles we had with the program?"

"Sure, sir. Let's see. The problem, as it was phrased by others, was that we were retaining and interpreting traffic from and to non-target individuals as well as known targets in order to perform proper traffic analysis. We had to, in order to do datamining on the contact patterns, since we couldn't do that in realtime. The call content, as well, had to be analyzed after the fact, so we were - it was argued" - he added hastily, thinking of his audience - "we were retaining intelligence on civilians illegally. Anyway. The difference here is that Syene is doing live pattern recognition and traffic analysis without data retention; it is actively eliminating traffic which it recognizes as 'normal' for the U.S. telecommunications system from the 'net' before it even begins to analyze the take. Then, it is using spintronic and quantum systems to perform nonlinear pattern analysis of the call data in realtime-"

"Okay, son, I see eyes glazing. Cut to the chase, please."

"Sorry, sir. In essence, it means we never save any data until it has been flagged as anomalous; we don't need to save it in order to analyse it. The pattern data from the call is retained in quantum state without the actual call data being available, so that its character can be compared later without the actual call information being held without warrant. This is possible because Syene has been, in essence, listening to everything our telecom system 'says' for the past year or so and knows what 'normal' sounds like, and she can filter out nearly all of that by simply ignoring what sounds familiar. What's left over - well, that's suspicious."

"Thanks, Park. You can get on with it."

"Thanks, sir." Park adjusted his earset and checked in with his team. They were watching data spool through the grid at rates that would have looked horrific if he hadn't been watching what Syene could do for six months now. "All clear, guys?"

The responses came back; all okay. The machinery was fine; the code was stable, and wonder of wonders, the qubits were deigning to remain in semi-existence.

"Okay, let's go live. Shunt the feed onto the grid."

There was a wash of green across the status board as telecom feeds poured into the dataspace of the Syene comparators. The green threads blossomed on the display, indicating trunk routings, calls, port connections; just as quickly, they blinked and vanished, indicating that Syene had identified them as familiar and blanked them from the incoming traffic. A very few threads began to appear in yellow, then even fewer in red on the second board, indicating traffic that was surviving the winnowing and being flagged as anomalous.

Park talked to his team for a half an hour, then turned to the watching officials. "It looks good. We've positively identified over 60% of the redflagged traffic as being encrypted at 2k-spin or higher levels, and not by us; of the rest, some is in clear but involving obvious nonsense sentence structures, likely code. Some few have been tagged by human analysts as likely mentally disturbed people on the telephone, and the numbers marked for greenlisting."

"Impressive, son." The Director looked pleased. "Very good. We're going to go upstairs. I'd like reports every shift, please."


* * *

It settled into a routine, punctuated only by the normal breaks of man-made machinery that broke or discovered new modes of operation that its designers hadn't intended. New procedures were hastily written up, new recovery processes devised, and the flood of chatter went on. The PuzzleBox hummed with the talking.

The next week, Park came in to see two threads on the status board that were purple. He frowned and called over the chief ontologist. "Hayward, what the hell are those?"

The other scratched his head. "We dunno. Syene tagged 'em. We've had a listen, and it sounds like some sort of analog encoding system, but it's not one we know."

"Unknown encoding systems should be red."

"Yeah, I know. We're confused too. But it's definitely an unknown encoding system. We're pretty sure that it's just because it's an analog signal mod as opposed to a digital hash that's making it purple. There's a couple of signal proc gurus beating on it in their spare time."

"Okay. Let me know if anything breaks."


* * *

Another week passed.

* * *

There were nine purple threads, now. Park had given in and reported them to the Director, who had become intensely interested in them and asked Park for a source. Park had demurred, since all they knew so far was that the calls contained undecipherable noises, which (as far as he was concerned) wasn't really a crime. But he did work at the NSA, and he passed on the phone numbers. Because he worked at the NSA, nobody told him anything about the result, but the purple threads continued to accumulate.

"I bet it's an own goal." The Syene team had started bandying hypotheses about the purple people eaters back and forth over lunch in the lab. So far, an own goal - detection of a friendly intelligence agent's communications - was on top of the betting pool by a comfortable margin.

Park shook his head. "Nah. It's analog, man."

The other tech retorted "Yeah, but we can't crack it. It's sweet. Why couldn't that be Upstairs?" (Upstairs being the active crypto division).

"Look, Upstairs wouldn't go analog. It's too kludgey for them. Besides, can you imagine a U.S. agent being told he's taking analog tech into the field?" There were titters around the break room table. "Yeah. They'd quit on the spot. If it doesn't look slicker than a fucking iPod, they won't have anything to do with it."

"So what do you think it is?"

Park finished his coffee. "I think it's a little guy who's got Ops over here who's been extremely clever with limited resources. Maybe it's a Shack Special." Shack Specials were another intel community in-joke, the crypto and communications version of a 'MacGyver' - a functional modern cryptodevice that could be put together with parts available at Radio Shack.

In the ensuing laughter, they drifted back to work.

* * *

By week three, there were twenty-eight threads on the board, and Park had gotten a little obsessive. He had taken to listening to samples of the traffic on his iPod when wandering the building (since it couldn't leave the SCF) and twice his team had had to hunt him down only to find him sitting meditatively on the john, three thousand dollar government issue noise-cancelling analysis headphones on his ears and his building pager screaming in his shirt pocket.

Finally, the Director called him Upstairs. He went, half guilty and half indignant.

"Come in, son."


"Have a seat."

Park sat.

"Fine job on Syene, first of all. Thing's working a treat. Very low false positive rate; much much lower than the old Echelon take."

"Thank you, sir. Sir-"

"I know. I want to talk to you about the purple threads."

Park stared at his boss's boss's boss's boss, trying not to look as defiant as he felt. "Sir, what the hell is going on?"

"You're right, by the way. They are traffic."

"Well, of course they are, or Syene wouldn't flag them, sir."

"Of course. D'you know what purple signifies?"

"Analog signal, sir."

"Heh. Nope. You should've checked the code."


"The display routines weren't written in your department. You made an assumption, son. Bad habit for an analyst. Purple means unknown."

"Of course it's unknown-"

"You're not getting it. Start over."

Park stopped, looked at the Director, and tried to think harder. Unknown. Syene had been listening to the U.S. telecom system for a year. Before that, it had been fed every single specification, every single frequency, every single linguistic text, every single voice sample, and every single tonal sample that the NSA owned from all its years of intercepting voice and data traffic.


"Oh, shit."

The director grinned, unexpectedly. "See? They told me you were smart."

Park had paled. "You're telling me those signals are...are..."

"You can say it."


"Give that boy a prize."

"But they're coming from our own telecom system!"

"So? So do the signals the Iranian agents send. So do the signals the fucking British agents send. They're illegal aliens too."

"But who are they? And who are they calling? But most of all, what are we going to do about it?"

"I'm glad you asked." The director reached behind his back and pulled a folder out of a stack of precariously balanced similar folders, placed it on the desk, and opened it. "Welcome to Project Simon Says."

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