Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Holy Shit, the Battle of Hastings!

Harold's Death, Bayeux Tapestry

In January of 1066, the King of England, Edward the Confessor, died. He had become withdrawn and indecisive in his latter days, which led to three separate claims on the English throne: Harold Godwinson (who was crowned), Harald Hardrada of Norway, and William, the Duke of Normandy. All three had fairly legitimate claims to the throne, but Harold got to it first.

Not to be deterred, both Harald Hardrada and William assembled expeditionary forces and planned an invasion of England. Hardrada was faster (maybe because he was a Viking). With 300 ships and about 9,000 men, he landed in the north and quickly took the city of York. Unfortunately for him, he underestimated Godwinson's resolve.

Harold (with an O) raced north, gathering an army along the way, and caught Harald (with an A) unaware at Stamford Bridge in September. The element of surprise was present to the extent that about a third of the Norwegian army only showed up after the rest of them were in full rout. Of the 300 ships that came to England, only 24 returned to Norway, and none of them carried Hardrada.
Battle of Stamford Bridge, Peter Arbo
That's him in the blue. He just got a new neck piercing. Ill-advised, as it turns out.
Harold Godwinson felt pretty good about that victory. For all of three days. In his furious march north, he had brought with him most of the levies that were meant to defend the south from William, which meant that when William landed there was pretty much no opposition. He built a small wooden castle at Hastings and started raiding the surrounding countryside.

After a grueling march and gruesome battle, Harold once again drove his forces across the country to meet an invader. Many of the details are unclear, but it appears that he favored speed over replenishing his forces. By the time he reached Hastings, his men were exhausted and battle-weary, and Norman scouts had spotted them, eliminating the element of surprise.
And coffee wouldn't even reach England for another several centuries!
Even so, the battle was far from one-sided. The English set up defensively on a hill, and the Normans repeatedly failed to dislodge them. At some point, a rumor started that William had been killed. Norman soldiers began to panic and run, which was ironically the spark that led to their victory. Foreign butts were mighty tempting to English swords, so the warriors holding them started breaking formations to reach them.

When William turned out to be alive -- and noticing the buttstabby lack of discipline -- he started using fake routs to shake loose the shield walls. While this didn't get the English off the hill, it did get them to expose their flanks, to which the Normans applied a liberal amount of charging horse. Things cascaded from there. the cavalry charge opened a path toward the King and his retinue, which led to the King's death, which sent the English into a full panic and essentially ended the battle right then and there.
Cavalry Charge, Bayeux Tapestry
And look! There were only like six of them!
Two months later, the Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England and given the name William the Conqueror. There were a few years of resistance but after Hastings England simply couldn't muster the strength to shake off the Norman Invasion. The consequences were staggering. The English aristocracy was systematically and thoroughly wiped out, replaced by William's vassals. Massive waves of refugees left England and settled elsewhere in Europe.

Even the English language was effectively destroyed by the Norman invasion. The kings of England for centuries after the Norman invasion spoke an old form of French, which gradually merged with English into a new Anglo-Norman dialect. That brings me to one of my favorite little tidbits of tangentially related history: Richard the Lionheart, arguably the most iconic Medieval King of England, never learned English.
And he certainly never learned a Scottish accent.
The Battle of Hastings is one of those rare moments in history where a few small decisions have a clear and massive impact on the rest of history for centuries to come. It was the deciding battle in the last successful invasion of England, almost a thousand years ago. It entirely broke England, reshaping it into something completely different, which has not been done to such a violent and rapid extent since.

Holy shit.

"A small cup of coffee" by Julius Schorzman - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

"Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" by Warner Brothers. Licensed under Fair Use

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Holy Shit, Stuxnet!

Nuclear Centrifuges

In June of 2010, researchers at a cyber security firm in Belarus called VirusBlokAda discovered a troubling bit of malware with a mysterious purpose. It used USB drives to transmit itself, bypassing Internet security. This was nothing new, nor was it overly troubling.

What was both of those things was the fact that this new malware was using multiple zero-day exploits. That's what programmers call an exploitable bug that hasn't been discovered or patched yet. Which means a fully-patched, fully up-to-date operating system with cutting edge security would still be vulnerable to it.
So not like the malware you'd only find on grandma's computer
It takes an enormous amount of effort and resources to discover a zero-day exploit, largely because there are legions of hackers constantly working to do just that in the interest of proactively preventing security problems. This malware, which came to be known as Stuxnet, used four of them. No malware up to that point had ever managed such a feat.

Even more baffling, Stuxnet did not appear to cause any harm once it infected a new system. It just sat in wait until either it could infect a new computer or a specific piece of hardware was attached to it. By painstakingly reading through countless lines of code, security experts were able to determine that its target was specific PLC systems.
Siemens PLC
Which basically look like boxes of plastic with some wires and lights on them.
A PLC is used to automate industrial processes, which is where you might start to feel uneasy about this whole story. A bit more digging and the process of elimination revealed the bombshell. The PLCs that Stuxnet was intended to target were almost certainly used to regulate industrial centrifuges at a nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran.
The other ways in are well-guarded and way less subtle. So flash drive it is, I guess.
At this point, the perpetrator of the Stuxnet cyber attack has all but tacitly acknowledged its role. But I'll give you two guesses. Who would have a major interest in sabotaging a nuclear facility in Iran?
Flag of Israel
Certainly a motive there.
But who would have the resources to assemble the team of gifted programmers, industrial experts and spies necessary to pull off a feat like that?
Flag of the United States
Spoiler Alert: it was probably both.

And make no mistake. It worked. It's hard to say how well it worked since any official planning or execution documentation is certainly and highly classified, but thousands of Iranian centrifuges mysteriously failed before Stuxnet was discovered.

This is obviously a win for American espionage, but it has broader implications that are staggeringly bleak. At some point, this operation, (known as Operation Olympic Games), and by extension the United States government, determined that there were four vulnerabilities which could potentially lead to industrial sabotage. Maybe even to catastrophic attacks on infrastructure. And rather than take defensive measures to fix the problem, they used it against another nation.

The use of zero-day exploits by nation states is potentially a Pandora's Box on par with the use of weapons of mass destruction. Stuxnet opened the box.

Holy shit.

"Gas centrifuge cascade" by U.S. Department of Energy - Public Domain

"Bonzi buddy". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

"S7300" by Ulli1105 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons
"Natanz nuclear" by Hamed Saber - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Holy Shit, School Shootings!

Mass Shooting Timeline

Let me just say right off the bat that I agree, there is nothing funny or entertaining about school shootings. They are entirely tragic and horrific, and though I'm almost always going for entertainment on this blog, I called it "That's Interesting" and not "That's Entertaining" for a reason.

With that being said, recent research into the mentality of school shooters has opened up terrifying insights into why they're becoming more of a thing. Don't get me wrong. School shootings are not a completely new phenomenon. As long as there have been privately-owned guns, there have been those rare few who think it would be fun to use one in a place of learning.

But until fairly recently, the phenomenon was exceedingly rare. Thankfully, it still is relative to most other violent crime. But the numbers are starting to look disturbingly like rain in an oubliette. The water is rising and we haven't quite found a way to divert it yet.
It's a dungeon with a high hatch as the only entry point.

Very recently, a new explanation has emerged to explain why this rare tragedy is starting to look more like a trend, and it's terrifying. It has to do with riots.

Mark Granovetter, a sociologist who studied paradoxical human behaviors about 40 years ago, set out to explain why people who are otherwise rational and peaceful will participate in a riot. What he eventually determined was essentially peer pressure. Any social process, he argued, is driven by thresholds. A threshold in this case is the number of people doing something, whatever it is, that we need to see before we define it as an okay thing to do.

So how it works is that someone with a low threshold -- a particularly hotheaded person, or maybe just someone looking for an excuse to cause some damage -- starts wrecking something. Someone else with a threshold of 1 joins in, because as long as someone else is doing it, it's probably okay, right? Then a few more join, and a few more, and pretty soon there are decent people surrounded by destructive frenzy, and everyone temporarily becomes willing to redefine what is normal, what is acceptable. The more it happens, the more it becomes normal.
Stanley Cup Riot

If you're thinking ahead at all, a sinking dread may be creeping up on you. Because Malcolm Gladwell recently suggested that this same principle can be applied over a longer period of time to explain the school shooting epidemic. The trend started, he argues, back in 1999. With Columbine. The shooters in that case were textbook psychopaths, but the media frenzy around their messages and preparations started a threshold. Since that time, people who commit mass shootings at school have slowly begun trending away from violent mental illness.

This is the Columbine Memorial. I have no witty comments.

The more it happens the more it becomes normal. We can reassure ourselves with the knowledge that people generally don't like to hurt each other, but if Gladwell's hypothesis proves true then it's going to get worse before it gets better. As he puts it, "The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts."

Holy shit.

NOTE: I avoided using any mass shooter's name in this post because it may be a contributing factor to the normalization of mass violence.

Dalibor Tower Dungeon, Prague Castle by kitonlove. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

"Riot in Vancouver" by Elopde. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

"Columbinememorial" by Denverjeffrey. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Holy Shit, Fondue!


If you're a middle- to upper-class American yuppie (or are friends with one), or are just some other type of foodie I haven't met yet, you know all about fondue. It's a bucket of melted stuff that you dip other stuff into. Traditionally, it's meant to be melted cheese and bread. Either way, it's kind of ridiculous when you think about it.

Who decided that dipping bread into a communal bowl of viscous cheese was a delicacy? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for jazzing up any dish with some cheese. But how did this become fancy? The answer, shockingly, has to do with war, corruption, and a veritable cartel dedicated to Swiss cheese.
Thug Life Cow
As much as I'd like it to be, the cartel was not run by literal Swiss cows

And I'm not making any of that up. The cartel was called the Swiss Cheese Union. It was founded in 1914 by Swiss dairy farmers in order to control cheese production and prices. You may recognize this as the exact principle behind OPEC. As an added bonus, the Swiss Cheese Union also decided what cheeses dairy farmers were allowed to produce. Only Gruyere, Sbrinz and Emmental were allowed, and farmers needed a license to make and sell any of them or they risked being blacklisted.
And before you ask, yes. There were cheese rebels.

The cheese cartel gained significant prominence after World War I, owing largely to the fact that the infrastructure of other European nations had recently and literally been burned and blasted to bits. Which meant most cheese in Europe was coming out of more-neutral-than-beige Switzerland. That gave the Swiss Cheese Union an enormous amount of power, because it turns out people can get pretty serious about their cheese. With some bribes and favors, the Union was able to get a few politicians in their pockets, leading to huge subsidies for their industry.

Still, the cartel was unsatisfied. They had the supply side of the cheese market pretty much cornered, but their marketing arm decided they could do something about the demand side as well. Luckily, there was a regional dish in certain Alpine areas known as fondue that could literally have people eating bucket loads of their product. The Swiss Cheese Union successfully lobbied to have fondue made a national dish of Switzerland, and pounded the ever-loving cheese curds out of their marketing efforts. Your knowledge of fondue, whoever you are, is very likely a result of this marketing effort.
Fondue Pot
Pictured: Corruption.

Eventually, the people of Switzerland got wise to the corruption involved in the cheese cartel, largely because what government spends so much money on talking about fondue? Dirty laundry was aired, people were jailed, and by the 1990s the Swiss Cheese Union was a shadow of its former glory. By 1999, it was completely dissolved, and a new era of freedom dawned for Swiss dairy farmers. But the legacy of the Swiss Cheese Union lives on today in every pot of melted cheese you stick your comically long fork into.
Fondue Fork
I'm suspicious of dishes that require a unique utensil to be eaten.

So next time you visit your local quirky, atmospheric little hole-in-the-wall fondue place, just remember the enormous and corrupt cartel that brought it to your attention.

Holy shit.

"Swiss fondue 2" by JHG (Julien29) - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

"Mozzarella cheese" by Jon Sullivan - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

"Fondue2" by -jkb- Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons

"Fondue fork" by Vearthy - based on the shape in the PONS Picture Dictionary - Polish-German + free wood pattern from Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons