Donald Trump tax return coverage shows that the Bible is obsolete?


My Facebook friends are excited by looking at Donald Trump’s 2005 IRS 1040 form. Does this show the obsolescence of the Bible in our modern age? Exodus says “You shall not covet,” but is silent on the subject of obsessing over someone else’s tax returns.

[As long as we’re on the subject of Exodus, note that “slavery” in Ancient Egypt was being subject to a 20% tax.]

Separately, I looked at Facebook and find it interesting how many inferences people are drawing and how confident they are in those inferences. Friends are saying that these two pages prove that the Trumpenfuhrer was not a billionaire in 2005 and also that they show that today’s King Donald I was heavily in debt (too bad there isn’t a line for “how much do you owe to Russians”). Given that 2005 was a boom year for building and investing in real estate, some of which expenditures would be deductible in the year incurred, I don’t understand what is surprising about returns that show both a lot of income (by my standards at least!) and a lot of deductions, netting out at $50 million.

What jumps out at me is the $6,299 in qualified dividends (what you get when you’re a shareholder in a typical U.S. public company). The S&P 500 had a dividend yield of 1.76 percent in 2005 (source). That implies a taxable public equities portfolio of about $360,000. Donald Trump was 59 years old in 2005. Instead of slowing down and reducing risk by parking money in a Vanguard index fund, this 59-year-old guy may have had all of his assets in projects and enterprises in which he was actively involved (a little tough to say because of the $67 million in Schedule E income from partnerships, real estate rent, etc.; there is no way to know from this form how much of this came from enterprises in which Trump had no active role).

Finally, does this show that we should be taking up a collection for the impoverished Mr. Trump? The adjusted gross income was $48.6 million. If we assume that Trump was like an S&P 500 member at the time and this $48.6 million is the 1.76 percent dividend, the corresponding asset base (net worth) would be roughly $2.8 billion in 2005. The S&P was at about 1,230 during 2005 and is currently at 2,365. So if Trump’s assets appreciated at the same rate as the S&P and he didn’t give away anything to his children or grandchildren during the intervening 12 years, he would have a net worth today of $5.4 billion (Forbes estimates $3.7 billion).

Airline losing a bag grows or shrinks the GDP?


On a recent trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado, I unwisely chose to fly to EGE, connecting in Denver, instead of flying to Denver, spending the night at 5,000′, and driving a rental car west to Beaver Creek (actually Arrowhead, at 7,400′).

United Airlines was kind enough to stamp my bag with “VIP” but then they proceeded to leave it in Denver during my two-hour layover. I waited for about 30 minutes after the flight had landed before waiting 15 minutes to talk to the baggage claim lady. The bag made it onto the next flight from DEN to EGE and was then driven to my friend’s apartment. I was reunited with my bag approximately 8 hours after the flight landed. I gave the driver a $20 trip (“this should cover half of your next Starbucks”).

The question for readers is did this grow, shrink, or leave the GDP unchanged compared to if United had delivered the bag on the carousel?

Arguments for growth: United paid the courier to deliver the bag. He also got $20 to spend at Starbucks or elsewhere. The courier company will purchase a new van slightly sooner because they had to drive a little bit extra. The courier company bought more gasoline than they would have. The courier delivered the bag at 8:08 pm, a time at which he might have been relaxing at home rather than working at any job.

Arguments for shrinkage: I had my laptop with me and worked that afternoon while adjusting (poorly) to the altitude. So I did 30 minutes less work while waiting around at the baggage claim. Maybe the courier could have taken a more productive job during the same hours if airlines weren’t constantly losing bags.

Readers: What’s the right answer? GDP grew as a result of this lost bag? It stayed the same? It shrunk?

[Note that the Denver airport was originally supposed to run with an automated baggage handling system. This became one of the world’s most notorious software and systems failures and probably wasted close to $1 billion. See this MIT study. Also this New York Times article.]

Why does it make sense for one company to own all of the ski resorts?


Vail Resorts bought Whistler last year for about $1 billion. This year they bought Stowe (Denver Post) for $50 million. Why does this make economic sense? Where is the economy of scale in running a ski resort? Especially when they are not geographically proximate. Vail doesn’t manufacture lifts, skis, or boots. They have a pass program that is good for multiple mountains across North America, but that could be arranged by agreement among resorts owned by separate companies.

I don’t think this is how it works in other parts of the hospitality industry. There is an economy of scale in establishing a hotel brand, but individual hotels are usually owned by separate groups of investors (i.e., two “Four Seasons” or “Marriott” hotels are unlikely to share ownership).

What’s different about skiing? Could it be that it is actually not that different? One reason why hotel owners contract to Marriott or Four Seasons is that those companies are good at training people. So maybe it is the same for ski resorts? The big operator can send people from an already-efficient mountain like Vail or Beaver Creek to Stowe and achieve operating efficiencies via better-trained employees? But if so, why does the company that trains and markets also have to physically own the mountain, the lifts, etc.?

Donald Trump-themed mini golf course?


I’m headed down to Ft. Lauderdale with the family soon (March 25-April 8; email if you want to get together! Going to Miami Open tennis at 11:00 am on March 29). Florida is the land of Trump and miniature golf. What would it look like if we combined the two?

Can we collaboratively design a Donald Trump-themed mini golf course? I will start.

Hole 1: Get the ball through a Vietnamese factory in which Ivanka Trump products are being sewn. Each sewing machine rotates a paddle that obstructs a tunnel. Green obstructed by miniature T.J. Maxx with protesters surrounding.

Hole 2: Navigate the ball through an airport ramp cluttered with Florida flight school and charter aircraft grounded because of Temporary Flight Restrictions imposed during a Trump visit to Palm Beach.

Hole 3: Replica of the Kremlin and Hermitage. Voice of Vladimir Putin telling you how and where to hit the ball.

Hole 4: Miniature 580-mile long existing U.S.-Mexico border fence/wall that is gradually extended to a full 1,989 miles at which point the ball has to be sent to miniature Canada before finally settling in the hole flagged “sanctuary city”.

Hole 5: Miniature Australia, complete with miniature South Pacific prison island, tries to send 1,250 refugee balls that spread across the fairway and clog the path for your ball. Players block the refugee balls by asking, in a New York accent, “If you don’t want these balls, why do we?” This drives a vacuum system to pull the refugee balls back to the miniature prison island.

Hole 6: Crashing stock market. Cutout of Economist Action Hero Paul Krugman in center of fairway shouting out advice:  go short! buy put options! flee to euros! Market is represented by a tilting green, which briefly tips down as votes are tallied but then gradually rises until it is tilted so high that it is impossible to get the ball over.

Hole 7: Women’s March. Mechanical string of pussy hats drawn across the fairway. If ball gets stuck in one, 20 points are added to player’s score in the “child support” row. If there are any attorneys on the course, player makes their mortgage, car, and kids’ college tuition payments.

Hole 8: Manhattan. Fairway clogged with miniature Secret Service fanning out for 10 blocks around miniature Trump Tower. Periodic showers of overtime cash in “NYPD” envelopes litter the green.

Hole 9: Kellyanne Conway. Woman kneels on couch in miniature Oval Office. Fairway is an obstacle course of upright posture scolds. Green is cluttered with signs reading “Sisterhood is sacred, but I hate conservative bitches.”

Hole 10: White supremacy. Entire fairway and green are made up of flush-mounted white supremacists. Miniature Trump comes out on the balcony of replica Linz Altes Rathaus and delivers speech that energies the white supremacists to pop up, thus preventing non-white balls from proceeding down fairway and green.

Readers: Your turn on the next 8!


Review: Boston Lyric Opera Rake’s Progress


Four of us went to see Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Boston Lyric Opera (through March 19). It is a great production, though the work isn’t geared for today’s short attention spans. As an engineer I was hoping to see a rake overcoming feelings of inadequacy as leaf blowers were introduced and then improved. However, the story is actually adapted from the Hogarth drawings.

There is so much great action in the Hogarth drawings, but little of it is portrayed in the opera (Stravinsky’s fault, not the BLO’s). Tom Rakewell sings about how respectable women are lining up to try to marry him for the cash (out-of-wedlock child-bearing for profit was impractical in those days), but we never see him spending time with any of these prospectives, only full-time professional prostitutes. Hogarth shows a packed gambling den, but it is missing from the opera.

The BLO does great work with the material and the orchestra is equal to the challenge of Stravinsky’s music.

The balcony is pretty high above the stage, so try to get tickets in the orchestra or maybe mezzanine.

A sign out front (picture below) indicates that “Gender diversity is respected… We see you. We stand with you. You are welcome here.” An unlikely-to-be-relevant message for a nearly-all-white Boston opera audience, median age halfway between 75 and dead? Au contraire! The opera features a marriage between a cisgender man and a “bearded lady” (the librettists did not have access to the current LGBTQIA glossary).

Tips for gourmets: they sell Twizzlers at the show (see below) and The Little Kitchen (Chinese food) is just a few short blocks away.

Ford Focus RS as a street racer


I watched a friend who combines Massachusetts driving habits with terrifying speed getting into a Ford Focus. “What happened to your monster Subaru with the crazy wing on the trunk?” It turned out that the humble-looking new car was a Ford Focus RS, a 350-horsepower version of a car that could get around town quite nicely with 80 horsepower.

He has just the regular Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires rather than the Sport Cup 2 (“they’re only good for 5,000-15,000 miles or so, and aren’t as good in the rain. It’s really more intended as a tire to put on for the track/rally, although some people do put them on the road.”).

How does this beast compare to the old Subaru? He says that it is much quieter on the highway and responded to my email:

My old car is a 2005 Subaru Imprezza STi, arguably one of the 2 best years for the car (in 2007 they put in a much less reliable engine). The entire car is stock except for the trailer hitch… It’s been a great car; I’d just continue to use it but it’s hit the hockey stick part of the curve for reliability (it has over 200,000 miles on it). I was also hoping to get better gas mileage from the new car (direct injection vs port injection) but it’s getting exactly the same average: 20 mpg.

If I could buy a brand new 2005 STi today I would. I actually don’t like the new ones as much (especially the engine). If they do an STi with a turbo version of the engine in the BRZ I might be tempted…

I have mixed feelings about the Focus RS as I mentioned the other night. I love the interior features (heated steering wheel & seats, very nice entertainment system, great Recaro seats, and one of the best features, steerable headlights (best headlight system I’ve ever seen). More usable space with the hatchback layout. The interior is much nicer than the Subaru.

Downsides? Lots of torque steer, handling isn’t all that great although there is fantastic grip (which I think is more due to the tires than the chassis), not as much power as I would have expected (in theory 345 vs 305 in the Subaru – yet I feel like the Subaru has more power).

My goal was to have a reliable car until the Tesla Model 3 is available. I do have occasional thoughts of selling the Ford and buying another Subaru, or else of sending the Subaru to a shop, tear it down and build it up as a 500 hp monster.

I found this evaluation interesting partly because it seems that, despite ever more glorious advertisements, there hasn’t been too much progress in the world of car engineering over a 12-year period.

Ford marketing: Build one of these in a minivan version and I’ll come down to the dealership for a test-drive!


Code Warriors (book about the NSA)


Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union (Budiansky 2016) is an interesting book despite the challenge of getting information about the NSA. It is timely because of the recent Wikileaks release regarding the CIA’s efforts to get hold of messages on smartphones before they are encrypted.

I had no idea that Edward Snowden relied on a social attack to get information:

In May 2013, a twenty-nine-year-old computer security expert who had worked for three months as a $200,000-a-year contractor for the National Security Agency in Hawaii told his employer he needed to take a leave of absence for “a couple of weeks” to receive treatment for the epileptic condition he had recently been diagnosed with. On May 20, Edward J. Snowden boarded a flight to Hong Kong, carrying with him computer drives to which he had surreptitiously copied thousands of classified intelligence documents.

It was a move he had been secretly preparing for some time, having secured the job with the specific aim of gaining access to classified NSA material. (He was ultimately able to do so only by duping more than twenty coworkers into giving him their computer passwords, which he said he needed for his duties as a systems administrator; most of the colleagues whom he betrayed were subsequently fired.)

Can it really be as easy to get a password from an NSA employee with a top-secret clearance as it is to get one from a 93-year-old AOL user? Apparently the answer is “yes”!

Since “women doing jobs involving numbers” is newsworthy today…

More than 70 percent of the staff at Arlington Hall were civilians, and by the war’s end more than 90 percent of those were women. A similar balance of the sexes quickly took hold at the Navy’s signals intelligence headquarters, across the Potomac River. The Navy had a deep tradition of never permitting a situation to arise where an officer might have to take orders from a civilian, and insisted on putting all of its new hires in uniform. But with its establishment in summer 1942 of the WAVES—Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, which allowed women to serve in the Navy as officers and enlisted personnel—the service was also able to freely recruit women for codebreaking duty, and some 80 percent of its cryptanalysts by the war’s end were female.

It is doubtful that Uber will be resurrecting one particular NSA tradition:

A photograph in NSA’s historical files from this period showed the finalists in the annual Miss NSA beauty pageant, the contestants in evening gowns and each wearing a sash bearing the number of the section they worked in.

Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, the smartest people may also be the nicest…

Von Neumann had been an intellectual prodigy as a child, able to divide eight-digit numbers in his head at age six. Throughout his life he could effortlessly recite entire books verbatim after a single reading, and equally effortlessly provide a running translation in any number of languages. Years later, after he got to know him well, Goldstine tried to test von Neumann by asking him how Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities begins. He was still going fifteen minutes later, without pause, when Goldstine finally stopped him. As a scientist, von Neumann had made seminal contributions to a bewildering array of fields, including game theory, quantum mechanics, economics, topology, and the theory of shock waves.

That day on the train platform the younger man, with some temerity, approached his world-famous colleague and introduced himself: Fortunately for me von Neumann was a warm, friendly person who did his best to make people feel relaxed in his presence.

The exciting age of code-breaking turns out to have mostly ended during World War II. The NSA funded a lot of powerful computers, but combinatorics worked against them.

The IBM 701, which IBM originally called the “Defense Calculator,” was much more of a number-cruncher designed to meet the needs of Los Alamos’s nuclear weapons designers, meteorologists at the U.S. Weather Bureau, and ballistics engineers at the Army’s ordnance labs. The new IBM machine that the company was now proposing was turning into the same bait and switch. In the summer of 1955, NSA agreed to provide IBM the $800,000 in funding it needed to develop the high-speed core memory that was to be the heart of the new “Stretch” computer. But meanwhile IBM also negotiated a deal with the Atomic Energy Commission to supply Los Alamos with a Stretch computer, too, for a fixed price of $4.3 million; then the company’s top management began to insist that whatever the final design, it had to be marketable to commercial users as well. “As usual the agency has a firm hold on the IBM leash and is being dragged down the street,” an NSA engineer assigned to keep tabs on the company’s work reported as the project progressed.

By the time the first machine was delivered to NSA in 1962, the price of the project had ballooned to $19 million, which did not include $1 million for supplies such as magnetic tapes and cartridges; $4.2 million for training, additional personnel, and software development; $196,045 for “installation”; and $765,000 a year in rental fees. IBM had resolved the problem of building a computer that could simultaneously serve scientific, cryptanalytic, and commercial customers by designing a flexible central processor, a high-speed arithmetic add-on unit for the AEC, and an add-on streaming unit for NSA, modeled on Abner’s “Swish” function. The special NSA add-on was called “Harvest,” which eventually became the name of the whole system; its official designation was the IBM 7950.

“There is not nearly enough energy in the universe to power the computer” that could test every setting of such a rotor machine, which had an effective cryptanalytic keyspace on the order of 1044. Even the “more modest undertaking” of recovering the setting of an individual message enciphered on such a machine whose internal configuration has already been recovered, which would involve testing about 1016 possibilities, would cost $2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 per message for the electricity required to power any known or projected computing devices.55 (In 1998 a $250,000 machine built with 1,856 custom-made chips successfully carried out an exhaustive key search on the 56-bit key DES encryption system—a keyspace slightly greater than 1016—in two days. But a 128-bit key, with a keyspace of the order 1038, can be shown to resist an exhaustive search even by the most theoretically energy-efficient computer that the laws of physics permit.)

With the exception of a short-lived and still-classified 1979 breakthrough using Cray-1 supercomputers against Soviet codes, the modern age is all about sifting through massive volumes of plain-language communications, planting bugs to get plaintext prior to encryption, and recruiting spies.

For decades, standard histories of the air war in Korea attributed the sudden improvement in mid-1951 in the kill ratio achieved by American fighter pilots against Chinese MiG-15 jets to the arrival of the new and more capable American F-86. During the final year of the war U.S. fighters shot down 345 MiGs in air battles with a loss of only 18 F-86s, a kill ratio of 19 to 1. In fact, the real breakthrough had come from pulling together all of the signals intelligence sources in one center so that they could be rapidly correlated and passed on to fighters in the air. “The present top-heavy success of the F-86 against MiG-15s dates almost from the day of the inception of the new integrated [signals intelligence] service,” reported an officer involved in the operation. On one day, a visiting ASA colonel observed the system in action as 15 MiGs were shot down without a single loss by U.S. F-86s. With more enthusiasm than originality, the colonel said it was “just like shooting ducks in a rain barrel,” but it was an unmistakable demonstration of the incredible force multiplier that the signal interception and reporting system had provided: not a single one of the MiGs was tracked on U.S. radar during the course of the battle; all of the information passed to U.S. pilots had come from listening, in real time, to the communications of the enemy controllers and planes.39 An analysis of ground control traffic in June 1952 concluded that more than 90 percent of MiGs engaged in air operations over Korea were being flown by Russians.

The most famous penetration of the U.S. embassy was the Great Seal bug, also discovered during Kennan’s ambassadorship. Having requested a thorough sweep of his residence and the embassy, Kennan was sent a security team from Washington. To check for any voice-activated bugs, one of the technicians asked the ambassador to sit at his desk at Spaso House after hours and go through the motions of dictating a letter to his secretary. Kennan, with a certain touch of humor, chose to read from his 1936 cable in which he did nothing but recycle his predecessor’s dispatches from czarist Russia to show that nothing had changed under the Communist regime. Suddenly detecting a UHF signal coming from behind Kennan’s desk, the technician began hacking at the wall behind a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that hung there. He then turned his hammer to the seal itself and pulled from behind the carved eagle’s beak a three-quarter-inch-diameter diaphragm-covered cylinder, attached to a short rod antenna.10 The seal had been presented as a gift from Russian schoolchildren to Ambassador Averell Harriman in 1945 and had hung there ever since. The American engineers who discovered it dubbed it “the Thing.” Its principle of operation was ingenious. The Thing was entirely passive, requiring no power supply and giving off no signal itself until it was illuminated by a microwave radio beam aimed from an adjoining building. As the diaphragm vibrated in and out in response to sound waves coming from the room, it minutely changed the shape, and thus the resonant frequency, of the cavity formed by the small cylinder. That slight distuning of a resonant frequency around 1800 MHz caused the strength of one of the harmonics of the incoming illuminating signal to fluctuate, producing a modulated radio signal of the same kind generated by an AM radio transmitter. The resulting signal could be picked up from a nearby location outside the building.

How did Americans find Soviet spies in their midst? “The science was settled” on the polygraph:

“The Director has repeatedly emphasized his firm conviction that the polygraph is more reliable and more protective of security than the background investigation,” his deputy for administration wrote in a 1956 memorandum that argued for periodically polygraphing existing civilian employees as well, to probe for “membership in subversive organizations,” “association with known or suspected subversives,” and unauthorized disclosure of classified information. …  The trouble, aside from the abuse of privacy and due process inherent in the whole business, was that conscientious but perfectly innocent people tended to show a “deceptive” response in the standard polygraph examination, while pathological liars sailed through. In their zeal to clear the initial backlog of pending clearances, NSA scoured police departments and private detective agencies around the country to hire supposed polygraph experts to administer the tests, which took place in hastily erected soundproof rooms at the U Street building.

How well did it work?

Staff Sergeant Jack E. Dunlap was the holder of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for “coolness under fire and sincere devotion to duty” in the Korean War. On July 22, 1963, he was found sitting dead in his car at his home near NSA headquarters, a length of radiator hose from the exhaust pipe running through the right front window and the engine idling. A month later his widow turned over to Army investigators a pile of classified documents from the attic of their home. She said her husband had told her that since mid-1960 he had been meeting a member of the Soviet embassy staff at rendezvous around Washington; in exchange for $40,000 he had supplied documents and hundreds of rolls of film containing pictures he had taken of classified material.

Dunlap’s motive was money pure and simple. He had walked into the Soviet embassy to offer his services, and the air attaché, Mikhail N. Kostyuk, had been all too happy to make the deal on behalf of the GRU.

Three months before his suicide, after applying for conversion to civilian employment at NSA, Dunlap admitted on a polygraph examination to having had “immoral sexual relations” with women and was moved to a “nonsensitive” position.

On an Army sergeant’s salary of $100 a week, he owned two Cadillacs, a baby-blue Jaguar sports car, a thirty-foot cabin cruiser, and a world-class racing hydroplane; he told coworkers a series of contradictory and patently fantastic stories to account for his sudden wealth, including that his father owned a large plantation in Louisiana, that he had made a successful investment in filling stations, that he owned land containing a valuable mineral used to make cosmetics, and that he had won the money as prizes in boat races. Nor did it exactly require a polygraph examination to uncover the fact that a married NSA employee who had begun dating an NSA secretary was possibly engaging in “immoral sexual relations.”

It seems to be tough to keep secrets in a country where people will do anything for cash. One of the big sellouts was “Ronald Pelton, an NSA cryptanalyst and Russian linguist who had worked on the agency’s most sensitive collection projects. … In exchange for $35,000 (he had asked for $400,000), he had arranged to meet with KGB officials at the Soviet embassy in Vienna on two occasions, submitting to lengthy interrogations. He told them about A Group’s success in breaking Soviet cipher machines, U.S. SIGINT satellites that targeted microwave telephone links throughout the Soviet Union, the U.S. embassy listening post, and an extremely secret Navy-NSA project that had deployed a submarine to install a tap on an undersea cable used by the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s headquarters in Vladivostok for its operational communications. The Soviets responded in 1981 by making an across-the-board change in their military encryption systems, bombarding the U.S. embassy with microwave jamming signals, and dispatching a salvage vessel to retrieve the cable tap from the floor of the Sea of Okhotsk.” Even after adjusting for CPI, that’s still only $93,502 in today’s mini-dollars, less than a tenth of what a Massachusetts child support plaintiff could get after having sex with someone earning $250,000 per year.

The author blames our entry into the Vietnam War, to some extent, on misinterpretation of signals intelligence:

Lyndon Johnson was fascinated by signals intelligence. Like no world leader since Winston Churchill, Johnson constantly demanded to see the actual translations of individual intercepted messages.

The South Vietnamese government was led by a corrupt regime that refused to hold elections and was made up largely of refugees from the North who had fled Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam; nearly all were Catholics and former soldiers or police officers of the French colonial government, and to many of the indigenous and primarily Buddhist South Vietnamese, they represented nothing more than a continuation of the hated colonial rule.

Then, on the night of August 4, [1964] eighteen hours after the initial skirmish—“the darkest night I’d ever seen at sea,” in the words of one of the Maddox’s radar operators, in rough seas with a heavy chop, with a low overcast sky—the Maddox and a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, fired hundreds of rounds in a wild, four-hour-long zigzagging encounter in which their crews claimed to have seen gun flashes, searchlights, torpedo wakes, and radar and sonar contacts indicating attacks by multiple enemy boats that fired twenty-six torpedoes. A welter of confusing and contradictory evidence in the ensuing few hours cast doubt on the whole incident. For one thing, the entire known North Vietnamese force of twelve torpedo boats could have fired at most twenty-four torpedoes. The Turner Joy’s far more experienced sonarman had detected no torpedo contacts. Neither ship had suffered any visible damage. The radar contacts had appeared and disappeared at all points of the compass; not a single continuous track was followed. The white streaks in the water that some crewmen reported, Herrick quickly determined, had been nothing but the churning created by the American ships’ own wild evasive maneuvers, dodging nonexistent torpedoes. Air patrols reported they had not seen any enemy vessels or wakes.

It was at that moment, with orders for the retaliatory airstrikes pending, that McNamara decided to become his own intelligence analyst in earnest, seizing on two signals intelligence reports that had just come in: one was a Critic from Phu Bai issued the night of August 4 reporting POSS DRV NAVAL OPERATION PLANNED AGAINST THE DESOTO PATROL TONITE 04 AUG. The second, which arrived at the White House just two hours after Herrick’s message casting doubt on the whole business, appeared to be an after-action report from an unidentified North Vietnamese naval authority: SHOT DOWN TWO PLANES IN THE BATTLE AREA. WE HAD SACRIFICED TWO SHIPS AND ALL THE REST ARE OKAY. THE ENEMY SHIP COULD ALSO HAVE BEEN DAMAGED.

The information NSA provided on the August 2 attack had shown the agency at its nimble best: it had decoded messages in virtual real time, flashed an alert to the commander on the scene in time to give him tactical warning, and had sent the White House within hours crucial additional evidence that the attack might have been an unauthorized adventure by an overly aggressive North Vietnamese patrol. Its reporting on the August 4 phantom attack that precipitated America’s large-scale military intervention in Vietnam was another matter. McNamara undeniably seized and ran with the evidence he wanted to believe, but NSA’s inexperience in intelligence analysis and frantic efforts to supply the White House with information in the heat of crisis was what allowed him to do so. “Everybody was demanding the SIGINT; they wanted it quick, they didn’t want anybody to take any time to analyze it,” said Ray Cline, the CIA deputy director at the time.14 In fact, it had been a leap of complete guesswork on the part of the analyst at Phu Bai who issued the Critic on August 4 that a new attack on the Desoto patrol was about to take place: the actual intercepted North Vietnamese message, which McNamara did not see, referred only to unspecified “operations” by patrol boats that night. And as for the second message, the seemingly even more decisive after-action report, analysts at the NSA watch center later acknowledged that there had been a difference of opinion whether this referred to the earlier August 2 attack or a new incident.

NSA’s subsequent efforts to cover up its mistake turned its sin from venal to mortal; what began as an innocent lapse became an act of deliberate falsification as the agency systematically concealed the truth, issuing a series of summary reports over the following days that backed with obedient certainty the administration’s position even as the evidence pointed completely the other way. Within days NSA analysts were privately convinced that no second attack had occurred. The evidence was overwhelming: unlike on August 2, there had been no tracking reports transmitted by any of the North Vietnamese coastal radar stations on the night of August 4. At the very time the August 4 “attack” message was intercepted, other messages from North Vietnamese boats repeated orders to steer clear of the Desoto patrol altogether and left little doubt that the only “operation” taking place that night was a salvage operation to recover two boats damaged in the August 2 skirmish.

A classified, searingly honest accounting by NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok in 2001 found that in bolstering the administration’s version of events, NSA summary reports made use of only 15 of the relevant intercepts in its files, suppressing 122 others that all flatly contradicted the now “official” version of the August 4 events. Translations were altered; in one case two unrelated messages were combined to make them appear to have been from the same message; one of the NSA summary reports that did include a mention of signals relating to a North Vietnamese salvage operation obfuscated the timing to hide the fact that one of the recovered boats was being taken under tow at the very instant it was supposedly attacking the Maddox and Turner Joy

The book also chronicles our failures during the Vietnam War to anticipate enemy actions such as the Tet Offensive. The Vietnamese were good at intercepting our own signals:

[warnings based on intercepted American radio traffic] had been sent ahead of 90 percent of Rolling Thunder strikes that targeted the northeast quadrant of the country. The warnings were giving North Vietnamese MiG pilots time to scramble and be waiting—and add to the toll of more than nine hundred U.S. aircraft shot down during the three years of Rolling Thunder.

My summary: We can use unbreakable codes, but it is probably better not to try to do anything secret because eventually a spy will rat us out by revealing the plaintext.

More: Read Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union

A Trump Purim Megillah


Happy Purim to all readers who are practicing Jewcraft!

I’m wondering if it is time to update the Book of Esther, which scholars say is roughly 2,500 years old. Here is a basic outline:

Old New
King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, holding a lavish banquet … orders the queen, Vashti, to come and display her beauty before the guests by wearing only her crown. She refuses. King Donald, ruler of a vast Manhattan real estate empire, is trying to find a decent burger and fries in the dark pre-Shake Shack days. Queen Ivana orders him to stop having sex with local concubines. He refuses.
Ahasuerus has Vashti removed from her position. Ivana sues King Donald.
Esther is crowned his new queen. Melania is crowned his new queen.
Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his viceroy Donald appoints Steve Bannon as his viceroy.
Haman plans to kill all the Jews in the empire. Bannon plans to kill all the Jews in the empire.
King Ahasuerus orders the court records be read to him in order to help him sleep. King Donald orders the Federal Aviation Regulations Part 121 to be read to him to help him sleep.
King Ahasuerus falls asleep. King Donald falls into a coma.
Queen Esther approaches to an outstretched sceptre and reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people. Queen Melania approaches to an outstretched Samsung phone and reveals that Bannon is refusing to shave because Jacob Schick has a Jewish-sounding name (video of Trump, Bannon, and team discussion of this issue).
King Ahasuerus orders Haman hanged on the gallows. King Donald exiles Steve Bannon to a lifetime of work at the FAA reviewing random drug testing compliance for single-pilot operators.
Headgear: Three-cornered hat. Headgear: Pussy hat.
Snack: Hamantaschen, a three-cornered cookie filled with prunes or poppy seeds. Snack: Muschitaschen, a hand-knit cookie filled with rage regarding injustice.

Readers: What else needs to be updated for Purim in the Trump Age?

DxOMark: Canon and Apple stagnating


Catching up with the latest tests at DxOMark…

Apple, though constantly breaking new ground in Social Justice, is falling behind in the cameraphone rankings. The latest Huawei phone puts up better numbers than an iPhone 7 (the 7 Plus should be named the Emperor’s New Clothes camera because nobody seems to have noticed that using the regular wide angle camera and cropping typically produces better results than using Apple’s 56mm-equivalent lens and sensor). The good news for Apple investors is that there is no substitute for American ingenuity. It is not like there has ever been a U.S. company that once dominated the worldwide photography market and subsequently went bankrupt.

Canon showed up late to the 1″-sensor compact digital market way behind Sony and their latest model is still way behind Sony. See also the poor dynamic range scores of the latest Canon M5 mirrorless camera compared to an old Sony A6300.

Meanwhile Sigma has gotten off its butt to make an 85/1.4 lens that scores better than the absurdly expensive and heavy Zeiss Otus (and therefore way better than anything from Canon or Nikon).

Sony now makes a 70-200/2.8 that is better than Canon and Nikon equivalents.

If you want to denounce Donald Trump at the Academy Awards, there is no better place to start than with a RED Helium camera, which put up a Spinal Tap-like score of 108 (out of what was supposed to be 100?).

Finnish version of Office Space


If you loved the movie Office Space, check out the Finnish reality TV version (14 minutes long): The Trainee (the background is explained on the Vimeo site; artist Pilvi Takala is the provocateur)

(Thanks to my friend Paul for this one!)


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