Launch

The alert in the silo went off.

The duty officers, Lieutenants Kestrel and Taggart, looked up at the light. Kestrel reached for his key. Taggart hesitated.

Kestrel put his key into his station and turned it. He looked over at Taggart, who was still looking at the light.

“Let’s go, Taggart. We’ve got the order.”

Taggart didn’t budge.

“Come on, Taggart, we got the go order.”

Taggart kept looking at the light. “Why?”

“Doesn’t matter. Light goes on, we turn the keys, press the buttons, launch the missile. We’ve done this before. We do it now.”

“But those were drills.”

“We didn’t know at the time. We launched and found out later. Time to do our duty again. You need to get your key, Taggart.”

“But…” Taggart looked back at Kestrel. “What if this one… is… real?”

“Makes no difference.”

“It could mean the whole world is destroyed.”

“No one lives forever, Taggart. Get your key.”

“This missile we’re supposed to launch. Where is it going to go? How many people will it kill?”

“Don’t know, doesn’t matter. We have orders.”

“I can’t be a murderer.”

Kestrel drew his sidearm. “Lieutenant Taggart, I am ordering you to comply. You know full well what can happen next if you do not.”

“Why didn’t you threaten me sooner? You don’t want to kill, either, do you?”

“Not you, I don’t. But I will, if I have to, in order to complete the mission.”

Taggart looked back at the alert. “Complete the mission… then what? What’s your endgame beyond that?”

“Probably die, if it’s real war and not a drill. And I will meet my maker and account for this launch without remorse.”

“And if it is a drill? And you shoot me?”

“Lieutenant Taggart, I am currently of the opinion that this is not a drill, as I have pointed my weapon at you. Drill protocol would be to suspend the exercise in the case of a reliability failure on the part of one or more participants. The alert is still on, and I do believe that this is the real thing. Produce your key – slowly – Taggart.”

“All right. I’ll get my key.” Taggart slowly reached into his shirt to produce his key.

“Now insert it.”

Taggart held his key above the lock in the console. Kestrel had a good argument. This could very well be the real thing. Missiles already on their way to the USA, complete destruction of… how many cities? Taggart remembered looking at a list of US cities by population. Texarkana was number 1000, population 37,225.

There were over 4400 Russian warheads. 4480, best estimate. What if each one was going to a city, in order of population? Number 4480 by population was a tie between Colby, Kansas and Connell, Washington, both population 5388. Highwood, Illinois had a population of 5387. One less person, and it’s not even in the running to get directly nuked. And how would a targeting officer choose between Colby and Connell? Would it make a difference after 62 and a half million people in the USA were already killed in the largest 100 cities?

So maybe Colby and Connell were off the hook, since missiles had to meet their marks on bases and European cities. Nobody would have to flip a coin to decide which one would take a direct hit and which one would deal with the aftermath. There was also the law of diminishing returns: the next 100 cities would net another 30 million casualties and the next 100 after that, maybe another 10 million, maybe 11. Where to stop? Number 300 is Flint, Michigan, population 99,002. 301 is San Angelo, Texas, population 98,975, a difference of 27 people. To Taggart, that seemed as arbitrary a difference as one.

About a third of the US population in just 300 cities, of population 99,000 or more… and there were quite probably missiles to spare after that.

And the US has its missiles, along with China, France, England, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Maybe even North Korea could lob off one or two, just to join in on the historical moment when humanity decided that there should be no more history. 4800 in the USA; between 200 and 300 each for China, France, and England; 110 in India; 120 in Pakistan, and; 80 in Israel. North Korea had less than 10. Just over 10,000 for the world, much reduced from the peak of 64,000 in 1986 – today’s number was the lowest since the 8200 in 1958.

1958… 7300 of those warheads were in the USA, and we were terrified of the 860 in Russia. Today, a few thousand less in the USA, a few thousand more in Russia, and everyone seemed to be used to the terror by now. And the top 1000 cities in the world by population reached all the way down to Rasht, Iran, population 519,418. Total population in those cities came out to 1.2 billion. Even if the next thousand were all population 500,000, that would only be another half a billion – those diminishing returns, again.

And yet, those 10,000 missiles all had a target, superfluous though it may be. Some targets had 2 or 3 missiles for them, just in case there was a misfire or other malfunction.

“Come on, Taggart. I need you to put that key in there.”

Taggart’s thoughts continued to rush through his mind: the facts, the figures… surprisingly few feelings. Taggart realized that lack of feelings and figured it must be shock. If it had been a minute since the alert came on, then the missiles heading toward the USA were already 6 minutes into their flight… unless this was a first strike, which meant those Russian missiles would be launching in 9. The sub-launched missiles needed only ten minutes to get to their targets. The ground-launched would need about half an hour. Bombers would reach their destinations in 7 to 9 hours, looking for targets that escaped destruction via missile.

Electromagnetic pulses would wipe out communications for most people outside the silo. That could wind up being their only warning that something was about to happen. Within 2 hours, about 5% of the land surface area of the involved nations would be on fire, predominantly in areas associated with cities over, what? 99,000 population? 50,000 population? Maybe three-fourths of the world’s manufacturing was about to be destroyed. Smoke from those fires would drop the global temperature like an outbreak of massive volcanoes.

Within 12 hours, there would be no effective government left in the combatant nations. Hospitals would be cruel jokes. Radiation from the fallout would be delivering lethal particles onto the exodus of survivors to the rural hinterlands. In about five days, the temperature would be down about 13 degrees Fahrenheit. In about two weeks, radiation sickness would be raging among surviving populations. Epidemics and crop failures would follow. World population would drop by about 20% after the first few months. Things would get worse as global agriculture collapses due to a lack of pesticides and other chemicals most farmers were dependent upon. Another 20% of the global population would die within a year.

And then?

Mankind would recover, more or less. Maybe the die-off would continue until the world population was down to pre-industrial revolution levels, maybe it would level off in the 50-60% range and then grow again.

This missile’s potential casualties would hardly make a difference in the total, one way or another. Another missile would likely do the job of this missile, if it failed to launch. His participation in this mission was completely meaningless, succeed or fail, from an overall military perspective. One warhead of 10,000 failing to launch would be merged with the other 10-15% that failed to launch, for whatever reason. What difference would it be if only 39.9999375% of the global population died instead of 40%?

And so, Taggart asked himself if he could face God and state that it was right to launch that missile and, in so doing, be accountable for the deaths of whoever it slew. Just because they were going to die was no reason to be their executioner instead of some other person.

Speaking of executioners, Taggart looked at the weapon in Kestrel’s hand. Then Taggart looked within himself and placed his key on the table in front of him. It was too big to swallow and there was no place to throw it, but there was no way he was going to put his key to use.

Maybe another thirty seconds had passed. Maybe 10. Judging by the hardening resolve in Kestrel’s eyes, Taggart knew that he likely didn’t have long to live.

But Taggart also knew that, when the time came, he could walk peacefully into the light.

A Discussion of the “Confederate Flag”

What most people call the Confederate Flag is actually an elongated version of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which itself would have been an interesting footnote in Confederate history were it not for the use of that flag as a symbol promoting the Lost Cause movement and, later, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. I explore the facts and mythology surrounding the flag in this video. If you enjoyed it, be sure to like it, share it, and subscribe to my channel.

The End Is Near!

Of course, the title needs some qualification. “End” can mean a lot of things, thanks to its multiple meanings. In this case, I mean the end phase of the run of Western Civilization. As for “near”, speaking of processes such as these can mean anywhere from 50 to 500 years, depending on the breaks. Sorry if anyone wanted an immediate, everything goes all at once scenario, but that’s not historically probable. These civilization things tend to lurch towards their finish, not hit the wall and then vanish. When a historian or archaeologist says “suddenly”, he usually means, “over the course of decades”.

Classic Mayan civilization, took 100 years or so to grind to a halt, and it’s not like the Mayans vanished off the face of the earth. They just started their Postclassic period, which saw the population centers shift northward and change their architectural styles. The Romans didn’t suddenly cancel their empire in 476: the thing had been falling apart since the reign of Commodus, back around 190. 476, by the way, was just a date set for the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire wasn’t totally wiped out until 1453, although it had been in definite decline since around 1050-1100. These “end of civilization” things take time.

But they do happen, and the onset of decline is typified by a convergence of crises. The 20th Century was one of the worst ever for Western Civilization: two horrific global wars, a global economic depression, and massive erosion of traditional values and virtues. The 21st Century started off with a global economic depression that got papered over by central banks in a desperate effort to contain its potential damage. The result of that has led to major upheavals in Europe among nations economically trapped by their Euro membership. Tensions run very high between the West and its rivals in Russia and China, with both those powers eager to pick away at the edges of the West and expand their spheres of influence.

Even the key ideal of The West, that our aspirations are unbounded, is challenged with the realization that resources are finite and that some barriers are insurmountable. Perhaps we can put a man on Mars, but to what avail? What would a colony of humans there profit us? No, Tibet is as far into space as human colonization will go.

Look also to our architecture. Where once cathedrals and skyscrapers reached for the stars, now we build with an eye towards greener construction, with preservation of resources foremost in our minds. The very fact that we now think electric power doesn’t come cheaply is a strong opposite to the ideal that we could have power “too cheap to meter.” Like the case of the Mayans – and it was also true for the Romans, by the way – when the architecture changes, it’s a sure sign that the civilization is changing with it.

Changes in architecture, doubt of the core ideal, and crises accelerating and deepening: all these are signs that the end of Western Civilization is upon us and that it will convulse and grind along until the people in the lands once dominated by its thinking choose to think a different way. And that’s really not a bad thing, in and of itself.

The idea of preservation, conservation, and stewardship of resources is emergent not just as a fad of the times, but as an actual challenging idea to that of Western Civilization. It’s not yet ready to take flight on its rise, noontime, and fall over a millennium, but it will. Perhaps one day, maybe 50, or maybe 500 years from now, we’ll see this new way of thought dominate the minds of men… and then another way of thought will come along, after that. Such is history.

But to say, “The end is near!” is to also say, “The beginning starts soon after that!”

Master of the Void

To be sure, space travel sure is a lot easier, now that humans don’t need food, water, or even air. Immortality means precisely that – not dying, no matter what. But space travel being easier doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily something to look forward to.

I still remember the day I returned to life, when I got this body that never needs and, as a result, never dies. Truth be told, I was hesitant about returning to life. I didn’t have such a good run, my first time around. Lots of regrets in that life, even if I didn’t experience those regrets until after I returned to life. I wasn’t a good person in my mortal life, not by a long shot. But, still, they found a way to give me that so-called great gift that everyone else received. And now I’m here.

Artificial intelligence isn’t necessary if a human intelligence can be surrounded by a form-fitting capsule and then launched into space, that great deficit of matter and time. My perfect recall is now the new instrumentation array for this space probe, and it’s all free of charge to the powers that be. The only mechanism is the radiation filter. And what does it do? Why, it filters the visible light from distant stars, all of it, so that if there is any visible light to be seen in this void, I will know of it.

There is no light in my capsule, not a flicker. Frozen but unable to die, the cold pierces my bones, but I am beyond physical pain. I am conscious, however, and the mental pain… I never got used to that. How long have I been traversing the Great Void? My mortal self would have forgotten long before perishing. My immortal self knows exactly the time spent here: but the years and days of my home on earth mean nothing in this emptiness. I am somewhere between the beginning and the end of time, and I have eternity to search for light. In the meantime, I have only my memories as companions.

And I thought it was dark before I entered the void… pinpricks of starlight growing fainter and farther as I plunged ahead into this absence of matter and time. Anything further than 10 megaparsecs, that light I do not see. I’m told that this void is close to 400 million parsecs in diameter, and I get to cross the whole of it. There’s supposed to be a small bubble of 17 galactic clusters in a 50 million parsec area somewhere in this void, but I don’t think my trajectory will be within 10 million parsecs of any of them.

They knew who I was when they brought me back to life. My victims were alive before me. Dead men tell no tales until they’re resurrected, and then it truly is Judgment Day. I couldn’t argue, not with them there before me, those innocents… those little innocents… It’s like I’d already been convicted before being brought back to deathlessness, and my punishment decided upon.

They’re fairly certain I won’t find anything out here. I’ll be here for billions of years – and then what? I don’t know. And what if I do see something? How do I let anyone know? Why would they want to hear anything from the likes of me?

My perfect eyes never shut, and I never sleep. I am always at rest. My perfect mind never hallucinates or delves into delusion, so I always have my reality before me and within me. I do wonder about the end of time, where that would place me. Will I even know when time ends? Or will I eventually move beyond the gravity of any other body in the universe, and rip away, my matter to never again participate in the fabric of life?

I guess I’m already in such a state. I am rejected by the human family for my crimes, and I now exist outside that vibrant, joyous community. My victims didn’t hate me, but I couldn’t stand being around them. I suppose I can’t really be around anything alive, such is my punishment. Dead, my spirit still knew the earth and its haunts. Alive once again, and I am the lord of all that I survey, for 10 million parsecs all around me. There is nothing to oppose me, nothing to stop me, nothing to impede me in any way. I can reach for the stars, but they shall forever be beyond my grasp.

I am ruler over the darkness outside the universe, and I would never know if any other being laid claim to the radius of nothing that extends from my person. My infinite, timeless kingdom is also my prison cell where I face the darkness to equal the light I once extinguished. If I could live my life over differently, I would, but I am the only matter for 10 megaparsecs because I did not live my life the way I should have.

If only I did not have a perfect ability to experience regret, perhaps I could rejoice somehow in being master of the void!

If only…

The Truth About Dragons

Sir Philip called down to the peasant on the road. “Hoy! Be thou from Daneshire town?”

The peasant made a half-bow and responded, “Aye. I be from yon Daneshire township. Who be thee?”

“I am Sir Philip, late from the courts of King Richemonde, the Wise. I am on an errand from my lord, the king, and it doth bring me to these parts.”

“Oh? On errand, eh? And what errand might this be?”

“I seek the dragon of the lands north of Daneshire.”

The peasant’s face took on a similarity to a recently-plowed spring field. “Why?”

Sir Philip’s head recoiled from the directness of that question. With frown emblazoned across the base of his face, he said, “Impertinent one! Knowest thou to whom thou speakest?”

The peasant shrugged. “Apologies, sir knight. Forgive mine surprise in hearing thou seekest the Dragon of Daneshire. Why, sir knight, seekest thou the dragon?”

Appeased, Sir Philip responded, “To prove my virtue in arms.”

“What, thou plans’t kill ‘im?”

Sir Philip tolerated no more of the peasant’s uncivility. “Out of my way, varlet, I would pass thee now!” He spurred his horse as the peasant made clear the way to Daneshire.

“Ignorant peasant!” Sir Philip couldn’t get the bumpkin’s lack of respect out of his mind. The three miles to Daneshire were thoroughly unpleasant, full of reflections on the peasant’s churlishness and villainy. When finally Sir Philip did arrive in the unremarkable town of Daneshire, he was at least able to distract his disgust in the search for the reeve of the town. Daneshire existed at the far reaches of King Richemonde’s demense, and, as such, there was no manor nearby to appoint a bailiff over the settlement. Such a mannerless and uncouth realm!

But Sir Philip hoped to make a change to all that. With the hoard to be had in the cave of the dragon, why, he could build a strong, walled manor and become a landed knight with Daneshire as the beginning of his barony. Would that it could be less a forsaken borderland was the wish of Sir Philip, but ’twas only in the forsaken borderlands that new nobility could be made.

There being not many souls in the town, the search for the reeve was brief and conclusive. A clean, well-dressed peasant presented himself. “I am Fastulf Huldriksen, reeve of Daneshire. At thy service, good sir knight.” Fastulf made the proper half-bow for due deference to a mounted knight of the king.

“I would dismount and converse with thee, reeve.”

Fastulf gestured to several men to approach Sir Philip, to assist him in dismounting. The reeve motioned for the visitor and the men bearing his arms to enter the town hall, while a pair of men took Sir Philip’s horse to provender it.

Sir Philip pointed to a suitable corner and Fastulf nodded a the men with the arms, who placed them in the corner with care. Sir Philip’s black hair topped his scalp, its length a sharp contrast to the shaved back and sides of his head. His clean-shaven face made him stand out further from the bearded, blond rabble of the peasantry.

With the weapons in a corner, Fastulf ordered two chairs be brought to set facing the central hearth and that a fire be stoked there. The knight seated himself first and Fastulf took the chair of second preference. He then asked, “What bringeth thee to Daneshire, good sir knight?”

“Reeve Fastulf of Daneshire, I am here on errand from King Richemonde the Wise.”

“Long live the king.”

“I am here to bring gentility to this wild land. I am of a mind to do great works that would earn for me a barony.”

“Very good, sir knight. And how may the people of Daneshire be at thy service?”

Sir Philip appreciated the manner in which the reeve observed protocol. “I would know more about the Dragon of Daneshire.”

Fastulf nodded and leaned towards Sir Philip. “And what would thou wish to know?”

“Tell me first of its habits. How does it move about? What does it eat?”

Fastulf surmised from Sir Philip’s questions that the knight intended to hunt the dragon. “The great beast, though capable of flight, uses that mode infrequently, preferring to roam its territory on legs. We have seen it walking with stately gait, and striking its prey from cover with a pounce most rapid. Its prey is typically the deer or elk of the forest or the ram of the mountain. Rarely will it strike a bison of the plain.”

“And how did the people of this town come to see the dragon do these things?”

“Good sir knight, we travel to the lands of the Cumbri for trade in amber and tin, and the road to the Cumbri passes through the territory of the dragon. For many years have we seen the dragon and its ways.”

“And has it ever slain a man or the horse of a man?”

“Nay, good sir knight. Nay. Never has the dragon given us cause to fret or worry.”

“But what of hunters in that area?”

“We hunt not in the territory of the dragon. We hunt not where the king claims his woods and neither do we hunt where the dragon claims his lands.”

Sir Philip raised an eyebrow. “So would thou sayest that the dragon is rival to the king?” Already, Sir Philip entertained designs on the tribe of the Cumbri and how they might be conquered after he slew the dragon.

Fastulf looked into the fire, which did fill the hall with its warmth. He did ponder Sir Philip’s question carefully. He spake, “The people of Daneshire know the benevolent rule of King Richemonde. Him do we serve, and none other.”

Sir Philip wanted a different answer. “Nay, reeve, doth the dragon possess a mighty power, that the folk of this land do fear, even as they would fear the king?”

Fastulf nodded. “Aye, good sir knight. The people of Daneshire dare not to take their flocks into the borders of the land of the dragon. Why, only one man that I know doth live in the lands of the dragon.”

“Hold, Fastulf. Thou sayest a man liveth nigh unto the dragon?”

“Aye, Rolf Klintsen, he is the man. He maketh his home upon a cliff that overlooks where lives the dragon, where the quiet alloweth him to know better his Maker.”

“A holy man, this Rolf?”

“Aye, good sir knight. A holy man, indeed. He doth offer up prayers and supplications on our behalf, and we have known the blessings of his devotions.”

Sir Philip looked into the fire. “I would meet this holy man, if he would be able to speak more to me of this dragon. Comes he oft into the town here?”

“He doth, from time to time, as it pleases him to get grain or paper, or to mind his letters to and from the Father Superior of the monastery in Ogham.”

“Then I should have a room here in Daneshire, that I might be present when returns the holy man.”

“As you wish, good sir knight.”

And so, Sir Philip did reside two days in Daneshire, in wait for Rolf Klintsen, the monk of the dragon-lands. On the third day did Rolf arrive in town, and the reeve did introduce him to Sir Philip. Rolf did give his assent to converse with Sir Philip, on condition that the two would be seated in a garden plot.

“What, among the vegetables and the worms?” But Rolf would have it no other way. Being a man of God, he was not subject to the command of the knight. Sir Philip did relent, and the two sat where they did overlook the cabbages, carrots, and turnips.

Rolf asked the first question. “Sir Philip, do you mean to hunt this dragon? And to slay him?”

“I do, indeed.”

“Then I would dissuade you from such a task, for it is fraught with danger and promises little reward.”

“My king does not permit me to consider danger.”

Rolf allowed Sir Philip’s bravado to pass over him. “So it is. What then, dost thou know of the dragon, Sir Philip? For whatever thou knowest to be true, shall be one less thing I would be needed to teach thee, and whatever thou holdest as truth, but is false, that I shall be able to correct, that a falsehood not prove to be thy undoing.”

“Fairly said, holy man. Here is what I have heard of the dragon, that it is a mighty hunter of beasts, and that it doth hold sway over its lands, as does a lord. And the bards of the court sing of the vast treasures that it has amassed in its cavernous home, where dwarves beat its gold into grand jewels; that the dwarves are enslaved not by the dragon, but by their love for the grand hoard of gold. Their songs tell of how the dragon once did battle with the king of the sea-raiders, and how the dragon did slay that king, with breath of fire; that the dragon did bind the servants of that king to place the king’s treasures on ships and sail them back to his cavern, lest he slay them with breath of fire, as befell their lord and master. Heard I the song of the fall of the Darini, who did anger the dragon when they paid not their tribute of ten virgins one year; that the dragon did lay waste their lands with fire and violence; that the Woluntii followed in the wake of the dragon and did take hold of the lands of the Darini, that the name of that people is known no more. Truly, the dragon is a rich and powerful beast, full of cunning and malice. That he troubles not these lands is plain: they are poor, and the people trouble him not – there is nought to be gained in plundering…” he motioned over the garden “… cabbages.”

Rolf smiled. “Well, good sir knight, there is much that you do know. And verily, the dragon is a mighty hunter, and, yea, it doth hold sway over its lands. But it lives not in a cave.”

Rolf motioned outwardly from his person, describing a great circle. “It maketh a great ring for its lair, a wall with no gate, for it doth fly over the wall as it sallies forth to hunt its prey. Sheer are the walls, half as thick as they are tall, and fully the height of two men are these walls.”

Rolf held two fingers up. “Dirt and dung, these are the stuffs of which the walls are made of. The dragon mixeth his dung with the dirt and useth its tail to beat the mixture into shape. The sun baketh this mud, and it becometh like unto stone in durability. Safe from man is the dragon in his lair, lest a man bringeth a ladder and a bow, or two ladders and a lance.”

Sir Philip did not like this learning. What use was a lance without a horse to deliver the power needed in the blow? Would he have to lay siege to a dragon’s fort? Or, perhaps… “What of the dragon as it hunts and feeds? Doth it show any vulnerability? Wouldst I be capable of striking it then, from my mount?”

“The dragon is quick to respond, good sir knight. It sleepeth not outside its lair and it, like thee, feareth not the dangers of battle. Truly have I seen it brave the antlers of the bull elk and prevail. And especially ferocious it can be when a rival enters its territory.”

“A rival?”

“Aye, sir knight, a rival. There is a she-dragon as well as a he-dragon in these lands, and I have seen, twice, a rival enter these lands, for to claim the she-dragon for its own. Twice have I seen the dragon of Daneshire send his rivals flying to other lands, after battle fierce with claw, bite, and fire.”

Sir Philip had secretly been hoping that the dragon-fire detail had been but a legend. That it was actually true troubled his heart and clouded his mind. “So you have seen this dragon fire, holy man?”

“Yea and verily, sir knight, yea and verily. As sure as I have seen the dragon in its lair, asleep like unto a cat on a hearth.”

“Like unto a cat, say thee? So he sleeps well on his mounds of gold?”

“Nay, good sir knight. There is no gold in the lair of a dragon. There is but the ground where he maketh his bed and a spring from which he drinketh.”

“Egad! No gold?”

“Nay, good sir knight. The tales of dragon’s gold are but stories told to fill the darkness of night with the illuminations of imaginings. Likewise, I am certain that no dragon has wrought the downfall of a kingdom, nor has any exacted a tribute of virgins, or any other sort of tribute. Again, such things are the stuff of fancy, meant to entertain, but not educate.”

No gold meant a serious obstacle to Sir Philip’s plans to fund the building of a manor house. Still, if the dragon could be slain, such a feat could still earn him a baron’s title. Then, plunder from the lands of the Cumbri might produce enough for the beginnings of a noble estate. “No matter. The dragon is a worthy foe, and honor shall I bring to my king with its head presented as a trophy.”

“Hm. The time for a dragon hunt is not opportune, for it is their mating season. The dragon of Daneshire tends to be in the company of his lady. A fight with one dragon, I would not want to have, and a fight with two would be foolishness, indeed, even for a score of men-at-arms.”

“When ends the mating season?”

“In thirty days or so, good sir knight. Following that time, they become solitary, though the sir will bring his dame gifts of food, to sustain her and her young, who stay with the dame for five years. One would never wish to hunt the dame, for she is always in the company of her brood, and they are as fierce as she.”

“Then hunt the sir, shall I, a knight for a knight.”

“Ah, good sir knight, but even then, I would not think such a course to be wise, and I would inform you sufficiently to stay thee from this course.”

Sir Philip adopted a condescending tone. “Oh, holy man, great is thy wisdom and learning, and I thank thee for the profit I have enjoyed of’t. But leave unto me mine own knowledge of the hunt, for skilled am I in such arts.”

“Well, good sir knight, wouldst thou approach him from the front?”

“Nay, holy man, for he doth bite.”

“Wouldst thou approach him from the side?”

“Nay, for fierce are his claws.”

“Then wouldst thou approach him from behind?”

“Yea, for his defenses are weakest in that quadrant.”

“I would advise against that, good sir knight.”

“And why sayest thou such a thing, holy man?”

“Well, good sir knight, that is the matter of another falsehood of the bards.”

“And what is that?”

“Verily, verily I say unto thee that a dragon doth not breathe fire… ”

Meet the Hackers

Hackers… they’re a bunch of social misfits, loners, hoodie-wearing, energy drink slamming programming geeks, right? Well, no. They’re not. The bad guys with computers are not the sort to slide easily into media stereotypes. Most of them are members of criminal organizations or have nation-state backing. Awkward loners don’t fit in with the Russian Mob or the People’s Liberation Army. Gotta have team players in those groups.

Hackers don’t always use computers, either. Social engineering – also known as running a con job – is incredibly effective and simple to do. You’d be surprised how many people will give out their passwords when accused that they’re not strong enough. “Why, you better believe I got a secure password! It’s +O;66fg#3.>ha!” Hint: the password isn’t secure anymore if it’s been read out loud to someone else. It’s also not secure if it’s written on a notepad or post-it note.

Do you have someone that’s always asking questions about where things are on the network? That’s possibly social engineering. One guy did that at a company and learned where the financial data was stored. After a two month interval, a tiger team broke into the server room and stole that exact server. The thieves were caught and the connection to the inquisitive employee became evident. The people at that company were shocked to discover that a guy they all considered to be a cheerful, bumbling, balding co-worker was in fact in league with organized crime.

That guy, and others like him, are well-camouflaged. They blend in. They go to lunch with the rest of the gang. They have neither an excess, nor a deficit, of cool. They live in apartments and homes, they watch sports and reality teevee shows, they drink beer, they may not even know anything more technical than how to copy and paste and add an attachment to an email. Because, face it, if a guy copies a sensitive document and then sends it to someone that shouldn’t have access to it, that’s a data breach. A hack. And the guy that did it could have been a total shlub.

True, he could have been a more exotic chap, say, a soldier in an army unit responsible for espionage via computers. But that guy’s not working alone. He’s also not working on a short timetable. Guys like him or the organized crime types have all the time and patience in the world to find where the weaknesses are in an organization and then exploit them. They develop custom code, just like other corporations do, but their custom code is dedicated to undermining their target, rather than developing just-in-time strategic synergies. Most of what they do goes undetected for the simple reason that the vectors they use are either ones that haven’t been used before or their target isn’t looking where they’re active with .

If you like the shows with slick hackers with social flaws, keep on enjoying them, along with everything else that’s been Hollywood-ed up. But in your real life, the guy compromising your financial data is going to buy a case of beer and then have a trip to Disneyland. Be careful about the questions that you answer and hope that you’ve got a security team that has a data loss prevention tool in place, among other things.

The Myth of Efficiency

Would you like for your car to run faster? Well, it’s easy. Just shed excess weight on the vehicle. Get rid of the doors, seat cushions, seat belts, airbags, windows, the roof, electronic systems, and man! That car will MOVE!

What’s that I hear you say? It will be unsafe? Well, pardon me, but you wanted it to be faster. You said nothing about preserving the current level of safety.

And although I doubt that any sensible person would want to drive that vehicle at top speeds, we do precisely the same things with our Internet usage and our programs and apps. We want them to be as fast as possible and, if it means less security, we accept the higher risk by saying “I’ll be careful!” and then going forth to enjoy the higher efficiency without really being any sort of careful at all. Why?

It’s simple to my mind. Our brains are well aware of the possible bodily harm that can result from a car accident, so we reject a tradeoff of mayhem mitigation for super speed. But a computer application? A website? No physical harm can result from using those things, so why not worry less and enjoy them more? We simply don’t think of the potential financial and personal wreckage that could result from unsecured data transfers. We fail to see that the injuries from unsafe computing are very real and very damaging and very permanent. If we did see what could happen, we’d ask for the digital version of safety belts, every time.

I’ll point a finger at programmers and designers: they want their customers to have the smoothest experience possible. That smooth experience makes money or facilitates the making of money, so it’s no small thing. But, again, the blindness to the risks in the digital world mean that those designers and programmers aren’t necessarily thinking about the safety of that experience. This is particularly evident in the emerging area of “smart controls”. Smart controls basically turn a phone or a laptop into a giant remote control device for something that used to not be remotely controlled.

Even the idea of remote control doesn’t sound all that bad. Our teevee remote controls do just fine, don’t they? But would you maintain that benevolent attitude towards your teevee remote if some kid a mile away was able to interfere with your choices and put your channel choice on anything he wanted? It’s no mistake that a “nightmare scenario” in many a spy thriller or sci-fi flick involved The Bad Guy taking over the airwaves and forcing the world to watch whatever he dictated. Stuff like that really freaks us out. Well, how about a nightmare scenario in which The Bad Guy messes with your thermostat? Or forces you to order an extra gallon of milk? Or locks all the world’s ovens on cleaning mode?

OK, so those are all #firstworldproblems. But the ones that can hit the third world involve disruption of power grids or supply chains. How about a man-in-the-middle attack that scrapes a few pennies out of every bank account in India? In places where microcredit is embedded into the local economy, such an attack could destroy lives. Who would do such a thing? Well, there’s a Marxist insurgency in about a third of India, so there’s my first candidate to execute such a move.

A home with a closed, unlocked door offers more security than some of these highly efficient applications. I mean, at least the door is closed, so that someone has to make an effort to see what’s going on inside. Far too many apps send every transaction, back and forth, in plain text.

Now, there are some security measures that are as easy as locking a door. But there are also some security measures that are as difficult as putting on a suit of plate armor and mounting a horse. As one would expect, the more complete security measures are also those that involve the biggest drags on performance. But look at it this way: which vehicle would you rather operate, a unicycle with a solid-rocket booster engine, or a comprehensively-tested motor vehicle with excellent safety ratings from its excellent safety features? While the unicycle rocket will definitely move faster than that car, the car exposes its operator to a much shorter list of potential hazards. For example, “death due to improper aim at start of journey” is a biggie to consider with the unicycle, not so much with the car.

So it should be in the programming and development world. It’s my frustration as a security professional to see security treated as a cost that should be minimized. Too often, I’ve heard of businesses that refused to stand for a reduction in efficiency that later wound up with their doors shut for good within days of the major breach that happens in the early days of their existence. To treat security as a costly afterthought is tantamount to saying one or more of the following phrases:

“I’d like to have all my employees lose their job after a major breach, which is statistically bound to happen very soon.”

“I would prefer for my company’s intellectual property to be in the hands of my competitors, preferably without my knowledge or ability to get recourse through criminal and/or civil courts.”

“I feel much better knowing that, when my financial records are breached, the criminals involved will enjoy high levels of server uptime, plenty of bandwidth, and be ‘very satisfied’ with their experience in compromising my network.”

“Our company’s vision statement is: We will have synergies of poor security and high ease of use enable criminals to have first grab at our profits, even before we pay our fixed or variable costs.”

That last one might actually get shareholder attention.

But what to do? I’m not a C-something-O or a member of any board or anything like that. I can’t tell my company or any other company that there are areas where security is a joke, and that’s where to expect the next breach. Even if I was a CxO or chairman of the board, there’s no guarantee that I’d have all my company’s employees take security seriously enough to realize when they need to help implement it. This becomes a huge deal in major corporations, where employees tend to reject anything not done 100% by the book, and offer little or no help after making the rejection. Now, the “why” of that may have more to do with outsourcing and other heinous practices to control labor costs, but it does point up the old Machiavellian maxim that mercenaries aren’t going to protect you as passionately or as effectively as your own citizens.

So, if you want to predict where the next headline-grabbing breach will be, look for a major company with a massive contract labor pool in place of full-time employees, that also brags about how fast and effective its operations are. That’s where the money is and, chances are, also where the advanced persistent threats are already embedded in the system.

Who knows? Maybe even one of those threats is so embedded, it even has a section of actual employees tucked away somewhere that actually provide technical support for it. They file exemptions with anti-malware groups and open up firewall rules and away they go…

So, to sum up, efficiency without security is reckless endangerment. We should be ready to have things be at least a little slower so that we can enjoy a greater measure of security.

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