Thursday, May 31, 2012

Better Living Through Technology

My minder Irving had asked for three days leave, a request speedily granted. It would be churlish in the extreme to deny him, in that at least twice he had saved my life. So I was stuck at the Manor for the interval.

This was annoying, in that I had planned to attend a series of lectures given by my daughter Victoria, the historian, who had accepted an invitation proffered by  the University. She would be discussing and elaborating upon a thesis first put forward by Stephane Dion, that Canada works better in practice than in theory. Oh well, needs must, and I contented myself with needed practice on the gun range, listening to Mahler a lot, and  re-reading of Neal Stephenson's magnificent Baroque Trilogy.

In exactly three days Irving returned. He was not alone, and had Rachel in tow.

Readers will remember Rachel as the author of a piece of software, known as WRAITH. This particular software allows the take over other computers without the user being aware that someone else is now in control. Only five copies exist, with the U.S, Israel, and the UK having three; Rachel herself has one, and the last copy was given to me for safekeeping.It was some time before various governments and criminal organizations (they are somewhat similar) sussed this out, and in order to stop the infiltration had to delete all their material. This enraged them, and Rachel was forced to go to ground. This she did, being aided and abetted by Irving ( They became pals when in Mossad.)

I instantly noted that Rachel was deeply tanned, so at least wherever Rachel had fled to had lots of sunshine. In any event, I thought it better not to know. Of more importance, why had she come back here?

"My Lady, this is a safe place," she said. "Things now are a bit...difficult...and I would be greatly in your debt if I could just hang out for a week or two. Until things die down a bit."

"What things?"

Rachel was silent for a moment, but from the expression on her face, I could see she was debating just how much to tell. She looked at Irving, who gave a nod, and made a decision.

"Oh, the hell with it. Have you heard of this 'FLAME' virus?"

"Only that it alleged to have played havoc with a number of computer systems" I replied, " not the least of which are those that control Iran's nuclear program." Then I thought for a moment. "Good God, is that yours?"

"No, but WRAITH can counter its effects, as well as pointing to the perpetrator. All of which presents a dilemma."

"Well," I said brightly, "when on the horns of a dilemma, the best way to resolve the issue is to throw sand in the bull's face."

Long story short, Rachel's dilemma was as follows. She had developed the means to stop FLAME in its tracks. The solution had been put on five memory sticks. She, being of good heart, wished to get three of them to the three governments who had access to WRAITH, but was baffled as to the best method. She was not keen on advertising her whereabouts -- all three would dearly love to get their hands on her --  but sending memory sticks through the post struck her as a Bad Idea.

Well, she was right about that.

I said I could ensure that the U.S. and the U.K. would receive the material without ever knowing where it had come from, but I would have to leave Israel to her. Irving stepped in at this point, muttering something about a certain spot in the Negev, and Rachel relaxed. This left one question that remained unanswered.

I said, "Rachel, you mentioned you had suspicions about the perpetrator...."

"Yes," Rachel said, "but it is just a suspicion. On the memory sticks, I inserted some code that would point to Ukraine. It will cause them some difficulty. Actually, a lot of difficulty."


"No, but I remembered that you have little use for Viktor Yanukovych, and thought you wouldn't mind.."

"A great idea. Particularly the way old Viktor is treating Yulia Tymoshenko. I mean, she like Becky Sharp is no angel** but she doesn't deserve to be thrown into prison and then being beaten. Well done, Rachel! And feel free to stay as long as you like."

After all, what are friends for?

** The good Lady occasionally descends into the obscure. The reference is to the heroine in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Ed.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A New Cryptology

Sir Harry called on the secure line, expressing his delight at my latest piece of analysis. This was so unusual that it warranted some further examination -- his usual response to my stuff was a guttural grunt.

"I am glad you are pleased," I said.  "Dare I ask why?"

"The way you forwarded the information. The Mongolian situation is tricky, and you framed the options for action rather well. We will, as you suggest, let it be for a time. And, I might add, our cryptologists were convinced that you were using a sophisticated coding mechanism. They have yet to break it."

"They won't. There is no code to break."

"And that's the beauty of it. Goodbye."

Sir Harry was like that -- abruptness carried to an art form.

What I had sent went as follows:

In that antique land where the wealth is underground, a choice needs to be made. Who will be selected to mine the wealth? The task will not be easy, a kind of Herculean Augean Stables situation if you will, and no Alpheus River at hand. Two firms are at loggerheads, resembling Scylla and Charybdis, and to enter this Strait of Messina now would be a mistake that could quickly compound into error. For a time, I think, it would be best to eat the Lotus.

Now anyone with a reasonable education can winkle all this out, but currently 'a reasonable education' is more of a chimera. Mythology, History, and knowledge of the great authors of East and West, the context in which Mathematics and Science should operate, has largely disappeared, replaced by a curriculum that tends to downgrade substance and emphasize 'caring'. I mean, Jack Handey had a really Deep Thought when he wrote, "Instead of having 'answers' on a math test, they should just call them 'impressions', and if you got a different 'impression', so what, can't we all be brothers?"

Hence we swim in Lethe, unaware of past knowledge. We really must remember, as the late Robert Jackson, former Director of the Ontario Institute of Education once urged: "It must never be forgotten that the child as learner is not only the centre of the educational system, but the very reason for its existence."

Too true, and a necessary first step.

Let's take others.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Nature of Opera

Off to see the Canadian Opera Company's production of Verdi's Otello, at the request of my daughter Victoria, who had been asked to replace the first violinist on a temporary basis  He had come down with a stomach disorder -- a pound of anchovies will do that.

The performance was spectacular, with all components coming together. In opera, this doesn't happen often, and when it does, well, suffice it to say that the evening will remain memorable. During the intermission, I leaned over the sunken pit and chatted a bit with Victoria, and thanked her for urging me to come. The seat she had procured, in the Grand Ring, didn't hurt either. Less serendipitous was meeting Victoria's current flame, also in the orchestra, a tall, angular redhead whom I assumed would be playing one of the brass instruments. I had her linked to a tuba, but was taken aback to learn that she was a world-renowned piccolo player. So it goes....

Back at the Manor after the performance, and with a serious Laphroaig in hand, I pondered a question.

How is it that, at least for me, Shakespeare's Othello doesn't work, and Verdi's does?  Yes, Shakespeare's language is magnificent, but....

Shakespeare introduces us to Othello as this grand warrior, a general skilled in tactics and strategy, one who during the course of his many campaigns would have been deluged by mis-information both from the enemy and his own aides. Yet this man, with all this skill, falls into ruin over a mis-placed handkerchief? I don't think so.

The opposing argument, of course, springs from the influence of Iago upon Othello. Yet Iago, a personification of evil, had been with Othello for some time. I just can't get my head around the issue that Othello would have taken the man's measure long ago, and taken everything the man said with a grain of salt. As to why Iago goes after Othello, the answer is nebulous. Yes, Iago was passed over for promotion (another reason we can conclude that Othello knows his stuff when it comes to staffing) but this in itself would not be enough to unleash the havoc.

In fact, Shakespeare shows Iago himself  at a loss as to what drives him in his 'credo' speech. Coleridge termed this "the motive hunting of a motiveless malignity", a phrase that recalls Dick Cheney justifying the attack on Iraq to George W.

Verdi, in Otello, follows Shakespeare carefully, YET IT ALL WORKS.

Hence my proposition: You can get away with a lot more in opera that you can in a play. We seem to have a greater suspension of belief, aided and abetted by great music, brilliant singing, attractive costumes and sets. Plot just appears not as critical to success as it does in a play. Thus if you take away all that operatic surround, flaws stand out very quickly.

Much like current Government.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Not Rushing A Russian Encounter

I had come to Washington to deliver a message to the Russian Embassy on behalf of Sir Harry. What I found interesting was that more and more human couriers were being used to transport sensitive material rather than using electronics. Apparently hacking was becoming a real problem. Now a human being can be "hacked" in a sense, but torture is time-consuming, messy, unreliable and costly. Hence the use of agents to trundle information about.

At the Embassy, there was a spot of trouble. I went to the information desk, and requested to speak to the person Sir Harry had named, one Colonel Grigov.

"The Colonel is busy," came the reply from an official whose appearance reminded me of an emaciated grandee such as John of Gaunt.

"Please inform him that Tinkerbell is here."

The man just stared, flummoxed.

I switched to Russian, and raising my voice, said, "Unless you get the Colonel immediately, I will ensure that Putin and Medvedev are informed that the Embassy is employing an official who is not up to the job, and is in need of re-assignment. Somewhere deep within the Arctic Circle. Or perhaps Siberia, where you can become adept at animal husbandry."

A quick phone call was then made, and almost instantly the Colonel appeared. The man was tall, blond and imposing. In my opinion, he would be an excellent Vronsky in  a film of Anna Karenina. He took me to one side and said, "If the sun and moon would doubt."

"They'd immediately go out," I replied.

"Good. All is in order. And the message?"

"The brown cow is in the pasture." Now I hadn't a clue what freight that phrase carried, and didn't want to know. Suffice it to say that the Colonel paled visibly, but then gathered himself .  'Thank you, and relay to Sir Harry that I an somewhat in his debt. Although his code names need some more thought."

"What do you mean?"

"You are about as far from the figure of Tinkerbell as you can get."

This was unexpected. I was wearing a simple white cotton dress, splashed with polka dots, I hadn't given my appearance another thought, something I really pay attention to when linking up with the Compte de Rienville. He, sadly, was in Paris, coping with the change in government.

"I will bring the matter up with Sir Harry," I replied with a smile.

"Perhaps we will meet again," the Colonel said.

"Perhaps," I replied. "Given the reference to the cow, an 'udder' time then."

The colonel went blank for a moment, then laughed. "You may also tell Sir Harry that you know how to sugar coat a nasty pill."

I left, content that the exchange had gone well. Then my mood shifted as I recalled a passage from Phillip Howard's The Death Of Common Sense: "We have now circled back to the world where people argue, not about right or wrong, but about whether something was done the right way."


Friday, May 4, 2012

Soothing The Sisters

Off to the annual Board Meeting with the Little Sisters of Poverty and Pain, a charitable convent which I and selected others support. The Sisters do excellent work in rehabilitating abused women, as well as tending to the bootless and unhorsed with kindness and compassion. The good Sisters are atheists, but they have found that this in no way works against their mission. In fact, they encourage religious belief when that belief provides comfort and solace. They themselves, however, find that a belief in an 'imaginary friend' acts as an impediment to their work. In any event, the Sisters often succeed where others fail. Hence my support.

The meeting was well-attended, and chaired by Sister Esther, Mother Superior. I got along well with her, and thought the name 'Esther' well-chosen. (It is the only Book in the Bible that does not mention God.)

Looking over the crowd, I noticed Father Martin in attendance. He was incognito, and I was not surprised. The convent was in his parish, and should really have been affiliated with his church, Our Lady of the Sorrowful Chains. And while Father Martin thought well of the Sisters, his Bishop did not, and was constantly looking for ways and means to get rid of the entire operation. Certain forces, however, had been brought to bear on HIS superior, the Archbishop of the diocese, and the threat of closure was a distant one.

The meeting got under way. The first item of business was addressed by Mother Superior herself. An outline of the year's activities was given, involving the number of women taken in, the types of programs used, and their outcome. This was all positive stuff, but one item mentioned stood out. According to Mother Superior, more and more Muslim women and girls were reporting to the convent, fleeing from abuse, arranged marriages, and running afoul of family  "honour", something that could, and indeed has, lead to death.

This latter situation, Mother Superior stated, was better addressed by the convent's outreach program, entitled "CAN DO," and she invited Sister Hera, who is in charge of that program, to give her report. This program involves teaching timid women to achieve success in martial arts, to strip motorcycles prior to becoming proficient at their use, to become adept at handling firearms, and to  learn to fly Cessnas. (Two had been purchased for precisely that purpose.).

This program was proving enormously successful, with the women emerging confident, self-assured, and ready to cope with whatever life had in store. So successful, Sister Hera stated in concluding her report, that two more Harley-Davidsons were needed, as well as five more Smith & Wesson J-Frames.

Well, I thought, at least they didn't want another Cessna.

The next report dealt with fiscal matters and was presented by Sister Athena, who acted as the convent's chief financial officer. Funds, she reported, were adequate for the convent's existing program, but some future needs had been identified. She referred to Sister Hera's request, and then went on to mention a request from an American convent whose members wished to become part of the program. Apparently the American sisters had been castigated by several bishops who said they were paying too much attention to the poor, and not enough to the real issues stressed by the Pope -- abortion and same-sex marriage.

Seems to me that Holy Mother Church was in danger of forgetting what The Founder was all about.

In any event, monies were found to enable the requests, aided and abetted by certain gains in the sugar beet market. So all ended well, the Americans will be welcome, and in this area, the best is good enough.

Discuss among yourselves.