Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, January 6, 2019

No joking about bombs

On New Year’s Eve, as 100,000 rain-soaked revellers gathered in Times Square to watch the giant ball descend at midnight, someone at the U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska posted a Twitter message.

            The tweet, accompanied by a video clip of a B-2 bomber dropping nuclear missiles, declared: “"#TimesSquare tradition rings in the #NewYear by dropping the big ball...if ever needed, we are #ready to drop something much, much bigger."

            Three hours later, a more senior person posted an apology: “Our previous NYE tweet was in poor taste & does not reflect our values. We apologize. We are dedicated to the security of America & allies.”

            Those tweets were inevitably followed by hundreds of replies --  roughly divided among

a)    thanking Strategic Command for keeping America safe,

b)   insisting that the whole thing was supposed to be humorous, and

c)    wondering why anyone who thinks nuclear weapons are a joking matter should be trusted with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.


Anyone, anywhere

            I suggest that the offensive tweet is a symptom of a larger problem.

            The tweet itself seems like the kind of inside humour that professionals such as lawyers, surgeons, and undertakers share among themselves. Yes, even undertakers. An undertakers’ association dinner has more laughs than most stand-up comedy.

            But the “bigger ball” tweet didn’t go just to insiders. It went to the whole world. And that’s both the blessing and curse of the internet.

            Information no longer flows through controlled channels.

            Anyone can send anything.

            Anyone can read anything.

            And anyone can hack into any computer system, anywhere.

            The year 2017 demonstrated this frightening new reality, when the Wannacry virus spread itself through Microsoft Windows computers around the world.

            My wife, as it happens, was a victim.

            A box popped up on her screen. “Oops,” it announced, “your files have been encrypted.”

            More realistically, kidnapped. The perpetrators demanded a ransom in untraceable bitcoin currency. Within seven days. After that, her documents would disappear. Forever.

            Fortunately, my wife had the sense not to push any buttons in response. She shut down her computer, packed it up, took it to someone who could trace the cause and disable it. For about the same cost as the ransom.


Shutting down the biggest

            Thousands, apparently, were not as cautious. For several days, Wannacry disabled shipping giants like Maersk, and other shipping terminals and operators. It also affected Britain’s National Health Service, shutting down computers in hundreds of hospitals.

            The U.S. accused North Korea of creating the Wannacry attacks. It should know, having used the Stuxnet virus itself to shut down parts of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in 2010.

            Similarly, Russia knocked out Ukraine’s power grid in 2015.

            Hackers don't need to control an entire plant, explained Nir Giller of CyberX security in Israel. “They only need to control an individual sensor on a single machine,” he said. After that, the system will shut itself down.

            It’s in that context that the U.S. demanded Canada arrest Huawei’s chief executive Meng Wanzhou when she passed through Vancouver airport. Chinese-owned Huawei is now the world’s largest producer of telecommunications equipment. Beyond billions of smart phones, it makes the network servers, the central hubs for transmission of billions of pieces of data, instructions, and government policies, that run the infrastructure of 170 countries.

            The U.S. is terrified that the Chinese government could make Huawei build secret infiltration codes into its products.


As serious as WMDs

            But they’re missing the point. Wannacry proved you don’t need a government to bring another government to its knees.

            “A team of five guys sitting in a basement can be just as devastating as WMDs," cybersecurity investor Sergei Gribov told internet journalist Jim Edwards. "It's really scary. Because it's really easy."

            “The fact that a simple extortion device could disable Britain’s largest employer in an afternoon did not go unnoticed,” Edwards commented. “It managed to burn down huge sectors in different countries,” agreed Andrew Tsonchev, technology director at Darktrace, a London-based cybersecurity firm.

                        Credit card or bank accounts become penny-ante stuff, say an increasing number of analysts.

            Suddenly, hackers had a new target. They could take entire nations offline -- if they wanted to.

            The danger in Huawei is not that it has any malicious intentions itself. Or that China’s government could use it. The danger is that its equipment is so ubiquitous that if hackers ever find a weakness in Huawei’s firewalls, they could gain access into almost anything.

            Even, maybe, the computers connected to the U.S. Strategic Command’s big red button.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                       To send comments, to subscribe, or to unsubscribe, write jimt@quixotic.ca





I wondered if last week’s column, on what I called the ”death of optimism,” was overly bleak. Judging by the mail, it hit the spot for many of you.


Gail Prior “just had to write and let you know what a great column you wrote: New year as a time to let go of failed myths -- I totally agreed with it all, even clipped it and sent to my brother in Courtenay as we are all on the same page.”

            Gail writes for the newspaper in Oliver, farther south in the Okanagan Valley. She sent me one of her columns, which more or less agrees with my perspective.


Michael Jensen also sent along a piece of his writing. But he didn’t agree 100%: “All the challenges you listed are true -- but they needn't lead to the death of optimism. The greatest challenges are internal, not external. I have control over how I feel and how I respond to challenges. Therefore I can choose to be optimistic -- and I do. I choose to read just as many heartwarming stories, as I do of those making poor choices. I remind myself that each one of us is a son or daughter of God, and as such can choose to develop Christ-like qualities. As I find success in appealing to my better self, I have optimism, even if my progress is painfully slow and erratic.”


Betty Ann Darby commented, “Allen & I hold on to hopefulness – optimism has long gone!”


Cliff Boldt often writes only a single pithy sentence or two. This time he had more to say: “When I look around my community, I see many signs of hope and optimism. I have friends who feel defeated and without hope, but I have others who see some challenges ahead for themselves and others in our demographic.

            “Personally, my glass is half full. I just finished a stint on the local school board and am casting about for things to become involved with in my new found ‘free’ time. I feel like a 21-year-old starting teacher, casting about for opportunities best for me.

            “I am spending more of my time on local issues while thinking globally. It’s a great feeling. Looking in my rear-view mirror of life, I see how blessed I have been in my nearly 80 years. Those blessings left me a more experienced person, more aware of what is, and more positive about what might be.”


Tom Watson hasn’t given up optimism: “I get everything you're saying, but if you're seeking a person who is looking forward to the new year you have found one. Honestly, I'm quite happy to leave 2018 behind and move into a new year. There's an adage, ‘Be the change you would like to see.’ I can't solve all the ills I see around me, but I'm also not willing to give in to the possibility that they can't be solved...remaining stuck on 2018's dime feels like giving up. So bring on 2019 and let's give it our best shot!”


Bob Rollwagen mused about optimism generally: “Optimism is one word for categorizing opinions. There will always be opinions. Everton Ryerson, founding editor of what is now The United Church Observer and the first principal of what is now Victoria College at U of T, also assisted in the creation of the Residential School system -- likely born out of some optimism of the time. Rev Gretta Vosper has just been allowed to continue preaching within the United Church of Canada, a bold and optimistic step by that Church, while other Churches place emphasis retaining their traditional hold on power and wealth…

            “Optimism comes from learning. Those who see potential environmental issues and possible crisis are growing in number, while those who see this movement reducing their wealth and power try to call reality ‘fake news’. Those in positions of power try to weaken democracy and education within their societies for their personal gain.

            “Optimism comes from rule of law and ethical leadership. Ethics are a reflection of the period in history and illustrate the culture of the time, over time. Current social surveys support a view that is a little more positive than what has occurred in 2018. It is healthy to hope and challenge.”


Sandy Warren liked my closing paragraphs: “'Healing' is the perfect one-word wish for the new year. May healing begin in a multitude of places and spread and spread.”


Steve Roney challenged my foundational assumption: “Declaring the death of optimism may be true for North America, but it is at obvious variance with reality. In the real world, there are many causes for optimism.

            “To begin with, the poorer countries are getting richer. We used to accept famine as an almost permanent feature over much of the globe. Now we hear much less about it.

            “Last century was a century of devastating wars. There is, for now, nothing like that on the horizon. Fascism is dead; even the Cold War is over. Events in the Middle East are penny-ante by comparison. We may be concerned over the rise of China, but that is so far mostly an economic competition…

            “You write that endless growth is a myth, a lie. But in principle, endless growth is possible. Buckminster Fuller explained it to us in a lecture during my undergrad years. Technology is a matter of progressively doing more with less. Accordingly, with development, we use fewer resources. So long as development is not blocked, growth is therefore limitless.

            “One of the ironies of current political discourse is that those who call themselves ‘progressives’ are now precisely those who do not believe in, or work to end, progress. Just as those who call themselves ‘liberals’ are now those who least value individual liberties.”


Finally Frank Martens did some thinking about the readership of this column: “I don’t know how many people follow your column on a regular basis, but it strikes me from the replies you get that most agree with your thoughts; therefore I assume that most are ‘Christians’ like yourself. I think you need to write more on ideas that challenge their beliefs. Get them to reveal their dark sides. You might get some unusual replies – probably some you might not dare print. Should be fun.

            “This last column was a start.”






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                       I write a second column each Wednesday, called Soft Edges, which deals somewhat more gently with issues of life and faith. To sign up for Soft Edges, write to me directly at the address above, or send a blank e-mail to softedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                       Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



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