Monday, August 29, 2016

Information Age

We live in the age of an information economy. Trading in information is now seen as a way to make a living. Information clearly has economic benefit in the corporate world, so one can get a "jump" on the competition. In a similar way, governments have long been involved in seeking to know what an adversary is doing, or planning. Over recent years, there have been a spate of movies about the codebreaking efforts of WWII. 

Initially, the German Enigma code was broken by Polish mathematicians, Marian RejewskiJerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, working for Polish military intelligence. Just ahead of the invasion of Poland, bomba (mechanical codebreaking machine) were provided to the French and the British. This was the basis of the work during the war at Bletchley Park. Unfortunately, although the Poles had been first to break the code, they were deemed to be to high a security risk to work at Bletchley Park. 

Later, the same concept was applied and the British then built bombes for use at Bletchley Park. They were different in design than the Polish bomba, but, used the mathematical concepts developed by the Poles. The Polish contribution has been more recently acknowledged, as demonstrated by the plaque below.

CC BY-SA 2.0,

Discovering the secrets of others, through codebreaking or other means, has long been a major function of intelligence services.  Another approach has been the planting of false information. This has been used, not only to influence governments, but also to influence electorates.

In the 1980s, there was a Soviet disinformation campaign aimed at blaming the US government for developing the HIV/AIDS virus, and suggesting that it was to be a genocide of Black people (  It had some effect, leading many to question what the origin of the virus was and led to further distrust of the American health care system.

More recently, there have been efforts at influencing public opinion regarding international events, such as the shooting down of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine. There have also been efforts at influencing election outcomes, presumably to get a result more favorable to the country which is interfering, whether in a referendum, such as Brexit, or election of political figures. ( This involves not only releasing factual information, but, making lies appear to be the truth. 

As someone who feels it is my duty to be an informed voter, it is increasingly difficult. There is no easy way to distinguish what is true and what is not. And, for many voters, there seems to be a trust in beliefs rather than facts. But, is this really unreasonable, when one can't trust "facts." So, it just seems easier to "trust" someone who seems "trustworthy" rather than attempt the seemingly Herculean task or sorting out what is true and what is not. To me, it seems most reasonable just to ask, "Who benefits?" and, "Do they have friends who would be able to construct a plausible reality?" To me, this is the greater concern, as authoritarian government is frightening to me, whether from the left or the right.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

All Politics is Personal

August 9 is the anniversary of two important events. The first was the second use of nuclear weapons. Nagasaki. Coming three days after the first use.

My family was involved in the Manhattan Project. Many scientists and engineers were. But, after use of the bomb, many were plagued with a sense of responsibility. I discussed this more in my posts about President Obama's visit to Hiroshima. 

The second anniversary is that of the resignation of a President. Watergate. Adding "gate" to various other words has since come to suggest scandal. But, let's look back. The first election I voted in was 1972. The year of Watergate.

The Watergate scandal began when the DNC headquarters was broken into on June 17, 1972 ( It was in an office complex named Watergate, hence the name of the scandal. Investigation of the perpetrators lead to the Committee for the Reelection of the President, the aptly named CREEP. The ensuing scandal led to the resignation of the President Richard Nixon late on August 8, 1974, as the Watergate investigation led to Nixon's close aides. Gerald Ford then became President.But, first, Nixon tried to block the investigation by asking that the Special Investigator be fired. The Attorney General and a Deputy Attorney General both resigned, rather than comply, in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre on October 20, 1973. The Solicitor General then fired the Special Investigator at Nixon's bidding. Yet, Nixon could not stop the investigation.

I did not know of the resignation until August 9.  At the time, I was studying in Poland. A popular joke there, at the time, was that of an American, a Frenchman, and a Russian drinking together. The Frenchman commented that the best evening of his life was the evening spent with Brigitte Bardot (a popular French actress of the time). The American then said that the best evening of his life was an evening spent with the President. At this, all the Americans started laughing. And the Poles told us we hadn't heard the punchline. They then told us that the Russian then said that the best evening of his life was when two men came to his door and asked, "Are you Ivan Ivanovich?" He told his friends that he had said, "No." And then, he said, they left. That was the punchline. And, this joke, like so many others, expressed the truth that the Poles knew.

Years later, I interviewed a young woman, who was growing up in Washington at the time of Watergate. It was very interesting to hear the story told from the perspective of someone who had witnessed some of the events as a child. And, how those events impacted her and influenced her politics and choice of career.

The differences in reaction to the joke exposes the difference between the Americans who were, at the time, embarrassed by the Nixon and the events that led to his resignation. The Poles, on the other hand, had experienced the nighttime visits, and the visitors who didn't leave, but rather escorted the occupant out. My grandfather's second wife was given 15 minutes to pack for her family. Only two of them survived their two years in Siberia. None ever returned to their home in the Kresy, but rather had to wander for a while before finally making a home in the United States.

Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." But, I would suggest that it is personal. Each of us begins with the attitudes shared by our families. They have been shaped by their experiences. And, then, our personal experiences modify our political beliefs further.