If the Rebels Only had Flashlights

Blackhawk Helicopter Interior, vulnerable to flashlights

It seems a federal trial is beginning for a local man accused of shining a small, hand-held spotlight at a helicopter flying low over his house. Apparently the flashlight blinded Homeland Security Agent Dave Simeur, causing him severe pain, and almost made him crash. He also claims the homeowner, Wayne Groen, continued to chase him with the flashlight.

Being a man who spends most nights awake and outside under the stars, I know nighttime helicopters. Even here, far away from international borders, few nights go by without darkened, low-flying helicopters hovering by. I don’t know why. And I don’t even know who to ask. Do I contact the mayor’s office and ask, “what are all these helicopters flying about at night, and who’s flying them, and what gives them the right?”

I thought the airborne ruckuses might be primetime-worthy fugitive chases at first, except that their appearances are almost never accompanied by police cars or sirens. Often, they trace back and forth across a few miles, never going out of hearing range. Sometimes, they are moving very slowly, at a very low altitude, which does indeed rattle everything in the house. In the middle of the night. Which, if I were asleep, would infuriate me.

That’s what happened to Wayne one night while he and his wife were fast asleep. A loud roar, a shaking house, and objects rattling off the shelves. It wasn’t the first time. He ran outside, he claims, to see what the hell it was, and to warn it off the top of their house. It really does make an impressive rattling…

You know he was mad. Furious probably. Of course he was. And it’s perfectly natural. Those assholes don’t care one bit what they keep doing to people down below in their houses, you would think. And they don’t. Not really. Not enough. And so he shined the light: I see you, you son of a bitch! Look at me down here! Pay attention to what the hell you’re doing!

And then Dave the Airborne Agent thinks, how dare that stupid fucker shine a light up on a Homeland Security helicopter! We’ll teach that arrogant SOB a lesson in respect and get him behind bars! Let’s see, I’m blinded, and almost crashed – yeah – putting government agents in danger – yeah – and the neighborhood too maybe. It’s too bad we can’t just take him out, though.

Or was it really, as Dave’s testimony suggests; oh god! My eyes! It hurts! We’re gonna crash in this Blackhawk helicopter that fights in war zones, from a flashlight! Holy moley my friend co-pilot, are you okay?

You know what, asshole helicopter pilots, agents, officers, or whatever you are, who fly low down around people’s homes all dark and secret-like at night… watch out! Wayne’s certainly not the only one you’re pissing off. If thoughts were crimes, the fantasies I’ve had about downing a few of you… and I’m about as far being a violent person as you can get.

And if a flashlight can so easily take you and your $14 million warplane out, just wait until you go up against my slingshot!

Do you think I’m being uncaring, insensitive or disrespectful about agents and police and pilots who are just doing their job when shaking houses apart in the middle of the night? No, the “just doing my job” excuse was long ago used up. For everyone. In everything. It’s your responsibility if you get slapped upside the head eventually, when you’re continually harassing and terrorizing people – for whatever reason.

Blowing Away the Cloud

Clouds and WeatherLast night I was listening to an Earth Day interviewee claim that nuclear power, despite its shortcomings, was still strongly advocated by corporations and government agencies mostly because nuclear energy is centrally controlled. Why else go to such elaborate lengths to boil water? Central control means fewer people own the pie and so gain a larger proportion of money. Conversely, solar, wind and hydrogen is largely decentralized, effectively obsoleting the business of large, centrally-controlled power organizations.

We know that distributing work out in a decentralized manner, amongst many things, is a good idea. The Internet was born from this thinking, by design — highly tolerant of any small or even large segments failing. The military knows that relying on central control makes you both vulnerable and dependent. So the Internet requires no central authority to operate in any fundamental sense. If a failure occurs, it routes around that failure. This is the aspect, ironically created through military funding, that now physically embodies democracy – disparate entities functioning together loosely as a greater whole, both individually free and collectively resilient.

It was not always so. Just a couple decades ago, Apple created the famous commercial where the beautiful and free “new order” smashed the tyranny of Big Brother and his centrally-kowtowed minions.  IBM mainframes, the huge repositories of centrally controlled information, were the mainstay of corporate and government life. When they failed, everything stopped. Your only choice was to call IBM, whose agents arrived en masse, unsettlingly dressed all alike in creepy dark suits to set things right; so business carries on. As long as you purchased the right plan…

When Apple came along with computers for humans, or “end users” in corporate IBM-speak, IBM realized their business model must change. They already had branched into “distributed computing” by installing smaller mainframes at customer’s satellite companies that fed into larger, central mainframes. Now it was just a matter of embracing these “personal” computers as well. Although centralized power resisted distributing processing to end users, mostly by the technorati themselves, and doomsaying abounded, the newly freed employees could finally have their way with their own information, and productivity soared. People could get what they needed, when they needed it, change it into any form they could imagine, and were no longer wholly dependent upon centralized resources and control.

Yet strangely, a trend seems to be moving us back toward the centralized control of information processing, glitteringly re-branded as some amorphous “cloud”. The reality is, this cloud is really just a collection of CPU’s and storage devices, very much the same as any latter-day mainframe. In essence, the big Old Iron has returned, and we’re eagerly handing our data processing capabilities right over to it. And it’s not even our mainframe any more. It’s someone else’s. Some might say it’s not a mainframe, but a cluster. A collection of CPU’s and memory that had access to large and fast data storage and retrieval. Those people need to take another look at what latter-day mainframes are.

Even if we do get past the cloud of marketing and look at using another company’s data processing services, certain realities remain: maintaining 100% uptime is only a holy grail. Despite all the effort and cleverness a systems engineer will devote to maintaining uptime, the fact is, we are returning to a single point of failure every time we put something on the cloud, unless we are using the cloud as merely a supplementary or backup mechanism, or have those mechanisms ourselves as backup. And there is little, if any, transparency. Even several days after a major failure of the largest cloud, no detailed information has been provided about what actually went wrong, nor what is being done to mitigate such an incident in the future. Even IBM in the days of the old iron would provide immediate and ongoing detailed status reports. But “the cloud”… who knows? Right?

One last thing to consider other than central points of failure, and their accompanying points of performance limitations and benefits, is that using another company’s mainframes creates a single point of access for increased government access and control. When everything is on the cloud, the government needs only to deal with one company – one ring to rule them all, so to speak. During the infamous illegal government wiretapping case that broke during the Bush era, the government compelled AT&T to allow access to our communications by forcibly bringing all data into one hub in San Francisco, so they could snoop. Using the centralized old iron model makes this government behavior simple, whereas the distributed model once again points us toward democratization.

As the dust settles from this failure, the spin, which will be dutifully echoed by all the tech heads currently ensorcelled with the “cloud computing” moniker, will be that there is nothing wrong with cloud computing. In fact, it is user error – the customers who were too cheap to purchase a second or third redundant site at another data center (or region) deserved what they got. And strangely, they won’t even notice this implies multiple “clouds”, nor will it raise any questions as to how this cloud differs, in essence, from any well-managed colo rental space.

If anything comes of this, perhaps people might start saying the plural clouds instead of the singular, amorphous cloud. I doubt it. It’s one of those sensationally brilliant marketing accidents that is perpetually reinforced by throngs of parrots. What we must learn is to start asking the question once again: who are we renting our servers from, and who are we giving our, and our customer’s data to? And why?

Perhaps cloud fans would find Eucalyptus interesting.

Image credit: Salvatore Vuono

PS. You are the sun.

This article was published in The Sunbreak and was quoted in The New York Times.