Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

November, 2008:

Malware from SourceForge?

I've been chasing something very odd here recently. For about a year nowI have used a FOSS utility called MozBackup to both archive and move my 1.7 GB mailbase around. It has always worked beautifully, but when I used it to restore my mailbase onto my new quad-core machine last week, the mailbase did not come back intact. I was getting weird error messages about the inbox not truncating when messages were moved into the junk folder, etc. which made me wonder what was going on.

Ok. This is a quad-core machine running XP SP3. I deliberately set it up so that AVG 8 runs during the day and not at 2 ayem, because I want to observe what effect multiple tasks in multiple cores has on overall system response. So every day at 1 PM, AVG 8 runs a full scan. It ran a full scan on all drives yesterday, and came up with nothing except warnings about a couple of revenant tracking cookies.

Late yesterday afternoon, I copied the current MozBackup installer file from my installers archive on D: to my “installed installers” folder (where I put installers for software installed on the machine) on C:. Instantly, AVG 8 set up a howl that it had found a trojan in MozBackup-1.4.8-EN.exe, the installer for the instance of MozBackup that I have had installed on the quad-core since June. The trojan was called Generic12.HTC.

That's odd in itself: On all the bazillion-squared pages that Google indexes, there was not a single mention of “Generic12.HTC” yesterday . Nor is there any entry by that name in AVG's virus encyclopedia. This morning, however, I suddenly see five or six mentions indexed during the night. It looks like a false positive, but I'm still a little nervous.

As a test, I went back to SourceForge and downloaded another copy of the file. As soon as it was complete in a temp folder, wham! AVG's “resident shield” utility called it out as Generic12.HTC. Now, I'm not used to thinking that SourceForge downloads can be malware sources, though there's no reason that it's impossible. However, the MozBackup-1.4.8-EN.exe file has been on my hard drive since June, and has passed muster every afternoon that the machine has been powered up. The file's time stamp has not changed. I can only assume that during yesterday's daily update, AVG brought down a signature that matched something inside the file—and that would be a mighty freaky coincidence if true.

The other freaky thing is that after I deleted MozBackup 1.4.8 and installed the previous version 1.4.7 (which is in use on three of my other machines, including my X41 tablet) the mailbase restore worked perfectly. So are there two problems here or one?

The handul of reports surfacing this morning seem to indicate that it's a false positive, which would make sense, given that it's been on this system since June without AVG making noise. So maybe I don't need to warn you against the 1.4.8 version. However, it does look like 1.4.8 doesn't necessarily import an archive created with 1.4.7. Yes, a coincidence, and a weird one.

Odd Lots

  • I got drilled and post-ed yesterday and am mostly over it. The weirdest part of the whole procedure was listening to Dr. Salcetti cranking the implant post down into my jawbone with a small tool that sounded like—and in fact actually is—a miniature ratchet driver. (We will not speak of the earlier sound, of her drill going into bone, both sounding and feeling like a drill press working its way into something gummy.)
  • For the first time I managed a major-release upgrade of Ubuntu without any fussing. Going from 8.04 to 8.10 took about half an hour, but it went absolutely without incident. (In the past I've had to restart the upgrade after it froze, and once I just gave up and did a clean install after reformatting the partition.) I don't see a lot of differences in Intrepid Ibex beyond the wallpaper, which initially puzzled me. It looks like a soda glass ring on somebody's dirty leather couch arm, but after staring at it for a moment I saw the ibex. Sorry; I liked the heron better—and I tremble to think what the wallpaper will be for v9.04 Jaunty Jackalope next spring.
  • Well, alas, Kubuntu didn't fare as well—the upgrade crashed somewhere partway through, and the instance (which is still shown as v8.04 in grub) will not boot. At some point I will reformat the partition and reinstall from the ISO. KDE 4 is an acquired taste, but I've watched it evolve for many years and won't stop now.
  • November 2008 is the 25th anniversary of the release of Turbo Pascal 1.0. David I will be printing selected “How I discovered Turbo Pascal” stories in his blog, and although mine is well-nigh legendary (I practically had to be beaten over the head to try it) I will be writing it up and sending it to him shortly. Damn little in tech has ever affected me more than that!
  • Bob Ballantine W8SU sent me a scan of John T. Frye's 1985 obituary the other day, and it was severely disturbing: Frye died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Maybe it could have been an accident, but somehow I doubt it. Too many lonely writers (Piper, Disch, and others) have died by their own hands. He is buried with his parents at Mount Hope Cemetery in Logansport. Scroll down or search for Frye in the plot listings.
  • Finally, Pete Albrecht reports that the New York Daily News spoke of an election day get-out-the-vote promo in which Krispy Kreme handed out “donut-shaped stars.” (See the figure caption.) I've seen these in SF (recall that long-forgotten turkey, Nova by Samuel Delaney) but never in a donut shop. Maybe Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker works there. Talk about fresh from a hot oven!

It's All for the Best

There's an odd human tendency to expect the worst in the absense of sufficient data. One of my readers wrote to me in a panic regarding my sadness of yesterday, saying: “Tell me you're not separating from Carol!”

People, get a grip. Carol's mom had a medical emergency and Carol is in Chicago looking after her. Our relationship has never been stronger. Carol's mom means a lot to me. I was still getting over the last vestiges of a very bad cold. I'm having my jawbone drilled for a dental implant tomorrow morning at 8 ayem sharp. My dinner exploded. You'd probably be a little down too.

As for dinner: I was being a bachelor, and I emptied a can of Bumble Bee canned salmon into a Corelle bowl to heat it up. I grill fresh salmon a lot, and I have reheated the leftovers in the microwave many times. Alas, canned salmon is packed in brine. Brine is a good conductor, and brine and microwaves have fun together. As best I can tell, a brine pocket somewhere inside that pinkish lump boiled and blew off the microwave lid and itself out of the bowl and all over the inside of the oven. I salvaged enough for dinner and for today's lunch, but that left me wiping out the oven for most of half an hour last night. I'm annoyed because it was a science experiment, and I'm supposed to understand a thing or two about microwave physics.

And my dogs. Well. QBit and Aero were playing tag all over the upper level right before dinner. They chase one another around at flank speed, leaning into the turns, yapping and growling and evidently having a fine time. I had gone to the powder room down the hall to get rid of some well-used diet root beer, and while the process was underway, the two of them barrelled unexpectedly into the room. QBit ran behind me and dove under the toilet tank. Aero, in hot pursuit, hopped up on his hind legs and put his front legs on the rim of the bowl. I half expected him to attempt a leap over the bowl on top of QBit, and tried to dodge. The rest I leave to your imagination. And now, whether I'm home alone or not, I close the door.

As for the election, I don't have much to say. It turned out almost exactly as I had expected, and I don't see any serious damage. Hey, we survived Bill Clinton. We survived GW Bush. Hell, we survived Herbert Hoover and Woodrow Wilson, compared to whom even GW is Gabriel the Archangel. We will survive Obama, to whom I wish all the best, and to whom (if they existed) I would send a case of Tut-B-Gone mummy foggers to deal with the lobbyists now lining up outside his door. Our problem is not now and will not be Obama. The problem is the parasites that gather about high office.

As for my Outrageous Proposition (see my entry for October 30, 2008) I think it went pretty well. Thanks to all who followed the rules and shared their thoughts, and I apologize for not participating more vigorously myself. Headcolds don't schedule their appearances in advance, and this one really took it out of me. But I encourage everybody to go back and read the comments. Aren't those better than raging rants? Isn't life just, well, better without anger?

I will be drugged tomorrow and may not post. After that, the cone of silence once more descends over politics. Like canned salmon, a little goes a long way. (Especially when you heat it up too much!)

…If You Can Keep It

Ben Franklin's grim congratulation is ringing in my head tonight, and even though the whole election thing will (with some luck) soon be over, I'm sad. A good part of the sadness is a consequence of all the hateful tribal rhetoric I've had to listen to for over a year now, but a lot of it is for personal reasons that I'm not talking about at the moment. (A couple of people on my LJ friends list know what's going on, and I'll ask them not to mention it.) Carol's in Chicago and I'm here by myself. The universe's perversity has tended toward a maximum today: My dinner exploded in the microwave and (in a stunning reversal of the usual puppy scheme of things) I peed on my dog. I'll tell that story in the next Odd Lots; we have more important things to discuss tonight.

What's the key issue this election year? Lord knows it's not gay marriage; we've heard nary a peep about that. Nor is it abortion, nor any species of sexual shenanigans, nor the separation of Church and State. Health care is a live issue, but the War is winding down and people just don't seem especially exercised by it anymore. The economy, sure—but $2.35 gas relieves a lot of other pain, and we won't know much about the future until the next regime takes its seats in the new year.

What I'm seeing a lot about is a far darker and more dangerous issue: Vote fraud. The Wall Street Journal ran a huge article on it the other day, and explained what any reasonably aware person has already heard: The Democrats tend to commit vote fraud by giving the vote to people who are not qualified (the dead, noncitizens, imaginary individuals, family pets, people who have already voted) and Republicans by keeping the vote from people who are qualified, by imposing unreasonable conditions on the exercise of the franchise. No partisan squeals allowed here; nobody's hands are clean. It happens (I'm a Chicago boy; like, vote fraud doesn't happen? Puh-leez.) and it highlights a debate few people seem willing to take up: Should we work to minimize fraudulent voting? Or should we work to minimize voter disenfranchisement? It is not a simple question, and in an era when Presidental elections are swung by 400-vote margins, it is a gravely important one. The two positions are in tension: The harder you crack down on fraudulent voting, the more likely it is that marginal voters will be discouraged from voting at all, even if they're qualified. The harder you crack down on disenfranchisement, the more likely it is that unqualified voters will slip through the nets, via deliberate fraud or simple confusion.

The photo ID issue is an interesting one from a partisan perspective. We are essentially the last nation in the developed world that does not require presentation of a government-issued photo ID to vote. There is rich irony in Democrats screaming “disenfranchisement!” over a requirement long enforced by lefty paradises like France and Sweden. People say I lean right, but I have long supported a national ID card, especially since we already basically have one in our state drivers' licenses. The issue, as I have said before many times, is not the existence of the card itself but what we allow government to do with it. Enumerate the circumstances under which the card may be demanded, and make any noncompliant request a felony with a one-year minimum sentence. I'd support that in a heartbeat. I'm amazed, in fact, that vote fraud is so lacking in penalties. Did Acorn in fact register a goldfish to vote? If so, somebody needs to do time. Did Republicans purge registered voters from the roster in Ohio? Somebody needs to do time. Lots of somebodies. If we must spend more money—a lot more money—ensuring that Somebody Is Watching while the democratic process operates, I'm good with that. Even honest mistakes must be punished. When democracy itself is at stake, there are no honest mistakes.

Don't deny it: Democracy is at stake. Vote fraud is a frightening issue because it undermines faith in the democratic process. When too many people are convinced or have convinced themselves that [The Enemy] has stolen the election (plug in whichever Enemy you are tribally obliged to condemn here) they will be less likely to even attempt to vote, and much more willing to listen to clever tyrants who will “clean up the mess” and make those trains run on time.

I'm a purist on issues like this. Vote fraud aside, money is also a dangerous corruptor of the democratic process. Money is not speech. Money is force, and force has no place in the democratic process. Shouting down your opponents is not debate. (And my readings tell me that what the First Amendment was really intended by the Founders to guard against were government reprisals against political opponents.) It may sound perverse, but the contrarian in me feels that the (careful) regulation of political speech connected with the democratic process actually yields greater freedom to more people in deciding who should govern (and how) than simply allowing the richest contender to buy the podium. I think the hoary old stoplight metaphor applies here: Uniform and careful restriction of movement by stoplights allows greater overall freedom of movement on crowded roads than just letting everybody drive without any regulation whatsoever until we're all in a state of wreck-littered gridlock.

I'm running long tonight, but here's my whacko solution to the money issue, which I may have mentioned in this space before, though it's been awhile: Require that all campaign contributions go to a bank account created for the office (or the initiative proposition) rather than to a candidate. Then give contributed money in equal proportion to all candidates who qualified for a place on the ballot for that office. It's trickier for initiatives, but it could be done with some care. Supposedly campaign contributions are not to buy the office, but to educate the public. If that's the case, how better to inform the public without preference than to allow each candidate an equal budget with which to inform the public? Hands off the content of the message, obviously, but make sure that nobody's simply writing a check for the podium and walking away with the election in his pocket.

I know, I know, it's impossible. But trust me: It would work, and we would all be freer for it.

_ . . . _

And with that I bring this series on politics to a conclusion. It's been a long day. I'm tired, I'm sad, and the kitchen smells of incinerated salmon. I voted two weeks ago using the Colorado mail-in ballot, which is good, or I'd be even sadder. I never fail to vote, but voting always depresses me. I do the research. I sit in my comfy chair, and I think. I think of the consequences of supporting this candidate or that candidate, and each of the two sides of every initiative proposition I am faced with. I take notes. I read those notes. I look more things up. And I think some more. And I get sadder.

Consider what I'm facing: I'm deciding who goes bankrupt. I'm deciding who loses their businesses. I'm deciding who loses their homes. I'm deciding who gets their money taken away, and to whom that money is given. I'm deciding who goes to war to be maimed or killed. I'm deciding who gets thrown in jail and for what offenses. I try to see the consequences of each decision I make, but it's like trying to look ahead in a Go game: Very soon a combinatorial explosion of possibility singes the remains of my hair to remind me that no matter which way I decide, somebody wins, and sombody loses. Somebody gets rich, somebody goes broke. Lives are destroyed.

This is the naked face of politics: There is no moral high ground. There are no good solutions. In truth, there are no solutions at all, only endless compromises in which countless good people suffer. That is the human condition, and this is how it works in a democracy. All other mechanisms of governance are far, far worse. All of which is good to keep in mind tonight, and on all future nights when you have taken the vote (which is to say, the lives of others no less worthy than yourself) into your hands. Politics is not joyful. Politics is not fun. If politics does not break your heart, you have no idea at all what the hell you're doing.

What Is Government Actually For?

I'm finally climbing out of the worst headcold I've had in three years, and although I'm still not at my ever-best, it's time to continue the series here on politics without a) naming individual candidates, and b) anger. Point a) is a requirement I've placed on myself; you needn't feel thus constrained. Point b) is in force for both of us, and so far (reading the comments on LiveJournal) I think it's working extraordinarily well.

Today, I'd like to go back to fundamental principles and ask, What is government actually for? We don't teach anything about the ideas behind government in this country anymore, because any time one tries, his or her tribal opponents yell, indoctrination! This is largely due to the sad fact that there are two theories of wealth locked in eternal warfare: The position that wealth happens by luck or corruption and must be redistributed; and the position that wealth happens by work and must be retained by the worker as his or her property.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Minor wealth is usually obtained by work. Great wealth is almost always more luck than anything else, at least in developed nations where corruption does not completely dominate government. (I use “wealth” in the technical sense here, as owned assets of any kind, without any implication of scale. A man with a quarter has some wealth, even if he's starving to death.) It seems pretty clear from my reading of history that wealth tends to concentrate over time until wealth concentration makes societies unstable. This is one point (among many others) that Will and Ariel Durant make in their superb little book, The Lessons of History. The redistributionists have history on their side. But…you can't redistribute what you ain't got. (Marxism tried to do this, and killed 100,000,000 people in the process.) So the fundamental purpose of government is this: To establish and maintain the conditions necessary to keep the rate of wealth creation ahead of population growth. Put another way: Government needs to create a framework within which people can work to support themselves. By “framework” I do not mean government jobs, which exist only by siphoning wealth out of the private sector. I mean things like maintaining civil order and a stable currency, respect for private property, allowing trade with other nations, and defense from attack. I could put a number of other things on the list, but those are the biggies.

It's a complicated and subtle business. Total freedom does not maximize the rate of wealth creation; I've read that in many places. There's a sweet spot where a certain amount of regulation, read here as limits on economic freedom, yields the highest rate of wealth creation. Alas, there's no tag on the graph to mark the spot—and the location of the spot changes unpredictably. There is, however, a huge hint: Maximizing economic opportunity for individuals (as opposed to public or private corporate bodies) probably leads more directly toward the sweet spot than anything else we could do. This includes access to markets, choice of education, career, and workplace, and freedom to create new businesses (and thus jobs) with minimal interference.

What troubles me about modern politics is that the forces controlling both sides are opposed to expanding the economic freedom of individuals. Both sides look to government to expand their power, and power is really what politics is about. On the left, the tendency is for the aggregation of power of governmental and semigovernmental bodies at the expense of individuals. On the right, the tendency is toward aggregation of power of large corporations against individuals and especially against entrepreneurs. The right/left mapping to political parties breaks down here: The most rabid Republicans I know are small business owners, who are willing to work for little or nothing when starting out or when conditions get bad. The big corporate people I know are much more nuanced in their politics, and many admit to being Democrats. This seems obvious in retrospect, but it took a fair bit of time for me to figure out: Big corporations fear startups far more than they fear government. (Like recognizes and begets like: The bigger a corporation is, the more it actually begins to look like a government.) Governments and corporations both strive toward monopolies; governments of force, and corporations of markets. Without limits, those monopolies work against the well-being of individuals, and they grow unless explicitly checked.

The depressing thing about this election cycle is that neither party seems especially interested in economic opportunity for individuals, and especially in job creation. The Democrats are basically owned by Big Labor and the tort bar. The Republicans (what's left of the party, at least) are beholden to certain large corporations who want protected markets, and a relative handful of conservative social organizations that are mostly religious in underpinnings. There's not a whiff of populist sentiment on either side. Many people who would otherwise lean Republican are disgusted and will vote Democratic just to kill the cancer of the last eight years.

There's opportunity there; the Republicans could win (long-term) by losing. It's interesting to look back and see that when the Democrats have taken control of all three elected branches of government, they don't hold it very long. If the Republican party is ever reborn with a genuinely populist message, they could well put the Democrats back into the broom closet for another twenty years. Much collateral damage happens as the pendulum swings, but I don't think anybody knows how to keep political parties from abandoning the center, which these days means respect for the primacy of the individual against moneyed interests at either extreme of the left/right axis. The party that takes the center and keeps it will rule until they forget why they came to rule.

I see from my notes that I could go on for another several thousand words, but that's all I want to deal with tonight. And tomorrow, mon dieu. I wish I could just jump directly to Wednesday.

A Nose Was Blown, But Not By Me

Uggh. Today has been misery punctuated by mere discomfort, and you won't get anything profound from me tonight. What time I didn't spend in bed with Aero's butt in my armpit and QBit lying across my ankles I spent reading in my big chair, pulling Kleenexes from the box as needed and tossing them atop my desk when I finished with them. A few minutes ago, I looked at the pile of snotty Kleenex and asked myself, “Did I do all that nose-blowing this afternoon?” I was so bleary I barely remember.

Yet objective evidence (the head-sized pile of snotty tissues) suggests that I did.

And on that note I will make a very strong recommendation for the book I am mostly through reading, though I will probably have to read it a second time once I'm no longer blissed out on antihistamines. Do not miss this one: Mistakes Were made, But Not By Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. (Thanks to Michael Abrash for recommending the book.) It is a masterful piece of pop psychology, beautifully written and well footnoted, that offers to explain why we justfy foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful behavior. It has been a painful read in that I have seen myself in every other paragraph, and you will too. It has been a hopeful read, however, in that I have been intuitively struggling against these damaging psychological mechanisms for much of my adult life; in fact, the book has allowed me to define what I mean by contrarianism: the act of swimming against the torrent of stupidity and falsehood that flows from the deeper mind.

If you are a person given to certainty, the book will enrage you, since it almost defines certainty as a species of mental illness. (This is also the thesis of another book that I have read but not yet reviewed here, On Being Certain, by Robert A. Burton.) No matter what you're certain about, you're wrong. So am I. All knowledge is tentative, and our memories are full of holes and scrambled pointers. I'll start talking about that once I feel better and this damned election is over.

At this point it's time for shower and bed, and my nose is running. Damn. I'm out of Kleenex. I was sure that the box was still half-full!