The Null Device


Computer criminals have found a new way of distributing bank-account-stealing trojans: by scattering USB flash drives in car parks. Some percentage of the population (perhaps the same that opens email attachments) would pick up these shiny flash disks, take them home and insert them into their Windows PCs, not having disabled autorunning beforehand.

Sooner or later, the default Windows configuration will refuse to autorun content on a strange flash drive, and this won't work. Unless, of course, the criminals have special USB units manufactured containing an active processor which uses DMA to probe and interfere with the host PC's memory. They could possibly use the same facilities they use to make fake ATM front panels to manufacture them. The units could even contain an empty, perfectly innocent flash drive to deflect suspicion; after all, there's no limit to how many devices something on the end of a USB connector can appear to be.

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A Commons inquiry into whether flying has become less pleasant has been told that flights with budget airlines are unpleasant, because of the quality of the passengers they attract:

He read out one description, saying the experience could be summed up as "very unpleasant, a good proportion of people shout the length of the cabin, walk around with drinks, use foul language and are generally awful".
The representatives of two budget airlines, EasyJet and FlyBe, denied suggestions that they tolerate a poorer standard of behaviour than more expensive airlines. Though, if there is a correlation between the costliness of a journey and the standards of behaviour the travellers (consciously or subconsciously) believe is expected of them, what the airline will tolerate is beside the point.

Assuming that there is more bad behaviour on budget flights, I wonder what proportion of that is due to not so much the social class/lack of proper upbringing of the passengers as the context of the situation: in other words, some people who would otherwise behave respectably assuming, consciously or otherwise, that, since they're on a budget flight, the expected standards of behaviour are a lot lower than elsewhere. Call it a transport-related variant of the broken windows theory.

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Naomi Wolf claims that, after 9/11, Bush's America has been following a historically well-trodden path — the path from an open society to fascism:

If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.
As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.
The steps Wolf cites, giving examples of each, are:
  1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
  2. Create a gulag
  3. Develop a thug caste
  4. Set up an internal surveillance system
  5. Harass citizens' groups
  6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
  7. Target key individuals
  8. Control the press
  9. Dissent equals treason
  10. Suspend the rule of law
Of course, as Wolf points out, the US is not going to wake up and find jackbooted stormtroopers (or perhaps "Liberty Troopers" or some similarly jarringly propagandistic title) shutting down its newspapers. courts and libraries, Mussolini-style; the threat is not a literal repetition of history, but a gradual erosion of the institutions of open society, a setting up of the preconditions for the trap to suddenly snap shut:
It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."
What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.
We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep going down this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before - and this is the way it is now.
An exercise for the reader: which, if any, of the 10 steps to fascism have been taken in your country?

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