What Trump Knows

So, about computers – understand that the enemy back in high school was Carl Maria von Weber – his clarinet stuff. The private lessons with the guy from the Pittsburgh Symphony always led there – to the core solo pieces for clarinet, the old warhorses. Those were showy and oddly conventional and a bitch to get right – and any teenage boy got them right was automatically a total nerd. That doesn’t impress the girls, and it was the early sixties and there was Stan Getz. The switch to tenor saxophone was sexually necessary. Getz was doing that devastatingly cool Brazilian stuff at the time – The Girl from Ipanema and all that – but that presented other problems. All that Bossa Nova stuff had tricky chord structures. Improvising on those took special knowledge, but the parents had an old piano in the basement, so it was hours alone voicing the chords with the left hand and noodling around with single lines with the right hand, to figure out what would fit where and what wouldn’t. That helped, but then there was Miles Davis. His 1959 album Kind of Blue was the ultimate cool, and all the improvisation was modal. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley were blasting away in Dorian mode and whatnot, so it was back to the woodshed – the basement, actually – to get that right. Talented folks get this stuff by ear – they fall into it naturally. The rest of us have to work at it.

In the seventies there were other challenges, when teaching English at the prep school in upstate New York, challenges on the side. That had to do with organizing small student woodwind ensembles. There was no repertoire for each year’s odd combinations – two flutes and an oboe one year, flute and clarinet and bassoon the next. That meant arranging minor Mozart stuff or a few of the Bach Three-Part Inventions or a bit of Stravinsky for what was at hand, and understanding the structure of each piece to make it workable for the kids. Fugues and canons worked well – theme and variations, first and second endings, and de capo – back to the head. It all made sense, eventually.

So, about computers – this all came to a head in the eighties, after leaving teaching, moving to California, and ending up in aerospace, in Human Resources, and then in Human Resources Systems, writing the first rudimentary information system to track and manage this and that. Those were the early days of coding everything by hand, line by line, in dBase IV and stuff like that – long gone now. We were all self-taught. We shared code and laughed a lot – but damn, it was just like the music stuff. Each system was just like every eighteenth-century musical composition ever written – theme and variations, first and second endings, and de capo – back to the head. The fun stuff was improvising on complex underlying structures – after you figured out what would fit where and what wouldn’t. Pop-up error boxes in odd colors with snarky insulting messages were the most fun. We were jazzed.

That’s all gone now. Now anyone can build a rather complex information system, or these days a website, by point-and-click drag-and-drop. The code is hidden. No one needs to know that stuff. Ten years ago, those who knew HTML were invaluable – that controlled the appearance and behavior of all text that appeared on-screen. All that coding dirty work is done automatically for you now. Thirty years ago nerds set up your computer in DOS – line by line – and if you were clever, you customized that, line by line. Windows does that for you now – point and click. Don’t worry about what’s going on underneath. You wouldn’t understand it anyway – but that’s good. This frees up folks to do what they wanted to do in the first place. Everyone can play it by ear these days.

That also means that all the young folks who are experts on computers are nothing of the sort. They’re end-users of the expertise of others. The real experts are the hackers, who know the underlying code and how to get to it, and know how to change it for their own purposes. They’ll find the unprotected subroutine of a subroutine – usually one line of code – and modify it. In spite of what Donald Trump says, one fat teenager in his pajamas alone in his basement in New Jersey is not going to hack into the DNC and cause havoc. Not everyone can do that. A team of Russian geeks can.

This is a basic misunderstanding, but an old guy who doesn’t even own a computer can make this mistake:

President-elect Donald J. Trump, expressing lingering skepticism about intelligence assessments of Russian interference in the election, said on Saturday evening that he knew “things that other people don’t know” about the hacking, and that the information would be revealed “on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

Speaking to a handful of reporters outside his Palm Beach, Fla., club, Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump cast his declarations of doubt as an effort to seek the truth.

“I just want them to be sure because it’s a pretty serious charge,” Mr. Trump said of the intelligence agencies. “If you look at the weapons of mass destruction, that was a disaster, and they were wrong,” he added, referring to intelligence cited by the George W. Bush administration to support its march to war in 2003. “So I want them to be sure,” the president-elect said. “I think it’s unfair if they don’t know.”

Okay, fine, he’s a bit defensive about this, and that’s understandable. He hopes they’ll admit they don’t know. All sixteen of our intelligence agencies – the CIA and the NSA and the FBI and Army Intelligence and all the rest, and the coordinating agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – had told key members of Congress in a secret session in October that this was actually a certainty. News of that leaked and caused no end of trouble for Trump, and he found himself in the position of saying that he’d take the word of the Russian government over the word of all sixteen of our intelligence agencies any day of the week. Putin said the Russians didn’t do this, so this forced Trump into an odd position – stand with Trump and Putin, and make America great again.

Republicans were aghast. Democrats pounced. Something had to be done, and that was this:

“I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”

When asked what he knew that others did not, Mr. Trump demurred, saying only, “You’ll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

He knows a lot about hacking? That might not be so:

Mr. Trump, who does not use email, also advised people to avoid computers when dealing with delicate material. “It’s very important, if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way, because I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe,” Mr. Trump said.

“I don’t care what they say, no computer is safe,” he added. “I have a boy who’s 10 years old; he can do anything with a computer. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.”

Kevin Drum wonders about that:

Here’s what I think Donald Trump knows about hacking: nothing. In movies, the stereotypical hacking nerd can blow through any cyber defense in about 30 seconds of whirlwind typing. So this is what Trump believes: There are lots of 19-year-old kids who can type furiously for about 30 seconds and break into any computer in the world.

I don’t imagine anyone is going to argue with me about that, so let’s move on to Trump’s statement that he knows things “that other people don’t know.” Intriguing! What could that be?

Well, America’s intelligence agencies think Russia is behind the hacking, so Trump doesn’t have any secret knowledge from them. Where else could he have gotten it? There are two obvious possibilities. The first is that Trump’s team did it, and he’s going to confess on Tuesday (or Wednesday). Wouldn’t that be great? The second possibility is that Putin has provided Trump with some kind of plausible misdirection, which he’s going to parrot on Tuesday (or Wednesday).

Actually, of course, there’s a third possibility, and it’s the most likely of all: Trump is just blathering as usual, and he will provide no new information on either Tuesday or Wednesday. He’s just playing the press the way he always does, and we’ll all turn out for the show, just like we did for the birther show in September.

Drum also adds this:

Trump’s proposal of a massive new executive branch courier service is intriguing as the foundation of his promise to create more jobs, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about the myth that young people are all geniuses with computers…

On average, young people are more comfortable around computers than older people. Show them a new app and they’re generally willing to learn it, while we older coots probably don’t want to bother unless we really think it’s going to be useful. Younger generations also have different preferences thanks to these apps (text vs. phone calls, news aggregators vs. weekly newsmagazines, etc.). But that’s about it. In the sense of broad knowledge of computers and networks, or the ability to find information, or the ability to produce useful work with their computers, Xers and millennials aren’t any more savvy than the rest of us.

But the flying fingers on their smartphones, along with their deep familiarity with the apps they use, provide an aura of expertise so compelling that it seems almost genetically inborn. Mostly, though, it’s an illusion.

Of course, even with that illusion affecting our judgment, most of us don’t believe that ten-year-olds “can do anything with a computer.” For that level of idiocy, you really need Donald Trump.

Many don’t believe most of what Donald Trump says. Everyone seems to agree that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about almost all the time, if ever. Some find that refreshing – those who do know what they’re talking about have made a mess of the world. Let a brash and cocky amateur take a whack at things – he couldn’t do any worse. Of course he could, but enough people were angry enough at those who had been running things that he won the presidency. They’ll cut him some slack on this computer thing, useless they also believe what he believes – their own ten-year-old could bring down the entire Department of Defense in thirty seconds, texting from his iPhone. Kids are amazing these days.

No, they’re not. Something else is going on here, and it might be this:

Three former press secretaries warned Sunday that they believe President-elect Donald Trump will create more difficulties for the media when he takes office.

Former presidential press secretaries for the Clinton and Bush administrations voiced their concerns to Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Nicolle Wallace, who served as communications director during George W. Bush’s administration, said Trump craves the press “like an addict craves their drugs.”

“We’ve just elected a man who bullies female reporters at his rally as an applause line. We have just elected a man who started a hot war with a female anchor instead of attending a debate she moderated,” she said, referencing Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.

“We are in a new place,” Wallace added. “And I don’t think it’s good. And I don’t think it has any parallels to the past.”

That would mean that Trump’s hacking comments – his kid could do the same thing and he has a big secret about the hack of the DNC and hacking in general that no one else knows – are not a sign that he’s a foolish old man who knows nothing of the matter. They’re a sign of his addiction to press coverage of any kind, no matter how absurd:

Joe Lockhart, a White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, said Trump’s attitude toward facts is reminiscent of President Richard Nixon’s time in the White House.

“We’re really in a place where … they create their own facts,” he said.

“It’s somewhat Orwellian, which, you know, you redefine the past, which means you can define the present and the future. And that’s going to be very difficult for both sides to come to grips with.”

Any kid with an iPhone can hack anything and bring down governments. All government business should be carried out on paper and all information shared only by courier. Explain to the public that the first isn’t true and the second is absurd. Get attacked by Trump in one of his tweetstorms. The public will then hate you:

Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, said the press and Trump both feel disdain for the other side – which helps Trump most of all.

“There’s a double-barreled hostility. This press corps can’t stand Donald Trump. And Donald Trump is happy to return the favor,” Fletcher said. “And he uses it to his advantage.”

It may be time to be very careful:

The top editors for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal expressed wariness over the incoming president-elect’s respect for the First Amendment.

In a special NBC “Meet the Press” episode devoted to the media and President-elect Donald Trump, New York Times editor Dean Baquet said he’s troubled by Trump’s remarks about the press and the First Amendment.

“First off, the things he has said about the press in general are troublesome,” Baquet said. “He has said things that should make all journalists nervous about his view of the First Amendment, about his view of a press that’s supposed to ask him tough questions. So that makes me nervous.”

This has them spooked:

Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker said that despite the fact Trump often makes “questionable” and “challengeable” statements, he’s instructed his staff to keep their social media postings straight-laced in order to maintain the trust of the readers.

Asked by host Chuck Todd whether he’d be willing to call out a falsehood as a “lie” like some other news outlets have done, Baker demurred, saying it was up to the newspaper to just present the set of facts and let the reader determine how to classify a statement.

“I’d be careful about using the word, ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead,” Baker said, noting that when Trump claimed “thousands” of Muslims were celebrating on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11, the Journal investigated and reported that they found no evidence of a claim.

“I think it is then up to the reader to make up their own mind to say, ‘This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports. And you know what? I don’t think that’s true.’ I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they’ve lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective,” he said.

Trump says the earth is flat. Report that no one else believes that. Ask your readers to make up their own minds. It’s going to be a long four or eight years, and this is curious:

Baker also said he wishes the American media was less “deferential” to politicians and to the president.

That must mean that Baker will publish more articles saying that Trump says this is true and every reliable and trustworthy news organization in the entire world reports that it’s not true at all, and say not one word more. Don’t say it never happened, whatever it is. Reserve judgment – simply say that no one else in the world saw it happen – leave it at that – but stop being deferential.

It’s going to be a long four or eight years for these folks too, and for the new guy in charge on day-today operations at the White House:

Reince Priebus says that one of his most important tasks as Donald Trump’s chief of staff will be to establish “some level of order within the White House.”

That, of course, has been the central mission of everyone who has held this post in the past, but it is certain to be a particularly daunting challenge with a president who regards chaos as a management tool.

Trump’s Twitter feed is a daily, sometimes hourly, testament to his impulsive nature, his disregard for norms and protocol, his bottomless appetite for random information and misinformation.

The man just says things – or tweets them out. He may or may not believe them. He may not even know if he believes them. He says he does. He changes his mind. He’ll sometimes say that he didn’t say what he just said. Priebus has a tough job, and then there’s this:

Adding to the potential for tension is the fact that Trump’s White House is being set up with rival centers of gravity.

The structure puts Priebus on the same level as Stephen K. Bannon, whom Trump named to be his senior counselor and chief strategist. Bannon is the former chairman of Breitbart News, a media voice of the alt-right, which is a fiery fringe movement that embraces elements of white nationalism. Though the post-election announcement of Trump’s White House team described Bannon and Priebus as “equal partners to transform the federal government,” it listed Bannon first.

Trump’s son-in-law and consigliere Jared Kushner is also expected to be close by in some kind of capacity that will give him a say in major decisions.

None of the three has ever worked in a White House.

All of this means that the 44-year-old Priebus will be at the center of an experiment to determine whether Trump’s singular style of leadership – honed in his family business, displayed on reality television, and used with devastating effect in a presidential campaign that defied every expectation – will transform Washington as Trump promised or prove ineffective when applied to the more complex work of presiding over the massive federal government.

Start with Trump’s implicit proposal for a massive new executive branch courier service, because no computer is ever safe – every ten-year-old could hack into any computer in thirty seconds. Would that new executive branch courier service prove effective when applied to the complex work of presiding over the massive federal government? The press will reserve judgment now. Note that he implied that. Say no more – and Trump also said he knows a lot about hacking, and now, in one special case, he knows something no one else knows – and he’ll tell what that is one day soon, although on which day is unclear. Okay, wait. Say no more.

The man is improvising. That always sounds awful when you don’t know what you’re doing. Some of us learned that back in high school.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to What Trump Knows

  1. Rick says:

    I must admit, I do have a few problems with any analysis of cyber hacking that says some kid in his basement can’t have hacked the DNC.

    After all, the original so-called “Guccifer” — who hacked Colin Powell, George Tenet, Richard Armitage, John Negroponte, “Senator Lisa Murkowski; a senior UN official; members of the Rockefeller family; former FBI and Secret Service agents, as well as the brother of Barbara Bush, CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, … former Miss Maine Patricia Legere”, among others, and was eventually arrested for hacking the emails of former Bill Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal — was not a foreign power, he was just some unemployed taxi driver in Romania who believed the world is run by the Illuminati, and did it all with “no fancy equipment, only a clunky NEC desktop and a Samsung cellphone, and no special skills beyond what he had picked up on the web.”

    That being said, I wouldn’t trust Donald Trump to know any more about that than he knows about anything else he pretends to know about, but doesn’t.

    (I should also point out that most of us writing computer code back in the day — you, Alan, doing much more sophisticated systems work in Microsoft, and me, on my Apple II+ at CNN, writing a program that instantly computes the costs of renting one hour of an AT&T video landline between any two points in the United States — for example, Grand Junction and Cincinnati — hadn’t a clue about what it was that made the underlying DOS — and, in my case, “Apple DOS” — work its magic in the background. I myself gave up programing in HTML when Microsoft stopped letting me do it myself, without it automatically changing all my raw ASCII into something I hadn’t intended. But enough of all the nerdy stuff, except that it’s hard to believe someone like Trump, who has has never owned a computer and probably couldn’t tell you what “HTML” even stands for, actually knows “a lot about hacking”, as he claims.)

    So what big secret does Trump know that we’ll find out on Tuesday (or Wednesday)?:

    “I don’t care what they say, no computer is safe,” he added. “I have a boy who’s 10 years old; he can do anything with a computer. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.”

    Maybe he’ll announce that his ten-year-old son, Barron, did the hacking of the DNC?

    Or maybe he’ll announce that, since launching a missile relies on computers, he’ll be modifying American defenses to have all our bombs delivered by bicycle couriers?

    And along the same lines of what Trump knows about anything, if Trump keeps insisting the CIA was “wrong” about all those “weapons of mass destruction”, he needs to update himself on what actually caused that “disaster” back then. What the CIA probably got wrong was not standing up to George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s “stovepiping” of intelligence analysis data, allowing them to manipulate the unexamined raw intelligence for their own political purposes, making it look like Iraq was working on programs it wasn’t working on, simply to support their agenda. (Maybe before this week’s announcement, Trump can read Seymour Hersh’s excellent 2003 New Yorker piece on how it all happened.)

    If Trump doesn’t understand the past history of his own country, one can only imagine how he’s going to really screw up its future.

    And this brings us back to the question of whether our present situation is a failure of democracy, or a failure of our republican form of government, and the answer is clearly the latter, since if we were really a democracy, than the president-elect would be the one that got the most votes. In other words, this may be what happens when you have a klutzy electoral system that allows an uninformed minority to put one of its own in charge of what is arguably the most powerful nation on the planet.

    So Happy F’ing New Year, and God Help Us, Every One!

    Rick

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