Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Snowden Leaks and the Inevitable Death of On-Line Privacy

Governments are outraged. The press is in an uproar. Some of us, the people out there tapping at our computers and thus adding to the heaps of material being stored by governmental security agencies, foresee a future mirroring the past in which the Nazis and Stalinists used surveillance of ordinary citizens to incarcerate millions. 

It’s not impossible that the future may hold some such horror, made far worse by ever-advancing technology. But most of us, I suspect, may feel little troubled personally as yet if the government not only knows our every connection but reads every word of our innocent meanderings on line. 

The problem, however, is here and now, and for any one of us who happens, however innocently, to offend a capable hacker or someone who has even the most tenuous or unknown link to one. Spyware and password-cracking programs have become available to the computer-savvy for their own personal use.

What is spyware? It can enable a hacker to have his computer screen mirror yours, and allow him to use his computer as if he were you: know your every web and email connection; pose as you on line saying whatever he pleases and have it appear to come from you. What he writes will appear to come from your computer. 

How could such spyware be installed in your computer? Piggybacked onto your most trusted download.
I speak from experience. Last spring I noticed that none of the passwords for web sites I frequently visit were working. I thought it must be due to some technical problem with my computer, and I changed all the passwords to ones that rated “strong” with no thought of fending off a hacker but simply because that seemed to be what the sites wanted.

My Facebook page had been involved, but I thought nothing of it until a few days later I tried to log on and my strong new password wouldn’t work. I went through the procedure to change it again and got the message that I had just changed it three hours earlier. Three hours earlier my computer had been shut off and my husband and I had been eating dinner together. We’re the only people in the house and are on a rural road where anyone stopping near enough to pick up wi-fi would have raised our dogs in loud alarums. 

So no one near my computer had access to change the Facebook password. Nevertheless, the Facebook procedure said the change had been made by a computer at our locale. That this is not a very rare problem is evidenced by the robotic system Facebook has in place to deal with it. 

Assuring the FB system that the change was not made from my computer, I received the message that I should contact the police at once. Facebook’s system knew that I was either dealing with a hacker who had a program that rapidly generates possible passwords until it hits bingo, or a hacker who had installed spyware in my computer. While the password-generator could take up to two weeks to crack the hardest password, spyware would reveal it at once – on the hacker’s screen as if he were doing it himself.
I contacted the police and they sent me to the nearest FBI office. The FBI agent in charge of computer hacking told me that his office alone -- in a small city surrounded by a rural region usually considered rather backward in technology – gets an average of a dozen hacking cases per week. 

His advice was to destroy the infected computer, never bank on line, use passwords that combine numbers, capital and lower case letters and change the passwords at least every two weeks. And he urged that I put black tape over my computer’s camera -- it could be turned on remotely to make a video of me and the hacker could then post the video world-wide with his own commentary.

It should be added  here that there also are technically far simpler risks to communication on line. It doesn’t require spyware, or indeed any capability out of the ordinary, to take a “screen shot,” edit or tamper with it so that it casts the original writer in a negative light, then post it on the internet as a representation of the writer’s own words. The only antidote for this may be skepticism on the part of all readers and disinclination to take action based on what appears to be objectionable.

The point is that anything you communicate anywhere on line may be accessed by others, not only government agencies looking for the next suicide bomber. 

We can none of us feel secure in our privacy, and privacy through media supplied to us by corporations may never be obtainable again. No doubt mankind will learn somehow to live with this and find other means of private communication—like snail mail, which won’t be breached unless someone has a very pressing reason to be snooping on you.

The real surprise is that our governmental leaders have been trusting to the privacy of wireless communications systems. Perhaps they’ll have to go back to the old method of live couriers – but that is terribly slow.

Alan Rusbridger’s article “The Snowden Leaks and the Public” in the New York Review of Books questions the process by which governmental security issues are left in the hands of official committees of elder statesmen who, it’s very doubtful, have an inkling of the capabilities of hackers. 

The Snowden revelations not only are shocking us into awareness that we’re all being spied upon by own governments, but that what our governments amass on us is not itself secured. Anything communicated on line, if not already accessible to any capable hacker, eventually will be. The capacities of able young devotees of hacking regularly outstrip corporations’ abilities to maintain their security – even when they try (which obviously they weren’t doing when channeling our every link to governments.)

Why is this dangerous? Let us set aside history – we may be arrogant in assuming mankind will never bend to another Hitler or Stalin again, but for now let’s keep to the present and the personal.

We’ve been living through a period in which on-line bullying has been in fashion. Fortunately, corporations such as Amazon, Facebook, Goodreads and even Twitter are becoming concerned and taking steps to curb it. Bullying victims range from children to adults, businesses to politicians, authors to actors and sports figures, or just the person next door. The first question that comes to mind regarding on-line bullying is “Why would anyone do this?” 

A lot of possible answers have been floated. Anne R. Allen in her blog suggests a primal “hive” mentality – at the sounding of an alert a primal urge prompts otherwise reasonable people to attack the indicated target. But in the past people didn’t rise en masse to hurl insults and even death threats at a stranger, as they’re doing now.

Could this on-line attack response be a carry-over from violent computer games? An upping of the game by playing it in reality – with the advantages of anonymity and the merely “virtual” nature of the attack? A target “enemy” appears in the game, or on a “tweet”, and the player must instantly launch all his available forces to annihilate this “enemy.” The game mentality neither includes nor allows time for analysis as to whether this really is an enemy. The brain is taught to trigger with unquestioning and absolute response. 

It would take statistical studies to determine if on-line bullies are also players of violent computer games, but it would be well worthwhile if such a link were found. While the ever advancing skills of hackers probably will not be curbed, and many may argue shouldn’t be, the violence of computer games can be – perhaps with an resulting world of more benign on-line behavior --  bringing us random acts of anonymous kindness if we must live without privacy.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

History: Truth or Spin?

Much of the motive to explore history is to discover how we got to where we are today. It's a common step from there to seeing the historical process that has resulted in our present state as somehow inevitable.The conventional thread of most histories thus tends to justify the winner, and to assert a continuum of rightness from whatever period is under consideration up to the present day.

Consider the history of England as an example. Though post-Enlightenment, materialist historians might bridal at literally admitting it, there is a strong suggestion of the hand of God in the process, for each monarch reigns officially "by the Grace of God" and is "our undoubted queen (or king)" by virtue of that unbroken thread of right causality.

And then there is the other history of England. The one set by the wayside at each turning that either maintained the sovereignty despite a period of opposition, or shifted the sovereignty to new or premature hands and required justification, usually by disparaging the loser.

Henry VI must be portrayed as a near imbecile and Richard III a child-murderer for Henry Tudor to be embraced as God’s chosen King Henry VII. Edward II must be an outrageous homosexual to justify his queen’s seizing power from him on behalf of his young son, Edward III. But a catamite of King Richard I is said to have been hurled from a parapet by Richard’s followers who were aggravated that he spent his time at dalliance with the boy instead of attending to the business of crusade. Yet Richard’s homosexuality has not sullied his glorious reputation. In his case there was no regime change that needed to be justified.

The deep-delving historian often will find two or more sets of records from a period under study, the separate threads divided by the partisan leanings of the events' witnesses. Should this be surprising? Read the handbill news sheets of the time of George Washington’s presidency and you’ll find there were those who fully believed Washington was a secret agent for the French and a traitor to the interests of his country. Had the British vanquished the colonial rebels, that view of Washington might have become standard history. England was at odds with France, and France was the rebel colonists' chief ally.

Though George Washington as France's agent now seems utterly absurd to most Americans, arrays of spin can be pitfalls for any historian who attempts to assert a single “truth.” And when the era under study was filled with embittered and contending parties, the pitfalls are everywhere. 

Take for example the apparently miniscule and simple issue of how King Henry III of England identified himself during the battle of Evesham in 1265. Historians agree that he was traveling with – or under the control of – the Parliamentary party whose military leader was Simon de Montfort; that, when the cortege was pursued and eventually surrounded by the armies of Prince Edward, Henry accompanied the Montfortians into battle dressed in borrowed armor that concealed his identity; and that in the heat of the battle he cried out, “Don’t kill me!”

But did he say, “I’m Henry of Winchester, your king! Don’t kill me!” Or did he say, “I’m Henry of Monmouth! Don’t kill me!” This might seem a trivial question. The first is what one would expect of a competent, elderly monarch seeking to be rescued by Edward’s monarchist forces. They are the words a well-meaning historian constructing a consistent thread would put in Henry’s mouth. Yet the second outcry has the surreal ring of truth. The bright spark of the unexpected that real life often displays.

The historian faces the choice of conventionality, in keeping with the consistent monarchical thread, or of adherence to a reconstruction of the evidences surviving of, in this case, the Parliamentary partisans. For if the king said, “I’m Henry of Monmouth” (and the chronicler who recorded this added by way of explanation, “he was simple”), then here is witness that the king was in his dotage and incompetent – and the Parliamentarians were justified in controlling his actions for the sake of the realm. 

Monarchist or Parliamentarian – the record splits along political lines, the very lines that were essential to the issues in contention at the time.
If so seemingly small a particle of history can display such partisan weighting, what can be said of larger issues? And where lies truth? Is it the stream of events as interpreted by those who would justify history as leading inexorably to the present status quo? Or might it be tweezed out of the losing party’s surviving scraps of evidence? Or is it truly lost – if indeed a single truth ever existed?

Only the naïve maintain they know the truth of eras that were split and fractured by partisan politics. Or, in any comlex issue, that an objective truth ever can be asserted beyond question.

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Reviews

Negative reviews most probably have existed since Sophocles’ time and are a fact of life in all the arts. Most are subjective expressions of taste, and as such are beyond discussion: de gustibus non est disputandum.
Some reviews may show the reviewer’s limited or differing knowledge or experience. Where the reviewer’s differing knowledge is the cause of a negative review a mutually productive conversation might be opened – or might not.

Some negative reviews give the writer, artist, whoever the receiver, notice of where a passage or idea has been unclear – at least for that reviewer. Where the problem is lack of clarity and resultant misunderstanding, the playwright in rehearsal, the author with a book in e-file, can edit and amend. In the near past, American theater producers routinely gave new shows out-of-town runs specifically to elicit reviews that could help to improve their plays.

The problem with negative reviews is seldom the content, but that negative reviews are so often couched in language that, in other ways of communicating, would be rude. The review is a form of writing that seems to grant exceptional freedom – not merely compared to other kinds of writing, but in life itself. 

Theater critics for newspapers were valued for their witty blasts because readers found them amusing. The sense that someone can get away with such rudeness is a gleeful relief for those who live in constant suppression of annoyances and anger. That there is an artist, a playwright, a writer on the receiving end of the blast is of little concern, and in any case people in the arts are seldom in a position to retaliate. 

The internet has opened a new world for reviews, and one even less circumscribed than the professional reviewing world of the past, when editors and media policies drew limits. 

During my long life as a writer I’ve reviewed fine art and theater for various publications, and my husband’s career, for some twenty years, was as a New York theater critic for a daily newspaper. We’ve given thought to these issues. 

Now, though I’m asked with some frequency to review books, I’ll only review a book that I’ve read to the end and deem to be of 4- or 5-star quality. If a book doesn’t move me to give it a good review, I decline to review it at all. Why, merely because the work is not to my taste, or my views differ, should I give a negative review when it may be thoroughly enjoyed by somebody else?

Very few works actually pose a danger – inciting real violence of one variety or another. A book such as Mein Kampf would surely qualify. But most books, paintings, plays, films, music, dances are the work of people whose aim is to entertain, to bring a dimension of added interest to life. This is no sin. 

There are truly bad things in the world, but the arts are very seldom among them. Yes, deplore the horrors of war, of social injustice, of disease – but how do any of the arts deserve the high disdain and condemnation that so often is hurled at them? 

And the words of critics can do real damage. Sergei Rachmaninoff was so stricken by the cruelty that greeted his first symphony that he fell into deep depression. It was three years before he recovered and was able to compose again. What magnificent music did we lose in those years of his silence? What if he had never recovered? The cruel reviewer, incidentally, was a fellow composer who never achieved a fraction of Rachmaninoff's renown.

Every art form seeks an audience and thrives or withers from the tone, even more than the content, of responses. Some artists are strong and persevere, some are crushed and the fine works they might have done never come into being. 

Even Shakespeare felt this poignant vulnerability. In his last words to his audience he says, through Prospero, “Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill or else my project fails, which was to please.”

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Answers to questions regarding my books Montfort

A few Amazon customer reviewers have expressed no tolerance for my use of the novel form to explore possible answers for the gaps that deep research leave open regarding the life of Simon de Montfort, and that other historians and novelists have bridged with a set of speculations that appear to be regarded as fact, though absolute fact cannot be discerned given the nature of the original 13th century materials.

Simon de Montfort was a highly controversial figure in his own time. 13th-century sources are fragmentary, very biased and inevitably subject to interpretation. There are two opposing sets of 13th-century chronicles — those written by Montfort’s enemies and those written by his partisans. I’ve chosen to follow the works of his partisans. 

An absolute knowledge of truth regarding key events in his life, including the cause of King Henry’s accusations at the Churching of the Queen and Montfort’s subsequent four-year exile, may never be determined beyond question. I chose to write the Montfort series as a historical novel, rather than an academic history, to have the scope to pursue the speculations my researches prompted.

To answer some Amazon customer reviewers’ questions:
1) Was King Henry’s sister Eleanor a nun?
Eleanor’s vows were so binding that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Rich, traveled to Rome to obstruct the lifting of her vows by Pope Gregory IX (Registres de Gregoire IX, nos. 4330 and 4889). Her vows and her wearing of the sanctified ring worn by nuns made her beyond any doubt a “bride of Christ.” In regard of 13th-century religious practice, it would be an error to underestimate the seriousness of her vows and her bond as a bride of Christ.

2) Simon de Montfort's name a hanging offense for 700 years?
This statement is not in the text itself but in the publisher’s blurb for the book.
The earliest documentation of the deliberate, official suppression of mention of Simon de Montfort is found in Article 8 of the Dictum of Kenilworth, October 1266: “We humbly beg the legate to prevent, by constraint of the Church, Simon de Montfort from being regarded as a saint or as a just person by any man, since he died excommunicate, and miracles which some attribute to him, but which are vain or fictitious, being published abroad by any mouth. Let our lord the king consent to make the same prohibition, under threat of corporal punishment.”
There are 19th- and 20th-century biographies of Simon de Montfort. However, those by English historians, with the exception of appreciations of his battle tactics, portray him negatively. A few 19th-century appreciations of Montfort’s political achievement were written in England by foreigners. 19th  and 20th century biographies with a positive view of Montfort were written in France, Germany and Canada by Charles Bémont, Reinhold Pauli and Margaret Wade LaBarge. 
There has been unquestionable stifling of public awareness in England of Simon de Montfort’s role in the creation of Parliament in its modern form including representatives of the common people.
3) Simon de Montfort the father of Edward I?
Throughout the four volumes of Montfort there are extensive Historical Context notes regarding a long sequence of events that I cite in support of my speculation that Edward I was Montfort’s natural son. The initial event is the well recorded Churching of the Queen, which followed directly upon her first confession since her pregnancy was known — a confession made to Edmund Rich, Archbishop of Canterbury, officiating priest and a well-known enemy of Montfort. (See Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora for August 9, 1239. For how I interpret the Churching episode: Montfort: The Early Years, pp. 148-154, and that volume's Historical Context section, pp. 309-311.)
I offer this speculation on the Churching as a plausible explanation for King Henry’s sudden, apparently bizarre accusations against his best friend, Montfort,  Montfort’s immediate flight and exile for four years. King Henry’s accusations all pertain to issues long since resolved between him and Montfort.
Historians have been able to offer no cogent explanation.  With the freedom that the novel form provides I offer an explanation that may or may not seem plausible to a specific reader, but that fits the Churching episode and provides possible explanations for numerous later events in King Henry’s erratic relationship with Montfort. And descendants of Henry III’s son Edmund who attempted to seize the throne: Thomas (who failed), Bolingbroke (who succeeded as Henry IV), and even John of Gaunt, give indications of suspicion that the true Platagenet line was Edmund’s.
Matthew Paris records that the Lusignan brothers, in Paris in 1259, claimed that Montfort and Queen Eleanor were lovers and that they had their information from Amaury de Lusignan’s priest/almoner at Winchester (to whom Montfort may inadvertently have confessed during the Winchester poisoning crisis of June 1259?)
4) When did the Montforts receive Kenilworth as their home?
A customer reviewer asserts that Montfort did not hold Kenilworth until 1253. Her reference to the 1244 citation of Henry's granting of Kenilworth to Simon de Montfort as "warden" refers to the restoration of the castle to him after his return from exile, which spanned the years 1239 to 1244.
Most historians agree that Simon and Eleanor, King Henry’s sister, received Kenilworth for their home as a wedding present in the early spring of 1238. Matthew Paris unequivocally records their residence there in December 1238 when Bishop Stavensby came to visit and died there while their guest. (Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, Luard, 1872-83, Vol. III, pp. 478 and 518.)
The customer reviewer bases her view on the absence of a surviving charter prior to 1253. Through the 1230s the records of the reign of King Henry III are often incomplete. For 1238 many passages in the original scrolls (which I studied directly at the London Public Record Office in the 1970s) were so smudged and faded as to be illegible, others had holes in them, and there was an entire set of membranes missing.
These scrolls consist of sheets of sheep skin, called “membranes,” treated to avoid deterioration, and sewn end to end to form a scroll. The entries in the Calendar of Charter Rolls are mutilated beyond legibility for passages as lengthy as March 18 to July 13, 1238 — the period when the charter of Kenilworth to the Montforts could have been issued. See online Calendar of Charter Rolls: (Note: the online entry begins at 1233 – scroll down to 1238.)
Between August 19 (with the addition of three incompletely dated items) and October 30, 1238 there is an extraordinary outage and a small section of a scroll membrane has been inserted and labeled 2d, recording an agreement with Alexander, King of the Scots (which would have been a serious matter if it had been lost.) The outage in the Calendar of Charter Rolls between August 19, 1238 and October 30, 1238 skips from membrane #2 (and the inserted fragment labeled 2d) to membrane #7. An outage of this magnitude, from 2d to 7, is highly unusual at this late date — but there it is.
A charter of Kenilworth to Simon and Eleanor de Montfort would have been in the spring of 1238 — the tattered and illegible section — or in the late summer or autumn, at the time of Montfort’s return from Rome, the legitimizing of his marriage and full investiture with his titles — the period of the missing five membranes.
The customer reviewer’s citing of the 1241 entry in the Patent Roll that Kenilworth was to be in the keeping of Philip Lascelles confirms Henry’s repossession of Kenilworth and re-staffing of it during Montfort’s exile (1239-44). Numerous charges to the crown in the Pipe Rolls (records of the king’s expenditures) show the improvements Henry made during this period.
For Montfort’s own statement of the gift of Kenilworth to him by King Henry and of its deteriorated condition when he first received it (clearly prior to Henry’s repairs and renovations in 1240-44): Document XXXIV in the Montfort Archive of the BibliothèqueNationale, Paris, reprinted by Bémont, Montfort, 1884, p. 333. 
The 1253 citation regarding Kenilworth being granted to Montfort — noted by the customer reviewer — is at the restoration of the castle to Simon for the second time, after his return to King Henry's favor following his conquest and holding of Gascony to ransom from Henry, his loss of his English holdings, and his service as regent of France for King Louis IX
5) Could Montfort and Queen Eleanor both have been at Kenilworth nine months before Edward’s birth?
The royal visit to Kenilworth in September 1238 — nine months before Edward’s birth — is recorded in the Calendar of Patent Rolls, Vol. 3, p. 233: September 15, Kenilworth.
Simon’s official return to King Henry's Court was recorded in October 1238. Was he at Kenilworth in September? The Vatican’s lifting of Eleanor de Montfort’s holy vows (which obstructed the legitimacy of the marriage) is dated May 10, 1238. There is evidence that Montfort, at the request of the Emperor Frederic, served voluntarily under command of Henry d’Urberville to help subdue the emperor’s rebellious subjects at Milan. The normal period of a knight’s voluntary service was six weeks. There is no reason to suppose that Montfort served at Milan for any longer period. He would have been quite able to receive the papal document and return to England by August.
The October 1238 official record of Montfort’s return marks his return to King Henry's Court but does not necessarily indicate the actual date of his return to England. What man, bearing the document that makes his marriage legitimate, and expecting the birth of his first son, would have lingered pointlessly in Rome instead of returning home as soon as possible?
6) Edward I not the child of King Henry III?
Matthew Paris records wide spread public concern that Queen Eleanor was barren. The Pipe Roll of royal expenses records in Oct/Nov 1238 a payment to a physician who advised the King and Queen to drink a certain herbal mixture and to pray at the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor.
King Henry clearly considered the Queen’s pregnancy the result of Saint Edward’s intercession and named the child accordingly. Edward was born nine months after their visit to Kenilworth and seven months after the King and Queen’s prayers. It was remarked as a feature of the miraculous conception that the infant, in gestation only seven months, had all the heartiness and development of a child carried a full nine-month term.
7) At the Battle of Evesham did King Henry identify himself as “Henry of Monmouth."
This is what Walter of Guisborough, (Chronicles of Guisborough, Camden Society, p. 201) records as the way Henry III identified himself to his rescuers on the battlefield at Evesham. Guisborough explains this by saying Henry was “simple,” meaning "deranged. "
Montfort in manuscript was extensively vetted by professional editors and academicians, credited in each volume’s Acknowledgements. It was decided editorially that the Historical Context section should take the place of footnotes and that the books should not be overloaded with references since they were intended as novels for a popular audience. Nevertheless, ten percent of each volume is a Historical Context section with scholarly references and explanations of my choices of interpretation. Not many historical novels offer their readers such support. And Montfort does not claim to be anything other than a novel.

book website:
personal website:

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series