Letters from our readers.
April 4 1997 3:30 AM

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"The Name's Bond. Gomer Bond."

Arrogance and ignorance underpin Edward Luttwak's "The CIA Is Déclassé." Today the agency looks beyond Central and Western Europe, and their "targets" hail from around the globe. While the CIA Bubba may prefer a cold Bud and softball over a weekend of Bondian play in St. Moritz, I defy Luttwak to demonstrate how the U.S. government can reliably use such experiences as winter holidays on Europe's slopes as screens for future success in gathering information on dangers such as nuclear- or chemical-proliferation threats in the Middle East or East Asia. Leave charming the local intelligentsia to diplomats.

Spare us laments about the decline of Ivy League credentialism in government service. We have the world's broadest-based system of higher education, and those state-college alumni work at the CIA because they are smart and well educated.

Young caffeine- and liquor-free Mormons just happen to be--because of their church's missionary zeal--one of this country's richest veins of talent with foreign experience and skill in languages. Odd as it may sound, the average Brigham Young University graduate probably knows a lot more about the world than his counterpart at Georgetown or Princeton. As for the CIA's personnel problems, they seem to stem more from lack of accountability than from the basic nature of the agents.


--Kevin Michael O'Reilly

Party Hack

"Hack Attacks," by Bill Barnes, was uncomfortably close to the Microsoft party line.

I was particularly bothered by a subtle attack on Java as vs. ActiveX. The article says several times that the Java approach is "slower." It later says that Java is unsuitable for high-performance video games because of Java's slowness. This is deceptive. Technology has been commercially demonstrated that runs Java programs at very high speed (e.g., Asymmetrix). It simply isn't linked up to Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator/Communicator yet. The Java byte-code verifier imposes some performance cost, but there's no reason Java code cannot be byte-code verified once, then translated to efficient machine code, and then stored on your hard drive along with all your store-bought applications.


The security approach of Java does restrict what an unsigned applet can do, and those criticisms are fair. But the criticism of Java on performance grounds, as if the performance problems were inherent in the security model, is not fair and is not accurate.

And because the question of Java vs. ActiveX is a very hot topic in the industry now, with lots of money riding on it, it's impossible not to wonder whether Microsoft's influence on Slate had something to do with this unfairness.

Of course I don't believe Bill Gates ordered you to slander Java! But Barnes presumably hangs around with a lot more Microsoft people than JavaSoft people, and is likely to absorb their point of view, as I'm sure I would in the same circumstances. The ultimate effect is that this article treads close to the danger zone.

--Dan Weinreb


Bill Barnes replies: You're right, of course, that I tend to understand the Microsoft view more clearly, just as you obviously do the JavaSoft view. As with any religious war, no one is neutral except the atheists. Java is a great and very useful language, but all the upcoming performance-improvement technologies in the world won't help the people using today's browsers, as you yourself admit. Therefore I stand by the caveats I described.

Key Points

"Hack Attacks," by Bill Barnes, was generally excellent, but I have a few criticisms.

Secret-key cryptography ("single-key," in Barnes' terminology) is not bad for two-way interactions. In fact, it's routinely used for that purpose. But it's difficult to get the shared secret key to the other person (or people) in the first place. Public-key key exchange gets the secret key to its destination safely, avoiding the chicken-and-egg problem of having to share a secret key already in order to share another key secretly. Afterward, secret-key cryptography is normally used for efficiency reasons.


The reduced version of a long document is known as a "digest," not a signature. It is a widely held but mistaken belief that a digital signature is the public-key decryption/private-key encryption of a document's digest. That's how RSA, the most popular signature algorithm, works, because it happens to be both a signature algorithm and a public-key encryption algorithm.

Barnes also might have mentioned one solution to the problem of the corruptible system administrator: "secret sharing." It is possible to divide up secrets (such as passwords) among several people such that only a subset of them of a certain size (a majority, for instance) can recover the original. That way, a single corrupt authority can't hurt you.

The last part of the article might have underplayed the security threats to users. It's true that nothing serious has really happened yet, but very little of value (to a hacker) is in people's computers these days. That may change fast; if desktop banking (including check writing) becomes widespread, for example, then the incentive for hackers to use their discoveries for something other than embarrassing Microsoft or causing general mischief increases dramatically.

--Dan Simon

Bill Barnes replies: Dan Simon's technical nits are well taken. However, while I agree that security is a serious issue, I reiterate that the hysterics with which security stories are played out in the media are generally overblown.

Breaking the Waves

I enjoyed the Committee of Correspondence discussion "Cycles, Waves, and Endings in History," and I agree with those who say that the generational conflict is driving electoral politics and policy-making. Someone should interpret moves like cutting welfare as yet another symptom of baby boom me-firstism.

And while I agree with Francis Fukuyama's optimism for democracy, it's important to note that anti-democratic movements have gained new strength in recent years in the United States and Western Europe, and in some cases have gained power through the same systems they want to destroy. The future of democracy through technological change is anything but assured. Postindustrial, extreme-right movements know where to find the Web, too.

--Mark Hunter

Is That a D Cup You're Wearing, or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

"Bra Story," by Anne Hollander, was a great contribution to the recent surge in chronicling the history of the unleashing of the female form in the 20th century. Her appreciation of the em-bra'd breast manages to be both appropriate and evocative, if not titillating.

It may be some years more before the male version of this trend plays itself out thoroughly enough to merit similar discussion. Some future male Madonna appearing onstage in his bullet jock will signal the pinnacle, I suppose. But the past decades have already seen the liberation of the family jewels.

The heterosexual world has embraced gay iconic sexuality consistently at a lag of five years or so. From 1950s fitness magazines to Batman's crotch bulge in the '60s, the International Male catalog in the '70s, GQ in the early '80s, and Marky Mark in his Calvins a few years ago, the penis has gone from unspeakable to unavoidable. And just take a look at the current Jockey underwear packaging if you need to confirm that circumcision is still being practiced in North America.

The sociological implications are huge. Penis envy is spreading. And surely there's a link between naked men on billboards, hard-core porn in the home video library, and anything that can be attributed to largely male decision makers--from corporate mergers to the end of the Cold War.

--Robert Rothery

The Odds on God

Benjamin Wittes' article "Cracking God's Code" must have been intended for April Fool's Day. Wittes apparently believes that the discovery of statistically unlikely "secret codes" in the Torah proves the existence of God. Even if we accept the dubious premise that the existence of God can be proven scientifically, it is extremely naive to say that the occurrence of an unlikely event would do the trick.

I don't know which is more depressing: the fact that some people's faith is so weak they seek scientific approval of their beliefs, or the fact that they believe a supposedly all-knowing, all-powerful God would choose to reveal himself through some inconsequential abnormality.

--Mike Bohan

Criminal Procedures

Alan Dershowitz argues in a recent book review titled "Crime and Truth" that powerful procedural safeguards for defendants allow some guilty people to go free, but that these procedures are justified to prevent miscarriages of justice and to deter misconduct among police.

He misses three essential points. First, these rules harden public attitudes toward everyone accused of a crime. Second, they feed into the corrosive cynicism within the justice system. Since procedural niceties seem arbitrary and irrelevant to fact-finding, there is little motivation to enforce the rules, and people often find ways of bending rules that they regard as arbitrary and silly. For example, as Dershowitz himself has written, judges pretend to believe police who lie about illegal searches.

Third, the most glaring injustice these days is not the wrongful conviction of the innocent. It is the remarkably cruel treatment of some people who are actually guilty. When a troubled and illiterate 19-year-old can receive life imprisonment for committing three muggings, it seems laughably irrelevant to focus on courtroom procedures.

--Harold Pollack


As the father of two adopted boys (12 and 11 months), I enjoyed reading Robert Wright's article "Go Ahead--Sleep With Your Kids." I urge him to get back in touch and tell us if he winds up with a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old in bed with him (now, that's what I call birth control).

--Brian Murphy

Address your e-mail to the editors to letters@slate.com.