Let me tell you a story

People often wonder about how attraction affects whether an interaction is sexual harassment or not. I have an answer for that, a story from my own life. This is my story, but I’m so damn tired of starring in it. Let’s make it your story this time.

Warning: this piece is scary and disturbing af, and worst of all, true. It is the story of a night-time stalker, and if that’s not for you right now, stop here. No shame in it. 


The scene opens with you standing in a small ground floor apartment, West LA, 1992. Grey speckled carpet, layers of matte beige paint. It’s got a couch, a bed, a table, all hand-me-downs. A small kitchen is stocked with pasta, sauce, ramen, and the basics of whatever the Safeway nearby stocks cheap. You are there, shuffling and floating room to room with your cat, a tabby girl called Speedbump. You are probably worried about how to make rent. You are usually worried about how to make rent. You are a short brown-eyed white girl, born and raised in LA. The apartment is near where you recently didn’t graduate from high school, and also not too far from UCLA, where you will never attend college. You are 18, technically an adult. You are two years out of your mom’s house, not on good terms. You are few months split with a not very good boyfriend, on better terms, if still not good. You are funny, but often sad, and not very good at socializing. You’re also a teenage bag of hormones for anything cute, male or female. You look longingly and lustily at a lot of people, most of whom don’t return the look.

To not put too fine a point on it, you’re awkward, easy, and damn lonely.

You are living alone in this apartment, which you definitely can’t afford, but somehow have a lease on. You are poor, and scared of everything. There’s stains on the carpet already, and you know you’re not getting more and more of the deposit back. You need that deposit. As a high school drop out in the middle of a recession you’re struggling to find work. You’re working at Rene Faire and doing bit jobs, but you have no idea if you have any future at all. You are vulnerable. You look vulnerable. You probably smell vulnerable. You have friends, but they’re all as broken and crappy as you are. You’re the only one with your own apartment, so friends come over. You’re not that neighbor, the bad neighbor, you’re just not the good neighbor either. Sometimes, the neighbors have to tell you that you’re being too loud, and you apologize, mortified. You are easily mortified. There are a couple incidents at the house, and the police are called. People coming around who shouldn’t, that kind of thing. One homeless guy starts leaving things on your doorstep, which freaks you out a bit. After a little while, he stops.

A few weeks later, someone else is around. He’s not living in your complex, he’s starting to just, be there. He’s around your apartment at night, walking across the parking lot when you are. At first you don’t see much of him, just enough to see it’s the same guy, always at night. He seems to wear white, but you don’t see his face clearly. And then, it’s almost every night. He’s outside your apartment. He tries the door. Sometimes there’s a tap on the wall or window and you turn around and see him running away. You get a shotgun. You call the police a lot. They don’t really do or say much, and you get the feeling they don’t really care. You can’t describe the guy. You know he’s this tall, wears a lot of white, fast runner, at least compared to you. (Everyone is a fast runner compared to you.) No one you know. No one you’ve ever met. The police shrug and wish you luck shooting him. They actually say that, and leave again.

One day you’re in your room, and you turn around to see him next to you, inches away, just outside the window. He’s looking at you, staring. You can see his face, his upper body. He’s gorgeous. He looks 20-ish, clean cut in preppy white clothes, every inch a classic hot UCLA college boy.

Your whole body flushes. You are warm, and your heart is pounding. Fear and shock wash over you, along with the hatred prey feels for the predator.

Without any conscious thought that you can recall, you make a fist and punch at his face. He jumps back. You don’t so much hear the glass breaking as remember later there was the sound of glass breaking. You don’t remember the feeling of your fist going through the glass. He runs, you turn and run out of your house to chase him, never realizing your hand is streaming blood. His face is etched in your memory. It’s beautiful. You hate it. You hate him. He vanishes down the corner into an alley and you lose him. But now, you can do something you never could before: you can describe him. You call LAPD, again. A friend comes over and bandages up your hand while you wait for the police. You tell him over and over everything you’ve noticed about this man at your window. You look at the window, and think about the deposit again, but you don’t say anything.

The police don’t find him, no one ever finds him. But an officer tells you that your description matches a serial rapist who breaks into women’s houses at night. All the women he attacks live alone. He breaks in, overpowers them, rapes them, and leaves. LAPD wishes you luck, and leaves.

You feel more disgusted and hateful and fearful than you can describe. You realize that if you’d seen this guy at a party, you’d chat with him without any reservation. You throw up a lot, you stop sleeping. When you do sleep, it’s short and fitful and you sleep with the shotgun within hands’ reach. A few times you manage to get out of the house fast enough to chase him, but you lose him, you always lose him. Another time, he shows up when you have your friend with you. You see his face in the window and reach down under the bed, grabbing the shotgun. You don’t remember what happened next except blind rage. Your friend tells you that you cocked the shotgun screaming and chased him. When your memory picks up again, you’re running down a Los Angeles street holding a shotgun. No one stops you, no one gets involved. But your friend, still white in the face, reassures you that guy won’t be back after that.

That guy is back within two nights.

He’s always well groomed, always attractive, and soft-eyed, when he stares at you through your windows. That he’s attractive only makes it worse, so much fucking worse. It’s not that you’d let him get close to you if you didn’t know what he was, it’s that you could imagine a situation where you would want him to. It’s like some part of you is betraying you so utterly that the more you hate him, the more you hate yourself. You hate that you could ever find something like that attractive.

You go to your property rental company and beg them to let you break your lease, explaining that you’re in danger. You offer to give them copies of police reports about your stalker. They threaten to sue you. You try to hang on for your year-long lease to end.

After a couple months, you just move to Oregon and stiff them for the last few rent checks. You feel guilty, but not about the lease. You feel guilty that you couldn’t do anything, that he’ll probably move on to a woman without shotgun and a propensity to chase him screaming. You feel like you’re letting other women down by not catching him. You will feel this way for the rest of your life.

You don’t like pretty people for a while after that. You don’t even like having them for friends. You have, as the saying goes, trust issues. You try to hang on to friendships and relationships, but at the same time, you mostly burn down everything in your life. By the next year, you’re homeless.

Eventually, far away from your hometown, and floating from place to place, you start to heal. You start to sleep for more than a couple hours at a time. You start to be willing to kiss people again. But you never felt particularly safe in your homes, and never hung onto them very well after that. You still don’t, that part of you was broken, and no amount of crazy glue and clamps will ever make it strong enough to hold your weight again.


Quinn circa 1992ish. At a Rene Faire. Because of course I was.

Hi, it’s me again, the person to whom this happened. Things did get better. I worked hard to get them better. In the course of those years I learned the upside of letting yourself be attracted. When someone attractive seeks consent, you feel like a million bucks. You feel attractive yourself, and powerful, and wanted, which makes the whole thing fucking magic. “Me? You want me to say yes?” Let’s kiss all night. Let me stare at you, let me say yes, let me hear you whisper yes, let’s see how far two throaty yeses can take us.

But that’s not what happens when someone attractive to you doesn’t want your yes. When an attractive person seeks power, exploits you, makes you feel small and preyed upon, you hate that any part of you can like any part of them. You hate yourself. You hate the idea of attraction. Everything is betraying you at once. It’s like you can never say yes again, like you looked for “yes” and “no” and found them erased from the universe. That’s what the years after this were like for me; freezing, and not finding either yes or no.

There’s a lot of ways to flirt in this world. Some of them look the same as assault, rape, and harassment to the sufficiently distant eye. “How can this be so terrible and that so wonderful, if they look so much alike?” The difference is simple: The partner wants to be with you, and wants you to be with them. The predator not only doesn’t seek your consent, they don’t want it. I couldn’t have given consent to that man. Consent, if it could have happened, would have ruined it for him. Predators don’t want you, they want the end of you. They go out of their way to make it so that you can’t consent, there is never a place where it can be safe to say yes. Because they’re not trying to have sex with you. They’re trying  to suck your life up into their ego, and destroy who you are, to make it clear that what you want and what you feel doesn’t matter, doesn’t even exist.

All that matters is seeing you succumb.

I don’t know what happened to that young man. I don’t even know if the story the LAPD told me was true. It took me years to sleep right, to stop looking for danger everywhere, even when I was next to a loving partner. Maybe, if I’m honest, I haven’t completely stopped. It took me the better part of a decade to trust anyone, and not to destroy my relationships with friends and lovers. It took me longer to know it was ok to trust myself. Like feeling safe at home, I don’t know if I will ever rest entirely comfortably on finding a stranger attractive again.

If the person trying to rape you looks like a movie star to you, it can be different. It can be worse.

My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon.

Software is a Long Con

I had a conversation with a bridge engineer one evening not long ago. I said, “Bridges, they are nice, and vital, but they fall down a lot.”

He looked at me with a well-worn frustration and replied, “Falling down is what bridges do. It’s the fate of all bridges to fall down, if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand bridges.”

“Ok, I do understand that,” I replied. “But they fall down a lot. Maybe if we stepped back and looked at how we’re building bridges –”

“You can’t build a bridge that doesn’t fall down. That’s just not how bridges work”

I took a deep breath. “What if you could build a bridge that didn’t fall down as often?”

“Not practical — it’s too hard, and besides, people want bridges.” By now, he was starting to look bored with the conversation.

“I bet if you slowed down how you build bridges, you could make ones that lasted decades, even in some cases, centuries. You might have to be thoughtful, set more realistic expectations, do a lot more of the design of a bridge before you start building it, but..”

He interrupted me again. “Look, you’re not a bridge engineer, so you don’t really understand how bridges work, but people want bridges now. So no one is going to build a bridge like that, even if it were possible, and I’m not saying it is.”

“But people get hurt, sometimes die, on these bridges.”

“Bridges fall down. Sometimes people are on them when they do. That’s not my fault as a bridge engineer, that’s literally how gravity works,” he said.

“I know there will always be accidents and problems with bridges, but I really do think that you could build them with careful planning, and maybe shared standards and even regulations in such a way that bridge collapses could be rare. Some of the problems with bridges are faults we’ve known about for decades, but they still get built into bridges all the time.”

He took a deep breath, and pinned me with a stare. “Even if we could, and it’s still entirely possible that no one can build these mythical bridges you’re talking about, that would slow down the building of bridges. People need bridges to get places. No one could afford to build bridges that slowly, and people would complain.” He stretched out the –plaaaain in complain, in a way that made clear this was the end of the argument and he’d won.

“They might not complain if they didn’t fall off bridges so often,” I mumbled.

He heard me. “Unlike you, people know that bridges fall down.”

Just then, a friend of mine, also a writer, also interested in bridges, stopped by.

“Hey guys!” he said. “So it looks like there’s a crew of Russian bridge destroyers with hammers and lighters who are running around in the middle of the night setting fires to bridges and knocking off braces with hammers. They started in Ukraine but they’re spreading around the world now, and we don’t know if our bridges are safe. They’ve studied bridges carefully and they seem to be good at finding where they’re most flammable and which braces to knock off with their hammer.”

We both regarded my friend a long moment, letting it sink in. I turned back to the bridge engineer and said, “Maybe we need to make them out of non-flammable material and rivet them instead of using exposed braces and clamps.”

But he was already red in the face, eyes wide with anger and fear. “GET THE RUSSIANS!” he screamed.

OK, obviously it’s not bridges I’m talking about, it’s software. And that other writer is Wired’s Andy Greenberg, who wrote a  piece not that long ago on Russian hacking.

Greenberg’s detailed and riveting story focuses largely on the politics of hacking, and the conflict between an increasingly imperialist Russia, and Ukraine, with an eye towards what it means for America. For people who respond to such attacks, like FireEye and Crowdstrike, these kinds of events are bread and butter. They have every reason to emphasize the danger Russia (or a few years ago, China) pose to the USA. It’s intense, cinematic stuff.

It’s also one of a long sequence of stories in this vein. These stories, some of which I’ve written over the years, show that our computers and our networks are the battlegrounds for the next great set of political maneuvers between nation-states. We the people, Americans, Russians, whomever, are just helpless victims for the coming hacker wars. We have Cyber Commands and Cyber attack and Cyber defense units, all mysterious, all made romantic and arcane by their fictional counterparts in popular media.

But there’s another way to look at it. Computer systems are poorly built, badly maintained, and often locked in a maze of vendor contracts and outdated spaghetti code that amounts to a death spiral. This is true of nothing else we buy.

Our food cannot routinely poison us. Our electronics cannot blow up, and burn down our houses. If they did, we could sue the pants off whomever sold us the flawed product. But not in the case of our software.

The Software Is Provided “As Is”, Without Warranty of Any Kind

This line is one of the most common in software licenses. In developed nations, it is a uniquely low standard. I cannot think of anything infrastructural that is held to such a low standard. Your restaurants are inspected. Your consumer purchases enveloped in regulations and liability law. Your doctors and lawyers must be accredited. Your car cannot stop working while it is going down the freeway and kill you without consequences, except maybe if it’s caused by a software bug.

It is to the benefit of software companies and programmers to claim that software as we know it is the state of nature. They can do stupid things, things we know will result in software vulnerabilities, and they suffer no consequences because people don’t know that software could be well-written. Often this ignorance includes developers themselves. We’ve also been conditioned to believe that software rots as fast as fruit. That if we waited for something, and paid more, it would still stop working in six months and we’d have to buy something new. The cruel irony of this is that despite being pushed to run out and buy the latest piece of software and the latest hardware to run it, our infrastructure is often running on horribly configured systems with crap code that can’t or won’t ever be updated or made secure.

People don’t understand their computers. And this lets people who do understand computers mislead the public about how they work, often without even realizing they are doing it.

Almost every initial attack comes through a phishing email. Not initial attack on infrastructure — initial attacks on everything — begins with someone clicking on an attachment or a link they shouldn’t. This means most attacks rely on a shocking level of digital illiteracy and bad IT policy, allowing malware to get to end-user computers, and failing to train people to recognize when they are executing a program.

From there, attackers move laterally through systems that aren’t maintained, or written in code so poor it should be a crime, or more often, both. The code itself isn’t covered by criminal law, or consumer law, but contract law. The EULAs, or End User Licensing Agreements (aka the contracts you agree to in order to use software), which are clicked through by infrastructure employees are as bad, or worse, as the ones we robotically click through everyday.

There are two reasons why I gave up reporting on hacking attacks and data breach. One is that Obama’s Department of Justice had moved their policies towards making that kind of coverage illegal, as I’ve written about here. But the other, more compelling reason, was that they have gotten very very boring. It’s  always the same story, no one is using sophistication, why would you bother? It’s dumb to burn a zero day when you can send a phishing mail. It’s dumb to look for an advanced zero day when you can just look for memory addressing problems in C, improperly sanitized database inputs, and the other programatic problems we solved 20 years ago or more.

Programmers make the same mistakes over and over again for decades, because software companies suffer no consequences when they do. Like pollution and habitat destruction, security is an externality. And really, it’s not just security, it’s whether the damn things work at all. Most bugs don’t drain our bank accounts, or ransom our electrical grids. They just make our lives suck a little bit more, and our infrastructure fail a little more often, even without any hackers in sight.

When that happens with a dam, or a streetlight, or a new oven, we demand that the people who provided those things fix the flaws. If one of those things blows up and hurt someone, the makers of those things are liable for the harm they have caused. Not so if any of these things happen because of software. You click through our EULA, and we are held harmless no matter how much harm we cause.

When I became a reporter, I decided I never wanted my career to become telling the same story over and over again. And this is, once again, always the same story. It’s a story of software behaving badly, some people exploiting that software to harm other people, and most people not knowing they could have it better. I’m glad people like Andy Greenberg and others at my old Wired home, the good folks at Motherboard and Ars Technica, and others, are telling these stories. It’s important that we know how often the bridges burned down.

But make no mistake, as long as we blame the people burning the bridges and not the people building them, they will keep burning down.

And shit software will still remain more profitable than software that would make our lives easier, better, faster, and safer. And yeah, we would probably have to wait a few more months to get it. It might even need a better business model than collecting and selling your personal information to advertisers and whomever else comes calling.

I could keep writing about this, there’s a career’s worth of pieces to write about how bad software is, and how insecure it makes us, and I have written many of those pieces. But like writing about hackers compromising terrible systems, I don’t want to write the same thing telling you that software is the problem, not the Chinese or the Russians or the boogeyman de jour.

You, the person reading this, whether you work in the media or tech or unloading container ships or selling falafels, need to learn how computers work, and start demanding they work better for you. Not everything, not how to write code, but the basics of digital and internet literacy.

Stop asking what the Russians could do to our voting machines, and start asking why our voting machines are so terrible, and often no one can legally review their code.

Stop asking who is behind viruses and ransomware, and ask why corporations and large organizations don’t patch their software.

Don’t ask who took the site down, ask why the site was ever up with a laundry list of known vulnerabilities.

Start asking lawmakers why you have to give up otherwise inalienable consumer rights the second you touch a Turing machine.

Don’t ask who stole troves of personal data or what they can do with it, ask why it was kept in the first place. This all goes double for the journalists who write about these things — you’re not helping people with your digital credulity, you’re just helping intel services and consultants and global defense budgets and Hollywood producers make the world worse.

And for the love of the gods, stop it with emailing attachments and links. Just stop. Do not send them, do not click on them. Use Whatsapp, use Dropbox, use a cloud account or hand someone a USB if you must, but stop using email to execute programs on your computer.

Thanks to my Patrons on Patreon, who make this and my general living possible. You can support this more of work at Patreon.

Image CC Skez


With Clowns To The Left, And Jokers On The Right, Trump Turns To Scaramucci

What is up today, you ask?

Well, not much…..oh, holy shit!

On Wednesday night, I received a phone call from Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director. He wasn’t happy. Earlier in the night, I’d tweeted, citing a “senior White House official,” that Scaramucci was having dinner at the White House with President Trump, the First Lady, Sean Hannity, and the former Fox News executive Bill Shine. It was an interesting group, and raised some questions. Was Trump getting strategic advice from Hannity? Was he considering hiring Shine? But Scaramucci had his own question—for me.

“Who leaked that to you?” he asked. I said I couldn’t give him that information. He responded by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. “What I’m going to do is, I will eliminate everyone in the comms team and we’ll start over,” he said. I laughed, not sure if he really believed that such a threat would convince a journalist to reveal a source. He continued to press me and complain about the staff he’s inherited in his new job. “I ask these guys not to leak anything and they can’t help themselves,” he said. “You’re an American citizen, this is a major catastrophe for the American country. So I’m asking you as an American patriot to give me a sense of who leaked it.”

Ooof. That is pretty psychotic on the part of Scaramouche, glad he didn’t go too batshit…. Yikes, nevermind:

“Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said. He channelled Priebus as he spoke: “ ‘Oh, Bill Shine is coming in. Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.’ ” (Priebus did not respond to a request for comment.)
Scaramucci was particularly incensed by a Politico report about his financial-disclosure form, which he viewed as an illegal act of retaliation by Priebus. The reporter said Thursday morning that the document was publicly available and she had obtained it from the Export-Import Bank. Scaramucci didn’t know this at the time, and he insisted to me that Priebus had leaked the document, and that the act was “a felony.”

“I’ve called the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice,” he told me.
“Are you serious?” I asked.

“The swamp will not defeat him,” he said, breaking into the third person. “They’re trying to resist me, but it’s not going to work. I’ve done nothing wrong on my financial disclosures, so they’re going to have to go fuck themselves.”

Just to be clear, this is the rootin tootin slick dick Harvard Law financial genius that Trump brought in to clean up his Presidency’s previous failures, and bring order and success to the West Wing.

A fine tuned machine!