Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Cybersecurity

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I've got you now, my pretty

What the hell?


Target, Best Buy, Anthem, Sony, Uber. It seems that hackers can pretty much penetrate any organization they want and steal whatever they can find. And yeah, if it seems that way, it's because that's exactly the way it is. The bad guys are winning. These are no longer the hackers of yore, although people have been slow to update their vision of the cyber world. These are professional organizations, well funded, staffed with some of the best programmers, psychologists and engineers in the world. They are for-profit businesses, operating in loosely coupled networks where they sell each other access to specific exploits, huge botnets and compromised servers on a per-hour basis. They make millions of dollars every week, and are immune to legal consequence due to both their geographic locations, and their operational security - everyone that has to know who and where they are is compensated out of the huge profits they generate, and no one has any incentive to shut them down.

Jeez, mikey, why can't we just prevent these breaches?


You have to understand the way this is done. Using some combination of malware and social engineering, the attackers work on specific individuals at a given targeted organization until they can successfully co-opt that user's network credentials. Now they can log on to the network, but they aren't some unknown alien entity, they appear to be the employee or contractor whose credentials they are using. Now, with access to the network, it becomes a matter of working horizontally, increasing access entitlements, elevating permissions, co opting more user and service accounts. At no time are they doing anything that would draw notice - they appear as employees or contractors doing their everyday work, or even worse, as automated systems that don't even have a human associated with them. The Target breach is a perfect example. The hackers got access to the network through the account of their HVAC contractor, and from there were able to install the malware on the POS systems, stage the credit card data on a database server they set up in Target's own data center, and periodically upload huge batches of stolen data to their own servers in Eastern Europe.

Is technology the answer?


It is an infuriatingly common trope that technology by itself can't save us from these unrelenting attacks. And of course, it's ultimately true. Like all complex problems, the solution requires a holistic approach, with training, policy, investigation, enforcement, regulation, compliance and widespread participation within the organization. That said, it's bullshit. A large scale modern network is generating hundreds of millions of events and transactions per second. There IS no non-technology solution, because the problem exceeds human capacity. Just as it takes a bulldozer to move a giant boulder, it takes very smart software on very powerful computers to monitor modern networks and figure out what is happening in real time, and what might be worth investigating.

OK, but what do you do when you find something bad?


That's something we're still struggling with. Obviously, the first step is to keep the data from being exfiltrated out of the organization, and to close the holes the attackers have drilled into the network, but while that protects the organization under attack, it doesn't do anything to protect the rest of the world from those attackers. There are those who are in favor of offensive cyber attacks as a response, but this is something you want to think very carefully about. Remember these attackers are as smart, as well organized and as well funded as anything arrayed against them, including most nation states. If you want to raise the stakes from an economic battle to a war, make sure you have the wherewithal to win. And right now there is no reason to believe that we have that ability. The US already has the responsibility of being the nation that first unleashed kinetic, destructive cyber war with the Stuxnet attacks against Iran. It's very much a "be careful what you ask for" situation.


I keep hearing that we are vulnerable to a "Cyber Pearl Harbor".


Like so many things we hear about today, it's a scary phrase, but there's a reason why nobody ever drills down into it. What would comprise this devastating surprise attack in cyberspace? While it's certainly true that various installations in the electric grid, municipal water supplies and major chemical plants and refineries are vulnerable to destructive cyber attack, it's hard to see how simultaneous successful attacks could be coordinated and carried out against hundreds of different installations. While one can easily envision an electrical blackout in a major metropolitan area, or a major fire at a chemical plant that releases a toxic plume, the question of whether those kinds of attacks rise to the level of a "cyber Pearly Harbor" is entirely subjective and difficult to conclude.

So what happens next?


We're still in the arms race stage. And, of course, in addition to the organizations launching the attacks - organized crime stealing money and nation states stealing knowledge - we now know, thanks ironically to cyber criminal Edward Snowden, that global intelligence agencies are actively working to keep weaknesses and vulnerabilities in place. And everything they can exploit can also be exploited by the criminals. So you have this tension where industry is struggling to harden their network security even as their own governments are working even harder to weaken it. The battle over SSL/TLS and access to encryption keys is one worth watching, because governments are perfectly willing to commit crimes, even work with the criminals, while industry is dead set on making it much harder for them to either steal information or demand it through legal channels.

But one can imagine a time - still years in the future, but on this side of the horizon - where the internet and the enterprise network are mostly secure. Think of banks - they can still be robbed, but there's really not much of a living to be made doing so. When the revenue stream that can be generated by hacking networks becomes a trickle, the criminal organizations will move on to another, more lucrative area, and the nation states will return to more traditional methods of espionage. But for now, expect to have your data stolen on a semi-regular basis.
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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Making Stuff Up - The Toxicity of Spin

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Why is Obama's interpretation superior to hers?
President Obama held a summit on violent extremism (seriously - since we're going to be talking about words here, think about those. And think about who didn't go to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.) over the weekend, and in it he went through some pretty amazing verbal gymnastics to try to take the position that the actions of the 'Islamic State' actually had nothing to do with Islam. Stop laughing. I'm not making this up. "We are not at war with Islam" the President said. "We are at war with the people who have perverted Islam". This, coupled with his somewhat infamous recalling of Christian atrocities in the Crusades and the Inquisition seem to be his primary message. And yeah, you can see why he's doing it.

He wants to isolate the killers from their natural constituency, and he wants to try to push back against the rising tide of ethnic and sectarian hatred, particularly against Muslims and Jews. So he attempts to separate the criminals from their proximate motivations. Even as the right wing purveyors of tribal and sectarian hate attempt to coerce the President to use particular words in order to better inflame a sense of otherness, a time honored way to define and even dehumanize 'the enemy' so as to better facilitate industrial scale killing. A refusal to pander to their base desires is probably an honorable thing, even if it is not particularly pragmatic.

But one has to ask oneself: in major conflicts from Kashmir to Quetta, from Afghanistan to Jerusalem, from Syria to Mali, from Iraq to Nigeria, what is the overarching commonality? Why it is clearly the invocation of Islam as the reason, the justification, the agenda and the goal. People both within the Muslim faith and from outside can insist as stridently as they wish that this is not Islam, that it is, in the President's words, a 'perversion' of those scriptures, but this is meaningless, a distinction without a difference. There is no methodology for defining the validity of a set of religious beliefs. What the worshipers believe is THEIR true faith, and to attempt to insist that these Jihadis do not represent a true and pure expression of their faith would be as if to refuse to accept that abortion clinic bombers were motivated by their Christian dogma as interpreted from their holy scriptures.

The Muslim world is in upheaval, and we can learn from the events of the now defunct "Arab Spring". The people had genuine grievances, from poverty to a lack of opportunity to dysfunctional kleptolcratic authoritarian governance, but it turned out that those seeking a modern democratic political solution were both outnumbered and outgunned by those who had been indoctrinated to seek a medieval theocratic government structure with all its taboos, fears and hatreds in full deployment. Poverty and lack of opportunity are problems, but if you want people to go to war for you you need to give them more. Religious indoctrination has been known to be a powerful tool when raising an army for millennia, and it's especially helpful if it makes your young cannon fodder fear death just that much less.

Of course, in the end, knowing that the primary problem is Islam does not bring us closer to a solution. But there is no 'solution' that can be provided or imposed on the Muslim world by the more prosperous west. They will have to decide what's important, and build their communities based on those priorities. The first step is to recognize that, to a very large degree, these are not American problems. Using American military power against them just reinforces the sense that they are at war with the US, while it solves no real problem. America has been bombing and invading the middle east for a quarter century - can anyone point to a single positive outcome of all that bloodletting? There is none. As long as external forces keep coming into the fight on one side or another the fight cannot end - it can only continue or escalate. There are natural tensions - Sunni/Shiite, Arab/Persian, Modernist/Fundamentalist, Secular/Theocratic and Authoritarian/Socialist/Democratic that will have to work themselves out - there is nothing an external party can do to drive that process.

So the words we use are important - but only to a certain point. You can no more control the human being's impulse to hate by not using certain words than you can understand a conflict by pretending that one of the key drivers of conflict does not exist. The 'Islamic State' is Islamic - one might even say VERY Islamic. Publicly acknowledging that basic and undeniable fact should not be a point of debate - better we should think very much harder about the blind assumption that we have no alternative but to go there and fight them.
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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ukraine Think About It, But Don't Do It

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War always ends up looking the same
A few thoughts about Ukraine. The status quo is not stable, and it is clearly not sustainable. Therefore, the Minsk II ceasefire agreement is almost certain to collapse. The largest question is if it will hold at all, and if so, for how long. The rebels don't have what they want, the Ukrainians don't have what they want, and while the Russians most likely wouldn't mind seeing things settle down, they also know they have very little else to lose if things stay hot.

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The immediate source of extreme tension in the runup to the ceasefire - scheduled for midnight Sunday Local - about a half an hour from now as I write this - is a couple of good-sized Ukrainian towns. The first major issue is the primary rail hub of Debaltseve, northeast of Donetsk proper. In what has come to be known as the Debaltseve pocket, 8000 Ukrainian soldiers are trapped, entirely encircled by separatist rebels supported by Russian armor and artillery, and covered by Russian air defense batteries. The rebel leaders have been defiant - the ceasefire agreement, they say, does not include Debaltseve, and the Ukrainian soldiers trapped there must either surrender or die. The fighting is fierce, with small unit action on the perimeter and ferocious artillery duels vying for control of the roads in and out.  It's hard to imagine the general ceasefire holding while the Debaltseve pocket is locked in a battle for its very life.

The second is the seaport city of Mariupol, a city of half a million on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. The ethnic Russian separatists trying to carve the Donetsk People's Republic out of Eastern Ukraine desperately need access to a blue water port, and Mariupol would give them that. At this point, the Ukrainian military, fighting alongside a number of different militias of various ideologies have been able to hold a perimeter north of the city, but the fighting and shelling has been occasionally intense, and it is very hard to believe that the rebels would accept a long-term agreement that did not include Mariupol as part of their territory.

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No, it's not the Soviet Union Redux. It's a regional issue and the border is the problem. Americans like to believe that the fighting in Ukraine is evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild something on the order of the Soviet Union, expanding back into Eastern Europe. The reality is more prosaic, if no less troubling. Russia is merely doing what all powerful nations do. The same thing the US has done for centuries, the UK before that - exercising their regional dominance. Powerful nations insist on controlling their 'near abroad', and most of all those nations with whom they share a border. So while Russian aggression is just as bad as any other aggression, the fact that they share a border with Ukraine makes it far easier to understand, and to know what it is is to see what it is not. The interesting thing is the lack of any military pushback from the US or the EU, or even NATO, has made Putin aware of a critical dynamic that we can expect to see exploited in the future. The Russians are willing to use military force, albeit of a transparently dishonest 'deniable' sort, and the Europeans are not willing to risk escalation to a major war over those small eastern nations.

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Which brings us to what the West might do as the conflict drags on, and the Ukrainians find it harder to stand against an internal enemy supported by a much larger, more powerful nation. There's more sanctions, but with the European nations struggling with a stagnant, crippled, deflationary economy and facing a series of political crises centered on the Euro and the role of the EU in member states' economies, Brussels is likely to be extremely reticent to pile on more sanctions. In addition, sanctions bite until they don't - the only reason the current sanctions on Russia had any bite at all is the unexpected collapse of crude oil prices. It's hard to see what effect further sanctions might have, and if Europe pushes hard enough Russia can turn off their natural gas supply - an extreme response with huge consequences, but if you push hard enough you can get there.

There is talk of arming the Ukrainians, but I don't see how a lack of armaments is the reason Ukraine is losing this fight. This is not a modern war, this is a war being fought on the ground with infantry, tanks and artillery. It's World War II without airplanes. And no matter what kind of gear NATO might ship into Ukraine from depots all over the world, it's a simple matter for Russia to push more and better gear a few kilometers across the border. It's a logistics battle the west is guaranteed to lose. And, of course, there is no real military option. Putin has made it clear he has a greater stomach for a new European war than any EU leader. Meanwhile, the west has indicated that he has a free hand to operate militarily in his 'near abroad'. There will be no escalation, and no risk of a nuclear exchange, over the likes of Ukraine. Estonia, Latvia, even Poland are taking note.


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The next few days are going to be critical. If the cease fire doesn't hold, Poroshenko will declare Martial Law and things could get much more violent. And if there's a massacre in Debaltseve then all bets are off. If the ceasefire holds, even for a brief time, expect to see the rebel's demands grow more and more audacious and arbitrary, almost to the point where the Kiev government will be forced to reject them. Either way, this thing is far from over, and there's a lot of blood still to be spilled on Ukraine's ancient soil.
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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Boehner's Boner and Bibi's Moment of Stark Clarity

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Not a bit of daylight between them
It was supposed to be a triumph. Boehner, working directly with Israeli Ambassador Dermer, bypassed both the White House and the State Department to invite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of congress. The topic? Finding ways that the American legislators can scuttle any negotiated agreement with the Iranians regarding their nuclear program. It's important to understand that the Israeli Ambassador, Ron Dermer, was an American citizen until 2005, when he took the role of Israeli Economic Envoy to the US, which required he give up his US citizenship and become an Israeli citizen. And before 2005, what was Ron Dermer's job? Why, he worked as an adviser to the RNC, working with Frank Luntz (yep - THAT Frank Luntz) to develop Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America". For the last five years he has been Netanyahu's closest and most trusted adviser.

Why does it matter? Consider the violations of basic political, international and diplomatic norms:

First, there is the upcoming Israeli election. Using a speech before a joint session of the US Congress as part of political campaign is not considered particularly democratic - he is essentially taking advantage of his power of office, an option not available to his political opposition.

Second, he will be the head of state of a friendly foreign power coming to speak to congress specifically to criticize the President's foreign policy. That is simply utterly unheard of.

Third, Boehner worked through Dermer to make the invitation directly to the Prime Minister's office, bypassing normal political and diplomatic protocols. This was so shocking and so outside the realm of basic democratic order that even Fox news called foul.

Fourth, here is a friendly foreign power explicitly making relations with America a partisan issue. America's relationship with Israel has long been a relationship with no wiggle room. From left to right, there it was never permitted to allow any political consideration to come between the US and Israel. Indeed, before Boehner's speech gambit, it was very likely that there were enough Democratic votes to override Obama's veto of another Iran sanctions bill. That is certainly not the case now. Nice move, Bibi.

Netanyahu's loathing for Obama has impeded progress on many issues. But when he openly supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 election cycle, he changed the very nature of the relations between the two countries. The alignment is shifting from a more normal state to state relationship between Tel Aviv and Washington to a much more political relationship between Likud and the Republican Party. That's bad for Israel, and it calls into question how America will deal with its international partners and adversaries in the future.

At first, Democrats were unsure how to respond. They felt the sting of the slap to Obama's face, sure, but all's fair in love, war and Israel, right? Not so fast. As the magnitude of the insult began to sink in, and the Republican gloating over the poke in the President's eye became public, the reaction came. Democratic legislators began talking openly about boycotting the speech. Netanyahu and Dermer scrambled to try to bring them into the fold. Then the White House announced that Joe Biden would not be able to attend the speech. So Netanyahu did what any craven politician would do - he threw Boehner under the bus.

"It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move, in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one sided move and not a move by both sides," Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told 102 FM Tel Aviv Radio on Friday.
 The interviewer asked if that meant Netanyahu had been "misled" into believing Boehner's invitation was bipartisan, a characterization Hanegbi did not contest.

In the end, they're all getting what they deserve. With a month to go before the speech, Boehner is going to have to wear this entire debacle like a bad suit. Netanyahu has already cost himself the one thing he wanted to accomplish - derailing the negotiations with Iran. There will be no sanctions bill, and even if there is, there will be no veto override. Republican political operative turned diplomat Dermer will find most doors closed to him in Washington - oh, the Republicans in Congress will continue to lavish him with love and money for his extreme far-right, racist views - but with two more years with the American executive branch under the Obama administration, he and his boss can expect very little in the way of maneuvering room - assuming they can even survive and win re-election.

Some of the worse losses in history have been self-inflicted wounds, and this one is epic.
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Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Internet Will Disappear"

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I live in Utopia. Where do you live?
So sayeth Eric Schmidt at the Davos Forum today. Of course, what he's saying is that the technology that brings us a digital communications platform (and cat pictures) will become so ubiquitous that we will stop thinking about the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure, and merely use the tools as they are built into everything from smart walls to refrigerators to cars. And ultimately, that is what must happen. But I submit we won't see it anytime soon. And the very argument for why the internet will become ubiquitous is the reason why it won't disappear.

First, there's internet connectivity. Back in the 90s, we were talking about getting to an 'internet dial tone', an internet that was like a phone. You picked it up, and there was simply ALWAYS a dial tone. You could always call someone, and if they answered you could talk. Well, not only are we not there, we're not close. Internet connectivity is different, inherently more fragile, subject to many more breakdowns and failures. I had to reset my router earlier today - back in the day, did anyone ever have to reset their phone? With TCP/IP you have seven layers, you have routing tables, you have all sorts of disruptions, both intentional and accidental, and you are accessing it all from huge, fragile, monolithic general purpose operating systems that literally have millions of points of failure.

Now, over that you're going to stretch the so-called "Internet of Things" - a TCP/IP stack, a lightweight operating system, a web server and some other execution platforms like a JVM, Flash, or a PHP interpreter, and maybe a mail server on virtually everything you can see. These IoT OS platforms will be in ROM - there won't be any storage on these devices - and any vulnerability will be hard coded into the device forever. If you want to see the contours of this ugly, chaotic near-term future, just look at the discussions around home routers. They all run some small, scaled down, old Linux kernel (because it's free) and they all have decades of accumulated vulnerabilities that cannot be (easily or effectively) patched. And now we're going to roll this same model out to our homes, our cars, our front door lock, our teevee, our pacemaker, our insulin pump. And hey, what could possibly go wrong?

This is a complex and complicated technology. We've done our best to make it usable by everyone, regardless of their willingness to learn how computer networks work. And that was a worthwhile goal - give people in all walks of life access to the world's accumulated knowledge (and cat pictures). But sadly, we haven't been able to keep up our end of the bargain. Why? I know this is going to shock you, but the answer is corporate profits. Could we back up, start over, and build an operating system that was safe, bulletproof and easily useful? Could we build a system that failed gracefully, that was hardened against attack, that could provide a scalable OS that would work from an irrigation system to a supercomputer? Yes. Yes we could. We now understand enough about the interaction of the OS and the network to do that. But then, you see, no one would own it. Apple and Microsoft couldn't profit from it. There's a reason why businesses have switched their data centers to open source operating systems - and there's a very different reason why people haven't switched their computers.

One of the 'problems' - one that cannot be overcome - is that we have, at this point, five different operating systems, nearly infinite variations of those OSs, and uncountable hardware platforms running them. The goal is not universal connectivity - making the internet 'disappear' - the goal is to find some kind of lock-in, some way to prevent people from achieving that goal. And the open source community provides that, but it's not a for-profit enterprise, so it can't compete with the marketing arms of the huge corporations.

So here's what you can expect. The internet is not going to 'disappear'. It's going to become a bigger part of our lives, patching vulnerabilities and managing something on the order of a dozen different operating systems on our home networks, from our router to our teevee to our refrigerator to our front door to our car. This is not a formula for ubiquitous internet services disappearing into our life - this is a contest for dollars that will result in a fragile, fragmented internet and a lot of people getting hurt.
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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

White People Confuse Me

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A funny thing happened on the way to the future
We are seeing, with increasing frequency, thoughtful essays on the Democrat's political constituency, particularly with an eye to where they need to increase their numbers. The premise is that the traditional Democratic coalition of young people, minorities and college educated urban whites is strong, and the weakness is in middle-class and blue collar white workers. And it's true that even though the economy seems to be improving, those improvements aren't being experienced by older and blue collar/non college educated workers. And when they look at the traditional Democratic policy agenda, they see a lot of effort effort and capital expended to support the poor and minorities, and very little in the way of policy proposals that would improve their own lives.

The Democratic advantage in voter demographics is solid at a national level - somewhere between 3 and 6 percent and increasing as the share of the electorate retained by aging southern whites continues to fall. But this is not the point - the lesson to be learned from watching the national Republican party turn over the asylum to the inmates is that the singular role of political organizations is to win elections, and alienating and excluding large segments of the population is a very poor strategy for winning. The Democrats SHOULD always be thinking about how to broaden and deepen their coalition, and trying to peel off some disenfranchised Republicans is a good way to do it.

That said, this is what I don't understand. Under Obama, the lives of the middle class have not improved. Wages are flat, and they already had health insurance through their employer. They make too much money to qualify for assistance programs, and too little money to get out of debt or go on vacation. Increasingly, workforce automation, smarter computers and software and other productivity improvements are reducing the number and quality of employment opportunities for many, especially those without a college degree. So they look around, and they say "Hmm, the Democrats have not helped me - perhaps I'll vote Republican". And that's as it should be - when one is not happy with current conditions, one should consider one's options carefully.

But that's where the wheels come off. If they do consider their options carefully, what they'll see is a Republican party with a laser beam focus on actively and aggressively making their lives WORSE. In other words, the thing that confuses me is why people unhappy with their current financial state would ever consider voting Republican. Their policies would, like gasoline on a fire, only serve to accelerate the decline of the American middle class.

Now, of course the answer is, like most Americans they don't actually KNOW the policies of the two parties - they just vote for change when they aren't happy. And that's obviously true, to some extent. But if these targeted sub-groups of voters can't or won't understand the policy goals of the party or candidate they're voting for, isn't it pointless to try to convince them NOT to vote Republican? Wouldn't those narratives and entreaties be ineffective if the people are so disinterested or apathetic that they aren't willing to consider them in the first place?

Just as with advertising in general, one begins to have serious doubts about the efficacy of campaign messaging and advertising. If you can only communicate effectively with your most committed base voters, if all your campaign messaging and slick production values aren't heard by those you are speaking to, then elections are going to be decided based on events and trends outside the control of the political community.

It is a bafflement...
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Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Music Post!

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I drove into Millbrae this morning to run a few errands. On the way the car iPod played, consecutively, songs by Rancid, The Carpenters, Grateful Dead, Charlie Daniels Band, ABBA, Bachman Turner Overdrive and Soundgarden. This kind of whiplash juxtaposition of genres and styles always makes me smile, but I started wondering about it. After all, I put these songs on that iPod. Every song on there is one that I love and have a significant history with. If they are all so random and dissimilar, why do they all fall into the classification of mikey's favorites?



The conclusion I arrive at is that, rather than choosing music based on band or genre, I seem to choose music at the granularity of individual songs. And the thing that can initially attract me to a specific song is often a very small, highly specific thing like the drum line in the chorus of Metallica's "Fuel", the first 60 seconds of "Cherub Rock", or that 'happy/ominous' riff in "Hooligan's Holiday", a single line like "Time to count the voices in your head" in Kilzer's "Green, Yellow and Red" or "Standing in the sun with a Popsicle" in the wonderful "Without a Trace", or even just a unique guitar sound like in Bush's "Comedown" or Boston's "Hitch a Ride" or even Springsteen's "Born to Run".


But the main thing these songs tend to have in common is melody. They are singable - they have a distinct and distinctive tune, and even when they are only playing in my head I can sing along. Much of the reason I am so fond of punk, particularly the punk of the 90s represented by Rancid, Greenday and Offspring is that the songs are perfectly melodious - listen to Rancid's "Salvation" and tell me it wouldn't make an excellent elevator instrumental. That's the thing that binds me to the likes of Guy Clark, Tim Armstrong, Roger Clyne, Dave Pirner, Brad Delp, Axl Rose and Linda Ronstadt.


I am not promiscuous musically. Once a song becomes a favorite, it tends to remain one forever. I add new favorites rarely, largely because it's just that much harder to be exposed to new music these days, and so much of it is sonically unpleasant. Gaslight Anthem's "We came to dance" and The Sounds "No one sleeps when I'm awake" are still considered new favorites even today. With the singularly amazing Google Music, I can play any song I want, and while it's playing it will make me think of another song or two, so I play them, and they lead me to others, and before you know it, just like that, I have a whole new playlist populated by old favorites that I can play obsessively for the next week or so. For someone like me - someone who loves music without being particularly into music, it is the perfect solution, a non-stop supply of joyful noise.
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