Category Archives: society

Next Time, Pay Attention.

When the extra-judicial harassment of drug addicts began, in the 80s, or even back in the 60s, no one cared. “Ew, they’re drug addicts.”

We filled our prisons with young blacks and latinos destroyed by the drug trade, sent our Vietnam vets there, our crack addicts and tweekers. We got used to not caring about them. We hired police and taught them it didn’t matter what they did to those people and their communities.

When the extra-judicial harassment of Arabs began, in the 90s and then many times worse after 9/11, it was, we said, to be expected. “Well, they’re Arabs.”

On a few occasions, I stood outside in a protest of Arab registration in America where a still unknown number of men went into DHS offices, and never came home. We all watched the surveillance and intimidation of Muslim and Arab communities in America, the UK and Europe and said to those governments, it’s ok, because those communities have extremists.

Now the extra-judicial harassment of journalists has begun. And a bunch of folks are saying “How could this happen?”

You’ve been letting it happen and grow for 50 years. Congratulations on noticing. Now do something about it, because you’re next.

 

An Open Reply to Zooko and Jon

Dear LeastAuthority and Silent Circle (aka Zooko and Jon),

I too know and like you both! I too admire your work, have tremendous confidence in your abilities, and it’s been amazing to watch your efforts, both sophisticated and useful, grow over time. I want to be customers of you both when I am less broke. Personally, I enjoy talking and hanging and hiking and all manner of things with you! (Zooko I really must go back to the mountains with you one day) That was a very sweet and erudite discussion of the problems of verifiability and technical trust and Open Source and Descartes and Godel. Seriously, I could totally have that talk with both of you while sipping nice port out of little crystal glasses.

But no one is going to attack the customers of either Silent Circle or Tahoe-LAFS by compelling you to deliver a malicious update. If they want to do it the hard way, they’re going to use an iTunes update or a Skype update or just attach a filed called interesting-shit.jpg.exe to a forged email to your customers. If they want to or can attack your customers the easy way, your customers will end up under fluorescent lighting in an airless room surround by buzzcuts with toothy rictus smiles. Your customers will have the distinct sense that while they’d like to see your customer’s computer/phone or else, they’re cool with or else for a while if your customers want to play that way.

The first way is of course stealthier, which is the real reason they go after hosted services, because that’s a stealthy way of monitoring communications, and gets you a historical record. (Which is also why I’m all like “No encrypted email! Encrypted email baaaad!” all the time.)

But if they’re going to own the endpoint, there’s no point in interfering with your two companies who are loud and skittish and likely to pull a “Ladar”.

They could own the end point any number of ways with off-the-shelf shit, and go home early for the weekend. If they really want to do bulk collection they’ll just send a malicious update of Angry Birds.

Seriously, attacking a target through your apps would be stupid and likely to get out. So they’re not going to. They’re going to use the vast number of easy weaponized apps built on top of the thriving 0day market to scoop not only every bit your targeted customers send you, but everyone else too. And it’s great! They won’t ever get caught for this. I don’t even have to provide links and evidence for what I’m saying because we all, everyone who works vaguely in this field, already know this.* But this is not just your customer’s problem, it’s your problem, too.

This all brings me to my point in my normally circuitous way. And Jon, you made this point in part, but for me, not nearly hard enough. These debates on crypto and code verification are actively beginning to annoy me, because malware/phishing is fucking terrible and the real fucking problem and everyone is ignoring it. I don’t mean you in particular are annoying me, but in general this tendency is. I worry watching two people as respected as you do this continues to distract people from our terrible problem. It’s like watching a couple gentlemen have a lengthy and erudite discussion on the merits of the front door’s lock while the back of the building is actually on fire.

I really do appreciate discussions of verifiability on an intellectual level. If I wasn’t also that kind of dork I would never have made it through the majority of my life hanging out with you people. I can sit around with friends trying to figure out when the halting problem comes into play in game situations. I teach writing with Shannon’s information theory in mind. I understand the dopamine rush of a *solution*. But we don’t have that luxury anymore, because everything and everyone is getting owned like crazy.

The answers to the malware problem are probably not verification. They are probably many answers, messy answers, and not always provable or even always effective. I think that’s why we don’t like them, because they aren’t elegant. And because we like to imagine malware can’t happen to us. It happens to people who don’t know better and live far away, but are also much more likely than us to do the kind of work that gets targeted by hostile actors.

I don’t mean to over-focus on you, because you guys aren’t close to the worst on this. We need to fix the industry’s incredibly broken threat model, because malware is everyone’s problem. You’re trying to protect your users’ data, period. Not just when it’s in your little mathematical garden, but before it gets there an after it leaves, because otherwise your mathematical garden is irrelevant to the real world. This problem is, for our kind, much harder than proving Godel wrong, because it’s tractable but huge and it’s messy and it will never, ever, ever feel right.

If we don’t start focusing some of our attention on malware, crypto is going to be irrelevant in yet another way.

Regards,
Quinn

 

* People who are not the people this is addressed to who would never make this mistake anyway, don’t even talk to me about AV. I mean, don’t even.

The Bit I Liked Most

As Ada took me back through the Lord of the Rings.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Such times as these. Transition times, when new things are trying to not be crushed by old. Times like those that Paine said try men’s souls. Times when you can finally understand how people can see the round ups coming, and choose to stand. Drought times of soul and spirit.

On Dignity

me-bonesI have so many things to say they jam up my brain sometimes. I have even more I want to learn, and then pass on. I have so many things to care about. In July my health insurance is getting cut off. I have looked through my options and concluded that for now, I have none. I make very little money, as a result, I haven’t had a place to live since 2009. It is too little to afford insurance (& I suspect next year I will have to start paying penalties for that fact). But at about 20-25k a year and no address, there is no assistance for me.

I could give up my career and look for a job, but there’s no jobs, and I don’t handle offices well. And frankly, I like my career. It doesn’t pay much, but I believe what I do is important and not many people can or will do it. We spend a lot of time equating financial success with meaningful work, and both with deserving healthcare, but I think all of that is bullshit, and I won’t live my life that way.

No; giving up being me is not an option. I am not a shiftless and lost person. I am busy, and involved and I live with tremendous purpose and hope. But I live in a society that does not value me. That doesn’t mean I don’t, though.

I’m 40 now. In many ways it feels like the beginning. I have tons of energy, I know my life’s work. It’s not easy, and I don’t know if I can get all the things I need to done, but it’s coming together. It was a hard fucking road here. Strange and hard beyond what most people imagine a life can be. For getting here, I’m grateful. This is also a time when the body changes, when medical considerations change. I’ll do the health things that make sense to do without insurance, I still love and value my life and want all of it I can get. But I’m not bothering with a mammogram. What could I do about it anyway? I’d rather put my time and energy into my work, what time my society will leave me. Because I live in a society that has decided people like me should die if they get ill.

But I still have choice in how that happens. If I get a lump in my breast or a hole in my heart or gut, I’m not going to spend my precious remaining time begging for help from the public or indifferent bureaucracies, while I get weaker and drown in pain. I watched people beg for scraps from an America that doesn’t care about them. You may have chosen that I will die, America, but I don’t have to be polite about it.

When the time comes that I am out of options and facing illness, I intend to dictate and write the final notes on I can on my work, and then take my own life before disease and indifference do. I would go out of this world the same way I came in — screaming and strong.

Fuck dying quietly.

Why I disagree with Wesley Yang’s conclusion

Rodin's Fallen Caryatid, still crushed by her stone.

Wesley Yang wrote about Aaron in New York Magazine with sensitivity, complexity, and pathos. He laid out parts of the story like puzzle pieces. But then, I believe, he built the wrong image. He built an easier image than belonged there.

I’ve talked to very few journalists since Aaron died, compared to how many tried to talk to me. Mostly those who caught me in New York before I left America, those who got to me through friends, those who were lucky enough to find me when I could talk.

One of them was Yang. I told him (as I told all the journalists I spoke to) that this was a very hard and complex story, that I wouldn’t want to be writing it. Then again, I said, I wouldn’t want to be me even more. I spoke to Yang as I packed to leave America, as I was moving and sorting, falling in and out of silences the day after I’d eulogized him in Cooper Union. I was puffy with crying. I was the strange kind of empty and full that only comes with grief. I spoke of our lives together. I told him things that were not to be published. I asked for quote approval, and he promised it to me.

Yang did not do wrong by me. Many of the moments of his piece were lovely, and he danced up to the ambivalence of Aaron’s legacy in a way few writers thus far have. But in the end he shied away from the terrible lessons of Aaron’s death. He shied away from the what the insanity of the last month has pointed to; in the end, I think, he made this story smaller and easier than it is.

“It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.”

The greater injustice: it’s a beautiful sentence, but one that belittles the soul of civilized life.

To put this on Aaron is to say he was too weak, too fragile for our society. He should have been stronger, it’s what society requires. But Aaron would have (rightly) pointed out how meager and mean such a society is, how it’s the job of everyone to demand a better society. “A felon and an inmate” is the lesser of injustice that Yang describes. It’s a way of blaming Aaron for not being able to endure an unbearable weight, the cruelty of a violent system disconnected from justice. Living through this investigation was hell. It is the stuff of hell, of destruction, before you even get to the deeper hell of our private slave labor prison system. You have no idea how you’d react if this has never happened to you. Not Yang, not Heymann or Ortiz. Perhaps me, because I’ve been in the range of damage, more than once. But even then I’m not sure.

We are not the mythical Hollywood Spartans Aaron and I laughed at together many years ago after watching 300. We were slowly, reluctantly, falling in love after both of us had rejected dayjob life at Wired. That night we were both amused and just a little bit horrified that this primitive notion of what makes virtue; that the heroes of this story would have killed us both as children. Aaron and I were part of a culture that prides itself on not slaughtering deformed or sickly children, or leaving unwanted babies to die of exposure. Instead we were the people that could go to the moon and builds ADA ramps. We hold people like Stephen Hawking up as paragons, not of their virtues, but ours. We contend that we live better and more wisely for keeping brilliant minds in useful arts and sciences not only alive, but offering a place where they can thrive and enrich us all.

And we are lying.

Yang blames Aaron for not going to high school, for not learning to do pointless things because he was told to by men with power over him. I have sympathy for Aaron here, I didn’t finish high school either. I have what Yang points to as Aaron’s fatal flaw: and inability to accept doing pointless things to get by. My mom used to get so angry at me, and yell “You can’t have your cake and eat it too!” I would say to her in my calm and infuriating way, “What’s the point of having cake if you can’t eat it?”

It is not as Yang seems to imply the snowball effect of a simple lack of discipline. I can endure things, as could Aaron. Both of us were strong in many ways, and could endure violence from our minds and bodies which few people will ever have to experience, for years. We’d both endured the placelessness of rejecting the system, the self doubt, the terrible judgement and disappointment of others. I’d love to say I helped guide him, but he did at least as much for me as I did for him. We laughed about how bad we looked on paper, two high school dropouts with shitty employment histories. But he told me I was amazing, that I could do what I wanted with my life. I told him he was stronger than he knew.

In our culture, this strength is not enough. One must be born without blemish, and be strong and brilliant on top of that. Yang is critical of Aaron’s inability to endure pointless things thrust on him by corrupt power structures. I share this quality with Aaron, so I am left asking myself, why am I alive? I believe it is for two reasons: I was born a woman, and I was born poor. To be either in America teaches you something quickly that Aaron never learned. It teaches you that you are prey. I have the instincts of a prey animal: avoid detection, flee from violent people, hide, wait, use all available resources for my advantage. Aaron and I were both fragile, but he believed that we still lived in a society that valued something other than might and force. I have no such illusions.

Yang had all these puzzle pieces, and tried, understandably to say something about Aaron, but instead he accidentally said about America, something more important than Aaron’s death. He said that we are social Darwinists now. That our values are that if you are weak in body or spirit, that if you are poor, or even just unlucky, you deserve to die. What Yang shows in his account of Aaron is that we are a lesser place and a lesser civilization than we’d hoped for.

Photo from Flickr, by rocor

Don’t Vote

My great grandmother had to fight for her right to vote. She marched down the streets of Boise, Idaho with a giant beautiful banner she sewed herself on a treadle sewing machine. It read, in large and gorgeous lettering, “We demand an amendment to the US constitution enfranchising women.” From the first moment I saw it I was aware that it was in so many ways larger than me. I still have it, and hope to pass it on to my daughter to pass on to her daughter.

Incredibly old, and skin hanging from her bones, my great grandmother was still a terrifyingly full woman. She taught me what it was to vote. The first time I voted was 1992, and doing so made me feel like I was at last a full person, part of a full world. And when I decided that I would not vote anymore, it was to her that I uttered my prayer of sad apology: not merely for not voting, but for being part of the system that had reduced voting to meaning so little. I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.

It was learning that lead me to voting, and learning that lead me away from it. It was gerrymandering, legalized corruption, the impossibility of campaign finance reform. It was dry words like ROI on lobbying, which have turned the world wet with non-metaphorical blood. It was suicidal nonideas that reduced human civilization to a consuming blob left to go necrotic on its denuded tiny blue dot.

But then, it was more. It was watching how people built an internet while the institutions weren’t looking. It was the kindness of strangers that took me in. It was buying dinner for an old Vietnam vet on the streets of California. It was watching my daddy chewed up by the system. It was the radiation of the Columbia river and the old songs and stories of Utah Phillips. It was children who filled potholes in Zambian streets and needed pens, which I gave them with as much heart as you can give a pen to someone. It was the fall of the iron curtain, it was poet presidents, revolutions young and old, and the slow and terrible petrification of the American spirit. It was a world that runs red with blood and spirit, a body politic raped and beaten by a ruling class as arbitrary and accidental as the rest of it.

People who think that by calling for a strike against the vote I’m advocating inaction are not paying attention. Yes, I am saying please don’t throw your vote away in our corrupt ballot boxes. Instead vote everyday, not just one day in November. Vote with the stuff of your life. Vote like your life, and your opinions matter — because they do.

Vote with every dollar, in every relationship. Vote in how you work and how you speak. Vote in how you treat others and what you will accept from them. Vote your dignity and the dignity of others. Live in the opposite of fear. Bring your morals to work. Whistleblow, organize, strike, disrupt your corporation until it respects human rights. Even if just the knowledge workers in my social circle walked off the job, they could grind the machine to a halt — they could be heard. They would, in fact, resound not only through the body politic but through history as well.

But we don’t know anymore that we have this strength. We are told both that we must perform our kabuki democracy, and that our vote doesn’t really matter. We are told that this voting is our only civic duty, and the only power we have, and quietly reduced to a system where that vote can’t realistically do much.

When you vote, you complain, and then go to work to do the work of others, often against the interests and values of you, your family, the family of humankind. And you can complain about that, too. We have to get along, we have to pay down the student loans, we have to make the mortgage payment, we have to delay facing the truth about the frail and failing world we’ve built as long as we possibly can.

No. The magic of aggregate human attention is so strong that we can fix this world, we can exceed these troubles — but only together, not looking to leadership structures that have failed us again and again.

Humanity is amazing. It is the elemental magic of the world. You are the ground that can shake and rise under the fragile political structures of the Earth. You are the wrath of angry gods, you are the true storm a small and accidental system of power fears. As long as you keep believing you have to vote, and all your power is tied only to that vote, our leaders get to balance a pyramid on its tip and call it democracy.

Lay down the lie of the American ballot box, with its legal rigging, lobbying, revolving doors, gerrymandering, and even at moments outright fraud. You will have to ask yourself what is next? What do you believe, and how do you live out those beliefs? It is a scary and beautiful thing to live your beliefs.

We are on a fundamental level responsible for each other. We have incredible power, in fact we have all the power not reserved to killer robots. But it’s very hard and very painful. Coordinating, acting, having to be together with humanity after so many years of running away from it.

Today we distract ourselves from feeling hopeless and powerless. There are a million numbing balms for thousands of tiny cuts. We numb ourselves with TV, Youtube, Reddit, alcohol, games, even love. We ceaselessly and selfishly chase after a personal happiness only available to those who outgrow the hunt for it. We go to work for corporations and governments that violate our ethics, we go into debt, and come to see ourselves as bound, indentured to things we didn’t choose. But this is an illusion, and a fragile one at that. It ends the day we decide that our power is with us, in us, that it can’t fit inside a quarterly review, or an assigned essay, or even a ballot box. It ends when we realize that our minds and bodies, and most of all our little allotment of precious time are holy, holy, holy.

Let your body be your ballot.

How to Criticize Women in Technology

For the background to this post, here is Chris’ first post, Ryan’s quite complex and important response, and Chris’ second post.

Before all this was a Twitter exchange. Chris tweeted saying there was a special place in hell for me three days before his post. I ended up calling him a dick, for being a dick to Nick Bilton, after which he wrote the now infamous post that kicked all this off. I hope in vain that this post may close the conversation.

The internets have been abuzz with the talk of whether Chris Soghoian’s attack post on me (and other journalists) was, among other things, sexist. After a litany of faults, put downs, and misunderstandings, this one question has emerged above all others. So let me address whether Soghoian was sexist towards me.

Of course he was.

But perhaps not the way the vast majority of people think of sexism. I have no idea if Soghoian has a problem with women, per se. But I have a problem with perpetuating an environment so hostile to women that most leave and the ones that remain often describe their own careers as “traumatic.” This is what Soghoian has done, and this is sexism in its most pernicious form.

I don’t know (nor am significantly concerned) what Soghoian was thinking when he attacked me. He has stated he doesn’t hate women journalists. But there’s more than intention to sexism, whether my gender fueled those intentions or not. Sexism isn’t merely the stance: the sexist mind, where one denigrates women deliberately in thought and word. It is also the performing of sexism, which requires very little consciousness and does the majority of damage. When someone like Soghoian chooses a target for a political attack, he chooses for maximum impact, and hopefully little harm to him. The fact that women are less supported in tech makes us easier targets. And we are — given any arbitrary level of accomplishment, attacking women is safer than attacking men. When Soghoian patronizes us, he reinforces this relative weakness. In short, he performs sexism. He can be assured of the support of overt sexists, which he received in his post’s comments, and that others will be loath to weigh in.

The performance of sexism and racism is almost always all upside for the performer. It’s generally too subtle to be criticized, guarantees a constituency no matter how odious you may find that constituency, and melds in seamlessly into an environment of sexism like one more violin in the string section — ultimately strengthening an anti-woman culture. And this is exactly what Soghoian did by adopting a patronizing and disrespectful tone during his take down on me.

In this specific case, after leading with the technical inadequacy of journalists, Soghoian ran into a problem with me. I am not, as one would get the impression from how Soghoian structured his attack, a technical illiterate. I didn’t get a quote explaining the biggest flaw in Cryptocat from any of Soghoian’s favorite men, which he criticized me for, because I didn’t need to. I can explain that a hosted Javascript application is vulnerable to a deep structural attack better than any of them — I explain things for a living. Each time you go to the site and re-download Cryptocat, the only assurance you’re getting the right code is SSL, the encryption layer of web communication which is signaled to users by the lock icon in their browser. But SSL is broken, and relying on it is a design flaw for Cryptocat. The fact is, I covered the flaws. I agreed with Soghoian and others about what the worst problems were, and not only restated that the software was experimental, but that the author himself wouldn’t bet his life on it. That statement, more than any mention of HTTPS stripping or man-in-the-middle, was there to tell real people with real problems that they shouldn’t bet their lives either.

Soghoian practices talking down with the skill of an artist. Robbed of actual technical insufficiency on my part, he could only imply it, and switched to criticizing my writing. He said I placed the technical details too low in the article, implying that my readers wouldn’t read that far.

I am a long form, literary non-fiction writer who specializes in technical subjects. I write whole articles, I write them with my whole heart, and I work damn hard to keep my reader engaged. It does hurt to have Soghoian cleverly talking down to me on a technical level when I may very well know more than him. To go on to subtly insult my ability as a writer is not only contemptible, but an unqualified attack.

I have to spend time unwinding these assumptions about my skills every day I interact with the community I cover. I have explained that I am no one’s girlfriend more times than I can count. I have to tell people to stop dumbing down when I enter a conversation. In the 19 years that I have socialized with, worked in, lived with, and eventually came to write about the tech community, I have come to terms with disrespect and patronizing towards women that is simply breathtaking. The attitude is how this is performed. Sexism isn’t merely present, it is the water we swim in.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to criticize women in technology without being sexist. But it is a bit harder. The tool you have to give up when criticizing women who have been talked down to all their lives, if you want to avoid performing and therefore reinforcing sexism, is talking down to them. For a man in tech, speaking down to a woman in public is a fundamentally different act than speaking down to another man. (Bringing up appearance, dating, or sex, while not applicable in this case, is equally problematic.)

And before anyone says that’s not fair, I’ll point out there’s a lot of not fair here to go around. If you want someone to blame for that, don’t start with either the men who have stepped forward to call bullshit when they see it or the women who stand up for themselves in an environment that can often feel like a lion’s den. If you want someone to blame for the fact that you can’t patronize women without performing and reinforcing sexism, blame the rich history of sexism that created the situation we find ourselves in now.

Context matters. If you have two men working for you, and one is white, and the other a person of color, it means something different if you call the latter “boy”. What might sound affectionate to the former is likely to sound like hundreds of years of oppression to many people of color. So just don’t ever do that. We learn these things.

If you want to deliver a cogent, non-sexist criticism to a woman in a non-traditional field that doesn’t reinforce nasty cultural norms, (which we need as much as the next person) you have to take the rhetorical tool of patronizing them out of the tool kit. Speak respectfully and recognize their achievements in public. It’s not too much to ask.

If, as has been suggested to me by several people, this is the only tone Soghoian has, we might consider that this as a personality flaw would run deeper than mere sexism. A person who is unable to adjust to circumstances or speak with a compassionate and deliberate argument is not a good person to be. I prefer to think that this isn’t who Soghoian is, but rather that, soaking in an environment of sexism, he performed it unknowingly.

Everyone knows that sexism runs rife in tech. Yet no particular instance of it can be spoken about without recrimination towards the speaker. This is not the way to make things better. Instead, Soghoian should publicly apologize to me, and then we all should forgive him his outburst. I doubt that this will happen, but it would help the community if it did.

The Prosecutor

He is a man who earns a living by sending others to the scaffold. He is the official purveyor to every Place de Grève. Not only that, he is a gentlemen with pretensions to style and literature, a fine speaker, or thinks he is, who if needs be will trot out a line or two of Latin before deciding on death, who tries to create an impression, who is fascinating to his personal sense of self-esteem – O woe! – who, where other people’s lives are at stake, has his models, his appalling examples to live up to, his classics, his Bellart, his Marchangy, like one poet has Racine and another Boileau. During the proceedings he fights on the guillotine’s side; it is his role, his profession. His summing-up is his work of literature, he decks it with metaphors, perfumes it with quotations; it has to be good for the audience, it has to appeal to the ladies. He has his stock of commonplaces that are still brand new to provincials, his ornamental turns of phrase, his affectations, his writerly refinements. He hates the simple word almost as much as the tragic poets of the school of Delille. Have no fear he will call things by their proper name. Bah! For each idea which would disgust you in its naked form, he has disguises complete with epithets and adjectives. He makes Monsieur Sanson presentable. He veils the blade. He blurs the bascule. He wraps the red basket in circumlocutions. You don’t know where you are any more. Everything is rose-tinted and respectable. Can you picture him at night in his study, at leisure, doing his best to work up the harangue that in six weeks’ time will have a scaffold built? Do you see him sweating blood to make the defendant’s head fit into the deadliest article of the criminal code? Do you see him sawing through a poor wretch’s neck with a badly made law? Do you see how he injects two or three poisonous passages into a muddle of tropes and synecdoches so that, with much ado, he can squeeze out, extract the death of a man from it? Is it not true that under the desk as he writes he probably has the executioner crouching at his feet in the shadows, and that he puts down his pen now and then to say to him, like a master to his dog: “Hush! Quiet now! You’ll get your bone!”

What’s more, in his private life this public servant might be a decent man, a good father, a good son, a good husband, a good friend – like it says on all the headstones in Père-Lachaise. Let us hope the day is coming when the law will abolish these doleful duties. At some point the very air of our civilization must wear out the death penalty.

-Victor Hugo, Circa 1929 in France, Last Week in America.

The usage and abusage of internet quotes

While watching Twitter like a crack addicted monkey for new reviews of The Pale King I noticed an often retweeted aphorism:

“Health is the greatest of all possessions; a pale cobbler is better than a sick king.”

Of course, pale doesn’t make any sense there, it’s a hale cobbler. “Pale cobbler” gets about 2,300 hits on Google, replace with hale, and you get three. On the other hand, the original quote is actually this:

“Health is the greatest of all possessions, and it is a maxim with me that a hale cobbler is a better man than a sick king”

Which gets you a healthy 11,220 hits on Google, and is attributed to 18th century Irish playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe. A further goog of Isaac Bickerstaff “pale cobbler” gets you only 173 people correctly attributing the incorrect quote.

The things I keep wondering about those first 2,000, and even more the 173 more learned attributers, is are they wondering what the heck the author meant by pale cobbler? And at what point on its putative growth curve will it pass the real quote, and become another “I could care less” aphoristic mind fuck?

This is the folk version of things like the medireview incident in the early 21st century, wherein a yahoo mail filter invented a new branch of historical academia that took a while to get caught and corrected. I suppose this has always happened, but in the age of the net it can happen and get corrected faster. I still wonder when enough of these, obviously enough laid along the paths of the net will get people to develop a healthy suspicion about the pale cobblers of the medireview when they come across them.