That’s Not a Bug, That’s a Feature

You may have heard last week about a fascinating security hole in the iPhone: If you craft a PDF file just so, in particular by fucking with the embedded fonts, you can break into the gadget.

Apple has certainly heard of it, and they’re working on a fix. Because that’s what software companies are supposed to do when a serious bug comes to their attention.

Unlike the United States Senate, which enshrines it as tradition.

A long time back, we did some research for an unpublished post, calculating that 41 Senators, representing about a third of Our Nation’s Citizens, could stop the chamber in its tracks. Of course, declaring that the Senate is Undemocratic! isn’t news — it was drawn that way, after all, the Founders in their infinite horse-trading deciding that Seward’s Folly should have the same representation as a Mexican conquest. And we’re cool with that, since good fucking luck trying to change it.

But it wasn’t in the plan to tip the scales even more. Heck, even when they did it, nobody realized at the time they were creating a buffer overflow. The filibuster was a latent bug that took decades to come to light.

This is news. Well, to us, anyway. And if we are not the measure of all things, then who is?

Please, not everyone at once.

So here’s what happened: One day in 1806, Aaron Burr, not having Alexander Hamilton to kick around any more, decided to take care of some Senate housekeeping. In particular, there was a silly parliamentary rule that nobody used, something about calling the “previous question.” Since it was just some stale leftover, it went out with the trash. Done & Done. Say, which slave is Tommy pestorking this time? Maybe he’ll let us watch.

Fast-forward a generation, to 1837. A group of prankster Senators, looking for a way to keep Jackson off the Twenty, scours the Senate rules for an unescaped SQL string. There they discover that the Debate Function isn’t closed with a Shut The Fuck Up Command — and A Hack Is Born.

But how to exploit the parliamentary hole and crash the system? Easy: Talk it to death. I’ll show you how to drain the battery of The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, pal. Thomas Hart Benton — no, not the painter, that was his great-nephew — calls the action:

In response, Jackson’s supporters prepared for a long night, “fortif[ying] themselves with an ample supply, ready in a nearby committee room, of cold hams, turkeys, beef, pickles, wines, and cups of hot coffee.”

In the event, the indoor picnic wasn’t needed; the hackers gave up by midnight. But their easily replicated proof-of-concept had been publicly demonstrated, and all they lacked was YouTube to post the evidence. The rest is history.

What’s odd about this story is that nobody thought to immediately call a press conference and issue all legislators a free filibuster bumper. Then again, if there’s one group that’s extremely susceptible to a Reality Distortion Field, it’s the United States Senate.

The Constitutional Option to Change Senate Rules and Procedures: A Majoritarian Means to Overcome the Filibuster [Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy (Winter 2005), PDF]
2 Comments

Of course, the GOPers are doing the “honorable” thing by pitching what is now a 2 year temper tantrum.

In Canada City, we went the opposite route. Made our senate an almost impotent retirement home for favored hacks and dipshits whose numbers were determined by population to the dismay of the West who wants something more akin to your Senate (for the very problems you have outlined here.)

There was a good article in The New Yorker last week on this topic.

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