The Death of Santa Claus

I have some long-running internet grudges, and I’ve hinted around about them here and, frankly, I’m tired of dancing around the subject. Today I’m going to name one of the “villains.” Please don’t think that I’ve just lost my mind and am going to start foaming at the mouth over a Facebook “troll” or a Youtube comment. This goes deeper than that. It’s time to clear the air. If you read this blog, you’re in for a treat. Full-scale online hostility usually doesn’t result in this type of full-blown analysis. Usually, people engage in name-calling and then go off and sulk. Not this time.

Around 2003 a group of people started to disrupt online forums discussing PC flight sims at a site called SimHQ.com. They used every dirty trick in the book. They bullied people, and accused other people of plagiarism if that suited their purpose, and, in general, encouraged everyone to act badly and fight as much as possible. One of the group, Dave Slavens (claiming to be USAF), became the moderator of one of the forums and from this position he worked tirelessly to demolish the forum. Eventually he and his gang succeeded in destroying it. Then he founded his own site, combatace.com and the “disruptions” magically went away at this new site. A second “problem” forum at Sim-Outhouse.com was destroyed by these professional trolls, and then a similar forum magically reappeared over at combatace.com.

In this way, two of the primary sites for hobbyists modifying flight simulations had been hijacked by a mysterious group and taken under their “control.” Until that happened, I had been happily learning to create model airplanes on the computer, and had replaced plastic model kits with the virtual kind. After the experience of being blindsided by this group of cyber-terrorists, I gave up cyber model building and went back to the plastic kits. This experience had an effect on me. It wasn’t just an “emotional” event having no “material” weight. It mattered–to me. It affected other people, too, but they aren’t talking. Yet.

But here’s another question: Just WHY would anybody want to do something like that?

Theory One. It just happened. Hey–crazy stuff happens on the internet!

Theory Two. Dave Slavens is a genius at organizing online bullying and using it to his advantage. He created a site from nothing using simple methods to drive traffic to his own site and destroy his competition. He did this for monetary gain or just the thrill of being “top dog.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone having that kind of determination and skill, but you never know.

Theory Three. “Dave Slavens” is a part of a USAF covert operation to train Air Force personnel in cyber warfare. Teams of specialists are trained to occupy a forum, disrupt it, and then drive the “orphaned” traffic to new site where they can be “managed.” This type of training would prepare U.S. forces to occupy, destroy and re-assign enemy personnel from terrorist websites and forums into sites and forums clandestinely under the control of U.S. intelligence, so that their activities can be monitored closely.

NOW THEN.

You see my problem. I saw what happened. I witnessed the shameless bullying and the outright destruction of these forums by people I thought were just “bad people.” But were they? Maybe they were making America safer by engaging in covert operations aimed at Americans (and some non-Americans) in order to fight real, bomb-throwing terrorists. Maybe.

I don’t know. But if there is one tiny shred of truth in Theory Three then I’m pretty upset about that, anyway. I don’t like this “Dave Slavens” character, and if Theory One or Theory Two are correct then he’s still a creep but that’s life. But if the U.S. Government is messing with innocent citizens in the name of “fighting terror” then I should be outraged, but usually, I don’t let it get me down. I just let it go. It’s not worth it.

But today I found something I just can’t stand. The unmitigated gall. I’m talking about this:

Combatace.com fights bullying.

I can hardly believe it. A site FOUNDED on bullying starts a campaign to fight bullying! It boggles the mind. Of course, all the evidence is neatly lost in the void of internet history. No evidence. No witnesses.  Gone forever. There’s no way I’d ever “prove” anything anyway. It’s all my word against “theirs.”

I hate a liar, and the idea that crime can pay really burns me. That’s the origin of my “grudge.” I know it won’t do me any good in the long run, and this business raises my blood pressure to unhealthy levels. But, dammit, somebody has to say something. Remember that guy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

“Listen to me! Please listen! If you don’t, if you won’t, if you fail to understand, then the same incredible terror that’s menacing me WILL STRIKE AT YOU!”

Something like that.

So now you know all about it. I freely admit to being the kind of nut who harbors a grudge over something like this, trivial as it may appear to be. As online living becomes less the exception and more “the rule”–we should all stop and ask ourselves if what we see online is really what we think we see–and act accordingly.

 

Brushpainter

Well look, I already told you! I deal with the customers so the engineers don't have to! I have people skills! I am good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that? What is wrong with you people?

comments
  • Ok, bear with me here Dan…where were the moderators at these now defunct forums? Were they ready to give up and hand the reigns over? I just cannot see this kind of thing happening without someone either taking over the ownership of the website and hosting, or blatantly being allowed to do so by the prior management.

    When a bunch of Cowboys roll into town, it is up to the current law officers to deal with them. I daresay they totally dropped the ball and are equally to blame here, unless they were in cahoots. Somebody had the rights to that website, and somebody was paying the hosting bill, and that somebody could have IP banned them quite easily.

    • Thanks for the comment, Greg. It felt particularly “risky” to post this information here. You have no idea what I’ve been through with these people. But still, even to me, it sounds like I’m crazy and paranoid. I can’t believe it really happened either. The idea is just so far out. But it did happen. The key element in hijacking the forum was getting Slavens put in charge as moderator on the Third Wire forum at SimHQ. Once he was in that position, it was easy to control the forum and gradually remove anyone who was a problem. It doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint to alienate your customers, so the idea that he “stole” the forum in order to make money off of it seems highly unlikely, but if you visit combatace.com (the website Slavens set up in direct competition with SimHQ) you’ll see that they have a large amount of traffic, based on the number of users logged into the forums, which is prominently displayed at the bottom of the page.

      I arrived at the paranoid-sounding “government conspiracy” idea only after watching this whole crazy thing unfold over several years. That’s how long it took to dismantle the SimHQ forums (i.e. make them so toxic that everybody left except the professional trolls) and set up new, “conflict free” forums at combatace. The fact that a similar campaign took place at Sim-Outhouse was further proof of some kind of organized effort–certainly not just one person. The group from combatace (Slavens and Co.) really did serious harm to what was my hobby. They fractured a vital community into parts that became hostile camps. There is only one surviving rival to Slavens– the “A-Team Skunk Works” at http://cplengineeringllc.com/SFP1/ —— this group is very “paranoid” too–because they tried to work with Slavens and his “gang” and found out that there is only one way to do that–turn your operation over to him. Now they require two passwords to download anything and are very, very security conscious. I think they have survived primarily because they are in Australia and they just ignore Slavens now. The shame of it is that Slavens and Co. took something that had the potential to be great and almost completely destroyed it for no reason that I can fathom. To really understand what happened you have to understand the “modding” community and how that works.

      Of course, if USAF OSI was interested in the activities of the modders (and they should have been, since we were constantly talking about the capabilities of the newest military hardware) then everything that happened could be explained. Not in a way that anybody would believe, but it’s an explanation–that OSI or some related agency infiltrated the forum for the purpose of controlling it.

      When I complained to the management at SimHQ and tried to raise the alarm, all I got was a stony silence. The power of “cyber warfare” is the stealth of it. Just look at what the Russians did in the last election. It was all done using techniques similar to those utilized by Slavens and his partners. It’s a real vulnerability that is built-in to the internet because the founders of the internet were nerds like me who couldn’t imagine this kind of thing.

    • One other thing–let’s not forget that if these people really are U.S. government sponsored, all they have to do to get 100% cooperation from a U.S. based site is just say “we’re from the government.” SimHQ is a super-patriotic. They’d go along with anything if it was official. The guys in Australia don’t have a similar motive. Just remember that the ultimate power play is simply to reveal that they’re “official” and then the site admins just fall into line. It’s the average doofus like me that is the victim. The site admins can always tell themselves that they’re doing their patriotic duty–helping to train anti-terror cyber-warfare troops.

  • I’ve never heard, or experienced, a website being taken down so dramatically as this.

    My theory: This individual was NSA. Since flight simulators could be used to learn how to pilot an actual aircraft, and since not only military, but civilian aircraft can be used as WMDs, the government became concerned after 9/11 about domestic flight sim websites becoming training grounds for future domestic terrorists. (See the case of the missing Malaysian commercial flight, where the pilot evidently planned his suicide mission on a flight sim program.) As you said, they wanted to break up the site and set up their own on which they could collect data from and monitor forum members. After hearing a Fresh Air episode this week about US cyber attacks against the N Korean nuclear program, I realize the internet is the new battle ground. You state:

    “It’s a real vulnerability that is built-in to the internet because the founders of the internet were nerds like me who couldn’t imagine this kind of thing.”

    The “founders” of the internet were actual members of the predecessor of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Products Agency), which is the agency tasked with visualizing what the next war will look like and with developing the weapons to fight it. They knew that this was the new battleground and you were hit by friendly fire!

    (Taking off tin foil hat)

    • Wow. I did not know that about DARPA. Just for fun (I actually own some real tinfoil by the way…) I’ll add some background to this story. The “takeover” was centered (initially, anyway) on simulations created by Tsuyoshi Kawahito (TK), a game programming genius who worked for Microprose until they were suddenly bought up and shut down. He was the guy who got European Air War out of development hell and into production. After Microprose went away, TK started his own business, making a simple sim called “Strike Force One (SF1),” which was loosely based on the anime show “Area 88” and simulated aircraft from the sixties It wasn’t a big hit. The sim went on sale in “alpha” form. Most of it didn’t work. It wasn’t much good for anything EXCEPT it was very easy to modify, so it attracted a lot of attention from modders.

      What made “Strike Force One” appealing to modders was that it was very similar to European Air War and modders who had spent years modding EAW could easily learn to mod SF1. In a way, SF1 was “born to be modded” because it was so open. All you needed to do in some cases as just edit text files. So we, the modding community, could alter the game to work better and add additional “features” to the game. Adding newer aircraft (like the F-22). Many of the modders were very familiar with modern weapons and tactics, and developed very clever ways to force the sim to mimic new technology in fighter planes. It never occurred to us that from the standpoint of USAF OSI, we were messing with highly classified information.

      Interestingly, when Slavens and Co. launched the “takeover,” TK received a government contract to create a sim for the USAF. Keep in mind that he owns a small, basically one-man operation run out of Austin, Texas. The sim he created for the USAF amounted to a stripped down, dumbed down version of his standard product to be used by recruiters as a “demonstrator.” A demonstrator of what?

      Since then TK’s company has been in the black, the sim is constantly being updated and improved, all under the watchful eye of Dave and his “colleagues.” Very few mods for this sim see the light of day, and a lot of them just vanish from the web. Whenever an update for the game appears, it “breaks” earlier mods, so that old mods just fade away. A few mods that work with the new versions are always available on Dave’s site (combatace) and are mostly created by Dave himself (?) but for the most part, TK seems to be busy creating versions of his games that break mods. All the new ones that do appear go through Dave’s site, except for the “A Team” group in Australia. But the A Team do only WWII mods for the sim. Nothing modern.

      I’d say that if this is an intelligence operation, somebody should get an air medal. They did a good job.

      • Obviously, this “Dave” (more than likely an assumed name for a workgroup in the USSAF OSI), has taken control of the flight sim community, even down to the software developers. This isn’t a hobby to them; it’s a national security concern. I think we should all start building HO train sets.

        • My relationship with military intelligence consists of applying to enter the field back the eighties. I got simply got tired of fighting the system to do my job, so I decided to change career fields. Only one field required a test score of over NINETY. All other fields required sixty or seventy. No higher. The one “special” field was called “scientific laboratory technician.” Sounds harmless, right? So I applied, thinking I’d scrub test tubes, etc. But then I found out that the job also entailed aircrew on some very peculiar “spy” planes and required a top secret clearance. The more I looked at it, the weirder it got. I quickly learned that whatever it was, it wasn’t for me. So very, very secretive! I just informed them that I wasn’t interested any more. That ended my spy career, before it began. But the minimal contact I had with the “spook” world was enough to scare me. That whole thing is very, very creepy. Once you’re in, you never leave.

  • So the current Simhq has nothing to do with the old forum?

    • The old forum (what’s left of it) is still in the current SimHQ. It’s all still there. They even have an “archive” section where bits and pieces (heavily and mysteriously “redacted”) of the old forum posts are kept on file. But go ahead and go over the to the SimHQ Third Wire forum. It resembles a ghost town, even now. The genius in this “operation” was the ability to destroy the forum from within and move it without (and this is critical) having look like they did anything. It’s all under the radar. The current SimHQ is quite healthy.

      The stuff that Slavens would do is unbelievable now. As moderator, he would abuse forum members. He’d be “subtle”–but name-calling by innuendo (why do I always get the idiots? etc.) was a favorite tactic. He would antagonize the person until they retaliated in anger, then go ahead and ban them. Then brag about banning them, to the applause of his toadies. It was really outrageous. Most of that stuff has been “clipped” from the forum history. He systematically banned all independent thinkers except for me and the A Team guys from Australia. I wouldn’t take the bait so he couldn’t get a “reason” to ban me. The Australians from the A Team are really gifted modders. He tried several ways to recruit them, but eventually they severed all ties and set up their own site. It’s quite a soap opera. I can’t say my “taking a stand” paid off in any way. By “heroically” sticking it out and refusing to quit, I put my mental health (and physical health–I’m not so young) in jeopardy and probably still haven’t fully recovered. But then again–how would I know?

      Yeah, I guess SimHQ had to be involved, now that I think about it. I remember when SimHQ started up. Goofy looking site with a lot of red color! I was one of the first members. But the big operator then was Combatsim.com. They went to a “pay to play” business model and suddenly SimHQ became the big deal. My, how my relationship with them changed!

  • The redaction of the archive site indicates to me that there may have been members on that site who, perhaps due to their real-world knowledge or positions, were posting sensitive or even classified information. The government had to take action. I sometimes wonder how often a release of classified information or photographs occurs in a posting by an anonymous individual on a forum or social media site, especially ones concerning military subject areas.

    • I doubt that it happens deliberately. Accidentally, yes. When on active duty, the rule is SAY NOTHING. That’s pretty definite. Of course, you always have this “sense” that some things are not to be talked about. This leads to a MUCH greater degree of security than most people realize. When I was at Edwards AFB, they built a new flight-line and hangar complex on the other side of the lake bed. A screenwriter would have the GI’s talking about what it was and the purpose of the new portion of the base would be common knowledge. Not so. It was a complete mystery to us until they formally announced the B-2 Stealth Bomber program. Up to that point, nobody talked about a “Stealth Bomber.” It didn’t exist. Knowing how good security can be tends to cause me to doubt the usual argument against “conspiracy theories” — that “nobody can keep a secret like that.” I know that they can.

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