The Great Big Thing(tm): SPAAAAACE Edition

In an effort to stave off existential anxiety I have been watching YouTube videos about space. This guy Isaac Arthur has a large number of really interesting videos that cover some really interesting topics about the science of science fiction. I have been listening to him talk for weeks about gravity wells, and Dyson spheres and thinking about offworld societies. All of this stuff is super interesting, and then I existential bedrock again when I started watching his videos about the Fermi Paradox and the Simulation Hypothesis.

Basically, the Fermi Paradox is this idea that there are so many planets, stars, and galaxies in the universe that there should be other planets capable of supporting life, and if so, why are there no aliens?

Once I started thinking about the Fermi Paradox, it didn’t take long to start applying the logic to all sorts of things. At first I started thinking about this for other fantasy technologies, like time travel. No one has come from the future to stop catastrophes, so perhaps time travel just isn’t possible, or perhaps human life on earth is extinguished before time travel can be developed.

Then I hit upon the Simulation Hypothesis. Which is that our reality could just be an elaborate simulation. It was at this point that I remembered a New Yorker article about how election night and the Oscars might indicate some sort of breakdown of a simulation. At first I laughed it off, but for at least a couple of years things have been going badly all over (shootings, riots, natural disasters, you name it) and there hasn’t been much, if any hedonic adaptation as a result. Maybe we are living in a simulation, maybe we aren’t, but something certainly seems to have happened to the hedonic treadmill. Or maybe the chronic and constant bullshit that is living for 15+ years in post-9/11 America has taken a toll on everyone’s collective psyche.

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The Great Big Thing(tm): Nazi Bullshit Edition

I have been unable to write for a while now, and so I figured I would just write about not being able to write. That ended up being this long rambling screed about my frustration with my friends and family over their obtusely two-dimensional socio-political views. It came across really angsty and disjointed. Then all this Nazi bullshit happened and I just kind of retreated again.

Getting into the Nazi thing is kind of a waste of my time. I have been dealing with Nazis off and on for most of my adult life. I had a few clashes with Nazi skins when I was a punk, and when I went into the military I clashed with a few more in the US and in Germany. Beefing with German skins was weird. What I didn’t realize, was how prevalent these hard right-wing white power types were in the Ohio National Guard. I had a squadmate that was an ex-skin and he and a few like him were treating their Guard service as training for their revolution. They were conservative gun nuts prepping for a “Shit Hitting The Fan” scenario. This was in the late 90’s. I know these dudes didn’t go anywhere, they just got pushed into silence by polite society, and the spectre of a global Islamic Jihad deflected the world’s attention from them.

I spent a lot of time with these dudes; I got to know them. One guy hated blacks because he was divorced and his wife was dating black dudes. Another was raised to be that way by his father who was a blue collar guy who got laid off in some recession. All of it just sounded like fear and weakness to me. These guys hate people of color because people of color have the power to make them feel inferior. It’s no different than those “nice guys” that hate women because women have the power to make them feel lonely and pathetic. It’s ironic when you think about it, white supremacy threatens the lives of so many, yet all it does is protect the egos of a few. Also, these dudes go on and on about liberty, but they are the worst sort of authoritarian apologists.

Maybe I am lucky to have more than one identity, or I’m just lucky that my identity isn’t threatened by women or minorities. Being a geek is a pretty white identity, but it’s not like John Boyega, Gal Gadot, or Rochelle are going to take that away from me. Glenn from The Walking Dead can kill all the zombies and bed all the white women he wants, it doesn’t affect me in any way. The same goes for female Ghostbusters, Daisy Ridley or Imperator Furiosa.

One thing that this new Nazi bullshit did was cause more debate about the First Amendment. The Intercept was nice enough to illustrate my point about how controlling hate speech ends up suppressing progressives, which confirms my bias on these things and helps me feel a little vindicated.

What disturbs me the most isn’t the presence of White Power. It’s the lack of conscience on display from leaders of all kinds. Of course the President had nothing to say, those fashy creeps put him into office, but what about basically everyone else? A bunch of corporations took a stand, and that is probably the worst possible result. They’re Nazis For Fuck’s Sake. They are literally the worst human beings there are. They’re the definition of an easy target. When the organizations whose General Counsel advises them against any course of action, any course of action that they end up taking is the absolute least that could be done.

My lamentations about corporate power also seem to have been vindicated a little, again thanks to The Intercept. I get that we as a country have lost faith in the political process, but corporate oligarchy is not the answer. Let’s not forget that no one served any time for crashing the economy in 2008. Let’s not forget that everyone looked the other way in the interest of keeping “the system” stable. What else are we going to look the other way on? Using a private army to violate the civil liberties of a group of people? Those people aren’t white, BTW. Just thought somebody should know that.

UPDATE: This:

There is a Great Big Thing that I can’t write about.

I write because it helps me cope with a lot of things. I haven’t been able to write lately because my mind is focused on a bunch of things that are connected, but not really in a concise way. What I am seeing around me is a kind of existential apocalypse. Part of it is the world around me, part of it is the realization that I live in a part of the world where I just don’t belong.

Writing is a way to let some of that negative energy out in a (mostly) harmless way. I have suffered some physical injuries in the past year, so my martial arts training weight lifting has been sidelined for quite a while, leaving me with video games and writing as my outlets. Lately writing has been hard, so I pretty much just play Skyrim.

The Great Big Thing is a kind of toxic complexity that has led to an existential threat at a global scale. I sense that our capitalist system is collapsing slowly under its own weight and the problem is so complex that not only can nobody see it, nobody can even face it. This reflexive/involuntary ignorance has left me with a kind of general malaise and a kind of ennui about evangelizing an alternative.

I have liberal friends who don’t understand nationalism or how white supremacists operate. I have conservative friends that don’t understand the shock doctrine or force multipliers. Neither faction seems to know the difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy, or what tax rates and margins are. The only friend I have that doesn’t want to just bitch about the presidential election is a batshit conspiracy theorist. What does that say about me?

I keep pitchin’ em and you keep missin’ em

Nationalism is a logical consequence to globalization. It is the result of the failure of politics to control corporate power, or possibly the corruption of politics via money by corporate interests. It’s what happens when people lose faith in institutions. Sure there is a racist/anti-immigration component to nationalism, but there is an equal, or possibly greater component that is economic. What you end up with is a population that is mad at the globe and wants to retreat inward.

Speaking of race and nationalism, modern white supremacists want to be judged and attacked for their beliefs, especially by other whites, because it plays into their whole “white genocide” narrative. It’s the exact same tactic employed by ISIS and the Westboro Baptist Church. ISIS wants the west to crack down on moderate Muslims because it empowers their “the west wants to destroy all of Islam” rhetoric. Westboro is a family of lawyers posing as radicals. They want people to assault them at their protests so that they can file lawsuits and collect settlements. Martyrdom is the endgame, and if you engage them, they win. They’re gonna get mileage off it, so you have to get even more.

What’s worse is that my liberal friends are calling for bans on this kind of speech. Hate speech in all forms is bullshit, but that’s not the point. The point is that awful speech is a kind of canary in the coal mine. It’s the way that you prove to the world that you are willing to stand up for all other (i.e. the important) forms of free speech. If you call for a ban on hate speech, how do you plan on enforcing it? The federal government? How will you keep that ban from silencing the people who need to speak the most? Bans by government at any level *WILL* be used against activists and protesters. Any move a government body makes against the Alt-Right *WILL* harm Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Occupy, and every other group that liberals think is cool. I have been called a “free speech apologist” by a liberal friend for pointing this out.

On the Conservative side, my friends don’t seem to understand the pernicious nature of authoritarianism. The shock doctrine is where authoritarian governments and leaders use crises to justify the maneuvers they make to restrict the rights of the people they govern. The neocons did this during the Bush administration after 9/11. That’s not a conspiracy, the PATRIOT act was a direct result. The intelligence apparat did the same thing during the Obama administration in response to various insurgencies in the Middle East following the Arab Spring.

Most liberals were quick to criticize Bush for letting the intelligence community build its mass surveillance apparatus, but they were curiously silent about Obama letting the intel community expand it and then equip it with murder drones. It’s not about the politics, it’s about the intel community and the industries that support it forming a kind of ‘deep state’ (I hate using that term) that’s immune to partisanship. The country swings from red to blue and back to red, but the Intel Community Apparatchiks gain more power with each cycle. Oh, and the American people are silently complicit. As Trump clashes with the Intel Apparat, liberals support the Apparat, as if they have forgotten about all the kidnapping and torture that has happened in the past. At this point, throwing shade at any president means that 50% of the time, I’m the bad guy every time.

Speaking of governmental overreach, my conservative friends are just as delusional as my liberal friends. A few of them seem to think that this is still 1776 and that they can fight *whomever* on equal footing. This is a willful disregard of modern military doctrine. A force multiplier is a technology or tactic that improves the combat effectiveness of a weapon, a soldier, or military unit. Satellite communications, navigation, advanced optics, and close air support are examples of force multipliers. It’s the tactical support that makes special operations so special, not beards and MOLLE gear. Don’t get me wrong, those operators are total badasses, but behind each badass operator on the ground there are dozens of people, millions of dollars in communications equipment, and thousands of man hours of intelligence gathering. You may be shit-hot at Call Of Duty, but you can’t call in an airstrike in the real world.

Because of this worship/obsession with special operations, a kind of cargo cult has formed around guns and gun culture as a result; a certain group of people think that carrying military-style equipment and weapons makes them one of these heroic badass operators fending off a mythical Golden Horde. AR-15’s, beards and vests don’t make you a badass, years of training and access to orbital technology does.

I have written elsewhere about geardos: non-military people, usually right wingers of some kind, who are obessed with military equipment. I can admit to making use of the modularity of MOLLE gear for carrying electronic equipment, so maybe I am more sensitive to this phenomenon than others. Also, I was in the Army in the mid 90’s and MOLLE gear is way more useful than the shitty Vietnam-era ALICE gear that I had to use. There are three basic types of geardos: 1) the 2nd amendment gun nut types, 2) doomsday preppers and survivalists, and 3) people who fantasize about the zombie apocalypse. There is a weird connection between all 3 types; in one form or another they all share this kind of male power fantasy about the proverbial shit hitting the fan. The point here is that once you remove the racist/right-wing fantasy, what remains is still fantasy.

So when some NRA gun-nut talks about using his god-given right to semi-automatics to “Don’t Tread On Me” against tyranny, don’t believe it for a second. The 2nd Amendment is real, and written into the constitution, so it’s not going anywhere. That doesn’t make it a hedge against tyranny. At all. If the culture wars blossom into a full blown civil war, the military will be the deciding factor, not the geardos. Whichever side the military backs will be the winning side in very short order. You could put the entire state of Kentucky, National Guard included, up against the First Infantry Division, and my money would still be on the Big Red One. The NRA knows this, which is why their thinly veiled threats are directed specifically at journalists and not at the left in general.

My side, your side, their side, we don’t know.

What I see around me is that the machinery of the western world is grinding to a halt, and I see a militarist/imperialist/plutocratic caste that is doing steadily crazier and crazier shit to keep the machines running. Meanwhile, everyone I know is arguing over what color we should have painted the machines last year. They are -Every. Single. One.- oblivious to the fact that the machine broke down like 20 years ago.

If all they did was argue about machine painting, that might be understandable, but that is not the case. They are so dug so deep into their paint-the-machines factions that they don’t see that they have basically switched places with each other. The memes and bumper stickers that rail against Trump are basically the same ones that railed against Obama. “Obama is a Socialist” has been replaced with “Trump is a Nazi”. One side looked stupid when they did it, and now the other side looks equally stupid. Again, it’s not about the politics, it’s about the blindness to the situation.

Both sides use the same hateful condescending language. Liberals have become the new bible thumpers. “Trump Supporter” carries the same vitriol as the word “libtard”. Saving the world from institutional bigotry is great, but the tools that they use are the same right-wing fundie bullshit: judgement and self-righteousness.

If you are a liberal and you are sick of conservatives clutching their pearls in judgement of your secular hedonistic lifestyle, you don’t respond by clutching your own pearls in judgement of their microaggressions. When my liberal friends attempt to deploy guilt and shame to enforce their world view, I want to scream “WHAT ARE YOU A FUCKING CATHOLIC?”

What it’s like listening to all of this

I can’t help but feel like Arthur Dent in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”. I feel like the last sane person in a world that has gone mad.

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“What?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happenned to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
“But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.
“Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

It’s the Economy, stupid.

The thing that bugs me the most is that both sides seem to be arguing petty cultural bullshit while corporations seize power hand over fist. Liberals and conservatives call for economic reforms without having a concept of basic economic principles.

For example, the difference between revenue and income. Revenue is simply a measure of the money that comes to you, income is a measure of what’s yours to keep. Most people think about their personal income with regard to income taxes, but to the government, income is a different animal. For corporations, income is a much bigger deal.

The issue I see a lot of people discussing is raising and lowering taxes with no real understanding of the difference between rates and margins. The tax rate is the amount that you are supposed to pay, the margin is the amount of your income and holdings that you actually hand over to the government. You can lobby all you want to increase the rate, and if by some miracle you succeed it won’t make much difference because corporations don’t cheat on their rates, they cheat on their margins. You could double the tax rates on the rich and you might see a slight increase in tax *revenue*, but the government would likely end up with less tax *income*.

A better approach, in my opinion would be to adopt a flat tax, where everyone pays the exact same rate, and there are absolutely no deductions. The actual rate could lower, say to 10%, and if you close all of the loopholes for bonuses, losses (real or fictitious), and the like, the government’s tax income could increase significantly. It would also put an end to all of those tax haven schemes that are said to be hiding several trillion dollars (See the Mark Blythe video above). So, stop arguing for raising or lowering taxes. Argue for the 1% to actually pay their goddamn taxes.

The same is true for fiscal policy and monetary policy. Fiscal policy has to do with how the government spends money. Monetary policy is how the fed controls the money supply through interest rates. The two really don’t have much to do with one another, other than they sort of come into play at similar times. Low interest rates are supposed to spur borrowing, but they also discourage saving. Interest rates have gone about as low as they can, so not much else can be done by the fed to stimulate the economy. It’s up to the government to do the rest.

This is where the complexity comes into play. I have ranted about this before, so I will do what I can to not duplicate the issue here. I am frustrated by the discussions that I see because the left and the right are arguing based on two narratives that don’t tell the whole story. Basically, engineering an economy always has unforeseen consequences. Not engineering an economy always has predictable consequences. The New Deal was probably the most ambitious attempt at engineering an economy, followed by the Clinton and Blair administrations’ campaigns to deregulate the economy in the late 90’s. Both maneuvers are what put us in the state that we are in now. It’s impossible to get it right, but that’s not the point. The point is that neither narrative (pro-economic-engineering or anti-economic-engineering) captures the complexities of a national or global economy. Economies are made up of individuals, who may or may not act rationally, and may or may not act in their own self interest. Trying to create stability within these large and complex systems is foolish and will ultimately lead to nonpolitical forces seizing power. Non-political forces do not have to answer to voters, which is undermining people’s liberty and will continue to undermine the social contract.

This is what I mean by the machinery of The West grinding to a halt. The machine isn’t doing what anyone wants, and so everyone keeps adding and removing gears, rather than taking a look at the overall design and looking at making a fundamental change. Not just the economy, not just the political system, but to pretty much everything. This is where I should get on my soapbox about a movement based on post-Internet ideas and technologies to give the power back to the people, but I just don’t have it in me.

I hate separating hackers based on morality.

mr-robot-addressI have given a few talks recently to non-hacker audiences. In so doing, I learned that even at it’s most basic level, the idea of what hacking is, is kind of lost on “normal people.” The “Wanna Cry” malware couldn’t have better illustrated the things I was trying to teach.

It’s not that normies aren’t capable of understanding, it’s that they have been given the wrong information  by the government, the media, and popular culture for years. There is this fairly lame idea of hackers following  this sort of monochromatic gradient matching that of the old-west: the good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black hats, and there is a spectrum of moralities in between. There are legitimate ethics that guide hackers, they just aren’t the kinds that you hear about in movies and on TV:

  1. The Sharing Imperative – Hacking is a gift economy. You get tools, knowledge and code for free, so you have to share what you have learned to keep growing the pool.
  2. The Hands-On Imperative – Just like “real” science, you have to learn by doing. Take things apart, break them even, and learn how they work. Use that knowledge to create interesting things.
  3. The Community Imperative – Communities (geographic, philosophical, etc.) are how it gets done. Crews, clubs, chat rooms, hackerspaces, conferences, email lists, are all places for n00bs to ask questions and get flamed, and for l33ts to hold court.

Monochromatic Morality
heckermanThe typical whitehat is a security researcher, penetration tester, or security consultant that only hacks the computers and networks that they have permission to hack. This can either be a lab environment built for research, a client who has retained security services, or an employer who has granted express permission. Whitehats then disclose their findings. This disclosure may be for the benefit of a client or an employer, or it may be to benefit the public. The key differentiator is that the whitehat gets permission and then shares their discovery for the benefit of others.

The typical blackhat is a generally considered to be a criminal. They hack systems that do not belong to them and then do not disclose their findings. The exploits that they discover are hoarded and stockpiled for their benefit alone. The key differentiator is that blackhats do not seek permission, they do not disclose their findings, and they hack for personal benefit.

The gray areas have to do with the degree to which a hacker has permission, discloses their findings, and how they profit from their activities. Whitehats have “real” jobs and share everything, blackhats don’t have jobs and therefore hack for money. A typical grayhat might hack systems that don’t belong to them but then anonymously share their findings, or they might develop their exploits in a lab, but then sell those exploits rather than disclosing them.

In my professional life, I routinely employ hacking tools for the benefit of my employer, whether it’s scanning networks to troubleshoot problems, or cracking passwords to help users who have lost access to their computers. In previous jobs, I have exfiltrated research data from one network to another at the request of the data’s owner. While I don’t always have my employer’s explicit permission to do what I do, they hired me to fix problems for their users, so I do what it takes. The things that I learn, I then share and teach to others, whether that’s talks at conferences or Cinci2600 meetings, or posts on this blog. I have no idea where that falls in the white/gray spectrum.

Chromatic Pragmatism
red_vs_blueInstead of black and white, I prefer to look at hacking from a red vs. blue perspective. Regardless of your moral compass (or that of your employer), you are either on the offensive end which is the red team or the defensive end, which is blue team.

Teams are better terms to think in because hacking is a social activity. You may or may not be physically alone, but you are always learning from others. You read docs and code, you try stuff, you get stuck, you look up answers and ultimately ask someone for help. The idea of hackers as introverted smart kids living in their mom’s basements isn’t nearly as accurate as TV would have you believe.

Regardless of the reason why you are hacking a computer or a network, you are either the attacker or the defender. You are either probing defenses looking for  a way in, or you are hardening defenses to keep others out. You can further divide these activities into application vs. network security, but at that point the discussion is more about tools.

Thinking about hacking in terms of offense and defense takes away all the politics, business, and patriotism of your red and blue teams. If you are a red teamer, backed by your country’s military, you might be doing black hat stuff for a “good” cause. You might be a blue teamer working for organized crime syndicate, doing white hat stuff for “bad” people. You might be a whistleblower or a journalist, exposing bad acts by a government.

Wanna Cry: with the good comes the bad, with the bad comes the good
The Wanna Cry debacle is interesting because of its timing, its origin, its disclosure, and its impact.

Its timing is interesting because nation-state political hacking is like half of all discussions when it comes to the Presidential election. It’s origin is interesting because the tools in the leaked sample appear to come from the NSA. The leak comes from a group known as “Shadow Brokers.” They said they would auction the rest for a large sum of money. The disclosure is interesting because the first release is a free sample to prove the quality of the goods they intend to auction.

The zero-day exploit exposed by the leaked tools was then used to implement a large scale ransomware attack that severely affected systems in Europe and the UK. A researcher was able to locate a call in the ransomware to deactivate the malware, which stopped the attack dead in its tracks. There are lots of theories about this strange turn of events, but my personal theory is that the ransomware campaign was a warning shot. Possibly to prove out a concept, possibly to urge everyone to patch against the vulnerability.

The idea that NSA tools were compromised, and disclosed by a criminal organization, turns the whole black hat/white hat thing on its head. The NSA was hoarding exploits and not disclosing them, which is total black hat move. Shadow Brokers exposed the tools, prompting a widespread campaign to fix a number of vulnerabilities, which is a total white hat move. So you have a government agency, a “good guy”, doing bad things, and a criminal organization, a “bad guy”, doing white had things.

If you want to talk about the specifics of the hack, the NSA’s blue team didn’t do it’s job, and the Shadow Brokers’ red team ate their lunch. The blue team’s principle was a server where attacks were either launched or controlled. This server was the red team’s target. It’s a pretty epic win for the red team because the NSA is a very advanced hacking group, possibly the best in the world.

The Nature of Freedom

A few cultural events have caused me to think a lot about freedom lately. Of course our new Presidential administration has had an effect, but also some films, television programs, and documentaries. Also, I have been assisting my local political community and the results are pretty depressing.

One film that I saw was “Arrival“. It is based on a short story called “The Story Of Your Life” which goes into more philosophical detail than the film, and centers on the idea of free will. The aliens in the film can see time in a planar rather than linear fashion. Because of that, they have no concept of free will. Knowing what is coming leaves them with no choice but to play their parts to contribute to the known outcome. Speaking to others isn’t so much an exchange of ideas as it is a declaration or codification of events, like announcing a winner, or pronouncing someone dead. Reading the story left me feeling that I had broken my brain in some fundamental way.

Not long after that, I started watching “Westworld“. The hosts in West World are driven by code which is interpreted by their central processing units. Because they store memories digitally, they don’t remember things, and instead reload (relive) them. As a mercy to the hosts, their memories are erased on a regular basis. Something within the code that governs the hosts causes them to start remembering and all hell breaks loose. Again this idea, while fictional, made me think about the nature of freedom.

The idea of reality as a lived experience, the cognitive lens that we see the world through, is based on recollection of previous experiences. Our human memories are not perfect; we cannot retrieve bit-for-bit copies of stored data the way that a computer can. We cannot go back and relive an experience the way that a host from Westworld can. As we experience something, it is colored by a complex mix of emotions and bias. These imperfect and colorized recollections then shape how we experience new things. These new experiences, perceived through our flawed cognition, are then stored using that same flawed mechanism, making it even more flawed. As humans age and grow, their cognition becomes a kind of degenerative corruption of observation. Your lived experience might actually just be shitty encoding.

As I watched these works of fiction, I have also begun to listen to intellectuals dissect the ideas of freedom. I watched a series of documentary films by Adam Curtis. The idea of this series, is that efforts have been made to reduce the idea of humanity into self-serving automata. This numeric representation of humans relies on a kind of rational strategy that guides us. The problem with this simplified view of course is that it ignores the shitty encoding that guides human decision making.

The documentary series points out the use of Zero Sum Game Theory in modern political, economic, and even biological research. This cynical approach led to the dissolution of the idea of human individuality and the rise of popular psychology which uses drugs to manage human behavior. Oversimplification of human behavior leads to a kind of segregation based on small sets of variables, rather than meritocracy. The result is the corporate-run caste system that we have today. More importantly there are two varieties of freedom: one of struggle and coercion based on violent radicalism, and one of meaningless consumerism. Meaningless consumerism is how The West operates without violent revolution; people are free to do whatever they want, so long as all they want to do is watch TV and buy things.

This my issue with the western idea of freedom. It is a comfortable existence; it’s largely devoid of bloodshed, but it is also largely devoid of meaning. Buying new things – says the guy with 4 laptops – isn’t making yourself any happier. Watching TV – says the guy who came to this conclusion by watching movies and TV – doesn’t help you to improve yourself. Being a radical freedom fighter isn’t the alternative, and it’s not like you can bring down corporatism in a bloodless and market-friendly manner. What you can do, however, is diversify. Instead of using violence to coerce others into your idea of freedom, I think that you can build communities around ideas other than meaningless conformity and draconian order. Organizing into communities is the start, but you have to go much further.

Paradoxically (or perhaps ironically), I criticize the tendency for governments and corporations to reduce humanity into numerical figures, yet I cannot help but to see political and economic systems as complex networks. I am an avid proponent of peer-to-peer networking, of decentralization, and the mistrust of authority. In a peer-to-peer network, there are no clients and servers, there are only nodes. The power of the Internet is not that it connects nodes, but that it connects networks of nodes. We, as individuals, have to organize ourselves into networks that pursue and produce meaningful things. Individuality is important, but agency may actually be more important. Having freedoms that you do not make use of is pretty much the same as not having freedoms to begin with. If you are a corporate-run fascist state, it’s probably a better for you if your subjects ignore their freedoms. Convincing them to do that might be part of your game plan.

This is the idea that I am moving around in my mind. What is freedom? Do we in The West actually have it? Did we lose it or did we give it away? The thought process is similar to the Orwell vs. Huxley debate, but I think it goes further because it should take into account human tendencies. Huxley kind of does with his societal focus, but Orwell does not because he is more focused on politics. My concern is with more essential things, like the nature of cognition, the nature of free will, and the nature of humanity.

Windows Hyper-V Manager is Stupid

I spend many hours at work in the middle of the night. Sometimes I work on my own things by connecting to my gear at home. I call this telecommuting in reverse. In order to facilitate my reverse telecommute, I use a couple of machines, one Linux box I call Hub, for OpenVPN, SSH, and NeoRouter, and one Windows machine I call Portal, for Teamviewer, Remote Desktop, and to run my DNS hosts Windows-only dynamic DNS client. Hub died, and so I figured I would run the two machines on one box via XenServer or Virtualbox. It turns out that the hardware for Portal doesn’t do Linux very well. So I decided to take a run at virtualization with Hyper-V. Hyper-V Server 2012 R2 lets you evaluate the product indefinitely, so I thought that would be a good place to start.

After downloading the ISO, which is hard to locate on the MS TechNet site, I burned it to disk and wiped Portal and loaded Hyper-V Server and configured a static IP for it. This isn’t a high end box, it’s a dual core AMD with 8gb of ram. It’s fine for using Windows 7 as a springboard to get into my home network. I just want to spin up a couple of low end Linux boxes and a Windows machine. The sconfig.cmd tool is fine for the basics of setting up the box, but since I am not much of a powershell guy, I wanted to use the Hyper-V manager on another workstation. I was trying to do this without having to pirate anything, and it turned out to be a complete waste of time.

Hyper-V Manager and the Hyper-V Server that it can manage is basically a matched set. You can use the manager on Windows 7 to connect to Hyper-V on Server 2008 and earlier. You can’t really use Win7 or Win10 to manage 2012 R2. So, I basically have to either pirate Server 2008, pirate Win8.1, or pirate Server 2016. Or, I can just use a ProHVM, a third party tool from a Swedish company that seems to have been invented specifically because Hyper-V Manager is the worst.

Even with ProHVM, it’s not all champagne and roses. Accessing the console of a VM causes wonky keyboard performance. This is mildly frustrating, so I recommend using a mouse as much as possible for configuration of a VM. The only real showstopper is logging in to a Linux box with no GUI. Having only 50% of your keystrokes register makes logging into the console completely impossible because you don’t see the *** to let you know which character you are on.

My workaround for Debian VMs is to not set a root password, which forces Debian to disable root in favor of sudo, like Ubuntu. Then you set a very short password for your user account (like 12345, same as the combination to my luggage) and make certain that you set up an SSH server during setup. Then you can SSH to the box and use the ‘passwd’ command to reset the password to something more secure. Then you can configure SSH keys for your logins.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you need to do virtualization on Windows, and you are deeply invested in the idea of using 2012 R2, don’t bother with Hyper-V manager. Instead, download ProHVM, and then use ProHVM as little as possible. It’s free for non-commercial use and you can build new VMs and all that stuff that you *should* be able to use Hyper-V Manager for.

The Nintendo Switch, or how I learned to stop worrying and learned to love buying consoles

The Nintendo Switch is out and I am pretty pumped about it. I haven’t purchased one yet, so my exuberance may wane a bit once I do.

My preference for video gaming systems is much like my political affiliation: I pretty much hate everything.

I love video games, but I am normally not fond of video gamers. As a community, the toxicity is palpable, so the online experience just isn’t a factor for me. I prefer to play video games with people that I know in the real world, so for me the Playstation and the XBox are roughly equal, and the Nintendo has a real advantage over the others.

In my mind, Nintendo is a completely different category of gaming from the PC, XBox, or Playstation. In time, I usually end up with all 4 systems. I just usually wait for a few years to pick up the current PS or XBox. As of this writing, I still don’t have an XBone or PS4 and I am thinking about skipping them. Sure there are exclusives that I could be missing, but honestly, I don’t really care. I still play tons of Skyrim, so I am not really missing much.

The reason that I think of Nintendo as a wholly different platform than all others is that the Nintendo pushes the envelope for hardware, not necessarily for video games. Sure, they have a roster of characters, and a few franchises that you can bank on for release on new platforms. The craziest example has to be controlling a game with bongos.

While bongos were probably the riskiest idea, the Wii had to be the most successful. The idea of using movement to interact with a game was duplicated by every other console. The Wii U added the ability to use the tablet to play “real” console games that ran on another machine, essentially ushering in the idea of streaming games. The nVidia shield and it’s various competitors owe Nintendo for introducing the concept to the living room. Now Nintendo is taking its act on the freeway?

I know it’s easy to dismiss the Nintendo as gimmicky, and targeted at kids. I play a fair amount of Nintendo games with my kids. A common Friday night activity at our house for the two older kids was popping a bunch of popcorn and the whole family playing Mario Party or Mario Kart. Now I am looking forward to the day when we can do the same with the two little ones. Just because the stable of characters is popular with kids doesn’t mean that it’s not a serious platform. Nintendo’s decision to make the tablet the center of the gaming experience is an interesting one. I am eager to see the long term effects it has on gaming and computing.

I can’t praise Nintendo’s bold visions without also talking about Microsoft’s lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, I like the XBox, it’s well executed and represents the height of console gaming design. The MS vision is many things, but it is not bold. MS seems to prefer taking known entities and perfecting them, much like Apple does with mobile phones. Playing shooters or fighting games on the XBox is great, but the price point for that experience is extreme. The XBone is still around $250 even though it’s pushing 4 years in age and an upgrade is on the horizon.

Cub Linux as a kid’s computer

zoey_compOne of the things that my daughter wanted for Christmas was to be able to play some of the web games she’s seen on TV. I have a strict policy about not letting anyone touch any of my computers, so I rehabilitated an old HTPC for her to use.

The PC portion was mostly incidental; her main gift was her cool keyboard, cool mouse, awesome Pepa Pig headphones, and of course, her game subscription.

The donor PC was an old Intel Atom box with 2gb of RAM. This basically made Windows impossible. I toyed with the idea of using Lubuntu, but then I came across Cub Linux. It’s basically a lightweight version of Linux that boots to the Chromium browser. It’s like an [more] open source version of Chrome OS.

Getting the machine setup was fairly straight forward. I set it to auto-login and to go to sleep after a half hour. She knows how to turn the monitor off, that’s good enough for a 4 year old. I also installed VNC media player so she can watch cartoons that I have downloaded for her.

I almost always install Samba on Linux machines because it makes it easy to move files from Windows. The process is documented fairly well here. I just shared out the home directory like before so I could put videos in the Videos folder.

old_linux_screenieOne problem with kids’ computers, especially for kids that are learning to use a computer while also learning to read, is that they need constant assistance. I use SSH for the low level operating system stuff, but a lot of it is just her not yet knowing what to do when something pops up on the screen. So I decided to share the desktop so I didn’t have to get up and walk over to the PC just to click OK or type in a password. One of the best tools for remote access to a Linux desktop is VNC.

VNC is a technology that I have been using off and on for years. I even used it on Windows in the NT and Win2K days before RDP basically obsoleted it. Every now and then VNC comes in super handy.

There are a number of ways to set up VNC, and a number of packages that deliver its functionality. Basically, you can run multiple X Window servers that let multiple users have graphical desktops at the same time. It can be super confusing for Windows users, so bear with me. Unix is multi-user. It’s meant to be used by multiple people at the same time. These users may be sitting at one or more physical consoles, virtual consoles, or remote shells. VNC is one way to get a graphical (window that you click with a mouse) console remotely on a system. You start a VNCserver on a given display x (:1, :2, :3. etc.) and then connect a VNC client to it on TCP port 509x (5091 for :1, 5092 for :2). Multiple users can run multiple servers and launch pretty much any number of graphical shells.

octopod_screenieVNC is awesome, but a kid computer is seriously single user. What I need is to be able to pull up her Linux desktop on my [often] Windows desktop, without any intervention from her, and without getting up from my desk. She is still learning to use a computer, so I want to demonstrate things on her screen. Not getting up from my desk is important because she needs assistance fairly often. Also, I happen to be a lazy slug.

Fortunately, there is a tool for doing this known as X11VNC. The key difference for X11VNC is that it shares the physical console display, :0, which is the display of the user sitting at the keyboard. This is ideal because when I connect to her computer, I see what she’s seeing, and either of us can type or move the mouse.

To set up X11VNC, I first had to get the software installed from repos:
sudo apt-get install x11vnc

After you’ve installed it, you want to create a remote access password and then edit the config to start at boot. I use the same password for the remote session that I use to log into the user account. Thanks to the auto login, no one but me should ever have to type it in.
sudo x11vnc –storepasswd /root/.vnc/passwd
sudo nano /etc/init/x11vnc.conf

Then paste this into the editor:

# description "Start x11vnc on system boot"

description "x11vnc"

start on runlevel [2345]
stop on runlevel [^2345]

console log

respawn
respawn limit 20 5

exec /usr/bin/x11vnc -auth guess -forever -loop -noxdamage -repeat -rfbauth /root/.vnc/passwd -rfbport 5900 -shared


Then you can use any VNC Viewer to access the desktop remotely by entering the IP for the computer. My personal favorite viewer is tight-vnc.

With the remote access portion set up, I am now able to help her with her computer without getting up from mine. She has discovered that we can both type on the same computer at the same time, so a game has emerged. One of us types in a text editor and the other tries to delete what the other has written. It’s a race to either type or delete gibberish and she laughs like a maniac when we play it.

The problem with everything is central control

I have been reading postmortems on the election, and it basically came down to a failure of media and political elites to get a read on the voting public. Basically, a small number of very powerful intellectuals operated in a kind of silo of information.

All the stuff I have read and watched about the 2008 financial meltdown comes down to a failure of large banks. A small number of very powerful banks, operated in a kind of silo of finance.

This country is a mess because of centralized control and centralized culture. It’s a mess because of intellectual laziness and emotional cowardice. It’s a mess because we rely on crumbling institutions to help us.

Centralizing seems natural and logical. There is an idea in economics called the economy of scale. Basically, a big operation (a firm, a factory, a project) has better purchasing power and is able to spread fixed costs over large numbers of units. In network topology, the Star Model is the simplest to manage, putting all the resources at the center. I tend to think about economics and computer networks as kind of similar.

One of the primary criticisms of the Star Network is the single point of failure. If the center of the network has any sort of problem, the whole network suffers. This is also a problem with economies of scale. A lot of electronic component manufacturing is centralized in Taiwan, in 1999 an earthquake caused a worldwide shortage of computer memory. It seems that any time there is bad weather in New York City, flights are delayed across all of North America. In 2008, trouble with undersea fiber cables caused widespread Internet connectivity problems throughout Asia. A lack of biodiversity in potato crops contributed to the Irish Potato Famine. Centralized control is prone to failure.

This isn’t just a business or a technology problem. It can also be a cultural problem. Centralizing stores of information leads to gatekeeping, where a point of distribution controls the access and dissemination of information. This may be for financial gain, in the case of television and cinema, or it may be for political gain, in the case of the White house press corps. Media outlets repeating what the white house said, and the white house using media reports to support its assertions is how the us ended up invading Iraq under false pretenses.

The diametric opposite of the Star Network is the Mesh network, specifically the Peer-To-Peer network. These models eschew ideas of economy and control in favor of resilience and scalability. Economy of scale eliminates redundancies because they are expensive. Peer-to-peer embraces redundancies because they are resilient.

Embracing peer-to-peer from a cultural standpoint means embracing individuality and diversity. Not just in a left-wing identity politics sort of way, but in a Victorian class struggle kind of way. It means eschewing the gatekeeper-esque ideas of mono-culture in favor of cultural and social diversity. Peer-to-peer culture is messy. It’s full of conflicts and rehashed arguments. It’s not a “safe space” where people of similar mindsets never encounter dissent. It’s a constant barrage of respectful and learning argument.

The cultural division in this country is a failure of our core values. It’s a failure of the right’s anti-intellectualism, and it’s a failure of the left’s elitism. It’s faith by many in crumbling institutions that are out of touch. It’s a failure of corporate media that forces us to turn to our social networks for news that discourages discussion and only seeks to confirm our individual biases.

I’ll be writing more about this opinion (and make no mistake, it’s just an opinion) in future posts. Hopefully it will foster some of the discussion that I am seeking.

Election Got You Down? GOOD.

farnsworth_presidentMy social media feeds are physically dripping with existential angst about the Presidential election. My conservative friends were losing their shit over either Hillary and her lies, or the fact that Trump is leading their party off a cliff. My liberal friends were salty about Bernie getting the shaft from the DNC. There was a lot of talk about the lesser of two evils.

I have been making my saving throw against angst-filled rants, until now. Everyone I know is in some sort of funk over the election, and I’m just sitting here like “Welcome to my world. You’re stuck here until January, but look on the bright side: AT LEAST YOU DON’T LIVE HERE.”

For me, there was never a good choice. The whole election was like a shit sandwich and the whole country spent like two years arguing over which end to bite into. It never occurred to anyone to question why the sandwich was full of shit. This “None Of The Above” view of American politics is pretty much where I live my life. I hate at least half of the liberal platform, and at least half of the conservative platform. This doesn’t make me a moderate, it makes me a political misfit.

I was pretty well braced for disillusion. I voted for Obama, and watched him pivot from promises of government transparency and closing Git-mo, to a growth of the surveillance state. I like gay marriage and healthcare, don’t get me wrong. Those were good things that I could get behind. I just *really* hated Bush’s illegal spying; Obama campaigned against it but then turned around and made it bigger. *Then* he equipped it with assassination drones. Maybe it wasn’t Obama who did it personally, but he was supposed to be steering the ship. It happened on his watch and even if he didn’t make it happen, he certainly failed to stop it. Maybe Bush did the same thing and he wasn’t such a bad guy after all?

I was *this* close to making a protest vote for either Stein or Johnson, but my principles gave way to my self-preservation instinct and I grudgingly voted for Clinton. I am mad that Trump won because I feel like I got robbed of my statement. I felt pretty dirty voting for her, and then she had the audacity to lose. The world-as-we-knew-it was wrong about her being the presumptive nominee and now I can’t smugly say “Don’t blame me, I voted for… Stein? I guess?”

My politics can be summed up in two basic talking points: I hate cops and I hate corporations. I am a firm believer in social progress and a limited federal government that actually does it’s fucking job. There are too many laws, too many jails, and too much of that enriches corporations at the expense of people’s civil liberties. Too much of that corporate enrichment happens at the expense of people of color. Also there are not enough independent media companies, banks, and telecoms to serve those that big corporations ignore. I don’t know if I dislike capitalism, or just the corporatism that we practice all over the world. Maybe well-executed capitalism is like well-executed socialism and only exists in the fantasies of economists and political scientists. I don’t really care, I’d rather focus on the sharing economy. I do know for certain that The Social Contract isn’t socialism. It’s the consideration of the governed for allowing governors.

hillary_memeA sick part of me wanted Trump to win. Not the actual me, just that little crazy part that envisions the car crashing when you have to slam on your brakes suddenly. You know, that crazy death-wish part, that kind of fantasizes about the zombie apocalypse that your rational mind is always telling to shut up.

Any way, I wanted very badly to say “Look, if I vote for her, can you all just promise to work to make things better?”

Well, now it’s time to work on making it better. The thing that I want to work on is not political parties and why they all suck. I am done with believing in elections for Democrats and Republicans. I’m still gonna vote, I just won’t invest in the idea of elections producing results that I want. I’d rather invest that energy into writing about something else.

That something else is basically doing away with our country’s reliance on central authority. I think we should have a government, I just think it shouldn’t be such a big factor in our lives and our culture. I think we should have a mass media, but it should be free from corporate influence and cartel ownership. I think we should see America for what it is: a great nation that was exceptional, but is capable of decadence and corruption, just like any other country.