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:

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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.

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.

Election Year Economics Are Stupid

I am no economist, but elections aren’t about economics, they are about rhetoric, which I know a little bit about. Political rhetoric is about narratives. In an election year, the narrative of fiscal policy is about reinterpreting the basic principles of macroeconomics in order to garner votes. The problem, as I see it, is that these narratives, these talking points, are passed off as solid leadership. All politicians lie, but this is different. These are carefully crafted messages that people follow. Messages that people believe.

Both liberals and conservatives are establishing the same narrative: that their side has all of the answers, and the other side is ignorantly wrecking the country. Both sides do this, make no mistake. This is why I don’t care for either. It doesn’t matter which side you fall on politically. If you give that premise one ounce of rational thought, you can see that that idea is -in a word- stupid. Why would a group, backed [presumably] by half the country, back a plan that would doom the very nation that they want to control? This isn’t about good vs. evil, or smart vs. stupid. This is about two essential pieces of a natural process: the need for business to make profits, and the need for a social safety net. Not only are these great ideas, they are also essential components of a healthy economy. They may actually help each other in the process: good social safety nets could mean more freedom for businesses.

Conservatives are pushing tax cuts at every turn in order to stimulate private industry. Liberals are looking to implement government programs to help people that they believe are being ignored by private industry. LOL/JK they’re just lining the pockets of their corporate cronies 🙂

Private industry and social stability are both good ideas; there is nothing wrong with either idea. The problem is that both ideas are postured in such a way as to appear mutually exclusive. Tax cuts are inherently plutocratic, while programs to help those who need it are the fast track to communism. This has nothing to do with actual plutocracy or communism and everything to do with political posturing.

Presenting your set of goals, however noble, as superior to those of the other side is deliberately ignoring half of the problems that our nation faces. We face a need for employment, which comes from businesses, and a need for a strong social safety net, which comes from taxes. People need to work so that they can pay taxes. Businesses need to profit so that they can employ workers and pay taxes. What’s more, pitting the interests of business against the interests of the population is at best a waste of already finite resources, and at worst a recipe for societal collapse.

Economies rely on two forces: supply and demand. These forces are often represented in the political narrative as business and consumers. The problem with this narrative is that consumers are also labor. The market is actually made up of two interdependent cycles where businesses and consumers fulfill the roles of supply and demand at various stages. These cycles depend on each other to keep repeating. The people who participate in these processes perform different functions in the cycle. Even if you own a company, you still have to go home and buy things. Even if you earn only minimum wage, you are still selling your time and energy for a wage.

In the graphic above, you can see where businesses and consumers are both buying and selling to each other. There are different markets where consumers supply and businesses demand, only to have the roles reverse. This is a good representation of the interdependence of these two cycles. If you are a business, you are working to turn your resources (raw materials, production capacity, energy) into profits. If you are a consumer, you are looking to turn resources (land, labor and capital) into income. If consumers don’t have income, they can’t buy stuff from businesses and they cannot invest in businesses. If businesses cannot make profits, they cannot make products and employ people. If this balance is upset, no one can pay taxes. Conservatives would have you believe that Americans sacrificing in order to keep private industry going is the way to keep the country going. Liberals would have you believe that government programs financed by corporate taxes will keep the country going. Both parties are right at some point in the economic cycle, and they’re both wrong at the opposite end.

Capitalism works when everyone acts in their own rational self interest. Political rhetoric focuses on “self interest” at the expense of rationality. Election Year Economics is the antithesis of rationality. Pitting consumers against businesses is irrational. Businesses are employers. Employees are customers. If people can’t work, they can’t buy your crap. If you aren’t buying crap, there are no jobs. Expecting the government to care for you is irrational. Subverting the democratic process to avoid taxes is irrational. The politics of fiscal policy is the politics of irrationality.

You see, while markets cycle clockwise and counterclockwise, the economy itself cycles up and down. Things go well, the economy grows, and then it runs out of steam and contracts. This is natural. The contraction not often pleasant, but it is natural. Expansion and contraction is unavoidable. The purpose of the government in this process is not to keep the cycle perpetually expanding. That is impossible, and believing it to be possible is irrational.

The role of government in the business cycle is to even out these natural ups and downs. This is where Monetary Policy should come into effect. It should keep things from expanding out of control, and then soften the blow of recession. The government does this during expansion by limiting the money supply (Federal Reserve conspiracies notwithstanding) and during contraction by providing a social safety net. During times of recession, the government increases spending, cuts taxes, and programs like unemployment benefits and other forms of assistance keep people buying until things pick up again. These are good things that get people votes on both sides.

During times of expansion, however, conflict arises. At the other end of the business cycle, the government needs to control the supply of money to keep the economy from overheating and then crashing. It does this by raising interest rates, raising taxes, and by reducing government spending. Higher interest rates encourage saving and discourage risky investing, lending, and borrowing. Higher taxes create a budget surplus that can later be used for benefits programs. Reduced government spending encourages maximum employment in the private sector and efficient allocation of funds. These are good economic decisions, but they are bad political moves. High taxes and interest rates draw the ire of Wall Street and its conservative votes. Reduced spending affects public institutions and their liberal votes. The goal is for the government should be to create a budget surplus and then use it to jumpstart the economy during downturns. This is politically painful for both the left and the right, and it costs votes. That means no one on either side wants to do it. When you run a business one fiscal quarter at a time, and when you run a nation one election at a time, good fiscal  and monetary policy become a sort of leaky roof problem. You can’t raise the funds you need when everyone is unemployed and broke, but you don’t need social safety nets when everyone is employed.

All-tax-cuts-all-the-time is bad fiscal policy. All-government-spending-all-the-time is also bad fiscal policy. If the government can’t raise funds by taxing, it has to raise them by borrowing (from China!) which is also bad fiscal policy. In this process, we as the electorate have to understand where we are -as a nation- in the economic cycle. I guess this would be a good place for the media or the education system to help the process, but media is a private industry where celeb gossip is more profitable than macroeconomics, and education is a money pit for taxpayers.

Unfortunately, you can’t fit that message on a bumper sticker, and my Facebook feed seems to only have enough attention span for clicktivism.

The FBI asking Apple to Backdoor an iPhone is a Rubicon for Privacy

The US District Court of California has asked Apple to backdoor a locked iPhone for the FBI. This isn’t a request to unlock a single phone, this is a request for Apple to build a tool that lets the FBI circumvent the security on the iPhone… as in basically all iPhones, which will then set a precedent for all smart phones.

“Make no mistake: This is unprecedented, and the situation was deliberately engineered by the FBI and Department of Justice to force a showdown that could define limits our civil rights for generations to come. This is an issue with far-reaching implications well beyond a single phone, a single case, or even Apple itself.”

In case this is your first time reading about why government mandated back doors are a universally bad idea, here is the quick list:

  1. A digital backdoor, much like a real back door, can be used by anyone, not just those authorized to access it. Back doors make excellent targets for criminals, spies, and other bad actors. These things get discovered, and then they get misused. If you are a criminal, and you are looking to steal data, knowing that there is a backdoor in a system lets you focus your cracking efforts.
  2. Encryption is only good when it’s secure. Insecure crypto is worse than useless because it creates a false sense of safety and control. This is why Digital Rights Management technologies never work. No matter how you slice it, a purpose built entry point is a vulnerability. Once you introduce a back door, or a “Golden Key” it invalidates the security (and value) of the entire system (see point 1). An insecure phone just isn’t worth as much as a secure one.
  3. The bad guys you are trying to catch are bad guys. They don’t give a single runny shit about government regulations. This means that the bad guys who use crypto will simply switch to new illegal tools that don’t have back doors. When the SOPA bill threatened to block DNS for sites accused of piracy, tools immediately began to surface that would defeat the blocks, before the bill was even voted on.
  4. In the case of criminals, government mandated back doors would create a market for secure tools. These tools wouldn’t be Made In America like the *iPhone. Back doors would devalue the iPhone (see point 3) and add value to technologies that aren’t made in the US. Meanwhile, Federal Law Enforcement still couldn’t access phones that belong to terrorists. All the damage done by this would be collateral because the only people affected by this mandate would be innocent bystanders.

There are *tons* of other reasons why back doors are bad, but those are the top 4. Cory Doctorow sums the argument against back doors fairly succinctly in an article in The Guardian:

That’s really the argument in a nutshell. Oh, we can talk about whether the danger is as grave as the law enforcement people say it is, point out that only a tiny number of criminal investigations run up against cryptography, and when they do, these investigations always find another way to proceed. We can talk about the fact that a ban in the US or UK wouldn’t stop the “bad guys” from getting perfect crypto from one of the nations that would be able to profit (while US and UK business suffered) by selling these useful tools to all comers. But that’s missing the point: even if every crook was using crypto with perfect operational security, the proposal to back-door everything would still be madness.

The Law Enforcement community declares war on crypto in one form or another once or twice a decade. Every time they do, we as digital citizens need to stand up and say “NO!” They will keep trying, and we have to keep fighting, every time. It really is that important.

*The iPhone isn’t made in America either, but Apple does employ Americans around the country. Russian mobsters or Romanian cyber-criminals presumably don’t employ many Americans.

The Paris attacks and the Intelligence Community’s Renewed Attack On Internet Crypto

There are a number of stories circulating about calls from the intelligence community to backdoor encrypted communications in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks by ISIS. Some of these stories personally blame Edward Snowden for these attacks.

The desire for the powers that be to have access to all means of communications is not new. In fact, government surveillance of telecommunications without a warrant dates back to the telegraph.

Wanting to monitor enemy communications makes sense from a tactical standpoint. Knowing what your enemy is communicating gives you a tremendous advantage on the battlefield. The problem with monitoring everything is that it violates the rights to privacy of literally everyone. That means that in the war on terror, everyone’s 4th  and 5th Amendment rights are collateral damage.nsa_taoSignals Intelligence is important, make no mistake. It can also be a boondoggle. Like computer forensics, intelligence offers you a tremendous number of tools that you can employ to gather all manner of information, but if you are looking in the wrong place, you can end up allocating a lot of resources and end up with not much in terms of useful or actionable information. Case in point, the East German Stasi who spied on so many of its own citizens and missed the warning signs that the Berlin Wall was going to come down.

One notable bit of info from these stories is that there could be some sort of ISIS help desk available 24×7 to assist with subverting American surveillance, which I think is pretty funny. It conjures to my mind the image of a young jihadist wearing a headset and being yelled at by a heavily armed cleric who is insisting that “I don’t need to turn it off and on again!” Finally there is a tech support job that must suck even more than working for doctors 🙂