I first learned about Jason Stanley when he appeared on the “Deconstructed” podcast. On that podcast (from 3 years ago) he was pretty coy about calling Trump a Fascist. There are other elements at play now in our society besides Trumpism, such as Christian Nationalism (or as I like to call them, Nat-C’s). Anyway, this is how Fascism works, and I am pretty sure it fully manifested about 2 years ago.
I did my best in a previous rant to point out the [possibly malicious] polarization of the national conversation. I tried to express my concern over the simplification of complex ideas into rhetorically convenient narratives. Unfortunately, my self-righteousness got the better of me and I don’t think I quite captured that the heart of the issue is a reduction of ideas. This essay really captures the issue for me without needing to watch 3 hours of Adam Curtis documentaries to achieve understanding. In essence, the essay likens the focus by Western Society on [predatory] exponential financial gain to the mutation of cells into a form of cancer:
Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they don’t belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.
Reducing the American experiment down to unfettered corporate growth is a gross reduction of ideas. Reducing ideas essentially reduces people. Reducing humanity down to statistics is dangerous because it eliminates most, if not all, of the complexity that makes humanity so different from everything else. I did a fair amount of whining about the hypocrisy of our polarized media landscape without talking about how absurd it is to reduce people down to being cogs in a machine. I have touched on this idea in the past pondering the nature of freedom. This reduction is absurd because the idea of advancing one ideology (which is really just a subset of human struggle) at the expense of another ideology (which is itself another subset of human struggle) is basically pitting half of society against the other half, while deliberately ignoring everything that they have in common.
Rejecting absurdity means embracing irreconcilable ideas
Much like the geardo cargo cult that worships gun culture, there is another cargo cult that worships technology. Much like the cult of the gun that has no real concept of military doctrine, the cult of code has no real concept of software engineering. Just like guns are falsely ascribed the power to help realize white-male-power fantasies, math is also falsely ascribed the power to achieve techno-Utopian fantasies. I understand how seductive both kinds of fantasies can be. The cult of the gun seeks to take control over the violent chaos that threatens to destroy so much. The cult of code wants to cede control to powerful algorithms that promise logic and objectivity and free us from the responsibility of making hard choices. The gun can’t protect you from an uncaring universe, and algorithms just crystallize the biases of their creators.
The desire to take control from those we perceive to be tyrants and to give control over to systems we believe to be objective is a paradox. Like the idea of a benevolent dictator or a truly free market, the perfect system is a great idea that always fails when implemented. Any complex system, be it an economy or a social network, was engineered by people to be used by other people. Engineers are as flawed and fallible as anyone else ergo the systems they build will also be flawed. End users aren’t the sheep that engineers wish that they were. Any imperfect thing (i.e. all things) will eventually be misused by someone with an understanding of its flaws. This isn’t hacker self-righteousness, just look at all of the government programs that get defrauded or the tax increases that billionaires find ways of avoiding. These are flawed systems designed by people that other people have chosen to capitalize on. It doesn’t matter how much time, effort, and money you put into developing a system, someone will invest more in order to exploit it.
The problem with both cults is that neither the gun nor the algorithm is a substitute for humanity, nor is either a hedge against tyranny. In fact, with frightening frequency, both tools harm humanity and encourage tyranny. Guns empower tyrants and are mostly brought to bear against the innocent. Computers empower the reduction of ideas down to data sets, where they confine us to platforms run by big corporations, another form of tyranny. The AK-47 was supposed to be a Communist gift to liberate oppressed peoples, but they mostly got used by death squads. Facebook was supposed to help us to connect with each other, but it mostly pits us against each other while shady marketers peddle divisive media for money and political influence.
Like most of my pseudo-intellectual deep thoughts, the thought began with watching an Adam Curtis documentary but is became fully actualized by watching Rick and Morty. The Adam Curtis idea, that there is a “positive liberty” which is born out of violent struggle, and a “negative liberty” which is born out of apathy. In Rick and Morty, Rick is the epitome of both the gun and the code cults. He has all the weaponry and all the technology, yet most of what he uses it for is to allow himself to get drunk and watch TV. He literally sells a gun to an assassin so he has enough money to spend the day at an arcade. He gets involved with all manner of epic adventures, mostly so he can be an asshole to everyone close to him. He is forever ridiculing the beliefs of others, yet he believes in nothing.
This is probably where I should look to the Asian philosophies I studied as part of my martial arts training should come into play, but Confucianist parables and Taoist paradoxes just aren’t the right medicine for this species existential dread. I’m pretty fucking far from being an Uncarved Stone and trusting the process. If anything, I am an *over* carved stone, and the process is light years away from trustworthy.
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’ve dealt with Nazis in one form or another for most of my early adult life. I had a few clashes with Nazi skins when I was a teenage 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 squad mate that was an ex-skin and he and a few like him were treating their Guard service as free training for their race war. 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 specter of a global Islamic Jihad deflected the world’s attention from them. I figured that at some point those dudes would get their lives together, but not only did they not, I guess they all had kids?
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 and he blamed immigrants. 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. Good job Master Race! You’re doing a great job! 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.
The other thing about Nazi bullshit that pisses me off is that it takes so much Nazi related self-aware/ironic humor off the table. You can’t deliberately invoke Godwin’s Law anymore. You can’t dismiss Xbros as “Filthy Console Peasants”. I have to work so much harder to be simultaneously pretentious and fake-edgy. It’s BULLSHIT.
What disturbs me the most about all this Nazi bullshit isn’t the presence of White Power. You can’t police thought, so you can’t eliminate hate. 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. The USA fought a war against them. They’re the definition of an easy target. There will never be any collateral damage when you take a swing at them. They are literally Hitler, literally. When the organizations whose General Counsel advises them against any course of action, any course of action that a corporation ends up taking is the absolute least that could be done. Where in the fuck is everyone else?
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 indigenous people? Those people aren’t white, BTW. Just thought somebody should know that.
I write because it helps me cope. I haven’t been able to write lately because my mind is unfocused by a bunch of things. 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, stress eating, and writing as my outlets. Lately writing has been hard, so I pretty much just play Skyrim and Stardew Valley.
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 American capitalist system is slowly collapsing 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 low grade rage at my friends and family, and a kind of generalized panic.
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 military doctorine. Neither faction seems to know the difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy, or what tax rates and margins are. I can’t help but feel like everyone is obtusely seeing this oversimplified version of the world. The only friend I have that doesn’t want to just bitch about the presidential election (from a year ago) is a batshit crazy UFO conspiracy theorist. What does that say about me?
The Make Believe World
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 and turn to corporations. 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, wants to retreat inward. This results in a kind of “foxhole mentality” where you feel that you and your way of life is under attack and anyone outside of your world-view is the enemy. I mean, your way of life is under attack. It’s just being attacked by unchecked corporate greed, not by poor people and brown-skinned immigrants.
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. The audience for these theatrics isn’t minorities, it’s disenfranchised/underachieving white dudes. 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 that helps them recruit martyrs. Westboro is a family of lawyers posing as radicals. The Phelps family wants 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 and there’s noting you can do about 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 hate 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 are cool. I have been called a “free speech apologist” by a liberal friend for pointing this out. It reminds me of Daffy Duck sticking a shotgun into a hole and having the barrel poke him in the ass. Sure, it’s counter intuitive, but that’s how it always works: the government always punishes vulnerable people, especially when it tries to protect them.
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. Some tragedy happens and new laws suddenly appear to take away even more freedoms.
Most liberals were quick to criticize George W. Bush for letting the intelligence community build its mass surveillance apparatus, but they were curiously silent about Obama letting the same 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 multi-billion dollar industry that supports it forming a kind of ‘deep state’ (I hate using that term) that’s immune to the political process. 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 they did 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, land 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 on the ground there are hundreds of people, millions of dollars in communications equipment, and thousands of man hours of intelligence gathering. You may be dead eye dick with an AR-15, but you won’t even scratch the paint on a Specter or a Warthog. Nuff said.
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 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/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/sexist/right-wing fantasy, what remains is still fantasy.
So when some NRA gun-nut talks about using his god-given right to assault rifles 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, the National Guard included, up against the First Infantry Division, and the smart money would 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. Campaign contributions are cool and all, but they’re nothing compared to private military company money.
My side, your side, their side, we don’t know.
What I see around me is that the machinery of the western world is running amok. It’s a vast and complicated system that no one is in control of. I see a militarist/imperialist/plutocratic caste that is doing steadily crazier and crazier shit to keep the system stable, but nothing else. 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 system went off the rails something 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 all-we-have-to-do-is-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 Muslim” has been replaced with “Trump is a Nazi”. One side looked stupid when they did it, and now the other side looks equally stupid and neither of the realizes it. Again, it’s not about the politics, it’s about the foxhole mentality. Neither side will come out of their holes to listen to anything. Which was probably the plan all along.
Both sides use the same hateful condescending language. Liberals are the new bible thumpers. Saving the world from institutional bigotry is great, but the tools that the left uses are the same right-wing fundie bullshit: judgement, ridicule, and self-righteousness.
If 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 fundamentalism. When my liberal friends attempt to deploy guilt and shame to enforce their world view, I just 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?”
“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 Not 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. I understand why. It’s too complicated.
The Bush administration let the banks crash the economy; the Obama administration bailed them out; no one went to jail for it. The war on drugs is a war on poor people and people of color; prison is a multi-billion dollar private industry, as is war. There’s all the money in the world for prison and war, yet education and healthcare costs are skyrocketing. This is reality, but everyone wants to bitch about the economy. World going one way, people another.
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 vote all you want to increase the rate, and if by some miracle you succeed it won’t make a single bit of difference because corporations don’t cheat on their tax rates, they cheat on their tax 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*. But by all means, keep fighting about the rates.
I guess this is where the idea of a flat tax comes into play. This is where everyone pays the exact same rate regardless of their income, and there are absolutely no deductions. The actual rate could lower, say to 10% (like capital gains), 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 probably 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).
The same thing 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, but it can’t because Wall Street.
This is where all 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 reflect reality.
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. The system gets modified and there are consequences.
Engineering an economy is impossible to get completely right, but that’s not the point. The point is that not engineering an economy is incredibly easy to get completely wrong. Neither narrative (pro-economic-engineering or anti-economic-engineering) captures the complexities of a national or global economy. Economies are made up of individuals. These individuals may or may not act rationally, and they may or may not act in their own self interest. That Hobbesian/Randian Zero Sum Game Theory is largely bullshit. Trying to create stability within a large and complex system that’s based on non-rational and illogical human behavior is foolish and will ultimately lead to nonpolitical forces seizing power. Non-political forces do not have to answer to The People, which is undermining The People’s liberty and will continue to undermine the social contract.
This is what I mean by the machinery of The West running amok. The machine isn’t doing what anyone wants, and no one can make it behave. The machine is too complex and the consequences of modifying it are too unpredictable. No one can change the system because no one can predict what the outcome of a change will be. So we just give up. We know that the best outcome is that it remains stable, so we argue over what color to paint the housing. This is the story of pretty much all of western civilization. The reality of the problem is so complex, so ugly, and requires so much consensus that there isn’t any solution. It’s bullshit, we know it, and we don’t do anything because we can’t imagine doing anything else.
When someone tells you a story that you believe so thoroughly that you can’t see reality, that’s the definition of a con. This is where I should get on my soapbox about a movement based on hacker ideals and disruptive technologies to give the power back to the people, but I just don’t have it in me. Also, such a cultural revolution would probably end like every other cultural revolution: in Soviet or Chinese style totalitarianism. Cheery thought, huh?
I have given a few talks recently to non-hacker audiences. In so doing, I learned that even at its 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The 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 difference is that the whitehat first seeks 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 develop are then hoarded and stockpiled for their benefit alone. The key difference is that blackhats do not seek permission, they do not disclose their findings, and they hack for the benefit of themselves.
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 are supposed to have “real” jobs and share everything, blackhats supposedly 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 find and fix 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.
Instead 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.
A great example of this is the people that run botnets. Once a bot-herder gets control of a computer (bad), they will then patch that computer (good) so that some other bot-herder doesn’t snatch it away from them (???).
Thinking about hacking in terms of offense and defense takes away all of 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 like seizing control of things that don’t belong to you for a “good” cause. You might be a blue teamer working for organized crime syndicate, doing white hat stuff like analyzing malware for “bad” people. You might be a whistle-blower or a journalist, exfiltrating stolen data to expose 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. Turns out that the USA hacks as much or more shit than Russia does.
Its 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 world got a head start on an inevitable malware outbreak thanks to some bad guys doing a good thing by releasing something that they discovered. Something that the US Government had been hoarding to use against its enemies.
The disclosure is interesting because the first release is a free sample to prove the quality of the goods they intend to auction. This is the Golden Key problem in a nutshell: a tool, used by the good guys, falls into the hands of the bad guys, and chaos ensues.
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 before a proper villain did some real damage with it.
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 black hat things, and a criminal organization, a “bad guy”, doing white hat things.
If you want to talk about the specifics of the hack, the NSA’s blue team didn’t do its job, and the Shadow Brokers’ red team ate the NSA’s 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.
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 on people being distracted from the importance of the self, but Orwell does not because he is more focused on the politics of violence and fear. My fear is that both Huxley and Orwell are right. That we are being duped into willingly ignoring essential liberties so that a powerful and violent elite can manipulate everything to their benefit. Honestly, I prefer pondering the nature of cognition, the nature of free will, and the nature of humanity because the idea of “Huxleying your way into full Orwell” scares me to death.
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.
My 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.
A 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.
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.