Archives For government

server rack

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.


surveillance camera array

On the one hand, I am somewhat surprised by recent revelations about exactly how much we’re being watched on the internet by the NSA. However, the big surprise for me is that they couldn’t get data form Twitter. Considering that it’s building an immense data center in Utah, and works with tech companies on a regular basis, is it really that astonishing that the agency is browsing through our communications metadata on a regular basis? We all suspected this was the case, so if anything the current furor is almost a required reaction of anger and hurt to have what we always thought was happening and didn’t really want to, actually is happening. The question is what to do now, in the PRISM-aware world. Citizens know they’re being caught up in the dragnet when they’re just going about their day, foreign companies are afraid of the NSA spying on them via the advanced cloud technology the United States sells across the globe, and China could sit back and laugh off American reports of its hacking and spying on the web as hypocrisy.

Another fun fact is that Americans are actually split on how they feel about the NSA’s snooping and a majority of 56% says that privacy is an acceptable casualty in trying to catch terrorists. It might also be telling that the split hasn’t changed much since 2006 and that it breaks down by a distinct partisan preference, with liberals and conservatives flip-flopping on the issue when the other party was in the White House. So while the press is incensed and investigative reporters are falling all over themselves to talk about PRISM, the American people are shrugging it off by party affiliation. I would expect everyone to carry on as normal because if Facebook and Google didn’t have a mass exodus of accounts, it’s very unlikely they will. Plus, the NSA isn’t reading all the e-mail in your inbox. It just has a record of you e-mailing someone at a given time and if you are in the United States, your phone number and e-mail should be crossed out in their system, until of course a secret court order grants the analysis access to request the whole e-mail.

Even the slowdown in purchases of American high tech gear is likely to be temporary because much of what we’re hearing from many other countries is an almost mandatory response to the revelations about PRISM. In reality, many of the countries buying these tech products have very extensive spy networks of their own and engage in cyber-espionage on a daily basis. It’s kettle calling the pot black, and it’s likely that the rumors of tech companies giving the NSA back door access into their servers are just not true. There’s a number of ways to supply data to the NSA and a number of ways the NSA could’ve gotten the data itself. I’m not going to speculate how in this post because a) I don’t know the agency’s exact capabilities, b) there are people from both defense contractors and military agencies reading this blog who I’d just annoy with speculating, and c) most of them are probably much worse than having the companies just play ball when a court order comes down and an incredibly powerful agency is knocking on their door.

Now, none of this means this isn’t a big deal. But what it does signal is that the country which is dominating the world in the tech field and serves as the key node in the global communications grid has been crying wolf about cyberwarfare and espionage while actively waging it. We were starting to be sure of this when Stuxnet was discovered, we suspected it even stronger when all of its ingenious siblings like Flame and Duqu floated into the spotlight, we had a good idea that the United State was publicly holding back when reports of its potential in cyberwarfare drills with allied nations started surfacing, and with PRISM, we now know it for a fact. On the one hand, it’s bad news because your privacy is now not only being compromised by bad security or very lax internal policies of web giants, but by the government as well. On the other, we know that we’re hardly defenseless in the cyber realm and will fight and spy right back. Make of these facts what you will. It’s not like we can put this genie back in its virtual bottle anyway…


surveillance camera array

New America Foundation’s fellow Charles Kenny recently outlined his case for Big Brother for a group of casual policy wonks and argues that because a lot of biometric and surveillance data could be used for good, we should let it be used to catch tax cheats, keep tabs on criminals and crime patterns in general, and more efficiently allocate help to the poor. It’s not a new argument, in fact it’s the political science version of the benevolent technocratic authoritarianism you could hear from some TED luminaries if you spend a little time in the right circles. But there’s a reason why it’s not a very popular idea and why it has a lot of skeptics, and those skeptics are not from the tinfoil hat contingent by a wide margin. Give a government wide-ranging powers to track you and intervene in your daily life, and you open up enormous potential for abuse. The trains might run on time, just like in Mussolini’s Italy, but at what social and personal costs? What happens if you manage to run afoul of the government’s plan for how to best use you to boost GDP?

To be fair to Kenny, he’s not necessarily advocating that Big Brother is great, but that there are some benefits to programs to which we reflexively react with fear. Well meaning projects to find and catch criminals or stabilize shaky economies have been used as arguments for benevolent authoritarians for centuries, and they do tend to feed into many people’s preference for stability even if it’s at the cost of democracy. After all, people have to eat and it’s a lot easier to buy food when you have a government agency looking after your jobs and your safety. And while people tend to trust themselves not to be dangerous lunatics, the reality is that they often don’t object if their neighbors were periodically watched just in case because hey, you never know what might happen, right? One day you’re living next to perfectly quiet people and the next, bam, there’s an axe murder, the police are on your front porch, and there’s a maniac on the loose.

But again, there’s huge potential for abuse involved here. We could do such seemingly positive things as monitor all traffic and tell people when they should or shouldn’t drive, or even route all traffic by communicating with mandatory GPS units. We could also have a computer monitor an electronic version of all your health records and recommend you a diet and exercise regimen for a healthier lifestyle. However, we would also be taking away your choices and your responsibility for your own actions. People like to have choices. Yes, they hate traffic and yes, they want to be healthier and live longer, but they also want to be in control behind the wheel and if they want a doughnut at 3 am, then by FSM’s noodles they want the option to have one even if a protein bar would be better for them. Plus, and here’s the dark side of all this paternalism, who will enforce all this order and how will punishments be meted out for not following the rules? If we’re dealing with a government that can track you anywhere, how far can or will it go to discipline you?


map of the web

Plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth has accompanied the mostly closed door ITU sessions in which the fate of the free web is supposedly being decided. The global communications group’s head is worried about stopping cyberwarfare and criminals using spyware to pull off heists. The world’s authoritarians and dictators are asking for less online anonymity and more control over what’s being said on the web. The bureaucrats are asking for more centralized oversight on the international level, believing that U.S.-based ICANN to be the internet’s self-appointed masters, despite the ICANN hosting a global advisory board representing over 100 nations. And none of the parties involved in trying to reshape the internet seem to know what they’re doing, almost as if they believe that the global communication networks is a series of tubes they can re-rout with executive orders served to some nerds with gravity-defying ties and black-rimmed glasses. The truth is that whatever they try to do to tame the internet is almost certainly doomed to fail.

First, as it’s been pointed out several times on this blog, filtering and inspecting data generated by web users is impractical, expensive, and won’t catch what those administering the mechanism are trying to catch. Want to try to deep packet inspect all the traffic coming into an IXP? Best of luck there tiger. You will be looking at oceans of data, much of it containing completely useless information, data about background processes, and encrypted transactions. To find a nebulous target in this torrent of bytes is like standing in front of a tsunami and insisting on extracting just an ounce of water from it, and not just any ounce of water but from droplets that started out as a bit of meltwater flowing into a river across the ocean from you. Other than throttling down much of the web to a screeching halt as you parse petabytes of data per day, you’re going to have to give up on this idea. There’s a reason why dictatorships architect their internet infrastructure to easily cut the cord rather than surgically cut down the troublemakers. They know that trying to root out rebels and activists via deep packet inspection alone simply won’t work.

Secondly, you can demand that people use their real names on the web all you want, but there are tools to get around these requirements. Credentials can be spoofed, stolen, or hijacked by someone who has even a modicum of skill, proxies around the world can obscure your origin on the web, and it takes a very dedicated and expensive effort (like the Great Firewall of China) to even make it challenging to hide who you are online if you really don’t want to be tracked. If I run the Tor browser, disable scripts, cookies, and history, and refresh my identity on a regular basis during a browsing session, whatever sites I’m visiting will think I’m from Poland, or Norway, or the Czech Republic. Likewise, they won’t be able to see where I go since they can’t save cookies on my machine or silently load an app in the background via a hidden iframe since Javascript won’t be enabled. Yes, surfing the web like this is rough, but it does make you a lot harder to identify and find unless you’re already on the authorities’ radar for one thing or another, usually political activism outspoken enough to encourage a malevolent regime’s thugs to pay you a visit.

Finally, ICAAN is indeed powerful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of internet management. It has a vast international advisory board and it handles top level domains and domain name issues; it’s the concierge for the user- and business-friendly aspect of the web. But without ICAAN, you can still have servers running websites. You might need to enter to get to Google in IPv4 or say, 2001:4a2b:6d4f:8f3f in IPv6 to get there, or set up your own DNS server to do your own DNS resolution rather than rely on a large group of professionals to do it for you, but it can be done. In fact there’s a small number of other DNS root providers who index niche domains or try to circumvent the ICAAN roots for ideological and security reasons, essentially creating what amounts to a competing mini-web. So it’s not as if ICAAN has any real monopoly on how much of the web is wired. Likewise, what would controlling ICAAN do for the world’s paper pushers? Their governments can easily register any top level domain they wish for what amounts to a laughable amount of money for them: $185,000 to start and $25,000 a year to renew.

And all that leaves us with the question of what the ITU is trying to accomplish. If they can’t deep packet inspect the web for safety, force people to use their real names, and force the wasteful and unnecessary experiment of creating a non-U.S. ICANN clone, what’s the point of all the big, dramatic meetings? Well, bureaucrats have meetings. It’s just what they do. Their job is to meet and talk about things, then talk about other times they met to talk about related things. Policy is made either at the blistering pace of a narcoleptic turtle on sodium pentothal or cobbled on the fly when an emergency strikes and new laws have to be enacted quickly to soothe the public or authorize a new course of action. But in the meantime, the bureaucrats meet and talk with little to nothing coming out of the meetings. If anything, this ITU summit looks like paper pushers with a more or less passing idea of what the web is — not the internet mind you, just the web — giving each other their wish lists for what they could do with it. And let’s remember what happens with a lot of wish lists. They get discarded when the wishes actually have to be turned into reality.


exchange abstract

There’s a part of the Republican economic policy that I never understood and really can’t seem to wrap my mind around because the more I think it about it, the more self-contradictory it gets, and the more it resembles an almost prayful fantasy rather than a sound plan. Now I know that the ardent disciples of the right wing will chuckle and say "well duh, you don’t get it because you must be one of those stupid liberal Obamocrats, I mean hell you’re from the former USSR," as it tends to be the level of partisan debate nowadays. But my problem with this policy doesn’t come from some sort of meditation on morality and society. It comes from my wallet since I’m not just a consultant by trade, I’m an independent consultant, so according to the Republican speeches, it’s a miracle that I haven’t been strangled out of business by the socialists in Congress and if I vote for GOP, I’d make so much money thanks to their tax cuts, I could hire a whole staff. This is, in a nutshell, their plan for nurturing the economic recovery. Give entrepreneurs and business owners tax cuts so they hire people in appreciation.

There are a few slight problems with this rosy outlook. First and foremost, have you noticed the surge in productivity as fewer and fewer people have jobs? That’s thanks to new technology. An uncomfortable truth is that a lot of jobs are being made obsolete which is why the job training for those other than master treadespeople will need to be tied to the STEM fields and into a major coalition of research and development labs for government and big corporate clients if we ever hope to make a serious, permanent dent in unemployment. So why would I want to run off and hire someone if I get a tax cut if I can just build some software to do things for me? I can write a program to look for differences in data for tens of thousands of reports and it’ll do the job in just a couple of seconds. Certainly the GOP would balk at the idea that instead of writing a program, I should’ve went out and found someone to manually sift through the reports for me for days and bill me $10 to $15 an hour. But why would they expect me to do the same thing if they give me a tax refund or a tax holiday, especially if I need the job done today, not next week?

Secondly, employees are expensive and the hiring practices of many companies to ensure that the money they spent will go to an employee they’re 100% sure should do the job make it even more expensive and tedious to hire someone. Basically, companies hire as a last resort and for every job they don’t create, they can divert more towards paying down debt, buying new tools, and paying dividends to those who invested in them. There’s nothing corrupt or evil about this. It’s really the same as you not going out for nights on the town to save some money so you can buy that new couch and pay down your credit card bill. You need the couch, your savings need some replenishing in case of a rainy day, and the bills don’t pay themselves. And when the GOP argues that you should spend money because dammit, people are counting on you to pay them so we can maintain a strong economy, I’m sure your first question is whether they’re paying any attention to what they’re saying. But that’s exactly what they’re proposing. Go out to spend your tax refunds, give them to businesses and the businesses will hire you. This view of the economy is simplistic to a fault and ignores what companies actually need to do to stay profitable.

People who are in business do it to make money. If they feel charitable, they donate and get to write off the money they donate off their taxes, which if fair since they’re using it to help those in need or to advance a project that helps educate others. What the Republican idea proposes is an unworkable merger between the two, in which people who need to make money for those who invested in them expecting a return within three to five years, are being relied on to give jobs to people who need them as a reward for their spending despite this arrangement not being in the best long term interests of the companies they run. On top of this, the Republicans play a rather bizarre blame game in which companies that don’t want to hire people because the profits they earn can be invested elsewhere, are victims of a government that’s not creating the necessary environment to get companies to hire. And when people are laid off, the government is blamed for mishandling the economy even though whether people stay or go depends on the policies of an individual company. There are businesses who lay off right and left to make the quarter look better and there are those who refuse to lay people off even in hard times.

The fact of the matter folks is that blaming the government for why you’re not doing well or why you had to lay people off is terrible management. I’ve heard conversations in which people who closed their businesses said that they were lucky they closed up shop before Obama took the oath of office and it always struck me as a handy way of excusing one’s mismanagement. If you had a successful business that brought you a lot of money and with which you paid yourself well, why would you kill this golden goose just because a certain politician came to power? What kind of savvy businessperson decides to do this sort of thing? Maybe the business wasn’t doing very well and you had no idea how to fix it, so you closed up shop and blamed Obama so it doesn’t look like you failed but that you had no choice but to get out? Companies with good models and great products and ideas almost always make money regardless of who occupies Congress and the White House. And our goal should be to give these companies the incentive to invest here, rather than in an emerging market by offering new and more innovative technologies and ways of doing things to help boost their bottom line over the long haul.

We can’t do that with a tax cut and spewing fire and brimstone about government regulations as talking points are chanted with the zeal of a cultist at the apogee of an incantation. We have to expand R&D grants to help improve industrial designs and manufacturing techniques, play up all the strong intellectual property protections American law gives and the kind of infrastructure and government protection of their international interests no emerging market can offer. A quick and easy tax cut is the lazy politician’s way of solving big problems and the effects are short term. If a lawmaker drops my rent for three years and promises to raise it on the fourth, guess what I’ll be doing when the third year is up? That’s right, moving. These inducements are like the weekend sales at the mall, there to help bring in the crowds for those three days. Investments in R&D for retooling our economy which yield tools that can help companies more profitable over the long term and prompt them to hire workers who actually understand how these tools work is what will require hard work and long term planning, but will bring the biggest bang for our buck. Though for an average politician with a two year shelf life, this is simply too big of a project to consider…


new world order

One of the biggest reasons why I don’t look forward to elections and rush to shut off all political news shows in earshot is that today’s politics simply infuriate me. From giving clueless dullards inordinate sway over our scientific development to debates by soundbyte and out of context quotes, it’s as if a nefarious committee went over the legal codices of civics and representative democracy with a fine tooth comb while wondering what they could do to make everything from voting to public political discourse as pointless or painfully vapid as humanly possible. My claims to expertise in civics aren’t exactly on par with those of Constitutional lawyers to put it mildly, just an AP class on law and government in my senior year in high school. But I don’t think that you need a doctorate in political science to howl with rage and frustration when conspiracy theories from Coast 2 Coast Radio become a major political party’s platform for science.

For the sake of FSM’s noodle-wrapped meatballs, what is wrong with these people? Yes, once again we’re dealing with their paranoia of Agenda 21, the toothless, vaguely worded collection of lofty ideas which amount to endorsements for free trade zones, observing basic human rights, a call for sustainable development if it tickles the signatories not to dump a few million barrels filled with toxic waste into the ocean on a regular basis, and using their powers wisely. Signatories on the agenda can’t be punished for not following through, there are no specific metrics for them to hit, and there’s no tax or legislative measure that the U.N. can levy to compel the countries to go through with what the agenda says. Yet in the minds of Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, pundits who are so afflicted with paranoia it’s almost tempting to ask if they’re suffering from a condition that should be diagnosed and treated rather than blasted across the airwaves, Agenda 21 is a New World Order wish list that nations must follow under threat of force.

Agenda 21 has been a favorite hobbyhorse of Glenn Beck, who argues that it is a covert means of achieving “centralized control over all of human life on planet Earth” as well as Alex Jones’ all-purpose conspiracy theory clearinghouse Infowars, which calls it a “globalist death plan for humanity.”

Globalist death plan for humanity? Do these dimwits listen to themselves? It’s like getting a little heavy handed advice from a stranger on where you should park your car in a busy city center, then lashing out that you’re being threatened with beatings and arrest if you park your car on a different street corner. And yet, this is what the regressive wing of the GOP is doing, questioning whether new bike paths, parking meters, or a change in the zoning laws was dictated by a death panel from the U.N. plotting to take their guns and put them in reeducation camps North Korea-style. Now, in a rational democracy, the parties would laugh, point out that Agenda 21 has about as much bark as a newborn kitten and about as much bite behind it as that passive aggressive text you might get from an old ex, and go on with the business of actually running the nation. Not today. No, today the Republican Party kowtows to every right wing follower of InfoWars, Prison Planet, and rabid Beck fanatic. It’s one thing to have a "big tent," it’s another thing to turn your party into a circus ran by proud ignoramuses who take their marching orders from lunatics.

Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated article from the same source by David Rothkopf laments the loss of a time when the government inspired research and development projects on a massive scale, projects that took us to the Moon and turned so much science fiction into science fact. I’m obviously aware that the processes involved were not idyllic and we shouldn’t get all misty eyed about the peak of the Cold War. However, Rothkopf makes an important point that makes tech-obsessed, scientifically educated nerds like me want to say "yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" In the 21st century we need a government that turns to knowledge and cutting edge technology for permanent solutions to an economic malaise, and for which a knowledge-based economy isn’t just a trendy buzzword for having a majority of the GDP being generated in the services sector, but a commitment to research and development. We need hyper-efficient 3D printing factories that put Chinese cheap labor to shame by matching their cost and greatly exceeding the quality of the products they make. We need a thriving space program that creates tens of thousands of jobs and can lay the groundwork for making money from space travel.

Instead we have hysterical soundbyte fights, conspiracy theories, and voters who have no idea how their taxes are being spent asking where the jobs are while dismissing their best bet on an entirely new economy through scientific innovation as a pointless waste of money by a cabal of godless, communist heathens on the right, and either malicious, profit-driven exploitation of the public by global syndicates, or misguided materialism of the left-brained on the left. If you allow me to paraphrase a titan of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, they seem to believe that democracy means that their ignorance is just as important as others’ knowledge and instead of saying no to their more fevered fantasies and fragile ideologies, we bow down before them. Politicians whose understanding of science and technology is actually decent and who are completely reasonable in their approach to the subjects, like John Huntsman for example, are written off and doomed to failure as other politicos decide to rule in the style of Roman Caesars; by giving their followers bread and circuses instead of a future. And this, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t just realpolitik that we have to accept with a sad shrug. It’s a tragedy, one only better education and an overhaul of the current media pundit class can ever hope to fix.


Once upon a time, I posted a video tribute to both Tetris and the turbulent history of the USSR from an indie neo-folk band from England. It featured a supposedly prototypical Russian worker singing through the downs and a few ups of Soviet history while doing Tetris-inspired versions of his work, referring to invisible bureaus, cabinets, and secretaries telling him to build walls from shoddy or top secret blocks, a typical fact of life in an intensely supervised command economy where every resource in the nation was to be used to fulfill a grand, all-inclusive, five year plan. It didn’t work of course, but somehow, the notion of a command economy ruled by precise computations of economic inputs, outputs, and relationships lived on, and even ended up as a rather odd novel called Red Plenty. On the conspiracy circuit, the Zeitgeist Movement and it’s Venus Project offshoot advocate a sort of neo-Marxist technocracy in which computers would control economies rather than humans to ensure a fair distribution of resources and labor. I’ve tried to explain why this is a really, really bad idea in a few skeptical forums, but luckily for me, a mathematician at the University of Michigan tackled the bulk of it in a post that won a 3 Quarks Prize for science writing, showing that such computations just won’t work.

Now, he built his argument around the idea of a perfectly computed communist economy of Red Plenty rather than the hypothetical ZM/TVP technocracy but his conclusion still stands. Modern economies simply have too many variables and are too connected to be virtually manipulated by even the mightiest supercomputers. His logic is pretty airtight, showing why parallelizing this problem is simply unworkable and why the notion of how to optimize an entire economy is inherently flawed because ultimately it relies on someone deciding what will constitute optimal performance. So what would happen if you were to try and create virtual models of an entire economy in motion to serve as your guide? The program would take far too long to run to be viable and what it decides is optimal, if it’ll ever finish running to come up with any oracle-like response, the output would be an enormous spreadsheet of hunches based on what it was told should be considered optimal. May as well just declare what you think is right and cut out all the unnecessary middle-bots that will take thousands of years to run a single simulation. But how do you objectively decide what is and isn’t optimal and why?

While the analysis doesn’t focus strictly on math and veers off into the politics of fairness and economics in a free or command market, it leaves off another crucial problem with a computer-commanded economy. There will always be a black market ran by unpredictable humans and without global wars, economic technocracies will always have to trade with human-ran markets. Suddenly, all the intricate computer models fail because in their assumptions, they’re dealing with rational, predictable actors, even if their behaviors are very complex. As we saw with the Great Recession’s opening act, the Subprime Meltdown of 2008, assuming rationality isn’t a good way to make money. All the formulas that told Wall Street it could keep the gravy train going ignored that brokers and debtors lied, attempted desperate schemes to stave off incoming financial body blows, or had to deal with those who lied or attempted desperate schemes to stave off incoming financial body blows. Dealing with fraud wasn’t part of the equation. Dealing with human panic wasn’t a part of the equation. Predicting what action each decision-maker involved in the implosion on Wall Street and its subsequent bailouts would make would’ve resulted in so many permutations, you may as well have resorted to tea leaves and coffee residue to plan the markets’ reactions. And all that still excludes the other actors involved in the global economy.

Finally, let’s circle back to the recurring issue of who’ll decide what is and isn’t optimal in the cyber-command economy as per the ZM/TVP wish list. Even in a nation state of equals, whoever finds him or herself in charge of the central planning computer can be, as the Soviets used to say, more equal than others. Why? Because humans want things and if they have an opportunity to enrich and empower themselves with a few keystrokes it would be the height of naiveté to assume that they wouldn’t. Ultimately as long as there’s a hierarchy of any sort involved in any social structure, there will be authority figures who have to somehow be kept in check. To trust them with a machine assumed to be an economic soothsayer would invite an abuse of power, and with debates about what the digital economic oracle in question should be optimizing and how, we shouldn’t even bother, especially when we consider that its outputs would be biased, unwieldy, and impractical. Deciding the best way to run an economy isn’t a simple matter and economics offers no clear cut or easy answers. And as tempting as it may sound to simply outsource the problem to a machine, it won’t work. When we don’t know a good way to solve a large and complex problem, even our fastest and more powerful computers will produce little more than a flood of noise in response, much like our minds do when faced with the issue…


So apparently, President Obama has given in and decided that the birther issue has leaked enough toxic goo in the media world that he had to release his long form birth certificate to prove for the millionth time that yes, he was born in Hawaii and yes, he’s eligible to occupy his office. You can thank the various airheads who had so much time invested in the issue, whether it was on the far right fringe which collapses into a maelstrom of rage and fury when its views aren’t accepted as the divine truth, or the political strategists and pundits on the left who wanted to exploit the issue to show how crazy the opposition must be. Funny enough, after all the years of indulging birtherism, Republicans now blame Obama for not being focused enough on the economy and wasting time on spurious nonsense rather than fixing the nation. Hypocrisy, thy name is the GOP. But all predictable partisan sliming aside, does this now mean that we’re done with this birther thing? Like finished, beyond it, done for good? Not a chance. Conspiracy theories are like zombies without heads; invulnerable.

You see, there’s a reason why even years of growing and ever more vocal skeptical movements haven’t yet brought down egregious alt med crankery, New Age woo abusing physics with unholy fervor, and pockets of terrified, paranoid anti-vaccinationism in society. We’re arguing with people for whom reality and facts are optional at best or a sign to change the goalposts and challenge us to meet the impossible goal of proving a lack of existence for something. And that’s if we’re lucky. Often, conspiracy theorists will use negative evidence to bolster their case, arguing that because we can’t find proof of alien saucers on Air Force bases or that alien cabals are culling the human population with toxic vaccines, we must either be part of that globe-spanning and nefarious New World Order merely repeating what our handlers told us to say, or showed just how great the Freemasons/Fourth Reich Nazis/Illuminati/Reptoids are at covering up their trail. Whatever you present, a conspiracy theorist will find a way to either rationalize it away or mangle it as supposed proof that she was on the mark all along. And how can you possibly participate in a debate with no rules and prove a point when you are essentially arguing against those who can simply change the topic on a random whim?

So was it really a surprise that the instant the birth certificate hit the web, hordes of birthers descended on it to find a reason to reject it? Was anyone actually shocked that they started complaining that “African” should not have been the recorded ethnicity for his father, that they were suspicious of “mysterious layers” in PDFs, that it must have been a hoax by the CIA or the NSA covering up for the president, and that it must have taken him so long to release it because he was covering his bases to release a fake. But the problem is that even if Obama released the long form birth certificate the minute he was asked for it, the conspiracy theories would not have abated, just like 9/11 Truthers and Moon hoaxers are still going strong. How many people asked for Clinton’s birth certificate? How many people are wondering if John McCain’s citizenship is not legit because he wasn’t born in the United States but to U.S. citizens overseas? Clearly there’s a very specific motivation to believe that Obama is not a legitimate president and when you have the predispositions to accept the notion that the FEC didn’t care to properly screen the paperwork of someone who could well be the commander-in-chief of one of the world’s biggest and best armed militaries, no amount of proof will be sufficient to dissuade you.

Just consider that anyone who applies to any post requiring security clearances has to fill out a huge form full of questions about almost every job he’s had and virtually every place he lived, provide a birth certificate, social security card, a passport, and depending on the clearance level, also account for his overseas travel. And that applies not only to scientists or researchers working in defense, but also to fresh out of high school would-be soldiers before they can depart to boot camp. And herein lies my biggest problem with any birther argument. If teenagers go through such scrutiny, how and why would the “Powers That Be” just slip up and forget to do the same thing for a senator and then a presidential candidate whose decisions would shape military policies? It would be in their interests to do everything they can to make sure he wouldn’t be a threat and I’m supposed to simply accept that the same people who will ask to sign your full, complete name with a middle initial so they can formally approve all of the twenty forms filled out that afternoon, will just throw a folder with a lawmaker’s or a presidential frontrunner’s file in an box and say “forget it?” But I suppose if you let partisan loathing take precedence over what should be Civics 101, you can buy pretty much anything that paints your object of hate in the most negative possible light. And that’s because birtherism is about ideology first and foremost, just like a whole lot of conspiracy theories which envision subterfuge and villainy on a national, if not global, scale…


Here’s an interesting plan being floated around once in a while: an itemized receipt which shows how all the taxes you pay are being distributed among government programs. A good example of how an online version would work is Third Way’s tax receipt calculator, which breaks down exactly how much of your money was slated to go to virtually all the major line items of the federal budget. What’s the purpose of all this? To give a realistic idea of how much the government actually spends and for what this money is used. Basically, as we saw before with off-the-cuff estimates for NASA’s budget, it seems that Americans don’t actually know how much is being spent on seemingly big ticket items every year. They think that NASA gets nearly $500 billion in cash when it actually gets closer to $18 billion, or that we spend almost $900 billion on foreign aid, a quarter of the entire budget, when the number is actually 0.6% or so. No wonder, wonk reasoning goes, that so many people are just fine with slashing aid programs and scientific research. They think they’re saving trillions.

Really, though, how many people will be willing to take the time to notice that the programs that they say can’t be cut actually make up nearly three quarters of the budget on an online calculator if they haven’t yet taken any to jump on one of the hundreds of sites which every tax season break down government expenditures with a dazzling array of static and interactive charts? How many times must one be bashed over the head with facts to finally notice that half of his taxes was spent on Social Security, the Department of Defense, and Homeland Security as well as the $83 billion a year intelligence apparatus involving the CIA and the NSA? Education and science get a mere pittance by comparison, less than $55 billion if we omit NASA. The news that science was not well funded has been trumpeted for years across the web, complete with charts and graphs to show just how little was actually being doled out to scientists who are claimed by politicians to be the best in the world, working at the global nexus for the brightest and most creative minds: American universities. The very same politicians, by the way, who go on to decry advanced education as a waste of time on the next breath, then rush to cut its already paltry budgets even further to pretend that they’re doing something about deficits.

So if people are still guessing that we spend $1.3 trillion, or some other ridiculous sum on science, research, and education in the U.S., enough to turn college professors into millionaires and scientists into wealthy, jet- setting experts sought around the world for their advice, what hope do we have of convincing them otherwise with yet another interactive little flash chart? After nearly a decade of complaints we still have voters who have convinced themselves despite all available facts on the matter, that they can cut aid, science, education, and swaths of small federal bureaucracies, balance the budget, and keep their immense military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as is, with no changes. How many charts do we have to bring up? How many times does someone have to go on TV and slowly, painstakingly, almost hypnotically repeat that it’s those exact and very programs the voters want left as is that are bleeding us dry and if they really want to keep them as is, they will have to pay higher taxes, which happens to be one of the wildly taboo suggestions in politics today? This is probably the most discouraging issue when it comes to government budgets nowadays: an electorate that doesn’t want to take the time to learn about the national finances, and which thinks that by inflicting death by a thousand cuts on agencies amounting to roughly a quarter of the budget combined, we’ll be back in the black and ready to pay down the yawning foreign debt. Math? Who needs it? We have budgets to balance!


Recently, an economic think tank funded by a well known billionaire with liberal leanings and demonized by a cadre of Fox News pundits as the manifestation of either the Illuminati or the Politburo, met to discuss what’s been plaguing America. Their conclusions are bleak, to put it mildly, but not at all surprising. Actually, it was a laundry list of issues both parties have been complaining about very loudly over the last three years with no tangible outcome for the public at large. Nowadays, it’s become a prevalent trend in the all too few remaining pockets of civil discourse to basically mull around the same few problems of which we’re quite acutely aware, then do it over again with the same exact problems just months down the road while in the meanwhile, these issues are left completely unaddressed. The implication isn’t that the United States is completely unaware of what it needs to do to boost lagging economic sectors or balance its budget, but that the legislative circus we were presented in the past few weeks is a symptom of how acutely we’re aware of our problems, but how we managed to back ourselves into a corner in which it’s a taboo to actually apply any sort of substantial fixes…

Simply put, we’re not allowed to fix our problems because someone will complain that a cut here or a boost in some particular area of expenditures is against the nation’s principles or interests, often based on recitations of ideology rather than facts. Let’s start with the biggest target of critics regarding the budget wars happening in Congress, the Department of Defense. Since the beginning of this year, the Pentagon has been sending all the signals that it’s ready for a budget cut and that it’s really fine with the whole idea. Gates essentially froze at what pace defense spending would grow when adjusted for inflation while Mullen made somber remarks that put the yawning national debt as the biggest threat to the nation’s security rather than terrorism. There was an anonymously released memo criticizing the over-militarization of foreign policy emanating from the Pentagon, citing that too much money is being spent on redundant programs rather than education. Basically, those who actually run the defense establishment took Congress to water and dipped their head in it. But Congress just refused to drink, leaving the military’s budget untouched, even as the military was saying that a budget cut was not going to be a major issue and that it needed to readjust how it handles wars anyway. Why? Because it’s a taboo to touch military spending since it’s election season attack ad gold for opportunists.

There’s also the role of lobbyists who push defense contractors’ proposals through lawmakers, regardless of whether those projects are really even needed and their cash will immediately go to those who vote to shower them with contracts, creating incentives to do what’s right for the defense contractors, not what’s right for most of the nation, and at times, not even towards what the military itself considers truly important. This also works the same way when it comes to energy and financial conglomerates, which are almost buying the laws which favor them by offering campaign donations and jobs to lawmakers who vote in their interests. And when you’re selling votes to the highest bidder, should it be a surprise that whatever is best for those bidders tends to turn into law and sweetheart no bid contracts? But you see, we’re also not allowed to simply cut off the relationship between companies and lawmakers because both will complain that they’re just representing what’s best for their country and that depriving companies of their voice is wrong. This is, of course, despite that fact that they are substituting what’s really going on with an allusion to free speech, which was never the issue anyway. The idea of simply steering the government with cash to fulfill your personal goals works well in what were called banana republics, but it simply doesn’t work for a government intended to work for the taxpayers rather than a clique of companies with the cash to finance the next election cycle for their candidates of choice.

Oh and we’re not allowed to criticize companies and the wealthy either because they create jobs. We are only allowed to give them tax cuts and any tax hike is immediately labeled as socialism as the ghost of the USSR is marched out with an unholy zeal to drive the point home. Though oddly enough, labeling banks as too big to fail, exempting them from regulation, then handing them trillions of dollars in bailouts they can use to lend to us what is basically our own money every time they get in trouble, is considered capitalism. How? I don’t know but I suppose if you can buy half of Congress, you can also buy the terminology being used in the debate. And just out of curiosity, since when was it a company’s goal to create jobs? Last time I checked the only goal of a company is profit. They’re not supposed to guarantee a low unemployment rate. They’re supposed to sell and invest enough money to benefit themselves. When did they become some sort of divine power which grants a job to those in need if we sacrifice some of the tax revenue the government needs to run? Have you seen the unemployment rate lately? By official statistics, it dipped from about 10% at its peak to just under 9% and if we consider stats which capture discouraged workers, the numbers are closer to 17% and 15% respectively. It’s not even a statistically significant figure and there’s absolutely no evidence that corporate bailouts helped.

We gave trillions in tax cuts and cold, hard cash to create jobs. We boosted employment by about 1%. This is an absolutely dismal return on investment. And just to top it off, during another round of glorifying businesses as saints, the president appointed the CEO of a company that makes billions but pays no taxes to teach how the rest of the nation should be competitive, by, hint hint, dropping the tax rate. You know, for taxes they already don’t pay. But don’t you dare insult companies. They’re what beat back the Soviet menace and you must be an evil, seditious communist in disguise if you point out that companies are simply groups of people who are out to make money and on whom we shouldn’t rely for assured jobs. And defending the St. Corporation image of the economy’s savior are, surprisingly, people who believe that one day they too will be rich and any tax hikes on the wealthy or big companies will affect them and discourage them from becoming rich. Really, you will be rich one day, just like that? When some nine out of ten businesses fail and only certain skills will grant you an actual semblance of upward mobility? Don’t get me wrong, I’m an immigrant whose family worked very hard to make a living and who made big strides in America, strides that are impossible in many other nations. But it’s very difficult to make the leap from well-to-do and wealthy in this country and you shouldn’t base any economic policy on your personal fantasies of being the next tycoon who’s practically bathing in money.

I mean do you really think that you’re going to be so upset with your vast mansion, your fleet of exotic cars, and your beach house in Malibu if you get taxed an extra 3% or so? You’re going to be incredibly rich after all! What would a few percent of your income do when you can afford all those things according to your dreams? Does this really make you feel like a noble in early 20th century Russia dragged out of your house by serfs as all of your inheritance is pillaged and you’re reduced to a beggar on the streets? This abject terror of anything that a conniving or paranoid politico can put into an analogy with the USSR, no matter how ridiculous or off base that analogy will be, has to stop dictating every economic policy you craft. The worship of corporations as job giving saints has to eventually come to an end in light of the simple fact that it’s not why companies exist. And all the dreams of becoming rich used to justify whatever slack is given to those who exploit Cold War fears to live on what amounts to government handouts far exceeding any welfare or Medicaid program in history, simply have to be put into a realistic perspective. Today, the key to social mobility is education, research, and acquiring an elaborate set of specialized skills in advanced study programs. Ironically, the very things that Republicans are so eager to cut while whining about education beyond basic literacy being an utter waste of time