Archives For realpolitik

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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.

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censorship ad

Policy wonks, like most people, tend to think of IT as a magical black box which takes requests, does something, and makes their computers do what they want, or at least somewhat close to it. And so it’s not really surprising to see Ronan Farrow and Shamila Chaudhary rail against major cybersecurity companies for enabling dictators to block internet content at Foreign Policy, with allegations that show how poorly they understand what these companies do and how virtually all of the products they make work. You see, blaming a tech company for censorship is kind of like blaming a car manufacturer for drunk drivers. Certainly their tools are intended to block content but they’re not designed to filter all undesirables from a centralized location to which a dictator can submit a request. They’re meant to analyze and block traffic coming from malicious sources to prevent malware and any time you can analyze and stop traffic, you can abuse the ability and start blocking legitimate sites just because you don’t like them or the people who run them.

Most of the software they cited is meant to secure corporate networks and if they no longer get to stop or scan data, they’re pretty much useless because they can’t do threat identification or mitigation. WebSense does filter content and uses a centralized database cluster to push how it classifies sites to its customers so, as Farrow and Chaudhary noted, it was able to change up a few things to help mitigate its abuse by authoritarians. But McAffee and others are in a tougher spot because they’ve simply sold a software license to network admins. Other than virus and bot net definitions, there’s not much they can control from a central location, and trying to shame a company for selling tools made for something entirely different puts them in a position in which it would be very hard to defend their actions to someone convinced that they can just flip a switch and end the digital reign of tyranny across the world. And its even worse when the first reactions to articles about the abuse of their wares blame them for just being greedy.

On top of that, it’s not exactly hard to write your own filters and deep packet inspection tools. It’s just difficult to scale them for millions of users but it’s nothing out of the authoritarians reach. As they spend billions on security and control, surely they could divert a couple of million to build a capable system of their own. In fact, the Great Firewall of China is mostly home-grown and uses the country’s ISPs to scan incoming and outgoing traffic on a daily basis to find what to block. It sounds like a powerful indictment to point out that the Chinese use Cisco routers in their system, but it’s not as if they outsourced the task of pinging and blocking Tor nodes to the company. To be perfectly fair in charging tech companies in aiding and abetting censorship, you’d have to be talking about search engines that agree to modify their functionality to get a toehold in markets ruled over by authoritarians who will get someone to censor searches if not the company which was trying to expand. Bottom line: dictators will find a way to censor what they want to censor. If they use network monitoring security tools to do it, the blame still rests with them.

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robot and human

Generally, political pundits are quick to ridicule technocrats and wonks for assuming that they’ll solve all the world’s problems with spreadsheets and computers, sounding so very dispassionate as they do their seemingly tedious jobs. One of the more recent examples is this critique of Ezra Klein’s wonkish style which has a hard time accepting the focus on numbers rather than entering the political fray with partisan zeal. As if this was a bad thing. Ever notice that political debates in general seem to be a morass of big emotions, big ideas, big personalities, bold pronouncements about the past, present, and future, and pretty much devoid of facts, that if present, are verbally violated to fit into whatever pigeonhole the person abusing them wants to fit them? Discussing the mathematical and statistical viability of a budget proposal and the ideological underpinnings that the budget tries to advance are two different conversations. One is the goal, the other is a means of reaching it, and it’s good to focus on how well that works out on paper.

Yes, well meaning technocrats can go way too far, I know. Yes, I know that people are creatures of messy, disorganized, and often irrational habits. And that’s exactly why they need technocrats to help them parse the facts and just the facts. I’m not saying that people like me should run the world, in fact I think I could make a very lengthy case as to why you would definitely not want to do that. But you do need technocrats to play a big enough role to stop wasteful projects or shut down impossible pipe dreams inspired by delusions of grandeur or ideology than sound logic. A political pundit will read whatever he or she wants to read from a budget to support a position all his or her viewers tune in to see every weeknight. Technocrats have a harder time doing that to justify their ideas because for them, the math has to add up, and whatever grandiose plans they have, they’re going to debate about implementation until a decent one is hammered out. This is not to say they could never be biased or ideological, just that they have to be less so.

Politicians can afford to talk big and act larger than life. They’re not the ones who have to see how their laws are implemented after they’re passed. The technocrats are the ones doing much of the real world work involved in turning policies and ideas into workable plans, and when they get it wrong, the results are soon obvious and it takes an amazing amount of stubbornness not to admit that something went wrong. A terrific example is sex ed. The ideologues insist that we must shove abstinence and scare tactics down teenagers’ throats. They fail. They always fail. They’ll continue failing compared to comprehensive sex ed, which does a far better job at delaying sex than any abstinence-based farce of a curriculum. Yet they continue to whiz into the windstorm in oblivious disregard of how the world works. Meanwhile, the technocrats are pushing for superior comprehensive sex ed classes because they looked at the numbers and pick what was factually shown to be better. And that’s why we need them around, dissecting facts rather than allowing a rabid ideologue to drag them down into partisan politics and beat them with experience.

[ illustration by Allan Sanders ]

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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?

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curiosity lander

Or at least that’s how Kanye West would’ve characterized the reaction of planetary scientists to NASA’s announcement that its next big mission in 2020 would be to send an updated Curiosity twin to Mars at a target cost of $1.5 billion. What’s the problem? Well, planetary science budgets aren’t exactly all that large or flexible so every dollar spent on Mars comes out of the budget of a future mission to Europa or Titan. And with NASA’s recent zeal about Mars, it seems like the red planet is squeezing out the rest of the solar system from the agency’s scientific priorities. Since everyone’s buzzing about Mars rovers, manned missions to Mars, potential cities on Mars, with a periodic misunderstanding about traces of microbial life on Mars thrown in for extra publicity, the visibility for missions beyond the cold, rusty desert world is plummeting and with it, the chance to get decent funding for an ambitious new mission deep into the outer solar system.

From a bureaucrat’s standpoint, you can see why NASA is eager to send more rovers to Mars. It worked out the kinks and really understands how to land robots on the red planet. Images being beamed by a rover from the surface of another world rocket across the web and TV, and prompt a thousand cheers for the agency, citing the latest landing as proof that NASA can still do truly amazing and awe-inspiring things, regardless of what the whiny curmudgeons think. But just like studio executives in Hollywood trying to sell the same movies again and again with new actors or new titles, NASA administrators could easily venture past the point of diminishing returns, when new rovers on Mars will produce little more than yawns and reruns of the same stories written as its predecessors touched down. The agency doesn’t have enough money or political capital to tie its future to Mars. In the 1980s, when it was still riding the Apollo high, it’s pricey proposals were quickly rejected. In today’s environment on Capitol Hill, NASA is lucky to still be around.

Technically speaking, we could spend the next century studying Mars and find something brand new and scientifically exciting every time. We do that on Earth all the time and we study it every day. But there’s an entire solar system beyond Mars with equally significant scientific wonders to discover and equally compelling reasons to study. NASA doesn’t exist to repeat its last success; its job is to boldly go new places and undertake ambitious missions with uncertain results. It has to stop marketing itself as the agency that once took humans to the Moon and start carving out an identity as a proving ground for high risk but very high payoff blue sky ideas, like DARPA. Will it be an uphill fight to get the attention and funding from politicians whose primary preoccupation today tends to be losing maturity contests to middle schoolers, and a public which likes to keep demanding progress and innovation without caring how its obtained or how much it costs? Yes, it will. But it’s a fight worth having and avoiding it by launching rovers to Mars only delays it…

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300

While reporting about cyberwarfare and information security has been getting better and better as of late, there are still some articles that posit baffling ideas about how to prevent a massive cyber attack launched by a government. The strange idea in question this time is one which has a good starting point, but ends up imagining cyber attacks as one would imagine a conventional siege, somewhat reminiscent of The Battle of Thermopylae. Rather than envisioning an attack from the cloud able to hit a target out of the blue, it tries to portray network topologies as a kind of unseen battlefield on which one side can gain an advantage by exploiting the landscape…

Cyberspace depends on a physical infrastructure of computers and fiber, and this physical infrastructure is located on national territory or subject to national jurisdiction. Cyberspace is a hierarchy of networks, at the top of which a small number of companies carry the bulk of global traffic over the Internet “backbone.” International traffic, including attacks, enters the United States over this “backbone.” The backbone is a choke point, relatively easy to defend, and something that the NSA is already intimately familiar with (as are the other major powers that engage in signals intelligence). Sit at the boundary of the backbone and U.S. jurisdiction, monitor and intercept malware, and attacks can be blocked.

Technically yes, you can use the main switches where the fiber stretching across the oceans will reach your shores and have a deep packet inspector check the headers of incoming packets to flag anything suspicious. But this really only works for relatively straightforward attacks and can easily be avoided. If you’re trying to inject a worm or a virus into a research lab’s computer, you’ll have to get through an anti-virus system which will scan your malware and compare its bytes to as many virus and worm signatures in its database as it reasonably can. With the sheer amount of malware out there today, these tools are good at stopping existing infections and their mutant versions. However, brand new attacks require reverse engineering and being ran in a simulated environment to be identified. This is how Flame and Gauss went undetected for years and they were most likely not even spread via the web, but with infected flash drives, meaning that efforts to stop them with packet inspection would’ve been absolutely useless.

A deep packet inspector sitting at MAE-East or MAE-West exchange points (or IXPs) would have to work like an anti-virus suite if it is to do what the author is proposing, so it can stop someone from downloading an obvious virus or bit of spyware from a server in another nation or deny an odd stream of packets from China or Iran thought to be malicious, but it’s not a choke point in any conventional sense. IXPs are not in the business of being a traffic cop so having them take on that role could have serious diplomatic repercussions, and aggressive filtering could have all sorts of nasty downstream effects on the ISPs connected to them. Considering that trying to flag traffic by country could be foiled by proxies and IP spoofing, and that complex new attacks would easily be able to slip by an IXP-based anti-virus system, all the effort may might be worth it in the long run and simply cause glitches for users trying to watch Netflix or surfing foreign websites to read the news in another language while trying to prevent threats users can easily manage.

So if creating IXP chokepoints would do little to stop the kind of complex attacks for which they’d be needed, why has there been so much talk about the Pentagon treating the internet as a top national security concern and trying to secure networks across America, or at the very least, be on call should anything go wrong? Why is the Secretary of Defense telling businesspeople that he views cybersecurity as the country’s biggest new challenge and has the Air Force on the job? My guess would be that some organizations and businesses simply haven’t been investing the time and attention they needed to be investing in security and now see the DOD as the perfect, cost-effective way to secure their networks, even though they could thwart attacks and counter-hack on their own without getting the military on the case, perhaps not even realizing that they’re giving it a Sisyphean task. If they know they’re targets, the best thing for them to do is to secure their networks and be aggressive about hiring infosec experts, not call in the cavalry and expect it to stop a real threat from materializing since it simply can’t perform such miracles…

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dead cyber spy

Nowadays, if you hack into a company’s servers, the company might hack you right back. No, it won’t wipe your hard drive or infect you with a virus of course. The goal is to figure out who you are and what you’re after, primarily because some of the most advanced hacks over the past few years have been cases of industrial and military espionage. And this is where legal wonks are arguing that the government should step in, lest a company issue a retaliatory cyberattack only to find that its target is actually a foreign intelligence agency. Case in point, Google. After a very sophisticated attack on its servers coming from China and a messy international incident which saw a heated back and forth between the Chinese Communist Party and the company, the tech titan hacked back and found that its attackers were targeting defense and other tech companies with meancingly complex scripts and the group, dubbed the Elderwood Gang, is still at it.

Their easy access to zero day exploits and the coordination equired to pull off their favorite type of attack points to backing from someone who can afford to employ highly skilled programmers and wants to spy on foreign defense and tech contractors, trying to steal blueprints, e-mail, and source code.Basically, what I’m trying to say is that prevailing rumor paints the Elderwood Gang as a part of the Chinese cyber-army long suspected of stealing classified documents from the U.N. and a lot of First World military contractors and government agencies via spyware. As the vast majority of the wired world knows, the United States isn’t exactly a hacking lightweight and it more than likely deploys some very sophisticated spyware and malware of its own. So, say the legal wonks mentioned above, have the Air Force and the NSA tackle sophisticated hackers, not companies that find themselves riddled with foreign spyware. It could’ve come from a Facebook game someone way playing at work and is trying to steal logins to PayPal, or it might be a worm from another government and hacking them back would provoke an international incident which would have to escalate all the way up to the military. But is that a workable approach?

No, not really. Fact is that the vast majority of infections are trying to steal financial information and/or turn your computer into a bot for DDOS attacks. Not only that, but the malware kits used to make viruses and worms are exploitable too. Only a tiny sliver of all the nasty stuff you might catch surfing random sites without some very heavy duty firewalls and strict privacy and browser settings, is actually complex malware from a nation state, and even then you’d have to be a very highly visible defense or tech company since these attacks tend to come from whailing (which is like spear-phishing but targeted to high level executives) and compromised industry message boards, blogs, and forums. Little fries don’t interest the spies much so they quickly lose interest, so it’s really the Lockheed Martins, EADS’, and Northrop Grummans of the world that should be worried, but considering their cozy relationship with the militares of their home states, they can always escalate things when they need to. And since all this is being done in secret, I’d highly doubt that a foreign intelligence agency hacked in retaliation will cry foul. That would just be an admission of guilt and the start of a major diplomatic clusterscrew.

Were we to start reporting hack attempt after hack attempt and infection after infection, we’d so quickly swamp cybersecurity experts at the NSA and the Air Force, that they’d be buried under a massive backlog of things to investigate in weeks while the torrents of reports keep on coming. Antivirus makers already have vast databases that can identify who was infected with what kind of virus and how to remove it running 24/7/365, and can keep up with 99.9% of infections out in the wild. Considering that they’re the primary discoverers of cyber weapons in use, they’re more than up to the job and can do it without defense establishments getting involved in their daily work. And when we take into account the sheer number of random trojans and worms out there, a hacked company has a 99.9% chance of pinging random hacker crews rather than something as threatening as the Elderwood Gang or as sophisticated as Flame or Stuxnet, and even then, no one on the other end will make a peep because doing so would be a lot worse than keeping quiet and let the retaliating businesses get away with it. Treaties and tens of billions in trade may be at stake so it’s best to just let the accusations die down and resume the spying later. So if you get hacked, go ahead and hack back. You’re not going to start any wars by doing it.

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bad idea

According to the famous Peter Principle, everyone eventually rises to a level of incompetence in an organization and nowhere does it seem to be more true than in Congress. As pointed out by many reporters, Todd Akin’s breathtakingly dimwitted commentary on rape wasn’t just alarming because it gave us a terrifying peek into the mindset of someone who wants to regulate the life and health of women across the country, but because it came out of the mouth of someone who sits on the House Science and Technology committee, a legislative body that’s responsible for helping to drive the engine of First World growth. One would think that if you sit on a post that basically gives you enormous power over the nation’s scientific and technological path, you’d at least know how to do a search on whether women can or can’t get pregnant from rape. Even more disturbing is that he has equally scientifically illiterate colleagues. Eight out of 36 members of the committee are on the record in ridiculing scientific facts and issues.

So while we’re supposed to be busy fighting social injustice in the name of science and atheism, the nation is dealing with the equivalent of PETA members deciding the fate of the USDA, or ALF activists determining the future of animal research labs. Lawyers and former businessmen are primarily in charge of funds for public research and development. Not scientists, engineers, or even administrators from research institutions who would be eminently more qualified for this job, but people who butcher basic facts to score cheap political points. One of the committee’s members, Paul Broun, parrots the conspiracy theory that climate change is a UN-led hoax and declared that the CDC’s recommendation that people eat more fruits and vegetables every day is a socialist ploy, a statement that would probably even make McCarthy’s ghost murmur that if you’re Red-baiting salad, you’ve gone a little off the deep end. Yet amazingly, someone who is finding communist plots in something as simple as a balanced diet wasn’t laughed out of a post where he can do so much damage with his arrogant ignorance. He’s still there.

How this committee came to be in such dire state is a great summation of why Congress today has basically been broken. People who too often don’t bother to inform themselves on anything outside what they find personally important elect people who tell them what they want to hear in quick, snappy soundbytes, and these silver-tongued shmoozers promote each other to posts in key policy areas based on patronage networks rather than their qualifications. At least we have economists running the Treasury and people with military and intelligence experience running defense projects because we recognize that money and weapons are important. But clearly, we are not doing the same with science which is why people can’t seem to be bothered that we’re letting woefully ignorant people define scientific priorities for the nation. Creationists, conspiracy theorists, and fundamentalists who can’t be bothered to spend a minute or two to check if what they’re going to say has any grounding in fact shouldn’t even be allowed near their local high schools’ science fair, much less have any say in research funding. The fact that they are really speaks volumes about where we’re going wrong in the grand scheme of things…

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humans v. nature chess

Regardless of what the numerous global warming deniers have been spouting in the comments here (they tend to go for the comments as soon as they spot the keywords at which to rage), I’ve always said that carbon taxes and credits was a terrible way to deal with climate change. At best, it would give companies an excuse to pollute and has inspired a few outfits to make a quick million or ten by greenwashing, i.e. investing the carbon offset credits paid to them in existing green projects rather than new ones. At worst, it funds vehement think tanks who deny the science and muddle the issues to protect their interests rather than waste their money on taxes and greenwashing. For example, last time I was in D.C., I went to the Koch-sponsored hall of human history, and while the science there did portray an accurate view of evolutionary biology, every damn placard sang praises to climate change as the key driver of human evolution and intelligence. Subtle and well thought out, are not the words you’d use to describe this particular bit of propaganda.

And there are even more problems with carbon credits. Yes, one can use taxes and incentives in the classic carrot and stick combination, but the problem with a “vice tax” is that the money it generates very quickly becomes more important than the actual cause, especially when the money is slated to go to a specific industry. This arrangement creates a kind of perverse symbiosis between those taxed for the vice and those who rely on the vice’s continuation to exist. But this shouldn’t apply to any green companies, should it? Wouldn’t they grow to supply the massive regional utilities and come totally independent? Well that’s the hope, but the reality is that the fossil fuel industry has more than a century on them, tried and true technology, low costs, and bountiful subsidies. Under a carbon tax arrangement, green utilities would have to live off the fees and penalties of fossil fuels.

Now you can see the source of the complaints that global warming is a scam to raise taxes, with an unsettling number of people on the far right fringe declaring the science to be a veil for a sinister UN-led New World Order conspiracy to strip them of their rights and property. Certainly, the cause is just because we do need a comfortable, clean world in which to live, and cranking up the temperature will cause more storms, more severe droughts, and more disease outbreaks. But unfortunately, the groups who want the most and best intentioned change have done an exceedingly poor job in communicating the issues involved. On the one side is unhinged alarmism in which the Global Warming Monster will come to your house and rip your face off if you don’t go green now, something very hard to take seriously when scientists talk about 50 to 100 year horizons in their papers. On another there are marketers using the green buzzword to charge yuppies an extra 30% for roughly the same products. And on the third, we have brain-dead green celebrities who fly private jets to Save The Rainforest concerts.

Environmentalists cite studies which predict that global warming may delay future ice ages as a big issue, despite the fact that the predictive power of such studies isn’t necessarily all that great and overall, the announcement would sound like a good thing to a layperson. We humans generally love the tropics and warm weather. Tell us that we’re delaying another ice age and we’re thinking “great, no need to freeze our tails off!” despite the time frame for this being more than 20,000 years in the future, a span more than twice the time between the first primitive writing and modern civilization. This also raises the question of why we have to deal with climate change now instead of just riding it out for the same laypeople environmentalists were just trying to prompt into action. Even worse, some of the most tone-deaf ones have been arguing that we should strive for zero GDP growth worldwide to put an end to this global warming thing once and for all. Yes, today, in a five year period in which the number one goal of the developed world was to boost GDP growth and generate more jobs.

Not only is this absurd, but it misses the point entirely. It’s like saying that because your old car is rickety, dangerous, and hard to drive, you should just give up on driving all together and just be happy that you learned how to drive and got a chance to do it once or twice instead of doing the rational thing and just fixing your car or getting a new one. The culprit is old technology. Upgrade to new technology and you’ll have cleaner skies. Pitch companies on cost-savings, efficiency, and how an investment in green technology will add to their bottom line. That’s how you get Wal-Mart to put up solar panels, or a community to install a wind farm, or prompt a materials lab to create better and more powerful photovoltaic materials to license them and make billions in royalty fees as utilities and people use them for cheap power.

Hell, don’t even call the green technology as such. Just build a better, cleaner, more modern versions of industrial equipment, incorporate biodegradability where you need it, and sell them as a new and improved models so the next time companies replace vital components for their factories and machinery, they get better, cleaner, more efficient products. You’re not going to get people on board with a mission to protect the environment if you make it an existential struggle between good, clean, beautiful nature and greedy humans who are raping and pillaging it for the sake of profit. The Earth will be here no matter how badly we pollute the skies or how much toxic waste we dump. It’s us who will get hurt in the end and we who stand to benefit from being green.

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lost at baikonur

In the interest of full disclosure and not to pull a Lehrer on you, you should know that today’s posts was originally a comment I left on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog prompted by a discussion about the end of the shuttle program and why NASA didn’t get a chance to have another vehicle waiting to take its astronauts into orbit as soon as the last shuttle was grounded. Since then, I’ve tried to rephrase and expend it, but since I managed to say exactly what was on my mind, exactly how I wanted to say it, all the rewritten drafts just seemed to fall short for me and the text of the comment just kept on coming up. So instead of trying to rewrite my thoughts on why research, development, and exploration have been suffering lately, I’ll simply make them into a post with a few additions and the relevant backstory on their origins as comments for Phil’s readers.

Humans can do amazing things when they’re motivated to do them, but they’re also prone to resting on their laurels and slacking off. The powers that be now are afflicted with two conditions that are nearly fatal to any scientific endeavor; the WIIFM disorder and the GE syndrome. These conditions are not on any diagnostic manual, but they should be, especially when it comes to public discussions about the future of science and technology in the United States.

WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) disorder manifests itself as the inability to evaluate the promise of a future venture outside one’s immediate concerns and desires and results in willful ignorance of what scientific research and exploration delivers. Example: people arguing that they don’t care to spend any money of space flight because they need jobs while negating to reason that by investing in space exploration and commercializing its applications will create the jobs they want. Combined with political demagoguery which casts the civilian government’s involvement in anything other than propping up banks on demand as being just one step short of summoning Satan from the fiery pits of Hell, this leads to a dearth of both funding and interest in scientific exploration, as well as lack of concern for the long term effects of this neglect.

The GE (Good Enough) syndrome is a chronic unwillingness to reach above everyday, mundane mediocrity to try and do something great. Those suffering from it are worried about just living out their lives as uneventfully and stably as possible, taking their chronic boredom with the way things are as “the way things are supposed to be” and lashing out at those who want to try, to dream, and to pursue something new and something great, calling them careless, wasteful dreamers who are missing sight what’s really important: to be just as complacent and bored as they are. Hey, it was good enough for their parents, it’s good enough for them, and by FMS’s left meatball, it should be for you too.

We’re not in danger of giving up on space because we suddenly won’t be able to reach it again or develop the technology that lets us explore far and wide. But we are facing a very real threat of one day taking the final step into space because those who were selfish and apathetic shut down space agencies while insisting that keeping their cubicles or paying their electric bill is far more important than humanity’s future. Only when we try to set goals other than “make lots of money,” or “make sure Timmy gets As in school so he can make lots of money too,” or “do what I think an invisible man in the sky who so happens to agree with my every opinion telepathically told me,” are we going to see renewed public interest in, and funding of, space exploration and bleeding edge science and technology.

The money, jobs, stability, and other benefits will follow when we invest in our long-term future after realigning our priorities and try to follow our aspirations. I really hope we’re seeing a generational thing on its way out because when I’m an old geezer, I’d like to see more and more mad scientists trying bizarre new things in their labs and help them out with something crazy I was able to build after getting the funds to do some serious curiosity-driven, hypothesis-generating experiments of my own. What makes humanity great was its penchant for exploration and its innate curiosity. Even as kids we want to touch everything, know everything, and see everything. And today, we’re beating these winning traits that made modern civilization possible out of them and praising this as a “return to the important basics in a tough time” rather than recognizing this as a triumph of those with no vision and mundanely vain ambitions over the dreamers whose work can not only create new jobs and careers, but advance humanity. That’s both very scary and very sad, and the WIIFM/GE attitudes simply cannot be allowed to dominate the public forum without a serious challenge.

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