this space intentionally left blank

January 22, 2009

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest

Protest and the Distribution Problem

Let's say you're part of a social movement in an authoritarian country. You're not even a leader--just a participant, albeit an empowered and adaptable example (perhaps your movement doesn't even really have leaders, per se, as many spontaneous protests don't). It's in your best interest, as well as the best interest of your organization, that you be able to communicate quickly and effectively with other members, probably using some kind of moderated broadcast network. Normally, you'd use one of many Internet services--Twitter, e-mail, blogging, etc. But of course, living in an authoritarian regime, it's not that simple.

It's not that you need to use a channel for confidential communication, since if you've read your Gene Sharp you know that excessive secrecy is as much a liability as an advantage. And you don't need it to be capable of high-bandwidth miracles: reliability and technical compatibility are more important than rich audio and video or message length. What you do need is complete decentralization. And that's the rub, because I can't find any software solution to that particular problem.

Decentralization is important because centralized resources are vulnerable. They can be censored (see: China), hacked, or hit with denial-of-service attacks (see: the takedown of Estonian and Georgian government sites). A dissident under authoritarian rule can't count on services vulnerable to these attacks--they can't even necessarily count on the infrastructure on which those services are based, since it's likely controlled by the authorities as well and could be targeted or cut off completely (see: Burma's disruption of all Internet access in 2007, or China's ability to censor SMS messages based on content).

Barring the total collapse of the underlying infrastructure (but not excluding scenarios in which it is heavily filtered or isolated), what's needed is effectively a peer-to-peer network. This is not, unfortunately, something on which web trailblazers have been concentrating. After all, the advantages of Web 2.0 have been fueled in part by centralization (at least from the point of view of the client). Google may be massively decentralized on its backend through the application of map/reduce programming, but the front end is useful to people because of the data shared across *.google.com. Break the connection to that domain, and we don't just lose GMail: there goes all the remotely-invoked JavaScript, code mashups, and programs built on Google Apps. That's a lot riding on a relatively simple point of failure, which would be better served by moving to the edge and using lots of redundant mirrors. Indeed, this is exactly what Chinese dissent bloggers have been forced to do.

Take a less extreme example: e-mail and IM. E-mail is not what we would typically think of as "centralized." Anyone can set up a mail server, or rent one, instead of using the big webmail providers. And all of those servers can talk to each other. But in the end, they're a client-server relationship that usually has to remain stable over time if they're to be of any real use--i.e., people can't just change e-mail addresses constantly, leaving them vulnerable to attack on the hosting server. Even if they did change addresses regularly, perhaps using a mailing list to maintain connections, it only moves the vulnerability to the mailing list. There's an implicit assumption that something is going to act as the coordinating hub--an assumption shared by even the most decentralized IM network, Jabber (or its federated microblogging counterpart, laconi.ca). It takes more effort to shut down or censor a multi-server network, as opposed to one sitting under a single domain. But it's not an impossible task by any stretch of the imagination.

What you, our anti-authoritarian dissident, might find really useful is a kind of ad-hoc mesh network--one that discovers nodes nearby and synchronizes to the latest data available. It doesn't have a central server. There's no addresses or domains that could be shut down. Some networks like this do, in fact, exist: Gnutella can be run as a strictly peer-to-peer setup, and BitTorrent has support for a trackerless system using distributed hash tables. We'd have to solve problems of reliability and speed, but at least it's a lot harder to shut this down.

But wait: haven't we just moved the problem around again? Now we have a peer-to-peer channel for transferring information without relying on vulnerable central transfer points, but now we have to make sure that the information itself isn't being altered or tampered with as it makes its way across the mesh. Maybe we could sign messages with an encryption key, so that their author can be verified. Better hope that the private key never falls into the wrong hands--and how do you get the public key out to people in the first place? Any given security solution is only as good as its weakest link--and the weakest link in social movements, I think, is never the communication channel itself, but the people who run it.

There are probably lots of other issues undermining the idea. I'm not a security expert, and already this is seems like an increasingly complex problem. When faced with a technological spiral like this, I sometimes find that the solution is to step back and rethink the problem itself--especially since this solution is probably way too complicated for typical users restricted by technical know-how and budget.

I'm reminded instead of a post at Perspective 2.0 that imagines the process of writing physical letters as an adjunct to information technology--another layer in the protocol, so to speak. It's easy to get captured by the glowing promise of ICT in democratic societies, and from there spin off into a dreamworld where protesters coordinate over an open-source Twitter clone via their smartphones, but that's just not realistic (or possibly even desirable). But the lessons of organizational communication are conceptual: they can often be back-ported to other, less-efficient media. So maybe the question isn't how to bring social protest to the Net, it's how to bring the Net's security innovations (including decentralization and peer-to-peer communication) and bring those over to the movement.

January 19, 2009

Filed under: politics»activism

Because Injustice Is Here

"We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."

     --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his letter from a Birmingham jail

They called his actions unwise, and untimely. They referred to the marches as "extreme measures." They asked him to observe the principles of law and order. Most of all, they called him an outsider, as if to question why he had come in the first place. And he replied, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

To this day, I sometimes meet people who ask why he couldn't simply shut up and go through the proper channels, as if the problem was just a clerical error that needed to be addressed. It astonishes me. King answered those questions more than forty years ago, and yet there are people still asking. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.

As always for Dr. King, the letter itself is a lovely, powerful piece of writing. If you're lucky enough to have a day off in celebration today, consider taking a few minutes to read through it one more time.

November 10, 2008

Filed under: politics»national»executive

A Change You Can Haul Away

Well, the election's over. Commence endless speculation about how the Obama presidency is doomed, and will never be able to enact its socialist agenda! Will he govern from the left, or the center? How will he deal with the train wreck that's been left waiting for him?

Now I'm just some guy who works in the city, but I have a suggestion for DC's soon-to-be resident-in-chief if he wants an easy, yet bold, policy fix: get rid of the gigantic concrete security barriers surrounding the White House and blocking off Pennsylvania Avenue.

For those who don't live near the district, here's what I'm talking about:


Image by flickr user Daquella manera, used under Creative Commons license

According to Wikipedia, these kinds of concrete blocks--also known as Jersey barriers--were originally invented to minimize the chance that car accidents would cross lanes into oncoming traffic. But if you live or work in DC, you're probably used to seeing them surrounding almost every landmark in the city, as the Wikipedia article drily continues, "as a means to keep car bombs away from perceived targets."

If you see enough of these things--and that's easy enough since they are, literally, everywhere around here--it's easy to become desensitized to them. But take them out of the blind spot for a second and think about what they mean. The ubiquitous Jersey barriers are not just ugly breaks in the landscape that ruin tourist shots of DC's buildings and monuments. They're the physical embodiment of our fears. Each of those barriers is the end result of a train of thought that began with the assumption that our government is under attack from shadowy figures, and ended with fantasies of kamikaze car bombers. It's the same kind of bureacratic panic that leads to the TSA's mindless inspection theater at the airport, checking for high-tech bombs and guns even though the 9/11 hijackers carried nothing more sophisticated than boxcutters.

Now, I've heard tell that once upon a time you could actually drive past the North lawn of the White House on Penn, or the South lawn via E St, but that hasn't been true since I've lived here. Any attempt to do so is blocked by those concrete barriers and police cars. They're even layered--behind the first set, along the fences that already surrounded the building, there's another row of squat, white blocks. For a country that champions its system of representation, the effect is profoundly distancing. Pedestrians are allowed through, but you can almost see the hesitation as they cross the invisible line dividing city from citadel.

You can grow to ignore those barriers, as most of DC's regulars do. But I believe that the fear underlying their placement is not so easily ignored. It forms a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia. I don't know what that means in terms of influence, but it seems hard for me to believe that it has no effect on our policy, and it certainly impacts our image with visitors. Like airport security, the result of so much ritualized watchfulness only seems to breed more fear.

On the other hand, you can do what the Bank did, and disguise the barriers. Visit 1818 H Street today, and you won't see concrete around the World Bank Group buildings, but you will see a series of thick metal posts sunk into the concrete for the same purpose. If anything, this approach is even worse, because it institutionalizes those fears, planting them permanently in the ground, building up paranoia as infrastructure.

No, I don't think these are options that respect the dignity and the openness that lie at the core of American democracy. I don't think they represent us well. And frankly, I don't think they're necessary. Whatever results from the next four years under the new administration, there's no simpler symbol of hope and change than the removal of the barriers around the White House, if not the rest of the capital, to let the people through.

November 4, 2008

Filed under: politics»national»executive

Dog the Vote

Lines in Arlington were short this morning--much longer at 6am, I heard the poll worker say, but by the time we go there at 7:30 it only took about half an hour. I used a paper ballot and Belle used the machine. We're trying to make Diebold work twice as hard to throw the vote.

Wallace, obviously, does not actually get a vote. But if you give him a sticker, he doesn't know the difference.

September 22, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Bailing Out the Boiler Room

As Congress considers spending $700 billion to bail out irresponsible (and often fraudulent) lenders, I'd just like to draw people's attention to the Columbia Journalism Review's lengthy essay on the topic, which performs two roles: it's perfectly readable, and it gets to the heart of the systematic corruption and neglect behind the crisis.

Conventional wisdom says that the mortgage crisis is a hard story to cover, since it's based in a lot of esoteric debt-trading transactions. But as the CJR points out, that's a clear case of not seeing the forest for the trees. At the most basic level, this is not a complicated narrative: due to a lack of regulation, investment firms created pressure for lenders to take advantage of homebuyers by extending them loans that they couldn't hope to repay. It's a classic American story of big businesses screwing over the little guy. That it has largely been presented as some kind of vast, nebulous market failure reflects, I think, an incredulity of the press to believe that the situation could actually be that corrupt. One would hope that it's finally becoming clear.

August 5, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Why Oh Why Can't We Have A Better Economic Overclass?

or: They Teach the Children of California

It was annoying, but not dramatically so, when Brad Delong decided to deride a perhaps-misguided professor who, teaching a class on globalization, urged his students to consider the abusive practices that might have produced the goods they buy:

Yet he keeps buying them anyway because he has "a mortgage and child-care expenses." A stupid little Nietzschean wannabe who eagerly indulges in what he believes to be grave moral turpitude in order to save a few bucks.

It is probably very nice to live comfortably, as DeLong does, where the greatest consumer dilemma on the horizon is whether or not to buy a new iPhone. Many people, however, are not in a situation where they can afford to choose between their morals and their checkbook. Even considering that the "stupid little Nietzschean wannabe" is probably misinformed about the degree to which child and slave labor are employed, the invective still seems a little harsh and out of place.

But his insistence a few days earlier that "if you do not feel the force of [Milton Friedman's] grand argument, you need to think again" is somewhat more galling, particularly given the quotation he provides from Friedman himself:

The United States today is more than 50% socialist in terms of the fraction of our resources that are controlled by the govern ment. Fortunately, socialism is so inefficient that it does not control 50% of our lives.... The really fascinating thing is that our private sector has been so effective, so efficient, that it has been able to produce a standard of life that is the envy of the rest of the world on the basis of less than half the resources available to all of us.

As far as I have ever been able to tell, Friedman's "grand argument" has always basically amounted to sheltered, fanatical free-market boosterism. If all it takes to have a grand argument is to equate some kind of ideological principle directly to vaguely-defined terms like "freedom," then we can all have equally grand arguments, I suspect. And ponies. Speaking personally, I get better grand arguments out of cereal boxes.

But perhaps what has annoyed me most was the post which started it all, DeLong's glowing recommendation of a hit-piece on University of Chicago employees who had the temerity to object to the formation of a Milton Friedman Institute. It's a chunk of writing that, I kid you not, relies on deriding the term "global south" and accusing the writers of attending "fashionable lefty cocktail parties in Venezuela"--in other words, why do these filthy commies hate freedom? And then it tries to claim that China (!) is a fine example of Friedman's free market principles at work.

It's increasingly clear that the quality of my feedreader will be dramatically improved by removing Brad DeLong, and adding in his place Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber, who writes:

China has done very well out of managed opening of its markets and out of introducing capitalism into its domestic economy, but it hasn't followed anything like the kind of policy agenda that's described by neoliberalism, and it's still a very unfree society in political terms. [...] If Cochrane [the original author] is representative of the University of Chicago economics faculty (he says that he's speaking purely for himself, but he seems to have gathered widespread endorsement), and we're to take seriously the idea that the recent history of China is something that the proposed Milton Friedman Institute will be endorsing, analyzing, etc, then that's quite a radical reassessment of the fundamental political basis of Chicago libertarianism.

... I've no idea why so many people are calling it a 'fantastic polemic' -- you could click randomly on a list of right wing blogs and have at least a 50% chance of finding a better cliche-ridden philippic against those terrible left-wing academicessess. I suspect it's the Milton Friedman Reality Distortion Field Generator, the same strange psychophysical device that makes people believe that Friedman was a principled opponent of the PATRIOT Act and never really knew what Pinochet was planning when he recommended that trade union rights should be removed. The MFRDFG is powered by fifty per cent fear of being redbaited and fifty per cent disdain for dirty fucking hippies, and I'd regard it as a harmless intellectual defence mechanism if it didn't generate industrial pollution in the form of toxic criticisms of JK Galbraith and/or Paul Sweezy.

Indeed. I worry about the school of economic thought that insists on opening markets at the expense of anything and everything else. It seems to me like the kind of thing that can come only from an ivory tower--and reminds us that ivory is a bone often forcibly harvested from its former owners.

July 15, 2008

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest»nonviolence

Moon Festival

From The Methods of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp, quoting from Edmund Stevens (1967):

...each morning an entire platoon of Chinese soldiers would march out on the ice and lowering their trousers train their buttocks towards the Soviet side, the ultimate in Chinese insults. This exercise continued until one morning just as the Chinese assumed their positions the Russians set up large portraits of Mao facing in their direction. The Chinese hastily covered themselves and retired in confusion. There were no repetitions.
Sharp includes this under discussion of nonviolent method #30: rude gestures.

June 17, 2008

Filed under: politics»national»congress

Price Per Barrel

I give you the greatest C-SPAN vote count in the history of mankind:

June 11, 2008

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest

Simple Sabotage

This declassified 1944 manual on sabotage (via the Joho Blog) is filled with awesomeness, particularly in the parts that have to do with political defiance instead of just smashing machines:

(9) When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.

(10) To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

(11.) Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

I'm pretty sure that they've handed this out at several past employers, perhaps retitling it "Management 101."

(i) Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion, especially when confronted by government clerks.

My next visit to the DMV is going to be the best ever.

June 9, 2008

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Responding to Stimuli

This is not a post about how the Bank makes my taxes a mess, and hence I won't be getting my stimulus check until late. Because I am not the kind of person who would complain about such a thing.

A few weeks ago, my friend Chris P. put up a link on his Facebook feed about a friend's stimulus check. It's on howispentmystimulus.com, a site that I had no idea existed, and which I find slightly melancholy. The writer had traded in his stimulus for silver coins from the Federal Mint, as a protest against printing more money as a fix for the economic downturn. I'm not sure I applaud the exact sentiment, but I do find the protest appealing.

It's important to remember, and I think many people are unaware of this, but a stimulus check is not a gift. It's a loan, one that will have to be repaid at some point. It may be repaid by a future generation, and not by us, but the debt is still there. In many ways, it's a bet: the government wagers that by paying us money now, we will be in good economic shape later when the bill comes due. I am not an economist (I only play one on TV), but the wisdom of this policy is not immediately obvious to me. My check will go into savings, personally. I'm lucky that I can afford to do that.

It is interesting to watch the reactions on How I Spent My Stimulus. There are two basic trends that I've noticed. One side is composed of people who are struggling--they're spending the checks on medical expenses, or on home loans, or to pay off their debts. The other trend are people who use the stimulus to buy firearms. Large, shiny, high-caliber firearms.

This country really does scare me sometimes.

Future - Present - Past