Sunday, 29 December 2013

Merry Christmas from Supervillainy

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Finance and geopolitics offer plenty of supervillainy potential this year. It'll be a wild ride.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Bitcoin Futures

Despite some recent bans dropping the price of Bitcoin, I believe it is still a market to watch. I think that a Bitcoin (and similar cryptocurrencies) are more useful as a money/value transfer system than simply as a currency. The weak points tend to be the exchanges and perhaps size of the blockchain, but I believe future currencies can learn from this. Even Bitcoin can be modified based on code from other implementations. I am interested in observing this new class of commodities over the long term, for it will be a wild ride.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

BitVote: Cryptodemocracy

While encrypted currencies have been gaining attention as of late, other uses of a distributed, encrypted network are available. Bitcoin and many of its alternatives use a file called a blockchain as a register of transactions and network activity.

Now, the main issue is the size of the file can increase greatly as the number of coins/activity/transactions does. If Moore's Law tapers off and no rare earth substitutes are found, much electronic technology could stagnate (and with it, a potential hard limit for cryptocurrencies). However, even if this is the case, smaller networks could be spun off to act as nodes or regional/national alternatives.

One potential idea is voting and political activity. Imagine if instead of just currency, a "proposal" file could be sent out to multiple addresses on the network, and then positive or negative (or "modify") votes be tallied up. The success/failure of a proposal (as well as versions of a proposal) could be recorded in the network, available to all. There is the risk of vote manipulation (as with most democratic systems), but another variation is delegated voting, similar to how the Pirate Parties operate. Any designated delegate would have their record open and able to be recalled at any time. Another idea is that each 'block' of addresses could be further subdivided (like Bitcoins can) to assist with smaller scale decision making. Also, any "voter" could propose a law or changes to it, as with Swiss semi-direct democracy. Perhaps even a "judicial" branch or clade could argue over reforms, much like under the wiki system. I also imagine setting up a "Bill of Rights" or user terms could act as the "social contract." Of course, it need not be grand, as it might be scaled for university clubs, sports teams, or corporations as well. 

I imagine such a system could exist independent of an existing polity. It could also reinforce democratic and desirable representative aspects and limit non-democratic aspects. There are two primary ways (or a combination of them). One is that the digital democracy acts on a regional/local level, and another is that it's distributed across the world in the manner of a distributed republic. In addition, it could be combined with cryptocurrencies and crowdfunding to achieve its goals (such as building non-profit groups to run 'utilities,' funding legal/political campaigns within the existing system, etc.). Whether the local government is a dictatorship, representative democracy, communist state, or monarchy, the members of such a network could be harder to locate, and would be able to manage funds/resources independent of existing polities (or offer alternatives to them). Eventually, users of such a tool may take or be elected into office themselves, moving it from an alternative system into the new mainstream. Plenty of ideas start off seeming crazy, but become the ruling law as people age and new generations replace them.  

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Sometimes, a crime comes along that is shocking and electrifying, like this. It is rather confusing they prosecute someone for "theft." What next? Charging a visitor to a school for water used in toilet flush or from the fountain?

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Heterotechnology: Improvised Weapons

In recent news, there is a man who assembles guns, explosives, and other weapons from items beyond airport security. Of interest was the fact basic chemistry is used for an explosive charge, by combining water and lithium. While this differs from conventional black powder and propellants, it is still the use an explosive reaction to propel a projectile. As new security measures arise, so to do new ways around them. A better pro-active response may seek to discourage certain types of behavior (such as attention seeking and denial of infamy) than bans on toenail clippers.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Decriminalization and Relegalization

"The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be." -Laozi


As the total body of laws expand, selective interpretation of laws can be used against anyone. As surveillance infrastructure expands around the world, and into the future, becoming truly invisible is increasingly impossible.

A proper response, I believe, is not to double down on prosecuting nonviolent criminal offenses, but repeal bodies of law that are increasingly troublesome to enforce. Dr. David Brin suggested something similar with the US tax code. The problem with centuries of legalism is that only lawyers (and those that can successful hire lawyers) can successfully navigate the system.

Examples can be found in places from removing traffic signs (and reducing accidents) to countries stepping back from the drug war (or treating addictions as medical issues rather than criminal ones). Even weapons laws could be repealed (or at least made simplified), as socio-economic factors contributing to crime and attention-seeking spree murders could be more easily handled.

Smaller countries, such as Iceland, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Singapore, may be able to do this much faster. In the US, the solution is already in the name: United "States." The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution essentially gives individuals and states powers and rights that had not been considered yet. I believe that future generations will not seek legal permission for something (marriage, lifestyle, etc.), but instead simply do it. "Do what you want, so long as you do not hurt others," becomes easier when there is less bureaucratic red tape. With relocalization and information technology reducing the needs of industrial age bureaucracy, networked structures emerge faster than bureaucracies can adapt.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Heterotech Computing and Electronics

One issue that could adversely affect the widespread adoption and use of electronics is disruption of supply chains of the conventional commercial entities manufacturing them. Despite the potential reuse of materials and e-waste from landfills and second hand shops, there are heterotechnical alternatives (if less efficient for now).

Now, computers and electronics are two separate things, as Babbage engines and the abacus are both computing technologies that do not require electrical energy. More exotic alternatives, such as biocomputers, may integrate other forms, but for purposes of this entry, we will focus on electronic computers.

Copper and iron may be used to make rudimentary analog components, even with antiquated manufacturing techniques (e.g. blacksmithing). Even microcircuitry might be manufactured in similar ways, such as with silver nanoparticle using 3D printers and that's before considering graphene.

The primary issues of these heterotechnologies relative to conventional CMOS are power, scale, and computing time required. They would be bulkier and require exotic feedstocks (in the case of bacterial computing), making information recovery and storage a bit more of a hassle. Likewise, the risk of utilizing bacteria is an unexpected die-off or competitor could wipe out your data. The solution, therefore, would likely involve directing them to make lots of backups.

The flip side, though, is they'd need less electrical power. Maybe a small turbine by a stream, windmill, crude chemical battery, or even hand crack could be sufficient (alongside glucose or lactate for our single-celled friends). The resultant apparatus would resemble a byzantine mess of vats, tubes, wires, and boxes, like something from a mad scientist's lab. Perhaps combined with a similarly bizarre ham radio, it could be connected with others. One possibility is perhaps a computer virus infecting a network becomes quite literal. It certainly is a fun sci-fi concept.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Abuse of Authority

One of the trademarks of supervillainy, as opposed to mere corruption, is the institutionalization of what we typically call abuse of power. Power becomes exercised for its own sake, rather than any constructive or even feigned positive use. Case in point: abuse of eminent domain to benefit real estate developers at the expense of locals. Given the trends around the world, this can and will continue to get worse. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Autolysis and Blowback

Political and corporate elites must compete with rivals and threats to their power, as they have throughout history. In the Cold War, everything became a weapon towards these ends, even art. As the nation state expands into byzantine bureaucracies and ensuring accountability becomes more difficult, there can be two approaches.

The simplistic and easy one is the knee-jerk one, relying solely on brute force and entrenching corruption instead of trying to combat it. The problems are over time, you treat the symptoms (instead of the causes) of your problem. For example, if you shoot whoever says the trains are late, it does not make them run on time (as opposed to improving infrastructure). Media censorship tends to have that effect.

The alternative is try to fix things, even a superficial effort. It has the benefits of channeling that rage into your political foes, but also could make you a lightning rod for their efforts. A drawback with both approaches, however, is the top down structure. It can be very hard for a leader to make decisions when they are not directly positioned there. Perhaps a savvy elite would aim to relocalize a good deal of the decision making, while they just sit back and relax?

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Soviet Daze

The center cannot hold. The United States has made many of the same errors as its Cold War nemesis, the late Soviet Union. From gulags, to invasive border searches, to economic mismanagement, to ignoring corruption, to costly interventions in Afghanistan, to targeted secret assassination, to suppression of whistle-blowers, and failing infrastructure, the similarities start to outweigh the differences.  

One issue is that over two centuries of legislative process, there exist many laws on the books that are contradictory, bizarre, and downright strange. Imagine if for profit prisons, combined with drones and surveillance, begin enforcing them selectively in ways that targets political opponents. Who needs a public secret police force when the whole thing is privatized and for profit? Of course, the system requires taxpayer money to function, so the difference between 'socialism' and 'capitalism' is largely non-existent.

Many of the few productive centers of US business (thus excluding financial speculation, guard labor, patent/copyright trolling, and polluting resource extraction sectors) want out. As empires falter, the richer sectors try to leave, the educated flee for greener pastures, and the poor are thrown to the dogs. The recent debt circus merely postponed the next act until early 2014, by which time many of the larger players' flight from the US dollar may be well underway. So many matches could ignite the oily remains of the petrodollar economy. Who knows which will be the straw that breaks the camel's back? 

Monday, 14 October 2013


A similar prediction to this blog was made by the UN recently. It depicts a future where special economic zones replace conventional nation states. Given the technological movements towards relocalization, so called 'para-states' could eventually replace current states. The catastrophic mismanagement of the Soviet, and currently the US, UK, and EU, is stirring up countless protests. Separation and relocalization, I believe, will dissect the conventional nation states. On the other side, smaller nation states can adapt easily to such a world: Iceland, Switzerland, Singapore, and New Zealand being my personal favorites to watch. How long can the center hold? We shall see. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Creative Annihilation

Sometimes, a force comes that simply utterly annihilates and obliterates what came before it. More often, it is a slow and gradual process as a status quo adapts and readapts to a new balance of powers. Other times, however, it can be a single, overwhelming force that truly is the stuff of legend and nightmare alike.

Destruction events can provide a clean slate, and not just in human history. Mass extinctions in Earth history usher in new types of dominant life, from dinosaurs and the age of mammals. Native Americans were nearly annihilated by European diseases, while colonists would swoop in to seize the freed real estate.

The destruction occurs when the ability of a system to adjust is overwhelmed by its ability to respond and reform, when the body fails to the pathogen. From barbarian invasions to plague biology, natural selection tends to favor the adaptive. While more specialized animals (the fastest, the smartest, the strongest, etc.) may die off, the common types endure. Compare machinery that can be built in caves to an over-complicated piece of crap. However, once the initial shock is gone, specialization occurs again. Such is a natural process of biology and economics alike. The lesson, however, is to have backups in case the over-specialized and delicate things fail. Because they will.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Brinksmanship: Applied Supervillainy

Due to American political dysfunction, the government shutdown is a thing. While there have been shutdowns before, there are almost always overhyped. It is ironic that such a system promotes brinksmanship, as opposed to reasoned debate. Such is a symptom of dysfunction.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Feedback Mechanisms

In engineering and systems analysis, negative and positive feedback are essential concepts. Various medical conditions, such as diabetes, are a result of certain metabolic systems lacking the ability to regulate themselves as they typically would. Auto-immune diseases, when the immune system attacks the body's own systems, are likewise signs of something amiss.

Certain machines, by their very natures, require feedback mechanisms. The most advanced aspects of various jet aircraft, for instance, are the controls and avionics. The jet engine moves the plane much faster than humans can possibly hope to react, and thus several control and feedback mechanisms are needed to prevent catastrophic failures.

This is also true in political and economic systems. The theory behinds checks and balances in the Anglo-American tradition were meant to ensure the rule of law was harder to subvert. Likewise, various bills limiting financial speculation and types of banks acted as another firewall. High performance systems with no feedback tend to fail in big ways.

Free speech and rule of law are safeguards against political corruption. These have failed in recent years as politicians continually ignore the wishes of their constituents. Despite the fact that disruptive technologies continue getting smaller and cheaper, they make all the wrong moves. What could possibly go wrong when feedback mechanisms are removed?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences as a result of technological advancement is practically a cliche. However, sometimes, the realm of mad science advances just because a technology turns out to be impractical. An idea for a riot control weapon, allegedly able to produce sound effects, would just fry the brain of whoever it was aimed at. One wonders what could possibly go wrong.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Heterotechnology: Alternative Methods and Means

Heterotechnology is a term referring to the use of alternative technologies to reach the same end point. It is a view of technology different other than a utopian vision of progress or wish-fulfillment of a (Kurzweil styled) Singularity. Heterotechnology would be viewing each device or machine from the point of view of a systems engineer, and imagining each step as a "module" that could be replaced or substituted with something else.

Now, certain forms of technologies became popular or widespread due to economic, safety, and social reasons. For example, steam powered automobiles existed since the 1780s, but it was not until the assembly line and widespread use of cheap petroleum that gasoline-fueled cars became popular around the world. However, if there is a dearth of petroleum and other natural resources, the economy may shift towards other forms of transportation (perhaps including chemical battery powered electric cars popular in the early 1900s).

A mainstream subculture reveling in the idea of heterotechnology is steampunk, the application of Victorian (or pseudo-Victorian) machinery and aesthetics to modern technology. A "steampunk" internet, for instance, might be Babbage's engines connected by telegraph line. Since then, related subcultures have spun off (such as dieselpunk and clockpunk, focusing on 1920s/30s and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics, respectively).

A recent literary term, salvagepunk, is very much relevant to heterotechnology. Salvagepunk consists of using trash and wreckage and adapting it for one's own use. Interestingly, "salvagepunk" already resembles conditions of life in several developing countries, with the refuse of the First World recycled and adapted to local conditions.

Heterotechnology has economic and cultural implications as well as purely technological ones. As a dominant type of technology becomes prohibitively expensive, substitution with less practical ones (to an extent) could occur. For example, car culture can decline as fuel prices continue to climb, as well as the suburban commuter lifestyle.

Likewise, the rise of 3D printing, automated milling machines, and other types of "desktop manufacture" mean that the globalized economic system faces competition of a different sort. A makerspace does not have the capacity to churn out comparable amounts of product, but it does have the capacity to produce much of what it needs rapidly at a fraction of the energy and resource cost. It is an economy of scale, the globalized one, against an economy of scope, the relocalized one. The two systems still depend upon each other, as the worldwide economy is much larger than selling luxury goods and real estate to developed worlders.

Heterotechnology may be less practical in terms of money compared to our current consumer economy, but it can be an asset to a community. Imagine a small community-supported business specializing in a particular niche product (as a good portion of the German economy is). It is also interesting culturally, because it favors those who try something different out of curiosity and whim rather than pure profit motive (although that can well be a part of it).

If the slogan of the 20th century was "lowest cost and highest efficiency," the slogan of heterotechnology is "multiple ways to do the same thing." It is not merely turning simple gadgets into Goldberg style machines (although that can a form of it), but developing alternative ways to live and work, fusing the new and old. After all, obscure technologies can be revived as new developments take place. Venice already had a form of assembly line to produce ships in the Arsenal, yet it did catch on for a few centuries. Heterotech diversifies a technology's implementation, from computers to firearms. It is the confluence of the artist and the engineer, and a welcome one. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Crowdsourcing Utu

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” -Woodrow Wilson


While Syria is dominating the news, John Robb brings up an interesting concept as an alternative to conventional military intervention or strikes. Instead of deploying military assets, like cruise missiles or commando teams (which could cause civilian casualties, collateral damage, easily escalate any conflict, and political blowback), a list of "targets" (those accused of chemical weapon deployment in this case) could be designated and given a time limit to surrender. Beyond that, "anything goes," including drone strikes or assassination attempts.

This is a topic mused about before in some ways, but the truly interesting part comes from combining it with decentralized networks and crypto-currencies. Imagine a non-state agency or group that would offer "rewards" (e.g. a certain amount of crypto-currency or other resource) for hindering a certain individual/corporation/nation/gang/etc. in various ways. It could range from, say, whistleblower sites or journalists offering rewards for disclosing information of note, like documents of secretive dealings.

The "defenses" and abuses of such a system are rather interesting as well. In the case of the journalism leaking reward, for instance, fake data and documents could be submitted. Likewise, the individuals running the system could be watched or compromised (although automating that in some form of software could act as a "dead man's switch"). Governments could also use such a system to find wanted fugitives of the more mundane variety, such as wanted murderers on the loose or simple violations of note to watchdog groups (environmental, legal, etc.).

Such a system could be deployed at a global level, effectively extending a group's reach around the world, irrespective of polity. As such, "international law" could become applicable to realms beyond conventional nations, perhaps even some as of yet unseen forms of law. A positive example of this could be a worldwide "bill of rights" that gives anyone the presumption of innocence, yet is compatible with many existing human rights philosophies. Interestingly, law can exist without a state or polity, or at least the modern sense of "nation state."

The abuses, however, could be great fodder for a science fiction novel or technothriller. Imagine a dystopian, corrupt government falsely smearing a refugee or dissident with various criminal, misleading labels (as already happened). The main character must face bounty hunters, spies, and others trying to send him/her back to his/her home country (or simply trying to assassinate them). Another concept is some kind of criminal network offering bounties for assassinations, beatings, and intimidation towards its foes. The software could be distributed widely around the world, so the bounty remains until someone collects it... Another idea is some kind of activist or civil rights network that gets corrupted into something more insidious due to simple human short-sightedness. Expect a novel incorporating concepts like that soon.

The Maori of New Zealand had a word, "Utu," which can be translated as revenge, reciprocity, or justice. While it inspired a movie of the same name, I believe that such a bounty-hunting system reflects the concept. Somewhere between vigilantism, revenge, and "justice" can lie utu. Whether started by darknets or drone kill lists, the concept is simple and nasty, just like many of history's most enduring weapons. Trial by media could certainly become much more dangerous for the accused, as well.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Unlearned Lessons

Here we go again, with another ill conceived intervention in a remote land. In the meantime, some communities wise up to create their own solutions.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Overextension in Action

As explained before, it is not often flawed policies that cause corruption and state failure, but the lack of feedback mechanisms to prevent doubling down on them. The top cause of failure for superpowers and powerful polities historically is not being able to compete, or funneling resources for adaptation in the wrong direction. For example, the transition from battleships to aircraft carriers as the chief warship in the early 20th century was stalled by "battleship admirals." The Romans could not adapt to steppe and Germanic barbarians due to political corruption.

Like a hyper-extended elbow in an arm bar, a state may seem broad, but is at the mercy of forces beyond its control. Over-extension means that territory cannot be held, bills go unpaid, promises are not kept, and institutions fail. People in the system may individually realize what is going on, but political momentum keeps them from implementing significant changes or making the wrong ones.

A lack of meaningful discussion (the point of free speech and political transparency) serve as key feedback mechanisms. When there is excessive secrecy, democracies and republics can become just another self-serving polity. Their increasingly desperate actions, however, serve to further undermine their legitimacy even faster. The system becomes a positive feedback loop, amplifying the process of failure. There comes a point when the most pragmatic response is to dismantle the surveillance state machinery (or turn it on those who created it), but do not count on sanity from patient with a neocon fixation.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Death Throes of the Dinosaurs

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

All around the world, larger institutions are fumbling and stuttering to keep pace with forces beyond their control. The problem with this is such groups often resort to brutality, instead of conventional rule of law mechanisms (or even a convincing show trial). There comes a point of diminishing returns, however, when the vampire cannot find enough blood to sustain itself.

Take, for instance, cable TV. Despite a few decent shows, many networks prefer selling conventional subscriptions instead of experimenting with online streaming. They often abused patent and intellectual property laws to squash competition. Despite this, their efforts merely delay the inevitable. If they were smart, they'd shift their focus to streaming, but corporations, like government bureaucracies, take years to readjust.

From erroneous links and takedowns, to companies censoring their own sites from search engines, even the apex predator of the globalized era start showing their age. Swarms of activists, fans, citizen journalists, bloggers, and others increasingly observe the dysfunction, and can join in on some activity. This is not a 'right' nor 'left' activity, but merely the application of open-source insurgency or 4th generation warfare principles to the socio-economic plane (or simpler terms, 'swarm attacks'). Such swarms are comprised of members who may not be the smartest nor the most capable, but they are capable of observing and copying what works.

The future, even with energy shortages and decaying infrastructure, still allows for much to be salvaged. It is possible to put almost anything online, even without power or advanced infrastructure. Despite this, corporations and governments still chase diminishing returns.  Such a system is potent, but so were the dinosaurs. In contrast, certain insects have not changed significantly in millions of years. Swarm logic is a proven principle in nature and economics alike.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


"If you want total security, go to prison. There you're fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking... is freedom." -Ike Eisenhower

It is no secret many places in the US and abroad are starting to resemble the old Soviet Union. Legalized theft is not merely for well-connected firms, nor has been for a while. Warrantless surveillance expands into domestic law enforcement due to 'mission creep' and post hoc justification. Combining this with a predatory prison industrial complex, political momentum can easily lead to an open air gulag that easily surpasses North Korea.

When everyone is an outlaw, the most ruthless tend to dominate. Interestingly, there was a part of the (long dead) US Bill of Rights known as the Tenth Amendment. The 10th Amendment was intended to allow states and individuals rights that were not officially stated under the 'standard' Bill of Rights. Today, some activists have considered using "nullification," against policies they consider illegal. They were employed by civil libertarians, drug legalization activists, gun activists, and so on in various ways.

The fundamental theory, however, is a solid one for a free society. Instead of "Why should we let you," the question was "Why shouldn't we let you?" The idea of WHY NOT instead of WHY would you need something (applied from drugs to weapons to automobiles to other things) appears largely alien to the politics of the 1970s through the present. Perhaps the Boomers were used to bureaucracy, and hoped to create a system to prevent individual suffering. There are cases where it is understandable (particularly dealing with, say, radioactive materials and handling dangerous pathogens), but some where it gets rather arbitrary. Some laws are often drafted in ignorance of the subject matter at hand, but others are not. The problem of a security state where EVERYTHING is banned by default is that anyone can go to jail for spontaneous behavior, and it is not particularly conducive to creativity. It is, of course, a boon for those who wish to make the world into a prison with themselves as the warden. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Rising Supervillainy vs. Sousveillance

The recent revelations on X-Keyscore come at a time when the English speaking world is putting the final nails in the coffin of individual rights, the basis of civil society. While the latest surveillance system raises more questions as to the nature of its implementation and infrastructure, its existence is proof of the absolute contempt for citizens' rights that the "Free World" once prided itself on.

This is not an isolated trend. From the US to even New Zealand, politicians are eager to justify increasingly unpopular spying. Part of me wonders if the rush of these bills are not intended for future implementation, but rather post-hoc justification for questionable activities that have been going on for some time. Given the communication between the 'Five Eyes' intelligence agencies (especially in the post-9/11 chaos),  this may not be totally out of the question.

However, an interesting dynamic remains. What if the public were given access directly to these tools? Not merely knowledge of their existence (as Snowden and other whistleblowers had provided), but allowed to view politicians and their own requests/demands for information? Imagine a bill allowing public recognition of an administration's information demands, requests, and the like disclosed after they leave office. Of course, the statue of legal limitations regarding certain crimes would definitely be a point of contention. The surveillance infrastructure exists (and can break common types of encryption), so why not allow taxpayers to turn it against the would be kleptocrats that currently control it?

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Power of Attention

We are a naturally short-sighted species, as are brains are easily distracted by shiny things and seeking immediate gratification. As such, many of us feel power when we command the attention of others, for good or for ill. The sensationalistic news often seeks out the most dramatic stories, which an inspire copycats. From serial killers to mass murderers to terrorists to petty criminals, infamy is a common motivator.

Other times, it can be a positive force. Whistleblowers, protestors, and activists can rise to power from a single example. Corruption and incompetence often backfire in the faces of those who fear scrutiny. While the Internet seems to be moving towards encryption, cameras and other technologies can also allow the corrupt to be spied upon. The protector caste is held accountable when they are on record.

At the same time, the idea of privacy is instinctively appealing. Politicians are quick to notice this. I imagine a civil libertarian movement could only strengthen as Millennials grow to voting age and the Terror State wanes. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A Handful of Dust

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust." -T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

A recent technology shows a way of (relatively) non-invasively modifying brain. Imagine if microparticles were manufactured and covered in proteins that allow it to bypass the blood brain barrier after consuming it orally. Couple that with a hat-mounted transducer, and you'd possibly have a way to zap the pain and pleasure centers of the brain (amongst other ones). From there, Pavlovian conditioning could turn one into a nearly zombie-like servant. What could possibly go wrong? 

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Cascades of Failure

The malaise in the air is not merely constrained to one side of the Atlantic. Writer Charles Stross has similar feelings in the UK. While the conspiracy sites and cranks have been at it for decades, they do inadvertently provide a venue for certain types of news before the mainstream media diverts them to the masses. Things like the NDAA, LIBOR scandal, surveillance, and other stories all filtered through the alternative media before the mainstream one picked it up.

Imagine the headlines if it did: Centuries of legal tradition abolished! Democracy in death throes! Republics turning into hollow counterparts of themselves. (And so on.) Even if they did, however, there is a fundamental thing that many of the conspiracy sites miss (such as the unwittingly hilarious Alex Jones show): this is a systemic decline. The various scandals are just the symptoms of a larger issue, systemic decline and cascading failure. Attempts to fix the system from within often amount to putting a bandage on a terminal cancer patient. 

Resource depletion, escapism in all its forms (such as utopian wishing and dystopian nihilism), wars, unrest, and the like are stirring this up. There is no single mastermind behind it. There are a small clade of professional parasites that benefit from the ride down (police state shills, plutocrats, neocons, investment bankers, lawyers, lobbyists), but locking them up would be largely symbolic. A better approach could be to invest in what comes next: relocalized production of food, energy, and manufacture. Networked communities largely leaving each other on their own (but still assisting each other), rather than nation-states (although smaller nations, city-states, and microstates make economic/political sense).

It is not the end of the world, despite what the dying Boomers think. As the world economy flies off the rails, the answer is not to double down on failed policies. It is to step back, and focus on what truly matters: home, friends, and building a place welcoming to both. It is not the Apocalypse, but Ragnarok. A new world awaits on the other side.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Process of Perversion

Continuing with last week's theme of regulatory capture, I mused on the process itself. A robust institution may maintain several failsafes in case of abuse. In a free society, this often comes in the form of transparency from the public and press. The judicial and legal branches (in theory) act as ways to ensure the social contract. Security forces exist to enforce the laws of the land and protect citizens. These institutions essentially go mad, as catabolism wracks the system. We live in such a time where most of these had failed. The security system has become an end, rather than a means of defense. In an age of enforced frailty, the best defense is resilience, and opting out whenever one can. 

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Regulatory Capture and Assassin's Creed

While another whistleblower story dominates the online and mainstream media spheres, I would like to focus on a larger issue at hand: regulatory capture. Regulatory capture occurs when individuals with clear conflicts of interest are appointed to positions where the role of the position can easily be abused for private gain at the expense of the general public. Now, certain positions' own requirements can often make them innately prone to such capture, such as financial regulation done by former investment bankers.

A certain videogame franchise, Assassin's Creed, focuses on a war between two secret societies, the Assassins and Templars. The Templars attempt to centralize power, and the Assassins try to keep societies open and free. While they have similar methods, such as subversion and (of course) assassination, both factions generally stick to the shadows. Generally, the Templars tend to be prone to abusing their positions, despite lofty rhetoric about bringing peace. When something outside of their control arises (such as a new political entity, economic system, subversive technology, or scientific discovery), the Templars instinctively try to repress it, or failing that, co-opt or hijack it. Thus, the Templars are able to directly use societies' most powerful institutions (governments, corporations, etc.) as their weapons of choice, while the Assassins are limited to the fringes of civilization (although they try to 'make friends' within the status quo when possible). Thus, the Assassins constantly seek out new ideas and tools to break down or subvert the status quo while the Templars try to reinforce it.

There is a neurological and psychological basis for this eternal clash of order and chaos. Some personality types may be authoritarian, and most people subconsciously prefer even a false sense of comfort or reassurance to change (even if the change would be better). Human beings are social animals, and our sense of "us" and "them" shapes our senses of moral and immoral, as well as social and antisocial behavior. By contrast, some intelligent and creative people are not as burdened by the mores they were taught, and are more open to experimentation. (This is one reason that artists and intellectuals tend to be the first to vanish during political purges.)

Likewise, as institutions fail, power becomes increasingly centralized in a few institutions. Those few functional institutions left can easily host opportunistic parasites as regulatory agencies fail. Unlike Assassin's Creed, however, real life does not require an organized conspiracy to conquer the world, but only the continued unraveling of the rule of law. The worst sorts of people rise to the top, like the biggest pieces of stool floating to the top of a clogged toilet. The end result is a positive feedback loop leading to increasing instability. The only feedback to this is criticism and openness, which is anathema to kleptocracies, It will be interesting to see how the show goes. The covert war of real human history has always been a set of elites against historical forces. We shall see how this one plays out.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Rise of the Mesh

While I could harp for hours on the spying scandals, others cover that with far greater skill and depth than I am capable of. The economic consequences for the US result in foreign clients moving outside the spied upon American cloud to greener pastures elsewhere. In addition, technologies are evolving in a direction that is extremely difficult for centralized institutions to control. Automated manufacture, crypto-currencies, basement biochem labs, and solar power is only one aspect. Another is the very nature of the Internet and computer networks themselves. Project Meshnet project aims to create an open source, nearly impossible to shut down, censorship resistant alternatives to conventional internet service providers.

The basic premise is a P2P network built from scratch, easy to deploy with little overhead. Interestingly, Google has investigated the concept of using stratellites, balloons covering a region in wi-fi. Little overhead (no pun intended) is required, save a balloon and specialized wireless router. Their Loon project aims to bring internet to the Southern Hemisphere, recently launching from New Zealand. As one balloon leaves an area of coverage, another arrives. As patents expire and competitors appear, I imagine others will try the same (or a similar) strategy.

Such efforts would be difficult to accomplish, short of blasting the balloons out of the sky (which in itself is no mean technical feat). The primary technical battles of the coming century, I believe, will be the battle of decentralized, autonomous networks against the corrupted husks of nation-states (with rent-seeking kleptocrats behind them). In short, a fight between the T-1000 and Dracula. Already, criminal and non-state groups have deployed conventional communications infrastructure outside government control. Darknets already exist, and further revelations will only drive them on more.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Fun With Surveillance

In light of the recent surveillance revelations, supervillainy abounds. While I'm sure the status quo is well aware of my identity, I'd like to put a few things in comparison. First, the main issue with warrantless surveillance is that is a rather poor tactic as far as far as terrorism prevention goes. Secondly, it puts a lot of private information at the hands of government and corporate entities which may target certain individuals or groups in the future (even if not today). Third, it violates the principles of due process enshrined in centuries of law, and likewise makes transparency of Big Brother much harder.

Much of PRISM operated in a legal black hole, outside of the regular checks and balances. However, as Robert Heinlein said, "Privacy laws make the bugs smaller." Even if this program is shut down, future projects may well continue. While the cypherpunks are trying to hide and encrypt themselves, the status quo will try to break their codes. However, the symbolic resistance of encryption is still a method of self defense available to most people. While it might not totally prevent government spying, it still can make it harder for hackers and identity thieves from stealing your information.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Blindsided by Revolution

Saying that Turkey is unstable is an understatement. What began as a protest against the demolition of a park (to give the land to some developers) escalated across the country. What makes Turkey interesting, however, is some of the historical and geopolitical considerations. With the Syrian civil war already a proxy conflict for the US, Israelis, Arab League, Russians, and Iranians, relative political stability of actors cannot be taken for granted.

Since Ataturk founded the secular republic of Turkey, the military has had a habit of deposing governments they deem to be too religious (the ghost of Ataturk if you will) and then stepping aside as a new civilian regime takes power. It is arguable that without the secularist Ataturk founding the Republic in Ankara, the Ottoman Empire would have lingered on as some sort of colonial rump state (much like Saudi Arabia), with a vestigial monarch propped up with foreign weapons and funding.

 The current Prime Minister, Erdogan, has been keen to exploit religion (but not extensively) and has also been keen on using Turkish soil to assist rebels in Syria. The Turkish public was opposed to this, as no matter who won the civil war, fearing that heavy weapons could end up in the hands of the PKK (the Kurdish separatist group that has fought the Turks for decades). The Turks likewise feared getting drawn into the war. In addition, Erdogan's authoritarian response has galvanized many bystanders.

I believe the Turkish military is the key faction to watch. They have been rumblings of a coup against Erdogan before, and the military is helping the protestors against the police. Likewise, the dictator of Egypt was deposed by a military coup. The political aftermath, however, is uncertain. Whether there are elections, rigged elections, or de facto dictatorship is unknown. The new regime's position on its neighbors may likewise shift, perhaps retreating inwards to focus or attempting to distract people with foreign foes. The political stability of any government or regime is only as strong as the force it can use to defend it and the force of population that's had enough. What may be certain, though, is that some police chiefs may soon be joining criminals in jail.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Lessons in Supervillainy: Attorney General Eric Holder

Today's lecture will put an example of practical supervillainy into focus. A supervillain, by definition, uses their rank, connections, and abilities to commit massive crime, prevent the administration of justice, or preferably administer injustice. Now, in the United States, there is a Department of Justice, the group in charge of law enforcement administration at a Federal level. The Attorney General in charge of the DoJ is a Presidential Cabinet member and a powerful figure in the interpretation and enforcement of the laws of the land. 

As such, assignment of the position to a corrupt and/or criminally incompetent person would seriously compromise any attempts to retain the rule of law across the USA. As of this writing, the current holder of that position has done his best to turn the DoJ into the Department of Injustice. Appointing a corrupt public official to a position involving legal matters is the very incarnation of regulatory capture.

The list is certainly something worthy of a Bond villain more than an equitable arbiter. Some noteworthy events:

-Mexican drug cartels were armed by US law enforcement.

-Spying was performed upon all manner of political groups.

-There is a failure to prosecute the admission of nearly a trillion dollars with of money laundering for criminal and terrorist groups by mega-bank HSBC.

-The latest scandal, surveillance on even mainstream media reporters, is merely the icing on the cake.

 This is no isolated case, either. Neocon remnants of the Bush years linger on like a bad hangover. Interventions (overt and covert) continue. With due process free drone assassinations, indefinite detection on no evidence, blanket legal immunities for political and corporate leaders, and a growing gap between the rich and poor, what could possibly go wrong?  

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Spectacle of Violence

While the events involving a stabbing attack on a British soldier in London are still shrouded in uncertainty, possible revenge attacks have also started. The grisly spectacle has quickly devolved into a violence-porn media chasing every possible rumor or story. Whether the attackers had some religious or political motive or merely were apolitical attention seeking sociopaths, I do not know. This does, however, illustrate one of the darker points of the current media cycle.

Compared to the USA, the city of London has become a virtual police state (although the Americans are rapidly changing that). There are CCTV cameras everywhere, privatized police/security, and strict gun (and other weapon) control laws. Despite all of these 'precautions,' a mad slasher with a knife and one unlucky victim managed to provoke such a media reaction (and public backlash). A grim "return on investment" for the price of a cheap blade would be millions of pounds worth of police/security/media coverage of such an event that feeds upon itself as the frenzy builds.

For all the fuss about an inaccurate, exploding 3D printed gun in recent times, the knife attack serves to remind that the equipment for disruptive actions (including violent ones) is rarely far outside one's own kitchen. Even with development of 3D printers, firearms, and ad hoc explosives vanish from the earth, a single edged weapon can still stand as an assassin's weapon, as it has for the sum total of human history. Why should the future be different?

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Tipping Points

Corruption becomes routine as the facade of legality falls away. In particular, once the corruption reaches certain levels, it becomes routine. The political and legal systems become detached from the laws of nature and reality, even basic biology. As the gap between rich and poor widens, attempts at surveillance and control expand, even in prosperous countries. Despite the fact that a thriving middle class is a better deterrent to violence and crime, politicians still reach for powers even they barely comprehend. There comes a point when savvy members of the old order jump ship. That point may come as an unstable world economy crashes again.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Breeding House

Disease has long changed human history, from the Black Death to brain altering parasites. One problem with a lack of diversity and monoculture around the world, coupled with fragile political and financial institutions, is that a pandemic (or fears of one) can cause disruptions that terrorists could only dream of. As gaps between upper and lower classes grow, so does the lack of medical care. The classic Edgar Allen Poe story "The Masque of the Red Death" comes to mind, as decadent aristocrats hide within walled keeps as a plague devastates the country around them. As climate change accelerates and home biotech gets cheaper, designer diseases and basement bugs may give nature a kick in the pants.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Fun with Drones

Robotic insects take to the skies. These are the herald of things to come. Poisonous assassin bug swarms, surveillance drones, and others may claim descent from such work.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Distributed Republic

While the rotting husk of civilization is devoured by writhing maggots, many despair there is no alternative. This is untrue, as the failure of one mode of civilization often heralds the arrival of another. Does this mean that the developed world will collapse into a Mad Max-style scavenger world? Given the amount of engineers, technicians, and mechanics alive today, nothing short of a near-total extinction event would set do that. A widespread loss of technical knowledge is a rare event historically, and often is more a pressure to develop (or redevelop) technologies in new directions. Even with a catastrophic and sudden collapse of imports, a significant amount of materials can still be scavenged from landfills, wreckage, and other detritus. 
However, political and economic institutions have not kept pace with other technologies. As encrypted cyber-currencies, desktop manufacturing, home renewables, and mesh networks continue to spread, reliance on centralized infrastructure continues to decline. Laws and regulations on such technologies can only delay or hinder the inevitable. Climate change and resource depletion can easily strike at fragile global logistics changes. The status quo aims to sustain the unsustainable for as long as it can, and it will fight like a cornered animal. What could fill the void as a financial, rent-seeking kleptocracy over-expands its grip?
 The parasitic plutocrats would tell you that you need to surrender more rights, despite that approach not working. A smart “successor paradigm” would be able to navigate the laws of the “old order,” allow people to produce locally, and connect globally. It would be (at least somewhat) self-sufficient with regards to food, power, water, and manufacturing. In the event of a physical threat, it would have defenses and armed security. In the event of a legal threat, it would have access to lawyers and expert witnesses. Given the directions and trends of relevant technologies, a mostly self-contained enclave would not be out of the question.  

While the Seasteading Institute and Blue Seed projects attempt vaguely similar goals, my proposed approach retrofits existing infrastructure at a fraction of the cost rather than rely on capital-intensive construction of offshore platforms. While such an enclave could be a fortress, it could network with other enclaves like it to share policy, technical designs, and other information. Even if one enclave was under “attack,” it would be assisted by its peers. Now, how might such an organization be set up? First, you need perhaps a few dozen people around the world and the financial resources behind it (perhaps crowdfunding and clever deployment of volunteers, PR, and donations could help with that). A related concept is to sell “shares” in the community, in the spirit of co-op housing. Each shareholder in the community is a voter and offers to share within the social contract. A social contract and constitution would be composed, although it may be altered later. 

The next step would be acquiring real estate in various places around the world. Decrepit urban slums, rural land, or devalued suburbs could all be good places to start. Construction of new buildings or retrofitting of existing structures would occur, perhaps using tools like Open Source Ecology’s Global Village Construction Set or 3D printed building components.

Once the settlement is ready and population is moved in, you would need to hold elections. A security expert, legal expert, medical expert, technical expert, and the like might be selected, as well as an executive committee for leading. From here, the town could begin conducting business with its neighbors and/or its counterparts across the world. Legislative democracy could be handled in the manner of the Swiss, with a bicameral legislature consisting of direct democracy and another being a more “conventional” parliament or congress or senate (although term limits of some kind may be a prudent idea). Any citizen could propose legislation, and if it does not pass, the legislative body may propose counter-legislation as a compromise (or vice-versa). An Anglo-American styled Bill of Rights would serve as another layer of protection of civic rights. To prevent against kneejerk style legislation, legislation could be revived later after a “cool-down” period. A supreme judicial analog could assist with that. 
There could be a division between the rights that the distributed republic allows and the legal rights the “host country” allows. Say, there are differences in weapons policy. The distributed republic allows for a particular type of firearm to be held within its enclave that the host country does not. A “solution” could be for the distributed republic to “technically” own the firearm and complete whatever paperwork/permits/etc. for the person in question. (This likewise ensures the distributed republic is particular over who they hand out similar firearms to.) Likewise, this is why self-sufficiency is an admirable goal, being able to produce much of what they need in the event of an “embargo” or isolation from infrastructure.  

However, such a structure could also be used for “evil.” Imagine some of the kleptocrats jumping ship to small gated enclaves as everything else falls apart (as is common in cyberpunk literature). Or worse, imagine a mad cult (such as Aum Shinrikyo 2.0) with a similar structure spreading across the world in a similar way.

Keep in mind that less-savory nations exist today, but that does not prevent their neighbors from taking precautions. The old fashioned method of conquest becomes much harder against a distributed republic, as you must conquer or destroy every enclave around. Some historical cultures (often religious and ethnic minorities) would employ similar tactics across history. The distributed republic merely brings this concept into the present.