Saturday, 30 March 2013

Varangian Arms: Tyrannosaur

Here's a pistol that is extinct and impractical by modern standards, but was the apex predator of its day. The Colt Dragoon was a historic firearm that was itself a shortened/lighter version of the Colt Walker. The Dragoon was intended to be used by mounted troops, hence the name. It weighed about 4 lbs/2 kgs, and was intended to be carried in a saddle holster (as opposed to a belt one). The weight, however, made it fairly accurate and handling recoil much easier. This Varangian Arms project is simply a Colt Dragoon with a few twists that revive the beast it once was, and make it something perfect for retro-future dinosaur hunting:

-A cartridge conversion cylinder (and perhaps ejector rod) able to handle .45 BPM (Black Powder Magnum).

-A somewhat lighter frame if possible (perhaps more akin to a Colt 1860 Army).

-Perhaps a shorter barrel (if used in a conventional holster), ranging from 14 cm/5.5 in to 20 cm/8 in.

-Optionally, hand grips with a Tyrannosaurus Rex on them could be attached to the grip.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Future Shocked

Technology advances at a breakneck pace as corrupted institutions metastasize into Orwellian bureaucracies at a close rate. The signs of rule of law are generally thrown in front of a train as organizations prey on their former customers and clients.

To further add to the confusion is the effects of advancing technology. In military science, technology is not only a force multiplier for armed forces, but also enables new venues of attack previous generations would consider impossible. Imagine explaining cyberattacks to a World War II tank commander. Asymmetric warfare favors the small groups and even individuals, and their powers only increase over time. Today’s cutting edge research is tomorrow’s niche hobby.

With resource depletion, climate change, and economic collapse, the ruling elites are trying their hardest to hold onto power of vestigial structures. However, their desire and desperation to hold onto power are often the things that destroy the institutions they depend on. Corruption means that more disaffected individuals will arise, regardless of how many riots or uprisings are put down. Lots of broad bans on technologies and fields of research mean amateurs are less likely to hold things, but only a few professionals (who may or may not game the system for their own benefits). Surveillance and arrest of dissidents (including those practicing “legal” methods of dissent) means that change within institutions becomes much more unlikely. Expansive domains shrink as the costs of maintaining them exceed wealth extracted.

On the positive side, though, technologies exist for eliminating poverty and alleviating resource depletion (albeit treating symptoms rather than causes). From cheap desalinization to renewable energy to 3D printing to impressive medicaltechnology, we will need everything we can. Living under a dystopian police state out of a cyberpunk novel is bad enough, but as technologies get cheaper and more widespread, we may at least get a postcyberpunk future instead.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Iktomi: The Zeitgeist of the Third Wave

As the Third Wave crashes into a sickly and dying Second Wave system, a mythological entity may be worth revisiting. Iktomi was a spider-spirit of Lakota folklore. He was a bringer of technology, and also a trickster. An accomplice of Coyote, he would often give people new technology. Sometimes, the technology itself is a trick, a method of distracting an unwary victim from seeing the true purpose of it. Iktomi was believed to have a hold over European and American settlers, who inadvertently spread Iktomi’s web (telegraph lines and railroads) across the land.   
Iktomi is also correlated with communications, like Mercury. Like the Norse Loki or African Anansi, he is a trickster. The trickster archetype was correlated with hackers in recent decades, and some parallels with Iktomi are fairly logical. Both manipulate lines of communication to play tricks. Both bring novelty and new technologies. 

Hacking and cyberwar have been on the news recently. However, much about cyberwarfare is fear-mongering. Military and technological secrets tend to remain secrets for a very short time, especially in the present. Cyberwarfare favors the defender, and each cyberattack is often a single use weapon. After a cyberattack, security holes that led to it are typically the first things that get closed. Types of cyberattackers range from cyber-criminals (who merely seize something and run), cyber-spies (looking for intel or doing counterintelligence), cyber-terrorists (seeking a target of opportunity), and cyber-warriors (seeking to actively disable another network/system). Cyberweapons, such as Stuxnet and Flame, can easily be reverse engineered by their former targets. The political chiding to “improve cyber-security” may very well be a mandate to spend more on overpriced, under-efficient “security” software. Once again, the “security theater” replaces the rather boring reality. Many of the folks hawking “cybersecurity” products are the modern analogs of Basil Zaharoff.  

But to return to Iktomi, let us examine a cyber-attack as a form of combined arms. Even non-state actors could combine multiple vectors of an attack or plan to accomplish their goals. This process does not necessarily have to involve violence, destruction, or even illegality. An activist group could release leaked documents at the same moment a video goes viral. Iktomi may parallel the cypherpunk culture. As more things become networked, it becomes harder to completely shut down the internet, even if there is a “kill switch” (or more mundane power failures).

The technologies that thrive as Second Wave nation-states and corporations recede are decentralized ones. Permaculture and aquaponics may remove (or at least reduce) the need for food. Makerspaces allow for relocalized manufacturing. Solar panels and DIY renewables (such as homemade biofuels on a number of farms) could replace faulty power grids. Encrypted cybercurrencies like Bitcoin could act as a metric for a number of local currencies. There would be less need to rely on dying, stodgy bureaucracies. Iktomi would have the last laugh.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Mad Science at Home

There is a number of topics I could address this week, such as the food scandal in Europe, the spread of drones in the USA, or the rumblings of a genuine supervillain state in North Korea. However, the creation of mad science innovations at home is only beginning compared to what it may become despite (or perhaps because of) government laws. Death rays may join homemade firearms and explosives as weapons of mad scientists. Perhaps drones may be the new guns, in the sense of a disruptive technology everyone rushes to ban. Given the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure and possibilities of destructive drone swarms, protection will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Tomorrow's "terrorists" may lack ideology or cause, save destroying something and seeing what happens. The instability of the current world system becomes even more strained as a result. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Potemkin Economies: System D and Stealth Inflation

The black and gray market is one poised for rapid growth. Recently, horsemeat was found in hamburgers in the UK instead of beef. This has far larger implications than ruined fast food. This was due to the authentic product being too expensive for the supplier to handle. This is a type of “stealth inflation,” a substitute of lower quality goods instead of the advertised content. A recent Supreme Court case in the US threatens to gut what remains of consumer protections and the ability to sue for violations of them. Given the massive money printing in the US, UK, EU, and other economies, stealth inflation is sure to rise as the currency wars expand. 

System D, the globalized black market, rushes to fill the gap. From anonymous currencies like Bitcoin to shady distributors, the alternative networked economy may soon replace the economy that political and financial talking heads dwell within. Like the Potemkin villages of the Soviet Union, the economic “growth” benefits a few connected individuals at the expense of the many. As Charles Stross writes, worldwide democracy is malfunctioning, as politicians race to defend the illusion of the prior status quo at all costs. 

Those costs increasingly include everything that made those nations free and pleasant places to live in the first place. Civil liberties, developed infrastructure, and other quality of life metrics increasingly circle the drain. The political elites and business elites escape trial with impunity. Faith in governments and economies decreases as do the natural resources that fuel the status quo too many people take for granted. The entire socio-political structure resembles a decaying bridge with heavy trucks driven across it. The wrong one will set into motion a costly cascade of economic and political failures. 

As Alvin Toffler wrote in "The Third Wave," the dominant political and economic machinery of the Second Wave (industrial, bureaucratic nation-states) increasingly fails and falters. The reason many corporate and political elites grasp for power is not out of confidence in the future but desperation. Ironically, the desperate measures they use may easily accelerate the negative trends instead of fixing them, such as silencing and prosecuting whistleblowers instead of dealing with corruption. This allows the tumor of corruption to grow unchecked, and capture or compromise the rest of the "checks and balances" against it. This is why bureaucracies may be vulnerable to "regulatory capture," especially at the highest levels. This is by no means limited to "socialism," as private companies may have books cooked by a corrupt executive seeking to cover up numbers seem better than they actually are. 

The answer lies not in returning to feudalism (whether corporate socialism or "First Wave" agrarian feudalism), but in a "Third Wave" society. The Third Wave (Information Revolution) could create all manner of new systems. Cyberdemocracy, semi-direct democracy (perhaps some fusion of the Swiss and Icelandic models), or perhaps even a distributed polity in the style of "The Diamond Age" may prove viable. 

One possible vector for infiltrating an existing political entity is a form of "auto-immune disease," turning its political and economic machinery against it. Imagine a non-profit corporation, or a corporation serving as a "host" for related subsidiaries, sharing a new organizational structure (workplace democracy with company catered dorms/lodging/etc.).  New industries (including ones to make it self sufficient) could easily bud off and spread. It could offer social capital, technical capital (in the form of education and training), and perhaps legal or political capital (assuming lawyers could be hired). Of course, keeping such a structure from becoming a cult of some sort is another challenge. Of course, some religious and cultural enclaves (especially close-knit ones from various diasporas) could be a good example or place to start from. 

Such alternative polities are a topic for later, however. The bottom line is that despite its best efforts, the Second Wave institutions and status quo are their own worst enemies. New institutions are arising, and often employ swarming tactics against their slower foes. A Second Wave enemy may act like a great white shark, while a Third Wave enemy may act like a school of piranhas. Time will tell how long the Second Wave system takes to fail past, or if it drags the world ecology down with it. As the illusion falls away, the world's Potemkin economies will be revealed for the frauds that they are.