Holding out for a hero

After reading more of John Robb’s ideas comparing terrorist operations to the open source programming ethic, I’m beginning to think that the relation is a bit more than metaphorical. It’s clear that part of this “open source warfare” are groups of Muslim vandals who have taken to defacing sites. In spite of warnings that this might lead to denial of service attacks and more serious hacking threats, none have been corroborated yet (well, at least not by anyone credible). It’s all to easy to believe they are coming though. Recently Robb suggested that infrastructure-based attacks by small “open source” guerillas may be coming soon and “much of the instruction and research passed to these groups will be done through the Internet.” I’d take this one step further and say that some of the attacks may come through the internet as well. Meanwhile, it’s becoming more evident that threats from organizations that are neither companies nor nations are growing (or have grown) beyond the ability of national armies to defeat.

All of this, though, makes me wonder: where are the white hats? Surely the Muslim world doesn’t have a monopoly on groups of hackers willing to engage in a guerilla war for a cause they believe in, without any central organizing authority. And I’m not just talking about turning Hamas into smut peddlers. Combating these Islamist hackers requires a group willing to subject them to something they should fear: scrutiny. I’m thinking of, at least, some kind of web sites that would post things like “site X was hacked by these people — here’s what we know”. Naturally, such sites would get attacked, but that would actually be useful. There would also need to be some sort of trust system to control who could post, but the net is pretty good at figuring out that sort of stuff. More crucial would be participation of the sites being attacked. Some would be willing to share logs, some would be trickier. Most important would be the reaction of the military and intelligence agencies. I’d like to think they’d welcome the help, but chances are they’d try to shut it down. An open source counterinsurgency does run the risk of accidentally ruining “official” covert action of which it has no awareness, but I suspect that’d be a risk worth taking.

Undermining the emergent mind

Adam turned me on to John Robb’s article about emergent intelligence and the Iraqi insurgency. I posted a comment about it on Robb’s blog, but thought I’d reproduce it here as well.

If the five factors Robb mentions really are requirements, then the implication is that the elimination of any of them causes the collapse of the “intelligence” (whatever that means). This suggests a way to fight things like the insurgency in Iraq: destroy or prevent one or more of these factors. Taken in reverse order, this might be done as follows:

Openness to interaction is difficult to attack, because it is basically a personality trait, but it isn’t impossible. One way is to encourage “closed” men into authority by, say, eliminating rivals, providing intelligence or some other means. Another is to foster distrust between leaders. Any of these strategies, though, is fairly risky.

Pattern matching from stigmergic communication is a bit easier, because some of these environmental patterns can be manipulated or forged. Still, most of them can’t. Further, while it may be possible to anticipate the results of a pattern match, doing any of this requires high level of understanding of the insurgency thought process, which I don’t think the coalition has.

Random interactions are nearly impossible to stop. This is one area where the coalition is actively fighting (by incarcerating suspects to limit their movement). Ironically, this probably helps random interactions more than hinders them, as those few who are inevitably falsely imprisoned are certain to interact with real insurgents in an environment that breeds hostility to the coalition.

Local focus is more attackable than most of the other requirements, because it allows local action in opposition as well. Still, a crackdown in one locality likely just moves the “local action” to a different locality, so the best you could hope for here is somehow manipulating the insurgency into a locality of your own choosing. Those who subscribe to the “better to fight them in Iraq than here” mentality might reasonably claim that this has already been done successfully.

Preventing the critical mass of participants seems to me to be the most sure way to defeat this insurgency. Unfortunately, present tactics for doing so (incarceration into public and secret prisons) seem completely wrong, as they motivate individuals to participate who may not have otherwise. Fighting this requirement would seem to take a much longer timescale, essentially replacing the bias of the Muslim world’s educational system with one more slanted to the West. This is a timescale on which America is extremely bad at fighting, as its political system churns much faster.

“On the other hand, what if we threw a war and everybody showed up?”

Which of the following is an impeachable offense for a United States President?:

  1. Spending most of your presidency under the influence of mind-altering chemicals.
  2. Using various government agencies to eavesdrop/investigate political enemies (take your pick).
  3. Privately negotiating with an enemy nation to keep American hostages in captivity until after you are elected.
  4. Selling weapons to an enemy nation and using the proceeds to fund the former forces of a dictator to oppose the elected government that deposed him.
  5. Being unable to remember that you sold weapons to an enemy nation and used the proceeds to fund the former forces of a dictator to oppose the elected government that deposed him.
  6. Abandoning allies after they defeated your sworn enemy, then ignoring them as they build a regime that ultimately attacks the US.
  7. Allowing a satellite owned by a political contributer to be launched by a foreign power.
  8. Lying to congress about an extramarital blowjob.
  9. Lying to congress about the reasons for taking the country to war.

(Extra credit for Ann Coulter: which of the above are treasonous?)

Clearly #8 is the correct answer, as it actually happened. I think everything else on the list is monumentally more severe, however. Item #9 became more topical a few weeks ago, when Bush held an interview that gave the distinct impression that a) he would have invaded Iraq anyway and b) he was not interested in invading Iran, a country that arguably is trying to develop WMDs. Some have taken this as a concrete admission that he lied about why we are at war, though it’s pretty clear the administration has been backpedaling on the reasons for war for some time.

While there will be some easily forgotten furor from the left about this, it won’t turn out to be nearly the uprising that it probably should be and some really foaming voices on the left will wonder why, genuinely baffled that the public isn’t furious for being duped.

I think the reason the public won’t be furious is that none of them were really that misled. Take you, for example: did you honestly, truly, deep-down believe that Saddam Hussein was rapidly preparing nukes, chemical and germ weapons to the extent that attacks with them against the US were a imminent threat clear and present danger? I didn’t. I don’t know anyone who did. I don’t know anyone who thought that the “WMD rationale” was anything other than a pretext.

Basically, the public gave Bush a pass on lying to us, just like we seem to always do with our leaders. I suspect we won’t be so forgiving about the lie that more executive power is needed to make us safe, but more on that later.

Africa’s ruin or salvation

The Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory can now make gem quality diamonds at reasonable speed. This seems like a great thing because it seriously threatens to destroy one of the more repugnant companies on the planet: DeBeers. For decades, DeBeers has enjoyed a monopoly on the world’s diamond market, keeping the price of what is actually a fairly common mineral high by means of controlling its supply. They’ve used this monopoly to fix prices, influence and back brutal governments and indirectly fund violence against civilians. To it’s credit, DeBeers has been strongly lobbying against conflict diamonds recently, though I can’t help suspect this has more to do with further controlling supply than altruism.

Nearly all of the “common knowledge” about diamonds is a direct result of DeBeers marketing. They completely invented the “traditions” of the diamond engagement ring and tenth anniversary band and how much should be spent on each (“two months salary”, unless you live in Japan, where it is three). They are directly responsible for glamour attached to diamonds in film, backing films featuring diamonds and seeding celebrities like Marilyn Monroe with jewels for public occasions, a practice with many imitators today. All of the “common sayings” about diamonds are either DeBeers marketing slogans (“diamonds are forever”) or commissioned songs (“diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). Recently DeBeers has been using feminism to market the right hand diamond ring. (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were also masters of the altered deal.)

Synthetic diamonds are nothing new. Heck, you can even get the carbon released from cremating your body pressed into a gemstone. What is new is the low cost and high speed of production already achieved by Carnegie Institution. Mass produced gem-quality synthetic diamonds could completely undermine the DeBeers monopoly by creating an essentially infinite supply of diamonds that are higher quality than nearly all mined diamonds and completely independent of geography. Further, if the inventors of this process are really interested in using it to usher in the diamond age, they would license it very widely and cheaply. It’s conceivable that anyone with electricity could eventually grow gem-quality diamonds in their home. In this scenario, though, making gems would likely be a small afterthought to more impressive uses of similar technology (like building an elevator to space). Chances are, this won’t happen, at least for a while. Either DeBeers will come to control this new process or those that do control it will reach a “gentlemen’s agreement” with DeBeers limiting production of gems (tactics similar to those they used with GE and the Soviet Union).

Sooner or later, though, technology will reach the point when diamonds and other gems can be manufactured on a scale large enough to destroy conventional mining. The descendants of DeBeers will probably end up owning a big chunk of this industry, so they should (unfortunately) come out OK. The citizens of Africa, on the other hand, are likely to get really, really screwed by this development.

Over half the world’s diamonds are mined in Africa. In the country of Bostwana alone, in the year 2000, diamonds represented 36% of GDP and 82% of exports. Imagine that just vanishing over the space of a couple of years. Add to that the ancillary economy that supports and surrounds all that mining and you get a fairly bleak future, especially since unemployment there is already between 22 and 40% and roughly a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.

More diversified countries like South Africa should fare better, but trouble in African countries tends to spill into its neighbors one way or another.

Should the rapid collapse of the diamond mining industry come to pass, I predict an equally rapid increase in what Africa has proven, over the last fifty years, that it does really well: genocide. Since the rest of the world has indicated that it doesn’t give two shits about what happens in Africa, loss of mining income will lead to battles for control of natural resources coupled with campaigns against nearby helpless ethnicities. While militaries seize oil fields and logging operations, “terrorists” sporting equipment mysteriously identical to the local military will start slaughtering the scapegoats of the day. The tinpot thug who runs the place will vocally decry the “terrorists” but, equally mysteriously, will be unable to stop them. His wife(s) will embezzle several hundred million dollars and relocate to Europe. After the killing has gone on for several years, Kofi Annan will be horrfied and state that something must be done. The UN will ignore him by endlessly debating “sanctions”.

After a long period of this, maybe fifty years or so, people will start realizing that Africa is the only place left on Earth with easily accessible natural resources (timber, oil, various metals, uranium, cheap labor, etc.) The resulting resource rush and potential Renaissance should be something to behold, for the dozen or so Africans still alive to witness it.

Faint praise for antievolutionists

Kansas (a few miles from my birthplace physically, light years philosophically) is considering changing their definition of science from:

Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us


Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory-building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena

Started by proponents of intelligent design (ID), this has raised a huge outcry (mostly from those in other states) who view it as an attempt to inject religion into schools. While I can’t find much wrong in the suggested definitional change, those who fear the creationists have legitimate grounds to do so, given the release of the wedge memo into the wild. This memo “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” by creating a scientific-sounding basis for God and brainwashing people with it (instead of the Bible). The creation of ID is “phase I” of the strategy in this memo. The activity in Kansas is phase II.

While I have as much use for creationism as I do for the African myth of Bumba vomiting up the sun, my reaction to the events in Kansas, even if they do make this change, is fairly indifferent. This is for three reasons. The first is that I don’t think the wedge strategy will work. In fact, I think it will actually make creationism weaker. Right now, some evidence exists that evolution isn’t taught that much even now, particularly before high school, because creationists raise a ruckus about it. The semi-parody Evolution Outreach Project, for example, offers “gifts for science teachers” that include bullet-proof vests and stun guns. The wedge strategy seeks to replace the ruckus with a presentation of both ID and evolution. While the balance of such presentation is likely to vary widely (as per the wedge strategy), it seems to me that any mention of evolution in school (even negatively) is better than none. I suspect that most people who have chosen to teach science tend to lean more towards evolution anyway, some of whom will jump at the opportunity to openly teach rationality. Some teachers are already figuring out ways to do this:

There’s no question that if science teachers had their druthers, they wouldn’t be teaching intelligent design or gratuitously criticizing evolution in their classrooms. But they do. They can whine or refuse or resign. How much better for them to take this opportunity to teach their students while exasperating their school boards with the power of thoughtful investigation. And have a whole lot of fun doing so.

That ID embraces this “thoughtful investigation” seems even better for evolutionists. In a true stand-up comparison between evolution and ID, evolution completely crushes ID as a rigorous, scientific theory. Granted, you might not get that impartial comparison everywhere, but my guess is you’d see it more than you do now.

I’d rather have kids in conservative Christian parts of the country learning about a semi-sensible, though flawed, concept of “irreducible complexity” rather than “it’s true because it’s in the Bible”. At least the former follows some semblance of active logical thought, rather than passive surrender of cognition to vauge authority.

Secondly, I think the power of a school to influence thought on this subject is overrated. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that people, even kids, rarely change their opinion because of facts. More often, an opinion is formed first, then “facts” are found (or disgarded) in order to justify it. Regardless of what they hear in school, kids who want to believe in a creator will likely continue to do so and kids that don’t, likely won’t. For many of them, it won’t particularly matter what the curriculum is.

Lastly, as flawed as intelligent design is, both it and the political tactics that back it are significantly healthier than previous religious objections to science that dissagreed with dogma (which usually involved setting people on fire). Those who oppose evolution are, dare I say it, evolving.