Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against Us

Part One

My father passed away quietly on Wednesday the 12th of February 2015 at 5:45 AM, his body ravaged by melanoma. He was 84. His mortal coil had served its purpose, his spirit still surrounds me.

We only learned about the melanoma in January, though we now know that the problems he began having with his balance two years earlier were probably caused by the tumor in his brain. It is surprising that he had the strength to resist it so long, but once it became apparent it advanced rapidly - in some ways it was mercifully quick.

I suppose my relationship with my father was like most human relationships, mixing profound goodness with petty annoyances and the occasional absurdity. Where to start in describing my father? He was a devoted husband and father who nevertheless had difficulty understanding and communicating with his children; he was a patriot and federal employee who sometimes resented his government; he expected reverence and decorum when it came to sacred things but sometimes, especially in his later years, swore in church - and would only get more frustrated and louder if this was pointed out to him.

He was, in short, a human being - valuable despite his flaws, valuable because of his flaws, committed to the well-being of others and benefiting many, yet sometimes unintentionally hurting those closest to him. Quite normal in that regard.

In the weeks before and after his death my thoughts were flooded with memories of my father and his influence on my life. I remembered the time my sisters wanted to camp out in the back yard, and so my father went out with them - and me - to spend the night in a tent. My sisters soon decided that they preferred to be inside, but I slept peacefully through the night and my father stayed right there beside me though he was starting to realize that he no longer liked camping as much as he once did. I remembered a trip to a cabin belonging to a friend of my father's somewhere in the mountains of Virginia: - in the evening we went out into a field and looked at the stars, and my father showed me how to identify the constellation Orion; during the night I fell out of an upper bunk and my father looked after me; in the morning we played frisbee in the cool mountain air. I remembered some of the many trips we would take, several years in the 1970s traveling to Elim Lodge in Ontario, and going out on the lake with my father and a local man who owned a motor boat, and visiting the ruins of several homes that had been severely damaged by flooding, one of which had fallen into the lake - it was quite an adventure! We visited nearby Peterborough, where my father (a mechanical engineer) greatly enjoyed watching the Lift Lock in action and sharing it with us children. I went to a restaurant about the time of his death and saw a limited selection of soft drinks - A&W Root Beer and Orange soda - and I remembered that these were my first two choices of soft drink when our family took a five week trip around the U.S. and Canada in the summer of 1983, when we visited Annapolis, Boston, Ottawa, Sault Sainte Marie, Bemidji, Fargo, the Badlands, Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore, Devil's Tower, Yellowstone, Calgary, Banff, Vancouver, Seattle, Mt. St. Helens, the Bonneville Dam, Boise, one corner of Nevada so my mother could say she had been there, the Salt Flats and Salt Lake City, Pike's Peak, the Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, my father's home town of Rolla, Missouri, and many points in between - too numerous to mention. I recall going through most of Kansas at night because there was a heat wave at that time - one parent at a time driving while the rest of us slept in the back of the van. At some point on that trip I developed a high fever, and though we usually camped out my father found a hotel so I could cool down in a cold bath.

I remembered him teaching me how to swim; teaching me to tell time with a "clock" made of a paper plate, paper hands connected with a round-head paper fastener and penned in numbers; teaching me pioneering and how to use a compass; teaching me drafting; teaching me about negative numbers years before it was covered in school.

I remembered our many trips to historic places, especially battlefields such as Yorktown and Cowpens, and I have fond memories of being with my parents at Camp of the Woods and Harvey Cedars in the 1970s. I remembered the Word of Life camp in upstate New York, a terrible experience where the camp prevented children from seeing their parents all week and the counselors were cruel, with only two redeeming points - the astronaut James Irwin spoke to us at an assembly, just a few years after his lunar landing, and one of the boys in a Tom Sawyer move had managed to persuade me to pay him $5 (a lot of money for a kid at the time, and most of my spending money) for a worthless toy pistol. I didn't realize the significance of the latter until many years later, because when my father found out what had happened he went and had a talk with the boy's father, and came back with $5 for me. He acted as if he had persuaded the man to correct the situation, but years later I found that toy pistol in one of dad's boxes and I realized what he had done.

My father did not spend so much money on himself - I think he made some of his socks last more than 50 years, continually darning the holes when he wore the heels through. Sometimes he would pick my socks out of the laundry and repair them too, even though I repeatedly told him he really didn't have to. Despite his frugality he was generous to others, and though he never advertised the fact I know there were years where charitable causes accounted for more than half of his total spending.

The Boy Scouts and the military were huge influences on my father's childhood and throughout his life, though truth to tell he was not a natural military man. He lived in the nearest town to Fort Leonard Wood, where many soldiers trained during the Second World War, and his father had a small taxi cab business that often provided transportation for the soldiers. Though he never gave details, I have often suspected that he befriended several soldiers who came through town but who did not make it through the war. Certainly he would sometimes choke up when remembering the soldiers who came through his home town. He graduated from the college there, then called the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, though he was no more a natural engineer than he was a natural soldier. All the same, he applied himself and graduated in 1952 and was commissioned in the Army Corps of Engineers, and shortly after was sent to the Alaska Territory where he was attached to the Air Force and involved in the construction of runways at remote sites. After two years active duty he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a civilian for the Department of the Navy and later the Foreign Science and Technology Center. His job sites included buildings that stood on what is now the National Mall as well as the Pentagon. With his usual sense of humor he noted on 9/11 that his office was right where one of the aircraft struck and he was lucky to get out in the nick of time - with only 35 years to spare. It was in Washington that he met my mother, and they married in April 1964. (They celebrated their 50th anniversary on a river cruise in Europe, though my father had difficulty walking by that time.) In 1970 his job moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, which is where I and my sisters spent our most formative years. He served as a Scoutmaster in Charlottesville for a few years, and later got me started in the Scouts there - wanting me to have the same formative experiences that had served him so well. During this time he completed the coursework and graduated from the Army's Command and General Staff College, attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserves, and in the hope of establishing a firm financial foundation for our family he took classes to learn how to make money in real estate. (As a child I misunderstood what was being said, and thought he was taking roller skate classes. I was perplexed when he did not show much skill at the local skating rink.)

At the same time, he had his faults. He was deeply critical, and though he mostly criticized himself he was also critical of our family. During those years of adolescence when encouragement is so sorely needed he had a knack of undermining the confidence of his children at just that moment when it would hurt the most. Even there, however, I wonder if weaknesses cannot be strengths. While I took on a good degree of his critical nature - which can be healthy within limits - I ultimately developed a deeper confidence in myself. Being forced to examine myself critically I can be confident in those things which have passed muster, and I am more able to recognize and ignore those critics whose opinions are uninformed and worthless. Though I also needed encouragement, having one person in my life to add an element of criticism has had its uses - and knowing that such an intelligent and capable person could often be wrong has allowed me to question anyone whose opinions are not backed up by the facts.

I barely touched on all the good things my father did for our family, for the community, and even for people in far flung countries whom he never met personally. I would like to say that he was a remarkable man of great worth - and he was - but saying that distorts the picture, because there are millions, if not billions, much like him - looking out for family, friends, and community in their own ways, large and small. They do so without expectation of recognition or reward. They are all around us, in my community and your community and among every community on earth, and they make civilization possible.

Part Two

My father never quite understood music, but a few days prior to his passing my mother recalled a line from one hymn he heard years ago that he loved, and as I was waiting on the morning of February the 12th to give him a dose of morphine to ease his pain I looked up that hymn online, and played several versions on YouTube to make sure it was the right hymn. When I went to give him the dose, I realized he was no longer breathing - the last version of that hymn still playing in the background.

I own the cattle on a thousand hills,
I write the music for the whippoorwills,
Control the planets with their rocks and rills,
But give you freedom to use your own will.
And if you want Me to, I’ll make you whole,
I’ll only do it tho’ if you say so.
I’ll never force you, for I love you so,
I give you freedom - Is it “yes” or “no”?
The curious thing is that most of the references to this song that I found online were from strict Calvinists who hated the hymn because it affirmed free will, as if free will and predestination are in conflict - as if knowing what will happen is to cause it to happen, as if God choosing the elect necessitates that the elect do not choose God. These commentators denounced this hymn as heresy, on the count that God is sovereign and would never allow men to choose their own fate. I don't know who their god is, but I don't consider him worthy of worship - and I know what Jesus said about such sticklers for the law - "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean."

I suppose I took it a little personally. After all, my father subscribed to mostly Calvinist beliefs himself, and the one hymn that he found beautiful these dimwits had to denounce as heretical. I don't need to be a theologian to know that Jesus emphasized only two laws:
And [Jesus] said to him, "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?" And [the lawyer] answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And [Jesus] said to him, "You have answered correctly; Do this and you will live."
What is more, those two laws might be summed up in one word:  Love.

The rest, as Rabbi Hillel might say, is commentary. Such commentary is useful in determining how best to love, but it is not the final word.

Is it heresy to affirm free will - or to affirm predestination, for that matter? I think not. I recognize only one heresy: Inventing exceptions to the Law of Love. We may find it necessary to punish bad behavior, to prevent murderers and thieves and those who would pervert justice from doing ill, but it is not acceptable to stop loving them. In Sembene Ousmane's "God's Bits of Wood", Maïmouna sings:
"From one sun to another,
The combat lasted,
And fighting together, blood-covered,
They transfixed their enemies.
But happy is the man who does battle without hatred."

I began writing this shortly after my father died, but I delayed finishing it, figuring it may be too soon to write dispassionately on the subject. For several months before my father's death it seemed like everything was breaking down, and the previous October I was involved in a four or six vehicle accident (I don't know how to count it when the wrecker that hit my car was carrying one vehicle on its back and towing another behind) that I survived with minimal injury (those who saw the car were amazed that I was not in the hospital). Twelve days after my father's death the daughter of a friend and co-worker was murdered. I only met her once, but I remember her as a cheerful young girl who clearly loved her brother. Not long after that, another co-worker's mother-in-law died suddenly of natural causes. It suddenly seemed like Death was everywhere.

I don't like Death.

Part Three

René Descartes, attempting to start reasoning from the very beginning, began his proof of the world with the famous words "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). What is less well known is that in the course of his investigations he considered the possibility that his senses were being fooled - that some unknown evil genius was acting to fool him into believing in a world external to himself. Descartes dismissed this as unlikely, but new developments have many, including myself, believing quite the opposite - that it is likely that we live in a simulated world.

The reasoning is simple: we live in a society that is on the cusp of being able to create such virtual worlds; it is almost certain that we will create not just one, but multiple virtual worlds, as we have good reasons to do so: for teaching children, developing character, historical simulations, or entertainment; these worlds may have one inhabitant, several inhabitants, or an infinite number of inhabitants; with n number of virtual worlds and one "real" world, the chances of living in the original world will be 1/n. As n approaches ∞, our chance of living in the real world will approach 1/∞ - which is to say that we are infinitely more likely to live in a virtual world than an original one. When we consider that many of our virtual worlds will resemble our own and could not be distinguished as such by those inside it, it is practically certain that our world is not "original" and that it has a Creator. If this world was created for the purpose of character development, it is likely that this Creator has provided some sort of trail markers to guide us; we should keep in mind that such an environment is more suitable for the education of independent thinkers than for automatons - independent thinkers who nevertheless have a commitment to the well-being of others.

What would this Creator do with their successful independent thinkers? Just as we save the most successful outputs of computer programs, this Creator may "save" these independent thinkers for use in their own reality - printing out people the way we print out a document. Unsuccessful outputs may be recycled - edited and manipulated until they are successful; or they may be deleted - consigned to oblivion.

Part Four

There has been considerable talk lately of a "Hive Mind" (more accurately Swarm Intelligence) - a level of consciousness greater than that of the individual and largely invisible to the individual, akin to Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand". The example usually given is that of a bee hive or an ant colony: the individuals involved act out relatively simple and well-defined behaviors, but together they create complex physical and social structures. We might describe the human body the same way: it is made up of individual cells that begin with the same DNA but which take on specialized roles; the individual cells are relatively simple and unthinking, but when trillions are connected they create a human being and the emergent phenomenon of human consciousness. Individual cells constantly die and are replaced, but the human consciousness continues.

In recent years, the development of the internet has brought the world together in ways that most could not conceive just thirty years ago. Acting like a nervous system, the internet has connected billions of individuals in real time, to the point that some young people have difficulty conceiving life without it. It is worth considering what emergent phenomenon might come from this. It seems reasonable that a civilization of trillions of interconnected human beings will produce an emergent phenomenon as much greater than the individual as a human being is greater than a single human cell. (There are only a little over 7 billion human beings alive today - we had better get to work!)

I am reminded, in fact, of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: "Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." Now, in Christian theology Christ is God and God is Christ, but few (if any) would acknowledge that if members of the church are the body of Christ, then the members of the church must be God, collectively - but that is the clear implication. Paul wrote of individuals being a part of the body, as a foot or a hand or an eye, because that is what the people he wrote to could understand. We know about cells and other structures about which Paul knew nothing - but Paul describes a Hive Mind nevertheless, even if he did not know what he was describing.

There are other hints in the Bible. In 1 John chapter 3 John writes "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

It is amusing talking to a Protestant traditionalist. Evolution, they tell us, cannot be true, because each species can only reproduce after their own kind (which is technically not true - there are many viable hybrids). The children of goats can only be goats, the children of geese can only be geese, the children of skinks can only be skinks. "So what," I ask them, "does a child of God become?"

"A child of God!" they proclaim proudly.

"But when they grow up, what does a child of God become?" I ask.

"One of God's children?" they respond, not understanding where I am going.

This can be repeated for multiple iterations, but they will never say the obvious: "A child of God must grow up to become God." This, they believe, is heresy.

But it is the natural conclusion of what both Paul and John proclaimed - only understandable through the concept of the Hive Mind, or the cell that is an integral part of a multi-cellular organism - both essential in the aggregate and expendable as an individual.

It is not accidental that both Paul and John, after writing the passages referenced above, proceeded to discuss the importance of Love.

God is Love, and Love is essential to prevent a Hive Mind from disintegrating.

Part Five

Our civilization is increasing its abilities at an accelerating rate. Our global community is now capable of feats that were deemed impossible only a few decades ago, and what we know to be possible is almost limitless. Theoretically, the material from the asteroid belt could be used to support a population of a hundred trillion people - and we could also disassemble mercury, venus, and other objects orbiting the sun for additional material. Faster than light interstellar travel also appears theoretically possible.

Even better, researchers investigating aging now believe that aging may be preventable, even reversible - which offers the possibility of indefinite lifespans for individuals, not just the metaphorical immortality of the collective. If that is not possible, then Mind Uploading may allow individuals to transcend the bodies they were born in.

Most intriguing of all, however, is the possibility of time travel. It is theoretically possible, though no one seems to have a good idea for how to accomplish it practically. That may not be an obstacle, though. If we can establish a population of trillions it is likely that someone will eventually hit on it. Combine Mind Uploading with Time Travel, and the result is the Resurrection of the Dead. (Of course, as per my musings about virtual worlds, it is not the only possible route to resurrection.)

Arthur C. Clarke's famous Third Law is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." We might extend this to say "Any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from God."

There are a number of theories about the universe, and one of them is that it is a four-or-more-dimensional solid. In such a universe, time is simply one more dimension, like length, width, or depth. If time travel is possible, then a curious fact about time travel is that once a civilization is able to master time, it has always been able to do so. If the universe is a solid and we travel through time in the future, then it follows that we have already done so, and have already changed the past to create our present. Our fate has already been woven and the elect have all been chosen - even as they choose themselves.

Theologically, God exists outside of time. God has no limits, except those limits imposed by being God. It occurs to me that the idea of God as Hive Mind could answer certain questions, such as the problem of evil. Why does God permit evil? Well, the answer might be revealed in the short story 'Wikihistory' by Desmond Warzel, which follows the online discussion of a Time Traveler's forum in the year 2104. It appears many new time travelers want to go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler, unaware that doing so will change the future: "Permit me to sum it up and save you the trouble: no Hitler means no Third Reich, no World War II, no rocketry programs, no electronics, no computers, no time travel. Get the picture?" In short, our future selves are limited in how they change the past, and cannot do anything that prevents their future selves from becoming their future selves. Furthermore, it is the shortcomings of our world that compel us to create something better. We might say that the evils of this world are the birth pains of God, who creates Himself. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life." (Revelations 21)

Part Six

Hell is the metaphorical abode of the dead. The fiery realm is an error in cultural translation. Gehenna was the place where worshipers of Moloch once sacrificed their children by fire, which later became a place where trash was burned. The fire represented not eternal torment, but oblivion. (God can be harsh, but not pointlessly cruel.) In the same manner Jesus spoke of wheat and tares: "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, 'First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

If current trends continue, we will see lifespans increasing - becoming indefinite, perhaps eternal - but there will be at least one generation that remembers the past, one generation that will want to bring back their parents and their grandparents, and if they bring them back their parents and grandparents will want to resurrect their parents and grandparents. In short, if we develop the ability to resurrect the dead we will eventually resurrect everyone. In an age of abundance, there will be more than enough resources for everyone - and we will want to share them with those who came before us. There will, however, remain one problem: while the errors of the past can be forgiven, the future must be safeguarded - and while some have erred for reasons that can be corrected, others have done ill because of their character. Can we allow the latter to enter a future where they have access to unimaginable power?

Our hypothetical sufficiently advanced civilization would prefer that every soul be saved, but it is also realistic. There are hints in the teachings of Jesus: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5); the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13); "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3).

What do these have in common? Domestication. "Meek" describes a domesticated animal - particularly one whose strength has been harnessed; wheat and tares are the same species, but wheat is domesticated - and bears fruit; and little children? Human beings are sometimes known as the neotenous ape. Neoteny is an evolutionary process that relies on the retention of juvenile traits: some of the physical and psychological characteristics tend to clump together - and are also present in many domesticated animals. It has been hypothesized that humans have self-domesticated, which has allowed humans to become less fearful, less aggressive, and more cooperative - all traits which allow us to work together towards shared ends - all traits necessary to civilization. Within the animal kingdom humans are relatively weak, puny creatures - just as ants are far weaker than the solitary wasps they are related to - but cooperative behavior allows us to be strong as a whole.

Part Seven

My father, Dick Light, was both an ordinary and extraordinary man. He had his faults, but he was deeply committed to the welfare of others and his God - and he did a great deal of good for the world. I won't address here which is the "one, true religion". I find many similarities in the major religions and I figure a sufficiently advanced civilization may even wish to have several true religions, as it is sometimes necessary to speak to different peoples in a language they can understand. Besides, groupthink (or monoculture) can be a devastating thing, and having communities at odds with each other can increase the health of the whole.

We are told that God is perfect, holy, and complete - and I consider that no one person can be all things, but a group can get pretty close. Of course Paul wrote about the Body of Christ, but I have another analogy I keep in mind: motor vehicles. What is the perfect motor vehicle? Is it a high performance sports car, a sedan, a bus, a tractor trailer, or a motorcycle? The answer is that there is no such thing as a perfect vehicle. Which vehicle you need depends on what is most important to you when you need it - number of passengers, amount of cargo, speed, efficiency, safety - all of these factors come into play. In the same way there is no such thing as a perfect person, only the person who is required at a specific place and time. The person who is a perfect fit for one job may well be a terrible fit at anything else - but they are still needed.

It is our job to create a sufficiently advanced civilization that can address the needs of all its members. I don't know exactly how to do that. We are told that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom", and fear can be a useful emotion when it keeps us from harm or pushes us to re-examine our actions, but it is not something to build a civilization on. It is curious that the relative gentleness of domesticated animals is not a consequence of greater fear but of less. The wild animal lashes out in fear, but the neotenous animal approaches others in confidence.

"God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. ... There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4)

I may not know the details, but I know that if we want to build a worthy civilization that love, cooperation, and courage are key - and we could do worse than following the example of Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, I crib from Dylan Thomas:
"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of Dick Light."
Death may have the upper hand for now, but that reign need not be forever. In fact, our eventual triumph over Death seems inevitable - if we can just manage to not destroy each other first. Sometimes I am pessimistic, as when Dylann Roof recently gave in to his fears and attacked a black church in Charleston, South Carolina - but sometimes I am optimistic, as when the relatives of his victims refused to give in to fear and responded to his violence with kindness and compassion. "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Edward Snowden's NSA leaks - and how they strengthen America

We have heard a great deal lately about Edward Snowden's leaks about the NSA spying on millions of ordinary Americans under "novel" interpretations of the law. Opinions on Snowden range from calling him a traitor to calling him a patriot. If we presume the dominant narrative is true, I fall firmly in the "patriot" camp. To call Snowden a traitor for aiding and comforting the American people is to call the American people the enemy - and that has no place in a nation that purports to have a government that gains its legitimacy by the consent of the governed - just as secret laws, secret interpretations of the law, and secrets about the broad actions of government itself have no place in a system that derives its power and its guidance from the people.

I am surprised, however, that the public debate has been so limited. There are certainly dangers that come from secretive and powerful agencies having access to almost unlimited information, especially where oversight is ineffective and rogue agents can use that information for personal gain or otherwise to the detriment of the safety and well-being of the public - but there is another danger to the community at large of which those secretive agencies are a part. That danger is that the NSA and other American agencies are not the only players in this game.

In this respect the current situation is much like the question of encryption some twenty years ago, when the U.S. government outlawed the export of encryption software to certain countries - and some politicians attempted to limit what encryption Americans could use in order to maintain the government's ability to crack the codes and spy on its people. The first flaw in this approach was that the countries in question could get strong encryption from other sources, or even develop it themselves, rendering the export controls pointless - and the greater flaw was that any code that could be cracked by the U.S. government could also be cracked by unfriendly parties - whether they be common criminals or the intelligence services of foreign nations. Eventually the U.S. government realized that in order to have a secure banking system and to prevent the collapse of the American economy (and the U.S. government with it) they should not only allow the public to use encryption, but should demand it.

Despite the jokes, intelligence agents are not all stupid. Most of them are pretty smart - at least within their specialty - and some of them are downright geniuses. They have been warning us about cyber threats from abroad for years now, and they understand that hostile parties can do the exact same things illegally that American intelligence services can do "legally". They also know that the huge amounts of data that they intercept are not especially useful in preventing terrorist attacks and are often a distraction from more reliable methods - especially as every competent foe has known about these programs for years and has already taken effective countermeasures. On the other hand, this sort of spying might be far more useful to a hostile party - by allowing them to find the means to blackmail key individuals, for example. With our current thicket of mutually incompatible laws, every American is guilty of multiple felonies - and the knowledge of which felonies could give a hostile party a great amount of power and influence to the detriment of the American people, the American government, and ultimately to the American intelligence services themselves. (Agents can't earn their big salaries if the economy can't support them.) Perhaps some of those analysts have recognized that the best means of securing the nation from foreign powers is to harden the entire information infrastructure - and the most difficult part of hardening information infrastructure has always resided in encouraging participants to adopt best practices.

For those wishing to secure America's information infrastructure, Snowden's revelations are a godsend (or, if the spooks were smart enough, were even commissioned for this purpose). This is a wake up call to the American people, and also to the citizens of friendly nations - we all can be and are being spied on - for a certainty by the U.S. and allied governments, and for that matter by foreign powers and common criminals as well. Smart intelligence agents don't want that. They don't want rogue agents within their own organizations causing discord and dissension that could lead to blowback at home, and they certainly don't want to give that sort of carte blanche to their adversaries. They have other methods they can use when they need to - they don't want the millions of underlings with broad access to classified material to be able to make those sorts of moves on their own. Not if they're smart, they don't.

As it happens, the means to harden the information infrastructure is already available, if not yet widely used. Tor, Freenet and similar networks makes it difficult to track online activity, and the more people use them the more useful they are - not only to the American public but also to the American intelligence services and to dissidents in hostile nations who also use them. Tor was even partially funded by the Naval Research Laboratory. If these revelations move more Americans to embrace such networks, everybody - except tyrants and criminals - will win.

It's real easy too, even if your tech skills are minimal - just visit the Tor Project to download and install the software on your computer, or visit TAILS to download an ISO image that you can burn to a DVD which you can use to boot your computer and run Tor without leaving any traces that you ever used it.

As a couple asides: The use of such networks and new types of money like bitcoin will hopefully make the income tax untenable, which is why I expect to see movement towards a national sales tax which is both more difficult to evade and less intrusive and prone to abuse than the current system - and indeed we have already seen some moves in that direction. The combination of anonymous money and an anonymous network have famously spawned the creation of markets in outlawed products and services - but before you hire that anonymous hitman just keep in mind that they are probably either a scammer or a law enforcement honeypot.

So go ahead and sign up - no need to fear that the use of such programs might identify you as a political dissident or a person of interest. The NSA has just given every patriotic American an excellent reason to protect themselves and their fellow Americans from threats both foreign and domestic, both public and private. Be sure to give your local spook a hug!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Some thoughts on the Boston bombers

It seems like the alleged bombers - brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - had some serious issues with America, but were genuinely interested in doing the right thing - which of course raises the question why they thought killing ordinary members of the public would be the right thing.

Some recent tweets reported to be from Dzhokhar's twitter account are interesting:

"some people are just misunderstood by the world thus the increase of suicide rates"

"its kind of like we're living in times where good is evil and evil is good"

"they want one thing after another, never satisfied"

"a decade in america already, i want out"

"The value of human life ain't shit nowadays that's tragic"

"There are people that know the truth but stay silent & there are people that speak the truth but we don't hear them cuz they're the minority"

"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing"


Well, these two men did something. It is difficult for Americans to concede that they may have had a point, but consider how many innocent people the American government has killed, directly or indirectly, around the world and within the United States, just within the last 50 years - and the American people have never cared too much until they saw that they could get hurt. It was not Martin Luther King's nonviolence that got black Americans their civil rights - it was the threat of riots and death that convinced the authorities to embrace Martin Luther King's alternative. It was not a cool appeal to reason that led to homosexuality being removed from the list of mental illnesses, it was the Stonewall riots that made others realize that their well-being was at stake. It was not an appeal to fairness that allowed American Indians to reclaim their culture and pride, it was a band of armed Indians at Wounded Knee.

It is a sad fact of life that people will let almost any atrocity be committed in their name indefinitely until they are affected themselves. We Americans like to believe we are different, but history tells us otherwise.

The question that remains is Why? What did these brothers consider worth dying for? Was it Islam, or was it something else? Dzhokhar's tweets suggest it was something more than Islam, something more personal.

Perhaps there is a hint in Tamerlan's arrest for domestic violence. As is well known, in cases of domestic violence where one party is a man, the man is nearly always arrested and prosecuted, regardless of whether he was the aggressor or the victim. Alternately, cultural differences may have led Tamerlan to think of something as acceptable that the authorities considered otherwise. Either way, the consequences of such arrests are often severe and long-lasting, and the disproportional punishments often cause resentment.

It may be some time before we know, if we ever know, why - but when two young men act together like this it is hard to credit it to madness alone - and yet the claims of Islamic extremism seem wanting as well. Perhaps they were deluded, but perhaps they knew something that the rest of us do not - and understood that the only way to get Americans to listen is through violence.

If there is a lesson for us to learn, I wonder whether we will learn it in time.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A New Strategy for North Korea: Let the Wookiee Win

There is a famous scene in Star Wars - R2-D2 and Chewbacca are playing a game and Chewbacca is losing. After Han Solo points out that wookiees are known for pulling people's arms out of their sockets when they lose, C-3PO offers this advice: "I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the wookiee win."

We have a similar situation in North Korea. We all know that North Korea is losing this contest. Famously, satellite images taken at night show North Korea as an area of darkness surrounded by the lights of South Korea, China, and Japan. North Korea has only one ally - China. That ally is growing impatient. In any sort of military contest, North Korea would lose. Badly.

But North Korea is not harmless - it would lose any military contest, but their army could still hurt a lot of people. The government also has domestic problems. After the famine of the 1990s, and years of information slowly trickling in via China, the North Korean people are beginning to be vaguely aware that life is better almost anywhere else, and they are gradually slipping away from central control. The governing class there knows it has to reform their economy, but they don't know how to do so without ending up dead. Kim Jong-un did not create this monstrosity - he inherited it. The same can be said for most of the rest. We consider the damage North Korea can do to the outside world, but the ruling class there has that tiger by the tail and they dare not let go. South Korea and China are also concerned about domestic problems in North Korea, because they will inevitably spill across their borders, disrupting the status quo with millions of refugees in need of food, shelter, and services. To make matters worse, due to decades of malnutrition, many of these refugees will not be merely uneducated but will be mentally retarded and difficult to integrate into society.

Naturally we wonder what to do about this. Our natural sense of justice inclines us to send in our military and smash the North Koreans - but military force would mostly affect people who aren't responsible for these problems. It would also force a response which would likely hurt our friends in China and our allies in South Korea. The military option should not be on the table.

Our best response may be quite unintuitive: let the wookiee win. Give North Korea what they need, though not necessarily what they want. Food. There is a good strategic reason for this: the more dependent North Korea is on outside nations for food, the less capable they will be to wage war on their benefactors, because victory would mean death.

Much of this should enter via official channels, allow the governing officials to save face and giving them a chance to introduce gradual change - but perhaps most should enter via other channels. Already the lack of food has weakened central control by forcing the development of a black market and an alternative economy - but it is unclear whether a sudden collapse of central control would be in anyone's interest. A gradual change would be safer, and might be accomplished with slowly increasing amounts of smuggled food and other goods.

This strategy does not even require a government to accomplish it. With advancing technology, private groups could smuggle in food directly to individuals, without being tied to any state.

Consider the development of drones. If this drone could be scaled up (or range extended), imagine tens of thousands of them dropping supplies all over North Korea where needed, their sheer numbers overwhelming the ability of the North Korean military to stop them. Launched from platforms in international waters, by loose-knit groups without ties to any state, who would stop them?

In the longer term, other factors will bring down the North Korean government, but for now our best choice might be to let the wookiee win.

(Other factors? as I wrote on this topic at Google+):
You really want to know the end game in North Korea? 
In less than twenty years, but probably more than five years, private parties from around the world will decide to end the North Korean regime, and do so quickly and quietly. 
They will do this with the deployment of massive numbers of miniature and untraceable, autonomous or semi-autonomous drones. 
If you have read "Escape from Camp 14", consider this scenario: 
A small drone announces in the ear of every prisoner in their native language "It is time to leave this camp. Walk to the front gate." It sounds just like the voice of the guards, and the prisoners do so in mass. 
Other small drones project a display onto the retinas of the guards, and nullify some sounds and emit others so that the guards do not notice anything unusual happening. They stand there with their eyes open, unseeing and unaware, as the prisoners leave the camp. 
One of the guards makes a sudden movement with his head and the drones projecting the image on his retinas are suddenly out of position. He sees the prisoners escaping and aims and attempts to fire his rifle. The rifle does not work: it has been sabotaged by other drones. The guard, only knowing his rifle does not work, pulls out his concealed revolver which had passed unnoticed by the drones. He fires at the prisoners closest to the gate. The bullets speed through the air only to stop, flattened into lead disks, a few feet from the prisoners - halted by a utility fog. 
When the prisoners reach the front gate they find it open and they walk out. Or, perhaps, they discover that the gate - and the entire fence around the periphery of the camp - has fallen to the ground. They step over it and are on their way. A little way down the road tables are waiting with good shoes, decent clothing, and adequate food and water that have been delivered by larger drones by air. The prisoners may now go where they wish. 
A billion people, linked together on seven continents and habitats on the seas, monitor a hundred million incidents at once, and occasionally point out an area of interest to the swarm of drones.
Not one of those people has been authorized to do so by their own government. Their own governments are terrified.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A brave beginning

This is my first post on this blog. I have been on the internet almost constantly since September 1988, but my comments have been scattered in newsgroups and websites across the net. It is a little belated, but I thought it was time to establish my own home on the web where humble netizens can bask in the glory of my great and immeasurable wisdom - or, more likely, call me names. Thus, I have registered the domain, which, if the propitiation of the network gods goes well, will direct to this blog where I'll enlighten you.