Administrative Business

I lost a job and am in the process of making some new and exciting life choices so updates are going to be even less regular.  For instance I think I missed the October link roundup.  Fight me.


September 2017: Link or Swim

Your scary survey for this month shows that Americans haven’t got any goddamn idea what’s in their own constitution.

“Disgust can still be a matter of life and death but it doesn’t seem to be working for us any more.”

By now this is ancient history but Mattis’s viral address to a small group of soldiers somewhere in MENA was disturbing.  It doesn’t do to have the military thinking of itself as the last bastion of civic virtues against a citizenry that’s lost its national mind.

The assumption that ethnic minorities will remain consistently left-of-center as they integrate further into American society was a bad assumption.

“… the implicit social contract between educated elites and laypeople—in which professionals were rewarded for their expertise and, in turn, were expected to spread the benefits of their knowledge—is fraying. Americans live increasingly separate lives based on education and wealth, part of a decades-long Big Sort. What is qualitatively different today is that ordinary citizens seem increasingly confident in their views, but no more competent than they were 30 or 40 years ago. A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field.”  Now go read Ortega y Gasset too.

A short history of FOIA terrorism.

Marcy Wheeler’s got some theories about the Hutchins indictment.

Damon Linker expects a major offensive on the Culture War’s college campus front.  Unfortunately I think he’s probably right.

The democratization of intelligence capabilities formerly reserved for state-level actors and the impending destruction of old categories of conflict is my perpetual hobby horse and here’s a good account from Vice of where we stand at the moment.

Rafia Zakaria in the Baffler on the jihadi personal essay.

From January, grassroots social media disinformation in South Sudan takes advantage of an information-poor environment to incite ethnic hatred.  It’s not clear how lessons learned in Sudan can be extrapolated to more sophisticated contexts.

Maciej Cegłowski tells a stupid tale of a stupid person at Channel 4, who noticed that Amazon suggests sulfur and charcoal if you buy saltpeter and inferred from this that mad bombers are buying mad bombing supplies in numbers sufficient to influence the algorithm, and extrapolates this into a broader stupid tale about journalism and incentives.

We all heard about the Cajun Navy, but behind them was an army of dispatchers on cell phones and laptops all over the country.

“… across much of the Catholic world, young traditionalists are competing against old progressives.”  I’m not Catholic so I have little to say about the particularly Catholic features of this phenomenon, but it seems to fit into the larger trend of traditionalist movements driven by milennials.

The OPSEC Fail of the Month Award is shared by Daesh and Experian.  And to think people want terrorist content removed from the internet.

Donors trying to steer the output of think tanks is nothing new but Google’s attack on New America is uniquely sinister when taken together with their stranglehold on information access.

Conor Friedersdorf wrote the only good thing about the kneeling football players.

[‘When I’m Gone’ plays loudly]

Hvat’s troll nema þat?

There have been two interesting developments in the world of organized political trolls today:

  1. The Daily Beast discovered that Russian Facebook ops did manage to incite some real-world organizing after all, but I’m linking you to Bellingcat’s writeup instead.
  2. It has generally been expected that Kremlin-backed trolls would go after Merkel, but instead most of the German- and English-language material is being generated by the American alt-right, and the Russians are nowhere to be found.

A few things stand out.  First, the lines between state-run campaigns, astroturf, and citizen propagandizing were never clear to begin with, but soon it’s going to be impossible to draw them at all.  Pretending to be Americans themselves, the Facebook Russians egg on actual right-wing American activists to organize rallies (this is so bananas I almost can’t get my head around it).  Private American citizens organize anonymously online to carry out a propaganda campaign directed towards the German electorate against a German presidential candidate.  Neither of these fit into our existing paradigms of an influence op, but neither are they citizen organizing in any sense we’re accustomed to.

Second, it’s a mistake to get hung up on numbers to the exclusion of all else when considering a decentralized political movement like the alt-right.  Numbers matter for forming voting blocs, but not for the other corrosive effects they can have on public discourse and civil society.  I’m not sure what to do about that, but yelling about how it’s only like two hundred dudes is no more helpful here than in the case of the jihadis.

Lastly, plenty of people have since 9/11 noted the rise of the non-state actor in the context of transnational Islamist terror groups like AQ and Daesh, but we have probably ascribed too much weight to the jihadis as jihadis: it will likely turn out that they were merely the first of the truly powerful non-state actors.  I’ll leave aside the absurdity of a transnational alliance of ethnonationalists for another post, but at least jihadi tactics are in harmony with their universalist ideology.  Anyway, technology has brought certain activities that were once the exclusive domain of the state within reach for the well-organized civilian: large-scale disinformation campaigns, geospatial intelligence, weaponized drones, etc.  It remains to be seen whether the centralization of data by the tech giants will have any mitigating effect on the decentralization of capabilities.

Regarding Kaspersky

Why do threat modeling when you can split into warring factions, after all?

I cannot for the life of me understand why this debate is getting so fraught, because it’s really quite straightforward.  This has next to nothing to do with the personal character of Yevgeny Kaspersky. I don’t know him and I don’t feel myself qualified to comment on him, although for what it’s worth he did attend the KGB’s technical college. It has everything to do with:

  1. your supply chain
  2. the personal character of Vladimir Putin
  3. the character of Vladimir Putin’s alleged government

Being nervous about Kaspersky doesn’t require that you think Yevgeny is a devious KGB assigned to infiltrate the networks of Russia’s adversaries by cunningly producing a high-quality security product. That’s goofy. Most likely Yevgeny is exactly what he says he is, and none of that matters, because Putin is a mafia thug. Kaspersky lives in Russia, his family lives in Russia, the families of most of his employees live in Russia, and the supply chain originates in Russia, all within reach of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s mafia thuggery.

There’s a lot of RUMINT out there regarding intel collaboration with the FSB and backdoors etc, but the truth-value of the RUMINT is beside the point.  Even if, as is likely, Kaspersky products are not backdoored now, there is reason to fear that in the future the Russian government may choose to compel cooperation, either through financial or physical intimidation.

Now that real-time updates are the bread-and-butter of security products, I’m curious to know how the anti-anti-Kaspersky crowd plans on defending against some future backdoor.  This is not a hypothetical: you may remember Russian intelligence owned MEDoc’s update servers and used it to push out a little exfil-and-wipe program called Nyetya to anyone who pays taxes online in Ukraine.  It was pointed out on last week’s Risky Business that aside from the security products, Kaspersky has been developing a secure operating system for various kinds of critical infrastructure, which presents an even bigger threat than Nyetya-esque attacks.  In a world in which CRASHOVERRIDE already exists, I’m not sure I want to make infrastructure attacks easier for any state-level actor.

So no, it is not “Russophobia” to suggest that perhaps it’s not the wisest idea to run Kaspersky products on natsec and other critical infrastructure. Don’t be horrible: people like me who are worried about Kaspersky products are worried about a situation in which threat of violence is used to force Yevgeny to play ball. Shut the fuck up and do your threat modeling.

August 2017: The Puns of August

So it’s not a URL joke.  Sue me, if you can find me.

Scary Survey Of The Month: strong self-identification as ‘white’ was the largest predictor of support for the Donald.

John Sipher at Just Security on the strange interactions between criminal and CI investigations and the uncertain end of the Russia probe.

That bananas story about Sputnik DC was bananas and worthwhile, but I just don’t buy the line that Feinberg went in there all unsuspecting.

Imagine what Fox and the Daily Caller would have to say if, for instance, Al Jazeera English posted videos like this.

“You don’t have to build any unity among the groups along lines of ‘race’ or class’, they don’t even need to know about each other – their interests can even be fratricidal, just so long as they collectively imagine there is one answer to their discreet problems. This means one no longer needs to take ‘the centre’, one just needed to define the ‘non-people’, the enemy, as that which is at the root of voters’ (actually very different) problems. The sad thing is that this approach doesn’t work without casting your opponents not merely as being wrong, but as actively nefarious.”

The Opsec Fail of the Month Award goes to the White House, and it’s a doozy.

The Seth Rich Story Story has a Kremlin angle because of course it has a Kremlin angle.  Πως γαρ ου, Σωκρατες?

David Frum (this continues to feel very weird) on the threat paramilitaries and open carry pose to civil society, even when nobody is actually shooting anybody else.  Even Virginia has plenty of laws that could be used to hammer these thugs, if anyone felt inclined to try to arrest them.

Why are so many fascists former libertarians?

“Mr. Putin’s Russia, by contrast, frightens Americans because they know that the United States and Russia should be very different, but many of the pathologies present in Russia can also be found in the United States. What disturbs liberal America is not that Russia will run the world — far from it. Rather, the fear, whether liberals fully recognize it or not, is that the United States has started to resemble Russia.”

On the folly of identifying with large unselective groups.  Argue amongst yourselves, class.

The ongoing politicization of nearly everything.

Nathan Heller on Zeynep Tufekci’s research into decentralized protest. Internet-era direct action may suffer from absence of leaders for authority to negotiate with and from a lack of the quasi-institutional structure seen in the Civil Rights movement (with a sidenote on my biggest peeve: the ongoing efforts of Marxists to apply 19th century industrial paradigms to a totally different world).

… und verspürt ihr auch in euerm Bauch
den Hitler-Dolch, tief, bis zum Heft –:
Küßt die Faschisten, küßt die Faschisten,
küßt die Faschisten, wo ihr sie trefft –!

The time for hypotheticals is at an end.

Politics is not like the nursery.

Foremost among the larger issues at stake in the Eichmann trial was the assumption current in all modern legal systems that intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime. On nothing, perhaps, has civilized jurisprudence prided itself more than on this taking into account of the subjective factor. Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been committed. We refuse, and consider as barbaric, the propositions “that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal” (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that they were, in fact, the supreme justification for the death penalty. Because he had been implicated and had played a central role in an enterprise whose open purpose was to eliminate forever certain “races” from the surface of the earth, he had to be eliminated. And if it is true that “justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done,” then the justice of what was done in Jerusalem would have emerged to be seen by all if the judges had dared to address their defendant in something like the following terms:

“You admitted that the crime committed against the Jewish people during the war was the greatest crime in recorded history, and you admitted your role in it. But you said you had never acted from base motives, that you had never had any inclination to kill anybody, that you had never hated Jews, and still that you could not have acted otherwise and that you did not feel guilty. We find this difficult, though not altogether impossible, to believe; there is some, though not very much, evidence against you in this matter of motivation and conscience that could be proved beyond reasonable doubt. You also said that your role in the Final Solution was an accident and that almost anybody could have taken your place, so that potentially almost all Germans are equally guilty. What you meant to say was that where all, or most all, are guilty, nobody is. This is an indeed quite common conclusion, but one we are not willing to grant you. And if you don’t understand our objection, we would recommend to your attention the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two neighboring cities in the Bible, which were destroyed by fire from Heaven because all the people in them had become equally guilty. This, incidentally, has nothing to do with the newfangled notion of `collective guilt,’ according to which people supposedly are guilty of, or feel guilty about, things done in their name but not by them – things in which they did not participate and from which they did not profit. In other words, guilt and innocence before the law are of an objective nature, and even if eighty million Germans had done as you did, this would not have been an excuse for you.

“Luckily, we don’t have to go that far. You yourself claimed not the actuality but only the potentiality of equal guilt on the part of all who lived in a state whose main political purpose had become the commission of unheard-of crimes. And no matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you. You told your story in terms of a hard-luck story, and, knowing the circumstances, we are, up to a point, willing to grant you that under more favorable circumstances it is highly unlikely that you would ever have come before us or before any other criminal court. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”

— Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963

July 2017: Linkoln Memorial

I think I’m going to start opening all my link roundups with yet another scary survey.

“The most crucial variable predicting the success of a democratic transition is the self-confidence of the incumbent elites. If they feel able to compete under democratic conditions, they will accept democracy. If they do not, they will not.  And the single thing that most accurately predicts elite self-confidence, as Ziblatt marshals powerful statistical and electoral evidence to argue, is the ability to build an effective, competitive conservative political party before the transition to democracy occurs.”

Maybe this is what all the bots will eventually be for.

Rondon of Caracas Chronicles in Politico from April, on the narrative coherence of post-truth politics vs. the messiness of reality.

“Here is a secret that is not a secret. Here is a curse that is not a curse. Revolutions are not redemption. They will not save you, just as ours did not save us back in 1896, or 1986, or 2001.”

On the Twitter mob and the poverty of left-wing discourse.

Long before Junior’s emails upended all our theories, Julian Sanchez suggested that collusion may be the wrong question.  His central question— why in hell would the Russians tell the campaign?— is even more interesting now.

History tells us that we should head for the bunkers when the White House gets obsessed with Thucydides.  Everything can be found in The History of the Peloponnesian War, and that’s exactly the problem (Pericles’ funeral oration isn’t about democracy, though: it’s about Athenian exceptionalism).

A technologist explains his choice to leave government service.

Who was Moonlight Maze?

In Kazakhstan, a switch from Cyrillic to Latin script is a lot of hassle and expense to no obvious purpose.

Twitter is definitely bad but I will never forgive Bret Stephens for making me read the phrase “naked, grunting brain” with my own two eyes.

In honor of Independence Day, David Frum plays Variations On “American Exceptionalism.”

I’m on one of my occasional Raymond Chandler binges right now, and while I was out running the other day I was thinking about how the discontinuous narratives in noir fiction match real life much better than the elaborate constructs one gets in the more traditional mystery novel.  I was going to write something, but I found this essay on Farewell My Lovely at the LARB instead.

From all the way back in 2003, Slate’s compilation of the ‘poetry’ of Donald Rumsfeld is… well, anyway, read it.

Your captcha is part of a coming epistemological crisis. Magritte ain’t seen nothing.

Through requirements that social media companies to combat extremism on their platforms, governments are slowly but surely forcing the privatization of online counterterrorism.  The new arbiters of extremism are the low-paid, undertrained, and mostly unaccountable contractors on the moderation staff.  What could possibly go wrong?

“…after more than 70 years of great-power peace and a quarter-century of unrivaled global supremacy, Americans have lost their sense of tragedy. The U.S.-led international order has been so successful, for so long, that Americans have come to take it for granted. They have forgotten what that order is meant to prevent in the first place: the sort of utter breakdown of the international system, the descent into violence and great-power war, that has been all too common throughout human history.”

Foa and Mounk rebut the haters.

The Opsec Fail of the Month Award goes to [drumroll] Leonid Brezhnev.