Category Archives: Why we fail

This is part manifesto, party hypothesis bordering on a proper theory. It’s a look at activist strategy, operational behaviour and ideology to understand why more vital causes are failing more often.


The Day We (start) Fight(ing) Back

Today sees the #DayWeFightBack kickoff. On this site — as well as scads of others around the interwebs — you should see one of two banners pop up:

  1. If you’re in the U.S., you’re screen will get hit with this one.
  2. If you’re anywhere else in the world, your screen will be smacked by this one.

The campaign falls on the anniversary of Aaron Swartz‘s death. It’s meant in part as a tribute to the global efforts he took part in, including the defeat SOPA, and has its cursor pointed at the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of every line of electronic communications sent by anyone. The banner has a petition, which I do hope you’ll sign.

I hope is that this doesn’t turn out to be  a day that’s more symbolic of the beginning of the end, like an Earth Day for the internet. There are some interesting parallels. Both the wrecking of the internet and the climate are human created things; governments and corporations seem to be useless at steering us away from disaster;  and human apathy, resignation and sloth are leading contributors in nothing much being done about it. My worry is that we’ll codify February 11 as The Day something happens on an annual cycle. That never goes well.

Resistance has to be sustaining. It has to involve targeting the adversary’s weaknesses, and raising the cost required for it to continue with what it’s doing. Some methods:

  • Donate to projects that make government-resistant encryption stronger and easier to use.
  • Use technologies that have more peer-review potential and aren’t closed boxes doing who-knows-what with your communication.
  • Learn better ways of using (or not using) the aforementioned technology.
  •  Understand what the objective of collecting all this data actually is all about and how corrosive to human rights that is.
  • Run Tor relays that speed up and increase access to a system that’s still difficult for the likes of the NSA to penetrate.
  • Learn how PGP works, and use it for regular communication.
  • Support actual political change on this and other related digital rights issues.
  • Support whistle blower protection: In UK, in the U.S., and internationally. More to the point, support practical efforts: GlobaLeaks and SecureDrop.
  • Campaign to restrict the export and sale of weaponised software.
  • Support international standards of necessary & proportionate surveillance laws and your country’s adopting them.
  • Defend encryption standards from government influences.

The people at the working level at the NSA, CIA, or any other member of the (Intelligence Community) are not out to get you. They’re good people trying to do the right thing, and I can tell you from personal experience that they were worried about the same things I was.” Edward Snowden

If these and (probably) a few other elements became part of a sustained defence, then we might see some traction. or at least we’d make those opposed  to internet privacy actually show themselves, which is also useful. But remember that mass digital spyting is just one part of the equation…

The central strength of living on just this side of the electronic communications singularity is also its weakness: All our chatter is running through the same tubes. Imagine being something like the U.S., China, Russia, UK or any economic/political powerhouse and not wanting a sneak-peek at that trove of information. That’s a difficult thought experiment, because you’re pretending to be an entire system rather than an individual within it. Our present situation is the result of systemic failures which range from lobbyists’ influence in election campaigns to an unrestrained military-industrial complex and influence from copyright monopolists.

From a digital perspective, we need to include restrictions against supposed anti-piracy activity. Governments must embrace strong Net Neutrality laws and support reforms to copyright and patent rules as well. Dragnet electronic surveillance is, by in large, hitching a free ride on the back of corporate systems’ data services (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, your internet service provider, your mobile phone network, etc.); Restricting how much data those systems keep, enforcing them to use better encryption and privacy standards, and relieving them of policing everything passing through their systems will have a positive impact on protecting your privacy and anonymity.

It would be nice if every time any political official tries to connect dragnet electronic surveillance to national security they were booed off the stage and saw their popularity polls plummet downward. It would be great if the press asked these politicians to specifically counter, with citation, each point made by The New America Foundation’s findings that dragnet surveillance accomplishes sod all in this arena.

Let’s turn #thedaywefightback into “The Day We Start Fighting Back” (hashtag optional). If we don’t, then we fail.

Protest still doesn’t stop a military invasion

Here’s a time-lapse visualization of every protest on the planet since 1979 by a Penn State doctoral candidate, John Beieler.

A lot of people I know are sharing this around the facebook-net when not being outraged by Miley Cyrus. The above visual “is jaw-dropping, and I mean that in a real way, not in a BS blogger-overhyping-this-incredible-amazing-thing way,” says Ultraculture, the blog from where it’s mostly being shared. “No, this is truly amazing, because what you’ll see is tiny blips popping off here and there in the 1970s—a time we think of as highly politically charged—and nearly eclipsing the world starting with the late 90s anti-globalization protests and the second Iraq War up till our present moment.”

I’d be interested in knowing what Beieler was hoping to illustrate. It’s nice that this is coming out on the eve of war protests against the upcoming American-led invasion of Syria. I’ll take a stab at what might be jaw-dropping about it: None if it amounted to squat.

The above graphic, which has this sort of rain-drops-on-a-puddle kind of appearance, isn’t that inspiring when you look at the impact and outcome of each event that was being protested. And now, people get ready for another little dot in time to hit the map. It was most of the way through the Iraq war before a decent leak helped speed up the U.S. exit. It would be great if something emerged that stopped the next blunder from taking place. A data file has still accomplished more than millions of people marching in the above time span.

Calculating the risk of militant ideologies

Here’s a Buddhist hate preacher. You might not have thought a thing was possible. Here’s a Jewish hate preacher. It’s considered hate speech in the U.S. to admit these exist. And here’s a Muslim hate preacher. You hear a lot about these in the news. It’s okay to talk about them, it seems. And here’s  a Christian hate preacher. This one bends a lot of ears in Congress. We can talk about these, but in a sort of wink-nod, “they’re crazy, but they’re our crazy” way. And then, there are the militant atheist hate preachers. Some of them don’t even mind being accused of hate, just don’t call them faith-based. This group is likely the least capable of turning rhetoric into action… except during that period in Russia when some atheists were able to do just that. There are more brands of these kinds of preachers, but the point is made well enough.

Tragedies eventually happen. Sometimes people cause them, and some of these people are religious. When this happens, people then look to the faith cited in order to try to figure out why. Here, a CNN blog tries to identify 4 factors that a religion is about to go postal. Here, a newspaper editorial tries to reconcile the Boston bombing with the Islam the writer knows. This is useless. They’re looking in the wrong place.

I don’t happen to think faith causes anything. As pervasive as religion is, we need to look at it as one ingredient that can make things happen. I offer one atheist’s argument that faith, or any other singular thing, isn’t the actual problem: It’s just one potential (but not required) ingredient in a stew that may consist of a hodge podge of different elements which can result in fantastically catastrophic results if combined just right. The ingredients themselves don’t actually  matter as much as the percentages do. How does a potentially horrible thing come about? Like most beliefs, good or bad or indifferent, really. They require the following:

graph showing this to be true
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

First: You need 10% of a population to have an unshakable belief that something is true, or at least have a good reason for thinking they do. Researchers at the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center looked at historical patterns and ran mathematical simulations to show that when a tenth of a given population is firmly convinced of a thing, whatever that thing is, it will quickly be adopted by the majority of the society. The belief doesn’t have to be true.

Second: How does a critical mass of believers build up? I think Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody was on to something that can be extrapolated here: In order to create a crowd sourced project, such as a free encyclopedia like Wikipedia, participants must sense the potential of personal gain out of joining a project. It isn’t important that the promise be delivered, but it has to convincing enough to propel people to action. I think this works in religions, nation building and political movements, the economy, and lots of other areas, such as homoeopathy, online role-playing games and post-graduate studies.

Third: This belief has to survive and be able to adapt over time. David Sloan Wilson created a brilliant framework for studying why some beliefs outlive others. Spoiler: The rationality of the belief itself is irrelevant. The only commonalities among the victors throughout the ages are:

  • The system encourages a lot of breeding.
  • It creates believers through conversion.
  • It’s able to survive attacks by competitors that see it as a threat.

Fourth: Leverage. People aren’t naturally more prone to beat one another than shake hands. Both eventualities (and others) are possible given various conditions. Like our non-religious, apolitical cousins in the primate world it turns out that how we treat neighbours has little to do with indoctrination, but is subject to a variety of other conditions. Letting these conditions play out naturally doesn’t lead to predictable markets or voting trends. Steering crowds toward some sort of zealous idea is more cost effective. Some people understand this. That’s why:

Lobbying happens because it works. If you don’t have the time to make your case to that 10 percent of the population and wait for the generational change required for a huge ideological tilt in your favour, you can buy your way to the front of the queue. Leverage manufactures situations, negative or positive, that wouldn’t naturally occur within a given time frame.

All those people cited in the first paragraph are trying to get leverage as they’re well under the 10% mark. They also share a common goal of seeking a national structure based around their specific brand of ideology.  Nationalism exaggerates everything and requires dogmatic allegiance to prosper. But who’s going to be effective at delivering a solid threat?

Dogma is the issue, not belief.
Someone out there who calls themselves the same thing you do is probably a twat. Consider that before making your next rash generalisation.
  • That Buddhist monk Wirathu calls himself the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’ and his goal is to defend the “Buddhist Nation” from invasion by inciting followers to attack their Muslim neighbours. But he’s not really got the leverage on a grand scale, and is a mouthpiece for a globally discredited military junta on the way out. His rhetoric is possibly a threat on a local level for a short time, but it doesn’t upscale. His potential audience doesn’t stretch that far.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps alive the memory of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef in spite of his racist incitement and support of a doctrine on How to Kill Goyim because it speaks to his far-right Eretz Israel constituency. You could be forgiven for not recognising the name of the late rabbi, but Netanyahu is someone with international pull, and a shortcut to influencing American policy. This is leverage. Threat.
  • Anjem Choudary pantomimes a comedic act of nationalist Islam, shouting for Sharia on every street, and getting a stage on Fox News instead of a bit of pavement at Speaker’s Corner. It does speak to a group of believers: Some of them may actually want what he’s banging on about. Others want to believe he represents a serious threat, because then there’s a face to put to their irrational fears of something that isn’t going to happen. He’s not a threat.
  • John Hagee is, like the aforementioned rabbi, also pushing for Israel’s ethnic/religious-based national-identity, but for different ends than a rabbi or Bibi might intend. Hagee represents a constituency of Americans and can also bend the ear of those in seats of power. He’s got the leverage to make things happen. Threat.
  • Militant atheists have come under more recent attack as of late, but again, it’s not until you add nationalism that things get toxic. These aren’t those atheists, and they possess little influence outside a particular fan base. Not really threats.

But what is an actual global threat? The World Economic Forum’s “Global Risks 2013″ provides a basis for rating threats. Religious fanaticism and terrorism do make the list, but they appear pretty far down the scale from the top five most likely concerns:

  • Income disparity
  • Fiscal imbalance
  • Increasing greenhouse gas emission
  • Water supply crisis
  • Mismanagement of an aging population

We can see that in spite of the Fox guest spot, the likes of fanatics like Anjem Choudary and the militants he allegedly inspires don’t amount to all that. The “militant” atheists, for all their huff, don’t really have pull, either. None of our guys really rank up there. So why do we hear so much guff about faith extremists, instead of actual issues facing the world? We have a war against terrorism, but not one against income disparity. Perhaps these people and these people are the bigger threats. What if we looked at a clearly quantifiable method of gauging extremism: monetary support for agendas that increase risks to significant numbers of people around the globe. The nightly news would look pretty different.

Easter holidays reading for atheists

One of the more positive aspects of Glenn Greenwald moving from Salon to the Guardian is that he’s let people see that there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on in Salon. He still stands out at The Guardian, but his online footprint was starting to outsize Salon’s. This post isn’t about that, it’s this: As of late I’ve noticed Salon publishing a number of decent attacks on the “New Atheists,” or the “Neo-Atheists.” And as an atheist, it was a nice Easter reading list, because few things bug me more than seeing things I agree with used in incredibly annoying ways.

Ian Murphy’s 5 Worst Atheists piece was much needed, but I can summarize it for the tl;dr crowd:  Sam Harris is a troll-baiting shill; Bill Maher doesn’t believe in vaccines, either (make of that what you will); Penn Jillette is one of those performers that boys like when they’re between the ages of 9 and 13, and then should promptly grow out of; Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a case study in favour of Frans de Waal’s thesis (see below) that the most ardent anti-theists are those traumatized by religion; And S.E. Cupp, I’ll just say it: I don’t think she’s an atheist: She’s a TV performer for Christian conservatives pantomiming what they think atheists are and/or should be.

I enjoy well-written criticism and decently accomplished contrarian debate. That’s why I could watch the late Christopher Hitchens verbally corner an opponent, and will still pick up a book by over-educated troll baiter Richard Dawkins and give it a chance. Both of these men are not without their serious faults, but they also have raised a pertinent question at the right time: Why is faith accorded special status? And why can’t we recognize that this special status is contributing to some very serious social and political problems? It’s not the intellectuals that should concern people, but the zealotry of their fans, who seem to seek as simple an answer to the universe as those they criticize. It’s telling that on the web’s biggest atheism forum, the top items are almost always image-and-text memes, while posts linking to actual articles and criticisms barely register. So, which atheists should atheists be reading and watching?

  • Frans de Waal: In “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, the primatologist and ethologist looks at the actual function it has and continues to serve and how it could have emerged in a species without the need to try and humiliate present day practitioners.
  • Jared Diamond: The American scientist’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday includes the chapter “What Electric Eels Tell Us About the Evolution of Religion.” Diamond takes an anthropological route to illustrate religion’s endurance through not only serving primary needs but in meeting several other uses for both traditional and modern societies. He doesn’t need to lampoon people for it, and instead shows how it’s likely enabled survival of our ancestors over tens of thousands of years.
  • Francesca Stavrakopoulou: An atheist biblical scholar is, to me, the best kind. Her BBC series from a couple of years back is still online. If you want to know why the Abrahamic trifecta still hold the sway it does, it doesn’t hurt to study the languages, historical and social context in which it emerged.

Many religions are good at taking a load off of individuals’ minds. They synthesize multiple complex needs into manageable concepts that can easily be put on the shelf. Fear of death: sorted. Why be good: sorted. Need a group: sorted. Like singing: sorted. Need a patron for a mural: sorted. Our brains like to reduce things in order to conserve energy. Religion does this in grand style. Some people see progress in religion’s decline and creeping secularism, while others see it as a sign The End is nigh. Instead, let’s consider adaptation. In this information age, we have new methods to more easily synthesize complex ideas into easily consumed ‘memes’ (a word coined by Dawkins). Twitter is one. In the midst of a Tweet binge, the good professor recently asserted that one can criticize a religion without having read its text.  That was said in the way of a justification for this one about Islam being the greatest of evils, which just doesn’t wash. Stalin didn’t need it to slaughter tens of millions. Neither did Pol Pot. Hitler wasn’t reciting from the Quran. The U.S. didn’t didn’t use it as an excuse to kills hundreds of thousands in Iraq. Try nationalism. Try again.

On an entirely pedantic level, it may be true that one can be critical of a faith without a review of the source text. But that’s a technicality, and not that good of science, which shouldn’t be as interested in outing origins myths as false as it is in discovering their actual origins for the sake of knowing them. For that, you need the source documents.

The supposed neo-atheists’ message is doomed, because they aren’t doing anything except telling people who agree with them how to say things their way, which many others find off-putting. Secularism is “winning” all the same, so they maybe they can just enjoy the ride. But these evangelical atheist’s ability to sell their books and get TV appearances in increasing numbers is a byproduct of the cultural and social shift under way, not a contributor. The emerging methods available for synthesizing complex ideas are doing the actual work. This shouldn’t be confused with ‘better’ or ‘more accurate.’ Adaptation is about the survival of things that tend to change to work better than others amid a given set of circumstances. The neo-atheist’s gimmicks have a limited shelf life.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald reads my blog. How do I know? I published this post on the 2nd of April, and he published this on the 3rd.

In the case of The People Vs. Weev, the people will ultimately get stomped for their own good

The Federal District Court of New Jersey convicted Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer of conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act  and identity theft for his part in exposing, via the Gawker website, a flaw in AT&T’s online security. The security hole allowed the e-mail addresses of iPad users to be revealed.

emails with names redacted
Emails that some people pointed out that AT&T exposed.

To the best of my knowledge, Gawker, AT&T and Apple have not been investigated or charged for their part in the data breach. Weev is one of the participants in Goatse Security, the group that informed Gawker of the issue. He has been sentenced to three years and five months in prison. His response:

“Yeah I expect I’m going to fucking prison. It’s a fucking travesty. But whatever, I am in a war. You don’t fucking get into a war and not expect to be a casualty. This is a fucking war-zone. I am a fucking scrapper. You fight, sometimes you die” – Andrew Auernheimer

via Asher Wolf

“Austerity is coming to the U.S.,” Asher Wolf points out in his blog post about Weev. “You can see it already in the crumbling infrastructure. … Weev and his ilk are not the enemy. The discord they surf – the chaos of a world of inconsistent values and hypocritical, corrupt governance – is within the fabric of everything we have grown up with. The abhorrent practice of locking up people who turn a mirror on corruption, insecurity and abuse is as useless as trying to stop the sun rising in the morning.”

National Day of Civic Hacking
From the ‘Why We Protest’ site

Are you really thinking people like this aren’t going to win? Time is on their side. They are in it for one reason: To beat the other side. Punishment is a level up.  The profiteers of the crumbling infrastructure need more events like 99% Spring and Earth Hour. It’s busy work for bored children. There’s activity and at the end people get that feel-good sensation and naughts been accomplished. These people are not going to bring your change. Why would they?

But then why would the United States military allow personnel to use something as fraught with security problems as an iPad? Multiple questions beg for attention in this case.

The judge in Weev’s case cited his lack of remorse in an especially harsh sentence for such an act. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said: “Weev is facing more than three years in prison because he pointed out that a company failed to protect its users’ data, even though his actions didn’t harm anyone.” I like the convicted man’s statement best: “I did this because I despised people I think are unjustly wealthy and wanted to embarrass them.” Remorse? What the hell for?

It’s the people who take an entire “fuck it all” attitude that get things done. At best, the rest of us are cheerleaders.

Weev raising the fist
The best part is, what this guy did, that wasn’t hacking, because the information wasn’t hidden.