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Revisiting Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero Ten Years On

Nine Inch Nails’ album Year Zero was released in April 2007 to the excitement of many, myself especially. I’ve been listening to NIN for over twenty years so in normal circumstances it would’ve been welcome, but the idea of a dystopian concept album criticizing our government’s actions at the time held extra purchase. I purchased both singles (Survivalism and Capital G) on the day they were available, as well as the album. Savagely critical of George W. Bush’s administration (among others) Year Zero felt like a revelation then. And given the election of Donald fucking Trump and its upcoming ten-year anniversary I decided to jump deeper into it and see how it holds up. Concept set in 2022 the album is startlingly accurate for what looks to be our path rather than a decade aged.

Year Zero’s first track is the non-lyrical song Hyperpower. It’s a savage introduction packed tight with menace and shouting voices. It’s also eerily reminiscent of the Hate Song in Orwell’s 1984 complete with a “savage, barking rhythm…that resembled the beating of a drum. Roared out by hundreds of voices to the tramp of marching feet, it was terrifying.” Hyperpower begins, as most 1984-type marches, not with collective action but the sinister directions of a leader. The guitars cut in, then the chants. As the chants continue the tension of a counterguitar ramps up tension until a third guitar sample cuts in. The track, the march, has reached a tipping point and become an emergent phenomenon zagging across all previous narratives and signifying the terrifying loss of control. All hell breaks loose. There are screams and corrosive feedback. Then a gasp of silence.

For just a beat or two, and then The Beginning of the End cuts in with a raw, driving drumbeat. Reznor sets it up with smooth warnings. “Down on your knees you’ll be left behind/this is the beginning/Watch what you think, they can read your mind/This is the beginning.” The pace is relentless – the song starts with the fear of being isolated from society but immediately begins to show how toxic and dangerous that society’s become. Immediately we’re left feeling alienated, as the song’s subject no longer recognizes their own reflection. The idea that society’s progressed is questioned, and the dishonesty by which we survive – “We think we’ve climbed so high/Up all the backs we’ve condemned. We face no consequence/This is the beginning of the end.” There’s a clear corollary in the Bush years to our actions as a nation-state but this reads much darker in the wake of Trump’s election. The assumption of lack of consequences has become microcosmic but in an extremely distributed way, now applicable to personal actions – thus the rise of mosque and synagogue vandalism, attacks on people of color, the public adoption of and evangelism for Nazi ideology. And in each case the idiot feels entitled to act with no consequence.

From the first line the song introduces consequences, though (“you’ll be left behind”). Being left behind doesn’t seem so bad until you realize you’re forced to give up what’s left. And Reznor then addresses a predatory society in which you take what you can in a zero-sum game, depriving others haphazardly. The venture capitalism and financial engineering of the Bush II era holds no candle to what we’re seeing now as far as bold and heartless vultureism, the cynical money-grabs of mortgage and payday lenders, the lies we depend on for derivatives market securitization and the ad-revenue model of the internet. But the song ends on a note of warning – that our personal cognitive failure to see the consequences of our actions really is the beginning of the end. That seems born out by so many events.

The next track -and the most popular, Survivalism – continues the emphasis on predation and societal ego but focuses in particular on ecological issues.

“I should have listened to her
So hard to keep control
We kept on eating, but
Our bloated belly’s still not full.
She gave us all she had but
We went and took some more
Can’t seem to shut her legs
Our mother nature is a whore.”

Survivalism starts with and regularly revisits an incessant, distorted buzzing as if an angry swarm lay just beneath the surface. That threatening drone is cut off only by the chorus, which switches from “we” to “I” as the chorus addresses engagement with society at a personal level.

“I got my propaganda
I got revisionism
I got my violence
In hi-def ultra-realism
All a part of this great nation
I got my fist
I got my plan
I got survivalism”

The song begins with ecological devastation and has now moved to the I. The swarm is momentarily obfuscated as we follow Reznor’s rabbit hole from a collective, diffuse responsibility to the immediacy of a particular subject’s contributions and withdrawals from society. The first five deal with selfish and destructive comforts the subject has had to surround themself with in order to get by: propaganda, revisionism, flashy simulated or simply relayed real-world well-detailed violence, nationalism. But the song then pivots to consequences. The subject’s comforts won’t be as effective considering the trajectory of the nation. A collapse approaches. So the subject self-soothes with the idea that they’ll survive through force, wits and savagery.

After the first chorus we see society descend into chaos; sirens, rifles, marching, global fuckery. Self-deception after a loss of faith regarding their original beliefs which have been traded for this barbarist ideology.

Survivalism ends after the subject is given one last chance to move towards society and environmental health again. That chance is spurned. While Bush II EPA and climate change steps were appalling, after an attempt at remedying them we are confronted by a different monster and his minions. A monster that appoints the head of the EPA a man who has sued it over a dozen times and takes actions against national parks that tweet about climate change. His followers closely fit the pattern of the song – self-deceiving environment exploiters who cling to propaganda, revisionism, depicted violence and the fantasy that they will persist and even thrive in the case of a societal collapse.

Me, I’m Not presents an internal conversation in which the subject initiates changes internal and external, again finds themselves sort of disbelieving what they’ve become. It feels like they’re a small part of an avalanche that’s careening faster and faster down a mountain. And having considered this darkness within, they make a conscious decision not to stop.

Capital G presents a fascinating foresight to Trump voters and current circumstances. It presents as the slow, simplistic, proud confessional of someone who pretty much knows and admits that his vote enabled war crimes. It highlights the tension between rejecting any kind of responsibility for their own circumstances (financial exploitation, climate change, voting mistake) while demanding accountability of others.

“I pushed the button and elected him to office, and
He pushed the button, and he dropped the bomb
You pushed the button, and could watch it on the television
Those motherfuckers didn’t last too long
I’m sick of hearing ’bout the have and have-not’s
Have some personal accountability
The biggest problem with the way that we are doing things is
The more we let you have, the less that I’ll be keeping for me.”

The song provides more and more interesting corollaries to our present circumstances, such as trading all your previous morals and ethics in order to stand behind a powerful figure. In doing so they’ve forgotten their original fortitude and dignity, ending up on their hands and knees just to appease the boss. It’s a piece-by-piece buildup of both Trump supporters and the Republican party leaving behind any previous scruples and lowering themselves to menial, humiliating service and aggressive atavism. But there’s an explicit warning in the midst of this to the presumably horrified listener: “There’s a lot of me inside you/Maybe you’re afraid to see.”

My Violent Heart continues the idea of a movement initiated by the broken but in truth a consequence of the society at large, now reaping what they have sown. The Great Destroyer stands as a sickly sweet discussion on surveillance and the inner struggle of someone fully conscious that they’re thoroughly different than the regime and both afraid of and anticipating their own magnificent power.

The parallels continue. They’ve not only held up over time but deepened in the midst of the last three months and specter of the next four years. It’s just that Reznor’s projected date of 2022 was… optimistic.

Scrape to soothe the rasp, hiss to hide the hum

Emily had been dreaming again. No tears on her pillow this time but the sound of rocket engines still rushed in her ears for a few fleeting moments. Slowly she came into her body, felt it materialize. Slowly the concrete around her became, well, concrete again. The camping mattress underneath felt like it had become concrete during the night as well. Against all inertia and blanket warmth a slow familiar ache in her back convinced her it was time to get up.

She limped to the bathroom with the tenderness of intense sleep.

At least there’s still hot water, she thought. One of the few comforts of her building compared to others around the country. Others might have not had the entire rest of the staff abscond but damn it she could still take a civilized shower.

She turned the water on to let it warm up and took a few spare moments to look at herself in the mirror. Tired eyes framed by faded pink hair, roots showing through, undershave grown out. She had wanted to do something about her hair for months but she couldn’t risk the trip to town. Not any more. Maybe a care package would come soon. She had listed pink dye under essentials, only partly expecting to be taken seriously, but hoping someone would come through. Those packages, though. They had been coming less and less frequently. It contributed to her feeling that the whole clandestine enterprise was expiring with a whimper and it was probably time to wrap things up.

That line of thinking always felt like a mood trap but as she looked around she couldn’t deny the multivariate truth of it. Less external support, more equipment problems, hell even the bathroom needed a good cleaning. She slipped as she felt the place slip, somehow out of time and consequence into its own experimental bubble. She needed to clean the bathroom but she recognized for the hundredth time that she needed to pull the trigger on her data even more.

After the shower she sat down to check her email and found one precisely to that effect. Sergio pestering her for a final go-ahead despite being the original Principal Investigator at her site and also being the first to flee. The fucking audacity bothered her as much as the nagging concern that he’d make her effort as much his when the time came for credit. But the packages he sent helped, and the occassional pep talks. She archived the email rather than responding to it just to let him stew a little more. It took three tries while the network connection flickered. One more failing piece of shit equipment. Lovely.

The near-silence only served to let her brood more and to let her analytical side pick apart the hum from the next room. Always noisy, the combined thrum of computation and exhaust fans had developed a noticeable rasp recently. Probably not unfixable especially given her comp sci chops. But that depended on replacement parts and those were harder and harder to come by. They hadn’t planned for extended isolation. They had barely planned for anything. But that rasp increasingly felt like her throat and her mood, felt like the slightly threadbare clothes on her frame, felt like the discordant protests of undyed hairs and a body that hadn’t danced at a nightclub in eighteen months. She didn’t want to own the rasp yet.

So she put on music; the new Nine Inch Nails, the only good thing that had come out of 2016. The scrape to soothe the rasp, the hiss to quiet the hum. Code waited for her as it had every day for the past few years. Code sat coiled in its box at the propulsion lab, then the oceanographic fellowship, and finally the Midwest Computing Cluster. It sat coiled waiting to flex; waiting to be let out; waiting to strike. And it responded to the harmonics of her snake-charmer keytaps. Just not always in the way she expected. She dove into the code.

Numerical models lay in wait as she worked her magic, repeating her mantra at the beginning: I’ll show you snowballs in congress, you dumb motherfuckers. Cold fingers jumped across the keyboard arrhythmically. A flurry, a pause for thought, a blizzard. Then rumbling back through with a logical plowblade to clean up the mess. She banged away and hit her own runner’s high stopping only to think or sip rapidly cooling coffee. Work continued straight through lunch without a thought for it until the eventual trip to the bathroom (hello, caffeine) and only then she felt the rumble of hunger.

She set the data to run and wandered into the small, cluttered kitchen to make a sandwich. Made a mental note to do some of the dishes she often neflected as the only person there. And studiously ignored the aged refrigerator as its compressor labored. Only the coolant pump for the GPU cluster sounded worse.

Chewing unenthusiastically, she put a language lesson on speaker. German. Which she’d need assuming she made it out. French may have been smarter for general communication – it had encountered a renaissance of sorts across continents as English fell out of favor – but the Germans were doing more science, and science she was.

After the lesson she answered a few emails. One from her father that mentioned grandkids for the third time in a row. Reading the news soured quickly. She browsed old data. And got up the will to clean the bathroom, ignoring the fact that the model had probably finished.

Scrubbing the toilet she thought for maybe the thousandth time about the NOAA bureaucrat that saved her, saved them all. Cabinet pushed against the door, moving from server to server wiping their data, especially their facilities data, while federal agents pounded and demanded access. First the transition team request for the names of government climate scientists. Then the president’s demands. Then the agents. They would’ve had every observation and computation site in the world. So he exfiltrated as much data as he could and then rushed from cage to cage with a handful of thumb drives and instructions printed off the internet. DBAN became a tool of the resistance.

After that no one could quite piece together where all the sites were. They tried but legal documents had been, well, misplaced. Each site had a networked generator installed on a DHS grant but imagine how quickly computer science-savvy lab rats de-networked them. Then government threats, please, bribes. Some worked. Some didn’t. Some sites got raided and some sites remained to moulder along with their staff.

The cash rewards to the public for turning in climate labs changed things, of course. No more trips to town just in case the locals remembered who they were. And no more pay. And figuring out how to keep the power on in the labs.

And why.

She knew why. Earth was her favorite place and she wanted kids to have a better one, or at least know what a shitty hand their elders had dealt them. And she didn’t even like kids.

Emily scrubbed and imagined that middle manager and his USB drives, defying armed agents, a president, a cabinet worth more than the bottom third of American households. It would’ve been cold in the server room. The cabinet was wedged between the door and a pillar and the feds didn’t think to kill the power. And so there had been just enough time.

A brief flight of fancy had her thinking about one of the men behind it standing in an East German courtyard nearly thirty years previous. The young KGB officer had brandished a pistol to keep an angry crowd at bay so that Secret Police files could be destroyed before the crowd got their hands on them. Data then, data now. Angry crowds. A future in the balance.

Holding that crowd off had made the spy’s career. The NOAA guy, on the other hand, ended up in prison.

The final crash of the door coming down. The rush of thick bodies and the shout of indignant authority. The click of handcuffs chilled by the air of the server room.

And then, well, Emily Wong and her climate science team had been on their own.

It’ll be nice to dye my hair again, she thought. And buy some comics books.

She stopped ignoring the completed model run and looked it over. Waves of unreality washed over her as she reviewed data she already knew. She watched the room from outside herself, disconnected. The data was thorough. The model was groundbreaking. She could string it out a while longer. Surely a new package would come soon.

She sent the email that faceless internet people were waiting for. Not the data of course. That would go later and unintercepted if everything went to plan. Every border, even digital ones – especially digital ones – acted more as intelligent and sinister membranes now, analysing what lay at the surface and keeping most of it in or out.

The email was surely intercepted. Luckily it consisted of a donut order. The order was received. She wondered if a package would arrive soon. Then she started packing.

The courier arrived the next day in a car slightly more dated than her student loans. Older, she realized. No integrated GPS, no satellite radio, no smart system. He brought donuts which she scoffed at. He brought fresh coffee that she blessed him for.

“Don’t knock the donuts,” he said. “Know what we used to call those in the station? Power rings.”

She stiffened. A cop. He read her and raised his hands nonthreateningly.

“Sorry. Just trying to banter. Long gone from the force, but we aren’t all bad.” She nodded. It had gone too far now anyway. She traded the hard drive for the donut box.

“Where does it go from here? I guess I shouldn’t ask.”

“Nah, you can ask. I just can’t tell.” He smiled at her and raised the hard drive before slipping it into a black canvas messenger bag. “Thanks for this, doc.”

She wanted to tell him what was on it. She said nothing. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him what it suggested, what might be coming. Not with the rollbacks, the broken accords, the new government and its partnerships. She desperately needed someone to talk it over with that didn’t see it in numbers and code, but she said nothing.

The courier left. She enjoyed a donut – sweet and moist and perhaps indeed a power ring – before getting into her own aging car and heading north.

The data, she knew, would make its way north too. Through some complex chain of handoffs and pirate microwave transmissions from abandoned and decrepit offshore broadcasters. North to exile, refugee status like her. A country Americans had once fled to in order to avoid being drafted. And yet the data headed north to be drafted in its own kind of conflict, nearly of its own intention.

Emily thought about visiting her parents on the way. It wouldn’t be riskier than anything she had done already. She wiped powdered sugar on the steering wheel and queued up the CD changer to her road trip tunes. Her data would find its own way home.

DIY Combat Drones

Popular Mechanics highlighted a few stories in the world of DIY weapons lately that’re worth looking at. Sort of a mashup, but to distill down: an ISIS workshop in Mosul was found with a number of DIY weaponized drones. This follows a February find of a workshop in Ramadi complete with vehicles constructed of plywood and styrofoam. The Mosul site included a peculiar model that looked to be a fixed-wing drone with attached quadrotor and PM speculated that it was either a mothership kind of design or for dropping boobytrapped quadrotors.

I’m left wondering if it was some sad attempt to create a fixed wing/VTOL hybrid, able to elevate vertically without runway or human launch but then take advantage of fixed-wing speed and stability like a Harrier.

Another part of the Popular Mechanics story was from Syria, where a refugee camp was hit by miniature guided bombs that appeared to be at least partially 3D-printed. They lacked engines but did apparently have working servos to operate fins and provide mid-course correction or at least stabilization, reportedly dropped from drones. I’ve been expecting sophisticated 3D-printed ordnance from insurgencies for a while but assumed they’d be in rocket form – perhaps it’s just easier to drop from above and guide in than launch and propel, plus the launch site has a better chance of staying undetected. The problem with assuming these latter are insurgent bombs though – aside from the fact that the Syrian regime is happy to kill refugees at their leisure – is that the height you’d need to drop them from to allow for any kind of vertical guidance is considerable, higher than the typical quadrotor. ISIS obviously has fixed wing dronecraft but the level of sophistication involved has me wondering.

Given the previous evolution I talked about involving ipad accelerometers to aim mortars in Syria and Raspberry Pi-powered missile launchers in Ukraine, when we were barely producing single-shot 3D printed firearms a decade ago, we’re likely to see more innovation in this area and to terrible effect.

The Explosive Trajectory of Technology

Jon Jeckell tweeted a Popular Mechanics piece showing what appeared to be a Ukrainian prototype shoulder-fired missile with a guidance system powered by the Raspberry Pi microcomputer. The inclusion of the Pi makes it a seeming next-step from the much shared image of Syrian rebels in Jobar in 2013 using an iPad to angle mortar fire. We are using our new off-the-shelf street-level tools to build the complex weapons systems out of most people’s reach for the past half-century or more.

Just as notable as the idea that it uses the hobbyist computer is that it’s apparently guided by sound, making it the first sound-homing ground-based weapon. This dovetails neatly with another trend I’ve been tracking and laid out a bit in The Renewed Importance of Sound – an exploration and exploitation of a much different sensory domain than we’re used to engaging with.

Mortars have been around since the 14th century or so – unsurprisingly (due to the history of gunpowder), first appearing in east/southeast Asia. It took 500 years to go from massive, unwieldy field artillery pieces to the compact Stokes trench mortar in the first World War that could be carried and crewed by a single soldier. Less than fifty years later, engineers successfully managed to link hardware and firing control computers in such a way that they could achieve MRSI or Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact, a devastating deployment of ordnance in which multiple weapons in different places fire in such a way that their rounds reach the target at the same time. With minimal human input, which seems to be the way our weapons trend.

Shoulder-fired missiles have a similar line of development. Traced back to ancient Chinese arrows loaded with black powder and a fuse, they evolved then into multiply-crewed weapons systems that looked like a collection of tubes on a single wheel axle that could be fired in quick succession but not aimed particularly well. Fast forward roughly equivalent to the above and you get to the Panzerfaust of World War II and similar rocket-propelled weapons systems that were much more practical and stable, if not necessarily accurate. And again, in less than 10% of the time between the real inception of the weapon and its 20th century jump, the technology jumped again. As just one example, Britain developed the MBT-LAW shoulder-fired “fire and forget” system that tracks moving targets on its own, making autonomous corrections to its flight path and speed. Also consider MANPAD (man-portable air defense systems) like the Stinger missile.

At first glance the Jobar case and the Ukrainian prototype seem disconnected. After all, the former involves using the accelerometer of a separate, unlinked device whereas the missile integrates the technology. But consider the similar technological trajectories of the weapons systems and the fact that people without access to Pentagon engineers can now not only use computers to deliver ordnance accurately but can relatively easily link them similar to the MRSI concept explained above. Once an abstract concept, ballistic computers are now so natively and immediately understood that in the absence of them we appropriate our own, integrate them how we can, and deploy.

I Blame Zimbardo

People continue to be flabbergasted that the anger behind Donald Trump’s support has not burned itself out yet. It must, they often insist, consume itself and leave former supporters gripped by boredom, lackadaisical, having spent their energy in acts of political catharsis before averaging out and backing a candidate of more substance, closer to the aims of the Republican Party. This is true for observers on both sides of the aisles and they’re both thoroughly wrong. It’s the kind of thinking, oddly enough, that led to the hallucinatory 2008 and 2012 predictions widely circulated within the Republican party (though both parties are guilty of this at random times) that they were about to win the presidency – a disconnect from the ground-level reality behind campaigns.

To offer a more grounded view of Trump’s supporters than I did in my previous post (regarding philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Trump and Dante’s Inferno) let me turn to one of the most basic parts of any Psychology 101 curriculum for decades.

The support behind Trump is the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large with all the ethical and methodological issues still intact.

In 1971 psychology professor Philip Zimbardo began a two-week experiment in the basement of a Stanford University building in which students were divided up into guards and prisoners. Guards were given uniforms, batons and mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact. Prisoners were forced to wear uniforms with their prisoner number on them, and referred from there on as that number. Guards policed the prisoners in their cells and a few other confined areas, ensuring they acted “appropriately” and punishing displays of defiance.

By the second day both groups began to assume their assigned roles in big ways. Guards became much more authoritarian and began to target and torment prisoners in various ways. Prisoners began to defy that authority, act out, block access and respond with anger, hostility and hopelessness. Steps such as the removal of clothing or the refusal to let prisoners empty the “sanitation buckets” in their cells were taken, stripping prisoners of essential dignity. The entire experiment spiraled into a mountain of increasing ethical violations until a graduate student assigned to interview prisoners objected to the conditions.

It took less 6 days for the experiment to go so badly that it had to be terminated. Both prisoners and guards identified so deeply with their roles that they treated each other savagely. Six days.

I spent a few hours looking at the Trump corners of twitter and facebook today (for two good samples, check Mitt Romney’s facebook page and then go search “Mr Trump” on twitter – diehard supporters love using the “mister”). Reviewing the rhetoric of Trump supporters brought me to a conclusion: this is the Stanford Prison Experiment inscribed on presidential politics, graffiti’d like a vulgarity scratched on a lamppost. Trump supporters see themselves as prisoners and want to be the jailers, but in the meantime assume the roles they feel they’ve been forced into.

Zimbardo’s instructions for guards before his experiment began are preserved publically and quite on point here:

“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”

And this is exactly what you see in the complaints of Trump’s political base – they are both bored and fearful, and feel that the world has exacted some terrible price upon their individuality and personal agency. They bemoan the total control that they perceive the government to be exerting and at the same time identify with it, often wanting to exact similar or worse upon their own enemies. To repeat: they’ve assumed the roles of powerless prisoners but fantasize of themselves as the jailers, using sadistic violence, vitriol and privilege manipulation to control and punish those they see as weaker. Shows of force are highly extolled virtues – everything else is met with sneering contempt (I’m again reminded of the Warren Ellis character presidential candidate Bob Heller – you can find a few relevant panels at the bottom of this post).

They have the anger of those who feel their dignity is assaulted every day, and so take on the mantle of the Undignified. No amount of dialogue or statesmanship is going to make a bit of difference in that case – it’s why appeals to presidential dignity like Romney’s today will be met with Trump explicitly saying Romney would’ve given him oral sex for an endorsement in 2012, for instance, to the raucous applause of his supporters and enthusiastic approval from his political base.

The Republican leadership – any leadership, really, but the Republican in particular – has no idea what to do with this. This kind of self-identification isn’t just a sort of fad-anger that can be redirected or tamped. And surely bringing people like Mitt Romney to try and stamp it out only fans the flames – in him they see another captor, an establishment jailer who they nonetheless picture themselves in the role of. They want to be successful capitalist so badly, the Bain Capital executive, the man in the pressed suit. But that desire to be Romney can’t become conscious and so is sublimated back into the unquenchable anger of a population that feels it’s been forced into indignity and barbarism.

They’ve been given a role, and they will play it until the experiment’s over. That they don’t see Trump as another jailer – one that’s bankrupted numerous legitimate business and crushed countless people much closer to the level of the supporters – is an artifact of fantastic marketing on Trump’s part. As long as he feeds the anger he gives them the only sense of agency they have.

Trump in the Inferno

Just sent another newsletter out – the main article’s below, and you can subscribe here.

I’ve just started reading Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet, the first in his Horror of Philosophy series and as recommended by Warren Ellis. In the Dust of This Planet considers horror as a vehicle through which to think about the unthinkable, from personal to climatological. Horror as a way to poke and prod at the limit of thought and immediate experience. It’s fantastic and engrossing so far and I was so caught by a particular point that’s stuck ever since.

Thacker proposes a few interpretations for the word black in the phrase “black metal” and in doing so addresses, separately, several ways to process darkness, evil and demons.

“In contrast to what Schopenhauer calls a private nothing (the nihil privativum; dark as the absence of light, death as the absence of life) there is a negative nothing (the nihil negativum; nothingness without any positive value).”

In other words, private nothing is an absence of something defined and has its own character on that basis. Compared to that, negative nothing is without character or definition – it is simply absence without any kind of light-or-matter transition to some positive state. Thacker goes on to discuss demons and typology, including a fantastic point – right on topic – that “Elaine Pagels’s widely-read The Origin of Satan makes the clearest point: the demon is inseparable from a process of demonization, and this process is as much political as it is religious.” And a bit later:

“The demon is not really a supernatural creature, but an anthropological motif through which we human beings project, externalize and represent the darker side of the human to ourselves.”

Mechanism established Thacker moves onto typology of demons in Dante’s Inferno and identifies at least three distinct types: Lucifer himself, personified, giant, brooding counter-sovereign; embodied demons such as the Malebranche that are found instituting various punishments and generally administrating the mundane tasks of hell; and the third type, which is what I’m concerned with here. Dante encounters a demonic atmosphere, a tempestuous and vile black wind driving the spirits back and forth, “eternal in its rage.”

“We soon learn that this tempestuous scene is not the backdrop for some new genre of demons, but that the wind, the rain and the storm itself is the demon. This “black wind” is at once invisible and yet dramatically manifest, coursing through the swarming bodies of the damned.”

Thacker describes this as a demon that is “fully immanent, and yet never fully present,” “at once pure force and flow,” but having no substance of its own “also pure nothingness.”

It occurred to me while reading that this seems a perfect corollary to the Trump Campaign. A fiery, rageful bombast who has yet to articulate any particular strategy or stance. Instead, Trump blows back and forth across what all involved seem to percieve as a doomed and decrepit plain, and they’re taken by the force he shows. He bellows from above about destroying this or that enemy or head of state, bellows about building a wall that he’ll force another country to pay for, bellows frenetically back and forth: he contradicts himself as much as he affirms himself. It isn’t direction Trump is concerned with, only force. He’s a political tempest with rage rather than form; his campaign is “fully immanent, and yet never fully present,” lacking hereness but “dramatically manifest.” Not the counter-divine but rather the political nihil negativum, an absence furiously insisting upon its presence.

I keep expecting Trump to burn out – to blow himself out, really. That at some point his energy has to expire and give place to something else. But there’s no energy to bottom out. Trump’s not the counter-anything, but rather that nothingness without a positive value. He’s that vile storm blowing across a landscape that doesn’t know there’s a positive value on the other side of rage. And he appeals so much to people who seem to view themselves as the damned – angry at being cast into a landscape they find existentially hostile and punishing, a population mad enough at their world that they’ve instead chosen the storm that’s as likely to turn on them as anything.

Encryption is Math, not Politics

Just sent out issue 2 of the Neurovagrant Newsletter, containing this and more.

 

Last week security researcher Chris Vickery uncovered a massively insecure database belonging to the Hello Kitty line of products – which include a number of online components. Vickery found that the details of some 3.3 million accounts could be accessed including real name, gender, country of origin, password and birthday. Even more troubling is the fact that most of these accounts likely belong to children – and coming so quickly in the wake of the VTech toymaker hack in which four million parent accounts and six million child profiles were compromised, it should cause each parent about to buy an internet-connected toy some pause.

Vickery wasn’t done there. That week he “was on a rampage, reporting data breaches for companies and services like MacKeeper, security vendor for Macs (13 million accounts); OkHello, video chat app (2.6 million accounts); Slingo, online gaming site (2.5 million accounts); iFit, fitness app (576,000 accounts); Vixlet, social network (377,000 accounts); California Virtual Academies, online school network (74,000 accounts); and Hzone, dating app for HIV patients (5,027 accounts).”

On Thursday Juniper Networks announced that its Virtual Private Network operating system ScreenOS had been compromised for at least the last four years. Juniper is a giant in the VPN business, which allow you to do things like access work networks from outside the office or protect your internet traffic from those seeking to intercept it. It appears two separate backdoors were installed into ScreenOS including one that utilized a cryptographic algorithm known to have been weakened at the direction of the National Security Agency – dual_ec_drbg. Attackers took advantage of engineered weaknesses to intercept the traffic of Juniper clients. To what extent is not yet known, but again: the backdoor had been present for the past four years.

Enter most of the 2016 presidential candidates. The entirety of the GOP candidates appear to be “against encryption” – a laughably simple argument considering encryption powers just about every bit of commerce and civic life we’re involved in. Encryption safeguards your card information when you purchase something on the internet but also when you use a card in-store; the point-of-sale machine connects to a payment processor, and when the encryption and/or segmentation there fails we see retail store POS breaches like Target or the processor-side TJX/Heartland breach. A strong economy relies on strong encryption. So does a strong healthcare system – healthcare breaches constitute the lion’s share of breaches in the past several years. Strong government itself relies on strong encryption. The OPM hackof this year shows us that. Not only did attackers gain an incredible data trove on law enforcement, intelligence and military members but having extended access to the database raises the specter of information being added, allowing deep infiltration of important institutions.

The encryption debate – often termed The Crypto Wars by those involved – popped up repeatedly since we became an information-heavy society. The latest round of Crypto Wars all but ended earlier this year in a resounding defeat for those seeking weaker encryption thanks to a strong, universal agreement among security experts that installing system backdoors cannot be done without weakening the system to other attackers. We cannot produce a golden key that only allows authorized access. Backdoors are by definition security vulnerabilities. Encryption in the sense we talk about it whether we’re talking about credit card payment systems or messaging apps is a form of mathematics. When we talk about algorithms we’re not talking about some kind of arcane code but rather mathematical formulas. A formula is a relationship. The right relationships between variables can do things like create nearly-unguessable random number sequences. Tweak that relationship even a little bit – as was done with dual_ec_drbg mentioned above – and you instantly change the formula in huge ways, sometimes drastically reducing the amount of computer power/time needed to work out what numbers the formula is going to produce.

This is a vast simplification of the math involved – but it is math. No amount of magical thinking or politicking will change the fact that encryption is, at is core, a mathematical problem. And unlike statistics shenanigans politicians are used to playing when it comes to polling these numbers don’t bend.

The Crypto-Wars reignited after the Paris attacks. Oddly so, since there’s not one iota of evidence that attackers used encryption. FBI Director Comey continues to make statements in his interest about terrorists using encryption and those statements continue to be disproven as investigations move forward and we learn more details. Statements like “their phones included encryption” are disingenuous at best – all modern cellphones include encryption of various sorts. The authorities depend on vague and unprovable statements and emotion to sway public opinion while information security experts have issued a resounding opinion: you cannot build a backdoor that no one else can exploit.

Hillary Clinton has called for a “Manhattan Project” in order to help law enforcement break into encrypted communications while leaving them secure and this is as doomed a project as that of any Republican. The comparison to the original Manhattan Project is an immediate failure: they were working with the physics, Hillary wants experts to work against the math. Mathematics is not an issue you can legislate or threaten your way out of, something the Catholic Church learned the hard way ages ago. Tweak the smallest parameter in an algorithmic relationship and you put at risk anything in that system – financial access, health data, intelligence agent backgrounds and their biometrics.

In crypto even more than in politics, we ignore the numbers at our peril.

Thoughts on the First Democratic Debate

Watched most of the first Democratic primary debate last night in spite of planning not to. I did miss an opening statement or two as I turned it on just in time to see Bernie’s. Sanders came out damn strong and I was glad to see it – and I should note before going much further that I’m incredibly partisan for Bernie Sanders and that will no doubt inform my comments in a particular way.

I found Sanders to be the only candidate on stage who expressed passion for anything other than his own record. Clinton continuously reinforced the idea that she had been chosen for this or that role and the things she accomplished in them. O’Malley painted an incredibly whitewashed, inaccurate view of his time in Baltimore. Chafee emphasized his lack of scandals.

Wait – I missed one. Jim Webb expressed passion about something other than his record as he talked about killing a man. Right.

Right now the pundits are saying that Hillary Clinton won last night. I am flummoxed. Clinton hit mostly right notes but in a disconnected, dispassionate way. She seemed for all the world like a technically proficient pianist playing a master work note for note and yet without any understanding of the work or its accompanying emotion. Her debate answers consisted of a paint-by-numbers exercise that included none of the artist’s zeal. The performance underscored for me the idea that Clinton believes she should have the nomination in hand by virtue of her presence. Her answers on Snowden (lock him up) and capitalism (hey, we can make it good! and small banks are worse than big banks) struck sour notes with me. Her revisionist portrayal of Russian cooperation with Medvedev as president entirely pretended as if Putin didn’t exist or have any power at the time and ignored multiple atrocities Russia committed during that period.

One of the most interesting questions of the night also constituted Clinton’s biggest failure to me. “Which enemy are you most proud of?” elicited a list from her, ticking off boxes one after the other, well-rehearsed: “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies…the Iranians…. probably the Republicans.” Clinton’s answer is incredibly problematic on a few levels: first of all, there are a hell of a lot of perfectly nice Iranians (nearly eighty million) that she’s lumping in together, rather than specifying the Iranian regime. That’s not the message to be sent – especially to a population with a median age of less than thirty years old that knows, as Tariq Ali once said, only the reign of the ayatollahs. The second problem with Clinton’s answer is that it betrays a worldview of enmity and aggression (largely consistent with her portrayal across news articles as well as several books I’ve read) that doesn’t seem to be serving us well in leadership positions. I don’t want a Commander-In-Chief that approaches most situations in a way eerily similar to George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or you’re against us” crap.

I found Sanders’ answers to be consistent with views he’s held for a long time and consistent with mine as well. His answer to the enemy question: Wall Street and Big Pharma, two topics close to my heart. His answer on the biggest national security threat had me cheering: climate change. Sanders unflinchingly, unhesitatingly called for the end to bulk communications collection by the NSA. His exchange with Clinton over capitalism highlighted some of the major differences between them: Clinton’s established record of working with and getting money from Wall Street, and Bernie’s absolutely passionate defense of democratic socialism. Again, Clinton came off technical while Sanders reminded me of a career civics teacher passionately trying to get students to buy-in, learn and involve themselves in the process.

I wish Sanders had taken a stronger line on Snowden rather than agreeing with the “he broke the law” silliness and mumbling about the effect mitigating his crime a little. Snowden deserves to come home without charges.

Last night felt like O’Malley lobbied hard for a VP spot he’ll never get and doesn’t deserve. He answered several questions by talking about how good he had been for Baltimore, something I’ve seen challenged in every camp possible so far. O’Malley couldn’t even bring himself to refer to a homicide as such, instead explicitly referring to “Freddie Gray’s tragic death” in just those words. His anti-NRA stance felt underwhelming, perhaps in the midst of the credibility hit he took in my head over Gray and Baltimore.

Chafee felt like a non-entity, another smiling face behind a podium without a hell of a lot of substance or passion.

And then there was Jim. Jim Webb’s performance I can only interpret in perhaps the context that the burger I ate a few hours prior maybe had moldy cheese with psychoactive properties and caused me to hallucinate each time he appeared. Jim Webb is the kind of guy Hunter Thompson was built for: an old ghost trying to gather enough substance to be a Jungian archetype while half his mind is still back in a war decades past. At various points I found Webb repeating the sad, false Republican trope about gun control advocates all having bodyguards; advocating immediate military force against China; and complaining multiple times, bitterly, about not being in the spotlight. He struck me as the kind of guy I’d never want to sit next to at a bar, never want to have a beer with, and never want in my party. Indeed, as David Corn pointed out, I identified most of Webb’s stances with Rand Paul.

And of course there was Webb’s answer to the “which enemy are you proudest of” question: an enemy soldier from his old war that lobbed a grenade at him. Webb implied that the man’s death followed. We’ve got a “presidential candidate” in a Democratic primary debate bragging over killing a man in Asia mere minutes after advocating war with China. Whatever kind of debate prep Jim Webb engaged in should’ve involved psychotherapy.

As is clear from my comments above, I think Sanders won. Clinton had a strong technical showing that never the less reinforced why I don’t believe she’s a preferable or viable candidate. O’Malley made things up, Chafee stood there, Webb should’ve been in the other debate instead.

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

An Open Letter To My Legislators On Greece

In 1919, British Economist John Maynard Keynes resigned from his country’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference as well as his post in the Treasury Department in direct protest of harsh punitive war reparations placed upon Germany. Keynes is one of the fathers of our modern economic system, lending his name to the Keynesian school of thought. He called the Versailles talks “a scene of nightmare” and left the other participants so they could “gloat over the destruction of Europe” in their own peace. Later that same year Keynes wrote an entire book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which laid out the subject in stark terms:

The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable, –abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilised life of Europe.

As we see in the abject failure of austerity measures to bring wellness to a population or its economy, in an ironic twist of Keynes’ fears, Germany seems to have its sights set on impoverishing Greece for a generation or more. As an American I believe this is a threat to our national interests in a unified, productive Europe. As a person I believe the actions of Germany and the Troika are reprehensible and must be countered by those who believe in freedom, sovereignty and helping others up rather than keeping them down.

Greece surely bears some measure of responsibility for their financial state, especially as regards weak or fraudulent accounting prior to 2009 and infuriatingly lax tax collection. A clear mandate has emerged from Greek voters even before the referendum: Greece is to operate responsibly. But their very inclusion in the European Union set them up for failure at their own great expense and to the enrichment of others. Entry into the European Union carries a number of requirements, including specific debt-to-GDP and deficit-to-GDP percentages that Greece had no hope of meeting at that point. At the request of several EU countries keen to see Greece brought in, Investment bank Goldman Sachs reportedly made hundreds of millions of dollars in the financial engineering used to hide Greek debt. Those complex financial instruments came due and are wreaking havoc upon not just the Greek economy but now their national sovereignty as well.

Computer programmer and economic commentator Steve Randy Waldman posted several times about Greece recently with a fair amount of information I hadn’t heard before. The most startling was this:

European banking regulations attached zero risk weights to all EU sovereigns, rendering it nearly costless for banks to simply manufacture deposits to purchase sovereign debt. Eurozone sovereigns were default-risk-free as a regulatory matter and currency-risk-free from the perspective of Eurozone banks. The European financial system was architected to make lending to Greece — and Spain and Portugal and Italy — a money machine for bankers with little career risk over a medium term. Sketchy credits tend to punch above their weight in terms of volume of issuance, so there was a lot of nice paper to buy. The bankers who lent to these states understood perfectly well that there was in fact a long-term risk, an uncertainty, a constructive ambiguity. They lent anyway, and took home very nice salaries and bonuses for doing so. It was conventional to lend, the mainstream consensus was that credit risk was over and worry warts were old-fashioned, Europe was strong and would work this out. If the worry warts turned out to be right, it was likely years away, IBGYBG.

Given what’s been known about the Greek economy for a good long while now, the idea that their sovereign debt was weighted zero-risk as a regulator matter means that, as Waldman also explains, the economic backstop of moral hazard (something invoked early and often in our own 2008 financial crisis) fell to the wayside. Creditors were able to extend much more money to Greece much faster without worrying about the fallout – and making gobs of cash for their own firms in the meantime. When the house of cards came crashing down the engineers would be long gone.

For the record, my sophisticated hard-working elite European interlocutors, the term moral hazard traditionally applies to creditors. It describes the hazard to the real economy that might result if investors fail to discriminate between valuable and not-so-valuable projects when they allocate society’s scarce resources as proxied by money claims. Lending to a corrupt, clientelist Greek state that squanders resources on activities unlikely to yield growth from which the debt could be serviced? That is precisely, exactly, what the term “moral hazard” exists to discourage.

Moral hazard having been cast aside the money flowed fast and furious to Greece – until it didn’t. And suddenly the regulatory structure of the European Union claims innocence as the European Central Bank, the IMF and Germany all center their gunsights on the Greek populace in order to make creditors whole rather than admitting to the malfeasance on their own parts for creating this scenario in the first place. We now see the lengths to which Germany and the Troika want to take this, and it includes regime change and/or ouster from the EU. The Europeans forced the resignation of Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, and have reportedly demanded that of Prime Minister Tsipras as well. According to the Guardian, the organization Greece is supposed to turn over $50 billion in state assets too is a German subsidiary corporation located in Luxembourg whose chairman is German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. Schauble announced its inception two years ago alongside then-Greek PM Antonis Samaras (who was until last week the opposition leader). This is former US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s recollection of a 2012 meeting with Schauble.

The destruction of the Syriza party and the entrapment of the Greek populace in soul-crushing austerity is both highly engineered and totally unconscionable – especially on the part of Germany. French Economist Thomas Piketty recently gave a fantastic interview to Die Zeit in which he outlined Germany’s history of unpaid reparations. Piketty’s a sensation at the moment in part thanks to his book on capital taking the economic world by storm.

Piketty: My book recounts the history of income and wealth, including that of nations. What struck me while I was writing is that Germany is really the single best example of a country that, throughout its history, has never repaid its external debt. Neither after the First nor the Second World War. However, it has frequently made other nations pay up, such as after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when it demanded massive reparations from France and indeed received them. The French state suffered for decades under this debt. The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.

Piketty goes on to talk about historical examples of states moving from saturating indebtedness to sustainability:

But wait: history shows us two ways for an indebted state to leave delinquency. One was demonstrated by the British Empire in the 19th century after its expensive wars with Napoleon. It is the slow method that is now being recommended to Greece. The Empire repaid its debts through strict budgetary discipline. This worked, but it took an extremely long time. For over 100 years, the British gave up two to three percent of their economy to repay its debts, which was more than they spent on schools and education. That didn’t have to happen, and it shouldn’t happen today. The second method is much faster. Germany proved it in the 20th century. Essentially, it consists of three components: inflation, a special tax on private wealth, and debt relief.

And specifically on Germany and debt relief.

After the war ended in 1945, Germany’s debt amounted to over 200% of its GDP. Ten years later, little of that remained: public debt was less than 20% of GDP. Around the same time, France managed a similarly artful turnaround. We never would have managed this unbelievably fast reduction in debt through the fiscal discipline that we today recommend to Greece. Instead, both of our states employed the second method with the three components that I mentioned, including debt relief. Think about the London Debt Agreement of 1953, where 60% of German foreign debt was cancelled and its internal debts were restructured.

We come, then, to the actual referendum, its portrayal, and its aftermath. A referendum in which the country, for better or worse, voted to reject external austerity measures – measures that are now apparently being imposed regardless.

joke

Germany and Finland pull no punches in describing Greece as recalcitrants spoiled by years of access to other people’s money – and for that, apparently, they should suffer. Without recognition of the change in administrations or mandates, or the EU’s own culpability in arranging the current crisis from start to finish. But no: the Greeks are portrayed as lazy, entitled and in the midst of a toddler-style temper tantrum. Few articles covered it better than Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Zizek in the New Statesman:

The debt providers and caretakers of debt basically accuse the Syriza government of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. That’s what is so disturbing for the EU establishment about the Syriza government: that it admits debt, but without guilt. They got rid of the superego pressure. Varoufakis personified this stance in his dealings with Brussels: he fully acknowledged the weight of the debt, and he argued quite rationally that, since the EU policy obviously didn’t work, another option should be found.

Zizek goes on to explain the implications of the Grexit crisis for democracies around the world:

An ideal is gradually emerging from the European establishment’s reaction to the Greek referendum, the ideal best rendered by the headline of a recent Gideon Rachman column in the Financial Times: “Eurozone’s weakest link is the voters”.

In this ideal world, Europe gets rid of this “weakest link” and experts gain the power to directly impose necessary economic measures – if elections take place at all, their function is just to confirm the consensus of experts. The problem is that this policy of experts is based on a fiction, the fiction of “extend and pretend” (extending the payback period, but pretending that all debts will eventually be paid).

Nobel-winning American economist Paul Krugman put it into similar terms in the New York Times, referencing a hashtag that became wildly popular on twitter:

Even if all of that is true, this Eurogroup list of demands is madness. The trending hashtag ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept; but even so, it’s a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.

Simply put: America has a huge stake in seeing the European project succeed and has been noticeably, conspicuously silent about what looks to be a new type of regime change and denial of another country’s sovereignty and democracy imposed by central authorities. That the central authorities involved are some of our most important allies seems to be more important than the concept of democracy.

Beyond that: the humanity here is important as well. Austerity offers no comforts for the group upon which it is imposed. The austerity Greece has dealt with for years now results in trends like a massive uptick in child poverty and material deprivation between 2008 and 2012. The referendum stood as a reaction in large part to not just graphs, tables and statistics like that but the lived experience of economic hopelessness. A lived experience likely to worsen if Germany, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank have their way in a country removed from its own decisionmaking process.

One of the most important factors I’ve seen help raise people up from harsh conditions is a sense of agency, a sense that they’re aware of, can control and execute their own actions and change those conditions. Write their own story. And that is explicitly what the European Union seeks to deny Greece.