Category Archives: Thoughts

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.

“At least it was a peaceful transition”

I’ve heard in a few places something along the lines of “well the election was rough but it was a peaceful transition and for that we should be thankful.” But the amount of violence that the Trump campaign carried with it isn’t inconsiderable.

The constant encouragements from top to bottom to assault and even kill those that disagree, or those that are different; the constant threats during the campaign to levy the coercive force of the state against his opponent, the press, protesters, latin@s, Muslims; the direct violence threatened and now in the process of being perpetrated on some thirty million Americans soon to lose healthcare they’re paying for; the violence involved in wresting from women self-determination over their own bodies; these are all things that occurred not only throughout the campaign but have carried over in the transition and into the new administration.

The only thing we’re missing at this point is for Trump to begin that levying of state power against Clinton as he repeatedly promised in the form of illegitimate prosecution, or utilize the same or similar resources to directly pursue and punish journalists that published anything not laudatory. And we’re only one day into his term.

This wasn’t a peaceful transition. The specter of violence threatening life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for anyone not white, male, healthy, able-bodied, and Republican has been ever-present and continues to loom over the Capitol.

For god’s sake, not the windows!


Oh heavens, oh my, oh deary me, the young people are breaking corporation windows in Washington DC. It’s like they’re mad or something, in the week or so in which healthcare was stripped and on the day that climate change and LGBT protection policies were scrubbed, along with the DOJ beginning to drop voting rights protection cases. I for one am shocked that anyone could be angry enough to cause property damage as a cabal of old white men explicitly and purposely wreck their circumstances, country, planet and future.

As the Department of Education is handed to a dilettante billionaire who believes it’s her duty to defund public schooling in favor of private Christian religious education, the Department of Energy is handed to a man that didn’t know what it did but wanted to abolish it anyway, the Environmental Protection Agency is handed to a man that sued it multiple times to block important regulations, the Department of State is handed to an oil executive that’s close enough friends with the anti-gay, anti-human rights authoritarian leader of Russia, and the Department of the Treasury is handed to a Goldman Sachs executive who failed to disclose A HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS IN ASSETS.

I can’t imagine why people would be angry with a vice president who believes that electroshock torture is acceptable on people with different sexualities, or a president who belittles and sexually assaults women. I can’t imagine why anyone would be angry enough to break a window in a country where an oil pipeline is diverted away from a city over water fears and re-planned to cross through crucial water resources for an already marginalized Native American population. I can’t imagine why a limousine would be vandalized and burned as we discuss creating registries and immigration and visitation rules on the basis of religion.

I for one am aghast that someone would be angry enough to light a trashcan on fire as legislation is proposed in North Dakota allowing motorists to run over protesters or in Indiana empowering police to shut down protests “by any means necessary.”

There is certainly no need for property destruction in the face of an explicit agenda to illegalize countless loving marriages between our gay friends and family, or in the same stroke deprecate useful sexual education and prohibit any access to birth control and safe abortion. Those windows, that limo, that trashcan, they’re all innocent bystanders in this. And certainly there’s no need for anyone to register a note of dissent beyond a strongly-worded letter.

Roll your eyes as protesters block highways or inauguration gates. Clutch your pearls as windows are broken. Change the channel while people die from preventable and treatable diseases and state-enabled violence. But for god’s sake don’t break a window.

Post-inauguration Podcast List

Now that Trump has been sworn in it’s more important than ever to seek out valuable and credible information sources. In that spirit I suggest the following podcasts to subscribe to and prioritize to stay up to date and well-informed on current and emerging national security, domestic and foreign policy issues.

Arms Control Wonk – The nuclear weapons, arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation podcast. Companion to the popular Arms Control Wonk blog (www.armscontrolwonk.com). Hosted by Jeffrey Lewis & Aaron Stein. – Arms control experts discussing timely current events topics in the areas of and with the benefit of their expertise. Great for dispelling misinformation and pointing out bad reporting.

Intelligence Squared and Intelligence Squared USTwo great sources for lively discussion and debate, great for expanding the perspectives you consider.

LawfareCompanion podcast to the Lawfare blog, often with talks or panel discussions on national security issues.

Rational Security – A weekly discussion of national security and foreign policy matters hosted by Shane Harris of the Daily Beast and featuring Brookings senior fellows Tamara Cofman Wittes and Benjamin Wittes. – I often disagree significantly with the views put forth here but they’re always intelligent and well-informed and listening and engaging with the views is always beneficial.

Newsletter just shipped

The seventh issue of my newsletter on security, technology, society and other issues just shipped! You can sign up for it over here. In it I talk about rolling dumpster fires, drones, and my big fear about artificial intelligence – not that it will be super smart, but that its stupidity will be weaponized.

Check it out when you get the time!

On Cabinets, On Trying and On Rules

There’s an old-ish bit of political apocrypha about Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior: that he was a born-again Christian and explicitly believed that conservation of any type was unnecessary because the Second Coming was imminent. And that Reagan appointed him specifically for that fact. Secretary of the Interior is responsible for all federal lands – some 20% of US land – and especially conservation thereof.

Now, I never saw it proved, which is why I refer to it as apocrypha, but it’s always used as a warning about presidential appointments. And it’s always been mocked whenever it’s come up, in some ways rightfully. But suddenly we have an administration that is literally going beyond that, outdoing a mad, old evangelical and making appointments that aren’t just opposed to their agencies but utterly antithetical.

Let’s examine that for a moment. His cabinet now includes: three Goldman Sachs alums despite a keystone of his candidacy being criticism of Goldman Sachs; two generals known for outlandish conspiracy theories; a Secretary of Labor who is staunchly anti-labor; a Secretary of the Interior who intends to sell off federal land; a Secretary of Education that decimated the Michigan educational system even further; an EPA director who is suing the EPA; a Small Business Administration director who was an entertainment executive and couldn’t even get elected in her own state; an Attorney General hostile to just about every vulnerable segment of our society; and the best one, a Secretary of State who has possibly the best relationship with Vladimir Putin of any American, and whose company is eager to allow through a $300 million deal with Rosneft which was halted under Obama’s sanctions after Russia INVADED ANOTHER COUNTRY. That’s not to mention the complete lack of response from Trump’s side about what looks to be significant Russian interference in our election, Trump bashing the CIA and actively protecting Putin, and one of his top advisors having illegally served as a top Russian lobbyist for years.

A cabinet worth over $11 billion – more than 4x the net worth of Obama’s and THIRTY TIMES the net worth of Bush II’s latter cabinet. A real cabinet of the people. Congratulations on it.

There’s a term of art in finance called IBGYBG – “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” – that signifies a deal that’s profitable in the short term (especially for the negotiators) which all involved parties know will sour in some way but by the time it does the people negotiating it will have retired or moved on. It’s quite literally a financial mechanism of short-sightedness and it defined many of the mortgage and securitization deals that led directly to the 2008 financial crisis. “By the time these mortgagees default to the point that the investment is toast we’ll be gone.” Trump’s cabinet both codifies and transcends IBGYBG thinking. In a decade we went from “I’ll Be Gone/You’ll Be Gone” shortsightedness to “Eh, We can afford good bunkers, let’s run it into the dirt.”

I keep hearing “at least Trump’s trying!” Let’s see what Trump has been “trying” this week: has he even taken any intelligence briefings? No. He spent his time on twitter attacking a small labor union representative. He went to the Army-Navy game (and sat with Ollie North, of course). He revealed a scheme to charge $35 for a “Trump Inaugural Membership Card.” He reaffirmed his stake in a reality TV show. And held another self-congratulation rally.

The transition of Turkey’s political landscape over the last several years and in particular this year shocked analysts and commentators with its speed and severity. Erdogan went from Washington DC darling to troublesome pariah to tolerated dictator relatively fast as these things go – especially that last step. I fear the change in America’s political landscape will be no less severe and possibly just as fast, if not exactly commensurate. If you want to know why I’m feeling more extreme lately and speaking in more extreme ways realize I’m reacting to a two-party system in which one party has decided that rules no longer matter and winning is the most important thing, a cabinet full of paranoid generals and people looking to strip resources off the country for profit, a precarious technological landscape which empowers the state more than it empowers individuals and the trajectory of a disrupted country ruled by a strongman who favors mass purges.

That all leads to a single conclusion for me above all others: it is no longer in anyone’s interests to continue playing by the rules.

Post-Election

Had I disposable income I’d be buying and handing out copies of the comic book Transmetropolitan like other people do with self help books.

I’ve been all over the place this last week. And I haven’t really nailed down my thoughts on the election in any eloquent manner. I think I was trying to distract myself, but I was also starting to plan.

I talked to friends about how to secure their data and devices more effectively before the inauguration, and gave them some more resources.

I spent some time fantasizing about building speculative, sci-fi ish sandcastles like this guy.

I cried at Kate McKinnon’s tribute to Leonard Cohen, which was also a tribute to us.

The Rose of Jericho unexpectedly resurfaced in my feeds at the right time, and I thought about that for a while.

I remembered From 52 to 48 With Love and kind of longed for the naivety of eight years ago.

But I’ll tell you what. I have not one thought of moving away. I will fight the Trump administration and whoever supports harmful policies with everything I have. I will bring The Weird.

And we will fight, building and singing and recklessly blooming and loving all the way.

Some Bits and Pieces

via @m1sp,

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via @robertloerzel,

screenshot-33

via @science_hooker, @lornalou92‘s ‘A Scot’s Lament for Americans, Oan their election of a tangerine gabshite walloper.’

via @museumarchive, a 6th century Buddha statue found in a Viking grave in Sweden.

via @valaafshar, what happens when you toss a pot of boiling water in -25 degree air.

and via Bill Tozier, an intriguing question that’s gripped my brain since he asked it:

screenshot-34

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And to finish off for the evening: Kate McKinnon opens SNL by singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That broke me a bit in a lovely and haunting way.

Colour out of space, touch out of type

Fun, fascinating realization while writing about something totally unrelated this morning. So, I’ve known for a long, long time that I have synesthesia – it’s a lifelong neurological mechanism where sensory input in one arena reliably triggers sensation in another. For instance, the most common form is for certain letters or numbers to appear in particular colors. But synesthesia can affect spatial orientation, physical sensation like touch and texture, sound and taste.

In my case, words both written and spoken have an immediately tactile quality – touch, pressure and texture.

I’m now in a work environment where roughly 50% of my patients speak primarily Spanish, and while I have a very basic grasp of Spanish I’ve been hesitant to engage with them and instead rely on coworkers that can translate. Part of that is that my Spanish has atrophied, but another big part I couldn’t put my finger on until this morning as I sat writing about sensation in an entirely differently way.

It’s been so long since I regularly used or was exposed to Spanish that I forgot it has an entirely different tactile quality than English for me – it triggers totally unique physical sensations. And I’ve not felt them regularly for at least a decade and a half. This connection came to me in a split second and fits so perfectly with my physical experience of being in a Spanish-speaking environment again.

I took four years of Spanish in high school, had excellent teachers and enjoyed it very much but even before I knew about synesthesia recognized that it “felt” different than English. My post high-school experience with Spanish consisted mostly of translating Spanish poetry into English for fun and to keep the Spanish fresh in my brain, but also for the pure physical/neurological experience I derived from it. I also watched Spanish-language TV a bit to keep my listening skills sharp but that felt different and I did it less.

I was writing about color and texture in painting this morning and it all just sort of clicked.

Re-balancing

University of Pennsylvania information science professor Matt Blaze happened upon an SUV near the Philadelphia Convention Center sporting a license plate radio and other surveillance gear not-so-cleverly disguised as a Google Street Car (the kind that roam around and produce Google Maps and the accompanying Street-level scenery). More than a few outfits picked up the story and determined that it was a Philadelphia Police vehicle but the, ahem, cunning misdirection was “not authorized.”

Many people are loading their homes with extra-smart devices, not just connected but able to do things like spoken language processing thanks to microphones and cloud software, such as the Amazon Echo. Gizmodo’s Matt Novak put in a Freedom of Information Act request to see if the FBI had yet wiretapped one and received what’s known as a Glomar Response: “We can neither confirm nor deny.” Draw your own conclusions there.

An incredible, insane investigation shows that federal agents bugged public areas around bay-area courthouses for years in the hopes of overhearing illegal conversations. And did so without warrants. In order to catch mortgage auction bid-rigging.

In public, non-public and supposedly privileged areas we are less and less able to depend on any kind of principles around privacy. In some cases (such as the Echo) we willingly surrender some of that privacy for convenience. In others we find that the privacy considered to be sacrosanct is violated without so much as due process of law. Practicality demands we enter into two renegotiations: one with ourselves regarding what privacy and self-security we’re willing to relinquish in exchange for services (Echo) or some semblance of safety (overall law enforcement); and a second with each other, on the civic level, as technology enables vastly greater surveillance powers but doesn’t seem to be enabling greater democracy. As Thomas Rid said in the excellent Cyber War Will Not Take Place, “The real risk for liberal democracies is not that these technologies empower individuals more than the state; the long-term risk is that technology empowers the state more than individuals, thus threatening to upset a carefully calibrated balance of power between citizens and the governments they elect to serve them.”

I have a deep love for subversive technologies – something that should be no surprise. Rid’s book contains an excellent discussion on technology and subversion, a discussion we need to revisit as the state and other institutions demand authority and legitimacy but continue to interfere with protected freedoms. Our technology currently empowers the state. What does the situation look like with more balance? What technologies can we promote that, as Rid defines subversion, deliberately attempt to undermine the trustworthiness, integrity and constitution of an established authority or order. Certainly they’re not all illegal and there are perhaps some of those technologies that may be illegal or treated as illegal that aren’t. For instance, use of the Tor anonymization platform is perfectly legal but, as authorities have admitted, brings extra law enforcement scrutiny to users and makes them surveillance targets (so does the simple act of encrypting your net traffic, such as through a commercial VPN). That very tension – between an act not being illegal yet prioritizing one as a target for more surveillance – is at the heart of subversion because it exposes the practical differences between the values we exalt and the operational principles we employ.

It’s not an easy balancing act. Nothing about this is simple. But the narratives that FBI Director James Comey and others keep slinging are filled with, at best, inaccuracies. The FBI positions aren’t a result of them being disempowered by encryption but empowered by a myriad of technologies – automated plate readers, better remote microphones, in-home surveillance rigs – and fearful of a re-balancing.

Technology’s primary role should be to empower individuals. Tell me I’m wrong.