The Bedouin Way of Life in Rub’ al Khali

tl;dr: The impact of oil on Bedouin is a useful entry into thinking about the systemic risk of urban settlements. The historical record over the last 10,000 years provides numerous examples of abrupt climate changes, pandemics, Empire collapse and other crises that suggest that our current global, interconnected civilization presents an unprecedented source of systemic risk. (1803 words)

“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not necessary was an encumberance. I had found, too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquility was to be found there. I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence: the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.”
—Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands. New York: Penguin, 2007, 37.

“And the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life—we went soft, we lost our edge.”
—Frank Herbert, Dune.

Rub’ al Khali, also known as the ‘Empty Quarter’, is a vast desert in Saudi Arabia. It is hyper-arid, receiving an inch of rain or less a year. Without water, there is no agriculture, and the only pastoral land consists of spots of green marking the path of some passing rain cloud from weeks before. The tribes of nomadic Bedouin that lived around the edges of the Empty Quarter — i.e., the Saar, Rashid, Manahil, Awamir, Bani Yas, and Dawasir — were able to eke out a living by living off the dairy of their camels and goats, hunting, trading, taking tribute from caravans, charging to take goods across the desert, raiding other tribes, etc. Camels were their transportation, and they had to constantly be on the move looking for patches of green in the sands to survive. But, the Bedouin had survived this way for millennia.

A three year project plagued by cave-ins, broken drills, and other ills, changed all of that. On March 3, 1938, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. In 1948, Ghawar Field was found. It was producing oil by 1951, and it remains the largest conventional oil field in the world. Later on in the 1990s, Shaybah Field was also developed. Both of these oil fields are in the Empty Quarter.

How did the discovery of oil in the Empty Quarter impact the Bedouin living there? A National Geographic article states it plainly:

“‘Today the Bedu still conduct trade and business, but from the towns. They hire others—mostly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis—to do their herding.’ Because oil money is finally trickling down to the Bedu, Imad tells me, the government has created population centers in the desert. These are called markaz, often with free housing and schools and medical care. In the Rub al Khali many of the Bedu have moved to the markaz. ‘To meet Bedu these days,’ he laughs, ‘you may have to go to the towns.’…After two weeks and 3,000 miles (4828 kilometers), we finally find our Bedu herdsmen. And, as Imad Khalid thought we might, we find them in a town.”
—Donovan Webster. The Empty Quarter. National Geographic: February 2005.

It seems the Bedouin way of life in Rub’ al Khali is undergoing extinction. But, if you raise your eyes to the horizon and look out a bit, two questions loom: What happens when the oil runs out? And when will that be?

Saudi Arabia keeps very tight control over the information on their oil production. So, it is difficult to estimate when their fields will peak and decline and at what rate. But, for the purposes of this essay, the only thing necessary to know is that in order for Saudi Arabia to cover their state budget of $237 billion dollars, they need oil prices around $89 dollars a barrel. Oil prices have not been above $89 dollars since October 2014. Add in a war in Yemen and the inevitable increase in oil production costs from oil well depletion in the future, and there is a pressing need to implement cost containment measures and invest into income diversification long before the oil wells in Saudi Arabia run dry.

The trickle down of oil money to the Bedouin — and the free housing, schools and medical care that comes with it — will soon dry up. It won’t happen tomorrow, but the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 initiative points to one possible timeline, a mere 13 years away. And then what? Will the Bedouin return to their traditional way of life? Will they re-learn the skills necessary to live in the periphery of the Empty Quarter and to herd their own animals again? Will they incorporate new technologies, such as Warka Water structures, to form the basis of modern oases? Will they maintain the existing markaz settlements in the desert? Or, will they choose to move to the cities to be assimilated into larger Saudi Arabian society?

The Sumerian myth, Innana Prefers the Farmer, presents a similar choice. Innana has to choose either a shepherd or a farmer for her husband, and as one would expect from the goddess of the first urban civilization in Mesopotamia, she chooses the farmer. The text we have of this myth suggests that even though the shepherd is wealthier, the levels of specialization settled life can support provide a foundation for greater wealth, because it frees a community up to create more finished products from raw materials, such as better clothing, wine and bread.

But, taking the long view, there are systemic risks to urban life. In the past twelve thousand years, there have been several instances of abrupt climate changes that caused significant areas of abandonment of sedentary agriculture and associated settlements, adoption of pastoral lifestyles, and mass migrations.

In Sumeria, for example, there was a major shift in their population to the north as their soil became increasingly acidic from 2,100 BC to 1,700 BCE that was partly brought on by climate change. It was the central cause of the decline of their civilization.

And the same pattern repeats itself with different causes. In 1,200 BCE, there was the Late Bronze Age collapse that ended with the destruction of almost every major city in the Eastern Mediterranean. Possible causes? Climate change, a volcanic eruption, drought, and general system collapse.

A good example of a localized general system collapse may be the Ancestral Puebloans. In the 12th and 13th centuries CE, they abandoned their settlements in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde in the Southwestern United States. While the exact causes are still unclear, an article in the New York Times describes the most likely explanation this way:

“As [Ancestral Puebloan] society became more complex, it also became more fragile…Corn was domesticated then wild turkeys, an important protein source. With more to eat, populations grew and aggregated into villages…When crops began dying and violence increased, the inhabitants clustered even closer. By the time the drought of 1275 hit, the [Ancestral Puebloans] had become far more dependent on agriculture than during earlier droughts and they had become more dependent on each other…’You can’t easily peel off a lineage here and a lineage there and have them go their own way,’ Dr. Kohler said. ‘These parts are no longer redundant. They are part of an integrated whole.'”
—George Johnson. Vanished: A Pueblo Mystery. New York Times, April 8, 2008.

Settlements concentrate people. Groups can provide protective functions, just as a schools of fish can be protective against aquatic predators. But, they also introduce systemic risks, which only become apparent on the day the school of fish is found by a fisherman with a net, they suffocate in an algal bloom, or some other crisis reveals what was previously hidden.

In human terms, whether it is climate change, collapse of Empires, famine, drought, major epidemics, war, flood or some other acute cause, the infrastructure necessary to support complex settlements, indeed entire civilizations, can be pushed beyond the breaking point by Black Swan events. After a major urban epidemic such as the Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) or the Black Death (1346–1353 CE), which killed between a third and a half of the European population, a few survivors are going to deeply consider a pastoral or nomadic existence as a survival strategy.

More generally, nomadic strategies — whether hunter-gatherer, pastoral, or itinerant individuals or communities — forgo size in exchange for small groups with less complexity and greater resilience in a crisis. These societies are simpler and easier to sustain, but they are harder lives to live.

Perhaps the situation of the Bedouin in Rub’ al Khali is a situation we all face. In a world where populations continue to grow and coalesce into an interconnected network of global mega-cities depending on international markets and agricultural “bread baskets” to feed their populations, what would happen if a neo-Black Death emerged and was responsible for the deaths of a third or half of the world’s population? Or, if a super-volcano, such as the Yellowstone Caldera, erupted resulting in a decades long ash cloud and low crop yields, among other problems? Or, if modern farming techniques result in a depletion of soil that had an impact similar to the acidification of the soil of the Sumerian civilization that only become apparent over a few centuries? And, this is before we have even touched on the possible risks of the unprecedented anthropogenic climate change that is so frequently discussed.

Humans are not good at thinking about problems that are measured in decades, much less centuries or millennia. A global system of settlements provides economies of scale that are very good at weathering local and even some global catastrophic events. But, there are always limits, particularly of carrying capacity. There is a peak beyond which the fertility of soil, the reserves of the aquifers, limits of resources such as phosphorus for fertilizer and so forth cannot be pushed, and when these limits are reached, often after a crisis, it can result in precipitous declines. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Further, the one major difference between our present moment and the past 10,000 years is that global “climate change” could potentially bring desertification to the equatorial region of much of the world, possibly turning portions of it into another Empty Quarter. The difference between us and the Bedouin in Rub’ al Khali is we don’t know how to survive in that climate.

Five Easy Steps to Better Security

tl;dr: The five easy steps are: (1) start using a password manager, (2) set a password for your computer and devices, (3) install HTTPS Everywhere, (4) setup two-factor authentication for your important accounts, and (5) install Signal Private Messenger. If you do nothing else, start using a password manager, like LastPass. (2,127 words)

The What

Let’s start by doing the easy steps that can make your computer and phone more secure, right now.

  1. Download Lastpass. If you are not using a password manager, you should be (see below for why). LastPass works on mobile phones and tablets, such as iPhone/iPad and Android. It also works on personal computers, and there is a download page for Macs, PCs and for Linux. Passwords you add on your phone are also available on your computer, and vice versa. If you use all Apple products, the best manager is 1password for your Mac, iPhone, or iPad. However, it costs $2.99 a month for individuals and $4.99 for families to use.
  2. Set a password for your phone and computer. Instructions for setting a password rather than a pin on iPhone are available. In Android, it can vary, but you can search for “lock” (without quotes) in settings to find the Lock screen settings and select password. Most computers have lock screens on by default, but if you need to set it up, instructions on how to turn the lock screen on for a Mac and Windows are available.
  3. Install the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension. This extension is available for three major browsers: Chrome, Firefox or Opera. If you do not currently use one of these browsers, you will need to download one of them to your computer or device using one of these links: Chrome, Firefox, or Opera. Then, install the relevant extension from the links above. If you aren’t sure which browser to use, try Firefox.
  4. Set-up two-factor authentication for your important accounts. Your debit card for your bank account is two factor authentication. You have to have the card and the pin number in order to access your money. You want the same kind of protection for your online accounts. The easiest way to do it is to have a text message sent to your phone that has a six digit code that you use in addition to your password to access your accounts.
  5. Install Signal Private Messenger. Signal is easy to use software for encrypted messages on iPhone or Android. To the person using it, it looks and works no differently from Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, or whatever default messaging app that’s already on your phone.

The How & Why

Knowing what you should be doing to keep your information safe online can be hard. It’s work. It can be complicated. It means changing the way you do things. The goal of this essay is to talk about five easy changes that everyone should consider doing, explain why as simply as possible, and point you to the tools and techniques you will need to get off to a good start.

1. Download LastPass

The most important change you can make to improve your online security is to start using a password manager. People are bad at creating passwords. We are bad at remembering them. We also tend to reuse them. With a password manager, you only have to remember one password, i.e., the master password. The good news is that there is a technique for creating a secure master password called Diceware that takes less than 10 minutes. Here’s how:

Take a six-sided dice, and roll it five times. I rolled a five, five, five, one, and a one. You then take the number 55511, download a Diceware wordlist, open it and look up the number. (If the wordlist doesn’t display correctly, open it in Word or WordPad.) The word corresponding to 55511 in the linked wordlist is “splendor”. You then repeat the process six times to get six words. At the end, you’ll have a strong password like “splendor applicant gooey attentive composite cramp” (without the quotes). You’ll have to write down your password initially, but eventually, you’ll just remember it.

Once you have a good master password, then you can use it to create an account and log into LastPass. Then, you can start the time-consuming part, changing the passwords on all your online accounts using LastPass. LastPass uses an algorithm to create unique strong passwords for every site you use. It then stores them in an encrypted database, so it is only available to you. If you are logged into LastPass, then it will automatically paste your login information into the login page and enter the website. Start with your most important passwords. It can be hard to remember all the accounts you have made over the years, so you can look for saved passwords in your browser, reset emails in your email, and other ways to try to get them all. Expect the process to take a few weeks, if you do a few every day.

Note: Instead of giving correct answers to security questions like, “What was make of your first car?”, consider answering them incorrecly or input additional passwords and put the answers in the Notes field for that account in your password manager. This makes it more difficult for criminals to reset your password on your account using online account recovery or by calling customer service, if they know personal details about you.

2. Set a password for your phone and computer

If LastPass is open in your computer browser or phone app, it means anyone with access to the computer or phone can access every site you use with it. As a good general precaution, you’ll want to make sure that anything that uses LastPass requires a password so that if you misplace your phone or a burglar is in your home, they cannot use LastPass to access your banking account or other online services. You can always logoff and login again with your strong master password for LastPass, but it is often easier just to use the lower level protection of the lock screen that is already on these devices.

3. Install the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension

Some websites you use may still sending your passwords in the clear when you login. It doesn’t matter if you use strong passwords created by a password manager like LastPass, if you are going to show this password to everyone who cares to look when you are connected to a open wifi hotspot at the airport, coffee shop, hotel, hospital, conference, library and so forth when you login. HTTPS Everywhere turns these postcard passwords and puts them in sealed envelopes that only you and the website you are connecting to can read.

Note: If you spend a lot of time using unencrypted connections or want to take the concept of HTTPS Everywhere to the next level, consider using a VPN. ExpressVPN is a good example. It costs about $100/year. Discussing VPNs is beyond the scope of this essay, but a look at the link above can explain why you might want to use one.

4. Set-up two-factor authentication for your important accounts

Like setting the lock screen, two-factor (or multi-factor) authentication provides an additional layer of security. With two-factor authentication set-up, you login normally. Once the website receives a good username and password combination, it then asks for an additional (usually six digit) code. The two most common ways of getting the code is either through a text message to your phone or in an phone app like Google’s Authenticator. If someone were to get your password using an email phishing attack, say a website that looks like your bank but is a criminal’s website where you were fooled and put in your password, they would still need the second factor from your phone to access your account. Additionally, two-factor authentication can warn you that there is a problem. If you receive text messages from a service you are not trying to logon to but has two-factor authentication, it might be an indication that someone has access to your password information that shouldn’t.

Note: Reading the EFF’s tutorial, “How to Avoid Phishing Attacks” is a good point to start, if the idea of “phishing” is new to you.

5. Install Signal Private Messenger

Just as we use HTTPS Everywhere to preventing passwords from being shared “in the clear” over wifi networks, Signal does the same thing for text messages. Text messages over a phone network can be read by anyone. For example, if a criminal sets up a device that mimics the behavior of a cell phone tower, your phone might connect to it, and any data passed through that connection will be readable by that criminal. Chat services like Facebook’s Messenger and Google’s Hangout’s also read the contents of your messages in order to serve advertising to you. Using Signal Private Messenger ensures that the only people that can read a message are the sender and the recipient.

Going Further

If you have implemented the above changes, congratulations! You have significantly improved your online security. Since these steps were relatively easy, what else can you do?

The problem with security measures is that few things apply to everyone, and there are always trade-offs. Which trade-offs are worth making is a subjective judgment call. A few examples:

Browser extensions: There are many browser extensions that provide some measure of protection from malacious computer programs, advertising and third-party tracking online, such as NoScript, Privacy Badger, uBlock and others. While each extension is easy to install and use, it means sometimes a website will not work as you expect, and you may need to change some settings in your extensions in order to have a website display correctly. Do you need all three? Are you willing to figure out which extension is causing a page to not load the way you want? People’s tolerance for working through these kinds of issues differ.

Secure email: Are you comfortable with a service like Yahoo scanning your Yahoo email on behalf of the NSA? Is it worth it to start using Thunderbird with Enigmail with Yahoo? (Probably not.) Or what about paying $50/year for “secure” email services like Kolab, Countermail, or Protonmail? Even people that work in the software security industry have opinions for and against trying to secure email. Signal, which we installed above, is so easy to use. Why not just use it? Good question.

Encrypted files: Or, perhaps you have digital documents — such as an electronic college transcript, financial documents, medical information or a last will & testament. Do you need to protect that information from being stolen or being targeted by ransomware? What security measures do you want to take? Is a low tech solution like keeping these files on a separate USB drive enough? Do you want to use some type of encryption mechanism such as whole disk encryption available through Bitlocker on Windows, FileVault on Mac, or the device encryption options for iPhone and Android? The problem with full disk encryption is that maybe you’ll have a hard-drive failure and you won’t be able to recover the encrypted drive, which means you have to keep it in multiple locations and maybe use an encrypted storage service like SpiderOak, Seafile or use a standard cloud drive like Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, etc. in combination with something like LibreCrypt software in order to have encrypted data and the backups necessary to make sure you won’t lose your information. There’s no one right answer for everyone, but moving beyond putting files on a USB drive gets complicated, real quick.

For those concerned about survelliance, the EFF has a great guide called Surveillance Self Defense that discusses security concepts (e.g., threat profiles), software tools (such as PGP/GPG, VPNs, Tor, ChatSecure and so forth), and tutorials (like the one on Phishing mentioned above) that can help you better understand security concepts and trade-offs. Other sites like Prism Break can also offer software suggestions worth some consideration.

There are many options available, depending on your personal needs and concerns. While the many options can be overwhelming, taking small concrete steps, like we have done here, can make you much less likely to be a target for criminals online. The old saying is that security is a process. You cannot prevent everything, but it is prudent to do the small things that help prevent the most common problems.

Women’s March on Washington

tl;dr: The Women’s March on Washington is a protest march slated for January 21, 2017 in Washington D.C. It will be historic, the first major intersectional march representing the interests of a diverse set of marginalized communities (and their allies) concerned with a whole platform of domestic policy issues. In the current political climate, it has the potential to start some real dialogue between disparate progressive, liberal and radical groups and perhaps even serve as a launching point for a grassroots political movement that will resist the worst excesses of the Trump era and pave the way toward a better politics of the future. If you are able to be a part of it (or similar marches in a city near you), please go. (1,736 words)


The Women’s March on Washington (WMW) is scheduled for January 21, 2017. In a pre-WMW guide published in late-December 2016, The Guardian quoted the organizers:

“The Women’s March on Washington is quick to say it is not an anti-Trump protest. ‘We’re not targeting Trump specifically. It’s much more about being proactive about women’s rights,’ said Cassady Fendlay, spokeswoman for the march…The march is a very broad church, with [Linda] Sarsour [Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and a National Co-Chair of WMW] explaining it as a ‘stand on social justice and human rights issues ranging from race, ethnicity, gender, religion, immigration and healthcare’.”

The WMW was concieved of the day after the election of Donald Trump, and it will take place in Washington D.C., the day after the inauguration of President Trump. Clearly, it started as a protest of Trump’s election. But, it has evolved into something else.

Given Trump’s bullying comments and behavior toward women, women are the most motivated to get into the streets to protest, and they are out-front, leading the effort and focusing it on women’s issues. As the idea of a WCW gained traction and organizational efforts consolidated, the organizers were criticized for their lack of diversity, and the concepts of intersectionality of oppression that are central to third-wave feminism seem particularly on point, since the initial leaders were all white women. In response, the WCW leadership recruited women of color, such as Linda Sarsourm mentioned above, to join them and explained the organizational changes in a Facebook post entitled: “Women’s March On Washington: Origins and Inclusion“:

“The reality is that the women who initially started organizing [the WMW] were almost all white. As the movement grew, they sought ways to address this crucial issue…It was, and is, clear that the Women’s March on Washington cannot be a success unless it represents women of all backgrounds…These women [of color] are not tokens; they are dynamic and powerful leaders who have been organizing intersectional mobilizations for their entire careers…The first week was a heavy lift to ensure a solid structure, but the organizers continue to work hard to engage people from diverse communities. Now voices including Asian and Pacific Islanders, Trans Women, Native Americans, disabled women, men, children, and many others, can be centered in the evolving expression of this grassroots movement.”

This cultivated inclusiveness has lead to Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles that draws from the struggles of the Civil Rights era, and brings its evolution into the 21st Century. It is a great example of why “we need feminism”, because it can transcend barriers that are, in part, created by the power relationships within patriarchy.

Of course, for every Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, there has to be a Malcolm X and Subhas Chandra Bose to offer a counter-point. For the alternative vision to the Women’s March, check out #disruptj20.


What does it mean for the Women’s March on Washington to be a success? What does it mean for any protest to be a success? One metric is attendence. Compare previous protest marches on Washington.

Marches on Washington of 100,000 or more:

Date Protest Name Est. Size
04/27/1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 250k
11/27/1965 March on Washington for Peace in Vietnam 250k
10/16/1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam 200k
11/15/1969 National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam 600k
05/09/1970 Kent State/Cambodian Incursion Protest 100k
04/24/1971 Vietnam War Out Now 200k
01/22/1974 March for Life (annual) 20k-600k
05/06/1976 Anti-Nuclear March 125k
07/09/1978 March for the Equal Rights Amendment 100k
10/14/1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights 100k
05/03/1981 People’s Anti-War Mobilization (PAM) / May 3 Coalition 100k
09/19/1981 Solidarity Day march 260k
10/11/1987 Second National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights 500k
12/06/1987 Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews 250k
04/05/1989 March for Women’s Lives 500k
05/16/1992 Save our Cities! Save our Children! 150k
04/25/1993 March on Washington for LGB Equal Rights & Liberation 300k
10/16/1995 Million Man March 600k
10/26/2002 Protests against the Iraq War 100k
04/25/2004 March for Women’s Lives 750k
09/24/2005 Anti-War Protest 150k
10/11/2009 National Equality March 200k
03/21/2010 March for America 200k
10/30/2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear 200k

As of noon, January 13, 2017, 187,000 people have confirmed they will attend the Women’s March on Washington on Facebook. If buses are any indication of interest level, the WMW protest will outdraw the inauguration itself by a factor of five. It seems safe to say that the attendence level will put it in the company of major marches.

Looking over the list of major marches, we could classify them into three categories: marginalized groups, anti-war and domestic policy issues. Most major marches are trying to address the problems of marginalized groups — such as blacks, LGBTQ, women and immigrants. Anti-war marches are next most frequent. Domestic policy would include marches on abortion, nuclear safety after Three Mile Island, labor union policies, etc.

Compared to these other marches, the Women’s March on Washington is unique. It is happening in a political reality where every marginalized group believes it is under attack and where there are limited means to combat it within the electoral framework. It is bringing many different marginalized groups together, and it is arguably the first truly intersectional mass protest march. The leaders of the march have the commonality of being women, but also, they have other identities that are inclusive across racial, sexual orientation, religious, legal status and other lines. In this way, the domestic policy agenda of each of these groups are integrated into the discussion — whether it is immigration policy, voting rights, minimum wage, police accountability, healthcare, equality for the LGBTQ community, religious freedom, and other issues. It is all of a piece. This is the how large grassroots movements are born.

The approach the WMW leaders are taking of inclusiveness that could serve as a core to coalesce progressive elements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the sanctuary movement, and so forth into a larger movement. It would continue a pattern that could be seen in the Bernie Sanders campaign, but rather than the focus being on an individual, it has the promise of putting the focus on areas of agreement from within a coalition. If it get’s large enough, it has the potential to pull the more moderate elements of the Democratic Party, such as Third Way Democrats, Blue Dogs and others into its vortex.

The WMW is an opportunity and a promise pointing to the future. At this point, there is no opportunity to influence the legislative agenda of the U.S. Congress. But, it may give the leaders of the WMW the clout and the political capital to engage with members of the political establishment, and serve notice that even though one party is in control of the Oval Office and the Capital, there will be resistence. This election has been a wake up call for many people, and the slogan: “Don’t mourn, organize!” has never been more relevent.


While there is much that looks promising in the WMW march, there are limits to what it can do. One major issue is that a march on Washington D.C. is necessarily classist. An article in the Chicago Tribune illustrates the problem:

Chicagoans Michelle Diaz and Kathryn Wolanczyk knew they wanted to attend the march almost as soon as they heard about it. But Wolanczyk, who says she lives paycheck to paycheck as a professional cook, had to cancel her bus ticket on Dec. 23 after the initial price of $120 ballooned to $160 as demand skyrocketed. Diaz, an artist who also works as a baker, thought she had a car ride with a friend until the friend’s work schedule made that impossible.

Some of this can be mitigated by local city protests, such as the Women’s March on Chicago. But, again, this highlights other limitations, such as the urban/rural divide that has been the source of much discussion since the election of Donald Trump.

And, of course, a Women’s March is, on the surface, exclusionary of men. There has been some discussion that men have been slow to support the march. But, this shows that there is a need to better communicate the larger goals of the march.

Every single action has limits. One march isn’t going to solve all our problems. Electoral politics is also limited in what it can address. Further, mass movements are, by definition, reductive. They can raise awareness. They can get the government to address the worst problems. But their real value is bringing people together to have conversations about the things they care about and looking for common ground with a spirit of empathy. It doesn’t mean you are a push over, but it does mean coming prepared to listen. And, it also means speaking up and demanding to be heard when the majority or some minority tries to implement their agenda without engaging different and opposing points of view.

The Women’s March on Washington D.C. is a start of a conversation that is desperately needed. It needs to start with remaking the Democratic Party into something different, something that reflects the values and points of view of the wider population. It needed to get beyond protesting Trump and the ideas he stands for, and it needs to turn into a discussion of what we, the people, stand for. This march is an important step in that direction.

P.S., The Guardian agrees and provides a fun point of comparison on how the same topic can be covered differently and make the same point.

Salad Messiah

(413 words)

Our rule: we do whatever the fuck we want,
a heavenly kakistocracy, the Host on High:
flâneur, stumblebums, mollycoddled half-humps
handing down a queasy quadroonerie of essentialism,
an Aleatory principle, WYSIATI. A carceral state
on this side of the multiverse, one eternity in eternities,
waving Ludwig Wittgenstein’s magical bracelet of meaning,
dropping spiritual gems cattywampus into the matrix.

Weltschmerz, Temple of Tears, a Gruen Transfer design,
shopping center with pews, an overwatch choir over the throg:
a Cucuy, a boojam, a 52 hertz whale, Pomgolians,
an American without an opinion, werewolves, in short:
an assembly of chancers in life’s lobby,
all carne por la machina, singing with drums
a solastalgi psalm of Schadenfreude, a beating:
kto, kogo, kto, kogo, kto, kogo, kto, kogo.
A pointless, stochastic cacophony, burning incense,
the smell of hobo feet, el zorrillo no huele a si mismo.

The ushers, Kunga Dhondup and Jára da Cimrman
the hardest men on the cobbled corridors,
enlightened Buddhas of subterranean impulses,
meshuge Sicario, shtarker, and enforcers.
Specialists in killing, kompromat & reinigungskrise
forging mind manacles, permanent Radio Rental,
physician/operators of Tausk’s Influence Machine,
projecting paranoias, diagnosing Mean World Syndrome,
a closed ideology echo chamber of glossolalia and/or
inconsistently applied crypto-Saxonist bafflegab.

Before the altar, the priest Charvaka, panjandrum,
a factual Laocoön of the money-based caste system,
a rectum-faced MC, barking, 40 and Ω decibels,
crafting modern bube meyseh, studied sciolism built on
the illusion of hindsight, authoritarian deliberation to rewrite
the Hottel memo as scripture using a Rube Goldberg device,
a kugelblitz in the Overton window, the fourfold vision:
(1) neltiliztli of ourselves, not selfies; (2) omotenashi;
(3) seykhl in facies hermeticae and demolishing Thomassons;
(4) chance is a roll of the disdyakis tricontahedron.

The Antikythera Mechanism points to the Age of Ophiuchus,
Orber’s light so bright, aphakia, focus on the fuzziness.
Forgotten arm of realization, a rossignol with delta v,
death’s rathskeller is open to all and needs no key,
The Pratfall Effect, is the sign on the door, situated
in the ghetto for grinds, the district of busyness
where life is cheap, but it ain’t ever easy.
But no one ever made it to beyond Kraken Mare,
using Lojban: magical, pure but also wrong.

Semden is the the akoisexual prostitute, a non-believer,
bête noire of the margins, with cynegetic tendencies.
Lojong, aware karada living the one-man rucksack revolution.
The long road to hektemorage: métro, boulot, dodo.
The only buona morte, kodokushi, redeemer of the age.
Auftragstaktik: enlightenment, then blasting off, higher.

Dark Monarchy

tl;dr: Starting with the ethics of paying for a book written by Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., The Unabomber, this essay discusses the implication of payments and their relationship with ethics and values. Money is a Dark Monarchy; one that looks at other values, such as morality, as a cost. End result, endemic corruption that births monsters. (4115 words)

“We also have to ask where so-called ‘progress’ will take us in the future. What kinds of monstrous crimes will be committed with the godlike powers of the new technology? Will human behavior be so regulated through biological and psychological techniques that the concept of freedom becomes meaningless?”
           -Theodore J. Kaczynski, “Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. The Unabomber”

“Maybe I am a monster…I don’t think I would know if I were one.”
           -Joss Whedon, “Age of Ultron”

Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, has a new book out, his second, entitled: “Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How”. Fitch & Madison is his publisher, and on their site and on their Amazon listing, they include this note:

“Note: Theodore John Kaczynski does not receive any remuneration for this book.”

On the surface, this is a straight-forward appeal trying to address the ethical concerns of book buyers that do not want to provide financial support to a serial killer. But, something about it seems strange when you look at the context:

Ted Kaczynski was motivated by an anti-technology ideology to kill three people and injure twenty-three others. His primary method was to plant or send, through the United States Postal Service, homemade bombs to people with a pro-technology stance. Kaczynski was caught and sentenced to eight life sentences without the possibility of parole. He’s in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day in ADX Florence, a Supermax prison with one of the harshest prison environments in the world, one with conditions that arguably qualify as “cruel and unusual“. If given the privilege, prisoners at ADX Florence can shop at a commissary once a week and purchase a limited selection of items, such as food, personal hygiene products, stamps, etc.

If Kaczynski is in a federal Supermax prison, there are spending caps for federal prisoners of a few hundred dollars per month. Further, inmates who are ordered by a judge to pay restitution, like Kaczynski, have much smaller limits, perhaps $25 a month. Most remuneration for his book would go to his victims. There’s also the issue that the purchases he can make are limited to buying deodorant and food at the prison commissary. The ethical question about his remuneration, when you consider the details, borders on the absurd.

But, it’s one absurdity among many. In our society, there is a taboo on individual violence, and any list of serial killers largely points to criminal tendencies being transformed by mental illness into something monstrous. But, there’s something different when murder is committed in the service of an ideology. The language we use changes from serial killer to terrorist. While we use terms such as The War on Crime and The War on Drugs, serial killers are an anomaly. It is not a problem that requires war. But, we do have a War on Terror, and we are more than fifteen years into it.

Let’s use a recent U.S. drone strike that killed at least fifteen people and injured another thirteen as a point of comparison. From an ethics based on rules or consequences, the drone operator has killed and injured more people than Ted Kaczynski. However, the drone operator will never be given a prison sentence. So, what is the justification for treating these two cases differently?

In an article in The Guardian (linked above), one justification offered is based on intent. It justifies the deaths involved in the drone strike as an unfortunate by-product of the war against ISIS, or terrorism more generally, and as such, it is unintended “collateral damage”. Again, on the surface, this argument seems to have some merit. But, there is a better mental model for thinking about the difference than ordinary ethics.

Ordinary ethics requires a moral agent, someone capable of making and being held accountable for moral decisions. It is a framework for individuals. But, the decisions of consequence in our world are made by organizations, such as governments or multinational corporations. Organizations are not moral agents. In fact, organizations are often characterized by decision-making that is diffused throughout the organization to shield individuals from making moral decisions or being held accountable. Further, they provide incentives for the people at the highest level, those making policy decisions on behalf of the organization, to choose profits over morality. Organizations primarily make decisions based on two questions:

  1. Is it necessary to their business?
  2. What are the costs/profits?

Morality, if it has a place, is used as a piece of public relations and managing public perception. But, it isn’t a major driver in decision-making, because morality is a cost, one that is rarely necessary above a minimal token threshold.

At the level of an individual organization, just as with individuals, having a few behaving as psychopaths willing to transcend ethical and social boundaries might have a protective function to play in a society. Even if that is true, it is also easy to imagine that there is a tipping point, where as the number of psychopaths increases, their presence becomes harmful. The major organizations in our world operate using this model. Each organization functions as its own fiefdom, but the decision-making logic of reducing costs and increasing profits reigns everywhere. It is a Dark Monarchy, and it is the ideology of our age.

To illustrate, let’s return to the drone attacks. The costs can be calculated: personnel, equipment, consumables (such as food, fuel, and so forth), condolence payments, etc. The condolence payment part of the expense is an interesting window into the logic of the Dark Monarchy. For one, condolence payments are an insignificant part of the total expense. In 2012, the U.S. military spent $891,000 on condolence payments in Afghanistan. Detailed information on condolence payments shows that there can be a lot of variation in what is dispersed. But, as a general rule, “according to a Pentagon spokesman, condolence payments can be up to $5,000 for a death or injury, or $5,000 for property damage.”

A Hellfire missile costs $115,000. The condolence payments for the lives it took in this instance would likely be less than the cost of the missile itself. From the perspective of the U.S. military, drones are a powerful new and necessary weapon for their business. And the costs of using it are much cheaper than conventional weaponry and are becoming even less expensive. Lastly, the moral question can be reduced to a dollar value: up to $5,000 per death or injury in Afghanistan. By the logic of the Dark Monarchy, the costs are necessary and acceptable.

One objection to this framing can be heard in a Radiolab episode, Our Condolences. This story provides the history behind condolence payments. These payments started with the use of Jeeps in World War I to address accidents from a new form of transport, and it focused on “non-combat” accidents. In the episode, an individual responsible for making condolence payments in Iraq, which were capped at $2,500, says that these payments did not represent the value of a life, but they were tokens and their real value was in providing an opportunity for someone in a U.S. military uniform to apologize, explain what happened, and hear what is said in return.

The model of necessity and cost is particularly useful here because it allows us to see that the veneer of ethics can be useful and worth paying a small cost. The U.S. military does not have to make any condolence payments, and by making this effort, it buys goodwill. But, buying goodwill is not the same as living up to a moral code or acting ethically. Just as the claim that “collateral damage” is an unfortunate by-product of fighting ISIS and terrorism suggests that there is a higher good being pursued, these are good public relations techniques to obfuscate, placate and appease, but it isn’t ethical decision-making. It is a token pretending to be ethics.

What about the Unabomber? What were the costs involved? The FBI investigation took 17 years and cost them $60 million to conduct. While new investigative techniques were developed during the Unabomber investigation, the FBI, no doubt, views most of the money spent as unnecessary cost. To prevent these kinds of costs in the future, it was necessary to make an example of him. In addition to receiving a life prison sentence in a Supermax prison, the judge in the case ordered Kaczynski to pay his victims restitution payments of $15 million dollars, or about $576,923 per death or injury.

How does that compare to what the rates that federal, state and local governments in the United States pay, when they are responsible for death or injury? A rough comparison can be made using reparation packages offered by the U.S government for Japanese internment ($20,000 or $33,400 adjusted for inflation, total $1.6 billion) or the City of Chicago for torture victims of Jon Burge, a Chicago police Commander ($100,000 per person, total $100 million). This suggests U.S. valuations that are somewhere between five to twenty times the values in Afghanistan when U.S. government personnel are responsible for the death or injury of U.S. citizens.

Or, we can look at it slightly differently. What fines does the U.S. government impose when its interests or U.S. citizens have been harmed by other organizations? A research paper suggests that when the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) prosecutes foreign firms, it tends to impose fines that are fourteen times higher than the fines it imposes on U.S. firms for the same offense. If these fines are a type of condolence payment demanded by the U.S. government when it has been harmed, then it suggests it has a fairly consistent way of looking at foreign and domestic value. If harm from foreign actors is handicapped as fourteen times the harm of domestic agents, then it explains the U.S. government focus on Islamic and other forms of foreign terrorism over domestic terrorism, even if the latter are the greater risk.

Condolence payments and fines are unusual, and as the $1.6 billion for Japanese internment or the settlement costs for misconduct by Chicago police from 2004 to early 2016 of $662 million indicate, they can become significant. But, sometimes they are necessary. Paying these settlements may also be the cheapest alternative.

Given the size of these sums, how is that possible that settlements are a cheaper alternative? A recent study focused on police integrity and crimes committed by local and state law enforcement officers provides a clue. The research design of the study consisted of 48 terms in a keyword search of articles in Google News, hits were verified and coded using National Incident-Based Reporting System guidelines, demographic data of all police officers were compared to those arrested and results were subjected to statistical analysis. The report states in its conclusion:

Cases in which sworn law enforcement officers act as criminals—whether dealing drugs, or driving drunk, or sexually molesting a vulnerable citizen—strike a direct blow to the law enforcement enterprise and…threaten to undermine public trust in both the authority and legitimacy of state and local law enforcement organizations…The contrast between the [topic of police crime’s] substantive weight and comparatively light coverage within the scholarship is mostly due to an absence of suitable data. The traditional sources of data and methods of study, whether official statistics, self-report surveys, or direct observations, either do not exist in any usable format or are ill-equipped to identify, count, or provide the basis for empirical analyses of instances in which police perpetrate crimes themselves.

First, the authors of this study are using an ethical framework for interpretation. Their study’s recommendation contains a number of ethical statements about what “should” be the case, but isn’t. The question of why reality is so far from the truth or the possibility that ethics are irrelevant is not considered. Second, data for an empirical analyses would be the source of a great deal of additional cost, which is why it doesn’t exist and the researchers had to make a proxy for it using Google News articles.

Tom Jackman, in an article in The Washington Post discussing the above study, shows exactly what kind of problem empirical analysis can present:

To be clear, police are not committing crimes at anywhere near the level of civilians. Stinson’s data found 1.7 arrests of police per 100,000 population over the seven years of the study, where the general arrest rate in 2012 alone was 3,888 arrests per 100,000 population.

Unfortunately, the conclusion that “police are not committing crimes at anywhere near the level of civilians” is not logically supported by the evidence provided. The conclusion the evidence supports is that police officers are much less likely to be arrested than the general population.

It is likely that police officers commit crimes less frequently than the general population. Also, the study methodology is surely missing instances because of the deficiencies in their keyword search, the inherent limits of what gets published in newspapers and the limits of Google’s list of sources. But, these factors do not explain the magnitude of difference in arrest rate ratio of 1.7/3,888. However, this is not a possible observation to make when there is no data on police arrests, which is precisely why it doesn’t exist. Data negative spaces are useful red flags indicating where costs have trumped concerns for transparency and ethical accountability.

Suppose that police officers are 95% less likely to commit crimes than the general population. We would expect arrest rates of 194.4 per 100,000 police officers. Or two levels of magnitude higher than reported in this study. What kind of oversight regime would need to be instituted to watch the watchmen? And how much would that cost? For the City of Chicago, the amortized annual cost of settlements of $55 million must be less than the perceived benefit of investing in more police oversight, particularly if doing so might uncover problems such as criminal police conspiracies and undermine the Police Department’s “narrative control“.

While concerns about legitimacy can play a part, it’s a small part. The end result is that police officers, like drone pilots, are subject to a different legal and ethical standard than the one applied to the general population.

And this is not just true of people employed by government, these different standards are also for people working in large corporations as well. When you look at something such as the Libor scandal, where major banks colluded to make their balance sheets look stronger and defraud U.S. municipalities and home owners of billions of dollars, thirteen men were prosecuted, and five people were convicted in the United Kingdom. While this case is still unfolding, it suggests that line workers and officers, such as traders or senior bankers, can face prosecution — if the scandal is big enough relative to their organization. But, relative to the frequency fraud is committed, arrests are extremely rare, and in the case of an arrest, more than half of those do not make it to a conviction. And, criminal arrest rarely makes it up to the executive suite. At that level, it becomes an organizational crime punishable by fines and executives being forced out of their positions.

Barclays, the financial organization, recieved a misconduct fine of $160 million for its part in the Libor scandal, and the repercussions severely impacted its business. The CEO of Barclays at the time, Bob Diamond, stepped down from his post and started a company providing financial services in Africa, and in an interview, he describes his current activities as his having “found the perfect intersection of doing good and doing well.” Again, we see ethics being used as a cover, when the history of the person involved suggests that “doing well” is what matters. And it’s not just Bob Diamond. Any CEO considering some illegal action with the same type of risk/reward profile that Libor presented has powerful incentives to choose the illegal action. In the end, if the profit is worth the consequences, it’s done.

The financial crisis of 2008 provides another useful example. The Department of Justice does not keep statistics on convictions related to the crisis, so it is difficult to say how many arrests and convictions occurred. Again, it is an example of not collecting data in order to avoid informed discussion and transparency of the consequences of committing systemic fraud. Despite this lack of information, we can say that the only one senior executive at a top bank to be convicted was Kareem Serageldin. None of the CEOs or C-level executives of the major banks that precipitated the crisis faced criminal charges.

A few CEOs in the banking industry were convicted and given prison sentences. Edward Woodword, former CEO of Commonwealth Bank, is a good example. He made the mistake of approving loans outside of his bank’s normal oversight channels that personally benefited friends and family members, and subsequently, he tried to hide his fraud in the bank’s books using TARP money from the U.S. federal government. If he had used the funds of a smaller organization rather than the feds, like Barclays and other banks involved in the Libor scandal did, and if he had limited himself to acceptable types and levels of personal profit, in the form of bonuses and stock options, he wouldn’t have been prosecuted. In the end, he become one of those rare examples where a CEO is sentenced like a common criminal.

This pattern is consistent. If a single company causes an environmental catastrophe, such as BP and Deepwater Horizon, the company pays settlements and fines. But, no one goes to jail. A more general problem, such as global warming, is very difficult to address at all, because climate change is all cost from the perspective of the organization, one that would require oil & gas companies to change their business models. It might also require a significant change in the general quality of life of individuals. That’s a choice that won’t be made until it is an obvious existential risk, and maybe not even then.

Same is true of systemic financial fraud. If a single company such as Barclays commits the fraud, fines will be paid, a few lower level employees that implemented the policies will go to jail, there may be some company level and perhaps regulatory changes instituted, but the general conditions will remain the same. A more general problem of fraud, like the one that drove the 2008 financial crisis, cannot be addressed because it requires systemic changes that puts other values — such as stability, transparency or trust — above cutting costs and increasing profits.

And even though we do not typically think of governments running as businesses, the same logic applies. Profit motives drive individual police departments to prey on their populations, like in the City of Ferguson. Or, it might be a softer brand of corruption, where cities choose to ignore police crimes and pay settlements rather than pay the increased costs of oversight and losing “narrative control” that comes with informed discussion.

This corruption of ethics and the primacy of cost and profit as the principle value is the existential threat that the Dark Monarchy presents to our society. Striping out ethics has intangible costs that are not factored into to the decisions made by our largest organizations. These undermine the intangible qualities of trust, legitimacy and so forth that the system relies upon to function. And while there is some understanding that the myopic focus of business on the next quarter and on immediate profits has a negative impact on the long term health of individual companies, how many companies are managed to mitigate those risks? Relatively few, because it means lower profits. It is rare to see discussion of the systemic risk that the focus on the quantifiable and the profitable imparts to the whole system. It’s even more rare to see a frank discussion of whether any ethic, beyond mere tokens, is relevant at all.

And to bring this meditation full circle and return to Kaczynski and his anti-technology stance, what are the likely consequences of our expanding technological capability, when it is used in the service of the Dark Monarchy? Of course, lip service will be given to maintaining standards of ethical behavior. But, ultimately, what happens to those standards when the incentives are to focus on profit and ethics are viewed as unnecessary costs, possibly slowing down the rate of progress? We already know what kind of decisions organizations make when the catalyst of technology gives them new capabilities, such as firing missiles from remote-controlled drones from half-a-world away, drilling or fracking for previously unaccessible energy resources, city-wide networks of closed-circuit television, arming robots and so forth. What happens when CRISPR moves on from fixing birth defects to offering the capability to design a human being to a specification, such as one optimized for physical labor, space exploration, etc. before they have even been born or have self-awareness? What happens when surveillance capabilities can provide real-time tracking of the locations, activities and thoughts of 99% of the population? What happens when the goodwill value of condolence payments aren’t $5,000, but $5?

These are questions that start to nudge us from the world as it is into the world as it could be, and our culture has imagined some of the outcomes in games, literature, songs, and movies: Bioshock, Black Mirror, Blade Runner, Deus Ex, Hunger Games, Silent Running, Mirroredge, Half-Life, Matrix, Fallout, Divergent, System Shock are just a few. And while these scenarios may seem far-fetched, consider the kind of world the Pentagon envisions in the not too distant future depicted in this video:

And when do these decisions turn from being just good business to the business of manufacturing monsters, where the cost of doing business is Supermax prisons, desertification, and the turning of every technological tool toward population pacification to prop up a system with few redeeming values beyond profit?

Kaczynski is the canary in the coal mine. While his focus was on how the Dark Monarchy will logically evolve as the technological tools used in its service get increasingly sophisticated, the continued concentration on money as a central value and the ability to marginalize other values will radicalize anyone who sufficiently values something else. And, the tighter the grip, the more extremism will be created.

Consider this philosophy, from a work of science fiction:

“The personal, as everyone’s so fucking fond of saying, is political. So if some idiot politician, some power player, tries to execute policies that harm you or those you care about, take it personally. Get angry. The Machinery of Justice will not serve you here – it is slow and cold, and it is theirs, hardware and soft-. Only the little people suffer at the hands of Justice; the creatures of power slide from under it with a wink and a grin. If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them. Make it personal. Do as much damage as you can. Get your message across. That way, you stand a better chance of being taken seriously next time. Of being considered dangerous. And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous marks the difference – the only difference in their eyes – between players and little people. Players they will make deals with. Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it’s just business, it’s politics, it’s the way of the world, it’s a tough life and that it’s nothing personal. Well, fuck them. Make it personal.”
          -Richard K. Morgan, “Altered Carbon”

In a world where more decisions and products are made by machines, where limited resources drive war and creates large refugee populations, and as more people concentrate in cities, it doesn’t require much imagination to think that this philosophy could become very real. At some point, it will move beyond serial killing and Supermax prisons and be a war. The ideology will be other values, and the people still thinking in terms of ethics and monstrous behavior will have a hard time drawing a distinction between Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. Who is who will likely be subjectively determined by who is providing the next meal. And, perhaps, at some point, we will come to realize that we are the monsters, all of us.

Get Your Own Show!

“‘Over The Edge’ would never have achieved its present level of adeptness if it had not had years to develop. This aspect has allowed not only the perfection of techniques, but also evolving practices such as subtle but fruitful themes which would never occur as anyone’s first choice, returning casts of characters, regular ‘features’, a whole fictional network called The Universal Media Netweb, and countless interrelated ‘plots’ and fantasys which have developed over time. And just when all that becomes too familiar, we can pull a complete hoax and pretend to replace O.T.E. with some other show entirely. All this depends on the ability to play with regularity. (A key to understanding the effects of all transmission media.) Being somewhat interactive in unfamiliar ways, O.T.E. in particular, requires a regularly scheduled slot which listeners can become acquainted with and, over time, explore their own ways to develop a creative relationship with it. Such potentials are not always fulfilled, but they are important potentials to hold out, and there is always next week… I repeat: GET YOUR OWN SHOW.”

I first heard about Don Joyce’s radio show, “Over The Edge” in late 2015. I wanted to learn about Negativland and their aesthetic, which led down the path to their website, mention of the “Over The Edge” radio program and its classic shows, many of which are available on the Internet Archive. It was hard listening at first, particularly since it was around Thanksgiving and I had decided that the Islamic Thanksgiving was a good place to start. Over time, the idea of pre-recorded sounds on a theme and random noise, audience/performer interaction in the form of “Receptical Programming”, provocative content challenging the worldview of our culture, and the uniqueness of the experience started speaking to me. I wanted more of this in my life (beyond the podcast). I wanted to “get my own show!”

What kind of show? My initial thought is to publish a weekly piece of writing and an image on the theme to this blog on Tuesday at 0200 UTC. As a technique, I’m thinking of starting with cut-ups, mash-ups, quotes and commentary either on some theme and seeing what develops from there. I am committing to doing this throughout 2017. In the coming year(s), I will review what I have written over the course of the year during the month of December and either recommit to doing the show for the coming year or abandon the project altogether.

I anticipate many of these writings to be in response to our media landscape and to our celebrity culture – where everything is so intertwined that it is difficult to tell the false from the true, where there is so much information to process and little time to process it before the next thing comes along, that the only way to respond is to focus in on some small fraction that reveals facets of the whole. In a world full of flimflam, maybe the only rational response is confusion and nonsense.