29 December 2015

Elite Cosmopolitanism

Tweet from Anand Giridharadas @AnandWrites Dec 27
Dear @realDonaldTrump,

I'm at a Muslim wedding in a Christian church in NYC, and everyone is dancing to salsa.

America already is great.

That scene may not appeal to everyone: @ClareYChen calls it "a shallow multicultural hellhole where the traditions of different peoples can become reduced to mere window dressing". But to argue against Girdharadas on aesthetic grounds is missing the point. It gives the impression of conceding the implication that the majority of Syrian refugees currently being bused into middle America will likewise be holding salsa-dancing weddings with friends of multiple races and religions; a proposition which could mildly be described as far-fetched. (Not that there necessarily aren't Syrian refugees that would do that, but, inevitably, those that do will end up in New York City or somewhere similar, while the rest of the country will get the rest).

It is normal for elites to be cosmopolitan. Aristocrats married foreigners, collected curiosities from abroad, adopted (playfully or otherwise) ritual and dress of strange religions. (Some, alternatively, studied and promoted their native culture, but that took the form of treating local traditions and folklore in the same way that others approached the exotic).

That normal elite cosmopolitanism may be good or bad—that's an interesting discussion for another day—but either way the elites in the past did not impose their exotica on the common people. George IV built the Royal Pavilion, but he did not import thousands of Indians from Madras to live in Brighton. Christian VII of Denmark commissioned translations of Persian histories, but did not expect his subjects to go to mosques.

Today's elites, unlike those of any previous era, do not even see themselves as elite. They think that everyone is equal, that everybody else should be like them, and assume without hesitation that everyone else could be like them. That produces a disconnection with reality that could become the stuff of legend. The peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake! Flyover people don't want Syrian refugees? Let them dance salsa with them! The apocryphal French princess was probably less out-of-touch.

The interesting question, beyond the immediate concerns, is whether it is even theoretically possible for a whole society to live in the cosmopolitan elite style. If it is only a matter of material wealth or intellectual development, then there is no reason why we couldn't one day all live in multicultural fairyland.

I'm not sure, but the most plausible explanation of why elite culture can only be elite culture is that there has to be a threat of expulsion. If elite culture is universal culture, then there is no way to get rid of unpleasant people; there is nowhere for them to go. I emphasised originally that the NYC culture of Anand Giridharas is a "selected" subculture, but the most important aspect of selection is not the positive filter of who comes into it, but the negative one of who is not ejected from it. The culture of the rural town or the inner city is not an elite culture and cannot be an elite culture, because it is not possible to drive those that do not fit out of it. In those bottom cultures, it is necessary to manage to live alongside those that the elite would exclude, and that involves a range of behaviours to avoid outsiders in ones activities and to reinforce one's own status as an acceptable insider who should not be avoided in turn.

22 December 2015

Soft Power

On the question of Islamic terrorism in the West, the narrative of the right has been that letting in large numbers of immigrants from Islamic countries is dangerous. The narrative of the left has been that the terrorism is a result of the West's invasions and destabilising of the Islamic world.

Very few people seem to have noticed that there is no contradiction between the two narratives.  They can both be correct, and in my opinion they probably both are.

I do have one issue with the “left” narrative however; not that I disagree with it, but I think it carries with it some associations that are interestingly wrong.

The associated idea is that sending in armies, special forces, cruise missiles and drones to other countries is particularly likely to stir up violent response in your own country, as if by some kind of justice or karma.

That is, on its face, quite a plausible thing to believe, which is why it gets carried around as the mostly-unspoken associate of the concrete argument that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in Islamic terrorism in America and Europe.

The problem with the idea, plausible as it is, is that it leads to the conclusion that aggressive military interventions are particularly dangerous, and that it is preferable to act in a more restrained way, using “soft power” to achieve foreign policy objectives by encouraging or giving aid to sympathetic factions. (I think the original meaning of “soft power” was a bit more subtle than the heavy-handed but non-kinetic activities I am talking about, but I don't have a better term).

That sounds plausible too, but the history of the last few decades seems to me to demonstrate the opposite.  Way back in 2003 I argued that the major error that led to the necessity (or near-necessity) of invading Iraq was not the 1991 invasion, but the actions taken after the 1991 invasion to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein via “soft power” and the Kurds.

In a similar way, while the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did much to stir up terrorism in the West, they are not the biggest cause. Much more damage has been done by the “Arab Spring”, the attempt by the West to replace dictatorships with democracies through propaganda and funding for activists, with only a tiny little bit of bombing in an extreme case.

My view is that these kind of soft power interventions are particularly dangerous. Of course, there is the chance that they will be totally ineffective, which would be OK, but that possibility itself lends a reckless attitude to the decision-makers behind the interventions. When starting a war, even twenty-first century politicians make some small effort to anticipate consequences and problems. When intervening without military force, image and sentiment take over entirely, and no attempt at all is made to predict what the concrete consequences are likely to be, even when it is very easy to do so.

As I argued in 2003, I'd rather see military action, thought through and taken seriously, than the kind of gesture politics behind the Arab Spring, or, for that matter, the Ukrainian coup.

13 December 2015

Birth of a Religion

The most pertinent objection from outsiders to anyone advocating neoreactionary, formalist beliefs is that, historically, single-person rule as a mechanism for overcoming politics and discord has been tried, and failed.

I have explained previously why it is it failed: it was too successful too quickly. When European monarchs used the power of written communication and efficient transport to eliminate their traditional rivals for powerbarons, abbeys and guildsthe result was an almost immediate flowering of wealth, technology, culture and philosophy. That flowering empowered other groups to step into the shoes of the displaced medieval trouble-makers.

The first lesson, then for future formalist rulers, is to be less easy-going and tolerant of opposition than predecessors such as Louis XIV or Charles I. Getting rid of the old mess does not buy you very much time at all if you permit the concept of shared power to survive.

But even with that knowledge, accidents happen. Formalism does not promise a Utopia of endless peace and prosperity. A new trick, like cryptographic weapon-locks, might work for a few decades, but contexts inevitably change and new threats arise. Some of them will be successfully resisted, and some will not. Two centuries of peace and prosperity would be a great achievement of any system. Of course, absolute monarchy in Western Europe did not manage anything close to that.

The real tragedy of modernity is not that the absolutism failed. It was likely to fail sooner or later, and it is a shame that it did not last longer, but not a tragedy. The tragedy is that in the process, the clumsy and ad-hoc propaganda of its opponents got enshrined as holy writ. And while systems of government almost inevitably fail, and yet can be restored, that was not inevitable, but a terrible fluke.

When new religions are born, the details of their doctrine are massively unpredictable. Of course, Gnon filters religions for viability, but that is dictated by a few macro-features, leaving enormous scope for random features to be picked up and carried on in the religion's germ line.  Looking at something like Mormonism or Baha'ism, you are struck by the sheer weirdness of what is included, usually just because it was one guy's pet idea.

The burst of cultural exuberance triggered by the arrival of effective absolutist government produced a new religion with some pretty random beliefs about the nature of Man. That religion became entrenched, as successful religions do, and the history of the last two centuries has been the history of its random doctrines being gradually applied by its culturally dominant devotees, starting with the most realistic and practical, and by now concentrating on those that are left, the most bizarre and indefensible, such as the total malleability of human nature.

That is the problem with modernity. Yes, we have bad systems of government, but that is something that happens from time to time, and can be fixed. Yet for us it is not being fixed, because along with the bad systems of government we picked up something far more damaging and harder to cure: a bad religion.


07 June 2015

Government and Management

This is quite an interesting bit of detail about the Labour Party before this year's election.

What strikes me about it is that Miliband was not in any kind of control of his immediate colleagues.

In a sane system, the chief ability of a leader, of government or of something intending to become the goverrnment, would be the ability to get a small group of people to work with him. In business, that is the most vital ability of a manager. Ed Miliband seems to have been greatly lacking in that ability.

The reason, obviously, is that he was not chosen for his ability to lead. He was chosen for his appeal to outsiders—party members, unions, voters. None of those groups would even be aware of his actual managerial competence.

People talk about the lack of "real world" experience of politicians, with backgrounds in think tanks or as assistants to other assistants. My assumption has been that the valuable experience is of the hard problems of keeping a business solvent, or whatever. But that's much less relevant to a politicians job than the ability to take control of a meeting.

Of course, as with Nick Clegg, the fact that those around him are "rivals and enemies" makes the task much harder than it might be. All the more reason to demand exceptional ability at it.

Reading Jonathan Rauch on party machines (still free!), this was the main ability that politics selected for in the age of strong parties. The incompetence of Miliband and the like is a new thing.

26 May 2015


Back in 2012, I looked at the concept of peer-to-peer blogging. It is definitely time to revisit
the environment.

Back then, the main threat I was concerned with was state action directed against service providers being used for copyright infringement. Since then, my political views have become more extreme, while the intolerance of the mainstream left has escalated alarmingly, and so the main threat today is censorship by service providers, based on their own politics or pressure from users and/or advertisers.

Actually publishing content has become easier, due to cheap virtualised hosting and fast residential broadband, making a few megabytes of data available is not likely to be a problem. The difficult bit is reaching an audience. The demise of Bloglines and then Google Reader has been either a cause or a symptom of the decline of RSS, and the main channels for reaching an audience today are facebook and twitter. I don't actually use facebook, so for me twitter is the vital battleground. If you can build up a following linked to a twitter ID, you can move your content hosting around and followers will barely be aware it's moved. Last week's Chuck Johnson affair defines the situation we face. We require a robust alternative to twitter—not urgently but ideally within a 12–24 month timeframe.

I've been running the Twister peer-to-peer twitter clone for a couple of weeks, and I think it is OK.

Primarily, it is built on top of the bittorrent protocol. Messages are passed from node to node, and nodes collect messages that are relevant to them.

In addition, it uses the bitcoin blockchain protocol. This is not for content, but for the ID database. Content published by an ID must be signed by the key associated with that ID, and the association of keys with IDs is made via writing entries into the blockchain. Ownership of IDs is therefore “first come, first served”, with the ordering of claims determined by the blockchain (just as the order of transaction attempts is determined for bitcoin, preventing double spends).

As an incentive to build the blockchain, each block can include a “spam message” which will be presented to users.

What that means is that there is no authority who can disable a user ID or take it over. If the ID is registered on the twister blockchain with your public key, it is yours forever.

The application runs, like the bitcoin reference client it is based on, as a daemon offering a JSON-RPC socket interface. It also serves some static web pages over HTTP on the same port, providing a working twitter-lookalike web client.

As far as I can see, it works properly and reliably. I am running it over Tor, and that works fine.

Current Shortcomings

It's still treated as experimental by the authors, so it's not surprising if it's not complete.

The biggest shortcoming is that it's inconvenient to run. Like bittorrent, it needs to find peers and build a network to exchange data with, and, like bitcoin, it needs to keep up with a blockchain. (It is not necessary to “mine” or build the blockchain to use the service). You really need to start it up and leave it running, if not 24/7, at least for hours at a time.

For the same reason, it doesn't run on mobile devices. It could be ported, but staying on the peer-to-peer networks would be an inconveniently heavy use of data, battery and processor resources.

Fundamentally, you don't see all the traffic (that wouldn't scale), so you can't conveniently search it. You need to advertise that you are interested in something (by following a user, for instance), and gradually it will start to flow your way.

Future Shortcomings

The network is currently very small-scale, so it remains to be seen how well it would scale up to a useful size. I don't understand the torrent / DHT side of things all that well, but as far as I can see it should hold up.

The ID blockchain functionality seems more reasonable. If each new user requires of the order of 64 bytes of blockchain space, then ten million users would need about a gigabyte of disk space to archive. A lot, but not prohibitive. As with bitcoin, the hope would be that users would be able to use lightweight clients, with the heavy network functions semi-centralised.

[The useful feature of a peer-to-peer protocol for us in this scenario is not that there is no trust in the system at all, or that there is no centralisation at all; it is that there is no single thing that must be trusted or relied on. The user has the option of doing everything themselves, and, more useful to the ordinary user, they have the option of temporarily and conditionally trusting a provider of their choice]

Also as with bitcoin, the most difficult obstacle is key management. When you want to start using twister, you generate a key pair, and post a transaction associating your public key with your chosen twister ID. You need the private key to post twists, or to see private messages. If you lose the key, you've lost your ID. If someone gets your key, they can post as you and read your private messages. Handling keys securely is difficult. For a casual user who isn't too concerned about surveillance or censorship, it's prohibitive.

Like bitcoin, the network node, blockchain archive and wallet (user ID) are all managed by a single process. Logically, the private operations of creating authenticated transactions/messages ought to be separate from the maintenance of the network node.

Twister is designed for those who are concerned about surveillance or censorship, but we need to be able to talk to those who aren't. It needs to provide security for those who need it, while being as easy as possible for those who don't.

The system seems fairly robust to attacks, including denial-of-service attacks. Media companies have attempted to interfere with bittorrent, but have not as far as I know blocked an actual running torrent, rather concentrating on the chokepoints of communicating knowledge of specific torrents.

The ID subsystem could be flooded with new id requests. There is a proof-of-work requirement on individual "transactions" (new id assignments), separate from the actual block proof-of-work, but that cannot be too onerous, so a determined adversary could probably produce tens of thousands. However, miners could respond by being fussier about what they accept, without breaking the protocol.

The blockchain itself is vulnerable. The hashrate at present is about one quarter-millionth of Litecoin's (which uses the same hash method), so one block of the twister blockchain currently costs about the same in compute resources as a thirtieth of a cent worth of Litecoin. (I have mined dozens of blocks myself over the past week). Anyone with a serious GPU-based mining rig could mine hundreds of blocks in minutes. The incentive for legitimate miners is always going to be weak, since a customised client can trivially ignore the "spam" messages.  However, it does not seem obvious that that is a real problem. The value of the blockchain is that it established ownership of IDs, but an ID is not really valuable until it has been used for a considerable period, so to take over a valuable ID, you have to fork the blockchain from a long period in the past. Even if you have the hashpower to do that, your blocks are likely to be ignored simply by virtue of being so old.

Suggested Enhancements

The main author has suggested taking the cryptography out of the daemon and into the web client (in javascript). That would be an improvement and a step towards usable lightweight clients.

However, there is another requirement to do that, which is more sophisticated key management. Mobile devices and third-party service providers would hugely improve the convenience and usability of the service, but at a cost of crippling the security, since neither one is sufficiently trustworthy to hold the private key.

What I have suggested is a system of subkeys, with restricted delegated authority.  I create my key pair and post it to the network with my chosen ID, as per the current protocol. Then, I can create a new key pair, and create a transaction signed by my original key (which I call the "master" key), delegating the authority to make posts for a limited time (a week, say) to this new key (which I call a "subkey"). I transfer the private key of the subkey to my phone app, or to a service-provider I trust, and can then make posts using the subkey.

After the week, that subkey is expired and posts made with it will no longer be accepted as valid by other clients or network nodes. If the key is compromised, the damage is limited. I could even post a "revoke" transaction signed by my master key.


@jokeocracy has pointed at Trsst. Also, GnuSocial is quite well established. Both of these are federated client-server architectures. See quitter.se as an example GnuSocial-based service provider. (It would be funny if we were to all move en bloc onto some lefty-oriented "free from capitalism" platform, and perhaps instructive, but not necessarily a long-term solution).

There is some resistance to censorship there, in that if one service provider blocks you, you can switch to another. However, your persistent ID is tied to the service provider you choose, which could take a dislike to you or (equally likely in the early stages) just go away, so it makes it harder to maintain continuity. Also, the federation model does not necessarily prevent the consumer's service provider from censoring your messages to its customers. The customers can switch if they want to, but not trivially.

In the case of Trsst, it strikes me that this is a mistake: users have private keys, but the association of keys to IDs, unlike in the case of twister, is made by the service provider. If mentions, replies, and subscriptions were by public key instead of by "nickname", users could migrate more painlessly. However, that registry would have to be distributed, adding complexity.

In the long run, what I would hope to see is a service that looks like quitter.se or Trssst, but acting as a proxy onto the Twister network, ideally with short-lived subkeys as I describe above.

Other relevant projects not ready yet would are Urbit (of course), and chatless (by @_raptros).

15 February 2015

Boring Fifty Shades of Grey Article

I’m following through with my twitter threat to write a piece on Fifty Shades of Grey. I did warn, it will be boring.

What lessons can we learn about human nature, the culture and the media from the success of the books and film?

None. Really, it’s unimportant and irrelevant.

That suggests it’s not worth writing a piece about, but I just got too annoyed by all the stupid things I read from people who don’t even know what the books and film are about.

I do know, because I read the books. I quite enjoyed them too. That isn’t important either—I read popular light fiction by the bucketful, and I’m not fussy about literary quality, so my book reviews are not going to be terribly valuable to my readership. This isn’t a review, it’s more a case of “I read it so you don’t have to”. There will be spoilers.

Much of what’s written about the phenomenon appears to have been written by people who not only haven’t read it, but haven’t read any fiction at all. I’m thinking particularly of the spectacularly moronic piece by Matt Walsh.

He is outraged by the narrator’s description of her own thought processes in terms of her subconscious doing a hula dance and so forth. He points out that amongst other faults “it’s not accurate from a neurology perspective”. No shit, Sherlock. It’s almost as if the character is a silly 22-year-old arts graduate and not a neurologist at all.

My purpose is not to defend the novel’s literary style—which really is quite poor—but to put it in context. I grew up reading Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison. It’s better prose than either of them. I read a lot of thrillers now. This is better written than Dan Brown. It’s better than Jack Higgins. It’s not as good as Michael Dibdin. Better than Agatha Christie. About as good as Lee Child.

In the world of contemporary light fiction for women, the writing is not as good as Stephenie Meyer and about the same as Suzanne Collins. It’s better than 90% of pulp romance fiction.

It’s perfectly possible to say that all of this stuff is shit. That is indeed the normal opinion of the intelligent and well-educated, and I freely admit that I have no taste. But it is bizarre to pluck “Twilight” or “Fifty Shades of Grey” out of the morass and express shock at the lack of literary quality, when they are completely unexceptional by the standards of the rest of the bestseller lists.

Anyway, I will pass on from the literary merits, and consider the content.

The books are loaded with explicit sex. So are about 20% of the occupants of the bestseller lists. Harlequin / Mills & Boon have whole colour-coded lines of books which revolve around explicit sex, mostly written much more badly than E.L. James does. I don’t generally read respectable modern literature, but I understand there’s quite a lot of it in that too, much of it equally perverted.

There’s the BDSM angle. I have seen quite a bit of criticism along the lines that the books (or film, which I haven’t seen) normalise or justify that lifestyle. Well, they don’t, except in the sense that Dennis Wheatley’s books “normalise” Satanism by drawing attention to it. I jokingly tweeted “someone should write a novel that portrays BDSM types as dangerously mentally ill,” because that perfectly describes “Fifty Shades of Grey” The title comes from the hero's early description of himself as “fifty shades of fucked-up”, and the point of his character is that he is severely emotionally damaged by his childhood, and that his fetishistic behaviour is an expression of that damage. His psychiatrist does not discourage him, because he sees it as a way of coping with his past, but nowhere is it suggested that his behaviour is normal or healthy. The woman who introduced him to BDSM is one of the villains of the story, and of the ex-sexual partners who participated in his sex games, the only one we see as a character is also severely damaged and ends up in a mental hospital. And the heroine never goes along with it. He asks her to sign a contract binding herself to him, and she considers it, but she never does accept or sign it.

The FetLife people really really hated the books.

There has been a lot of criticism of the violence-against-women aspect of the story. In the whole series, Grey only deliberately hurts Ana once, and she immediately leaves him (at the end of the first book). That is the pivotal moment of the series, where he determines to overcome his sadistic desires and have an entirely different relationship. They get married in the second book and the third book is basically an action thriller.

As far as the feminists will be concerned, he remains overly dominant and controlling, and some “red pill” commenters think it remarkable that this is portrayed as attractive by the books. Once again, in this respect he resembles literally 100% of mass-market romance-novel heroes. The film doesn’t represent any new trend or backlash at all.

I promised that this would be boring. The general lessons to draw from the books and the film are that there aren’t any. It’s just another bit of fairly ordinary popular entertainment that happened to catch a wave of hype, as things do from time to time.

It’s actually most interesting to read in the context of the Twilight books (which I enjoyed reading a lot more than I did 50). The pattern of the relationships between the characters is exactly duplicated. I assume it was originally an attempt to rewrite Twilight without the supernatural elements: Christian’s wealth takes the place of Edward’s vampire super-powers, and his sexual/emotional damage takes the place of Edward’s inability to give Bella normal human love. Christian’s controlling jealousy and guilt are exactly the same as Edward’s. There’s far more subtlety to the novel looked at as a variation on an existing theme than there is taking it as a story standing on its own.

I still feel the need to make excuses for why it is I read all this shit. One factor is that I read extremely fast—I read the fifty shades trilogy in a couple of days last year—and as a result of that I tend to find television very frustrating in comparison because it goes so slowly. I think I’ve watched about three hours of television so far this year, plus a handful of movies on Netflix (but I'm quite likely to have a different book open while I’m watching a movie). Reading light fiction is what I do to turn my mind off and relax. If I don’t have something to read I will pick up just about anything I can lay hands on and give it a try.

Another side is I’m attracted by story, and I may have been actively put off good literature as a result of too many books without a satisfactory complete story. There was some related discussion last year on Eric Raymond’s site about “literary status envy”, with a lot of interesting comments.