Thursday, 28 October 2010

Wargaming the Coalition

James over at The Campaign War Room has written up his wargame about the future of this Government. He's a keen proponent of the wargame model as a tool for constructing and guiding the implimentation of campaigns. I've attended one of his sessions when we used to work togeather at Portland I have to say they're fascinating and useful, and can be a good way of getting decision makers within an organisation to really understand how their strategies might play out in the real world in a way that wouldnt come across in a memo or even a face to face chat.

I'll try and write up a few thoughts of my own when time allows, but for now take a read and see what you think.
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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

If George Marshall had been a vampire...

A brief history lesson first, for no reason other than a scene setter, I figure most people who read this will know the broad details...

The Marshall Plan was the brainchild of US Secretary of State George Marshall. At the end of the 2nd World War the US had plentiful assets, and more importantly, currency. The state was relatively unscathed by the war, indeed it had help drive capital into American manufacturing. This left them in a good position to do something which was seen at the time as rather novel and groundbreaking. They would give it to other relatively well developed countries, who had suffered during the war, as aid.

There were plenty of good, pragmatic reasons to do so. Not least of which was if you are holding the pursestrings you can more or less dictate what the people on the recieving end do in the way of setting up favourable trade with your own nation. Whatever the case, it allowed to a renewal of Europe after the war on a scale which would not have been possible otherwise. It also firmly embedded in much of Europe the more capitalist system which the US was trying to promote even in those very early Cold War days.

That will do for history. And for the record, thats literally the most simplistic representation of the Marshall Plan that has ever been written. Please gloss over that.

What made me think of this was this fascinating extract from Matt Taibbi's book "Griftopia". The section speaks a great deal about Soverign Wealth Funds, effective large blocks of capital controlled by states and dispersed into (primarily) long term investments. This is often into infrastructure, but it also flows into industry, and the usual routes for large investments.

If you want to learn a bit more about SWF's take a look either here, at the FT's extremely good articles, or here, at the SWF Institute, who unsurprisingly have some pretty good facts and figures avaliable.

The article then goes on to talk about how, increasingly, American city governments (and States themselves) are having to consider selling off pieces of infrastructure, and major state properties to investors for long term leases, in order to deal with shorter term budget crises. The specific example he uses is the city of Chicago, leasing out its rights to collect money from parking meters.

He makes a not unfair leap that this is exactly the sort of thing that an SWF is intended to be used to purchase. He also notes the Morgan Stanley, although the "front man" for the deal, is clearly not the real purchaser, but represents large unknown entities who are hidden behind layers of legalistic red tape.

Following the line of the author's argument, it seems to me that what he is describing is the Marshall Plan, albeit a rather twisted and brutual one. State actors are clearly using huge amounts of avaliable money to invest in the infrastructure of other States, particularly America, but presumably other European states where it is possible.

The problem is that this is not money being given, nor is it "seed" capital to modernise or renovate the infrastructure. Or at least thats not what we're seeing at the moment. What is happening is that these major sections of infrastructure are sliding from the control of local Government and are being used to generate significant returns on investment for the unknown figures who put the money up in the first place. At about a quadruple return in the case of Chicago.

Now, as a relatively right wing gent I dont necessarily have a problem with third parties taking on responsibility for infrastructure. However, there has to be a provisio that I'm only comfortable with it if I think that the new controlling entity is going to do a good job, ideally better than the one the Government was doing before. Personally, it doesnt seem to me that these deals are being set up with that in mind.

It also raises the question of what happens when Morgan Stanley, acting on behalf of people who come from parts of the world which don't much like the USA, but which arent actively working against it currently, take on things which are actually of some day to day importance. Its pretty common for sections of road to be privatised for example. If this continues to happen, you end up in a situation where a country which could grow to hate you, has the ability to make it too expensive for the average citizen to use a motorway. And all the while the money they're making out of your motorways, is going back to fund their operations back home, operations which are working against you.

Over time there is the possibility of countries which are selling off national resources to be bled white by the slow consumption of selfish investments which serve only to benefit nameless individuals who hide behind banks and shell companies in parts of the world who treat privacy as something rather more serious than most.

I agree with the author, and others like Jonn Robb over at GG, who have made similar points, that these situations are reflective of societies which are growing, by necessity, more forgiving of the sort of moral bankrupcy which allows "soft" corruption. It is a selling out of the state with the sure knowledge that no one will notice, and people who are convinced that patching a hole today is better than fixing the roof itself.

You'll rarely hear me speak fondly of regulation, but this is one area where the world of finance has clearly outstripped the ability of national Governments to create sound regulatory systems which prevent a dangerous situation emerging.

This has happened before of course... tax farming. A system which has always been a good idea.
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Saturday, 23 October 2010

Book Review: Mirage Men

I'm not sure what path led to this rather curious book ending up in my collection, but whatever it was, I'm pleased about it. Mirage Men, by Mark Pilkington is a curious tale of espionage, UFOs and the rather bizzare raft of all to human characters that study them.

I've had a long standing fascination with UFOs, which most probably started around the same time I went to my first airshows with my father, who worked for many years in the aerospace industry. I've also spent entirely too long watching shows like the X-Files, Star Trek and Babylon 5, with their assorted alien weirdness. So the promise of a book which set out to see if it could tie togeather UFO sightings across the USA with the shady world of intelligence and counter intelligence was too good to miss out on.

Pilkington weaves togeather a historical narrative, dating back to the Roswell Incident and further, along with his real life exploration of UFO conventions and interviews with people who are heavily involved in the field. Along the way he meets various shady characters some of whom claim to work for the US Air Force, and others for agencies with three letter names.

The most interesting part of the argument is the case he makes for UFOs as a part of the US counter intelligence operation against the Soviet Union. He posits that as long as UFOs could be kept just mainstream enough to convince the Soviets that they might be examples of new US technology then it was perfect. He makes a strong circumstantial case that intelligence agents took the emerging stories about UFOs and built them up steadily over time, ensuring they stayed in the media and in the public conciousness. A public conciousness which the Soviet Union were actively monitoring.

He also explores the fascinating (possibly deepy shady) characters who make up the existing UFO movement. Assessing some of the key personalities and trying to see where they link up, and who they might have been working for at various points of their careers. What he finds is mostly more questions, but there are some interesting correlations over time.

Finally he takes what was known about military technology in the 50's and 60's and ties that in to what was being seen in the skies of the tie. He also extrapolates outwards, to look at what is happening now, and what the new generation of UFO sightings represents.

There are three conclusions which I think can be drawn from Pilkington's work:

One, there are strange objects in the sky. Simple enough, but its nice that the author is able to keep an open mind enough to explore this idea, without letting himself get carried away.

Two, there is a strong military and intelligence community interest in UFOs. He posits that the military have found a great many uses for the UFO phenomena, as a shroud for their own, real world, activities, and a useful tool in counter intelligence. Its also useful to know what the heck civilians are taking pictures of in the sky.

Three, that there are a small number of cases that do not make any real sense. He doesnt say these are alien craft zipping around the sky, but that there is something there which deserves further study.

This is a hard book to characterise, but if you have an interest in intelligence, weird science, fringe culture or anything else which goes bump in the night, you'll probably enjoy it. Its well written, methodical, extremely well researched, and isnt scared of a controversial topic.

Give it a try, you won't regret it.
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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Elkus on Boyd 2010

Zenpundit has crossposted a piece by Adam Elkus entitled Boyd Recap, giving a quick summary of the discussion which was had at Boyd 2010. Although I am seething with jelousy that I wasnt in any position to attend the event (assuming I could have bludgeoned an invite out of someone) I thought it worth a mention. Elkus writes some interesting stuff on a variety of topics and is worth checking out regardless. Here's a quick quote from the article, as lifted direct from Zen:

So, my head is still spinning from Boyd 2010. I went with Alex of i-Con and a mutual friend, and met up with Fred Leland, Don Vandergriff, J. Scott Shipman, SAIC's Isaac Russell, and Bruce I. Gudmunsson. In addition to the many great talks, we also had some sushi at Quantico and hit up the Officer's Club. I also drained the Quantico bookstore, which has a much larger selection then the stuff I bought three years ago. A capsule account follows, for those who might have missed my Twitter updates.

Biographer Robert Coram opened up at 0915 with a short and touching introduction regarding Boyd's life, with acolyte Ray Leopold telling some more amusing anecdotes. Don Vandergriff gave a great update about his progress in trying to alter the Army's training and personnel system, and Jim Hasik looked at defense procurement. Paul van Riper gave the keynote speech. Riper gave a rather beautiful address about the philosophy of science, the military's misunderstanding of complex systems, and the need for operational doctrine that fits better with human experience. As Shipman pointed out to me in an aside, van Riper's points were very similar to those recently made by J.S. Storr in his book The Human Face of War.

At some point I want to try and write a proper response on this interesting piece too.
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The UK has forgotten how to think strategically

James at The Campaign War Room has an excellent post, to which I dont think I can add any value, about the final analysis of the Public Administration Committee discussion on Who Does UK Grand Strategy. In essence, we've no longer got the capacity, and its not immediately clear how we get it back.

Here's the key quote:
This leads us to the profoundly disturbing conclusion that an understanding of National Strategy and an appreciation of why it is important has indeed largely been lost. As a consequence, strategic thinking has atrophied. We have failed to maintain the education of strategic thinkers, both in academia and in governmental institutions. The UK lacks a body of knowledge on strategy. Our processes for making strategy have become weakened and the ability of the military and the Civil Service to identify those people who are able to operate and think at the strategic level is poor.
I really advise you to read the whole post as James does a comprehensive analysis and draws out the key sections.

Initially I was somewhat scathing about this discussion, unfairly so. Mostly I was shocked that the discussion wasnt being had in the Defence Committee, where it might have been assessed more widely. Bernard Jenkin deserves real praise for taking the bull by the horns and leading on this important issue, long may it continue.
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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Gene Simmons Vs Anonymous

Of of the most amusing articles I've ever read on Ars Technica today. Its hard to know where to begin, but the fact that the article was clearly originally entitled Gene Simmons vs. Anonymous: Who's the bigger asshole? Isnt a bad place.

Basically Gene Simmons has managed to make himself into a target for Anonymous as part of Operation Payback. I'm not willing to take the risk on my work computer of seeing where his website is now redirecting to, there have been quite a few places as Anonymous does its thing.

From the article:
KISS bassist Gene Simmons—a man willing to parade around stages dressed up like "The Demon" while singing songs about sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll—isn't a man best known for the subtlety (or consistency) of his thought. In a 2007 interview, while explaining why file-sharing had killed music, Simmons said he wasn't going back into the studio because no one would pay for the tunes he creates. His very next sentence: "I will be putting out a Gene Simmons box set called Monster—a collection of 150 unreleased songs. KISS will have another box set of unreleased music in the next year."

But threatening the Internet vigilantes of Anonymous with prison rape might be a new low, even for Simmons. Unless, of course, Simmons' true genius is simply calling attention to himself; in that case, he succeeded again spectacularly this weekend. Anonymous repaid his comments with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that has taken Simmons' website offline.

t's hard to know who's the bigger asshat here. On the one hand, Anonymous has spent the last few weeks cyber-attacking everyone from the RIAA to the law firm of Dunlap, Grubb, & Weaver to the UK government's Intellectual Property Office. The group's manifesto—"For this, you will be held accountable before the people, and you will be punished by them. We will not stop. We will not forget. We will prevail. We are anonymous"—could serve as the dictionary definition of "puerile." Leaders have said they will continue until they stop "being angry" as they try to change the world "OUTSIDE the basement."

And yet—they're going after Gene Simmons. Gene Simmons. This is the guy who told Billboard in 2007 that "every little college kid, every freshly scrubbed little kid's face should have been sued off the face of the earth. They should have taken their houses and cars and nipped it right there in the beginning. Those kids are putting 100,000 to a million people out of work. How can you pick on them? They've got freckles. That's a crook. He may as well be wearing a bandit's mask."

Anyway, go and take a read, its worth it just for a chuckle. Although the journalist does come across as if he's holding his nose and stepping over something foul smelling as he writes it.
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Saturday, 16 October 2010

Private security about to be dragged into the UK mainstream?

A minor furore seems to be blowing up around the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man being deported from the UK. From witness statements it appears that there is a possibility that G4S the private security firm contracted to carry out deportations, might have had some role in his death. Witnesses describe him crying out for air and generally seeming distressed.

Now, if I was being deported I'd probably be distressed and I might well shout about ailments I was experiencing to see if I could at least delay the process, so lets set that aside. What is known is that he was being deported, his guards were G4S, and he died in their care.

In the UK, unlike the US, the idea of private security firms really hasnt reached the mainstream. We don't have a domestic Blackwater to focus on. Despite its huge size G4S is best known as Securicorp, and if anyone was asked they'd probably think of the vans delivering money to cashpoints up and down the country.

If I had to guess, which I am doing, I'd say the public will be surprised that private contractors are the people responsible for deportations, and G4S will come in for wider scrutiny than it has done before. Now to be sure they arent the same as Blackwater, and from my (limited) knowledge, they arent operating in the same field, but that won't stop questions being asked.

I imagine if a random member of the public was asked who ran immigration detention centres, and managed the deportation process, they'd say it was the police, or maybe the army. They wouldnt think of G4S or any other private company.

As public pressure mounts and political interest in the role of G4S becomes more acute I'll be curious to see if the public starts to wake up to the fact that 'security' comes increasingly from the private sector and not from the police or state military.

Not that I necessarily mind in this case, but theres a good chance the public might be bothered by it...
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The subsidies begin...

France has been working hard to protect copyright of late. The three strikes law is now in effect, with letters going out to suspected infringers. Very important word there, suspected. No need for proof. After three suspected instances of copyright infringement you are essentially banned from the internet for a year. Trying to get around that ban is a crime in itself.

Ars Technica has a fascinating article on the latest ingenious idea for propping up another dead industry. Here's an extract which sums the idea up:
The country will attempt to prop up the digital music industry by subsidizing legal music consumption by young people. Under the initiative, citizens between 12 and 25 years old will be able to purchase a "carte musique"—a prepaid card usable on subscription-based music websites. The card will come with €50 worth of credit, but customers only have to pay €25. The rest will be paid by the French government.
So in essence the French government has admitted no one would buy music at current prices, so their plan is to spend taxpayer money in order to create a magical fantasy world where it seems like the music is cheaper, until you're 25.

Here's another great plan, from the same article:
The state has also promised free newspaper subscriptions to all citizens when they turn 18 in order to help the print media compete with online and broadcast journalism.
Once again, spending taxpayer money in order to pretend that these industries arent already dead, creating zombies in corporate form who will shamble on for another decade or two. Rather than simply letting these industries adapt or die, they'll prop them up in their existing form until eventually the subsidies have to dry up and the companies they support will fall flat.

It seems like every time a new initiative emerges to combat piracy it is worse than the one before. When will the line in the sand come when a national Government says "no more" to the relentless new regulations, laws and subsidies which drain the public purse and have never succeeded.

Each new iteration of technology has been hailed by the record industry as the thing which will utterly destroy them. Radio, gramophones, it goes on and on and on.

As the Digital Economy Act starts to bite in this country over the next few years there has never been a greater need for citizens to be informed about the way in which the democratic principles of the state have collapsed in order to prop up industries which have never done anything but whine and complain that they need your money as a taxpayer because they dont deserve it as a business.

For a real vision of what the world could be like take a look at this article by Cory Doctorow, one of an emerging group of people who understand that people can make money without clinging to antiquated notions. His passion speaks for itself, but make sure to read the whole article as its a nuanced argument which can't be summed up in a quote:
I care if your plan involves using "digital rights management" technologies that prohibit people from opening up and improving their own property; if your plan requires that online services censor their user submissions; if your plan involves disconnecting whole families from the internet because they are accused of infringement; if your plan involves bulk surveillance of the internet to catch infringers, if your plan requires extraordinarily complex legislation to be shoved through parliament without democratic debate; if your plan prohibits me from keeping online videos of my personal life private because you won't be able to catch infringers if you can't spy on every video.

And this is the plan that the entertainment industries have pursued in their doomed attempt to prevent copying. The US record industry has sued 40,000 people. The BBC has received Ofcom's approval to use our mandatory licence fees to lock up its broadcasts with DRM so that we can't tinker with or improve on our own TVs and recorders (and lest you think that this is no big deal, keep in mind that the entire web was created by amateurs tinkering with systems around them). What's more Apple, Audible, Sony and others have stitched up several digital distribution channels with mandatory DRM requirements, so copyright holders don't get to choose to make their works available on equitable terms.

In France, the HADOPI "three strikes" rule just went into effect; they're sending out 10,000 legal threats a week now, and have promised 150,000 a week in short order. After three unsubstantiated accusations of infringement, your whole family is disconnected from the internet – from work, education, civic engagement, distant relatives, health information, community. And of course, we'll have the same regime here shortly, thanks to the Digital Economy Act, passed in a three-whip wash-up in the last days of parliament without any substantive debate, despite the thousands and thousands of Britons who asked their legislators to at least discuss this extraordinarily technical legislation before passing it into law.


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Friday, 15 October 2010

Two quick updates

Firstly, very pleased to have some of my writing picked up by the excellent team at Kings of War. David Betz has taken my writing and given his own, fascinating, slant on it. You can see the writeup and my (brief) response in the comments here.

I'm hoping to write a bit more on this topic over time due to the level of interest I've recieved from a number of sources.

In the meantime I recommend you take a look at this great article on global aging, which really digs into some of the interesting (mis)conceptions around the topic. Avaliable here.

I've got a few things to work on and I'm hoping to get a chance this weekend. Work has been a little relentless the last few days. Theres a good chance this Saturday is going to involve eating donuts and catching up on a vast amount of backdated reading.

Its a rock and roll life...
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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A military on the verge of collapse?

Hat tip to ZenPundit for this rather bleak look at how the US military is suffering after 9 years of 4GW in Afghanistan.

I advise you to take a look at the work, written by Fabius Maximus, which sets out very clearly how dire the circumstances are for the US military (although I imagine it'd hold true for the UK too). Here's the summary:
The US Army and Marines are breaking. It’s a slow inexorable process resulting from fighting 4GWs around the world too long with too few men. Neocon war-mongers, national leaders, and the general public remain blind to the evidence, so they can express surprise when the results eventually become too severe to ignore. It took a decade to repair the damage after Vietnam, under more favorable social and economic circumstance than likely in early 21st century America. Here we see another warning from a senior officer, and revisit data from the latest Army report about this slow-growth crisis, another in a string of similar reports.
The sort of thing that too few policy makers will take the time to read
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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Anonymous 4GW

Wow this post has been a while in coming. Its been at the back of my mind for about 3 weeks and I've taken a couple of draft attempts at it.

This post is about Anonymous, an internet meme which has turned into a protest group, and in my opinion, a civilian 4GW tool.

Anonymous emerged from a range of sources, the primary one being 4Chan, the internet messageboard where users can post pictures anonymously. All posts are marked with the username as anonymous, and it was only a matter of time until users began to talk about anonymous as an entity seperate from the users themselves.

Over time the group began to evolve, moving beyond its roots and becoming a full fledged entity in its own right, supported by a variety of sources. Identifying when Anonymous became an organisation is hard, since although co-ordinated activity had been organised through 4chan and other places, it had not yet reached the critical mass which it now has.

Anonymous was, to me at least, born through an organised global protest against Scientology. In 2008 Tom Cruise did an interview about Scientology in which he seemed, to put it mildly, batshit mental. This video was supposed to be private and leaked, so the Church had it removed from Youtube. The internet was not amused by this, and Anonymous decided to go to war with Scientology, calling it Project Chanology.

Members of Anonymous prepared this message to Scientology. The most public face of this was a series of organised protests, which were held simultaneously in around 90 cities in 2008. Followed by a second round later the same year.

That was the public froth. The fun part.

Throughout 2008 members of Anonymous launched what can only be described as a concerted cyber conflict against the Church of Scientology. They shut down websites, and are alleged to have stolen information about the internal workings of the organisation.

Anonymous has organised a variety of other attacks, some for the puposes of mischief, others with more serious intentions. The latest is an organised and ongoing assault on the various legal, lobbying and corporate organisations who are trying to find ways of shutting down illegal filesharing. Called Operation Payback. You can read a bit about Payback and the tools which are avaliable to get involved here. For legal reasons, I'd like to say you'd be a very naughty person if you followed the clearly laid out instructions on that site and went ahead and supported the campaign. You naughty person.

Targets have included the RIAA, MPAA, The British Phonographic Organisation,The Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft and Stichting Bescherming Rechten Entertainment Industrie Nederland. They've also gone after law companies which organise campaigns against copyright infringers and suspected illegal filesharers. Primarily they've shut down websites using organised DDoS attacks. However they've recently achieved something of a coup.

ACS law, to put it simply, sues people who download the content of their clients, who, for the record, are mostly pornographers. So beware if you've recently downloaded Weapons of Mass Satisfaction. Hackers operating as part of Anonymous managed to get the entire email archive from ACS and put it up online. There's a great writeup of this on Ars Technica.

This is all by way of background. In my view Anonymous has now reached the point it can reasonably be said to be a fully operational, fully civilian, 4GW organisation, operating primarily online, but increasingly able to exert its influence in the 'real world'.

You as an individual can get involved with Anonymous, download the tools which allow you to become part of organised attacks on websites and support the operations of more senior members. You'll never know another member, you can't sell out your collaborators, you can only take part or not take part. The organisation forms a wholly volunteer army.

There are different levels within the organisation. More senior members clearly have access to methods of communication which the more mainstream members dont. Darknets and constantly shifting IRC channels allow for secure communciations.

The talent base which comprises Anonymous is huge and growing. Individual members can undertake activity as they see fit and are not expected to do anything but provide support as they see fit to a generalised goal. This allows for the less talented members to do very basic things, like helping with DDoS attacks on websites, whilst the more talented can use the confusion in order to do things like... steal 5 years worth of emails and publish them online.

Now, if I was to tell you about an organisation in day to day life with a compartmentalised structure, attacking infrastructure and pursuing a political goal you'd be able to name specific examples. Terrorist groups, Mexican drug lords and about a dozen others. Anonymous deserves to be on this list, and the only reason it isnt, is because what it does is hard to make tangible. Its also unlikely to get into the papers because frankly, its not sexy.

The one thing which Anonymous (appears to) lack is a true strategic structure. Right now it is tactical, operating instinctively, lashing out at targets which it determines in an ad hoc way. These tactics are effective and the level of sophistication will probably rise over time as it has continued to rise for some years now. The cell structure will grow more granular, and sub groups will emerge to take on a wider variety of tactical goals.

I imagine that Anonymous will also start to focus its attacks on a narrower range of targets, and this will rest in a rise in the strategic sophistication of the organisation. The piracy issue is a natural fit for a group like Anonymous.

I advise anyone with an interest in cyberwar to stop reading a lot of what is in the popular media about the topic, and start reading about Anonymous.

If you want to understand the sorts of people who are part of Anonymous, read this article on Encyclopedia Dramatica. There are surprising kernals of truth.

I'll leave on this quote, taken from ED, which sums it up better than I can:
Anonymous is not a person, nor is it a group, movement or cause: Anonymous is a collective of people with too much time on their hands, a commune of human thought and useless imagery. A gathering of sheep and fools, assholes and trolls, and normal everyday netizens. An anonymous collective, left to its own devices, quickly builds its own society out of rage and hate. Anonymous can be anyone from well-meaning college kids with highly idiosyncratic senses of humor trying to save people from Scientology, to devious nihilist hackers, to clever nerds, to thirteen year old boys who speak entirely in in-jokes on an endless quest for porn, to 16 year old girls posting pictures of their B-cups because they think they look good, to potential rapists browsing through MySpace to find some 16 year old girls posting pictures of their B-cups because they think they look good. Furries are not included among the ranks of Anonymous due to their supreme faggotry. For this same reason all furfags are destroyed within .666 seconds of facing the power of Anonymous

As individuals, [members of Anonymous] can be intelligent, rational, emotional and empathetic. As a mass, a group, they are devoid of humanity and mercy. Never before in the history of humanity has there once been such a morass, a terrible network of the peer-pressure that forces people to become one, become evil. Welcome to the soulless mass of blunt immorality known only as the Internet.
This is the future of citizen activism now, welcome to it, let us see where it takes us.
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