Monday, 5 December 2011

Book Review: Inside Scientology

I've had a long standing fascination with Scientology. I remember being approached when I was about 14 and asked if I wanted a "stress test" on the high street of my home town. In London I worked just around the corner from the Tottenham Court Road Church of Scientology and would regularly see their members leafleting in the local area. I can't say my impression of them is particularly favourable, and nothing I've read has ever suggested they are anything other than what they seem to be, a pyramid scheme designed to exploit their membership.

There are of course plenty of books on Scientology, however, the majority of them are survivors accounts, and are thus subject to the sort of biases you might well expect of people who have been stripped of their money and dignity by people they once respected. Janet Reitman's book is a true history of the organisation however, and a very important and honest one. Comprising of interviews both of current and former members it tries to tease out the details of the organisation.

The first half is a biography of L. Ron Hubbard. Clearly a deeply flawed and troubled individual, he spent much of his life lying to those around him and using his considerable charm to live beyond his means. Clearly highly intelligent and manipulative he was able to chart a strange life course through which intersected with the lives of the rich and the famous. After his first abortive run at creating a cult like entity through Dianetics he learned his lessons and went on to create the Church of Scientology.

The second half is a look at the modern institution and how it functions. It paints a picture of an organisation in rapid decline, which is at the same time finding new ways to make money. More a corporation than a faith (at least to its leadership), it has done well taking money from the faithful and investing it in property and other assets from which to make yet more money.

There is a touching poignancy to the book, since many of the people being interviewed clearly do have faith, and who are we to argue with that? Sadly their faith protects an organisation which has killed, either maliciously or due to the bizarre practices they maintain.

This book is an important history of events which need to be examined in greater detail. It goes where law enforcement and law makers are clearly too afraid to go and asks questions which often have difficult answers. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Science fiction and the future

The Guardian has a good post up entitled "Can science fiction lead us away from economic collapse?", the premise being that science fiction is a good judge of whats to come, and thus, perhaps, a map to get past whats happening now, what a friend of mine today described as the "econopocalypse". Here's an extract:
It's a truism that science fiction, however distinct its vision of the future, is always just as much a reflection of its present. The golden age of SF writers, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke, predicted near futures of a colonised solar system and an era of engineering marvels from robotics to space elevators. But, viewed through a historical lens, their futures say far more about the cold war politics of 1950s America than the post-industrial world of 2011. If science fiction provides a record of the hopes and fears of each generation for the future ahead, what do contemporary SFwriters say about today?

Seed, by debut novelist Rob Ziegler, extrapolates a future rooted in the economic and environmental concerns of the early 21st century. In common with novels such as Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, it explores one of the main preoccupations of science fiction in recent years, the collapse of western-style capitalism. Hardwired into Ziegler's post-apocalyptic vision of a US ravaged by famine and warfare, is an exploration of the extreme material scarcity that the collapse will create for generations to come.
But of course there's a flaw to the article's premise, science fiction doesn't predict the future or try to, it imprints the hopes and fears of the present onto the theories of tomorrow.

So I took to thinking about the science fiction of 2011 and what it might say to us right now about the hopes and fears we have today, in the context of my interests and here are some themes I've noticed in my reading:

We're going to have a lot less wars: This sounds good, but it comes with a caveat, although we'll have less wars there will be just as much conflict. The Windup Girl is a good example of this. The world might be peaceful, but states and corporations continue to work using proxies and agents to wage quiet conflicts with each other, stealing information, killing operatives and generally messing things up. The potential for violence, and the complexity of its implementation are explored in books like Ender's Game.

Robots are going to be a big deal: Albeit not in the way Isaac Asimov thought when he was coming up with the three laws of robotics. For all that its a terrible movie Real Steel gives us a good idea of where the world might be going, robots for entertainment, heavy lifting, and presumably warfare, controlled by human operatives. The idea of independent robotic creatures is receding as a concept, and in my opinion is less evident in modern science fiction than it has been historically. Where it does exist it does so in the form of a singularity type event, as in Robopocalypse, with a rogue AI taking control of most modern technology and going to town on squishy human beings. Its worth noting two things about this theory, first, its a very old idea, second, this is a zombie concept with metal rather than rotting flesh.

We're still all pretty worried about our future dystopia: The fact that Brave New World and 1984 never seem to leave the bestseller lists speaks to the fact that the concept of a new world order has remained part of our consciousness. Even Fahrenheit 451 has been released on Kindle due to the demands of the purchasing public, over the author's original objections.

Population collapse is just around the corner: Whether its zombie books like Zone One, or The End Specialist we are clearly concerned about the population, but not just from the overpopulation sense, but rather the collapse and "reset" of that population. We all recognise increasingly that the world is getting older and at some point, we're going to start running out of people.

We're also running out of future: Science fiction of the 1950's dealt with the future 50 or more years into the future. Increasingly modern science fiction deals with a decade from now. In part this is the result of the rapid pace of technology outstripping even an imaginative writer's ability to keep up. But this runs deeper, it means that disaster is closer than even, a paradigm shift or singularity which will shake the foundations of civilisation as we know it.

This is just a very quick overview of some thoughts I've had while musing on this topic late in the evening. There's a lot more ground to cover here. Science fiction is by far and away the most important medium of fiction in my opinion. No where else is the idea of humanity and its meaning explored in greater detail in nuance than this type of writing. Of course it is in regular fiction or fantasy, but neither of those genres seek to explore the context of humanity in a world which is rapidly changing and evolving.

One only has to watch an episode of Fringe to get the sense that whilst our technology leaps ahead, our morality is still in its infancy. While we step closer to reinventing our species our leaders argue about abortion and birth control, while corporations reach for space we bicker about meaningless trivia.

Science fiction is the hopes and fears of today and tomorrow, explored through the lens of where we see ourselves tomorrow. We should all read more of it.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Building a real cyber security policy

So, after all the build up the Government has finally released its Cyber Security Strategy, and what an exciting bit of work it is. It is intended to, in the words of the press release:
[Set] out how the UK will support economic prosperity, protect national security and safeguard the public’s way of life by building a more trusted and resilient digital environment.
All very laudable goals of course, so how will that be done?

Borrowed from The Guardian's writeup, here are some of the top lines:
GCHQ is to get a huge increase in funding, and the Ministry of Defence will benefit too. The ideas in the strategy include:

Creating within two years a cyber crime unit within the National Crime Agency that will take the lead in the most serious fraud and theft cases.

Sending guidelines to courts and police highlighting the extra powers now available to them. They include using orders which ban criminals from owning more than one mobile phone, limiting them to one email address and restricting internet access. Courts can also order people to stop using instant messaging.

Encouraging all police forces to recruit more so-called cyber specials – part-time officers who are experts in computing.

Creating a cyber defence operations group at the MoD, which will be overseen by Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, head of the new Joint Forces Command. His job will be to develop "new tactics, techniques and military cyber capabilities". This will include offensive as well as defensive capabilities.

The government has also pledged to do more to raise public awareness by revamping the Get Safe Online website. It will also push software manufacturers to agree to a kitemark safety system.

A lot of this isn't particularly new or exciting, a fair amount of it is the sort of stuff which gets announced with no hope of it going anywhere in the mid to near future, or is aspirational (The "kitemark" system is the prime example here).

The two core elements for me are the creation of both military and civilian (or at least police) cyber warfare teams. The civilian one presumably will be aimed in part at domestic cybercrime, which is good, but will also inevitably overreach and end up being used for purposes which the creators never intended. If, within the first 3 years, the cybercrime police force hasnt been found to have been cracking the home email accounts of people like Occupy protesters.

The militarised force is clearly aimed at both China and Russia, now this is something which will be of interesting. The US also has a taskforce like this, US Cyber Command, which frankly sounds like something from a bad science fiction novel. Its not clear if there is anything positive coming from this team as yet, but who knows what the future holds?

The problem is that there is a huge disparity between what is being done in China and Russia, and what is being talked about here. In Russia and China "patriotic hackers" have been given virtually free reign without risk of prosecution, so long as they're pointed in the right direction. Compared to Russia China has shown a more organised and militarised style, but ultimately they are given freedom to act, so long as they do so in support of the state, or at least don't run counter to the overarching goals of the state. That means if you spend your lunch break cracking people's bank accounts then so be it, just make sure that when you're on the clock you're attacking websites belonging to people in Georgia you don't like.

This is where the strength of these organisations lies, they arent shacked to a political process, nor are they expected to conform to a diplomatic ruleset. There's no consequence if they, say, shut down a water pump to prove a point. There's always enough deniability to shrug it off and move on. It's clear that even in this case, there's some degree of confusion as to exactly what happened here, but frankly I trust the security experts who think it was a hack, rather than DHS, who have a vested interest in saying the systems didn’t get cracked.

In order to create a real UK Cyber Security force we need to take a page out of the books of those who are doing it best already, and there are three places for that, China, Russia and Anonymous. All three embrace freedom to action, tied to loose strategic goals, without getting the picture messy by demanding that their hackers try to conform to an artificial set of constraints.

The best hackers in the world are black hats, and former black hats (in my opinion). These are the guys who have to be able to crack security, evade police and other organisations who might be upset about that, and turn a profit at the end of the day. White hats (non criminal hackers) never have to develop the requisite skillset to operate against foreign governments.

If we want the best and the brightest to come in from the cold and start operating in support a national agenda is to create an environment where those who are the best, and thus most likely criminals, get something out the deal. That means immunity from prosecution, the ability to make a little profit on the side, and a general understanding that they will be directed from a strategic level, rather than a tactical level most of the time.

What will fail is a highly controlled set of computer science graduates who learned their skills from textbooks on hacking. It'll fail even most significantly if there is no clear agenda, and the objectives are purely defence. So its good that's whats being built.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Book Review: The Big Short

I had initially planned to do a line by line dissection of the piece of shuddering inanity which was this article in Conservative Home. Written by Christian Guy simply by reading it I am personally driven to wanting to take drugs, if only to escape, for a few moments, the raw horror that was reading it. Boneheaded to the point of being mendacious, even now I crave sweet release from its flawed assumptions, and lines like this:
People take drugs for a variety of reasons, but in the CSJ’s experience there are some common drivers: chaotic and dysfunctional families, leading to family breakdown; educational failure; the hopelessness of welfare dependency and entrenched worklessness; severe personal debt; and a criminal justice system which can make drug and alcohol abuse more likely, not less.
Its always wonderful to read something like this, from a man who almost inevitably has close friends who regularly use illegal drugs (we all do, statistically speaking), and yet is too blinkered to realise that the reason most people take drugs is because drugs are god damn awesome, that's why so many people take the ones which are legal (alcohol and tobacco being the most common of a very wide field).

Anyway, t
he moronic gibberings of the Director of Policy for the Centre for Social Justice (I guess getting a real job was a bit tough) aside, I thought I'd focus instead on the superb gibberings of Michael Lewis and his book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

I have an ongoing fascination with the financial crisis, in large part because I'm fascinated by almost anything which I struggle to understand. There are lots of books written about the causes and many of them are excellent, Too Big to Fail probably having been one of my favourites until now.

The book is largely about a group of guys who were smart enough to do the math and realise that sub-prime mortgages were a really really bad idea. So much so, they realised, that they would inevitably cause massive damage to the financial system. Realising this, they all positioned themselves to become extremely wealthy in the event that this collapse happened, a bet which I'm sure they're all very glad they made.

Two things struck me about this book, first, it is a superbly personal tale of a time which is usually discussed through the lens of obscure financial products, or individuals too high up the ladder to really engage with on a meaningful level. The characters in this book are much closer to the ground, and thus are significantly more interest.

The second is that this book is really honest about the fact that the financial sector as a whole is a morally corrupt place, staffed by people who have no interest in the security of tomorrow, if they can make a buck today. I realise this is not a surprise, but the way it is laid so bare by the characters in the book is almost painful in how stark it really is. People within the financial sector had to work really hard in order to lie to themselves about the insecurity that sub prime was creating within their industry, willful, wanton lying.

The the process of this self deceit the "bad" characters in the book (read: those in favour of sub prime) are cast as fools, or worse, willing participants in a system they know is flawed.

If I had to lay a criticism at the door of this book, is that there is a need for the author to have taken just a little longer in explaining some of the concepts which are regularly used. This would have made the book more useful for me as a reader, but ultimately, in the world of Wikipedia, I can get by somehow.

Overall a fascinating read and an insight into the largely hidden world of "shorting". Certainly made me want to go and set up a hedge fund.


Monday, 21 November 2011

Two ways to the cool kids table

I've been reading a lot it seems over the last few weeks on Myanmar, which has recently been given the opportunity to Chair Asean through to 2014. This comes not long after a series of pro-democracy changes, with political prisoners released and Suu Kyi not only no longer under house arrest but free to stand for political office.

These steps towards a more liberal form of Government have resulted in the rewards of international community, with cautious praise being heaped on Myanmar. I imagine that it will, over time, also result in greater investment into the country, both from the private sector and in the form of inter-Governmental assistance. It's the first small step toward a more globalised state.

On the flip side, Iran continues to dominate the Middle East agenda with its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Everyone is very worried about this, although from the coverage, there's a lot of confusion about exactly why we're worried. The most obvious reason is that they might bomb Israel, or use a proxy to do so. The fact that Tehran would vanish in a flash of light and thunder about 20 minutes after the same happened to an Israeli city apparently wouldn't deter the country.

But reading between the lines, here's my though. The fear is that if Iran has the bomb then no one will be able to threaten them not to build a bomb (or do other stuff) any more. Having a bomb would mean having to talk to Iran as a grown up, rather than as a tinpot dictatorship.

Speaking of tinpot dictatorships with nuclear weapons, Pakistan did rather well out of its nuclear programme. It calmed relations with India (to some extent) and got America more heavily involved in mediating future disputes. The risks of nuclear conflict between the two counties still exist, but its a lot less likely that they'll go to war now they know any war would be utterly devastating for both countries.

So here's my hypothesis, there's two ways to get a leg up into the realms of the new globalising states. One is to pursue a route which involves greater liberalisation and moves towards a democracy, the other is to build a bomb. The first route is the one everyone likes, but the second one also works. It gets you something to trade and it means that its a lot harder for the rest of the world to aggressively influence your internal structures.

Now, there is one thing which is a risk. So far, no country has developed a nuclear weapon with a view to using it to close off their borders and tell the rest of the world to go to hell. China did to some extent, but in the end, globalisation's siren call was too much to resist.

So will Iran become that first state? My feeling is probably not. What they want is to feel like they have control over their internal structures, but those structures are already fraying. The youth of Iran don't want a future dominated by the mullahs, and the Government is increasingly at odds with the religious orders.

What the bomb will do in Iran is create a world in which the outside has to communicate with Iran, not through threats and bluster, but instead as statesmen. There are huge risks, but if history is any guide, the presence of a bomb in Iran will serve only to shift the way in which the state behaves, but not so far as to knock it off a trajectory it is already on.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Making things and reading stuff

I've recently become slightly obsessed by the superb Make Projects website. I come from a family of engineers and I've always enjoyed the principle of building things, but I've never really gotten around to it. Fortuitously this discovery comes at the same time I find out that there's such a thing as the London Hackspace.

I can't imagine there's ever been a generation which is more disconnected from the ways in which things are actually made. I certainly have no real idea of how things are put together and why the devices I use every day do the things which they do.

In the next few weeks and months I'm hoping to get down to the Hackspace and become a member.

In other news, I'd thoroughly recommend keeping an eye on both the Al Jazeera and The Guardian's live feeds on Occupy Wall Street, which was evicted (quite possibly illegally) last night.

I also would suggest taking a look at the live feed, run by a guy called Tim (I think), in fact, you should be able to see it right here:


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Anonymous and its evolution

I'm going to firmly wedge my tongue in my cheek for the next couple of sentences, before getting to the meat of this evening's symposium.

The trouble with Anons is that they're a bunch of greasy 15 year old script kiddies sitting in their parent's basements spewing filth on the internet. But the problem with that statement is that's what people have been saying for many years now, pretty much since Anonymous (or indeed youth culture on the internet, going back to the BBSes of yesteryear). What that means in practice is that I, a 27 year old market research guy with a background in politics and communications, can happily say that I'm an Anon and have been for years.

This is the trouble with youth subcultures, the members tend to grow up and a lot of what they learned along the way sticks with them. Just as the hippy generation grew up, so lots of those who were early Anons are now educated and out there in the world. Pretty much everyone I know either is an Anon in some fashion, and those that aren't are aware of the culture, even if they don't know what it is they're referring to (I include pretty much anyone who has seen a lolcat in that context, see associated image, you have now seen Anon Culture)

Probably the best article there has ever been on Anonymous came out this week. That is not hyperbole, it is literally the best thing any credible person has ever written about Anonymous, at least that I've read. Quinn Norton successfully deconstructs the movement with seeming ease and identifies aspects of it which are rarely explored. Here's some of it, but if you do one thing today, stop reading this, and go read the whole article:
NYU Professor and Anonymous researcher Biella Coleman compares Anonymous to the trickster god archetype.

“The trickster does exist across America, across Europe, really across the world and it is not in myth but in embodied in group and living practice: in that of the prankster, hacker, the phreaker, the troller (all of whom, have their own unique elements of course, but so does each trickster),” she wrote in Social Text.

The trickster isn’t the good guy or the bad guy, it’s the character that exposes contradictions, initiates change and moves the plot forward. One minute, the loving and heroic trickster is saving civilization. A few minutes later the same trickster is cruel, kicking your ass and eating babies as a snack.

This is probably the crux of the issue, Anonymous ruins lives and saves cats, reveals paedophiles and crushes companies.

If I was going to pick up one thing to define Anonymous, it would be this, a short script which has long been at the core of the movement:
We are Anonymous
We do not Forgive
We do not Forget
We are Legion
Its worth noting that Legion is not just a randomly picked word for a group of people, its the name of another supernatural entity, a collective of demons who were driven out by Jesus.

It wasn’t until I downloaded and listened to Lulz: A corruption of LOL’s second album, Corruption, that I grasped what Anonymous really is.

It’s a culture.

It takes cultures to have albums, idioms, and iconography, and I was swimming in these and more. Anonymous is a nascent and small culture, but one with its own aesthetics and values, art and literature, social norms and ways of production, and even its own dialectic language.

It is no wonder we in the media and the wider culture are often confused. Any study of Anonymous must be anthropological, taking into account the way people exist in different societies. The media has just been looking for an organization with a leader who could explain why Anonymous seems to do weird things. Not only that, but Anonymous seems to be built around doing weird things, and even has a term for it: the lulz.

And there it is, the simple realisation which lifts this article out of the mire and up to a level which isnt usually explored. Anonymous is a culture. The thing which separates Anonymous from other subcultures, is that it is geographically unlimited, and in the end it exists entirely separate to day to day society. You can be an Anon and anything else you like, the two can co-exist, no one at work needs to know you're an Anon unless you tell them. The internet means everyone can contribute in any way they like and from those contributions can come meaningful results.

I don't want to quote any more of the article, because it deserves to be read in full, but here is what I alluded to at the start and I think is worth bearing in mind. Anonymous is growing up, and growing bigger. Those who founded the movement on /b/ are now in their 20's and 30's or older. Script kiddies are now full blown crackers, and intelligent well meaning members now have jobs and lives.

Personally I think this has resulted in offshoots of Anonymous like LulzSec, which is still as active as it ever was, cracking corporate security and stealing data like there's no tomorrow. It's also resulted in a greater Anonymous presence IRL (in real life). Its almost impossible to attend a protest now without seeing Anons. They tend to stand a little apart, be-suited, masked, watching and occasionally acting. The Occupy protests would be substantially less well organised but for the efforts of AnonOps and other similar services.

The question which no one is asking is what happens when those who grew up with Anonymous as a major part of their self identity are the ones running companies and getting elected.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Book review: The Pentagon's New Map

Slightly late to the party, but I finally read Thomas Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map. I've been a fan of Barnett since watching his TED talk on the basis of a recommendation from a friend, but beyond his blog haven't until now read any of his books.

New Map is (in my mind at least) a book about the need to rediscover a more clearly stated purpose for American power. Barnett's thesis is that this should be to protect, foster and guide globalisation, by bringing more countries into the realm of well connected and co-operating nations (The Core), and out of the largely dictatorial, undeveloped and conflict ridden areas which exist elsewhere (The Gap).

The part of New Map I personally like the most is that it seeks to create a framework for a grand strategy, not only for the USA but also for other countries like the UK which exist in the Core. Barnett proposes re purposing the US military (any many other elements of the US Government) in particular in order to develop a set of tools more suited for the messy and unpleasant business of dealing with all the conflict and chaos that exists in the world.

The core elements of this are a "Leviathan" force and a sys-admin force. The Leviathan force is essentially already there, the US military can knock over pretty much any country in the world without breaking a sweat. The only countries it couldn't easily roll over are countries which exist in co-operation (broadly) with globalisation and the US.

What doesnt exist, and in truth hasnt shown a great deal of evidence of emerging since the book was written, is the sys-admin force. This force would be one set up for dealing with the mess which comes when shutting down a conflict. It would be a type of peacekeeping force (and I diminish a great deal with Barnett's analysis when I call it that) with teeth.

If anything, the sys-admin force has been replaced by the increased use of unmanned drones to monitor and with greater frequency attacks on militants and suspected militants. These tools are cheap, disposable and pretty much divorce the user from any form of risk and responsibility. The problem is that these tools do nothing in terms of actually shutting down a conflict, but instead provide an impetus for elongating conflicts.

I'm actually surprised by the fact that when discussing a sys-admin force Barnett doesnt discuss in more detail how other countries could become involved in this. One of America's strengths, traditionally, has been the forging of multilateral alliances, either independently, or through existing international institutions. This strength has diminished in recent years however, both as a result of a seeming indifference to achieving these sorts of ends, and due to the emergence of other powerful international actors.

Ultimately, what Barnett's book is, is a challenge particularly to America, but also to other Core nations, to rethink their approach to the world, abandoning national self interest in favour of the more important trend of Globalisation. Its a deeply idealistic text, which is rare when discussing grand strategy.

Well worth reading for its scope, concept and the depth which the core issues are explored.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Creating a peaceful insurgency

I'm going to stick a proviso right up front here, when I say insurgency, I do not mean a violent insurgency. I mean an attempt to reshape the state through the use of widespread civil unrest. I don't believe there's any need for there to be violence in a democratic society. So...

It looks like the Occupy movement in London is approaching a critical point in it's development, as Church authorities meet with protesters this morning, and Christian groups begin to declare their support for the protest. In the background the police and Government are clearly working to create a legal basis to remove the camp from its current site.

Support is starting to flow in from other sources too. When I was there the other night there were a couple of Union spokesmen there, pledging their support. I was slightly disheartened to hear the phrase "Tory scum" coming over the megaphone, but it's not like thats wildly unexpected, and certainly doesn’t change my support for the movement. It remains to be seen if the big Unions will come out officially in support and start sending their members down to the protest.

Everyone seems to be preparing for the big showdown with police, but in my opinion, that's a distraction. As has been shown in the US time and again, police tearing down tents doesn't end the protest, it just means everyone moves around a bit and then sets back up again. It's nearly impossible to arrest someone on any meaningful basis for protesting after all.

Now is the time to look beyond the police action, and indeed see police action as an opportunity. It will draw public attention back to the protests again, and hopefully start to shift the poisonous perspective which many have of the protests.

Recently Egyptian activists visited Occupy Wall Street, and were, by all accounts, slightly disappointed by what they found:
A few hundred demonstrators fell in line behind her and Maher, who gamely joined the English chants. The police allowed the march onto Wall Street itself, and at each corner the American leaders consulted an officer about the preferred route. Weary of the somewhat stilted slogans, which lacked the umph and rhythm of Egyptian chants, Mahfouz and Maher taught the crowd the iconic cry of the Arab uprisings: "Al shaab yurid isqat al nizam," or "The people demand the fall of the regime." The crowd adopted its own hybrid: "Al shaab yurid isqat Wall Street."

As they wound back to Zuccotti Park, demonstrators awaited a cue from the police before crossing Broadway. It was too much for Mahfouz. She stopped in the middle of the intersection, stopped traffic, pumped a fist in the air, and demanded the fall of Wall Street. Nervous demonstrators skittered to the sidewalk, leaving Mahfouz with just the cameras and a few dozen stalwarts who seemed willing to accept her invitation to be arrested.

For a few seconds, there was a palpable crackle of tension. But the police, it seemed, didn't want the hassle. They stepped back, and without a confrontation, the moment subsided. Mahfouz joined her comrades back on the sidewalk.

"I wanted to show them that they need to be tough, even if they get arrested," she said with her trademark toothy smile. With that, she repaired for a private session with Occupy organizers -- she had finally found them -- and the long trip back to Cairo the following day.

I write this almost wincing, as I know people will froth at the mouth at my next point. One of the most important lessons learned by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in recent years is that Western structures of law and order allow people to work against the state in meaningful ways, without going outside the boundaries of the law. Abu Mus'ab al-Suri used this principle throughout his life, using the British legal system as a shield, whilst retaining his identity as a pen jihadi.

It goes without saying that there is no similarity between Occupy protesters and Al Qaeda, however, the principle of using the law as a shield remains true. Peaceful protest is protected in a half a dozen ways by laws, both at the national and the international level. The only tool the police can use is to make the protest as inconvenient as possible, like taking generators from Occupy protesters in New York the day before it snows.

The more aggressive the policing, the higher the cost for the police, both in financial terms, but also in terms of morale. In the wake of the shocking actions of police in Oakland the Occupy movement there couldn’t be in a better position. The movement there has had an injection of public support in the wake of the brutal attack by police on war veteran Scott Olsen.

More importantly it has driven a wedge between the city government and its police. The local government has been forced to back down and allow the protest back, which the police are saying is a mistake. With these two forces deadlocked, the protesters are in control. That is insurgency, putting the institutions which are seeking to remove you in conflict with each other.

The raw cost of policing these outbreaks of protest will also start to show itself in the near future, particularly if police where police start to take a heavier hand. Police in the UK, when being drawn into policing civil unrest, are paid extra for their time, by a large margin. All the logistics cost money. And it wears down police to have to go head to head with people day after day. Again, a core part of an insurgency, creating a situation where it is simply too expensive, in terms of finance and manpower, to prevent the insurgency running its course.

The key problem for the movement in the UK right now is mobilisation of support. Its always a problem in the UK, people are apathetic about pretty much everything. Right now the movement needs to stop making its case to traditional supporters, and start making its case to people. This requires a change in mindset, away from being inwardly looking, towards the external audience which right now is largely turned against protesters (another feature of the great British public).

At the core of any insurgency is the removal of people from supporting the Government to your own side. In this case it means turning people away from their apathy about the financial sector.

Right now unemployment in London is sitting at around 6%, maybe a little lower. Thats a staggeringly large number of people sitting around, with little to fill the day. My question, and my challenge, to protesters, is how do you get them on their feet and to come out to support you? Occupy in the US has shown it is possible, and I believe it would be here too.

As winter closes in, the challenges of Occupy around the globe will proliferate. It will be the most difficult time. However, it is also the critical time. It will show whether the movement is truly self sustaining at this point, or whether it is simply a bunch of kids with nothing better to do with their time.

Disclaimer: I'm a supporter of Occupy, I've donated food and time to the protests in London and money to protests in the US. I'm proud of that. This piece is written in part as a call to action and partly as a thought piece.

People have asked me how I reconcile my support for Occupy with my Conservative views, and here's my simple answer, I don't have to agree with the other guy's solutions to recognise we both have a problem with the same thing.


Saturday, 29 October 2011

Disruptive innovation

I've been thinking a bit recently about the importance of disruptive vs iterative change. I recently moved to a job where I get to work a lot with blue chip clients, whats interesting about the technology sector however, is that rather than striving for the bleeding edge, most companies operate on the basis of iterative improvement.

There are of course companies which do well at being innovative and disruptive. Apple is probably the one which would spring to the minds of most people. In the last few years they have done more to re-invent the technology field than any other company. Moving us away from static PCs towards light weight mobile technology. That technology has proliferated through the world, driving down cost and enabling a boom in communications into areas of the world which previously struggled to access these types of technology. From the Guardian article:
In 1998, there were fewer than four million mobiles on the continent. Today, there are more than 500 million. In Uganda alone, 10 million people, or about 30% of the population, own a mobile phone, and that number is growing rapidly every year. For Ugandans, these ubiquitous devices are more than just a handy way of communicating on the fly: they are a way of life.
And how are these devices altering the way people live?
Four years ago, in neighbouring Kenya, the mobile network Safaricom introduced a service called M-Pesa which allows users to store money on their mobiles. If you want to pay a utilities bill or send money to a friend, you simply dispatch the amount by text and the recipient converts it into cash at their local M-Pesa office. It is cheap, easy to use and, for millions of Africans unable to access a bank account or afford the hefty charges of using one, nothing short of revolutionary.
Thats not just a change, that's a shift in the rulesets of entire countries, contained in devices which fit in a pocket and are within the financial reach of the vast majority of the world's population.

A hat tip to Dan Tapscott for the next piece, the piece which really locked me in to the idea of disruptive technology in this context. Amazon posted some disappointing results recently, and the market reacted badly:
On Tuesday, reported third-quarter earnings that fell far short of Wall Street's expectations. Its earnings were down 73% from the quarter a year earlier and it missed the analysts' consensus estimate of $0.24 per share by nearly a dime. By all accounts, this was a sizable earnings miss and the stock responded as such, dropping as much as 20% in afterhours trading.
Now even to my limited understanding of finance, that seems like a bad day for Amazon, but as it transpires, the reality is significantly more complex, and in that complexity lies the more important story:
Amazon missed its earnings because the company has been investing more heavily than Wall Street expected. And these investments are being made in the infrastructure to support not just a single disruptive business, but a number of disruptive-growth opportunities. Below is a snapshot of Amazon's portfolio of disruptive businesses:
  • Amazon Retail — disrupting traditional retailers
  • Amazon Kindle — disrupting the paper book format and paper book retailers
  • CreateSpace — a self-publishing solution that disrupts traditional publishing houses
  • Kindle Fire Tablet — a new market disruption enabled by business model innovation
  • Amazon MP3 and streaming audio and video — disrupting traditional content distribution companies
  • Amazon Web Services — disrupting the companies that sell on-site servers and native software applications
Now, like Google, Amazon pursues a policy by which some of its innovations will fail, but there's little sense in the market punishing either company for investing in technologies and ideas which will fundamentally alter the way in which different businesses work.

There's something fascinating in the market's response to this situation, which deserves its own analysis, but the simple question is, what does it say about the financial market, that a company which is investing vast amounts in new ideas is punished. It seems to me that the idea is to promote the mundane, because that leads to smoother curves on balance sheets. But there you go.

Disruptive change is a tool which is nigh on impossible to factor into strategy, because it involves changing rulesets. Altering rulesets is something which is much easier to have applied to you, or to take advantage of, rather than to develop yourself. Yet iterative change is so rarely truly successful, you end up relying on others having a slower cycle of improvement than you.

Building disruptive change into strategy also means being able to adapt your strategy on the fly, whilst keeping a keen eye on the final objective. Only changes which move you closer to the goal at greater speed should be adopted, whereas others must be dis-guarded, no matter how fascinating their employment might seem.

New ideas also aren’t necessarily the only way of implementing disruptive change. Old and traditional techniques, applied at the right time and in the right way, can shift the course of a campaign. On this topic, its worth reading on this topic is Rick Perry and His Eggheads, which details some of the ways in which the Perry campaign for Governor of Texas used a disruptive technology (real statistical analysis of the outcomes of campaign advertising) to change the way traditional technology (campaign advertising) was implemented.

The mundane will always be more appealing, mainly because it works. But the more disruptive the approach, the greater the impact.


Thursday, 27 October 2011

The need to protect hacktivism

I've been pondering a lot (as if this wasn't already evident) on protest. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights has this to say:
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
  2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. this article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
I post the full text so as to make clear I'm not selectively choosing. But the important thing to note here is the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Here's my issue, whilst these protections have traditionally been used to as the basis for public protest, no one has truly made the case that these same protections would also apply to hacktivism.

Another definition is really needed at this point, hacktivisim is "the use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest to promote political ends". (Its sad the best definition of this underdiscussed topic is in Wikipedia). However, hacktivism and hacking have become more or less percieved as the same thing, as if defacing a website (hacktivism) is comparable to stealing people's identities off a website (hacking)

Of course its not. In September of this year hackers defaced Syrian Government websites, in January hackers reputed to be part of the Anonymous collective did much the same to Egyptian Government websites, the same has happened in the US, UK, China... lets just say the list goes on and on.

Theres a case to be made that peaceful hacktivism is about the type of protest least likely to have an impact on people's lives. Its like putting up a banner thats hard to get down, and leaving it there. You know eventually someone will pull it down, but lots of people will see it in the interim, and it doesn't hurt anyone.

Of course theres a darker side. Often data is also stolen during the hack. Its hard to break into a website and not have access to more than its graphical layout. Often hackers will take and make use of this access. Witness Anonymous's campaign again Aaron Barr, in which dedicated hackers not only undertook acts of hacktivism, but also destroyed his company and his personal reputation. I've got little sympathy for Barr, he's a man who clearly hates personal privacy and free speech, and he bit off a lot more than he could chew, so that happened.

The problem is that the law has yet to mature enough to recognise that if there should be a distinction drawn between acts of peaceful hacktivism and acts of malicious hacking. People have the freedom to associate, and the freedom to act collectively on their beliefs, the idea that an outdated concept like geography should have any bearing on that association is absolute foolishness. Protests transcend borders, the Arab Spring and Occupy being the two best recent examples. The internet drives this capacity, and there should be an enshrining in law that these networks can be used to peacefully disrupt the person you are protesting against.

The issue ultimately, is that Governments are opposed to protest. That's simple fact. Its disruptive, expensive and ultimately annoying, hence why protests are so severely constrained in this country and most of the Western world. The way in which the right to protest is framed in most cases barely takes into account the idea people can make telephone calls, let alone co-operate with people on the opposite side of the planet to achieve a single end goal.

The reason hacktivism is almost certainly never going to get legal protection, is that its actually an effective form of protest. Standing outside someone's corporate HQ and shouting is more or less a worthless endeavour (most of the time, sometimes it works). However, shut down a company's website and replace it with something that supports your cause, and that could be seen by millions of people.

Its a flaw in our political system, and indeed almost all political systems, that laws are irrelevant within a few years of writing, particularly when it comes to communications, the internet, and technology. But the one area where we could make meaningful progress is the use of technology to inspire and protest freedom of thought, expression and action. Protest is an integral part of that. We should, and must, seek to find ways in which people can protest peacefully online, to continue to criminalise such activity is a sign of a society uncomfortable with the idea that people should be able to act freely, when no harm is caused to another.


Blogging delayed

Have two pieces in the pipeline delayed by a sudden surge in work. Will be on the case soon!


Sunday, 16 October 2011

Occupying London

So, I've spent the majority of the last two days down at the Occupy encampment outside St Pauls. I've been curious as to how the movement would translate over here and I'm glad I managed to get there.

Overall it was an extremely positive experience, the people there have a proactive attitude and theres none of the anger amongst protesters which you might expect. You get the sense that most people there genuinely want to make the world a somewhat better place.

As with the OWS movement there is no clearly defined objective, nor are the people universally of one political persuasion or type. Its honestly been a while where I've gone to a protest and felt like if I told people I was a Conservative I wouldnt be insulted or jeered at. Its a nice change, since I've had some pretty unpleasant things said to me.

Many of the tools from New York have been adapted and when I went down on the second day there was real evidence of infrastructure emerging. A food area, recycling, a wifi zone and a first aid tent were all in evidence and staffed by volunteers. The food and wifi areas were both consistently busy, both with people buying, but also with people bringing along donations. I'm seriously considering taking along an old laptop as soon as I've had a chance to format it.

The only downside was the inevitable heavy handed approach by the Metropolitan Police. Its sad because I'm a big supporter of the police, but watching them yesterday relentlessly try and provoke a peaceful crowd into an angry confrontation was deeply disappointing. Repeated claims that they didnt kettle protesters are a flat out lie.

However, the protesters were well prepared and made sure that they dealt with police pressure without confrontation. I saw a couple of people "disarm" one protester who got angry, putting their arms around him and leading him away from the police lines to make sure he didn't give officers an excuse. I did see one arrest, I've got no idea whether it was deserved or not. It was very unpleasant to watch, I'll say that much.

On the second day the picnic atmosphere had continued. Apparently St Pauls have given the protest their blessing (no pun intended) and as such they'll be able to stay more easily on the site. I hope they do. I'm going to try and get back during the week to see further whats going on.

The London protesters have taken the best of whats worked in the US, speed and flexibility of response, avoiding confrontation, including infrastructure to support the protest in the longer term, and implemented it here. Whether or not that is enough to build a lasting and growing protest in the heart of London remains to be seen.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Occupy all of the things!

I've been following the Occupy Wall Street protests pretty much since they started, and despite an early rocky start, with little media attention, they have finally started to penetrate the mainstream media and the public consciousness. The American press is still somewhat resistant to covering the protests (with cries of "but its too difficult to figure out what they want" in abundance), however the Guardian and Al Jazeera have done sterling work covering the issues.

Ultimately refusing to cover the protests because its hard to pin down what the protesters want is an incredible cop-out. Thematically they are pretty simple, people in the US (and increasingly abroad) have given up on their Governments, seeing them as a barrier to progress, and have instead decided to go to the institutions which they see as being responsible for the ongoing decline they see around them, banks.

What makes these protests interesting is how teched up they are, and how that technology is fuelling a growing protest movement which is steadily spreading to other cities. John Robb has done an excellent write up of the structure of the protests and how they've been organised:
Open source protest is an organizational technique. Probably the only organizational technique that can assemble a massive crowd in today's multiplexed environment. Essential rules of open source protest include:
  • A promise. A simple goal/idea that nearly everyone can get behind. Adbusters did pretty good with "occupy wall street." Why? Nearly everyone hates the pervasive corruption of banks and Wall Street. It's an easy target.
  • A plausible promise. Prove that the promise can work. They did. They actually occupied Wall Street and set up camp. They then got the message out.
  • A big tent and an open invitation. It doesn't matter what your reason for protesting is as long as you hate/dislike Wall Street. The big tent is already in place (notice the diversity of the signage). Saw something similar from the Tea Party before it was mainstreamed/diminished.
  • Let everyone innovate. Don't create a leadership group. The general assembly approach appears to work.
  • Support anyone in a leadership role that either a) grows the movement or b) advances the movement closer to its goal. Oppose (ignore) anybody that proposes a larger, more complex agenda or those that claim ownership over the movement.
  • If a new technique works, document it, use it again, and share it with everyone else. Copy everything that works.
  • Spread the word of the movement as widely as possible.
So far pretty much all of these points are covered, and the movement appears to be self sustaining. Interesting fringe support groups have emerged, particularly amongst people who can't participate directly. The 99 Percent blog for example is providing an outlet for people to describe the misery of living in a society where someone with a degree can't find work and has become convinced they never will. It also breaks down some of the ideas that the supporters of this movement are young disenfranchised people.

Increasingly the movement is growing to represent the original Tea Party, before it was hijacked by the Koch Brothers and their ilk to garner support for the Republican Party (a very smart and successful attempt to both disarm something annoying and re purpose it). This post on the FedUpUSA site (hat tip to Charles Cameron) sums it up nicely:
There are a few nuts in the OWS crowd, but from what I hear “Occupy Wall Street” is about bringing the fraudsters to justice. Its about changing the banker/government dynamic that runs this country. It’s about free markets. It’s about ending endless debt. It’s about stopping the wars. It’s about the rule of law. It’s about the libertarian soul of America.

Since the TP lost the focus of addressing the root problems of America, they remain unresolved.

It’s sad, really. The TP talks about sewer legislation, redistricting, and supporting House Speaker Boehner’s plan to add $2 trillion in debt, while the real issue is Congress has spent more than it takes in, and the costs of the promises outweigh the means to pay them. In the process, you and I are less free than we used to be.

There was no place left for folks to go.

This raises an interesting concern which I think is going to be increasingly important in our society as time goes by. Networks are growing increasingly tamper proof. Once upon a time it was tough but not impossible to take ahold of a protest organisation and redirect it, people are increasingly savvy to attempts to do so, and whilst they can't stop someone like the Koch brothers, they will simply leave and set up their own new mechanisms. As the recent Kickstarter fundraiser for Occupy shows, even money is growing to be less of an object. $73,000 and counting makes for a good chunk of cash to use to keep people sitting outside Wall Street and shouting.

Self sustaining and self reinforcing networks are a key component in any insurgency, and increasingly this movement appears to be a (peaceful) insurgency. As it continues to spread there are more opportunities to out manoeuvre the police and others who want to shut the protests down. The movement will also start to bleed police dry after a certain amount of time. How long can the police lock down Wall Street? Its a huge drain on resources, manpower and time, and the protesters have significantly more of all three.

And lets say that the one outside Wall Street gets shut down and moved on... well what's to stop them turning up at Times Square the next day, and outside the 9/11 memorial site the day after? The police can only move so fast, wheras the protesters can simply check online and see where they should be going for greatest effect. What happens when New York has 2 protests, or 3, or 5, all going on simultaneously. Its not like the city is lacking for unemployed people with time to burn and an axe to grind.

Two interesting things are likely to happen in the next few weeks and months, first, its going to get cold, second, the financial system is likely to undergo further shocks. Both these factors will have implications for the protesters. Can they keep people out as the weather grows brutually cold? And how many more people will turn out the next time the Government pours vast amounts into the financial sector to no appreciable effect?

The OWS movement increasingly resembles the protests in the Middle East and sub Saharan Africa, where the protesters never went home, because... well why would they? They have no jobs, they have no prospects under the current system, and a life living in a tent city isnt much worse than what they left behind.

I'm going to write some more on self sustaining networks soon, as my brain is still working out some of the things I want to say, but suffice it to say OWS is here to stay, and its here to spread. London kicks off next weekend and I fully intend to take a look. Anonymous masks to the ready and such.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Book Review: Architect of Global Jihad

A slight confession, I'm a couple of dozen pages off finishing Architect of Global Jihad by Brynjar Lia, but I have a couple of other things on my reading list at the moment which I'm also keen to finish, so I'm going to jump the gun and write a review. This is probably bad luck or something, but I'm a brave enough man to risk it all.

Recommended by ZenPundit the book charts the life of Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, a profoundly intelligent and compelling character who was a key component in the creation of a true intellectual underpinning for global terror. He is the dark side of writers who have helped write the 21st centuries counter insurgency doctrines, indeed he is one of the reasons we need such comprehensive new strategies.

The book chronicles his life, taking us through the various phases of his development, which are both rich and varied. His meanderings through the Middle East and Europe serve as a powerful reminder of the ability jihadis (and all terrorists) have to move through society, often without leaving a trace.

In my opinion the insight this book gives the reader into the life of a jihadi (albeit a jihadi thinker, rather than perhaps a do-er) are just as valuable as charting the construction of the theories al-Suri is responsible for. Often the media and others describe these men as if they are quite literally sneaking down darkened alleyways at the dead of night, but this book shows that a man can hold extreme views and live a life which is at times shockingly normal.

This book also shatters the idea that jihadis are frothing madmen clawing at Western civilisation. Al-Suri is clearly well read and understands not only his own cause, but the cause of his enemy and is more than willing to learn about them in order to achieve his own goals. He reads widely throughout his life, and uses publicly available information on counter-insurgency to theorise on how to improve insurgency as a discipline.

His theories describe what modern al-Qaeda almost became, before its near complete collapse in recent years, a wholly decentralised entity subscribing to a set of principles and interacting as little as possible. This self sustaining entity is truly worrisome, if only because one day, it could be created and set loose on the world. Indeed it has been suggested that Mexican cartels are busy adapting the al-Qaeda model to further their own activities against the Mexican Government.

Probably one of the most important books on jihadism. Detailing as it does the sheer diversity of what that truly means. It paints a vivid picture of a movement struggling to find its own identity, and finally having one imposed upon it by America in the shape of Al-Qaeda. The characters are rich and fascinating, three dimensional in a way which is rarely seen even in the better pieces of scholarship.

Highly recommended to anyone.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Afghan Obsession

The BBC has recently done a series of shows about the UK military, including the truly excellent Our War, as well as Sandhurst and Young Soldiers. These shows provide a degree of access which goes well beyond what I've seen before, and serve to demystify army life. Giving this type of access to the realities of training and combat is a bold move on the part of the army, and I think its worked out well for all concerned.

For those who haven't as yet had a chance to see them it's well worth taking the time. If you're American I'm sorry the BBC is so crap at providing you with access and obviously I don't think you should go and have a look at the various sites which specialise in putting BBC documentaries online for non-Brits to view.

What has been most striking to me is the fact that one word occurs about every two minutes in every episode of every one of these shows, that word is "Afghanistan". In fact, as I was typing this, one of the Sandhurst trainees said something incredibly telling (slightly paraphrased)

The place is changing in response to Afghanistan
Every one of these soldiers is submerged in a world in which they are training to fight one enemy, in one place, for one reason, and that to me could be a huge problem for the future.

Obviously these is a lot of the training which is clearly usable in any environment, but the amount of training which focusses on the Taliban is quite staggering. Every simulated enemy is a Taliban soldier, every hypothetical exercise is about them too. No one talks about anything other than going to Afghanistan to fight.

As military budgets continue to shrink, and the military itself trains its soldiers to deal only with one set of circumstances, what implications will not only reverberate through a generation, but will be exacerbated over time. When reading Defeat into Victory I was struck by how powerfully Slim argues against the idea of special forces soldiers, instead believing that all soldiers should be trained in as many types of combat as possible, leading to greater flexibility, but also higher morale across all the forces, since there is less sense of an "elite" who are "better" than the average fighting man.

In the future it remains to be seen whether our military is able to deal with the wars of the future, and view them through something other than the lens of Afghanistan. Will soldiers who have been trained in counter insurgency warfare be able to cope with a massed tank assault (recognising this is currently unlikely, but wholly possible), or a battle against enemies who have been professionally trained (possibly even at Sandhurst, which trains plenty of troops who could one day be on the 'other side').

Flexibility of approach is a key to victory, in any campaign (and I include the political in this), and there is a worrying theme emerging that the next generations of our soldiers are not being trained to fight in anything other than the current war, one we are already looking to end.

Monday, 26 September 2011

From the Narco-War

My fascination with the Mexican Narco War has only kicked into higher gear thanks to the latest series of Breaking Bad (probably one of the finest things on screens of any size). If you're not watching it, you're a bad person, there you go, I said it.

This post isn't intended to posit anything particularly important, but is rather just to draw together a selection of things which I've been reading recently on the topic:

Boing Boing had an excellent selection of images from a meth lab South of the border. I have no idea what I'm looking at when I see something like this, but I'm pretty sure just from the quantities of chemicals in the background of some of the shots its a pretty massive operation.

This report by Dr. Robert J. Bunker (who also writes for the inimitable and invaluable Small Wars Journal) makes for grim reading, making a strong strategic argument for the US to rethink its position on the Middle East, suggesting instead that the emphasis should be on dealing with the growing danger from the South. The title "Criminal (Cartel & Gang) Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas: What you need to know, not what you want to hear" speaks to the simple truth that no one wants to deal with the problem, even as it gnaws its way into the marrow of Mexican society.

Finally, an article from the Guardian (dated 2008, but still enormously relevant) on how Guinea-Bissau has become the world's first Narco State. With countries like Mexico slowly losing the battle against cartels it's possible that this small West African state won't be the only country which is run for and by criminal enterprise.

I will be writing a piece in the near future, revisiting the world of 3D printing, and its potential impact on conflicts like the one in Mexico, but that will have to wait for another day.

Good news from the Republican Campaign trail?

I had another post in mind for tonight but got distracted by reading this excellent piece by Nate Silver, on the potential entrance of Chris Christie into the Republican race for 2012.

Previous readers will know I have a fondness for Christie myself, and have written about his a couple of times. Silver discussed in depth the potential for Christie to enter the 2012 race, something which I think many moderate Republicans will want. Speaking as a right wing moderate (with Libertarian seasoning) I've been pretty horrified by the Republican field this year, it seems dominated by the frothings of Rick Perry and Bachmann, with Mitt Romney doing his best to see interesting and like he has a policy position.

Silver asks the important question of where would Christie syphon votes from if he did enter the race. Personally my view would be that he would displace Romney, who he shares the most common policy ground with. However, I think he would also provide a fresh, dominant voice taking a more coherent and sensible policy platform, which would draw away from the Perry/Bachmann crazy camp.

The media narrative would also be supportive, Christie is relatively well liked by the right wing media, but has done well in not creating significant enemies amongst the left wing (or at least that's my perception). Particularly as the race moves beyond its initial "entertainment" phase, to the period in which candidates are actually expected to be candidates instead of clowns, Christie is likely to be able to argue that the moves he has made in New Jersey could be scaled up to a national platform.

He would also be one of the few candidates who would be likely to appeal on a national platform in the general, something which at the moment I don't believe anyone is able to do. Floating voters, it seems, are unlikely to be drawn to any of the existing candidates and will either vote for Obama (again) or simply not vote. A moderate Republican with a strong story to tell on fiscal reform (albeit at a state level) would appeal to many, particularly if he is able to well articulate his positions on issues like gun control and immigration, where he is to the left of the Republican mainstream (but not so far out of touch as to wholly alienate him from the Republican base).

It also shouldnt be forgotten that Christie has already done a little bit of work on presenting himself as a potential successor to Obama (more on that below)

Silver does a solid analysis of several of the core policy issues being discussed at the moment and where Christie stands on them:

Gun Control. New Jersey, a mostly suburban state, tends to take a moderate position on gun control, and Mr. Christie has in the past as well. In 2009, Mr. Christie’s campaign rebutted a claim by his Democratic opponent, Jon Corzine, that he stood with the N.R.A. by pointing out that Mr. Christie supported the assault weapons ban and opposed concealed carry laws. A statement on Mr. Christie’s campaign Web site in 2009 said that he supported New Jersey’s existing gun control laws, which are fairly strict.

The Environment and Global Warming. During the 2009 campaign, Mr. Christie sometimes critiqued Governor Corzine’s performance on the environment from the left, and he won the endorsement of the New Jersey Environmental Foundation, the first statewide Republican candidate to do so in 30 years.

More recently, however, Mr. Christie withdrew New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program. But while so doing, he stated explicitly that global warming was real and manmade and endorsed the views of the consensus of climate scientists. Mr. Christie has also opposed plans to drill for oil off of New Jersey’s coast.

Immigration. In 2008, Mr. Christie, then a United States attorney, stated that “being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime.” The statement drew a harsh critique from CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who called for Mr. Christie’s resignation, and is a good bet to make a reappearance in one of his opponent’s campaign commercials should Mr. Christie enter the race.

Mr. Christie has received an F from NumbersUSA, an organization that favors greater restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration.

Social Issues. Mr. Christie is an opponent of both abortion rights and same sex marriage, but his campaign Web site in 2009 stated that he had “no issue with same sex couples sharing contractual rights,” an apparent reference to New Jersey’s existing civil unions law.

In 2010, Mr. Christie broke with other prominent Republicans by accusing his party of “overreacting” to the proposed construction of an Islamic mosque and cultural center near the ground zero site, although he also criticized President Obama’s position on the issue.

‘Post-Partisan’ Branding. Although in some ways Mr. Christie’s outspoken, no-holds-barred style might seem like an antidote to Mr. Obama, whom Mr. Christie has criticized for weak leadership, there have also been times when Mr. Christie’s messaging has resembled that of the president.

One noteworthy example is a video that Mr. Christie’s campaign released in the closing days of the 2009 campaign. It featured extended and positively framed clips of Mr. Obama, who was more popular then, and interspersed images of supporters of Mr. Christie and Mr. Obama, implying that Mr. Christie would be in the legacy of Mr. Obama’s mandate for “change”.

So there you have it. At this stage it seems unlikely Christie will throw his hat into the ring. Personally I think he was hoping he could wait until 2016, and go head to head with a new Democratic challenger, rather than against and incumbent president, however it's entirely feasible that he could decide now is the time. A 2012 run might even help him in 2016, revealing weaknesses and gaps in his platform which could be plugged in the following four years (assuming he doesn't win)

Fingers crossed, if only because it might inject some real energy into a primary season which seems to have become mired in the petty bickering of people who barely scrape together credibility inside their own party, let alone on the international stage.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Its been a while...

Its been some months since my last attempt to relaunch the blog and despite best intentions that failed rather dramatically. However, I've now left the job which was consuming the vast majority of my time and am about to embark on a week off and then on to a new job which I think will give me a significantly better work/life balance, so its my intention to try and pick things up where I left off.

Over the next few months I'll be looking to reconfirm my objectives in starting this blog, that is to discuss, at a level I feel comfortable with, campaigning, strategy, digital communications and topics of that nature. There'll also be plenty of "hey, this interested me" pieces, on things like Anonymous, good bits of fiction I've been reading, and the other myriad things which cross my path day to day. However, I want to get back to basics and really do what I intended when I started here.

I'll also be looking to do more commentary pieces and responding to things I've read on other blogs. So we'll see how it goes over the next few weeks and months as I get back into the swing of a life which (hopefully) won't be dominated entirely by work.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Militarising the internet

There's been some interesting coverage over the last day or so about the emergence of the Pentagon's "cyber strategy", trying to bring cyber attacks in line with traditional kinetic attacks. This was a pretty inevitable move, considering that the word "cyber" has been bandied about to an almost ridiculous degree in the last few years, but what does it mean?

The most interesting part is that cyber attacks will now be ranked up there with physical attacks, meaning that if you (as a nation state) do some nastiness that impacts upon American infrastructure (e.g. you shut down a power station, aka Stuxnet), you can expect a cruise missile to be visiting you very soon.

The Pentagon is also reportedly producing a list of "cyber weapons" so they can fit these tools into their force architecture. Here's what a senior military source had to say:
“So whether it’s a tank, an M-16 or a computer virus, it’s going to follow the same rules so that we can understand how to employ it, when you can use it, when you can’t, what you can and can’t use,”
This is actually a useful concept, as it codifies when certain tools can be used and who needs to sign off on their use. For the first time meaning that there is an actual structure as to how state based cyber war is carried out.

But therein lies the problem. State based cyber war is already an archaic idea. During the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 there was a concerted cyber attack on Georgian websites in order to disrupt information flow. This was of course extremely useful to the Russian state, but it doesnt appear that they in fact ordered it, at least not in the conventional way. Instead nationalist Russian hackers chose to do it themselves.

Its less clear if this is true of the major Chinese hacking organisations. These may be more directly aligned with the state itself, but even that is only a possibility, not a certainty. Certainly the groups appear to operate in ways friendly to the state, but its very hard to make the direct link between that an actual state direction.

The issue is that "cyber" is just too damn easy. The tools are literally anywhere, and can be accessed by anyone. They arent even that hard to use. Take a look, for example, at Backtrack, an entire operating system which exists to facilitate "penetration testing". Its based on Linux, so its relatively easy to use, has a graphical interface, and requires only time to learn how to use it.

Now, that doesnt mean you're going to be a mafiosa cybercriminal if you download this software, but it does show how easy it is to get onto the bottom rung. It only takes tenacity and an inquiring mind to take it to the next level.

The difficulty of trying to militarise and protect the internet is analogous with the difficulties of militarising space. Its actually really easy to do, but you'll screw yourself if you try. If you wanted to deny your enemy access to space (at least to a meaningful degree) you can do it, throw a couple of hundred tons of gravel into orbit and its done. Unfortunately you now can't use space either, so thats a bugger.

The same goes for the internet. You can put up as many walls as you like, but in the end you will do yourself just as much harm as you do your enemy. Consider the upcoming attempts in America to "civilise" the internet using the PROTECTIP act. This tool will fundamentally undermine the architecture of the internet itself, and according to pretty much everyone who knows what they're talking about, it won't work. And thats just civilians.

There is also a fundamental misunderstanding about the tools of cyberwar. They are not weapons, but they can be used as weapons. Less than a decade ago, in the wake of 9/11 the US started banging the drum (again) claiming that encryption was being used as a weapon and as such should be banned from civilian use. This would have severely undermined an unbelievably large number of civilian applications, whilst "bad guys" would just have gone on using encryption tools.

In this new world, where "cyber" is the new cool, its increasingly important to ensure that the internet itself is not militarised and that the desires of those who understand the least, but fear the most, are not brought to the fore. There needs to be a real debate not just on the threat, but on how we can best fit the response into a coherent strategic narrative. Dealing with the distributed threat of cyber attacks requires more than a list of the threats and vague claims that they will be treated the same way as weapons of war.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Book Review: Wasp

Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell, recently turned up on Kindle and I noticed it in my recommended books, so I thought it was high time to catch up on what I actually think to be an important (if lighthearted) book on the topic of insurgency. Its a work of science fiction, but a very entertaining one. Written in the 1950's it emerged from a time when suspicion and threat of the Soviets were rising, and the second world war was only recent history.

The premise of the book is that the Earth (a pretty clear analogue for the UK during WW2) is besieged on all sides by the hostile Sirian Empire (Aka Germany). Technologically less advanced but far more populous the Sirians will eventually win the war and Earth will be wiped out. Enter the main character Mowry.

Mowry is recruited to be dropped into enemy territory to become, in the words of one of the protagonists, a "wasp". The theory is that a wasp, in the right place, can cause enormous damage as humans flail in panic at it. Occasionally the wasp gets crushed, but more often than not it gets away scot free. Mowry is therefore disguised as a Sirian and dropped off on one of their planets to disrupt the enemy with everything from leafleting campaigns to assassination to bombings.

Its a very clever book, and deals with the idea of insurgency very well. The tactics of the "wasp", the reaction of society at large, all are very true to life. Mowry's slow descent into culture shock and madness as he is increasingly isolated from Earth is very well described.

To me this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. As Mowry continues to struggle to maintain his focus and remember that everyone around him, including people who are his partners in crime (albeit unwittingly) grow to be friends. He knows how foolish this is, but at the same time cannot resist it.

The abject failure of the Sirian Empire to manage to crush the wasp is almost a case study of the difficulties we face in modern times, both at home and abroad in finding threats to our own security. Our massive and disproportionate reaction to threats which are in truth minor is charted in playful detail in Wasp. I dont want to spoil anything for those who might like to read the book so I won't go any further than that.

This charmingly written, entertaining little parable is a story which should be part of the reading list of anyone who is interested in the idea of insurgency or counter insurgency.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Congrats to Mike Maher-King

This is just a short one to say congratulations to a good friend of mine, who recently spoke at TEDxTokyo about his work with orphans in Japan. He founded an organisation called Smile Kids Japan, which seeks to do outreach to orphans. He's been doing this for quite a while now and deserves every bit of recognition. Take a few minutes to watch the video, its well worth it.

If you want to learn a bit more you can check out the Smile Kids website.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Book Review: Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen

As regular readers will know I have an abiding fascination with hacking and hackers, both the people and the technology. Good books about hacking are extremely rare however, comprehension of the topic is extremely poor, witness the endless poor debate about cyber warfare. So when I came across Kingpin I was intrigued and I'm glad I made the effort.

Kingpin explores the world of hacking, both legal and illegal, through the life story of "Iceman", a man who skirts both sides of the coin.

It helps that Poulsen is himself a former hacker (I'm always curious as to whether you can be a former hacker, since its primarily dependent on personal interest). He doesn't shy away from technical terminology or do any favours to the reader.

Despite being a highly technical book it doesn't lack for intrigue or pacing. Ultimately this is a fast paced, fascinating exploration of a world which few people have access to. It charts a history which basically doesn't exist anywhere else, the emergence of modern cybercrime.

To me the most interesting sections of the book is the interplay between the law and the criminals. The ultimate lesson is that the law is barely able to cope at any stage with this new field. Criminals are consistently ahead of the law, and it takes a vast amount of resource in order to bring down small numbers of criminals. Time and again tiny mistakes or misunderstandings allow cybercriminals to walk free.

Its strangely hard to empathise with any of the characters in the book, as by and large they are all criminals, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. They continue to evolve and adapt to the changing world in which they find themselves page by page.

As governments around the world continue to create aggressive and reactive laws to deal with exactly these sorts of problems it would be wise to take the time to read this book to place the changing world in the correct context. This is a global criminal network, with no centre, only individuals.

An excellently written and elegant narrative of the hacking world, this is a must read for anyone interested in cybercrime, cyberwar or hacking.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

A tentative relaunch

After a significant period of absense I've decided its time to try and get back into the blogging game. A few people have been asking me about my absense of late and I can only blame myself really, I've been working too many hours and not taking enough time to actually sit down and think about things. Happily, in the interim I've not entirely disengaged my brain, so hopefully the transition back into blogging shouldnt be too brutual.

In my absense I've become something of a follower of Thomas P.M. Barnett, someone that pretty much anyone interested in this blog will at least have heard of, so expect a fair bit of commentary around his ideas and where they intersect with my own interests. It actually took me a little while to get used to some of his concepts, but now I'm there. If you havent already seen it, then watch his excellent talk at TED

TED of course remains an unbelievably good source of some fascinating ideas. I'm immensely proud of a friend of mine, Mike, who will be speaking at TEDxJapan (I think thats the one, he's certainly speaking at one of the TED conferences soon). Mike is genuinely one of the most impressive people I know, and did some fantastic work after the earthquake in Japan. Until his speech comes on (I have no idea when that might be) watch this one about online "filter bubbles"

Things continue to be interesting in the Middle East, and the unrest is perhaps even moving into Europe via Spain right now. Regardless, it looks like Bahrain, Syria are still shaky, and Libya remains an enigma. Osama is dead, which is good news considering he has outlived his own movement by about 2-5 years. So thats a good few posts right there.

I should do a review of Kingpin by Kevin Poulson soon, one of the finest books on hacking and the hacking community so far. To be fair, thats not saying much, fiction and scholarship on hacking is woefully inadequate. I recently tried to read Underground by Suelette Dreyfus, I say tried, because it was one of the worst books I've recently tried to grind through. A book about hacking which focusses almost exclusively on inane details about the lives of those it tries to chronicle.

Anonymous will continue to be a part of what I talk about. As the organisation continues to find an identity and a focus for its activities it forms a model for... something.

I want to refocus this blog and renew it. I allowed myself to go down too many blind alleys particularly towards the end of my last run. Thats no bad thing, but I don't want to fill this space up with what amounts to pub chat.

I do want to talk about BitCoin, once I understand it. An emergant online economy it promises to be an interesting experiment if nothing else. If it is successful I see lots of exciting legislation emerging over the next couple of years to make it illegal, failing dramatically, and then who knows. Read about it and see what you think.

So, here we go again. Lets see how it goes. Thanks to those who have encouraged me to get back into this.