Anger & Fear

I’m not angry; I’m just very, very disappointed.

It seems a lot of the people who voted for Trump were very angry and frustrated. People do not think rationally when they are angry and frustrated, and Trump made sure to keep them angry and frustrated right up to election night.

There was also a large undercurrent of fear as well, and there are two ways to deal with that kind of anger and fear:

“I need to have power over others so they can’t do anything to anger or frighten me”

or

“I need to help others so they won’t give me cause to be angry or fearful”

Sadly, in this last election more people who voted chose the former over the latter.

It is difficult to reason with someone who is angry, frustrated, and afraid – they don’t generally react with thought but instead with emotion. And since emotion is close buddies with our “fight or flight” response, someone who reacts with their emotions will have essentially just two responses: fight or flight. They will act (or in this case, vote) in a way that gives them power to “fight” (i.e., punish or control) whatever frightens and angers them – or they will choose “flight,” which means either running away (or ignoring) or pushing away what angers and frightens them.

This all might seem quite reasonable until you remember that what angers and frightens these people is… other people. Groups of people who are different, who look different or act different or think different. And this means that the emotions of these angry and frustrated and fearful people made them choose a course of action that will punish, control, and push away people just because they are different.

Anger, fear, and politics are a terrible combination. It is all to easy to rationalize terrible behavior and poor decisions when you’re angry and afraid.

“I had to shoot that person; he was coming right for me!”

“We have to get rid of all people like them, they could all be murderers!”

I’m the one who needs a job, not you!”

Rationalizations like this are bad enough at the personal level, but when they get translated into policy or enshrined in law, it becomes much, much worse. An individual can move past their fear and re-think their decisions and change their behavior fairly easily and quickly, but changing public policy and law can take ages – if it ever happens at all.

It’s often been said you shouldn’t make important decisions when you’re angry, and electing a president is one of the most important decisions a country can make – yet we seem to have made this decision quite rashly and while decidedly angry. That this will turn out to have been a terrible mistake seems a foregone conclusion.

All we can do now is try to calm down now that the election is over and put aside the anger & fear we felt and consider our situation carefully. We can still the frustrated fervor that has infected our politics from top to bottom and approach our problems with reason and compassion. It will take effort, certainly, but we cannot sustain this level of anger and fear forever.

The sooner we do this, the better – and the less of an impact this hasty mistake will have on ourselves, our country, our world, and all those future generations that will follow us and judge our actions.

A (Renewed) Case for Encryption

I kind of hoped that this NSA/PRISM/wholesale government surveillance business would re-energize people into actually getting back into using encryption – but sadly it doesn’t seem that way. Content encryption – as opposed to just endpoint encryption, like SSL – is important, and especially so in light of this kind of wholesale government surveillance.

gpg encryptionI kind of hoped that this NSA/PRISM/wholesale government surveillance business would re-energize people into actually getting back into using encryption, and perhaps even trying to solve the problem of getting more people to actually use it.

One of the big problems with encryption – for example, email encryption using public key cryptography (PGP or GnuPG) – has been just getting enough people to start using it. With the way public key encryption works, you need to use encryption, AND the person you’re sending it to needs to use encryption, too.

In addition, there’s also the further complication of signing one another’s keys and assigning trust levels and so on… it’s just a bit too complicated and technical for your average user.

However, it doesn’t have to be complicated, and given what we’ve learned recently, it seems to me it really shouldn’t be – and that it is in all of our best interests to make it be as simple and easy as possible.

People have been harping on about the importance of encryption for ages, but widespread adoption has mostly been limited to SSL (for webmail & other web apps & services). This sort of encryption prevents a 3rd party from intercepting your communication with Google or Microsoft or Facebook or your bank or whatever, but none of that matters if your data is just going to be handed over to the government by the company on the other end anyway!

SSL encrypts your connection and your data during transmission, but the actual contents of your data are unencrypted at either end, and vulnerable to interception. It’s a good first step, but it isn’t enough – not anymore.

passwordOn the other hand, actually encrypting the contents of your communications – the email, the files, etc. – means that even if they are stored on a server (as your email is, for example), they are still encrypted – and most importantly, the server doesn’t have the decryption key –  only the recipient does.

What this would means in practice is that it would prevent the wholesale collection of data.  If the government wanted the contents of someone’s communications, they would need to go after that individual; they wouldn’t be able to just pull it out of a big database.

Since going after an individual takes effort and requires a subpoena or at least a court order of some sort, there’s protection built-in. Plus, now the government’s attempts to access your data would be limited in scope to one person at a time, and they can’t be done in secret – or, at least, they’d be less secretive.

The government may still collect other data about you, of course – encryption is not a cure-all. It may still collect “metadata” about you – times and dates and such – but at least the content of your data remains secure until specifically subpoenaed.

As a side note, the NSA has repeatedly said that this is what it does anyway, as part of an attempt to justify why we shouldn’t be worried about this – but because everything the NSA does is secret, we have no way to be sure that this is actually the case. All we have to go on is the NSA saying “trust us, we won’t read your email without a court order (that you aren’t allowed to see).” Doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of trust, now does it? Especially given the track record we’re dealing with.

Perhaps if our government had a long & strong history of being trustworthy, of being transparent with its behavior, of standing up for individual rights and privacy, and severely limiting the collection and access of people’s data to only what is explicitly needed for specific cases and actions, this whole wholesale surveillance thing wouldn’t be such an issue.

But sadly, this is not the case – our government has shown, again and again, that it cannot be trusted in this regard, and that when given the opportunity, it will make a grab for as much power as it possibly can get.

Given the recent revelations on exactly how much power (and, by extension, data) our government has grabbed as of late, making actual content encryption available, widespread, and easy to use seems like an absolute no-brainer.

Icons courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set.

Why Corporate Participation in Politics is Bad, Bad, Bad

I’ve talked before about why corporations are evil (or rather, why they tend to behave that way). But there’s something else I want to talk about which is related to that – and that’s corporate participation in politics.

Let’s back up a bit first though and go over what exactly is a corporation?

A corporation is a sort of legal fiction, an “entity” that exists only on paper, created and sustained only by the laws that allow its existence, and designed to shield people from loss and liability so as to give them a way to do things they wouldn’t be able to (or wouldn’t want to risk doing) otherwise.

In order for this to work, corporations have to be able to do some of the things ordinary people do – borrow money, have credit, enter contracts, etc.

But lately, corporations have started to be able to do things that aren’t strictly necessary for corporations to exist – specifically, they can now participate in politics in ways that they weren’t allowed to before.

Now, corporations can’t vote in elections – thankfully things haven’t gotten that out of hand yet – but it’s getting close, because of the way corporations are now allowed to influence (i.e., give money to) politicians & political campaigns.

This isn’t, by itself, a bad thing. People band together for political reasons all the time, and they can gather money and contribute to campaigns & such – this is nothing new.

What’s new is that corporations are allowed to do this, on their own behalf.

The problem with this is that corporations are inherently immoral.

Remember – corporations are not people, even though we sometimes think of them as being like people. They exist to shield people from risk, and to make a profit. Corporations do not exist to be nice, or act in a moral manner.

Let me say that again: corporations do NOT exist to be moral, or be nice, or obey laws. While all (or some) of those things may be done by some corporations (especially when they are small), they are NOT the purpose of the corporation, and they can all be subverted to greater or lesser degrees in pursuit of the primary purpose, which is PROFIT.

This is true even if the people running the corporation are the nicest people, and the shareholders are all nice, ordinary people themselves – all of this is stripped away by the structure of a corporation, by its very nature.

Everything a corporation does is measured against a single metric: profit. Even adherence to laws is considered only insomuch as how much that disobedience would cost (literally), or how those individuals in the corporation would be punished directly by disobedience.

Now, don’t get me wrong here – I’m NOT saying that corporations are themselves a bad idea, or that these attributes of corporations make them terrible. There are problems with them, sure, but they have served us well over the years with various tweaks here and there, and I’m sure they will continue to do so in the future.

The problem here can be summed up like this:

  1. Corporations are inherently immoral.
  2. Corporations can now participate directly in politics.
  3. Because corporations are inherently immoral, their influence in politics will also be immoral.

Politics is a nasty enough business on its own, but now it is going to be much, much worse – which is why letting corporations participate in politics (a la the Citizens United decision) is such a bad, bad, bad idea.

This is akin to suddenly having large, sentient, carnivorous dinosaurs appear, and then giving them an almost equal vote in our political processes, and wondering why very soon it’s legal for people to be eaten by dinosaurs at any time, or have their homes stomped on, etc.

When corporations can participate in politics and government, the natural evolution will be for corporations to gain more and more influence, behaving like parasites, until eventually they merge with government itself, and you can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins.

Corporate participation in politics is, frankly, wrong, and it runs contrary to all the ideas of democracy that underpin so much of our society. If we are to continue to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – and not a government “for the corporations” – then corporate participation in politics must not be allowed.

Ten Years, Zero Progress

It’s been 10 years since 9/11 – but have we really made any progress, and is there any hope that we ever will?

Ten years ago on this day, everyone in the whole United States – and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the rest of the world – all came together because of a terrible tragedy. We were all united on that day.

Fast forward 10 years, and you can see that very nearly all of that solidarity has gone right down the drain. If anything, we’ve become even more isolated and fragmented than we were before.

The most recent example (that I can think of) is the dreadfully childish bickering and last-minute compromise regarding the “raising the national debt limit” issue. With the threat of the entire country defaulting on its national debt looming, the best we could do was bicker and argue and refuse to do the obviously necessary thing until we were assured that our particular special interest group was not adversely affected by whatever solution was put forward. This is hardly the “united we stand” mentality that sprung up immediately after the events of 9/11.

Instead of a strong stance of “what’s best for the country as a whole,” we’ve fallen back on greedy individual power grabs – along the lines of “give me what I want, and screw everyone else.”

Instead of a strong, bold stance for freedom and liberty in the face of terrible adversity, we’ve instead become afraid of our own shadow, giving up any fundamental rights and spending any amount of money, so long as it’s “for security” (which has almost universally been “for a false sense of security”).

On this tenth anniversary of the events of 9/11/2001, I can’t help but look back at the past 10 years and think that we could have done better – we should have done better.

We can build memorials, give speeches, and make “remembering” videos all we like, but it is how we act that will truly be remembered.

I hope everyone can take this tenth anniversary to stop for a moment and reflect on how we’ve changed in these past 10 years, and to remember what it really meant to be united – to put aside differences in the face of the greater good – and consider what a powerful thing that is.

There will be a lot of appeals to patriotism and national pride today, and if that means anything to you, please take a moment to really consider the meaning behind the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall.”

9/11 is ten years behind us now – it’s time to stop being afraid, stop fighting amongst ourselves, stand strong, make the hard (but necessary) choices, and move forward into the future as a truly United States of America.

Protecting Them, Not You

The last 10 years have seen many laws enacted in the name of security, but they are meant to protect the lawmakers, not you.

There is a disturbing trend in politics and lawmaking that has developed over the last 10 years – one which I think everyone really needs to take a long, hard look at.

Over the last 10 years there’s been a lot of noise made over “security” and “protecting” and the like. But if you look more closely at what has actually been done, you’ll see that largely the laws, policies, wars, agencies, etc., that have been put into place are not actually here to protect you.

Instead, these things which have been done in the name of “security” actually have a quite different aim – they are designed explicitly to protect the people who came up with the law/policy/etc., not the “people” at large. Instead, you are simply meant to feel secure, without actually being secure.

I like to call this sort of thing “CYA syndrome,” or “cover your ass syndrome.” Because that’s really all it is.

Let’s take a look at some of the many, many things that have been done in the last 10 years:

Creation of the Department of Homeland Security

  • Supposed to: unify departments to increase information sharing so important information about legitimate threats are not missed
  • Actually: creates a huge bureaucratic monstrosity that is less responsive than the previous individual agencies.

War in Iraq

  • Supposed to: remove a highly dangerous dictator and get rid of a hiding place for terrorists
  • Actually: removed a not-quite-as-dangerous dictator and created more hiding places for terrorists (and inspired many more people to become terrorists because of resentment)

REAL ID Act

  • Supposed to: unify ID requirements across the country and make it impossible for anyone (not just terrorists) to get a fake ID, thus stopping them from ever being able to get on a plane, into a government building, etc.
  • Actually: unified ID requirements across some of the country, at huge cost to the states themselves, made the whole process much, much more annoying and difficult for the 99.999% of normal people, did not stop people from getting on planes with nefarious intentions.

Increased Airport Security

  • Supposed to: prevent another 9/11
  • Actually: hassles the traveling public via scope creep (always adding more restrictions based on the last failed attempt, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11)

All of these things are not so much to achieve a goal in and of themselves (if they even can), but rather to give those in power something to point to in case everything goes wrong. “We did this,” they’ll say, “so you can’t blame me.” Or, alternatively, before anything has gone wrong, those in power can point at these things and say “see? I’m tough, I’m doing things.” This is related to something called the “politician’s fallacy,” which says:

  1. Something must be done.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore, we must do it.

This of course results in poorly thought out solutions for urgent problems – sound familiar?

But there’s no incentive to properly think out solutions for these kinds of problems. Fast answers and swift action are all that matter in our short-attention-span world; nevermind that they are often wrong or contrary to our long-term success.

What is particularly infuriating about this is that nobody* seems to realize that this is going on.

As we come up on the anniversary of 9/11, I hope that everyone will step back and take a good, long, hard look at what’s been going on these past years – because we’re way past due for one. We’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes for far too long.

* Well, a sufficient majority, anyway.