Jul 2008

The Tragedy of The Tragedy of The Commons 1.1

Hi. Look I know I said a few weeks back that I’d get round to answering Tim Worstall’s questions / objections in the comments to ‘The Tragedy of The Tragedy of The Commons‘. Having just spent a few hours ranting about Facebook, one might (with some legitimacy) exclaim, “Well if he’s got time to do that, where’s our fecking response then? Eh?”

You might then go on to suggest, a little more quietly but still audible to anyone in the same room, that “it’s ‘cos he doesn’t have a response”.

Which wouldn’t be the case, I assure you. It’s simply the fact that as I began to write the response, I realised that I was rehashing my thesis with slightly more bizarre imagery and a good deal more swearing. Thing is, I don’t actually want to be doing that right now for a whole bunch of reasons. So I’m going to have to delay my response a little longer.

Sorry. But there you have it.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2008

Paranoid facebook crazy talk

Over on a web forum I visit occasionally, we’ve been discussing the ‘Facebook’ website / social engineering experiment. And I think I may have gotten a bit ranty to be honest. Given that this is a more appropriate forum for such rantiness, I figured I’d reproduce my “summary position” here.

Even without following those discussions, it’ll come as no surprise to you that I’m firmly in the anti-Facebook camp. And when I say “firmly”, I mean in the sense that they’re having to build me a special camp in the next field… even further from the pro-Facebook camp than the regular anti-Facebook camp.

A couple of days ago, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, made a speech about the company’s plans for the future. It contains an interesting statement. And by “interesting”, I mean “fucking terrifying”.

But before I get onto that, let me recap the main pre-existing arguments for never visiting the facebook site ever again.

They fall into three broad categories.

Firstly, the question of what happens to your information once it gets uploaded to Facebook is a very murky one. They certainly never explicitly claim copyright or ownership of your information, but they do claim all manner of usage rights that amount to almost the same thing in practice, even if not by legal definition. Within this same point is the fact that Facebook made it impossible to delete your account up until recently (when bad publicity forced them to change policy). They still make it difficult (you can’t delete your info, you ask them by email to do it for you) and — vitally — given that they are not obliged to notify you when they sell your data to a third party, you have no idea whether or not it’s already been flogged to UltraMegaCorp by the time they get round to deleting it.

And in practice, it almost certainly already has. Because Facebook have an ongoing relationship with numerous corporations to provide them with user data on a regular basis. These include Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast. Amongst others.

Secondly, the political and philosophical problems posed by any large centralised database are, at the very least, worthy of cautious consideration. A consideration that few have given it. Mostly because it’s “voluntary”, not because people are unable to consider these things. When the government propose it and talk about it being mandatory, then people rightfully question the decision.

Thing is, the same problems that exist with a mandatory database also exist with a voluntary one if everyone volunteers.

These kinds of databases are an absolute nightmare from a social justice and civil-liberties standpoint. They encourage an uncomfortable power/control relationship between those who control the data and those who provide it. While on the one hand, the data will allow the database owner to track and identify broad trends within the data-set, it will also allow them to identify mechanisms to manipulate those trends, and the interactive nature of the Facebook website may even provide the mechanisms by which such controls are put in place.

“Is control controlled by it’s need to control?” as Burroughs perceptively asked. And yes, it is. But control still tends to come out better in its relationships with those it controls.

If you get me.

And this is problematic even if control is benign. Even if the guy at the top is Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Even if he’s in charge, the risks of him screwing things up are just too great.

Which brings me onto Number 3. It’s very much linked to the second argument, but deserves a bold intro of its own.

Thirdly, it’s not James Stewart running this thing. It’s the fucking CIA!

And no. That’s not a kooky conspiracy theory. Check it out for yourself. There’s been articles written on the subject in the mainstream media, and Facebook haven’t argued with any of them to the best of my knowledge (which I feel certain they would do if they were nonsense). One of the big finance guys behind Facebook is a board member for In-Q-Tel.

In the words of Tom Hodgkinson’s Guardian article

In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA.

I’d rather not link directly to their website, by the way. Yes I am that paranoid. The strapline for In-Q-Tel dot com?

In-Q-Tel identifies, adapts and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader U.S. intelligence community.

Ohhhhhhkaaaaaay. I mean honestly. If you’re not going to be paranoid about those people, who are you going to be paranoid about? Eh?

Think about that for a second. I’m not saying that Facebook is the CIA, by the way. Merely that they are part-funded by a guy who kind of works for the CIA. So I think you’ll agree, despite their claims to the contrary, the idea that the CIA don’t have open access to this data, and aren’t analysing it for some reason is, oddly enough, the far-fetched one in this particular instance.

Weird, huh?

I have this image of the CIA opening up a website and asking people to volunteer as much personal information as possible. And of people signing up in their droves. 90 million people at last count. And I say to myself, “don’t be silly Jim, that image is too far-fetched. Even Philip K. Dick would have rejected it as too implausible for a short story”.

People, willingly donating a ton of data (that’s imperial, not metric by the way, we’re talking a lot of data) about themselves to the C.I. fricking A. For them to make shitloads of money with by selling it to Coca fricking Cola. Money to fund Eris-knowns-what, but I doubt it’s cat fricking sanctuaries. I mean these people will be classified as a terrorist organisation by future historians! Don’t be willingly surrendering your life history, personal philosophy, favourite books, music, films to them. Don’t tell them who your friends are, and where you like to hang out and what medication you’re on and what mood you’re in. Don’t open yourself up to these people! And don’t be filling in their silly little tests.

– What answer did you choose for question 6? “C” huh? Y’know only 8% of respondents chose “C”? Funny that… …

What do you mean: “funny that… …”?

– “Ohhhh… Nothing.”

Because they ain’t just making money off your data, they’re giving it to the folks downstairs in psy-ops. And they’ve been cooking up some deeply strange stuff to do with it.

And look, when I say “these people”, they’re probably nice enough, y’know? Treat their friends and family well, and give to charity regularly. But they’re on the wrong mission. And that’s what’s important here.

It’s hardly a coincidence, therefore, that Peter Thiel (the power behind the throne at Facebook) should be a self-described neoconservative activist who espouses a philosophy that can be accurately summarised as

… trying to destroy the real world, which he also calls “nature”, and install a virtual world in its place.

No. No. No! You don’t want to be helping people like him (a) get richer, or (b) do anything at all that he wants to do.

Right? When the nutter down the road starts ranting about destroying the real world and creating a new one that he controls… you feel a bit sad for him and hope he’s feeling better soon. When a billionaire with CIA connections starts expressing those thoughts out loud… you hope you’ll not be the only one at the barricades come the day.

Anyways, that’s my Facebook rant. Sorry it went on so long, but it’s always good to get that kind of thing off your chest.

(and to those who say, ‘But I don’t give my real details’, I would suggest that doesn’t actually invalidate most of the above… even assuming they ain’t logging your IP address. Which, let’s face it, they probably are. If the people behind Facebook asked you to help them out with this social engineering experiment they’re running, would you really want to take part even under condition of anonymity? Really?)

Anyways, the recent development that sparked this little outburst is the news that the CEO of Facebook (the chap on the throne, situated in front of Peter Thiel) gave a recent speech in which he outlined the next steps for the company. It included the line

I really want to see us build a product that allows you to really feel a person and understand what’s really going on with them and feel present with them

Is it just me that doesn’t want those people to have that kind of product?

UPDATE 3:30pm: As pointed out in the comments below, and upon re-reading The Guardian article, it does seem like I may have misinterpreted the financing of Facebook. Although a director of In-Q-Tel is a major advisor to Facebook, there’s no evidence provided that Facebook is actively funded by them. So it may well be that they are not benefitting financially from the company. I stress “may”, because I still feel that many of the connections between the US intelligence community and Facebook will be — almost by definition — clandestine. The CIA, like all national secret services, is not an organisation known for conducting its business in public. Even if they are not direct investors in the corporation, I believe they will still benefit financially, as well as in other ways, from having access to the information provided by Facebook users. Thanks to Michael, in the comments, for highlighting the potential inaccuracy.

I’ve already linked to it above. But I want to make it clear that while I’ve read a few things on this, most of the research was done for me by Tom Hodgkinson of The Guardian earlier this year. His article is the real eye-opener. This is a pointer towards it as much as it is anything else.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2008

Wikipedia Album Generator

Wikipedia Album Generator. Utter genius. My favourite thing ever. Today.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme

Jul 2008


I noticed the “women bishops” thing hit the headlines this week. Thing is, I knew the anglican church were in for another round of this nonsense the very moment the women priests thing had been settled. It was inevitable. Frankly, though, I can’t think about this issue without the words of Bill Hicks echoing in my ears:

“Women priests? Great. Great. Now there’s priests of both sexes I don’t listen to…”

It’s all very silly. Y’know? Of course I acknowledge the right of women to confer upon themselves whatever strange archaic titles they want, whether that be ‘priest’ or ‘bishop’ or ‘grand high vizier’. Men should have no monopoly on superstitious weirdness. But given the general contempt with which I hold such titles, as well as the low opinion I have of the modern churches, it’s hardly a great leap forward for feminism in my view.

Like the “gays in the military” thing, an issue which Bill Hicks also neatly dissected with a single observation (“Anyone dumb enough to want to be in the military… … …”)

I actually find myself in the uncomfortable position of — ostensibly — opposing equality when it comes to the question of homosexual men or women being admitted to the army. Once again, like the women priests thing, I of course acknowledge that a person should never be discriminated against because of their sexuality. But at the same time I find nationalism an inherently problematic concept, and I am utterly — right to the core of my being — opposed to militarism.

So you see, I’d argue that almost anything that reduces the size of our armies is a good thing. So I say “let the army have their prejudices”. In fact, let’s encourage some more! Next up, ban redheads from the military. Then anyone with brown eyes should be dishonourably discharged. Right-handed people and anyone whose name contains the letter ‘S’.


Gays in the military? No!

(but no straights either)

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jul 2008

Album annual

I know. I still owe you folks a sequel to the last entry. But I figured I’d turf this out of draft and onto the web while I’m putting that together. It’s another music meme. Words you dread to read, dear reader. As always it’s a pretty simple concept… this time, “Pick an album for every year of your life”. And why not?

I guess anyone born much before the mid-50s is going to have trouble with the early years. “Long play” records had existed for years, of course, but — love him or loathe him — it wasn’t until Sinatra’s post-war golden era that albums, as “deliberately self-contained musical worlds” entered popular consciousness in a big way.

In my case, born in 1971, I’m spared the dilemma of choosing a single album for 1968 (for the genuine music fan, an activity that carries with it a high risk of seizure or stroke). On the other hand, I’m inventing some kind of “Wild Card” or “Joker”. Or “cheat”, if you will. And I’m playing it in 1980, allowing me to take both Remain in Light and Closer. Expecting me to choose between those two is entirely unreasonable. Well, OK, I know that’s the point of the exercise and I’m going to end up choosing Remain in Light, because it is — after all — the best album ever recorded. But I’m doing so under duress.

And don’t get me started on 1989. No, I’m serious, don’t get me started. I mean, how is it even possible to compare Disintegration with Rei Momo with The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse (just ‘cos you ain’t heard of it doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the finest things ever recorded) with Doolittle with Floating into the Night with Mind Bomb? “How is it possible?” I ask you, “HOW?!”

The answer, of course, is that it’s not possible at all. You end up making arbitrary decisions… well, Prince already has one on the list so I’ll rule him out of the running for that year… and so you start making tiny compromises here and there to reward those artists who have enriched your life immeasurably but had the temerity to release a masterpiece the same year Parade came out. I’m looking at you, Mr. Simon.

The meme arrived, as they occasionally still do, via email. It was sent by my friend Mahalia — a man with remarkable music taste, responsible for turning me onto more great artists than I could mention, but who appears to briefly lose his mind in 1977. I’m not saying New Boots & Panties isn’t a fine thing, but anyone who even suggests that 1977 wasn’t A Bowie Year is living in some bizarre alternative dimension, the rules to which I cannot even begin to fathom. When you get to 1977, the question becomes a very simple one: “Heroes” or Low?

Except it’s not. This is more of a desert-island discs kind of thing. I just wanted everyone to know that I chose Low also under duress. No, this list is about the albums that have most enriched your own life. Screw the critics. And damn the expectations of millions.

So yeah. Onto the list, I suppose. Only one year was any way easy, 1976. No real dilemma there. One towering record and nobody else releasing much of anything. Most were difficult and aside from ’76 there was at least one more album that, on another day, might have graced this list. Oddly enough, if you look at the first three years, the main contender to Lennon in ’71 was a Bowie album and the main contender to Bowie in each of the years 1972 and 1973 was a Lennon album.

1971 — John Lennon — Imagine
1972 — David Bowie — The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars
1973 — David Bowie — Aladdin Sane
1974 — David Bowie — Diamond Dogs
1975 — Patti Smith — Horses
1976 — Bob Marley & The Wailers — Rastaman Vibration
1977 — David Bowie — Low
1978 — Brian Eno — Ambient 1: Music For Airports
1979 — Talking Heads — Fear of Music
1980 — Talking Heads — Remain in Light
1981 — The Cure — Faith
1982 — Brian Eno — Ambient 4: On Land
1983 — The The — Soul Mining
1984 — Prince — Purple Rain
1985 — Prince — Around the World in a Day
1986 — Paul Simon — Graceland
1987 — The Smiths — Strangeways, Here We Come
1988 — Talking Heads — Naked
1989 — Julee Cruise — Floating Into The Night
1990 — World Party — Goodbye Jumbo
1991 — U2 — Achtung Baby
1992 — R.E.M. — Automatic For The People
1993 — The The — Dusk
1994 — Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Let Love In
1995 — David Bowie — 1. Outside
1996 — Tricky — Pre-Millennium Tension
1997 — Spiritualized — Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
1998 — Beck — Mutations
1999 — Tom Waits — Mule Variations
2000 — The The — NakedSelf
2001 — Björk — Vespertine
2002 — The Streets — Original Pirate Material
2003 — The Polyphonic Spree — The Beginning Stages of…
2004 — Stina Nordenstam — The World Is Saved
2005 — Laura Veirs — Year of Meteors
2006 — Beck — The Information
2007 — Arcade Fire — Neon Bible
2008 — Who knows? But I’ll eat my hat if anything better than Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! gets released this year.

Obviously if anyone wants to play with this meme, then have at it. I’ll not officially nominate anyone, though let me know in the comments if you decide to take a shot. I’d be interested in seeing how my choices compare with others.

UPDATE (13-07-08): I’ve been thinking about it, and if this really was a “desert island” type thing… “Only those albums and none others forevermore”… then I couldn’t not take Sign ‘O’ The Times. I just couldn’t. But there’s no way in hell I’m sailing off to that island without something by The Smiths. So I’d probably end up taking Meat Is Murder instead of Around The World In A Day. No, it’s not Strangeways… but it’s got some cracking stuff on it.

I realse there’s a chance I may burn in hell for choosing Achtung Baby ahead of, say… … … Loveless.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme

Jul 2008

The Tragedy of The Tragedy of The Commons

George Monbiot has written an excellent piece in The Guardian about the unsustainable nature of the modern fishing industry and the destruction it is wreaking on our oceans (Trawlermen cling on as oceans empty of fish – and the ecosystem is gasping).

The comments that follow the article are fairly predictable and fall into two broad categories. The first — and largest group — expressing their agreement with Monbiot and adding their voice to a collective lament about the stupidity of humanity. The second, smaller group, grudgingly admitting that Monbiot has a point (his article largely states obvious truths and refrains from making too many value judgments of the kind that provoke the typical Monbiot-backlash) but bringing up “the tragedy of the commons” to nip in the bud any notion that the reason for this ecological destruction might be free markets, capitalism or the profit motive. In fact, they reason, it’s only happening because we’re not capitalist enough!

The argument is a simple one. Because the fishermen don’t own the oceans, they have no incentive to take care of it. The answer, therefore, is to privatise it. So long as it’s just some indefineable collective thing… “nature”, for want of a better word… people have no interest in protecting it. As soon as it is turned into property, on the other hand, it becomes important enough for the owners to preserve.

Tim Worstall‘s comment sums this position up succinctly:

Yes, it’s the Tragedy of the Commons and as Garrett Hardin pointed out the only way to solve it is to apportion property rights. We can see that the bureaucratic apportionment of quotas doesn’t work for public choice reasons. We thus need to move to the alternative system, direct ownership for the long term of the fishing rights by the fishermen.

I’ve gone over that comment maybe half a dozen times, and I state without exaggeration that it is one of the most depressing statements I’ve ever read. Partly because of the sentiment it expresses and the profound disrespect for nature as a thing in itself that it accepts without resistance — indeed appears to embrace — but mostly because it may well be true. At least in the context of modern civilisation.

To me, the real tragedy of the commons is that we have come to think in such terms.

Unlike almost every other human culture that has ever existed (unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the few exceptions are the “civilised” or “city-building” cultures), we no longer have a sane relationship with nature. The Hopi people didn’t need to apportion property rights to know it was a bad idea to shit in the stream they drank from. There was a basic but very deep understanding that nature — the environment — was a large system of which they were merely a part. This leads to the, I would have thought, blindlingly obvious conclusion that any activity which is clearly destructive to the larger system, is almost inevitably going to be destructive to the culture… the people… the person carrying out the destructive act. And this is the case even if the impact is not immediately apparent. With cities (or perhaps it was large-scale agriculture, it’s hard to know) came the tendency to see a separation between humanity and nature.

To me this represents nothing less than a collective psychosis. A “psychotic break” in as literal a sense as that term could ever be used.

A simple analogy

It’s not at all difficult to follow. Just as an individual human being is part of a wider system (society), so our culture is part of a wider system (the environment*).

Now, imagine an individual who suffers from a delusion which convinces him or her that they are not part of society; that they exist separate and distinct from it; and in fact, it exists simply to satisfy their demands. This belief is so strong that they view and treat all of society, including the very people themselves, as personal property to be exploited as they see fit and without regard for any consequences to that society.

Such a person may well treat others acceptably because they do not wish to damage their property, but this isn’t an indication that they’re not psychotic. And nor is it a guarantee that they won’t cause a considerable amount of suffering with their actions if given free rein. I would certainly question the wisdom of anyone who felt the best thing for all concerned would be to provide them with the tools to act out their delusion and treat society as personal property.

Furthermore, such a person is almost certainly not well-qualified to judge the amount of damage they are doing and, therefore, cannot even be trusted to know when they have begun to threaten their own survival. Self-destructive behaviour is hardly unknown amongst those experiencing psychosis.

A way out?

I’m pretty much convinced that we’ve passed the point where we can simply “reinject” some sense of reality into modern civilisation — at least within the required timespans. Relearning an appreciation of nature as part of us, and of us as part of nature, probably can’t be done quickly enough.

On the other hand, we have actually developed a system, imperfect though it is, which allows us to regulate our collective behaviour with a degree of success… the law. See, when Tim Worstall insists that “the only way to solve” this problem is to apportion property rights, he is clearly mistaken. It would be theoretically possible to declare the oceans to be… oh, I dunno, a Vital Element of Our Survivial? (VEOS? Someone can come up with a better term). A sustainable fishing strategy would be developed (erring always on the sustainable side) and society would employ fishermen to carry it out.

And when Tim speaks of “public choice” being the primary reason why such a strategy might fail, then he may, in practice, be right. But it is clear to me that it’s wrong to allow a psychotic individual to seriously harm themself out of respect for their choice. We understand that there is a high enough probablility that they aren’t currently capable of sound judgment, to warrant intervention out of concern for their well-being.

Likewise, if the public demand fish at an unsustainable rate, then we’re not acting in sound (collective) mind. We need to make it clear to everyone that demanding resources at an unsustainable rate represents a collective madness. We need to make it clear that insofar as morality is linked with the prevention of human suffering, such demands are deeply immoral. We need to make it clear that while such ways of thinking may well be ingrained, we can no longer allow them to dictate our behaviour in the world. We need to ensure that everyone knows new rules — a kind of imposed collective super-ego, if you will — are now required to govern our interaction with the environment.

And yes, those found acting outside the rules would be viewed and treated the same way we would treat anyone who seeks to endanger the survival of millions.

* I say “environment” as opposed to “nature” because I include other contemporary human cultures in that system

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion